The Philosophy of Fantasy

Lilaia Moreli - Words Are Sacred

Circe_by_Wright_Barker_(1889)                                  Painting by Wright Barker, Circe, 1889

”To define is to limit,” Oscar Wilde claims in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Although a remark that holds great truth and wisdom, I’ll make an attempt to delineate what’s this beast called fantasy. Because if we want to dig into something and come to grips with how it functions and operates, then first we need to understand what it is that we’re talking about.

Fantasy is a genre with its own form and symbols. The term ”fantasy” that sets it apart from other genres refers to phenomena, situations, places and beings that haven’t come to existence and cannot exist in reality.

The roots of the imaginary explanation of the world are as ancient as humanity itself. The primitive man, prey to an alien and…

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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!

The Writer Who Cried Rape

Lilaia Moreli - Words Are Sacred

Let us dispense with euphemisms and call a spade a spade.

I won’t call it forced seduction. Or deflowering. Or taking advantage. Or inappropriate behaviour. Or worse, having sex. Or…any other term people invent so as to avoid to use the r word at any cost. It doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? Well, it’s RAPE with capital, bold letters. And it sounds exactly the way it’s supposed to: criminal, sick, freakish, monstrous.

The mere sound of it should produce a visceral reaction. And if it doesn’t, we should be greatly alarmed.

I won’t pass into the legal territory of all the details of what constitutes rape. We know what it is: a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out without the person’s valid consent due to various reasons (either because one is blackmailed or coerced or afraid or incapacitated or physically…

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The Philosophy of Fantasy

Circe_by_Wright_Barker_(1889)

                                  Painting by Wright Barker, Circe, 1889

”To define is to limit,” Oscar Wilde claims in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Although a remark that holds great truth and wisdom, I’ll make an attempt to delineate what’s this beast called fantasy. Because if we want to dig into something and come to grips with how it functions and operates, then first we need to understand what it is that we’re talking about.

Fantasy is a genre with its own form and symbols. The term ”fantasy” that sets it apart from other genres refers to phenomena, situations, places and beings that haven’t come to existence and cannot exist in reality.

The roots of the imaginary explanation of the world are as ancient as humanity itself. The primitive man, prey to an alien and terrifying world that at times seemed chaotic and cruel and to the ”monstrous” aspect of the universe, had to  hold on to something in order to understand not only his surroundings but his own identity and his relation to the natural environment around him.

The first attempt to fit the world into some semblance of a structure was mythology. The tribe, sitting around the campfire, listened with ecstasy to the storyteller, whose purpose was to placate the fear of the members of the tribe and offer some kind of meaning to life and the natural world.

The philosophic basis of the fantastic revolves around the clash between the rational and the irrational, between the logical and the absurd. The unnatural invades the natural, and the world is destroyed and recreated, because imagination itself provides the writer with endless possibilities as well as the freedom to express them.

Mythology, by nature, and most of the fantastic moves within an undefined frame of space and time. This lack of a particular space and time is what renders the genre applicable and relevant to all people and to any age.

The structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov maintains the idea that the fantastic arises when characters and readers are confronted with issues and questions regarding reality. Man, experiencing the terrible gulf between night and day, between birth and death, finds recourse in conceiving another reality that borrows elements from the one in which he lives. This new reality undermines the existing one, flouts the laws that govern nature and the universe, confutes man’s knowledge and proves the limitations by which man is fettered.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character says to Horatio, ”There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” These ”undreamt of” things are exactly those who give voice and flesh to the fantastic.

Through the fantastic man strives to confront and surpass the finite of human life, experience and knowledge. It’s a form of rebellion where man tries to break free from his own limitations.

The burning issue in the literature of fantasy is precisely the showdown between the finite aspect of human existence and a vast, infinite world that perplexes, challenges and overwhelms us. Fantasy works borrow elements from reality and transform them, building worlds that differ, either slightly or vastly, from our own. These worlds essentially reinvent our own and, by undermining the knowledge we already have in our possession, prove once more the finite of human life that we refuse to accept and against which we display a mighty resistance.

Animals that feel, think and talk like humans, humans who morph into animals, islands that appear and disappear at will, worlds separated by veils, magic that alters the very fabric of space and time, fairies, elves, dragons, vampires, werewolves and a bevy of other supernatural creatures who coexist with humans, imaginary lands one can travel to through invisible portals, realms beneath lakes or seas, worlds that spring to life through the pages of a book, spells that master the forces of nature, potions that make people fall in love, swords that slay immortal creatures, songs that put people to sleep and sorcery that violates the boundaries between life and death are only a short sample of the fantastic.

In the literature of fantasy borders collapse; everything’s compatible and possible, no matter how illogical it might seem. The principal question that permeates and governs the fantastic is ”what if?” That’s the thought that propels all writers of the fantastic. It’s a thought that allows imagination to blend into reality, that allows the natural and the unnatural to engage into an endless wooing, that allows the rational and the irrational to marry.

