John Howe


Travels in the Ur-real Landscape


 “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human manifestation…”

– Joseph Campbell


Players and painted stage took all my love

And not those things that they were the emblem of

 William Butler Yeats, The Circus Animals’ Desertion


“Say on, sweet Sphinx! thy dirges

        Are pleasant songs to me.

Deep love lieth under

        These pictures of time;

They fade in the light of

        Their meaning sublime.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sphinx


Fantasy, it seems, is faced with the sempiternal criticism of being divorced or detached from reality. Naturally, couched in those terms, which imply that somehow a messy or needless separation took place at some indeterminate point where things finally got “real,” this posits a moment when real took on today’s meaning of unadulterated engagement with the secular world. (The space occupied by religion I leave out of the discussion, though it is necessary to remember that myth is basically religion in which no one believes any more, while legend is myth’s man on the ground, so to speak, myth’s and man’s joint venture into secular space.)

The reproach is unjustified, and is based on disinterest and a singular misunderstanding of not only the substance of fantasy, but also the nature of “real.” I often regret that a school of painting appropriated the name Surrealism; it is such a helpful term and is now regrettably confined in the popular imagination confined to melting pocket watches and Granny Smith apples suspended in mid-air. It is too late now for the word to shed the aura of incongruity, juxtaposition and collage it has acquired, even if its political and societal trappings have long been shed like so many autumn leaves.

Possibly fantasy might be described as sur- or more-than-real, or ur-real, in the sense of a primitive, original, or earliest form. (“Ur” is a terrifically handy word, from proto-Indo-European “ud” (up, out) via Proto-Germanic “uz” through the German prefix “ur” (out of, original). Long used only in German, in words such as ursprache, Urschleim or Urquell, it wandered into the English language as a living prefix in the mid 20th century.)

Ur-real suits me very well to define fantasy. (In passing, let’s redefine fantasy by lopping the most rebarbative branches – pure escapism, adolescent wish-fulfillment and anything husbanded for political purposes. The same operation is tacitly practiced on “history” by historians, whose mission is in principle edification and a non-politicized pursuit of knowledge. Untended, history easily becomes the playground of the propagandist, the apologist and the negationist.)

William Butler Yeats by Sarah Purser, c. 1904. Hugh Lane gallery, Dublin

Subjectivity and fantasy are not necessarily strangers either. While we can pride ourselves on objectivity (science demands it, prognostics and statistics rely on it) the simple fact is that we, as individuals, each have a unique point of view of the world. From peregrine curiosity through avid assessment to placid indifference, the palette of interpretation is wide. (It is also a dense wood full of meandering trails and confusing signposts: mesolimbic pathways, motivational salience, state and trait curiosity and more.)

Subjectivity is something to which we are condemned, and the subjectivity of objectivity is as unavoidable as whatever inaccuracies it purports to strive against. From subjectivity, it is a short step into serious realms: psychology, sociology, psychiatry, but those, like religion, are too serious a matter for this short excursion into ur-reality.

Having packed my bag with a luxury of redefinitions and precautions, I of course need a guide. A periegesis less geographical than temporal, though; defining the timeframe of modern fantasy is no easy task (and I have no plans to explore the taxonomy of fantasy here, that will be for another occasion.) Obviously, fantasy has been around for a long time, so it is possible to dig up origins so far removed from our modern minds that they make little sense on this trip. Perhaps the most important origins can be tied to the recognition of liminality, the point where fiction is a conscious undertaking and no longer a given facet of our own existence. This is of course tied to the emergence of science (alchemy left a certain amount of room in the alembic for fantasy – according to Faivre, imagination was a crucial link between the material world and the immaterial – or at least for esoteria) and the predominance accorded to the rationalist mind. Today, there is no wishful thinking involved, we cannot go back to what we imagine as a privileged and primitive relationship to nature. We can, however, revise our position as we move relentlessly onward.

John Keats listening to the Nightingale on Hampstead Heath by Joseph Severn, c. 1845

What we consider “real” must ideally be inclusive of the fantastical and not the opposite. Reality need not exclude the imaginative to function; worse, our scientific minds have excised story from the physical world, narration that is crucial to our understanding of our place in the same. Story contains morality; much human enterprise is amoral, removed from not only accountability, but from connections and restraint. Story recounts place: place of teller, place of listeners, and above all situates the story itself, both in un-time and our time. (In this sense, all fairy tales and myth contain something of the timelessness of a songline; legend, once again, is more closely anchored in the secular.)

I am reminded of the periodic attempts by educational boards to “rationalize” spelling. The motivation is to excise any contradictions that must be learned by rote, thereby simplifying learning. Independently of the choice of words and the possible merits of the exercise, and the fact that children are far smarter than we give them credit for, the approach is wrong-minded and backward-thinking. (Bettelheim was intensely critical of this approach already in the 1970’s.) To arbitrarily excise words from their etymological context, to sever the roots that tie them to the evolution of language, is bowdlerization disguised as progress. Words are like those old steamer trunks plastered with labels from their travels – remove the labels, no telling where the trunk has been. (Lastly, to underline the wrong-headed bluntness of the reform approach, etymology can be the principal tool used to teach why similar-sounding words have dissimilar spellings.) Language, like landscape, is organic, it grows from the roots up; misguided topiarists are always seeking to prune it into shape.

