The Art to Seeing and Seeing as Art in Dark Fantasy

misty canyon with sharp cliff and lonely tree in Delika

Dark fantasy has got me thinking about my soul. Not in the spiritual sense, or the metaphysical, or even the poetic. But in the aesthetic sense. Let me see if I can make sense of what I mean. We all know the saying, the eyes are the window to the soul. (“The eye is the lamp of the body” Matt 6.22.) Either way you spin it, the turn of phrase is poetic to be sure. But what if the reverse were true? What if we have it backwards and the soul actually captains the eyes, directing them to see? Alters the idea of “seeing,” doesn’t it? 

Dark fantasy, horror, the sublime, the fantastic and the creepy challenge our ways of seeing and essentially our soul. But from where do these strange tales come? We certainly find demons haunting the literary landscape well before the first gothic novel. Antiquity is filled with dark figures, manipulating man’s sight for their own means; and Dante’s pit of hell is abundant with perverse and perverted embodiments and bodies blinded to present-day happenings as punishment for polluting their souls; and we could ask Doctor Faustus. He’d tell us a thing or two about losing his soul. Once he’d sold his, he lost all perspective, wallowing in a vat of empty knowledge and blind amusement, playing parlor tricks with Mephistopheles until the devils came for payment, to flay and tear his flesh to pieces …

I’m getting off track. I wanted to talk about our ways of seeing and how they’re tied to the soul.

Literature, like the visual and plastic arts, demands we see what is before us and make sense of what we see. Literature that finds itself on the darker side makes greater demands on us, expecting us not only to see, but also to illuminate what we see. Seeing, in fact, has always been a part of gothic fiction. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as example – that poor creature, monster that he is, is terrorized by how others see him. Until the De Lacey siblings discover him, papa De Lacey, blind to the horror in front of him, is content to converse with his gracious and compassionate guest. Readers can readily sympathize with the creature because we don’t have to look at him. We need only imagine his abhorrent figure, which is not the same as witnessing it with our eyes, our soul. Anyone who doubts Mary Shelley challenges our ways of seeing hasn’t read the same text as me (which is very well a possibility, but that’s for a different post).

Shelley works with sight but also the sublime, a mere by-product of her luscious prose and the time in which she wrote (hanging out with poets like Percy and Byron couldn’t have hurt, either). Frankenstein is evocative of, and reliant on, the terrifying landscape in which its characters live—it is Nature, with a capital N. For her, the grandeur of the Swiss Alps and the mystery of the glaciers satisfy, but we know even greater majesties of fear—we ride in airplanes and launch rockets into space. Can you imagine how mad Victor would think our science? We understand the sublime viscerally, though we may not know it. The sublime is about seeing, and yet it’s also about feeling fear upon that sight. Standing on a precipice, looking over the edge, into an abyss, that’s sublime; walking into a room we know is haunted … wait, I digress again. Surely it’s my prerogative to do so, no? 

I’m certain a faculty bathroom in the college where I used to teach is haunted. I used to feel it every time I went inside, and it thrilled me to test the eeriness of the atmosphere. I was always alone in there, despite its row of stalls, and I swear each time I walked in the lights flickered just a little. And when I’d see the black garbage bag that’s been wrapped on one of the sinks for repair—every time—I’d hesitate. Like a shadow in the corner of my eye I know is there but don’t want to see. Then there’s the sound the room made, the low hum that came from somewhere far beyond the vents, some place like the bowels of a nineteenth century madhouse … But hold on, this wasn’t a unique experience. I used to live in The Dakota on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. You know the building where Rosemary’s Baby was filmed? I lived alone in the maid’s quarters on the empty and desolate eighth floor, but my only bathroom was one floor up and even more desolate. It was the size of a summer camp latrine. Spooky stuff, I tell you, especially since I’m one to drink a cup of tea before bedtime …

Okay, back to the sublime—sight and soul. I’d say it was the Romantic poets who really got the sublime, the terror and darkness of grandeur. For Longinus, the sublime was great and lofty rhetoric, grand thoughts; and the kind of sublime Kant refers to is that which enlists tall oaks and lonely shadows rather than flower beds and low hedges; night is sublime, day is beautiful; the sublime moves and the beautiful charms. But it’s Burke who says it best: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime … terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.”

