Afiach on The Mountain
What It Means to Mellow Out
Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017
On Thursday I powered up a veritable time capsule: my old Seagate external hard drive, the one I had used to make a backup of my old computer, the one that carried me through from 2000 to 2009. This drive lived in storage for six-and-a-half years, and sat unused in my apartment for two years before that, and many of the files themselves were already a number of years old at the time they were backed up. In short, we're talking vintage stuff. I greatly looked forward to getting back to it during my years away in Texas.
I spent much of the day exploring my digital music library, as well as my personal library of compositions.
(Aside: This file transfer means that Joshiba now contains every piece of music I have transcribed in my whole life, except for a very painful omission between 2009 and 2010, whose files exist solely on the Archimedes hard drive, which remains in my possession but whose data I do not yet know if I can retrieve. The omission is so painful because that was my most important developmental period as a composer. Only about a third of my most important pre-2011 compositions had been created in time to be stored on the Seagate drive. If you would like to hear some of these pieces, I posted some at my journal.)
Along with hearing my old music, rereading some of my old writing was a hoot, too. For instance, one of my old short stories, from 2003, is titled "The Zealous Lords Versus the Impudent Motes of Nothingness: Carry On with the Zeal."
Seeing ridiculous stuff like that was a pleasant experience for me, because it was like looking out on something sweet and pure. I used to be a spicier figure than I am today. I was cocksure and headstrong as fuck. Consider this short excerpt from the short story:
This was winter, wasn't it? I'd lost track again. Only August felt like anything else. What month was it, anyway? I consulted the watch on my wrist, because I've got an obsessive need to know things like that—I like to be able to keep track of time. It helps in my occupation, and it gives my mind one more aspect of the Cosmos that it can impress order upon.
I don't think the writing conveys it terribly well, but I was attempting to make this fellow so imperious and accomplished that even by looking at his watch he was achieving this great feat. Mind you, I was writing for a character and not literally for myself, but the author surrogacy was definitely strong in that one.
So, what happened? I liked that Josh! And he wasn't as much of a dick as you might think. He just didn't bother with any pretenses anywhere. Where did that Josh go? Well, that conveniently happens to feed right in to this week's theme!
Before The Mountain
When I created After The Hero it was not entirely a fantasy on my part to envision Galavar taking over the world to change it for the better. I wanted to do the same myself, and in those days I still expected that in some way I would. Galavar was only a test run. I'd been raised on a diet of books and television shows that had taught me I could be anything. Moreover—and there's no way to say this modestly, so take it as you will—I am one of the most perceptive and intelligent people I know. Surely someone with that many advantages is going to take seven, ten years at most to be in charge of the Earth. Right?
Wanting to change the world is the birthright of every imaginative teenager. It's a duel that we go into without realizing that we're going to lose, and lose spectacularly—not because the world can't be changed but because, ultimately, the logical conclusion of such an ambition is the realization of one's own limits in their real-world environment, and therein the fulfillment of one's own identity. It is the proverbial last lesson that a child must learn before becoming an adult: "Here is where I end, and the world begins."
We can't "change the world" when what we really mean is "take the world inside our own boundaries." We can't be gods. Not in that sense, at least. For the mind of a child to be as impressionable and curious as it so often is, there must be a godlike self-centeredness, a self-trust that acknowledges any reality as possible, such that the true reality can then be learned. And once we do learn it—some of us better than others—the jig is up. We become adults. Our bodies grow but our horizons shrink considerably.
This is something many if not most people experience for themselves, and which artists and philosophers recognize well and have spoken to on countless occasions. It is a concept that has been given countless phrasings in our culture: "St. Elmo's Fire" and "One Moment in Time" are a couple of pop songs that come to mind immediately. Often the metaphors involve love and loss in some way. My favorite phrasing is from the rendition of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" at the end of Moulin Rouge: "We all lose our chance in the end."
Silence vs. Galavar
You can see the beginnings of this process of realization occurring in me in ATH the RPG itself. A story that begins with Galavar fiercely and peerlessly and dauntlessly marching across the face of Relance in a bid of divine conquest ends in a great deal of political morass and a peculiarly intense fixation on the newcomer, Silence, who spends much of her time brooding and evaluating her own sanity, as opposed to Galavar's "Damn the torpedoes!" adventurism.
Galavar didn't have anything to prove, because he was conceived as an unvarnished expression of my will. Silence was a lot messier, because she was encumbered with the baggage of being divided from the world she sought to master. Galavar is the Galan Conquest; he is the corporeal manifestation of that noblest of intentions. He is a force of nature. Silence...is just a person.
The Epic Tale of Falling in Line
Still, even as late as 2003, long after the RPG was finished, I was writing story titles like "The Zealous Lords Versus the Impudent Motes of Nothingness" without irony or snark. The dream never died in me...only the expectation of fulfilling it myself. I was always too optimistic, too smart, and too confident not to go on being an unabashedly imperialistic, headstrong, cocksure, highfalutin', rootin'-tootin' son of a gun.
Yet an impossible dream is harder to protect than an achievable one. As the years went on, my expression of my pure convictions became gradually more convoluted and less direct, and my ability to dwell in unrestrained candor with wholehearted, strident zeal also diminished. This was an inevitable consequence of my habituation with the real world after losing the duel.
Also, for me it was more than just confronting my own limits. There were biological factors at work: I've told the story before of how I was born without a social dimension; I was a very weird kid. Around the time of the RPG I didn't care about filtering what I said, because everything I said was with conviction, and it would have been a lie of omission not to say it. To me, filtering my words for somebody else's benefit was always an act of great disrespect; I only did it when I had to.
My intention in being so sincere and forthright was that, by being wholly myself without pretense or prevarication, I would make friends who knew me for what I was. And that worked, sort of. It went a long way in setting the tone for my friendships with the cast members of the RPG, and also for forging some of my best college friendships, like Nat and Stephen, both of whom were attracted to my intelligence and good character.
Yet as time wore on I learned I was wasting many opportunities by being so brash. People were put off by it, needlessly. Turns out that most people don't like uncensored honesty.
Also, probably due to the hormonal changes of getting older and the psychological changes of learning and effecting social integration as I hadn't been able to do as a kid, I became more perceptive of other people's perceptions of me, and it accordingly became more important for me to play by the rules and be socially acceptable, at least to some degree.
What it all came down to is that I gradually began to fall in line.
Why Silence Broods
Being socially accepted. Being proper. That's why I don't often call people "impudent motes of nothingness," anymore. My feelings haven't changed. Way the fuck too many people continue to be and ever are impudent motes of nothingness, in betrayal of their potential and their obligations as members of the human tribe, and they deserve a hardy stint in the wailing-pits of Darduth!*
The Silence Terlais of late in ATH the RPG presciently (though unconsciously on my part) anticipated the Josh Fredman of adulthood. In the RPG, and indeed in the present-day novelization, she spends a lot of time brooding. You would be forgiven for concluding that she's a much more melancholy character than she actually is. In fact, Silence isn't particularly neurotic and doesn't suffer from chronic depression, anxiety, or general malaise. Rather, like a wild bird of prey caged in civil society, she is continually constrained from showing her true colors. This manifests itself in the form of excessive self-restraint. In her spark, Silence would often like to lash out and, like a beam of light, immolate everything that stands in her way.
Same here. I wish I could go out there and suplex the Republican Party. I wish I could punch Nazis till there wasn't any space left on my chest to pin more medals. I wish I could strap a mecha suit to myself and walk over to Islamic State and blow them all away. I wish I could strangle the thoughtless industrialists who honestly don't care how many species their pollution drives extinct. I wish I could ball my hands into fiery fists and change the whole human nature so that sex crimes never happen again, and sexism perishes.
On a different note, I also wish sometimes that I go back to the state of mind where it didn't matter to me what the costs would be of speaking my convictions aloud. I miss that. I do try to be forthright, but it's not the same anymore.
(* "The Wailing-Pits of Darduth": I made that up. ^_^ I think people should exercise this delightful power more often!)
The Draft 10 Era & The End of Seattle
My ten years in Seattle didn't go how I planned. At the same time as I was learning that I'm not actually possessed of godlike competence (and never was), the School of Hard Knocks was also giving me a crash course in the miseries and discouragements of poverty. I never did find a way to earn a stable living—indeed, I'm still working on that one to this day. Together with my growing preoccupation with how I am perceived by others, and the hormonal changes of getting older, and the corresponding broadening of my philosophy to better concern itself with the conduct and ideals of mere mortals, I simply...mellowed out.
