A Walk Between the Paths in Autumn

A story told by fallen leaves in the style of a young Nietzsche

***

Note: To be clearer to those less familiar with the context, this is a discussion of various literary themes (or just personal points of interest) in Elden Ring.  It’s meaty for a series of essay-fragments, but disconnected and certainly not a complete treatment of any of these topics, much less the game as a whole.  The style might be something I return to–temporally, though, I had just been reading a collection of Nietzsche’s earlier aphoristic work (alongside, as I mention, Borges), and it seemed a decent way to expound upon the contents of my brain at the time.

Cross the fog to the Lands Between.  In the tradition of Bloodborne (and in contrast to Dark Souls) Elden Ring is rather forthcoming with the metaphysical nature of its action.  The Lands Between are ruled by a goddess who has banished the very concept of death, power is conferred by “runes” (including the Elden Ring itself) and “grace”, individuals physically accomplish insane, abstract tasks like “holding the constellations in place” or “literally being two people” (including the fecundity implied by a less abstract multiplicity)–no need for the subtlety of a bird ride that transcends substrates of reality, but that’s okay.  I mean it genuinely.  It is often okay to say what one means, especially with the cat so far out of the bag.

Familiar Miyazaki-isms return: The fog from without the Lands Between again symbolizes the shifting becoming of materiality giving way to the divine being of grace (the Christian through-line) and runes (the Norse through-line, perhaps to be taken as Viking geometry, linking the metaphysical language to the old Platonic stand-in).

Perhaps it’s the Borges I have on my brain at the moment, but it’s all rather evocative of a labyrinth.  Lands of resolved solidity delineating (forming pathways amidst) the fog (or vice-versa–the negative of a labyrinth is also a labyrinth)–I sure don’t have any idea what it was meant to house (or I lack the energy to enunciate it–you guess which), but labyrinths are awesome and, definitionally, provide both a goal and at least one path to tread in one’s delving.

***

Long lost grace.  Grace, the guidance of gold, a network of glittering signposts and rest stops left by the Greater Will (the Outer God from which the Golden Order and the Two Fingers arise; and against whom both Marika and Ranni rebel), a golden glow in the eyes of the blessed–beyond its utility as supportive game mechanics, it sounds kind of like “purpose” and even more like “commandment”.

For the player character it’s a rough constant, but it’s worth considering the others for whom it comes and goes.  Back before the Shattering, Godfrey, First Elden Lord, was divested of grace and “hounded from the Lands Between”, as far as I can tell not for any indiscretion, but because he fulfilled his commandment.  He was done conquering the Lands Between in the name of Marika and the Erdtree, so as is only just, she banished her champion and the father of (some of) her children and remarried…herself.  Divinity certainly is a strange thing.  No one would appreciate me extrapolating this logic to IRL religion, but it’s worth ruminating on this characterization of “divine love” and the rules it plays by.

Anyway, when Godfrey is banished, loses the guidance of gold, he becomes Tarnished.  Because From Software spends approximately a bazillion dollars (or at least hours) on English translation, we should be careful with their words–and we should be very suspicious when it looks like they aren’t.  To which end, pure gold doesn’t tarnish–silver/other stuff does.  The implication, then, of calling the Erdtree’s discarded guardians “Tarnished” is subtle but important: The golden grace which they formerly held was not a transmutation of the soul but an alloying.  They, at base, are not gold but silver.

Sound familiar?

“I said; ‘but all the same hear the rest of the story.  While all of you in the city are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet the gods, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious–but in the [guardians, Samzdat’s words] silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen.’”

-Plato, Republic

TL;DR/#AllGreek2U, the rulers are gold, the soldiers are silver, everyone else is economically replaceable, and in the Lands Between, we sometimes stuff warriors into cabinets (or jars) until (or, more realistically: so that) they get corroded and gross.  It’s worth considering as well that (Plato’s) Socrates presented the city based on the noble lie not as an ideal city (as he might have claimed for plausible deniability) but as a hellscape, a festering city, an absurd monument to the tendency of human complexities toward strife.

