Fairies in Shakespeare

One doesn't have to know me terribly well, to know I have a soft spot for fairies. I could write about why another time, but sufficeth to say, I have one. If you've been reading a long time, and REALLY been paying attention, you may also remember that my book arch nemesis, the book that I've never been able to conquer is Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene'. Well, all this converged at the beginning of this month when I was thinking of what I could do in terms of reading this year. For the last few years, I've picked an author and read at least a broad swath of their most famous works, to really get to know them, as I did with James Joyce a few years ago. So this year I decided to try something a little different - instead of reading one author's many books, I'm going to work my way up to reading the Faerie Queene, later this year.

So, this coincided nicely with Ms Allie at A Literary Odyssey, who decided this month to have a Shakespeare Reading Month. Spenser and Shakespeare were near contemporaries, and both of them have some rather famous forays into fairyland. More importantly, the writers of Shakespeare and Spenser's time, in many ways, began to invent the idea of fairies that we have today. The Elizabethan fairy is both familiar and foreign to our modern idea of fairy-folk.

This is not to say, of course, that Shakespeare and his contemporaries just cut the idea of the Fairy from whole cloth. It seems, in fact, to be a feature of the human drive to mythologize something that is classifiable as a fairy, and we see incarnations of the 'Wee Folk' throughout the folk traditions of many world cultures. In Shakespeare's day, in fact, this line was far hazier than it is now, when we think of a fairy as a very specific type of being (with wings and sparkles and flower petal clothing - its alright, we can all confess together, its true, that's what we all think of, right?). In Shakespeare's most famous exploration of the fey world, "Midsummer's Night Dream", this is actually fairly apparent, fairly quickly - while we often forget this, now, the setting for MND is Athens, the lord of the city is the Greek mythological hero Theseus, and his lady is Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The setting and characters, then, hearken back fairly strongly to a classical tradition. Mab and Oberon, even, are character-wise really not a far leap from the Greek Gods, if one thinks about it, and the role of Puck as the messenger of the King is a fairly close parallel to Hermes/Mercury. At the same time, the action takes place in a wood, the sort of wild place that the Greeks would have populated with Nymphs and Dryads.

This sylvan divine aspect of the fairies is repeated again in the other of Shakespeare's plays that grapples, though very differently, with the faeries: The Merry Wives of Windsor. MWW is set in England, so the strong classical allusions of the MND fairies is lacking, here, but there is still a strong thread of connection  to lost and ancient gods, as the wives trick Falstaff into dressing as a stag and going into the forest, to meet them - then proceed to dress some of the people of the town as fairies to come and torment him. The Horned Man, or the Horned God, is an old remnant of the pre-Christian past of Western Europe (one that lives on today in many varieties, for instance, of neo-pagan faiths). The connection with fairies, here points to their position as fallen Gods of a sort. There's further evidence of this in the name of Queen Mab, in the (in)famous 'Queen Mab' speech that Mercutio offers up in Romeo and Juliet. Mab is probably derived from the Celtic Medb, or as its often transliterated, Maeve, the name of one of the great queens of the Tuatha de Danaan, the 'Gods and Fighting Men' of the Irish/Celtic mythological cycle.

The fairies, then, in England were not terrifically different from Gods - albeit fallen ones, now subservient to the power of Christianity. Many of the fairy stories we have, with a bit tweaking, ore almost indistinguishable from the mythological tales of the Gods of the Celts, the Scandinavians, or the Greeks, with many of the same tropes: descent into the underworld, rewards for virtue and punishment for vice, seduction of mortals by the immortals, rites of appeasement and sacrifice, etc.

