This is the first of a series of lectures that Nelson McKeeby gave at a midwestern art college where I grew up about biomythography and the identity of the artist. McKeeby often credits Toulouse-Lautreck as the first artist who obscured then revealed identity in creating biomythographic work. I have also felt that he sees many connections between the great artist's disability and that of the great artist.
I think we can skip attendance.
Henri Perruchot said in his book on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the famed artist said, " Tolouse Lautrec was in many ways an ethnographer, focused on the people in his scenes. Of the background he said, "Only the human figure exists; landscape is, and should be, no more than an accessory." Toulouse-LauTrec could be said to be my mentor from time and space. Struck by deformity he refused to take his place locked into a family estate, but took himself and his paints out into the world searching for le milieu, or the place in which to observe humans in their environment. And in doing so he created biomythographies, his own, and the people who lived around him.
The formulae for biomythography, as Lautrec and myself discovered, is like that of gunpowder. There are many ways to express the formula, but in the end one proves superior and is repeated often, being reinvented over and over. For Toulouse-Lautrec, that formula is to take a strong dose of the truth, then flip it on its head, breaking societies' rules to expose greater truths. In the Streetwalker, Toulouse-Lautrec took a popular prostitute that inhabited his milieu and brought her out into the daylight. Here her exotic hair that gave the women her knick name "La Casque d’Or", or gold helmet, does not look exotic, but instead appears quaint. A person of the era would not humorously that the woman was wearing a jacket that was essentially a regimental officer's dinner undress, something that a helmeted soldier just might wear on parade. Despite the woman's occupation Toulouse-Lautrec in no way tries to belittle or defame her, or cast any mental judgement at all. He face is pretty, she has a small tired smile, and she is neither brazen or covetous, as the formula of the day demanded when recording the images of so called "fallen women."
The biomythography Lautrec presented was a real communication using mythologized figures. Lautrec, a rich scion of a great family, elected to play the penniless artist. Rejected by women who could not see through his deformity, he found love and acceptance among the nominally despised sex workers of Paris. Those sex workers he in turn mythologizes and in the process brings out their inner beauty and the quiet turmoil of their lives.
And in the biomythography of LauTrec we find what I feel is a standard of the artform, and that is easter eggs. An Easter egg is a fact or an obscure bit of information that is, or so I beliefe, designed to hatch someday in the inquisitive reader's mind to help them understand the enormity of the universe. Although Toulouse-Lautrec focused his paintings on his beloved prostitutes and dancers, he often let his brush spill out tiny secrets. In the rint Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, the mentioned woman dancing center of the work is the famous dancer Louise Weber, but also shows in shadow her also famous, though now obscure and forgotten, dance partner Valentin le désossé. The character of Valentin, at least his stage presence, is shown by Toulouse Lautrec's scrupulousness at showing his muscular face, precise stance, and beautiful form.
I have terminal epilepsy. It will likely be what kills me. It will probably kill me in the same way Alzheimer's kills its victims, by cutting away at my intellect and devolving me until I, like a real-life Benjamin Buttons, become a ward of my long suffering wife. Or it could take me in a flash of horror and pain lasting a year. Last fall the doctors, making one last attempt to save my life, changed me to the medicine Lamictol. The result was Stephens Johnson Syndrome where your skin is rejected by your body in an allergic reaction resulting in third-degree burns across most of your skin, your mouth, throat, and sometimes, stomach. Death is nearly assured. I dodged that bullet with a hail Mary pass and a wonder cure that may not work next time.
Part of the experience of being both terminal epileptic and autistic, is that you become a tool of discrimination at the hands of instructors. This occurred to me when Monica Bilson, head of the MFA writing program at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, began participating with students in the program of criticizing me for being different, and when she started to use me as a teaching foil in class to support the prejudicial views of a group of her student by designating me as the sacrificial element to be ridiculed and harassed. A dying, neurodiverse handicapped person was the perfect individual to turn into her social punching bag both in class and out of it.
All of this became fodder for elements of Ravens, bringing the social reality of a group of people who were too liberal to admit they were prejudiced. And expanded on the concept of metafiction.
When I have seizures I dream of being a bird, flying across a magical land. When I awake from those seizures I am disoriented, confused, and much of my memory is erased. It is like time traveling, only for me it is 1981 and I am alone in a strange place. I have PTSD from being in a place crash, and because of several incidents as a police officer. Oddly, I awake without PTSD though. Then, I remember the crash as if it had just happened. And from there I rebuild my life memories. So my future book would be based on me, and that way not be fictional. I am a creative consultant in Hollywood, a writer of obscure historical fiction, and an educator. By using elements of my own life in the story, but then inflating elements using some fantastical narrative techniques, I could sneak back to a more speculative type of fiction.