Ironically, that more appetent, outspoken Josh of yore possessed less authorial skill than his successor. For all my attempted drafts of ATH the Novel, it took the full ten years in Seattle before I finally sat down and wrote a scene that filled me with the conviction of competence.
I've mentioned that life-changing day many times, but I don't know if I've ever explained what happened to me to make it possible. It's not wrong to say that I simply reached a rather anticlimactic threshold of ability after years of gradual improvement. And it's true that there was no single flash of inspiration or stroke of genius, no defining life event, that directly precipitated my accomplishment.
But it wasn't just my incremental growth as a writer that marked my success. It was my growth as a philosopher. My whole life I have loved the world in a way that few other people give any indication of experiencing for themselves, and my writing did not reflect this love to the extent it needed, leaving me with the impression that my manuscript texts were misdirected and even lacking in soul. The dawn of the Draft 10 Era occurred in the context of a quiet, inwardly-drawn period in my life: I lived alone and I didn't go out much. I was too poor to spend money on anything. Instead, I got to see the sun set (or the clouds in its place) virtually every day. I developed a tolerance and then pent-up love for spiders with my Spider Appreciation Program. And most of my creative energy was spent chairing a philosophical discussion group on the Internet titled, of course, The Imperial Table.
I was mellowing out in a hurry in those days. I was seeing the little things in a way I never had before, what with my big-picture brain. And my desperate financial state was continually degrading to me, which deflated my balloon just enough to create space for a sense of modesty and vulnerability, which I had never really possessed before.
In short my life had become a lot more quiet and intimate, and when the time came for me to leave Seattle in financial disgrace, I didn't realize it yet but I was ready for a fundamental evolution of character.
And that's exactly what was about to happen.
After several months of cultural backpacking across the South, I arrived in far west Texas, on the Mountain, with nowhere else to go afterward. I was hopeful that my friend and host would let me stay for a while, and to my pleasure she enjoyed my company so much that she readily invited me to stay for as long as I wanted.
In those days I lived on the Edge of the Earth. The "real world" was far away. The nearest town was sixteen miles distant and had a population of five hundred; the nearest city was forty miles and only had five thousand. At home, on the Mountain, I experienced a solitude and sense of otherworldly existence that I readily came to love.
At the time, my years in Texas were a sojourn to me: As I saw it, the rest of my life was on pause—my old belongings were literally in storage waiting for me back in Seattle—and in the meantime I was able to enjoy the most peaceful repose in a sort of paradise. It rubbed me so right that I was in a mountain forest, on the campus of a world-class observatory. Even though I hadn't done anything to earn placement at the Observatory itself, I still felt at home amid such splendors of human imagination and focused discipline. On the Mountain, people were dedicated to a noble purpose. They lived in relative harmony, amid a paradise. There was free coffee! And free Star Parties. I had found love, and the sanctuary I needed to recompose myself after years of going astray.
It was like being immersed in an echo of the dream of the world that I had hoped to create, in younger days. I loved it there, on the Mountain—and I don't know if anyone ever really understood that about me, about how much it meant to me, to see a shadow of Illar in person. Only the University of Washington, in those bygone days, ever had a stronger air of paradise about it.
These years were fundamentally transformative. That's what I didn't realize at the time. But, in retrospect, I have been able to see that, on the Mountain, I had said my goodbyes to Galavar for good: that his path and mine would never meet again...that conquering the world is a game for the gods.
My ambition, in turn, had become something else: to let the world flow over me, filling me with great joy and great sadness all at once. For the world is beautiful, and yet it is fleeting. The very mountains themselves—the stars in the celestial sphere!—are as mortal as I am. Great beauty, fleeting beauty. Something worthy of being treasured for ever, yet, ultimately, to be parted from. There is no "forever." We all lose our chance in the end.
On the Mountain I learned that the smallest grain of dirt is as gorgeous as the star ocean in the nighttime sky. That's something of a cliché in popular culture, but understanding it, rather than regurgitating the platitude, is entirely different. I had been building toward this my whole adult life. I had never been one who always needed things to be novel or bigger in order to enjoy them. Now, that aspect of my identity found its full shape: The world needn't lift a finger to impress me. I don't need novelty or splash. It's already a wonderful world.
With my spark brightened and a steady roof overhead, I returned my focus to my creative output. Before long, I reached out to my keyboard and created Afiach Bard.
