Reconcepting the Bleak Academy

Somewhere, beyond the boundaries of all we know, in a terrible and alien realm —

— or perhaps it is actually hidden somewhere very close, nestled away from the prying eyes of heroes and saviors —

— there is a school that will make you into an enemy of existence, and train you to build monstrous wonders that stand defiant against the order of the world.

For the sake of my own health and happiness, for the well-being of my soul, this thing must be true.  Even if it isn’t.

*****

This idea has haunted me for a long, long time.  Bits and pieces of it, anyway.

The whole enemy-of-the-world, pitting-your-creation-against-reality thing is a power trope for me; it’s lodged good and deep in my psyche.  I’m not sure how it came to be quite so important, so defining.  Maybe that’s just what happens when you grow up alienated and bellicose and obsessed with genre fiction — you become hostile to the things that surround you, which might be hard to maintain if you felt totally immersed in those things, but as it is you can’t help thinking about alternatives.  And then you start self-identifying as “the guy who’s invested in the alternatives-to-reality that dwell in his heart,” and by that point the path before you has been prepared.

Anyway.

It probably wouldn’t have stuck, for me, if there hadn’t been so much good literature I could use to build on the idea.  The Cthulhu Mythos first and foremost, of course.  I started reading Lovecraft and Chambers young, and from the first I had the distinct sense that — contrary to the authors’ desires — I was supposed to be cheering for the aliens to tear down the world and replace it with something strange and wonderful.  Why else would it be so goddamn easy to identify with Wilbur Whateley?  Why else would the eerie discomfort of Carcosa and its King be so cool?  Lovecraft himself was obviously terrified of the monstrous weirdness he was depicting, and fine, that’s an author’s prerogative, but he sure did make it appealing.

(The Dream Cycle complicates this dynamic a lot, but I’ll just say…I would ride into Celephais, in a heartbeat, even if Kuranes ultimately wished that he hadn’t.)

(Like every young Sondheim fan, I get misty-eyed over the song “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods.  My mental version has slightly different lyrics, though, and it’s about a very different breed of “giants.”)

And then there was the contemporary stuff, more narrowly-focused on demiurgery and blasphemous personal vision, less defined by a fear of seafood.  The witch-labyrinths from Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  The Infernal Exalted, and their demonic patrons, from Exalted.  The Excrucians from Nobilis, by Jenna Moran.  The lamia and their “songs” from Dreaming Waters, also by Jenna Moran.

Consume enough media like that, and you’ll start to think that maybe you can create something that will stand defiant against the order of the world.

*****

School is also a power thing for me, albeit in a sort of twisted way.

I spent twenty of my thirty years of life as a student of some sort.  Many of my friends are academics.  My wife is a schoolteacher.  My mother is a professional school-admissions counselor.  I make money on the side tutoring people for school entrance exams.

There has been a lot of school in my life.  School has a kind of resonance for me that basically no other setting does.  Office work, court intrigue, quests to travel across the continent and defeat the Dark Lord — who can take such ephemera seriously?  They don’t have classes, or curricula, or reading assignments, or anything.

And yet, as it turns out, I’ve always been kind of unhappy and uncomfortable in school.  Certainly I was never very good at using scholastic infrastructure to learn.  Explaining that in depth would require more text, and more personal revelation, than anyone really wants…let it suffice to say that I’ve always been too prickly, too reflexively unwilling to work with authority figures, for standard-style instruction to work super well.  There are some bad memories, and even more, a lot of memories of wasted time.

I could get resentful, and write off the whole idea of schooling as a thing-to-which-I-am-opposed.  I’ve done a lot of that, in truth.  Disgruntlement comes naturally.  But there’s still a part of me that really wants to make it come together somehow.  I would like the glories of my youth, the ivied halls and the “life of the mind” rhetoric and so forth, to be redeemable within my own ideals and my own aesthetic.  Even if I’m notionally aligned against the schools that I actually attended, some part of them seeped into me, and…if I could find a way…I would be happier to honor that part than to cut it out in the name of consistency.

*****

So yeah.  A school for world-destroyers and blasphemous demiurges.  That’s the ticket.  The notion came together in my head a few years ago, and I got really excited about it.  I figured I could do something really cool with it.

Then I learned that there was one small problem with that project —

— someone had already done something really cool with it.  Jenna Moran.  Of course.

Here I’m referring to the Bleak Academy from Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, an institution that is basically “Excrucian college.”  It is a thing of grace and beauty.  It is a place of slice-of-life school stories intermingled with existential horror and really wonky philosophy, all presented in standard-issue gorgeous Moran prose.  It’s the sort of place that would undoubtedly have comfortable resonances for me, and the sort of place where I could feel like I was genuinely taking the enemy-of-the-world thing seriously.

Even the actual schooling part reads like it was designed to appeal to my sensibilities!

“I assume it’s sort of like a school campus. It’s probably in the model of a European campus or monastery, complete with ancient architecture and mad-eyed scholars hiding in the stacks or labyrinths. There are grad-students chained to their cubicles as they process ancient, blasphemous texts, because that’s the place where their nightmares led them. There are god-students in their onmyouji hats floating amongst the clouds, exchanging thunderbolts, because that’s the direction of their dreams. The place pulses with a sense of hidden marvel but also of delirium. Its curriculum focuses heavily on independent study as each person builds a Hell or godhood for themselves.”

Jenna Moran, Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine

Yeah!

(And the most me-appropriate sub-college, the one where I’m obviously supposed to map myself, is “full of bleak wizards” but in fact structured around the study of law and moral philosophy.  Which feels…especially resonant.)

I saw that, and I put my project plans down.  I mean, what would be the point?

*****

Except that I think I’m going to pick them back up again.  On a trial basis, at least.

Because the Bleak Academy, as stunning as it is, isn’t quite right.  Not for my purposes, anyway.

…in that the whole thing is organized around the traditional Nobilis Excrucian sub-categories, which always seemed kind of hollow and arbitrary to me.

…in that the Headmaster of the Bleak Academy is Death, or at least “the lord of Death’s domain,” which strikes me as monstrously inappropriate for an institution with this purpose.

…in that the entire Chuubo’s universe is narrative, and the narratives surrounding the Bleak Academy are all about its being the Terrifying Other, and that’s the opposite of what I want.  I mean, yeah, OK, I kind of do want to be the Terrifying Other — but not from my own perspective, and it’s my own perspective that I’m trying to build up here.  I want to know, not how to stare into Excrucian eyes, but how to see through them myself.  And Moran’s characteristic brand of pop-mythic numinous hand-waving doesn’t really give me anything to work with.

…in that the thing that matters about a school, above all else, is what is learned.  The Bleak Academy is too Other for anyone consuming the text to get to sit in on the lectures or read the textbooks.

And, well, creating something from yourself is sort of what this whole thing is about —

*****

So I will try to conjure up my own school for demiurgery and blasphemy and world-breaking.  Maybe it will be too derivative to stand on its own.  Maybe my complaints about the Bleak Academy, my points of desired divergence, aren’t substantive enough for it to be worth the effort.  I could believe that.  But I’d rather give it a shot then sit here looking awkwardly at this lovely-but-not-quite-perfect toy that I’ve been given.

I’m really not sure what I’ll do with it.  Maybe it will be a short story, or a novel.  Maybe it will be a funky indie super-niche tabletop RPG; “watch yourself go from student to cosmic horror, from the inside” seems like a fun story for people to play out themselves.  I feel like it probably isn’t meant to become a LARP, although given my history, I suppose one can’t ever be sure.

*****

What do I know about it, at this juncture?

Very little.  Mostly there are a few scattered thoughts on curriculum.

  • Probably the whole institution is built around independent study, much like the Bleak Academy.  I wouldn’t be able to deal with it otherwise.  And normal classes don’t feel like they’re good enough at differentiating people to produce demiurges.
  • Probably there are two basic classes that you have to take early: some sort of practical physics-like principles-of-existence class that teaches you how to break down the world and replace it with your own stuff, and some sort of moral philosophy seminar that cements your resolve and helps you grow into your nature.
  • After that…I imagine a lot of small specializations, more like merit badges than like majors.  Meditation and practical psychology for the students who mostly want to change themselves and turn into monsters.  Developmental psychology, and something vaguely like bio and vaguely like Paracelsian alchemy, for the students who want to fashion demons.  Cosmology and metaphysics and architecture for the students whose visions are the broadest and least personal.  Rhetoric, and warcraft, for the students who intend to tangle with heroes and saviors.

*****

Your thoughts are very much welcomed.

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Reconcepting the Bleak Academy

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