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

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

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

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Alternative History: Some Napoleonic Thoughts

So, I've been thinking about the business of alternate history.

I only recently read the book by Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy-Château (1803–1858) so often cited as the 'first' alternate history: originally published as Napoléon et la conquête du monde in 1836, and revised in 1841 as Napoléon Apocryphe. Its jonbar point is Napoleon's successful invasion of Russia in 1812. After this, and in quick order, he takes over England (1814) and then the rest of the world, leading it into a new golden age of technological advance, peace and prosperity.

Two episodes in the novel seem to me to epitomise something important, if implicit, in the way this book conceives of history as such. The first is the ease with which Napoleon conquers the USA. Revolution has so weakened this nation that it has collapsed altogether.
Depuis plus de vingt années, L'Amérique, cette terre sans passé, sans races, sans patries, qui, pour remplacer ses enfants égorgés, avait mendié à L'Europe son trop plein de peuples et à L'Afrique le marché de ses douleurs; cette terre qui, sans avoir eu de jeunesse, était arrivée à la décrépitude au milieu de révolutions innombrables, l’Amérique se dissolvait, et tendait à une ruine complète. [415]
What can be done to assist this benighted place? 'Napoléon seul pouvait sauver l’Amérique ... dans tous les cas, il n’y'avait plus de salut pour elle en dehors de la monarchie napoléonienne.'

What's going on here? America is hardly central to Geoffroy's novel. It's invoked here, I think, as an example of history itself as a sort of short-circuit: it has no history of its own, it has passed directly from 'le jeunesse' to 'la décrépitude' without any intervening historical narrative at all. It subsists, vampire like, by devouring the children of Europe and the slave labour of Africa. There is no hope for such a catastrophically extra-historical place except through Napoleon himself. In other words, Geoffroy's Napoleon embodies a sort of 'solution' for history.

I'm intrigued by this early imagining of America as, in effect, a place where history has been botched, or chaotically circumvented. The USA 'has' history in two contradictory ways at once: it has too little history to be properly grounded, since it is a new or only potential nation; and it has too much history, as the dead hand of the old world is carried through by its settlers. There's a third 'history' too, of course, one perfectly invisible to Geoffroy in the 1830s: its native inhabitants. But this is a history inassimilable to the model of the Old World: it is not bookish, not linear, not Whiggish, neither Herodotean nor Thucydidean. This is the first kind of 'history', whose alternative (Napoleon) brings stability.

I wonder, to digress for a moment, how far this has fed through to the genre of alt-historical writing? America (we could say) 'has' more history now than once it did, and things like a mooted Confederate victory in the Civil War is almost a cliché of the genre. Mind you, in Leinster's 'Sideways in Time' (1934), alternative history generates a kind of crazy-paving chaos out of America, not a million miles away from Geoffroy's failed state; and even in Ward Moore's splendid Bring the Jubilee (1953), the richly imagined alternate North America exists only for the novel's time-travelling historian protagonist to revert history back to our timeline. More recently, and more Geoffroyan in a way, is a novel like Felix Gilman's Half-Made World. As the estimable Abigail Nussbaum notes:
Gilman builds a secondary world in which everything from our history of American Western expansion is present and yet different. Instead of the original, Eastern colonies of the United States we have nations with names like Koenigswald and Juddua. Instead of the Appalachians and their Cumberland Pass we have the Opals and their pass at the town of White Rock. ... Alongside these parallels, however, there is one unique trait, the literalized metaphor at the center of the duology’s world. The further one travels to the West in Gilman’s alternate America, the less solid, the less made, the world becomes. The laws of nature break down and give way to magic, and at the furthest reaches of the West, “Sea, sky, land, day, night, [are] indistinguishable, not yet separated. … creation begins, or maybe hasn’t happened yet.” That creation occurs in response to human settlement, which solidifies and finally normalizes the half-made world, but the meeting between human fears and desires and the in-flux world’s magic has unexpected results. It gives rise to the Line and Gun, not just metaphors for capitalism and lawlessness run amok, but manifestations of it with minds of their own, who can conscript and enslave humans to their purpose.
This is saying something about history itself, under a kind of conceptually American aegis. And I agree with Nussbaum that one of the weakness's of Gilman's book and its sequel is a kind of blindness to 'the Folk', the Native American equivalents in the novels. They are outside European conceptions of history, and therefore out of history altogether.

