Book Essay - Winter 2008

Souls Hungering After Meaning

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In Aegypt, John Crowley's just-completed four-book masterwork, ordinary people bear a faint symbolic glow through real and mythological realms

By Michael Dirda


Books Considered in This Essay: Aegypt (Bantam, 1987, reissued as The Solitudes, Overlook Press, $15.95); LOVE and SLEEP (Bantam, 1994); Daemonomania (Bantam, 2000); Endless Things (Small Beer Press, 2007)

Novelists and poets, those interpreters of our troubled experience of the world, are often drawn to philosophical systems, theories of history, mythologies. Long works, in particular, require considerable formal organization, and so Dante relies on Aquinas and Catholic theology to structure his vision of the afterlife, just as Victor Hugo and Tolstoy embed powerful discourses about history in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and War and Peace. Similarly, Yeats’s late poetry turns on the detailed cosmology he elaborates in A Vision while Robert Graves’s best love poems celebrate the somber mythos of The White Goddess: “There is one story and one story only.” Sometimes the writers truly believe in these various systems, sometimes the systems merely serve as useful architectural blueprints to produce original and coherent works of art. Of course, what matters most is that the resulting novel or poem, through its use of such theoretical struts and joists, can somehow do an even better job than usual of, say, breaking our hearts.

John Crowley is on record as stating that he doesn’t believe in magic, even though his two most ambitious novels deal extensively with Faery (Little, Big, 1981) and the occult theories of Renaissance Hermeticism (the four-part Aegypt sequence, just completed with Endless Things). Neither of these cathedral-like works is at all hokey, commercial, or in any way cutesy. Little, Big is regularly called the finest fantasy novel yet written by an American, and its ardent champions have included the critic Harold Bloom and the poet James Merrill. Aegypt is even more ambitious, a 1,700-page masterwork that Crowley began planning some 30 years ago. As in magic realism or Christian allegory, Aegypt throughout invests quite ordinary people with a faint symbolic glow, and the world is gradually perceived as a spiritual battlefield or a playground of archetypal forces. Robertson Davies, Russell Hoban, and Philip Pullman are similar contemporary novelists of this mythologizing sort. Such writers may be playful and sexy—Crowley is certainly the latter—but their work means to be serious, consequential, a struggle with the angel.

The overarching theme of both Little, Big and Aegypt is yearning, the desire to fill the emptiness within that nearly all of us experience, more or less, as we make our way through the life of this world. Why, in fact, do men and women feel so unhappy, dissatisfied, incomplete? Crowley’s general answer, if only in his fiction, is that we have lost something that we once possessed. Our souls hunger after meaning. At the emotionally shattering Nunc Dimittis that brings Little, Big to a close, the magic goes away, the fairies depart, the portals between their realm and ours slam shut. The world, now grayer and sadder, is left only with fast-fading memories and a handful of stories:

It was anyway all a long time ago; the world, we know now, is as it is and not different; if there was ever a time when there were passages, doors, the borders open and many crossing, that time is not now. The world is older than it was. Even the weather isn’t as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were.

A similarly sustained and lyrical melancholy suffuses much of Aegypt, but here loss is further delineated as the aftermath of universal divorce—between couples, between our souls and God, between the past and possible futures. Nearly everything and everyone in its pages is deeply riven and seeks some kind of elusive unity. While Crowley’s prose is limpid and musical, his book’s sheer abundance—of story lines, characters, and strangeness—requires its readers to work hard to figure out connections, perceive patterns and symbolism, appreciate the low-key jokes. Nonetheless, we gradually come to care greatly about the fates of Renaissance magicians and Gnostic angels, contemporary academics and historical novelists, Christian fanatics and soft-core porn stars. The book’s geography itself shifts from contemporary New York to 16th-century Europe, from backwoods Kentucky in the 1940s to the Prague Spring of 1968, from the celestial spheres of the ancients to the fraught millennial world of the current century. Discussions of magic, history, and religion abound. Several characters undergo spiritual exaltation; others suffer erotic bondage. Those parts of the novel set in the Renaissance boldly reproduce an occult worldview, one full of magic and alchemical transformations. And, throughout, the principal characters ache for spiritual illumination, for intellectual understanding, and, above all, for love.

