It proved unfeasible for me to publish essays on this blog while finishing my MFA. But earlier this week I handed in the creative portion of my thesis. To congratulate myself on the work now done, I wandered yesterday through the ninety-degree heat — one month ago we were without power for two days due to an ice-storm… presumably some time between then and now there was springtime, but if that happened I don’t remember it — I wandered into our local record store, a surprisingly friendly and unpretentious place as record stores go, and treated myself to Herbert von Karajan’s 1979-1980 recording of Parsifal. I have never listened to this music on vinyl before, with all the ceremony and aura that entails, not to mention my toddler’s newfound fascination with the turntable. The recording is one of the great musical accomplishments of the 20th century. Immediately upon purchasing it I decided I would turn soon to a project I’ve had in mind for a long time, namely a comparison of the medieval original, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and Wagner’s mystical and musical drama.
You don’t hear about him in English-speaking countries today, but Eschenbach was one of the great poets. I mean the analogy fairly precisely and do not exaggerate his praise when I say he wrote the Iliad and Odyssey of the Christian Middle Ages. He is emphatically, utterly, essentially, and in all respects and degrees not Dante. Eschenbach stands toward the beginning of the High Middle Ages and Dante, a century later, more toward that epoch’s end. If you want a rollicking good time and the most mystical and dramatic and in places solemn storytelling possible, Eschenbach is your man — as I will hope to show. If I had my druthers I’d teach Eschenbach to high school or college students instead of half the novels they’re made to read… but that’s another discussion for another time. I have sometimes wondered if Eschenbach was a superb storyteller and a man of vision because he was a bona fide knight. And I have consequently also wondered if more modern writers, especially those of us given to fantasy, wouldn’t be better off if we were also knights. But that, too, is a discussion for another time.
The point of all this is to say that I hope to start writing soon about the Holy Grail and Parzival story, as transmitted in Eschenbach’s version and Wagner’s. I like this idea of reworking material. It is an old idea. Better yet: it is an old idea of what to do with old ideas. The sense of antiquity, of historical depth is ingredient to much fantasy. Along the lines of reworking old material, I would also like to take a look at Karen Ullo’s version of the Cindarella story. She — that is, Karen Ullo, for I refer to all my authors in this way, along with the possessive pronoun — has been lying around on my desk for months, next to the canonical source of Cindarella, the seventeenth century Frenchman Charles Perrault, who moved in a very interesting literary milieu. I say that because Perrault’s milieu was nearer to our own, in terms of its concerns with gender politics, than that of probably any other time or place.
Before all this, though, I still have a thing or two to say about Tolkien. That will start going up in a few days. It’s hard to bring to mind a writer with a more developed sense of the depth and, so to speak, the pastness of the past, than Tolkien, particularly as that depth and layering and remoteness manifests in verse and prose style. But if I had to supply his equal in that concern, I would likely nominate the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones, Tolkien’s contemporary and coreligionist. Jones wrote some difficult but also very beautiful modernist poetry. In my opinion his book The Anathemata is the finest of all the ambitious modernist long poems (yes, it beats the Cantos and Paterson and Stevens and Hart Crane and all those guys with the only near-contender being Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, and with the proviso that T S Eliot’s Four Quartets do not comprise an ‘ ambitious modernist long poem’). Some of Jones’ literary output (he was also a visual artist) has recently been reissued, including his essays, which will likely be the focus of my blogging. Jones had insightful, unique things to say about the ontological status of art, and about the way an artist relates his religious commitments and the practice of his craft.
My largest project, now that I have, for a little while, the freedom to read whatever I like, is to get through the entirety of Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle. I have only ever read the first portion, the tetralogy called The Book of the New Sun, and that was almost a decade ago. The Solar Cycle includes twelve “science-fantasy” books published by Gene Wolfe between 1980 and 2001 and takes its name from its constituent parts: The Book of the New Sun; The Urth of the New Sun (a coda to the first tetralogy); The Book of the Long Sun (another tetralogy); and The Book of the Short Sun (a trilogy). I haven’t undertaken a reading project of this kind in a long while. In Search of Lost Time, which is comparable to the Solar Cycle in length, took me six successive summers, whereas I would like to read the Solar Cycle in not more than six months and if possible in as little as three. Probably the last time I concentrated like that on such a mass of material from a single author was when I was reading Edmund Spenser for what I thought would be my PhD dissertation. I do have a thing for very long works, extended projects that occupy a writer over the course of a career or clearly take up, in the form of a fictional or visionary world, the bulk of the writer’s mind. If I make it through the Solar Cycle, the most fitting follow-up to such a project would be, I think, Doris Lessing’s (yes, that Doris Lessing) epic science fantasy, Canopus in Argos
My understanding is that Lessing’s epic is supposed to be informed by her involvement with Sufism, in much the way that Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle is an architectonic working out of much of his thought and experience as a Catholic fantasist. This is of course my overall project as a writer and really in my whole life, this inquiry into how fantasy, the perception of transcendent reality, plays out in religious thought and experience on the one hand and in literary art on the other. There is both mystereion and mythos or if you prefer a different and analogous Greek pair, symbol and allegory; and if you prefer Latin then religio and fabulae. Such pairs cannot be divorced, but that does not mean their relationships are placid and static. My MFA thesis — which, fear not, I will refrain from discussing further here — was a novel about this dual refraction of fantasy, specifically as viewed under the rubric of what the philosopher calls the problem of evil. This ‘problem’ is not specifically what goes wrong, but the fact that things go wrong. The difference between the What and the That is the difference between physics and metaphysics. In the literary artifact and in the religious sacrament, though in different ways, the two are indissoluble at a conscious and at a supra-conscious level. We will see David Jones talk about this union using the Catholic terminology of the efficacious sign.
Anyway, this is all just to say that I will be writing on here again, hopefully with some fairly major momentum now that I am, at least in theory, sort of, maybe, a free man. Before I turn back to Tolkien, though, I’d like to share some reflections on the now eleven years I’ve spent in formal, post-secondary study of literature… coming right up.