Tlön, R’lyeh, Orbis Tertius (Notes for my Bibliofantasies Panel)

Friday 3:00 p.m. Vaughan BIBLIOFANTASIES
Many classics of the fantasy and supernatural revolve around mysterious, exotic, arcane, or potentially threatening books or collections of books. The panel will go beyond the Necronomicon to discuss examples, and the enduring popularity of the trope. Helen Marshall (M), Tina Connolly, Jennifer Crowe, Michael DeLuca, Don Pizarro.

All books are codifications of thought–they take something mutable and subjective and make it fixed and objective. This has vast potential negative consequences; e.g. religious doctrines. Writing anything down is an act of exclusion.

Myth-encodification

  • Book of the Dead, Egyptian, Tibetan
  • Popol Vuh – fascinating example because lost and found again. What happened to the myth in the intervening time? It exploded.
  • Plato’s Phaedrus – A Socratic dialogue wherein Socrates shoots down the written word as lazy and weak.
  • The standardization of the Bible. apocrypha, gospel of Judas
  • Malleus Maleficarum
  • Grimm’s, Mabinogion

Fictional books are a resistance to this process. They restore subjectivity and mutability–at least, until somebody actually tries to write them. Thinking about this conflict leads me to Borges and Lovecraft: Lovecraft because he’s in the panel description, Borges because I’m pretty much always thinking about Borges.

Lovecraft
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” –Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

By which of course he means also the opposite, that terror is founded on the attempt to correlate experience with that which contradicts experience. I really like and am sad that I can’t corroborate the theory (Wikipedia, elsewhere) that Abdul Alhazred’s last name comes from “all has read”, that the Necronomicon is the result of a human being attempt to comprehend everything–or at least, everything that has been written.

Wilbur had with him the priceless but imperfect copy of Dr. Dee’s English version which his grandfather had bequeathed him, and upon receiving access to the Latin copy he at once began to collate the two texts with the aim of discovering a certain passage which would have come on the 751st page of his own defective volume. This much he could not civilly refrain from telling the librarian–the same erudite Henry Armitage (A. M. Miskatonic, Ph. D. Princeton, Litt.D. Johns Hopkins) who had once called at the farm, and who now politely plied him with questions. He was looking, he had to admit, for a kind of formula or incantation containing the frightful name of Yog-Sothoth, and it puzzled him to find discrepancies, duplications, and ambiguities which made the matter of determination far from easy. As he copied the formula he finally chose, Dr. Armitage looked involuntarily over his shoulder at the open pages; the left-hand one of which, in the Latin version, contained such monstrous threats to the peace and sanity of the world.

–Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Borges

“…an enormous circular book with a continuous spineā€¦that cyclical book is God.” –Borges, “The Library of Babel”

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is the fragmentary, subjective history of a conspiracy to create an encyclopedia describing a fictional culture whose establishing principle is subjectivity. It may in fact be an indirect reference or homage to the Necronomicon? Lovecraft died 1937, story first published 1940. And we know Borges read Lovecraft, though he didn’t like him much, because later he wrote “There are More Things”, an acknowledged Lovecraft homage (in reference to which Borges calls Lovecraft “un parodista involuntario de Poe”). And (skipping over Clark Ashton Smith etc) the fan reproductions/insertion of Necronomicon entries in card catalogues etc seems to originate in the 70s, possibly influenced in turn by Borges (or by a secret conspiracy to allow Borges to influence the legacy of Lovecraft)? Cool! Johannes Valentinus Andrea, 17th century philosopher referenced in “Tlön”, “invents” the Rosicrucians in approximately the same way Borges invents the cult of the Necronomicon? Through satire. Hee! And by drawing this silly connection, I am more or less aping the philosophers and literary theorists of Tlön, who “seek not truth, or even plausibility–they seek to amaze, astound.”

Consider, with respect to all this, the old saw that it becomes less scary once you see it. Lovecraft suffers from this–At the Mountains of Madness becomes a story about eldritch cosmic bureaucrats once we learn too much about them. In “The Dunwich Horror” I wish the big slimy whipporwill-tweeting thing would have stayed invisible. Does this mean being in the position of Adbul Alhazred–knowing everything and making the decision to record the most awful part of it (making it the truth?) would actually be, not sublime, not awe-ful, but freaking boring?

Still, for some reason, in this my fourth or fifth time through “Tlön, Uqbar”, I find myself most intrigued by the reclusive Texan millionaire, Ezra Buckley, whose arrogance impels the clandestine society of Tlön to create not a country but a planet, and who ends up being as responsible as anybody in this story for the world’s true history being eclipsed by that of Tlön. I’m kind of itching to write a story about him.

More Fictional Books in Classic Genre

  • Eco – Name of the Rose
  • Alexander – The Book of Three
  • Gaiman – Sandman, Destiny’s book, the Library of Lost Books
  • Ende – The Neverending Story – interesting example, since it at once creates the fictional book and codifies that book, but only partly so. As I interpret it, the second half of the novel breaks out of the bindings of the fictional Neverending Story, though of course not the physical one.

Fictional Books I’ve Read Recently and in the Near Future

  • Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind
  • Gabriela Damian Miravete – “Future Nereid”, in Three Messages and a Warning
  • Me – “Other Palimpsests”, everybody else (or so I presume) in Bibliotheca Fantastica
  • Samatar – A Stranger in Olondria – There’s an ebook coupon for a free sample of this in your WFC swag bags.

The Coder

My reading of Benjamin Parzybok‘s excellent story from LCRW 21, “The Coder”, is live today at the Small Beer Press podcast. I worked hard and I’m quite proud of the result–every one of these readings I do, the audio quality and (I flatter myself) the delivery improve–so please go listen if you have time.

I love this story. I’ve been advocating for it to the Small Beer interns for years. It has this wry bizarro/surrealist tone which fits perfectly with the LCRW/Small Beer ethic, writers like Ray Vukcevich, Alan DeNiro and (yes) Kelly Link who are SBP’s bread and butter. It has interesting metafictional/Borgesian undertones, dealing with the influence of archetypal structure on reality; the cycle of life and death still applies, even in the sterile cubicle warrens of a software company. How to describe “The Coder” without giving too much away? To put it like Bob the annoying geek co-worker might: is it like Office Space meets The Matrix? Is it Funes the Memorious plus The Metamorphosis? Maybe. What I can say is that to me, it’s one of those stories that feels like it’s always existed notionally out in the ether, at least since cubicle warrens and coding began, waiting for somebody clever and talented enough to step up and be the medium through which the universe inscribes its processes on human cognition. Like one of those Michelangelo slaves.

Lots of people have tried to write this story, me included. We try, because they tell us “write what you know”, and what we know best–tiny, pathetic tragedy–is mindless corporate monotony. We fail because who cares?

So maybe what impresses me most is its capacity to turn the world’s most boringest occupation, computer programmer, into something mind-blowingly sublime. Sure, there are instances in film and fiction wherein programmers are made to appear awesome–The Matrix, Tron–but it’s not by writing code. Ready Player One and one million works of high anime follow the same path, glossing past the code in favor of what it produces, the virtual. “The Coder” does just the opposite. Nor am I counting all those scenes in all those thrillers where somebody hacks the CIA: I don’t call that sublime, I call it wankery. Okay, there’s that scene in The Social Network where ye sympathetic-ified zeitgeist-personifying supergenius Zuckerberg assembles a software social-dysfunction-demonstrating device to the sound of post-industrial Trent Reznor. That comes close. Maybe some of the Lone Gunmen bits in The X-Files count. Many have tried–I venture to call it a holy grail of latter-day geekdom–but nobody has pulled it off like this.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and to a degree sympathize with the sentiment behind those CODE IS POETRY bumper-stickers. A complex thing well-designed to do its purpose is beautiful, and when it comes to software, it’s only the programmers who get to appreciate that beauty. As opposed to, say, suspension bridge engineering. This story gives non-coders a window on that mindset, a way to understand how code can be poetry.

Let it suffice to say that “The Coder” includes two instances, one a pseudo-JavaScript, the other a pseudo-PHP script, wherein code actually is poetry and fits perfectly into the structure and function of the story, revealing the hidden (terrifying?) truth that underneath, all poetry, all narrative, is code.

Now go listen.

Solstice in the City

It used to be easy. I could just step out into the garden with my whiskey and corncob pipe of a steamy midsummer night, maybe fiddle about a bit with the maize god statuettes guarding the tomatoes, look up across the hazy cornfields at King Philip’s Rock and pour out a bit of libation to the turning wheel.

Instead, I spent the moments surrounding midnight wandering the side streets east of a walled-off Boston Common, looking up past the evocative rootlike patterns of plinths and facades at the starless sky, smelling the smells of stir-fry and subway exhalations, marveling at the thirty kinds of not-English I heard from passersby.

Here’s this new blog Justin led me to, Next Nature, that deals with the unpredictable “natural” phenomena which arise from human culture. Fascinating stuff. I love this:

Our technological environment
becomes so complex
we start to relate to it
as a nature of its own


Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA

Happy Solstice, wherever you are.

Circular Time

In which I digress (much) further about the not-coming apocalypse.

This is long. Sorry. I tried to break it into two parts, but it just wasn’t happening. Thanks in advance for your kind attention.

The Popol Vuh is the Mayan creation myth. The version available to us today was written in secret between the years 1554 and 1558 by three anonymous philosopher-priests of the Maya religion, during the early years of the Spanish occupation of Mexico, when Catholic missionaries under Friar Diego de Landa were systematically destroying all evidence they could find of indigenous religion and culture. In order to preserve it, the authors of the Popol Vuh spirited it away somewhere in the Guatemalan city of Chichicastenango (underneath a Christian altar, perhaps, as was a favorite tactic of the Maya, preserving the old beneath the new) until 1701, when it was discovered, copied, and translated from the original Roman alphabet transliteration of Quiché into Spanish by Francisco Ximenes, another Catholic friar. His copy is the only one that survives today.

All of which is to say that the contents of the Popol Vuh as we know them have been deeply, irrevocably compromised by the influence of a conquering culture. Some evidence mitigating against this has come to light fairly recently: a stucco frieze dating from before 100 BC has been uncovered in the ruined Mayan city of Mirador, which depicts in detail a scene from the Twin Gods cycle of the Popol Vuh myth. That’s some impressive continuity, considering what an incredibly diverse range culture and belief can be seen across mesoamerica—even from one Mayan sacred site to the next. Still, there is a huge gulf of uncertainty in the 1600 years between those two points, and in the 450 years between then and the winter solstice, 2012. And it’s exactly that kind of gulf from which new-agey doomsday conspiracy theories are born.

Continue reading »

Swinging Through the Trees

The thousand-furrowed, spiraling clouds of an angry 2012 rant have been gathering for some time on the horizons of my awareness… but today is not the day. Too much else going on. Head full of other things.

So instead, as a stopgap, a teaser, an eagle-feathered atlatl dart flung at the hurricane, here’s this, from Dennis Tedlock’s introduction to the Popol Vuh:

In theory, if we who presently claim to be human were to forget our efforts to find the traces of divine movements in our own actions, our fate should be something like that of the wooden people in the Popol Vuh. For them, the forgotten force of divinity reasserted itself by inhabiting their own tools and utensils, which rose up against them and drove them from their homes. Today they are swinging through the trees.