Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zindell, David

"Long before we knew that the price of the wisdom and immortality we sought would be almost beyond our means to pay, when man -- what was left of man -- was still like a child playing with pebbles and shells by the seashore, in the time of the quest for the mystery known as the Elder Eddas, I heard the call of the stars and prepared to leave the city of my birth and death."
Thus begins David Zindell's 1988 novel Neverness, which is tied for first place with just one other book (*) as my favorite novel of all time.  So favorite, in fact, that I wrote an online FAQ-type document called A Travel Guide to Neverness about the unique sci-fi setting and culture that Zindell created.

Zindell spent the late 1980s and most of the 1990s on the tales of Neverness -- comprising one short story and four novels -- then moved on to write another series of novels in the fantasy genre (which I haven't yet read).  I have massive respect for Zindell as a teacher, too.  It's rare to find someone who writes so dreamily and philosophically who also has his feet grounded in the hard practical work of getting kids ready for adulthood.

"Neverness" itself is a city on an island (also called Neverness) on a cold planet named Icefall. Human beings came to Icefall thousands of years before the events of Zindell's stories, which take place at least 20,000 years in our future. Neverness is special because it is the home to the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame. This is a high-minded organization with the goal of discovering the secrets of the universe and the meaning of life.

Much of the intrigue of the Neverness stories involves the different professions of the Order, whose adherents go about Seeking that Ineffable Flame in different ways. We readers get to know the black-robed pilots the best; they fly sophisticated lightships from star to star by proving theorems of probabilistic topology -- i.e., they must prove that there are links between the starting and ending "fixed points" in the spacetime manifold in order to make the journey. Sounds far-fetched, but Zindell's flowing prose makes it work:
"With the number storm carrying me along towards the moment of proof, I passed into dreamtime. There was an indescribable perception of orderedness; there was beauty and terror as the manifold opened before me. The number storm intensified, nearly blinding me with the white light of dreamtime. I wondered, as I had always wondered, at the nature of dreamtime and that wonderful mental space we call the manifold. Was the manifold true deep reality, the reality ordering the shape and texture of the outer universe? Some cantors believe this (my mother is not one of these), and it is their faith that when mathematics is perfectly realized, the universe will be perfectly understood. But they are pure mathematicians, and we pilots are not. In the manifold there is no perfection. There is much that we do not understand."
In the above quote you also hear about the cantors (pure mathematicians), and there are also scryers, eschatologists, cetics, horologues, fabulists, tinkers, and holists.   The last are especially interesting to me, since they embody Zindell's fascination with Hesse's Glass Bead Game.  With their goal of understanding patterns and whole systems, the holists work to develop and perfect a Universal Syntax for expressing any possible idea and comparing it with any other.  There's almost a religious awe in something so powerful...
"I believe we must learn the infinite subtleties and the deepest logic of language. I believe we must become true speakers of the Word. When we have learned to speak of all possible connections between all things, then we may extend the metaphors of language into an infinite number of new relationships and forms. Only then will we be able to make a new mathematics. Only then will we create a perfect mirror in our words and thus make a grammar for all nature that will be truly universal."
All the high-minded philosophy is fun, but Zindell's stories are also about hope, love, and the little joys and pains of life.  He conveys the wonderful goal of being able to open your eyes widely and say "yes" to a universe that is flashing the word "no" at you too many times to count.

Ha!  I didn't plan it, but the above links back perfectly to the quote from Andre Breton's Nadja in my first post of this month's A-Z challenge!  :-)  This has been a fantastic experience, and I thank everyone who came to visit.  I may now take a week or so off blogging to recharge my batteries and think about what to do next.  Happy Walpurgisnacht!

- - -

(*) Footnote: I don't want to take away from Zindell's brilliance in this post, so I'll just give a link to a place where I've already blathered on at length about my other favorite novel.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for Yates, Dame Frances

Frances Yates (1899-1981) was an English historian who specialized in the esoteric traditions of Europe during the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  When she started her career, these were pretty much untouchable topics in academia, and she was one of the major 20th century figures who made them respectable.

Because Yates was best known for introducing the public to some strange and unstudied historical topics, it's hard to separate her from her fascinating material.  Still, I think her genius was that of a Glass Bead Game Master, in that she didn't just catalog the facts and figures -- she synthesized!  When I read her books, she gives me a deep intuitive feel for the sweep of connections between those facts and figures.  Who else could help you learn how Shakespeare's plays were connected to the plight of the Jews across Europe?  Or how people being thrown out of windows were related to the dawn of modern magic, or to the very first encyclopedias, or to the first scientific societies?

A lot of Yates' research involved the Renaissance polymath Giordano Bruno, who is known for being an early adopter of Copernican heliocentrism, and an even earlier pioneer of the idea that there are other worlds in the cosmos teeming with life.  Bruno also wrote a lot about the ancient "Art of Memory," a set of mnemonic techniques that help people remember large quantities for later regurgitation.  Yates revealed that the Renaissance fascination with these memory techniques had a deep meditative and mystical vein running through it.  About Bruno's 1591 book De Imaginum, she wrote:
"There is genius in this book, as of a being of great brilliance working at a white heat of intensity at a problem which he believes to be more important than any other, the problem of how to organize the psyche through the imagination.  The conviction that it is within, in the inner images which are nearer to reality than the objects of the outer world, that reality is grasped and the unified vision achieved, underlies the whole.  Seen in the light of an inner sun, the images merge and fuse into the vision of the One."
We're into deep territory, here, and Dame Yates is the psychopomp leading us along.  When I look at the topics she chose to study, I see a forward-looking optimism that can be applied to our own futures, just as much as it was applied literally to the optimism of people in the past, like the Rosicrucians...
"New discoveries are at hand, a new age is dawning.  And this illumination shines inward as well as outward; it is an inward spiritual illumination revealing to man new possibilities in himself, teaching him to understand his own dignity and worth and the part he is called upon to play in the divine scheme."

We're almost to the end of the alphabet, but we're ever at the beginning of our journey.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Licht, Liebe, und Leben

The fantabulous Yaz Pistachio has granted me the Liebster blog award. These are fun occasions to share a bit about yourself and build connections to one's fellows in the blogosphere.  About a year ago, I got another of these bloggy awards from Amanda Heitler (does anyone know what became of her?), and at that time, I punted on the fun facts about myself.  Time to make up for that!

So the thing is to provide 11 random facts about myself, answer the 11 questions posed by the granter of the award, nominate another 11 bloggers, and pose them 11 new questions. I don't think I'll hit all 44 of those marks, but let's see...

Eleven Fun Facts About Cygnus:

1. For about a year in college, I was the theater critic for our university newspaper.

2. I'm half Irish, one quarter English, and one quarter Italian.  My son has to sum up his ethnic origins in thirty seconds.  :-)

3. I juggle.

4. Ever since I can remember, I've had kind of a sixth sense regarding old-style television sets (the ones with vacuum tubes, I suppose).  I could tell if one was on within a radius of 30 or 40 feet, even if it was in another room, around corners, with the sound turned all the way down, etc.  It's an unmistakable fuzzy, staticky resonance that fills the whole body.