We have removed the fantastical from our surroundings and placed it in books and comics, movies, television and video games. We have rendered it into prime time, bite-sized portions, handily packaged and conditioned. While entertainment has always been a part of the human experience, the quantity (and undeniably, the quality, to a large degree, in ever-more-immersive media) now available means setting time aside to watch and listen. The fantastic is rendered in a language more easily recognizable, often held in opposition to the “real”, which modern comfort has to an equal degree rendered blander than before. (The rise of disembodied or “idle” entertainment always coincides with the rise of a comfortable middle class.) The human element is transposed, a step removed; compare the time you spend watching plays at the theatre to the time spent at the other theatres watching movies. Technology constantly seeks to enhance our experience; movies strive to feel more and more “real” (with the mandatory about-turns and dead ends: hence the rapid rise and fall of 3D movies, no longer a near-mandatory format, and the even swifter appearance and demise of 3D television.)

While this arguably makes for an intense movie-going experience, the result is to more firmly than ever drive a wedge between the fantastic and the real, since we no longer look for it in the quotidian, having had our fill on cable channels and in movie theatres. Nonetheless, it paradoxically recognizes and endorses the fantastic, by striving to make our suspension of disbelief easier to accomplish.

So, not only have we initially removed the fantastic from the real world, now we try with equal energy to re-infuse that same fantastic with the real. “Grittiness” was a term unheard-of in relation to fantasy movies a few decades ago, until science-fiction led the way. Fantastical themes in film, or at least those that escaped surrealism, held to expectations inherited from opera and theatre for far longer than other genres. Surrealism may have largely been eclipsed, but the attendant vocabulary remains.

Much of this stems from our un-learning of the vocabulary designating the fantastical. We have, at best, a nursery-level understanding of fairy tale, a child’s literal acceptance without the child’s intuitive grasp of symbol. To comprehend fairy tales, we must fall back on Bettelheim and his successors because the complexity and depth of our vocabularies has diminished in scope. Paradoxically, a surfeit of VFX further distances us from any capacity to intuit meaning – we are too caught up in the actual processes of post-production; but of course, this is what we desire or movies would simply not be made that way.

This said, the fantastical, the irrational, the ressenti, has a way of cropping up nevertheless. This fantastical always returns from exile, given the slightest excuse. When Saint Clement of Metz cast out the dragon that had been dwelling in the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre and greatly inconveniencing the citizens, banishing it across the river Moselle to the still-pagan side, an annual procession was created to honour the event. A mock dragon was paraded around the city; the town’s children could lash it with switches. (As Rabelais observed in the 16th century: It was a monstrous, hideous effigy, terrifying for small children, with eyes bigger than the stomach, and a head bigger than the rest of the body, with horrific, wide jaws and lots of teeth which were made to clash by the use of a cord, making terrible noises as if the dragon of Saint Clement was actually in Metz.”) Eventually, though, the dragon took on a role rather too important for the church, and had to be brought down a rung or two, and return to his ordained spot in the order of things. The fantastic is always ready to step out of bounds, because by definition it belongs to the other, to the regions of the map beyond order and control. All attempts to domesticate it fail.

The landscape needs to be interpreted to be truly perceived, in the same manner we must interpret the fantastic. We are ever trying to better our view of the world through a lens, be it metaphorical, spiritual or even occasionally physical.

The Ford by Claude Lorrain, circa 1636. He was known as Le Lorrain, or simply Claude in England. Born in France around the year 1600, he spent most of his life in Italy. Landscapes were an essential element in genre paintings dealing with historical, mythological or legendary themes, but landscape alone was not considered a worthy theme for serious painters until the mid-17th century.

Claude glass, unknown maker, 1775 – 1780

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the landscape was dotted with tourists and artists resolutely turning their backs on the view. They were seeing it through, or more exactly, reflected in a glass darkly. The Claude glass, briefly in vogue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was so named after of the dark atmospheric paintings of 17th century French Claude Lorrain. The glass, a small dark slightly convex mirror, required the observer to turn his or her back to the landscape to be observed, conferring on the handily-framed view the somber atmospheric tones of Lorrain’s tableaux. It quickly became an object of satire, one commentator stating of adepts: “It is very typical of their attitude to Nature that such a position should be desirable.” (Inevitably, we are reminded of smartphone photographers avidly snapping selfies, their backs to the view.) The Claude glass was an essay in real-time transformation of the landscape, allowing viewers to frame and paint in their mind’s eye their own interpretations of the picturesque; simultaneously harmless upper-class novelty, futuristic precursor of the movie camera and inverted artistic movement, the Claude glass deserves a revival, if only to offer us a window into the time of its popularity.

