‘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, 26 March 2014

The Moral Defense Against Bad Objects: Jacqueline Wilson's Fiction

The success of Jacqueline Wilson is a striking thing. In a YA literary landscape dominated by Fantasy, she has published 90 novels in a simplified realist mode, aiming to represent the often complicated nature of modern family life—her novels characteristically concern children living with single parents, or step-parents and step-children, with a focus on the emotional intensities, rather than the external adventuring, of her characters. She almost always writes about what we might, in slightly sweeping manner, call ‘the poor’: working class and lower-middle class life, lived in council houses or too-small flats, financially precarious and full of the petty existential diminishments of life lived under the iron logic of social deprivation. Often she tackles sadness directly: bereavement, separation, bullying, depression. Of her own autobiography Jackie Daydream (2007—written in the same style as her fiction; that’s its cover at the top of this post) she notes:
My childhood wasn't happy. I could have written a misery memoir for adults with lots of harrowing details, but it seems a little sad and pathetic to be whimpering about such long-ago things. It's not elegant and it's not even wise, when there could be all sorts of repercussions. In my fiction for children I deal with worrying topics like divorce, death and domestic violence, but I always try to write from a child's point of view and don't dwell too insistently on disturbing incidents. [Jacqueline Wilson, ‘I was a girl for gritty realism’, Guardian, Saturday 24 February 2007]
Yet despite this rather grim and gritty focus Wilson has been prodigiously successful: many of her books have been bestsellers; Tracy Beaker was the most borrowed library book in the UK for the first decade of this century; TV spin-offs (especially Tracy Beaker and Dustbin Baby) have become UK cultural icons. There’s even a weekly magazine, The Official Jacqueline Wilson Mag.

How does the textual articulation of unhappiness inform such success? Some of this has to do with the skilful way Wilson handles her subjects. She manages to simplify and, in a good sense, cartoonify the experiences of her characters (an approach neatly reinforced by the upbeat, colourful, doodly visual style of her main illustrator, Nick Sharrat). She concentrates more on the emotional resilience of her child-characters than on their misery, and she captures something important about kids, the intensity and centrality of emotional attachment to their lives, especially the bonds forged between best friends, siblings and select adults. So this means that although her books don't always end in conventionally 'happy' ways, they're pretty uplifting to read.

And actually one of the things I like very much about Wilson is the way she engages with one of the most common tropes of Children’s Literature—the fantasy of being an orphan. In a core way she remixes this notion. Being an orphan, she says, isn’t about going on magical quests; it isn’t about discovering that you have hidden royal parents, or magic powers. Actually it’s about living in a care home and feeling lonely. Where a predominance of YA writing today gifts magical powers to its protagonists, she sticks closely to observation, plausibility and a focus on the way people feel: action in character rather than characters in action, as it were.

It’s worth dilating on the semiology of ‘orphan-ness’ in children’s literature, in order to get a little closer to what Wilson is doing, and why it speaks to so many readers. Although in fact ‘orphan’ isn’t a very good word for what we want to talk about here. Some of the child-heroes and heroines of children’s literature are orphaned because their parents are dead; but more often their parents are not dead: they are absent, or distant, or otherwise compromised. Since I’m going to discuss Wilson’s abandoned children, I may need another term. Terri Windling folds both kinds of child together in her ‘Lost and Found: The Orphaned Hero in Myth, Folklore, and Fantasy
We find them everywhere in fantasy fiction: the "orphaned heroes," young men and women whose parents are dead, absent, or unknown, who turn out to be the heirs to the kingdom, the destined pullers of swords from stones, the keys to the riddles, the prophesies' answers, the bearers of powerful magic. Think of J.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo Baggins, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, Philip Pullman's Lyra Belacqua, Garth Nix's Lirael, and Jane Yolen's White Jenna. Think of the orphaned protagonists at the heart of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books, Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn Chronicles, Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori, and countless others.
These fantasy-story clichés, says Windling, are actually ‘mythic archetypes’, and go back a long way in human culture:
This archetype includes not only those characters who are literally orphaned by the death of their parents, but also children who are lost, abandoned, cast out, disinherited by evil step–parents, raised in supernatural captivity, or reared by wild animals. We can trace the archetype back from the popular fantasy books listed above to the literary orphans of the 19th century (Dickens's Oliver Twist, Mark Twain's Huck Finn, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, to name just a few), and then further back through "foundling" stories such as Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones and William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, to a world–wide body of folk tales and myths about children orphaned and abandoned.
She goes on to talk about: Moses, Romulus and Remus, and the many orphaned or half-orphaned kids in Grimm. It evidently speaks to something important in storytelling.

