by Andrew Patton
Andrew Patton’s Note:
I must admit that I am both flattered and chastened to see my little essay reappear, after so many years, in this special issue of Sarantine Letters devoted to re-examining Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Sarantine Mosaic”. It is no exaggeration to say that nothing in Sarantine studies has been the same since Kay’s work first was published. After it appeared, to a popular success which surprised everyone, the Sarantine period was suddenly of issue to the public and to the media, after having been left in darkness for so many years. Many of us, and I was no exception, were almost giddy with unexpected celebrity. Some were envious of Kay’s fame. Several grumbled that it was undeserved, that better histories of the period had been written, that Kay had become a mere popularizer, etc. We were busy biting the hand that fed us, even as we revelled in the light it brought to our own endeavours.
With the passage of time, though, it became clear to many that the popularity of Kay’s history was, let us say, “convenient” for The Regime, which did not fail to do everything in its power to assist in elevating that book into something like the New Official History of the Sarantine Period. It became more apparent each day, as those in power attempted to control ever larger areas of public life, that an attempt was being made to establish parallels between The Regime and the glories of the Sarantine Period. At a merely personal level, this could not help but add to the envy we felt. At a political level, Kay’s chronicle was turned from a work of history into a instrument of the present.
Once The Regime so suddenly fell, it was as though we were breathing a different atmosphere. It became possible to express publicly the criticisms that had been steadily growing about, on the one hand the scholarship, and on the other the popularity and the public role, of Kay’s “Mosaic”. I imagined that my little essay, which follows below, would begin a period of reassessment of his chronicle, of its proper place in our contemporary culture. I am sorry to say that instead, it was the work that opened the floodgates to a tide of resentment that had been festering.
“The light of day shows every man to be fool.” It never had occurred to me that this commonplace would have applied to my own endeavours. Like so many, I mistook the chaos that followed The Regime’s collapse as the fitful beginnings of a less benighted period. Although I could plainly see how Kay’s scholarship-whatever my problems with it-had been used by those who truly relished wielding power, I did not imagine for a moment that my own work as well could be put to a brutal use I would never have countenanced. The fruit of what I had thought to be a simple criticism of a too ambitious and too popular Sarantine historian was not only the bitterness between us-which only now, two decades later, has been bleached away in Jad’s brilliant light-but also, in a matter of weeks, Kay’s imprisonment. I can only hang my head and say that I was a fool. We were pawns, both of us, and had we truly learned our lessons from the period we purported to study, we might have avoided being so sorely used.
What will not be visible in my essay, wallowing as it does in self-righteousness, is what I most admired on first reading “The Sarantine Mosaic”. Caius Crispus the mosaicist is made Kay’s protagonist, and since he is the prism through which the tale is refracted, we as readers of course identify with him. As he enters the great city at the order of Valerius we expect him to rise through the ranks of the court, to disentangle the labyrinthine Sarantine intrigues, to stun the world with his art. Yet none of this occurs. Crispus is shown to be completely out of his league, a night-creature blinking dazed in the light of day, a pawn in a game whose dimensions he cannot imagine. If I had been guided by what I admired in the book rather than by what I dismissed I could now claim some portion of a genuine intelligence.
All this is now subject to what a certain scholar of Rhodias has called “the impertinence of hindsight.” So be it. I have allowed the essay to be reprinted below without changes. If it places my own thought in an unflattering light, then that perhaps is just. In the end, Kay and I are both simply historians: our creed must be that the mosaic of persons and events which we call “history” should be given to Jad’s light for all to see. “All must be Illumined”, as we say.
Scholars and amateurs of Sarantine culture and history were well used to toiling in shadow until the last few years-when the surprising popularity of Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Sarantine Mosaic” suddenly made our formerly quaint field an object of fascination to so many. Indeed, things have changed so much that one commentator was recently moved to complain that Sarantium is now “merely the fad that supplanted scholarship.” Personally, I welcome the attention paid to a field of study which is, as I have argued elsewhere (see my “…Hermeneutic…” in The Journal of the Batiaran Society), crucial to any attempt to understand the world in which we live today: a world in which a darker tide of Ludan superstition still collides with the lucidity of Jadian thought. It might seem churlish then to criticize Kay’s rendering of Sarantine culture, yet there is so much of the inaccurate to his chronicle that in the final analysis, one must say that his is the work of a novelist, not a historian.
