On CKUT (McGill Campus Radio) this week on Monday and at the launch for the Veg magazine yesterday, I read some magical poems I composed recently. One was inspired by Gwendolyn MacEwen and John Dee, the other was an elimination of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the last was a pantoum, a fabulously musical poetic form if there ever was one. I hope I did it justice.
I also told audiences about a certain poem called “Index” that has been published in the Veg. I wrote this poem in Notepad and tried to pun on and play with HTML format tags, in order to produce two texts in a single poem: one written directly by me, the other intended by me, but actually put together by a web browser. Click on the link below to view the .pdf:
The following is an update of an essay I submitted to a class on Michael Ondaatje taught by Prof. Robert Lecker at McGill. The English Patient, especially after it was transformed into a movie, ignited a controversy about historical representation. Was it ethical to rewrite the death of marginal desert explorer László Almásy by having him burn in a fiery plane crash? The ethics of Ondaatje’s rewriting of history was under particular questioning because of Almásy’s choice to join the Axis powers at the outbreak of World War II. His actions had consequences, to paraphrase the thief Caravaggio in the film. Are there any limits to an author or a director’s freedom when they deal with historical subject matter? This is a question that haunts not only makers of historical films and writers of historical novels, but writers of historical fantasy, such as Guy Gavriel Kay. Fantasy makes no claim to represent reality, which makes it a ‘safer’ mode in which to depict events that reflect, but do not actually depict, primary-world history. Although Ondaatje seems to reject the easy road of fantasy, Kay mounts a convincing case that fantasy can universalize a historical moment to make it applicable to multiple contexts.
“The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient“
Under accusations that he had distorted the life of Hugarian aviator and explorer László Almásy while writing The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail defending his art. In his article “Michael Ondaatje Responds,” Doug Saunders quotes his defense:
From Homer to Richard III to the present, literature has based its imaginative stories on historical event. […] If a novelist or dramatist or filmmaker is to be censored or factually tested every time he or she writes from historical event, then this will result in the most uninspired works, or it just might be safer for those artists to resort to cartoons and fantasy. (qtd. in Tötösy)1
Ondaatje transforms the marginal but real figure of Almásy into the burned-out ‘English’ patient, a victim of a fiery plane crash. Almásy’s fictionalization distorts the reader’s perception of historical fact. Yet Ondaatje desires to depict the private lives of historical figures through ‘the truth of fiction.’ This postmodern approach to novel writing defies the strictures of mimetic, bourgeois representations of history, while rejecting historical fantasy, which transcends the issues at the heart of the Almásy controversy. Like Ondaatje, historical fantasy novelist Guy Gavriel Kay’s non-mimetic aesthetic dramatizes the relationship between the private and the historical. While Kay humbly admits the impossibility of knowing the private lives of historical figures, Ondaatje insists on explicit historical references, which add deeper meaning to the innermost emotions of his characters.
In a keynote speech delivered in Toronto, Kay refers explicitly to The English Patient and the Count Almásy controversy when he asks the provocative question, “Are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives?” The value of artistic freedom must be weighed against the danger of “political propaganda,” which constitutes such works as the Tudor play Richard III. Kay also raises the issue of whether “privacy or respect for lives lived” should be a factor in a novelist’s ethical considerations while fictionalizing historical characters, asking “If they are uttely obscure—like Almasy [sic]—can we do it?” If such depictions do imply a violation of privacy, then Ondaatje pays slight regard to those limits. For example, Almásy died not in Tuscany after a plane crash in the desert, as the novel suggests, but in Salzburg, where he was “appointed head of the Desert Institute in Cairo” just before his death in 1951 (Tötösy 3). If, for example, Ondaatje had rewritten Ghandi’s death instead of Almásy’s, whose biographical details remain obscure for most readers, the controversy surrounding The English Patient would have become a scandle. But can Almásy’s obscurity alone permit Ondaatje to indulge in a historical fantasy?
Critics such as Elizabeth Pathy Salette accuse the film of The English Patient of being “ahistorical” and even “amoral,” since it “trivializes” the distinction between the Nazis and Allies (qtd. in Tötösy 8). This criticism can extend to the novel. One passage states explicitly that “it no longer matters which side [Almásy] was on during the war” (251), which was the side of the Nazis. Furthermore, Caravaggio trivializes wartime alliances and makes a melodrama out of the patient’s adulterous affair when he tells him, “You had become the enemy not when you sided with Germany but when you began your affair with Katherine Clifton” (254-5), the fictive wife of explorer Geoffrey Clifton.2 Taken out of context, these quotations relativize the ethics of alliance during the Second World War, which is a problematic effect of the novel. Within their context, however, the same quotations are really about how private individuals relate to the war. The side Almásy takes has great emotional significance for the explorer friends whom he betrays and to Caravaggio, a thief-turned-spy who lost his thumbs in a Nazi torture while tailing him for the Allies. Ondaatje is more interested in individual emotions within the epic sweep of the catastrophe of World War II rather than what he calls in an interview, “that Ben Hur sense of looking down and encompassing the full scope” (Wachtel 256). He humbly refuses to pretend he can paint such a picture accurately, preferring to piece together “little bits of mosaic” instead (256). Understanding these personal relationships and how they are affected by an overarching event forms Ondaatje’s primary interest in historical literature.
