Thursday, June 16, 2011

Phantastes - Chapter 19

This chapter is quite interesting. I consider the description of the island to be somewhat mundane (though it is clearly described as being very peaceful and quiet, so it gives me the sense of unchanging stability -timelessness - much like some descriptions of heaven). The woman is certainly a very interesting character. She is described with traits both young and old. The face is unmeasurably old, yet the voice and the eyes are young and pure, and her back is unbent (again, young). Yet her treatment of the protagonist is very motherly, which again emphasizes old over young. This makes me think the woman is meant to be representative of God, who is also very young and old at the same time, as well as very protective and nurturing towards his children.

I don't have much to say about the song of the knight and the ghostly wife. I don't think it relates with the book much (except perhaps thematically, as much of the book contains similar bittersweet strains).

Spinning wheels are reminiscent of the Greek Fates, reinforcing the God theme.

Note that the actions of the woman when she looks at the four doors dictates what the protagonist finds when he wants through them. The first is the door of tears, which is his strife with his brother and then his death, the second is the door of sighs, the third is the door of fear/pain, and the fourth is the door of ....... something indescribable.

The next section, the door of sighs, seems so significant to me. First of all, it still maintains the general pattern of bittersweetness that you find throughout the book. Second, we discover that the evil kobolds in the underground cavern were correct: it turns out that the Marble Lady is for a better man, and the knight is the better man.

The knight draws a juxtaposition of nobleness of thought vs. nobleness of deeds. Obviously this is what the two characters (the singer and the knight) represent in their turn. Yet the protagonist (the singer) sees a dim reflection of himself in the knight, which makes me feel like the singer could somehow, someday grow into the knight. As such, I feel like these two characters are not so much different people as you might view them as two different stages of the same person. Though this isn't how the story turns out, yet as a metaphor it could be. The lady is destined for a better man, but perhaps through dying to oneself he could become that man. It's like what Jesus says in the bible, "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." He has to die to his ambition and desire for the lady, live in love and service to her, and yet (with respect to the metaphor) could then finally earn her as the knight who he would become.

Again, this isn't how the story turns out as it's told, but I feel like this is one of the undercurrents of the story. Naturally, any death that you suffer with the object of attaining the Marble Lady is self-defeating, which is why it is such a strange paradox. You have to genuinely be willing to give her up to attain the goal of sacrifice and love. And that is the man that she deserves, she who is herself a symbol of creative perfection and idealism. To attain that, you need the characteristics of the knight, who represents masculine perfection (you see these represented in the knight's fight against the ash tree and his physical descriptions): strength of will, nobleness of purpose and deeds, a genuine consideration for others, the hardened shell of steel which is strength, yet the softness of flesh underneath which is mercy and love. The knight loves and respects the singer, which is meaningful given his relationship with the Lady.

The part of this story that resonates with me the most is the concept of the singer's sacrifice, that he must freely give up the Marble Lady to this "better man", when the old lady sings her next song which I will quote below because I think it's so powerful:

O light of dead and of dying days!
O Love! in thy glory go,
In a rosy mist and a moony maze,
O'er the pathless peaks of snow.
But what is left for the cold gray soul,
That moans like a wounded dove?
One wine is left in the broken bowl!—

Better to sit at the waters' birth, 
Than a sea of waves to win;
To live in the love that floweth forth,
Than the love that cometh in.
Be thy heart a well of love, my child,
Flowing, and free, and sure;
For a cistern of love, though undefiled,
Keeps not the spirit pure.

This asserts, rightly, that it is *loving others* that brings purity to your soul, and not *receiving love*. That one must be a source of love, and not a recipient, to attain to this purity. Receiving love is good and pure in itself, but it must be giving love to others that will maintain who you are. His escape from this scene, the red mark, guides him into the place of self-sacrifice by leading him into the place of greatest difficulty, accepting the love between the Lady and the "better man".

Things start moving quicker in the next story, the door of dismay, so I would understand if some people get lost in the rapid transitions. Firstly, the well-known form: I'm not 100% sure who this is. Perhaps the protagonist's wife? Maybe mother since I don't remember him mentioning being married at all earlier in the story. Either way, it is obviously some very strongly loved female figure in his life who had recently died. He rapidly transitions through 3 scenes where he is following this figure. First he sees her in the streets, then he finds himself in her house, and he goes to see her room again, and then he finds himself in a church at midnight and he follows her to a tomb.

When he reaches it, the lady was no longer moving but was now a marble effigy. This is obviously a double-reference to the Marble Lady and it adds a whole new dimension to what the Marble Lady means. For up until now in the story, the Marble Lady was the marble of a sculptor, representing creation. In the White Hall of Phantasy, the statues were alive and active, this being the manifestation of creativity incarnate: the chaos and harmony of creative thought itself in a manifest form of dance.

And here, there is a new dimension added. It is the marble statue that is sculpted on the coverstone of a tomb. This is the marble of death, of stillness. Having been to the chapel of Duke University, I have seen marble statues like these before so the symbolism is familiar to me. It is also reminiscent of very early in the book when the singer finds the Marble Lady entombed in alabaster. He freed her from this "death-sleep" and brought her to life, yet now he finds this other, dear female figure entombed and he cannot free her for he has no song this time. Instead, it grows darker and he moves on to the chapel above his burial vault.

Then he finds a knight of marble, one of his ancestors. So it is clear that even though he is not living as a knight (embodiment of masculine perfection), yet he is a descendant of knights and this is his heritage.

At the last, he finds that the red mark which guides him is leading him into the burial vault itself. So once again, he must choose death to self, just like I described above and like Jesus says. This is in many ways the summation of everything in this chapter. Death to self, dying to his selfishness (door #1) and his desires (door #2) and finally death itself, is his only path forward.

The old lady's song reinforces the concept of dying, yet through the process of dying finding life. This is a very Christian concept and reminiscent of the afterlife: that passing through death (the night) one finds true life (the morning).

The next song is again very powerful, and it provides a summary of the 3 doors that he had been through; I quote it below.

We weep for gladness, weep for grief;
The tears they are the same;
We sigh for longing, and relief;
The sighs have but one name,

And mingled in the dying strife,
Are moans that are not sad
The pangs of death are throbs of life,
Its sighs are sometimes glad.

The face is very strange and white:
It is Earth's only spot
That feebly flickers back the light
The living seeth not.

What this song speaks of is a redefinition of what the protagonist had experienced in the three doors: that tears are shed in moments of grief, but also joy; that sighs come from sorrow, but also relief; that in the pangs of death, you find the throbs of new life, whether that be life in this age or in the age to come.

For the fourth door, I don't have anything clever to say because it confuses me. I don't really know what this one signifies. I do have some thoughts, but, like the author, I will leave it a mystery to invite the readers to meditation.

And perhaps given the length of this chapter and the length of my response, my reader(s) will forgive the delay in me publishing this post. :)

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