Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Silence and Bright Flashing Lights: A Brief Look at Irrationality in Earthsea and VALIS

John Lodder

At least one version of my paper starts with a joke that if Aristotle secretly wrote science fiction and fantasy as well as philosophy, and the scholastics recovered it and translated it along with De Anima and the Nicomachean Ethics and everything else, would we still have the same persistent notion today of humans as the distinctly rational animals despite the ancient and fantastical stories of space aliens and talking dragons, of intelligences human and otherwise?

If we look at the word “rational” in the Nicomachean Ethics (I.13), Aristotle describes an element of the human soul, logos, that has a rational principle, and its opposite element, alogos (“without logos”). The irrational element has two divisions, one vegetative that causes nutrition and growth and does not share in reason and is not specific to humans, the other appetitive and desiring but that does share in reason, exemplified by the “incontinent” (i.e., unrestrained) person who lacks temperance. Therefore, lower animals, like plants, are irrational, without reason, since they only eat and grow. Humans have the capacity for reason but don’t always use it, but the rational principle itself urges the temperate and brave, “continent” person aright, in a moral kind of way.

However, per PKD, “Everybody knows that Aristotelian two-value logic is fucked” (VALIS, p. 133). Freud presents a notion of humans as not terribly rational animals: “We never discover a ‘No’ in the unconscious” (Negation, p. 239). The definition of “normal” in the 1950 Dictionary of Psychoanalysis presents a difference that isn’t necessarily distinct, “Neuroses shade off into what is described as normal … there is scarcely any condition generally recognized as normal in which it would not be possible to demonstrate neurotic traits” (p. 127). Karl Jaspers writes, “Personality characteristics vary according to the degree of unity or the amount of scatter in the meaningful elements in a given individual” (General Psychopathology, p. 439).

Ursula K. Le Guin’s epigraph to A Wizard of Earthsea (and also Tehanu), from the Creation of Éa, indicates the dependence of seemingly distinct things on each other, “Only in silence the word, / only in dark the light, only in dying life.” On Roke Knoll, when he tries to summon Elfarran, Ged lifts a “shapeless mass of darkness” that splits apart with an “oval of light.” She glimmers a moment, then the light becomes “a rent in the darkness of the earth” that blazes with “a terrible brightness” (Wizard, p. 72) through which his shadow enters. In attempting to give a shape to undifferentiated things, to make a spirit of the dead visible, Ged’s spell adds an oval, a curve of light, to the shapeless darkness that when it becomes most bright and casts the hardest, most distinct shadows, separates his shadow from himself.

The Master Hand says “To light a candle is to cast a shadow” (p. 51). Gensher of Way describes Ged’s shadow as “The shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance” (p. 78). As cast, the shadow embodies both parts of Aristotle’s irrational principle, its arrogance, the appetitive; its ignorance, the vegetative. Put another way, it is pure unreason, an anti-Kantian “reine Unvernunft” (“pure unreason”).

Ged divides his soul, but the act leaves him vulnerable. Gensher warns that the shadow will devour him and make him a gebbeth. He reads of an Old Power, a speaking stone in a northern land that commands a Dragonlord to raise a dead spirit, but the Stone bends the wizardry awry, so that with the spirit comes “a thing not summoned, which did devour him from within and in his shape walked, destroying men” (p. 84).

The power of the spell reifies darkness, allows a shadow to persist in sunlight without Ged to cast it and to remain differentiated at night with no source of light to bring it forth, but without his shadow, his power wanes. Cleaved, he faces death, withering in separation, or, devoured by it, continuing to bring death to others after his own. The distinction made too distinctly obliterates the whole.

In VALIS, Philip K. Dick also presents a split. Horselover Fat and Phil Dick are separate characters in the novel. The other characters address them both, they address each other, Horselover even flies to Europe and calls Phil from Tokyo; Phil receives letters from Fat and photos he’s taken, but Phil, as narrator, writes “I am Horselover Fat and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity” (p. 11). Mother Goose, stage name of Eric Lampton, the screenwriter and star of the in-novel movie Valis, explains the play on words to him, “But that’s you. ‘Philip means ‘Horselover’ in Greek, lover of horses. ‘Fat’ is the German translation of ‘Dick.’” (p. 168). (Phil replies, “I said nothing.”)

VALIS itself is a reworking of Radio Free Albemuth, written first but published posthumously, the plot serving in the later novel as the storyline for Mother Goose’s movie full of subliminal messages. In Radio Free Albemuth, there are also two characters similar to Dick: Phil, a science fiction novelist, narrates Part 1, but there’s no Horselover Fat. Nicholas Brady narrates Part 2, expresses ideas similar to Fat’s, and events happen to him that are described as happening to Fat in VALIS, but Phil never breaks in and writes “I am Nicholas Brady.” Brady is only “My friend” who “was born in Chicago in 1928 and then moved right to California” (Radio, p. 3), not unlike the author Philip K. Dick did in his own life.

The events that happen to Fat and Brady include a beam of light telling him that his son has an undiagnosed right inguinal strangulated hernia and needs immediate surgery to save his life; a sleepless night with over eight hours of phosphene activity (“lurid” in VALIS, p. 106; “violent” in Radio, p. 99) that looks like abstract paintings, thousands of Klees and Kandinskys, and containing information “fired from sources unknown” (VALIS, p. 106) or specifically the star Albemuth (Radio, p. 111); and a radio playing “hideous words” (VALIS, p. 42) with a voice “mocking and insulting” him in a “gross way” (Radio, including “You misfit! You prick, Nick! Die, die, die, p. 87).

Heavy stuff: “Mental illness is not funny” (VALIS, p. 42).

