28 April 2018

Tessering back

An artist’s rendering of the cherubim Proginoskes

Prefaced with the requisite SPOILER ALERT:

I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time when I was much, much younger. (I can’t remember with any great certainty, but I was probably in middle school.) It’s one of those books that was kept stuck in the back of my memory and creative imagination. Long after I had forgotten even the names of the characters and the planets and the stars, the images stayed with me. The tesseract, the transfiguration of Mrs Whatsit, the Black Thing, the creepy syncopated sameness of Camazotz, the punishment of the boy bouncing the ball, the transparent column, the brain in a vat, the kindness of Aunt Beast – and of course the final image of a sister’s love for her brother saving him – these were things that fired my late-childhood mental vision and apparently stuck with me. It made a pretty deep impression on me. And as with other novelists whose young-adult works I tend to lump in the same category, like TA Barron and Isaac Asimov, I read only one of L’Engle’s books: this one.

I didn’t come back to A Wrinkle in Time, believe it or not, because of the recently-released and lukewarmly-received Ava DuVernay film adaptation (which I still haven’t seen and have no immediate plans to see). I came back to it because it came up on the list of AP English Language and Composition recommended reads, and it was one of the few books I could unreservedly recommend to my AP class in Hunan Province. Before assigning it to them, I read it through again for myself – along with the sequel, A Wind in the Door.

The book was far more profound than I had remembered it. That was partially because, back when I first read it, I hadn’t quite cottoned on to how unusual the heroine, Meg Murry, was – a socially-inept, painfully-introverted genius with deep self-esteem issues; possibly a partial reflection of the author’s own unhappy boarding-school years. This had registered with me only on an intellectual level if indeed it registered at all. Reading it now, of course, her insecurities, temper and self-doubt are front and centre. It’s only against them that the SFnal images that were so indelibly burned into my early-teenage brain really attain to their true poignancy. Meg’s discovery of her own strengths and ability to love as she is thrown into the mission to recover her father and later Charles Wallace – against the deadening conformity of Camazotz and the cold malice of IT, against the Black Thing, against her own adolescent insecurities (and desire for security) – had an entirely new power over me. Even though the story was as familiar as a folktale as I reread it, it was as though I was reading it for the first time.

The direct Biblical allusions, delivered as they are in this SFnal context, are Lewisian in their forthrightness. The transfiguration of the Mrs W’s – and the ascent to a mountain, no less – has Gospel overtones, though Calvin’s Petrine reaction to the sight of it is lovingly but pointedly rebuked by Mrs Whatsit. She and her companions answer them, instead: ‘Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift their voice; let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory unto the Lord!’ L’Engle, so affectionately like Tolkien and Lewis in her Anglican piety (and yet so distinct from them in her literary genius, as is only meet and fit!), has a psalmodic sensibility that best understands the Good and the True in terms of song and musical expression. Not for nothing does she have Charles Wallace and Calvin cite Shakespeare, Bach and Beethoven as fighters against the darkness, alongside Rembrandt, Buddha and Gandhi.

But the distinct message that rings through loud and clear is not one of apologetics. L’Engle chooses for the heroine of the novel an awkward, ill-tempered and self-doubting character as Meg Murry, who never seems to fit in anywhere and yet is chosen as much for her faults as in spite of them. That itself delivers a moral with distinct ramifications. L’Engle doesn’t paper over evil. She doesn’t apologise for it or try to explain it away. And she doesn’t exempt anyone, not even the Mrs Ws, from its effects. She does allow ‘the foolish and the weak’ to have the final say – and that final say is through an act of selflessness, of self-sacrificial kenōsis, when Meg decides to return to Camazotz to rescue her brother from IT.

The common assumption that the dystopia of Camazotz – all people rendered exactly alike within a vast, impersonal, yet horribly-efficient bureaucracy – was an allegory for communism is one to which Anna Quindlen alludes in her introductory ‘appreciation’ to the version I was reading. But Madeleine L’Engle didn’t make a very good Cold Warrior. The point seems she was trying to make with Camazotz was apparently much more subtle, and it seems she toyed with the idea of making the political angle explicit before deciding against it. Though I can understand why she left out this passage (Camazotz works fine as an allegory in its own right without having its ‘real-world’ significance spelt out), it still showcases the subtlety and sensitivity of L’Engle’s political thinking. She was as much concerned with the subtle undercurrents of conformity and acquiescence to impersonal guarantees of security within democracies, as she was with the totalitarianism of their Cold War foes. Indeed, it seems she herself wanted to revisit these themes in her subsequent novels in the Kairos continuity. If A Wrinkle in Time can be read as broadly anti-totalitarian with its portrayal of dystopian Camazotz, its sequel A Wind in the Door showcases a warning from the opposite direction.

