Archive for the 'Monumental Metaphor' Category

Jun 15 2014

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Towards a Borgesian Mythos

I want there to be a Borgesian Mythos like there’s a Lovecraftian Mythos. Instead of, even. Lovecraft is worn out. Like Poe. You don’t even need me to enumerate the reasons, you know them. Whereas Borges is still and will I hope forevermore remain the shit. Mirrors, labyrinths, alephs, books, libraries, tigers, dreams, dreamtigers, roses, compass roses and every other easily encapsulated form of the infinite. Knives, swords, hronir, secret cults, the color yellow. Leibniz, Ramón Llull, Schopenhauer, De Quincey, Martín Fierro, Borges (both the fictional Borges and the real one). The Thousand and One Nights. The Quixote.

I said this to some people and they told me I should edit an anthology. That’s too much work. Also, it threatens to undermine the very purpose I’m trying to achieve. What happens when you edit a themed anthology? One of two things. First: it goes away. The original short fiction anthology as self-defeating prophecy. Once was enough, everybody stops caring about the idea and goes on with their tentacle porn. Second: everybody falls in love with it. Fifteen more of the same anthology come out, one from every micropress, until we’re all sick of it the way I’m sick of shoggoths and being asked to redeem that unsavory sociopath whose head is the World Fantasy Award.

(Can I get a bronze Borges head? Maybe I’ll commission one.)

So here’s this blog post instead.

Why isn’t there a Borgesian Mythos? There is–lurking just around the next corner in the library stacks, unassuming, impeccably researched, subtle, wry, brilliant, obscure.Christopher Brown did it hilariously in Strange Horizons. Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño and Mark Danielewski all perpetrate patently Borgesian fictions. One step further away one finds Jedediah Berry, Stephen Millhauser, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. One step closer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Manuel Peyrou.

phobos

And me, yes, I do it. I’ve been trying to write Borgesian fiction for years. Not until lately have I (depending how stringently you’d like to define the term) succeeded. “The Immodest Demiurge Ezra Buckley” appears this week in Phobos Magazine. It’s a story based on a few lines from the postscript to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” I’ll let you go look up. Panel notes where I came up with the idea are here. The title is modeled on a couple of his early “histories”, “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell” in particular. See also “Other Palimpsests” in Bibliotheca Fantastica, maybe my first attempt at Borgesianness, which went through quite a lot of iterations over years before I finally wandered across an enervated, obsessive academic POV ready to lose himself in an aleph-text, a page that is all pages.

bf-full-cover-72

The trouble with proposing a Borgesian Mythos–or of admitting you’ve contributed to one–is now you’ve talked about it. It’s not a secret cult anymore. Point it out and it ceases to be a fictional imposition on consensus reality, a comparative-cultural hronr like all those Borges fanboys in their yellow suits, and instead reverts to a fandom, the usual kind we all have to pick apart until it’s no fun anymore.

So forget what I just said. Forget all of it. This isn’t the blog you’re looking for.

Instead, just read this interview with Borges from 1966. He’s magic! Is there anything he hasn’t read? He’s like a santa claus of literature. Read the whole thing and tell me you don’t want to read about that guy for another couple thousand pages across all forms and genres.

Ready?

INTERVIEWER

You have said that a writer should never be judged by his ideas.

BORGES

No, I don’t think ideas are important.

INTERVIEWER

Well, then, what should he be judged by?

BORGES

He should be judged by the enjoyment he gives and by the emotions one gets. As to ideas, after all it is not very important whether a writer has some political opinion or other because a work will come through despite them, as in the case of Kipling’s Kim. Suppose you consider the idea of the empire of the English—well, in Kim I think the characters one really is fond of are not the English, but many of the Indians, the Mussulmans. I think they’re nicer people. And that’s because he thought them—No! No! Not because he thought them nicer—because he felt them nicer.

Lovecraft never said no such thing, let me tell you.

The defense rests.

Jorge Luis BORGES, Galleria Nazionale, Palermo, 1984

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Nov 02 2012

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Tlön, R’lyeh, Orbis Tertius (Notes for my Bibliofantasies Panel)

Friday 3:00 p.m. Vaughan BIBLIOFANTASIES
Many classics of the fantasy and supernatural revolve around mysterious, exotic, arcane, or potentially threatening books or collections of books. The panel will go beyond the Necronomicon to discuss examples, and the enduring popularity of the trope. Helen Marshall (M), Tina Connolly, Jennifer Crowe, Michael DeLuca, Don Pizarro.

