‘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.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Tragic Floss


Is there anything the novel can't do?

Since I write novels, I'm predisposed to want to answer that question hopefully. But I do wonder. The question, why hasn't there been a novel about ...?, whether implicitly or explicitly framed, suggests the form could tackle anything. Why hasn't anybody written a whodunit set in the Hittite Empire? Why hasn't somebody novelised Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding? Should I write an 80,000-word novel-version of St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul? And indeed, beyond the ‘should I?’ is the deeper question: ‘can I’? Is it even possible? Maybe there are some things fundamentally immiscible with the form of the novel.

For all its contemporary artistic dominance (the novel bestrode the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries like a colossus and although it has ceded its dominance to screen narrative nowadays, these newer forms—cinema, and latterly TV—have appropriated many novelistic features to their art)—for all, I say, its contemporary dominance the novel is a relatively recent arrival. Prose romances stretch back to the Ancient Greeks, but ‘the novel’ is a basically 18th- and 19th-century development, and although it has now spread globally it still manifests a particular, European, bourgeois-Protestant logic.

Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel is half a century old now, and whilst there are reasons to be dissatisfied with it (especially its near total neglect of female writers) Watt's fundamental thesis remains (I think) sound: viz., that ‘the distinctive literary qualities of the novel’ relate directly to ‘those of the society in which it began and flourished’, and that it's a form that rises in step with changes in the reading public, of the rise of economic individualism, and of the ‘spread of Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist or Puritan forms’ [Watt, 7, 60]. It starts, in other words, as a bourgeois mode of art that sells to a rising middle-class, focusing on things that mattered to them and reflecting their values back. So: individualized, self-reliant characters. So: detailed descriptions of material possessions (houses, furniture, clothes etc), and a particular emphasis on courtship narratives as framed in terms of prosperity. So also: the mode's hospitality to Bildungsroman, a spiritualisation of economic growth and return on investments. Students are, in my experience, sometimes hostile to Watt's thesis because they are disinclined to ‘reduce’ such human experiences as ‘love’ and ‘spiritual growth’ to socio-economic bases in this manner. To such people I would say: suck it.

If this argument is correct then we might expect the novel, as a form, to work for some things better than others; and we might even argue that there are some things that the novel is just really poor at capturing. And rather than continuing to talk in these windy generalisations I'm going to ask a specific question: can the novel do tragedy? It's clearly, of course, possible to write a novel in which characters suffer and die, and even to reproduce, should you be so minded, the lineaments of a Sophoclean or Shakespearian play in prose; but does tragedy, as tragedy, work in the novel? This seems to me at once a question about the specific form of the novel and a question about our larger cultural addiction to happy endings and disinclination to follow the pity and the terror to its logical catharsis-end (The Lion King is Hamlet, yes; but it's Hamlet-With-A-Happy-Ending, which is in a very large sense to miss the point of Hamlet). Terry Eagleton agrees with Henri Peyre that the novel simply isn't hospitable to tragedy:
A tragic theatre bound up with the despotic absolutism, courtly intrigue, traditional feuds, rigid laws of kinship, codes of honour, cosmic-world-views and faith in destiny gives way to the more rational, hopeful, realist, pragmatic ideologies of the middle class. What rules now is less fate than human agency … The public realm of tragedy, with its high-pitched rhetoric and fateful economy, is abandoned for the privately consumed, more expansive, ironic, everyday language of prose fiction. And this … is certainly a loss: some critics, as Henri Peyre suggests, blame the death of tragedy on the novel, which “captured the essentials of tragic emotion, while diluting and often cheapening it.” [Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: the Idea of the Tragic (Blackwell 2003), 178]
Eagleton thinks that tragedy qua tragedy depends upon the public, focused, elevated authenticity that has been dissolved away by the privately consumed art of the novel: more expansive, ironic, told in everyday language and concerning ordinary people. Maybe he's right.

One way to address this question would be to look at a specific case study. OK; but, casting around, it starts to dawn on you (or at least, it did on me) that proper examples are thin on the ground. Perhaps that's already a kind of confirmation. Richardson's Pamela is a twisted sort of courtship novel and though laugh-free, and very inadvertently creepy, ends comically in generic terms. Richardson's slumberously vast Clarissa ends with Clarissa's death, but I'm not sure we can genuinely make the case that it generates properly tragic momentum. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina lacks the tragic focus of, say, the Antigone, not just because Tolstoy is committed to balancing Anna's downward path with his account of Levin's upward one, but because its one main purpose is to create a widescreen portrait of a whole society, which necessarily diffuses the tragic focus we find in Sophocles. I could discuss Thomas Hardy's Casterbridge mayor, probe his Pure Woman or peer into the obscurity of his Jude (although that Hardy himself abandoned writing novels after this latter and devoted himself to writing poetry suggests that he wasn't convinced what he'd been doing was really working). But instead I want to say a few things about George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860). I want to concentrate on that novel because it is Eliot's conscious, deliberate exercise in re-writing Greek tragedy as a contemporary English novel; and because Eliot is a great writer.


Shall we call The Mill on the Floss a tragedy? It certainly ends unhappily, with the deaths of its two main characters, siblings Maggie and Tom (‘the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means’ as Stoppard's Player so pithily puts it in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). And we can go a little deeper. Eliot's was a particular fan of Sophocles, and there are various ways in which she set about crafting her novel to transfer, from Greek into English, from drama into this new mode of fiction, a quasi-Sophoclean heft and expressiveness. She particularly loved the Antigone, and we can intuit reasons for that in her private life: openly living with the already-married George Henry Lewes put her beyond the pale of many in polite Victorian society, and her own brother Issac, with whom she had been extremely close as a child, cut off all communication with her. After decades of happiness together, Lewes died in 1878. A couple of years later, in 1880, Eliot married a young admirer called John Cross. Only then, with breathtaking and priggish self-satisfaction, did her brother re-open communications with his sister. The pompous little letter he wrote to her is in the BL now:

So, yes: we can see why Sophocles' great play, with its potent swirl of pseudo-erotic connection between sister and brother superseding the conventions of society at large (even unto death) and its portrait of a wilful individual woman following her heart rather than giving-in to the pressures of convention, spoke so directly to Eliot. She often wrote about it. In her ‘The Antigone and its Moral’ [The Leader (March 29, 1856)] she defined the central problem in Sophocles' play as lying between ‘reverence for the gods’ and ‘the duties of citizenship: two principles, both having their validity, are at war with each’; the conflict between ‘the strength of man's intellect, or moral sense, or affection’ and ‘the rules which society has sanctioned.’ Her essay draws a general conclusion: ‘whenever man’s moral vision collides with social convention the opposition between Antigone and Creon is renewed.’

There's a lot to say about Eliot's preference for Sophocles over Aeschylus and Euripides, but there's one thing that's peculiarly relevant to Eliot's project as a novelist I think, and it goes back to Sophocles' great innovation in the drama itself: Aeschylus, we're told, was the first writer to introduce a second actor on stage. Before him plays had been a single actor interacting with the chorus. Sophocles, though, is the first dramatist to introduce a third actor and suddenly, we might say, things start to get interesting. George Eliot, certainly, was fascinated by the dramatic, ethical and expressive possibilities of this triangulation, and it is the fundamental interpersonal structure of The Mill on the Floss: Maggie Tulliver, her older brother Tom and their father; Maggie, Tom and little Lucy (whom, in a fit of childish jealousy, Maggie pushes in the mud); Maggie, Tom and sensitive, hunchback Philip Wakem, at least until their father's ruination at the hands (as Tom sees it) of Philip's lawyer father makes him put an end to Maggie and Philip's burgeoning relationship. Then, as the novel moves into its final straight, the story focuses on Maggie, cousin Lucy and Lucy's fiancé Stephen Guest, a more conventional love-triangle.

This final situation brings to the fore the main (as it were) triangulation of the novel: one, Maggie; two, the object of her love—the sexual connection she has with Stephen, the spiritual and intellectual connection she has with Philip, and three, her larger context; family, or social, powerful represented by the blood connection she has with Tom. The main theme of the novel, of course, is that Maggie comes into conflict with larger, impersonal but restrictive forces, of economic necessity, gender oppression and, when she runs away with Stephen, moral disapprobation; and this is most forcefully manifested in Tom's individual disapproval, just as the worst aspect of Eliot's (patchy, in truth) social ostracism was the way her beloved brother Isaac cut her:
At the center of The Mill on the Floss lies the human dilemma from Sophocles’ Antigone that George Eliot believed to be permanent: the conflict between the conventions of society and individual judgment. An honourable but conventional person, Tom Tulliver, clashes with his more imaginative sister Maggie over these opposing claims … Tom seeks conventional honor in exacting middle-class conventionalism; but Maggie seeks honor in her ideals of love and charity. In many ways Tom symbolises the Old Law, Maggie the New. [David Moldstad, ‘The Mill on the Floss and Antigone’, PMLA 85 (1970), 527-31]
Eliot also works structurally, as it were: setting out in this novel formally to reproduce the structure of a Greek drama.

So: Attic tragedy follows a particular formal pattern. There's an opening speech by a character or a god, that sets the scene: this is called the parodos. The bulk of the play consists of stasima (a stasimon is a choral ode) alternating with episodes (epeisodia, between the odes, you see) in which two, or in later tragedy three, actors interact with each other and with the chorus. Things end with an exodos.

How many episodes? In Greek drama there could be as few as three, or as many as six. In Seneca and Roman tragedy, largely copied from the Greek, the number of episodes was mostly five, which is where Renaissance theatre derives its convention that a play should have five acts; but Eliot is very particularly not copying Shakespeare or even Seneca, but instead going back to the Sophoclean source. So: Floss has a parodos in its first chapter, whose narrator (‘I remember those large dipping willows, I remember the stone bridge…’) takes the role of chorus. The episodes of the story are interspersed with stasimon-like commentary by the narrator. There are 6 episodes: [1] Maggie’s youth; [2] the family’s loss of the Mill; [3] Maggie’s friendship with Philip; [4] Tom’s recovery of the fortune, Tulliver horsewhipping Wakem and dying; [5] Maggie’s affair with Stephen; [6] the Flood. In each case Eliot interposes narrative with observation, commentary and sections of what amount, almost, to prose poetry in describing the world she has created. The exodos is Eliot's ‘Conclusion’.

The Greek element exists beneath the surface, as it were, of a thoroughly and minutely realised English idiom—the same idiom that Eliot would refine and hone, without classical underpinning, ten years later for her Realist masterpiece Middlemarch. In this earlier novel, though, Eliot is doing sophisticated things with the Greek mode of externalising interior states and the novelistic mode of internalising them. So, for example: Philip Wakem is physically deformed, but Mr Tulliver is emotionally or psychologically deformed, a fact reflected in his surname, since the Greek τυλιος, tulios, from τυλη, means ‘lumpy or hunchbacked’. Eliot plays many such Greek games in her novel. ‘St Oggs’ is a perfectly English sounding name, perhaps related (we might think) to the Gaelic ‘Ogham’. Then again we might want to note that the Greek: ὄγκος, ogkos, means ‘pride, self-importance, pretension’, as well as ‘swelling, tumour’. ‘The Floss’ is another very English sounding name, from the Old-English for ‘flow’ [cf the German flosz, river]. But then we turn to the Greek verb φλύω and find that it means ‘to boil over, to bubble up, to overrun’, but also ‘to babble, to fill up with words’, both of which are peculiarly appropriate to this work.

Then again, not every critic has seen Maggie as a straightforward Antigone.
Clearly Maggie shares Antigone’s strong-minded rebellious spirit, and her “sisterly piety”, and she too is torn by opposing principles “at war with each other.” But when we consider Maggie’s case she seems to be divided by principles of a very different kind to those exerting their contrary influence on Antigone. Opposing Maggie’s version of “sisterly piety” and “reverence for the gods” … are not the “duties of citizenship” as for Antigone, but rather other forms of feeling, or in Eliot’s vocabulary, varieties of sympathy: her compassion for Philip Wakem and her passion for Stephen Guest. [Josephine McDonagh, ‘Eliot’s Early Novels’, Levine (ed) The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (2001) 53-4]
‘Maggie’s dilemma,’ argues McDonagh, in a point to which I'll return in a moment, ‘seems reducible to a conflict not of laws or duties but of feelings, and indeed feelings for opposing men; the father and brother versus the friend and the lover’. It's interesting, and may or may not be significant, that Mill on the Floss contains no references at all to Antigone. Maybe Eliot felt she didn't need to spell out explicitly what was so obvious; but that doesn't seem to have been her practice elsewhere. Take Philip Wakem, the intelligent, sensitive crippled boy whom Maggie rejects (because he's ugly, and then because her brother tell her to) but whose quiet, empathetic intellect proves essential to Maggie's own spiritual growth. It seems clear to me that he is called Philip in allusion to Sophocles' magic cripple Philoctetes; and it seems that way in part because Eliot all but lays it out. When they are still children, Tom injures his foot, and during his convalescence he, Maggie and Philip become close (although after his recovery Tom distances himself from Philip again):
After that, Philip spent all his time out of school-hours with Tom and Maggie. Tom listened with great interest to a new story of Philip's about a man who had a very bad wound in his foot, and cried out so dreadfully with the pain that his friends could bear with him no longer, but put him ashore on a desert island, with nothing but some wonderful poisoned arrows to kill animals with for food.

“I didn't roar out a bit, you know,” Tom said, “and I dare say my foot was as bad as his. It's cowardly to roar.”

But Maggie would have it that when anything hurt you very much, it was quite permissible to cry out, and it was cruel of people not to bear it. She wanted to know if Philoctetes had a sister, and why she didn't go with him on the desert island and take care of him.

One day, soon after Philip had told this story, he and Maggie were in the study alone together while Tom's foot was being dressed ... “What are you reading about in Greek?” [Maggie] said. “It's poetry, I can see that, because the lines are so short.”

“It's about Philoctetes, the lame man I was telling you of yesterday,” he answered, resting his head on his hand, and looking at her as if he were not at all sorry to be interrupted. Maggie, in her absent way, continued to lean forward, resting on her arms and moving her feet about, while her dark eyes got more and more fixed and vacant, as if she had quite forgotten Philip and his book.

“Maggie,” said Philip, after a minute or two, still leaning on his elbow and looking at her, “if you had had a brother like me, do you think you should have loved him as well as Tom?”

Maggie started a little on being roused from her reverie, and said, “What?” Philip repeated his question.

“Oh, yes, better,” she answered immediately. “No, not better; because I don't think I could love you better than Tom. But I should be so sorry,–so sorry for you.”

Philip colored; he had meant to imply, would she love him as well in spite of his deformity, and yet when she alluded to it so plainly, he winced under her pity. [Mill on the Floss, 2:6]
Poor old Philip! But maybe this sort of textual specificity is not something carried systematically through the novel. Indeed elsewhere Eliot pokes mild fun at Tom's tutor, the Rev. Mr. Stelling, who ‘was so broad-chested and resolute that he felt equal to anything’ and who was certain he ‘would by and by edit a Greek play, and invent several new readings. He had not yet selected the play, for having been married little more than two years, his leisure time had been much occupied with attentions to Mrs. Stelling; but he had told that fine woman what he meant to do some day, and she felt great confidence in her husband, as a man who understood everything of that sort’ [Floss, 2.1]. This is a dig at scholarship, of course, rather than tragedy as such, but it stages the larger issue: the Rev. Stellings domestic duties, insofar as they come into conflict with his Attic ambition, take precedence. The novel is much more a domestic, private mode than it is a tragic, public one, we might say.

Early in the novel Eliot is explicit on precisely this matter. Young Tom and Maggie are entertaining their younger cousin, pretty little Lucy (who will go on, when grown-up, to pligth her troth with handsome Stephen Guest). The kids are supposed to stay in the garden, but Tom wants to look at the pond and leads the two girls astray to see if they can find any water-snakes.
“Here, Lucy!” he said in a loud whisper. Lucy came carefully as she was bidden, and bent down to look at what seemed a golden arrow-head darting through the water. It was a water-snake, Tom told her; and Lucy at last could see the serpentine wave of its body, very much wondering that a snake could swim. Maggie had drawn nearer and nearer; she must see it too, though it was bitter to her, like everything else, since Tom did not care about her seeing it. At last she was close by Lucy; and Tom, who had been aware of her approach, but would not notice it till he was obliged, turned round and said,–

“Now, get away, Maggie; there's no room for you on the grass here. Nobody asked you to come.”

There were passions at war in Maggie at that moment to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passion only; but the essential τι μέγεθoς which was present in the passion was wanting to the action; the utmost Maggie could do, with a fierce thrust of her small brown arm, was to push poor little pink-and-white Lucy into the cow-trodden mud. [Floss, 1:10]
The Greek, τι μέγεθoς, means ‘that greatness, magnitude’ or ‘necessary sublimity’. Little kids may feel with heroic, or tragic, intensity (do indeed feel, I'd say, with an intensity of which adults are incapable), but they can't do anything very much, and that means that their little dramas can never be properly tragic. And what Eliot considers true of children, scales in her telling to adults as well. We are not heroes, she says; we are ordinary, middling people. Tragedy does not describe our sorrow, even when that sorrow is very acute. Here is Floss's narrator on the plight of Tom and Maggie's father, whose pride and obstinacy bring him to financial ruin, and take somatic form in an apoplexy that leaves him bedridden.
Mr. Tulliver, you perceive, though nothing more than a superior miller and maltster, was as proud and obstinate as if he had been a very lofty personage, in whom such dispositions might be a source of that conspicuous, far-echoing tragedy, which sweeps the stage in regal robes, and makes the dullest chronicler sublime. The pride and obstinacy of millers and other insignificant people, whom you pass unnoticingly on the road every day, have their tragedy too; but it is of that unwept, hidden sort that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves no record,—such tragedy, perhaps, as lies in the conflicts of young souls, hungry for joy, under a lot made suddenly hard to them, under the dreariness of a home where the morning brings no promise with it, and where the unexpectant discontent of worn and disappointed parents weighs on the children like a damp, thick air, in which all the functions of life are depressed; or such tragedy as lies in the slow or sudden death that follows on a bruised passion, though it may be a death that finds only a parish funeral.
Poor old Mr Tulliver, who evokes in us neither pity nor any sort of terror. Perhaps it's not that Gray's mute inglorious Milton is denied his public eloquence and glory by the mere happenstance of being born to ordinary parochial life, but rather that ordinary parochialism ontologically contradicts greatness as such—not that Gray's villager might have written Paradise Lost if only things had gone a little different to him, but rather than a Milton who doesn't speak gloriously isn't Milton in any meaningful sense at all. Indeed, isn't it within the bounds of possibility that Gray is celebrating, rather than lamenting, this silent ingloriousness? The next line mentions Gray's parochial Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood: isn't it better to be laid in a country graveyard without blood on your hands than with? (Pericles' on his deathbed declared his proudest boast was that ‘no Athenian ever had to put on mourning because of me’). Maybe it's not the novel form, or even the larger social ethos, that makes tragedy such an ill fit to Eliot's art. Maybe it's that the lines of force of her ethical imagination are always tugging her out of drama as such, away from the conflict, and towards something neither comic nor tragic but rather a sense of the fundamental undisclosure of life as it is lived, and the spiritual benefits of that state. Adam Mars-Jones somewhere says that ‘mourning is a wound that is also somehow an achievement’. He wasn't talking about tragedy when he said so, but he might as well have been. Tragic drama stages mourning as a mode of ritualised social-religious sublimity, parsing its shattering absences and ruptures into a sort of transcendent achievement. But Eliot, however hard she tried to capture a Sophoclean grandeur and depth in The Mill on the Floss, was working against the grain of her genius. At her best she understands not that grief is not an achievement, but rather than achievement itself is a kind of chimera, that the best things we can do as human beings, things to do with kindness and connection and unobtrusiveness, are actually pointed, forceful, marvellous unachievements. When she writes novels—even when, as in this case, she writes a tragic novel—her aim is to capture the wisdom of the sort of being-in-the-world that evades the drama of tragedy and the melodramatic eventfulness of fiction.

At the end it's the river that is the uncertain quantity, flowing through a pastoral landscape for most of this novel only to rise up, a deus ex machina (or deus ex fluvio) to wrap-up the plot with preternatural abruptness. By the time she came to writing her greatest novel, Middlemarch, she knew better, and specified breaking the power of the river as a precondition for her heroine's happy blankness: Dorothea's energy ‘like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Dalek Et Decorum Est

Hunched, squat, a giant pepperpot on wheels,
Blob-skirted, screeching loud and cursing life:
Hate-anger is the only thing it feels
Its only passion is a love of strife.
Stairs prove no obstacle; it floats right up
On levitating platforms, and moves on:
Its right prong is a deadly sucker-cup
Its left a laser-shooting deathray gun.

Thals! THALS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of shooting
Zapping the clumsy humans just in time,
Though someone still is yelling out and hooting
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
And via cheap BBC effects, we see
Him flailing as the screen flicks dark and bright
And falling down, in death-scene Equity.

If you could see, on Sat’day's early night
Enemies tumble, victors gliding high,
The lasers blasting, explosions loud and bright
Distorted voices voicing their one cry—
See eye-stalks rising in heil-hitler mode,
Aggresive in pursuit of destiny
The Kaled Reich now set upon the road
That gifts the master race the galaxy—
My friend, you'd also hotly advocate
Those words, the ones that silence all debate,
The old Truth: Exterminate! Exterminate!

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Godziliad

Book 1
Godzilla's wrath, to Earth the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!
What grudge could light the fierce atomic breath
That burnt so many citizens to death?
What move four mighty limbs to crush and tear
Whole city blocks and scatter them to air?
Vast anger that found voice and fuelled the roar
Of this whale-monkey-kind-of-ichthyosaur
Declare, O Muse! what woke such monstrous foe
And summon'd him from ocean bed below;
What stirred him from millennial slumbers deep
To swap-out slaughter for abyssal sleep?
What made this slug-a-seabed rise as killer?
Gods of ill, why made ye him, gods, iller?

The seagirt freighter Eiko-maru, bound
For Odo Island, stagger'd and was drowned;
Another ship—the Bingo-maru—sent
To search and save, like suffer'd sea-descent.
In vain the fisherman his reel-line wets;
The catch absents itself from trawling nets.
Come journalists upon the anxious scene
And peer with fear upon the glassy green.
Godzilla's name is muttered on the street;
In bars and homes Godzilla folk repeat.
A ritual dance t'appease the monstrous foe
Is staged upon the strand—strange fandango.
Grim whispers pass from ear to ear: years past,
Young girls were sacrificed to beast's repast.
No sacrifice averts the creature now:
Monstrous it comes, and monstrous is its tāo.
As storm-winds wrap the islands, an attack
Wrecks homes, kills livestock: all is maniac:
And having sent nine people to their graves
The beast sinks back again below the waves.

What first provoked this horror to arise,
To leave its depths and batten on the skies?
Say, Muse, what wickedness might cause such grief?
And thus mutate the creatures of the reef?
Atomic testing is the culprit here:
Atomic bombs pollute the atmosphere
Still through the waters sink particulate
Atomic poisons to divert our fate.
Man's bombs explode, and loud their fiery roar
Re-echoes and re-echoes shore to shore.
Far in the deep recesses of the main,
Where aged Ocean holds his watery reign,
The god-kujira hears. The waves divide;
And like a hill it heaves above the tide;
Beholds humanity on naked lands,
And thus the anger of its soul expands:

“Unkind mankind,” the monster cries; “oh ye
“Un-sapient homos that abuse the sea,
“A cannon shell upon your bullet train
“I come, t'derail and hurl it in the main!
“To heap the shores with copious death, and bring
“Disaster dark from Tokio to Beijing.
“Let fall upon Japan's aye rising head
“The bloody-red dominion of the dead,
“Know now regret that e'er ye durst disgrace
“The boldest monster of the Ocean race.”

Thus raging still, and moving his huge weight
Came stern Godzilla stedfast in his hate;
Nor mix'd with mercy, nor in council join'd;
For wasting wrath lay heavy on his mind:
In his black thoughts revenge and slaughter roll,
And scenes of blood rise dreadful in his soul.
He wades the breakers, breaking ships apace
And seventeen are sunk without a trace.

From Tokio comes Kyohei Yamane
To plumb this monstrous puzzle of the sea.
Great footprints, trilobites of greater size
Astonish his trained scientific eyes,
And all his scurrying activity
Points to but one cause: radioactivity.
To Tokio he returns with warnings dire
Of monsters bred in Science's quagmire:
But tis too late! Godzilla's on the scene!
And looking lizard-tough and lizard-mean!
Full fifty metres tall, this vasty brute
Too huge to be a man-in-costume-suit:
Sublime in giant stature heel to nape
He stamps to shards the toylike urbanscape.

Man strives in vain to slay what God enlarges
Aye pooping out explosion-primed depth-charges.
Such ordnance monsters laugh to very scorn;
They cannot harm a beast of H-bombs born.
Mere gravel off his scaly skin they bounce
And panicked men Gojira mispronounce.
Yamane's daughter, Emiko, breaks off
Her old engagement to her former love,
Poor Serizawa, close but no cigar
Compared with her new love, young Ogata.

Japan's Protectors build a mighty fence
Of 30-metre heighth, and pass intense
Electric charge along its wires and bolts:
Full fifty thousand terrifying volts!
But to the beast this fence no stronger stood
Than gossamer or drifting cobwebs would.

“Japan, submit; nor dare my will withstand!
“But dread the power of this avenging hand:
“Th'united strength of all the Japanee
“In vain resists th'omnipotence of Me!"
The thunderer spoke, nor durst Japan reply;
A reverent horror silenced all the sky.
The city wrecked, with grief Emiko saw
Her motherland undone, the gods in awe;
The wretched quarrels of Old Nature's state
And politicians lost in blank debate:
Let senior soldiers senseless strife employ,
T'attack the Ocean's Unit, th'Absolute Boy
Their pilots have their orders and comply,
And jet planes break the silence of the sky:
Roused to rage, they loose their missile load,
Launch the red lightning at the Zilla's god.
But all in vain the high explosive burns
The monster's skin each empty shell returns.
The army's rifles blaze like stutt'ring torches
But blithe Godzilla's atom breath still scorches.
Attempts to kill the beast with tanks all tank;
Soon Tokio's o'erdrawn at its blood bank.
The Wakō Clocktower, the National Diet
And Kachidoki Bridge fall to his riot.
Large loss of life, a city's heart destroyed:
Tis more than could be fixed by celluloid.

Emiko tells Ogata, spills the beans:
Of Ser'zawa's research and what it means.
An Oxygen Destroyer is her news
That works to break the O2 atoms loose,
Slays ocean life from whale to small crustacean
Consigning them to rot's asphyxiation.
They ship the Doom Device into the bay
To Serizawa's earnest heart's dismay:
Lest others copy his most dread design
He vows to sink down with it in the brine
End his own life in detonating death
Deprive Godzilla, and himself, of breath.

Close to the point where tidal swell turns round,
The chugging frigate hurries cross the sound.
Now Zilla, rising from the seas profound,
The God whose earthquakes rock the solid ground,
His shouts incessant leave Japan aghast,
And fire feeds fire from belching atom-blast.
While thus the monster mocks a world destroyed
The Oxygen Destroyer is deployed.
Amidst the tumult of this martial run,
Die Serizawa and the beast as one.
The man is lost, the seas his corpse en-grave
The monster sinks in death beneath the wave.

Loud then the grief for noble Serizawa!
And tears of sadness griméd faces scour.
Full of the pain that urged their burning breast,
The Tokio-ians themselves express'd.
Heart-piercing anguish struck th' assembled host,
But touch'd the breast of bold Emiko most
And those who rule the inviolable floods,
Whom mortals name the dread Pacific gods
Those beings whom the ciné future know
Add toil to toil, pile woe on up-piled woe:
As swift as wind, o'er Honshu's smoky isle,
The radioactive beams the skies defile
Through air, unseen, involved in darkness, glide,
To ev'ry chromosome and slip inside.
Fair Nippon trembles underneath the load;
Hush'd are her mountains, and her forests nod.
There on a fir, whose spiry branches rise
To join its summit to the neighbouring skies;
Dark in embowering shade, conceal'd from sight,
Sat Commerce like unto a bird of night.
“Ye think,” quoth he, “Godzilla hath no equal?
“Prepare ye for Godzilla 2: the Sequel.”

Friday, 2 November 2018

Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

Alice in Wonderland (1865) is a masterpiece of literary nonsense, that mode in which ‘the formal elements of language and logic that facilitate meaning, such as semantics, syntax, phonetics, context, representation and formal diction, are balanced by elements that negate meaning’ [Wim Tigges, An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense (Rodopi 1988), 47]. One way to think about a work like Alice is to say: it inhabits the form of the riddle, or the joke, but without providing the solution or punchline to make (comic) sense of the strange juxtapositions or bizarre worldbuilding of its riddle or joke. Carroll structures his story like this, orchestrates its various episodes and even works his characterisation this way—that is, as a riddle without an answer.

He even adds actual riddles-without-answers into the fabric of the text. The most celebrated of these is to be found in the ‘A Mad Tea Party’ chapter when the Hatter asks Alice: ‘why is a raven like a writing desk?’ When Alice gives up and presses him for an answer the Hatter says: ‘I haven't the slightest idea!’ This is funny and frustrating (it's funny because it's frustrating, which is really the whole logic of the book) but frustration has a habit of persisting. In the aftermath of the book's initial success, many readers, child and adult alike, wrote to Carroll pestering him for the answer. In his preface to the 1896 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll wrote:
Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter's riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, ‘because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the riddle as originally invented had no answer at all.
To answer the riddle is, in a sense, to miss the point; and the point is that the riddle has no answer.

This, though, really isn't a hard riddle. Or perhaps it would be truer to say: it only seems hard to those who insist on trying to locate its answer in the manifest content of its text. The Alice books are dreams, and their logic is a dream logic—which is to say, they are a deliberately fashioned waking approximation or pastiche of such logic. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) Freud argues that dream-content is always a (condensed, displaced) re-presentation of notions and affects originally repressed out of the conscious mind into the Id, things that either made us anxious and scared, or else manifested desires we felt to be taboo, that made us guilty. But the repressed, Freud insists, always returns, in twisted or ludic forms, as neurotic symptoms, or slips-of-the-tongue, or dreams. Especially dreams: Freud described them as ‘the royal road to the unconscious’. The trick to understanding dreams, according to Freud, lies in distinguishing the garbled-seeming manifest content of the dream from its more comprehensible latent content, and also in grasping that the ‘meaning’ of this latter is affective rather than rational. That is: it has to do with fears and desires that have been repressed and which are returning.

So what, in a dream context, might be signified by the juxtaposition of a raven and writing desk? The ‘dreamer’ here is Charles Dodgson: that shy stammerer, a man whose waking life was dominated by rituals of polite respectability, High Church Anglican orthodoxy, codes of social courtesy and exactness. A stickler for proper forms, a gentleman-don, a retiring individual who invested considerable energy in the avoidance of scandal and impropriety. The one arena in which Carroll permitted himself to unbutton, emotionally, was his intense affective attachment to pre-pubescent girls. He made friends with hundreds of these over the course of his life, played with them, took them on trips, wrote riddling and comic letters to them, photographed them and so on. In every instance, and with an eye to the proper and respectable way to proceed, he acted under the metaphorical and sometimes the literal eye of the girls' mothers. So: he never approached a young girl on her own, but always through her family. Sometimes he photographed these girls naked, but he would always write to ask permission of the mothers first (sometimes this permission was declined, but, remarkably enough, sometimes it was granted). Even when his emotional attachment to particular girls was very strong, as it seems to have been with Alice Liddell and her sister Lorina, when Mrs Liddell expressed even modest disapprobation (in 1863) Carroll broke of all contact and never saw Alice or Ina again.

His hypercorrectness, we can intuit, was the manifestation of a prodigious anxiety that his attraction to pre-pubescent girls would be misconstrued—by society at large, but also, I think, in a more inward sense. That is to say: Carroll was on some level afraid that his own understanding of this attachment (desire he presumably rationalised to himself in terms of the pure and spiritual beauty of pre-sexual innocence) misconstrued its true nature. We should tread carefully, I suppose. The proneness of moral panic to accrue around the topic of pedophilic sexual desire doesn't diminish the capacity for human wrong and suffering such desire enables. Carroll almost certainly never acted on his desires. Do we judge him for having those desires and repressing them? Hypercorrect stammering Dodsgon in his frock-coat and his pale-grey kid gloves (he had stained his hands purple from the chemicals he used developing his photographic plates and always wore the gloves) hovering around young girls—the point isn't whether we find this figure creepy, it's whether he found himself creepy. Many of us do.

What is a raven except a bird of ill omen, croaking itself hoarse on the battlements of Macbeth's castle, or spying out wickedness in the world as Odin's roving eye? What is a writing desk except paraphernalia by which text get itself manufactured, from notes and letters all the way up to books—to books, let's say, like Alice in Wonderland? And most importantly of all: why might we connect these two things, the publication—the in-plain-view display—of this one man's taboo love for this particular, named little girl, and the avian manifestation of things about to go horribly and publicly wrong? Linking inauspiciousness and the production of written text. The evidence that the sky-god has spied into your wickedness and will not be pleased? I mean, what do you think? If Carroll were your psychiatric patient, stretched on the couch in your consulting room, and told you about a weird dream he'd had that jumbled up ravens and writing-desks, how would you Joseph-bar-Jacob it?

Children loving play generally, and playing games in particular and games are the formal codification of desires that in large part would, without the structure of play, be much more disruptive (as the footballer kicks a ball into a net rather than decapitating his enemy, or as kiss-chase both purifies and, in a way, oxygenates nascent and perhaps taboo sexual desire). Nonsense is playful in this mode, but contra to the Wim Tigges definition I quoted at the start of this blog it is not really a semantic or syntactic game that is being played. The game is about desire and the obstacles to desire, and it always has been.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Some "Hamlet" Obviousnesses


In the first book of Homer's Iliad, Agamemnon, the Greek king and military leader, takes away the prize of one of his warriors, Achilles. The prize is a beautiful slave-girl called Briseis, and Agamemnon takes her because he has lost his own prize (another slave girl) and doesn't see why he should do without; but he also does it publicly to mortify Achilles, the army's greatest warrior, whom he thinks has been getting above himself: ‘as Phoebus Apollo takes from me the daughter of Chryses,’ Agamemnon tells Achilles, with the whole army watching, ‘I will myself come to your tent and take the fair-cheeked Briseis, your prize, so that you will understand how much mightier I am than you’. This infuriates Achilles, who draws his sword and rushes at the king to kill him. Then this happens:
Athene came from heaven. She stood behind him, and seized the son of Peleus by his fair hair, appearing to him alone. No one of the others saw her. Achilles was seized with wonder, and turned around, and immediately recognized Pallas Athene. Terribly her eyes shone. [Iliad, 1:194-200]
There are two ways in which we might want to read this moment. On the one hand we could take it in terms of its in-text logic: in the Iliad gods and goddesses mingle promiscuously with mortal men and women, and this is just one more example of that. If Achilles hacks down Agamemnon in sight of the entire army, the repurcussions would be severe. Achilles would probably die. Athene, who loves Achilles, doesn't want to see that happen and so she intervenes. But there's an ‘on the other hand’ too, and it's this: Athene appearing and seizing Achilles' hair to pull him back from assaulting Agamemnon is how this poem represents Achilles changing his mind. His first instinct is revenge, but then he has second thoughts. In Homer, and indeed throughout Ancient Greek literature, mental processes of this sort, and which we tend nowadays to think of as interior dynamics, things that happen on the inside of our heads rather than out in the world, are consistently exteriorised. Instead of saying ‘Achilles drew his sword to kill Agamemnon, but then he thought better of it’ it came naturally to Homer to say: a goddess (that only Achilles could see) descended and grabbed him by his hair.

This speaks, we might think, to a larger logic. It has, for instance, to do with the shift from a shame to a guilt culture, from a world in which what torments us is out-there to one in which that which torments us is inside us. Were we ever (god forbid!) to kill our own mother, we would surely feel desperately guilty; but when Aeschylus' Orestes kills his own mother (to avenge the father she had in her turn murdered) he does not interiorize his guilt. Instead he is actually pursued across Greece by a troop of supernatural entities called Erinyes, or Furies. The Erinyes are both actual agents in the world of the Oresteia, and symbolic representation of the process of guilt and regret. We don't have to prioritize one over the other; it's fine to treat them as both at the same time.


Here are a trio of frankly odd contradictions in Shakespeare's Hamlet: death, ghosts and ears. First the ‘to be or not to be’ speech, surely the most famous bit of Shakespeare in the entire canon. Shall I kill myself, Hamlet asks himself, or not? Suicide would put an end to a whole series of miseries and torments, yes; but death might be worse:
             Who would these Fardles beare
To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of. [Hamlet, 3.1.78-84]
But doesn't it seem strange to you that this Hamlet, opening his heart to the audience via soliloquy in Act 3, should describe death as an undiscovered country from whose borne no traveller returns, when just a little earlier, in Act 1, this same Hamlet had met the actual ghost of his actual dead father, inarguably a traveller returning from the land of the dead? Maybe Shakespeare temporarily forgot, as he composed this peerless monologue, the larger context of the play in which it occurred (it's even conceivable he wrote this monologue for a completely different project and dropped it in here, figuring that it sort-of fitted, which is why it includes references to generic obnoxiousnesses like ‘the law's delay’ and ‘the insolence of office’ neither of which have any relevance to the situation in which princely Hamlet finds himself). But now we're slipping into the business of making excuses for Shakespeare, and that is surely beneath us.

Take it another way. The appearance of the ghost, right at the start of the play, situates Hamlet in a medieval world of supernatural terrors, where this Act 3 speech situates it in the modern world of interiorised anxieties and fears. The truth of this drama is that it stands Janus-like facing both the archaic past and the bang up to date. We could put it this way: the appearance of the ghost embodies an aspect of death and grief to which any bereaved person will attest: the way the dead won't lie still, the way they return to us and trouble us, that we can't stop thinking about them, that they make us worry about what we have left undone; where the reference to the country from whose borne no traveller returns articulates a different facet of our experience of death: that it marks an absolute breach with life. The grievous truth that those we love who die are gone forever. The existential abyss we face when we contemplate our own inevitable mortality. Hamlet is a play capacious enough to encompass both of these.

The thing is, this isn't the only discontinuity in the play. Consider the ghost of Hamlet's father, with which the play starts. This spectre dominates Act 1, first observed by Marcellus, Barnardo and Francisco, who report it to Hamlet, and then by all four of them together. This is, in other words, a well-attested phenomenon; there are many witnesses to confirm to the existence of this apparition as, we might say, a real ghost. But later in the play the ghost appears again: towards the end of Act 3, as Hamlet is rebuking his mother in her bedroom, and after he has killed Polonius (believing him to be Claudius). I mean, I say the ghost appears, but, like the Athene who grabs Achilles' hair, this manifestation is visible only to one person.
Enter Ghost.
Hamlet. A King of shreds and patches.
Saue me; and houer o're me with your wings
You heauenly Guards. What would you gracious figure?
Queen. Alas he's mad ...
Alas, how is't with you?
That you bend your eye on vacancie,
And with their corporall ayre do hold discourse.
To who do you speake this?
Hamlet. Do you see nothing there?
Queen. Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.
Hamlet. Nor did you nothing heare?
Queen. No, nothing but our selues.
Hamlet. Why look you there: looke how it steals away:
My Father in his habite, as he liued,
Looke where he goes euen now out at the Portall. Exit.
Queen. This is the very coynage of your Braine,
This bodilesse Creation extasie is very cunning in. [Hamlet, 3.4.93-129]
By this stage on the play Hamlet has been pretending to be mad for some time, and we, the audience, are beginning to suspect that the mask has become the face and that he has actually become mad (or else, perhaps, that he's been mad all along). Which is to say: we're less likely to take this appearance of the ghost as an ‘actual’ ghost, and more likely to take it as a hallucination.

This in effect restates the example from the Iliad in an Elizabethan context. For Homer, the goddess Athene is both an actual being in the world of the poem and an externalisation or symbolisation of Achilles' thought processes. For Aeschylus the Furies are actual divine beings and the emblematisation of Orestes' guilty conscience. So here: the ghost is a ‘real’ entity in the world of the play and an externalised representation of the state of Hamlet's griefstruck mind and his guilty and anguished will-to-revenge. Indeed, and strikingly, Shakespeare takes pains to style it in the poem as first the one and then the other. And this brings me to ears.


The crime to which the whole of Hamlet is a response is Claudius' murder of Old Hamlet. How does he kill him? You know, of course. He creeps into the old king's garden, where Old Hamlet is lying flat out after a boozy lunch, and pours poison into his ear.

So now I'm going to ask a really obvious question. Is it possible to kill somebody by pouring poison into their ear? And, having asked, I can supply the obvious answer: no, it isn't possible. Common sense, really. If you want to poison someone you pour the poison in their mouth, whence it goes to their stomach and is absorbed into the whole body. Unless you have serious lacerations inside the ear pouring poison in isn't going to do any good, or bad, at all.

Of course, I'm missing the point. That's not what Shakespeare is getting at. Claudius ‘pouring poison into Old Hamlet’s ears’ actually invokes the ancient trope of the Bad Advisor—the monarch’s councillor who offers bad advice, of the sort that might well prove fatal to the King and, through him, to his kingdom. This character, the Bad Advisor pouring metaphorical, verbal ‘poison’ in a King’s ear is something that retains its potency in modern times. Think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the damage wrought by the evil advisor Wormtongue. Think of the anxiety generated in the popular press by contemporary political advisors, the shadowy unelected, unaccountable goons who surround (let's say) a President notoriously gullible and none too intelligent. How can we be sure whether the advice these people are giving our leaders is good or bad? We can't. There's nothing we can do. That's an anxiety-producing thought.

Hamlet is about many things: the situation in the Court at Elsinore is ‘about’ politics and the protocols of social interaction; the scenes with the ghost are ‘about’ the relations between the living and the dead. The main character, somebody who isn’t necessarily quite sure what he should do, is surrounded by people happy to offer him all sorts of, usually conflicting, advice. Indeed, we could make the case that it is advice in the broadest sense that is the heart of this play: the role of official political ‘advisors’; the advice offered to people in more general senses; by the ghost to the living Hamlet; by Hamlet to the players; by Laertes to Ophelia; by Polonius to anybody prepared to listen. Advice is a strange thing. If you are in an undoubted position of authority you can command; but if you are not—and that’s most of us—then the best you can do is advise, and people can choose to follow your advice or not. Unsolicited advice is particularly problematic (Polonius has become a byword for offering tedious and unwanted advice for example), as is advice from those who don’t really know what they’re talking about offered to those who do (and what right has Hamlet—not, after all a professional actor—to advise the players, who are, on performance?). How often do we regard the advice we receive in our day-to-day as helpful, and act upon it? How often do we think of those who offer us advice as meddlesome, tiresome, intrusive and worse? How coercive is advice? How pertinent? These are the things that, in a deep way, Hamlet is ‘about’.

To take this an inch further: what is the role of a critic? It is not, surely, to compel agreement with a reader, but to offer interpretations and analysis that is much more akin to advice. The reader can take or leave it. It used to be axiomatic that the best literature helps us live; it offers us advice on how to navigate our own existences.

The status of the royal adviser was, we can assume, peculiarly acute in 1599 and 1600 when, in all likelihood, Hamlet was being written. Of course Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, would have expressed love and reverence for their Queen (the alternative was execution); but at the same time they would have experienced anxieties in being ruled by a female monarch. Only a few decades earlier John Knox, in his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment [ie Rule] of Women (1558), had declared that that monarchs ‘oght to be constant, stable, prudent and doing euerie thing with discretion and reason, whiche vertues women can not haue in equalitie with men … Nature doth paint [women] furthe to be weake, fraile, impacient, feble, foolishe: and experience hath declared them to be vnconstant, variable, cruell and lacking the spirit of counsell and regiment’. Women, the 16th-century believed, were not made for governance; and for a Queen to refuse to take a husband left the sacred authority of the throne ambiguous and fearful. Shakespeare might have agreed that God had anointed Elizabeth as Queen whilst also worrying that actual governance was being performed by her advisors, those in the shadows behind the throne, men he knew not, nor were they appointed to their role by divine grace. Hamlet, in this context, becomes a work that (among other things) expresses these anxieties, that works through the subtle channels of advice and the way that advisors operate in the social and political world.

But all this is to elaborate on the more basic point: when it comes to the event that kicks-off the whole drama of Hamlet, Claudius's murder of Old Hamlet, Shakespeare very deliberately elides a metaphor and an in-text actuality. And this is the key. Hamlet is a play about states of mind, really before it is anything else. If we want to be more particular we could say: it is a play about what happens to and in our minds when they are put under certain extraordinary strains: pressures of grief, and anger, and the impulse to revenge (for instance) as well as, of love and desire, of the anxieties as well as the exhilarations of adopting a public role. The question then becomes: how does a writer body-forth a state of mind in his/her art.

In a novel we might utilise the convention of textualised interiority, and have our narrator describe what was going on inside a character's thoughts and feelings; but Shakespeare is centuries before the novel and writing for a very different mode, theatre. He has, really, two strategies at his disposal. One is the venerable one that Homer and Aeschylus used, of externalising states of minds as agents within the logic of the text: gods, ghosts, furies and so on. Two is one of the great Shakespearian innovations: the monologue (I mean he didn't strictly speaking invent this component of the theatrical text, but it was his use that established the variety and suppleness of it as a dramatic possibility). The conceit with a monologue is that we—audience, readers but pointedly not the other characters with whom s/he happens to be sharing the stage—are being gifted a glimpse into the speaker's mind. It is no mere coincidence, I think, that the ghost of Hamlet's father occurs in the arena of the first of these logics of representation, the external action of the play, and that Hamlet's anxiety about death being the undiscovered country from whose borne no traveller returns occurs in the second, the monologue. But they're both, in their different ways—under, that is, the differing logics of their mutual representative modes—saying the same thing. They are both saying: death is scary, mysterious, destabilising; death is repugnant to comprehension and yet won't leave us alone, keeps preying on our minds; the dead will never come back to us and yet won't ever leave us alone. That death, and the dead, are somehow both hidden behing a cloud of unknowing and glaringly, terrifyingly obvious. And that's probably enough about Hamlet obviousnesses for now.


A coda, which has nothing to do with Hamlet. One thing that sometimes surprises me about that congeries of fandom-communities of which I am, in my way, a part—I mean science fiction and fantasy fandom—is how wedded fans are to the in-text reading of their favourite works, and the inertia of their resistance to the idea that these might be logics of representation rather than actual things in the world, or even in the Jonathan-Franzen-air-quotes ‘world’. That Harry Potter and his friends don't literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels (that these magical talents are how Rowling articulates the potency, specialness and vitality of young people as such). That MCU superhero texts are saying things about non-superheroic aspects of life, and not pretending that the Homeric gods have returned to the world in spandex. But there we are. Representation is a slippery logic, and we think we're on solider ground with brass tacks. We're not, of course; but we often think we are.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

W @ Auden, 2018

for Alan Jacobs

I sit here with my phone
Where fifty million voices
Are wrathful and alone
As unsocial social media
Frame adverse conversations;
Waves of anger and fear
Pour through all the websites
And webblindnesses of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
And the odour of Twitter affront
Offends the October night.

Future scholarship will
Unearth the whole offence
From Jack Dorsey until now
That has driven a culture mad:
Artificial unintelligence
Makes for collective backs
A psychopathic goad:
I and the State have repeated
What all schoolchildren learn:
Those at whom evil is tweeted
Tweet evil in return.

Thucydides' missing blue tick
Speaks volumes, or scrolls, about
Palsied Democracy,
And what US Presidents do,
The elderly rubbish they spout
To unapathetic hicks
All analysed in his thinkpiece:
The enlightenment baited our clicks,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief
We must suffer them all again.

All we have is a choice
To mute all the folded lies,
The multiple lies in the feed
Of the angry man-in-the-street
And the lie of Technology
Whose connections web the sky:
There is no compulsion to Tweet
There are two sides to every coin;
Addiction strengthens the voice
Of generic disturbers of peace;
We must follow each other or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of suspicion and of trust,
Synced to the same heartbeat
Of negation and despair,
Post an affirming tweet.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Ahab in Rehab

The latest meeting of Whalecolohics Anonymous
is underway. A semicircle of sea captains.

‘I sacrificed two marriages, all my wealth,’ says one
‘to the Whale. It rode me, ruined me. It has—’

pride entering his voice now—‘been twelve years since
my last harpooning.’ Gruff hearhears, a gruff well done Jack.

The convenor's courteous: ‘thank you Jacob.
Ahab? Anything you'd like to tell the group?’

Ahab, arms braided more than crossed at his hefty chest
glares at the floor, neggs the group with his pegleg

scrapes it, squeeak-peg over the lino, bangs it down,
says: ‘do it matter? it do not. We're all dead.

Whale killed us, each and all. This endless meeting
that pitiless neon-light, these blind white walls

is hell, nor are we out of it. Drowned and damned,
condemned to conversation. The more talk

the less we have to do with aught that looks like life.
Anonymous because damnation's faceless.

I do not hate the Whale. I hate the drink that sunk me.
The Whale was when I was utmostest alive.

Keel-haul me, Ishmael, if ever I blaspheme
the awful mystery of the cetacean sublime!’

The convenor's courteous, but his court's infernal.
‘Come now, my friend: you'll never win your chip

for twelve aeons fishobriety like this.’
His voice hardens just a touch. ‘No one leaves

this room until old Ahab here repents.’
The others sigh, some groan, one swears at him:

‘don't be a dick about it, A-hole.’ Still: not
the smallest atom stirs or lives, even in Hell,

but has its cunning duplicate in mind.
His stubborness is white as Arctic cliffs.

The convenor tuts. ‘Let's go again,’ he says.
‘Captain Takeo: perhaps you'd start us off?’