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Many times during my long lifetime of reading imaginative literature, I wondered why Tolkien spawned so many imitators in English, but not in other languages into which The Lord Of The Rings had been translated. Now, anybody even cursorily familiar with The Lord of The Rings can see that would be a difficult work to translate, but that didn’t keep people from trying. The first Dutch translation came out only a year after the final volume was published in the UK. It is considered to be an adequate translation, and has been retained despite a revision by Tolkien’s publisher. Since then, The Lord Of The Rings has been translated into more than thirty languages, and the difficulties were such that Tolkien himself before his death published a guide for prospective translators.
Indeed, the conceit behind The Lord Of The Rings is that it is supposed to be a translation itself, from the invented Westron, to modern English. Tolkien excelled in finding, or creating, place-names that were redolent of an older world, such as ‘Rivendell’ for the Sindarin Imladris, “Valley of the Cleft”, and, of course, his wonderfully evocative Hobbit family names; Baggins [Bolsón in the Spanish], or Brandybuck, or Took [Berkova in Slovak]. Tolkien the linguists made certain that his place-names and his family names had an etymological depth to them which is not matched in the works of his imitators and followers, although I think George R R Martin’s “Winterfell” ( along with the felicitous Spanish translation Invernalia ) and Joe Abercrombie’s “Adua” come very close indeed.
Now, it may be that there are a multitude of derivative works in other languages, just that I am not familiar with popular literature in all the other languages of the world. Usually, genre literature does not attract much attention, and the only works that are likely to become well-known outside their own speech communities are the works of major writers such as Solzhenitsyn, Garcia Marques, or Nakagami Kenji. When I googled for obras literarias de fantasia en español [literary works of fantasy in Spanish], I was surprised that so little material turned up. Of course, even mainstream Latin-American literature has a strong undercurrent of the fantastic, as anyone familiar with Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa or Jorge Amado would know. However, the only reason that Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer’s little volume La Kalpa Imperial seemed to come up was not because of its own considerable merits, but because it had been recently translated into English by a great fantasist who writes in English, Ursula LeGuin.
I was delighted to find that La Kalpa Imperial was available to me in its original Spanish through interlibrary loan. Having worked my way halfway through, I find this little gem equal to anything produced since Tolkien in English, and better than most. Most of all, I wanted to see how a non-English speaker would handle the issue of “fantasy names”. There is a lot of faux-Elvish out there. That isn’t a bad thing in itself, but you can get seriously tired of Elves named Eldemar , Dwarves named Darmûk, and Orcs named Yog-Ar-Ghazh. There are no non-human races (yet) in Sra. Gorodischer’s La Kalpa Imperial,but the names of her humans are delightful – the trickster Loo Löo, the tragic Hehrehvontes dynasty. Indeed, the silent Spanish ‘h’ does yeoman’s work for fantastic names in this story. In this, she learned well from her great predecessor and, I suspect, ascended spiritual master Jorge Luis Borges, whose imaginary lands Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius have tantalized me ever since I first heard of them.
Borges’ fingerprints are all over this slender volume. I would have been more surprised it they weren’t. Gorodischer isn’t as coy as Borges, nor is she as metaphysically deft. Knowing something of the recent history of Argentina, I expected La Kalpa Imperial to be more political than it is. That is not surprising. Tolkien abhorred allegory, and it doesn’t actually play well in fantasy literature unless the readers are far enough removed from the situation being allegorized to disregard it. Sra. Gorodischer’s poetic parables, for that is how the story of the fabulous Empire of Kalba, the “greatest empire that never existed” is narrated, is more mythopoetic, and say as much about the power wielded by the storyteller as about that wielded by an Emperor. The history of Kalba is recognizably the history of our own world, but ever so much more so. I haven’t seen LeGuin’s translation, so I don’t know how the story of Kalpa plays out in English, but if the Spanish is any indication, it is worthy of wide acceptation.
We dream, let us say, a sequence of persons, places and events whose casual linkages reside not in some ‘deep comprehension’ of those persons places or events, but instead are found in the empirical surfaces of the dream. [The dreamer] plainly understand[s], in the dream, how one event causes another. and how, possibly absurdly, two or more events are connected because the first is causing the next ones to occur; moreover, as the dream unfolds, [the dreamer] plainly sees how the whole chain of causation is leading to some conclusive event X; some denouement of the dream’s entire system of cause and effect. Let us call this conclusive event X, and let us say that X occurred because of some previous event T which, in turn, was caused by S, whose cause was RE and so on; going from effect to cause, from latter to prior, from present to past, until we arrive at the dream’s starting point, usually some insignificant event A; and it is this event that is understood in the dream as the first cause of the entire system. But what about the tine external stimulus, the quick sharp noise, the brief ray of light? To waking consciousness, this external stimulus is experienced as the cause of the whole causally interlocked system in which persons, places, and events arose in the dream. Let us call this external cause Ω.