Francis Spufford (in his memoir The Child That Books Built) also ponders this, and concludes that ‘the situation of abandonment seems to be a necessary one to imagine, to hug to oneself in the form of story. It focuses a self–pity that everyone wants to feel sometimes, and that perhaps helps a child or an adolescent to think through their fundamental separateness. The situation expresses the solitude humans discover as we grow up no matter how well our kinship systems work.’

There’s another way in which this works, I think, in terms of the logic of story. The point of the orphan is that s/he steps outside of the restrictions of the mundane. This is because the mundus for most child readers is defined and indeed delimited by the family; and so escaping the oppressions of the family is a symbolically magical (non-mundane) action—stepping aboard the huge flying peach and sailing through the sky; discovering one’s magical powers and so on.

What interests me here is the role death plays in this, and more particularly the way Wilson handles death. Orphan means ‘with both parents dead’ (a child one of whose parents had died and who was being raised by the other would not, I think, be called ‘an orphan’). Yet the more common type of the special child protagonist identified above is not orphaned in this sense; some, like Lyra in His Dark Materials, only think they are orphans: their story is the discovery of their parents, or indeed discovering that people close to them are actually their parents. Often, as in Grimm, only one parent is dead; and a cruel stepmother drives the child away, and so to adventure. Since ‘orphanness’ is primarily a symbolic role, its practical exigencies don’t concern us in these sorts of story. One exception to this is Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, where the almost Kafkaesque protocols of who can and cannot be appointed the Baudelaire’s legal guardians is one of the main topics of the story. Another exception, of course, is Jacqueline Wilson.

Let's start with The Story of Tracy Beaker (1991), for a long time Wilson’s most famous book (a fame compounded of the success of the CBBC series based on it, and the continuing rise to fame of Dani Harmer who played the role). Tracy Beaker treats the legal protocols of orphandom in mimetic rather than Lemony Snicket-y fantastic mode. One of the main dramatic insights of the novel, and the source of much of its emotional power, is its unflinching recognition that losing your parents is not liberating in actuality; the reality of the situation is a care home, and life in a care home is not only more emotionally denuded than family life, it is more restrictive. Her mother is not dead, but has abandoned her; her behavioural difficulties result in her being deprived of sweets and subject to other punishments; another girl called Justine Littlewood bullies her. Tracy herself deals with the deprivation of her situation by creating a compensatory fantasy-life: she repeats the story that her mother is a glamorous Hollywood movie star, and that she is coming to collect her someday soon. The fantasy Tracy spins is that the only reason her mother can’t take care of her is that she is so busy being in films. Pleasure Principle collides, as it always does, with Reality Principle: in the second Beaker novel, The Dare Game (2000), Tracy has been fostered by a woman called Cam. Tracy is a difficult child, not enjoying her school, and Cam not perfect; so the two often clash. But Cam does have Tracy’s best interests at heart.

Abruptly, Tracy's mum, Carly, reappears on the scene, and says she wants her daughter back. Cam very reluctantly agrees to let Tracy stay with her for a weekend, during which time Carly gives her many expensive presents and makes her the centre of attention. Tracy pushes to be allowed to live with her mum permanently; but a second stay is less rosy—her mum leaves her on her own for hours in order to attend a karaoke night at a pub.

It was a train of such abandonments that led to Tracy being taken into care in the first place; and she feels frightened and anxious. Carly finally comes home drunk with a man, with whom she arranged to spend the following weekend rather than seeing Tracy again. Tracy runs away, and winds up choosing to stay with Cam. In other words, the trajectory of the story is that Wilson stages a choice between delinquent biological mother and caring (though not perfect) foster mother, and Tracy chooses the latter—chooses, in a sense, to reaffirm her ‘orphan’ status. It is a surprisingly powerful piece of writing, emotionally speaking; enhanced by the deliberate simplicity of style and the pared down narrative line. ‘Realism’ is evident in the inertia of the dramatic situation: Cam doesn’t adopt Tracy, and Tracy doesn’t live happily ever after—she stays with her Foster mum at weekends and holidays.

In other words: ‘orphandom’ in the Wilsonverse is a function not of Death, but of Neglect. Death, in fact, has remarkably little purchase on her characters’ destinies. In Vicky Angel (2000) Jacky’s best friend, the extravert Vicky, is hit by a car and killed; but death cannot keep them apart—Vicky returns as a ghost, although a spectre only Jacky can see.

