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

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

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

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Man Who Fell to Earth (dir, Nick Roeg, 1976)

[This is a review of the Special Edition DVD (2-Discs, OPTD0732) release of Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth that I wrote some years ago for an academic journal. I thought it might be an idea to blog it. And so, here we are.]

Roeg’s reputation as a major director rests chiefly on three of his 1970s films: Walkabout (1971), in which an ordinary young girl encounters the radical strangeness of the Australian outback; Don’t Look Now (1973), another strange, but strangely affecting, movie that combines psychological portraiture, erotic drama and ghost story to striking effect; and the science fictional The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). This last is perhaps the strangest of the three, a work in which humanity as a whole is defamiliarised by being seen through the eyes of David Bowie’s visiting humanoid alien. In all three films Roeg develops a visual grammar to express the encounter with weirdness that is at the core of his directorial praxis. Indeed, one way of assessing the DVD release of this title is to try and gauge the extent to which this visual grammar is still capable of creatively estranging its viewer.

It’s a question raised by DVD re-releases in general, actually, since the commercial habit the format has engendered of re-releasing classic movies with a large amount of extra material will inevitably tend towards the ironing-out of any mysteries or uncertainties pertaining to the films themselves. Interviews with film-makers, directors commentaries and the like strive to explain everything about a given film; and owning a film in such a convenient form enables multiple repeat viewings in a way largely alien to the 1970s film viewer, who tended to see a film once, or (at most) a couple of times in the cinema. Certainly, such complete explanation would be detrimental to the effectiveness of The Man Who Fell to Earth, which depends for its hefty emotional and imaginative punch on a dreamlike unclarity, a lucid impression of deeper mysteries that would surely disintegrate on too rigorous an analysis.

To this end, this DVD re-release of Roeg’s film does its job.  Despite running to two discs the release contains no commentary from its director, or anybody else, on the main feature. The extras, such as they are, are confined to the second disc, and they are scanty.  There’s a short making-of documentary largely based upon interviews with Roeg, producer Michael Deeley, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg and actor Candy Clark (evidently neither Bowie himself nor Rip Torn could be persuaded into the studio to face questions) as well as some of the technical staff—costume designer, cinematographer, editor.  There are in addition two separate interviews, with Roeg and Mayersberg, in which much of the material from the making-of is reiterated . And then there are trailers, TV-spots and other advertising material.  Compared with many DVD re-releases this is thin fare.

Moreover Roeg, in particular, is endearingly unforthcoming about the deeper meanings of his own project.  In interview he tends, in his patrician mumble, towards either vatic incomprehensibilities (‘it’s … like a butterfly being friendly with a dormouse’) or else he gives voice to various rather disconnected trains of thought.  ‘It had,’ he says of the script, ‘a human ethos to it—it was not just sci-fi … mere sci-fi … not sci-fi … I mean, I like sci-fi … but it … um … the character of Mr Newton interested me.’

The Mr Newton whose character so intrigued Roeg is the alien whose fall is alluded to in the movie’s title.  The film begins with his spaceship literally falling out of the sky into a New Mexico lake; and the plot marks out the title character’s metaphorical rise and fall.  To begin with we see Newton marketing advanced alien photographic technology to earthlings in order to accrue a fortune.  He also begins a relationship with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a sweetly innocent girl working in a small New Mexico hotel.  Newton’s plan, it seems, is to make enough money to build a spaceship and return to his dying planet—scenes are intercut of Newton’s alien wife and two children that show a desiccated desert world.  He leaves his business affairs in the hands of Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) and retreats to New Mexico to live, more or less, as a Howard Hughes-style recluse, employing university lecturer Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) to help him build the space ship. In a striking sequence Newton reveals his alienness to Mary-Lou by removing his humanising wig and contact lenses—to her initial and urinous fright, although she subsequently accepts and even continues having sex with the alien. Bryce also has his suspicions that Newton is an extraterrestrial, and eventually betrays him to the authorities—government agents, presumably from the CIA, lurk in the margins of many scenes. Newton’s attempt to return to his home world is thwarted, and he is imprisoned in a bizarre luxury apartment built inside a warehouse, where ‘they’ (we assume, government agents) experiment upon him.

By the end of the film Mary-Lou and Bryce, visibly older, have become a couple. Newton on the other hand looks as young as ever, despite years of alcohol abuse—one Earthly vice to which he has succumbed. Newton has given up hope of returning to his home, and instead has recorded an album of pop music in the hope that, being played on the radio, its message will eventually reach his wife. Both Mary-Lou and Bryce meet Newton again, separately, and the film ends abruptly, during the second of these meetings. Newton’s minder interrupts Bryce’s conversation: ‘don’t you think Mr Newton has had enough now?’ ‘Yes,’ says Bryce, ‘I think he probably has’. Newton makes a sort of high-pitched ‘mm’ noise and lowers his head so that the wide brim of his hat obscures his face.

The strangeness of the film has to do with a deliberate reticence, a disinclination to tie-up the plot neatly, and is partly a function of Roeg’s characteristically oblique and fractured editing and intercutting. We never learn exactly what the government agents are up to, or even who they are. We don’t even learn, exactly, what Newton was doing on earth—his own world is parched, and he initially shows great reverence for Earthly water, but there’s no indication that he makes any plans to (for instance) ship water from planet to planet. The early scenes imply that Newton’s new technology is revolutionary, but in later scenes it seems to have had no impact on the world.

In place of exposition, Roeg gives us a particular sort of visual layer-cake; fairly rapidly, occasionally disjointed montages alternate with a number of lengthy set-piece sequences that appear, on the surface, to have only glancing relevant to the main storyline. So for instance, by way of the latter, we get a lot of sexually explicit detail of the midlife crisis Bryce undergoes before he meets Newton. There is a lengthy scene in which Mary-Lou inadvertently debilitates Newton by taking him up in a lift to his hotel room; and later in the film there is a drawn-out sex scene between the old Mary-Lou and the unaged Newton in which they shoot one another with blanks from a pistol.

Those interested in the question of what this is all about will find few insights in the DVD extras of this most recent re-release. All the participants accede to the rather obvious point that the film is in some sense about alienness. But what manner of alienness? Deeley describes the film as saturated with Englishness, as if Englishness and alienness are somehow cognate (‘the English in America,’ he says, ‘are very alien-like’). Roeg himself was English, of course; as was Bowie; and in the film the character Newton passes himself off as British. Moreover we learn that New Mexico was chosen as the movie’s primary location (Walter Trevis’s novel, upon which the film is based, is mostly set in Kentucky) because that state had recently passed labour laws that allowed the filmmakers to import an English crew wholesale from the UK. On the other hand, in the making-of documentary, Roeg opines that ‘nobody wants to be an outsider … it’s rather annoying’, and it’s difficult to pin-down any particularly English quality to The Man Who Fell to Earth itself—on the contrary, the way the film captures a specifically American set of landscapes and cultural mannerisms is one of its strengths. Elsewhere Roeg talks about actors as aliens, on the not very eloquently expressed grounds that ‘actors play alien people from themselves’, a point rather undercut by the decision—about which Roeg and Deeley talk at some length—to cast the rock-star celebrity Bowie in the title role rather than a trained actor. There’s no question but that Bowie is well-cast, but the strange quality he possesses has less to do with his Englishness, or to the rather mannered and untutored ‘acting’ he undertakes in this role, but simply reflects the uniquely spaced-out and peculiar status of Bowie himself qua star.

