domingo, 8 de novembro de 2009

In Search of Creative Solitude in Modern Fantasy: An Essay on the Fascination with Evil.


Originally presented at International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, March, 1990

Published in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Summer 1990: 5-13.

Among the greatest and most laudable of humanity's activities and patterns is creative solitude. Buddha reached the culmination of his contemplation of human existence while sitting beneath a tree beside the Nairanjana River. Jesus returned with his message of salvation only after struggling with the Satan's temptations in the wilderness. Each Ramadan, Mahomet withdrew from the world to the cave of Hera, and St. Catherine of Siena secluded herself for three years to experience a series of mystic visions (Storr 34). The goal of high magic – be it religiously approved or not – has always been to escape the world and expand the consciousness and the imagination (Cavendish 19). The powerful Western European mystical tradition has insisted that enlightenment and creation are tied to solitude (Underhill 169-70), and the Chinese Sennin lives in the heart of a mountain to refine his awesome powers of wisdom and magic (Akutagawa 13n).

However, as compelling as creative solitude is, it is neither important nor pervasive in modern British and American fantasy. Generally, it is avoided or punished. This is because most fantasy narrative seeks the restoration of a perfect creation, one that has been distorted or maimed by the innovative forces of evil. It is a conservative mode, one that avidly pursues the renovation of cosmic or social order. (This is what J. R. R. Tolkien called "consolation" – the joy of the happy ending ["On" 68]). The heroes of fantasy gather into fellowships to re-establish, not create. In their reactions to fixed order, the characters often instinctually know how to respond to and rectify self-evident truths. Their motivations come from outside themselves rather than from within. They are not required to act as individuals but to socialize. Their wills are subservient to an unquestioned, apriori gestalt or collective consciousness that defies what is good and right. Thus, a character's value is often measured in the knowledge of "what should be" rather than of "what could be." Most actions are only healing responses to foul diseases rather than to any senses of preventative anticipation or creative action.

Occasionally, there are rare instances of fantasy protagonists who seek creative purpose and its attendant and necessary solitude, like John Brunner's Traveler in Black, Roger Zelazny's Francis Sandow and Corwin and Merlin of Amber, and Ursula K. Le Guin's Ged. This is expected. All three authors are well known for their common theme of the artistic struggle to bring order from chaos through individual will. Brunner's traveler identifies this as his singular purpose: "I am he to whom was entrusted the task of bringing order forth from chaos" (17). Yet, it would be stretching matters to think too long on Brunner's enigmatic figure as an example of human action; he doesn't even have a name, just a label. His powers and personality are godlike in their remoteness, his resources are unlimited, and the ironic justice he dispenses is easily done. While he may suffer with humanity's destructiveness (in "The Wager Lost by Winning," for example [99]) and "... laugh at [its] foolishness" (10), the order and justice he creates are void of the suffering that would accompany equivalent human endeavor.

Zelazny's Sandow, in Isle of the Dead, and Corwin and Merlin, in the Amber series, are also creative and isolated figures. Sandow is a practitioner of the alien, Pei'an art of worldscaping, the ancient craft of world creation. As such, he appears to be a good possibility in the search for creative isolation. However, his art is no more and no less than the fascinating backdrop for a tale of revenge and power (Yoke 92-93). Corwin and Merlin are better candidates. Both must walk the genetically linking patterns of Amber's realms of order and chaos. This initiation into art, order, and creation (Yoke 80-81, 86) is, indeed, an agonizing process (Yoke 82). As a result, they can not only walk the worlds of "Shadow Earth," but they can create them as well. And, while a case can be made for Machiavellianism as the predominant theme of Zelazny's Amber series, the concept of the eternal cycle of art dragging form from chaos is also extremely important and a good, if rare, example of creative solitude.

Le Guin's Ged, in the first three volumes of the Wizard of Earthsea Tetralogy, is the best example of creative human isolation, and the prices he pays for it are high. In the first volume, A Wizard of Earthsea, he is baited and inflamed by his supposed comrades, is psychologically isolated, and falls victim to Faustian pride when he attempts to act independently. It is only through retreat and isolation that he recovers himself and becomes creative enough to learn to chase and embrace his own shadow. In The Farthest Shore -- after Ged has seen the mightiest of dragons, Orm Embar, rift of his speech (189); crossed the barrier between life and death to confront Cob the Unmaker (194); and saved his world from chaos -- the tale of his end is veiled in the mystery of retreat from society into solitude (222-23). One can only speculate that Ged returns to his first life model, Ogion.

Brunner's, Zelazny's and Le Guin's protagonists draw resources from within themselves, much as Andre Norton's Simon Tregarth does, and they pay dearly for their independence and their powers of invention by their cruel exiles.

