Sunday, December 7, 2014

Full Moon at Midnight

It's a full moon, and my dog is restless. She keeps looking at me with an expectant expression. More than once she has growled, or just stared, as she does when she needs to go out. But these have been thinly veiled excuses, even for a dog. Her piddling seems hardly urgent. She just wants to go out.

I get the feeling what she really wants is to go on a hunt. To not just chase, but actually catch something, feel its fur in her teeth, and bring it back to me.

Or maybe it's to howl at the moon. Another dog down the hill is barking like mad: whiny barks that might be suppressed, half-remembered wolf howls--all he's got left in his throat to let out what's elsewhere in his genes. My dog seems to want to join in. She's been growling and half-barking. And now I've decided to leave her alone in her crate.

It's after midnight, after all. I should be in bed. But I'm just as restless as she is. Craving some red meat, maybe. Feeling just a little bit wild. But my excuse is that I had too much coffee today, and too late in the day.

I'm a little further, I guess, from the primal roots of my species. Maybe not historically, but certainly culturally. I've got a thicker veneer of civilization on me. More coats of paint. Maybe some vinyl siding. I'm well hid in here, or so I like to think. "I" being that wild part of me, that just wants to run free like a dog through the woods. Hot on the trail of something ... some excitement or other. While the rest of me is perfectly content to sit in this chair in a warm house and type these fantasies into a text box.

In fact the better part of me just wants that red-blooded streak to take a nap, so I can sleep. But let's face it: that's not going to happen any time soon.

So if you hear me howling at the moon, in an hour or so, you'll know why. Just roll on over and go back to sleep. Unless you want to jog with me and my dog through the woods for a pace ...

Monday, October 27, 2014

Forget need: write from joy

Oh Joy (dog running on beach)
"Oh Joy!" by dank1012

I'm going to talk to myself out loud for a few paragraphs. You're welcome to listen in.

I've heard the advice that you should only write that story that grips you and won't let you go. You should write because you have to. You should write out of some kind of dire necessity. And I do believe there's truth in that. A lot of truth, and maybe even most of the truth.

But that's not the whole truth. From another angle, as I wrote in a recent post reflecting on playing cornet (for no earthly or professional reason), too much of our lives are devoted to duties. Things we have to do, because if we don't do them ... whatever will happen. I won't be able to pay my bills. My kids will grow up to hate me. My such-and-such will get mad at me. Whatever it is. Duty calls, and we jump to our feet (grudgingly, but quickly). And the deeper the need, the quicker our response, the more attention and energy we give that thing, and the harder we push to "do it right."

Writing, I think, shouldn't be like that at all. Or at least not the kind of writing I'm interested in. A story that has to be written is, well, a newspaper story written for a deadline. Or a sequel to a novel promised by the writer, or demanded by a contract. (I respect both of those kinds of writing, by the way. But it's not what I signed on for here!) Freedom--the kind of freedom that is essential to art--has to come from a different place. It has to come from a kind of joy. Or at least "joy" is one of the places it can come from. A superabundance, an exuberance, an overflow, an excess.

That, I admit, is its own kind of necessity. And it might be the necessity these advice-givers have in mind. But its primary trait is not, I think, need. Its primary trait is "joy." Or "enjoyment." Delight. Ecstasy. Richness. Excess. A freedom from duty, a desire that transcends the demands of everyday life, that celebrates "waste" and "profligacy." Just look at the endless hours spent clacking at a keyboard to produce a small piece of excellent, exquisite prose. Novels write far slower than they read. If they existed for reading alone, they would never be written. The writer would collapse under the pressure of duty, the duty to produce what was demanded.

The same could be said about painting. It doesn't exist only to be looked at and seen. If it did, what painter could bear the strain to produce a finished work?

So novels are written for another reason altogether. Call it "need" if you want, I prefer "joy." The very best novels are experiments in delight, distillations of endless lingering, idiosyncratic and meandering, exploratory and clever, taking the time to shed light on some aspect of life, or just to tickle some curious itch. There are mercenary novelists, I'm sure. But like I said, I'm talking here to myself about the kinds of novels I enjoy reading and would want to write. They all have that trait of exuberance, even if it's the sparse lines of Hemingway or the voluble passages of Dostoevsky, the vivid descriptions of a Neal Stephenson, the arms-length humor of H. G. Wells, the lush prose of Patricia McKillip, or the ascetic blade of Ursula Le Guin. None of these writers, I think, are writing because they have to--out of some kind of duty imposed on them from an external force. (Dostoevsky sometimes did, I realize, to pay bills. But that's beside my point.) It might not even be that they have to write this particular story because its teeth got into them. It might be that they have found room in their life, in the internal space of their interior life, to play. (Play, either frivolously, or with great earnestness. But play, nonetheless.) And in playing ... out came these delights.