A Wind in the Door is a good deal more surreal than A Wrinkle in Time; where the Murrys (and O’Keefe) explored planets in the first novel, the second has them trying to unlearn the idea that size matters. The actions of one single sub-microscopic organism have effects, we learn, that could save or shatter the galaxy. The life or death of a child, Charles Wallace, is considered a civilisational tipping point. When Meg, Calvin and a cherubim named Proginoskes are sent to Yadah (the mitochondrion/planet within Charles Wallace where this cosmic contest takes place) by their teacher Blajeny, being unable to move or see in the normal way, they begin learning from Proginoskes to communicate not through words, but through ‘kything’ (and this is an adoption of an Anglo-Saxon root word that I couldn’t help but cheer!), a kind of telepathy which allows its users to ignore distances in space and time in order to connect with each other. There’s an œcological theme at play here: it’s postulated that plants and planets are able to ‘kythe’ this way.

As part of Meg’s first ‘test’ in the novel, the enemies of life and good – manifestations of nothingness which are named in this novel as the Echthroi – impersonate a minor (and initially unlikeable) character from A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s principal Mr Jenkins, and in so doing showcase two different ‘faces’ of evil. One of them – exhibiting a desire for uniformity and conformity and levelling to an impersonal standard of ‘like’-ness – voices the totalitarian ethos which drives IT in A Wrinkle in Time. The other one, who reappears close to the climax as the Mephistophelean voice which tempts Sporos (an infintesimally-small but crucially-important lifeform who inhabits one of Charles Wallace’s mitochondria), advocates total freedom from restraint and responsibility. (The true Mr Jenkins is the one who appears most limited, and Meg is able to recognise and Name him by the mistakes he makes.)

Sporos is a larval-stage individual member of a fictional symbiotic species (farandolæ) which keep Charles Wallace’s mitochondria healthy. A Wind in the Door has Meg and Calvin journey inside this mitochondrion in order to save Charles’s life; the crucial confrontation has Meg and Calvin urging Sporos to accept his adult responsibilities and Deepen, rooting himself in Charles, sacrificing a certain degree of freedom in order to join the ‘song’ of the faræ and thus fulfil a higher and life-giving cosmic purpose. The evil Echthros, on the other hand, encourages Sporos only to think of his own freedom and pleasure, to live for the moment, to proudly assert his ‘rights’ and individual independence from the cosmic order in which he lives. In keeping with the œcological theme: adult farandolæ, or faræ, are likened to ancient trees; one of the things the Echthros tempts the larval farandolæ to do is to destroy and consume the Deepened faræ. If A Wrinkle in Time did contain an anti-totalitarian cautionary tale, A Wind in the Door’s cautions are broadly anti-libertarian.

Even though it is not explicitly linked to Christianity, the kenotic theme of A Wind in the Door is every bit as radical as – if not more so than – that of A Wrinkle in Time. In the penultimate confrontation with the Echthroi, Mr Jenkins is able to save Sporos and Calvin by sacrificing himself; in turn, Proginoskes sacrifices himself to save Mr Jenkins (along with Calvin, Meg and Charles Wallace). The Neoplatonic theme by which the evil Echthroi are literally presented as no thing (instead, they have to imitate actually-existing things), is continued here: because Proginoskes X-es himself – erases his own existence – in order to save Mr Jenkins, he mystically earns his own existence. One may imagine that his fate is similar to that Mrs Whatsit’s. She began as a star in A Wrinkle in Time, but sacrificed herself to defeat the Black Thing.

I will own to enjoying A Wind in the Door immensely, not least for the beauty of the language. Unlike Wrinkle, this truly is the first time I’ve read this book. And it is a far more challenging read than Wrinkle, in part because L’Engle is pushing the envelope of her voice; toward the end, Wind becomes almost a kind of prose poetry. Sometimes the actions and reactions of the characters as they are plunged into this surreal and sense-bending contest between good and evil, strike me as a bit unnaturally blasé, and even the Murrys’ unquestioning acceptance of Charles Wallace’s assertions that Meg is inhabiting one of his mitochondria seems a bit unreal. But these are minor quibbles. I have enjoyed immensely this ‘tesser’ back to the works of L’Engle, and look forward to reading more in this series.

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