‘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.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Talking Back To Fiction: or, Gee, I Really Hope Somebody Got Fired For That Blunder


In a 2004 essay on philosophical fiction the late, lamented Jerry Fodor argues that, though ‘the philosophical novel’ is a well-established mode, viz. ‘Comp. Lit. 102: readings in Dostoevsky, Kafka, Mann, Gide, Sartre’ (‘little or no philosophical sophistication required’), in fact philosophy and fiction aren’t particularly miscible. Fodor sees metaphysicians and novelists as doing quite different things: ‘practically by definition, theories traffic in abstractions; they purport to see where the eye does not. Novels, by contrast, tend to be concerned with the surfaces of things.’ Then he says this:
Philosophical theories are worse candidates than most for novelistic treatment. The whole function of a philosophy is to be argued with, pro or con, and it is churlish to argue with a novel: ‘Call me Ishmael.’ I won’t! ‘About two in the morning he returned to his study.’ In fact, it was nearer 3.15. You can’t talk back to a novel: ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ and ‘Why should I believe that?’ are out of place. But these are the queries that philosophers want to test their theories on; not just because philosophers are churlish by profession, but also because theories to which such questions aren’t posed can get away with murder.
Reading this I was, to use the old nautical cliché, taken aback. If Fodor had spent as much time in the halls of Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom as I have, I fancy he wouldn’t have been so blithely confident that readers of novels don’t answer back. Nor is it just SF/F, of course. As with many things, The Simpsons has a meme for this. In ‘The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show’ (s8 ep14, first shown 1997) the ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ producers decide to liven the show by adding a new character—voiced by Homer—Poochie, a dog with ‘attitude’ who surfs, raps, and plays electric guitar. Homer accompanies the stars of the show at a fan convention, when they field questions like this:
“In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy's skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of a... [nerdy chuckle] a magic xylophone or something? Gee, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.”
It’s funny because it’s true. It’s been recognised as true (and therefore funny) at least since William Shatner’s Saturday Night Live ‘Get a Life!’ sketch in 1986. Fans talk back to their novels (and films, and games, and comics) all the time.

I suppose it’s the case that a hefty proportion of fans talking back concerns franchises rather than single texts, because one thing that grinds fandom’s gears is: inconsistencies in worldbuilding and character-development. This can be specifics, where things happen that don’t fit the material specificities of earlier instalments, or where the timeline goes screwy, or it can be more about a perception of tone, or vibe: as when fandom divides into two shouty cohorts, one declaring vehemently that Star Wars Corporate Product Movie/Game/Novel x+1 doesn’t ‘feel’ like a proper Star Wars text and the other insisting just as vehemently that it does. “J J Abrams’ can’t capture the true Star Wars-ness of Star Wars” is one version of this argument, which is interesting to me in that if the Star Wars sequel trilogy shows one thing very clearly it is Abrams sweating with the exertion of pastiche-ing Star Wars as energetically and completely as possible, cramming in as many easter eggs as the basket can hold. That, though, doesn’t capture echt-Star Warsosity for many.

But bald issues of consistency and canonicity aren’t the only things that provoke fans to answer their texts back. Another is: problems with diversity, the use of derogatory stereotypes and so on. A third, more meta- point of fannish engagement has to do with genre itself. Many’s the SF fan who will talk loudly back at even a standalone SF novel because it is not ‘proper’ SF, or because it doesn’t get the physics right, or is too long, or too short, or too infodumpy or whatever.

I was going to add something here to the effect that literary criticism is a mode of talking back at texts too, but actually I’m not so sure. In one sense, of course, it’s absolutely literary criticism’s job to look at a sentence like ‘Call me Ishmael’ and interrogate it. But the specific challenge Fodor presents—the ‘no! in thunder’ he implies—is rarely part of the idiom of literary criticism, actually. There have been one or two notable flame wars, but mostly we academic critics are politely, even mouse-ishly, happy to busy ourselves contributing to an ongoing accretive discourse. This may be one of the things that differentiates critics from fans, actually.

It’s also, of course, about the willing suspension of disbelief. One of my boy Coleridge’s most influential ideas, this, although I’m not sure I see that ‘will’ is actually the mot juste. We do indeed suspend our disbelief when we read, see a play or watch a movie, but this is rarely a matter of active will. It is, on the contrary, a habitual decoupling of aspects of our natural scepticism that we learn, or are acculturated into, when we’re young and that become second-nature by the time we’re adults. The withdrawal from scepticism could be called ‘gullibility’, and in a sense I suppose we are gullible for stories: fools for them, holy fools even. But there are degrees, or perhaps whole separate magisteria, within the realm of ‘gullibility’ and it’s possible to moderate our ingenuousness without shouting at the text ‘Emma Woodhouse handsome clever and rich …’ OH YEAH? FOR ALL I KNOW SHE WAS POOR AND UGLY—HELL, SHE NEVER EVEN EXISTED AT ALL, WAKE UP SHEEPLE. An argument with somebody can be a slanging match, sure; or it can be a civilised debate. The thing is, I’m not sure either paradigm describes what critics—and most readers—do with texts. Something far less specifically engaged, mostly. Something rather more passive-aggressive.

The point is that books can’t answer back, or not very well. If we’re arguing with a version of a book we have in our head then I suppose it might answer back, to some extent, but only in the echo-chamber sense that we're using the text to talk to ourselves, actually. If we’re arguing with an author—with J K Rowling for instance, something many hostile and abusive people do on social media daily—then we’ve missed the point.

Our talking-back at books, as fans and critics, is Socratic, but in a very particular sense of Socratic. I'm talking about the way Socrates knows it all, and his interlocuters know nothing, so that Plato has to gussy-up a series of what are, we can be honest, monologues with repeated interjections from the other guys of ‘how true that is!’ and ‘I see!’ and the like. T H Irwin puts it well: ‘Socrates conducts strenuous, maddening and one-sided discussions of moral questions with interlocutors who lack his argumentative skill. … Socrates needs to assume that his discussions with interlocutors involve a genuine and honest exercise of the interlocutors’ capacity for moral judgment, and that their capacity for moral judgment is both reliable and corrigible. … It is far more difficult to decide whether the assumptions are plausible.’ Assume it’s a free-and-fair exchange of views and you’ll probably conclude: they thrashed these complex ideas out and all agreed that Socrates is right! But we can be honest. A debate between Socrates and Some-schmuckates was never going to be free and fair.

I suppose another way of seeing these dialogues is picturing Socrates as Tom Hanks in ragged shorts with a huge beard and his interlocuters as a basketball with a face painted on it in blood. Of course they’re going to agree with Socrates. They exist in order to affirm that Socrates is right. That’s baked into the form itself. Can you imagine a dialogue that went…
SOCRATES: Do you not agree that ideas must be derived from a previous state of existence because they are more perfect than the sensible forms given them by experience? If the soul existed in a previous state then it will exist in a future state, for a law of alternation pervades all things. And, if the ideas exist, then the soul exists; if not, not.

CEBES: But I can hold in my mind the idea of an inexistent soul. Therefore, if my idea exists, the soul cannot.

SOCRATES: [long pause] You know what? You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. Bollocks. Ah well, maybe I’ll get it right next time. Let’s grab some moussaka.
Of course not. That’s not the idiom of the Platonic dialogues. And my point is: this Socratic exchange is, actually, how we argue with our books. The books to which we subject our reaction are Cebeses and Menos and Critos, whose role is to nod and say ‘yes indeed’ and ‘truly’ and ‘of course’ and we monologue at them with our own obsessions and fascinations and needs and failings. As they talk about philosophy as footnotes to Plato, so the history of fan and critical engagements with literature is all footnotes to Plato.

One way of reading Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ is to see it this way, as a manifestation of the urge to keep our texts as Wilson-the-Basketballs and not have to complicate stuff by learning, let us say, that J K Rowling’s views on the reality of biological sex differs from ours, and whatnot. When this latter happens (which is to say, when a book we have interrogated Socratically to the point where its ‘Quite right, Socrates!’; ‘Correct!’; ‘Indeed, yes!’ and so on have convinced us that it cleaves to our very soul—reveals itself, in its author's eyes at any rate, to be doing something that doesn't, actually) the sting is sharp, and we can lash out.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

From Hallucination to Delirium



That's Gordon Teskey's theory, at any rate [the paragraph above is from Teskey's Delirious Milton: The Fate of the Poet in Modernity (Harvard University Press 2006), 29]. I wonder if I agree. Which is, as I'm sure you know, how an Englishman says ‘I really don't agree.’

Friday, 3 July 2020

Christiad Sidebar: Was Jesus Called Jesus?


The Christiad is a epic-poem retelling of Christ's life in Latin hexameters (by Marco Girolamo Vida, published in 1535) and I've been translating it in little daily gobbets over the last few months. Why have I been doing that? Hmm: why have I been doing that?

