(I took the header picture of a Common Loon resting on a pond in Utah on its way north in June of 2015. It was in transition from winter to summer plumage.)

Translate - I dare you. Then make a comment on the funny errors the translator made.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Some thoughts after reading The Fountainhead

(One of these days I'll get back to typecasting.)

So I finally read The Fountainhead. I stayed up past 1 in the morning to finish it, and in fact I even cried at several points throughout. I want to buy my own copy of it and underline passages and write all sorts of things in the margins.

This book has been staring at me for about 20 years from library shelves, mostly through the editions with Art Deco covers. Those were terrifying Apollonian arrows pointing to a destiny that I put off for too long (like Thomas Pynchon, but that's another story). So finally I checked out a copy from the local library and got sucked in. Today, a day after reading it, I wrote the following.

Producers and parasites. In the Fountainhead Ayn Rand shows (somewhat melodramatically, but that isn't a bad thing) model characters or characters as models of these principal types in their purity. I find myself unable to dispute the core of the principles in their purity, but what I think is the cause for worry about Rand isn't the truth in the “selfishness” that is essential to every individual soul (and I want to write more about that, also parse Lehi's “men are that they might have joy” in relation to this), nor is it the core principle of whether one produces or not. Of course in real life when one person produces something and the rest of us benefit. I think of Robert Fripp's words: “Music so wishes to be heard that it calls on some to give it a voice and some to give it ears.” Civilization has been around long enough to make the manifestations of these principles – in pure and perverted forms – so complex that applying them to real-life situations entails doing everything you can to trace each economic interaction and relation back to its roots. This is why mainstream partisan politics are so dissatisfying, and why TV news and talk radio are such dismal ways to try to be informed about what's going on in the world and what you can do about it. This is also why parlor politics rarely if ever gets beyond a ritualistic bashing of everyone's favorite imagined villains, backed up with appeals to everyone's favorite authorities.

I've certainly seen Ayn Rand cast as a villain, a Korihor-like prophetess of greed and callousness. In the purity of her concepts, I accept that she wasn't advocating racism nor greed for money and power (at least not in The Fountainhead). On the contrary, she exposed those as betrayals of self, mere variations of “second-handedness.” So why does she get such a bad reputation? I haven't studied her Objectivist philosophy, so I don't know what else she wrote that attracted such ire, but I intuit the following scenario repeating countless times: a man goes out and makes a load of money in some business, reads Rand, and then says: look, I have made stuff, employed people, ergo I'm a producer. How many people completely miss the lesson of Gail Wynand? How easy it is to assume that the producers in society are not just the entrepreneurs (which is already too narrow) but the ones who have become wealthy. And how easy it is to use the label “parasite” as a politically correct justification for dismissing any concern or basic human empathy or at least rational consideration of whole swaths of people. Are they the ones making the money, making the jobs? Are they among the few, the proud captains of industry? No? Are they in misfortune, are they (or do we see them as) dependent on any kind of assistance? Do they have the impudence to procreate without having steady means of their own self-sufficient heroic make to support them materially (according to our standard of living)? Yes? Why then they're parasites. Q.E.D. And we don't have to worry that we're being racist by going along with the wink-wink nudge-nudge because Rand (or whoever) Said, so we're absolved of any effect our actions have of perpetuating collectivist oppression. Of course we'll put ourselves in the camp of producers as we whine in our parlor talk or radio call-ins or at the voting booth, even if we're working at jobs we don't really want, even if our political involvement is really an attempt to prop up some sense of meaning in our desperate lives, because we think we Get It. It's so easy to slip into this.

If there are people living in poverty we don't have to cathect to our images of them in a show of pity and meddlesome “charity,” but neither do we have to dismiss them as feckless failures because they're not all independent workers (though what if we all could be?), with the gumption to stick with their work through the tough times without complaint, facing the world alone like Roark did until enough of us finally come around to reward their contributions (through fair media of exchange that might not be available, which we might not want to admit).

