Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Mise En Abyme

I wish I’d known the term before, though at the time I was searching for it, I would probably have used it for evil instead of good.

It’s used, most commonly, to describe what I called “infinite regression” (for lack of the term) back in the mid-90s, when a character in my novel Arcady stands between facing mirrors and sees reflection upon reflection back to a vanishing point, an eternity of selves and surroundings.  To me, at the time, it was an image of what we feel when we find ourselves sliding into the depth of things, when we realize there are infinities beyond and beneath us, and reality is slipping.

The French, literally, is “placed into abyss”.  And when I found the term and recognized it, it reminded me of a line from Nietzsche: “And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you. “  Not to say that the Arcady passage (or any of my later stuff) was dancing on the edge of crazy-assed French existential despair, but just that the chaos and all the layers you see outside have their counterpart inside you, which is why you see them outside to begin with, I’m guessing.

At any rate, the term is used, apparently, to describe other phenomena in the arts.  There’s that 17th century painting by Velazquez, Las Meninas, a portrait of the Spanish royal children, in which you can see the artist at work, reflected in a mirror.  And it doesn’t always involve mirrors: literary people maintain that Shakespeare’s plays within plays—like in Midsummer Night’s Dream, or more famously, in Hamlet—are examples of mise en abyme (more of that in a minute).  Take a look at the coat of arms at the head of this entry for another  example. 

I realized that mise en abyme had been stalking me for years.  Trajan’s Arch, for those of you who have read it (all two dozen of you?  I hate to think…) contains stories within the framing story of the novel itself, and those short stories—written ostensibly by Trajan Bell, except for the last one, which may have been completed by Gabriel or Dominic Rackett—comment on the larger story that frames them, which also comments on the stories themselves.  It sounds more dizzying than it is, but the idea is to go for a kind of spiritual vertigo, to clue the reader in on the layers and complications of what we all regard as “real.”
So Vine contains a play within a play.  And people are getting how the characters are acting a larger version of Euripides’ Bacchae as they rehearse the smaller, traditional version on the stage.  I hope it makes the book fun to read, because it made it fun to write.  One of the big things that fantasy does, in my estimation, is destabilize what we consider to be real in order to brush against the mystery of what is real.  Apologies to my more philosophical friends: it’s about as abstract as I get right there, for when one of my stories brushes against mysteries, there’s no guarantee I understand them more than the reader will.  I just dwell with them, and hope to afford the reader a chance to dwell.

Which is why not knowing what the hell mise en abyme was until the last month or so might have been an advantage.  It allowed me to dwell with the phenomenon, to give it flesh, to make stories out of it.  Stories I’ve liked, and I hope you like in turn.

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