April 1, 2017
You are a witch. You warp the very energy that makes up the universe. You dig chunks of sharp crystal from the earth with bare hands and wear them as trinkets. You rip herbs from the dirt and use them to spice the air. You collect glass and bones and storm water and daggers.
Maybe you’re a different sort of witch. Maybe you write music like a siren’s song, sung to the stars, manipulating them until they shine the way you wish. Maybe you delve deep into code and weave quiet, meticulous charms into the very bones of the cyber world, feeling the flow of waves and Wi-Fi like others do the wind and the ways of the cosmos. Maybe you collect eldritch creatures, spirits and deities like others do stamps, frightened because you’re smart, unceasing because you’re brave, and know you’re much scarier than anything you welcome over your threshold.
Maybe you slip blessings into food. Maybe you slip curses under doorsteps. Maybe you draw symbols on your arms. Maybe you write incantations to be heard only by crickets, wicked, whispered nocturnes.
Whatever you do, however you do it, you are a witch. You are a warrior by default. Your strength is as innate to you as breathing. The only thing you must fear is what will happen when someone pushes you too far.
March 27, 2017
I want to talk about magic, how magic is portrayed in fantasy, how fantasy literature has in fact contributed to a very distinct image of magic, and perhaps most importantly how the Western world in general has come to accept a very precise and extremely suspect image of magic users.
I’d better say at the start that I don’t actually believe in magic any more than I believe in astrology, because I’m a Taurean and we don’t go in for all that weirdo occult stuff.
But a couple of years ago I wrote a book called The Colour of Magic. It had some boffo laughs. It was an attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns. It was also my tribute to twenty-five years of fantasy reading, which started when I was thirteen and read Lord of the Rings in 25 hours. That damn book was a halfbrick in the path of the bicycle of my life. I started reading fantasy books at the kind of speed you can only manage in your early teens. I panted for the stuff.
I had a deprived childhood, you see. I had lots of other kids to play with and my parents bought me outdoor toys and refused to ill-treat me, so it never occurred to me to seek solitary consolation with a good book.
Then Tolkien changed all that. I went mad for fantasy. Comics, boring Norse sagas, even more boring Victorian fantasy … I’d better explain to younger listeners that in those days fantasy was not available in every toyshop and bookstall, it was really a bit like sex: you didn’t know where to get the really dirty books, so all you could do was paw hopefully through Amateur Photography magazines looking for artistic nudes.
When I couldn’t get it – heroic fantasy, I mean, not sex – I hung around the children’s section in the public libraries, trying to lure books about dragons and elves to come home with me. I even bought and read all the Narnia books in one go, which was bit like a surfeit of Communion wafers. I didn’t care anymore.
Eventually the authorities caught up with me and kept me in a dark room with small doses of science fiction until I broke the habit and now I can walk past a book with a dragon on the cover and my hands hardly sweat at all.
But a part of my mind remained plugged into what I might call the consensus fantasy universe. It does exist, and you all know it. It has been formed by folklore and Victorian romantics and Walt Disney, and E R Eddison and Jack Vance and Ursula Le Guin and Fritz Leiber – hasn’t it? In fact those writers and a handful of others have very closely defined it. There are now, to the delight of parasitical writers like me, what I might almost call “public domain” plot items. There are dragons, and magic users, and far horizons, and quests, and items of power, and weird cities. There’s the kind of scenery that we would have had on Earth if only God had had the money.
To see the consensus fantasy universe in detail you need only look at the classical Dungeons and Dragon role-playing games. They are mosaics of every fantasy story you’ve ever read.
Of course, the consensus fantasy universe is full of clichés, almost by definition. Elves are tall and fair and use bows, dwarves are small and dark and vote Labour. And magic works. That’s the difference between magic in the fantasy universe and magic here. In the fantasy universe a wizard points his fingers and all these sort of blue glittery lights come out and there’s a sort of explosion and some poor soul is turned into something horrible.
Anyway, if you are in the market for easy laughs you learn that two well-tried ways are either to trip up a cliché or take things absolutely literally. So in the sequel to The Colour of Magic, which is being rushed into print with all the speed of continental drift, you’ll learn what happens, for example, if someone like me gets hold of the idea that megalithic stone circles are really complex computers. What you get is, you get druids walking around talking a sort of computer jargon and referring to Stonehenge as the miracle of the silicon chunk.
