‘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.

Monday 31 August 2015


I speak, here, as a bona fide nerd. Ex cathedra, indeed. A geek cathedra. Ex cathedra gladiōrum maybe.

Friday 28 August 2015

Browning, Mute Dwarfs and Naked Indian Queens

So, when I was a PhD student at the University of Cambridge many years ago (in the 1980s, no less) and working on Robert Browning, I came upon a reference in Browning's first published work, the long blank verse poem Pauline: Fragment of a Confession (1833). In the course of this work the narrator comes to a place where
           nature lies all bare,
Suffering none to view her but a race
Or stinted or deformed, like the mute dwarfs
Which wait upon a naked Indian queen.
I didn't get the reference, and the footnotes didn't help me. No footnotes ever have; I don't believe any editor has explained what Browning is referring to, here. Maybe it proceeded from his fevered imagination.

Anyhow, many decades later, and pursuant to an entirely different project, I was reading Photius's Βιβλιοθήκη, which contains his capsule review (amongst many many other titles) of Ctesius's Indika, or 'History of India' (from the late 5th-century BC). Among the many marvels Ctesius records ('elephants which knock down walls, little apes with tails four cubits long, and of cocks of very large size; of the parrot about as large as a hawk, which has a human tongue and voice, and if taught Greek, speaks Greek') are pygmies:
In the middle of India there are black men, called Pygmies, who speak the same language as the other inhabitants of the country. They are very short, the tallest being only two cubits in height, most of them only one and a half. Their hair is very long, going down to the knees and even lower, and their beards are larger than those of any other men. When their beards are full grown they leave off wearing clothes and let the hair of their head fall down behind far below the knees, while their beard trails down to the feet in front. When their body is thus entirely covered with hair they fasten it round them with a girdle, so that it serves them for clothes. They are snubnosed and ugly. Their sheep are no bigger than lambs, their oxen, asses, horses, mules, and other beasts of burden about the size of rams. 3000 of them attend on the monarch of India.
Could Browning be thinking of these? Perhaps he has transferred the nakedness of the Pygmies onto the monarch. Not sure where the muteness has come from, though.

In terms of the poem, Browning is here talking about Switzerland: beautiful nature, like a naked (but why Indian?) Queen, ugly shortarsed natives (but why mute?). Or so he thought. I've always found Swiss people quite attractive, myself.

MPs Expenses

The MPs Expenses scandal is briefly in the news today, because one of those MPs (the guy who claimed public money to get his moat cleaned) has been elevated to the peerage. Now, this story annoyed me from the start, and the ease with which The Press, here taken as a reverse-synecdoche for Rupert Murdoch and all his sort, has diverted attention from their own stranglehold on power, and made mocking MPs a national sport, depresses me. So I tweeted a sarcastic tweet. My old friend Matt responded. Our exchange is storyfied in part below.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Hunger Grimms

Bad pun, that title. Sorry about that. Bad. You'd think, wouldn't you, that I could come up with a better title for a post about Suzanne Collins's enormously successful book and Grimms' fairy tales. Ah well.

Here's the thing: The Last Psychiatrist (a stimulating psychoanalytic blog that seems, sadly, to be in abeyance) really doesn't like The Hunger Games series, and is particularly irked about it being lauded as in any sense 'feminist'. I don't entirely disagree with this, and certainly some of the more outré claims made for the series, as quoted by the L.P., are daft ('Hunger Games was written by a woman and stars a woman—much as we love JK Rowling, her series isn't named after Hermione——making it a true lady-centric blockbuster franchise!') But I think there's a hole in the main argument. Excuse me quoting at some length:
We can start with the obvious. The book is about 24 kids thrown into an arena to fight to the death, only the toughest, the most resourceful, the strongest will survive, and it better be you because your whole village depends on it. It is such a scary premise that there was some concern it was too violent for kids to watch. Well, big surprise: Katniss wins.

Hmmm, here is a surprise: Katniss never kills anyone. That's weird, what does she do to win? Take as much time as you want on this, it's an open book test. The answer is nothing.