It’s through this ”romance” that we satisfy our deepest desire: to come in contact, even for a fleeting moment, with that we have dared conceive of only in a flight of our wildest dreams. The fantastic helps us read and view reality from another perspective, refracted but not distorted. After all, it’s no coincidence that it frequently flourishes and makes its strongest comeback during times of historical effervescence and upheaval. Those are the times when the primeval monsters wake up from their hibernation to find their way into the pages of literature. The fantastic, after all, is nothing but a reflection of our times, an image of a sociopolitical reality observed through a concave mirror.

 

 

 

 

 

Quo Vadis: Book Review

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Quo Vadis, written by Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, is a work of historical fiction published in 1895. The novel takes place in Ancient Rome during the reign of emperor Nero and the plot revolves around the love story between a pagan, Roman patrician, Marcus Vinicius, and a Christian girl, Lygia.

A hothead warmonger who has served in the military in Asia, once he returns to Rome, Marcus stays in the house of the former general, Aulus Plautius, to recover from his injuries and rest. There, he sees for the first time the general’s adopted daughter, Lygia, who is a royal hostage. He falls madly in lust with her and tries with the help of his amoral uncle, Petronius, to possess her.

But the world into which the beautiful Lygia and her adoptive mother move is a far cry from the world into which Marcus lives and therefore tension and conflict arise.

On one hand, initially Marcus represents the Roman empire in all its violent and decadent glory. Used to indulge his own whims and desires, Marcus seeks nothing more than his own selfish pleasure, and so attempts to take Lygia according to the traditional Roman way: by applying force.

On the other hand, Lygia with her goodness, purity and humble Christian upbringing is a breath of fresh air against the corruption and viciousness of Nero’s court.

When Petronius convinces Nero to hand Lygia to Marcus as his personal slave, Lygia and the rest of the Christians come up with a plan. Lygia is hidden in the Christian catacombs. From this moment on, Marcus embarks on an anguished search for her throughout Rome.

When he finds her with the help of a Greek, private investigator, he tries to abduct her but ends up getting hurt when Lygia’s bodyguard, Ursus, attacks him. Instead of killing him, the Christians nurse him back to health.

Already the seeds of Marcus’s spiritual transformation have been planted. Marcus, deeply moved by the compassion the Christians show him and the kindness with which Lygia treats him, begins to question his own actions and gradually sees Lygia as something more than the mere object of his lust, as a person with a soul and emotions.

His change and his spiritual journey have been set in motion.

Quo Vadis is one of the top novels ever written for me because Sienkiewicz is a master of pathos. Written during the Romantic movement in Europe, it contains a lot of scenes brimming with romantic ideas and sentimentality. However, Quo Vadis is profoundly humane in its approach.

I maintain the idea that the human psyche and its deep exploration is the essence of good literature. And that’s exactly what this novel delivers. The relationship between Marcus and Lygia has the ability to move the reader because it functions on two levels. On the first level, we’re exposed to a most beautiful and passionate love story. On the second level, Marcus and Lygia represent the violent clash between the old world that is Rome (sadistic, vindictive, bloodthirsty, materialistic, malevolent, unstable, and ultimately deadly) and the new era Christianity brings (full of love, kindness, peace, respect and forgiveness).

One of the themes that takes central stage in the novel is love. What is love? What does it mean to love someone? How can love affect a person’s life? In Western literature, love has long been associated with both life and death. Quo Vadis is no exception.

Through his love for Lygia, Marcus sheds off his old skin and gains a new one. Eros becomes a revolutionary force that blows up Marcus’s soul. Gradually, he begins to realize there’s a whole world beyond inane self-seeking pleasure and selfish cruelty. By staying with the Christians for some time in the catacombs, he becomes aware that all the foundations of the empire are stinking, festering, falling into decay.

Marcus views the world through Lygia’s eyes. He becomes so devoted to her that his love for her reaches the point of divine adoration. And here enters a very interesting question. Sienkiewicz raises the issue of change. Can people reconsider and change? Can they smash their past and arise anew? Marcus proves that a spiritual awakening, a hopeful resurrection is possible.

His love gives him the opportunity to be reborn, to gain a new life full of meaning and purpose. He proves that humans are not flat, static beings condemned to die the same as they were born. They can rethink their actions, repent, change their mind and heart, mature and grow. They can be influenced and reshaped under the right circumstances.

Marcus’s initial emotions and thoughts as expressed in this passage:

But, first of all, he was unwilling and unable to be reconciled with fate, for never in life had he so desired anything as Lygia. It seemed to him that he could not exist without her. He could not tell himself what he was to do without her on the morrow, how he was to survive the days following. At moments he was transported by a rage against her, which approached madness.

