Showing posts with label John Crowley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Crowley. Show all posts

26 June 2019

The Art of Memory


David Edgerley Gates


My pal Keith McIntosh was thinking out loud the other day, that when you're in the library, or a brick-and-mortar bookstore, and you go looking for something, you often find something associated - or even unassociated - by accident. He's not the only one to remark on this, of course, but Keith was wondering why virtual shopping can't be organized in a similar way. Amazon will show you other stuff you've shopped for or searched out recently, or stuff their algorithm suggests based on your purchase history, but it's market-driven. What about serendipity? You could be looking up the Tudors in the European history section, and stumble on some little-known thing about the Mongols, two shelves over. Same goes for learning basic crochet techniques, or high-altitude baking. It is possible to use the Dewey decimal system, say, to replicate the physical feel of shelves in digital. Or a visual, an imaginary bookstore that somehow leaves room for the accidental. I'm sure someone's thought of it before, and the question is execution: How do you design for the random, or peripheral vision? Engineering logic is linear, it's designed to filter out, to recognize pattern limits, not intuit a whole greater than the sum of its parts.


As it happens, I was re-reading yet again the John Crowley novel Little, Big, first published in 1981 and just as heartbreaking the fourth or fifth time around. Actually, this is one of those books I read all or part of every couple of years, like Mary Renault's Last of the Wine or Len Deighton's Bomber. As if shrugging into a familiar garment, yes, but always finding some new astonishment. I might be reading for technique - how, exactly, did they pull off such-and-such an effect? - but I invariably wind up getting sucked into the story, and I'm not looking for tips and tricks, I'm steering into the next tight turn. The grace and felicity is all.

Crowley develops an elaborate conceit in his book, the Art of Memory. This is in fact a real thing, the study of mnemonics, going back at least to Pythagoras, and later refined by Giordano Bruno. (Crowley has a long fascination with Bruno.) More recently still, there's the Frances Yates book titled The Art of Memory. I'm giving a sort of potted version of this, but the way Crowley explains it, you build a memory house, and people it with artifacts or avatars. You might set aside a room for Youth, a faded rose or a broken mirror to represent a path not taken, but the objects don't require literal consistency, they don't have to be an actual objective representation, they need only conjure up some specific smell, a taste or a time, a character of something, a suggestion, if only a sketch or a gesture.


Now, supposing this house has many rooms, which you've added as needed, and some of those rooms left behind and the memory objects in them gathering dust - let's imagine we turn an unexpected corner and open a different door into that particular gallery, and see those memory objects back to front, a reversed perspective. Would we catch them unawares, surprised to see us, in a state of undress, so to speak? 

In other words, what's two shelves over? Memory tends to repeat. Once we start down a train of thought, if it's well-traveled, we stop at the same stations. It may not be a straight line, but we ricochet off the same surfaces. It's almost certainly a hard-wired function. Maybe it's a protective mechanism. It's an almost impossible habit to break. Not only can we not change our personal history, we can't change how we think about it, or escape.


I'm fascinated by the mechanics Crowley imagines, going into the house of memory by the back stairs, and finding a different way to the front. And as you pass by them, things not quite where they're supposed to be, or not how you thought you left them. The truth is, it's not that we pass this way but once, but that we pass this way again and again, and each time we tell ourselves the same story.

25 July 2018

An Upstart Crow


David Edgerley Gates

Bernard Cornwell's newest book, Fools and Mortals, is a romance about Elizabethan theater, in particular about Shakespeare and the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A lot of Cornwell's books are swashbucklers, the Sharpe novels, the Last Kingdom stories, and this one has its share of derring-do and hair's-breadth escapes, but much of it is theatrical in the literal sense, how a play was staged in 1595, thirty-seventh year of Elizabeth's rule.



Shakespeare isn't uncharted waters. He's had leading parts and cameos before. The yardstick is the Anthony Burgess novel Nothing Like the Sun. Burgess himself calls the period "a word-drunk age," and his novel is a headlong rush of language, told in Shakespeare's own voice, both confident and sharing confidences. (One of my personal favorites is Bitter Applesa novel within a novel, John Crowley's reimagining of that tiger's heart, wrapped in a player's hide, in the first book of his Aegypt quartet, The Solitudes.)


Cornwell gives us a convincing and fully-realized world, the rivalries between the acting companies, the politics of religion, the sexual opportunism, and the internal dynamics of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, onstage and off. In their petty intrigues and their generosity, their authenticity and pretense, a mirror of their betters, and the audience.  Cornwell does his homework, and his careful detail pays off. He always gives it flesh and bone, smoke and odor and tallow. It smells, and not of the lamp.


Which leads to a different question. Using real people in fictions. It's one thing if they're a walk-on (Hitler overheard in the next room, say), and we've likely got more freedom of invention the further off they are from us in history, but whether in the wings or front-and-center, they still have to ring true.

Gore Vidal in Burr, to take an example, confounds our expectations of the Founding Fathers. It's a poisoned-pen letter, but a salutary corrective to the hagiography of Parson Weems. Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine. Socrates is entirely plausible, and no doddering old fart or department store Santa, either. Cecelia Holland. Robert Harris. Philip Kerr. Janice Law's sly mystery series featuring that unapologetic dissolute Francis Bacon. Here lurks a clue, perhaps.