Now, what makes the dreamer awaken? When we look at this question from the point of view of the waking consciousness, we might say that it is Ω (the noise or the light) that awakens us. From within the dream, however, it is plainly the conclusive dream event X – the denouement – that, precisely because it ends the dream, awakens us. Taken together, we see that Ω and X almost perfectly coincide in such a way that the dreamed content and the wakened cause are one and the same. This coincidence is usually so exact that we never even wonder about the relation between X and Ω; Ω is obviously a “dream paraphrase” of some external stimulus invading our dream from without.
For example, I dream that a pistol has gone off, and in the room near me someone is actually shot, or someone has slammed a door. So there is no doubt that the dream was accidental; of course the pistol shot in the dream is a spiritual echo of a shot in the outer world. The two shots are, if you wish, the double perception – by the dreaming ear and by the sober ear – of the same physical process. If in a dream I should see a multitude of fragrant flowers at the very moment that someone puts a bottle of perfume under my nose, it is wholly unnatural to think that the coincidence of the two fragrances (the flowers’ in the dream and the perfume’s in the waking world) is accidental. Or I dream that someone is strangling me and wake in horror to find that a pillow has fallen over my face.
Or take the famous dream outlined in the psychology texts. In this one the dreamer experiences the French Revolution, participating in the very beginnings of the Revolution and – for over a year inside the dream – goes through a long, complicated series of adventures; persecution, pursuit, terror, the execution of the King, and so on. Finally, the dreamer is arrested with the Girondists, , thrown into prison, then condemned by the Revolutionary council to die. The wagon rolls through the streets to the guillotine; and he is taken from the wagon and his head is firmly placed on the headrest, and then the guillotine blade falls heavily onto his neck; and he awakens in horror.
It is the final event (X) that interests us: the touch of the blade on his neck. Can anyone doubt this: that the whole dream sequence from the first stirrings of the Revolution to the conclusive fall of the blade, is one seamless whole, Doesn’t the entire chain direct itself precisely to that conclusive event (touch of cold steel) that we term X? To doubt this total interlocked coherence is to deny the very dream itself- and improbable supposition.
And yet the dreamer found, in the moment of his terrified awakening, that the metal bedstead of his bed had somehow broken and had struck him heavily upon his bare neck. We cannot doubt the whole coherence of his dream from the first stirrings of the Revolution (A) to the the falling of the guillotine blade (X). Equally, we cannot doubt that the sensation of the blade (X) and the touch of the metal (Ω) are the very same event; but perceived by different orders of consciousness; dreamed and wakened.
Thus, while X is a refelction of Ω in the imagery of the dream, it is clearly not some deus ex machina with no connection to the dream’s internal logic of events, some alien intruder that senselessly terminates the stream of inner imagery. No, X is a true resolution. It genuinely concludes the dream. None of this would be extraordinary if the touch of the bedstead (Ω) had awakened the sleeper and if in the instant of his awakening had been enfolded by the symbolic image of the touch , and if this symbolic image had subsequently unfolded into a dream of sufficient length. But no, it is the external cause Ω which is the cause of the entire dream. Thus, in daylight consciousness and according to the scheme of daylight causation, this event Ω, the bedstead falling on the dreamer’s neck should precede the first stirrings of the Revolution (A), but in the dreaming time, it happens inside out, and cause X appears not prior to all the consequences of A, and of all the entire sequence of consequences b,c,d..r.s.t) that follow thereupon, but following it, concluding the whole sequence determining it not as its efficient cause but as its final cause, its τέλος.
Thus, time in dream runs, and acceleratedly runs, towards the actual and against the movement of time, when we think in the Kantian sense of time, in the waking consciousness. Dream time is turned inside out. The very same event that is perceived from actual space as actual is seen from imaginary space as imaginary, i.e. as occurring before everything else in teleological time, as the goal or object of our purposefulness. Contrarily, the goal seen from here appears, because of our to appreciate goals rightly, as something cherished but lacking the energy of the ideal, but seen from there, from the other consciousness, the goal is comprehended as the living energy that shapes actuality as its creative form.
On the coast they put up a few ramshackle huts
and slept uneasily. This, they claim, in the Riachuelo,
but that is a story dreamed up in Boca.
It was really a city block in my district – Palermo**.
Jose Luis Borges – The Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires
Nothing is true or false until it is properly enstoried.
