Okay, so I’ve been really giving the nonfiction a serious effort, but I’ve been at the current nonfiction book for weeks and am still only a third of the way through it. This weekend, though, I arrived a few hours early at the place where my new beau and I were to meet up, and I devoured this book entire. I feel certain that I’ve mentioned how much I love Winterson, but let me say it again. I love Jeanette Winterson’s books.

This is a story narrated by several people, but the two most important are identified by a fruit preceding their narrations. The pineapple is for Jordan, who begins his story as a child of uncertain origins pulled from a river. The banana is for the Dog-Woman, who finds a boy on a riverbank and learns to be a mother. Jordan’s narrations are often surreal and dream-like, while his mother’s are usually more down to earth. He lives in an age of travel and adventure and discovery, where a man can have a famous picture painted of him bringing the king a new sort of fruit, while she lives in a more realistic seventeenth century, where no one would eat a fruit that looks like a Chinese penis. She is a large woman, so big that most people are terrified of her, and has spent her life unloved and rejected.

I fell in love once, if love be that cruelty which takes us straight to the gates of Paradise only to remind us they are closed for ever.

She has a few dozen dogs, which she breeds, and works hard. She is tremendously strong. As she raises Jordan, though, for the first time she finds someone who loves her as she is and doesn’t notice how different she is from other people. The child accepts the fact that his mother is a mountain of a woman and doesn’t expect her to be other than as she is. As a Royalist, she finds the Interregnum difficult, and teams up with a local brothel to dispose of all the impure Puritans. It makes me sad that the gay men in the book are evil and have to be destroyed, but the mother only understands biology in terms of breeding, so it does kind of make sense to me that she would be outraged at the sight of non-procreative sex. I think it’s important that her son, the only thing tying her to a world of love, is gone off sailing from the execution of Charles I until the restoration of Charles II. Without him in her life, she becomes murderous and destructive. He’s back for a short time, but leaves again before she pours oil on the fire in 1666.

Growing up on the fringes of society, Jordan develops a taste for the strange and a tendency to travel in his mind. I suppose you could call it daydreaming, but it’s more like astral projection into a surreal cityscape with different physics and manners. He meets a beautiful dancing girl, but she gets away, and he sets off on a quest to find her. Along the way, he runs into more fantastic people and storytellers, and he does eventually find the girl, but she doesn’t believe in permanence, so there’s no happily ever after there. The quest is complete, but his journey never ends.

Along the way, we get a retelling of an old familiar story. Once upon a time there was a king with twelve daughters. I think there must have been either multiple queens or multiple births, because having an age range wide enough for one woman to produce twelve children and still retain her own health would make the rest of the story unrealistic. Anyway, the queen isn’t the significant part of the story. The princesses are. As they endure adolescence and begin to pass into adulthood, the king notices that his daughters are becoming lethargic. All twelve are chronically fatigued. Their appetites are undiminished, to the point that he’s a little embarrassed at how much his little princesses are consuming, but they don’t gain weight. If anything, they seem to dwindle as they get older. He sets men to watch over their activities, but no one sees them doing anything amiss. A prince from a neighboring kingdom joins the Princess Watch and is apparently the only one who thinks of watching them at night while everyone is sleeping. Every night the princesses fly out the window to a fairy ball, where they dance incessantly the whole night through. The prince sneaks into the ball and dances with the youngest princess, they fall in love, and the magic is broken. The king marries his twelve daughters to the prince and his eleven brothers and we are led to believe that this ends the story.

I don’t believe that anyone who has thought carefully about marriage truly believes it is an ending. It’s usually a beginning, and often a middle, but in itself it doesn’t resolve conflicts or end adventures. So Winterson tells us what happens afterward. If an unmarried woman has eleven younger sisters past the age of consent, there’s probably a reason she’s still single. Many of the princesses are lesbians, so they find ways to get rid of their husbands and love whom they choose. Many of the husbands are horrible, so it’s important they be got rid of. One princess found that her husband was really a woman after all, so she was content for rather a long time. Eventually, though, everything ends and all the princesses end up living together in a house far away from their father, who I must assume died sonless and left the kingdom to a distant male relation. The youngest princess, Fortunata, doesn’t settle down with her sisters, though, and travels throughout the world. She’s the one Jordan is after, and she does seem to care for him, but as I said, not in a permanent way.

The title of the book comes from a short, barely-a-page section on grafting. Even though I’ve never done it and probably wouldn’t know how, I’m familiar with the concept – cut a piece off of one tree and fasten it to another. The DNA mixes and the fruit gets the advantages of different genetic strains, sort of like the controlled breeding of animals or interracial procreation. Jordan learns it from Tradescant, the king’s gardener, but his mother is sort of aghast. If you mix two trees, how do you know what gender it becomes? Personally, I don’t normally think of trees as having gender; I’m not even that great at identifying species. But logically they do, because trees reproduce sexually and if you are used to breeding animals and if you think of the value of a tree as lying solely in its fruit, then you would naturally be concerned about the sexual identity of trees. But Jordan grafted from one female tree onto another, so of course the result is female. The gerund of the title makes it seem as if the book is about this process, of determining the gender of a fruit tree (which isn’t immediately obvious to everyone and is probably none of your business), but we don’t see the process happening. We’re simply told that it took place – meaning, of course, that this book is about silences, the things we don’t see happening. It’s about the parts of the story that we don’t get told, as in Winterson’s focus in the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.

Are we all living like this? Two lives, the ideal outer life and the inner imaginative life where we keep our secrets?

Curiously, the further I have pursued my voyages the more distant they have become. For Tradescant, voyages can be completed. They occupy time comfortably. With some leeway, they are predictable. I have set off and found that there is no end to even the simplest journey of the mind. I begin, and straight away a hundred alternative routes present themselves. I choose one, no sooner begin, than a hundred more appear. Every time I try to narrow down my intent I expand it, and yet those straits and canals still lead me to the open sea, and then I realize how vast it all is, this matter of the mind. I am confounded by the shining water and the size of the world.

The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I’m not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has had a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me. God is bigger, like my mother, easier to find, even in the dark. I could be anywhere, and since I can’t describe myself I can’t ask for help. We are alone in this quest, and Fortunata is right not to disguise it, though she may be wrong about love. I have met a great many pilgrims on their way towards God and I wonder why they have chosen to look for him rather than themselves. Perhaps I’m missing the point – perhaps whilst looking for someone else you might come across yourself unexpectedly, in a garden somewhere or on a mountain watching the rain. But they don’t seem to care about who they are. Some of them have told me that the very point of searching for God is to forget about oneself, to lose oneself for ever. But it is not difficult to lose oneself, or is it the ego they are talking about, the hollow, screaming cadaver that has no spirit within it?

