‘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, 30 December 2015

Wordsworth's 'Strange fits of passion I have known' (1798)

So, let me ask you a question about Wordsworth's 'Strange fits of passion I have known', one of the most famous of the Lyrical Ballad poems (written in 1798, it first appeared in the 1800 second edition of that famous collection). What kind of moon do you picture, hanging over the cottage?
Strange fits of passion I have known,
And I will dare to tell,
But in the lover's ear alone,
What once to me befel.

When she I lov'd, was strong and gay
And like a rose in June,
I to her cottage bent my way,
Beneath the evening moon.

Upon the moon I fix'd my eye,
All over the wide lea;
My horse trudg'd on, and we drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

And now we reach'd the orchard plot,
And, as we climb'd the hill,
Towards the roof of Lucy's cot
The moon descended still.

In one of those sweet dreams I slept,
Kind Nature's gentlest boon!
And, all the while, my eyes I kept
On the descending moon.

My horse mov'd on; hoof after hoof
He rais'd and never stopp'd:
When down behind the cottage roof
At once the planet dropp'd.

What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover's head—
"O mercy!" to myself I cried,
"If Lucy should be dead!"
I think I'd always assumed this was a full moon, perhaps because the scene described seems so fully and visually described, which is to say: there seems to be so much light in this nighttime scene. But reading it again, the imagery strikes me as a procession of sickles: the lover's ear; a rose-thorn; hoof after hoof (presumably imprinting crescent patterns onto the turf); words like 'bent' ('I to her cottage bent my way') and the overall upward-arc of the speaker meeting the downward-arc of the moon until it is eclipsed by the cottage itself. I even find myself wondering if the three crescent-letters 'u' and 'c' and 'y' that make up Lucy's name feed into this. Certainly a sickle-moon, coming down like death's scythe onto Lucy's cottage, makes more symbolic sense of that famously startling last line.

It's all symbolism, of course. The poem is always aware that the 'descent' of the moon is only an optical illusion, and that therefore the 'strange fit' with which the poem ends—'O mercy! If Lucy should be dead!'—has everything to do with the narrator's state of mind and nothing with the external world. The seeming simplicity of the poem's diction and form throws into sharper relief than might otherwise be the case the Empsonian ambiguity of this 'fit'. Is it a fit in the sense that an epileptic has a fit, which is to say a sudden, unexpected aberration? Or is it, rather, something fitting, something that suddenly reveals itself to be proper, the right thing, the desired thing? In either case it deserves the modifier strange. A lot depends on the if in the final line. Its an unstressed little syllable, and its position sandwiched between two syllables not only stressed but prosodically long (cried, a dipthong, and Lūcy) tends to deemphasize it further. Without it, the statement looks rather more like a sudden conclusion that Lucy must die. Even with it, the 'if' modifies in a strange, and strangely unemphatic, way. Maybe it would be better if Lucy were to die? What kind of lover would ever wish such a fate on his beloved?

Love is a complicated emotion. That sentence looks more than a little fatuous, put like that, but it's true. It might be possible to wish an inamorata dead for reasons other than hatred, or anger, or psychopathy. It might, for instance, to feel that strange passionate tangle of desires after the manner of Scobie in Greene's The Heart of the Matter. I appreciate, of course, that most people don't read the poem this way: it is conventionally taken that the strange fit of passion is a fear, not a desire, a sudden anxiety that one's lover might die, or perhaps an existentially vertiginous apprehension of mortality as such. But the thing about desires and wishes is intimate, as Shakespeare's King Henry knew: a person's wish can be father to that person's thought.

The poem is a simple anecdote, 'what once to me befel', and the pun on befel is almost too much. What befalls the speaker is the moon, seemingly be-falling: 'the moon descended'; 'the descending moon'; 'the planet dropp'd'. Thoughts 'slide' into the speaker's head. Everything seems to be falling and slipping and dropping, which is also why the moon is the appropriate poetic symbol: the mutability of all.

But, see, this makes me wonder if this is a poem about a different kind of falling, that thing we call 'falling in love'. It can be discombobulating, that feeling. Strange. Odi et amo: all that. Unthinking people sometimes assert that 'love' and 'hate' are opposites. They're not, of course; a better opposition would be between 'love' on the one hand and indifference on the other. Love and hate, both modes of emotional intensity, have a worrying amount in common. Nevertheless it would be insane to say they are synonyms. Love puts the other above you, even if it blots out everyone in the world who is not you and I. Hate puts the other below you. It is a false idiom to say we fall in love, although falling is a very expressive and exact way of talking about the way hatred possesses us. We don't fall in love; we rise into it. But then: that's exactly what the speaker, here, does. He rises.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Excursion excursus 1

The Latin root of 'excursion' is much more vigorous, rapid, and indeed aggressive than the connotations of the English word now imply: not a leisurely wandering-around pleasant scenery, but 'a running out, an inroad, invasion, a setting out, beginning of a speech' (from excurrere, 'to run out': ex, 'out' + currere, 'to run'). Invasion ('sally, onset, attack') is one of the prime meanings of the word. And, since I've been going over Wordsworth's Excursion (1814) during the winter break, this etymology has more than once come back to me. All the things I used to dislike about this poem—what used to strike me as a ponderous earnestness, plodding dutifulness and preachiness—strike me now as much more estranging, much more attacking. Indeed I tend to think that one of the things Wordsworth is attacking, in this poem, is the very notion of the well-made poem, the diverting or polished well-wrought urn.

Not that Wordsworth is herein presenting a great slab of Ted-Hughesian Natural Granite. Not at all. The Excursion is indeed a very carefully wrought piece of writing, its great length notwithstanding; and in place of great henges of raw nature we get long, long speeches by the various speakers, decorously Miltonic in cadence (if less Latinate in vocabulary than Paradise Lost) and fully engaged in moral-philosophical and social-philosophical issues. But the very relentlessness of these engagements becomes, in its own way, powerfully estranging. We can of course read the poem as a living intervention into actual ethical and metaphysical questions, if we have the patience; or we can read it as a kind of ur-Samuel Beckett drama, in which a small group of pared-down characters, known not by their names but by titles such as 'The Wanderer', 'The Solitary', and 'The Parson' occupy a denuded stage ('we return The Excursion's images to their origins in the known scene,' W L Renwick notes, 'and forget how little Wordsworth needed for his purposes: trees, water, daffodils; a man beside a bare pool; some tumbled stones on a hillside.' [186]). They pass the time in conversation, although, of course, it would have passed in any case, and much of what they say flows over us like Lucky's speech. What they, and we, are waiting for is a particular iteration of Godot known only as 'the Recluse'. But the Recluse never comes.
The Excursion is the longest of Wordsworth's poems to be published in his lifetime (9,068 lines in nine books), and it is the centerpiece of the great epic that he envisioned. It is a 'dramatic poem', which records the conversation and debate among four characters—a Poet, Wanderer, Solitary, and Pastor—over a period of five days. Wordsworth first developed the plan for The Excursion with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797–1798, the same period during which they were collaborating on the Lyrical Ballads and in which Wordsworth was beginning the autobiographical poem posthumously published as The Prelude. As Wordsworth conceived it, The Excursion would be the second of three long poems in a comprehensive project to be called The Recluse, Wordsworth's mature philosophical consideration of "Man, Nature, and Human Life" (39). Of the three poems projected, Wordsworth completed only The Excursion [Ronald Schroeder, ‘The Excursion’, Textual Cultures 4:1 (2009), 151].
So, at the moment, I'm only in a position to make a few initial sallies into this huge poem. I'll be back, though.

The initial thing I'd record is how much more finely crafted the blank verse of the poem struck me on this latter re-read: insofar as Wordsworth is 'attacking' the notion of the small-scale picturesque and harmonious work, he is doing so from within, as it were. Here's a little scene of pleasant company by the lakeside from Book 9:
A gipsy-fire we kindled on the shore
Of the fair Isle with birch-trees fringed—and there,
Merrily seated in a ring, partook
A choice repast—served by our young companions
With rival earnestness and kindred glee.
Launched from our hands the smooth stone skimmed the lake. [Excursion 9:527-32]
I love the way that last line mimics its subject, swapping about the stress of its opening iamb into a trochaic launching pad, like the stone itself being thrown (running on excurrently into the remainder of the line), and then bouncing once, twice, thrice with the alliterative spondees of 'smooth stone skimmed', the repeated touches of sibilance onomatopoeiacally capturing the glancing impact with the water. Very nicely done. Or at the other end of the epic: this account of the origins of the Wanderer:
Among the hills of Athol he was born;
Where, on a small hereditary farm,
An unproductive slip of rugged ground,
His Parents, with their numerous offspring, dwelt;
A virtuous household, though exceeding poor!
Pure livers were they all, austere and grave,
And fearing God; the very children taught
Stern self-respect, a reverence for God's word,
And an habitual piety, maintained
With strictness scarcely known on English ground.