The thing is, I’ve gone down a series of rabbit holes whilst working on this project, which wasn’t really what I set out to do. What I set out to do was just to give myself a little task to start and help structure my days during Lockdown. My wife has taken up embroidery for the same reason. Some people are doing jigsaws, or baking bread, or learning the trombone. This is my equivalent. And I suppose that’s still the function it serves: one or two dozen lines of Latin rendered into English daily, with a little bloggish commentary appended. But the longer I’ve gone on, the more the latter element has bloated. I use the topic of the day’s portion as an excuse to poke around online, to go through JSTOR and other scholarly resources, and dig out anything that strikes me as interesting. A lot of the scholarship I find is many decades old, but that doesn’t bother me: I’m not trying to retrain as an actual expert in Renaissance Italy or 1st-century AD Judea, after all.

Here’s one thing I didn’t realise before I started this, for instance. Jesus may not have been called Jesus. I don’t mean in the sense that Jesus is a Greek name (Ἰησοῦς, Iēsous) because the Gospels were written in Greek, a language Jesus himself probably didn’t speak at all and certainly didn’t converse in day-to-day. That’s true of course: ‘Jesus’ is the Hellenized version of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Y'shua (ישוע‎), etymologically related to another biblical name, Joshua. I knew that already. What I didn’t realise is that this particular historical Yeshua/Joshua may not have been called Yeshua/Joshua.

So: even my fairly scanty reading into the huge amount of work that has been done on the historical Jesus tells me three things:

1. It’s overwhelmingly likely Jesus was a historical figure, like Mohammed or Ataturk, rather than a purely mythological invention like Moses or King Arthur. There’s a lot of data about him and his life, and although most of that is the NT texts and apocrypha (most written later, some much later, all written to advance a particular set of theological rather than historical agenda, and all rewritten and smoothed over many centuries) some of it is other writers with less of an axe to grind, and some of it is papyrological and archaeological evidence. He was a real person, it seems.

2. Scholars also agree on the historicity of John the Baptist, who, it seems likely, led his own purity-baptismal eschatological sect and had his own followers. Despite later Christian revision it seems clear that Jesus started out not as a self-proclaiming messiah figure from the get-go, but as a follower or disciple of John. Indeed, it seems likely John was, for much of Jesus’s life, the more famous, or notorious, figure: a Jewish, perhaps Samaritan-Jewish, end-times preacher who insisted upon a strict regime of personal purity for his followers to prepare them for the imminent apocalypse. Baptism was an important part of his cult, although it seems Jesus developed doctrinal differences from his master on this matter.
[This was] the difference between preaching baptism as the first step, and preaching it (as Jackson and Lake, here, believe the historical John did) as the last step, the culmination of a series of purifying modes of living undertaken by a small sect of ascetic followers: ‘the real difference between Josephus and the Gospels as a whole is that Josephus represents [John] as preaching to those who had especially devoted their lives to virtue, and offering baptism as the crowning point of righteousness, whereas the Gospels, including Luke, represent the baptism of John as one of repentance for the remission of sins.’ John's way (if this is right) retains the common-sense connection between actual washing and spiritual washing, where Christ's call to baptism breaks it, or sets it in some strange new, almost ironical relation.
Perhaps these differences caused Jesus to break away from John’s sect and set up his own; or perhaps Herod’s execution of John left the original group leaderless and Jesus took over and steered it in a new direction. Either way, when later Christians came to relate this relationship they could neither write John out of history (he was much too famous in the 1st-C AD near east) nor could they concede that he had precedence over their preferred messiah, Jesus. This leads to the story in which Jesus (though later Christians insisted he had been born without sin) comes to John to be baptised and have his sin washed away, and also to the characterisation of John not as a prophetic leader in his own right but only a kind of carnival barker, announcing the coming of somebody bigger than himself. Neither of these last two ideas really make logical sense, but there we are.
Jesus began as a follower of John the Baptist. Jesus was certainly baptized by John, and he seems not to have begun his own ministry until after the arrest of the Baptist. That all suggests that he was in the beginning a disciple of the Baptist. All our evidence about John the Baptist indicates that he was a prophet attempting to prepare the Jewish people for some urgent, imminent apocalyptic event, probably the arrival of the “reign of God.” So Jesus began as an adherent of an apocalyptic movement. … Jesus also appointed twelve male disciples, doubtless as an eschatological symbol for the messianic reconstitution of the twelve tribes of Israel. He probably expected that these twelve men would be heads of the miraculously reconstituted twelve tribes in the eschatological world. [Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature (Yale University Press 2012), 191]
It's worth quoting Martin’s book a little more:
Beyond that general picture, we can say a few more things about the historical Jesus, most of which I cannot defend here because doing so would merit a book of its own. Jesus was a lower-class Jewish peasant from Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. There is no reason to believe the later legends that he was born in Bethlehem. He grew up probably in a family of hand laborers. He had brothers and probably sisters. His mother was named Mary, and his father, Joseph. Since we hear nothing of Joseph’s activities from Jesus’ adulthood, he likely was dead by the time Jesus began his preaching. His mother, though, and at least his brother James later were figures in the movement after Jesus’ death, with James ending up as the main leader of the Jewish church in Jerusalem. Jesus certainly spoke Aramaic as his first language. If he spoke Greek at all, it was only enough to get by in bilingual situations. He probably could not write, and if he could read, it was only minimally.

Jesus did gather followers around him, some of whom were certainly women in central positions. Mary Magdalene was doubtless a close follower, later respected by the community after Jesus’ death. ... I also think Jesus taught against the traditional household and formed, in its place, a band of men and women separated from their traditional households and families and bound to one another as a new, eschatological household of God. There are few aspects of Jesus’ ministry more certain to be historical than that he called people away from their families for the sake of the coming kingdom of God. The historical Jesus, therefore, was certainly not a “family man” in any way advocated by modern Christianity or ancient household ethics.

In spite of the possibility that Jesus was something of an ascetic with regard to marriage and family, he was not one with regard to eating and drinking. In fact, one of the things that may have differentiated the ministry of Jesus from that of John the Baptist, his early teacher, and other Jewish ascetics was that he and his followers did not follow an ascetic agenda with regard to food and drink. I think it is historical that he was rumored to be a man who enjoyed feasting and drinking when the rare opportunity arose for someone so poor, and that he kept the company of tax collectors, prostitutes, and other disreputable persons. [Martin 193-4]
3. What about the Joshua-Jesus name? Well: Jesus and his followers were not the only apocalyptic religious movement knocking-around 1st-C Roman Judea. From Josephus we know of at least two others: John the Baptist (whose own movement has been partially erased and glommed onto Jesus’s by later Christian writing) and another, perhaps led by a man called Dositheos (or perhaps a different name), whose movement was put down by Pontius Pilate.
Helen Bond notes that for the first six years of Pilate's tenure the Syrian legate Lamia was in Rome, which meant that Pilate couldn't simply send for troop reinforcements from the north if he had trouble. ‘Pilate would have had great difficulty in contacting [Lamia] if he needed the support of his legions, a situation that would mean that any potential uprising had to be put down quickly before it could escalate.’ [Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 15]. We can assume that his default, leadership-wise, was to act swiftly and with some violence in the face of any popular disquiet.

A case in point: around the same time as the events recorded in the NT Pilate had dealt with a different self-proclaimed Messiah, a Samaritan (conceivably a man called Dositheos) who tried to start a movement and possibly a rebellion. Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews [18.4.1-2], records that this messianic sect stormed Mount Gerizim, hoping to find artefacts they believed had been buried there by Moses. As the group was armed, Pilate decided their action was insurrectionary. He brought Roman troops to the scene, dispersing the gathering and killing many, including the ringleader. Executing messiahs was part of his job spec, we might say.

After this event other Samaritans, claiming the group killed had not been armed, complained to Lucius Vitellius the Elder, the governor of Syria. He (either because the complaint had genuine merit, and it was a way of calming the people he had to rule over, or else for reasons of Roman political jockeying-for-power) managed to get Pilate recalled to Rome to be judged by Tiberius. Tiberius however, died before his arrival (this dates the end of Pilate's governorship to AD 36/37). We don't know what happened to Pilate after that.
‘Dositheos’ means ‘given by God’, more a title (like ‘Christ’, the anointed one) than a given name. That he was a Samaritan is interesting. I'll explain what I mean.

There are various non-Gospel sources for this period, including near-contemporary Jewish non-Christians like Josephus, and the sacred writings of other groups. The Jews were not then (any more than they are now) a single, homogenous group, and although they shared many rituals, practices and beliefs there were important differences. In the south of what is today Israel were Judean Jews; in the midlands (the present day West Bank) were Samaritan Jews; in the north were Galilean Jews. And that’s just three groups in the immediate vicinity. Two things they all had in common were: a belief in one God rather than many, and a belief that God would send a messiah to his chosen people. There was, however, little consensus on what this messiah would be like.

One thing we can be certain of is that no 1st-C Jew believed the messiah would be in any way like the figure who later emerged out of the Nicean council of AD 325: that is to say, a figure not only from God but of God and the same as God, one in three and three in one, possessed of all the powers of God—coeternal with the Father and begotten from His same substance. Important though that figure has become to Christianity, it’s a long way from what 1st-C Jews were expecting. Different Jewish groups had different ideas as to what the messiah would be like. Some thought he would be, in effect, an exceptionally just and beneficent ruler, others that he would be a spiritual not a temporal leader, or that his concern would be to re-establish the true Temple; others that he would be a healer and miracle worker; others again that he would usher in the end-times. These different conceptions of the coming messiah took different Old Testament figures as their prototypes.