All books are codifications of thought–they take something mutable and subjective and make it fixed and objective. This has vast potential negative consequences; e.g. religious doctrines. Writing anything down is an act of exclusion.

Myth-encodification

  • Book of the Dead, Egyptian, Tibetan
  • Popol Vuh – fascinating example because lost and found again. What happened to the myth in the intervening time? It exploded.
  • Plato’s Phaedrus – A Socratic dialogue wherein Socrates shoots down the written word as lazy and weak.
  • The standardization of the Bible. apocrypha, gospel of Judas
  • Malleus Maleficarum
  • Grimm’s, Mabinogion

Fictional books are a resistance to this process. They restore subjectivity and mutability–at least, until somebody actually tries to write them. Thinking about this conflict leads me to Borges and Lovecraft: Lovecraft because he’s in the panel description, Borges because I’m pretty much always thinking about Borges.

Lovecraft
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” –Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

By which of course he means also the opposite, that terror is founded on the attempt to correlate experience with that which contradicts experience. I really like and am sad that I can’t corroborate the theory (Wikipedia, elsewhere) that Abdul Alhazred’s last name comes from “all has read”, that the Necronomicon is the result of a human being attempt to comprehend everything–or at least, everything that has been written.

Wilbur had with him the priceless but imperfect copy of Dr. Dee’s English version which his grandfather had bequeathed him, and upon receiving access to the Latin copy he at once began to collate the two texts with the aim of discovering a certain passage which would have come on the 751st page of his own defective volume. This much he could not civilly refrain from telling the librarian–the same erudite Henry Armitage (A. M. Miskatonic, Ph. D. Princeton, Litt.D. Johns Hopkins) who had once called at the farm, and who now politely plied him with questions. He was looking, he had to admit, for a kind of formula or incantation containing the frightful name of Yog-Sothoth, and it puzzled him to find discrepancies, duplications, and ambiguities which made the matter of determination far from easy. As he copied the formula he finally chose, Dr. Armitage looked involuntarily over his shoulder at the open pages; the left-hand one of which, in the Latin version, contained such monstrous threats to the peace and sanity of the world.

–Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Borges

“…an enormous circular book with a continuous spine…that cyclical book is God.” –Borges, “The Library of Babel”

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is the fragmentary, subjective history of a conspiracy to create an encyclopedia describing a fictional culture whose establishing principle is subjectivity. It may in fact be an indirect reference or homage to the Necronomicon? Lovecraft died 1937, story first published 1940. And we know Borges read Lovecraft, though he didn’t like him much, because later he wrote “There are More Things”, an acknowledged Lovecraft homage (in reference to which Borges calls Lovecraft “un parodista involuntario de Poe”). And (skipping over Clark Ashton Smith etc) the fan reproductions/insertion of Necronomicon entries in card catalogues etc seems to originate in the 70s, possibly influenced in turn by Borges (or by a secret conspiracy to allow Borges to influence the legacy of Lovecraft)? Cool! Johannes Valentinus Andrea, 17th century philosopher referenced in “Tlön”, “invents” the Rosicrucians in approximately the same way Borges invents the cult of the Necronomicon? Through satire. Hee! And by drawing this silly connection, I am more or less aping the philosophers and literary theorists of Tlön, who “seek not truth, or even plausibility–they seek to amaze, astound.”

Consider, with respect to all this, the old saw that it becomes less scary once you see it. Lovecraft suffers from this–At the Mountains of Madness becomes a story about eldritch cosmic bureaucrats once we learn too much about them. In “The Dunwich Horror” I wish the big slimy whipporwill-tweeting thing would have stayed invisible. Does this mean being in the position of Adbul Alhazred–knowing everything and making the decision to record the most awful part of it (making it the truth?) would actually be, not sublime, not awe-ful, but freaking boring?

Still, for some reason, in this my fourth or fifth time through “Tlön, Uqbar”, I find myself most intrigued by the reclusive Texan millionaire, Ezra Buckley, whose arrogance impels the clandestine society of Tlön to create not a country but a planet, and who ends up being as responsible as anybody in this story for the world’s true history being eclipsed by that of Tlön. I’m kind of itching to write a story about him.