5. If I ever join a religion that requires me to face the most sacred place in the world while praying, I'd have a hard time choosing between Harvard's Widener Library and Moe's Books in Berkeley.  Two of the choicest concentrations of holy objects in the world.

6. Like most boys, I had disagreements with my Dad growing up.  But he made Mjolnir for me.  We're good.

7. There's a line in the REO Speedwagon song "Keep On Lovin' You" that I misunderstood for most of my life.  The singer likens his subject to a snake, who's "All coiled up and hissin."  For the life of me, I always thought it said "All coiled up in hearsay."  I still like my version better.

8. Because of strange scheduling conflicts and coincidences, my wife and I defended our dissertations and obtained our respective advanced degrees -- at different universities -- on the same day.  It's crappy that we couldn't be there for each other, but at least the stress was over and done with in one go.

9. One of the strangest places I've ever been was Vigeland Park in Oslo, Norway.  Hundreds of oddly distinctive statues -- some of which reminded me of Ally McBeal's creepy dancing baby -- all created by the same artist, dot these stately grounds.  I suppose part of the strangeness for me was that I was there around 11:00 pm, in the month of June, and it was still light out.

10.  I don't really speak German, but I can recite (and sing off-key) the first few verses of Schiller's Ode to Joy in the original.  At least one German said that I sound like a native speaker when doing it.  Just don't ask me "Wie geht es Ihnen?" or anything complicated like that!  :-)

11. There's no place in the world I'd rather be on a Saturday night than home watching Doctor Who with my lovely wife and adorable son.

Eleven Questions from Ms. Pistachio:

1. Why do you blog?
In 2011, I started this blog because my excitement about games (both the old-school role playing variety and the philosophical Glass Bead variety) was peaking, and I needed to gush about them and explore their connections.  In 2013, I keep blogging because I haven't yet plumbed the depths of those connections, and I keep finding new, fascinating connections -- of the people variety.

2. What is your goal for the next six months?
Get back to 4-5 days a week on the treadmill.  :-)

3. The next year?

Successfully enrich young minds.  (I'm slated to teach courses in Spring 2014 and Fall 2014...)

4. The next five years?

If I really am serious about constructing the Glass Bead Game, I'd probably better learn to play a musical instrument.  (So many people see music as the glue that holds the Universal Language of All Ideas together...)  I think I can trick myself by actually taking the plunge and buying some kind of portable electronic keyboard.  Once good money has been paid, I'd feel too guilty if I didn't start piano lessons on it!

5. If you could have any meal for dinner tonight, anywhere in the world, what would you have?

On special occasions, my wife makes a Szechuan peanut butter noodle dish that has the most exquisite flavor combo.  Cannot be topped!

6. Who are your influences?

Part of that story is being told in my April A-Z posts.  The others were a whole host of teachers, advisors, colleagues, and friends.  See #11 below for one of them. 

7. Have you ever had a recurring (sleeping) dream? If so, care to share it?

There are actually 5 or 6 that make an appearance every so often.  They all seem to be either visits to places that do not really exist, or memories of times that did not really happen.  (As you may be able to guess from fun fact #5, many of the places involve secret sources of rare books!)  These dreams feel utterly real when having them, and when waking up there's often a brief time when I have to sort out my memories a bit.  Am I sure that I've never been there, or done that?

8. Without looking it up, do you know what your birth stone and zodiac sign are?
Leo, and I'd guess the stone is golden yellow in color (topaz?), since Leo is ruled by the Sun.  [Bzzt... nope.  But what do peridot and sardonyx have to do with a solar lion?]

9. What was the first name of the first person you kissed/who kissed you?

10. What is your favorite pizza topping?
Oh, Squid precognitively stole my answer.  How can it be anything other than bacon?

11. Most interesting teacher you ever had?
Well, the most interesting was the geometry teacher who encouraged us to steal spoons from the restaurant at which we had an awards banquet.  But let me go with "best" teacher instead.  In high school, we had a split course in anthropology and sociology, taught by the gentlest soul I've ever known.  Mr. K (first name Gyula) was polymathic in knowledge and introduced me to many concepts that changed how I thought about the world.  Even well into college I looked back on the notes I took from his class.  But what's burned into my memory is his consolation of a girl who was going through a rough time.  A few kids were sitting around a table -- study hall, I think -- but none of us knew what to say after hearing what she was going through.  Mr. K kind of spoke to all of us, but really was addressing her.  He told a few anecdotes, some about his own life, one from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, and ended simply with "You know I believe in you."  My summary doesn't do it justice, but trust me -- magic.

Eleven Other Bloggers to Get the Award:

Glurp... this is where I have start to have problems.  Many of the ones I'd choose were already a part of my group of 11, and Squid picked off a few others.  What say you good readers just look to the right at my blog roll and pick a few new places to visit.  I know it's not to easy to "Follow" other bloggers any more (i.e., there's no longer an easy "follow button" at the top of the screen; at least for me), but please make the effort if you discover someone interesting.  Many of these folks are old-school role-playing game enthusiasts with streaks of creativity that just won't stop.

I'm going to pass on creating the 11 new questions, since I'm not explicitly tagging anyone with them.

Oh, and the title of this post is German for Light, Love, and Life -- gotta balance being a Liebster with being a Lichtster and a Lebenster (if that makes any sense).  This phrase was also the title of a mythical magical lodge that supposedly started the whole Victorian English occult revival in the 1800s.

X is for Xenophanes?

I actually did intend to write about the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes, about whom I remember being fascinated when I was researching my Great American Novel.  However, I'll be darned if I can think of more than 2 or 3 marginally interesting factoids about him to report to you fine readers.

So, with apologies, I'll take a bit of a break today.  I'm excited about Y and Z, but for now I'll just give you another X-named personage to fill the void...

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Walt

Another one with whom I'm on a first-name basis.  How can I not be on a first-name basis with Walt Whitman (1819-1892), poet laureate of this transcendental kosmos?

Artist: Robert Lacy
I may have to apologize for taking up another letter of the alphabet with someone who is already very well known.  But have you read Leaves of Grass from start to finish?  If not, then I'll happily quote Frances McDormand from the movie Raising Arizona and say "Well you've got to!  You've got to this instant!"

The phrase "one of a kind" points you in his direction, but one has to invent new vocabularies to really get at his uniqueness.  You can read about his career as a journalist, a teacher, a friend to Emerson and Thoreau.  A few years ago there was a PBS special that drove home, to me, the immensity of his service to the wounded during the Civil War.

His poetry was celebratory.  What did he celebrate?  Every freakin' thing you can imagine... but especially the new...
Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports.
This then is life,
Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and

How curious! how real!
Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun.
His approach to religion has been called Deistic, Pantheistic, and Transcendentalist, but to me it brings to mind the immanent embrace of John Lennon's God (and Bono's God part 2):
Lover divine and perfect Comrade,
Waiting content, invisible yet, but certain,
Be thou my God.

