Books can present themselves as sacred works: “received word.” They can also serve as ceremonial objects containing the teachings of ancestors. Authors share mythoi and logoi. Exchanges occur cross-culturally. Histories are understood to unfold within and share the form of religious myths. History is the latter’s translation and dissemination across space-time. These myths and histories can be mixed and sampled, played with a difference by the storyteller, as they are by Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo. Stories can be intercut with myths as the two rhyme across time. Stories become circles within circles, as in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
When the “Talking Android” makes his debut at Villa Lewaro in the affluent Westchester County suburb of Irvington-on-Hudson in Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo, many of those in attendance are wearing “Cab Calloway for President buttons” (156). (Villa Lewaro, by the way, was the home of Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American woman recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first female self-made millionaire in America. Walker is the focus of a Netflix miniseries called Self Made, released this past March.) Reed’s novel opens a portal of sorts; it encourages readers to imagine an alternate history. During the act of reading, one enters a state of uncertainty. Details that appear to be fictions nevertheless rhyme across time — Calloway’s bid, for instance, reminiscent today of Kanye’s. One is led to conclude, as the novel does in its closing lines, that “Time is a pendulum. Not a river. More akin to what goes around comes around” (218). When PaPa LaBas and Black Herman interrupt the debut by revealing the Talking Android’s true identity as Hubert “Safecracker” Gould, an Atonist in blackface, they move to arrest Gould and his sponsor, Hinckle Von Vampton. LaBas and Herman are interrupted in turn, however, when a Guianese art critic rises from his seat and demands that they give an account. “Explain rationally and soberly,” he says, “what they are guilty of. This is no kangaroo court, this is a free country” (160). To satisfy the critic’s demand, LaBas and Herman launch into a tale of ancient Egypt. We learn of an ancient form of theater involving ritual magic — one that “influenced the growth of crops and coaxed the cocks into procreation” (161). In this theater, Reed writes, “The processes of blooming were acted out by men and women dancers who imitated the process of fertilization” (161). The best of these dancers was Osiris. History is reimagined here as an ongoing conflict across the ages between followers of Osiris and followers of Osiris’s brother, “the stick crook and flail man” Set (162). “People hated Set,” writes Reed. “He went down as the 1st man to shut nature out of himself. He called it discipline. He is also the deity of the modern clerk, always tabulating, and perhaps invented taxes” (162). The text over which these opposing groups fight is (of course!) “the Book of Thoth, the 1st anthology written by the 1st choreographer” (164).
Songs from baby toys replay in my thoughts as I think about Samuel R. Delany’s character Lo Lobey, the Orphic hero in his novel The Einstein Intersection, who performs songs telepathically overheard from the minds of those around him. Delany’s novel is set in a far future among beings who have replaced humans of ancient times, but who inhabit and perform the roles, live out the narratives and myths, of those past peoples. Delany interrupts this narrative with excerpts from a “Writer’s Journal” kept during a several-month tour of Mediterranean cities in the fall of 1965. Why is the Orpheus character of ancient Greece reinvented, re-imagined, reinterpreted as Delany’s character Lo Lobey? Orpheus is famous for his musicianship and his poetry. He’s one of the Western tradition’s archetypal figures, portrayed and alluded to in countless works of art, music, and literature across the centuries. Why does Delany reactivate this figure on a posthuman Earth of the far future? What might this setting tell us about what we can now recognize in hindsight as Delany’s emerging Afrofuturist sensibility?
Sometimes I respond to concentric circles representing the orbits of other entities and beings. What did William Blake mean by phrases like “the starry floor” and “the watry shore”? Look, too, at the Silver Surfer figure at the base of the “Introduction” engraving from Blake’s Songs of Experience, lounging on a chaise in outer space.
Blake speaks in the same poem of “the starry pole” that the “lapsed Soul” might control, “And fallen fallen light renew!” In the voice of the Bard who knows the power of words in the act of creation, Blake beckons the Earth to awaken again after years of slumber. And to the “lapsed Soul” of fallen humanity, he says, “Turn away no more.” Or so I thought at first. However, maybe he’s still speaking there to the Earth. Perhaps Earth is the “lapsed Soul,” the slumberous mass of which the humans reading the poem are but a part. This makes sense, given that the next poem in the series is titled “Earth’s Answer.” Awakened into language, Earth denounces the “Father of the ancient men” who would shame her and place her in bonds. In Blake’s estimate, the Father imagines himself as Reason, but behaves like a jealous tyrant, chaining us with “mind-forg’d manacles” to a prison-world, a false totality, a construct. Have critics read this work in relation to cousin genres: image-text parings like Tarot cards and graphic novels?
Toying with the famous hermetic aphorism, “As above, so below,” I begin to tell a story in my head of a protagonist who comes to regard his consensus reality as the ontological equivalent of a matrix or gameworld. Most of the occupants of the gameworld are split subjects. They know themselves only in light of what we might call their “this-worldly” guise, each person’s identity fully sutured to that of its gameworld avatar. This process of identification causes the person to forget its additional role as player. This is where our story begins: for our protagonist has arrived at a thunderous realization. Together, he realizes, these two components — this-worldly avatar and otherworldly player — form the Janus faces, the days and nights, of a single consciousness. This realization arrives at a particular moment; certain technological capacities have to be reached — or so I imagine. But when have civilizations ever lacked their chessboards and labyrinths? All of the ancient myths featuring these objects remain active and relevant in the time of our protagonist.
