Risāla of The Violet Smile

There is indeed a cabal between poets and nightingales. Between poets and things that fly and sing in the night, that animate the trees’ branches where sounds and sweet airs tryst and disappear. In turn, this highlights the connection the poet has with that other daughter of nocturnal birds: the witch.

From Slippery Elm


The calcined stones come back.
The fallen temples come back,
The bursted whore houses, the green courtyards
Where the smile of Priapus
Keeps warm the memory of fountains.

My love, let us go along the vanished streets,
Across the bright geometry which still points
To mysterious love and hidden
Pleasures, still so sweet in the night.

Here is the house of the goddess. In the blue
Sanctuary, you can still smell the perfume.
Of sea foam and jasmine and
Carnations salty with her flesh.

The phallic symbol, jolly as ever
Riots in the thick foliage—stretched out
On the happy pan of the balance
Which offers it to love. It is heavier
Than all the fruits of the earth.
Aphrodite smiles in the shadows
As she feels the sea throb in her buttocks.

O ancient brightness! O far off light!
Naked light, love, shine on us always
And when the day comes when we are no more than stones,
After we too, my love, are only ruins,
Let us lie like these stones singing in the sun,
Leading others to love along our vanished ways.

—Rafael Alberti (trans. Kenneth Rexroth in his Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile)

Some say the lyric was born in exile. This is only partly true, as the lyric was born when language itself was born. Born from humans mimicking the cries of birds and beasts, of the sound of the rain in the branches. Of thunder, waves against the shore, and the reverberations that all of these made in the bodies of our earliest ancestors. Those bodies were humanity’s first instruments.

But the lyric does thrive in exile, and like a recalcitrant dandelion or wild rose breaking through layers of outworn concrete, it has always been reborn with renewed vigour at moments in history coloured by the fracturing of Empire and State. Moments where, through song, we are connected to our most primal beginnings.

The ancestor of vocalized human language is bird language. Therefore, birds have pride of place among the ancestors of poets, and there is no bird more emblematic of this relationship than the Nightingale.

Maria Rosa Menocal puts it thus:

In the beginning, the bird is all things: Zen object of contemplation, singer like the poet himself, solitary like the soul—or is it God?—mourning witness to the lover’s blight, innocent, joyful beauty itself—or is that the Lover? They are clan brothers (some say it is a cabal) these poets and birds, survivors from forever, from the age of dinosaurs, but they are still, stark on the horizon. They keep us guessing: is he our soul? is she my lover? is she the singer? Does he clarify? Does he mystify? Will he fly away, just as I thought I finally had him in sight?

There is indeed a cabal between poets and nightingales. Between poets and things that fly and sing in the night, that animate the trees’ branches where sounds and sweet airs tryst and disappear. In turn, this highlights the connection the poet has with that other daughter of nocturnal birds: the witch.

Empire and State are inimical to lyric poetry, and instead have tended to favour the epic and the panegyric. Hence the lyric thrives when these fall apart, or when it is banished and forced to re-inhabit the wilderness that bore it. This is the lyric nightingale that Mahmoud Darwish referred to in his ‘Diary of a Palestinian Wound’: And we came to know what makes the voice of the nightingale/ A dagger that shines in the face of invaders. A singing totem he inherited from Lorca, who inherited it from Don Luis de Góngora y Argote, who inherited it from the ghosts of Troubadours and the Moorish ghosts that still haunt the streets and flower covered patios of his native Córdoba.

The truest poet is the lyric poet, whether her voice be accompanied by the lyre, the harp, the guitar and hand claps of flamenco, the berimbau, or the kick-kick-snare of an adept beat-boxer.

Yet, by the standards of the contemporary literary establishment, and even by those of some small journals that fall on or just outside the margins of the mainstream, lyric poetry is derided and labelled mere ‘confessional poetry’. Nature is something to ignore, deny, or collect specimens of in small flasks to be later displayed in chic exhibitions. The lyrical celebrations of the joie of youth, the ecstasy and abandon of love, wine, and song, are considered immature and juvenile indulgences. Poetry, having lost its music and its duende reads more like the most sober of prose, despite the fact it is at times written out in stanzas, which is to say, despite it at times being dressed in the typographical garb of poetry. But even stanzas are on the wane as more and more poets abandon them in favour of the ‘prose poem’, under pressure to constantly seek out new visual forms and to adopt a posture ‘more-avant-garde-than-thou’. Otherwise, they get scarce or no attention from many mainstream editors and judges who care little for music, magic, or strength of poetic vision, yet care much for what they consider to be the most topically trendy and formally ‘cutting edge’.


Gone is Enheduanna. Gone are Sappho and Catullus. Gone the scops. (The griots would be gone were it not for the emcees true to the elements, though the work of these are hardly ever considered literature). Gone wild Majnūn driven mad by his lost Laila. Oisín and others like him have disappeared in Fairy never to return. The descendants of William of Aquitaine have forgotten how to trobar. The wish of Novalis was granted; his soul was erased by the love the night brings. Baudelaire’s spleen exploded. The lyric tree that Lorca sought to prune to make it flower again all the more exuberant and beautiful, that lonely wind-blasted fairy thorn, that Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii, that wide-leafed poison-milk witch’s fig, has been given to the axe and sold for pulp.

Modern ‘Western’ civilization banished the Nightingale long ago, and instead claims as its ancestor the Empires of the Classical world. In simple terms, the modern ‘Western’ telling of history goes as follows: Our civilization was born with Classical Greek civilization, and was further developed by the Romans until their empire fell apart. Then the lights went out for about a thousand years until the advent of the Modern period and beginnings of the Nation-State in 1492.

This is the grand récit or master narrative that has been told and re-told over the centuries and is still the dominant model employed by the textbooks of today. What seldom appears even in our contemporary textbooks is the detail that this narrative was written by Renaissance scholars who tended to re-write history to the tune of their own ideologies and political agendas, or to those of the politicians to whom they rendered service.

Thanks to these scholars and their intellectual descendants, to this day, the medieval period is often thought to be a synonym for ‘the dark ages’, for what is archaic and outworn, a wrinkle in the fabric of progress, of the smooth linear telling of ‘Western’ history.