From his sixth year, the Boy of whom I speak,
In summer, tended cattle on the hills;
But, through the inclement and the perilous days
Of long-continuing winter, he repaired,
Equipped with satchel, to a school, that stood
Sole building on a mountain's dreary edge,
Remote from view of city spire, or sound
Of minster clock! From that bleak tenement
He, many an evening, to his distant home
In solitude returning, saw the hills
Grow larger in the darkness; all alone
Beheld the stars come out above his head,
And travelled through the wood, with no one near
To whom he might confess the things he saw.

So the foundations of his mind were laid.
In such communion, not from terror free,
While yet a child, and long before his time,
Had he perceived the presence and the power
Of greatness; and deep feelings had impressed
So vividly great objects that they lay
Upon his mind like substances, whose presence
Perplexed the bodily sense. [Excursion 1: 108-31]
That's a long chunk, but what leaps out at me is the verse-paragraph from the middle, lines 118-31:
From his sixth year, the Boy of whom I speak,
In summer, tended cattle on the hills;
But, through the inclement and the perilous days
Of long-continuing winter, he repaired,
Equipped with satchel, to a school, that stood   [5]
Sole building on a mountain's dreary edge,
Remote from view of city spire, or sound
Of minster clock! From that bleak tenement
He, many an evening, to his distant home
In solitude returning, saw the hills                  [10]
Grow larger in the darkness; all alone
Beheld the stars come out above his head,
And travelled through the wood, with no one near
To whom he might confess the things he saw.
Isolate that passage, and we have a rather beautiful sonnet to youth, where the blank verse flirts delicately with rhyme ('repaired'/'head', 'home'/'alone', even 'hills'/'hills'). The octave, from the first line up to 'Of minster clock ...', moves us through the more crowded scene of cow-herds and schoolfellows via polysyllabic words: inclement and perilous, long-continuing winter and so on. Indeed, the crowding even squeezes the prosody: I suppose we're invited to read the line But, through the inclement and the perilous days as But, through th'inclement and th'perilous days (horrid, that), but as it is printed, and if we choose to speak it that way, it actually runs twelve-syllables into the space allotted to ten.  Then we get to the sestet (from 'He, many an evening ...' through to '... the things he saw'), which effects a turn towards the isolating grandeur of Sublime nature in verse comprised, from the mid-point of line 10 onwards, wholly of disyllables and monosyllables, and predominantly the latter strung starkly together: he saw 'the stars come out above his head ... through the wood with no one near/To whom he might confess the things he saw.' Only the quasi-religious 'confess', there, disturbs the clear succession of one-stress words. This adds very effectively to the way this pseudo-sonnet, embedded in the larger poetic fabric, works towards the individualised loveliness of its encounter with the chaste stars.

There's something else in this 'sonnet', I think: something Wordsworth believed exemplary of the poet, but which will probably strike us as rather odd. It's one of the things what he says in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, that the true poet delights in contemplating 'volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, is 'habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them', and above all:
to these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present.
Absence is much more what The Excursion is about than I remember. Onwards—excurrently.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Cruiskshank, 'The Gin Shop' (1829)

Not as well-known as Hogarth's 'Gin Lane', but a rather fine image nonetheless (click to embiggen). Death, on the left there, is saying: ‘I shall have them all dead drunk presently! They have nearly had their last glass.’ And in the back room, goblins dance in a ring around a cauldron in which some sort of spectral death’s-head is steaming, singing: ‘Black Spirits and White, Blue Spirits and Grey—Mingle mingle mingle!—You that mingle may’.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

On Faith and Doubt

Are there any atheists in the Old Testament? The fool hath said in his heart there is no God, perhaps; but fools aside—how could Adam, Enoch, Abraham or Moses deny the existence of God? In their world he was a straightforward presence, one more actor on the world stage (whilst also, in another sense, being the stage). Or to put the question another way: if we read through the Bible as a narrative—which exercise, however distorting it almost certainly is, has been the pastime of millions of believers—we see not so much a gradual withdrawal of God, from another body in the garden, to a burning bush, to spiritus sanctus; but rather a breach, or break. Who is the first atheist? Which is to say: who, taking Old and New Testament together, is the first figure in the Bible to doubt what everybody else takes as manifest and self-evident, the presence of God in the world? G K Chesterton once suggested an answer to that question: God himself, incarnated as Christ, with his cry from the cross that God has withdrawn from him. This, to be sure, is not an assertion of Dawkinesque atheism (which would be: there is not and never has been a God); but rather the infallible assertion that where God was once a part of the world he now no longer is. Adam and Eve are banished from proximity to the divine into the world, but that world is one in which the physical reality of God is still a part: God is glimpsed, or manifests Himself in natural phenomena—or supernatural ones, indeed. The God of the Old Testament, taken in terms of the internal logic of the world-building of those texts, is a certainty; and opposition to such a God can only be a matter of obstinacy, pride, or idiocy. Individuals who deny Jahweh are on a par with flat-earthers, or individuals suffering from hysterical blindness.

Not so the New Testament. Here we see the same broad premise as the Old Testament, the presence of God in a fallen world, in a completely different light. God’s incarnation is also the occasion for Him to forsake the world. The crucifixion, via a complex process of reiterated incarnation and ascension, destroys the body of God. God himself, on the cross, proclaims atheistical doubts about the presence of God. Of course it is true that after his heartfelt cry of loss-of-faith, why hast thou forsaken me, God himself passes back into faith; and the last of the seven utterances from the cross (into your hands I commend my spirit) functions as a pure and indeed moving article of faith. But the language is not that of certainty—as it might be, ‘now that it is finished, I go to my certain reward’. It is, on the contrary, the language of uncertainty, of hopeful but unsure self-commendation. The truly strange portion of this is, to resume the Chestertonian point, this is both Christ, a man who has been tortured horribly to death, hoping that he will be reunited with the heavenly God (a very human thing) and God, omniscient and all-powerful, who has freely chosen passivity—hence ‘passion’—in the teeth of human persecution. When we start to consider how it might be that God can consider God has forsaken Him, or how He can talk with anything other than certainty about what happens next, we may find ourselves coming to the conclusion that the real subject of the Passion is, precisely, doubt. Death, the one thing certain for all mortals, becomes the aperture through which doubt enters the world; both in the sense that we do not know when it is coming for us, or what happens after, and in the sense that it is death—transience, annihilation—that is most forcefully at odds with the spiritual narrative of immortal souls created by an immortal gods. This is why it is after the crucifixion that Doubt becomes the tenor of the human encounter with the divine, and the new subject of the Bible. Peter’s triple denial of Christ; doubting Thomas, Paul’s sermonizing on the valences of faith instead of proof—this is all part of a new pattern. Once God has withdrawn himself physically from the world, doubt becomes the necessary currency of belief in Him. The mood shifts from imperative to subjunctive.

This is, I suppose, has some relationship to Karl Barth’s celebrated argument that ‘metaphysical absolutes are an abomination unto the Lord and abolished in Christ.’ That, in other words, one of the points of the divine principle supplementing itself (as it were) in Christ is, once and for all, to introduce a saving doubt as the ground of individual faith. Barth objects to all attempts at ‘proof’—St Anselm’s, or St Aquinas’s—as misunderstandings (more precisely; he argues that subsequent thinkers have mistaken the grounds and purposes of these ‘proofs’) of the nature of the way that lies between God and man. In The Word of God and the Word of Man he insists: ‘there is no way from us to God—not even a via negativa—not even a via dialectica nor paradoxica. The God who stood at the end of some human way would not be God.’ If that looks as though Barth’s beef is with a human arrogance and superbus in thinking we can define, or determine, or in some sense fix God, that’s actually only part of it. For Barth, the point is as much that positive assertion as to the existence of God is replaced, theologically speaking, with a mystic negation of the human. In crude terms, the road does not run from man to God; it runs from God to man. This is also the thrust of that splendid though rather under-appreciated piece of creative theology, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The babel-fish knows the truth. Once we accept that proof denies faith, we find ourselves in the situation where any absolute certainty as to the existence of God would be precisely the grounds on which God ceases to exist. ‘Proof denies faith’, here, means something more than ‘proof would tend to degrade or corrode faith’. It means, more starkly: proof and faith together constitute a zero-sum game. The NT lapel-badge says: The fool hath said in his heart, I am certain of God.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Basilisk and Weasel: Fighting Crime

A 17th-century depiction of a basilisk with a weasel, by Wenceslas Hollar. Because Basilisk and Weasel are best buds.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

'All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning" Till A.D. 1850'

All of them. No exceptions. You're curious to know who these women are, aren't you? Here you go then:

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Christopher Middleton

I was sorry to hear that Christopher Middleton died last week: a much underappreciated poet. Here (via) is one of my favourites of his: 'January 1919', from The Word Pavilion & Selected Poems (2001).
What if I know, Liebknecht, who shot you dead.
Tiegarten trees unroll
staggering shadow, in spite of it all.
I am among the leaves; the inevitable
have nothing left to say, the holed head
bleeding across a heap of progressive magazines;
torn from your face,
trees that turned around,
we do not sanctify the land with our wandering.
Look upon our children, they are mutilated.
I'd say 'timely', given that my nation is once again about to go to war. But it's not that the current situation in Syria makes the poem timely; it's that it's a poem about a circumstance that is, alas, never untimely.

