What is an author? Not merely a penner of fancies, a fabricator of fairy-tales, but, in the greatest of literary traditions, a navigator of the reader-trodden byways of their own fictional work. One who has not only traveled this way before but possesses an intimate acquaintance with each slight curvature of road, and with far-seeing omniscient eye winks at our fresh innocence; navigator and map-maker who holds the world in the palm of his hand. Uncharted regions were, in medieval practice, inscribed with the phrase hic sunt dracones (here be dragons) referring to claw-footed beasts of ferocious intent, horned men and monstrous serpents that lurked beyond the horizon; mythical miscreants expressive of the disquietude associated with the dark unknown quarters of things.
The author, however, has not only plumbed the depths in the intimacy of literary creation but has tamed the dragon that slumbers in the far-reaches. For like Virgil who guides Dante through the nine circles of hell he possesses vast knowledge of all things; yet we the reader are struck to the marrow by each new revelation, tentative explorers of a bright new world where all beyond the page remains, for a time, shrouded in the dark expectation of yet-unread.
In present-day versions of the Inferno particular punishments may have been reserved for the compromised writer: one selling without soul, the mindless purveyor of literary tripe (and doubtless for this narrator who arrogantly assumes the prerogative of
judgement!) The Virgil-author accompanies us through the turn of page, through the concentric circles of punishment, and
the accumulation of gathered understandings. In the sixth circle lies the city of Dis, entrenched and entombed within the
Stygian marsh; here the epicureans are trapped within flaming tombs. The
linguistically wily, the users of flattering verbiage occupy the ninth
circle to which the two poets descend on the back of the winged monster
Geryon. These misusers of language are mired and steeped in human excrement, evocative of words utilized in life. These escalating bands of inventive torture function not merely
as a form of divine retribution but serve as the warped gratification of a destiny
readily chosen during life. That is not to say all fictional works find analogy in the grim shadows of Dante's inferno - merely a mechanism expressive of the dramatic human plight that lies at life's core, and the oft-times torturous trail that we follow passing through it.
So perhaps writers, manipulators of words, guide the Dante-novice as well as
occupy the rings through which they pass. They themselves
inhabit the narrative, permeate the prose, breathe beneath the skin of
each character, infiltrate the landscape just as they draw us
through it. The author occupies all spheres simultaneously: the disembodied
voice, the Absent One whose perspective filters through the prose like an
incarcerated divinity behind a gossamer veil; the omniscient repository
of wisdom particular to this literary journey. They are the one who take us to the brink of some hitherto
unimagined literary expanse, whether it be the moons of some fantastical
world or the prosaic routine of white-collar modernity - but there is
always something under the surface. The placidity, the comfortable
conformity, is inevitably disrupted. For the ongoing narrative is a
dramatic one, and our guide will see us through the pitfalls and the
predicaments. This, after all, is the furious admixture of life - the convulsive
tempestuousness of character interaction set amidst a vividly imagined panorama.
Conrad's The Secret Agent opens with a simple description of a rather
dilapidated storefront, Balzac's Lost Illusions with the antiquated tools of printing-presses that will prove so instrumental to Séchard's trade, Dickens' Oliver Twist in the grim workhouse located within the town of Mudfog, but with each one feels the authorial
hand taking our own, astutely aware of the journey
in its entirety; but for us the path ahead is darkly shrouded - just our ever-present attendant beckoning us onwards, pointing out environmental features, providing the contextual immediacy within which the plot will begin to unwind like Theseus' thread before us. As Virgil guided Dante, so Lord Krishna
counseled Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita - an epic narrative that
like the Iliad formed a battleground allegory for the ethical and moral
struggles of life. The text itself is designated smiriti or 'that which
is remembered' as opposed to texts divinely revealed - thus
diminished by its mortal origins but to my mind imbued with the poignant
wisdom and courage that escapes Gods of Old, the
Immortals who intrinsically comprehend neither courage nor sacrifice in the
face of impending death. For the writer a text remembered is perhaps the most sublime achievement of all, implying a centrality of collective pertinence if you will, a literary representation of humanity's most prevalent of themes: a reiteration, a recognition, a renewed awareness of the central questions of what it means to be human; a literary echo that, like Jung's archetypes, resounds through subsequent reading generations.
Dante and Virgil escape Hell by climbing down Satan's ragged fur, passing
through the center of the earth and emerging in the opposite hemisphere beneath a star-studded sky. Just as we traverse the literary peaks, precipices and verdant valleys of a narrative work, the author travels a path beside us, resides within the characters we encounter along the way, and imbues all with a feverish expectancy for that which is to come. He (or she) is a whisperer of wisdom, a distant parent, a conjuror of magic, a God...a revealer of uncomfortable truths; or perhaps merely a silent companion, a shadow glimpsed in peripheral vision...of substance so intangible as to be barely there - a ghost in the literary machine.