Worldbuilding

My guests, at that time, were greatly interested in literature and displayed a marked predilection for works of fantasy, especially those composed in English during the twentieth century. I informed them that such works, although they had always had their defenders, were not held in high regard. It was difficult enough to make my meaning plain without insult, for the very things which captivated my guests – the maps, glossaries of invented languages and scripts, annals of kings and migrations of peoples that never were, or which were cobbled together from mythologies or revived notions of the historical past – were exactly those which seemed to the eyes of literary criticism to be trivial and childish. Once I had politely pointed out that Tolkien and his epigones, despite their popularity, were not ranked among the foremost writers, my guests (employing a grammatical mood of their language which I had always found somewhat slippery and which indicated, I think, in this case, that the question was in fact sincere in spite of its superficially seeming to be a mere act of politeness) asked for examples from the higher literary traditions of this period which would be would be more worthy of their study. I spoke of the revolution in acceptable subject matter and style which came with Modernism; of the importance of literature which allowed itself to slip the confines of suburban morality and deal with subjects hitherto barred by prudishness from serious writing. Without concealing my personal tastes, I suggested that the works of James Joyce epitomised this artistic revolution.

At our next conversation, my guests, who had absorbed the works in question with that speed and comprehensiveness which was one of the disquieting reminders that they were not, despite appearances, human, were full of enthusiasm for Joyce and particularly for Ulysses. (I did ask them, at a later date, for their opinion of Finnegans Wake, but confess that I could not grasp it, and was left with the same feeling as I have always had when an aficionado of cryptic crosswords attempts to induct me into their cult.) We talked of the stylistic brilliance and daring of the work, on the initimacy of characterisation made possible by the stream-of-consciousness technique, and of the relish which the author had for the least details of quotidian life. “And the world-building!” said one. “We now percieve that our admiration for Tolkien was ill-placed. How could one compare Minas Tirith with the marvellous city of Dublin, where the evidence of millennia is present at every turn? How delicately Joyce’s exposition hints at a whole world beyond its borders! We marvel at the subtlety and skill of his creation.”

Somewhat taken aback by what I took to be a display of naïveté, I objected that Joyce’s Dublin was no fictional creation: on the contrary, like Proust’s Paris, Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg, or Flaubert’s Rouen, it was a transfiguration of the marvellous reality of an actual time and place into a great work of literature. I was rebuffed with what I understood to be one of my guests’ rare attempts at humour.

“Why, then, Joyce is no mere genius, but a thaumaturge of rare power, able to create real persons, a real city, an entire country with its painful and bitter history! These cities of which you speak, Paris, St Petersburg, Dublin: do you imagine that even the most obsessive novelist could represent but a shadow of their true immensity? For all that Bloom’s Dublin has an original in what your race are pleased to call ‘reality’, it is nothing more than a finely wrought tissue of words. But with such great artistry, it is understandable if you forget that even Joyce has given us only appearances.”

—from Hearn, The New Arcana Cœlestia: A Memoir of My Time with The Visitors

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