The Quintessence of our Techne: Spikes vs Poppy Petals

”The story is the king,” people say. ”The word is the queen,” I say. Down with this tyrant king! Long live the queen!

From the dawn of time, humanity has been an ever-moving mouth whispering tales. It’s our nature to create something out of nothing, to record and decode life inside a palpitating web of words. But the truth is this: any fool can spin a yarn. It doesn’t take any particular skills except for a little bit of an active mind. Anyone can make up a story. People have been doing it all the time in all the languages of the world, from the little child whose imagination is galloping at the speed of light to the average Joe and plain Jane, from the middle-aged adult to the sweet, old lady next door.

But if this is an innate ability, then what exactly sets the writer apart from the non-writer? And most importantly, what distinguishes the bad writer from the mediocre, the mediocre from the competent, the competent from the good, the good from the great one?

Most often, the story itself isn’t the be-all and end-all. The plot isn’t the terrain upon which a work receives nourishment and gains its flesh. One of the usual complaints we hear is that a writer has an interesting story arc or a fresh idea or complex concepts and yet, that isn’t enough to draw the reader in. Naturally, one wonders. What went wrong? Where did the writer fail and why?

The answer is the execution. A faulty delivery suffices to stifle even the most authentic voice, to mangle the most intricate and rich worldbuilding, to leave wanting the most singular narrative. A thick plot and multiple subplots are not enough on their own to sustain a work. A storyline is the spine that holds up our construction. But the mere skeleton of a house is barely habitable. We inhabit inside living, breathing bodies of buildings. The same applies to our books.

We are not after a kind of work that has merely acquired a raw shape from a quivering mass of mental sparks. We crave to touch its pulsing veins, to hear its beating heart. That’s when we’re flooded with he satisfaction that we gave birth to a being fully alive with an independent existence from our own.

Many writers are aware of what they want to convey. The entire game is played on choosing the most appropriate way to convey it though. That’s where we enter the arena and engage in a bloody fight with words. It’s all about them after all. To choose the best of them, the ripest, to arrange and rearrange them until they turn aflame. To hit the nail on the head. To pick the most suitable in order to present our thinking with the utmost precision and clarity. As Cicero put it in The Oration for Plancius, ”The difference between a good and a bad writer is shown by the order of his words as much as by the selection of them.

That’s all that stands between a run-of-the-mill and a mind-blowing narrative. We can all craft tales as long as we are literate. However, not all of us can write well or even pen something beyond the ordinary.

Words are sacred, therefore they deserve our love and reverence. Not a blind love just for the sake of it (verbal fireworks offer only hollow impressions. They suffocate the writing like weeds the roses of a garden), but a profound love because of the vast semantic field they unlock before our very eyes.

Each word carries a specific meaning, a subtle or not so subtle nuance that no other can replace. Every writer worth their salt, every writer who’s interested in creating a work of gravitas must be fully conscious of that. From an anthropological point of view, man is homo ludens. According to historian and cultural theorist Huizinga, civilization is based on a game, and all its various manifestations, from verbal communication to religious worship, can be understood as man’s natural inclination to participate in this game.

Huizinga goes on to explain that in contrast with other aspects of civilization, like politics and law that have diverged from their ludic origins, literature still follows the principles that govern every game. Principles like taking part freely in acts devoid of literal meaning and unusual compared to the ones in our daily life, acts governed by rules the participants themselves have agreed upon and, even though they are aware they have no literal meaning, they take them seriously.

Under this prism, literature is a ludic, not literal logos governed by rules decided by its players that can be reconsidered and changed, nonetheless, during the passage of time. And the players, despite knowing that it’s all game far removed from reality, play it as if it unfolded in the real world.

But what kind of game do we writers play when we play literature? We play with reality and unreality, truth and falsehood, fact and fantasy, morality and immorality, creation and destruction, order and chaos, beauty and the grotesque. But, first and foremost, we are word players. Whatever game we play, we play it through the only means at our disposal: words.

And what’s the ultimate game words yield to us? Nothing more than a continuous hide and seek between what lies on the surface and what sleeps beneath it, awaiting for the reader to wake it up. All literature is an unending game of fluidity between denotation and connotation, between the word’s literal and deviant from the common speech significance.

It’s the writers’s responsibility to be that kind of player, to render their words charged and pregnant so that the weight of their meaning alone will impale them on the paper, so that the wind won’t blow them away like poppy petals (to heavily paraphrase the verses of a poet).

Language offers us by nature infinite possibilities to take advantage of in the most positive sense. It’s the writers’s job to broaden the semantic field into which they move in their works, to stretch their words beyond their strictest confines and infuse them with more ”strata”.

In that way, we create a work with multiple layers of meaning that each time it is read, it’s perceived under a slightly different light. In that way, we craft a work with a transparent storyline that lies on the surface of the words, visible and easily understood by the majority, and at the same time with many more storylines that effervesce beneath the first layer.

And that’s the kind of work that will leave an indelible impression on the mind and soul of the reader: a story of substance and depth that speaks about the things that matter without actually saying them.

Let us aspire to that!

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Top 5 Ladies of Fiction and Myth

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Rhiannon riding in Arberth. From The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1877

One of the joys of reading books is the discovery of characters who are so unique and intriguing that, even though they are the fruit of fancy and wild imagination from the part of their creators, they possess so much fire and life they literally leap from the pages as if actual beings of flesh and blood. For centuries, literature and storytelling has been mainly dominated by men, even though the tide has shifted nowadays. However, even when men had taken the stage, many of them managed to craft some very alluring female characters who are still worthy of much talk and admiration from readers for their stunning and highly complex personalities.

Here, I’ve singled out five female characters who have had a most profound impact on me and whose web of seduction still has a hold over my psyche.

5. Marian Halcombe

Marian Halcombe is a character from Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White. Set during the Victorian era where gender roles are distinct and firmly established, Marian is a breath of fresh air with her unconventional ideas regarding the position of women in society and her refusal to conform to a male-dominated world and bend under its will. With endless amount of agency, she sticks to her guns, treading upon the path she considers the right one, choosing to honour her own values instead of the ones the status quo adheres to.

Far from a weak, spineless and meek creature, she is guided by the love she harbours for her half-sister, Laura. Ever loyal and attentive to her, she protects and defends her at every turn against the malice and wicked intentions of her husband and isn’t afraid to stand up to him when she feels  her sister is threatened. Brave and courageous, she is a symbol of all these people who have the guts to be who they want to be in a society that demands uniformity and compliance.

4. Jane Eyre

The protagonist of the titular novel by Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre is one of the most celebrated female characters in the history of literature. And rightly so. A coming of age story, we get to see how Jane grows up and matures into a woman. Having suffered a lot in her childhood and greatly mistreated by her aunt and cousins, from a little girl Jane fervently wants to find people in her life with whom to share her love. Not the most physically appealing person, many of the people around her judge her solely based on that fact. However, Jane’s passion isn’t to be curbed. As she grows older, she’s shown to form a friendly attachment to Helen Burns and Miss Temple and then later to fall in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester.

But even though Jane hungers for love, she values freedom, dignity and self-respect far more. A devoted Christian who despises hypocrisy and plain cold religious sentiment without substance beneath, she refuses to allow Rochester to treat her as another one of his mistresses and rejects Reed’s bloodless and frigid proposal of marriage. Even though she loves Rochester, she doesn’t become a prey to this love. Instead, she chooses to remain true to her principles. Only when she has won her freedom and her financial independence does she come back to Rochester and accepts his proposal since now she stands on equal grounds with him.

Jane Eyre is an inspiring character because she shows that, no matter how challenging and heart-wrenching is to keep our integrity intact in a society steeped in hypocrisy and injustice, what truly matters is to lead the life our conscience dictates us to lead and not a faceless majority. Because before we live with others, first we need to live with ourselves.

3. Clarimonde

Once again, the titular character from Théophile Gautier‘s short story brings to life a woman full of beauty, life and eroticism and seduction. A vampiress, Clarimonde falls in love with a priest, Romuald, who reciprocates her feelings, and lures him into abandoning his duties with the promise of eternal love and happiness. While not the first female vampire to grace the literary pages, Clarimonde is undoubtedly a unique conception, far removed in personality and habits by her literary vampire sisters.

