1. i’ve been reading Stephen Donaldson’s recentish Fantasy novel, Fatal Revenant, volume 8 in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a series begun in the late 70s. Like a lot of Fantasy novels of this time, the first volume was clearly based on Tolkien, however it already had sufficient strangeness to set it apart (the hero is a leper who, Narnia-like, crosses from our world to “The Land”, a typical Fantasy world of magic and monsters etc., but he churlishly refuses to believe it or its inhabitants are real). The second book, The Illearth War, is one of my favourite novels, regardless of genre. The last 4 books, written a good 20 years after the series seemingly concluded, are weak – there’s a sense that Donaldson is recycling his basic obsessions (guilt, violence, betrayal, despair, madness redemption) without going deeper.  i wouldn’t recommend any Fantasy book to anyone who loathes the genre, because even the best (Katherine Kerr’s first 4 Deverry books, Ursula le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, The Illearth War, The Dark is Rising Sequence) would arouse only disgust in the non-believer.

2. Every book makes suppositions about reality, excluding certain possibilities, emphasising others. i can’t imagine a Jane Austen character in a Dostoevsky novel; or vice versa. Genre draws, perhaps, certain explicitly artificial demarcations and if you don’t accept these as even metaphorically real, or if you just find them dull, then you won’t like the books. The only genres i like are Fantasy and spy thrillers. While i think Science Fiction can develop ideas which would not be possible in realist “literary fiction”, i don’t like technology and have no interest in the future so tend to find such books hard-going. i keep bobbing up back to the surface and thinking “my God, not more Zanatec 9 clusters”. i can watch films – for example Gattaca, Blade Runner, Looper, Inception, Terminators 1 & 2, Aliens 1 & 2, 2001, The Matrix, the original Star Wars trilogy, Total Recall; with films, the director provides me with visuals i couldn’t imagine myself.

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i suppose i like Fantasy because i’ve long been dissatisfied by a purely materialist view of reality, find the mundane world of traffic jams, supermarkets, and soap operas not merely tedious but somehow implausible, and have always found magic easy to credit. i was surprised to find i liked spy thrillers but i think they tap into my sense of being alone and more or less powerless in a hostile world; a world where i can only survive by being extremely careful, like an agent behind enemy lines (one could say that this entire world is enemy territory for me); that is, i read spy thrillers as gnostic parables.

3. Fantasy is well suited to considerations of good and evil; because they are often semi-allegorically embodied. In Donaldson’s books, the interplay of good and evil is complex and almost impossible to disentangle. His heroes are often corrupted not by gold or ambition but by their own despairing love, into madness. In this latest book, the old hero Thomas Covenant somehow returns from the dead, as a half-spectral being, allegedly manifesting within time from the eternity of his habitation. The new Covenant is self-important, cold, with no patience for human flaws – he is almost as one might imagine an angel, perhaps the angel of Inferno, Canto 9. As i’m only 100 pages into the book i’m not sure if he is actually the old hero from the earlier volumes, or some kind of demonic imposter. However, i’m toying with the idea that he has simply been damagingly refined by eternity; that he has gained vision and power, but lost understanding and humanity. He antagonises everyone else, especially his old friend Linden – who is very much a living human within time, with all her flaws:

“Wisdom indeed,” the Theomach remarked to the forlorn multitude of the stars. Then he told Linden. “You have been well chosen, lady.”

“Hell and blood,” Covenant muttered at her back. “How did the two of you become such buddies? I’m the one who’s trying to save the damn world.”

“There is your error,” replied the Theomach over his shoulder. “You aim too high. The Earth is too wide and rife with mystery to be saved or damned by such as you.”

Donaldson often has characters of considerable vision and power, who overreach themselves and bring about disaster and woe. By contrast, his more ordinary characters are often decent, because they don’t attempt to extrapolate their limited knowledge to encompass the universe. It is those who believe they can (and should) save the world who nearly destroy it. Such lunacies are common to those with some intelligence and power, but without wisdom, self-doubt, or irony; they mistake flat sarcasm for irony, mechanical intelligence for wisdom. i think Donaldson is right that one stands more chance of doing good by living from day to day and responding to things as they happen, than with crusades and sword-waving epic struggles and whatnot. The mistake, i think, is to take what one understands as an absolute verity and to then suppose one has unlimited vision; it is a natural mistake, for we do not see an eyeball-shaped optical field: we seem to see the world as it is. One needs constant attention to as it were see the frame of the perceiving and thinking mind. If there is a use for philosophy it is to become aware of our simultaneous involvement with, and distance from, the world; that we seem to perceive things just as they are, and that our intelligence is (somehow) able to hold commerce with the world; and yet that we constantly beguile ourselves, because we are selves. As the Theomach character later says:

“My lord, I have no reply that will readily content you. The questing of those who seek for knowledge is by necessity oblique, instinctive, and indefinite. They themselves cannot name their object until it is discovered.”

i posted this quote on Facebook and a friend immediately commented “Losers”, explaining that those who seek for knowledge etc. are all losers. It’s true that to the hard-headedly practical any kind of oblique intelligence must seem worthless and ridiculous. For myself, i more and more feel that it’s impossible to assemble a coherent system of knowledge – knowledge i care about, anyway – that one can only collect fragmentary certainties and possibilities, and let connections emerge as they will. This would seem foolishly wishy-washy to most people; however, those who assembled vast systems of thought in the past now seem deluded and risibly confident. By contrast, Heraclitus is still worth reading – perhaps more because all that survives are fragments.

4. In The Power That Preserves, the third book in the Covenant series, a magician attempts to summon Covenant from our world to The Land, to save it from imminent destruction. Covenant is at this point hiking and has come across a child bitten by a poisonous snake; he has tried to drain the venom and is carrying the child through the woods to the nearest town. He resists the call, knowing that if he loses consciousness for a few hours in our world, as normally happens during these summonings, the child will die. The magician does not attempt to compel him and later says that it would have been wrong to force Covenant to come, even though the life of one child seems of no account weighed against an entire world. i feel that both Covenant and the magician made the right decision; and that once one ignores the present moment, once one rather privileges a vast abstraction over what is real, it is hard not to take the first steps into corruption. In Donaldson’s books this corruption leads to insanity and evil. In our ordinary, non-Fantasy world it leads to enormous self-importance, increasingly habitual rage, and profound dishonesty. i am grateful that some people i know have no political power for i have no doubt they would soon convince themselves of the need for re-education camps, gulags, executions and i would be a prime candidate for re-education, being as i am so ignorant and wrong-headed. They aren’t even bad people, as such – not sadistic or psychopathic, just absolutely free of irony or doubt, with enough intelligence to suppose themselves wise, and not enough wisdom to realise their folly.

So, there it is.

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