‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Google Translate's Sermon on the Mount

Another exercise after the manner of this. Since Matthew chs 5-7 are amongst the most famous in the entire New Testament, I might have expected there to be many-many online renderings of them out of which Google Translate could confect a smooth and recognisable English version. Apparently not. Still: there's quite a lot in this that's interestingly estranging. I like 5:14 and 5:27, and that thou hast cast upon thy right jaw, turn it up, and thou shalt be glorious is surely good advice. The Greek text I used is here.


1 And when he came to him, he came to him: and these were his disciples.

2 And when he had spoken this word, he said,

3 Blessed are the poor of the spirit, that these are the kingdoms of the heavens.

4 Blessed are the martyrs that they are called.

5 Blessed are the hands that they inherit these things.

6 Blessed are the hungers, and they are afraid of the righteousness, that they are satisfied.

7 Blessed are the wives, that they are worshiped.

8 Blessed are the pure ones, that they are seen.

9 Blessed are the sworn men, that they are called unto thee.

10 Blessed are the founders of righteousness, that these are the kingdoms of the heavens.

11 Blessed are ye, when ye reproach, and forgiveness, and forgiveness, for the wickedness of their foolishness;

12 rejoice, and magnify, that the wages of many of those who are in the flesh have done their prophets to the earth.

13 And thou shalt be the glory of thy womb, and shalt thou go down to thee; it is true that they are being abused and abused by human beings.

14 Thou art the sons of the world. that the city may be hiding above the text;

15 which shall be lighted, and shall be upon them, in the light of the lamps, and shall shine upon them in the earth.

16 And I will shine upon the faces of the people before men, as the work of the good works, and the glory of the fathers of them that are in those overseers.

17 Do you think that you are the law of the prophet? You have come to be fulfilled.

18 And I say unto you, By the passage of the Oranas, and by the presence of an ear that passeth from the law, until it is ever glorified.

19 But if these wicked men are wounded, and they have taught these men, at least they are called into the kingdom of the nations, and they do not teach, nor teach, which is called unto the kingdom of the nations.

20 I say to you, that there is a surrender to the righteousness of the secretaries and the Pharisees, that you have come to the kingdom of the heavens.

21 Thou hast heard that the wicked is come, thou hast killed; that thou wilt not kill, that thou art judged.

22 I say to you that the fallen brother of this fellow is judged; for he does not know his brother, and he is the judge of the congregation, and he is blameless, he is blamed for him in the time of the fire.

23 Thou shalt offer thy servant for the altar, that thy brother hath whatsoever he hath done;

24 Thou hast done this thing before the altar, and thou hast first changed thy brother, and thou hast offered thy servant.

25 Wherefore thou art contrary to thee, that thou art with him in the throne, that thou shalt not go to the strange tribe, and that thou hast judged the servant, and that thou hast taken prisoner;

26 I say unto thee, Thou shalt be said, Thou shalt take away thee Kojan.

27 You heard that it was, You adulterated.

28 I say that the woman of the sight of whom thou hast said, that she hath already done this unto her heart.

29 If thou hast the right eye, thou shalt scourge thyself, and thou shalt make thyself good: thou shalt make good unto thy brethren, and with all thy souls thou hast come to pass.

30 And if your right hand chasten to them, cut them off and set them up for good; and your members shall be with you, and all your souls shall come to pass.

31 And it came to pass, that this woman rescued it, and gave it to me.

32 I say that the wife of the woman who has been disobedient to this prostitution is forgiven, and that the woman who is forgiven is baptized.

33 Thou didst say that the wicked was come, Oec, the rebuke, and the reward of thy rulers.

34 I say that I am exceedingly worthy of thee, neither of the throne of the god:

35 nor of the throne of his feet, nor of the city of the great king,

36 nor of thy head that you can have a white hair that was left over.

37 Let the word of the wrath be unto them, which hath more than these of the wicked one.

38 Thou hast heard that he was come, and that he looked upon the eye of the eye, and of the diadem.

39 But I say that I am defiant of the wicked, but that thou hast cast upon thy right jaw, turn it up, and thou shalt be glorious;

40 and thou shalt be judged, and thou hast taken away thy daughters, as thou hast, and thou hast;

41 he loves you a mile, and then he goes with that two.

42 Thou hast done unto thee, and whosoever will, he shall dare thyself uproare.

43 Thou hast heard that it is gone, that thou hast loved thee, and hate thee thine enemy.

44 I do not say unto you, love enemies you and pray for you: the persecutors,

45 genisthe as sons of the Father of you in heaven, that the sun rises over this evil and the good, and rains on the righteous and unjust.

46 Do you love that which thou hast loved? and shall they be finished?

47 And if you abhor the cousin of the wisdom only, what more are you? whiskey and its nationalities?

48 Thou art as perfect as the father of the righteous.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

From Wagner to Tolkien

A few years ago I wrote this, on the subject of Wagner and Tolkien:
One reason Tolkien’s imaginary realm has proved so successful is precisely its structural non-specificity. What I mean is: Tolkien treats material that has deep roots in, and deep appeal to, various cultural traditions; but he does so in a way—as fictionalised worldbuilding rather than denominated myth—that drains away much of the poisonous nationalist, racist and belligerent associations those traditions have accumulated over the centuries. A thumbnail history would go like this: in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Wagner’s Ring melodramas spoke to a great many people about a particular northern-European cultural identity; about a group of linked, potent emotional attachments to history, landscape, to the numinous and the divine, to matters of heroism and everyday life. I am trying not to sound sneery as I say this (I mean melodrama in the strict sense of the word), because these things did, and do, matter intensely and genuinely to many people. But there is a reason, a room-filling elephant of a reason, why Der Ring des Nibelungen no longer has this general resonance. It is because the cultural reservoir from which it draws much of its power also supplied cultural capital to the worst regime ever to take charge in Germany, and therefore lubricated the most catastrophically destructive war ever to be waged in the world.

In saying this I am not, of course, blaming Wagner for the Nazis. Indeed, the endless debates about Wagner’s own ideological ‘purity’ (‘was Wagner an anti-Semite?’ Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, like just about every other gentile in 19th-century Europe) seem to me to miss the point. The restless churning through this question happens because we're desperate to acquit Wagner so that we can enjoy his music with a clean conscience. We ask the question, get the uncomfortable answer, and ask it again. In our guts resides the queasy comprehension that Wagner can’t be acquitted. Politics can’t be neatly separated out from the Ring cycle, leaving only a washed-and-scrubbed sequence of pretty orchestral tone poems behind. I love the Ring cycle, and listen to it regularly; but I would never try to deny that it is political all the way through, down to its very marrow. It is, to be precise, about the notion that history and myth are in some sense the same thing—a very dangerous notion indeed.

Tolkien’s story is not the same as the Ring cycle; his ‘ring’ (as he crossly reminded correspondents) not the same as Alberich’s ring. But a considerable amount of the heft and force of Lord of the Rings derives from the way Tolkien draws on the same broader cultural, mythic, northern-European heritage. What saves Lord of the Rings is that it is not about Germany, or about England; or to be more precise, that it is about England and Germany only secondarily, in an eloquently oblique (a cynic might say: in a plausibly deniable) manner. Tolkien found a way of articulating the same deep-rooted cultural concerns in a way that avoids being poisoned by the cultural specificity of European Fascism. This doesn’t let Tolkien off the hook, as far as racial and ideological content goes, of course. Indeed, I offer my thoughts here not as a value judgement of his fiction, so much as an explanation for why Lord of the Rings has done so extraordinarily well—resonated so powerfully with so many people—in the postwar period. It rushed in to fill the gap that more culturally-specific art had supplied before that kind of art was discredited by the 1940s.
I come back to this argument because I'm now trying to get my Tolkien-and-post-Tolkien-Fantasy ducks in a row, prior to writing, with a friend, something on the history of Fantasy as a mode. Hopefully. At some point.

So: there were lots of iterations of what we might want to call ‘Fantasy’ published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a comprehensive history of the mode might want to discuss all of them. But a leaner account of the main currents of the growth of this mode would, I think, be entitled to pick out a cleaner through-line. There's just no denying the impact of Tolkien, not so much from the original publication dates (1937 for The Hobbit, 1952-53 for Lord of the Rings) as from the start of the great cult of Middle Earth that dates from when the mass-market paperback of LotR became a campus darling and then an international bestseller in the 1960s. The 1970s were full of direct, sometimes slavish imitations of Tolkien like Terry Brooks's execrable Shannara series (1977 and ongoing) and Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977-2013). By the 80s bookshop shelves groaned with fat fantasy novels, and the genre had finally coalesced as a commercial genre in its own right. And whilst connoisseurs of the mode might sometimes make noises about the importance of William Morris or Hope Mirrlees in the pedigree of Fantasy as such (both fine and important writers, of course), the brute fact remains that this was a mode that came out of Tolkien. For although the reaction against Tolkien began early—Moorcock's sneer that LofT was ‘Winnnie-the-Pooh posing as Epic’ dates to 1987—books written in reaction were very much written in reaction: they bracketed the book's emphasis on nobility, service, loyalty, bravery, its pre-raphaelite colour-scheme and general uplift with its dodgy racial and sexual politics and took the sledgehammer to the lot: voilà, Grimdark. We're still being offered a basically medievalised, feudal or otherwise pre-Industrial world threaded with magic, elves, dwarfs, dragons and all that; but now the emphasis is on rape and slaughter, on betrayal and realpolitik (narrowly, indeed adolescently, conceived) and a general horribleness. This is a mode marked by Tolkien even as it shouts its antagonism for everything Tolkien represents.

This, of course, isn't the whole story. We need also to factor in the Fritz Leiber US sword-and-sorcery tradition, which predates LotR by a decade; and also the smaller but not negligible tradition of Robert Howard's Conan and its muscly imitators, which predates LotR by two decades. In particular, Leiber's more knowing, knockabout tales not only feed into myriad direct imitations, but also lie largely behind Pratchett's Discworld, one of the most important Fantasy worlds of the last quarter century (it's not surprising, I think, that Leiber's cool-kids sharpness, his uninterest in Fantasies of dignity or elevation, can be reworked so brilliantly into out-and-out comedy). But the step-up from sword-and-sorcery as a relatively small-scale interest of dedicated fans to something much bigger happened, as it were, on the coat-tails of Tolkien's global success, 1960s-and-after, and something similar is true of the nerd-compensatory-fantasy muscle-and-sword variety most particularly associated with Howard, which came to broader notice only with the 1982 Schwarzenegger movie, which was in turn an attempt to tap-into the boom in ‘Fantasy’ as a mode. Luckily for me, though, I'm not attempting here to tell the whole story. All I'm doing is recording some of the things that occurred to me as I read Adorno's In Search of Wagner (1952).

I'm a little ashamed I hadn't read this particular Adorno before, actually. It is a remarkable book, dense with ideas. But I read it in an, as it were, bifocal manner, both for what it was specifically saying about Wagner and for what its approach to Wagner might say about Tolkien (a writer I'm not sure Adorno had ever heard of, let alone ever discussed). This is, I think, more than me being merely adventitious. Adorno builds much of his analysis around the insight that Wagner's appeal to a timeless, mythic, Fantasy realm of gods and heroes is not something separate from his bourgeois German respectability, but precisely an iteration of it. ‘The power of the bourgeoisie over Wagner is so absolute that as a bourgeois he finds himself unable to satisfy the requirements of bourgeois respectability’ [Adorno, 7]. He embodies ‘an early example of the changing function of the bourgeois category of the individual’:
In his hopeless struggle with the power of society, the individual seeks to avert his own destruction by identifying with that power and then rationalizing the change of direction as authentic individual fulfilment ... the focal points of decay in the bourgeois character, in terms of its own morality, are the prototypes of its subsequent transformation in the age of totalitarianism.
This interrelation between the bourgeois and the mythic-legendary is, of course, the most prominent feature of Tolkien's worldbuilding, where Middle Earth is literally divided between the bourgeois hobbits of the north west and the feudal horselords and medieval city-states of the South. Beorn may spend half his time as a bear, but he keeps as tidy a little bourgeois house, with all the creature comforts, as any hobbit, and bourgeois possessiveness for material objects (Wemmick's ‘portable property’) is shown, through Gollum's longevity and through the fundamental, stubborn toughness of his Being-in-the-World, to be superior to Boromir's feudal puissance in terms of holding out against the Ring. Tom Shippey has interesting things to say about the etymological connections—the sorts of connections that particularly appealed to Tolkien, of course—between the word burglar, Bilbo's dwarf-assisting career, and bourgeois, Bilbo's social identity. I could insert a 2000-word excursus on the conceptual synergies of these two terms here, but I'll spare you. For now.