More Fictional Books in Classic Genre

  • Eco – Name of the Rose
  • Alexander – The Book of Three
  • Gaiman – Sandman, Destiny’s book, the Library of Lost Books
  • Ende – The Neverending Story – interesting example, since it at once creates the fictional book and codifies that book, but only partly so. As I interpret it, the second half of the novel breaks out of the bindings of the fictional Neverending Story, though of course not the physical one.

Fictional Books I’ve Read Recently and in the Near Future

  • Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind
  • Gabriela Damian Miravete – “Future Nereid”, in Three Messages and a Warning
  • Me – “Other Palimpsests”, everybody else (or so I presume) in Bibliotheca Fantastica
  • Samatar – A Stranger in Olondria – There’s an ebook coupon for a free sample of this in your WFC swag bags.

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Oct 23 2012

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The Coder

My reading of Benjamin Parzybok‘s excellent story from LCRW 21, “The Coder”, is live today at the Small Beer Press podcast. I worked hard and I’m quite proud of the result–every one of these readings I do, the audio quality and (I flatter myself) the delivery improve–so please go listen if you have time.

I love this story. I’ve been advocating for it to the Small Beer interns for years. It has this wry bizarro/surrealist tone which fits perfectly with the LCRW/Small Beer ethic, writers like Ray Vukcevich, Alan DeNiro and (yes) Kelly Link who are SBP’s bread and butter. It has interesting metafictional/Borgesian undertones, dealing with the influence of archetypal structure on reality; the cycle of life and death still applies, even in the sterile cubicle warrens of a software company. How to describe “The Coder” without giving too much away? To put it like Bob the annoying geek co-worker might: is it like Office Space meets The Matrix? Is it Funes the Memorious plus The Metamorphosis? Maybe. What I can say is that to me, it’s one of those stories that feels like it’s always existed notionally out in the ether, at least since cubicle warrens and coding began, waiting for somebody clever and talented enough to step up and be the medium through which the universe inscribes its processes on human cognition. Like one of those Michelangelo slaves.

Lots of people have tried to write this story, me included. We try, because they tell us “write what you know”, and what we know best–tiny, pathetic tragedy–is mindless corporate monotony. We fail because who cares?

So maybe what impresses me most is its capacity to turn the world’s most boringest occupation, computer programmer, into something mind-blowingly sublime. Sure, there are instances in film and fiction wherein programmers are made to appear awesome–The Matrix, Tron–but it’s not by writing code. Ready Player One and one million works of high anime follow the same path, glossing past the code in favor of what it produces, the virtual. “The Coder” does just the opposite. Nor am I counting all those scenes in all those thrillers where somebody hacks the CIA: I don’t call that sublime, I call it wankery. Okay, there’s that scene in The Social Network where ye sympathetic-ified zeitgeist-personifying supergenius Zuckerberg assembles a software social-dysfunction-demonstrating device to the sound of post-industrial Trent Reznor. That comes close. Maybe some of the Lone Gunmen bits in The X-Files count. Many have tried–I venture to call it a holy grail of latter-day geekdom–but nobody has pulled it off like this.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and to a degree sympathize with the sentiment behind those CODE IS POETRY bumper-stickers. A complex thing well-designed to do its purpose is beautiful, and when it comes to software, it’s only the programmers who get to appreciate that beauty. As opposed to, say, suspension bridge engineering. This story gives non-coders a window on that mindset, a way to understand how code can be poetry.

Let it suffice to say that “The Coder” includes two instances, one a pseudo-JavaScript, the other a pseudo-PHP script, wherein code actually is poetry and fits perfectly into the structure and function of the story, revealing the hidden (terrifying?) truth that underneath, all poetry, all narrative, is code.

Now go listen.

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Nov 02 2009

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Circular Time

In which I digress (much) further about the not-coming apocalypse.

This is long. Sorry. I tried to break it into two parts, but it just wasn’t happening. Thanks in advance for your kind attention.

The Popol Vuh is the Mayan creation myth. The version available to us today was written in secret between the years 1554 and 1558 by three anonymous philosopher-priests of the Maya religion, during the early years of the Spanish occupation of Mexico, when Catholic missionaries under Friar Diego de Landa were systematically destroying all evidence they could find of indigenous religion and culture. In order to preserve it, the authors of the Popol Vuh spirited it away somewhere in the Guatemalan city of Chichicastenango (underneath a Christian altar, perhaps, as was a favorite tactic of the Maya, preserving the old beneath the new) until 1701, when it was discovered, copied, and translated from the original Roman alphabet transliteration of Quiché into Spanish by Francisco Ximenes, another Catholic friar. His copy is the only one that survives today.