I don't know if that's the way to say it. But there's something true in what I'm trying to articulate here. Something that the advice to write "what you have to" has never conveyed to me. Writing, for me, has to live outside the realm of "duty." At least for now. It has to exist in a place that's free of those kinds of mercenary constraints. It thrives on exploration, on a rich diet of leisure and thought and space and time. From there a story might well seize me and not let me go. But it seems to me it's more often the reverse: that I seize a story, an idea, an inkling, that emerges from that rich interior life, and I don't let it go until I've found out the insight it's hiding in its murky depths.

Stories, to me, don't come fully formed, but rather as semi-conscious or even unconscious nudges that I have to seize and follow out if I want to understand them. I can go on without them--and have--but I'd rather take hold of them. This doesn't feel like necessity, but rather opportunity. A chance to find joy, to pursue my bliss.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wind in My Sails

This cornet is exactly like mine (including the case)
You can get one for under $100
After 20 plus years, I recently picked up my cornet and started playing. It's not a fine instrument, my cornet. It has age, and character. The first valve sticks sometimes. The sound is a bit bright, a bit stuffy, and the mouthpiece is bowl-shaped instead of the more typical V you want for a cornet. On the other hand, I haven't had so much fun in years.

What's fun, oddly, is the discipline of doing something that has no professional purpose or possibility. Writing used to be that way, and then I got the crazy notion of trying to publish some things (not that I try that hard, but I do try). On cornet, I'm just a guy in his forties blowing sound out of a brass pipe.

But the process of learning to hold the instrument to my lips, and create from my body a sweet sound, is its own reward here. Most of my playing is done in a practice room at the college. If other people can hear me, they mostly have my sympathy. I'm not there to impress anybody. I just want to do it right, not because of some duty but for the sake of creating a pure sound, a sweet and clear tone.

Not many things in life are like this, I think. Most of what we do is for duty--that's been my experience. Why else do I get up at the crack of dawn? Why else do I read certain books and put in my hours and go here and there running around in the car? All of that--a good chunk of my life--is for nothing but duty.

But playing a horn that nobody can hear, and disciplining my body to learn to breathe, and my lips to buzz, and my jaw to stay in position ... all this is just completely outside of any necessity whatsoever. I'm doing it because I want to. And nobody else wants me to ... er ... expects me to.

I guess writing is like that still, even in spite of my feeble efforts to publish what I've written. I don't do any of that because I have to. I'm not a starving artist with no other skill set. (Maybe that's why I'm not more driven to send out my work.) Nobody's expecting me to write something or put it in the mail. The closest I get to that is writing I do for work which, partly for that reason no doubt, feels like drudgery and toil. And I suppose disciplining myself to learn the craft of fiction, how to shape a narrative, how to hone description and bring out voices and delve into the red blood of a character ... all that is for the sake of doing it right, getting that "clear tone," too. I do want to make my stories sing, for myself first and foremost. And here comes the other reason I don't send things out as diligently as I should: I can hardly get a better rush than when I know the story is right, in the quiet of my own study. (And more often it's something far worse than a rush that I get back from my endeavors to interest an editor in my delicacies.)

At some point, I know, I am going to want to step out of the practice room and play a few tunes in the hearing of human ears. I'm not there yet, but when my horn is responding to me the way I'd like it to, that moment won't be far behind. Even then, it won't be performance that I'm after. I'll want the joy of playing with other musicians, contributing my horn's voice to a larger whole, on the sweet sounds set down by a genius. If writing could somehow be more like that, I suppose I'd be less timid. But every bit of words scratched on paper--even this half-random blog post--feels like a performance, even if only to me. When it's read, there's a finality to it that a musical rehearsal doesn't have. That's not always true--critique groups break the rule there--but it's often enough true. And out there in the world of professional performance, there be wolves and dragons.