At first this took the form of memoir where I introduced elements of magical realism related to epilepsy and time travel. Dreams, and the stories you hear, become a form of reality when you wake from an epileptic seizure.
The quality of my work though was aided when I recently stumbled across the term biomythography. Biomythography is a literary term; it is a style of composition that weaves myth, history, and biography in epic narrative. (https://www.biomythart.com/about2). It was here that I found my voice, and I began to evolve a narrative style that purposefully blurred the lines of reality between fiction and memoir that was also a space I could colonize and call my own. To make the style of biomythography work for me I had to develop a skill set that went far past memoir of simple fiction. I needed to read a lot more in a wide range of subjects and redevelop ignored skills in research.
The Conspiracy of the Ravens would start out as a single sentence. Four diverse people go on a quest. One of my “diverse people,” taken from a dream, was Native American. He did not, though, have to be fictional. For that reason, I began doing research to identify the person I wanted to be a major part of this first story. I soon found him.
In the 1880s, an Army officer interviewed a Lakota named Rains-in-the-Face who was identified by other Lakota present at the Battle of Little Big Horn as the person who killed, scalped, and consumed the heart of Thomas Custer, brother to George Armstrong. That officer, in a poorly executed attempt to find out the truth of this subject, recorded Rains-in-the-Face's answers, which seemed to indicate that he was accepting the blame for the "crime." In reality, a better translation shows Rains-in-the-Face was actually saying another Lakota with a similar name, someone much younger than he was, did the deed. Rains-in-the-Face was simply more famous than the actual person responsible.
In an intriguing twist, a Lakota named Rains-a-Lot, aged four, was issued a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) number in the 1860s when he and his family were provided rations. This same number crops up again when a 14-year old Lakota boy is fostered with an Indian Territory family of Cherokee descent. That boy changes his name to Jim Smith, and amazingly, graduates from Drake University after reading law in 1888. In 1890, a Jim Smith appears on a lawsuit seeking relief for the Lakota being held by soldiers at Pine Bluff. History tells nothing more of Smith, whose name is removed from the Dakota Bar that year, but in 1944 his BIA number is used in lieu of a social security number to register for the draft, at an age when the real Rains-a-Lot / Jim Smith would be eight years old!
I now have a real human who appears to be young enough at age eighty to register for the draft who was born in the Plains Lakota culture of the 1860s who probably killed a man, scalped him, and ate his heart at age 14, was then educated by Quakers, studied law, and filed a lawsuit to prevent Wounded Knee. What sort of man must he have been? Biomythography said I had a wide range of resources aid me with drawing a tight, magical, but believable character sketch.
I needed to know the history into which Rains-a-Lot grew up, so I read My Life on the Plains by George Armstrong Custer and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. I read Warrior in two camps: Ely S. Parker, Union general and Seneca chief, by William Armstrong to understand a contemporary of Rains-a-Lot and the feeling of being part of two cultures. Black Elk, an important Lakota thinker and religious figure, was a near contemporary of the real life Rains-a-Lot, born the year before him in 1863 and dying in 1950, six years after Rains-a-Lot registered for the draft. Books written from interviews with Black Elk and by his children were invaluable for giving Rains-a-Lot a voice and color.
To tie this together, I started to look into books that strike deep at cultural dualism, both fictional and nonfictional, with an eye to magical realistic efforts, or those who I could twist into this concept. Rains-a-Lot was a character of two worlds with a tight border between them. To develop a sense of this I had a long series of talks with Francisco "Pacu" Cantu and shared stories of our mutual love of Mexico, then read his book The Line Becomes a River. It is in his stark, nearly dream like discussions of encountering death that both Rains-a-Lot, and his partner Ivy gain voices on the subject of violence and loss.
Rains-a-Lot then needed a model to be placed into a social group away from society. Joy Williams and her The Quick and the Dead gave me a wonderful model for interactions of people from very different motivational backgrounds that I could use in my writing. How??? My narrator character, which was simply my own voice, was joined by Rains-a-Lot and three other characters, each based on real people who are placed into a convergent journey, forced onward, and tied together by a complex relationship. Since each character comes from a different time, and each one has a dramatically different childhood and motivation, just like the characters in The Quick and the Dead, much of the story, outside the physical narration of a journey, is ruled by the interaction of the characters as they learn to live with each other.
