Sunday, July 24, 2011

Great Things

“A statesman who builds for them another Tower of Babel, some monstrosity of empire and power, they call “great”—what does it matter if we, more cautious and reserved than they, persist in the old belief that it is the great idea alone which can bestow greatness on a deed or a cause.”
Friedrich Nietzche, Beyond Good and Evil

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

So I didn’t like this one as much as All the Pretty Horses. In fact, there were times when it felt like I as forcing myself to finish it.

But not at the start. At the start I was really into it. I was with Billy Parham and the wolf he had captured, because I thought I knew what McCarthy was trying to say.

He said that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there. Finally he said that if men drink the blood of God yet they do not understand the seriousness of what they do. He said that men wish to be serious but they do not understand how to be so. Between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world and in this world the storms blow and the trees twist in the wind and all the animals that God has made go to and fro yet this world men do not see. They see the acts of their own hands or they see that which they name and call out to one another but the world between is invisible to them.

It wasn’t just a wolf, you see. It was nature itself. Nature that existed separate from man and all his manifestations. Ancient and wise, and thoroughly adapted to reality in a way man’s desire could never be. When Billy began his quest south with the harnessed she-wolf, it was not just a journey of distance, but a journey of understanding he embarked upon.

He woke all night with the cold. He’d rise and mend back the fire and she was always watching him. When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void. A world construed out of blood and blood’s alkahest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to devour it. He wrapped himself in the blanket and watched her. When those eyes and the nation to which they stood witness were gone at last with their dignity back into their origins there would perhaps be other fires and other witnesses and other worlds otherwise beheld. But they would not be this one.

And in Billy’s desire to see the wolf returned to Mexico, what he believes to be her homeland, he also wants to see Nature returned to a place beyond man’s influence. But no such place still exists, and the wolf is captured by a group of men who fight dogs for sport and profit.

She was lying in the floor of the cart in a bed of straw. They’d taken the rope from her collar and fitted the collar with a chain and run the chain through the floorboards of the cart so that it was all that she could do to rise and stand. Beside her in the straw was a clay bowl that perhaps held water. A young boy stood with his elbows hung over the top board of the cart with a jockeystick held loosely across his shoulder. When he saw enter what he took for a paying customer he stood up and began to prod the wolf with the stick and to hiss at her.

She ignored the prodding. She was lying on her side breathing in and out quietly. He looked at the injured leg. He stood the rifle against the cart and called to her.

She rose instantly and turned and stood looking at him with her ears erect. The boy holding the jockeystick looked up at him across the top of the cart.

He talked to her a long time and as the boy tending the wolf could not understand what it was he said he said what was in his heart. He made promises that he swore to keep in the making. That he would take her to the mountains where she would find others of her kind. She watched him with her yellow eyes and in them was no despair but only that same reckonless deep of loneliness that cored the world to its heart. He turned and looked at the boy. He was about to speak when the pitchman ducked inside under the canopy and hissed at them. El viene, he said. El viene.

Billy fights for the wolf; fights to have her returned to his care. But the men ignore him, desperate to see how their trained dogs will fare against the wild animal. And after she has defeated several dogs, gravely wounded in the process, and is about to face two fresh new antagonists, Billy takes the only action he can.

He stepped over the parapet and walked toward the wolf and levered a shell into the chamber of the rifle and halted ten feet from her and raised the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the bloodied head and fired.

It’s a mercy killing, but in the extended metaphor of nature being raped by man’s lust and greed, it has even more ominous overtones. It also transforms Billy—transforms him, I believe, from a boy into a man. For in that one shot, he loses all the idealism of his youth and in ready to tackle the harsh reality of his adulthood.

This is the crossing referred to in the book’s title. There are other crossings, to be sure—three trips into Mexico in all—and these can be thought of as crossings, too. But they are not The Crossing. That is reserved for what happens to Billy and his way of being in the world.

It’s a crossing is younger brother Boyd is not ready to make. Upon Billy’s return after the tragedy with the wolf, he finds his parents murdered and their horses stolen and taken into Mexico. Billy and Boyd decide to go after the horses, but they both approach the task from different perspectives, Billy hardened and Boyd shattered.

He looked up. His pale hair looked white. He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’s been sitting there and God had made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy not of fact or incident or event but of the way the world was.

Boyd doesn’t yet understand how cruel the world can be. Billy does. He’s seen it first hand, and he’s much more serious about the task they’ve set before them. He understands the risks, and isn’t willing to push them too far. Boyd, inexperienced, is lost and unable to rationally calculate what’s to be done and what isn’t. He finds and falls for a girl, gets shot in a confrontation with the horse thieves, and, when healed, runs off on Billy to be with the girl. Eventually Billy leaves Mexico, but returns to find what happened to his brother when he can no longer find a place for himself. He discovers that Boyd has been killed and buried in an unmarked grave, and he risks his life to retrieve his brother’s remains and return them to the land of his birth.

