MythCon 45 Day 3: Postmodernity at MythCon

hogwarts

Sunday morning at MythCon, and I took it easy, only getting to “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature” for 10:00.

Kris Swank framed Harry Potter not only in terms of the latest dystopian craze in YA fiction (Divergent, The Hunger Games), but also with the dystopian tradition of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The Dolores Umbridge-corrupted Ministry of Magic in the later volumes of Harry Potter has a simplistic slogan that would not be entirely out of place on the wall of the Ministry of Truth in 1984; ‘Magic is Might’ has the same double-think ring as ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Umbridge is an O’Brien of the wizarding world, employing exotic forms of torture to elicit “confessions” from witches and wizards who are muggle-born, often employing the morally dubious drug veritaserum, a truth serum.

The disturbing thing is that, as pervasive as government surveillance is in Oceania in 1984 and the wizarding world, we  willingly subject ourselves now, using our instant-communicators, our ever-present smartphones, to the same kind of surveillance. The charm placed on the name “Voldemort” alerts Death Eaters, who eventually run the ministry, that someone has said the word the instant they utter it. Meanwhile, the government tracks what we say online, words like “Bush” and “al-Quaida,” but also plain words like “pork,” and “erosion,” because they can be connected to terrorist-related discourses, presumably. It’s like Michel Foucault’s Panopticon out there.

Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault's insights.
Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault’s insights.

The next talk was a return to J.R.R. Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft presented “Noms de Guerre: The Power of Naming in War and Conflict in Middle Earth.” She gave a catalogue of swords and other weapons and their names, and more specifically the function these unique names have. Names endow these objects–like Isildur’s sword Narsil, renamed Andúril by Aragorn–with power, distinguishing them from common weapons. In legend, Sigurd owned Gram, and Charlemagne Joyeuse–and who could forget the blade of the leader of latter’s rear-guard, the Dolindale of Roland? Most weapons in LOTR are swords, like Bilbo and Frodo’s Sting, though notable exceptions are Gil-Galad’s Aiglos and Grond, Morgoth’s mace (the same name is given to the battering ram the orcs bring against Minas Tirith).

Noms de guerre, on the other hand, refer to the names characters take on in war. They are like noms de plume, or pen names, except those who use them are more likely to believe that the sword is mightier. They are used by those who wish to break with the past, hide the self. For example, Éowyn turns her name into Durnhelm when she goes to war against her father Théoden’s wishes. In The Hobbit, Thorin is surnamed Oakenshield, in memory of the improvised shield he wore to battle. Aragorn is later called Elessar, to fit his new role as King. These names can also be bestowed by another, as revealing descriptions of one character’s relationship with another. For instance, Gríma Wormtongue calls Gandalf, who he mistrusts, Stormcrow, and Frodo calls Gollum Sméagol, in recognition of the good that he still sees in him.

Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.
Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.

The following talk was “Toying with Fantasy: the Post-Modern Playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld” by Daniel Lüthi. Anyone who as read Pratchett will know how hilarious his novels can be; I myself have read too little of Pratchett. Lüthi came all the way from Switzerland to explain to us how Pratchett threw Tolkien’s rules in “On Faerie-Stories” out the window: particularly the line that says comic fantasy can never make fun of magic itself. That is exactly what the Discworld novels are predicated on: mockery of the fantasy genre. All the tired tropes of fantasy—as well as multiple other genres, including the detective novel, noir, and science fiction—are all mocked in sardonic incidents and Pratchett’s playful footnotes. Pratchett comes from the tradition—and perhaps inspired much of the tradition—that produces parodies like Bored of the Rings and Barry Trotter. Yet Pratchett never loses affection for the fantasy genre itself; his parodies do not reject fantasy, only satirizes it lovingly.

Discworld has become much more than just a form of parody, however; in typical post-modern fashion, parody has become its own world. Pratchett employs science to explain his fictional universe, though with wild stretches of the imagination. Narrativium, The Science of Discworld explains, is what holds the world together, the power of Story itself, like a kind of pseudo-scientifical phlogiston. It’s the sort of world, I suppose, that might house of the God of Evolution, who was the funniest character of The Lost Continent. The other Pratchett novel I read was The Wee-Free Men, and I was not disappointed.