Monday, 30 November 2015

The Heirophant

... though not as petrifying as your haircut and outfit, little boy.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Remarkable News from the Stars (1732)

An astrological pamphlet, promising, as the title page says, all manner of wondrous and astonishing revelations. Also: advertisements for false teeth:

Prophesies of the future are all very well. But are they an ornament to the mouth and a help with speech? Eh? No.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

My Subject-Matter Is Subject-Matter

I was reading, for reasons that escape me now, an old 1980s Craig Raine article about Peter Porter, but actually about the place of subject matter in the assessment of literary merit (this one, in fact). Is a poorly written story about a really interesting event better than a brilliantly written story about a mundane or humdrum event? It's a no brainer, of course. Raine gives some examples:
Clearly, there is a place for interestingly uninteresting subject-matter. We know this from Miss Bates and the spectacle rivet. We know from Chekhov that the provincial and the defeated have their proper significance. Even Tolstoy, dealing with grand themes in War and Peace, succeeds best, not when he ruminates about History, but when he adds brilliantly mundane footnotes to the illuminated scroll of recorded events: Rostov’s fractional pause and subsequent guilt because his French opponent has a dimple in his chin; ‘one bandy-legged old French officer, wearing Hessian boots, who was getting up the hill with difficulty, taking hold of bushes’. These details are more memorable than the names of the battles in which they occur.
He also, rightly, praises Elizabeth Bishop's extraordinary ability to spin absolutely unremarkable quotidiana into gold. Indeed, true to Raine's broader point, his whole, intelligent article fades in my memory, whilst this one short piece of quoted poetry (like the ascending old French officer grasping his shrubs) gleams in my mind:
I see you all up there
along with Formoso, the donkey,
who brays like a pump gone dry,
then suddenly stops.
– All just standing, staring
off into fog and space.
That's .... extraordinary.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Railways and Children


It seems Edith Nesbit found being a writer of children's books something of a professional limitation. Shirley Foster and Judy Simon, in their What Katy Read: Feminist Re-readings of "Classic" Stories for Girls (University of Iowa Press 1995), record that
in April 1905 Edith Nesbit wrote disconsolately to J B Pinker, her literary agent, “I wish you could get me an order for a serial for grown-up people … I don’t think it is good for my style to write nothing but children’s books”
By way of context, Foster and Simon note that 'by 1905 she had published the most successful children’s novels of her day, including The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), The Wouldbegoods (1901), Five Children and It (1902) and The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), the last of which had inspired H G Wells to write to her prophetically, “You go on every Xmas with a book like this and you will become a British Institution …”' adding that 'Nesbit remained dissatisfied with the medium that brought her success, ironically sensing that the increasing celebrity of her work was in inverse relation to her ambitions to be taken seriously as an artist'. [127] When it comes to explaining this dissatisfaction, Foster and Simon are clear what's to blame.
The renewed critical attention being paid to the novel in England from the 1880s onward, with the concomitant attempts to develop a theory of fiction, insisted on the reclamation of the genre for intellectuals, a category which inevitably excluded women and children. [127-8]
In the broadest sense what we are talking about, and witnessing over the 1900s and 1910s, is the setting-in-motion of a kind of reordering of children's literature as a category, one that would lead, by the end of the century, to the creation of what has now become the world's biggest publishing phenomenon: Young Adult. Dickens-as-child happily read Fielding and Smollett when he was growing up, because there was nothing else. By the end of the century there were plenty of books for younger readers, but little by way of 'transition' texts to bridge childhood and adulthood. One of the notions that intrigues me is the idea that the creation of these intermediary novels had as much, or more, to do with the amour propre of the authors as it had with the consumer demand of readers. Kids were content to read what they were given. By the same token, adults were generally happy to read the Alice books or Treasure Island and so on. But there was a sense that something was lacking from children's books. What was it? Some quality of respectability, perhaps? Or adult kudos? But why would we even want that? Doesn't it hint at a sort of category error that misses the very point of the genre?

The gender connection is a useful one; the link, in other words, between the denigration of children's literature and the infantalising of women and women's achievements. For Foster and Simon, what makes Nesbit interesting as a writer is the extent to which she was able to subvert the procrustean orthodoxies of patriarchy. This was something she certainly did in her notoriously (or gloriously) Bohemian life. Is it also the saving grace of her novels?
Family life as it is ultimately envisaged in the resolution to [The Railway Children] presents parents and children in a stable and orthodox interrelationship with adult authority providing the ethical and behavioural guidance through necessary to educate and socialize innocent pre-adolescents. Within this formal narrative scheme, however, Nesbit … uses children’s literature as a political and proto-feminist tool. All her books explore the anarchic potential of childhood and in their identification with a juvenile perspective gain a licence to satirise adult mores and expose the disabling effects of a patriarchal and capitalist establishment. [Foster and Simon, 129]
I think it's worth challenging this, admittedly attractive reading. That's not to say I'd want to suggest The Railway Children is a book that works to prop-up the patriarchy. This, after all, is a book that contains the much-quoted exchange between Roberta and her brother:
“Can girls help to mend engines?” Peter asked, doubtfully

“Of course they can. Girls are just as clever as boys and don’t you forget it.” [RC, ch. 13]
It's true, too—I mean, it's true that girls can be as clever as boys, and vice versa. Still, there maybe the slightest creak of unease about this, slogan-wise, the merest lack of nuance, or of what is sometimes called 'intersectionality'. We might say: what stops talented girls from achieving as much as talented, or often less-talented, boys is: sexism. That's true, too, of course. But it's also true that sexism is not an abstract set of arbitrary rules living, somehow, inside the heads of men and women. It is a social praxis, and as such is inextricably tangled up with questions of class and history. Some girls (like Edith Nesbit herself) were able to capitalise upon their cleverness, and make their way in the world. That Edith did so was down to her talent and her hard work, but it was also down to the fact that she wasn't hamstrung by being born working class, denied education and so on. There are middle-class girls and women in The Railway Children. There are some working class women, but in marginal roles ('Station Master's wife' for instance. Does this character even have a name?), completely defined by their roles as mothers and caregivers.

I'm making heavy weather of this point, I know. Blame the conflicted sense I got, re-reading The Railway Children after many years: namely, how absolutely saturated this novel is in unspoken class assumption. Banished to the countryside when the father is arrested, the family find themselves in tight financial straits. They can't afford to buy enough coal to keep the house warm. Young Peter's response to this is to steal coal.The crucial thing about this is that Peter resolutely refuses to consider himself a thief: he is 'a coal miner'. It's just that the coal he is mining comes from the supplies the railway company had previously bought and stored. The Station Master catches him in the act:
"So I've caught you at last, have I, you young thief?" said the Station Master.

"I'm not a thief," said Peter, as firmly as he could. "I'm a coal-miner." [RC ch.2]
Peter's defense is that what he was doing could not be theft, since it entailed labour: firstly, 'if I took it from the outside part of the heap, perhaps it would be [theft]. But in the middle I thought I could fairly count it only mining'; and secondly it cost him effort 'carting that beastly heavy stuff up the hill'. The chutzpah here is rather wonderful. It's certainly enough to win over the working-class Station Master ('"Well," said the Station Master, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll look over it this once.'). Labour is the magical add-on that justifies any and all middle-class anti-social behaviour. Of course, it can only be an add-on if one has stuff to add it on to. Which reminds us of the definition of a proletarian: that, in effect, he or she is that person who has nothing to add-on to; that he or she has nothing but their labour to sell.

This runs right through the novel. We could summarise it thuswise: when working class kids take coal without paying it's 'theft'; but when middle-class kids do this it's 'coal mining' and 'we'll say no more about it'. And actually, this is a subset of a larger logic at work behind many of the scenes of this novel. When middle class kids do something, from driving a railway engine, to handling a barge ('"it was simply ripping, Mother," said Peter, when they reached home very happy, very tired, "right over that glorious aqueduct. And locks—"' ch. 8), it is play. When working class people do these things it is work. For a socialist writer like Nesbit to confuse these two categories is, well, intriguing.

Maybe that's unfair. Play is the salient in all the best children's writing. The world Nesbit paints in this novel is one where adults are mostly bumbling and ineffectual, from comical foolishness right up to the level of gross professional incompetence that puts the lives of hundreds of people in mortal danger, as when the signalman Homer-Simpsons his way snoringly through his duties. 'My hat!' Peter ejaculates. 'Wake up!'

Prima facie, this and other like episodes in this novel are saying: adults and especially working class adults are simply not competent to do the jobs society requires them to do. It is saying: thank heavens for the intervention of nice middle-class children, for without those catastrophe would ensue and lives be lost! Nor can this simply be addressed and remedied; it can't even be talked about, because 'poor people are very proud, you know' [ch.9]. All the real work of the novel (keeping the railway running safely, getting father out of prison) devolves on the kids, and this labour is indistinguishable from the children playing. One can become alienated from one's labour, as Marx shows: but can one become alienated from one's play? I suppose so, actually.

What elevates this beyond the level of mere class bias (and there's certainly no shortage of that quality in 20th-century children's literature) is the extent to which Nesbit makes us aware, by working into her novel a meta-level on which it is revealed, that labour and play are not the same thing. That level is the question of literary labour: for the mother in The Railway Children is, as Nesbit was herself, a professional writer—professional in the strict sense that she writes to earn money, not as a posh-lady hobby or for reasons of personal expression. Writing is the production of entertainment, and entertainment is play rather than work. Producing entertainment, though, is work not play, and that's part of the point. The maternal woman's labour is the production of the world of the novel itself.

The Railway Children is very closely involved in this metatextual self-awareness. When 'Jim' is injured in the tunnel, the kids go in to rescue him:
"Don't you see," replied Peter, impressively, "that red-jerseyed hound has had an accident—that's what it is. Perhaps even as we speak he's lying with his head on the metals, an unresisting prey to any passing express—"

"Oh, don't try to talk like a book," cried Bobbie, bolting what was left of her sandwich. [ch. 11]
Oh, don't try to talk like a book says the character in a book to the other character in the book. Later, shortly before the Old Gentleman deus-ex-machinas the novel's happy ending we get
"I say, Mother, why can't his grandfather pay for a nurse?" Peter suggested. "That would be ripping. I expect the old boy's rolling in money. Grandfathers in books always are."

"Well, this one isn't in a book," said Mother, "so we mustn't expect him to roll much."

"I say," said Peter, musingly, "wouldn't it be jolly if we all WERE in a book, and you were writing it? Then you could make all sorts of jolly things happen
What's clever, here (well: up to a point) is the way this moment of metatextual insight foregrounds precisely the dilemma with which Nesbit herself was concerned. A novel in which everything magically comes out alright, against all odds, and everybody lives happily ever after sounds like a children's novel—and of course that's just what happens in The Railway Children. One of the ways we separate out 'adult' or 'proper' novels from the feminised 'mere children's stories' is the extent to which the former refuse to collaborate in the 'and they all lived happily ever after' logic of the latter. We take tragedy more seriously than comedy, and 'realism' more seriously than fantasy, although for the life of me I don't know why. But I'm not talking about me; I'm talking about that coercive 'we' that measures 'being taken seriously as an artist' in quanta of 'includes things in her book that aren't the sort of things that happen in books'. I daresay I don't need to dilate upon the sheer self-contradiction inherent in that.

This is relevant because The Railway Children works in part (and by works I mean: generates its undeniable affect and power) by carefully balancing its realist and fantastic valences. On the one hand it is a story about recognisable human beings, who suffer not wicked-fairy curses or imprisonment by ogres, but a father locked up in prison, and the attendant social stigma and reduction in material wealth. The author's thumb is in the balance, as it were, in that the father is not sent to prison for anything demeaning, like fraud, theft or assault, but for reasons mysteriously tied-up with politics and the Russian Revolution. It is part of the novel's deliberate textual strategy that the specifics are not made explicit.
"Are you going to tell the others?" Mother asked.




"Exactly," said Mother; "so you understand."

This is from chapter 10, entitled 'The Terrible Secret' and it marks the covenant between adult and child in terms of shame and secrecy and what must not be said.

At the same time, The Railway Children is of course a fantasy, a fantasy of what it would be like to be released from the tedious round of (urban) school and duty, free to roam the countryside, to play, to become heroes and heroines. Trains are exciting, especially when you're a kid. In part this is because trains are always more than just trains for children, more that is than their function and utility. Here's Phyllis in the tunnel in chapter 9: '"It IS a dragon—I always knew it was—it takes its own shape in here, in the dark," shouted Phyllis' [ch. 9]. This picks up on Phyllis's earlier insistence that the trail 'is a magic dragon' that will 'understand and take our loves to Father'. The sort of things kids have to learn in dull English and Geography lessons are sweetly mangled into fantasy versions of themselves: 'It's quite right what it says in the poetry book,' says Phyllis, 'about sharper than a serpent it is to have a toothless child' [ch. 3]; and later in the book Mount Everest becomes the more Pilgrims-Progressy 'Mount Everlasting'. If it weren't playful then it wouldn't be any fun. Kids understand that.

Julia Briggs thinks the scene where Roberta is reunited with her father (‘“O my Daddy, my Daddy!” That scream went like a knife into the heart of everyone on the train, and people put their heads out of the window to see a tall, pale man with lips set in a thin close line, and a little girl clinging to him with arms and legs, while his arms went tightly round her’)
shares the emotional intensity with some of the greatest discovery scenes in literature—Iphigenia and her brother, Lear and Cordelia, Leontes and Hermione.
I'm really not sure that this rightly catches the tone of this celebrated emotional climax; but it certainly touches on one eminent feature of Nesbit's writing: its intertextuality:
A number of critics have noted the extraordinary extent to which Nesbit’s child characters are saturated in and fascinated by all kinds of literature. 3 In book after book, Nesbit portrays young people as irrepressible mimics who shape their games, ideals, behavior, and even speech around texts created by adults. In The Story of the Treasure Seekers, for example, the Bastable children swipe scenarios for their activities from Kipling, Conan Doyle, Marryat, Edgeworth, de la Motte Fouqué, Pope, and the Arabian Nights, as well as assorted picture books, newspaper stories, and advertisements. At the same time, Nesbit herself reworks the material of Charles Dickens, Juliana Horatia Ewing, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Kenneth Grahame. In her numerous studies of Nesbit, Julia Briggs brilliantly details both sets of borrowings, but she never quite makes explicit their ultimate effect, which is to break down the divide between adult writer and child reader by suggesting that both parties can improvise on other people’s stories to produce their own narratives. While this strong sense of equivalence may be a fantasy of Nesbit’s, it is nevertheless a fantasy about equality, about sharing a propensity for the same game. [Marah Gubar, 'Partners in Crime: E. Nesbit and the Art of Thieving', Style 35:3 (Conventions of Children's Literature: Then and Now; Autumn 2001), 411]
This is also part of the 'labour' of writing. One of things this Marah Gubar article does is show how exercised Nesbit became when she thought her work was being plagiarised ('Nesbit “detested plagiarism and thought it a stigma to be accused of it”'; 426). The work of story, in other words, is similar to the 'work' Peter undertakes stealing, or rather mining, coal. It is that space where necessity and play, work and theft, all four fold into each other. It's the place, in other words, where adult incompetence compels children to undertake the labour that is needful as play. It is in its way a very definition of the new mode of children's literature, stretched between infancy and adulthood, between play and plunder: YA.


There's more to say, of course, about trains; more than I can manage here, I think. Why do kids love trains so much? Toy trains, real trains, the wooh-wooh of the whistle, the excitement of the big machines running along the tracks. I suppose we associate it more with younger kids, from

... to ...

... and of course to ...

The modular side of it presumably has to do with toys more generally. But The Railway Children is about actual trains, and I'm assuming that one main thing about actual trains (for kids, but also for adults) is the excitement of their size. This may connect with related childhood enthusiasms such as: dinosaurs. Might we want to read trains (pace Phyllis insistence that her train is actually a Dragon) as mechanical dinosaurs, and dinosaurs as sort-of organic trains? Is there any text that links these two things? Surely not.

Oh. Wow.