The Samaritan angle is interesting here. There was hostility between Samaritan Jews and Judean and Galilean Jews, but they were all Jews. Some scholars think that the NT includes a number of (in context, surprisingly positive) references to Samaritans as a deliberate attempt by Jesus's Galilean and Judean followers to proselytise Christ’s status as messiah to Samaria. Moreover, many Samaritan religious texts have come down to us, and they provide an interesting perspective on the Christian scriptures.

Although they spoke more-or-less that same Aramaic as Judean and Galilean Jews, the Samaritans looked forward not to the messiah but to a figure they called the taheb:
The term most frequently encountered in Samaritan texts for the eschatological agent is the Taheb, a title which allows several translation-interpretations: the ‘restorer,’ the ‘returning one’, or the ‘repentant.’ [James D. Purvis, ‘The Fourth Gospel and the Samaritans’, Novum Testamentum 17:3 (1975), 182]
Who was going to return, or restore? It would, it seems, be a renewed Moses, or perhaps a renewed Joshua, or conceivably a renewed Elisha or Elijah, depending on which sect you belonged to—and although Judean and Galilean Jews had a different word for messiah, many of them had similar expectations of him.

‘Marqah, the classical theologian of Samaritanism,’ Purvis explains, ‘contributed significantly to the sect's literature and liturgy. The major work attributed to him, the Memar Marqah, or Teaching of Marqah, is especially rich in the traditions it preserves concerning Moses and Joseph.’ Because so much of Marqah’s writings have been preserved, and because ‘it is clear that Marqah was not a representative of that branch of Samaritanism which glorified Joshua—that stream of thought is reflected in the Samaritan Book of Joshua as well as in some other sources—’, that the Taheb would be a new Moses is seen as mainstream Samaritanism.
The figure is associated with the Divine promise to Moses in Deut. 18:18-22 (‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren, etc.’). It has been said that at his appearance the Taheb will recover the sacred vessels which have been hidden in a cave on Mt. Gerizim, and that he will have with him the rod of Moses and a container of Manna. Such is the understanding of the contemporary Samaritan community concerning this figure.
Purvis’s footnote to this last claim is the rather charming: ‘So, my conversations with Samaritans.’ But if modern-day Samaritan Jews expect the coming messiah to be a new Moses, not all 1st-century Samaritan Jews—or other kinds of Jew—thought that. For many the messiah would rather be a Joshua, primarily a judge and ruler; or an Elisha, primarily a wonder-worker and healer. The episode mentioned above, when the Samaritan ‘Dositheos’ (or whoever it was) and an army of followers ‘stormed Mount Gerizim, hoping to find artefacts they believed had been buried there by Moses’, suggests that more-or-less contemporaneous with Jesus’s ministry there was a separate individual claiming to be the Jewish messiah: a Moses-figure ‘sent by God’.

Jesus’s ministry contains a lot of Elisha-like miracle-working, and NT scholars have unearthed a deal of eschatological (that is, Moses-messiah) aspects too. But those eschatological aspects had to be downplayed, and even erased, in later Christian versions of the sacred texts—for the rather obvious reason that the world did not end within the lifetime of the disciples, as a few remnants of the original Gospel suggest Jesus’s original followers believed it would. Hence, just as the whatever-his-original-name Samaritan executed by Pilate after storming Mount Gerizim called himself ‘Dositheos’, so the whatever-his-original-name Galilean we today call by a Hellenized version of Joshua’s name acquired that title because the ‘Joshua’-messiah was expected to come not to perform miracles, nor usher in the end times, but to rule. ‘The Joshua Taheb concept itself remains an enigma’ Purvis concedes, ‘with much less by way of textual evidence’; although he does speculate that, Moses—the version of the messiah thought to bring-in the end-times—was a reaction against the idea of the messiah as Joshua: ‘the association of the Taheb with Moses rather than Joshua would also have been due to the original use of Joshua in some Samaritan circles as a non-eschatological model, i.e., as a model leader for the restoration in history of the old priestly order.’
A. D. Crown has suggested that the Joshua-like Taheb is also known from Justin Martyr, or, that the Joshua-Jesus typology in Justin (a native of Samaria) was dependent upon an older Samaritan Joshua-Taheb typology. … Bowman has recently related the alleged Joshua Taheb to John's gospel by suggesting that the unnamed feast of John 5:1 ff. was Purim and that the visit to Samaria of John 4 coincided with the Samaritan minor feast of sammu't happesah. Just as the Samaritan woman supposedly saw Jesus as the coming Joshua “who would restore the Temple on Mt. Gerizim, recapture the land and divide it among the Samaritans as the true Israel”), the story in John 5 supposedly points to Jesus as a Joshua-like figure through whom the remembrance of Amalek would be eradicated (Exodus 17:I4)—i.e. through him and not through Esther or Mordecai. The statement of John 5:46, “for he [Moses] wrote of me,” refers, Bowman claims, to Exodus 17:14 (“Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”), and not to Deut. 18:18. Bowman notes that this Joshua-Jesus typology in reference to Amalek is found also in Justin Martyr and the Epistle to Barnabas 78).
Of course, it’s possible that Jesus’s given name was Yeshuah/Joshua. But it’s also possible that he adopted this messianic name to indicate the kind of messiah he presented as—or that his followers retrospectively gave it him, to establish the terms on which his messiah-ness was to continue. The fact the Gospels give him two names: Joshua, and Emmanuel (עִמָּנוּאֵל: a very different Hebrew and Aramaic name, meaning, ‘God is with us’) perhaps suggests that his given-name was the latter and his messianic name the former.

Or perhaps ... not? Of course it’s impossible to be sure. But I do find all this stuff really fascinating. You're at liberty to disagree.

The image at the head of this blog is of Joshua and the Israelite people: from a Carolingian miniature, c. 840.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

"H G Wells: a Literary Life" (2019)


During Lockdown I've doodled around on this blog with imaginary books, but perhaps it's time to mention a real one, by me: H G Wells: a Literary Life (Palgrave 2019). Since my old author website has fallen into desuetude this blog is the place linked-to in, for instance, my twitter bio and other such places; so it probably wouldn't hurt to use it for self-promotion from time to time. So, here we are. This title was shortlisted for the 2020 BSFA Award and did not win, and is presently shortlisted for the Locus Non-Fiction Award (and will not win). I'm quite proud of it, actually. Publisher's blurb:
This is the first new complete literary biography of H G Wells for thirty years, and the first to encompass his entire career as a writer, from the science fiction of the 1890s through his fiction and non-fiction writing all the way up to his last publication in 1946. Adam Roberts provides a comprehensive reassessment of Wells’ importance as a novelist, short-story writer, a theorist of social prophecy and utopia, journalist and commentator, offering a nuanced portrait of the man who coined the phrases ‘atom bomb’, ‘League of Nations’ ‘the war to end war’ and ‘time machine’, who wrote the world’s first comprehensive global history and invented the idea of the tank. In these twenty-six chapters, Roberts covers the entirety of Wells’ life and discusses every book and short story he produced, delivering a complete vision of this enduring figure.
Available from all good etc etc.


Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Mithraic Narnia


Morwen Montifiore’s The Lion, the Sun and the Soldier (University of Lundon Press 2020) proposes a major new interpretation of C S Lewis's Narnia novels:—that behind the ‘surface’ pleasure of fantasy adventure and talking animals lies a more profound, religiously significant schema of Mithraism.

The book opens with a summary of what we know about the Roman mystery religion centred on the god Mithras. It was a cult particularly popular among the soldiery, and its glory days lasted from the 1st to the 4th century CE. Worshippers of Mithras met in caves, or underground temples. They had a complex system of seven grades of initiation, enjoyed communal ritual meals and called themselves syndexioi, those ‘united by the handshake’.

Since the cult was secret and hermetic, little by way of written evidence for it has survived. But iconic scenes of sculpture, bas-relief and inscription represent the salients: Mithras born from a hollow rock, slaughtering a bull, and sharing a banquet with the god Sol (the Sun). Over 420 sites have been excavated in Italy related to the cult—some 1000 inscriptions, 700 examples of the bull-killing scene (known as the ‘tauroctony’), and about 400 other monuments have been uncovered. Naturally enough the highest concentration of mithraea, 680, have been identified in Rome; but it is germane to Montifiore’s argument here that the Italian town of Narni, from where (Lewis acknowledged) the name ‘Narnia’ was derived, was also a major centre of Mithras’s cult—perhaps because this town is the one closest to the geographical centre of Italy.