While I was plundering the fantasy world for the next cliché to pull a few laughs from, I found one which was so deeply ingrained that you hardly notice it is there at all. In fact it struck me so vividly that I actually began to look at it seriously.
That’s the generally very clear division between magic done by women and magic done by men.
Let’s talk about wizards and witches. There is a tendency to talk of them in one breath, as though they were simply different sexual labels for the same job. It isn’t true. In the fantasy world there is no such thing as a male witch. Warlocks, I hear you cry, but it’s true. Oh, I’ll accept you can postulate them for a particular story, but I’m talking here about the general tendency. There certainly isn’t such a thing as a female wizard.
Sorceress? Just a better class of witch. Enchantress? Just a witch with good legs. The fantasy world. in fact, is overdue for a visit from the Equal Opportunities people because, in the fantasy world, magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, while the wizards are usually cerebral, clever, powerful, and wise.
Strangely enough, that’s also the case in this world. You don’t have to believe in magic to notice that.
Wizards get to do a better class of magic, while witches give you warts.
The archetypal wizard is of course Merlin, advisor of kings, maker of the Round Table, and the only man who knew how to work the electromagnet that released the Sword from the Stone. He is not in fact a folklore hero, because much of what we know about him is based firmly on Geoffrey de Monmouth’s Life of Merlin, written in the Twelfth Century. Old Geoffrey was one of the world’s great writers of fantasy, nearly as good as Fritz Leiber but without that thing about cats.
Had a lot of trouble with women, did Merlin. Morgan Le Fay – a witch – was his main enemy but he was finally trapped in his crystal cave or his enchanted forest, pick your own variation, by a female pupil. The message is clear, boys: that’s what happens to you if you let the real powerful magic get into the hands of women.
In fact Merlin is almost being replaced as the number one wizard by Gandalf, whose magic is more suggested than apparent. I’d also like to bring in at this point a third wizard, of whom most of you must have heard – Ged, the wizard of Earthsea. I do this because Ursula Le Guin’s books give us a very well thought-out, and typical, magic world. I’d suggest that they worked because they plugged so neatly into our group image of how magic is ordered. They serve to point up some of the similarities in our wizards.
They’re all bachelors, and sexually continent. In this fantasy is in agreement with some of the standard works on magic, which make it clear that a good wizard doesn’t get his end away. (Funny, because there’s no such prohibition on witches; they can be at it like knives the whole time and it doesn’t affect their magic at all.) Wizards tend to exist in Orders, or hierarchies, and certainly the Island of Gont reminds me of nothing so much as a medieval European university, or maybe a monastery. There don’t seem to be many women around the University, although I suppose someone cleans the lavatories. There are indeed some female practitioners of magic around Earthsea, but if they are not actually evil then they are either misguided or treated by Ged in the same way that a Harley Street obstetrician treats a local midwife.
Can you imagine a girl trying to get a place at the University of Gont? Or I can put it another way – can you imagine a female Gandalf?
Of course I hardly need mention the true fairytale witches, as malevolent a bunch of crones as you could imagine. It was probably living in those gingerbread cottages. No wonder witches were always portrayed as toothless – it was living in a 90,000 calorie house that did it. You’d hear a noise in the night and it’d be the local kids, eating the doorknob. According to my eight-year-old daughter’s book onWizards, a nicely-illustrated little paperback available at any good bookshop, “wizards undid the harm caused by evil witches”. There it is again, the recurrent message: female magic is cheap and nasty.
But why is all this? Is there anything in the real world that is reflected in fantasy?
The curious thing is that the Western world at least has no very great magical tradition. You can look in vain for any genuine wizards, or for witches for that matter. I know a large number of people who think of themselves as witches, pagans or magicians, and the more realistic of them will admit that while they like to think that they are following a tradition laid down in the well-known Dawn of Time they really picked it all up from books and, yes, fantasy stories. I have come to believe that fantasy fiction in all its forms has no basis in anything in the real world. I believe that witches and witches get their ideas from their reading matter or, before that, from folklore. Fiction invents reality.
In Western Europe, certainly, wizards are few and far between. I have been able to turn up a dozen or so, who with the 20-20 hindsight of history look like either conmen or conjurers. Druids almost fit the bill, but Druids were a few lines by Julius Caesar until they were reinvented a couple of hundred years ago. All this business with the white robes and the sickles and the oneness with nature is wishful thinking. It’s significant, though. Caesar portrayed them as vicious priests of a religion based on human sacrifice, and gory to the elbows. But the PR of history has nevertheless turned them into mystical shamans, unless I mean shaman; men of peace, brewers of magic potions.
Despite the claim that nine million people were executed for witchcraft in Europe in the three centuries from 1400 – this turns up a lot in books of popular occultism and I can only say it is probably as reliable as everything else they contain – it is hard to find genuine evidence of a widespread witchcraft cult. I know a number of people who call themselves witches. No, they are witches – why should I disbelieve them? Their religion strikes me as woolly but well-meaning and at the very least harmless. Modern witchcraft is the Friends of the Earth at prayer. If it has any root at all they lie in the works of a former Colonial civil servant and pioneer naturist called Gerald Gardiner, but I suggest that its is really based in a mishmash of herbalism, Sixties undirected occultism, and The Lord of the Rings.
But I must accept that people called witches have existed. In a sense they have been created by folklore, by what I call the Flying Saucer process – you know, someone sees something they can’t or won’t explain in the sky, is aware that there is a popular history of sightings of flying saucers, so decides that what he has seen is a flying saucer, and pretty soon that “sighting” adds another few flakes to the great snowball of saucerology. In the same way, the peasant knows that witches are ugly old women who live by themselves because the folklore says so, so the local crone must be a witch. Soon everyone locally KNOWS that there is a witch in the next valley, various tricks of fate are laid at her door, and so the great myth chugs on.
One may look in vain for similar widespread evidence of wizards. In addition to the double handful of doubtful practitioners mentioned above, half of whom are more readily identifiable as alchemists or windbags, all I could come up with was some vaguely Masonic cults, like the Horseman’s Word in East Anglia. Not much for Gandalf in there.
Now you can take the view that of course this is the case, because if there is a dirty end of the stick then women will get it. Anything done by women is automatically downgraded. This is the view widely held – well, widely held by my wife every since she started going to consciousness-raising group meetings – who tells me it’s ridiculous to speculate on the topic because the answer is so obvious. Magic, according to this theory, is something that only men can be really good at, and therefore any attempt by women to trespass on the sacred turf must be rigorously stamped out. Women are regarded by men as the second sex, and their magic is therefore automatically inferior. There’s also a lot of stuff about man’s natural fear of a woman with power; witches were poor women seeking one of the few routes to power open to them, and men fought back with torture, fire and ridicule.
I’d like to know that this is all it really is. But the fact is that the consensus fantasy universe has picked up the idea and maintains it. I incline to a different view, if only to keep the argument going, that the whole thing is a lot more metaphorical than that. The sex of the magic practitioner doesn’t really enter into it. The classical wizard, I suggest, represents the ideal of magic – everything that we hope we would be, if we had the power. The classical witch, on the other hand, with her often malevolent interest in the small beer of human affairs, is everything we fear only too well that we would in fact become.
Oh well, it won’t win me a PhD. I suspect that via the insidious medium of picture books for children the wizards will continue to practice their high magic and the witches will perform their evil, bad-tempered spells. It’s going to be a long time before there’s room for equal rites.
Speech at Novacon 15, 1985
March 26, 2017
My hero bares his nerves along my wrist
That rules from wrist to shoulder,
Unpacks the head that, like a sleepy ghost,
Leans on my mortal ruler,
The proud spine spurning turn and twist.
And these poor nerves so wired to the skull
Ache on the lovelorn paper
I hug to love with my unruly scrawl
That utters all love hunger
And tells the page the empty ill.
My hero bares my side and sees his heart
Tread, like a naked Venus,
The beach of flesh, and wind her bloodred plait;
Stripping my loin of promise,
He promises a secret heat.
He holds the wire from the box of nerves
Praising the mortal error
Of birth and death, the two sad knaves of thieves,
And the hunger’s emperor;
He pulls the chain, the cistern moves.
February 10, 2017
the question is not
the question is
the clit of the heart
yes, to want,
to want and then
to one day
stop wanting –
just a gentle
won’t won’t won’t
of an exhausted heart
January 27, 2017
In 1962 Random House published a first novel by a thirty-two-year-old American living in Paris named Harry Mathews. The Conversions is an adventure story about a man trying to decipher the meaning of carvings on an ancient weapon, and it unfolds in a succession of bizarre anecdotes and obscure quotations, with an appendix in German. One particularly trying passage is written in a language once popular with schoolchildren that involves adding arag before most vowels. Furthermore is faragurtharaggermaragore and indulgences is araggindaragulgearaggencearagges.
