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And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
When I was fifteen years old I began taking driving lessons. For those of you out there keeping score, I am thirty-one and still not legally allowed to drive a car….yeah, I get distracted often.
ANYWAY – my driving instructor was a very patient young fellow, with whom I tended to rant about sundry subjects. It was a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon, as he cleverly noticed that I became less tense when chatting away and encouraged my little flights of digressive fancy while speeding through suburban Dublin. One day he handed me a copy of Khalil Gibran‘s The Prophet. It inspired in me an interest in philosophy, which I later chose to study in college.
Here’s the thing though – before today I had no memory of the book itself. For it to have presumably made enough of an impact on me that I decided – ‘yes, repetitive beard stroking while talking about Life is what I hope to do for the rest of mine’ – and yet nothing of Gibran’s writing has stayed with me struck me as extremely curious. So when I saw a copy of the book today I decided to revisit it.
The titular prophet is Almustafa, a teacher in a foreign land who has spent years in the city of Orphalese and is shortly about to sail home. Before he leaves, the people of Orphalese led by a priestess named Almitra requests that he give them one last sermon. He agrees and commences answering questions on various topics such as marriage, death, work, the act of giving, in the form of rhetorical parables.
The style of the book is a form of ongoing free verse, which lends itself to Gibran incessant use of metaphors and riddles. It certainly is a pleasant read, but Almustafa comes across as needlessly obtuse at times and then overly fond of truisms at others. ‘Love should not be possessive’, is certainly not a revelation, but it is phrased in such a way to seem enigmatic.
This particular passage struck me as interesting:
But your god-self dwells not alone in your being.
Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man,
But a shapeless pigmy that walks asleep in the
mist searching for its own awakening.
Is it just imagination or does that sound an awful lot like Freud’s Id, ego and super-ego mental structure? Gibran first published his work only three years after Freud introduced the notion of a tripartite division of the mind. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.
What annoys me about the Prophet is his abundant hero-worship. This strikes me as quite false. I want to imagine how an encounter between Almustafa and Nietsche’s Zarathustra would go (I would pay good money for a cage battle…). For one Gibran’s philosophical hero is quite the populist. His words do not move the citizens of Orphalese to anger. In fact they merely listen passively to his monologue. Zarathustra, by comparison, was a hermit who presented people with terribly upsetting notions such as ‘god is dead’, which is not the kind of thing that inspires the devotion enjoyed by Almustafa.
I am sure all of this sounds quite silly, but to my mind wisdom is something that is not only hard-won, but incredibly lonely. Gibran’s book encourages a curious faddishness, a naieve fantasy of philosophical wisdom, which no doubt explains its popularity during the 1960’s counter-culture.
Prettily phrased, but lacking any true rhetorical heft.
I swallowed a pill and recklessly lit a cigarette and concentrated on not throwing up. I don’t know how much it was actually motion sickness. A lot of it was fear. There is something very frightening about knowing that there is nothing between you and instant, ugly death except a thin skin of metal made by some peculiar strangers half a million years ago.
This is funny. I enjoyed reading Joan Didion’s book from yesterday, with its descriptions of immigrants and pioneers crossing the wilds of America and then I pick up this book – which once again describes a host of people setting out for the unknown. Except in this instance, Frederick Pohl is describing people catapulting themselves out into the vastness of space itself.
Robinette Broadhead hates his name. He has tried to go by Bob, or Rob, or Robbie, but none of these attempts at settling himself with a new title work. It’s an essential conflict within himself that he has lived with his entire life, one plagued by indecision and guilt. His mother was a miner and died when he was quite young. He blames himself for this and when he wins a lottery that would ensure he never would have to risk the same fate, he spends his earnings on a ticket to Gateway, a mysterious structure in orbit around Venus.
Gateway was built by an alien race known as the Heechee, long gone already. The humans who first discovered it found a docking bay of sorts, filled with a collection of vessels designed for interstellar flight. Those brave enough to climb into these spaceships and operate the controls were catapulted across the galaxy to strange new stars. Sometimes they would return with more evidence of the Heechee civilization and be rewarded generously by the corporation that controls Gateway. Many never return, or their ships do, with the crew long dead.
