Archive for May, 2015

It is incredibly difficult for me to judge this book accurately, on its own merits. Originally published fifty years ago, it and others of its type have been so influential that I don’t know if it was new and groundbreaking at the time or run-of-the-mill. Reading it now, it seems fairly unremarkable, a sci-fi/fantasy journey story like many, many others. The writing is better, but plot and character are kind of normal.

One thing that sets this story apart is the blending of science fiction and fantasy. Libraries and bookstores tend to lump these two categories together, but their authors generally keep them distinct. I think it’s Piers Anthony who goes so far as to say that magic and science can’t coexist in the same world. But here, the two collide, sometimes quite literally. Rocannon journeys through an imagined world where all the animals have wings, and there are multiple species of self-aware, speaking beings. One group is small and telepathic, the other is average-human-sized. They fly around on winged battle cats, which are kind of amazing. Personally, I can’t really imagine anyone riding a cat of any sort for more than a few seconds. Rocannon is traveling to investigate reports of weird things in the sky. The enterprising reader will recognize them as helicopters. Some rebels from a different planet have landed down in the southern hemisphere, and are trying to use their techno-savvy to take over the entire world. We don’t see a whole lot of these guys because they’re the goal of Rocannon’s voyage of discovery, but still, the collision of sci-fi and fantasy is interesting to see. And sad, because if you’re on a flying battle cat you really shouldn’t ram a helicopter.

From the right, from the chasm of air and cloud, shot a gray winged beast ridden by a man who shouted in a voice like a high, triumphant laugh. One beat of the wide gray wings drove steed and rider forward straight against the hovering machine, full speed, head on. There was a tearing sound like the edge of a great scream, and then the air was empty.

The two on the cliff crouched staring. No sound came up from below. Clouds wreathed and drifted across the abyss.

“Mogien!”

Rocannon cried the name aloud. There was no answer. There was only pain, and fear, and silence.

And here, toward the end, we see the themes for which Ursula Le Guin has distinguished herself: the rejection of technocratic warmongering, the passionate pacifism, and the compassionate value for all forms of life, both human and nonhuman. Rocannon learns to communicate telepathically, and he uses that power to defeat the rebels, but when he hears all their minds fall silent at once, it unmans him and he ends his days in Byronic isolation, like Obi-wan Kenobi meets The Giaour.

Rocannon’s World is perched at the very beginning of a remarkable career. It began as the short story “Semley’s Necklace,” to be found in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which is now the prologue. In a few years Le Guin will publish The Left Hand of Darkness and pull away from the pack of run-of-the-mill genre writers. Her books are somewhat easy to find in new bookstores but difficult to locate in used shops, which indicates the high quality of her body of work. This one both fitly represents its moment in literary history and looks to the future, to its author’s shining career, to her novels and collections that touch hearts, win awards, and sell millions of copies.

I read once that a writer is “a reader moved to emulation.” There is no writer who stirs me to write like A. S. Byatt. This is not to say that I have her skill with language, but simply that I wish I had. Her descriptions are lovely; reading her is like resting in a pool, feeling yourself borne along floating, but only temporarily, only so long as you keep very still, because with the slightest movement you will sink or be forced to swim.

The stories in this collection are only partially, and usually only metaphorically, about fire and ice. Water and light are more common. Beyond these elements, though, these are stories about stories, and story-telling. In them ancient myths come back to life. Visual art plays an important role as well. They’re also stories about foreign travel and therefore crossing boundaries between the familiar and the unknown, the uncanny finding of things known in unfamiliar settings.

CROCODILE TEARS

A married couple has a little tiff in a London art gallery over some kitschy piece of shit that the husband wants to buy; a few minutes later he drops dead. She leaves, goes home, packs a few things, and takes a train to France. She does what she can to elude detection, and ends up in Nimes. Not for the bullfighting, but just because that’s where she ended up. She spends her time avoiding the things that (as a tourist) she ought to do. She meets a Norwegian gentleman whom she does not fall in love with; she gets rather irritated when he keeps saving her from suicidal accidents. He tells her the old Norse story of The Companion, a man who was frozen in the ice and then mystically aided his thaw-er to achieve his goals. Eventually she softens toward him, and they decide that together they can face the traumas and responsibilities they are each running away from.

A LAMIA IN THE CÉVENNES

An English painter moves to France and installs an outdoor swimming pool. He’s captivated by the shade of blue that results from the interaction of the tile with the water. There are some chemical problems with the pool, so he has it drained and refilled from the river. Wouldn’t you know it, a giant snake gets into the pool with the river water. It’s the Lamia from the Keats poem; if he kisses her, she’ll become a woman and make all his dreams come true. But he doesn’t want a woman, he wants the colors that shine and iridesce all over the snake body. He strings her along until a houseguest takes her bait.

