Saturday, April 25, 2009

Words & Wizardry

The past few weeks, late at night, if I've been feeling sleepless, rather than poison my dreams with inane bursts of noise from the television, I've taken to curling up on the blue couch under a single reading lamp, and delving back into beloved works of high fantasy literature. Sometimes I've had the row of lava lamps turned on across the room; one lamp in particular casts light onto the blank white wall above it as though it were the sky filled with the aurora borealis. Or perhaps the gaseous shifting fringes of the sentient planet Solaris, from Stanislaw Lem's SF novel of that name. You take your solace where you can find it.

I've been re-reading, mostly by dipping in and out, and re-reading favorite scenes, sections, and segments of each book, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in a handy if huge single-volume paperback edition; Patricia McKillip's trilogy of The Riddle-Master (in a similar single-volume paperback), and Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea series, all six books.

Of the latter series, I have the original trilogy in a boxed set, with unified illustrations in every volume; I have the more recent books in their hardcover first editions, glittering with light and air and the coppery fire of the breath and scales of dragons. Dragons everywhere, changing back and forth in shape between human and dragon, never quite knowing which you'll meet today, always wild, fierce, and loving.

So my head is full these days of words and wizardry.

One of the tenets that all wizardry, and riddlery, appears to share is that, to name something truly is to know it, and to have power over it. To love something is to know its true name, yet let it be free and not seek to control it. Over and over again the lesson rings through that to try to control something utterly is to destroy it. Even the attempt to master death, to be immortal, causes more grief than solace. It's unnatural in the original sense of the word: to be natural in this creation is to be mortal. Even stars eventually die; some quietly, some violently and with spectacle.

But death isn't the end. R. Buckminster Fuller once said, to give solace to a friend whose beloved near-son had just died tragically, There is no death. There is only a change of state. It's a chemical, or alchemical, sort of comment to make, and it does bring comfort. It's the sort of wisdom a wizard might give at such a moment. I'm not the first to think of Bucky Fuller as a sort of modern wizard.

So death isn't the end. The story goes on, and stories do. We can make stories even for things we don't know about, which are important but which we can't understand. Some of these stories we call myth, which mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell once defined as The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Other such stories we call fiction, especially that sub-category of fiction with fantasy, or magical realism, or science fiction, or make-believe.

These stories are lies that tell more truth than so-called truthful stories. (Let's be blunt: there's no such thing as genre fiction, because in fact even non-genre fiction, so-called mainstream literary fiction, is just another kind of genre; so it's all one or it's nothing.) In each of them truth is revealed through narrative and dialogue, which are orderly lies we use to shape time into thought, to give comprehensible structure to an otherwise lumpy flow of chaotic memory.

Yet within the tenets of wizardry, words matter a great deal. Wizards are identified, in one sense, by the care and precision they take with how they use words. There is no casual or ordinary speech. That's a truth about life that we could all learn to live by, even as the lesson arises from fiction. Some days it's hard to separate what happens in fictional worlds from the so-called real world: which is, after all, a lie bound up in Indra's Net, what the Buddhists call maya, illusion. Ask a quantum physicist how real you are: you might discover you're not really here. Are the tenets of riddlery, or wizardry, then, so foreign, so fictional, after all? Perhaps they're more real than we think. Since, after all, words do have power to change the world; if not by magic, then by persuasion, by the magic of charisma and being in the right place at the right time, holding a long lever made out of great words that express great thoughts. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of a monumental edifice in our nation's capitol, and said, I have a dream! And the world changed. If the world is but a dream, maya, then we dream a world into being each time we think we wake to start our day in the real world, awakening from the world of dreams. Chuang Tze woke one day and said, I had a marvelous dream! In my dream, I was a butterfly flitting from place to place. Am I am man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming he is a man> Such are the tenets of riddlery: Answer the unanswered question, and the unanswerable questions. Who was Chuang Tze, and was he a butterfly indeed?

In no way is wizardry—or poetry, for that matter, that other art of words—about having all the answers. But it is very much about asking the right questions.

There are cardinals nesting in the thick pines beyond my window. Robins everywhere, more than you see in most years, building nests in the budding trees, scratching like chickens for seeds in the grass. Spring brings back to life what once had died.

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2 Comments:

Blogger mand said...

I've commented on the next post without reading this one - but downloading it now to read 'properly'. Hope you don't mind; i'm striving to catch up with everyone after a tough 3-4 months. Overcommitted myself just a little!

12:53 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, mand—

No worries. I'm dealing with a lot overwhelm myself, right now.

Thanks for both comments.

6:23 AM  

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