‘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 28 June 2015

Invisible Man

If I were this guy I'd TOTALLY stand in front of that horse so it looked like its head was wearing my glasses and hat.

Oh, the Hitlerity


"Joseph Goebbels directed the use of Zeppelin airships – filled with hydrogen because helium was banned by the US – for propaganda purposes and requested that the Hindenburg’s name be changed to Adolf Hitler. But for the rejection of this request by the Zeppelin company manager Hugo Eckener, it would have been the Adolf Hitler that burst into flames over New Jersey on 6 May 1937." David Bradford

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Arborial aborigine from Holdberg’s "Nils Klim" (1741)

The hero of Holberg's Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum (1741) descends into this, our hollow earth and meets the arboriform inhabitants. There's one of them, pictured. I particularly like the leaf that doubles as a goatee.

Monday 22 June 2015

Edmund Dickinson "Physica Vetus & Vera" (The Old Physics True, 1702)

My loitering in the fields of 17th- and 18th-century neo-Latinity (for something academic I'm working on) has brought me at last to Edmund Dickinson Physica Vetus & Vera, 'The Old Physics True' (1702), a work which seeks to combine the Old Testament, alchemy and various orts and scraps from the Greek and Roman classics. Dickinson himself seems like a colourful fellow, and this book is supposed to sum up his vision of the cosmos. It comes with two illustrations, near the beginning. The first represents the earth as packed tight in celestial coffee beans, filling the space between us and the starry 'fiery, bright' aether/empyraeum:

Groovy. The Latin at the bottom is Ovid's Metamorphosis 1:22-23, and means 'he severed the earth from the sky and he parted the sea from the land;/ he separated translucent space from the grosser sky'. The second doesn't give us a great deal by way of detail:

The Greek there is a bit of the first chapter of Genesis ('Et Tenebrae erant super faciem abyssi', and darkness was upon the face of the deep) to which an adaptation of Metamorphosis 1:7 is tacked on, 'quam graeci dixere chaos', 'that the Greeks call Chaos'.

Athanasii Kircheri, Iter extaticum coeleste: quo mundi opificium, id est coelestis expansi siderumque tam errantium (1660)

That title means 'A journey in the form of a trance to the heavens, or how the universe of the wide heavens and wandering stars is made'. And here's the title page:

Friday 19 June 2015

A Writer's Emblem

Nifty. From Monarchy Or No Monarchy in England. Grebner His Prophecy Concerning Charles son of Charles, his Greatness, Victories, Conquests (1651).

Thursday 18 June 2015

Sanguinis Draconis

From Michael Maier alchemical allegory, Viatorium: De montibus planetarum septem, seu metallorum ('Travels: from the mountains of the seven planets, or of metals' 1618). Apologies for the slight wonkiness: that's Google Books for you.

Seapig (1537)

On Alex Boxer's excellent Idols of the Cave blog I read of this curious pamphlet: Antonio Blado’s Monstrum in Oceano (1537). Blado pretends to report the capture of an improbable looking ‘sea pig’ in the North Sea: mōnstrū marinū porco simile.

In fact, Blado’s book is expressly theological allegory, and does not present itself as a true history. After interpreting all the peculiar elements of his fantastical creature in terms of the Bible, leaning heavily on Revelation, he concludes: ‘tu ut pius es, quid omnia hæc simul iuncta portendant, pro pietate tua, ac religione interpretabere’: as you are pious, I pray you interpret according to your religious piety what all this portends.

What really interests me is that Blado’s account, and his vivid illustration of this creature, proved so popular that it reappears in other books and even in maps, re-reported without its theological gloss as an actual alien creature.

That's a detail from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (‘Marine Map’, 1539). The Latin legend says: ‘this monster was observed in 1537’. To me, this speaks less to the credulity of people in the sixteenth-century and more to their appetite for the strange and the monstrous, and more specifically their preference for strange and monstrous sublimity as conceived within the logic of possibility rather than myth or ancient fable.

India, America

Closer than you might think:

That's from the title page of Nova typis transacta navigatio novi orbis Indiæ occidentalis ('the lately transacted voyage to the new world of the west indes', 1627), written very much not at first hand by a Benedictine abbot called Caspar Plautius (Kaspar Plautz) of Seitenstetten Abbey in Austria.

It is, according to the authorities, 'fanciful work with fictional parts and fantastic illustrations'. Here, for example, is the book's account of Saint Brendan, crossing the Atlantic as a missionary and stopping midway to celebrate mass on what he takes to be an island. The fool!

Tuesday 16 June 2015

A Monkey Playing the Lute

From the Splendor Solis (1535)

Of Piss (1529)

Strictly speaking, 'de urinis actuarii' means 'the secretary of urine'; but I prefer my title. The book is in four parts:

'On all the different kind of urine'; 'urinous judgements' (de judiciis urinarum); 'the causes of urine' and 'the foresight of urine' (de praevidentis ex urinis). I assume the latter contains advice on predicting health or illness from urine. Good phrase though!

Monday 15 June 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

So, yes: spoilers.

One way of distinguishing a redshirt from an 'actual' character would be to say: a redshirt is the sort of individual who can die without turning the larger story into a tragedy. Combine modern popular culture's allergy (broadly speaking) to tragedy and the received wisdom that 'characters dying' is a copper-bottomed way of ramping up narrative excitement and importance, and we arrive at a situation of redshirt hyperinflation, story-wise.

Which brings me to Jurassic World. I enjoyed this, and Dan (presently seven years of age) enjoyed it more. It takes a little too long to get itself going, and its big T-Rex/Indominus-Rex climactic battle leaves various key plot strands dangling. Plus, the movie can't quite make up its mind about its raptors: are they dangerous predators who could eat any of the main characters at any time, as in Park? Or are they (as per the image at the top) our allies in the war against Worser Sauri, and Chris Pratt's own personal posse? They can't be both and remain coherent as part of the story; although the film seems to want to swap from one to the other and back again for local effects of tension and thrill. That doesn't work, I think. But OK: it's bubblegum cinema and perfectly chewy and flavoursome as such.

The franchise is more than a Park, now: it's a World. What kind of world? Well, it's the world rendered both as theme park and as properly red-in-tooth-and-claw jungle. It is saying, in fact, that the former (which is to say: contemporary Capitalism, with all its comforts and expenses) is actually a sort of thin fiction stretched over How Things Really Are. How are they? Nasty. It's a jungle out there. People die. Which people? Not our hero or heroine, of course; and not the two kids whose peril provides so much Spielbergy excitement. Lots of other people though.

Being a World, this movie is in part 'about' diversity. The biodiversity of the dino-park tropes actual environmental and human diversity. So what is the text saying about diversity? Well, it is saying that our point-of-view characters are all White, and must be preserved. Of these four, two are kids and so universal ciphers. Of the adults, one, Chris Pratt's Owen, is a Natty Bumppo. The other, Claire, is an uptight WASP female whose redemption requires her figuratively and literally to let her hair down and so find sexual redemption (what other kind is there?) with our handsome male lead. The amount of time Bryce Dallas Howard spends in the latter portion of the movie semi-undressed and writhing around in the mud is quite remarkable. But she gets her man in the end, so I suppose it's all worth it.

It's when we leave the controlled compound of Ideological Whiteness and venture into the broader world of the Other that things become dodgier. A text need not specifically push a racial or cultural stereotype at the viewer for that stereotype to figure in the way the film works. It's enough that the characters play into its (White, western) audience's tacit beliefs.

A couple of for-instances, with spoilers. Take Simon Masrani, CEO of the Masrani Corporation and the owner of Jurassic World, played by Indian actor Irrfan Khan. Masrani is one of the good guys: shown resisting the attempts to militarise his dinosaurs, and characterised as much by his compassion as his business smarts. But, see, 'everyone knows' that Indians are good at compassion: Gandhi and so on. Mind you, the film doesn't really take Masrani seriously: he's a bit of a joker, thinks he can fly a helicopter when really he can't. But Indians are like that, aren't they? With their funny head-waggling, sidekick-in-Big-Bang-Theory ways. And, hilariously, this incompetence leads to his own and many other peoples' deaths when he crashes his chopper into the Pterodactyl enclosure releasing the deadly birds. Chris Pratt wouldn't do that. This is because Chris Pratt is White, and not Indian.

Its venue being a World rather than just a Park, the movie makes many such gestures towards one-dimensional diversity. There's one Black African: Omar Sy's Barry, a Raptor wrangler whose job is to play second fiddle to Chris Pratt's Owen, and who is saved from dino-death by Chris Pratt, rather than (say) the other way around. He is Noble. He is At Home In The Jungle. There's one English character, the upper class twit Zara, played by Merlin's Katie McGrath: Claire's personal assistant, she is tasked with looking after the two boys, something she is incapable of doing. Because everybody knows the English are ineffectual poshos who run awkwardly around in the wrong kind of shoes, failing to keep up with the rushing ahead Americans. Until, that is, she is eaten by one dinosaur that (to add insult to injury) is itself eaten by another. There's one Far Eastern character: B.D. Wong's smirking Dr. Henry Wu, the park's chief geneticist, who turns out to be hiding a devious and evil scheming nature behind that inscrutable smile, because what we all know about Orientals is ... look: I'm sure you take my point.

