The Garden of Earthly Delights

I fully intended today's post to be about something else entirely. I was going to do this whole thing on apocalyptic art featuring painters like Bosch, Brueghel, Blake, Durer, etc, but then I got sucked in by one particular painting and was thrown in a completely different direction.

So let's go with it, shall we?

I still might do the big classical art post, but for now I wanted to share my thoughts after spending some time with Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.

Do you all know this painting? If not, hop over here to take a look at a large hi-res version of it.

It's ok, I'll wait.

Got it?

Ok, first thing--whoa. Crazy, huh?   The craziest thing to me is that this was painted in the late 15th or early 16th century and it still feels so fresh and is still so shocking.

This is a triptych, a painting made up of three sections. Looking from left to right we see God bringing Eve to Adam together in the garden, then in the center section is man after the loss of innocence, and finally the last panel shows hell after the final judgment. (For some interesting background and analysis on it, you can go here.)

This is what got me thinking. How many other artists have approached these exact same scenes and characters? Countless right? So why is this painting to striking? Clearly it's in the details. It's what Bosch brought to it. Sure, we've seen demons before in artwork, but we've never seen Bosch's demons before. We've seen Hell, but we've never seen Bosch's Hell.

This made me think about what we do with speculative fiction. We're working in genres that have certain components. There's been an apocalyptic event. There's some new technology. There are aliens. There are ghosts. There are monsters. Whatever. No matter the situation, thousands of writers have dealt with it before. So how do we wipe the haze of familiarity away from the genre elements and make them as arresting as Bosch's work?

How do we make the familiar strange again?

Like he did, we have to ask ourselves: "How is my alien different than anyone else's alien?" "What is a ghost to me?" "What is the end of the world?" "How can I flavor my story with details that I, and only I, can bring?" Even if you're writing naturalistic fiction it applies. "What is high school to me?" What is a family?" "How do I see these things differently from anyone else?"

I think that by answering these questions honestly from your own unique point of view you can come to some really striking things. Maybe it sounds simplistic, but more and more I find that it's important to keep these fundamentals in the very front of my mind.

It's exciting if you think about it. Details are kind of our playground, aren't they? It's one of the places where we can really engage our imagination and make things deeply personal.

For modern examples look at Scott Westerfield's treatment of steampunk technology in Leviathan or Patrick Ness's look at an alien world in The Knife of Never Letting Go. On the adult side, check out what China Mieville did with a fairly standard detective plot in The City and The City or how Anne Rice reinvented vampires in a way that still reverberates right up into Twilight.

What do you all think of this? How do you make a work your's and no one else's? Is that a consideration? Any picks for other truly visionary works of speculative fiction?


Mandy P.S. said...

I think Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy is a good example of a work that has a different flavor from other books in the genre. The trilogy starts with the idea "What if the Dark Lord won the final battle?" And the trilogy didn't just stop there. It turned a lot of fantasy tropes on their head. I found the books to be a fantastic read.

Gertie said...

Nice post! What kind of drugs do you think Bosch was on? My favorite part of that painting is the guy with the bouquet of flowers up his bum. How whimsical!

Jeff Hirsch said...

Hi Bittersweet! Thanks for the recommendation. I'll check it out!

Angie said...

Good post, Jeff. When I think visionary sci-fi, Neuromancer by William Gibson is the first thing that comes to mind. He created the idea of cyberspace and influenced how sf writers and everyone else envision it.

Julia said...

Those Flemish artists scare the bejeezus out of me!