Monday, September 22, 2014

Confusion and understanding: one post about The Stone Boatmen

[For those who care, fair warning: this post contains what probably amount to spoilers.]

Though I try always to extend sympathy at least, it is difficult for me to approach any new work of sf with anything other than suspicion. But very early on in my first reading of Sarah Tolmie's The Stone Boatmen — I am no longer able to say when or where, exactly — I decided to trust: to have faith in the work, and in Tolmie's ability and above all responsibility in pursuit of it. Or — can this really be characterized as a decision? Perhaps better to say that I found myself trusting her, that something palpable but not quite locatable in or between her words made such trust not only possible but natural, even unavoidable. Tolmie does not betray this trust.

The Stone Boatmen sets itself in, and in the ocean between, three coastal cities, none of which have names, none of which have been in communication with the others for a millennium prior to the events of the novel. Each has staked its being on one semi-mystical, semi-rational organizing principle, each carrying with it its own contradictions. There is the city of ceremonies, in which not only do elaborate rituals mark certain days and certain events in life, but smaller rituals attend almost every quotidian moment of every day; these ceremonies give the people of this city a physical (and therefore mental) connection with tradition, with the knowledge and power of "the ancestors" (on whom more to come), and yet the people often find the constant adherence to ceremony stifling. Then there is the city of poetry, in which the power of the word is almost — but not exactly — worshiped; this city understands the ability of art, specifically literary art, to create a world, but it lives perhaps too much in the world of mere art, has perhaps too much of a misleading, superstitious (even frantic) belief in the identity of the word with the thing. And finally there is the city of the golden birds, where priests study the behavior of a peculiar breed of bird in order to govern and advise the people according to what they divine therefrom; the actions of these birds are, explicitly, only a pretext, an arbitrarily ordered set of otherwise formless information focusing on which allows the bird-priest's mind to explore and to conclude; and yet these birds are no ordinary birds, and they do in fact possess authority — of some kind.

Each city, in short, has its own particular way of ordering and understanding the world, all of which have many appealing, crucial facets which it would be disastrous to lose but which nonetheless work also to conceal the world, to prevent the people from, as it is described later on, hearing what the world has always been saying to them. The relationship between these systems, once they encounter one another, is no simple, easily graspable thing. They are not complementary in the sense that some facile combination of them would result in enlightenment. There is a kind of trajectory to the order in which we encounter them: ritual, with its mystique and secretiveness, conceals words; words conceal what the birds, perhaps, reveal; and what the birds reveal conceals...well, whatever it conceals — "reality"? "being"? ..."truth"? — is what the book could, in a way, be said to be "about." But it would be a terrible mistake to take this trajectory as indicating a hierarchy, some kind of progressive step-by-step sense in which words are "better" than ritual, bird-divination "better" than words. Indeed it could be thought of as a circle (or as a closed chain consisting of three interconnected links, the form the cities choose to symbolize their new relationship), as the connection to ancestral ways of being and knowing that the people of the first city experience through their ceremonies is intimately tied to this world-speech to which the characters, and the book itself, seek to be attentive.

On a first reading it is tempting to think The Stone Boatmen is about — or perhaps better it is tempting to try to make it be about — a society becoming modern, much as, in our world, Europe did in the period centered around 500 years ago (proceeding as it did to steamroll that modernity catastrophically over the entire world). And indeed at first it seems to be so; the book opens with Prince Nerel alternately embracing ceremony and chafing against its restrictions; it then moves on to Mahar, a man of the next generation, who, as Maureen Kincaid Speller puts it, is "bored by the emphasis on ceremony and ritual in his own city. He is also acutely aware that he does not belong fully either to the city or the palace and his determination to be a sailor and boat-builder is a deliberately calculated expression of that uncertain status" — impatience with tradition, questing for novelty, and struggling for self-definition in the face of the confusions of uncertain status being of course some of the major characteristics of modern life.