But nightingales sing in the dark, and the fracturing of the Roman empire brought about a whole cacophony of ‘vulgar’ Romance vernaculars, vernaculars that co-existed and co-mingled with various Berber languages as well as a great number of Hebrew and Arabic dialects and hybrids with Romance. And of course, the poems that were composed and sung in all of these.

It is important to recall that what were the ‘dark ages’ for ‘Europe’ was the ‘Classical’ or ‘Golden Age’ for Islamic civilization. However, the fact the lyric favours political splintering is still reflected, to give one example, in the explosion of poetry in the badi’ style, a literary heresy closely associated with religious heresy, that was cultivated in Al-Andalus during the taifa period after the disintegration of the Umayyad derived caliphate there.

The Nation-State has no room for the lyrical riot of voices, languages, and cultures living together in the intimate conditions (an intimacy that bore dazzling cultural fruits, alongside some violent conflicts) that characterized what came to be known as the ‘medieval’ period. It makes perfect sense that the historians of the Renaissance re-wrote history to smooth over the expulsions, ethnic cleansings and linguistic discriminations that had to happen in order for the Nation-State to come into being. The dominant aesthetic of the Renaissance is derived from the smooth symmetries of Classical taste in art, of well defined categories and identities, and in some instances, of the mute and minimal. This is the aesthetic of the cool, smooth and well-polished pearl, and not the ‘cacophony’ or spectacular lyric excesses of much medieval art and literature, or their younger cousin the Baroque, a word thought to come from the Spanish barrueco, which literally means a rough or imperfect pearl.

In many ways, just as Modern civilization claims its roots in Classical civilization, so too does Modern literature and art in many ways drink from the fountains of Classical aesthetics. This perfect pearl and the polished and learned cherub voices that sing its praises are a far cry from la perle en brute, raw and natural, robust and godly as the kiss of Pan.

The Romantics challenged this view and sought inspiration in the often politically fractured yet culturally fertile medieval period, while they simultaneously fought against the societal changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. However, the engines of Modernity proved too powerful to bind with lyric enchantments. This is reflected in the tastes of the contemporary literary establishment referred to above, and in the meanings the term ‘romantic’ has come to be associated with.

Nowadays, ‘romantic’ is often used as a synonym for ‘escapism’, ‘whimsical nostalgia’, or ‘hollow fantasy’, and has been mostly emptied of its political connotations. Far from an attempt to escape reality, Romanticism is really a passionate and fearless plunge into the very marrow of the same. The edict of the English Romantics was to call for love, wine, and snuff until you cry out ‘Hold, enough!’, yet at the same time be tempered by the tranquility and ferocity of Nature, to get out walking in the rain and mud. To dive in and Live. In its truest sense, it does not project some hollow fantasy onto a cold stark inert reality, rather, it asserts that Reality in and of itself is inherently magical. All of it. The whole spectrum of existence and experience, from joy to suffering, youth to old age, is innately imbued with spirit and wonder. This only ceases to be the case when one changes the syntax with which they communicate with reality, a change that is often associated with the loss of childhood innocence.

Surely, to focus obsessively on one’s ‘self’ does no service to poetry. And yet, the age old axiom stands: as above so below; as within, so without. The lyric poet is not given to self-indulgence, but to feeling the world so deeply, seeing it so profoundly, that their own soul is erased in the soul of the world. Think of the anonymous lyrics of popular or ‘folkloric’ poetry, in these, the ‘lyrical I’ belongs to no one but the Wind. How wise the youth, who knows the insights and feelings they have are unique and ephemeral, knows there is oh so much more to learn, and takes advantage of all of their joie in employing Death as copy editor. How wise the elder who defeats death by kindling the black flame of their innocent heart.

The Countess, by Wild Grace

Romanticism, the age old lyric traditions that it in some way preserves, as well as the traditions it inspired that in some senses parted ways from it, are bearers of the Violet Smile. The violet smile of true poetry, a smile beyond the fictitious divides of literary currents, languages, and time periods imposed by the most learned poetry critics and their anthologists. That smile at once innocent, wise and mischievous that seems to say ‘I-know-a-secret-that-you-don’t-know-but-I-can-show-it-to-you-if-you-but-come-with-me-and-take-my-hand…’

It is a sad thing that today ‘romantic’ is used as a derision. If a poet is inspired by the Romantic current, she or he usually feels a pressure to apologize for it.

Furthermore, the notion that Romanticism is not political is utterly false. We see this in Wordsworth’s alleged activity as ‘undercover agent’ around the time of the French Revolution, in the radical activities of Shelley with his infamous Masque of Anarchy, and those of Blake with his Proverbs of Hell to give a few examples.

Detail from the ‘Troubadour Casket’

There is a reason that the incendiary book that sparked the Romantic revolution in English was titled Lyrical Ballads. Surely, lyric poetry has a long history of political commitment. Think of Dante in exile, champion of the vernacular poets, of the Troubadours, of the sweet new style. Think of the Troubadours themselves, often considered heretics by their opponents. Their connections to Catharsim is noteworthy, but it’s not the whole story, nor is it analogous to the ‘heresy’ expressed by many Troubadours and Trobairitz. This is due to the Cathars’ denial of sex and the body, whereas the heresy of the Troubadours was more often a fin’amour whose physical consummation (when consummation was to be had) was celebrated before or as dawn broke, as demonstrated by the l’alba genre. This heresy was decidedly a religion of love, or, dīn al-hawā to use the equivalent Arabic term.

 

We can go back further and think of the aforementioned poets of taifa period Al-Andalus whose poetic model with all its lyrical, anarchic, and debauched mystical components was absorbed by their neighbours north of the border of the taifa of Zaragoza (in Arabic, Saraqusta). Let’s not forget that William of Aquitaine was a brother of arms to some members of the Banū Hūd of Zaragoza. It is clear the Occitan verb trobar from which the Troubadours take their name, is connected with ṭaraba, if not the Arabic verb itself adopted into the Occitan language. The meaning of the verb root ṭ-r-b and its derived forms is as follows: Arabic Verb Form I: to be moved (with joy or grief); to be delighted, be overjoyed, to be transported with joy; Arabic Verb Form II: to delight, enrapture, gratify; to sing, vocalize, chant; Arabic Verb Form IV: to delight, fill with delight; enrapture, gratify, to make music; to sing, vocalize, chant; to play music (with object pronoun, “for someone”), to sing (with object pronoun “for someone”). This has been more than demonstrated by many scholars over the years, and in recent years we can highlight the work of Cynthia Robinson that I have drawn upon here. And yet, sadly, due to ideological reasons, this is something many Romance philologists and medievalists continue to deny at all costs.