The book was considered groundbreaking by a certain literary set. Terry Southern called it a “startling piece of work,” and George Plimpton published a seventy-page excerpt in The Paris Review. Mathews’s agent Maxine Groffsky, then in her first job after college in the editorial department at Random House, says that reading The Conversions was like “seeing Merce Cunningham for the first time.” But it baffled most of the reading public, including the poor Time critic who complained that the symbolism “spreads through the novel like crab grass.”
Mathews is one of American literature’s great idiosyncratic figures. His friend Georges Perec, who once wrote a novel without using the letter e, has accused him of following “rules from another planet.” He is usually identified as the sole American member of the Oulipo, a French writers’ group whose stated purpose is to devise mathematical structures that can be used to create literature. He has also been associated with the New York School of avant-garde writers, which included his friends John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. After forty-five years of congenital allergy to convention, he rightfully belongs to the experimentalist tradition of Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce, even though his classical, witty style has won him comparisons to Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Evelyn Waugh. Yet while he enjoys the attention of thousands of cultishly enthusiastic French readers, Mathews remains relatively unknown in his native land and language. “When I go into an English bookstore, I always ask the same question,” a Frenchman told me with the sly smile that infects all Mathews fans. “‘Do you have Tlooth?’”
Tlooth, Mathews’s second novel, came out in 1966. It begins with a baseball game at a Siberian prison camp. His next book, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Twenty-five publishers rejected it, which isn’t entirely surprising given that half of it is written in an invented pidgin English. Mathews used an Oulipian mathematical scheme to create the plot of his fourth novel,Cigarettes (1987). His last two novels are deceptively straightforward. The Journalist (1994) is the diary of a man obsessed by his diary. My Life in CIA (2005), an “autobiographical novel,” begins reassuringly as a memoir only to devolve into the preposterous, ending with the protagonist Harry Mathews tending sheep in the Alps after attempting murder by ski pole.
In reality, the self-described refugee from the Upper East Side has lived in Paris on and off since the fifties, though he does spend summers in the Alps and he says “there are sheep nearby.” Mathews was born in Manhattan in 1930, the only child of an architect and a cold-water-flats heiress. After dutifully attending Princeton for two years, he dropped out and joined the navy, then eloped at nineteen with the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. He finished his studies at Harvard, majoring in music, and in 1952 moved to Paris where he briefly studied conducting before deciding to write poetry full time. In 1956 Mathews met Ashbery, who was in France on a Fulbright scholarship. The poet introduced him to the works of Raymond Roussel, the early-twentieth-century French avant-gardist. After reading Roussel, Mathews turned to prose.
A novelist, poet, essayist, and translator, Mathews is also the author of many short works, including Twenty Lines a Day (1988), the result of more than a year spent following Stendhal’s dictum to write “twenty lines a day, genius or not,” and Singular Pleasures (1983), a series of sixty-one vignettes describing masturbation scenes. A volume of his collected short stories, The Human Country, was published in 2002.
Harry Mathews, The Art of Fiction
Interview in Paris Review, Spring 2007
October 20, 2016
What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.
Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.
September 22, 2016
Let us go hence: the night is now at hand;
The day is overworn, the birds all flown;
And we have reaped the crops the gods have sown;
Despair and death; deep darkness o’er the land,
Broods like an owl; we cannot understand
Laughter or tears, for we have only known
Surpassing vanity: vain things alone
Have driven our perverse and aimless band.
Let us go hence, somewhither strange and cold,
To Hollow Lands where just men and unjust
Find end of labour, where’s rest for the old,
Freedom to all from love and fear and lust.
Twine our torn hands! O pray the earth enfold
Our life-sick hearts and turn them into dust.
September 11, 2016
Diary 11th September
Just a fistful of fast, challenging, hot-wired mind-bites!
‘She can’t say no if she’s gagged.’ S smiles at us. She is tall, and so thin you don’t believe she can possibly cast a shadow. There is a scent of jasmine about her: sickly sweet, heady – as if her body were a garden…a torture garden, perhaps?
She uses the crop with consummate skill…
Her tongue seems huge in my mouth. She has a strong tongue and slender fingers. Their touch is like the flickering lick of a candle flame on my skin. I take a nipple into my mouth now, as her fingers gently caress and set me alight…
Today is Dee’s birthday and we are going to the coast. We will eat, drink and make merry, inbetween watching the waves break over ragged rocks, while the gulls circle slowly overhead…We will return in a couple of days.
June 6, 2016
Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches