‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]
‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.
There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.
Saturday, 7 December 2019
[Excerpted here are lines 20-79; this is the passage immediately before the miners unearth the mysterious artefact buried deep beneath Copernicus crater. The text is taken from Smithee's edition. Kipling's Moon Miners antedates 2001: A Space Odyssey by half a century.]
We worked, digging down slant and delving deep from Copernicus’ crater
And each of us working a ten hour day, and grinding their Excavator.
Our suits’ remote commanding the drills, tunnelling lasers and Chutes
Six foot men are small as dwarves beside those mechanical brutes—
Moon miners we, paid to tunnel, the regolith over us all;
The only sounds our helmet-pent breath, the world coloured black and pall.
And the cavern advancing inch by inch, punching through lunar crust;
Each morning meeting the frozen rock, each evening leaving it dust.
And the days on the moon are a fortnight long and are hotter than boiled lead
And the nights are exactly as long again and cold as the thoughts of the dead.
And the dust is fine as sea-beach sand where breakers turn onto their side—
Though the moon’s an oceanless beach, and parched, and rockfall’s the only tide;
It's pebbles and rocks and meteors that come crashing out of blank sky
And millennia pass between each splash, and that surf is deathly dry.
Hurtling down, smashing and crashing, and milling rough rock into dust
An anvil of land and myriad hammers, and so the topography’s crushed.
Soundlessness, vacuum, eerie and dark, confusion of far and near:
The miner toils in his cell spurred on by ‘we’re building a city here!’
Die-cut shadows dance in the blackness thrown by the welder’s spark;
There are twenty types of moonrock, lads, but a thousand types of dark—
A thousand kinds of darkness there, and the cold comes on up through your boots:
Those lunar hilltops are bleak, for sure; but it's bleaker by far at their roots.
We’d dug the main chamber, and sealed the sides with Palmact agent and Glu
And we’d paved the floor with laze-planed stones, and fitted these flags to the true.
And the echoless cavern reared eerily over us, arc-lit, hooped and tall
Shadows seemed of elastic, and stretched, flitted and slid on the wall.
Our suits were black as charcoal up from the boots to the helmets’ peaks;
A thing you don't know about moondust, perhaps, is just how vile it reeks:
It stinks with the taint of sulphur, of a gunpowder fashioned in hell,
And you never quite wash yourself of it clean, though you scrub down ever so well.
So we eat and we sleep; and ready ourselves, and its back sublunar again—
Though it’s hard and ill-paid and dangerous too, yet we’re Lunewomen and -men.
And so we dig on, and the Vaters moved, jabbed blades, turn, dig and sweep,
On earth they’d have clanked, hissed and grumbled; but here all was quiet as sleep.
We drove three new tunnels, went downward slow, and aimed for the moon’s still heart…
But we found what we never thought to find, and it clattered our world apart.
We’re Lune, and we’re proud of that fact, though our suits bear House sigils now—
This is our world, and if you want digging it's us are the ones who know how.
We’ll take the Merchant House’s money, we'll let them supply new kit
But ours are the hands, and the minds and the lives we take down into the pit.
Ours are the death too: the pit is a deadly-dangerous workplace, and deep;
You need not think us your slaves, you Housers, though you have bought us cheap.
A human who’s gone inside the moon and crawled through the grave-holes there
Is indifferent to threats as to money—for us moonminers are hard to scare.
But scared I was, for all my vaunting, by what my Vater dug through
And my heart near stopped, and my breathing froze and my monitor light burned blue.
Friday, 6 December 2019
‘The enterprise of Messrs. T. Nelson & Sons,’ says Wells in the introduction to this volume ‘and the friendly accommodation of Messrs. Macmillan render possible this collection in one cover of all the short stories by me that I care for any one to read again.’ A Best Of, then. ‘Except for the two series of linked incidents that make up the bulk of the book called Tales of Space and Time (1899),’ Wells clarifies ‘no short story of mine of the slightest merit is excluded from this volume’. What, no ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’? Bertie, are you mad? Anyway: here, for reference (my reference I mean: of course you don't care) are the stories making up the collection, together with their places and dates of original publication.
‘The Jilting of Jane’ (Pall Mall Budget, 12 July 1894).
‘The Cone’ (Unicorn, 18 September 1895)
‘The Stolen Bacillus’ (Pall Mall Budget, 21 June 1894)
‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (Pall Mall Budget, 2 August 1894)
‘In the Avu Observatory’ (Pall Mall Budget, 9 August 1894)
‘Æpyornis Island’ (Pall Mall Budget, 27 December 1894)
‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’ (Pall Mall Budget, 28 March 1895)
‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (Pall Mall Budget, 6 September 1894)
‘The Moth’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 28 March 1895)
‘The Treasure in the Forest’ (Pall Mall Budget, 23 August 1894)
‘The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham’ (The Idler, May 1896)
‘Under the Knife’ (The New Review, January 1896)
‘The Sea Raiders’ (The Weekly Sun Literary Supplement, 6 December 1896)
‘The Obliterated Man’ (New Budget, 15 August 1895 as ‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’)
‘The Plattner Story’ (The New Review, April 1896)
‘The Red Room’ (The Idler, March 1896)
‘The Purple Pileus’ (Black and White, December 1896)
‘A Slip Under the Microscope’ (The Yellow Book, January 1896)
‘The Crystal Egg’ (The New Review, May 1897)
‘The Star’ (The Graphic, December 1897)
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ (The Illustrated London News, July 1898)
‘A Vision of Judgment’ (Butterfly, September 1899)
‘Jimmy Goggles the God’ (The Graphic, December 1898)
‘Miss Winchelsea's Heart’ (The Queen, October 1898)
‘A Dream of Armageddon’ (Black and White, May/June 1901)
‘The Valley of Spiders’ (Pearson’s Magazine, March 1903)
‘The New Accelerator’ (The Strand, December 1901)
‘The Truth About Pyecraft’ (The Strand, April 1903)
‘The Magic Shop’ (The Strand, June 1903)
‘The Empire of the Ants’ (The Strand, December 1905)
‘The Door in the Wall’ (The Daily Chronicle, 14 July 1906)
‘The Country of the Blind’ (The Strand, April 1904)
‘The Beautiful Suit’ (Colliers, 10 April 1909)
The frontispiece, there, illustrates a scene from ‘The Country of the Blind’. I'm sure you know the tale, since it is one of Wells's favourites. Nuñez, attempting the ascent of the hitherto unconquered (and fictional) Mount Parascotopetl in Ecuador, falls down the far side in to an inaccessible though fertile valley entirely populated by blind people. Wells provides back-story rationalisation as to how this blind community came to be, although he really doesn't need to. The fable runs beautifully along its lines without all that sort of scaffolding.
Anyway: Nuñez goes about reciting the old Erasmian proverb ‘In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King’ and assumes he will rule this place. But the locals not only refuse to acknowledge that he is sensorially superior to them, they have no concept of sight at all and assume he is mad. Nuñez,though frustrated, realises he has to make the best of his situation, since the surrounding mountains render escape impossible. So he tries to fit in, whilst continuing to insist to the people there that he can see.
He falls in love with a girl, Medina-Saroté, but the village elders disapprove of his marriage because they consider his obsession with sight idiotic and delusional. The village doctor proposes removing Nuñez's eyes, reasoning they are diseased in some way that is affecting his brain, and, because he loves Medina-Saroté, Nuñez agrees; but on the morning of the operation he sneaks off, hoping to find a way over the impassable mountains to the outside world.
Wells published two versions of this ending: in the original version (as printed in this volume) Wells leaves his protagonist high in the mountains at nightfall, his fate uncertain, but, as I read it, probably dying. A revised and augmented 1939 version of the story alters this: Nuñez sees an impending rock slide, cannot convince the villagers of the danger they are in, and flees the valley together with Medina-Saroté in tow just before the avalanche wipes the whole place out. They make it to the outside world, marry and have four children, all sighted, but Medina-Saroté refuses the medical attention that might restore her sight. She believes her husband's insistence that the world around her is wonderful, but insists that it would be terrible to see it.