As I expanded my characters I started to write short stories on each one of them acting together, in pairs, and in larger groups. Using these stories, I began to identify weaknesses in my own writing. Eric PInder, an advisor, suggested a series of books including Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies to expand the set of tools to develop backstory. In this book by Jared Diamond, the case for Eurasian dominance is not laid at the feet of genetic superiority, but associated with the development of technology easily transported across a large land mass, the rise of disease immunity to several deadly pathogens, and the effects of a societal Darwinism which caused institutions that weakened to be more likely to break. The lead me to Bantu Africa: 3,500 BCE to Present by Catherine Fourshey which started me considering the nature of western versus non-western culture as the basis for fantasy worlds. My own characters may be drawn from western archetypes, but there were other models.
In considering cultural diversity in my stories I followed the idea of biomythography and choose real characters to look at. One of the most interesting was Al-Hasan al-Wazzan, born just as Columbus was sailing to the Americas, who traveled across both the Muslim and Christian Mediterranean world. Like my own work, Davis creates a character and bills him as historical but bases them on the slightest academic evidence. Despite this al-Wasson is a fascinating character whose possibilities actually lead to changes in my Dorothy analog, Kelle. It also made me consider what geographical, social, and societal place has to do with the eventual stories my characters participate in.
Although my land of adventure I was developing as a playground for my characters was not medieval Europe (aside from maybe the limits of technology), I started to consider other world settings that easily allowed magical realism, with an idea of finding my world from among properties I could expropriate and use for my own purposes, especially those offering a strong and diverse background into which my characters could travel. My background reading had included little fantasy to start, but I decided to explore the most famous world setting in magical realism, the world of Arthur. To explore the Arthurian landscape I choose three important works, Le Morte d' Arthur, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and the Mists of Avalon. While I had started reading these works with an eye for developing a unique world setting, I soon found myself thinking differently. Part of the concept of writing my book I had been playing with was that the milieu of the world should be within reach of other artists, allowing them access to its ideals without having to master a complex lore and unique lore set. This would allow collaborations with visual artists who might not want to invest time in reading the type of show runner style guide that digital media collaborations often include. It would also allow elevator pitches to be easier.
In the three Arthurian works mentioned, precursors of both the fantasy and the magical realism movements, a basic storyline that predates them all is used as the canonical foundation of the work. Each author though colonizes the story for their own use. The "real" King Arthur was a Latin or Greek speaking, Christian-worshipping, Celtic-descended, Roman subject defending his lands against Saxon invasion. He fought for perhaps thirty-years to preserve the culturally advanced remnants of Romanized Britain in the areas of modern day Wales, and then lost his fight and disappeared in time, leaving only myths and a few markers to show he ever existed. When the Normans came to England, they encouraged the Arthurian myth as a form of anti-Saxonism. The legends soon became travel stories, and Chretien de Troyes colonized the narrative to define good behavior on a class of nobility that had very few checks on their actions during the rise of feudalism.
When Sir Thomas Mallory, siting in prison and complicit for fighting on the wrong side of the War of the Roses, wrote his treatise, knighthood was a dying order. Critically reading Mallory does say to me the author was a cavalier putting his own stories into a narrative supporting his own order, but instead seems to be written by someone who was lamenting the death of the feudal era. He was the failed supporter of a lost King whose own immunity to arrest had been rescinded by historical changes in how the Kingdom was ruled, and who could now only look back with envy at the culture he saw only the tail end of.
Mark Twain also colonized the Arthurian legend as a way of comparing and contrasting modernism and rational thought with the older thought of the Middle Ages, while Marion Zimmer Bradley used a template of feminism to retell the basic story, this time from the point of view of the women, whose previous role in the story was to be conquered or to be betrayed. The Arthurian legend was a convenient vehicle for each author to premise their stories around. The advantage each gained was that the Arthurian world was already known to the reader base, saving time, and narrative effort. The building of a world where suspension of disbelief could occur was half accomplished on page one.
In my case, I decided that my own midwestern background would fit using the Oz tales as the world setting. Like an ancient summer home, I would completely renovate the world for my own use. The reason for this was simple. In the original Oz story, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the author L. Frank Baum declares that his intent of portraying the magical world Dorothy experiences was to create a space that was friendly to middle-class children who may journey there in their own minds. My Oz would be darker, more complicated, and more reflect the real world. Where Dorothy had pathetic flying monkeys, I would build Carcosa and give tickets for Cthulhu to join the feast. Since I had already decided the first book would be a journey, Oz fit even better. Camelot is built and then is destroyed. Oz exists forever.