This is not a criticism about the entertainment value of the story, but about its popularity and the pretense that it has a strong female character. I like the story of Cinderella, but I doubt that anyone would consider Cinderella a strong female character, yet Katniss and Cinderella are identical.

The traditional progressive complaint about fairy tales like Cinderella is that they supposedly teach girls to want to be princesses and want to live happily ever after. But is that so bad? The real problem with fairy tales is that the protagonist never actually does anything to become a princess. Forget about gerrymandering or slaying a dragon or poisoning her rivals: does she even get a pretty dress, go to the ball and seduce the prince? Those may be anti-feminist actions, but at least they are actions. No. She is given two dresses, carried to the ball, and the Prince comes and finds her. Twice. Her only direct and volitional action is to leave the ball at midnight, and even that isn't so much a choice as because of a threat. The clear problem with this isn't that girls will want to hold out for a Prince, but that it might foster the illusion their value is so innately high that even without pretty clothes or a sense of agency a Prince will come find them. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are worse: they don't even have to bother to stay alive to get their Prince.

The Hunger Games has this same feminist problem. Other than the initial volunteering to replace her younger sister, Katniss never makes any decisions of her own, never acts with consequence—but her life is constructed to appear that she makes important decisions. She has free will, of course, like any five year old with terrible parents, but at every turn is prevented from acting on the world. She is protected by men—enemies and allies alike; directed by others, blessed with lucky accidents and when things get impossible there are packages from the sky. In philosophical terms, she is continuously robbed of agency. She is deus ex machinaed all the way to the end.
Hard to contest the feminist point. The L.P. notes, quite rightly: 'that these "adolescent girl" stories—Twilight and THG—have women who are essentially lead by men, circumstance, and fate—whose main executive decision is "do I love this guy or that guy"—is a window on our culture worth discussing. When you have a daughter, your first question should be, "how is the system going to try to crush her?" and plan accordingly.' Well, I have a daughter, and of course I earnestly and strenuously hope there will be much more to her adult emotional, intellectual and social life than 'do I love this guy or that guy?'

Still, I think the L.P. misses something important about these books, and the films made from them. What he takes as a bug I think a feature. So:
Though this is a story about kids killing kids, somehow Katniss never actually plans and executes any kids, she's never guilty of murder one. She does kill Rue's murderer, but it was reflexive, a defensive act. Importantly, she does not choose NOT to kill, she does not choose a pacifist position, she explicitly states twice in the book how much she wants to kill. But she never does it. She tries to kill big bad Cato at the end, twice, and fails. Only after he is torn to shreds by mutants does she perform a mercy killing on him, at his request. In other words, she doesn't choose to kill or not kill—it doesn't come up. The story goes out of its way to prevent her from having to make choices and especially from bearing their consequences.
This is true, of course, and often commented-upon. It's the author's thumb in the balance, no question. But two things occur to me. One, which I suspect is only very glancingly relevant here, is to wonder about the ethical status of 'choosing to be violent', or 'choosing to kill', where the moral good of exercising agency is surely vastly overshadowed by the moral evil of violence and murder. But the reason I don't think that's really relevant to the Hunger Games is that I don't think that's the question the books are interrogating. I think they are about play.

Put it this way: what is a fight to the death in which nobody actually dies? It is, clearly a play-fight. My 7-year-old son stabs me with his toy foam sword, and I expire on the carpet with, I can be honest, OSCAR-WORTHY groans and contortions. Then (and this is the really crucial thing) I get up again so we can resume the fight.

What happens in The Hunger Games is that the p.o.v. character, Katniss, gets to fight to the death without having actually to kill anyone, or dying herself. Nor am I suggesting that redescribing what happens in this novel from 'fight' to 'play-fight' is in any way designed to diminish it. Play is extremely important, and kids are better at it than adults. One of the problems with play, though—or perhaps it would be better to say, one of the things that separates good play from dull play—is working out how to ensure it continues to matter, that you are able to keep the intrinsic triviality of play at arm's length. To ensure that you are playing at something that you care about, something that excites you (those two things are the same thing really). Willing suspension of disbelief is only part of the solution. Kids play at violence and murder all the time, but not because they are 'actually' interested in being violent and killing, in the Lord of the Flies sense. The reason play so often entails imitation violence and imitation killing is that playing that way means that something heavy-duty is at stake. To make sure it 'matters'.