William Gilpin by George Richmond (1809–1896) 1859

Inventor of the Picturesque, Gilpin expounded on his theories in “Observations on the river Wye, and several parts of South Wales … made in the summer of the year 1770,” published in 1782. In his book, he states : “The following little work proposes a new object of pursuit ; that of not barely examining the face of a country ; but of examining it by the rules of picturesque beauty ; that of not merely describing, but of adapting the descriptions of natural scenery to the principles of artificial landscape… » All in all, how to take the « wild » out of « wilderness.”

There is no denying that we are true descendants of the Romantics[1]; the slow awakening to wild nature began as early as the late Renaissance, but William Gilpin was still dithyrambic about the “picturesque” in the latter years of the 16th century. Landscape in the service of a pleasurable sensation, above all that of man’s dominance over nature, arbitrator of ‘“that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.” (Gilpin was also an advocate of the Claude glass, even having one mounted in his carriage.) In other words, nothing that did not bear the touch of humankind: landscape as an extension of the peaceable soul. Happily, Romanticism followed immediately on Gilpin’s heels, and the wilder stretches of the world, most notably the Alps, were transformed from a gruelling inconvenience on the Grand Tour to Italy’s ruins, into a destination of their own. The delicious shiver down the spine felt when confronted with man’s insignificance became a sought-after sensation. Equally, learned polymaths began to suspect that October 22nd, 4004 BC was a little young for the world’s birthday, and Archbishop James Ussher was escorted quietly into the wings.[2] The older the world, the smaller we are. Buffon, Agassiz, Cuvier, all flawed pioneers, nevertheless opened the religious fetters that has long ruled out disorder and chaos: escarpments, precipices, ragged peaks and wild torrents no longer considered as regrettable debris or leftover reminders of the Deluge, but as a stepping-stone to the sublime. Joseph Campbell evokes the same sentiment, speaking the Upanishads: “When before the beauty of a sunset or a mountain you pause and exclaim, ‘Ah,’ you are participating in divinity.”

James Ussher by Sir Peter Lely, oil on canvas, c 1654. The attributions of a precise time of day for Earth’s creation (the most popular is nine a.m. Greenwich Mean Time) are largely apocryphal. The full title of Ussher’s book outlining his calculations is “Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world, the chronicle of Asiatic and Egyptian matters together produced from the beginning of historical time up to the beginnings of Machabees.” In the opening chapter, Ussher states: “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth, Gen 1. v. 1. Which beginning of time, according to our Chronologie, fell upon the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of Octob. In the year of the Julain Calendar, 710.”

Removing fantasy from reality is to restrict the horizon to what we can see with our eyes, rather than expanding it to what we can see with our spirits. While our physical senses are bounded by horizons, the soul is aorist. The near horizon is tangible, the far horizon can only be experienced through the liminal.

We cannot roll back time to some illusory and more innocent age. We can, however, construct a modern version of the Claude glass. Not one that darkens and simplifies our surroundings, but rather an imaginary lens which reads myth, legend and story back into the landscape, one that takes into account the numberless lives that have created and augmented human interaction with the spirit of Nature. One that lets us face Landscape, not figuratively turn our backs upon it. What we have long called “progress” is the illusory but seductive Claude glass of its time: facing away from the landscape and seeing it only mirrored imperfectly in the distorting lens of an ideal future.

While we need not emulate Keats before Moneta’s altar, a certain amount of soul-searching is compulsory. I leave the antepenultimate words to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.”

Landscape has a language that we must relearn, the language of the ur-real.

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Further reading:

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature, 1836

William Butler Yeats. The Celtic Twilight, A. H. Bullen, 1902

James Land Jones. Adam’s Dream: Mythic Consciousness in Keats and Yeats, The University of Georgia Press, 1975

Anne Whiston Spirin. The Language of Landscape, The Yale University Press, 1998

Robert MacFarlane. Mountains of the Mind, Granta Books, 2003

Jack L. Siler. Poetic Language and Political Engagement in the Poetry of Keats, Routledge, 2008

Rebecca Solnit. A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Penguin Books, 2005

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[1] While romance has strong connotations of love and affairs of the heart, a sense appended in the early 20th century, the original meaning of the word stems from the old French vernacular romanz, which simply means “recite a narrative” or tell a story. A novel in French is a “roman,” a novelist a “romancier.” The Romantics were putting story back into landscape itself, making nature a member of the dramatis personae, rather than the theatre-like juxtaposition of drama and landscape that preceded them through the Enlightenment.

[2] The first and near-fatal blow to Ussher’s world-concept was struck by Thomas Burnett’s Sacred History of the Earth, an attempt to explain the Great Flood in hydrologically acceptable terms in 1691. The change in the age of the Earth did not take place overnight. The earliest paleontologists, when presenting the first fossils of dinosaurs, were careful to place their discoveries resolutely within a Biblical context. The geologists of the same generation expostulated that useful minerals were situated in easily accessible strata by divine design…