So maybe that's my last hurdle, the reluctance that keeps me close to the vest. Who knows? Who cares? What matters tonight is that I've found little gusts of joy that, in spare moments, refresh me, like a cool wind on the sea, filling my sails.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Origins of Mythology: "Comparison and Theory"

This is an old-school weblog series, tracking my progress through The Origins of the World's Mythologies, by Michael Witzel, a thick monograph published by Oxford University Press in 2012.

My initial impressions about this chapter were overly optimistic. I thought I was going to find here a survey of the author's method, with some discussion of the theory of comparison. And that's how it started.

But about halfway through, I realized that instead I was being given a close-up tour of the method as it applies to the results that I will become more fully acquainted with in the next chapter.

Quick Summary

The question that drives this chapter is this: "Why do we find the same myths all over the world, even in cultures that don't have any recent connection to each other?" And the solution Witzel provides forms the heart of his method: Humans took these stories with them through all their migrations around the globe.

Two General Impressions

One, a memory: I was once given a tour of a chapel by an overly enthusiastic organist. About fifteen minutes into it, I realized it was not going to end anytime soon. My guide knew the date and cost of every piece of equipment, from floor to roof tiles; the names of all the key donors; the unique history of every piece of artwork commissioned (at x sum) for placement in the space. For a historian of that particular chapel, it would have been fascinating.

Witzel's second chapter is a bit like that. I like where his method is taking us, I like the overall design, and some of the decorative fine points are pretty appealing. But the exhaustive explication is a tad wearying. Even so, I have mixed feelings about this chapter. What Witzel is proposing is truly mind-boggling. The dispersion of key mythological bits and pieces, filled out with material recovered from this or that corner of the globe, is going to take us back more than 40 thousand years, to a mythological complex that was practically born with human language. Or at least that's what he's hoping to prove.

Understandably, the author may be concerned that his project won't be given a fair hearing, and so he layers on methodological justifications, giving weight and clear explanation to the choices he made. Also, Witzel clearly hopes others will carry forward this research, so he's laying the groundwork for future researchers. Cutting a path.

But the tradeoff (here's my second thought) is that Witzel's account loses all dramatic appeal in the process. He has to give huge chunks of his results away to make sure we understand his method, and that robs the book of any revelatory quality. It's like a strip tease with no tease. That might be an asset in scholarly studies, but it makes the reading quite a bit duller.

Setting Up the Problem

So let me try to restate some key points I've gotten from the chapter so far, in more dramatic fashion than Witzel has done. I'll try not to distort it too much. Here goes.

When you compare the earliest recorded mythologies from remote parts of the world, such as Mesoamerica (Mayans, Inca), Polynesia, India, and Greece, certain stories emerge into a kind of three-dimensional clarity. What explanation could exist for the remarkable similarities between myths told in such far-flung places? There are really only four possibilities:

  1. these stories were spread from major cultural centers to outlying areas by trade routes ("diffusion")
  2. these stories emerge in each culture because human beings are hardwired, neurologically or linguistically or in some more psychically mysterious way, to tell them ("archetype")
  3. these stories emerge in each culture because of environmental factors (say, rainstorms and agriculture), and such things are accidentally explained the same way ("convergence")
  4. these stories have been inherited from a common source and passed down through countless generations as humans migrated to these far-flung places ("common origin")

The first explanation, "diffusion," doesn't work for myths that lie close to the center of a remote culture, because traders and visitors and immigrants don't easily insert their stories into the center of a foreign culture. This is especially true since the myths have religious dimensions and uses. We all know how open traditional religions are to innovations from passing foreigners and trade-partners. Or anybody else. Enough said.

The second explanation, "archetype," works well in theory as an explanation for the similarities, but it has two strikes against it. One, it sort of looks like mumbo-jumbo (my word, not Witzel's). It takes a bit of hand-waving to get universal archetypes embedded into the human soul as an explanation for anything. Possible, but unprovable. (Jung made the effort; some people still accept that; most scholars of this material don't.) Two, it doesn't work well for explaining the differences between the mythologies of these peoples. In other words, if it's embedded into the human psyche, why over here and not over there? (The myths aren't everywhere, they're just incredibly widespread.)

There's another thing, too, that makes the human-hardwiring explanation hard to fit to the evidence. The mythical bits and pieces we're talking about are interconnected. They follow a storyline or plot that transcends and links together the individual mythical units. What archetypal patterning could account for that? (Could a storyline really be embedded into human brain matter?)