I think that cadaver is only the ideal self run mad, and if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God. After all, He has no need for us, being complete.

And I am brought back to my nonfiction quest for belief. I’m not looking for God in the way the theists are; I want to discover something that I believe in, and theism isn’t presenting a compelling case at the moment. Atheism isn’t either, and I suppose it’s a little inevitable that I would feel squeezed between the two halves of a binary and so run sideways into something different, but whose difference lies in a different place than the opposition that works as the fulcrum of the binary – something differently different. Perhaps all I’m really looking for is myself, a way to bring the secret life of the imagination into the visible, insane life of the ego and heal the rift between them. As Buber said, the source of evil is in dividing a person against himself.

Toward the end of the book, there’s a little narrative about two people in the twentieth century. Nicholas Jordan is in the navy, sailing the seas both literal and imaginative like his seventeenth century predecessor, and the woman is a pretty chemist who wants to destroy the fallen world of men. She imagines herself big, large enough that men notice her and not just her face, and even if people are afraid of her, at least they will take her seriously. I think the biggest disservice we do to people is to assume that they are powerless – in treating them as if they were, we create that reality for them. Then, they have to burn down London to prove their worth by destroying their oppressors. Time doesn’t really matter – people’s lives follow the same patterns, and even Artemis gets raped and has to kill the man who doesn’t think what he did was a crime. Maybe Jordan and his mother are merely the imagined selves of these two young people in the 1980s, and this whole book is a story they tell to each other. In my experience lovers are more likely to tell each other fairy stories about their future, but a shared past life could be just as meaningful.

I’m persisting with the nonfiction, but I think I really needed this diversion into narrative, especially a disjointed one like this, where we break off into other stories and weird lists about how to deal with men and ponderings of the nature of time, matter, and life.

Men are best left in groups by themselves where they will entirely wear themselves out in drunkenness and competition. While this is taking place a woman may carry on with her own life unhindered.

Maybe it is true that Winterson is one of those women who don’t have a lot of use for men – I don’t know her personally, so I can’t say, but yes, there is a strong sense of feminism and female homosexuality, and if a woman feels the weight of the patriarchy without feeling any sexual attraction to men, she may have a hard time feeling the value of a class of humans that makes her feel unvalued. But there is hope for individual men, if they are properly schooled by women, and I think that Winterson makes this clear. Women need to speak up, and men need to listen; there’s no reason people can’t be happy if we’re considerate of each other and take the time to learn each other’s needs and how best to meet them. I’m not saying it’s simple – I will probably always believe and say that people are hard and that’s why I prefer books – but it is possible.

 

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This book took entirely too long to read. Ferguson’s writing is very similar to an encyclopedia: very clear, very informative, sort of dry and abrupt, and lacking in unity. She takes the eight major celebrations of the pagan year and analyzes their history, including the ways they have been absorbed into Christianity.

She starts with the winter solstice, and all the assorted Christmas associations. It’s the shortest day of the year, so we think about the death of the sun and plot ways to bring him back. Hence all the lights – drawing the sun back toward ourselves with light and heat.

Imbolc was this week – celebrating the return of the moon. This celebration is for the goddess Brigid (Christianized as St Brigid) – we leave out food, drink, and bedding for her to rest on as she comes around to everyone’s house. We also leave an article of clothing outside, which she will bless with healing and protective powers. Brigid is honored by a perpetually burning flame tended only by women – not having any women at my house, I had to light my own candle, but hopefully that’s okay. On February 1, we watch the weather. See, she gathered wood at the beginning of winter, and by Imbolc she’s run out. The aging fertility goddess has to get more wood if the winter is going to last longer, so the day will be bright and sunny. If spring is coming, she can sleep in, so the weather gets overcast and rainy. Today’s yucky weather may actually be a good sign.

The spring equinox celebrates day and night as equal halves – it’s often symbolized by the marriage of the masculine sun and the feminine moon. One of the things that bothered me in this book is the extreme heteronormativity. For a homosexual investigating the pagan community, this book makes it seem like the way is barred because all the religious traditions are about procreation and fertility: the Goddess is eternal, like the earth, and the sun-god is eternally dying and being reborn as a sort of husband-son, like the corn. He plants his own seed in the earth, and the result is himself again. The gendering is so heavy that the gays are pushed to the margins.

Beltane (May Day) celebrates the full moon. It’s like the spring equinox, but instead of focusing on marriage, this is a festival of sex. Some of the rituals seem to emphasize heterosexuality, but there’s a freedom to the day that creates possibilities for the rest of us.

At the summer solstice the sun is at its most powerful, but that also means that it begins its decline. More fires, because fire is cool.

Lughnasadh is the beginning of the harvest. It celebrates the waning moon – traditionally a good time for harvesting because this influence was believed to be dry, as opposed to the wet influence of the waxing moon. Plant when the moon is growing, pick when it’s declining.

The autumn equinox is another equally balanced day, but it’s also a continuation of the harvest celebration.

Samhain (Halloween) marks the beginning of the new year – days start when it gets dark, and so does the year. This celebration honors the dark moon, those few days of the month when it is completely obscured by the earth’s atmosphere. It’s also a time to celebrate the dead, because at the hinge of the year there’s an opportunity for the dead to return. That doorway is also open at Beltane, the other hinge of the year, but we’re generally too busy fucking to notice. But at Samhain you could be carried off to the Upside-Down, so keep your wits about you.

And then the book just sort of ends. Like any reference book, there’s not much of an effort at presenting a unified message or a meaningful conclusion; you get to the end and you run out of pages. There are some lovely photographs, not all of which contribute meaningfully to the text. The pictures make it seem more like a coffee-table book. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but this book was hard to get through. There’s a lot of information, but no help digesting it. It’s better as reference than as something you’d read through from beginning to end.

If the idea that Judaism and Christianity grew out of previously established Middle Eastern religions offends you, or if you’re upset by the acknowledgment that Christianity was transformed by the Celtic religions it sought to displace, then just stay away. Part of Ferguson’s goal is to present a tradition, one that incorporates elements from all over Europe and the Middle East in the last five or six thousand years. She also discusses the changes to the calendars and the effect that has had on our holidays, but there’s really not that much to say about that.

