Minutes at Ragnarok

Something silly to get back in to the swing of things.

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Would you yet know what they say?

Gold tooth there spoke
Called things to be
Asked each in turn
To give their share

First then was dancer,
Enthroned in lightning,
From the higher place he spoke
Of ranging field and far
There to bring our wisdom
As we returned wing-brother to our fold
Could and would and must do
Then of further flight
The curve of time
The dancer sang no more

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Would you know yet of what they say?

The huge, the ender
The caller of reserve
Cutter of those ties that bind
Come from the healer’s cave
Warned of a rising tide
Near great as any yet seen
Numbers he tumbled forth
Like jewels
He could not stay
For the healer’s cave
Had need of he to be away

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
You would hear the things they say?

Quick, the fast,
Though earthbound be his heel
He spoke of the stretch of time
And the back and forth
Of the names drawn from names
And of how this could be done
He was done but not finished

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Are you listening to what they say?

From the enders lair
Had the light raiser snatched
Some orderly serpents
Of what more she spoke
Was the three way war
Of names raised up
Only to be cast aside
Ender’s pupil, she likewise
Scattered diamonds

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Are you still listening to what they say?

Barrow mender, the sick watcher
Of her plight Goldtooth knew well
Many doors they had opened
Many names had been set howling
They saw the rising hump
Of many many more raised up on
The back of the new beast
And this more she spoke of
Of those hoarding things they should not
And of locks needing breaking

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Do you know the things they say?

Fighter, fist maker, fresh name
Of her battles we know much
Of those yet to come we know more
Her tale is short for now
But victorious

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Listen well to the things they say

The hammerer then came among them
To speak of those who range high
Enthroned in lightning
The storms has parted
Only to show a greater storm
And then the clouds behind needed tending
All this, the hammerer would do
As dancer stands by

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Would you yet know of what they say?

Coins then to change
Spent wisely
Watch closely
Quick ones variable
And the work of the one away
To record the names of names
As they pass through the gate

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Listen now to what words say

Gold tooth brought the end
Reminding that the end was well neigh
And the time of judgement loomed
And as hammerer and dancer looked at sky
A time of change, the quick, decreed
A time of judgement, said gold tooth
And remember to set your breath in jars

And so the circle broke
And the three across three
And one away
Set apart
Until the Black Horse rides
Or so they say.

Naming as Narrative Architecture

For the longest time I believe I was a bit of a snob about consistent naming styles (and I probably remain so). One of the things that I do while writing, not necessarily as to begin with but certainly before finishing, is to settle on a consistent naming style. Naming conventions are an element of the larger intertextual dialogue that texts take part in. Particular naming styles can be used, alluded to, or subverted in relation to the assumptions of your audience. At least on an initial survey, the tendency to ‘melting pot’ names is a modern one, perhaps art imitating life imitating art. I am drawn to consider the popular 90s TV show ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ The titular character was conceived to place on its head the Hollywood cliché of the blonde damsel; the subversion of naming is right at the heart of the shot. This logic applies to other characters in the show. Consider Alexander, whose name comes from the near-legendary Greek general, asserts an identity as ‘Xander, an intentionally hip alternative to Alex, but that he fails to live up to the expectations of either of these identities. Angel is initially introduced to us as something to be suspicious of, an appropriate direction for a feminist identifying narrative when faced with a linguistic artefact of Christianity; we are reassured that Angel is ‘on the level’ only to have our original suspicion validated when Angel ‘goes evil’ and becomes ‘Angellus.’ The characters of Buffy are fluid in their naming, both in asserting alternative identities, and how those names describe them. We should be as dubious of what their names tell us of them as what the characters identify as. Spike, for example, creates an identity with which to obscure his earlier shame and humiliations, to try and make of himself a monster so that no-one can probe at the man. Interestingly, it is overwhelmingly the male characters who try and assert a variable name for themselves, whereas, along with Buffy, Faith and Willow struggle to live inside the names they are given. However, to have these assumptions to be subverted, they have to exist in a context that is comprehensible, even though Buffy, Faith & Alexander (for example) are all drawn from different conventions even though they share a context in modern, suburban America; we cannot separate them from their pre-modern or modern environments.