It's one of Wells's best known, and best, stories, all spun out of a premise both simple to the point of obviousness and elegantly wonderful in its novelty: ‘in the Country of the Blind would the One-Eyed Man really be king? Wouldn't an entire country of blind people have adapted to their blindness, such that sight wouldn't be such a biggie? Maybe they wouldn't even believe there was such a thing as sight’ and so on. Not that it's a flawless piece. The ending's ambiguity speaks to a degree of uncertainty about the dramatic conception (Patrick Parrinder's analysis of the MS reveals a buried third ending, where Nuñez simply returns to the valley, which points to a writer barely able to make up his mind) and the worldbuilding of the story has never struck me as watertight. So for instance: the inhabitants of the valley think the birds are angels, since they can hear them flying about but can't touch them—but surely they'd get their hands on dead and injured birds from time to time, trap them in their homes and apprehend them, and realise they were just another sort of animal, no? But it wouldn't do to be too nitpicky here. This isn't realism, after all. This is a fictional version of Plato's allegory of the cave. As such it works well, although I'd say which of the two endings Wells came up with for this story you prefer will tell us something about your attitude to Plato's famous myth.
What I mean is: the way Plato tells it, the prisoner who escapes the cave, sees real sunlight and returns to tell his other encaved captives, has seen something both real and manifestly superior to everybody else. And in real life it sometimes is true that the person who insists s/he has seen truth and is shunned by the mass consensus for his/her pains has indeed seen truth. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred that person is not a visionary who has pierced the veil of maya, but is rather a nutter, somebody the balance of whose mind is disturbed. A hallucinator, attention-seeker or major loon. It seems to me the population of Blind Country are right to shun Nuñez's tyrannical ambitions, and certainly are better suited to their niche living that he. The original version of the story implies as much. But the avalanche conclusion steps back to the original Platonic notion: in the later version of the story Nuñez does have something the Blind Countrypeople lack, a true vision, and Wells bends the story to prove his point. Me, I prefer the latter of my two readings of Plato's allegory, and therefore the earlier ending. Your mileage may vary.
In the preface to the 1911 Country of the Blind and Other Stories, Wells notes that ‘the task of selection and revision’ entailed by this volume brought home to him ‘with something of the effect of discovery’ that
I was once an industrious writer of short stories, and that I am no longer anything of the kind. I have not written one now for quite a long time, and in the past five or six years I have made scarcely one a year. The bulk of the fifty or sixty tales from which this present three-and-thirty have been chosen dates from the last century. This edition is more definitive than I supposed when first I arranged for it. In the presence of so conclusive an ebb and cessation an almost obituary manner seems justifiable.He goes on to speculate as to why he has, in effect, stopped writing short stories. Such writing used to come to him as easily as leaves to the tree:
I find it a little difficult to disentangle the causes that have restricted the flow of these inventions. It has happened, I remark, to others as well as to myself, and in spite of the kindliest encouragement to continue from editors and readers. There was a time when life bubbled with short stories; they were always coming to the surface of my mind, and it is no deliberate change of will that has thus restricted my production. ... I found that, taking almost anything as a starting-point and letting my thoughts play about it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or vivid little incident more or less relevant to that initial nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower-beds of suburban gardens; I would discover I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity.He inserts a potted recent history of the form: the 1890s were ‘a good and stimulating period for a short-story writer’ with great work being produced almost continually by a whole tribe of short-story writers (‘Barrie, Stevenson, Frank-Harris; Max Beerbohm; Henry James; George Street, Morley Roberts, George Gissing, Ella d'Arcy, Murray Gilchrist, E. Nesbit, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Edwin Pugh, Jerome K. Jerome, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Morrison, Marriott Watson, George Moore, Grant Allen, George Egerton, Henry Harland, Pett Ridge, W. W. Jacobs and Joseph Conrad’), all led by Kipling: ‘Mr. Kipling had made his astonishing advent with a series of little blue-grey books, whose covers opened like window-shutters to reveal the dusty sun-glare and blazing colours of the East’. For my money, Kipling is the greatest writer of the short story form in English literary history, but I don't mean to get distracted. At any rate, Wells thinks that's all passed away now:
I do not think the present decade can produce any parallel to this list, or what is more remarkable, that the later achievements in this field of any of the survivors from that time, with the sole exception of Joseph Conrad, can compare with the work they did before 1900.There's an interesting discussion to be had, I think, as to whether Wells is right in his larger literary-historical diagnosis; but it can't be denied that it describes his own career as a short story writer. Despite being one of the true masters of the form, the inspiration of Borges and generations of SF authors, and despite the fact that some of his most enduring literary achievements are to be found amongst his shorts, he wrote no more of them. Why not?
It's not a question that admits of straightforward answer, I fear. He himself blames the figure he calls ‘the à priori critic’:
Just as nowadays he goes about declaring that the work of such-and-such a dramatist is all very amusing and delightful, but “it isn't a Play,” so we' had a great deal of talk about the short story, and found ourselves measured by all kinds of arbitrary standards. There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what any one of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes' reading or so. It was either Mr. Edward Garnett or Mr. George Moore in a violently anti-Kipling mood who invented the distinction between the short story and the anecdote. The short story was Maupassant; the anecdote was damnable. It was a quite infernal comment in its way, because it permitted no defence. Fools caught it up and used it freely. Nothing is so destructive in a field of artistic effort as a stock term of abuse. Anyone could say of any short story, “A mere anecdote,” just as anyone can say “Incoherent!” of any novel or of any sonata that isn't studiously monotonous. The recession of enthusiasm for this compact, amusing form is closely associated in my mind with that discouraging imputation. One felt hopelessly open to a paralysing and unanswerable charge, and one's ease and happiness in the garden of one's fancies was more and more marred by the dread of it. It crept into one's mind, a distress as vague and inexpugnable as a sea fog on a spring morning.In comes the fog, it seems.
Still: fog, though Wells deplores it, may be part of the unique strength of the short story as a distinct form. In saying so I'm drawing on Timothy Clark's rather brilliant essay ‘Not Seeing the Short Story: A Blind Phenomenology of Reading’, which appeared as part of the Oxford Literary Review's special issue on ‘The Blind Short Story’ in 2004. Clark makes the case for the short story as a specifically blind mode of art, arguing that ‘what I propose to call, non-pejoratively, the “blindness” of the short-story revisits the issue of the form's relation to realism’. A long quotation from Middlemarch demonstrates George Eliot's commitment to as whole a sight as possible. The short story, by contrast, is necessarily determined by its pseudo-poetic brevity:
[Eliot's] passage of character analysis lasts several pages. However, were such a series of paragraphs as that about Lydgate to appear in a short story, might the mechanics of its realism not be more likely to echo back on itself, revealing its tautological basis? This element of the literary, that it actually conjures up what it seems merely to re-present as already there, is something this forms mere brevity—its lack of concretizing context—makes less ignorable. The short story, as they say, is more ‘poetic’. Eliot's effect of subtlety seems to escape this merely self-validating quality through its integration into earlier and later passages of the text. Without that, the kinship between the general ‘human truths’ of such a realist text and the kind of effects of ‘truth’ at work in a horoscope would be clearer. This lack of the trompe-l'oeil effects of a lengthy context constitutes what may be called the relative blindness of the short story. [Clark, ‘Not Seeing the Short Story’ Oxford Literary Review 26 (2004), 8]Clark goes on to develop a larger phenomenology of blindness and reading, and whilst there's not space to get into all that here, it is, I think, worth drawing out one other point he makes. Metaphors of seeing, according to Clark, pervade short story theory. He finds a remarkable ‘predominance of countervailing metaphors of sight, of the striving to “see” a text whole, the flash of revelation etc’ in the way critics write about the short story form, and quotes one such critic:
‘Visual metaphors’, writes Dominic Head, ‘abound in short story theory, a fact which underlies the “spatial” aspect of the genre, but which also obscures the illusory nature of this aspect.’ The illusion lies in the fact that the visual pattern is constructed from out of the necessarily temporal movement of reading, its working through both memory and anticipation to achieve a seeming ‘overview’ of the text as a whole. Visual metaphors, he argues, often focusing the whole text through some crucial epiphanic moment of ‘insight’—itself usually described as if it were an instance of the miracle of the restoration of sight—repress the heterogeneity and ‘openness’ of a story. [Clark, 9; he is quoting Head, The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 10]This all seems to me interesting in several ways, and although Clark doesn't might have some bearing on Wells's own praxis. Blindness either as a total state, as in ‘The Country of the Blind’ (or cast by the individual out upon the community in the short novel The Invisible Man), or else as a partial restriction or limitation of vision is a recurring theme in Wells's short stories: ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’, ‘The Plattner Story’, ‘The Crystal Egg’ and many others. Conceivably Wells's increasing dissatisfaction with the short story mode correlated to that belief, which increasingly gripped him as the 1920s and 1920s went on, that he ought to be aiming at a kind of whole sight. His next novel, Marriage (1912), is a positively Eliotian exercise in comprehensive vision, in concretizing context and sheer length—getting on for 600 pages in the first edition (Joan and Peter from 1918 is nearly 800).