You can blame the genre or the philosophy, but either way the result is what you’d expect: Strife arrives, the gold-souled rulers are proven untrustworthy (or at least unworthy), so the conduits of grace on the ground begin unearthing their guardians.  In other words, they not only followed Adeimantus’ bad example–they followed his bad example badly.

This is to say nothing of Miquella, child of Marika alone, who championed “unalloyed gold” as a countermeasure to the influence of the Outer Gods.  Because philosopher kings are clearly the solution.

***

Game of rings.  “Sonic or Gandalf?”  Depends on how fast you are.

An obviously relevant point of discussion is that the development of Elden Ring’s pre-Shattering mythos was a collaboration between Miyazaki and the much vaunted (though perhaps tarnished in his own right) George R.R. Martin.  Less obvious is exactly why this is relevant.  We do know that the collaboration was not longitudinal: Martin’s involvement was at the beginning, in creating a “D&D sourcebook” for a setting that Miyazaki would then twist.  What’s not clear is where the line is drawn–the degradation of the Lands Between was not by a single event, be it the Shattering (the war), the shattering (of the Elden Ring by Radagon), the Night of the Black Knives (which likely catalyzed both), or the banishment of Godfrey (which exposed–or even created–the cracks in the order that led to all the rest).  Miyazaki has commented that some of the characters ended up unrecognizable from Martin’s original submission, but that raises more questions than it answers (like the degree to which that difference is editing versus the in-story corruption of the Shattering).  All I can say now is that I would give not-zero appendages to see Martin’s original document.

In the same vein, I’ve long wondered about the particulars of Miyazaki’s collaborative strategy.  The structure of this arrangement is particularly clear (in spite of the aforementioned ambiguities), in the sense that such arrangements must exist in most, if not all, collaborative works of long-form literature, and we, as onlookers, rarely get this degree of insight.  Meanwhile, during the development of Elden Ring, Miyazaki was also directing Sekiro, on which he has stated he took a backseat on most of the object-level writing.  Yet: Sekiro remains a beautifully-written work with the same hallmarks of style and attention to detail.  I realize this observation is nothing especially profound, but I’m still curious about the nuts and bolts: Is Miyazaki himself especially good at directing his own style?  Are From Software’s processes particularly conducive to that style?  Do they simply maintain a staff of talented and faithful imitators?  I have no idea, but I would love to understand how I could scale my own work in the same way.

***

Yass, King, I seen’t it!  There’s something cowardly to me about getting too low-level in one’s critique/analysis, but there’s one piece of Elden Ring for which I’ll flirt with the lower bound of my standards.

Miyazaki has said before that his favorite boss in Demon’s Souls is the Old Monk, the proprietor of a tower in a swamp who was driven mad by a relic he acquired: a long, flowing, vibrant yellow robe.  His reasons for liking this boss are likely multiple.  There’s a lot to like, from the super creepy aesthetic (it’s instilled in me a lasting affinity for piles of discarded chairs), to the fact that the fight is not against the monk himself but an invading enemy player “possessed” by the robe (a mechanic which reprised its role in Dark Souls 3), to, of course, the literary reference.  Hidetaka Miyazaki, too, has seen the Yellow Sign.

That The King in Yellow is so close to Miyazaki’s heart (or at least his portfolio) makes his use of the color yellow in Elden Ring nearly unignorable.  To be fair, even not taking that into consideration, the precision (and deliberate obfuscation) of it is diabolical–or did we think that the representation of no fewer than four distinct (and bitterly-opposed) factions by nearly-identical yellow particle effects was merely sloppy art direction?