Everyone is born with their own gift to give to the world, and some are more prominent than others (after reading The Fountainhead I feel I now accept the parable of the talents better, and have a new appreciation for Alma's mission to the Zoramites too), but it has to be remembered and acknowledged that the forces that so stifled the gifts of the producers included entrenched money interests, impersonal boards of directors and other features of the capitalist system. How easy it still is for second-handers at the helms of powerful corporations to cravenly claim that they are the real producers, while continuing to suffocate the world under mediocrity. It's no longer drippy Progressive preaching of self-sacrifice, it's brazen praise for “self-interest,” meaning the appetites and dictates of false, non-individuating selves: blind egos, contemptuous introjects, unacknowledged complexes, possessive archetypes – but not the true soul of every Self. A lazy appropriation of the terms of “self-interest” and “selfishness” makes it so easy to fall back into the conventional semantics that Rand took so much trouble to take apart that I wonder if it was worth her trouble and she might as well have coined a new term.

For a similar reason I currently have no interest in Objectivism as a philosophical system, because it still stinks to me of Intellectual Property, which I don't believe in. Looking briefly at the character of Roark: there is no need to impose a fiction of “intellectual property” on the architectural designs of someone with such a unique vision. If someone were to copy one of his buildings it would be imitation as tribute, flattery or incompetent servility – but it would not be theft. It means much that Rand includes the dialogue about individual private ownerships of our experiences with the world: Roark owns his buildings irrevocably, but so do those who use them or even see them, each in their own inviolate way. For Roark to act like too many so-called libertarians do, he would have to post guards outside all of his buildings to charge fees for walking in or even looking at them.

This has to do also with the struggle I've long had with reading or talking about philosophy. I like reading about it, and about psychology, and I don't dispute giving credit where due. But I return often to the words of Montaigne (in translation): “Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after: 'tis no more according to Plato, than according to me, since both he and I equally see and understand them.” (Essays Chapter XXV “Of the Education of Children” trans. Charles Cotton)

Even Howard Roark, who others see as cold and antisocial, takes for granted that if you saw a drowning man you would try to rescue him. It means a lot that in connection with this, when the young Gail Wynand is crawling along the sidewalk after being beaten nearly to death, the one person he asks for help dismisses him in “bovine indifference.” That adjective is important, because it is certainly an inhuman act to be so callous towards a fellow being. Rand showed this here and I'm glad to have read the book in order to have seen her acknowledgment of this truth.

Even so, the fact that she spent so much effort justifying her unorthodox use of phrases like “self-interest” and “selfishness” might not be enough to defeat this danger: the bare words stick in minds when their substance has ebbed, and then people are quick to attribute the conventional meanings to them and justify their inhumanity by the same kind of servility to a creed, this time a secular one: Rand – or whoever – Says. It is the exact same phenomenon as “the Scriptures say.” Any such vague appeals to authority should immediately put your internal radar on the alert. I can't help but think of the parable of the Samaritan when I read that episode in Wynand's youth, and I don't know if Rand had it in mind, but I'm glad she didn't have the scene take place at the door of a church, with a reverend wrinkling his nose at the human trash importuning him and slamming the door. Whether Rand meant to or not, she shows respect to Jesus' parable here, by letting it stand as a definitive statement of how religion so often leads people to do evil. She respected the parable by rounding it out, and showing how the betrayal of self which leads to such callousness can come from other sources besides religion.

The bar-keeper's refusal to help the young gangster is a betrayal of himself. It seems like selfishness and most of us would describe it as such, but it's the same kind of second-handedness that the young victim swallows and which sets him off on his meteoric rise to power. In refusing to help a young man nearly dead at his doorstep, the barkeeper is not listening to his human self in recognition of another human self, he is listening to the blindness of an ego that pits itself against others, that judges the worth of souls according to criteria inherited and accepted from others without question: gangsters, street trash, worthless. This is the turning point in Gail's life, when his refusal to accept incompetence fermented into his resolve to rule. Who knows what his career might have looked like if he hadn't started it out with such a foundation, and if whatever enterprise he began allowed room for other producers to work within it true to themselves? Do I mean something like Silicon Valley? Well, what would it take for such conditions to flourish and purify all over, not just in such pockets of privilege? I find answers to that question in E.F. Schumacher, Ivan Illich, Kevin Carson and others. For one thing, you can't get there with so much of human knowledge and invention locked up in copyrights and patents.