This last wrinkle causes trouble for the third explanation, too ("convergence"). If human cultures are making these stories up spontaneously, thanks to similar environmental conditions, why are they also slotting them into the same plotline?

This question cuts deep for the "convergence" model: Witzel can point to clear examples of convergence. And guess what? Despite outward similarities, convergent myths don't serve the same functions within the two myth systems. Not so the stories we're looking at here.

So that leaves the last option: a common origin. Is that possible? To be clear: the migrations that separated humans who wound up telling tales in the Mayan tongue from the humans who scratched out the Rig Veda and the Theogony of Hesiod go back twenty thousand years or more. That's a long time to pass down a tale.

There are some supporting clues, though. For instance, in both Hawai'i and central Australia, a great flood myth is told. But neither area is subject to flooding--the one, thanks to mountains, the other, arid conditions. (If this was "diffusion," the only possible alternative here, the Australian aborigines would likely have told the outsiders, "What's a flood?" But if they had inherited the tale before they came to Australia, they're much more likely to hold onto it. See remark above about religious conservativism.)

Even with this kind of support, though, common origins is an extraordinary claim, so it requires several checks. How to proceed? How to get past guesswork to something more like proof?

Witzel's "Genetic" Solution

The answer lies in science, actually. Genetics, linguistics, taxonomy. Treat mythical units ("mythemes") like genes. How does an organism come to possess a trait? Through inheritance and mutation. Your possession of a certain trait (say, vertebrae) suggests common descent with many kinds of creatures who share that trait (vertebrae), whereas your five-digit hands and feet suggest a much smaller pool of shared DNA.

Or look at linguistics (Witzel's primary field). Shared vocabulary, overlapping declension patterns, shared but unique grammatical rules, point to kinship--again, common descent from an earlier language that wasn't exactly either descendent language but, over time, gave birth to both.

If a similar comparison between traits, genes, vocabulary, grammar, can be undertaken for mythologies, it should be possible to trace out "path dependencies" for myths--mythological elements or traits that have been passed down to more than one mythological system. Close comparative work could allow the researcher to trace these "genes" back to the parent, and so to reconstruct some of that parent's genetic blueprint. The parent (the mythological sequence or plotline) that gave birth to these far-flung descendants will not be identical to any of them. And some of the parent's traits may be difficult to define with certainty. But something of its shape, its contours, should emerge.

In the process of building up the family tree for these mythologies, layers of divergence and resemblance should appear at higher and lower levels on the genealogical chart--like your backbone and your five-digit hands and feet. So, for instance, traits shared across Eurasia but not found in Mesoamerica would suggest a branching of the mythological "family tree" at the point where humans crossed the land bridge into America. As humans migrated, they took some stories but not others--perhaps because those stories hadn't been told yet. After the migration, the ones who migrated invent new stories again, which will be spread to different parts of America but won't be found among the population that didn't cross to America.

Once such stories get injected into the DNA of a particular region or language family, some few survive and go on to shape the regional, and then local, mythologies. All the way down to your own tribe's interpretation. The result is obvious, and a lot like genetics: over time, you have tremendous variety, built on an underlying substrate of common inheritance.

Two Key Terms

Here are two key terms worth defining, as they're central for Witzel's work:

"path dependency" - defined as "the set of foundational topics in each civilization that have exercised extraordinary influence on all its subsequent stages" (p. 39, emphasis original). Witzel uses this concept to explain why particular myths and "doctrines" persist over countless generations of humans. (The idea of an eternity spent in "heaven" or "hell," for instance, he traces back at least 3,000 years to Zoroaster.)

"cladistic analysis" - the effort to establish a "family tree" of mythological tales, "just as botanists, zoologists, paleontologists, geneticists, linguists, and philologists habitually construct from their data" (p. 3)

Last Thoughts

That's the project as I understand it. I'll let you know next time if I need to correct anything in my explanation.

But meanwhile I hope you can see why this is exciting stuff. Witzel is promising to take us back to a Cro Magnon mythological system, and his method for doing it has at least a decent chance of getting the picture into reasonable focus.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Minecraft Isn't Real

Image credit: GameSpot

For my own sanity, and yours, and your childrens', I feel I need to point this out. Let me help you and yours come back to a sense of reality.