Back to Napoléon Apocryphe. By 1827 the global conquest is completed, and 'Universal Monarchy' finally instituted:
La monarchie universelle! Combien ont prononcé ces mots qui ne comprenaient pas l'idée qu’ils renferment. Combien le sont balbutiées et répétées froidement ces paroles: enfants, hommes, pédants et rois, qui ne savaient ce que c’était que la monarchie universelle, pas plus que l'infini et que Dieu, dont à chaque instant leurs bouches murmurent les noms.
That's the thing about Fascism. Its roots are much deeper than you realised. Here are the articles of the new Napoleonic world order:
Art. 1. Les continents, les îles et les mers qui couvrent la surface du globe composent la monarchie universelle.

Art. 2. Le christianisme est la seule religion de la terre.

Art. 3. La monarchie universelle réside en moi et dans ma race à perpétuité.

Art. 4. Le siége de la monarchie universelle est à Paris, capitale de la terre.

Art. 5. La terre est divisée en quatre parties:
L'Europe; L'Asie à laquelle sont réunies les îles de l'Océania; l’Afrique et l'Amérique.

Art. 6. Les quatre parties de la terre sont subdivisées en royaumes.

Art. 7. La France conserve seule le nom d’empire.

Art. 8. La guerre est désormais interdite aux rois et aux peuples.

Art. 9. L’esclavage est détruit.

Art. 10. Les rois de la terre sont, sous notre souveraineté, chargés en ce qui les concerné de l’exécution du présent décret. Donné à Paris, ce 4 juillet 1827. NAPOLEON.
Nicely ironic, that article 9. Everyone seems cool about accepting Christianity as the sole global religion, including all the Jews, with one single exception: and this leads me to my second example from the novel. In a chapter actually called 'Les Juifs' (chapter 34) we learn of the one Jew who repudiates Napoleonic rule and Christianisation.
Samuel Manassès, rabbin de Strasbourg, protesta avec la plus grande violence contre la décision de ses frères, et, dans un moment d’exaltation, il s’écria: 'a que le Christ signale donc sa vérité et sa puissance! Pour moi, fidèle à la loi de mes pères, je le blasphème hautement, et je défie le dieu des chrétiens!'
. But this protest doesn't last long: stubborn Manassas is touched by 'le doigt de Dieu', has a fit, falls to the ground and dies there and then. So much for him! 'Cette circonstance extraordinaire,' Geoffroy adds blandly, 'porta le dernier coup à la religion juive, elle expira cette année avec le culte et les constitutions de Moïse.'

The Jews ('cette nation-mystère' Geoffroy calls them), of course, stand for the opposite sort of 'historical' force to the Americans. They embody not too little but too much history; the antique law that must be overcome for the ahistorical, alt-historical Napoleonic utopia to come into being. But if overcoming too little history is a simple matter of military conquest, overcoming too much requires this extraordinary (in several senses) divine intervention.

French is made the universal language; everybody is happy and at peace. Of course 'l’empereur conserva son immense armée', but you'd hardly expect him to give it up, now, would you. N. draws up a plan to eliminate all other races by selective breeding over seven generations ('arriver à la suite de quelques générations à une unité de race et de couleur') and he makes great strides in science, including the invention of superfast trains ('des voitures qui volaient avec la rapidité de la foudre sur les routes en fer') and a fleet of 'ballons aérostatiques' powered by 'les forces magnétiques avec l'électricité'. There are odder inventions, including pliable soft-glass (seriously: 'le verre, si résistant et si friable, s’amollit sous les doigts de la chimie, il se plia comme une cire assouplie') and actual mathematical impossibilities are accomplished, including squaring the circle:
Une merveilleuse inutilité, long-temps crue impossible, la quadrature du cercle, fut découverte dans des circonstances singulières
A new planet is discovered ('la planète de Vulcain'). The book doesn't say so, but maybe Napoleon goes off to conquer that one next. These literal impossibilities, mixed in with the various mere improbabilities, speak to the contradiction the novel acknowledges without making explicit. Napoleon becomes a kind of transcendental signifier, a magic finger capable of altering not just the material but the spiritual facts of history.

