‘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.

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.