The legacy left behind by the notorious Abū Nūwās and others like him who used homoerotic lyrics to subvert the religious and political authorities of Abbasid Baghdad was carried on by the taifa sovereigns and their poet-courtiers, who took things to a whole new level in being themselves kings who subverted the very notions of kingship. With their poems of love and praise to the charming, coquettish and somewhat androgynous Cupbearer (androgynous and gender-blurring whether this Cupbearer was a boyish young woman, or, more often, an effeminate young man, and very frequently an eroticization of the Christian Other) completely pulled the rug out from under the rigid commonplace hierarchies…

Let it be known that whether sung to as rosinhols in Occitan, or ‘andalīb in Arabic, the undeniable totem of both of these groups of poets was our lyric Nightingale.


Returning to Romanticism. It should be specified that Romanticism itself is far from homogenous, and when we use that term we are referring to a wide range of thinkers and artists across a wide range of languages and political landscapes, and across a time-frame whose start and end dates are rarely the subject of agreement. Furthermore, I am in no way advocating any sort of ‘neo-romanticism’ (whatever that means) and understand there are also aspects of Romanticism worthy of critique.

In any case, much of this has been forgotten or denied. After Shelley ‘suffered a sea change’, so to speak, in what can almost be seen as a strange poet’s offering to the gods of the ocean, his washed up dead body was thrown into a bonfire on a beach at Viareggio. The story goes that this was done by, or at least done in the presence of, his friends Lord Byron, Edward Trelawney, and Leigh Hunt. His heart was alleged to have been salvaged and kept as a keepsake by his widow and fellow writer Mary Shelley in a silver case. Yet for many, that charred-black heart, its silver coffer, and the Memory behind it were cast back into the sea.

 

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier

In the succeeding years, after the Victorian poets entered stage Right, we arrive at the advent of literary Modernism, and with it, a strange paradox comes into play. While ideologically very different than the Romantics, much of Victorian era poetry can still be described as lyrical. This might have less to do with the poets themselves and more to do with their environment. In the nineteenth century, magic and a ‘magical worldview’ was on the wane but still had a considerable foothold, especially in rural areas. ‘Western’ civilization was becoming industrialized at an even more alarming rate but wild nature was not yet so suffocated by concrete and smog.

In contrast, while Modern poetry flung open the doors for experimentation it closed them on the lyric. Modern poetry can hardly be called lyrical, and some would argue that it should not even be called poetry. There are of course exceptions. Whitman is hailed as a ‘father’ of Modern poetry for flinging open the doors in his espousal of free verse, but his were songs primarily to the open road, not to the city street choked by pollution. Also, the fact his poems were meant to be ecstatically chanted, combined with their intensely personal nature, makes them, in a way, lyrical.

Or ee cummings with his nod to the medieval lyrics in “All in green went my love riding”. With cummings we have a formally and orthographically experimental poet when one first sees his poems upon the page, but all his experimentation is done in the service of music and lyrical themes, as it must be. In many cases, it’s less the Modernists themselves who are responsible for the prevailing derision of the lyric in contemporary poetry. The guilty party is more so the critics who the Modernists were posthumously enshrined by, and many of the poets of later decades taken to ‘avant-garde’ posturing.

It is notable that in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, a film that presents a reasonably broad panorama of the Modernist dramatis personae, that two of the most famous poets in their respective languages, poets who often get lumped in with the Modernists by the critics and anthologists, would be conspicuously absent. These are Federico García Lorca and William Butler Yeats, poets that in large part can only be considered Modernists if you deem them guilty by association.

It matters little if each of these poets pruned the lyric tree of his respective tradition, but in the connections they maintained with the land beneath their feet, with its folklore and the spirits that imbue even rocks with life; they represent something quite different. Lorca’s entire oeuvre—even the plays!—have been sung and absorbed by flamenco lyric tradition. Yeats’ poems have also been sung and there are few poets in English who have such an exquisite sense for the musicality of language as he does.

Both these poets lived during the ‘Modernist era’ in literature and were associated with some of modernism’s biggest names, yet while others were looking forward they were looking backward. Each in his own way and toward different ends carried out a mobilization of folklore, to borrow a phrase from Peter Grey & Alkistis Dimech.

These poets defy rigid classification into any particular literary current. This is to be expected from any poet whose output is based upon trafficking with fairies and duendes. It is worth mentioning that modernismo in Spanish literature is different from modernism in English, and, as exemplified by the bacchic and pagan Ruben Darío, in some ways is much closer to Romanticism.

Also, different languages got their modernisms at different times. Modernism or the term ‘modernist’ should never be used as a mere synonym for what is ‘revolutionary’, ‘iconoclastic’, or ‘innovative’. What differentiates modernists proper from their innovative counterparts of all time periods, are the specific connections those innovations have with modernity, with industrial civilization.

In Yeats’ case, Yeats the magician is incompatible with Yeats the modernist hence the omission or enormous understatement of this facet by subsequent anthologists, a facet which is more than a bit important to arrive at a nuanced understanding of both the man and his work.

Of course, there are also magical aspects to the work of T.S. Eliot but these are expressed in a completely different way. In his short essay “Modern Poetry is Prose”, Lawrence Ferlinghetti makes the following commentary:

“Modern poetry is prose because it sounds as subdued as any city man or woman whose life force is submerged in urban life…Like modern sculpture, it minimized emotion in favor of understated irony and implied intensity. As such it is the perfect poetry for technocratic man…And the nightingales may still be singing…but we can hardly hear them in the city waste lands of T. S. Eliot, nor in his Four Quartets (which can’t be played on any instrument and yet is the most beautiful prose of our time). Nor in the prose wastes of Ezra Pound’s Cantos which aren’t canti because they couldn’t possibly be sung. Nor in the pangolin prose of Marianne Moore (who called her writing poetry for lack of anything better to call it)…nor in the outer city speech of William Carlos Williams, in the flat-out speech of his Paterson. All of which is applauded by poetry professors and poetry reviewers in all the best places, none of whom will commit the original sin of saying some poet’s poetry is prose in the typography of poetry—just as the poet’s friends will never say it—the dumbest conspiracy of silence in the history of letters…Most modern poetry is poetic prose but it is saying plenty, by its own example, about what death of the spirit our technocratic civilization may be dealing us, enmeshed in machines and macho nationalisms, while some continue longing for some nightingale among the pines of Resphigi. It is the bird singing that makes us happy.”