Does this film still have the capacity to startle and estrange? This question does not admit of a straightforward answer. Certainly, there are some respects in which the film’s attempt to estrange has lost force. This might be a function of the fact that western culture has moved on from the world into which the film was originally released. The representations of sexual activity, which were counted as very explicit in 1976, now seem, if anything, rather tame. The Oliver Farnsworth character is presented as gay, and in a stable relationship with a younger man; and one of the CIA agents, a black man, is shown having sex with his white wife. But these things do not startle us today as they perhaps did audiences in the 1970s, a decade when homophobia and horror at miscegenation were more conspicuous blots upon Western society than they are, generally speaking, now. Then there is Roeg’s deliberately defamiliarising directorial style, which certainly hasn’t aged badly. If his choppy, nonlinear approach to editing doesn’t seem so strange today it is in part because it has become largely absorbed into the mainstream, a testament to his success as a visual stylist. But at the heart of the film is Bowie’s performance, and Bowie himself; and there’s something in those two things that still possess this quality, or ability, to estrange.

Watching The Man Who Fell to Earth again, I found it hard to avoid the sense that its apprehension of strangeness works most powerfully as a commentary upon the strange cultural explosion of pop music and the status of pop stars of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is to say that, in fact, the film is most powerfully about Bowie himself—or more particularly about the celebrity persona, or perception, of Bowie. The sequences of wealthy reclusive eccentricity at the heart of the movie, although premised in terms of plot on the life of a businessman, actually play visually and semiotically on our expectations of pop star indulgence. Sex, drugs (in this case alcohol) and music (Newton’s final venture into recording) constellate the whole movie, and watching Newton rolling around on a bed with Mary-Lou in an expensively cluttered flat reminded me of similar sequences from Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975), or Michael Apted’s Stardust (1974).

 I'm not arguing that the movie is about ‘pop stardom’ in a modern sense, since such stardom nowadays is merely an emptied out and business-driven matter of wealth and media exposure. By the same token, the sort of ‘pop stardom’ I’m talking about wasn’t something that really existed before the mid-1960s. So, in that sense The Man Who Fell to Earth is very strongly about its decade: a period when the really big music stars, like Bowie, still possessed a strange and totemic aura, still the locus not only of weirdness and excess but of a strange sexualised innocence. It’s a notion of pop stardom that still has, I think, genuine cultural currency; and few films have found as powerful and evocative a visual correlative for expressing it than this one.

This may seem like a roundabout way of saying that The Man Who Fell to Earth is Bowie’s best film; but that would be to say very little—the competition, after all (Hemmings’s 1979 Just a Gigolo? Damski’s 1983 Yellowbeard?) is not strong. The point is that this film not only stars Bowie, it construes Bowie, or a version of Bowie that remains potent and recognisable—recognisably estranging, if that doesn’t sound too paradoxical. It is that imagistic and iconic articulation that is the core of the film’s enduring power. That’s why it is a film that spilled out of the purely cinematic idiom to determine Bowie’s next two music releases—Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977), two of his best. That’s why I can see that it made sense for Optimum Releasing (the company who have put this DVD special edition together) to use as a cover image not the original film poster, but rather a black-and-white head-shot of Bowie, hair-brushed back, looking straight at the camera; and looking, too, quite astonishingly beautiful.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Anthony Burgess's Black Prince

Today sees the mmp publication of The Black Prince. To mark this auspicious moment I'm going to share something special with the readers of this blog.

When I took Burgess's original idea (that is: the idea of a medieval historical novel written in the style of Dos Passos) and worked it up into The Black Prince I, and Andrew Biswell, who heads-up the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, believed AB himself had not actually drafted any material towards the work. But then Andrew dropped me a line to say he'd discovered one solitary page—page one—of what we have to assume was an abortive attempt by Burgess actually to write out the book. I'm copying that page here, so you can see the difference between the echt Burgess and my four-decades-later reimagining of Burgess's idea. Have a care, though, if violence and sexual violence are liable to trigger you. It doesn't hold back.

Click, as they say, to embiggen. It's fascinating for me to see this: original writing by Anthony Burgess that, so far as I know, only a couple of pairs of eyes at the Burgess Foundation—and me—have ever seen before. A shame there's not more of it; I'd like to see how he developed it.

As to the question of what I would have done if I'd known of this when writing my own version of the story (whether, that is, I would have incorporated it into what I was doing) I honestly don't know. When it comes to representing violence my Black Prince pulls no punches, I hope, but it's tonally not like this. I don't know if the casualness of the representation of rape, here, would be acceptable, or would even work, in a novel published in the twenty-teens (it is shocking, and that was evidently what AB was setting out to do; but I'm not sure mere shock is aesthetic validation enough). One point of commonality: the crowing rooster. That bird is the first thing mentioned in Burgess's screenplay, and the first thing mentioned in this draft page too.

My Black Prince also opens with a rooster, although because I was cleaving more closely to Dos Passos, opening with a Newsreel section, I turned my rooster into the ident of the old black-and-white British Pathé News film.

Of course, it's actually just a medieval rooster in a falling-down French barn. Pathé News wasn't invented for many centuries yet. (The novel, strictly speaking, opens with a preface called, for onbrand reasons and because of the novel's thematic of cavalry war as a terrible inundation or flood, ‘Prance, Noah!’ But you can ignore this and start with Part 1. Indeed, I urge and exhort you to do so.)

So it's publication day for the mass-market paperback edition of my novel. Buy a copy, why don't you, and see the ways in which my handling of this medieval material, whilst I hope Burgessian enough, differs from the actual typed-out Burgessia. And check out Unbound, my publisher here: they have all sorts of brilliant projects ongoing.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Black Prince: Money Money Money


In a few days the mass-market paperback of The Black Prince is published. This is the historical novel I wrote, taking as my starting point an unmade 1970s screenplay by Anthony Burgess, and adopting the approach he identified in an interview with the Paris Review in 1972:
INTERVIEWER: Do you expect to write any more historical novels?

BURGESS: I’m working on a novel intended to express the feel of England in Edward III’s time, using Dos Passos’ devices. I believe there’s great scope in the historical novel . . . The fourteenth century of my novel will be mainly evoked in terms of smell and visceral feelings, and it will carry an undertone of general disgust rather than hey-nonny nostalgia.

INTERVIEWER: Which of Dos Passos’ techniques will you use?

