Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"Any sufficiently ancient law is indistinguishable from magic": Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Everything around us seems at first glance to be imbued with history as much as, or more than, it is filled with purpose: our ears are often deaf to the bells by which a creation selves, but it is our father's toil and blood that visibly smears the soil we have inherited. Heraclitus believed that sight and sound signified the polar opposition of the totality of knowledge--of direct and indirect experience. Those objects that are publicly knowable, as Augustine says, we apprehend through eyes and ears, the two senses whose objects we can share. (See On the way to wisdom in Heraclitus, Kurt Pritzl, Phoenix v.39 n.4 p.303.) Both history and purpose are part of the sensus communis, the common sense integrating human experience, and both give true testimony; but only seeing history's accretion of human activity is a direct witness, while inferring the inscape of a creature's final end is mere hearsay. (Though more Hermetically far-reaching, as sound can bend around the corners of time.)

History and purpose have been intertwined and come undone repeatedly as the plan unfolds, and the truths borne of their trysts persist in orphanages as sayings but are forgotten in ancestry and meaning. This is the subject of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Her observation---that on the one hand we find history, power, law and ambition huddled together, and on the other hand, alone, purpose---she was of course anticipated in. My favorite example is Victor Hugo's L'homme qui rit, The Man Who Laughs. In Part II, Book the First, Chapter VI-VII, the wicked Barkilphedro begs his patroness for the post of Drawer of Bottles, in the Jetsam Division of the Sea Prize Department of the Lord High Admiral's office. It has been many years since a bottle needed to be uncorked: the job "is like grooming a bronze horse." The Lord High Admiral owns things in the ocean which sink (lagan), things which float (flotsam), and things which are cast ashore (jetsam) (--except that the King owns the sturgeon.)
The fashion of casting bottles on the surface of the sea has somewhat passed away, like that of vowing offerings, but in those religious times, those who were about to die were glad thus to send their last thought to God and to men, and at times these messages from the sea were plentiful at the Admiralty.
And their intelligence once had been valuable: the Drawer had the right of humble entrance even into the royal bedchambers. Elizabeth would ask, "Quid mihi scribit Neptunus?" What does Neptune write me? Barkilphedro gets the office when humble entrance is no longer needed for naval goals: he uses its confidence for intrigue. And destruction. The crack between history and purpose is driven through shatteringly.

Clarke's novel is about this shattering, and she observes how our institutions still stand, but are mute. If the stone of a statue is the tangible fact of its extended place in history as a made thing, then the statue's voice, and the features on its face and thoughts in its heart, are the statue's meaning---what the artist who created and fell in love with the statue saw and wanted in his heart for the statue's good. One of the early episodes of the book is about giving statues their voices back, in fact. Clarke uses magic to remind us of the shattered world, because we only laugh lightly at examples we are more familiar with. She writes about an administrative office one step older than the Drawer of Bottles, a little farther along the process of time carrying away our voices and wearing away our faces:
Some years ago his friends in the Government had got him the position of Secretary-in-Ordinary to The Office of Supplication, for which he received a special hat, a small piece of ivory and seven hundred pounds a year. There were no duties attached to the place because no one could remember what The Office of Supplication was supposed to do or what the small piece of ivory was for.
How quaint, we think! But there is the law, and then there is the Law. And when they diverge, there is instability and there is disequilibrium. Clarke starts with a light touch on our own institutional memory---in the literal sense---and our own mortality. But she will shift to the fantastic to drive her point beneath our guard.

Often our hearts, starved for romance, grasp at words, hoping for meaning but at bottom finding only history. By the time Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell rediscover magic in England, many spells no longer work or are forgotten: "Chauntlucet, Daedalus's Rose, the Unrobed Ladies, Stokesey's Vitrification." A Clarke footnote explains each, with the best for our purpose being:
Like many spells with unusual names, the Unrobed Ladies was a great deal less exciting than it sounded. The ladies of the title were only a kind of woodland flower which was used in a spell to bind a fairy's powers. The flower was required to be stripped of leaves and petals---hence the "unrobing".
Clarke can make the extraordinary ordinary because she has a surfeit of meaning. [[[continue reading...]]] Consider the fairy spell "the doctrine of ancient lights." It creates a force which honors the precious, oldest rays of the Sun--the Sun which in Homer sees and hears everything:
Upon proof of an adverse enjoyment of light, for twenty years or upwards, unexplained, a jury may be directed to presume a right by grant, or otherwise. But if the window was opened during the seisin of a mere tenant for life, or a tenancy for years, and the owner in fee did not acquiesce in, or know of, the use of the light, he would not be bound.
This description of the spell is from the magical tome "Black's Law Dictionary."

