December 9, 2018

Deep Reading Fantasy: Escapism and Sovereignty

Sometimes, after sunset, I sit in a comfortable armchair with a paperback fantasy novel and a cup of black coffee in my favorite mug. My old cat curls on my lap. And then I pass into another dimension, another time, and another place, where immutable laws lose their potency. I climb my Spiral Tower.

Some would argue that climbing the Spiral Tower is a waste of time. Too much reading, particularly of fantasy and science fiction, is no less a distraction than binge-watching a show. Not so. The mental and creative demands of reading fiction are minuscule compared to watching television. And reading to enrich one's interior life cultivates a powerful habit of allegorical and imaginative thinking. As one deep reads a physical book, particularly fantasy, one becomes producer, director, and editor using the medium of the mind. Moreover, one inoculates oneself against orthodoxy and develops mindwisdom (empathy). This doesn't happen when one passively consumes other media, where, arguably, the aesthetic decisions have all been made.

From a political perspective, too much reading of escapist fantasy is problematic as well. The individual is trapped by their book, like a fly in a spider's web, and their inescapable political relationship to others is ideologically sidelined. Even worse, they have shirked their duties to this world. One's attention is dangerously fixed on an unreal drama, fake people--mere constructs of literary language--even as our actual world, other actual people, are burning, changing, for better or worse: ecological disaster, political turmoil, technological progress, and other transformative tides continue coming in, while the reader, irresponsibly, holds tight to boards and pages.

Taken together: how can one devote so much time to deep reading fantasy?

But what are the alternatives? One could refuse fantasy for consumption and production. One could leave Middle Earth and labor, help the economy, and animate it with one's productive activity. Or, one could become an activist in a great cause. One could organize others, make speeches, protest, and so forth.

You should counter, "This is a false dichotomy. The choice isn't between economic production and political activism. It's a spectrum. And reading can be plotted on that spectrum. Reading can serve the poles of either ideal. There are plenty of hours in the day, and dedicating a few to reading isn't that big of deal."

To an extent, I agree; however, this rhetorical move risks diminishing the essence of deep reading fantasy.

J.R.R. Tolkien said something apropos to this in his 1939 lecture, "On Fairy-Stories" where he compares reading fantasy to mentally escaping from prison: "Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?" Why should he be scorned?

I agree with Tolkien though I take issue with his allegory of a prison. Deep reading secondary world fantasy is a radical escape from the ordinary and the order of the day into one's own world, not the author's. J.R.R. Tolkien opened the gateway to Middle Earth, but you create it as you read. Seen in the right light, deep reading is an epideictic act of sovereignty.

In contrast to a prison, I propose the the allegory of a sorcerer dwelling in his Spiral Tower. The story goes, the sorcerer built a stone tower that spiraled very high into the stars. At the highest level was a library of eld tomes, dusty scrolls, and ancient codices. The only way to get to the library was to climb many spiraling stairs.

What mysterious doings of the sorcerer, so incarcerated in that self-imposed aerie of stone...?

Clark Ashton Smith captured the sublimity of reading fantasy, its intimate relationship to sovereignty, in part II of his poem, "The Star-Treader":

Who rides a dream, what hand shall stay!
What eye shall note or measure mete
His passage on a purpose fleet,
The thread and weaving of his way!

October 28, 2018

Movie Review: Panos Cosmatos' "Mandy"

An evil cult leader with sorcerous powers, who boasts access to a surfeit of magical items, becomes overwhelmed with perverse desire when he sees a darkly beautiful and mysterious woman walking along the side of the road in the red light of the setting sun. A masculinist narcissist, he is wracked by obsessive thoughts and therefore decides to act on his perversions. He commands one of his minions to call fell demons forth by blowing a magical pipe. After giving the demons the boon they demand--a magical potion--the demons help capture the mysterious woman and her husband, who happens to be a powerful warrior. The husband/warrior is thrown into a dungeon and his wife, the mysterious woman, is brought before the cult leader who desires her. The cult leader tries to use his powers of enchantment to hypnotize her, to turn the mysterious woman to his will, but she defies him with cruel and defiant laughter.

Insulted and filled with rage at her disrespect, the cult leader decides to ritualistically burn the mysterious woman alive (and in front of her imprisoned warrior-husband). Although the husband/warrior--tortured and wounded by the cult--is left for dead after the ritualized sacrifice of his wife is finished, he miraculously lives, for his desire for vengeance is too strong for death to take him. He frees himself from his prison, drinks a magical potion to restore his tortured body and mind, and thereafter consults an old sage.

This old sage relates to the warrior the secret nature of the demons, the hated cult, and their leader. So, the warrior forges himself a fell magical item, a terrible axe. By and by, the warrior finds the demons, the cult members, and wreaks red vengeance in the name of his love.

No, this isn't a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. It's a horror movie of acid trips and "crazy evil" set in the Shadow Mountains in Southeastern California in 1983. This is Panos Cosmatos' Mandy (2018).