However, the vast preponderance of fantasy's protagonists are not creative in any way nor do they actively seek isolation. Without the company of others, they are lost, miserable, misdirected, and/or tormented. Examples of this are legion. H. Rider Haggard's She, George Slyvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge's Wandering Jew, the alienated Shaman (Schlobin "Pagan"), Michael Moorcock's Elric and Eternal Champion, John Updike's Chiron, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner are only some of the unhappily isolated beings that fill fantasy. It is as if the authors of fantasy mirror those of psychoanalysis. Both write more about the "fear of being alone or the wish to be alone than on the ability to be alone..." (Winnicott 29). Narrative patterns abound with the unavoidable, solitary descents into dark pits of despair (Hillman passim; Frye 239). An obvious example is the harrowing of Hell motif as in Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos. Even the pleasant places of safe contemplation, like the luxuriant locus amoenus, are closed to fantasy's heroes as they must be out and about correcting evil's machinations (Schlobin "Locus").

The twentieth-century's prototypic fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy, is a paradigm for the evils of isolation. Frodo mourns leaving the Shire (Fellowship 73) and must return to recreate its original state, just as he has helped return Middle Earth to proper order. Strider is, like his sword, broken and ineffectual until the One Ring is destroyed and the threat to order rendered impotent. In opposition, the characters who seek exile as part of their natures are corrupt and twisted – Sauron, Sauruman, and Gollem – and Boromir's sin is his desire to separate himself from the society of sanctified beings (Fellowship 415-16). By doing so, he breaks the fellowship. All the good characters, especially Bilbo and Frodo, suffer when alone. Disappointingly, the one instance of creative becoming that occurs in the Lord of the Rings is left mysterious and arcane. Gandalf, after his fall with the Balrog (Fellowship 344-5), reappears transformed and remade. Readers are told only that he has passed through torment (Two 105-6) and "fire and deep water" (Two 98) to become Gandalf the White. No one ever knows what miraculous transformations he experienced. Actually, the most creative virtuous character in the Lord of the Rings is the toothsome Samwise.

Among Tolkien's Inkling colleagues, the attitude toward isolation and restoration is much the same. In C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, the Pendragon gathers help to rid the world of the unnatural inventions of N.I.C.E. Charles Williams' War in Heaven, as most of his fiction, revels in resurrecting the talismans of the past to remedy the present and the future. Lest anyone suggest that references to Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams do little more that echo the Inklings' allegiance to the Judeo-Christian tradition's long marriage to order and the status quo, a few further illustrations indicate otherwise. Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, especially White Gold Wielder, speaks forcefully for restoration and commitment to the greater, social good – the "Land." Andre Norton's Witch World series does much the same as Simon Tregarth, his witch wife, and their children battle the unnatural and scientific Kolder. Avram Davidson's The Phoenix and the Mirror would appear to hold greater hope of finding a creative individual who seeks effective isolation. Yet, Davidson's Vergil Magus agonizes throughout the making of the virgin speculum and sees himself as having the "'"predetermined and exact"'" fate (68) of a hunted, isolated stag (71). His creative process and its product give him little, if any, satisfaction. In other circles, artistic withdrawal and success have been described as agonizingly painful and ultimately exulting by such varied authors as William Butler Yeats (the "Byzantium" poems in particular), St. Augustine, William Blake, and Plato. In fantasy, the pain occurs without the benefits that spring from the legitimate communion with the self.

In short, the vast majority of fantasy's fictional luminaries display wonderful traits and powers: they affirm, discover, reveal, correct, rescue, regenerate, heal, restore, conquer, triumph, and resolve. Yet, all they are doing is reacting to situations made by others and to an irresistible and xenophobic mandate to return to a sacred, Edenic past. They rarely, if ever, withdraw from what great thinkers have seen as the illusions and distractions of the world and seek to create and build anew.

Rather, fantasy's characters rush to their fellowships. They seem to know that solitude, regardless of its benefits, threatens personal safety and the sanctity of relationships. To challenge those relationships and all their accompanying expectations would require a denial of the assumption that they are absolute and "the only path toward fulfilment [sic]" (Storr xii-xiii). Separation, then, exists in fantasy for the value of the herd, not the individual. In fact, independent, creative action appears to be anathema. It is as if Freud's edict that only an unsatisfied person "phantasies" and that "every single phantasy is the fulfillment of a wish, a correction of an unsatisfying reality" (9:146) is an unbreakable law. In this, fantasy links very strongly to horror literature. In horror, venturing into the unknown without just cause is always the impetus for vile punishment (Schlobin "Children...," passim). Just as Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein and Gore Vidal's Kelly learn that nature expects conformity, so too readers are assailed further by creation-as-deviance in Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, in which carnival owners use drugs, insecticides, and radioisotopes to bear freaks, and in Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show, in which a functionary in the dead-letter office becomes godlike and threatens to pollute the archetypal pool of the imagination. In all these cases, failure to recognize an omnipotent order yields the Faustian fall, the crime of the magician who separates himself from the general run of humanity and social order to seek the devil (Cavendish 18). Both fantasy and horror reject the individual will; in the former, it is irrelevant to greater good; in the latter, it is crushed by irresistible evil. In both cases, it has no place. This is because most fantasy is not a home for the self-discovery that comes from being alone (Storr 21); it is the celebration of the adherence to an order greater than the self. The need to belong to a larger community (Storr 13) supersedes all.