In many ways, this novel is like the corrido (a Mexican form of ballad and oral poem) spoken of near the end of the book.

It tells what it wishes to tell. It tells what makes the story run. The corrido is the poor man’s history. It does not owe its allegiance to the truths of history but to the truths of men. It tells the tale of that solitary man who is all men. It believes that where two men meet one of two things can occur and nothing else. In one case a lie is born and in the other death.

Billy is the solitary man who is all men. And in living he is a lie, always at odds with the world that surrounds him.

McCarthy’s Writing

One thing about McCarthy—he’s a damn good writer. His imagery is so vivid, especially in the most horrifying of scenes.

The German then did something very strange. He smiled and licked the man’s spittle from about his mouth. He was a very large man with enormous hands and he reached and seized the young captive’s head in both these hands and bent as if to kiss him. But it was no kiss. He seized him by the face and it may well have looked to others that he bent to kiss him on each cheek perhaps in the military manner of the French but what he did instead with a great caving of his cheeks was to suck each in turn the man’s eyes from his head and spit them out again and leave them dangling by their cords wet and strange and wobbling on his cheeks.

And so he stood. His pain was great but his agony at the disassembled world he now beheld which could never be put right again was greater. Nor could he bring himself to touch the eyes. He cried out in his despair and waved his hands about before him. He could not see the face of his enemy. The architect of his darkness, the thief of his light. He could see the trampled dust of the street beneath him. A crazed jumble of men’s boots. He could see his own mouth. When the prisoners were turned and marched away his friends steadied him by the arm and led him along while the ground swang wildly underfoot. No one had ever seen such a thing. They spoke in awe. The red holes in his skull glowed like lamps. As if there were a deeper fire there that the demon had sucked forth.

They tried to put his eyes back into their sockets with a spoon but none could manage it and the eyes dried on his cheeks like grapes and the world grew dim and colorless and then it vanished forever.

This reminds me a lot of the scene in The Road, when the man and the boy find a locked basement full of people who are being kept by cannibals for the stringy meat on their bones, one of them laying on a mattress on the floor with both his legs amputated and his stumps burned black to stop him from bleeding to death. It’s unreal. It’s unbelievable. And yet it’s so true. So honest. You see it as if it actually happened.

And through the story of this blinded man, McCarthy reveals much wisdom.

He said that the light of the world was in men’s eyes only for the world itself moved in eternal darkness and darkness was its true nature and true condition and that in this darkness it turned with perfect cohesion in all its parts but that there was naught there to see. He said that the world was sentient to its core and secret and black beyond men’s imagining and that its nature did not reside in what could be seen or not seen. He said that he could stare down the sun and what use was that?

This a Conrad and Melville rolled up into one—Moby-Dick swimming through the Heart of Darkness—and it ties directly to Billy’s first adventure with the wolf and the natural world that it represents.

One device that McCarthy uses again and again is the run-on sentence. There’s little punctuation anyway in his novel (nary a quotation mark or an apostrophe to be found), and that freedom of form seems to encourage him to go on and on whenever the mood strikes him. For me, it seldom works. But when it does work, it works extraordinarily well, evoking, as it seems to, the fully fleshed characters and the lives that they lead through a on-going stream of images and impressions.

She said that her grandmother had been widowed again within the year and married a third time and was a third time widowed and wed no more although there were opportunities enough her for to do so as she was a great beauty and not yet twenty years of age when the last husband fell as detailed by his own uncle at Torreon with one hand over his breast in a gesture of fidelity sworn, clutching the rifleball to him like a gift, the sword and pistol he carried falling away behind him useless in the palmettos, in the sand, the riderless horse stepping about in the melee of shot and shell and the cries of men, trotting off with the stirrups flapping, coming back, wandering in silhouette with others of its kind among the bodies of the dead on that senseless plain while the dark drew down around them all about and small birds driven from their arbors in the thorns returned and flitted about and chattered and the moon rose blind and white in the east and the little jackal wolves came trotting that would eat the dead from out of their clothes.

