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Ancient Ostrich Worship

Ancient Ostrich Worship

Charles, Duke of Lorraine by blood, was known to have once been in love with an ostrich, that was said to have belonged to his cousin Louis, the one-time King of Toulouse.  Could this have been the same Louis who may have been the mysterious author of the Nine Laws of the Lords of Light?  It was at least an intriguing possibility.  And if Louis was indeed the real author then this might explain why Charles never appears in any verifiable document known to historians.  In that case, we reasoned, the ‘Lords of Light’ must clearly be a code-name for the Masons, whose secret symbol we believed to have been a monk riding an ostrich.

The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place, but their implications were so explosively staggering in their incredible magnitude that we remained hesitant and skeptical.  Surely, we argued, if a secret alternate society of ostrich-riding masons were truly behind everything significant in history then there would at least be some kind of evidence.  But that was where we were wrong.

On October 17 1978 (a date whose symbolic significance escaped us at the time) we received an anonymous phone call from a man referring to himself only as ‘The Ostrich’.  After telling us his code name he said one word – ‘Austria’ – then hung up.

This seemingly innocuous central European toponym hit all of us like a thunderbolt as we scrambled for the Britannica.  Could it be mere coincidence that the word ‘Ostrich’ has the same basic semantic structure as the word ‘Osterreich’ (the Austrian for Austria)? Or that this word could possibly be translated as ‘The Eastern Empire’ (i.e. the Austro-Hungarian/Holy Roman Empire)? Furthermore, is not the East well-known as the source of many an exotic mystery? And, is the ostrich in fact not symbolically congruent with the ‘mythical’ roc, or phoenix, the magical bird that is able to resurrect itslef from the ashes?  In fact, is it not at least possible that the ostrich is a thinly-veiled reference to Jesus, who is well-known to have spent his formative years in the East (-ost = Host/Holy Ghost) learning secret teachings?

So what lay in wait for us in Austria?  What enormous secret, too monumental to reveal was veiled beneath the vaults of Vienna?  We got on the next train from Paris and sat right at the front.

[So I’m reading The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the whole thing is like this.  Got to finish it though so I can at least say I’ve read it, rather than slag it off by hearsay, and it is quite entertaining].

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Get ss to suggest adjective and noun pairs and write them in columns on the board:

ginger cat
rainy day
frothy coffee

etc.

Ss match unlikely combinations (WC-G-P) and have to explain why they work. This can be made into a points-based competition or fed mack to the class as mini presentations.

Ss could follow-up with short texts or mock dictionary definitions.

(Idea adapted from Five-Minute Activities by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright)

I picked up this book by Colin Wilson in the College Library.  It is a fascinating read.  Well-written, immensely knowledgeable (at times almost suspiciously so – how can anyone have really read that much?) and strongly opinionated.  Amusingly, Wilson pretty much condemns all the great novels and their producers as failures, for one reason or another, although he doesn’t ignore their strengths or importance.

While it is true that there is a little too much negativity, although that is one of the traits that Wilson means to target in his own critiques, there is something very refreshing about an author that is prepared to square up against the unassailable giants of literature and point out faults that many of us would secretly agree with if we didn’t want to be dismissed as ignorant buffoons.  Mind you, I had to hold myself back as he slagged off Beckett, dismissed Pynchon as ‘experimental only in form, not content’ and belittled Hesse.  Despite this, I have to say that I find many of his judgements to be fair, and most are at least partially justifiable.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is the lack of women writers.   Had Wilson bothered to include a few more females he might have gone a long way to solving his problems with the modern (for him male) novel.  It is even arguable, though possibly he never realised it, that the root of his dissatisfaction with the novel’s prospects in the 20th century is the very maleness of his choices.  Or maybe not.  The criticisms that Wilson levels at the ‘serious’ male writers might equally be marshalled against many canonical women writers too.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it takes fantasy seriously, rating the Lord of The Rings as one of the finest novels of the last 100 years and David Lindsay as one of the greatest writers.  Indeed, Wilson implies that such critically marginalised forms of the novel have stayed closest to the things he sees as its true purposes, among which are to reflect the writer’s fundamental self-image and to outline what it is that they truly want.  Wilson also emphasises the transformative power of the novel and its ability to allow the writer (and reader) to transcend the ‘robot’ self that exists within the everyday and see outside the box – using what he calls ‘wide-angle’ vision.

Still, even sticking to male authors as Wilson does, he missed a trick not mentioning Flann O’Brien, Mikhail Bulgakov, Olaf Stapledon and Karl May.  Oh, and Jack Vance of course.

