‘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, 24 May 2017

Paul Klee, ‘Dancing Under the Empire of Fear’ (1938)

1938, ladies and gentlemen! Klee's deliberately simplified, doodle-like style manages to communicate more by way of dread and terror than any more ‘sophisticated’ visual manner could. Look at those dancers! Are they dancing, in subversive joy, or are they twitching and flailing as they are gunned down? Are those dots people in the distance, or bullets? Look at the Brownshirt and military Khaki colour scheme. Note how the square-bodied figures form rudimentary but unmistakable swastikas. 1938 indeed.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Petit pan de mur jaune

One of my favourite passages in Proust is when the narrator, Marcel, asks himself whether his favourite writer ‘Bergotte’, having died, is now dead for ever, ‘a question to which spiritualism offered no better answer than religious dogmas’:
All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there.
That ‘petit pan de mur jaune’ is one of the most famous references in Proust, of course; from Vermeer's ‘View of Delft’, painted in the early 1660s:

Which detail of the painting is the petit pan de mur jaune? This article makes a good case for the section that heads my post. Proust certainly loved that painting: ‘Ever since I saw the View of Delft in the museum in The Hague,’ he later said, ‘I have known that I had seen the most beautiful painting in the world’. He could be right about that.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Prosodic Perfection of Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927"

Prosody fascinates me, although it is one of those topics that tends to make students, and others, yawn. Which is fair enough. Still: speaking for myself, at some point I'd like to write something more serious on the subject: for instance to take polite but substantial issue with Derek Attridge's widely-admired The Rhythms of English Poetry (Longman, 1982), which I think is broadly wrong for more-or-less abstruse reasons I won't go into too deeply here.

At any rate, teaching prosody is less fun that it ought to be. English-speakers in my experience generally have a good ear for ictus, or stress, and can pick which syllables in any given line of verse are stressed and which are unstressed. Couple this with the easily taught table of the four most common metrical patterns in stressed verse—the iambic (de DUM de DUM de DUM), the trochaic (DUM de DUM de DUM de), the anapestic (diddy DUM diddy DUM diddy DUM) and the dactylic (DUM diddy DUM diddy DUM diddy) and you've basically got it. There are other metrical patterns, obviously, and you may need the occasional spondee to make your prosodic analysis work out, but that's basically it. Then it's a simple matter tracing the iambic pulse in a Shakespearian line, or contrasting the dactylic
Blow the wind southerly,
Southerly, southerly,
Blow the wind south o'er the
Bonny blue sea
with the famously anapestic
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
that used to be Byron's most memorised poem. All well and good. But there's a wrinkle: this later European tradition of scanning verse by stressed and unstressed syllables is fundamentally different to the tradition that obtained in ancient Greek and Latin verse. Their metrical feet are the same: iambs, anapests and so on. But in place of stress, the ancients heard length. Robert Graves described the difference of modern and ancient poetics as being that between the hammer and anvil of the blacksmith—ictus—and the long and short strokes of the boatsman's oar—classical prosody. Maybe that gives you a sense of the distinction.

We move into trickier territory. Whether the Ancients also heard stress is a moot point; but their poets, and their grammarians, analysed poetry in terms of the pattern of long and short syllables, not in terms of patterns of ictus. And that's a distinction we can understand too: we hear the difference between the long e (Greek η) in feel and the short e (Greek ε) in fell; between the omega (ω) in dole and the omicron (ο) in doll. But the fact that we can distinguish those sounds in individual words doesn't mean we can all hear the complex patterns of long and short syllables in passages of Homer or Vergil.

I'm going to make a rather shaming confession: I studied this stuff as an undergraduate doing a Classics degree, and went into it in greater detail for my PhD (where it was kind of important) and have kept it up; but I'm still not sure I can properly ‘hear’ the dactyls in Homer or Vergil as I read them aloud; not in the way I can ‘hear’ the stress patterns in English verse. I can see those patterns in Homer and Vergil, when the verse is written down, and can analyse it and so on; but it may be that ictus just strikes me as intuitive and common-sense in a way patterns of long and short vowels don't.

Anyhow, this long preamble is by way of setting up my larger point. For most of its history, the great English poets were trained up on the classics, and taught a prosody of length, before going on actually to write a poetry governed by a prosody of stress. Most of those poets simply wrote metrically in terms of stressed/unstressed syllables, as governed by the particulars of English, and ignored their book learning on how Homer and Horace wrote their verse.

Occasionally a poet of rare ambition would try to write both schemes at once: to write verse in English where the careful patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables matches, or plays creatively against, an equally careful patterning of long and short syllables. But this is very hard to do, and few poets have managed it. I'm prepared to believe that Milton achieves it, though I haven't really looked into his verse on these terms. I know Coleridge did it from time to time, as a particular exercise, but the results (mostly Notebook entries) are a little forced. The one English poet who possessed the needful expertise, whose ear was finely-enough attuned, and whose facility remarkable enough, to write easily and at length in a way that combined both traditions is, I think, Swinburne. And if I had enough time I'd expand upon that point, though it would take a while. Suffice to say I think Swinburne is a much much more interesting poet prosodically than he is on the level of content. Or, indeed, than he has been given credit for.

Now: the reason why I think this dual tradition comes again to have purchase on English poetry is because the main mode of 'poetry' nowadays is music-plus-lyrics. Most pop song lyrics are trash, of course, and many are remarkably clumsy; but the best pops song lyrics work by matching the rhythms of words to the rhythms of music. Harder to do than you might think.

Now as far as that goes, music combines stress and length patternings in a much more organic way than is the case for purely verbal forms of art. Some music (especially pop music, driven as it almost always is by drums) is heavily stressed, rhythmically speaking; other music (Wagner's chromatism for instance) is much more rhythmically defined in terms of pulses of longs and shorts. And for me the ideal song is one where the lyrics match the music both for stress and for length.

It's surprisingly rare. Often pop-sing lyrics will be regularised to match the musical beat in terms of ictus, but will be all over the place in terms of long and short strokes. Then again, quite a few pop lyrics do a crappy job of matching the natural rhythms of words to the rhythms of the music to which the words are attached. And since the whole point of this post is to praise the songwriting of Randy Newman, it's worth noting that sometimes even his best songs wrongfoot their ictus. For instance: ‘Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear’ is a lovely little song; but its opening two lines
I may go out tomorrow if I can borrow a coat to wear
Oh I'd step out in style with my sincere smile and my dancing bear
trip up jarringly on ‘sincere’, which needs to be sinCERE but which can only fit the rhythm of the song by being sung SINcere. Ugh.

Ah, but let us turn to ‘Louisiana 1927’. There it is at the top of this post. It's my favourite Newman song (which is saying a lot) and one of the reasons I love it is that, so far as I can see, it is quite simply flawless in the way it (intuitively, I guess) combines both prosodic paradigms, the modern by stress and the ancient by length, both working together in a way that precisely fits the (beautiful) rhythmic and melodic pattern of the music. It's a kind of perfection, and that's very rare in art. I'm honestly not sure I can think of a better line in modern pop music, prosodically speaking, than Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Great Comet, Now Rapidly Approaching, Will It Strike the Earth? (1857)

After a very long preamble, in which we discover that Newton believed observable novae and supernovae were caused by comets falling into their parent stars, and that ‘the darkness which suddenly overshadowed the face of nature during the Crucifixion of our Saviour, was caused, it is said,—the Moon not then being in a position to cast its shadow on the Sun,— by a Comet's interposing its mighty bulk betwixt the Earth and the Sun’, we get to the punchline:

That's a no, then. Still, on the offchance ...

So it's not going to happen. But if it did ...

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Lewisham and Prufock

I'm reading, for the first time, H G Wells's semi-autobiographical novel Love and Mr Lewisham (1900). It's very good! It concerns a small, socially insecure but clever young man, with thin arms and legs, who tries to triangulate his love for women with society's larger disapproval and his own shyness. He is a schoolteacher for a while, and yearns in an abortive way after the beautiful Miss Henderson. Then he attends the Normal School in South Kensington, where he yearns after the beautiful, intellectual Miss Heydinger. Here's Wells's description of that location, just before a scene in which Lewisham tries, and mostly fails, to pursue his interest in Heydinger:
As one goes into the South Kensington Art Museum from the Brompton Road, the Gallery of Old Iron is overhead to the right. But the way thither is exceedingly devious and not to be revealed to everybody, since the young people who pursue science and art thereabouts set a peculiar value on its seclusion. The gallery is long and narrow and dark, and set with iron gates, iron-bound chests, locks, bolts and bars, fantastic great keys, lamps, and the like, and over the balustrade one may lean and talk of one's finer feelings and regard Michael Angelo's horned Moses. [ch. 10]
We know that T S Eliot was an enthusiastic reader of Wells (he called The First Men in the Moon ‘quite unforgettable’). He surely must have read Love and Mr Lewisham. Might he, even conceivably, have had this novel in mind when he wrote his great poem about a small, socially insecure but clever young man, with thin arms and legs, who tries to triangulate his love for women with society's larger disapproval and his own shyness? Two accounts, superficially rather different, of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Which room? Somewhere in London, obviously.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Conjunction Problem

A minor philosophical niggle, this. ‘The Conjunction Problem’ is what Daniel Kahneman, in his Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), calls a particular problem in probabilistic thinking. It goes like this:
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller.

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Kahneman says people will choose (b) as more probable, because they are wrongheaded wrongy wrong-wrongs, the berks. Phil Edwards (in a post discussing something else) summarises: ‘The correct answer is—logically has to be—(a); “A and also B” cannot be more probable than “A with or without B”, whatever A and B are. But we’re not hard-wired to be good at probability; we seem to read the question as an invitation to fill in the blank in the way that gives the most satisfying story, in this case option (b).’