The key to the Narnia novels, Montifiore insists, is that each embodies one of the seven ranks of Mithraic initiation. Those ranks, from lowest to highest, are:
7. Corax, Corux, or Corvex (raven or crow)—[symbols: beaker, caduceus]
6. Nymphus, Nymphobus (bridegroom)—[symbols: lamp, hand bell, veil, circlet or diadem]
5. Perses (Persian) —[symbols: hooked sword, Phrygian cap, sickle, crescent moon, stars, sling, pouch]
4. Miles (soldier)—[symbols: pouch, helmet, lance, drum, belt, breastplate]
3. Leo (lion)—[symbols: batillum, sistrum, laurel wreath, thunderbolts]
2. Heliodromus (sun-runner)—[symbols: torch, images of the sun god Helios, whip, robes]
1. Pater (father)—[symbols: mitre, shepherd's staff, garnet or ruby ring, chasuble, elaborate robes]
In each case Lewis treads a fine line: he must throw a veil of unknowing over the secret aspects of the cult for fear of violating its mystery and offending the god; and yet he must include enough coded and deictic specifics to make manifest the holy mystery of the religion. Montifiore thinks Lewis errs, if anything, on the latter side: in her view The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) ‘is so obviously a coded Mithraic novel that it is only surprising nobody seemed to realise the fact when it was first published.’

The first referent in the book's title is, of course, to Leo, a key avatar of Mithras. To disguise his identity from the unworthy and non-initiate, Lewis (Montifiore argues) renames him, condensing his leonine incarnation ‘[Mithr]as-lion’ into ‘As-lion’ and so ‘As-lan’. It is certainly true that the leontocephaline or lion-headed Mithras was a major figure of the god, appearing in large numbers of excavated mithraeums all across Europe.



The hollow rock from which Mithras comes into the world is coded by Lewis under the lineaments of bourgeois furniture, the ‘wardrobe’ (guarding the sacred robes of the god—‘many caverns, buildings and hollow-spaces are recognized as Mithrea, the cult centres of the mysteries of Mithras’ [Britt-Marie Näsström ‘The Sacrifices of Mithras]; ‘the Mithraic Pater wore elaborate ceremonial robes, jewel-encrusted with metallic threads, in honour of the god’). The third titular item, the ‘witch’, is manifestly the Mithraic antagonist: pale, wintry, cruel and repeatedly associated with the form of the crescent: a white-skinned avatar of the lunar goddess.
Mithraic rituals involved a re-enactment by the initiates of episodes in the Mithras mythos, a narrative whose main elements were: birth from the rock, striking water from stone with an arrow shot, the killing of the bull, Sol's submission to Mithras, Mithras and Sol feasting on the bull, the ascent of Mithras to heaven in a chariot. A noticeable feature of this narrative, and of its regular depiction in surviving sets of relief carvings, is the absence of female personages (the sole exception being Luna watching the tauroctony in the upper corner opposite Helios) [Leo Ulanov, Mithraism: an Introduction (OMD Press 2019), 135]
The big central even of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the sacrifice. Rather than Mithras sacrificing a bull, it is the lunar Witch (but actually Aslan, manipulating events) who sacrifices Aslan. But according to the ritualistic protocols of the Mitraic lodge to which (Montifiore believes) Lewis belonged in Oxford 1949-53, the ox-sacrifice of Mithras was actually a mode of self-sacrifice by which Mithraic initiates are redeemed.

In this first novel Lewis brings four children to illustrate four aspects of Mithras’s worship: the lead child is ‘Peter’, that is Pater, the designation of highest authority in a Mithraic cult:
The highest grade, pater, is by far the most common one found on dedications and inscriptions – and it would appear not to have been unusual for a mithraeum to have several men with this grade. The form pater patrum (father of fathers) is often found, which appears to indicate the pater with primary status. There are several examples of persons, commonly those of higher social status, joining a mithraeum with the status pater – especially in Rome during the ‘pagan revival’ of the 4th century. It has been suggested that some mithraea may have awarded honorary pater status to sympathetic dignitaries. [Alison Griffith, ‘Mithraism in the private and public lives of 4th-c. senators in Rome’, Journal of Mithraic Studies 2010-09-28]
Montifiore returns to ‘Pater’ repeatedly in her book. The other children are Lucy (that is ‘light’, or Mithraic illumination), Edmund (‘ad mundo’, the principle of returning to the corrupted world, against which Mithraic initiates struggled: it is significant, Montifiore thinks, that it is Edmund who betrays Mithr-aslan in the story) and ‘Susan’, a name that means ‘lily’ (in many Eastern bas-reliefs and statues Mithras is shown as standing on a lily). The four are cultic priest-titles of profound Mithraic significance, and each child emblematises a different aspect of the cult.

If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the Leonine volume of the Narnia sequence, the next published volume, Prince Caspian (1951) picks up the second of the three major aspects of Mithras: the warrior or soldier. Although the cult of Mithras was notionally open to all men, it was particularly popular among Roman soldiers (‘Mithraic sanctuaries are found from Roman Arabia to Britain, from the Danube to the Sahara, wherever the Roman soldier went’ [Michael Speidel Mithras-Orion: Greek hero and Roman army god (Brill 1980), 12]). Lewis’s second novel celebrates the courage and perseverance of the warrior, as Mithraslan’s people battle the unbelieving Telmarines through a series of combats. Lewis ingeniously weaves-in the sacred Mithraic artefacts of the soldier— pouch, helmet, lance, drum, belt, breastplate—into this novel, a fact that Montifiore thinks explains some of the more (on the surface) baffling aspects of the book.

Next Lewis published The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) a novel that is, as its title makes plain, about Sol Invictus, the sun. For this story only Lucy (light—sunlight, that is) and Edmund (the world) return from the first two books, together with a wavering third figure Eustace, who fulfils the roll of suppliant or would-be initiate, and so act-out once again the sacred mysteries. The Heliodromus (‘sun-runner’ or ‘sun-treader’) is second only to Pater in the hierarchy of Mithraic worship: and his symbols—the Torch (here brought to life as a fiery dragon), images of the sun god Helios, whip and robes—all have their place in Lewis’s story.

This concluded the ‘major trilogy’ of the series, with the three major avatars of Mithras: Lion, Soldier and Sol Invictus. What remained for Lewis was to write the minor triad, one novel each for the lesser ranks of the Mithraic cult—and then to conclude the series with the supreme figure, the Pater. Accordingly he published The Silver Chair (1953) to dramatize the archetype of the Corax (that is, raven or crow). 1953 was the year of what Montifiore, diplomatically enough, calls ‘Lewis’s disaffection’; she thinks the events of this year explain the darker tone of this novel. Late in the process of drafting the novel Lewis changed his talking crow Grimfeather into a talking owl (‘Grimfeather’ is, manifestly, a more crow-y than it is an owlish name): an act of superstitious warding-off, Montifiore thinks, occasioned by the events of midsummer. This is a fable of giants and hollow spaces, of deadly green serpents—reminiscent of the Corax’s ritual caduceus—and danger.

Next, by way of emblematising the figure of Perses, the Persian, Lewis wrote The Horse and His Boy (1954), a story set in his fantasy-world’s equivalent of Persia—‘Calormen’—and replete with Persian stylings: hooked sword, Phrygian cap, sickle, stars, sling and pouch.

The Magician's Nephew (1955) is the book of the Nymphus, a figure related to Venus, divinity of sexual love and fecundity. Lewis’s novel tells a comically twisted love story, with old Andrew Ketterley falling for the dangerous charms of ‘Jadis’ (Montifiore speculates the name is version of Ἀφροδίτη Ἰάδαρα, the cult of Aphrodite based in the Adriatic town of Iadera: ‘Aphrodite of the veil and diadem’) and Narnia itself undergoing partuition. A key artefact of the nymphus, the lamp, here becomes the lamp-post, whose presence in the first Narnia novel is herein explained.

This leaves the final Narnian novel, The Last Battle (1956), in which Aslan (largely absent from the ‘minor arcana’ trilogy of novels), now returns in splendour as Mithras Pater, Sol Invictus and the soldier fighting the titular battle. The elaborate robes of the Pater are, in this novel, first parodied by the ass in the old lion skin and then reclaimed in glory by Mithras himself, as he wraps the world up and redeems his initiates.

Montifiore’s analyses of individual Narnia novels are detailed and persuasive, but her book ends with a chapter of biographical hypothecation that is more speculative. What exactly, she asks, happened on midsummer day 1953? Certain facts are recoverable. A bull belonging to an Oxfordshire farmer called Eustace Bunce was killed. The police were called, although in the event no charges were filed. Montiofire thinks Lewis’s friends covered the whole thing up, recompensing Bunce for his lost ox, and indeed paying him over the odds that he not make a public fuss. Those friends clearly thought Lewis was responsible for the beast's death, although to the end of his days—having retreated from Mithraism to more conventional Christianity for the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s—Lewis never admitted to it, or even referred to the incident. In a letter to a mutual friend from July that year, J R R Tolkien wrote: ‘what I don’t understand is: if Jack wanted a cow, for whatever d-n fool reason, why didn’t he just go to a farmer’s auction and buy a cow?’