There’s something almost Campbellian in the way we deal with names and mythologies; the particular allusions in names become inscribed and reinscribed upon the cultural consensus so that a name becomes almost an act of cultural exchange from prior cultures. In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, many of the major characters are drawn from the traditional cultures of pre-modern societies. Wednesday is a prime example of this, the deployment of archaic notions in a modern idiom. Wednesday is an ‘Americanised’ Odin, the Norse god of wisdom, the sky and self-harm. Yet we are also tipped off by the peculiarities of his name that this fellow is not quite Odin; this alludes to the long con that he is playing. This is not restricted to just Wednesday. Consider Shadow, who begins as a man on the outside, fresh out of prison, with no ties. A former criminal, he exists in the shadows of one world before translating to another set of shadows. Yet as the books, we come to see that his vary existence is a ploy of Wednesday’s, shadow puppetry to distract from Wednesday and Lye Smith’s actual game. American Gods uses a magpie aesthetic, drawing together mythic figures and urban legendry into a compelling narrative, each player hinted at but never fully revealed as some figure from myth or legend – ‘Mr Nancy’ ‘Easter’ and other figures named and collated from around the world. In addition to being a textual representation of the American ‘melting-pot’, this is very much in the spirit of ‘free-play’ that Derrida describes as a postmodern characteristic.

While names used can come from & reconstitute a mythology, the characters nor subject have to be mythical. I am currently (still?) reading Moby Dick, a name that itself has entered common usage as a sort of ponderous beast of Victoriana. The book is identified as a foundational text of the American Modernist style, a seminal Great American novel, meditating on the mundane and the extraordinary side by side. The narrator Ishmael and Captain Ahab, along with Elijah & the two captains both evoke a Biblical tone, recalling us implicitly as the text explicitly refers to the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale; the story is itself almost the revelation of a whaling man, taking us out to a world of strange, earthly wonder. Yet away from the shore, from the familiarities of an order that is bound up in familiar frameworks, the other characters – Tashtego & Queequeg alongside Pip & Stubb – imbue the vessel with an otherworldly character, a foreigner even to its home, inhabited by the occupiers of liminal spaces. As with America in American Gods, the Pequod is a melting pot that, at times, is near boiling. Contrast the sensual, loving affection between Ishmael and Queequeg and the reminder of Pip’s status in Stubb’s eyes. The characters are bound in hierarchies that are informed and reinforced by their names; Pip is part of the ship but valueless, Fedallah is hated for his ‘fire-worshipping’ but untouchable for all his otherness. Even though we can assume that readers might not be able to identify the origin of the ‘foreign’ names in Moby Dick, it is the use early on of those sometimes Judeo-Christian names that allows the sometimes fictional (in Queequeg’s case) characters to signify the strangeness of the world aboard the Pequod. The existence of the characters as people acts as a negation of the ‘normalcy’ offered by Ishmael.

Turn to the titular character of Dracula, whose name evokes Victorian fears of the foreigner, the lascivious easterner of ravenous and dubious sexual appetite across from the Jonathans, Lucys and Minas. Then consider the position of Abraham Van Helsing, the redoubtable (Protestant) Dutchman come to restore sanity and rationality in the face of exotic eastern mysticism. It might be easy to consider that this name-play is a post/modern affectation, something novel in execution and kind, and indeed post-modernism does lay came (I think incorrectly) to the juxtaposition of sources and knowing transgression of the text/reader boundary. This sort of hybridity in texts goes back to the earliest texts; consider the henotheistic syncretism of the Roman Empire whereby local Gods would be associated with the greater Roman pantheon; a habit they picked up from the Greek’s & earlier traditions. Greek literature frequently appropriated characters by other writers & from mythological sources to lend it greater weight with the audience. In Medea, the story of the titular character as well as Jason from the Argonika is examined. It has been argued that Euripides intention was to present a sympathetic telling of Medea and her fate, and by extension the position of women in Athens; using the names of characters the audience would be familiar with allows the assertion and subversion of the classical Heroic figure of Jason. As the audience could be assumed to already know Jason, his name allows for certain expectations that can be played upon; in this case that of an irresponsible man in contrast to Medea’s foreign godliness. Interestingly, Creon of Corinth shares a name (though not an identity) with Creon of Thebes, from Sophocles work. Whether historical or not, Creon the name comes to be associated with kingship that later writers like Chaucer in The Knight’s Tale would play on it to tell stories in their own idiom.

