After failing to procure a ride to the early service of church, I find myself enjoying the absolutely wonderful peace of solitude. Rare this is, oft I sleep.
I was thinking last night about a description I always end up using when I describe someone driving. This is pertinent, I suppose, to my situation this morning. As one without a license or much experience being in the driver’s seat, mine is the perspective of the passenger. And this has been true my whole life. Some of my earliest memories are of being in the car, looking out the window for the hours. I get a little sick when I try this trick these days. Somewhere along the line, I lost my car legs. Back then, when I stared out the window for hours perhaps on some road trip, I would watch the optical illusions created by the speed of objects moving past me. We all know about this.
Every time I have a character driving by cornfields—which happens quite often, since many of my stories happen in the Midwest—I have this gut instinct to describe the lines in the fields “ticking by.” Every time, it’s that verb and I can’t seem to manage getting out of it. Does the driver see the fields ticking by? No, not really. It’s instead the four year old boy in the backseat of the fifteen passenger van with his bony shoulder pressed hard against the cold window. It is raining sometime in April. The buds are green in the black soil. God bless it.
I read “American Childhood” recently by Annie Dillard. It is, as everyone suspected, sublime. She has in there a description of when she was a child in the car. At the time, she felt enamored with the colors in the world, the excitement of discovering new, exotic bugs or deep sea creatures. For me, anyway, it was the marine that really got my goat—and Egypt. We had this small cardboard covered book with a title page desiccated by the bathroom usage of many male toddlers. Who knows who the culprit really was (I think those who still kept reading the book shared some measure of blame) and frankly the siblings might not agree that it was the book on Egypt with the Abomination of Desolation on the title page. It might have been the other book with the big question mark on the cover, the one, you know, concerning the “special cuddle.”
God, why are we so obsessed with the special cuddle, even now?
Anyway, Annie Dillard found herself almost existentially bored by a particular route through the mountains. Blown out by dynamite to make way for them, the rock surfaces on either side of the road would be slick with rain. And that sight was such a tremendous bore, her only way out of the insanity was to imagine the beautiful, colorful crystals perhaps hiding behind the walls. She would then proceed to imagine that it were her on the slick sides with pickaxe in hand, uncovering the opportunities all the boring adults drove past.
I know what she means. Risking the boredom, I miss being the child not in control of where I was going. To imagine. I would like some of those moments again, to be able to stare out the window without getting sick, to find some solace from the boredom inside dreamlike fantasies which sometimes had as characters the blue and red floating cones and rods I could see with my eyes shut tight. The itch I’d hope it would scratch is the one about solitude, the one about getting a little bit lost, the one about having hours to pass being carried away by any thing whatsoever, the one about almost heightened perception, not knowing the destination or when the next stop is going to be, the one where I am completely and totally safe.
God, why are we so obsessed with being safe, even now?
My parents knew where we were going. All I had to do was sit and be patient—and praise and gummy worms would rain down upon my head. “You were so good,” they’d said.
I would have been good if there was someone there to drive me every day of my life.
O Lord, God of my salvation, you and I both know that I have cried out day and night for you and have cried your name when I felt like you couldn’t hear it. I have spent hours lying in bed, you know, feeling like I will not make it to the morning and have thought that maybe it would not be such a bad thing that I might slip away inch by inch beyond my own body. First the phantom of my head punctures the drywall, then my arms flat against my sides without the blanket to cover me break into the ground outside and the darkling beetles crawl across my chest and the worms wrangle between my toes and finally the dirt falls into my rib cage, because the tension of my skin against the bone could hold no longer hold it out. My skin is like wet, wrinkled paper and dirt clods fall in to the cavity, fall into my veins, make my heart black as the earth you have made.
Let my prayer come before you, incline your ear to my cry! I know you can hear me, so come out of your hiding place. Why would you hide your face from me? Why would you not listen? Is it because I’m dirty? Well, you were the one who declared that I am clean, you were the one who said I could come here and make these petitions. God, when did I start having to call them petitions when all they were in the first place was a GAH?! A GAH at life, a GAH at my own inadequacy, a GAH at the repetitions that exhaust me.
Sleep at night is not enough to restore my energy, food is not enough to give my eyes light, friends are not enough to cut through the fog of confusion I have been left with as my own and only companion. The fog is like a heavy mist and it pores into me through the nostrils and parted lips, it clings to my skin, it moistens my eyes and I feel they are swollen, swollen and bloodshot with lack of sleep.
I can never get enough sleep and because my eyes feel like this, I am prone to cry easily, cry because I don’t know what in your name I am doing anymore. And the mist has seeped into my ears like a poison when I have my head against the pillow—is that why I can’t hear you? My ears and cranium are full of poison and there is no room left in my humid skull for messages of hope or a single good word.
For my soul is full of troubles and my life draws near to Sheol. Sooner or later, there is a darkness that comes and closes all our eyelids, when this absurdity of striving to remember, and striving to remember what we are to be, comes to a steaming halt. God, those coals on my tongue have turned to ash in my mouth and all I taste now is the hot smoke of fires extinguished, of passions that no longer keep me motivated, of a life-force and a spirit and a soul that has lost its source of oxygen, its source of rekindling. Sooner or later, Father, I will lose what rekindles me and keeps me going day to day.
Have I invested in the wrong thing? My very own soul, that burning hot engine that churns out steam underneath my skin to travel along the femur, up and down, up and down with the natural cooling that comes from my toes exposed to the frozen air, to come back to my heart and soul and to be reheated again, sooner or later, my heart and soul will break up the logs and wood you’ve put there. But thank you for the time enough to withstand a few moments of this entropy. Thank you for the kindling, the chopped trees, the dry leaves, and all my passions and desires that keep me roaring in spite of the troubles that will someday break everything down inside me. My body will not go on forever, it will stop and with it my soul.
Because I am counted among those who go down to the pit and I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more for they are cut off from your hand. And why is it that they are slain? Isn’t it for the same reasons that now pummel me, now stone me?
But a little bit of happiness here and there in my day, a little bit of joy, the ability to see through the troubles inherent to my being that youth and passions hold back like a levee for a moment. I hear a fine melody on the piano and the steam of the coffee and the angle of the light is just right that I can convince myself to not be troubled for one or two moments, moments that justify me feeling like I too am slipping down into the pit, moments that prove I have no strength, because they would not be such fine moments if I did not have a memory of other moments, moments of other people’s pain. God you know I have lived my life without much pain, but God you and I know what pain others have lived through. How on earth do you justify yourself?
Maybe you and I justify ourselves by heaven, God. I try to do as you do, so I will remain silent after I speak or else the silence will mean nothing.
I have been tortured with even passing stories of other people’s deaths. Even the death of a stranger is enough to shut shades over my day with its stupid pretty angles of light. This is why those moments of steam rising from a cup of coffee make me say, “Yes, but what is this? I will die tomorrow. And if I don’t die, they will.”
I am set loose among the dead and with this empathy guiding me to their graves, I cannot in my right mind enjoy anything here as the source of my lasting comfort. God, I fear that you will someday forget me. And someday even I might forget myself. The pain of forgetting myself would be the greatest pain. After I had felt the pain of others like I do now, where would I escape to? Let me not forget myself, or at least, keep some place ready for me to come back to at the end of a long, dark day…
But you take even that away from me. You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me and you overwhelm me with all your waves. God and I know why! Promise after promise that I have made vainly to you not to destroy your delicately tamed garden.
You are not angry because I am dirty, but because I am clean and keep sticking mud and leaves on my face. But you’re not a doting mother who wants me to keep my Sunday best clean, you’re not a stern father who wants me to not pick my nose at the dinner table. What have I done that has made you so angry? You know! I have simply believed lies. I have believed the very lie that has made you out to be a doting mother, a stern father. But I have forgotten my crime and in the process have demanded sympathy from you to understand where I am coming from.
But if we were in court, let’s have the jury see the pictures of what I’ve done. Show the jury the pictures taken at the scene. Take them out of the manila folder, do it! Then the lawyers and the ties can wonder why it is you are angry with me. Pretty words come from the ties’ mouth, pretty words to please the abstract intellect about the masticated craniums of those I have murdered. “I’m totally harmless,” I say, “I wouldn’t even step on a frog—” and the whole world lies dead in its graves.
You have caused my companions to shun me, you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape, my eye grows dim through sorrow. Day by day, I spend roving around in my apartment lost in my own thought. And though I can take a friend by the shoulders and try to plead with them simply with my telling eyes, I cannot break through.
It is as though you have put me in a glass box and everywhere I go, I bring with myself a small exhibit on emotional distance with a bronze plaque that reads, “Here you can see the finest specimen of what you feel like when the conversation does not reach that pitch perfect note of having discovered someone else and the conversations continue to lack that discovery for years—but oh! Not just the discovery and not just the conversations. Here you see what it looks like to be the last man alive and the last man to remember and believe that it is worth it to remember at all the promises when the days have grown dark and the friends have all died and everyone has forgotten themselves and lost the sense of wonder about the world, an illusion pitifully created by possibilities not yet acted on early in life, an illusion of wonder shattered as soon as the ball of action starts rolling and misses and misses and misses again and external circumstances crush designs and money is pilfered and houses burn down and ideas lose their shine and fame never comes to throw its warm blanket of temporary adoration over you.”
Strangers used to look like people I could get to know, friends of friends would come to me, friends would share with me the inner workings of their life, and I believed for too many stupid moments that other people could never be understood, could never be seen through, could remain mysteries closely held to the chest. I am saddened to see younger strangers following the patterns of discovery I once followed. I know the disappointment they don’t yet know, the disappointment they will carry by themselves in the dark hours before falling asleep. And though the essence of other people has not changed, my ability to receive them into myself has, because I have lost hope. Because I have lost hope, I am a horror. I am shut in, because there is nowhere for me to go that could be deep enough to feel like I have gotten to know a stranger completely. No one has access to that knowledge when they are living under the hands of wrath. Even if I got married, what would I be but a stranger? And even the people I have kept close to me all my years, these people fill me with sorrow because I see them aging, I see how things move along, the shuffling of cards and the rotation of posts. And to catch a glimmer of the daily lives of family even reveals to me the distance I have from them, even them. If I can not count even my brother or mother among those shut into the house with me, then how will I be able to escape from this solitude? I don’t know who to call my brothers and who to call my mother.
But every day I call upon you, o Lord, I spread out my hands to you!
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness?
Is your righteousness known in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, o Lord, cry to you! In the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors and am helpless. Youth is not enough to keep me from feeling and knowing deep inside myself that I’m already dead. It is this very fact that has oppressed my spirit, has made my heart weaken and the cough emerge, made me gag on nothing and vomit out air, made me feel like all I can do is lie in bed, prevented me from having any energy at all. I have literally grown faint as a result of being close to death from my youth. I am afflicted with what has not yet afflicted me. But these are your terrors, they are of your invention. You invented these feelings. You invented the claustrophobia I have felt on airplanes, gliding towards death, an absolute shut in, unable to go anywhere or do anything, but sit carefully, lest I disturb the symptoms sitting close by my side on the couch, smiling. A chilly arm rests along my shoulders.
Your wrath has swept over me, your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long, they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me, my companions have become impermeable darkness.
Name one man in the Bible who had a normal monogamous relationship and a healthy family.
Adam – Son murdered the other son
Noah – Son saw his father’s nakedness, cursed
Abraham – Pharaoh situation, Hagar & Ishmael Situation
Isaac – Tricked by rivalrous sons
Jacob – And behold! It was Leah (also, his sons sell one of their brothers into slavery)
Moses – Maybe is polygamous?
Samson – Ha!
Samuel – Evil sons
David – Many wives, many kids, much rebellion
Elijah – Maybe no family?
Esther – Chosen by her husband in a beauty contest (bring me the hottest babes in the kingdom, the king declared, and it was so) to replace the old sour one
The Prophets – all the performative marriages (Ezekiel loved his wife apparently, but then God took her in a sort of performative death)
Paul – Celibate
Christ – Celibate; symbolically and mystically wed to his Bride the Church (a woman generally to be regarded as a crazed harlot apart from his influence)
So maybe it’s just that the men and women who did have healthy relationships and functional families didn’t do anything crazy enough to end up in Scripture. Anyway, you get my point.
With this history, the words of Malachi bear a lot more weight: truly what we need more than anything else is for the hearts of the fathers turned to the children, and the children turned to their fathers. If you look about in the world, there’s a lot of unturned hearts. But Christ, as the Bridegroom: what is his goal if not to build his people into a holy household for God? We are all one family, of course, but we are also a lot of little families.
Is it too late in history to start a new tribe? (re: The Michaelites)
Eschatology and economics seem a lot more entwined than people let on. If economics is the ordering of one’s household, well, how is Christ going to order his household? In a postmillenial or an amillenial sense, or neither? How are we going to order our families and our societies in accordance with this?
So many Christians that I know advise investment and interest as a means of securing one’s household. And certainly that has worked well for many. But is this kind of capitalism a double-edged sword? Undoubtedly Christ is using it as a tool to extend his reign, as he uses all things. But when will it be discarded, if ever? Perhaps interest and capital are just slavery in another form, weakened and reshuffled and distributed more efficiently. Maybe slavery can never be abolished but only shared more evenly across the nations.
Riches are good. Riches allow for leisure, and leisure allows for education. Education is necessary for wise civic action in this world. Education is necessary for good craft and liberty. Good craft and liberty bring riches, and so on. The question is: how does Christ want us to educate the household? On the smallest level, we have our families, but on the largest, the nations. Does a capitalist social structure educate us in all the wrong ways? It has certainly given us much leisure. But how are we taught to use that leisure? To what end are we being educated towards? If we give power to those with capital, power can be distributed much more evenly. I think that is helpful for peace, as a bulwark against tyranny. But happiness and virtue are greater kinds of wealth than cryptocurrencies and stocks.
So are we really wealthy? Are we encouraged in this system towards natural happiness and virtue, or are we encouraged to do whatever we want? I don’t think we can have the former with the latter. So we need someone to guide us away from our weird desires and towards that which is universally good – or, at the very least, clearly good for all in a specific geographical and historical context.
Would we be a more happy and virtuous people if we had a monarch, a father of our nation who could bring us up in the way we should go and educate us? Of course we would, but maybe such a man cannot be found. And no doubt however well he educated us, his own heirs would betray him in the end, as we have seen in all the patriarchs. Why are the good kings such bad dads?
Let us say that, by securing your household by investment and modern financial practices and overall participation in the current system, the numbers in the bank computers allow you and your family to be safe and strong and well educated. Good citizens and generous to all. That is without doubt a good thing as far as we can see. But beyond what we can see: are you absolutely sure that you are participating in a healthy system? What if, by trying to secure your own wealth this way, you have made it much harder for others to build good homes — either directly through material exploitation or, more nebulously, through the promotion of a world system that educates us to be foolish? Where does the profit come from? How do you know that all those companies and projects are virtuous, building good things for all the world, helping everyone become truly wealthy?
I would want to build my household in such a way that does not hinder others from building their households. And building a good household is not just a material concern but also an educational concern. Even if capitalism provided mongo wealth for everyone, it wouldn’t be wealth if we had been taught by the structure to act foolishly and sinfully. Our hopes would be weak and frail, our labor alienated from our hands, our faces hidden from others, our bodies hidden from the sun and the wind and the woods, our spirits only supported by mass produced pharmakeia: sorcerous pills that chemically induce a facsimile of eudaimonia. Can you encapsulate good spirits, or only unclean ones? How many in this system (in any earthly system?) are able to have strong marriages and abundant households? Without a strong marriage and good kids, what is a household for? How much will we see in this life of a father’s heart turning to his child and a child’s heart to his father? If I could make it so with a word, I would have a good wife and good kids, whose descendents would be wealthy and Christian forever. Forever virtuous and blessed on this earth.
Perhaps it is not possible to judge wisely a global process that consists of billions of different people and their desires, actions, decisions, circumstances, abilities. Nor can you cleverly arrange through infant baptism and parenting techniques that all of your descendents be both wealthy and Christian. The ways our social and economic structures are built and then build us in turn are mysterious. The nature of this planet-sized trellis on which we grow and bear our fruit – maybe it is all too complicated for us to ever make a reasonable decision, to declare reasonable visions. So in this respect, or at a certain scale, we must surrender our intentions to God and trust that he will build our houses as his own.
“Come on,” he said, “Surrealism is just more spiritual than fantasy…you know? You feel that?”
Somewhere along the line, I have stopped writing what I want to write and it’s made me realize how substantial questions of genre are, not just for stylistic preferences, but for the fictional process itself. Different genres are different ways of thinking—and deal with different subject matter! Genre is not just an album cover.
And it’s not a coincidence that J.R.R. Tolkien had bad prose, as I hear them claim, or that Philip K. Dick doesn’t have believable characters, as I know from experience. With such as these, it doesn’t matter entirely.
I have discovered through trial-and-error that at a certain point, fantasy devolves into plotting with an emphasis on metaphysical ideas. I never wanted to believe this about fantasy and I thought that fantasy could be so much more. I thought that the metric of what constitutes fantasy was far blurrier and vague. It turns out that all you need to thrust yourself into the fictional processes required by fantasy is to make an assumption about the world that does not apply to our world.
Why is that wording important?
Because I used to think that if you made one assumption about the world, say, that everyone had to drink liquid mercury to survive instead of water, that the story remained in the genre of surrealism or something near there. A surreal story, I basically thought, was a fantasy that only made a few above-mentioned assumptions instead of enough to build a world. But it’s not the amount of assumptions, it’s their quality. Developing assumptions about the world means you are probably going to succumb to the patterns of fantasy, but presumptuous eventsare different. They are more like conceits.
No assumptions-beyond-reality about the world are made in a surrealist story, and LO! The unbelievable happens. The woman is a succubus, Gregor Samsa turns into a bug, the hat flies into the air. What are these? Does having a story with hats that fly into the air imply that all hats in that world can fly? I have my doubts. I think you would have to gather up all the hats in that world and perform tests on them in order to verify beyond a shadow of a doubt that all hats do or do not fly.
Having a conceit like that, an event or character that is surreal, affirms our assumptions about the way the worlds works—it does not generate a new world beyond ours. The qualification to be made is that, of course, all fiction is a generation of new worlds, but always emphasizing that muddies the waters and is beside the point. Telling us that all fiction is basically fiction does not inform us at all about how fiction at the end of the day relates to our world.
What is fiction’s relation to our world?
Our answer depends on genre. Fantasy relates to to our world by intentionally developing a new world by lifting a copy of our world off its axis with one or five hundred new assumptions. Surrealism, on the other hand, does something else. It keeps us in this world, but suspends us slightly above it. It puts us in an uncomfortable situation. Surrealism presents to us a story of someone living in a world much like ours, only to discover that they have been wrong, or they are not entirely right. That is one way the surrealist can play his cards. Haruki Murakami does this in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. In that collection, people encounter what is to them totally unbelievable and it forever changes how they see their world.
There is another way. Take that growling infant story. It might work merely as a comedy—children are not tigers, never will be. It might also work as a morality tale: don’t let your child act like a tiger. However, it might work also symbolically. The child-tiger is a symbol for the wild havoc the parent’s infidelity will wreak on following generations. Almost a similar thing happens in One Hundred Years of Solitude, actually, where all that incest eventually leads to a child getting born with a tail.
By the way, so much more is going on than what I am claiming here. But I am primarily concerned with genre and what genre can and cannot do. There are things I can and cannot write about in my fantasy novel right now and it’s driving me nuts. Let’s continue.
Kafka takes the symbolic approach. In Metamorphoses, the purpose of the surrealist story is more symbolic. The conceit of him turning into a bug is not about the world. It’s about what it feels like to feel terrible. I could say more, but I am not going to. The meaning of Metamorphoses is extremely clear. Basically, he’s nothing more than a bug. It’s a metaphor taken literally and turned into a symbol for his interior world, blah blah blah, and it’s a great story and super powerful because of how vivid it is and all that crap about concrete imagery allowing you to experience a fictional dream beyond the words. It’s great.
Retroactively, I would just claim that some kinds of surrealism are not concerned at all with the interior world or with harvesting the extremely rich symbolic fields that seem fundamental to surrealism and how it works. In my opinion, if you are going to make use of the surrealist genre, you are probably concerned with the spiritual. If you have absolutely no taste for the surreal, it might mean you don’t know how to read the signs and symbols that reality is pregnant with day in and day out and you’re also probably a spiritually dead ape.
Okay, moving on.
Intellectuals cast their golden crowns upon the glassy sea before storytellers.
I have never been that interested in ideas. When it comes to fiction, ideas bore me. When it comes to conversation, ideas tend to bore me, too. I prefer experiences that sublimate reason and the intellect. Why? Is this because I’m a provocateur? No, it’s because I’m not very smart and can’t cogitate for very long without wanting to soak my head in a lather of beer. I’d rather use my brain to dream (whether sleeping or awake) than use it for sustaining long conversations dependent on logic and arguments that at the end of the day are just as tenuous and absurd as any absurdist story I could spend my time writing. The plus side is that a story well-written should please all the faculties, not just the intellect. And it does so not just by throwing you into another sensory world, not just in making you fall for the illusory lies of art, but in being the gateway that allows you to discover the sensory world you live in and constantly need a reminder to appreciate.
Without stories to guide us, at least for myself, I become dull to the way the world is. I become dulled to reality. This has very little to do with my intellect. I think it’s important to reason, of course, and have arguments and good ideas and all that jazz, but frankly essays like this are boring for everyone but me. That’s why our editor here at Reforming Imagination asked that I insert silly images and
heading 3 font.
But what am I entering into here? I am entering into nothing more than my mind. I am helping myself to cogitate and understand the art I love, but it is not the art I love. Essays like this don’t last or make an impression beyond maybe influencing other storytellers. They are only interesting for people who either know me or who are trying to become experts in fiction like I am. It is not interesting to the average person—and it shouldn’t be. This essay isn’t designed to please all the faculties, it’s instead the transcript of a rational process. That is why all my language so far has been abstract. It’s just easier and because it’s easier, it’s worth less. Arguing is easy, ideas are easy. Show me the magician who can with words bring me somewhere inside the interior of reality and I will show you a legion of cogitators.
Also, sometimes I hate to hear the ideas and arguments of favorite artists. It can be embarrassing. The liner notes of David Byrne’s new album, American Utopia, are terrible! Am I double-minded by loving his music and hating his intellect? Not entirely. They are different facets of the man and he is clearly better at one than the other, though admittedly some blank spots in his music might be the result of an under-developed morality.
Every business needs an accountant and every story needs good plotting.
This doesn’t mean that it is all inspiration and muses. Very little of fiction writing is that at all. It is craft and the ability to be very careful and precise with your words. It is difficult. It takes a long time. It takes a love of the world and a love of people and a depth of self-consciousness that can be shelved at any point in the process. It takes strength of character and courage and very little of this I have right now. That is one of the reasons why writing has been so slow going.
But it has also been slow going, because I am writing fantasy. And although all fiction ought to be concerned with the world and with entering into it more deeply, some fictions do this in a more mystical way than others. All stories need plotting in order for them to be effective, whether it is a short story, novella, or novel. If you don’t know how to balance events and scenes and the moving parts of a story structure, then you will never know how to write a story. A lot of the craft of writing has to do with the arrangement of parts to form the most effective whole. And yes, the intellect is essential here, too, as is the dreaming life. A fiction writer will spend many waking, conscious hours asking himself, “Where should this bit go? How can I prepare the reader for that scene?” Questions like this are questions of craft and questions of how the effect of entering into reality more deeply will be achieved for the reader. And achieved for the storyteller. Because like the intellectual, the storyteller must follow a process. And he follows the process, because he loves discovery. What is the storyteller discovering?
He is discovering the fundamentals of the world. Stories either work or do not work based on their aesthetic merit. Aesthetic merit is the relation of all the parts to the whole and finally the entire story’s relationship to the world. All people can sniff out a falsity, a lie, in a story. The famous author Flabbery O’Cobbor said something like that one time. It’s true. The storyteller discovers truths about the world by following the fictional process—even if it is something as basic as plot.
Archetypes and symbols in fiction are not the same thing.
I have still managed to say nothing about how the fictional process of fantasy is different than the process I prefer. The difference is rooted in what I said at the very beginning. Fantasy is concerned with how a world is built. Fantasy is wonderful for metaphysics and philosophical problems. It deals and trades, not in symbols and the interior life projected, but in archetypes and enfleshed concepts.
You might ask how that is different than the symbolic way. That is a really tricky question and I am probably not smart enough to answer it, but I’ll give it a try. So the two things I am currently counterpointing are: archetypal matrices and symbolic structures. Fantasy works tend to work in archetypal matrices and surrealism tends to work in symbolic structures—actually, so does realism a lot of the time.
Both genres if they are to be conventional, as Gardner has pointed out in The Art of Fiction, largely pass or fail passed on their ability to project a fictional dream. If you are in the business world, you’ll be familiar with the basic idea of flow. That’s what I’m talking about and anyone who has ever enjoyed reading knows about this, so why am I even bringing it up? Well, when you get into a flow with reading, when time slips away and you are no longer focusing on the words, but are instead in some kind of play projected by the words, then you have experienced the fictional dream. That means that the fiction you read largely succeeded and all conventional fiction is busy with crafting a piece that will in whole or in part produce this dream.
The fictional dream is not everything. When you are dreaming, how often do you wake up? What kinds of connections do you make when you wake up? When you wake up, are you busy with thinking about what it all meant or connected, or did you simply enjoy the sensation of discovery as you were carried along?
When we wake up from a dream, or are conscious inside a dream, we can ask ourselves what it might have meant. Archetypes are the embodiment of abstract concepts, but symbolic structures are the embodiment of what cannot be approached by any other means. If you understand this, you will understand why much bad fantasy can be easily dispatched by a clear essay or two. Why?
Fantasy, in my experience, comes down to being object lessons and concrete examples of the effect ideas and beliefs have on the world. Fantasy is wonderful at teaching. It takes the abstract concepts of good and evil, plugs it into two characters, and we see through the generated story what is preferable. Fantasy takes some concept about the structure of the world, let’s say that there are many dimensions, and shows us what that looks like. This is why the temptation of the fantasist is to become didactic and abstract in his explanations of his world. In the bad fantasist, we can see the basic impulses of fantasy unconcealed by mastery. The bad fantasist does not show us his world. He tells us about his world, the implications of the many assumptions made, without showing us through dramatic action and dialog. Because of that, he has demonstrated not his art but his primary goals. Archetype matrices are the enfleshed concepts interacting.
Symbolic structures are entirely different. We might say the symbols might represent equally abstracted ideas, like sadness. But although sadness is an abstracted idea, the symbols within a surrealist story do not deal with that abstracted idea. They deal with the very thing that the abstract word sadness is also trying to get to, but gets to less effectively. The abstract word sadness is essentially just a symbol too on which we hang those experiences that cannot be abstracted. That is what symbolic structures are after. Symbols can be far more precise than abstract words. We might hang many connections on the word sadness, but take any symbol that deals with sadness and you have reduced the symbol—especially because symbols derive their meaning from their function within a context.
By relating many symbols together within a story, we get a picture and a knowledge of the unapproachable. In many cases, we cannot talk about sadness abstractly in any satisfying way. We have to instead show it. We get no pleasure or sense of discovery from realizing that the broken toy horse is a symbol for the abstract idea sadness. Making that connection actually provides us with very little information about how the symbol is working within the story. Whereas in the fantasy story, I would say that in general when we see that the bad guy is an archetype for bad, we do get some information. Relating him to the abstract concept he points to can guide us through the rest of the story.
You might be thinking—and you should be thinking now—that my concepts of genre are pretty limited, if I am arguing that fantasy cannot work with symbols like this. But fantasy can work in symbols like this, I just don’t think it’s particularly good at it. What if the ring in the Lord of the Rings was not the archetype of sin, but instead a symbol that was rooted particularly in how Frodo felt some of the time that only made sense if you knew what he has gone through emotionally or what the state of his soul is when he looks at thunderclouds? Sounds like my cup of tea. But Lord of the Rings would not really be fantasy if Frodo wasn’t us, if Gandalf wasn’t good, if Sorrow Man wasn’t evil incarnate.
And yes, yes, while fantasy can be concerned with internal states of people and characters, while it can approach the unapproachable through symbols, it seems to do so awkwardly. Genres have their limits and a fantasy novel that focuses so much on the internal world of the characters is probably not great fantasy. It’s fantasy wanting to be something else, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to. It’s bad. It is trying to perform the heavy-lifting of symbolic structures without presenting us with a story fundamentally about the experience of encountering the symbols that make us feel what we thought could never be felt again. Woof, what a sentence.
Breaking into the shadowlands and depths is not exclusive to surrealism, but surrealism is one of the many genres concerned with capturing the mysteries of lived experience on a page through the use of symbols and the re-contextualization of objects that cues us to what that object might symbolize. We either see this along with the author, or we don’t. A lot of this comes down to the spiritual perceptiveness of the reader.
Though fantasy and surrealism both work as projected dreams, one plunges us into a world that our intellect largely cannot touch. The intellect is essential for plotting surrealist stories, should there be a plot, but it has very little business tinkering with the symbols or what they might mean. Surrealism is a sort of prayer that is trying to express those groans too deep for words St. Paul talks about. It is a means of laying up to God the mysteries that are beyond us, but revealed in the symbols of trees and clouds. How can I further express what I am trying to express here in such clumsy words?
Well you might think that I have no business talking about fantasy if I don’t like fantasy, but I have come to some conclusions at least about why I don’t like writing it.
Writing fantasy is an unhappy accident.
I began writing stories that were generated largely by feelings, feelings with different textures. Not only were these feelings informed by some lived experience that seemed incomplete to me, they were also informed by images in my mind. I wrote stories that, with those feelings in my mind, gave that symbol or image meaning and conversely allowed the image to inform what it is I felt.
These stories bordered, in terms of genre, on surrealism and eventually broke into surrealism. But that was a very natural move after writing realism that dealt so heavily with the spiritual movements underneath and within dramatic actions and dialog. These sorts of discoveries in my soul I did not think and do not think could have been captured and understood in any other way.
From surrealism, I began to have a fascination with situations. Instead of projecting my internal world and the world I feel is at work in the rhythms of all reality, I started asking how I could make certain absurd situations believable. I applied the conceits—those images that impressed themselves upon me—on my world. I asked question after question about how a world where both monsters and ghosts and mutability might exist. Much to my surprise, the world became increasingly coherent.
I deluded myself with humor and comedy, believing that I was still writing surrealist stories. The humor of the world was that the world was totally ridiculous. I produced the world counterpointing a random set of surreal conceits. Who knew!
But as the world has grown more coherent, I have been forced to take it more seriously or else it won’t work. I would describe the world as fundamentally comedic, satirical. This puts me in a class of writers I’m not comfortable being in, but so let it be. I have to work with what I have done. Now that the dust has settled and I have created a world that works on its own terms, I am staring at it and then feeling out what my story is supposed to be and I am saying, “Oh no, this is fantasy…this is really fantasy.”
No wonder it feels so unnatural to me. The comedy feels natural, the sudden shifts in tone feel natural, and the story is still strongly planted within my voice. But the voice is at work for a god I have never been tempted to worship, the god of worldbuilding. It is essential that I at least get tea with him every now and then to talk shop, but I hate that I am roped into the metaphysics of the world or the internal logic and consistency of it. Now logic matters!
And this has retroactively changed all those surreal short stories I wrote before. They have now become an essential part in this fantasy novel. Where the surrealism or the realism in them before was genuine and deeply imbedded, I have successfully turned those particular conceits into signposts for later fantasy. I have turned what was once genuine into a stylistic facade. Am I happy about this?
I don’t know, but I did it. I changed realism and surrealism into fantasy. And it feels very strange, but now I am just trying to ride the wave of plotting. I am trying to keep this the story that I want to tell. I am daily surprised by what happens and the shifts and turns in what has become essential for the world to be convincing. And my fall-back with most of it is that I am writing satire
With finger raised, he said, “Which is true!”
I dislike writing fantasy, because while my world is extremely interesting and wonderful and alive and full of (INSERT: potentiality or awesome-sauce), at the end of the day I have been forced to leave symbols to the side and pick up the bludgeon of archetype. I now find myself tempted to explain my world and its mechanics, instead of giving into the opposite temptations of surrealism to not give any explanation. I find myself less concerned with the interior worlds of the characters and more with how the characters should act given their essential functions as representatives. I am no longer allowed to have surreal things happen. If anything surreal happens in my fantasy novel, it feels out of place. I know that. I will have to explain it and it will have to fit in with the overall metaphysics of the world. Otherwise, it is a critical failure. All my other surrealities have to be sufficiently explained and plugged into the overall structure, or thrown out.
It’s an interesting process to convert the genre you’re writing in on such a fundamental level, but only a psychopath would have chosen it. I certainly did not see this coming, nor would I have chosen it if I had.
I want to be writing stories that embody the spiritual world at work in my life and in the livers of others through beautifully plotted dreams. I am far less interested in writing a scathing satirical fantasy novel about how America is doomed to be destroyed both by water and fire because of sexual promiscuity and ego confusion. If I want to write about sexual confusion and ego promiscuity, I have in the past chosen surrealism.
I am actively finding ways to not make this entire project a complete pile of dog poop, which means I am trying to maintain my own interest as much as possible. But every time I try to give myself a taste of those old interests of ushering private spiritual mysteries of out precisely chosen words that provide a sublime experience for the reader, my hopes are dashed. Because it sounds cheesy, so I then have to amuse myself by making fun of those processes that are my particular interest. At every turn, I am having to make fun of my spiritual tendencies. In different places, that is worthwhile. But in the space that used to be sacred, I feel hurt and let down. I don’t know if I have the will to be both the joker and artisté.
What’s more difficult for me is that I need themes for my stories now! This is more a function of it being my first novel in forever than it being fantasy. Writing novels is a pile of pain. I don’t even read novels.
I initially wrote a collection of short stories steadfastly in the genre of surrealism. And now that it’s gotten weird, really weird, and to the point of breaking at every point in its believability and ability to convince the reader that this world exists, I am forced to say, “It’s satire!” This is much like when people hated Tommy Wiseau’s serious drama The Room so much that he was forced to call it a dark comedy. Isn’t it the same thing? I am afraid that I am becoming my own Tommy Wiseau.
Or maybe I have fallen into a room deep underneath the Egyptian desert not yet plundered. Maybe the dark room I am stumbling around in is full of treasure and all I need is for someone to follow in after me, light a torch, and hand me an empty bag to carry home the loot.
The Extra flung pulp at the sides of the house. Where the pulp stuck to the house, there it grew into unnecessary and atrocious additions. A laundry room! A guest bedroom! A master bath! Linoleum siding replaced wood siding. A massive gable patched up the wound in the roof. Gable after gable plagued the main bulk of the home with confusion and burdens. The four windows at the front of the house, once in proportion with one another, were replaced with windows of different heights and sizes. The window to the kitchen was larger and lower down than the horizontal and high window of the first-floor bathroom. The top of the chimney disappeared and instead became a gable for the attic affixed with an octagonal window. The house shed its shutters to make room for nonfunctional shutters tacked onto the siding with nails.
Inside the house, a complete renovation was transmogrifying the Bliss Homestead into something (thankfully) no one would ever get a chance to see. Green shag carpet spread over the old hardwood floors. The walls that separated the dining room from the kitchen were knocked down to make an open floor plan. Everything was painted white—Edison light bulbs plinked down above the kitchen island. Granite countertops, hollow bedroom doors, and styrofoam insulation. The death-knell for the house, that final addition which weighed it down so much it fell back into the sea straight to the bottom where its sentience finally suffocated out of its angry renovated form, was the cumbersome burden of a four-car garage.
I was talking to Moses and Brianna last night about how stupid it was that even a few months into our freshman year at college, our class had become nostalgic. Or maybe not our entire class. But at least in passing comments, I remember some saying, “Remember this? Remember that? Remember the time when?”
What? The time like six months ago? Yes, I remember.
But within a year or two, you can give yourself the license for being nostalgic. You can then distance the time-when, because you’d like to also get distance from who you were so recently. “We’ve all changed so much.”
Which might be true, but it does not change the fact that one year ago or even just four years ago feels like no time at all.
There was the time very recently, about four years ago, when I decided to start a writing group. I had just gotten into Moscow, I was living in a small apartment called The Shed. What I mean to say is that it was a garage. And in this garage with a shower and oven, I was inspired to make something of us. So I shook some sticks into some bushes and the birds that were dumb enough to come out and see what was going on came over to my garage.
