‘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.
Friday, 23 June 2017
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
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 │ WardrobeThat'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?
[ᴗ] — ᴗ ᴗ │ — ᴗ ᴗ │ — —
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.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?
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.
Thursday, 1 June 2017
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
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 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 ... ’
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]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]
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]
Wednesday, 24 May 2017
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
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
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,with the famously anapestic
Blow the wind south o'er the
Bonny blue sea
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,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.
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.
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 weartrip up jarringly on ‘sincere’, which needs to be sinCERE but which can only fit the rhythm of the song by being sung SINcere. Ugh.
Oh I'd step out in style with my sincere smile and my dancing bear
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
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
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 goWhich room? Somewhere in London, obviously.
Talking of Michelangelo.
Saturday, 18 March 2017
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?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).’
a) Linda is a bank teller.
b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
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?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?’
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.
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?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?
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.
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
Thursday, 9 March 2017
[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.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.
‘But I can't do none of that stuff. That wouldn't be Right.’
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
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.Next up on the Wellsian blog: The Wonderful Visit (1895). Post coming soon.
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.
Saturday, 25 February 2017
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".
Sunday, 12 February 2017
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.
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
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
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.
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.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.
"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]
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.”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.
“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]
Kiekegaard's third problema is also relevant here: 'Was it Ethically Defensible for
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.