‘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.
Tuesday, 16 October 2018
for Alan Jacobs
I sit here with my phone
Where fifty million voices
Are wrathful and alone
As unsocial social media
Frame adverse conversations;
Waves of anger and fear
Pour through all the websites
And webblindnesses of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
And the odour of Twitter affront
Offends the October night.
Future scholarship will
Unearth the whole offence
From Jack Dorsey until now
That has driven a culture mad:
Makes for collective backs
A psychopathic goad:
I and the State have repeated
What all schoolchildren learn:
Those at whom evil is tweeted
Tweet evil in return.
Thucydides' missing blue tick
Speaks volumes, or scrolls, about
And what US Presidents do,
The elderly rubbish they spout
To unapathetic hicks
All analysed in his thinkpiece:
The enlightenment baited our clicks,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief
We must suffer them all again.
All we have is a choice
To mute all the folded lies,
The multiple lies in the feed
Of the angry man-in-the-street
And the lie of Technology
Whose connections web the sky:
There is no compulsion to Tweet
There are two sides to every coin;
Addiction strengthens the voice
Of generic disturbers of peace;
We must follow each other or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of suspicion and of trust,
Synced to the same heartbeat
Of negation and despair,
Post an affirming tweet.
Thursday, 11 October 2018
The latest meeting of Whalecolohics Anonymous
is underway. A semicircle of sea captains.
‘I sacrificed two marriages, all my wealth,’ says one
‘to the Whale. It rode me, ruined me. It has—’
pride entering his voice now—‘been twelve years since
my last harpooning.’ Gruff hearhears, a gruff well done Jack.
The convenor's courteous: ‘thank you Jacob.
Ahab? Anything you'd like to tell the group?’
Ahab, arms braided more than crossed at his hefty chest
glares at the floor, neggs the group with his pegleg
scrapes it, squeeak-peg over the lino, bangs it down,
says: ‘do it matter? it do not. We're all dead.
Whale killed us, each and all. This endless meeting
that pitiless neon-light, these blind white walls
is hell, nor are we out of it. Drowned and damned,
condemned to conversation. The more talk
the less we have to do with aught that looks like life.
Anonymous because damnation's faceless.
I do not hate the Whale. I hate the drink that sunk me.
The Whale was when I was utmostest alive.
Keel-haul me, Ishmael, if ever I blaspheme
the awful mystery of the cetacean sublime!’
The convenor's courteous, but his court's infernal.
‘Come now, my friend: you'll never win your chip
for twelve aeons fishobriety like this.’
His voice hardens just a touch. ‘No one leaves
this room until old Ahab here repents.’
The others sigh, some groan, one swears at him:
‘don't be a dick about it, A-hole.’ Still: not
the smallest atom stirs or lives, even in Hell,
but has its cunning duplicate in mind.
His stubborness is white as Arctic cliffs.
The convenor tuts. ‘Let's go again,’ he says.
‘Captain Takeo: perhaps you'd start us off?’
Monday, 8 October 2018
Thinking about Oedipus this week: tomorrow I teach Antigone on my tragedy course; I'm still picking my way through the Thebiad and I have been having various thoughts about the myth. To that end I'm reposting, here, something I originally wrote about Wells's The Time Machine for another blog, a blog that's now an ex-blog, a blog that has rung up the curtain and joined the bleedin choir invisible. The immediate context for my Oedipal thoughts is the observation that Wells's Time Traveller, arriving in the year 802,701, meets, in the Eloi his own descendents. So when he sleeps with Weena, he is, in a manner of speaking, having sex with his children.
The Traveller repeatedly refers to the Eloi as children: ‘I felt like a schoolmaster amidst children ... like children, but like children they would soon stop examining me and wander away after some other toy’. Whose children are they? His of course (at once point he even calls them ‘my graceful children’). Like the Morlocks, the Eloi are his descendants. When he breaks-off a metal lever which which to defend himself and Weena against Morlock attack he notes:From there I spool-out some more general thoughts about the myth.
I longed very much to kill a Morlock or so. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things.In strict terms Morlocks and Eloi both can be male or female; but in terms of the symbolic logic of the story the Eloi are feminised and the Morlocks masculinized: the former share ‘the same soft hairless visage, and the same girlish rotundity of limb’; the latter though also diminutive, are more aggressive, physically stronger, more of a threat. The Traveller's adventure, in other words, is to hop over time, encounter his own children, sleep with his daughter and murder his sons. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! It's a deliberate, and deliberately unsettling, inversion of the myth of Oedipus.
Oedipus, in the myth, solves two riddles. Indeed, one of the striking things about him in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus is how self-confident he is of his ability to generate such solutions, and how unhappy this facility makes him in the end. First he meets the Sphinx, and solves her riddle: ‘What is that which in the morning goes upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the evening upon three?’ It's a very famous story, and a very famous riddle, although that very fame should give us pause: Oedipus's answer is ‘man’, who crawls on all fours in his infancy, strides on two legs in his maturity, and walks with a stick in his dotage. It is the trajectory as much as the actual answer here that is relevant to Wells's sphinxine novella: the passage from our collective infancy, through maturity, and into the decay of the species: Eloi and Morlocks, rabbits and crabs, into something even less definite and so to terminal nothingness. (It may not be too fanciful to see the pick-a-number,-drop-down,-come-back-up-to-one-less-than-the-original-number shape of this ‘4, 2, 3’ pattern in Wells's famous future-date, 802, 701.)
This riddle is also posed by The Time Machine in a more straightforward manner: in the original myth the sphinx describes a strange monster, but the answer reveals that this monster is not so strange; that, in fact, the monster is us. Wells, in effect, does the same, asking: what are these vacuous, diminutive infantile beings, unable to care for themselves? And what are these other monsters? These pale troglodytes that feed on human flesh? These gigantic crabs? This blob of darkness? And once again the solution to the riddle is: they are man. Which is to say: they are you, they are us. It is in this answer that inheres the buried force of the original oedipal riddle, the enduring power of that myth. The sphinx says: ‘I shall describe to you a bizarre-sounding monster. Can you say what it is?’ And Oedipus replies: ‘Le monstre, c'est moi.’ We can speculate that all the previous challengers to the sphinx's puzzle failed not because the riddle is hard, since (famously) it really isn't that hard, but rather because they were unwilling to take that last step, and accept that the terrible beast being described is they, themselves. Rather than accept their essential monstrosity, many people would rather die. That's one of the things this myth is saying, I think.
But there's a second riddle in the Oedipus story, and it is posed not by a sphinx but by the land itself. The fields sicken, the crops die, a curse is on Thebes. Oedipus sets out to solve this riddle too, unaware that it has the same answer as the first one. What is the source of the curse? Oedipus himself. This second riddle both reveals and embodies the short-circuit of existence: man comes from sex, from the mother, into selfhood and along that temporal trajectory sketched by the first riddle towards death, and the mirroring of these two riddles reveals a profound and upsetting truth that all these things are the same thing. Sex is incest, birth is death, existence is a curse, all is folded into all.
My personal reading, here, is that this was always the coded significance of all those legs in the original riddle. After all, we can only claim that a crawling baby ‘walks on four legs’ by confusing arms and legs, a very foolish sort of confusion. Arms are not legs. No: though the answer to the ‘four-legs’ portion of the sphinx's riddle is indeed ‘baby’—which is to say, the answer is the origin of human life, its starting point—the actual solution is more ribald. Just as Shakespeare describes a copulating couple as ‘the beast with two backs’, so the sphinx describes two people having sex as a four-legged beast, two lower-bodies tangled together. It is not until the second riddle, the one at the heart of Sophocles’ play, that we finally understand the two individuals are Oedipus and Jocasta. The remainder of the riddle also anticipates the events of the Oedipus Tyrannus, I think: Oedipus standing alone, after Jocasta's death, in the blazing noon-light of total comprehension; and then Oedipus seizing a ‘stick’, a new limb—the bronze pin from his wife-mother's dress—and blinding himself with it, bringing the darkness, the ‘evening’ which the sphinx promised.
Wells's Time Traveller, as we have seen, provides himself with a ‘stick’ when he wrenches off a metal bar to kill the Morlocks, which is to say, to visit death upon his own children. But there is an earlier ‘limb’ that may be more relevant here: the lever that operates the time machine itself, and which he detaches and puts in his pocket to prevent monkey-curious Eloi from accidentally steering the device into an irrecoverable othertime. This, I think, in turn speaks to the story-logic of this Oedipal riddle. We walk on the two legs of conventional one-second-per-second time travel, but Wells's ingenious device gives is a third option: to leap over time altogether. He would return to this bizarre world-leaping figure, the tripod, in The War of the Worlds a few years later. We could put it this way: conventional time is a single road, but Wells's machine gives us a new-branching path, a short-cut, and turns the road into a tripartite crossroad; and if that recalls us to the site of Oedipus's fatal encounter with the man he did not recognise as his own father, then maybe it is supposed to. Aeschylus wrote an Oedipus trilogy before Sophocles (Laius, Oedipus and Seven Against Thebes, of which only the last play survives; it ended with a satyr-play called Sphinx). From Aeschylus's Oedipus only this one fragmentary line survives, spoken by Oedipus himself: ‘We were coming on our journey to the place from which three highways part in the branching roads, where we crossed the junction of the triple roads at Potniae’ [this is Herbert Weir Smyth translation]. It's the sense of returning to the fatal, triadic primal-scene that is powerful; of time rolling back to reveal what nobody saw until now but which has always been true.
Now, all this may seem like an abstruse and rather remote way of engaging with Wells's novella, but I do think it touches on something central to the way that work disseminated itself, and continues to disseminate itself, into the world. Really, it's the stroke of intuitive genius that Wells's imparted to his story: he invents a machine that offers a kind of ultimate freedom, escape from the ‘now’, the whole of the past and the future our playground. It is, when you boil it down, the fantasy of escaping mortality as such—for what is death but the formal structure of our various individual timelines? Wells's skill was to realise that the escape-route from death leads directly back to death: the death of the individual becomes the death of the species. There's a reason Wells's terminal beach has proved so iconic for science fiction writers:
The ultimate destination of humankind's evolutionary journey through time, according to The Time Machine, is a strange globular creature, at first mistaken for inanimation, as black as blindness, round like one of Oedipus's plucked-out eyeballs, subsisting at the very end of time that is death.
A shallow sandbank had appeared in the sea and the water had receded from the beach. I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock. The stars in the sky were intensely bright and seemed to me to twinkle very little.The rayless obscurity of this eclipse is Oedipus's blindness; the black, flopping blobby sphere is all of humanity resolved into its ultimate form, death as such, mortality as such. And the only escape from this terminus is to return, to come back in time, to go back to where you originally came from. The secret Oedipus discovers is that sex does not lead into new life and new possibilities, as the conventional wisdom claims that it does, but rather reverts back upon itself, returns to its source, the mother, folding sex and incest and death into one monstrous taboo-violating unity.
Suddenly I noticed that the circular westward outline of the sun had changed; that a concavity, a bay, had appeared in the curve. I saw this grow larger. For a minute perhaps I stared aghast at this blackness that was creeping over the day, and then I realized that an eclipse was beginning. Either the moon or the planet Mercury was passing across the sun's disk. Naturally, at first I took it to be the moon, but there is much to incline me to believe that what I really saw was the transit of an inner planet passing very near to the earth.
The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.
A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.
The Time Machine is informed by Wells's understanding that the sphinxine riddle superposes sex and death. This is why it is worth recovering the original perversity and monstrous transgression of the ‘romance’ between the Traveller and Weena, though normalised by fans and by the book's reception. It is an incestuous mirror-image of Oedipus and Jocasta, and just like the original myth it leads into the auto-involutions of death. It is no coincidence that, having invented this extraordinary device, a machine for travelling in time, Wells never re-uses it in his very many subsequent fictions—a fact that stands in the starkest contrast with all the SF writers who followed him, who all used and re-used time machines in their work all the time, sometimes reusing Wells's actual machine. On the one hand, Wells's refusal simply to rehash his earlier ideas is a testament to his impressive ingenuity and innovation. But on the other it is a tacit acknowledgement that there's nowhere else for the machine to go but back to its own source, and death. We might think that this device, and science fiction itself, will speed us through possibilities in ways that make appear dazzling new wonders transforming the everyday into the rich and strange, as per the quotation with which this blogpost opens: the sun hopping swiftly across the sky; the palpitation of night and day merging and the sky taking on a wonderful deepness, a splendid luminous color of blue, the jerking sun becoming a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space. Wonderful! Indeed, sense-of-wondrous! But although this novel shows us these things, and the technicolour far-future, and the pretty-faced young elven descendants of humankind with whom we can eat and take our ease and with whom we can even have sex, it only gives us a surface glimpse of the colour and excitement. The longer we sit on the saddle, the more these superficial excitements blue-shift into invisibility; the more alarming and disgusting truths begin to emerge from the subterra, the infra-realms of reality; things that have always been true and always before us, but unnoticed, hidden in the lower-depths. Humans are monsters that devour themselves, literally as cannibals and erotically as oedipal figures transgressing the taboo on incest. Futurity and the past are the same, inescapable path, and it leads only to death and blindness. The curse cannot be escaped-from, because the curse is us, we are the monster. Wells's Time Traveller has no name in this story because what we are, as humans, is nameless. It's a wonderfully riddling text that invites us to try and unriddle it. And generations of SF fans and writers have accepted that invitation. We should be careful, though. We're no more likely than was Oedipus to like the answer it gives us.
Thursday, 4 October 2018
Derek Walcott, writing in Poetry Review on the subject of ‘The Poet in the Theatre’ [PR 80:4, 1990-1], asserts:
Later he is more on-target:
Great tragedies are based on the propulsion of metre as well as of character; that is, a symmetry of sound as well as of plot.Wishful thinking, this (of course a poet would like to think this is the case). But nobody ever cried at a poetic sound effect. Even if Walcott means 'tragic content is rendered more tragic by the proper use of metre and language (though that's not what he said), I suspect he is seriously underestimating the ability to drop into the melting mood at the prompt of an old song, an advert, a limerick, a pub anecdote, a look in a particular somebody's eye ...
Later he is more on-target:
The idea of vacuity in modern tragedy is like the idea of the existential or the nihilistic: spiritual vanity. The depth of modern contemplation is of staring into the holes, the emptiest ‘O’ of all. Such vanity lies in the faith that for the tragic poets of the modern theatre, be they absurdists or minimalists, history happens only where it has meaning. And since for such writers history is now meaningless—at least as morality—where history does happen is the only place where modern tragedy can be played.There's definitely something in this, I think. Although, on the other hand, that 'O' has tragic potential, don't you think ...? A kind of Singularity of tragic content; the black hole of empathetic affective suffering.
Thursday, 20 September 2018
There are several ways to answer this question of course. We could position ourselves outside the logic of representation and say ‘s/he's a character in a long-running BBC TV science-fiction drama serial’. Or we could step inside the logic of representation and say ‘s/he is a centuries-old humanoid alien, a so-called Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, who can travel through time and space’. Other answers might include: popular, often recast, British, a lucrative piece of intellectual property and so on. But there's a particular answer to this question that is, I think, crucial to understanding the character's enduring appeal, one broadly (I think) overlooked by fans and critics. Doctor Who, as he initially appeared, and through most, but not—as I'll discuss in a moment—all, of his incarnations, is a gentleman.
I'm going to talk about the Doctor as a man for the next few paragraphs, since I'm trying to address what the character has been so far rather than guess what the franchise's future holds. And although it is wonderful to see a woman play the role, it can't be denied that questions of masculinity have always been intricately bound up with discourses of class and gentility in the English social and ideological imaginarium. So what is the Doctor? He is a man of breeding and wealth (the two things don't always go together, but this case they do), factors that enable him to evade the responsibilities of work that bear down upon the rest of us. Unoppressed by such necessity the Doctor can do what he likes, and what he likes is, broadly: travel and a kind of elaborate philanthrophy, both perfectly respectable gentlemanly pursuits. The Doctor has tremendous charm and is at ease in whatever company he finds himself; he has immaculate manners and solicitude for others—Robin Gilmour's The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel (1982) defines a gentleman as, amongst other things, somebody who never knowingly causes pain to another. And I might cite Gilmour's book to raise two other features of the Doctor's personality that are not only gentlemanly but more specifically Victorian- or Edwardian-gentlemanly: he is eccentric, and he is not a snob.
Eccentricity is a marker of class in the practical sense that a gentleman can get away with acting oddly and indulging his personal crotchets in a way that would lead to a working man (or woman) losing their jobs, or being otherwise socially sanctioned. The gentleman can do as the common man cannot and dress strangely, behave peculiarly, ignore social convention, lark and sport. And the figure of the gentleman as eccentric is increasingly a feature of later Victorian and Edwardian representations of (celebrations of, we might say) the type. So Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison is impeccably conventional in his behaviour; but by the time we get to, say, Sherlock Holmes his whimsies of manner and habit, from playing the violin badly to keeping his cigars in the coal-scuttle and his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper (and, indeed, taking cocaine) are absolutely part of his gentility.