To read The Hunger Games as being about play is, I think, to see it as being more than just the fun of forts made of sofa cushions and fighting with sticks. It is also about children 'playing' at grown-up matters, like politics and power, playing at engaging with a 'real world' axiomatically assumed to be horrible. And again, it's about 'playing' at love and sex: hence the 'do I love Guy A or Guy B?' element. I'm suggesting that many readers engage with the love and sex in these novels in ways similar to the way they engage with the pop-stars and movie-actors who decorate their bedroom walls in poster form. Which is to say: in play, rather than for real, but as play that is tremendously important and valuable.

Which brings me back to the question of gender. Because we might at least want to suggest one way Collins' books are gender-progressive: precisely, that they say this kind of play (from fighting in the woods to storming the tyrannical President in his Capitol building) is just as much for girls as boys. That girls' play need not be limited to sitting indoors brushing their barbies' hair, if they don't want it to be.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Adam Mars-Jones on Postmodernism.

Long critical-analysis short: he doesn't like.
Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel’s flesh. The dispiriting thing about literary postmodernism is that it reinforces the writer at the expense of the reader in what was already an asymmetrical relationship. Art is always a one-way sharing: I can be privy to Dante’s mind but he is impervious to mine. Readerly freedom operates within constraints, and abrupt changes of convention paralyse it. If it was crass on some readers’ part to have confused the narrator of Portnoy’s Complaint with its author, what is the correct readerly response to the lengthy passage in The Counterlife in which Nathan Zuckerman’s young editor gives a eulogy at his funeral analysing the dead man’s succès de scandale? (‘It’s still diabolically funny, but what was new to me was a sense of how sad the book is, and emotionally exhausting.’) Numbness perhaps. Later it turns out that Zuckerman himself wrote the eulogy for the editor to deliver. Meta-numbness.

Having the rug pulled from under your feet certainly gives you a fresh perspective on the ceiling, but it’s also likely to breed a chronic mistrust of rugs.
Snappily put, as ever with Mars-Jones. The puzzling thing for me, here, is the implicit though unarticulated contrary: as if he actually believes the business of the novel is to enhance our trust in rugs. Because, you know: if we can't trust our rugs, our own damn rugs, then how can civilized life continue?

I like The Counterlife a good deal more than Mars-Jones, evidently, does, though I'd agree it is a novel with various, quiet serious problems. Then again, many of those problems would be addressed by tugging its own rugs with a little more force.

