‘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.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Game of Thrones

You know what's foolish? Posting a blog about how Game of Thrones will end literally hours before Game of Thrones actually ends. Could I offer-up a more immediate hostage to fortune? I could not. Yet here I am, and I'm here in part because I want to notate my reactions to an interesting article by Zeynup Tufekci that diagnoses the ills of Thrones Series 8 in terms of a shift from Martin's broadly sociological novels to Benioff and Weiss more Hollywood-conventional psychological understanding of what storytelling is. It makes a persuasive case, although I don't think it's right, actually. But maybe I'm the one who's not right. At any rate if the final episode falsifies everything I say here, then I can always come back here and delete this whole post. It'll be as if it never existed, vanished like breath into the wind!

The truth is, I'm not really expatiating about Game of Thrones in this blog so much as I'm trying to think-through some larger questions with respect to Fantasy as a mode.

So my jumping-off point is Zeynup Tufekci’s recent Scientific American article ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones’. The article's thesis is summed-up in its subheader: ‘it's not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological.’ Once upon a time, argues Tufekci, Game of Thrones followed Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire in telling a story about society as a whole: individual characters mattered, but not so much as the larger shaping forces of society and culture. Since the show ran out of novels to adapt, show-runners Benioff and Weiss have taken over storytelling duties and in doing so have defaulted to the Standard Hollywood Storytelling Mode, viz. concentrating on a few psychologically-focalised, character-based storylines.
For Benioff and Weiss, trying to continue what Game of Thrones had set out to do, tell a compelling sociological story, would be like trying to eat melting ice cream with a fork. Hollywood mostly knows how to tell psychological, individualized stories. They do not have the right tools for sociological stories, nor do they even seem to understand the job.
There’s something in this, I suppose; but not as much as all that. Martin does deserve credit for trying to round-out his worldbuilding with some sociological nuance and some economic context. I’m not sure he goes very far down this path, though. I don’t want to sound snippy, but I fear I will when I suggest: the economic component of Song of Ice and Fire never develops very far beyond the slightly sophomoric gotcha: ‘but how did Sauron pay his orc army, eh? Where did all the money come from, eh? eh?’ Some years ago Matthew Yglesias posted a three-part ‘analysis’ of the economics of Westeros: a fun read that depends on that particular brand of niche tongue-in-cheekery where ‘serious’ critique is expended on an unserious topic, a kind of geekbombing that makes serious points in a deniable way. That's pretty much the only way to address this aspect of Martin's writing, I think, without falling into sheer pompous-faced stiffness.

I suppose a Fantasy novelist describing a dark lord marching his swarming army of yrchs across green fields towards serried ranks of ulven warriors in their gleaming armour without addressing the question of how it all gets paid-for is, by one metric, being naif. But that’s really not necessary a problem, I think, in this specific context of Fantasy writing. Naïveté may be a kind of ludicrous gullibility, but it might also be a holier kind of innocence. The word comes, like nativity, from the Latin nativitas: which means a birth, a newness coming into the world. Many people turn to Fantasy precisely because they are yearning for a world in which innocence is possible, in which the grime and cynicism of modernity gets washed clean in a kind of re-birth. In a recent blogpost I quoted Dorothy Sayers on why she loved medieval art and culture, and I like the quotation so much I'm going to roll it out it again:
And so Roland rides out, into that new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown summer of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth. It is also a world full of blood and grief and death and naked brutality, but also of frank emotions, innocent simplicities and abounding self-confidence—and world with which we have so utterly lost touch that we have fallen into using the words “feudal” and “medieval” as mere epithets for outer darkness. Anyone who sees gleams of brightness in that world is accused of romantic nostalgia for a Golden Age that never existed, But the figure of Roland stands there to give us the lie: he is the Young Age as that age saw itself. Compared with him, the space-adventurers and glamour-boys of our times, no less than the hardened toughs of Renaissance epic, seem to have been born middle-aged. [Dorothy L Sayers, ‘Introduction’, The Song of Roland (Penguin 1957), 17]
Youth is the very currency of nativitas, and the life blood of Fantasy. But Game of Thrones is not young. It's old, and even its young characters, like child-soldier Arya, are old before their time. Old does not necessarily map onto wisdom, any more than nativitas is necessarily naive. Real-life armies need more than just pay. They need whole logistics corps: supply lines and operations officers, organisation on a huge scale; and real-life medieval or Renaissance armies also trailed long queues of camp-followers behind them. We can talk about them, if we like, in our Fantasy novels; but many readers aren’t going to note their lack in the Fantasy blockbuster de jour, any more than we miss them in The Song of Roland. Omitting these details is not realistic, of course; but then again Fantasy is very particularly not Realism.

The obvious rejoinder here is that whatever it is that fans of Game of Thrones go to the show for, it's not innocence. On the contrary: the whole point of GoT is to deconstruct notions of honour, nobility, loyalty and innocence and reveal them for the whited sepulchres they are, or at least that the consensus nowadays believes them to be. Tolkien’s vision was Beowulf and the Song of Roland; Martin’s is Machiavelli. Fair enough—there, if anywhere, a properly sociological comprehension of Fantasy is merited, surely.

To return to Tufekci’s argument: she is putting her finger on something that has gone awry in the final season of the show. The anger of the fans indexes something, for sure; I’m just not sure it’s animadversion to a shift of storytelling emphasis. The fans who called their children Khaleesi or had Dani 4 Ever tattoos are angry that the character onto whom they projected their fantasies of redemption and justice is doing things they don’t like (burning children to death en masse, that is)—things they consider ‘out of character’. Which is to say, their investment in the show was always psychological, all the way back.

You might object that this is me conjuring up a purely notional and strawperson fan to bolster my theory. So maybe I should try and come at the question in a different way: which is, both in terms of Fantasy fiction, but also (to scale things a little) in the world as such, to insist that ‘sociological’ and ‘psychological’ are not separate and discrete terms. This, after all, is exactly what Freud argues in Civilisation and Its Discontents. So my strawperson fan, who named their baby Khaleesi, and is now outraged at the way Danaerys’s character has developed, is actually illustrating a political—and therefore sociological—point that is, in fact, core to Martin’s Machiavellian vision: that we, as social animals, tend to project our desires and hopes onto the blank screens that professional politicians present to us precisely for that purpose. It is how one gets elected. Telling a Trump supporter that Trump is, as a human being, corrupt, wicked or incompetent (as I, personally, believe him to be) will not disarray their support, because for any Trumpist Trump is overwhelmingly a creature they have themselves written into being, using their anxieties and hopes, their resentments and fantasies. Trump is, in this respect, no different to any other politician—leftists like me certainly undertook this projection with respect to Obama—except that his vulgarity and spiky personal mannerisms would be, one would think, more likely to get in the way of this process of voterly projection than would be the case with more designedly bland political figures. Not enough to deny him the presidency, though, evidently.

My point is that one consistent theme of Martin’s storytelling, a point to which Benioff and Weiss are I think adhering, is that reality keeps intruding into our fantasies, that cold actuality is constantly shaking us out of our dreams of how things and people might be. The Danaerys storyline is just this, magnified by being in a narratively climactic place in the show. Life is not inclined to accomodate your fantasies. It's a core truth of social existence, and it tends to make us unhappy. That's Freud's argument, in a nutshell.

Lionel Trilling (of all people) has a good take on Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents:
Despite Freud’s gifts of lucid expression, Civilisation and its Discontents is a difficult book, in some part because it undertakes to lead us beyond an idea with which we are familiar and comfortable, that society is the direct and ‘sufficient’ cause of man’s frustration. Its central thesis is that society is no more than the ‘necessary’ cause of frustration. As Freud now describes the dynamics of the unconscious, the direct agent of man’s unhappiness is an element of the unconscious itself. The requirements of civilization do indeed set in train an exigent disciplinary process whose locus is the ego, but this process, Freud says in effect, is escalated by the unconscious ego far beyond the rational demands of the societal situation. The informing doctrine of Civilisation and its Discontents is that the human mind, in the course of instituting civilization, has so contrived its own nature that it directs against itself an unremitting and largely gratuitous harshness. [Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), 151]
Fantasy as a literary (and televisual) mode has a close relation to fantasy as a psychological driver, I think. We go to these texts because they provide something we lack in in our day-to-day: some sense of enchantment, or plenitude, or some connection with a past and a land—some myth, perhaps—and the pleasures of escapism to a more elegant, pre-industrial and pre-modern world. It might seem unlikely that people wish to ‘escape’ to Westeros (life is so nastily brutish-short there, after all) but it seems they do, and in large numbvers. Perhaps that’s not so counterintuitive, actually. I don't doubt there are Game of Thrones fans enamoured of all the Noble Houses and family trees, the city-states and legends, all the cod-chivalric trappings, and the fact that the show themselves reveals these as a mere window-dressing for a widespread Hobbesian social horrors means such fans get to have their chivalric cake and eat it too as knowing-moderns. And this is not to account for the simpler, more psychotic mode of ‘escapism’ pleasing, I daresay, to some, of a world in which consequence-free killing, raping and torturing is more readily to hand.

On the subject of Freud’s ‘social’ psychological theorising (‘from the first a conception of society had been central to Freud’s psychology: the ego was a social entity [and] society was the field of its experience’) Trilling goes on:
The specific agent of this extravagant severity is an element of the unconscious which has not been named in what I have said so far about psychoanalysis, though its activities have been referred to—they are those ‘extremely high ones’ of moral judgement and self-criticism ... the process it [the super-ego] has instituted against the ego is largely gratuitous beyond the needs of reason and beyond the reach of reason. The particular kind of pain it inflicts is that which Freud calls guilt [Trilling, 151-52]
Guilt, here, is not ‘the consciousness of wrong-doing, which Freud calls remorse’; it is ‘precisely that which does not originate in actual wrong-doing and that is not conscious’. I wonder if this isn’t part of the way Game of Thrones figures, as culture-text, too; and whether this might explain in part its extraordinary popularity. We commit no actual wrong-doing in watching it, and yet it is designed to make us feel guilty for watching nonetheless—as we soak-up all the nudity and the torture-scenes, the violence and the double-crossing. What kind of person could enjoy sitting in comfort and watching such horrors unfold? Our kind, evidently. It's Sadean, is what it is. ‘Tits and dragons’ fans say, and that’s a twist of self-deprecation that's also a little guilty start. Saying we rate Thrones for its unflinching realpolitik is this generation’s ‘I only read Playboy for the articles’.

It may look like I’m now swinging back towards Tufekci’s position: that this show’s appeal is grounded in the psychological, not the sociological. But I don’t think so. Freud’s point is that the larger social structures, the possibilities and constraints of social life as such, are horizoned by these givens, this pushme-pullyou of our psychic desires, both socially acceptable and socially unacceptable, and the frictions of external and internal repressions to hold them in check.

Another way of saying this would be to make the argument that Benioff and Weiss are actually interested in the old Scottian dynamic—I'm talking about the Waverley dilemma: which of these two should be king? This figure from the romantic past, whose claim is based on succession and traditional lineal legitimacy? Or this figure from the unromantic present, whose claim is based on competence and a willingness to accept that times have changed? Do you go with the Tories or the Whigs, the charismatic but hopeless Bonny Prince Charlie or the dreary and in many ways repellent but competent and modern Hanoverians and their ministers? That, I would hazard my guess, is where the final series will end up, posing this choice: Danaerys the Jacobite? Or one or other Stark, the Hanoverian? For Scott the novelistic and dramatic potential was in the wavering of a middle-rank character between these two worlds—indecision is a kind of psychological quantity, I suppose, but as Lukacs says this is actually Scott’s canny formal mechanism for registering the dialectic of historical development in a novelistic idiom. If I’m right, Danaerys cannot rule, any more than The Young Pretender can capture London and sit on the British throne. We’ll see, I suppose.

This last point brings me to something I’ve been thinking about over the last few days—that part of the explanation for the current boom in Fantasy is that this has become how we apprehend history. Actual historical fiction is still being written in large amounts, and is still popular of course; but these sorts of Fantasy versions of history give ‘us’ something mere historical verisimilitude cannot where actual history is concerned. But that's a subject for a different overlong blogpost.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Medieval Glamour

On the 13th June, the paperback of my novelisation of Anthony Burgess's The Black Prince is published; and in the run-up to that auspicious event I am going to turn this blog over to some self-promotion. At the same time, I'm trying to get my thoughts into some kind of order with respect to Fantasy as a genre—germane, that, since The Black Prince is both a (carefully researched!) historical novel and a work of Fantasy, or at any rate the closest I have come as a writer to producing such a thing. That's not so surprising, I suppose. There are many parallels, obviously, between what a writer of Fantasy does and what a historical novelist does: worldbuilding an unfamiliar environment, recreating the mindworld of characters who believe in magic, construing the-past-as-such into some kind of present-day relevancy (for what else are Tolkien, Moorcock and George R R Martin doing if not that?)

I have a day-job: Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, which also proved relevant to my writing of this novel. You might be surprised by just how passionate the Victorians were about the medieval period. This was the century when interest in Arthurian legends revived (Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and all that), and thinkers, poets and artists from Ruskin to Swinburne and William Morris devoted most of their creative energies to the middle ages. So going medieval was, for me, something like a homecoming.

It’s making me ponder what it is about the middle ages that possess such glamour for minds like mine. After all, ‘medieval’ is sometimes used nowadays as a synonym for primitive, and life without proper dentistry, central heating or—for the vast majority of the population—any life opportunities at all beyond the local village and feudal chores is very far from an appealing prospect. Still: there’s some charisma in the period that can’t be explained simply by dewy-eyed cosplay nostalgia. How can we be nostalgic for something we’ve never experienced anyway?

One of the things that Burgess was adamant about in his Black Prince project was that he wasn’t interested in a rose-tinted soft-soap world. This was often a very violent time—by modern standards extraordinary and often casually violent—a calcified and stifling social structure, lacking many of the modern amenities that render today’s life bearable. But it’s also clear from reading his screenplay that he didn’t just think of the middle ages that way. After all, if life back then really was nothing but grime and pain, then why would we want to read about it at all?

So: in putting The Black Prince together I worked carefully to balance out Burgess’s unflinching portrayal of the darker side of Edward’s career with some feel for the allure of the historical period itself. Amongst the research I did was reading Dorothy L Sayers’s translation of The Song of Roland, first published by Penguin books in 1957—I’m ashamed to admit I’d never read it before. It’s wonderful! Though the battle it relates and celebrates took place in AD 778 the poem itself was written (by whom? we don’t know!) probably in the twelfth-century. Accordingly the whole poem is suffused with medieval attitudes and flavours.

This passage in particular, from Sayers’s introduction, leapt out at me as an articulation of what is so compelling about the middle ages as such:
And so Roland rides out, into that new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown summer of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth. It is also a world full of blood and grief and death and naked brutality, but also of frank emotions, innocent simplicities and abounding self-confidence—and world with which we have so utterly lost touch that we have fallen into using the words “feudal” and “medieval” as mere epithets for outer darkness. Anyone who sees gleams of brightness in that world is accused of romantic nostalgia for a Golden Age that never existed, But the figure of Roland stands there to give us the lie: he is the Young Age as that age saw itself. Compared with him, the space-adventurers and glamour-boys of our times, no less than the hardened toughs of Renaissance epic, seem to have been born middle-aged. [Dorothy L Sayers, ‘Introduction’, The Song of Roland (Penguin 1957), 17]
I think this passage struck me so forcibly because the subject of my novel, the Black Prince himself, was so extraordinarily young—his father deliberately held back and let him take charge at Crecy when he had just turned sixteen years of age, and, like a Romantic poet, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy his inheritance, or his maturity. And yet his unprecedented string of battlefield successes (and his ultimate untimely end) are the stuff not of legend, like Roland, but of history. Youth! Youth!

Take a closer look at the roundel that adorns the cover of that old penguin edition of Sayer's translation:

It is taken from a stained-glass window of Chartres Cathedral that is, as a whole, dedicated to telling the Legends of Charlemagne. On the right, there, you can see the mighty hero Roland himself, after his heroic but doomed defence of the pass of Roncevaux, blowing his mighty horn to summon the emperor’s army to avenge him. The figure on the left is also Roland, now dying, attempting to break his sword Durendal—‘Harder-than-hard’—on a ‘marble stone’ beneath a ‘fair tree fall’, rather than suffer it to fall into the hands of the Saracens (many of whose dead lie all around):
Count Roland smites the sardine stone amain.
The steel grides loud, but neither breaks nor bates.
Now when he sees that it will nowise break
Thus to himself he maketh his complaint:
“Ah Durendal! So brave, so bright, so gay!
How does thou glitter and shine in the sun’s rays! …
Now am I grieved and troubled for my blade;
Should Paynims get it, ‘twere worse than all death’s pains
Dear God forbid it should put France to shame!” [2312-37]
He dies before he can dispose of his sword, and the poem is neither evasive nor sentimental on death, on the savagery and hideousness of the battlefield and the waste of war. But it is a poem that captures the gleam of something finer too, and I hope that my novel, in its different way, manages to do so too.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Atheism as Monotheism

I've been reading Gray's recent book on atheism. I'm not sure why I don't like Gray more; part of me thinks I ought to. He's smart, winningly pessimistic, wide-ranging and his interests overlap with mine to a large extent. Something's missing, there, for me; though I'm not sure what it is.

Anyway, near the beginning of this Empsonian volume Gray says something that intrigued me. His line is that ‘atheism’ as a term ‘does not amount to very much. It is simply the absence of the idea of a creator-god.’
There is precedent for thinking of atheism in these terms. In the ancient European world atheism meant a refusal to participate in traditional practices honouring the gods of the polytheistic pantheon. Christians were described as “atheists” (in Greek, atheos meaning “without gods”) because they worshipped only one god. Then as now, atheism and monotheism were sides of the same coin. [Gray, Seven Types of Atheism, 2]
I'd not heard this, and it intrigued me. So I looked into it. So far as I can see it's not true: nobody in the ancient world used the word ἄθεος to describe people who worshipped only one god. But I don't suppose Gray simply made the fact up; I daresay he found it somewhere. I'm interested to know where. [Update: in the comments below, my friend Alan Jacobs shows that Gray didn't just make it up, and provides the sources after which I ask]

Liddell and Scott define ἄθεος as meaning ‘without God, denying the gods, esp. those recognized by the state’. They specify the last bit because their first reference is to Plato's Apology 26c, where Socrates asks Meletus:
I am unable to understand whether you say that I teach that there are some gods, and myself then believe that there are some gods, and am not altogether godless and am not a wrongdoer in that way, that these, however, are not the gods whom the state believes in, but others, and this is what you accuse me for, that I believe in others; or you say that I do not myself believe in gods at all and that I teach this unbelief to other people.
Meletus says ‘that is what I say, that you do not believe in gods at all’ and Socrates replies ‘you amaze me, Meletus!’

L&S also cite Cicero's judgment of Diagoras, known as ‘Diagoras the Atheist’, from De Natura Deorum, iii 37: ‘a friend pointed out an expensive display of votive gifts to Diagoras and said, “You think the gods have no care for man? Why, you can see from all these votive pictures here how many people have escaped the fury of storms at sea by praying to the gods who have brought them safe to harbor.” To which Diagoras replied, “Yes, indeed, but where are the pictures of all those who suffered shipwreck and perished in the waves?”’ Atheus ille qui dicitur says Cicero, which seems fair enough. Then again, Diagoras was not a popular fellow in his native Greece. He was, notes J M Robertson, ‘charged with divulging the Eleusinian and other mysteries, and with making firewood of an image of Herakles, telling the god thus to perform his thirteenth labour by cooking turnips, became thenceforth one of the proverbial atheists of the ancient world, and a reward of a silver talent was offered for killing him, and of two talents for his capture alive; despite which he seems to have escaped.’

L&S go on to cite examples of the word as meaning ‘godless, ungodly’ and ‘abandoned of the gods’. There's a poem by Bacchylides (his eleventh ode) where Hera drives the daughters of Proteus mad by forcing them to disbelieve in the gods, a strange sort of punishment, one might think, for a god to inflict on a mortal: ‘while still virgins, they entered the sanctuary of the purple-belted goddess, and said that their father far surpassed in wealth the golden-haired consort of holy, widely powerful Zeus. In anger at them, she put a twisted thought into their minds, and they fled to the wooded mountain with terrible screams, leaving behind the city of Tiryns and its god-built streets’. At the end of the ode, Hera reverses her judgment and cures the girls of their μανιᾶ ἀθέων, their ‘atheist mania’ or ‘atheist madness’, and in return they (wisely, I'd say) ‘built her a sanctuary and an altar right away, and stained it with the blood of sheep, and set up choruses of women’ [this is Diane Arnson Svarlien's 1991 translation]. L&S also note that the word might be used adverbially ἄθεως, to mean ‘by the anger of heaven’ ‘in most unholy wise’. In all this there's a clear semantic field for the word: atheism is an ill-advised disbelief in the gods, perhaps a madness, certainly inauspicious and unholy.

Friday, 3 May 2019

On Cleanness

Cleanness interests me. I once wrote a literary-critical academic monograph about the subject, not something many people can, or indeed would want to, boast. Indeed, I'd say the topic tends to interest me more and more the further we retreat into retro-fascism as a species. Precisely because it's a manfest good in its simple sense—washing your hands, brushing your teeth—cleanness as a concept slides easily into some very dangerous places. Keeping your own body clean means soap and water, and is advisable; keeping your body-politic ‘clean’ means murdering many Jews, or locking up refugee children in cages, and is hideous. Think of that ghastly euphemism ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Becoming a parent focused the issue for me, I suppose: so much of parenting is drilling your little-ones in the necessity of cleanliness (‘brush your teeth!’ you yell into your cooling cup of tea as they ready themselves for school in the morning). When kids are tiny there is a great deal of cleanness rigmarole, since attending the little darlings means literally clearing up their shit, wiping away their sick, washing their nakedness and veiling it behind a talcum-cloud of unknowing. Of course, the struggle continues as they age (‘tidy your room!’ you yell into your cooling cup of tea as they return from school and thunderously clump upstairs).

In addition to these two things, cleanness's simple somatic sense and its much more contested and perilous political sense, cleanness has a spiritual sense that interacts with the other two in complex ways. Consider Cleanness, or I should say Clannesse, the lengthy Middle English alliterative poem written at some point in the late 14th century by we-don't-know-who. It's a religious poem stressing the need for us to clean up our act if we want to get into heaven. Here's how it starts:
Clannesse who so kyndly cowþe comende
rekken vp alle þe resounz þat ho by ri3t askez,
Fayre formez my3t he fynde in for[þ]ering his speche
& in þe contrare kark & combraunce huge. [1-4]

He who would howsoever commend Cleanness,
reckon up all the reasons that she by right asks
may he find fair forms in furthering his speech
but, in case of the contrary, huge cares and cumbrance.
‘... in case of the contrary ...’ means: if this individual were to commend the opposite thing (that is, dirtiness) then huge cares and cumbrances would be his. A few lines later:
He is so clene in His courte, þe Kyng þat al weldez,
& honeste in His housholde & hagherlych serued
With angelez enourled in alle þat is clene,
Boþ withine & withouten in wedez ful bry3t; ...

Me mynez on one amonge oþer, as Maþew recordez,
Þat þus clanness vnclosez a ful cler speche:
Þe haþel clene of his hert hapenez ful fayre,
For he schal loke on oure Lorde with a bone chere;

As so saytz, to þat sy3t seche schal he neuer
Þat any vnclannesse hatz on, auwhere abowte;
For He þat flemus vch fylþe fer fro His hert
May not byde þat burre þat hit His body ne3en.

Forþy hy3not to heuen in haterez totorne,
Ne in þe harlatez hod, & handez vnwaschen.
For what vrþly haþel þat hy3honour haldez
Wolde lyke if a ladde com lyþerly attyred,

When he were sette solempnely in a sete ryche,
Abof dukez on dece, with dayntys serued?

The King that wields all power is so clean in His court,
and honest in His household, and honourably served
with his angels enveloped in all that is clean,
both within and without wearing the brightest of clothes ...

I call to mind one example among many, from Matthew's gospel,
when he describes cleanness in full clear speech:
‘Wholly fair shall he be whose heart happens to be pure,
For he shall look on our Lord with blithe cheer’;

and says besides that this sight shall never be seen
by those that have any uncleanness anywhere about them;
for He that banishes all foullness far from His heart
may not bear a body that is blemished near him.

So don't hurry to heaven in hateful rags,
nor in a peasant's hood, with hands unwashed.
for what earthly aristocrat, what holder of high honour
would like to see a lad come so lamentably attired

when he had been seated solemnly in a rich seat,
above dukes on the dias, with dainties served? [17-38]
I'm trying, though failing, to read this in the appropriately spiritual mode. It really does look like the poet is saying: ‘if you want to get to heaven, be rich’: be wealthy enough to afford the finest clothes, have time and money enough to wash and to stay clean; don't be a ‘harlat’ (‘a churl; a common man; a person, male or female, of low birth’), don't dirty yourself with manual labour. Don't hurry to heaven in hateful rags indeed. This is liable to provoke a fuck-off from most stripes of constant reader, not least because it seems directly to contradict one of the core messages of the Gospel: viz., that wealth is so far from being a guarantee of access to heaven as to be an actual impediment to it. Mark 10:25 seems unambiguous enough: ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’

Obviously I'm missing the point. The poem is a symbolic articulation of its theme. It is not saying ‘only the rich, perfumed and well-dressed will get into heaven’, it is saying ‘these rich clothes and aristocratic manners are material representations of a non-material, spiritual truth’. We can imagine a wealthy man, outwardly well-dressed and fragrant in our world, whose soul is rag-clad and reeking; we can imagine a poor beggar, half-naked and muddy at the side of the road, whose soul shines like a babby in a Victorian advert for Pears Soap.

But, you see, here's exactly my problem. I'm not convinced people, in the main, are actually all that good at making such a distinction. I think they tend to see people-in-the-world (since in-the-world is, after all, where we all live) and to judge them on their in-the-worldness. This person is handsome, well-dressed and clean; that person is ugly, ragged and smelly. Whose is the better soul? The Cleanness poet might say ‘this individual, sitting on a fancy chair and dining with dukes isn't dining with literal lords; these are allegorical dukes and his dainty food is spiritual not bodily sustenance’. But we do not live in a world of spiritual chairs and allegorical dukes. That there is such a thing as Prosperity Theology at all surprises me, given the (it seems to me) unambiguous message of the NT regarding the disposition of loyalties where God and Mammon are concerned. But not only does such a thing exist, it dominates Christianity in America and Europe. Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can, as Wesley famously said (Margaret Thatcher quoted this line in a notable speech). It fits well with common sense: if you're doing well in this life, it must be because God likes you. And, more perniciously, vice versa: why are you poor and suffering if you have God's favour? Stands to reason. We're in a situation where it's now much easier for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God than for a man who smells like a camel to.

The answer, or so it seems to me, is to decouple physical and metaphorical cleanness. What societies need is not purity, but, precisely, admixture, contamination, variety, diversity. I strongly suspect that's what our spiritualism needs to: a kind of focused anti-puritanism, an openness of soul to otherness. A poem called Uncleanness.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Ings's Vergilings

The first time I read Simon Ings's The Smoke (Gollancz 2018) I liked it very much without any great sense I understood what was going on. I often react to Ings's work like that. It's not that he writes strange things (although he certainly does write strange things) so much as there being something ever-so-slightly off-kilter about his strangeness, something to which it's tricky to tune-in, or at least something I find tricky. He doesn't peddle common-garden Uncanny, and is uninterested in the grander varieties of Lovecraftian Weird. Perhaps there are affinities between what he writes and Surrealism, a mode of art that's almost always close-focus, somatic rather than cosmic, cod-psychoanalytic in its oddities rather than just random for random's sake.

In the alt-history of The Smoke the “Great War” ended in 1916 with the atom-bombing of Berlin and the irradiation of much of Europe (a massive eruption at Yellowstone in 1874 had already devastated North America and provoked global winter). But Ings is not particularly bothered by the sorts of games alt-historians tend to play, and his twentieth-century Britain is in many ways unchanged from actuality. The difference is that Ings chucks a magical new tech into his mix, a “biophotonic ray” invented by Russian scientist Aleksander Gurswitsch (a real-life figure, of course). The Gurswitsch ray can reanimate dead flesh—directed at the mud-sunk slain of the Western Front it inadvertently resurrected a caste of beings called “Chickies”—as well as genetically alter flesh to produce new human species. Connectedly, the Jews of the world have reconfigured themselves as the “Bund”, a people who live by sociological principles of collectivity who also happen to be immensely talented when it comes to inventing new technological devices. London, the novel's titular city, is divided between regular Londoners and a large compound south of the river occupied by the Bund.

The focalising character in Ings's narrative is Stuart, a yorkshireman who was previously married to Fel, from the Bund. As the novel opens Stuart has, painfully, separated from his wife, and left their London apartment to come back to stay with his no-nonsense father. Stuart's mother Betty is dying of a debilitating illness, a situation in which both men find it difficult to cope. The family has another son, Stuart's brother Jim, who is an astronaut stationed in Woomera, Australia, where the British are about to launch an enormous “Project Orion”-style spaceship, “HMS Victory”, into orbit. The Bund are ahead of the Brits, though: opting for automated miniaturisation over grandstanding big engineering they have already launched many probes into space, and have even landed robot miners on the moon.

But it misrepresents the novel to lay out all this context in this way. The Smoke fills us in on all this as we read, but Ings is more interested in the odder, more psychological or psychosexual corners and crevices of his story. Stuart misses his wife Fel, and often thinks back to the time they spent in London designing costumes for a sciencefictional TV show called DARE, an Ingsian version of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson show UFO. He is prey to the sexual glamour Chickies can (it seems) cast over ordinary humans. Stuart always carries with him a little mannikin made of grass that seems to have some occult significance to him. He obsessively reads the “onion-skin pages” of his “mother's Aeneid”—this is how the novel's first chapter opens:
Troy has fallen. The belly of the wooden horse has splintered open in the town square, vomiting forth Greek elites. The gates are torn open and the city, gaping, lost, runs with blood.
This looks forward to the final section of the novel, where [spoiler] HMS Victory is succesfully launched only to be blasted to pieces in orbit by the Bund, killing its crew including Jim. The novel ends with Stuart remembering his wife Fel at night “sitting up on pillows, the reading lamp on, poring over an old book”. The last lines of The Smoke are: “she lifted the book for me to see—Mum's Aeneid—and said ‘the old stories are the best.’”

Stuart's mother Betty is offered the chance to evade her inevitable death by opting for a strange procedure pioneered by a certain Dr Georgy Chernoy: the deal is, you become pregnant (even at Betty's advanced age) with a fetus into which your own consciousness is downloaded, before your original body expires. This results in a population of infants containing adult consciousnesses, painstakingly relearning their motor-skills, and reconnecting with their memories by toddling around scale-models of famous London landmarks. It's very odd and sometimes (as when Stuart has to changing his infant mum’s nappies as she shouts adult invectives in the voice of a toddler) pretty disturbing. One final weirdness is the latest high-tech innovation of the Bund: they destroy the HMS Victory to stymie British space ambitions, but they then bring the dead crew back to life, inside the bodies of small plastic toy figures, “Action Man”-style mannikins. So it is that Stuart reunites with his dead brother Jim.

When I first read all this it puzzled me, but in a good way. It stirred my imagination as much as it baffled me. I liked its oddness and richness: Ings is doing things SF rarely does. Then I had occasion to re-read it, something I don't do enough with recent fiction I fear. Looking through it again, I think—I think—I understand what's going on here, now.

The Smoke now seems to me (which it didn’t really, before) a novel about just how strange it is that old clapped-out life can produce new life; a novel about the sheerly existential weirdness of this basic human fact, that novelty comes out of our expiring flesh the way that it does. I'm in my 50s and my bodily being-in-the-world is increasingly run-down and ruinous and crappy, yet my children, engendered of my and my wife's old flesh, are young, vital, fresh. How? It's the weirdness of children as such, here manifested in the Bund’s surreal experiments, dying bodies literally pregnant with their to-be-reincarnated selves, reborn consciousnesses inside plastic toys action-men, the Chickies reborn out of the mud of Flanders. In each case the novel dramatises both the way old people decline, physically and mentally, that the woods decay the woods decay and fall, and the surreal way newness comes into the world, blending surrealism and elegy in a powerful way.

This, I now think, is why the book starts and ends with the Aeneid. A little while ago, in a different context, I blogged about Circe's appearance in Aeneid 7. In book 6, Aeneas visits the underworld, having seen both the punished distorted into tortuous shapes by the consequences of their sinfulness, and the blissful existence of the blessed. Book 7 starts by addressing one more dead person: Aeneas's old nurse Caieta, who is buried on a piece of coastline that subsequently becomes the promontory and town of Caieta. Then Aeneas sails away:
At pius exsequiis Aeneas rite solutis,
aggere composito tumuli, postquam alta quierunt
aequora, tendit iter velis portumque relinquit.
Adspirant aurae in noctem nec candida cursus
Luna negat, splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus.
Proxima Circaeae raduntur litora terrae,
dives inaccessos ubi Solis filia lucos
adsiduo resonat cantu tectisque superbis
urit odoratam nocturna in lumina cedrum,
arguto tenuis percurrens pectine telas.
Hinc exaudiri gemitus iraeque leonumv
vincla recusantum et sera sub nocte rudentum,
saetigerique sues atque in praesaepibus ursi
saevire ac formae magnorum ululare luporum,
quos hominum ex facie dea saeva potentibus herbis
induerat Circe in voltus ac terga ferarum.
Quae ne monstra pii paterentur talia Troes
delati in portus neu litora dira subirent,
Neptunus ventis implevit vela secundis
atque fugam dedit et praeter vada fervida vexit. [Aeneid, 7:5-24]
What I love about this passage is its gorgeous uncanny quality. Here's my stab at a line-by-line Englishing of it:
So pious Aeneas, having performed those last rites,
and smoothed the mound over the grave, as a hush
lies over the high seas, unfurls his sails and leaves the harbour.
Breezes blow through the night, white light speeds them on
a gift of the Moon, the sea glitters with a tremulous radiance.
Soon they are skirting the shoreline of Circe's land,
where the rich daughter of the Sun makes
her untrodden groves echo with ceaseless song;
nightlong her shining palace is sweet with burning cedarwood,
as she drives her shuttle, weaving delicate textiles.
And from far away you can hear angry lions
chafing at their fetters and roaring in the deep night,
and bears and bristle-backed hogs in their pens,
raging, and huge-bodied wolves howling aloud;
these are men who, eating her magical herbs,
the deadly divine Circe had disfashioned into beasts.
To save the good Trojans from so hideous a change,
prevent them from stopping on those ominous shores,
Neptune fills their sails with favourable winds,
and hurries them, sweeping them past the seething shallows.
Inadequate as this translation is, it gives some indication of the quality, the vibe, of alluring-terrifying otherness in Vergil's verse. The eerie calls of the magically bestialised men, resounding over the moonlit sea; a yearning and strangeness in the very heart of things. Sunt lacrimae rerum is one of the most famous of Vergilian tags, but Vergil's great poem has always struck me as much more about strangeness than sorrow. It understands, on a deep level, how strange it is that newness comes into the world at all: how empires are created anew out of their fall; how widowers, though wholly dedicated to the memory of their beloved wives, nonetheless fall in love again, marry again, have new children. How strange it is that death, which really ought by definition to be the end of things, somehow—isn't. The Latin novitas means both ‘novelty, newness, freshness’ and also ‘strangeness’, and Aeneas's Roman Troynovant—another name for the Smoke, of course—is as much Strange-Troy as it is ‘Troy renewed’. More, this is for Vergil all bound up with his apprehension of the unfathomable ways divinity interacts with the mundane and the mortal. The strange ways it manifests, the stranger fact that it manifests at all (this also obsessed Graham Greene: a good half of his novels are about what Brighton Rock calls ‘the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’).

I'm not really comparing Ings and Vergil here, despite this blogpost's title. That would be a pretty invidious move, in and of itself; although it's also true to say that the two approach this matter in quite different ways. Ings finds, in his various surreal pseudo-scientific processes and artefacts, a surreal objective correlative for his theme that in turn tends to objectify, or even reify, his strangenesses. Maybe that's part of his integral sciencefiction-ness. For Vergil, though, the strangess of things is a fundamentally spiritual fact of existence, even if that spirit remains a numinous opacity to those of us struggling through our mortal lives.

Friday, 19 April 2019


At the end of the Iliad, Priam creeps into Achilles' tent and begs for the dead body of his son Hector to be returned to him (kissing his hands, ‘those terrible mankilling hands that had slaughtered so many of his sons’) and Achilles is—finally—moved to pity. He condoles with the old man, his enemy, offering him this thumbnail of how happiness and unhappiness are sorted in the mortal realm:
δοιοὶ γάρ τε πίθοι κατακείαται ἐν Διὸς οὔδει
δώρων οἷα δίδωσι κακῶν, ἕτερος δὲ ἑάων:
ᾧ μέν κ᾽ ἀμμίξας δώῃ Ζεὺς τερπικέραυνος,
ἄλλοτε μέν τε κακῷ ὅ γε κύρεται, ἄλλοτε δ᾽ ἐσθλῷ:
ᾧ δέ κε τῶν λυγρῶν δώῃ, λωβητὸν ἔθηκε,
καί ἑ κακὴ βούβρωστις ἐπὶ χθόνα δῖαν ἐλαύνει,
φοιτᾷ δ᾽ οὔτε θεοῖσι τετιμένος οὔτε βροτοῖσιν. [Iliad 24:527-33]
Here's Lattimore's translation:
There are two urns that stand on the door-sill of Zeus. They are unlike
for the gifts they bestow: an urn of evils, an urn of blessings.
If Zeus who delights in thunder mingles these and bestows them
on man, he shifts, and moves now in evil, again in good fortune.
But when Zeus bestows from the urn of sorrows, he makes a failure
of man, and the evil hunger drives him over the shining
earth, and he wanders respected neither of gods nor mortals.
The counsel here, I suppose, is acceptance: whether we thrive or fail has little to do with our intrinsic merits or efforts and much to do with the transcendent arbitrariness of existence as such. Men, to coin a phrase, must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither, ripeness being all. One advantage Greek religion had over later faiths like Christianity and Islam is that it needed not worry, as so many later theologians have, about the whole Theodicy shebang (for truly it is hard to bring into a harmonious relation the three salients in a posited omnibenevolent and omnipotent God who nonetheless permits evil). The Greek model better fits our sense of the ethical disarrangement of things as such, the mismatch between worth, worthlessness, reward and punishment as they manifest in the actual world. It's not that the Greek gods are chaotic agents. Not at all: their motivations are, in many ways, perfectly comprehensible and predictable (they are, for instance, often moved to generosity by human bravery or beauty)—but they are capricious, egotisical, implacable when wronged.

What strikes me most powerfully about this little passage is the way Zeus first hands out suffering and failure from the urn of sorrows to some poor mortal, and then despises the mortal for his failure. This, perhaps, has the surface appearance of inconsistency, but that's only on the surface. Actually it's a judgement of rather terrifying psychological acuity. We do it all the time, both as individuals and as a society at large: dole out suffering and failure to a person or a group and then look down with condescension and contempt on those people for their failings and sufferings. ‘First we ensure that certain populations are denied the opportunities to make their lives better; then we vocally despise those populations for having failed to make their lives better.’

The urn is a πίθος which is, as L&S say, a ‘large wine-jar’, a word more often used in Homer in the ordinary sense (Odyssey 2.340 and 23.305. where the urns are those from which wine is served). Presumably this is Homer noting that there are a great many evils and blessings to be passed down to humanity, and so Zeus has need of a very large container. But I wonder if the association with wine is relevant: that Zeus is handing out not lots but cupfuls of bliss or misery. The intoxication of life; its hangovers. Wine as joy, wine as poison.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Painting and Sculpture

I've been reading Gertrude Levy's fascinating account of prehistorical religious and cultic practice, The Gate of Horn (1948). It's not what you'd call up-to-date (I'm reading the revised second edition from 1963, a lovely large-format Faber paperback, as you can see) and I'm sure it has been superseded in many ways by more recent scholars. But I'm finding it very stimulating, nonetheless. Quoth the American poet William Merwin:
There are aspects of her book which probably influenced my sense of what it means to be human; once read they were never quite forgotten. That is true, in some way, of the whole thrust of her story. It struck me somewhat as The Golden Bough had done but its argument seemed even more immediate and pertinent, closer to the coherence of a work of art. Levy was also a classicist, and part of her story is concerned with the development—as seen through burial practices, symbols, and maps of return—of the concept of the individual soul, the person or aspect of a person that might be reborn, that suffered and hoped and was remembered in myths.
As the book's Vergilian title suggests, Levy's real interest is in tracing what she considers the deep roots of European religious practice by sketching a possible set of ritualist genealogies from the stone age to the classical period and so into modernity (the work's subtitle is: ‘Religious Conceptions of the Stone Age and Their Influence Upon European Thought’). Lately I've been going through the Aeneid again, and trying to get some of my thoughts in order with respect to that great poem, and why I love it so much, so this is all mill-grist to me.

Still it seems to me some of Levy's most intriguing suggestions get mentioned only in passing, and could do with unpacking and exploring. Here, for instance, is one detail that really hits home for me. It comes out of her comparison between what is known of Stone Age ‘Aurignacian’ practices and the practices of what, clangingly, she calls ‘modern Primitives’ (she looks in particular at Australian Aboriginals and Tasmanians, Kalahari Bushmen, Eskimos and a few others).
The painters are said to have formed an initiated caste, distinct from that of the sculptors who made rock engravings of the south. They lived, it is stated, chiefly in small caves, while the sculptors used huts grouped round the greater caverns which were their permanent rallying-places. It has also been considered probable that the sculptors followed a more easterly route southwards, leaving traces of their work all the way. If so such migrations might reflect the cultural distinction between those Aurignacians of Central Europe and Russia who inhabited huts and made stone and ivory statuettes, and the cave-dwellers who inaugurated painting in the West. [Levy, Gate of Horn, 31]
So: caveats (for there are of course many). Maybe this is a local and eccentric distinction. Maybe myth and religion changed radically over the tens of thousands of years between the cave paintings and the modern age (the notion that uncovering the world of prehistoric humanity is thereby uncovering the deep, buried logic of modern humanity is a suspect one in many ways—though it's also a beguiling one, especially when we want to think about modern-day rituals or mysteries that no longer seem to make sense to us). The remnants of Stone Age art that have survived are unlikely to be representative of the entire culture. Because certain kinds of artefacts are more durable than others, or happen to be in places like deep caves far from erosion or previous discovery does not mean that Stone Age men and women necessarily spent a lot of time in deep caves, or devoted much time to the creation of such artefacts. Maybe these cave rituals, and the artefacts associated with them, were aberrations and most Stone Age religion involved perishable matter in open spaces. We don't, indeed can't, know.

I am, nonetheless, very struck by this apparent deep-rooted and fundamentally sacral distinction between makers of the 2D image and makers of the 3D fetish: between, that is, the painter and the sculptor. It strikes me as important and even profound that these were not considered separate but related ‘artist-priests’, but rather that they were completely distinct and immiscible castes doing radically different things. Maybe.

Add-in a third creative-cultic praxis which, we can be more or less certain figured largely in paleolithic religious life, even though it has left almost no archeological evidence: music, rhythm and dance. Perhaps the tribe's musicians and dancers group formed a third, distinct priesthood.

I find myself strangely fascinated by the idea that, at the root of all human culture and art, a fundamentally religious distinction was drawn between those who paint and those who sculpt, such that these two kinds of artists belonged to entirely different worlds, with different habitations and modes of living. Because it makes a kind of sense.

It makes sense to me personally, in part (another reason to be wary of all this, I know) because I see the writer's and the painter's creative praxis as being essentially linked, where I see the sculptor's (and by extension: the architect's, and the engineer's) creative praxis as being in some essential way different to the painter-writer's. This may be because, although I can write well, and can even draw (in my amateur way) to an OK standard, I cannot seem to sculpt, and have no engineering smarts whatsoever. I've tried sculpting a couple of times, with clay and with wood, without success. It doesn't feel intuitive to me, in the way that making lines and squiggles on a piece of paper, or a screen, does.

Let's assume that ideas from palaeolithic humankind do indeed remain operative today in howsoever subterranean or subconscious a sense.

I hypothesise, more or less wildly:

1. Painting is the ancestor of writing, a genealogy that runs via heiroglyphics to more abstract modes of inscribed symbolism: representing reality by making 2D versions of reality. Sculpture, which begins with the making of cultic or sacred fetish objects, is the initial iteration of all later human plastic arts: making statues and masks, building huts and palaces and temples, making machines, landscaping the world.

2. These two central human activities derive from radically different origin-points. Painters/writers and sculptors/builders are, in some buried but absolutely vital sense for humanity, radically different sorts of people, serving the gods in radically different ways.

3. The third crucial manifestation of the palaeolithic religious impulse was ritual dance and performance accompanied by rhythm, music and song. From this developed both the theatre (a religious ritual in ancient Greece that became a widespread secular artform, without ever quite leaving behind its sacred elements:—sporting events, cinema, TV all have their fans, a word etymologically linked to fane, temple) and the traditions of public religious worship, for instance as practised in Christian churches and Muslim mosques weekly worldwide to this day. Kids at a pop concert, supporters at a political rally, sports-fans in a stadium watching their team play, are all manifestations of a fundamentally religious collectivity, more formally actualised when congregants gather in church, synagogue or mosque. This public and collective mode of being-in-the-faith is spatial and organisational, and so fundamentally theatrical-sculptural.

4. Dancing is a kind of sculpture, and religion develops as a branch of the sculptural, not the painterly, sacred tradition (hence its tendency to erect bigger and more elaborate architectural spaces to situate worship). There are several important religious traditions that ban the painterly (the making of graven images) from worship altogether. There are none that ban the sculptural-architectural. [*There's an obvious issue here, since of the many faiths humans have professed over the last many tens-of-thousands of years the two that eventually swept the world were both religions of the book: and so of words, and writing. But in both cases these faiths' relationship to the heritage of painting is complex and contradictory: Christian Puritanism, a phenomenon with several heads, and Islam both ban paintings from their places of worship; personal witness trumps written texts in both traditions; Catholics speak and hear, but do not write-and-read, Confession ... and so on.]

5. The world in which palaeolithic humanity lived was a sculptural world: filled with actual, graspable objects. Such was the fundamental reality of life and therefore the logic of whatever transcendent Power(s) was behind life. But there was also an element in paleolithic life that was not actual and graspable: the dead and their chthonic power. The sacred sculptors of the tribe made fetish objects like the Willendorf Venus to preside over the bringing-into-being of new life. The sacred painters made shadow-images, not real, not graspable, of things of the world to record, and perhaps to fix, the unseen, the chthonic and the dead. It was proper that they did this latter under the ground.

6. Painted images of animals are post-facto records of successful hunts, made to appease the spirits of the slaughtered animals, and their deity, to ensure that such animals would not withdraw themselves in pique and that therefore hunting could continue. When humans died their remains were buried in the earth; this could not happen with hunted animals, because their remains were eaten and made use of, hence the need to make painterly representations of those creatures. [‘men are represented very sparsely and very timidly’ in cave art, Levy notes: ‘in striking contrast to the bold certainty of animal designs’.]

7. Caves and their sacred arts (that is, painting and, later, writing) were associated with death and the dead; sculpture, architecture and engineering with life and the living. This is a crucial point of difference in understanding the way these two vectors of art signify in the modern age.

8. Painters and writers are chthons and their proper business is to memorialise and placate the dead. Sculptors, architects and engineers are helioists and spatialists and their proper business is to faciltate the hunt, the gathering of the various collective necessaries of life, and the continuing sexuality and fertility of the tribe.

9. It's not a coincidence that Plato set his most celebrated allegory in a cave, just as it's not a coincidence he banished the poets from his utopia.

10. Psychoanalysis is a fundamentally painterly/writerly innovation, the iteration of consciousness as an inner cave. It was and remains a chthonic, morbid and introverted art. (I don't say so to dismiss it. On the contrary: Freud and the post-Freudians seem to me to constitute a profoundly insightful and powerful tradition. But then I am a more-or-less morbid, chthonic, introverted writer-type myself).

11. There is less difference between hunters and farmers than perhaps I have previously believed. Hunting is essentially a sacred dance and farming is fundamentally sculptural, but both are above-ground manipulations of space that guarantee the life and continuance—that is, the future—of the tribe.

12. Extraverts should sculpt, build and dance; introverts should write and paint. Extraverts should live in houses, venture into the open, and follow a sunrise-sanctioned easterly route southwards, leaving traces of their work all the way. Introverts may stay in their caves.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Lord of the Sommes

It's often argued that The Lord of the Rings owes much to Tolkien's experiences in the First World War. In many ways that's kind of a no-brainer.

One of the best recent works of Tolkien criticism, John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (2005) argues the case at some length, although it may surprise some readers how little space, relatively speaking, Garth gives to equating the Dead Marshes to the Western Front and so on, and how much more time he spends on a particular nexus of friendship: Tolkien, G.B. Smith, Rob Gilson and Christopher Wiseman, all of whom were at King Edward’s Grammar School together, and who called themselves the “TCBS” (Tea Club, Barrovian Society).

Gilson and Smith both died on the Somme. Tolkien was invalided home with trench fever (Wiseman, who was in the navy, survived the war; although his friendship with Tolkien was never the same again). Garth makes a compelling case for lasting importance of the TCBS for Tolkien's writing, and he finds in this bond, rather than any more facile translation of real-world warmaking into pseudo-medieval magical conflict, the crucial carry-over from the Somme to Sauron, from the Western Front to Westernesse. Tolkien and the Great War ends by quoting C.S. Lewis on the accuracy and realism of Tolkien's portrayal of the psychology of wartime, something concerning which Lewis himself (of course) had first-hand experience.

Perhaps there's a tendency, nowadays, to think of war primarily in terms of its hardware: technologies of transportation surveillance and destruction—to think of it, in other words, as spectacle. We can certainly argue that Fantasy and especially TV/Cinematic Fantasy is largely rendered today in terms of an aesthetics of the spectacular: vast armies, huge special effects, gigantic budgets. But that's not particularly true of Tolkien's mythographic reworking of the war, or at least, not in the novels (the films are a different matter). The foci of the Lord of the Rings as war-novel are much more about fellowship, bravery and determination, and especially about the first of those three, than about the large-scale set-piece battle. In terms of the creative decisions Tolkien took adapting his experiences into myth that speaks to his priorities.

It's true that some of Tolkien's earlier fantastical re-imaginations engaged with the specifically mechanised-industrial aspect of World War 1. Here, from the 1920s, is one of Tolkien's early goes at transmuting his experience of war to Fantasy: a draft of the Fall of Gondolin material in which Melkor attacks the city with mechanical dragons, some made iron, some of bronze:
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. [Fall of Gondonlin, 69]
These sorts of (as we might now say) steampunk accroutrements are purged from Tolkien's later, published stories, and the mythological reimagining of war retreats that much further from industrial modernity to a intricately stylised medieval world. Unlike much of the commercial Fantasy that followed in LotR's wake, it's not the materiel of war that fascinates Tolkien so much as its spirit. And in many ways the spirit of the War of the Ring is a photographic negative of the actual war. Helm's Deep aside, Tolkien's war is very mobile where the actual war was trench-bound and static. Tolkien's war is waged between separate species, where the war between England and Germany can be thought of as a battle between two wings of the same tribe (the German and British royal families are the same family; Tolkien himself was an Englishman of German familial extraction and so on). Like a heavyweight boxer with a glass jaw, Sauron's attack is large-scale but comically vulnerable; once the one ring is destroyed it entirely unravels. I'm not sure any national military has ever been unknitted so simply in actual war.

Robert Eagleston quotes Paul Fussell on how Tolkien stressed both the heroism and the horror of war (when war-poets like Owen, Sassoon and Graves tended only to stress the latter). Fussell is also good on the way the discourse of war as such was subject to a specific kind of heroising elevation:

Eaglestone explores how this ‘inflationary’ rhetoric is only one of several in the novel; to read LotR is to realise it is written such that these sorts of ‘conscious heroic archaisms’ are intermixed with a different, more deflationary idiom, and as well a third, more laconic or practical one: he locates ‘one of Tolkien’s greatest strength as a novelist’ in the way he ‘mixes and plays’ these ‘usually very separate rhetorics.’ The blend of registers tracks a mixture in cross-hatching of representational translation. The ways war in Europe becomes war in Eriador are not straightforward.

Tolkien's allies fight because they volunteer, or are honouring an oath they have taken, not because they have been press-ganged. The situation was different in WW1: October 1915 saw the promulgation of Lord Derby’s ‘scheme’—that is, conscription—and the Military Service Act was passed at the beginning of 1916. At this point, in Fussell’s phrase, ‘England began to train her first conscript army, an event which could be said to mark the beginning of the modern world’ [Fussell, 11]. If we look in LotR for conscription then the closest thing (the analogy is not, I suppose, exact) is found amongst the orcs, few of whom (one presumes) have actively chosen to join this army. Likewise it is the orcs that command the air, with their flying Nazgûl; there is no Royal Flying Corps equivalent for the armies of men and of elves, a point the (famously) late arrival of the Eagles rather reinforces I feel.

And it is the orcs who actively poison their enemy: Eaglestone notes how Tolkien’s description of Merry after his attack on the Nazgûl (‘Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast, and such a horror was on him that he was blind and sick’; Return of the King 5.6.128]) contains ‘shades of the gas attack casualty’ in Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (‘what nazzing gûls for these who die as cattle?/Only the monstrous anger of the orcs’). It's true, of course, that the Germans were the first to use poison gas, but the Allies quickly copied them: releasing 140 tons of chlorine gas at the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915. This was a military disaster: the wind changed, blowing some of the gas back onto British troops; and more gas was released into British trenches when German artillery hit unopened barrels of the stuff (these barrels were unopened because the wrong sort of key had been supplied). But although there was a good deal of propaganda about gas being a wicked Germanic horror in fact the Allies used gas rather more than did the Germans. Overall some 12,000 German and Austrian troops died from gas, as against 8000 British and British Imperial troops.

The argument, here, though is not about national affiliation so much as how Tolkien restages the First World War as a conflict between modernity as such (the orcs, and the machine-making Saruman) and an older, more elevated vision of comradeship, sacrifice and heroism. And I suppose the reason for this is that Tolkien thought of this specific war as, in one crucial sense, not the real war. This is what I said a few weeks ago:
This is why Tolkien writes a war novel. It’s not because he was himself a soldier—or perhaps we should say: it’s not only because he was himself a soldier. It’s because he believes life is war. I don't mean that he knowingly adopted a Nietzschean, post-Darwinian homus homini lupus view of things. Perhaps he did believe that was the logic of the world; but, if so, he also saw that circumstance as a symptom of a more profound struggle, something going on behind the scenes of which man’s wolfishness was a secondary expression. For Tolkien the universe was a great, spiritual war, and art ought not only to reflect that, it ought to encourage to take our proper place in the struggle.
One of the things Fussell argues in his Great War and Modern Memory book is that the war, and literary responses to the war, effected a change in the idiom of literature itself. Literary Modernism was (make-it-new, fractured, ironised and so on) a response to the trauma of the war, just as it was also an attempt to get beyond the war. It's not just the fact that Tolkien wrote his fantasy in a traditionalist idiom, but the fact that it has (manifestly) connected with so many people that reflects a reaction against that impulse. This in turn has to do by what we mean when we talk about ‘war literature’ as such.

One context for all this is the opposition, as critics frame things, between the literary traditions of avant-garde Modernism on the one hand and popular fiction like Fantasy on the other. It has become something of a cliché to oppose Ulysses and Lord of the Rings as two candidates for ‘novel of the [20th] century’: the stuffy ‘high culture’ text and the popular culture fan-favourite. This has always struck me as a bit ... well, crazy actually. How can we oppose them when they're basically the same novel? They’re two big Catholic novels full of invention and power and fascinated by the same things—legends and their relationship to the ordinary (the bourgeois, the mundane), language and the play of language. They're both novels about ordinary people, wandering about. But I understand that people don’t tend to think of them as the same. To some extent I sympathise, because I admire Ulysses but I love Lord of the Rings. And I don't mean to pretend to denseness on the manifest differences between the two: Ulysses certainly is experimental and difficult, fractured and tricky to apprehend; Lord of the Rings of course tells a fantastical story in a traditional way: a linear narrative, likeable rounded characters, a prose style that aims for clarity and comprehensibility, and above all a coherent, holistic world-building vision. But there is, perhaps, more consonance than dissonance between these two things.

James Gifford's recent A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (2018) sets out to complexify this too-facile opposition, triangulating High Modernism and its notional not-a Other, mass media genre fantasy, via traditions of anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought. One of the bugbears in Gifford's account is Marxist Literary Theory (especially Fredric Jameson and Darko Suvin) and its habit of situating Fantasy as inferior to Science Fiction: as reactionary rather than subversive, conservative rather than experimental and fundamentally counter-revolutionary: ‘an archaic and enslaving ancestor to the aesthetics of modernism and a symptom of the inertia of a dead social system to progressive politics.’ Gifford quotes Jameson's argument that Fantasy essentially manifests an ahistorical and ‘oneric’ obsession with an individuated ethical realm, characterised by novels in which the ‘antagonistic religious ideologies of the Middle Ages’ are ‘harmoniously combined into a contemporary anti-Enlightenment spiritualism.’ [Gifford, 2] As against this Gifford sets out to explore the ways in which a more radical reading of Fantasy can grow, although his aim is not to rescue Tolkien, but rather to shift the centre of the genre's gravity away from Tolkien and Lewis and towards William Morris, Hope Mirrlees, Mervyn Peake, John Cowper Powys, Henry Treece, Michael Moorcock, Samuel Delany and especially Ursula le Guin.

One salient, not really discussed by Gifford, is memory. The intermittencies and sinuous complexities of memory are at the heart of Proust's Recherche, one of High Modernism's holy books; and Woolf, Eliot and Richardson are all, in their various ways, obsessed with memory and committed to finding new ways of representing its action in art. Paul Fussell's book is called ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ but, as Leonard Smith says, surprisingly, ‘“memory” is a wonderfully unproblematic and self-evident concept in Fussell's book’, taken as in effect ‘always a clear window on the nature of reality’ [Smith, 242]. This is striking, not least since one might assume war reverses the polarities where memory is concerned. In peacetime our general problem is precisely remembering things, if only in the trivial ‘where did I leave my keys?’ sense. Coming out of war the problem can be forgetting them. Those occasions when Fussell talked of his own military service during WW2 ('marines sliding under fire down a shell-pocked ridge slimy with mud and liquid dysentery shit into the maggoty Japanese and USMC corpses at the bottom, vomiting as the maggots burrowed into their own foul clothing [Fusell, Thank God For The Atom Bomb (1988), 36]) rather reinforce this. PTSD is an inability to forget certain traumatic events, of being trapped in a cycle of recalling them over and over.

How does memory figure in Lord of the Rings? It's more complicated than one might think. In one sense, the whole book addresses the question of historical memory: styled (as per the prologue) as the ‘deep’ history of our own world, although one which we have forgotten, and rehearsed in the body of the story as an inset level of ‘deep’ history (the First and Second Ages, preceding the latter days of the Third in which LotR is set), retold as song and story by characters in the text. In the ‘Council of Elrond’ chapter, Elrond relates events from the Second Age from memory, since elves are immortal and he was there. Tolkien at no point hints at any Funes-the-Memorious downside to living forever and remembering everything. The individuals in Middle Earth all seem to have more or less functioning memories. And yet the past is slipping into a realm of forgetting. How, we might wonder, can that be?

It's linked, for Tolkien, to mortality, and there are intimations of the problematic of memory as a function of deathlessness as such. As the fellowship leaves Lothlórien, and Gimli bids his sorrowful adieu, Legolas attempts to console him: ‘the memory of Lothlórien,’ he says, ‘shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.’ Gimli, though, declines to be reassured:
‘Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram. Or so says the heart of Gimli the Dwarf. Elves may see things otherwise. Indeed I have heard that for them memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves.’ [Fellowship of the Ring, 2.8 ‘Farewell to Lórien’]
Memory is not what the heart desires is really quite a striking thing to say, I think. What might Gimli mean? Obviously in one sense he means: I'd rather have the actual thing than a memory of that thing. But I think he means something more. In Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, life-extending treatments have the unintended consequence of overloading and collapsing people's memories, as finite brain-space struggles to remember more and more life-events. Borges' ‘Funes’ story positions its omnimemorious protagonist as unable to get out of bed in the morning, so overwhelming and debilitating is his perfect memory. Tolkien takes a view entirely opposite to this: an immortal being, with flawless memory, would find themselves in a situation in which memory outweighed reality, when the balance between the happily remembered and the suffering now became so disproportionate that they would live much more in memory than in life. For dwarfs, as for all mortal beings, that sort of life would be merely delusive; but maybe immortality alters the case. I can't claim competence to discuss the theological implications of this: but doesn't it rather imply Tolkien believed eternal life would be lived much more in memory than in the actuality (whatever that might be) of heaven?

Its hard not to read Frodo's sufferings at the end of Return of the King as a form of PTSD. He has been shell-shocked (‘shelob-shocked’) so severely he can never again find peace. His problem is memory, and it afflicts him despite the fact that Queen Arwen has prescribed a magical panacea precisely for memory:
‘A gift I will give you ... Wear this now in memory of Elfstone and Evenstar with whom your life has been woven!’ And she took a white gem like a star that lay upon her breast hanging upon a silver chain, and she set the chain about Frodo’s neck. ‘When the memory of the fear and darkness troubles you,’ she said, ‘this will bring you aid.’ [Return of the King 6:6: ‘Many Partings’]
We can see how a veteran, troubled by horrific memories of combat, might yearn for a magic gem to take the pain away; but Tolkien is too honest to allow Frodo release from that pain in this life. When the memory of the fear and darkness troubles you this will bring you aid: is ambiguous between ‘this will erase the memories’ and ‘this will address the fear and darkness’. The first of these is an ostrich move, where the second is not the kind of problem that can be addressed by drugging one individual's recall.

Memory is not an unalloyed good, certainly. Treebeard has had a long life, and struggles to remember his song of naming (‘Hoom, hmm: hoom, hm, how did it go? Room tum, room tum, roomty toom tum. It was a long list’ [Two Towers 3:4 ‘Treebeard’]) but perhaps that's for the best: Tom Bombadil warns the hobbits that the trees of the Old Forest, survivors of ‘a vast forgotten wood’, spend their time ‘remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice’ [Fellowship 1:7 ‘In the House of Tom Bombadil’]. Does this imply that malice tends to ferment where memory endures? Better, perhaps, forgetting: although best of all would be for that evil itself to vanish so comprehensively that it is forgotten. An anticipation for the chill trauma of Frodo's final PTSD is his imprisonment by the Barrow Wight in Fellowship:
Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts up his hand
over dead sea and withered land.
A vision of death as, in effect, incapable of letting go life; of memory as ontological refrigeration. Tom's counter-charm, freeing the hobbit, is interesting:
Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness. Fussell talks about the First World War as rendering battle a troglodytic experience, and I wonder if something of that is behind Tolkien's tendency to render his imaginary land a Deleuzian holey-space—the mountains all interpenetrated by vast networks of corridor and cave, hobbits living in holes and getting trapped inside barrows. Memory is an underground phenomenon, as Freud, in effect, said: subterranean. Memory for the elves is a vertical orientation, a kind of starlight (‘A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!/We still remember, we who dwell/In this far land beneath the trees/The starlight on the Western Seas’). For the dwarfs, though, who delve under the ground memory is a more opaque, buried and potentially dangerous matter. When they go digging for the starlight-coloured mithril of memory they instead unearth something ghastly: ‘they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin's Bane’ says Gandalf, sternly [Fellowship, 2.4‘A Journey in the Dark’]. The dwarfs, we are told, never speak of it. Trauma personified in flame and punitive whips and a warrior's sword: war as such.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Fantasy Mythography of WW1: the Case of Robert Graves

[This image is of a window in St Tannwg and St Eithrias Church (Royal Chapel of the Prince Owain Glyndŵr) in Pennal, Gwynedd, North Wales. It is one of the very few representations of a Green Man figure in church stained glass anywhere in Britain.]

It's a curious coincidence that three notable writers happened, in the summer of 1916, to be on the same bit of the Western Front at the same time. Robert Graves was wounded in the fighting at Mametz Wood in July 1916. David Jones, a private in the same battalion in which Graves was an officer, also fought in this engagement (Mametz Wood is an important location in Jones's masterpiece In Parenthesis). J R R Tolkien, though in a different battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, was on the same line at the same time, only a little way north of Graves and Jones. More remarkably, each of these people went on to adapt their war experience into new mythologies: in Tolkien's case, most famously, as ‘Middle Earth’ and the War of the Ring, in Jones's case as the strange and beautiful fusion of Arthurian legend and modernity than informs In Parenthesis, and in the case of Graves as The White Goddess, his prose ‘historical grammar of poetic myth’, and a great many attendant poems.

In each of these cases the mythography involved a radical reconfiguring of the actual experience—transforming modern reality into an alternate realm of magic cod-medievalism in the case of Tolkien, adding a superposition of English/Welsh myths to modern life for Jones, and for Graves swapping prosaic masculine reality for poetic female myth. It's an interesting question as to why only one of these invented legends, and why that particular one, went on to colonise the entire cultural world. I'm not sure I have the answer as to why. A couple of years ago I posted a short thing about the differences between the globally popular mythography of Tolkien and the little-regarded mythography of Graves, and what the two of them mean to me, personally. Your mythage may vary, of course.

Graves wrote a lot of war poetry but suppressed almost all of it from his later collections of poetry. Goodbye To All That (written in a hurry in 1929 to make money, something Graves needed urgently in part to pay for Laura Riding's medical bills after her suicide attempt) remains a very readable, often blackly droll memoir of his time at the front. Re-reading it recently I was struck by how deftly it insinuates the many continuities between public school life (the all male environment of Charterhouse which Graves hated) and military life in wartime (the all male environment of the Western Front, which Graves hated), and the various ‘homosocial’ (to use Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's famous term) logics of both modes of living. The physical dangers of the Western front (maiming and death) were, obviously, a step-up from the physical dangers of public school (fights and corporal punishment) but otherwise the social logic, emotional tenor and oppressive stresses of the two worlds are portrayed by Graves as being more-or-less the same.

Goodbye To All That is a masculine book, both in terms of its detailed account of day-to-day living with lots of other men and in its rather more veiled account of the emotional intensities of male-male desire. Graves is, up to a point, frank about about his time at school and the intense love he felt for a beautiful younger boy ‘Dick’ (actually: George Harcourt Vanden-Bampde-Johnstone, later 3rd Baron Derwent), a love he insists was ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’, and how betrayed he felt when Dick was later arrested for propositioning a Canadian corporal for sex in 1915: all that paradoxical complexity of male same-sex desire. The whole book is written in what, wary of gender essentialism, I am nonetheless going to peg as a male style: detailed, no-nonsense, matter-of-factual, interested in the intricate machinery of things, but also drily funny and gallows-humorous:
One day I walked out of the mess to begin the afternoon’s work on the drill ground. I had to pass by the place where bombing instruction was given. A group of men was standing around the table where the various types of bombs were set out for demonstration. There was a sudden crash. A sergeant of the Royal Irish Rifles had been giving a little unofficial instruction before the proper instructor arrived. He picked up a No. 1 Percussion-Grenade and said: ‘Now lads, you’ve got to be careful here! Remember that if you touch anything while you’re swinging this chap, it’ll go off.’ To illustrate the point, he rapped the grenade against the table edge. It killed him and the man next to him and wounded twelve others more or less severely. [Goodbye to All That, ch 11]
There's lots in the book like this, and though it's certainly entertaining I suppose it doesn't really reflect terribly well on ‘masculinity’ to gender it that way. It is funny, but this is manifestly a strategy for avoiding emotional intensity, a deliberate deflation. The point is that this kind of sniggering at sex and death, the superannuated schoolkid of the type that the English upper-class public school system was so prolific, only takes us so far.

What else? Well, the stuff that isn't anecdotal and humorous is drily factual:
The troop-train consisted of forty-seven coaches and took twenty-five hours to arrive at Béthune, the rail-head. We went via St. Omer. It was about nine o’clock in the evening and we were hungry, cold and dirty. We had expected a short journey and so allowed our baggage to be put in a locked van. We played nap to keep our minds off the discomfort and I lost sixty francs, which was over two pounds at the existing rate of exchange. On the platform at Béthune a little man in filthy khaki, wearing the Welsh cap-badge, came up with a friendly touch of the cap most unlike a salute. He was to be our guide to the battalion, which was in the Cambrin trenches about ten kilometres away. He asked us to collect the draft of forty men we had with us and follow him. We marched through the unlit suburbs of the town. We were all intensely excited at the noise and flashes of the guns in the distance. [Goodbye to All That, ch 12]
‘We were all intensely excited at the noise and flashes of the guns’ is entirely told, and in no respect shown. The tone here is the blandly dialled-down underexcitement appropriate to Graves's class and generation. Most of Goodbye to All That is like this.

The really interesting thing, so far as I'm concerned, is that by 1929 Graves had already gone most of the way along the path that reconfigured his whole aesthetic: from whimsical offhandedness, juvenile black humour and a protective shield made out of blocks of unremarkable prose, and to a mythic ingenuousness, to poetry, and to a sometimes frankly embarrassing open-heartedness: his new mythos and ethos. The remarkable thing about The White Goddess is how assertively feminine it is: an (invented) myth of matriarchal prehistoric Europe being conquered by a patriarchal culture, but keeping the religious adoration of the triple goddess (maiden/mother/crone) alive in subterranean ways, for instance through poetry. It completely inverts both the medium and (male) subject of Goodbye. And although part of David Jones's greatness as a poet was his willingness experimentally to meld prose and poetry (and although Tolkien embroidered the edges of his prose Fantasy epics with long stretches of weakbeer verse) Graves was the only one of the three fully to commit to poetry as poetry, not just formally but in terms of an entire Being-in-the-World. In the 1949 Preface to The White Goddess he described poetry as his ‘ruling passion’: ‘I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric’. Mark Ford glosses:
His eccentricity took many forms, as many as the mercurial goddess herself, yet Graves seems never to have doubted the central narrative to which his life and work were dedicated:
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling
he declares in one of his best-known poems, ‘To Juan at the Winter Solstice’. Although Graves only began formulating his Muse theories in the mid-Forties, the ‘one story’ of his vocation dominates his entire career. Graves’s ‘poetic principles’ involve a wholesale rejection of 20th-century civilisation and complete submission to the capricious demands of the Goddess: ‘a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into snow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag. Her names and titles are innumerable.’ All true poems are invocations of this volatile ‘Mother of All-Living’, and their effect is immediate—‘the hair stands on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine.’
It's a narrow vision of what poetry is, but a compelling one for all that, I think. And there's no doubt in my mind that, so far as his persitently unliteral mind could ever be described in these term, Graves literally believed in this Goddess. He was a deeply superstitious man, who saw meaning and pattern in what others would ascribe to chance, and who genuinely thought that a particular kind of poetic intensity was the gift of a muse-deity who sometimes, if rarely, granted acolyte-poets the idiom of reality truly apprehended. That reality was often terrifying (the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine) and thrilling; erotically mysterious and overwhelming.

What this means, I think, is that the story is not that Graves ‘suppressed’ his war poetry, but rather that his war poetry evolved strangely but directly into his Muse poetry. Here he is in 1927:
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way. [‘The Cool Web’ (1927)]
This is a war poem not just in that it insinuates those alarming marching-soldiers into its infant's sensorium, but because it balances the traumatic immediacy of overwhelming youthful experience (fighting a war, we might say) against the cooler, more Robespierrean version of that experience that is captured by words. Its the White Goddess's lunar night sky, it is her rose, and therefore poetry that drives us mad; and it is rationally considered prosaic representation that takes that edge away, that settles what was once dreadful and spine-tingling into mediocrity. It's the difference, in other words, between a poetic and a prosaic account of juvenile trauma—between, perversely enough, ‘The Cool Web’ itself and the cool web of prose that constitutes Goodbye To All That.

Graves's poetry reopens, by feminising, the horrific chasm of his youth at the same time as Graves's prose sardonically and entertainingly distances himself from it. It's even in his book's name: Goodbye To All That as a title has, I suppose, a carefree, tossed-away sort of vibe; except that it's also evidently apotropaic, an attempt at emotional and spiritual prophylaxis, a magic charm of warding away. In Ancient Greece χαῖρε was what you said when you met up with or parted from somebody (so ‘goodbye’), but it was also a religious invocation, meaning rejoice (religious congregations aimed at συγχαίροντας, ‘rejoicing together’, just as goodbye actually means god-be-with-ye); and I wonder if the remaining emphasis isn't ‘... to all that’ so much as it is ‘... to all that’. Of course you know that the name of the god Pán, Πάν, means all, and that Pan was the hyper-masculine, randily phallic, goatish deity of herds of cows, the only god to have died in our time. It wouldn't stretch things too far to see Graves as bidding all that Pannishness goodbye as he headed off to Majorca with Laura Riding to serve the Muse.

Consider the poem he wrote as epigraph to the book The White Goddess, at the other end of his time with Riding (earlier in the 1940s she had left him to return to America with Schuyler B. Jackson, whom she married). Graves is still haunted by her, though:
All saints revile her, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo's golden mean—
In scorn of which we sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom we desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.

It was a virtue not to stay,
To go our headstrong and heroic way
Seeking her out at the volcano's head,
Among pack ice, or where the track had faded
Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers:
Whose broad high brow was white as any leper's,
Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips,
With hair curled honey-coloured to white hips.

The sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir
Will celebrate with green the Mother,
And every song-bird shout awhile for her;
But we are gifted, even in November
Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
We forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall. [‘The White Goddess’ (1949)]
Those bright bolts coming down like mortar fire, that headstrong heroism, that journey to the place where the paths run out and people hide in caves and dug-outs, even the details like November, rawest of seasons—Armistice month, of course—all speak to a poem that refracts and reinvents Graves's war service as an encounter with the cosmic death-goddess. An encounter that rends the web of language and returns us to an immediacy of terror of wonder.

I'm confident I could work through Graves's various later White Goddess poems and find in almost all of them a magically inverted version of his war service,. Indeed, I'd even be prepared to make the case that the more conventional war poetry (later mostly suppressed by Graves) as much as the prosaic language-webbing of that experience in Goodbye To All That, work proleptically mythic resonances into their reportage. Here is a poem Graves wrote in 1915:
To you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
“War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard. [‘The Dead Bosche’ (1915)]
Not a very good poem, really; that first stanza is mostly padding, a prolix restatement of what it itself concedes is a cliché, and though the word-portrait in the second stanza is certainly vivid and gross, it doesn't do much more than hold that grossness before the reader for him/her to ugh! at. Here, slightly better, is the prose account of the same encounter in Goodbye To All That.
For the next two days we were in bivouacs outside the wood. We were in fighting kit and the nights were wet and cold. I went into the wood to find German overcoats to use as blankets. Mametz Wood was full of dead of the Prussian Guards Reserve, big men, and of Royal Welch and South Wales Borderers of the new-army battalions, little men. There was not a single tree in the wood unbroken. I got my greatcoats and came away as quickly as I could, climbing over the wreckage of green branches. Going and coming, by the only possible route, I had to pass by the corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had a green face, spectacles, close shaven hair; black blood was dripping from the nose and beard. He had been there for some days and was bloated and stinking. There had been bayonet fighting in the wood.
This account, woven fourteen years later into the web of language, is no longer a simple war is hell datum. Something still horrible but more ambiguous is going on. The White Goddess, the book, is honest about its indebtedness to Frazer's Golden Bough, although it finesses Frazer's argument to claim that the sacred king, the lame god ritually killed (cut down with a sacred axe, or nailed to a magic tree, or castrated with a sickle and then slain)—killed, of course, in order that he might be reborn and the land reborn with him in spring—was always a specific sacrifice to the Goddess. Graves's whole book is fascinated by sacred groves and woodland, and goes into the magic qualities of trees, and sacred tree-alphabets, at wearying length: its working title was The Roebuck in the Thicket.

 In this poem, and in these sections of Goodbye To All That, the thicket is Mamet's Wood. Graves's dead German is green-faced because, on the level of documentary verisimiltude, skin as it rots can acquire a greenish tint; but more importantly for Graves on the level of myth he is the green man in the green sacred wood, just as Graves, as quasi-priest, ‘climbing over the wreckage of green branches’, and the point becomes not why has hellish war rendered this man dead? but rather to whom has he been sacrificed in this terrifying and thrilling ritual?

This level of meaning is not merely adventitious. It is, or at least by 1929 it had become for Graves, the core point. Here, quoted at some length, is Graves's own plain-prose account of what happened to him at Mametz Wood, a year after encountering his alarming Greenman-German. It's July 1916. Two Scots and one English regiment has been sent forward, at 5am, to pitch the German defenders out of the wood. Graves is waiting for the orders to bring up his battalion to support the attack. This order, in the event, was not given until 11am (the subsequent attack reduced the already battle-depleted battalion numbers from c.400 to fewer than 80 men: it took them the rest of the year to get back to strength). But Graves wasn't part of this assault. The Germans, having sighted the waiting attackers, began bombarding them with six- and eight-inch shells.
There was so much of it that we decided to move back fifty yards; it was when I was running that an eight-inch shell burst about three paces behind me. I was able to work that out afterwards by the line of my wounds. I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: ‘I’ve been hit.’ Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos [at which Graves had fought the previous year]. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietszche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:
Non, tu ne peus pas me tuer.
It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him ...

One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.

My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: ‘Old Gravy’s got it, all right.’ The dressing-station was overworked that day; I was laid in a corner on a stretcher and remained unconscious for more than twenty-four hours. [Goodbye To All That, ch 20]
His commanding officer wrote to his parents, offering his condolences, talking of his sorrow at the loss of so gallant a soldier. Graves is officially dead.
The next morning, the 21st, when they were clearing away the dead, I was found to be still breathing; so they put me on an ambulance for Heilly, the nearest field-hospital. The pain of being jolted down the Happy Valley, with a shell-hole at every three or four yards of the roads, woke me for awhile. I remember screaming. But once back on the better roads I became unconscious again.
At a hospital behind the lines he was able to write to his parents:
An orderly gave me a pencil and paper and I wrote home to say that I was wounded but all right. This was July 24th, my twenty-first birthday, and it was on this day, when I arrived at Rouen, that my death officially occurred. My parents got my letter two days after the letter from the colonel; mine was dated July 23rd, because I had lost count of days when I was unconscious; his was dated the 22nd. They could not decide whether my letter had been written just before I died and misdated, or whether I had died just after writing it. ‘Died of wounds’ was, however, so much more circumstantial than ‘killed’ that they gave me up.
He is 21: an auspicious age (three times the magic number 7; just as the strange little life-preserving charm he mutters out of a French translation of Nietzsche consists of seven magic monosyllables, the final one doubled to seal the spell)—the threshold between childhood and manhood in many cultures—and he is both officially dead and strangely alive. Despite the seriousness of his chest wound, it is his finger that bothers Graves the most: ‘I had little pain all this time, but much discomfort; the chief pain came from my finger, which had turned septic because nobody had taken the trouble to dress it, and was throbbing. And from the thigh, where the sticky medical plaster, used to hold down the dressing, pulled up the hair painfully when it was taken off each time the wound was dressed.’ Graves concludes this chapter with an account of a comrade, a soldier called Roberts (a name of kings and princes!) also from the Royal Welch, who happens to be in the next bed to him in the hospital:
Next to me was a Welsh boy, named O. M. Roberts, who had joined us only a few days before he was hit. He told me about High Wood; he had reached the edge of the wood when he was wounded in the groin. He had fallen into a shell-hole. Some time in the afternoon he had recovered consciousness and seen a German officer working round the edge of the wood, killing off the wounded with an automatic pistol. Some of our lightly-wounded were, apparently, not behaving as wounded men should; they were sniping. The German worked nearer. He saw Roberts move and came towards him, fired and hit him in the arm. Roberts was very weak and tugged at his Webley. He had great difficulty in getting it out of the holster. The German fired again and missed. Roberts rested the Webley against the lip of the shell-hole and tried to pull the trigger; he was not strong enough. The German was quite close now and was going to make certain of him this time. Roberts said that he just managed to pull the trigger with the fingers of both hands when the German was only about five yards away. The shot took the top of his head off. Roberts fainted.
This passage is written with a little more boys-own stylistic brio than the rest of the book, but it's a little puzzling as to why Graves rounds-off the chapter with it, unless it's just to add a little more battlefield colour. Could it be more? Roberts O. M. is wounded in the groin (for Graves, the druidic sickle that castrated the fisher-king, and the sickle that emasculated Ouranos that he could be reborn as his own son Kronos, was the crescent moon, and therefore sacred to the lunar triple-goddess) just as Robert(s) Grave is wounded in his left thigh ‘high up near the groin’ (only the fact that he was running at full pelt meant he ‘escaped emasculation’). Roberts O. M. is in a dead swoon, left for dead, without even enough vitality to pull the trigger of his pistol; and yet somehow he lives. Grave Robert(s) is more comprehensively pegged out: both hands symmetrically wounded (though at different battles) like stigmata, his brow penetrated by a small piece of death itself—a chip from a gravestone—and a lance of shrapnel right through the side of his torso. He dies, but he does not die. He is the green man, sacrifically pierced in the sacred wood in order to come back to life. His English name ‘Robert Graves’ with its intimations of death of burial (‘Old Gravy’s got it, all right!’) is shown as containing within it his German name ‘von Ranke’ (ranken means ‘to grow in tendrils; especially of plants like ivy’); to make, yin-yang, the Green Man, the fisher king, the death of the year in winter and its regrowth in spring. In all this I'm not suggesting that Graves didn't suffer these wounds; but I am suggesting that he weaves language into a web to recuperate the raw, ghastly, inarticulable experience into something auto-mythographic. School was all boys, and the army was all men, but war itself, he is saying, is the Goddess in one of her many guises, and not only was he sacrificed upon her altar in the thicket he is now, in retrospect, glad to have been her victim. In realism is found, magically hidden, true myth.

If nothing else, this account of the charm that wards off death is worth knowing: non tu ne peus pas me tuer is a lovely tangle of paired and cross-mixing sounds: non/ne, the tu ne half-rhyming with the terminal tuer, the alliteration of peus pas centring the alliterations of non ne and tu tuer to leave me, the object of the charm, standing proud. It has a compactness and musical riff-on-variation sonality that could not, I think, be equalled in English. Remember it and say it yourself when your life is threatened: it might save you. I mean, who knows?