Afiach Bard, the Place-Singer
She was a creation of the Mountain, of that otherworldly realm and of the Josh who lived there. She is to Silence Terlais what Silence is to Galavar: a personification of my own evolution. Afiach has no grand scheme to rule the world. Nor does she possess the pretensions or feelings of constraint that drive Silence to brood.
Afiach is limited to only one ambition: She loves the world, and so she travels throughout it, and she sings. She sings about it. She sings to it. She sings for it. She sings with it. For her, these songs are as close as she can get to touching the Golden Sway—to "taking the world inside her own boundaries."
And she's okay with that. Unlike the characters who preceded her, Afiach accepts that her nature is to experience the joy and the sadness all at once. She doesn't rue it. She loves it. She exults in it, like rubbing herself in perfume and mud at the same time. To Afiach, this state of being...this great, all-encompassing perception of the world's limitless beauty, its timeless poise, its inimitable quirkiness, and its inevitable demise...is home.
That's what happened to me on the Mountain. I found something that means more to me than the Galance Ideal of changing the world for the better, even though I freely grant that the Galance Ideal is at least no less worthy and probably superior.
It was I who walked upon the Ring Road in the cloud-winds and glimpsed the hazy faerie-world of the Yondred. It was I who witnessed the great Ribbon of Dajar ascend into the eastern skies of sunset. It was I who saw the beams of Rhya Kimbrii bathe upon the verdant Braids of Colla Carrangian. It was I, on the Mountain, who sang.
Afiach, like Galavar, has no preoccupation of self. She, like him, is a force of nature. She is the star stuff come to life, to praise the radiant beauty of this Cosmos we live in. She fundamentally accepts—to the point where I don't think she even thinks about it—her "adulthood": her limited agency and apartness from the world. Silence can't accept that and never will. For Afiach, it doesn't even matter.
Afiach is happy, playful, childlike, simplistic, and yet possessed of a sadness and empathy so deep that it would chill even the blithest mook. Indeed, this is a part of her mystical power of song, the nature of which is the central object of exploration in Mate of Song.
Mate of Song is the legacy of the Mountain, my five-and-a-half years in Texas. (And I very much look forward to finishing it.) It is a powerful proclamation of personal development. It doesn't read like anything I had written before. It is gentle, filled with beauty and pathos. And it is quiet and intimate. Now where have we heard those words already? Ah yes: right here in this article. It is me.
That's something important to understand about me, and my work. Galavar, Silence, Afiach, Josh...none of them are bitter. None of them struggle with self-acceptance. None of them are their own enemies. Each of them has great obstacles to overcome, and insurmountable truths to comprehend. But they are seaworthy ships, every one of them.
For my part, the Canvas of J encompasses a great deal of pain and pathos, of suffering, experiences of humiliation, socioeconomic miseries, the loneliness from the hardship of making dear friends, to say nothing of true love, the disillusionment from humanity's ignorance and proud hatefulness, the fear that I won't succeed in my career, and most of all the humbling acceptance that I lost the duel, that I could have been a god and instead became a Josh. Yet, for all that, I love being me. Except for my Joshalonian Troubles, my black year between 2015 and 2016, I have never flagged in my love of myself and of this world, even for a moment.
So too does Galavar love Galavar, Silence love Silence, and Afiach love Afiach. If you understand that about these characters, you will be much better off in your quest to understand who they really are.
We end in that most famous of Joshalonian arenas: the words of power. Of the three characters I mentioned, Afiach Bard is the one closest to me in practical worldview, these days.
But I wasn't born an Afiach. I had the dream, and I still do. That's why Silence is still the dearest to me, still the truest of my true alter egos. That's why I write about her so often, and Afiach relatively little. Though I hope you will now understand that Afiach is dear to me in an intensely intimate way, at the end of the day I cannot settle the way she settles, nor is it in my power to be as blithe as her.
Instead, I don't rule out one day throwing off my shackles and making a gambit to be Emperor of the Galaxy. I don't rule out stepping into the Vedere and proclaiming that mooks are mooks. The impossible dream is alive and well.
More importantly, I can never part from my own spark, which commands that I walk the road Silence walks: the road of the Zealous Lords, upon whose shoulder is posted a sign which reads that, for as beautiful as the grain of dirt may be, it deserves to be something greater.
Beauty in all things, including potential.
Carry On with the Zeal!
Join me next week when I talk about democracy, fascism, and Gala's suspiciously undemocratic political structure.
Until then may your dream thrive.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!