No question but it's a shame. Wells blindness was prodigiously more eloquent and resonant than his attempts as clear-sightedness. But he didn't think so, and drew a line under his short story writing. The short story form is the enclosed valley of ‘The Country of the Blind’; it is the sightless but blessed inhabitants of that valley. And the truth of Wells's later career is that he could not rest content in that place, but had to engineer a gigantic rock-fall and the opening of a new breach in the surrounding mountains to be able to scramble back to Realism.
Monday, 2 December 2019
[In memoriam Clive James]
The tweet of my enemy has been ratioed
And it's a sight for sore eyes.
A vast disproportion has opened up
Between his likes and retweets, and his hostile replies:
A smallish number sits in his tweet's bottom-right-hand corner,
And in the bottom left two digits followed by a ‘k’.
People are informing my enemy that his opinions on women in popular cultural texts
Are not OK.
One scrolls through reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to relish all his doublings-down and linkings-through
His earnest pseudo-logic and not-all-menning
His thesis concerning the fundamental wrongness of a lady Doctor Who
The many reasons why female superhero costumery must be more revealing than male
How Captain Marvel should smile more
Why the Ghostbusters reboot was such an epic fail.
How a girl's is the wrong star war.
My enemy's online experience has become a battlefield
And I am crowing.
What used to be a pleasant meadow has become a nuclear warzone
Metaphorical craters still glowing.
What avails him now his flouncing-off?
His insistance that he is leaving now, and will not be back, and it's our loss
When we all know he'll be tweeting again by Thursday
A tosser arguing the toss?
I feel no sympathy for my enemy:
If you can't stand the heat stay out of the kitchen.
He's brought it all on himself with his posturing online persona, blended
Of equal parts Milo Yiannopoulos and Peter Hitchen.
My daily scrolls through Twitter, though,
Have become distressing.
It used to be fun. I used to enjoy it.
But now I honestly don't know why I spend so much time and energy on an experience so depressing.
This site where everyone is so unpleasant and angry and judgmental all the time.
This hellscape, this mire, this unremitting shitshow.
This root-canal of the spirit, these men and women ungentle.
This everlasting no.
I should quit it, leave the spoils to my equally miserable enemy, I really should.
Draw my online draughts from quite another fount—
It would result in an immediate and palpable benefit to my mental health!
Still. I won't.
Friday, 29 November 2019
I'd like it to be a principle of mine not to dismiss people on grounds of mere hearsay. For example: I’d heard stuff about Ayn Rand that inclined me to disregard her as a stare-eyed loon eager to sacrifice society on the altar of selfishness. But I read Atlas Shrugged anyway. It did not change my mind about Rand, but at least I gave it a go.
Peterson is a different case. Before cracking the covers of his megaselling 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos (2018) I assumed, I suppose, that he was a pretty hard right-wing ideologue peddling a set of boot-camp ‘stand up straight, work hard, follow the rules’ nostrums gussied-up with some pleasantly bonkers stuff about how we should dance the lobster quadrille to preserve our precious bodily fluids. Now I've read the book, and actually it isn’t like that. It’s not a very good book, I think, but it’s neither as noisome nor as ridiculous as some of the reviews of it make it seem. I mean, the lobster stuff is pretty daft, but that's only a small portion.
On a personal level Peterson, I’d wager, holds a number of right-of-centre political views, but soft-right rather than extremist I think, and (leftie though I be) I have no problem with that—indeed, I’m increasingly nostalgic for the days when ‘Conservative’ meant slightly-right-of-centre rather than the boiling-piss-for-blood hard-right parody the party has now become (I talk of the UK, of course; and Peterson is Canadian, so mutatis mutandi).
At any rate, there’s a common-sense-y small-c conservative thread running through his book, in its way as parodyable as the lobster gubbins: calling people ‘bucko’ and encouraging them to tidy their room, take charge of such to-hand business they can manage and leave the larger stuff alone for now. Peterson has a bad rep as an anti-trans activist, but there’s nothing in 12 Rules for Life that struck me as inherently trans-hostile—rather to the contrary, in fact: he says more than once that people who feel trapped by and miserable in their lives need to leverage their suffering so as to transform themselves, and so far from being gender essentialist one plank of his argument is that Jesus was androgynous.
After reading the book I googled some reviews, and one that rang true for me is SlateStarCodex’s ‘I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t hate 12 Rules for Life’ account.
The politics in this book lean a bit right, but if you think of Peterson as a political commentator you’re missing the point. The science in this book leans a bit Malcolm Gladwell, but if you think of him as a scientist you’re missing the point. Philosopher, missing the point. Public intellectual, missing the point. Mythographer, missing the point. So what’s the point?There’s something in this. Peterson is offering us guidelines to living a better life, being a better person, not in the self-help-book sense of ‘here are 12 tips and tricks to win friends and influence people!’ but in the more radical, older-fashioned sense of: I have uncovered the meaning of life, the truth that lies beneath all the epiphenomena of existence, and you'd best align yourself with it if you want a more meaningful and thus less unhappy life.
About once per news cycle, we get a thinkpiece about how Modern Life Lacks Meaning. These all go through the same series of tropes. The decline of Religion. The rise of Science. The limitless material abundance of modern society. The fact that in the end all these material goods do not make us happy. If written from the left, something about people trying to use consumer capitalism to fill the gap; if written from the right, something about people trying to use drugs and casual sex. The vague plea that we get something better than this.
Twelve Rules isn’t another such thinkpiece. The thinkpieces are people pointing out a gap. Twelve Rules is an attempt to fill it. The non-point-missing description of Jordan Peterson is that he’s a prophet.
Prophets are neither new nor controversial. To a first approximation, they only ever say three things:
First, good and evil are definitely real. You know they’re real. You can talk in philosophy class about how subtle and complicated they are, but this is bullshit and you know it. Good and evil are the realest and most obvious things you will ever see, and you recognize them on sight.
Second, you are kind of crap. You know what good is, but you don’t do it. You know what evil is, but you do it anyway. You avoid the straight and narrow path in favor of the easy and comfortable one. You make excuses for yourself and you blame your problems on other people. You can say otherwise, and maybe other people will believe you, but you and I both know you’re lying.
Third, it’s not too late to change. You say you’re too far gone, but that’s another lie you tell yourself. If you repented, you would be forgiven. If you take one step towards God, He will take twenty toward you. Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.
Peterson’s core ‘insight’ (excuse the scare-quotes) is that existence is a question of getting your individual yin and yang of chaos and order balanced:—too much order and you become stifled, conventional, tyrannised; too much chaos and life descends into misery, substance abuse, self-harm and so on. You need the right amount of chaos in your order, and the right amount of order in your chaos. That seems to me a sensible enough prescription—I mean, it’s as old as the hills, but nevertheless. I can well believe that many many folk, especially among his young bloke demographic, have been struck with the force of revelation reading Peterson’s version of it here, gorblimeyed up as it is not just with lots of clinical anecdotes about his patients, but also a mythographic overnarrative about swamps and dragons and heroes and the like. If the quality of life of some of Peterson’s readers has improved, such that they have become less miserable in themselves and kinder to others, then that's clearly a very good thing.
That’s not to say that I think this ‘insight’ is right, mind you. As it happens I don't. My particular issues with the order-chaos rebus are threefold. One is the way Peterson follows a straightforwardly and unashamedly gendered reading of how ‘order’ and ‘chaos’ figure in the world. Order for JP is masculine and chaos is feminine. I really don’t see that myself: a more interesting reading of this dyad, even granting Peterson his traditionalist small-c conservative priors, would be to code order as feminine, since it is women who have for the most part ordered and maintained the home (the ground zero of order, for JP) and brought order into the world in the form of new life, where chaos is much more the preserve of men, those war-making and destructive creatures: men punching a hole in the dry-wall because they've lost their temper; men going absolutely mental on a lads’ night out drinking themselves insensible and so on (what, as the poet insightfully asked, is a woman that you so chaotically forsake her? Order, I suppose). And actually I'd say an even better way of reading the dyad would be to decouple it from gender essentialism altogether, but I daresay that’s just me.
