THR Web Features   /   February 8, 2023


How did the world come to be?

Richard Hughes Gibson

( “How to Fly Without Wings” by Jeremy Botts;

Naturally, we were all there—old Qfwfq said—where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?

I say “packed like sardines,” using a literary image: in reality there wasn’t even space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were. In fact, we didn’t even bother one another, except for personality differences, because when space doesn’t exist, having somebody unpleasant like Mr Pbert Pberd underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.

How many of us were there? Oh, I was never able to figure that out, not even approximately. To make a count, we would have had to move apart, at least a little, and instead we all occupied that same point. Contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t the sort of situation that encourages sociability; I know, for example, that in other periods neighbours called on one another; but there, because of the fact that we were all neighbours, nobody even said good morning or good evening to anybody else.

“All at One Point” (1965) by Italo Calvino (Translation by William Weaver)

Picture the creative serpent, scoring deep into—scouring down through—the slippery underground mudflats, leaving in its wake the thunder of tunnels collapsing to form deep sunken valleys. The sea water following in the serpent’s wake, swarming in a frenzy of tidal waves, soon changed colour from ocean blue to the yellow of mud. The water filled the swirling tracks to form the mighty bending rivers spread across the vast plains of the Gulf country. […] When it finished creating the many rivers in its wake, it created one last river, no larger or smaller than the others, a river which offers no apologies for its discontent with people who don’t know it. This is where the giant serpent continues to live deep down under the ground in a vast network of limestone acquifers. They say it’s being is porous; it permeates everything. It is all around in the atmosphere and is attached to the lives of the river people like skin.

Carpentaria (2006) by Alexis Wright

A good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his slave if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his end of the bargain. Freedom was easy—the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn’t want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, “Oh, no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.”

“But it’s high up in the hills,” said the slave.

“High up from us,” said the master, “but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven—best land there is.”

So the slave pressed his master to try to get him some. He preferred it to the valley. And it was done.

Sula (1973) by Toni Morrison

How did the world come to be? Answers to this question are called “cosmogonies” from the union of the Greek cosmos and gonos (the latter term meaning “offspring” or “creation”). Nowadays, the most authoritative answers come from scientists, whose accounts draw us back roughly 13.8 billion years ago to the Big Bang. Science’s supremacy in this regard is a relatively late development, however. For most of human history, cosmogony has been the prerogative of poets and priests. In the Theogony, for example, the ancient Greek bard Hesiod sings of Gaia (Earth) emerging from Chaos, beginning a divine family saga that stretches to Zeus’s ascendancy. The Sanskrit scriptures look back to a “golden womb” or “golden egg,” one of several embryonic beginnings found in sacred texts worldwide. And, of course, the first chapter of Genesis lays out the week that God spent putting the universe in order, giving it appropriate lighting, filling the world with life, and, in the end, taking a well-deserved day off.

Fiction writers are world builders, and so cosmogony should be recognized as a problem in the art of fiction too. This is easy enough to recognize in the cases of fantasy and sci-fi writers who invent their own universes and so must account for their origins (see Tolkien, J. R. R.), or in works that probe the narrative potential of modern cosmogony such as the source of my first extract, Italo Calvino’s short story collection Cosmicomics (1965). What kind of story can you tell when there is no sunlight? When the Earth was just a gray ball? When there were only a handful of hydrogen atoms in the universe? In the selection, we hear about the singular state before the cosmic expansion began—in which everyone was bundled into one point. Calvino’s counterintuitive claim is that people didn’t socialize much under such conditions; for calling on a neighbor requires space and saying “good morning” or “good evening” requires multiple times of day. In effect, Calvino has claimed modern cosmogony for the poets, letting the imagination run wild in seemingly inhospitable spaces (like a solitary point).

Indigenous writers have also foregrounded the matter of cosmogony by integrating traditional creation myths into stories set in the modern world. We see this happening in my second extract, taken from the first chapter of the Waanyi writer Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006). A CliffsNotes-style rundown will tell you that the story takes place in the fictional town of Desperance, located in the northeast Australian state of Queensland. In the passage that I have quoted, though, Wright situates the story within another, more ancient setting—the Dreaming, that hard-to-translate aboriginal concept encompassing the ancestral past in which the world took shape as well as the ongoing relations between life, human and otherwise, and landscape. In my chosen passage, Wright invites us to picture the ancestral rainbow serpent crawling and tunneling, forming rivers in its wake, “those billions of years ago.” But cosmogony here is not simply a question of the distant past, a delightful “just-so” story. The narrator insists that the serpent remains beneath the land and that, for those attuned to its being, it is a living force. The narrative then plays the personal and political intrigues of Desperance’s indigenous characters (exacerbated when a mining corporation sets up shop on sacred land) against this deeper, enduring reality, and Wright’s handling of time is accordingly, and wonderfully, slippery.

Yet the question of how the story world came into existence is an inescapable one for all fiction writers, whether a writer’s timescale is billions of years or two or three generations. Readers—those nosy creatures—don’t just want a Genesis for interplanetary confederations and kingdoms of elves; families, towns, and neighborhoods demand origin stories too. Cosmogony thus often takes on far more local dimensions in many stories—microcosmogony, we might call it.

My third extract, drawn from Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula (1973), works at this level. Morrison offers what scholars call an “etiological tale,” which is to say a story that explains the original cause of some current state of affairs. (How did the leopard get its spots? Why do the priests keep the sacrificial meat? Why is the god Shiva’s throat blue?) In Sula, the tale is a local joke, one that explains how black people came to reside in a hilly neighborhood above the valley town of Medallion, Ohio, curiously named “the Bottom.” Morrison stresses that this is the sort of joke that locals tell when feeling down on their lots. White people tell it to console themselves “when the mill closes down and they’re looking for a little comfort somewhere” (by recalling their perceived superiority), while “colored folks tell [it] on themselves when the rain doesn’t come, or comes for weeks, and they’re looking for a little comfort somehow.”

Many etiological tales feature a humorous, and frequently cruel, twist. Trickster characters are perfectly at home in this genre. Here the trickster is a white slaveowner who is willing to be “good” up to a point: Freeing the hardworking slave is “easy” but giving up fertile valley land is costly. So the slaveowner makes the hilly land attractive by projecting it into a cosmic landscape, duping the slave through his good faith and understandable wish to own a few acres of heaven. Morrison’s etiology for the Bottom taps into a deeper national vein concerning the true costs of freedom. Recall W.E.B. Du Bois: “[T]he vision of ‘forty acres and a mule’—the righteous and reasonable ambition to become a landholder, which the nation had all but categorically promised the freedmen—was destined in most cases to bitter disappointment.”

But Morrison is too clever to leave the matter there. The narrator stresses the equivocal nature of the place. To work this land is backbreaking and soul-testing, yet the Bottom has its geographical advantages. With the white people nestled in the valley below, the hilltoppers enjoy a jest of their own: “every day they could literally look down on the white folks.” Moreover, the narrator stresses that “it was lovely up in the Bottom,” and its charms are apparent to white visitors who “wondered in private if maybe the white farmer was right after all. Maybe it was the bottom of heaven.” That suggestion is complicated, in turn, by the narrator’s observation that the black residents would have disagreed if their busy lives allowed them “time to think about it.” The Bottom is a place of beauty and music and laughter and, simultaneously, violence, destitution, and “adult pain.” The joke may be the first word on the Bottom, but it is not the final one. The Bottom is complex—just like as the lives of the inhabitants whom the narration goes on to record.

These examples demonstrate that writers have options regarding the source of their cosmogony, its scale, as well as the stance they adopt to toward the stories we build up and pass down about how things came to be. Cosmogony can be a play space, an alternative reality, a bitter joke. Cosmogonies are points of reference and thus reflection; they feel at times distant and strange, but they can also seem close at hand and prophetic. Can we escape the terms of the world’s inception? Is cosmogony also destiny? Would it be better to circle back to the beginning?

Such questions hint at the entanglement of cosmogony and eschatology (the theory of “last things”), and all three of the authors considered here were sensitive to this connection. Calvino’s Old Qfwfq holds out hope for a Big Crunch that will recondense the universe to a single point so that he may be reunited with Mrs. Ph(i)Nk0 whose loving wish to cook some pasta for others catalyzed the Big Bang. At the close of Carpentaria (plot spoiler alert), the ancestral serpent reasserts itself in the form of a land-clearing cyclone, providing a chance to begin the world again. Strikingly, Morrison makes “microeschatology” (if you will) the business of the novel’s first sentence: “In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.” There is in this fate an echo of the perfidious humor of the trickster: The Bottom has been erased to make way for a club that black people cannot join. But the knowledge of the Bottom’s uprooting only adds gravity to what Morrison is doing in the novel.  Her account provides the abiding witness to such neglected places where people loved and suffered, played and got played, exulted and buried their dead. The art of fiction observes, and preserves, the glories and sorrows of worlds we might not otherwise see.