This is a story about bereavement, and letting go; as Jacky gets on with her life the ghost of Vicky becomes more controlling, prompting her to (for instance) saying horrid things to the boy who has expressed interest in her. Jacky accuses her:
'You want them all to be miserable.’

‘Of course!’

'For always?’


I swallow. ‘What about me?’

'Double definitely!’

'But that’s not fair.’

'It’s not fair I’ve been killed, is it?’

'I know, but …’

'You can’t be happy without me.’

It’s an order. I have to obey orders. [101]
Jacky feels guilty: it was after a fight between the two of them that Vicky ran off, and got run over—she blames herself. The twist at the end is that Jacky, overcome with guilt during her evidence at the (delayed) inquest into Vicky’s death, rushes from the courthouse and in front of a car.
I can hear a car, I run, out into the road …

A squeal of brakes, a scream, my scream … But here are arms round me, pulling me back, hands digging right into my shoulders, pulling my hair, yanking my clothes. I turn. It’s Vicky. … ‘You saved me,’ I say. ‘But I didn’t save you. It was all my fault. I pushed you away.’

'You pushed me, yeah. But you didn’t push me under the car. I ran out, you know I did. It wasn’t your fault. It was mine. My bad luck the car hit me.' [156]
By absolving her of the guilt at her death, Vicky achieves an It’s A Wonderful Life-style redemption:
'Oh Vicky I love you!’

'I love you too.’

We hug tightly, my arms round her. I feel her warmth, her smooth skin, her silky hair, and …

‘What on earth?’

Vicky looks over her shoulder.

'Oh my God!’ She bursts out laughing. ‘Hey! Vicky Angel! I’ve made it.

We have one last hug and then, as Mum and Dad catch up, Vicky leaps into the air. She flaps wings as white as swansdown, waves one last time, and flies away.
The corporeality of this ‘ghostly’ appearance that interests me. It is less sacramental (and religion, as belief system or social praxis, is oddly absent from the Wilsonverse) and more practical—kids understand the tactile, hugs and comfort, better than the abstract. ‘No ideas but in things’ might be Wilson’s mantra, actually—it’s all very show-don’t-tell, and I approve.

Let’s summarise the storylines of a couple of Wilson novels. We’ve mentioned two: Tracy Beaker is a lively, sometimes naughty but good-hearted girl, who is abandoned by her mother at a care home; when her mother comes back (in The Dare Game) Tracy eventual disappointment leads to her running away to a secret house where she meets her care home friends to plan ‘dares’. Here she gets into an argument with Alexander, a feeble kid: she pushes him and he breaks his leg. Tracy feels very guilty.

In Vicky Angel Jade is the timid good girl, Vicky the outgoing naughty best friend. The two are inseparable. One day they have a fight, Jade pushes Vicky away, Vicky runs off and gets hit and killed by a car. Jade feels terribly guilty.

In Hetty Feather Hetty is a lively, sometimes naughty but good-hearted girl, who is abandoned by her mother at a Foundling Hospital. A circus comes to town and Hetty becomes enamoured of the idea that a red-haired circus performer is her mother. As a result of this (for rather complicated plot reasons) Hetty’s foster-brother Gideon, whom Hetty tricked so that she could go to the circus, has fallen from a tree and been badly injured. Hetty feels terribly guilty.

In The Lottie Project (1997), Charlie lives with her single mum, Jo. Jo loses her job and has to make ends meet with cleaning and child-care jobs; one of her charges is called Robin. Charlie is horrified when Jo and Robin’s (single) Dad Mark manifest signs—like kissing in the fairground—that they might cop off with one another. She tells Robin that neither of his parents want him. Upset, Robin runs away from home, and Charlie is wracked with guilt.

I’m not trying to suggest that all Wilson’s stories are the same. Many are not like this at all; and she’s capable of spinning all sorts of twists. In My Sister Jodie (2008), sisters Pearl and Jodie are at a posh school (their parents take jobs at the school as cook and caretaker to make this happen), but Jodie gets bullied—unjustly—as a ‘tart’. Resentful, she deliberately scares the younger kids with ghost stories; but after dressing as a ghost in the school tower (it's the kind of school that has a tower) she scares one so badly he runs off weeping. She feels bad. Attempting to call after him from the tower to reassure him she falls, breaks her neck and dies.