My second issue with the order/chaos yin-yang dyad is that, by definition, it skews orderly. Arranging ‘order’ and ‘chaos’ into this structure is to order order and chaos, doubling the former term and reducing the disorder of the latter. That’s a thumb in the balance, I think, and leads to a bias in favour of order, the straighten up, tidy your room, tradition is good stuff that bleeds into the postmodernism—Peterson doesn’t really know what this word means; what he’s cross about, I think, is a version of ‘relativism’—is bad, political correctness is Stalinism stuff. The book stops with its toes on the line of suit-and-tie, bring-back-national-service crustiness (and comes nowhere near the tribalism, racism, God-hates-gays nuttiness of today’s actual far right). But it’s a problem, I think. We may not want to live in the psychological chaos of van Gogh, even if that’s the price for producing van Gogh’s art, but we might want to live with just enough wildness, panache, enough essential-oil of rock-and-roll, to be able to produce something original, something not quite so bound by convention. Peterson, I suspect, prefers to balance his life slightly in favour of the order side of things, and I’d say the programme JP is advocating errs on that side of things too. If, instead of falling back on that old visual cliché, the yin-yang circle, Peterson had built his argument around something strictly chaotic in structure, like the plot of the Lorenz attractor for values r = 28, σ = 10, b = 8/3, I might have found his argument more conducive.
But that’s fine: to each his own.
This second issue reveals my predilections—biases, we might call them (we all have biases, of course). Because the yin-yang, chaos-order, exists in a balance. A tension, yes, but a balance. Balance is fine. Tension is good even. But it’s not enough, necessary but not sufficient. I prefer something with a bit of throughput, something in which contradictions sublate and we move on. Man, to quote Thom Gunn, you gotta go. Which is to say, as I ostentatiously flash the cloven hoof of my own assumptions, I prefer the dialectic to a yin-yang. You are welcome to side with Peterson on this, or to agree with me, or go your own sweet way. But it does bring me to my third issue with JP’s dyad.
I think it’s wrong.
I don’t mean wrong in its details, or in the evidence JP marshalls to support it; and there’s a manifest sense in which it would be wrong to call it wrong, if it works to help people improve their quality of life in a way that doesn’t negatively impact other people. There's evidence it has done this, and I'm certainly not here to sneer at that. Nonetheless, I think it is wrong, and in (at the risk of sounding pretentious) a profound way. And that’s what I’m going to talk about for the rest of this blogpost. If you were expecting a more in-depth review of Peterson, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
Permit me to nutshell it thus: I don’t think the key to existence is a balance of order and chaos. I think the key to existence, its profound mystery and the secret of living as such, is the brute fact that life comes out of death. It's simultaneously the most quotidian and the stone-cold strangest thing in the world: that my and my wife’s decaying flesh has created two new human beings full of vitality, who will (I earnestly pray) survive us. How does it come into the world, this newness? I will die and, I strongly suspect, my consciousness will extinguish when I do, but a bit of me will carry on—which is to say, I will die but the species will continue.
I think this startling truth is behind all the things that Peterson thinks ‘order/chaos’/ ‘masculine/feminine’ is behind—which is to say, I think he’s identified the wrong archetypal underpinning to existence. He thinks the serpent in the garden of Eden is feminine chaos. I’d say the latent point of the Eden myth is the tree of life, also known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the same tree, I’d say), eating the fruit whereof entails expulsion from paradise into hardship and death in order that change, new life and rebirth can come into the world. That’s what the good (life) and evil (death) of the tree mean: that these two things are paradoxically, dialectically, new life. Peterson thinks the important thing about the myth of Christ is that he represents both male order and female chaos in one person (‘the most profound religious symbols rely for their power on this underlying fundamentally bipartisan conceptual subdivision … images of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and the Pietà both express the female/male duality as unity, as does the traditional insistence on the androgyny of Christ’ [Peterson, 41-2]). But I’d say the most important thing about the myth of Christ is that he dies and comes back to life—that, in other words, he’s the Green Man, the old year dying and being reborn, the fisher king, Osiris, and all those splendid types out of Frazer’s Golden Bough.
This is another personal crotchet of mine, I know; and you’re absolutely free to ignore it, or to disregard me as a crank. Having kids of my own has changed the way I think about this question, I must say. It has, for one thing, introduced me to a new sensation: the uncanny quality of children, their spooky Midwich Cuckoo-ness. They’re lovely, don’t get me wrong; and I love my kids very much. But every now and again it dawns on you, as they go about their kiddish play, that they will be living and loving and drinking wine in the sunshine when you yourself are cold and dead in the ground. That, indeed, this is the point of kids. Nothing is more horrific to contemplate than the thought of your kids predeceasing you of course (of course!). But still, unexpectedly, at odd moments, the realisation goes through you like a sword. This is what kids are for: to replace you. This is what kids mean: your death. The difference, I think, for me personally is that I’ve gone from registering this as a kind of uncanny affect to seeing it as something more profound: what religious people call a mystery. Which brings me to Peter Pan.
2. Peter Pan
I’ve changed my mind about Peter Pan. I used to think it was about death in a rather morbid, even a creepy way. I don’t think that any more. It’s interesting, actually, to compare/contrast Barrie's work with Carroll’s Alice novels, since those latter are amongst my very favourite books. I have friends who consider them equally morbid and creepy. I really don't. But in both cases the story concerns a child who is in some sense, and in Peter Pan’s case quite explicitly, fixed. Pan is the boy who will not grow up. In real life the way for a kind not to grow up is to die. Barrie was in many ways quite the oddball. Peter Pan is a kind of marmorealisation of nursery play, locking childhood adventure in the never-never of a glittery afterlife.
This, at any rate, is one of the perspectives of the critics. Or some of them. Here's Peter Coveney:
The justification of secular art is the responsibility it bears for the enrichment of human awareness. The cult of the child in certain authors at the end of the nineteenth century is a denial of this responsibility. Their awareness of childhood is no longer an interest in growth and integration, such as we found in The Prelude, but a means of detachment and retreat from the adult world. One feels their morbid withdrawal towards psychic death. The misery on the face of Carroll and Barrie was there because their response towards life had been subtly but irrevocably negated. Their photographs seem to look out at us from the nostalgic prisons they had created for themselves in the cult of Alice Liddell and Peter Pan. [Peter Coveney, The Image of Childhood: the Individual and Society: a Study of the Theme in English Literature (1957; 2nd ed 1967), 241]Is this right, do you think? Is (say) Harry Potter better than The Famous Five because Rowling allows her kids to grow and mature? We want our children to grow up. It's the saddest thing in the world when they don't. Barrie knew this better than most.
When he was 6 years old, Barrie's next-older brother David (his mother's favourite) died two days before his 14th birthday in an ice-skating accident. This left his mother devastated, and Barrie tried to fill David's place in his mother's attentions, even wearing David's clothes and whistling in the manner that he did. One time Barrie entered her room, and heard her say ‘Is that you?’ ‘I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to’, wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), ‘and I said in a little lonely voice, “No, it's no’ him, it's just me”.’ Barrie's mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her. [Andrew Birkin, J. M. Barrie & the Lost Boys (Constable, 1979; revised edition, Yale University Press, 2004), 14]The closest thing we have to an ‘Alice Liddell’ original for Peter Pan are three of the Llewelyn Davies boys: George, Peter and Michael. George died in the Trenches barely out of his teens, and little Michael (Barrie's favourite: he wrote to him every single day, which sounds ... weird and rather oppressive to me) drowned in suspicious, probably suicidal circumstances in 1921. Peter survived to the 1960s, but never outgrew the fame of his connection to Peter Pan, which he came to loathe. Depressed, ill, old, he drafted an account of his family history, cheerily titled Morgue, walked out of his house and threw himself under a tube train.
Barrie had no children of his own; his own marriage was almost certainly unconsummated. But more relevant, I think, than biographical data, is the larger context. One thing reading into the 18th and 19th-century grounds of Childrens’ Literature does for you is reveal how intertwined it is with death. Eric, or Little By Little. Alice. The Water Babies. Arguably this has to do with the way this mode of literature was born out of an age when children died as a matter of course. Maybe it’s as Coveney argued, that the superstars of this new mode like Kinglsey, Carroll and Barrie, were possessed by an unhealthy fascination with death.