If we don't know for certain what Francis Bacon was doing on a particular Monday morning (although we know he was an air raid warden, during the Blitz), we can make it up. The same goes for Shakespeare or Socrates. Or if we do know, we can fit that into the timeframe and fabric of the story. The trick, it would seem, is putting them in a plausible circumstance. I've used real people, although not in the lead, as a rule. Gen. Leslie Groves has a bit part in "The Navarro Sisters," which is about the Manhattan Project. Owney Madden makes an appearance in a couple of the Mickey Counihan stories, and so does Bumpy Johnson. It's local flavor. I've even hired Elfego Baca as a lawyer, once upon a time, to get a kid off a murder rap in El Paso.

You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. Then again, you can't bend the facts to suit yourself. The best case is when you can fill in a few cracks in the existing narrative. There's a famous deleted scene in Ford's movie Young Mr. Lincoln, when Abe Lincoln first rides his mule into Springfield. Another young man steps out of a doorway, onto the plank sidewalk overlooking the street. There's a playbill on the wall next to him, advertising an upcoming theater performance. The two young men make eye contact briefly, and then glance away from each other. The second guy is of course the actor John Wilkes Booth.

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Best wishes and Godspeed to Art Taylor, who's taking a sabbatical from this forum, picking up the reins of the blogsite First Two Pages, as well as becoming new assistant director of creative writing at George Mason University.  

23 September 2015

Feeding the Inner Wolf


David Edgerley Gates

I had an odd insight at the supermarket the other day, watching a guy use the motorized shopping cart. He was a double-wide, for sure, carrying enough extra weight for it to be an obvious handicap, with tree-stump calves and thick ankles that probably indicated diabetes - but all of this beside the point. It got me thinking. He never set out to be that fat guy, he didn't do it by choice. It almost certainly had more to do with genetics, environment, the luck of the draw. We have a tendency to look at people with physical problems, obesity, rotten teeth, or bad skin, and hold them responsible, as if it were a moral failure.

I began to wonder about the corollary. What about people with glowing skin and great smiles and a body by Botticelli who turn out to be misshapen, or damaged underneath, but without visible injury? Perhaps some crippling trauma, or maybe no explanation at all. Maybe they're just plain ugly at heart.

There's a scene in John Crowley's novel LITTLE, BIG, where you encounter a crazy old drunk on the subway - or at least he seems like a crazy old drunk - and he's staggering up and down the cars, talking to himself. "I met the woof the other night, out back the churchyard. He didn't look like no woof, look like a man, but I knew him for who he was. He were hairy on the inside." The werewolf of folklore is known as Turnskins, a shape-shifter, wearing human covering as a disguise.

So, begging the question, Are there monsters? Some of us would say no, that it's nurture, or the lack of. I'd lean toward yes, though, the argument that it's nature, that evil is somehow innate, and not learned behavior. In other words, we can simply be hardwired the wrong way.

Do we come to the Manichean view that Absolute Good and Absolute Evil exist, as opposites? "Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it," Mephistopheles says, meaning he lives in the absence of God. But why shouldn't evil exist, without respect to virtue? Why do we imagine salvation is our reward for avoiding sin, when sin might prove to be its own reward? Bad isn't necessarily good taking a dive.

There was a time - the early days of the Church, say - when the world was seen as the earthly battlefield between the forces of light and dark, a struggle manifest, the war for men's souls. The stake was literal, not a metaphor. You could burn, your fatty tissue popping in the fire, and given the cooking time, it must have felt like an eternity. Then we have the misreading of Freud, as if a plausible explanation serves us as an excuse, or a note from teacher. ("Did you like Mr. Clutter?" "Why, yes, I did - right up to the moment I cut his throat.") Just supposing, however, that we don't see the dark silhouetted against the light, that there isn't any contrast, that the dark doesn't cast a shadow. It isn't the absence of God, or moral weight, or empathy, or some other frame of reference. Evil sufficient to the day. It stands on its own.

We're the ones who need help. We invent a mechanism that tells us the good is thrown on the scales with the bad, and they counterbalance. The one is necessary for the other. Yes, for dramatic tension in a fiction, a narrative, which is a construct, using familiar conventions. Not so much, we begin to think, in life. What if what goes around don't come around no more?

We appear conditioned to this idea of opposition: action, reaction, synthesis. I read a book one time about what the author described as The Bicameral Mind. The short version is Right Brain/Left Brain, but there's more to it than that. There was a long period in our development when we heard voices - the voices of the gods, perhaps? - but for a far longer period than our present psychological state, the accepted diagnosis or perceived reality, which has probably only obtained for about the last three thousand years, sake of argument, where such Voices signal mental illness, or at least the gateway to a less rational or linear world.

Presupposing the unspoken or the unseen, is the notion of duality functional? It seems like an enabling device, a comforting alibi. Rooted, as may be, in the bicameral mind, our physiology, the left a mirror of the right. This doesn't mean any of it has objective reality.

We might say, then, that evil exists for its own purposes. Not the opposite of good, but a force with no counterweight or equivalency. Thomas Pynchon, in THE CRYING OF LOT 49, says of Rapunzel, waiting rescue, what if the tower is everywhere, and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic? During the Middle Ages, many people thought the Black Death was evidence of God's abandonment, Not, we remark, a visitation of His disapproval - rather, a sign God had simply given up on us. But the disease vector of plague is a bacillus answering to its own necessities, unconcerned with the host bodies. We flatter ourselves, if we imagine we're any higher on the food chain, or that there's malice aforethought. In this sense, evil bears us no ill will. It's not retribution, and perhaps that's what makes it harder to bear. Evil is indifferent.