For accounting: The Golden Order, the “good guys” in the quest for a restored balance via the Elden Ring are, insofar as they are in any way a united front, represented by projections of pale yellow light and a predictably golden aura.  Those Who Live in Death, worshippers of Godwyn the Golden (the first demigod to die) who would see the rune of death reintegrated with the Elden Ring, are characterized by a golden aura intermingled with black smoke, as if to connote some corruption of Godwyn’s original purpose.  Similarly, the Omen, the curse of horns and filth that cuts its victims off from the Greater Will (see Margit/Morgott, Mohg, and the Dung Eater) is the same gold, interspersed with brown.  And of course, the Frenzied Flame, ender of life and bringer of madness, is also yellow, this time more saffron–though it is scarcely distinguishable from the Golden Order’s particle effect when it is in an NPC’s eyes.

Far be it from me to offhandedly summarize the “point” of The King in Yellow without citation, but I think a respectable try looks like: 

“A sort of madness, transient or not, of devotion to something larger than ourselves, even–especially–at the expense of the reality we would otherwise affirm, is endemic to the human condition.”

Shabriri and the Frenzied Flame thus stand at one end of the spectrum, wearing the same color but demonstrating, perhaps, just how deep the yellow/gold rabbit hole goes, while the remaining Erdtree derivatives reticently acknowledge that all that glitters, well, maybe it has something in common.

Less artistically but 100% also the point: The narcissism of small differences is often much more bitter than any rivalry with an alien Other.

***

We’ve made some improvements to the chapel since 2015.  Furthering the “thematic connection to Bloodborne angle”, the two games’ use of runic alphabets is worth interrogating, and Elden Ring in particular gives a useful starting point for the aspiring Lorax linguist: the tree.  The Lands Between admittedly incorporate several linguistic traditions (Latinate, e.g. Raya Lucaria, Dectus; descriptive English, e.g. Volcano Manor, Redmane Castle; and of course Germanic, e.g. Leyndell, Fortissax, Placidusax), but since most of them are allocated to the names of specific people and places (which is about how you would expect culture to work), the question of the Erdtree (a more fundamental concept) stands out.  It’s definitely a tree, that part makes sense, but per the name, it’s also an “Erd”, so what’s that?

My own leap of logic lands me on “œd”, short for œdal, the Elder Futhark rune for “heritage” or “estate”, a fitting symbol for the Golden Lineage (used also by the Nazis, a connection which I will not explore here).  It also seems to be the nominative basis for Bloodborne’s Great One, Oedon (not to mention the Norse god Odin).  Except, one problem–the œdal rune looks like this:

And the Oedon rune looks like this:

Actually, no, not a problem, just a connection.  You see, the seal of Queen Marika is this:

…which bears reference to Odin’s infamous vigil, hanging from a tree, and closely resembles the Anglo-Saxon rune “ear”, meaning “earth”:

…implying a “heritage of the earth” (Biblically, “inheriting the earth”) or the less grand “earthly heritage”, or both.  There are fruitful implications to either.

Note: While I did mention before that these explorations are largely incomplete, it’s worth mentioning the trail of breadcrumbs leading to the “elgaz” rune as well:

The literal meaning of this rune is “elk”, which is a less useful similarity to Marika and the Erdtree, but given its visual similarity to “ear”, it might indicate some connection to the moose/elk-themed Ancestors present in various locations throughout Elden Ring, whose culture is believed to predate the Erdtree.

If we’re going to grill the Erdtree, we ought to do the same with its disfavored progeny.  Thankfully, the Haligtree is easy–”Halig” fairly clearly derives from the Anglo-Saxon “hægl” rune

(or “haglaz” in Elder Futhark–aside, I am continuing to reference Elder Futhark mainly because Wikipedia’s entry for it is way better, but evidence points to the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet being the most appropriate reference for Elden Ring’s runes), meaning “hail” or “precipitation”.  Aesthetically, hail is appropriate–the Haligtree is located in the snow-covered northern mountains–but at a deeper level, the significance of the Haligtree is much better understood as precipitation, that which falls from the storm or, less meteorologically, from the heritage of the Erdtree.  Miquella is an Empyrean, one of the three potential successors to Marika (Miquella, Malenia, and Ranni, for reference), and he intended the Haligtree to be a new symbol of a new order in the Lands Between.  That it should be named for precipitation–or consequence–is entirely reasonable.