The first volume in the sequence—originally titled Aegypt but now known as The Solitudes—establishes the various story lines that will gradually converge and interlace. In the primary one, Pierce Moffett, a specialist in Renaissance history, finds himself obsessing about a question raised by a revered teacher: “Why do people believe that Gypsies can tell fortunes?” The answer, Pierce discovers, is that Gypsies were once thought to be from Egypt. Or rather from what he soon dubs “Aegypt.” For while the former may be studied on maps and in history textbooks, the latter exists largely in the shape of stories, as a half-imaginary land shrouded in mystery, a realm of wise hierophants and potent hieroglyphs. This Aegypt inspired Renaissance alchemy, Masonic ritual, Rosicrucian symbolism. Its chief representative is the legendary magus Hermes Trismegistus.

As Pierce soon discovers, the fictive Aegypt began to engage Western thought after Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino translated into Latin the so-called Corpus Hermeticum. Scholars soon concluded that in its pages they had discovered the genuine prisca theologia, a deeply ancient ur-theology that preceded Plato and Moses. They consequently reflected, speculated, and experimented using its guiding principles. We now know that these spiritualist and mystical tracts were produced during the second and third centuries A.D. and draw heavily on the beliefs of Gnosticism and other mystery religions. In this worldview, the universe is alive, held together by the power of Eros, regulated by the stars, overseen by what we might call angels. Human beings dwell on earth as exiles, having forgotten their true celestial nature. But the fragment of God, the divine splinter, within each of us still burns to return to our home beyond the stars. Gnosis, after all, means knowledge, and it calls upon us to wake up to the truth: that the world of matter is fundamentally unreal, a realm of maya. Appropriately, Crowley’s characters repeatedly find themselves enmeshed in fictions and illusion, since make-believe pervades Aegypt, represented in games, films, novels, masquerades, brain-washing, dissimulation, visions, dreams, sexual encounters.

Pierce first begins to study the Hermetic beliefs during the late 1960s, a time when, as a university colleague tells him, “all that stuff is coming back” and more and more people are turning from what the alchemist Comenius once called “the labyrinth of the world” to “the paradise of the heart.” Mysticism, the varieties of Eros, transcendence and self-transformation, cults and communes and backwoods utopias, spirit guides, the drug world’s artifical paradises, cosmic speculations—all are part of the anticipated dawning of a new age. The young Pierce himself surrenders to some of these excitements, falling under the spell of an actual Gypsy, a beauty referred to only as the Sphinx: “When he first met her she was masked and naked, and he was being paid by her mother to caress her.” Before long, this dark-haired enchantress leads him into cocaine deals, high living, and a profound sexual thralldom. Partly to escape from the heartache that the Sphinx ultimately brings him, the desolate lover flees New York City to research a book on the “unhistory” of Aegypt. All this is told to us in flashbacks.

The Solitudes actually opens in 1978 when Pierce—whose name recalls that of the visionary Piers Plowman and Percival, the Grail seeker—finds himself unexpectedly stranded after his bus breaks down in the quaintly named Blackbury Jambs, a little town in the Berkshire-like Faraway Hills. As he sips a soft drink on the steps of a country store, he suddenly recognizes an old friend and former student named Brent Spofford, now an actual shepherd (before that Spofford worked as a carpenter, and there’s a tattoo of a fish on his hand). This sturdy Vietnam vet has fallen in love with the distracted Rosie Rasmussen, who passes her days in a kind of spiritual torpor, listlessly reading historical romances and waiting for a divorce from her husband, Mike Mucho. She is deeply unsure about what she wants and where she’s going. Rosie’s rearview mirror has, in fact, recently fallen off her car: “I can’t see behind me. Can’t see where I’ve been.” Life has, of course, often been likened to a journey, but Crowley neatly updates the metaphor by seeing it as a road trip: throughout his novel, cars break down, are wrecked, or take their drivers into (or away from) the unknown and scary.