Montifiore thinks Lewis’s friends underestimated his commitment to Mithraism in the early 1950s, either not realising that he was a practising member of a secret Oxford Mithraeum, or else believing this merely to be an eccentricity, or something undertaken for reasons of academic research. With respect to midsummer 1953, Montifiore thinks Lewis didn’t want just any cow from any old farmer's auction. There were—this is all speculation on her part of course, but she argues her case with vigour—particular aspects to Bunce’s bull that made it a fitting sacrifice to Mithras. To slay a bull, of the right kind and with the right coloration, at dawn on midsummer, as a Mithraic sacrifice to Sol Invictus, was, Montifiore believes, a matter of the gravest cultic importance. She thinks Lewis tried to buy the bull from Bunce who refused to sell, first because the price was too low, and then because he found Lewis’s insistency on the point offputting and oddball, and wanted to have nothing to do with whatever he was up to. Frustrated, Lewis—not, Montifiore believes, entirely sober—borrowed an old army pistol from his friend Charles Masterman, and set off in the middle of the night to walk the eight miles out of town to Bunce’s farm. Once there he shot the bull in its head. The whole affair, Montifiore argues, was bungled: Bunce’s dogs alerted the farmer to Lewis’s trespass long before dawn, but rather than be deprived of the sacrifice Lewis shot the ox in the eye and then tried to run off, only to become entangled in a hedge. Whatever grand cultic version of events were playing out in Lewis’s head beforehand, the business actually became a rather grisly comedy of errors.

Bunce, at any rate, made no official complaint, presumably satisfied with his compensation and surely keen to wash his hands of the whole strange business. Lewis was depressed for weeks, and, Montifiore thinks, the changes he made to the final draft of The Silver Chair prior to its September publication reflect a disillusionment with the cult. But he rallied and wrote the last three Narnia books at speed. Perhaps he believed that this devotional act would have some cultic resonance, or make manifest some important Mithraic effects. It may have been a reaction to the lack of any such consummation that returned Lewis to his wartime Christianity. Certainly after his marriage to Joy Davidman and her battles with cancer, he committed himself again and publicly to this more conventional faith, and wrote some of his most celebrated works of Christian apologetics. But, if Montifiore is to be believed, he left behind him, in these seven novels, a monument to the cult of Mithras.


[Disclaimer: for the avoidance of doubt, and prompted by a couple of folk on Twitter and elswhere, let me say that this isn't real. At the risk of ploddingly explaining the joke, this is a little about Ward's Planet Narnia book and rather more me thinking aloud, in a performative way, about what counts as ‘evidence’ in literary criticism. C S Lewis didn't kill a bull in 1953. Or at least, I don't believe he did.]

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

John Milton, "Paradise Assured" (?1678)



Briony Foster (ed), Milton's Paradise Assured (University Press of Augéres, 2021)


The discovery in 2017 of a single printed copy of Paradise Assured—the third volume, long thought lost, in John Milton’s trilogy that began with Paradise Lost (1667) and continued with Paradise Regained (1671)—was something of a nine-day wonder among Milton scholars. Almost all denounced it as a forgery, or some other kind of hoax. It is true that a small number of these experts have altered their views after being given the opportunity to examine the volume (it passed from its previous owner to the Canadian Bibliotheque Augéres last year, reputedly for a six figure sum) but most have stuck to their initial view, applying okham's celebrated razor both to the text itself and to the sometimes extraordinary claims that have been made about it. Professor Briony Foster, who has edited the volume for publication, was one of the few eminent Miltonists to believe the story of the book, and she defends her position in the introduction to this new edition at some length. The volume’s provenance only reaches back to a Belgian collector who acquired it in 1918, but as Foster points out: a lot of paperwork and other material was destroyed during the war, and she bases her faith in the genuineness of the article upon internal grounds.

Even those not inclined to dismiss the whole volume out of hand might raise objections to the likelihood of this book actually being by Milton. Some of these I will discuss below. But first, a brief account of the book itself. Paradise Lost (in its 1674 second edition) comprises twelve books of epic verse, a number modelled on Vergil’s Aeneid; Paradise Regained is four books, and, in Milton’s famous phrase, represents an example of ‘brief epic’ of which the Biblical book of Job is offered as a key example. With this third and final epic, Paradise Assured Milton divides his story into six sections. This, Foster argues, is a homage to Vida’s Christiad, a Latin epic in six books published in 1535 (Miltonists have long known of Milton’s admiration for Vida’s poetry).

The single printed copy of Assured we have is all that remains of what was clearly (assuming the volume is genuine) a very small initial print-run. It was likely a rush-job: there is no licence notice and the date on the title page has somehow gotten garbled: “MDCLLLIIV”. Foster has her own reasons for thinking 1678 a likely publication date, although she also considers the chance that the work came out 1674, the year of Milton’s death, and concedes that it might have appeared as late as 1694. There are numerous typographical errors (Foster tabulates these in a seven page appendix). Evidently, the work passed through the printer’s somewhat carelessly.

The subject of Paradise Assured is the end of the world as detailed in Saint John’s Revelation. It distorts Milton’s sometimes rather sinuous (indeed, rather oblique) throughline to dispose it into the following table, but this is, more or less, the structure:
Book 1. The prophesied End Times. The Virgin Mary standing on a crescent moon appears to John on the island of Patmos, and tells him that the island is Christ. Christ then appears to John, relates a story about the moon goddess raising Patmos from the seabed and rebukes mankind for its sinfulness. John falls into a fit of ‘shame and ecstasie mixt’.

Book 2. Satan rouses his army in the underworld and leads them out through seven gates onto the Earth. They assault Jerusalem—the seven seals are explained as the seven outer gates of the city.

Book 3. The seven trumpets sound; with each Milton digresses into one of the ‘seven ages’ of the earth. The trumpets are explained as the seven inner gates of Jerusalem’s inner citadel.

Book 4. Satan’s army assaults the temple; the seven bowls are each filled in turn with blood that overflows. Each bowl corresponds to one of the entrances of the great Temple in Jerusalem.

Book 5. The Final Battle. Satan is defeated by Christ leading an army of the holy.

Book 6. A New Heaven and a New Earth are founded. The angel of the sun brings the book of life down to the holy land. The elect begin their return journey to God.
The business with Christ actually being the island Patmos is explained in the poem itself. Milton explicitly refers back to the famous epic simile of Paradise Lost in which Satan is compared to the oceanic Leviathan to which the unwary mariner anchors his boat thinking it an island, only to be dragged to a watery perdition. Patmos (the poem suggests a rather fanciful etymology for this name, linking it, via Πατ-, to God the Father) rises from the seabed as Christ rose from the dead, to form the virtuous mirror-image of Satan, a stable refuge for mankind.

It’s also worth noting that where the first five books are all between 770 and 940 lines long, the sixth book is nearly 1700 lines, and gets into some rather baffling obscurities towards its end. I shall return to these.

Certain questions press themselves, inevitably, upon any reader. One is: exactly when did Milton, blind and ill with chronic gout and kidney problems, write this lengthy text? Was it between Regained’s publication in 1671 and his death? Such a timeline is not impossible, of course, although it’s hard to see how the weakened Milton was able to revise Paradise Lost, produce a good quantity of prose and confect an entire epic poem from scratch; and the lack of any references in his letters, or letters by his friends, to the work is suspicious.

Foster floats the argument that sections of the poem, ‘and perhaps many such passages’ had been written earlier—perhaps as early as 1664 she says—but she provides no external evidence one way or the other. Stylistically Paradise Assured represents a retrenchment, away from the more purged and austere style of Paradise Regained towards the fruitier or more bombastic style familiar from earlier work. This is one reason why Foster thinks significant portions of the poem might have been composed years before. Many readers, though, may find themselves struck that a certain cantankerousness, characteristic of old men in poor health, flavours much of the verse:
In various stiles sins passage hath stird waves
Most turbulent of all the rivers spate
Whose sound the eloquence of cataract
Chimes woe unto the earth: I broght
Not Peace, but the sword: my gospel preach'd
Man hath corruptd, misconstrued and spoilt;
Nor shall my Church be only drensht with blood
Of its own mart[y]rs, z[ea]lots yet arise
To mirroir dark humillity and peace
And so revert upon your sons my love
As enmity enflamd with passions kiss
Grind hart on hart; so shal ruthless war
And persecution and fierce civil rage
Ravage the Christian world; intolrant pride
Usurping powr infallible, shall send
Its heralds forth with curses in their mouths
And fetters for mans conscience in their hands;
To bid the unenshrivend nations kneel
Under their conqu’ring standard and adopt
The creed of murderers, who, in the place
Of the pure bond of charity, present
A forged scroll blurrd and defacd with lies,
And impiously inscribe it with my Name.
These are religions traitors, and from them
An ample harvest shalt thou reap, O Death!
As is well known, Thomas Ellwood jotted down in a memorandum book what has long been believed to be ether the opening lines of Paradise Assured or some kind of unpublished coda to Paradise Regained:
That Paradice first lost and then regaind
Yet station’ d o[n] precarous human hearts
That blind or prideful yet may cast away
As ignorance discards a priceless pearl
That could release his family from debit[…]
Bland enough. But, oddly, the poem as published opens quite differently:
Numinous Muse, that movd my former song
Of Adams loss and greater Adams taske
Most hard and bitter, to unfall that world
I here again in humble ernest press—
Thou tender spirit, whos invirtuing Force
Suffuses stil the tangeunt human air
And so enspires and interanimates
The finer pieties of human hope.
Now, Holy Word, culminate my last Song
And so rowse fulminating fire from of[f]
The high and diamant peak of Helicon
To now illumine all this mortall world
That paradise once lost and but regaind
With such and painfull sanguinary hurt
Be made secure, and firm establisht thence
For all eternity of mortless time:
All banishment of dark by all thats light
From shield of fathers Patmos raisd
Where ere the Cytherean washed her face
And now the eremite endavouring pray
Beneath the Throne celestial and true.
Now, this is interesting enough, although how interesting depends upon the extent to which you are prepared to accept Foster’s argument that this poem is indeed echt Milton. So far as that goes, the real sticking point is not Books 1 – 5, which, though sometimes wayward, are in line with the sorts of things Milton has elsewhere written. The sticking point is Book 6.