Okay, so I’m still not Hindu. That being said, they do have some good ideas.

A man should not hate any living creature. Let him be friendly and compassionate to all. He must free himself from the delusion of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ He must accept pleasure and pain with equal tranquillity. He must be forgiving, ever-contented, self-controlled, united constantly with me in his meditation. His resolve must be unshakable. He must be dedicated to me in intellect and in mind. Such a devotee is dear to me.

I am very much in favor of eliminating hatred, starting with the hatred I find in myself. I also agree that we need to get over the idea of possession, that certain things (or people) belong to us and that they cannot be taken from us. Everything is temporary, including ownership of houses and books and significant others. Refusing to let go causes suffering, so when the universe takes something, we have to learn to let go willingly, or at least submissively. If something is unpleasant and can’t be helped, it’s best to give in to circumstances. Now, if it can be helped, yes, go fight for what you love; I’m just saying that our identity is not based in possessions or relationships. We are who we are, no matter what we have or who we’re with.

The enlightened, the Brahman-abiding,
Calm-hearted, unbewildered,
Is neither elated by the pleasant
Nor saddened by the unpleasant.

His mind is dead
To the touch of the external:
It is alive
To the bliss of the Atman.
Because his heart knows Brahman
His happiness is for ever.

In one way of looking at this, it may seem that Krishna is praising the clinically depressed – those who can’t feel emotional responses to external stimuli. I’m not sure if that’s what’s going on, though. As I’ve been working through this, I think it has more to do with identity and how easily we are shaken. It’s great when good things happen, but I can still love myself when they don’t. It’s sad when bad things happen, and I can still love myself when they do. It’s about having a core of self-regard and belief that withstand the temporary influences of this life. In this sense, it’s like when St Paul was going on about how he can do all things in Christ. We can get knocked down, but that doesn’t mean we’re defeated.

Yet, I’m still troubled by the idea in the previous quotation of self-control. That wording seems to imply an antagonistic relationship to the self that I’m not comfortable with. Every person has impulses that are socially unacceptable, and I’m not saying that we should indulge them without question. When we want to do something we feel is bad, I think it’s best to understand the emotion that prompts the impulse and work toward healing ourselves. And if there’s an antisocial behavior that is not rooted in causing pain, then I don’t understand why it isn’t acceptable to do it. Sometimes I want to go outside and scream, so I do.

Once more I shall teach you
That uttermost wisdom:
The sages who found it
Were all made perfect,
Escaping the bonds of the body.

In that wisdom they lived,
Made one with my holy nature:
Now they are not reborn
When a new age begins,
Nor have they any part
In its dissolution.

And there isn’t a good way to deal with this concept either, in my opinion. It starts from the assumption that the world is a bad place, and I will not believe that. Suffering exists, but so does joy. I mean, what is the point of learning how to deal with suffering if your goal is to go somewhere that it doesn’t exist? And if you live with the belief that death is temporary, why would you want to make it permanent? At the beginning of the story, Arjuna looks at two opposing armies and tries to become a pacifist and Krishna (representation of deity) talks him into fighting because for the Hindu, death is temporary and therefore unimportant. It’s okay to kill people in a war because they’re going to be reincarnated in a happier time. But the reward for enlightenment is that you get to stay dead, which doesn’t seem like a reward to me. People make it sound like such a miserable thing to be reincarnated as a horsefly, but think about it. How much suffering do insects really have to go through? They’re liberated from the money economy, so they’re free to run around and meet their basic needs without interference.

I’m being faced with decisions right now – whom to date, where to live – and in the past, I’ve only ever been given one option at a time, so those decisions were simple. But now, given the choice between two options that are both good, I’m not sure what to do. I suppose if they’re both good choices, then it doesn’t matter which I choose, but that’s not helpful. I mean, what do I really want? I’m not sure. I’ll need to take some time to work on that.

As I was looking around one of the local bookstores for books about Wicca, the selections seemed nauseatingly self-promotional: Let me enthrall you with the story of how I abandoned corporate America to become High Priestess of my own coven, moving effortlessly between privileged positions in two very different societies. That is not my kind of story, so I left the store without buying anything. A few days later, I looked up the Wicca books at the library where I work, and there was exactly one. This one.

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends – several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers – who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me, it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe – communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I’ll come to understand what I’ve been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened this book, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find myself. Alex Mar is a very different person from me, with a radically different background, but this approach to belief is very similar to what I’ve been feeling. As I read the book and followed her journey through American Paganism, there’s a formlessness to her spirituality that I relate to very powerfully.

I want to stop sublimating this religious drive and instead embrace it, pitch forward into it, see how it might better serve me. Stop being this spiritual dilettante, a professional “seeker.” If I have a natural talent for belief, I must be a natural fit for something to believe in – some system somebody has laid out somewhere. I imagine a near future in which all my parts might align. For the first time, I find myself surrounded by people who assume just such a thing is possible.

I keep getting Poison’s song stuck in my head, asking the world to “give me something to believe in,” and I’m still working toward that. I’m figuring things out, a little at a time, and there are traditions in this book that seem appealing and others that don’t. Part of this is Mar’s own story, but she also explains the origins of the most common pagan traditions, and these stories all seem to revolve around a single charismatic leader, as I imagine most stories about the origin of belief systems do.

Gerald Gardner is the first of these leaders; he started Wicca in England sometime in the last century. He seems to have traveled around the world and cobbled together a practice, a lot of stuff from the Freemasons and traditional religions from Southeast Asia and Africa, and some of his own inspiration. There’s nudity and sadism and the kind of stuff Christians like to spread rumors about, but for most of the followers it’s about believing in power and accessing it through ritual, and some of those rituals involve sex and violence. His ideas spread around, and eventually led to the type of earth-loving mother-goddess worship we think of today.

Victor Anderson is another important leader, this one from the Pacific Northwest – you know, suicide country. He brought forth the Feri strand of Wicca, something more primal and less old-man-sex-fetish. There is sex involved, but there’s a stronger element of consent, and you can complete that part of the ritual with your regular partner in the privacy of your own home. The name hints of the old-world traditions about Little People, but the connection there is more related to the sense that nature is wise and magical and unforgiving, not so much to tiny people with wings. When I first came out six years ago, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) suggested I go to a retreat, and I think it was Faerie rather than Feri, but they both presented it as a weeklong gay orgy in the woods. As if I have ever had the money for a weeklong retreat of any type. I’ve often marveled at the fact that people think they know me and yet think I’d be okay with that, as if I would be comfortable having several partners in a single day, as if it doesn’t take me a great deal of contemplation to move from one to the next. Yes, there’s a lot of power in sexual energy, and I do enjoy it rather a lot, but I think I’d be too easily overstimulated. It’s an intense experience, so it takes time for me to assimilate it. I’m just not promiscuous. And while I enjoy going skyclad in the privacy of my own home, I don’t think I’d like it in public. I feel a little outré just taking my shirt off at a public swimming pool.

