Archives for the month of: March, 2013

A distinguished lord asked:

How does one commence a great venture?

The young monk replied:

By leaving off small ventures, and middling ventures, and by putting aside nothing.

The lord answered:

Perhaps a small venture may lead to a great venture?

The young monk smiled.

Yes, that’s so. And perhaps a great venture may lead to a small venture, or to nothing.

The lord nodded, and scratched at his beard, and reflected on the monk’s words. After a while, the lord grinned, and asked:

Perhaps by doing nothing, it may lead to a great venture?

The young monk smiled again:

Perhaps doing nothing is the greatest venture of all

he said.

Five Towers Mark

When he who was called Geiga, of the Long Night Mark, in great ceremony, over five days, climbed the Five Thousand Steps, and entered the SuMu, the Heart of Emptiness, at the summit and the centre of Shar, he put off his natal name and the blood of his ancestral clan, and became the Emperor Jara-so-zirma I, the Dustless One, who is above all Marks, and transcendent over the houses and the clans.

But what Mark does the emperor wear? The ShionDo, who is greater than all allegiance, wise beyond the partisan barricades of terrestrial power, with its thresh and grind of grudge and trivia, its sneaking after resource, and perpetual quests for vengeance?

His Majesty was taken into the world of the SuMu, and adopted the Mark of the Five Towers as his immortal emblem.

Yet, what is this Mark? With utter reverence, I ask it?

My spirit quails at the thought of the beauty and mystery of the Mark of the Five Towers, the “ZorViwaShar” of the LateAncient tongue. For uncountable years, back into the Clouded Era, the solemn warriors of the Five Towers Mark guarded over the SuMu, and the Metallic treasures at the heart of the capital.

All held the ZorViwaShar in awe. The warriors’ devotion to the Way was absolute, their vigilance over TanZo unparalleled. Through years so many they might be numbered as the drops of a great storm of rain, the warriors of the Five Towers remained in their posts, guardians of the heights: honed and refined to the perfection of their great task, they lived faithful lives, and their purity was considered without equal.

Not even the roughest or wildest of clans, the Simakas or the Ginshins, in all the turbulent history of Shar, during the worst days of riot and disorder, still, not one unruly lord or lady dared pollute the Outer Precincts of the SuMu with aggressive or disrespectful footsteps; and as for the Inner Precincts, within the moat of the Kaidan, I do believe that even the deranged and sick of mind would never dream to enter that most high and silent of places, and would turn back at the water’s edge. So profound the scale, so imposing the presence of SharAmor, the sacred tower, and so astonishing the seamless architecture of the barracks, temples and palace, all mortals of these later days acknowledge the sublimity of those buildings beyond the moat: looking inwards, to the centre of the universe, all of us privileged to gain a glimpse of the Inner Precincts have our spirits calmed, knowing our place is outside, to be measured to a smaller and a lesser increment…

Yet he who was Lord Quyonsoga Geiga, of a most noble and ancient Starless Darkness clan, dared to cross the moat, and submit himself to examination by the Three Bodies who guard over the Inner Precincts. The quality of Lord Quyonsoga’s illumination was proven through five days of test and trial: the abbot of the order of the MuKesho, the Isen of the Mark of the Hatching Egg, and the Isen of the Mark of the Five Towers, with their elders and their wise, every one of Subtle Rank, all of peerless purity, sought for a weakness in Lord Quyonsoga’s illumination, sieved for deviation or flaw, for any blotch or flutter that might disqualify His Lordship from assuming the Lotus Crown. No crack or dent, scar or scum, was found on the surface of Lord Quyonsoga’s illumination. His Subtlety was endless, its depths infinite: all representatives of the Three Bodies agreed – this was a man fit to be declared Dustless, to be granted access to the devices and symbols of the vanished ZuthDomin, our ancient ancestors. In this way, a day arrived that none, surely, really believed could occur: a human being sat upon the Butterfly Throne, the first in memory or record to take on the emblems of the power of the Metallic ones.

