Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"...that mythopoeic faculty which is so essential for the imagination."

Since being first introduced to Mary Renault with The Persian Boy years ago (oddly enough by my then girlfriend), I've been a fan. I hadn't read any of her books in years when I stumbled upon The King Must Die in a used book store, so I decided to dive back in. If you don't know her, Ms. Renault's specialty is rendering classic historic tales into lively stories often ripe with rich homoerotic content. The King Must Die is sort of retelling of the legend of Theseus and didn't have any of the homo stuff of the Alexander novels, but was a fun read none the less.

Part of her charm and talent is in taking legendary tales and re-imagining them as more or less plausible historical events. There is of course going to be a certain level of artistic freedom required in any such undertaking, but her final products are usually fairly compelling. I'm of course not a classics scholar, but as you move through these stories you get a sense that she has worked hard to populate her landscape with plausible inhabitants not just transplanted contemporaries. This novel had all of that on display, but it was her treatment of the supernatural that struck me.

Greece mythology is filled with supernatural creatures and super-human acts and part of retelling these tales in a believable historical context is figuring out how to render these supernatural elements as believable without losing the magic of the tale. She takes the more unlikely creatures, like the Minotaur in this story, and works with them, turning them into fully human elements or showing them in the context of natural phenomena. But what she notably does leave intact are the religious supernatural bits. I haven't really decided how I feel about this.

On the one hand, I like that she strays from the obvious fantastical elements of the traditional legends. In a way she gives them new life and makes the characters more three dimensional and relatable. And I like that her attempts at realism didn't drive her scrub the religious elements from it. There is still this muted religious dialogue going on, and by dialogue, I mean a dialogue between the protagonist Theseus and the gods. She doesn't have them appear directly before him performing miracles and the story could possibly function with the gods existing in it only as figments of the characters' imagination, but they function as silent partners enough to argue that she intentionally left them in. At some point in reading the novel, a question formed in my head, "Why include some supernatural elements and exclude others?"

The simplest argument would of course be that it is a matter of style. This is her style of rendering historical fiction and apparently an effective one. Perhaps she eliminates the greater external supernatural bits which would intuitively set off bells in the readers head that this is a fictional rendering. It is, of course, a fictional rendering, but a successful one precisely because an argument could be made that it could have happened that way. If he had faced a truly half-bull/half-man monster, you wouldn't really get to make that argument. By leaving all the potentially supernatural elements as the works of unsee players who just happen to sound like and have effects like natural occurrences, you can still argue for its plausibility. The characters can believe the gods caused an earthquake and you can read it as something that could resemble a historical event. The story is narrated by one of those characters so he is naturally seeing the hand of the gods in events around him.

But its inclusion doesn't seem as incidental as all that. I came away with the feeling that she left these gods working in the background as purposely included players in the story. She leaves room for the modern cynic to explain them away, but she breaths into them a certain life of their own.

I know I'm swimming in circles here, but I'm trying to get at something. I'd argue that her stories are richer for the inclusion of this religious element as not just background but as an actual mover in the plot, so I have no complaint with that.

It is interesting to me that in a way, inclusion of a supernatural element renders landscapes more believable. Of course it must be well done; nothing is believable without style. Marquez or Kundera are so believable partly because elements of their stories are so fantastic and impossible. In a way it makes the realism of the story stand out in stark contrast, but they are extreme examples. I'm partly just getting at the importance of exercising the capacity for belief in the unbelievable.

I made a comment over the holidays about "Christians" in third person which shocked someone who I wouldn't think I could shock with any statements about myself considering how intimately he knows me. He asked me if I no longer considered myself a Christian, which seemed an inscrutable question. "Huh?" was kind of all I could think to say. On the one hand, considering the state of modern Christianity, do I consider myself one of 'them'? Hell no. I've said before that most people who call themselves Christian these days are idiots and assholes and aspire to be more of both far more than they make any aspiration to follow the teachings of Jesus. And then there are those who are more truly Christian in the sense of having some code which they follow based primarily on New Testament teachings. Those folks I can relate to. And in plenty of ways I'm still one of them. It was how I was raised, and when push comes to shove with the world, there is a mentality modeled on Christian teachings which is what I resort to.

