‘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.
Thursday, 17 January 2019
Huh. What Is It Good For?
I've been pondering war and literature and I’m struck by something which I'd like to lay out here in thinking-aloud blogrambling stylee. The specific context for this thinking is ‘First World War Literature’, which I’m teaching this term, but before I get to the specifics of that iteration of ‘war literature’ I’m trying to get my parade-ground ducks in a row on the larger question. There are—or, perhaps I’m being too hasty: say there seem to be—some general things on which we can agree. Not all novels, after all, are about war. Quite a lot of literature is about other stuff. The Iliad and War and Peace and The Red Badge of Courage are about war, yes, but Clarissa and Middlemarch and Our Mutual Friend aren't. Henry V is a play about war but As You Like It isn’t. Still, that the Iliad remains one of the single greatest achievements of human literature cannot be separated out from the fact that it is a war story. Its magnificence is intimately bound-up with its apperception of war as tragically noble, or nobly tragic, war as the idiom of strength and grace, of grief and kleos.
So: to turn to Paul Fussell’s celebrated argument that the literature of WW1 effected the shift from the authentic, holistic, traditional modes of Edwardian writing, via the disillusionment occasioned by actual experience of industrialised warfare, to the fragmentary styles of Modernism and Postmodernism. Fussell argues that pre-1914 and in a few early cases (like Rupert Brooke) in 1914 and 1915 people reacted to war in ways that were authentic and holistic; they were sincerely patriotic, genuinely committed to the cause and so on. But, according to Fussell, the experience of the war itself was so dislocating that writers soon lost their ingenuousness and became ironic, either satirically so like Siegfried Sassoon, or more formally and experimentally so, like David Jones.
Fussell's thesis is that 1914-18 was the hinge from, broadly, a consensus that war was a matter of patriotism, manliness and bravery to a consensus that War is Hell. The narrator of Tennyson's Maud (1855) is saved from madness and guilt by resolving to join the army and go to war: a healthful, self-sacrificing, manly and noble action, or so the poem insists. We don't write about war like that any more. All war literature is anti-war literature nowadays, to one degree or another, because nowadays we take it as axiomatic that war is trauma, catastrophe, a horror-show, a plague (Saint-Exupéry spoke from first-hand experience when he said: ‘la guerre n'est pas une aventure. La guerre est une maladie. Comme le typhus’). In Apocalypse Now war is a nightmarish and phantasmagoric bad trip. In The Deer Hunter war is a neverending game of Russian roulette. In Full Metal Jacket war is a process of systematic and monstrous depersonalisation. In Saving Private Ryan war is that from which people must be rescued, and in the related, Spielberg-produced TV series The Pacific war is a brutal, prolonged test of individual endurance. When the Judge in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is asked why war persists he answers: ‘it endures because young men love it and old men love it in them’. But the Judge is, in effect, the Devil and him saying this isn’t at all the same thing as being invited to admire swift-footed Achilles or Henry leading the charge through the breach in Harfleur’s walls. How we think about war has changed.
Of course we still go to war. Funny, that.
But wait a moment: I'm misrepresenting matters by concentrating on mimetic war texts. What about Fantasy? Lord of the Rings is a war story. It is, in point of fact, a hugely popular war story—the novel of the century according to some critics—that refuses to fracture itself formally or stylistically, refuses to ironize war à la Fussell. Tolkien, like Saint-Exupéry (and like Fussell) had first-hand experience of how horrific war could be, and yet his war story embodies a martial ethic and aesthetic closer to Henry V or Homer than to Hemingway or James Jones.
The interesting thing here is not identifying Lord of the Rings as a war novel (of course it is a war novel). The interesting thing is noting that it is a Fantasy novel and then asking: are such novels ever not war novels? I’m really struggling to think of counterexamples. All those post-Tolkien commercial Fantasy doorstops—they’re all war novels, all of them, bulletins from the great war between Good and Evil. They’re written in imitation of Tolkien, by the Stephen Donaldsons and Tad Williamses of this world, or else written in reaction against him—with a bittersweet and deliberate decadence of affect in the case of Moorcock’s many Fantasy war stories, or with a self-conscious ‘grimdark’ Machiavellian cynicism in the case of George R R Martin’s endless war novel A Song of Fire and Ice. To write Epic Fantasy is to write war literature. But why should that be? Where is the Epic Fantasy Middlemarch or the Epic Fantasy Twelfth Night? There's an argument that Lord of the Rings is also pastoral; so why does modern-day Fantasy never inhabit that mode? Why is it always war?
To approach an answer we need to sketch a definition of war, and any such definition is going to have to situate itself on the spectrum with Nietzsche (let's say) at one end and Gandhi at the other. In the middle we might find Clausewitz, and his argument that war is something in which human beings sometimes engage. It has rules, it invites good or bad strategizing, but it only happens when other modes of international relations have exhausted themselves. ‘Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln’, he famously claimed: ‘war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.’ Nations use diplomats to negotiate, but these folk are only taken seriously by other nations because both parties known there are soldiers waiting in the background; that when diplomacy reaches an impasse the military will march in to compel what discussion could not agree. It’s cynical, or pragmatic, depending on your view, but it’s also proportionate. Clausewitz thought war was the proper business of a small group of professionals, something that happened from time to time, but no more than that.
Other thinkers have not been proportionate after this manner. Gandhi thought war without exception a hideous aberration that could and should be fought, always, non-violently, so that it might be eventually abolished. Simone Weil thought Iliad a masterpiece but also a glimpse into Hell, a hideous vision of the world under the logic not of love or justice but of Force. Implicit in this vision is the sense—utopian, perhaps New Testamentarian—of a world in which the default is love, forgiveness, mercy and in which war has no place. Nietzsche, on the other hand, thought everything was war. For him war was both the manifest and latent nature of existence: nature red in tooth and claw, humans bashing their will-to-power antlers against other humans in an unending battle for supremacy, the ideal human form the blonde-beast Übermensch the perfection of the soldierly human form (what was it ABBA sang? Über Trooper beams are gonna find me—). ‘Man is for war,’ Nietzsche said, ‘and woman is for the recreation of the warrior.’ Charming! Conan the Barbarian (another war movie) opens with a Nietzschean quotation: that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Nietzsche despised Christianity for its turn-the-other-cheek ethic as a ‘slave morality’, but Christianity has accommodated itself very well to war over the years. There’s no shortage of war in the Old Testament, after all. Paradise Lost contains Raphael’s account of the War in Heaven, but that’s because the whole poem sees life itself as a war, the cosmos entire shaped by war, between Good and Evil, between God and Satan. Everything we do is shaped by this war; it is what lies behind the veil of existence and is immanent in every aspect of our lives. Nor can we evade it: we must choose a side and do our duty.
And this, of course, 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 he adopted a Nietzschean, post-Darwinian homus homini lupus view of things. Which is to say perhaps he did believe that was the logic of the world; but he also believed that circumstance was 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.
And the genre as a whole has followed him in this: either, with religiously informed writers from C S Lewis through to Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson because they share his cosmology; or because, despite opposing it, writers still choose to combine a Machiavellian or Nietzschean realpolitik worldview with the formal constraints of Tolkien's genre. The result is the same, either way. Fantasy novels are all war novels.
We can go further. Even such modern Fantasy books as stress the horror of war, and define themselves in opposition to Tolkien's idealism, do so via a pre-1914 anteFussellian de-ironized mode of representation. If Martin's Westeros (say) is defined by realpolitik it is at least genuinely and authentically defined by realpoilitik, at least in the way Martin tells it. Of course it's violent and distressing. So's the Iliad. The deal here is not about pretending that war isn't violent; it's about finding a way of writing about war that isn't ironized and fragmented. How often do Heroic Fantasies deploy any of Modernism's fractured textual strategies in their storytelling? Why does nobody write a story about a Fantasy war in the style of Dos Passos? Inconceivable! Heroic Fantasy takes the disintegration of war on the same literal level as did Homer, on the level of bodies, and not on the formal stylistic or conceptual level like so many of the writers who survived (or didn't) World War One.