In a personal essay cataloging his experience making Mandy on Cosmatos characterizes his film-making as not merely storytelling but "film sculpture": "The goal isn’t simply to tell a story, but to build a kind of pop-culture artifact or moving sculpture that incorporates a certain aesthetic and sonic textures. The story is ultimately in service of this end." I find this statement about the subordinate nature of story compelling because so much of the joy of this film is in its story. The cinematography is excellent, of course. There is a brilliant rawness to the shots and editing, clearly distinguishing this movie from polished Hollywood productions that sometimes feel so conventional and so produced that they ring hollow. Additionally, the score, by Jóhann Jóhannsson, is absolutely amazing. It is haunting, intelligent, precise, and pensive and, despite its contrast against the ultra violence that often splashes the screen red, it is nevertheless fitting. Cinematography aside, the narrative is gripping. The villains are fun to hate and compelling; the tension is just enough (you never stop feeling afraid for the protagonist); and, although the Panos Cosmatos seems to want his film to be an edified aesthetic object drained of pathos (in referring to his film as a "film sculpture"), it nevertheless pulls you in emotionally by hypnotizing you into identifying with these characters.

What is the message rendered by this moving sculpture? Even though Mandy is set in 1983 and in California, it nevertheless appears--to my genre-steeped mind--as a fantasy film, and more specifically, as a sword and sorcery in the vein of Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Cimmerian" stories. A complex genre that treats several themes, sword and sorcery nevertheless rings a few keynotes, one of them being this one articulated in Robert E. Howard's 1933 "The Tower of the Elephant": "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing." In this horror film of revenge, of a barbarian warrior rising up against a sorcerer, we hear echoes of swords against sorcery, even if that sorcery is a particularly potent batch of LSD.

October 20, 2018

The Centrality of Gothic Fiction in Modern Genre Fiction

Question: To what extent are the "weird" genres--supernatural horror, science fiction, and fantasy--distinct" genres? Or, are they truly separate and autonomous traditions? Should we write histories of supernatural horror, science fiction, and fantasy? Should be categorize works along those lines? Should literary critics and fans discuss their differences?

Or, are these genres they part of the same tradition?

Many would say swiftly and categorically provide answer: "they are distinct."

J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, and Stephen King are clearly qualitatively distinct writers writing in different traditions and genres that treat different plots, characters, and conflicts. Right? What does Bilbo's quest to Erebor have to do with an investigation into the Cthulhu cult? What do the three laws of robotics have to do with Uruk-hai? How is Arkham relevant to the Foundation?

I would agree that the modern weird genres are distinct, but I have some essential conditions. Although, at this point, due to several causes, these genres have become separate and distinct, they are, and importantly so, connected, and most likely share an origin point.

Beginning as literary genres, they all emerge from the same deep and variegated cultural stream, which is literary history, of course. But such a flaccid, generalizing claim is not so interesting. So, let's get more specific.

I think there is a compelling case to be made for the idea that supernatural horror, science fiction, and fantasy emerge from the tradition of "Gothic" fiction in the late 1700s.

What is "Gothic" fiction? Let me spend the rest of this brief post giving a general overview of "the Gothic."

First, what does that word, "Gothic," even mean? It is one that changes meaning with context. In its earliest use, it referred to "the Goths," a quasi-historical group of Germanic people who were, at least in the popular imagination of 18th century Europe who were intrigued by them, responsible for the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.

Thus, when the adjective "Gothic" is used in English in the 18th century to describe architecture, art, and literature, the actual Germanic tribes who are referred to by the Goths had been homogenized in the European imagination.

I don't want to go into the complicated ancient historical distinctions here. Let it suffice it to say that there were several types of "Goths," and the two major strains who played an important role in the establishment of the culture of the middle-ages were referred to by by historians as the "Visigoths" (western Goths) and "Ostrogoths" (eastern Goths). To summarize, "Gothic" refers to the aesthetic style of the "the Goths," which was already a shorthand for a people who had been homogenized and mythologized by the European imagination.

So, when the adjective "Gothic" is used by 18th century Europeans to describe architecture, art, and literature, it is a very loose reference, which means non-Roman or even "Medieval," i.e. from the middle ages. But the theme that gave this reference power, I think, was time.

The Gothic, as a loose tag, referred to something outside of time.

Here are some undeveloped speculations and questions:

To what extent is science fiction a literature unfettered by time? It often focuses on the future. To what extent is fantasy a literature unfettered to time? It often focuses on the cultural past and myth. How about horror and its relationship to time? It channels elements of both fantasy and science fiction to the extent that it dramatizes the destruction of the ordinary, the order, the natural law, and so renders a violation, a transgression, and often of time, i.e. the past returns, erupts into the present. That which is dead doesn't stay dead.

Could these "Gothic" genres, these "weird" genres, thematize the destruction of the ordinary. I think they do indeed trouble the orthodoxy of now.

February 23, 2018

The Joy of Fan Conventions

Anyone who has participated in a comic book or sci-fi convention will know precisely what Walter Benjamin is talking about below. Joy is tangible. Affectations are few. You and your friends are discussing the most important things:

"The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert. Such a fusion is of great social significance. The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion." From "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936).