Something about this smells fishy to me. I take the force of Kahneman's point, of course; and we can make it clearer by rephrasing the original question.
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller and either is or is not active in the feminist movement

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Put like that, (a) certainly looks more probable. But there seem to me two problems with it. One has to do with the vagueness with which the question is framed, a haziness that devolves upon being asked to compare a simple with a compound probability. The other has to do with the different valences of probability itself. ‘Given this information about a person, what do you consider plausible extrapolations as to the person's life or work?’ is a different kind of question to ‘this tossed coin has come up heads ten times in a row, what are the odds of an eleventh head?’

It may be, as Edwards suggests, that people plump for (b) because they prefer its implied story, rather than for reasons of pure probabilistic estimation. But then again, that might have nothing to do with it. Conceivably people choose (b) because they simply consider it more probable, irrespective of narrative. Reframe the question another way:
Here's quite a lot of information about Linda, designed to give you a sense of the kind of person she is, so as to feel confident making informed guesses as to the sorts of things she likes and what she does. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is doing something you consider unlikely.

b) Linda is doing something you consider unlikely. Linda is also doing something you consider she'd be likely to do.
The ‘likelihood’ angle is there in the original formulation as, if you like, Kahneman's sleight of hand, to try and nudge people to the ‘wrong’ answer. But it seems to me, when you frame it this way, it's reasonable to select (b). The thinking would be: (a) is, by definition, unlikely, so it doesn't make much sense to choose it. Of course (b) also includes that unlikely thing, but it also includes something much more likely, so if I select it I'll at least get 50%, instead of the all-or-nothing, weighted heavily towards nothing, unlikeliness of (a). The fuzziness is in the question not specifying whether we are selecting for the likelihood of the statement, or the likelihood of that statement plus literally everything else that might or might not be the case. And when you put it like that (a) becomes not so much unlikely as impossible with regard to anything save the Supreme Being. Quite apart from anything else, that's simply not how we assess statements for likelihood. Is it?

It puts me in mind of a version of the celebrated twins-at-the-fork-in-the-road logic puzzle, I think by Raymond Smullyan. You know the original puzzle. You have to get to Blogtown, urgently. But you've come to a fork in the road and don't know the way. Happily there are two people right there, identical twins, who do know the way. Unhappily, for obscure reasons (perhaps to do with their religion) one of them always tells the truth and the other always lies; and, moreover, they will only answer one question from you. What do you ask? The standard answer is: you pick one at random and ask ‘if I asked your brother which road to follow, what would he say?’ and then proceed up the other road than the one indicated. Fair enough. But the Smullyan solution, which seems to me to have a bearing on the Kahneman dilemma, is: ‘pick one brother and ask him the way to Blogtown. If you have chosen the truth-telling twin, he will point you in the right direction. If you have chosen the liar, he will point along the wrong fork in the road and also, with his other hand,  point down the road along which you have just come.’ That's bonkers in similar ways to the manner of Kahneman's bonkers explanation. Isn't it?

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Alphabet Arranged Symmetrically

Art by Scott Kim. Nic Wilkinson (whose Twitter feed brought this piece to my attention) comments: ‘This is unimaginably pleasing to me.’ To me, too.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Categorical Im-Pratchettive

[Granny Weatherwax by Karen Shannon, reproduced by kind permission]

I didn't know Pratchett personally, although I did meet him a few times at publishers' dos, bookshop events and the like; and once I was on a BBC Radio 2 bookish roundtable with Simon Mayo, China Miéville and him. And I know people who did know him, with varying degrees of intimacy. When they talk about him they do so with love, and loyalty to his memory; but one thing that comes up is how unlike the cuddly humorous old granddad popular-culture version of him he was in life. He was, I have heard more than one person say, capable of real and focused anger. Injustice and unfairness made him angry. There are many things to say about his novels (and to be clear, before I go any further, I should say I consider him clearly one of the most significant anglophone writers of his generation) but the two things that stand-out for me most are: his extraordinary command of comic prose, a very difficult idiom to master and doubly difficult to maintain at length; and the repeated and unmissable ethical dimension to his writing. He was a moral writer above all, arguably even before he was a comic one, and certainly (I think) before he was a worldbuilder, or a creator of character, or a popular metaphysician about gods or existence or death or anything like that; important thought all those elements were to his writing. Nor can his moral purpose, and his anger, be separated out. As Wyrd Sisters notes of Granny Weatherwax:
Granny Weatherwax was often angry. She considered it one of her strong points. Genuine anger was one of the world's greatest creative forces. But you had to learn how to control it. That didn't mean you let it trickle away. It meant you dammed it, carefully, let it develop a working head, let it drown whole valleys of the mind and then, just when the whole structure was about to collapse, opened a tiny pipeline at the base and let the iron-hard stream of wrath power the turbines of revenge.
I chatted with Pratchett briefly after the Radio 2 thing, and told him that I'd always been struck that Granny Weatherwax's ethical philosophy, as articulated in Carpe Jugulum (1998)—“sin is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is”—was essentially the same as Immanuel Kant's ethical philosophy. Kant grounded his ethics in the idea that we must always treat other people as ends in themselves, and never as means to an end. Pratchett looked at me quizzically. ‘Can't say I've read a whole lot of Kant,’ he told me. But he did say it was interesting.

It might, I suppose, look wrongheaded to call Pratchett's ethics ‘Kantian’. Kant's most famous moral concept is his ‘categorical imperative’: act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. The belief that individual behaviour must be governed by rules that pre-exist the situation in which the individual must act, is called deontology. Not so good as aeontology; rather better than effontology; and Kant is often described as a deontologist. Not everybody is convinced by deontology (many prefer consequentialist moral theories). Indeed critiques of Kantian moral theory stretch all the way back to the man himself. Hegel famously thought the categorical imperative empty, John Stuart Mill described it as a merely formal frame, and Schopenhauer attacked it on three grounds. First, he argued, it merely restates the ancient ‘golden rule’ that you shouldn't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself, and is therefore redundant. Secondly, Schopenhauer considered it egoistic because its universality includes the person who both gives and obeys the command. And thirdly, he described the categorical imperative as cold and dead ‘because it is to be followed without love, feeling, or inclination, but merely out of a sense of duty.’

More broadly, we might say: there is something over-neat about Kant's systems, something fussily precise, pseudo-mathematical and absolutist, that some people just don't like. It's the kind of metaphysics of morals an intelligent computer might concoct, people say. Moral decisions (we might think) are made by real, living, breathing human beings, in real, often pressing situations. Human life is messy, unpredictable, often awkward, and human beings are not programmed like computers. This last notion—I mean, the messiness of humanity, the way it cannot be neatly fitted into any regular grid—is a profoundly Pratchettian perspective, of course. His glory as a writer is his sense of the sprawling variety and multifariousness of people. Perhaps calling him Kantian does a sort of violence to Pratchett's ethical vision.

We could, for instance, argue that the most Kantian, in the sense of the most universalising, creatures in all of Discworld are the Auditors of Reality. They first appear in Reaper Man (1991), where we're told they ‘see to it that gravity operates and that time stays separate from space’ (and where we learn they have conversations with one another without speaking: ‘They didn't need to speak. They just changed reality so that they had spoken’. Which I've always thought was a very cool notion). The Auditors hate mess and unpredictability and they particularly hate life because it is messy and unpredictable. They would much prefer a cosmos made up of lifeless balls of rock circling stars in mathematically predictable orbits. Indeed, they would like to eliminate humanity, although they can't simply do so because it is ‘against the Rules’ (the Auditors can't break the Rules because, in a certain sense, they are the Rules). They can use proxies, though, and do so to try and extirpate the messiness of life. This drives the plots in Hogfather (1996, where they try to eliminate the titular Santa-Claus-alike because he's so messy and irrational) and Thief of Time (2001, where their plan is to stop time and so deprive humanity of its necessary element). In terms of sheer dedication to this mass genocide, the Auditors are perhaps the most evil characters in the Pratchettverse; although in fact we're told that they lack the imagination to be truly evil.

But this analysis, I'd argue, misrepresents Kant, and so misses something really important about Pratchett's moral vision. It's true that for Kant morality must be derived by what he calls pure practical reason; that is, it can't be based on the selfish or partial reasons people might come up with for their actions, what he calls ‘dependent incentives’. Pure reasoning chooses actions because those actions are good in themselves; good without any ulterior justification, good because derivative of transcendental law. But if that sounds inhuman, it shouldn't. Kant argues this not because he wants to subordinate human will to some tyrannical universal necessity, but on the contrary because this seems to him the only way to ensure that individual people treat other individual people as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end.

That's so for the following reason. To choose to act in a way incompatible with the categorical imperative, Kant thinks, is to elevate your own motivations over the needs of others. Put it this way: morality is the business of deciding which actions are permissible and which are impermissible. When you make a choice to act, you are in effect indicating you believe what you are doing to be permissible. If you steal, then in effect you're giving permission to others to steal from you. If you kill another person, then you’re giving permission to others that they can kill you. And when we put it like that, we can see (it's the first of Schopenhauer's objections, noted above) that the categorical imperative is a reciprocal rather than an absolute ethical frame. And by universalising this individual recipcrocity, Kant gives it rational and categorical force.

