‘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, 23 May 2020

Imprinting and Culture

[Another addition to this blog's ongoing lockdown series: ‘books I would actually write, if only I had the time’. Non-fiction this time. I owe the name for the phenomenon I discuss, or say rather posit, here, imprinting, to Paul McAuley, who suggested it as a better term than the one I initially used, ‘shaping bias’.]


What do I mean by ‘imprinting’?

Let's take a man in his 50s. As a kid he fell in love with the music of (let's say) the Beatles. In this he's no different to millions of other people. But although some of what he responded to, in that music, had to do with the skill of Lennon-McCartney as popular composers, much more had to do with the extraordinary potency of music itself. Nobody ever hears music in the abstract; we always listen to music embodied in one composition or another. The thing is whichever musical text happens to be the one that introduces you to the wonder of music itself will tend to receive, back over itself (as it were) a lustre it has not in and of itself earned. Lennon-McCartney were a talented pair of songwriters, no question; but they didn't invent Music Itself. And a good proportion, arguably a majority, of the emotional impact of their work involves them piggybacking on Music Itself.

This might happen in any artform, any cultural mode, and it might go one of several ways. Take another example. A person falls in love with Tolkien at an early age. We might say that they're actually falling in love with ‘story’, ‘worldbuilding’, the particular enchantment characteristic of Fantasy (escapism, magic, whatever) and we might object that there are a great many texts that provide these qualia, many of them ‘better’ (for whatever metric of better we prefer) than Tolkien. Nonetheless, when this person grows up she retains her affection for Tolkien, warts and all. She broadens her reading of course, perhaps becomes an expert in Fantasy writing, or in novels more broadly; but Tolkien ‘imprinted’ upon her at an age in a way that marks her for life.

Alternately, a text might imprint in a different way. Imagine a person saying: ‘I used to think Robert Graves' Claudius novels were brilliant; now I see what I was reacting to was the fascination of Roman history as a field; and Graves's novels are actually rather clunkily put-together. The Claudius novels were my gateway drug (and I'll always have a fondness for them) but I've gone beyond them now to become a world-renowned historian of the Late Republic.’ Or ‘it was, ironically enough, comic books that first awoke me to the glory of art; I still retain affection for them although I have outgrown them and am now Slade Professor Rembrandt Studies.’ I'd this partial retreat is more commonly found than adults who entirely repudiate their youthful passions, although I suppose there will be some who do the latter. We've all had the experience of returning to a work we loved as children only to be disappointed that it didn't live up to our memory of it; but this, I would suggest, reinforces rather that falsifies what I'm arguing here. Imprinting means that we carry a version of a key culture-text in our minds as we age. Its that mental version that interests me, however complicated, or indeed tenuous, its relation to the source text may be. And I'm suggesting it's a significant, perhaps a dominant, factor in adult taste.

We can take Amanda's line, in Coward's Private Lives ‘extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ as a comment upon how we are most likely to be imprinted by the aural wallpaper of our youth, the chart-stuff that pours out of the radio, than by (say) Shostakovich string quartets. Although I suppose we can also take it as an indication that imprinting happens in childhood or adolescence. The salient in cheap music is its simplicity, I think, and the art of our childhood will tend to be simpler than more adult art.

There will be exceptions, of course. John Stuart Mill was taught Greek at three, and had read Diogenes Laërtius, Demosthenes and six dialogues of Plato by the time he was six. But the work that imprinted him was Wordsworth's poetry, which he didn't discover until his early twenties. But this, I think, does not contradict my fundamental point. Wordsworth saved Mill from a suicidal depression by connecting the over-cerebralised self his upbringing had created with a simpler, or perhaps say rather a purer set of emotions. It would be a mistake to describe Wordsworth as simple, I think; but he is certainly plain, non-ornate.

The problem is: how can a critic separate out her imprinting from her assessment of any given work of art? It's a particular problem in SF, where the sort of short stories, novels and films that first blew our minds and introduced us to Sense-of-Wonder can shape our tastes, such that we prize works that imitate those earlier works, and we ignore their faults to the exclusion of other, better-written or better-made stuff. But as with Music Itself, ‘the Sublime’ was not invented by Asimov's Nightfall (or Paradise Lost, or whatever).

Related to this is the following observation by Northrop Frye:
The basis of critical knowledge is the direct experience of literature, certainly, but experience as such is never adequate. We are always reading Paradise Lost with a hangover or seeing King Lear with an incompetent Cordelia or disliking a novel because some scene in it connects with something suppressed in our memories, and our most deeply satisfying responses are often made in childhood, to be seen later as immature over-reacting ... As a structure of knowledge, then, criticism, like other structures of knowledge, is in one sense a monument to a failure of experience, a tower of Babel or one of the "ruins of time" which, in Blake's phrase, "build mansions in eternity". [Northrop Frye, The Critical Path: an Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (1971), 27]
I think this resonates so strongly with me partly because science fiction was something I fell in love with as a child-reader. I still love it; still write it and write about it. But I'm conscious of the ways in which my engagement is based upon a kind of structural hermeneutic inadequacy. ‘Our most deeply satisfying responses are often made in childhood, to be seen later as immature over-reacting’ is almost a too perfect thumbnail of the adult apprehension of SF; and SF criticism always a kind of running-to-catch-up uttering various post-facto justifications. What's neat about this Frye quotation is the sense it conveys that, actually, all criticism is in the business of doing this.

Our best bet is honesty, here. Some critics operate according to a myth that we respond to a kind of Platonic form of Paradise Lost or King Lear. We critics do, after all, like to make a fetish of disinterestedness and objectivity, and if we involve ‘the reader’ it is, via ‘reader-response theory’ or Moretti-esque panoptic surveys, a collective reader. It might even be argued—I don't think I agree with this, but I'm not sure—that we copper-bottom our critical approach by reading Paradise Lost hundreds of times, or seeing scores of productions of King Lear, ironing-out the variables such that we respond critically to a kind of artificial synthetic text. Texts are not synthetic, though; they are always particular; and we, as readers, are never disinterested when we engage with their particularity. It'd be a strange world, and criticism would be a weirdly bloodless business, if we were.

One critic who comes to mind as someone who has, in a manner of speaking, discussed this is the late departed Harold Bloom. We could redescribe the main argument of his The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) as: good artists struggle to move past their imprinting, and in doing so create something new and significant that might in turn imprint on others (and bad artists simply replicate whatever imprinted them). This, though, is to focus on artists. I'm interested in the extent to which imprinting becomes an unconscious determinant in taste, and therefore in criticism. I also wonder if we can usefully dispense with all Bloom's odd quasi-Freudian bag-and-baggage. Not that I've any problem with Freud, you understand.


One danger here is that it might seem I'm valorising some kind of intrinsic bias in the critic. Bias, obviously enough, is a bad thing. But as it is also inescapable so  best option, surely, is to flag it so as to be able to factor it in. And actually I'm more interested in a different question. Does imprinting (assuming we agree it is a thing) mean that there is an inevitable lean towards the juvenile? To be clear: I do not use the word in a derogatory sense. A great deal of children's literature is manifestly great art. But the exigencies of connecting with a young audience means that it is often more simply formed and expressed, perhaps more direct and primitive, than (some) adult art.

Does imprinting, as it were, aggregate? Might this explain the fact that the twentieth-century democratisation of art, predicated on big expansions of literacy, mass production and affluence, coincided with an era in which Primitivism, in the broadest sense, became the dominant aesthetic?

By ‘Primitivism’ I mean the way the intricacy and formal complexity of classical music was dethroned, and a much more texturally simple pop-music became the era's defining kind; the way painterly craftsmanship and fine brushwork was replaced by Van Goghian, Picassoian or Pollockian crudenesses and energies? The way film and TV, powerful media but without the interiority or complexity of which novels are capable, became the way narrative was mostly consumed. Of course, complex art continued to be produced throughout the 20th-century, and some of this, even some rebarbatively difficult art, has been highly praised. But it seems to me clear enough that the broader aegis of ‘Art and Culture in the 20th-century’ has been Primitivism, for better and worse. I would largely say better, since I am heavily invested in several frankly primitive modes myself: science fiction; pop music; cartoons and comic books to name but three. Of course it's true that complex art can do things primitivist art can't, but it's also true that primitivist art can do things complex art can't—can access energies and disruptions, potencies and wonder that more fussily or intricately filligreed culture never could.

I probably sound defensive. A brief personal aside. Science fiction imprinted on me early. For a long time it was all I read. My path (to contuinue the digression) into scare-quotes ‘high art’, which has also absorbed a great deal of my adult time and my love, came about in the following more-or-less banal manner. In addition to reading lots of Pulp SF (Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin) I used to pore over SF illustrations, visual art I really loved. One birthday my Mum bought me a big A3 book of this art, a sort of paperback elephant folio of Golden Age magazine covers and illos. I went though and through it until the glue crumbled out of its spine. Noting my enthusiasm and thinking, perhaps, to encourage me to diversify my interests she bought me another volume in the series—the name of the series eludes me now, but it wasn't expensive; not glossy high-end art books but rather a range of cheap-and-cheerful for-the-masses portfolio. This new vol was ‘British Art’ and it was pretty cool. But one image in particular lodged in my head: the one at the head of this post, in fact: Millais' 1851 Mariana.

This image absolutely bowled me over.

Now, my visual taste, we can assume, had already been shaped to some degree by the bright-colours, clear lines and dynamic forms and composition of the typical Golden Age SF illustration. It's easy enough to see how Pre-Raphaelite art slotted into aesthetic predilections pre-established by all that stuff. But this Millais affected me very deeply and in a way I hadn't, I think, encountered before. I can be honest, looking back, and accept that some of this (her stretch, the curve of her figure, the allure of her being so thoroughly clothed) was erotic, but that's clearly something that plays a part in a lot of imprinting, cultural and otherwise. And some of it was its own thing: the combination of medievalism and Victorianism, for instance. The visualisation of ennui.

At any rate, the image so moved me that I sought out the Tennyson poem on which it was based, and that bowled me over in quite a new way. I was (I don't say this lightly, or imprecisely) a depressive adolescent, and Tennyson's articulation of melancholia was darkly thrilling and moving to me in a way I hadn't encountered before. From there it was a short step to reading other poems by Tennyson, then reading other Victorians, then the Romantics that inspired them. It was because of this I read my first work of literary criticism (Ricks's Tennyson, which I borrowed from Canterbury Public Library; I still think that's an excellent monograph by the way, and something of Ricks's style as a critic has imprinted onto mine) and I was on the long and winding road that led me to being Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature at the University of London. I haven't abandoned the science fiction of course. Quite the reverse. These are my two main passions.

The difference, of course, is that my passion for poetry is ‘respectable’ where there's something, I can't deny it, increasingly unseemly in a fiftysomething professor still getting so excited by science fiction. Hal Foster's LRB review of a translation of Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign rehearses the recent theorising of ‘homo sacer’ via Agamben, Derrida himself and Eric Santner. Derrida:
At the two extreme limits of the order, the sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures and have the same structure and are correlative: the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially homines sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns.
This is all interesting, especially Foster's doscussion of Santner's On Creaturely Life (2006), a book I hadn't otherwise come across.
Creaturely life, as Santner defines it—‘life abandoned to the state of exception/emergency, that paradoxical domain in which law has been suspended in the name of preserving law’—is close to bare life. But he adds two important touchstones of his own, Kafka and W.G.Sebald, some of whose characters, caught between human and nonhuman states, or stranded in the vertiginous space of exile, allow Santner to imagine bare life from the position of homo sacer, ‘on the threshole where life takes on its secific biopolitical intensity, where it assumes the cringed posture of the creature.’
Not to go from the negative sublime to the ridiculous, but my reaction on reading this was to think of ‘exceptional’ state of SF with respect to other genres of literature; the ‘cringe’ of embarassment it can't shake off, howsoever proudly its adherants proclaim its princely supremacy—such that the more aggressively we proclaim that SF is proper literature, the more a tone of desperation enters our voices. The desire for respectability is a kind of category error here, I suspect. SF is the genre sacer, outside the law as a way for ‘genre’ itself to uphold the law.

This, I think, has to do with one of the elephants in the futuristic room of SF: its juvenility. That it is in many ways an adolescent mode of art seems to me not a thing to deplore or hide, still less a thing to be purged in the evolution of the genre into some notional full aesthetic ‘maturity’. It seems to be precisely the ground of the genre's potential for true greatness. Alone amongst the genres of contemporary literature, SF understands that the energies informing contemporary life, its kinetic restlessness, its tech-facility, its cyclotropic moods, its to-the-bone fascination with sex and violence, are precisely adolescent ones. At the same time this is the quantity about which contemporary thought and culture is most ashamed.

To bring in a parallel, this is what Foster says about what he calls ‘my own field, modernist art’:
...in particular its pesistent fascination with the art of the child, the insane and the primitive. For the most part the [critical] inquiry into this has been conducted in terms of the unconscious and the other, that is, in the languages of psychoanalysis anthropology. This is not wrong as far as it goes, but might we not also view these identifications as creaturely expressions of a ‘fissure in the soace of meaning’ opened up by ‘exposure to a traumatic dimension of political power’?
Mutatis mutandi, this comittment to a version of the ‘the child, the insane and the primitive’ defines SF too. I wonder, I suppose, how much of this can be attributed to the potency with which SF has imprinted on certain critical and creative figures, and the correlative of whether this imprinting imports a (saving or demeaning, depending) juvenility along with it.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Sketches by Zod

[Continuing this blog's lockdown theme of ‘books I would actually write, if only I had the time’, here are four SFnalisations of Dickens that, quite genuinely, it would be a pleasure to make real: the full Dickensian prose treatment, gnarly Dickensian characters and all the tastiest steampunky trimmings.]

Monday, 11 May 2020

Picture and Monument: A Secret History of Creativity

[Another book I'd like to write, but probably won't get the time. Context for this one: it seems to me a shame that the vogue has passed (I mean, I suppose it has passed?) when writers would craft a huge, mad book of personal mythographic self-identification: books like Yeats's A Vision, or Graves's White Goddess. Me, I'd definitely like to try such a thing. This is one of the ways it might go.]

Picture and Monument: A Secret History of Creativity (Ancaster Books 2020; pp. xvi + 315)

Chapter 1. Row's History of Humankind
Chapter 2. Levy's Prehistory
Chapter 3. Ut Pictura Poesis
Chapter 4. Farming as sculpture
Chapter 5. Priests and their monuments, Poets in their Caves.
Chapter 6. Praxis and copraxis.


There are, the old joke goes, two kinds of people: those who divide humanity into two kinds of people and those who don’t. It's funny because it's fatuous, of course, to think that the extraordinary variety and diversity of individual human being-in-the-world can be neatly separated into two boxes marked (as it might be) extravert and introvert, or labile and stabile, or (we could go on, and on) Gentile and Jew, man and woman, in-group and out-group, what-have-you and what-you-will. And yet here I am, about to propose just such a bivalve categorisation of humankind. To add to this, and more particularly to its dubeity, I am going to speculate in a more-or-less evidence-free manner (because the evidence simply isn't there) about the long history of mankind. In doing this I can offer nothing that even approaches justification; what I'm arguing here makes no pretence to being anything other than a camera-obscura snap of the lineaments of my own soul. The guesses I make are, I hope, at least educated guesses, although my education, extensive in some areas, has been patchy and autodidactic in others. But there you go. Graves's White Goddess says many brilliant and powerful things about poetry and myth, despite the fact that it says a great many foolish, mendacious and downright bonkers things about prehistory, anthropology, gender and even (often) poetry and myth. What can I tell you. The White Goddess is one of my holy books. I wrote about it, a bit, here:
When I was young I assumed the broader narrative that frames Graves's various insights and speculations (that Europe was ruled by a matriarchal society dedicated to the worship of the triple goddess, maiden-mother-crone, which was in turn conquered by a patriarchal warrior caste who suppressed this religion, silenced women and instituted their God-the-Father deity) was true. It's not, of course. But I don't think it matters that it isn't true, because Graves isn't writing history, or anthropology or seriously researching religious studies. The White Goddess is no more a work of historical anthropology than Yeats's A Vision is a work of ophthalmology. Rather, Graves is confecting a powerful, individual mythic story to give meaning and depth to the things (poems) that mattered most to him. Tolkien, another writer I spent my teenage years reading and re-reading obsessively, was doing the same thing at around the same time (Lord of the Rings was written through the 1940s, first published 1952-3). Tolkien wrote his myth to provide an imaginative mythopoeic frame for the things that mattered to him (languages, certain types of story, Englishness), and nobody confuses what he was doing with 'history'. .... Now I loved, and still love, Tolkien. Indeed, I would say it is worth setting these two books alongside one another, as representing and anchoring two very different possible-narratives of 20th-C ‘Fantasy’. The one is about story as linear, populated with likeable, comprehensible characters who overcome adversity to triumph in the end, set in an imagined world painstakingly constructed to be coherent and graspable. A story not only overwhelmingly male in terms of dramatis personae, but overwhelmingly masculine in ethos, about courage and endurance and war, about power-over dynamics and Force and so on. The other is not linear, not pitched to be likeable, not interested in character, but rather a matrix of moments of poetic intensity that works and reworks certain themes in a spiralling, circular dance of signification and insight and bafflement; a story (because The White Goddess is, amongst other things, a story) overwhelmingly female. One of these two stories went on to become world famous, massively influential, creating a genre of writing in which even those Fantasy writers reacting against Tolkien do so by tweaking the elements he put in place. The other remained obscure and little read. That SF and Fantasy fans are still so deeply wedded to a model of linearity—linear narratives, straightforward characters, moral hierarchies,—seems to me to drive a narrowness in terms of the way writing in fantastic idioms happens. It's not, shall we say, coincidental that this linear logic correlates with an aesthetic masculinity, and that attempts to address this by keeping everything about our stories linear and heirarchical but swapping a kick-ass heroine for our kick-ass hero strike me as problematic for structural as well as for ideological reasons. Most people, I'd guess, don't think so, though. Maybe most people are right. Hard to say.


Here is a review I wrote a couple of years ago of Cecily Row’s remarkable  History of Homo Sapiens (Varso 2018):
There are various ways in which we might approach the task of writing a total history of the world. We might approach it biologically, and write a history of the human animal. Or we might approach it anthropologically, or with a focus on emerging structures of social class. Or we could focus on the increasing complexity of our use of tools, or on race, or religion or a Hegelian Geist. We could trace the development of agriculture, or war, or technology.

Professor Row has done none of those things. Instead she has written a strictly chronological world history—a thousand-page book in which each page covers precisely 200 years, no more, no less. Chapter 1 opens with the emergence of homo sapiens in 200,000 BC. For a while, as she is getting going, explaining the evolutionary provenance of these new hominids and describing their world, the History of Homo Sapiens is perfectly readable, after the manner of any number of popular science or anthropology works. But around page eighty Row settles into her groove, and a very different sort of reading experience emerges. For hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages nothing very much happens, beyond Row’s account of the round of birth, growth, looking for food, loving or refusing to love, having children, growing old or failing to do so, and dying. She stays true to the extreme repetitiveness of the overwhelming majority of human history until, finally, we approach the end of the book, and things abruptly speed up and densify. The whole of recorded human history is related in pp 985-1000 at the end.

It’s a bold experiment, and the strange thing is how readable it is, once you adjust yourself to the pace of it. In the earliest chapters, when human lifespans tend to be shorter, a single 200-year page covers many generations. The generation at the top of the next page have almost no collective memory of anything that happened just a page before. But as we go on, Row cleverly works-in the development of culture, oral and religious traditions, burial practices, and a sense of a more connected flow, or storifying, begins to emerge. On p. 350 et seq Row describes the dispersal of the San people of Southern Africa: the human population with the deepest temporal division from all other contemporary populations, 130,000 years ago. Fifty pages later and the earliest homo sapiens are arriving in Asia. Row’s version of ‘Out of Africa’ sees it as happening in two waves—the first described in p. 400 and following, and the second, quite a bit later, happening 60,000 years ago, and not described here until we get to p.700. That’s also when homo neanderthalis, a side-character for most of Row’s history, becomes extinct.

Having settled into the rhythms for almost the whole of this designedly long, slow book, the final fifteen pages pass with a haste that appears positively indecent. Why, the reader wonders, is everybody in such a frantic hurry all of a sudden? It really does make you reconsider the larger scale of human history. It’s one thing to known, intellectually, that recorded history has a fifth of a million years behind it; it’s quite another to as-it-were experience it, as here.
This whole and lengthy book is, of course, designed to make one basic point: that the overwhelming majority of human history precedes recorded history. Gone, vanished, inaccessible to us. And yet we must assume, those countless generations generated enough collective social-cultural inertia to have forcefully influenced our contemporaneity, even if such influence is perfectly opaque to us. Perfectly overstates matters, of course. We have two sources of hard evidence: actual archaeology, which gives us only those elements from early man’s lived experience durable enough to last tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands years, and deposited in such places as to remain undisturbed for such immense stretches of time (things like: remnants of skeletons, and a small range of stone or metal artefacts; assuredly not liable to be representative of the whole range of lived experience) and data from DNA. This latter evidence base is valuable, of course, and can tell us much about the ancient migration and descent of modern humans, but it can’t say anything about the society and culture of those ancestors.

Insofar as those latter elements are concerned there are (obviously enough) two things of which we can be sure: that early human existence had both subsistence and cultural aspects. The former provides one absolute limit: human beings cannot but supply their needs for food and shelter. If they fail in this, they don’t pass on their genes. The earliest men and women, evolving slowly and over enormous time scales out of earlier hominid iterations, began as foragers, limited to small areas geographically, eating what they found, avoiding predators as best they could. One factor in the slow process of evolution was the feedback-loop of brain development: a large and (in biological terms) expensive organ that necessitated a more calorific and reliable diet, and enforced certain structures of family and tribal living—as heads grew, women had to give birth to in-effect premature infants, or their offspring's crania would be too large to fit down the birth canal. A consequence of this was that early humans had to adapt their routines of nurturing and supporting their young to make those routines robust enough to last many years. It was worth it, though: the expansion in brain size paid dividends, evolutionarily speaking (because, after all: here we all are, dominating this planet).

One early consequence was increasing population size. It was presumably this that necessitated the transition from simple foraging to more aggressive and wide-ranging hunting and gathering, which in turn would have begun the process of disseminating humanity worldwide—as hunters followed their migrating game with the seasons, and as population pressure forced others to seek out new, less crowded hunting and foraging grounds.

The next big step was the invention of farming. Humans began cultivating seeds some 11,500 years ago, and domesticating animals a thousand or so years later. This enriched our diet considerably, not just supporting much larger population in toto but providing humans with a measure of food security through the lean autumn and winter months. Some thinkers mark this, à la 1066 and All That, as a Bad Thing, and perhaps it was. We can't be sure. Perhaps life before farming, in a much less population-dense world, was indeed a more leisured and Edenic business—it seems unlikely to me, given how short a proportion of the year sees nature provisioning its larders, but I could be wrong. Undeniably farming brought-in much more onerous, often dawn-to-dusk labour, plus many more diseases (many caught from our newly domesticated livestock) and, in time, led to population pressures that generated the world's first cities, with their attendent oppressive ‘imperial’ hierarchies of social organisations. James Scott [Against The Grain: a Deep History of the Earliest States (2017)] sees farming in these terms—as, essentially, a disaster. Then again, his preferred hunter-gatherer lifestyle was only ‘affluent’ in his terms in a small range of wetland habitats (he looks at a few of these in Mesopotamia and China), and would, had we stuck at it, severely limited human expansion. So perhaps that’s the story. It seems to me that more people is a net good in many ways, and that more people would have been impossible without the invention of farming.

The next next step was the shift to an Industrial Age, an intensification of urban living (the majority of the world’s population now live in cities) and the radical interpenetration of all our lives by technology. This has happened extremely recently, in the last page-and-a-half of Professor Row’s 1000-page history. Nonetheless some thinkers make much of it. W G Runciman asks, rhetorically:
The two prodigious transformations which we now label the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions were both so extraordinary as virtually to defy explanation. How could they have come about? And what a totally different ideological as well as economic and political world did they both bring into being!
Very likely, although also very vaguely put. Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book the Structure of Human History (1988) thinks in more nuanced terms. He accepts the two-step shift from hunting/gathering to what he calls ‘Agraria’ and ‘Industria’, but also argues that narrating human history in this whiggish, tendentious way glosses over any number of distinctive and sometimes significant variants: persistent societies of nomadic pastoralists, mountain cantons, ‘horticulturalists’ whose ‘digging-sticks can sometimes generate as significant an economic surplus as the agriculturalists’ ploughs’.

But these are all still, at root, all subsistence narratives. What I’m interested in is something for which there is a much more meagre evidence—so meagre, in many instances, as to be literally non-existent: I'm talking about the shape of the continuities of culture and religion over the full thousand pages of Row’s monotonous history.

Cultures and religions there assuredly were. As well as attending to their material needs, early men and women were obliged to attend to their emotional and psychological needs. We can be certain that ‘religion’ in the broadest sense played a major role in this latter obligation—ritual and storytelling, magical thinking, explanations for and expiation of the portion of reality that couldn’t be directly controlled but which could nonetheless harm or blight human lives. Just as early humans had to make practical sense of where to get food, how to avoid predators and how to stay warm, so early humans had to make psychological sense of why we die and what happens after, of why fertility (so crucial to the practical exigencies of life) was so mysterious and often undependable. And in a less specifically instrumental way, early humans had to put their expanding curiosity to more than merely practical uses. What’s it all about then? as the taxi driver asked Bertrand Russell; a profoundly human question that leads the expanding mental capacity of homo sapiens in all sorts of directions.

This in turn is bound-up with the peculiar, adaptable and capacious structures of mind that define us as people—language to a large extent, but other kinds of thinking too. Here’s Jerry Fodor, summarising the argument of Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind (1996):
Mithen has two major epochs in the prehistory of our minds to account for. There’s the transition, ten million years or so ago, from ‘the ancestral ape’ (the presumed last common ancestor of us and chimpanzees) to ‘early man’; and there’s the transition, 100,000 years or so ago, from early man to ‘modern man’ (in effect, to us). This taxonomy is itself not untendentious. But Mithen finds evidence, from a variety of archaeological and comparative sources, that each of these major transitions implied a comprehensive increase in cognitive capacity; so comprehensive as to suggest a corresponding reorganisation of the underlying cognitive architectures. What sort of reorganisation? Here’s where Mithen wants phylogeny to borrow from ontogeny. The ancestral ape had a mind that ran on ‘general intelligence’ together with, at most, a rudimentary modularised ‘social intelligence’; whereas, in the next stage, the mind of early man had modularised ‘technical intelligence’ and ‘natural history intelligence’ as well. Finally, the emergence of cognitive fluidity from a relatively compartmentalised, modular mind is what Mithen thinks distinguishes early man from us.
Fodor isn’t really persuaded by this, although it seems to me—whilst being, of course, unprovable in an absolute sense—likely. More, I’d say that the expansion in cognitive capacity and variety must have had some driver beyond merely subsistence-style problem solving. Once farming becomes the dominant way of human life, many of the cognitive challenges of hunting and foraging are simplified. That is, after all, much of the point in shifting to farming in the first place. If cognitive expansion and sophistication is driven by environmental, evolutionary pressures during this period, then presumably they were less to do with subsistence concerns, and more to do with—let’s say—the pressures of larger social networking necessitated by urbanisation. Or perhaps the driver was instead (or also) a more elegant feedback loop where human curiosity led to answers that in turn only provoked more intense curiosity.

This is all, necessarily, speculative; but it brings me to my particular argument. Speaking as an atheist, I have to concede that religion—in the broad sense—is the default habitus of most human beings. The numbers of committed atheists is tiny compared to the billions upon billions of people alive today for whom religion is either an active or else a background structure to their lives. It seems to me impossible to deny that people are, basically, religious animals. I say nothing more specific than that; because of course religion manifests in a thousand ways, and means different things to different people. Still, the recent shift to Industrial, technical-materialist modes of life has not (so far) shifted religion from its place in the vast majority of people's lives. What little archaeological evidence there is from prehistory tells us that people have been being religious for many tens of thousands of years, possibly longer. That’s an enormous cultural inertia: an oil tanker of such prodigious size and momentum that a couple of centuries of ‘scientific’ thinking leaning on the tiller will hardly turn at all.

Reaching back into human prehistory, then, means thinking about the role religion played in human life: the rites and practices associated with birth, life and death; the shamans and priests, structures and powers that brought with it. Since religion from the historical period for which we have records is, necessarily, only the latest iteration of these ancient cultural continuities we can make educated guesses by extrapolating backwards. Fertility of crops and women was one of the roles religions developed to address, by propitiating (via rites, practices such as dances and songs, sacrifices of livestock and people) the gods associated with those arenas of life. Death, the handling of dead bodies, and the lineaments of the afterlife provide another role; here it seems clear that there was at least as much attention given to ancestors, who like gods (or in some cases who were gods) needed propitiation, as to the individual anxieties of mortal men and women doomed to die and worried about what came afterwards. One third thing is surely correct: that religion was, as it mostly remains today, a collective, community business. Humans congregate to practice religion; and for connected reasons the other things for which humans congregate either developed in manifest ways from religion—as with the invention of drama in the eastern Mediterranean in the 7th- and 6th centuries BC, tragedies developing from rites in honour of Dionysis, and metastasising into all our theatre, films and TV performances—or else are radically para-religious. Attending a big sporting event, or a big rock concert, is to understand that these are not just collective entertainments but also quasi-sacral experiences, actually.


This, then, is to bring me to the two things that most interest me in this context: the relationship between artists and priests, and the role the concept underpinning these two expressions. You might think that the two things are related, that a poet's job is fundamentally vatic (in some sense), either to justify the ways of God to man, or else to purify the metaphorical and transcendent (and therefore religious) dialect of the tribe. I'm going to argue the opposite. Poets and priests, I think, are quite different roles, delivering quite different things, and they are different things for reasons that go back a very long way into our collective history as a species.

To dilate upon this point, I turn to Gertrude Levy's venerable account of prehistoric religious and cultic practice, The Gate of Horn (1948, rev 2nd ed 1963). It's not what you'd call up-to-date, of course (it's older than I am, and I am old) but it has stimulating and important things to say, nonetheless, or so I would argue. In the words of the poet William Merwin:
There are aspects of her book which probably influenced my sense of what it means to be human; once read they were never quite forgotten. That is true, in some way, of the whole thrust of her story. It struck me somewhat as The Golden Bough had done but its argument seemed even more immediate and pertinent, closer to the coherence of a work of art. Levy was also a classicist, and part of her story is concerned with the development—as seen through burial practices, symbols, and maps of return—of the concept of the individual soul, the person or aspect of a person that might be reborn, that suffered and hoped and was remembered in myths.
As her book's Vergilian title suggests, Levy's real interest is in tracing what she considers the deep roots of European religious practice by sketching a possible set of ritualist genealogies from the stone age to the classical period and so into modernity (the work's subtitle is: ‘Religious Conceptions of the Stone Age and Their Influence Upon European Thought’).

Still it seems to me some of Levy's most intriguing suggestions get mentioned only in passing, and cry out to be unpacked and explored further. Here, for instance, is one detail that really hits home for me. It comes out of her comparison between what is known of Stone Age ‘Aurignacian’ practices and the practices of what, clangingly, she calls ‘modern Primitives’ (she looks in particular at Australian Aboriginals and Tasmanians, Kalahari Bushmen, Eskimos and a few others).
The painters are said to have formed an initiated caste, distinct from that of the sculptors who made rock engravings of the south. They lived, it is stated, chiefly in small caves, while the sculptors used huts grouped round the greater caverns which were their permanent rallying-places. It has also been considered probable that the sculptors followed a more easterly route southwards, leaving traces of their work all the way. If so such migrations might reflect the cultural distinction between those Aurignacians of Central Europe and Russia who inhabited huts and made stone and ivory statuettes, and the cave-dwellers who inaugurated painting in the West. [Levy, Gate of Horn, 31]
So: caveats (for there are of course many). Maybe this is a local and eccentric distinction. Maybe myth and religion changed radically over the tens of thousands of years between the cave paintings and the modern age. The remnants of Stone Age art that have survived are unlikely to be representative of the entire culture. Because certain kinds of artefacts are more durable than others, or happen to be in places like deep caves far from erosion or previous discovery does not mean that Stone Age men and women necessarily spent a lot of time in deep caves, or devoted much time to the creation of such artefacts. Maybe these cave rituals, and the artefacts associated with them, were aberrations and most Stone Age religion involved perishable matter in open spaces. We don't, indeed can't, know. And crucially: the notion that uncovering the world of prehistoric humanity is thereby uncovering the deep, buried logic of modern humanity (especially when we want to think about modern-day rituals or mysteries that no longer seem to make sense to us) is, though beguiling, a suspect one.

I am, nonetheless, very struck by this apparent deep-rooted and fundamentally sacral distinction between makers of the 2D image and makers of the 3D fetish: between, that is, the painter and the sculptor. Between pictures and monuments, and the kinds of people who devote themselves to the one or the other. It strikes me as important and even profound that these were not considered separate but related ‘artist-priests’, but rather that they were completely distinct and immiscible castes doing radically different things. Maybe.

Add-in a third creative-cultic praxis which, we can be more or less certain figured largely in paleolithic religious life, even though it has left almost no archeological evidence: music, rhythm and dance. Perhaps the tribe's musicians and dancers group formed a third, distinct priesthood.

I find myself strangely fascinated by the idea that, at the root of all human culture and art, a fundamentally religious distinction was drawn between those who paint and those who sculpt, such that these two kinds of artists belonged to entirely different worlds, with different habitations and modes of living. Because it makes a kind of sense.

It makes sense to me personally, in part (another reason to be wary of all this, I know) because I see the writer's and the painter's creative praxis as being essentially linked, where I see the sculptor's and by extension the architect's, and the engineer's creative praxis as being in some essential way different to the painter-writer's. This may be because, although I can write well, and can even draw (in my amateur way) to an OK standard, I cannot seem to sculpt, and have no engineering smarts whatsoever. I've tried sculpting a couple of times, with clay and with wood, without success. It doesn't feel intuitive to me, in the way that making lines and squiggles on a piece of paper, or a screen, does.

Let's assume that ideas from palaeolithic humankind do indeed remain operative today in howsoever subterranean or subconscious a sense. I hypothesise:

1. Painting is the ancestor of writing, a genealogy that runs via heiroglyphics to more abstract modes of inscribed symbolism: representing reality by making 2D versions of reality. Sculpture, which begins with the making of cultic or sacred fetish objects, is the initial iteration of all later human plastic arts: making statues and masks, building huts and palaces and temples, making machines, landscaping the world.

2. These two central human activities derive from radically different origin-points. Painters/writers and sculptors/builders are, in some buried but absolutely vital sense for humanity, radically different sorts of people, serving the gods in radically different ways.

3. The third crucial manifestation of the palaeolithic religious impulse was ritual dance and performance accompanied by rhythm, music and song. From this developed both the theatre (a religious ritual in ancient Greece that became a widespread secular artform, without ever quite leaving behind its sacred elements:—sporting events, cinema, TV all have their fans, a word etymologically linked to fane, temple) and the traditions of public religious worship, for instance as practised in Christian churches and Muslim mosques weekly worldwide to this day. Kids at a pop concert, supporters at a political rally, sports-fans in a stadium watching their team play, are all manifestations of a fundamentally religious collectivity, more formally actualised when congregants gather in church, synagogue or mosque. This public and collective mode of being-in-the-faith is spatial and organisational, and so fundamentally theatrical-sculptural.

4. Dancing is a kind of sculpture, and religion develops as a branch of the sculptural, not the painterly, sacred tradition (hence its tendency to erect bigger and more elaborate architectural spaces to situate worship). There are several important religious traditions that ban the painterly (the making of graven images) from worship altogether. There are none that ban the sculptural-architectural. [*There's an obvious issue here, since of the many faiths humans have professed over the last many tens-of-thousands of years the two that eventually swept the world were both religions of the book: and so of words, and writing. But in both cases these faiths' relationship to the heritage of painting is complex and contradictory: Christian Puritanism, a phenomenon with several heads, and Islam both ban paintings from their places of worship; personal witness trumps written texts in both traditions; Catholics speak and hear, but do not write-and-read, Confession ... and so on. We might object that such religions don't ban the image, but the representative image, the image that puports to represent something other than mere pattern. But I would note that ‘sculpture’, in the expanded sense in which I'm using the term here, is rarely representational. Perhaps the original fetish objects were representational (of plump and fertile women; of animals), but huts, temples, buildings etc are not representative of anything, nor is dance, engineering, or landscaping (from farming on). And nowadays those few people still making Rodin-like sculptures are the exception not the rule..]

5. The world in which palaeolithic humanity lived was a sculptural world: filled with actual, graspable objects. Such was the fundamental reality of life and therefore the logic of whatever transcendent Power(s) was behind life. But there was also an element in paleolithic life that was not actual and graspable: the dead and their chthonic power. The sacred sculptors of the tribe made fetish objects like the Willendorf Venus to preside over the bringing-into-being of new life. The sacred painters made shadow-images, not real, not graspable, of things of the world to record, and perhaps to fix, the unseen, the chthonic and the dead. It was proper that they did this latter under the ground.

6. Painted images of animals are post-facto records of successful hunts, made to appease the spirits of the slaughtered animals, and their deity, to ensure that such animals would not withdraw themselves in pique and that therefore hunting could continue. When humans died their remains were buried in the earth; this could not happen with hunted animals, because their remains were eaten and made use of, hence the need to make painterly representations of those creatures. [‘men are represented very sparsely and very timidly’ in cave art, Levy notes: ‘in striking contrast to the bold certainty of animal designs’.]

7. Caves and their sacred arts (that is, painting and, later, writing) were associated with death and the dead; sculpture, architecture and engineering with life and the living. This is a crucial point of difference in understanding the way these two vectors of art signify in the modern age.

8. Painters and writers are chthons and their proper business is to memorialise and placate the dead. Sculptors, architects and engineers are helioists and spatialists and their proper business is to faciltate the hunt, the gathering of the various collective necessaries of life, and the continuing sexuality and fertility of the tribe.

9. It's not a coincidence that Plato set his most celebrated allegory in a cave, just as it's not a coincidence he banished the poets from his utopia.

10. Psychoanalysis is a fundamentally painterly/writerly innovation, the iteration of consciousness as an inner cave. It was and remains a chthonic, morbid and introverted art. (I don't say so to dismiss it. On the contrary: Freud and the post-Freudians seem to me to constitute a profoundly insightful and powerful tradition. But then I am a more-or-less morbid, chthonic, introverted writer-type myself).

11. There is less difference between hunters and farmers than perhaps I have previously believed. Hunting is essentially a sacred dance and farming is fundamentally sculptural, but both are above-ground manipulations of space that guarantee the life and continuance—that is, the future—of the tribe.

12. Extraverts should sculpt, build and dance; introverts should write and paint. Extraverts should live in houses, venture into the open, and follow a sunrise-sanctioned easterly route southwards, leaving traces of their work all the way. Introverts may stay in their caves.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Indiana Jones and the Palace of Ice

[As explained in the preamble to this blog from last month, one of the things I'm doing this spring/summer is blogging ideas for books, either semi-serious ones that I just don't have time to write, or less viable ideas for which I could never justify the time anyway. This one is, clearly, the latter; a dare that proceded from my daughter's slip of the tongue. This, at any rate, gives you all you need, without me having to flesh out all the inbetween bits.]

from Chapter 1

Indiana Jones put back his head and laughed. ‘Eskimos, Marcus?’

Marcus Brody gave his head a little nervous shake. ‘Inuit, Indy. Eskimo is the outsider name. To be frank with you, it’s regarded by the Inuit themselves as something of a slur.’

‘I’m sure they’re a wonderful people,’ said Jones. ‘But archaeology? It’s all ice and snow. What is there to excavate?’

‘That’s what’s so fascinating,’ Brody replied, taking his friend by the elbow and guiding him to a display case at the side of the room. ‘We received a generous donation to set up an Inuit display here in the museum—clothes, snowshoes, tools, their designs haven’t changed in thousands of years. The dealer included this.’ Brody unlocked the case and withdrew from a wide flat pebble, bigger than a man’s hand. He passed it to Jones. The rock possessed an indigo-black shimmer, and hatched lines and curved had been graven into it, and afterward filled with gold.

‘What’s this design?’ Indy asked. ‘And these symbols. Is this writing?’

‘It wasn’t easy to get it translated,’ Brody said. ‘I had to go to an obscure German specialist. I copied the inscription—though not the design—into a letter. It says,’ he added, lowering his voice, although they were the only two people in the room, ‘“In the Palace of Ice is Interred the Treasure of Life”.’

‘Palace of Ice? Is that what this design is supposed to represent?’

‘I didn’t send Hermann the design,’ said Brody. ‘Just the words. But, yes, that would be my guess. And given the Inuit skill when it comes to crafting ice, is it so hard to believe they might— at some point in their past—have built ice structures on a much larger scale?’

‘Have any such ever been discovered?’

‘No,’ Brody conceded. ‘No. But the area is so little known, Indy—so poorly explored.’

‘I don’t know, Marcus,’ Jones said. ‘This isn’t my usual shooting gallery. I’m more a sand-and-sunstroke kind of archaeologist.’

‘Come now. It's not like you to turn down an adventure. There’s not one single,’ said Brody, in an insinuating voice, ‘snake in the entire arctic circle, you know. And anyway, I’m afraid the question of whether you go or not has already been decuded. My German contact was not as discrete with the information I shared with him as I might have hoped. The M/S Kronprinsessen sails from Bergen in three days. I managed to squeeze you aboard, by threatening to expose Hermann to ridicule in the academic community, for breaching my confidence, you know.’

‘Well we wouldn't want that, now, would we,’ said Indy. ‘And what is this “treasure of life” anyway? What am I exactly looking for?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ said Brody, cheerfully. ‘That’s the fun of it!’

from Chapter 4

The Kronprinsessen rolled sluggishly, and Markwart almost lost his grip on Indy's throat. But with his assistant, the silent Meyer, held Indy’s arms back and the Nazi’s fingers remained tightly in place. Spray flew through the blackness, spattering icily on Indy’s face, and the wind was howling like a wolf. The boat plugged on through the night, rocking ponderously forward and back, swinging from side to side. The moon appeared briefly, like an eye peering through the viewing latch of a cell door, and then was again obscured by the pitchy clouds.

‘Does Hermann know about your little plot?’ Indy yelled. The effort cost him—Markwart’s fingers were pressed hard around his gullet—but his assailant only laughed.

‘Hermann is a fool,’ he returned, shouting over the rage of the night-time wind. ‘He thinks he is serving the Fatherland by exploring a polar route by which German armies might outflank America’s defenses, and press home a surprise attack. But the reality of this expedition is quite other! Quite other!’

‘We’re not at war with Germany,’ Indy yelled. If he couldn’t talk Markwart round, then he would try and rile him up, force him to lose his cool. Not that it would do him any good so long as Meyer, behind, kept his locked-tight grasp of Indy’s arms. One thing at a time, though.

‘Only a matter of time, Dr Jones,’ bellowed Markwart. ‘We who study the past are better at looking to the future, don’t you think? It is one of the benefits of our line of work. And when I look into the future, I see that war is,’ and he drew the next word out with unpleasant relish: ‘in-ev-it-able.’

‘You can’t even be sure there is a palace of ice,’ Indy said, shifting his weight and trying to squeeze some freedom out of his pinned limbs.

‘That is where you—and Hermann—are wrong,’ Markwart crowed. ‘I have information unknown to the both of you. And when I retrieve the treasure from this glacial palace, and return with it to Berlin, not only will I curry favour—that is the expression, is it not?—with the Fuehrer, I will be giving my Fatherland a weapon of such power as to bring this distracting war to an end within weeks.’

‘Not,’ Indy growled, placing his left foot against the bulwark as the ship rolled back again, and reading himself for the counter-roll, ‘if I can help it.’

The surge pushed back and the ship lurched again, angling its deck sharply. Indy kicked back at Meyer’s knee and, as the big man’s grip momently loosened, enabling him to wrench his right arm free. He formed a fist and was about to slam it into Markwart’s grinning, saltwater-wet face, gleaming in the electric lamp’s light, when a sudden surge jolted the ship in an unexpected direction. Indy’s punch missed its target and Markwart, snarling, screamed: ‘throw him over the side!’

Indy tried to resist, but Meyer was simply too strong: a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. The boat quavered in the night-sea and then, as it started to roll back again, Meyer pulled Indy off the deck and pitched him, by main force, over the side and into the icy ink-black sea.

The wind flapped his coat about him as he fell, and his hat leapt from his head as if possessed. It was an instinctive action to reach out with is right hand and catch it before it flew off into the immensity of darkness. He braced himself: the water was, he knew, going to be impossibly, life-sappingly cold. But even in this extremity he was preparing himself: people died in minutes in arctic waters, he knew, so he would have to be quick. Strike out in the direction if the ship—but what was that? And then—

An impact so hard it jolted all the breath out of his chest. For a moment he simply lay, gasping, as the wind snapped and cooed about him. Then, slapping his arms down at his side he realised the truth: he had fallen not into water, but onto ice.

Steaming through the night, the Kronprinsessen had entered the world of the floes.

from Chapter 9

Grateful, for the hundredth time, for the furs he was wearing, Indy ran forward, through a slant wind of such chill and ferocity that all feeling left his face. He ran behind a prominence—a place where shifting ice had bulged up in jagged jumbled polygons, six feet tall—and waited. Looking behind, he gestured to Polly. With an easy bent-double run she covered the ground and joined him.

Indy peered round the blocked-up ice: there was the Kronprinsessen, frozen solid in the pack. ‘I can’t see any movement,’ he said. ‘I’m going to go over there.’

‘Just,’ said Polly, not so much gripping his shoulder as slapping it with her fat mitten, ‘just be careful, alright?’

‘Hey!’ Indy returned, with a smile so wry you could serve it in a diner with baloney. ‘I’m always careful.’

Actually shooting his rifle would mean taking off his gloves, and that was not an idea that appealed much to Indy: not here, out on the frost-biting wastes. So he slung the rifle over his shoulder, took a breath and made his move. Weighted with clothes and kit as he was, it took him longer than it might have done to cover the ground, but soon enough he slid into place, his shoulder hitting the metal of the hull with a clang. Round the far side of the immobilised ship Indy saw where the gangplank had been lowered. A body lay, face down on the ice, near the bottom of this.

Not without apprehension, Indy went up the gangplank and stood on the deck.

Everything was still. Indy pulled his right hand from its fur, brought the rifle round and slipped his trigger finger inside the icy guard. He entered the bridge and found a dead body, still slouched in its seat—its throat cut, and blood a ragged red-black hem of icicles underneath.

Cautiously going down the steps into the innards of the craft, rifle first, Indy moved along the corridor. He could hear something; heavy breathing. He stepped through a door: there was Markwart, on a bunk. It was obvious he did not have long: the clash with the Inuit had not left him unscathed—a spear, or most of one, protruded from his chest. Breathing was manifestly hard for the Nazi, but he smiled a ghastly smile at Indy,and even seemed to chuckle.

‘Dr Jones,’ he rasped. ‘What an unexpected pleasure.’

‘Looks like you don’t have long Markwart,’ growled Indy.

‘No, alas,’ Markwart conceded. ‘Although—longer than you, perhaps.’

A fraction too late Indy looked right. There was the huge bulk of Meyer. He had suffered badly in the fight with the Inuit: his left hand was missing entirely and there were scars and gashes all over him. But the ferocity of his gaze was undimmed, and before Indy could spin round and get off a shot the brute seized hold of the end of the rifle and yanked it, by main force, from Indy’s grasp.

It was all over in a second. Indy froze. Markwark, white as the ice outside that locked the Kronprinsessen in place, and breathing with an audible death’s rattle, had nonetheless pulled out a pistol and was aiming it at the archaeologist.

‘You are a fool, Dr Jones,’ Markwark rasped. ‘You always have been. My colleague, Herr Doktor Neumann, has already left for the Palace. He will be there before sunset. A plane from Berlin is on its way to join him. Soon the prize will be ours.’

‘It’s not too late to stop him,’ urged Indy. ‘Recall him—I’ll get you medical attention if you do it.’

‘My dear Doctor Jones,’ said Markwark, his smile growing more ghastly by the minute. ‘Why would I wish for inferior medical attention from some American doctor? When Neumann has the treasure, death itself will be conquered. Our soldiers will become literally invincible—shoot them down and they will simply return to life. And I? I have the means of curing myself of my not inconsiderable suffering here, in my own hands,’ Without pause, or any other kind of preparation, Markwark turned the pistol on himself—aimed it at his own chest and pulled the trigger.

The sound, in that enclosed space with its metal walls, was astonishing. The muzzle-flash and sudden hot stink of discharged gunpowder made Indy step back. Meyer, dropping Indy’s rifle and uttering an animal howl of horror and misery, threw himself on his former master. Indy, picked up his gun. He left the lunk there, sobbing over the corpse, and made his way back up on deck.

from Chapter 19

Once its structure must have been as clear as blue glass although now, with the passage of time, cracks and delapidations scarred the surface, and its outline was broken and irregular. And yet it was still extraordinary to gaze upon. As the sunset grew in richness of colour, the walls of the ice palace glowed with an unearthly majesty. ‘It’s—’ Polly gasped, ‘it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!’

‘Very pretty,’ Indy growled. ‘But there another source of light there too … inside.’


‘It has to be. Electric lights. He's setting-up his gear. Come on. We haven't much time.’

They hurried across the open land towards the main entrance of the palace, the red sunlight drawing out their shadows into flapping ribbons over the flatness of the ice. There, parked by the gate, was the Nazi plane, parked and fixed with guy-ropes. They hadn’t set a guard, which meant either they were confident they weren’t going to be disturbed, or else meant they couldn’t spare the personnel. Under the carved ice-arches, inset with whalebone, and through a ice-built passage that gleamed dimly in blue and green.

‘I can hear them,’ whispered Polly. Indy nodded. German voices, somewhere up ahead.

He gestured her to follow him up an ice-staircase—crisply carved once perhaps, but now worn and cracked, and half covered with snow. They ducked to make their way along a narrow space, the voices—below them now—growing louder. Finally they emerged in a kind of ice-carved balcony, overlooking the cavernous central chamber of the palace.

‘Look!’ Indy whispered. ‘It’s exactly as Aglukakk said—a tomb. The question is: whose?’

‘Who—or what,’ Polly hissed back. ‘Look at the size of that body.’

She was right: the tomb was a vast sarcophagus of ice, its former perfect transparency long gone, but still see-through sufficiently to reveal the figure within—humanoid in everything except stature. ‘He’d be twelve foot tall if he stood up,’ Polly whispered.

Neumann was standing by the head of the ice-sarcophagus. The hood of his padded coat was pulled back and the animation and enthusiasm on his face was unmissable. He was talking excitedly to a second man, whilst two more individuals—wearing the white camouflage coats of Nordic soldiers—stood guard, rifles at the ready. Behind Neumann was a stack of equipment: an electrical generator, several boxes weedy with wiring and blinking with light, and a hospital stretcher, complete with restraining straps. The stretcher was of an unusual bigness, but even so: Indy wasn’t sure they were going to be able to fit the body onto.

‘What do they want with the frozen mummy of a body that’s been centuries dead?’ Polly hissed

Indy shook his head, straining to eavesdrop on the conversation down below. He heard the name and couldn’t believe it; only when Neumann, laughing, said it a second time did reality sink in.

‘It’s not dead,’ he hissed. ‘They’re not going to fly it back as an ice-mummy—they’re going to reanimate it. Frankenstein’s creature, Polly. Frankenstein’s creature!’

‘It can’t be!’

‘Think back to what Aglukakk told us. A more-than-human, the giant of life, that slid down the Northern Lights and so entered our world. A monster-god with the power to tramp down death itself.’

‘But it’s not even myth,’ Polly hissed. ‘It’s just fiction.’

‘Mary Shelley heard the stories—rumours from the first European Arctic explorers. That’s why she took her story up here: Frankenstein pursuing his creation unto the icy wastes. But it wasn’t his creation; it was something else, something from somewhere else. To the Inuit, almost a god—hence this mausoleum. But if even a fraction of the story is true, then this is a being not only of immense destructive power, but containing within its cells the means to reverse death.’

‘We can’t let the Nazis have him,’ Polly said. ‘We can’t.’

‘Not on my watch,’ growled Indy. He shifted his weight, and at that exact moment a hefty chunk of their ice-balcony broke free and fell, clattering loudly to the floor below. ‘Halt!’ yelled Neumann, pointing up at Indy and Polly’s vantage point. ‘Shoot them! Shoot them now!’

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Isn't It Good/Empsonian Wood

I’m reading Michael Wood’s On Empson (2017) and enjoying it very much. I am, it's worth saying, an Empson fan of longstanding (both Some Kinds of Pastoral and, in a rather different way, Milton’s God strike me as properly amazing, enduring works of criticism) and Wood’s take on Empson is full of insight and thoughtfulness. But here's one small thing that struck me as I read. In his account of Empson’s first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Wood says:
Among his cases of the sixth type of ambiguity Empson includes a famous speech of Othello’s and makes what must be among the most brilliant commentaries ever on the possibilities of the word “it”—hard even to see what the competition would look like.

It is the Cause, it is the Cause (my Soule)
Let me not name it to you, you chaste Starres,
It is the Cause. Yet Ile not shed her blood,
Nor scarre that whiter skin of hers, then Snow,
And smooth as Monumentall Alablaster
Wood then quotes Empson, that, if he were ‘guessing at a one-word referent, he would say “it” was blood’.
But it is no use assuming … that one case can be assigned, and one thing it is the cause of. There is no primary meaning for lack of information, and secondary meaning, therefore, holds the focus of consciousness, that we are listening to a mind withdrawn upon itself, and baffled by its own agonies. As primary meaning of it, however, thus thrust back among the assumptions, one might list his blackness, as causing her defection; the universality of human lust (in both him and her), as causing her defection and his murder; her defection, as causing his horror and his death. [ST, 185-86]
But isn’t this to isolate the wrong word for its ambiguity? ‘It’ strikes me as like ‘this’, one of those radically ambiguous words that (as Hegel noted) always means both something particular, something specificied and individual, and at the same time, in its capacity for referring to literally anything at all, is the least specific and individualised of words. (That's a perfectly Empsonian observation, I think).

Surely the operative ambiguity in Othello’s speech is not ‘it’ but ‘Cause’, a word that can mean both the reason for or rationale of an event or action—that which produces or effects a result (which is how Empson takes the word) and a movement, a belief-set, even a party (such as one might say: ‘he dedicated his life to the cause of women’s rights, or racial equality, or whatever). Othello is certainly a play about cause-and-effect in the first sense, but in this speech here Othello himself, manifestly urging himself on to do something he doesn’t really want to do, is surely reinforcing his determination by identifying as part of a ‘cause’, a group of people with a common belief-set dedicated to achieving particular goals: policing chastity, reinforcing women’s roles, asserting the authority of the husband, somesuch patriarchal bullshit. Iago is able to bend Othello to his will not only by insinuating certain plaguing fantasies into the man’s imagination, but by stressing (something he does repeatedly) that they are in it together. Before he presses the detonator on his bomb-vest, the terrorist thinks not of the cause-and-event that brought him to this place, but of the cause in this latter sense, and especially of his comrades-in-terror. This speech is Othello quieting that inner voice, the one saying fool, what are you doing? He’s doing ‘it’, and it is murdering the woman he loves; and this action is part of the cause to which he has, now, dedicated himself, even though it will also result in his own destruction.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Anatomy of Shyness

The Anatomy of Shyness (Ancaster Books 2020). 168pp.

1. Introduction: We, The Shy
2. Kipps and Pierre
3. From Verucundia to Composure: a Cultural History
4. Shyness as Social Norm: a Modest Proposal
5. Conclusion: Wee, the Sleekit


Like many, I’m not doing very much, creatively speaking, at the moment. Mostly it's logging online to do my Uni job, endless housework, helping my 12-year-old with his remote schooling and things like that. Soon enough the Uni part of my life will be overtaken by a tsunami of marking, the first wash of which is already running through the seaside boulevards and alleys of my life. Otherwise I’m noting the same changes in the quality of the passage of time, in lockdown, as many people: the old timetables have been broken up to be replaced by a sense of time passing according to a much more nebulous pulse, a strange flux of days.

One thing I am doing is thinking about possible future projects. A couple of notions that pique my interest. Books I might write. But but but: so far as these are concerned I must be honest and confess they're unlikely ever to come to fruition. The bald truth is: this year it’s going to be harder to turn blue-sky thinking into actual writing than is usually the case over a summer. When the university year winds down I usually get a month and a half (or so) to do some solid research and writing; but this year the summer will in large part be given over—not just for me, but for all academics—to mutating all our courses into online-delivery shapes. This will require some upskilling, quite a lot of kerfuffle and a significant quantity of aargh. Still: blue sky thinking should be kept up. A man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for, and so on. So I figured, instead of actually writing these books I could use this blog to sketch them out. Potted versions of shadow books. Today's blogpost is one example. Hence the mocked-up book cover at the top of this post. Nice, no?

No? Suit yourself.

Anyway: at the head of this post is the putative contents page for a book I half-seriously considered actually writing, to be called An Anatomy of Shyness. I dilate a little upon this title below. Doing so in this form relieves me of the need actually to write the book, and you of the obligation actually to read it. There's no pressing reason for you to read this blogpost either, of course. I'm not the boss of you.


A little while ago I wrote a literary biography of H G Wells, in which, along with all his other books, I considered his 1905 comic novel Kipps. It was from this, I think, that I can date my sense that it would be interesting to write a full-scale study of shyness. This is what I said about that marvellous novel:
This ‘Story of a Simple Soul’ is the first bona-fide masterpiece of Wells's comic-pathetic mimetic mode. Lower-middle-class Kipps is a draper's assistant in Folkestone. His life is going nowhere until it is transformed by an out-of-the-blue inheritance of a house and £26,000, and the bulk of the novel explores his various funny and touching fish-out-of-water experiences as he tries to adjust to being so abruptly rich. The funniest and most touching of these involve his hypergamous desires (hypergamy is ‘bedding a woman from a class superior to one's own’). When still a draper Kipps took a woodcarving class on Thursday nights, and fell deeply and hopelessly in love with the young woman who taught it, the beautiful and refined Helen Walshingham. Now that he is rich, and since Helen happens to be financially distressed, he finds himself in a position to propose marriage. She accepts. Kipps is taken in hand by a small circle of the higher-class Folkestonites, in particular a man called Mr Coote, although there is little they can do to raise the tone of Kipps's exuberantly lower-middle-class speech, manner and being.

Kipps is divided into three ‘books’. Book 1 details Kipps's schooldays and his time as a draper's assistant ending, at Chapter 6 ‘The Unexpected’, with his inheritance. Book 2 follows-through into Kipps's new life of wealth and his betrothal to Helen Walshingham; Book 3 is rather disproportionately shorter than the first two, and ties-up the story as (spoiler!) Kipps, feeling increasingly malapropos and miserable, jilts Helen and instead marries his childhood sweetheart and social equal Ann. He then loses almost all his money (the solicitor who had been handling his financial affairs, Helen's younger brother, has speculated it all away) and sets up a little bookshop with what's left. The novel ends happily, with the Kippses new parents, happier as shopkeepers than they ever were as wealthy types, although there's a sort of double-twist, when money Kipps had foolishly put into a theatrical play turns out unexpectedly to have been a golden investment, and he becomes rich again.

But plot-summary really does nothing to convey the flavour of the novel, and it's that flavour that carries the whole: precisely observed, beautifully written, often genuinely funny, touching, charming. Wells renders not one but two whole social milieux out of a weave of specific detail and incident, and has a marvellous eye for the way incongruity parleys embarrassment into a sort of superposition of hilarity and existential agony. Kipps goes through the novel hideously self-conscious and always overwhelmed by the thought of what other people will think of him. In the first third he is worried what better-bred people will think. In the second two thirds it gets worse: he worries what his new friends will think, what Helen will think and what servants, waiters and so on will think of him.

I'd argue this is one of the most remarkable things about Kipps. Quite apart from how droll the book is, how effectively illustrative it is of the social mores of Edwardian English life, how vivid is its characterisation—all those ‘well-made novel’ qualities over which Wells manifests genuinely impressive control—quite apart from all that is the centrality the novel gives to shyness and boredom. I can't think of a better portrait of shyness and boredom in literature. Indeed, when I think how hugely important both those qualities are in most people's lives (my own early existence for instance) I'm rather boggled by their absence from capital-L Literature. I suppose the general bias towards can-do ‘relatable’ heroes and action adventure drowns all that out. But surely the majority of us are not like that. The young Kipps, pre-legacy, is bored by the endless routine of his job in the draper's shop, but even more bored on the days he doesn't have to work.
On Sundays he was obliged to go to church once, and commonly he went twice, for there was nothing else to do. He sat in the free seats at the back; he was too shy to sing, and not always clever enough to keep his place in the prayer-book, and he rarely listened to the sermon. But he had developed a sort of idea that going to church had a tendency to alleviate life. His aunt wanted to have him confirmed, but he evaded this ceremony for some years.

In the intervals between services he walked about Folkestone with an air of looking for something. Folkestone was not so interesting on Sundays as on week-days, because the shops were shut. Sometimes the apprentice next above him would condescend to go with him; but when the apprentice next but one above him condescended to go with the apprentice next above him, then Kipps, being habited as yet in ready-made clothes without tails, and unsuitable therefore to appear in such company, went alone ... He would sometimes walk up and down the Leas between twenty and thirty times after supper, desiring much the courage to speak to some other person in the multitude similarly employed. Almost invariably he ended his Sunday footsore. He never read a book; there were none for him to read, and, besides ... he had no taste that way. [Kipps, 49-50]
Money ought to alleviate this tedium; but in a way only makes it worse. Kipps's agony at having to make social calls and go to parties, as his fiancée insists he does, is beautifully and painfully rendered. These sections remind me, rather, of Stevie Smith:
Into the dark night
Resignedly I go,
I am not so afraid of the dark night
As the friends I do not know,
I do not fear the night above
As I fear the friends below.
How many of us feel that way! Where are the discussions of shyness as a cultural and personal reality, anyway? Who are the shy heroes of literature? Build that critical and cultural discourse, and maybe Kipps will be recognised as the first great masterpiece of a ubiquitous phenomenon.
There's a spectrum of shyness, and the cripplingly shy, the socially-disabled and chronically timid are a small part (I would hazard: a very small part) of a much larger pattern. This pattern is that most of us to one degree or another are shy people, or to be a little more specific: are shy people who have developed a congeries of behaviours and performances to mask that fact. To call someone shy looks like a criticism, an accusation of weakness, but I don't think it is, actually; not least because the extreme other end of the shyness-spectrum is actual sociopathy, confidence trickster-hucksterism and all our present political woes. Shyness at root is a disinclination towards self-exposure, and that has a dignified, even a selfless side to it: not wishing to impose on others for example. So many of us are essentially sensitive, socially a little vulnerable, folk who seek out social interaction despite finding it a little bit worrying that it seems to me the unshy are the minority, not the majority. So many of us have to gird our loins to do things like stand up and address a group, to give a presentation at work, to approach strangers at parties, to ask-out a person we find attractive. Yet if, as I'm arguing, shyness (and boredom) are central to many people's experience of existence, it becomes puzzling to consider how rare are the artistic, or non-fictional, representations of that state. I wonder why that should be?

I don't know any literary-critical or cultural studies of shyness, although a book that comes close is Christopher Ricks's Keats and Embarrassment (1984), a much better book than its rather low-profile reputation suggests, I think. Ricks doesn't discuss Wells (with a title like that you wouldn't expect him too). Nor is he concerned, exactly, with shyness, but he makes a persuasive case that embarrassment is a very important emotion indeed, and that it's odd more isn't made of it. In my discussion of Wells I say this:
I think we can say of Wells what Christopher Ricks says of Keats: ‘Keats as a man and a poet was especially sensitive to, and morally intelligent about, embarrassment’, which state Ricks defines as ‘constrained feeling or manner arising from bashfulness or timidity’ As with Keats, there is I think something peculiarly English about Wells's apprehension of shyness and embarrassment (Ricks wonders ‘is embarrassment not only a nineteenth-century sentiment but a narrowly English one?’); and two of the larger points about Ricks's argument seem to me to apply particularly well to Wells's Kipps—that this is art that challenges the reader to experience embarrassment, and that the root of this shyness is less social than sexual. For Ricks it is a great strength of Keats that he is
one of the very few erotic poets who have come at embarrassment from a different angle of necessity: from the wish to pass directly through—not to bypass (however principled and perceptive the by passing)—the hotly disconcerting, the potentially ludicrous, distasteful, or blush-inducing. [Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment (1984), 68]
One of Ricks's key comparisons is the never-embarrassed suavity of Byron. There are plenty of blushes in Don Juan, Ricks notes, but ‘they never work upon us, as Keats's do, by implicating us in the hot tinglings of sensation; they are always seen from outside ...The limpidity and lucidity of Byron's style act as a cordon sanitaire against contagious embarrassment’ [Ricks, 83]. I'm struck that, mutatis mutandis, we could make a similar distinction between Wells and his friend Henry James. James sees an obliquity, and a complexity, in human sexual affairs, and in his novels such things very rarely run smooth; but we are never embarrassed on behalf of James's characters, I think. Like Byron, although in a different manner, the sheer suavity of his style acts as a cordon sanitaire against such blushing and cringing. Not so Wells: for him the path to his novel's core lies right through those embarrassments. He makes the most of them, and he makes his readers feel them, and he does both things brilliantly. Sexual desire is complex, I think; or it is often so; but embarrassment shares the epithet that characterises Kipps's soul in the subtitle Wells chose for his novel: it is simple.
In our fantasies we are Byron; but in reality we are, most of us, Keats. We take pleasure, and perhaps consolation, from the thought that we might be some assertive, omnicompetent and fundamentally unshy individual: a James Bond or an Oscar Wilde, an Iron Man or Captain America (although Captain America strikes me as quite a shy individual, actually)—or say, perhaps: a Bugs Bunny or a Blackadder, a Tigger or a Spongebob. It ain't so, though. I don't mean that most of us are introverts (a lot of us aren't; and more to the point a lot of extraverts are quite shy people actually). I don't mean shy as a simple synonym for diffident: shyness can lead us to diffidence, but most of us have no choice but to develop strategies for masking our shyness so that we're able to function in the world: to go to school and work, to socialise and so on. These masks, these performances, are our social selves to a very large extent, but most of us (I would hazard) feel that they are not us in any fundamental sense. Most, though not all of us, feel that behind our social performance we're quite private people, a little uncertain, sensitive and unsure. Very often we feel that people who think they know us don't see past our public performance, and so don't really know us at all. This is the being-in-the-world I an thumbnailing with the word shy.

It should, I hope, be obvious I'm not proposing shy as not a one-size-fits-all denominator. Most shy people have perfectly good social skills, sets of friends, get on well with work colleagues and the like. Most shy people enjoy the company of others and are not loners. It might look as though I'm describing not shy but regular people, but this is my whole point: regular people are, to varying degrees, shy people. To make this point I might invite you to consider the alternative, the unshy: those people bursting with boundless and entirely unconsidered confidence. The confidence trickers and hucksters. The Dunning-Krugered, who are so lacking in self-awareness and so uninhibited about their brilliance that they parade their ignorance blithely. The mansplainers talking-down to an actual expert in the topic about which they are foolishly bloviating. The Donald Trumps of this world. Of course such people exist. My point is: you're not that kind of person. And no more am I.

Thinking it through a little, I find myself struck not just by how few are the critical or theoretical discussions of this large topic, but how rarely the shy individual crops-up in literature, film and TV, except (perhaps) as the occasional sidebar character brought on for comic effect. How rarely, in other words, artists have front-and-centred it. Casting round for other examples (other than Wells's Kipps, I mean) I thought of Flaubert's ‘A Simple Heart’ but then thought: no, that's not it. Then I pondered of the occasional sidebar character in comedy, and so to the Mr Bean, or Stan Laurel-type figure (and so back to Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin) but then thought: no, that's not it either. Indeed, I found myself struggling, rather, to come up with examples that are it. Discussing the matter a little with my friend Alan Jacobs he suggested the early Vonnegut story “Who Am I This Time?”, and said ‘there’s a bit of shyness to Alyosha Karamazov, isn’t there? Maybe also Pierre in War and Peace.’

That's more like it: Pierre is a good example of what I'm talking about, I think. And indeed I had anticipated it:
An unsigned article in the Saturday Review for 22 April 1905, almost certainly written by Wells, begins: ‘Twenty years ago Tolstoy was hardly known outside Russia. We remember mentioning his existence to an American novelist of first rank, a great admirer of Turgenev, who did not seem inclined to believe that people would soon come to recognise the greater power of Tolstoy. Who has not heard of Tolstoy now?’ The American novelist of first rank must be Henry James, of course. Rosamund Bartlett notes that
... a year after this review was published, Wells would write Tolstoy a fan letter, telling him he had read everything by him he could find in English, about 18 volumes, and that, in his opinion, of all the works he had had the fortune to read, War and Peace and Anna Karenina were the “most magnificent and all-encompassing”. [‘Tolstoy Translated’, FT 8th August 2014]
I can't prove Wells had Tolstoy on his mind writing Kipps, but it seems to me overwhelmingly likely. What is Kipps, after all, except a lower-class, more conventional and sexually continent Pierre? (presumably it is the very blinding obviousness of this observation that has kept it out of the criticism, for I don't know any critics who make this point). Obviously Kipps's inheritance is not wealth on the same sort of scale as Pierre's, and obviously Kipps doesn't live through anything as traumatic as the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. But then again, Tolstoy's interest in Pierre is less to do with the specific nature of those sorts of externals and more with—precisely—the simplicity of his soul, which is delineated via the complex there-and-back-again of his reaction to his personal change in fortunes. It's stating the obvious to note that that's also what Kipps, as a novel, is interested in.

John Bayley talks about the ‘dynamic absurdity’ of Tolstoy's Pierre (distinguishing this from ‘the merely passive absurdity’ of the novel's non-Russian characters), and it's a good way of describing Kipps too. Like Kipps, Pierre works hard to fit himself into a system which can never be home for him, and one of the saving graces of his simplicity is that, on some level, he always knows this (think of the scene where Pierre is inducted into the Masons, and how awkwardly that goes—at the ceremony ‘a childlike smile of embarrassment, doubt and self-derision appeared on Pierre's face against his will’).
And thinking it through a little further I wondered if the problem is not that there are too few representations of shyness in literature but something the reverse? If most people are, basically, high-functioning shy ones, then most characters in literature and drama will be of such people.

So, for example: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's TV drama Better Call Saul. The consensus is that this prequel drama is even better than the show it sets-up (and which preceded it in the schedules): Breaking Bad; but in fact, and despite the continuities of character and world, I'd say the two shows are radically different beasts. Breaking Bad was about evil, about wickedness, and how it comes into the world: beautifully written and paced and played, and in its way profound. But I wonder if the motor of Better Call Saul isn't precisely the balance of the shy and the unshy, pitched between various shy characters and the profoundly unshy Jimmy at the show's heart. In the early series the main dynamic was Chuck versus Jimmy, but I think it is working better, in its fourth and fifth series, now that Chuck has gone, because his shyness was a touch too melodramatically externalised, his lock-in terror of outside contact, his manfiest introversion. Pairing unshy Jimmy/Saul with regular-person-shy Kim gives the show a much more nuanced and believable dynamic: not least Kim's occasionally succumbing to the thrill of living life unshackled from her regular-level shyness via this-or-that Jimmy contrick. And where Odenkirk's acting as Jimmy does what the show requires, Rhea Seehorn's performance as Kim is an absolute masterclass in acting, I think. (The Salamanca/Fring dynamic does a similar thing, I'd say; as does shy Nacho Varga's relationship with his father and all these outré other drugs guys). The point is that Jimmy fascinates us as a character; we are absorbed in his story; but we are not like Jimmy. We are not so unshy.


Of course I have to accept that shyness, which I'm here taken as a very common type of human nature, is not usually seen that way. More usually, shyness is seen as another word for timidy, diffidence, even a kind of pusillanimity. I don't think that's right, but it's surely how many people think of the word. More, shyness is gendered: there are shy boys, but we think more often of a shy girl, either in a vaguely negative way (‘she's a mousey type’) or else in ways that are, in some cultures at any rate, strongly valorised under rubrics of modesty. Modesty, like chastity, is one of those virtues notionally supposed to apply equally to men and women but which in practice is much more impressed upon the latter, often as an ideal from which delinquency of any kind is used as a pretext to coerce and punish. There are many places in the world where being an ‘immodest’ woman entails actual societal chastisement, sometimes very severe.

It seems to me that baseline shyness as such, I mean as a being-in-the-world, is as common among men as women, but the cultural bias goes back a long way. And part of my putative Anatomy of Shyness would involve me unpacking the history of the concept. I'd do this, I think, with a discussion of the Roman virtue of verecundia.

We don't have a single English word translation for this term. That's a shame, since it encapsulates in many ways the positive aspect of shyness I'm trying to sketch-out here (we have, of course, many terms of the negative aspect of shyness, as mentioned already: timidity, introversion and so on). Modesty is too gendered a term, and deference too class-loaded nowadays, I think. ‘Composure’ might be better, perhaps, although that doesn't map onto verecundia very well. I'll come back to composure in a moment.

Verecundia was a virtue highly valued in its time and place. Cicero puts it in amongst the cardinal virtues: see De Officiis 1:127, for instance, and many other writers reference it. It relates to modes of behaviour that are not specifically determined by law or custom; behaviour that is mindful, fitting, tactful, socially conscious, that manifests an awareness of one's place and one's duties and responsibilities to others. Robert A. Kaster discusses verecundia at some length, beginning with the observation that ‘the epitaph of the Republican poet Pacuvius is preserved by the scholar and litterateur Aulus Gellius, who presents it to us as “verecundus and pure in the highest degree and worthy of [the poet’s] superbly discriminating dignity (elegantissima)”.’ Kaster goes on:
Verecundia animates the art of knowing your proper place in every social transaction and basing your behaviour on your knowledge; by guiding behaviour in this way verecundia establishes or affirms the social bond between you and others, all of whom (ideally) play complimentary roles. Most fully, this means that you will each gauge your standing relative to the others; you will each present yourself in a way that at least will not give offence—for example, by confrontation or importunity—and that preferably will signal your full awareness of the others’ face, the character they wear in the transaction and the respect that that character is due—not obliterate your own face, the character you are wearing and the respect that it is due. This is the script, the sequence of interlocking motives and moves, that someone experiencing verecundia—a verecundus person—enacts; by enacting that script, the verecundus person draws a line for the self to observe, in settings where no such line is drawn by formal or external authority, where he or she must improvise a performance as a well-socialized person. [Robert A. Kaster, ‘Between Respect and Shame: Verecundia and the Art of Social Worry’, in Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (Oxford University Press 2005), 13-15]
This feeds through into a later, Christian context. It's true that some Christian writers were suspicious of verecundia, precisely because it locates the individual's moral and social compass in their own tact and judgement rather than in obedience to external authority and divine commandment. So, Jesuit theologian Diego de Baeza argues that 'ubi verecundia nimia, potentissima diaboli tyrannis?' Where there is excessive verecundia, is there not the devil’s most potent tyranny? [Diego de Baeza, Commentariorum moralium in evangelican historiam (1644), 394]. But other importat churchmen were much more positive about it. Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to advance proper verecundia as a key Christian virtue: he devotes two whole sections of the Summa Theologica to demonstrating that ‘verecundia est virtus’. Even so late as the 1830s this was a notion that had purchase. Heres the Quarterly Review's definition of the word:
Verecundia ... comprises many distinct sensibilities. It implies regard for the opinion of others, the fear of injuring them, bashfulness, emulation, respect for superior power, humility, personal affection: it is, in short, in morals, what faith is in religion—the grapple by which men, during the process of education and instruction, are retained under the moral influence of others, until the love of virtue, for its own sake, has been infused into their mind. ['Tyler on Oaths', Quarterly Review 61 (1834), 394]
It is in morals, what faith is in religion. This is starting to approach the ‘positive’ valence of shyness I'm trying to sketch out here.

Not, of course, that we can ignore the sexism by which this particular shyness is gendered. The Romans certainly saw a close relation between verecundia and pudicitia, the word for a woman’s proper modesty and sexual chastity. Kate Wilkinson discusses this:
After pudicitia, the most common term indicating a woman’s modesty in the late ancient era was verecundiaVerecundia for men is the delicate feeling of restraint which guards one from slighting the reputation of another man while still maintaining one’s own reputation. It is the gatekeeper for social ‘face’ in a competitive and hierarchical setting. Women’s verecundia keeps them out of masculine public spaces like the forum or the courtroom, encourages proper respect for their husband’s superior social status, and protects puditicia. While puditicia often refers to the behaviour protecting sexual purity as well as the physical state of purity, verecundia is that shyness, bashfulness or restraint which maintains … “their face as chaste persons”. [Kate Wilkinson’s Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity (Cambridge Univ. Press 2015), 16]
Pelagius’s treatise on the chastity of the Virgin Mary praises the mother of God specifically for her stupenda verecundia and her pudoris verecundia, her ‘stupendous reserve’ and the ‘bashfulness of her chastity’. We don't, though, have to take such claims at face value, at (that is) the value of a putative value system that treats asexuality and a lack of desire as a simple good. Indeed, on the contrary, we might argue that the reason there is such widespread socio-culture on women in particular is precisely in order to focus desire. In a (pardon the jargon, but it's apropos) heteronormative and patriarchal society the more women become loci of erotic investment the more they are forced to define themselves in terms of puditica. Manifestly that has been, broadly, oppressive and conformist; but the way to address oppression and conformism is to address oppression and conformism, not to attack puditicia as if it wholly constitutes those things.

The point (I'd suggest) is that shyness, in the positive sense I'm arguing for here has a strongly erotic component. Dionysiac erotic frenzy has its place in sex, I'm not denying it; but its the unshy iteration of sexual connection and, accordingly, rare. Much more common is sex as something more exquisitely measured, more exciting because more restrained. The facile reaction is to laugh at the Victorians because they were so sexually-prudish they found even the sight of a naked piano-leg indecent and draped little curtains around the bottom of their Bosendorfer Grands. A less condescending take, though, is to think: jeez, if those Victorians were capable of being erotically aroused by the sight of a naked piano leg, they were more highly-sexed than me, Gunga Din. Perhaps they did have access to forcefulnesses of desire to which we, in our less restrained age, do not have access.

This seems to me a rather obvious observation, actually—that it is precisely the unsmooth-running of love that mediates it its excitement; that obstacles to gratification intensify desire rather than thwarting it. It's not, perhaps, an observation usually connected with shyness, but it ought to be. Adam Phillips notes, astutely, that ‘it is impossible to imagine desire without obstacles, and wherever we find something to be an obstacle we are at the same time desiring’ [Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (Faber 1993), 87]. This, we could say, is precisely the work of shyness, and perhaps the reason it is so widespread: it is there to intrude obstacles into intersubjectivity so as to magnify desire.

Of course, we might object: if that's so, then why is the personal experience of shyness often so excruciating? So painful and humiliating? So far as that goes, I might reply that only some varieties of shyness manifest that way (that self-reliance, composure, and several kinds of emotional prophylaxis entail a much more positive affect). Or I might say that pain and humility, precisely through their friction, and provided only they are not too extreme, add spice to, rather than blandify, precisely the erotic intensities we are talking about. Of course, perhaps I'm only being naif. Leo Bersani (Phillips discusses this in another book) once argues that the reason masturbation makes people feel furtive and guilty is that they are worried it is the secret truth of sex: not that we'd rather do it alone, but that even when we do it with other people we're simply engaging in a more elaborate form of onanistic narcissism, using the other person as a tool to achieve fundamentally masturbatory gratifications. He didn't say, to be clear, that this was the truth of sex; and in fact I don't think it is, by and large. He said that it touches on our fears, our anxiety that we can't effectively patrol the borderland where self-preservation becomes narcissistic self-obsession. To counter such a thought I would suggest, without I think straining probability, that shyness is not narcissism—not, that is, an obsessive focus on self that crowds out the rest of the world (such an obsession would be an iteration of unshyness, actually: Trumpism par example). Shyness, on the contrary, is a too-nuanced over-attention to the demands, to the mere presence, of others.

This may be the place to quote Phillips again, on Freud and Winnicott on ‘composure’:
In Freudian terms, composure would be a form, largely subconscious, of vigilant self-control. But ... Winnicott gives us a different way of considering the idea of composure. Where Freud sees the possibility of mastery, Winnicott sees the possibility of surprise. Where Freud is preoccupied with defensive forms of control, Winnicott emphasizes something less virile, which he calls ‘holding.’ ‘Holding’ describes the early maternal care that makes possible the infant's psychosomatic integration; and holding implies reciprocal accommodations, exactly what one observes in the subtle process of picking up a child. In Winnicott's terms, composure can be seen as a deferral, a kind of self-holding that keeps ope the possibility of finding an environment in which the composure itself would be relinquished. Composure would, by definition, seek its own negation. [Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (Faber 1993), 42]
This is shyness, too. Which is to say, it's a mistake to confuse shyness with an absolute, or anchorite, withdrawal from the world. The shy person doesn't wish, usually, for the world to abandon them. They're seeking not absolute solitude, but rather to negotiate the terms of which they engage with others in a manner not entirely disadvantageous to them. Philips discusses the case of one of his psychoanalytic clients, a teenage boy who had issues socialising and was also terrified of swimming. Phillips's job, as analyst, is, in his own judgement, to ease the boy towards a realisation that ‘one of the central paradoxes for the adolescent is his discovery that only the object beyond his control can be found to be reliable. For the boy the risk of learning to swim was the risk of discovering that he would float.’ Phillips adds, quoting a letter from Lord Halifax to his Charles Cotton:
The defence of vigileany self-holding precluded his being able to swim. He needed “a generous kind of negligence” with himself. It is possible to be too concerned with oneself. [Phillips, 25]
Of course that's true, and might even be a useful slogan for the over-shy (the timid, the fear-struck). But it stands in an ambivalent relationship to the majority of us, the regular-shy.

I'd go further. Something along these lines must be, it seems to me, the key Freudian insight into shyness (although it wasn't, so far as I'm aware, something he discusses particularly). Positive shyness is itself a kind of generous negligence. We are shy around strangers (for instance) to a greater degree than we are shy around friends; so it is tempting to see shyness as an index of estrangement as such. But if Freud is saying anything he is saying that we are, in a crucial sense, strangers to ourselves; our own subconscious drivers are more opaque than the socially-determined activity of other people could ever be. In this sense, our shyness is an orientation towards the self. We are all, always in the first instance, autoshy.


Jane Austen. William Morris. Barbara Pym and Borges. Albert Einstein and Bill Gates. Rosa Parks and Isaac Newton. Eleanor Roosevelt and J K Rowling. Gandhi and Darwin, Coleridge and Keats, Spinoza and Woolf. We don't, perhaps, think of Dickens as shy, because his public performance protocols were so highly developed that he persuaded people of his showman gregariousness; but the fact remains he was too shy (too embarrassed, too vulnerable) to reveal to anyone except John Forster—not to his other friends, not to his wife or family—the shame he felt at his childhood experience in the Blacking Factory. When Forster's posthumous biography revealed these details the world was astonished. William Golding's Egyptian Journal (1985) is the record of an attempt to see the ‘real’ Egypt, beyond the tourist spots, or rather is the record of a failure to see this Egypt: Golding absolute inability to engage with the various real Egyptians crewing his boat, cooking his meals and showing him around the country, leads to him retreating into superficial judgments and stereotype. Golding has enough self-knowledge to realise that something is amiss, and at once point notes ‘the fact was—and I here put it down in black and white—I was shy.’ Ahdaf Soueif's gorgeously ascerbic review of the book in the LRB picks out this phrase and considers it:
[Golding] discusses whether an exact equivalent of the word ‘shy’ is to be found in other European languages. A discussion from which Mr Golding concludes that shyness is a peculiarly English trait. It never occurs to him to ask—or even to wonder—whether Arabic contains a word for shyness? (It does.) And whether people might therefore have understood his predicament.
In this case shyness (surely genuine, on Golding's part) results in unwitting rudeness and disrespect of others, but Soueif touches on something that's intriguing about shyness: the way it blinds us to the shynesses around us. We shy very often think everybody else is simply brimming with inner-confidence, when (overwhelmingly) they are not. Our shyness is also a shying away from the shyness of everyone else.