Trickster in the Modern City

In Science Fiction Studies’ “Symposium on Slipstream,” authors and critics spill a fair amount of vitriolic ink raging against the codification of the slipstream genre (when not raging against the genre itself). Neil Easterbrook quips that the impulse to create a stable and static definition of it is the point at which “taxonomy becomes taxidermy” (13), and Jonathan Lethem urges us to reject “…brand new nomenclatures, apparently expressing the yearning for brand new self-referential politics of exclusion, defiance, caste-shame, and resentment” (15). So censorious is the polemic against slipstream that these authors do more to prove its dastardly hold over the psyche of the millennium than to reject it. It’s a genre that has, apparently, hit a nerve. Perhaps, like jazz, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know. We know—and many of us are affected by—slipstream when we see it. And boy do we see it in Michael Swanwick’s Dragons of Babel. Dragons is a novel that, through its fusion of realism and mythology, suggests slipstream might be an emergent phenomenon, rising organically from the ashes of modernity in order to synthesize the two halves of our fragmented modern souls.

Joseph Campbell can be seen everywhere in Dragons. His hero-orphan thwarts the dragon, discovers his noble parentage, and is apotheosized when he assumes the mantle of king. In parallel to this template of the monomyth, in almost every paragraph, our protagonist Will navigates our world: the dismal hyper-realism of late capitalism, full of urban blight; democratic principles stagnating in a swill of bureaucracy; institutionalized bigotry; and relentless, brutal, and meaningless war. We know this latter world—we recognize it as our own—even as we yearn for the former, the mythic. We have gritty, indifferent New York City. We long for its magical analogue, Babel. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell warns us that in current progressive societies around the world, “…every last vestige of the ancient human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay,” and that, within such a structure, “the timeless universe of symbols has collapsed” (Hero 334). He talks about the deterioration of social cohesion: that which served as the ethical, religious and mythological memory-keeper has been replaced by individualism and the secular state, engaged in “…hard and unremitting competition for material supremacy and resources” (Hero 334). Where is the magic—where are the heroes—in this world of “rationalized avarice” (Hero 337)?

Most fantasy novels (The Lord of the Rings is a prime exemplar) provide respite from the “real.” Readers, nostalgic for something they sense but haven’t experienced, seek refuge in fantasy in order to luxuriate for a time in a world alive with “grand narrative”—Campbell’s “human heritage of ritual, morality, and art.” Such novels replace the modern with a world unified and organized by myth. What Swanwick gives us—what perhaps the best of slipstream fiction gives—goes beyond pleasurable escape. He asks us to imagine our contemporary world with our old coordinating mythologies intact, by superimposing one upon the other. We know dragons don’t exist in this world of science and rationality, but we still have what dragons are a metaphor for—violence, greed, the seductively dangerous will to power. Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, making the dragon at once a sentient animal, capable of malice, persuasive discourse, and abuses of power, and a war machine, running on jet fuel and requiring a pilot: he is both the potential evil in the human mind and the machines of war such a mind creates. John Kessel, co-editor of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, notes that one of the hallmarks of slipstream fiction is the literalizing of metaphor (“Symposium” 15), and Swanwick literalizes everywhere, from the crusty old drunk who has fused bodily with her seedy downtown bar to the solipsistic power-monger who creates a whole army out of thin air so he can watch his soldiers die. With such literalization, Swanwick strives to resurrect Campbell’s “universe of symbols,” but his signifiers aren’t mere backward-pointing diversions. Rather, he endeavors to make these hieroglyphs legible in today’s world. It’s no surprise that when Will slays the dragon he merely internalizes the evil—he doesn’t vanquish it—a particularly modern trope of psychology’s “control and mastery” theory. Through narrative maneuvers like this, Swanwick shows us that our metaphors still have juice, still have the power to unify and organize our experience into coherent, interpretable shape. He invents a hero who, in Campbell’s words, attempts to “bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul” (334). Our souls may be different now, but they can still be understood—co-ordinated—through metaphor; through pointing to the signified (which is modernity-proof) with the rich signifiers of our heritage.

In addition to literalizing the god-and-monster metaphors, Swanwick literalizes the holistic nature of Campbell’s monomyth. His characters are self-consciously drawn from mythologies the world over. Classical Centaurs, Germanic elves, Japanese onis and Southern American haints coexist—often imperfectly—in the melting pot that is the novel, and the city Babel (like the languages in its biblical namesake). Such democracy evokes Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” which transcends any particular tradition, touching on the universality of human experience. This is our story, all of us, this negotiation between our heritage, in the form of myth, and the bleak here-and-now, in the form of progress and modernity. There isn’t a single place on earth—no remote forest tribe, no Himalayan village—safe from the encroachment of industrialization, a reality to which we have no choice but to adapt. Now that our world has globalized, and we all face many of the same enemies, our belief structures must negotiate not just with industrialization but with each other. Rationality has freed us all from what Campbell ironically calls the “bondage of tradition” (334): it strives to jettison myth—all that is “untrue”—from our lives. But, Dragons suggests, we might just need our myths, our resplendent metaphors, to guide us through the rites of passage in a world where individualism has replaced the group. In “Symposium on Slipstream,” Lance Olsen suggests that the art that connects us to earlier forms of reality-representation offers antidotes to the “hypermediatized, late-stage capitalist ‘reality’ that is no longer perceived as real” (16). Though we know they aren’t strictly “true,” our myths can lend a foundational reality the “real” no longer has; and by not privileging one mythological pantheon over another, Swanwick suggests that it hardly matters which symbolic framework we choose to organize our experience: we just need one of Campbell’s myths, those “spontaneous productions of the psyche” (Hero 2), or many of them—or all of them.

Campbell describes an emergent phenomenon when he says myths emanate spontaneously from the psyche, because the psyche, in this case, stands in for both the individual’s psyche and the collective one (2). In Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson explains that emergent phenomena are decentralized processes whereby millions of units of individual input make, collectively, decisions for the good of the whole, without benefit of leaders, or “pacemakers” (17). Myths, like cities, grow of their own accord out of the needs of the many. Intelligent decisions appear like magic, but “who,” asks Johnson, “is doing the conjuring?” (33). Once again, Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, here in the form of the emergent city. An urban denizen informs Will that Babel was built not as a city, but “…the framework of one—a double-helix of interlocking gyres…” where “Buildings are thrown up and torn down as needed, but the city goes on” (Swanwick 122). The city, in essence, is a character with a will (Will?) and a genotype, and at the same time it isn’t—it’s a swarm of self-interested individuals doing what they do to get ahead. Like the dragon, it exists as two things at once, its scientific taxonomy and the living idea for which it’s a metaphor. Johnson reminds us that even in science this “couple-coloredness” can exist, for a city is literally the sum of its residents, and also “…more than the sum of its residents—closer to a living organism, capable of adaptive change” (52). The process of myth-making, like the living city, arises out of the collective unconscious, and it’s just possible to see slipstream as a manifestation of a very specific human gene: our myth-making gene, our need for an organized social cohesion, sired not by our “pacemakers” but by our hearts.

To this end, Swanwick conflates two hero archetypes in the novel: the king and the trickster. While traditionally the king is a “pacemaker” who restores order and inculcates the law, the trickster’s job is to queer the pitch, or, as Campbell notes in the short film “Mythology of the Trickster,” he serves as the “Disruptor of Programs.” The trickster is the best man for the job of synthesizing the modern and mythological, because, by operating “bottom up” rather than “top down,” he endeavors to integrate a new way of thinking, not replace the old one. He is a catalyst for emergence. In “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal,” Larry Ellis calls the trickster, “a creature of low purpose who establishes precedent, [and] dabbles in the creation of the world that will be” (55). Moreover, he notes the invaluable place of the trickster in myth:

The world of myth is a place of creation in which things and events, from the seemingly insignificant to the momentous, are altered in preparation for the world to come. Trickster is a figure of myth, and in singular fashion sets out to change the mythic landscape in every area imaginable (Ellis 57).

Nat, Will’s father and the novel’s absent king, primes his son to be this catalyst, ready to reach “every area imaginable.” He explains the role of the trickster this way: “We keep things stirred up. Without us, the world would grow stale and stagnant. Every life we’ve touched today has been made richer and stranger” (Swanwick 234). What Will learns about kingship is that its main function is not to embody justice and power, as his advisors counsel; nor to destroy the evil Babylon, as the dragon within him urges; nor to impose order over a chaotic city, as the citizens of Babel expect. No. Nat puts the king’s role best when he contends that, “It isn’t for me to increase or decrease the total amount of virtue or vice in the world—just to keep things stirred up. To keep us all from dying of predictability” (Swanwick 234). Swanwick could be teaching us to negotiate a world whose prime directive is to slaughter magic and erect the static “real” in its place. Or, correspondingly, he could be writing a treatise on slipstream itself.

Whatever we call slipstream—magical realism, metafiction, experimental fiction, counter-realism—it is, like the trickster himself, our agent provocateur, the “Disruptor of Programs,” the creature “of low purpose” who changes the world. Many signifiers, the rational and the irrational, can point to the same signified, and no single definition is sufficient—is even possible. No wonder the folks of the slipstream symposium are enraged with the necessity of pinpointing, of defining a category genetically blueprinted to resist stasis. How do you create a taxonomy when the basis is manifold, when the genre emerges out of spiritus mundi to fulfill whatever collective need produced it? Pinning it down changes it—makes it taxidermy rather than taxonomy. Will realizes that after he changes the world he must disappear, because the world needs a disruptor, not a pacemaker. So he does, only to resurface later, as legends do, when they’re needed, to start the cycle over again. He, and slipstream itself, are Campbell’s modern heroes, “…rendering the modern world spiritually significant” (Hero 334) by allowing the myth-making half of our soul to sooth the restless, rational, post-modern half, the one hungry for co-ordination, for our lost “universe of symbols.”

Cited Sources

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, California: New World Library. 2008. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “Mythology of the Trickster.” Magic, Myth and Folklore Videos. BOAS Network. Feb 17 2014. Web. Dec 6 2015.

Easterbrook, Neil. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Ellis, Larry. “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal.” Studies in American Indian Literatures. Ser. 2, Vol. 5, No. 4. Winter 1993. Print.

Johnson, Steven. “The Myth of the Ant Queen.” Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner. 2001. Print.

Kessel, John. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Lethem, Jonathan. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Olsen, Lance. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Swanwick, Michael. The Dragons of Babel. New York: Tor Books. 2007. Print.

Fathering Forth

Creation As Worship in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”

“Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.”

— Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty"

“Pied Beauty” reads like a burst of verbal fireworks. In the first four lines, Gerard Manley Hopkins paints a couple-colored sky—stippled trout flashing in the water—fiery chestnuts in mid-fall. Saturated colors, movement, sound, contrasting opposites and exuberant neologisms abound in each line, as though the text were drunk on the variation and mystery of God’s dappled world. But a closer read reveals that the author uses a strict rhyme scheme and structure to build a framework in which the lavish language can luxuriate. The beauty of raw sensual experience—the various, the changeable—becomes a counterpoint to the stable, less perceptible beauty that is “past change.” In this way the poet celebrates his Creator by mimicking the act of creation, and he “fathers forth” in both creative senses—with an artist’s divine frenzy, and with a divine law-giver’s gift for order and symmetry.

Hopkins bookends the poem with a prayer. “Glory be to God… Praise Him,” are the first and last words of the poem. We start with God, spend eight lines enjoying his panoply, and end with an imperative to “Praise him” for what we have just enjoyed. The beginning brings us around to the somber, logical end. “Glory” and “God” have long vowels suitable for a slow poem of worship. “Praise,” likewise, makes us linger on the diphthong. The final words “Praise him” get pride of place in their own terminal half-line. What comes in between is a different kind of reverence: an expression of pure visual, aural, and linguistic joy. After the assonance of “Glory be to God,” the poem’s pulse quickens. Hopkins introduces us to his signature “sprung” rhythm: stressed syllables followed by indeterminate numbers of unstressed ones. Hopkins innovated this stop-and-start meter in order to evoke nature’s sublime indeterminacy. We find “dapple,” “couple-color,” “stipple,” each with clipped vowels, pattering Ps, which carry us along at a brisk trot. But now and then we must slow down to meditate on some long vowels and groupings of stressed syllables. We pause a moment on the O sound in “cow,” linger on the spondees “rose-moles,” “trout that swim,” and “fresh-firecoal.” Lest we sneak an unstressed beat into “All trades,” Hopkins provides diacritical marks to indicate that we’re to read the words as a spondee (with accents acutes on the long A sounds). Hopkins’ “sprung” rhythm might give us a facsimile of nature’s disorder. But the pattern only appears random. In actual fact, each sound is deliberately chosen.

Phonetically, the poem makes liberal use of alliteration to create associations between words that are not generally related. “Couple” and “color” are allied by hyphen, apposition and alliteration, effectively coining a new word and principle of organization. We’ve not heard the compound “couple-color” before but can easily understand it as an example of something “pied.” Likewise “-fall; finches,” “spare, strange,” “fickle, freckled,” “swift, slow, sweet, sour,” “adazzle, dim” make the synapses between words fire—giving words with ambiguous or contradictory meanings such as “swift” and “slow” new relationships to each other. “Fall” and “finches” are connected, not spatially but linguistically. The words, taken together, do double-duty: they evoke a referent and they are units of sound, just as our understanding of natural phenomena is twofold: we think of phenomena as abstract concepts—platonic ideals—and we experience them as unique, sensual events without any special meaning. The poem’s exploration of language’s “couple-coloredness” reinforces its thesis about creation’s duality, even down to the title word “pied.” “Pied” refers either to something visual—speckled, mottled, of two or more colors—or to something textual: type which has been jumbled in a typesetter’s case—a thing we can’t read, but that we understand to have an underlying order.

The rhyme scheme and structure of the poem give us a sense of Hopkins the law-giver—the unscrambler of the type. The rhyme scheme is not only very strict—ABCABC in the strophe and DBCDC in the antistrophe—but the poem is chock-full of slant and half rhymes: “brinded,” “swim,” and “finch” provide a sort of counter-rhythm which holds itself in tension with the end-of-line rhymes. Likewise “falls” and “fallow,” “fickle” and “freckled.” The “coal” in “firecoal” asks to be linked up with “fold” in the next line. If a logical connection can’t be made between them, a linguistic one nevertheless exists. The dominant rhymes often reinforce or contradict one another. “Cow” and “plough” are agricultural entities, one natural, one manmade. “Strange” contrasts with God’s beauty, which is “past change.” The poem ends on the word “him,” referring to God, and the word emerges in dazzling contrast to “dim,” two lines before. In fact, “him” is the rhyme that occurs most frequently and with the widest distribution throughout the poem, from line 3: “swim,” “trim,” “dim,” and “him.” The poem’s rhymes serve as a sort of frame in which all the transcendent chaos might roam.

The text’s images, however fickle and freckled they may appear, are far from haphazard. In the strophe, Hopkins celebrates the elements—air, water, fire and earth—in turn, by attaching elemental forces to specific objects in motion: air in the form of brindle skies; running water in which trout live; falling chestnuts likened to fire, and finally earth in the form of landscape, in varying stages of man’s interference with it—“fold, fallow, and plough.” These elements are components of the world as conceived by medieval metaphysicians, a taxonomy of governing forces, with close philosophical ties to what was seen as God’s divine order. After this inventory of metaphysical phenomena, we take two lines to celebrate human invention and industry: “gear and tackle and trim,” before moving on to the antistrophe, which, in keeping with a traditional sonnet’s sestet, moves into the realm of the abstract. We get adjectives referring to specific (not platonic) objects in the world: “counter, original, spare, strange… fickle, freckled… adazzle, dim,” and we see them set conceptually against the unchangeable force that “fathers forth” according to rules and patterns we can’t see. And that’s all we have room for in this “curtal” sonnet (a sonnet cut down to 10.5 lines—another of Hopkins’ poetic innovations)—just enough time for us to experience each thought as image, sound, word. This, Hopkins seems to say, is how nature is legible to us: a brief experience of movement and color, fleeting, gone as soon as it arrives. Like the type mixed up in the drawer, it conveys a larger, platonic significance that we can only partially apprehend.