The chapter about Dianic Wicca, the part that grew out of the feminism of the 1960s, feels less strongly dominated by a single overwhelming personality, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In our culture, we’re taught that women are more communal and less ego-driven than men, so a religion born in our culture that doesn’t focus on men logically should reflect those values. Notable names include Zsuzsanna Budapest, Selena Fox, and Ruth Barrett. As one of them remarked, this movement isn’t anti-men, it’s just not about us. There’s a little blip of a hetero wedding ceremony in this chapter, so men aren’t excluded, and even those few lines had me in tears. If I ever get married again, I want it to be like that.

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

There are some areas of the faith that make space for men, but there are others that don’t. I agree that it’s important for women to create their own spaces where they can feel comfortable without any men around. I taught a class a few years ago where all the students were female, and it had a dramatically different feeling than my classes usually have. I try to treat my students as equals, because that creates a camaraderie that I respond well to. It sometimes involves swearing in front of the class (informal language creates a sense of intimacy) and giving the “tough love” that tells them that I have confidence they can do more and be better than they are. But with the class of women, there was no question of equality. It was more like having a non-sexual harem – there was an element of submission before authority that I am unused to, and it evoked a much gentler response from me. As the only man and the teacher, they all looked to me to lead the discussion and make pronouncements from on high – there’s nothing natural about this. What I’m saying is, even one man in the room can disrupt the sense of community and produce a strong sense of conformity to gender roles, no matter how gay he is. There’s a freedom that can only be found in single-gender environments.

The last of the big names from the past is Aleister Crowley (of course). I’d heard his name in literary criticism – late Victorian authors were really into the paranormal, and Crowley dated a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and joined the same order as W. B. Yeats. He quickly spun off and started his own thing, though; his order is a very explicit reaction against Christianity, much more directly than the others. It is anti-Christianity, with the parody of the Mass and the liturgy, flipping it into a worship of gods Christians would consider demonic. Crowley was also really involved with the tarot, and it sounds like some elements of his Mass are living representations of the pictures on the card set he designed. This chapter was the most troubling for me – reading it felt a bit like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, the electric charge and the sense that something is wrong – which either means (a) it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll never join this group, or (b) I’m not ready for it, and now is not the time. The thing that bothers me most is the way that it defines itself in opposition. The description of the Mass felt like enacted hatred. I understand that all of these groups were started in supposedly Christian countries, and so to some extent they’re all at least slightly reacting against Christianity, but Crowley’s crowd were the only ones I thought were nasty about it. When she describes the people she meets there, they do seem like nice people, but that service is clearly meant as a Fuck-You-Jesus in a way the others are not. It’s presented as much more temple-oriented, less natural.

Throughout the book, the most important figure (beside the author) is Morpheus, a priestess from California. She’s in the now, not the historical parts of the book. Over the course of their friendship, Morpheus goes from a more nature-centered approach (she built her own henge) to focusing primarily on one of the ancient Irish Goddesses, the Morrigan. As she’s described here, I do not connect with the Morrigan at all. She’s a warrior queen, and I have no ambitions to be either a warrior or a queen. I’m much more likely to follow a wise woman gathering herbs than a sword-wielding shield-maiden, despite my near-total ignorance of botany. While I don’t identify with Morpheus’s journey, I do think that she gives Mar excellent advice:

I also don’t think everyone’s experience is the same or should be. Just because you may not have had a dramatic moment of being chosen by the Goddess doesn’t mean the Gods don’t want you, if you know what I mean. […] So I think it isn’t always helpful to look for a dramatic “calling” or marking experience . . . If the tradition speaks to you in a meaningful way, that is a good place to start.

Which is important to me, because I don’t have a strong sense of vocation right now. I’m looking for starting points.

Skepticism can be really toxic, because it makes you not trust your own lived experiences, the evidence of your senses, without outside verification.

Which is also important to me, because I’m coming out of a time of skepticism back into belief, and trusting myself is an important part of that.

There’s a footnote that I’d like to comment on:

It’s unclear how a graphic book on the Craft made it into the library of a very Christian town – though I’ve heard similar stories from a few people around the country.

It’s because librarians are magic. Even those operating in the Christian tradition seem to have something witchy about them. There’s something about libraries that seems to promote free thinking and a distance from societal expectations, which creates a space for witchcraft even in the rural South.

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

I don’t feel converted to the types of paganism I saw in this book, except maybe that early bit about the henge. Looking in the spaces between, though, I think there would be room for me in that community, if I chose it. I have a friend who describes herself as a “kitchen witch,” and that phrase makes a lot of sense to me. If there’s magic in the world, isn’t it a more worthwhile practice to pour love into the food you feed your family and friends than to hex the bitch who is trying to steal your man? Obviously, one practitioner can do both, but I disagree with the metaphors people use to justify cruelty. Frankly, it seems like many people get into witchery for the sake of doing spells, accessing power for its own sake rather than for the purpose of doing good. Magic represents a bending of natural laws, and that’s not something I want to do. I want to feel whole, to understand my place in the Web of Wyrd instead of trembling it. The emotional cleansing that is deemed necessary before training really appeals to me – I want to feel connected to the earth and to myself; joining soul to ground by means of the body may be more of a martial-arts thing than a Pagan thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I want to spread beauty and make the world a better place; I believe evil has to be healed, not punished or destroyed.

I also believe very strongly that dead people should be left alone. Don’t bother them with your problems; being dead doesn’t make them smarter than you. And if it’s someone you love, then let them go. Don’t bind them to earth with your pain. That’s not a kindness to them. There’s a guy she meets that goes around robbing graves – decapitating the body and turning the heads into oracles – and I know he’s probably not using those skulls for sexual purposes, but it still feels like he’s raping corpses. One more reason to be cremated and use the ashes as fertilizer. After I’m gone, I want my body to rise up as a tree.