As for disdaining snobbery—which we see in the way the Doctor goes out of his way to be polite to nobodies, to folk working menial jobs, or without any kind of job, or people otherwise manifesting generic Cribbinsness—well: this becomes quite specifically part of the armoury of gentleman in the second half of the nineteenth-century, and does so because one writer, Thackeray (who was absolutely fascinated with the figure of the gentleman) made it so. Thackeray's Book of Snobs (1848) is little read nowadays, but I'd make the argument that it has proved more influential and enduring than Thackeray's most famous novel Vanity Fair, coincidentally published the same year. ‘Let us remember,’ P N Furbank says,
that it was Thackeray who invented our current concepts ‘snob’ and ‘snobbery’, ones which no other country possesses in quite that form. I mean the form of an infinite regress, by which the abusive term ‘snob’, in the sense of low, vulgar, cobbler-like, is not rejected but is transferred to, or reversed upon, those who would use it in that sense. Thus, the vulgarest thing (sense 2) you can do is to look down on somebody for being vulgar (sense 1) or to curry favour with somebody for being non-vulgar.This is important, because a large part of what for want of a better word I'm going to call the Doctor's ‘progressive’ reputation depends upon his repudiation of snobbery. It's something at once a marker of class and, as Furbank notes, of Englishness, and both those things feed into the representation of the Doctor.
Or largely do, because of course there have been incarnations of the character as not English (Capaldi's Scottish 12th Doctor) and not well-bred (Eccleston's working-class 9th Doctor). But of these the interesting one is Eccleston's, since Capaldi, by playing the Doctor as an elderly eccentric Scottish gentleman, was hardly moving the figure far from the way Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee and Hurt played the role as elderly eccentric English gentleman, or indeed the way Baker, Davison, Baker mk 2, McCoy [edit: commentators below point out that McCoy's Doctor was actually Scottish], McGann, Tennant and Smith played the role as a youthful eccentric English gentleman. The standout is Eccleston, a popular iteration of the Doctor amongst Whovians and a very fine actor, but somebody who proved never at ease in the role, who left the show prematurely after disagreements with the production team (and who has, uniquely amongst living former Who-actors, never returned to it). The most notable through-line in Eccleston's ninth-doctor adventures was the introduction of a working-class ‘companion’, Billie Piper's Rose Tyler, although the romance between Rose and the Doctor was postponed until Eccleston's one-series tenure ended and the prettier and posher David Tennant took up the role (Tennant, a Scot, affected an RP accent for his portrayal). It's a little hard to assess the place, or significance, of the Eccleston Doctor in the larger Whocanon, I think: I don't know if it would be right to say that it represented the Doctor in effect ‘slumming it’, and it would be lazy to present Eccleston as the exception that proved my larger rule.
Still, the main point I'm trying to make here is that the positive valences of ‘the gentleman’ absolutely cannot be separated out from the larger ideological structures of class and privilege in which they occur and which, in various ways, they sustain. There is a lot of (as it were) semiotic leverage applied to the concept that attempts to distance it from questions of class, to suggest that one can be a gentleman without breeding or money if one behaves in a certain way; but actually this is all part of a larger false consciousness. Irrespective of all that other touchy-feely stuff about having good manners and not being rude to one's social inferiors, the gentleman is a figure with a structurally copestoning role in social hierarchy. Above I quoted Robin Gilmour (who, incidentally, taught me Victorian Literature at Aberdeen University in the 1980s, and is one reason why I specialised in that period as an academic) to the effect that a gentleman never knowingly causes another person pain. But whilst Gilmour does say this, the larger thesis of The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel is that the Victorian preoccupation with the gentleman manifested an underlying social fact, ‘the transference of ruling power from the landowning and aristocratic élite to the rising middle classes’. The gentleman is a different sort of social superior to the older aristocrat (who was, by and large, much less concerned with the wellbeing of his inferiors, and more defined by a haughty insistence on his own honour and privilege), and he came about, partly, in reaction to the Revolutionary culling of aristocracy. But the gentleman remains a type of social superiority for all that.
And the British, and more specifically English, obsession with the figure of the gentleman is all tangled up with a larger socially reactionary anti-egalitarianism. For most of its history the fundamental logic of the British Army has been that proletarian men should be led into battle by officers whose most important qualification has not been leadership skills or grasp of military strategy, but simply breeding—it's insane, really, but there you are. Sherlock Holmes is, as has been mentioned, a gentleman. Old Etonians James Bond and Captain Hook are both gentlemen. The TV decade that gave us Doctor Who also gave us the now forgotten (but in-its-day huge) Adam Adamant, a gentleman, and the still very much remembered The Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan plays a gentleman spy whose sang froid remains untouched through all manner of weirdnesses—as well as the gentlemanly Steed in The Avengers. Quatermass is a gentleman. Simon Templar is a gentleman.
Today, when the limited but significant gains made in the direction of practical social egalitarianism of the 1960s and 1970s are being so comprehensively rolled back all around us, the British obsession with the gentleman has experienced something of a reflorescence. Our film and TV stars are all Cumberbatchy, Redmaynesque, Hiddlestonian public school posh-boys; our hits are Downton Abbeys and endless adaptations of Jane Austen, our movies are gentlehobbits defeating the forces of evil with the power of their politeness and persistence, or fantasy versions of Eton churning out gentlewizards of both sexes (if you think Harry Potter is about anything other than a uniquely English version of class you're fooling yourself: it's about finding the right line between the cruel and outmoded aristocratic values of Voldemort and his clan on the one hand, and the vulgar money-grubbing of the goblins and tabloid press and suburban lower-middle-class ghastliness on the other). Roald Dahl's enduringly popular fictions combine the sadism of James Bond with the eccentricity of the archetypal English gentleman. Much British TV comedy depends upon audiences intuitively grasping the unspoken absurdities of class, which perhaps explains why some of the shows that have enjoyed the biggest domestic success have not travelled well abroad. For example the central, as-it-were structural ‘gag’ of Dad's Army is that Captain Mainwaring has a higher military rank but a lower social rank than the gentleman Sergeant Wilson. Out of this mismatch whole series of hilarity are construed.
Still, soon we will have a female Doctor and that will be interesting. Because the semiology of the gentlewoman differs in important ways to the semiology of the gentleman. The latter exists as a means of fixing class hierarchy by redefining that structure's apex, and therefore exists as a way of resisting any levelling modes social change: the Doctor might be friendly, but he's always going to (literally) have more heart than we do. But the structural imbalance of gender means that the gentlewoman figures rather differently. This has to do with what has historically always been true: that as women broadly have less power and social prestige than men, so gentlewomen have less power and social prestige than gentlemen. It also reflects the social facts of marriage: a man is born into his status as a gentleman, but a woman might marry into it—one of the ways that Richardson's Mr B. attempts to seduce Pamela is by making the rather threatening promise ‘I will make a Gentlewoman of you.’ Pamela isn't taken in, partly because she shares with her class and time the gut-feeling that women so elevated aren't really gentlewomen: so she scoffs in one of her letters that ‘this very Gentleman (yes, I must call him Gentleman, tho’ he has fallen from the Merit of that Title) has degraded himself to offer Freedoms to his poor Servant!’ Defoe’s Moll Flanders ruefully recalls her youthful dreams of social elevation, when she dreamed of being a ‘Gentlewoman’ and ‘sit[ting] at my window dressed in fine clothes’. Of course some women are born into the requisite social class, but although they are permitted some eccentricities of manner these ought not to trespass so far as a gentleman's for fear of ruining their chances of making a good marriage and sinking into the risible-tragic status of a batty old maid. But the emphasis in the polysyllable gentleman is on the man; gentlewomen are subsidiary figures. Through the 19th century often manic preoccupation with the figure of the gentleman married to an equally desperate engagement with questions of manliness. The period was marked by the deeply homosocial nature of middle and upper-class English cultural life, from same-sex schooling to same-sex gentleman's clubs and pastimes, the sexes being highly segregated. Which means that situating a woman, like Jodie Whittaker, in this particular position is a much more radical act than is sometimes realised.
All this is a roundabout way of saying: I have some specific hopes for the new female Who. It certainly seems to me that many of the reactionaries who greeted the news of her casting with howls of outrage were only partly motivated by misogyny (though of course they were motivated by that); they were trying, with the hysterical volume of their complaining, to rally to the defence of class itself as a defining feature of British self-identity. It will be interesting to see how Whittaker and her scriptwriters take the character, and to what extent the role can be reconfigured to escape this particular straitjacket.
Monday, 17 September 2018
I've been reading Statius's Thebiad, for non-Shelley-related reasons, when I came across something that put me in mind of the wonderful image from the last bit of ‘Adonaïs’:
The One remains, the many change and pass;The Thebiad is an epic retelling of the story of the Seven Against Thebes, and in Book 1, as per epic convention, Jove commands the gods to assemble so as to consider the sorry mess Oedipus's descendents are making of things. This is where they gather:
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek! [‘Adonaïs’, 460-65]
Mox turba vagorumIn English:
semideum et summis cognati Nubibus Amnes
et compressa metu servantes murmura Venti
aurea tecta replent, mixta convexa deorum
maiestate tremunt, radiant maiore sereno
culmina et arcano florentes lumine postes. [Thebiad, 205-10]
Soon enough a multitude of wanderingThere's no glass here, but there is a divine dome that shines with many colours (gold, blue, and whatever colour ‘arcane light’ is) mediating, through semidivine multiplicity, the divine oneness of Jove. We know Shelley read Statius: he mentions him in the Defence of Poetry. Was this mixtum convexum, this many-coloured dome, in his mind as he wrote his great Keatsian elegy?
demigods and cloud-kin river deities
(timidly restraining their usual roars) and wind-spirits
crowd under the golden ceilings; the mingling of gods made that
majestic dome tremble, its heights glowing sky-bluer,
and its doorways florescing with arcane light.
Tuesday, 11 September 2018
We've been here before, in The Silmarillion, in greater detail in Unfinished Tales and even (briefly) in verse form in The Lays of Beleriand; any Tolkien fan worth his or her salt knows the story of Tuor and the fall of Gondolin. Tolkien considered it one of his legendarium's three ‘Great Tales’, stories from his imaginary world eons before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—the other two being Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin.
So: Tolkien's son Christopher has, over the last four decades, edited eleven thousand (give or take) posthumous volumes of his father's unpublished writing. The previous instalment in that endeavour, 2017's Beren and Lúthien opened with him declaring: ‘in my ninety-third year this is presumptively the last book in the long series of editions of my father's writings’. Such presumption evidently proved premature, for here is The Fall of Gondolin (HarperCollins 2018), plumped-up with eight full-colour Alan Lee illustrations and prefaced by Christopher Tolkien's wryly revisited promise: ‘I must now say that, in my ninety-fourth year The Fall of Gondolin is (indubitably) the last’. This is the end/Beleriand friend/The end.
I didn't need this book. I bought this book anyway. I already knew the story of the mighty human warrior, Tuor, beloved of the Vala Ulmo (a sea-god, Tolkien's Poseidon), who travels through a Middle Earth occupied by the forces of darkness under the evil Vala Melko (in essence; an in-the-world Satan) and his armies of orcs, Balrogs, dragons and other nasties. If you're a Tolkien fan, you'll know it too. Tuor eventually makes his way to the elven city of Gondolin, hidden inside a sealed ring of mountains and maintaining its precarious existence as a free polis under the Noldoli king Turgon (‘robed in white with a belt of gold and a coronet of garnets was upon his head’). Tuor becomes one of the warriors sworn to defend Gondolin. He marries the king's daughter Idril, and they have a child: Eärendil, the half-elven, who will grow up to become the famous mariner, which figure, indeed, was the starting point for all Tolkien's middleëarthy imaginings. But King Turgon's nephew Maeglin is angry that Idril has married a mortal man instead of him. He betrays Gondolin to Melko, in return for a captaincy in Melko's evil army and Idril as his prize (joke's on him though: ‘but Melko wove about him a spell of bottomless dread, and he had thereafter neither joy nor quiet in his heart’ ). Melko assembles a huge attack force, including some rather cool steampunky giant robo-dragons:
Melko assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrought a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End. Some were all of iron so cunningly linked that they might flow like slow rivers of metal or coil themselves around and above all obstacles before them, and these were filled in their innermost depths with the grimmest of the Orcs with scimitars and spears. That last detail speaks to one of the mythic underpinnings here: the Fall of Troy. Tolkien writes a Vergilian Troy-centred rather than a Homeric Achaean-centred account of the sack of the city, and here, for about twenty pages, The Fall of Gondolin earns its place in the world of books. The retelling of Tuor's story in Unfinished Tales, though written in a more novelistic and readable style than The Fall of Gondolin's archaic thee-and-thou confection, unfortunately ends before the actual sack of the city. This book gives us the whole thing, and works up a fine head of steam doing so.
Here, then, and for the first time, we get a vivid account of the assault on the city: swarming orc armies, the robo-wyrms (some iron, some brazen), ‘creatures of pure flame that writhed like ropes of molten metal’, gigantic dragons, all are excitingly described. Gondolin is destroyed and many Noldor killed, king Turgon amongst them. Evil Maeglin tries to lay hands on Idril, but Tuor breaks his arm, leaps onto the battlements and chucks him over the side: ‘great was the fall of his body and it smote Amon Gwareth three times ere it pitched in the midmost of the flames; and the name of Maeglin has gone out in shame from among Eldar and Noldoli’ . The city cannot be saved, so Tuor, Idril, little Eärendil and various others (including, I was surprised to see, a young Legolas Greenleaf) pass through a secret tunnel out of the city, over the mountains and down into Dimbar, then down along the river Sirion to settle eventually in Avernien. As we all know, Eärendil went on to become a mariner/who tarried in Avernien/and built a boat of timber felled,/in Nimbrithil to journey in. But that story is beyond the remit of this particular volume.
This version of the story fills 75 pages of this 302-page book. The rest is the sort of thing we're familiar with from previous Christopher Tolkien productions: variant versions of the same story, the story told again in multiple drafts. We get ‘The Earliest Text’ (‘important elements in the early evolution of the story’, CT glosses, using important in an idiosyncratic, and indeed fallacious, way, ‘are my father's hurried notes’); then a ‘short, prose’ retelling, then ‘the form of the story of the Fall of Gondolin that my father wrote in 1926’, then the version of the same story upon which CT based the relevant Silmarillion passages, then finally a 55-page version from 1951 which takes us up to Tuor seeing Gondolin for the first time but doesn't go any further. The remainder of the volume is notes, a list of names, a ‘glossary of obsolete, archaic and rare words’, more notes, family trees and a map. That is to say, something over a fifth of this book is a new version of The Fall of Gondolin, and the rest consists of other versions and para-gubbins related to that version. Expanded polystyrene, really, howsoever handsomely packaged.
I still bought it, mind.
What did I buy? (Why did I buy it? Well, duh). So: the first version of the story here dates from 1917, when Tolkien was recovering from the Somme, which gives the iron war-dragons filled with warriors an interesting context (Christopher Tolkien edited the iron dragons out of his 1977 Silmarillion redaction because he thought they jarred with the broader mood or atmosphere of the legendarium—a pity, that). The downside is that the whole is written in a stiff-necked archaic lo!-prithee-forsooth style that is grating is small quantities and immensely wearing in large ones. Here's how Turgon greets Tuor:
“Lo! thy coming was set in our books of wisdom and it has been written that there would come to pass many great things in the homes of the Gondothlim whenso thou faredst hither.” Whenso thou thither readst, mayhap thy teeth will itch as verily did mine. Here's Turgon on Valinor:
“The paths thereto are forgotten and the highways faded from the world, and they that sit within in mirth reck little of the dread of Melko. Nay, enough of my people have for years untold gone out into the wide waters never to return, but have perished in the deep places or wander now lost in the shadows that have no paths, and at the coming of next year no more shall fare to the sea, but rather will we trust to ourselves and our city for the warding off of Melko, and thereto have the Valar been of scant help aforetime.” The aim, here, is for a formal elevation and dignity, pursuant to tonal grandeur and resonance, but the effect tumbles into mere quaintness. It's a question of stylistic judgment, a bar this book repeatedly fails to clear. Elf used to be a twee and pretty-pretty sort of word, and Tolkien can take the credit for shifting and dignifying the semantic field of that particular piece of nomenclature; but Gnome, his preferred term for the Noldori in this volume, has not been so modified, and so today evokes tiny ceramic beardos dangling their fishing rod into the rainfilled hole of a discarded tractor-tyre. Or David Bowie novelty singles.
But the Gnomes were numbered by name and kinNames in all Tolkien's drafts tend to be fluid, of course. Melko later became Melkor and then Morgoth. Tuor, here, is sometimes ‘son of Peleg’ and sometimes ‘son of Huor’ (‘war? Huor! What is it good for?’). The Lord of the Balrogs is called Gothmog which sounds more like a cat in a miniature Sisters of Mercy leather jacket than a terrifying flame-demon, and ‘Penlod, tallest of Gnomes’ and ‘Rog, strongest of Gnomes’ are names it's hard to imbue with the requisite prestige. Rog is that character's whole name, of course. It's not short for Roger. Even Tolkien would baulk at ‘Roger the Gnome’.
marshalled and ordered in the mighty square ... 
There are a couple of other curious details. Turgon has a fountain in his courtyard that spouts up twenty fathoms, which seems both a lot, and is moreover a word more usually associated with depth than height. Also we learn that Melko has been capturing eagles and torturing them to learn the ‘magic words’ they use to fly, hoping to be able to fly himself and so contend with his fellow-Vala Manwë, the god of the air. That eagles fly not because they have gigantic wings but because they can speak certain magic words seems a curious thing to believe, especially for an intellect that is literally godlike.
Thorondor, King of Eagles, loved not Melko, for Melko had caught many of his kindred and chained them against sharp rocks to squeeze from them the magic words whereby he might learn to fly (for he dreamed of contending even against Manwë in the air) and when they would not tell he cut off their wings. It's all a bit King-Louie-in-the-Jungle-Book:
Now I'm the king of the wingers, yeahBut it's easy to snipe. To be fair to Tolkien, he never authorised the publication of these early sketches, and can hardly be blamed for occasional lapses in tone. And there is something more interesting at work here.
The jetblack V.I.P.
I want to fly and I'll tell you why
So I can fight Manwë.
Tolkien's influence flows down the broad, deep channel he himself inadvertently excavated, the one now called contemporary commercial Fantasy. There is a lot of this latter, but they that sit within the mighty citadel of modern-day 1000-page epic high-fantasty novels reck little, by and large, of the profoundly moral purpose of Tolkien's writing. He was deeply and indeed fundamentally invested in the belief that life is a series of ethical engagements with the world and the people in it. His writing repeatedly returns to the way heroism entails not just knowing the right thing, but finding the strength to do the right thing. Over and again he explores that ethical point at which courageous determination blurs into mere stubbornness, where brave engagement with a dangerous world flips over into wilful retreat from that world. One of the ways he renders this in his fiction is through the logic of the seige: Théoden, King of Rohan, really should have listened to Gandalf and ridden out to meet Saruman's army rather than retreating into Helm's Deep. Denethor is in many ways an admirable figure, but turns in on himself, using his mighty strength of will to clutch at his own power instead of turning it outward to meet his enemies. The key point in the Gondolin story comes when Tuor first arrives at Turgon's court, and says what the god Ulmo had instructed him to say: ‘to bid you number your hosts and prepare for battle, for the time is ripe’. Turgon's reply embodies wrong judgement in Tolkien's ethical cosmos, not because it is wicked, disingenuous or selfish, but because Tolkien believes we have a duty actively to go out and engage evil, not to hunker down and hope merely to avoid it:
Then spoke Turgon: “that will I not do, though it be the words of Ulmo and the Valar. I will not adventure this my people against the Orcs, nor emperil my city against the fire of Melko.” Then spoke Tuor: “Nay, if thou dost not now dare greatly then will the Orcs dwell for ever and possess in the end most of the mountains of the Earth, and cease not to trouble both Elves and Men ...” But Turgon said that he was king of Gondolin and no will should force him against his counsel. He should have listened to Ulmo's messenger in this. Tuor, or not Tuor; that is the question. And the answer is: Tuor.
Sunday, 9 September 2018
Some people think the universe is made out of matter. Other people believe it is made out of something else, let's call it ‘spirit’ or ‘God’ or ‘noumenon’. But there's a third, I think smaller, group of people who believe that cosmos is made neither of atoms nor spirit, but of stories.
They're wrong, of course: stories have many wonderful qualities, and are, I would say, as essential to human health and flourishing as air, water, food and shelter. But they are not what the universe is made of, because they are not true. This untruthfulness comes in many varieties, some more extreme than others; but it is the point of the stories—a feature not a bug. The feature, in fact. It's not, of course, that stories are entirely untethered from reality. Some stories cleave very closely to the texture of lived experience, and more broadly (to quote a now disgraced poet) stories that say nothing to me about my life will tend not to have any purchase on my imagination. But all stories, to one extent or another, refract reality into more interesting and engaging forms. That's why we tell them.
To be clear: I'm not making the facile if true observation that the contents of stories are lies, of one kind or another (that there is no such person as Oliver Twist, say; or that neither Hogwart's School nor the subjects it teaches are real—you know: the obvious stuff). Nor am I presenting the equally facile observation that the morals or implications of stories are often mendacious (reality licenses us to disbelieve, to pick a few examples: that the course of true love never runs smooth; that guns are exciting and empowering or that the universe cares what choices we make) although as a matter of fact they generally are. My point is that the form of ‘the story’ as such is ontologically deceitful. The underlying logic of stories is conflict (no conflict, no drama; no drama, nothing interesting to storify) and this, by and large, is not the underlying logic of the universe. If I had to pick one word to describe the underlying logic of the universe it would be: indifference. Stories, though, are allergic to indifference.
Stories need conflicts, grit around which to grow their pearly selves. Better stories balance conflicts; so for example the Antigone is a better story than Superman versus Lex Luthor, because in the former both sides have a point, where in the latter one is too obviously in the right and one too obviously in the wrong. Indeed, when great artists take a Superman versus Lex Luthor-type story they will generally Antigonize it, for example by, as Milton does with his Satan, making the antagonist as interesting as the protagonist, giving him/her as valid a p.o.v. But the universe is rarely so balanced. Indeed, the universe is rarely so interesting. The universe does not tell stories. Only we do that. News reports distort the world they purport to represent whatever they present it to us as ‘a story’, and they do so in order to provoke our interest and in doing so make more money for themselves. For what are, I daresay, deep-rooted evolutionary reasons, we are cued to respond strongly to perceived threats; and so stories press those buttons and evoke those responses. Not only because of its extreme and ideologically informed selectivity but because of its desire to storify the world the news does not truthfully represent reality. It's not all knife crime and murderous immigrants, foods that give us cancer and skateboarding ducks out there you know. Really, most of it is pretty boring.
That's fine, so long as we don't start to mistake stories for reality. So long as we don't come to take Fox News for literal verisimilitude. And while absolute fidelity to reality is unachievable, it is both possible and desirable to be more, rather than less, truthful in our apprehension of the world around us. That's not really the point I'm trying to make. I am, rather, trying to get at something that seems to me core to human life. Christopher Priest's great early novel A Dream of Wessex (1977) opens with the epigraph: ‘May you live through interesting times. Ancient Chinese Curse’. It's taken me a long time fully to appreciate the wisdom of that sentiment, authentic Chinese or apochryphal concoction though it be. Young people, brimful of piss and vinegar, may think they want to live through interesting times. Older people come to this realistion: we want to live our actual lives in a placid and predictable environment and to reserve the interesting times for our imagination. We want boring predictable lives that are enlivened by thrilling dangerous stories. That's why our stories grow more extreme and violent and dangerous as our lives become more settled and prosperous. A universe that was actually made out stories would be a hellscape.
Of course, the fact that human beings make stories can give stories utility—for humans. We may take inspiration from Frodo's perseverance or Mr Polly's courage, from Odysseus's wiliness or Hermione's cleverness when we face challenges of our own. We can console ourselves that our broken hearts can mend, that everything happens for a reason, because our stories tell us that these things come to pass. It's probably not true, but it may be useful. Still: how much story to mix-in to our everyday common-sense engagement with the barely-tractable matter of existence is a ticklish question. Too little and we will grow disaffected with the indifference of the universe; too much and we lose touch with reality.
Which brings me back to the previously mentioned Christopher Priest, and to his new novel, An American Story (Gollancz, 2018). I'll put my hand up: I have too little critical distance on Priest—sitting in my little suburban bedroom as a teenager reading the Pan paperback editions of his first few novels is one of the main reasons I ended up writing SF at all. But I'll admit I started this one with a degree of apprehension: it's about 9/11 and occupies the debatable land between rejecting the official narrative on the one hand and simultaneously repudiating all the welter of loony-fringe YouTube parannoyings on the other. I think, on balance it (just about) pulls this off. Obviously there are people in the world who genuinely believe the Twin Towers were an inside job; Priest inhabits the idea to destabilize the meaning of ‘genuinely’ rather than to peddle the usual jet-fuel-can't-melt-steel bananas, and so the novel grows into a dramatisation of ontological uncertainties pursuant to unreliable (and in the case of one of the characters, alzheimer's afflicted) memory, the clumping effect of mass media on concepts of truth/lies, the pressures of conformity and the irreducible oddness of things as such. It's quite an uneasy book; designedly so, and to interesting if uneven effect. Or perhaps it's a new type of thriller: usually we're on the edge of our seats as to whether our hero/ine will escape the clutches of their enemies etc etc. In this book we read through on the edge of our seats as to whether our respected author is about to go full batshit conspiracy loon ... In other words: my initial takeaway from reading this novel is that the key word in its title is not American but Story. It's a story about the way stories inevitably distort, the way the tidal pull of story-as-such can draw us down the whirlpool to where the current picks our bones in whispers.
This, I think, is the aspect of conspiracy-thinking that people tend to overlook. When somebody buttonholes us with ‘9/11 was an inside job’ or ‘Paul died in 1966’ or ‘we never actually landed on the moon’ the temptation is to critique their lack of veracity. But a conspiracy theory exists not to make the world more veracious, but to make it more interesting. Can you think of a conspiracy theory that took something inherently interesting and attempted to explain it in terms of an elaborate, secret and more boring counterplot? Of course not. Any given person's favourite conspiracy theory tells you what they find more interesting about the universe. In this sense all the successful stories are conspiracy theories. Priest's novel is only incidntally an American Story. What it is more centrally—is a Story.
Saturday, 8 September 2018
Friday, 7 September 2018
I'm very persuaded by my friend Ewan Fernie's reading of this Shakespearian soliloquy:
To be or not to be – that is the question:He asks students to take the question in the first line seriously: Hamlet gives himself two options (being, not-being). Which does he go for, in the end? Well clearly he decides to be: not to end his life with the bare bodkin; to eschew suicide and carry on. But he arrives at that decision by a curious route. In plain terms he considers life ('being'), and notes its many agonies ('the whips and scorns of time,/Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,/The insolence of office, and the spurns/That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes'). But then he considers the alternative, death ('not-being') and finds that just as bad, or possibly worse. Another way of putting this would be to say, he looks to 'not-being' and finds that it is actually just another sort of being. In other words his decision 'to be' is arrived at, paradoxically, through a process of rejecting 'to be' not once but twice; finding fault with two modes of being and still concluding that he must be. This profound ontological negativity, or perhaps confusion, has important resonance for the play as a whole; a text whose opening is dominated by an entity, the ghost, who is precisely strung ambiguously between being and not-being.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
It sent me back to the monologue. And that in turn got me thinking about 'quests'.
Quest is an interesting word I think, although now rather bleached of meaning by its endless reiteration in the context of (for instance) Fantasy narratives -- interesting not least as a sort of conceptual structuring principle. OED says a quest is 'a search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something'; as well as 'in medieval romance: an exhibition or adventure undertaken by a knight to procure some thing or achieve some exploit.' The word has an obvious etymological relation to 'question', although it is, of course, a literalised exteriorised version of the process of mental enquiry. Or to be precise: it orients the question elswehere. OED also quotes the Romance of Merlin (1450): 'thei entered into many questes forto knowe which was the beste knyght.' In other words, the quest arrives at a conceptual answer (which is the best knight) by arriving at a material object. That's important.
Shakespeare writes blank verse (famously, so). But the first five lines of this, his most famous speech, amount to hendecasyllabics (only with the 'end' at the end of line 6 do we fall back into a decasyllabic rhythm). And part of the memorableness of that appallingly famous first line has to do with the way it spills beautifully over the limit of ten syllables we so strongly associate with blank verse, as well as the way the stresses of the verse reinforce the existential vehemence of the question. 'To BE or NOT to BE,' pause, 'THAT is the QUEST.' The '-ion' comes after, leaving us with that spectral sense that 'to be or not to be' is not so much a question as a quest. And in turn that not only points up the memorable trope of death as a linear, one-way journeying ('the undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveler returns...') it also carries with it the sense that such journeying is towards a palpable object, the reification of 'being/not being' itself. We might, if it didn't sound too facetious, say being, or the knot-(of)-being. The thing.
Monday, 3 September 2018
I love this image from Disney's masterpiece Pinocchio. I love the way it shows the donkey wickedness of the boys on ‘Pleasure Island’ (they have defaced the Mona Lisa with graffiti!) whilst, at the same time, using the content of that graffito—a baby in the madonna's arms—to capture what it is these boys truly miss, and really want: maternal comfort. There's something quite profound in this throwaway moment, and Pinocchio is full of this kind of thing.
Friday, 24 August 2018
This wonderful novella is much concerned with recirculations. Eighty pages tell the story of the death of Keats; then we get sixty more in which Burgess translates about seventy of Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli's 2,279 wittily blasphemous sonnets into good Manchester English. Those sonnets keep returning to the same themes, the same images: souls and arseholes. Spirit and pricks. The title of Burgess's novel notates one formula common in rhymed verse, characteristic of the octave of some varieties of sonnet, as also of Tennyson's In Memoriam stanza, where rhyme steps away to link a couplet and then steps back to the original rhyme. It's also, the books tells us, the Hebrew for 'father' (which, via Latin, is why an Abbot is called an Abbot), and accordingly it records Christ's last Hebrew/Aramaic words on the Cross: because the book is also to do with painful early death, with figures whose words reach far beyond their death, and with the rationale of the Eternal City, Rome. AB are the initials of 'Anthony Burgess'; and 'ABBA ABBA' is inscribed on the novelist's own tombstone. The AB sets out, and the BA reverses the direction of travel. It goes one way, then it goes the other. Life is like this, and art, and history too. The history book on the shelf/Just keeps on repeating itself. Who said that? Was it ABBA? ABBA, yes.
As well as recirculation, the book is also much concerned with cocks, pricks, willies, knobs, schlongs, male-members, with what Roman slang, the book informs us, calls the dumpennente, from the Latin meaning something hanging down, also used of Christ on the Cross: 'Stabat mater dolorosa,' Keats quotes, delighted with the blasphemy: 'Apud lignum lachrymosa/Dum pendebat filius' ('"An unholy reference, if I may say so," Severn said, unwontedly assertive' ). 'This is the good groiny iron', says Keats, rather splendidly. Belli writes a Roman sonnet about this particular organ, and in chapter 3 Keats translates it:
Here are some names, my son, we call the prick:
The chair, the yard, the nail, the kit, the cock,
The holofernes, rod, the sugar rock,
The dickory dickory dock, the liquorice stick,
The lusty Richard or the listless Dick,
The old blind man, the jump on twelve o'clock,
Mercurial finger, or the lead-fill'd sock,
The monkey, or the mule with latent kick.
The squib, the rocket, or the roman candle,Sad Glad Bad Mad Dad draws our attention to the fact that the title ABBA ABBA, alongside all its other significations, proclaims the male member, too. It means Dad, Dad, cried out from the cross. Slang terms for the penis include 'the old feller' and 'the old man'. Indeed, I wonder if John ('John Thomas', clothed in a 'Johnny' to prevent conception) Wilson ('Willie') didn't have in mind a particular rebus of A and B, the 'A' a cazzo, the 'B' on its side two coglioni. This grafitto from the end-papers of my edition shows what I mean:
The dumpendebat or the shagging shad,
The love-lump or the hump or the pump-handle,
The tap of venery, the leering lad,
The handy dandy, stiff-proud or a-dandle,
But most of all our Sad Glad Bad Mad Dad.
Vulgar, but there you are. Graffiti often are. We get speculation on the state of ill Keats's cazzo, or Ceats's kazzo, and memories of Fanny Brawne cause Keats to have erotic dreams and nocturnal emission. Prongs and poetry elide. The pen is a penis, or vice versa. Keats himself jokes with Belli that he himself translates into Italian as 'Signore Cock' ('as in cazzo, as in cazzica' ). Keats ought to be writing, as it were, with his fertile cock, but the only fluid he can summon is pulmonary blood, the emission of which is literally killing him: 'scarlet gushed out and John moaned, choking. He tried madly to use his manuscript as a cup. The inky quill fell from the knee desk and wrote briefly on the coverlet' . This horrible admixture writes nothing but death. Or perhaps it brings poetry back to the swamp of individuality from which Keats's gift, at its finest, releases us. The fountain outside Keats' apartment gurgles through Burgess's novel, to remind us of his autoepitaph, remind us that his name was writ in water. His body, he tells Severn, was nothing but
a clever machine, with the tongue and the teeth and the lips clacking and cooing most clever clusters of noises, and the noises long by common acceptance attached to things and thoughts and eager to be juggled in pretty poesy. But at the end there is only this I, shapeless and without memory or intelligence unless I consign it elsewhere. So for the moment I join it to the I of that singing water in the piazza and lose even my name. Or, if you will, write that name on water and hear the water gurgle on uncaring singing I, I, I. That 'I' has the look of an upright cock too, though, don't you think? Without memory or intelligence. Down wanton down.
Keats's death was recorded by his friend Joseph Severn as follows:
Keats raves till I am in a complete tremble for him ... about four, the approaches of death came on. [Keats said] 'Severn—I—lift me up—I am dying—I shall die easy; don't be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come.' I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seem'd boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sank into death, so quiet, that I still thought he slept.Here's Burgess's version of the scene:
John knew his dying day had come, yet to achieve death might be a day's hard labour. Severn held him, as it were carrying him to the gate, but he could not bear Severn's laboured breathing, for it struck like ice. To put off the world outside – the children's cries, snatches of song, a cheeping sparrow, the walls and the wallpaper and the chairs that thought they would outlast him but would not, the sunlight streaking the door – was not over-difficult. A bigger problem was to separate himself from his body – the hand worn to nothing, the lock of hair that fell into his eye, even the brain that scurried with thoughts and words and images. It took long hours to die.That penile I (that Sad Mad Dad, that AB, that John) loses its stiffness and slips through the once warm and capable hand as the trope of masculine death. I'm melting! I'm melting! Oh, what a world, what a world.
"I'm. Sorry. Severn. My weight."