Thou, thou, the Ideal Man,
Fair, able, beautiful, content, and loving,
Complete in body and dilate in spirit,
Be thou my God.

All great ideas, the races' aspirations,
All heroisms, deeds of rapt enthusiasts,
Be ye my Gods.

Or Time and Space,
Or shape of Earth divine and wondrous,
Or some fair shape I viewing, worship,
Or lustrous orb of sun or star by night,
Be ye my Gods.
Uniqueness like Walt's generates controversy.  Leaves of Grass was banned and condemned as immoral over the years.  The historians are still debating his sex life.  (Beat poet Allen Ginsberg proudly claimed to have slept with a man who slept with a man who slept with a man who slept with Whitman.)  He was a lot of things, but he warned readers of future generations that the one thing he isn't is easy to understand if approached superficially...
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.
I could go on all day quoting my favorite bits.  There's one four-line stanza that I've incorporated into my life so completely that it probably borders on OCD. (Though it's only invoked a couple of times a year -- I think it's safe for me to avoid the shrink's couch for now.)  Let me just leave you with another favorite that encapsulates so much about what's awesome about Uncle Walt...
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and
   measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much
   applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Vienna

As we come nearer to the end of the alphabet, I hope it's not surprising to see me bend the rules of my theme more often.  This post isn't really about an artist, but about just one singular work, the song "Vienna" by Billy Joel.  That whole album, 1977's The Stranger, really is one of his best, but this post isn't about that, either.

I think this song is worthy of my "creative weirdness" tag because of both its music (it has a demented hurdy-gurdy kind of opening; Billy likened the chords to those of creepy Kurt Weil) and the lyrics.  Oh, those lyrics...
Slow down, you crazy child,
you're so ambitious for a juvenile.
But then if you're so smart, tell me
Why are you still so afraid?
Pretty much every line is an epigram.  When I first heard the song as a teenager, I was a bit confused by the way Joel alternated between irony and sincerity in the lyrics. There are places where he seems to mock the person he is addressing ("You know that when the truth is told, that you can get what you want or you can just get old") then later he makes it clear that kind of Type A thinking is just no damn good for you in the long run.  Don't I know it.

In an interview, Joel talked about visiting his long-lost father in Vienna, and seeing so many old people working in shops, sweeping sidewalks, and so on.  His dad told him that the elderly were valued there, and they're given things to do so they still feel useful.  That stuck with the young Piano Man, who kept this city in the back of his mind for years as a place that he could always return to when he was old...
You've got your passion, you've got your pride,
but don't you know that only fools are satisfied?
Dream on, but don't imagine they'll all come true.
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?
I kind of got a similar impression when I heard the song as a teen, but being a sci-fi/fantasy geek, I associated Vienna with Valinor, the mythical western paradise that J.R.R. Tolkien's elves sought out when they grew tired of their Type A lives in Middle Earth. :-)

But I suppose the deepest impression this song had on me was (don't laugh now) from an episode of the TV sitcom Taxi that was built around it.  The episode, appropriately titled Vienna Waits, was kind of a shocker at the time.  In the 70s, it was pretty rare to see true character development in an ongoing comedy series.  Sure, M*A*S*H's Henry Blake could die; kids could grow up and go to college, and so on, but it was usually obvious that there were "real world" reasons for the changes (actors wanting to leave, etc).  But major changes just because the story demands it?  So rare.

In the episode, platonic friends Alex and Elaine go on an impulsive trip to Europe, with Billy Joel's song playing in the background several times throughout.  There are ups and downs, and they form a much deeper bond than they'd ever had back home.  I think the writers realized that to end it there would be cheating the audience out of something special, so... they didn't end it there.  (I won't say any more to avoid too much of a spoiler.)

Anyway, this song just catapults me to a contemplative place whenever I hear it.  Play on, Mr. Joel!
Slow down, you crazy child,
and take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while.

It's all right, you can afford to lose a day or two.
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for Unknown

I've already used A for something other than "Anonymous," so U it is.  This is about the Rosicrucian Manifestos, written and published in the early 17th century. To this day, we still don't know who wrote them... or even really why.

These amazing documents appeared on German street corners in the early 1610s.  They said that big changes were coming in the world, heralded by celestial apparitions we now know to be a supernova and an outburst from a bright star in a favorite constellation of mine.  They talked a bit about the ongoing Protestant Reformation, and had some not so nice things to say about Rome and the papacy, but they weren't your run-of-the-mill religious pamphlets.

The Fama Fraternitatis was the first manifesto, and it told the story of a young man, named only C.R. (called "Christian Rosenkreutz" many years later) who in the 1300s went on a journey of discovery from Germany to Cyprus, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Egypt.  He was taught many things in these places, but it all paled in comparison to the magical and alchemical secrets he learned in the hidden Arabian city of "Damcar."  Eventually he returned to Europe via Fez and Islamic Spain.  Once home, he began teaching what he learned to a few others, who were to pass it on to their own students, and thus was born the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross, studying in secret in their House of the Holy Spirit.

The legend doesn't end there, since they knew that in a few hundred years they would need to go public, "...for Europe is with child and will bring forth a strong child, who shall stand in need of a great godfathers gift."  The Fama also describes how the successors of the successors of C.R. were directed to enter the wondrous tomb of the founder (an amazing seven-sided "Vault" that I discussed a bit in last year's A-Z series) and extract a small fraction of the secrets hidden therein...
"Every side or wall had a door for a chest, wherein there lay diverse things, especially all our books.... In another chest were looking-glasses of divers virtues, as also in other places were little bells, burning lamps, & chiefly wonderful artificial Songs; generally all done to that end, that if it should happen after many hundred years, the Order or Fraternity should come to nothing, they might by this onely Vault be restored again."
They also found something called the Minitum Mundum, or little world (a miniature orrery?), the mysterious Book T (which some interpret as the Tarot, some as the Torah), and the preserved body of C.R. himself, resting underneath an artificial ever-glowing sun.

They ended their fantastic account with some of the rules of their secret order... They must only use their powers for good, of course (especially to heal the sick, and not take any payment for doing so), meet together every year on the Day C (whatever that was), and only accept new members who are humble and sufficiently worthy.

The publishers of the manifestos were inundated with hundreds of letters of application, all filled with grandiose self-promotion.  We have no record of any replies.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for Tyagi and Catherine

My original idea for the letter T was to write about (Pierre) Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), famed philosopher and theologian.  However, aside from having my mind gently expanded by reading a few bits of his writing, I really didn't know too much about him. It was feeling like more and more a chore to compose that post.

So, I didn't.  A week or so ago, I realized that there was a husband and wife pair whom would make a far more exciting subject for this post.  I've had a bit of interaction with them over the years, and I think their stories are completely and utterly charming.

So let me introduce you to Tyagi Morgoth Nagasiva and Catherine Yronwode.  They've been married for 13 years, which is easy to remember because their marriage ceremony straddled the millennial midnight from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000.