One of the threads that particularly interests me, in tracing the Tolkien and C S Lewis pedigree of Fantasy from the 1950s into the 21st-century, is the way two Christian writers, writing tacictly (or in Lewis's cases allegorically-explicitly) Christian Fantasy, came to influence a whole tradition that wasn't in itself particularly Christian—or indeed was, in some cases, quite assertively atheist. For many fans I daresay the Christian element is something they simply handwave away: easy enough to do with Tolkien, I suppose. But the fact that these two, arguably the two writers of ‘Fantasy’ most influential on the postwar development of the mode, were so very Christian interests me. We could frame it as the Beowulf problem, since that's a poem that parses pre-Christian, pagan and monstrous-magical story material through a notionally Christian frame.

Remembering how central Beowulf was to Tolkien's own imaginative development, and just (you know) looking at the great mass of commercial Fantasy, I wonder if we can see the tension between the pagan-mythic and the Christian-allegorical in Fantasy in terms of this more strictly social-historical—or, I suppose I'm saying, really, this ideological—tension. Professing a Christian faith may be a bold thing to do on an individual level, depending on the situation, but for most of the 20th-C and for many parts of the world in this, our benighted 21st, Christianity is the orthodox and conventional worldview. I don't say so to snark. Indeed on the contrary, and speaking personally, I'm persuaded by the argument Chesterton makes in his Orthodoxy book that ordinary things are not only more valuable than extraordinary things, they are, actually, more extraordinary—that orthodoxy has a glamour and danger that heresy never can. But saying so is only to restate the legendary-mythic/bourgeois dynamic that is as much as feature of Wagner as it is of Tolkien. The Ring is all Germanic legend and no Christianity but Wagner not only wanted to express his grandiose mythic pagan-Nativism, he wanted to pay the bills. “Yet” [Adorno is quoting Hildebrandt, about Wagner and Nietzsche holidaying in Sorrento] “there was one particular remark which cut Nietzsche to the quick.”
The conversation had turned to the poor attendance of the Bayreuth Festival. Nietzsche's sister reports that Wagner had once observed angrily. “The Germans no longer wished to have anything to do with heathen Gods and herooes; what they wanted was something Christian.” [Adorno, 12]
Parsifal swiftly followed, to supply this market need; not only the most explicitly Christian of Wagner's operas, but, in its portrait of its villain Klingsor, the most nakedly anti-Semitic. Poor old Nietzsche. So much for Gott ist tot.

Still it is strange (that is to say: I'm suggesting it's structurally or formally strange) that Modern Fantasy emerges out of an emulsion of Pagan and Christian in the way that it does. It's not that a large audience are clamouring for specifically Christianised mythic legend, I'd say; but slice it and dice it howsoever we want, it is the bourgeois Christianity of Bunyan, Idylls of the King and Wagner's final compromise with his audience, through Tolkien and Lewis, that feeds the river that becomes the delta of the modern genre. In my time I have wondered if this has something to do with ‘magic’—that necessary component of Fantasy worldbuilding, and which we might want to understand this as a broad-brush attempt to capture something of the spiritually transcendent, the numinous, in the reified logic of magical systems, spells, wizards and so on. Adorno had a different angle, and I wonder if he isn't righter than I:
A contradiction of all autonomous art is the concealment of the labor that went into it, but in high capitalism, with the complete hegemony of exchange-value and with the contradictions arising out of that hegemony, autonomous art becomes both problematic and programmatic at the same time. This is the objective explanation for what is generally thought of in psychological terms as Wagner's mendacity. To make works of art into magical objects means that men worship their own labour because they are unable to recognize it as such. ... The work of art endorses the sentiment normally denied by ideology: work is degrading. [Adorno, 72]
This is why Fantasy is filled with aristocrats and warriors, or at the least of hobbits of independent means: with travellers and questers (which is to say: with holidaymakers) and so on—as, also, with rascals, thieves, rogues etc. And I suppose sometimes with students, at Hogwarts' or the Unseen University and whatnot. The point is that Fantasy cannot be written in the John Berger, or even the Zola mode: not because of the generic mismatch of Fantasy as le naturalisme, or not only for that reason, but because Fantasy is a realm where work as such is always transmuted magically into magic.

There's also the prominence given to swords in this mode. Not, except in rare and marginal cases, to rapiers or xiphoi; but to Excaliburs and Glamdrings and Terminus Ests (Termini Sunt, I suppose)—to, that is, big swords, mighty swords, claymores and broadswords (swords that functioned as much as clubs to smash bones as they did blades to cut flesh). This is to say nothing of all those axes, those hammers, all those battles, all that bashing and crashing. It's a way of externalising the genre's rationale of force, the emblematic articulation of forcefulness as such. Adorno:
Wagner not only took up the bourgeois profession of conductor, he was also the first composer to write conductor's music in the grand style. This is not said with the intention of echoing the threadbare reproaches of unoriginality, of with the design of unduly emphasising mere orchestral skill—something that pales by the side of Wagner's overwhelming art of instrumentation. What it alludes to is the fact that his music is conceived in terms of the gesture of striking a blow and that the whole idea of beating is fundamental to it. [Adorno, 20]
Adorno doesn't specifically mention, although presumably he has in mind, the music that famously accompanies the descent to Nibelheim in Das Rheingold, scored for not one but eighteen anvils (tuned to F three octaves apart). There's something here, I feel, to do with Robert Graves's distinction between the mediterranean oarstroke of long-short Greek and Latin prosody and the anvil-blow stressed-unstressed northern European metrical ictus. A related point has to do with the sheer fuck-off size of many of these Fantasy texts.
Compared to Viennese classicism, Wagner's music reckons with people who listen to it from a great distance, much as Impressionist paintings require to be viewed from a greater distance than earlier paintings. To listen from a greater distance also means listening less attentively. The audience of these giant works lasting many hours is thought of an unable to concentrate—something not unconnected with the fatigue of the citizen in his leisure time. [Adorno, 22]
Something similar may be true of the manifest textual bloat of modern Fantasy: not only the shelf-sagging bulk, but its stasis, the narrative inertia of Robert Jordan, George R R Martin and their ilk. This is literature not written to be consumed on the level of individual, marvellous sentences, but by the metric tonne. Afficionados may feel such bulk only appropriate to the epic heft and scope of their favourite stories, but I wonder if the point is not heft, for which one needs density (contemporary Fantasy novels may spread over thousands of pages, but many have the texture of expanded polystyrene) so much as a kind of defocusing, an attempt at blurring the focus on the specificities of the whole. Fantasy plays with history, as with myth, as it plays with an ethos simultaneously bourgeois and feudal. Too close an attentiveness to these contradictions are to be discouraged.
Wagner showed himself to be bourgeois through and through in his conviction that poetic depth is synonymous with the omission of historical specificity. His image of the universally human requires the dismantling of what he supposes to be relative and contingent in favour of the idea of an unvarying human nature. What is actually substantial appears to him as a residue. He therefore finds himself reduced to a stratum of subject-matter that acknowledges neither history nor the supernatural nor even the natural, but which lies beyond all such categories. Essence is drawn into an omnisignificant immanence; the immanent is held in thrall by symbol. This stratum, where all is undifferentiated, is that of myth. Its sign is ambiguity; its twilight is a standing invitation to merge irreconcilables—the positivistic with the metaphysical — because it firmly rejects both the transcendental and the factual. [Adorno, 104]
With this, I think, we approach something really key about the post-Tolkienian Fantasy tradition. The ‘universally human’ becomes, in these kinds of books, pseudo-ethicised, narratively situated in a Cosmic drama of Good versus Evil, where the only important things are to show that you're on Team Good and to screw your courage to that sticking point. Actual moral choice, and the more destabilising moral complexity of actual life, is not the currency of these sorts of tales. And it's surely the case that Commericial Fantasy does indeed reject both the transcendental and the factual. In the case of JRRT the absense of gods (except, in the deep background of of the text, and Silmarilic exegesis) and the absence of ‘actual’ England, Germany, ‘Northern Europe’ and so on, are revealed as versions of one another. I suppose the problem with this as a reading of Wagner, though, is precisely the problem of the actual political—which is to say, historical—uses to which the Nazis put his art (uses to which JRRT really can't be recruited). Adorno's ‘authentic historical conflict’ actually only describes one kind of pseduo-historical, or Scottian, mode; where history-as-ideology is immanent throughout Wagner. Is that true of Tolkien as well, though? Or of Fantasy more generally?
If in the Ring mythic violence and legal contract are confounded, this not only confirms an intuition about the origins of legality, it also articulates the experience of the lawlessness of a society dominated in the name of law by contract and property. [Adorno, 108]
If the lawlessness of Westeros is, as seems plausible, part of its popular appeal (as an imaginative release for those times when Civilisation and its Discontents chafe against our senses of self: ‘in such a place I can kill who I like and fuck who I like ...’) then that very lawlessness is, as Adorno suggests here, grounded in a minutely and even pettifogging sense of contract law as such: the precise nature of the bloodline of the individual ‘rightfully’ king, the minute particulars of the magical prophesy that must be proved true, albeit in surprising ways. Indeed I wonder if we can go further, and say that the copresence of Might-is-Right mythic violence with a universe magically structured by bourgeois contract law (the way the witches' prophesies in Macbeth are precisely honoured in their contract with Macbeth, the contract lawyer ‘I am no man’ gloating of Eowyn discovering a loophole in the Nazgul's magic charm anbd so on) is foundational for the genre as such. Nor is this an arbitrary feature of the genre. It's how Fantasy links itself back to life:
The opacity and omnipotence of the social process is then celebrated as a metaphysical mystery by the individual who becomes conscious of it and yet ranges himself on the side of its dominant forces. Wagner has devised the ritual of permanent catastrophe. [Adorno, 108]
One final thing that struck me in The Search for Wagner is the moment when Adorno says of Wagner's music that ‘each listener has the feeling that it belongs to him alone’. That was exactly my childhood response to reading Tolkien: as if the book, and the world it revealed, was uniquely mine, that it spoke to me with an uncanny specificity that surely couldn't be true of other readers. The irony of course is that all true fans feel that way, that the individuation here is ersatz, or if that looks too judgmental then just a sort of the trick of the fictive light. Here's the whole quotation from Adorno:
Each listener has the feeling that it belongs to him alone, that it is a communication from his long-forgotten childhood, and from this shared déjà vu the phantasmagoria of the collective is constructed. Nowhere is Wagner more mythological than in the modernity of such pleasures. [Adorno, 109]
Nowhere, perhaps, is post-Tolkienian Fantasy more mythological than in the modernity of such pleasures.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Google Translate's Version of Genesis ch. 1's Hebrew.

1: 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth

1: 2 And the land was dull, and darkness and darkness were upon the face of the abyss, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the water.

1: 3 And God said, Let there be light, and there will be light

1: 4 And God saw the light, for it was good, and God separated between the light and the darkness.

1: 5 And God called on the light of day, and the darkness was called night, and there was evening, and there was morning one day.

1: : 6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters;

1: 7 And God made the firmament, and made a distinction between the waters which were under the firmament, and the waters that were above the firmament, and so it was.

1: 8 And God called heaven heaven, and there was evening, and there was morning.

1: 9 And God said, Let the water under the heaven be gathered to one place, and the land shall appear, and it shall be so.

1:10 And God called the land dry, and to the waters of the waters he called, and God saw that it was good.

1:11 And God said, Let the earth grow on the grass, Grass that sows seed, A tree of fruit, Make fruit for his wine, which they sow on the land, and it is so.

1:12 And the earth brought forth grass, grass that sowed seed into its kind, and a tree that made fruit, which they sown in its kind, and God saw that it was good.

1:13 And it was evening, and there was morning morning.

1:14 And God said, Let there be light in the firmament of the heaven, to distinguish between the day and the night, and be for the dead, and the seasons, and the days, and the years.

