Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mapping the Family Romance

I continue to think more about the mapping of imaginary worlds, the topic of our new student- curated exhibition at the MCE, “Through the Rabbit Hole: A Journey into Imaginary Worlds.”   Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Family Romance seems helpful in making sense of many such maps, which are, by and large,  the staging grounds of journeys of self discovery in which the young hero or heroine usually detaches him or herself from known parents and encounters a series of alternate parental figures, who are variously valued in positive or negative fashion. For Freud, the Family Romance is a fantasy, initially conscious, in which the child, dismayed that his  actual parents cannot measure up to early childhood visions of them as omniscient and omnipotent, become convinced that his really parents are somewhere else, often of noble lineage. This fantasy, later repressed, informs the great attachment later in life that readers develop with figures in literature, who function as refracted images of other, more powerful or true or beautiful parents.
Max's Room. Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are

These basic dynamics are nicely illustrated in “Where the Wild Things Are,”  by Maurice Sendak, who passed away yesterday.  The book doesn’t contain any overt maps per se, although its famous illustrations clearly map out a psychic topography.  Max, after a confrontation with his mother, is sent to his room without any supper.  “That very night in Max's room a forest grew and grew--and grew until his ceiling hung vines and the walls became the world all around/ and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off night and day /and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” 

 Max’s room, infused with all his frustrations with his actual parent, transforms  into an imaginary world, in which he is “King” and has complete power over the Wild Things, dangerous adult-like beasts. (In a radio interview with Terri Grosz, Sendak notes that the images of the monstrous Wild Things were inspired by his adult relatives, whom he found scary and repellant and who would in fact say things such as “I love you so much, I could eat you up,” just as the Wild Things do.) Playing out and working through this fantasy of aggressive detachment from parental figures allows in time the developing child to reattach himself to actual parents: thus Max at the end of the story journeys back to his room, and discovers that his supper, a signifier of maternal love, is still warm and still waiting for him.

It occurs to me that one of the most beloved book series of my own childhood, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, is also organized around a family romance quest.  The series’ hero, Taran, is a foundling, obsessed with determining his birth, which he at times desperately hopes will be noble.  The psychic topography of this quest is beautifully illustrated through artist Evaline Wells’ maps for the series.
Evaline Walls. Map for Lloyd Alexnder's Prydain series

Each of Taran’s journey begins and ends from his adoptive home, Caer Dalben, which, significantly, is set apart from the rest of the land of Prydain, across the Great Avren river in the lower right corner of the map.  In each book he ventures across the great river, into the dreamworld of Prydain, where he encounters a series of alternate parental figures.

Consistent with Melanie Klein’s concept of “splitting,” in which loved and feared aspects of the parent are distributed amidst various fantasy figures, these substitute parents include positively-valued father figures--such as Prince Gwydion, King Smoit, High King Math,  the harpist/minor king Fflewddur Fflam (a stand-in for the author himself), the farmer-inventor Llonio, the smith Hevyyd, the prophetic Medwyn, the bard Taliesin, and the sacrificed potter Annlaw clay shaper; several negatively-valued father figures, including the Horned King, King Pryderi, the homicidal bandit Dorath,  Arawn Death Lord, and the shepherd Craddoc (whom Taran mistakenly believes for a time to be his actual father); at least one positive maternal figure, the weaver-woman Dwyvach; and several negatively-coded maternal figures, among them Queen Achren, and the ambiguous, feared phallic mother figures, the three shape-shifting witches of Morva.  Each of these characters is encoded in a specific topographical location on the map; in the course of his quests, Taran must gradually detach himself from each of these positive and negative figures in order to attain adult psychosocial integration.  The final scene of the series, back in Caer Dalben, is cast as a kind of awakening out of a dream state, as all magic fades out of Prydain and Taran weds his beloved, the now-disenchanted Princess Eilonwy,

Freud’s own famous ‘imaginary map’, his map of the Mind, might be read as a kind of guide to many maps of imaginary worlds, including Prydain’s cartography. The Ego is formed for Freud through continuous traversals of the shadowy border lands between the unconscious and the pre-conscious.
Sigmund Freud. Map of the Mind.