Leaving aside the biographical material, that is, “2-3-74,” the events of Philip K. Dick’s life from February and March of 1974 that made their way into the two novels I’ve mentioned and Dick’s other, later, novels; that form the crux of Fat’s fictional Exegesis in VALIS and the 8000+ pages that of Dick’s Exegesis (edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem and published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick), and also putting aside the temptation to apply labels from a vantage point forty years after the fact, I’ll let Phil, the narrator of VALIS, summarize Fat and his condition: “In other words, the universe itself—and the Mind behind it—is insane. Therefore someone in touch with reality is, by definition, in touch with the insane: infused by the irrational” (p. 40). Furthermore, “The universe consists of one vast irrational entity into which has broken a high-order life form,” a life form that is devouring it in order to transusbstantiate it, and “The entire universe, possibly, is in the invisible process of turning into the Lord. And with this process comes not just sentience but—sanity.” Therefore, “If Fat was psychotic, you must admit that it is a strange sort of psychosis to believe that you have encountered an inbreaking of the rational into the irrational” (p. 70).

Within the frame of a science fiction novel, Horselover Fat is not psychotic, not insane; a higher life form, living information, is invading and changing our irrational universe into another, rational one. Nicholas Brady does in fact receive messages from Albemuth that tangibly help the plot to overthrow the tyrant President, Ferris F. Fremont. Phil, the novelist within and of the novels, brings forward the truth in their stories. All three animals, Brady, Fat, and Phil, whether or not they are distinctly rational, are distinctly necessary.

Moving from psychosis to depression, from thought disorder to mood disorder in a nomenclature of disease, Julia Kristeva describes melancholia in Black Sun as “An abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief that at times, and often on a long-term basis, lays claims upon us to the extent of having us lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself” (p. 3). In Earthsea, words of the Old Speech, the True Speech, cause action and effect change. By saying the word for rock, tolk, a wizard can make a pebble look like a diamond. By saying hoeg, Ged gains a loyal traveling companion in the form of an otak, a little animal with a fierce temper, that, usually,  “are not made pets of” (Wizard, p. 57). However, in The Farthest Shore, Cob opens the door between life and death, a door located in the Dry Land, the land of the dead, but also “in the minds of the living” (p. 228), and the Old Speech begins to drain away. True names fade from memory and people deny that magic ever existed. The Dyers of Lorbanery cannot dye; dragons can no longer speak. Akaren, the Dyer who gives up her true name in the face of what she’s lost, says, “There is a hole in the world and the light is running out of it. And the words go with the light” (p. 107). The people of the Archipelago lose all interest in words; melancholia lays claim to Earthsea.

The door itself opens onto nothing. “It was void. Through it was neither light nor dark, nether life nor death” (p. 234). Kristeva compares confronting the destruction of World War Two to a Paul Valéry quote about seeing “in a kiln heated to incandescence; if our eyes endured, they would see nothing. … This tremendous, trapped energy would end up in invisibility, in imperceptible equality” (p. 222). Faced with “The gas chambers, the atomic bomb, or the gulag … on the verge of silence, the word ‘Nothing’ emerges, a discreet defense in the face of so much disorder” (p. 223).

Cob’s false promise of eternal life lets an eruption of death, a monstrous nothing, into the world. Ged pours out all of his power to shut the door. Returning through the Mountains of Pain, back on Gont island, hawks no longer come to him when he calls their true name. The Old Speech, for him, goes silent, but it is a silence that allows room for someone else: Therru, who natively speaks the language of the dragons, looks into the west with an other eye, calls the dragon Kalessin with an other voice, a name that she “heard in her mother’s dream” (Tehanu, p. 263).

What does it take to save the day, save the world, save your son? Sleepless nights that train your mind to talk to aliens. Welcoming your own shadow back into yourself when you know it has the power to devour you. A child with the mind of a dragon.
A fair amount of effort in the realms of psychiatry goes into compiling lists of symptoms, this and not that, thing and not-thing, for diagnosing mental disorders: DSM-III-R becomes DSM IV becomes DSM IV-TR becomes DSM 5. (Names are important: Tenar becomes Arha becomes Goha becomes Tenar again.) Science fiction and fantasy at least give us a context that welcomes other minds and imagines, not disorder, but significance. Even Aristotle acknowledges imagination as part of the human soul (On the Soul, III.3).

John Lodder
WisCon 39
Ideas in Different Blood: Cognitive Diversity in SF/F
23 May 2015

Works Cited
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W. D. Ross. Revised by J. O. Urmson. Jonathan Barnes, ed. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Vol 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. Print.
--- On the Soul. Trans. J. A. Smith. Jonathan Barnes, ed. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Vol 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. Print.
Dick, Philip K. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, eds. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Print.
--- Radio Free Albemuth. 1985. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1998. Print.
--- VALIS. 1981. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1991. Print.
Espresso Addict, The. The Isolate Tower: an Earthsea Compendium. n.p., 20 Jan. 2006. Web. 22 May 2015.
Freud, Sigmund. Freud: Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. 1950. Nandor Fodor and Frank Gaynor, eds.  New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. Print.
--- “Negation.” Trans. Joan Riviere. James Strachey, ed. Standard Edition. Vol XIX. London: Hogarth, 1961. Print.
Jaspers, Karl. General Psychopathology. Trans. J. Hoenig and Marian W. Hamilton. 1968. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Print.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. 1972. New York: Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
--- Tehanu. 1990. New York: Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
--- The Tombs of Atuan. 1971. New York: Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
--- A Wizard of Earthsea. 1968. New York: Graphia-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

IT person by trade, photographer by hobby, John Lodder enjoys reading and discussing SF/F. He is an organizer and active member of Think Galactic.

Please be sure to check out the other papers from our panel.

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