Woman injured during Catalan referendum, October 1st 2017

It is in a mesh of macho nationalisms that I find myself in at this very moment. Indeed, that we are are all increasingly finding ourselves in. Since the events of October 1st in Catalunya I have walked the streets of Granada and seen the city become gripped in a fit of flag fetishism. The gazpacho-red and paella-yellow banner of Spain has been unfurled over numerous balconies throughout the city centre, and anti-Catalan sentiments (with a healthy dose of renewed hate speech toward ‘Rojos’ and environmental activists) are in the process of reaching a witch-hunt-esque fever pitch.

Only individuals as despicable as Mariano Rajoy and his government can make the perhaps equally ill-reputable Carles Puigdemont look like the victim, or worse, a hero, from the perspective of governments and media sources outside of Spain. Yet within the Spanish mainstream, Rajoy, the National Police and the Civil Guard are seen as the heroes for giving the Catalans a paliza or beating of which they are considered to be the well deserved recipients. Tragic to see ones neighbours and friends enveloped in Spanish flags; tragic when one sees this in their own extended family, and even more tragic when members of that family were killed or imprisoned for fighting against, or disagreeing with, the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Fascists come in all shapes and sizes, they come from the Right and they come from the Left (cf. the policies of Getulio Vargas in Brazil in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s), but perhaps one of the most clear and universal hallmarks of fascism on the government level is openly state-sponsored violence to effectuate political coercion. This is Rajoy’s idea of an, and I quote ‘amiable’ democracy:

Is it any small wonder the heraldry of the Civil Guard, the heraldry painted on all of their vehicles, is a sword crossed with a fasces?

 

Rajoy is the head of a party (Partido Popular) founded on the same ‘España, una, grande, y libre’ ideology of Franco, Primo Ribera, and The Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando before them. A party founded on ‘Christianist’ principles, or in other words, principles of ‘political Christianity’ (cf. Islamism or ‘political Islam’). The PP thrives off of insurgent Basque and Catalan activity and more recently Islamic terrorism because it needs them as external demons in order to make every one feel more ‘united’ and ‘together’ under a flag that stands for stolen Gold and spilt Blood. We all know that Catalunya is Spain’s economic and industrial powerhouse and therefore the Spanish government cannot afford to let them separate, but ironically, the PP also benefits from what is happening due to the widespread awakening of Spanish nationalist sentiment it has aroused, swelling in power like a blood-fattened tick. It’s worth pausing and asking another question. Is it any small wonder the tragic attacks of this past August happened in Barcelona just a month and a half before the referendum?

All of this is directly related to our discussion of Empire, State, and the lyric. In order to understand why let us return to our commentary on mainstream historiography and consider the year 1492 in a bit more detail. We all know it as the year that Columbus and his crew ‘discovered’ the New World, and some people also know it as the year the Catholic Monarchs finally took control of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada—an event that meant the end of what remained of Al-Andalus and the birth of Spain. Others know it as the year the Sephardic Jews were expelled from the peninsula, but few know that in addition to all this, on the 18th of August that same year—just a few weeks after Columbus set sail—1492 saw the first publication of the first Castilian grammar, codifying that language and establishing its hegemony in the Iberian Peninsula, a linguistic hegemony that it still enjoys. Spanish, when referring to the language, is a misnomer. The language is referred to here as castellano, in the same way it is also referred to in much of Latin America. Spanish, like the Spain it refers to, in reality does not exist, but were founded, like most nations, on ideological fictions. It was this cacophonic cultural pluralism of Galician, Catalan, Euskara (Basque) Aragonese, Hebrew, Arabic, Berber, Caló—and all the hybrids between them and different dialects of the same—that had to be smoothed over to create modern Spain, highlighted by historians as a prime example of the beginnings of the Nation-State. This is one of the dead horses of the medieval period that was thrown overboard in the calm seas of the Horse Latitudes (between 30 & 38 degrees North and South), as Menocal insightfully showed us, sacrificed in order for the winds of progress and modernity to blow, in order for Columbus’ ships to be able to continue sailing onwards toward a brave new world.

Keep in mind that Castilian (especially in its Andalusian and Valencian varieties) is absolutely chock-a-block with words derived from Arabic (arabisms); indeed, even Catalan has arabisms but to a lesser extent. It should not be forgotten that once upon a time the area that would come to be known as Catalunya was also part of Al-Andalus.

The Reconquista, the Spanish nation’s most beloved myth, is exactly that, a myth. Spain did not exist at the time of the so called Reconquista and numerous scholars have challenged the degree to which the different Christian Crowns considered themselves to be engaging in a re-conquista as they went about making land grabs to the South and in the Balearic Islands, not to mention fighting amongst themselves. Berbers have always been crossing the Straight of Gibraltar, have always lived in and done business with the peoples of Iberian Peninsula, and before they were converted to Islam, many were Christian and some even Jewish (cf. al-Kāhina). If Morocco belonged to Christians and was later conquered by Muslims, by the same twisted rhetoric of the Reconquista, that would give Christians the right to ‘reconquer’ Northern Africa, something that only the most despicable members of Spanish society would advocate. The vast majority of the Spanish flag wearers and ‘¡Arriba España!’ chanters would find this barbarous.

Also, scholars like the incendiary Emilio Gonzalez Ferrín deny that there was a Muslim conquest in Spain, hence the ceaseless efforts of Right-wing oriented scholars to silence him and punch holes in his research, for naturally, if there was no conquest, there cannot be any reconquest. Gonzalez Ferrín insists that what happened in the Iberian Peninsula was not a conquest, but a revolution, or a gradual process that slowly assimilated Islam and Islamic culture over time. He makes the following points: All the sources that describe the conquest were redacted much much later than the events they describe. The population in the south was largely Arian Christian rather than Catholic; Arians deny the trinity so their beliefs are actually very similar, or at least compatible with, those of Islam. How could it have been possible for some 300 ragtag soldiers (the oft cited 10,000 from the sources is likely highly exaggerated) to conquer just about the entire Iberian Peninsula in a few short years—taking into account the very difficult topography—when it took the Romans almost 200 years to do the same? These are all mysteries that the appearance of a coin from the 8th century whereupon it is written Muhammed is the prophet of God fall very short of answering.

Whatever the case, there is fortunately a growing new generation of Arabists, Hebraists, and Romance philologists who are committed to using their disciplines to destroy the toxic myths of Nations and Nationalism, and not the other way around, as has been the case for much of the previous century and earlier. Indeed, philology has been used on equal-footing as that other most powerful way for the greedy and power hungry to prove their nations: War. And in the ostensible absence of war, international sports (the World Cup, the Olympics). No Spaniard feels so Spanish as when they see la selección nacional take to the pitch, nor when Spain wins the World Cup. It arouses pride in those who don’t even like football, and in pretty much all Spanish citizens, be these catalans, vascos gallegos, aragoneses, castellanos, or the andaluz ‘más gitano’.

Mastering philology is one of our keys to mastering reality, to unravelling the grand récit and making room for all those other voices that don’t make the canons of national literature, for the lyric poets singing in the streets and leafy bowers. To speak with Bob Kaufman, for all those ships that never sailed, the ones left scuttled in their stalls with their seacocks open. Ships that could have sailed toward a very different future than the one brought about by Columbus’ voyage and the events surrounding it. Today we bring them back Huge and intransitory And let them sail forever.

All reality is quantity and quality. Numbers give the quantity, words give the quality. Hence operative kabbalah or other (almost all?) magical systems that employ numbers and words—the true roots of all things—to make change in the world. Languages come from the elements, from roots (cf. Empedocles). We see this so clearly in Hebrew and Arabic in that all words are derived from verbs of three (and some two and four) letter roots. Verbs are superior to nouns, because they represent the animating principles that substantiate nouns, that make them move. Therefore, we can flip the adage of the concrete and very ‘modern’ William Carlos Williams: No ideas but in movement.

As Empires and States continue to crumble, now’s to declare our intent in all our myriad babel tongues, in all our lyric and varied voces magicae: the homecoming of love (and wild nature) among illustrious ruins.

 


Slippery Elm

Slippery Elm’s poetry and prose in English and Spanish have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies in both Europe and North America. He has performed as a part of flamenco groups in Europe, Africa, and North America, in courtly settings, as well as in the streets, by hearth corner, and under leaf. He is the editor and translator of the poetry anthology Your Death Full of Flowers and the author of two pocket poetry books. He compliments his poetry and dance by studying Arabic and Hebrew philologies.


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Rebellion and the Gods

 

The Problem of Evil has been a central problem for monotheism for millennia. If God is Good how can it allow the innocent to suffer? If God is All-Powerful why can’t it stop this suffering? Therefore: either God isn’t Good, isn’t All-Powerful, or doesn’t exist at all. This challenge has never been presented as well as in Dostoevsky. There, the intellectual and highly educated Ivan presses his younger brother Alyosha, who is training to become a monk, on the point.

“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”
“That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.
“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly, “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge you — answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy forever?”
“No, I can’t admit it,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes…
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov,  Constance Garnett trans.)

Ivan’s approach to the problem is slightly unique, since he isn’t interested in arguing about the existence or non-existence of God. Rather, he uses the argument to reject the world and conclude that the only proper response to the problem of evil is to reject the unjust world God has made and “return the ticket” that is his life. Alyosha is quick to strike upon the answer appropriate to ‘true believers,’ to ask such questions is to challenge God. It is to engage in rebellion. Yet still, as a sensitive boy who cares about the world, Alyosha cannot help but be drawn into Ivan’s rebellion. 

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“Fyodor Dostoevsky” by Vasily Perov

There is always something of rebellion about taking seriously the Problem of Evil. To ask such questions seriously is to question God’s plan, to say nothing of the divine goodness, power, and existence. When we are provoked by such concerns, the ‘true believer’ points out, it is a test of faith. We must acquiesce to the power, goodness, and wisdom of God despite all evidence to the contrary. It is a test of faith, a test of obedience. The question of evil, of the suffering of innocents, is indivisible from the possibility of rebellion against that entity from which such suffering ultimately comes–either because it is designed or because it is allowed.

The question of the Problem of Evil is mostly unknown to Pagan cultures. There are several fairly obvious reasons why this is so, and several more interesting less obvious reasons. On the surface there is no problem of evil in most Pagan cultures because the Gods are not understood to be perfectly good or all-powerful. What consists of blasphemy for most monotheists, i.e. admitting that God isn’t perfect, is fairly standard within Pagan cultures.

On a deeper level, however, the metaphysics and theology embedded in a Pagan worldview does not allow for an absolutist’s singular understanding of Goodness. There are goods, multiple and varied, and from the top to the bottom the cosmos is plural and irreducible to one standard of judgment. This means that many Gods can all be good and yet these forms of goodness can conflict or fail to overlap. This is one reason why Socrates’ questions as to the nature of virtue in general are so often met with confusion. The people with whom he spoke weren’t idiots, their metaphysics was just one in which distinct individual realities weren’t reducible to abstract entities such as “Goodness in-itself by-itself.” 

Socrates: Come then, let us examine what we mean. An action or a man dear to the gods is pious, but an action or a man hated by the gods is impious. They are not the same, but quite opposite, the pious and the impious. Is that not so?
Euthyphro: It is indeed.
Socrates: And that seems to be a good statement?
Euthyphro: I think so, Socrates.
Socrates: We have also stated that the gods are in a state of discord, that they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with each other. Has that, too, been said?
(Plato, “Euthyphro” Grube trans.)

Although not addressing the Problem of Evil, the Platonic dialogue the “Euthyphro” does explore the nature of goodness under the heading of “piety” and its relation to the Gods. Indirectly it raises the problematic question of whether or not the Gods are really good, or rather just powerful, which underlies one of the challenges embodied in the later Problem of Evil. If we are going to arrive at a unified understanding of the Good, or that version of it found in piety, we are going to have to reject the multiplicity of the Gods, Socrates insists. With multiple Gods there can be no singular definition of piety, or ultimately virtue and goodness. 