On the other hand, I think there is something to say simply for the capacity for faith and belief in the supernatural. I read plenty of writers, particularly fellow bloggers, where I perceive an almost total rejection of anything not firmly rooted in the cause and effect world. And I don't mind someone else approaching the world that way, but I like my fantastical bits. I don't try to put them at odds with concrete reality, but neither do I care to try to 'prove' that they are based in concrete reality. They are the magical bits, I don't want them explained to death. The creationists are a bunch of fucking idiots who are just torturing both worlds by trying to have this cake and shit on it too. You want to believe that the earth is young and people lived with dinosaurs? Fine, I don't care if you do believe that, but keep it the hell out of science. They don't fit together and won't.

But when my friend asked me if I was no longer a Christian, I think his question was about faith more than identity politics. In effect his implied question was, "You've lost your faith?" The answer to that would be no. My crisis of faith came years ago and nearly splintered my head (you think I exaggerate, but in this instance, not in the least), but I walked away from it with my faith and mind intact, if perhaps a little less dogmatic. I felt like I stepped up to a precipice and looked over into the shrieking vastness, all existential turmoil and angst hurling me over the edge... and then I quit trying to make it all fit. The expanses quit howling and I could again smile at the music of the spheres and get out of some of my self-righteous importance and desire to have all the answers and be RIGHT, and so learned to just relax. It is an amazing world we live in, a spectacular universe we inhabit. I felt somehow put in my place, which was both the center of it all, most important of all things ever and at the same time the least important, most insignificant speck. I backed off the demands and more properly positioned myself and decided that the only prayers that I'm really qualified to make amount to "Wow," and "Thank you," (though to tell you the truth in my more centered moments, even the simple "Thank you," feels a little indulgent and self important).

This isn't to say that I don't still argue with the cosmos and beg and plea with God. I do. I'm writing this in the middle of the ocean. If nothing else will at the same time bolster and shatter your faith, the ocean will. But the point of all this, the faith that came out on the other side has its deepest roots in Christianity and that remains central to the way I approach the supernatural, but on the other hand, after feeling like my spiritual ego was so broken and freed by all that, referring to myself as Christian feels a little constricting. The identity of someone as 'Christian' has more to do with how they align themselves historically than anything to do with faith. My older sister made this very clear to me when she told me before the last election that she was voting for bush because he was the 'christian' candidate. Kerry was a Christian candidate too just like every other damn candidate we've ever had, but bush's invocation of belonging to the same social demographic as my sister was more important as an indication of faith that his actions.

Perhaps that frustration has made me particularly reluctant to refer to myself as a Christian these days. There has been a loud claim staked on the American Christian identity, and to put it plainly, I don't want to be counted in that number. The jackasses and idiots have claimed that title for their cultural touchstone. But as far as my faith, it remains. I'm still uncertain about plenty, but also in the context of having to deal with all these fucking pharisaical idiots parading their cultural identity around as faith, I've perhaps become a little bit more grumpy and easy to rouse. It gets confusing with people like my sister, who in terms of actual faith and having this core set of beliefs which governs how I interact with other people, we aren't very different. We are amazingly similar. Though it pisses me off when she identifies her faith with warmongers like the president, I know that the creed she follows personally leads her to first treat others with respect and kindness.

I've gotten off track. Simply trying to write down my original question born of reading The King Must Die, "Why include some supernatural elements and not others?" brought out the explanation without even trying and let the nagging questions presented to me earlier about my beliefs come bubbling up. We live in an absurd world. This isn't a complaint. I guess in the end for me the inclusion of the supernatural in a view of the world, be it a novel or personal faith, ends up being a choice of style. Do the supernatural elements render the whole more spectacular or do they detract?

Mary Renault uses the invisible supernatural elements in her stories to connect the characters to the events of the natural world around them and the emergent properties of the civilization they live in, or perhaps more accurately she uses these elements to show how her characters make these connections. In the end this is what all supernatural elements are, a way of connecting things which may not otherwise be connected or for understanding connections which aren't otherwise clear.

While home over the holidays, I dug through damn near everything I've ever owned (you could call me something of a pack rat; I like to think of myself as an archivist) in a vain attempt to find my dive card, but I did manage to find some books I'd been looking for. Among those, perhaps the smallest and easiest to lose is The Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde. It is ostensibly a play, though I can't imagine it ever put to stage, but is more or less a soliloquy split into a dialogue about art and life and the cult of Truth. It deserves its own consideration and will perhaps get it in a future essay, but there is a line which I quite liked about religion: "As for the Church, I cannot conceive anything better for the culture of a country than the presence in it of a body of men whose duty it is to believe in the supernatural, to perform daily miracles, and to keep alive that mythopoeic faculty which is so essential for the imagination." What a wonderful description! If only that were what the church concerned itself with these days...

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