When I think of terror, I immediately think of sight. What I see (or don’t see, perhaps an even more frightening scenario). Whether it’s bathed in darkness or blown out with light, temporary blindness and visual disorientation stimulate the imagination.

Back to the Romantics who as it goes adopted Milton’s Satan and made him their son, their poetic hero and inheritance, the discarded and unforgivable wretch who warred on his maker. Did you ever wonder how we came up with the Byronic hero? The lonely and sublime figure walking on life’s precipice? Lord Byron, in fact, made no small contribution to dark fantasy. He’s rumored to have penned The Vampyre: A Tale (1819), a short story about a bloodsucker who drains the life from everyone he encounters. But we shouldn’t disregard Polidori, who may very well have written it as fan fiction to Byron’s Fragment of a Novel. And then there’s Lermontov’s “The Demon,” a poem also inspired by the great Lord Byron. His poetry is dark in ways we may not have seen before: 

Her eye (I’m very fond of handsome eyes)
Was large and dark, suppressing half its fire
Until she spoke, then through its soft disguise
Flash’d an expression more of pride than ire,
And love than either; and there would arise,
A something in them which was not desire,
But would have been, perhaps, but for the soul,
Which struggled through and chasten’d down the whole.

What is that something that arises in those dark eyes, the thing the soul chokes before it escapes? Pity or fear? Horror? The sublime? 

We are haunted not only by what we see, but how we see, if we see. When frightened, we say, “Did you see that?” Apparitions are things we build out of thin air; they just magically appear, forged in the shadowy corners of our imagination. The noun “apparition” first appears in 1500, used as “unclosing” in reference to Heaven, and to epiphany, as in The Epiphany, when the Christ child is revealed to the Magi. It comes from late Latin, referring to “an appearance” or “attendants” and is first recorded in 1600 as meaning a ghost. Appearance versus apparition; the one is expected, the other startles. The haunting of an apparition seems to have its roots in antiquity, as poor Narcissus is tortured by the apparition he sees in the lake. He doesn’t know his own reflection, cursed as he is. But the disappearance haunts him more terribly than its appearance.

Dark fantasy deals in haunted sightings, and E. T. A. Hoffman has mastered this. The Sandman (1816) is all about “The eyes! The eyes!” as Mister Coppola calls out to potential buyers of his lenses. Coppo is Italian for eye-socket and Klara, of course, symbolizes clarity. “Things are as we see them,” has never rung more true as it does in this short story, for even the reader can’t tell if Nathanael is mad or imagining the memory of Coppelius or Coppella. The eyes are of importance here, for they determine how we see, what we see and what our eyes appear to be. How much more may be said of the soul?

And then there’s Guy de Maupassant’s Le Horla (1887), a particular favorite of mine. The story entails a psychological splitting of the self embodied in the spirit, or as some say in madness. The narrator is haunted by a passing vessel out in the harbor and the feeling that arises from seeing it. He is more frightened by the invisible spirit since he can’t tell when it’ll appear. And of course Maupassant can’t help tipping his hat to vampirism when his narrator doesn’t see his reflection in the mirror. 

But Poe so beautifully questions sight in the Oval Portrait. If you haven’t read this short masterpiece, you must—you really must! I won’t spoil it for you, but I think it could be a thesis for my current ramblings: There is an art to seeing and seeing is an art; dark fantasy encapsulates both most readily. 