Lastly, just as we are shown the modified “ear” as the symbol of Marika, we are shown another rune as the seal of Radagon:

This is a superimposition of the epigraphical and manuscript variants of the Anglo-Saxon rune “gēr”:

“Gēr” signifies “year” or “harvest”, connoted as “year/season of plenty”, which in Radagon’s case might be taken ironically.  In his role as champion of the Golden Order, he was “harvested” from his place at Raya Lucaria, ultimately leaving Liurnia in disarray (if not outright ruin), and the metaphor only gets darker in the sense of “harvest” as it applies to fertility.

Radagon and Marika had two children, Miquella and Malenia, both of whom wound up cursed, presumably by the particular degradation of the divine gene pool that occurs when one’s parents are not merely related but are, in fact, the same person.  And if the problem of the harvest is a problem of one’s descendants, of succession, then it’s worth noting that the Shattering was literally a war of succession, preceded, of course, by the literal shattering of the Elden Ring–by Radagon.

***

A golden parasite for the golden lineage.  Also returning in the Lands Between is one of Sekiro’s most potent symbols: the centipede.  The one-armed wolf had a pretty good time with this one–literally, it is a creature that infests the corpses of the divine carp that swim in the Dragon-blessed waters of the Fountainhead Palace.  It lines the corpses with its eggs, and as the flesh breaks down, the eggs bleed into the overall water supply, into the runoff that flows to Ashina.  Then, when the mortals below drink the water, they find themselves “blessed” with an unpleasant and hollow brand of immortality.

The immortality, of course, is the result of the giant centipedes whose eggs they swallowed, now growing through and infesting their still-living body, though the “why” is definitely where the literality starts to blur.  Is it because they are parasites to the divine?  Is it coincident, in that the centipedes are themselves divine (which would allow them to devour the carp in the first place)?  Sekiro isn’t especially clear on the biomechanics, but it all but bludgeons you with the notion that the immortality granted by the waters of the Fountainhead is only a crude imitation of that granted by the Dragon’s Heritage.  A note, obvious within the Ashina province but worth clarifying for the Europhilic audience of Souls/Elden Ring: This is an Asian dragon we’re talking about here, no wings, serpentine, aquatic, celestial (a combination of adjectives worth draggin back to Bloodborne, by-the-by).

It should not be surprising that all of the supernatural creatures present in Sekiro (the carp, the centipedes, the giant snakes of the valley) all bear some morphological resemblance to the Dragon, to the divinity they emulate, but the implied ladder there also calls to mind a fable of a Buddhist monk and a centipede, where the centipede is expounded upon as a lesser creature which may yet regain its honor through rebirth.  

Do you see it?  Where the paradigm switches around?  In traditional Buddhist teaching, the centipede is on the same continuum as man–in Sekiro, the ladder to divinity is snakeybois top-to-bottom, and that divinity (be it the literal gestation of centipedes in your gut or the more metaphorical “feeding” of the Heritage via Dragonrot) is a parasite to mankind.  Yeah, religion.  Someone call Bong Joon-ho and see if he can work that into the sequel or something.

Right, this is about Elden Ring, but all that is necessary context.  So when Elden Ring’s Rune of Death is the Mark of the Centipede and golden centipedes begin to appear in places frequented by Those Who Live in Death, that is the lens we need to use to understand what it all ought to imply.

From the basics, the centipede, originally, is death, a threshold upon which the things that are become the things that were and then fade into the everything from which they were born.  It is fitting that the true Cursemark of Death, broken into half-wheels during the Night of the Black Knives, is not one, but two centipedes in a circle.  An ouroboros.  Fitting for a conception of death meant to coexist with the rest of the Golden Order, but Marika dIdN’t LiKe ThAt PaRt.  She cut it out of the Elden Ring, gave it to Maliketh, and what she got was a different death–not integrated cohesively with her Order but jammed askew into its cogs, birthing Those Who Live in Death.  For all points and purposes, they’re undead, much the same as the Senpou monks who drank of the Fountainhead in Sekiro, but that is a slim overlap with Sekiro’s otherwise extremely well-developed mythology for the symbol.

