27 October 2008

The De-Familiarization of the Everyday

The allure of fantasy and metaphysical fiction might be attributable to, among other features, the de-familiarization of the quotidian. In such works, the everyday becomes extraordinary: the mythopoeist looks at the normal through such kaleidoscopes of insight that ordinary surroundings scintillate out of recognition. And yet, this very estranging process is what gives us back our daily lives made fresh, washed clean, given depths of eternal light.

The Christian story, or the “One True Myth” is often disguised and, therefore, transfigured. C. S. Lewis said that one of the side effects of Aslan’s appearance in Narnia (which, he claims, was due to no intention of his own; Aslan just came bounding into the story of his/His own accord) was to take the Gospel out of its Sunday-School context and sort of surprise children with its fresh, applicable, heart-rending reality. Stripped of stained glass, it can really shock. Or, rather, stripped of flannelgraphs and saccharine clichés, it can really live. The common appearance of elements of the “Christian myth” is another side of this process. In “Star Wars,” there’s a virgin birth. In “The Matrix,” Lord of the Rings, “Beauty and the Beast,” and so many more, the hero dies and rises again. An atoning sacrifice by an innocent character on behalf of someone else is perhaps almost the one theme of literature and film.

The final result is to give us back our routine details glittering with the magic that was always there, but had dulled with daily handling and the dust of familiarity. It washes off the common fingerprints. In Beauty by Robin McKinley and in both Phantastes and Lilith by George MacDonald, libraries become wonderlands: magical, endless wildernesses where others’ adventures are your own. McKinley’s Beast owns a fabulous library containing all the books ever written and all the books that ever will be written, in which (presumably) you can read your own future. I have Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, William Golding, and Aldous Huxley: prophets of our trajectory. MacDonald’s Anodos whiles away weeks of his visit to fairyland just reading: living secondary lives in delightful snippets shorn off of MacDonald’s prolific, prodigal imagination. Winged women find babies in the woods, and talk of earthly romance makes them wild with melancholy desire; a mirror shows an enchanted maiden to a student of alchemy and magic; and I look freshly at marriage and mirrors over the edge of the book. In the Harry Potter series, teachers and lectures are thrilling, dangerous adventures—and the mentor relationships are admirable and enviable. In the Inheritance trilogy, Christopher Paolini reminds us of the power of words, and through that, of the potential meaning of any household object once you understand its real essence. Here are examples of ordinary objects that take on mythical significance in fantasies: Knives, spoons, cups, swords, thread, shoes, rings, jewels, maps, streets, doors, clocks, houses, trees, telephones, bullets, and pocket-handkerchiefs. These will never be just the same again, but shot with something more than mundane light.

Perhaps someone can write about how the visuals arts and music perform the same transformation in manners specific to their own media.

03 October 2008

October Poem of the Month

I'm sorry I missed September! I started a new teaching job, which requires much more of my time than my previous jobs. I'm hoping to get back into posting now that the first month has passed and I'm feeling more at home.

Here's an old poem I just rediscovered recently. At first I couldn't even remember writing it, but then I recalled the first time I taught Milton's Paradise Lost--this is [obviously] from that time.


And so. Eve reaches her fingers past
the prohibitive gap to grasp the little globe.
She feels cold—unfamiliar, frightening—tightening her skin,
numb tingling along her veins, a sharp new something—
pain—dash down her radius, and hears three drops
of unknown red splash on the ground. She thinks she hears
a screaming—sound unheard before—and falling buildings,
crashing planes, exploding bombs (what are these noises?).
She pulls back her hand—and cannot. Inertia draws her down,
down, into the fruit of that transgression.

Adam watches. He sees her hand go through the leaves
and disappear. Startled, he turns to her face. A twist takes her lips, a crinkle
mars her till then unwrinkled head, and lines twine around her eyes. Ugly,
he thinks, shocked by the foreign word. Then colour runs
across her body, takes it in: a strange white-yellow shade
stretches and dries out her skin. His cry is hers, and for her, and he knows—
though he has never seen a corpse—this is that Death and they
were warned. He moves to stop her, save her, but they are one,
his soul is in her body, he has already sinned.

God sees their hands, faint images of His
outstretching immanence with men, plunged through the space
He fixed. He names the cold, faint, pain, and blood they feel
with sorrow of His own, and yet He also sees
the fruit. Its sphere, the universe. It travels where
her human words find form, past terrestrial lungs, beyond
the beating central core. Its rind slips off. Its flesh
grows one with hers, a poison and a nourishment.
Its seeds alone are left. Deep in the empty
dark of her, He touches them. They are His seed,
and that of man. SomeOne will be born.
This is not, and it is, exactly what He planned.

-- Sørina