On the other hand, Kay’s historical fantasy novels are able to avoid ethical pitfalls because he avoids explicit reference to historical events. In the sense that they create worlds that do not actually exist, Kay’s novels are non-mimetic; however, they remain intricately researched and founded on an idea of a specific time period and geographical region. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, Kay invokes Moorish Spain during the Reconquista. The Islamic territory of Al-Andalus becomes Al-Rassan, a non-factual but reasonably accurate reflection of historical reality. A reflection of the historical, legendary figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (El Cid) appears in Kay’s novel under the name Rodrigo Belmonte. Using this manoeuvre, Kay explains, “I would be declaring, without pretense, that I did not know what the real man was like nine hundred years ago, how he related to his wife, his children, his enemies.” Notably, Ondaatje does exactly the opposite in Coming Through Slaughter with regards to showing many aspects of Buddy Bolden’s personal life. Yet, he avoids the claims of biography, which he knows he cannot make, by including authorial self-references that make it evident that the novel is a self-conscious, imaginative construction.
Although Kay’s historical fantasy is not escapist, Ondaatje implies that fantasy would be a dissatisfying alternative to choosing a historical setting grounded in the real world. Douglas Barbour, who happens to be an Ondaatje scholar, calls one of Kay’s novels “the kind of escape that brings you home” (qtd. in Kay), since his novels serve as a kind of historical allegory for real events. This “allows the universalizing of a story” because it “detaches the tale from a narrow context” in history. Historical fantasy can be more ethically responsible than Ondaatje makes fantasy out to be when he rejects offhand the childlike alternatives of “cartoons and fantasy” (qtd. in Tötösy). Unlike Kay, the author of The English Patient requires the freedom to set his art in the real world. Although both Kay and Ondaatje are careful in their humility towards representing history, Ondaatje still feels that a connection to real events is fundamental to his fiction; in this light, The English Patient‘s historical fantasies about Almásy are more radical than the imaginative histories of Kay’s novels.
Despite the ethical dangers of historical representation, Ondaatje makes the case that his depiction of Count Almásy reveals more truth than lies. Ajay Hebel claims that his postmodern novel expresses an “imaginative account of the past as being narratively faithful to the way things might have been” (qtd. in Tötösy 2). This is “truth by lying,” a phrase Ondaatje attributes to Vargas Llosa in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel (258). Ondaatje claims that his departures from history are more honest than his description of facts: he tells Wachtel, “I started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming” (257). Rather than relying on written histories, which can be warped, Ondaatje uses historical personas simply as a “costume” or “mask” in which he can “both reveal and discover” himself (Bush 240). In this way, he avoids making truth claims he cannot make, accomplishing the same humility as Kay, but while using a different literary mode. History becomes the playground in which Ondaatje writes about themes that are less about history and more about the personal relationships that exist in private among small groups of individuals.
Lyrical and private moments in The English Patient are Ondaatje’s strategies of responsible historical representation. These moments serve as a shield against potential accusations of historical falsity. Ondaatje’s fascination with “minor characters in history, people who don’t usually get written about” (Wachtel 256) give him artistic space, since figures like Bolden and Almásy have relatively few verifiable facts recorded about them. The blank spaces of their lives can be filled with fictions. Often these lacunae are their personal lives, their private thoughts, their first person perspectives—how the ‘English’ patient relates his story, saying, “I fell burning into the desert” (5). “I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from,” says the mysterious burned man (139), suggesting the ambiguity of his identity as either English or Hungarian. Almásy’s ambiguous identity creates space for Ondaatje’s fictional inventions, a kind of writing that is at odds with history writing itself. Intimacy and emotions rarely get written down in history. Discussing his affair with Katherine Clifton, Almásysays, “You do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history” (145). Not only does Ondaatje give Almásy a voice he never had, but he claims that the evidence of the affair is in, paradoxically, the absence of recorded evidence. Such details construct an illusion of fact within the fiction.
Another layer that frames Ondaatje’s subject matter in addition to protecting his novel from the scrutiny of censoring historians is the Villa San Girolamo itself, a private, isolated chronotope. Hana, Caravaggio, Kip, and the patient reside in the villa, which was made a private space after the nurses abandoned it and as the front moved into northern Italy. It is a place and time where Ondaatje’s characters take refuge from the tumult of history-making events, a “tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war” (278). Aside from Hana’s personal writing, the events at the villa go unrecorded, making the fictive Almásy’s last days unknowable to any readers of the official historical record. While the four characters inhabit the villa, it is the perfect setting for Ondaatje to explore the human emotions and relationships that pass between each of them. Although Kip imagines “the streets of Asia full of fire” after the bombing of Japan (284), Ondaatje is not primarily interested in history lessons, but in “an interpretation of human emotions—love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace—in a historical time” (qtd. in Tötösy 8). Fantasy would make these human emotions less authentic, because they would be less recognizably connected to a time and place of significance for the twentieth century. For Ondaatje, being criticized for manipulating history is the price to be paid for the perfect setting in which to dramatize emotions.
Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 238-49.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. “Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. Toronto: Vintage, 1993
Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. “Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, ‘History,’ and the Other.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 1.4 (1999): 2-12. <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ clcweb/vol6/iss3/5>
Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 250-61.