Portrait of the Author as a Cannibal

Anyone who pretends to authorial ambition, will at some point be posed the question “where do you get your ideas from?” and the related but separate question “do you ever use people you know [for inspiration]?” The answers (“Everywhere” and “Not really”) that I give are usually politely received but, I get the impression, found faintly unsatisfactory. An idea, a conceptual reference really, has struck me that might prove useful in future discussions.

In previous posts I have mentioned that I tend to think of culture – as in the material and intellectual artefacts attached to and representing our society – as an ongoing reproduction of itself. That is to say that anything we make is caused by the things that others have made before us, and our makings will go on to spur the production of others. This is pretty common thinking, though less pervasive than the idea of the inspired creative genius which retains a dominant position when people thing of ‘the artist.’ It (writer as manifestation/nexus of cultural events) is developed of a materialistic understanding of the universe, that nothing exists outside of it and all things come from within it, and a Wittgensteinian idea of how we engage with objects in language. Inspiration is a natural outgrowth of the interplay of cultural and linguistic forces that just happen to locate themselves in the nodality of ‘the artist.’

This whole process is so massively complex it beggars ready comprehension; the explanation I have given above is heavily slanted in a Marxist interpretation that even Marx backed away from. Whither true inspiration in this model? As with Marx, I will throw up my hands and say “don’t know.” Creation is not an unconscious or passive process though; even ‘bolts from the blue’ are changed in the very act of definition, and these changes are environmentally determined as part of the cultural continuum. Iterations are not simply one-way; it does not describe progress, there is no linear manifestation of up and onward to a bolder future where what came before is better (or worse) than what preceded it. The most useful image I can think of to describe this is cell division and mutation. One cell, two cell, four cell and on and on. And that is still a bad example because cells don’t ‘talk’ to each other in the way that culture does; imagine if cell sixty-two could communicate with cell four and cause it to change all duplications it iterates out in future, so it creates cells 5b, 6b and so on and so on.

The particular node that is the author, that is me, must then recognise that ideas that emerge are spurred from somewhere in the world around him. Even things that seem unreal (weird underworld immortalists) come from somewhere else; it’s often only the easy stuff (Paris catacombs!) that one can put their finger on as direct inspiration. Underpinning everything I write (and you, even if you don’t consider what you write to be writing) is all the experience and events in your life filtered through each experience and event, as well as every bit of information and rumour, that has ever nestled in your mind. It’s perhaps less romantic than wondering in the wind with my cravat a fluttering, but it is more interesting to think about both for me and for others. It also means that there could, and probably is, more going on in any artistic production than even the creator can give credit for.

As for using people in fiction, that’s where the cannibalism comes in to it. The author, or the fiction writer, has been described of as ‘a voyeur’ someone who watches humans in order to reproduce it. I prefer (for certain values of preference) cannibal because the author is interested in human experience, but not just in serving as a lens for it. An author cannot chose a reader’s response to a text, but they do control what is experienced. Words they use, things they show and do not, subject matter, characters etc. etc.

Cannibalising (figurative) parts of people is what I think of when I consider the second question, do I use people I know in my writing. As I wrote above, the answer is mostly no. However, to write about humans, one needs know humans to create a believable facsimile thereof. It is not to say that I use a whole person, just parts of them. It can be big, like someone’s description of a belief system. More often it is small, the way of laughing, memories of moments that crystallise around an expression; hurt and happiness that an author feels but more importantly sees in others.