For a specialist in Sarantine mosaics such as myself, it was a more than momentary pleasure to see a mosaicist, Caius Crispus (or “Crispin” as he is also called), accorded a central role in Kay’s narrative of the period. As a teacher myself, I am well aware of the advantages to choosing one figure and displaying the history of period from that perspective. But the fact still remains that Crispus was a minor figure outside the domain of his art, and, Kay’s conjectures not withstanding, may not in fact have been the artist who made the well-known journey to Sarantium. There is little dispute, for example, over the authenticity of the Baiana Manuscript, which details several hundred orders sent by Valerius II to Batiara by the Imperial Post, including the order summoning Martinian to Sarantium to work on the New Sanctuary of Jad. Kay’s own earlier paper admits that “the confusion around whether Martinian himself, or Crispus, or even an assistant from Martinian’s workshop, made the journey to Sarantium may never be resolved, given the conflicting eye-witness accounts of both the mosaicist and his work in the Imperial City.” (Kay, Sarantine Letters) In fact, the only mosaic we can confidently assign to Crispus is that in the small shrine at Platonia outside Baiana, which has a graffito underneath which reads “Martinian with his workmen Crispus and Pardos”, suggesting either that the mosaic was made at a time when Crispus was still a mere assistant, or that he remained so all his life.
It is in the nature of popular histories that they must have forceful narratives in order to succeed in finding a public. And unless the public can be rhetorically bound to a history, then our history may as well not have existed at all. So I don’t dispute Kay’s right-and even the necessity-to resolve certain historical ambiguities for a popular audience. But I am at a loss to understand why he would place at the centre of his narrative a figure whom his own researches have shown might not even have journeyed to Sarantium at all. For a Jaddite scholar, there is an undeniable beauty to the idea of writing a history centred on the figure of a mosaicist. And this shines all the more brilliantly as it reflects off Kay’s long-standing interest in Early Jaddite rites-and especially their deployment of what he has called “vision-in-darkness” as an analogy to Jaddite priests dispelling pagan superstition. (Kay, Journal of the Batiaran Society.) Nonetheless, Kay has gone so far in, for example, deciding the issue of Martinian or Crispin at Sarantium, that it might have been more honest simply to have written a historical fiction, in which it was made clear from the start that the author was utilizing actual historical figures in order to speculate about what might have been. My greatest fear is that, as a result of its being so widely taken up by the public-which he obviously could not have foreseen-his narrative will be taken as historical fact. If it does, then for the public at least, his narrative will have darkened history, rather than illumined it.
But I believe that I can shine some light on why Kay would have so arbitrarily resolved the question of the identity of the New Sanctuary Mosaicist, as he has come to be known among scholars. I have already pointed out that deciding the issue allows the construction of a more compelling narrative than we might have had, given the ambiguities and incompleteness of the records left us. But a careful reading of Kay’s narrative is illuminating. In his first volume, much is made of the fact that the makers of the mosaics in the ancient chapel in Sauradia were unknown even in Martinian’s period, even to Kay’s “Crispin”. Kay refers to “the world’s sorrow…distilled by nameless artisans.” He writes too of “the unknown mosaicists of long ago…reporting on this dome to their brethren”, and later that “one shame is that we don’t know their name, to honour them”.
