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IFComp 2022: Elvish for Goodbye, October 2, 2022
Continuity of place records the fragments we scatter within it. Though we can never create a complete picture of the peopling into memory, still it retains a frame, a reel of rooms we were in years ago, of streets we drive each day, of landmarks we never visit but which loom over us as if we belonged to its enduring, though we know we do not, and we find ourselves some place else, doubly alienated from the gone and the begone: “"I could never have left while there were more stories to hear, to learn, to catalogue and archive. Stories are so fragile, perspectives so ephemeral! They disappear and leave the world poorer for their absence. It doesn't matter that the void left behind will be filled by some new telling (which I will always also crave, and devour); must those stories be lost? Must there always be forgetting to usher in imagination?"”
The struggle to catalogue a lost place, and everything that was once possible in that place, animates our struggle against the obscurity of memory: “Even now I sometimes struggle to recall the actual events of that meeting and not the hundred ways in which I have told and retold the story in the five years since: to my friends and, later, my editors; to the research librarians and cryptobiologists I consulted in the dodgy underbellies of the academic-industrial complex; to the glittering glitterati of the donor class, those brahmins of the City whose funding feeds the fringe-work (performance, poetry, painting--even it turns out, mythohistoric research), fattening it up until it can pass as avant garde, or perhaps--if you're lucky--even "cutting edge."” Contextual fantasization of the known lost allegorizes the elves into a wistful wishfulness for what the past could have been like. Elves, as we learn about the wild idylls in which they lived, are ghostly redolent with elegance, an edenic majesty of sylvan urbanity. For example, the signage that litters our cities with lights is amplified in the elven fantasy as an ornate grandeur of authentic engagement through a rich tradition of textile artistry: “Three times as tall as they are wide, (which apparently made for a pleasant reading experience, according to the stranger) each panel had embroidered upon it a fable, folktale, history, or family story of the elven people. These were stitched, by hand, upon their homes and businesses, their temples and brothels; decorated the façades of every theater and every warehouse. They were the responsibility of the owner or caretaker of the building, and their upkeep was considered a civic duty. / "The embroidery wasn't pure Elvish script, you understand. Instead it partially converted the logograms you would find in the history books back into their originating imagery, which made for a more illustrative retelling than the written words. The creative process of doing so also allowed for a lot of artistic imagination: commentary upon and reinterpretation of those histories by the textile artists of later generations was not just permitted--it was expected, demanded, and depended upon."” The rigorous specificity of recall, giving us the dimensions of the panels, grants us the archival certainty upon which we can found a conjectural fancy, imagining the colorful whirlwind of centuries of compounded artistic tradition. The elves, in their heightened aesthetic, decorate the city with the ways that historical reinterpretation of one’s place within a city could stitch together the people who dwell according to those lines, who come to embody where they echo, a public celebration of creativity and identity of which we, bombarded by advertisements, might prove envious. Glancing around our own pale imitations, we can appreciate any illustration that paints their gaps.
Absence sustains fantasy through alterity, finally drifting free from the decay that defines our own relationships with place. The story of the elves appears from a stranger who emerges just at the point that the city of the present breaks down, fails to blind us with the lights that could outshine other ways of living: “Yes, that was it: a stranger met on the Night of Candles, when the runes and wards holding back the weight of the earth had collapsed, crushing the delicate pipes that snaked down from the northern reservoirs and cutting off the supply of gas for the City's lights. In response, the Guild of Engineers decided to use the recently-completed electroalchemical power plant, first of its kind, to relight the lamps winking out across the city. Overtaxed by the sudden increase in demand, the electroalchemical plant caught on fire, plunging the city into darkness for a second time.” Informational density sputters entropic through prose hinting at scenery only to burn it down, a series of details that matter and then don’t matter and then are replaced by other ephemera which matter, don’t. This cascade of replaceable things is ruptured by a dream of irreplaceable things, “a living gloss on the staid, hide-bound histories--more colorful and contradictory, fluid but also fragile,” a vitality that imprints upon the material, but which cannot be preserved, remaining only through traditions that persist from interpretation to interpretation, accreting substance and sensibility, a legacy whose self-referential loop reinforces their daised deserving: ““The elves held memory and history in the highest regard. Elven historians and scholars of archeology and anthropology were unparalleled; the archives they left behind are to this day considered paragons which every human library and museum aspires to match.” Curators of longing, their each attribute lovingly pinned by lepidopterist trivia endless teasing you through library stacks until you’ve finally forgotten where you came from.
