Monday, April 21, 2003

Wild Hares and Whimsy

There are no synonyms. Thus a Fable is not merely some species of the Fiction genus but its own unique being. A Fabulous Modern Fiction. And this is what a Post-Modern Fabulists should strive to evoke: That Aesopian quality of magic-in-reality where the strange and naked truths slip in from the edges of perception and rattle the reader into an altered state of consciousness, where they look at the world in a slightly different way then before, becoming aware of the subtle interaction between the tangible and intangible aspects of the Universe.

Many people toss about the phrase ìPost-Modernî with impunity. So much so that it becomes widely regarded as a catch-all for that which is arcane, inscrutable or just plain weird. But here, I use the phrase to denote a relationship.

Technically, the Moderns wrote between the Wars, which means that the Post-Moderns were, by the easiest definition, those who didnít get around to penning their poetry and novels and plays until after the war. I take as the beginning of the Modern Period the first production of Alfred Jarryís Ubu Roi , on Dec. 10, 1896 and the end as July 1947, the first official sighting of a flying saucer, which put us in a different world altogether. So on the one hand, all literature and art in general made after the Modern Period (1896-1947) can be considered post-Modern. But this is simply a parenthetical convenience. Literary styles do not evolve with Darwinian regularity. They are fraught with mutation and improvisation.

Post-Modernism as an active relationship in art and literature seeks to do the same job as Alfred Jarryís ëPataphysics, which, ìÖwill be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general. Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this oneÖ Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutionsÖî

Simply replace science with art and/or literature and we have a working definition of Post-Modernity. That I use Jarry as both the beginning of the Modern Age and a defining voice for Post-Modernism only underscores the chimerical quality of such literary conventions as schools and periods.

ìThe Universe Supplementary to this one,î is our own imagination, brought to life by the Fable. There may even come a time in the near future, as we move towards living in the time of Buck Rogers , when the Fable is more realistic then traditional Mimetic Realism. We already live in a world where computers and robots have become so common place we hardly notice them and where clones walk among us, at least in the in barn yards but no doubt, soon enough in the streets. If any age could bare the title of the Age of Imaginary Solutions, it is this one. Quite soon the gray area that separates that which is perceived as real from that which is perceived as imaginary will become so narrow as to make distinctions meaningless. Then weíll all have literary jet packs and ray guns, which we use to fend of Monsters from the Id .

For all those who gnash their teeth and wail about the implicit Order of Universe and how they donít like those weirdo stories because they arenít Realistic, two things should be kept in mind:

1) The Orderly Universe exists only in our minds, illustrated by nothing but the devices we create in order to see the order we imagine and hope for; something said about our perception of the world rather then the world itself. And:

2) That ìRealismî is a relatively new term, applied only in the last two centuries. Previously, all art and literature contained some aspect of the fabulous and not just the Classical Myths that form the foundation for our concept of Literature but also that dubious collection of fables most often mistaken for mimetic realism, The Bible .

Semantic arguments aside, those of us who reside in the Existential World must make do with language in order to shape and comprehend, as best we can, the context of our lives. For example, see Aesopís most famous Fable, the Tortoise and the Hare. This fable is told to every child, implicitly underscoring the capitalist work ethic. I suppose the adults who teach this solemn lesson are under the presumption that children will identify with the slow and steady pace of the tortoise. Aesop certainly was. Never mind that kids love rabbits because they are fast and lazy and free. But the adults have on their side the italicized moral, laid bare before them at the bottom the page.

In Post-Modern Fables no such moral is forthcoming, at least overtly. No writer in his or her right mind would produce a novel in which the last line states the theme and subject so bluntly. Try to imagine Catcher in the Rye with the last line; thus, the inconsolable achieves nothing worthwhile. It sort of ruins the dramatic effect. But give Aesop credit, he was a teacher first. Besides, two thousand and a couple hundred years ago, audiences werenít quite as savvy as they are to day. If you can imagine it, they were even less literate.

But here in the 21st century, we have both the literate minds and savvy intellects to reread the Tortoise and the Hare and choose which character to exemplify. If youíre in favor of the One World Economy and the Imperialist Monoculture of our Western Corporations, then the Tortoise is your herald, your sword bearer; your banner-waving hero. On the other hand, perhaps the expressionistic, bohemian rabbit is more to your liking, running circles around the plodding bureaucrat, dancing a salsa rhythm and shouting minority slogans in Spanglish. Before you choose, keep in mind, for better or worse the tortoise always wins.

This is also the major criticism of Post-Modern Art in general, that it leaves us floating in the stormy seas of uncertainty with a broken compass and a drunken captain. This is merely a manifestation of the fear that more and more people have today: that there are a growing number of individuals (mostly our children) who refuse to abase themselves before the idol of Law and Order. This fear that the status quo will crumble and plunge the world into chaos is a primal fear, right up there with starvation, premature burial and taxes and is a result of six thousand years of domestication under the tutelage of mentally constipated priest-kings. Weíve all been initiated into the secret desires of priests. As for divining the intent of kings everywhere we need not go back to historical sources, but simply turn on the nightly news and wait to see what excuses our President has tonight for bombing and pillaging.

That the fear of the failure of the status quo is an ancient fear in the human landscape should come as no surprise. But its recent appearance on the psychological radar screen of the masses is a result of several forces, the least of which is global terrorism. This new sense of evolutionary awareness can be attributed to the exponential growth of Information and its unlimited, constant availability.

We simply are no longer as provincial as Aesop and his audience because we are smarter. We are smarter because we have at our disposal more hard facts about the world around us and how it tends to function.

This sounds like a baseless assertion, I admit but it is a verifiable claim. All you have to do is take a stock count of hard, verifiable knowledge about the world. Keep in mind also, that I refer only to practical knowledge, like how to build an affordable, well-insulated house or an atom bomb as opposed to wisdom, which is personal, unverifiable and pertains only to why we should build one and not the other.

Personally, I feel that understanding this phenomenon is a lot more fruitful then running in fear and claiming the end of the world is coming just because you read it in the Left Behind series. One way to understand one another and communicate complex ideas is by poetry and metaphor. By Fable.

Contemporary examples of Fabulous Literature exist in abundance but mostly they slip bellow the radar of popular audiences, do the fact that they were not written by Stephen King. Some of these Post-Modern Fables may have been encountered on high school reading lists, such as John Gardnerís Grendal (a retelling of Beowulf from the monsterís perspective), Ray Bradburyís classics Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles, Sidhartha and Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, various examples of the Hispanic school of Magical Realism such as Laura Esquivelís Like Water for Chocolate or any of the works of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. There are a number of others that have slipped into obscurity either because their subject matter is too spicy, the author ran with politically incorrect crowds or because the authorís ethnic last name was too hard to pronounce. Some little-known masterworks include The Hearing Trumpet by the Surrealist painter and writer, Leonora Carrington, as well as the works of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis-Borges , just to name some of my favorites.

All of these and dozens more exhibit the Fabulist qualities of Poetic Concision and Sublime Magic.

The first of these qualities, Poetic Concision, is key to the Fable form. Images speak volumes while standing slender in the corner, quiet. Most of the Contemporary Fables listed above are 200 pages or less. Borges never wrote anything longer then a short story. And the reason is simple: anything more would be overkill. We do not need all the details about the child born with cloven hooves instead of feet. His presence is evocative enough. To explain such a reality with to much detail, especially in the form of pseudoscientific explanations for the genetic abnormality would ruin the dreamlike quality and spoil the point of the metaphor, which is that rational thought cannot contain the squirming, teaming verities of reality nor can it justify the alien forms of life that can be imagined and encountered. Like the elephant that walks through the room and is promptly ignored by all; this one idea says more about the human condition then all the works of Freud in volume.

Aesop never told a Fable that couldnít fit on one page. More because he had to remember all of them as he lived in a culture with a strong oral tradition. And it is this lingering ghost of the oral tradition that is the parent of the Post-Modern Fable and also the reason for the persistence of the non-mimetic second quality.