BURGESS: The novel I have in mind, and for which I’ve done a ninety-page plan, is about the Black Prince. I thought it might be amusing blatantly to steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign. The effect might be of the fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century. The technique might make the historical characters look remote and rather comic—which is what I want.
Naturally I had to clear this project with Burgess's estate, and the Burgess Institute in Manchester (headed by the estimable Andrew Biswell), Burgess being still in copyright. When I wrote the novel Andrew and I both believed that Burgess's talk of ‘ninety pages’ written was common-garden Burgessian rodomontade, and that in fact he wrote nothing of the novel beyond the (conventionally framed, non-Dos-Passos-y) screenplay. Since the novel came out in hardback Andrew has turned up a first draft page of the actual novel, and about which I shall blog in a little while. But back when I sat down actually to write The Black Prince I had a free hand. In my first draft I tried to retain as much echt Burgess dialogue from the screenplay as possible, but in the event I revised most of that away. Screenplay dialogue is a different quantity to novel dialogue, and one of Burgess's distinctivenesses as a novelist was his extraordinary ear for the idiolects of human speech; so the rather flatter speech of the screenplay needed a bit of Burgessy titivating.


One of the things that drew me to this project was that I'd never written a historical novel, never mind an historical novel, before, and I wanted to give it a go. The thought of working on something Burgess initiating was extremely exciting, since I'm a long-term Burgess fan. And quite apart from anything else, I really liked his strange conceit. One advantage of writing in a Dos-Passosish manner is that it allows for a large variety of characters and perspectives, which was fun. Most of my characters existed in their own sections, and become part of the larger tapestry; but two reappear at different stages of their lives, and the stories, throughout: Edward the Black Prince himself, and a regular soldier and commoner called Black George (two other characters, Edward's wife Joan and William Tyndale also have recurring sections, but are less important to the overall scheme of the novel).

Still: my main task, as I sat down at my desk, was: to write a historical novel. To do that I needed a working model of what a historical novel is. So what is it?

Let's say: ‘a novel that tells a story set in some distinct historical period.’

I'm going to go with: ‘nope.’

Obviously, my novel does tell a story, and is set in a distinct historical period. It really is about Edward, the Black Prince, his life and battles, his world and his destiny. I mean, really: it tells that story, at some length and in a good deal of detail, such that if you happen not to know the story (unlikely though that sounds) you'll pick up the key facts. But this is not what a historical novel is.

Which is to say: this is not what a historical novel ought to be. Lots of historical novels are this; and that's fine if that lights your candle. Indeed, I'd say the majority of historical novels in print today are this: characters with modern attitudes, exemplary of modern mores, relatable where modern readers are concerned, dressed up in period-specific fancy dress, riding horses instead of driving cars. Only a few historical periods are covered: World War 2, Victorian Britain, Regency England, Tudor England, Ancient Rome. The narrative is full of incident and colour, passions run high, people speak to one another in readily comprehensible ways although dialogue will be more elegant and expressive than is the case on Love Island and may be primped with the odd by-jove!, prithee or eheu. The reading experience gives a spice of temporal exoticism (it would be crass to talk about temporal orientalism, not least since what's overwhelmingly on offer in the modern blockbuster historical novel is temporal occidentalism; but there's more than a whiff of that in the mode's appeal, I think).

In fact, though, the historical novel is not about people at historical moments, but is rather about history as such. That means these kinds of novels are of course going to be about people, because history is not an abstract process but is, on the contrary, precisely how people have lived over time. But how people have lived has changed, and in more than just the technology they use and the styles of clothes they wear. Modernity has largely replaced the old warrior values of feudal society like bravery, loyalty and strength with bourgeois virtues like honesty, decency and hard work. There has been, in the West, a profound shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Post-Romantic aesthetic sensibility—and therefore, sensibility as such—is different to pre-Romantic aesthetic sensibility. We are not just less violent nowadays than people used to be in the past, we are many orders of magnitude less violent, because (I'd argue) life is immensely less constrained and frustrating than it used to be. People are still people of course; they deal with many of the same basic ontological necessities that people always have. We still yearn, rage, labour and rest; we still love our children and decline towards death. But in important ways we not only live in different surroundings but are different people now.

A historical novel doesn't have to reflect that, in any absolutist or prescriptive sense; and I cast no aspersions on people enjoying the escapist pleasures of the bodice-ripper. But I would say that a good historical novel at least needs to attempt it. Writing SF or Fantasy, as I usually do, is not that far away from writing a historical novel: worldbuilding an unfamiliar environment, recreating the mindworld of characters who believe in magic, construing the-past-as-such into some kind of present-day relevancy (for what else are Tolkien, Moorcock and George R R Martin doing if not that?) But more importantly, writing a historical novel needs to be more like writing SF or Fantasy in that it ought to estrange us from its material to one degree or another. A historical novel that doesn't estrange has failed, I think.

All this devolves upon another very big question: ‘what is history?’ If you believe that people don't really change, and that history is just one thing followed by another thing, then anachronisms of subjectivity and form won't bother you. Me, I take a more Lukácsian view of the matter. Lukács's still-essential study, The Historical Novel (1937 in Russian, 1962 in English translation) takes Walter Scott as the paradigmatic historical novelist, not because he was the first person to write a historical novel (he wasn't), nor because he was in his day very popular and influential (he was, but that's not what interests Lukács). Rather he identifies in Scott's Waverley novels a dramatisation of the dynamic of history as such.

The typical Scott novel goes like this: there's a protagonist not in himself notable or important, a (fictional) individual living at a time of (historical) flux, and he meets various real historical characters in the course of his peregrinations. Generally this individual—let's call him Waverley, after the protagonist of Scott's first and series-naming novel—is torn between supporting the old and supporting the new. The old is the romantic, thrilling, charismatic but outmoded and unviable past; the new is the practical, bourgeois, in many ways unappealing but viable and inevitable present-future. In Waverley this dyad is: the romantic, doomed Jacobites on the one hand and the Hanoverian succession, which is the future, on the other. Waverley ‘wavers’ between the two, hence his name: drawn first to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he ends the novel a respectable Hanoverian-supporting laird. And, with variations and tweaks, that's the basic Scott paradigm for all his novels.

What Lukács thinks important about this is that Scott (writing decades before Marx though he was) intuitively grasped that history is a dialectical process by which older social-cultural theses come into conflict with antithetical present-day forces and are sublated into a synthetic future. That, in other words, Scott is writing about the dynamic of history itself, and his stories and characters are there to illustrate that dynamic. Scott's historical periods are always in flux, always illustrative of process, rather than being static period backdrops. ‘Through the plot of the historical novel,’ says Lukács, ‘at whose centre stands the hero, a neutral ground is sought and found upon which the extreme, opposing social forces can be brought into a human relation with one another.’ Where Shakespeare’s histories (say) focused on figures of world-historical importance like kings and caesars, Scott’s protagonists were ordinary people, removed from the centres of historical power.

But in Scott's novels, the big names of history ‘can never be central figures of the action. The important leading figure, who embodies an historical movement, necessarily does so at a certain level of abstraction. Scott, by first showing the complex and involved character of popular life itself, creates this being which the leading figure then has to generalize and concentrate in an historical deed.’ Accordingly ‘the struggles and antagonisms of history are best represented by “mediocre” heroes who, in their psychology and destiny, always represent social trends and historical forces.’ In this context, ‘it matters little whether individual details, individual facts are historically correct or not ... Detail is only a means of achieving historical faithfulness, for making concretely clear the historical necessity of a concrete situation.’ At the same, time, Lukács insists that historical fiction written entirely ‘from below’, dealing only with proletarian experience without any middle class or aristocratic characters, cannot capture the totality of historical experience as such. And here we are.