1:15 And they became a den in the firmament of heaven, to shine upon the earth, and it was so.

1:16 And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the little light to rule the night, and the stars.

1:17 And God put them in the firmament of heaven to shine upon the earth.

1:18 And for instance by day and by night, and to distinguish between light and darkness, and God saw that it was good.

1:19 And there was evening, and there was morning, Wednesday.

1:20 And God said, The waters shall flow forth, that a living soul shall flow, and a bird shall fly upon the earth upon the firmament of heaven.

1:21 And God created their great things, and all the living souls that were thirsty, which the water desired for their kind, and every winged bird of its kind, and God saw that it was good.

1:22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the water with the days, and the birds shall multiply in the land.

1:23 And there was evening, and there was morning, Thursday.

1:24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth a living soul, a kind of beast, and a herd, and make a land for its kind, and it shall be.

1:25 And God made the beast of the land for her kind, and the cattle for her own kind, and all the sheaf of the earth for its kind, and God saw that it was good.

1:26 And God said, Let us become a man in our image as our figure, and go down in the fish of the sea, and in the birds of the heavens, and in the cattle, and in all the earth,

1:27 And God created man in his image in the image of God;

1:28 And God blessed them; and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the land, and conquer it, and go down in the fish of the sea, and in the bird of the heavens

1:29 And God said, Behold, I have given you all the seed of seed, which is on the face of all the earth, and all the tree wherein is the fruit of a tree;

1:30 And to every beast of the earth, and to all the birds of the air, and to every rosette on the ground, wherewith a living soul liveth every herb of grass, to eat it, and it shall be so.

1:31 And God saw all that He had done, and behold, it was very good, and it was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Bunyan's Allegory

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” Tolkien, preface to Lord of the Rings


Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory. That is to say, it superposes two ways of understanding reality: a chronological lived-experience way and an allegorical spiritual way. Various things happen in the story of The Pilgrim's Progress, people are encountered, places are visited and so on, and all of these are “allegorical” representations of various things that are happening in another story, which we can intuit from what we read but which is not specifically told: the story of a person trying to live a life true to their Christian faith in “our” world. The book is about this balance, or tension, between the allegorical and the real. So far, so bleeding obvious.

We all know this doubled story of course. A man called Christian, who previously went by the name Graceless, is an inhabitant of the City of Destruction. As the narrative opens he is reading a book—the Bible, we presume, though it's not specifically spelled out—and realising he must be saved. By reading he has acquired a gigantic pack on his back that weighs him down: an allegorical representation of his awakened conscience or his consciousness of sin. Resolving to go on pilgrimage, he abandons his wife and four sons and soon meets a man called Evangelist, “walking out in the fields”, who directs him to the “Wicket Gate” through which he has to pass, and so begin his trek to the “Cœlestial City” of Zion, which is heaven.

On the way to this gate Christian falls into the Slough of Despond, a boggy mire that is the sink of all the sins of his city's inhabitants, but he is pulled out by Help, and he gets to the Wicket Gate and through it onto the road of Salvation. One of the first things he comes to is a Cross standing over an open sepulchre, at which sight “his burden loosed from off his Shoulders” and rolled down into the open grave “where it fell and I saw it no more” [32; my page refs are all to this edition].

Christian's journey, though, is only just beginning, and each subsequent stage has its double signification, an in-text worldbuilding meaning and an allegorical outwardly-referring meaning. Often the latter is indicated by a marginal gloss attached to the appearance of the former: Christian is directed to a “high hill”, and the note says “Mount Sinai”; the topography of the gate is described (“a little distance from this Gate” stands “a strong Castle” and “them that are within Shoot Arrows at those that come up to this Gate”—Christian only escapes being shot because the Gatekeeper, Goodwill, pulls him suddenly inside) and glossed (“Satan envies those that enter the straight Gate”).

Indeed, in an intriguingly meta-move, Bunyan builds this hermeneutic, these pointers to the meanings of the allegory, actually into the in-text logic of the world he is describing. Christian spends some time in the house of a man called Interpreter, who shows him a number of pictures and artefacts and explains their meaning. To recap: Bunyan starts his book with a poem explaining that it is an allegory; he gives his places and characters transparently allegorical names, and adds marginal glosses at various places decoding the text's references. And he includes an in-text character whose whole purpose is showing allegorical representations to other in-text characters and explaining what they are allegorical of. We take the point.

Moving on, Christian climbs a hill called Difficulty, and meets naysayers and wicked people with names like Mistrust and Timorous, as well as encouragers with names like Piety and Prudence. When he passes through the Valley of Humiliation he battles with a winged demon-monster called Apollyon (spiritual destruction) whom he defeats. He meets and befriends a fellow Pilgrim called Faithful, and the two of them pass through Vanity Fair (the secular world) where they are arrested and tried and Faithful is executed. Christian, though, escapes (we're not told how) and falls in with another companion, Hopeful. These two resist the monetary temptations of a character called Demas, who tries to entice them from the true path so that they can visit “a little Hill called Lucre, and in that Hill a Silver Mine” [83]; but after avoiding that one temptation they fall prey to another. They stray from the true path and end up in the gaol cells of Doubting Castle, prisoners of the monstrous Giant Despair. This Giant beats them Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and his wife urges him to kill them both; but on Sunday Christian suddenly remembers he has a key in his breast “called Promise” that “opens any lock in Doubting Castle”. As they escape the Giant comes after them, but he is subject to strange epileptic seizures and has one before he can recover his former prisoners.

Free again, the two pilgrims make their way to the Delectable Mountains, where shepherds restore and entertain them. From the peak of these mountains they get a clear sight of the Celestial City, their destination, but also various other dangers still before them. They press on, but are caught in one of the devil's snares, an actual net (they are released by a passing “Shining one”, or angel, who whips them for good measure to teach them a lesson) and then they meet a man called Atheist who is walking the wrong way, and who assures them “there is no such place” as the Celestial City. Finally, passing Pope, Pagan and Ignorance, they get to their destination, and swim through the river of death to take their place in Zion.

The first thing to say about this is that some of its oddnesses resolve themselves when we understand that this is not the account of a life as such, but very specifically an account of a spiritual journey. The man called Christian in this spiritual realm is presumably called something quite different in our material realm: John, say. Paul, George, Adam who knows. It looks odd that Christian simply abandons his wife and four children to go on his pilgrimage, never to return (scripturally, of course, Christ enjoins his faithful to abandon their earthly duties and follow him, to “let the dead bury their dead” as he puts it). But we have to presume that this abandonment only happens, as it were, in the spiritual realm; that in the material realm he continues living with his family and materially-supporting them as was his duty. The point is, Bunyan's story is not focused on that material life. It is allegorising the spiritual separation that must grow between a husband who has been born again and a wife who hasn't, even if they're still living in the same house.

Indeed, we must assume that this peripatetic narrative describes the actual life of a man called John (or whatever) who himself has most likely never travelled anywhere—who stays all his life in the same town or village where he was born, as almost everybody did in the seventeenth-century. Indeed it's really quite important that the “actual” person Bunyan is writing about doesn't travel, even though his allegorical avatar, Christian, does. That;s because one of the things Bunyan is striving for is a clear separation between his story and the (as he saw it) wicked old Catholic rituals of literal pilgrimages. To distinguish between his book and all those dodgy medieval Catholic allegorical romances. As Alec Ryrie argues in his book Protestants: the Radicals who Made the Modern World (2017), Protestants like Bunyan had a complicated relationship to the idea of pilgrimage: on the one hand a Catholic and suspect notion, on the other one that expressed their sense of faith as a journey—‘Protestantism was and is a religion of progress, of restless, relentless advance towards holiness, not of stagnation’ [132-33] is how Ryrie puts it. Bunyan is not saying Christians have to actually schlep to Canterbury, or Rheims, or Jerusalem, the way a Muslim actually must travel to Mecca. He is saying that Christians must undergo spiritual pilgrimages, journeys of faith.

Some oddnesses remain, mind you. Once through the wicket gate, and especially when Christian has passed the Cross and been relieved of his oppressive burden, the spacious country over which he then passes is presumably a Christian land. And indeed, the people he then meets, though many of them are wicked, are all notionally Christians, a fact about which some of them even boast. Bunyan's point is that the outward profession of Christianity is not enough, and nor is the sincere adoption of tenets of faith if those tenets are wrongheaded or heretical. So it is that he meets people called things like Simple, Sloth, Presumption and (more pointedly) Formalist and Hypocrisy, not to mention ‘my Lord Turn-about, my Lord Time-server, my Lord Fair-speech, Mr Smooth-man, Mr Facing-bothways, Mr Any-thing; and the parson of our Parish, Mr Two-tongues’. The 1558 Act of Uniformity was still in force, and people were fined twelvepence for non-attendance of Church on any given Sunday, and liable to be imprisoned if they persisted, it's not surprising that everyone in Bunyan's England put on at least the outward show of Christianity.

Nonetheless it's a puzzle that, late on in his pilgrimage, Christian encounters a character called Atheist (“I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are, to take upon you so tedious a journey, and you are like to have nothing but your travel for your pains ... There is no such [heavenly] place as you dream of in all this world” [104]). We are entitled to wonder: what is an atheist doing this side of the wicket gate? There are only two ways into the main territory of Bunyan's story: through the strait gate (which doesn't guarantee salvation, since you still need to stay true to the path on the far side) or clambering illicitly over the wall, which is how Ignorance, Formalist and Hypocrisy get in (and which guarantees damnation at the end of the journey: indeed the very last thing that happens in The Pilgrim's Progress, after Christian has gone to heaven, is Ignorance being bound hand and foot and dragged away to Hell, despite having made it all the way to Zion, because he didn't come into the path the proper way). It's hard to see an actual Atheist coming in through either route. Wouldn't it make more sense to have Christian meet Atheist before he comes through the Wicket Gate?

You might object that this is to apply a hobgoblin-of-little-minds version of consistency to Bunyan's allegorical progress, but in fact Bunyan took great pains to render his worldbuilding consistent. Quite a large portion of the second part of the Pilgrim's Progress (which tells of Christian's wife Christiana belatedly waking up to her need for salvation and treading the same path as her now dead husband) is given over to revisiting moments in the first part to explain them at greater length, or rationalise their place in the allegory.

So for example: in Part 1 Christian fights the demon Apollyon in the “Valley of Humiliation”, and the fight does indeed humiliate him, in the sense of throwing him in the dirt, wounded and weakened, for his enemy to crow over. But at some point between writing the first part in 1678 and the second in 1684 Bunyan recalled that the root of the word humilation is humble, a state a good Christian ought gladly to embrace rather than a miserable condition imposed upon him by his enemies (Christian himself later tells Ignorance that to “agree with the judgment of the Word of God” a pilgrim needs to “thinketh of his ways ... sensibly, and with heart-humiliation”). So in the Second Part we are told that the Valley of Humiliation is actually “the best and most fruitful piece of ground in all those parts”, that it has “a very fruitful soil, and doth bring forth by handfuls”: “I have known many laboring men that have got good estates in this Valley of Humiliation; for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. [James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5.]”.

Alright. But what, then, was Apollyon doing todding around this fine place, and why was it here that he nearly hacked Christian to death with his diabolic sword? Ah, well (Christiana is told) the “valley is large” and Christian's battle happened at a remote and lesser part of it: “in a narrow passage, just beyond Forgetful Green. And indeed that place is the most dangerous place in all these parts. For if at any time Pilgrims meet with any brunt, it is when they forget what favours they have received, and how unworthy they are of them” [187]. This is what science fiction fans call a ret-con, and like many such it isn't terribly convincing; but it does at least show that Bunyan cares whether his allegory is internally consistent or not.

Still: the closer you look at it, the odder Bunyan's allegory gets. The underlying logic of the exercise is that figures and places in Bunyan's story represent spiritual embodiments or externalisation of key qualities in our “real” world. But some of the things in Bunyan's allegorical land are actual things from our land. For example, when Christiana visits the House Beautiful she is shown various allegorical things, and even actually given a golden anchor representing the steadfastness and hopefulness of her faith. But she is also shown the actual artefacts by which Abraham so nearly sacrificed his son Isaac—not an allegorical representative of those things, but the actual things themselves, “the altar, the wood, the fire, and the knife, for they remain to be seen to this very day” [183]. Say what? Some of the characters in this novel have names like Envy, Superstition, Mr Dare-not-ly and Mr Worldly-Wiseman, but some of them have names like James, Matthew, Gaius and Mnason, and some have names (such as Mercy or indeed Christian) that are both nominative and denotative. At one point Great-Heart greets a fellow on the road that he recognises:
Greath. Well, now we are so happily met, pray let me crave your Name, and the name of the Place you came from.