In Bad Girls (1996) 10-year-old Mandy White is a timid, good girl, raised by very overprotective mother; she is bullied at school. She makes friends with Tanya, a lively older girl being fostered by their next door neighbour. Tanya quickly becomes Mandy’s best friend, though she is a troubled girl with a long criminal record for shoplifting. In the end Tanya and Mandy are caught by police when Tanya steals from an upmarket clothing shop in town. Tanya is moved to a distant foster home; Mandy’s mother, though angry at first, realises by the end of the book that she has been smothering her daughter, and permits her to restyle her hair to look older.

In Lily Alone (2011), Lily’s dippy (single) mum goes off to Spain with her new boyfriend, telling Lily to contact her biological father and have him come down to look after her and her younger half-sisters and half-brother. Lily’s Dad refuses, and tells Lily to insist that her Mum doesn’t leave; Lily says she has passed this message on (in fact her Mum is already in Spain). Angry, she doesn’t contact any other adults and tries to look after siblings alone; when a teacher comes round to see why they’re not at school Lily is afraid social services will come and separate her from her siblings; so she persuades them to run away with her. Lily steals food for them and they sleep rough in the park; when Lily sleeps Bliss, her half-sister, falls out of a tree and breaks her leg. Lily remorsefully calls an ambulance; and social workers do indeed get involved—Lily’s mum is charged with child endangerment and neglect, and Lily is separated from her siblings.

It’s more often than not ‘mothers’ at fault in these books (not always, though: Cookie (2008) is about a horrible, hypercritical moody and tantrum-prone father). And the protagonists are almost always (always? I’m trying to think of a counter-example) girls. So the ‘thing’ Wilson is tapping into has to something to do with the mother-daughter vertical psychodynamic (often inverted—that is to say, with daughters having to look after mothers, as in The Mum Minder or The Illustrated Mum), and the daughter’s ‘horizontal’ sibling or friendship relations.

There is something impressively sophisticated about all this, psychologically speaking—a sophistication perhaps belied by the apparent ‘simpleness’ of Wilson’s textual strategies. It’s a lot, actually, to unpack; and I’m going to close by quoting an An Und Für Sich blogpost (one of Jeremy’s) that discusses David Celani’s 1994 book The Illusion of Love: Why the Battered Women Returns to Her Abuser. Celani is a clinical psychologist who has been influenced by the Scottish psychoanalyst, Ronald Fairbairn:
Whereas Klein attempted to reconcile drive theory with object relations, Fairbairn rejected drive theory (and the notion of death drive & innate aggression), believing that aggression is a reaction to deprivation. Moreover, Fairbairn prioritized attachment over the pleasure principle and famously suggested that the libido is object-seeking. Fairbairn began his career in a Scottish orphanage and worked with many children who had been abused and/or neglected. Fairbairn observed many things that were troubling that made him question classical psychoanalytic theory. Celani writes, “these children preferred to face the threat of being beaten to death in their own homes by their own parents rather than the physical safety of staying in the foundling home without their parents.” (p. 24). Second, Fairbairn recognized that these deprived children were more attached and dependent upon their mothers than are children in non-abusive situations. Celani states, “The more they are deprived, the more they are fixated” (p. 26). For Fairbairn, these observations make sense if one understands that the child’s greatest fear is [the fear of] not being loved by the primary caretaker. Their desperate clinging to bad objects is based on the hopeless fantasy that one day their caretaker will give them the love for which they yearn. Fairbairn described typical defenses used by these children to cope with their painful, traumatic situations. First, they might use “the moral defense against bad objects”, which are complex rationalizations that the child uses to justify parental neglect and/or abuse. For instance, “my father did not beat me because he’s an alcoholic sadist who might injure me at any moment” but “if I had cleaned my room better I bet father wouldn’t have been so mad. I’m so lazy sometimes, and I probably deserved to learn that lesson the hard way.” Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morality, “Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering” (p. 136). These children cannot acknowledge the fact that they randomly suffer because this reality is absolutely terrifying. Instead, they find ways to maintain a sense of control by citing trivial personal and moral flaws (any attempt to create meaning) that explain parental mistreatment. Second, these children often regularly engage in splitting (a psychological mechanism that separates good experiences from bad experiences). Celani suggests that the splitting of the ego leads to two separate selves: the hopeful self (created by experiences when the parent was gratifying) and the abused self (created by experiences when the parent was rejecting). Splitting is necessary when the child’s primary objects were abusive and/or neglectful and allows the child to keep the parent (and the resulting self-states) into separate parts of their mind. If the child were to integrate these self- and object-representations then the child would be forced to confront the fact that their parent was much more abusive than gratifying. Children avoid integration because it might permit “the small moments of past goodness from being washed away by the larger tide of rejection” (p. 134).
The hopeful self and the abused self maps well onto Wilson’s dramatic instincts for representing two-party girl friendships; but the thing here that most strikes me is the way her novels orchestrate such affective potency about, precisely, the ‘moral defense against bad objects’. The more I think about this, the more it seems to me central to the being-in-the-world of kids—not just abused or abandoned kids, or kids growing up in environments of social deprivation (the actual constituency of Wilson’s dramatis personae) but all kids. And that may be why so many kids not from those backgrounds find Wilson’s fiction so absorbing and even consoling.

