‘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.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Two Hawk Poems


C Day Lewis's poem ‘The Hawk Comes Down From The Air’ (1936) starts as Ted Hughesy avant la lettre:
The hawk comes down from the air.
Sharpening his eye upon
A wheeling horizon
Turning scrutiny to prayer.

He guessed the prey that cowers
Below, and learnt to keep
The distance which can strip
Earth to its black contours.

Then trod the air, content
With contemplation till
The truth of valley and hill
Should be self-evident.
The cowers/Below enjambment is a bit clumsy; and the third stanza has the feel of marking time that makes it seem more anticlimactic than it needs to after such a sweeping opening. But then the poem takes a turn for the twee:
Or as the little lark ...
I'll stop there, for a moment, to observe that I don't think there's a poet in the English tradition with the skill to prevent ‘or as the little lark’ coming off as soppy. Anyway.
Or as the little lark
Who veins the sky with song,
Asking from dawn to dark
No revenues of spring:

But with the night descends
Into his chosen tree,
And the famed singer ends
In anonymity.

So from a summer's height
I come into my peace;
The wings have earned their night
And the song may cease.
That ending, retrogressing from Hughes to Newman or indeed Newbolt, feels unearned. A shame, because it starts pretty well.

So: I took this poem, fed it into Google translate on an English-Dutch setting, then took the result and fed it back through the Dutch-English filter. What emerged is below. I prefer it to the original, I think.
The hawk comes down from the sky.
Grinding his eye
Wheeling a horizon
Test run prayer.

He recommended that to the cowering prey
Below, and learned to keep
The distances that strip
The earth for its black contours.

Then enter the air, the contents
With contemplation of
The truth of the valley and hill
Must of course be

Or  the Lark
Whose veins the sky singing,
Questions from dawn to sunset
No income of spring:

But with the night falls
In his chosen tree,
And the famous singer ends
In anonymity.

So from a summer height
I come into my peace;
The wings have earned their night
And the song may be present.
I'd say it needs a little extra tinkering to take out the residual rhymes, which are now just distracting now. But otherwise: better!

Sunday, 8 September 2019

George Buchanan's ‘Desiderium Lutetiae’ (1567)



In George Buchanan's allegorical idyll ‘Desiderium Lutetiae’ (written 1552, first published as the third of Buchanan's Silvae in 1567), the poet, unhappy in Portugal, addresses his beloved Paris as ‘Amaryllis’, styling her a pastoral maid and himself a lovelorn pastoral swain called Daphnis. It was one of Buchanan's most famous poems (at least, among his secular poems) and Buchanan himself was for centuries Scotland's most famous writer—indeed, arguably he was sixteenth-century Europe's single most celebrated poet, although because he wrote in Latin he's more or less been forgotten now. Still: I needed a sense of this poem for an academic-y thing I was looking into, and couldn't find a translation anywhere (there's this, and this, but in neither case can I lay my hand on a copy of the actual books, and Google Books, as you can see, only gives us snippet views). So I had to gorblimey up a rough English version. Having done so, I thought I might as well blog it. It's a line-by-line translation, more or less. If anyone is reading this post (not likely, I know) and wants to offer corrections on my translation, they would be very gladly received. I shan't be holding my breath, though.

Desiderium Lutetiae
O formosa Amarylli, tuo jam septima bruma
Me procul aspectu, jam septima detinet aestas:
Sed neque septima bruma nivalibus horrida nimbis,
Septima nec rapidis candens fervoribus aestas
Extinxit vigiles nostro sub pectore curas.
Tu mihi mane novo carmen, dum roscida tondet
Arva pecus, medio tu carmen solis in aestu,
Et cum jam longas praeceps nox porrigit umbras:
Nec mihi quae tenebris condit nox omnia vultus
Est potis occultare tuos, te nocte sub atra                 [10]
Alloquor, amplector, falsaque in imagine somni
Gaudia sollicitam palpant evanida mentem.
At cum somnus abit, curis cum luce renatis
Tecta miser fugio, tanquam mihi tecta doloris
Semina subjiciant, et solid moestus in agris
Qua vagus error agit feror, & deserta querelis
Antra meis, silvasque & conscia faxa fatigo.
Sola meos planctus Echo miserata gementi
Adgemit, & quoties suspiria pectore duco,
Hæc quoque vicino toties suspirat ab antro.              [20]
Sæpe super celsæ prærupta cacumina rupis
In mare prospiciens, spumantia cœrula demens
Alloquor, & surdis jacto irrita vota procellis:

O mare! quæque maris vitreas, Nereides, undas
Finditis, in vestros placidæ me admittite portus:
Aut hoc si nimium est, nec naufragus ire recuso,
Dummodo dilectas teneam vel naufragus oras.
O quoties dixi Zephyris properantibus illuc,
Felices pulchram visuri Amaryllida venti,
Sic neque Pyrene duris in cotibus alas                     [30]
Atterat, & vestros non rumpant nubila cursus,
Dicite vesanos Amaryllidi Daphnidos ignes.
O quoties Euro levibus cum raderet alis
AEquora, dicebam, Felix Amaryllide visa,
Dic mihi, Num meminit nostri? num mutua sentit
Vulnera? num veteris vivunt vestigia flammæ?
Ille ferox contra rauco cum murmure stridens
Avolat irato similis, mihi frigore pectus
Congelat, exanimes torpor gravis alligat artus.
Nec me pastorum recreant solamina, nec me            [40]
Fistula, Nympharumque leves per prata choreæ,
Nec quæ capripedes modulantur carmina Panes:
Una meos sic est prædata Amaryllis amores.

Et me tympana docta ciere canora Lycisca,
Et me blanda Melænis amavit, Iberides ambæ,
Ambæ florentes annis, opibusque superbæ:
Et mihi dotales centum cum matribus agnos
Ipsi promisere patres, mihi munera matres
Spondebant clam multa: meum nec munera pectus,
Nec nivei movere suis cum matribus agni,                [50]
Nec quas blanditias teneræ dixere puellæ,
Nec quas delicias teneræ fecere puellæ.
Quantum ver hyemem, vietum puer integer ævi,
Ter viduam thalamis virgo matura parentem,
Quam superat Durium Rhodanus, quam Sequana Mundam,
Lenis Arar Sycorim, Ligeris formosus Iberum,
Francigenas inter Ligeris pulcherrimus amnes:
Tantum omnes vincit Nymphas Amaryllis lberas.
Sæpe suos vultus speculata Melænis in unda,
Composuit, pinxitque oculos, finxitque capillum,        [60]
Et voluit, simul & meruit formosa videri.
Sæpe mihi dixit, Animi male perdite Daphni,
Cur tibi longinquos libet insanire furores?
Et quod ames dare nostra potest tibi terra, racemos
Collige purpureos, & spes ne concipe lentas.
Sæpe choros festos me prætereunte, Lycisca
Cernere dissimulans, vultusque aversa canebat
Hæc, pedibus terram, & manibus cava tympana pulsans;
Et Nemesis gravis ira, atque irritabile numen,
Et Nemesis laesos etiam punitur amores.                      [70]
Vidi ego dum leporem venator captat, echinum
Spernere, post vanos redeuntem deinde labores,
Vespere nec retulisse domum leporem nec echinum.
Vidi ego qui mullum peteret piscator, & arctis
Retibus implicitam tincam sprevisset opimam,
Vespere nec retulisse domum mullum neque tincam.
Vidi ego qui calamos crescentes ordine risit
Pastor arundineos, dum torno rasile buxum
Frustra amat, (interea calamos quos riserat, alter
Pastor habet,) fragiles contentum inflare cicutas.         [80]
Sic solet immodicos Nemesis contundere fastus.

Hæc & plura Melænis, & hæc & plura Lycisca
Cantabant surdas frustra mihi semper ad aures.
Sed canis ante lupas, & taurus diliget ursas,
Et vulpem lepores, & amabit dama leænas,
Quam vel tympana docta ciere canora Lycisca
Mutabit nostros vel blanda Melænis amores,
Et prius æquoribus pisces, & montibus umbræ,
Et volucres deerunt silvis, & murmura ventis,
Quam mihi discedent formosae Amaryllidos ignes:       [90]
Illa mihi rudibus succendit pectora flammis,
Finiet illa meos moriens morientis amores.
‘O lovely Amaryllis’: ‘O formosa Amarylli’ is Vergillian (Eclogue 1 line 5 praises formosam Amaryllida, echoing Vergil’s Theocritan original, both the 3rd and 4th of whose Idylls address ὦ χαρίεσσ᾽ ᾿Αμαρυλλί) as is Buchanan's pseudonym, Daphnis. The two lovely nymphs Melaenis and Lycisca are the Portuguese towns of Coimbra and Evora, where Buchanan spent most of his time, both of which offered him academic posts, but whose charms, though not negligible, are outshone in his opinion by those of the University of Paris. Likewise the generic pastoral rivers mentioned in the poem, Durius, Munda, Sycoris and Oberus are the Iberian rivers Douro, Mondego, Segre and Ebro. Here's my line-by-line Englishing:


Missing Paris

Lovely Amaryllis! Seven winters gone
and seven long summers since I saw your face,
though endless sevens, wintry clouds of snow,
hot blasts of fervid summers, nothing
could ever quench the ardour in my breast.
You're the song I sing at dawn, as the flock returns
to crop the dew-wet grass; it's you in the hot noon
and when the night is long and shadow stretches
night embalms everything, but not for me
since you are there, hidden behind the darkness:                        [10]
in dreams I talk to you, embrace you, share
the complex joys of my mind's idea of you.
When sleep is lost to day my cares are reborn
I leave the town—the houses blanks to me
units of subduing pain—and rush through fields,
sad-hearted fugitive, hopeless escapee:
through caves, through woods I haul my weary thoughts.
Grieving Echo hears my rough-edged groans
and groans back at me to my chest's tempo,
the very caves sigh round me as I do.                                         [20]
Sometimes I loiter on tall, rugged cliffs
watching a sky-blue sea thrash itself foam-mad
and yell my yearning at the deaf-eared storm:

“Carry me over waves of sea-coloured glass
Nereids, gently across to my safe harbour.
If safety's too much, I'm fine with shipwreck,
provided such dangers bring me to my love.
How often I've addressed the quick winds, saying:
You fortunate breeze, you will see Amaryllis;
I pray no Pyrenees crags bruise your wings                                 [30]
no clouds chafe you as you go rushing on
to tell Amaryllis of Daphnis’s wild desires.
How often I've asked Euro, as his wings
scrape foam from wavetops: is Amaryllis well?
does she still remember me? does she feel
the pain I do? Does our flame still live in her?
But the wild wind recoiled with a rasping
angry rush, dashed off, chilled the soul in my breast
seizing up my veins, freezing my helpless limbs.
Nor can I take comfort now in rural thoughts:                            [40]
meadow nymphs dancing to a shepherd’s pipe
nimble-footed, singing songs of feasting
all tainted now by thoughts of Amaryllis.”

Lycisca taught me rhythms from the drum,
and gorgeous Melaenis is crowned with love;
both rightly proud of their  youthful beauty.
And I've been promised a hundred fatted lambs
as dowry by their fathers, their mothers,
promising extra gifts. Pledges that don’t move me,
no matter that the lambs are white as snow;                           [50]
erotic words, low-spoken by these girls,
such promises could never change my mind.
Wizened winter to the boyish blush of spring—
that, times three, is how they fall short of my girl;
As Durius trumps the Rhone, Seine the Munda,
Sycoris than Saone, Ebro than the Loire,
(though the Loire is France’s loveliest river!)
so Amaryllis bests Iberian nymphs.
Melaenis saw her face in the waters' mirror,
her powder, painted eyes, her fine-dressed hair,                  [60]
thought to herself she was the lovely one.
“Such agony” (she said), “in Daphnis’s soul!
Why waste your love on what is far away?
Why blank the attractions of our earth, our clustered
black-and-purple grapes—why yearn for what's not here?”

I've watched Lycisca at the festival
Pretending I'm not there, sly-glancing, beating
her foot, pounding the hollow drum, singing:
“Nemesis is cruel, my lad, a wild god,
Nemesis will punish your transgressions.                                 [70]
I've seen the hunter chase the hare, and ignore
the easy hedgehog, only to return hungry
at dusk, bringing home neither hare nor hog;
seen fisherman lay nets for deep-sea mullet
ignoring rich schools of small tench; returning
home at last with neither tench nor mullet.
And I, I sneered at basic reeds, desiring
instead the polished lathe-turned shepherd's flute
vainly wanting what I could not have, ignoring
slender hemlock: though it's fine for playing!                             [80]
So Nemesis works, crushing insolent pride.”

This (and more) Melaenis and Lycisca sang
to ears that were quite deaf to all their words.
Dogs shall love wolves and bulls shall yearn for bears
hares adore foxes and deers pair off with lions
before the rhythms of Lycisca’s music or
Melaenis’s smooth beauty change my love.
Fish will leave the sea and mountains lie down,
birds quit the woods, the winds give up their roar
before my Amaryllis ardour fades.                                         [90]
She it was who lit these flames in my heart;
only when she dies will my death put them out.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

1905 Cyborgs



At one point in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, Nabokov remembers being five (in 1904) and meeting one of his father's friends, General Kuropatkin:
To amuse me, he spread out a handful of matches on the divan where he was sitting, placed ten of them end to end to make a horizontal line and said: ‘This is the sea in calm weather.’ Then he tipped up each pair so as to turn the straight line into a zigzag – and that was ‘a stormy sea’. He scrambled the matches and was about to do, I hoped, a better trick when we were interrupted. His aide-de-camp was shown in and said something to him. With a Russian, flustered grunt, Kuropatkin immediately rose from his seat, the loose matches jumping up on the divan as his weight left it. That day, he had been ordered to assume supreme command of the Russian army in the Far East.
Nabokov picks up (as it were) these matches in a further, 1919-dated memory. The Nabokovs are fleeing the Bolsheviks, and on a bridge are approached ‘by an old man who looked like a peasant in his sheepskin coat’. It's Kuropatkin, of course; and he asks for a light. I mean, it probably wasnt Kuropatkin, actually, but Nabokov still insists: ‘whether or not old Kuropatkin, in his rustic disguise, managed to evade Soviet imprisonment, is immaterial. What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme. Following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.’

Kuropatkin's disgrace stemmed from his mismanagement (as many Russians saw it) of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War which, of course, Russia lost. That defeat was sealed at the Battle of Mukden fought from February to March 1905. It's a fascinating, surprisingly little-known corner of military history, this; the largest land battle ever fought at that point in history, and a stark anticipation of what was coming in World War 1. General Kuropatkin, commanding more than 340,000 men, fought the 270,000-strong Imperial Japanese Army (Wikipedia tells us ‘the Japanese side alone fired 20.11 million rifle and machine gun rounds and 279,394 artillery shells in just over ten days of fighting: the Russians fired more’). In freezing conditions, and with an army that collapsed into disarray when he tried to manoeuvre it, Kuropatkin was eventually forced to retreat.

The Japanese naturally celebrated this victory, which brings me to the image at the head of this post. It is a 1905 woodcut cartoon woodprint by Japanese artist Kobayashi Kiyochika showing Tsar Nicholas II waking from a nightmare of the broken Russian forces returning from battle. But I love the way those Russian troops have been rendered as strange hybrids of battered human forms and big military tech. Cyborgtastic!

Sunday, 1 September 2019

These Books Were Made For Walking, And That's Just What They'll Do



There's a lot of walking around in Fantasy, and I wonder why.

Which is to say: I'm wondering in what sense walking figures as something essential to Fantasy as a mode, after the manner of such generic conventions as systems of magic, dragons and fantastical creatures, medievalised or otherwise historically-determined social logics and so on. Must we have our characters perambulate if we want a proper Fantasy novel? Let's say: part of the joy of Fantasy is the worldbuilding (maps! varieties of landscapes and peoples and locales!) and having your main characters meander about your built-world is the best narrative strategy for showing it off. Fans tacitly acknowledge this when they talk, not entirely derisively, of a ‘Cook’s Tour’ of Fantasyland.

Plus walking is (for many people, if not all) a pleasure, and a pleasure with pre-industrial bona fides, appropriate to the valorisation of the pre-industrial that is often what Fantasy entails. So maybe walking is integral to the mode: or if not walking, then at least riding horses, or sailing sailing-ships, or something similar that puts the characters into pre-industrial motion.

Then again (there’s always a then again) I’m not so sure.

Put it this way: sometimes we walk because we need to get somewhere specific, and sometimes we walk just because we want to walk. Which of these two kinds is the Fantasy walk?

Consider Romanticism. Wordsworth and Coleridge (and others) loved walking for the sake of walking. The Prelude is an epic of walking, and the important thing is always the walk, not the destination—when Wordsworth crosses the Alps it’s the crossing that is the locus poeticus, not the destination (where even was he going? Somewhere in Italy presumably? The poem doesn’t say). As Anne Wallace argues in her Walking, Literature and English Culture (Clarendon 1994) Wordsworth's poetic was a radically pedestrian and peripatetic one; he literally composed his verse by walking it out, and if he didn't have a longer walk in mind he would walk round and round his Grasmere garden, using the rhythm of his feet on the ground to help generate the poetic lines in his head, only afterwards coming inside to write them out. When Seamus Heaney said ‘Wordsworth at his best, no less than at his worst, is a pedestrian poet’ he was only half joking.

But there’s another model of ‘the walk’: pilgrimage. This is an activity with a peculiar resonance nowadays—because if you need to get somewhere specific, someplace far off, for secular reasons nowadays you’d probably take a train, or drive, or fly, or otherwise technologically facilitate your progress. If you have to get somewhere both specific and far away and you elect to walk it will surely be because you have some more than merely secular reason. This might be the traditional pilgrim’s sense that you have travel under your own power to a holy site to be, yourself, holy: to Mecca, to Jerusalem, to Canterbury. But it might be less traditionally specific. Frodo has to go to Mount Doom: he’s not going because the mountain is holy (quite the reverse), but he has to go for magical world-saving reasons that are more than merely mundane business. And, it seems, he has to walk there—the old gag about ‘why doesn’t he hitch a ride on an eagle, then Lord of the Rings could be over by page 25!’ is funny because it so patently misses the point of Tolkien’s text.

All this has its resonance for thoughts I’ve been having about Fantasy as a mode, which thoughts are presently scattered about this blog, a few other places and disposed ungainlily in an ongoing email conversation I’m having with a friend. Some day, if I’m spared, we might find it worthwhile, he and I, pulling these scattered pieces together into something more coherent. For now, I’ll lay my finger on three things that has emerged from our ponderings, to do with the agument that the roots of the late 20th-century boom in commercial Fantasy go back before Tolkien (and Howard, and Fritz Lieber) into the nineteenth-century, and three linked cultural phenomena in particular: (a) the huge resurgence in Victorian/Edwardian interest in medievalism, and Arthurianism in particular; (b) the vast popular culture reach of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and (c) Wagner.

Setting that third aside for a moment (is there much walking around in Wagner’s Ring? I’m not sure there is, actually) I'll pull something out of the Bunyan post linked there by way of moving my argument in this post onward a little. So: Pilgrim's Progress is, as we would now say, a Fantasy: a world full of danger, magic and monsters, through which an ordinary middling protagonist must pass. But because the book is an allegory (a word Tolkien pointedly denied had any applicability to Lord of the Rings) it is necessarily a doubled novel: its fantastical surface story is one text, and its implicit buried real-life story a second. The man called in the novel Christian in this spiritual realm is presumably called something quite different in our material realm: John, say. Paul. George. Adam who knows. It looks odd in the novel that Christian simply abandons his wife and four children to go on his pilgrimage, never to return (scripturally, of course, Christ enjoins his faithful to abandon their earthly duties and follow him, to “let the dead bury their dead” as he puts it). But we have to presume that this abandonment only happens, as it were, in the spiritual realm; that in the material realm he continues living with his family and materially-supporting them as was his duty. The point is, Bunyan's story is not focused on that material life. It is allegorising the spiritual separation that must grow between a husband who has been born again and a wife who hasn't, even if they're still living in the same house.
Indeed, we must assume that this peripatetic narrative describes the actual life of a man called John (or whatever) who himself has most likely never travelled anywhere—who stays all his life in the same town or village where he was born, as almost everybody did in the seventeenth-century. Indeed it's really quite important that the “actual” person Bunyan is writing about doesn't travel, even though his allegorical avatar, Christian, does. That's because one of the things Bunyan is striving for is a clear separation between his story and the (as he saw it) wicked old Catholic rituals of literal pilgrimages. To distinguish between his book and all those dodgy medieval Catholic allegorical romances. As Alec Ryrie argues in his book Protestants: the Radicals who Made the Modern World (2017), Protestants like Bunyan had a complicated relationship to the idea of pilgrimage: on the one hand a Catholic and suspect notion, on the other one that expressed their sense of faith as a journey—‘Protestantism was and is a religion of progress, of restless, relentless advance towards holiness, not of stagnation’ [132-33] is how Ryrie puts it. Bunyan is not saying Christians have actually to schlep to Canterbury, or Rheims, or Jerusalem, the way a Muslim actually must travel to Mecca. He is saying that Christians must undergo spiritual pilgrimages, journeys of faith.
Perhaps all the walking-around Fantasy characters engage in is less specifically pilgrimmy in terms of destination, and more the externalisation in terms of story and worldbuilding of a more fundamental, Protestant-y dynamic: progress, not stagnation.

I've had another thought, recently, that relates to this, and to Fantasy as a whole, and it comes out of my re-reading The Faerie Queene. I decided to read the whole thing right through, rather than rely on my piecemeal acquaintance, picked up here and there over the years with this or that episode. To see how it reads as Fantasy.

This time through, one thing in particular has been striking me: an as-it-were larger, plot-structuring thing. The world of the Faiery Queene is, very obviously, divided between goodies and baddies. The former tend to roam around, and the latter tend to be stuck in one place. Good walks (or rides), Evil is homebound. Even limiting ourselves to Book 1 (which is where I am, at the moment): the virtuous Redcrosse Knight, having been led astray by the wicked Duessa, is locked-up in the castle (the chateau, the house) of the wicked giant Orgoglio. Una happens to meet Prince Arthur, riding around the countryside, and he it is who attacks Orgoglio's house, defeats the giant and frees Arthur



The houses of Fairie Queene don't exclusively belong to wicked creatures like Orgoglio, of course. Indeed, even continuing to limit ourselves to Book 1, Una and Arthur bring the Redcrosse Knight to recuperate from his wounds in the House of Holiness, enjoying the hospitality of the House's ruler Caelia and her three daughters. But, on my re-read, I'm struck by how mobile virtue is, and how settled and lair-bound evil.

There's a particular reason this strikes me as odd, since Renaissance British attitudes to vagrancy were, by modern standards extraordinarily harsh. People (that is, common people, folk like thee and me) were supposed to stay where they were. The 1572 Vagabonds Act was a codification of, and by no means any kind of departure from, preceding Elizabethan Poor Laws; and by those laws beggars had to be licensed by the justice of the peace of the parishes to which they belonged (which is to say: where they were born). Unlicensed vagabonds were to be whipped and burned through the ear. Common folk who travelled from town to town could not do so as masterless men: merchants had to belong to a guild, and actors to a company sponsored by a nobleman (as Shakespeare's was: the Lord Chamberlain's Men). Lacking such patronage actors were regarded, legally, as sturdy beggars—an illegal category (those who were well-enough to work could not, legally, beg)—and whipped to the parish boundary. The other type of Renaissance wanderer, or tramp, was the outlaw, and the way to handle them was by hanging them by the neck until dead.

Virtue, in this larger discourse, was a home; a homestead, a place where you belonged and where you should stay. Robert Cleaver famously declared: ‘the household is as it were a little commonwealth’. Moving about, on the other hand, was deeply suspect, and in ideologically multivalent ways. Linda Woodbridge's Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature (University of Illinois Press, 2001) explores the various ways in which vagrants and wanderers were demonised: as shiftless, placeless rogues ‘wily, sexually promiscuous and inherently anarchic ... fomenters of widespread social rebellion’. Interestingly  Woodbridge's second chapter shows how Protestant writers like Martin Luther and Simon Fish associated vagrants with the Catholicism they despised. Nor was it just the Prots: ‘For writers like Juan Luis Vives, Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas Elyot, the vagrant poor are “less than human”.’

The world of Faerie Queen presents a striking photographic negative of this world-logic, and commercial Fantasy (descended in part, if a little tortuously, from Spenser) does too. In Generic Fantasyland today, though the setting is medieval or Renaissance, you, an ordinary hobbit, or a humble pig-herd, or a simple villager, get to roam and explore, to wander and travel and see the wonders of the world. In Spenser's fairyland some of the evil the knights encounter are wild and loose beings, it is true, haunting the woods and making the roads unsafe for honest travellers (until they are slain); and some characters, like Duessa herself, are encountered out in the open. But, like Giant Despair in Bunyan, evil is as often as not holed up in fastnesses and fortresses. And although there is nothing unusual in a Renaissance nobleman, like Redcrosse or Arthur, travelling whereso'er they choose (benefits of nobility, of course) the more usual type in today's Fantasy is the nondescript, the commoner, the Scott-style ‘ordinary individual’ who can act, in the larger logic of the story, as a mediator between remarkable characters encountered on the way.

Is this noteworthy, do we think? I mean: as a reflection on the pedestrianism of commercial Fantasy? Hmm.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Franz Kafka "An Imperial Message" (September 1919)


The Emperor—they say—sent a message, dictated it from his death bed no less, sent it to you alone, to you his feeble subject, to that miniature shadow hiding at the remotest distance from the imperial sun. He instructed the messenger to kneel down beside his bed and to whisper the message in his ear. It was important, he believed, to have the messenger repeat it back to him. He confirmed the messenger’s accuracy by nodding his head. And before the whole crowd of them, all those people witnessing the emperor’s death—the walls surrounding him have been pulled down, and all the great men of the empire are arranged in a circle on the wide and high-tiered flights of stairs—before all of them he sent off his messenger. Away he went at once, a strong, indefatigable man. Thrusting out one arm and then another he pushes through the crowd. If he meets resistance he gestures at his own chest where is pinned the sun-shaped medallion. He’s the only one moving, pressing easily forwards. But the crowd is so very big; its mansions are infinite. If he were crossing an open field he’d fly along, no question, and you would very soon hear the wonderful pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that all his efforts come to nothing. He is still making his way through all the private rooms of the inner palace. He will never find a way through. And even if he did, it wouldn’t make any difference. He’d only have to struggle down the palace steps, and, even if he did that, it wouldn’t make any difference. He’d still have the courtyards to cross, and after the courtyards the second palace that encircles the first, and, again, down stairs and through courtyards, and then, yet again, another palace, and so on for millennia. But say he managed it at last, burst through the outermost door—although such a thing could never, never happen—why then: the whole royal capital city, the centre of the world, is standing before him, heaped buildings and streets clogged with mud. No one forces his way through such a place, certainly not a man carrying a message from a dead man. But nonetheless, you sit at your window as evening falls, and you dream the message to yourself.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Zombi



