member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Slideshow is of Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Nothing is Dead

All night waking to the sound
of light rain falling softly
through the leaves in the quiet
valley below the window
and to Paula lying here
asleep beside me and to
the murmur beside the bed
of the dogs' snoring like small
waves coming ashore I
am amazed at the fortune
of this moment in the whole
of the dark this unspoken
favor while it is with us
this breathing peace and then I
think of the frauds in office
at this instant devising
their massacres in my name
what part of me could they have
come from were they made of my
loathing itself and dredged from
the bitter depths of my shame

--W. S. Merwin

Animism is a belief that has had a large part in many religions throughout history, which claims that objects, rocks, plants, animals, and even certain words or "true" names have souls or spirits of their own. According to Wikipedia, "Jean Piaget applied the term in child psychology in reference to an implicit understanding of the world in a child's mind which assumes all events are the product of intention or consciousness." Although Piaget went on to explain that the rational human soon grew out of such beliefs, it's the idea that he's wrong that interests me--an idea I've explored before here and hereand would like to look at again now.
In dreams, every person, every object, is created by the dreamer, and carries a meaning, implicit in its shape, color, location, etc, which can be discerned with a little attention. In the ancient Hindu tradition, there is the concept of Maya: that the world is dreamed into being by One who sits on the lotus flower. That One's eyes open, and the world comes into being; they close, and it ends. In that concept, it is not only that the dreamer dreams up each character, but each character is also dreaming the others: like all human creations, once you have given something a space in the world (life, breath), it takes on a will, an intent of its own, it becomes its own creature. Ask any mother of a teenager, I think. So, we imagine a single dreamer, but once that dreamer has begun, each thing he has dreamed takes on its own life, from the starting point of its initial meaning. All of which would also suggest that objects and words have life-forces of their own as well, given them at least in part by you. So, those objects:

According to Lady Lavona in her Cabinet of Curiosities, "Lakota traditions say that life began with the rise of a great stone from the waters of creation. The Lakota word 'tunkaschila' meaning 'grandfather' is sometimes used for the word 'stone' because stones are referred to as our elders."

Agate stones found in northwest India by Jurgen Lehl, featured in his book Babaghuri.

Objects are infused with the meaning our interactions with them or places or people they resemble have created, so it makes perfect sense that what to one man is a pebble, not looked at twice, for another seems to add a certain power to his (her) intentions, words, and actions. And in fact, according to the Iroquois tradition, it was a rock that began the powerful, mind-changing and therefore world-changing tradition of storytelling amongst humans, by sharing a tale with a boy named Crow. The power of tales and the power of charms are both fleshed out with great talent in the excellent novel The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, by Chris Wooding.

A frightful beast...(from the book)

One thing that steampunk literature and science-fiction offer us is, though they often take current politics all the way to their natural and frightening conclusion, with politicians and wealthy moguls holding impossible amounts of power and exercising excessive violence on everyone else (in this tale, those people are called The Fraternity), they also introduce characters in them that have devised equally impossible ways around that clamping-down of double-fisted control. These types of stories remind us that it has always been this way with humans: some have wanted too much power, have gone to previously unimaginable lengths to get it and achieved frightening amounts of control, and others have created alleys and tunnels and caves--and stories--and taken them down.

In The Haunting, awful creatures began to overtake the Victorian city of London, and after that other large cities around the world, immediately following the first aerial bombing in human history--which in this tale was the Vernichtung, carried out by Prussian airships, about twenty years prior. At first, these creatures were believed to be simple delusions, shell-shock and waking nightmares, and so by the time the government got around to trying to deal with them, they had become quite numerous and powerful. They are wych-kin: demons, ghosts, and seemingly indestructible beasts, many of whom are unaffected by walls or locks or even bullets from guns.

There are ghouls, who are not even aware they are dead:

They walked slowly along the cloisters, the pews on their right, heading for the arched double doors at the north end of the church. Thaniel felt the skin creep along his nape, his eyes searching the slices and patches of shadow that lurked in the hollow body of the building.
“That’s our ghoul,” Crott muttered suddenly, pointing.
They saw it then, slouching along the central aisle, their lamplight splashing across the left side of its body and showing it up in translucent white. Rags and tatters clothed it; a bony hand showed through a torn sleeve. Its head was half-fleshed, a white eggshell of skull showing through behind its eye socket, and its lips were withered to nothing, showing a skeleton smile beneath a collapsed nose and lidless eyes that stared endlessly. Half corpse, half skeleton, it managed to be neither. The portions of its form that were lit seemed to hang in the air, flat pictures supported by nothing, for its unlit parts were invisible.
“Does it know we are here?” Alaizabel asked.
“It knows,” said Thaniel. “Do not be fooled. Keep walking...”