Like his Creator, Hopkins fathers forth. His aural variations, his sounds, his use of opposites all evoke in the reader a sense of nature’s stochasticity. But the poetic whole describes not its component parts but a spiritual condition of seeing. The poet’s fecund images are brought into balance because they are subordinate to a strict logical and aesthetic framework. In this process, the author seeks to mirror God’s creation in all its beauty and contradiction, whose world, like pied type, holds chaos in tension with the internal logic—barely perceptible to us—that underpins it. God’s medium is nature. The poet’s medium is language. “Pied Beauty” suggests that mimetic power is in line with—is indeed the highest order of praise for—God’s invention.

Our Small Forever

Code Confusion as Female Trope in Louise Erdrich's The Round House

“Gynocide… is known by the colonized peoples of yesterday… the nations… off whose backs the history of men has made its gold.”
           — Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Our guide through Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House is a young man. But Joe Coutts—real, tangible, effervescent teenager that he is—is birthed, definitively, from a female mind. Erdrich, in a move of great virtuosity, creates a tale that exists in both cyclo-mythical time and in linear time; in which the language and alternative reality of the spirit world coexist and intermingle with the language of the law; through which Christian crosscurrents traverse and mingle with shamanistic codes; and in which characters are both their corporeal, temporal selves, and universal archetypes who must repeat ancient patterns. Cultural stories radiate from the main narrative like ripples in a pond. And at its center—the round house. It’s no coincidence that the pivotal object is circular in shape: it is the novel’s many-chambered heart, and the story, in a sense, “orbits” around this richly symbolic monument to good and evil.

 We might call Erdrich’s inclusive, circular narratives characteristic of “feminine” writing, a genre Hélène Cixous defines in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The feminine writer’s speech, she asserts, “…even when ‘theoretical’ or political, is never simple or linear or ‘objectified,’ generalized: she draws her story into history” (Cixous 881). In Erdrich’s world, we aren’t allowed to make phallocentric hierarchies of information or codes: varying systems coexist and compete, resisting synthesis. Neither Erdrich nor her characters are subordinate to western/patriarchal history’s “truth,” but by collaborating with it they manage to achieve a deeper truth. Years after his mother is brutally raped on a reservation and he enacts lethal revenge, Joe retells the story in complex layers, weaving folklore and supernatural intervention into a text also brimming with legal realities that we—Erdrich and her readers—must objectively measure and judge in our “real” world. According to Sarah Deer’s article, “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law,” the Justice Department has in fact under-reported the statistic that one in three native women will be raped in her lifetime (almost always by non-native men): “…the rates of sexual assault” she says, “…are actually much higher… [and] elders in Indian country [say]… that they do not know any women in their community who have not experienced sexual violence [emphasis mine]” (456). The matter is real. The matter is urgent. But Erdrich makes us feel this “gynocide” all the more acutely for not letting it fall merely into the “simple or linear… history” of legal or journalistic language. We feel it, as Cixous might say, in the body.

How does Erdrich accomplish this distinctly female corporeality in her writing? In “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich,” Catherine Rainwater explores Erdrich’s ability to create an almost physical sense of “temporary marginality” in her readers. Erdrich’s texts, she says, contain structural features that “frustrate narrativity,” and that, “This frustration amounts to a textually induced or encoded experience of marginality as the foremost component of the reader’s response." Erdrich achieves this effect, Rainwater contends, chiefly through her use of “code confusion” (Rainwater 406). For instance, in the novel time works both cyclically, in what Rainwater refers to as “ceremonial time,” and linearly, in what readers understand as chronological time. Joe’s story begins with him uprooting the saplings “attacking” the foundation of his parent’s house, and ends with him, innocence lost, family shattered, driving out of town after the time-stopping rape and murder, and into a paradox: “…in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever” (Erdrich 317). In between, we hear an account of events in the order in which they occurred. But bits of family lore, dream sequences, tribal memories and ghosts—vestiges of “ceremonial time”—festoon the narrative, enriching it, complicating it, radiating from its center, or floating above it, in ghostly parallel. Early in the novel, when Joe and his father realize that his mother is missing, Joe remarks that, “…her absence stopped time” (Erdrich 3). In a sense, from the moment her absence is registered to the moment the family drives off the reservation, time is both suspended and sequential: the narrative alerts us early to time’s malleability. We are told at the outset that Mooshum, Joe’s eccentric grandfather and teller of a parallel legend of filial love and revenge, lives “…in a timeless fog” (Erdrich, 4), and that is the vantage from which he dispenses his crucial wisdom. Rainwater notes that Erdrich’s temporal idiosyncrasies hint at the narrative limitations of chronological time: “…linearity,” she says, “is often disrupted by many flashbacks, lateral narrational pursuits, flights of free association, and other indications of the failure of chronology to contain the story” (414). This kind of time confusion—combined with these pyrotechnics of craft—reminds us of Cixous’s theory about feminine writing: “Woman,” she says, “un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield” (882). Ceremonial time set against linear time may disorient readers, but it’s this temporal vertigo that makes us feel these events—these conflicts—in our very bones.

