Friday, April 20, 2012

Bibliophile Owl-Earl

Apropos of nothing, I'm thinking about Sepulchrave, the Earl of Gormenghast, in the novel Titus Groan.  I need to reread the book, but as I recall, his situation is this: required by inherited title to perform meaningless rituals all day, he traipses, alone, to his library each night to find solace in books.  The rituals he is bound to perform every day are things like throwing rose petals into a fountain while reciting a bit of verse.  All these rituals are ancient parts of Castle Gormenghast's culture, but the meanings of the rituals are neither remembered nor considered.  In Gormenghast, the signifiers remain, but their referents have been sawed off beneath them.  The value of the rituals is not in what they signified to their originators, since no one remembers what that might have been, nor in what fresh significance might be crafted for them by the current practitioners, since no one bothers.  The value is seen as intrinsic: doing the rituals is what is done, for the good of The Stones, the stones that make Castle Gormenghast.  However complex the signification of these rituals may have been in a (presumed, never acknowledged) Golden Age, they have been reduced to the level of superstition and taboo.  It's no surprise that the Earl's job satisfaction is poor; there's no sense of accomplishment or significance in what he does, only obligation.

I don't recall what his reading consisted of (another reason to reread the book), but The Earl's nightly library time doesn't seem to involve any research into the point of the rituals.  Perhaps he could refresh the rituals by delving deeper into his own culture, but this he does not do.  He's the pitiful bibliophile, using books as solace/escape from a disappointing life, rather than as an enrichment of life.  This, I can assure from personal experience, is no way to live.

Sepulchrave goes cray-cray after his library burns down; he thinks he's an owl.  This animal isn't chosen at random; Gormenghast's highest tower is abandoned by humans, inhabited by giant owls.  Perhaps this owl masquerade is the Earl's desperate attempt to go deeper into Gormenghast's heart than the stagnant contemporary culture of Gormenghast will permit; or perhaps the poor man just wants to escape from meaningless symbolism, unmotivated (and unmotivating) busywork, and insufficient significance.   Owls don't do symbolism (although they can be made to symbolize, as Pallas Athena could attest).  Owls just live, as The Earl tries to live, mouse-eating and all.  Finally The Earl goes to The Tower, ascending into that physical, rather than idealogical, part of Gormenghast that humans have abandoned, and gets consumed by owls himself, which may represent a cathartic embrace of The Real for the under-stimulated Earl, but of course it does neither himself nor his family any good.

The Gormenghast books leave me contemplating missed opportunities, as each character, many of whom have promising qualities, is held back from fulfillment by the pointlessness of everything their culture values (which boils down to the aforementioned ritual).  if the Earl could have found, in his books, a means of instaurating (a term I take from fantasy critic John Clute) his culture with the best bits of what it had forgotten (why throw those petals in the fountain?  Is the forgotten meaning worth remembering?), he might have saved himself and his culture.  Cultural stagnation and arteriosclerosis of the class system are the ruination of Gormenghast.