The contrast that comes most forceably to one's mind, of course, is another, vastly more famous literary representation of Napoleon from the nineteenth-century. The one in this novel from 1869:

Tolstoy's original working title for War and Peace was 1805; and it was under this latter title that the first version of the novel was published (in Russkiy Vestnik, in 1865). As Andrei Zorin notes, Tolstoy was 'the first major author in world history to have tried to make a year the protagonist of a novel (Victor Hugo's 1793 appeared nine years later)' [TLS March 20 2015]. It's entirely appropriate, of course; because the whole novel's dramatization of Napoleon as deluded about the power he has to shape event, is hammered home by the second par of the novel's epilogue -- a lengthy and superbly boring essay on History, laying out Tolstoy's objections to the 'Great Man Theory' of historical change. For Tolstoy, all historical events are the result of millions of smaller events driven by the huge numbers of ordinary individuals that constitute humanity itself. The comparison he makes is with calculus, and the recently discovered ability of mathematicians to sum infinitesimals). This in turn expresses a fundamental logic of individual human life, which is determined by an inverse relationship between necessity and free-will, necessity for Tolstoy being the defined by reason and therefore explicable to historical analysis, where free-will is "consciousness" and therefore inherently unpredictable.

In other words, Tolstoy is the great anti-alternate-historian. It doesn't matter what any one individual does, no matter how mighty s/he might be in the conventional scheme of things. History is 'like a deaf person who is in the habit of answering questions that no one has put to them,' Tolstoy famously said. 'If the purpose of history be to give a description of the movement of humanity and of the peoples, the first question — in the absence of a reply to which all the rest will be incomprehensible — is: what is the power that moves peoples? To this, modern history laboriously replies either that Napoleon was a great genius, or that Louis XIV was very proud, or that certain writers wrote certain books. All that may be so and mankind is ready to agree with it, but it is not what was asked.'

Alternate history is Geoffroyan in this sense: it is the deaf sub-genre that can only think of history as a succession of 'great' (that is, significant) individuals, of moments around which everything might hinge. This concept of history as fundamentally fragile is profoundly un-Tolstoyan. For Tolstoy one man, even one battle in which hundreds of thousands die, like Borodino, is not enough to overcome the immense inertia of history as such. Napoleon thinks he has won the Battle of Borodino, and so been able to occupy Moscow, and so conquered Russia. But he is wrong; it's the same error that Geoffroy makes in his novel. History doesn't work that way.

So the question becomes: what might an alternate-history look like that took the Tolstoyan approach? If instead of positing a jonbar point of the 'what if Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's hadn't been able to hang on to Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg?' sort (as in Bring the Jubilee), we imagine alternate history along Tolstoyan lines? We would be writing a much more inertially aware sort of tale; differences would be fewer; the forces necessary to apply to History itself would be much much bigger to produce any alteration at all. And who knows: the results might be weightier, and less disposable too.

Some Napoleonic Caricatures

'Le petit homme rouge berçant son fils'.

Le grosse caisse de l'europe. I thought 'caisse' meant box, cash-register and so on; but from the image it must also mean 'drum'. Unless there's some play on words I'm missing, there.

Not a caricature of the man, but rather cool nonetheless.

Monday 23 March 2015

On Calling a Book 'Logosophia'

So, Coleridge referred many times to his big book, his life's work, which was to sum-up and express in a single place the whole of his thought about God and art and philosophy. He worked on this off and on through the last three decades of his life, and under various titles: ‘Logosophia’, ‘Assertion of Religion’; ‘The Great Work’, ‘Magnum Opus’, ‘Opus Maximum’. He never finished it, although at his death he left a great quantity of draft material relating to it, with more that can be extracted from his Notebooks, conversation and his other works (especially the Biographia Literaria, in which Coleridge refers several times to the book as only a ‘vestibule’ or preliminary work to the Logosophia). There was talk of Henry Nelson Coleridge completing and publishing the Logosophia in the years after STC’s death, but that came to nothing. In fact, the first publication of any of this material was ‎Thomas McFarland and Nicholas Halmi’s 2002 edition for the Collected Coleridge under the ‘Opus Maximum’ title—you can see the cover up there. It makes hard reading, partly because McFarland is so scrupulous about recording the scrappy MS jottings as they have come down to us, complete with crossings out and variants and so on. But then, after all, it is unfinished.

Personally I prefer the Logosophia title that Coleridge used for a while (although by the end of his life he was more likely to use the Magnum Opus or Opus Maximum titles), for a number of reasons. And now I'm wondering if the reason he starts referring to his 'great work' by this title from about 1814 onwards, and uses that title in the Biographia (1817), is because he'd read this book by the Hungarian writer Sánder Kyss:

It's a curious tome, written in two columns, the left in Latin the right in German (just the sort of thing you'd assume might appeal to Coleridge), and concerned with proposing a modified version of the Roman alphabet for universal use, and with the specific aim of facilitating international and diplomatic communication.

