1981 - Grail

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Chuck Messer
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1981 - Grail

Postby Chuck Messer » Sun Mar 06, 2005 1:54 am

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Grail

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I wanted to do this story for two reasons. One is my own failure at the pursuit of True Love. Hell, I haven't even managed a decent tryst in recent years. I also wanted to do this one because this is, I think, one of the most under-published and under-appreciated of Harlan's stories. I'll admit it took time for me to get around to reading it. This is something very different from most of the stories he wrote. I guess I wanted more stories like Repent, Harlequin, or I Have No Mouth, etc.

Once I heard him read it in The Voice From the Edge, Vol. 1, I was won over to this story, word by word. That was my first exposure to Grail. When I read it in The Essential Ellison, that pretty much settled it for me.

Even among my favorites one of the things I've noticed, and I think all writers do this, is characters will suddenly pop out with bits of dialogue that seems a little uncharacteristic for them. Little Harlanisms, calling someone ‘kiddo', when it didn't seem quite right for that character, etc. Every once in a while, the character's mask will slip and speak ever so briefly in the author's voice.

But, not in this story. This one was carefully crafted over time, with research into just about every detail. Great care was given to the physical details, the locations, the rituals, the names of the spirits, but also with creating the characters. Chris Capperton, Siri, even Surgat are vivid and individual. Each one has their own voice and not once does the mask slip. That's not easy to do, to maintain the illusion so consistently.

I've always been awed and appalled by the kind of sacrifice Siri made for Chris. After his first encounter with Surgat, what he found on the couch, the horrible mutilate thing. The demon said, "I do not leave empty handed." Combine that with Siri's warning that if Surgat has but the cells of one hair he can reconstruct you - that he has you, indicates she knew what was going to happen to her when she gave Chris a strand of her hair. Jesus. Giving one's life for someone you love is one thing, but to sacrifice your mortal soul...damn. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a sacrifice like that. Siri is a character that stays with me long after I have read Grail.

I certainly feel for Chris Capperton. A.K.A. Pudiuh-Pudiuh Porky Pig. Here was a man who devoted his whole life to the pursuit of True Love, read every book, had a lover, a wife. He pursued the artifact that was True Love in physical form when all the affairs and philosophers failed him.

He consorts with Surgat twice, enters an impenetrable vault to find True Love. Only to find it was a loving cup. Literally. To look into the cup and find out that his True Love was someone he never met and probably never would. He gazed on the face in the silver liquid and knew true love - and knew it would never be better that this.

"I know that my true friend will appear after my death, and my sweetheart died before I was born."

So, what is it, anyway, this True Love? Maybe it's simply a matter of timing.

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P.A. Berman
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Postby P.A. Berman » Sun Mar 06, 2005 11:18 am

Chuck,

First of all, good choice of story, Chuck. After "The Deathbird," this is my favorite of all HE's stories. Like "The Deathbird," "Grail" hits on some themes that hit very close to home for me. The search for True Love has been part of me for a long time, alternating between passionate belief and hope, and utter cynicism and scorn. Depending on my mood and current life situation, of course. I sympathize with Capperton even as I think he's the damnedest fool possible.

In a strange coincidence, I was thinking about Siri last night and the magnitude of her sacrifice. It made me angry at Capperton. Is it a foolish adherence to a dangerously fallacious dream that causes people to break themselves on the rocks of "true love"? Would he not have been happier, wiser, and kinder if he had accepted that Siri WAS his true love BECAUSE of her willingness to sacrifce herself utterly for his happiness? Is the key to happiness actually the realization that perfection does not exist?

I have been Chris Capperton, metaphorically, and I understand why people seek The Grail. But maybe the moral of this story is, as Sting said, "To search for perfection is all very well, but to look for Heaven is to live here in Hell."

PAB
I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't matter anyway. ~Jack Kerouac

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Postby BrianSiano » Sun Mar 06, 2005 12:17 pm

I'm just checking in, and while I'd love to stay and write a longer commentary, I have to keep this brief.

To begin with, the ideal of True Love is an illusion. If it happens, it's rare, and should be prized. But we have to face the fact that, while we can always strive for better, we may never settle for what's best for us at the time. We may wind up tossing aside the Best We'll Ever Have in the hope that the next thing will be better. And the Next Thing may just bite our asses for us in a very unpleasant way.