Realism and Children's Literature

Here's a bit from Elizabeth Segel's ‘Realism and Children's Literature: Notes from a Historical Perspective’ [Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 5:3 (1980), 15-18]:
Realism in the sense of verisimilitude, or a faithful mirroring of actual experience, has been present in works of many periods and genres. In the Illiad's scene of Hector's leavetaking from his wife and infant son (Book VI), for instance, the image of the child clinging to his nurse, fearful of his father's plumed helmet, stands out from the poem's supernatural events and heroic texture in its close fidelity to observed experience. Realism in a narrower sense refers, however, to a literary movement that began to take shape with Defoe's fictions in the early eighteenth century and came into full flower in the English and French novels of the 1850's. This movement consisted of (1) a set of attitudes concerning the proper subject-matter and aims of the novel and (2) particular methods for achieving these aims.

The practitioners of realism rejected the conventional plots and stereotyped characters of romance in favor of a form that would reflect more accurately the random and inconclusive nature of actual events and the complex individuality of actual people. In place of the romantic-idealist philosophy that art should limit itself to depicting the beautiful, realism adopted the premise that the novel should be "a full and authentic report of human experience," in Ian Watt's phrase.

This conception of the novel determined its characteristic subject-matter: everyday events, particularized settings, and characters from all ranks of life. The distinctive techniques of realism included a predominantly plain narrative style and the use of detail to particularize time, place and character.

In assessing the impact of the realistic movement on children's literature one is first struck by the absolute incompatibility between the aims of most writers for children and the aims of the realistic school. Juvenile authors saw their mission as shaping the young reader's character and believed in the efficacy of presenting ideal types of vice and virtue to that end; the result was a far cry from "a full and authentic report of human experience." Yet, adult purposes notwithstanding, realism has been a shaping force in children's literature ever since young readers appropriated for themselves that ground-breaking realistic fiction, Robinson Crusoe. This is no doubt because certain of the distinctive qualities of formal realism are very much in tune with the child's perception of the world and therefore with his/her aesthetic preferences.

The dismissal of fantasy as frivolous and immoral by educators of all persuasions prior to the mid-nineteenth century meant that in those years most books written specifically for children took as their subject everyday events in contemporary settings. Yet they are certainly not examples of realism. Speaking of U. S. children's books, Anne Scott MacLeod writes: "According to its creators, the fiction written for children before 1860 was realistic ... In fact, of course, the realism in juvenile books was always subordinated to didacticism. Both consciously and unconsciously, the authors edited reality in order to teach morality ... " MacLeod uses the term "nonfantasy fiction" to describe this literature rather than the misleading "realistic fiction."

This view that children's books were instruments for shaping child character dictated that instead of the realists' psychological complexity in characterization, one had schematized simplicity: lazy vs. industrious apprentices, Sanford vs. Merton. Since obedience to authority was the chief virtue juvenile authors sought to drum into little heads, adult characters in authority tended to be drawn as paragons of wisdom and virtue.

Consequently, few if any children's books before the twentieth century stand as thorough-going instances of formal realism. Yet many outstanding children's books of the past 150 years benefited from the example of the realists, and the character of children's books today owes a great deal to the realistic movement.
Pondering this. I don't as it happens think that 'the fiction written for children before 1860 was realistic' is a correct statement -- I'd say that the fiction written for children before 1860 was Romantic in the fullest sense, and indeed (via the success of the folk-art-y, and thoroughly Fantastical, Grimms' Tales) actually informed the shaping of Romanticism as a movement. There certainly was 'realist' children's fiction written in the nineteenth-century, much of it explicitly didactic in purpose; but it just didn't enjoy the success or cultural longevity of fantasy like The Water Babies, Wind in the Willows Peter Pan or Five Children and It. Compare the relative success of Lewis Carroll's Fantasy Alice books and the more serious social-didactic actual-world strands in his feeble Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). The later are bad books, in part because they are dull books (a fairyland strand runs alongside the social realist strand, but gets stifled by it).

On the other hand, I've been going through Jacqueline Wilson novels all week, prior to lecturing on them tomorrow; and her success is clearly grounded in the textual strategies of the Realist tradition (although simplified and cartoonified, in a good sense). I'm struck that Wilson, though undeniably hugely popular and important, stands outside the main current of 21st-C YA writing. What's going on here, I wonder? (In particular: 'certain of the distinctive qualities of formal realism are very much in tune with the child's perception of the world and therefore with his/her aesthetic preferences' feels wrong to me. Am I fooling myself?)

Friday, 21 March 2014


Πολύφημος (Polyphēmos) is the Cyclopean giant from Homer's Odyssey who imprisons and eats many of Odysseus' crew in his cave, such that only Odysseus's polymētis many-wittedness is able to save the day. There's plenty we could say about him; but for the minute I'm interested in one thing only, the 'many-' prefixity of his name.

When I was a student I was taught that the name Πολύφημος means 'many voices', which is to say 'loud'. But there are other derivations, since φημη means, L&S tell us, pretty much the same as the Latin fama, into which, etymologically speaking, the Greek word devolves. ('a voice from heaven, a prophetic voice'; 'a saying or report'; 'the talk of report of a man's character'; 'a song of praise'). Taking 'Polyphemus' as 'Polyfamous' sets up a nice allegory of the lumbering one-eyed, dinosaurian brutality of 'fame' versus the small, mammallian, quick-wittedness of Odysseus' 'nobody'. No question as to who will win that battle. A lesson for our times.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

William Johnson Cory, 'Nascitur cygnus' ('Cygnet is born'; 1877)

Nascitur cygnus: sibi rex videtur,
Impiger pigrae dominus paludis
Matris in dorso sedet, it reditque
     Publica cura.

Pascitur frustris puerumque donis
Ponte deiectis. Famulos moratur
Qui via spissa properant ferentes
     Scruta culinis.

Nam placent Omni modo nata menti
Regnat in terra dea pulchritudo:
Quod novum ridet tenerumque captat
     Lumina vulgi.

Attamen cygni teneri parentes
Ambiunt prolem male suspicaces;
Sibilant, strident, agitant minaci
     Stagna volatu.

Non amor noster sociandus illi:
Di vetant Musas hominum potentes
Scire quid nymphae doceant sodales
     Voce carentes.


Cygnet is born: believes himself monarch,
fast-moving lord of the slow-moving marshes:
throned on his mother's back, passing, repassing,
     we all look out for him.

Gobbles up scraps and whatever boys feed him
tossed from the bridge; tempts servants to linger
hurrying on up the traffic-jammed roadway
     with stuff for the kitchens.

Everyone falls for what's prettily new-born:
Beauty's a goddess whose writ runs the world round:
everything smilingly new is a winner --
     lights up the crowd!

Ah but the parents of tender young Cygnet
swim round their youngster in sour apprehension;
hissing and screaming, they stir up the water
     in threatening wing-strikes.

Let's hope that our love is never so snarly:
Gods prevent Muses (who govern humanity)
even to know what the nymphs teach their followers,
     whose voices are silenced.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Moon poem

The moon is its own coin.

The moon is its own ghost.

The moon is its own moon.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

'Taking' Offence

The crucial question, I suppose, is: does taking offence at something tend to empower or disempower us? Is it the latter, because it reveals us as mimsy and thin-skinned, too easily upset, childish and so on? Or the former, because one consequence of the (necessary, even heroic) efforts over the last century or so to drive out sexist, racist and homophobic discourse has resulted in a new social logic whereby people will go to significant efforts to respond, defuse, apologise for and try to future-avert 'any offence caused'. If the former, then it stands to reason that people will increasingly not only take offence but do it publicly.

We might want to say: but offence is a feeling! I can't help feeling. Which is fair enough, and I suppose true to a point. Except that these very efforts to delegitimize sexism, racism and homophobia have been in large part the effort to police people's feelings. A homophobe feels disgust at the thought of what gay people get up to, feels disgusted to have to share his workspace with a gay man and so on. (I stress feeling here since it seems to me axiomatic that such prejudice is not based on rationality or intellect: it is, on the contrary, irrational and stupid). If a person says 'my formerly whites only swimming pool is now open to people of all races and this makes me feel disgusted and upset' we are, I'd suggest, unlikely to go 'there there!' and try to soothe the individual's wounded sensibilities. We're more likely to say: oh get over yourself, you bigot. Your feelings are ridiculous. Indeed, the fact that you feel this way is likely to make me, and others, feel bad. I take personal offence at such offensive views! And so on.

