City of Illusions

CityofIllusionsUrsula K. Le Guin favors the motif of the solitary journey. I usually call it the ‘turn’ of the story for lack of a better name; usually about two-thirds into the novel the main character goes on a journey, usually alone, even if he or she encounters other people along the way. There is only one novel I have read by Le Guin so far that does not follow this pattern. It happens often enough that I was surprised to find that in City of Illusions, Falk embarks on his journey in the second chapter.

I was not expecting to like City of Illusions as much as a I did. Yes, Le Guin is one of my all-time favorite authors, but her short novels tend to be not as good as her short stories or her longer novels, and so I came to City of Illusions with lower expectations. Usually the short novels are too short for her to really flesh out the world, and so it is more that she is exploring a certain idea than anything else, which, once you understand that, is perfectly okay. However, my copy of City of Illusions is deceptively small and it was not until I opened it and saw the teeny tiny print that I realized this was going to be a longer book than I thought it would be.

Falk is a man without a past, found in the wilderness by a forest tribe in the far-distant future on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Having no memory of who he is or even of language, the tribe takes him in and raises him as one of their own, for he is a man in all outward appearances but one, his yellow eyes, and because the prevailing Law on Earth is ‘Do not take life.’ Six years later, he leaves his adopted family and his home to seek out the one remaining city on Earth, Es Toch, also called the City of the Lie. It is a journey that will take him across a continent, to the end of the forest, across plains, deserts, and mountains, encountering all sorts of odd and bizarre people and beasts along the way. He goes in search of his name, his real name, and it is not what you expect. By happy circumstance, I happened to read Planet of Exile before reading City of Illusions—while both books can be read on their own, there is a connection between the two, and I was glad to see it when it appeared.

As usual, Le Guin’s prose does not disappoint:

Hope is a slighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands to not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed.

I have but one more Le Guin book in my meager library (three boxes, but who’s counting?). Once I lift my embargo on buying more books, I think some more books by Le Guin will be in order.

Moving again

This time I’m not moving to another country, but in some ways I might as well be. Next week I move house to live with two Scots instead of half a dozen Chinese. Despite my attempts at friendliness a year ago, the situation here quickly became one of me versus them and it has been quite unpleasant. I can’t wait to move, actually, and I am curious to see how my new living situation will affect my general health and happiness. An actual house instead of a Soviet-era dorm, and with two cats and a dog. Even though I’ll only be moving one mile, from the north side of town to the south, I expect it to be very different.

It is quite odd to be finishing my master’s program just as everyone I know in the States is beginning a new school year. Sarah started yesterday and Kelly starts on Thursday. I feel like I should be buying school supplies and preparing for classes—instead, I am looking at turning in my dissertation, moving and having a full month off before returning to work in October. How strange.

So long, & thanks

I don’t know when it started, but I have long held the habit of taking a walk if I’m going to making a long phone call. Probably because it is much more exciting than just sitting somewhere; you get a change of scenery. Anyway, the Phones That Be thwarted my attempts to call my parents, so I talked with Sarah, Kali and Kelly instead. I was out on West Sands, so I had plenty of room to just walk. On my way back toward civilisation, I commented to Kali, ‘Oh, there’s a dolphin. I usually don’t see them over here.’ The longer we talked, the closer it came to shore, and then it turned and swam straight toward me. Eventually I was in the rocky area, where tide pools form when the tide is out. Well, the tide was going out and the dolphin was swimming back and forth between the two rock walls that jut out parallel to each other out into the sea. Kali told me it was natural selection if the dolphin beached itself, and because I was distracted we finished our call.

It was then that I realised that all of the numbers on my international sim card were, well, international and so I couldn’t call anyone in town to look up the beached whale hotline number. Anyway, I stood out as far as my wellies would let me, which is about calf-deep, and the dolphin was only a stone’s throw away from me. It was little. Not even three feet long. It was a baby. So I called Kelly, because most of the time it seems like she’s the other half of my brain. ‘There’s a baby dolphin and I’m thinking about going out to it,’ I told her. ‘Don’t go out to it. It’s made of muscle. You aren’t,’ she answered quite sensibly. It still had plenty of water to swim in, so it was safe for a while yet. I stood by at the ready to go in anyway because I am a closet Franciscan because animals are important, too, okay? I may not be able to do anything about the crazy people comparing Obama to communists and Nazis in the same breath when communism and Nazism are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum but I could do something about the baby animal that was no more than 15 feet away from me.

So I stood there until it finally figured out that all it needed to do was turn 90-degrees and swim down the corridor created by the rock walls. Further out in the water, out in the bay proper, I could see another dolphin that was probably its mother. ‘Go on, little fella,’ I said, because everyone talks like Dory when talking to marine animals. ‘Go on to your momma.’

Anyway, I have since added the Scottish SPCA’s animal helpline to my phone: 03000 999 999.

Edit: After some cursory research, it appears that the baby creature was actually a Harbour Porpoise.

The best course…

The Buggre Alle This Bible was also noteworthy for having twenty-seven verses in the third chapter of Genesis, instead of the more usual twenty-four:
24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
25 And the Lord spake unto the Angel that guarded the eastern gate, saying Where is the flaming sword which was given unto thee?
26 And the Angel said, I had it here only a moment ago, I must have put it down some where, forget my own head next.
27 And the Lord did not ask him again.

*   *   *

The Angel in the York cycle’s Expulsion play seems rather stern as he drives the weeping Adam and Eve out of the garden. However, there is one ambiguous line that makes me wonder…

Adam, haue þis, luke howe ye thynke,
And tille withalle þi meete and drinke
For euermore.
(li. 58-60)

(Adam, have this. Look how you think;
And toil for all your food and drink
For evermore.)

*   *   *

Eventually Crawly said, “Didn’t you have a flaming sword?”


…The italics are Good Omens passages, if you haven’t guessed already.

Past the edges

Inverness was a nice, albeit short, weekend away. Within a couple of hours after arriving at Balintraid House, we were holding a three-week old kitten and feeding peahens and laughing with the hostel owner, Anita. Neither Felicity nor I brought any work with us. Felicity brought a pleasure book about Anglo-Saxons and I read a book about fairies and the Elizabethan court. We paid homage at St Andrews Cathedral, tramped around Urquhart Castle while talking about monasticism, and saw the loch from at least three different vantage points. Because what two medievalists do on holiday is… read about the edges of the medieval period and visit a medieval castle and talk about the medieval church and politics. Er.

While at Urquhart, we determined that every castle ought to be restored to its former glory, using medieval methods á là Guédelon Chateau. Once completed, the castles should be occupied by the medievalists that helped supervise the project, thus creating living museums. Then all medievalists will have jobs. The end.

Another very important discovery was that of Leakey’s Antique Books and Café. I allowed myself to purchase the coveted and out-of-print English Literature in the Sixteenth Century by C. S. Lewis, but did not purchase Isaac Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature, even though I really wanted to. And while I was ever so slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a Bentley parked outside, I did see an old Morgan parked outside College Gate yesterday. I glanced out the window whilst writing an email to Kelly and stopped mid-sentence to procure photographic proof. Kelly has threatened to take away my copy of Good Omens, citing the Danger of Obsession: ‘merely that there are limits – call them the boundaries of sanity’.

‘As for boundaries of sanity: I prefer life on the edge,’ I replied. It most certainly does not help that every time I see tartan I recall, ‘Tartan is stylish.’ I live in Scotland mind you.

But regarding obsession, Felicity and I went to Edinburgh this afternoon to go to the International Book Festival. After waiting nearly three hours in the queue, and being herded from one tent to another, I actually stood in the presence of the demigod that is Neil Gaiman. I had meant to say something along the lines of, ‘I wasn’t able to write my dissertation with a straight face because of this book1‘, but instead I was very well-behaved, said my name when he asked how it was pronounced, and thanked him very politely before leaving the tent. Felicity very patiently listened to my fangirling the hour and a half it took us to get back home: ‘He smiled at us. He said our names. He signed our books. He really is a nice person.’ And he is. Very personable and kind, and even though I only held his attention for two minutes, it was worth skiving off the Devilish Dissertation for a few hours. If I ever become a well-known author, I want to be as cool as Neil Gaiman. I’ll even draw pictures.