The OED says the first recorded use of the word ‘zombie’ (a word originally ‘of West African origin’) in English is 1819:
1819 R. Southey History of Brazil III. xxxi. 24 Zombi, the title whereby he [chief of Brazilian natives] was called, is the name for the Deity, in the Angolan tongue... NZambi is the word for Deity.
I've found some earlier examples. Here's an article from the Universal Magazine (‘Account of a Republic of Slaves which Existed For About Sixty Years in Brazil’) in 1809:



And here, fifty years earlier, is a passage from George Sale, ‎George Psalmanazar and ‎Archibald Bower's Universal History, from the Earliest Account of Time (1760). This one is especially interesting, because in this case ‘zombi’ (or ‘zambi’) means not ‘ruler’ but fetish. A missionary to the Congo is bigging-up his crucifix for the benefit of the locals:



So, no: Southey does not get the credit for introducing this African word into English.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Loving Our Monsters: Thoughts on "Communion Town"



In the introduction to a recent reprint of Dracula (Constable, 2012) Colm Tóibín makes the case for Stoker’s book not just as a great novel but more specifically as a great Irish novel. The apparent absence of great Irish writers of the nineteenth-century, before Joyce (we might prefer: before Wilde and Shaw) is an illusion, he says. The 19th-century, Tóibín argues, saw important manifestations of a kind of Irish subconscious in the writings of Maturin, Le Fanu and Stoker. He quotes Maria Edgeworth, from 1834:
It is impossible to draw Ireland as she is now in a book or fiction. Realities are too strong, party passions too violent, to bear to see, or care to look at their faces in a looking-glass. The people would only break the glass and curse the fool who held the mirror up to nature—distorted nature in a fever.
So, change scenes: Communion Town (2012) the Booker-longlisted first novel by Sam Thompson. It’s about London, but it follows the Pratchett-Harrison-Gaiman-Miéville line—and what a strange collection of names to bring under the same umbrella—of writing about London indirectly by writing about an imaginary metropolis that both is and is not London. If I ask why?, I hope it won’t be taken, by the seven people liable to read this post, that I’m in any sense sniping at the validity of the 'speculative' approach as such. Obviously not; it’s what I love; it’s what I do. But what is our excuse? We aren’t living through the situation Edgeworth described. What does a fantastic and metaphorical apprehension of the city have that documentary verisimilitude (say) doesn’t?

Here's one idea: that we metaphorise the monstrosity of life as actual monsters because, pace Edgeworth and Stoker, it’s the only way we can articulate it. But I don't think that's right. We're all post Chatterley-trial, after all. All sorts of horrible things get written and published in broadly ‘realist’ modes nowadays. Another is that we metaphorise that monstrosity, even though we’re perfectly capable of addressing the monstrousness more directly, because we’ve fallen in love with our imagined monsters to the exclusion of real life. Maybe the problem is that we take our imagined monsters too seriously—more seriously than the problems of real life. Maybe the problem is that we don’t ironize our metaphors enough. Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

So here’s Thompson’s City (it is unnamed in the novel: ‘Communion Town’ is one of its quarters); more specifically, here's its main railway station:
A world of grey dawn twilight and blackened stone above, rainwater dripping from the girders, pigeons skulking in rows and strangers spilling from carriages to gather on the concourse, disoriented. [3]
Waterloo? Or, wait: Paris Gard de Nord? (further out, ‘...those banlieues where the old streets are overshadowed by never-completed tower blocks stalled midway through the process of being torn down’ [6]). No: because we’re on the coast (‘I head past shut shops and cafés and across the park … as the gaining light scribbles colour and texture into the world, and soon I smell brine, and I’m on the seafront, buffeted by gusts of wind with crows blowing around above the mud’ [10] Aberdeen?). Except the flavour is London (‘River walkways and cycle paths looping from Three Liberties to Green Stairs, from Syme Gardens to Glory Part’), inflected—as actual London increasingly is—via Continental Europe (a metro rather than an underground; ‘these flower tubs and iron railings, these stained white pavements, locked restaurants, fire escapes and commercial accessways, these airy canyons whose window-sills are crowded with geraniums …’ [41]; ‘the Market was a broad, kinked half-mile of cobbled thoroughfare as old as the city, jammed with stalls’ [146]; ‘tarry clutches of lobster pots lay here and there’ [173] ‘Simon rode the metro over to Sweatmarket station and climbed through the chipped tiling and wet concrete up to the streets of Glory Part. He crossed a footbridge and turned down Sluice Lane.’) What else? Well there’s something monstrous in this city. Which is to say, there are monsters in Thompson’s city rather in the way that there are ghosts in Turn of the Screw.