Thursday 13 August 2015

What Art Knows

Louis Arnaud Reid wrote an essay called 'Feeling and Aesthetic Knowing' in 1976, which begins:
The Exclusiveness of Propositional Claims. The Western world and its education have been dominated by a prejudice about the nature of knowledge so powerful that it is hard to know how to begin to question it with any effect. The prejudice is, briefly, that all that can genuinely and properly be called "knowledge" can be adequately stated or expressed in true propositions for which sufficient reasons can be given. The prejudice is not in the positive claim that knowledge can be so stated and justified, but in its denial, implied in "all that can properly be called 'knowledge' " is of that type—i.e., nothing else can. Of course any philosopher who assumes this common view does not deny that there are other words claiming to be knowledge words. One "knows" a person or a color; one "knows" mugging to be wrong; one "knows" this symphony or this picture. But, except as far as those can be translated or analyzed into true propositional statements, they tend to be dismissed as mere "intuitions," "hunches," or sayings which ex- press feelings or emotions. Some attention has been given in our own time to "knowing how," but it is knowledge like science and mathematics which remains the paradigm of genuine knowledge. And this for a plain reason: the unchallengeable development and success of science and mathematics since the seventeenth century, the development of systematic conceptual thinking coupled with understanding and cognitive and technological mastery of the world of fact, of "what is the case."
This doesn't seem so very radical. He goes on to argue that affect is a mode of knowing: that 'the intuitions and feelings we have in these matters are cognitive experiences, and that they make knowledge claims' [12]
Feeling is not of course the whole of this knowing; to say that would once again be to abstract and isolate it. But it is an intrinsic part of knowing. In a moral situation, for example, perhaps someone may be in need and in dire distress. Compassion and help seem to be called for. What it is wise and right to do in that situation may require in- vestigation and understanding. A moral problem may often require a great deal of cool impersonal analysis—though done within a context which requires a cognitively intuitive feeling for the whole situation. But on the other side, one cannot be truly compassionate, one can- not even know what compassion is, without at some stage feeling it. The wisdom of compassionate action, its rightness and appropriateness in that particular situation, its instrumental values—these are matters of a partly intellectual judgment that may be required to "prove" the action right, so far as the term "proof" can be relevant here. But the intrinsic goodness of compassion must be felt (at some stage) in order to be known; it can never be shown by purely intellectual means, by "knowing about" compassion and its uses, by being able to make correct propositions about it. (A moral psychopath can do that.) There is a sense in which the intrinsic goodness of compassion must be tested "upon the pulses."
Where things get stickier, I'd say, is when he moves to the aesthetic. A fatal vagueness enters, cloaked as necessary brevity:
It is impossible in a short paper to do any justice to how feeling operates in our knowledge of the arts—one reason being because different arts are so different from one another. In reading a good novel, for instance, our attention seems almost "transparently" directed towards the characters, ideas, and events depicted and imagined. Our cognitive feelings are the feelings mainly of all that; and although of course the scenes are conveyed in the medium of skillfully chosen words, focal attention to the feeling of the words can be distracting. In reading poetry it is very different. Poetry, of course, is about things as felt by the poet, but the feeling for the spoken, sounding, rhythmical, dynamically directional quality of the word pattern is central to the poetic meaning. Yeats's poem "Never Give All the Heart" is about its title, but every sounding word of the poem makes its contribution to the passion and the bitterness of the poetic meaning.
We need more, here. It's not enough to say that what King Lear 'knows' is that 'life is sometimes heartbreakingly sad'. Reid's example of the novel describes the empathy a reader feels for the characters about whom she is reading; but empathy is a very limited sort of knowledge. What separates out better art from lesser art is that the better art knows more; is wiser, is more effectively and potently demonstrative. One of the things that interests me about this is that this knowledge is very often a separate quality from the technical or formal accomplishment. Frankenstein is a very clumsily written novel, in many ways; gauche and melodramatic and lunkishly plotted. Yet Frankenstein 'knows' something eloquent and important about science: about the psychological logic of scientific discovery, about the balance of ambition and payoff, unintended consequence and violence. There are plenty of other examples: the Harry Potter novels are derivative, slackly written and sprawly; but they know something so significant that they connect, expressively and genuinely, with millions of people: they know that school, when you're of school age, is much more than a place you go to get educated, that it's the arena for all your most intense dramas, interpersonal and personal.

Saturday 8 August 2015

Death of Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, 1387

"Charles the Bad, having fallen into such a state of decay that he could not make use of his limbs, consulted his physician, who ordered him to be wrapped up from head to foot, in a linen cloth impregnated with brandy, so that he might be enclosed in it to the very neck as in a sack. It was night when this remedy was administered. One of the female attendants of the palace, charged to sew up the cloth that contained the patient, having come to the neck, the fixed point where she was to finish her seam, made a knot according to custom; but as there was still remaining an end of thread, instead of cutting it as usual with scissors, she had recourse to the candle, which immediately set fire to the whole cloth. Being terrified, she ran away, and abandoned the king, who was thus burnt alive in his own palace. Other versions have his bed set alight by a coal escaping from a metal warming-pan."

I love how the dudes on the right of this image are calmly chatting away, and how unconcerned the dog looks. It's a little like a more extreme, Game-of-Thrones-era version of that painting in Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts"