‘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.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Incomparable Programme Eclipsing All Former Triumphs

I'm working through the whole of H G Wells's oeuvre and blogging about it (in Another Place) as I go. And now I'm into his 1914-1918 writing, which I'm supplementing with a little, rather desultory if I'm honest, for-context reading about the First World War. In the course of which I chanced upon this Canadian victory poster. I love the aesthetic mash-up of medievalised and modern styles in its main image, but the panel of text at the bottom is pretty wonderful too.

Tractors! Poultry shows! More than commonly picturesque! I'm sold.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Lad and the Devil

Lad and the Devil agreed to build a bridge together. The bridge was to link the east bank of the Kentish Stour and the western bank of the Welsh Wye; and Lad needed it to visit his wife, who otherwise would be weeks of walking away. Now, the bridge must be built all in one night, for if it is unfinished in daylight it will fall into the waters as nothing but a heap of stones. ‘I'll help you, Lad, and we'll agree to labour together at the task,’ said the Devil; ‘but the first soul to cross it shall be mine; such is my bargain.’ ‘Very well,’ said Lad; and Lad knew that the Devil believed the first soul across would be Lad's wife—or, perhaps, Lad himself—and that either would gratify him. So they two came at sunset, and the Devil carried a great brass hammer, and Lad carried only an old bone. ‘You'll neither drive piles nor split rock with that,’ said the Devil. And Lad replied: ‘but I shall make the effort, and it was my labour, not my success, you bargained for.’ So the Devil had no choice but to do all the hard work himself, setting the piles and laying the heavy stones and hauling the beams; whilst all Lad had to do was to set the slate to cope the parapet, and he did so by thwacking it into place with his bone. And before dawn the bridge was finished, and the sky began to blush on the east, though it was yet still night. And the Devil put out from his throat Lad's own voice, as the Devil can do, and called Lad's wife to come try the new bridge and visit her husband. And Lad's wife appeared, on the far side. But Lad was quicker, and with all his strength he hurled his bone over the bridge. His dog, Siôn Cent, ran after the bone and over the bridge, and laughingly Lad said: ‘our deal is done, for there's your soul.’ But the Devil shook his head, full of terrible solemnity, and said ‘there's no soul in a dog, my Lad. The bargain is unfulfilled.’ And Lad began to tremble with fear.

Just then, as the dawn swelled over the horizon, Lad saw his wife start upon the Wye-side of the bridge and come towards him. All his lightness of spirit left him then, and he felt a terror and dread; for he loved his wife and could not abide the thought that she would become the Devil's. So he ran himself onto the bridge, and met his wife halfway. ‘If you cross the Devil will take you,’ he said. ‘And if I cross, the Devil will take me!’ ‘What then?’ replied his wife, ‘must we abide on the middle of this bridge forever?’ ‘Return you to the far side, and I shall take myself back to the near, and though we do not see one other again for many years, we shall at least escape the Devil's clutches.’ ‘Very well,’ cried his wife, ‘Though I'll have of you one last embrace, for the love I hold for you, and the love you hold for me.’ And so they embraced one another. But the sun came up, and a piece of slate that Lad had laid carelessly fell away as the couple lent against it, and fell into the river: for an old bone does not settle a coping slate as well as a coping hammer. So the bridge was incomplete by daybreak, and all tumbled to loose blocks in the daylight. Lad and his wife, clasping close together, fell into the river—whether the Wye or the Stour none can say, for they stood exactly in the midst of both yet wholly in the realm of neither. Certain it is that they were never seen again in Wales or England, and there are some who say it must be they fell into the waters and were drowned and so went to hell. But others say they dropped into some new land of brightness and sweet skies, and began a new life, and the Devil was thwarted. As to which of these two is the true ending of the tale: that is something you must decide for yourself.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

How I Define "Science Fiction"

[Note: I'm just back from the Edinburgh Book Festival where I appeared on a panel about science fiction with the great Jo Walton and my friend Farah Mendlesohn: the event organised, and moderated, by the estimable Ken McLeod. The panel was fun—it was lively, which is code for ‘we disagreed’, or more precisely ‘everyone disagreed with me’—and one of the things it entailed was each of us offering a thumbnail definition of SF. Now: it occurs to me that my definition, such as it is, doesn't really exist in one single place. So I thought I'd sketch it here. I used to have a dedicated SF blog, which would have been the natural venue for a post like this, but I've been trying to rein-in my blogging habit, and my relationship to SF criticism is going a bit Dover Beach at the moment. Here will do. To be clear: neither Jo nor Farah agree with my definition of SF; and you should certainly read their respective writings to see what they have to say about the topic. There's a good chance their views will persuade you in ways mine doesn't.]

On those occasions when people ask me to define science fiction, I generally say it's this:

Probably the most famous jump-cut in cinema. You already know the context, so I don't need to spell it out for you: millions of years BC, an apeman throws a bone into the sky. It flies upward. The camera pans with it, following it a little shakily into the blue sky. The bone reaches its apogee and, just as it starts to fall back down, Kubrick cuts to a shot of a spaceship in orbit in AD 2001.

Now, this seems to me an extremely beautiful and affecting thing, a moment both powerful and eloquent even though I'm not sure I could lay out, in consecutive and rational prose, precisely why I find it so powerful or precisely what it loquates. It is, I suppose, something ‘about’ technology, about the way humans use tools, our habit of intrusively (indeed, violently) interacting with our environments, about the splendour but also the limitation of such tools, the way even a spaceship is, at its core, a primitive sort of human prosthesis. But when you start explaining the cut in those terms you become conscious that you are losing something, missing some key aspect to what makes it work so well in situ.

It works, in other words, not by a process of rational extrapolation, but rather metaphorically. I mean something particular when I say that, and I explain what I mean in detail below; but for now, and to be clear—I'm suggesting this moment actualises the vertical ‘leap’ from the known to the unexpected that is the structure of metaphor, rather than the horizontal connection from element to logically extrapolated element that is the structure of metonymy. Kubrick's cut is more like a poetic image than a scientific proposition;——and there you have it, in a nutshell, my definition of science fiction. This genre I love is more like a poetic image than it is a scientific proposition.

Now, if my interlocutor needs more, and if the picture doesn't make my point, I might add something Samuel Delany-ish: about how science fiction is a fundamentally metaphorical literature because it sets out to represent the world without reproducing it.

The danger, here, is that people will take what I'm saying as a statement about the content of the genre, rather than what it is, a statement about the form, about the genre's discursive structure. So, for instance, Darko Suvin's common-sense definition of SF as determined by one or more novums, things that exist in the SF text but not in the real world (and therefore not in texts mimetic of that real world) is too often, I think, treated only on the level of the content of the text. If a given novel or film contains a time machine or a faster-than-light spaceship or radically new concept of gender, then it is science fiction: end of. But what interests me about novums is the way the novum itself is so often a kind of reified or externalised embodiment of the formal logic of the metaphor, rather than just an, as it were, brute marker of difference as such.

Now, I need to acknowledge that most of the fans and critics of SF I know are not likely to be persuaded by what I say. More people, I think, would argue that a science fiction text extrapolates (more, or less, rigorously and quasi-scientifically) from knowns in our world into possibles in its imagined world. This is, on its face, perfectly sensible, and has the advantage of distinguishing ‘science fiction’, where the extrapolation needs to stay within broader guidelines of possibility, from ‘fantasy’ where magic, surrealism and so on may enter in to the equation. If you're writing about a colony on Mars, then you need to stick more-or-less within the bounds of what we know about Mars, and space travel, and humans-living-in-close-proximity and so on. Small deviations from probability may be permissible, depending on what they are and how cleverly the writer handles them; but large deviations are liable to ‘bounce the reader’ out of her reading experience. Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief is harder to sustain (the argument goes) in a story where the protagonist is a captain in the Proxima-Centuraian Space Navy than one in which they work in a shoe-shop in Colchester, so writers need to tread carefully not to tip-over their readers' delicately balanced sensibilities.

I don't think that's true, actually; but plenty of clever and knowledgeable people do.

This approach to SF tends to lead to prioritising things like: consistency and scope of worldbuilding, plausibility, rationality, the scientific accuracy of the way novums are extrapolated from present-day knowledge and so on. But once we get in the habit of judging SF by these criteria, I would say we are moving away from what makes SF so cool and wonderful in the first place. Put worldbuilding in the driving seat, as writer or reader, and Mike Harrison's clomping foot of nerdism comes stamping down on our human faces, forever.

Don't get me wrong: worldbuilding, the correlative of ‘extrapolation’, certainly has its place in SF. Not in my definition of SF, though, and that's what concerns this blogpost. It seems to me that worldbuilding is ancillary to the crucial thing that makes SF (and Fantasy for that matter), vital, crucial and wonderful. I'm enough of a Tolkien fanboy to enjoy reading the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, but I'm not enough of a fool to believe the appendices to The Lord of the Rings are the point of that novel.

Put it this way: worldbuilding is part of the system of a science fiction text; but the point of SF is not its system. The point is that it transports us—that it takes us somewhere new, that it brings us into contact with something wonderful, that it blindsides us, makes us gasp, unnerves or re-nerves us, makes us think of the world in a different way. I might differentiate a mediocre novum from a great one by saying that the former is embedded in a carefully worked-through and consistent web of worldbuilding, where the latter achieves escape velocity.

Now, if I say the point of SF is transport and you immediately think of a well-integrated network of trains and buses, then it may be you're more persuaded by that view of SF as coherent rationally-extrapolated worldbuilding. But if I say the point of SF is transport and you think rapture, well, conceivably you're closer to seeing the genre the way I do. Sometimes this transport is the full on mindblowing ‘Sense of Wonder’, a phrase I tend to take as a modern-day version of the venerable aesthetic category of the Sublime (to adapt Edmund Burke, we could say: mimetic fiction can be beautiful, but only SF can be sublime). Sometimes it is something smaller-scale, a woh! or cool!, a tingling in the scalp or the gut when we encounter something wonderful, or radically new, or strangely beautiful, or beautifully dislocating: something closer to Wordsworth's spots-of-time maybe. It needs to be at least flavoured with Strange (‘Weird’ as the kids used to say) to be properly SF. Great SF can never situate itself inside its readers' comfort zones, though commercially popular SF can and often does.

Fantasy has a related aesthetic uplift, which we might call ‘enchantment’, which can manifest in several ways, but which absolutely needs to be there, somewhere, in amongst your welter of maps and family-trees and invented languages and costumery and battles and elves and soap-opera-y comings and goings, if your Fantasy novel is going properly to come alive.

Now, I cannot deny that there is an ideological element to my definition here (there's an ideological element to every definition, whether we acknowledge it or not). It's hardly news that the genre I love exists over a particular political fault line. There are many right-wing SF fans, who, speaking socially, prize proper authority, tradition, following the rules and a congeries of what are essentially military values, and who prefer SF that embodies all that. Which is fine; there's plenty of that kind of SF out there. For myself I have little time for the whole ‘the rules of physics prove my ideology is correct!’ crowd: the there's-no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch crew, the ‘the pilot in The Cold Equations was right to throw that girl into space!’ cadre (together with their more deplorable ‘I cheered when the pilot in The Cold Equations threw that girl into space, serves the bitch right’ fringe). But there are many dedicated SF fans who find truth in some or all or those slogans. I can only speak for myself when I say I see SF as more fundamentally about the encounter with otherness, about hospitality to the alien, to the new and the strange and therefore with the marginal and the oppressed. This means it needs to embrace conventional and unconventional things, to be as much about gay as straight, trans as cis, colour as whiteness and so on. In all this I see SF as an art of disclosure, not enclosure. That's my ideological bias, and I'm content to own it.

I'll say two more things about my definition of SF as a fundamentally metaphorical literature. The first is to stress I'm not saying that (for example) SF's novums are symbols that can be decoded. I don't think so at all—that, as it were, the rocket ships are all symbolic penises, Hydra is a straightforward translation of Hitler's Nazi party and so on. This strikes me as a reductive and foolish way of reading texts. To repeat myself: it is not the content of any specific metaphor that defines SF for me; it is the structure of the metaphor as such. Mine is a formal, not a content-driven, definition. In order to explain what I mean by that, I'm going to bring in a little theory. Bear with me.

So here goes.

Roman Jakobson, one of the most influential linguistic theorists of the last century, makes what seems to me a really interesting and important distinction between metaphor and metonomy. Indeed, I hang my definition of science fiction upon that dyad. Metaphor is that trope that refers something to something it is not, invoking an implicit rather than explicit similarity between the word or phrase used and the thing described (a related but different trope is that of the simile, where words such as like or as are deployed): Achilles is a lion, all the world's a stage, chaos is a ladder and so on. Metonymy, on the other hand, is the rhetorical device by which a part of something is used to refer to the whole of something: a parish of a thousand souls, a hundred head of horse, calling the monarch ‘the crown’ and so on.

On a simple level, we recognise these rhetorical devices, and they take their place amongst the scores of other rhetorical devices that constitute our discourse. Jakobson, though, makes much more of them than this: although speech-acts and stories and novels only occasionally contain metaphors or metonomies, language as communication (he argues) is structured on a larger scale by the interplay between metaphor and metonomy. This is what he argues:
The message construction is based on two simultaneous operations (the terms metonomy and metaphor are not used as figures of speech but rather as pervasive forces organizing language):
Combination (horizontal)——constructing syntactic links; contexture.
Relation through contiguity, juxtaposition.
METONYMY: implying time, cause and effect, a chain of successive events

Selection (vertical)——choosing among equivalent options.
Relation on basis of similarity, substitution, equivalence or contrast; synonym/antonym.
METAPHOR: implying space, a-temporal connection, simultaneity.
In poetry the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection (metaphor) is used as the major means of constructing a sequence (combination; metonym). This projection is the defining characteristic of poetry, and it expresses itself in rhyme, meter, symmetries, repetitions, motifs.

