‘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.


  1. I dug out my copy of Jameson's Antinomies of Realism, and remembered that in that book he argues that the 19th-century broadly traces “the transformation of the historical novel into the novel in general” [272]: “the historical novel as a genre cannot exist without this dimension of collectivity, which marks the drama of the incorporation of individual characters into a greater totality, and can alone certify the presence of History as such” [267].

  2. One more note, following-up (anticipating, that is to say) my last paragraph here, from Robert Eaglestone's Reading The Lord of the Rings (2006): "The world Tolkien created allowed the ideas [of history, community, language and so on] to be investigated in a specific, intense and important way, and it is this that, in no small part, makes the book so significant. It is precisely the “fantasy” setting that is able to side step both the contemporary and the unavoidable anachronism of the historical novel and is then able to contrast so clearly this evil inherent in modernity with other forms of social organisation. Moreover, the fantasy element means that the book can have no call on nostalgia: there is, in fact, no idealized past to which it refers."

  3. Another great post. I'm thoroughly enjoying these. I tend to feel attempts to inject psychological realism into fantasy through excessive grimness tend to be a bit self-defeating. They go right round the scale and end up as unrealistic as the myths they seek to escape. Certainly "life sucks" doesn't feel like an especially insightful or worthwhile commentary. It's notable how quickly the popularity of this show waned after its end, perhaps indicating there wasn't much that resonated with audiences beyond the soap opera machinations and twists.

    For my money grimdark works better as a satire, as in Abercrombie, where the exaggerated awfulness is the point.