I'm not suggesting Lukács would have had liked The Black Prince, had he lived to see it published. On the contrary: it's likely he would have hated it, actually. He championed classical realism and despised Modernism, where this novel is written according to the formal logic of that arch-Modernist, Dos Passos; and he looked down on historical novels that emphasised torture and violence, as ‘archaeologized’ artefacts, in which ‘brutality and pathology’ merely anesthetized history as such. Nonetheless I have here, deliberately, written a Lukácsian historical novel.

There are various ways in which this is, I think, true of The Black Prince, and I'm not going to detail all of them. But I'll pick an indicative one. So: the events of the novel run from The Battle of Crécy (26 August 1346) through to Edward's death in 1376. The acme of feudal  medievalism; but intimations of change are present. Burgess's screenplay sees Tyndale's incipient Protestantism as the sign of things to come, and my novel picks up on that a little. But more important, I figured, was money.

Early in the novel I wrote a section about a character called Brian, a serf owned by his master, the Lord of Bower. Brian tends two acres of his lord's land, and raises chickens. Although technically everything of Brian's actually belongs to his master, the Lord is canny enough to allow him to sell his chickens and keep a portion of what he earns. The chapter concerns Brian selling two dozen chickens to the adjacent manor house, which is preparing a banquet to entertain the king. Brian isn't allowed inside, of course, but he gets a shilling for his birds.
It was four great manor houses crashed together into one enormous structure, surely bigger than any cathedral or palace, big as the whole city of London together, or so Brian imagined. He loitered for an hour or more because he was unsure how to approach such magnificence, or where to go, and fearful that he would be beaten for presumption if he came close. But then a man he knew, called Edgar the Nine-fingered, came by, herding two big geese with a stick. Edgar showed Brian which flank of the huge brick-built edifice to approach, and which door to wait at. ‘Some say, knock,’ Edgar noted, ‘but I tried that in Trumpington, and a man came out and beat me with a cane. So I just wait.’ They waited for an hour, until a maid emerged with a slop bucket, and she called the cook out, and he agreed to buy the geese and the chickens, the former live, the latter dead. ‘I’ve kept them hooded and living,’ Brian explained, ‘to keep them fresh.’ ‘And I’ve kept my wits hooded and living,’ the cook returned, holding his fist close to Brian’s face, ‘so as to not need the fucking obvious explained to me. Wring their necks and I’ll buy them at three a penny.’ Brian might have gone along with that, if not for the fist. He kept his calm face on, but part of him wanted to smite the cook with the pole he was carrying, squawking birds and all. ‘Two a penny,’ he said. ‘A shilling the lot.’ The cook scoffed and rolled his eyes and turned his attention to Edgar and his two geese. Nine-fingered Edgar said: ‘I can get sixpence a head for these in London.’ ‘You’ve never been to London, shit-tongue,’ retorted the cook. ‘You’re a nobody. Me, I have seen the King himself as close to me as you are now. Threepence each.’ For a while the two haggled back and forth. ‘I might give you fourpence for that one,’ said the cook, eyeing the larger of the geese. ‘But then I’d only give you tuppence for that other, on account of it being so fucking scrawny.’ ‘Sixpence a head in London.’ They settled on ninepence the pair, and the cook went inside and came out again in person with nine brown pennies. A maidservant shooed the geese round the side of the building, the birds hissing like rainfall as they went. Edgar slipped quickly away with his money. The cook saw Brian, still standing there with the pole over his shoulder and said: ‘you you you still here? Go, go, fuck off, before I wake up the house mastiff and he comes out and bites off both your balls.’ The cook went back in the house.

Brian sat down on the grass bank outside the door, and rested one end of the pole on the floor. The chickens were not happy. They kept opening their wings and clucking and shuffling. Brian did not move. It was some time after noon, and big clouds the colour of whitepink blossom were barging into one another overhead. The sunlight came round the edges of the clouds in long, straight lines, spears of brilliance reaching down from God to his green world. Away to the west some of the clouds had darker bellies, but they showed no sign of coming in this direction. Larks tumbled over one another in the afternoon sky, spilling their long and complicated songs. The wind was rising a little, and the trees all around shushed the birds. For a while Brian only sat. The clouds parted, and bright sunlight pressed a great flat-edged shadow onto the grass beside the palace.

A serving boy, who could surely be no older that six or seven put his head round the door, saw Brian, and shrank back inside. The clouds came together again and the air grew chillier. Brian sat. The stonework of the wall facing him was a marvel of intricate placing. The builders had not only arranged the flints with an almost supernatural neatness, they had somehow embedded different coloured stones in the matrix to create diagonals, fine shapes, true beauty. For a while Brian tried to imagine the process involved, but the mere thought of it puzzled his brain. So he stared at the roof for a while, and pondered how he might arrange such solidity for his own cottage roof. It was clearly beyond him.

A maid, kitchen-maid by the look of her, came out of the door. ‘He says, take tenpence, do?’

‘Shilling,’ says Brian.

The maid slipped back inside.

A little while she re-emerged. ‘He says, wouldn’t pay a shilling even for a whole hog, nohow.’

Brian thought to himself that a pig could cost twice or three times as much, depending on the size of the animal, so clearly the cook was not telling the truth here. Brian did not reply to the kitchen maid, and she retreated back inside.

He waited a long time, and the sun started to go down. He would be making the last part of his walk home in dark at this rate. The wind got up, and some rain drops flew about, in an exploratory way; but no proper shower came. Finally the kitchen maid came out for a third and last time. She approached Brian in a rather timid fashion, and then held out her hand. A silver coin. Brian took it and looked at it. One side was marked with the cross, and dotted around the rim. In the centre of the other was the king, sharp-bearded and crowned with a huge crown, looking straight out.

‘It’s a shilling,’ the girl said.

‘I know what it is,’ Brian said, although he had never before held such a thing in his hand. ‘Here,’ he added. ‘You want me to bring these inside?’

‘Says if you set foot over the threshold he’ll kick your can’t say where he’ll kick you, maiden as I am.’ She blushed, but smilingly. He smiled at her, too. Her eyes did not look in the same place at the same time, but otherwise she had a pleasant face. ‘I’ll take them in,’ she said.

‘Shall I wring them necks?’

She nodded, and he quickly killed each of the birds in turn. Then she heaved at the pole, smiled at him, and dragged it inside.