With the exception of Rykard, Elden Ring’s pantheon is nowhere near so serpentine as Sekiro’s, but consider the position of the centipede in particular.  Our myriapodal friend may be at the bottom of the spiritual totem pole (a turn of phrase made literal in Elden Ring: Godwyn, an unwilling recipient of the Half-Wheel Mark of the Centipede rests amidst the roots of the Erdtree), but the bottom of that hierarchy has more in common with the top than wherever mortal man hangs out (ie, not in the hierarchy at all).  The theme of parasitism is not as eminent as in Sekiro, but the game is clear that adherents to the Golden Order are not stoked about the centipede stuff at all, reiterating that even the most reverent dogmatists tend to find some expression of the divine they would rather revile.  And, of course, the parasite’s absence leaves an echo: Follow the Erdtree’s totem pole up to the very top to find the Greater Will, overwhelmingly interested in keeping the course of history in the Lands Between confined to its Golden parameters.  For a being so immense, so abstract and multifarious, it is difficult to even formulate the question, but in the end, what can mankind be to such a creature?  The answer: a pet, a pest–or a host.

Humanity’s Eyes, Part 4

Continued from here. This will be the final part–I will post a unified version (like I did for the LaSein Account) soon.

I lived in the wet

For a long time

This odd striving place

Where things kept growing

I learned the humans were burning down the last bits of the forest

Hacking off the trunks and limbs of the trees

Killing the furry people who hid behind them

They were very harsh these humans

It was no matter to me

I did not depend upon the trees

I buried myself in the sand and the dirt

The drying of the forest felt good on my thick and chitinous skin

I could smell the humans, the fuzzy creatures, or my marked

From far away. I remained out of sight

Anytime I wanted I could kill a human or two

When they were particularly lingering or loud

The humans cut down the entire the forest some years in

All of the creatures that lived in the trees were dead

My marked humans began to leave

Walking up the mountain, where their scent eventually disappeared

They left me

In this moist and dirty place

And I started to reflect

Upon my life

The old man

And the little girl with the emerald eye

Maybe I had wanted too much from her

From all of them

Though, I don’t know if I had ever wanted anything 

Survival maybe

Gifts maybe

To be seen, to be near

I saw in myself for the first time a sort of softness

Beneath my now granite-like hide

I understood I really did like loving them

My former little group of marked humans

The girl

And love was what it was.

I started to take care of little creatures I found

Letting them live in my hide

Providing them little goodies, food bits, bugs I found

I enjoyed these little creatures scurrying all over my body

Then the mountain came crumpling inward

Like a strange earthquake

A horrifying sight

Dust billowing everywhere

Moaning and twisting of rock

The tops of the peaks came below the clouds

And beneath the clouds they shined like gold

I smelled smells I had never smelled before, along with metal and fresh growing plants.

There was much blood then

Those next days

I smelled much blood

And the tang, the sour taste of magic being cast

Me and my little creatures waited

Burrowing in the sands

Eating, avoiding

Living as we did.

Then I smelled my marked

The ones that had left me so long ago

Sand Lips. But not Sand Lips. A child maybe that had grown

And the unknown scent of something.  Several things, living, but mysterious.

The humans now crowded the top of the mountain

And my marked were walking down

down into the desert

Deep into the heat, the land of no water, 

the land of the dry, the beautifully dry

I walked towards them

These marked and the mysterious others

Me and my creatures were going back to the land of the hot

My true home

And I gave these new creatures little gifts

Just as the girl had done for me

I watched over them.

Not a part of them, but near them

A demon

A crag

A landmass

Sharing its home

Humanity’s Eyes, Part 3

Continued from here.