  • People can't chop down trees with their fists. Or, if they did, they wouldn't have enough of a hand left to make a crafting table out of that wood.
  • While we're at it, you can't make a crafting table out of chunks of wood--without a crafting table. So this becomes a chicken and egg problem, only worse.
  • People can't carry around 78 blocks of granite. Just can't be done.
  • Uncooked meat goes bad after a while. And so does cooked meat, too, by the way.
  • Just because you sleep through the night doesn't mean the bad guys outside aren't really there.
  • Skip the last one. There aren't any bad guys outside. If you go to sleep through the night, you'll be just fine. Trust me, kids.
  • Endermen do not exist. I know it's terrifying to see one that's less than two inches tall, but they aren't real. Did I mention that it's safe to go outside in the dark (check with your parent or guardian)?
  • If you meet a spider the size of your torso, you should definitely not attempt to kill it with a crappy stone sword. You should run as fast as you can.
  • Hacking a sheep to death makes it more, not less, difficult to capture its wool.
  • People can't swim with 78 blocks of granite on their person.
  • When you lose a third of your life to an explosion, a pork chop isn't going to make it come back.
  • The world is larger than the screen you are staring at.

You're welcome. Now please add your own reminders, and help restore our collective sanity.

P.S. Thanks, Mojang

I wasn't the only one who needed to be reminded, apparently: "Why Minecraft Isn't Realistic" (YouTube video)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Quietly Writing

"Solitude" (Flickr: vonderauvisuals)

In this loud culture of "all talk, all the time," where even taciturn writers like myself are asked to "create a web presence," network like high-powered corporate types, and "market yourself relentlessly," I'm learning to pull back and enjoy a nice long steep in solitude.

This summer, I spent a lot of time reading, joined a critique group, bought a one-person fishing kayak, edited like mad, and sometimes wrote new material. It was nice to give myself permission to enjoy what we in our house call "alone time." That's where we all go when we get overstimulated, stressed, and in need of a recharge. Maybe you have your own version of alone time. Maybe you golf or go for a jog. My version often involves reading or writing quietly in a chair.

It occurs to me that one cannot read or write loudly, or in a vivacious and extroverted manner. A writer, alone in a room, with the implements of his trade--laptop or paper--before him, all distractions tuned out. The door closed. This, as we all know who write, is how you get things written. There is, as the old proverb has it, a time for everything under the sun. A time to speak boldly in front of others, a time to be gregarious and delight new acquaintances. Even a time to promote oneself. But of course the quiet labor of writing belongs to a different time from all of that, and can only happen where that separate time is set aside and the outside world is shut out.

Or, actually, not the outside world per se. The world of nature, the colors and sights and sounds, all enter into the thing. And even the world of human society, from which I will have retreated for the sake of doing the actual writing, nonetheless leaves its echo on my mind. In fact, I think of this tendency to become overstimulated as a gift, because it makes human society vivid in my memory. The brilliant impression of being around others helps me see human interaction clearly when I'm alone in my study, like a well exposed photograph. And that in turn helps me be true to it when I'm writing in solitude. It's a gift, because, again, I can't write except in solitude. And it usually happens that there are going to be people in whatever I'm writing--people I'd like to get down on paper, now that I've taken their measure out there in the real world.

When I'm out in the world, if I've had time to recharge quietly--like I did this summer--I'm more alive to what I'm seeing. I take all this human flux into me, and all the texture of nature, or city streets, or the thick air of a summer afternoon. When I can get it like that, I can distill it within, until I'm full and it's time to retreat again.

I wonder what it must be like to ride on the surface of all that sensory input? I'm so deep in its throes that I get overwhelmed. But again, that's a gift, because from where I am down in the pounding pulse of that cacophony of noise and color, I might get lucky and see what drives it.

Of such good summers are rich autumns made. I expect to be more fully alive to the people and things around me, and so all the richer in my interior life. And that can only go to improve the quality of what I write, or think, when I'm in that solitary place. Quietly writing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Jack London, old and new

Source: The Bancroft Library
Jack London was the writer who ignited my lust for books. Weirdly, I don't remember how old I was. It might have been 10, could have been 12. I had laughed over Dr. Seuss, of course, and I'd read a lot of stuff lying around our rambling old house. But it wasn't until The Call of the Wild fell into my hands that I experienced the impelling desire for books.

