No surprise to folks who read my novels, I think a lot about the relationship between the Lacanian “other” and the “Other” that hovers over it like an indifferent godhead. I’ve been poking my nose into some Slavoj Zizek, who is almost certainly much smarter than I am, as he describes a Carteisan subject (“I think therefore I am”) as some kind of cemetery mind song, demarcating what is lost with language, not what is present. To Zizek, it’s more like “I think therefore I was”, and the constant state of discovery and memory and signification is a series of absent material realities creating alternate realities in the mind. Okay, this is a bastardized application of Zizek with a little reader response criticism and a little Baudrillard, and I’m sure someone with more knowledge of Zizek’s work can come along and give a better representation of it. There’s lots more to it, but I like thinking about it like that because I think about the way people use stories to define themselves in their relation between their idealized mirror self (the other) and their sense of societies interpretation of themselves (i.e. “Other”). This is practically the psychological root of the Dogsland trilogy. How we create the self is to reshape the past into a cultural image with story about the self. It’s also how we talk about things we cannot see. We describe nothing in detail, only marking enough reminders that those who have also seen can delineate what it means to have seen between us.
Think about Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, right? We all know it by now, I hope. The blind man, and the uncomfortable scene in the living room, when the wife’s blind friend asks the narrator what a cathedral is, and the blind man has it described to him, and when that fails, the blind man places his hand over the narrator’s hand, and a cathedral is drawn and drawn and drawn to signify this cathedral, which, subtextually, is itself a work of art that draws the unseen reality of faith. All of these significant markers of reality represent something lost. The man with the pen in his hand, narrating the story, is talking not about a cathedral, but about a television show about a cathedral, and drawing what he sees on the screen. The screen image captures a building far away, the product of a time lost to mankind. All of these artifacts built upon the backs of other artifacts are placing a marker on the ground. They declare, “People” and “Person” and “Human act of will” and even, in the case of a cathedral, hearken back to a divine act of will that caused the salvation of all mankind through the defeat of death through the mysteries of faith. We see cathedrals therefore we existed once to have seen. We share the signifier of them, and they blur and disintegrate away from the true beauty of faith. At once glorious, until such a time as the blind man who draws a picture can only capture a small sliver of the true shape. There is a Platonic nature to this disintegrating signifier, where a true source is bent out of beauty, into a series of lines, like an artist’s perfect representation of an animal distorted over time to become cuneiform to become calligraphy to become a cursive letter made from a single stroke of the pen with only a small echo of the original meaning.
But beyond just this echo of meaning flowing out from a source, there is an echo backward. The letter still contains the suggestion of the animal, and becomes part of that animal’s symbolic word. The relationship between an echo and what meaning it carries is not one way. The word cathedral becomes a metaphor for all spaces grand and holy. To describe a cavern as a cathedral, or a night’s glorious starry sky as a cathedral takes part of the meaning of the word and imposes it as an echo of it’s true meaning, back up towards the heavenly moment of creation.
Carver wrote a story that does just that, calling upon the holy weight of cathedrals to bear the brunt of the meaning of the story. This is not a story about drawing turtles or warehouses, but about drawing something beautiful. It is an ekphrastic story, celebrating the beauty of artistic creation, suggesting in the echo of the symbols, even in the rudest, plainest echoes for those blinded to the point they cannot see these echoes, that there is still a beauty in them.
Okay, Zizek is maybe not concerned with a single application of a single signifier in one short story that I’m maybe beating like a dead horse. But, I use it because the example is obvious and easily understood.
Let’s call the echo down from original glory the “Echo Down”, and the echo that reverberates away from the story both back towards the original source and outward to other rippling meanings and other reverberations the “Echo Away”. As this idea relates to slightly less-obvious fictions current in the periodicals, I have been reading lots of short stories involving re-imagined fairy tales, of late, and a couple standouts reminded me of this notion of mine with enough clarity for me to wish to talk about it a little bit, here. Firstly, Kelly Link’s Swans in Fantasy Magazine (here) and Theodora Goss’ modern classic of short fiction, recently reprinted at Apex Magazine, The Rapid Advancement of Sorrow, (here). You see, one of these two stories seems to embody the notion of “Echo Down” in the semiotics of power in a society and the other story relates as an ideal example of “Echo Away”. I should probably have said the Goss story first, because hers is the “Echo Down” story, and the Link story is the “Echo Away” story.
Entropy is the state of the universe, and without reinvention of ideas, all things and structures and sources of energy will fade into “sorrow”, a state of stasis where ideas have fallen away in the farthest place from the original moment of glorious creation. How like our Carver’s cathedral story with the separation of segments of things behind walls and rituals that cannot be breached. The Empresses of Sorrow speak directly to a Religious Brotherhood, themselves separated by their cowls, to pass the commands down, until such time as Empresses are cloistered in convents to offer discoveries that seem to come from a distant, genius source, until the discover of Ilona, I presume the ideal candidate for the next empress, reached a terrible knowledge announcing a point of decay so absolute the lips of her mouth stiffen, her cowl is pulled low over her frozen, wintry face, and the message she seems to carry in a touch is one of “sorrow” and loss where all things have fallen into a ruined nation. Despite all the advanced discoveries of prior empresses, the ultimate discovery was Ilona’s entropic obsession that grips, as well, the community in which she lives and loves. In the context of the glorious Eastern European states that seem to have inspired Goss’ tale, there is the moment of creation, at the birth of a state where the state is a glorious, shining thing to inspire others at some point in the beautiful history of the city, but this public people’s dream disintegrates as the dream intersects with reality and cynicism and corruption that form the entropy destroying the systems of society. Eventually, the miraculous flowers of winter, a symbol of the people’s natural desire to end the regime (and, to me, strongly reminiscent of the spray paint rebellion slogans of East Berlin) come on their own in Spring time, naturally. A touch, a flower, a notion of suffering and sorrow and entropy, and a kingdom crumbles beneath the weight of inevitable insurrection. All nations fade in this manner, even our own, and the narrator sitting in the cafe in Budapest learned this, and knows that nowhere is secure from the inevitable march of sorrow. This “Echoes Down”, because it juxtaposes the glorious past of the kingdom of Sorrow with the cold reality of the moment of Sorrow, that is lost even as it is described by the narrator. Every word in the story is a cemetery stone, announcing what is lost. The original glory can never be known, for we have only these words, and the knowledge that what was lost was glorious, without knowing exactly, precisely why. All the descriptions of the town do not paint a complete picture of happiness before the sorrow of the insurrection. All it can do is tell us, the reader, that the narrator believed in this glorious past, before the flowers and the silent rallies and the inevitable decay of the state.
Kelly Link’s story, “Swans”, does something similar but different. On the one hand, reimagining fairy tale stories is an act of “echoing down”, for it never hopes to capture the original moment of creation of a fairy tale for a particular audience for that tale. Rather, the reimagining hearkens to waves of reimaginings. But, it isn’t just reimagining fairy tales that happens, it’s a reinvention. The narrator of the story is the wordless girl of the fairy tale, who rarely is afforded the opportunity to speak for herself, and the scene shifts enough that the original is not really present in the ending. The modernizing of the setting, and the changes made to the tale bring a distinct appropriateness to the quilt in the end. Kelly Link, herself a literary “daughter” of so many fairy tale “mothers” that are dead and gone resolves her version of the fairy tale by allowing the narrator of the story to use, not a bunch of nettle shirts, but the beautiful quilts representing the many fabulous fairy tales that all have the power to lead to a happily ever after. This is where I see the “echo away”. There is an original fairy tale involving seven swan brothers and a wicked stepmother. However, Kelly Link engages in a literary conversation with the creators of this fairy tale and the many versions of it, and other fairy tales, and writes new versions that respond back at them. She is addressing all fairy tales directly, and trying to reshape the way the collective unconscious thinks about the archetypes like fairy godfathers, fairy godmothers, evil step-mothers and the like. The evil step-mother, for instance, is not malicious evil. She is merely an unknowable creature with motivations and instincts that cannot be understood by humans. The fairy godfather cannot solve every problem, and is a very busy fellow. The heroine, instead of being a silent and beauteous vision of ideal womanhood, speaks constantly, just not in a manner that the people around her grasp completely, though her different way of life is perfectly acceptable to the people in her life. As a critique of the heroic and evil women of fairy tales, I find it to be a fabulous reinvention of tropes, modeling identities for little girls and young women that find heroism not through perfect, womanly acceptance of her role in society (like in the disturbing original I remember…) but through indescribable, unknowable mysteries that suffuse the fairy tale genre like a constant dream-state speaking back to archetypes and problems as old as human imagination.
I think, therefore I was. I have this image of Kelly Link as a girl, thinking about how she would handle the situations in all these stories being read to her at bedtime. I have this image of Theodora Goss turning to stories to make sense of the way Eastern Europe collapsed in a heap of steel and failed dictatorships of the last century even before she was writing about them. I have this image of these two stories acting as signifiers to the ideas of the past, trying to communicate what it “was” like to be alive. But, these are cemetery signs of life that was, memorials of other memorials of other memorials, on the one hand of lost kingdoms crumbling into an inevitable end and on the other of lost identities of what heroic girls were supposed to do, and supposed to be. Still, by reshaping them into these fairy-tale-like stories, the echo of the idea, like the soundwave of Jericho’s crumbling walls, tumbles down from history, and out from history. The original idea is almost like a living thing, evolving upon the bones of lost words.
I guess I should explain that idea more, but I wonder if I shouldn’t. This is a blog entry, after all, not a treatise on ontology. I think it is better to leave my idea where it has fallen, and hope that the spark of it carries through to you.