I think I've talked a bit about my early introduction to the modern-day occult scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  In short: Usenet!  I was amazed to see that the gathering places for alternate religions (alt.pagan, alt.magick) seemed just as popular as the places devoted to more traditional faiths.  In those early days, you couldn't go far in those circles without encountering Tyagi (who sometimes went by Tagi, Thuyagi, and a few other iterations).  A prolific writer of FAQ (frequently asked questions) documents and a tireless asker of Socratic questions, Tyagi knew how to get to the heart of the matter.  Many of his weird writings are archived online.

He was one of the first to realize, I think, that one can forge deeply personal connections online by being radically open with one's experiences.  We heard about the burgeoning relationship with his Holy Guardian Angel (who often took on the form of Hindu destroyer goddess Kali-Ma).  I also recall a story about a time his bicycle was stolen, and he put a curse on whoever stole it.  However, he asked the spirits that whatever punishment was effected against the thief would also be enacted on him, too.  In the big scheme of things, he thought, that's only fair.

Catherine Yronwode (pronounced "ironwood") has been writing in various counter-cultural venues since the late 1960s -- Rolling Stone, Whole Earth Catalog, etc. -- and since the 1970s has been a major player in the comic book industry.  Always iconoclastic, she famously advocated for the liberated 70s version of Wonder Woman to go back to her more traditional (mythic, yet BDSM-inspired) roots.  I first encountered her writing in the editorial pages of the mid-1980s series Miracleman; she was a co-founder of the indie publisher Eclipse Comics that took on Alan Moore's other controversial deconstruction of the superhero genre.  Those editorials were sometimes simple slices of life -- expressing worries about deadlines getting met, for example -- and sometimes they were venom-filled invectives.  Consistently, they put an intensely personal face on the business of how comics get published.

You see where this is going, of course.  Catherine and Tyagi met online around 1994 (quite early in the history of internet romance, I think) then met in person a few years later.  The rest is history!  :-)

Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for Somtow Sucharitkul

S is for what now?  Somtow Papinian Sucharitkul (who sometimes uses the pen name S. P. Somtow) is a science fiction author, a composer of classical music, and an orchestra conductor.  I first encountered him in the pages of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and in last year's A-Z challenge I mentioned my fascination with his alternate-history take on how the ancient Romans may have attempted to conquer the New World.

My absolute favorite book of his is 1983's collection Fire from the Wine Dark Sea which, in addition to one of the Roman stories, contains poetry, two biographical interviews, and one piece of sheet music -- in addition to a host of wildly creative short stories that span the topics of roller coasters, creepy twins, dancing on the surface of a star, and an alien invasion that results in something similar to the movie Groundhog Day (but with two alternate endings).

Somtow also followed in Tolkien's (and Barker's!) footsteps and created some beautiful new languages for his fictions.  I couldn't find good online examples of the language (and the flowing, Tengwar-like alphabet) from his Inquest novels.  Even more creative, though, was his graphical attempt to render the telepathic communications of whales.  From his novel Starship and Haiku comes the following passage, which I've attempted to reconstruct as exactly as possible with Powerpoint...
"And he shouted out another word in the true speech of the whales, words that for humans can only be suggested as clumsy pictographs, a word of melding, trying to break them free of their cages---
End quote.  :-)

Even though I know virtually nothing of his novels from roughly 1990 to present (which include vampires, other historical periods, and more contemporary/horror themes) and even less about his more recent domination of the Thai classical music scene (he serves as the artistic director of the Bangkok Opera and the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra), I can say without reservation that I just love this guy's creative mind and heart.

2015 update:  More on Somtow's flowing Inquest alphabet here!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was a French poet of the symbolist and decadent traditions.  Amazingly, he wrote all of his poetry between the ages of 16 and 20, then gave it up in favor of a globe-trotting libertine lifestyle that ended abruptly at age 37.

Unlike many of my other subjects this month, I really don't know a lot about Rimbaud.  I first heard his name in the movie Eddie and the Cruisers (too embarrassed to include a link) and, other than random paging through books in bookstores -- and a bit of research leading up to this post -- I haven't read much of his work.  But what I've seen has a certain ineffable glow to it that brings to mind my other favorite poets, so he's been on my "back-burner" to-read list for a long time.

Rimbaud sometimes included shocking and grotesque imagery in his poems, but he painted vivid pictures even with "tame" words...
Clear water; like the salt of childhood tears,
the assault on the sun by the whiteness of women’s bodies;
the silk of banners, in masses and of pure lilies,
under the walls a maid once defended
(from Memory, translated by Wallace Fowlie)  He also was an early explorer of the poetic use of flowing prose:
   O my good! O my beautiful! Atrocious fanfare where I won’t stumble! enchanted rack whereon I am stretched! Hurrah for the amazing work and the marvelous body, for the first time! It began amid the laughter of children, it will end with it....
   Little eve of drunkenness, holy! were it only for the mask with which you gratified us. We affirm you, method! We don’t forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages. We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole lives every day.
   Behold the time of the Assassins.
(from Morning of Drunkenness, translated by John Ashbery)  You can feel the hangover in that, can't you?  :-)

Lastly, I wanted to give you one more that can't be found via Googling...  My subject for the letter "I" translated Rimbaud's fantastically synaesthetic poem Voyelles ("Vowels") and included it in her book Sword of Wisdom.  I like this translation much better than the ones that can be found more easily, but I had to retype it myself...  I take responsibility for any typos...
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue --
Vowels, I'll tell your hidden origin!
A, swarthy coat of glistening flies that whine
Round disenchanting stenches there below

E, white of curtain-mist, the glacier's proud
Spear-shaft, pale kings, rustle of umbel-bloom
I, lovely in ire or sad delirium
The crimson laughing lips that have spat blood

U, tides, celestial murmur of green seas
Peace of herd-scattered pasture, wrinkled peace --
Alchemy's imprint on a studious brow

O, the last trumpet of strange stridencies
Omega, violet radiance of Her Eyes --
Aeons and Worlds rise through their silence now!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q is for Quién Más?

Or, in other words, "who else?"

This is the post in which I list a few runners-up... or honorable mentions...  Creative people about whom I initially thought to write in this A-Z series, but then didn't for one reason or another.  They deserve some love, too.  In no particular order,
  • Roger Dean, psychedelic artist of prog-rock album covers (Yes, Asia).
  • Terry Gilliam, ex-Python and visionary movie director.
  • Soror Nema (Maggie Ingalls), ceremonial magician who channeled some transcendent poetry about the dawning of a new aeon of human history.
  • Dunbar Aitkens, designer of a fascinating thing called the Glass Plate Game.
  • Don Cupitt, philosopher and inspiring author.
  • Robert Desnos, surrealist poet, dream-worker, and radio pioneer.
  • Gene Kelly, dancer extraordinaire.
  • Hildegard of Bingen, Christian mystic and designer of a secret alphabet (I just love those).
  • Ebony Anpu (Charles Reese), another ceremonial magician with some wild ideas.
  • Moebius (Jean Girard), dearly departed comic book artist.
  • C. L. Moore, sci-fi/fantasy author who created memorable action heroes Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry.
  • William Carlos Williams, master of quasi-surreal free verse that floats down the stream of consciousness...
  • Douglas Hofstadter, computer scientist and philosopher who taught me how to stop worrying and love my lack of fundamental free will.
  • Loren Eiseley, naturalist and evocative writer about science.
  • E. T. A. Hoffman, German Romantic author of eerie fictions.
  • Eric Bentley, playwright -- while watching one of his plays unfold, I whispered the most pretentious thing I've ever said in my life to my friend sitting next to me:  "This IS theater."
  • Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.), eclectic science fiction author who delved into tragic places to find transcendence.
  • Paschal Beverly Randolph, 19th century author, abolitionist, and sex-magician.
I suppose that I should have done this post last, since now you can see at least a few examples of who I won't be choosing for some of the letters R through Z...  :-)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Phyllis Seckler

I keep worrying that I'm getting into a rut with the types of people that I've chosen to post about this month.  There are so many other genres of creative weirdness out there, but I've got to go with what I know....

I didn't know Phyllis Seckler (also known as Soror Meral, 1917-2004) personally, but I've known and admired some of her students.  She was a ceremonial magician, poet, artist, and teacher.  She was also a crucial link in keeping alive the traditions of the school of thought known as Thelema through some lean, difficult times.

In many ways, her approach to Thelema was pretty "by the book," but there was one thing that she seemed to really excel at: discussing the personal, subjective connection that is sought between a Thelemic mystic and his or her Holy Guardian Angel (HGA).  This being is defined by some as an external entity and by others as an interior "higher soul" (or Jungian archetype of wholeness).  Many teachers have said that it doesn't matter whether the HGA is objectively or subjectively real; just the experience matters.  Still, this makes for difficulty in conveying the concept to students.  Thus, Seckler tried to use poetry -- which can be similarly ambiguous about identity and metaphor -- to do some of the heavy lifting.  Much of her poetry, published from the 1970s to the 1990s in a periodical called In The Continuum, could be read as either intense love poetry or as the yearning of the mystic for their HGA...
"Eternal Lord, bind my everlasting course with Thee
From aeon to aeon for all eternity;
Closer to Thy heart that I be fit symbol
Of encompassing love; hold me lest I tremble.

These words are poor that fall before Thy face,
Lend me still of Thy intoxicating grace
That I may pour my heart out in Thy praise
And joined with my Lord, remain a Star ablaze."
She also often illuminated her verses with some amazing sketches.  William Blake, eat your heart out...

Click for bigger version
Interested readers can find more of Soror Meral's poems and teachings here and here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was an acclaimed fantasy and science fiction author and MacArthur genius grant recipient.  I'm slightly embarrassed to say that, so far, I've only read one piece of hers -- 1984's short story Speech Sounds -- but its quality was so high, and the other writings that I'll be discussing below are so unique, that her work is very high on my list of "gotta read more!"

Perhaps her most famous novels were the Parable series, 1993's Parable of the Sower and 1998's Parable of the Talents.  Like Speech Sounds, they depict a grim dystopian future in which American society has broken down.  Normally that's not really my thing, but Speech Sounds contained a white-hot shard of hope at its core -- tiny and meek, but strong enough to burn through all the surrounding sadness.

From what I've learned, the Parable books contain a similar core of hope.  In the post-apocalyptic future depicted therein, a new religion called Earthseed is slowly growing.  Various chapters of the book are headed with snippets of the writings of Earthseed, and they're quite sublime...
We are Earthseed. We are flesh -- self-aware,
questing, problem-solving flesh. We are that
aspect of Earthlife best able to shape God
knowingly. We are Earthlife maturing, Earthlife
preparing to fall away from the parent world.
We are Earthlife preparing to take root in
new ground, Earthlife fulfilling its purpose,
its promise, its Destiny.
All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
Is Change.
We are all Godseed, but no more or less
so than any other aspect of the universe,
Godseed is all there is -- all that
Changes. Earthseed is all that spreads
Earthlife to new earths. The universe is
Godseed. Only we are Earthseed. And the
Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among
the stars.
I don't know if space travel is featured in the plots of the Parable novels.  From what I've seen, in those stories it sounds like humanity is far from recovering to the point of these dreams being realistic.  All the more awe-inspiring for that to be the birthing ground of a religion so optimistic and upward-looking.

Similarly to the invented religion from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Octavia Butler's Earthseed has spawned a real-life movement... now called SolSeed.  A look at their web page shows that they're evolving in new and interesting ways -- certainly not a mere fan club.

Butler planned four additional books in the Parable series... The Parables of the Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, and Clay.  She took root among the stars, far too soon, at age 58.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Narpet

There's nobody else for the letter N but famed drummer and lyricist Neil Peart.

I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs about his thought provoking lyrics (oh wait, I have), but for now I think your time will be best spent just listening to his rhythmic skill.  Please feel free to devote your next 8 minutes and 43 seconds to THIS.

If you see him do this live, your heart soars.

For a long time, I wasn't quite sure how to reconcile my high views of Neil's lyric-writing genius with some... other views of his choice of musical instrument.  I suppose I always sorted out the relative "importance" of the various pieces of a song or a band in the following order:
  1. lyrics (vocals)
  2. melody (lead guitar; sax; etc.)
  3. bass & rhythm guitar
  4. percussion
But as I've gotten older and hopefully wiser, I've come to appreciate the solid foundations and creative possibilities afforded by the steady (or not so steady) beat-beat of the tom-tom. :-)  It would be a cliché to talk about the subconscious, dreamtime-evoking power of drumming, as realized by shamans both ancient and modern.  But maybe it would be a less of a cliché to refer you to what Johnny Cash had to say on the matter!

PS: The title of this post comes from a much shorter (1 minute exactly) and more avant garde drum solo, Didacts and Narpets, that Neil included on 1975's Caress of Steel.  Didacts are teachers, but nobody is quite sure what narpets are supposed to be.  In an interview, Neil noted that "narpet" is an anagram for "parent," but I've always been more intrigued by the fact that it's also a nifty little anagram for "N Peart."  :-)

Monday, April 15, 2013

M is for M. A. R. Barker

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (born Phillip Barker, 1929-2012) was a noted linguist, novelist, and game designer.  He was one of the first people to catch the bug of the now widespread "do it yourself" aesthetic with regard to fantasy role-playing games.  When Dungeons & Dragons first came out in 1974, it was just a threadbare set of suggestions for people to take on the roles of heroic characters and set forth into fantasy worlds.  In 1975, Barker followed in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien in designing one such fully realized world for his friends to explore, with a detailed history, culture, and language(s) all its own.

Although a lot of this creative work was included in his own separate game, Empire of the Petal Throne, it also spun off five fantasy novels, dozens of articles published in several periodicals, and reams of unpublished research that Tekumel enthusiasts are still exploring and cataloging.