In this final book, after a couple of hundred line of gaudy but striking description of the New Jerusalem, all gold-tiled streets and gemstone-studded buildings under a perennial swift sunrise, Milton does something odd. By ‘odd’ (Foster doesn’t use the word) I mean: unprecedented for Miltion, something not hinted-at in any of his prose, Latin or English. He reverses time. Foster quotes a number of abstruse sources that may have been behind this conceit, a couple of Neoplatonists, a pamphlet by Newton, and she makes much of Angélique Arnauld’s book Passage chronologique de la rivière Jordain (1642)—hard though it is to imagine Milton being persuaded by a Janesenist. Paradise Assured does mention the story that the Jordan miraculously reversed its flow when Jesus was baptised in it.
When Death itself reverted back on Life
The very bre[e]zes turbilliond and backt
Round Oreb’s height, and Jordan’s flow
Stood horrent and stepped back at whence it came.
None of this is laid out with what you might call crystal clarity, but in amongst the pious ejaculations and paeans to ‘th’obscurity of Light that veils the veil’ (whatever that means) a narrative does sort-of emerge. We might summarise it like this: the apocalypse is the end of time, in the sense that there is no further (forward) time beyond it. But it is not the end of the flow of time, which rather reverses and starts back again towards its source. God sets a kind of temporal antechamber—a thousand years, as mentioned in St John’s vision—in which the last business of the former iteration of time is wrapped up, not least the final punishment of Satan, described with grisly relish by Milton:
Satan meanwhile a million fathom deep
At bottom of the pit, in mangld mass
With shatterd brest and broken limbs enspread,
Lay groaning on the adamantine rock:
Him the Strong Christ with ethereal touch
Made whole in form, but not to strength restord,
Rather to pain and the acuter sense
Of shame and tormend; hidious was the glaire
Of his blood stre[a]ming eyes and loud he howld
For very agonue, whilst on his limbs
The massy fetters, such as Hell alone
Could forge in hottest sulphur, were infixd
And rivetted in the perpetual stone:
Tho worst of all these [a]gonies was that
Corruption foul, Time’s daughter, set
The first the fiend had ever felt such hurt
Her teeth in flesh &d bone, and brought a foame
And rank dissension of sinew and flesh
Through a decay of aye a thousand year
Until by sharp degrees he was dissalved
And, mote by mote, his consciousness unpicked.
The righteous, though, do not experience this thousand-year postscript. Rather they begin to live a completely different mode of time—running backwards towards the divine fiat lux. Milton’s theory, if we piece it together, seems to be: before the Fall time ran smooth and lustrous, ‘as Oxus clean or Indus bright/Unruffled and enriching in their flow’. The Fall polluted this stream, since when time has been both choppy and (to use the anachronistic word) entropic: moving sluggishly for the young and too rapidly for the old, whirlpooling around moments of pain to sharpen them and carrying away our joys and memories as mere flotsam. Times, as we have all noticed lately, have been hard.

The assurance of Milton’s new paradise is the reversal of time into a new, clean flow. In remarkable passages, the poem describes the saved living their lives—deathless now—in the new landscapes of this timeflow, from which they are able to observe all the events and people of our history, viewed in reverse. History is a story that is told now, and so Milton is able to revisit and clarify the problematic of free-will versus determinism that is such a feature of Paradise Lost’s armature of theological justification. Now it all seems simpler, somehow: then we were free to chose (‘then’ is now for us all, at this moment—the one in which you are reading these words), but now the story is over, and our choices are part of that narrative. Because time runs both ways, from the creation to the apocalypse and back Milton can present both these things as being true simultaneously—the elect, living in the timeline that runs back to God’s creation, pass the exact moment Adam chooses to disobey God’s instruction. It is illustrative.

Six thousand years have passed, and then another six thousand (what shall we say?) anti-years, 12,000 in all, and—like passengers in a boat returning along a parallel channel and passing new folk just setting out—the elect can observe Adam fallen jerk backwards into grace. This is the moment when, from the point of view of the elect travelling back, Adam’s choice has happened. It is as baked into history as Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, or Milton's death in 1674. But from the point of view of Adam is absolutely open and choice-free. It’s like Einstein’s thought-experiment with passengers on a train passing observers in the train station. Not, of course, that Milton says anything quite like that.

There’s another important detail. The main business of the elect, passing along this reverse timeline—presumably at one second per second, though Milton doesn't specify—is observing the previous timeline (our timeline) and judging. As they pass ‘our’ seconds crosswise, they look over and see us. Some of us are, at that very moment, dying. This is the elect’s great work, ‘givn by God and so accepted/With effulgent gratitude’. With some they reach across and, at the moment of death, yank the virtuous soul over into their timeline. With others they—don’t. What happens to those delinquent souls? The poem is not entirely clear, but the implication seems to be: they are left to the entropic decay of that timeline—our timeline—eventually, one presumes, to dissipate after the manner of Satan’s terrifying dissolution in the antechamber of forward-time, the last milennium of ultimate decay. But that’s not where Milton’s emphasis is. Instead he stresses the way the post-apocalyptic ‘reverted flow of Jordain’ sweeps the elect ever closer to God:
Not as when th’sun arizes newly keen
To level horizontal thro misty aire;
Nor yet when sinking orb with settling touch
Coaxes the horizon to a blaze of red;
But rather as tho beams unspread and rush
In eager congregation inward, and
Unite back in intensifying clench
Of brilliancy and eer increasing bright
Appro[a]ching GOD againe who is our home.
It is a conceit that becomes, for Milton, the key to all mythologies. Everything is explicable in terms of it. Prophesy? Messages from the elect, for whom our future is their past, telegraphed by some means from one timeline to the next. Miracles? Eddies in which timelines flow together such that the laws of what Milton thought of as ‘natural philosophy’ become puzzled together, and corruption rolls back into purity, illness into health, death into life. This theory is even used to situate the Trinity: God, the Creator (or Father) stands at the beginning; Jesus in the midpoint of both streams, looking both forward and backward, and the Holy Spirit is the twinned direction of the flow. When, as in the passage quoted above, Milton invokes the Holy Spirit as his muse, it is not merely a form of words.

This is where Professor Foster's edition strays into numerology; and, according to her more severe critics, into sheer bizarreness too. There has been little evidence of Milton's engagement with mysic number theory (unlike, say, Isaac Newton, who was passionate about the subject) but it is plausible that he had some interest in the topic. Foster takes such interest as axiomatic. The number seven, thrice repeated, recurs in Revelation, and so in Milton's poem. 7 x 7 x 7 = 343. ‘Exacty three hundred and forty three years after Milton's death, in November 2017, this copy of Paradise Assured came to light,’ says Professor Foster. ‘Can there be any doubt that this denotes the most profound significance?’ One may, perhaps, be permitted a modicum of doubt, although Foster goes further: she believes, it seems, that the republication of Milton's lost work, exactly 343 years after (though as we have seen, the actual publication date is unclear) will trigger a worldwide renascence in Christian eschatology that will, in turn, activate the end of the world. A sober head might doubt that 2021 will see the apocalypse, although given what we have seen over the last few years, perhaps it's not so unlikely as all that. ‘I have every hope,’ she says at the conclusion of her introduction, ‘that I will soon be making that retroactive passage back to God, and that a cube of years will bring me to a meeting with John Milton himself; that he and I will travel onward as his eyesight restores itself, and his youth returns, and his joy in God grows hale and strong again.’ Paradise Assured, or Paradise Absurd? It is, I suppose, for the reader himself, herself or themselves, to determine.