I think it is important to understand these things in one’s self to see where the ideas come from and have a necessary critical reflex to them. It isn’t enough that I just regurgitate what has come before, but that I am able to examine and refine it. To risk malapropism, my writing is what I eat. When I am writing, I draw from first- and second-hand experiences that I have had and reapply them. This isn’t an immediate action; I can only use things I have already processed and broken down within my mind; cognitively digesting and breaking them down.

The writer, then, exists at a confluence between the over-arching cultural narratives and logics in which they exist, and the complementing and contradicting parts of their own experience that illustrate or challenge or otherwise interface with that culture to create more of it. The reader becomes a second-party to the psychic cannibalisation (as they consume the author’s production but do not take part in the choosing of the parts, so to speak). It isn’t merely desperation and mad hunger but instead a cannibal taking in things as a continuation, part of an unbroken chain connecting to a sometimes messy web stretching out in infinite directions.

A Long Walk to Nowhere

This week I went to London for a job interview with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. While I was in the capital I stayed with a friend from my old job. While there, she introduced me to a TV program called Castle, which stars Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle, a thriller writer who gets involved with a genuine murder case as a result of it taking inspiration from his writing. It was the pilot episode of the series, and Fillion was in the role of a wise-cracker to the ‘straight-man’ of Stana Katic but overall I enjoyed it. There was one segment that stood out to me though, where Castle is unsatisfied with the identity of the killer and goes on to crack the case because ‘the reader wouldn’t buy it.’ An adage that is perhaps too often wheeled out is that ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ It is no consequence in the real world whether anyone believe something happened, because it happened. Except, that isn’t the case. Humans are creatures of narrative logic. We like things to make sense and, more importantly, we have a drive to make sense of the things that happen to and around us (There is an excellent section in China Mieville’s ‘Embassytown’ that goes in to this, and I had the opportunity to ask him about years ago).

On the train to and from London I had the opportunity to do some reading: “Murder in Ancient China: Two Judge Dee mysteries” and “Nelson Mandela: A Life Reported” two very different sort of books. The stories in Judge Dee follow the formula for a mystery which is first revealed with a simple answer, then a more complex one that ties many threads together and creating a consistent narrative digestible to a reader; NM:ALR is a collection of the Guardian and Observer columns from 1953 to his death (and shortly thereafter). Though the events of life resist it (Mandela was a freedom fighter who was also an aristocrat; he brought peace but didn’t reform SA; he fought apartheid and was friends with dictators) the collection are framed narratively so we can make sense of them. Further than that though, we get an inkling to how even Nelson Mandela, who fought the great cultural narrative of his time (racist SA structures) also created a personal narrative to condone association with people like Gaddafi: he supported the ANC during the anti-Apartheid struggle.

I am not a psychologist, so my interest in this process is purely from a writing rather than life perspective. Taking this statement – people interpret events in a narrative frame – as an axiom, how can this be used in writing? I think, like in a mystery novel, the initial answer is the least satisfying, that being that because humans frame things are narrative we should adhere to narrative standards. I think the potential arises for something much more interesting if we entertain the notion of reflectively deploying the narrative urge within a story. An analysis of the epic from of the Iliad and Gilgamesh, for example, found that they were (putting any questions of quality aside) more relevant to life because things just happened and the characters responded to them, seeking explanation in the fates and the Gods. This was contrasted against regency novels where all events are linked to the narrative. Perhaps in writing we should sometimes allow in an unexpected event and then show the characters scrambling within themselves to contextualise it within their own stories.

