‘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.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Fragments of Fantasy


Yesterday I was one of the speakers at a workshop called ‘Reconstructing & Adapting Ancient Greek Fragmentary Tragedy: Methodologies & Challenges for Classicists and Theatre Practitioners’, courtesy of the Centre for the Reception of Greece and Rome of the Department of Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London; funded by the Classical Association and organised by Andriana Domouzi. It was a fascinating day. My contribution was to talk about three Euripidean plays I restored: Hypsipyle, Phaethon and Telephus. What's that, you ask? What do I mean, restored? Well: eighteen complete Euripidean plays have survived from antiquity to the modern age, but the old boy actually wrote ninety or more plays in his long life. Of the seventy-plus that have not survived some have disappeared completely (such that we only have their titles), where others have survived in fragmentary form.

Such fragments as we have come from various places. Mostly what we have are lines or short passages from the plays that were quoted by other, later authors, usually to illustrate a metrical pattern or perhaps an unusual word. We also have a number of actual tattered bits of papyrus dug out of the sand at Oxyrhynchus or elswhere, in various states of decay, and with various bits of various plays on them. Other evidence includes summaries of play plots, adaptations into Latin, illustrations on pots and so on.

The amount of material we have varies: for the Hypsipyle we have 600 lines (not in one lump of course: a passage here, another there and lots of stray and fugitive lines from who knows where), which is probably almost a third of the whole. With the Phaethon and Telephus we have less—although with the latter we have another sort of source: because Aristophanes mocked and parodied Euripides' Telephus in various of his plays, especially Acharnians (425 BC) and Thesmaphoriazusae (411 BC). The Telephus is about a Mysian king who, having been injured by Achilles with a wound that continues to fester, is told by an oracle that ‘the one that wounded you will heal you’; so he travels, in rags, to Argos to seek a cure (in the event, filings from Achilles' spear, sprinkled on his wound, make him all better). But Aristophanes thought it was outrageous and incompatible with the dignity of royal authority to show a king on stage in rags, and he repeatedly attacked Euripides for doing so. The ways in which he parodied the Telephus tell us, I think, something about the Telephus. That, at any rate, is what I decided when I wrote my reconstruction.

Why did I undertake such a labour, you ask? Well: I'll tell you. My first degree, back in the depths of the last century, was English/Classics and it was on that course that I first really encountered and fell in love with Attic tragedy. After that I did a PhD on Browning and the Classics. That thesis, and later research, involved quite a lot of detailed work on RB's translation of the Agamemnon, as well as his versions of the Herakles and the Alkestis. In addition to the extant plays, Browning (like Shelley, Arnold and Swinburne) was intrigued by the surviving fragments of Greek tragedy, and began a reconstruction of his own: perhaps a speculative version of Euripides's Hippolytos Stephanophoros (Ἱππόλυτος στεφανοφόρος, ‘Hippolytus Crown-wearer’) although in the event all he produced was a prologue, published in 1842 as ‘Artemis Prologizes’. My fascination with the fragmentary dramas has stayed with me, and the reason why that's so raises interesting (for me at any rate) questions about my larger aesthetic fascinations, as a writer and a critic. At any rate, I wrote my English reconstructions of Hypsipyle, Phaethon and Telephus. These were set to be published by a London-based small press ten years or so ago, but the company went bust and I haven't done anything else with them—I should go back to them, actually.

So, that's what I talked about at the colloquium. Although to be honest, I didn't really talk about my own dabblings in reconstruction. Instead I tried, in the time allotted me, to make a more ambitious point about the fragmentary as such. If I'd had more time I would have made the point broader still: because at the moment a friend and I are working on (‘working on’, at this stage, is still a matter of more or less wide-ranging conversation) a critical history of Fantasy as a mode, and I find myself interested by the way that all fits into this picture.

So, with my right hand I write crticism and academic scholarship and so on, and most of that has to do with the Romantic and Victorian periods (my job title at Royal Holloway, University of London, is ‘Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture’). I do view the contemporary age as in crucial ways ‘post-Romantic’, in that I think Romanticism revolutionised literature and culture in ways that still shape things today. There are various (big) ways in which this is true, I think; but for now my interest is in the way Romanticism valorised the fragment as such. I'd say we're still living with the consequences of that conceptual and aesthetic celebration.

This is a very large topic, and I'm going to risk distorting it by rattling through at speed. But very broadly: there was no particular cult of the fragment before the German Romantics, but from them, and Schlegel in particular, a fascination with the fragmentary spread to English Romanticism. This had, amongst other things, to do with the invention of archaeology in more-or-less its modern form in the later eighteenth-century, and the habit wealthy Grand Tourists got into of bringing partly-broken statuary and the like back from Greece and Italy to ornament their stately homes. But it was Schlegel who created a conceptual armature for the celebration of fragments as such. Here's Allen Speight:
The fragment is among the most characteristic figures of the Romantic movement. The fragment as employed by Schlegel and the Romantics is distinctive in both its form (as a collection of pieces by several different authors) and its purpose. For Schlegel, a fragment as a particular has a certain unity (“[a] fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog,” Athenaeumsfragment 206), but remains nonetheless fragmentary in the perspective it opens up and in its opposition to other fragments. Its “unity” thus reflects Schlegel's view of the whole of things not as a totality but rather as a “chaotic universality” of infinite opposing stances.

If a literary form like the fragment opens up the question of the relation between finite and infinite, so do the literary modes of allegory, wit and irony—allegory as a finite opening toward the infinite (“every allegory means God”), wit as the “fragmentary geniality” or “selective flashing” in which a unity can momentarily be seen, and irony as their synthesis. Although impressed with the Socratic notion of irony (playful and serious, frank and deeply hidden, it is the freest of all licenses, since through it one rises above one's own self, Schlegel says in Lyceumfragment 108), Schlegel nonetheless employs it in a way perhaps more reminiscent of the oscillations of Fichtean selfhood. Irony is at once, as he says in Lyceumfragment 37, self-creation, self-limitation, and self-destruction.
This is, at root, religious move, and connected to the invention of the modern category of the Sublime by Burke, Kant and others (this same Sublime runs right through into later science fiction, as our much prized ‘sense of wonder’: the total perspective vortex of awe, wonder and terror that the sheer scale of the cosmos evokes in us). God is infinite, whereas we are finite and mortal. This entire world in which we live, big though it is, is only a fragment of the divine totality and harmony, and though our finite brains cannot apprehend actual infinity we can, as it were, get a glimpse out of the corner of our eye. So: fragments, by not pretending to unity and harmony, are not only more honest, they actually generate more intense affect than do well-wrought-urns, because they gesture at their implicit greater greatnesses, with (often) the added pathos of that greatness having been lost. It's Shelley's traveller from an antique land in ‘Ozymandias’. It's Fuseli's The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments (1780):



From this it's a short step to the deliberate prefabrication of fragmentary forms as art. Schlegel famously said ‘the works of the ancients have become fragments; the works of the moderns are fragments at their inception’. It's why the craze for architectural follies swept England and France: constructing the pre-ruined tower of a castle that never existed on your country estate was so much more en vogue than building a complete and finished structure.

This is the climate in which Coleridge publishes ‘Kubla Khan’—a poem that personally I consider one of the most finished and perfect in the language (I mean: have you read it?) but nonetheless a poem published as a fragment, with a lengthy prefatory note spinning Coleridge's whole Porlockian story as to why it's allegedly unfinished. It's why he was happy to publish the unfinished ‘Christabel’, or why the Prelude (a mere shard of the mega-epical Recluse Wordsworth originally planned) stands as one of the signature masterpieces of the age. This feeds through into High Modernism (a much more fundamentally Romantic literary movement than is often realised, I think) as the apotheosis of the fragment: Eliot's Waste Land assembled out of orts and scraps, quotations and original lines: ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins—why then Ile fit you’:—fit as the fragmented consciousness of the epileptic, but also fit as the jigsaw-puzzle assemblage of the myriad broken bits and pieces into a mosaic. See also: Joyce & Pound, Picasso & Braque, montage & mass-reproduction, Art of & Noise (this last example bringing ‘postmodernism’ into the mix: similarly enamoured of the brittle joys of shinily tesselated surfaces comprised of a bricolage of quotation, allusion and fragmented sensibility).

Saying all this is not saying anything very new. Thomas McFarland's Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin: Wordsworth, Coleridge, the Modalities of Fragmentation eloquently explored this subject all the way back in the 1980s, and though some more recent studies have had various issues with McFarland's influential book (Marjorie Levinson’s recent The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form is very good, for instance) the consensus remains that the fragment is the characteristic form of Romantic and post-Romantic art.

And to move back towards the question of the classics, it has real-world consequences too. Go into any museum, and you'll see artefacts from the ancient world presented to punters as fragments: ridiculously so, really. There's no way that a face with its nose sheared off (say) will look anything other than lamentable, and such a ruin certainly doesn't convey what the original sculptor was trying to get at: but museum directors will under no circumstances repair the broken fragments of statuary in their collections, let alone paint them in their original colours. The organiser of yesterday's symposium recently submitted her PhD on fragmentary Euripidean plays: she passed, I'm pleased to say, but her examiners insisted she remove any and all speculation, no matter how expertly informed, about how the plots of the complete plays might go. Only the pure and absolutely unvarnished fragments themselves were allowed to stand. We make a fetish of our fragments.

This brings me to my left-hand, the one that does the non-academic writing: science fiction and fantasy and imaginative engagement. The hand that took this fragmentary project by Anthony Burgess and completed it. The hand that yearns one day to complete Coleridge's unfinished Opus Maximum, or confect a complete, 24-canto Don Juan. That hand.

To be clear: I have no beef with the Romantic, Modern or Postmodern fragment. On the contrary, art produced under its aegis remains my favourite art. I could recite pretty much the whole of The Waste Land by heart, for instance. But nonetheless my creative allegience belongs not to High Modernism and its literary-experimental high culture descendants, but on the contrary to the derided pulp shadow of that High Modernist tradition. Let's take for example Tolkien, for the simple reason that I love him. For all the problems with his writing, all the limitations of his representation of women, the racial cast to his imagination, his small-c (and large-C) Conservatism, I love him. I read him as a kid, and have re-read the Lord of the Rings every year through my life. He was my gateway drug into Fantasy and therefore SF.

Now one way we might want to take Tolkien is as anti-matter to the matter of High Modernism. Joyce wrote one short, accessible and widely-read book (Portrait of the Artist), one much longer and more challenging novel about language and myth that featured some of the same characters (Ulysses) and one mad giant unreadable book (Finnegans Wake). Tolkien, of course—The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1954-5) and The Silmarillion (1977)—did the same. But Joyce became the cornerstone of the academy's sense of what the novel in the 20th-Century means, and Tolkien, still largely academically neglected, became instead the favourite of the general non-academic reader, as per Tom Shippey's polemical, and wonderful, study: Tolkien: the Author of the Century. In many ways Tolkien, and the pulp-SF inheritors of H G Wells, shadow the trajectory of Joyce, and the high-art inheritors of the tradition of Henry James, through this period.

And that's peculiarly relevant to the broader argument I'm trying to pull together for this blog-post. Because the core fact about Tolkien, really the starting-point from which everything he wrote and imagined derived (even more fundamental than his deep philological passion for inventing languages) was his stated desire to reconstruct a mythology for England.

He felt the need to do this because, in Tom Shippey’s words, ‘England is the most de-mythologised nation on Earth’. Where the Greeks still have access to a more-or-less coherent sense of their body of ancient myths and religions, where the old Japanese myths and legends can still inform Japanese life and sense of self, where Native American or African ancient rituals and stories are still alive—and so on around the world—the aboriginal body of myth and religious practice of the English are barely recuperable (this state of affairs is a little less extreme for the Welsh, Scots and Irish). This has two causes: one, the Norman Invasion and the subsequent ruthlessness with which the invaders suppressed native culture in the service of maintaining their own stranglehold on power; and, two, the later Puritan revolution when, with Taliban-like single-mindedness, Cromwell’s regime went about the country extirpating as much of the old, pagan culture as they could (Tolkien added a third purgation to this narrative: the Industrial Revolution. But I’m not sure I agree with him on this. Mass industrialisation certainly had a deracinating effect on British culture and society, but my sense is that at such times people are more, not less, likely to revert to ancestral stories: and there was no focused attempt to destroy the ancient culture in the 19th-century—on the contrary this century saw the florescence of antiquarianism that began to search systematically into our lost past).

All we have left of our ‘original’ pre-Roman, pre-Norman culture and mythology are fragments. Sometimes these fragments snake their way into new forms. Arthurian myth and legend is all very fine and wonderful, but it is French, not English (Lancelot du Lac and so on) imported by the conquerors and written down for the benefit of an aristocratic audience of the ruling caste. But something of the ancient aboriginal myths of England surely inform the oral (rather than written) and peasant (not aristocratic) stories of Robin Hood, a kind of avatar of the Green Man of the Woods. Although the fuller understanding of what that character meant to the pre-conquest English is hard to pin-down. Why are there so many pubs across England called The Green Man? The people drinking in them couldn't tell you, although there is, presumably, something with quite deep roots in the collective-alcoholic-sacramental folk-history of this country that explains it.

Similarly, if we go back to our pre-conquest literature to try and understand the older picture we're faced with the fact that, though some Anglo Saxon literature has come down to us whole, lots hasn't, and much of this latter makes little sense because its context has been destroyed.

Tolkien found these shards extraordinarily compelling, and he accreted his own stories about those orphaned references. For example: Eärendil the Mariner who in The Silmarillion sails his magic boat across the sky with a shining Silmaril upon his brow, derives from the lines Tolkien found, orphaned from their larger Old English mythic or cultic context, in the Exeter Book:
éala éarendel      engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard      monnum sended ...
‘Hail Earendel! Brightest angel sent to man throughout middle-earth ...’ Who's this dude and what's his story? We just don't know. Tolkien took his expert's sense of what Earendel probably meant to the pre-conquest English, and fleshed out a story that makes him the son of men and of elves (‘Aiya Eärendil, elenion ancalima!’, ‘Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!’) that ties in to his larger mythography of magic jewels and the battle against evil. And, in a larger sense, the whole of Tolkien's legendarium is this: the restoration of a full mythic, cultural and narrative context for the bits and pieces or orphaned Anglo-Saxon that so moved him.

This is part of a much larger project for Tolkien. He saw the world as broken, but his interest was in trying to making it whole again. He believed healing is possible (specifically, he believed healing is possible through Christ, because his Catholic faith was a central part of who he was) and he wrote his fantasy to explore that conviction. This is the core thing that separates his art, and therefore the promiscuous body of commercial fantasy written in imitation of his art, from the High Modernist stream. And it's this that brings me back to Greek tragedy, and the reason why it so captured my spirit back when I was young: an individual broken, in my various unexceptional if painful ways, as I was and am; living in a society fragmented in a larger and more dangerous manner as we all are. The thought that healing might be possible evidently spoke to me profoundly, as it continues to do.

Because that's the thing about Greek tragedy: it almost always establishes a breach in order to heal the breach. Telephus is a play about a wounded king dressed in rags. Compare it with, let's say, King Lear: also a play about a wounded king dressed in rags. The difference is that the whole point of the Telephus is that the king is healed, and so the world is; where the point about Shakespeare's towering but remorseless masterpiece is that neither of those things can happen—the king's wits are permanently shattered when his pride crashes against the anvil of a world that won't bend to it—the kingdom is divided into pieces—Gloster's eyes are pulled out—and so on, and on. Euripides' play ends with a numinous wonder of the god himself, appearing on stage to seal the reconciliation; Shakespeare's ends with the few survivors unable even to speak what they ought to say, and trudging off in misery.

What's sometimes forgotten about Attic tragedy is that it was an integral part of a collective religious festival, a ritual by which the whole polis (except women, slaves and foreigners; but let's not get into that at the moment) came together to work vicariously through the way trauma is superceded by reconciliation, all presided over by the deity Dionysis, god of drama and also wine, that intoxicating and therefore sacramental quantity. Aeschylus's Agamemnon is a play about a rupture violently inflicted on the worlds of marriage, family and polis; but it is a mistake to treat this one drama in isolation, since the larger point of the Oresteia is tracing how, with what difficulties and compromises, the rupture is healed, and the terrors of the cosmos converted to kindly ones.

The Attic tragedy we have is fragmented in multiple ways: passages, singed and worn and pulled from the ground at Oxyrhnchus, lacking the rest of their play; individual plays missing the rest of their trilogies; drama missing the religious and political (versions of the same thing for ancient Greeks) contexts of ritualised communal coming-together. And we should not leave them, like those dead-eyed bleached-bone-coloured broken statues in the British Museum; we should restore them, give them back their wholeness and colour, as an act of devotion of the imagination.

To speak for myself, briefly, finally: Romantic and post-Romantic art has profoundly shaped who I am. I love Coleridge and his forms of ruin; I love High Modernism and postmodern irony. The three plays I picked out to restore were one early-ish, one mid-career and one late, but they also speak to this point of the fragment as such, the Schlegelian valorisation of it and the magic by which it can be healed. The Phaethon reaches back to the Romantic period in quite a specific way: since it was in 1820 that a papyrus containing almost all of the play's first choral ode was dug out of the desert sands, one of the first major finds of its kind—Goethe was so excited by this that he immediately translated the fragment (he went on to wrote something more complete on the subject). The Telephus, as I've been saying, is a play about a king with an unhealable wond who is magically healed by the weapon that injured him; and the Hypsipyle, which draws on a whole range of mythic sources, from Jason and the Argonauts to the Seven Against Thebes, tangles men and war, the death of a child (killed by a serpent at a holy spring) and the threatened death of an innocent old woman, to bring them all at the end into a sacred and harmonious conclusion, with Dionysis himself, theatre's own god, appearing as the play's deus ex machina to compel the order with which the play ends.

This is where, if I had patience, I'd move the argument into a new direction. Because my hunch is, and the case is, I think, there to be made, that 20th- and 21st-century Fantasy picks up on this Tolkienian (and we might say: this Attic) project of finding ways to heal. That Fantasy as a genre is in some sense about the tiny torn up pieces of our world as the ground out of which some manner of wholeness can, magically, be created. But that would be a lengthy argument and this post is lengthy enough. Whole sight, as the man once said, or all the rest is desolation.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Circe: Homer and Miller; Ovid and Vergil




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First, some thoughts on Madeline Miller's Circe (Lee Boudreaux US/Bloomsbury UK 2018), the follow-up to her internationally-lauded and bestselling debut, The Song of Achilles. That novel retold the story of the Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus. This new novel casts its net a little wider: Circe is our narrator, but Odysseus’s dalliance with her is only a small part of the tale's larger ambition.

Circe is a book of two halves, of unequal quality. The first is a rattle-bag of Greek myths, from Circe’s birth, fathered by the sun-god Helios, to her witnessing first-hand the punishment of Prometheus, from the turning of Scylla into a whirlpool monster who devours sailors (this metamorphosis is Circe’s doing: Miller follows Ovid 14 quite closely in her retelling here), to Daedalus, the birth of the Minotaur and the building of its labyrinth, to Theseus, and finally—on p.175 of this 340-page novel—to Odysseus's coming to stay. But his time on Circe’s island interests Miller relatively little. Although Circe responds to him as a lover and companion, by page 200 he's buggered off, back on his travels again.

And it’s after it has got this episode out of the way, as it were, that Miller's novel becomes considerably more interesting. Circe bears her departed lover a son (in some versions of her myth she has three sons by Odysseus, but Miller narrows to just the one, Telegonus). Athena tries to kill the lad, but Circe manages to protect him, and he grows to adult independence and sails off to find his father. This meeting doesn’t go well, as you’ll know if you’ve ever come across the fragmentary Greek epic the Telegony, by Eugammon of Cyrene—a poet whose name, it seems, means “good weddings” and not as I initially thought and I can be honest hoped, “a happy pig”.

Indeed, so markedly is Circe a book of two halves, and so much better is it in the second of those two, that I almost wish Miller had just cut the first eight or nine dozen pages altogether. What we get in that opening act is Circe’s first-person perspective on being a sort of outsider goddess, not quite divine enough for the Olympians or the other nymphs, mocked for her various inadequacies, unhappy and unrooted. She falls in love with a human fisherman called Glaucos (Miller’s transliterations from the Greek are, I have to say, not consistent between -os and -us) who is dazzled by her when he’s a mere mortal, but once she wangles an apotheosis for him he loses interest and goes gallivanting after more beautiful goddesses, breaking Circe’s heart in the process. Men, eh?

The problem with the first half is not just that it is bitty—although it is bitty, and indeed tessellates into so many barely consecutive episodes that I wonder how easily a reader unfamiliar with the original myths will follow the storyline. The problem I had was that Miller’s gods are just so underwhelming: so vain and hedonistic, petty and vapid. As characters they are thin as faces printed on gilt-edged cardboard. They glitter, but they lack all deeper splendour, and I think deliberately so.

Now: it’s not that this is invalid as a reading of the Greek gods as such. It’s just that actual Greek myth and literature leavens the shallowness of the gods as subjects with something numinous, something that hovers on the edge of the terrifying. Miller’s gods never really achieve this. Instead there’s a lot of Dallas/Dynasty décor: ‘the floors, the shining walls and inland tables’ [5]; ‘huge torches carbuncled with jewels glowed from the walls’ [14]; ‘my father gathered us across the sea in his golden chariot to Minos’ great palace at Knossos. The walls were new-plastered …’ [26]; a nymph ‘holding her pearls, big as apples, up to my face’ [46]; Aeëtes sitting ‘serene on his couch drinking from his wrought-gold cup’ [61] ... there is, indeed, a lot of gold (‘golden sandals gleamed’ 79; ‘I set the golden basin on the floor’ 143; ‘her golden eyes pierced mine’ 147 and so on) together with all the bag and baggage of Russian-oligarch or dictator-in-aviator-shades aesthetic kitsch. It’s fun, in its way, but it’s also as depthless as an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

At first Circe is a reporter on the sidelines of this shallowverse, this parade of supernaturally empowered vanity and appetite. But in the second half of the novel the centre of gravity of the storytelling shifts away from the Olympians towards the ordinary day-to-day of Circe on her island, raising her son, cooking and cleaning, getting on with things. What starts as a fable about exile becomes a story about how we make and maintain a home, and when Circe welcomes Penelope, now widowed, and Odysseus's son Telemachus to share the island with her it becomes a story about the solidity of companionship in contrast with the sharper ups-and-downs of the novel's earlier representation of erotic love. What works particularly well here is Miller's expert way with banality. It could have backfired, but somehow it doesn't. After all the gold and monstrosity of its first half, the novel's shift to describing the world in terms of a wet bank holiday weekend by the seaside is surprisingly effective:
I set out lunch and we ate in near silence. The rain tapered off. I could not bear the thought of being shut up all afternoon and drew my son out for a walk along the shore. The sand was hard and wet, and our footprints looked as thought they had been cut with a knife. I linked my arm through his and was surprised when he let it stay. It was only a little after midday, yet something in the air felt dusky and obscuring, like a veil across my eyes. [Circe, 275]
The novel ends on a pair of deliberate withdrawals from the world of gods and magic. In the original myth, the fates of Telemachus and Telegonus are bound-up with Aeneas's settlement of Italy and the future glory of Rome (Telegonus supposedly founded Tusculum, and Telemachus, depending on which mythographer you follow, was either the father of Aeneas's future father-in-law Latinus, or the husband of Aeneas's future daughter Roma). And near the end of Miller's Circe, Pallas Athena manifests in a cloud of ‘aureate sparks’ to pronounce to these men their manifest destiny:
Her voice changed, gilding itself. ‘Zeus has foretold that a new empire will arise in the West. Aeneas is fled there with his remnant Trojans, and I would have Greeks balance and hold them at bay. The land is fertile and rich, thick with beasts of the field and forest, overhung with fruits of every kind. You will found a prosperous city there, you will build stout walls and set down laws to hold back the tide of savagery. You will seed a great people who will rule in ages to come. I have gathered good men from across our lands and set them on a ship. They arrive this day to bear you to your future.’ [Circe, 304]
But here Miller goes off piste from her mythic sources. Telemachus's unexpected non serviam (‘he did not flinch from her gaze: “I do not desire such a life”’) absolutely infuriates Athena: ‘if you refuse me all glory will leave you ... there will be no songs made of you. No stories. Do you understand? You will live a life of obscurity. You will be without a name in history. You will be no-one.’ Miller's point is that a creature like Athena is simply incapable of comprehending that the conscious acceptance of such erasure is one of the strengths available to mortals.
‘I choose that fate,’ he said. Disbelief shone on her cold, beautiful face. How many times in her eternity had she been told no? She could not parse it ...

‘You are a fool,’ she spat. ‘You are lucky I do not kill you where you stand. I spare you out of love for your father, but I am patron to you no more.’

The glory that had shone upon him vanished. He looked shriveled without it, grey and gnarled as olive bark. I was as shocked as Athena. What had he done? [Circe, 305]
Though initially shocked, it's not long before Circe herself is also withdrawing from the world of the gods, repudiating her father, sun-god Helios.
‘You have always been the worst of my children,’ he said. ‘Be sure you do not dishonour me.’

‘I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.’

His body was rigid with wrath. He looked as though he had swallowed a stone, and it choked him.

‘Give Mother my greetings,’ I said.

His jaw bit down and he was gone. [Circe, 313]
I liked this ending very much: it reminded me, in a way, of Eliot's beautiful narrative elusion at the end of Middlemarch, where we step away from stories to untold, unhistoric acts and life lived faithfully as a hidden thing that ends in an unvisited tomb.

Now, although in one sense (a real consideration, this, I think) this defeats the purpose of the novel as a whole—because the bulk of Circe is in complicated love with exactly the glory and glamour here repudiated—it does at least bring things to a formally appropriate conclusion. After all, the proper business of the novel is the mundane (just as that of epic verse is grandeur and divinity), and that's where Miller eventually steers her ship.


:2:

Nonetheless, I finished Circe with a sense of something missing, an opportunity missed. This is, I daresay, my problem rather than the novel's; and what I'm about to say might be thought to miss the very obvious (and very commendable) feminist point of Miller's exercise, to give a voice to a woman otherwise marginalised, to re-centre the masculinist bias of the original mythos. She certainly achieves that. But something of the limitation in her representation of her Olympians seeps into her central portrait too. Circe as the dangerous witch, skilled in potions and a terror to men, is told rather than shown. If Miller's Circe ends up as a homely character that's, in part, because Miller is specifically setting-out to tell a story about a woman who makes her own home. Still: I wonder if Circe becomes just too likeable. Likeability is part of the logic of ‘the novel’ as such, too, I suppose; but it dilutes the force of this work as a whole, I think.

Homer's account of Circe (with which Miller is of course in dialogue here) is the most famous; but it's not as detailed as Ovid's account, in Metamorphosis book 14; and Miller draws on that lengthier and more detailed account for her novel too. By expanding the Homeric episode, and with her fascination with the shining surfaces of things, the aureate gleam of gods' skin, the shifting argent of the surface of the sea, Miller is much more an Ovidian than a Homeric artist, I think. Not that that's a bad thing! But (having read Circe, and thinking about my reaction to it) it has brought home to me something important about my own aesthetic. I like Ovid plenty, I should say; and given how deeply imbued in Ovid our greatest writer was, and seeing what marvels Shakespeare was able to forge out of that source material, owning an Ovidian influence is nothing to be ashamed of. But still: Ovid doesn't reach the depths of me the way Vergil does. Why might that be, I wonder?

Does mentioning Vergil, here, look like a non-sequitur? It shouldn't. Circe also appears, if briefly, in the Aeneid. In book 6, Aeneas visits the underworld, having seen both the punished distorted into tortuous shapes by the consequences of their sinfulness, and the blissful existence of the blessed. Book 7 starts by addressing one more dead person: Aeneas's old nurse Caieta. He buries her on a piece of coastline that subsequently becomes the promontory and town of Caieta. Then he sails off:
At pius exsequiis Aeneas rite solutis,
aggere composito tumuli, postquam alta quierunt
aequora, tendit iter velis portumque relinquit.
Adspirant aurae in noctem nec candida cursus
Luna negat, splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus.
Proxima Circaeae raduntur litora terrae,
dives inaccessos ubi Solis filia lucos
adsiduo resonat cantu tectisque superbis
urit odoratam nocturna in lumina cedrum,
arguto tenuis percurrens pectine telas.
Hinc exaudiri gemitus iraeque leonumv
vincla recusantum et sera sub nocte rudentum,
saetigerique sues atque in praesaepibus ursi
saevire ac formae magnorum ululare luporum,
quos hominum ex facie dea saeva potentibus herbis
induerat Circe in voltus ac terga ferarum.
Quae ne monstra pii paterentur talia Troes
delati in portus neu litora dira subirent,
Neptunus ventis implevit vela secundis
atque fugam dedit et praeter vada fervida vexit
. [Aeneid, 7:5-24]

So pious Aeneas, having performed those last rites,
and smoothed the mound over the grave, as a hush
lies over the high seas, unfurls his sails and leaves the harbour.
Breezes blow through the night, white light speeds them on
a gift of the Moon, the sea glitters with a tremulous radiance.
Soon they are skirting the shoreline of Circe's land,
where the rich daughter of the Sun makes
her untrodden groves echo with ceaseless song;
nightlong her shining palace is sweet with burning cedarwood,
as she drives her shuttle, weaving delicate textiles.
And from far away you can hear angry lions
chafing at their fetters and roaring in the deep night,
and bears and bristle-backed hogs in their pens,
raging, and huge-bodied wolves howling aloud;
these are men who, eating her magical herbs,
the deadly divine Circe had disfashioned into beasts.
To save the good Trojans from so hideous a change,
prevent them from stopping on those ominous shores,
Neptune fills their sails with favourable winds,
and hurries them, sweeping them past the seething shallows.
That's my line-by-line translation; and inadequate as it is, it gives some indication of the quality, the vibe, of alluring-terrifying otherness in Circe's presence in the world that Miller's novel, for all its merits, smooths out. The eerie calls of the magically bestialised men, resounding over the moonlit sea; a yearning and strangeness in the very heart of things. Sunt lacrimae rerum is one of the most famous of Vergilian tags, but Vergil's great poem has always struck me as much more about strangeness than sorrow. It understands, on a deep level, how strange it is that newness comes into the world at all: how empires are created anew out of their fall; how widowers, though wholly dedicated to the memory of their beloved wives, nonetheless fall in love again, marry again, have new children. How strange it is that death, which really ought by definition to be the end of things, somehow—isn't. The Latin novitas means both ‘novelty, newness, freshness’ and also ‘strangeness’, and Aeneas's Troynovant is as much Strange-Troy as it is ‘Troy renewed’. More, this is for Vergil all bound up on his apprehension of the weirdness of the ways divinity interacts with the mundane. The strange ways it manifests, the stranger fact that it manifests at all (this also obsessed Graham Greene: a good half of his novels are about what Brighton Rock calls ‘the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’).

Poking around online, trying to get my thoughts in order to write this blogpost, I came across the following letter, written by Charles Martindale to the London Review of Books in June 1984, responding to Tom Paulin's (fascinating) review of various books on poetry and translation. One of the books Paulin reviews is Charles Tomlinson's Poetry and Metamorphosis (Cambridge University Press 1983), and Martindale isn't sure Paulin has been quite fair to it.
Tom Paulin, in his interesting if rather churlish review of Charles Tomlinson’s admirable Poetry and Metamorphosis, at times resorts to just that species of urbane cultural waffle of which he seems to accuse Tomlinson. I do not know what it means to say that Dryden’s Virgil is more important than his Ovid because he wrote it for his country’s ‘honour’, or because, ‘perhaps, all verse translation must begin and end with a version of the Aeneid.’ I do know that the Ovid translations are at once truer images of their original and more alive as English verse. It is hard to find in the Virgil a passage to match the imaginative energies of the englishing of (say) the Flood or Daphne’s metamorphosis into laurel. The reason is not far to seek: however much Dryden may have aspired to be the English Virgil, he was anima naturaliter Ovidiana – the glittering surfaces of the Metamorphoses were closer to him than the numinous opacities of Virgil could ever be. Moreover, Ovid had been a far more pervasive presence in English letters, from Chaucer to Milton, than Virgil, who, as R. M. Ogilvie has remarked, is perhaps too religious for the majority of Englishmen and too little Humanist. (Significantly, it was the Anglo-Catholic T.S. Eliot who, in a potent piece of myth-making, re-asserted the claim for Virgil’s ‘adequacy’ and cultural centrality.)
Reading that, the phrase, ‘the glittering surfaces of the Metamorphoses were closer to him than the numinous opacities of Virgil’, went through me like a spear. Exactly! Or to be precise, that's it in reverse: irreligious as I am, the numinous opacities of Vergil speak to me much more forcefully than Ovid's glittering surfaces. And numinous opacity is precisely what's missing from Margaret Miller's otherwise fascinating novelistic dramatic monologue of her not-quite-goddess.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Medieval Church Graffiti



These circular designs (all from East Anglian churches, although similar graffiti can be found in churches across Britain) were inscibed onto church walls as ‘ritual protection marks’. The image is from this BBC History Extra blogpost on the phenomenon, which includes many other fascinating designs.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Twenty-Four-Book Aeneid



I've read many translations of the Aeneid. I've even, from time to time, had a go at translating bits and pieces from the original myself so I know how hard that job is to do well. And Sarah Ruden, in her 2009 Yale edition, does it exceptionally well. This may be the best verse version of the poem I know, actually: a line-for-line rendering written in nimble, expressive blank verse that manages to compress Vergil's more capacious hexameters without losing force or specificity, and which over and over finds clever, eloquent solutions to the many translation problems this tricky text presents. (Since we're on the subject I might add: I also rate Robert Fitzgerald's verse, and David West's prose, translations.)

Today, though, I'm not blogging about her translation, but rather about a passing comment Ruden makes at the beginning of her introduction:


So far as I can tell, this notion that Vergil originally planned a 24-book Aeneid is entirely Ruden's invention. We know (from Donatus) that Vergil on his deathbed considered the poem unfinished: but that was a matter of ~60 incomplete hexameter lines and a general polishing and finishing-up, not a whole unwritten second half.

I do find myself, nonetheless, intrigued by her idea. What would a 24-book Aeneid even look like? All that's left to tell of Aeneas's life is: marrying Lavinia and founding his city Lavinium, fathering his son Silvius, succeeding Latinus as king of the Latins and finally being apotheosed into heaven by his mother Venus. There's not twelve books of epic verse in that little story: Maffeo Vegio fits the whole thing into six hundred hexameters in his Aeneid 13, and even that reads a little, shall we say, slackly. We could, maybe, spin it out into three books: one detailing the aftermath of the death of Turnus, one the founding of Lavinium and the birth of Silvius and one the passing of Aeneas.

That leaves us nine epic books to fill. Since one thing I would certainly never do is waste my, and everybody else's, time by actually writing a blank-verse second-half-of-the-Aeneid, I feel uninhibited from suggesting the following contents list:
Book 13: The burning of Ardea; Aeneas reconciled with Latinus
Book 14: The founding of Lavinium
Book 15: Aeneas rules for three years and ascends to the heavens
Book 16: Ascanius founds Alba Longa
Book 17: Silvius
Book 18: Tiberinus and the river
Book 19: Romulus Silvius: pride and punishment
Book 20: Numitor and Amulius and the births of Romulus and Remus;
Book 21: Romulus and Remus come to manhood
Book 22: The Founding of Rome
Book 23: The killing of Remus
Book 24: Remus's appears as a ghost and prophesies future glories.
That would more or less work, I think; and though it would shift the centre of gravity of the epic away from Aeneas as such, there's no evidence that The Aeneid was even Vergil's preferred title. Maybe he was working on a Romiad all along.


Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Aeneid 13



[This is a translation of Maffeo Vegio's once-celebrated continuation of Vergil's epic. The original Latin is here. Vegio (1407-58) was born near Milan, studied law at the University of Pavia and then tried to recruit the Duke of Milan as patron by writing him flattering poems. When that didn't work he used his contacts to obtain a position under Pope Eugenius IV, first as a papal abbreviator and later canon of the Basilica of San Pietro. His Aeneid XIII, sometimes called the Supplement, was an early production—Vegio wrote it in 1428, and went on to write more than fifty other things. It proved extremely popular, and its popularity endured for many centuries. Indeed, it was often included in Renaissance editions of the Aeneid as if integral to the poem. 

The 630-line poem picks up the story directly from the end of Aeneid 12: the Trojan prince Aeneas has escaped the destruction of Troy and brought his people, and his penates or household gods, through many dangers to make a new home in Italy. King Latinus, a native ruler, welcomes him: a peace-treaty is signed and Latinus offers his daughter Lavinia to Aeneas as bride. Other inhabitants of Italy, though, are hostile; and one, the Rutulian prince Turnus, breaks the peace-treaty and makes war on the Trojans. He was engaged to Lavinia before the Trojans arrived, and resents his future-bride being taken from him. If books 1-6 of the Aeneid, detailing the Trojans journey from Troy to Italy, are Vergil's Odyssey, then books 7-12 are his Iliad: mostly given over to lengthy accounts of fighting and killing.

In standard epic style, Vergil gives his characters epithets; and the one that most particularly attaches to Aeneas is pius: a descriptor poorly rendered by the English word ‘pious’—although that is its etymological descendent in our tongue. For a Roman pietas was a complex of religious fidelity, duty (especially duty to one's family), virtue and compassionate respect for others. One of the adventures Aeneas has on his journey to Italy is a descent into the Underworld during which he meets the ghost of his father Anchises, who offers him a glimpse of Rome's future glory. ‘Your task, Roman,’ Anchises tells him, ‘and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts—to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to spare the defeated and war down the proud’ [this is David West's translation of Aeneid 6:851-3]. In the climax to the poem Aeneas and Turnus fight in single combat, and Aeneas wins. Turnus surrenders, but then Aeneas kills him anyway in a sudden access of rage. Notionally he does this because he catches sight, on Turnus' kneeling body, of a trophy the Rutulian took when he killed an Italian youth called Pallas; but this seems a thin motivation. Unlike the Homeric prototype for this scene, when Achilles pitilessly cuts-down Hector because Hector had killed his lover Patroclus, Aeneas barely knew Pallas. At any rate this apparent violation of his duty as a Roman to spare the defeated, this act of Aeneas's so seemingly opposed to his pietas, has troubled many generations of readers and commentators. It seems an oddly jarring note on which to end the poem, and it especially bugged Renaissance readers, who wanted to take Aeneas as a flawless model for kingship in the world. It's this problematic, really, that Vegio's supplement to Vergil addresses.

I first read Aeneid 13 in Michael C. J. Putnam's handy prose translation (it's in his Maffeo Vegio: Short Epics, a volume in the I Tatti Renaissance Library, Harvard University Press 2004), but I don't think there's been a modern verse translation. At any rate I wanted to know the poem better, and the best way to really get to know a poem is by translating it. What follows is, pretty much, a line-by-line rendering, and I've tried to respect Vegio's frequent enjambments (something he copies from Vergil, who also does it a lot), although since I naturally wanted to avoid weird or archaic word-order inversions, and since the Latin word-order would, in many cases, look merely jumbled if translated directly into English, I've had to undertake some shifting about. Nonetheless, I think this is a pretty close rendering. All except for the reference in line 107 of course. But otherwise.]



As Turnus, fallen in the war's last battle,
gushed his life out, the victor stood with his men:
magnaminous Aeneas, triumphant hero;
and all the astonished Latins groaned aloud
bitter sorrow from the core of their beings,
their minds collapsed, like a huge, leaf-fringed
grove of trees flattened by north wind's tumult.
They drive their spears into the earth, lean on swords,
slough shields from shoulders and curse war
the madness of their infatuation with Mars:                      [10]
they can't refuse prisoners' chains and neck-yokes,
and only pray now for peace and an end to evil.
It's like when two great bulls in bitter enmity
charge at one another, colliding in a mess of gore,
and each herd supports their champion, until
one wins, and the cattle who backed the loser
now willingly offer obedience to the victor,
they, though sorrow gouge their minds, submit.
That was the Rutulians now: as huge sadness
hurts their hearts, and their lord's death terrifies them,       [20]
they bend to the strength of Phrygian Aeneas, treat
for peace, and hope for a final end to war.

Standing over Turnus's corpse, his voice calm,
Aeneas speaks: “What madness hatched in you?
What Troy-hatred? We are sent by the Great
Thunderer himself! Why, people of Daunus,
expel us from Italy, our promised home?
Learn to honour Jove and follow gods' commands!
Jove's lasting anger won't forget such evil:
it incites the judgment of the gods. This end                     [30]
you brought on yourself, consequence of your mad
treaty-breach, of forcing hardship onto us.
Be advised: your days will serve as lesson
in times to come; it is insane to scorn Jove,
and set the world on fire with war's arid frenzy.
What joy in your weapons now? Ah, noble corpse,
dead Turnus: Lavinia won't lightly be yours;
No shame in falling to Aeneas' strong right hand!
Rutulians, take your lord, armour and body,
much honoured in the sad doom of his death.                   [40]
Take everything but Pallas' heavy belt, which
I will send to Evander as a solace,
to celebrate his great foe Turnus's death.
Ausonians, take from this one lesson:
war needs better causes! I swear on the stars,
I never wanted war, to send in troops:
but, driven by your fury, I had to defend
the integrity of my Trojan people.”

Having spoken Aeneas joyfully turned
presented himself to the tall Trojan city.                            [50]
A mass of younger Teucrians rush out
flowed joyfully towards him, spurring their
fast horses, hurling sharp words at the Latins
mocking them as cowards. Applause fills the sky.
And though unburied bodies require rites,
and setting funeral pyres pressed on his mind,
Aeneas knew a higher duty, and ordered
honours paid first at the gods' own altars.
By ancient custom they sacrifice fat bulls
at the temples, and pigs and pure white sheep,                  [60]
spilling the beasts' red blood upon the ground.
They pull out entrails, cut carcasses in chunks, spit
the meat and thrust it in the flowing flames.
They fill bowls with wine, Lyaeus-Bacchus' gift,
heap offerings; replete, to do right homage.
Incense burns in the fire. The laden altar smokes.
Praise thrums the houses: the Great Thunderer
is hymned; Venus too; and you Saturnian Juno,
—such high praise summons a serener glory—
and Mars exalted too, and all the gods                               [70]
are raised to the heights, summoned with voices
to the pearl-hued heavens.

                                               Gentlest of them all,
Aeneas, raised his hands skyward, palms up;
and embracing his young son Iulus, said:
“Son, you've been my one hope through all the trials
the complexities of fate I've brought us through.
Here is our resting place, misfortune's end,
our most yearned-for and our ever-welcome,
this looked-for day. When I waged hard war,
I knew the gods ensured our future: how                           [80]
could I forget! Now, when tomorrow's dawn
glows red, you'll go in glory to the Rutulian walls.”
Then turning a kind eye on the massed Trojans
he sent serene words out from his broad chest:
“O comrades, you've passed hard and deadly dangers,
come through fire and the doubled madness of war,
through many winters, and all the bitterness,
shocking hardship, oppression and iniquity.
Turn your minds away from cruel misfortunes
to today! The happy end! What we build here                    [90]
will last: we'll ally with the Latin peoples
in peace; my wife Lavinia will prove
haven from harsh war, Italian blood mixed
with that of Troy, and so passed to eternity.
Friends I ask one thing: treat the Ausonians fair,
unify, respect our father-in-law, Latinus.
He will wield the mighty scepter: it's my will
and decree. More, in my excellence of arms
and piety learn to follow me. What glory
we've accrued! I call sky and stars to witness                     [100]
I, who rescued all of you from nests of evils,
will lead you potently on, to greater gains.”

As he spoke his mind recalled the dangers
now behind them all, and the peace they'd won,
and he flared up with a blazing love for
his Trojans, joyous they were free at last
from danger: as when, falling stukha-swift
to seize the tiny nestlings a kite swoops
shrieking greedily and spreading havoc:
mother-bird, her feathered heart shaking fear,                    [110]
rises to defend her poor chicks from this terror
sharpens her beak as best she can—attacks,
forcing his retreat at last by her sheer verve;
then, clucking with worry, she searches, scared
for her panicked chicks, her little darlings,
glad of their survival, now rescued from danger.
Just so Anchises' son soothed his Trojans,
with friendly words, revisiting old fears
once heart-anxieties, now joys brought forth
at last from evil, taking pleasure now                                 [120]
in what had been a trial. Tallest among men
powerfully-built, most brilliant Aeneas
renowned for virtue, he offers prayers to gods,
extolling most of all the highest Jove.

Meanwhile, the Rutulian funeral march
carried their lifeless leader to their city:
all minds were gripped by sorrow, rainy tears
showering from eyes. The wailing reached Latinus
age-worn and grizzled, brooding many dangers:
he was overwhelmed by their high keening,                        [130]
and when he looked on Turnus, saw his wound—
he wept aloud before the procession,
and called for silence with his hand and words.
As a boar spurts foaming blood when bitten
by the lead hound that has seized it, and the rest
of the dog-pack, excited by the beast's fate
run in frantic circles barking at their keeper,
greeting the spurting blood with clamoured shouts,
until, responsive to the trainer's hand and word
the whole pack settles, stops its noise, controlled.               [140]
So the Ardean Rutulians settle at his voice.

Heartfelt tears still falling, the Latin king
began: “how frail the scepter's transient pride;
How crazily does fate swing us around
whirlwinds the lives of men! Desire for power,
where do you blindly lead us? Where, glory, with such
danger, do you take our swaggering minds?
How many traps, how many snares, what evil
takes us? what arms, how many swords were there              [150]
that we were blind to? Oh sweet poison, dire
devotion to the world! Alas, sad throne
so costly to be held, the heaviness
of rulership which can never pledge peace,
and never bring tranquillity! Ach, bitter lot
of piteous royalty in a world of fears
that swarm at kings never to be denied!
Why, Turnus, did you bring this grief to Italy,
compel Aeneas' people to hard war?
What pleasure is there in defying sacred                               [160]
treaties? What huge impatience gripped your spirit
to battle a god's son, whom the Thunderer
himself summoned,—to chase him from our homes?
Outrage the promised pledge of my daughter
as Aeneas' wife? flaunt my express command
and raise your hand in war? What madness webbed
your mind? Why were you moved by savage Mars
on horseback in radiant armour, leading men,
though my anxiety rebuked you, urged restraint,
and called you back again to our threshold?                          [170]
How badly that played out our cities show,
half-wrecked, our wide fields glinting with white bones
and Latium deprived of rightful strength, a huge
ruin, rivers running red with human blood
these long, trembling terrors, this hard labour
which we city elders have so often endured.
Now, Turnus, there you lie! where's your youth now?
your glory, your once-famous mental sharpness?
Your honour? The imago of your decency?
Ach! such bitter tears does Daunus shed for you,                  [180]
Turnus! a river of them flows from Ardea!
And though our town won't see this cruel wound
it will at least have this bare comfort: that
your death came from the sword of Trojan Aeneas.”

He spoke as tears poured out and drenched his cheeks.
Facing the crowd, he ordered the wretched body
lifted up and borne into the bleak city,
charging it be done with all proper honours.
Quickly a surrounding crowd of Rutulians
moved the young corpse onto a hefty bier,                            [190]
piled with spoils previously taken from Trojans:
helmets and horses, swords and other weapons.
Chariots still slick with Phrygian blood follow;
weeping Metiscus slowly leads the horse
wet with the flow of its own tears, that once
carried raging Turnus to attack his foes.
Others come, their weapons held inverted; youths
trudging, wailing, wetting their breasts with tears.
And now they plod exhausted through night's silence
beating their breasts; and with slow step, Latinus                 [200]
makes towards the palace, thoughts desolate.
All the mothers weep, the young boys and old men
agitated and sad, fill the city with their groans.

But Daunus, ignorant of the pain to come,
not knowing war had deleted his son
was led by the sound of weeping to the walls,
already anxious with other cares and troubles.
For as the Latins were off being defeated
and Turnus soiled the ground with his hot blood
a fire had gashed through the high walls of the city;             [210]
Ardea was smoking, the father's palace ruined
reduced to clouds of ash and starbright embers
swirling upwards, no hope of salvation.
It was the gods' will—or maybe Turnus'
fate foreshadowed itself here, cut down by war.
Distraught, minds crushed, the anguished citizens
battered their chests in grief at this iniquity
this disaster. Mothers in their long dresses,
hurrying out, fleeing the hungry flames.
When ants, in black cohorts, struggle at a task                      [220]
beneath a tall tree, home-making in its root,
until a sharp axe breaks into their labour,
sundering and smashing-up their tiny
homes cruelly, at once they vie with each other
running out and around in desperate panic;
—or a tortoise upended, feeling fire's heat
on its flesh, wildly kicking its struggling feet,
thrashing its tail in panic, jerking its head,
trying over and again to escape as it burns;
in just that way the wretched citizenry                                  [230]
scattered confusedly in tumult of mind.

Before his people Daunus raised his voice,
an old man complaining to the gods above.
An omen was seen: from the midst of the flames,
a bird beat its wings and flew up into air,
the city's very name—Ardea means heron.
That which once stood as walls and soaring towers
changes, streaming on with outspread wings.
All stood stunned by this divine miracle
shoulders drooped and faces were perplexed,                       [240]
and Daunus, with ardent love of his country,
suppressed the spasm of his suffering heart.
The crowd heard that some marching men were coming—
Rumour herself flew down to panic hearts.
A soldier's death-march was approaching;
Turnus was dead, overwhelmed by a great wound.
A troubled crowd assembled, carrying black-shaft
torches according to custom: fields alight,
glistening with fire, joined with those who came.
After the mothers saw the advancing column                       [250]
they clapped their hands and sent shrieks to the stars.

Daunus saw his son's funeral procession ,
stood, seized with an immense and wrenching grief,
then suddenly cast himself amongst that company
clasped Turnus's corpse tight on the ground and
as soon as grief permitted speech, he said:
“Son, a father's pain, a tired and sad old age
all calm now shattered: dragged by those same dangers
which you drew to you, crushed by force of arms!
What has your outstanding spirit brought me?                      [260]
Is this the prize of virtue, power's glory?
This empire's magnificence? these the triumphs;
won by my son? Is this the balm you promised me
for my afflictions, the longed-for end of labours?
Oh! misery. Precipitous is the fall
that the fast-revolving ages bring about!
You, famous claimant to the highest honours,
Latium's right hand, whose armed strength the Trojans,
found so punishing, time and time again;
now, my Turnus, you lie dead, too sadly so;                         [270]
your once-sweet voice silenced; none handsomer
in the whole of Ausonia, none more graceful
or eloquent, nor more impressive when armed.
My son, where is your beauty's radiance, your brow's
fine shape, your eyes' tender glance, your long
neck's proud height? Did the glory of Mars
require such offering as this? You prepared
for war so eagerly and to this end?
Ach, hateful death, you who blunt the lifted
vengeance-weapons of our collective spirit                          [280]
you rule all nations, your contract never fails;
You level both the great and lowly man, the brave
and cowardly, captain and crew, old, young.
Obliterating death, for what gross cause
have you withdrawn my son from me, pierced with
this wound? Ah, lucky Amata, rejoice
that you are dead, my wife: these huge sorrows,
this endless pain-mnemonic, are things spared.
to you. How else torment a heartsick father,
you gods above? My son dead, Ardea burning                       [290]
overturned, consumed to ash, its wings batter
the sky. Oh my son, bloodsoaked Turnus!
Your old father's life still waits its end.
a pitiable creature whom the savage gods,
incensed by violent hatred, hound and torture
until he is destroyed. So fate turns the world.”
He finished speaking, and his drenching tears
covered his cheek, hard sorrow from his heart:
As if Jove's eagle seized with strong talons
a small fawn, ripped and sprayed its blood,                          [300]
whilst mother-deer looked on her baby's death.

Broad daylit brightness filled the world anew.
Father Latinus could see the doom Mars
inflicted on the faltering Italians, and
that fate favoured Aeneas. The storm of battle
preyed on his mind, and his duty to the pact:
to marriage and his daughter's plighted troth.
He calls forth men to represent their city,
chosen for their excellence, and sends
a thousand envoys to the Trojan chief
that worthiest commander. He adds togaed                           [310]
speakers to the deputation, with precise
orders—“since the gods' own auspices command
that Trojan and Italian blood be mixed
so both can share their destinies in peace:
invite Aeneas' folk inside the city.”

He takes his broken nation and his people,
shores them up, adds courage to their spirits;
pledges that enduring peace will come.
decrees a triumph soon will be paraded,
and decorates the royal palace with tributes;                        [320]
Cheerfully he urges them to unity—
to greet his son-in-law wholeheartedly
receive the Trojan people with acclaim, and
sing out in joy at peace's restoration.

His cohort now approached the Trojan camp,
Hair tied and olive-sprigged, suing for peace.
Aeneas orders them brought to his quarters
and cheerfully he asks why they have come.

Then aged Drances, obviously happy
at Turnus' death, began his heartfelt                                     [330]
speech: “Oh, famous ruler of the Trojans;
Phrygia's hope and glory, whose piety
and strength surpasses all: we testify
before all deities with what reluctance
Latinus watched Latium ignore him,
to break its treaty: he respected Phrygians.
and since the powers above decreed his daughter
should marry you, he embraced that union.
What has been wrought by chaotic hot war,
the furious effort of the work, its trials—                             [340]
was all just Turnus' mad hunger for the fight,
his headstrong fury. All against our will
he consigned the Latin people to the fray.
The army all beseeched him with the plea
to yield and keep the treaty, that Anchises'
mighty son might marry; and, though old,
Latinus clutched his shaking hands in prayer
begged him, although on fire with Mars's fury.
But neither our impassioned prayers, nor omens
of the gods could change his stubborn spirit.                       [350]
His mouth spewed fire, a wild beast for battle.
At least his violence finds its proper end,
stretched before you now, his vanquisher, biting
black soil. Now in the deepest depths of
Tartarus let him explore the possibilities
of other battleplans, of other marriages.
May you, the better man, accept Laurentian suit.
You are the hope of tired Latinus' house;
Italians see you soar beyond the golden
stars, armed by gods, revered for might in war.                   [360]
Their celebration marks a simple truth.
We are yours: the solemn throng of fathers
the worn-out men, the happy youths are yours;
the eager mothers, single boys and girls;
unanimous in relief that Turnus fell
to the force of your arms. We entreat you,
all Italy exalts you with its praise;
All eyes are fixed on you. Father Latinus
has now just one task left in his long life
to join his daughter to you, and ensure                                [370]
the mix of Trojan and Italian blood.
Therefore, come great leader of the Teucrians
Come in, and take the honours promised you.”

He ended: and all clamoured their approval.
Good Aeneas, turning to those who cheered
returned their greeting with choice words of friendship:
“I don't blame you, or Latinus who I know
wants peace. The wrath of this unbalanced Turnus
is to blame—together with his glory-lust
surely brought about this chain of events.                           [380]
Ausonians, I do not refuse the pact
the marriage and the sacred peace ensured
by this new union. My father-in-law
will remain king, my Trojans build for me
a new city, named after your daughter, home
to our household gods. Our legacy will be
a harmony of laws, and great hearts one in love.
Meanwhile, let's build pyres for the pitiable
bodies of the dead, whom war's insanity
have snatched away. Then, with tomorrow's clear              [390]
dawn light, let us rebuild Laurentian homes.”

He finished speaking and the whole crowd gazed
in awe at such an august instance of
his celebrated pietas; they heaped huge beams
for funeral pyres, and set the fires
cremating fallen countrymen. Smoke drifts high
and the sky above becomes a murky darkness,
countless sheep are sacrificed, black-headed
cattle slaughtered, and placed on these pyres.
The wide fields are blasted by the burning.                       [400]
A storm of lamentation fills the air.

Now, Phoebus's clear gold light had raised the day;
Teucrian and Ausonian men in battle gear
mounted their horses and rode straight to
that high-walled city, upright Laurentium
led by dutiful Aeneas and Drances
the old man recalling many memories; next came
Ascanius; and great-souled old Aletes;
llioneus, Mnestheusque, sharp Serestus
Sergestus, strong Gyas, Cloanthus as strong.                      [410]
Mingled Italians-Teucrians followed behind.

Hurrying citizens streamed along the walls,
nobility jostling with ordinary civilians
in eagerness to see the coming Trojans.
And, all his worries put to rest, Latinus
with a large crowd gladly received them all.
When he saw in the coming procession
Dardanian Aeneas, his true image
far surpassing all report, tall and fine
radiating a prince's charisma from eyes                              [420]
as bright as stars. Soon it was time for talk
after they clasped hands to welcome one another,
a meeting long anticipated. Latinus begins:
“At last you've come; we are not disappointed
of our hearts' hope, light of the Trojan nation,
you who, following the mighty gods' orders
settle in Italy, under our own roofs:
though inhuman chaos sought furiously.
to derange law and invite a divine wrath;
endangering even me against my will,                                [430]
forcing me to endure the rush of Mars.
We paid no small price for this; heaven's lawful
angry powers punished us dreadfully.
But, Trojan leader, since the source, the author
of rebellion is no more; let us proceed to
marriage, to union, and the promised wedding.
Though I have kingdoms, other towns with walls:
my daughter is my one hope for old age;
I embrace you, son and son-in-law combined.”

Then good Aeneas said: “Great king, I don't                      [440]
blame you for our conflict. No one believes
your love for sacred peace could lead to tumult;
Banish worry from your mind, dear father, please.
Now, here, I gladly claim you as both father-in-law
and father; a mighty vision rises up—
Anchises! I burn anew with love for a father.”

Joined to one another they entered the royal
palace; mothers and girls streamed out to greet them;
fathers and squads of youths, eager to gaze
on the handsome bodies of the Trojan men.                        [450]
Above all, they want to see the great Aeneas,
high-spirited, his heritage and his fine brow,
to praise this time of peace, long-coveted
gift of calm. As, when lengthy downpour
ceaseless rain holds farmer's plow long idle
until at last the Titan sends his horses
over the golden sky's broad path with brightness;
and happy peasants rush out filled with joy,
Just so the Ausonians greet this happy time                        [460]
of calm spirits. Now noble King Latinus
had entered the regal hallways, walking with
the great Aeneas, handsome Iulus following;
Italians and Phrygians behind. The bright
palace was filled with the happy group's applause.
To this procession a troop of mothers
and daughters brought in the virgin Lavinia,
her shining eyes cast down. When the Trojan
hero saw her beauty, mirabile dictu,
he stopped, enchanted by the sight, and inside                   [470]
sorrowed for the sufferings of Turnus who
moved by an ambition too great for his zeal
had levied soldiery, inflamed by arms.
So the eternal marriage bond is made,
and all are singing the praises of union;
applause and acclamation fills the air,
sounds of joy ring through the royal place.

Then Aeneas asks the faithful Achates
for the gifts Andromache once gave him, garments
woven with gold thread that had adorned her                     [480]
whilst Troy still stood; and a circling collar
of gold and gorgeous jewels that graced her neck;
and also a fine mixing bowl, in which Priam
had pledged his love for Anchises, long ago.
At once Achates brings these lovely gifts.
Latinus takes the great bowl as his son-in-law's
present; graceful Lavinia accepts the garments
and jewels as wife. Then they take friendship's
refreshment, and fill the hours with conversation.

And now the slow declining light marked time                  [490]
for the banquet; a royal convivial table
heaped high with fine food and palace settings.
All were invited to Tyrian-dyed couches,
to share in the delicious feast. They washed
their hands in cups of crystal glass; on the table
blond Ceres' bread; a corps of smiling servants
bustled round attending to all needs:
refresh the plates with food and mix the wine
refill cups and bowls. Circling now here, now there,
a medley of services within those halls.                              [500]

Father Latinus gazed at young Iulus
marvelling at his eyes and lovely face,
at the sophistication of his speech
a mind mature beyond its years; he asked him
many things, conversed and kissed him
sweetly, clinging to him in a fond embrace;
happy the gods would offer such a gift
as offspring, good fortune to Aeneas.

With their hunger satisfied by the meal
conversation cheats the long hours of night:                       [510]
recalling Troy's hard loss to the Achaeans,
and then remembering Laurentine war:
where the battle lines were drawn; which weapons
were hurled and struck; who charged the foe
wetting his sword with the hot blood of horses.
Trojan Aeneas and aged Latinus,
spoke of heroes, the power of the Latins,
of how, to escape the pursuit of his armed son
Saturn himself hid on latent Latin shores;
bringing order to the mountain-dwellers                             [520]
teaching them the law guaranteeing rights,
how to grow food and vines; and afterwards,
Jove came to his father's house; Atlas' daughter Electra,
bore Dardanus, who went to Ida's Phrygia,
with his followers, leaving Cortona behind;
taking the eagle his emblem: Jove's pride;
the blazon of Hector's race, and the founder of
the famous Trojan stock and all its honours.

With such and other chatter they filled up
the time. Now yells of joy roll through the courts              [530]
echoing beneath the mighty palace roofs.
Torches give light, flashing forth wide brightness.
The Phrygians jump to their feet, and as the guitar
is struck the Ausonians join then, clapping all together
and banging their feet in rhythm of the joyful dance.

Festivities had lasted nine luxurious
splendid days, when that great hero-ruler
Aeneas scored out the curved line of his city,
with a plough: houses, trenches, an embankment.
Then: a wonder! An undiminishing flame                          [540]
huge and bright, twisting up into the clouds,
appeared for pour from off Lavinia's head!
Father Aeneas, astonished, stretched his
hands to the sky and spoke: “If ever, Jupiter,
the Trojans heeded you on land and sea
willingly respected and obeyed your commands
if I, you high powers, ever revered your altars:
what does this omen mean? May it be happy
the felicity of peace, an end to our sufferings.”

At this heartfelt outcry, his golden mother,                          [550]
Venus herself, embraced him and spoke kindly:
“Son, banish your anxiety, accept these better
omens from the gods, rejoice, your future's good.
Now peace is won, your sufferings are over;
now history accepts your covenant of peace.
Don't fear the flame that carries to the heavens
from your dear wife's head; only stand firm and true.
Yes, she will be the one to raise your bloodline
and exhalt the Trojan race to the stars!
She will beget you many high-souled offspring                   [560]
great descendants whom the whole world will praise,
who'll use their strength and power to bring that world
under their yoke. Their glorious empire
will surpass the Ocean and over-top Olympus;
And what will lift them, after ardent deeds
beyond the sky, to godhead's source, is: virtue.
This flame heralds the signal achievement,
of your nation; the Almighty himself
has sent this sign down from his starry home.
Give your city you are founding your wife's name.              [570]
Establish there your sacred household gods
the ones you snatched from burning Troy; pay them
the honours they deserve, now and all time.
I'll tell you an amazing thing: your love
is so great that, even displaced, Lavinium
will draw them, they'll return of their own will.
O lucky man, greatness is yours! In peace
you'll rule the Trojans. When your father-in-law
drained by age, departs for Elysian shadows;
You will take the throne, and bring Italian law                     [580]
and Trojan into harmony. And then
ascend to heaven! The omen means all this.”
Then she flew away, borne on the light air.

Aeneas, though stupefied by what he'd heard,
carried out the commands of his divine parent;
And so he reigned, brought peace's blessings to
the Dardanians; and, when old Latinus died
dutiful Aeneas succeeded, and the whole
of Italy came under his great sway.
Union between the Phrygians and Italians                            [590]
grew stronger, an alliance of great love,
shared customs and the harmony of laws.
Then Venus came to the midst of Olympus
knelt before Jove and clasped his feet, saying:
“Mighty Father, you from the sky's summit
guide all things and observe the affairs of men.
When malign fate gripped the Trojans, I recall
you promised they'd be safe and to end their strife.
Your pledge, father, never has deceived me!
we have all seen the whole of Italy celebrate                        [600]
three years of serene peace, unbroken;
A pathway to the astral heights of heaven
for Aeneas you promised that, to make his worth
known to the stars. What does your heart say now?
Aeneas's virtue earns celestial zenith.”

The father of men and gods kissed her, and
spoke from the heart: “Cythera, my words tell you
how much I've loved Aeneas and his folk
enduring all they did on land and sea,
I grieved for them, touched by your love, my daughter,        [610]
until at last I won Juno's agreement
to end their woes. I stand by my decree,
the Phrygian leader will ascend the lofty
heavens: my will is firm; the gods' council
will accept him. You must erase what mortal
parts of him remain, so he can reach the stars.
And others with his virtue, those whose praise
is universal, whose deeds resound world-wide
those too will I convey beyond the Aether.”
The gods assented, not even royal Juno                                 [620]
demurred; she knew Aeneas deserved
to enter heaven, and became his friend.

Then Venus slides down aerial breezes, looking
for Laurentum: where the Numicius winds its
flow through reeds and runs-on to the sea,
she tells its waves to wash from her son's body
all that is mortal. Joyous, she conducts
the fresh and blessed soul above the air:
and stars Aeneas there. His Julian clan calls him
Indiges, and honours him in temples.                         [630]

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Black Panther (dir Ryan Coogler, 2018)



The last thing the world needs now (of course I know) is another earnest hot-take on the representation of race in Black Panther written by a middle-aged white guy. Burying such thoughts in the decent obscurity of this blog is surely the best thing to do. Certainly, the prodigality of this film's 3Cs success (cultural, critical and commercial) speaks for itself. Nor is that success surprising: it's an extremely well-made and effective superhero action-thriller that does all the things the best of those sorts of movies do whilst also managing, apparently effortlessly, to open this mode of storytelling to a genuine racial diversity and to engaged and substantive political discussion too. And that's all marvellous. Manohla Dargis's New York Times review called Black Panther ‘a jolt of a movie ... in its emphasis on black imagination, creation and liberation, the movie becomes an emblem of a past that was denied and a future that feels very present. And in doing so opens up its world, and yours, beautifully.’ I'm not here to argue with that assessment.

So instead of discussing this film in any detail, I'm going to make what you will probably think is a very obvious, even an over-obvious, point about the cultural representation of race. Since racism (both in terms of one-to-one instances of neglect and oppression, and more importantly as a systemic feature of the way modern societies operate) has resulted in greater human misery and death over the last several centuries than any other of the various malign forces at work in human affairs, understanding it and more to the point effectively disseminating our understanding strikes me one of the most crucial tasks facing us. The recent flare-up of nativist, nationalist and quasi-fascist politics, from Brexit and Trump last year to Viktor Orbán winning the Hungarian parliamentary election earlier this month, is only one symptom of a long term refusal of racism to go away as a structuring principle of modern politics. This seems to me a very urgent problem.

What our immediate future holds, as a species, is increasing intercommunication between cultures, peoples and individuals; a new global intermingling of groups who were, until really recently (in relative historical terms) separated by huge travel times and a much more inertial human habitus into near-hermetic steads of ethnic and religious homogeneity. No longer! There's no avoiding this sociocultural fact, and indeed many reasons to celebrate it in terms of diversity and a pooling of human resources and ingenuities. But it would be foolish to deny that it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and not all those people are evil or stupid.

How we negotiate the fact that we are now encountering, and in the future increasingly frequently will encounter, people of many different cultures, religions and skin-colours is the great question of our time. The Brexitrumpbán answer is: shrink back into a siege mentality, purge the nation-state of ethnic diversity and build a wall to keep things inside as they used to be. That's no answer at all, of course; but the difficult work of overcoming human timidity (and thus resistance) in the face of alterity is by no means a simple one. There aren't any easy answers. It's also not a task we can shirk.

Now: encountering alterity is one of the foundation-stones of my favourite literary-cultural genre, science fiction. It's one of the reasons I love it. The alien can be many things in SF, but one of the things it has most often been is a means of engaging with the complicated questions of racial difference, the exhilaration as well as the anxiety of that real-world encounter.

It's because SF represents the world without reproducing it that the genre has more imaginative leeway to reconfigure race than mimetic modes of art. This has a good and a bad aspect, the former because, by simplifying and extrapolating ideological anxieties it can make them clearer, and allow a less prejudiced engagement with them; the latter because its isolation of ‘race’ from its actual historical embeddedness can ground a sort of special pleading (when D W Griffiths puts racist caricatures on-screen in Birth of a Nation there's no disavowing it; when George Lucas does the same thing in The Phantom Menace he can say, howsoever disingenuously, ‘but Jar Jar Binks is a Gungan! You surely can't be accusing me of anti-Gunganism!’). But the main advantage is the larger structural one of the fact that the whole genre is predicated upon encountering various kinds of otherness, such that mere engagement habituates the reader (the viewer, the fan) to that encounter. All the aliens in SF can't be repulsive Goebbelsian monstrosities, after all.

How does race get itself represented in SF? Often it is through a kind of duality: the bad other (the vampire, the monster, the hideous man-slaying invading alien) versus the good other (the alluring alien, the wondrous other, the sublime possibility of leaving our hidebound assumptions behind). The key thing is that specific ethnic groups are often represented as both of these in the same text.

So: the Jews of Star Trek are bifurcated into the 'good' Jews, who are rational and super-clever like Einstein and whose religion is a proper mystery, the Vulcans, and the 'bad' Jews, who are small and ugly and who worship only money, the Ferengi. The Vulcan hand salute is the ש sign kohens make as a blessing, which Nimoy observed as a child in synagogue. Where the anti-Semitic stereotype posits large noses as a defining feature of Jews, in Trek, this feature is transferred to ears: pronounced but elegant in Vulcans, grotesquely enlarged and strangely sexual in Ferengi.

You take my point, and indeed I'm sure you can think of lots of other examples. Tolkien was deeply in love with the old feudal-warrior world of the Anglo Saxons but was himself in his life (as I am myself in mine) a thoroughly conventional bourgeois individual who lived his life by a bourgeois code of respectability. One of the things he does in Lord of the Rings is work-through his buried anxieties about this identity by splitting it into two: the ‘good’ bourgeois hobbits, living their small, hidebound lives surrounded by creature comforts, and the ‘bad’ bourgeois Gollum, whose materialism and possessiveness have warped his life into a hideous parody of bourgeois ownership and conservatism. The original Planet of the Apes films included both the sensitive, virtuous chimpanzees and the violent, aggressive gorillas. And so on.

This tracks a key way in which racism as such sustains itself. So: back in the eighteenth-century (let's say) it was acceptable in White society to believe and express the view that Black people were not really human beings. This view was, indeed, a common one for much of European history. Of course it's a lie: Black people are precisely as human as White people. Nowadays only loonies and weirdos think that having a black skin makes you a species of higher beast rather than a homo sapiens.

And yet we see, every day in America, law enforcement treating Black people (even law-abiding Black people) in a markedly different manner to the way it treats White people (even delinquent White people): that is, as animals to be cowed and even killed, rather than as citizens to be recuperated into the law. It looks as though many White Americans hold two radically different view of Black Americans. Broadly speaking they accept that truth so patent that it was notated into the founding document of their nation as self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. But at the same time they regard some of their fellow citizens as subhumans, prone to murderous violence and a present threat to their own lives and property. That looks like cognitive dissonance, but I don't believe it's experienced that way by the average everyday Trump Voter. I think precisely this dualism enables a sort of mental two-step that lets the racist off their own internal-moral hook, as it were.

There are, in this worldview, good and bad African-Americans. On the one hand is there is the culture trope of the kindly, spiritual Black man, the sassy Black woman, the Magical Negro of so much cultural discourse. On the other there is the thug life criminal, the gang-banger, the mugger, drug-dealer, streetwise Fuck Da Police rapper urban-violent Black. Racist policing justifies itself in a society that ‘officially’ repudiates racism by pretending it's only targeting this second group. And it matters for this that the second group is styled, by the various discourses that prop-up racism, as an active threat—the American racist takes the assertion ‘Black Lives Matter’ not as a simple restatement of the Declaration of Independence's self-evidence (which is, after all, what it is), but, rather, as if a soldier in a First World War trench chose precisely the moment of a mass charge by the enemy to start yelling ‘German Lives Matter! Stop Shooting!’ That is to say: it's not that they'd disagree, exactly, in humanitarian-abstract terms. It's just that, right now, they're convinced that police officers gunning down Black motorists and Black customers getting handcuffed and marched out of Starbucks is a matter of (White) life and death. How to convince them of their manifest wrongness? Not easy. And one reason for that is that, because of their Feels where the first group of ‘good’ negroes is concerned. Many racists don't consider themselves racist. And it's that, the ‘I can't be racist, my wife/best friend/esteemed work colleague is Black!’ (and its more dilute version, ‘I can't be racist, I like the movies of Denzel Washington’ or ‘I can't be racist, I sing along when a Michael Jackson song comes on the radio’), that is the real nut that needs cracking.

Which brings us back to Black Panther. Because we might want to argue that this dualistic way of ‘reading’ race in our everyday lives is dialectic in the proper sense of the term: not that we should want ‘them’ to be more like the ‘good’ stereotype and less like the ‘bad’ one, but that both stereotypes are complicit with one another in maintaining the larger structures of racism as such. The magical Negro is, in its way, as malign as the Thug-life gangster.

It's this dualism that Black Panther is structured around. This movie is the story of a war between two kinds of Black man: the ‘good’ T'Challa and the ‘bad’ Erik Killmonger Stevens. I'm not suggesting that the movie handles this Manichean battle crudely. Not at all: it manages to be remarkably eloquent about the political issues involved without ever losing narrative momentum or set-piece excitement. But that is its structure, and as such it reproduces the lineaments of racial representation in contemporary US cultural discourse. The good character is literally a magical Negro (who visits a spiritual plane beyond death to acquire magical strength and endurance) and the latter is a Thug-life cold-eyed killer from the ’hood. That the good character is an African and the bad African-American is not, we might say, ideologically neutral:—as if a Black man can only be truly authentic if he undoes diaspora and returns to Africa; as if the existential inauthenticity of Killmonger is a function of his Americanness rather than his Blackness (I was struck that the marks on his body, notionally recording his many kills, resembled smallpox scars, harking back to the original ‘settlement’ of America, pox-infected blankets being distributed to the aboriginal population). That the whole film, and the larger series of which it is a part, figures the universe as a whole as a great war is also a problem, I think.