My working hypothesis is that most of the wealthy businessmen who are so adored by conservatives and so-called libertarians are more like Gail Wynand than Howard Roark. I wonder what kind of world we would have if half of them had the courage to make the kind of restitution that Wynand makes at the end of the book. Are Carnegie libraries enough?

One of the features in Roark's design that makes him so pure is that while those around him see him as a hero struggling against the world, he doesn't. He refuses to accept the charge of defiance that others try to pin on him, or even to feel the resentment that others feel in his behalf. He doesn't do his work out of defiance (as Wynand does), he does his work because he has to. When his first buildings go up, he faces accusations of faddishness, willful whimsy – the kind of thing that has put up monstrosities like the Information ScienceBuilding at the University of Pittsburgh. But through the book, it is evident that his love for buildings is inextricably linked with human empathy: he designs buildings with the consideration of what it will be like to inhabit them. The concern for others may be unconscious but is none the less powerful for that – in fact it may be its unconsciousness that makes it so effective. After Roark finishes the Heller house, his client says “You were very considerate of me.” Roark replies: “I haven't thought of you at all. I thought of the house. . . . Perhaps that's why I knew how to be considerate of you.”

One of the bits that brought tears to my eyes was where he sat with Dominique watching one of his buildings go up – a humble five-story store in an insignificant Midwestern town – and she expresses misguided sorrow at seeing such a brilliant architect stuck doing such insignificant buildings. He points out that it doesn't matter: he loves each building for its own sake. In fact, it bugged me, reading the book, that his Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit is built so close to the earth, at such a human scale, as opposed to the intimidating grandeur of religious buildings throughout history which always tried to make people feel small and despicable (and there my straw man alert sounded the loudest of any point in the book), yet of course Rand has to have her characters gush about skyscrapers. And of course she also takes pains to qualify how skyscrapers don't make Wynand feel small but give him a sense of the “heroic in man.” What if the Stoddard Temple had been a tall skyscraper then?

When I read the part about the Stoddard Temple I thought of one of my Humanities teachers talking about Gothic cathedrals: their uplifting effect on the spirit as opposed to the intimidation of the older Romanesque buildings. Stepping into a Gothic cathedral, he said, is like getting on board a spaceship. (And it's interesting how Gothic architecture gets such scant mention in the novel.) I think I have come to respect skyscrapers in the way that Camille Paglia respects religion, but I'd still prefer a Gothic cathedral, or something like Simon and Jasmine Dale build – or Jung's Bollingen Tower. There's a temple of the human spirit for you!

The triumphant ending of The Fountainhead brought tears to my eyes, but it wasn't because the Wynand Building was the tallest on the earth. For me, Roark's greatest triumph is Monadnock Valley. That triumph flows from an explicit empathy for a human need, as Roark himself expresses in his presentation to the developers. By doing his work he has performed a true service to his fellow beings. So when later he lectures Peter Keating about how his design of Cortlandt Homes won't be motivated by concern for the poor slum-dwellers, I know what Rand means, and I accept that she felt the need to clear away the fog of Progressive sentimentality that surrounded her when she wrote. But it still reflects the truth that when you do find your own life's work and purpose, and are true to it, you inevitably benefit others – and I affirm the rightness of rejoicing in that and calling to that, even as I agree that boasting of it and taking it up as a sign of superiority over others corrupts it.

I choose to take as a sign of maturity that when I read the portrayals of sentimental praise for “the common man” in The Fountainhead, I didn't so much protest with the youthful idealism I might have once had – hey what's wrong with the common man? – but I reflected on the soul-sucking effects of state-imposed mass instruction, standardized testing and Common Core standards (which of course award lucrative contracts to a few winning business interests – are those people then Producers? Hell no!). I thought of an editorial by a retired teacher: “Please widen achievement gaps.” I thought of Sudbury Valley School and its dedication to democratic order which produces uncommon people, of Daniel Greenberg's statement that a right to vote is meaningless without mutual respect, of the self-fulfilling fear of mob rule by those who exercise their right to vote without exercising their brains.