In the original Oz journey, a Tin Man lacks a heart, a Lion lacks courage, Scarecrow lacks a brain, and Dorothy does not realize how good she had it at home. In my journey, Rains-a-Lot's failure of courage was in deciding what cultural path to follow, Ivy does not lack a brain, but has severe PTSD and ennui over what he has done in his checkered past. The Tin Man is actually the 1957 Chevy they drive to Oz/Virdea inhabited by the spirit of an undead Petro priestess that abused the rights to carry a Loa to save her lover and husband Jose Gaspar from death, causing her to be turned into an inanimate object, which is then recycled, the metal and her soul entering the car. Dorothy is no longer a woman who does not see how good she has it in an abusive environment but is an accomplished woman who could never be seen as anything but a helpless and worthless girl in the eyes of a powerful and uncaring parent. Instead of being thrown to Oz, she uses her degrees to make her own way to that land.
For writing style and world building, I decided to adopt my own invisible mentor, Ursula Kroeber, better known by her later name Ursula K. LeGuin, to serve as my writing captain.
Ms. LeGuin was an amazing child born to amazing parents. Her father Alfred L. Kroeber worked under Franz Boas, one of the leading minds in early anthropology, and himself became a noted anthropologist and humanist. Her mother was the equally accomplished Theodora Kroeber. In my work studying LeGuin this last year I purposefully started by reading her parent's classics. Theodora Kroeber provided me with Ishi in Two Worlds and The Inland Whale, while Alfred Kroeber lent me The Religion of the Indians of California for consideration. In her mother, I saw a precise, empathic, understanding woman who never hesitates to let us see the physical culture, the emotional state, or the social arrangements they adopt. Her work constantly channels Franz Boaz, who I finally had to add to my reading list, along with some aspects of Margaret Mead. Le Guin's father's work is maybe a little less accurate and thoughtful than his wife's and also more terse. He collects a narrower data set but goes as deeply as he possibly can into each element.
It is no wonder that at a young age Ursula K. Le Guin began to break boundaries. Wanting to write historical fiction, but lacking a country that seemed right to place it, she made up her own nation and set it so accurately in place and time that modern readers can still have difficulty believing the Orsinian Tales are not about a real country, sadly missing from modern maps. Many people in later years have picked up anthologies like the Compass Rose and read amazing tales of things that almost could be true, showing a skill Ursula K. Le Guin would inherit from her mother and father, the ability to relate to diverse people and tell a convincing story widely.
It was the publishing of a short story called the Word of Unbinding that Le Guin finally found her stature as an author. Followed by five more books and seven short stories, the Earthsea series made it clear to the reading public that this amazing person was a master not only of fictional narratives, but of the male dominated landscape of science fiction and fantasy. Although often considered young adult works, they instead are complex discussions of issues such as race, class, duty, honor, love, and power within a world the breaths true from the first word spoke to the last word fading on the last page of the last book. Leguin, like Tolkien before her, taught authors that a world could stretch on past the edge of a page or a leather binding.
Thus LeGuin provides a guide post for my own work, and that is, each character, land, event, and practice of Oz needs to have what I called a lore chunk stretching behind them. That chunk may not be immediately available to the reader, instead acting like an iceberg. Rather, details may be used from that backstory to continually remind the reader that the world keeps running even as the story is concentrated in a little bar in some corner of that world.
Unlike much science fiction and fantasy, Ursula K. Le Guin's books can stand boldly next to the best contemporary literature of our times, which is why I chose her as my model to emulate. In the 1970s, the Left Hand of Darkness and the Dispossessed ran wildly past the traditional boundaries of literature to be accepted on the reading lists of Ph. D. programs without losing their original core audiences. These books would influence some of the greatest names in literature like Salman Rushdie, and help create a period of truly dynamic and creative writing that could embrace magical realism and fantasy in story telling.
Although a work in progress, my novel The Conspiracy of the Ravens, is also my dissertation, a demonstration of craft that even this document cannot cover entirely. I have not yet mentioned how artists across the country are making art associated with my book, how collaborators are inventing places like Bashful, Kansas and Two Egg Florida, and are completing performance pieces associated with the main storyline. The idea is to have a nonfiction narrative that blurs the lines between reality.