It’s not a novel. It is ten short stories, linked each-to-each not by character or narrative but by the propinquity of all taking place in the same imaginary city, as well as by a certain commonality of mood, tenor and theme (arrival; alienation; suspicion; compromised love; crime and violence). The first story is sort of about terrorism (a group call ‘Cynics’ attack the city’s Metro in a 7/7esque move). The second is a melancholy sort of love story that has to do with music and the making of music. In the third, a boy builds elaborate model city in his room (Kurosawa liked to put models of his worlds in his fictions about his worlds too). The fourth, ‘Gallathea’, spins Noirish adventures amongst the criminal element via a slightly clumsily ventriloquized Chandler tone (‘I tipped the spirit into the back of my throat and choked appreciatively as it burned all the way down. The swell at the other end of the bar was taking a sidelong interest in me’ and so on). Then there’s ‘Good slaughter’ a first-person tale of serial killing; ‘Three Translations’ again about arrivals, and foreignness; ‘The Significant City of Lazarus Glass’—perhaps the best of the stories—much interested in crime as puzzle (‘exquisite enigmas, mysteries, sinister and bizarre: for Peregrine Fitch these were at once a vocation and the keenest happiness of life’ 189); then ‘Outside the Days’ and ‘The Rose Tree’ (We’re in a pub, one evening. A bold young man says: ‘They tell me that in this season, in your city, no one dares go out after dark … well I’m going out!’ [243] So what happens to him? Well he comes back. ‘unsteadily, with his jacket hanging open, confused … one arm of his jacket was ripped and the blood was sticky on his hand. We couldn’t work out where all the blood had come from.’ [252]. He falls down.) Finally ‘A Way To Leave’ tells us about the relationship between Simon and Florence, and, well, about ways of leaving.

Thompson works to give each chapter a different voice, and this kind-of-works, though it’s a little hit and miss. My sense is that Thompson’s skill as a writer is not in variety, or pastiche, but in a kind of dense, closely observed atmospherics. His dialogue is not very especially well differentiated, character to character; nor does it have the snap or vim of actual interchange; and his plotting is a touch over-reliant on a small number of oblique knight’s-moves—the beauty of insinuations, rather than the beauty of inflections. But the novel is often very striking and memorable, and many moments are eerily beautiful, and that’s not to be sniffed at. Does the novel wear its academic learning on its sleeve? Pharmakons and homi sacri? A serial killer called ‘Le Flâneur’? Characters from Jonson’s Alchemist? Well that’s alright.

I’m more interested, I think, in the larger picture: the thing of which this intriguing novel is, perhaps, symptomatic. I mean: that there is more purchase in talking about the fragments of urban subjectivity by removing it from the real. I wonder, though: is that true? It’s not so much about the fragmentation of urban living as it is about the subjectivity of urban spaces (all these people, like the ten speakers of The Ring and the Book perceive a slightly different city!) which is news about on the level of the news when Roscius was an actor in Rome. Buzz, buzz.

Here’s what I half-suspect, though I’m not sure. The predatory violence at the heart of ‘civilised’ society, sexualised and class-marked, was the hidden thing that could not be directly expressed by a 19th-century writer like Stoker. What’s the 21st-century equivalent? We can write as much violent sexualised class critique as we like; and we do. It just doesn’t change anything. What a novel like this suggests is that it’s something else that is becoming inexpressible except via the displacement of metaphor: a mood, or a flavour, a particular scent of ontology. The way living in the city makes us feel like strangers. The way it baffles us, intrigues us, frightens us, attacks us. We can’t admit to it, directly; because we’re all so clever and postmodern and self-aware. It may be a variant of the Eco notion that we can no longer own emotion directly (that we cannot say ‘I love you’; we can only say ‘as Barbara Cartland might say “I love you” … ah! how that Barbara Cartland reference dates old Umberto). Except that the point of Communion Town is not love. It’s something else.