Hon. My Name I cannot, but I came from the Town of Stupidity: it lieth about four Degrees beyond the city of Destruction.

Greath. Oh, Are you that countryman? Then I deem I have half a guess of you: your name is Old Honesty, is it not? So the old gentleman blushed, and said, Not Honesty in the Abstract, but Honest is my name; and I wish that my nature may agree to what I am called. [194]
Edinburgh is four degrees of latitude north of London, so perhaps Bunyan is styling Honest as a Scot (of his hometown he says “we lie more off from the sun, and so are more cold and senseless”), and if so he's probably doing it as a coded reference to the Scots Covenanters, nonconformists and former allies with the English Parliamentarian army in which Bunyan had served, and implacable opponents of the established Church of Scotland and its bishops. But what's interesting to me is how his character, Honest, is so honest that he cannot simply nod-past the notion that these actors only exist on an abstracted or allegorical level.

Or consider Little-faith, who is robbed on his pilgrimage by “three sturdy rogues, and their names were Faint-heart, Mistrust, and Guilt, three brothers” [97]. The allegory here is that an insufficiency of faith leaves a Christian prey to these debilitating qualities; and indeed Guilt strikes Little-faith on the head with a huge club “and with that blow felled him flat to the ground, where he lay bleeding as one that would bleed to death”. But though the thieves take his money, they don't take his “jewels”, which allegorically represent his remaining possibility of salvation. So “those he kept still”, but he “was much afflicted for his loss, for the thieves got most of his spending-money”. So, Bunyan's imaginary world includes some valuables that function as currency and exchange within the in-text economic logic of this land, and also includes valuables that function as allegorical representations of purely spiritual truths, outwith the logic of fiduciary exchange. In other words, it's not that Bunyansland is a place inside which everything stands for something else, it's that it is both real and allegorical at the same time. Sometimes wealth allegorically represents purely spiritual riches, and sometimes, as with Demas's silver mine, or the energetic moneymaking of Vanity Fair, it represents only itself. Metaphor and semiotic identity tangle with one another.

I'm not saying this is a flaw. On the contrary, I think it is at the heart of what gives Bunyan's text its richness and multi-dimensionality, rather than leaving it as merely a one-dimensional exercise religious polemic. So the novel works because the directness of Bunyan's gorgeously idiomatic and expressive prose evokes a world of lived experience, and prevents the whole from sliding into theological abstractions; but it also works because on the level of worldbuilding it is able to hold its actual and its spiritual worlds in a close and productive tension. One small example, from Christian's encounter with Apollyon.
So he went on, and Apollyon met him; now the monster was hidious to behold, he was cloathed with scales like a Fish, (and they are his pride) he had Wings like a Dragon, and out of his belly came Fire and Smoak, and his mouth was as the mouth of a Lion. [46]
What I like about this is the way that parenthetical “and they are his pride” functions on both levels of the novel at once. On the one hand the phrase means “these monstrous and conspicuous scales allegorically represent his sinful pride” and on the other it means “he was proud of his shiny fish-scales”:—that he preens himself over them as he goes about, which says something about his character as well as his appearance. There are a great many moments in the work that generate real heft and power out of the folding an allegorical spiritual numinousness out of the precisely observed and vividly evoked quiddities of actual life.

At the other end are the counter-intuitive topographies of Bunyan's allegory on its largest scale. Consider Vanity Fair. On the one hand, according to the cartography of Christian's journey this place is one city among many, alongside such places as the City of Destruction, the Town of Carnal-Policy (“a very great Town” we are told [17]), the Town of Stupidity and so on. But in another sense, Vanity Fair is not a town in the world, but rather the world itself inside which all towns are contained: as old as the world (Bunyan specifies 5000 years) and containing within it every material thing, “all such Merchandize sold, As Houses, Lands, Trades, Places, Honours, Preferments, Titles, Countries, Kingdoms, Lusts, Pleasures, and Delights of all sorts, as Whores, Bawds, Wives, Husbands, Children, Masters, Servants, Lives, Blood, Bodies, Souls, Silver, Gold, Pearls, precious Stones, and what not” [70]. Within Vanity Fair are all the world's countries. something Bunyan parenthetically indicates in case we miss his allegorical point:
So here likewise, you have the proper Places, Rows, Streets, (viz. Countreys and Kingdoms), where the Wares of this Fair are soonest to be found. Here is the Brittain Row, the French Row, the Italian Row, the Spanish Row, the German Row, where several sorts of Vanities are to be sold. But, as in other fairs, some one Commodity is as the chief of all the fair, so the Ware of Rome and her Merchandize is greatly promoted in this fair; only our English nation, with some others, have taken a dislike thereat. [70]
We can ask the question (unanswered in Bunyan's narrative) “how does Christian escape from the prison at Vanity Fair?” (after all, the townsfolk put his friend Faithful to death and declare their intention to do the same to him). But in another sense, he can't escape Vanity Fair, since Vanity Fair is everywhere: “as I said, the way to the Celestial City lies just through this town where this lusty fair is kept; and he that will go to the city, and yet not go through this town, must needs go out of the world.” Materially speaking he is still there, as are we all; and the only escape possible is spiritual. That a small section of Bunyan's imaginary topography can, in one sense, contain the whole landscape of which it is a part only appears paradoxical; because, in a spiritual sense, the whole vast material cosmos is an insignificant portion of the spiritual infinitude of the divine.


One of the things I don't think Bunyan gets enough credit for is the depth and nuance of his characterisation. Christian, it seems to me, is a very impressively rounded creation: not an Everyman, or blank allegorical signifier onto which the reader can project themselves, but a distinct individual. This comes into particularly sharp focus when you read Part 2, and not only note that the frequently uncertain, stumbling and doubtful Christian is now remembered as “a lion-like man” [213], a peerless warrior and straight-arrow—and so are invited to reflect upon the difference between this report and the rather more flawed character we had actually encountered in Part 1—but you also see how very different Christiana is to her husband. Though her husband's epigone in terms of spiritual awakening, she is by far the more sensible and grounded human being: practical, determined and immune to the more voltaile and psychologically melodramatic moods that govern Christian. Her distinguishing feature is that she has visions, where Christian's distinguishing feature (and, really, this is so central to Bunyan's characterisation in Pilgrim's Progress that I'm amazed more critics don't discuss it) is his depression. I'll say it again: Pilgrim's Progress is a portrait of depression more compelling, nuanced, and powerful than Styron's Darkness Visible.

In all sorts of situations Christian reverts to his signature move: he despairs. The book starts with him depressed at home (“when the morning was come, they would know how he did; he told them worse and worse”) and before he even gets to the wicket gate, Christian falls into the allegorical swamp of despond (“he wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt ... but could not get out, because of the burden that was upon his back”). As at the beginning, so at the end: at the culmination of his pilgrimage, with his eternal celestial reward directly in front of him, what does Christian do? He despairs.
They then addressed themselves to the Water; and entring, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good Friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters, the Billows go over my head, all his Waves go over me! Selah.

Then said the other, Be of good chear, my Brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good. Then said Christian, Ah my friend, the sorrows of death hath compassed me about; I shall not see the Land that flows with Milk and Honey; and with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him; also here he in great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his Pilgrimage ... Twas also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of Hobgoblins and Evil Spirits, for ever and anon he would intimate so much by words. Hopeful therefore here had much adoe to keep his Brothers head above water, yea sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then ere a while he would rise up again half dead. Hopeful also would endeavour to comfort him, saying, Brother, I see the Gate, and men standing by to receive us: but Christian would answer, It is you, it is you they wait for; you have been Hopeful ever since I knew you. [121]
This final act in Christian's life recalls us to the main events of his pilgrimage, and two major ones in particular: falling into the Slough of Despond, becoming imprisoned by Giant Despair. In both cases he manages to drag another into despair/despond with him, as is often the way with this malign pathology. At most of his setbacks, despair nips at Christian's metaphorical heels: when fighting with Apollyon Bunyan says “Christian began to despair of life”. Variants of the phrase “the Pilgrims then, especially Christian, began to despond in their minds” appear and reappear during Christian's journey, though there's nothing like them in Christiana's.

When he is through the Wicket Gate the Interpreter shows Christian a man in a cage (“he sat with his eyes looking down to the ground, his hands folded together, and he sighed as if he would break his heart”) and encourages him to interrogate the fellow:
Then said Christian to the man, What art thou? The Man answered, I am what I was not once.

Chr. What wast thou once?

Man. The Man said, I was once a fair and flourishing Professor, both in mine own eyes, and also in the eyes of others; I once was, as I thought, fair for the Cœlestial City, and had then even joy at the thoughts that I should get thither.

Chr. Well, but what art thou now?

Man. I am now a Man of Despair, and am shut up in it, as in this Iron Cage. I cannot get out. Oh, now I cannot! ...

Chr. Then said Christian, Is there no hope, but you must be kept in the Iron Cage of Despair?

Man. No, none at all. [30]
This is a targeted warning for Christian (“then said the Interpreter to Christian, Let this man's misery be remembred by thee, and be an everlasting caution to thee”). Of course Bunyan has theological reasons for seeing despair as a terrible sin, and we can believe he had personal experience when it came to clinical depression; but it's the psychological acuity of this that is so impressive. Take the episode of Christian in Giant Despair's castle. Christian leads his companion, Hopeful, from the proper road because the side-path looks more attractive, but soon enough they're lost and in the ground of Doubting Castle. It strikes me as the sort of insight a depressed person can offer about depression. You might think depression is hard to endure, and so it is; but falling into depression is lamentably easy to do, and getting out of it extremely diffcult. Facilis descensus dejecto.

Now: I appreciate it might look eccentric to praise Bunyan for his characterisation. It's not the usual ground on which the novel is discussed. Certainly, this novel (if we want to call it a novel) is pre-Bildungsroman, and as such has a much more static and inertial conception of “character” than is true of most fiction nowadays (as Franco Moretti argues: Goethe more-or-less invented the Bildungsroman out of whole cloth with Wilhelm Meister in 1795-6; it didn't exist before as a form, and only starts to disseminate with novels like Emma and David Copperfield—although its pretty ubiquitous now as a way of thinking about character).

In Part 2, Christiana’s companion Mercy is propositioned by a bad fellow called Mr Brisk, “a man of some breeding, and that pretended to Religion” who “offered love her”. He is quickly discouraged by her piety, which he finds unable to wear down, and goes off complaining that “mercy was a pretty lass but troubled with ill conditions” [178]. Talking afterward with her friends Mercy says that plenty of men have wooed her, but “they were such as did not like my Conditions”—her religious convictions, that is. But what if she never finds a husband?
Well if no body will have me, I will dye a Maid, or my Conditions shall be to me as a Husband. For I cannot change my Nature. [179]
We’re invited to applaud her fortitude I suppose, although we might also wonder whether a world in nobody can change their nature isn't a rather unpropitious sort of place in which to stage a conversion narrative, of all things. What hope Mr Worldly Wiseman becoming less worldly-wise, Mr Mony-love loving money a little less or Timorous managing, like the Cowardly Lion, finally to locate his courage if their natures are so fixed?

To be clear: I’m not suggesting this is unrealistic qua characterisation. On the contrary, the older I get, the more I find myself thinking how rarely it is that people fundamentally change who they are. And I can, I think, see the theological, or life-under-the-aegis-of-Faith logic of what Bunyan is doing: the world of PP is a world that reveals the spiritual substance of its characters, not their material accidents. Souls stripped bare are less mutable than ‘personalities’ or ‘subjectivities’ because, so far as Bunyan is concerned, the soul is created by God, infinite and whole. Such a thing can hardly admit of radical change or it would be subject to the same logic of decay as non-spiritual things. Or to be more precise there is one axis of change—from unsaved to saved, or from saved to unsaved—something that, in the idiom of the novel, is marked by the fact that characters literally change their name, as from “Graceless” to “Christian”. Something similar could, in theory, happen to these other characters too: Timorous could in theory deed-poll his name and therefore his nature to Brave (say) and go off on a pilgrimage of his own.

Yet, in practice, somehow, he doesn’t. And to think of character in terms of ‘immortal souls’ is, inevitably, to touch on the sorts of questions theologians have argued over for, literally, millennia. If our ‘character’ is an edifice built on our natures, or souls—and those souls are created by God—then why are some people wicked? Surely God didn’t create wicked souls. The catechism suggests that God made us good but that some of us choose to do evil—indeed, it says that Adam’s original sin disposes all of us to choose evil, such that we have to make an elective choice to do good instead (in fact, Bunyan's position is that we are all simply too weak to make this choice unless we first accept the grace of Christ into our hearts to help us). But to read PP as an exercise in novelistic characterisation, as I am doing here, puts this famous explanation in question. I suppose people do indeed have the choice to steal or not to steal, to lie or not to lie and so on. But in what sense has Bunyan’s “Mr Feeble-mind” [216] chosen his mental feebleness? Can Timorous really be said to have exercised his free will and chosen pusillinamity? What chance does a pilgrim have if his name is “Not-right”? (He is “struck dead” with a Thunderbolt, no less, in Part 2). The character called Little-faith is invoked to illustrate the dangers of living life with too little faith, but consider his circumstance as a character in this novel. I mean to say: it’s an almost Zizekian paradox, that Little-faith be condemned to Hell for lacking the faith to address, precisely, his littleness of faith.

If we want to argue that all these peripheral characters are there to embroider the salvation narrative of Christian rather than to stand as separate characters—then I think we're underestimating the richness of Pilgrim's Progress precisely as a novel. It is, in other words, a work on the cusp of what we might call a modern characterisation, where the motion of psychological growth and development is externalised into an actual progress across an actual landscape (just as the internal process of becoming depressed is externalised into a hideous giant and a castle dungeon)—is at the same time engaging the older, static model of personality as a kind of cage for subjectivity that cannot be discarded no matter how one might. That's a pretty useful thumbnail definition of depression as such, right there, actually.

If one happens to have been gifted by God with a static nature that is faithful or hopeful then well and good, but what if one's essential nature manifests that sense of the withdrawal of Divine favour that somebody like Bunyan would call despair? “Canst thou not now repent and turn?” Christian asks the man in the cage inside the Interpreter's house, but the answer to his question is not of the sort to console a person whose birth name is Graceless: “Man. God hath denied me repentance. His Word gives me no encouragement to believe; yea, himself hath shut me up in this iron cage” [30].

What this does, I think, is revert back upon Bunyan's vehicle for the whole novel—I mean his allegory. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928) Benjamin seeks to distinguish tragedy in the Classical sense (as valorized by Nietzsche) from the dramatisation of sorrow or mourning (Trauer) that happens in the work of a group of minor 16th/17thC German playwrights who wrote the Trauerspiele that give the book its title (in German: Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels) This kind of grief, Benjamin says, is the predominant mood inherent to a particular, 17th-century metaphysical structure, and needs to be distinguishged from the elevated or dignified suffering of classical tragedy. According to Benjamin, it is the “comprehensive secularization of the historical” that leads to a situation in which “History merges into the setting” to become natural history [OGT, 92], whose affective correlative is a “melancholic contemplation of things which derives enigmatic satisfaction from its very recognition of their transience and emptiness” [OGT, 139]:
For all the wisdom of the melancholic is subject to the nether world ... it is secured by immersion in the life of creaturely things, and it hears nothing of the voice of revelation. Everything saturnine points down into the depths of the earth.” [OGT, 152].
I've been thinking about this in relation to Bunyan's representations of despair in this book: how earthy and downward they are, a fecal swamp that sucks you down, a dungeon in the depths of an old castle and so on. How vividly that captures the quiddity of the experience.

For Benjamin this particular melancholy awareness of the distance from sad earth to transcendent heaven is unlocked by allegory as form, or more specifically the way allegory developed in the 17th-century (in other words at the time of Bunyan's intuitive deployment of the mode). He is dismissive of the later Romantic tendency to elevate the “aestheticized symbol” at the expense of degrading the concept of allegory. Origins of Tragic German Drama is in large measure an attempt to recover what Benjamin thinks of as the core theological concept of the symbol that underpins authentic allegory: “a profound but paradoxical religious unity of material and transcendental”. To read Bunyan under this aegis is not to focus on Pilgrim's Progress as “Fantasy”, the relation of a journey through a luminously transcendent (though still dangerous) land, so much as it is to insist, as Bunyan himself repeatedly does, that the text be redirected back to the real world, to compel a particular sort of hard-labour upon its reader: awareness of death and sin, mortality and despair. “This Book will make a Travailer of thee,” Bunyan declares in his dedicatory poem, “If by its counsel thou wilt ruled be” Travailer hangs nicely between traveller and labourer/worker: somebody setting out hopefully, yes; but also somebody under Adam's curse, eating their textual bread in the sweat of their face. Bunyan's novel presents itself not as a diversion but as something to be experienced, as lived-through, and to that end it recruits allegory in just the way Benjamin thinks of the mode:
In Benjamin's analysis, allegory is pre-eminently a kind of experience. A paraphrase of his exposition might begin by stating that allegory arises from an apprehension of the world as no longer permanent, as passing out of being: a sense of its transitoriness, an intimation of mortality, or a conviction, as in Dickinson, that “this world is not conclusion.” Allegory would then be the expression of this sudden intuition. But allegory is more than an outward form of expression; it is also the intuition, the inner experience itself. The form such an experience of the world takes is fragmentary and enigmatic; in it the world ceases to be purely physical and becomes an aggregation of signs ... Transforming things into signs is both what allegory does - its technique—and what it is about—its content. Nor is this transformation exclusively an intellectual one: the signs perceived strike notes at the depths of one's being, regardless of whether they point to heaven, to an irretrievable past, or to the grave. [Bainard Cowan, “Walter Benjamin's Theory of Allegory”, New German Critique 22 (1981), 110]
Negotiating a world in which everything is a sign, everything has a meaning and means intensely (means in an eternal-life-or-death way) is ... exhausting. Debilitating. Depressing. On the level of didacticism, Bunyan's allegory carries a particular content; but on the level of form it is doing somehting rather more theologically complex and ambitious, Benjaminianly fusing material and transcendental elements to ironize the “relationship between appearance and essence”, and working a nuanced and potent version of characterisation as evolution, as progress, in such a way that it rubs sparks of sadness from the unyielding, careceral model of character as a static, Godly given. Bunyan's allegory is powerful sad stuff.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Around the World: Favourite Novels

I started this exercise curious to see, really, how large is the gap in my knowledge of world literature. It turns out: it's pretty huge. The majority of nation-states listed below are followed by I have never read any fiction from that country. I am, of course, limiting myself to novels written by citizens of the countries concerned (which is to say, I am not counting fiction merely set in that country, or by people born elsewhere who lived in those countries for a while); and I could mumble something here about the unavailability of translations, the need to pay literary translators more and commission them to do more work. But that's a torn and shabby sort of Get Out Of Jail Free Card. The fact is I am lamentably under-read in non-anglophone literatures and need to do better. K through M is particularly dire, isn't it?

In my own defence, I have read a lot—and I mean: a lot—of British and American fiction, and a fair whack of fiction from some (but, evidently, not all) European nations too, plus unevenly distributed chunks from Commonwealth and other countries. But the overall picture, for me, is: bleh.

Afghanistan – I have never read any Afghan fiction.
Albania – Ismail Kadare, The Palace of Dreams (Pallati i ëndrrave, 1981). This counts as my favourite Albanian novel by virtue of being the only Albanian novel I have ever read.
Algeria – Apuleius, Golden Ass (Asinus Aureus, c. AD 180)
Andorra – I have never read any Andorran fiction.
Angola – I have never read any Angolan fiction.
Antigua and Barbuda – Jamaica Kincaid's Mr Potter (2002). But see: Albania
Argentina – Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (1944/56). Not a novel, I know, but: bite me. It's Borges.
Armenia – I have never read any Armenian fiction.
Australia – Les Murray, Fredy Neptune (1999)
Austria – Franz Kafka, Der Process (‘The Trial’, 1925)
Azerbaijan – I have never read any Azerbaijani fiction.

Bahamas – I have never read any Bahamian fiction.
Bahrain – I have never read any Bahraini fiction.
Bangladesh – I have never read any Bangladeshi fiction.
Barbados – I have never read any Barbadian fiction.
Belarus – I have never read any Belarusian fiction.
Belgium – Hergé, Les Bijoux de la Castafiore (1962)
Belize – I have never read any Belizean fiction.
Benin – I have never read any Beninese fiction.
Bhutan – I have never read any Bhutanese fiction.
Bolivia – I have never read any Bolivian fiction.
Bosnia and Herzegovina – Aleksandar Hemon, Nowhere Man (2002), but: see Albania.
Botswana – I have never read any Batwana fiction.
Brazil – I am surprised to discover that, so far as I can see, the only Brazilian writer I have read is Paulo Coelho. I have to say: I draw the line at listing The Alchemist as in any sense a favourite.
Brunei – I have never read any Bruneian fiction.
Bulgaria – I have never read any Bulgarian fiction.
Burkina Faso – I have never read any Burkinabé fiction.
Burundi – I have never read any Burundi fiction.

Cambodia – I have never read any Cambodian fiction.
Cameroon – I have never read any Cameroonian fiction.
Canada – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2000).
Central African Republic – I have never read any CAR fiction.
Chad – I have never read any Chadian fiction.
Chile – Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (2004)
China – Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone (18th century)
Colombia – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad 1967).
Congo – I have never read any Congolese fiction.
Costa Rica – I have never read any Costa Rican fiction.
Côte d'Ivoire – I have never read any Ivoirean fiction.
Croatia – I have never read any Croatian fiction.
Cuba – I have never read any Cuban fiction.
Cyprus – I have never read any Cypriot fiction, Greek or Turkish, a fact which surprised me.
Czech Republic – Karel Čapek, War with the Newts (Válka s mloky, 1936)

Denmark – Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (Enten–Eller, 1843). Don't @ me.
Djibouti – I have never read any Djibouti fiction.
Dominica – I have never read any Dominican fiction.

Ecuador – I have never read any Ecuadorian fiction.
Egypt – Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (بين القصرين 1956)
El Salvador – I have never read any El Salvadorian fiction.
England – Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853).
Equatorial Guinea – I have never read any Equatoguinean fiction.
Eritrea – I have never read any Eritrean fiction.
Estonia – I have never read any Estonian fiction.
Ethiopia – I have never read any Ethiopian fiction.

Fiji – I have never read any Fijian fiction.
Finland – Tove Jansson, Comet in Moominland (Mumintrollet på kometjakt, 1946)
France – Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1922-31)

Gabon – I have never read any Gabonese fiction.
Gambia, The – I have never read any Gambian fiction.
Germany – Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1924). Sigh.
Ghana – I have never read any Ghanese fiction.
Greece – Homer's Iliad (7thC BC)
Grenada – I have never read any Grenadan fiction.
Guatemala – I have never read any Guatemalan fiction.
Guyana – I have never read any Guyanese fiction.

Haiti – I have never read any Haitian fiction.
Honduras – I have never read any Honduran fiction.
Hungary – Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)

IcelandNjáls Saga (c. 1280)
India – Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (1981)
Indonesia – I have never read any Indonesian fiction.
Iran – Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003)
Iraq – Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014 فرانكشتاين في بغداد‎). But: see Albania.
Ireland – James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Israel – Lavie Tidhar, A Man Lies Dreaming (2014). Don't tell him I said so.
Italy – Vergil's Aeneid (4 BC)

Jamaica – Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)
Japan - Shūsaku Endō, Silence (沈黙 Chinmoku 1966)
Jordan – I have never read any Jordanian fiction.

Kazakhstan – I have never read any Kazakhstani fiction.
Kenya – I have never read any Kenyan fiction.
Korea – I have never read any Korean fiction.
Kuwait – I have never read any Kuwaiti fiction.
Kyrgyzstan – I have never read any Kyrgyz fiction.