Plato is pushing his own agenda in the dialogues, one that consists of a rejection of the Gods of archaic poetry and myth in favor of eternal, perfect, inhuman, and unchanging divine principles. For this reason we should not be surprised to find Socrates’ debate partners so willing to give ground on the abstract unity of goodness. I must confess to wishing Euthyphro himself were just a bit smarter and, to put it bluntly, a bit more Greek. Then he might have asked “Why precisely should I be concerned to come up with a unifying general definition of piety or goodness? What makes this necessary? May not ‘good’ or ‘pious’ be meant in many senses — senses derived from many and different Gods?” Alas we do not get this dialogue.

What we do get in the Euthyphro dialogue is the clear connection of any discussion of goodness and the Gods to the topic of rebellion. From the beginning Euthyphro, an Athenian priest, is informed in his view of the Gods by their conflict, and highest in this list of conflicts is that between Zeus and his father Chronos, along with Chronos’ own overthrowing of his father Ouranus. Each of these conflicts is, by definition, a rebellion against previously legitimate authority. For Euthyphro and the Pagans of Ancient Greece, rebellion is a central characteristic of the cosmos. Socrates, in seeking a unified Good, rejects both rebellion amongst the Gods and any legitimacy for rebellion against the Gods.

This is far from the norm, however, as stories such as Heracles’ rescue of Prometheus from the official punishment of Zeus attest. In fact, Pagan cultures in general are full of stories of humans tricking Gods, bargaining with them, stealing from them, and defeating them. Of course, more often, the human fails in its rebellion. But it nonetheless remains a legitimate potential relationship between Gods and humanity. Beyond open rebellion there is the more nuanced conflict between human adherents of conflicting Gods identifying themselves as taking part in the larger divine conflict.

The political implications of these points should be clear. How we relate to what we might call the cosmic chain of command can’t help but have implications for our relationship to worldly political structures. This is why, despite obvious preferences for forms of monarchy in divine hierarchies, I have frequently argued that the heart of the Pagan understanding of cosmic and divine hierarchy is temporary, unstable authority open to challenge and built out of tentative compromises. Likewise, a similar point can be made for a Pagan attitude towards worldly authority. All authority is fleeting and open to contestation. 

We find brief echoes of this Pagan world of contested authority in elements of the Judaic worldview of the so-called Old Testament. We see it most strikingly in Abraham’s willingness to bargain and argue with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet this vision is all too brief. It is replaced in the memory of history by the more striking obedience of Abraham, an obedience willing to do what Alyosha could not and build a future world on the innocent blood of a child — Issac, Abraham’s own son. Whether or not the murder is required of him at the end, Abraham makes clear that he is willing to kill the child at God’s behest. He obediently endorses the suffering of the innocent.

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Elie Wiesel

It is the vision of Abraham arguing with God, however, that the Nobel Laureate, writer, Holocaust survivor, and Judaic theologian Elie Wiesel turned to in making sense of the state of faith following the Holocaust.

Elie Wiesel used to give three public lectures in Boston every year, and for many years the first lecture was always about the “Book of Job.” I was fortunate enough to see Wiesel lecture on the “Book of Job” four times and his view largely informs my own engagement with the Problem of Evil. Wiesel found the “Book of Job” to be the most important book of the Bible for the post-Holocaust world. It is also, read a certain way, the darkest moment of the entire Bible. It is a book that raises the question of the Problem of Evil, of why innocents suffer, and it strikingly fails to provide any answer to the question.

Job, his family killed and everything but his own life taken from him because of a wager God made with Satan, asks for an explanation from his God. God answers, in an overpowering whirlwind, with a show of power but offers no answers. In the book itself, Job obediently humbles himself and asks for forgiveness for having questioned his God and is rewarded with a “new family” (how inadequate this is, Wiesel notes, in the face of the loss of the first).

Wiesel, however, frequently suggested that the real end of the book might have been removed, lost, or changed. What he wanted of Job was more in the spirit of Abraham when faced with God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Job should refuse to accept God’s power as an adequate answer to the question of God’s righteousness. In short, in the face of the Holocaust, the appropriate answer of the believer should be to demand an explanation, to accuse God while remaining stalwart in belief. Whether intentionally or not, there is a strong echo of Ivan in this stance and it is indeed a type of rebellion. 

What allows for rebellion, whether potential or actual, in Heracles, Euthyphro, Abraham, and Wiesel is clearly not just a pluralistic understanding of divinity as could be found in Heracles and Euthyphro but not easily found in Abraham or Wiesel. Instead, something else is shared by each of these examples. You could call it a sense of divine personality.

Looking to Classical Greece (a penchant of mine that I fear may vex my readers from time to time) is useful because it allows us to see a culture in which the understanding of almost every major concept is in dramatic flux. In Greece we can witness the transition from an oral to a literate society, and in this transition we see a cognitive revolution the likes of which we can rarely capture with such clarity. In Greece around the time of Plato, for example, we can witness three wildly distinct ideas of divinity at full war with one another.

First, we see the oldest sense of divinity, in which the gods have bodies and fully individualized and distinct personalities in a theology free of abstract reductionism to impersonal universal principles. In such a cosmos personality is primary.

Next we see the revolution being staged by several Pr-Socratic philosophers in service of what we would today call naturalism. These thinkers propose, to risk putting it in our contemporary terms, that we understand the Gods in terms of basic laws and structures of natural material reality. Anaximenes, for example, suggests that everything is constituted out of air and that even the Gods can be understood as formed from air. The rules governing the condensation and dispersion of air will be the basic level to which we can reduce all other realities, even divine ones.

[Anaximenes] attributed all the causes of things to infinite air, and did not deny that there were gods, or pass them over in silence; yet he believed not that air was made by them, but that they arose from air.
(Augustinus on Anaximenes; Kirk, Raven, Schofield trans.)

Finally we have the complete abstraction of divinity carried out by Plato and the later Neo-Platonists in which the highest level of reality are divine principles as abstract as entities such as “The Good Itself” and “The Beautiful Itself.” Plato and later thinkers are consistent in insisting that these abstract perfections can’t accurately be considered in terms of any natural parallels, whether animal or human. These are divinities without personality.

