The OF Blog: The Books of My Life

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Books of My Life

Earlier this year, I was asked by Safaa Dib, the editor of the Portuguese magazine Bang!, if I would write a 2500 word essay on "The Books of My Life" for translation and publication in the 15th issue of Bang!  This issue came out in Portugal last month and today I received my contributor's copy.  For those who can't read Portuguese (and I should note that Luís Santos does an excellent job translating my florid words into fluid Portuguese), here is the article in English.  Hopefully this will allow some insight into the stories that have shaped me for over three decades now.

I have spent a long time reflecting on what truly might be the “Books of My Life,” especially in regard to those works that touch upon those imaginative vistas so frequently associated with fantasies and other speculative fictions.   There are so many works that have influenced me over the years that it is difficult to just choose a small sample of stories and discuss them without at least grounding them in my life.  Therefore, I will begin by discussing “place” and its role in the creation of the stories that have enchanted me for years.

In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus chooses to identify his place in the world by going from the intimately local (Class of Elements) to the, well, “universal” (the Universe).  This inductive approach to placing himself inside the context of a greater universe is similar to how I believe many fantasies came to be:  the original storytellers tried to place an imaginative form of their own intimate locales within a larger, stranger, and sometimes frightful world that seemed to exist outside the limns of their villages or city-states.  The earliest mythologies preserved in writing, the Sumerian tales of Gilgomesh, Enkidu, Inanna, the action frequently takes place just a few mountains or valleys away from the Mesopotamian river valley.  Fraught with a dark, subterranean underworld and god-sent bulls and a rare flower (not to mention a flood that almost certainly is the antecedent for Noah’s), these tales served to educate generations of listeners about how they should conduct their lives and how they should remember the limitations of human life.  Yet often overlooked in discussions of mythologies, ancient as well as more modern, are the visual aspects that shape the tale to fit the needs of the audience.  From the hoary frost of the Norse myths regarding the world’s foundation to the shapeless Chaos from whence Night and Day were birthed and then from them the later gods and goddesses to the Cherokee belief that the water beetle Dâyuni'sï scooped up mud in order to provide a resting place during his sojourn there from the sky realm of Gälûñ'lätï, each myth takes natural elements (or the perceived absence of them) and they create fantastical places upon which stories of truth, justice, good, evil, and despair could be enacted upon in an aural tapestry that would simultaneously entrance their listeners (and later, readers) and lead them to consider the messages embedded within the stories.

In recent centuries, these fantastical mythologies expanded roughly along national lines.  The English have their “Matter of Britain,” or the cycle of stories surrounding the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  In France and Italy, there is the “Matter of France” and the tales surrounding Charlemagne’s Twelve Paladins, particularly Roland/Orlando.  The Spanish have El Cid to represent the Reconquista.  Each of these, however, were birthed over several centuries and with the exception of the 16th century epic poem Orlando Furioso, all came before Columbus’s voyages to the so-called “New World.”

With the circumnavigation of the globe by the last ship in Magellan’s fleet in 1521, the belief in a world suspended on pillars, flat as a plane, was shattered.  Yet the melding of physical and imaginative “place” continued to produce moving works, such as Camões’s Os Lusíadas and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the metaphoric locales became at least as important as real-world parallels.  One could argue that due to this ascendancy of the metaphoric , irreal place at the expense of the “real” physical locations (slightly altered to fit the needs of the tale), the unity of locale and belief, bound together in myths that reinforced social mores, had begun to fracture into the “speculative” and “realist” fictions of today.

There is some justification, some might argue, to considering fantasies to be “lesser” works.  After all, they do not possess the believability of the earlier myths – there is little sense of there being a discovery of Hobbiton in the layers of English detritus as there still is for some faint, distant echo of a historical King Arthur.  “Place” in regards to modern fantasies, feels estranged from known realities.  Yet this is not always the case.  Take for instance my native region, the American South.  Unlike virtually any part of Anglo North America, it possesses a memory of place so strong that history itself has been warped to suit the needs of the populace.