He waited, and several servants put their heads out to look at him, and drew them in again. It did occur to him just to go, but he wanted his pole. Eventually the young boy from before brought him his pole back. He thanked the lad, and set straight off.
Although money stands as a medium of exchange in a system of hierarchically fixed values it can never be entirely rigid, it is mostly so. Later in the novel Black George returns to England rich with looted French treasure.
So it was peace, and Black George rode the unsteady sea back to England, and you’ll let me off at fucking Dover captain my captain I’ll walk to London if I have to, I thank you, no need to sail me all round the Kent coast and in at the Estuary in this shipwreck waiting to happen thank you very much. Glad to have feet on ground again, and a mule loaded with French wealth. Treaty of Brétigny signed and sealed and King Edward and French John brothers again, and the Frenchers have already paid hundreds of thousands of golden pounds of ransom, and now the news is they’ve fallen behind paying the new instalment of hundreds of thousands, the bâtards. And King Edward has thrown the whole mass of coins at these gigantic building projects. A new Castle at Windsor. A Fortress in the Thames Estuary. A Silver Ladder to the Moon for all Black George knew. He cared not at all. He had his haul, and some of it he deposited with a man called Gareth, notionally a trader in fine cloth but actually a kind of unofficial banker for the more ordinary sort of man. Some of it George kept to himself, to have ready, and he spent a chunk of that buying a house near Cripplegate, and putting a wife inside it—his actual wife, his own actual wife, of good family and good looks—and making sure she had the finest dresses plundered French money could buy. Six happy months. Well, two happy months, then four unhappy ones when he became certain his wife was cheating on him with the lithe young apprentice boy who would walk past their house every day on his way to the glovers’ shop and leer in at their windows. She denied it of course, and the one time George discovered the lad inside the house she swore she was only giving him a drink of water on a hot day. But it chewed his guts, it really did. He knew he wasn’t the handsomest dog in the kennel: old, his skin scraggy, scarred from years in the wars, his manners rough. But he was paying for everything, wasn’t he? His wife, Kate, lived in a fine house and her two older sisters lived with her for company, both widows from the plague, both too old for childbearing and neither wealthy—but happy to live on his charity whilst criticising him for pissing in the corner, or spitting on the table. His money. They all spent it like it was nothing.
His wife dies of the plague, and George grieves. Then he hears about John Hawkwood's mercenary company and resolves to join it. His dead wife's older sisters are living in his house, and are distraught at his plans of selling up and going back to France, not least because it will leave them homeless. At first he hardens his heart against them, but then he changes his mind:
The following day he approached his sisters-in-law in more emollient mood, and promised them thirty pounds between them, half the sum he expected from the sale of the house. They thanked him, but soon began weeping again. Why must he sell the house? Why couldn’t he stay, and they keep house for him. He rebuked them, told them to be grateful for the large sum he had promised them—a fortune, really—but then he caught the image of his wife’s face in the one of the sisters’ imploring eyes, and couldn’t be angry any more.

I’m going to fight in France, he told them.

There is no more war in France, one of the sisters—Anna—said. In his last sermon Father Balliol said the war is over and we must give thanks to the King and to God that the scourge of war has been lifted from our fellow Christians.

War is never over, said Black George.

You will not be the man to call our priest a liar, said Anna, her temper rising. Joan, the other sister, tried to hush her, for she could see her fifteen pounds evaporating like a puddle in the sun of George’s anger. But Anna wouldn’t be shushed. Father Balliol said it in church. There is no more war.

There’s no war in England, George said, and you two crones should be grateful of that fact, for you would last no time in France, no time at all. But there is still war in France, and there a great company of soldiers is fighting under Sir John Hawkwood, and I am a soldier and will go.

Stay in England where it is peaceful, urged Joan. Why risk your life?

Stay and do what? I am a soldier. When Anna rolled her eyes at this, he roared at them both: what would you have me do? God made me a soldier! I must go where there is work for soldiers!

God made you a man, was Anna’s retort. The devil made you a soldier.

At this George walked away, for he could feel a killing rage come up at her words, and he didn’t want his wife’s sisters’ blood on his conscience. Instead he spent the day in a tavern and drank down a vast sum.

In the event he did not sell the house, for the cleric fellow came back with an offer from a silversmith of only forty four pounds, forty in coin and the rest in comestibles, plus two chairs for which George had no use. Forty pound, he complained? I bought it not one year ago for sixty! Back then London was full of soldiers newly returned from France, and every one had a sack of booty, said the cleric. Naturally prices went up. But now, with the plague back, and people leaving the city, few are looking to buy a house, and prices have come down. You should be happy to get so generous an offer. Happy to get any kind of offer at all.

Prices went up? George repeated in incredulity. Prices came down? What are you talking about? Prices are prices. Things are things. Has half my house fallen down that I should get less money for it?

This, said the cleric, with a curious and sly expression on his face, is not how the world is.

He can take his forty pounds and four pounds of comestibles and most especially his two fucking chairs and stow them snugly up his arsehole, George said. Still, he paid Hawkwood's cleric the three pounds of gold and took the fellow’s letter down to Southampton. He even bade farewell to his wife’s sour old sisters before he left, telling them to keep the house clean for now, and he would sell it when he came back. They wept and Joan embraced him, but it was Anna’s grateful look that brought the twist of grief into his gut, for he thought again of his beautiful wife, his beautiful dead wife, who had died in such pain in his own arms, and he had to hurry away so that they did not see him weep.
George has various adventures on his way to Italy, and Hawkwood's company; and more adventures fighting in it. Eventually he tires of the life, buys his way out and resolves to take his new treasure back to England.
He got to Genoa without much difficulty, and there spent a month converting his two hefty boxes of treasure into more portable form. It was a great city for bankers, was Genoa, and traders of all kinds, and soon enough he had two thousand florins’ worth of coin inscribed on legal letters and binding documentations. A remarkable metamorphosis this, worthy of Ovid: heavy gold into light paper. The men he dealt with had counterparts in London, for whom these fine-scribbled and wax-sealed documentations were as binding as a prince’s word of honour, or as gold itself, or so he was told. He believed it too. Or at least he talked himself into believing it. Then again, he kept a couple of hundred gold coins in specie as well, and carried them with him. He was old-fashioned that way.
The point, it seems to me, is not about money itself, so much as it is about a shift from one understanding of value—the feudal—to another: the modern logic of banking. Under the logic of the first value was, in effect, one quantity: the figure of the monarch, refracted through a privileged class of aristocrats. Under such a logic, in essence, ‘money’, like ‘time’, is for slaves, both in the sense that they were the ones who actually handle it and quantify it, but also in the sense that they embody it: they are units of worth to be shuffled around in pursuit of aims not their own. I say they; I mean we. Under this system, everyone but a tiny minority were de facto slaves: not only the people actually owned as property, the serfs, peasants and women, but the so-called freemen and clergy too. Under this system you would have been a slave, as would I, regardless of whether we owned literally nothing or owned a little and enjoyed a fair standard of living. One of the interesting features of a Marxist view of history, like Lukács's, is the way the dialectic, to use that ungainly word again, ‘sublates’, not only moves beyond but also preserves these earlier elements. In a spectral, or embodied, or if you like subconscious way, we still think of value this way, and money is the reification of our own slavery (think of the phrase: wage-slave).

Of course, in another way, we have moved entirely beyond that, of course: now we have no monarch except in a nostalgic, theme-park sense. Now money is king, and so value is defined in terms of debt—I'm ventriloquising David Graeber when I say so, as you'd already noticed: Graeber’s argument that debt can only be considered as part of the history of money, since money is that which distinguishes a debt from an obligation or promise. ‘Obligations are immemorial and incalculable, but until the advent of money such relations of mutual obligation evade mathematical specification,’ as Benjamin Kunkel puts it, summarising Graber. ‘Only through money do nebulous obligations condense into numerically precise debts, which can and—according to—our accustomed morality—must one day be paid off’. Obligation, duty, an honour culture of oaths and loyalty, the whole warrior-code thing, is part of what The Black Prince is about, and although I consider it in large part a brutal thing, it also have the glamour of actual chivalry and heroism, the bright-lit excitement of actual knights in armour galloping across a bright green field under a bright blue sky. If I had followed Burgess to the letter, in focusing solely on what he calls ‘general disgust’, would have derailed me from all that, and it seemed to me important to the novel to include it.