------------------------
Correspondence

To the editors. Dear Sirs and Madam. You have obliged me to seek, and pay for, legal counsel with a view to compelling you to publish this letter, having refused to print my previous two. It is unconscionable. You are very well aware that since writing my review of Professor Foster's edition of Milton's Paradise Assured I have undergone a change of heart, and yet you refuse to remove the offending review from your website, or add the disclaimers I have asked for. My tone was not merely dismissive and rude; it was, I now know, blasphemous. Professor Foster is still alive as I type, and yet I know she dies early next year. I know this because her returning form has contacted me from the patrallel retrotimeline and provided me with proofs of the TRUTH of everything she says, inspired by John Milton's poetry. We are very near the end of the world my friends, and levity is not the correct tone in which to address these matters. It is a matter of life and death, eternally speaking. It is not a matter not not a matter of some tribal God of the Middle Eastern wastelands, but of time travel, of an engine of sublime potency that cast off this, our timeline from its originary vastness, limiting its range such that it curves back hard upon itself. Of course, primitive people thought in terms of gods and wonders, and of course a figure like Milton rationalised it into his belief system but, sirs, madam, an atheist even such as I can see the ways in which visitants from future metamorphosis, such as Professor Foster, might use their superior temporal perspective to impart WISDOM. You must heed me. A.R.


The Editors reply. Having taken legal advice of our own, we have agreed to publish Professor R---'s uncharacteristically intemperate communicaton in the pages of this journal. That advice also counsels caution in expressing in a public forum any kind of value judgment upon the letter's contents, but we can, at least, express here our sympathy for him and his family at the news, recently reported, of him having lost his tenure and his restraint under the terms of the mental health act.

Monday, 1 June 2020

"W. H. Auden, the W. H. Stands For Wu-Han You Know"



As I stayed-in one evening,
Not walking down any street,
Tapping away at my laptop
My horizons newly petite.

In at my always-in earbuds
I heard a lover sing
Over the thrum of guitar chords:
Le virus has no ending.

“I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till the plague is finally beat;
And the river jumps over the mountain
And people go masked in the street;

“I'll love you till the ocean
Is emptied of plastic, and clean;
And scientists, winged, go squawking
That they’ve made a real vaccine.

“We’ll run through fields like rabbits,
For in our blood we will hold
The Flower of Antibodies,
To take us back into the world.”

But all the Covids in the city
From -1 running up to -19
Said: “let not songs deceive you.
You shall not unquarantine.

“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where all is contagiousness,
We watch you from the shadow
And cough when you would kiss.

“In headaches and in worry
Your life would shudder away,
For contact promotes infection
To-morrow just as to-day.

“Into the lung’s pink valley
Rolls the cytokine storm;
And through the threaded bloodstream
The hordes of virus swarm.

“O plunge your hands in water,
And scrub them in soap as long
As it takes you to sing, sing twice
All the Happy Birthday Song.

“The schools reopen this summer,
The crowds pack Beachy Head,
Though the touch of a hand-shake opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

“O look, look in the mirror?
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

“O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and say:
I can still love my neighbour, just
In a socially-distanced way.”

It was late, late in the evening,
The song was over and done;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the lockdown carried on.


[Note: I originally jotted this into a series of tweets on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, but I find myself moved to extract it from the welter of that platform to bung it here. I'm not sure why, unless it's a sense that my nation, which today moved more-or-less comprehensively out of lockdown despite tens of thousands of new weekly Coronavirus cases and thousands of continuing deaths, is undertaking something reckless and foolish. My concern is, I cannot deny, personal as well as general. I'll be 55 this month, and have suffered lifelong from an asthma that renders me, so far as I can gauge it, at rather higher risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19 than many others. So I do not share the heady sense of invulnerability many younger people (wrongly, I think) seem to think justifies a collective rush back to shops and beaches bars and nightclubs. Auden's great poem catches something of my mood, perhaps.

There he is, at the head of this post. Apparently Auden's face looked that way not merely because of a lifetime's smoking and sunshine, but because he suffered from ‘Touraine‐Solente‐Golé syndrome’, also known as ‘Behçet's disease’: an autosomal recessive form of pachydermoperiostosis. This was news to me, I must say. ‘The main features,’ according to Jeffrey K Aronson, ‘apart from the skin changes, are digital clubbing, subperiosteal bone formation, and arthropathy; other features include anaemia, blepharitis, hyperhidrosis, and congenital cardiac defects. There is an excellent description in Rook's Textbook of Dermatology, at times poetic: “The pattern of folds and furrows on the forehead and cheeks, and the heavy thickened eye-lids, stamp the patients with a uniform expression of weariness and despair”.’ Blimey!

I've never quite known what to make of the celebrated David Hockney remark: ‘I kept thinking, if his face looks like this, what must his balls look like?’ I suppose Hockney means: if that's his face his balls must be extraordinarily wrinkled; but the bon mot has always taken me the other way, to the notion that Auden's balls had struck some kind of Faustian pact, along the lines of Dorian Gray's picture in the attic:—that as Auden's face collapsed into that amazing tangle of runnels and crevasses his balls became purer, smoother and rounder until, on his deathbed, they were two billiard balls of unblemished perfection.]

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Imprinting and Culture



[Another addition to this blog's ongoing lockdown series: ‘books I would actually write, if only I had the time’. Non-fiction this time. I owe the name for the phenomenon I discuss, or say rather posit, here, imprinting, to Paul McAuley, who suggested it as a better term than the one I initially used, ‘shaping bias’.]


:1:

What do I mean by ‘imprinting’?

Let's take a man in his 50s. As a kid he fell in love with the music of (let's say) the Beatles. In this he's no different to millions of other people. But although some of what he responded to, in that music, had to do with the skill of Lennon-McCartney as popular composers, much more had to do with the extraordinary potency of music itself. Nobody ever hears music in the abstract; we always listen to music embodied in one composition or another. The thing is whichever musical text happens to be the one that introduces you to the wonder of music itself will tend to receive, back over itself (as it were) a lustre it has not in and of itself earned. Lennon-McCartney were a talented pair of songwriters, no question; but they didn't invent Music Itself. And a good proportion, arguably a majority, of the emotional impact of their work involves them piggybacking on Music Itself.

This might happen in any artform, any cultural mode, and it might go one of several ways. Take another example. A person falls in love with Tolkien at an early age. We might say that they're actually falling in love with ‘story’, ‘worldbuilding’, the particular enchantment characteristic of Fantasy (escapism, magic, whatever) and we might object that there are a great many texts that provide these qualia, many of them ‘better’ (for whatever metric of better we prefer) than Tolkien. Nonetheless, when this person grows up she retains her affection for Tolkien, warts and all. She broadens her reading of course, perhaps becomes an expert in Fantasy writing, or in novels more broadly; but Tolkien ‘imprinted’ upon her at an age in a way that marks her for life.

Alternately, a text might imprint in a different way. Imagine a person saying: ‘I used to think Robert Graves' Claudius novels were brilliant; now I see what I was reacting to was the fascination of Roman history as a field; and Graves's novels are actually rather clunkily put-together. The Claudius novels were my gateway drug (and I'll always have a fondness for them) but I've gone beyond them now to become a world-renowned historian of the Late Republic.’ Or ‘it was, ironically enough, comic books that first awoke me to the glory of art; I still retain affection for them although I have outgrown them and am now Slade Professor Rembrandt Studies.’ I'd this partial retreat is more commonly found than adults who entirely repudiate their youthful passions, although I suppose there will be some who do the latter. We've all had the experience of returning to a work we loved as children only to be disappointed that it didn't live up to our memory of it; but this, I would suggest, reinforces rather that falsifies what I'm arguing here. Imprinting means that we carry a version of a key culture-text in our minds as we age. Its that mental version that interests me, however complicated, or indeed tenuous, its relation to the source text may be. And I'm suggesting it's a significant, perhaps a dominant, factor in adult taste.

We can take Amanda's line, in Coward's Private Lives ‘extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ as a comment upon how we are most likely to be imprinted by the aural wallpaper of our youth, the chart-stuff that pours out of the radio, than by (say) Shostakovich string quartets. Although I suppose we can also take it as an indication that imprinting happens in childhood or adolescence. The salient in cheap music is its simplicity, I think, and the art of our childhood will tend to be simpler than more adult art.

There will be exceptions, of course. John Stuart Mill was taught Greek at three, and had read Diogenes Laërtius, Demosthenes and six dialogues of Plato by the time he was six. But the work that imprinted him was Wordsworth's poetry, which he didn't discover until his early twenties. But this, I think, does not contradict my fundamental point. Wordsworth saved Mill from a suicidal depression by connecting the over-cerebralised self his upbringing had created with a simpler, or perhaps say rather a purer set of emotions. It would be a mistake to describe Wordsworth as simple, I think; but he is certainly plain, non-ornate.

The problem is: how can a critic separate out her imprinting from her assessment of any given work of art? It's a particular problem in SF, where the sort of short stories, novels and films that first blew our minds and introduced us to Sense-of-Wonder can shape our tastes, such that we prize works that imitate those earlier works, and we ignore their faults to the exclusion of other, better-written or better-made stuff. But as with Music Itself, ‘the Sublime’ was not invented by Asimov's Nightfall (or Paradise Lost, or whatever).