The dominant mode in the poetic is therefore that of metaphor. Whereas in Prose the metonym prevails, the chain of events, the plot, successive actions, a sequence of occurrences. (The opposition is not an absolute one, but rather a mark of a tendency).
In fact, Jakobson developed his thought when he was working with autistic and asperger's-syndrome children. What he discovered was that these kids tended to understand metonymy, but tended to be baffled by metaphor. So, as it were, you could show them a headline that says the White House today issued a statement on immigration, and they would understand that ‘the White House’ was a metonym for the US Government. They wouldn't assume the actual building was talking (they're autistic, they're not stupid) but would, on the contrary, grasp the connection between the US Government and the White House, since the head of the US Government lives in the White House. In this case there's a logical connection, a conceptual copula, between A and B. But Jakobson discovered that if you said to them Achilles is a lion, they were liable to reply: no he's not, he's a man; and if you said Chaos is a ladder they'd stare at you like you were bonkers. Not, of course, that Jakobson's actual research involved him quoting Game of Thrones to autistic children. But you take my point.

I don't have hard data, and stand ready to be proved wrong by people who do, but I suspect that SF fandom contains a higher proportion of asperger's people than society as a whole. To be clear: such a statement is not a judgement. I have several friends on the spectrum, asperger's-wise, and they're clever, sensitive and wonderful people, precisely as worthwhile and valuable as people not on the spectrum. I make this observation to ask whether this might have something to do with why my way of defining SF is so marginal to how most of the fans and critics I know see the genre. Mine is an eccentric position, in the strict sense, and I know it: most fans who are happier with a metonymic model of the genre (extrapolation—which is to say, cause and effect, a chain of successive events—and worldbuilding: coherence, links, contexture). It may be they're right,of course. But that's not how I define science fiction.

The structure of metaphor as such is the knight's-move, my favourite manoeuvre in chess. It leads you in a certain metonymic direction, and indeed sometimes leads you quite a long way down that consecutive path, in order to leap suddenly, not arbitrarily, but poetically, expressively, marvellously, in its unexpected direction. It's the way the carefully worldbuilt society of Asimov's ‘Nightfall’ falls apart under stellar Sublimity, or the way the intricate anthropological detail of Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness is leavened by actual supernatural foretelling—a.k.a. magic—as a correlative to love, which is that novel's wondrous theme, wondrously handled. It's the way the scrupulously rational computational logic of Clarke's ‘Nine Billion Names of God’ steps, in its last sentence, into amazing impossibilities. It can be the beautifully unexpected outgoing, as when Ellie Arroway enters the alien world-construct at the end of Contact, or it can be the beautifully unexpected homecoming, as at the end of Kij Johnson's superb ‘26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’. It doesn't need to happen at the end of a text: it might occur at the beginning (as when Timur's scouts ride through a wholly deserted Europe in Stan Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt) or anywhere in the text, actually. It is more affective than rational, more lyric than narrative (though the narrative is usually needful to generate its lyrical affect, I think). It is the hurled bone that turns, unexpectedly, impossibly yet somehow rightly, into a spaceship.

I'll finish on a personal note. I write, as well as write about, science fiction, and have been doing it for long enough to know that the kind of science fiction I write does not find favour with the majority of SF fans. How I define ‘Science Fiction’ may well have something to do with this: although it's just as likely that my relative lack of genre success is (Okham's razor and so on) because what I do just isn't very good. But this structure I'm describing here as formally constitutive of science fiction is also formally constitutive of the joke, and jokes are very, possibly unhealthily, important to me. The structure of a joke is a knight's move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer's flourish of the unexpected. The joke can't be capped with a merely random or left-field unexpectedness, or it won't be funny: but the flourish at the end (the, to deploy a term invented by a giant of genre, prestige) must work. Here's a joke:
A man walks into a library, goes up to the counter and says brightly: ‘I'd like fish and chips, please!’

And the woman behind the counter replies: ‘but ... but this is a library.’

The man's eyes go wide. ‘Oh, I'm sorry!’ he says. Then he leans forward and whispers: ‘I'd like fish and chips please.’
Here's another: my 9-year old son's favourite joke, as it happens.
There was once an inflatable boy. He lived in an inflatable house with his inflatable parents. He went to an inflatable school with all his inflatable friends. But one day he took a pin to school.

The headmaster summoned the boy to his office. Shaking his head sorrowfully he said: ‘you've let me down, you've let the school down, but most of all you've let yourself down.’
I'm absolutely not saying that SF needs to be full of jokes. Indeed, on the contrary, successful comedy-SF is very rare indeed (The Hitch-Hiker's Guide is really the only undisputed classic in this narrow field). I am not talking content, I am talking form; and the point of this form is that the unexpected twist releases a quantum of joy. That's why jokes are great, and that, although its content is very different, is why SF is great.

