Revisiting an old article of mine
February 9, 2012 § 1 Comment
But suppose the world is in fact now coming to an end, the world of Meaning we have always lived in. And suppose that the Powers who must make from it a new one – one that will be just like the old one in most but not all respects – are mulling just now over what sort the new world might be, and what garb they themselves might appear in too. If that’s the case, then that old multilayered earth and its shape-shifting travellers would have to be among the worlds from which they could choose – mutatis mutandis, the same but never exactly the same, take a little out of the waist and plump the shoulders. More likely not, though; more likely they’ll choose something entirely different this time, something in a fierce hound’s-tooth maybe, or a moiré taffeta, eye-fooling, iridescent: can’t you see them (I can) moving amid the racks and counters fingering the goods, unable to decide, all possibilities laid out before them once again before they make their choice, thereafter to pretend (once again) that everything has always been this way, that they themselves have all along had these aspects and not others, rank on rank, the army of unalterable Law?
And who is that littlest one among them, wide-eyed, just awakened and believing he has never made this choice before? You know, don’t you?John Crowley, DæmonomaniaImagine a world just like our own. A place of conflict, beauty, sadness, and success. A realm where meaning was more than just the expression of scientific concepts. A condition in which beliefs were not bound up in what was provable or disprovable. A time and space so similar to our own and yet so utterly alien. Let’s call this world our past.
Gazing back on our past, we might feel as Pierre Menard did when he set out to recreate Don Quixote bit by painstaking bit. The sunrises might appear to be the same, the blooming flowers might still exude the same scents, or people might still have hopes and fears, but the meanings of these have changed even as the structures have stayed virtually the same.
There is a gulf that divides us from our past interpretations of the world and its realities. A wall of perception that is so high and so thick as to make earlier conceptions of our world to be almost incomprehensible. It might be a world of beauty or a realm of horror, but whatever “it” is, “it” is not what most would call real. There is something that lies between this conception of a world and our own selves. Sometimes, the very attempt to define this something creates an even larger rift, causing this fleeting apparition to fade into the mists of our collective subconscious.
If I recall, I was going to write an essay of probably 5000-10000 words on the ways in which people historically in several cultures have used the non-real, or “irreal” as I sometimes call it to signify a sense of reality frayed and unraveled for an individual or group of individuals, to construct stories that contain symbolic references to their hopes, dreams, fears, and nightmares. Today, that is a project beyond me, due to other interests that take precedence today as well as my hesitation now to believe that I could pull this off without a lot more research. Nonetheless, there is something appealing even today about looking at various societies and seeing how they viewed their world and the ways that they expressed their worldviews through fictions mundane and fantastical alike.
Of course, there are dangers in trying to tackle such a topic. Naturally, one’s own viewpoint is going to color other interpretations, such as in the case of “magical realism,” in which one society views this as a subset of fantasy and thus, based on prioritization schema in that society, is not all that worthwhile as a subject of study for social attitudes. This view marginalizes an alternate view, frequently but not exclusively held in the countries of origin for some of the most famous magic realist tales, that these tales use symbols of the fantastical to represent even more clearly the very real and troubling social ills that afflict certain societies. If I were writing this paper today, I almost certainly would have to battle to present these conflicting views in a way that shows how diverse human understanding of self, society, and the imagination truly can be.
Anyway, I thought this abandoned project was worth revisiting for those who weren’t following this blog way back in September 2004. Any thoughts on the quote, the 2004 introduction, and the comments appended to it in 2012?