A nimbus of the otherworldly surrounds all of Blackbury Jambs, now a haven for New Agers and graying hippies. For instance, Beau Brachman, the local guru, imagines his spirit can travel up to the stars. The town’s astrologer seems uncannily accurate. An albino hermit named Cliff can apparently restore a troubled soul’s health. Even Mike Mucho, a psychological researcher, has formulated what he calls Climacterics, a system based on seven-year up-and-down cycles in human lives. Other townspeople are simply mysterious. The beautiful and troubled Rose Ryder complains of interludes of memory loss and grows convinced that she is being pursued by something she cannot name. The delightful little girl Sam, Rosie Rasmussen’s three-year-old daughter, keeps referring suggestively to an unknown place she calls her “ode house.”

Now any reader of horror fiction will recognize the basic trope of The Solitudes: The picture-perfect small town always masks some kind of (usually unpleasant) secret. Yet while the pages of The Solitudes do diffuse an increasing sense of menace, nothing overtly out of the ordinary takes place, if one excepts Beau’s apparent soul journey up toward the stars—and that could be a kind of mystic trance. Of course, it is a little strange that old Boney Rasmussen, Rosie’s great-uncle, keeps going through the correspondence of the historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, pondering every postcard from his late friend as if it contained the solution to a mystery. Or that Rosie herself is at the same time compulsively reading Kraft’s novels about the magus Dr. John Dee and the heretical Giordano Bruno, who it is said, could remember everything and “discovered” infinity. Crowley reproduces so much of Kraft’s writing that we quickly understand that it represents a second major story line, counterpointing the modern action and increasingly linked to it. Kraft’s supposed evocation of these Renaissance figures and their times is astonishingly vivid, as if he were—as people say—bringing the figures to life.

In fact, Pierce eventually concludes that Kraft’s books might offer actual peepholes into a lost world, a Europe in which Hermetic ideas were more than mumbo jumbo. For in Blackbury Jambs he has begun to formulate a radical theory about the past: “There is more than one history of the world.”

What if all those occult Renaissance beliefs had been true for a while, even if they aren’t anymore? What if once upon a time alchemy worked, the world was held together by Eros, the zodiac did influence our lives, and people could communicate with angels? What if the world’s seductions had made us forget our true celestial nature? In short, what if alchemy, astrology, and Gnosticism did describe the way the universe once operated?

If so, then something changed at the end of the 16th century. As Kraft wrote in the manuscript of his last and apparently incomplete novel—which he intended to call Aegypt—following this watershed “nothing will ever be the same.” At certain moments in history, Pierce concludes, the world arrives at a crisis, a fork in the road, the branching of the two arms of the letter Y, and then alters subtly but fundamentally, taking one line of development instead of another. At such transformation points, when everything is roiled and in flux, there exists a brief period of permeability, when nothing yet has been determined. People at such moments might even become aware of the lost past, the past abandoned. But before long the liminal time passes and there is again just one history. At Blackbury Jambs the silted Blackbury River and the faster-moving Shadow converge and two kinds of water flow “side by side for a moment, shouldering each other. Fish might swim, it seems, from one kind of river into another, as though passing through a curtain. Then the moment is gone; it is all one river.”

Pierce believes that the 1960s ushered in just such a time of transition. As a result, Boney Ramussen is convinced that some fragments of the lost world—the Hermetic Renaissance—might now be discovered, “some fragments that retain something of the power they used to have, back when things were different… somewhere there might be something. Hidden, you see; or not hidden, just overlooked; hidden in plain sight. A stone. A powder. An elixir of life.”