He wanted to have her, to beat her, to drag her by the hair to the cubiculum, and gloat over her; then, again, he was carried away by a terrible yearning for her voice, her form, her eyes, and he felt that he would be ready to lie at her feet. He called to her, gnawed his fingers, clasped his head with his hands. He strove with all his might to think calmly about searching for her,—and was unable. A thousand methods and means flew through his head, but one wilder than another.

are vastly different from his later behaviour when he asks for Lygia’s hand with her consent as expressed in this passage:

And he stretched forth his hand, as if taking Heaven as witness of his love; and Lygia, raising her clear eyes to him, said,—

“And then I shall say, ‘Wherever thou art, Caius, there am I, Caia.’”

“No, Lygia,” cried Vinicius, “I swear to thee that never has woman been so honored in the house of her husband as thou shalt be in mine.”

For a time they walked on in silence, without being able to take in with their breasts their happiness, in love with each other, like two deities, and as beautiful as if spring had given themto the world with the flowers.

They halted at last under the cypress growing near the entrance of the house. Lygia leaned against his breast, and Vinicius began to entreat again with a trembling voice,—”Tell Ursus to go to the house of Aulus for thy furniture and playthings of childhood.”

But she, blushing like a rose or like the dawn, answered,—”Custom commands otherwise.”

“I know that. The pronuba [The matron who accompanies the bride and explains to her the duties of a wife] usually brings them behind the bride, but do this for me. I will take them to my villa in Antium, and they will remind me of thee.”

Here he placed his hands together and repeated, like a child who is begging for something, —”It will be some days before Pomponia returns; so do this, diva, do this, carissima.”

“But Pomponia will do as she likes,” answered Lygia, blushing still more deeply at mention of the pronuba.

And again they were silent, for love had begun to stop the breath in their breasts. Lygia stood with shoulders leaning against the cypress, her face whitening in the shadow, like a flower, her eyes drooping, her bosom heaving with more and more life. Vinicius changed in the face, and grew pale. In the silence of the afternoon they only heard the beating of their hearts, and in their mutual ecstasy that cypress, the myrtle bushes, and the ivy of the summerhouse became for them a paradise of love.

But their happiness is short-lived. Enraged by Marcus’s harsh treatment, Chilo double-crosses Lygia and the Christians, condemning them to endless torture and painful death.

Nero, to gain poetic inspiration, burns Rome, but the Christians are blamed instead. Lygia is imprisoned. From that moment, the tension escalates and the novel enters into suspense territory. Marcus and Petronius do everything in their power to free Lygia. When all fails, Marcus retains his faith in Christ. In some of the most gruesome scenes ever written in fiction, the Christians are killed and eaten alive by wild animals as entertainment in the arena.

Chilo repents, but is brutally killed by Nero’s court, though first forgiven by the man he hurt most. And here Sienkiewicz raises another important issue, that of forgiveness. Do people deserve to be forgiven after generating so much suffering and evil? The answer is not an easy one. After all, forgiveness is a personal matter. Perhaps, the point the Polish writer is trying to make is that it takes tremendous strength and courage to overcome the pain one has inflicted and forgive them.

Marcus is definitely strengthened as a character through his own suffering. He hopes and prays, proving that he possesses, indeed, a lion of a spirit. At this point, when all seems lost, love morphs into a death call which Marcus is more than willing to answer.

But the suffering of Vinicius surpassed human endurance. From the moment that Lygia was imprisoned and the glory of coming martyrdom had fallen on her, not only did he love her a hundred times more, but he began simply to give her in his soul almost religious honor, as he would a superhuman being. And now, at the thought that he must lose this being both loved and holy, that besides death torments might be inflicted on her more terrible than death itself, the blood stiffened in his veins. His soul was turned into one groan, his thoughts were confused. At times it seemed to him that his skull was filled with living fire, which would either burn or burst it. He ceased to understand what was happening; he ceased to understand why Christ, the Merciful, the Divine, did not come with aid to His adherents; why the dingy walls of the Palatine did not sink through the earth, and with them Nero, the Augustians, the pretorian camp, and all that city of crime. He thought that it could not and should not be otherwise; and all that his eyes saw, and because of which his heart was breaking, was a dream. But the roaring of wild beasts informed him that it was reality; the sound of the axes beneath which rose the arena told him that it was reality; the howling of the people and the overfilled prisons confirmed this. Then his faith in Christ was alarmed; and that alarm was a new torture, the most dreadful of all, perhaps.

Marcus and Lygia are an entity to the point where Marcus simply cannot exist without her. He tries all means possible to save her. He pleads, he begs, he speaks to influential people, he offers money. All in vain. When he becomes convinced that Lygia won’t be alive much longer, he bribes his way to her cell. In a scene of incomparable, emotional beauty and poignancy, he stays with her, both of them praying and bound in love. He has already decided that after her death he will declare to everyone that he himself is a Christian, so that they will kill him and thus go to Heaven with her.