To work as a historical novel, this story needed to dramatise both that world and that world that was coming: the capitalist bourgeois Protestant world in which we (in the West) now live. But so early as the 1360s, that latter world was only incipient, not actually emerging, as might be the case in a novel set in the sixteenth-century, so I had to find ways of dramatising it, in terms of character and incident, that weren't too intrusive. Some of the novel includes magic, the supernatural and the trappings of what today we call genre Fantasy (but which in the Middle Ages were just part of the regular weltanschauung); some of the novel is a matter of the distributed tabulation of specific elements, and their relative fungibility. It sounds drily unappetising, I appreciate, but that was one of the ways I tried to balance the novel. The trick is in finding characters, and their individual stories, that aggregate into a larger narrative humanly-engaging enough to embody this, rather than just drily to preach it. I hope I've managed that. You could pick up a paperback of my novel and see for yourself, if you wanted to. It will cost you only a small sum of money-money-money.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Thackeray's X

Thackeray drew a manuscript ABC as a gift for his young friend Edward Frederick Chadwick in 1833 (it was published in a facsimile edition in 1930). Most of the drawings are conventional: an alligator for A, a trout for T and so on. Thackeray's X is in a different class, though.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Aladdin (dir. Guy Ritchie 2019)

“‘Will Smith don't gotta cuss in his raps to sell records’
Well, I do, so fuck him and fuck you too”
The new Aladdin live-action is not terrible. That's as far as I'm prepared to go, value-judgement wise. It's colourful, lively, and manages to be unsaggy even if it is too long—43% longer than the original, according to Forbes. Then again, its fun is a little on the strenuous side, and Ritchie's direction, while often inventive in terms of where the camera is moving (and uninhibited about using pixilation to speed-up the dancing) isn't quite pacey enough, overall. Beats are consistently lingered-on when they should be bounced through. The mix of ‘Arabian’ cliché with Bollywood stylings and a splash of African-American wiseacre is either a cleverly inclusive move or else Orientalism 101, actually. Song-lyrics have been updated and a new song, ‘Speechless’, added. But though this is fine in itself, it's a Frozen-style belter that sorts poorly with the rest of the score, those gorgeous, light-footed, musically and lyrically witty songs ‘One Jump Ahead’, ‘Never Had a Friend Like Me’ and especially the glorious ‘Prince Ali’ (here denied its reprise).

Wisely (‘choose wisely, May’ says the film’s poster, as if addressing its message to Theresa directly)—wisely, I say, Ritche and Smith decided to avoid any kind of Robin Williams impression where the genie is concerned. And Smith's personal charm communicates itself nicely to the role, although the fizz and anarchy that defined the original's brilliance is, inevitably, lost. But there are two things about this remake that are very bad. One is Marwan Kenzari's Jafar, a performance wholly missing the high-camp melodramatic excess and splendour of Jonathan Freeman's original turn. Gurn as he might, Kanzari simply lacks menace, and without that menace the whole thing falls apart.

The other problem here is the parrot. The production team decided not to ask Gilbert Gottfried to reprise his Iago, which removes what was, in the original, one of the film's funniest characters. Instead they try to make Iago sinister. It doesn't work. During the movie's denouement Jafar, having become the world's most powerful sorceror, sends a hugely enlarged version of Iago chasing after Aladdin, as the latter flies off on his magic carpet with the lamp. It's lame. What should be an exciting chase-scene is instead, Boy Evades Big Bird. The intention, clearly, was to create a Dread Parrot, but it is not dread, it's passed over. This parrot is no more, he has ceased to be (of interest to the movie): he's a stiff, bereft of cinematic life, he's run down the multiplex curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible. This is an SFX-Parrot.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Game of Thrones

You know what's foolish? Posting a blog about how Game of Thrones will end literally hours before Game of Thrones actually ends. Could I offer-up a more immediate hostage to fortune? I could not. Yet here I am, and I'm here in part because I want to notate my reactions to an interesting article by Zeynup Tufekci that diagnoses the ills of Thrones Series 8 in terms of a shift from Martin's broadly sociological novels to Benioff and Weiss more Hollywood-conventional psychological understanding of what storytelling is. It makes a persuasive case, although I don't think it's right, actually. But maybe I'm the one who's not right. At any rate if the final episode falsifies everything I say here, then I can always come back here and delete this whole post. It'll be as if it never existed, vanished like breath into the wind!

The truth is, I'm not really expatiating about Game of Thrones in this blog so much as I'm trying to think-through some larger questions with respect to Fantasy as a mode.

So my jumping-off point is Zeynup Tufekci’s recent Scientific American article ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones’. The article's thesis is summed-up in its subheader: ‘it's not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological.’ Once upon a time, argues Tufekci, Game of Thrones followed Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire in telling a story about society as a whole: individual characters mattered, but not so much as the larger shaping forces of society and culture. Since the show ran out of novels to adapt, show-runners Benioff and Weiss have taken over storytelling duties and in doing so have defaulted to the Standard Hollywood Storytelling Mode, viz. concentrating on a few psychologically-focalised, character-based storylines.
For Benioff and Weiss, trying to continue what Game of Thrones had set out to do, tell a compelling sociological story, would be like trying to eat melting ice cream with a fork. Hollywood mostly knows how to tell psychological, individualized stories. They do not have the right tools for sociological stories, nor do they even seem to understand the job.
There’s something in this, I suppose; but not as much as all that. Martin does deserve credit for trying to round-out his worldbuilding with some sociological nuance and some economic context. I’m not sure he goes very far down this path, though. I don’t want to sound snippy, but I fear I will when I suggest: the economic component of Song of Ice and Fire never develops very far beyond the slightly sophomoric gotcha: ‘but how did Sauron pay his orc army, eh? Where did all the money come from, eh? eh?’ Some years ago Matthew Yglesias posted a three-part ‘analysis’ of the economics of Westeros: a fun read that depends on that particular brand of niche tongue-in-cheekery where ‘serious’ critique is expended on an unserious topic, a kind of geekbombing that makes serious points in a deniable way. That's pretty much the only way to address this aspect of Martin's writing, I think, without falling into sheer pompous-faced stiffness.