This also calls to mind the words of Foucault in ‘Society Must Be Defended.’ In the collection of transcribed speeches, Foucault outlines a system where politics is the pursuit of wars that grown cold (an inversion of Clausewitz’s statement). Of more relevance is the idea (that Foucault would develop seperately) of competing narratives or ‘knowledges.’ There is the perspective of the victor, which becomes the state narrative, but there are also the other peripheral narratives (in Foucault’s examples, the stories of the conquered) that endure in subaltern narratives. It is an illuminating theory – though I should note it has been and continues to be used for reactionary purposes – that can again be applied to writing as a character struggles to contextualise what has happened with what they believe to be true, and in a broader context what their life is about. An interesting project, perhaps ideally collaborative, would be to come to an event and write about it from differing perspectives. Rather than just rest on someone experiencing the events differently, one could also explore the life that has led to those differences. To use a brute-force example, two characters are confronted with a gun, one of whom is familiar with firearms, the other is not or is primarily through secondary media.

To finish I think that humans like to imagine their life as a progression, a story going in a direction. That is a fiction we construct, for good and for ill. It might be worthwhile to examine the process by which we esteem things enough to be included in our personal ‘story.’

The Liar

For the past week or so I have been without internet so for entertainment I turned to my DVD collection. I watched Mirrormask. I first found this film years ago as surprise for my then girlfriend who was working on something Gaiman related. I loved the visual style, reminiscent of DiTerlizzi’s art, and the off-beat story.

 

It’s about a young girl running away from the circus to find a real life. Except it’s a journey to another realm, it’s a story about growing up and finding your place in the world. Except it is not. It’s the story of how parents justify the change in their daughter as she is getting older, and her eventual capitulation to their wishes for her. The film is a mother’s coma dream, we only see the real daughter through the windows of the mirrorworld as she eats chips, kisses boys and rebels in tiny teenage ways; I think I fell out of love with the film on this viewing as it presents an ultimately defeatist moral: children should not grow beyond what their parents want.

 

On Thursday 24 July, my second to last day working at RBS, one of my colleagues approached me to discuss writing. He had read one of my pieces of short fiction (Abyss) and wanted to talk about it. Full disclosure, he had asked about my writing the week before because he thought his daughter might be interested in it. This was not contact with a secret fan.

 

He was very diplomatic but I could tell what he wanted to say was that he didn’t like it. It was too odd. He did have some questions, specifically about the shark. What did it mean?

 

Here is a conundrum. I wrote Abyss in 2010-2011. I do not remember any specific symbolism I had attached to the shark. I could have just said that but it would have been a disappointment. Let me expand on the why of this.

 

The popular conception of the self includes a fixed notion of self, a person unaltered by the passage of time and experience. At core I remain the same person as the one who wrote Abyss. Alongside that is the somewhat semi-divine perception of the writer as someone communicating profound truth. We are taught from an early age to approach books as a source of exegesis.

 

So to answer the question I thought about the shark, about what it might mean now, and I settled on the Kantian sublime (or a loose understanding thereof). The shark represents that raw presence of nature greater than a human to which our initial response is terror but as a function of consciousness we expand to include. By allowing the shark and the ancient world to which it is attached, the characters become greater than they were.

 

Alternate answers could be that the shark is a manifestation of the hostile sea; or it represents the transition of a boundary, the cross over from sanity to madness; or it is a short-hand for intensely alien life outside human experience. It could be all those things.

 

What I am saying is that I am a liar, and also a little forgetful. You should not trust me on these things.

 

 

 

 

Castles in the Sky

64. In what concerns war, their customs are the following. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man he overthrows in battle. Whatever number he slays, he cuts off all their heads, and carries them to the king; since he is thus entitled to a share of the booty, whereto he forfeits all claim if he does not produce a head. In order to strip the skull of its covering, he makes a cut round the head above the ears, and, laying hold of the scalp, shakes the skull out; then with the rib of an ox he scrapes the scalp clean of flesh, and softening it by rubbing between the hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps, and hangs them from his bridle-rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks, like the capotes of our peasants, by sewing a quantity of these scalps together. Others flay the right arms of their dead enemies, and make of the skin, which stripped off with the nails hanging to it, a covering for their quivers. Now the skin of a man is thick and glossy, and would in whiteness surpass almost all other hides. Some even flay the entire body of their enemy, and stretching it upon a frame carry it about with them wherever they ride. Such are the Scythian customs with respect to scalps and skins. – Herodotus, The Histories, Book 3 (taken from here)