An event of wonder! And treasured by all who treasure the TanZo, the peerless and tranquil Way. His Majesty, already conqueror of Shar, promises us his utter will and effort, that the whole of the fifty cantons of the ancient map shall once again be unified into a single state, bound under the one law of the Way, watched over by the one ruler, he who is lord over the lords, the ShionDo, the Dustless One, that the sutras may be followed, that peace may adhere between the mountains in the dawn and the ocean to the dusk, from the ocean in the ice to the ocean in the fire, that all the parts may be drawn into a perfect whole, flawless and beyond all enemies.

A tremendous prospect, devoutly to be craved.

Certainly, certainly… Yet here, in the enclosure of my private journal, I do wonder, am I the only soul of Shar or of the greater land of the west, to find himself troubled by the rise of this most complete man to the altitude of emperor? Who has taken, as his personal Mark, the Five Towers, and who lives within the moat of the Kaidan, the most sacred place in all the universe?

It is not the Way that we allow to gods or angels power over our human spirits: in our cosmogony, there is no heaven, no immortal regime upon us, no divine order to which we must bow – the Way is ours to build, ours to maintain, ours to rely upon and to hand down. So to speak of the SuMu as heavenly, I do not mean to say it partakes of deity or of the schemes of gods, but merely to voice my reverence and awe for the world into which Lord Geiga entered.

It is strange. I do not doubt His Majesty’s perfection. He is all accomplishment. It has been my honour and humility to meet His Majesty in person, both before he rose to the crown and afterwards, and he has always impressed me with his beauty, the calm grandeur of his spirit, which is like none other in this world.

But to assume the Butterfly Throne? To wear the Lotus Crown, to make the warriors of the Five Towers Mark his personal guard, and to bear that celestial Mark… It is unnerving. Am I the only one to halt and wonder, if it is right, for us to close the gap between our finite human spirits and the dreamlike world of the Metallic ones? For all those years, no one managed to cross the moat, to enter the Inner Precincts. They were a kind of heaven, in my view – too perfect for us. They comprised a certain inviolability. We could always look to them, to the utter heights of the city and of the human spirit. It was apt, in my humble view, that the Inner Precincts remained vacant, untouched by the needs and devices of terrestrial power.

I am His Majesty’s most admiring servant, which is to say, I am a simple man of TanZo. Is it sentiment in me, or aching nostalgia, or pragmatic fear, or a mix of all, makes me teeter and balk at this new order?

The words of Kinsamon Aika, that fleeting poet of the Clouded Era, call to me this evening, as I sit and write to the sound of wire beetles whirring and grasshoppers singing from the southern gardens:

For I am filled with foreboding, and now have no place | where foreboding cannot be | for there is nowhere, my love | that is not without you | not even by your side…

From the journal of Lord Miza, of the Mark of the Plum Blossom, in the Year of Dusts 5

I suppose I should try and sketch out a definition of ‘fantasy’1. I admit, I find it very difficult to do this. I don’t associate fantasy so much with subject matter or characterisation or themes. I think fantasy is more a kind of animating spirit, which exhibits a certain playfulness in its dealings with the world.

It’s hard to take a photograph of this spirit: always on the move, slyly insinuating itself into double meanings, a creature of ambiguity and disorder, a lover of things that haven’t yet existed, a will o’ the wisp and a slip of the tongue, creating itself as it goes along, forever trying on disguises and postulating new ways to be, insisting on fresh perspectives from which to confound the assumptions we use to organise our world… If we try to hunt it down, it has already left for a new adventure. Seeking a glimpse of it in its natural habitat, we must be patient and be prepared to camp out in often inhospitable terrain – but perhaps, if we’re lucky, we may find it deep in the linguistic undergrowth, darting between the terms ‘fantastical’, ‘fantasy’, ‘imaginative’?…

The spirit of fantasy doesn’t necessarily inhabit a particular genre exclusively. A writer like Dickens, for example: in some ways, he could be described as a ‘realist’, and yet his prose is capable of the most fantastical excursions. Great Expectations is a wonderful account of (among many other things) social class and its relationship with individual desire, but Miss Haversham has just stepped out of a fairytale. People wouldn’t generally describe Great Expectations as a fantasy novel, but it displays the lightning and fluidity, the heightened metaphoric state, of a fantasy.

I accept of course that my definition of fantasy is skewed and idiosyncratic, not to say spectacularly vague. In my defence, I can only say that I’m not attempting an academic article, these are simply my thoughts about the subject. I appreciate that for many people, ‘fantasy’ refers to a particular genre of writing.