Friday, July 8, 2011


“The machine will be enlarged, but the fewer, and often the more secret, will be the springs by which its motions are directed.”
Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers

Friday, July 1, 2011

Chapter Twelve


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 46,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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After the dwarven ambassador had told the King of the fates of his son and Sir Gildegarde Brisbane, it was his sad duty to report the same news to Madeline Brisbane, the wife of the famous Knight. When the story had been told, and Madeline had hidden her teary face in her hands, young Gildegarde Brisbane II, then only three years old, entered the room and began to cry at the sight of his mother’s frightening sorrow. The child screamed, wanting to know what had happened to his father. It was Nog Shortwhiskers who took the young boy aside and told him his father had gone to see his maker, and that his father would never be coming back.

+ + +

They spent the winter in Queensburg. It was a decision easily made with autumn coming on fast. The more experienced members of the party did not want to get stuck by the winter snows when they followed the Mystic River into the Crimson Mountains in search of the forgotten temple of which Shortwhiskers had heard rumors. They rented a cottage just outside of town for the season with some money Shortwhiskers had put away in the Royal Bank of Queensburg, moved in, and waited for the snows to come.

It turned out to be a very important winter for Brisbane. At first he wasn’t sure how he should feel about it, spending so many months living with this small group of people. It wasn’t that he was concerned about getting along with Roystnof or Shortwhiskers or even Roundtower, who had elected to stay with them for a short while before moving on to Farchrist Castle. What worried Brisbane the most was having to spend that time with Illzeezad Dantrius.

Roystnof had asked the mage to stay and Dantrius had readily agreed. They had worked out some sort of partnership and over the winter they planned to spend much of their time together, combining their magical knowledge together and seeing what they could teach each other. Roystnof had asked Brisbane if he wanted to sit in on these little sessions and, at first, Brisbane had agreed, more so he could spend time with Roystnof than to pick up any magical information.

“Roystnof tells me you were once his apprentice of sorts,” Dantrius said to Brisbane at the first such meeting.

“Well,” Brisbane said defensively. “We were a little closer than that.”

“Oh sure, sure,” Dantrius said. “I just meant that he has already taught you some magic.”

“Yes,” Brisbane said. “That’s true.”

Dantrius seemed to grow before Brisbane’s eyes. “Like what? I mean, how far has your training progressed?”

Brisbane felt like he was being interrogated. “I don’t know. Not far. I really only know one spell.”

Dantrius grinned. “Well, maybe I can teach you something more impressive. Would you like that?” Dantrius laughed.

Brisbane did not attend any more of the meetings. Dantrius was spooky and Brisbane did not trust him a single bit. His face was scarred from the erosion that had taken place when he had been a stone statue in the basilisk’s garden, and the sight of him made Brisbane sick to his stomach. Roystnof had said before he had transformed Dantrius back to flesh that the years the mage had spent in solitude could well have driven him insane. Brisbane became more and more sure of that fact as the days of that winter in Queensburg wore on. Dantrius was insane. He was not a raving psychotic lunatic, but rather he had gone quietly insane and it was only a matter of time before he hurt someone. Brisbane’s feeling was that the weasel Shortwhiskers spoke of was in hiding, patiently waiting for his moment to strike.

In one of the few times Brisbane could get Roystnof alone that season, he told his wizard friend all about his fears and the things Shortwhiskers had told him about Dantrius and the expedition to Dragon’s Peak.

“I did not know any of this,” Roystnof said, referring to Shortwhiskers’ story. “But I can only take Nog’s word for it.”

“He betrayed his King,” Brisbane said. “He was a spy working for Dalanmire.”

“That is what Nog believes,” Roystnof said. “I don’t know about you, but I have known our dwarven friend to be wrong before.”

“Are you calling Nog a liar?”

“No,” Roystnof said. “Of course not. All I’m saying is that Nog has no proof Dantrius was in league with Dalanmire. You said he said that himself. It was only a feeling he had. A feeling he felt was too strong to be incorrect. All I am saying is that Nog could be mistaken.”

Brisbane conceded. “Okay, maybe Nog is wrong about that incident. I still think Dantrius is dangerous. You saw how he reacted when you transformed him. Or maybe I should say how he didn’t react. He stepped out of his decades-long coma like he was stepping out of the rain, and Roundtower…the way that Roundtower—” Brisbane’s voice was rising.

“Gil,” Roystnof said. “Calm down. Why are you getting so upset?”

Brisbane held his breath. “Roy,” he said in a measured tone. “Can you explain to me why Dantrius didn’t emerge from his coma like a screaming lunatic as Ignatius did?”

“No,” Roystnof said. “I cannot. All I can say is that the experience of being turned to stone affects different people in different ways. Ignatius was ignorant of what had happened to him. He suddenly found himself alone in a world of void. He existed in the conscious state for two weeks but he could perceive nothing around him. He may have even thought that he had died.”

Brisbane looked at the ground.

“Illzeezad,” Roystnof went on, “on the other hand, is a wizard like myself and knew about things like basilisks and petrification spells. You saw him use gaze reflection. He must have known what had happened and that knowledge left him better prepared to deal with the situation. He may have been able to actually sleep those years away. It all depends on how relaxed he was.”

Brisbane didn’t buy it. “Roy, when Dantrius came out of it, didn’t you feel for just an instant that he had known when he was going to be revived?”

“Gil, I—”

Brisbane did not let Roystnof continue. “Did you or did you not feet that?”

Roystnof paused. “For a moment, yes, I did. But it would be impossible.”

“Roy, according to Nog, it has been forty-two years since anyone saw Dantrius alive. Now, there’s no way to tell how many of those years he spent in that garden, but from the way his statue had eroded, he had obviously been there for quite some time.”

“Yes,” Roystnof agreed.

“Forty-two years, Roy. Forty-two years. I don’t care how mentally prepared you are, no one can spend forty-two years in that kind of solitude and not be affected by it.”

“I never said Illzeezad wasn’t affected by his experience.”

“Don’t call him that!” Brisbane exploded. “You say his name like you guys are brothers or something. You don’t know anything about him!”

Roystnof stepped back. Brisbane was immediately sorry he had shouted. He had not wanted to do that.

“Gil,” Roystnof said gently. “What is this really all about?”

Brisbane looked into his friend’s eyes and let the truth spill out of him. “I don’t like him, Roy, and I don’t like the way you two have been inseparable since you transformed him. I don’t trust him and he scares me. There’s something wrong with him and the things Nog has told me about him do not help to calm my nerves. He’s a man from another time and he doesn’t belong here. Why are you becoming so chummy with him?”

Roystnof sat down. “Gil, this is going to be hard for me to explain. I do not doubt anything you have told me about Dantrius, for indeed, I have felt many of these things myself. And I also have my own fears about him. Do not forget how much time we have spent together. I am not blind during our meetings. I see what kind of man Illzeezad Dantrius is.”

“What do you mean?” Brisbane asked.

“He is planning something. I do not know what it is but everything he does is done to forward this plan. I am somehow part of it. He is taking the new type of magic I am teaching him and crafting it to his own purpose. He is, in effect, using me.”

Brisbane was baffled by the admission. “Then why on earth do you let him do it?”

“Because I am using him, too. I am learning so much from him. His magic is unlike anything I have seen before. It deals almost entirely with illusion, whereas my magic, the kind I taught you, actually alters things in the material world. Dantrius’ magic only appears to change things.”

Brisbane was puzzled. “But isn’t that weaker than your magic?”

Roystnof shook his head. “Weaker? No, Gil, it is not weaker than our magic. It is more subtle, but it is not weaker.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Roystnof smiled. “I don’t understand it fully myself, yet. But I don’t want you to worry about things. I have the situation well in hand. I am aware of the potential danger Dantrius represents and I am on the lookout for it. Believe it or not, I am a very careful person by nature.”

Brisbane smiled, too. “Okay, Roy. I just wanted you to know how I felt.”

“Message received. I expect sometime this winter Illzeezad and I will run out of things to teach each other and we will go our separate ways.”

Brisbane had hoped so. He was glad that Roystnof hadn’t accused him of being jealous of Dantrius, although it was probably true and Roystnof probably sensed it. But just because it was childish to be jealous of Dantrius for occupying Roystnof’s attention, that did not keep Brisbane from feeling that way.

As a result of this discussion, and similar incidents throughout the season, Brisbane found himself spending less and less time with Roystnof and more and more time with Shortwhiskers and Roundtower. It wasn’t long before Roundtower took it upon himself to teach Brisbane the proper use of weapons. It had been a crash course, for Roundtower had wanted to leave for Farchrist Castle before the first snows came. But this was just as well, for Brisbane proved to be a fast learner.

Brisbane quickly picked up all the lessons Roundtower gave him and it wasn’t long before the two were seen parrying expertly with each other in the yard behind their cabin, the steel of their swords clanking loudly against each other. Brisbane did not use Angelika in these lessons, Roundtower had insisted upon that. A true Knight had to learn to fight without the aid of enchantment. Roundtower did not want Brisbane to be unprepared when Angelika decided to leave him and, besides, he would be able to use Angelika even better if his skill with a normal sword increased.

But it wasn’t just the sword that Brisbane set out to master. Roundtower showed him the proper use of a myriad of other weapons as well. The battle axe, the spear, the pole-arm, the dagger, even the mace. Brisbane quickly caught on to the strategies needed to effectively wield all of them. He even received training in the use of the bow and arrow, and eventually could hit a bullseye at fifty paces.