There’s a good, somewhat bemused, review of this book by Olly Buxton on Amazon which is a bit more dismissive than I would be of it, although I agree with a lot of his points.  In spite of Wilson’s sweeping condemnations and sometimes pompous tones I found a lot to smile at and to think about.  A surprising and enjoyable find, although it’s not much help in terms of creative writing advice, which is the reason I picked it up in the first place…

I’ve been going through Dan Simmons’ entertaining and strongly opinionated series on ‘How to Write Well’. I highly recommend it if you are interested in reading advice on writing from someone who does it brilliantly and knows what he’s talking about, and who makes you laugh (and cringe possibly a bit too…)

One of the key things Simmons recommends is that we read the great classics, not to imitate them (god forbid!) but to deepen our appreciation and awareness of style, language and technique. I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, I’ve decided to ‘take him on’ and broaden my reading diet, particularly with the classic novels. Madame Bovary seems to be a particular recommendation of Simmons, who argues that it represents a fictional fault-line, a before and after moment for the novel. So, I thought that might be a good start – I know, it’s unbelievable I still haven’t read it. Have you?  I downloaded a free copy, well-rendered as a PDF, here.

Simmons also highlights Henry James as one of the greatest stylists in modern English, managing to capture vast import and subtlety into what he says and, above all, what he doesn’t say.

I happen to have a copy of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to hand and I decided to give it a go. It has some fine and chilling moments of horror, as well as an intriguing is she/isn’t she psychological plot-puzzle that has kept readers and critics entertained ever since its publication.

However, in my view, the style is somewhat opaque, particularly the dialogue, and is not a great model to learn from (except perhaps for what not to do). Nineteenth Century people may well have thought and spoke in the strangely periphrastic, stilted, and at times incomprehensible way that James makes them do here, it is hard for me to judge. But I’ve read Wilkie Collins and Dickens, and MR James for that matter, and their characters don’t seem to, unless it’s a particular trait and is fully intentional.

Simmons writes amusingly of his undergraduate attitude to Henry James and his layered style (he tried to avoid reading him as much as possible), but notes his growing appreciation for him as a master of deep and complex prose as he got older, and more experienced, as a writer.

I’m sorry to say, though, that I am still not convinced. So, in the spirit of fun, and to illustrate my problem with The Turn of the Screw, which I’ve heard so much about, and which has frankly disappointed me, I give you a sample from a lost early version of the story:

Whether he saw now the measure of it, or I of myself, was now no longer to be the question. If only, I forced myself to concede, it were. But no, that thought was merest whimsy, no more of the slightest possibility, or of even the grossest supposition or manner. Now, I was only too painfully aware, only the merest trace of what might not have been said or known was there left, mingling too unkindly with the sighs of the frosty evening air. But had I not known of it always? Was it for him, in that monstrous moment, to be vouchsafed that I, as it were, not from the want of it, but alone, as though at once, should perceive, in the most exquisite detail, the knowledge that he, were he only to share it with me in the merest instant or breath, to be? Was I that condemned? I think that if I had, at that precise instant, but paused a moment longer, to accept within myself the truth of it, then I would truly have been lost, As it was, the anguish of the instant all but rushed in upon my soul, and I confess I broke, with all the pent up fury and anger and hatred that the pettiness of not having known of it before could have meant, to him, for he it was, I understood that now, and I ran. Out into the silent garden, its cold embrace and bare winter branches seeming only to mock me now, and I flung myself down upon the close-cropped croquet lawn, and I wept. For how long, I shall never now recall, it might have been an eon. But at last, the sobs subsided and I returned, with slow and dreadful steps to the drawing room to watch a bit of tv.

There’s lots like that. Of course, I’ll give James another chance, and I’m aware I’m being very silly, but he’s lost some points with this story… unless the joke is on me and I have completely missed the point…

Perhaps the style is supposed to be like that as it reflects the state of mind and confusion and repression of the heroine. Oh dear… D**n you Henry James! You win again!

Into the labyrinth that is the web. Links and side-tracks.

Here is a typical evening’s trajectory, over a rum and tonic with bitters:

Matt Staggs’ post on Martin Millar → Ennis Drake‘s comment on the post → Berrien C HendersonBehind the WainscotFarrago’s Wainscot

And who is there, behind Farrago’s wainscoting? Ekaterina Sedia, Cat Rambo, Catherynne M Valente, Jeff Vandermeer and others, lurking, their blasphemous gibberings and scratchings whispering to my fevered brain…

A good debate is running on Matt Staggs’ site which he has also transferred to his guest spot on Ecstatic Days here. Naturally, I’ve plunged right in with some of my own pithy and insightful nuggets of wisdom.

Check it out and join in.

Bonin Islands Canoe

Bonin Islands Canoe

I’m doing some research for my novel (what lovely words to finally actually write), some of which will take place on a fictional island in the Bonin (aka Ogasawara) group, though I’m not sure the local tourist board will approve.

I found this excellent resource site by Daniel Long.

Unfortunately it looks like it was last updated in 2001 or earlier – another ‘ghost site’ – which is a real shame.

