On Piper at the Gates of Dawn

I have always been a fan of Pink Floyd’s earliest albums — Piper at the Gates of Dawn being one of the best — but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered the title was taken from a chapter of The Wind in the Willows. I should be embarrassed for not knowing this. I played Toad in my high school's production, and the book has been sitting on my shelf for over 20 years. But I don't think I'm alone. It's a well known book, but my guess is few have actually read it. So, I pulled it off the shelf one day and was looking at the pictures. I have the edition illustrated by Michael Hague (above). I discovered the Piper chapter and started reading it, and suffice it to say, I can see why Pink Floyd made it their album title. It's very trippy.

The chapter finds Rat and Mole on a tiny boat under the willows, lazily drifting through the peaceful waterways, when Rat hears this distant music calling to him. 

So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever. No! There it is again!” he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound." 

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On Ambiguity

Todorov writes that the fantastic occupies the duration of time in which there is uncertainty. It’s “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the realm of the fantastic for another genre. It is in ambiguity that the fantastic resides.

So I have been thinking a lot about ambiguity lately and wondering why I love ambiguity in art but am profoundly uncomfortable with it in real life. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Who doesn’t find the moment when Fred pulls off the mask and Wilma explains the monster was really Old Man Wilson to be the most disappointing part of a Scooby Doo episode? I mean really. It’s almost vulgar. And I can’t be alone in my discomfort with ambiguity either. Isn’t it this discomfort that is at the root of all religion? We want to know. We want to be certain. We all hate ambiguity in politics, too; it’s enraging when politicians say things that can mean both one thing and its opposite. Uncertainty in our relationships is even more unsettling.

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On New Versions of Old Tales

I saw Neil Gaiman read from his new book, Norse Mythology, at the Town Hall a few weeks ago.  He said he wanted to do a retelling of the Norse myths because of the way these stories had “infected him” as a kid. I’d say the infection is still evident. Gaiman has been doing retellings of these myths from the very beginning of his writing career. Odin and Loki (Low-Key) appear in both American Gods and The Sandman comics. And more recently, Odd and the Frost Giants is about a boy who sets about saving Odin, Thor and Loki. 

He’s not alone. Norse mythology has been the bedrock of a lot of great fantasy from Tolkien to G.R.R. Martin. The inevitable battle between good and evil, à la Ragnorak, is pretty much “Winter” in the Song of Ice and Fire. Ice and fire, frost giants, light elves and dark elves, dragons, trolls and dwarves, mystical ravens and giant eagles, Midgard and Middle-earth, the All-father and the All-spark, the Wall — Norse mythology is the source of all of this. Odin the Wanderer in his gray cloak and drooping, broad-brimmed hat and tall staff  is basically Gandalf the Gray.

In fact, there have been so many great re-imaginings of Norse tales, that the originals really pale in comparison. Gaiman said at the reading, retelling these stories was like doing doing a cover when the original sounds a little tinny and you need to kick it up with some bass. So this is how he did it.

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On Ragnar Hairy-Trousers

I was pretty pleased to find out today that Ragnar Lodbrok, the main character in the TV show Vikings, is based on a real person whose name meant Ragnar "Hairy-Trousers" or "Shaggy-Breeches". His wife, also depicted, made him a pair of pants made from animal skin with a magical protection. As long as he wore these pants no blade could kill him. And no blade did kill him. He was pushed into a pit of snakes and died.

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On the Walking Dead

One of the big archaeological mysteries in Orkney is what was the Neolithic peoples’ relationship with their dead. Inside the mounded tombs, nineteenth-century archaeologists found only bones decoratively laid out, what they call disarticulated skeletal remains. Did they practice sky burial, in which the dead were laid outside on stone slabs and the birds and animals first picked them clean? Or did they visit their dead frequently and move them around, perhaps even bring them outside of the tomb on occasion like that culture in modern day Indonesia where corpses remain part of the family for many years? 

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On Neolithic Orkney

As you may have noticed, I have an overdeveloped interest in islands, particularly northerly ones, all the better if they are mist-shrouded and desolate and have ancient stone circles and old Norse feasting halls on them. I suppose that is what brought me here, to the Orkney Islands. 

Orkney is one of the densest collections of ancient monuments in all of Britain, and the oldest. The Stones of Sternness predate Stonehenge by almost a thousand years, and Skara Brae is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village. It’s called the Scottish Pompeii. I try to stay away from tours, but I booked one this time, led by two archaeologists. There is a dig going on at a 5,000 year old temple complex called the Ness of Brodgar and it’s otherwise closed to tourists. 