We had a great time reading and critiquing each other’s stuff. Moses would bring over an essay, Brianna a poem, and I a fictional fragment. Matt would have written some esoteric philosophy in the form of parables the substance of which would elude and tantalize the bawdiest of bodhisattvas. Joy would have written something on friendship and come with the highest of recommendations for a collection of short stories or essays that none of us had ever heard about. Others would come and go, but we’d be the hold-outs. Hold-outs for a year when the writing group kind of just devolved into us talking about writing and then onto further and deeper things. Like gossip, heheh.
I had no idea that Moses or Brianna were interested in each other. I am blind to these sorts of things forever in a sort-of castrati kind of way. Four years later, they are now leaving this town. I don’t have much to say about this, because this is the kind of thing that happens. After you have given yourself license for nostalgia, after you have indulged in it a bit too much like I have, whether it is nostalgia for the house you were born in or nostalgia for a two-month old summer, you lose control of it. It can no longer be contained. And you realize then that nostalgia was never yours to possess.
I cannot whip myself up into a fury of feelings anymore with songs or memories. I still feel things intensely, in a fighting sort of way. When strong emotions come over me, usually the ones in the gray area on the borders of being good and bad for my health, I try to fight and tame it. I want to understand the feelings, I want to know their origins. Most importantly, I want to recognize a gift for what it is. Strong emotions, the kind that collapse all of time and life into a present sensory experience, come and go. They cannot be farmed. In fact, I’ve never really wanted to farm them in general. But there are some in the category of gray, like nostalgia, that have proven their independence against me. What I mean is that I am afraid I’ve lost the ability to be nostalgic. And I know this. And this is why I fight whenever it comes back. Whenever it comes back, I want to hold onto it not for the sake of feeling it forever, but for the sake of making sure that I have recognized a gift for what it is. I want to make sure that I do not lose the ability to telescopically see our lives in motion.
But in the moments when I most expect the feelings or desire them, they are not there for me. In the moments when I’d like to be the person that can see what is happening—and maybe that is part of what I mean by nostalgia—I don’t. When I say nostalgia and when I say that it feels like time has collapsed, I mean that I instantly see the change in between two points. To take the example of these people leaving Moscow: a fit of nostalgia would thrust me into a space caught between the point in which they sat on my couch in The Shed and the point now in which they are on the road driving to <unknown>
That was not meant to be an allusion to the fact that I have for four years been their third wheel.
Studying sensations like nostalgia is an esoteric art. Maybe I should leave it to Matt. But if I didn’t try to clarify what I am afraid I have lost, then I will never be sure of where we stand now.
Moses and Brianna—or anyone that moves from anywhere to some unknown—are not just leaving a location in the world, but a space compacted and collapsed from all the memories they have made there and all the memories there that will not be made any longer. This space is one possessed by the soul and it’s one we see only if we’re paying attention.
I said earlier that nostalgia cannot be tamed. And I said that I am afraid I have lost the ability to drum it up. But my point is not that I cannot feel it anymore. My point is that nostalgia is not my slave. Nostalgia cannot and does not swear fealty to me. It always comes back, but when I didn’t ask for it. It is like a miracle accidentally performed. The begging on my hands and knees I do before it, as if it were an icon of Mary, to grace me with maternal love for the world and for time and for how much it has all changed and for the gift and insight of knowing where we stand in the narratives—this begging isn’t worth my time.
I better serve the world by getting off my knees and opening my hands to receive the daily bread of vision. When I crave nostalgia, what I am craving is simply to know what is going on. I am hungry to know what is happening. I want to be able to read the signs, I want to be able to place myself and one another. There is no greater void or darkness than having lost the story. That is the opposite of immersion, that is a slog. We need some way to enter back into the drawn-out line of our undeviating lives, to read beyond the changing of the seasons that are the words on the page. I am not trying to by mystical here—I’m just being mystical. So deal with it. I have a point.
When I feel most nostalgic, it is spurred on by some kind of rain or some kind of tulip or some kind of bird’s song. Just today with the unearthing of earth itself and the drying out of the tree’s hair from the blow dryer of the wind and the heat of the sun, I see in my mind the tulips of Moscow that I have seen before the past four years every spring. They aren’t even here yet, however. Time has collapsed and I have been brought back to see the smaller cage that my heart once flittered in, rusting away. I am happy the bloody albatross has a bigger space behind my ribs these days, but I am also sad because up until now I have lost track of the narrative.
And when things happen in the narrative and we are not sitting there attentive and alert, with our eyes darting across the page of our sensorial days looking for what is going to happen next, then when the next thing happens there is absolutely no force to the event! There is absolutely no convergence to speak of if we are not expecting and hungering for it. There is absolutely no spiritual movement if we have not been moving along with all the world speaking without words, speaking with nature and the shifting and altering of our environments.
There are some people who live in a world without convergence. Their flat lives are without real alteration, because they have failed to live with the right kinds of expectation. As a result, their whole lives become great big bores. It doesn’t matter where they are in the world. They could be anywhere, doing anything. But they have no sense of the narrative anymore, there is absolutely no wonder. If I ever lose my wonder like this, if I ever exchange my hunger for convergence fueled by expectation and suspension in favor of avoiding suffering and eating cheap pleasures that do not reach beyond the moment, God damn me to hell.
I was woken up today by a bird singing! I can’t remember the last time that happened, but I can remember some of the first times it happened in my life. I remember being woken up by birds singing as a child, visiting family friends. Maybe I am just a schmuck, but feeling the weight and heaviness of all the years in between those two points, for all the people awake enough to remember their own hearts, is enough to make me cry. Who here among us has been paying attention? And who among us can tame time and demand that time explain itself to us? There have been so many hopes fulfilled in that time and so many balls dropped—in more ways than one.
But feeling that weight is also the food that I craved. Only, I can’t feed myself. I was fed then, not because I petitioned anyone, but because I am always and constantly waiting. I am waiting for those moments in life when events have begun to fall into place, when the cadence and natural rhythms of progress fall into unison with my steps and my habits and my routines and my cycles of despair and euphoria. I am waiting always for things to change, even in those times in my life when it seems like nothing has changed or will change. Those horrible slogs of waiting are glorified by the hope that all of this will change. Not just change, but be made alive.
And I don’t have to plead, I don’t have to beg. All I have to do is always and constantly hope, hope for those sudden crashes of nostalgia. And nostalgia at this point, I hope I see and you see, is not a feeling inside us. It is a convergence witnessed. What I mean by a convergence is the summation and conclusion of threads and narratives building. It is the inevitable happening. And when we are there and awake to witness the inevitable happening, we can feel surges of feelings some might call nostalgia. And this is exactly why I cannot control these feelings. I cannot control these feelings, because I cannot control time. I am not in charge of placing the point that ends the lines which have begun.
Yesterday, I set down the point of Moses and Brianna coming to my writing group four years ago. Tomorrow, what am I in charge of? What am I responsible for? Is it my responsibility to usher in the nostalgia fed to me by being there to have the eyes to witness the final point of the line? The point that with my old memory has not made a space between, a space that I feel joyfully trapped in, because in that space I exist alongside the knowledge and workings and joys of God, a God who is sustained by his own thrills of bringing things up into himself, in concluding, in converging us with one another and with the world. I want to be there when it happens and I want to have been hoping the entire time, even when the thread of hope is thinnest.
There will always be a reason to be joyful, my friends, even when the lasagna is burned or the door of the U-Haul opens while you’re driving and you lose your end table, your mattress, and everything—or you get to that apartment in Minnesota and the heating doesn’t work. And even though the house plant should not live, nor Wendy’s be on the vine, the produce of the chocolate ice cream fail and the game of pool be a crap chute, the fifth pet fish swell up for the fifth time and there be no spaghetti in the cupboards, yet you will rejoice in the Lord; you will take joy in the God of your salvation. God, the Lord, is your strength. He makes your feet like the deer’s and makes you tread on your high places.
I expected that you would leave. I cannot say it is much of a convergence at all right now. It seems like the opposite. It seems like you are diverging from me and from a life lived here in that same space. But it is neither my responsibility nor yours nor anyone’s to determine the conclusions of life and its seasons, cycles, and constant proclamations. All anyone can do is wait expectantly for when we all converge into the living point of coherence and are made alive like the tulips budding under the somnolent, black dirt.
What was the status of the microbes that lived in, with, and under Jesus’ body? Were they divine microbes in the same way that Jesus was a divine person? Where is the boundary between human flesh and the non human organisms that it hosts?
On our body, there is anywhere from three to ten times the amount of non-human cells as human cells. What is a human? Is a human a human without all of these cells? What kind of bacteria did Jesus receive from Mary, and did the nature of these bacteria change when they became a part of Jesus? Are bacteria are part of us? When does something stop being a part of us? Did Jesus clip his toenails; did he ever cut his hair? What was the design of his chromosomes; his genetic code?
When Jesus offered the bread and the cup to his disciples, saying ‘this is my body and blood, did the disciples receive any of the sacred germs?’ Perhaps this is why they were able to perform so many miracles in the beginning. I’m not a fully committed cessationist, but maybe once the germs of Christ died off, so did the intense miraculous activity of the early church. From then on we have the spirit, and thus the miracles of Christ in history become less explicitly physical and more spiritual in nature.