We can, if we choose, read Peter as Death, coming to London children and whisking them away to become Lost Boys. We can read the whole play as morbid, in the manner that Coveney does, above. There’s certainly a lot of death in the play (and in Peter and Wendy, Barrie’s later novelisation): not just Tinkerbell dying and Hook killing his own men, but lots of throwaway references to kids chancing upon their dead fathers in the wood, or Peter tripping over the gravestones of former lost boys. Indeed the novel’s ending glosses the fact that Wendy grows up and has kids of her own with the sentence: ‘Mrs. Darling was now dead and forgotten.’ Ouch.
Morbid, though? I suppose I used to read the work that way myself, but now I’ve changed my mind. Peter is not death. He’s life (‘Pan, who and what art thou?’ Hook bellows to which Peter answers ‘at a venture’: ‘I'm youth, I'm joy, I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg.’) It’s not that there’s no death woven into the fantasy that is Peter Pan, because there surely is. It’s that I mistook who it was who dies.
Hint: it’s not the kids.
In his absence things are usually quiet on the island. The fairies take an hour longer in the morning, the beasts attend to their young, the redskins feed heavily for six days and nights, and when pirates and lost boys meet they merely bite their thumbs at each other. But with the coming of Peter, who hates lethargy, they are all under way again: if you put your ear to the ground now, you would hear the whole island seething with life. [Barrie Peter and Wendy, ch.5]Why Peter Pan, though? Why does Peter & his crew of kids live under an oak tree? And why, when Wendy offers to kiss him, does Peter ‘drop an acorn button into her hand’? If Neverland is death and Peter the reaper, then how is Wendy able to return to London? Frazer knows the answers.
3. Boughs of Gold
The assertion ‘Frazer’s Golden Bough is a better book than Peterson’s 12 Rules’ has a ‘well, duh’ quality, I know. But there’s a particular sense in which I believe the statement to be true. I'd argue that Frazer, innocent of Jung and thus free of the woo-gravity of all that spiritus-mundi Aryanism, is able to articulate something both ubiquitous and profound that goes beyond the order/chaos balance rebus Peterson is selling us. It's the most fundamental of fundamental truths about human existence, as we find ourselves embodied on this planet. We live in a world that dies every year—we call this winter—and is reborn again in the spring. Our social existence, and therefore our culture, has grown up around our anxiety that spring might not come again, and our attempts to forestall that eventuality, to placate death and usher new life. And we have known, since the memory of humankind goeth not to the contrary, that this new life comes out of old life. It ought not to surprise us that fertility rituals and religions have sprung up to encourage this rebirth, nor that sacrifice is integral to the religious aspirations of homo sapiens, such that renewal becomes inconceivable without it. As I say: Green Man, Fisher King, Jesus Christ.
Art, culture, religion, is, collectively, humanity’s attempt to embody and plumb this strange mystery: that new life comes out of dying flesh, to restate it in the hope of actualising it, or to give voice to our fears (as in Eliot's The Waste Land) that it might fail us. We take it for granted, but fertility, speaking in terms of the intersection of biology and entropy, is a really very strange thing. It’s easy to die—so easy, indeed, that it’s within everyone's skillset eventually. Thousands do it every day. Facilis descensus Avernus, as the poet says. The hard part, as Vergil knew, isn’t the dying, but the coming back to life again. So how do we make life come, magically, out of this ubiquitous death? The sybil in Aeneid VI tells us: you need a special magical prop, a golden bough, not easy to come by. Hence Frazer’s title. Hence his argument, finding the consonances in all these global religions and rites, all spinning variants on the sacrifice of the holy king, who is the land, in order that the holy king, who is the land, can be reborn.
One of the stories Frazer tells concerns the druids. They too had a ‘golden bough’, a magical plant central to their ritual and religion with the power to bring back (as out of Bran’s cauldron) the dead to life again. This was mistletoe, harvested with a golden sickle—(James Hook waves his hook-hand: hello!)—from the sacred oak at a sacred time of year. Christmas is almost upon us, and folk will hang up mistletoe, and everybody knows what you’re supposed to do underneath the mistletoe: kiss one another! But few know why this is what you’re supposed to do under mistletoe—that this, like the maypole, or the Sheila-na-gig (or its bowdlerised form, horseshoes nailed to the tavern wall), is a folk memory of an ancient fertility ritual. Fertility, sex, is actually how we bring life out of death, after all.
So why is Peter called ‘Pan’? That's a powerful deity to invoke, as mythographers have noted since at least Richard Payne Knight published his Discourse on the Worship of Priapus in 1786. Knight explores a variety of fascinating highways and byways of the worship of Priapus, tracing its spectral presence in the Christian era (chapters include ‘Scotland, and its Phallic celebrations’; ‘Phallic figures on public buildings’; ‘Ireland, and its Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘Horseshoes nailed to stable doors, a remain of the Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘The ancient god Priapus becomes a saint in the Middle Ages’; ‘Robin Goodfellow’; ‘Easter, and hot-cross-buns’; ‘May-day festivities, and the May-pole’; ‘Bonfires’; ‘Lady Godiva, the Shrewsbury show, and the Guild festival at Preston’). The main thing Knight does is trace all this back to Pan. Originally ‘worship of generative and nutritive, powers of the Deity’ focused on animals, especially bulls. But:
The Greeks, as they advanced in the cultivation of the imitative arts, gradually changed the animal for the human form, preserving still the original character. The human head was at first added to the body of the bull; but afterwards the whole figure was made human, with some of the features, and general character of the animal, blended with it. Oftentimes, however, these mixed figures had a peculiar and proper meaning, like that of the Vatican Bronze; and were not intended as mere refinements of art. These mixed beings are derived from Pan, the principle of universal order; of whose personified image they partake. Pan is addressed in the Orphic Litanies as the first-begotten love, or creator incorporated in universal matter, and so forming the world.The Greek ‘Pan’ means, ‘all’, of course.
According to Plutarch, the Jupiter Ammon of the Africans was the same as the Pan of the Greeks. This explains the reason why the Macedonian kings assumed the horns of that god. The case is, that Pan, or Ammon, being the universe, and Jupitera title of the Supreme God (as will be shown hereafter),the horns, the emblems of his power, seemed the properest symbols of that supreme and universal dominion to which they all, as well as Alexander, had the ambition to aspire.See also: the horns on the brow of Moses. Knight’s Pan must be a ‘youth’, since he represents new life, the rebirth of the cosmos after the death of the year. Perhaps, prudes that we are (not despite but because of our culture’s vast surrounding wildernesses of plasticated porn and sexual explicitness) we are happiest thinking of this in more abstract terms, as ‘the piper at the gates of dawn’ rather than (to quote Knight one last time) ‘Pan pouring water upon the organ of generation; that is, invigorating the active creative power by the prolific element.’
Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, from whose Pan-encounter chapter ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ Floyd took their title, postdates the first appearance of Barrie’s Peter Pan by a couple of years, but Grahame had been meditating upon ‘Pan’ long before his fellow Scot. Grahame’s first book, Pagan Papers (1893) waxes numinous-lyrical on the actual presence, in today's world. of ‘the Rural Pan’. It's not an archetype that has disappeared, either; and I don't only mean in terms of repeated adaptations of Wind in the Willows or Peter Pan. The first Narnian encountered by any of the children in Lewis's could-hardly-be-more-Christian Lion/Witch/Wardrobe is the Pan-ish faun, Mr Tumnus; who beguiles Lucy back to his home where he drugs her with tea. Very odd. Two is the fact that Lyra's demon in Dark Materials is called 'Pan'. A series of books about, in the final analysis, killing God.
And that's the thing about Pan: he’s the only god to have died in our time. Gods don’t die; that’s what ‘immortal’ (a synonym for ‘god’) means—indeed, that’s pretty much all it means in the Greek and Roman pantheons, where gods are otherwise exactly as petty and moody and selfish as the worst of humanity. So what happened with Pan? Plutarch’s De defectu oraculorum (c. AD 100) relates how a sailor voyaging to Italy at some point during the time of the Emperor Tiberius (AD 14–37), and passing the island of Paxi, heard a voice booming across the water: ‘Thamus, art thou there? When you reach Palodes be sure to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.’ Thamus did so, and the news was greeted from shore with groans and laments.
In Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, the cry ‘Great Pan is dead’ becomes an ecstatic celebration of the Christian succession to diabolic Paganism. But one thing Barrie’s Peter Pan clearly isn’t, is an ecstatic celebration of Christianity. It is, however, a famous expression of the tendency of the young to laugh in the face of personal extinction. To die, Pan declares gloriously, would be an awfully big adventure.
And, manifestly, Pan came back in a big way in terms of culture of the end of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. That’s the mystery: the god dies in order for the god to be reborn. It’s fertility, it’s life, it’s vitality coming out of dying flesh.
This is the realisation that has come to me, belatedly enough, about Peter Pan. It’s about death, yes, but not the deaths of children. It’s about mine, sir—and yours, madam. Tinkerbell dies but she comes back to life. Wendy travels to the never-never land, and descends (like Aeneas) into the underworld under the (sacred!) oak of Pan, only to return to London and have children of her own. Do I say ‘only to’? I mean ‘in order to be able to’. And Mrs Darling dies, like Hook—dies and is forgotten. Barrie, it is clear, understood the great truth of children, and it’s this: they live, as we die. Their life is our death.
I love my children very much. It’s what you’d expect me to say, but it’s true: having kids was the best thing ever to happen to me. But anyone who has kids understands, on some level, that they will, inevitably, break your heart. That's the deal. Find your life-partner, the great love of your life, and you can at least hope to spend the rest of your life with him, or her. But that’s not how your love for kids goes. It’s baked-in to the business of having and raising kids that they will leave you. Of course you want them to. You don’t want to be old Mrs Skinner in The Simpsons with middle-aged Seymour still living at home under your thumb. Rationally you don’t want that, of course you don’t; but there’s a large part of love that isn’t rational, and if we think about it too long it’s liable to crush us. We love them and they will leave us. They’re going to go and have their awfully big adventure—adulthood—and maybe find partners and have kids of their own, and occasionally give us a phone call when they remember, but otherwise go off. That’s their fate, we earnestly hope, as ours alas is to die and be forgotten. It’s the grain of things; grain in the sense of wood-grain, but also in the sense of seed—si le grain ne meurt, as Old Jean himself said: except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
And this is where my own understanding of Peter Pan has switched about. When Peter claims that to die would be an awfully big adventure, the in-story logic of the phrase suggests he’s talking about his own death. But he’s not. He’s talking about his life, his adult life away from Neverland, which is to say Childhood's end and adulthood's beginning, and therefore about our death, us old men and women watching (or in the case of Hook, fighting) him. Pan lives under the sacred oak, and gives Wendy not a trivial kiss but a profound token of that magic life-out-of-death tree, an acorn. He is the Green Man and Neverland is prodigiously overfecund with golden boughs. That, after all, is what childhood is.
A million golden arrows were pointing out the island to the children, all directed by their friend the sun, who wanted them to be sure of their way before leaving them for the night. [Peter and Wendy, ch 4]Or, at the risk of repeating myself:
Years rolled on again, and Wendy had a daughter. This ought not to be written in ink but in a golden splash.Dead and forgotten. So it goes.
She was called Jane, and she loved to hear of Peter, and Wendy told her all she could remember in the very nursery from which the famous flight had taken place. It was Jane's nursery now, for her father had bought it at the three per cents. from Wendy's father, who was no longer fond of stairs. Mrs. Darling was now dead and forgotten
I've come a long way from Peterson, I know. Of course he'll never read these words, but if he did I imagine he'd dislike my proposal that there's a dialectic, life/death → new life, behind our human existence and therefore behind our art and culture and religion. The dialectic, he might say, is Hegel and therefore Marx and therefore Stalinist commissars of political-correctness marching college professors into death-camps in their millions for refusing to use the state-ordered nomenclature. Still, I'd be prepared, if I believed I could generate even a tiny fraction of the sales of 12 Rules (LOL as if), to write this idea out at book length. It works on any level you choose. In terms of the hard-science of evolutionary biology, we humans are simply machines fashioned by DNA to make more DNA; devices to circumvent the entropic truth of death. It's not order and chaos in balance, but it is sex and therefore sexual selection as a shift to vault us out of the cul-de-sac of mortality. Elucidiating religion, culture, art and so on in these terms would be straightforward exercises. The hardest part would be the self-help angle; because, fundamentally, it's not a very comforting perspective on the universe. But the truth has no duty to be blithely comforting, and if there are few ‘tidy your room Bucko and you'll feel better about yourself’ catholicons, there would be at least the possibility of a more bracing stoicism. To write such a book could be an awfully big adventure.
Saturday, 16 November 2019
I'm interested in the place the ‘fix-up’ has in the larger history of science fiction. Of course you know what I mean by fix-up. The story goes something like this: the dominant markets for SF writers in the 1930s and 1940s were pulp magazines, so writers wrote a lot of short stories, and that meant the short became the dominant mode for the genre at this important period in the genre's development. For some people, I suppose, ‘the short story’ remains the Platonic form of SF: a focused, idea-centred narrative, some sketched-in characters, a snapshot of future-extrapolation, room for one neat twist, bish-bash-bosh. But actually SF as a genre changed, and one of the reasons for this was that the markets its writers were writing for changed. The magazine market shrank sharply through the 1950s and 1960s (for several reasons: home TV, wider and cheaper access to movies, more people buying comics and fewer buying mags), and is now pretty much dead. So in the 1950s SF writers addressed themselves to a new market, one created by SF book clubs and civic libraries: hardback books. This in turn created one of the distinctive textual forms of sf, the ‘fix-up’. Assorted Asimovs, Bradburies and Vans Vogt reworked their older stories into longer books. Wikipedia dedicates a whole entry to the phenomenon. ‘Algis Budrys in 1965,’ it seems, ‘described fix-ups as a consequence of the lack of good supply during the “bad years for quality” of the mid-1950s, although he cites The Martian Chronicles and Clifford D. Simak's City as exceptions.’ Asimov's Foundation (1951) is a bunch of disparate 1940s short-stories glued together with paragraphs of linking exposition, and many consider it one of SF's classic novels.
Since then the market has shifted again several times, away from hardbacks to cheap paperbacks, and thence to ebooks and audiobooks, not to mention jumping mode to TV, film and video games. But my suggestion, which, come the Greek kalends, I’ll write up into a proper academic paper, is this: the ‘fix-up’ has had a much larger, perhaps even a shaping, effect on the entire later development of SF than is realised. I don't just mean those occasional SF novels today that are made up of discrete elements tessellated: Simmons’s Hyperion say, or Jennifer Egan’s Visit From the Goon Squad—it's also in the way TV shows like Doctor Who or Star Trek assemble mega-texts out of lots of short-story-ish discrete elements, something (as per the MCU) increasingly mimicked by cinema. Only die-hard fans read new SF short stories today, but the form of the short story feeds directly into contemporary SF in several key ways. Speaking for myself, I find these formal possibilities really interesting: the jolting dislocation of it, the quasi-modernist experimentation; textual tessellation but in a pulp, populist idiom. That's entirely my bag.
Perhaps that last point, my personal angle, means that this is merely a personal crotchet. The thing is, I write novels like this. The Thing Itself is an example: not actually a fix-up, but a novel written deliberately to imitate the form. As it happens I've written a new novel, to be called The This (if I can persuade my publishers to wear the title, which they may not: it'll be published, most likely, late in 2020 or perhaps early in 2021) and here I've again, consciously and with particular aesthetic ends in mind, written it as a kind of faux fix-up. Most contemporary SF writers aren't playing these kinds of games, of course; and for good reason. I'm perfectly well aware that the bulk of readers don't relish reading a text so mosaic.
I sometimes wonder if the reason folk don't really read short stories nowadays is that starting a read is seen as an effort by many people, a hump to climb over, inertia to be overcome, where continuing to read a story (once you're familiar with the set-up, have invested in the characters and want to find out what happens next) is easy and pleasurable. A 1000-page novel gives you a little of the former and lots of the latter, but a collection of short stories means constantly having to restart and climb over the initial hump, over and over. I'm cutting my own throat, really. Few people, and fewer regular sf fans and readers, are as aesthetically and psychologically interested in dislocation as I am, I know.
Still: the more I think about all this, the more intrigued I find myself. The idea starts to assume Casaubonic, key-to-all-mythologies prominence in my mind. What is Postmodernism but the cultural apotheosis of the fix-up? And what is more postmodern than science fiction? (Blade Runner, video Games, Janelle Monáe etc). What is the originary myth of science fiction, if not a scientist called Frankenstein literally fixing-up a new life-form out of disparate component parts? Could it be that the aesthetic logic of SF drives towards a kind of originary dialysis?