Perhaps I'm getting all this the wrong way round. Maybe the case is not that contemporary Heroic Fantasy happens to be about war, but that a particular mode of representing war entails Fantasy. That people who want to write about war in the old style turn to Fantasy to allow themselves to do it: pre-industrial worlds are, after all, pre-industrialised-war worlds: they are worlds set avant la première guerre mondiale. Maybe the point is less pseudo-historical curiosity and more a desire to rewind the possibilities of war representation, to de-ironize and re-authentize the way novels tell stories about combat. And perhaps that's connected with the question, which I've chewed on in this blog a couple of times previously (here for example), of the way the fundamentally Christian frame of Tolkien's Fantasy and Lewis's Fantasy still inform a mode in which most of the writers are not Christian. What was that you were saying, Cormac? It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way… It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is god.
[Coda. 21st Jan 2019]: I shared a link to this blogpost over on facebook and that link occasioned a good deal of fb kick-back against my ideas, some of which is echoed in the comments below. I daresay I haven’t expressed myself very well, here (although it’s also possible that my ideas are crap). At any rate, I’m adding a brief explicatory coda, despite the fact that doing so violates the ‘never apologise, never explain’ ethos of core Englishness. So.
Let’s put our collective finger on two candidates for ‘novel of the [20th] century’: Ulysses and Lord of the Rings. They’re often opposed, the stuffy ‘high culture’ text and the popular culture fan-favourite. I understand this, although it’s also 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.
How might we think about the difference in reputation? Academics love Joyce but actual people love Tolkien; Ulysses is experimental and difficult, fractured and tricky to apprehend; Lord of the Rings 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.
So what I’m trying to do in this post is to come at this old chestnut from a different angle. 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, ironized and so on) a response to the trauma of the war, but 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 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. So, to go back to what I argue in the post, LotR is a war novel in the sense that it is about a specific war (between orcs and men/elves, let’s say) but also in the sense that it is written out of a particular worldview that sees the cosmos itself as defined by war (between God and the Devil; between Good and Evil). Fantasy written in the Tolkienian and post-Tolkienian mode is very often war literature in the first of these senses and almost always in the second. That such fantasy also almost always acts, formally and stylistically, as if Modernism had never happened is not coincidental. Or that, at least, is what I’m arguing.
I daresay the way in which I notated all this (to myself and in over-telegraphed manner, which is I don’t doubt lazy of me) was liable to provoke the impulse to name counter-examples in the belief that such titles demolishes my argument. Fair enough. A Wizard of Earthsea (say) isn’t a war novel in the first sense, but the Earthsea series imagines a world divided between opposing forces, our heroes versus the pale skinned Atuans, humans versus dragons, ultimately the living versus the dead (the last Earthsea novel The Other Wind, not wholly unlike A Song of Fire and Ice, is about a war between the living and the dead). Mervyn Peake thought the universe at war with itself under the two banners of Order and Chaos. Moorcock thought something similar. And so on. Two grace notes. One is Gene Wolfe’s Torturer books, which I readily concede are more (sometimes rather self-consciously more) Modernist in styling—and which are, of course, very significant works of contemporary Fantasy. I’ll need to think more about them, although for now I’ll note that Wolfe, like Cormac McCarthy, sees the cosmos as a battlefield—sees, that is, combat as existentially constitutive of being. Bellum omnium contra omnes and all that. Two is Pratchett. Now, some Discworld novels are war novels (Jingo, Monstrous Regiment) but many aren’t, and since the series as a whole is one of the most widely read and loved iterations of Fantasy of the last 50 years it could be seen as falsfifying the argument I'm trying to make. I wonder (tentatively) if we could put it this way: Discworld starts out as a satire on Fantasy tropes, much as Sassoon (say) writes Rupert Brooke-style well-made-poems but swaps out their point for his bitter and barbed satirical attacks. But as the series goes on the specific satire falls away, Pratchett falls in love with his creation and it grows into something much more holistic and coherent, warts and all.
Too long, didn’t read: it's not merely adventitious that the Homeric poem upon which Joyce built Ulysses was the homecoming Odyssey, rather than the wargoing Iliad.