Friday, 17 April 2009

Attention medievalists/classicists/smart people: A reader near-and-dear to my heart (and person, as she's writing away in the other room) writes: I’m looking at a series of medieval anecdotes, tales, exempla, &c. in which a person discovers an underground palace or banquet hall filled with filled with both treasure and human-like statues. In some versions of the story there is an explicit warning against removing any object from the room or dining table; in others, it is implicit. Also, in some versions the transgressor/thief manages to escape (only after replacing the stolen item), whereas in other versions, he/she fails to escape and spends the rest of his or her days trapped in the banquet hall. The story is very similar, in many respects, to the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth, in which Ofelia is warned against eating or touching anything on the banquet table of the Pale Man (i.e., the monster-guy with eyeballs in the palms of his hands). She is warned of the consequences, yet still breaks the taboo. The result is terrible, yet she does escape. I’m looking critical studies or readings that go beyond stating the obvious—e.g. "This is, indeed, a common motif in X folklore" or "This motif appears in sources x, y, and z, with variations a, b, & c."—or identifying the motif or narrative as part of a specific (or worse still, universal) tradition—e.g. the Gerbert of Aurillac/Virgilius legends, the legend of Sinbad/Sindibad/Seven Sages, &c. Interpretations and imaginative readings of the scene from Pan’s Labyrinth are also quite welcome. Addendum: I’ve also spent quite a bit of time trying to reconcile this motif with other "underworld journeys" (e.g., the Aeneid, the Inferno, &c.) and the long tradition of commentary and allegorical interpretation that develops around them, with some degree of success; yet there are still undoubtedly plenty of readings and retellings of the same (especially late antique & medieval) that I’ve overlooked.
How awful have these past few months been for contemporary letters? Here’s a paragraph from the late David Foster Wallace’s review of the late, as of today, J.G. Ballard’s 1991 collection War Fever: J.G. Ballard is not a great fiction writer, but he is an important one. If that seems like an inconsistent judgment, be advised that American readers who know Ballard only via his moving, Spielbergable memoir Empire of the Sun do not know the real J. G. Ballard. The real Ballard has since the early ‘60s been a pioneer of a certain sort of literary science fiction I like to call Psy-Fi. Psy-Fi, often parodic, surreal and grotesque, and almost always set in some near and recognizable future, seeks to explore the psychopathology of post-atomic life, stuff like high technology, mass-media, advertising, PR, totalitarianism, etc. When he wrote this in 1991, Wallace himself had just started writing an “often parodic, surreal and grotesque” novel “set in [the] near and recognizable future” that sought “to explore the psychopathology of post-atomic life, stuff like high technology, mass-media, advertising, PR, totalitarianism,” and more than a little et cetera. I’d never considered my passion for both novelists related until I stumbled across this review a few months back. The coldness Wallace speaks of in Ballard’s prose is utterly unlike anything you find in Wallace’s own work. Even when his narrators speak, as he claimed Ballard’s do, in a “flat, scholarly narrative voice, [with] an air of lab technicians looking at stuff under glass,” the result never resembles the clipped, clinical speech of which Ballard was a master—for in Wallace, such disinterested precision is always affected. But without Ballard, there would have been no Wallace; in fact, without Ballard, contemporary literature would look very different. A British friend once told me that Ballard was “Our [meaning English-speaking] Borges.” I’m not sure he was right, but I’m not about to argue that he was wrong.

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