It is just the alphabet. Kyss is not suggesting an Esperanto-style new language, but rather an alphabet 'auf die ewigen Gesetze der Natur gegründet' ('in perpetuis legibus naturae fundata'), 'founded on the eternal laws of nature'. Whatever that might mean! I can't find anything linking Coleridge and Kyss, or indeed anything about Kyss at all (beyond what can be deduced from his title page there: that was a Hungarian knight, diplomat and 'judicial assessor'), so this is just conjecture. Suggestive though.


[PS. Kyss's book makes interesting browsing, actually. What's wrong with the Roman alphabet? "Die Römer hatten für eigene Aussprachen, ein fast gutes Alphabet, es war aber nicht vollständig, folglich nicht allgemein; es fehlten ihnen mehrere Elementar- Stoffe der menschlichen Aussprachen, es fehlte ihnen der Grundlautstoff ... daher konnten die Römer nur eigene Aussprachen niederschreiben, für fremde Aussprachen waren sie gezwungen, entweder die fremden Alphabete zu erlernen, oder die fremden Aussprachen, mit eigenem Alphabet schlecht niederzuschreiben." 'The Romans had a tolerably good alphabet, as far as their own pronunciation of words was concerned, but it was not complete, and therefore was not general; they lacked several elementary quantities of human pronunciations: basic sonic components ... Therefore, the Romans could only write their own words; for foreign words they were forced either to apply foreign alphabets, or to employ the distorted pronunciations with their own alphabet and so write such words down in an inapposite manner.' Since out alphabet is based on theirs, we have inherited this deficiency. Bad Romans! Naughty Romans! On your bed!]

Friday 20 March 2015

SF Soviet Cigarettes

At the moment I'm reading Burgess's Honey for the Bears (1963), his lightly fictionalised account of the trip he and his wife took to the USSR in the early 60s. Enjoying it, too. One thing he notes is that Soviet cigarettes all sport space flight themes. So I did a quick google image search, and by gum he's right -- either space, or else weird phallic surrealism.

That last one, though! Woo-hoo.

Monday 16 March 2015

Ozymandias Replies

So, friend, you think my face and legs in stone
Are signs that I have failed? Friend, think again.
When I ascended to my marble throne
The land was forest, meadow, lakeside glen.
I took it and I wasted it. This desert tract
Stands as my most expansive monument:
Dead-life, as blank as hope, as bald as fact.
I made a world of sand. And it's this spent
Stage-set, bleached clean, that I am proudest of—
More than my palaces and bling and war—
Because it's the perfection of my love
When my rule's push came to my people's shove.
We tyrants know what power's really for.
I made my desolation to endure.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Vida y Virtudes del Venerable Varon (1635)

OK: anybody want to tell me what that elephant is supposed to be doing? (The book is here.)

Saturday 14 March 2015

Doctor Panurgus Curing the Folly of his Patients by Purgation (c.1630)

Isn't this splendid? It's by Martin Droeshout, he of the Shakespeare First Folio portrait. From that Wikipedia link we learn that it's:
an allegory of the follies of modern life, depicting figures representing Country, Town and Court life being treated by the doctor. The design has a complicated ancestry, being an adaptation of an earlier print by Greuter, which itself drew on emblem book designs. Droeshout, or perhaps an unknown person who designed it, seems to have made a number of specific elaborations of the image, including extensive text, adding extra characters and English and Latin phrases, notably verses explaining how the doctor is purging the three figures of their respective moral illnesses. He pours "Wisdome and Understanding" down the throat of an ignorant rustic and smokes the brain of the "gallant" (courtier) in an oven to burn away the vanity in it (represented by various images going up in smoke). Two other figures wait to have their own brains smoked. Inset are other designs referring to the religious controversy of the era over pluralism. The whole is filled with boxed passages of satirical moral verse of unknown authorship.
Click to embiggen, so as to see the varied 'fancies' that are being sublimed out of the court dandy's head: lots of passtimes and games, from musical instruments and backgammon to hunting with dogs; but also two theatrical masks, and a whole big church with a man falling off the roof, perhaps an over-elaborate way of suggesting insufficient piety. I presume the brick kiln is cracked not to indict the equipment of the good doctor but rather to suggest the very great heat necessary to boil such deep-rooted fancies away. Also, there's this fairy fellow. What's he about?