Tekumel itself is a planet, inhabited by humans and many other beings, roughly 100,000 years in our future.  Its baroque cultures and empires are kind of based on India, ancient Mesoamerica, and the Middle East, but they're refracted through a thoroughly alien lens that has resulted in something quite unique.  The languages are probably the most impressive part, though Barker himself admitted that
"Many have muttered about the relative unpronounceability of Tekumel's many languages... and not without reason. In defense, the author can only say that he ENJOYS societies which are not simply reruns of the usual Graeco-Roman or Mediaeval fantasy mythos, but which present something really different: something akin to stepping off an airplane in Bhutan or Medina, rather than in familiar old London or Paris.

After all, if there is any universally applicable conclusion to be drawn from a study of history it is this: the future is going to be quite different from the present. Man will organise himself into different types of societies, hold different values, worship different gods, utilise different technologies, and speak different tongues than he does today. Tekumel tries to be true to this to some extent."
Click if thou art friendly with the Omnipotent Azure Legion

The magical objects that Barker suggested can be discovered in the dungeons of Tekumel were things of imaginative beauty.  The most famous of them is probably the "Eye of Joyful Sitting Amongst Friends" (a gem that transforms enemies into allies); there's even a blog named after it.  :-)  In addition to the requisite magical swords and amulets, there were androids (The Alluring Maiden of Nga), tinfoil hats (The Skullcap of Girigamish), portable homes (The Little House of Tranquil Dwelling), and cursed books that make you lose all interest in life (The Pessimistic Treatise of Total Inaction).

Fans of Barker and Tekumel are definitely glad that the good Professor never stumbled upon that last one, and are probably convinced he was gifted with an Eye of Incomparable Understanding, in order to conceive and bring forth such a world.

Friday, April 12, 2013

L is for Lorq and Lobey

(This post is meant for Saturday, April 13... sorry if it's showing up early in your time zone, but I'll be away from the computer for most of Saturday.  Have a great weekend, everyone!)

The alphabetical format of this challenge can sometimes be a little limiting.  I really wanted to include science fiction author Samuel R. Delany in my list of inspiring creators, but I already had rock-solid people for "S" and "D," as well as for "C" (since Delany's friends call him "Chip").  Thus, I choose to bend the rules a bit and use the names of the protagonists of the only two Delany novels that I've read.  I intend to read more, but believe me, I don't need to read any more to know the dude is amazing.
"Colors sluiced the air with fugal patterns as a shape subsumed the breeze and fell, to form further on, a brighter emerald, a duller amethyst. Odors flushed the wind with vinegar, snow, ocean, ginger, poppies, rum. Autumn, ocean, ginger, ocean, autumn; ocean, ocean, the surge of ocean again, while light foamed in the dimming blue that underlit the Mouse's face. Electric arpeggios of a neo-raga rilled."
That's from Delany's novel Nova, and it is a description of one of the most nuanced and fascinating side-characters in all of sci-fi (Pontichos Provechi, "the Mouse") captivating a crowd by playing his "sensory syrynx."

So far I know only Nova (1968) and Delany's previous novel The Einstein Intersection (1967).  He was already well respected as a science fiction author by the late 60s, and he surfed with the cresting New Wave movement and started to explore many other themes, including alternate forms of sexuality, in the 70s and 80s.

At first glance, the two L-named protagonists couldn't be more different from one another.  Lorq Von Ray, from Nova, was a wealthy, battle-scarred starship captain who was caught up in a grand feud with a rival noble family.  Lo Lobey, from The Einstein Intersection, was a semi-humanoid blob of a creature who came from a tiny village on a strange planet, long abandoned by its original inhabitants, named "Earth."  However, they both were the heroes of their respective mythical journeys, in which they had to strike out on their own (though helped and betrayed by a colorful cast of characters) to achieve their quests.  Delany doesn't just give plain old allusions to classical myth -- he seems to recognize the point at which the reader recognizes them, then gives us a wink and a nod, then twists them into something new and surprising.

Both books present the reader with significant gaps.  Sometimes we're not sure what's happening when it's happening.  Sometimes, two thirds of the way in, some small fact is tossed out that makes you reevaluate everything.  But it's done in such a way that you're definitely not annoyed -- puzzling it out (for me, at least) was a lot of fun.

The ending of Nova made me laugh out loud, and it lifted my spirits for days afterward.

You've been seeing a lot of occult material in my posts this month, and you may be surprised to see some here, too.  In Nova, the educated people of the 32nd century regularly employed Tarot cards and other forms of divination to help them meditate on their past, present, and future.  Not to magically predict stuff, but to provide them with a symbolic language they can use to meditate on their lives.  See this dialogue between the skeptical Mouse and the more worldly Katin...
   The Mouse dared half the distance of the rug. "You're really going to try and tell the future with cards? That's silly. That's superstitious!"
   "No, it's not, Mouse," Katin countered... "Mouse, the cards don't actually predict anything. they simply propagate an educated commentary on present situations--"
   "Cards aren't educated! They're metal and plastic. They don't know--"
   "Mouse, the seventy-eight cards of the Tarot present symbols and mythological images that have recurred and reverberated through forty-five centuries of human history. Someone who understands these symbols can construct a dialogue about a given situation. There's nothing superstitious about it. The Book of Changes, even Chaldean Astrology only become superstitious when they are abused, employed to direct rather than guide and suggest."
   The Mouse made that sound again.
   "Really, Mouse! It's perfectly logical; you talk like somebody living a thousand years ago."
You know, there are Zombie Tarot decks, Star Trek Tarot decks, Wizard of Oz Tarot decks... even Sailor Moon Tarot decks. I think a Delany Tarot would be quite fascinating!

K is for Kenneth Grant

Kenneth Grant (1924-2011) was an English magician and author.  Initially, he was a student and disciple of an even more (in)famous English magician -- Aleister Crowley -- but his time with the Old Beast was limited by the latter's death in 1947.  Grant soon branched out on his own into even more strange and eclectic realms of the occult.

Grant began publishing books in the 1970s that set out to explain some of the esoteric discoveries he made a few decades earlier.  The initial books started out with Crowley's philosophy of Thelema and explored its similarities with the Indian school of erotic magic and mysticism known as Tantra.  Grant soon found even those traditions to be too limiting, and he found much more to think about in the occult fictions of H. P. Lovecraft.  The idea that we can communicate with beings OUTSIDE the normal realm of human spirituality (extraterrestrial? extra-dimensional?) became a cornerstone of Grant's work.  He became convinced that the future of human evolution was along this path.  From 1955's Manifesto of the New Isis Lodge,
"A new and compelling influence is enveloping the earth, and, as yet, there are few individuals who are open to the influx of its subtle vibrations.  Its rays proceed from a source as yet unexplored by those who are not at one with it in essence and in spirit, and it finds its present focus in the outer universe in the transplutonic planet Isis.