And the sheer rational force of acting ethically is something to which Pratchett often returns. In Maskerade (1995), Weatherwax reminisces:
‘There was a wicked ole witch once called Black Aliss. She was an unholy terror. There's never been one worse or more powerful. Until now. Because I could spit in her eye and steal her teeth, see. Because she didn't know Right from Wrong, so she got all twisted up, and that was the end of her. The trouble is, you see, that if you do know Right from Wrong, you can't choose Wrong. You just can't do it and live. So if I was a bad witch I could make Mister Salzella's muscles turn against his bones and break them where he stood ... if I was bad. I could do things inside his head, change the shape he thinks he is, and he'd be down on what had been his knees and begging to be turned into a frog ... if I was bad. I could leave him with a mind like a scrambled egg, listening to colors and hearing smells...if I was bad. Oh yes.’ There was another sigh, deeper and more heartfelt.

‘But I can't do none of that stuff. That wouldn't be Right.’
Choice seems much less open-ended when you think rationally about right and wrong. Weatherwax does not claim to have all the answers; but she does understand that ‘right’ is not the same thing as ‘nice’, and that doing the right thing very rarely coincides with doing the popular thing. That's the main plot of Witches Abroad (1991), in fact. Indeed, it's the main plot of many of his novels.

Those Schopenhauerian objections can come to seem, when we reconsider them from, as it were, a Pratchettian point of view, features rather than bugs. Is the categorical imperative egoistic in a ‘bad’ way, because its universality includes the person who both gives and obeys the command? Or on the contrary, mightn't it be egotistical in a ‘good’ way, because ethics must be grounded in the individual psychology of ego and super-ego (I'm being anachronistic when I put it like that, I know) if it is to have any purchase on real life? Pratchett's strongest characters, in the sense of most memorable, most loved, and most often the bellwethers for the novels' ethical dramas, are also his strongest characters in terms of ego. ‘Granny Weatherwax was not lost,’ we're told in Wyrd Sisters. ‘She wasn't the kind of person who ever became lost. It was just that, at the moment, while she knew exactly where SHE was, she didn't know the position of anywhere else.’ That's both funny, and a neat piece of characterisation, although it describes the sort of person we might find rather alarming in real life. Sam Vimes has some of this quality, too: a grounded, or centred, sense of his own grasp on right versus wrong, whatever other insecurities or insufficiencies he might admit to. And Tiffany Aching, despite her youth, likewise. The ‘ego’ here means: Pratchett's fondness for strongly rendered, pungent and memorable and positive characters. The really telling thing, I think, is how rarely he does the opposite: how undersupplied the Discworld books are with full-on moustache-twirling melodramatic villains. That's sometimes seen as a problem. Amanda Craig argues that Pratchett supplies ‘a lifelong source of pleasure and happiness,’ but, she thinks, ‘this comes at the price of not showing us “the darkness”’.
There is a bullying father here, and spite and sudden death, but none of it disturbs. Other great fantasy authors from Tolkien to Robin Hobb leave us in no doubt that the torture, rape and murder in their worlds, described in chilling detail, are real and terrible, like the lust for power and sex that inspires them: but the filth of the city of Ankh-Morpork is down to dirt and poor plumbing. We are so used to the way George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie or even Ursula le Guin show us fantasy worlds riven with cruelty, that perhaps the kindliness of Discworld is more subversive than it seems. It is, in essence, a humanist’s creation in which laughter, as Nabokov said, is the best pesticide, and humour as potent as swords.
There might be something in this objection, I suppose; although I'd tend to see it as, again, one of the strengths of Pratchett's writing, grounded in his habit of ethically universalising the moral particular. What I mean is: rather than seeing the categorical imperative as a top-down quasi-tyrannical imposition of moral order on the universe, we could see it as exactly the opposite. After all, it takes as axiomatic that nobody is outside the moral world—that is to say, it fundamentally repudiates one of the oldest moral fix-ups in human history, the one where the world is divided into ‘us’, who deserve to be treated ethically, and ‘them’, the outgroup, the Others (the Jews, the slavs, the Blacks, the barbarians, the Muslims, the poor, the women, the gays, all those many varieties of homines sacri) who fall outside of the protection of justice, who can be treated in ways beyond the ambit of morals. Kant isn't having that, and neither is Pratchett. This manifests, for Pratchett, in a refusal to take the dramatically easy way of demonising one or other outgroup. Really, nobody is beyond the pale in Discworld. No group is demonised, actual demons least of all. This same impulse manifests for Kant in an ethical rule that obtains categorically, not only to those like us, or whom we like.

This is also why Schopenhauer's third objection to the Kantian categorical imperative, as a cold and dead matter of obedience to mere duty, misses the mark; as a criticism of Kant (I think, though it would take a lot longer than I have here to demonstrate why) and certainly as a criticism of Pratchett. Pratchett's anger was hot, and his humour was continually and wonderfully alive; and that heat and that liveliness are what power his ethical vision. And one final point occurs to me: Pratchett's strategy for communicating ethically with his readers was fundamentally story-based: he tells us stories, and we are amused, and intrigued, and moved, and in that process we are called-forth into actualised ethical situations, made to think through the business of what it means to act well and to act badly, to consider consequences and otherness and so on.  I suppose it's true that actual Kantian moral philosophers are thin on the ground nowadays, but one of the most importat and celebrated interventions into ethical thought of the last ten years or so was Barbara Herman's Moral Literacy (2008), which is not only thoroughly Kantian, but which explores how morals are a mode of existential literacy, something we learn and practice, and something for which stories are the ideal mode. Herman doesn't discuss Pratchett, but she could easily have done. Doing the right thing, Pratchett says, over and over, is not a passionless matter of obeying an inhuman universal duty; it is always particular, always passionate, and above all always funny.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Sphinxine Riddles

This can hardly help but come across as a little, well, incestuous: linking from one of my blogs to another of my blogs. But here we are. You see, I have started a new blog, which (hopefully) will chart my read-through of all the books published by Herbert George Wells, and this is me drawing your attention to it. I start with a lengthy account of The Time Machine (1895), which moves, in its final section, into a discussion of Oedipus, the Sphinx and that famous four legs/two legs/three legs riddle. Here's my new take on that:
This riddle is also posed by The Time Machine in a more straightforward manner: in the original myth the sphinx describes a strange monster, but the answer reveals that this monster is not so strange; that, in fact, the monster is us. Wells, in effect, does the same, asking: what are these vacuous, diminutive infantile beings, unable to care for themselves? And what are these other monsters? These pale troglodytes that feed on human flesh? These gigantic crabs? This blob of darkness? And once again the solution to the riddle is: they are man. Which is to say: they are you, they are us. It is in this answer that inheres the buried force of the original oedipal riddle, the enduring power of that myth. The sphinx says: ‘I shall describe to you a bizarre-sounding monster. Can you say what it is?’ And Oedipus replies: ‘Le monstre, c'est moi.’ We can speculate that all the previous challengers to the sphinx's puzzle failed not because the riddle is hard, since (famously) it really isn't that hard, but rather because they were unwilling to take that last step, and accept that the terrible beast being described is they, themselves. Rather than accept their essential monstrosity, many people would rather die. That's one of the things this myth is saying, I think.

But there's a second riddle in the Oedipus story, and it is posed not by a sphinx but by the land itself. The fields sicken, the crops die, a curse is on Thebes. Oedipus sets out to solve this riddle too, unaware that it has the same answer as the first one. What is the source of the curse? Oedipus himself. This second riddle both reveals and embodies the short-circuit of existence: man comes from sex, from the mother, into selfhood and along that temporal trajectory sketched by the first riddle towards death, and the mirroring of these two riddles reveals a profound and upsetting truth that all these things are the same thing. Sex is incest, birth is death, existence is a curse, all is folded into all.

My personal reading, here, is that this was always the coded significance of all those legs in the original riddle. After all, we can only claim that a crawling baby ‘walks on four legs’ by confusing arms and legs, a very foolish sort of confusion. Arms are not legs. No: though the answer to the ‘four-legs’ portion of the sphinx's riddle is indeed ‘baby’—which is to say, the answer is the origin of human life, its starting point—the actual solution is more ribald. Just as Shakespeare describes a copulating couple as ‘the beast with two backs’, so the sphinx describes two people having sex as a four-legged beast, two lower-bodies tangled together. It is not until the second riddle, the one at the heart of Sophocles’ play, that we finally understand the two individuals are Oedipus and Jocasta. The remainder of the riddle also anticipates the events of the Oedipus Tyrannus, I think: Oedipus standing alone, after Jocasta's death, in the blazing noon-light of total comprehension; and then Oedipus seizing a ‘stick’, a new limb—the bronze pin from his wife-mother's dress—and blinding himself with it, bringing the darkness, the ‘evening’ which the sphinx promised.
Next up on the Wellsian blog: The Wonderful Visit (1895). Post coming soon.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Willy Won-Kurtz

Charlie and the Colonial Factory. In the first edition of Dahl's perennially popular fantasy (published in 1964 in the US, and three years later in the UK) the Oompa-Loompas are pygmy Black Africans:

They live in the jungle with only squashed insects and caterpillars for food; Wonka visits them, promises to give them all the chocolate they can eat if they agree to come and work for him. So they do: they travel to wherever the chocolate factory is located (for reasons that become clearer later in this post I'm going to say: England—the book doesn't specify). They live and work in the factory; they are never allowed to leave; they get no money for their labour; Wonka insists they are happy. That is to say, they are, straightforwardly, African slaves working for a white overlord. It strikes a rather po-faced note to insist upon this, but it's true nonetheless: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a hidden-in-plain-view celebration of Western colonial exploitation.

In one sense I'm being, I know, deliberately over-literal. Wonka's chocolate factory is a fantasy realm, more like Alice's wonderland than any real factory. Fine. But the racial problematic of these Black African Oompa-loompas was sensitive enough, even in the 1960s, to mean that they couldn't stand. 'It didn’t occur to me that my depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was racist,' Dahl later claimed; 'but it did occur to the NAACP and others ... which is why I revised the book'. So in later editions they became miniature white hippies from Loompaland, although still dressed in the sort of rags more often associated with 'savages':

Then came 1971, and the movie (which Dahl himself hated, although it made him a ton of money and boosted his sales considerably) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which the Oompa Loompa's are reimagined again:

This is surely the most famous visual iteration, although it is, when you look at it, pretty damn peculiar. I suppose the idea was to remove the Oompas from racial representations altogether and reposition them as creatures of pure fantasy. But of course the repressed—here, 'race'—always returns, and with a vengeance, as Freud says it always must. Because these improbable-looking individuals are so emphatically Irish-flag in their coloration, so green, white and orange, that they shoot straight past 'vaguely leprechaun in provenance' (which, one presumes, is what the director was aiming at) and land on race again: another ethnic group, driven from their land by famine, working mostly as laborers, subaltern, subject to discrimination and so on. Irish-Americans do not have the same depths of malignity in their historical backstory as African-Americans, of course; but there's certainly been no shortage of anti-Irish racism in the West. Burton's more recent movie adaptation split the difference, racially, by using CGI to create a whole army of Oompa Loompas all played by one man, Kenyan-born British-Indian actor Deep Roy.

At least this is a mode of representation that acknowledges 'race' to be a salient. Quentin Blake's decision to re-imagine the baseline Oompa Loompa as, basically, an over-hair-gelled Sting looks like its trying too hard to avoid the issue of the 'otherness' of White Western racial representation:

I'm in danger to leaning too heavily on this aspect of the story, I know. Sometimes a chocolate cigar is just a chocolate cigar; and many adults enjoy stuffing themselves with sweets just as much as kids do. On the manifest level (as it were) this is a comic fantasia about how wonderful it would be to be plucked from childish poverty by an eccentric billionaire and given the keys to a chocolate factory. Kids like chocolate. But we're entitled to read it on, as it were, the latent level as a fantasy of imperial domination. Not so latent, either, really: the sweetness (the wealth) extracted from Africa by imperial appropriation.

After all, as a young man Dahl had been an agent of Empire, working for the Shell Oil company in Tanganyika (modern-day, Tanzania), living in luxury with many Black servants to cook, clean and attend him, in a large house outside Dar-es Salaam. His account of this period in his life in Going Solo (1986), though entertaining, is marinated in unconsidered racism to such a degree it makes genuinely uncomfortable reading today. The Black Africans Dahl describes are simple-hearted, loyal, bright-eyed servants to a man. When war breaks out, Dahl organises some of them against the anticipated German invasion of Tanganyika, and they reveal reserves of savagery. They could not be more representative of a particular Western imperial stereotype.

It all makes me wonder if the 'latent' meaning of these kids and their visit to the chocolate factory is less hidden than we might think. Chocolate is one of the sweet fruits of colonial exploitation of Africa. The old coloniser (let's call him, "Willy Won-Kurtz") must pass over his imperial possessions to a worthy heir: the material wealth, the means of production, the black slaves who labour for him, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. So, from the point of view of a dedicated British imperialist: who are the rivals for this possession?

Germany, for one: Dahl literally took up arms to prevent German expansion in East Africa. No, the Germans are not (so far as Dahl is concerned) worthy of this prize. And so it is that Augustus Gloop, the greedy 'Bavarian Beefcake', is the first to go, plunging into the chocolate river, and thereby choking on his own imperial ambition.

Who else's rival colonial-African ambitions might interfere with British manifest destiny in the continent? The Belgians? The French? Violet Beauregarde, with her egregiously Francophone surname, is next to go. Who else? Well there's 'Capitalism', wealthy but vacuous, owing allegience to no one nation but willing to despoil all for profit, and represented here by the spoiled brat Veruca Salt and her billionaire father. Mere money, without even the fig-leaf of imperial ideology, is mere rubbish, and down the rubbish chute it goes. That leaves only one global power: America, here represented by the television- obsessed shallowness of Mike Teevee, more concerned with his narcissistic desire to be on the gogglebox than anything else. One by one Dahl shoves them out of the frame, leaving only good honest Charlie Bucket: salt of the earth, incorruptible, neither too wealthy nor too foreign, the proper heir to take over all these imperial holdings when the time comes to poke our head round the door and announce "Mr Won-Kurz—he dead".

A-choc-alypse Now.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

William Blake, 'Angel of the Divine Presence Bringing Eve to Adam' (c. 1803)

An engraving Blake made for his patron, the government clerk Thomas Butts. I took this from the NY Metropolitan Museum website (as per previous post), and you can download a huge, zoomable version of it if you go there, which is very cool. ʿInstead of showing the first woman emerging from Adam’s side,ʾ the museum notes explain, with a certain superfluousness, ʿBlake presents the couple meeting with ceremonial solemnity. A divine figure prepares to join their hands while a recumbent Adam looks up eagerly as his mate steps down from blue-tinged clouds.ʾ

It is lovely, and presumably a deliberate riff (as it were) on Michelangelo's creation of Adam, such that instead of Adam's hand lovingly-erotically connecting directly with Eve's, both lovers are mediated by the (is it just me, or) rather phallic-looking ʿAngel of the Divine Presenceʾ. This latter is not God, it seems; but a divine emanation of angelic presence. Adam's supineness, and the (rather oddly small-headed) Eve's lightness of foot as she steps down, are both beautifully expressive. The vines presumably signify fertility, and a lion lies down with a lamb peaceably in the bottom-right-hand corner. One little touch I especially like is the way Adam's hair mimics the texture and coloration of Eve's clouds, while Eve's hair mimics the texture of Adam's golden vine-leaves: a visual ʿrhyme' that links the two of them before they have even met. I don't know my birds well enough to be able to identify the breed of bird perched on the left. Would 'Bird of Paradise' be too obvious?

One last thing. I have a theory about this image, which it would be hard to prove, but which I'm going to air here anywhere. I think Blake has modeled it, formally, on the Hebrew letter שׂ, 'shin'. I'm not suggesting the underschooled, autodidact Blake was fluent in Hebrew or anything like that; but he certainly was interested in the Biblical languages, and one wouldn't need a detailed grasp of the alphabet or grammar to understand that this letter, 'sh' or 's', was of particular significance to Judaism. In Jewish worship it stands for the word Shaddai, a name for God; and the kohen, or priest, forms the letter shin with his hands as he recites the priestly blessing (unrelated interesting fact: young Leonard Nimoy, observing this in synagogue when he was growing up, later used a single-handed version of the gesture as Spock's Vulcan hand salute on Star Trek). Because it is so holy a letter, it is sometimes written with a special crown on the left hand upstroke.

Am I alone in seeing a structural echo of this in Blake's composition? The crown becomes the foliate vine; the central upstroke the angel of the divine, the right-hand one Eve, Adam the bar across the bottom? It would be a way of Blake saying, in effect: all these elements together constitute one holy name, God. God pervades all this.

Well Met by Moonlight

Rather brilliantly, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has released to the world images of 375,000 their artworks to use, share, and remix, without restriction. At the top of this post is one of them: a watercolor/gouache by British-born painter Henry Farrer called 'Winter Scene in Moonlight' (1869). I've just spent the last hour browsing the 19th-century collections, and I'm about to dive back in for more. It's addictive. Here's a 1848 Dante Rossetti pen-and-ink sketch of the end of Goethe's Faust:

Here's a characteristically rich, rather over-solid Burne-Jones, 'The Love Song' (1868-77):

Here's another watercolour, this one by Charles Reginald Aston, called 'Tree Branches' (1908):

And here's an 1880s albumen silver print of 'Athena Nike', from the Athenian Acropolis, snapped by William James Stillman:

I hadn't seen any of these images before, and there are hundreds of thousands of more just a click away. Amazing, really.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Gray Days

Alasdair Gray's 'The City', from this short Paris Review piece on him.

I wonder if I should revisit Gray. I read Lanark (1981) as a teenager and it spoke very directly to me. I bought it because I was a SF/Fantasy nut, and the fantasy element seemed intriguing; plus I loved the bravura touch of starting a four-book novel with book three. I can remember quite distinctly standing in the Albion Bookshop in Canterbury browsing it, and deciding to spend my hoarded pocket-money buying the paperback.

But my reading experience did not go the way I expected. As a child I suffered badly from asthma (badly enough for it to threaten my life, badly enough to bend my physical existence around the lines of its force where sport and exercise were concerned) and the mundane half of that novel, Duncan Thaw's pre-war Scottish life and especially his experiences as an asthmatic child, chimed with my own experience like Big Ben's bell. The fantasy elements were fine, too; but I had not previously read, and have not subsequently encountered, a fictional account of what it feels like to be an asthmatic so powerfully true. At any rate, it made me into a fan of Gray. Since then I've read, I think, everything he has published, novels and short-stories both. But with the sole exception of 1982, Janine (1984), which I read in my first year as an undergraduate, and which I still think an interesting novel, none of them have stayed with me. None of them!

My asthma is considerably better now that I'm an adult, partly because I have to a degree grown out of it, mostly because modern medicines are incomparably better at managing the condition than were 1970s-era drugs. But the debility asthma forced upon me had a deep and shaping effect on me growing up, and is therefore still part of who I am. Gasp, wheeze, etc.