I think this is a great book as an introduction to Paganism in contemporary America. Many of the experienced practitioners, on the other hand, were rather angry about it. They felt it was exploitative, like she was an identity tourist who betrayed them by only pretending to be sincere. I didn’t get that feeling, though. She threw herself into the Craft as much as she could, and I don’t blame her for not finding an identity there. Five years is a good length of time; if she didn’t find her niche, maybe she doesn’t have one in that community. Some others complained that the historical sections weren’t academic enough, but I don’t think that was really her goal. This is a deeply personal book, so she tells the history the way she understands it. I have the same response to those people who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the book – other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, they see us through the lens of their own experiences and emotions. So when someone tells a story about me, I don’t always recognize myself in the depiction (Early on, The Ex used to say, But it makes a better story this way). If you didn’t write the book, if it’s not your journey, then of course you look like just a flat character in someone else’s story. That person only saw a small part of you, so they can’t write you the way you really are, in your fullness. For that, you’d need to write your own story. Think back to what she learned about faith: you have to be true to your own experience, and I think Alex Mar was that. The problem people have with her book is that her experience doesn’t match theirs, and I think it’s unfortunate that they would expect it to. How can we see things the same way when the lenses of our experience are different?

In the end, she’s still an outsider. She hasn’t found a shape for her belief yet, which is something else that makes me feel close to her. I think I’m not the only one that this formlessness would appeal to; when you’re on the outside of a tradition, it can be hard to read a book about it by someone who’s on the inside. Authors writing about their own religious beliefs are usually writing for their own community; there’s something incommunicable and unapproachable about spiritual experiences that we as readers have not experienced, kind of like how hard it is to carry on a conversation about Saudi Arabia with someone who’s never left the South. How can I describe air that is so dry it has no life in it, when you live so much with humidity that you don’t notice how nourishing your breath is? How can I share the feeling that my value in the world was reduced to a single activity, one which I valued less and less?  How can I make you see the discomfort of living in a society that rejects you without repelling you so much you end the discussion? How can I give you a flavor of the foreign that is still real enough to you that you can understand it? So yes, in some ways the book ends up being reductive because it’s intended for a specific audience, one that doesn’t have experience with the rituals and magic of modern American Paganism.

There’s a lot of conflict and competition in the occult subculture. They’re still just people, so they think that what’s right for them is right for everyone. Many of them also make their living through teaching or practicing, so they become defensive and protective of their livelihoods, just like traditional priests and pastors. I’m not jumping straight onto the Wicca bandwagon just yet; I’m trying to be deliberate and understand what I believe before I take any initiations or that sort of thing. This isn’t an energy I want to take lightly.

What a disappointing experience.

The textual history reveals a lot: Dumas published The Black Tulip in France in 1850, at a time when international copyright laws were either nonexistent or poorly enforced. The book was immediately translated into English in New York. In Belgium, the original French text was slightly abridged, cutting roughly 5% of the text. The Belgian edition was then taken to England. Therefore, the American edition is more authentic than the British, but Oxford UP chose to use the British text (the only reason I can think of to do this is nationalistic fervor). The editor of this edition seems to have a lot of doubts as to which text to use: he seems a little snarky about having cut some parts, and also a little snarky about the Romantic excesses that were cut. I got the impression he wasn’t happy with the project or the finished product. And one of the important things is, I like the Romantic excesses. The longwinded descriptions of the setting, the melodramatic situations and speeches, the weirdly out-of-place moralistic commentary, all of these are reasons I like to read nineteenth-century novels, but they are the parts of the book the Belgians excised. The book was already noticeably shorter than Dumas’s previous novels, so why cut anything?

dumas

But, focusing on what we do have. Like A Tale of Two Cities, this is a historical novel that deals with the danger of crowds in foreign countries. We begin with the murder of the De Witte brothers in 1672 (I’m using Dumas’s spellings, which are different than the original Dutch). To refresh your Dutch history, the De Wittes were prominent figures in national politics. Cornelius (the older) was involved in some important naval victories, and John (the younger) became the Grand Pensionary, a high government position that some claim is very similar to Prime Minister, and others claim is nothing like. However, they were republicans, which made them very popular with Dumas and other Frenchmen a hundred and fifty years after their deaths, but not so popular with the people of their own time. The wealthy were in favor of a republic, but the middle and lower classes preferred a monarchy under the House of Orange. William, chief representative of the family, was still a very young man at the time, and had even been tutored by John De Witte. The first four chapters tell about their deaths – Cornelius was imprisoned for treason and sentenced to a life of exile (not convicted because he didn’t confess on the rack), but when John was taking him to the carriage to leave the country a mob pounced on them and killed them both. They were hanged by their feet, disemboweled, and cannibalized. Dumas’s descriptions are graphic but economic.

When the evil spirit has once taken hold of the heart of man, it urges him on without letting him stop.

Our real main characters are Cornelius Van Baerle, Cornelius De Witte’s godson, and Rosa Gryphus, the jailer’s daughter.

He was one of those choice spirits who abhor everything that is common, and who often lose a good chance through not taking the way of the vulgar, that high road of mediocrity which leads to everything.

Cornelius is one of those unworldly characters who seems to have money without knowing where it comes from. He’s obsessed with tulips, and when the Horticultural Society offers an obscene reward for cultivating a black tulip, he gets right to it. His next-door neighbor is also obsessed with tulips, but Van Baerle is so successful that Isaac Boxtel eventually gives up growing anything on his own account and just stares at his neighbor through a telescope. When Van Baerle has the bulbs that will grow the black tulip, Boxtel denounces him to the Orangist government and he’s imprisoned. Van Baerle and Rosa fall in love, though she gets jealous of his flowers. She finds a way to grow his black tulip, and when it comes to flower, Boxtel steals it and passes it off as his own. She proves her ownership, though, as well as Van Baerle’s innocence, and they two live happily ever after while Boxtel falls dead for no apparent reason as soon as his guilt is proven. It’s a short, syrupy little story, about an extraordinary woman raised in ordinary circumstances who proves her own worth to the highest personage in the land.

I’ve heard that the protagonist is really the person who changes the most, and while Van Baerle does learn to love a woman more than a flower, and Rosa gains confidence and freedom through literacy education, I think the biggest change is in that shadowy character William of Orange. Initially he engineers the mob’s murder of the De Wittes (that’s not historical fact, by the way), but by the end he orchestrates Van Baerle’s public exoneration. He goes from villain to hero. Because of this radical change, I want to see more of him. Can I have at least one interior monologue about his remorse and desire for redemption? Apparently not. These characters are more puppets than people, and we don’t look for emotional depth in a Punch and Judy show.