While she needs Romuald’s blood to survive, she only consumes a few drops, therefore she’s a far cry from those deadly, ruthless vampiresses who’re solely consumed by bloodlust and have to murder to survive. What’s more, Clarimonde is genuinely in love with Romuald and the time he spends in her company and in her arms is filled with passion, desire and warmth. Most vampires in fiction of 19th and early 20th century involved with mortals seek nothing more than to satisfy their violent cravings with the mortals fulfilling the role of blood vessels under the guise of romantic love. But not Clarimonde.

One of the themes that permeates Gautier’s story is that of love as a power far greater than death. When Romuald is called to give last rites to a great courtesan who has fallen ill, he recognizes her as Clarimonde. When he goes to her in the castle, instead of giving her last rites and allowing her to die, he bestows upon her a kiss. With the power of his love for her passing through his lips, Romuald kisses Clarimonde and brings her back to life.

But the same thing applies to Romuald, for Clarimonde through her passion and love restores him to life and takes him far away from the coldness and stiffness his duties require, thus awaking his desires which until then were dead. An oxymoron given the fact that vampires have long been associated with death and decay.

However, the desires and fantasies she awakens in Romuald are condemned by the Church. Eroticism itself, which is the foundation and source of all life, is condemned.

Father Sérapion takes Romuald to Clarimonde’s tomb. He reveals her body is miraculously preserved thanks to Romuald’s blood. Father Sérapion pours holy water on her corpse. She crumbles into dust, but returns to Romuald later during the night and admonishes him for his betrayal, vanishing once and for all. Of particular interest are Clarimonde’s last words to Romuald which reveal her to be an innocent victim rather than the fiend Father Sérapion portrayed her to be:

Unhappy man! Unhappy man! What hast thou done? Wherefore have hearkened to that imbecile priest? Wert thou not happy? And what harm had I ever done thee that thou shouldst violate my poor tomb, and lay bare the miseries of my nothingness? All communication between our souls and our bodies is henceforth for ever broken. Adieu! Thou wilt yet regret me!

Of course, the tale concludes with these words from Romuald who admits that the love he shares with Clarimonde is a far greater power than anything on heaven and earth:

Alas! she spoke truly indeed. I have regretted her more than once, and I regret her still. My soul’s peace has been very dearly bought. The love of God was not too much to replace such a love as hers.

Now that is what I call a singular female creation.

2. Brunhilda

Brunhilda is a character from Ludwig Tieck’s Gothic tale Wake not the Dead. Badass, merciless, cold, stunning, lethal and yet utterly tragic. Once dead, her husband, Walter, decides to bring her back to life with the help of a sorcerer only to realize that the magic has gone horribly right. Thoughtless and impetuous, Walter ”pierces the deep abyss that separates earth from heaven”. Brunhilda returns to life but not as a mortal. She’s nothing but a corpse that requires blood to reanimate itself. A far cry from her warm and inviting kin, Clarimonde, Brunhilda exhibits a cold eroticism that scatters only death in its wake.

And yet, she’s not acting out of spite or malice or hatred for humanity. She didn’t choose to be a vampiress, condemned to this torment for all eternity. But now that is her nature and she must obey her thirst for living blood. Wake not the Dead is a tragedy and the reader cannot help but feel both terror and pity towards Brunhilda who’s trapped in this never-ending hell.

In fact, there’s a deep sense of justice and satisfaction when Brunhilda turns against Walter and calls him out on his actions, sharply reminding him that it’s him who is the true monster and not her.

When Walter returned home in the evening and laid him down to repose as usual by Brunhilda’s side, the magic power of her breath produced no effect upon him; and for the first time during many months did he close his eyes in a natural slumber. Yet hardly had he fallen asleep, ere a pungent smarting pain disturbed him from his dreams; and. opening his eyes, he discerned, by the gloomy rays of a lamp, that glimmered in the apartment what for some moments transfixed him quite aghast, for it was Brunhilda, drawing with her lips, the warm blood from his bosom. The wild cry of horror which at length escaped him, terrified Brunhilda, whose mouth was besmeared with the warm blood. “Monster!” exclaimed he, springing from the couch, “is it thus that you love me?”

“Aye, even as the dead love,” replied she, with a malignant coldness.