As the sun grew hotter the days grew longer

The earth became drier

Fewer and fewer plants grew up in the damned wastes that were my home

My odd little collection 

Of marked up little humans

Was suffering

Their people, the older ones, but not too old

Would go further and further into the wastes

Hoping to find and bring back a large cactus

Or find a small pool of water

Or a beast whose blood they could drink

Some of them got hurt when one of those beasts found them instead

The next days I noticed they were packing

Gathering together their little makeshift homes of canvas and bone

Loading them on sleds

They were leaving me

This land of sand and sun

Leaving this waterless pit

As they left, they left behind a final bowl for me

A final farewell of types I supposed

My shovel-like fingers took up the offering and it crunched in my teeth

I felt alone

For the first time in a long time

I wished for their odd presence near me

I missed the giggling screams of their children

Missed the strange noises they made at night

Missed their footprints in the sand

So I followed them

Their stench was lingering long in the desert

Clear tracks.

I didn’t wish them to notice me following them

I don’t know why I cared

But I wished to remain a secret

My long legs and massive arms easily moved through the desert 

I followed them many nights

Just past the point of sight, a day away, no more no less.

The ground became thicker

Moister

Dirt

The bugs were different and disgustingly plentiful

Every little nook and cranny of earth seemed to have a bug inside

It seemed grotesque

My little pack of marked humans came 

To a partially burned forest

With a mountain in the middle that stretched into a thick layer of clouds

And a massive human settlement

that stank like a decaying corpse

Full of humans

Normal humans

The kind covered in crunchy metal and hateful looks

I stayed away from this human settlement

And found the first pool of water I had ever seen since I was a child

A small puddle and I saw my face

Spikes were ripping out of my carapace in hellish angles

My deep seated eyes were even darker yellow than I recalled

My snout was sharply pointed and looked almost like a beak

I was so caught by the look on my face

The look of my face

The look of me

I did not notice the human until they screamed

I turned towards them

They were a quarter my height

An eighth my width

Built like a tree where I was a mountain

They threw a spear at me

Like I was a dog to be killed

They pulled out a small sword and screamed in rage

Their spear hit my outer carapace

Jammed inside

Stuck like a twig

They ran at me with their sword

I lifted my thick shovel like hands

Their sword bit into my wide and hardened fingers

Their sword got stuck in me

They looked down in shock

Up in fear

My hands crumpled around them

Squishing this human’s meat

Pressing their limbs into their body

Picking them up 

I held them in the air, immobile, helpless

Thinking of squishing the blood from their meat

But I instead I held them in front of my flat yellow eyes

They asked me what I was

I said I was the crag

They spoke strange

Bouncy and fluid

But a sound I oddly did not fully hate anymore

They asked me if I would kill them

I looked at their pulpy limbs

Soft squishy face, tears at the brim of their eyes

I said no

If

I looked at the human 

Told him the name Sand Lips

Confusion covered their face

But also recognition

I told them to ensure Sand Lips was safe

Along with the little ones Sand Lips kept

I told them to ensure these marked were safe

Or I would smell their scent 

And I would kill them as prey in the night.

I breathed deep into this human, learned his smell

I stared into their eyes and asked if they accepted the terms of my agreement

He said yes. The fear in his eyes was fresh, moist, and sweet.

I dropped him 

He ran.  

I smiled. 

I had no more hate for humans.  

They were small and afraid.

As they should be.

Part 4 here.

Humanity’s Eyes, Part 2

Continued from here. As before, by Leland.

The next many years were long and harsh

They were also lonely, but I had no idea what that meant at the time

In the beginning I was like a piece of sand.

I blew from place to place

I felt nothing on my insides.

I ate

I drank

I killed

I moved

Life was a never ending cycle of survival

Though my body continued to morph and change

My chitinous ledges grew larger

My fingers grew thicker and harder

I could tear out huge piles of dusty earth

And suck out the soft crunchy creatures that burrowed beneath

I was a moving land mass.

Not a monster

A thing

An object

My hate roiled inside of me

But without eyes watching me

Reinforcing that hate

It began to bake into my bones

But the eyes

The eyes of my mother

Of the only girl to give me a gift

And the smell of that lock of her hair

Was still fresh every time I remembered

I would cringe in those times.

As the years wore on that pain stayed true.