1Regretfully, I could not unearth Ondaatje’s original letter, or the Saunders article; I must quote from Ondaatje third-hand.
2A further violation of the bourgeois mimetic contract, the plot of heterosexual adultery erases the fact that Almásy may have been a homosexual engaged in a relationship with Rommel (Totosy 6).
Two weeks ago, my seminar class on Michael Ondaatje got together to put on a fantastic presentation for Professor Robert Lecker. We were reading Ondaatje’s poem “Tin Roof” and instead of writing a four-page essay response, which we are supposed to do every week, Prof. Lecker told us to go do something as a group. Usually seminar students see each other in class, exchange pleasantries and ideas, and then go their separate ways without really learning about each other. The challenge was to buck the trend and surprise the prof with something we’d all organized.
We ended up agreeing to perform a tableaux, set in a bar, where we would each say a monologue that would be our existential response to the poem. We each chose a couple of lines from “Tin Roof” that inspired us. After we had written the poems/monologues over the weekend, we met on Monday to order them and come up with a strategy to put on the presentation. Various people brought in curtain drapes, candles, wine glasses, beer, wine, and whiskey. Then on the day of, we arranged the classroom into the bar setting and presented ourselves to Prof. Lecker, our audience of one, who we decked out in a Hawaiian lei.
Ondaatje wrote “Tin Roof” after suffering a divorce and period of silence in his writing career. He retreated to fellow poet Phyllis Webb’s cabin in Hawaii, the location where his confessional poem is set. The poem confronts despair and the violence of the poet’s existential anxieties, as he drowns in self-doubt and self-questioning, trying to seek a new foundation for his writing. The poem begins with the poet’s quest for “the solution” and ends with his realization,
I wanted poetry to be walnuts
in their green cases
but now it is the sea
and we let it drown us,
and we fly to it released
by giant catapults
of pain loneliness deceit and vanity.
The following is my personal monologue. I borrow lines from “Tin Roof” and some from other poems, such as “‘The gate in his head.'” I focus on the image of the gecko that the speaker of “Tin Roof” finds on his glass window–an image of voyeurism, the threshold between public and private lives, and a objective correlative that Ondaatje uses with some irony to critique the modernist value of impersonality.
I loved the fantastical image of this gecko turning invisible and how the gecko might have become a ghost briefly in the “Tin Roof.” Since large part of his work concerns the blurring of barriers between fiction and fact, Ondaatje is a writer who should be of interest to those intrigued by historical fantasties. I hope to include future posts about Michael Ondaatje as this seminar continues.
Prof. Lecker, who has these kinds of connections, has said he will present Ondaatje’s assistant with a copy of our monologues–which means with any luck, Ondaatje will read them himself and maybe even write back. We’ll see…
Last week’s launches for Scrivener Creative Review at Kafein last Thursday and The Veg at Le Cagibi last Friday were a success. There were many talented readers at both launches.
At Kafein for the Scrivener evening, speakers recited their poems like real hipsters in front of the electronic keyboard in the lounge area of the basement bar. There was Eric Foley, who I met by chance at an evening poetry reading for Summer Literary Seminars. I asked him to write a review and he did. Thankfully, he did not read his take on Curationism by David Balzer, but he did read us a piece he wrote during one of his travels in Europe. Then there was Greg Santos, whose book of poetry Rabbit, Punch!from DC Books is one of the books sitting on my shelf waiting for a reviewer to scoop it up. I might be able to find someone next semester to review it, but I was disappointed we couldn’t have featured a review in this issue. I might just review the book myself, if it comes to it. Greg might have been introduced to Scrivener due to one of my Tweets, or he may have known the magazine before that, but in any case, he got published in Scrivener and showed up at the launch. We were honoured to have him.
During The Veg launch, in the back room of Le Cagibi, I unwound after making a presentation on Leonard Cohen for my final Canadian Modernism seminar. Peach schnapps in hand, I walked up on stage and made a joke about this review that my mom had preserved from the 1980s within her own signed copy of The Book of Mercy. The book review itself isn’t funny, but on the other side of the clipping is a movie poster of Chuck Norris from Code of Silence, looking hell-bent on retribution. “I guess that makes it The Book of NO Mercy,” I said, and the audience laughed.
(This is especially funny for us lit students because Leonard Cohen–and his predecessor A.M. Klein–interrogates the problem of silence, and the codes that go with it, in his poetry: for example, Cohen’s poem aptly titled “Poem” in Let Us Compare Mythologies, in which “silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.” Plus pop culture plays a big part in Beautiful Losers, so its not like Cohen himself wouldn’t find this funny.)
While on stage, I recited some of the same poems I did for CKUT Radio earlier that week–my first time on the airwaves. I don’t know if anyone listened to it, but if you want to hear it in the archives, you can listen here (24 November 2014). I also threw in an old classic that Mark, the MC, was a little obsessed by: “Saint Francis of the Amazon.” The novelty here is in how St. Francis, well known to have preached to wolves and birds, is in this poem preaching to toucans and lumpy, fat capybaras. Actually, the poem is more of an imagining of an abandoned cathedral in the middle of a jungle and the animals that come to re-inhabit it, since the humans are no longer around. I also tried to measure the reactions of some more of my more wartime poems, which blend imagery of Middle-East warfare with mythology. During the intermissions at The Veg launch, we were also serenaded by two fantastic musical groups: Kainé, Fili and the Believing Box and Tiger Lilies.