It is from this revolution-through-abstraction that theology will draw its picture, filtered through Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in different ways, of what we could call the “God of the Philosophers.” This is a Perfect, Good, All-Powerful, All-Knowing, All-Seeing something that cannot possibly take on personality without engaging in a contradiction. How can the All-Powerful need anything from humanity, even love or obedience? How can it desire anything if it is Perfect and thus complete? How can it be influenced by our actions without being thus limited in its power? How can it change, since any change from Perfection can only constitute a fall? It is this God that births the Problem of Evil as we know it today.

The “Good” of this infinite, eternal, perfect something is undefined and undefinable, and so questions that would connect it to the worldly suffering we face can only be answered by gesturing towards mystery. In the same way, this perfection cannot be questioned or argued with. It does not and cannot speak and it cannot be opposed. 

It is in the persons of Plato and Aristotle that we get this view most honestly presented, where we have clear arguments that the Gods of personality must be false because they cannot be Perfect and Good in a unified and reductive sense. Most later religion, outside the boundaries of a strict practice of theology, will settle for an impossible marriage of personality and abstract perfection and goodness, one which more and more has to resort to “mystery” or symbolism anytime one attempts to make it consistent. 

In denying obedience and engaging in rebellion and contestation (whether intentionally or not), Wiesel and his imagined Job — along with Abraham when arguably at his best — side with the defenders of the Pagan Gods of personality against the naturalizing tendency on one hand and the abstracting tendency on the other. It is, similarly, the impossibility of Ivan imagining a non-abstract God that forces him away from a full-fledge rebellion against God and instead towards the self-defeating gesture of suicide. 

What can we learn from this exploration of key moments in the history of rebellion and the Gods? At the very least, I think, we can get a clearer image of what I would like to suggest is one of the noblest heritages of pagan cultures throughout the world — the tradition of rebelling against the Gods, of siding with some Gods over others, of demanding that the Gods give us an account and justify themselves to us. This same point is inevitably to be made in reference to all other claimants to positions of power and authority. We Pagans share this with what Elie Wiesel, at least, suggested was the most noble part of Judaism and also its most weighty responsibility. To contend with authority, divine and human alike, is a calling and responsibility. For this reason, I would claim that the only appropriate answer to a test of faith is to fail. 

 

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“Jacob Wrestles with the Angel” by Gustave Dore

Kadmus

kadmusKadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on Facebook or twitter at @starandsystem.


A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred has much more writing like this. Get it here.

If Not Now, When? Models for Resistance in SF

I have always enjoyed science fiction, particularly the writings of Ursula le Guin, as a way of exploring hypothetical alternative societies, cultures, futures, and histories. I don’t enjoy most fantasy. I do enjoy urban fantasy, which is more like science fiction. I am currently watching Babylon 5 again on DVD, and would highly recommend it as an exploration of what happens when a totalitarian and xenophobic government takes over, and how people come together to resist.

Both fantasy and SF present alternative visions of the world; but some of these visions are helpful, and others are not. Some are dystopian, some are utopian. Some are hierarchical, some are egalitarian. Some have individual heroes, others have resistance movements. Some inspired whole Pagan movements, such as the Church of All Worlds, inspired by Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Can you grok that? There are a surprising number of parallels between Paganism and SF, and a lot of Pagans who read SF, too.

The other day, I saw this tweet, and it set me thinking. Would people who said they’d follow the MockingJay, or fight in Dumbledore’s army, actually resist fascism? Would they be able to relate the fantasy world resistance to the real thing?

In order to answer that question, which of these genres provides better models for resistance, we have to take a step back to another question.

What’s the difference between fantasy and SF?

In science fiction, there is usually an explanation (however tenuous or inferred) of how the world, and the technology in it, came to be the way it is. Science fiction can include alternative histories, what-if scenarios, extrapolations into the future, utopias, and dystopias. It has many sub-genres. There’s hard science fiction, which mainly deals with the effects of technology on society; soft science fiction, which is written more from a social science perspective (anthropology or sociology, sometimes linguistics or psychology). There’s steampunk, where the technology is mostly steam-driven, with lots of cogs and brass (this emerged out of the alternative history sub-genre). SF is sometimes called speculative fiction.

In fantasy, the underlying technology is generally magic. Fantasy also has several sub-genres. There’s the sword and sorcery tale. There’s space opera (which is basically fantasy masquerading as SF). A lot of fantasy seems to be set in a very hierarchical medieval or feudal world, and often in a magic kingdom which is reached by a magic door (or wardrobe, or mirror). There are many interesting and classic fantasy novels, but in many ways the genre was put out of joint by the sheer weight of The Lord of the Rings, which has had many imitators, most of them bad (I really like LoTR, but for goodness’ sake, get your own plot, fantasy authors). And quite frankly, the Harry Potter books are basically a school story with magic in it (though I heartily approve of the egalitarian behaviour of “Dumbledore’s Army”, and of the brilliant caricature of OFSTED in the person of Dolores Umbridge). A marvellous exception to all of this is Philip Pullman’s brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy, which is deeply anti-authoritarian, and has quite a lot of crossover with science fiction, with parallel worlds, and even a slight steampunk feel to some of the worlds in it. And of course there’s Terry Pratchett’s brilliantly insightful Discworld novels, which are arguably Pagan theology at its finest.

Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is set in our reality, into which fantastic elements emerge, and it uses these to comment on things in our world. Examples include most of Neil Gaiman‘s oeuvre, Seanan McGuire’s hilarious InCryptid series, which is about the adventures of a family of cryptozoologists, the Storm trilogy by R A Smith, and The Last Changeling by F R Maher.

Models for resistance in SF and fantasy

In fantasy novels, when someone resists the encroachment of evil, the evil is usually fairly obvious, and frequently relies on a supernatural source of power. It’s a Dark Lord (Voldemort, Sauron, etc). Better quality fantasy novels have more subtle tyrants, like Saruman, who started out trying to resist Sauron, but because he tried to use Sauron’s power to do so, ended up becoming like Sauron himself. Another example of a subtly-drawn tyrant is Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials, who works for the Magisterium, and indeed Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, who is something of an ambivalent character. The protagonist of these novels is usually especially gifted with magical powers to resist the evil (the Old Ones in The Dark is Rising; Harry Potter; even Lyra), or has been fated to be the one to resist since the beginning of time, or since their birth. One of the clever things about The Lord of the Rings is that there’s nothing all that special about Frodo Baggins, except perhaps the ordinariness of hobbits. As Tolkien himself pointed out, it is Frodo’s vulnerability and smallness that fitted him for the task.

