Fables, Italo Calvino, and Visionary Fiction – guest post by Stephen Weinstock

Stephen vfa postThis 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, stephen vfa post 2personal 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.’

stephen vfa post 3I 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.

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BIO:

Steve WeinstockIn 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.

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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.

 

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20 Responses to Fables, Italo Calvino, and Visionary Fiction – guest post by Stephen Weinstock

  1. tuilorraine says:

    Having read your post above and being a bit of a fable fanatic, I want to read both your books. The description above about the second one particularly interests me. I bought the first one but could find no e-book version of the Qaraq (second book) My eyes only really enjoy e-book reading these days. Will an e-book come out soon?
    My own work is fable. It has animals whose communications are described in words, although they do not actually talk. And most of my reviewers have said they learned or gained insights from my work and their perceptions of the oceans have changed because of it.

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  2. drstephenw says:

    Thanks for your interest! The ebook for Book 2 is coming. There's a giveaway of it, which you can learn more about by signing up at http://www.qaraqbooks.com/subscribe

    Or you can stay tuned here with the VFA and there will be an announcement.

    Let me know about your work. I love the idea of talking animals who don't talk; sounds like a nice writing challenge to make the communication happen. Best of luck!

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    • tuilorraine says:

      I'll sign up – thanks Stephen. I have to finish two more books before I can start reading yours, but am looking forward to it.

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  3. Once again, Stephen, an evocative post that pushes the realm of Visionary Fiction into regions that I, for one, never consciously considered as VF before. Shows that our "genre" penetrates story in just about every form from classical to avant garde and now into multimedia. And rightly so. Since growth in consciousness is the process we aim to enhance–and what does consciousness not include?–our art, as Marshall McLuhan once said, is "anything you can get away with."
    Your Qaraq titles sound leading-edge. They go to my reading list. Thanks.

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    • drstephenw says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Victor. I'm grateful the evolution of Visionary Fiction is still in the phase where we can keep expanding it. Perhaps we'll hit a place where the genre's boundaries will be honed, but I'm happy to leave that to Rea's 'vision' of future literary critics arguing over what is VF and what isn't. Until then, let's expand the boundaries of a genre about expanding consciousness.

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  4. Stephen, I really enjoyed this essay. It was a pleasant and informative read. You've made me want to get back to reading your book, I bought it a while back during the reincarnation discussions. But I'm presently consumed with projects of Maya. You've also spurred my interest in Calvino again.

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    • drstephenw says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Skywalker. As a friend of mine said recently, "Your book is quite a commitment." So when you're ready for it, or Cosmicomics, you'll be ready.

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  5. Deepak Menon says:

    A brilliant, searching and erudite essay on visionary fabulists and a wide range of associated topic. Very well written and will get a copy of your book certainly. WELL DONE Stephen Weinstock !

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  6. reanolanmartin says:

    Sometimes I think there are so many facets to Visionary Fiction that the true definition can only be accurately composed in the distant future by our literary heirs–who by then will have had time to map its true parameters and breadth. One day an astute critic will point to this period of literature and say, "This is where a renaissance began." Who can say where it will lead? Exciting times.

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    • drstephenw says:

      I love your vision, Rea. I'm honored to think we will have literary heirs, or VF literary critics in our future. But who's to say next semester there couldn't be a university course on VF? A dissertation? A major?

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  7. Admin - Eleni says:

    I enjoyed this post, and I think you make a valid point about Freud. The Freud interpretation, in my opinion, cements the archetypes into the collective unconscious where we continue to perform the same roles. Contrarily, Jung’s psychology sought an escape from archetypal roles, which he defined as “modern man.” (We women are all included of course)! This entanglement appears to be at the heart of VF, where protagonists seek to evolve—to transcend their archetypal roles.

    “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.”

    I wouldn’t necessarily define your approach as Medieval. It’s simply good writing. Showing character through action is hammered into our heads, e.g., show don’t tell. It allows readers to form their own opinions about the character.

    I never heard of Italo Calvino and find the premise of Cosmicomics interesting. Maybe it’s because I love allegories, especially those with animals. I think it may be more effective to deal with provocative themes using non-human characters. It could be because readers can distance themselves from the story and perhaps pull something out that they might not have otherwise. When I read a graphic part of my animal fable to my writer’s group, they were very disturbed, which was the reaction I wanted. However, if I wrote the same scene with a human cast, it would’ve sounded like proselytizing. By using animals, their plight fit the graphic nature of the scene. When done right, allegories are a powerful writing style to use with controversial themes.

    Your books sound interesting. More to add on my long reading list!

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    • drstephenw says:

      Very thoughtful comments, Eleni, quite a lot to think about. Just a couple thoughts back. As a lover of Giotto, Hildegarde de Bingen, and The Thousand and One Nights, I think of a Medieval approach as a challenge, and not derogatory. But I appreciate your thoughts on writing from action.

      I'm very interested in your analysis of the power of addressing issues and situations via animals and allegory. Maybe it suggests an upcoming post on VF and allegory…?

      Thanks for your interest in the book.

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  8. Thanks so much for your contribution to VFA, Stephen. Much to think about. As Victor said, you've pushed the realm of Visionary Fiction. Rather than add to the conversation, let me quote Rea's words, which parallel my thoughts: "Sometimes I think there are so many facets to Visionary Fiction that the true definition can only be accurately composed in the distant future by our literary heirs–who by then will have had time to map its true parameters and breadth. One day an astute critic will point to this period of literature and say, 'This is where a renaissance began.' Who can say where it will lead? Exciting times."

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  9. Stephen, As always, you bring up in depth questions and points to contemplate and discuss. I particularly liked your comment – "The simplicity of the fable betrays its seeming depth." I think that certainly rings true when one is writing good VF. Layers of meaning for those who have the willingness and openness to delve into them. BTW, I also am an admirer of Hildegard. Had not heard of Calvino, so you have broadened my scope. thank you for a well written and interesting article!

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  10. drstephenw says:

    Thanks, Jodine. I do think that the counterpoint between a simple, reflective surface and the levels of depth below is a wonderful aspect of VF.

    For those of you interested in checking out Calvino, the other truly, truly visionary work of his is Invisible Cities, where he imagines Marco Polo discovering dozens of wild cities on his travels, and describes each of them.

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  11. libredux says:

    Stephen, I very much enjoyed reading this article (as well as your previous mini series at the VFA before) and once again, to echo Vic and Margaret, you've taken an interesting angle that we haven't seen before. It's been said here a few times that VF is less a genre and more a tone or flavour of writing that can appear in any genre, and your in-depth analysis of the fable makes for a good example of this.

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  12. drstephenw says:

    Thanks so much, Saleena. With all the cross-genre literature these days, VF is in good company being both an established genre, and 'a tone or flavour of writing' appearing in other genres. I think we are all just more open to blurring the boundaries in the modern world. To promote VF, perhaps we have to do both as well, claim it as its own genre with its own integrity, as well as perceiving it existing within science fiction, historical fiction, fable, and so on.

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