“Creature of blood!” continued Walter, “the delusion which has so long blinded me is at an end: thou are the fiend who hast destroyed my children–who hast murdered the offspring of my vessels.” Raising herself upwards and, at the same time, casting on him a glance that froze him to the spot with dread, she replied. “It is not I who have murdered them;–I was obliged to pamper myself with warm youthful blood, in order that I might satisfy thy furious desires–thou art the murderer!”–These dreadful words summoned, before Walter’s terrified conscience, the threatening shades of all those who had thus perished; while despair choked his voice.

“Why,” continued she, in a tone that increased his horror, “why dost thou make mouths at me like a puppet? Thou who hadst the courage to love the dead–to take into thy bed, one who had been sleeping in the grave, the bed-fellow of the worm–who hast clasped in thy lustful arms, the corruption of the tomb–dost thou, unhallowed as thou art, now raise this hideous cry for the sacrifice of a few lives?–They are but leaves swept from their branches by a storm.–Come, chase these idiot fancies, and taste the bliss thou hast so dearly purchased.” So saying, she extended her arms towards him; but this motion served only to increase his terror, and exclaiming: “Accursed Being,”–he rushed out of the apartment.

Brunhilda, despite her bloodlust and killing spree, is a profoundly sympathetic character, one who suffers unjustly due to having her agency violently stripped from her. A character whose dark charm is meant to haunt the reader the way it has haunted Walter.

1. Rhiannon

Rhiannon is a character from the first and third branch of the Mabinogion, a medieval Welsh collection of prose stories. An Otherwordly woman, she is beautiful,  strong-minded, intelligent, politically strategic, generous, very magically potent and of great physical strength. Well-spoken and a deadpan snarker, she chooses Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, as her consort, in preference to another man to whom she has already been betrothed by orchestrating an elaborate plan to fulfill her wish. The couple has a son, Pryderi, but the babe is abducted and Rhiannon is wrongly accused of infanticide. She’s unjustly punished, though her punishment is lifted when the child is found and returned to his parents. As a widow, she marries Manawydan of the British royal family, and has further adventures involving enchantments.

From the moment her character appeared in the Mabinogion I fell in love with her. She’s the embodiment of all the positive qualities in a woman: beauty, strength, will and agency. But the fact that she suffers for years unjustly helps make her even more appealing because she bears it all with great patience and a majestic grace that speak volumes about her fortitude and the magnitude of her personality.

So, who are some of your favourite female characters and why? Please, share your views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pablo Neruda: A Night on the Island

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All night I have slept with you
next to the sea, on the island.
Wild and sweet you were between pleasure and sleep,
between fire and water.

Perhaps very late
our dreams joined
at the top or at the bottom,

Up above like branches moved by a common wind,
down below like red roots that touch.

Perhaps your dream
drifted from mine
and through the dark sea
was seeking me
as before,
when you did not yet exist,
when without sighting you
I sailed by your side,
and your eyes sought
what now–
bread, wine, love, and anger–
I heap upon you
because you are the cup
that was waiting for the gifts of my life.

I have slept with you
all night long while
the dark earth spins
with the living and the dead,
and on waking suddenly
in the midst of the shadow
my arm encircled your waist.

Neither night nor sleep
could separate us.

I have slept with you
and on waking, your mouth,
come from your dream,
gave me the taste of earth,
of sea water, of seaweed,
of the depths of your life,
and I received your kiss
moistened by the dawn
as if it came to me
from the sea that surrounds us.

William Butler Yeats: The Stolen Child


Glencar Waterfall, County Leitrim 

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

Gwythyr and the Lame Ant

Signposts in the Mist

In Culhwch and Olwen there is an episode which opens with a curious scene. Gwythyr ap Greidol, ‘Victor son of Scorcher’, ‘was travelling over a mountain’ and heard ‘weeping and woeful wailing… terrible to hear.’ The source was a burning anthill. ‘He rushed forward, and as he came there he unsheathed his sword and cut off the anthill at ground level and so saved them from the fire.’

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What to make of this strange opening? Why, on earth, was the anthill on fire? Was Gwythyr having a burning bush moment akin to that of Moses on Mount Sinai? The fire shared a similar revelatory and numinous quality. However, the anthill, unlike the bush, definitely appeared to be burning up.

Did Gwythyr’s scorching feet cause the fire? His patronym suggests that, like his father, he is a god of fire and war. If so, his rescue of the ants shows a…

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