This is a beautifully crazy piece (not that I doubt any of it for a second) by Catherynne M Valente, related to a post of Jeff Vandermeer’s a while back on ‘how to write a novel in 2 months’.

Repeat after me: ‘I am a genius’…

I’m a little upset with Ursula Le Guin, which is not something I ever thought I’d say as I am a bit of a fan. You see, I just picked up my eagerly awaited copy of The Jack Vance Reader and unceremoniously cracked its collectible spine to get to ‘The Languages of Pao’, one of the few gaps left in my sadly shrinking still-to-read Vance list.

I was overjoyed to see that Le Guin had written the foreword, but I must say I winced when I noticed that she writes about Vance using the past tense. I hope I am still right in saying that he is alive. I know that he has had some serious problems with his eyesight and that he is getting on a bit, but I think it a little insensitive to refer to him as if he no longer exists.

In her piece, Le Guin says some thoughtful and generous things about Vance’s work and the novel in question. But later on she begins to attack it for its ideological failings, principally in terms of its ‘complete absence of active women characters’. Le Guin says that she ‘tried to see the story as a critique of male dominance’ but that because of this absence it was an ‘unconvincing’ reading. In the end, she sees the novel as ‘old-fashioned’ and inescapably masculinist, ‘an almost universal failing of the genre at that time’ – the book was first published in 1958.

I’m not so sure about this assessment. The absence of women seems to me to be so pronounced and their treatment in the story so awful (Le Guin is right when she says they are seen as mere appurtenances) that Vance is doing something deliberate, rather than just trundling obliviously down the chauvinistic super-highway. In the story, large numbers of women are procured by the megalomaniacal ‘Wizards’ for a period of ‘indenture’ during which they are expected to bear sons, and after which they are returned to their home planets with any daughters or other ‘defectives’ they have produced. Surely Vance is not simply unconsciously reflecting male mores of the day (I hope!) but consciously constructing a fictional society, a fable – like Animal Farm or The Left Hand of Darkness. Perhaps he exhibits a little too much of his trademark wry detachment and sometimes cruel irony, but, to me, the issue of the use and abuse of women by men fairly leaps off the pages of this novel screaming.

I do agree with Le Guin that is is a shame that there are no strong female roles here, but this is almost certainly intentional and it fits with the monstrous tone of the story. I know that Vance has been criticised for this before, but I would argue that, through almost all his work, the roles of men and women and their relative status, attitudes and treatment of one another are clearly addressed, though usually heavily satirized. For example, the ‘Flower of Cath’ episode in Planet of Adventure is a classic instance of his fictional portrayal of male-female relations, though not perhaps a very comfortable one. His oeuvre displays a range of finely nuanced and complex approaches to gender and other human issues and also has some notable examples of strong female lead characters: The Jacynth (largely holding her own in To Live Forever back in 1956), Wayness Tamm and Madouc spring to mind; there are many others.

I love Le Guin’s books. A Wizard of Earthsea (a novel that come to think of it is also notable for its lack of powerful women – Serret, Yarrow and the village witch notwithstanding – though I wouldn’t call it dated) is still one of my very favourite novels, as are The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. I’m glad Le Guin has expressed her views about Vance here – I’d love to know more – and it is refreshing to get some critical input in an anthology like this, as Vance has too often been afforded uncomfortable outpourings of sycophancy. But I am disappointed that she seems to be targeting this novel with resentments that may more justifiably have been pointed elsewhere.

I understand what everyone’s on about now. I got so used to just pressing the ‘delete all spam now’ button that I hadn’t stopped to smell the flowers. Just to be clear, here’s a sample before I zapped them. The first one could be relevant to Catherynne M Valente’s somewhat lewd posting involving inappropriate usage of vacuum cleaners by male poets.

Apologies to the Spam sensitive:

  • Dianna Holliday: Which Ones Really Work? We List The Top Penis Enlargement Products!‎ – Put on an average gain of 3.02 inches where it matters – and all gains are 100% permanent …
  • Gun: Afghan rebels kill 102 US soldiers‎ – Man refuses to help girl, gets killed…
  • giff venkat: Finest adamo offer‎ – look, medication overnite check out here…
  • Tammie Wiseman: Last news for Ina Blount‎ – Best Hottest video! All Over The Net…
  • MacLellan: Kidnapper at large in NY, dangerous‎ – Black dogs tear man apart…
  • noest: How to get rid love dysfunction‎ – Don’t be scared when you the size of my anaconda after 2 months …
  • nickum: Bear attack kills 3 in Atlanta zoo‎ – Playboy cover features Chelsea Clinton…
  • Marisol Lovett: 3 FREE Bottles Of VPXL !!‎ – Try it today – you have nothing to lose, just a lot to gain! “Ever since I started on your…
  • Jaycob: Lucky draw for free cruise trip‎ – FDA faulted over unapproved uses of medication – Fingernails found in hamburger…

There’s probably a fine story in there involving all the list elements…

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