In the inner being of man, also, this influence has a centre which will slowly begin to stir in mankind as a whole as the influence strengthens and flowers. As it is at the beginning of its course in relation to man, however, many ages will pass before he may avail himself fully of the great powers and energies which this influence is silently and continually bestowing on all who know how to identify the inner core of their being with its deep and inscrutable heart."
He also accessed his own subconscious (or supra-conscious?) to "receive" written transmissions such as The Book of the Spider and The Wisdom of S'lba.  The latter is a personal favorite of mine, since it's so many things at the same time.  It can be downright Taoist and serene...
"14. Learn to move by being still; to know by refusing knowledge of that which you desire to know.  This is the art of S'lba, motionless in vibrancy and wonder."
and it can be Lovecraftian and apocalyptic...
"158. The dust of the Old Ones shall dance again. In the writhing wind, brilliant with space-frozen flame, the formless again will form, the sleeping again shall awaken."
Kenneth Grant aimed to be a true explorer of unknown realms of thought.  Although I think that he and his followers sometimes take the symbolism a bit too literally, that doesn't take away from the artistic wonder these ideas and images can impart.  He had a unique view of the ways a single creative thinker could spur the thoughts and creativity in others...
"It is not my purpose to try to prove anything; my aim is to construct a magical mirror capable of expressing some of the less elusive images seen as shadows of a future aeon. This I do by means of suggestion, evocation, and by those oblique and 'inbetweenness concepts' that Austin Spare defined as 'Neither-Neither.' When this is understood, the reader’s mind becomes receptive to the influx of certain concepts that can, if received undistortedly, fertilize the unknown dimensions of his consciousness. In order to achieve this aim a new manner of communication has to be evolved; language itself has to be reborn, revivified, and given a new direction and a new momentum. The truly creative image is born of creative imagining, and this is -- ultimately -- an irrational process that transcends the grasp of human logic."
Kenneth Grant's work continues to spur magical thinkers and practitioners; the online forums devoted to Grant at the Aleister Crowley Society remain active and vibrant.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

J is for Jacob Kurtzberg

You may know him as jolly Jack Kirby (1917-1994), or "King Kirby," famed comic artist and co-creator of nearly EVERY Marvel superhero -- Captain America, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, the Silver Surfer -- the list goes on and on.  In the 1970s, he jumped over to Marvel's competitor, DC Comics, and contributed a bit to some of their mainstays (his run on "Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen" was actually really cool). He also created The New Gods, which was no less than an attempt to create a full-on modern day mythology, with all the majesty and mystery that word implies. 

People often look to Kirby's comics of the 1970s and wonder at their psychedelic weirdness.  He pioneered the use of cutup and collage in mainstream comics, and he also took the helm of DC's adaptation of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Yes, Kirby met Frank Zappa around that time, and probably got well acclimated into the remnants of sixties counterculture...

Click for your world to get bigger, man.
...but I think that not as many people realize his fascination with mind-expanding weirdness was well underway back in the 1950s.  Christopher Knowles's blog The Secret Sun has traced back to the comics of this time to find Kirby telling a wide range of Twilight Zone-ish stories of faces on Mars, alien visitors, and extra dimensions...

From start to finish, however, Kirby's tales were always grounded in the fundamental conflict of good versus evil.  In The New Gods, this was phrased as "Life versus Anti-Life," with the latter meaning slavery, coercion, and conformity.  Kirby was all about the blossoming of Life, and I'd like to quote David Brothers, who wrote an awesome essay on that topic, on what would have been the King's 95th birthday:
"Kirby redefined good not as a moral issue, but one of freedom. The freedom to love, laugh, share, create, and more. There's the potential for harm, and many of the New Gods struggle with that potential, but just having that potential is vital. It needs to be there. Being able to choose to do wrong is greater than being forced to do good. Free will is everything. The Life Equation is everything beautiful, warts and all."

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I is for Ithell Colquhoun

Photo by Man Ray
"Who?" you may ask?  Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) certainly isn't a household name, but she was one interesting person.  She was a surrealist artist, author, playwright, poet, and secret magician.

(I hope I'm not getting too repetitive with the surrealists and the magicians... I've gotta go with where my passion lies!)

I first came across Ithell's name as the author of a biography of S. L. MacGregor Mathers (who was a founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn).  That bio also is part auto-bio, since it describes her own attempts to contact the various offshoots of this fin de siècle occult club in the 1930s and 1940s.  She met enough of the movers and shakers to eventually be given a rather important painting of Mathers (well, important to this small community) as an inheritance.  When it arrived at her house, it had a major impact...
"In a surge of strange emotion I kissed the portrait's lips; then, crouching on the floor beside it, I burst into tears.... During subsequent days the painted figure changed from angel to knight; later I saw in it the face of a martyr."
Her prose could run a bit purple, but the feeling and intensity was honest and unmistakable.  See also her description (from a recent collection of her magical writings) of the process of ceremonial magic initiation:
"Our Order is now about to bring light into the tenebrific estuaries of the occult and to illustrate the Stygian recesses of this material world with an ineffable golden effulgence of spirituality. It is a process comparable to the rising sun at dawn casting its rays on the opaque waters of ignorance."
She also joined up with Aleister Crowley's (*) Ordo Templi Orientis for a while, and she was one of the few to write a detailed thesis describing its ultimate secret practices.  Actually, this manuscript, "Liber Plenitudinis Lunae sub figura XV, Notes Towards the Apprehension of the Secret of the IX Degree O.T.O.," is one of the few bits of occult secrecy that hasn't yet seemed to show up online.  I'd love to someday get my hands on a copy.

Her life as a painter was also quite lively.  She met Dali, Breton, and many of the other surrealist masters, and kept painting over 7 decades.  Have a look at a tiny sample...

Judith showing the head of Holofernes
Dark Fire
Title unknown
I've read that Ithell Colquhoun invented several new surrealist composition techniques known as graphomania, stillomania, and parsemage -- but I have no idea in the world what those mean!  :-)

- - - - - - -

(*) Happy Third Day of the Writing to my Crowleyan peeps out there, by the way!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

H is for Harlan

First name basis, definitely.  I've never met Harlan Ellison -- famed author of speculative fiction, Hollywood screenwriter, master of agit-prop for writer's rights, and all-around cultural gadfly -- but I have such an abiding love of his words (and an envy that I could live a life as energized as his) that I feel incredibly close to the dude.

They say that "A man with no enemies is a man with no character," and, boy, does that apply to Harlan.  The sheer hate that he's generated in (some) others could power a small city.  Maybe the raw, wild power of his creativity couldn't be confined only to the page, and had to blurst out into his interpersonal relationships.

Who knows... who cares.  It's his work I celebrate today.  I think he's the closest thing that we've got, as Americans, to someone like Jorge Luis Borges.  His approach to science fiction is at once super-intelligent (you'll never see him using tired tropes or talking down to readers) and uniquely phantasmagorical.  He may be famous for writing the episode of original Star Trek that tops most fans' list of favorite episodes, but his first draft (before others put their grubby hands on it) was even weirder and better.