I have been packing the past few days. At the moment that involves putting books in boxes; as an adjunct to that sorting the various notes I have made in the past few years then secreted on shelves, between pages and other sundry places. It evokes a romantic image all those scattered musings on crinkled paper. A thought that has fetched through my brain, one that drifts through from time to time, is to combine the disparate strands I have written down into a coherent whole. Most of these scraps are not story ideas, they are outlines for secondary worlds or more accurately specific locations within them. Given that I have consistent pre-occupations that’s not such an impossible challenge. In some ways this is an extension of a habit I already have, taking several ideas and trying to make them into a larger whole.

When I was younger, had more time and played more Dungeons & Dragons I engaged in world building as an enjoyable activity in itself. In crudes strokes I would lay down a bit of terrain, the people there, their gods and heroes and shade in their relationship to one another. As fitted the genre I was working in, fantasy dungeon-hackery, it was constructed around the axes of conflict and adventure. It was and remains a great deal of fun but it is pseudo-masturbatory. This does evoke the image of the author hunched over their labours, but frames it somewhat differently.

Secondary world composition can be a self-indulgent activity that can provide framework to inform a consistent setting for the events off a story. A simile I like to deploy (and probably heard elsewhere) is that world-building provides the scaffolding for your story. Character studies and plot diagrams are materials in the same support structure. The trick is to exercise the discipline to remove the props without damaging the structure in place.

When I have used world-building techniques in the past I have found it mostly useful as a reference work to facilitate consistency. My current project involves using naming conventions from a European but not Anglo context. I have a reference document to keep all the names straight, especially useful as I proof-read. It also helps promote continuity within the story, as I know what each character is doing where. Liken it to an artist’s composition sketches. They pre-empt and prompt the finished art but (ideally) they should not be visible.

I don’t think that world-building exercises are exclusive to genre-fiction, though I it might be a peculiar vice of them. Books with pages in the 1000s filled with plodding exposition of the funerary rites of an imagined people is intended as window dressing but just serves to mud up the view. This is an absurdly reductionist idea, but the sometimes retrogrades passions of genre can need reining in. Kill your darlings indeed.

There is an unremarked conceit of literary or mainstream fiction that there is a substantial amount of this kind of composition going on; the evocation of a ‘real’ world within fiction allows can facilitate lazy reproduction but it is possible to re-present the world in such a way as to make us see it anew. Material conditions, psychological horror, or just plain old attention to detail and deployment of familiar themes bring to life a world that exists simultaneously on page and brain. Nowhere is this clearer than in visual media such as film and television; dress departments are providing a shorthand for the world via fashion.

It is also important to draw from sources outside your comfort zone, or try to. I grew up on a steady diet of conventional westernised fantasy; sub-Tolkien stuff with elves, dwarves and men. It is only in recent years that I have expanded from that and looked to other things and, I think no unrelatedly, my thoughts and fiction has developed as well. This isn’t a question of quality, but rather that the particular mechanisms of creativity feed from whatever resources you give them. There is a lot to be said for research, even when composing something fantastical.

I began with a quote lifted from Herodotus on the Scythians. I am currently working my way through the (gorgeous) Landmark edition, having read Xenophon prior to this. There is a definite poetic rhythm to his language; Herodotus was both born into a culture that valued lyrical composition, and the Histories are intended to spoken as much as read. His is a work of non-fiction, one of the earliest to come down to us, that includes the meat and potatoes of world building. Research can provide fodder for imaginary worlds; the most famous fantasies are largely derived from historical mythologies. In many ways culture is reproduction of culture (I might like to revisit this at some point) and we can only talk about the things we are aware of.