In fact, to a certain extent, I think there’s a problem precisely when fantasy hardens into a genre. This is a problem for both writers and readers. As genres splinter into sub-genres, the ‘hardening’ process intensifies. In order to satisfy the dictates of a genre – the genre which, in theory, allows publishers and critics and readers to establish the nature of a book – certain rules tend to be followed. Ironically, this may actually result in a more rigid deployment of the ‘spirit of fantasy’ that I’m talking about, with the consequence that books become less imaginative, less fluid and light-fingered. A certain international house style develops, an unwittingly corporate enterprise. By accepting the formulae of a genre, we are all of us immediately in danger of suppressing a certain degree of flexibility in our reading and writing. This descent into genre, into too easily adopted codes and styles, may lead to producing work which has the effect of closing minds and encouraging clichés, and into a general literary culture that runs the danger of degenerating into fanaticism, obsession and snobbery.

The spirit of fantasy is open-minded and flexible. It’s at ease with the plasticity of form – as in Ovid, say. It’s playful, in a deep sense of the word – it’s happy to invent whole worlds in which to exercise its powers. Anyone who has watched children running through a forest in the middle of a shopping mall, or building a submarine or an aeroplane out of a cardboard box, will have seen the spirit of fantasy at work.

I’d say that, in one sense, the spirit of fantasy represents a refusal to accept the status quo of what could loosely be called realism, and revolts against any literalist interpretation of the world. I suppose there is a degree of irrationality in this spirit of fantasy – perhaps he or she is related to Edgar Allen Poe’s Imp of the Perverse?

If you’ve read some of this site’s earlier posts – on my preference for writing fantasy, for example [Why I write fantasy | 2] – you will realise that I believe that at the heart of human beings there lies a core not of certainty but of possibility. In my view, realism asserts a kind of certainty – a form of fatality, in fact. This fatality lies in the assertion that there is one world, objectively accessible, which conforms to rigid laws. This conformity is seen as a value in itself – it is ‘the truth’. The ‘real world’, ‘reality’… ‘Things as they are’, ‘the basic facts of life’… ‘Get real!’… Our language is dotted with concepts and idioms referring to this place, this world that is real – hard, actual, undeniable, a place where the cosmic trains run to a mathematical timetable, a place susceptible to our desire for order, and curiously compliant to our analysis.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is often viewed negatively – we speak of “flights of fancy/fantasy”, and urge people we feel are letting themselves “get carried away” to “come back down to earth”. “It’s just a fantasy.” The spirit of fantasy, though, chafes against this urge to accept the common sense view of life. It wishes to bend things out of shape, to offer alternatives, to insist on our powers to change things by looking at them in new ways, to celebrate our condition as uncertain, as not knowing, as not being in control2.

The power of figuration is crucial to the spirit of fantasy – figuration, configuration, re-configuration… In literature, fantasy enjoys being able to construct different planets and societies, new intelligences, and fantasy offers a heightened capacity to manipulate symbols and images.  Metaphors can be viewed as the assertion of a particular bond, the establishment of a relation between objects or states normally kept discreet. But of what use are they? Aren’t they just futile whimsy, the doodles of a playful mind? A solemn, severe, totally literalist interpretation of the world would insist that metaphors are absurd. The literalist might accept similes – might accept the fact that a mushroom looks a bit like an umbrella – but would categorically deny that a mushroom actually is an umbrella. Metaphor displaces the literalist order, and brings together things a literalist would prefer to keep separate2.

I don’t wish to establish a crass, binary opposition between fantasy and realism/reality (as if it were a kind of boxing or wrestling match: FANTASY vs. REALITY [“And in the blue corner, wearing the gold trunks with blue trim”…]). As I’ve mentioned, in some senses, I don’t see reality as an entirely plausible concept or place. I don’t believe reality is an alternative to fantasy. I believe that reality is fantasy.

Nor do I wish to rehearse the same opposition as it can be played out within literature. I see fantasy and realism as intimately inscribed within each other – each depends upon the other. Philosophically, though, I would gently insist that the spirit of fantasy is fundamental to all literature. After all, the worlds of a realist writer and of a fantasy writer are both created worlds. Both worlds are imagined. One world is imagined to be different to some notional actual world; the other world is imagined to be similar.

