New projects

It proved unfeasible for me to publish essays on this blog while finishing my MFA. But earlier this week I handed in the creative portion of my thesis. To congratulate myself on the work now done, I wandered yesterday through the ninety-degree heat — one month ago we were without power for two days due to an ice-storm… presumably some time between then and now there was springtime, but if that happened I don’t remember it — I wandered into our local record store, a surprisingly friendly and unpretentious place as record stores go, and treated myself to Herbert von Karajan’s 1979-1980 recording of Parsifal. I have never listened to this music on vinyl before, with all the ceremony and aura that entails, not to mention my toddler’s newfound fascination with the turntable. The recording is one of the great musical accomplishments of the 20th century. Immediately upon purchasing it I decided I would turn soon to a project I’ve had in mind for a long time, namely a comparison of the medieval original, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and Wagner’s mystical and musical drama.

You don’t hear about him in English-speaking countries today, but Eschenbach was one of the great poets. I mean the analogy fairly precisely and do not exaggerate his praise when I say he wrote the Iliad and Odyssey of the Christian Middle Ages. He is emphatically, utterly, essentially, and in all respects and degrees not Dante. Eschenbach stands toward the beginning of the High Middle Ages and Dante, a century later, more toward that epoch’s end. If you want a rollicking good time and the most mystical and dramatic and in places solemn storytelling possible, Eschenbach is your man — as I will hope to show. If I had my druthers I’d teach Eschenbach to high school or college students instead of half the novels they’re made to read… but that’s another discussion for another time. I have sometimes wondered if Eschenbach was a superb storyteller and a man of vision because he was a bona fide knight. And I have consequently also wondered if more modern writers, especially those of us given to fantasy, wouldn’t be better off if we were also knights. But that, too, is a discussion for another time.

The point of all this is to say that I hope to start writing soon about the Holy Grail and Parzival story, as transmitted in Eschenbach’s version and Wagner’s. I like this idea of reworking material. It is an old idea. Better yet: it is an old idea of what to do with old ideas. The sense of antiquity, of historical depth is ingredient to much fantasy. Along the lines of reworking old material, I would also like to take a look at Karen Ullo’s version of the Cindarella story. She — that is, Karen Ullo, for I refer to all my authors in this way, along with the possessive pronoun — has been lying around on my desk for months, next to the canonical source of Cindarella, the seventeenth century Frenchman Charles Perrault, who moved in a very interesting literary milieu. I say that because Perrault’s milieu was nearer to our own, in terms of its concerns with gender politics, than that of probably any other time or place.

Before all this, though, I still have a thing or two to say about Tolkien. That will start going up in a few days. It’s hard to bring to mind a writer with a more developed sense of the depth and, so to speak, the pastness of the past, than Tolkien, particularly as that depth and layering  and remoteness manifests in verse and prose style. But if I had to supply his equal in that concern, I would likely nominate the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones, Tolkien’s contemporary and coreligionist. Jones wrote some difficult but also very beautiful modernist poetry. In my opinion his book The Anathemata is the finest of all the ambitious modernist long poems (yes, it beats the Cantos and Paterson and Stevens and Hart Crane and all those guys with the only near-contender being Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, and with the proviso that T S Eliot’s Four Quartets do not comprise an ‘ ambitious modernist long poem’). Some of Jones’ literary output (he was also a visual artist) has recently been reissued, including his essays, which will likely be the focus of my blogging. Jones had insightful, unique things to say about the ontological status of art, and about the way an artist relates his religious commitments and the practice of his craft.

My largest project, now that I have, for a little while, the freedom to read whatever I like, is to get through the entirety of Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle. I have only ever read the first portion, the tetralogy called The Book of the New Sun, and that was almost a decade ago. The Solar Cycle includes twelve “science-fantasy” books published by Gene Wolfe between 1980 and 2001 and takes its name from its constituent parts: The Book of the New SunThe Urth of the New Sun (a coda to the first tetralogy); The Book of the Long Sun (another tetralogy); and The Book of the Short Sun (a trilogy). I haven’t undertaken a reading project of this kind in a long while. In Search of Lost Time, which is comparable to the Solar Cycle in length, took me six successive summers, whereas I would like to read the Solar Cycle in not more than six months and if possible in as little as three. Probably the last time I concentrated like that on such a mass of material from a single author was when I was reading Edmund Spenser for what I thought would be my PhD dissertation. I do have a thing for very long works, extended projects that occupy a writer over the course of a career or clearly take up, in the form of a fictional or visionary world, the bulk of the writer’s mind. If I make it through the Solar Cycle, the most fitting follow-up to such a project would be, I think, Doris Lessing’s (yes, that Doris Lessing) epic science fantasy, Canopus in Argos