Through marginality we come to understand the intersection of tribal, spiritual and legal justice. Each of these legal systems is incomplete: none alone manages to achieve perfect justice, but by forcing us to examine them all together, Erdrich creates a patchwork that approaches justice, however asymptotically. In a seminal scene, Joe’s father spends a few pages educating Joe, and the readers, on the history of Native American jurisprudence since European settlement, the slow, unsatisfying climb to tribal sovereignty. He informs us of Oliphant v. Suquamish, which “Took from us the right to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on our land” (Erdrich 229). In “Sovereignty of the Soul,” Deer remarks that since Columbus landed, rape has been used as a “tool of colonization and a tool of war against Native peoples and… as a weapon of conquest” (458). Fighting back against what Deer refers to as “…attack[s] on the human soul” is no easy task for Joe and his father, or for real indigenous peoples armed with limited legal tools. But the book proposes an alternative route to justice for Joe: what his grandfather refers to as “wiindigoo justice.” Wiindigoog, explains Mooshum, are “people who lost all human compunctions in hungry times and craved the flesh of others” (Erdrich 213-14). A wiindigoo must be killed by tribal consensus, and when Joe kills his mother’s rapist, his father, the judge, argues that there is a “traditional,” rather than a legal, precedent for the murder: “It could be argued,” says Joe’s father, “That [the rapist] met the definition of a wiindigoo, and that with no other recourse, his killing fulfilled the requirements of a very old law” (Erdrich 306). We have here another example of Rainwater’s “code confusion.” The simultaneous presence of cultural codes—legal and traditional—that are “…epistemologically, experientially and teleologically different,” contends Rainwater, “…vexes the reader’s effort to decide upon an unambiguous, epistemologically consistent interpretive framework. Encoded ‘undecidability’ leads to the marginalization of the reader by the text” (407). Erdrich unsettles her readers by refusing to place tribal justice on a higher moral plane than legal justice (or vice versa). Even Mooshum warns that wiindigoo justice is often undertaken rashly or unjustly when tribal elders aren’t consulted, and in a queasy scene toward the end of the book, Joe realizes that with a bit more investigation the rapist would have been caught, and that western law might have garnered Joe’s family sufficient justice without recourse to murder. In this way, Erdrich’s narrative resists code hierarchy. “Narrativity usually includes an impulse to resolve… textual tensions through privileging of one code or through synthesis,” says Rainwater, “but Erdrich’s texts preclude both options for dealing with these conflicting… paradigms” (409). This resistance to pat resolution falls in line with Cixous’ analysis of the “woman militant”, who splits struggle open, “…so as to prevent… struggle for the liberation of a class or people from operating as a form of repression” (882). Arguably, the privileging of one system of justice over the other would operate as a form of phallocentric repression in that it reduces the importance of one code, implying the necessity of creating code hierarchy. Here neither traditional nor western law takes primacy. But nor do they synthesize: they remain discrete, incompatible codes, and the refusal to choose one over the other causes discomfort in characters and readers both. It causes, in Rainwater’s words, a “…permanent state of irresolution” (409).

Another set of conflicting codes Erdrich explores is the intersection between Christianity and indigenous shamanism. “Competing with the syntagmatic chain of references to Christianity,” says Rainwater, “is another chain of references to Native American beliefs about material and spiritual life, which… are not as distinctly separate as they are according to Christianity” (408). Nowhere is this juxtaposition of faiths felt more strongly than in the round house itself, a space devoted to native worship which, pre-1978, when traditional religions were outlawed on the reservation, could be hastily converted into an ersatz church. The space is a liminal crossroads between creeds, between good and evil, and between legal jurisdictions. Mooshum, talking in his sleep, explains its origins: a raffish figure of legend, Nanapush (a figure the reader is often urged to compare to Joe himself), was communing with a female spirit of the disappeared buffalo, who sacrificed herself that Nanapush might have meat to eat and the shelter of her body in a storm. “Your people were brought together by us buffalo once…” she says. “Now we are gone, but as you have once sheltered in my body, so now you understand. The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart” (Erdrich 214). The round house is a sacred cadaver: loss and memory inspired its creation. Ceremonies conducted at the round house still heal Joe and his Ojibwe people. But in this novel, what heals also harms, and what kills also saves, and we the readers must live with these contradictions. The rapist selects the round house as the scene of his crime because by doing so he will almost surely avoid prosecution: the land on which it sits is a tangled boundary of state, federal and tribal jurisdiction. When Joe visits the scene of the crime, we hear the round house “speak:” “There was a moment of intense quiet,” Joe remarks, “Then a low moan of air passed through the cracks in the silvery logs of the round house. I started with emotion. The grieving cry seemed emitted by the structure itself” (Erdrich 59). The house, a living character in its own right, speaks to the novel’s protagonist from a tortured Native American past, both ancient and recent, spiritual and legal. Later, Joe gets direction from Father Travis, the reservation’s Catholic priest, about “Sins Crying Out to Heaven for Vengeance” (Erdrich 250). Both traditional and Christian codes cry out with voices that are almost human, pulling our hero in different directions, neither one louder or more persuasive than the other. Joe makes his fatal decision within the clamor of this chorus of voices. Rainwater notes that, “With several avenues of meaning remaining open, the text does not overdetermine one avenue of interpretation and thus endorse one theological view over the other” (410). Not even the novel’s characters definitively favor a single dogma: many reservation inhabitants, in response to Christian pressures to convert, “…decided to hedge their bets by adding the saints to their love of the sacred pipe." (Erdrich 250).