As I look back over this post, I see the ironies which are, to a certain extent, inherent in my views. All the time, I either use or am tempted to use certain phrases: “Really, if we think about it, then…”, and “In truth…”, and “In fact…”, and “Actually…”: in seeking to create a persuasive argument, I seek to appeal to the conventions of the very world (the ‘real’ world) I am attempting to discredit, or at least to challenge. So, bearing this in mind, perhaps we may move on to the last phase of this post?

Really, if we think about it, then no work of art would be possible without fantasy. To give an example of a single art form: any film, no matter what its conventional style, requires the audience to accept the element of artifice and creation within it – its fantastic base. The audience in the cinema gazes at the silver screen, and creatures of light and sound move across the landscape of an imaginary world. We know it is not ‘real’. We know, or seem to know, that the characters whose fates we follow are actors – they are playing roles, they are “making believe”. And yet, so tremendously affective is the world of cinema, and so deep our desire to enter and remain in it, that we are transported by the story, and can laugh and cry at what we see. The spirit of fantasy works as an animating energy within the audience, not only in the film’s creators.

I realise I’m extending my definition of ‘fantasy’ into a rather nebulous construct, for which I apologise. But what I’m trying to get to is that the spirit of fantasy isn’t an aberration, or a departure from a realist way of looking at the world: it isn’t something we add on, a luxury or a kind of afterthought. It’s fundamental to our humanity. We think fantastic thoughts. We live in a fantastic world.

I hope to return to this subject in a subsequent post.

1 Our lives always seems to come back to definition. “It depends what you mean.” And we depend on what we mean.
Human life consists of three things:
1 | Arriving at a definition of a term, enabling us to act.
2 | Applying a value to a particular definition, inflecting how we will act.
3 | Everything else apart from what I’ve just written in points 1 & 2.

2 I accept of course that the spirit of fantasy has a dark side, and that it can be capable of “negative” as well as “positive” activity. A footnote isn’t the place to discuss this subject, but a common critique of “fantasy” lies precisely in the dangers that arise when a person “retreats into fantasy”, states in which the individual fantasises precisely that they are in control, that others do their bidding, fall for their charms, and so on. And fantasy, in this more alarming form, isn’t at all restricted to individuals: groups of people, cultures, entire states – and perhaps even an entire species – can live out fantasies. For anyone interested, my trilogy of poetry books, When the volts flowed, explores in part a world in which the lives of individuals have been rendered as ghostly, haunting already doomed worlds, by the delusory nature of the societies in which we live.

3 I would like to discuss the nature of metaphor in a separate post.

It’s a complex issue, the nature of influence. There are certainly moments of Dustless where I might be able to say, “Oh, I really wanted to emulate The Seven Samurai in this part”, or “I wanted to bring in something of Swann’s Way [Du côté de chez Swann] at this point”. These are conscious emulations, quite possibly recognisable to someone who has seen The Seven Samurai or read Swann’s Way.

I would say, though, that these kinds of one-to-one match-ups are quite rare in the novel. Match-ups, I mean, where you may be able to isolate the vivid point where the current from one work of art can clearly be seen entering another work of art.

Influence, though, doesn’t necessarily or even usually flow along lines of literal transmission. The world is too subtle for us: we’re always using bold crayons to depict it. And we can concentrate too much on what is there, when what is not there may be of equal or greater importance.

In an earlier post [Ambient literature | 2], I suggested that, when we’re strongly affected by things we don’t like, these dislikes can become very important to us, and even precious – they may, paradoxically, form powerfully benevolent and creative forces in our lives. In terms of the subject under discussion, we might describe this process as a form of “negative influence” – a concept vaguely and mis-shapenly analogous to the idea of “negative space” in art theory. We react against cultural works, disliking them, and this reaction shapes us and what we create. This absence of matter, these missing tones, those disused procedures, constitute a space surrounding the constructed work of art. What we put in is shaped by what we leave out. And this process of negative influence doesn’t have to be overt – the work of art doesn’t have to proclaim its negative influences by insisting on its own difference from them, its novelty, the reaction against what we dislike doesn’t have to be made explicit within the work of art we do produce – it can be gentle and diffusive.

