Monday, March 5, 2012

The Sublime

Most dragons don’t believe people exist. But there are a few who do, and they gaze strongly at us.

What do they see?

Tradition depicts dragons in caves keeping close watch over beautiful maidens or mounds of gold. Legend suggests that dragons have no use for either. But this is not true.

Dragons use treasure to attract people. The cave in which real dragons dwell is the human skull. And the treasure they hoard is indeed beautiful maidens and heaped goldbecause those are the two treasures that inspire the strongest fantasies in homo sapiens, from deep in the reptile root of our brain: desire and power. Do we ever tell ourselves stories about anything else?

As you might expect from the millennia they’ve been hoarding those treasures most useful to us—and watching us strive for them with all our hominid strength and cunning—the dragons who see us know a lot about human nature: especially the sensuous intensity of human desire.

And what do they see?

Our span so brief, our self-awareness so keen, we inspire in dragons feelings both tragic and reverent, the two essential ingredients for the sublime. Dragons are fascinated at an extraordinary depth by the poetry of human life.

In 1905, Lord Dunsany published The Book of Wonder, a collection that includes “Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance.” It tells of a dragon that steals away a maiden and keeps her as a treasure. The treasure, in fact, is the story itselfa lyrical allegory for the timeless wonder of fantasy, the creative enterprise of the sublime, which our factory-world calls escapism:

Out of the balcony of her father's house in Prince of Wales' Square, the painted dark-green balcony that grew blacker every year, the dragon lifted Miss Cubbidge and spread his rattling wings, and London fell away like an old fashion. And England fell away, and the smoke of its factories, and the round material world that goes humming round the sun vexed and pursued by time, until there appeared the eternal and ancient lands of Romance lying low by mystical seas. [ … ] The tide roamed on and whispered of mastery and of myth, while near that captive lady, asleep in his marble tank the golden dragon dreamed: and a little way out from the coast all that the dragon dreamed showed faintly in the mist that lay over the sea. He never dreamed of any rescuing knight. So long as he dreamed, it was twilight; but when he came up nimbly out of his tank night fell and starlight glistened on the dripping, golden scales. There he and his captive either defeated Time or never encountered him at all.

I like how Lord D identifies the lands of Romance as both eternal and ancient: synonyms for the two necessary components of the sublime: Ancient expresses the long-gone, the tragic—and eternity is timeless, transcendent, worthy of reverence.

And what do you make of Dunsany’s observation that the mystical sea whispers of mastery and myth? There is kinship between those two, isn’t there? To err is human, and so mastery is an ideal for us, a myth. Striving for mastery is a large part of our legend among dragons.

When they come to Earth out of imaginary time questing for us, most of the time they don’t actually believe they’re going to find us. Their search is just a lark. Even those few dragons that know we exist have rarely observed an individual human life. We’re too fleeting. The exceptional dragons with the curiosity and ingenuity to notice us try not to blink. Some hoard treasure to attract us and get a fix on our speed-blur lives.

And what do they see?

Turns out, it’s not so much what dragons see as what they’re looking for. They are creatures of the far beyond. They come from ranges remote to human experience. And when they show up here, where we notice them, they are looking for us.


Blogger Jaime said...

Hi Al - are you familiar with John Howe? He's an artist who, along with Alan Lee, is best known for shaping the overall look of Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS film trilogy. In the 'making of' portions of the dvds, Howe rather looks like he himself could have played Saruman as a youngish man (if Saruman was ever young). Anyway, he has a book called FORGING DRAGONS, which is full of his artwork and, almost more interesting to me, his musings on the various strains of dragon-hood throughout world myth and how best to depict them. Of course, as a visual artist, he has to pin those beasts to paper in more concrete terms than you do in prose. Words on the page can transcend the visual, it seems to me, so that for a reader a creature abiding by 'mystical seas (in the)...eternal and ancient lands of Romance' can be concrete and fully formed in the mind's eye without niggling questions of "What does it look like?" and "How big is it?"

April 24, 2012 at 8:44 AM  
Blogger A. A. Attanasio said...

Thanks, Jaime, for pointing out Howe and Lee. I found interviews with them at YouTube and lots of their vivid imagery online. They complement each other well, it seems: Lee is soulful, haunted even, and Howe captures spirited freezeframes of action. They’re masterful hunters of the transcendental, aren’t they? When a visual artist depicts a dragon, we see a whisper of eternity in the sudden world. The dragon exists right there, in front of our eyes! We recognize with blood memory the saurian contours and predatory stare. But it doesn’t move. Its stillness veers into a higher dimension, orthogonal to time. Illuminating!

April 26, 2012 at 2:18 PM  

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