Many Fabulous authors draw expressly on their ethnic folklore, which gives their work that implicit, magical quality. The rest just never learned to suppress their imagination. Ethnic literature and art; or more precisely, art that does not originate within the context of anglo-Saxon mythology and customs is typically non-Aristotelian in form and Pagan in flavor simply because no African or South American or Japanese or Native American or Indian story teller ever read Aristotle or the Bible, at least not until forced to by the Imperialists who followed the Missionaries around, trying to civilize everyone who looked at the world differently then they did. An aborigine does not know that he would be banned from Utopia simply because he does not color inside the lines. Ray Bradbury simply doesnít care that he would be banned as well, heís too busy having a blast, day dreaming

This quality of sublime ethnic magic seems to linger on, even after the advent of Secular Humanism and no amount of education can or should attempt to remove it. Oddly enough, in most countries that were once colonies of the Catholic Church, the ethnic symbolism has been reinforced, more so to win converts to the Vaticanís own jumble shop of Fables then for any practical purpose which just goes to show that organized religion isnít all bad; the promotion of genocide, ignorance and overall fear of the unknown aside.

Dostoevsky once noted that Fairy Tales and Science Fiction stories are more dangerous then any political tract. And he was right. Where the Rights of Man spells out every Democratic Desire in purple prose, where every Vile Monarchist knows where to find it, the Fable merely hints. It lays truths between the lines, like a secret code, passed between co-conspirators under the watchful eye of the enemy censor.

In The Hearing Trumpet, a coven of little old ladies, with the help of a pack of wolves, a nest of bees and a freelance mailman named Taliesin, steel the Holy Grail from the descendants of the Crusaders and return it to the Goddess from whence the Christians stole it in the first place. While illuminating the pagan roots of the Christian Mythology, Leonora Carrington also admonishes the church for its historically cruel treatment of women, especially the elderly variety, as second class citizens. Compare this to Sinead OíConnor ripping up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. While more people witnessed the latter, Carringtonís book is still available with no admonishments or bans from the Left or Right. Meanwhile Sinead OíConner was denounced lividly for weeks after the fact by nearly everyone and is to this day unwelcome South of the Mason-Dixon line or anywhere in the world where live those who think spirituality is inseparable from religion. Also Carrington manages to get her point across in 200 pages and fourteen illustrations. In contrast, the collected works of Stephen King, which run some plus or minus 600 million pages can barely manage to say anything meaningful or even coherent about society, life, death, the fear of oneís own mortality or anything at all. But hay, at least he answers all those pesky questions and leaves no room for personal interpretation, lest any of his fans be encouraged to think for themselves.

Perhaps it is this combination of Poetic Concision, and Sublime Magic that keeps Post-Modern Fables off the bestseller lists. That and the add agencies who just arenít imaginative enough to sell Forbidden Fruit to Ma Kent. And Ma Kent, who doesnít like mangoes or enlightenment because neither matches her sofa. And the Big Six Publishers with its seven circles of agents and editors all scratching each others backs to get a piece of the next John Grisham clone. As agent Michael Larsen wrote in a form letter to me once, ìWe can only make a living by selling books to large publishers.î Implying that Big Publishers only want front list authors. Worse then that, this money grubbing tells the next Bradbury, Esquivel, Hess and other mid-list authors, previously the bread and butter of the publishing business, to buzz off. ìYou have no home with the large houses,î bellows Corporate Moses from the mountaintop. ìNay, ye must toil in obscurity until you have the good sense to get in line and write a nice big thick-headed thriller.î (Counting the wad of cash he keeps stuffed in his beard, like locusts). ìMaybe something with a plucky lawyer and his illegitimate daughterís heartwarming attempt to come to terms with modern womanhood.î

As if sensing this trend subliminally, most would-be popular authors are unwilling to jeopardize their own status or sales with wild hares and whimsy. Moreís the pity. Because literature will continue to suffer so long as the Fabulous is ignored in favor of pipsqueak voices whispering bland aphorisms and polite nods to the status quo. And what with the Grand Poobahís over in the Bureau of Fatherland Security threatening a Police State to Rival the fearful daydreams of such egregious mid-listers as Orwell and Kafka , nothing is more valuable to our current culture then a writer who is willing to speak above a whisper.


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