Anthony Storr, in his insightful Solitude: A Return to Self, offers a helpful key to why fantasy, as well as any conservative genre, shuns invention and seeks restoration. Storr indicates that creative isolation is marked by discontent, a longing of the soul, and compels the use of the imagination (64). In contrast, the "longing of the soul" in fantasy means seeking and pleasing others and constantly reaffirming a greater good. This is an indication of the retreat from individuation or what Mircea Eliade has described as the refusal to accept separation from the mother (7-10) and what Storr sees as the infantile trait of the clinging that is indicative of insecurity (19). Do fantasy's characters cling? They certainly do, and even when quests and threats force them from the warmth to the cold, their desire to return to the comfort of innocence is a prime motivator. Most of the characters follow creators that existed in some shadowy past. The creators have dealt with the "primordial fire of direct creation" and its "throes," and the characters only stand in the shadows of the greater (Neumann 376). (In this, fantasy conforms to Northrop Frye's definition of romance in which the hero departs from Eden and returns to innocence. This, of course, is Frodo's journey.)

Does this mean that there are no creative characters in fantasy? Hardly. What it does mean, as mentioned earlier, is that there are few virtuous ones. Predominantly, creative solitude is the property of the evil characters. To understand this, Anthony Storr is again helpful: "The creative person is constantly seeking to discover himself, to remodel his own identity, and to find meaning in the universe through what he creates" (xiv). Obviously, fantasy's good and great do not "remodel" anything; their cosmology is fixed and mandated. The opposition, eccentric characters all, is evil because it does seek to shape contrary orders from its own truths. This is not a laudable or admirable quality. Fantasy is dominated by those mythic and mythopoeic forces that desire tranquillity. Its characteristic psychomachia occurs to regain balance that has been disturbed by a dark, creative solitude and exists to destroy threats to sanctuary. This is a struggle between ageless and contrary forces: those of socialization, intimacy and companionship, versus those of individuation, independence and separation (Storr xiv).

Readers, of course, are not so much interested in balance as they are with its disruption and the travails involved in righting it. So readers and authors may experience fabulation (Scholes 29) within the fictive experience, but virtuous characters do not. Readers and authors do not seek restoration. That would be boring and passive and would lack tension and drama. Thus, fantasy is dominated by reactionary good, manipulative evil, and boring purity. Beowulf contains all these elements: Beowulf, himself, is brought to readers' attention only when he is in conflict, and the tranquillity of his comitatus after the initial monsters are slain is ignored; he only resurfaces when the dragon rises. Grendel and kin are fascinating enigmas, spawned from an alien stock, and the admirable Hrothgar is a bland nonentity. This paradigm is repeated over and over again. In James Blish's Black Easter, the sorcerer and the industrialist who unleash the hoards of Hell are the most memorable characters. John Brunner's The Devil's Work is filled with intriguing characters, one of whom is not the virtuous victim, Stephen. The civil servant who destroys the sexual-desire machines in Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman (American title: The War of Dreams) is a gray wisp beside the novel's darker creations. Further illustrations of the attractiveness of evil versus the blandness of virtue would occasion hours of lists: Lady MacBeth versus Desdemona; Iago versus MacBeth; Vere and Claggart versus Billy Budd; Fagin and Bill Sikes versus Oliver Twist; Modred and Lancelot versus Galahad; Lucifer versus Christ in Paradise Lost; Loki and all the tricksters versus the gods; and Archemago, or anyone for that matter, versus the Red Cross Knight in The Faerie Queene.

However, to say only that readers have long been riveted by evil and conflict and that fantasy reflects this would be a gross oversimplification. To add that fantasy is still waiting for its own portrait of the virtuous artist is, perhaps, more vapid speculation than it is intelligence. No, on a grander literary scale than just fantasy, the study of creative isolation and its relation to good are major keys to understanding why evil characters are more attractive to readers and authors than their virtuous counterparts are. Most often, it is because it is evil that hides away to pursue the creation and imagination that are humanity's greatest possessions.

Works Cited

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_____. The Devil's Work. New York: Norton, 1970.

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Zelazny, Roger. Isle of the Dead. New York: Ace, 1969.

_____ [Amber Series listed in reading order]. Nine Princes in Amber. New York: Doubleday, 1970.

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_____. The Hand of Oberon. New York: Doubleday, 1976.

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_____. The Trumps of Doom. New York: Arbor, 1985.

_____. Blood of Amber. New York: Arbor, 1986.

_____. Sign of Chaos. New York: Arbor, 1987.

_____. Knight of Shadows. New York: Morrow, 1989.

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