COLD

While I love her realistic stories, no one can write a fairy tale like A. S. Byatt.

Princesses, also, are expected to marry. They are expected to marry for dynastic reasons, to cement an alliance, to placate a powerful rival, to bear royal heirs. They are, in the old stories, gifts and rewards, handed over by their loving fathers to heroes and adventurers who must undergo trials, or save people. It would appear, Fiammarosa had thought as a young girl, reading both histories and wonder tales, that princesses are commodities. But also, in the same histories and tales, it can be seen that this is not so. Princesses are captious and clever choosers. They tempt and test their suitors, they sit like spiders inside walls adorned with the skulls of the unsuccessful, they require superhuman feats of strength and cunning from their suitors, and are not above helping out, or weeping over, those who appeal to their hearts. They follow their chosen lovers through rough deserts, and ocean tempests, they ride on the wings of the north wind and enlist the help of ants and eagles, trout and mice, hares and ducks, to rescue these suddenly helpless husbands from the clutches of scheming witches, or ogre-kings. They do have, in real life, the power to reject and some power to choose. They are wooed. She had considered her own cold heart in this context and had thought that she would do better, ideally, to remain unmarried. She was too happy alone to make a good bride. She could not think out a course of action entirely but had vaguely decided upon a course of prevarication and intimidation, if suitors presented themselves. For their own sakes, as much as for her own.

A genuine ice princess falls in love with a man of fire. She’s initially captivated by his glasswork, and my heart ached for her because even in the gift-sending stage of things it’s clear that his nature is wholly different from hers. They each find beauty in otherness, and they find ways to make it work.

BAGLADY

While it seems realistic at the beginning, this story takes on a fairy-tale quality as well. A woman gets lost in an Asian shopping mall. Maybe less fairy tale and more urban legend, but maybe these two types of story are not so different. When I went to New York, my friends warned me not to go out drinking late or go home with strange men because I don’t want to wake up in a bathtub full of ice with no kidneys; just like German parents used to tell their children about Little Red Riding Hood to keep them away from going into the woods alone.

JAEL

So, you know the story from the Old Testament. Israel is in bondage (again), and under Deborah’s direction, they go to war against their oppressors. The leader of the enemy army, Sisera, runs into the Hebrew camp and asks a woman to hide him. She treats him nicely, gives him dinner and a place to rest. While he’s sleeping, she nails his head to the ground. Byatt uses this to talk about gratuitous betrayal – unexpected, purposeless betrayal. A woman remembers being in school, when she lived on the peripheries of a couple of rival gangs (1960s-ish white-girl gangs, so don’t think of Baltimore or Detroit). She also talks about her current life designing advertisements for fruit drinks. She always incorporates classical themes, from the Bible or Greek mythology, and the younger set don’t understand. One of the younger women is working at betraying her, so it’s kind of a vicious circle. If I were more misogynistic than I am, I’d say that this story shows how all women are like this, but I don’t actually see it that way. I have very good friends who are women, and they aren’t vile betrayers.

CHRIST IN THE HOUSE OF MARTHA AND MARY

And, from the New Testament, Mary and Martha. Someone summarizes the story from the Bible, but the narrative is more about the painting than the Bible. The Velazquez painting, with the same name as the story. I’m used to hearing it as the story of Mary and Martha, I guess since the final –y of Mary elides more effectively with the following and than the final –a of Martha; I don’t say it Marthanmary, there’s always a glottal stop between Martha | and. Nevertheless, I like putting Martha first; she gets the short end of the stick all the time, but if we all just sat at Jesus’ feet waiting for him to multiply loaves and fishes no one would ever get any dinner. Maybe Mary was clumsy or a bad cook, so listening was a better task for her than serving and cooking. It always seems to me that there must be more to the situation than we get in the Scripture. Some people are active, some are contemplative, and some are both; to me, the bad thing is to go against one’s own nature, not to be careful with the housework. So Byatt describes an angry, rebellious cook (aptly named Dolores) who meets a painter who visits the house where she works. He does beautiful things with light on still life, and even when he makes a painting of her she notices first the fish, eggs, and garlic.