So when I call SF a metaphorical mode of art I mean it in that Jakobsonian sense: as a structural or formal constitution rather than anything content-level. And, in the unlikely situation that such a thing should be of interest to you, it provides the key to my own creative and intellectual exercises. Structuralism, metonymic and procrustean, interests me less than various poststructuralist freaks and shakes; irony (though it's currently rather out of fashion) interests me more than earnestness, play more than preachiness, epiphanies more than consistencies. I think our genre needs more Keatsian negative capability and fewer grids, hierarchies and certainties. SF is in the prestige, not in the setup and the performance, although the setup and the performance are needful for the prestige to come off. SF should transport us or what's the point of it. At any rate, that's how I define ‘Science Fiction’.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Ciceronis Opera

Just back from a lovely two week family holiday on the Black Isle, hence the paucity of posts lately. The above (click to embiggen) is my personal souvenir of our time in Scotland: found in a strange, rather tatty secondhand bookshop in Dingwall. Vol 19 is missing so it wasn't as expensive as it might have been: but vellum-bound, 1749, bee-ootiful, and I couldn't resist.

I bought it because I don't know Cicero as well as I ought and because my Latin is very, very far from being good enough—I mean, in a general sense. I propose to address these two delinquencies over my sabbatical, in part by reading some volumes of this edition. I've read only a couple of Ciceronian bits and pieces in English, and the only thing he wrote where I've so much as glanced at the Latin is this brief piece of proto-SF.

The bookplate is that of the Fortescue family, a Barony in the 18th-Century, an Earldom nowadays.

So this set must have been purchased by either Hugh, 1st Baron Fortescue right at the end of his life (1696–1751) or by his son Matthew, 2nd Baron Fortescue (1719–1785).

I find it fascinating to think that, only a couple of years after the Jacobite rebellion turned Scotland completely upside down, and as the bloody aftermath was going on all around them, Glasgow printers were sedulously assembling this complete edition of Cicero. I know Glasgow was a predominantly Whig town during the '45, and maybe it escaped the more severe retaliations by the English. Even so!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Francis's Mabinogi

Everything seemed to have been torn from its roots,
so that it tumbled over the mind
as in a dream: pigs, seaweed,
birds, people, flowers.

Perhaps that's what he meant by Unland,
a country where things break loose
from their own being.

The storyteller goes on,
as if to himself.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Lewis's Dactyls of Narnia

Do we pronounce the word ‘lion’ as a disyllable? I think we do, which leads me to the belated realisation that the title to Lewis's first-published Narnia novel is, prosodically speaking, the second half of an epic hexameter line, the template for which sixfold pattern in Homer, Vergil et al (I need hardly remind you) is five dactyls capped with a spondee. There are many variations on that basic pattern in epic verse of course (although the terminal spondee never alters), but that's the basic set-up. And so we can imagine an epic line continuing, post-caesura:
[the] Lion, the │ Witch and the │ Wardrobe

[ᴗ] — ᴗ ᴗ │ — ᴗ ᴗ │ — —
That's just a curio, I know. But then I started to think about how often Lewis's imagination, reaching for a made-up name to supply his made-up country, lighted either upon something dactylic or something spondaic. Narnia itself is a dactyl, which enables the first-half-of-a-Homeric-hexameter title to this post. Also dactylic are Caspian, Reepicheep, Pevensie. The working title for The Silver Chair was the doubly dactylic Night under Narnia. I suspect, but can't prove, that immersing himself in medieval literature had shaped Lewis's imagination had given him a bias towards the dactylic; Jean-Yves Tilliette notes the ‘almost universal adoption of dactylic verse by medieval metrical poets’ [in Ralph Hexter and David Townsend (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature (OUP 2012), 242]. And this has one small bearing on the question of how we pronounce ‘Aslan’. The name might be a trochee, ARSElǝn, — ᴗ; I don't suppose many people would put the stress on the second syllable, asLARN ᴗ — ; but shouldn't we give both ‘a’s equal weight? That would make the leonine name a terminal spondee, the finishing point to the epic hexameter line and therefore the omega to the alpha-led name, because in Lewis's imagination Aslan must come both first and last? Ahslahn: — —. No?