So dark fantasy takes me to visual art because, well, quite frankly, I think painters and writers are kinfolk. Just as the painter asks his viewer to see his canvas, so too does the writer appeal to her reader’s sense of sight—only her paints are language and her canvas unlimited. But how again do we get to the soul? If you’ve ever seen a painting that has taken you out of the space in which you stood, sucked you into its landscape, or forced you to look, “To see!” by the very strength of its design, you’ve met your soul. It’s the thing that’s forced your eyes to feast on the visual offering, to sacrifice your common sense to the imaginative caves of the mind, to spill blood on the page so you may pass the feeling along to a reader—any reader, willing to swim in the depths of your darkness. 

Now I leave you with a few lines from Phoebe Cary’s “Dove’s Eyes,” to ingest as you see fit:

There are eyes half defiant,
Half meek and compliant;
Black eyes, with wondrous, witching charm
To bring us good or to work us harm.

If we must always aim for grandness, can we find it in simplicity?

I rewatched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button recently. I’ve seen the movie several times (probably more than necessary). It’s a beautiful film that tends to be relaxing rather than riveting. It’s touching and easy to watch and leaves me feeling good, usually. 

I like rewatching movies because I’ve come to appreciate the certainty of knowing what’s about to happen. I don’t have to get mired down in plot. I can enjoy the ride, kind of the way children do when they rewatch things. A lot can be said about our comfort in anticipating the familiar. But I also appreciate analyzing things, and it’s difficult to get at the layers the first time around. (I just rewatched Heat, having recently moved to DTLA, and WOW). 

So with CCBB, I appreciated the aging — or anti-aging — and that he was wise when he was young enough to put that wisdom into action. Isn’t that everyone’s dream? Both wisdom and youth? “Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children,” as attributed to George Bernard Shaw. 

This time around, it hit me that BB does very little with the gift he’s given. He joins a tugboat crew, sure. And he goes to war, sure. He even falls in love and is loved in return. But is all that enough? He reconciles with his birth father before the man’s death, but then he squanders his inheritance on frivolity. His father built his button factory from the ground up, but BB does nothing notable with it. He sells his father’s family home and buys a duplex, furnishes it with a sole mattress at first, and an ice box eventually. It’s charming, sure. But it’s also menial, I suppose. He doesn’t even give money to Queenie, from what we know. He does odd jobs around the estate to help out, but he doesn’t give her pause or ease with all his riches. He buys a boat and sails off into the sunset with Daisy. 

Yes, BB has a child, but even that doesn’t seem like something he desires or actively pursues. He doesn’t raise Caroline. And yes he leaves Daisy with plenty of money to do so, and she’s able to be independent and open a dance studio, but he doesn’t stick around long enough to pass on any wisdom — other than leaving his journal behind. When he goes off into the world, he does so with nothing but a cool motorbike and a few sundries in a rucksack. Maybe he takes some cash, but otherwise his globetrotting is framed in poverty and done with a bit of good ole getting-by.

So what’s my point?  

I felt cheated when I rewatched the movie. Or at least it gave me pause, and I thought about him not really doing anything with his life, especially when he was wise and young. His wisdom seemed wasted, I suppose, and I was disappointed in this subtle emptiness. It was only later, after giving it more thought and turning to the source material, I realized the profundity of it all. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story is different, and BB actually does quite a bit, from running the button factory to joining the Spanish-American War and becoming a decorated lieutenant colonel to enrolling in Harvard and playing football. It’s eventful, but also only about him. The character serves himself, leaving for the war when he gets bored at home with his aging wife, Hildegarde. 

By giving the film’s BB a relatively unremarkable life, David Fincher makes his character an everyman, an observer, someone who lives through and for others. So maybe he doesn’t become a button magnate and end poverty and save the world with his wealth. Maybe he just lives the life he’s been dealt instead, which isn’t something to diminish.

I wonder if that’s where BB’s grandness lies. In his ability to enjoy life’s simplicities, and to take it as it comes. He sends his daughter postcards from every place he visits, and birthday cards, and he shows up, to Daisy’s chagrin, to see her when she’s twelve. His gestures speak to his love, and they are grand in small ways. He leaves his mark. Not on everyone, but on some.