In science fiction novels and dramas, the evil or oppression to be resisted is often systemic, and identifiable as a human construct, the outcome of a complex web of causality (though sometimes, as in Asimov’s story The Caves of Steel, it’s the consequence of the environment). Because the evil or oppression is usually systemic, the means of resisting it is usually co-operative and collaborative; not led by one single hero, but requiring the input of many people working together. In Babylon 5, for example, although Sheridan is important as a leader of the resistance, he couldn’t have done it without Delenn, Ivanova, Garibaldi, Franklin, the resistance on Mars, the co-operation of the security people who didn’t collaborate with the regime, and so on. In Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge, the resistance consists of many different individuals coming together to bring about change.

Bertolt Brecht, Darko Suvin, and cognitive estrangement

In his ground-breaking essay, Estrangement and Cognition (1968, 1979, 2014), where he analyses the difference between SF and fantasy, Darko Suvin, a Croatian-Canadian literary critic, wrote that science fiction engages in ‘cognitive estrangement’. Suvin says that fantasy and myth is estranged from everyday reality, but it does not ask us to think about why; we accept the magic door, and other magical effects, as a priori necessities in the fantastical universe. Literary fiction, set in our universe, is not estranged, though it may be cognitive and require us to think about cause and effect. Science fiction, on  the other hand, is set in an alternative world, but it is one we are required to think about, and to actively construct in our imaginations by looking for clues in the text about how the world, and its technology, works; how the society of the SF novel came to be the way it is.

Suvin based his interpretation on the Russian theatre technique of ostranenie, a term coined by the playwright Shklovsky, and meaning ‘making the familiar strange’. This is similar to Bertolt Brecht’s usage of Verfremdungseffekte (often translated as ‘alienation effects’, but Suvin’s translation, ‘estrangement effects’, gets the idea across much better). It’s possible that Brecht was told about the technique on a visit to Moscow in 1935. Brecht created his plays and poetry to get people thinking, and to do that, he didn’t want them to identify with the characters and achieve a cathartic effect or a discharge of emotion. Instead, he wanted people to think about what they would do in a similar situation, or about the causes of the situation. Why does Mother Courage go round and round in circles, getting poorer and more miserable? Why do the characters of The Threepenny Opera have such terrible lives? Brecht wants us to analyse the underlying causes, as well as having a general solidarity or empathy with the characters.

The beauty of the science fictional setting, of course, is that it is already strange, and so it makes the reader think about what is happening, so that they can piece together how this fictional world works. In his essay on science fiction in Speculations on Speculation, Samuel R Delaney quotes a sentence, “I rubbed depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh water tap” (from Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants). As Delaney points out, this single sentence lets you know that there is a water shortage in this world, because there is only a trickle from the fresh water tap, and the fact that it is labelled fresh tells you that there’s another tap with non-fresh water. This leads the reader to ask, why is there a water shortage? Has there been an environmental catastrophe, or is it a desert world?

Fantasy, on the other hand, does expect the reader to identify with the characters, and to achieve an emotional catharsis through the dramatic journey that they experience. Readers of fantasy, however, know that the proper order will be restored in the end, and the evil tyrant defeated, because that’s how fantasy works. They also know that it’s the job of the pre-destined hero with the special powers to defeat the evil tyrant. And of course they know that in the real world, the odds may be stacked against the hero. Fantasy doesn’t provide much of a road-map for defeating a whole system of tyranny. It’s very good on overthrowing the Dark Lord with a magic sword, but what if the Dark Lord has loads of minions waiting in the wings who are just as obnoxious as he is?

Science fiction, on the other hand, being set in ostensibly the same universe as the one we live in, with the same physical properties, and the same sort of people (barring the occasional telepath), and dealing as it does with whole systems of oppression or flourishing, is much better placed to provide us with road-maps for resistance. Of course there are exceptions to the picture I am painting here, but it’s mostly true.

Resistance is collective. Yes, there are those who dare to dream bigger and better, and actually do something, and they are extremely important as catalysts – but a catalyst is no good unless it is followed by a reaction. One excellent example is when Alley Valkyrie and Rhyd Wildermuth founded Gods & Radicals – but all the other people who said “Yes! Pagan anti-capitalism, that’s exactly what we need” – the other writers, and the readers who read our stuff, are part of a collective sea-change in thinking, and acting.

In order to bring about change, we need to create a mass movement of people who are tired of racism, tired of homophobia, tired of misogyny, tired of austerity, tired of capitalism. We need to inspire them to dream something different. And we need to show them the blueprints for change, not just tell them that it is possible.

As Ursula le Guin said at the National Book Awards in 2014,

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

And she went on to add,

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Most fantasy merely provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual. It would be good to see more fantasy that challenges the usual tropes of fantasy – which is why urban fantasy is such a refreshing change.

Science fiction, on the other hand, provides a blueprint for other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of feeling. It puts the characters in a hypothetical situation and asks what the human reaction to that situation would be; not the superhero reaction, but the human one. It can posit whole different ways of organising society, or gender, or sexuality, or the economy, and explore in depth how they would work, and how people would flourish or struggle in that environment.

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Carnival in Crema, Italy. By CremascoOwn work, CC BY 3.0.

Recommended reading – fiction

  • The Fifth Sacred Thing – Starhawk
  • City of Refuge – Starhawk
  • The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin
  • Always Coming Home – Ursula Le Guin
  • Empire of Bones – Liz Williams
  • The Ghost Sister – Liz Williams

Recommended reading – non-fiction

  • Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, eds James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria
  • The Anarres Project for alternative futures

Rosa Mason

Rosa Mason has been a Pagan since 1985 and a Wiccan since 1991.  She is genderqueer, bisexual, and has been an anarchist socialist green leftie feminist for the last thirty years.


Though it’s not fiction, it’s still got some pretty good ideas in it! Check out Pagan Anarchism, available in print or digital.