Tuesday, 20 June 2017


I picked up the above three-vol paperback edition of Harold Nicolson's diaries from a charity shop for 60p (I know!), and have been going through them in a pick-and-mix fashion. My reason for doing so is that Nicolson knew Wells, and the diaries are full of little things that may come in useful for me in completing this project. But, Wells aside, the diaries are full of splendid things. Nicolson is especially good on the claustrophobic awfulness of British aristocratic gatherings.
29th November 1930. Down to Cliveden. A dark autumnal day. Thirty-two people in the house. Cold and draughty. Great sofas in vast cathedrals: little groups of people wishing they were alone: a lack of organisation and occupation; a desultory drivel. The party in itself good enough. Duff and Diana [Cooper], Tom Mosley and Cimmie [ie Oswald and Cynthia Mosley], Oliver Stanley and Lady Maureen, Harold Macmillan and Lady Dorothy, Bracken, Garvin, Bob Boothby, Malcolm Bullock. But it does not hang together. After dinner, in order to enliven the party, Lady Astor dons a Victorian hat and a pair of false teeth. It does not enliven the party.
Some of the anecdotes are a little, as it were, formed; but usually Nicolson redeems himself with a genius touch. So here he is in 1943, by which point he was the National Labour MP for Leicester West.
9th June 1943. I went to the house where I received a deputation of tomato-growers. In they trooped in their country clothes. I took them to a Committee Room and managed to gather together a few other M.P.s Their spokesman addressed us the injustice being imposed on tomato-growers by the Ministry of Food. I took notes. I said a few vague and hopeful things, and one of them presented me with a huge tomato. I do not in any circumstances like carrying objects in my hand, even when these objects are small and hard and dry. I roamed the lobbies miserably holding the thing in my palm as if it were an orb of majesty instead of a huge and squashy vegetable. Then I darted to the kitchen and laid it firmly on the table. ‘Thank you, sir,’ said one of the cooks, as if it were customary for M.P.s to appear suddenly like Pomona and deposit upon their tables the teeming riches of the soil.
That's perfectly nice, but the transition to the next paragraph is better :
I had that evening to go to a conversazione given by the Authors’ Society. As it had taken me some time to dispose of my tomato, I arrived late, and H. G. Wells was already talking nonsense in front of a microphone and a plate of biscuits.
As it had taken me some time to dispose of my tomato is just lovely.
4th February 1934. I walked into Joyce's flat in the Rue Galilée. It is a little furnished flat as stuffy and prim as a hotel bedroom. The door was opened by the son. A strange accent he had, half-German, half-Italian—an accent of Trieste. We sat down on hard little chairs and I tried to make polite conversation to the son. Then Joyce glided in. It was evident he had just been shaving. He was very spruce and nervous and chatty. Great rings upon little twitching fingers. Huge concave spectacles which flicked reflections of the lights as he moved his head like a bird, turning it with that definite insistence to the speaker as blind people do who turn to the sound of a voice. Joyce was wearing large bedroom slippers in check, but except for that, one had the strange impression that he had put on his best suit. He was very courteous, as shy people are. His beautiful voice trilled on slowly like Anna Livia Plurabelle. He has the most lovely voice I know—liquid and soft with undercurrents of gurgle.

He told me how the ban had been removed from Ulysses (‘Oolissays’ as he calls it) in America. He had hopes of having it removed in London, and was in negotiation with John Lane. He seemed rather helpless and ignorant about it all, and anxious to talk to me. One has the feeling that he is surrounded by a group of worshippers and that he has little contact with reality.

He told me that a man had taken Oolissays to the Vatican and had hidden it in a prayer-book, and that it had been blessed by the Pope. He was half-amused by this, and half-impressed. He saw that I would think it funny, and at the same time he did not think it wholly funny.

My impression of the Rue Galilée was the impression of a very nervous and refined animal—a gazelle in a drawing-room. His blindness increases that impression. I suppose he is a real person somewhere, but I feel that I have never spent half an hour with anyone and been left with an impression of such brittle and vulnerable strangeness.
I didn't know that Joyce pronounced Ulysses ‘Oolissays’, and wonder if I'll think of that novel title differently now. Tennyson pronounced Idylls of the King ‘Idles of the King’ and I absolutely refuse to follow him in that. Still: a rather mournful portrait of Joyce, all things considered. Plus Ulysses is a huge volume: how did anybody manage to smuggle it inside a prayer book?

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Kitschies That Never Were

No Kitschies were awarded last year. 2016 was a Kitschless year—for one year only it was Nitch on the Kitsch. Which was a shame, since 2016 saw a wealth of (to quote the Kitschies’ remit) ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining works containing elements of the speculative or fantastic’. So, prompted by Glen ‘the Man’ Mehn, and [*clears throat*] in my capacity a former judge, I thought I’d post some speculative short-lists for the year the prize didn’t happen.

A disclaimer is needful: I didn’t do last year, what I did in my judging year—that is, read a metric tonne of hard-copy and e-books, the better to be able to narrow down our shortlists. But I read a fair few and some of the books I read were really excellent. So here, for the sake of argument (and please: do argue with what I list here) are my Phantom Kitschies shortlists for 2016.

Red Tentacle for the best novel

Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a brilliant jolt of a read, a book happy to inhabit blockbuster conventions in order to suborn them to some powerfully subversive ends. Teenage girls across the world suddenly discover they have the ability electrically to shock others—to burn them, cause them intense pain, even to kill them. The narrative rattles through the immediate implications of this: girls taking revenge on violent or raping men, girls simply being mean, girls collectively coming to a sense of their new power. But the strength of the novel is the way it follows-through its premise, into a world in which men are segregated for their own protection and women, for good and ill and with quite an emphasis on the latter, take control. I particularly liked the way this new society retcons its sense of the world—it becomes seen as ‘natural’ and a product of ‘evolutionary psychology’ for women to be aggressive and violent, since they have babies to protect; if men ever ruled the world their patriarchy would be nurturing and gentle. It’s a raw novel, more than a little jagged—though that also suits its theme—but sparky and engaging throughout. A lightning bolt of a read.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Winter is the third of his ‘fractured Europe’ novels, set in bivalve European set-up—one a tessellation of myriad tiny statelets and ruritaniae, the other, ‘The Community’ a calm but stifling version of 1950s Britain rolled out across the whole continent. The two versions of European reality are linked via a complex of strange portals. Each of the Europe books has a subtly different emphasis and tone, although all provide the pleasures of alt-spy adventures, a cosmopolitan richness of interlocking storylines and slowly unfurling mystery; but arguably this is the best of the three, from its bang-bang opening act of intercontinental railway terrorism through to its big finale. A modern classic.