The notion of True Love... has anyone noticed what a _rotten_ notion that is? That somewhere out there is another human being, with whom a romantic, loving relationship is as easy and and natural and self-tailored as a well-worn shoe? Someone for whom communication is not needed, accomodation is automatic and disagreement is impossible?

With pornography, we can dispense with the emotional difficulty and imagine only the sex. Yes, it does objectify people. That's it's _job_. That's the _benefit_ of pornography. One doesn't read pornography to imagine all of the negotiation and insecurity of actual _romance_. But True Love does the _same thing_; it promises to remove all of that adult-level consideration, concern, pain, fear, and hard work, and leave only the happiness and joy. Siri may caution Chris that Surgat will mislead him... but Surgat is actually pretty honest compared to what the notion of True Love does to him.

Siri shows what people can do for love, even when they know it's not True Love, and even when the stakes are horrific. Siri's fate illuminates how selfish Chris's personal quest really _is_. I mean, this woman has thrown her soul away on his behalf... and the most he can do is choke back some revulsion over it. No one says he has to have abandoned his quest for True Love, and he isn't to _blame_ for Siri's sacrifice. And one could even argue that Siri was being selfish here, tying the albatross of her sacrifice onto Chris's neck. Love can do that to people. But basically, I don't think Siri and Chris were True Lovers.

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A CURRENT UPDATE ON ''TRUE LOVE'' FROM THE AUTHOR

Postby Harlan Ellison » Sun Mar 06, 2005 1:34 pm

Having blundered up and down the echoing corridors seeking "true love" all those years, and having stored more than a-plenty experiences, scars, memories and accolades, I had rather more-or-less taken up residence at the locale passim Brian Siano's post. I had been almost ten years' solo, and determined to spend my waning years the same, when (without looking) the one person I had envisioned all my life appeared as if from a genie's bottle. Yes, Brian, I'd come to shore at the point of "love ain't nothing but sex misspelled" and found, in contravention of my (then) and your (now) belief that it was futility smoke & mirrors ... True Love.

I offer only one word as absolute contradiction.

Susan.

Yr. pal, Harlan

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Postby P.A. Berman » Sun Mar 06, 2005 1:49 pm

Harlan,

Maybe you only found True Love because you stopped looking. I think perhaps it is Chris Capperton's foolish insistence that he must devote his entire life to this search, regardless of its effect on the rest of his life and the lives of those around him, that makes this story tragic. I myself may have found it just recently (sure feels like it), but I absolutely was not looking and, like you, had basically packed it in.

What do you guys think? Is it the obsessive seeking the undermines Capperton's happiness? Could he have been happy with Siri if he'd been a little bit less attached to this idea of one perfect love? Are there many close to perfect loves out there that might be just as fulfilling because they wreak less havoc in one's life? Doesn't one always have to compromise a little to be happy? I've always thought that the media promulgation of this idea of one union of perfect bliss is inimical to most people's happiness.

PAB

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Hope Floats, Bobs, Sinks, and is Ignored by Sharks

Postby BrianSiano » Sun Mar 06, 2005 10:37 pm

Paula, I'd say yes to most of your points. But notice that the question "Could Chris have been happy with Siri?" loads the question a little. There's an implication that the happiness would have lasted a long, long time-- like, for life. Maybe they would have been together forever. Or, more likely, their relationship would have lasted only as far as the war lasted. Or it might've lost the romance, and become a business partnership, and Chris or Siri would _then_ have met the One who Completed Them.

I never got cynical enough to say that "love ain't nothing but sex misspelled," personally. Maybe it's because I've never had a whole lotta sex in my life, either-- which makes it kind of important to me. I don't think I could enjoy sex if I didn't feel something damn nice for the woman. Sex without some kinda affection just ain't right for me.

Harlan, if you asked me if I believed in a love at first sight, I'd reply that it's happened to me at _least_ twice in my life. And it was wonderful. But it _did not last_. It didn't turn bad (thank God), and it didn't turn awful. In one case, we've stayed friends, and in the other, she moved to another city and I haven't heard from her since. (With no hard feelings, FYI.) This didn't tell me that love was an illusion.

It's just that relationships always take work. I've had a few, not a lot, and none have even reached the point of cohabitation, which kind of m arks me as one of those slow learners, I guess. But a real relation takes a lot of work. It's learning what the other person loves and hates. It's accommodating to that person... and trying to get that person to accommodate to you. And there are times when it just doesn't work out too smoothly. That first fight can be _awful_, because there's the chance that something that had been wonderful will now be ruined forever; in that first fight, you're never sure if the baseline of love will be there afterward.

Actually, right now, I'm going through an odd phase in a relationship. We met just about a year ago. We had amazing amounts of overlap in our interests. (My favorite anecdote: she works in the haunt industry, and one day she told me that she'd love a set of the blueprints for Disney's Haunted Mansion. I was able to reply. "I have two sets. Would you like one?" How often does love give people a moment with that kind of serendipity?) She is a truly fascinating and wonderful person, and I felt lucky as hell to have found her.

HOW-EVAH: this past September, she lost her job. This October, she spent travelling to various haunts doing work. This November, she came back, and while we spent a lot of time together, we just weren't intimate anymore. She felt terrible that she wasn't a great girlfriend for me. I felt terrible because I could only do _so_ much to help her out. It's been rough, what with our mutual anxieties, the stress in her life, and my fumbling attempts to try to help her out as best as I can. Over the past few months, the relationship's turned into a friendship.

If I believed in _True_ Love, I'd probably be beating myself up over the loss, bewailing my miserable fate, and-- like many men do-- working up a lot of resentment over being hard-done-by. But a little fatalism actually helps here. It reminds me that I should be thankful for the joys I _did_ get. It reminds me that humans have things happen in their lives that can ruin even love, and it's _not their fault_. And it actually keeps hope a-glimmering; if True Love hasn't been a totem for me, then I can't lose hope if the totem crumbles.

Thanks for the words, but don't worry. I haven't lost hope for love.

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Lieb nicht fur immer.

Postby Steve Evil » Mon Mar 07, 2005 2:03 am

I don't believe in True love. I believe in a thing called love (sorry, so so sorry). I believe people can be happy together, that some relationships can work very well, and that some people are compatible.

But troo love? As in soul mates? The idea that there is one indivual out there who is tailor made for you, whom you are destined to meet and make mountains will crumble? No, I don't quite see that. I prefer to see it all as a natural process rather than a supernatural one. If that makes any sense at all.

Who did Chris see in the cup? Everyone he's loved. . .and one other. Is this to say, no matter how perfect the combination may seem, there is always one other, even more perfect combination that exists (or used to exist) somewhere out there?

Or that it exists in many forms, will take many shapes in one life time and is subject to all the alterations of the personality? To me this makes sense.
I think of "Othello", in which true love was torn apart. Or friends of the family divorcing after thirty years+. True love is subject to human frailty. It's not a force in itself.

I've loved, and I've lost. If it wasn't true love, what on earth was it? False love? How was I to know? Of course it was always "troo" at the time - she wouldn't have accepted anything less. I'm supposed to give everything, heart, body mind and soul while she's there, but just forget about it when she's gone. " Get on with your life" they say. " Get on with the quest" is what they mean.

Perhaps the demon knew something. Who can tell me what the "Citizen Kane' meant?

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Postby BrianSiano » Mon Mar 07, 2005 9:06 am

Steve Evil wrote:Who did Chris see in the cup? Everyone he's loved. . .and one other. Is this to say, no matter how perfect the combination may seem, there is always one other, even more perfect combination that exists (or used to exist) somewhere out there?

Oooh, that's a good observation. But it's for really, really geeky reasons that resonate with the story's theme.

The mathematician Georg Cantor once composed a "diagonal proof" of transfinite sets, to show that there was a transfinite number of irrational numbers (like pi). Imagine you have an infinite list of irrational numbers, written as decimals, like:

3.1415927
0.1257482
0.5852025

etc. Ignore the numbers to the left of the decimal. Now, you take the first digit of the first number (1). Take the second digit of the second number (2), the third from the third (8), and so on. You have just created a _new_ irrational number that _can not_ appear in the infinite list of irrational numbers. Thus, the set is transfinite.

So how does this resonate with your comment? Here's an example where there will _always_ be something just beyond what's known. One can search and search and search for True Love, and maybe even find a wonderful soul-mate... but there is, always, someone _better_ out there.

Thing is, you'll never reach it... and, added Brian with a nasty glint in his eye, the process does require getting involved with a lot of _irrationals_, doesn't it?

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Postby JaySmith » Mon Mar 07, 2005 10:08 am

Finding "True Love" is like finding "God" - the harder you try to find it or define it, the more elusive it becomes.