For three days, or rather three nights, nothing disturbed their peace. When the usual prison work was finished, which consisted in separating the dead from the living and the grievously sick from those in better health, when the wearied guards had lain down to sleep in the corridors, Vinicius entered Lygia’s dungeon and remained there till daylight. She put her head on his breast, and they talked in low voices of love and of death. In thought and speech, in desires and hopes even, both were removed unconsciously more and more from life, and they lost the sense of it. Both were like people who, having sailed from land in a ship, saw the shore no more, and were sinking gradually into infinity. Both changed by degrees into sad souls in love with each other and with Christ, and ready to fly away. Only at times did pain start up in the heart of Vinicius like a whirlwind, at times there flashed in him like lightning, hope, born of love and faith in the crucified God; but he tore himself away more and more each day from the earth, and yielded to death. In the morning, when he went from the prison, he looked on the world, on the city, on acquaintances, on vital interests, as through a dream. Everything seemed to him strange, distant, vain, fleeting. Even torture ceased to terrify, since one might pass through it while sunk in thought and with eyes fixed on another thing. It seemed to both that eternity had begun to receive them. They conversed of how they would love and live together, but beyond the grave; and if their thoughts returned to the earth at intervals, these were thoughts of people who, setting out on a long journey, speak of preparations for the road. Moreover they were surrounded by such silence as in some desert surrounds two columns far away and forgotten. Their only care was that Christ should not separate them; and as each moment strengthened their conviction that He would not, they loved Him as a link uniting them in endless happiness and peace. While still on earth, the dust of earth fell from them. The soul of each was as pure as a tear. Under terror of death, amid misery and suffering, in that prison den, heaven had begun, for she had taken him by the hand, and, as if saved and a saint, had led him to the source of endless life.

Petronius was astonished at seeing in the face of Vinicius increasing peace and a certain wonderful serenity which he had not noted before. At times even he supposed that Vinicius had found some mode of rescue, and he was piqued because his nephew had not confided his hopes to him. At last, unable to restrain himself, he said,—

“Now thou hast another look; do not keep from me secrets, for I wish and am able to aid thee. Hast thou arranged anything?”

“I have,” said Vinicius; “but thou canst not help me. After her death I will confess that I am a Christian and follow her.”

“Then thou hast no hope?”

“On the contrary, I have. Christ will give her to me, and I shall never be separated from her.”

But Lygia, naked, unconscious and tied upon the back of an auroch inside the arena, is saved at the last moment when Ursus fights against the beast and kills it with his bare hands. Moved by the intense suffering of the couple, the people of Rome take them both under their protection.

The novel ends with Marcus and Lygia living happily married far away from Rome. Nero dies a degrading death and after the passage of centuries Christianity rules over an once debauched city.

Sienkiewicz is clever enough not to fall into the trap of fanaticism, religious blindness or preaching. He’s never absolute in his portrayal of either side. Not all Christians are kind and loving as shows the case of Crispus, a Christian zealot who verges on fanaticism. Not all pagans residing in Rome are dissolute as shows the case of Lygia’s adoptive father, Aulus Plautius, and Nero’s former mistress, Acte. And somewhere in the middle lies the case of Petronius and his former slave turned lover, Eunice, both representing the last good qualities of the old world: beauty and poetry.

In fact, he fell asleep. When he woke, the head of Eunice was lying on his breast like a white flower. He placed it on the pillow to look at it once more. After that his veins were opened again.

At his signal the singers raised the song of Anacreon anew, and the citharæ accompanied them so softly as not to drown a word. Petronius grew paler and paler; but when the last sound had ceased, he turned to his guests again and said,

“Friends, confess that with us perishes—”
But he had not power to finish; his arm with its last movement embraced Eunice, his head fell on the pillow, and he died.

The guests looking at those two white forms, which resembled two wonderful statues, understood well that with them perished all that was left to their world at that time,—poetry and beauty.

Petronius , indeed, represents an interesting philosophy that contrasts both with the Christian worldview and with Stoicism which was prevalent at that time in Rome. As he writes to Marcus,

There are only two philosophers that I care about, Pyrrho and Anacreon. You know what they stand for. The rest, along with the new Greek schools and all the Roman Stoics, you can have for the price of beans. Truth lives somewhere so high that even the gods can’t see it from Olympus.

Petronius stands for beauty, aesthetics and harmony in a world that devours its own flesh most horribly. And it is exactly this type of philosophy that enables him to face his death with a quiet dignity.

The existence of various philosophies, ideologies and cultures paints Quo Vadis with so much brightness.

If one asked me what is the purpose of literature, I’d reply that it is to move and shake up the reader. Quo Vadis definitely managed to do that. For me, the novel’s originality doesn’t stem from its plot or rich world-building. For me, the originality stems from the excellent exploration of the human soul and the enormous pathos that comes with it.

Quo Vadis is a novel that appeals to the heart. It touches and inspires in most unexpected ways. It’s a profound study on love, strength, faith, spirituality, personal growth, forgiveness and human endurance.