When Orson Welles died in 1985 there was a comedy sketch on British TV premised on the conceit that he had lived his artistic life backwards: starting with sherry commercials and film cameos to raise funds, small-scale bits and pieces as he learned his craft as actor and director, moving onto low-budget adaptations like The Trial, to more ambitious Shakespearian films (Chimes at Midnight, Othello, Macbeth) and, as his skill increased, to technically accomplished thrillers like Touch of Evil. Finally, having perfected his craft, Wells was able to make his masterpieces: The Magnificent Ambersons and, the copestone to a glorious career, Citizen Kane. There's something of this about Gray, I think. But maybe I should give him a re-read. And his artwork is certainly very lovely.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Kierkegaarry Potter (or "Fear and Rowling")

1. Being and Time-Turners

When Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out in 1999, some fans wondered why the time-turner that Hermione possesses in that novel (and which she uses to slip back in time in hourly increments and so double-up the number of classes she can take, the swot!)—why that time-turner couldn't be used to put an end to Voldemort before he ever became Voldemort. You'd have to give the device 250,000 turns or so, but that's a small exertion to undertake to prevent all the horrors that Tom Riddle unleashes on the world, surely! So why is the time-turner used only for trivial, and never for world-saving, purposes?

At the time, I came up with my own answer to this question, one which satisfied me, though it may not you. Maybe people had tried to use the time-turner that way. Maybe they'd tried many times, but each time they'd only ended up creating a present that was more monstrous and unbearable than before: they tried killing Riddle as a baby, or educating him differently, or treating him with different magic spells, and it made things worse and worse. Eventually, after much experiment and tragedy, they (whoever 'they' were) lighted on the only timeline in which Voldemort could be defeated, and that's the one spelled out by the novels we now have. Possibly, possibly not. More interesting than the likelihood of this particular fan-theory are the grounds on which such theories address the text at all.

Come at the same question another way. A related issue with this device is why it appears only in Prisoner of Azkaban, and vanishes from the later novels. Such a trinket could come in very useful in (say) Deathly Hallows, after all, and its disappearance rather smacks of an author, anxious not to paint herself into an impossible corner plotting-wise with one too many magical get-out-of-narrative-jail-free cards, nudging this extraordinary item under the carpet with her toe.

Now Rowling is the kind of writer who pays attention to her fans, and later HP books quite often include incidental details papering-over the cracks in her earlier worldbuilding that those fans have pointed out. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016), for instance, reveals the previously unmentioned 'Croaker's Law' that limits time-turners to a maximum backtime-travelling of five hours (any longer, we're told, would create ripple effects that would harm either the time traveller or time itself; although of course the plot of Cursed Child depends upon an extraordinary and illegal time turner that takes us back many years, so at the same time as filling that worldbuilding divot Rowling gouges out another). As for the 'why not use time-turners in the battle of Hogwarts?' puzzle: in Half-Blood Prince Hermione reads a newspaper account of an accident at the Ministry of Magic, in which a cabinet containing all the time-turners in the world has been destroyed. On account of the turners' special properties, the cabinet falls, shatters and repairs itself endlessly in a rather neat temporal short-circuit, that happens to keep them conveniently out of the way of the remainder of the plotting Rowling has to do.

She hasn't plugged all such internal coherence gaps, I think. (Why is Hermione in Prisoner of Azkaban so tired all the time? We're told it's because, using the time-turner, she's doing twice as much school work. But she has a time-turner! Why doesn't she use it to do twice as much school work and get twice as much sleep?) But the longer I go on with this kind of nit-picking, the more you get the sense that I'm missing the point. You're right: I am. Hermione's time-turner has its manifest role in the plot, but it has a much more resonant and powerful latent role in the thematic through-line of Prisoner of Azkaban as a novel; which is why it appears in that novel only, and isn't needed for later installments. That's because Prisoner of Azkaban brings one of the main themes of the series as a whole into a particular dramatic focus. I'm talking about the relationship between the parental generation and the children who succeed them. Harry misses and idolises his parents. As the novels go on he discovers his Dad was a bit of a bully when he was Harry's age. In Azkaban, threatened by Dementors, Harry is saved by somebody casting a patronus spell: a stag. He thinks this is his father, except obviously it can't be, since his father is dead. At the end of the novel it turns out that it was he himself, time-returned, who saved himself. Wendy Doniger is right about how forceful and touching this scene is:
Thanks to a wonderfully complex and subtle episode of time travel that traces a Möbius twist in the chronological sequence, Harry encounters himself in the loop where past and present come together and overlap. The first time he lives through this period, he sees, across a lake, someone he vaguely recognises: perhaps his father? No, his father is dead, but that person sends a silver stag which saves him from present danger. When he goes back in time, he runs to the same place to see who it was, and there’s no one else there: he is the one who sends the stag to save himself in the future. The moment when Harry realises that he mistook himself for his father is powerful; and it is, after all, the only real kind of time travel there is: each of us becomes, in adulthood, someone who lived some thirty years before us, someone who must save our own life.
Fun though it can be to debate the in-story consistences and inconsistencies of Rowling's intricate worldbuilding, only a fool would think that the success of these novels was a consequence of intricate consistence of worldbuilding. That success has much more to do with the way these novels express a complex of, fundamentally, affective and existential truths, things that chime deeply with its readership of children and of adults both: things to do with friendship and solidarity, with school and love and loss, and especially I think to do with parents and children. The novels are littered with ingenious trinkets and amusing spells, but most of these remain mere narrative garnish unless—like the time-turner—they express something deeper. And when they do it kind-of misses the point to focus all one's attention on the epiphenomena of the artefact. Doesn't it? The scene in Azkaban where Harry sends the stag patronus to save himself is indeed a satisfying plot point, but it is more importantly a way of saying something profound: that we struggle for a long time to come to terms with the influence, good and bad, our parents have upon us, to find a way out from their shadow, to understand them, to love them properly, and then, without warning, we discover we have become them, and it is a surprise. It's no less of a surprise because we understand that this is the way of things; it's how the species carries on. And indeed it's not only the transition, it's the apparent elision of the two conditions. We are wholly dependent upon our parents; we separate ourselves from our parents; we resent and fight our parents; we are our parents. Just like that!

2. The Surveillance Unto Death

Another problem Rowling-as-writer has, in terms of boxing herself into a corner, is how massively over-surveilled her world is. The story needs its mysteries to remain mysterious until the proper point in the narrative when they can be revealed with the conjurer's flourish and the satisfied 'ahh!' of the audience. Disguises must not yet be penetrated, hidden people and things have to remain hidden a while longer, and so on. Yet magic allows anyone and everyone to see, pretty much, everything. Take the Marauder’s Map, which is easily filched, and passes from schoolchild to schoolchild. This map shows the true identity and location of everybody in Hogwarts. No magical countermeasure, not Animagus disguises, Polyjuice Potion or Invisibility Cloaks, can fool the map. So, we might wonder, how did Fred and George fail to notice that their brother Ron spent his nights cuddling up with a full-grown man, Peter Pettigrew? How, in the first book, did they not see, with appropriate startlement, that Lord Voldemort himself was in the school, always close beside Quirrel?

To follow my own advice, I'm going to focus less on the in-story manifest logic of surveillance artefacts and spells, and more on the latent significance. Because it's not just maps. An important thread in the novels is that characters are granted access inside the minds and memories of other characters. It takes what in conventional novels would be 'eavesdropping' to a new level of psychological intimacy (although there's is also a great deal of old-fashioned eavesdropping in the stories, as it happens). There are two main iterations of this. One is the use of magical artefacts such as the Pensieve to re-play the memories of others, most notably when Harry gathers tears from the eyes of dying Snape, and by dropping them in the Pensieve not only learns but, it seems, experiences the secret history of Snape's whole life: his love for Lily Potter, how he was bullied at school, and the double-game he played at Dumbledore's prompting to keep Harry safe. Another example of this sort of thing is even more intimate: the direct connection of mind to mind, primarily dramatised via the link that exists between Harry himself and Voldemort. This link is actualised via Harry's forehead scar, which grows more painful as the connection strengthens. It's a major narrative strand in the series, in fact: Voldemort tries to use the connection to possess Harry, and when he can't he plants false visions into Harry's mind (Harry nearly dies after V. lures him into Department of Mysteries by showing him false visions of Sirius Black being tortured, for instance.) Finally Harry learns to use the connection to surveil Voldemort and to track down Horcruxes—a plural form I insist in believing, despite all evidence in the text to the contrary, should be Horcruces. In Deathly Hallows Hermione scolds Harry for looking into Voldemort‘s mind: 'Harry, You are not supposed to let this happen anymore!... what good is it to watch him kill and torture, how can it help?' [Deathly Hallows, ch 27]. Harry's reply ('Because it means I know what he's doing') strikes us as weak beer, because we understand something far more crucial is represented by this linkage.

We could make a Foucauldian, Disciplinary-Punishing point with respect to all this surveillance if we wanted to. After all, Hogwarts School is a remarkably Panopticon-like space, in which the pupils are under continual surveillance by not only their teachers, but by prefects, by ghosts and house-elves and even by the portraits on the wall; not counting such items as the invisibility cloak and the marauder's map. But I'm going to go in a different direction, in part because Hogwarts, despite being so thoroughly surveilled, is such a Deleuze-Guattarian holey space: there are just so many hidden rooms, secret paths and veiled elements. Even the Marauder's Map doesn't show the Room of Requirement or the Chamber of Secrets. And that's as we might expect: it's part of Rowling's inheritance of the Gothic, where the actual structure at the heart of the story (castle, monastery, stately home) literalises the symbolic structures of society and, especially, of family, in order to dramatise the truth that such structures are built on secrets. Secrets, and the uncovering of them, are the entire plot-thrust of the Harry Potter novels. (That's an overstatement, I know: there are other things going on in these books that endeared them to readers: the inventiveness and charm, the strong central relationships, the apprehension of school as the most important forum of youth. But you see what I mean). And since this paragraph seems to have slipped into the nether reaches of Theorist name-dropping I'll add two more: the topography of Hogwarts is not Foucauldian: it is much better described by Abraham and Török.

There are many individual secrets and hidden-things brought to light during the course of the seven Harry Potter books. But in what remains of this blogpost I want to suggest that all of these lesser secrets are constellated around, and in various ways reflect upon, one core secret: the 'big' secret that the series works through. And that means we can finally get to the Kierkegaard. At last. I'm only søren it's taken me so long.

3. Dumbledeither/Or

So I propose that what I'm calling the 'big' secret of the Harry Potter novels is: Abraham and Isaac. Which is to say: the mystery (in the strong sense of that word) of why the old are called upon to sacrifice the life of the young, to kill the favoured child, the chosen one. And why they do so without any apparent qualm.
"So the boy ... the boy must die?" asked Snape quite calmly.

"And Voldemort himself must do it, Severus. That is essential."

Another long silence. Then Snape said, "I thought ... all these years ... that we were protecting him for her. For Lily."

"We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength," said Dumbledore, his eyes still tight shut. "Meanwhile, the connection between them grows ever stronger, a parasitic growth: Sometimes I have thought he suspects it himself. If I know him, he will have arranged matters so that when he sets out to meet his death, it will truly mean the end of Voldemort."

Dumbledore opened his eyes. Snape looked horrified.

"You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment? ... You have used me ... I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to keep Lily Potter's son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter." [Deathly Hallows, ch.33]
Dumbledore can't quite believe Snape's profession of outrage, here, if that's what it is. “But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” (In the movie this line of dialogue is shifted slightly to make it even more deflating: 'don't tell me you have grown to care for the boy?'). But Snape is quite right. 'The boy who lived' is revealed as 'the boy who lived in order to die at the appropriate time.' These two old men are conspiring in secret to sacrifice—literally, not metaphorically, to sacrifice—a favoured son on the altar of a cruel and unresponsive Providence.

It's a feature the Harry Potter universe shares with Middle Earth that none of its characters spend any time in church or temple, or devote any of their energies to worshipping God or pondering the spiritual dimension of things. In the case of Tolkien this was, perhaps counter-intuitively, because he was so religious himself. The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote to his Jesuit friend Robert Murray in 1953, 'is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.' It's possible Rowling, who was raised an Anglican and attended Church of Scotland services whilst writing the novels (her eldest daughter was baptised in Edinburgh), is doing something similar in which case 'Providence', at the end of that previous paragraph, may be too evasive a piece of nomenclature.

At any rate, the whatever-it-is that requires Dumbledore and Snape teleologically to suspend their ethics, is veiled in these novels. Rather we follow the major plot of Harry's sacrifice through Harry's eyes:
He felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. How strange that, in his dread of death, it pumped all the harder, valiantly keeping him alive. But it would have to stop,and soon. Its beats were numbered. How many would there be time for, as he rose and walked through the castle for the last time, out into the grounds and into the forest? Terror washed over him as he lay on the floor, with that funeral drum pounding inside him. Would it hurt to die? All those times he had thought that it was about to happen and escaped, he had never really thought of the thing itself. [Deathly Hallows, ch 34]
It's the story of Abraham and Isaac from Isaac's perspective; and it answers the question 'but why must we die at the hands of the nom-de-la-mort Voldemort?' with: because there is a little piece of this mort already inside your soul. But it does so in order to twist a surprise existential short-circuit out of the encounter: death ends up destroying not us but the shard of death inside us. Eucatastrophe!

This isn't what Dumbledore thinks will happen, of course. It's clear he believed that Harry would die. When his shade meets Harry after the event, he describes himself as a 'master of Death'. 'Was I better, ultimately, than Voldemort?' he asks, and the question is not a rhetorical one.'I too sought a way to conquer death, Harry.'
“Hallows, not Horcruxes.”

“Hallows,” murmured Dumbledore, “not Horcruxes. Precisely.” ...

“Grindelwald was looking for them too?”

Dumbledore closed his eyes for a moment and nodded.

“It was the thing, above all, that drew us together,” he said quietly. “Two clever, arrogant boys with a shared obsession.”
 [Deathly Hallows, ch. 35]
All the twists and turns of the seven novels, all the 'Snape's a baddie! no he's a goodie! wrong, he's a baddie! oh, final reveal, he's a goodie!' back and forth, they all resolve themselves into these three fundamentally Kiekegaardian problems. Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical in the Potterverse? On what grounds might it operate? Voldemort, and Grindelwald, and young Albus all suspended the ethical in search of a particular telos: overcoming death. That led to great suffering: in Kierkegaardian terms, a tragic, rather than Abarahamic, outcome. But to continue with Kierkegaard's 'problemata': how does the specific suspension of the ethical provision not to sacrifice Harry Potter merit any more suspension than those earlier experiments? Voldemort dispenses with the ethical for purely selfish reasons: that he himself might not die. Snape is prepared to do the same for less selfish reasons: to save the life of the woman he loves. But Dumbledore's rebuke to him on this ground carries meaningful ethical force: “You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die, as long as you have what you want?” Snape is abashed by this, and quite right too. So what about Dumbledore's reasons for doing what he does? That's trickier to justify, and trickier still even to identify. The answer is to be found in the eucatastrophic survival of Harry himself, just as, in the Genesis story, Abraham's faith is only retrospectively justified by the intervention of the angel, staying his hand. Could we say: the thing that justifies Dumbledore's secret scheme literally to send Harry Potter to his death is that he is, in a Kiekegaardian sense, a knight of faith? 'A wizard of faith' sounds odd; but maybe that's what we're dealing with.

Kiekegaard's third problema is also relevant here: 'Was it Ethically Defensible for Abraham Dumbledore to Conceal His Undertaking from Sarah Harry, From Eliezer Hermione and Ron, and from Isaac everybody else?' Just as Harry comes to understand this his Dad was a bit of a nasty bully, so he comes to understand that Dumbledore is secretive in a manner that approaches the pathological.
Harry thought fast, his scar still prickling, his head threatening to split again. Dumbledore had warned him against telling anyone but Ron and Hermione about the Horcruxes. Secrets and lies, that's how we grew up, and Albus ... he was a natural ... Was he turning into Dumbledore, keeping his secrets clutched to his chest, afraid to trust? [Deathly Hallows, ch 29]
This takes me back to where this starting point of this blogpost. Because all the secrets in the novel, though they do work on the level of textual content, also work on the level of textual form. Indeed, they are the level of textual form of these novels, which, once we get past 'learning the world of the Potterverse', boils down to: uncovering these various secret things. It's what a writer does to keep a reader reading: pulling them along on the leash of the promised revelation of the secret. It works very well, as millions of satisfied readers will testify. But, to repeat myself, all the various specific secrets with which the neo-Gothic structure of the novels is supplied resolve, I think, into one core mystery, Dumbledore's sacrifice of Harry.

Why does he do it? What is hidden in the Abrahamic-Töröky crypt of Dumbledore's psyche? What is he hiding from the world? Something to do with the 'obsession' that he shared with Grindelwald. That same Grindelwald we now know, from the most recent Rowling/Potterverse movie, looks like that most handsome of movie actors, Johnny Depp. 'It was the thing, above all, that drew us together; two clever, arrogant boys with a shared obsession': to short circuit life and so overcome death itself. Ask another famously gay wizard, how is it that death comes into the world at all and he'll tell you: it's pretty girls who make graves. Dumbledore's secrecy is about more than just holding back plot elements until their most dramatically effective place in the story; it is constitutive of him. Of his modest flamboyance, his childlessness, the extent to which he is closeted. I don't want to disappear too far down the 'is Dumbledore gay?' rabbit-hole, but it has sometimes struck me that there's a Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard-y quality to Edelman's much-discussed No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004): a polemical attack on the 'reproductive futurism' culturally and socially embodied by the Child. Abraham kills his own son; Dumbeldore sends Harry to his death; Edelman sets out to symbolically slay 'the child' who 'remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention', intervention always framed as 'a fight for the future'. Edelman's is a kind of Leap of Queerness, the assertion of homosexual identity as 'the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism'. Instead of moving on to the broad sunlit uplands of reproductive futurity, queerness works through its magical disruptive loop, like those time-turners forever falling and crashing and resetting and falling and crashing again. It's a knot, and it ties together all these things, after the manner of the knot of Abraham's impossible rationale for doing what God tells him to do, his promise and command: I shall, through your son Isaac, make you the father of nations, but in order for this to come to pass you must kill your son Isaac whilst he is still a child and thus cut-off your destiny. It's more than a paradox; it's the foundational mystery of the tribes of Israel, and therefore of the Judaic-Christian heritage.

The blankness of Abraham's motivations, in the Genesis narrative, is the starting point for Auerbach's still-essential Mimesis (1946). Auerbach contrasts the expansive, detailed mode of representing reality employed by Homer with the elliptical, opaque and intriguing mode used in the Old Testament. We learn nothing of Abraham's thought processes as he receives his baffling, monstrous divine commandment; he simply takes up his son and goes to Moriah.

Fear and Trembling opens (after its quizzical 'Johannes de silentio' preface) with a section entitled 'Attunement' in which Kierkegaard repeatedly retells the story of Abraham and Isaac, each time adding a speculative explanation for Abraham's behaviour. So the first tells how he
seized Isaac by the throat, threw him to the ground, and said, "Stupid boy, do you then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Do you suppose that this is God’s bidding? No, it is my desire." Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his terror, "O God in heaven, have compassion upon me. God of Abraham, have compassion upon me. If I have no father upon earth, be You my father!" But Abraham in a low voice said to himself, "O Lord in heaven, I thank You. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he should lose faith in You."
In the second Abraham cannot forgive God for requiring so terrible a sacrifice from him; in the third 'he threw himself upon his face, he prayed God to forgive him his sin, that he had been willing to offer Isaac'. And in the fourth Abraham, at the moment of crisis, with the dagger raised, simply loses his faith.

Each of these midrashim establishes a different mode of understanding the mystery of Abraham. Could we construct four similar fables to explain the mystery of Dumbledore's motivations? The boy who lived must die, at the right time, and not only the specific manoeuvres to bring this about but the very fact of it at all must be kept secret. The sacrifice must be performed in the unwavering and whole-hearted belief that the boy will die, that this is necessary. It is only after the event, when the knight of faith has not only leapt but landed safely on the far side, that the sacrifice can be justified, and the boy saved.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Vlaster Than Empires: Notes on the "Wolfhound Century" trilogy

"My Wolfhound Century should grow
Vlaster than empires and more …"


Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century trilogy [Wolfhound Century (2013) Truth and Fear (2014) Radiant State (2015)] is one of the most remarkable Fantasy works of the twenty-teens. This assessment seems to me so obvious that the series' relative neglect by the SFF community becomes a real puzzle. Rarely has a literary/historical imagination been so powerfully combined with heartfelt sciencefictional and Fantasy sensibilities. Of course it may be that very hybridity—the bald fact of it, I mean, rather than its calibre—is precisely why this work has been under-appreciated by the genre community and largely ignored by the literary. I don’t mean, in saying so, to sound personally aggrieved. Higgins isn't a personal friend (I've met him once, briefly, at a publishing do) and I've no desire at all to become the patron saint of lost literary causes. But it bears repeating: this trilogy deserves much more than it received. Perhaps its time is yet to come.

The setting is ‘the Vlast’, a variant 20th-century Soviet Union in which a variety of fantastical elements coexist with the apparatus of a Stalinist police state, and all its quasi-Orwellian quotidian indignities—overbearing bureaucrats, the smell of boiled cabbage in corridors, cheap vodka, queues in freezing weather and so on. The fantasy aspect of the novels is rooted in a kind of forest magic (indeed, the huge forest is almost a character in its own right). Giants are pressganged into physical labour, shapeshifting werewolves and smoke spirits walk the streets. Also it means angels. These creatures, it seems, throng the dark interplanetary spaces, and at the beginning of the trilogy one such celestial being has tumbled to earth. It is still sort-of alive, gigantically embedded in the ground in the middle of the wilderness.

If I say the plot is not the most notable achievement of this trilogy I don’t do so to disparage Higgins’s narrative. Volume 1, Wolfhound Century, spins a very readable Gorky Park-y policier/thriller, in which Vissarion Lom, his main character, too principled a policeman to get promoted, is sent to investigate nefarious goings-on in the Vlast's capital city Mirgorod, and in doing so uncovers plots and criminality that go right to the top of the politburo-equivalent. This works well. The worst we could say is that, as a mechanism for keeping the reader reading, the gears of this plot stick a little in the first half of the second volume, Truth and Fear (2015). It doesn't really matter. By this point the story and its characters have built up enough momentum to carry the reader through, and the denouement to vol 2 and the unexpected upward trajectory of Radiant State make for more impetus in the reading experience. What I'm trying to suggest is that plot is subordinate, in this trilogy, to something else. I'm tempted to call this something else ‘atmosphere’, but that’s not quite right. The writing certainly is very atmospheric, sometimes intensely so. But although Higgins loads every rift of his paragraphs with the ore of description and mood, I wonder if there isn’t something else at play here.

On publication of the first volume, some reviewers made comparisons with China Miéville. I can see why, although it’s a parallel that misrepresents the balance of mimesis and fantasy in Higgins’ novels, pitched as they such that the latter quality is used to inflect the former, rather (as in Miéville) the other way about. Though it lacks the fantastical aspect altogether I wonder if a better point of comparison would be Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty. What Higgins, Miéville and Spufford all share, I think, is a complicated mix of partiality and horror in their attitude to the old Soviet Union, an attitude compacted out of left-leaning political affiliation, historical knowledge of what actually happened, humane sensibilities and imaginative capacity.*

[*I could mention my own Yellow Blue Tibia here, not as any kind of comparator text, but only because I also share this mix of feelings concerning the old USSR. Of course, perhaps that means I'm merely projecting when I talk about Spfford, Miéville and Higgins. Those latter two mediate their Soviet-y Unions through the lens of Fantasy; Spufford through the lens of alternate history and speculative economics. My own novel uses a UFO fantasia and a self-reflexive SF writing trope as its inflection. It's also supposed to be funny, which is a point I return to below. I don't mean the hilarity or otherwise of my own writing. I mean the rather more significant question of what Martin Amis calls 'laughter and the twenty million'. Higgins, it's fair to say, is not trying to be funny in Wolfhound Empire.]

I have a theory that, in idle moments, I sometimes dandle on my metaphorical knee. It is that one of the ways we can differentiate between Fantasy and SF is the way they handle dystopia. SFnal dystopias are often very horrible, but more to the point they are horrible in a way that is designed to repel. I mean this in the sense that nobody sane would want to live in Zamiatin’s Onestate or Orwell’s Airstrip One. Fantasy is less thickly supplied with dystopias, I’d say, since for many fans the primary purpose of the genre is escape. So it goes that the broad sunlit uplands, romantic snow-peaked mountains and surging blue waters of your terra fantastica may be under siege or even under occupation by the forces of evil, and so temporally dystopified, but it will only ever be temporary. The book’s Shaytan equivalent is defeated and banished and the drought or plague or whatever lifts from your land. This, though, raises interesting questions about those Fantasy texts that don’t do this, Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, I suppose, being the most obvious counter-example. You might want to live in Middle Earth; indeed, when I was a kid I had periods when I yearned to live there, rather than in my suburban SE English mundaneness. But who would yearn to live in Westeros? Psychos? Masochists? I don't know. The popularity of the books, and especially of the TV series, suggests to me that there are people who do indeed yearn for the escape Westeros represents; presumably an escape from civilisation and its discontents.

It has to do with enchantment, or more specifically it reacts to the sense of modernity as a site of disenchantment. One of the notable thing about Wolfhound Century is the way it wholeheartedly commits to the materialism of the Soviet experiment (it is science fiction; there are even spaceships) and to fantasy of magic, giants, ruskalas, golems, vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches and colossal alien fallen angels. It's both at the same time: a superposition of SF onto Fantasy, or (with appropriately dialectical balance) vice versa, sometimes more and occasionally less effectively achieved but always uncomfortable and powerful. We can say more. To these two modes, or inflections, the trilogy adds a third, since the genre most typically associated with Cold War Russia is neither SF nor Fantasy but the thriller. That’s the element frontloaded in the first volume, Wolfhound Century (2013). The book starts with a nod to the opening scene in Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, with our hero, Police Inspector Vissarion Lom, sitting in a café watching his operation through the window, like Le Carré’s Leamas:
Investigator Vissarion Lom sat in a window booth at the Café Rikhel. Pulses of rain swept up Ansky Prospect, but inside the café in the afternoon crush the air was thick with the smell of coffee, cinnamon bread and damp overcoats. ‘Why don’t you go home’ said Ziller. ‘Nobody’s going to come. I can call you if anything happens. You can be back here in half an hour.
The narrative moves on in a more  Martin Cruz Smith/Gorky Park-y direction from this opening, but it works well. Or at least, it does in the first volume. I mean ‘works well’ in the sense of generating an effective thrillery vibe, a noir mood: the degrees of tension and excitement and that make reading easy. But it proves hard to sustain as the trilogy goes on, since such a vibe depends upon an agent working within the more tightly structured environment of law and order, and towards the end of Wolfhound Century that order breaks down in two ways—the war that the Vlast has been prosecuting comes home to ruin its capital city, and the magical elements in Higgins’s fictional conception become much more heavily foregrounded. Indeed when Higgins tries to return to the ‘Lom is a brilliant investigator overlooked by his superiors because he’s too honest’ vibe halfway through the final volume Radiant State (2015) it doesn’t work nearly so well, because by this stage in the trilogy the tonal logic has shifted comprehensively from policier to Weird Fantasy. It's not a problem, exactly, because the latter element is very powerful. The forest, the giants, the fallen angels and—in Radiant State—the undead soldiers are especially dream-haunting. It’s a question of the larger miscibility of the trilogy's generic ambitions.

Now, as I say, I would argue that this book articulates and therefore appeals to a particular, niche, variety of quasi-nostalgia that a particular sort of person may well feel about the old Soviet Union: that place of tyrannous disaster; that exotic political ‘other’; that homeland to Grossman and Shostakovich and Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn and the Strugatskis and Akhmatova and Tarkovski; that place of Gulags and mass-murder and Stalin and Beria and so much depressing Social Realist strain and muscle. The 'particular sort of person' I'm talking about will probably be of a certain age, and probably on the left.

This is the appropriate moment to bring-in Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread (2002), a book about the strange double-standard the intellectual left apply to Stalinism. He points out that if we play the numbers game then Stalin was worse even than Hitler. And yet there’s this residue of what amounts to affection in western intellectual discourse for that whole world, especially now that it has vanished (no—not vanished, of course: morphed into the mafiaform kleptocracy of the modern Russian Federation). Amis worries away at the why of this in Koba the Dread; and although it got a rough ride from reviewers when it came out, it seems to me one of Marty’s better books.

Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’ We could adapt this as a way of approaching Higgins’s Wolfhound novels. He has created a true description of the Soviet Union that exactly resembles a dark fantasy of the Soviet Union; and it works as well as it does because our sense of the latter elides our sense of the former.