I know that there are some people who will object to my associating the Bible with myths and poetry; well, that’s what it is. They’re Hebrew myths. Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah: the people of Sodom commit an offense against the laws of hospitality; some Biblical writers who interpret this story say that the reason God sent the angels was that the people didn’t take care of the poor; the Qur’an and the New Testament writers (who lived two or three thousand years after the event) say that it was a cautionary tale against homosexuality; the Gay Church movement insists that the story is about gang rape. These stories might be moralistic, but they’re also malleable. The important thing about Scripture, as with myth, is not whether these stories literally happened; the important thing is how we respond to them, what they say about human nature, and how these stories impact the way we live our lives. In this sense, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Spock can be as important as Ehud and the disgustingly fat Moabite king. Stories – myths, legends, poems, scripture, novels, jokes, anecdotes, fairy tales, television programmes – even more than fire and ice, quicksilver and brimstone, or fire water wood air metal, are the elements that compose our lives. We are the stories that we believe, that we live, that we love.

 

I ran across this little book in my critical reading on Gothic fiction; otherwise, I’m not sure I would have purchased it. It’s the sort of book one can borrow from a library. I mean, far be it from me to discourage the buying of books, but really. Library.

Vathek is like a mixture of Johnson’s Rasselas and Lewis’s The Monk. From Johnson, we have a stylized version of the Middle East with a strongly allegorical feel. It’s the type of writing that makes Edward Said rub his hands together with glee as he prepares to rip a new asshole for authors who have been dead for two hundred years. It’s a weird mixture of Biblical imagery with stereotypes about Muslims and a smattering of the world familiar to northern Europeans in the late eighteenth century. From Lewis, we have the plot: a religious leader turns to the Dark Side, deceiving everyone so they believe he continues in undisturbed piety while he pursues Satanic practices right up to the bitter end, when he’s been abandoned by the devil to suffer for eternity. Since there’s a hundred pages of wickedness for five pages of punishment, you get the impression that he’s jealous of the protagonist’s downward slope, and the final hellfire is more of a sop to the religious readers than an ineluctable conclusion.

As is to be expected from a book written in the 1780s, there’s some unnecessary, vicious misogyny:

This Princess was so far from being influenced by scruples, that she was as wicked, as woman could be; which is not saying a little; for the sex pique themselves on their superiority, in every competition.

And for most of the book, that’s the most memorable passage. There’s some unnecessary, vicious racism too, but that’s kind of bound up in the misogyny, as people of darker skin are represented by fierce negresses, mutes who delight in graphic violence and torture. There are no chapter breaks, so we just rush from one ridiculously excessive evil to the next, right up to the end.

The Caliph and Nouronihar remained in the most abject affliction. Their tears were unable to flow, and scarcely could they support themselves. At length, taking each other, despondingly, by the hand, they went faltering from this fatal hall; indifferent which way they turned their steps. Every portal opened at their approach. The dives fell prostrate before them. Every reservoir of riches was disclosed to their view: but they no longer felt the incentives of curiosity, of pride, or avarice. With like apathy they heard the chorus of Genii, and saw the stately banquets prepared to regale them. They went wandering on, from chamber to chamber; hall to hall; and gallery to gallery; all without bounds or limit; all distinguishable by the same louring gloom; all adorned with the same awful grandeur; all traversed by persons in search of repose and consolation; but, who sought them in vain; for every one carried within him a heart tormented in flames. Shunned by these various sufferers, who seemed by their looks to be upbraiding the partners of their guilt, they withdrew from them to wait, in direful suspense, the moment which should render them to each other the like objects of terror.

In my opinion, this is the moment of their supreme suffering. Once they choose to separate from each other, it’s done and over with; you can move on from that. But when you can figuratively see the axe suspended over your head, waiting for it to drop . . . the anticipation of suffering makes it more poignant than the suffering itself. Which is the moral of the story:

Such was, and such should be, the punishment of unrestrained passions and atrocious deeds! Such shall be, the chastisement, of that blind curiosity, which would transgress those bounds the wisdom of the Creator has prescribed to human knowledge; and such the dreadful disappointment of that restless ambition, which, aiming at discoveries reserved for beings of a supernatural order, perceives not, through its infatuated pride, that the condition of man upon earth is to be – humble and ignorant.

I’ve never been comfortable with ignorance. Humility is fine, but ignorance is not. I’ve always wanted to know and experience everything; it’s only recently that I’ve begun to accept that some places I will never visit, some things I will never live through. Like Japan. I have no real desire to go to Japan. I have nothing against it, I’m sure you’re a lovely country with delightful people, beautiful fruit trees and sublime mountains – but there’s no strong pull. I’d like to know France and the United Kingdom a little better than I do, and my heart is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but other than that, it’s people I want to visit, not places. Besides, I’m a teacher; my life has been dedicated to ending ignorance. It’s not the preordained preferred state of humanity. It’s an evil in itself.