I remember that experience common to a lot of us: searching through the stacks at the library for "another [insert favorite author]." I found and devoured White Fang. But that was all our library had of Jack London. I moved on to other dog stories, thinking (hoping) that it was "dog stories" I wanted. It would have been too unbearable to imagine that I wanted only something that did not exist: more Jack London books.

In retrospect, it was an unexpected spark, that book. A more unlikely steel to my flint would be hard to imagine. I was a dreamy-eyed kid, anything but hardened by my travails, such as they were. I'd been raised to believe in a different ethic, not the one Jack London preached in all the pages of that book. I was taught to love my enemies; London's hero and mine, the reborn dog Buck, taught me valor, strength, cunning. Survival of the fittest. Later someone would label this for me: it's the heroic code in modern dress, the code of Beowulf and his ilk, and before him of Achilles and Hector, stalking glory on the battlefield. Here you boast, not in weakness, but in strength. Humility, on this field, is taken for weakness. And prowess is valued, not buried in shame.

There is no accounting for loves. What I devoured when I read those books was not social Darwinism, but the cold austerity of courage, stripped down, made vital. And the language--London's words are often deeply moving, merciless in their confrontation of that wildness he courts. Poetic, inspired, impassioned.

Maybe it was just that--his passion. Maybe I took that up in my veins through the ink that was, as it were, his blood on the page.

I couldn't say. I only know this: I revisited The Call of the Wild last month. And still, though I shrink back from that brutality, and though I sense better now the cost of embracing his vision of what and who we animals are, I felt the call of the wild in its pages, even so. It moved me, drew something from me, as Homer still does, and Beowulf.

And there's more, I think. In my exhausting efforts to lay low, bury my prowess at this or that, not vaunt myself--I start to hear that call drifting down from the timberland. Some day, I will meet that call. Not to become a brute, but to reconcile my desire and my skill with the things I've been taught, the civilizing influences I've taken in.

You can read The Call of the Wild at Project Gutenberg, or on an e-reader near you.
Here's a nice, brief biography, by Dr. Clarice Stasz.
Here's a nice summing up of its potency and value, by Robert McCrum.
Here's how you treat this book when you're afraid of the wild: "Common Sense" Media

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Origins of Mythology: "Introduction"

This is an old-school weblog series, tracking my progress through The Origins of the World's Mythologies, by Michael Witzel, a thick monograph published by Oxford University Press in 2012.

Photo credit: Oxford University Press

In the intro, Witzel, a Harvard Sanskrit professor, lays out the terrain for his study, which intrigued me the moment I read this: review of it. I have formal education in religious studies and mythology, and I like writing what some folks call "mythic fiction" (which isn't actually limited to mythology). So I was intrigued enough to buy a copy, partly because I immediately recognized that the premise for this book is unusual, even unique. Let me explain.

Witzel claims that the far-flung mythologies of the world can be traced, scientifically (on the model of linguistics), back to an original mythological complex or "storyline." He promises to use various methods to recover this storyline in the upcoming chapters. But here (in the intro) he's setting out what's unique about his approach, and why it just might work. This is common fare for academic books (for good reason), but I won't rehash all the arguments. A brief catalog of the 36-page intro:

  • some older theories about why myths from different eras and geographical locations share so many similarities
  • weaknesses in said older theories
  • a survey of various attempts to interpret myths
  • how all of the above differ from the approach of Witzel in what is forthcoming in the book

The take-aways are more interesting than the bits just referred to. Here are a couple.

Witzel's definition of myth (a bit complex, but worth tackling):
a 'true' narrative that tells of cosmology and society as well as of the human condition and that is frequently employed to explain and justify social circumstances (p. 35)
 Or, more eloquently:
myth tries to make a significant statement about human life itself: 'where do we come from, why are we here, where do we go?' Just like Gauguin's enigmatic painting, myth artistically combines many motifs into a meaningful whole, modifying the older (even the reconstructed original) layout according to individual local conditions… Myth still binds humans to their natural habitat and social background; it provides people with reasons for the cyclical seasons of nature, for festivals, rituals, and social strata; myth also tells of a deep underlying meaning of human life itself, satisfying basic spiritual needs (p. 34)
This description nicely brings together some important observations about myth. One, that it "combines many motifs." In fact, its vitality and "meaning" are related to its combinatorial quality, the complex interactions of elements in the myths (see Claude Levi-Strauss). Another, that myth is tied to ritual and festival. That makes it public, social, cultural. And finally, Witzel helpfully keeps in view the religious dimension of myth, or its "spiritual" dimension if you prefer, which is important but surprisingly rare (among scholars of this material).