Works of art influence each other, and the work of life, distantly. In terms of plot, for example, I’d very broadly describe Dustless as a quest or journey – a “road movie”. In terms of “positive” influence, we could take a trip back, perhaps, to visit the great sites of the texts and works of the past – see how, for example, The Odyssey, has flowed out and influenced many other stories and poems and other works of art, which have in their turn flowed on and performed the same transformations on neighbouring works. As narratives and images and tropes disperse and mutate across time and culture, tracing the lines of the literal transmission of influence becomes impossible, but is it so far-fetched to say that, as we are supposed to contain particles of the very first moments of birth of the universe, so Tokyo Story or North by Northwest, or a minimal techno track, or even a game of tennis or chess, may well contain within them particles of The Odyssey?

I imagine many of the influences on Dustless are there in a diffuse form. Myths, folklore, and fairy tales, for example – these are all part of the ambience of the novel. Things that are atmospheric, that we breathe. Fragments of sacred texts, nursery rhymes, cartoons from our childhood (Boss Cat, and Tom and Jerry)…

One way of describing Dustless might be to say that it is panoramic. In filmic terms, the narrative pans slowly across a vast landscape. The landscape is cultural – the landscape that is feeding into my mind as I write, over the years, encountering new works, remembering encounters with older works. So gradual and extensive is the panning action that, in turns of influence, a huge amount of material ends up being fed into the story.

Cinema itself is very, very important to the world of Dustless. The early volumes, for example, are heavily influenced by the Westerns I watched as a kid. John Wayne, James Stewart, Jack Palance, Gary Cooper. Many of those films had faded or bleached out of my memory by the time I actually came to start composition, but Sergio Leone’s Westerns, and Clint Eastwood’s films, such as High Plains Drifter, entered the DNA of the novel. It wasn’t so much any particular incident in these films that stirred my imagination, but more the atmospheres – again, the scale of the landscapes involved, the emptiness, the sense of settlements isolated in near-wilderness. Or fragments of gear: the immortal sound of boots and spurs jingling on steps and boardwalk as the protagonist approached the saloon. Space and distance, and travelling through difficult terrain, and what these elements do to people, the kind of person who is fitted to such environments – I think of Clint Eastwood’s lean, languid figure in the saddle, the way his eyes seem to have been sculpted into slits by his facing into sun or snow – those Westerns were really important to me.

It’s fitting that Sergio Leone’s name crops up, because he’s a well-documented example of the diffusion of influence. Leone was influenced by Akira Kurosawa, who was in turn influenced by the Western, particularly by John Ford. This wonderfully fertile cross-pollination of works of art, and specifically those of occidental and oriental cultures, resonates through Dustless. I absorbed atmospheres, and Dustless was the arena in which those different atmospheres mixed, like a sky that contains different kinds of clouds.

During the long years of composition, it was a kind of technique of mine to immerse myself in films, and particularly in Japanese period dramas. I was fascinated by the formality and (to occidental eyes) hierarchical rigidity of the societies depicted in many of these films. I don’t think it would be too absurd to say that the greatest work of art to influence Dustless is Japan itself. (I’m guilty of huge generalisation, here, for which I hope you’ll forgive me, but of the nations I know [which are very few, and those few I don’t know very well!], I would say that the one that most approximates a work of art is Japan.)

I find Japan endlessly fascinating. The main ‘religion’ depicted in Dustless is that of TanZo, the ‘simple Way’. TanZo is clearly influenced by Buddhism – the title, Dustless, is in part derived from the Buddhist notion of ‘the six dusts’, and the search of the characters to transcend the ‘dusts’ and become ‘Dustless’. Although Buddhism flows from India out to China, and so to Japan, it is the Japanese Zen inflection of Buddhism that is probably most important in the novel – which is probably not a very Zen observation to make, I’m afraid, being so caught up with differences and distinctions.

Through my reading, and poring over woodblock prints, and watching films, a huge number of Japanese artefacts – from different historical periods – enter and influence the novel. Of course, they are all transformed into their equivalents in the imagined world of Dustless: some are hardly affected at all by the transformation, others are considerably adapted, or the model effectively vanishes into the mutated equivalent.

One of the key artforms to influence the world of Dustless was that of animation in general, and Japanese animation (anime) in particular. I’d like to discuss animation and anime in subsequent posts.