Here's a hypothesis. Let's say that the difference between Fantasy and SF is that the former extends beyond mimesis through novums predicated on magic, where the latter does so through novums predicated on science, or pseudo-science. In my Palgrave History I argued that this distinction was connected with the European cultural revolution of the Reformation, in which Catholicism insisted on the durability of its magical worldview where Protestantism took a step away from the whole transubstantiation/holy-relics/pilgrimages/miracles-and-saints side of things into a more austere, less enchanted form of faith. Now: this disenchantment has been experienced by many as a painful thing (my friend Alan Jacobs has taught and written fascinatingly on this topic) such that a form of literature that offers to restore enchantment, as much Fantasy does, will always find an appreciative audience. It's not that SF has turned its back on enchantment, of course: it's just that the characteristic SFnal mode of it, ‘sense of wonder’, in essence a high-tech, galactic-scale revisioning of the old Burkean or Kantian sublime, tends to be future-oriented, materialist and individualist, where High Fantasy, influenced heavily by that great Catholic writer Tolkien, tends to be past-oriented, quasi-religious and communitarian (or at least mediated). I don't want to unpack all of that here; I mention it to situate a thought I've lately had. Might it be that Fantasy, as a mode, tends formally to long, unified narratives (what even are the great Fantasy short stories? are there any?) because magic is a fundamentally unifying category? There might be competing magic systems, of course, and duelling magicians and all that: but really ‘magic’ is my thumbnail here for the animating principle of faith (magic in a sacred, profound sense) and the Judaic/Christian context considers such magic a fortiori a singular, unifying force, because it emanates from and returns to a singular, unified God.
Science, though, is different. Attempts both energetic and laborious to find a single ‘Theory of Everything’ have struggled for a century and a half and come up blank. Perhaps such a theory is just around the corner, but then again, perhaps not. Perhaps the reason science cannot seem to frame such a theory is that reality is not a unified everything in the first place. Perhaps reality itself is ‘fixed-up’ from a number of smaller and radically disparate elements. Perhaps the SF fix-up is, on a formal level, the truest mode of mimesis there could be.
Fanciful. But there you go.
Monday, 11 November 2019
Kings erect gigantic statues of themselves, in order (you understand) to exaggerate their importance in the world. But Goliath living was as large as any sculptured dead pharoah. He moved ponderously, it is true, but a blow from his right arm could smash houses and crumble boulders, and his feet were the size of boats, and his beard baobab-big. David trembled, naked and skinny as he was and armed only with a sling. ‘I curse you by your own gods,’ Goliath boomed, ‘for I am as large as they, and they do my bidding from sheer terror at my strength of arm.’ David’s ‘I will strike you down,’ came out in a piping voice. ‘I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that God saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is God's, and he will give you into our hand.’ Goliath laughed, and put his left foot forward to advance on his enemy, and David slung his stone, cracking the mighty bone jar of Goliath’s forehead. It took David half an hour to saw through the huge neck.
David was celebrated among the Israelites, as of course you would expect him to be. And afterwards, as you already know, he became king, and captured Jerusalem and established a mighty dynasty. You are aware of the story. But the end of David’s life was not as, perhaps, you have been told; for his heir Solomon, renowned for his splendour of the merely outward show of majesty, was not the true ruler. Power passed instead to a dwarf, a man named Yedidiah, who came to David in the king’s seventieth year and challenged him in his royal tent. David laughed, because the fellow’s head sat on so shrunken and deformed a body. ‘I am the monarch of a mighty nation,’ said David, still hale—for the blood of the patriarchs ran in his veins, and he might have lived as long as Methuselah. ‘You have the body of a crippled child.’ ‘I am the form fate takes in the working-out of its mortal dimension, King,’ replied the dwarf. ‘Jews think they cannot comprehend God, because He is so incomparably larger than any of us; but in truth we mistake the direction of our attention and should look not upward at the sky's enormousness but rather down into the dust.’ And Yedidah drew out a tube and put it to his mouth as if to play upon a musical pipe. Then he puffed, and a dart entered the innermost fold of David’s eye, where the tear-duct debouches, and disappeared. This dart snagged, as a poison-thorn, in the flesh and bone of the royal head and David fell back dead.
For many years Solomon enjoyed the outwards trappings of royalty and true power was in the hands of the dwarf, Yedidah. At Solomon’s death the tribes of Israel fell into disunity, and Yedidah moved to a fortress in the North of Judea not far from Hazor where, by means of certain magical amulets, he continued to exercise influence on human affairs for one hundred and eighty years. Finally, though, he died—or say rather, he was killed. For one night he lay awake, uneasy in his bed, and thought he saw a cat moving about the recesses of his chamber. So he lit a lamp and by its shivering yellow light he saw a man the size of a monkey, in raiment of gold and silver. A mere foot tall, slender as a child, but with the lines upon his face of the very old. The sight of this unnaturally tiny person shook fear out of the pulsing folds of Yedidah’s heart and he leapt from his bed yelling defiance. And though he was a dwarf his body was strong, and his eye unerring. ‘You are so skinny I shall cut you in half like a stalk of wheat,’ he boasted, but the tiny man said, in a voice like the whine of a mosquito, ‘I am already cut in half, like the moon at the middest of the month; but like the moon I shall grow whole again’ and tossed a powder into the air before Yedidah’s face. The dwarf could not help but inhale this poisoned dust and so he choked and died.
Must I draw the tale out? You see how it goes. I must? Very well. The little man had access to all of Yedidah’s magic charms and scrolls and was able to extend his life for many centuries and to exert power at a distance, walking through the dreams of kings and pharaohs. He compelled men and women to do his bidding, and went about the world sitting on the shoulders of his servant, draped in a cloth to disguise his identity. But in time, as of course he knew it would, he met his end. A woman came who was no taller than a hand's width, and skinny with it, like a child’s doll woven of a few wisps of straw. She was so tiny that you could only see her when she moved, and when the light was good. She slipped a single tiny seed-pearl into the tiny magician’s ear when he was sleeping, and the pearl took root and grew, and swelled, until the magician’s skull burst apart.
The woman’s name was Tzipor and she was as wily and cautious as her size had taught her. She lived in her fortress for many centuries until the humans who also occupied the castle, unaware of her presence, were defeated in one of the interminable wars humans like to fight. Thereafter the whole structure was torn down. Taking such magic artifacts as she could carry, and with her most potent charms written on tiny scraps of paper, Tzipor made her way to Jerusalem, since the great Temple had just been rebuilt there. She planned to live in the innermost chamber of this structure and from there to govern the whole world. But in the event she lived a mere seven days in that place, killed by a rival no larger than a tooth.
The years rolled around for the rest of humanity, each annual revolution as ponderous as Goliath’s footsteps, but for this new ruler of the world the seasons fluttered like a fly’s wing, refracting the light green, red and white with tremulous rapidity. It seemed to this secret Queen of the world only a short time, but in fact half a thousand years had passed when she was herself killed, as she knew she would be. Her assassin was the size of a grain of rice, and he dwelt in the feathers of a charmed owl that flew about the skies at night. He was himself killed by a smaller king, and this monarch was again killed. It is the rhythm of history and it runs according to the inevitable gradient of time. As, of course, you know.
The new queen was so tiny she could not be seen by the naked eye. But she commanded the ancient magic words, and propelled her thoughts into the minds of the temporal rulers of the lands of men, influencing them and shaping events. She wrapped herself around with charms to repel all attack and after a thousand years she began to believe that she had broken the cycle.
One morning, though, as she observed the dawn breaking over the sea outside her house, she was disabused. ‘What is your name?’ she asked her killer.
‘Adam,’ said the new ruler of the world, or perhaps he said Atom, and perhaps the year was 1945, and perhaps the sea was the Pacific and the land Japan. It is hard to be sure.
As the queen stared at the man he began to shine, and the shining became so intense that it consumed her, and her house, and her whole city, and so the new king of the world came to power, and his rule has, as I write these words, barely begun.