I suppose a Fantasy novelist describing a dark lord marching his swarming army of yrchs across green fields towards serried ranks of ulven warriors in their gleaming armour without addressing the question of how it all gets paid-for is, by one metric, being naif. But that’s really not necessary a problem, I think, in this specific context of Fantasy writing. Naïveté may be a kind of ludicrous gullibility, but it might also be a holier kind of innocence. The word comes, like nativity, from the Latin nativitas: which means a birth, a newness coming into the world. Many people turn to Fantasy precisely because they are yearning for a world in which innocence is possible, in which the grime and cynicism of modernity gets washed clean in a kind of re-birth. In a recent blogpost I quoted Dorothy Sayers on why she loved medieval art and culture, and I like the quotation so much I'm going to roll it out it again:
And so Roland rides out, into that new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown summer of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth. It is also a world full of blood and grief and death and naked brutality, but also of frank emotions, innocent simplicities and abounding self-confidence—and world with which we have so utterly lost touch that we have fallen into using the words “feudal” and “medieval” as mere epithets for outer darkness. Anyone who sees gleams of brightness in that world is accused of romantic nostalgia for a Golden Age that never existed, But the figure of Roland stands there to give us the lie: he is the Young Age as that age saw itself. Compared with him, the space-adventurers and glamour-boys of our times, no less than the hardened toughs of Renaissance epic, seem to have been born middle-aged. [Dorothy L Sayers, ‘Introduction’, The Song of Roland (Penguin 1957), 17]
Youth is the very currency of nativitas, and the life blood of Fantasy. But Game of Thrones is not young. It's old, and even its young characters, like child-soldier Arya, are old before their time. Old does not necessarily map onto wisdom, any more than nativitas is necessarily naive. Real-life armies need more than just pay. They need whole logistics corps: supply lines and operations officers, organisation on a huge scale; and real-life medieval or Renaissance armies also trailed long queues of camp-followers behind them. We can talk about them, if we like, in our Fantasy novels; but many readers aren’t going to note their lack in the Fantasy blockbuster de jour, any more than we miss them in The Song of Roland. Omitting these details is not realistic, of course; but then again Fantasy is very particularly not Realism.

The obvious rejoinder here is that whatever it is that fans of Game of Thrones go to the show for, it's not innocence. On the contrary: the whole point of GoT is to deconstruct notions of honour, nobility, loyalty and innocence and reveal them for the whited sepulchres they are, or at least that the consensus nowadays believes them to be. Tolkien’s vision was Beowulf and the Song of Roland; Martin’s is Machiavelli. Fair enough—there, if anywhere, a properly sociological comprehension of Fantasy is merited, surely.

To return to Tufekci’s argument: she is putting her finger on something that has gone awry in the final season of the show. The anger of the fans indexes something, for sure; I’m just not sure it’s animadversion to a shift of storytelling emphasis. The fans who called their children Khaleesi or had Dani 4 Ever tattoos are angry that the character onto whom they projected their fantasies of redemption and justice is doing things they don’t like (burning children to death en masse, that is)—things they consider ‘out of character’. Which is to say, their investment in the show was always psychological, all the way back.

You might object that this is me conjuring up a purely notional and strawperson fan to bolster my theory. So maybe I should try and come at the question in a different way: which is, both in terms of Fantasy fiction, but also (to scale things a little) in the world as such, to insist that ‘sociological’ and ‘psychological’ are not separate and discrete terms. This, after all, is exactly what Freud argues in Civilisation and Its Discontents. So my strawperson fan, who named their baby Khaleesi, and is now outraged at the way Danaerys’s character has developed, is actually illustrating a political—and therefore sociological—point that is, in fact, core to Martin’s Machiavellian vision: that we, as social animals, tend to project our desires and hopes onto the blank screens that professional politicians present to us precisely for that purpose. It is how one gets elected. Telling a Trump supporter that Trump is, as a human being, corrupt, wicked or incompetent (as I, personally, believe him to be) will not disarray their support, because for any Trumpist Trump is overwhelmingly a creature they have themselves written into being, using their anxieties and hopes, their resentments and fantasies. Trump is, in this respect, no different to any other politician—leftists like me certainly undertook this projection with respect to Obama—except that his vulgarity and spiky personal mannerisms would be, one would think, more likely to get in the way of this process of voterly projection than would be the case with more designedly bland political figures. Not enough to deny him the presidency, though, evidently.

My point is that one consistent theme of Martin’s storytelling, a point to which Benioff and Weiss are I think adhering, is that reality keeps intruding into our fantasies, that cold actuality is constantly shaking us out of our dreams of how things and people might be. The Danaerys storyline is just this, magnified by being in a narratively climactic place in the show. Life is not inclined to accomodate your fantasies. It's a core truth of social existence, and it tends to make us unhappy. That's Freud's argument, in a nutshell.

Lionel Trilling (of all people) has a good take on Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents:
Despite Freud’s gifts of lucid expression, Civilisation and its Discontents is a difficult book, in some part because it undertakes to lead us beyond an idea with which we are familiar and comfortable, that society is the direct and ‘sufficient’ cause of man’s frustration. Its central thesis is that society is no more than the ‘necessary’ cause of frustration. As Freud now describes the dynamics of the unconscious, the direct agent of man’s unhappiness is an element of the unconscious itself. The requirements of civilization do indeed set in train an exigent disciplinary process whose locus is the ego, but this process, Freud says in effect, is escalated by the unconscious ego far beyond the rational demands of the societal situation. The informing doctrine of Civilisation and its Discontents is that the human mind, in the course of instituting civilization, has so contrived its own nature that it directs against itself an unremitting and largely gratuitous harshness. [Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), 151]
Fantasy as a literary (and televisual) mode has a close relation to fantasy as a psychological driver, I think. We go to these texts because they provide something we lack in in our day-to-day: some sense of enchantment, or plenitude, or some connection with a past and a land—some myth, perhaps—and the pleasures of escapism to a more elegant, pre-industrial and pre-modern world. It might seem unlikely that people wish to ‘escape’ to Westeros (life is so nastily brutish-short there, after all) but it seems they do, and in large numbvers. Perhaps that’s not so counterintuitive, actually. I don't doubt there are Game of Thrones fans enamoured of all the Noble Houses and family trees, the city-states and legends, all the cod-chivalric trappings, and the fact that the show themselves reveals these as a mere window-dressing for a widespread Hobbesian social horrors means such fans get to have their chivalric cake and eat it too as knowing-moderns. And this is not to account for the simpler, more psychotic mode of ‘escapism’ pleasing, I daresay, to some, of a world in which consequence-free killing, raping and torturing is more readily to hand.

On the subject of Freud’s ‘social’ psychological theorising (‘from the first a conception of society had been central to Freud’s psychology: the ego was a social entity [and] society was the field of its experience’) Trilling goes on:
The specific agent of this extravagant severity is an element of the unconscious which has not been named in what I have said so far about psychoanalysis, though its activities have been referred to—they are those ‘extremely high ones’ of moral judgement and self-criticism ... the process it [the super-ego] has instituted against the ego is largely gratuitous beyond the needs of reason and beyond the reach of reason. The particular kind of pain it inflicts is that which Freud calls guilt [Trilling, 151-52]
Guilt, here, is not ‘the consciousness of wrong-doing, which Freud calls remorse’; it is ‘precisely that which does not originate in actual wrong-doing and that is not conscious’. I wonder if this isn’t part of the way Game of Thrones figures, as culture-text, too; and whether this might explain in part its extraordinary popularity. We commit no actual wrong-doing in watching it, and yet it is designed to make us feel guilty for watching nonetheless—as we soak-up all the nudity and the torture-scenes, the violence and the double-crossing. What kind of person could enjoy sitting in comfort and watching such horrors unfold? Our kind, evidently. It's Sadean, is what it is. ‘Tits and dragons’ fans say, and that’s a twist of self-deprecation that's also a little guilty start. Saying we rate Thrones for its unflinching realpolitik is this generation’s ‘I only read Playboy for the articles’.