Laos – I have never read any Laotian fiction.
Latvia – I have never read any Latvian fiction.
Lebanon – I have never read any Lebanese fiction.
Lesotho – I have never read any Mosotho fiction.
Liberia – I have never read any Liberian fiction.
Libya – I have never read any Libyan fiction.
Liechtenstein – I have never read any Liechtensteinian fiction.
Lithuania – I have never read any Lithuanian fiction.
Luxembourg – I have never read any Luxembourgian fiction.

Macedonia – I have never read any Macedonian fiction.
Malawi – I have never read any Malawian fiction.
Malaysia – I have never read any Malay fiction.
Maldives – I have never read any Maldivian fiction.
Malta – I have never read any Maltese fiction (I don't count Anthony Burgess).
Mauritania – I have never read any Mauritanian fiction.
Mauritius – I have never read any Mauritian fiction.
Mexico – Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz (La muerte de Artemio Cruz, 1962) Micronesia – I have never read any Micronesian fiction.
Moldova – I have never read any Moldovan fiction.
Monaco – I have never read any Monégasque fiction (I don't count Anthony Burgess).
Mongolia – I have never read any Mongolian fiction.
Montenegro – I have never read any Montenegrin fiction.
Morocco – I have never read any Moroccan fiction.
Mozambique – I have never read any Mozambican fiction.
Myanmar – I have never read any Burmese fiction.

Namibia – – I have never read any Namibian fiction.
Nepal – I have never read any Nepalese fiction.
Netherlands – I'm astonished to discover I appear not to have read any Dutch fiction at all. How can that be?
New Zealand – Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)
Nicaragua – I have never read any Nicaraguan fiction.
Niger – I have never read any Nigerien fiction.
Nigeria – Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958). I think about this novel all the time.
Northern Ireland – Bernard MacLaverty, Grace Notes (1997)
Norway – Knut Hamsun, Hunger (1890)

Oman – I have never read any Omani fiction.

Palestine – – I have never read any Palestinian fiction.
Pakistan – Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (2017)
Panama – I have never read any Panamanian fiction.
Papua New Guinea – I have never read any Papua New Guinean fiction.
Paraguay – I have never read any Paraguayan fiction.
Peru – Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo, 1981). But: see Albania.
Philippines – I have never read any Filipino fiction.
Poland – Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900). A toss up between him and Lem.
Portugal – José Saramago, Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, 1995)

Qatar – I have never read any Qatari fiction.

Romania – Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair (Pe culmile disperării, 1934). Yes, I'm bracketing this as fiction.
Russia – Tolstoy, War and Peace (Война и мир 1869)
Rwanda – I have never read any Rwandan fiction.

Saint Lucia – Derek Walcott, Omeros (1990)
Samoa – I have never read any Samoan fiction.
Saudi Arabia – I have never read any Saudi fiction.
Scotland – Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian (1818).
Senegal – I have never read any Senegalese fiction.
Serbia – Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars (Хазарски речник, 1984). But: see Albania.
Seychelles – I have never read any Seychellois fiction.
Sierra Leone – I have never read any Sierra Leonean fiction.
Singapore – I have never read any Singaporese fiction.
Slovakia – I have never read any Slovak fiction.
Slovenia – I have never read any Slovene fiction. I refuse to recruit Žižek into this category.
Somalia – I have never read any Somali fiction.
South Africa – J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (1999)
Spain – Cervantes, Don Quijote (1612)
Sudan – Tayib Salih, Season of Migration to the North (Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal, 1967). But: see Albania.
Suriname – I have never read any Surinamese fiction.
Swaziland – I have never read any Swazi fiction.
Sweden – Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump, 1945)
Switzerland – Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Emile (Émile, ou de l'éducation, 1762)
Syria – I have never read any Syrian fiction.

Taiwan – I have never read any Taiwanese fiction.
Tajikistan – I have never read any Tajikistani fiction.
Tanzania – I have never read any Tanzanian fiction.
Thailand – I have never read any Thai fiction.
Togo – I have never read any Togolese fiction.
Tonga – I have never read any Tongan fiction.
Trinidad – V S Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas (1961)
Tunisia – I have never read any Tunisian fiction.
Turkey – Yaşar Kemal, Memed, My Hawk (İnce Memed, 1955)

Uganda – I have never read any Ugandan fiction.
Ukraine – I have never read any Ukrainian fiction.
United Arab Emirates – I have never read any UAE fiction.
United States – Philip K. Dick, Ubik (1969)
Uruguay – I have never read any UAE fiction.
Uzbekistan – I have never read any Uzbek fiction.

Venezuela – I have never read any Venezuelan fiction.
Vietnam – I have never read any Vietnamese fiction.

Wales – The Mabinogion (12th-Century)

Yemen – I have never read any Yemeni fiction.

Zambia – I have never read any Zambian fiction.
Zimbabwe – I have never read any Zimbabwean fiction.

Rebecca West, "The Harsh Voice" (1935)

I'm reading West only in part because she's a major if neglected 20th-century author (though she certainly is) and more, if I'm honest, because I have to write this H G Wells biography thing and West loomed so large in Bertie's middle life. To that end I've previously blogged about her first novel The Return of the Soldier (1918) and also had some things to say about her semi-autobiographical novel The Fountain Overflows (1957). And now here's The Harsh Voice (1935), a collection of four novellas.

The first, ‘Life Sentence’, is about a marriage that fails. Sam Hartley is engaged to the beautiful Josephine Houblon, but right at the start of the story he tells her ‘Josephine you'll think me just the dirtiest skunk in the whole world but I can't help it: I've got to tell you. Josie, I can't marry you’ [12]. Josephine however proves disinclined to release him from his promise and so they do get married after all, and both make a material success of life (Sam in business, Josephine by investing in real estate) and have three children, two girls and a boy. But the marriage never really works, and by the halfway point in the story they are divorced. Josephine marries young Jack Lambert (to Sam's disgust: ‘that college boy? You don't want a husband. You want a cheer-leader’ he sneers [39]) and Sam finds contentment in marrying a young girl the story doesn't even name (‘she was the prettiest girl in town and she had a nice steady temper’ [43]). But though Sam and Josephine genuinely dislike one another neither can quite purge the other from their lives. The story's denoument happens after the 1929 crash when they agree to travel to the neutral ground of a Chicago hotel for a meet-up. Sam thinks Jospehine has lost all her money in the crash and resolves to help her financially, telling himself it's for the sake of their kids; but it turns out she thinks exactly the same thing about him. And on that misunderstanding, and the open-ended suggestion that this is not the end for them as a couple, the story closes.

The longest tale here, ‘There Is No Conversation’, is also the best. It starts when our narrator bumps into her old aquaintance, the vain, ageing Marquis de Sevenac on the streets of Paris. He invites her up to his apartment to view his art collection—for the last time, he says, since his personal fortune, all tied-up in US Railway stocks and shares, has just been wiped out. Hélas! But how? He spends thirty pages telling our narrator the circumstances. It all has to do with an affair he recently conducted with a visiting American woman: Nancy Sarle, plain and middle-aged, but with piercing blue eyes. This was a love affair the Marquis entered into partly through pity, partly because it flattered his vanity to be able to show her around his city, and partly on mere whim. When he first wooed her he had no idea who she was, and realised only belatedly that she happens herself to be an immensely wealthy railway magnate. But the Marquis doesn't care about that, since he is himself so well-off. But then, she falls in love with him and things become tiresome. He has a new belle now and so he breaks things off with l'Américaine quite ruthlessly. Later he discovers Sarle has used her position on the stock market to destroy the value of his shares, and that he is ruined. The narrator dislikes de Sevenac for his self-centredness, his desperate clinging to his long-vanished youth, but indulges his complaining narrative. When she later finds herself in New York she tracks down Nancy Sarle, befriends her and eventually hears her side of the story from Sarle's own mouth.

Sarle is an interesting piece of characterisation, actually, especially for 1935: a highly successful businesswoman, plain-talking and no-nonsense, entirely unillusioned about her own lack of pulchritrude (‘I wasn't dolled-up like the women he went with, I never had as much looks as a street car’). She assumes at first that he's after her for her money, and is content to play along while she's enjoying herself; but when she discovers he is, himself, very wealthy her self-possession takes a knock. If he's not after her for her money, then why is he with her? Might it be that his professions of undying love were not just amorous convention, but actually heartfelt? And when this idea occurs to her it creates the equal-and-opposite reaction: what if she's in love with him? The story's subplot has to do with Sarle's complicated Wall Street strategy to ruin the value of one of her American rival's stock, something she's been planning for years. But this strategy is suddenly threatened: because these are the shares upon which Etienne de Sevenac's wealth depends, and she doesn't want to ruin the man she is in love with. There are two twists at the end: one, when Sevanac angrily insists he never had feelings for her it makes her abruptly and unexpectedly happy: it clarifies the situation and means she can go ahead with her stock-market play. The second twist has to do with the narrator, and I won't spoil it here.

The complex ironies of this story don't only have to do with its portrait of two people talking, as per the title, at such profound cross-purposes that they're not really talking at all. There's also a compelling account of the radical opacity of erotic motivation: not just the, at the end, unanswered question as to why Sevenac was ever attracted to the unalluring Sarle, but also what both Sarle and (we discover) the narrator ever saw in the preening, egotistical and melodramatically-posturing Sevenac.

The other two novellas in this volume aren't, I think, quite up to the standard of these first two.‘The Salt of the Earth’ is a pen-portrait of Alice Pemberton, a sensible, middle-class, middle-aged Englishwoman, self-declared salt of the earth, who interferes with the lives of those around her for, she thinks, the best reasons, but who—spoiler—dies, having been handed a fatally poisoned cup of hot chocolate by those very friends (‘nobody likes having salt rubbed into their wounds,’ one of them tells her, ‘even if it is the salt of the earth’ [171]). The mix of ordinariness and melodrama, here, is only intermittently successful. Then there's ‘The Abiding Vision’ the story of Sam Hartley, a successful businessman, who loves his wife Lulah in a rather distant way, gets something more immediate from his relationship different out of his relationship with his mistress Lily, and who eventually cracks under the pressure of it all. It's a good piece of writing, although perhaps lacks the expressively oblquity of the first two in the collection.

There are a few places where the writing wobbles. Here's West's description of a character called Judy Mandeville:
A girl of twenty-one who had come to them to rest up after her first divorce. a slender creature who has the bright colour and the air of being coated with syrupy juices characteristic of canned fruit. [33]
Er ... what? And here's Josephine—a regular, indeed a beautiful, woman, and not as you might think from this description a scoliolis-blighted cripple:
Jospehine was standing in the doorway. There was always a suggestion of something spiral about her, as if under her clothes and her flesh there coiled up a spring, and the long dress she was wearing made this seem more so than ever. [49]
I think moments like these (and, in amongst some very finely written passages, there are various examples throughout the book) bother me more than they might otherwise because West is trying for a series of quite precise effects, and indeed affects. There's still a sense, here, that her instrument isn't calibrated to quite the Nabokovian exactness her larger themes need. Still a very memorable and powerful collection of stories, though.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Violence


R F Kuang’s The Poppy War (HarperVoyager 2018) is a fluently-written fantasy novel set in a China-alike realm struggling, as real China did in the 19th-century, to prevent powerful external naval powers flooding their society with opium. The drug in the novel actually is opium, and many elements of the novel's chinoiserie are so close to their actual prototypes as to make the reader wonder why Kuang has written fantasy at all, rather than historical fiction—the imperial capital is called ‘Sinegard’, students study ‘Sunzi’s Principles of War’, a Red Emperor rules over a coalition of provincial warlords, and so on. Of course, Fantasy allows Kuang to introduce elements of magic into her story, and to reorient historical actuality to underline her main points in the service of her larger story, but there are losses as well as gains in that strategy.

The story is linear: Fang Runin, known as Rin, is a scrawny orphan and outcast from the provinces who manages, by sheer determination, to win a spot in the elite Imperial college in Sinegard, where her abilities with magical ‘Lore’ single her out for future greatness. The first half the novel is Rin’s training, and the rest a series of crunchy and rather icky accounts of battlefield ultraviolence.