Lavie Tidhar’s sprawling masterpiece Central Station, set in a future spaceport Tel Aviv, is easily his best book yet (and that’s saying something). What I particularly loved about this is the way it manages to be both gloriously old-fashioned in its SF—an actual fix-up novel set in a space-port in which a colourful variety of humans robots and aliens intermingle—and a distinctively twenty-first century novel about the complex but sustaining inter-relationship between culture and place and memory and technology and change. Most of all it’s about the centrality of stories to who we are, and about the way those stories are always collective and heterogeneous. It’s a marvel.

Christopher Priest’s The Gradual works a simple-enough sciencefictional version of time-zone differences into a haunting exploration of travel, aging and loss. Set like many of Priest’s best novels in his ‘Dream Archipelago’ of endless islands, it is the first-person narrative of composer Sandro Sussken, a citizen of the Glaund Republic on the Northern mainland (a downbeat, authoritarian society locked in an Orwellian permanent war with the Faianland Alliance). The success of his music means that, unlike most Glaundians, Sussken gets to travel from island to island, but in doing so he discovers the titular ‘gradual’, a kind of complex time-slip, or time-stall, that dislocates him from his origins, his family and in the end from the world as a whole. Priest uses his speculative conceit brilliantly to explore what it means to age. It makes me think how rarely the old figure, and how much more they ought to, in progressive narratives of equality and diversity.

Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories is a remarkable epic Fantasy, the follow-up to her debut A Stranger in Olondria (2013) and an even stronger novel. It gives us many of the satisfactions of this over-populated mode, as four women—an aristocrat, a military officer, a priestess and a nomadic poet—are caught up in the events leading to an empire-shaking war. But Samatar has the confidence, and the skill, to downplay the conventional satisfactions of narrative. The result is a gorgeous labyrinth of a text that circles through the permutations of its characters, plot, and the history of her world, richly written and formally involuted.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad deploys its fantastical conceit—the literalisation of the celebrated 19th-century US ‘railroad’ along which slaves would try to pass to freedom as a network of actual excavated tunnels, railways and stations—with commendable restraint. He is not interested in the worldbuilding mechanics of his idea so much as in the imaginative freedom it gives him to send his heroine, Cora, on a journey encompassing the different violences slavery has manifested over the centuries. It is a novel that renders slave society as vividly and memorably brutal without, at any point, reverting to the pieties of hindsight or historical cliché. An unforgettable piece of fiction.

Golden Tentacle for best debut novel

Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit recasts Korean legend in a densely rendered high-tech future universe governed by ‘calendars’, sort-of computer programmes that determine the nature of reality itself. It’s a book that boldly drops its reader into its properly futuristic and alien cosmos—an interstellar empire called the Hexarchate in which six factions each with unique skills are competing for power. Though it might put some readers off, the advantage of this approach is that when the book clicks fully into focus it does so with kaleidoscopic brilliance and coherence. The game theory and maths, all the politics and military tactics, neatly offset some nicely written central relationships.

David Means’s Hystopia is a brilliant, baffling and expertly fractured novel set in an alt-1970s America in which Kennedy wasn’t assassinated, and Vietnam veterans are being treated for PTSD with psychedelics. It is steeped in the flavour of its era, and manages to be simultaneously weirdly familiar and intensely strange—quite the combo, that. I have to concede it’s a little distorting describing this as a ‘first novel’ (even though that’s what it is) because Means has been honing his craft writing short stories for decades. The technical skill shows: Means’s multi-viewpoint and deracinated approach could easily have slid into mere messiness; but though the novel is often violent it is also potent and, in its way, coherent.

Wyl Menmuir’s superbly eerie The Many is, though short, a tricky book to summarise. Suffice to say that as an exercise in unnerving the reader, this cryptic, powerful novella is remarkable. Its seemingly simple plot, about a young man coming to a Cornish seaside village to live in an abandoned cottage whose previous owner had drowned, invokes a sort-of ghost story, or perhaps hallucination, or perhaps dreamtime, to render its poisoned near-future world more obliquely vivid that any straightforward account ever could.

Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear wonderfully resuscitates a form—magic realism—I had thought dead and buried. A famous Brazilian writer, Beatriz Yagoda, up to her neck in gambling debt, goes missing; her American translator Emma flies down to South America to try and make sense of things. The characters she meets are colourful and varied (indeed, perhaps, their colourful variety is a little by rote), and the tone is lightly comic, but as the story goes on it becomes stranger and more beautiful, and Novey’s background as a lyric poet increasingly comes to dominate the telling. A short novel that leaves rich and strange residue in the imagination.

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning boldly mashes together eighteenth-century manners and 25th-century adventure in a post-scarcity utopia where which gender-distinctions are taboo and large-scale affinity-groups are carefully manipulated and managed by behind-the-scenes forces to maintain broader social balance. Readers are liable to find the richly mannered idiom in which Palmer tells her story either beguiling—as I did—or, perhaps, archly offputting. But it is worth persevering with the narrative: there’s a piercing political intelligence at work here, of the sort that would surely have delighted the Enlightenment philosophes that inspired it. Intricately worked, and, I’m pleased to say, the first of a very promising series.

Nick Wood’s Azanian Bridges is set in a modern day South Africa still under the sway of Apartheid, and expertly uses this alt-historical premise to estrange and refresh the way racism violates social and human contexts, without abandoning the possibility of bridging this chasm. Sibusiso Mchunu, traumatised by seeing his friend killed at a demonstration, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital where White doctor Martin test him on his new invented, an ‘empathy machine’. The potential of this device, and its dangers, power a compact but very effective thriller. A thought-provoking and promising debut.

All that remains is to decide on the winners.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

G. Wilson Knight quotes F. W. H. Myers from the Other Side

When I was at school in the 1970s and early 80s we were prompted to read G. Wilson Knight on Shakespeare: The Wheel of Fire, or excerpts from it. And when I went to University we were pointed towards his book on the late plays, The Crown of Life. But it seems clear that whatever reputation he once had has been pretty comprehensively eclipsed now. That may or may not be deserved, I don't know.

What I didn't realise until recently was the sheer oddness of which he was sometimes capable. So, there, at the head of this post, is his The Christian Renaissance, with interpretations of Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe, and a note on T. S. Eliot (1933); a little musty, literally and figuratively, and quite fruitily written, but with some interesting things to say about Dante and the others.

Towards the end of the book Knight is discussing the youthful form angels took in medieval and Renaissance representation: ‘The angels announcing the Resurrection in medieval plays were performed by boys, and the ritual of the Boy Bishop assumed a central importance’ [Knight, Christian Renaissance, 334]. Then he quotes F. W. H. Myers:
Our remarks in this section may be neatly summed up by two quotations from the great spiritualist F. W. H. Myers.
I venture now on a bold saying; for I predict that, in consequence of the new evidence, all reasonable men, a century hence, will believe the Resurrection of Christ, whereas, in default of the new evidence, no reasonable men, a century hence, would have believed it. The ground of this forecast is plain enough. Our evergrowing recognition of the continuity and the uniformity of cosmic law has gradually made of the alleged uniqueness of any incident its almost inevitable refutation. Ever more clearly must our age of science realise that any relation between a material and a spiritual world cannot be an ethical or emotional relation alone; that it must needs be a great structural fact of the Universe, involv ing laws at least as persistent, as identical from age to age, as our known laws of Energy or of Motion ... [Myers, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (Abridged Edition, 1927)]
Myers was a classical scholar and in communications purporting to come from him through the automatic writing of the famous automatist Geraldine Cummins (Beyond Human Personality, 1935) explicitly relates the world which he calls ‘Eidos’, on the plane above the etheric, to the culture of ancient Greece:
Further, this Greek vision dimly reflects existence in that world beyond death which I have called ‘Eidos’. It conveys, shadowily, the spirit of that splendid world, where the subtle body, in glowing perfection, expresses form in its greatest and in its highest intensity, where the mere act of living may be accompanied by an exultation that transcends the lofty ecstasy of the greatest earthly artist. [1.21]

Even in the realms beyond Eidos the Greek ideal persists: all who share this spirit of high endeavour may cross that threshold and, pausing on the edge of the Immensities to gaze backwards, perceive the limitations of the crude, dense first disguise, and the perfection of the second and finer disguise. Its perfected form embodies beauty such as the great Greek sculptors dreamed of and by which the great poets, musicians, painters and prophets of all time have been inspired. [X. 100]
Here we may see a new precision in Diotima's insistence in The Symposium that Eros constitutes the link between man and divinity. These quotations from F. W. H. Myers, so similar in style, composed before and after his own earthly ‘death’, contain together a wisdom which our era may find it hard to assimilate. But the task is worth attempting. [Knight, 335-36]
I still can't quite get my head around the fact that Knight is, with a straight face, quoting what another critic said from beyond the grave. Indeed, I may start emulating him in this. Think how it would free up my own academic writing! ‘I was speaking to T. S. Eliot just the other day and blush to report with what enthusiastic endorsement he praised my own science fiction novels ... ’

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.