My understanding is that Lessing’s epic is supposed to be informed by her involvement with Sufism, in much the way that Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle is an architectonic working out of much of his thought and experience as a Catholic fantasist. This is of course my overall project as a writer and really in my whole life, this inquiry into how fantasy, the perception of transcendent reality, plays out in religious thought and experience on the one hand and in literary art on the other. There is both mystereion and mythos or if you prefer a different and analogous Greek pair, symbol and allegory; and if you prefer Latin then religio and fabulae. Such pairs cannot be divorced, but that does not mean their relationships are placid and static. My MFA thesis — which, fear not, I will refrain from discussing further here — was a novel about this dual refraction of fantasy, specifically as viewed under the rubric of what the philosopher calls the problem of evil. This ‘problem’ is not specifically what goes wrong, but the fact that things go wrong. The difference between the What and the That is the difference between physics and metaphysics. In the literary artifact and in the religious sacrament, though in different ways, the two are indissoluble at a conscious and at a supra-conscious level. We will see David Jones talk about this union using the Catholic terminology of the efficacious sign.

Anyway, this is all just to say that I will be writing on here again, hopefully with some fairly major momentum now that I am, at least in theory, sort of, maybe, a free man. Before I turn back to Tolkien, though, I’d like to share some reflections on the now eleven years I’ve spent in formal, post-secondary study of literature… coming right up.




9 thoughts on “New projects”

  1. Intriguing reflections, as always, Jonathan. I’ll be interested to hear your impression of Wolfe’s epic series. I read them in a flurry of reading over the course of several months, though oddly I somehow stopped in the middle of Return to the Whorl, the final novel. I was frustrated with some of the writing in The Book of the Long Sun series. While undeniably gifted, there were times I thought Wolfe’s editor did him a disservice. And while Wolfe has an ambition and narrative stamina perhaps lacking in RA Lafferty, I think Lafferty generally more exemplary in terms of conveying a Catholic vision of reality.

    You know I share your overall project. In addition to recommending William Desmond as a metaphysician particularly companionable to the poet, I also think, if you haven’t read them, that you will find the thought of Stephen R. L Clark and some of John Milbank’s Stanton Lectures helpful.


    1. Brian, we could get a little Lafferty party going here at some point. Particularly I was thinking of looking at his historical fiction, Okla Hannali and a very strange book called The Flame is Green. Have you read either of those? The only historical fiction of his that I’ve yet read is The Fall of Rome, which is superb. As for Wolfe, what attracts me about the Solar Cycle is the grandeur of the narrative conception, and the far future scenario. This last bit is maybe more important than I’ve so far let on. I feel like I touched on this idea in some brief post back in the autumn in my first attempt to start this blog. Anyway, the idea is that every narrative referenced here, including now the Lafferty, is technically set in this real world of ours. This is maybe a key to understanding my more recent reading habits in fantasy. When I was a kid I devoured the epic series set in no world connected to ours. That displacement no longer seems to appeal to me as much. It somehow matters that Wolfe is writing in the far future or that Tolkien was supplying a mythic past for the real world, even if there is no connection within the fiction to the real world. Perhaps I’ve become warier over the years of a confusion, spreading in that same time (like a mental lard, as Knausgaard says of the phenomenon), between fiction and reality. For all that I would maintain the importance of fiction, especially in its more fantastical modes, as a glimpse of more elevated or sempiternal modes of being or what have you, I think it’s equally important that one keep in mind that it is sub-creation and not creation itself (in the mundane way we normally know it) or a representation thereof. In fact, it cannot be a glimpse of something otherwise unknown if it is taken to be commensurate with what is all too well known… Clark, now, I would love to have the time to look at his work some more. The book on Plotinus is extremely good, and maybe crucial to what I keep trying to say here. I wish I owned it so I could look back into it. Read it maybe a year ago but in too great a hurry and too much of it escapes me now. But what he is saying about metaphorical language in philosophy in that book is a version, maybe, of what I am claiming about how we ought to approach literary art as a whole.