The serious point is that trains figure as a children's version of the Sublime: equal parts awe-inspiring and terrifying. A socialist, or Fabian, like Nesbit might well project this Sublimity onto a more 'adult', explicitly political context: trains have a multivalent relationship to the logic of capitalism as such. Lenin, in 'Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism' (1916) sees the railway as a potential liberatory technology of mass transit and industry that has been de facto hijacked by Imperialism as a mode of global oppression:
Railways are a summation of the basic capitalist industries: coal, iron and steel; a summation and the most striking indices of the development of world trade and bourgeois-democratic civilization. How the railways are linked up with large-scale industry, with monopolies, syndicates, cartels, trusts, banks and the financial oligarchy is shown in the preceding chapters of the book. The uneven distribution of the railways, their uneven development—sums up, as it were, modern monopolist capitalism on a world-wide scale. ... The building of railways seems to be a simple, natural, democratic, cultural and civilizing enterprise; that is what it is in the opinion of bourgeois professors, who are paid to depict capitalist slavery in bright colors, and in the opinion of petty-bourgeois Philistines. But as a matter of fact the capitalist threads, which in thousands of different intercrossings bind these enterprises with private property in means of production in general, have converted this railway construction into an instrument for oppressing a thousand million people.
A less tendentious way of reading the semiology of 'the train' is to see it as an index of a particular sort of modernity, or more precisely of a version of modern mobility. The first trains in literature—in Dickens' Dombey and Son and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina—are both linked to death by suicide of main characters. The deaths of many in The Railway Children are only averted by the children, as if only Rousseauian innocence in its most middle-class incarnation stands between the possibility of technological mobility and that most savage avatar of modernity-as-progress, the Railway-Juggernaut:

That's your Train-as-Velociraptor, right there. The children element in The Railway Children is the humanising, pastoralising and sanctifying portion of the phrase. But they are also, in an admittedly counterintuitive way, the apotheosis of the railway element. This is because it is the children who act as the agents of social connectivity: uninhibitedly venturing into the homes of the working class as into the tunnels of the landscape, visiting and giving presents and begging favours from everybody until eventually, by giving the gift of the 'the hound' Jim's life back to Jim's grandfather they discover that he and the Old Gentleman are one and the same thing and are able to beg the life of their own father. And in this they actualise the function of railways as such. Here's a passage from Kai Eriksson's 'Foucault, Deleuze, and the Ontology of Networks' [The European Legacy (10:6, 2005), 595]:
Wolfgang Schivelbusch refers in his excellent history of railway journeys to a piece of writing by Francoise Choay on Georges Haussman’s rearrangement of Paris’s road network. According to Choay, the connecting lines of this network were like arteries,and the whole system was compared by Hausmann to that of blood circulation. It was divided into subsystems each of which had a center of its own. This center was not a particular place but rather a node of traffic or, as Hausmann described it, a point of reference. Schivelbusch traces the similarity between the objectives of city traffic and those of the railway system, showing how it became possible to think of a boulevard as dividing the city like a railway divided the countryside. What is crucial here is the way in which different systems, institutions, and metaphors constitute a conceptual model in and through which an emerging order is given shape. Railways influenced the way traffic arrangements were seen, but railways themselves were connected to the metaphor of the network.
Erikssons point is that networks like railways have thus come to constitute 'a generic model for considering societal phenomena'. And that's the moral of The Railway Children too, summed up in slightly sappy form in this exchange between Mother and Roberta in chapter 8:
"So you've made another lot of friends," said Mother; "first the railway and then the canal!"

"Oh, yes," said Bobbie; "I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don't want to be UN-friends."

"Perhaps you're right," said Mother.
Which leads to my rather perverse conclusion: that one of the things Nesbit's novel is suggesting, in its own oblique and symbolic way, is that children are railways, and railways children.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Arnold's 'Dover Beach': the Shipwreck of Faith as Nuptial Song

Arnold's 'Dover Beach' (written 1851; published 1867) probably is the most famous short poem of the Victorian period. And with good reason, for it is a marvellously made, if mournful, piece of writing. It is likely, critics and scholars assure us, that this poem was indeed at least partially written on Arnold's honeymoon with his new wife, Frances, in Dover, June or maybe October 1851. So 'Dover Beach' probably is a nuptial song, though of a rather strange kind. Here's the speaker, in a hotel room, looking out at the moonlight English channel, calling his new bride to the window so she can join him in admiring the view.
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
I love the way that 'only ...' acts as hinge around which this first verse-paragraph swings from tender romantic apprehension of the nighttime beauty to sadder state of mind. 'Dover Beach' is wholly a poem about the ebb and the flow, externalised and epitomised by the waves washing up the shingle beach and then draining back to sea again. The ebb and flow of one person's moods; the ebb and flow of Christian faith (Isobel Armstrong calls it 'a threnody on the lost myth of Christianity' [Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, 173]. There's real technical prowess in the ways Arnold actualising that pulsing dynamic in the poem. For instance, the alternation of on the one hand phrases punchy with 'b', 'g' and 't's, with, on the other, phrases laced with sibilance—begin, and// cease, //and then again begin with tremul//ous cadence slow// and bring the eternal note of // sadness //—onomatopoeically reproducing the unequal alternation of waves thumping onto the shore, and then hissing back through the pebbles. Or look at the prosody of the first six lines: the first three are all regularly iambic (except for the quick-quick-slow-slow of 'on the French coast'), rocking us into the poem with that workhorse of English poetry, the 'unstressed-stressed' disyllabic poetic foot; but the next three all start on stressed syllables, subtly shifting the weight of the poem from iamb to trochee, actualising the ebb and then the flow. Then again, the poem as a whole is rather more ebb than it is flow. Arnold's voice grows mournfuller, as the sea of La Manche makes him think of the Sea of Le Bon Dieu:
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Once again, lovely delicate work from line 21 ('The Sea of Faith') on, with four lines of steady, unchoppy monosyllables (save only 'girdle' and 'only') stepping up and up to a gorgeous line and a half of falling-away polysyllables ('melancholy withdrawing retreating'). The aforementioned critics and scholars aren't sure which bit of Sophocles Arnold had in mind here. The consensus is that he was thinking more of a broader Sophoclean mood than of a specific quotation. I disagree. My theory is that, with the shingles hissing and rattling beneath his honeymoon hotel window, Arnold was put in mind of the last speech of Sophocles' Philoctetes, as Englished by William Crowe on the title page of Crowe's most famous work, Lewesdon Hill (1788):
Farewell thy printless sands and pebbly shore!
I hear the white surge beat thy coast no more.
Though it purports to be a translation from Sophocles, actually much of it is Crowe rather than The Greek (I go into tedious detail on this subject here). I could be wrong about it being behind Arnold's thoughts here: though there certainly is a flavour of exile about it. And exile is certainly the tone for Arnold here: he's not in his homeland with the woman he loves and has recently married so much as he is banished Ovid-like to the shores of a 'distant' sea. Distant from where? From Greece, and Jerusalem, topographically; from wholeness and health artistically and spiritually speaking.

So what kind of honeymoon poem is this? The tenderness of the pre-'Only...' lines suggests something intimate and romantic; but by the halfway point the erotic possibilities of a girdle being unloosened and discarded lead us not into the proper sorts of honeymoon intimacies but into this saddened speculation. Critics don't know quite what to make of the 'girdle' reference, and it is a little hard to visualise (maybe Arnold is thinking of the German Gürtel). The nakedness, though, is shingle-y, not erotic. And so the poem closes down with an image everyone agrees Arnold found in Thucydides:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
That Keatsian darkling recomposes the ebb and flow of the Dover waves as confused and chaotic military advances and retreats across a night-time battlefield, and the Sea of Faith has become a Sea of Fighting.

'Sea of Faith' is, of all the famous quotable-bits in this endlessly recirculated poem, the most quoted. There's even an international organisation called 'Sea of Faith', inspired by the work of English theologian Don Cupitt, whose 1960s book and TV serial was also called Sea of Faith. There have been a slew of books since with the same title: Jon Butler's Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1992), Stephen O'Shea's Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World (2012), John Brehm's Sea of Faith (2004) and so on.

Where does this phrase come from? Or, since the answer to that question is 'out of Arnold's head', I suppose I mean: what was he thinking of, what influenced him? By way of answering that, I wonder if Arnold had been put in mind of 1 Timothy, the New Testament pastoral epistle supposedly written by Saint Paul.