Time, religion, the law, exist on multiple planes, dipping, circling, weaving, intermingling with alternative codes in what Cixous considers a distinctly feminine manner. The woman writer, she contends, discovers a new history through the “…process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another… woman always occurs simultaneously in several places” (882). Paula Gunn Allen, author of The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, comments on the inherent femaleness of Native American life and storytelling: “Traditional tribal lifestyles [and literature],” she argues, “are more often gynocratic than not, and they are never patriarchal… American Indians [base] their social systems, however diverse, on ritual, spirit-centered, woman-focused worldviews” (2). This is a good thing, because the specter of male-dominated colonial tyranny and coercion hangs ominously over the world of Erdrich’s novel—over the round house, over Joe and his mother, over the Ojibwe people, over Erdrich herself—and Erdrich, as a warrior in Cixous’ feminine army, refuses to fight this enemy with the enemy’s weapons alone. In “American Histories, Native American Narratives,” ethnographer Arnold Krupat outlines the difficulty of squaring Native American history—which includes magic, circular narratives and ceremonial time—with western ideas of “legitimate” history:

Is it possible, then, to write history ethnocritically, somehow reconciling competing narratives and values? The question is of acute importance both to native people and to postcolonial historians who do not wish their work to be part of an ongoing record of might establishing right. For there is little doubt that the rationalist-secularist paradigm for writing history in the West has unfailingly trivialized native, indigenous, and traditional ways of doing and living knowledge, presenting to Native people the impossible choice, “be yourself or choose knowledge”(Kraput 168-9).

Erdrich proves that it is possible to write an ethnocritical novel. To tell Joe’s story in linear time alone, to subordinate traditional justice to American law, to give up native religious tropes for the tropes of Christianity, or to privilege any code over another in an effort to avoid code confusion—all of these would be examples of might establishing right: of subordination to the phallocentrism of the male western narrative. It is Joe who negotiates this razor’s edge of history, carves a semblance of justice into his “small forever.” but it is Erdrich herself who wears Cixous’ righteous armor, fighting her good fight, placing at the center of her novel—at the center of all these great, rippling narrative ellipses—an object that beats with a female heart: the round house, container and creator of stories, time and history.


Cited Sources

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press. Boston. 1986. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans. Keith and Paula Cohen. Signs. Vol. 1, No. 4. Summer 1976. Print.

Deer, Sarah. “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law.” Suffolk County Law Review. Vol 38. 2005. Print.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. Harper Collins. New York. 2012. Print.

Krupat, Arnold. “American Histories, Native American Narratives.” Early American Literature. Vol. 30, No. 2. 1995. Print.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature. Sep 90, Vol. 62 Issue 3. Print.

Love, Math, and Fertility


I was asked recently to make a 5-minute vodcast for Superstition Review's "Writers Talk" series about my writing process. Specifically, about my process writing "Axiom of the Empty Set," which appeared in SR's May 2015 issue. It was... well, revelatory. The first thing I realized is that I need to jettison most of my writing process, as it involves elaborate procrastination ponzi schemes; the whining/moping/hand-wringing trifecta; multi-tiered structures of self-loathing, marshal punishment, and fruitless comparison to my peers, punctuated by the odd unproductive spate of smug superiority.

So once I got done being horrified at that, I did stumble upon two components of my writing process that I like, that are important to me, and the further development of which might actually help my writing in the future. The first involves the nerdy and intellectual. In order to write, I need an intellectual seed, usually relating to something I'm reading about, learning about, thinking about in my master-of-none way. This is how I act as my own fluffer: "Hey, you—taking Latin? Hide five of Ovid's Metamorphoses in the text of a story ('The Earth Falls to the Apple')! Teaching a class about postcolonial theory? Write a story whose subtext engages, without ever mentioning it explicitly, with Edward Said's Orientalism ('Parting Shot')! Learning about physics? Make a character also studying physics so he can find physics metaphors wherever he looks ('A Succession of Nightingales')! Obsessively reading King Lear? Rewrite a scene from the point of view of Goneril (what is her story?) in which she's a titan of modern industry having been given controlling shares of the company by her aging father ('Serpent's Tooth')!" Wheeeee! Nerd heaven.

I do this in order to trick myself into writing. More often than not, this nerdy seed gets entirely excised by the end, because there's no there there; it's just me showing off to myself. But thank you, nerdy impulse. You got me started. "Axiom of the Empty Set," as the title suggests, was inspired by math. Axiomatic set theory and modal logic, to be exact, neither of which I'm even what you could call conversant in, but which intrigue me nevertheless. As metaphors for other things. My husband is a lot to blame for this. I have several emails from him, written at the time I was writing the story, about set theory. I was in New York and he in San Francisco, and at my insistence, he outlined several of the axioms, their meanings and their applications. Various axioms can serve as metaphors for exploring other, more metaphysical concepts, such as God, morality, and paradox. These emails read like love letters to me.

Modal logic became another metaphor I felt I could harness. The Stanford University definition of modal logic explains that, "a modal is an expression (like ‘necessarily’ or ‘possibly’) that is used to qualify the truth of a judgement." Great place to start a story, right?! What is a story but a qualification of a judgment? I wanted to provide vignettes that qualified the same judgment in a variety of ways.