This is the period of trial, the forty days and forty nights (or there about) when the hero with many faces wanders empty-handed, deprived of power, cast down from former heights. The animals of the night-time forest sing their lullaby. Let us imagine the hero figure in one or more of his or her guises, carousing in Fairy Land, when up from the forest floor come a pair of trees, branches raised lovingly toward the sun. If tales were to be told of these trees, would it be the hero’s duty to abide by these tales? Or is the hero rather the one who roots around, unwilling to rest within the boundaries set by the tales as they’ve been told? By now, of course, we’re familiar with both of these kinds of heroes. Do our preferences shift when our interlocutor shares with us the names of these trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge?
“A bit of peace” as I sit on a slate bench beside a stream, flies and potato bugs visiting on occasion but nevertheless respecting my space, allowing me to stare off into the shadows of the woods across the way. Earlier in the day I peeked into Merlin’s cave and glimpsed ancient Arthurian ruins along the coast of Tintagel. It pleases me immensely to think as Ithell Colquhoun did, viewing Cornwall in mythic terms, imagining time-traveling Druids and phantom islands shrouded in mist and communities settled by survivors of doomed kingdoms and sunken lands of yore.
I deem it wise to sit outdoors when possible. Pull out a lawn chair, listen to London-based Afrobeat 8-piece KOKOROKO, preferably later in the day, after lazing about dipping in and out of several texts midafternoon, testing the waters of each as if they were pools or oceans.
Perhaps I should jump right in. Practice Svadhyaya. But I prefer to pause now and then, take leave, retire into the alternative fictive domain of a backyard garden where shadows interact with light across bursts of Gaian majesty. Don’t ask me how it happens; I don’t know. The story of the Secret Garden, the story of the expulsion from an ancient leafy bower: these are mythic accounts, folk memories of dispossession, primitive accumulation, forced separation from the land.
As William Bowers once said, “I went and saw me some Spider-Man” — only this time, in the current redux, the current version of the myth, the film is called Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I’d heard good things, but I couldn’t recall if I’d seen the trailer. Suffice to say, though, that a hum of excitement could be heard as I approached the theater. Signs appeared on the side of the road announcing “FEEL THE LOVE” and “TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE DOWN.” Which isn’t to say that in my heightened state, I’d lost touch with the ground of being. There were moments of wild paranoia, for instance, during the lead-up: creepy, nationalistic, body-police fitness commercials, followed by slight release into the sanitized exoticism of an ad for “Trident Tropical Vibes,” some light, safe corporate capture-attempt; goofy GEICO; plush digital high-energy stuffed-bear comedians joking on the carpet stage of a playroom. Caged Dumbo released into the world of an elderly filmmaker’s “acclaimed imagination” — no magic, but “IN REAL 3D AND IMAX.” And for those not yet satisfied with the menu, try another product from the Disney Kingdom: the myth of the Lion King in a new reanimated register. Thankfully the Columbia Pictures logo intervenes to save us, graffiti’d into a gun-toting cowgirl, along with a variety of other versions from other dimensions.
The film begins and quickly sets its terms: cops and prep schools versus the “droppin’ science” teacher-uncle, the surrogate dad who distills wisdom extracted from the streets and tunnels of the metropolis. All against the backdrop of the cop-father to whom young black men are expected to publicly humiliate themselves and say “I love you.” The radioactive spider-god Anansi erupts into this, effecting a permanent radical reorientation toward reality. In the Spider-Verse, the psychedelic narrative begins not with a drug but with the bite of a spider. “Why is this happening?” wonders this new speciation of the myth. Next we find ourselves in a miniature allegory about Brooklyn’s rejection of Amazon, the corporate behemoth figured here as Green Goblin. The Spider-Verse is rich with allegorical potential, able to accommodate in its mapping practice beasts and alchemy amid DARPA and NSA. By these means, audiences arrive into a multi-color, multi-dimensional anti-Trump national allegory. The question the nation is trying to answer, apparently, is “How do we destroy the collider?” Stan Lee appears as the good wizard, the benevolent Gandolf of the comics universe, promising each of us that the mask always fits eventually. With references to a fictional corporation called Alchemax, the film conjures up for those who have ears to hear figures like Malcolm X and others of the Black Radical tradition, through whose hands the key to revolution once passed. Who else, though, can show us the ropes of a new horizon, eagles flying? How do we retrace Peter and Miles’s steps across dimensions to defeat Kingpin, the film’s version of Trump?
Behold, there in the basket of keys and letters beside the door like an object in a memory palace: mirror-shade sunglasses, like the ones invested with allegorical meaning by the cyberpunks. Pardon the group tag, the literary label. Anthologies have that effect on people. And as Bruce Sterling once said, label-mongering can be “a valid source of insight — as well as great fun.” For instance, it is to Samuel Delany that he credits the Mirrorshades crew’s “visionary shimmer” (x). During the Sixties and Seventies, a new movement gained recognition within SF, the New Wave. Delany was one of the stars of this movement. Let us dip back into his 1967 novel The Einstein Intersection. Think of Delany as an important component of a single distributed consciousness attempting to communicate to itself across the ages. Who are these “others,” these posthumans who come to populate the remains of our myths and dreams in the future that Delany imagines for us in his novel? As Neil Gaiman notes in the book’s Foreword, “They inhabit our legends awkwardly: they do not fit them” (The Einstein Intersection viii). Why, then, do they need them? What do myths and legends do, either for us or for them? How does dream and fancy come to play an active part in our being? Prior to the loss of a loved one, the book’s protagonist Lo Lobey herded goats with his friends. Like the rural communards, the back-to-the-landers of the 1960s, Lobey and his friends were out there “on the Beryl Face: looking for pasture” (3).