“Place” in the American South is treacherous, full of cultural and historical landmines that can detonate if the erstwhile traveler takes a single false step.   “The South” even 152 years after the beginning of the American Civil War, carries connotations of chattel slavery, plantation life, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and of enduring memories of the “Lost Cause.”  These sordid elements combine in odd ways, creating what might be some of the finest speculative fictions of the past century, several of which have served to influence writers across the globe even today.

“The South” has been mythologized as a place of sweltering summer heat and humidity, of decaying farms and encroaching kudzu.  The very air seems to sometimes carry a hint of ruined plantations and burning homes.  The devastation of the Civil War was much more than just the loss of a significant percentage of the pre-war population or the razing of several towns and plantations.  No, in the minds of many there was a sort of metaphysical impression put on the souls of those who survived and endured:  a sort of social Original Sin in which not just the sins of the fathers would be visited upon the descendants to the fourth degree but that there would be a tendency to slip into the evils of pride, anger, and racism.  While this mindset is not totally true, there is still a sense of a sort of Hawthornian “scarlet letter” that a great many Southerners still bear in penance for the evils of their forebears and themselves. 

Such societal feelings, however negative they may be, can be the impetus for great, imaginative literature.  Take for instance the late 19th/early 20th century Brer Rabbit stories.  These tales of a clever rabbit outwitting a devious fox, a brute bear, and other anthropomorphized animals, represent two strands of Southern life, each of which were born of a melding of West African, Southeastern Native American, and  Anglo-Celtic tales.  I grew up listening to the Joel Chandler version of the tales, in which the characters are presented as quaint tales told by plantation workers, with implicit racist commentary.  Yet the Brer Rabbit stories carried another connotation, one that Zora Neale Hurston transcribes in her first non-fiction work, Mules and Men.  There, Brer Rabbit leads a subversive resistance against the established order and that buried within the fantasies is a social commentary grounded in the complex realities of post-Civil War Southern society.  These twin poles, of white manipulation of black myth in order to suit their social hierarchical views and the black subversion of this same hierarchy, represent in fantasy form in cultural topography of the South even unto my childhood in the late 1970s and 1980s.  Looking back on these tales now, especially that of the “Tar Baby,” I cannot help but see the story in two ways:  a tale of a clever rabbit who manages to escape even his own deserved comeuppance and a metaphor for the battles fought to preserve a culture that was repeatedly oppressed by the dominant racial group.  Taking into account the variations between the Chandler and Hurston recordings of originally oral tales, the Brer Rabbit stories might be some of the more controversial and yet culturally significant fantasies to be produced, not just in my native South but in the world as a whole.

The South is also known for its Southern Gothic literature, which captures in haunting, eloquent words the mixture of religious fervor, faith, despair, and ruin that seem to haunt Southerners even today.  As Flannery O’Connor once said in an essay:

“I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”

The Devil, nearly absent elsewhere, seems to lurk in the hollows and vales of the South.   When I first read O’Connor in college, I could not help but feel as though in her tales of sinners captured brilliantly the looming dread of the afterlife.  Although there is nothing explicitly supernatural about her fictions, the battle for redemption can be seen in characters such as the boy in “The River” who seeks so earnestly for a redemption that he barely understands that he continually immerses himself in a local river in a tragic effort to purge his body of sin and impurity.  Her first collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, is replete with tales of those who seek redemption or redress of grievances in one form or fashion.  O’Connor comments on the latent power of redemption in an essay that I believe goes straight to the heart of why her fictions resonate so much with readers, particularly Southerners:

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

Nowhere in her fiction is this “mock damnation” felt more strongly than in her first novel, Wise Blood, and its protagonist Hazel Motes and his “Church Without Christ.”  Having read it twice in my life, the novel grows even more haunted and grotesque on the second reading.  O’Connor’s use of religious imagery, particularly Catholic symbols filtered through a Southern apocalyptic lens, served as the genesis for some of the most unsettling fictions that I have read over the second half of my life.