In cashing in his chips to avail of this opportunity Robinette has elected to pursue an even more dangerous career than the one that claimed his mother’s life. It did work out for him though. He made a huge score, one that has bankrolled a life of leisure and easy living. So why does he attend therapy sessions with a robot every week? What happened during his last trip out from Gateway that has caused him so much guilt? How could someone as interminably indecisive as him have become a winner?
Pohl alternates between Robinette’s therapy sessions with Sigfrid, who does occasionally utilise a holographic image of Sigmund Freud, and his life between journeys out into space on Gateway. Deeply in denial about what has occurred, this analysand makes life very hard for his robot analyst, cursing and abusing poor Sigfrid despite the fact that no one is forcing him to attend these sessions. No one has even ordered him to strap himself down each time. While Sigfrid finds it difficult to get Robinette to answer a simple question about last night’s dream, the reader is made privy to his experiences in training, his growing love affair with a veteran space traveller and his own sexual ambiguity.
This future society of Pohl’s devising is also very convincingly imagined. For one the human race is struggling due to a serious lack of resources. The discovery of Heechee artefacts was a remarkable stroke of luck. Much of the life of Gateway explorers relies upon luck. They do not understand the Heechee vessels they travel in, or even after almost two decades of exploration know anymore about that alien civilization than they did when they first discovered the station. Dumb luck is a recurring phrase within the book and these space prospectors toss themselves into the void with little hope of returning unharmed by the perilous journey.
The novel’s themes are all beautifully illustrated by Robinette’s profound survivor’s guilt. I also admire how Pohl lets us get to know his protagonist and the people in his life, taking the time to develop their characters. As the book progresses the tension surrounding whatever event caused Robinette to enter therapy despite his boundless success continues to build.
This is masterfully written, character-driven science fiction.
I have read Bruno Bettelheim on fairy tales, as well as Sigmund Freud’s take on E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jung on mythical archetypes – do you ever suspect that they are missing the point? That on a basic level these are stories to be enjoyed by an audience looking for a little magic and whimsy in their lives, not psychoanalytic metaphors for our unconscious desires. If you ever have the chance, read the original French version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. It is a horror story really, taking an almost malicious delight in the tragic fate of Little Red Riding Hood. That feeling of dismay evoked by the final line of the story ‘and gobbled her up’, is the goal of the story. As entertainment it holds greater meaning than a desiccated moral imperative.
This is something that Linda Medley understands. Castle Waiting mixes and matches different fairy tales into a large jumble, a story containing many other stories, without pausing to consider the metaphorical meaning of each symbol, or archetype employed. What I find most interesting is that the title actually identifies the main character of the series (this large and beautifully presented collection is only volume one of an ongoing comic book) – the enchanted castle itself from the Sleeping Beauty story. Characters come and go, but it is the castle itself that remains constant.
Originally the king and queen of the castle ruled over a town known as Putney. They were both wise and fair and the inhabitants of the town were content. Unfortunately no royal heir had yet been produced and so the king travelled to visit a wise woman, who was in fact a white witch. Promising to help the royal couple conceive, the good witch Mother Medora and her dozen or so sisters (who all have names beginning with ‘m’, alliteration is a recurring theme in this book) set about making the necessary arrangements.
Medora had yet another sister, an evil black witch named Mald, who was insulted by the king’s slight. Accompanied by her demon familiar Leeds she sets about avenging herself on the royal family and so the tale of Sleeping Beauty plays out as in the familiar way. The castle of Putney is surrounded by impenetrable vines for a hundred years and the people of the town eventually leave. An handsome prince arrives at the appointed time, wakes the slumbering princess and then, to the dismay of the castle’s surviving inhabitants, she just takes off with her handsome lover!
Bereft of king or queen, the people of the castle try to go about their affairs as best they can. As the years pass they are joined by other adventurers and wanderers, such as Adjutant Rackham (who resembles a stork in a suit), Sir Chess (a well-built knight with the head of a horse), Sister Peace of the Order Solicitine (a most unique nunnery, whose history occupies the latter half of this volume), the plague-obsessed Dr Fell and finally Jain, who escapes from a loveless marriage seeking out the legendary Castle Waiting, known as a place of refuge.