Rin starts out likeable and engaging, although the novel perhaps leans too heavily on the ‘badass’ aspect of her character—badass, here as in much other popular culture, is a euphemism for ‘energetically homicidal in a manner untroubled by conscience’, which has never seemed to me a human virtue, in man or woman. And, particularly in its later stages, violence in this novel is troped as exciting with only minor drawbacks for the perpetrators (so, Rin kills a shape-shifting monster called a chimei, ‘she smashed the blunt of the torch into his face … his face lost shape altogether. She beat out those eyes, beat them bloody … when he struggled she turned the torch around and burned him in the wounds’—and afterwards ‘Rin climbed off the corpse and sucked in a great, heaving breath. Then she vomited’ [p.366]). But the cause is just, the enemy are monsters both figuratively and in some cases literally, so (as it might be) torturing prisoners is a justified and effective strategy and so on and so forth. ‘The jammed boats began to burn in earnest … the soldiers on the boats began to scream in earnest. It was utter carnage. It was beautiful’ [p.313].

My problem here is more than just squeamishness—though I concede I am squeamish, and I very much disliked reading these later sections. I have, in point of fact, become more squeamish the older I have gotten, with a coastal-shelf step-down into Deep Squeam when my kids were born. After that doubled event I found it much harder to bear representations of torture and mutilation in my art, especially where kids are concerned. But there is a less subjective element here too, I think. My problem is that the novel’s violence is all sealed away inside the structure of the story. This is a novel about making war, but in itself it prefers not to make war on cliché, that formal and stylistic war to which all authors, without exception, are called. Clichés, as Martin Amis says, are symptoms of used thinking. A writer of Chinese birth and upbringing, now American, reworking the hackneyed European biases of Heroic Fantasy is a commendable and exciting development, but it really (I think) ought to be a more disruptive—a more textually violent—matter than this smoothly-written and easily-paced read. It’s a text that records but doesn't embody violence, something that's there in the chatty, distinctly 21st-century dialogue that makes up a good third of the whole, in the descriptions (‘Winter descended on Sinegard with a vengeance. The icy weather was the last straw for most of the class’ [p.105: italics mine] … there are hundreds of similar examples), in specific scenes and also in the overall shape of the narrative: the orphan/chosen one is trained by the wise old mage to become a major player in world-wide war to combat the external wickedness of, and so on, and so forth.

Descriptions (and depictions) of violence tend to evoke a strong response in audiences, and it’s easy to mistake that intense affect for disruption. There’s a whole mode of gore-lit, ultra-violent horror shows, especially dominant in culture over the last quarter-century: in cinema with the whole Saw/Hostel sub-genre and everything from Tarantino to Omaha Beach at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan; in literature too, as with the whole post-Martin Grimdark Fantasy tradition, in which Kuang’s account (for instance) of the invader’s atrocities can be situated:
I saw women disembowelled. I saw the soldiers slice off their breasts. I saw them nail women alive to walls. There was a pregnant woman in the house with us …the general howled and grabbed at her stomach. Not with his knife. With his fingers. His nails. He knocked her down and he tore and tore. And he pulled out her stomach and her intestines and finally the baby, and the baby was still moving … the general ripped her baby in half the way you’d split an orange. [p.425]
This, though, flattens all possible response into an ugh. Atrocities such as this are recorded as happening in the Rape of Nanking; but what was hideous in actual history, and might be edifying (in an appalling way) in a historical novel, loses moral force in a Fantasy novel. The Japanese soldiers who committed war crimes in Nanking were ordinary human beings, from which fact the ethical imperative of this terrible episode takes its force. The Federation soldiers who commit the crimes in Poppy War are ciphers for wickedness. By conflating three or four historical contexts from the nineteenth- and the twentieth-centuries in one made-up Fantasy conflict, Kuang muddies the ethical as well as the dramatic waters to the point of actual opacity. The historical record tells us anybody—you, me, any person—is capable of atrocity. Poppy War says that atrocities are horrible, and that we should feel an intense affect of slyly-eroticised revulsion and rage about that fact, up to and including genocidal revenge. But it also says that the perpetrators are the outsiders, the invaders, the Others, and the way to combat atrocity is to take the Empire’s most badass kids and train them into the further reaches of combat badassery in the Empire’s most ruthless training college. Since the narrative encourages us to identify with Rin and her friends this is as much as to say: atrocities exist in this text to license and encourage our counter-atrocities. After all, look how bestial our enemies are! Super-bestial reprisals are proportionate responses. It’s emotionally coercive to write this way, I  think, although I'm aware that, whilst I dislike being coerced by my books, many people don’t.

The Poppy War has been well-reviewed in SF/Fantasty circles (I can see why) and has generated a good deal of positive buzz. And it is in many ways an impressive achievement, especially for a first novel. My beef is not with this one novel, but with what seems to me a particular aesthetic of somatic ultraviolence that is very widespread in contemporary culture. This, I think, is something distinct from other modes of representing violence. There are plenty of graphic and stomach-turning accounts of wounding and killing in the Iliad (say), but those, in their clinical precision and the counter-intuitive way they coolly describe the heat of battle, work very differently on the reader to a passage like the one quoted above. Homer never describes torture, or gratuitous violence. And for all that he gives us, in Simon Weil’s resonant phrase, a glimpse into Hell, a world ruled entirely by Force, Homer really isn’t interested in cruelty.

No: the source for that particular fascination in later literature is Sadean, and the vibe of contemporary body horror and atrocitypunk owes an unmistakeable, if sometimes subterranean, debt to Les 120 Journées de Sodome. Guillaume Apollinaire predicted that de Sade would ‘dominate the 20th century’ and I tend to think he's been proved right, at least so far as the constellation of eroticised violence and cruelty so prevalent in our culture texts nowadays is concerned. Are we crueller, in our art, than we used to be? Why might it be that our collective preferences where art is concerned is crueller than our actual lived experiences? It’s a move that predates the relative deracination of social interaction occasioned by social media, I think. But I wonder if our ubiquitous social media have acted as an accelerant.


All this may have something to do with cinema's ‘electricity problem’. So: electricity is a major part of modern life (and continues to play a major part in cinema's various SFnal futures). Ah, but here's the thing: electricity is invisible. Since cinema recoils from the visually unrepresentable a convention has grown up such that ‘electricity’ means: ‘sparking electrical discharge’. That's pretty much the height and breadth of the way all electricity is represented in popular cinema, from the animation of Frankenstein's monster, to the Jawas zapping R2D2. Much as, in The Simpson's celebrated movie gag, cows have to be painted to look like horses because ‘horses don't look like horses on screen’, the movie convention for the representation of electricity is a kind of white-blue matrix of shimmering and sparking firework light-effects.

We know this isn't now electricity works in real life, but we accept the visual convention by whcih something internal and invisible is externalised and visualised in order to fit the representational logic of the medium. And that's fine, just as long as we don't confuse a representational convention with reality.

I suspect violence is like this. The thing to bear in mind is: the fact that physical violence is simpler to represent visually than other kinds of violence doesn't make physical violence the truth of violence as such, especially in the 21st-century world. I'm not of course denying that actual physical violence happens in the world: not denying that men beat women, that people injure and kill people. But I am suggesting that, outside actual warzones, other forms of violence are more pervasive and intrusive. A punch to the gut hurts for a while; growing up female, or gay, or Black in a sexist, homophobic and racist society presses violently upon your very soul the whole time. Some rape involves the sort of additional physical violence that leaves bruises on the skin or bones broken. Most rape does not do this. But only a fool would suggest that a rape victim who emerges from the trauma without bruises and broken bones has not suffered. On the contrary, such a person is likely as badly, or even more severely, traumatised by the experience because the violence of rape is not essentially the violence of broken bones but of broken spirits: domination, violation of personal space, invasion of personal integrity, degradation and breaking of peace of mind.

To the extent visible, somatic modes of violence come to stand-in, as a representational convention, for the larger and more malign trauma of internalised, systemic and invisible violence, they run the risk of actually supplanting violence as such in the popular imagination—so as it might be, people end up making the (false) distinction between ‘rape’ and ‘real rape’, reserving the latter category for instances where physical violence has been added to the fundamental violence of the traumatising invasiveness of the act as such. Sometime post-facto justifications are added to this prejudice, such that bruises show a victim ‘fought back’ or ‘resisted’, a datum treated as justifying our compassion as the expensive of implying that a victim who does not garner such addition, visible markers of violence somehow doesn't deserve our pity. Germaine Greer's recently comments about the need to reform our rape laws were vehemently criticized by many. It seems to me, for what it's worth, that her actual proposals have something to recommend them (‘rape trials are foundering and not ending in convictions as lawyers argue over the issue of consent; why not believe the woman and lower the penalty?’) but I wonder if there is a one-dimensionality in the way she uses the term violence: so that when she says ‘most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever’ she is consicously or unconciously conflating externally-evident physical injury (where her statement is probably true) with internal less-evident injury (where her statement is, clearly, simply wrong).

It all speaks to what is, I think, a widespread belief that physical violence is more ‘real’ (more important, more terrible, more worthy of representation) than psychological or conceptual violence. This, though, is the wrong way about. Physical violence is horrible, but psychological violence tends to be both more profoundly traumatising and longer-lasting. A gunshot wound may heal in weeks, where PTSDs last years, even decades. The domestic goods stolen by a burglar can be replaced on the insurance, but the sense that a malign stranger has been in your house lingers, and makes you feel unsafe and unhappy for a long time. That's a psychological reaction (though no less devastating for that), but I wonder if it is conceptual violence—by which I mean, whatever does violence to the principles, assumptions and mental models by which we navigate this complicating and alarming universe—that is the most radically destabilising.

In either case, there is a bias against the invisible. It's not true that bodily illness is more real than psychological illness, or that conceptual violence is a mere chimera.  It's just that people's responses are more easily recruited by the somatic. Trans activists I know tend to stress the physical dangers trans men and women often face: the risks of being actually beaten-up and murdered. Those risks are real, and undeniably higher for trans people than the general population, and that is not something to brush under the carpet. But might it not be that the conceptual violence people endure when their sense of self is denied by the communities to which they belong is, because it is continual, vastly more pervasive, and internalised in ways that are psychologically violating, more significant? I've always thought ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is exactly the wrong way around. It is terrible to be beaten-up for being gay, but being beaten up will send you to the hospital for a poultice, where decades of verbal taunts, societal invalidation, disdain and rejection can send you to suicide. It's not that sticks and stones won't break your bones; it's that it's the stuff that gets inside your head that kills you.

Nor is this state of affairs ideologically neutral. Indeed, I'd suggest it is on the contrary precisely how ideology as such works. There may be a temptation to think of ideology as a sort of add-on, in some sense less importat than the brute existential facts of living, finding food and shelter and all that. But, again, I think this gets things the wrong way about. ‘Ideology’ is a shorthand term for those structures of belief, those attitudes to mind and habits of living, by which we orient ourselves in our social world. These beliefs can sustain us, and motivate us to acts of great kindness or courage; but they can also prompt us to atrocity, and can even overwhelm such basic biological drives as self-preservation, as the anorexic starves herself to death or the suicide-bomber blows himself up. Given this, something we see all the time around us in small as well as large ways, it strikes me as foolish to treat ‘ideology’ as a kind of afterthought, or as somehow secondary to the biological, somatic fundamentals of life.

I'm not, of course, the first to say so. A lot of Žižek's oeuvre is more-or-less disposable Extruded Lacanian Product, but I quite like his 2008 book Violence.

Žižek argues that we fixate on ‘subjective violence’ (assault, murder, terror and war) at the expense of other, more important modes of violence: Z. is particularly interested in what he calls ‘objective’ violence (‘the symbolic violence embodied in language and its forms’) and ‘systemic violence’ (the ‘often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems’). This isn't quite the distinction I'm trying to make in this post, actually, but Z and I are at least in the same ball-park. So, for instance, despite the professed conviction that it's actual violence that is the traumatic and destructive kind, Žižek is surely right to note that Western society remains absolutely unruffled by the actual violence of its armies and police forces (in reality and as reflected in our hyper-violent popular culture-texts) whilst at the same time being highly agitated by the merely conceptual violence offered to hetrosexual norms by (say) gays in the military. The people unfazed by the 270 million firearms sloshing around the civilian population of the USA and 30,000+ deaths annually these weapons facilitate—actual violence, by any measure—are often the same people genuinely rattled by the purely conceptual violence offered to the dominant social (ideological) logics of heteronormativity, gender fixity and racial homogeneity by the mere existence of gay, trans and non-white segments of the population.