In the first chapter of this epistle, Paul warns of certain heretics who have strayed from the true faith and led others astray. Paul commends Timothy, in the KJV's words, to 'faith unfeigned, from which some having swerved, have turned aside unto vain jangling' [1 Timothy 1:5-6]. Jangling is a nicely striking word, I think. The Greek is ματαιολογίαν, which means 'vain, idle or foolish talk' (you can see the speech-y or word-y λόγος in the second element there); but the KJV makes a kind of shingle-like rattle or clatter out of the sentiment. And a sea of faith is implied by Paul's lamenting a 'shipwreck of faith':
This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme. [1 Timothy 1:18-20]
Maybe 'war a good warfare' is the protoype of which Arnold's ignorant armies is the inverted antitype, which in turn makes me wonder if what the armies are ignorant of is not just their own and their enemy's troop disposition, but Faith itself. And what of Hymenaeus and Alexander? What they have done, in the Greek, is πίστις ναυαγέω, 'to shipwreck [their] faith'. 'Sea of Faith' is not a NT phrase, but if we wanted to NT-Greek it, we would get θᾰ́λᾰσσᾰ πίστεως, which is an appropriately maritime, sibilant-hissy couple of words. Presumably Hymenaeus and his friend were sailing the Sea of Faith, until their heresy wrecked them. Nobody seems entirely sure what their heresy actually entailed; Wikipedia suggests Hymenaeus may have been denying the future resurrection, but adds 'It is impossible to define exactly the full nature of this heresy'. I don't suppose Arnold had any better idea what Hymenaeus's heresy was, but I am sure he knew what the Greek word ὑμέναιος, hymenaeus, means. It means 'a nuptual song', and also 'marriage, wedding, nuptials'. The sailor wrecked on the Sea of Faith turns out to be the very substance and purpose of 'Dover Beach' itself: a nuptial song, a hymenaeus. Epithalamium as elegy.

PS: So I say Arnold coined the phrase 'Sea of Faith'. That's probably true. Then again, Eusebius did write a book, the Liber de Contemptu Mundi, in which he implored Christ 'inducere nos in secreta spiritualia. et mare fidei aperire in animo nostro', to reveal to us spiritual secrets and to open our souls to the sea of faith (see here, if you're interested). How likely is it that Arnold knew this? It's not a famous bit of text. He does mention Eusebius in God and the Bible, but not in the way that suggests he's delved deeply into the guy's voluminous writings. He's not Coleridge, after all.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Hugo Gernsback Watches Television

No screen. Surprising this model of TV never caught on. That chair, though! That chair.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Thoughts on Rule 34

I don't really believe Rule 34, that celebrated internet adage: 'If it exists, there is porn of it—no exceptions'. I could be wrong. Still, I have been several times struck, in interactions with defenders of this proposition, by the vehemence of their insistence that the rule holds. Attempts by me to falsify it are met by a refusal to frame the objection in the way I have stated it. The example, let's say, 'an elderly academic who specialises in French Neoclassical Drama, with a tube of extra strong mints in his jacket pocket, riding a horse', would not be accepted by many people I know as a falsification of the rule. It would be pointed out to me that not only is there porn there are great quantities of porn to do with old men, with sweets, with horses and so on. We might call this moving the goalposts (I daresay there is goalpost-themed porn; I'm not googling to check, though), except that it's not really as mendacious a matter as is implied by that phrase. The slippage between the infinitely variable and therefore rule-busting specificity of 'it exists' and the more generalised categories, still extremely variable, of 'porn of it exists' is precisely the point. Rule 34 is an affirmation of the variety and scope of human sexual desire, and attempts to deny Rule 34 are, I suspect, taken as an attempt to repudiate or deny that variety. I am treated as if I am seeking to impose a normative or prescriptive restriction on what sex is about. I'm not, though. Speaking for myself, the only two restrictions I advocate where sex is concerned are adulthood and consent. Beyond that, anything goes. Whatever lights your consenting-adult candle. Still, there seems to me something interesting and even significant in what this shift from the more to the less specific means in this context.

I'm reminded of the kind of lit-theoretical discussion I used to have back in the late 1980s, when I was earnest and young and when I engaged with lots of other earnest young people on the subject of literature and interpretation. One topic of earnest, young student debate was the limit to interpretation, or whether there even was one. If there were no grounds for asserting the unique truth of any given Feminist, or Marxist, or Freudian interpretation of Hamlet, say, could we validly deny any interpretations? If you were (or are) excited by the intellectual and imaginative freedom implicit in the answer, 'no, all interpretation is possible, nothing is off the table' then you're liable to want to defend the '—no exceptions' interpretation of this idea. One test case I remember talking about was the proposition: 'Paradise Lost is about Association Football', in its small way the 'Is Bob Dylan a Better Poet Than John Keats' literary-critical tatonnement of its day.

Let's consider that assertion for a moment. Is Paradise Lost about football? The nay camp might point to the fact that Milton's epic was written centuries before the rules of football were codified in 1863; that it makes no reference to spherical balls being kicked into goals, or the offside rule or anything else related to that game. Ah, say the yea side, nodding knowingly, but consider Book 6. Think of The War in Heaven. The first great battle between God, or his general Christ, and the army of angels, pitted against the army of devils lead by Satan. If you're concerned about the anachronism of using football as a lens for reading Milton's epic, then consider the way anachronism itself becomes the focus of this war, with the devils inventing gunpowder and cannons to bombard the angelic army. And consider too the way Milton represents these immortals attacking, being attacked, wounding and being wounded. Michael hacks Satan with a sword, and cuts him right down the middle: 'in half cut sheer; nor staid,/But with swift wheel reverse, deep entering, sheared/All his right side'). But Satan being immortal can't be killed, so: 'But the ethereal substance closed,/Not long divisible'. (Pope makes fun of this bit of the poem in Rape of the Lock). In other words, this battle is a mode of war in which the combatants can't be killed. That is to say, it is a sport. This in turn opens up all sorts of critical avenues: to talk about the way football figures, culturally and socially, as a defanged mortality-free version of war; to discuss what is at stake in a battle if life cannot be forfeited—Milton might say, a huge amount, more than mere physical mortality (compare the celebrated Bill Shankly quotation 'football is not a matter of life and death; it is much more important than that'). And off we go, yomping through the thickets of interpretive glory, the nay-sayings booing and saying 'that ignores the fact that Paradise Lost is not about football' behind us.

Well, alright. The parallels with Rule 34 are not exact, except to say that as a youngling I was persuaded by, or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say, swept along by the yay-camp on this one, whereas now I tend towards the nay. Nowadays I don't think it has to be so stark an either/or. I certainly don't believe that there is one, unique and true reading of Paradise Lost. Indeed, I think Paradise Lost is 'about' lots of things: about God and humankind, about religious faith and myth, about history and origins, about 17th-century society and culture and revolution and restoration, about gender and especially about poetry. But it's not about everything. And as for sex (another one of the things Paradise Lost is 'about', I think): as a youngster I daresay I was more energised by the thought that sex not only is but ought to be a polymorphous funfair rather than any stuffy old orthodoxy of right behaviour, the two caveats aforementioned notwithstanding.

It's not that I've stopped believing that, now that I'm older. But I am, I think, struck by the difference of perspective a few decades brings to this universal human constant. Maybe it's that when you're young sex seems to be a boundless wonderland of endless variety, because it is all new to you. When you've been around longer it dawns on you: most of sex is pretty samey. There's only a limited number of things people like doing with other people in bed, garnish them howsoever we choose. This isn't a bad thing, and I certainly don't say so to denigrate sex (no indeed: I'm a big fan). But not only is it, I think, true; it may be a saving grace. Humankind, to quote T. 'Sexy' Eliot, cannot bear very much endless-pursuit-of-sexual-novelty-for-the-sake-of-novelty.

This brings me back to my objection to Rule 34. The rule is a way of saying (a strenuously overemphatic way —no exceptions indeed) that human sexuality is very varied. And so it is. And that's wonderful. Strictly speaking, the rule is a more rhetorically hyperbolic version of a simpler, much truer statement: there's a lot of porn. The internet has brought that undeniable fact home to us all. There is a lot of porn. Framing that fact as Rule 34 is a way of stating that fact more forcefully, but also a way of slanting it via variety. This is where the mendacity creeps in, for porn is not characterised by its variety, in the main. In the main it is drearily, monotonously repetitive. It's the same half dozen things over and over; it is people who look not only depressingly alike (by and large) but depressingly unlike most people in the world, having melodramatically exaggerated sex in permutations of six or seven basic erotic premises. I'm not judging when I say this, although if pressed I would start mumbling that there are differences between porn and erotica, the main one being that the former objectifies to sexualise in ways the latter doesn't. Objectifying people is not good; and the bias in straight porn is heavily towards objectifying women. That's doubleplus ungood.

I start to circle back my main point. Claiming that Milton's epic poem is about football is not to make a literalist assertion about the content of the poem; it's a way of getting 'at' the truth of that text, viz., the truth of the way it elevates playfulness to epic dignity. We could put it this way: claiming Milton's poem is about football doesn't denigrate the epic so much as it dignifies the sport. Asserting Rule 34 is also a way of getting 'at' the truth of porn: that it is infinitely various and polymorphous and surprising and, implicitly, that this is a good thing. The problem is: I don't think it is true. That is to say, Rule 34 doesn't 'get at' the truth of porn. It reveals a wish-fulfilment: that sex be infinite in its variety, such that time cannot wither nor custom stale it. In actuality, though, porn is a monolith, not a heterotopia.

It's possible to applaud the wish-fulfilment behind Rule 34 whilst denying its veracity. Indeed, I find the meta-element here genuinely fascinating, the way in which desire is focused on desire itself, such that what I desire is a particular valence of desire. That is doubtless a perfectly normal human perversion (using the word in its best and most positive sense), although there's surely a danger that it will run to short-circuit and attendant burn-out.

There's nothing wrong with investing emotionally and erotically in the notion that sex is infinite in its varieties. I happen to think it's not. Whilst always and without variation always having sex the same way time and time again sounds pretty dreary to me, the actual gamut of variation, hemmed in as it is by the constraints of the physical and the lineaments of human desire, tends to run along one of a fairly limited number of *clears throat* grooves. And that fact does nothing to diminish sexual delight. Indeed, it rather enhances it. Since the ground of erotic desire is inevitably the weird space where subjectivity meets intersubjectivity, this isn't exactly the kind of statement that can be gainsaid. Nor can I gainsay the declaration of another person that they find delight in exploring continual and relentless novelty. But Rule 34 ('—no exceptions') is not an articulation of the subjectivity of sexual desire, it is a claim to universalism. What makes sex wonderful is its specificity: the specific person you're with; the specific things you do with them, the acuteness of intersubjectivity rather than the obtuseness of universalised commodities of desire.

I sometimes teach Foucault's History of Sexuality, or teach other, usually 19th-century, texts with reference to it. I remember how big an impact it had on me when I first read it as an undergraduate. Still, the 'We Other Victorians' opening section is often misunderstood, I think. Victorianist students can get their head around the idea that Foucault doesn't buy the 'repressive hypothesis', the notion that the Victorians were all repressed and neurotic and buttoned-down about sex, where we are living in a veritable garden of earthly delights where sex is open and free and happy. Foucault is pretty persuasive that the Victorians talked about sex a huge amount, although the discursive arenas are often differently weighted to the ones with which we are familiar; and of course it's true that we are hung-up about sex in plenty of ways. But the larger thesis of Foucault's history is often missed. He is saying that since the 17th-century the West has been dominated not only by a vast increase in the cultural volume of sexual discourses, but that that volume has in turn been in the service of a scientia sexualis, generally deployed for political and ideological purposes, that increasingly traces the cause of all aspects of human psychology and society to sexual factors. Foucault contrasts this with the culture of the 'ars erotica' which he thinks characterised Ancient and Eastern societies, where sex was an artful but proportionate element in human self-conception. This is really what makes us 'other Victorians': we share with them the tacit belief that, veil it or celebrate it, sex is everything, an overwhelming force, a totalising account, central to our various senses of what it means to be us. We 'are' straight, gay, bi, whatever; these things are no longer indices of preference in a series of acts we undertake from time to time, they define us existentially. Sex is no longer something we do; it is something we are, and as such the commodification of sex via porn is also therefore a colonisation of us. (Foucault has other interesting things to say about the shift from focussing the discourses of sex on married life to focussing it on the non-married, marginal, perverse and so on; but that's not directly relevant here). That's the button I think Rule 34 pushes for me: the totalising —no exceptions arrogance of it. It is, in this sense, a deeply Victorian episteme.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Alice 3: Animals in Wonderland

I'm rather intrigued by the notion (which, I'm ashamed to confess, only recently occurred to me) that Tenniel's Alice's Caterpillar is amongst other things a satirical dig at the British judiciary. Martin Gardner notes how Tenniel made the first two rows of caterpillarian legs the creature's nose and chin, which is very neat; and I remember thinking as a child how like a treble clef the curling of the hookah's line is. But to look at the image is surely to note the resemblance of the caterpillar's back to a judicial wig (Thomas Woodcock and Dominique Enright's Legal Habits: a Brief Sartorial History of Wig, Robe and Gown (2003) makes plain that in the nineteenth-century, and unlike today, Judges wore 'a larger full-bottomed style of wig' where attorneys and lawyers wore 'bobwigs' and 'pigtails' respectively); and the sleeve looks very like the sleeve of a judicial gown. The question is whether Tenniel had any larger point, beyond linking Judges with the indolence and orientalism associated with the hookah? He (the caterpillar, I mean) is certainly fairly adversarial in the way he questions Alice; and he instructs her, rather imperiously, to recit Southey’s ‘You Are Old Father William’ (the actual title of Southey’s poem is 'The Old Man’s Comforts, And How He Gained Them’)—a text about deeds and consequences of the sort that might be thought to appeal to a legal mind.

Then I found myself thinking about the way pre-chrysalis and post-pupaic insects figure in Victorian literature. Think of the dragonfly in Tennyson’s ‘Two Voices’, or the even more magnificent (because so much larger relative to its human observer) invertebrates Tom encounters in The Water Babies. They are types of transformation, of spiritual metamorphosis and deployed as such. But Carroll’s caterpillar is a topsy-turvey version of this, a sort of trope of anti-metamorphosis. We might expect a caterpillar to look forward to metamorphosis, to be anticipating a dazzling, yet-to-come maturity. But this caterpillar seems already old—a High Court Judge sitting on his sofa, smoking, grumpily quizzing and snapping at the impertinent youngling who has come along disturbing his rest. We don’t, I think, imagine this caterpillar ever changing into any kind of butterfly. Like the law (like the law, say, in Dickens’s 1852-3 Bleak House, a novel Carroll admired) he represents deep-rooted inertia. There’s a particular sort of genius in embodying the principle of stasis in a caterpillar, of all animals.

Which leads me on to say something about animals in Carroll’s book. It would do a kind of violence to the Carroll’s nonsensorium to want to construct a bestiary or rigid taxonomy of Carrollian animals, of course. Part of the way the animals function here is by unexpectedness, by twitting our expectations and as a means of adding vitality and variety to Alice’s progression. So, in place of a taxonomy, a list, with chapter references in square-brackets: in Wonderland Alice meets a rabbit [1]; a mouse [2]; ‘a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures’ (including, if we trust Tenniel, a monkey, a crab and a parrot) [3]; the white rabbit again, Bill the Lizard—apparently an obscure dig at Disraeli, though exactly in what way is not clear—and a puppy-dog [4]; a caterpillar [5]; a frog footman, a fish footman and a pig-baby—plus, of course, the Cheshire Cat [6]; March Hare and dormouse [7]; uncooperative flamingos and the Cheshire Cat again [8]; Gryphon, Mock-Turtle and sugar-haired lobster [9]; and, finally, several of these animals return to the story for the trial scene at the end [10-12], including a whole jury box full of beasts. Looking-Glass is a little less bestial, although we do have the black kitten [1]; the chesspiece horse on the poker—and the Jabberwock [2], various Looking-Glass insects and the fawn [3]; the walrus and the oysters he eats [4]; the White Queen turning into a sheep [5]; Humpty Dumpty, whom I suppose must be considered an animal of some type or other [6] and the lion and the unicorn [7]. That’s quite a spread.

We could start to talk about this menagerie by observing that there are two kinds of creature Alice encounters. By which I mean—there are many kinds of creature in the book (of course), but two sorts of provenance for animals and people: domestic and display. By this I mean that (a) some of the animals and artefacts Alice meets derive, in magnified and magical forms, from the sorts of pets a middle class girl might have at home (rabbits; cats; dogs; fishes) or the sorts of pastimes which she would have enjoyed playing: playing cards, chess-sets and so on. By the same token (b) some of the animals are the sort of thing a nice middle-class child might encounter at museums, art galleries or zoos. The dodo in Wonderland is one example of the latter category, the sort of thing you can see in the Natural History Museum, though not of course in real life (they’d been extinct since 1690, although one has been on display at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History since the late 1850s): the Duchess, in Tenniel’s illustration, is a version of Quentin Massys ‘A Grotesque Old Woman’, hanging in the National Gallery, and so on.

We can take this a little further, I think: the mundane and the fantastical function, to use a wearily over-deployed word, dialectically in these novels. In a sense, that’s kind of the point of the Alice books.