It can be handy to think of our hemisphere as three distinct ethnospheres; Euro-America consists of most of the US and Canada, and the Southern Cone of South America, which were relatively empty (or quickly emptied) and where the indigenous peoples were displaced by populations from Europe. Afro-America consists of the Caribbean basin, some parts of the old Confederacy in the United States, and the northern parts of Brazil, where the same vacuum was filled by slaves imported from Africa. Finally, Chthonic America consists of the heartlands of the old native American high cultures of Meso-America and the Andes, where the indigenous inhabitants were not eliminated so much as creolized, and where the underlying thought patterns are still very much Inca, or Maya, or Toltec.
The mythopoetic process, the digestion of Chthonic America, I believe, can be found in what is called the literature of “magical realism”, about which I know little, but at whose fountain I have tasted sweet waters and want to learn more. Miguel Angel Asturias, of Guatemala, whose master-work Men of Corn I have yet to read but the portions which I have read burn like lava.
Along the same line, the mythopoetic impulse in Euro-America, I believe, can be found in what I like to call “visionary realism”, except that the seminal works are not fiction, but non-fiction. Let me explain.
About 15 years ago, before moving to Miami, Florida, I read a book by a remarkable woman, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, The River Of Glass. Yesterday, I began another book by an equally remarkable woman, Mary Hunter Austin, The Land Of Little Rain. These two books are so similar they almost appear to have been written by the same mind. Certainly, they partake of the same spirit.
Both books were written by women of powerful character who, despite being early feminists and agitators for “women’s rights”, kept their husbands’ names. Both of them endured a rocky and tempestuous marriage that ended in divorce. Neither of them was native to the place she wrote about; Mrs. Douglas grew up in Minnesota, but moved to South Florida in 1915, and she lived there until 1998. Mrs. Austin moved to the Mojave Desert in 1890 and remained there for the next 17 years.
Mrs. Douglas wrote about the Florida Everglades, and Mrs. Austin about the Inyo valley on the leeward of the Sierra Nevada range, and both of their masterpieces share a common structure. Both begin with the geography and the flora of the region, then they discuss animal and bird life, noting peculiarities caused by the singular environments, overly wet in the case of the Everglades and overly arid in the case of the Inyo valley.
After this, they describe in considerable detail and with great sympathy the lives and customs of Native Americans that lived, and continue to live, in these areas. Only after all of this are the stories of white settlers introduced. At first they are the stories of solitary, furtive men, miners or trappers, who wander into the region hoping to find some kind of quick economic salvation from a region that at first sight has very little to offer.
Only towards the end of the books are the stories of “smart men” introduced, well-connected men, who can systematically exploit the scarce resources of the region efficiently. This then draws the region into the larger American narrative, dominated by a nearby large city; Miami in the case of the Everglades and Los Angeles in the case of the Inyo valley.
I think I would call the writing style of both The Everglades: River of Grass and The Land Of Little Rain “visionary non-fiction”. Think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek or Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams, both of which have been recommended to me and both of which I have tried to start. It is possible that I have an antipathy to Dillard and Lopez in the same way that I have an antipathy to the very derivative Tolkien imitators that so abound these days.
This visionary realism may just be the essential Euro-American way of mythopoesis. It attempts to “get inside” a place, to show how the contours and characteristics of the land work their way into the consciousness of its settlers, and how the consciousness of the human agents affects the land. Both River of Grass and Land Of Little Rain are spiritual histories of a particular place, at the margin of the easily habitable and easily “developed” parts of the country. Yet they are far from tedious.
Both Mrs. Douglas and Mrs. Austin accept a responsibility for their respective territory that leave you feeling as though they had become, through their artistry, almost a familiar spirit or a guiding genius. Mrs. Douglas, in particular, living in South Florida until her 108th year, was continually referred to in the press as a spokeswoman “for the Everglades”, or for “the cause of Everglades conservation”, whereas, truth be told, she felt every unnecessary subdivision and short-sighted, self-serving political decision impacting her beloved River of Grass as a personal affront. I heard that she didn’t die a happy woman.
It may very well be that the project for the Church for the next millenium will be to drop the Imperial Church one-size-fits-all fantasy and begin to develop what Father Stephen Freeman refers to as Orthodoxy Where You Live, what I would like to call the Orthodoxy of Right Here, Right Now, and what Mark Thomas Hoyer calls, following Mrs. Austin, Local Christianities.
To be certain, embracing sectarianism is not the idea. Each square inch of ground has to have a tutelary spirit, a guiding ideology. I want it to be Orthodoxy, the Faith Once Delivered, but it may very well be that an Orthodoxy lived out and developed in a particular place wouldn’t “work” 50 miles down the road.
Maybe we need to find out.