Like Borges, Ellison found that the short story was the perfect length for his mind to work its wonder.  Sometimes an even shorter format worked best for him.  My all-time favorite piece of his is "Eidolons," from 1986's collection Angry Candy.  Eidolons is a collection of short, 1-2 paragraph prose poems, wrapped together by a mind-itching frame story.  The original bits were composed to be spoken out loud, and were presented, I think, when he was guest hosting a sci-fi radio show.  Here's an example of just one of them, which conveys the intimate connections that words can foster...
"This is an emergency bulletin. We've made a few necessary alterations in the status quo. For the next few weeks there will be no madness; no imbecile beliefs; no paralogical, prelogical or paleological thinking. No random cruelty. For the next few weeks all the impaired mentalities will be frozen in stasis. No attempts to get you to believe that vast and cool intelligences come from space regularly in circular vehicles. No runaway tales of yetis, sasquatches, hairy shamblers of a lost species. No warnings that the cards, the stones, the running water or the stars are against your best efforts. This is the time known in Indonesia as djam karet -- the hour that stretches. For the next few weeks you can breathe freely and operate off these words by one who learned too late, by one who has gone away, who was called Camus: 'It is not man who must be protected, but the possibilities within him.' You have a few weeks without hindrance. Move quickly."
I should be giving you another quote from some other work, some other decade, but I can't help it.  One more from Eidolons:
"You woke in the night, last night, and the fiery, bony hand was inscribing mystic passes in the darkness of your bedroom. It carved out words in the air, flaming words, messages that required answers. One picture is worth a thousand words, the hand wrote. ‘Not in this life,’ you said to the dark and the fire. ‘Give me one picture that shows how I felt when they gassed my dog. I'll take less than a thousand words and make you weep for the last Neanderthal crouched at the cliff's edge at the moment he realized his kind were gone . . . show me your one picture. Commend to me the one picture that captures what it was like for me in the moment she said it was all over between us. Not in this life, Bonehand.’ So here we are, once again in the dark, with nothing between us in this hour that stretches but the words. Sweet words and harsh words and words that tumble over themselves to get born. We leave the pictures for the canvas of your mind. Seems only fair."
I hope these snippets are enough to give you a flavor for his writing.  (And, by the way, those 1000 words about how he felt when they gassed his dog? He wrote them, a decade earlier, and they make me cry every time I read them.  Google "Ahbhu" if you dare.)

Yes, Ellison can inspire, but he's also darned funny!  Some of his short stories are nothing more than a long, slow-burn build-up to a punch line -- and more often than not, it's well worth the wait.  He also wrote hundreds of TV and movie reviews, and whether they were praises or takedowns (usually the latter), his passion and humor burned through the pages.

Harlan Ellison will turn 79 this year.  I hope he's with us for a long time to come.

Monday, April 8, 2013

G is for George Carlin

Okay, I suppose I'm punting a bit today.  My theme this month is "Masters of the Imagination that You Ought to Know About," and you all surely already know about this grandfather of all counter-cultural comedians.  But if you know George Carlin (1937-2008) only from his appearances in movies, his HBO specials, and his voicing the hippy-dippy VW bus in Pixar's Cars, then you're missing out on a lot.

For me, his top notch material was in the comedy albums between about 1972 and 1981.  The pinnacle was Class Clown, which skewered cultural conventions, asked some biting questions about the Catholic Church, and contained those infamous 7 words you can't say on television.  Don't worry, I won't say them here, but the intro to that section says a lot...
"I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I think is important. I love them, as I say, they're my work, they're my play, they're my passion. Words are all we have, really. We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid (la la la la). And then we assign a word to a thought (pop!) and we're stuck, with that word for that thought, so be careful with words. I like to think, yeah, the same words y'know, that hurt can heal. It's a matter of how you pick them."
His observations about religion are infamous; I won't quote his most famous quips.  His wry skepticism about the Christian concept of God never devolved completely into full-on materialist atheism (at least not in the 70s and 80s material that I know the most), and in fact he seemed to flirt with a kind of pantheism for a while.  In 1975, he said, about God,
"He's a cool guy. He's us. That's what we always said...what every religion told us. 'Love yourself, love your neighbor, love your God. You're all the same guy.' We just don't have uniforms yet."
Still, his takedowns of the legalistic nitpicking in the Catholic Church of his youth were just hilarious...
"It's what's in your mind that counts; your intentions, that's how we'll judge you. What you want to do. Mortal sin had to be a grievous offense, 'sufficient reflection and full consent of the will.' Ya had'ta WANNA! In fact, WANNA was a sin all by itself. Thou Shalt Not WANNA. If you woke up in the morning and said, 'I'm going down to 42nd street and commit a mortal sin!' Save your car fare; you did it, man! Absolutely! It was a sin for you to wanna feel up Ellen. It was a sin for you to plan to feel up Ellen. It was a sin for you to figure out a place to feel up Ellen. It was a sin to take Ellen to the place to feel her up. It was a sin to try to feel her up and it was a sin to feel her up. There were six sins in one feel, man!"

I saw him live when he came to my college round about 1985.  I can't remember much from that show... but those earlier albums have stood with me for decades.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

F is for Florence Farr

Florence Farr (later Florence Emery) was a rare bird in the Victorian England of her youth and the Ceylon of her later years.  She lived from 1860 to 1917, and was an actress, a suffragette, a teacher, a muse, a playwright, and a renegade spell-caster.

I discovered her in relation to the last item in the above list.  She was a member of the famed Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Her skills as an actress were put to good use in the ritual temple; fellow initiate William Butler Yeats noted that her resonant voice could bring shivers to the entire room.  Like many other magicians of the time, she wasn't satisfied with the "curriculum" of their little club, and branched out with her own experiments.  She collected select friends together to engage in clairvoyant scrying to make contact with ancient Egyptian forces and masters who would impart their wisdom.

People may read the above and giggle a bit at the implications of schoolgirl seances and Ouija boards, but it was pretty serious business for Farr and her associates.  She wrote in an internal Golden Dawn document that
"It is the object of our lives as initiates to bring this Will to such a state of perfection, strength, and wisdom, that instead of being the plaything of fate and finding our calculations entirely upset by trivial material circumstances, we build within ourselves a fortress of strength to which we can retire in time of need."
Magic = depth psychology!  The results of her private workings, in a sub-group she called "The Sphere," were eventually the subject of envy from the other Order members who weren't invited.  It's amusing to read the letters of those outraged occultists, who disparaged her work in one paragraph, then in the next paragraph complained that she wasn't sharing the results of that work with the rest of the class!  :-)

The actual content of her visions was often quite artistically striking.  An example from A Dialogue of Vision (archived with some of her other works here)...
"I see a track of the red footprints of birds, leading to a wonderful sun; flights and flights of heavy bodied birds fly in circles round it. I count seven flights. In the sun is a cauldron where the black and white natures are melted. The pathway of red footprints means blood sacrifice, threefold renunciation, three passions for stripping the soul naked of its ignorance and illusions. One passion is love of the mystical sun. One is the passion for shining wisdom and one is a passion for energetic action. The gods never follow those paths. They are only for souls incarnate. Incarnation means a fusion of worldstuff and consciousness. In a god’s consciousness nothing exists because everything subsists. It is impossible to be conscious of omniscience because it is omniscience. So that in our sense a god is unconscious."
She also distilled these insights into avant garde plays, usually with Egyptian themes.  A modern production of these plays was discussed here; all proceeds went to breast cancer research, which is what took Florence Farr from the world too young at the age of 56.