But, as Speller notes in her insightful review, Tolmie's book "seems constantly to fold itself into new shapes in the reader’s mind." Even before the opening section — before Nerel's story — there is a prologue, bearing the title "The Ancestor's Tale" (the Chaucerian resonances are entirely appropriate, as we shall see in a moment), which haunts any attempt to make such simple meaning out of the narrative that follows. These two pages sketch in the planned death and mystical transformation of "the senior technician," Harel, who occupies a position of some power in a high-technological society (these are the people who will come to be known as "the ancestors") and, seeing disaster (of the type we ourselves are about to face?) approaching, decides to take action. It is not clear exactly what this action is, but it is obviously this that leads (singlehandedly? immediately? it is, deliberately, forever, unclear) to the relatively static, mostly "low"-technological societies we encounter in the novel proper, a millennium later. In light of this any attempt to view the three cities as we encounter them in the novel as "pre-modern" is necessarily a distortion of what the novel gives us — indeed, it would be more accurate to call the societies "post-modern," were the term not already taken by something to which it is much less suited.

The events of the prologue have complex ramifications on everything that is to follow, in the shape both of the cities and of the events that occur within and between them (to the extent that these two things are separable elements of the novel). Even in the first two sections, dealing with what could be misread as Nerel's "pre-modernity" giving way to Mahar's modernity, things are not so simple; and as we then progress first to the section dealing with the poet Rose and then of her daughter, the seer Fjorel, the novel "performs the remarkable feat of maintaining a permanent tension between tradition...and modernity or modernization" (as Thomas Foster puts it in his review in The Cascadia Subduction Zone). This is a work that recognizes the value and the problems with both, admitting it all into itself, refusing propaganda, resolute in its determination not to place one over the other.

A digression may make clearer what I mean, and clearer too how Tolmie manages to perform her remarkable feat. Tolmie says (in fact it is quite apparent that she wants the reader to know) that William Langland's poem Piers Plowman was heavily on her mind as she wrote The Stone Boatmen. Not yet having read that poem, I turned for assistance to Gabriel Josipovici's The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction and its discussion of Langland alongside Dante. Josipovici’s subject in this book is what it means to become modern, which means he will be useful in exploring the ways in which modernity and non-modernity interpenetrate in The Stone Boatmen. He writes that both Piers Plowman and the Commedia

open with the hero-narrator’s sudden awareness of being lost and his asking a figure of authority (Virgil, Holy Church) who appears before him what it is he needs to do to find salvation. Both poems then provide an answer to this question not in terms of logic or metaphysical argument, though there is plenty of both in the poems, but in terms of experience. The hero undergoes a number of experiences which lead him eventually to see that the universe and his own life make sense. … In Langland too the public and the private, his own history and that of the world, come together when he wakes up on Easter Sunday to hear the bells ringing for ‘God’s resurrection’. Here, for the first time in the entire poem, the dream vision and the waking reality coincide, significantly enough in the one event which stands outside human time and yet gives meaning to all human history: the Passion and the Resurrection, eternally re-enacted in the sacrament.
        It is as if both journeys had been undertaken to cleanse man of the stiff and stubborn man-locked set, the private vision of the foolish natural man* which led only to the dark wood of chaos and confusion, and to give him back himself by revealing to him the reality of the world and the meaning of God's plan. But this is not simply a matter of listening to what people have to say to you. Virgil and Beatrice and St Bernard have much to say to Dante, but they are important to him primarily for what they are and for where they lead him, rather than for what they teach. Similarly, in passus XII of Piers Plowman Imagination warns the dreamer that 'learning and intelligence are both worthy of praise', for 'without the use of learning, bread could not be changed into the Body of Christ' ... and without intelligence, which 'springs from men's observations of many things — of birds and beasts, and of experiments both true and false', man could not come to the Truth. ... For the world is a book and all the parts fit and yield forth God's meaning. Dante and Langland thus both construct their poems so as to elicit from the hero (and hence from the reader) the exclamation: 'Now I see how it is!'
* "Stiff and stubborn man-locked set" is a reference to a previously-discussed Wallace Stevens poem, and "foolish natural man" to a passage from the twelfth-century Hugh of St Victor, also previously-discussed; this type of man is contrasted against "he who is spiritual and can judge all things," aware of the way God works through the world.

If we make allowances for large differences in theological orientation from work to work, Josipovici could almost be describing The Stone Boatmen here. Just as Dante and Langland present a journey from confusion to understanding, so too does Tolmie*, though here the confusion and understanding, and the experience that leads from one to the other, are those of a whole society over multiple generations rather than one individual within one lifetime (this difference is, as I have discussed, typical of sf). The characters speak rarely if ever of a God or gods, and never of salvation per se, but nearly all of the action of the novel is driven by the attempt to regain the ability of the revered ancestors to listen to the speech of the world, to understand the nature and plan of these ancestors, and to discover what place the lives of individuals and of communities have in the context of that plan. And to read the book is to experience this attempt, to try along with the characters to listen to what the world is saying.