Related to this is the following observation by Northrop Frye:
The basis of critical knowledge is the direct experience of literature, certainly, but experience as such is never adequate. We are always reading Paradise Lost with a hangover or seeing King Lear with an incompetent Cordelia or disliking a novel because some scene in it connects with something suppressed in our memories, and our most deeply satisfying responses are often made in childhood, to be seen later as immature over-reacting ... As a structure of knowledge, then, criticism, like other structures of knowledge, is in one sense a monument to a failure of experience, a tower of Babel or one of the "ruins of time" which, in Blake's phrase, "build mansions in eternity". [Northrop Frye, The Critical Path: an Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (1971), 27]
I think this resonates so strongly with me partly because science fiction was something I fell in love with as a child-reader. I still love it; still write it and write about it. But I'm conscious of the ways in which my engagement is based upon a kind of structural hermeneutic inadequacy. ‘Our most deeply satisfying responses are often made in childhood, to be seen later as immature over-reacting’ is almost a too perfect thumbnail of the adult apprehension of SF; and SF criticism always a kind of running-to-catch-up uttering various post-facto justifications. What's neat about this Frye quotation is the sense it conveys that, actually, all criticism is in the business of doing this.

Our best bet is honesty, here. Some critics operate according to a myth that we respond to a kind of Platonic form of Paradise Lost or King Lear. We critics do, after all, like to make a fetish of disinterestedness and objectivity, and if we involve ‘the reader’ it is, via ‘reader-response theory’ or Moretti-esque panoptic surveys, a collective reader. It might even be argued—I don't think I agree with this, but I'm not sure—that we copper-bottom our critical approach by reading Paradise Lost hundreds of times, or seeing scores of productions of King Lear, ironing-out the variables such that we respond critically to a kind of artificial synthetic text. Texts are not synthetic, though; they are always particular; and we, as readers, are never disinterested when we engage with their particularity. It'd be a strange world, and criticism would be a weirdly bloodless business, if we were.

One critic who comes to mind as someone who has, in a manner of speaking, discussed this is the late departed Harold Bloom. We could redescribe the main argument of his The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) as: good artists struggle to move past their imprinting, and in doing so create something new and significant that might in turn imprint on others (and bad artists simply replicate whatever imprinted them). This, though, is to focus on artists. I'm interested in the extent to which imprinting becomes an unconscious determinant in taste, and therefore in criticism. I also wonder if we can usefully dispense with all Bloom's odd quasi-Freudian bag-and-baggage. Not that I've any problem with Freud, you understand.



:2:

One danger here is that it might seem I'm valorising some kind of intrinsic bias in the critic. Bias, obviously enough, is a bad thing. But as it is also inescapable so  best option, surely, is to flag it so as to be able to factor it in. And actually I'm more interested in a different question. Does imprinting (assuming we agree it is a thing) mean that there is an inevitable lean towards the juvenile? To be clear: I do not use the word in a derogatory sense. A great deal of children's literature is manifestly great art. But the exigencies of connecting with a young audience means that it is often more simply formed and expressed, perhaps more direct and primitive, than (some) adult art.

Does imprinting, as it were, aggregate? Might this explain the fact that the twentieth-century democratisation of art, predicated on big expansions of literacy, mass production and affluence, coincided with an era in which Primitivism, in the broadest sense, became the dominant aesthetic?

By ‘Primitivism’ I mean the way the intricacy and formal complexity of classical music was dethroned, and a much more texturally simple pop-music became the era's defining kind; the way painterly craftsmanship and fine brushwork was replaced by Van Goghian, Picassoian or Pollockian crudenesses and energies? The way film and TV, powerful media but without the interiority or complexity of which novels are capable, became the way narrative was mostly consumed. Of course, complex art continued to be produced throughout the 20th-century, and some of this, even some rebarbatively difficult art, has been highly praised. But it seems to me clear enough that the broader aegis of ‘Art and Culture in the 20th-century’ has been Primitivism, for better and worse. I would largely say better, since I am heavily invested in several frankly primitive modes myself: science fiction; pop music; cartoons and comic books to name but three. Of course it's true that complex art can do things primitivist art can't, but it's also true that primitivist art can do things complex art can't—can access energies and disruptions, potencies and wonder that more fussily or intricately filligreed culture never could.

I probably sound defensive. A brief personal aside. Science fiction imprinted on me early. For a long time it was all I read. My path (to contuinue the digression) into scare-quotes ‘high art’, which has also absorbed a great deal of my adult time and my love, came about in the following more-or-less banal manner. In addition to reading lots of Pulp SF (Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin) I used to pore over SF illustrations, visual art I really loved. One birthday my Mum bought me a big A3 book of this art, a sort of paperback elephant folio of Golden Age magazine covers and illos. I went though and through it until the glue crumbled out of its spine. Noting my enthusiasm and thinking, perhaps, to encourage me to diversify my interests she bought me another volume in the series—the name of the series eludes me now, but it wasn't expensive; not glossy high-end art books but rather a range of cheap-and-cheerful for-the-masses portfolio. This new vol was ‘British Art’ and it was pretty cool. But one image in particular lodged in my head: the one at the head of this post, in fact: Millais' 1851 Mariana.

This image absolutely bowled me over.

Now, my visual taste, we can assume, had already been shaped to some degree by the bright-colours, clear lines and dynamic forms and composition of the typical Golden Age SF illustration. It's easy enough to see how Pre-Raphaelite art slotted into aesthetic predilections pre-established by all that stuff. But this Millais affected me very deeply and in a way I hadn't, I think, encountered before. I can be honest, looking back, and accept that some of this (her stretch, the curve of her figure, the allure of her being so thoroughly clothed) was erotic, but that's clearly something that plays a part in a lot of imprinting, cultural and otherwise. And some of it was its own thing: the combination of medievalism and Victorianism, for instance. The visualisation of ennui.

At any rate, the image so moved me that I sought out the Tennyson poem on which it was based, and that bowled me over in quite a new way. I was (I don't say this lightly, or imprecisely) a depressive adolescent, and Tennyson's articulation of melancholia was darkly thrilling and moving to me in a way I hadn't encountered before. From there it was a short step to reading other poems by Tennyson, then reading other Victorians, then the Romantics that inspired them. It was because of this I read my first work of literary criticism (Ricks's Tennyson, which I borrowed from Canterbury Public Library; I still think that's an excellent monograph by the way, and something of Ricks's style as a critic has imprinted onto mine) and I was on the long and winding road that led me to being Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature at the University of London. I haven't abandoned the science fiction of course. Quite the reverse. These are my two main passions.

The difference, of course, is that my passion for poetry is ‘respectable’ where there's something, I can't deny it, increasingly unseemly in a fiftysomething professor still getting so excited by science fiction. Hal Foster's LRB review of a translation of Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign rehearses the recent theorising of ‘homo sacer’ via Agamben, Derrida himself and Eric Santner. Derrida:
At the two extreme limits of the order, the sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures and have the same structure and are correlative: the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially homines sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns.
This is all interesting, especially Foster's doscussion of Santner's On Creaturely Life (2006), a book I hadn't otherwise come across.
Creaturely life, as Santner defines it—‘life abandoned to the state of exception/emergency, that paradoxical domain in which law has been suspended in the name of preserving law’—is close to bare life. But he adds two important touchstones of his own, Kafka and W.G.Sebald, some of whose characters, caught between human and nonhuman states, or stranded in the vertiginous space of exile, allow Santner to imagine bare life from the position of homo sacer, ‘on the threshole where life takes on its secific biopolitical intensity, where it assumes the cringed posture of the creature.’
Not to go from the negative sublime to the ridiculous, but my reaction on reading this was to think of ‘exceptional’ state of SF with respect to other genres of literature; the ‘cringe’ of embarassment it can't shake off, howsoever proudly its adherants proclaim its princely supremacy—such that the more aggressively we proclaim that SF is proper literature, the more a tone of desperation enters our voices. The desire for respectability is a kind of category error here, I suspect. SF is the genre sacer, outside the law as a way for ‘genre’ itself to uphold the law.

This, I think, has to do with one of the elephants in the futuristic room of SF: its juvenility. That it is in many ways an adolescent mode of art seems to me not a thing to deplore or hide, still less a thing to be purged in the evolution of the genre into some notional full aesthetic ‘maturity’. It seems to be precisely the ground of the genre's potential for true greatness. Alone amongst the genres of contemporary literature, SF understands that the energies informing contemporary life, its kinetic restlessness, its tech-facility, its cyclotropic moods, its to-the-bone fascination with sex and violence, are precisely adolescent ones. At the same time this is the quantity about which contemporary thought and culture is most ashamed.

To bring in a parallel, this is what Foster says about what he calls ‘my own field, modernist art’:
...in particular its pesistent fascination with the art of the child, the insane and the primitive. For the most part the [critical] inquiry into this has been conducted in terms of the unconscious and the other, that is, in the languages of psychoanalysis anthropology. This is not wrong as far as it goes, but might we not also view these identifications as creaturely expressions of a ‘fissure in the soace of meaning’ opened up by ‘exposure to a traumatic dimension of political power’?
Mutatis mutandi, this comittment to a version of the ‘the child, the insane and the primitive’ defines SF too. I wonder, I suppose, how much of this can be attributed to the potency with which SF has imprinted on certain critical and creative figures, and the correlative of whether this imprinting imports a (saving or demeaning, depending) juvenility along with it.