We can see then a deep concern with the condition of being without a name-a theme which I’m sure you’ll recall he has touched on in a chronicle of another periods. Quite apart from the demands of the narrative, this alone might be reason enough to name the mosaicist and thereby honour him. In Kay’s defence, it could be argued that it might be better to honour the maker of those fine mosaics in giving him a name, even if that naming might well be inaccurate. If in doing so, we cheat Martinian-who many have argued was the likely New Sanctuary Mosaicist-the fact remains that before the success of Kay’s “Sarantine Mosaic” the names of neither Martinian nor Crispus, let alone Pardos the Assistant (also known as Pardos Parietarius- roughly “Pardos the Ornamenter”), were known to anyone but specialists in the field. But I do not think that this is where the matter truly rests. For, as I see it, there is something dusky that spreads its cloak here, something which if spoken aloud would have been seen instantly for what it was-an insult to all that worshippers of Jad hold dear.
In Kay’s telling, Crispin declares that “Mosaic is a dream of light. Of colour. It is the play of light on colour. It is craft…I have sometimes called it an art.” This is the wick of the candle. Kay is correct in showing the Sarantine period to have been the very one in which the makers of mosaic first attempted to claim that their work was truly an art, rather than a mere craft. It is this which Crispin-for the purposes of the historical accuracy Kay lets slide into darkness, let us call him instead “the figure of the mosaicist”-so brightly touches upon.
Now throughout his chronicle, Kay has carefully and craftily (I will not say “artfully” for reasons that will soon become apparent) studded the writing with references to colours. While initially I marvelled at the careful inlaying of these bright bits, it was this very skill that soon allowed me to see his grander strategy. As I read on, I began to see as well the lapidary fashion in which narratival episodes were laid next to each other, sometimes making neighbours of vastly different places, ranks of persons, or perspectives. At one point, Kay even places a dreadful pagan event next to a description of the wondrous chapel in Sauradia. While this seems almost to equate the two (and thereby to lend credence to what is surely superstition), it is difficult not to amazed at his gleaming skill in laying these diverse pieces of a vanished world next to one another.
I hope that you will not think that I am being fanciful in comparing his writing to the great art of mosaic, for that is precisely the issue. Nor have I been alone in seeing this, as the distinguished theorist of Comparative Arts, Milicia, was the first to note: “Evidently Kay has in mind mosaics as an analogy for how a novel might be constructed in discrete units with the ‘big picture’ visible only as one steps back. From this viewpoint even the relatively peripheral characters might be themselves less like characters per se than pieces of glass displayed, and turned to the light by the historian.” (Milicia, Writing Wrinkled) While Milicia is, as usual, completely correct, I think it must be said that he misses the point of this point.
What seems to have escaped notice, so quietly was it done, and so skilfully hidden in plain sight, is the fact that Kay himself has titled the two books which make up his chronicle, “The Sarantine Mosaic”. This is not simply a harmless metaphor. It is manifestly a claim made by the writer about the status of his work. Now, nowhere-except in the title, which no one yet has taken at face value-does Kay in fact explicitly claim that his work is the equal of a mosaic. Nonetheless, it incessantly mimics that great art throughout its written structure. If you will attend carefully to the book’s construction at both large and small scales, in both the writing of sentences and the composing of separate episodes, you will see, as I have begun to, that Kay is attempting to convince us that writing, like mosaic, is an art.