1 Good Omens, of course. What else?


Upon the completion of my third and final chapter of the Devlish Dissertation I realised that I have thus survived seven (7) Apocalypses in the past fortnight: The Name of the Rose, Good Omens, four Last Judgement plays (Chester, N-Town, Towneley and York), and the composition of my chapter on the Judgement of Sin. Despite the amount of sulphur I must have been breathing, it was the London air that did me in, though today I have felt somewhat better. No longer coughing every five minutes at least. London has the tendency to make me ill. It’s quite annoying really.

The Third Chapter was finished in time for Felicity’s and my holiday northward, though it looks like our hopes of tramping around the woods will be foiled by nonstop rain. Regardless, I have decided to bring no work with me. It was a hard decision, but yes, there will be no article reading, chapter revising or conclusion outlining done over the next 72-hours. I need a break.

Further rebellion

The Met Office lied to me. The night it said it would be clear, it was cloudy, and the night it said it would be cloudy it is clear. Despite being sleepy, and somewhat marginally ill, I went out again to see the Perseids at their peak. I saw approximately 35 falling stars, two satellites, and one very bright half-moon. One star merely glided across the sky; you could even say it sauntered.

It was a very nice night and I’m glad I went out. I passed by, or rather heard, several people on the old course and then passed two Chinese girls on the beach. I could always tell that I had actually seen a meteor because their gasps would follow mine. I had never been out to West Sands at night before yesterday and today. When the tide is out you can hardly see the sea, especially when you’re lying down—it’s simply an expanse of sand beneath a black dome, with a faint shimmer in the distance. I didn’t realize quite how bright the moon was until I got up to leave, and I cast a very discernible shadow. The long summer days have made me forget the calm of night, and though we will all too soon have too much night, a part of me will welcome it yet.

Edited to add: Underneath the bats and stars—well, for me, sea birds—I couldn’t have said it better, Neil.

Sushi vengeance

The Lammas Fair has come and gone. Yesterday evening, Felicity and I walked around and amongst it, fingers sticky with candy floss and gawking at the swinging rides that brought passengers precariously close to the buildings on South Street. I went out to buy lunch today and Market Street had returned to normal (though, before I could go through the passageway of 66, I first had to gain admission from two water-pistol-wielding guerilla fighters. I was clearly a neutral party, and twice their size, and thus was unharmed).

Last night Felicity and walked down onto the beach in the dark to watch the Perseid meteor shower. The tide was out and we spread out towels, squinting upward through the haze that was drifting in from the sea. We saw a two UFOs, which turned out to be RAF jets coming into the nearby base. We also saw a total of three meteors: two small ones and a spectacular, firey golden-silver streak of light. “Falling stars—that means they’re dying!” Felicity exclaimed with some horror. “Not dying! Coming down to earth, turning into something else,” I answered. Then I realized that falling stars could be falling angels (my dissertation is 80% about Satan after all) and immediately quoted—because that book has ruined me, thanks Kelly1—“Crowley, an angel that did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards.”

It has been a while (“Arkadia”, in April), so I feel justified in announcing that I beat Kelly at chess. 12 August 2009, “The Aedificium”.

Now, to possibly finish my word count for today.


1 It really has. My notes on the Antichrist plays are peppered with Good Omens references, including “sushi vengeance”. And yesterday I saw the potted plants outside College Gate and burst out laughing. Thankfully I was alone in 666. …Oh dear, I’m doomed.


GoodOmens_MassMarketPaperback_1185845373Last night I finished Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It is hilariously wonderful. I am usually a quiet reader, but this one had me laughing out loud. Aziraphale and Crowley immediately became one of my favorite fictional-friendships. If you want to read about the coming of the Apocalypse (and something better written than a certain bestselling series), have more than a few laughs, and yet ponder the ineffability of the Plan and the nature of humanity, angels, and demons, read on. Considering that The Name of the Rose took me five weeks to read, it was refreshing to gulp down a novel in just a couple of days. Have I mentioned that I love Aziraphale (and Crowley, because you can’t really have one without the other…)? Anyway.

This morning I managed to wake up and get ready in time to go the service at All Saints’. I’m glad I did. It reminded me very much of Emmanuel, and so I think I will be visiting again. I forgot that I’ll be out of town next weekend so I’m kind of sad to not have the immediate follow-up, but I’ll go the next week.