In the acknowledgments to the individual volumes of Aegypt, Crowley has called his book a “fantasia” on the scholarship of Frances Yates, Ioan P. Couliano, Carlo Ginzburg, and other historians of Renaissance belief systems and Gnostic or Neo-Platonic survivals. He uses their ideas heuristically, as an artist, to structure his book and to illuminate very real and human desires, hopes, and fears. The result is at once a work of realistic fiction but also a kind of romance, one where the outer world becomes a spiritual proving ground. Such forms of the fantastic or symbolic power much of the world’s art and literature—think of myths, fairy tales, Arabian Nights–entertainments, Celtic romances, philosophical fables, travelers’ tales, much poetry, and all kinds of stories of what doesn’t exist but might or should or maybe could. More and more, many of our most admired contemporary novelists have been turning away from strict realism to offer instead counterfactual history, Borgesian fables of identity, even out-and-out science fiction. Like Michael Chabon or Cormac McCarthy, John Crowley is describing the labyrinth of this world—love affairs, custody battles, parties, the usual joys and heartaches of ordinary people as they try to make up their lives and create their own histories. Everything is precisely what it is, yet also something more, something fateful and significant.

The Solitudes closes serenely with a Botticelli-like tableaux—Rosie and her daughter, Sam, coming in from the garden, their arms full of flowers. But its three major sections—titled “Vita,” “Lucrum,” “Fratres,” roughly “life,” “illumination,” and “fraternity”—are only the first triad of the 12 astrological houses. Love and Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things are loosely structured by their own relevant star categories. For instance, Daemonomania’s darkest erotic excesses occur during “Mors,” the house of death.

In Love and Sleep we learn more about Pierce’s childhood—his mother’s sudden separation from his father and their exile to Bondieu, Kentucky; his Catholic education from Sister Mary Philomel (whose Bohemian order possesses a very old trunk that has never been opened); his encounter with a backwoods tomboy named Bobby Shaftoe and her terrifying grandfather. On its own, this opening flashback could stand as a grim pastoral novella, lovingly evocative of childhood, and of the poverty and prejudice of the Cumberlands. Nonetheless, at its climax we learn of the ancient and ongoing enmity between werewolves and witches.

In the historical chapters set in the 16th century, an angel—communicating through a kind of crystal ball called a showstone—instructs Dr. Dee and his medium Edward Kelley to travel to Prague, at that time Europe’s clearinghouse for alchemical, astrological, and Kabbalistic research. Dee and Giordano Bruno will meet at the royal palace there, literally under the Monas Hieroglyphica, a Hermetic crosslike symbol embodying unity and universal knowledge. Meanwhile, during the modern 1970s sections, a dying Boney keeps wondering about the implications of Fellowes Kraft’s last telegram from Prague—“Have what I promised you.” Before long, the unctuous and fanatical Ray Honeybeare appears in town, spreading the message of the Powerhouse, a Christian fundamentalist movement that proclaims it can detect false memories and cast out devils.

In the third volume, Daemonomania, Pierce recognizes that Rose Ryder, with whom he has embarked on a tentative love affair, is highly suggestible and he decides to try out on her some of Bruno’s psychological techniques. “The great mage,” says the philosopher in Kraft’s novel, “understands what others desire, and with his projections offers the image of satisfaction….For it is images that bind.” This time, Pierce vows, he will not be the one to suffer from pain and abandonment. He thus creates highly charged phantasms, that is, images, in Rose’s mind and uses them as instruments of control and submission. According to Renaissance belief, such phantasms are powered by Eros, for Love is the fundamental binding agent of the universe. (In essence, according to Coulianu in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Bruno’s tract “Of Bonds in General” adumbrates modern mass psychology, brainwashing, and subliminal messaging.) Pierce even constructs what the old magicians called a “seal,” a talismanic object that binds up the erotic energy one has unleashed: in this case, it is a Polaroid photograph of Rose, tied naked on a bed.

Pierce, normally somewhat innocent and bumbling, is shocked by this dark side of himself and, consequently, neglects Bruno’s warning: the magician must never allow himself to surrender to the erotic storm he is awakening in the other. If he does so, he will be lost to it. And, indeed, Rose will turn to another kind of bondage, and Pierce will be emptied of the will to live without her.