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges

John Polanin II gave a talk entitled “Damnation (Un-)Eternal: Fluid Mythologies of Hell in the Work of Neil Gaiman.” In the Sandman comics, Hell becomes a triumvirate, ruled by three demons and not just Lucifer himself, who later in the series abdicates his responsibilities as regent of the nether regions. This change to Christian mythology shows how Gaiman, like Jorge Luis Borges, writes against textual monoliths such as the bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s  Paradise Lost. He turns mythology into an unfixed text that can be played around with, in a post-modern manner. Further evidence for Gaiman-Borges connections? In Sandman, Morpheus’ library contains thousands of billions of volumes of literature, including all the books that have only ever been dreamed, or left unfinished. The complete Canterbury Tales lies there, as well as a “lost” Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe that ends as a comedy. An English major’s freakin’ paradise. (Why doesn’t McGill’s McLennan library have any of these volumes?) This library of Dream is like the labyrinth of Borges, a key image for post-modernism in that it emphasizes how literature forms its own twisty-turny simulacrum of infinite reality, an image Umberto Eco may have referred to obliquely in The Name of the Rose.

Clever John Polanin also found a possible source text for Gaiman’s famous tale “The Price”: Milagros de Nuestra Señora by Gonzalo de Berceo, a Catholic book of exempla detailing miracles of the Virgin Mary. Asked about whether he based “The Price” on this book, Gaiman answered, in an email, “no, but the story was true.” Believe what you will.

Stay tuned to read the rest of Sunday’s events–including two memorable panels–and how my own presentation went. Monday’s final events will also be included in next weeks’ post.

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Photo Credits:

Hogwarts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter

Panopticon: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panopticon_Jeremy_Bentham.jpg

Jorge Luis Borges: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges

Was the Renaissance “Swerve” a historical fantasy?

In the novel I am presently reading, Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley, the main character, a historian academic named Pierce Moffet, comes across the realization that “there is more than one history of the world.” Furthermore, the “world is not the same as it once was.” This radical change in human history supposedly occurred some time in the sixteenth century as it transitioned into the seventeenth. Specifically, it revolves around the historical person of Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, whose scientific accomplishments were rivaled only by his interest in the occult. For Dee, science and magic were one. In his intellectual corpus, the modern, rational, scientific worldview coexisted with the traditional worldview Europe would slowly, gradually leave behind. In John Dee, mathematics was both a tool to explore modern science and a basis for summoning angels.

Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Renaissance is sometimes viewed as the adolescence or young adulthood of European culture, as it left the intellectually barren Middle Ages behind. This shift of the pendulum between worldviews is known was coined by Stephen Greenblatt as “The Swerve.” A shorthand for describing the multifaceted history that the Renaissance actually was, the assumption that such a Swerve occurred is taught in classrooms worldwide.

However, could the Swerve be a mere historical fantasy?

In my post “Wonders in Wood,”  I demonstrate how humans often strive to to see shapes that they can relate to in natural objects. Those forms, however, are only really shaped by a series of causes and effects that are distinct and separate from human desire. Often the shapes we see in wood grain are reflections of ourselves. We often see “faces,” for example.

History, like wood, is formed according to a flow of cause and effect. Imagine the narrative of time growing organically from a set of roots buried in the past. The Renaissance is like a particular knot in that tree where two of the major boughs branch. Historians, only human, see their own faces in that knot, matching the growing intellectual self-consciousness of European philosophy and science with their own coming of age, their own rites of passage.

But can it really be said the Europe “came of age” during the Renaissance? Or is this only a historian’s fantasy?

I do not have an ultimate answer to this question, or the space in a single blog post to even scratch the surface of this enormous problem. I will say this, however: I believe the Swerve is a fascinating concept that can generate a lot of excitement about learning history, even though I believe it to be scientifically inaccurate and a problematic term. I have four reasons for believing this, and there are other reasons out there I may not have heard of:

1. The Swerve devalues the medieval learning that gave birth to the Renaissance. That any significant intellectuals existed during the Dark Ages seems to be a fact some teachers repress, knowingly or unknowingly. I do not believe the Renaissance could have happened without the likes of medieval intellectuals like Averroes, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, and the like. Later Renaissance thinkers borrow from their ideas. The Middle Ages were not an void, but the fertile soil from which the Renaissance spawned–it was not only ancient Greeks and Romans who formed the inspiration for the Renaissance.

2. The Swerve only accounts for the writings of ‘Great Thinkers’ and bears nothing on socio-economic, everyday realities. Descartes, Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo may all have been geniuses of their time, but men and women still died horrendously of plague in 1600 as they did in 1300, at least for the most part. Great intellectual progress failed to impress the vast majority of the population, many of whom could not read. Theories about the sun’s closeness to the earth and challenging the church’s doctrinal authority matters a whole lot less when famine strikes.