*With a lot of "logic and metaphysical argument" as well, to the point that it almost obscures the necessity of experience. I will not have the space here to explore this seeming contradiction — which is in fact the very soul of sf — but I hope to do so in a follow-up.

But this book is neither written nor read by people with medieval understandings of the world; though in it modernity and tradition always coexist, it is itself a product of the modern world, and so things are not so simple as the above might lead one to believe. But neither are they in Josipovici, who is discussing Dante and Langland in order to lead into an examination of the radically different worldview one finds in Chaucer, for whom the crises that would lead to what we think of as modernity were already well underway:

Instead of making experience reinforce what old books say Chaucer seems to be at pains to pull the two apart. The perpetual concern with dreams is just another aspect of this problem, since the question whether dreams are prophetic or not is really the question of how far God impinges on this world and how far we can tell what kinds of relation exist between this world and God’s providence. In Dante and Langland, we saw, there was an answer to these questions, and an answer that had to be sought for, but which was connected with the public facts of the Incarnation and the sacraments of the Church. But Chaucer’s poems make no mention of this. Instead they merely raise the question and leave us more puzzled than before.
Once again Josipovici could almost be describing The Stone Boatmen, and reading this passage with this book in mind it can be tempting to say that Tolmie is more "Chaucerian" than "Langlandian." This is particularly so in the early parts of the novel’s final section, the one dealing with Fjorel and her dream-visions. These dreams come from Maleki, the current temple bird* — who is also, Fjorel comes to realize, the current incarnation of Harel, the senior technician whose transference into a bird we witnessed in the prologue, known to the people of the cities as the last king of the ancestors. In a sense, then, it is possible to take Maleki/Harel as a stand-in for God (or rather for His role in the Josipovici passage) and say that there is no doubt as to "how far God impinges on this world" — there is no question as to whether Fjorel’s dreams are true visions — which would seem at first to set Tolmie’s enterprise against Chaucer’s. But as ever it is not so simple. For one thing, Harel was not God, or a god, or even supernatural in any way; he was merely a man, different from others only in the extent of his technical know-how, possessing no transcendent authority. Then too Harel’s mind, inhabiting the body (which emphatically includes the brain) of a succession of birds over the course of a millennium, is no longer that of a human. Though it retains much of the same factual information it possessed when he was a living human, along with the urgency that led him to abandon the technical way of life while also ensuring that a record of it would exist**, its perspective on this knowledge, its interpretation of this urgency, and its ability to communicate any of it, are now that of a bird, not a human — and as such Fjorel’s dreams cannot be a transparent window onto the truth of things. "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him," goes the line from Wittgenstein that serves as one of the novel’s two epigraphs, and the same is true of this bird — indeed, the problem of comprehension is more pronounced, as Maleki cannot even speak, has no language. Fjorel spends most of her time in the novel being confused, frustrated, even resentful at what is happening to her; she knows that her visions have meaning, but she can find no way to grasp this meaning.

*Low-budget bookblogging problems: I had to return the book to the library, have not yet been able to buy my own copy, and my notes as always have frustrating lacunae — so I’m not quite getting the terminology right here. In the city of birds all birds are "sacred" (or some near equivalent), but there is always one mated pair which occupies a central place, physically and otherwise; Maleki is the male of this pair at the time the novel takes place.
**In multiple ways — the books of the ancestors still exist, the rituals of the city of ceremonies descend from the ancestors, and Harel himself seems to have been waiting all this time for a mind, Fjorel’s, that is in some mysterious way "ready" to receive his messages.