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to give a glimpse of his main methodological point, which is the purpose of his introduction. Witzel's unique contribution here is going to be to take whole complexes of actual mythologies (say in Japan, India, Greece, etc.) and compare them, searching for "path dependencies" or "descent lines" still in evidence across those cultures. Older approaches (some of them groan-worthy if popular) just compare individual stories. So Witzel's work is massive, cross-disciplinary, and so far pretty compelling. I'll let you know when I get through chapter 2, which promises to be a fairly quick run through theories of comparison.

I linked to Frederick Smith's review of the book above, but here it is again (PDF).
And I found a good shorter review of it here: "Comparing Mythologies on a Global Scale: A Review Article By N.J. Allen" (PDF)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reading Undine

Ondine (photo)
"Ondine," photo by Eva the Weaver
 Of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful
- George MacDonald
I'm not ready to go as far as MacDonald, but I will say that reading Undine, the classic fairy story by Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte, Baron Fouqué (how's that for a French-German hybrid name?), was very pleasurable for me. Here's why.

When I read a new fairy tale, or one I've forgotten, it's like eating a nectarine. You know what it's like. You sit at the table, and in just a moment the soft peel is off that perfectly round fruit. Then it falls apart into slices, tailor made for human mouths. Twelve, thirteen little bites, and it's done--delightful, tangy, juicy, sweet. A perfect snack.

But never a meal.

Now imagine you could have a tangerine and you could eat it for a good half hour, like you would a full dinner. Sound nice?

<< Well, no, you might say. Halfway through the meal, my tongue would get so cloyed from the sweet, juicy, intense thing that I'd lose my appetite.

But suppose I could make it last that long without cloying your palette?

<< Then it would be so watered down that it wouldn't have any flavor, you might object. Or any nutrition at all!

Ah, and there's the beauty of Undine. Somehow, reading this story was like reading a fairy tale that lasts and lasts. Its sweetness is strong enough to engage the palette, but not so strong that it cloys. Its substance is light enough to draw you into the magic of faerie, but not so light that it feels empty or watery.

Somehow--I don't know quite how--Undine draws you into a longer adventure, all framed in the old fairy tale storytelling tradition, with light touches of description and only glimmers of the inner life of the players. Just like a real fairy tale. And yet it doesn't lose your interest in the places where it takes you or the people who live there.

A meal of tangerine. A meal where the tangerine is somehow transformed into something much larger, more substantial even, without losing its essence.

So maybe I can see why MacDonald called it the most beautiful fairy story. Still seems like strong praise. But surprisingly good? I can agree with that.

Note: You can find Undine free at Project Gutenberg, or on an e-reader near you.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Heart's Blood, by Juliet Marillier

"Beauty and the Beast" meets Jane Eyre, with a bit of undead in the mix. What's not to like?

This novel isn't news, I guess, since it was published in 2009 (Roc; released as a mass paperback in 2010). But I just found it, read it, and thought it was worth a few remarks.

I would class Heart's Blood as "mythic fantasy," because it taps into the fairy tale tradition, though not in a heavy-handed way. It's not simply a retelling of a fairy tale (like "Beauty and the Beast"). The main character, Caitrin, is a bit like Jane Eyre, as I hinted above: she enters a situation that's … well, a lot more complicated than it seems at first. There's not exactly a mad wife stowed up in the attic, but it has that feel at times, and some other details call Jane Eyre to mind. Caitrin's a little like Belle, too: she all but plucks forbidden roses early in the tale. Plus, there's a kind of enchantment over the castle, its grounds (Whistling Tor), and its inhabitants--both the servants and their deformed master, Anluan.

(I suppose it's fair to wonder whether Jane Eyre is modeled on "Beauty and the Beast" at some remove or other. Or maybe some other fairy tale. Maybe one you (normally quiet) readers has a theory about that?)

Like Jane, Caitrin is also fleeing an abusive home life, thanks to the sudden death of her father and the misbehavior of distant relatives. Like Belle, she's a looker. And, well, … of course she's got to fall for the crippled master. Right? And vice versa?