3. The Swerve is a Grand Narrative which excludes other discourses when it is used to describe the era. Since the story we all tell of the Renaissance is of its glory, the darker side of history is ignored. The Renaissance is a dark period, from a certain perspective. For starters, it is filled to the brim with religious persecutions, massacres, and even genocide. Why Cortez’s ethnic cleansing of the Aztecs should be considered more civilized than the Viking raids simply because it happened 500 years later is beyond me. Must civilized times be defined according to when  advanced weaponry, like gunpowder, becomes available, enabling countries to spread violence across the globe? Or should such times be considered more barbaric? Also, what would have the Native Americans in King James’ court have thought of the Renaissance period when they were dying of a common disease caught from a European?

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno

4. The Swerve can be used to misconstrue discoveries and treatises of the Renaissance as leading to an inevitable Scientific Revolution, which almost no scholars consciously saw happening. It is likely that Copernicus primarily saw himself as part of a tradition of scholars stretching back to the heliocentric Aristarchus, and only secondarily as the bold pioneer of a new model of the solar system. He had to reach into the past as well as reach to the future, but framing Copernicus in terms of the Swerve threatens to shortchange the importance of the intellectual history to which Copernicus returned. Furthermore, scientists often take Giordano Bruno, who espoused Copernicus’ ideas, as a martyr for modern science since he was burned for heresy in Rome. However, Bruno was the farthest thing from a scientist. Rather, he was in many ways an impractical philosopher who developed a magic system based on the concept of artificial memory, considering himself a follower of the sun-centered “Egyptian” religion. In other words, he sacrificed himself for heliocentrism not as a scientist, but as an occultist.

Since the Swerve is inaccurate historically in these and other ways, I propose that it is a historical fantasy. Stephen Greenblatt might have needed the concept to sell a book and express what he was going to write about in simple terms, but the term itself should not be taken without irony. I am not arguing that Greenblatt is unaware of the problems connected to the idea of the Swerve. I only mean to remind people who are used to the Grand Narrative to rethink what they know about the Renaissance.

Poststructuralism claims that all histories are written in history and can never be freed from the context in which they are written. I would add that so long as a historian sees the human experience of his/her adolescence in the Renaissance, history will be written according to a human bias. We cannot escape this bias easily, since it is so natural to write a history that we can relate to. But turning history into story is part of what historical fantasy is all about.

Foucault's Pendulum, Paris: a pendulum serves back and forth as the ages move between ideas.
Foucault’s Pendulum, Paris: a pendulum serves back and forth as the ages move between ideas.

 

Photo Credits:

Foucault’s Pendulum: https://www.flickr.com/

Stephen Greenblatt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Greenblatt

Giordano Bruno: http://johns-spot112948.blogspot.ca/2013/02/giordano-bruno.html

The Vinciolo Journal’s First Anniversary!

1st birthdayIMAG1039_1Today 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.

Many of the promises I made in January never saw the light of day, but other subjects I returned to with frequency. My first few posts were sporadic, seeing as I was working on my Honours thesis at the time. However, I managed to create three posts that remain successful to this day. Probably the most famous ever is Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted: Historical Reality and the Creation of the Myth behind Assassin’s Creed, likely because of its popular appeal and how it pushed aside the veil of fiction spun by the famous video game franchise. My stats display 519 specific hits to that page. A distant second in popularity was my treatment of the Marlowe assassination, at 168 hits.

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.

One of the more memorable moments of 2012, which is still significant to this blog begun in 2014, is when I met Guy Gavriel Kay at Salon du Livre.
One of the more memorable moments of 2012, which is still significant to this 2013 blog, is when I met Guy Gavriel Kay at Salon du Livre.

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.

Finally, after publishing an assortment of material, from a post on wainscot societies to an essay on Machiavelli, from a poetry reading in which I participated to a silly picture I drew of The “Beet” Generation, I survived until the New Year and published a series of posts loosely related to J.R.R. Tolkien, whose birthday was January 3rd.

A little less memorable was briefly standing near Neil Gaiman at the Rialto Theatre. Not enough time to talk. Too many people.
A little less memorable was briefly standing near Neil Gaiman at the Rialto Theatre. Not enough time to talk. Too many people.

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.

A definite of highlight of 2013 was reading my poetry at Le Cagibi in November and, earlier that year, reading at the April Veg launch.
A definite of highlight of 2013 was reading my poetry at Le Cagibi in November and, earlier that year, reading at the April Veg launch.

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:

An alchemical woodcut.
An alchemical woodcut.

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?

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A pencil drawing that might serve as an illustration to my novel: Marco Vinciolo hides under a horseshoe arch, rapier drawn. But who hunts him?
A pencil drawing that can serve as an illustration to my novel: Marco Vinciolo hides under a horseshoe arch, rapier drawn. But who hunts him?

Photo Credits:

Alchemy: http://members.ozemail.com.au/~clauspat/stonea.htm

Candle: http://www.partysrus.ca/party-tips/first-birthday-party-ideas