This summer I saw Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Teiresias was in drag, the Chorus intoned like gospel churchgoers, and the blind Oedipus appeared in the nude (an email warned us ahead of time). Despite the wonderful theatricality, I was put in mind how powerful the Oedipus myth is, with the oracle, the Sphinx, the plague, and the family tragedy as archetypal components. This great myth raised questions for me: is Sophocles’ drama Visionary Fiction? Here is a character grappling with the nature of Truth and his inner consciousness, blindness and all. This is the theme Sophocles renders, but then is the primal myth Visionary Fiction, a myth that has inspired great minds like Freud to transform human consciousness about our psychic nature?
We know this aspect of myth, of fairy tale, of fable, that they exist as pure story, often innocent on the surface, broad-stroke actions without inner character development or thematic commentary. But scratch a bit of that surface, do the least bit of interpretation, and worlds of meaning emerge, often the kinds of transcendental truth that Visionary Fiction embraces. How then do we include or approach these folkloric narratives, which have no original authors or first editions? They are at once the most visionary of fictions, and not technically fiction at all.
What of fable? On the one hand, this form may be the closest in definition to VF. A fable is a story intended” “to reveal moral or ethical consequences to life’s many choices.” This lesson component to the fable aligns with the higher truths that VF desires to bring to light, more literally than a myth or fairy tale. On the other hand, fables tend to have talking animals (human beings qualify), and the life lessons are often practical and homespun, not cosmic. And VF is not necessarily didactic, tied up with a ‘moral.’ Like other fictional forms, are there fables that are visionary and fables that are not?
In my own work, 1001, The Reincarnation Chronicles, a character remembers and recounts a past life tale every chapter. Modeled after The Thousand and One Nights, the stories include myths and fables, and since the incarnations range from Persian royalty to wombats to supercontinents, they stretch the ‘talking animal’ aspect. Every memory raises the spiritual question of the veracity of reincarnation, but few contain literal morals.
So let us consider a classic fable with a moral. One glance at this image and we know the story, we remember the lesson, and perhaps we extrapolate it to a larger, personal meaning. “If I’m struggling in my field’s competitive frenzy, I just need to persevere calmly and persistently;” or, “My search for a calmer, humbler way will bring me greater reward than fast-paced hype.” Isn’t this balm to us Visionary Fiction authors? Shouldn’t the Tortoise be our mascot? Or at least his fable allowed as Visionary Fiction. Then again, we tell our children this tale and remind them that “Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” if only referring to dinner table manners, not achieving satori. Reality is more complex; we all have both slow-and-steady and rush-to-judgment sides to our personality. The simplicity of the fable betrays its seeming depth.
In creating stories for The Qaraq, the first book of The Reincarnation Chronicles, I strived to write with a ‘Medieval’ approach, just presenting the action and avoiding much inner character development. It was an impossible task for a modern author, and I discovered that when the present day circle of characters, the qaraq, recall their incarnations, the stories function as their character development; we see their inner nature via the external actions they took in other worlds.
The qaraq’s discussion of their memories also reveal their consciousness of the nature of reincarnation. Late in the book they remember a series of stories about a Carboniferous Era dragonfly, six-foot wings and all. Their connection to this talking animal is so unusual that it tests their belief in the past life realm. Though the ‘fables’ concern physical struggles of the dragonfly in a straightforward narrative, the perception of the tales by the qaraq adds a level of meaning to them.
Perhaps it’s all a matter of our perception, of how deeply we read into a fable, that gives it a transcendental meaning. This thought brings us to the modern fable, the authored fable, where an individual can bring as much vision to its meaning as possible. The outstanding example of such a writer is Italo Calvino, master of many short stories, compiler of a classic Italian folktale collection, and often called a fabulist.
So what is a fabulist? It has two definitions. “An author of fables, in the sense of a narration intended to convey a useful truth” is the first, where the term ‘useful,’ speaking to the fable’s homespun tradition, lessens Calvino’s philosophical range and the fable’s visionary potential. Calvino would have enjoyed the second definition of fabulist, “A liar, especially a person who invents elaborate, dishonest stories.” In early Islamic history, fiction was prohibited because it was considered lies: someone’s dishonest account of their encounter with the Prophet was probably very elaborate, as in ‘embellishing the truth.’
I am a big fan of Calvino, the more elaborate his narrative the better. His masterpiece of literary science fiction fables is Cosmicomics, where we follow the main character, Qfwfq, through various incarnations in cosmic history: the Big Bang, the formation of the galaxy, or the end of the dinosaurs. In “The Aquatic Uncle,” two young amphibians vie for who should embrace life on land. It’s Calvino’s version of The Tortoise and the Hare. That story has a love triangle, political discourse about the nature of progress, and Qfwfq’s inner soliloquy about his evolving soul. A far cry from “Slow and Steady” as a moral, the tale passes for Visionary Fiction with humor and talking animals thrown in for good measure.
Calvino is actually a member of the French literary school called the Oulipo, which grew out of a marriage of mathematics, puzzles, poetry, and whimsical narrative. Oulipoans use constraints in their work, such as avoiding the letter ‘E,’ or structuring a narrative after the path a Knight makes in chess where it lands on every square without repeating any. The Oulipo have little to do with the moral lessons of fables or the mind-expanding way of Visionary Fiction, so it is a testimony to Calvino that he used sophisticated constraints, filled fables with contemporary sensibility, put forth a vision of the cosmos, and earned a reputation as a literary genius.
Calvino and Cosmicomics had a great influence on The Reincarnation Chronicles. He freed me to consider reincarnation stories where inanimate objects are ensouled beings, even for fifteen minutes, where nuclear matter can lead separate lifetimes, and where, inspired by “The Aquatic Uncle,” the qaraq recalls its four billion year karmic history locked in an evolutionary debate as prokaryotes and Pre-Cambrian five-eyed organisms.
Recently I launched the second book of the 1001 series, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor. The present day group loses its ability to recall past lives, and throughout the book they learn that they are blocked by Maya, the Hindu concept of everyday details clouding our awareness of higher reality. The lessons they learn about Maya and human consciousness are surprising and multifold. I hope the book holds up on a modest level to Visionary Fiction, Calvino, and the fabulist tradition.
In his past life before writing 1001: The Qaraq, Book One of The Reincarnation Chronicles, Stephen Weinstock created music for theater companies, choreographers, and dance studios (Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham). His theater works included the musical Rock and Roy, with writer Barry Jay Kaplan, about the double life of Rock Hudson. He has worked as a musician/teacher at UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school, as well as at the NYU Musical Theater Writing Program.
For years he had the idea of a novel puzzling out an intricate past life history between a group of souls, but only with the epiphany of using the ancient frame tale structures of The Thousand and One Nights did he decide to jump fields. By day he still bring dancers to ecstasy with his improvisations, but at night he enters the world of metempsychosis, time-honored storytelling, and worlds ranging from historical fiction to romantic fantasy.
You can find 1001: The Qaraq, Book One of The Reincarnation Chronicles here. Stephen’s second book, The Qaraq and the Maya Factor. recently published, can be found here. You can find more information on the 1001 series, Stephen’s posts on culture and cosmos, and free book offers on his website. http://www.qaraqbooks.com/subscribe.