As you can imagine, I’m not really fond of the place of reward, either:

He admitted without fear the congratulations of his little friends, who were all assembled in the nest of the venerable genius, and vied with each other in kissing his serene forehead and beautiful eye-lids. – Remote from the inquietudes of the world; the impertinence of harems, the brutality of eunuchs, and the inconstancy of women; there he found a place truly congenial to the delights of his soul. In this peaceable society his days, months, and years glided on; nor was he less happy than the rest of his companions: for the genius, instead of burthening his pupils with perishable riches and vain sciences, conferred upon them the boon of perpetual childhood.

I’m all for a heaven that is populated by handsome, affectionate young men, but for God’s sake, let them grow up and pass through puberty. Perpetual childhood is less a boon than a curse. But then again, I suppose not everyone has my inner drive toward maturity and responsibility. Not that I’m great at those qualities, but I value them immensely, and I tend to value myself in the same degree that I reflect them.

So. A couple of weeks ago I was feeling lonely so I went to the local branch of the church I grew up in. Last week I didn’t go, so a couple of guys came out to the house to talk with me. They tried talking me into becoming a regular church-goer again, but without much success. I don’t like being called names, and saying that it’s arrogant for anyone to think he can understand God when you think that’s what I’m doing is name-calling. I suppose there’s some arrogance in my attitude, but I don’t think that’s the biggest problem. You see, I’ve got some religious books, including the Holy books of Christianity and Islam, and I think about reading them sometimes, but I don’t think they’ll fix my problem. Religious writers tend to try one of two things: convince people that God/Jesus/Muhammad really is who/what they claim, or teach people how to respond to this belief/fact. They always, always assume that to believe in God is to love Him. As I meditate on my own feelings, I think I do believe in God – that’s not the problem. The problem is, I hate him. I try to be a good person; I love people, I love the world I find myself in. My only problem is with God. I really fucking hate him. I think this sort of hatred and anger are toxic, and I don’t want them inside me, but there they are. I think about the ways that I’ve always been taught to overcome hatred, and they don’t make sense in this context. “Let God into your heart” – not helpful when it’s God you hate. “Pray for them and try to make their lives better” – not helpful when it’s God. That’s part of the whole omnipotent gig: God doesn’t need anything, least of all the good wishes of an obscure English teacher in the Midwest. Isn’t it a greater form of arrogance to assume that the all-powerful creator of the universe needs anything I can do for him? “Just forgive and forget” – like it’s easy under normal circumstances, much less when I contemplate the suffering of someone I love. What did the ex ever do to him? She just loved and worshipped him for her whole life, and he gave her a gay husband and then a divorce just when she was finally relenting and becoming Roman Catholic. How cruel is that? I object to being made the instrument of someone else’s suffering, so I suppose this is really about me. Regardless of the precise things I’m angry about, I have this boiling rage that I keep pushed down in public, but if I think about God or praying it rises up and makes itself known. [My recent prayer life: Dear God, FUCK YOU.] I want to be rid of it, but I don’t know how. I’m open to suggestions, particularly if they come with book recommendations.

But, um, Vathek. It’s short; it’s not really substantial; it’s offensive; it’s blatantly moralistic and simplistic. If you just love the eighteenth century, go right ahead; otherwise, find something else. You’ll be happier with just about anything else.

Update on the God-hating thing: I sat down with a friend (M.Div, eastern European mission experience) to talk it over, and while I didn’t get a lot of direct benefit from what he said, it was good to say these things out loud. In talking about it, I came to a little epiphany; you see, unless there’s a clear case of injustice, anger is about what’s inside me instead of what’s around me. The problem isn’t with God, it’s with me. I am not grateful for the life I’ve been given. I love my friends and family; I love the earth, particularly in the spring; I even like myself – I’m a handsome, intelligent man, inclined to be serious and silent but still worth knowing. It’s my place in the world that I object to. I dislike my role, not my character. I don’t like the way that I’ve hurt people (not just the ex) by being honest about myself. Life, specifically my life, is a parade of unrelenting suffering, and no amount of alleviating the suffering of others has changed that. I turn an optimistically blind eye to it most of the time, but deep down there is a pain that never ends, a black bitterness unrelieved by the transient joys of social intercourse or woodland hikes. I push it down so much that it seldom surfaces directly; it comes out in these tortured, sublimated ways, like the whole I-hate-God thing. My acupuncturist friend once labeled it grief, and we did a series of emotional healing treatments to set it to rest. That was five years ago, so I guess it’s time for another go-round. He’s getting out of acupuncture, though, and he lives too far away for me to be treated there anyway, so I need to find a different solution.