‘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, 24 August 2018

Anthony Burgess, ABBA ABBA (1977)

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' [15]). '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,
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.
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:

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' [43]). 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' [55]. 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. [60]
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.

"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.

"John. John."

There was nothing there to make any answer. [82]
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.

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' [22]. 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.

"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. [8]
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.

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' [19]; Keats himself contemplates writing a long poem about Rome: 'light flooding his eyes as his eyes further widened' [40]; the last thing dying Keats sees is 'the sunlight streaking the door' [82]. 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' [64]. 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" [83].  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' [79]. 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.' [31] 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.' [60] 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' [63]. 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. [37]
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' [38]. When Gulielmi comes to visit Keats is excited:
"Mr Keats," Gulielmi greeted, "I see the rose of health on thy cheek."

"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." [39]
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.

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

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Google Translate's Sermon on the Mount

Another exercise after the manner of this. Since Matthew chs 5-7 are amongst the most famous in the entire New Testament, I might have expected there to be many-many online renderings of them out of which Google Translate could confect a smooth and recognisable English version. Apparently not. Still: there's quite a lot in this that's interestingly estranging. I like 5:14 and 5:27, and that thou hast cast upon thy right jaw, turn it up, and thou shalt be glorious is surely good advice. The Greek text I used is here.


1 And when he came to him, he came to him: and these were his disciples.

2 And when he had spoken this word, he said,

3 Blessed are the poor of the spirit, that these are the kingdoms of the heavens.

4 Blessed are the martyrs that they are called.

5 Blessed are the hands that they inherit these things.

6 Blessed are the hungers, and they are afraid of the righteousness, that they are satisfied.

7 Blessed are the wives, that they are worshiped.

8 Blessed are the pure ones, that they are seen.

9 Blessed are the sworn men, that they are called unto thee.

10 Blessed are the founders of righteousness, that these are the kingdoms of the heavens.

11 Blessed are ye, when ye reproach, and forgiveness, and forgiveness, for the wickedness of their foolishness;

12 rejoice, and magnify, that the wages of many of those who are in the flesh have done their prophets to the earth.

13 And thou shalt be the glory of thy womb, and shalt thou go down to thee; it is true that they are being abused and abused by human beings.

14 Thou art the sons of the world. that the city may be hiding above the text;

15 which shall be lighted, and shall be upon them, in the light of the lamps, and shall shine upon them in the earth.

16 And I will shine upon the faces of the people before men, as the work of the good works, and the glory of the fathers of them that are in those overseers.

17 Do you think that you are the law of the prophet? You have come to be fulfilled.

18 And I say unto you, By the passage of the Oranas, and by the presence of an ear that passeth from the law, until it is ever glorified.

19 But if these wicked men are wounded, and they have taught these men, at least they are called into the kingdom of the nations, and they do not teach, nor teach, which is called unto the kingdom of the nations.

20 I say to you, that there is a surrender to the righteousness of the secretaries and the Pharisees, that you have come to the kingdom of the heavens.

21 Thou hast heard that the wicked is come, thou hast killed; that thou wilt not kill, that thou art judged.

22 I say to you that the fallen brother of this fellow is judged; for he does not know his brother, and he is the judge of the congregation, and he is blameless, he is blamed for him in the time of the fire.

23 Thou shalt offer thy servant for the altar, that thy brother hath whatsoever he hath done;

24 Thou hast done this thing before the altar, and thou hast first changed thy brother, and thou hast offered thy servant.

25 Wherefore thou art contrary to thee, that thou art with him in the throne, that thou shalt not go to the strange tribe, and that thou hast judged the servant, and that thou hast taken prisoner;

26 I say unto thee, Thou shalt be said, Thou shalt take away thee Kojan.

27 You heard that it was, You adulterated.

28 I say that the woman of the sight of whom thou hast said, that she hath already done this unto her heart.

29 If thou hast the right eye, thou shalt scourge thyself, and thou shalt make thyself good: thou shalt make good unto thy brethren, and with all thy souls thou hast come to pass.

30 And if your right hand chasten to them, cut them off and set them up for good; and your members shall be with you, and all your souls shall come to pass.

31 And it came to pass, that this woman rescued it, and gave it to me.

32 I say that the wife of the woman who has been disobedient to this prostitution is forgiven, and that the woman who is forgiven is baptized.

33 Thou didst say that the wicked was come, Oec, the rebuke, and the reward of thy rulers.

34 I say that I am exceedingly worthy of thee, neither of the throne of the god:

35 nor of the throne of his feet, nor of the city of the great king,

36 nor of thy head that you can have a white hair that was left over.

37 Let the word of the wrath be unto them, which hath more than these of the wicked one.

38 Thou hast heard that he was come, and that he looked upon the eye of the eye, and of the diadem.

39 But I say that I am defiant of the wicked, but that thou hast cast upon thy right jaw, turn it up, and thou shalt be glorious;

40 and thou shalt be judged, and thou hast taken away thy daughters, as thou hast, and thou hast;

41 he loves you a mile, and then he goes with that two.

42 Thou hast done unto thee, and whosoever will, he shall dare thyself uproare.

43 Thou hast heard that it is gone, that thou hast loved thee, and hate thee thine enemy.

44 I do not say unto you, love enemies you and pray for you: the persecutors,

45 genisthe as sons of the Father of you in heaven, that the sun rises over this evil and the good, and rains on the righteous and unjust.

46 Do you love that which thou hast loved? and shall they be finished?

47 And if you abhor the cousin of the wisdom only, what more are you? whiskey and its nationalities?

48 Thou art as perfect as the father of the righteous.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

From Wagner to Tolkien

A few years ago I wrote this, on the subject of Wagner and Tolkien:
One reason Tolkien’s imaginary realm has proved so successful is precisely its structural non-specificity. What I mean is: Tolkien treats material that has deep roots in, and deep appeal to, various cultural traditions; but he does so in a way—as fictionalised worldbuilding rather than denominated myth—that drains away much of the poisonous nationalist, racist and belligerent associations those traditions have accumulated over the centuries. A thumbnail history would go like this: in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Wagner’s Ring melodramas spoke to a great many people about a particular northern-European cultural identity; about a group of linked, potent emotional attachments to history, landscape, to the numinous and the divine, to matters of heroism and everyday life. I am trying not to sound sneery as I say this (I mean melodrama in the strict sense of the word), because these things did, and do, matter intensely and genuinely to many people. But there is a reason, a room-filling elephant of a reason, why Der Ring des Nibelungen no longer has this general resonance. It is because the cultural reservoir from which it draws much of its power also supplied cultural capital to the worst regime ever to take charge in Germany, and therefore lubricated the most catastrophically destructive war ever to be waged in the world.

In saying this I am not, of course, blaming Wagner for the Nazis. Indeed, the endless debates about Wagner’s own ideological ‘purity’ (‘was Wagner an anti-Semite?’ Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, like just about every other gentile in 19th-century Europe) seem to me to miss the point. The restless churning through this question happens because we're desperate to acquit Wagner so that we can enjoy his music with a clean conscience. We ask the question, get the uncomfortable answer, and ask it again. In our guts resides the queasy comprehension that Wagner can’t be acquitted. Politics can’t be neatly separated out from the Ring cycle, leaving only a washed-and-scrubbed sequence of pretty orchestral tone poems behind. I love the Ring cycle, and listen to it regularly; but I would never try to deny that it is political all the way through, down to its very marrow. It is, to be precise, about the notion that history and myth are in some sense the same thing—a very dangerous notion indeed.

Tolkien’s story is not the same as the Ring cycle; his ‘ring’ (as he crossly reminded correspondents) not the same as Alberich’s ring. But a considerable amount of the heft and force of Lord of the Rings derives from the way Tolkien draws on the same broader cultural, mythic, northern-European heritage. What saves Lord of the Rings is that it is not about Germany, or about England; or to be more precise, that it is about England and Germany only secondarily, in an eloquently oblique (a cynic might say: in a plausibly deniable) manner. Tolkien found a way of articulating the same deep-rooted cultural concerns in a way that avoids being poisoned by the cultural specificity of European Fascism. This doesn’t let Tolkien off the hook, as far as racial and ideological content goes, of course. Indeed, I offer my thoughts here not as a value judgement of his fiction, so much as an explanation for why Lord of the Rings has done so extraordinarily well—resonated so powerfully with so many people—in the postwar period. It rushed in to fill the gap that more culturally-specific art had supplied before that kind of art was discredited by the 1940s.
I come back to this argument because I'm now trying to get my Tolkien-and-post-Tolkien-Fantasy ducks in a row, prior to writing, with a friend, something on the history of Fantasy as a mode. Hopefully. At some point.

So: there were lots of iterations of what we might want to call ‘Fantasy’ published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a comprehensive history of the mode might want to discuss all of them. But a leaner account of the main currents of the growth of this mode would, I think, be entitled to pick out a cleaner through-line. There's just no denying the impact of Tolkien, not so much from the original publication dates (1937 for The Hobbit, 1952-53 for Lord of the Rings) as from the start of the great cult of Middle Earth that dates from when the mass-market paperback of LotR became a campus darling and then an international bestseller in the 1960s. The 1970s were full of direct, sometimes slavish imitations of Tolkien like Terry Brooks's execrable Shannara series (1977 and ongoing) and Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977-2013). By the 80s bookshop shelves groaned with fat fantasy novels, and the genre had finally coalesced as a commercial genre in its own right. And whilst connoisseurs of the mode might sometimes make noises about the importance of William Morris or Hope Mirrlees in the pedigree of Fantasy as such (both fine and important writers, of course), the brute fact remains that this was a mode that came out of Tolkien. For although the reaction against Tolkien began early—Moorcock's sneer that LofT was ‘Winnnie-the-Pooh posing as Epic’ dates to 1987—books written in reaction were very much written in reaction: they bracketed the book's emphasis on nobility, service, loyalty, bravery, its pre-raphaelite colour-scheme and general uplift with its dodgy racial and sexual politics and took the sledgehammer to the lot: voilà, Grimdark. We're still being offered a basically medievalised, feudal or otherwise pre-Industrial world threaded with magic, elves, dwarfs, dragons and all that; but now the emphasis is on rape and slaughter, on betrayal and realpolitik (narrowly, indeed adolescently, conceived) and a general horribleness. This is a mode marked by Tolkien even as it shouts its antagonism for everything Tolkien represents.

This, of course, isn't the whole story. We need also to factor in the Fritz Leiber US sword-and-sorcery tradition, which predates LotR by a decade; and also the smaller but not negligible tradition of Robert Howard's Conan and its muscly imitators, which predates LotR by two decades. In particular, Leiber's more knowing, knockabout tales not only feed into myriad direct imitations, but also lie largely behind Pratchett's Discworld, one of the most important Fantasy worlds of the last quarter century (it's not surprising, I think, that Leiber's cool-kids sharpness, his uninterest in Fantasies of dignity or elevation, can be reworked so brilliantly into out-and-out comedy). But the step-up from sword-and-sorcery as a relatively small-scale interest of dedicated fans to something much bigger happened, as it were, on the coat-tails of Tolkien's global success, 1960s-and-after, and something similar is true of the nerd-compensatory-fantasy muscle-and-sword variety most particularly associated with Howard, which came to broader notice only with the 1982 Schwarzenegger movie, which was in turn an attempt to tap-into the boom in ‘Fantasy’ as a mode. Luckily for me, though, I'm not attempting here to tell the whole story. All I'm doing is recording some of the things that occurred to me as I read Adorno's In Search of Wagner (1952).

I'm a little ashamed I hadn't read this particular Adorno before, actually. It is a remarkable book, dense with ideas. But I read it in an, as it were, bifocal manner, both for what it was specifically saying about Wagner and for what its approach to Wagner might say about Tolkien (a writer I'm not sure Adorno had ever heard of, and whom I am sure he never discussed). This is, I think, more than me being merely adventitious. Adorno builds much of his analysis around the insight that Wagner's appeal to a timeless, mythic, Fantasy realm of gods and heroes is not something separate from his bourgeois German respectability, but precisely an iteration of it. ‘The power of the bourgeoisie over Wagner is so absolute that as a bourgeois he finds himself unable to satisfy the requirements of bourgeois respectability’ [Adorno, 7]. He embodies ‘an early example of the changing function of the bourgeois category of the individual’:
In his hopeless struggle with the power of society, the individual seeks to avert his own destruction by identifying with that power and then rationalizing the change of direction as authentic individual fulfilment ... the focal points of decay in the bourgeois character, in terms of its own morality, are the prototypes of its subsequent transformation in the age of totalitarianism.
This interrelation between the bourgeois and the mythic-legendary is, of course, the most prominent feature of Tolkien's worldbuilding, where Middle Earth is literally divided between the bourgeois hobbits of the north west and the feudal horselords and medieval city-states of the South. Beorn may spend half his time as a bear, but he keeps as tidy a little bourgeois house, with all the creature comforts, as any hobbit, and bourgeois possessiveness for material objects (Wemmick's ‘portable property’) is shown, through Gollum's longevity and through the fundamental, stubborn toughness of his Being-in-the-World, to be superior to Boromir's feudal puissance in terms of holding out against the Ring. Tom Shippey has interesting things to say about the etymological connections—the sorts of connections that particularly appealed to Tolkien, of course—between the word burglar, Bilbo's dwarf-assisting career, and bourgeois, Bilbo's social identity. I could insert a 2000-word excursus on the conceptual synergies of these two terms here, but I'll spare you. For now.

One of the threads that particularly interests me, in tracing the Tolkien and C S Lewis pedigree of Fantasy from the 1950s into the 21st-century, is the way two Christian writers, writing tacictly (or in Lewis's cases allegorically-explicitly) Christian Fantasy, came to influence a whole tradition that wasn't in itself particularly Christian—or indeed was, in some cases, quite assertively atheist. For many fans I daresay the Christian element is something they simply handwave away: easy enough to do with Tolkien, I suppose. But the fact that these two, arguably the two writers of ‘Fantasy’ most influential on the postwar development of the mode, were so very Christian interests me. We could frame it as the Beowulf problem, since that's a poem that parses pre-Christian, pagan and monstrous-magical story material through a notionally Christian frame.

Remembering how central Beowulf was to Tolkien's own imaginative development, and just (you know) looking at the great mass of commercial Fantasy, I wonder if we can see the tension between the pagan-mythic and the Christian-allegorical in Fantasy in terms of this more strictly social-historical—or, I suppose I'm saying, really, this ideological—tension. Professing a Christian faith may be a bold thing to do on an individual level, depending on the situation, but for most of the 20th-C and for many parts of the world in this, our benighted 21st, Christianity is the orthodox and conventional worldview. I don't say so to snark. Indeed on the contrary, and speaking personally, I'm persuaded by the argument Chesterton makes in his Orthodoxy book that ordinary things are not only more valuable than extraordinary things, they are, actually, more extraordinary—that orthodoxy has a glamour and danger that heresy never can. But saying so is only to restate the legendary-mythic/bourgeois dynamic that is as much as feature of Wagner as it is of Tolkien. The Ring is all Germanic legend and no Christianity but Wagner not only wanted to express his grandiose mythic pagan-Nativism, he wanted to pay the bills. “Yet” [Adorno is quoting Hildebrandt, about Wagner and Nietzsche holidaying in Sorrento] “there was one particular remark which cut Nietzsche to the quick.”
The conversation had turned to the poor attendance of the Bayreuth Festival. Nietzsche's sister reports that Wagner had once observed angrily. “The Germans no longer wished to have anything to do with heathen Gods and herooes; what they wanted was something Christian.” [Adorno, 12]
Parsifal swiftly followed, to supply this market need; not only the most explicitly Christian of Wagner's operas, but, in its portrait of its villain Klingsor, the most nakedly anti-Semitic. Poor old Nietzsche. So much for Gott ist tot.

Still it is strange (that is to say: I'm suggesting it's structurally or formally strange) that Modern Fantasy emerges out of an emulsion of Pagan and Christian in the way that it does. It's not that a large audience are clamouring for specifically Christianised mythic legend, I'd say; but slice it and dice it howsoever we want, it is the bourgeois Christianity of Bunyan, Idylls of the King and Wagner's final compromise with his audience, through Tolkien and Lewis, that feeds the river that becomes the delta of the modern genre. In my time I have wondered if this has something to do with ‘magic’—that necessary component of Fantasy worldbuilding, and which we might want to understand this as a broad-brush attempt to capture something of the spiritually transcendent, the numinous, in the reified logic of magical systems, spells, wizards and so on. Adorno had a different angle, and I wonder if he isn't righter than I:
A contradiction of all autonomous art is the concealment of the labor that went into it, but in high capitalism, with the complete hegemony of exchange-value and with the contradictions arising out of that hegemony, autonomous art becomes both problematic and programmatic at the same time. This is the objective explanation for what is generally thought of in psychological terms as Wagner's mendacity. To make works of art into magical objects means that men worship their own labour because they are unable to recognize it as such. ... The work of art endorses the sentiment normally denied by ideology: work is degrading. [Adorno, 72]
This is why Fantasy is filled with aristocrats and warriors, or at the least of hobbits of independent means: with travellers and questers (which is to say: with holidaymakers) and so on—as, also, with rascals, thieves, rogues etc. And I suppose sometimes with students, at Hogwarts' or the Unseen University and whatnot. The point is that Fantasy cannot be written in the John Berger, or even the Zola mode: not because of the generic mismatch of Fantasy as le naturalisme, or not only for that reason, but because Fantasy is a realm where work as such is always transmuted magically into magic.

There's also the prominence given to swords in this mode. Not, except in rare and marginal cases, to rapiers or xiphoi; but to Excaliburs and Glamdrings and Terminus Ests (Termini Sunt, I suppose)—to, that is, big swords, mighty swords, claymores and broadswords (swords that functioned as much as clubs to smash bones as they did blades to cut flesh). This is to say nothing of all those axes, those hammers, all those battles, all that bashing and crashing. It's a way of externalising the genre's rationale of force, the emblematic articulation of forcefulness as such. Adorno:
Wagner not only took up the bourgeois profession of conductor, he was also the first composer to write conductor's music in the grand style. This is not said with the intention of echoing the threadbare reproaches of unoriginality, of with the design of unduly emphasising mere orchestral skill—something that pales by the side of Wagner's overwhelming art of instrumentation. What it alludes to is the fact that his music is conceived in terms of the gesture of striking a blow and that the whole idea of beating is fundamental to it. [Adorno, 20]
Adorno doesn't specifically mention, although presumably he has in mind, the music that famously accompanies the descent to Nibelheim in Das Rheingold, scored for not one but eighteen anvils (tuned to F three octaves apart). There's something here, I feel, to do with Robert Graves's distinction between the mediterranean oarstroke of long-short Greek and Latin prosody and the anvil-blow stressed-unstressed northern European metrical ictus. A related point has to do with the sheer fuck-off size of many of these Fantasy texts.
Compared to Viennese classicism, Wagner's music reckons with people who listen to it from a great distance, much as Impressionist paintings require to be viewed from a greater distance than earlier paintings. To listen from a greater distance also means listening less attentively. The audience of these giant works lasting many hours is thought of an unable to concentrate—something not unconnected with the fatigue of the citizen in his leisure time. [Adorno, 22]
Something similar may be true of the manifest textual bloat of modern Fantasy: not only the shelf-sagging bulk, but its stasis, the narrative inertia of Robert Jordan, George R R Martin and their ilk. This is literature not written to be consumed on the level of individual, marvellous sentences, but by the metric tonne. Afficionados may feel such bulk only appropriate to the epic heft and scope of their favourite stories, but I wonder if the point is not heft, for which one needs density (contemporary Fantasy novels may spread over thousands of pages, but many have the texture of expanded polystyrene) so much as a kind of defocusing, an attempt at blurring the focus on the specificities of the whole. Fantasy plays with history, as with myth, as it plays with an ethos simultaneously bourgeois and feudal. Too close an attentiveness to these contradictions is to be discouraged.
Wagner showed himself to be bourgeois through and through in his conviction that poetic depth is synonymous with the omission of historical specificity. His image of the universally human requires the dismantling of what he supposes to be relative and contingent in favour of the idea of an unvarying human nature. What is actually substantial appears to him as a residue. He therefore finds himself reduced to a stratum of subject-matter that acknowledges neither history nor the supernatural nor even the natural, but which lies beyond all such categories. Essence is drawn into an omnisignificant immanence; the immanent is held in thrall by symbol. This stratum, where all is undifferentiated, is that of myth. Its sign is ambiguity; its twilight is a standing invitation to merge irreconcilables—the positivistic with the metaphysical — because it firmly rejects both the transcendental and the factual. [Adorno, 104]
With this, I think, we approach something really key about the post-Tolkienian Fantasy tradition. The ‘universally human’ becomes, in these kinds of books, pseudo-ethicised, narratively situated in a Cosmic drama of Good versus Evil, where the only important things are to show that you're on Team Good and to screw your courage to that sticking point. Actual moral choice, and the more destabilising moral complexity of actual life, is not the currency of these sorts of tales. And it's surely the case that Commericial Fantasy does indeed reject both the transcendental and the factual. In the case of JRRT the absense of gods (except, in the deep background of of the text, and Silmarilic exegesis) and the absence of ‘actual’ England, Germany, ‘Northern Europe’ and so on, are revealed as versions of one another. I suppose the problem with this as a reading of Wagner, though, is precisely the problem of the actual political—which is to say, historical—uses to which the Nazis put his art (uses to which JRRT really can't be recruited). Adorno's ‘authentic historical conflict’ actually only describes one kind of pseduo-historical, or Scottian, mode; where history-as-ideology is immanent throughout Wagner. Is that true of Tolkien as well, though? Or of Fantasy more generally?
If in the Ring mythic violence and legal contract are confounded, this not only confirms an intuition about the origins of legality, it also articulates the experience of the lawlessness of a society dominated in the name of law by contract and property. [Adorno, 108]
If the lawlessness of Westeros is, as seems plausible, part of its popular appeal (as an imaginative release for those times when Civilisation and its Discontents chafe against our senses of self: ‘in such a place I can kill who I like and fuck who I like ...’) then that very lawlessness is, as Adorno suggests here, grounded in a minutely and even pettifogging sense of contract law as such: the precise nature of the bloodline of the individual ‘rightfully’ king, the minute particulars of the magical prophesy that must be proved true, albeit in surprising ways. Indeed I wonder if we can go further, and say that the copresence of Might-is-Right mythic violence with a universe magically structured by bourgeois contract law (the way the witches' prophesies in Macbeth are precisely honoured in their contract with Macbeth, the contract lawyer ‘I am no man’ gloating of Eowyn discovering a loophole in the Nazgul's magic charm anbd so on) is foundational for the genre as such. Nor is this an arbitrary feature of the genre. It's how Fantasy links itself back to life:
The opacity and omnipotence of the social process is then celebrated as a metaphysical mystery by the individual who becomes conscious of it and yet ranges himself on the side of its dominant forces. Wagner has devised the ritual of permanent catastrophe. [Adorno, 108]
One final thing that struck me in The Search for Wagner is the moment when Adorno says of Wagner's music that ‘each listener has the feeling that it belongs to him alone’. That was exactly my childhood response to reading Tolkien: as if the book, and the world it revealed, was uniquely mine, that it spoke to me with an uncanny specificity that surely couldn't be true of other readers. The irony of course is that all true fans feel that way, that the individuation here is ersatz, or if that looks too judgmental then just a sort of the trick of the fictive light. Here's the whole quotation from Adorno:
Each listener has the feeling that it belongs to him alone, that it is a communication from his long-forgotten childhood, and from this shared déjà vu the phantasmagoria of the collective is constructed. Nowhere is Wagner more mythological than in the modernity of such pleasures. [Adorno, 109]
Nowhere, perhaps, is post-Tolkienian Fantasy more mythological than in the modernity of such pleasures.