Daemonomania also discloses similarly grave crises in the lives of the 16th-century intellectuals who have counterpointed the contemporary story. An angel in a showstone orders Dee and Kelley to share their wives. Bruno realizes that the Monas Hieroglypha might be the sign of an invisible brotherhood, just at the time the Holy Office seeks to send him to the stake. The magicians and adepts of Prague perceive a shift in the course of history and make plans to save some relict of their time.

Thus, toward the close of Daemonomania, a universal darkness is falling across the world. Matters grow even more disheartening when the insidious Powerhouse turns all its forces to helping Mike Mucho gain custody of Sam.

In the alchemical transformation of a base metal into gold, there is a stage of blackness, when everything is dark and churning and the outcome is uncertain. At this “nigredo” point of his narrative, Crowley shifts his focus to the enigmatic Beau Brachman. Throughout the novel Beau has exuded an unsettling serenity and peacefulness, while almost everything he says carries a riddling double meaning. Virtually every character in the book comes into contact with him at some point in their life. Could he be, as has long been hinted, some kind of angel or psychopomp? Beau has recently left town, driving around the country (in a car bearing a pair of upright infinity signs, an Oldsmobile 88) and staying awake by listening to the constantly interrupted broadcasts of a bizarre and apparently Gnostic radio station that keeps up a running chatter about the shackled “Wisdoma God.” Tired, Beau begins his exit from this increasingly symbolic highway, after he finally glimpses ahead, “illuminated in their separate booths,” the two people, “a man on one side and a woman on the other, who admit those who go travelling and take the fare from those who have travelled.” In the pervasive metaphor of motoring—only sex and the wind provide comparable potent imagery—Crowley presents what is, in context, a thrilling moment of epiphany:

Beau stopped his car there where you were not permitted to stop unless overtaken by some emergency, or were yourself a servant of the highway.

He thought: the thing to be found and fought for has come into being. The thing without which the new age could not be made different from the old, the thing that is also nothing but a kitten saved from drowning maybe, or a cocoon on a milkweed pod taken indoors to open in the warmth. Not an age or even a year from now but now.

Right in his own backyard, too, waiting for his return. He hoped he hadn’t gone too far in reaching this certainty, that he would not be too late getting back. For even if he had allies, and his allies had allies that he knew nothing of, and so on out to spheres he had never travelled to, he thought that this was his alone to do, just as it was each of theirs. It always is.

Beau made a U-turn.

So he hurries back to Blackbury Jambs just in time to attend Rosie’s Christmas masquerade party. There are masked figures everywhere, yet Beau incongruously looks as he always does. Rosie, feigning annoyance, says, “How come you didn’t dress up? . . . The invitation said. Come as you aren’t.” Then, in one of those subtle jokes characteristic of all his speech, “Beau, smiling, opened his arms like welcoming Jesus. ‘Ta daa,’ he said.” Beau then asks, with atypical urgency, “Where’s Sam?” At which point the reader realizes, though he has already long half known, that Rosie’s little girl, who was once glimpsed by Dr. Dee in his showstone, is the pivot upon which history will now turn. Indeed, the suspicion grows that everything that has happened to Pierce (his confusions and heartaches and deep, deep suffering) may only matter because at a crucial juncture he will be able to talk to Rose Ryder and thus discover where the Powerhouse has taken Sam for the “exorcism” of her demons.

At the height of Rosie’s masquerade party, Pierce encounters a masked figure, sitting alone in the darkness. The man unexpectedly turns to him and whispers:

“Well, I’ve failed, I failed. Yes I think that’s evident now.” He said this with what seemed great anguish. “The conception was just too huge, the parts too many. No matter how long it was let to go on, it got no closer to being done….I so much wanted it to knit….Past and present, then and now. The story of the thing lost, and how it was found. More than anything I wanted it to resolve. And all it does is ramify….I’m so sorry. Well at a certain point invention flags, you see; you begin to repeat, helplessly. You keep coming upon the same few conceptions over and over, greeting each one with glad cries, yes! Yes! The way on! Until you realize what it is, oh here I go again, the same story again, as ever.”