There are many beautiful parts in the novel, but the one who stood out for me, besides the scene with Marcus and Lygia in the prison, is when Marcus talks to Petronius about Lygia after their marriage.

Because I love her immortal soul, and because we both love each other in Christ; for such love there is no separation, no deceit, no change, no old age, no death. For, when youth and beauty pass, when our bodies wither and death comes, love will remain, for the spirit remains.

If that is not a frank and deep emotion that humbles and inspires, then I don’t know what it is.

So, for those of you who haven’t read Quo Vadis, grab a copy and sink your teeth in the book. If not for anything else, the novel presents one of the most fiery and heartening love stories ever written in the history of literature. And in a time like ours where people are so consumed with their own interests and personal gain, we have the need to read such stories even more.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fluidity of Storytelling

And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep overlapping and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story, is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead. 

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

True stories begin at the last page and never really end. It’s only when the reader has closed the book and put it aside that the words slip into one’s bloodstream, quickening the flow.

The moment someone’s fingers pry the secrets of a book apart, the book ceases belonging to its author. The author bequeathes the fruit of his toil and joy to the individual. And every single individual who has the willingness and the patience, who bubbles with excitement at the thought of tumbling through a crack to a new wonderland, is never exposed to the same story the creator crafted.

Stories flow; they can never be static for the simple reason that they are made out of words. And words carry within them the most indestructible, the most ancient essence of the element that sustains the universe: water.

Yes, narratives are always in motion. They breathe, grow and expand. Every reader will never envision the story the way its author did. And neither will two different readers. For each and every single traveler in the journey of reading enters equipped with one’s own pair of eyes, with one’s own memories, ideas, tastes, dreams, views and expectations

It’s because of this equipment that every reader possesses the ability to blow a unique life into a story, and through this new life the story mutates into another one where events and characters shift, intertwine and pour into each other like a river into the sea.

The stories worth being talked about are the ones forged when passion couples with imagination. The greatest gift an author can deliver is to engrave the story inside the grooves of the reader’s mind and stir the cauldron of endless possibilities. Once achieved, the story flares up, blazing with an inextinguishable fire.

The reader is never truly content with the way a book swings shut, because the world one has meandered into once brought to life refuses to die. So, the impassioned lovers gazing at the sunset and lapping up honey from each other’s mouth will have to go through more troubles and adventures to test and strengthen their love.

Once the forlorn queen finds the golden chalice, she will only enjoy a brief respite; she must jeopardize herself and lose it so as to saddle her horse again and begin her quest all over. The universe in shatters will keep on hanging on the edge of a knife because it cannot end as we know it; a great hero must rise, grit his teeth and save humanity from sliding into entropy and death.

It’s an unshakeable fact: we adamantly refuse to abandon the stories we love. We ponder over them, obsess about them. We weave a web inside which all stories cross paths and feast on each other in order to give birth to new ones.

The idea of an ending is inconceivable, almost a blasphemy. We rebel and revolt against it. It leaves us with a foul taste that our tongue needs to spit out. How many times did someone jot down a story as a reaction to the one he/she read but whose denouement couldn’t stomach?

It’s human nature to let our mind wonder and wander about that which beguiles us, to let the question of ”what if” quiver on our lips. After all, is there a bigger proof than fanfiction?

In the end, the eternal desire for narratives might be a token of warmth and affection, an open dialogue of equality through which we endeavour to reach out to each other and drive away our sadness and loneliness.

Book Review: The White People

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Arthur Machen’s The White People had been on my reading list for a long time.

The story starts as a singular, philosophical study on the nature of good and evil and evolves into a chillingly delightful tale brimming with dark, paganistic rituals, weird occurrences and sorcery only to break off abruptly on the cusp of some kind of supreme revelation.

The beginning of The White People offers to the reader an intriguing intake on the topic of saints and sinners. Cotgrave and Ambrose discuss the nature of sin. According to the second,

”So you see that while the good and the evil are unnatural to man as he now is—to man the social, civilized being—evil is unnatural in a much deeper sense than good. The saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which he was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall.”

To better illustrate his point and make his companion understand, Ambrose gives Cotgrave to read The Green Book, a pocket book written by a 16-year-old girl he once knew.

The girl, whose mother is dead and whose father leaves her on her own to take care of the affairs of his profession, is raised by her nurse who dedicates most of her time in initiating her into a queer, dark world through the narration of songs and fanciful stories.

The girl drinks the stories in, and the more she surrenders to the secrets she’s exposed to, the more she descends into another dimension through waxen idols, mounts and hills, pits and wells. And all this, as she spends most of her time sauntering into the black woods, uttering bizarre rhymes.

She refers to odd things like the Aklo letters, the Chian languages, the great, beautiful Circles, the Mao Games, the chief songs, the Nymphs, the Dôls, Jeelo and voola. Did the girl suffer from bouts of a superactive imagination? Did she have a mystical power to conjure the universe that haunted her imagination into the real world? Perhaps. As Ambrose hints,

”A child’s imagination always makes the heights higher and the depths deeper than they really are; and she had, unfortunately for herself, something more than imagination. One might say, perhaps, that the picture in her mind which she succeeded in a measure in putting into words, was the scene as it would have appeared to an imaginative artist.”

Was the girl ever truly touched by the White People and the fairies? It is never made clear. Ambrose remarks that,

”Powerful and sovereign medicines, which are, of necessity, virulent poisons also, are kept in a locked cabinet. The child may find the key by chance, and drink herself dead; but in most cases the search is educational, and the phials contain precious elixirs for him who has patiently fashioned the key for himself. She had poisoned herself—in time.”

Machen is not a writer who employs blood and gore to horrify the reader. No, he has an uncanny ability to freak out the reader by painting a creepy, unnerving atmosphere through allusions and cryptic references which are never fully explained.

The White People reads as a misty, dream-like, stream of consciousness tale sprung from the depths of childish imagination. It’s a dark triumph of fantasy and horror bound to excite and intrigue the mind.

 

The Writer Who Cried Rape

 

Let us dispense with euphemisms and call a spade a spade.

I won’t call it forced seduction. Or deflowering. Or taking advantage. Or inappropriate behaviour. Or worse, having sex. Or…any other term people invent so as to avoid to use the r word at any cost. It doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? Well, it’s RAPE with capital, bold letters. And it sounds exactly the way it’s supposed to: criminal, sick, freakish, monstrous.

The mere sound of it should produce a visceral reaction. And if it doesn’t, we should be greatly alarmed.

I won’t pass into the legal territory of all the details of what constitutes rape. We know what it is: a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out without the person’s valid consent due to various reasons (either because one is blackmailed or coerced or afraid or incapacitated or physically threatened or drunk or unconscious or underage etc).

Society knows what it is. The rapists know what it is. The raped ones know what it is. Everybody knows what it is, even though it is ridiculously convenient to pretend confusion and ignorance and call on laughable justifications and all the loopholes of the law in order to not carry the blame and assume responsibility.

After all, it’s always easier to turn a blind eye or choose the coward’s way.

Rape manifests through different ways, affecting men and women alike, children and adults alike. The purpose of this post is not to talk generally about it, but about the way it is portrayed in some modern romance novels. I’ll talk specifically about rape scenes that occur between the hero and heroine.

While it is true that the rape trope frequented the older romances of the last decades of the 20th century, no doubt it still has its place in the romances written in this century as well. Granted, it’s not the norm, but that doesn’t mean that this issue doesn’t need to be addressed.

As a writer and therefore as someone who constantly reads and reflects on things, I adamantly believe that all writers have responsibilities both towards their craft and the books they write and towards their readers as well.

Fiction functions on many levels. It’s a form of art, of entertainment, of exploration of the aspects of the human condition, one of the means of education. But above all, it’s a means through which we disseminate mentalities and ideologies, a means through which we can promote a political, moral, social and cultural agenda.

And the burning question is this: do romance novels where the hero rapes the heroine and then they have their happily ever after promote rape culture? Do such kind of books trivialize or even glamourize rape?

The answer is straightforward: yes, that is exactly what they do. Admittedly it’s a hell of an uncomfortable issue. Therefore all the more reason to talk openly about it and not keep our mouths shut.

Rape is a serious criminal act and the victim of this crime has to deal with the consequences of this trauma perhaps till the day she dies. Consequences both physical and psychological. The victim often carries the social stigma and the blame for something that is not her fault. She is often accused of having somehow provoked the rapist (by wearing revealing clothes, by drinking, by walking alone at night etc), and therefore she was asking for it. She might suffer from sexually transmitted diseases or an unwanted pregnancy.

She develops posttraumastic stress disorder with symptoms including  disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events, mental or physical distress to trauma-related cues, attempts to avoid trauma-related cues, alterations in how she thinks and feels, and an increase in the fight or flight response.

And it’s even worse if her body happens to respond during the sexual assault. After all, that means that she subconsciously wanted to get raped, doesn’t it? That a human being cannot always control their physical reactions is never taken into account of course.

And when society refuses to listen, when society silences or shames or isolates the woman, she is raped once more because she has no control over her life, her emotional, mental and physical health. Once more, she gets dominated and stripped of her own voice, her own free will.

Not a pretty image, huh? No, it’s not. It’s heartbreaking and ugly.

But of course the rapist apologists, both readers and writers alike, will reply: ”Relax, lass. It’s just fiction. It doesn’t mean that in real life rape should be acceptable.” It shouldn’t be acceptable in fiction either. There’s nothing romantic about being treated as a piece of meat, as a slave without voice and will, as an object whose sole purpose is to satiate the twisted needs of a male. Romanticizing and glamourizing sexual violence sends the explicit message that rape is just something fun, inconsequential, trivial and the raped woman should not make such a fuss about it because in the end that’s a sign of the hero’s devotion and love. The hero loves the heroine so much that he can’t control himself. Poor guy! Perhaps we should shed black tears for the terrible suffering he’s going through. Why can’t we sympathize with his unjust plight?