If I have one reservation (I'm a little inhibited from raising it, for reasons noted above) it's that Wolfhound Empire is not a humorous work. For many this will not be a problem; but I felt the absence of the laughter. Amis's Koba subtitle, ‘Laughter and the Twenty Million’, identifies something important, I think. Higgins's Stalin-figure, Josef Kantor, is a parched, driven, psychotic and humourless little man. He is well-drawn, especially in the later books, and Higgins absolutely makes the reader believe in the way his sheer will, and puritanical charisma, drives the people around him on, and forces whole cities, and later whole countries, forward. But Stalin was not humourless. He projected an avuncular geniality, and he often laughed. He was, indeed, often at his most terrifying when he laughed. Amis describes how he, with feigned reluctance, took to the stage at the Bolshoi Theater in 1937 and agreed, with faux-modesty, to be a candidate in the upcoming ‘election’. What Amis focusses on is the servile laughter that greeted him. He quotes a contemporary transcript (‘ ... of course, I could have said something light about anything and everything. [laughter] ... I understand there are masters of that sort of thing not just in the capitalist countries, but here, too, in our Soviet country. [laughter, applause]...’) and glosses:
Ground zero of the Great Terror—and here was the Party, joined in a panic attack of collusion in yet another enormous lie. They clapped, they laughed. Did he laugh? Do we hear it—the ‘soft, dull, sly laugh,’ the ‘grim, dark laughter, which comes up from the depths’?
Amis then makes the connection with the laughter of western socialists, remembering his old friend Christopher Hitchens addressing a London audience in 1999 in a venue that had often hosted socialist and communist gatherings. Hitchens made reference to this past, and, Amis says, was greeted with 'affectionate laughter.' Of this, and leaning a little too heavily on the outrage pedal, Amis asks:
Why is it? Why is it? If Christopher had referred to his many evenings with many ‘an old blackshirt,’ the audience would have been outraged ... Well, with such an affiliation in his past, Christopher would not be Christopher—or anyone else of the slightest distinction whatsoever. Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub? One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous laughter? And what kind of laughter is it? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million.
The larger argument in the book is not quite so self-righteously dismissive. Amis understands, I'd say, that the laughter, dark or desperate, cruel or even liberating, was part of the whole Soviet experiment in a way not true of the Nazi one. The laughter does not deflect, but on the contrary illuminates, the horrors. Nor should we confuse laughter with levity. On the contrary, indeed. In his own review of Koba the Dread, Hitchens himself recalls a footnote to Amis's earlier book, Experience:
Batting away a critic [Amis] describes as ‘humorless,’ he adds, ‘And by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.’
I like that very much. Indeed, it seems to me really quite profound. Hitchens's point, I suppose, is that Amis loses his sense of this great truth in the thickets of horror and outrage that hem in Koba the Dread. There's something in that.

Well: I don't want to perpetrate the fatuity of criticizing Higgins for not writing the kind of book he never set out to write in the first place. I'm entitled, as any one is, to write a quasi-una-fantasia Soviet SF novel structured via irony and laughter if I want to (and have indeed done so). Earlier I praised Spufford's Red Plenty, and one of the things that works so well about that book is its effortless wit. Spufford can be very funny when he wants to be. Miéville, I have to say, can't: despite his many excellences, laughter is not part of his skill-set. So perhaps the comparisons with Bas-Lag have some point after all.

'Why is it? Why is it?' asks Amis. Why the double standard? A Wolfhound Century set in Nazi Germany—The Adolf Century—would indeed be a much less palatable prospect; but why? One possible explanation that Koba the Dread doesn’t consider is: orientalism. The Nazis (according to this logic) did unspeakably wicked things and in doing so they betrayed the high ideals of post-Enlightenment civilized European values. Conversely, the Soviet authorities committed all manner of barbarity, violence and cruelty—but the Soviet Union was an oriental, not a Western, regime, and, as the deep-rooted prejudice goes, those orientals have always been all about the exotic barbarism and colourful violence. They did not fall from so high a eminence in our estimation, because they didn’t occupy such a perch in the first place. It’s bollocks, of course; and whatever problems there are with Said’s Orientalism (and there are plenty of problems) its polemical spearing of the mendacity of this caricature remains powerful. But the fact that it is bollocks hasn't stopped it permeating western culture and society.

Michael Ignatieff, looking back on the Communist experiment from the vantage of the mid-1990s, suggested that Soviet Russia was
a violent but passing form of Oriental despotism, as relentless as Fascism, as single-minded in its appropriation of modernity’s tools to oppress and control, yet fatally compromised, both by its organised contempt for those in whose name it ruled, and by the central conceit that there could be a systematic, total alternative to capitalism. Here, Fascism was shrewder, because it vampirised the capitalist system; it did not wish to break it up, and so could deliver both the goods and the terror. It is because Fascism can live with capitalism that it will remain as a possible nightmare for us long after the last Communist is dead and buried.
Interesting that Ignatieff feels unembarrassed about deploying an orientalist stereotype in his analysis of his grandfather’s fatherland.

I'm not, incidentally, suggesting that the Wolfhound Century books are 'orientalist' in this fashion. It's true that Higgins eschews the trappings of post-Tolkien ‘western’ or northern-European fantasy (wizards and dragons and elves, oh my) for an Eastern Fantasy of ruskalas and endless forests. But he does so wholeheartedly from the perspective of the Vlast: the West (here, the 'archipelago') is a marginal presence. Higgins wholly commits to his Vlast as a lived-in habitus. This is in no way an orientalist novel.


In A Secular Age (2007) Charles Taylor fleshes out, at impressive length, the Weberian thesis of disenchantment as constitutive of modernity.
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.
Alan Jacobs discusses the pros and cons of this state of affairs:
a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark — of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family ... The problem with this apparently straightforward transaction is that the porous self is open to the divine as well as to the demonic, while the buffered self is closed to both alike. Those who must guard against capture by fairies are necessarily and by the same token receptive to mystical experiences. The “showings” manifested to Julian of Norwich depend upon exceptional sensitivity, which is to say porosity — vulnerability to incursions of the supernatural. The portals of the self cannot be closed on one side only. But the achievement of a safely buffered personhood — closed off from both the divine and the demonic — is soon enough accompanied by a deeply felt change in the very cosmos. As C. S. Lewis notes in The Discarded Image (1964), the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” gives way to the modern person who perceives only emptiness and silence. Safety is purchased at the high price of isolation, as we see as early as Pascal, who famously wrote of the night sky, “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”).
Jacobs goes on to explore the way some modern Fantasy novels (and some other modern things) attempt a mode of re-enchantment. What makes the deeply-felt, poetic and absorbing re-enchantment of Wolfhound Empire so remarkably is the very fact that Higgins attempts it in a fictional version of the acme of dialectical materialism. It's one thing to re-enchant the old England of Mythago Wood; it's another to try and re-enchant Leningrad (the source, I assume, for Higgins's Mirgorod). To try and make myself clear, at the risk of merely repeating myself: Higgins's ambition leads him to embed fantasy enchantment in the least hospitable territory imaginable: a land of Stalinist five-year-plans, sprawling urbanisation and nuclear-pulse rockets. What's so remarkable is how close he comes to pulling this off.

Taylor's A Secular Age argues that we have replaced the numinous apprehension of a cosmos brimming with spiritual grace and danger with what he calls the 'immanent frame' of the moral and existential perspectives of reason and science. Taylor's 'buffered self' is an aspect of this immanent frame, and although he thinks there have been significant attempts to re-enchant the world—he mentions Romantic poetry and philosophy, “New Age” spirituality, various religious fundamentalisms—none of these have broken the immanent frame. For Higgins to join these variegated frame-breakers manqués by choosing the industrial wastelands and furious materialism of Soviet Russia is very bold indeed. That he comes as close as he does to pulling it off is even more remarkable.

By ‘pulling it off’, I don't mean ‘dismantling Taylor's immanent frame altogether’. That would indeed be a big ask. It is enough to attempt to add a third element to Marx and Engels's famous Communist Manifesto declaration. All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned; all that is repressed returns. I think this may be why the half-alive zombie soldier-corpses in Radiant State, dreamily wandering woodland and village, all in their various loops (as the HBO Westworld would put it)—why these characters resonated so powerfully with me. At the heart of this trilogy is a haunting of some kind. Something is trying to get back in, some third element. Trilectical Materialism, maybe.

Still: coming close to pulling it off isn't the same as pulling it off. The epistemological fictions of detection and Modernism chafe, sometimes, against the ontological fictions of High Fantasy. The strain of aligning the two modes, the Soviet-modern-SF one and the Old-Russian arborial magical one, becomes a particular focus of Radiant State, where time itself is pulled into two parallel but differently-paced iterations. It's one of the ways Higgins differs to (and I'd say is better than) Miéville. The Bas Lag novels refract their ideological critique and engagement into in-text monsters and weirdnesses, oddnesses concocted out of Miéville's imagination. Wolfhound Empire of course contains many traditional Russian fantastikons, but its real work is in refracting the Soviet union into this formal, structural disarrangement. Because it is structural it is more systemic, and that works better.

What this is, I suppose, is another way of addressing the question of re-enchantment. Conceivably it is Higgins's commitment to this that explains why SF/Fantasy readers haven't seemed to know quite what to make of his trilogy. Miéville's fantasies are many things, but they are not enchanted (I suspect Miéville shares Moorcock's distrust of the whole enchantment kit-and-caboodle as bourgeois mystification and crypto-fascist little-englander nostalgia). But Higgins, though far from bourgeois in his sensibilities and aesthetics, is interested in enchantment. There is a magic in these novels, in a strong version of the word's double-sense—doubled, that is, in the sense of content and mood. There are problems with this, I think: but whatever else it is, it is a royal road to the marvellous. And Wolfhound Empire is a marvellous work.