If O’Connor’s South is a place in which the worst religious-inspired nightmares haunt its denizens, then William Faulkner’s fictions, mostly set in the fictional Mississippi Yoknapatawpha County, strikes at the confluence of past and present that pervaded Southern customs for over a century after the Civil War.  His tales are replete with families that have come down in life after the war, yet still clinging to the shredded, rotting remnants of former familial fame.  Stories like “A Rose for Emily” capture this in an almost horrific fashion.  When I first read it as an 18 year-old in 1992, I recall feeling a vague sense that Emily could have easily been any of a number of elderly women that I knew in the 1980s, those who would rather shut themselves away from the present in order to cling to a glorified past now mostly devoid of any resemblance to the present’s grim realities.  Faulkner’s fictions play upon this struggle to reconcile the past and its atrocities with the present’s demands.  In Absalom, Absalom!, this conflict is outlined in perhaps its greatest depth, making for a tale that feels as much a synopsis of a century of cursed existence as a tale of a family’s rise and fall.  Each time that I return to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, I feel as though I am experiencing a past South that exists as much on the metaphorical level of a place struggling to find itself within a world of hide-bound tradition as it does as a penetrating look into the actual “real” world of complicated race and class struggles.  Re-reading Faulkner after reading some of the Latin American realismo mágico writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, who both have cited Faulkner as an influence, it is easy to hear within their tales of three years’ of rain and the “war of the end of the world” echoes of Faulkner’s exploration of how humans are molded by their native lands and how those histories shape us in ways that seem utterly fantastical to those who grew up outside these tortured traditions and decadent societies.

Yes, the sense of the decadent pervades Southern Gothic literature and its cousin once removed, magic realism.  Ruin is in the ascendency and no greater goal than the redemption of individual or societal souls is at stake.  This has a resonance in several fantasies, particularly epic fantasies such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (which I read as a child, but despite re-reading it several times between 13 and 18, it did not have as large of a hold on me, perhaps due to its “foreign” qualities), but whereas secondary-world fantasies, with their invented locales, are at some remove from the high moral stakes that are often featured in Southern Gothic literature.  Although many of the classic writers of Southern Gothic literature are now dead, one writer still alive who uses its settings, themes, and techniques is Cormac McCarthy.  While McCarthy might be more famous today for his Western-set works such as Blood Meridian or The Border Trilogy, he began by writing dark, almost depraved works set in mountainous region of East Tennessee.  His  1973 novel, Child of God, describes the life of a loner, Lester Ballard, who sinks so far into depravity (necrophilia is but one of his numerous crimes) that instead of being repulsed by him, readers may instead sympathize with his transgressions against early 20th century Southern society.  McCarthy’s short, staccato bursts of dialogue and sparse description create a setting that captures, similar to O’Connor but in an even more stark fashion, the desire for redemption even when damnation looms darkly over the narrative.  Unlike Faulkner and O’Connor, both of whom I have re-read several times over the past two decades, I have yet to re-read any of McCarthy’s stories, as they are so frightening in their feverish realism that they have seared their outlines into my mind.  Those who read McCarthy can expect to find something more fantastical than surreal fantasy within his tales.  It’s as though McCarthy has through his use of rural Appalachian settings created a dark, twisted fable within what appears at first to be a grim realist work.  Place here, as in Faulkner and O’Connor, becomes as much the grounds for myths to spring up from as a location upon which we might walk across.

Thinking again on this question of “Books of My Life,” perhaps it is best to say that the place where I grew up, the American South, is as much the grounds upon which fantastical nightmares and feverish dreams arise as a region that one can find on a map.  The stories of its evils and desire for redemption are, as Shakespeare says, such stuff as dreams are made.  Our fictions merely reflect a mindset that may be foreign to others, but which it is difficult to read without sensing that something fantastical has come to nestle itself beside quotidian life.  To these tales I return time and time again, in order to understand just a little more how this wonderfully mad culture came into being.

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