We invent, we repeat, we forget; a new mindset gives something that previously seemed natural an ancient feel. Describing the parts of magical spells (e.g., epitome, skimmer, florilegia), Clarke notes:
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries fairies in England were fond of adding to their magic, exhortations to random collections of Christian saints. Faires were baffled by Christian doctrine, but they were greatly attracted to saints, whom they saw as powerful magical beings whose patronage it was useful to have. These exhortations were called florilegia (lit. cullings or gatherings of flowers) and fairies taught them to their Christian masters. When the Protestant religion took hold in England and saints fell out of favour, florilegia degenerated into meaningless collections of magical words and bits of other spells, thrown in by the magician in the hope that some of them might take effect.
There are meanings hidden in history, rituals whose very forgetfulness gives them power: in many places, the deliberately-anachronistic solemnity of sealing a document with hot wax and a signet seal overcomes certain legal-defect claims. In Indiana and some other states drawing a scroll next to one's name has the same effect. The consecration of the Host in the Latin Mass is rumored to only take effect upon secret words that a priest may not share on pain of Latæ Sententiæ. This is magic formalism. P. Bourdieu discusses in Ce que parler veut dire how Weber fails to find a division between rational formalism's bureaucracy and magical formalism's ritual. Kafka makes the point more grimly.

History has a claim on us and will kill us all given time, which is plentiful. Meanings that we have forgotten do not forget us: astra fovent animam corpus natura recepit. In a magical story invoked by the Kabbalah numerological symbol "179 F.2d 64," three knights owned three parcels of land. By ancient right, to the origin of which man's memory runneth not, the first knight, Abelard, was bound by great powers to allow the second, Bonaventure, to cross Abelard's land to reach his own. Bonaventure slew Chretien de Troyes, the third knight, and took his lands. Bonaventure built a castle, but the footprint straddled both Bonaventure's and Chretien's land. When Bonaventure tried to use his ancient easement of access to enter his new castle, he found a magical field prevented him from entering those portions that fell outside his original lands, as if the very lands cried out against his crime. Clarke gives a description of a magical court, the court of Cinque Dragownes, which could have easily reached this result (from the District of Columbia Circuit in 1949). The story of the Champion of the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart, p. 729 in Strange and Norrell along with the prior description by Childermass, is perhaps a retelling of this case, in a deep way. I will not spoil it here.

The interest the denizens of Faerie take in saints is mentioned several times by Clarke, and is not casual. The saints took us---take us---to new paths "towards the Moon or to the Sun", upwards from history in sentina mundi, dregs at the bottom of a clear glass. Peter Brown notes in The Cult of the Saints:
The rise of the Christian cult of saints took place in the great cemeteries that lay outside the cities of the Roman world...and came to involve the digging up, the moving, the dismemberment---quite apart from much avid touching and kissing---of the bones of the dead, and, frequently, the placing of these [relics] in areas from which the dead had once been excluded.
Norrell brings someone back to life, but a body part is left, like a relic, in Faerie. The established topography---even bodily integrity---of the universe is destroyed by the saints, much as the new magic in Clarke threatens to reawaken old consciousnesses, and the fairies promise (threaten) to tell us the meanings that surround us like dolmens. Strange can have anything he wants upon his first summoning of a fairy, and he says only:
"What are the names of the three magical rivers that flow through the Kingdom of Agrace? Ralph Stokesey thought that these rivers influenced events in England: is that true? There is mention in The Language of Birds of a group of spells that are cast by manipulating colours; what can you tell me about that? What do the stones in the Doncaster Squares represent?"
Meaning is with us always, and history is far away; but history is visible, while meaning is just a whisper. Clarke dims the room so that we can close our eyes and reel like a drunk in the transcendental Being that cycles through Creation. I close with a Clarke description that could summarize the Neoplatonic heirarchy of meaning and history:
Strange walked away and became one of the many black figures on the piazza, all with black faces and no expressions, hurrying across the face of moon-coloured Venice. The moon itself was set among great architectural clouds so that there appeared to be another moon-lit city in the sky, whose grandeur rivalled Venice and whose great palaces and streets were crumbling and falling into ruins, as if some spirit in a whimsical mood had set it there to mock the other's slow decline.

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