So, yes. I started with a marginal axiom: the axiom of the empty set, which many believe should be excommunicated from set theory due to redundancy. I imagined this marginal empty set as a place, part graph with X-Y axis and part United States desert wasteland, and that weird superimposition pleased me aesthetically. I peopled this marginal place with marginal people; pimps and exotic dancers and treacherous businessmen. I used X and Y as both placeholder names, and (I couldn't help it! The story made me do it!) as the "origin" at the center of the character's lives, the place, the emotional empty set, where something terrible happened, something crucial was lost; the X-Y intercept to which the characters are pulled back again and again. Love it!

But, love it though I may, this is all flourish and no substance. So here's the other part of my process, without which my work suffers: the deeply personal. Let me be clear. I do not write memoir. Yuck. Whenever I try, I absolutely hate the character me, at least how I write her. She's painfully hipster; she's nerve-wrackingly maudlin; whatever. I just can't get the tone right. All the same, whatever I'm going through at the time of writing tends to bleed into whatever I write. This happens in all my successful stories, and hasn't happened yet in my unsuccessful ones.

The story in question is haunted by what I was going through at the time: fears about infertility. They weren't unfounded fears. The doctors told me I was unlikely to have my own children, and that was my first introduction to those things in life we can't control (death being the other big one: things we can't work or buy our way out of). I was haunted, and in the story I made the haunting literal: there is a child who is abandoned and dies, and then speaks to its mother from the grave. In a sense this child was the death of the idea of children, or my attempt to grapple with that possibility. (As it turns out, that modal was a "possibly," not a "necessarily," because after a struggle, we ended up with a wonderful son. So happy ending. In life, not in art. Never in art). Other personal fears—loss, in an abstract sense; guilt and redemption, fantasies of revenge—rear their heads in the story, but they were all, at the time I was writing this, subordinate to the other anxiety.

This story came out whole. I hardly edited it. That never happens. I blame the fertility drugs. I've never written so much in such a short span of time—and so much of what I wrote was experimental. Indeed, instead of getting rid of the nerdy seed, as I often do, I kept the math framework in this story. For better or worse. Somehow the math got fused with the emotional, and I couldn't tease them apart.

And that's actually the final component to my process. The mystical. Somehow, a story shows me what it wants to be, and I need to listen to it. I don't think I'm as good at that as I need to be (not yet), but my most inspired writing comes from somewhere that feels outside of myself, that comes out of spiritus mundi, and just uses me to get out into the world. The best writing feels like "automatic writing," in 19th century spiritualist parlance, but damned if I understand it. So. Step One: nerdy inspiration. Step Two: injection of personal. and Step Three: let the story take over. These sum up the most adaptive steps in my writing process. The rest can go. I hope to further refine my process as I continue to write. I hope that further refining my process will allow me to become a better writer. Thank you to Superstition Review for asking me to think about this, and thank you, whoever you are, for reading this post!

Cited Sources

Garson, James. "Modal Logic." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab, 27 May 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Science vs. Faith: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

Every day, we see our two bitterest rivals, science and faith, duking it out in schools, in churches, and in the political sphere—all over the American superstructure. The fundamentalists on both sides of the rope shriek about their incompatibility: There can be only one, they clamor, like it will take some sort of Thunderdome to decide the matter. Science, after all, relies on empirical evidence—on what can be tangibly observed and predicted—while religion allows for, and perhaps even requires, unseen and supernatural causation. But are these two facets of human experience—the physical and the metaphysical—truly an unbridgeable binary opposition? Couldn’t a minute epistemological shift in the focus change the paradigm, rendering the two, suddenly, compatible? This is what Anthony Boucher suggests in his short story “The Quest for Saint Aquin,” in which a technophobic Christian is led to a renewed belief in God through contact with his robot donkey and the uncorrupted body of a saint that conceals a big secret. Boucher’s bildungsroman proposes a way to synthesize the thesis/antithesis of science and faith: he suggests that our technology, through its very logic, can provide a point of access to the divine. Let science contend with the finite, he offers, and give to the human heart the task of grappling with the infinite—that ultimate metaphor for God.

Leave it to science fiction—the fiction that feeds and is fed by actual science—to give us the reductio ad absurdum argument that can follow this line of inquiry to its logical conclusion: in this story, science has won the fight, and has flipped the balance of power. It hasn’t conquered religious thirst entirely, but its tactics are highly coercive. Boucher’s doubting hero (aptly named Thomas) and his religious compatriots of various faiths have to practice secretly, because their dystopic world is ruled by the “Techarchy,” which has outlawed religion and forced the spiritual underground. Boucher here inverts a popular modern trope: he recasts the Technarchy as the fundamental extremists that many religious groups are today, with a calcified, outdated dogma that allows only for the strictest interpretation of science. The inversion isn’t such a leap. Scientists are prone, like the faithful, to zealotry. In his article “When Bad Theories Happen to Good Scientists,” Wall Street Journal science writer Matt Ridley notes that professionals in the field, “…not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges [them],” and that, moreover, “One of the alarming things about confirmation bias is that it seems to get worse with greater expertise” (Ridley). At its basest, science mimics religion’s intractability. As its best, scientists, like Thomas, go on quests to reveal and build contexts for the mysteries of our universe and all who live here. But it takes a special kind of scientist (and a special kind of religious hero), who is flexible enough—receptive enough to change, and full of awareness of his own ignorance—to be open to new scientific and/or spiritual truths.

The Christian seekers in Boucher’s story are flexible: in contrast to the Technarchy, they are as “…poor and persecuted as the primitive church” (379), drawing Ichthys fish into the dust and arranging their dinnerware in crosses to signal their faith to one another. In a sense, the persecution these Christians suffer has purified them, so they have chosen to worship because they, “…believe in the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God—not because they can further their political aspirations, their social ambitions, their business contacts” (Boucher, 378). These more cynical reasons, the text suggests, are what motivate many believers today. Boucher’s Christians haven’t the time or resources to quibble over trifles such as creation vs. evolution or how literally we should interpret the bible. The inversion of power, from religion to science, brings to the reader’s mind the persecution of early scientists at the hands of the church, because they challenged the closely-guarded beliefs of powerful Christians. It is this uncompromising guarding of belief, from whichever side it springs, that Boucher warns us is the real enemy. Truth is not what this enemy fights for. It is those with too much power, Boucher suggests, who are most vulnerable to fanaticism.

Thomas has the openness and flexibility needed to seek truths, and the ambition to better mankind with these truths (an ambition often voiced as science’s goal). He exults in the unknown—the world’s secrets and mysteries—as evidence of God’s work. Similarly, over the course of the story, he discovers that just because science has found the answers to some questions, it doesn’t mean it has “conquered” them, or stripped them of their divine magic. Rather, Thomas learns to revel in the mysteries—in the miracles—of the known. Unlike the Technarchs, he takes the time to look up and wonder at the night sky, where, “On that altar at least the candles still burnt openly to the glory of God” (Boucher, 379). The stars, for Thomas, are evidence of God’s sublime power. But he learns that man-made creations, too, have access to grace. Thomas is on a quest to find the body of a saint, whose “…logic [was] such that everyone who heard him was converted to the truth” (Boucher, 384). His conveyance is a sentient robot, a “robass,” who gently tests him, tempts him, and acts as devil’s advocate, finally leading him to the revelation at the heart of the story. After Thomas expresses to the robass that he finds the concept of creating robots “arrogating to [man] himself the powers of [God]” (Boucher, 380), he and the beast have a philosophical exchange that signals the first indication of Thomas’ “conversion:”

Thomas smiled. “You know,” he said, “this might be rather pleasant—having one other being that one can talk to without fear of betrayal, aside from one’s confessor.”

“Being,” the robass repeated. “are you not in danger of lapsing into heretical thoughts[?]”

“To be sure, it is a little difficult to know how to think of you—one who can talk and think but has no soul.”

“Are you sure of that[?]” (Boucher, 381).

Thomas must pause to consider this conundrum. Perhaps, he thinks, it is arrogating to man the power of God to ascertain who has a soul, who doesn’t. These kind of questions—these negotiations with a priori beliefs—also allow scientists (Doubting Thomases in their own right) to make discoveries. It is the final test, after Thomas’ struggles with faith and temptation in the “wilderness,” that completes his transformation. When he and the robass find the body of the Saint, uncorrupted as promised, the robass stamps on the Saint’s hand, exposing the tubes and wires within: Saint Aquin, too, is a robot.

Thomas struggles, anguishes, prays, but ultimately triumphs, because he realizes that:

This perfect logical brain… knew that it was made by man, and its reason forced it to believe that man was made by God. And it saw that its duty lay to man its maker, and beyond him to his Maker, God. Its duty was to convert man, to augment the glory of God. And it converted by the pure force of its perfect brain! (Boucher, 392).

He goes on to synthesize religion and science: “We have trusted too long in faith alone;” he says, “this is not an age of faith. We must call reason to our service” (392-3). Reason, he realizes, will lead to faith, and vice versa. Far from being enemies, these two concepts are mutually reinforcing, challenging and nurturing one another. So what if faith uses a more centripetal form of the scientific method than science does? It is the open-minded, plastic process of gathering knowledge that counts—and the more knowledge, the better.

So went Thomas’ conversion. Thomas and his Saint Aquin the Robot might never manage to convert us, but they might just teach us that the search for how things really are needn’t supplant the metaphysical searching of the spiritual quest. Let’s try to take Boucher’s advice and call reason to our service: let’s let these two old rivals, science and religion, enjoy, at last, a concordat. Perhaps they will unify against their true common enemy: the calcification of belief that leads to extremism on either side. If religion is now the dogmatic one, let science disprove it, and let’s quietly jettison its outdated dogma. But don’t throw the metaphorical baby out with the fundamentalist bathwater. Faith can keep science in check too. If science gets too high and mighty, let’s let faith remind us, in Socrates’ words, that, at heart, we “know nothing” (Plato): that the infinite is beyond our grasp and that there are mysteries and miracles even in what we have already explained. Science and faith, then, can stop their death match, pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and shake hands as friends who want, finally, the same thing; a condition of seeing that allows for both understanding the finite and contemplating the infinite.


Cited Sources

Boucher, Anthony. “The Quest for Saint Aquin.” The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One. Ed. Robert Silverberg. New York: Tom Doherty Associates Books. 1998. Pp 378-93. Print.

Plato. The Apology, Phædo and Crito. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Vol. II, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; 2001. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.

Ridley, Matt. “When Bad Theories Happen to Good Scientists.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones and Company, Inc. 20 July, 2012. Web. 11 Oct., 2015.