Another aspect of the way the book ‘uses’ animals occurs to me. In Wonderland the figures in authority, or as near to authority as the carnivalesque logic of the imagined world permit, are human: Alice herself; the Duchess; the King and Queen of Hearts (in a lesser sense this is true of the Mad Hatter too, who lords it over his hare and dormouse friends in his insane little way). Figures lower down the social order tend to be animals: either actual servants—the frog footman—or else characters like the white rabbit, fearfully subordinate to the queen, or the parrot-form court officials in the frontispiece to Wonderland. This iterates a clear enough logic: that humans are ‘superior’ to animals. Except it also put particular symbolic emphasis on those animals that resist this great chain of being—the slippery Cheshire Cat, say; the Dodo who takes charge during the Caucus Race; the bossy caterpillar.

The case is a little more complicated in Looking-Glass. The animals in chapter 3, from the deer to the punning insect-minibeasts, exist in a special zone where names do not apply. Otherwise animals are either fabulous monsters, such as jabberwocks and unicorns, or rare. The final transformation from queen to kitten retroactively informs the semiology of the looking-glass animals, which either specifically represent the transformation from human to beast (as the white queen turns into a sheep) or exist, like the Lion, somewhere halfway between an actual lion and a caricature William Gladstone. See also: half-man, half-egg, Humpty Dumpty. Goo goo g’joob.

But stop a bit (the Roberts said) before we have our chat: can we be a little more fundamental? Why animals? OK, it’s a pertinent question for Children’s Literature, because animals are such a massively ubiquitous feature of childhood. We swamp our kids with cuddly animal toys, and tell them thousands of stories about friendly talking animals (and the occasional wolfish or black-maned-lion unfriendly ones). Why? Once upon a time, when kids grew up in the countryside, on farms or hunting tribes and in close proximity to beasts, this might have made more sense: which is to say, might have spoken more directly to their childish being-in-the-world. But the more we have removed our kids from Nature, the greater role teddy bears and Disneyfied ducks and very hungry caterpillars play in their upbringing. My kids live in a suburban house without pets, have never visited a farm and see most of their ‘real’ animals via the magic glowing box we call television. Yet they could not be more fascinated by the question What Does The Fox Say?, by the activities of the intelligent superspy Perry the Platypus on Phineas and Ferb or the antics of Sendak’s Wild Things who live Where. Why?

It’s worth asking ‘why’, because Carroll comes in the middle of a long tradition of talking animals (from oral culture and Grimm through to Watership Down, War Horse and the talking slugs of Turbo). And the answer isn’t going to be simple. Part of it has to do with what Mary Midgley (in Beast and Man: the Roots of Human Nature, 1978; rev; ed., Routledge 2002) critiques, the tendency of humans to transfer human qualities onto animals, tagging foxes as wily, snakes as devious, lions as courageous and so on. Midgley points out that actual animals are none of these things, they are only themselves. ‘Beasts,’ she says, ‘are neither incarnations of wickedness nor sets of basic needs, nor crude mechanical toys, nor idiot children. They are beasts, each with its own very complex nature. Most of them fail in most respects to conform to their mythical stereotype.’ She adds ‘if then there is no lawless beast outside man, it seems very strange to conclude that there is one inside him. It would be more natural to say that the beast within us gives us partial order; the task of conceptual thought will only be to complete it. [Midgley, 38-39]

Actually, Midgley’s is a very obvious point. Nobody who actually works day-to-day with actual animals would ever mistake them for people in fancy dress. Nonetheless, animal fables are a very ancient mode of human art. ‘Clay tables from ancient Mesopotamia have revealed the existence of collections of proverbs and fables featuring animals as actors some 4,000 years ago, and it is assumed that these tablets are based on even older material’ [D. L. Ashliman, Aesop’s Fables (Barnes and Noble, 2003) p.xxi) But their very antiquity has created a state of affairs in which the personification of beasts has become almost second nature.
The deep affinity in our culture between children and animals—some children, at least, and some animals—is attested not only by a profusion of pets and teddy bears but also by the perennial popularity of stories, films and comic strips about more or less humanoid animals. … Many of these beasts, to be sure, whether of household, barnyard or forest, may have served, from the time of father Aesop to that of Peter Rabbit, as little more than allegorical stand-ins to point a moral concerning another species: our own. … Even so it tells us a great deal if children learn lessons and form relationships most easily by identifying with animals they often know, outside these fictions, only in zoos, dreams or the untamed forests of the imagination. For what is really at issue is relationships, not primarily of animal to animal but—even when no humans appear on the scene—of human to animals and ultimately, through the enlargement this primal relation can bring, of every human and animal being to every other in a world of which all are citizens alike. [Robert M Torrence, Encompassing Nature: a Sourcebook (Counterpoint Press 2002), 2]
‘Yet it is often children in these stories—and often children slighted by the adult world—who are most in touch … with animals and other natural beings.’ Is Alice ‘slighted’? Middle-class, clever, grounded Alice? Surely not! Yet the implication of Torrence’s argument here is that all children feel marginalised, by virtue of the fact that they are children. Though he doesn’t put it in exactly these terms, Torrence does argue that ‘such stories give voice to a tenacious myth of lost innocence’ that is:
both Romantic and Platonic: what is lost in growing up is an inborn remembrance of oneness with the surrounding world which we gradually, almost inexorably relinquish—all but the childlike few who are madmen, lovers or poets.’ [3]
We can forgive Torrence his gush, here, because (although he doesn’t think he’s talking about Alice) this is exactly Carroll’s mis-en-scene. The oneness belongs to Alice; and all the ‘adult’ characters amongst whom she moves (the Duchess’s boy—who turns into a pig—is the only other child in the books) are all of them madmen and madwomen, lovers and poets. What are all these animals doing, in these novel? They are enacting, or enabling, a fundamentally totemic vision of God. As Levi Strauss famously put it, in his still resonant study of the totemic aspects of early human culture, animals are a dominant mode of the totemic imagination because ‘the diversity of species furnishes man with the most intuitive picture at his disposal and constitutes the most direct manifestation he can perceive of the ultimate discontinuity of reality. It is the sensible expression of an objective coding.’ [Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1966) 137].
The phenomenon of totemism was one of the primary concerns of cultural anthropologists of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. As the anthropologists of that period collected ethnographic data, they noticed that non-literate societies commonly associated their own clans with natural phenomena, such as species of animals or plants, or natural bodies, or even geographical locations. Local inhabitants often explained this by saying a particular clan has “descended ” from the animal, plant, etc., and sometimes the association would involve complex ritual proscriptions, such as a prohibition against eating or killing the beings connected with one’s clan [David Pace, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Bearer of Ashes (Routledge 1983) 173]
Another angle, which takes its impulse from psychoanalysis, might see these novels as an almost psychopathological act of displacement. Here is Carrie Rohman on the function of ‘the animal’ in Freud:
The displacement of animality onto marginalized others operates as an attempted repression of the animality that stalks Western subjectivity … indeed, the development of Freudian psychoanalysis in the early twentieth century should be recognised as a logical response to the threats of evolutionary theory. The concept of the unconscious in Freudian psychoanalysis operates as a modernist codification of the problems of animality in the human person. Freud himself hazards an explanation of humanity’s rise from its animal heritage and theorizes that our repression of organicism simultaneously deanimalises us and makes us human. Animality is consequently equated with neurosis in psychoanalytic terms, since one must repress it in order to become, and remain, human. … Freud offers a “cure” for animality’s presence in the human psyche. [Carrie Rohman, ‘Facing the Animal’, Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal (Columbia University Press, 2008), 63]
In Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi (2001), the protagonist deplores humanity’s soft-spot for ‘animalus anthropomorphicus’: ‘we’ve all met one, perhaps even owned one. It is an animal that is “cute”, “friendly”, “loving”, “devoted”, “merry”, “understanding”. These animals lie in ambush in every toy store and children’s zoo … They are the pendants of those “vicious”, “bloodthirsty”, “depraved” animals that inflame the ire of the maniacs I have just mentioned who vent their ire on them with walking sticks and umbrellas. In both cases we look at animals and see a mirror. The obsession with putting ourselves in the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologians’ [Life of Pi, 31]. Pi, or Martel, is here channelling Mary Midgley. Carroll anticipates this, but not by representing it as a mode of Existential Tragedy; on the contrary, for himit figures as joyous Nonsense. For Kingsley, the pupae is a symbol of human spiritual rebirth. For Carroll, the caterpillar is its own, cranky, idiosyncratic self. Kids, I think, connect instinctively with that. Animals don’t adhere to any (human) law; they are each of them iterations of the fundamental idiosyncrasy of existence, which is every child’s heady, disorienting experience. It is instinctive in children to resist the appropriation of the animal world to the narrow human moral imperatives of Aesop. The Alice books challenge precisely that hegemonic manoeuvre. They say, in effect: I fought the Law, and the Law Wonderland. What child wouldn’t warm to that?