“You are unique – just like everyone else.” “If everyone's special, no one is.” Such sarcasm is, to quote Jung, “the prerogative of habitual grumblers with bad digestions” (“Psychology and Religion” trans. R.F.C. Hull, Collected Works vol. 11, p. 105). Take time to reflect and to imagine what a world might look like where everyone really was equal in their right and opportunity to be unique. Let that dissolve the justifications you've accepted of everything that chokes such individuality – not only prevailing fashions in dress and so on, but the political and economic structures that support those who arrogate to themselves the undeserved title of Producers and betray themselves in imposing their mediocrity on the rest of us with state-backed protections of their so-called property.

 Ayn Rand might turn in her grave, but she is in agreement with Alma the younger in this: the outrage and impatience that come from seeing just how badly the world is run, how much individual human potential is wasted, should not be taken as an excuse to hate, but should strengthen the resolve of each of us to dedicate ourselves to the growth of our individual souls. Alma's tree metaphor (like that of the wise and foolish virgins) is self-centered in that way: you are the only one who can grow that tree, and you are the only one who can eat of its fruit.

So now I wonder if I'll go find out who John Galt is.

Also I have to wonder if Blixa Bargeld or any of his bandmates ever read the book.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In which I quote obscure songs and philosophize (also not a typecast, sorry)

You run to the gate but you'll be marked late.
It's for your own good. It's for your own good.

You're likely to make the grandest mistakes.
You suffer alone in the skin and the bone.

Let's sharpen those new sets of arrows
for the next generation of playground martyrs,

and join in the game of intolerable shame,
'cos everyone shares in the sins of their fathers.

School bell rings. Single file in.
Trade you my unhappily everafters.
So bring out those things to hammer out the wings
of the next generation of playground martyrs.
-David Sylvian, “Playground Martyrs” (Steve Jansen, Slope)

I'm an art-school witness, witness this device.
I always feel so helpless lost in this episode twice.
-Justin McBride, “The West in Despair” (Finngerhutt, The Secret Life of Bookworms)

We are all of us, who have been wounded by the device of school, witness to it, though some of us have suffered more for our testimony than others. Some of us might not even be aware that we are martyrs: what we went through doesn't mean anything now that we're “grown up.” Or whatever it might mean is just that we went through an unavoidable part of life, an institution, a part of the set-up taken for granted.

In the aggregate we are an archive, a fonds, a record group, a body of evidence witness to the device that has shaped life in the US and in the industrialized world for so long that nobody remembers a time when it did not.

I always did feel so helpless, in those classrooms, on those playgrounds, lost in the episode countless times. I remember playing some sport in the gym, in fifth or sixth grade, and imagining I was in a TV show. My life went on in my mind and body as independently as was possible from the world around me and the experiences of those in it, but they had to coexist to some extent. I had to do dramatic poses and facial expressions in a freeze-frame every time the ball went by me: it was the only way I could make my life into something meaningful, the only way I could redeem it. By acting in my own private little TV show in gym class, I was the star of something. I drew a magic circle around myself, and for a time the derision of the others was an acceptable price to pay for the little bit of mastery that I owned in pulling off those poses. At first I paid the price but I did not count the cost (Neil Peart), but then after a while as it became more clear to me how ridiculous the others found my actions, and how completely they failed to understand why I did them, I think the pain of that overrode the benefit of doing it.

Magic circle, but in some way I had expected my peers to understand what I was doing, because I often assumed that the contents of my private fantasies were openly apparent to others. For a time this made it very difficult to bathe or use the toilet, because I was convinced that acquaintances could magically see through my eyes and would therefore see my private parts if I looked at them. I still have not come to any sort of workable hypothesis of how this kind of thing could have been treated. But what I am satisfied in hypothesizing is that this kind of fantasizing is rampant among children, especially introverted ones, and most especially among introverts who feel insecure packed in a classroom with other children their age and kept there by force, feeling the effects of the authority-imposed pecking order, all the more terrifying and rigid for being imposed by an authority unconscious of its actions, or whose spokespersons sometimes vocally deny the authority's unconscious unspoken actions, try so hard to go against them. Teachers often try so hard to protect children from the effects of the system they serve that it is tragic to see.