All in all it was a great week for poetry and a great way to kick back and pat one’s self on the back at the end of the semester for a job well done. Can’t wait until next semester’s launches!
To see more photos, find Scrivener and The Veg’s Facebook albums:
The semester is just about over and it’s time for some poetry! The Veg, one of McGill’s student literary magazines, is holding a launch later tonight at 8:00pm at Le Cagibi, where I will be reading a selection of poems including my haiku. I will be running a fuller post next week describing the event in detail, along with yesterday’s launch of Scrivener Creative Review’s Fall 2014 online edition.
In the meanwhile, for this week, I leave you with this session of the program Radio is Dead on CKUT 90.3 FM, a Montreal/McGill campus community radio station. I gave a reading on air and was interviewed by Clara Lagacé. Another interviewee, Julia Isler, is in my seminar on Canadian Modernism with Professor Brian Trehearne.
You can click here in order to download the show. Simply click the Monday November 24, 2014 airing of Radio is Dead. You can stream in online, or download it, if you have iTunes.
Scrivener Creative Review is calling for submissions. In the past, we have published poetry by Leonard Cohen, Louis Dudek, and P.K. Page. Today, Scrivener is dedicated to uncovering emerging Canadian writers and publishing established talent.
Writers from across the globe are welcome to submit. Scrivener publishes high-quality, literary writing in three genres: poetry, prose, and book reviews. Also, your black and white art/photography submissions are always welcome.
As Book Reviews Editor this academic year, I am in charge of all reviews for recent books. Book reviews should be of novels, short stories collections, poetry, or graphic novels. Scrivener strives to give publicity to deserving books from small Canadian presses.
To submit your poetry, please send no more than five (5) poems to firstname.lastname@example.org. Each individual poem may be no longer than four (4) pages single-spaced in length.
To submit your short fiction, please send no more than four (4) submissions per author to email@example.com. Works must be no longer than 2500 words.
If interested in writing book reviews, please send a short writing sample and a topic of interest for a potential review to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reviews should be no longer than 2500 words.
To submit your art and/or photography, please send no more than five (5) images per artist to email@example.com. Art and photography submissions must be in black and white. Please submit your work in the highest possible resolution.
That is all! We will be publishing online and in a print edition in Winter/Spring of 2015. Due date for the print edition is March 9 2014. Good luck!
Here is a list of books interested reviewers can read. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org:
*New: Hypocritic Days by David Fiore
*New: The Women of Shawa Island by Anthony Bidulka
*New: Dancing Nude in the Moonlight by Joanne C. Hillhouse
Today is a special day in the life of a blogger: the day his baby turns one. Although I once had another blog that I updated infrequently, this has been my first serious attempt to blog. Was this year a success? In celebration of this great anniversary, let my reminisce a retrospective over the marking events of this year. And when I am finished being nostalgic, let me look to where the blog stands now and to where it might fly in the future.
I began The Vinciolo Journal exactly a year ago today with a post promising content of a literary and historical variety. If I had a target audience, I was not conscious of targeting one, which was probably a fault. For the record, I now state that my ideal reader is, like me, in his twenties (or thirties), a university student or graduate, and an avid reader of fantasy novels, particularly historical fantasy. Basically, I set out to write for someone like myself, who has interests similar to mine.
I thought it would be brilliant to keeping writing these long posts, much longer than the 600 or so words that are normal to bloggers, in the interest of presenting researched information on historical subjects that interested me. I was not going to be one of those self-absorbed critics spitting out polarizing doggerel. Although I enjoyed doing research, however, my posts soon became very long and I began to realize that my audience–many of whom began to follow after my first few successful posts in April and May–did not have the necessary attention spans.
After publishing my post on my Honours thesis, which is still in my top-ten posts at 66 hits (receiving some of my first serious comments), I began to write book reviews. I focused on historical fantasy novels currently in my library, but did not limit myself to that genre. These reviews covered most of my summer campaign. Highlights of my reading experience include Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and the Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, which I covered in a series of three posts (I, II, III), one for each book. Such was the regularity of these book review posts that I temporarily re-branded myself as a book review blog. I was even asked to review William Harlan’s Antioch.
At the end of the summer, I returned to the triple-feature format for a dip into Scottish history with my posts on the lead up, action, and aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. This battle had featured prominently in two book I reviewed: one from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and the second being No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. I enjoyed writing the post series, adopting a trademark pictures-and-text style to ease the lengthier treatment of historical subject matter. Readers would return to these, but they would not be as famous as my posts on Masyaf castle or Christopher Marlowe.
When my final semester began at McGill, I swore to pick up the pace. I could publish one post every two weeks like it was nothing, sometimes including an extra post before the fortnight. As such, I challenged myself to put a Friday article online every week until Christmas. I succeeded by cleverly scheduling a three-parter on Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to post during the most stressful period of my semester. I managed to post a few poems that were published in student literary journals, which began to draw people back to my site.