      1. Jonathan,

        Okla Hannali is a superb novel. One of the aspects of Lafferty I like is the combination of humor and gravity, as well as the rhetorical fireworks. All of that is finely displayed in Okla Hannali. I have started The Flame is Green several times, but I hit a wall every time. I am not attached to fantasy as an escape from reality, so like you, I favor examples in the genre that link “other worlds/dimensions” to the historical earth. Some of Milbank’s Stanton lectures investigate the source of imagination. Milbank presents speculation rooted in the Sufi tradition regarding the angels and imagination, along with the notion that the poet’s insight is a participation in a world more ontologically stable. Ersatz poetry is not only vulgar and aimed at a praxis devoid of contemplation, it may also be derivative of diabolic distortions which render a base imaginary.


    2. I agree with brian in that I typically find Wolfe’s short fiction (including The Fifth Head of Cerberus) more impacting in general. The first novel series of Wolfe’s I picked up was The Wizard Knight, and it seemed like I had to wade through pages and pages of unengaging pulp before hitting those gorgeous epiphanies Wolfe is capable of. I felt the same way in places in The Book of the New Sun. At the same time, I wonder if the striking moments would be less so if they did not require first navigating the labyrinthine profusion of words that precedes them; the revelation of the hierodules in the fourth book, for instance, was well worth waiting for.


      1. Right. I think this is bound to happen in any large-scale work. Concentration is harder to achieve, word for word, but it comes with benefits for the reader. Expansive writing is taxing all around, even when it’s going well. Either you end up with morasses of boring exposition (in mediocre writing) or you have labyrinths of seemingly unnecessary prose styling (in more ambitious writing). So I think the question becomes, is that prose that doesn’t seem to be contributing to anything narrative doing something else? I mean other than setting up the more dramatic or lyric or philosophically acute moments. I’ll have to reflect on this point as I re-read New Sun and then move into what are, for me, uncharted waters in the later books.


  2. Congrats on completing your MFA and for this interesting teaser for future blogs. I read Parzifal several decades ago, and I don’t even know if I still own the paperback. I have had a life long quest for anything relating to the Grail myth, and this was definitely one of my favorites.

    Speaking of other longer literary works, I am interested to know if you’ve read Franz Werfel’s Star of the Unborn. I actually read that fantasy twice, also long ago, and I know I donated that paperback somewhere between moves. He also was a Catholic writer, and back in my younger days, I found his strange creation quite entertaining.


    1. Thank you for bringing Star of the Unborn to my attention. I knew about Werfel, but not about that book, which it appears was published posthumously in an unfinalized form. Very intriguing. I will have to find a copy.


  3. I found out about this site from Eclectic Orthodoxy. Lately, I’ve found myself drawn there for your comments as much as anything.

    For me, the way a fantasy work treats of transcendence, either explicitly religious or not, reveals its true heart. It’s so hard to achieve. Tolkien did so, with a splendor and beauty which rightly place him atop the throne.

    Alternatively, I think you can achieve a grand, cosmic politic without really touching the metaphysical, ontological, mystical. The Japanese epic Legend of Galactic Heroes comes to mind, with its disappointing portrayal of cultish religion marring an otherwise astounding work of science fiction (I’ve only seen the show, though).

    Book of the New Sun is just so dense and, as has been well-stated, labyrinthine. It’s obvious as as work of genius, partly because nothing about it is simple. I imagine someone could spend a whole lifetime drawing connections between its many obscurities and multiple literary layers. And, as much as I love and respect the work, sometimes it can just be so damn opaque.

    Jonathan, what do you make of A Canticle of Leibowitz? It seems to meet all your criteria for great fantasy, especially its setting in our world’s future.


    1. Hello, Patrick. I’m glad to hear my comments have pleased. I read A Canticle for Leibowitz quite a while ago, so my memory is not very fresh, but I do remember finding it exciting. If it has a demerit, it would be its datedness, the Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation. That threat looks, in retrospect, not very credible. But other than that, I remember enjoying it. And the dated feeling is not really a major problem, just something one notices. I wonder if someone older than I would notice it even more or actually less. I was born in 1982 and I can just barely remember the end of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall coming down…


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