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20 April 2009 @ 01:16 pm
Disparate Thoughts on Ballard, the Nature of Memory, a Fisher-Queen, and Fantasy Generally  
Have missed several Black Gate blog posts. Here's today's:


RIP, J.G. Ballard.

His was among the strange New Worlds fiction that I encountered as an unsuspecting kid in my brother's sf collection, higgledy-piggledy among the Clarke, Asimov, and Simak. I didn't know what to make of it then, but it's been sitting in my backbrain all these years, still messing with the contents.


Strangely, one of my grad school professors was, like Ballard, born and raised in Shanghai, and like him was also interned as a boy by the Japanese during World War II. He said, of both the book and movie versions of Empire of the Sun, "It was nothing like that." I wish now I had taken notes; he gave a number of specific examples. But it shows that memoir (and memory), like fiction, are the product of an intensely personal process. This is the construction of meaning through narrative.

In searching academic literature on memory recently, I came across a review article on "Trauma and Memory" (Van der Kolk, Bessel A. (1998), Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 52:S97-S109). The author compares the recollection of traumatic events with ordinary memories from both a clinical and a neuroscience perspective. Combat veterans and other sufferers of PTSD do not experience recollection of the most traumatic events as memory, but as fragments of direct, unprocessed sensory input. During traumatic experiences, the sense-impressions received by the brain bypass the parts, like the hippocampus, that would organize them into a coherent form of consciousness, and so memories do not form as in ordinary experience. This "organizing" is the creation of a narrative out of the fragments and at the same time, creation of meaning which the fragments lacked. At the clinical level, processing traumatic memory was the stitching together of a story of the experience..... a process which most of us, most of the time, do so effortlessly we hardly notice.

No wonder being told stories, in fiction, in movies, in art, has such a huge effect on how we think and feel. Narrative is how we think and feel. But there are, I think, further depths here. Years ago, I read a dissertation on the structural analysis of psychotherapeutic narratives. What struck me then was how filled these personal narratives were with what I can only think of as mythic symbolism. In one, a woman suffered constant menstrual bleeding and infertility. She perceived it as, in a way, the consequence of a psychological wound, and there was a blond doctor, described in terms having to do with light and brightness, who helped stop the bleeding. I believe there was also a straight-up Grail object (the medicine) in the story as well, and to complete the mythic pattern she ought to have gotten pregnant, but I don't now remember.

One aspect of myth, fairytale, and fantasy as well is the way that such primary symbols as blood, light, wounding, healing, are present at the surface of the narrative. It's one of the characteristics that leads some to class them as more primitive forms, while literary realism and narrative based on personal real-life experience are supposed to be more psychologically sophisticated. What those psychotherapeutic narratives showed me was that even in our supposedly de-mythified postmodern society, the narratives (the meaning) we create out of our real-life experiences are shaped profoundly by both mythic structures and mythic symbols. Or perhaps what I mean is that myth is created out of direct personal experience. At any rate there's a big part of fantasy sitting square in this field, displaced enough from real life so as not to cause too much anxiety, but effective because it is, actually, about real life at this quite fundamental level.
Comrade Cat: bookstorecats-ambercomrade_cat on April 20th, 2009 10:11 am (UTC)
I went back & checked out one of the posts you missed. It's wonderful to see someone mention Rachel Pollack's urban pagan books & Sean Stewart's novels! I also preferred Temporary Agency to Unquenchable Fire, I think because the plot was faster or tighter & because the heroine wasn't trying to get out of having magic happen to her like the protagonist of UF. I recognize that's part of the point of UF, it just doesn't resonate with me as much.

I'll have to check out those books by WJ Williams. I've never read anything of his. Bureaucratization of magic is a lot of fun. The only Harry Turtledove I've read, The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, is like that, & I really enjoyed it, even though I didn't think the writing was as elegant as I usually like. (It was also kind of eh that the villain was Revenging Indian God! - why are we supposed to uncritically agree with the god's smackdown as part of a humorous novel? Although I do agree killing lots of people in revenge is wrong.)

I also really like Simon R Green's Nightside series for the same weird urban vibe, although the point of the books is really the setting & not the protagonist. (Which means you should read book 3 first so you get into the series, then go back & read book 1...)

Hopefully I can find Metropolitan at the bookstore. The great thing about working for a bookstore that didn't used to return much is you can go out in the shelves & browse around & find all these out of print new books that no one ever bought...if you have odd enough tastes for your area, it's a lot of fun. (& of course there's always the used section...)
Judith Bermanfilomancer on April 21st, 2009 03:52 am (UTC)
Do you think that "trying to get out of having magic happen to her" is specific to UF? I guess I would say it's a common trope in fantasy generally, and related to the "Refusing the Call" bit which is also so common.

If I had to characterize urban fantasy as opposed to other kinds, it would have to do with the specific sense of place. People who haven't lived in cities often think of them as sterile and ugly and lacking in nature and magic (I did once), but they have their own mysteries.

Crowley's Little, Big is I think one book that gets both kinds of magic.

I haven't read the Green or the Turtledove. I've seen used copies of Metropolitan around, like at Powells.com, so you ought to be able to find them that way if not closer to hand.
Comrade Cat: prisoner-no6comrade_cat on April 21st, 2009 04:49 am (UTC)
Do you think that "trying to get out of having magic happen to her" is specific to UF? I guess I would say it's a common trope in fantasy generally, and related to the "Refusing the Call" bit which is also so common.

Hm, Refusing The Call is common. It's just...Jennie seemed so whiny about it, I guess. It seemed like she spent the book not doing anything, while there was all this fascinating magic stuff going on around her, either in her storyline or in the stories throughout the book. Not that I didn't like the book, it's just I didn't identify with Jennie as much as I usually do with whoever the main character is.

Flights didn't have Metropolitan, but I found a cheap used copy on amazon.