Friday 13 March 2015

Future history: Secularizing the Sacred

Relevant to my thoughts on the Protestant Reformation as the crucible of SF, this time with reference to imagining the future in secular terms (or as ‘future history’, which is, of course, one of the core strategies of the genre):
Unlike national prophets who, in the process of sacralising English history, risked losing their past in an ahistorical eternity, other Elizabethan writers attempted to turn the divine prophesy of Revelation into history, making it available as a source of national articulation. As John Pocock has shrewdly observed, “apocalyptic, which sacralises secular time, must always in an opposite sense secularize the sacred, by drawing the process of salvation into that time which is known as saeculum. In the sixteenth century perhaps more than at any earlier period, English Protestants broke with the idealist, Augustinian interpretation of Revelation in favour of a historical interpretation. [Andrew Escobedo, Nationalism and Historical Loss in Renaissance England: Foxe, Dee, Spenser, Milton (Cornell University Press, 2004), 81]

Sunday 8 March 2015

Terry Eagleton on Evil

The tl;dr is that Eagleton 'believes' in evil, and so sets his face against those (as he sees them) modish and misguided leftists and postmodernists who think morality all relative, evil just another name for 'anti-social activity' and so on. I quite liked this, but wished Terry had made his case with fewer Massive Gaping Holes in his argument. For example, Eagleton believes that one must actively accede to evil for it actually to be evil:
To be damned, you must know what it is you are turning down, rather as you must be of sound mind to be married. ... It would be unforgiveably absentminded of the Almighty to pack off some of his creatures to everlasting torment without having alerted them to the disagreeable possibility in the first place. You cannot end up in hell by accident, any more than you can learn Portuguese by accident. [54]
Arguing by analogy is a notoriously foggy process, and best avoided, but even so this is spectacularly poorly chosen. I mean really: how does Eagleton think Portuguese babies learn Portuguese? Does he picture them sitting down, in nappies, with textbooks of Portuguese grammar in front of them and getting stuck in? Of course not. They pick it up as they go along; they absorb it from their environment whilst they're doing other things like playing and eating and gurgling. They learn their language inadvertently, which is another way of saying accidentally. And, to work back along the analogy, there are surely people brought up in environments that acculturate them to a range of evil beliefs and actions, from sexism and racism to active cruelty and oppression, in ways that ramp up so incrementally and slowly that at no point are they actively aware this is what is happening to them. Might this not be ... well, most people, actually? (Of course, what Eagleton means that I, native English speaker, nearly 50 years of age, am not going to learn Portuguese 'by accident'. But neither, not having been brought up in the Hitler Youth by Nazi parents, and osmotically taught the natural inferiority of Jews, am I suddenly going to turn around and murder Semites).

There's a real blind spot in the book, here. Eagleton seems to cleave to what one might think a rather unMarxist view that Providence (since he doesn't bring God into it) always arranges a moment of moral clarity for every adult individual at some crucial moment, the Rubicon flowing calmly before them, enabling them to choose to do good or evil.
You can believe in evil without supposing that it is supernatural in origin. Ideas of evil do not have to posit a cloven-hoofed Satan. It is true that some liberals and humanists deny the existence of evil. This is largely because they regard the word 'evil' as a device for demonising those who are really nothing more than socially unfortunate. It is what one might call the community-worker theory of morality. It is true that this is one of the world's most priggish uses, as we have seen already. But to reject the idea of evil for this reason works better if you are thinking of unemployed council-estate heroin addicts rather than serial killers of the Nazi SS. It is hard to see the SS as merely unfortunate. One should be careful not to let the Khmer Rouge off the same hook on which delinquent teenagers are impaled. [16]
Since a good proportion of the Khmer Rouge were precisely delinquent teenagers (kids, basically, raised, acculturated and pressured into believing that they were serving a higher good, and liable to be killed if they didn't go along) this looks almost like Eagleton is trolling. I daresay some SS officers had half-hour Long Hard Thinks, when they knew themselves to be acting in an evil way, balanced this against the option of doing good, and rejected the latter. But surely not many.

And this is the issue. If you're living in Nazi Germany, fighting evil like Dietrich Bonhoeffer even at the cost of your own life is one option. But to do so means setting your individual opinion over the opinion of the crowd, the people, the nation. Such martyrdom is sometimes necessary. But it rather contradicts Eagleton's view, expressed in a lengthy reading of Pincher Martin, that 'like Faust, the damned are too proud to submit ... they will not bow the knee to the finite, least of all to their own creatureliness This is why pride is the characteristic Satanic vice' [26]. Because 'pride' has a number of quite separate valences. It can be bad egoism, of course. But it can be something else.