This is clearly a blasphemous view, and one which would have been immediately dismissed as preposterous if Kay had simply made that claim outright. I do not see, and I know that I am not alone in this, how one could compare mere writing to the art of mosaic or any of the more recent technologies of light in which we recognize Jad’s Sacred Art. I do not say this out of ignorance, or out of any lack of respect for those skilled in words, for obviously, as historians, I and all of my colleagues must necessarily work in the medium of language. Where else does history exist? But whether we speak of the writing of histories, or of those ubiquitous “romances of the present” that have lately become so popular, I think the lesser status of words compared with light must be obvious to all. (And certainly, we know that this much must have once been clear to Kay, who wrote so moving about the Logosiennes, known to the popular mind as “Peoples of The Book”-that brief-lived heretical group who, ridiculous as it might seem to the modern view, worshipped the word itself, and even proclaimed that “the Word was made flesh” ! This sect, and its destruction, is of course what lies so distantly behind our Fire Festival, in which books are ritually burned so that the words now give light. Is it possible that Kay was infected by his historical studies of this heresy, and that only years later did its fever appear? See Kay’s The Word Made Flesh…”, Sarantine Letters)
Centuries ago (as Kay well knows: see his Heladikos the Charioteer…) the Sleepless Ones wrote the opto-theological texts that become the basis of both our science and our faith simultaneously: “When rays emanating from a luminous body reach another body that is smooth, polished and shining, such as a sword or a mosaic, and rebound back from that body, this is known as**splendour.** By means of such reflections, light in space is multiplied, and this multiplication is itself Jad’s very body. ” Only an art of light takes part in Jad’s Sacred Being; as we say each year in our Festival of Light, “Only open your eyes, and your body shall fill with light.” It is for this reason that we have exalted mosaic for so many centuries and embraced newer forms as they emerged-stained glass, projection, light polarization and amplification. Writing must always be a lesser form because it can only refer to Jad’s sumptuous all-revealing grace; it cannot take part in it. “We see by Jad’s Light.” To state the obvious: reading, without which Kay’s work cannot take place, can not occur without light. Kay’s text- whatever its merits-will always be secondary to the light that makes reading possible at all. (In passing, I should say that I do not wish to explore here the fact that the two exemplary Jaddite objects in the first quotation are a weapon and an artwork, with the weapon named first. While this is crucial to our history and culture, it is not what is most important here.)
What is to be done? I have given this much thought, and have attempted not to allow my judgment to be swayed by my admiration for Kay’s earlier work. As much I loathed the intrusions of the previous, imperious Office of the Censor into all matters and all areas of thought, it must be obvious to all that the recent Laws For the Protection of the Public Mind have been put in place only to keep the monstrosities of the past from reappearing. I do not wish to see historical researches of any type or period restricted in any way. But Kay’s work has already been widely read, too widely in the opinion of many, and the advatanges to be derived from a work of this kind, in respect to progress in the study and dissemination of history, can never compensate for the irreparable damage that result from it in regard to morality and religion. I do not think it would be any hardship, then, to see it removed entirely under the new laws. Some few copies would survive in the libraries where bona fide scholars of the period could still find them, whose knowledge and researches in the period would innoculate them against Kay’s errors. The public would thus be protected from both Kay’s distortions of that period, and more importantly from the deep religious insult which is at the core of the work.
To some, my arguments may already have proven sufficient; I have no doubt that others will see them as lacking, To this I would say that there is a further, and even more crucial point to be made. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that Kay’s distortions and the anti-Jaddian thrust of his work are still not reason enough to apply the Laws. This argument would be blind to an unfortunate historical and political reality. Kay’s book has over the years become thoroughly entwined with the machinations and crimes of The Regime that put his history to work. I do not believe that this was ever Kay’s intention. Thus I can say that while Kay is innocent of those crimes, the book is guilty. How can the public be expected to somehow read past the wretched history we have lived through and see his book somehow anew? To read it at all, at this point in time and for the foreseeable future, is only to recreate afresh a terrible power from which we have only recently, and at the greatest cost, freed ourselves.
Guy Gavriel Kay, “Martinian, Valerius II, and the New Sanctuary: Deconstructing Identity/Identifying the Sacred”. Sarantine Letters, XVII.
Guy Gavriel Kay, “Mobilizing Light: Anti-Pagan Visual Rhetoric in Varennian Mosaics”, The Journal of the Batiaran Society, R2317.
Guy Gavriel Kay, “The Word Made Flesh: Worshipping the Logos in Sarantine Period Sects”, Sarantine Letters: Special Issue on Anti-Jaddite Heresies of the Period.
Guy Gavriel Kay, Heladikos the Charioteer and the Rise of Opto-Theological Individualism, Traversite Press, Deapolis.
Joseph Milicia, Writing Wrinkled: How Writing Was Transformed by Representing the Major Jaddite Arts, Traversite Press, Deapolis.
Andrew Patton, “The Sarantine Period as Foundational for Present Thought: Model, Lens, or Enigma? A Hermeneutic Presented”, The Journal of the Batiaran Society, R2345.
© Andrew Patton 2001