If you read this book, please keep in mind that Dumas did not care about historical or scientific accuracy. The historical events didn’t quite happen the way he writes them, and his botany is atrocious. Do not use this book as a manual on how to grow any tulip, black or otherwise. Don’t even look for verisimilitude in his scientific methods. All he cares about is the story, and everything else can go to hell. If all you want is a short fluffy romance with a sprinkling of historical flavor, then go ahead and read this one. If you’re deep into Victorian novels, you’ll be as disappointed as I was.

 

This book was prepared as two separate volumes, but Buber was later persuaded to publish them together. In honor of the author’s original intent, I’m going to read and write about these book at different times – meaning, the second part of this entry will probably be written a week or so later than the first, and a lot can happen in a week. [It only ended up being two days. I didn’t want to wait to finish reading.]

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RIGHT AND WRONG

This book is an interpretation of five Psalms: 12, 14, 82, 73, and 1. In that sense, it felt very familiar to me as textual commentary, both as a literary critic and as a former believer. Buber has the erudition of an academic combined with the closedness of a religious adherent. It’s a little like reading while walking through a very large room – you’re moving in a straight line, but every now and again you bump into the wall of “But God can’t possibly desire to harm anyone,” so you strike off in a different direction. These bumps are rare, but they do happen. It makes me think of what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë, the sudden jerks of the narrative when her need to express the injustices of society on Victorian women overcomes her desire to tell the story of plain Jane Eyre and short-but-hunky Mr Rochester. [Much as I’d like to see Hugh Jackman as Edward Fairfax Rochester, he’s far too tall and good-looking for Brontë’s description. In my imaginary film starring him, Kelly MacDonald plays Jane.]

In the preface Buber speaks of these psalms as representing a progression, the path a person takes to reaching true goodness. However, he offers very little in the way of transitional material or conclusion, so it feels more like five disparate essays instead of a single unit. Another disconnect has to do with the translation. Buber doesn’t list the full text of the Psalms, so I pulled out the Authorized King James Version to read along, but the translations are very different. Buber implies strongly that he is reading in German with some knowledge of the original language (Hebrew?), and I think that our translator from German to English stayed with the literal translation of the German translation instead of looking back at commonly used English translations of the original text – my opinion here is based on the fact that the book was published in the early 1950s, and I believe that the Authorized King James Version was the most common English translation in use at that time. I’m happy to be corrected on that point. What I’m saying here is that reading your KJV Psalms won’t be all that helpful in understanding Buber’s interpretation of the text.

As I understand things, for Buber, evil comes from being divided against oneself. Psalm 12 introduces the idea of the doubled heart, where we create a second heart in order to interact with the world in dishonest ways. It feels similar to the idea of the social self, or Freud’s ego – to protect ourselves, we only show the rest of the world one part of ourselves, a part that can sometimes contradict or betray the rest of the self. [I’m thinking of the French nihilist in I Heart Huckabees.] The source of evil then is hiding who we are from the rest of the world, living in a closet.

A late interpreter of the Psalms like myself cannot be satisfied, as the Psalmist was, with a simple division of Israel, just as I could not be satisfied with such a division of the human world. We see the rift between those who do violence and those to whom violence is done, the rift between those who are true to God and the apostate element, running not merely through every nation, but also through every group in a nation, and even through every soul. Only in times of great crisis does the hidden rift in a people become apparent.

I still have the rift. When I came out, I was trying to reconcile the two hearts, the hidden part of me and the social self. But looking back, it didn’t feel like healing, and in many ways I’m still wounded. Coming out felt like it created more rifts instead. I watched 50/50 yesterday, and I realized just how angry I am at my mother, still. When I told her about my great crisis, it created so much of a crisis for her that she couldn’t help or support me. She was too busy tending her own wounds to help me with mine. Which is sort of what happened when she got divorced, too – her emotions overpowered her and she couldn’t guide her children through the experience. Or even provide basic emotional support. If I did get cancer like the guy in the film, I’d chase my mom away too. I suppose I don’t yet have the empathy to understand people when they are hurting me that deeply. I felt abandoned by all my family and friends, and while I know that that feeling wasn’t true, it was real, and in some ways still is. Just to be clear, none of the people I felt close to during the last year of my marriage continued to feel close during the first year of my separation; I became much closer to friends I had known before, and to some I hadn’t known that well, so I was never as alone as I felt. But six years later it’s still hard to feel close to people who responded to my coming out with shock and dismay.

While coming out blurred the line between inner and outer selves, it created new divisions between past and present, between skepticism and belief. For the last six years I’ve been denying the part of myself that loves faith. For a long time I even insisted to myself that mystical experiences were a sign of mental illness, and while I’m not saying I’ve always been healthy, I don’t think that skepticizing all of my religious experience is healthy either. If I want to heal my divided self, I have to embrace the part of me that believes in the unseen. Christianity is probably not a good fit for me right now, theistic religions as a whole may not work for me, but whether I like it or not I am a person who believes. I’ve been nearing this through the occult, so that may end up being what makes sense to me. The transfer and sharing of emotional energies matches up with my experience better than deity belief. I’m seeing this as a process of discovering what resonates with me rather than of choosing what to believe, because I tried choosing what I believed for thirty years and it didn’t work. It created that divided heart, the source of evil.

It may seem odd that I would talk about opposition to myself as one who believes, given my temptations toward Islam in Saudi Arabia and toward inclusive evangelicalism in Texas, but in both those faith communities I was looking for community, not faith. At least, not consciously. Men in the closet are better at hiding from themselves than from others.

In a few other passages Buber says that evil is denying one’s own existence. I spent thirty years denying the part of me that loves; I don’t want to spend the next thirty denying the part that believes.

In the verse of the Psalm of which I am speaking [1:6], however, there is something particular added, which is said only here, and it is this. The Psalm does not say that God knows the proven ones, the pious, but that He knows their way. The way, the way of life of these men is so created that at each of its stages they experience the divine contact afresh. And they experience it as befits a real way, at each stage they experience it in the manner specifically appropriate to the stage. Their experience of the divine ‘knowing’ is not like any experience of nature, it is a genuinely biographical experience, that is, what is experienced in this manner is experienced in the course of one’s own personal life, in destiny as it is lived through in each particular occasion. However cruel and contrary this destiny might appear when viewed apart from intercourse with God, when it is irradiated by His ‘knowing’ it is ‘success’, just as every action of this man, his disappointments and even his failures, are success. O the happiness of the man who goes the way which is shown and ‘known’ by God!