And the rapist apologists will keep going. ”But such romances take place in historical periods where women were abused and seen as inferior beings. We cannot look at such romances through modern eyes. The story needs to be true to its era.”

What a load of drivel! Do these people even hear what they’re blurting out? If they cannot see the hypocrisy between the two most usual excuses they use, then they are truly blind. We cannot both use the realistic and credible card and at the same time play with the fiction card. Either we strive for realism and therefore should depict the stress and the agony of the raped heroine as well as the life-long suffering she has to go through and her inability to love her rapist (because in real life situations the rapist and the raped do not fall in love) or we delve completely into a fantasy scenario  and eliminate the rape from the plot and have the hero and heroine win their happy end.

Yes, I’ve heard all these hollow, illogical arguments over and over again. But we cannot have it both ways. We cannot come up with excuses when it’s convenient and try the realistic angle when we don’t find others any more. It’s either or.

Such books strike a blow against all the women who have been raped. It’s painfully insulting and insensitive from the part of the writer to promote and encourage rape culture. And some writers will insist, ”It’s just fiction. Entertainment. Purely harmless. A man won’t rape a woman because of what we write in our books.”

I will only reply this. This attitude is ignorant and vile. If the writers think that what they do is innocent and harmless, then they are lazy, bad and irresponsible in their profession. A good writer researches, reads and educates himself/herself. A good writer is conscious of the fact that whether a story unfolds in a realistic or a fantastical setting, it needs to make sense and be ground in realism-in the greater sense of the word-so that the reader can willingly suspend his/her disbelief. If a story is stretched too far, like a heroine falling in love with her rapist and living happily ever after with him, the book is bad and unworthy of being read because it does not respect the reader.

But above all, a good writer is intensely aware of the fact that fiction is an enormous terrain brimming with messages and ideologies, a vehicle through which certain mentalities and postures are condemned and encouraged, trivialized and vilified, romanticized and excused.

Do men rape women because of the existence of such books? My mind is not that simplistic to believe such books are accountable for this crime. The issue is an extremely complex one. Ban these books and men will keep on raping women.

But I’m not that naive either not to acknowledge the fact that fictional books are a form of ideological apparatus. And any writer who brushes this aside, needs to stop and think twice about his/her writing identity and the role he/she builds within the society through his/her books.

Everything we do and say, from the smallest thing to the most significant, has an impact both on ourselves and on the people who surround us. Nothing is inconsequential and nothing is innocent. From the dullest fictional book to the most brilliant, credos, beliefs and attitudes float around that help stabilize or eat away the status quo.

Credos, beliefs, ideologies and attitudes shape up our society. With everything a writer writes in his/her books, he/she takes a stance. Consciously or unconsciously.

It’s of paramount importance that every writer assumes his/her responsibilities for every book he/she pens. Because in the hands of someone lacking consciousness, a book can turn into a terrible weapon even more dangerous than in the hands of someone who possesses one.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves: what kind of writers do we wish to be? And most importantly, what kind of a person do we wish to be?

 

 

 

Book Review: Clarimonde or The Dead Leman

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Clarimonde is the tale of love between a young priest, Romuald, and a beautiful vampiress, Clarimonde. Gautier’s short story offers plently of food for symbolism and analysis as it functions on multiple levels. As it happens with most gothic fiction of that kind, Clarimonde blurs the boundaries between life and death. As a vampiress, she comes and goes, travelling between the two worlds while not fully belonging to either. However, the same applies to Romuald. Dead during his duties as a priest, alive while being Clarimonde’s lover.

Clarimonde shares a common trait with Edgar Alan Poe’s Ligeia as it plays heavily with the idea that love can break the confines of death. In a scene of incomparable beauty and profound romanticism, Romuald brings Clarimonde back from the dead with a single kiss. Both have to fight against obstacles. Romuald against God and the Chrurch and Clarimonde against Satan and the carnal pleasures. Nonetheless, their love is able to transcend both the physical and the metaphysical.

The night advanced, and feeling the moment of eternal separation approach, I could not deny myself the last sad sweet pleasure of imprinting a kiss upon the dead lips of her who had been my only love. . . . Oh, miracle! A faint breath mingled itself with my breath, and the mouth of Clarimonde responded to the passionate pressure of mine. Her eyes unclosed, and lighted up with something of their former brilliancy; she uttered a long sigh, and uncrossing her arms, passed them around my neck with a look of ineffable delight. ‘Ah, it is thou, Romuald!’ she murmured in a voice languishingly sweet as the last vibrations of a harp. ‘What ailed thee, dearest? I waited so long for thee that I am dead; but we are now betrothed: I can see thee and visit thee. Adieu, Romuald, adieu! I love thee. That is all I wished to tell thee, and I give thee back the life which thy kiss for a moment recalled. We shall soon meet again.’