It hits you when you aren't judging it against some list or comparing it to someone who left you or to another couple. It ain't gonna come at you when you're looking. It ain't gonna settle in when you want it. It'll come when you least want it, when you're least willing or able to accept or give it. It will steamroll your comfortable life, break your ceramic kittens and steal your CDs. It will terrify you in the middle of the night for no other reason than to remind you whose bitch you is -- and it will fuck you up so bad you can't remember what life is like outside its clutches. But you can't tell it when to come or go. It will come on its own time.

In the meantime, you'll think you have it. You'll be dreamy and horny and needy and comfortable until that invisible line is crossed and then you'll feel so stupid for ever deceiving yourself and whoah is you and shame on the other....then all country songs are all about you and life sucks for a while.

At least that's how it was for me. Far as any of you go, it may be just an online 98-point personality test away! It might be the art student dressed as Okunaki the Feline Space-Ninja at your next S/F convention. You may literally save him or her from a burning building or discover a shared love of grilled Maki during a casual elevator conversation. Who knows? It's impossible to tell.

We got lucky. What Pam and I have been through together has exposed our core, rendered all pretense and vanity invisible. We know each other and neither of us can get away with ANYTHING. It ain't glamorous, but the cool thing is that, through all the bullshit and struggle, we're still kids in love.

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Steve Evil
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Pieces of ceramic cat. . .

Postby Steve Evil » Fri Mar 11, 2005 9:47 pm

You've hit it on the nail Jay. At least the first part. I haven't gotten to the second part yet. Funny enough, she did steal a vinyl record of mine. . .

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Postby P.A. Berman » Fri Mar 11, 2005 11:23 pm

The thing that really grabs me about "Grail" is the fact that, after Caperton sees his true love's face in the cup and knows that's as close as he will ever get, he also understands that that's as close as he deserves to get. Only that far and no further. That's a cool twist on the myth, wherein you must be worthy to find the Grail, and a just punishment for someone who so ruthlessly pursued it that he missed out on enjoying the rest of his life.

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Postby Jon Stover » Sat Mar 12, 2005 3:23 am

Nice points, PAB (and everyone else). The comments spurred me to codify something -- I think Harlan's written at least two great love stories, and those stories are "Paladin of the Lost Hour" and "Jeffty is Five." No, wait, maybe I'd add "Mephisto in Onyx" to that. They form some sort of wonderful triptych in a variety of ways, but always with "Jeffty is Five" on the left, "Mephisto in Onyx" in the middle and "Paladin of the Lost Hour" on the right. And "Grail"'s one of the lights illuminating them.

Cheers, Jon

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Postby lonegungirl » Sun Mar 13, 2005 6:50 am

I guess on the Siri issue I didn't really think it was a huge sacrifice on her part, giving herself to the demon, because I figured he just ate her--versus taking her soul. As she was already dead, it didn't seem as bad as say, when Caperton was threatening to have people killed for grail information.

This story always brings to mind (by contrast) for me those vaguely patronizing self-help books for women that are always titled things like "Why Your Stupid Self-Respect is Messing Up Your Chances at a Husband" or whatever. It always seems to me that the modern strategy of reshaping all your ideals/principles in the hopes of transposing your vision of the ideal mate on some poor sap is as conducive to happiness as the ruthless Survivor-style elimination of potentials en route to seeking out the ultimate payoff.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Sun Mar 13, 2005 10:06 am

lonegungirl wrote:I guess on the Siri issue I didn't really think it was a huge sacrifice on her part, giving herself to the demon, because I figured he just ate her--versus taking her soul. As she was already dead, it didn't seem as bad as say, when Caperton was threatening to have people killed for grail information.

It is strongly implied that Siri has become Surgat's plaything, esp. sexually. She has condemned herself to an eternity in Hell as a sextoy so that her lover could see the face of his true love for an instant. If that isn't a huge sacrifice, I don't know what is. In fact, it's so huge that it barely makes sense to me, unless Siri didn't quite know what she was in for when she agreed to it. However, I suspect she did know, and in that respect, it's the one part of the story that doesn't quite hang together for me.

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Postby BrianSiano » Sun Mar 13, 2005 10:27 am

lonegungirl wrote:This story always brings to mind (by contrast) for me those vaguely patronizing self-help books for women that are always titled things like "Why Your Stupid Self-Respect is Messing Up Your Chances at a Husband" or whatever.

I love that title. Damn, you got it right there.


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