But of all the weapons Brisbane practiced with, it was the sword with which he showed the most promise. His skill with the blade was easily twice as great as his skill with any other weapon, and it was by far his favorite. It was the weapon of the Knight, combining infinite degrees of finesse with the brute force needed to overcome opponents. Late at night, after, a day of practicing with Roundtower, Brisbane would reach under his bed and pull out the wool blanket in which he had wrapped Angelika. He would uncover her with reverence, marveling at her naked pale green blade as he ran through his training exercises with her, spinning and flashing her against and around invisible opponents.

It wasn’t long before Angelika began to talk to him during these midnight disciplines, her deep and seductive voice breathing in his mind like a lover. She sang praises to him, telling him of all the evil they would destroy together, of all the good they would do for Grecolus.

And Brisbane found himself buying into it, letting Angelika sing his praises, and relishing in the music. He wanted to set out and adventure with her, to see what kind of legend he could fashion for himself. He began to anticipate the spring, when they would set out on their trek up the Mystic to find the forgotten temple.

Roundtower left for Farchrist Castle on the morning of the first frost. He had purchased a horse from the Queensburg stables for the journey and he stood beside it as all the companions gathered to wish him well. He was dressed in his chainmail and heavy furs to ward off the chills, his plumed helmet perched atop his head and his decorated shield strapped tightly to the saddle.

They stood in a line to see the warrior off, and Roundtower walked by each of them, stopping to say a few heartfelt words.

Dantrius was first, more to get him out of the way than anything else, Brisbane thought. Even though Roundtower had been one of the main forces that had led to the transformation of Dantrius, since that time, the mage and the warrior had not gotten along at all.

There were just fundamental philosophic differences between the two men that could not be bridged. Roundtower, as a rule, was against wizards in the first place, and whereas with Roystnof there had been a friendship bonded through years of association, no such situation existed for Dantrius. Roundtower considered the mage a devoted servant of evil, and if they had met under different circumstances, Roundtower might have tried to kill him.

Equally, Dantrius held Roundtower’s entire chosen way of life in contempt, the mindless devotion to an unseen god, the self-sacrificing attitude; it was all foreign and somehow obscene to Dantrius. There were no tears shed when these two stiffly said goodbye and good riddance to each other.

Next, Roundtower moved on to Roystnof. He extended a hand and Roystnof shook it firmly.

“Well,” Roundtower said. “This is goodbye.”

“For a time, Ignatius,” Roystnof said. “For a time. I believe our paths will cross again.”

Roundtower smiled. “I hope they do.”

“Good luck with your dream,” Roystnof said. “You will make a fine Knight.”

“Thank you, Roystnof,” Roundtower said. “Thanks, for everything.”

Roystnof nodded and Roundtower moved down the line to Shortwhiskers.

“Next May I expect to see your name tacked on the wall of whatever tavern I happen to be in,” Shortwhiskers said. “I expect to see your name on the list of men chosen as Squires to the Knights of Farchrist.”

Roundtower laughed as he pumped the dwarf’s hand up and down. “I hope that tavern is somewhere in the kingdom, Nog. You watch out for these guys while I’m gone, you hear?”

“No problem,” Shortwhiskers said. “Don’t you worry about anything, except getting the name ‘Sir Ignatius Roundtower’ on a second list three years after the first one.”

Roundtower laughed again, patted the dwarf soundly on the back, and moved down to stand in front of Brisbane.

“Well, Gil,” he said. “We only met a short time ago but I think I may miss you the most of all.”

Brisbane felt choked up. “I will miss you too, Ignatius.”

Roundtower embraced him. Brisbane could feel the warrior’s cold chainmail against his body and it gave him a chill.

“May Grecolus always be with you,” Roundtower whispered into Brisbane’s ear. “And take care of Angelika. Keep her close to your heart and you won’t go wrong.”

Roundtower broke the embrace and took a step back. Brisbane was at a loss for words. The two men locked eyes for a moment longer and then Roundtower turned to the group and addressed them as such.

“Well, this is my farewell, then,” he said as he climbed aboard his horse and settled into the saddle. The beast snorted out puffs of fog in the crisp morning air. “Wish me luck,” Roundtower shouted as he dug his heels into the horse’s flanks and moved off.

Brisbane waved with the others, watching Roundtower ride off into the distance, away from their cabin and away from Queensburg. “Good luck, Ignatius,” he mumbled to himself as he wondered if he would ever see the warrior again. Brisbane watched until Roundtower’s form passed behind a hill and out of sight. When he turned back, Shortwhiskers was still standing by his side. Roystnof and Dantrius had already gone back into the cabin.