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On Melancholy and the Fantastic

As the days get shorter (no thanks to Daylight savings), those of us who suffer from seasonal affective disorder start to become nervous. Trees are becoming bare. Temperatures are dropping. Birds are getting the hell out of here. Winter is coming.

But I take comfort in the fantastic.

The fantastic has been frequently called upon to describe experiences that are otherwise difficult to describe, such as depression. There is the black dog, first used by Churchill. (Nick Drake wrote about the “Black Eyed Dog” that called at the door, that called out for more. It’s one of the saddest songs ever.) In Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, depression-like symptoms are the result of faerie enchantment. Lady Pole lapses into “a lassitude” of which no doctor can cure her because every night she is stolen away to a ball in the Faerie Kingdom of Lost Hope, where she is forced to dance all night long. Depression is often referred to as a demon or a haunt. But there is one monster of the fantastic that is not usually linked with depression that should be. The vampire.

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On Horror, Hitchcock, and Doppelgängers

Doppelgänger - German, literally meaning "double-walker", a person who resembles another person, associated with the ancient folkloric spirit double, and in some traditions, the evil twin. Freud put it among the class of frightening things he called the uncanny.

My daughter and I recently had a Hitchcock movie marathon while she was home sick from school. We watched one of my all time favorites, Vertigo, and The Birds. I've never studied Hitchcock, but I couldn't help but notice a few reoccurring motifs, namely eyes (or pecked out empty sockets) and doppelgängers, and it got me thinking about Freud and the uncanny.

In short, Freud defines the uncanny as a particular brand of horror felt when something that is familiar is suddenly unfamiliar, or vice versa. Like when the dead Madeleine's doppelgänger, Judy, suddenly dons the necklace worn by her counterpart, or when Scottie finds Madeleine in the museum sitting in front of a century-old painting of herself. So wonderfully creepy. It all comes around full circle with Scottie's veritgo affliction, as the experience of uncanny horror has a spatial destabilizing effect very similar to the physical sensation of vertigo. I know, as someone who has experienced it. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that Vertigo is a fucking brilliant film. 

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On the Summer of Nothing, the Return of English Magic, and Making Dandelion Wine

Back in June, my thirteen-year old daughter told me she and her friends had hatched a plan. They'd just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbirdand they decided that this summer would be the "summer of nothing", meaning there would be no plans, no camps, no pre-arranged playdates. They were going to do the "old-fashiony go to each others' house without calling first" and just "do nothing", like it was Maycomb County in the 1930s. She told me it was all going to be very "Instagram-worthy".  I told her I was pretty sure Scout and Jem didn't have Instagram.

So now, on these last days of summer, I would like to reflect on the "summer of nothing". As far as the girls are concerned, it was a surprising success. It was, to quote my daughter, "the summer of everything". There was a lot of bike riding to each others' houses and hanging out, and very little calling first. (Instead they InstaMessaged.) As for me, maybe it was just my choice of summer reading, which always seems to serve as the soundtrack to summer, but I must say, this summer has been pretty magical. I started the summer reading the 1006 page tome, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a masterpiece of the fantastic that I could write extensively about, but I will say only this now. Read It. Or, if for some unfathomable reason you don't want to inhabit a world where magic is real for 1006 pages, then you can watch it too. It was made into a single-season BBC series that aired this summer. I recommend the book. It takes longer. Finishing this book felt like losing a friend.  

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On The Sandman

I once read about a man (John Lloyd) who cured his depression by getting interested in things. He started collecting facts about frogs and the mating rituals of puffer fish; he discovered Pythagoras. I think there is something to be said for this kind of curiosity. Life is pretty fun and interesting when you’re a kid, and then you grow up into a teenager and everything becomes boring. And really, it’s no wonder; growing up is a series of pretty disappointing discoveries. There’s no toy making shop at the North Pole, no faeries, no ghosts, no time travel. 

For me, the turning point in all this teenage boringness was discovering Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. These were not your every day goth comics, these were history lessons. There was plenty of black eyeliner, and sex and violence (a lot of violence), but the main characters were immortal, essentially personifications of Jungian archetypes.

Darling, let me introduce you to my uncles and aunts, says the groom in "The Song of Orpheus." They are Teleute, Aponia, Mania, Epithumia, Olethros, and Potmos; their names mean End, Inaction, Madness, Desire, Destruction, and Destiny.

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