The elegiac obsessiveness pierces the initial mystery of memory at which the story gestures, opting instead for a detailed civic engineering tour: "The elven architects were a bit different in training than our own stonemasons and master builders. Their tools certainly included the triangle and compass, but also the loom and the needle. They were mistresses and masters of knots and stitches, drapes and pleats. / “Each wall was made from many individual panels of fabric. These panels were of a fixed proportion, three times as high as they were wide. Toggles held the panels together, but could be undone to create doorways where needed or desired. Once a year, to mark the height of spring, every closure of every panel wall in Wild Idyll was undone, and the wind blew through the city unobstructed, blowing out bad air and spirits, blowing in the petals of flowers and pollen of new growth.” Before long, you realize you are being given a lecture, and it’s here that that obsession with lost elegance becomes reductively comparative to the present, a classicist sneer in Carrara marble against all the barbarians milling below, the refined traditions and courtly excess of the elves an ornate display with clear import: “you're not wrong about the preoccupation of Elvish with indicating status. Overall, that is exactly how the language behaves, and many newcomers to Wild Idyll found themselves in situations both ridiculous and tragic--until they gained a better grasp of the Elvish tongue.” The yearning for a past more perfect mimics the unidirectional polarity of majesty beyond your ken, with each superlative laurel of elvish culture forming a complexity that elevates the individual only through assimilation, with judgment scouring away any skeptical pull away towards the present: “"But you're right to notice that the simplicity of variants for 'hello' are a notable exception to the Elvish language generally. The vocabulary for 'goodbye' is unusual as well, but in the opposite way." / "In the opposite way, how?" I inquired. / "Well, where there were just three ways of saying 'Hello,' Elvish had 497 different words for 'goodbye'!" / "497? Really?" I said, skeptically. / "Give or take a dozen, I suppose, depending on how persnickety you're being." Their stare was expressionless and unimpressed by my skepticism. "Regardless, you must admit it's a lot to learn, and certain to be confusing." / The stranger steepled their fingers in front of lips pursed in thought. "Let me explain a bit further."” Unimpressed by your unwillingness to learn, the explanations resume, avalanching more details that absolutely will be on the final exam. When, reformed into being a better student, you start intuiting the next lesson with your questions, you receive converse praise: “"You are very perceptive indeed," they said, "and what you say is largely true."”
The vertex of a past whose loss is rhapsodized in fantasy and a didactic unipolarity of complex adoration appears, unsurprisingly, in a kind of colonial selfinvolvement: “"The last farewell of the elves was bigger than any one person's ending; it was reserved for marking the death of whole worlds."” A farewell to everything coincides with the disappearance of the elves, a farewell that we learn “is nothing less than the very name of this great City in which I live, this city of humankind, christened by the elves with their final farewell.” The death of the whole world, sighs the elves, as they leave a world which goes on without them. The perfected disappeared overloads the imperfect present into a selfevidencing symptom of degradation in which the humans, in their lessened aesthetic, become coextensive with the disdain that our companion holds for the loss of past grandeurs: “Their voice, when at last they spoke, was hushed at first, yet leaked bitterness. "Goodbyes are so...violent. So final. I hate goodbyes. I hate all 497 ways of fucking saying fucking goodbye. But especially the last one. I truly despise that word, because all it is, all it embodies is...cowardly despair. And when the time came, when my parents and sisters and brother and all the aunts and uncles; my friends, my colleagues, my lovers and ex-lovers; my queen, my lords and ladies of estate, the temple priests who taught me to read the history of the city in its fabric walls, the teachers from whom I learned everything--when every single one of them uttered that hateful word and left the world behind, left Wild Idyll behind, abandoned their--our--city!...”” Thus our stranger endures a stranger in a city no longer ours, the power of their history no longer power nor history.
The loss of the ours isolates the individual into a togetherness they have to share as a loneliness, a series of stories that have lost their binding, as when our companion recalls the noodle shop where he listened to the stories of his patrons is “Gone in the way that even the places you deem most essential--its greatest institutions--can disappear in a city. And that was how I learned a very important truth, that everyone learns, but each in a different way: nothing is permanent. That in a city, even more than the countryside villages and farms where I had lived before, change was the only constant; and the only way a city could stay alive was for it to constantly reinvent itself.”” The world’s going on becomes a death not just of you, but of us, of every specificity by which you were conceived, by which you could conceive others. “When a world dies it is so a new one can emerge, screaming, from its bones and blood.” And they look back on you, but you were never here.