It may look like I’m now swinging back towards Tufekci’s position: that this show’s appeal is grounded in the psychological, not the sociological. But I don’t think so. Freud’s point is that the larger social structures, the possibilities and constraints of social life as such, are horizoned by these givens, this pushme-pullyou of our psychic desires, both socially acceptable and socially unacceptable, and the frictions of external and internal repressions to hold them in check.

Another way of saying this would be to make the argument that Benioff and Weiss are actually interested in the old Scottian dynamic—I'm talking about the Waverley dilemma: which of these two should be king? This figure from the romantic past, whose claim is based on succession and traditional lineal legitimacy? Or this figure from the unromantic present, whose claim is based on competence and a willingness to accept that times have changed? Do you go with the Tories or the Whigs, the charismatic but hopeless Bonny Prince Charlie or the dreary and in many ways repellent but competent and modern Hanoverians and their ministers? That, I would hazard my guess, is where the final series will end up, posing this choice: Danaerys the Jacobite? Or one or other Stark, the Hanoverian? For Scott the novelistic and dramatic potential was in the wavering of a middle-rank character between these two worlds—indecision is a kind of psychological quantity, I suppose, but as Lukacs says this is actually Scott’s canny formal mechanism for registering the dialectic of historical development in a novelistic idiom. If I’m right, Danaerys cannot rule, any more than The Young Pretender can capture London and sit on the British throne. We’ll see, I suppose.

This last point brings me to something I’ve been thinking about over the last few days—that part of the explanation for the current boom in Fantasy is that this has become how we apprehend history. Actual historical fiction is still being written in large amounts, and is still popular of course; but these sorts of Fantasy versions of history give ‘us’ something mere historical verisimilitude cannot where actual history is concerned. But that's a subject for a different overlong blogpost.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Medieval Glamour

On the 13th June, the paperback of my novelisation of Anthony Burgess's The Black Prince is published; and in the run-up to that auspicious event I am going to turn this blog over to some self-promotion. At the same time, I'm trying to get my thoughts into some kind of order with respect to Fantasy as a genre—germane, that, since The Black Prince is both a (carefully researched!) historical novel and a work of Fantasy, or at any rate the closest I have come as a writer to producing such a thing. That's not so surprising, I suppose. There are many parallels, obviously, between what a writer of Fantasy does and what a historical novelist does: worldbuilding an unfamiliar environment, recreating the mindworld of characters who believe in magic, construing the-past-as-such into some kind of present-day relevancy (for what else are Tolkien, Moorcock and George R R Martin doing if not that?)

I have a day-job: Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, which also proved relevant to my writing of this novel. You might be surprised by just how passionate the Victorians were about the medieval period. This was the century when interest in Arthurian legends revived (Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and all that), and thinkers, poets and artists from Ruskin to Swinburne and William Morris devoted most of their creative energies to the middle ages. So going medieval was, for me, something like a homecoming.

It’s making me ponder what it is about the middle ages that possess such glamour for minds like mine. After all, ‘medieval’ is sometimes used nowadays as a synonym for primitive, and life without proper dentistry, central heating or—for the vast majority of the population—any life opportunities at all beyond the local village and feudal chores is very far from an appealing prospect. Still: there’s some charisma in the period that can’t be explained simply by dewy-eyed cosplay nostalgia. How can we be nostalgic for something we’ve never experienced anyway?

One of the things that Burgess was adamant about in his Black Prince project was that he wasn’t interested in a rose-tinted soft-soap world. This was often a very violent time—by modern standards extraordinary and often casually violent—a calcified and stifling social structure, lacking many of the modern amenities that render today’s life bearable. But it’s also clear from reading his screenplay that he didn’t just think of the middle ages that way. After all, if life back then really was nothing but grime and pain, then why would we want to read about it at all?

So: in putting The Black Prince together I worked carefully to balance out Burgess’s unflinching portrayal of the darker side of Edward’s career with some feel for the allure of the historical period itself. Amongst the research I did was reading Dorothy L Sayers’s translation of The Song of Roland, first published by Penguin books in 1957—I’m ashamed to admit I’d never read it before. It’s wonderful! Though the battle it relates and celebrates took place in AD 778 the poem itself was written (by whom? we don’t know!) probably in the twelfth-century. Accordingly the whole poem is suffused with medieval attitudes and flavours.

This passage in particular, from Sayers’s introduction, leapt out at me as an articulation of what is so compelling about the middle ages as such:
And so Roland rides out, into that new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown summer of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth. It is also a world full of blood and grief and death and naked brutality, but also of frank emotions, innocent simplicities and abounding self-confidence—and world with which we have so utterly lost touch that we have fallen into using the words “feudal” and “medieval” as mere epithets for outer darkness. Anyone who sees gleams of brightness in that world is accused of romantic nostalgia for a Golden Age that never existed, But the figure of Roland stands there to give us the lie: he is the Young Age as that age saw itself. Compared with him, the space-adventurers and glamour-boys of our times, no less than the hardened toughs of Renaissance epic, seem to have been born middle-aged. [Dorothy L Sayers, ‘Introduction’, The Song of Roland (Penguin 1957), 17]
I think this passage struck me so forcibly because the subject of my novel, the Black Prince himself, was so extraordinarily young—his father deliberately held back and let him take charge at Crecy when he had just turned sixteen years of age, and, like a Romantic poet, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy his inheritance, or his maturity. And yet his unprecedented string of battlefield successes (and his ultimate untimely end) are the stuff not of legend, like Roland, but of history. Youth! Youth!

Take a closer look at the roundel that adorns the cover of that old penguin edition of Sayer's translation:

It is taken from a stained-glass window of Chartres Cathedral that is, as a whole, dedicated to telling the Legends of Charlemagne. On the right, there, you can see the mighty hero Roland himself, after his heroic but doomed defence of the pass of Roncevaux, blowing his mighty horn to summon the emperor’s army to avenge him. The figure on the left is also Roland, now dying, attempting to break his sword Durendal—‘Harder-than-hard’—on a ‘marble stone’ beneath a ‘fair tree fall’, rather than suffer it to fall into the hands of the Saracens (many of whose dead lie all around):
Count Roland smites the sardine stone amain.
The steel grides loud, but neither breaks nor bates.
Now when he sees that it will nowise break
Thus to himself he maketh his complaint:
“Ah Durendal! So brave, so bright, so gay!
How does thou glitter and shine in the sun’s rays! …
Now am I grieved and troubled for my blade;
Should Paynims get it, ‘twere worse than all death’s pains
Dear God forbid it should put France to shame!” [2312-37]
He dies before he can dispose of his sword, and the poem is neither evasive nor sentimental on death, on the savagery and hideousness of the battlefield and the waste of war. But it is a poem that captures the gleam of something finer too, and I hope that my novel, in its different way, manages to do so too.