But the question, of course, comes up - we DON'T think of the fairies now as being like Gods, really, whatsoever, short of a somewhat shaky connection to immortality, and a certain degree of magical power.  Fairies, in most of our modern ideas, do not live lives bigger than human lives, but rather paradoxically, smaller - literally as well as figuratively. The Elizabethan Age is when you begin to see this shift, from fairies as simply strange, unknowable semi-divines, to fairies as amusing, petty imitation of human life. One of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Michael Drayton, wrote  a narrative poem on this subject, entitled 'Nimphidia' (another interesting parallel to Greek myth), the outlines of which could live quite comfortably in the pages of Peter Pan, The Water Babies, or a Tinkerbell cartoon. In Nimphidia, the fairies are so small that ride in spacious coaches made of snail shells, pulled by gnats or flies:

The seat the soft wool of the bee, 
The cover, gallantly to see, 
The wing of a pied butterflee ; 
      I trow 't was simple trimming. 
The wheels composed of crickets' bones, 
And daintily made for the nonce, 
For fear of rattling on the stones 
      With thistle-down they shod it;

This image is not one of the strange old tales of fairies that can strike terror into the country man's heart - this is pure Disney. Much of the writing I've read on this subject seem to treat this decline of fairies from Gods to be worshipped to doll-like children's characters, feel uncomfortable with the shift - its often depicted as a debasement, where Christianity is the bad guy, and the fey are a noble old religion being shoehorned into irrelevance to make way for the One True God, or begin used as a tool to browbeat people into submission to new social mores. 

The interesting thing to me, though, is that, clearly given the longevity of the itsy-bitsy fairy, the feeling of these new Elizabethan fairies is a powerful and resonant one to the popular imagination. MND is (rightly, I think) frequently listed as one of Shakespeare's greatest works,  and carries inside of its playful whimsy a great deal of emotional maturity, something we perhaps don't necessarily associate with the 'kids stuff' of the adorable little fairy. What were these fairies DOING for the Elizabethan, that made them so attractive?

Well, aside from the need for cute (go ahead, TRY to tell me this isn't a big part of the human psyche - you know you have another browser tab open with adorable LOLCats in it), the Elizabethan Fairy was a remarkably flexible tool for storytelling and dialogue. Take, the fairy story inside of Midsummer's Night Dream for a moment, for example, and pretend it isn't about fairies: Its a story of a court in which the King and Queen are as human, jealous, persnickety and difficult as everyone else, where the Queen ends up making out with a Donkey, and where the King ends up looking perhaps a bit incompetent in his hiring processes. The revelation for me in understanding this was to realize that this story was written in the height of the English Renaissance, at the beginning of the century filled with the birth of the modern mind: Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, The Anatomy of Melancholy - these are books of the 17th century. It was an age in which people began to take a cynical eye to their oldest and most sacred institutions. But its also a century in which people were murdered by the state for being Catholic, Protestant, Puritan, Anglican, Huguenot, etc, in turn. Its a century that would produce the secret police of King Louis XIV or Oliver Cromwell. The production of MND occurred in a time when people began to try to say what they thought, and the powers that be were still structured to silence them. Fairies are, comparatively, safe ways to talk and think about the larger world. Its interesting in fact to think that this same Queen Mab of so much of Shakespeare's work is the Queen Mab that Shelley would use a few hundred years later to lay out his philosophical support for everything from pacifism to atheism to radical democracy (I'll be reading Shelley's Queen Mab later this year). I am led to wonder if its any coincidence that the forces of the fey in Shakespeare's plays are generally arrayed to help those who are generally in the position of less power in the larger world: The marriages in MND are subverting the patriarchy and the state, the person the fairies are initially trying to help is a woman, Puck uses Bottom to humiliate someone in the monarchy, the false fairies in MWW are being used by women to punish a member of the nobility who is trying to seduce them. The Queen Mab in the speech of Mercutio tweaks everyone from the Parson to the Soldier.  

But, the really remarkable thing about the fairies to me is that at they humanize those in power, instead of demonizing them. MND, again, as an example, certainly has some subversive things to say about power, but its certainly not a polemic. Its a play by a man who saw the injustices and idiocies of his society, but also a man who its difficult to believe wanted to overthrow the monarchy. Polemics a-plenty were written before and after the fairies made their entrance, and had their strong effects on history - polemic helped produce the bloody civil wars of England, the revolution of France, etc. But Polemics encourage you to hate those in power. The stories of the fairies encourage you, perhaps, to roll your eyes at them, and to simply think. No one ever threatened a fairy revolution. The majority of people don't WANT a revolution most of the time - revolutions are violent, unpredictable, and frequently more destructive than they are productive. They simply want to be able to talk and think about the things they worry about in the world around them. The fairies gave the Elizabethans a way to do this (Nimphidia bears reading in this light, as well). The fairies as arbiters halfway between heaven and hell, allowed people to live in a world that contained greys. 

This is the real message, to me, of the famous 'If we spirits have offended" speech: the play only wants to tell a story, and it wants to have characters that are human. It doesn't mean to teach or push, or change minds and hearts. It only wants to tell stories - that's why it has the power that it does. Offense could be taken - it quite possibly was taken, by everyone from nobility that didn't like being painted as buffoons, to the pious who didn't want to look at a world as suffused with the erotic as MND is - but its not intended. And if its taken? Let it go.  Fairies aren't gods, they do not need acolytes and worship and dogma - they simply, like all the rest of us, have lives to live, stories to tell, and they'd like to go through life feeling, at the end, that someone was glad to have seen them.

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Ponies in Technology

When I was young, and on the outside of my profession, I thought of IT as a sort of embedded, marvelous utopia, a land of high ideals and ferocious belief. It was - it still is - a sort of firelight to the widest-eyed moths of humanity, drawing in a lot of very intelligent, high-minded people. When I thought of it, it was easy to imagine the way a student would feel in a hundred years, reading about these hungry souls ripping a new era from a mass of copper and silicon. Heroic, in a very real way.

I wanted to believe that a group that was trying to construct a dream as broad and new as the internet would be like devoted revolutionaries - subsumed in the revolution. I work in IT, now, it changes things, to be inside of a thing.

Where I work now, there is this old tradition, nominally intended to increase security, but really as essentially meaningless as all traditions are. If you leave your desk and forgot to lock the screen, others will come and play a trick on you. I had it done to me, once, and returned to find that an enormous, scantily clad photo of David Hasselhoff had been set as my wallpaper. Its more popular, now, to open the person's email, and send a message to the company wide mailing list in the victim's name, saying how much they love ponies. 

The pony email is immediately followed by the sort of kindly ribbing that really is meant as a sort of kindness. And perhaps that is all it is. But humor is a strange thing. And it left me wondering, why it was so funny to us as a culture, why another technical worker saying 'I love ponies! Oh how I wish I had a big pretty pink one!' is such an easy, default laugh. 

Well, the answer is fairly straightforward - because its non-role-appropriate behavior. As a technologist, in my company, there is an OVERWHELMING likelihood that you are male, and the role of maleness in the technologist's life is, in my experience, very important. Technology is a strange field in this way.

Historically, programming began as a largely female endeavor - the operators that wrote punchcards for the early computers were overwhelmingly female. It was viewed as, essentially, skilled clerical work. Only when software development became something we as a culture admired, found magical and creative, did it become a male profession. With this transition, and with the sudden meteoric growth of respect for technical careers, a culture grew up.

While the boundaries are loosening now, even today certain cultural elements are very much binding forces within the programming community - building cachet and understanding with other programmers is half technical acumen, but, in my experience, also has to do with trading the cachet of shared knowledge and experience. And this knowledge is largely not technical. The ability to tell and comprehend jokes on Star Wars, Douglas Adams, or Doctor Who, for example, are a quick way to find rapport in a technical community. These elements are, of themselves, seemingly harmless.

Culture, however, when it is at its strongest, must have not only methods to include new members, but also methods to draw its borders of exclusion - subconsciously or consciously. One shining example of this is a list of the 222 most famous names in software development (you can find information on it here). The list is, of course, like all subjective lists, eminently debatable, but its also, to be frank, fairly well done. It has most of the 'greats' I would have included. And this list contains 6.5 women (Roberta Williams, because the work she is famous for is a collaboration with her husband, gets a half entry, an interesting and somewhat discomfiting statistic that I won't pursue here). These proportions, today, aren't much different from the larger tech industry's gender proportions. And the more 'technical' the job role, the more you see this contrast become starker. 

This is a well-known issue in the community, and of course is partly a problem with our education system, which discourages women from most math, science, and engineering fields at some level. But the problem, I think, is also inthe culture which has... well, I can only describe it as a sort of machismo.

An acquaintance of mine - a far better programmer than I, and a genuinely nice, open-minded person - made a joke the other day that illuminated this. He was talking about a time management technique called Pomodoro which is very popular in the tech community, and how they were doing it in groups, calling it 'Bromodoro', because 'its like Pomodoro with your bro's.' The joke was meant to be tongue in cheek. The word bro, has a sort of 'oh-god' hipster ring to it that marks any use of it as not entirely serious (at least this is my experience - though as with any slang term, these borders of legitimacy can be murky). I wrote back, half-jokingly, to ask what they would call it if they had a woman working with them. He wrote back and said that 'sisses could be bros, too'.  

This isn't blatant sexism, of course, its not said because women aren't desired. I would say, from what I know of the coder in question, that I imagine he would be thrilled to encourage more diversity in technology. The comment, after all, was pretty innocuous - I've known people who work hard in charities specifically devoted to encouraging young girls in math, science and engineering make comments of a similar sort. Heck, I've made far worse comments in my life.

But at some level there is a piece of our culture that says 'we are open minded, liberal people, and would love to have more women (or minorities, or GLBT people, or whatever) join our culture. Just as long as they don't change it.' In other words, diversity is great, as long as we all act the same.

Again, this isn't to suggest that the fellow who made the 'bro' comment was trying to send some 'boys only' vibe out, at all. But, I do think that technologists, as a culture, are comfortable with the vibrancy of our community, with its strong identificatory marks, and we sometimes assume that others will be happy to simply enter the culture as 'bros', as it were. Its the old issue of letting women (or minorities, or whatever) come in and be 'one of the guys' - even if they AREN'T 'one of the guys'. Again, this isn't meant to put a freeze on speech, its simply to point out that when we live in a culture that is very monolithic, it is easy to present a from that is less than welcoming to a polylithic world.

The interesting thing is, however, that our culture HAS diversity that we are, I think sometimes, afraid of. One of the interesting things about the list of 222 developers about is that the list ALSO contains 4 additional women - male-to-female transsexuals. The implications of this are interesting, but they are not hard for me to imagine. Technology work allows one to abstract one's identity in a way that is both seductive and liberating. People who are uncomfortable with their 'real' identity in a LOT of ways can find it a rewarding way of working, in my experience. But this strengthens the psychological need to ensure that the codes of conduct within the community have clear borders, particularly when you combine this with the extremely social aspect of technology work - everything one does is at some level collaborative. And there is the difficulty of the fluid identities of the web - that people are frightened of that power, they need the security of a simple, easily parseable, and contiguous identity int he people they interact with. Its as if, in that shadow world, we see each others loose ends and the possibility of secret selves, and so when we meet face to face, we feel the need to reassure ourselves that - no, we're just normal people, that the irregularities, and frightening depths of individuality need not be grappled with. ITs taking a world that is plump with intimacy and trying to keep things businesslike.