Most readers when they arrive at this passage guess that Pierce is conversing with the spirit of Fellowes Kraft. Others may feel that John Crowley is speaking of himself and his decades-long commitment to Aegypt, confessing that he has fallen short of what he wanted to accomplish (as do all artists: the work of art, said Walter Benjamin, is the death mask of its conception). However, this mysterious figure, appearing when he does, could also be none other than the Gnostic Demiurge, who knows he has botched the universe. (Pierce significantly refuses to look back when the man removes his mask, and such a figure in darkness recalls the God-like Sunday in one of Crowley’s favorite novels, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.) There is moreover yet another indication—“I just hope we won’t all be in here forever, and none of us able to move up, or down”—that the crisis point has finally arrived. For the passage times only exist, according to Kraft, “until a certain thing is found….If it’s not found the world stops changing, and dies. But it’s always found. So far.”

Endless Things may initially seem a mere coda to Aegypt, a quiet diminuendo, lacking the romance and urgency of the first three volumes. Still, like so much else in this long novel, it reminds us that this is a modern Pilgrim’s Progress, a story about the life of the soul. Pierce eventually travels to Europe in the footsteps of Fellowes Kraft, still seeking to understand what the novelist may have found there, either in the Giant Mountains back in the 1930s or on his last trip abroad in 1968. We also learn about Kraft’s own early life and glimpse how he might have concluded his last novel: with Bruno using his spiritual knowledge to escape the flames of the Holy Office. Maybe, just maybe, it really happened.

Eventually, Pierce returns to Blackbury Jambs where he will find a kind of rest. Only then does Aegypt draw to its close with one final party, high on a mountaintop, where the wind never stops blowing. As in Little, Big, we finish in the world as it now truly is, the ordinary world we know so well. The passage time is over: there is only one history of the world.

As in other recent novels on grandly cosmic themes—for instance, Philip Pullman’s ambitious His Dark Materials trilogy or Gene Wolfe’s majestic Book of the New Sun quartet—much in Aegypt remains open to speculation: Is there a significant reason that so many people are given names with repeated initials like RR and BB? What is the implication of the Sphinx’s real name (which we eventually learn)? Why does Pierce always correct misquotations of poetry? (Is this a way of suggesting that he is intended to correct a pervasive wrongness in things?) Is there a reason why Crowley, in his later volumes, starts to address the reader directly, almost chummily, assuring us that we doubtless already remember this detail or that? Are the increased number of passages about the nature of fiction meant to suggest, à la Borges, that we are all characters in a story, that history is a story? Should we think of the book as oblique autobiography, as is sometimes hinted? Certainly, most readers do hope for “stories that end in happiness; weddings after adversity; triumphs of righteousness. Wonders and signs fulfilled. Then Adam returns refreshed and renewed; all is forgiven. Mercy. Pity, Peace. The Golden Age begins again, and lasts forever, until it ends.”

By the close of Endless Things each morning’s dawn now brings, thankfully or not, just “another day of living and striving in the fields of the actual and the possible.” All that other stuff happened back in the past, in our youth, not to ourselves or anyone we know but to people who could almost be characters in a half-forgotten novel. So long ago: “And yet we want always, always to go back. What if we could, we think, what if we could?” Yearning never ends.

John Crowley, now in his mid-60s, teaches at Yale and continues to write, giving no indication that he plans to slow down. Even during the decades he was working on Aegypt, he managed to bring out a dozen or so short stories, an award-winning novella (Great Work of Time) and the well-received novels The Translator and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land. His early science fiction, above all, Engine Summer, is back in print, and he is at work on a new book. With Little, Big, Crowley established himself as America’s greatest living writer of fantasy. Aegypt confirms that he is one of our finest living writers, period.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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