‘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

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?