Monday, 28 October 2019
Chabon's pretty super The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) threads its story about two (fictional) comics creators in New York in the 1940s and 1950s together with many actual characters and events, from Harry Houdini, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí to Jack Kirby, Shuster and Siegel and other real-life comics properties and people. It is in part a novel ‘about’ Superman, I think; and certainly it is a novel about superheroes and superheroism. Jo Kavalier, having escaped Nazi Europe (although he's forced to leave many of his family behind) writes, and his closeted gay, polio-survivor cousin Sammy ‘Clay’ Klayman draws. Together they create ‘The Escapist’, a hero whose superpower is, well, escaping. Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to the character:
The Escapist's true identity is Tom Mayflower. He is the crippled nephew of escape artist Max Mayflower (who performs under the stage name of Misterioso). When Max is fatally shot while performing onstage, he reveals that he isn't his real uncle, having rescued him from a cruel orphanage as a baby. He gives Tom a golden key and a costume, explaining that he was recruited long ago by a mysterious organization called the League of the Golden Key to fight tyranny and free the oppressed. With his dying breath, Max commissions Tom to carry on his work. As long as Tom is wearing the costume and the key, he finds that he is no longer lame of leg and can perform amazing feats of escapology. Tom uses his powers to fight crime under the guise of the Escapist, especially against the evil forces of the mysterious criminal network, the Iron Chain ... The Escapist is also sometimes aided by his benefactors, the League of the Golden Key, a secret society dedicated to freeing the oppressed and imprisoned. They are the source of the mystic key that grants the Escapist his powers, having granted it to Tom's uncle after freeing him from kidnappers when he was younger.I've been thinking about Superman lately (teaching him tomorrow, see) and about superheroes more generally, not least pondering the question of why they have become so culturally ubiquitous in the last decade or so. Should I go back to Kavalier & Clay? (What if it's not as good as I remember?)
Anyway: I'm struck by Chabon's governing metaphor in this novel, and wondering about how it scales to thinking about Superman and his variants. I mean escape, the actual superpower of The Escapist, translating into (comic) text the actual life-story of Kavalier, whose training as an escapologst in Czechoslovakia facilitated his escape from the Nazis (inside a coffin also containing the famous Golem of Prague). The novel spins various riffs on this theme: Clay is imprisoned by his own body in terms of disease, of his shyness, but also his, for the 1940s-50s, socially unacceptable sexual orientation, and his through-line narrative explores the ways in which he might ‘escape’ that as-it-were prison. It's also, obviously enough, Chabon twitting the notion that SF and comics are mere escapism, which is to say, the notion that such escapism is in any sense bad.
There are less successful grace-notes on the theme too: halfway through the novel Kavalier joins the navy, hoping to be able to fight Hitler; but is instead posted to a base in the Antarctic. A blocked chimney kills everyone inside by carbon monoxide posioning, all except Kavalier who is able to escape. For me this episode is a misstep, and the novel starts to lose it way afterwards. Your mileage may vary. But I very much like the way Clay is so-named both on account of his connection with the magical baked-clay golem, but also as a clef, a key, a magical way out of prison.
It is, though interesting to reconsider Superman as an escapologist rather than a super-strong, invulnerable godling, or anything along those sorts of lines. To suggest that the important thing about him was not so much that he came to Earth to fight ‘for truth, justice and the American way’ but that he came from a dying world, that he managed to escape certain death and get away. I mean, it requires some fogging of the lens to make that case, I think (Kal-El was a baby when he left Krypton after all, sent out like a parcel: he can take no credit for that escape), and I'm not sure I see that being Clark Kent was in any existential sense a prison for Superman. On the contrary, the problem with Clark Kent is that that identity is too fragile, too liable to be seen-through by anyone prepared to look twice, or add two and two. Still, that's not Chabon's take, here. ‘“To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,” Kavalier would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angoulême or to the editor of The Comics Journal. “You weren't the same person when you came out as when you went in”.’ I can sort-of see that.
But if I'm honest, the superheroes are escapologists line seems to me to put the emphasis in the wrong place. The power-fantasy of being Superman is in the can-do, isn't it? The strength and magical powers to do anything. The only can-do manifested by escapologists is that they can and do get out of the locked-box, a power that kicks-in only if they've been locked in the box in the first place. You might want to argue existentially, as it were: that in an escapological universe there are only boxes and so on; but I'm not sure how much I buy-into that particular weltanschauung, either speaking just as me, personally, or as a way of reading superheroes. Isn't it a confusion of the old chestnut concerning freedom? I mean that freedom from and freedom to are quite different valences of the term. Chabon's interested in the former, where Superman strikes me as being all about the latter. Isn't there a kind of Berlinian muddling going on here?
Krypton is backstory where Superman is concerned; the story is Earth, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and so on. Isn't it? But neither of Chabon's two main characters can escape the past, and one of the things the novel is, tacitly rather than directly, saying is: the utter destruction of Krypton, which is to say the Holocaust, still defines what it means to be a Jew, even today. Chabon, to be fair, does hint at ways of reconfiguring, or of trying to reconfigure, the vector of escapologist (‘“Forget about what you are escaping from,” he said, quoting an old maxim of Kornblum's. “Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to”.’) I don't know if he quite manages this, though.
Maybe I'm being unfair. The Superman is a Jew argument has been so thoroughly rehearsed, nowsadays as to have become pretty much a cliché: so, sure, he comes from a dying world with an exotic-sounding name, but he comes to America, like millions of immigrants before him, and reinvents himself as a clean-cut, suit-wearing, hard-worker with a gentile name. All that. And in parallel with that thesis is the idea, which I kick around in my Palgrave History of SF, that as SF owes its orgins to, and still contains in its semiological DNA a bunch of questions to do with, the Protestant Reformation (read the book if you want to know more), so the huge vogue in SF superhero characters, from Superman in 1938 through Paul Atreides in the 60s, Neo in the 90s and then back to the big-budget megagrossing MCU movies of the last decade and a half, are all ways of thinking through anxieties to do with the nature and status of the messiah, one of several grounds of ferocious contention between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th century that still, shorn of its doctrinal specificity, has powerful resonance to day. How are we saved? Are we saved? What kind of figure is this saviour, anyway? Man, or god? Strange mixture of the two? Can he marry and have kids, or is that impossible for him? If he's so powerful and good at saving, how are we not all saved and happy now? And so on.
One view of baby-superman in his escape-pod is that it's a version of baby Moses floating down the river in his basket. Sure, why not. Except ... well, except that there's little that's specifically Mosaic about grown-up Superman, is there? There's none of that let-my-people-go or burning-bush stuff even in analogue. Where (and here I'm tiptoing back to the idea that maybe Chabon has a point) there is a specifically escapological element to Christ, the prototype, I'm arguing, whose secularised iterations so dominate our present-day comic book narratives. Christ himself is locked in a tomb, with a giant stone in front of its mouth, but he gets out, Houdini-like. In a more profound sense Christ is locked in a magic box, called ‘death’, whose absolute inescapability is proved by the fact that although literally everybody in the world is locked in it at one point or another, literally none of those people have ever found a way out. But Christ does find a way out, and his apostles repeat the trick, in a stepped-down mundane sense, by breaking out of brick-and-mortar prisons. With a little angelic help, of course.
And when [Herod] had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. [Acts 12:4-7]Pretty escapological, that, right down to the trick with the chains. Nor can the ordinary punters work out how the trick was done: ‘as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter. And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death.’ Maybe that is what superheroes are about after all: breaking chains and getting out of jail as a metaphor for breaking death and evading mortality. Here's a 1939 Captain Marvel cover showing him doing both things at once:
1992's big comic event sold itself on its sheer outrageousness: Superman? Dead? The very idea!
But of course he's not dead, or rather he's only temporarily dead. The creators knew, and so did the fans, that he'd be back. And so it proved. Not dying is the key thing Superman does for us, after all.
We might say that the point of superheroes is that they blur the line between being and not being our saviours. They aren't Christ, except insofar as they symbolically are. They save the world only to discover that the world somehow isn't saved (as Mr Incredible himself says: ‘no matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid: I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for... for ten minutes?’)—which is another way of saying that they save the world in a material but not a spiritual sense, I suppose. And maybe that's the real escapology at work here. To quote Chabon again, from a different novel: ‘a messiah who actually arrives is no good to anybody. A hope fulfilled is already half a disappointment’ [Yiddish Policeman's Union, ch. 39]. We want but also don't want our saviour to come, and SF's superheroes deliver on both halves of that conflicted desire, just as SF itself both puts its fans in touch with a transcendent sublime (the scale of the universe, the sense of wonder) that is at root basically religious and flees religion into realms of exaggerated materialism, technology and science. A tricky piece of escapological evasion, really.