A Rather Special Interview
Professor Canning! It is a pleasure to be able to speak with you today.
Thank you for having me! I assure you the pleasure is all mine. I’m delighted to speak to one of Doubt Street’s finest.
You are quite the figure in the Neath, both in worlds artistic and academical. Would you be so kind as to enlighten those readers of ours who perhaps did not have the pleasure to read your works just yet?
Ah well…, I assume that it is the artistic side most of your readers will be familiar with. I am the author of “Peregrinations of a Bluestocking”, a series of novels following a young woman archaeologist across the Ottoman empire, Persia, the Indian subcontinent and the Southern ocean. They are usually filed under “Surface adventures” which apparently is a genre now! While these books have variously been accused of blasphemy, obscenity, imposture, libel, licentiousness, perfidy, sedition, moral relativism, ahistoricism and plain shoddy writing, they do sell quite well if I say so myself. Please accept that I shall continue my policy of withholding comment on how much, if any, of their content is autobiographical: I have always held that authors should be known for writing books, not talking about them.
My academic work in the field of anthropology has probably made less waves altogether. I am currently preparing a treatise concerning the peculiar customs of the Varchaasi people from the Elder Continent – whence I only recently returned. I fear most Londoners have yet to hear of the Varchaasi, even though they are quite unique among the peoples of the Neath.
Ah, Peregrinations, a truly wonderful series. I shall, of course, respect your wishes to avoid certain topics – we are an honest paper of artistic truth, not a simple gossip piece.
I am, however, rather interested in the academic work of yours. I have to say, though our editorial office contains many educated minds, the Varchaasi are indeed an unknown. Would you care to tell us a little more about your anthropological findings, and perhaps your trip to the Elder Continent as well?
Varchas is an anomaly in almost every respect. The Varchaasi worship Light and are terrified by Darkness. Thus, existence in the Neath poses many problems for them. Their city is kept constantly illuminated by multitudes of lamps, candles and an ingenious system of angled mirrors. They even grow phosphorescent fungi on the walls of the buildings! And if the smallest spot of shadow were to be found anywhere within the city, someone would adjust a mirror or light another candle in order to banish it. Darkness is absolutely not allowed in Varchas. Accordingly, Lamp-Lighters and Fire-Keepers are highly respected professions who work in strictly-planned shifts to ensure it continues being kept out. However, the presence of all those mirrors – and what lurks behind them – causes certain complications, but the Varchaasi have found ways to manage these, too, the most extraordinary of which is this: they train themselves not to dream! They are a dream-less people.
I do hope I am not portraying them as strange savages in a short summary like this. The Varchaasi are a sophisticated people with a long and rich history. Indeed, their history is at least as remarkable as their present existence. However, I will say no more on that here… as it happens, the Ministry of Public Decency has shown an interest in my upcoming work and has demanded advance manuscripts. Be that as it may, I am confident that something will be worked out and this will not delay publication by more than a few weeks.
Speaking of censors, I have also spent considerable time in Apis Meet. Yes, yes, I know, visitors are usually allowed only a single day there. But the Gracious can never hear enough London gossip… Incidentally, this single-day rule also holds in Varchas, where it is far more steadfastly enforced. Anyway… where was I… ah yes: the Presbyterate’s Mithridate Office is constantly spreading misleading information about the Elder Continent, to the extent of publishing books full of lies and fabricated maps. It’s therefore fiendishly difficult to gather information that is actually useful for planning an expedition into the Continent’s interior. Which is the Mithridites’ whole point, of course. But they won’t keep me out! They say the Presbyterate’s made up of 77 kingdoms, most of which I haven’t seen yet. That simply won’t do!
Fascinating! Truly so – a very exciting life a researcher leads. I must say, Professor Canning, I admire your academic fervor! Such want for truth is something we at the Gazette very much appreciate. I would be thrilled to speak to you more of such exploits and delicious knowledge, though, for the benefit of our readership’s equal yet oposed thirst, let us move on.
Now, it goes without saying that our humble paper is no stranger to the woes of dealing with the Ministry. What would you like to say to the men of this organization in regards to academic censorship?
Well, well, I shall have to choose my words with care here. To be honest, I am not opposed to the concept of an independent third party evaluating academic publications for possible dangers to public safety – in the Neath especially! A lot of the scientific research being done at the present moment is very experimental and, frankly, we academics are not always entirely aware of all possible consequences of releasing our discoveries to the general public.
It becomes more problematic, however, when the institution charged with this arbitration is not independent, but a direct arm of government. Hence, suspicions will inevitably arise that its verdicts might not always be made solely in the best interests of the common good, but rather be influenced by political motivations. After all, said institution would have the power to determine which knowledge the public had access to, and which would remain suppressed.
In the end, it would fall – as it always does – to the men and women doing the daily work at this institution to ensure they remain true to their values, to the original objective of their work. Corruption is a part of the human condition, and that we cannot escape from, but it is by no means inevitable to trickle down from top to bottom always. The anarchists have one thing right: it is impossible to imagine a form of government entirely free of corruption, and therefore entirely free of tyranny. But they’re always throwing out the baby with the bathwater: if you burn down a tyrant’s palace, you kill everyone inside, down to the prisoners in the dungeon beneath it. And what has ever been built upon a tabula rasa than another version of what was there before? All the many revolutions in the history of the world have been exercises in futility.
Oh d__n it, I’ve switched into campaigner-mode again, haven’t I? When I promised myself I wouldn’t get involved in all that anymore. It’s not even election season yet!
Oh, absolutely no worry, Professor. I do believe none of our readers are strangers to a heated debate. Truly, there is a certain… questionability within the act of establishment censorship, so to speak.
Ah, I would, of course, love to discuss, but there are only so many pages we are allowed to print – so, Professor, if you wouldn’t mind, what are your thoughts on the current struggle of powers within London?
Ach! Struggle of powers, pish-tosh. It’s the way of a city like London to have agents of every power or would-be power you can think of vying for influence, openly and in the dark. I don’t believe the Masters are losing any sleep over it, or the Empress for that matter. Incidentally, I always tell people not to underestimate the old girl. I’m sure she’s got a trick or two up her sleeve yet. And not just her. There are powers in this city that are far older than London herself – and I don’t mean the occasional Presbyterate diplomat. The people I’m talking about – they’ve been around for so long… You see, I don’t feel like having the Roof come down on me anytime soon. But if that fateful day should come… when the bats swarm and the smell of Lacre rises… I’ll know whom to turn to for advice. Because they’ve seen it all before. That’s real power, you see: knowledge, and knowing how to survive especially.
But enough of dark and dreary matters! Let us turn to something different, and lighter, for a change.
Ah, why of course! It does us no good to be stuck in worries.
I am sure, professor, that you have had your share of excitement on your adventures. Perhaps, even, the funniest kind of excitement – be it substances or people. Do tell, professor, if it is not so bold of me to ask, what would you consider the most indulgent thing you have done?
The most indulgent…? I am quite certain I wouldn’t be able to remember, especially if substances were involved. As for people, my wife was already with me when I descended to London and whatever excitements we indulge in shall remain behind the veil of privacy.
But if I am to be honest – and since this is an honest publication, I have no choice but to be – the most indulgent thing in my life down here isn’t some exotic excitement I gave in to only once, but a regular occurrence: the embarrassing amount of money I spend on imported food, from the Surface and the Elder Continent.
For one thing, I never liked seafood – you can imagine how I feel about Zee-food. And yes, there are lots of amazing things one can do with mushrooms, absolutely. But surely one can’t eat mushrooms every day. At least, I can’t. A further culinary problem I’ve encountered in the Neath is the sapience of beasts. I can’t bring myself to eat a creature that, with a bit of education, might be reading Chiropterochronometry at the University. So here I am: a wretched servant to the dictates not just of my palate, but of my conscience, too.
This is, incidentally, also the origin of that epithet (which I’m sure you would’ve asked me about eventually): it was an Irascible Veteran who first called me “Scarlet Saint” at one of my salons: according to him, I’m “one of those pusillanimous recreants indulging in revelries like a French princess but turning my back on a good English blood sausage only because the former owner of the blood might have spoken three languages.” Of course, he only did me a favour: in Bohemian circles, the sales of my books – even my academic publications – soared after his tirade.
Ah, the delights of foreign trade! Truly, it is worth spending an echo or two for a scrumptious meal. None can be blamed for being dissuaded by sapience, truly. Though I have come to find the various fungi much more than palatable.
Well, let us diverge a little once again. The Goosey Gazette, of course, is a publication of art. As you have said, you are quite well-versed within the bohemian circles. Do you have any thoughts or insights on the contemporary works of Neath-bound artists, both those published and private?