The way that Buber is talking about, is the same thing that I mean when I talk about story, stories being a more meaningful metaphor for me than paths. My story is generally about wandering off the path. But it reminds me of the time when I kept a God-journal: you write a conversation between you and God, being honest about what you hear being said to you. I got really angry and stopped because the God-voice told me that he loved my story, and at that time I hated everything about my life. Now that I have a different perspective, I’m okay with that. My story is still on its way out of the dark, but I’m close enough to light to appreciate the dark days I’ve been through. Stories are parabolas, and the only way to get to a happy ending is to hit the bottom halfway through.

Another important aspect of evil Buber discusses is in one’s attitude. Evil is refusing to see the good in our lives. As in Persuasion, the elasticity of mind, the disposition to be comforted, the willingness to be happy, is Good. I haven’t always seen silver linings, but I’m going to be more careful to look for them. The universe is here for my good, and if I can’t see the good, I shouldn’t blame the universe for that. It’s doing the best it can.

IMAGES OF GOOD AND EVIL

In the first two parts of this book, Buber discusses Hebrew and Iranian myths about the creation of evil, or at least about humanity’s descent into evil (I’m not wholly allied to the spatial metaphor here, but Buber likes it). In the third, he synthesizes the two and sets forth his idea about the nature of good and evil. As with many literature students, I think he loses clarity when he gets farther from the text, but taken as a whole, I find the book to be comprehensible.

According to Buber, the different groups of myth are sequential in our lives, though they were probably contemporaneous in their telling. Hebrew first. We remember the story of two people in a garden, with a snake who deceives the woman. Many people have tried to argue that the Fall had nothing to do with food, but with sex. Buber explicitly disagrees; he’s remarkably sex-positive in his description of Eden. He sees the story about humanity’s shift in perception – before the Fall, things just were as they were, and after, we learned to see the world in terms of binary opposites, with of course one side being privileged. Does this imply that intersex and genderqueer individuals represent a prelapsarian innocence, and that they remind us how far we have fallen from nature? Yes, it could. Into this newly binary world we introduce Kain, the first man to choose evil. Adam and Eve couldn’t choose evil because it didn’t exist until after they’d eaten the fruit. Kain makes an offering that God denies, and then he murders his brother, who was accepted. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario: Did Kain kill his brother because God refused to accept his offering, or did God refuse to accept Kain’s offering because He knew he was going to kill his brother? Then there’s the story of the flood, where the imagery of people’s hearts have become evil. We learn evil, then we choose it, then we imagine it continually.

I wasn’t clear where he was going with this until he started synthesizing, so I’m skipping around a bit in my explanation. The Hebrew phase represents the evil of indecision. We’re born, we start to grow up, and around our teenage years the world seems full of possibility, and while to me that sounds exciting, to Buber it’s terrifying. He sees us caught up in a tornado of options with no idea which is the right or natural course of action for ourselves.

The soul driven round in the dizzy whirl cannot remain fixed within it; it strives to escape. If the ebb that leads back to familiar normality does not make its appearance, there exist for it two issues [possible results]. One is repeatedly offered it: it can clutch at any object, past which the vortex happens to carry it, and cast its passion upon it; or else, in response to a prompting that is still incomprehensible to itself, it can set about the audacious work of self-unification. In the former case, it exchanges an undirected possibility for an undirected reality, in which it does what it wills not to do, what is preposterous to it, the alien, the ‘evil’; in the latter, if the work meets with success, the soul has given up undirected plenitude in favour of the one taut string, the one stretched beam of direction. If the work is not successful, which is no wonder with such an unfathomable undertaking, the soul has nevertheless gained an inkling of what direction, or rather the direction is – for in the strict sense there is only one. To the extent to which the soul achieves unification it becomes aware of direction, becomes aware of itself as sent in quest of it. It comes into the service of good or into service for good.

So, in other words, in this tornado of options there are really only two: do what is natural and right for you to do, or do something else. Kain chose to do something else. In the story, God sees the doubleness inside Kain; he’s offering his work to God, but not for the stated motive of glorifying God. Kain has the double heart that leads to evil, the division between his interior and exterior selves. God’s not going to support that. Good comes from a unified psyche, a singleness of character that makes one’s course of action clear. This is what makes life so terrifying: if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know what course is our good, so we will inevitably choose evil. To make another film allusion, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, someone asks Dorian Grey what he is, and he answers, “I’m complicated.” This complication is both evidence and source of Dorian’s evil, and he does turn out to be one of the villains of the piece. Both here and in Wilde’s story, Dorian Grey is evil because he chooses to live in that whirlwind of choices, grabbing at every thing presented to him instead of accepting himself and the limitations of being human. Of course he has to put half of himself into something external, like a portrait; from the time Basil paints the picture, Dorian rejects his true human self.

A quick word on nature and multiplicity: Buber doesn’t equate ‘natural’ and ‘good’ the way that I’m doing here. That’s all my own interpretation. He situates our origin in the divine story, created by God, and I situate our origin in the more mundane mechanics of sexual reproduction, created by nature. But I think for the purposes of this discussion the result is the same: Buber and I both find good in being who we were created to be, and evil in denying the person we naturally are. The thing is, moving onto the next topic, that every one of us is created differently, so we each have different goods and evils. It would be evil in me to eat a piece of wheat toast because I would be denying my identity as a person with coeliac disease, but it’s a good decision for people who don’t have my autoimmune response to gluten. It was evil of me to marry a woman because I wasn’t being the gay man that I am, but there are many heterosexual and lesbian marriages that are rooted in good because they are the true expression of the identities of the couple involved. I’m not embracing moral relativism completely – I don’t think the true expression of any person’s identity is to hurt someone else, which is to say that I don’t think there are natural born killers – but I don’t think that any one path, any one faith, any one story, is right for all of humanity. As I say to religious people, If there were only one path to God, we’d all start from the same place. And while Buber is Jewish and speaking from that perspective, he leaves room for other gods and other narratives.