It was a long haul, but we made it! I have nearly 4,000 views so far and 116 followers, which includes WordPress, Facebook, Tumblr (http://www.tumblr.com/blog/thevinciolojournal), and Twitter (@matthewrettino). My following is a modest achievement, but I count my real victory in the devoted hours I spend posting top-quality content. Whatever followers I have will continue to receive more of the same posts: historical overviews, book reviews, essays, and every once in a while a poem. I actually intend to post quite a few more book reviews: Canadian poetry books, literary fiction, and, of course, fantasy novels. This Friday, for example, I will be reviewing a classic: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This blog has always been about historical fantasy in one way or another, attempting to find answers to the ways in which historical narratives are shaped by our desires and “fantasies.” History is written by the victors, we often say, but it is also true that history is written by anyone with an interest in it. Even victims include their distortions. I do not always so seriously probe these hard, philosophical ideas, but I do engage with them in an on-and-off basis within my posts. I hope to explore these ideas a little more explicitly in the future.
At the bottom line, though, what I really want is to have fun. Fun with a bit of intellectual stimulation thrown in. I hope to publish more poetry, more artwork. I have an entire other talent related to the visual arts in which I am passionate, if unschooled. (See the bottom of the page for one example.)
This is the purpose of my blog, but I have yet to finally explain the title. Why is it called “The Vinciolo Journal”?
To answer this question, I must explain my novel-in-progress. I have already written its roughest draft, though I am rewriting many of the scenes, in preparation for line editing. One day I may self-publish this book as physical copy or an e-book, but I cannot promise a specific time when, or if, this will be possible. The premise is as follows:
Intelligence, or The Stars Move Still is about Marco Vinciolo, the son of a Venetian alchemist, who has ambitions of becoming his family’s Maestro, a master alchemist. His father, Jacopo, was blinded in an accident, setting the future of the small family–which he runs almost like a mafia–into uncertainty. Then things get worse. A family friend exiles himself from Venice the day that the heretic Giordano Bruno is arrested by the Inquisition (26 May 1592). The Vinciolo family is warned to flee Venice, when the authorities charge Jacopo not only with heresy, but treason, supposing he was involved in a plot to assassinate Philip Hapsburg, the King of Spain. Marco must flee his pursuers, protect his disabled father, and fight for his and his family’s innocence, while uncovering the roots of the conspiracy, which have literally earth-shattering consequences.
No, not figuratively earth-shattering. Literally earth-shattering. How? You’ll have to read my book to find out.
The blog is, of course, based on the name of Marco’s family, specifically a reference to the precious journal of alchemical lore that the Vinciolos have kept in safe storage for a hundred years. Legends tell that Marco’s ancestor Marconni Vinciolo not only created the Philosopher’s Stone, but even wrote down the recipe for it between the Journal’s covers.
Perhaps this means my blog has a Philosopher’s Stone buried somewhere within it. Perhaps it is a reflection of my desire to create a mythic counterpart to my father’s side of the family, which is Italian (from a village near Naples). Whatever the true meaning, just remember that my novel is a historical fantasy, one of the main tags for my blog.
Here’s to a fresh start in the New Year. Who knows what untold wonders might await us now?
Is it even possible to canonize all the things I have learned in my three and a half years studying literature at Canada’s best university to 10 items? I believe my critics will be able to deconstruct the bejesus out of this list. They’d probably base their argument on how I privilege my subjectivity over those of the “other,” namely the other people in my classes. But authors must never write for their critics. Besides, to restate everything I learned would be a heresy of paraphrase.
Lit-crit puns aside, I thought that at this point in my academic career, a retrospective analysis of what I have learned is up to order. Alas, in writing down what I learn, there is so much I must omit. Writing is an erasure as much as an act of creation. An erasure of the blank page. An erasure of infinite possibility–a terrifying possibility we can’t help but whittle down to a finite reality.
Here we go.
1. Writing is murder.
When I first came across this pronouncement, I thought my Canadian poetry teacher was using a gruesome metaphor for shock value. But ask yourself, “What gets killed when I write?” Aside from the trees that were chopped down to make the paper you’re wasting, you silence voices when you write, even as you create one. Whose voices? Those of the spirits of the dead who call after you from the whiteness of the page.
Every time you write something down, you exclude so much more. This is true even of the structure of language itself: “warm” only means “warm” because it does not mean “cool.” When you write “warm,” you murder “cool.” Still think it’s a funny metaphor? Then think about this: “male” only means “male” because it doesn’t mean “female.” So what happens when you write “male,” or write from a male voice? You murder the female. Patriarchy explained.
2. Cadence comes before meaning.
Two things here. First, what is cadence? Please read Denis Lee’s essay “Cadence, Country, Silence,” a staple essay on Canadian literature and an existential reflection/confession on what it means to be a Canadian poet–and a writer in general. Cadence means the rhythm, the music, the beat that lives inside of you. It is a different sensation for everyone. You feel it in your gut, in the ticks you feel when writing at your desk. It also suffuses place. The cadence on your home street has a particular rhythm to it. In a similar way, words, if spoken in different places, have certain nuances to them that only cadence can describe. For example, “city” means something in the United States, but something quite different in Canada, and even more different in the U.K. or Turkey. Boston, Ottawa, London, or Istanbul? The trick is to write with your proper cadence–the music that is genuine to you.