Jain identifies herself as the Countess of Carabas and much of her past remains a mystery, including the parentage of the green-skinned infant she gives birth to at the castle. While the story of a pregnant lady travelling alone across the countryside looking for a place of legend might be thought to have an inevitable bad ending, Medley acknowledges the dangers faced by Jain on the road, while also relating her adventures with gentle humour. This has been described as a feminist retelling of fairy tales, which it obviously is, but it is also quite an affectionate and loving one. The principal characters are mostly women who have faced hard times, yet still laugh at their lot in life.
Slowly but surely Sister Peace becomes the centre of attention, with her stories of life with travelling performers, religious orders of bearded ladies and her flirtatious rivalry with the demon Leeds confirming her as a vivacious and bemused woman of God.
Medley’s art resembles the style of Jeff Smith, whose book Bone is a particular favourite of mine, perfectly accompanying the warm storytelling. Castle Waiting is also comparable to that series due to its use of contemporary dialogue, but Medley goes even further, introducing many aspects of our world into her fantasy concoction. Jain is even shown reading a copy of The Wonderful World of Oz at one point.
A beautifully captured fantasy world.
I sat there, chest damp, exposed and chilled. The room was entombed in darkness: the hour of night when not so much as a squeaky brake disturbed the silence. But I had seen something in an instant, a single flash. A child lying next to me in the bed. Grinning, eyes narrowed in mischievous glee, chewing its fingers, wondering if it would be caught in a naughty, practical joke. I sighed. Of course – it had been my Friend.
“Are you there?” I whispered. “Are you there?”
For years I had an interest in therapy, the theories of Freud, Lacan and Jung. It’s no accident that one of my favourite writers is Slavoj Zizek, himself a Lacanian. The relationship between an analyst and a patient is an interesting one. Freud talked about the phenomenon of transference, how the analysand will often attempt to circumvent the process of therapy by attempting to become involved with them emotionally.
Today I find aspects of blogging culture, which of course I am a part of, interesting for how its plays with notions of inviting strangers into our personal lives. This blog, the circumstances of my application for residency in Australia and the lengths I am willing to go to while waiting by reviewing a book each day, is itself a function of this new culture. How honest are we to our blog readers though, to the people in our lives, to the care professionals who sit with us to discuss our issues? As a part of society we are so practiced in the art of playing roles that it is difficult to relinquish them, even when our honesty is essential.
Justin Evans’ book rests on the question of a child’s honesty. George Davies is still recovering from the loss of his father, who died mysteriously after a trip to Honduras. With academics for parents, George never really had a chance in the schoolyard. His vocabulary is overly developed, he can speak German and Latin and his conversation is more suited to a discussion of scholarly pursuits than the aggressive banter of the boys of his age. In short, he is desperately lonely and needs a friend. Then one night George spies a face starring at him, suspended in mid-air. Shortly after that he begins to hear voices calling his name and finally the spectre of a boy comes for him to show him visions of the afterlife.
George’s new friend tells him many things and hints to a conspiracy lying behind the death of his father. He alleges that a family friend, Tom Harris, is responsible for convincing Paul Davies to travel to Honduras. This was all part of a plot to steal away George’s mother and kill her husband. Slowly but surely the young boy becomes convinced and sets about trying to prove that his father was murdered.
Justin Evans begins this story with the adult George Davies entering therapy following the birth of his own child, years after the events described during his childhood in the early 80s. He feels a strange sense of revulsion at the thought of being close to his son, one that deeply alarms his wife. George’s therapist encourages him to write about what happened to him following the death of his father. She argues that the things he heard and saw where the hallucinations of a deeply disturbed eleven-year old. However, the exercise of writing allows George to revisit his feelings from that dark period of his life, including the suspicion that maybe he was not a troubled boy in need of medication. Perhaps he was possessed by a demonic doppelganger.
This is a gripping debut from Justin Evans. He gives equal attention to the development of the psychiatric perspective of the events, as well as the mystical interpretation. The question of whether George is indeed mad, possessed, or simply a compulsive liar remains ambiguous. The character of George’s sceptical mother is well-realized, a liberal feminist whose studies into critical theory are curtailed by the glass ceiling in the academic system. Her son’s resentment of her growing affection for another man is cleverly drawn out. I just felt the ending slightly predictable, but overall this is a very interesting novel.
And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).
My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.
Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.
The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.
When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.
He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.
This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!
Inspiring, truthful and humorous.