The Iranian myths represent the evil of decision. Remember, we’re speaking of a pre-Islamic Iran, so think of Zoroastrianism. Once upon a time, the highest god, the Wise Lord, began to have doubts, and in his doubt he conceived two primal forces: the one that says Yes, and the one that says No. As before, evil is a turning against oneself. Here, good and evil are equally balanced opposite forces, both of which are contained in or encompassed by the Wise Lord. The second story is of an ancient king, who sought the gods for all sorts of benefits for his kingdom – immortality, prosperity, power to control demons, the standard sort of wish-fulfillment Garden-of-Eden stuff. But after a few hundred years, he forgets the gods’ place in his happiness and he tells himself that he did all this by himself, without divine help. Immediately his power leaves him and he starts a gradual process of isolating himself in evil and eventually being consumed by the demons he had once ruled.

The identical term lie is used in the Vedas, at times, to designate the uncanny game of hide-and-seek in the obscurity of the soul, in which it, the single human soul, evades itself, avoids itself, hides from itself. […] Being-true, however, ultimately signifies: strengthening, covering and confirming being at the point of one’s own existence, and being-false ultimately signifies: weakening, desecrating and dispossessing being at the point of one’s own existence. He who prefers the lie to the truth and chooses it instead of truth, intervenes directly with his decision into the decisions of the world-conflict. But this takes effect in the very first instance at just his point of being: since he gave himself over to the being-lie, that is to non-being, which passes itself off as being, he falls victim to it.

Circling back to my own identity issues, all evil is a form of closet. It’s based in lying to yourself about who you are, rejecting yourself, trying to destroy the person you were made to be (Dorian stabbing his portrait). Because it consists of self-destruction, evil is choosing not to exist. And the evil in me echoes out into the world around me, like ripples in a pond. The good in me also spreads itself around me, which is what makes the world such an interesting compound of good and bad.

What is essential in this second phase is that we aren’t flailing in the vortex of option any more. This sort of evil is related to preference and choice. The question isn’t, Are you living a lie? like it was with the Hebrew myths. The question is, Do you like living a lie? Once you find yourself in a closet, repressing and denying aspects of your real self, do you stay there? Do you hate yourself so much that you prefer living as someone else?

I believe that creation is continuous. We weren’t born fully formed, and we continue to grow and change, to shape our creation, until the day we die. And possibly beyond that. Humans are not static beings; we are in a constant state of becoming. Two good friends of mine have spent this last year splitting up, and as I was talking with one about the decisions the other is making, I mentioned this idea that I don’t think our friend is being careful about who she is becoming. The one present asked why I would phrase it that way, and I couched it in terms of science fiction, multiple dimensions of reality, and Douglas Adams’s Probability Axis, but it comes just as much from my belief of what it means to be human, rooted in philosophy and religion.

I want to create wholeness in my life. I want healing between the parts of me that have been in conflict. I want to be good. I think Buber’s right; goodness starts with a person’s relationship with herself. Buber describes the process of unifying one’s psyche as conversion, and that section about the first book that I wrote on Sunday felt like that type of transformation, as dramatic as coming out of the closet as a gay man. As at any moment when a new field of living opens itself, there’s the vortex of indecision again, but I have a little more self-knowledge than I did as a teenager, so I’m considering fewer options. And I’ve learned how to tell when something is right for me and when it isn’t. Moving forward, I expect to read more religious and philosophical ideas, as I try to understand the shape of my own belief. I may end up worshipping the elephant-faced Ganesh, or I may call down the moon with a local coven, or I may just decide that my religion is kissing trees. But whatever it is, it’s going to be mine, and it’s going to be good for me. I’m not going to internally mock or belittle myself or call myself crazy for believing, and I’m going to do my best to love the me who loves faith.

Reading through the title story, I got the impression that it was meant to stand on its own, but ended up shorter than expected, so this is a collection of five fairy stories. The first four are rather short, but that fifth one is no less delightful.

“The Glass Coffin” is very Grimm-ish, with magical transformations being undone by someone who is kind and simple. “Gode’s Story” is about two young people who fall in love but don’t end up together. I wanted it to turn into a ghost story, because that’s where handsome young sailors who like to dance with snobby rich girls can find happiness, but no. It’s one of those stories about how class pride keeps people apart, and how we can choose to make ourselves and others miserable. In some ways, it’s a warning about love unspoken. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” goes back to the Grimm mythos, but the girl recognizes her position in a story, rebels against it, and makes her own choices. Again, there’s a strong emphasis on kindness, but also on the fact that life isn’t perfect, even in a fairy tale. Even when you know you’re in a fairy tale. It’s also an important reminder to me that we are not ruled by fate; even in the face of certain doom, we make choices and it is our choices that steer our lives, not some impersonal force or omnipotent deity. “Dragon’s Breath” is about destruction and loss, and how the stories of real tragedies can in time become legends and fairy tales.

djinn

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is about a modern woman who finds a djinn. When I say it like that, it sounds like most of the story is about her and the magical creature, but she doesn’t find the djinn until halfway through the story. Byatt studies stories, so she knows how they should be assembled. Finding the djinn isn’t the spark that initiates the action; it’s the story’s crisis, the turning point. It would be more correct to say that this is a story about a modern woman who goes to Turkey to speak at a conference on the nature of stories, and then goes sightseeing with an old friend. It’s about retelling the stories of Chaucer’s Griselda, Scheherazade and Prince Camaralzaman of The Arabian Nights, and The Epic of Gilgamesh. It touches on belief and deities and fertility and superstition. And then halfway through, the djinn comes out of the bottle and changes everything. Not quite everything, really, externally Gillian’s life carries on as normal. He gives her a body she is pleased with and a love that satisfies her, but the real gift is just his existence. She spends her whole life studying stories and becoming trained to draw a boundary between types of stories, so that reality and fantasy don’t mix. But I believe that the fantastic is real, and the djinn’s intrusion into Gillian’s real life breaks down some of the limits she had set on her perception of the world. And the djinn tells stories too, of his life, and she tells stories of her life, so that there is a real proliferation of narratives held within this frame.

Byatt’s collection gives me the feeling that she has so many stories inside of her, but she hasn’t had anything to do with them, so now they’re bursting out in all directions. There’s an excess, a riotousness in the way the narratives burst out of each other, that only makes sense to me in the context of containment. At the same time, she was already well established by the time these stories were published. Two of these stories were part of her novel Possession, so I’m probably misreading some things. The lavish feeling here could come from any number of sources, and I don’t know enough biography to speak authoritatively, and I’m feeling somehow shy about speculating.

This is a great book, as well-written and smart as Byatt’s always are. The stories are adult without being graphic, fantastic without being unreal, true without being factual. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves stories.