Editors searching through the slush pile know within thirty seconds or even less whether an author is good. They know before they even understand the meaning of the words they are reading. This is important: cadence comes before meaning. If an editor feels that the cadence of a writer is genuine, then they already know they are good. The content itself is secondary. Being true to yourself comes before what you have to say.
3. Texts are physical and unstable.
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has two texts: an A-text and a B-text. Any critic might refer to either or both of them, but the play itself never exists absolutely as any one text. This makes Doctor Faustus an unstable text. But Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which is seventeen cantos long, went through infinitely more censorship and revisions over the course of its composition history. Wordsworth kept adding to and editing his Prelude over his lifetime, as he slid into the conservatism of his later years, producing multiple texts that chart the poem’s corresponding change. These poems are unstable. You cannot read one text and expect its absolute authority. Rather, you must read them in the knowledge that they have been chosen by textual editors.
One of the reasons for textual instability is textual materiality. Books are books. They are physical. They have hard covers against which you can hit your head in frustration as you cram for your final exam. They are burnable. They suffer water damage and texts get damaged–which is a real problem when dealing with rare medieval manuscripts. Different books make it easier or harder to read in certain ways. For example, a “perfect bind” airport paperback novel is meant to be read once and even thrown away (if you’re callous), whereas a hardcover, stitch-binding copy of Shakespeare’s collected works is meant to be read over and over again.
4. Form matters.
Sonnets are not just 14-line poems in iambic pentameter that rhyme ababcdcdefefgg. They contain the whispers of Petrarchan love poetry within their lines, something that can be difficult to escape. For some poets and critics, sonnets symbolize a conservative tradition in poetry that revolves around the almighty iambic line, which must be rebelled against at all costs! Even a short story has a form. It is no accident that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories–which are among the first examples of the form in literary history–revolve around an obsessive image: short stories, being short, cannot encompass more than one deeply symbolic image. (Not that this is the law today, but for nineteenth-century experimenters, it was true.) Form influences how you read literature. Form is tough. Form is political. Form is unavoidable.
5. Things happen and are done in texts.
When working on a paper for my Romantic literature class, I struggled to come up with a thesis about Frankenstein and the sublime. The course lecturer suggested, “It always helps to think in terms of what the sublime is doing in the story.” The way she phrased this sounded strange to my ears. Is there agency in texts apart from the author’s? Can the idea of the sublime itself be doing something in a story? The answer was, “Of course!” I ended up writing a fine paper about how Mary Shelley critiques the sublime as a female Romantic writer who has some distance from male Romantic aesthetic. I might have also said that the sublime was working in the story to critique conventional Romanticism. Ideas play in a text even if the author does not will it…
6. Authorial intention can be irrelevant.
A common objection in High School English classrooms is, “What if Shakespeare didn’t really mean that?” Exasperated by the complexity of Billy Shakes’ lingo, they throw their hands up in the air and choose not to believe in complexity at all. But ANYONE who has tried to write a piece of creative work, if they have put any thought into writing at all, knows that Shakespeare intended to write what he wrote (censorship, his actors’ poor memory at recollecting the text, and contemporary editing aside). When you take the time to think enough about writing, crafting your language to an advanced level, you better believe you are intending every word that you write.
However, the High School student does hint at an important point. Sometimes, a professor or teacher will create a complex argument to argue something about Shakespeare and it will seem abstract. Even a seasoned English student will doubt that Shakespeare ever really intended his listeners to understand his plays in that way. But the student would be wise not to stumble into the intentional fallacy. The author may have intended one interpretation of his text, or sometimes none in particular. Does that mean a reader can’t make more out of the author’s work than even the author saw in it? Absolutely not! Critics can explore every range of possible meaning in a text.
7. You can analyze anything.
Don’t just think because courses revolve around the “big names” of literature–the literary canon–that you cannot study the authors you love. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Byron, Browning, James, Eliot … hopefully a literature class will teach you to appreciate the greats, the saints of the religion of English literature. But why not overturn the canon and speak of an non-canonical author? I wrote my Honours thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay, who I had discovered by accident years ago and began reading for pleasure long before I started at McGill. I have now read his completed works. In literary theory, no novel, short story, poem, or play is off bounds.
Guy Gavriel Kay
8. Topic sentences should be able to read as an independent “phantom” paragraph, or abstract.
I learned this in my first semester.
“I’ll just give you a few statistics,” President Barack Obama said in a speech Wednesday in Washington, D.C. One of the people watching Obama’s speech was Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who is intimately familiar with such studies. “The part about democracy is relevant,” Putnam said. “The data show that not only is there declining trust in government, there is declining trust in other people”; although it wasn’t exclusive to them, this shift was “concentrated among these poor kids, the kids who have been left out,” Putnam said. These young people […] were becoming “extremely alienated from democratic politics.”
The above paragraph is the first part of a New Yorker article–but it is a phantom. It does not exist as a unity. Rather, it is a composite, formed of the topic sentences of the first few paragraphs of the article “Economic Inequality: a Matter of Trust?” by Amy Davidson. If you are able to write a cohesive-sounding paragraph using the topic sentences of the paragraphs in your essay, then you have a well-structured essay.