I have the policy that I’ll stop singing if a lyric of a hymn doesn’t seem ‘right’ or if I don’t get it, and then resume singing once I’ve either figured out or if the rest of the hymn looks ‘okay’. I hold the same policy for spoken responses: stating something with the voice indicates belief, especially during Mass, and so I prefer to tread consciously. We sang a hymn this morning that I am still pondering from St Andys a few weeks ago, particularly this stanza:

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace.

I am not comfortable with the idea of ceasing our striving—here, perhaps, I display that I am a humanist as well as a Christian. As we are exhorted to ‘continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philipians 2:12), so I see the striving of the human mind, heart, and spirit to understand the divine and the universe as a noble effort. God is honored when we ask questions, when we use the intellect and rationality that he gave us, that separates us from the other creatures with whom we share this earth (hem, not sure about those dolphins though) and brings us closer to the image of God. I am wary of wishing for the ‘strivings cease’ because that, to me, implies a blind faith, complacent and stagnant. Likewise, I hesitate at the prospect of an ‘ordered life’—surely, our lives can confess the beauty of God’s peace, but is this not done moreso through the messiness of human experience? Is not faith an ongoing process, the working out, the negotiation and reconciliation, of imperfect human finiteness with perfect divine infinity? I will admit, albeit reluctantly, the bounds of human reason, and thus accept that the answer to some questions are as Marc says, ‘Because God likes it that way’ (The Sparrow). Yet this does not mean I will give up the curiosity that ought to distinguish the children of God. Because, as Marc also says, it is the human condition to ask questions and receive no plain answers. The Divine is, after all, ineffable.

‘The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in an argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.’ (p. 201)

Perhaps I should not be so philosophical and realize that the stanza means the struggles and sorrows of daily life, but even those are the crucibles that refine us and are the moments in which we ask our questions, so perhaps we should accept the good and the bad, and wish for the grace to live through both.

Well now, I think I shall go back to work on that Dissertation. This next chapter is on the Apocalypse, ironically enough. I may not be able to write about the Antichrist with a straight face…

Two books

golemThe Golem by Gustav Meyrink is probably a book I would not have picked up on my own. Bronnie, a fellow postgrad, loaned it to me, promising it would be interesting and creepy. I admit that it took me quite a while to read the first third of the book, then around page 100 the seemingly unconnected events began to come together and became very interesting indeed. This is a novel about the Prague ghetto legend of the golem, a creature made of clay and given life by a rabbi using the cabala. The ending does not claim to explain all, but it does make the first few chapters make sense, which is something. The Golem requires quite a bit of mind-bending and suspension of belief, and it also contained nuggets of really beautiful images.

nameoftheroseIf The Sparrow is baptism by immersion, then The Name of the Rose is an act of penance. I, as a professional-medievalist-in-training, am humbled by Umberto Eco’s erudition as a ‘hobby’ medievalist. I’ve said before that this might be the smartest pleasure book that I may read, and I think I may be right in saying so: this is a historical fiction novel that is true to its period. What can I say about this book?1 It is a book about books; about labyrinths, logic, faith and heresy. There are murders, yes, and a detective. The cast of characters are Franciscans and Benedictines—add Jesuits and you’d have all three of my favorite monastic orders (fear not, Jesuits make their appearance in The Sparrow). This book is smarter than I am, and thus I cannot tell yet if it is my favorite, but if it is any indication of status, I have shelved it between The Sparrow and The Dispossessed.2 There are too many quotes that I loved, and I cannot find them all again, so I shall leave with these two:

‘”In order for there to be a mirror of the world, it is necessary for the world to have a form,” concluded William, who was too much of a philosopher for my adolescent mind.’

‘I had always thought that dreams were divine messages, or at worst absurd stammerings of the sleeping memory about things that had happened during the day. I was now realizing that one can also dream books, and therefore dream of dreams.’

1 As usual, Kelly reviews books much better than I. Read her review of The Name of the Rose.
2 Because my current library is a mere satellite of the library I left back in Texas, I have been less strict in my organization. Books are where I can fit them.