How would this film have been if the two fresh-faced kids had been snapped up and devoured by the Pterodactyls near the end? Tragic, or at least more so. Thank heavens they survived! That lots of other people didn't doesn't harsh our buzz. Because, the film is saying, the other people who die are not our people. They are the world's redshirts: variously black, and brown and yellow and poorer-white (security guards and so on). Not a very comfortable state of affairs, in the larger sense, when you come to think of it. But, hey: look at the shiny dinos!

Sunday 7 June 2015

Very Like A Whale

I read the whole of this book (it includes a not-bad essay on Rousseau's Émile), but nothing in it seems to me as eloquent and wonderful as this footnote:
Syncretism refers to that characteristic of child thought which tends to juxtapose logically unrelated pieces of information when the child is asked for causal explanations. A simple example would be: 'Why does the sun not fall down?' 'Because it is hot. The sun stops there.' 'How?' 'Because it is yellow.' [23]
I mean, of course, not the definition of 'syncretism', but the unnamed child's wonderful explanations.

David Trotter on Hitchcock

In the most recent LRB. His premise is that Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ functions as 'the best commentary' on Hitchcock’s films '(and on a great deal else besides)':
It took a very special kind of invention to get an awareness of the ‘erratic truth of death’s timing’ into a medium of mass entertainment. In the course of a shrewd and properly demanding analysis of Vertigo, Wood draws attention to sequences of shots in the first hour of the film that mark a narrative threshold: a step-change in its relation to its audience. During these moments, our eyes and ears are ‘co-opted’ for the ‘sense of the world’ somewhat precariously maintained by the agoraphobic private detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) ... In such cases, an alliance has been created between audience and camera, an alliance in suspense: sympathetic to the protagonist, but apart from him or her. These threshold moments are engrossingly human. They engage us fully in the protagonist’s first full engagement with the world’s meaningfulness. We, too, have been reanimated – thanks to the surrogacy of a machine’s-eye view. The something too natural for art that Wood discerns in the death scene in The Pleasure Garden has found a means other than jesting last words to embed itself in the narrative. Hitchcock, who never forgot what he’d learned as a director of silent films, understood that he didn’t need words at all, jesting or otherwise. For all the light at their disposal, his threshold moments have something of the feel of Larkin’s ‘soundless dark’. They all occur either without a word spoken, or deliberately against (or over) the distractions of speech. Their discrepant soundlessness puts us back inside the police van. The threshold moment could be our last glimpse of the ‘comforts of everyday living’: a world in which a bouquet is a bouquet, a bottle of wine a bottle of wine, a saw a saw, and a woman tidying a tidy woman. We know that the people on the streets are talking to each other as people ordinarily do, but we can’t catch a word of what they say.

Monday 1 June 2015

One thought about sexism in SF and Fantasy

This is a topic much discussed, and the sexism of most older and much newer SF and Fantasy is very often deprecated, rightly so. But discussion sometimes seems to me to miss a crucial point. Sexism is much less a matter of content than it is of form. One does not 'solve', or even really address, the sexism of SF and Fantasy by swapping out a kick-ass hero for a kick-ass heroine, if one thereby keeps all the other elements untouched. Levi R. Bryant makes this point over on his Larval Subjects blog:
The difficulty is that it is the form or structure, not the content, that must be transformed to produce genuine psychodynamic or political transformation. One might believe that they’ve produced a radical transformation by switching from donuts to coffee, but both are still toruses. The structure remains the same. This was the criticism of Soviet style socialism. At the level of content it had changed the nature of distribution, but structurally, in its reliance on the Fordist factory model, it still had the same structure or form of alienation. Similarly, one does not undermine patriarchy simply by putting a woman in charge. Patriarchy is not defined by its content—a particular gender occupying the position of power—but by its structure: an autarch at the top structuring social relations. It’s that structure that has to be addressed, not the organ of a person that occupies a particular point in a topology. In this regard, it is not unusual to encounter atheists that were once religious fundamentalists that still have exactly the same structure of thought they had when they were religious fundamentalists. The content of their thought has changed, yet they still have the same structure of thought: dogmatism, evangelicism (their message of atheism and science must be shared with everyone as it’s the Truth), belief in a being that holds a privileged position (man replaces God), and inflexibility when encountering things that don’t fit their dogma, a curious lack of open mindedness, etc. The question is that of how it’s possible to produce a structural transformation that is not simply a variation of the same, that’s not one more iteration of the coffee cup that is a donut.
If you follow the link you'll see a nifty little animated gif that makes sense of his donuts/coffee-cup analogy.

Reason drives them together

"Imagination sees a lot of various things, and sees them as Like and Unlike, a manifold variety. Reflection, Understanding, relates them and shows how they contradict each other … but Reason, Reason, catches hold of the variety and seeks out of the Opposition, the Contradiction, and drives them together, ties them together, makes one the Other of the other. Then things happen."

C L R James, Notes on Dialectics (1948)