Benevolent mothers smother the child, the benefactors are in denial.
-David Sylvian, “The Banality of Evil” (Nine Horses, Snow Borne Sorrow)

Their words and wishes show themselves as powerless.

Powerless I stand before the ocean.
-Craig Bench (Pilot – Provo, 1998-2000, unfinished LP)

I want to get some students together in a safe place, sit down with them and tell them: I know of this. I understand that some of you carry within yourselves these fantasies, these private worlds, things that you cannot share with anyone, that if your parents see a hint of it they immediately judge, they may panic. If your peers see them they attack. If your teachers see they “intervene” and generally make it worse. Let me offer sanctuary. I won't even ask that you share secrets with me. Let me offer a way that you can face them, own them, manage them. I hope that in doing so you can give a space and a time for what drives them to let off steam, to vent, to find an expression that will ease the pressure on your soul and allow you to live a more purposeful, directed, awake and confident conscious life.

Writing in journals? That would be one way. Sitting still with eyes closed, daydreaming, maybe even Active Imagination? Is that appropriate for adolescents?

Dear old Mrs. Harmer in my 7th grade art class had all of us sit in a group and put our palms over our eyes to meditate – even the inveterate offender who muttered “bitch” at her back. You just can't make that kind of thing work if any of the children feel unsafe, and they will as long as there is that dynamic of unequal power relations in a room. And you can't expect to find out those dynamics with clumsy adult attempts to get children to talk as if there were nothing under the surface, however good your intentions.

Maybe that was why I was so interested in the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot as a 7th-grader, because I knew for absolute truth that we stand powerless before the dark water which holds mysterious beings, monsters that don't heed our wishes and which we cannot measure, no matter how many times we look, no matter how sophisticated our equipment is. That monster is there but the deadened eyes of a materialist-minded man cannot hope to see or discover it. It refuses to reveal itself to his arrogant probes.

So what is the kind of humble probe that can reveal it? School personnel just want to know how they can diagnose and treat. That's part of the problem, because the reason they want to do that is in order to get things going efficiently again, move in the direction of a program that would keep everyone safely and neatly on the road to a “success” that they can't really define. Their blind pursuit of progress and uniform success is dumping all sorts of mutogenic ooze into the water to create even more monsters.

What is the monster? I thought of Nessie as benevolent, a sort of guardian. Like Napoleon Dynamite, I thought of her as an underwater ally against the monstrous depredations of my classmates whose souls had been driven into an animal unconsciousness by the larger leviathan of the school.

Let's not insist on a coherently logical structure of metaphor here. I don't know how much I thought of Nessie as benevolent, but being so far away she couldn't get at me even if she had a mind to chomp people. Maybe it was that I felt I could hold onto something mysterious: that there were these mysterious things: monsters, aliens that I felt I could know or at least know something about. And by reading those books about monsters and aliens I felt that I had a way of managing them. At the least it was empowering to feel that I had a knowledge of things that were mysterious, maybe. Or it was a way of affirming the truth of how much that shapes life is unconscious.

Mystic rhythms, under northern lights or the African sun.
Primitive things stir the hearts of everyone. . . .
Mystic rhythms under city lights or a canopy of stars.
We feel the powers and we wonder what they are. . . .
We feel the push and pull of restless rhythms from afar.
-Neil Peart, “Mystic Rhythms” (Rush, Power Windows)

Few of my peers accepted the stories of literal monsters below the surface of factual lakes. Looking back, does it just show how little they thought of the reality of things shaping our lives that went on unspoken, impossible to challenge because they were impossible to articulate, unless in ways that could be dismissed as childish? Were my peers more interested in finding a place in the order where they could have comfort, find a place at the table, gain the favor of the king, a seat on the bench in the mead hall? Some of them were obviously going somewhere with their lives in a way that I wasn't. Some seem to have set themselves up pretty comfortably after having passed all the requirements set by that unconscious beast.

Ich bin das letzte Biest am Himmel.
-Blixa Bargeld, “Letztes Biest (am Himmel)” (Einstürzende Neubauten, Halber Mensch)

The school leviathan swirls over us like the clouds – not out of a death-eater skull, because that would show too plainly what it was up to. Some sort of imperial Chinese dragon. A superior force hovering over like a facile god: above=greater, superior in every literal sense, self-evidently our ruler. The heavens where the invisible being dwells in a place no scientific probing can ever hope to discover (another reason why I was susceptible to cryptozoology? And the shame at seeing the extents of credulity to which faith might lead was keener for my friends than for me?), and whose dictates are to be obeyed without question.

The waters above the firmament as well as those below: those unconscious processes, the mystic rhythms or the sinister forces that drove us, were not just subterranean. Subterranean were the forces that set my peers against me, that drove our conflicts with each other, that tried to find expression in what the ready guide in the celestial voice (Peart) made permissible and possible. There were unconscious forces above us that ruled over those below, and made the vessel in which the lower forces cycled and fermented.

Ancient idolatries born of natural psyche are wholesome and benevolent compared to the modern ones born of the machine which made bold to exist in the spirit instead of obeying (Rainer Maria Rilke). And it is one of the saddest ironies to me that those who shave their faces and straighten their ties should ally themselves so fully with the modern idolatries in denouncing the ancient ones as wicked, should assert that the God who brought the human psyche into being is identical with that leviathan which swirls invisibly in the skies above the school building and the skyscraper, the one that cooks children in its vessel that I don't want to call hermetic. A celestial dragon that wears smiling masks but puts the lid on us in the pot, fires below, heating the waters of our psyche in an industrial recipe. Some of the dragon's acolytes have written cookbooks and now their heirs are following those recipes, without question, because this dragon is a god to be obeyed without question. We leave the judgment to the experts, we defer to something above us, also unknowable.

This is hard, because certainly the true God is also unknowable at the core, but I hold to a segment of Rod that Nephi wrote: he doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world. I also think of Alma's seed metaphor: something is true because it is light, is discernible. It leads you along but in a way that you see plainly, even if it is only one step at a time. A kindly light leading through a dark night, instead of a prideful, garish day (John Henry Newman) – I have always found that image of the garish day to be very interesting in light of our habitual symbolism of day and light. Spiritual metaphors are like language: if one talks about above=good, below=bad, light=good, dark=bad, that's a discreet system. Within its own boundaries, those signs are valid, but it's not a universal truth, like a map might show Minnesota as purple and it works within the map, but the land isn't really that color.

The Earth's core is a second sun underground, the cthonic sun? The invisible sun?

There has to be an invisible sun. It gives its heat to everyone.
There has to be an invisible sun that gives us hope when the whole day's done.
-Sting, “Invisible Sun” (The Police, Ghost in the Machine)

Like Robert Ingersoll I want to stand on a rock of surety in this: there is a plainness like Nephi says, a basic benevolence or rightness that is discernible to everyone, the capacity to spot a naked emperor; and that this doesn't ever truly die even if we ignore it. I want to believe that no matter how deep we might try to bury this, it will keep speaking to us, and I accept that its voice speaking like familiar spirits out of the dust (Isaiah), coming out of those deep layers might sound so spooky that we will be even more likely to fear it, shun it. We could trivialize it (like using Tibetan monks' chants for Hallowe'en sound effects), or we could condemn it as evil in the same hasty judgment that one of my youth leaders showed in saying Queensrÿche's Batman-like logo looked Satanic. Or my fear that King Crimson's “Thrak” and “VROOM VROOM: Coda” were Satanic when I first heard them – and my roommate said as much: “this is Satan music!”

It certainly was eye-opening music that King Crimson gave me: they beguiled me, and I did eat. (And then learned about Thrace, which has Turkish-influenced folk music in asymmetrical meters. Robert Fripp referenced Bulgarian music as part of his European musical heritage. Like I wrote before: orcs-Turks.) Here was something that gave eloquent voice to those immeasurable monsters in the deep. And over time, I have learned that some of them indeed are our allies.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

White Boy Fantasy with Potatoes (no typecast this time, sorry)

An adolescent's concept of the middle ages, or an adolescent boy's concept: how many are like mine? A lot of my imagination has always centered around food, and my fantasies of Medieval meals owed their bulk to the pot roast dinners we often had in my family while I was growing up. There seemed something anachronistic and archaic about a huge hunk of meat on a platter; I think this is universal, judging by the portrayals I've seen in popular media and the wide appeal of turkey drumsticks at Renfaires. Eating large quantities of meat is typically understood as a manly taste, and there is something nearly exclusively masculine about the appeal of a mythical Dark Ages that goes hand in hand with an enjoyment of fantasy role-playing games and their derivative fiction, as well as the accompanying art that teeters on the edge of the pornographic. It's more cave man than anything, and that adolescent male attraction to the Dark Ages has little to do with chronology and almost everything to do with the shagginess that Umberto Eco astutely pointed out in “Dreaming of the Middle Ages.” Cave men with castles for caves and iron swords instead of flint axes. Yet somehow their women achieve modern nutrition and hygiene.

(A Dungeons & Dragons manual I once had, Creative Campaigning, suggested setting a campaign in a stone age and included a reduced magic system to go along with the primitive conditions. I now think that's totally backward: the more primitive the technology and economy, the more pervasive the magic. That game designers should fail to see that speaks to the psychological, historical and mythological ignorance of their society.)

Since in my childhood home we generally had mashed potatoes and gravy with pot roast, I took for granted the Medieval character and even provenance that I projected on them. Not just mashed potatoes but those soggy ones that have been cooked with beef and onions in a slow cooker, absorbing the juice. The whole package of meat, onions and potatoes, whether the meat stays in a chunk or gets cut up for stew, is unconsciously imported into masculine fantasies. In the past few years I've done NaNoWriMo there's been a running joke about stew on the fantasy forum, stemming probably from a question in David J. Parker's Fantasy Novelist's Exam: “Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an 'on the road' meal?”

Even to this day, when I hear or read the word “Lombard” I have to fight to keep the taste and feeling of mashed potatoes and Tabasco sauce out of my mouth. That particular association comes from history books I read when I was 17: the fall of the Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions, the desert fathers. But they said nothing about food, so all throughout I held in my mind a picture of barbarians newly established in appropriated Roman castelli, eating mashed potatoes. This was also shortly after I had taken a great liking to Tabasco sauce and often put it on my mashed potatoes, mixing it in until they turned pink. So for me the Dark Ages came to taste like two American things that were unknown in Europe at that time. I didn't know that; I had only the vaguest idea of the history of food and didn't realize how enormously important staple food crops are in economy, technology and politics, what a difference potatoes really made in Europe in the modern era. My interest in history was a means to an end of fertilizing fantasy; it still is to a great extent, as I think it should be for everyone if the world is to change for the better. But my fantasies then were more narcissistic than the utopian dreams that my spiritual conversions have since engendered, and I had less factual knowledge to help me emerge from the ethnocentric Anglo-American adolescent dreams that I swam in.

So I didn't know the difference between old world and new world crops. I don't want to pin the whole rap for that on Tolkien: as a mythical world, Middle Earth has no reason to pretend to any historical accuracy, being a mythical creation (and Sam cooking rabbit stew in Ithilien makes sense in its context).

But the way the fantasy genre has evolved since then has led to the irresponsible behavior lampooned so well in the Fantasy Novelist's Exam: trying to copy your inspirations without doing your research. Over the past few years there's been a lot of debate online about the race or color of characters in fantasy fiction vis-a-vis “historical accuracy.” I haven't dug deeply into that or followed very closely, mostly because it has always seemed self-evident to me that if you're writing or playing fantasy then you don't need to be “historically accurate.” But if you are writing a fantasy actually set in medieval Europe, then you're obligated to take into account the relations of trade, religion and scholarship that brought people of different races in contact with each other then and there. As a teenager I got an education about Saracens from Judith Tarr's Ars Magica. That novel was published in 1989, and of course Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels with their multiracial cast are even older, and not beholden to any concerns for historical accuracy, whatever shallow resemblance their props might have to medieval stuff.