Thoughts? Many, to be sure. As for insights, ah well… the difference between art and science, I’m all too aware, is certainty. Every scientific problem has at least one definite answer – even if that answer might escape us forever. Art, however, has an infinite number of answers to every question – but offers us no means to determine which one might be true. Indeed, within the realm of art it is perfectly possible to posit all views of the world, no matter how conflicting, as equally true.
Science strives to be objective, while art (and love) are the most subjective things in the world. I really do not think there is an objective way of talking about art (nor love). Both the tedious scholars of art who are looking for such a way and those critics who profess they’ve found it are on the wrong track completely. Hence, the only valid form of art critique is deeply personal, without any pretense of objectivity. For critics, this means: opinions, not judgements! That’s the one rule of talking about art (and love, probably). Unfortunately, it is rarely respected.
Let me give you an example: I am well acquainted with a certain Vilified Sculptor. I happen to know the nature of the demons they’re exorcising with their work. I happen to know that they’re a kind and warm and decent person, and definitely not moving in any of the various sinister circles their detractors so love to insinuate. Do I, personally, like their work? No! Just looking at some of their sculptures for a minute sends shivers down my spine and makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. But I understand the Where and the Why. Obviously, in most situations, with most artists, we are not in a position to do that. Which is why we should express our opinion, but reserve our judgement.
If I conduct an experiment in my laboratory that thoroughly debunks someone else’s theory, and others conduct the same experiment with the same results, I can indeed pronounce final and unequivocal judgement on that theory: that is the power of science! Only science presents us with these – rare – opportunities to speak judgement with the certainty and conviction of the gods. It is not a small power, and not few are the scientists who get drunk on it.
If you listen to any down-and-out gutter poet long enough, you’ll hear them stumble upon one phrase, eventually, one night, buried among reams of dross: one phrase that would shame any poet-laureate. They won’t notice, they’ll have forgotten it by the next morning. But it was there, and you heard it. So what’s going to be your judgement of this poet’s work? And how will you defend it against anyone who wasn’t there, who did not hear that line?
Ah, I’m sorry for speaking at such length. In the Correspondence I’d need fewer words, of course, but they would not be safe to print. You probably just wanted to hear my opinion of Neathy art anyway. That you shall have, nice and short and not remotely objective:
The Celestials are in love with the past, the Bazaarines with the present, and the Nocturnals with the future. Obviously, that makes the Bazaarines the most boring of the lot. Then again, realism isn’t so bad: I’ve seen Bazaarine poetry inject some much-needed sense into some who were dreaming away their lives. Not that I have anything against dreaming! Only the coldest heart can be unmoved by the Celestials’ pining, but the fact remains pining gets you nowhere, and in the end the Celestials are only ever revolving around themselves (and maybe quite happy about that, too). The Nocturnals, of course, get everywhere fast but they don’t always return. After all, some places are scary and not safe and some one really should not go to at all. “You can leave everything safely behind but your senses,” someone told me long ago. I’ve found that useful advice.
Where does that leave me? Caught in the middle as usual, I guess. But that’s not a bad place. You can sit back and watch the most fascinating people pass by.
Who knows, maybe I explore art the same way I explore the world: always aiming for uncharted territory, but well equipped and thoroughly planned. Always open to ideas, new ones and old ones, but rarely committed to one for long. Ideas, after all, are in near-endless supply and most of them contain a snippet of Truth. Many people find one such snippet and hold onto it for dear life – while I’m already off looking for the next one.
You speak from the depths of my very own heart, Professor. Art, as love and beauty, is in the soul of the participant. Opinions drive the world of art to wax and wane at its leisure, never resting in one place for to long. Opinion may not drive progress, yet it drives change.
I do wish you good tidings in the pursuit of science, art, and Truth, Professor. Our time draws to an end – and what delight the time truly was! Only one last query – would you have any sagely advice for our dearest readers?
Ha! You think I still haven’t pontificated enough? I will admit I am susceptible to flattery, and as should be clear by now I can talk the legs off a centipede. But all good things must come to an end, so I shall aim for brevity at last:
When you can’t find someone to follow, find a way to lead by example. When you can’t find a way, start walking and make one. And remember that in the end it’s better to fail in following your own destiny, than succeed in someone else’s.