And this indeed is what Taran continuously does, crossing back and forth between Caer Dalben, where he is watched over by the omnipotent enchanter Dallben, embodiment of the Super-Ego, and the fantasy universe of the rest of Prydain, across the Great Avren river. At critical moments in the series, he ventures deep into the far southwestern marshes of Morva, in effect deep into his own unconscious, and there makes critical, disturbing discoveries which catalyze his development.  At the entire other end of the map, at the far northeastern “Mirror of Llunet,” he attains a critical epiphany of self recognition, in which he is liberated from his family romance obsession, and abandons the fantasy of noble parentage. (Appropriately, an instant after this epiphany the mirror is shattered by the most terrifying of substitute fathers, the bandit Dorath.)

In contrast to the existentialist Lloyd Alexander, who emphatically rejects the fantasy of noble blood in favor of self-fashioned “noble worth,”  C.S. Lewis in the five volume Chronicles of Narnia embraces the aristocratic obsession with blood lineage. This is perhaps most striking in The Horse and His Boy, another narrative organized according to the classic principles of the Family Romance.  In the book, the Family Romance fantasy turns out to be literally true: the boy Shasta suspects his supposed father, an impoverished dark-skinned man, is not his real father, and after escaping north he learns that he really is prince and heir to the kingdom of Archenland.  In keeping with British imperial and racialist ideology, the hero’s quest is figured as a transition from the land of Calorman, a parody of an Islamic kingdom inhabited by treacherous dark-skinned warriors and merchants, to a “free” northern land, inhabited by white-skinned honest folk and talking beasts.
Map of Calorman. From C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy.

At the same time, the story is also one of decolonization, in a sense: each of the central characters has to learn to free him or herself from mental enslavement in order to become a respected citizen of the free northern world.  This transformation centers on the replacement of external coercion with an internalized sense of duty and honor. All of these transitions are occasioned of course throughthe  interventions of the Christian Father figure of Aslan, who moves the four heroes (two human, two horses) northwards across the map over the course of the tale. In keeping with Arnold Van Gennep’s classic tripartite scheme of coming of age, this journey towards maturity is mapped out in three spatialized segments: they must detach from Calorman in the south, then are subject to a series of transformations and trials within the liminal space of the desert, and finally undergo reintegration into a higher state of being in the northern “free” kingdom of Archenland.

I am less certain if and how the Family Romance fantasy informs my very favorite set of imaginary maps, those created by Ursula LeGuin for her Earthsea universe. The hero Ged quickly detaches himself from his peasant father and then alternately detaches and reattaches himself to his master Ogion. The three books of the initial Earthsea trilogy  traverse the intricate map of the archipelago in the interest of charting the developing male psyche and the non-erotic love between men:  Ged and Ogion, Ged and Vetch, and finally Ged and Arren (the future King Lebannen), with an enigmatic interlude of platonic love between Ged and the girl priestess Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan.  There may be a way to read the entire map of the Earthsea archipelago as a kind of distributed consciousness; Ged must visit every corner of these island universe,  from the violent “white” Kargish islands to the distant maritime reaches of the raft people, partaking of each spaces’ varied qualities so that he and his adept Arren may attain final psychological maturity and mastery.
Ursula LeGuin, Map of Earthsea.

In her later, very fascinating works  (Tehanu; The Other Wind)  LeGuin revisits the map and “archives” of Earthsea to uncover an alternate feminist topography to this universe, in which women’s mystical powers underlie the surface appearances of male-dominated magic. Even the “Dry Land" of Death (a space that, significantly remains unmapped by visual cartography in the books) is revealed as a kind of violent male imposition motivated by a quest for unnatural immortality, violating feminine (or perhaps transgendered) protean cycles of loss and regeneration. The Dry Land must itself be undone to liberate dead souls and allow them to move towards transmigratory cycles of release and rebirth, finally uniting the scattered islands of Earthsea, including the seemingly anamolous Kargish “white” lands.  In this rendering, the vast map of Earthsea becomes consistent perhaps with the classic Buddhistic cartography of the universe, the Mandala, which classically functions as an elaborate map of the evolving psyche, in its dynamic struggle through a series of attachments towards ultimate release.

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