Later on, Josipovici looks at Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and finds it emblematic of the modern worldview that rose up to deny the (Chaucerian) uncertainty and anxiety that had followed in the wake of the collapse of the (Dantean and Langlandian) medieval worldview.* Where the "I" in the medieval poems is "moving slowly towards understanding (and leading the reader with him)," in Bunyan it is more as though "he passively records a film which passes before his eyes." In the medieval poems meaning is something that must be searched for; "in Bunyan the meaning is there from the start." Rather than learning "how to make sense of the world," Bunyan’s Christian "learns how to flee from it ... his task is to escape the World, the Flesh and the Devil" where in Dante and Langland what must be escaped is not the world but "a false and subjective view of the world; what they discover is not a new set of facts, but a new understanding of the nature of that false view." Bunyan’s work is a presentation of a set worldview and morality "which we either accept or reject, depending on our prior allegiances and our own fear of damnation," rather than a process in which the reader as well as the writer and the "I" all take part. And rather than there being a tension between the real event, the real being, and what it allegorically "stands for," Bunyan’s "story is meaningful in so far as it is reducible." But what is on the surface for the Calvinist Bunyan but is increasingly obfuscated as modernity progresses is that "this is true of the story because it is true," for the person with a modern perspective, "of the world as well." Looking ahead to later forms, we can put this another way: that no matter how much secular modernity insists it has no need to see the world as "meaningful," the shape of what is by now traditional narrative puts the lie to this insistence, indeed subtly but powerfully propagandizes for a particular interpretation of what the world "means."

*As discussions of these issues are always open to accusations of oversimplification and nostalgia, I would like to stress here that I am summarizing very roughly in the interest of keeping this post to some reasonable length. Josipovici is very aware (as am I) that "the medieval era" was neither a monolith nor some golden age of perfect harmony; but in Europe during these centuries a shift did occur in the prevailing ways of relating to the world, and this shift, especially as "Europe" metastasized across the face of the planet, does continue to govern our own prevailing ways of doing so. Any discussion of such phenomena must engage in generalization to some degree, which by no means must entail losing sight of the fact that generalization is what is going on.

I bring this up to emphasize once again the degree to which Tolmie avoids such propaganda. If Bunyan's "story is meaningful in so far as it is reducible," Tolmie's is meaningful in so far as it is not. The Stone Boatmen is practically overflowing with elements that seem to mean, to carry some set allegorical meaning (the recurrence of twins and doubles, for instance, or the encounter between Rose and the fox that eats her pears), but Tolmie, much like Kafka though reading her otherwise feels nothing like reading him, takes great pains to undercut the allegory, to insist that what is presented to us is itself, not some reduction of itself.

And as we saw before, The Stone Boatmen incorporates the Langlandian (or at least what I am interpreting through Josipovici as Langlandian) insistence on process, on coming, through experience, to the truth, with the Chaucerian emphasis on the absence of a knowable truth. The Chaucerian anxiety in the face of this absence (which, lest the point be lost, is very close to the anxiety that runs through those works called "modernist," at least when the term means more than some simplistic periodization) is present, in its way, again most especially in Fjorel’s story. In a conversation between her and the bird-priest Herodias, Fjorel’s mentor, the talk turns from the confusion of her visions to the mysterious event that not only started the novel proper but set in motion all of the events that follow the prologue: the discovery that among the commoners there is a man who, despite being unrelated to him, looks exactly like Prince Nerel, and who therefore also looks exactly like the ancient stone boatmen in the city’s harbor, the Prince’s resemblance to whom has long been a source of amazement in the court. Herodias says,

"It must mean something. Two men born in one generation, exactly alike but not twins, both looking just like those statues more than a thousand years old. All have wondered about it since. Who knows? Maybe the birds will tell you why and solve a long mystery." Fjorel looked anxious.
Fjorel’s anxiety, as a character in the novel, is not quite that of Chaucer-the-writer. One feels that she would have been fine going through life simply experiencing, feeling no need for the world to have meaning (this perhaps is how one can read "the stillness," the state of semi-meditative hyper-awareness in which she, for the most part comfortably, spends much of her life); but suddenly she finds the demand to find meaning thrust upon her. It is this responsibility, and her lack of faith in her own ability to live up to it (perhaps because of personal failing, perhaps because to fulfill this responsibility is by its nature impossible) that makes her anxious. The position of the book itself, I think, to the extent that it can be said so simply to have one, is to be found in Herodias’s response to Fjorel’s anxious look:
Fjorel looked anxious. "But if they don't it doesn't matter. We do not need to know everything," he added hastily, apologetically.
The eager curiosity to know, to find out, paired (humorously, in this case) with the understanding and acceptance that the mastery of knowledge has limits. The tendency occasionally to forget the one in the acknowledgment or pursuit of the other. The mingling of aspects of both modernity and "pre-modernity" in multiplicitous and, unlike the modernity we actually live in, non-prescriptive, variable form. The book is after — and it is possible to interpret this, as Foster does, as "utopian," though I would call it more properly, specifically sfnal — a reconciliation between these, in reality, unreconciled (and perhaps unreconcilable) ways of being in the world. In Tolmie as in Dante and Langland, the world is an interpretable set of information, like a book (though the novel thoroughly questions that breezy "like"); but as in Chaucer there’s no guarantee that this information "means," indeed when it most seems to mean is when it can be most deceptive. In light of all this, and in light of its own nature as a (resistant) product of modernity, the journey from confusion to understanding that The Stone Boatmen otherwise shares with Piers Plowman and the Commedia necessarily occurs between somewhat different poles.

Wittgenstein, recall, provided one of the two epigraphs: "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." But before this is one from Langland: "Whan all tresores arn tried, treuthe is the beste". The movement of the novel can perhaps be understood in part as a movement from a "confused" melding of these two lines (or rather of aspects of them) to an "understanding" one. As things stand at the beginning, Prince Nerel, or rather the society he (metonymically, politically, problematically) represents, has long staked itself on the understanding that there exists truth, that it is the beste of all tresores, but there is a growing discomfort with the distance at which it seems to reside. The ceremonies continue as always, at times even leading to moments of startling clarity, but increasingly the silence, the absence of the ancestors with whom the ceremonies are supposed to be a link weighs on them; and even in those moments of clarity there is the sense that something is missing. Truth exists, perhaps, but the splendor of the ancestors is so foreign to the people of the present that it seems only a fundamentally different kind of being could ever grasp it and even then could never communicate it; Wittgenstein's aphorism is readable as expressing ultimate unknowability, the absence of truth from a world that promises to possess it.

The crisis escalates in the figure of Mahar, but then a peculiar thing happens: in his confusion, his being deeply unsettled, he acts — and through his action, the three cities, unaware of each other for a thousand years, are linked. What each possesses throws into relief what another lacks. As I said before, they do not complement, let alone "complete" one another, but the shift from mere learning to experience that their intercourse allows for allows also for the life of Rose, transplanted by choice from one city to another (and unwittingly bringing the best of her city with her), and then her daughter Fjorel, who would never have been born without the contribution of all three cities. In a sense the crisis is embodied in Fjorel to a greater extent even than in Mahar; from what I have already discussed about her role in the novel it is probably apparent that Langland's Treuthe and Wittgenstein's incomprehensibility pervade every aspect of her being.

But through her own life, her own experience — both in submission to and in reaction against the role of seer that has been thrust upon her — Fjorel is able to come to a new synthesis of these seemingly opposed elements. Not for her Chaucer's puzzlement (though she passes through it), nor Bunyan's and modernity's obfuscation (though she sometimes wishes for it), nor the anxiety and melancholy of those who struggle against modernity, whom I find it useful to call modernists (though, again, she is no stranger to anxiety or melancholy). Neither does she succumb to the glib triumphalism of much of what is called postmodernism, which, refusing to look at the problem, noisily declares that there is no problem.

When Fjorel attempts to explain the understanding she has come to, she begins by disclaiming that what she has to say is perhaps "not spectacular," not, at any rate, as exciting as people might hope the solution to ancient mysteries would be. In a sense she is right; this is no "all will be revealed" TV series finale. What she provides are not so much answers as (and someone — her father? augh, if only I hadn't had to return the book — points this out) the understanding that different questions need to be asked. The question is not: what is the ancestors' plan? for there is no plan, or at least not one that matters any longer. The question is not: how can we be more like the ancestors? how can we know what they knew, do what they did? — it is not, that is to say: how do we break through the barrier of incomprehensibility to seize the truth? Rather, the question Fjorel enables her people to begin asking (and here I want to emphasize Speller's observation that this novel has no truck with overnight transformations, that it "is less bothered about these moments of epiphany, more concerned about the responsibilities such rediscovery brings with it") is closer to: how can we be ourselves?

By the end of the novel, we, having read it, are able to hold Langland's and Wittgenstein's words simultaneously in mind in a new way. They are not opposed; they are aspects of the same thing. Truth exists, for we are all linked, with one another and with everything else in the world. But truth is truth precisely because of who we are, because of our experience. A lion, or a bird, or an ancestor, given the ability to speak to us, could not make itself understood. But this does not mean there is no truth, only that truth, consisting of everything that is, is larger than any one vision of it — and that our responsibility, knowing this, is to seek it always.

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