Her head fell back, but her arms yet encircled me, as though to retain me still. A furious whirlwind suddenly burst in the window, and entered the chamber. The last remaining leaf of the white rose for a moment palpitated at the extremity of the stalk like a butterfly’s wing, then it detached itself and flew forth through the open casement, bearing with it the soul of Clarimonde. The lamp was extinguished, and I fell insensible upon the bosom of the beautiful dead.

Clarimonde employs one of the oldest tropes, that of the femme fatale. Brimming with eroticism and sensuality, it reads as a tale of repressed passions and frustrated sexual desires. Romuald, through his dreams, enters into a realm where reality melts into fantasy and the boundaries that separate each are extremely foggy. Clarimonde becomes ”the other”, the Devil incarnate that sets out to seduce the young priest and make him stray from God’s path. Romuald answers her call, gaining the life his vocation deprives him of.

And that’s where Clarimonde’s originality stems from. The vampiress is not presented as a lifeless, soulless corpse but rather a red-blooded (no pun intended) creature full of life and vitality which she passes on to her bloodless (again no pun intended) lover along with pleasure and hedonism.

The story ends once again with one of the most common tropes in gothic literature: those involved with the supernatural are unable to go on with their life the way they did before the incident. What they lived haunts them forever. Romuald once again represses his desires and stifles his sexual wishes with the death of Clarimonde. However, the vampiress holds a place in Romuald’s mind for all eternity as her final words to him turn out prophetic.

But once only, the following night, I saw Clarimonde. She said to me, as she had said the first time at the portals of the church: ‘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!’ She vanished in air as smoke, and I never saw her more.

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. And this, brother, is the story of my youth.

Book Review: V for Vendetta

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“Remember, remember the fifth of November…”

That’s one of the most memorable quotes from the pages of the masterpiece Alan Moore penned. Guy Fawkes and The Gunpowder Plot became the source of inspiration for the graphic novel V for Vendetta.

Alan Moore sure knows how to deliver a compelling, riveting story that engages the reader till the very last page. V for Vendetta is a profoundly social and political work of art that reminds us all that allowing someone else to call the shots for us, instead of us, is not only a fallacy in judgement but, also, an error with terrifying consequences for humanity. This is something that resonates deeply, especially now with the cultural, economic, political and social crisis all over Europe, even though three decades have flown by since the novel’s initial publication.

The true protagonist is not a character but an idea, namely anarchy. V, the man behind the mask, is not a creature of flesh and blood but the very personification of anarchy in its extreme form. And that’s why V never falters neither in his decisions nor in his actions. He knows exactly what he has to do and he does it without any hesitation.

However, at the same time we are really left to wonder how sane V is and whether the way he applies his ideology really works. And this is exactly where Moore makes a critique on anarchy applied in such a destructive and violent manner.

V remarks, ”Anarchy wears two faces, both creator and destroyer. Thus destroyers topple empires; make a canvas of clean rubble where creators then can build another world. Rubble, once achieved, makes further ruins’ means irrelevant.”

If V represents the destroyer, then Evey represents the creator. And Evey (it is implied) will espouse anarchy in its true and pure form that abominates force, coercion and violence. As she puts it, ”killers have no place in our better world.”

The narration is rich with all sides exposed to the reader. That is sufficient to offer an insight into all parties involved, adding another layer of complexity to the work. It’s no accident that V isn’t idolized, even though he takes the limelight. Moore’s clever enough to avoid the simplistic portrayal of a black and white morality on the canvas. It’s no accident that, by choosing to present V wearing the Guy Fawkes’s mask–a man who tried to kill the Protestant King James I only to restore another absolutist monarch, albeit Catholic, to the throne–Moore provides a biting critique against the same ideology he seemingly praises.

The central question that challenges the expectations of the readers is this: if we choose to fight tyranny and oppression by turning ourselves equally tyrannical and bloodthirsty, then can we truly build a better future? The end does not justify the means. Violence breeds violence. We can label ourselves however we want to. But the bitter truth is that if we adopt the tactics and strategies of the other side against which we’re fighting, then we’re as vile and wretched as our so-called foes.

Nowadays that things in the political and social arena are disturbingly turbulent and sordid, the central message of V for Vendetta proves more prophetic than ever.

The ending is far from a close one but that is just as well. We’re left with a sliver of hope that Evey will truly show the way to the people without following in V’s steps. Nothing is over; the lid has been taken off and the effervescence is about to take place, but it is hinted that the creation of a better world is not that impossible after all.

All in all, I would definitely recomment V for Vendetta to anyone who enjoys complex political works of literature with an edge of theatricality and wit.

For those who have read the novel, feel free to share your impressions!