Maybe we should aim for that. Maybe our grandness is only tabulated at the end of our lives, when we count up all the little events, the small encounters, the daily experiences that evince we’ve done our best with what we’ve been given. You know, the mosaic we make of our life with all the mismatched buttons we collect and pocket along the way. 

Confidence comes with practice

LA Street Art (755 La Brea Ave.)

I’ve been thinking about debuts lately. I suppose mostly in relation to the book world. It’s hard to get away from thinking about career steps when I’m so involved in walking my own. Until recently, I always thought of a debut as something positive. It’s intended as such, I think. It’s about being at the start of something, or leading off with something. It’s derivative of the French verb débuter, which is to start. 

So we talk a lot about debuts in fiction when we refer to new authors. A *first* book is a debut. (I’m using ** here to make a point). I see plenty of reviews for debuts that remark on how stunning they are, praising a writer for her use of language, or craft, or imagination, etc. I understand why a reader is inclined to note these aspects, as well as gush at a writer’s ability to present them so readily in a debut. It’s got to be innate talent, right?

Fluff to that. Innate talent is one thing but with discipline and practice, the artist builds confidence. And making art requires a TON of confidence. It requires vulnerability, too, which can leave you raw and exposed. Without confidence in your ability, you run the risk of losing the magic everyone thinks you possess. (Psst, it isn’t magic. It’s skill). 

I’ve taught writing to college students for a few years now, all of them at varying levels of ability, but the one commonality is confidence. Most of them lack confidence in their ability to express their thoughts clearly, and that’s because they aren’t experienced enough with written expression. Over time, and with practice, they start to get there. I try to foster confidence in new writers more than I focus on teaching them where to put commas. I’d like to think I’ve had some results. At least, so I’ve heard from some of them.   

Take the actor who goes out on stage night after night, relying on some whimsical sensory experience to do the heavy lifting. Without technique, he’s doomed to fail. Try weeping every single evening, week after week, month after month, for an audience that may snicker, or cough, or check their phones. If you don’t know how to use breath to bring yourself into a sloppy fit of tears (assuming you’ve been directed to do so), you’re doomed the night you can’t stop thinking about the funny incident on the way to the theatre. So innate talent is one thing, technique is another. 

Same as anything else, a writer gets to her debut through a myriad of attempts because the only way to build the confidence required to write anything is to write again and again. It takes a long time, a boatload of trial, an ocean of failure. I don’t just mean multiple drafts for each manuscript. That’s something else altogether. I mean challenging yourself to begin again from scratch. To build a new world, create a fresh villain, plot an original story. Each time, you reset your mind and stretch the boundaries you’ve placed on language. You create to recreate to create. 

Fall in love with your current masterpiece. You kind of have to. Then let it go, and fall in love with the next one. Keep at it, day after day. Over time, you’ll reap the benefits of all your endings and finally reach your debut.     

Start again and again. Make your life poetry.

Street Art on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and N. Orange Dr. (artist unknown)

I believe, wholeheartedly, we are designed with an innate ability to endure change because we too are malleable. We change our direction, our minds, our feelings about the world all the time. We are fluid. We flow, filled with as much water as we are. Our capricious nature, our changeableness, our pliability are enviable, and the more flexible we can be, the better. The reed bends in the wind but doesn’t break like the oak. Plenty have heeded such wisdom. It’s admirable to be the oak at times, too. The trick is to know when to be which. 

The other morning, I went for a run. I like to let my mind go when I run. It’s the best form of relaxation for me, and it helps me think. I don’t decide what to think about. I don’t try to solve problems. I just breathe and the thoughts come. But the other morning I caught myself having a Proustian moment. A smell didn’t get me, though. Rather sound sent me back to the past. The birds were chirping in the trees with that lovely singsong that is the epitome of the here and now — being in the NOW. I’d imagine you can only ignore the sound with a solid effort. But when you don’t, it’s kind of undeniable. You can’t hear birds chirp — I mean, really hear them — without realizing you are an entity that lives and breathes and affects the world around you. It’s primal. You are alive. 