"Nothing, it's nothing, rest now."
He tried to give up breathing, to yield to the breathless gods, but his body, worn out as it was, would not have that. It pumped in its feeble eggspoons of Roman air, motes in the sun and all, but there seemed to be nothing in his body to engage the air. The afternoon wore on to evening and his brain was fuddled and he groped for the essence he had called I. It fell through his fingers.
There was nothing there to make any answer. 
Burgess's Keats is a vivid creation: believable, eloquent and, in his death, actually touching. He is, perhaps, a little fonder of the Joycean pun, the promiscuous riffing on overlapping meanings and inferences, than was the actual Keats (so far as we can tell from the letters and so on), but it doesn't seem to misrepresent the figure. The only piece of echt Keats the book includes is his sonnet 'To Mrs Reynolds's Cat', which Giovanni Gulielmi (= 'John Wilson', a purely fictional character) reads out to his friend Belli. Belli is unimpressed: '"It is nothing but noise" ... Belli made a cabbage of his face, as though, for a large audience, enacting nausea. "Such noises. Th and tch and rdst and glsbtld. English has no music' . Gulielmi points out that they are good cat noises, those; but beyond this one poem is the larger debate staged in the novel, as to whether poetry should concern itself with elevated and idealised matters or dabble with the mundane and even the debased. Actually it's hard not to admire the pleasant perversity of Burgess's characterising John Keats, the single most mellifluous, prosodically harmonious and beautiful poet English has ever known, via this charming but atypical sonnet full of tch and rdst and glsbtld. Compared to Burgess's Keats, Burgess's Belli is a lesser piece of characterisation; a little stiffly caught between his priggish and his earthy-raucous selves. But the minor characters are deftly and cannily drawn, and the whole 1821 Roman scene comes alive on the page.
This is how the novel opens, and it gives a flavour of the sprightliness of the dialogue, and the delicately on-edge-of-kitsch touches of description ('the dome of San Pietro grape-hued in the citron twilight'; Burgess knowingly repeats this phrase again on p.26) that speak to a writer carefully refusing to challenge Keats on the grounds of his own descriptive genius.
"Isaac," he said. "Marmaduke. Which of the two do you more seem to yourself to be?" He mused smiling among the ilex trees. The dome of San Pietro down there in the city was grape-hued in the citron twilight.Junkets are a type of food made of sweetened curds or rennet, I don't think it stretches things to follow the association with 'sputum' in the sixth paragraph through to the textural similarity of junkets to the seminal emission that enforcedly celibate Keats later experiences, and which is related, I'm arguing, to the novel's deliberately disreputable interest in pricks, cocks, cazzi. Otherwise the layered-over citron tartness (grapes, citron, marmalade) offsets this potentially cloying sweetness; and we move effortlessly via earthworks, with its hint of Keats's waiting grave in the Protestant cemetery at Rome into which his corpse goes before the end of the book (cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth) to the earthworms that will eat him. The tyrant's beautiful sister, gliding through twilight, is both sex and death in a single feline form.
"I have never much cared for either name," said Lieutenant Elton of the Royal Engineers. "At school they called me Ikey Marmalade."
"We're both edibles then. Junkets, me."
"Junkets? Oh yes. Jun Kets."
"To be eaten by Fairy Mab."
Elton did not catch the reference. He took out his handkerchief, coughed harshly into it, then examined the sputum in the lemon dusk. Satisfied with what he saw, he wrapped it and stowed it in his pocket. He said:
"It's the mildness here that is good. The winter will be very mild, you will see. Extremes are bad. On St Helena a raging summer is ready to begin. Not good for the lungs, that climate. Not good for the liver. Not good for anything."
"You spoke with Bony at all?"
"He waved his arms and said something about earthquakes or it may have been earthworks. Or earthworms, for that matter. I could not understand his French very well. I saw him digging a lot. Il faut cultiver notre jardin, he shouted at me. That's from the atheist Voltaire."
"You don't admire Voltaire?"
"A damned atheist."
"Here comes his sister."
"No, no, no. God in heaven, here truly comes his sister. To us."
Pauline Bonaparte glided in the dimming light, a couple of servants behind her, taking her evening walk on the Pincio. Elegant, lovely, with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort, fine-nostrilled, fine-eyed, she peered with fine eyes at the taller and more handsome of the two young men, gliding closer to peer better. Elton stood stiffly as though on adjutant's parade, suffering the inspection. She smiled and nodded and glided on. 
The quality of light, so finely evoked in that opening passage, is very much to the point. The Rome of Burgess's 1976 novel Beard's Roman Women is continually being drenched by rain. The Rome of ABBA ABBA is rain-free and gloriously lit. Giovanni Gulielmi sits down 'with Endymion and the 1820 poems of John Keats and the fine-eyed, wavy-maned Guiseppe Gioacchino Belli one forenoon of November sunlight and intense blue Roman sky' ; Keats himself contemplates writing a long poem about Rome: 'light flooding his eyes as his eyes further widened' ; the last thing dying Keats sees is 'the sunlight streaking the door' . But Rome, bathed in light, is still dark. Belli converses with a senior prelate (the latter is offering him the office of censor in the city). He tells the Cardinal 'our drains are bad, our streets carry no name plaques, we lack light—' The Cardinal scoffs at this: 'So the Urbs Lucis lacks light, does it?' and Belli struggles to articulate his point: 'I am talking of the physical city, your eminence. In London they now have gas lighting, so a London visitor told me' . But it's not about gas lighting. The last scene in the novel's octave is Keats's funeral and Belli arguing with a corpulent priest called Don Benedetto, who deprecates the Protestant's darkness: 'What, Belli demands, 'do you mean by that?'. The priest means that the Englishman was 'the unenlightened ... all those nations that have turned their backs on the light. The novel closes with: '"He had," Belli said, "more light in his little toe than you have in your entire fat carcase" . Indeed.
A S Byatt wrote an introduction to a 1989 reissue of the novel (it was later collected in her On Histories and Stories) in which she expresses the view that 'Burgess's novel—like all his novels—is about body and soul', a remark that approaches a fatuity not common in her criticism. After all, in one sense every novel is about these two quantities. Every work of human art. Not merely fatuous, but wrong. Byatt says so because she wants to stress the importance of ghosts to ABBA ABBA. For instance, she reproduces the story Burgess tells in You've Had Your Time that 'making a television film for Canada, [Burgess] recited Keats's sonnet When I have fears that I may cease to be on the steps outside that house. During the fourteen lines a clear sky became stormy, rain poured, thunder drowned the words. Burgess says he is not "imputing a demonic vindictiveness" to the soul of John Keats, but believes that his fierce creative energy, frustrated by death, haunts the house where he died.' It's a nice story, though I don't believe it for a minute; and more to the point it has very little relevance to this novel. This is a text about the physicality of Keats, the bodily suffering he endured, what his body hungered for, and it's very well rendered. It's not about Keats's evanescent ghostliness then or now. In chapter 6, based on an actual incident, Severn takes away Keats's laudanum for fear that the poet will overdose of it and so commit the suicide that his devout carers considers a terrible sin. As a result, Keats goes through long-drawn-out death agonies without pain relief of any kind. The novel's interest is in the body rather than the soul, or perhaps it would be better to say: in the way the soul actualises bodily, materially, in the world ('God is in cabbage patches and beer-stains on a tavern table' is how Belli puts it). The novel is cats, and food, and cocks and cunts. Recalling his shocking cazzo sonnet Belli declares 'I was really proclaiming the glory of God' . It's an unghostly book. It's resolutely bodily.
This penis thematic might prompt us to read the titular 'ABBA' in more straightforwardly bawdy terms. It goes forward, and it goes back. Or we could say: it goes in, it comes out again. Who else but AB coined the phrase 'the old in-out, in-out' for shagging? It's perversely fitting that a novel named with such a rebus involves a procession of men (and one gliding woman) who are not getting any. Keats is too ill; handsome Lieutenant Elton is too loyal to his fiancée in England to take the sultry Pauline Bonaparte up on her offer; Severn is too devout; even Belli seems caught between his carnal impulses and his spiritual self-disgust. And so the sexily feline Mme Bonaparte must glide off into the twilight with no-one to share her bed.
As intimated at the beginning of this blogpost (and, really, it's a pretty obvious point to make) Burgess has structured his short novel according to the logic of the sonnet. The octave: eighty pages, give or take, of continuous narrative. The sestet: sixty pages (exactly!) of metafictional conceit about an alt-historical John Wilson, born a year before our lad, different life trajectory, killed in New York by (we assume, droog-style) thugs in 1959; and then the run of Belli sonnets. The 'turn' is from history to fiction, from a low-key and touching death story to the ribald, blasphemous life of Belli's reimagining of various Biblical moments. But the 'turn' in the sonnet is a recirculation, not a new departure; it is supposed to make us see the matter of the octave in a new light. Keats, near death, dreams a dream that curls back and bites the fiction in which is appears on the tail.
He had one dream or vision that shocked him at first with a sense of blasphemy, though it must be a sense borrowed from Severn, since he who did not believe could not well blaspheme. Christ pendebat from his cross and cried ABBA ABBA. Now John knew that this was the Aramaic for father father, but he knew better that it was the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet octave. It came to him thus that the sonnet form might subsist above language, but he did not see how this was possible. Language itself was perhaps only a ghost of the things in the outer world to which it adhered, and a ghost of a ghost was a notion untenable totally. And yet it seemed that two men, of language mutually unintelligible, might in a sense achieve communication through recognition of what a sonnet was. [81-2]He rejects the ghostly quasi-Platonic interpretation of this, and rightly so: the book we hold in our hands is a physical, material object after all (or was, in the 1977 pre-ebook days in which Burgess worked). The two men referred to, there, are Belli and Keats; and what this dream points to is the sonnet as pure form, something akin to the logic of music. It's a form that combines divergence with coming-together, as does the story of Keats and Belli. This is where it dawns on the reader that the story here follows a together, apart, together, apart trajectory: friendly connection, broken by Belli's crossness that Keats has been given a copy of his scandalous cazzi sonnet (rudely, he rips Keats's translation to pieces and storms out), followed by reconciliation broken again by death. And this marks out Keats, Shelley's 'Adonais' (A) and Belli (B) as AB, BA then again AB and BA. It's proper too: Belli is an interesting poet for sure, but he's very much a 'B' grade writer compared with the incomparable A-star Keats.
One thing the sestet does is throw an new an achronological light upon the presence of Giovanni Gulielmi in the narrative. Pages 86-91 trace the family tree of this figure down to 'John Wilson' in a way that alerts those of us too dense to notice before the way AB has inserted himself into the time-frame of ABBA ABBA, in effect going backwards (BA) through time. And since were not sestetting our way through a series of intertextualities we can note that Burgess telegraphs this too. Burgess knows about the historical figure of Charles Wells, a 'a bouncing, red-haired youth of seventeen, addicted to practical jokes, and a former schoolfellow of Tom Keats' (I'm quoting Walter Jackson Bate). "There was a fool, his name was Wells, not that it matters,' Keats tells Elton, before he returns home. 'No, it does. Wells of stupidity, of malice, wells of the rank stinking water of inhumanity. He convinced poor Tom that a foreign lady was madly in love with him. She did not, I may say, exist. But Tom in his fever cried out for her. I should have thrashed Wells before I left England.' Elton is properly outraged. 'I had a corporal named Wells. He was a corrupt man and a drinker. No, his name was Willis. But it is near enough. I'll thrash this Wells for you when I reach home.'  This 'Wells' comes back to haunt Keats, mingling in his imagination with the water running outside his room. Babbling, he tells Severn: 'I dreamed just now of that water outside, and there was a grinning man poisoning it. Wells poisoning wells. ... He is clever. All the way from London he sends his poison.'  Burgess is slyly pointing to a different Wells, initials H.G., whose clever device inaugurated a new kind of story in which people might traverse time itself, and a man called Wilson might appear (his name suitable Italianised) in 1821 Rome. And Wells's machine can take us in both directions. As the Cardinal tells us in chapter 7, 'the future exists' . ABBA ABBA is also a sciencefictional story. But then, everything is.
Abbaabba might sound babbly (babbabbaly, perhaps), but we have seen how many puns Burgess contrives to fold into it that titular pattern of two repeated letters. In this he is being as Wakey as Finnegans, and he is doing so not only because Joyce works its way into most everything he does, but because he know how thoroughly Joyce's great punnovel is suffused with the flavours of the English Romantics:
Methought as I was dropping asleep somepart in nonland of where’s please (and it was when you and they were we) I heard at zero hour as ‘twere the peal of vixen’s laughter among midnight’s chimes from out the belfry of the cute old speckled church tolling so faint a goodmantrue as nighthood’s un seen violet rendered all animated greatbritish and Irish objects nonviewalbe to human warchers save ‘twere perchance anon some glistery gleam darkling adown surface of affluvial flowandflow as again might seem garments of laundry reposing a leasward close at hand in full expectation. [Finnegans Wake, 403-04]There's a good deal of babbabbaling in Joyce's final work, too. Of Anna Livia we learn that 'she’d neb in her culdee sacco of wabbash she raabed ... a thousand and one of them, and wickerpotluck for each of them.' Wabba a sort of womanly-ABBA; or from near the end of the novel we learn of 'Hellig Babbau, whom certayn orbits assertant'. That might be a Burgessy-ABBA. We are growing fanciful, though. Back to earth.
Back, in fact, to Shakespeare. Of course Shakespeare. Elton gives Keats his English-Italian dictionary as a parting gift.
The book was intolerably heavy in his hands. He brought up his knees and made a lectern of them. LONDON, Printed by Melch. Bradwood, for Edw. Blount and William Barret. ANNO 1611. Year of the King James Bible. Shakespeare was how old? Forty-seven. With five years of life yet to run, he might have held this book, this very copy, in his hands, also finding it heavy. John's lectern-knees became Shakespeare's. John Florio had been Shakespeare's friend. At least he had been secretary to Shakespeare's noble dearmylove and patron. This is a real book, by the way: Queen Anna’s New World of Words, Or Dictionary of the Italian and English tongues, collected and newly much augmented by Iohn Florio, Reader of the Italian unto the Soueraigne Maiestie of Anna (1611). Keats turns first, of course, to the prickwords, the cockwords, the MadSadBadAbbawords: 'Cazzo, a man's priuie member. Also as Cazzica. Cazzolata, a ladle-full. Also a musical instrument without strings. Cazzo marino, a Pintle-fish. Cazzo ritto, a stiffe standing pricke. Cazzuto, a man that hath a pricke.' Keats finds this last comical, because prick is such a synecdoche for 'man' that a man without one is hardly even a man. But, reading over the pronunciation guide he discovers that Shakespearean English was far from 'correct' posho English. 'It began to sunrise upon him slowly what this meant. It meant that he was being granted a vision (not the just word. Audition?) of how Shakespeare spoke. He spoke like an Irishman, cazzica. He said not flea but flay. He pronounced reason as raisin. And now it flashed in where the joke was in Falstaff's words: "reasons are as plentiful as blackberries." Of course, raisins. With awe and something of fear, John felt as if he were being instructed by the dead in person, souls of poets dead and gone. Doors were being opened' . When Gulielmi comes to visit Keats is excited:
"Mr Keats," Gulielmi greeted, "I see the rose of health on thy cheek."The force of this has to do with provincialism, Burgess's non-London, unsouthern provenance, his Manchester accent, his sense of coming from the peripheries, consoled by the realisation that Shakespeare was a provincial and spoke like one too. And in a larger sense, we are all provincials from the perspective of the Eternal City ('I wonder if Shakespeare was ever in Rome'). Rome marginalises us all, and so unites us all in our existential centrality. Burgess follows this through with his Manchester-flavoured translations of Belli, anticipating the aesthetic strategy of Simon Armitage's splendid Gawain and the Green Knight translation by a quarter century.
"Master Kates, Shakespeare would call me. I have had the revelation this morning of hearing Shakespeare's voice. Florio's Dictionary. I have learned that Shakespeare said têle for tail and mêde for maid ... I wonder if Shakespeare was ever in Rome." 
And following on from Pappa, or Abba, Shakespeare, there's the Italian John Florio. He shares Burgess's first name, and his passion for languages, and his interest in all things Anglo-Itaian. Perhaps in his more fruity stylistic moments Burgess wouldn't have rejected the title 'John the Florid'. But here's a strange point that brings us back to ABBA ABBA. The dedicatory epistle to Florio's Italian-English dictionary, the one Keats possesses in this novel, addresses Queen ANNA ANNA in conventionally fulsome manner:
I like 'braine-babe', as a way of describing a book; not least because it returns me to this book, this Burgess brain-babe, this B-abba B-abba. Babba is a north-country rather than southern way of saying 'baby', of course; and that is what this book is. It babbles as infants do, because it is finding its way to the true speech. Or as Keats himself says at the end of chapter 1, in nicely merde-delighted baby tones: 'By the waters of babble on there we shat down and flung our arses on the pillows.'
14. Keats must be the last word, the last intertextual referent, the last name adduced, of course. Belli's sonnets, Burgess's authorial busy-ness everywhere present, the sexual allure of Pauline Bonaparte, the fate of Bonaparte himself, discussed variously by the various characters, fat Don Benedetto the priest, all these 'B's are arranged around the central 'A'. A is Keats, our alpha. Weep for Adonais, the book says, he is dead. But the book also says: the (arse)soul of Adonais, like a star/be-cocks from the abode where the arseternal are. Options