Now: it ought, I think, to be possible to think and talk about the pervasiveness and damage of conceptual violence without in effect crowding-out the concrete horribleness of actual violence. Women are beaten and murdered around the world in horrifying numbers every day. The thing is: some women are victimised by this kind of crime, but all women live under the conceptual coercion of fear of it—all women have to curtail their freedom of movement and hobble their peace of mind, live existences constrained within the procustean bed of this conceptual space.

That said there is, I think, a correlative here. If we take conceptual violence seriously, then we need to take it seriously across the board. There is, of course, an asymmetry to the way marginalised groups suffer, and the inertia of history and privilege determine a steep gradiant of oppression from privilege downward. But being born into a privileged group is not the same thing as being born wicked. We can certainly say that the pervasive social and cultural pressure telling gay or trans people that they are disgusting, unnatural, shameful and so on enacts a violence upon those people worse, because it is both ubiquitous and liable to be internalised by the victim, than bruised skin and broken bones. But we might also want to ask ourselves: is there anything to learn from people whose atttudes are shaped by conscious or unconscious homophobic or transphobic views? Maybe your answer to this question is: no, these are bad people, worth only our contempt. Most people aren't bad, though; and cleaving to a different set of life-values is not in itself an index of moral turpitude.

Imagine somebody for whom fixity of gender was one of the conceptual props that helps them navigate the various shoals and whirlpools of everyday life, perhaps as a function of a larger religious faith supporting and maintaining the stability of their life. Lets's say the performance of gender fluidity by others enacts a degree of conceptual violence upon these assumptions, and makes the person unhappy and upset and unnerved. You may think: good, they deserve it. You may go further (fuck their feelings, this is right-and-wrong and they're wrong. It's possible they think the same of you). Maybe that's justified. But it's hardly an approach calculated to end hostilities. How might negotiation look, in this particular situation? How to defuse a stand-off in which both sides' strategies boil down to loud declarations of fuck your feelings? To say ‘their feelings don't matter, only mine do’ is self-evidently unsatisfactory, even given the asymmetry of the social status quo. My point is, retreating to ‘what I'm doing is not really violence, it's not as though I'm literally punching them in the face’ also isn't a load-bearing position in this context. Which backs us, rather, into the situation of believing something along the lines of: ‘though it would be bad if it happened to me, it's good for them to have their values challenged’. I find this really difficult to process, I'll be honest. It seems to me ‘it's good for them, but not me, to be on the receiving end of violence’ both ethically untenable and not a probable position from which a mutually satisfactory compromise could be negotiated. Of course, it may be that neither side is interested in compromise.

I don't mean to be hyperbolic. It may be that the facility with which people from all over the globe and from every position can now rub-up against one another has increased the friction, which is to say the potential for psychological and conceptual violence. By the same token the evidence strongly suggests that actual violence today is at its lowest level in human history; and recent studies show that human beings are bad at actual violence, inflicted on the bodies of actual people. We don't like it, and with good cause. It's sickening. Armies all around the world know that people have to undergo lengthy training, both physically and psychologically (in Full Metal Jacket stylee) to acquire the remoteness from normal human empathy to be able to do it at all. It's a process that's very time- and resource-intensive. More, even after centuries of honing this technique, it is surprisingly ineffective: up to 70% of soldiers in combat don't even shoot their weapons, let alone confirm any kills.

This is one reason why the modern military is so fond of remote-control warmaking, drones being the most prominent example of what I mean, and this surely point the way future belligerance will go. It's not just that it's cheaper and reduces your own casualties; it is also much easier to persaude soldiers to do it. A person who would have genuine, humane difficulty sticking a bayonet into somebody's chest can be blithe about sitting in a room in front of a monitor playing war as if it were a video game, directing drones to dismember and kill men women and children.

This is to speak of ‘actual’, somatic violence. The point is: when it comes to conceptual violence, the way online interaction has shifted the centre of gravity of our manifold intersubjectivities includes, baked-in as it were, a great deal of precisely this remote-controlling. People who boast online about relishing the tears of their ‘enemies’ would, in almost all actual cases, be genuinely distressed to see somebody driven to weeping in front of them in real-life. People in real-life are generally nice to one another; people on Twitter are, generally, horrible to one another. And this, of course, is precisely the problem.

This brings me back to my earlier point about de Sade. In art, violence can indeed be cathartic. It's just that we need to be clear what manner of catharsis we're talking about. The violence represented in King Lear is extreme and sometimes disgusting, but the invisible forces it makes physically manifest are social and political. Something similar is true of Julius Caesar, War and Peace and Ubu Roi. I think, though, that the Sadean tradition entails something different, and the present-day success of this mode says something more worrying about who we are. Sadean catharsis operates via an eroticised cruelty and dominance that is, in turn, individuated and fixated on specific bodies, and ultimately on one specific body, one's own. It is not a template for actual erotic interaction so much as it is a hyperbolic projection of violent masturbatory fantasies back onto the body of the consumer him- or herself. De Sade is about withdrawing from the wider world, into a fantasy of sealed bourgeois individualism: the four aristocratic libertines of Les 120 Journées de Sodome lock themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle in the heart of the Black Forest with their 36 victims. ‘An enjoyment shared is enfeebled,’ de Sade writes: ‘there is no passion more egotistical than lechery; there is none that must be served more severely; one must absolutely think only of oneself.’

This solipsistic and eroticised quality is the logic of much of the grimdark and body-horror that plays such a prominent part of contemporary culture: Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991) or Tarantino's grisly set-pieces are Sadean exercises: apolitical and individualised, exercises in a reversionary solipsistic excess. So, despite its larger ensemble cast and pretentions towards realpolitik, is Game of Thrones: ‘Tits and Dragons’ as Ian McShane memorably called the show, after appearing on it (‘Peter Stringfellow's Lord of the Rings’ is Stewart Lee's pithy put-down). Here physical violence, lavishly illustrated on screen via distressingly lifelike special effects, combines wth a good deal of nudity and sexual activity to create a distinctlty Sadean Fantasy flavour. To pick one example from many: Ramsay Bolton's lengthy, ghastly sexualised torture of Theon Greyjoy that ends in the creation of a wholly subjugated Untermann called ‘Reek’, a process so drawn-out and egregious it overshadowed pretty much the whole of series 3.


One defence for all this Sadean excess might be the same one a couple of late-20th-century philosophers advanced with respect to de Sade himself: not that he was a nice person (since he very clearly wasn't) but that his fantasy, by manifesting the oppressive logic concealed in all sexual interchanges under patriarchy, can be recruited to revolutionary ends.

In The Sadean Woman (1978) Angela Carter argued that de Sade was ‘a terrorist of the imagination’ whose works ‘turn the unacknowledged truths of the encounters of sexuality into a cruel festival at which women are prime sacrificial victims’ (‘the pornographer as terrorist may not think of himself as a friend of women…but he will always be our unconscious ally because he begins to approach some kind of emblematic truth, whereas the lackey pornographer, like the devious fellows who write love stories for women’s magazines, that softest of all forms of pornography, can only do harm’). For Carter de Sade functions as a sort of way-station on the road from oppressive-repressive sex to a more inclusively pornotopian vision of ‘a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders’. Not everyone was convinced: Andrea Dworkin threw shade on Carter's book by calling it merely ‘pseudofeminist’. For Dworkin, Sade's rape fantasy was all about the rape and not even a fantasy, because for her there is nothing hidden or, as it were, aspirational about male rape. It's all front and centre all around us all the time; it's written in letters of fire on the forehead of the patriarchy.

A more nuanced defence of de Sade is Simone de Beauvoir's ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ (1952), which argues that de Sade ‘posed the problem of the Other in its most extreme terms’. Beauvoir has interesting speculations about the extent to which cruelty establishes the relationship between the self and the other (‘cruelty reveals us to each other in the particularities and ambiguities of our conscious and fleshed existence. The tyrant and victim are a genuine couple. They are united by the bonds of the flesh and freedom’). She does concede that de Sade fails to work through this dynamic, becoming snared in his own erotic self-absorption and moral myopia, but refuses to give up on, or censor (‘burn’) him. I'm not so sure.

And actually, to be quite frank, I could care less about de Sade, who has always struck me as plain dull (other people's monomaniacal obsessions are almost always boring, of course). But I am interested in, and I do care about, the Sadean turn in modern culture. Because although I take the force of Beauvoir's attempt to renovate his reputation as a radical thinker of Otherness, the fact remains that his mode of fantasy is of an interaction with the Other that cannot comprehend the Other as anything other than a reversion of the subject's erotically intensified cruelty of affect. It's not that de Beauvoir is wrong to suggest that ‘Sade is trying to communicate an experience whose distinguishing characteristic is, nevertheless its will to remain incommunicable’; it's just that his incommunicable is never God—the least compelling and most adolescent elements in de Sade's writing is his febrile fist-shaking at God—and always only the Other as projection. It's not even, really, that de Sade hates women; you can't really hate something that barely impinges on your egoism. De Sade desires to do certain things to, never with, women (and men) but de Sade cannot comprehend women and men, and so not only his erotic energy but his whole universe reverts into an close-walled existential echo-chamber. His works are masturbatory not just in the instrumental sense that they have been used as handbooks for that harmless human activity, though I'm sure they have, but in the formal sense that they construe an aggressively hostile withdrawal from the Other as such.

That's the worrying aspect of the modern Sadean Fantasy. De Beauvoir is quite right to identify something cruel about the Other, or more specifically something cruel about the ethical and practical demands the Other necessarily places upon us, whether we like it or not. The pain of the other—the weeping child torn from her mother and placed in a camp, say—cannot make allowances for your convenience or ease. But de Beauvoir is not suggesting that cruelty is the whole theatre in which our encounter with the Other takes place. Grimdark, in effect, is suggesting that. This, it seems to me, doesn't critique the contemporary political turn to the right so much as translate it into the representational logic of fantastika. The one thing that unites today's Brexit agitators, and Trumps, and Viktor Orbáns, the basic Brexitrumpbán premise, is that the world is dark and full of horrors, and that the polity must pull up the drawbridge and arm the cannons in the face of these things. Hobbes is very much back in fashion nowadays. And TV SFF, the Game of Thrones and Westworld and True Blood and Altered Carbon vibe (something also true of recent rape-and-sandals hit epics like Spartacus and Rome) embroiders a fundamentally Sadean-Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and sure-to-include-female-nudity.

I'm not suggesting there's a disconnect between the larger political context and these Sadean-masturbatory fantasies of bourgeois hermeticism (sealed in our livings rooms with our box-sets, like de Sade's aristocrats, whilst all these beautiful young people are sexually tortured for our pleasure). On the contrary, the two are clearly intimately linked. We are at the moment plagued, we are absolutely ridden, by a ghastly political discourse of toughness, that horrible euphemism for ‘sadistic’. Our taste for bad-ass (that is, psychotic) heroes and heroines exactly mirrors our electorates' perverse fascination with ‘tough’ (that is, psychotic) leaders like Trump and Putin. American voters elected a President who promised to lock immigrant children in concentration camps, and so it has come to pass. Be honest: when I confessed, early on in this post, how squeamish I am about the representation of violence in art, did you nod in agreement with me? Or, on the contrary, did you find yourself tut-tutting: really? you don't have the stomach for this kind of art? what kind of weakling are you, Adam? Man that's lame: I'm certainly tougher than that. Perhaps part of the appeal of this art is that we flatter ourselves that we can take it. We might even egg ourselves on to watch increasingly violent representations. That's how desensitization works. The political logic of ‘toughness’ is that we need to ‘toughen up’ (to ‘grow a pair’, to ‘man the fuck up’) whenever our conscience prompts us to show compassion for our fellow human beings. That we need to harden our hearts, like pharaoh. ‘Le crime’, swoons De Sade in Les 120 journées de Sodome: ‘n'est-il pas toujours plus sublime, n'a-t-il pas sans cesse un caractère de grandeur et de sublimité qui l'emporte et l'emportera toujours sur les attraits monotomes et efféminés de la vertu?’ Fuck that.