9. English teaches you a skill more than knowledge.
When I began at McGill, I wanted to know more about literature. I wanted teachers to lecture on. But towards the later portion of my degree, I had fewer and fewer lectures. Students participated more in class; we all had our different ideas and were prepared to defend them. At a given point in my second or third year, teachers became supervisors and weren’t imparting knowledge of literature onto us so directly. We became independent researchers and thinkers. We learned the rules of the game of English literature and then were able to play that game on our own–even break the rules.
If a professor tells you what a poet means in his or her poem, then be aware that theirs is not the final word. They have a theory and it might be sound and true. But English teaches you how to criticize and think for yourself. In the end, the program taught me to be confident in my ability to read and think independently. That is a skill.
Not to mention, with instant web-based communication so available, errors and misspellings emerge with frequency (some intentional, others not). English degrees can give you a skill much sought-after in the shrinking pool of people who actually know how to spell. There may yet be hope for the lot of us.
10. Reading poetry must affect you.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT! Academia can be a vampire. Sucking the joy out of experiencing poetry and literature since the early twentieth century. Just because you exercise your faculty of critical thinking when reading poetry must NEVER prevent you from enjoying it in a visceral, existential, and sensuous way.
Mark Twain said a “classic” is a book we always wanted to have read, but never want to read. Now I actually want to read some of the classics: Byron and Marlowe in particular. Reconnecting to the fundamental experience of reading literature for enjoyment is the task they don’t–and can’t–tell you how to do in school.
Never stop loving it because you studied it. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in High Schools, where students are forced to write essays on books they should, above all, be enjoying. Only through enjoyment and pleasure can you commit a text to real memory, a memory that will follow you the rest of your life, a memory with personal value.
Poetry must affect you and it must continue to affect you. Frustrated with the insufficiency of our learning, we must, as does Goethe’s Faust, turn from the vanity of academia and reconnect to literature through fundamental experience.
I was in my second year at McGill University, struggling to find a mentor for my Honours thesis in English literature. I’m in an advanced program, and I needed it to graduate and to develop my own critical voice. Oh, the ambition! My mission was to write on fantasy literature, a genre I have enjoyed since I was young. The problem was, fantasy literature was not a subject many of my professors were familiar with. Fortunately, I lucked out: Prof. Ken Borris had read some Tolkien, was an expert on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and knew about genre theory. My quest towards historical fantasy had begun.
My thesis was entitled “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel.” As the title suggests, I reached the conclusion that history is fantasy.
Now to explain.
For my Honours thesis, I looked at the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian historical fantasy writer. Three books of his, Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Under Heaven, formed the basis of my analysis of how he combines the disparate genres of fantasy and the historical novel. I first encountered Kay’s works at The Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal, where he had just promoted Under Heaven (I missed him!). I picked up Tigana, taking note of the promise on its back cover that it was possibly the greatest single-volume fantasy novel ever written.
Who could forget the story of Tigana’s obliterated name, and the struggles of Prince Alessan, Baerd, Devin, Catriana and the other Tiganese rebels as they worked underground to overthrow the tyrant that destroyed their nation? The ending was nothing less than sublime. I was hooked.
A few years later, having read The Lions of Al-Rassan, I decided to commit my thesis to Kay’s novels.
What a task it was! I spent an entire summer reading nearly all of Kay’s works (I could not squeeze The Fionavar Tapestry into my summer). Emerging from that reading experience, I committed myself to understanding how exactly Kay creates this particular genre of historical fantasy.
The Argument of my Essay
Historical fantasy? What a strange term, when you think about it! One word implies the imagination, magic, wizards, and prophecy. The other, the dry, realistic rendering of cause-and-effect, dates to be memorized by rote, and certainly nothing outside of the probable, let alone the impossible.
I had to decide how Kay reconciles these two essentially opposite modes of literature.
Fortunately, Kay himself had a strategy up his sleeve: each of his novels are set in lands that I termed “mirror worlds.” These settings, such as the Peninsula of the Palm (Tigana), Al-Rassan (Lions), and Kitai (Under Heaven), resemble, but do not not actually represent, real-world historical settings: Renaissance Italy, medieval Al-Andalus (southern Spain), and Tang Dynasty China. These mirror worlds allow Kay latitude in writing his novels, since they do not have to follow real-world events. As my term implies, these settings are only reflections of reality, and the stories can be universalized, or reflected, onto any other appropriate historical context. Thus, Tigana‘s story of colonial rebellion may apply to Africa, Ireland, India, post-Communist Eastern Europe, or even my own province, Québec. The Lions of Al-Rassan‘s tragedy of sectarian warfare is easily applicable to the Middle Eastern conflicts of today.
Using these mirror worlds, Kay is able to impose structure onto narratives that form analogues to reality. This is significant because history itself often seems random, simply effects following causes. When we conceive history as flux, narratives cannot be formed about it and poets rebel. To paraphrase a line in Under Heaven, human beings need to make stories out of history; stories are a fundamental human need.
Here is where fantasy comes in. John Clute, a writer and editor for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, proposes that what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy, aside from the existence of the impossible, is the presence of an underlying, fully exposed Story. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy flaunts its central Story, such that Clute capitalizes the word when describing it. The Story must in some way become reconciled to historical narratives, which tend to reject Story. He proposes four terms to outline the central narrative of what he calls the “fully-structured fantasy“:
1. Wrongness: this happens when the protagonist first sees a hint that something is wrong in the world, that the land will be (or already is) subjected to thinning. Think about the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings first seeing the Black Riders in the Shire. Their grim shadowed forms reveal that wrongness is at work.