Which returns us to the ponies. Humor often performs the function of allowing us to have a dialogue about the things that we cannot have serious conversations on. My industry's relationship (dare I say, our entire Western culture's relationship) with gender identity is, in my mind, one such area. We need to, in some sense, confirm that 'yes, there are still the comforting barriers we've erected to define us as a group,' and playfully pretending to expel each other from those boundaries is a way of doing it - a way that feels positive, and harmless - you're let back in, as it were, after the game is done, and noone says anything too hurtful in the process. The trouble is not to the person that is playfully expelled, it is to the person who is in the culture, but now knows that their feelings and beliefs warrant expulsion, or to the person outside who sees that the culture is not welcoming to their identity, that they will be allowed, but will always feel separate. Outside the culture. This is the sad secret of any anti-discrimination initiative - you can legislate that someone who applies for a job not be discriminated against (although even this has proven difficult), but you can't legislate that they be made to feel normal in the group. A woman programmer (or a man who likes pink ponies. Or an african-american. Or whatever) must always, in my experience, be continuously aware that they are an abnormality. An exception. Sometimes they are celebrated as an exception. But nonetheless, as they navigate an immensely social enterprise, they must always negotiate a very clumsy identity within the group. Its not that they would necessarily be looked down on or attacked (though I have seen this too). Simply that they will never be allowed to forget that they are not normal. When they offer opinions, they'll be the girl programmer's opinions. When they write code, it will be girl programmer code. Etc.They are tokens, instead of humans. And that is a lot of pressure, pressure that requires skills that are not the core skills one needs to be a great programmer.

Again, this isn't just women, its anyone who doesn't fit this narrow band of identity that the culture defines - I've felt it myself, being someone who loves purple, has odd taste in clothes, and likes fairies. Not that anyone looks down on me for it. Just that they always know it. Most of my work has been in niches, where I work, largely, independent of other technologists - filing the hole, as it were. I imagine these two facts are, at some subconscious level, connected. And in my day to day work, it means I DO put up a certain facade of 'but don't worry, you see, I'm really just like you', that is intensely artificial, but frankly invaluable in getting my work done without feeling powerfully emotionally vulnerable. If I was entirely genuine, I would confuse people, frighten them, perhaps, or at least, simply become 'other'. Its not because technologists are bad. Its simply the result of a confluence of factors. But its real nonetheless.

But then, again, if this is a revolution, this is how revolutions always are - they break the limits of the last regime, and then scramble in terror to build new ones, to make walls that let them understand the new world they've created, that protect them from the anarchy of a new social order. It doesn't mean that the revolution wasn't real, or the revolutionaries insincere. Its simply how humans work. Until the next revolution comes along and topples them.

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White Page

Write me on your lips, my love,
Write me on your hands,
Write me on your fingertips.
Write me on the hollow of your neck,
Write me, love, between your breasts,
Write me on the plain of your belly.
Write me down the bones of your thighs.

Now stop and write me on your wrists.
Turn them upright, hold the steel nib close,
And write me, write me deep, and clear,
So that the letters will not wash away.

Be thou the book of me.
I am nothing, my love, a story orphan,
Only words and lips to say them,
Only pantomimes and hands to act them,
Only love to season my milk,
Only a hunger beneath my navel,
A shiver within my thighs.

But words silence,
Pantomimes fall beneath their curtains,
Milk shrivels,
And hunger wastes away,
The shivers still,
The story is forgot.
Be thou the book of me.

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Sol Invictus

My cold, bare arms, my ragged throat
  Have never summoned you before --
I know, much more, the light no longer
  Holds the tinder that can burn in me.

But for the sake of midnight, sun,


Sol Invictus, epithet of gall!
Fire-eyed Napoleon, unconquerable:


Thy lips of vital fire, strike into me thy revelation:
"Virtue alone is sure!"

But dark is a virtue, oh my beloved,
  For it wants to end.
Sorrow is virtue,
  For it wants to end.
Jealousy and Anger, those two sallow sisters, too,
  Beneath their shifts are naked virtue,
    For they want to end.

Only Hatred,
Hatred and Pride,
  Feed on themselves -- Ouroboros of vice!
    Two circled snakes, a disc of lost eternity.

And now?

'Tis midnight, oh my love, and in the dark
  All pride will waste and wither,
  Hatred, even, needs the light.

Listen close, thou molten resurrection stone:

The morbid hollow of the night,
And cannot cry, but whimpers:

"Oh thou sun, thou long forgot eternity --




(Photo by schaaflicht)

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