So it was that sound that took me back. I was twelve again, walking down a residential street about six miles from my home. It was early morning, and I had just gotten off the last of three public buses I would ride to get to my new school. I had recently transferred to finish out the school year there, so the route was short-term and the situation temporary. (Back in those days, parents didn’t drive kids to school.) And the distinct sound of the birds was comforting to me. They sounded happy. 

It was springtime then, so the morning air was Canadian crisp and the birds were garrulous in their shout-out to the world. It was fall the other morning when I took my run, so the air was So Cal stuffy, but the birds were still garrulous and happy and alive. The commonalities here are not really situational, and the settings are different, but that’s probably why the remembrance impacted me. It was revelatory because the associations are my own, stimulated by nothing but a primal sound. The birds are the catalyst for my lesson, the reason I could connect past to present and present to past, to see the change in me. 

I had transferred to that new school midway through the year because I had been bullied. Relentlessly. I was at the end, on the edge, ready to step off. Society wasn’t as hip to the damage constant fear of bullying can have on a young person. Options always seem limited. But then change comes and you survive and you overcome and get out on the other side because you cling to that innate ability, which is a form of resiliency.

I’m not sure if I ever acknowledged that toughness in me. It didn’t matter until I thought about it again, when the birds sent me back. I’m going through a rough patch now, too, for different reasons. But the past returned to remind me of that strength, that admirable quality we have to be the reed when we need to be and the oak at other times. We are malleable, we are agents of change, we are receptacles of hope. We can be twelve and alone and think we will live that way our whole life. But one day, we’ll be forty-six, and still going, and dreaming and fighting for the life we never thought possible. Time is the only marker in between, but it’s our construct so let it be just as pliable.

Why my pocket stones …

I suppose it’s a bit of an inside joke, calling my creative words pocket stones. Writing keeps me from loading my pockets and jumping into the void. It’s my armor against the outside world, the one I can’t control. And I enjoy the creative process. It suits me. I’m a gardener* and live to see my flowers grow.

But I also think fondly of engraved rocks, the kind you carry in your pocket to ward off worry. I see them as tokens of the doer-dreamer. A friend gave me two stones when I moved to New York City. Everything was magical then and laden with meaning, like those rocks. I lived on West 70th street and Columbus Avenue, and walked to Broadway every morning to get to class. I would stop on the corner and look down the busy street to see Times Square in the distance. I was sure I had been reborn. I survived the chrysalis and was transformed. My destiny was unfolding. Anything was possible. With sheer will, I could make everything I desired come to fruition. My potential was infinite.

Engraved with destiny and perseverance, the stones represent the two poles of my dream pursuit, as my friend explained. I couldn’t have one without the other. My destiny would only come about if I persevered, and I could only persevere if I was chasing my destiny. I would grow tired otherwise and give up. I liked the thought of this very much. I still think about it, twenty-two years later, as I pursue my current dreams. They have changed, of course. I no longer want the same things, but the life I’ve built suits me better. And so do my dreams.

I can’t say whether they’ll change again. But I know it’s possible. If I decide to give up on writing, I’ll know it’s not my destiny. I haven’t been writing stories since I could hold a pencil, and I wasn’t the kind of child with her nose in a book. I was often out on adventures, in my backyard, or at the park pool, or in the basement in front of the TV. I grew up in the eighties, with what seemed like unlimited freedom. But I also lived in my head. All. The. Time. When I think about that now, I realize I’ve been creating worlds out of nothing forever. That I enjoy writing fiction makes sense. And whether it’s my destiny to continue doesn’t matter. I’ll know if I never give it up.

* “The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.” – George R. R. Martin