2. Thinning: this may be the fading away of the land, an amnesia where the protagonist forgets his name, or the result of the unjust rule of a tyrant. When the Elves with their magic flee Middle Earth because of the growing evil of Sauron, leaving the land to the mundane race of Men, that is thinning.
3. Recognition: when the protagonist realizes that his life has the “coherence of Story” and he realizes what he must do in order the save the thinned land. Aragorn’s recognition is when he realizes that he is destined to become King of Gondor. The crownless again shall be king…
4. Healing: the salvation of the thinned land. Ring is destroyed. Aragorn becomes King of Gondor. Sam spreads his magic seeds to restore the Shire.
It is not accidental, of course, that I use J.R.R. Tolkien‘s trilogy as an example here. Tolkien anticipates Clute’s structure when he states that “eucatastrophe” (the opposite of catastrophe) is the must-have ending of a fantasy novel. Eucatastrophe more or less corresponds to healing and is the happy ending of the faerie-story, an uplifting surge of joy and renewal. It is also in direct opposition to how Bertrand Russel understands history: as essentially catastrophic. After all, how can history have a happy ending (or even an ending at all) in the midst of civil wars, genocides, and holocausts? In historical fantasy, if one is to preserve the fantasy novel structure, how can the happy ending be applied to the historical novel’s structure while still remaining truthful to historical reality?
That was my guiding question while writing this essay. I will not re-articulate my precise argument–I hope to publish the essay in its entirety online in the future–but I will summarize by explaining how Under Heaven dealt with this issue.
The Two Smoking Philosophers:
Under Heaven is where Kay’s historical fantasy becomes most fully itself. It is a fully hybridized historical fantasy because it employs each of Clute’s four terms while remaining true to the nature of catastrophe.
Wrongness foreshadows the An Li Rebellion when the reader is introduced to the monstrous military general An Li, a grotesquely obese, illiterate barbarian who speaks out of turn at the court because the Emperor assigns him too much power.
Thinning happens as a direct effects of An Li’s arrogance, when he rebels against the Emperor and initiates the rebellion. Mass death, starvation, and even cannibalism ensue, as the capital of Kitai is destroyed.
The protagonist, Shen Tai, might have prevented the rebellion when he was alone with An Li in his carriage. However, his Recognition of historical narrative is rejected by his wise friend, the poet Sima Zian, who argues that it is arrogance to think that we can understand how our actions can change the future. Tai’s recognition is not so much a recognition of an underlying story as much as a recognition that he cannot know the story.
Complete Healing is impossible. Sima Zian says, “The world is not broken any more than it always, always is.” The poet implies that thinning is the real state of the world and that the world is unrecoverable because it is always in that state. Perhaps Tai’s recognition is that history is a story of thinning rather than healing.
However, Under Heaven does not lack a Eucatastrophe. Rather, a happy ending is possible for certain individuals, including the protagonist, when granted a refuge from historical forces. Eucatastrophe does not seek to re-make history (as it does in Tigana) but to imply that there is hope even within the terrible catastrophe of a civil war.
History as Fantasy
Under Heaven is also remarkable in how its narrator, who takes on the persona of a historian, challenges historicism. For instance, take the following quotation from the book:
It is a truth about the nature of human beings that we seek—even demand—order and pattern in our lives, in the flow and flux of history and our own times.
Philosophers have noted this and mused upon it. Those advising princes, emperors, kings have sometimes proposed that this desire, this need, be used, exploited, shaped. That a narrative, a story, the story of a time, a war, a dynasty be devised to steer the understanding of a people to where the prince desires it to go.
Desire shapes historical narratives. And what is desire, but a fantasy, an imagination, of what history should ideally look like, according to one’s own opinion? Kay’s narratives may use fantasy (in the literary sense), but he avoids the arrogance of imposing his own desire onto historical flux, by creating mirror worlds. Using this technique, he not only orders his narratives according to the conventions of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and eucatastrophe, but exposes how historians do occasionally make arrogant assertions.
In conclusion, Kay’s historical fantasy novels reveal how history is fantasy. It reveals how people compose their own historical narratives, according to their own desire, or fancy. Therefore, I also think that an understanding of history as fantasy can lead us to see how desire causes historians to compose narratives, revealing the hidden ideologies that lie behind those stories.
Clute, John and John Grant, eds. “Bondage,” “Fantasy,” “Healing,” “History in Fantasy” “Kay, Guy Gavriel,” “Recognition,” “Story,” “Thinning” “Wrongness.” The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. 125-126 337-339, 458, 468-469, 530-531, 804-805, 899-901, 942-943, 1038-1039.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. E-Mail Interview. 19 November 2012.
_____.“Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.
_____.The Lions of Al-Rassan. Toronto: Penguin, 1995. 1-635.
_____. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992. 1-793.
_____. Under Heaven. Toronto: Penguin, 2010. 1-710.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Faerie Stories.” Tree and Leaf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. 3-84.
Toner, Christopher. “Catastrophe and Eucatastrophe: Russell and Tolkien on the True Form of Fiction.” New Blackfriars 89.1019 (2008): 77-87. EBSCOhost. Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Web. 12 Sep. 2012.