So where this novel succeeded for me wasn't in setting up some new permutation of an old fairy tale (or British novel, or both), though it does that, and it does it well. What made it work was how Marillier judiciously loosened the reins on the old storyline, allowing it to take new directions, satisfying because she's drawing on older traditions, but not stale or predictable.

I liked that the Norman (military, i.e. "epic") threat wasn't the point of this story, though it makes a meaningful impact.

And I enjoyed Caitrin's strength. She overcomes real challenges within herself and outside of herself in a credible, heart-warming way. As in countless old folktales, Caitrin finds herself caught in a web of forces beyond her power to control. But with a mixture of hope and small steps of incredible courage, she manages to find her way through--with a bit of fey guidance, to be sure.

Magic. Romantic tension. Mystery. And a strong heroine. Like I said, what's not to like?

Read it? Thoughts?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Fairy Tales and Other Short Stories

Before Anton Chekhov and the modern period, people still enjoyed the occasional short story, apparently. These short stories were so good, folks told them over and over again. They memorized their plots, their main characters, and some of the spoken parts, and they passed them along orally from town to town and generation to generation.

In fact, those stories were so good, that you know some of them. What's more, many of those stories' plots have been adapted for film, woven into novels, captured in visual art forms of every kind. The first animated films were based on them, and television shows running this season are still trying to tap into their popularity.

What modern short story can claim that kind of power -- the power and influence of the traditional folk tale?
Recognize this tale? (Photo by JP)

To get at the issue, let's consider what sets these old tales apart. Not their length, obviously. The presence of magic? Well, no, not if you include fantasy short stories in the mix. Here are some key traits, in no particular order.

  • They have no known author. But this is only partly true, because some of the most successful examples of this genre were composed by Hans Christian Anderson, Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, and others. Most weren't -- they were collected and edited, but not invented, by known figures. But even the ones that were draw on a folk tradition of storytelling and, from this tradition (as a support for the personal inventiveness of the author), they draw some of their power. The conscious use of tradition gives these tales a breadth of perspective, rather than the peculiar perspective of one (let's face it: usually not that well adapted) member of society.
  • The characters are sharply drawn. We know folktale characters by what they do, not how they feel about things. A modern critic would say such characters are just "types" or even stereotypes, lacking internal complexity. A post-modern critic will likely complain that "good" and "evil" are too neatly divided between the characters (though this isn't always true). But there is no question that the reader knows who the "hero" is and what sort of persons the hero and antagonist are. Perceptive readers (modern or post-modern) can find ambiguity in both -- a delicious exercise when done well.
  • They take you on a journey. With only one exception I can think of, the hundreds of folk tales I have read all move, they all take the reader to some new place, however bizarre or unanticipated. Unlike many modern short stories, never do folktales study, as in a still-life, a particular moment of the main character's life, or some complex situation peculiar to our society. In fact, short story purists insist that this folktale tradition is wrong. But some genre short stories, in my experience, play with a similar dynamic, extending over days. Few if any cover the same stretch of terrain as, say, the Nix of the Millpond (a man's entire life) or even Cinderella (a girl's birth to coming of age).
The really tricky part comes when some of us lovers of folktales (myself included) try to write short stories. We obviously can't help the first bullet point above, although we can draw more (or less, but why would we?) on the folktale tradition. We can and probably must choose to flex the borders of bullet point two: We may need to say something about what motivates our characters and how they feel about things, to satisfy today's readers. And we might (for a variety of reasons) feel that humans are morally complex.

But at bullet point three, I think the choice has already been made for us -- at least that's true for me. If you like folktales, you won't get much pleasure from a short story that doesn't go anywhere, that microscopically analyzes the human emotions present in a particular moment. And vice versa, by the way. (I've been told by one of these purists that wanting a story to "go somewhere" means I just don't like short stories!) I would argue for a compromise here: agree to disagree. Recognize that there are (at least) two kinds of short story.

There's value in both, in my view. One trait traditional folk tales share with modern short stories is an interest in exploring human nature. That's why these tales have this kind of staying power. Many of them -- and above all, the most successful ones -- reveal something profound about what it means to be human, to live here on earth where wild woods infringe and evil desires lurk. Where everyday people are capable of unspeakable horrors and astounding acts of courage. And you get to ask: What sort am I? What if ...?

Thoughts? What sort of short story do you like, if any? What makes one work for you? Any tips or ideas to share for connecting these two very different sensibilities (modern and traditional) in a short tale?


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