I avoided the smell of humanity

That would drift in with the dusty blasts of air sometimes

I preferred my thick and rigid solitude

As I roamed one day I smelled blood 

Fresh blood

Active blood

Human blood.

I sat on my haunches. Staring into the far setting sun.

I decided to pay back the one act of kindness I had received

And walked towards the blood.

The sun had almost set by the time I descended upon the moving human

One of the grit, the marked, the human rejects I had been raised with, was sliding in the sand.

Legs inert and twitching behind them

Blood staining the sand as they moved.

They had a fierce and hard look in their eyes, dust embedded in their teeth.

They first felt my shadow land upon them

They looked at me

A moving mountain

With my fetid yellow eyes

They showed fear on their face.  Or maybe acceptance.  Maybe denial

Something firm and unrelenting.

I spoke the language of the desert to them.

The words sounded odd and strange in my mouth

They were shocked I could speak

And relieved. 

They said their name was Sand Lips

And they needed to send a message

That the Mukori were coming

To kill the Kamai

Their exhaustion took them

And they fell into the sand.

I looked at the grit. The marked and scarred human. Helpless.  Desperate. Clinging to life over some words they claimed needed to be heard

Heard by someone human.

I stared at this breathing corpse for a while

Thinking of this message

The Mukori, the Kamai, Sand Lips

Names felt strange in the desert

I was a demon, a mountain, a pair of yellow eyes

Sand Lips.

Sand Lips.

I hated names.

I hated these monikers of humanity

I hated them in my ears

In my throat 

Along my tongue

I pounded the desert

Threw a massive boulder, 

Flung a mountain of sand

Trying to throw it out of me

But it was stuck. 

These names 

These filthy human names.

The desert could not take them from me.

For the desert was no home for humans.

Only those filthy human camps could take these names

I screamed

A sound so loud the sky quaked

And the moon cried

I lifted the filthy human over my back

Limp and helpless

A sack of barely breathing meat and pus

I moved my body weight forward

Let my legs press against the earth under me

I loped

Towards the humans

The sickening smell of the humans

I saw their little fires in the distance

The ground under me flew

The cool wind whipped into my eyes

The earth stretched and narrowed and the fires grew larger

I came to the fires, the humans all around, all marked, all cut, all children of the grit.

I crashed into their makeshift home

This little gathering of scarred humans

Humans that were so small

Looking up in terror

Shear terror

I was still a demon 

And they had no idea what I was here to collect

I put down the limp sack of meat from my shoulder

And I spoke those pus-riddled human words

The Mukori, the Kamai, Sand Lips

Told them they would die.

An old human came out

Thanked me

Whatever that meant

Said they knew not who I was

Said they had not seen one of my kind for a long time

My kind

My… kind

Tears began to leak from me

The elder lifted a bowl up to me

Some sticky nectar of the cactus fruit

I ate the bowl.

This was the second human to ever give me a gift

I left

Went back to the dark

To the desert

The sand and the rocks

The moon and the sun

The bugs and the earth

But I continued to smell these humans

And I did not go far.

More humans came

Clanking humans

Loud humans

Humans laden with the pungent, sour smell of relics

I killed these humans, before they could see me, before their eyes could look at me in disgust

Like a pack of bugs they crunched in my teeth

I Split them in half

Popped them like flies

I left them dead there.

They were too loud.

Entitled, angry, and hellishly human. 

Their trinkets smelled sweet

And I ate them 

They powdered in my teeth

Leaving my mouth sour and salivating for days

I decided this part of the desert was mine

And these cut and marked humans

The ones with the sand lips

Could stay in my piece of the desert

And stay they did

Leaving little bowls of cactus nectar out for me

I felt a touch soft towards them

Like a favored rock or time of the day

I would not choose their death

And they grew older and smaller

And I grew larger and larger

Part 3 here.

Literary Kindness

A brief, shoddy manual and some useful reminders.