All of which is to say that the contents of the Popol Vuh as we know them have been deeply, irrevocably compromised by the influence of a conquering culture. Some evidence mitigating against this has come to light fairly recently: a stucco frieze dating from before 100 BC has been uncovered in the ruined Mayan city of Mirador, which depicts in detail a scene from the Twin Gods cycle of the Popol Vuh myth. That’s some impressive continuity, considering what an incredibly diverse range culture and belief can be seen across mesoamerica—even from one Mayan sacred site to the next. Still, there is a huge gulf of uncertainty in the 1600 years between those two points, and in the 450 years between then and the winter solstice, 2012. And it’s exactly that kind of gulf from which new-agey doomsday conspiracy theories are born.

It used to be that the big source of mystery and wild speculation about the Maya was what happened to them—why, when Cortés and De Soto arrived in the 16th century, they found jungle ruins instead of thriving cities. Where did the builders of these cities go? They were abducted by aliens! They ascended to a higher plane of reality, like those Brahmins who set themselves on fire!

But that part isn’t really a mystery anymore. We know what happened to the Maya: they’re still there, still living in the same jungles, speaking in the same tongues, following the same traditions. What happened to them was the same thing that happened to the American settlers of the southwestern plains states in the 1930s. Their civilization “advanced” so far that it exhausted its natural resources. They used up their water supply through overpopulation and careless irrigation, exhausted the fertility of their soil through overfarming, undermined its stability with too much quarrying and monumental construction. They were living beyond their means. And when the droughts came, they suffered for it. Over the course of generations, they were forced to come to terms with their mistakes, step down off their thrones and the shoulders of their slaves and go back into the jungle, to live the way their ancestors had.

Sound familiar? Maybe it will.

Doesn’t make them sound particularly like the sort of people you’d look to for spiritual wisdom, does it? Let alone the unprecedented understanding of the nature of time and existence that would allow them to prophesy the end of days.

But look at it like this: they’ve already lived through it once. They’ve had the chance to learn from their mistakes the hard way. And they want to pass on what they know, through myth and story, for the next time history repeats itself.

The Popol Vuh opens like the New Testament: with god moving on the face of the waters, and with the Word. Sovereign Plumed Serpent, with the aid of his cronies, the deities of lightning, thunder, the hurricane and the sky, parts the oceans and raises the earth, creates the plants and animals. But this isn’t enough. The gods want to be believed in, worshipped, praised. They need these things. The world needs people to understand and keep the order by which it operates, to observe the patterns and cycles and assign them meaning. So we come to maybe my favorite quote from the Popol Vuh, which appears perennially in the upper left corner of The Mossy Skull as inspirational quote of the season:

“Our recompense is in words.”

— Hurricane, Sudden Thunderbolt, Newborn Thunderbolt and Heart of Sky, upon the creation of humans. The Popol Vuh

But the Maya gods aren’t perfect. It takes them a couple of tries. The current race of humanity, the ones who keep time with a calendar, observe the movements of the heavens, and write stories to explain the things they learn and see, are the third incarnation.

The first humans were made out of mud. They couldn’t do much more than walk and wave their arms and mumble. They weren’t intelligent enough to perceive the actions of the gods, the nature of existence, or to do much of anything at all. So the gods unmade them. The second humans were of wood. They were stronger, smarter, they lived, had families, worked and made tools. But they didn’t worship the gods. They were arrogant and forgetful. The story of their destruction is maybe the closest thing the Popol Vuh has to an apocalypse. The wooden people’s own serving animals and tools, their own houses, even their food rises up against them and overthrows them.

There came a rain of resin from the sky.
There came the one named Gouger of Faces: he gouged out their eyeballs.
There came Sudden Bloodletter: he snapped off their heads.
There came Crunching Jaguar: he ate their flesh.
There came Tearing Jaguar: he tore them open.

This goes on a long time, comprehensively brutal. And the second race of humans ends up as the monkeys in the forest, reduced to jabbering and swinging from the trees, which is where that quote from Dennis Tedlock’s introduction that I posted the other week comes in. I can totally see how it might inspire a CGI explosive doomfest—or, for that matter, an apocalyptic prophecy some people might actually believe.

Which brings me back to December 21st, 2012. The gods create the third race of humans out of corn. Those humans do remember to honor the gods and keep their calendar. And they keep it up until the present day. The Mayan people are still living in the jungle, as humble, poor and wise as they’ve been since they stepped down off their thrones back in the year 600. And meanwhile, a new “advanced” civilization has sprung up around them, and has already begun to desperately backpedal as they try to avoid screwing up their resources so badly that they too have to give up their iPhones and cheap Chinese imports and go back to the jungle. The current administration of Guatemala is allowing industry and uncontrolled population growth to pour waste matter into Lake Atitlan, a sacred Maya pilgrimage site mentioned in the Popol Vuh as one of the four corners of the Maya world, causing an algae buildup that, unless they stop, will kill off every other living thing in its waters and no doubt cause havoc for the kickass sunken Mayan temple residing on the lake bottom. The modern Maya are getting kicked off their land to make way for American nickel mining. I could go on. Logging in the Amazon. Individually-wrapped toothpicks. Toilet paper made from old growth trees. I am inclined to go on. But I’d rather you read the rest of this and not be driven away by my angry. You’ve heard it all before.

You’ve heard it all before.

“Circular Time” is the title of a 1941 essay by Jorge Luis Borges, in which, in three and a half fanciful, impeccably researched pages, he outlines the history of ancient and modern Western culture’s interaction with the notion that history repeats itself. Starting with Plato:

…who, in the thirty-ninth paragraph of the Timaeus, claims that once their diverse velocities have achieved an equilibrium, the seven planets will return to their initial point of departure in a cycle that constitutes the perfect year.

The Mayan calendar follows a similar logic. Using the orbital periods of Venus, Mars, the sun, moon and stars, their ritual and secular year consisted of a set of interlocking cycles—one 20 days long, another 260, another 365. I’m not going to get into the math, you can go read about that elsewhere. It’s enough to say that when all these cycles are fitted together, they generate one enormously big circle of time. Represented in the modified base-20 of the Mayan reckoning (with the dots between numbers representing a decimal place), day one, year one of the current 5,125-year cycle, which fell on August 6th, 3114 BC in the Julian calendar, is represented 13.0.0.0.0. And December 21st, 2012, the last day of the last year in that cycle, is represented 12.19.13.19.19. I think. Look it up. On December 22nd, it will be 13.0.0.0.0 again.

However—even though the Long Count, as it’s called, only uses five decimal places, the Mayan calendar is actually designed to account for a much, much longer span of time: something like 26,000 years, the orbital period of the star grouping we refer to as the Pleiades, which the Maya refer to as the Four Hundred Boys, whose gruesome death in the Popol Vuh marks the final event before the first rising of the moon and sun.

In other words, the calendar doesn’t end on December 21st, 2012. It just resets. Time starts over at the beginning—the same way it does for us Westerners every calendar year on January 1st, only on a far larger scale. Looking at it that way, the 2012 prophecy starts to bear a resemblance to the Y2K prophecy. Two thousand years since the birth of Jesus! Shit! The antichrist! The whore of Babylon! Big ole computer glitches! As we know, that prophecy went out with something of a whimper.

But these things are all metaphorical—that’s what the 2012 doomsayers don’t seem to get. If we can find a meaning in these myths and apply them to the stories of our own lives, why not? That’s what myths are for. The world didn’t end in the year 2000, but in a sense, it was reborn. The world is reborn every year, and every moment for that matter. The present renews itself eternally, and we’re reliving the past all the time, starting over from scratch. Death doesn’t change, and neither does birth. Perception doesn’t change. Time doesn’t change. Yet everything is changing all the time.

So what will happen when time resets itself in 2012? Maybe our tools and food, our fossil fuels and copyrighted corn will rise up and overthrow us, as they did to the wooden humans, and Sovereign Plumed Serpent and his cronies the Hurricane will create a fourth iteration of humanity, a further refinement on the flawed mold of the third. Or maybe there won’t be a need. Maybe we’ll have learned from the warnings of our predecessors, handed down to us in the form of myth and ruined cities overgrown with jungle, listened to the ticking of the universe’s clock, marked the time, and understood that we needed to change.

But it won’t happen with a bang, nor with a billion dollars’ worth of CGI destruction. It’ll happen over generations, just like it did the last time, and the time before that.

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