There are Draugs, who bring the deepest, darkest part of the sea up to you, and take you back with them. There are Cradlejacks, who multiply in number by scratching or biting their victims, thus infecting them. There is Rawhead, who seems to have stepped directly out of a tale told to bad children. Wych-kin: they remind me of the threat of nuclear annihilation, of the tsunamis and ice-ages our environmental destruction is calling down, of drug-resistant disease. I think many of us wake up in the dark thinking, how do you fight that?.
That is how a monster is made.

But in The Haunting there are also wych-kin hunters, one of the best of them having begun the trade at the tender age of eight--before cynicism and rage could take their best crack at him. The mythology surrounding the amazing hunting abilities of his father, and a successful history at his side have given him a pretty firm belief in both his abilities and the tools of his trade. The hunters learn as they go, many dying, for example, before one survives to tell the others that a particular string of protective charms has somehow worked to destroy a particular type of demon. Charms, made of feather and bone, tiny shells, special rocks, or spices...

Armonia, Remedios Varo

There’s power in what we believe, in where we put our focus: headlines and channels full of explosions and fear increase fear, and so increase explosions. The more we focus on what we fear, the stronger the feared thing becomes against us. The more detail we put into the explanations for why we cannot defeat it, the more real our inability becomes against it. But it is the things we do know how to do, the abilities that are within our grasp, the objects around us which our lives have imbued with meaning and power: charmss--those are the things that will save us, because of what we have put into them; just like the demon or the darkness that gets us in the end will be the one we believed could.

Remember that great, imaginary organization Remedios Varo created, the Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life (see the quote at the top of the blog)? They discovered that the placement of particular objects could, indeed, influence events, though it was often in a way that you had to pay careful attention in order to catch. In all her artwork, she put that organization’s beliefs to the test: placing numbers and blossoms and feathers and stones together on a staff to create the music of the universe--harmony with some spirit of the place itself, or showing the way the tiles of the floor really did have their own creative impulse, their own intention:

The Alchemist, Remedios Varo

--she created magic. And she changed the world--for example, for me.

Without giving too much of the plot away, I’d say that these are the ideas fleshed out in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray. The writing and the details are excellent--even at the end, when you’re hurrying to discover the outcome, don’t scan; Wooding put hard work and much thought on the details and action right up to the end, and his style of writing adds a great deal to the story. It’s one of those few books to flesh out an idea so well, so thoroughly, without it ever turning into a treatise. When he comes to the logic behind the terrors, it has been made so clear by the action, he barely has to mention the underlying idea.

Highly recommended.


  1. What a great essay, Zoe. You've woven so many threads together here -- this is an amazing piece of both scholarship and creative thinking. Not that the two are, or should be separate! To the contrary.... Anyway, here's to the power of context and relationship, and the spark of anima in every little thing.

  2. Zoe, my dearest, I'm so happy to visit this magical place again. And this post is superb. As I read it, that preface to Foucault's "The Order of Things" pounded in my mind and I just notice that it stands just on the right of your blog... I'm speechless. This is wonderful!

  3. The more we focus on what we fear, the stronger the feared thing becomes against us.

    Zoe, this is fabulous. I love how you tied all together. The sentence above could also be applied to so much that is going on today. There is such wisdom in your writing, in the magic that keeps me glued to the screen. I wait for your posts as eagerly as I wait for Christmas morning. Thank you! Thank you!

  4. Oops, forgot. When we lived in Cairo, Egypt, I learned that the Coptic Christians all dreamed the same night at the same time that Christ appeared. Thought this was interesting. And, in Kenya, when I attempted to learn Kiswahili, all of the nouns are either neutral, alive, or dead. And some that I thought would obviously be dead were alive.

  5. kittie-- i'm always fascinated by the things that language/grammar structures can tell us about different ways to think...i had never heard about this aspect of kiswahili, though. that's a really useful one!
    do you remember any of the particular words which were alive that surprised you?

    brian--thanks!! i'm glad you enjoyed it!

    silvia--i am so glad to have you back here :) i have missed your presence. that quote from borges and foucault is such a brain-changer, isn't it? it seems to be underneath everything i think about...

  6. Another beautifully written post from you, Zoe.
    You're such a great writer. How you tied them together are just so wonderful.

  7. You've really piqued my interest with your account of The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray. Thank you for this excellent post. I'm going to have to search out and acquire a copy of the novel now, to satisfy my curiosity.

  8. Really a great post, zoe.
    In a sense we have always been familar with what you call animism. We often see in modern Japan huge rocks and trees being decorated with a sacred straw festoon. For us they don't seem funny at all!
    Ultimately, everything is made from energy, isn't it? In it, atoms and quantums dance!
    Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short novel on the similar theme; "it is not only that the dreamer dreams up each character, but each character is also dreaming the others"...
    How interesting!

  9. Thank you Zoe the flow of W. S. Merwin words are so wonderful and your suggestions and writing is very inspiring. I myself have always been a stone collector and everyone has its individual story to tell.

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