The difficulty is a fundamental one. We can only challenge these (I should stress: insane, ridiculous) 'feelings' by transferring them into the realm of the intellect, by de-emoting them. Think how illogical it is to think that you will be, in some sense, contaminated by sharing swimming pool water with people whose skins are black and brown! The problem here, of course, is that because the bigot is not reacting on the level of logic he is unlikely to be persuaded to reconsider his bigotry by an appeal to logic.

These thoughts are prompted, in part, by the latest kerfuffle in my beloved genre. A great deal of effort has been expended by many people to try and make SF Conventions 'safe spaces'. Since such conventions used, in many cases, to be places in which men, variously creepy, weird and aggressive, scammed on, harassed, assaulted and raped women, this is a powerful and important move. A safe space ought, at the very least, to be a space in which a female fan could come without having to endure such behaviour from male fans. Ideally it ought to be a space in which a female fan need not even worry that such behaviour would ever happen; but (male) humanity being what it is, this actually shakes down into: a space in which complaints about harassment are taken seriously, acted on promptly and so on. I can't imagine anybody could object to, and surely most people would loudly applaud, such moves. The problem comes when 'harassment' is taken to include not only bodily advances and assaults but also anything that impinges feelings -- anything done, said, or implied that makes a women feel uncomfortable or unhappy. The kerfuffle to which I advert hinged not on the actual upset caused to any woman's feelings at the con (since the con has not happened yet, this would not have been possible). It was a purely subjunctive predicate, based on the idea that even the thought that there was a possibility that words might be spoken that might cause a woman to feel bad feelings was grounds enough to object to a person being invited to the con. This special subset of feelings (on the analogy of the stock market, we might call them 'Feelings Futures') throws my initial question into sharper relief. On the one hand: who could be so crass as to deny someone's feelings, or tell someone to shut the fuck up because of (eg) weeping as a result of such feelings? On the other hand: YOU WHAT?

I suspect the reason this latter case seems so tenuous to many is precisely that thinking about what we might or might not feel at some far-off future date strikes many of us as the sort of thing the intellect does, rather than something that proceeds instinctively from the emotions. If we wanted to be pedantic about it, we could say: the mind first rationally extrapolates or imagines a future state of affairs -- as it might be, 'Jonathan Ross saying something that hurts my feelings' -- and then that imagine future state has an affective reaction. Maybe the affective reaction is genuine; maybe the tears are real. But they are not tears wept as a result of anything that has happened, since their cause is still in the notional future.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Talking animals

I was chatting with my friend and colleague Bob today about the coding of holocaust victims as animals in testimony and literary representation (*clears throat* as you do). It's a fascinating, if grim, topic. We start with the simple Nazi rhetoric of dehumanising your subjects as 'vermin', 'rats', 'pigs and dogs' and the like, in order to make it easier for your soldiers to murder them, and also to shore up the larger edifice of your genocidal plan. This is more complicated than it might seem at first, because different animal terms have different valences: (1) kittens and pupppies are cute, and you don't want to kill them; (2) lions and eagles are magnificent and you may not want to kill them, you may only want to admire them; but then again (2a) you may indeed want to kill them to prove what a manly Übermench-y warrior-hunter you are; (3) pigs, cows and lambs are definitely killworthy because they are tasty and therefore valuable; and (4) vermin, cockroaches and viruses are eminently killworthy not because they are valuable or because killing them will be productive of any positive good (like bacon or sirloin steaks), but for reasons of hygiene and the prevention of disease. So of these four categories, Nazi tend to characterize Jews as the latter kind of animals (obviously), except when they stray, as it were, in their discourse up into the penultimate category and describe them with reference to farm animals. Because sometimes you strive to annihilate Jews, turn them into literal puffs of smoke; but sometimes you aim to exploit them for their gold teeth, and to turn their hair into sweaters for your submariners and their skin into lampshades. I don't know if this idiom strays even higher up as it were (whether, say, Tarantino's 'The Bear Jew!' has any historical grounding behind it. Given that film's cavalier relationship to historical reality I'm guessing ... not).

The holocaust, of course, is a kind of limit case for this kind of thing; and one reason Bob and I were chatting is because one of his PhD students happens to be looking into the crossover between this sort of thing on the one hand and animal rights discourses on the other. So: animal rights activists very often compare the industrial slaughter of farm animals to the holocaust, as a rhetorical way of stressing the (as they would see it) enormity of the former via the inarguable horror of the latter. And there are plenty of key cultural texts outside the specific 'animal rights' movement that explore the one circumstance via the other: for Coetzee, for instance, cruelty to animals, or more specifically disregard of animals' capacity for suffering, articulates a direct connection with Nazi-style atrocity. Spiegelman's Maus comes at it from the other side, as it were; and runs the risk (as several commentators note) of bedding-in the Nazi persecution of the Jews as in some sense 'natural'. We don't blame cats for killing mice, after all; it's what they do. This speaks to a larger problematic, I think. I've known several quite radical vegetarians and vegans for whom meat killed for human consumption is always murder. They still buy meat, though; because their pet cats can't subsist on beansprouts. They love their cats! Indeed, their relationship with their cats is amongst other things an iteration of their broader love for and sense of duty of care towards 'the animal kingdom' as a whole. But rather cruelly, you might think, Mother Nature refuses to play along, and no breed of vegan cat has evolved.

The holocaust, though, is a particular example of a larger case. War as a whole involves persuading a large quantity of young men to kill other young men, something the majority of them would really rather not do, actually. One way of enabling this 'killing' mindset is by troping the enemy as beasts; because it's easier to kill an animal than it is to kill a human. This sort of thing:

Or indeed, this, from a later war:

The problem here is precisely that animals have associations both clean and unclean. Sometimes animals make us think 'ugh! kill!', but sometimes they make us think 'ah! cuddle!'. Young soldiers have only recently grown beyond the phase when they find it actually easier to empathise with animals than with people (hence the preponderance of talking animals in children's literature, and the ubiquity of stuffed toy animals in children's bedrooms). Animals are devices for mediating empathy in the very young, which makes them slippery signifiers when what you're trying to do is egg people on to a killing spree. It might backfire (Wilfred Owen turns the beast trope back onto his own side, with an emphasis precisely on youth: 'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns').

This in turn leads me to ponder the representation of talking animals in the immediate postwar period. In Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) it can only be animals that allegorise the rise of totalitarian power, because the great war which has just passed was the war against bestial totalitarian power (DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE! STOP THIS MONSTER!). And in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith's great soul-shaking fear of rats is much more than just a rational sense of the unhygenic nature of those animals, or a reasonable sense that it would be horrible were a rat to bite him on the face. It is the psychic embodiment of the same structuring anti-Semitism that puts the Jew Goldstein at the heart of the official 'two-minute hate'. Smith's hated of vermin is a pure distillation of psychic life in a state radically predicated upon an anti-Semitism so profound and all encompassing it no longer even has to name the Jew as human, or indeed name him at all. (Bob wasn't entirely persuaded by this, mind you).

But then I started thinking about The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, another book written soon after WW2 about the complex valences of talking animals, as heroic creatures who must sacrificed to an even more heroic and Über aim; and as useful and functional creatures; and also as vermin and uncleanness; also, of course, a book-series strung between one Great War at the beginning and a second Great War at the end. The Jews in this series are not animals, interestingly, but instead are the non-Aslanic (that is, the abjected from the nature of Aslan) dwarfs.

And then I thought of a second text about talking animals: the movie series Planet of the Apes (1968-74). This text, of course, is about a different racial problematic (US African Americans rather than European Jews) and was produced quite a bit later. But then I had this thought: the first movie introduces this strange world; the second movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes, only two years later, returns us to this imagined world in order to destroy it utterly -- the nuclear doomsday device is ignited in the final scene of the movie and the Earth is obliterated, humans, talking animals and all. (The later sequels are pushed to the exigency of travelling back in time to avoid this narrative dead-end). But this is also true of the Narnia books! No sooner have we been introduced to Narnia in the first book, and specifically within the few years it takes the children to grow from young kids to edge-of-aduthood teenagers, we arrive at The Last Battle and the whole imagined world is apocalyptically destroyed. (It's a few years for the kids but many centuries inside Narnia, of course; but I don't think that contradicts my point). It is almost as if there's a buried logic at work: in the postwar period -- imagine a world in which animals can talk and think like us. Alright? Well, such a world is on the very edge of total destruction; it has ushered-in its own end times; bye-bye. Why might that be, I wonder?