In 1948, Vladimir Nabokov accepted a position at Cornell University, teaching Russian and European literature.  That same year, he wrote this piece, ostensibly material for his students (though I can find no confirmation of that inference).  Go ahead and read it if you haven’t–this will essentially be a review.

My own experience with this essay goes back to high school.  I read it then for class, found it completely insufferable, moved on with my life, etc., but now I’m returning to the ideas and finding them mostly correct and very relevant to the “reading” I am doing now with Dark Souls and Sekiro.  This is, of course, not psychically painless. Nabokov’s tone is still aneurysmally condescending, and his organizational structures are bizarre, but he’s also One of the Most Important Writers of the 20th Century, so his thoughts are worth a looksee.  Take from the piece what you will, it may not be the same list as mine, but in case it’s at all helpful to you, my thoughts are these:

  • The authors of the classics are smarter than you.

Okay, this isn’t actually one of Nabokov’s points, but it’s a healthy attitude to have and all but prerequisite for digesting the rest of his exegesis.  A more plain way of putting it would be to say that in reading a work, you should assume that there is something there of depth. Ironically, Nabokov himself distinguishes between writers of genius and minor authors, but to assume you can tell the difference is astonishingly arrogant.  Perhaps Nabokov earned his arrogance. You didn’t–be kind to those you read.

  • Read, then evaluate.

This is especially important for works that you’ve heard about.  Everyone knows Beloved is a scathing indictment of the evils of slavery (and it totally is), but to condense it to that, to go in with those expectations sells short the loving detail (sic) with which its characters are rendered and everything else it might say about what it is to be human.  

By the same token, don’t judge a book’s contents by the one who recommended it to you regardless of whether your opinion of (e.g.) Karen is positive or negative.  Sure, take a recommendation as an excuse to eat some tasty, tasty typesetting, but don’t let your knowledge of the recommender’s mind preempt your own capacity to interpret art for yourself.

  • Fiction is generally not historically accurate.

Uh, yes.  I’m a little confused as to why Nabokov finds this observation uniquely important, but it is correct, and it has some useful implications regarding the role of art.  I’ve alluded to it before, but politics and art have an annoying way of getting tangled up in each other.  This isn’t all bad–politics shapes life, life shapes art, why shouldn’t art sometimes be political?  Things start turning sideways, though, when one uses political art from the past to synthesize political arguments today; worse: when one uses historical fiction depicting politics that might never have existed to draw conclusions about the present.  If the distinction is confusing, let me put it this way: Harry Potter has nothing actionable to say about politics in the 1930s, the 1990s, or the 2010s (I have seen arguments for all three on this lovely internet).  I will not accept disagreement on this point.

  • Attune your reading to the work and not yourself.

Nabokov is much more vehement on this “lowly kind” of imagination, which is a little funny to me.  I wouldn’t begrudge someone emotional involvement in their reading material, and I suspect he wouldn’t either, not truly.  Rather, I’d guess his war, as with many of these points, is against preconception.  If you identify with a character in a story, if you empathize with them, that creates expectations that the author didn’t put there, and expectations cause misinterpretations and distractions.

An example from my own work: If you identify with Les Marquains in this story (and you are not a dangerous sadist), you run the risk of taking the narrative at face value and assuming that his character arc has a distinct turning point.  No doubt being raped traumatized him, but he was also abused physically and psychologically his entire life.  A very salient question is whether, if his grandfather never learned about his homosexuality, he wouldn’t have gone full despot-de-Sade anyway.  Was he on the cusp of acceptance by the common people, a hopeful vector away from his grandfather’s authoritarian rule, or was he just playacting at peasantry?  Answer that how you like, but kindness means recognizing that there is a question.

***

The rest of the essay has some ballin’ quotes (“To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth,” fuck yeah), and deals largely with the craftsman on the other side of the printing press.  It’s a beautiful, if not incredibly useful, description of an author’s own responsibility to his work, but that’s appropriate. Art is a remarkably difficult thing to describe, its manufacture more difficult still, and in writing his essay, I hope you realize he was making art himself.  And I hope we can agree that art has minimal mandate toward utility.