Is the stereotype of a medieval European fantasy landscape – full of castles, monsters, knights errant and damsels in distress all white – more of a notion in the minds of amateur male authors than a reflection of how the genre really goes? It might go back to Ariosto after all, as I mentioned in a previous post: Orlando Furioso is a classic adolescent male fantasy and its European point of view recoils in disgust from black characters and even paints the Princess of Cathay as blond. But I'm not well-read in modern fantasy; I hardly touched it for years until I started on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series about 11 years ago. It was a welcome re-entry for me because of all that it does right: a multi-racial cast, world-wide trade networks over millennia of history (so potatoes, tobacco etc. make sense, though he keeps maize and tomatoes isolated in the desert to add color in winking asides), and only the most superficial resemblance to “medieval Europe.” It's such a popular series I guess I figured it was typical of how the genre developed while I wasn't looking (I wonder if he was inspired at all by Delany's subversive Return to Neverÿon series with its blond barbarians and child empress).

I fear I'm wrong, based on what I have read from people about what is considered “typical” fantasy – people who I assume have read much more of it than I have. I might like to call it something like White Boy Fantasy with Potatoes: adopting medieval trappings like long swords, armor and castles, and even trying to make these as “accurate” as you can, while blithely including in your misty “northern European” setting blatant anachronisms like potatoes (or pumpkins, like I saw in the Gargoyles TV cartoon series), sewers, cheap soap, or the grosser absurdities like chicks in chainmail . . . but keeping everyone white (with the possible exception of black-skinned evil underground elves) because, forsooth, there were no black people in northern Europe “back then!” This does deserve criticism as narrow-minded: there's not much excuse for it in this century, and I think it's the real butt of Parker's jokes in his exam, much more than Robert Jordan's feminist heroines. White Boy Fantasy with Potatoes might draw from Tolkien, but it leaves off from the mythic resonance that gave his work its sense, settling its roots more in modern American experience. WBFwP is a product of 20th century industrialized middle-class teenage life, along with drive-through fast food, high school romance movies and prog rock. It's gratifying to think that I might extrapolate from my own psychic experience to understand the appeal of a typical and popular genre, but it's sad to think that it should be so typical.

 I have to state that my experience with fantasy as a teenager was more with gaming than fiction, and I wonder how many others have experienced similar. The “Fantasy Novelist's Exam” takes obvious aim at the practice of importing game mechanics into novels, as in the series built on the D&D franchise: Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and probably others that I don't know about. I read Dragonlance books as a teenager and I bristled when others dissed them. At the time I found a lot of value in them (I liked them much more than Forgotten Realms which I abandoned halfway through the first volume). I don't know what I would think of them if I were to re-read them now; my intent here isn't to judge their literary value. I believe that, whatever literary value they may achieve, they still ought to be considered as belonging to the gaming world, separate from “the fantasy genre” as a whole, inasmuch as authors working in the wider genre, though they may be building from common tropes, have more leeway than those who are bound to a set of game mechanics. Some things are more appropriate for games than for novels, and I've become convinced that what makes for good gaming and good fiction are usually opposites.

How many of the authors writing in the freedom of the wider fantasy genre have really taken that leeway though? Again, my ignorance. I turned my back on the genre because I judged it as I have seen it judged by others: overrun by white boys who want to rove through northern European or North American-looking settings, slaying monsters (including orcs who sound like Turks, or is it the other way around?), eating meat and potatoes, and making love to centerfold models in fur or chainmail bikinis – all without encountering inconveniently different people who would challenge the comfortable demography of their actual suburban lives. I might have judged unfairly; I would like to think so – again, I'd like to think that those white boys (whom I can totally empathize with, alas) are mostly the fans and amateur writers rather than the published authors.

But whatever the genre's past might have been, I'm discovering exciting new work by authors like N.K. Jemisin, whose Hundred Thousand Kingdoms I recently read. There's some fantasy for you! - drawn from an obviously wide foundation in psychology, politics, economics; and a rich life experience of living, working and studying in many places. I've recently read others whose settings are modeled on earthly history and geography away from the misty wilds: the eastern Mediterranean for Megan Whalen Turner, and the urban Renaissance for Rachel Hartman. They show evidence of conscientious historical research and that is gratifying, even if they come across more as fenced gardens than as worlds (how much more do I have a right to expect? The pioneers of the novel form itself didn't do years of exhaustive world-building: they focused on a few people in one time and place). There seems to be a growing appreciation for historically-modeled fantasy, which is what I started trying to write over 10 years ago. I'd better finish it soon; I'd hate to miss the right moment to get it published.