May 22nd, 2006

The Hair!

"But man forgets reality and remembers words."

thishardenedarm recently posted a section of a book he loves. freemore recently started posting about perceptions of reality. I felt I should answer both at once with a short excerpt from one of my favourite novels, "Lord of Light" by Roger Zelazny.

Lord of Light is about the crew of a colony ship, long-landed on a distant planet, empowered by vast technology, warring over the future of the planet and its colonists. It's a story of great battles, mutant powers and strange aliens. It's also a book of philosophy, facing Buddhism against Hinduism, freedom against control and gnosticism against received wisdom.

The style is not to everyone's taste - it is deliberately rhythmic, and I suspect the book would work best in many ways if it were spoken aloud. He deliberately mimics the sound of a religious parable being read which fits the story wonderfully.

The opening lines are:
"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never laimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could."

The excerpt is from about 50 pages in, and concerns a lecture about reality, given to a group of monks to distract them while the murder of a god is concealed.

"Names are not important," he said. "To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upong reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying 'What is it like, this thing you have seen?' So he tries to tell them. Perhaps he has seen the very first fire in the world. He tells them, 'It is red, like a poppy, but through it dance other colors. It has no form, like water, flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time upon a piece of wood, and then the wood is gone, as though it were eaten, leaving behind it that which is black and can be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone.' Therefore the hearers must think reality is like a poppy, like water, like the sun, like that which eats and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told it is like by the man who has known it. But they have not looked upon fire. They cannot really know it. They can only know of it. But fire comes again into the world, many times. More men look upon fire. After a time, fire is as common as grass and clouds and the air they breathe. They see that, while it is like a poppy, it is not a poppy, while it is like water, it is not water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun, and while it is like that which eats and passes wastes, it is not that which eats and passes wastes, but something different from each of these apart or all of these together. So they look upon this new thing and they make a new word to call it. They call it 'fire'."

"If they come upon one who still has not seen it and they speak to him of fire, he does not know what they mean. So they, in turn, fall back upon telling him what fire is like. As tey do so, they know from their own experience that what they are telling him is not the truth, but only a part of it. They know that this man will never know reality from their words, though all the words in the world are theirs to use. He must look at upon the fire, smell of it, warm his hands by it, stare into its heart, or remain forever ignorant. Therefore, 'fire' does not matter, 'eart' and 'air' and 'water' do not matter. 'I'do not matter. No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words. The more words he remembers, the cleverer do his fellows esteem him. He looks upon his great transformations of the world, but he does not see them as man saw them when man looked upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking that he knows them in the naming. The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing, upon the limb of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of the things I have names an at the same time all of them, and this is reality - the Nameless."

*a few paragraphs elided to avoid spamming your friends list*

The Nameless, of which we are all a part, does dream form. Ad what is the highest attribute any form may possess? It is beauty. The Nameless then, is an artist. The problem, therefore is not one of good and evil, but one of aesthetics. ... To struggle against the dreamers who dream ugliness, be they men or gods, cannot but be the will of the Nameless This struggle will also bear suffering, and so one's karmic burden will be lightened thereby, just as it would be by enduring the ugliness; but this suffering is productive of a higher end in the light of the eternal values of which the sages so often speak.

"You must ask me, then, 'How am I to know that which is beautiful and that which is ugly, and be moved to act thereby?' This question, I say, you must answer for yourself. To do this, first forget what I have spoken, for I have said nothing. Dwell now upon the Nameless."

5 Questions from marrog

1. What's the greatest graphic novel of all time, and why?
Tricky. I think I'll have to go for Dave McKean's Cages. Which has a plot, of sorts, but is mostly a series of meditations on art, music and God. It's gorgeous to look at, utterly entrancing and he tells several interlocking stories that come together beautifully.
If I could do a "director's cut" of Cerebus, it would be that, but sadly the writer/artist going stark staring mad halfway through means that I'd need to cut out a lot of stuff from about the 2/3 point. Shame really.

2. Recommend three books to me, and explain why.
A)Well, I already lent you "We need to talk about Kevin." which is one of the most heartfelt, honest books about adult life I've read. And despite being written by the mother of a mass-murderer it's touching and uplifting, if very hard to read in parts (for emotional reasons).
B)Stephen King's "IT" which is the story of a small town, a group of children growing up there, its history and the thing that lives in the sewers. It's King's paean to lost childhood and is utterly captivating. Of course, I haven't read it since I was about 22, so I can't guarantee it's utter quality, but I hope it's stood up well.
C)Signal To Noise, by Gaiman and McKean. In which a dying film-director makes one last movie in his head. One of my favourite things ever.

3. Is it worse to be incredibly cynical, or incredibly romantic?
Cynical. An incredible romantic will be repeatedly disappointed, but will occasionally find themselves in situations that make them incredibly happy. Cyncics will never be happy, because even when things are good they can't believe it.

4. If you could own one great work of art (your own definition of art applies) what would it be?
Probably Magritte's "The Empire of Lights", although I can't find a picture of it online that does the original justice. I saw it at the Magritte exhibition that came to Edinburgh and fell in love with it on the spot.

I'd also kill to own several pieces by Dave McKean - notably his Four Horsemen pages from Signal to Noise.

5. What's the worst physical injury you've ever had?
When I was in the OTC I fell out of a window during a training excercise on Salisbury Plain, hitting the ground back first, with the back of the helmet I was wearing sliding back to hit me in the neck. I spent two days in hospital and was very lucky not to have a broken neck. I've also had appendicitis, but that doesn't really count as an injury (although I do have a scar).

If anyone else wants 5 questions then go ahead and I'll think some up.