Or maybe the descendents of these germs are carried on into the descendents of the church for thousands of years, and it is our duty to spread the bacteria of Christ to all the nations through common cup communion. Apostolic succession and laying on of hands becomes so much more important when you think of church history this way.
Maybe the flesh and fleshlings of Jesus were all just very ordinary throughout the course of his life.
But the disciples and Jesus in his resurrected body ate together as well. Did Jesus have a resurrected microbiome? Does the resurrected human body need a microbiome at all? When Timothy pressed his finger into the side of the Lord, did anything go out – or go in?
At the right hand of the father, has Jesus been eating this whole time? Have any humble earth born bacteria been helping him digest it?
The next story I am going to write is about an african penguin coming to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. I would tell you the details of this story further, but in order to surprise you, let’s just leave you with that titillating premise. The working title for it is, “Out of the Zoo I Have Called my Daughter”. I am really excited about it. It’s inspired by the dream I had last night and the entire story just came to me. Plus, it works well with a bundle of short stories I am currently working on tentatively called, “Three Stories to Concern Us”. Yet with the advent of this story, I think I am going to kick out the one I have already written and wasn’t sure about to once more spend its time in the trash disposal. I am privileged to do this.
I am taking a break from working on my novel. I am certainly going to finish it. I have said before that there is only one short story I have never finished, called “The Peacock’s Blanket”. It’s about this mother and daughter who go into a yarn shop while they are driving from Delver, Illinois (a fictional place) to New York (another fictional place). I was initially really excited about the story! The way I have in the past generated stories is by counterpointing two premises. The two story ideas counterpointed there, unfortunately, were not enough to generate a good story.
My only way of fixing it was, I guess, to make it much more complicated than it ought to have been. I started imagining their slow progression into the yarn shop and then into the apartment of the owner as the three stages of the soul, blah blah blah. You can guess why it failed—because it sucked. I just wanted to write an honest-to-God love story, but it ended up being this subtle piece of realist schlock. And I kid you not, in order to have the ending at least be interesting, I asked myself, “This might be better if the shop owner is an alien in disguise, or like a wizard who’s going to curse them and keep them there forever. I mean he’s a lonely old creepy dude who invites this mother and daughter into his apartment, surely there’s some wacko thing up beyond just his loneliness.”
Once you get to the point of asking whether the antagonist in your realist story should be an alien in disguise, you need to stop. Just stop. Go somewhere else, be someone else for someone else. No one asked you to perform your song of C-chords over and over again. In fact, we’ll pay you to stop.
But none of this misery of course applies to my newest story about the penguin, I can assure you. This one is sheer brilliance! Plus what I like about it is that it has given me a concept to work with in the micro collection. The first story I am currently putting through the editing wringer is about these two brothers and the nephew who make idols for a living in this valley. The uncle is tired of living in the valley, though, so without further adieu I might as well tell you that they try to escape. Does it work? Ah no. Does that mean something significant? You bet your bottom dollar it means something that is double-dog-baby-Bad-News-Bears.
The next story is about the penguin that comes to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. I won’t explain further, lest I spoil the excitement like I just did with the last one, but it does end with her on an airplane flying somewhere. Oh! Where? Tell me, tell me PLEASE!
And then the next story—which is totally a different thing entirely than the penguin—begins with a dude on an airplane flying to a far eastern country, in hopes that he will begin his vigilante career there. This story is based off a friend, actually, and I am not entirely sure what is going to happen in the story yet, but I do know how it ends. And I know vaguely what happens in the middle, but we’ll see how much I balance the fiction with the nonfictional raw material of my own experience and that of my friend’s.
When Novel is Spelled Ennui
Why am I doing all this, you ask? Because frankly, I have been working on the same novel-within-a-novel since October. It’s been lingering at around 50,000 words for like a month now and I am ashamed of going back to it. It is of a form and style so strange and unusual even to myself that I have thought about disowning the entire thing. Not just the entire thing, but disowning the entire mammoth collection that I have been working on for the past three years. You might think this is reactionary and a very unhealthy thing to do for someone with such a positively successful writing career so far, but let’s be honest: those stories need so much work.
The earlier ones, especially, within the collection. I might have been excited about the entire epic, ambitious thing one year ago, but as I have grown as a writer and in my taste and in my disposition, I have grown away from those stories. It’s almost like someone else wrote them. So if I get to heavily re-writing them in the next few months, maybe that will be of advantage to me. At the same time, maybe it won’t be. What’s worse, I made the decision of making the stories so interconnected and so linked together, such that if I were to take out the stories that I most enjoy and think are the strongest out of the collection, I am afraid that they will not stand on their own.
But don’t be afraid. I will finish the damn thing…just let me…do these three stories. And then after the enlivening fulfillment of having written, edited, completed, and published a smaller thing, with the sales and the money just pouring in, then I will be ready to return to my ancient ennui. Just not yet, Lord, not yet.
Despite it all, there’s still cheap brandy
In the meantime, in all that time in between work and this writing, I am either researching penguins (a recent development as of today. I am especially fond of the viral videos of penguins slipping on the ice, or the less viewed videos of african penguins clicking their beaks against cameras, one of which was so adorable, I almost got a little teary-eyed), hallucinogenic drugs (purely research, purely (I’m not kidding (I would call myself a psychonautic if I hated myself and loved fedoras))), SEO optimization, Patricia Highsmith (whose honesty about sexuality is enough to make a grown man not be interested I guess), and mixed drinks containing brandy. I have my sights next on the Porto Flip, which is made with port, brandy, and egg yolk—though one of my friends pointed out that it is not in fact egg yolk, but egg white. I don’t know the truth. The internet said.
If you were to ask me what I have been thinking about recently, it has been something like what my life is supposed to look like after the apocalypse. I believe many of us are living after some kind of personal apocalypse and we’re not quite sure what to do with ourselves. There is the collation of resources, the sharing of testimonials with one another, and the constant fear that some radiation might still be threading itself through our veins. Some or few of us are able to find an abandoned house or such and move in, filled with strong visions to renovate it for the sake of the lost, old world. Some of us struggle to recall the visions that motivated us in our lives before the apocalypse and wonder if it is even worth it to retain and mature our youthful visions. But the world after the apocalypse is the world that desperately needs our vision, or some vision, for how it ought to be.
The apocalypse could have been anything. For me, it was not leaving college but it certainly was that for some people. Getting the heck out of college was one of the most exciting moments in my life. For some people, the apocalypse might have been marriage, or maybe a relationship gone bad. I think in general what I mean with the term, if I were to hold onto it for its personal application, would mean something like the end of things for the individual desires. Or it could refer to the experience of having gone through a kind of death. It can be as ambiguous as, “Nothing feels like it used to anymore. I don’t know why I am here and this place seems so empty” to “I didn’t know I would still be alive. I didn’t know I was going to be living in North Carolina. I didn’t know I was going to be working as a marketing consultant. I didn’t know and I didn’t want this, I didn’t want to be here, I didn’t even imagine this place.” Maybe this apocalypse is just the future, I don’t know, the future we can never be prepared for. We planned for the future, but some other thing revealed itself and it is far more barren than our daydreams.
Regardless of what my apocalypse has been, regardless of the beautiful and confusing spiritual states it has brought me through, regardless of all those moments I wish I could actually go back to, moments of sublimity that I will remember decades from now, I have in my life after the apocalypse been struck by the sense that it is my choice to do something with the pieces remaining. In my life previously, I have looked for momentums, forces, feelings, inspirations, cultivated desires, or life decisions to give me focus. They were my spiritual food for a time. I could sustain myself for months after being in a movie with Kirk Cameron, as ridiculous as that sounds. I could sustain myself by finding purpose—not just in a project or a short story—but by declaring to myself, “This is the season of failure for me. Okay. I can bear it.” Or: “This is the season of my ascension. I know what I am to do.”
I no longer know how to place myself, but I know what I am supposed to do. And I will choose to follow my marching orders and live my life faithfully, despite how I feel and despite my inability to know what is going on. I’ve lost track of the story, I’m not in control. I’ll figure it out later. Maybe that’s part of the apocalypse, the fact that we don’t know what’s going on. It’s been wonderful, truly. So much has been clarified for me and I cannot believe that God is still treating me with such gentleness and kindness. I know how I am supposed to be living. I pray that my feelings will align themselves with a joy more lasting from day to day and unfold as clarity where there is deep and thick fog.
Speaking of fog, gentleness, and all that, I remember a time when I was very critical of my pastor and pastors for speaking how they did on blogs about sin. I was critical of the general use of rhetoric that deliberately chose offensive terms and phrases as grenades to lob at people in an attempt to see who gets hurt. The idea, I believed, with much of this rhetoric was that if you successfully hurt someone, then you’ve hit your target and had succeeded. Huzzah! I utterly despised this kind of thing and it made me sick that a Christian would make the Gospel seem so unappealing and cruel to the people who needed it most.
But I’ve changed. I don’t know what the lines in the battle are, I don’t know what the battle is, and I don’t know who I am in fighting it. Except I know that the Gospel I adhere to is not palatable. But it’s not just the Gospel. People who adhere to the Gospel and constantly badger us with, “It’s offensive! It’s offensive!” but never extrapolate exactly why it’s offensive are doing no one any good. What I mean is that some people say in one breath that it’s offensive, but in another refuse to let that Gospel actually be offensive. The Gospel, while at it’s baseline, is that Jesus loves you and died for your sins, the conclusion and realities of this love do have an effect on the world around us. Fundamental effects. Effects so deep and profound that they will root out families, divide brothers with a sword, and cause people such impalpable offense that they will hate the idea of Jesus until the end of their lives.
When we express the influence of the Gospel on our lives, that is the grounds on which the world starts to hate us. The Gospel of Jesus implies that homosexuality is a sin that at its core uproots what humans are built for, implies that transgender thought is a lie and a sin, implies that fornication is deserving of eternal damnation. I could go on, but I don’t need to. The Bible is right there and it says what it says, from Genesis to the destruction of the world by fire.
It has been extremely difficult to parse out what are right and wrong presentations of this Gospel, especially when the internet is involved. Not just the internet, but the two simultaneous facts that we do not want to cause offense in itself yet we must communicate the fundamental offense of the Gospel. How and when are we supposed to do this? What is our language supposed to look like? Censorial and cautious, lest you don’t make an untasty thing more untasty than it already is? Or resonant and provocative, just to get the attention of the deaf and dumb and blind? I don’t really know how to work through all that. I’ve tried, but I am not a clear enough thinker to work it all out into a system.
I do know that Jesus’ parables functioned as opaque messages that hid the meaning and impact of their teaching and I think Christian authors on the internet who seek to clarify the Gospel by means of harsh rhetoric might do well to measure their language against the fact that Jesus didn’t want to reach the spiritually deaf, dumb, blind with his parables. At the same time, perhaps the parables function in the same way that harsh rhetoric functions: to clarify who the sheep and the goats are. Not to reach the goats, but to make sure we know who they are.
What I do know is that some situations call for grenades. And sometimes the dog that yelps is the one you were aiming for. We’d like to see what the sound of the yelp is. I recognize my language here is imprecise, but people who know me I think should know what I mean. This is a journal entry, so don’t expect much. A journal entry on a freaking personal blog.
I have spent the past five years in the same town of Moscow, a town whose Christian community can sometimes be the most crushingly self-aware place on the planet. To add to the mystique and comparative mythology of the town, you get some people who equate Moscow with the church they go to and others who are just trying to live quiet and peaceable lives without engaging in the burning hot embers of DISCOURSE!
But I have learned a lot here. I have grown up here, learned how to become a man, learned how to deal with suck and how to deal with my own crap and with the crap of others. I have had plenty and I have had want (like right now). I have suffered through some wants of soul so dark that the primary means of defanging those wants was by making jokes about them. Moscow is a safe place. It’s a hospital and training ground. And what I have spent the past five years doing is coming to terms with my own beliefs and the strange alternate realities that result from my beliefs magnetically opposing the beliefs of others.
Someone I respect told me something that stuck with me and has influenced me in surprising ways. It’s funny how one sentence can do that, even if it was just an offhand comment. He said (and I paraphrase), “When peoples’ elbows get pointy, you have found their idol.” This is a person who has spent the past four decades talking to strangers about what they believe. And that sentence has been the main piece of insight that I have been ruminating on concerning the defense of some kinds of rhetorical presentations of the truth. Sometimes the hurt dog is just a dog who is ashamed. And if we have found shame, it’s worth it for their sake to know what wound that shame is pouring out of.
The question we want to ask is, “What do people worship?” and the way to figure that out, sometimes, is by poking potential sacred cows. You can do this by lobbing language grenades. It’s amazing to see what lines people choose to rally behind. That is where conversations can happen, real conversations. That can be the front-lines of a change of heart, even without presupposing where the other stands. When someone starts getting nervous and uncomfortable, that can be tremendously exciting in a conversation. Not because it’s fun to see people get nervous, but because it’s insightful to find out why. Maybe the person is right in feeling uncomfortable!
Side-note: Conversation and discourse is not the end-all be-all of apologetics. Sometimes the end-all of an apologetic conversation is a terse conclusion of the Gospel.
If you know what kind of thing I am referring to, I would add the caveat that prudential discussions are not appropriate for harsh rhetoric. Not only can harsh words for issues of prudence, like dress etc, actually muck up the conversation, they can also lend well to a host of logical fallacies. Consider bulverism, for example. Woohoo! That is the difficulty I currently have little clarity on. What do fruitful conversations look like and when should conversation actually get shut down? Especially concerning prudential issues? What does it look like for the Gospel to touch those? And what qualifies as a prudential issue? Does using someone’s pronouns qualify?
I don’t know. I don’t know if in two months I will cringe at what I am saying now. I do know that I cringe at some things I said two months ago.
I also know that sometimes action is preferable to the hours and days you could have probably spent digging in on yourself for the caution or lack of caution about your actions. Sometimes, it’s a waste of time and it’s more ineffective to weigh the costs and the perhaps undercover failures that might come from not taking action. Sometimes you should weigh the costs first. We are to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves and on both counts, I have failed many times.
It has been overcast in Da Nang for the past two days and the weather prophets prophesied the same being so for the next few forward. This morning, I prayed that the sun would break through. I am sitting on the balcony now, wearing my sunglasses—I can see the blue sky, I can see the horizon, I can see the rugs of webbed foam unfurling behind the lines of the khaki waves.
I don’t know if we can say that God either answers prayers or doesn’t answer prayers. When people present me with their prayer lives, I get a strong sense that they’re only presenting me with their superstitions. What I can say about my own prayer life is that life is worth living only when we are connected to the wellspring of all life. If we don’t return this sun to sender or turn the keys-to-jammed-locks over to his hands, how can we see what sustains the sun or what opens doors?
What a windy day.
I was looking over at the people working on the roof of the hotel across from ours, the Soho Boutique. I don’t know what they are doing. It looks like they are filling an empty pool with sand from bags. The man lifts the shovel, turns over the sand, hands dirty and mouth covered. With every turn of the spade, there is a cloud of smoke that twirls away. I know why he wears a mask and why he wants to be wearing sunglasses like I am. Why does he work? Why do any of us work, or do anything at all? I think it’s because we love something, even if it’s not the work itself. We pick ourselves up and go to jobs we don’t like, because there is some love we are grateful for. It’s a way of showing thanks, I guess. And a way of carrying on.
Money answers everything, after all, even if we only have so much of it. Money pays rent and allows us to buy food. But why continue on in this system, or keeps ourselves afloat in an economy that has us at a disadvantage? Because some people can’t do much about it. For some people, their work is as good as slavery. They make just barely enough to pay the rent, just barely enough to buy their food. Why do these people work? Do they work because they love something, too, or do they work only to survive?
Even the person who works to survive can find some love worth surviving for. Money answers everything and it has absolutely nothing to do with happiness, or nothing to do with gratitude. The negative way of arguing this point is pointing to all the people with all their answers solved by money who lack gratitude. And money in the pockets of these people is still an answer for the unprivileged, the ones who work to survive and not because they love their work. Money answers everything for those who don’t have money when it is in the pockets of those who can give it. The giving of money ought to be the outpouring of gratitude on those in need. Concerning money, no one has anything to fear. Who is hungry? Who is sick? Who is in need? We all go to the same place wearing the same skin, we all ask for someone to be there in our last moments as the representative of what we’re leaving behind and not what we take with us. The person who lacks is the person who lacks a love that endures the final impoverishment.
Love is patient and kind. It hopes all things, endures all things. What does love endure? Love endures tragedy and the greatest tragedies. Love endures the disease that prevents skin from remaining attached to the body. If we die and have love, we have lost nothing but our grief. What does love hope? Love hopes that God hears our prayers, even though they are trivial. Love hopes that our confusion will not last forever and our foggy consciousness will break on the shores of the sound. Love hopes that God will wind all things that have unwound. Love hopes that the Lord is not made in the image of man, but that man is made in the image of God. Love hopes that someday we’d understand what that means, despite the inequality of gratitude and the absolute poverty the world suffers from, the poverty of hope.
God, how long have I been the believer who thinks faith is something to inspect, to turn around in my hands? How have I been picky? You can count the ways, you know. You know that I have thought so many times that faith is that thing which is the privilege of believers to always inspect and never receive. Your servant once said that we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. But I tremble at the thought that I have never rested in my faith. I fear that I have seen faith as that doctrine which is my privilege to reject. Those who have never had faith do not have this privilege. And if I had rested in your word, I would remember that I don’t have this privilege, either.
But I have spent my life trying to pay for what I already have and cannot lose. I don’t need to fight for this faith, I don’t need to tackle it. Faith is not something I need to work for or maintain. Faith is not exhausting. Faith is rest.
Mr. Worker-Man is not putting the sand into an empty pool. He is shoveling what is actually dirt into pots, so they can grow more plants up here in the sun and wind.
Why do I work? I do not work for my faith. If I had to work for my faith, I would have nothing to be thankful for.
Somehow this all relates back to money, but I don’t know how. What I do know is that I work, because I need to practice my gratitude. I work, because in me is the greatest force in the world. If only I rested each and every day in the Holy Spirit that dwells in me! God, I do not have to work to keep you in this apartment of skin walls and studs of ribs.
I think what I am trying to say with all of this is that I have been working hard at something that is not work. Faith is not work. This is a distinction that I am making now while my brain is turned on, so that this reasoned declaration can make its way into my skeletal fingers. I work, because I have been loved.
And what does this work look like? This is the work that strives to make the passion of Jesus my own. This is the work that is done with fear and trembling. We fear, because fear is what most people feel when they stand in the courts of kings. We tremble, because we stand before God each and every day. And because we fear and tremble, we are encouraged to lift our drooping knees and stand strong, stand like we have just woken up from the long slumber of faith. We have been waiting for this moment. We rested all night and dreamed of what it would be like to be here, to stand right here, under the burden and pressure of this magnificence. This magnificence we know and read in the embroidery on the walls, of pine trees swaying—I can see hundreds of them now on the beach—and the curtain of the hotel window across the street slapping against the concrete wall hundreds of feet up, wanting to let loose and flap like the birds chattering amidst the chatter of bus horns and waitresses thanking the Korean tourists for misreading the numbers on the plastic currency. I know it is a magnificent court, because I don’t know how far away the land is on the other side of this sea, or how long it took the clouds that hug the mountain’s head above the blind, dead, dumb Lady Buddha to amass.
How long have I been sleeping? What do I dream about when my eyes are closed? Do I dream that I will be put somewhere else, that I would understand a little more, that I would be given something I do not have yet? Do I daydream about the life I could be more easily grateful for? I daydream about feeling awesome all the time, feeling 100%, that I would have the raw strength of youth to make good use of the evil days and to know how to be careful with those outside instinctively.
Enough rhetorical questions. I think lists of rhetorical questions are what I come to without editing and am trying to make a didactic point. Let me make it more clearly. If you are tired and confused, if you pick at your faith like a three old boy picks at a plate of peas, you need to be sent to bed. You’re fussy and exhausted, you’re confused and a brat, because you have not gotten your sleep. Go to bed. Rest. Get up when you feel refreshed and eat a small breakfast, drink a little coffee. Dreams reveal the heart and you should be dreaming about the magnificence you will wake up to, the magnificence of the court of the world. It is here that you stand every day, asking for what you have received and thanking God for it. It is here that you ask what work is before you, what he requires of his servants. He has given you the rest you need, he has given you a place to sleep and a home to wash your feet. The question that should always be on your lips is a rhetorical question. And it is wonderful. “How did I get here?”
Vietnam is your court. Idaho might be, too, I think, if it had beaches on seas.
If walking around barefoot was what it took for me to remember that where I walk is God’s holy court, I would walk around barefoot for the rest of my life. Teach me to know, Good Lord, what are the good works you ask of me. And please remind me that you are rest not labour, authority and not an acquisition, understanding itself and not something to be understood.
O blessed Letters, that combine in one,
All Ages past, and make one live with all:
By you, we do confer with who are gone,
And the dead-living unto Counsel call:
By you, th’unborn shall have communion
Of what we feele, and what doth us befall.
-Musophilus, Samuel Daniel
Let us haste to hear it
And call the noblest to the audience.
-Fortinbras, Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Critics love Hamlet not just because it is a masterpiece, but because it is also a play which reveals the purpose of stagecraft and the power of all literature. Critics find so much satisfaction in it because, besides its many other virtues, it reminds them that their job is meaningful. Hamlet impresses upon us the fact that the stories we tell, the letters we write, and the plays we stage are actually important. Books and plays are the ghosts and voices of our fathers: they are the dead teaching the living. To know the truth and to be virtuous, even the king must listen. The plot of Hamlet revolves around literature and play-acting as a means of power, of revealing truth, and of instilling virtue in royalty. The play reminds us why we must treasure the tragedies of the past.
In the beginning of the play, Hamlet is almost entirely powerless—or so he thinks. His feigned madness—a sort of one-man play, if you will—is the beginning of his break from the accepted order of the court, which is in many ways the most deceptive theatre in the whole story. It is, however, his growing power as an actor and writer that allows him to fulfill his destiny as a prince. The major turning points in Hamlet’s personal journey are marked by writing and talk of literature. When Hamlet first meets with the ghost of his father, he comes to the conclusion: ‘Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat in this distracted globe. Remember thee? Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter.’ (1.5.103-111) He then writes down his determination to execute his duty as a prince listening to his father’s instruction.
Everything in the court is fake, and so the only way to reveal the truth is to write a play. Hamlet tells us: ‘The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’ (3.2.21-26) Thus, through Hamlet’s writing, the king’s guilt is unmasked.
But Hamlet does not go on to execute justice as he should, because of his self-absorption and fear. Hamlet should be trusting in God, obeying his father, and acting righteously on behalf of the state, but instead he waffles about between hatred and fear. He is afraid that his calling to act like a king will lead to his death—and he is right. But this indecision is what draws him closer to the audience, because we too pass our lives wrestling with indecision over the smallest matters. We feel pity at his struggles, but also relief, knowing that we will likely never have to put our life on the line for the sake of the kingdom. Contemplating his own death fills Hamlet with indecision, most evidently in the play’s most famous soliloquy. But the contemplation of others who are dead fills him with the determination to fulfill his duty: the ghost of his father, the body of Polonius, the skull of Yorick, the legacy of Alexander, and finally the sight of Ophelia’s body all move him towards his end. This brings to mind the medieval practice of memento mori, that is, contemplating death in order to die well. Hamlet’s personal journey is very much an arc where he slowly learns to accept that, as the prince, his noble death is required to remove a murderous king and heal Denmark’s rot.
The final scene of the play begins with talk of one play and ends with talk of another. For the first, Hamlet is explaining to Horatio how he escaped Rosencrantz and Guildernstern: ‘They had begun the play. I sat me down, devised a new commission, wrote it fair—I once did hold it, as our statists do, a baseness to write fair, and labored much how to forget that learning; but, sir, now it did me yeoman’s service.’ (5.2.35-40) The ability to write, though he once abhorred it, is what allowed him to rewrite the message to the English and turn the tables on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In other words, Hamlet is rewriting the very course of the play so that he can return to Denmark and fulfill his duty.
The final metaphorical play lies in the very conclusion of the story. After Hamlet’s death, Horatio says, ‘Give order that these bodies high on a stage be placed to the view, and let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world how these things came about.’ (5.2.419-422) Fortinbras, soon to be king, replies: ‘Let us haste to hear it and call the noblest to the audience.’ (429-430) Horatio continues: ‘But let this same be presently performed even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance on plots and errors happen.’ (437-440) And in the final word of the play, Fortinbras declares: ‘Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royal.’ (441-444) Thus Hamlet’s life and death is turned into an example story for the nobility.
Why is the tragic hero always a noble? In tragedy, there is always something wrong with the royal family, whether incest or murder or a bit of both. The only solution is that most people will end up dead or banished. Tragedies show how any evil within the royalty will be rooted out; otherwise, it would trickle down and poison the whole body politic. Often that scouring requires great sacrifice. Plays, then, within the real world, as well as the fictional world of Hamlet, hold a mirror to nature. They convict the conscience of evil, they remind the ruler of their calling towards virtuous action, and they tell the story of horrible things that happen to royalty when a ruler goes awry.
In the ancient world all the way up to Shakespeare’s day, wisdom literature was often gathered in books called mirrors for princes. These treatises and textbooks were designed to instruct and train the prince in virtuous action and the requirements of leadership, although the range of content can be demonstrated in the gulf between the Book of Proverbs and Machiavelli’s Il Principe. Throughout Hamlet, the audience of each play (literal and figurative) is the nobility. The audience of Hamlet’s literal play is Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet rewrites Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s metaphorical play to save himself, and his audience then is the English king. Finally, the language of theatre at the conclusion is so strong that one is tempted to think that Horatio will be staging a play to reenact what just took place. His audience is the new king, Fortinbras, and other nobles: ‘Call the noblest to the audience.’ (5.2.430) This retelling of the story will reveal the truth, first to the prince but in the end to all, ‘lest more mischance on plots and errors happen.’ (440) Thus the kingdom is unified.
Tragedy becomes a way in which even the common people can participate with the nobility in a shared spectacle, with commoners acting as nobles on stage and likewise receiving as the audience an example of virtuous action. For the common audience, tragedy evokes relief because it depicts wicked or inappropriate rulers chastised at the cost of noble sacrifice. The royal family is that which dies on behalf of the people, on behalf of preserving the social order—this is true for the ancient Greek tragedy as well as Shakespeare’s plays. There is something rotten in Denmark or incestuous in Thebes, and the only way for the balance to be restored is for a lot of the important people to die. And if it weren’t for the stubbornness of some, or the indecision of others, or the sheer malice of yet others, the cost would not be as great to purify the royal family. It comforts the commoners to see a depiction of justice and deadly fate reaching even the most powerful of the ruling class, who in the real world always seem so cruelly insulated from the struggles that the lower folk face.
There is in tragedy a comfort given: that wickedness will not entrench itself, that the good princes will suffer on our behalf because of the evil, and that though many will die, the system as a whole will survive and the unnamed of society will carry on unharmed. We never see much of those who Oedipus or Macbeth or Hamlet rule over because they are in the audience with us. The players on the stage are the rulers, and we are the subjects. They are the teachers out of the past, the voices from the dead, and we the humble hearers. But there is a further power of the stage which the written word lacks: theatre allows us to contemplate the thoughts and deeds of the dead in living words and moving bodies. Tragedy is wisdom given flesh, and the ghosts of our fathers given voice.