‘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 February 2016

Yggdrasilic Colophon

... is the name of my next band.

From Tales from the Norse, with Illustrations by Reginald L. Knowles and Horace J. Knowles (1910)

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Dahl R: for Murder


As for Dahl, well: I grew up reading him, first his child stories, then his 'adult' short fiction, a transition that hinged for me upon the reading of one story in particular, 'A Piece of Cake' (1942). And in fact, it was reading this one Dahl short story that decided me to be a writer. Odd, really.

Odd, not least, in that 'A Piece of Cake' really isn't a typical Roald Dahl story. His reputation as a short story writer depends largely upon his later collections of Tales of the Unexpected: 'sting-in-the-tail' pieces, the kind of story that ends on a narrative twist. I enjoyed all those tales, but they didn't inspire me with the desire myself to be a writer. Indeed it seems to me that this sort of story delivers a very specific, and rather limited, sort of pleasure. It is the pleasure of small-scale surprise, of an 'aha!' moment: limited both in intensity and in duration (it doesn't take long for the shine to come off this twist, in practice). Nor is it a pleasure that's especially repeatable. In this respect it has something in common with the punchline of a joke. Yet I don't think describing the twist with which this kind of story ends as a punchline quite gets it right, either. In a joke the body of the gag exists only to set-up the punchline; where I suppose in a twist-in-the-tale story the reverse is true: the punchline exists rather to cast the world of the story, or the world at large, in a new light. But it's a one-dimensional trick, for all that, and banal at least in the sense that life is very rarely eucatastrophic, and only slightly less rarely dyscatastrophic. Mostly life runs in predictable grooves, and the things we learn as we go along reinforce, rather than overturn, what we have learned thus far. But here's the thing (and I suppose the appeal of these sorts of stories resides in this): on those occasions when we do experience some sort of perceptual or conceptual about-turn, the experience is weirdly exhilarating. I'm not sure I see why this should be, but I suppose the desire to reproduce that exhilaration, in contained and diluted form, explains the perennial popularity of this sort of story.

At any rate, I've a soft spot for this sort of tale, and have in my time enjoyed Dahl's 'adult' shorts. I put adult in inverted commas there because I have to concede there's something puerile about them; even (or we should say: especially) his Uncle Oswald sex stories. 'A Piece of Cake', though, seems to me to be something different. On the surface it looks ordinary enough: an autobiographical account of flying in wartime and crashing his plane in the Libyan desert. But there's something else there, I think. I'm just not sure what.

At any rate, something about that story, and more to the point something about the form of that story (not its content, particularly: which is to say, it wasn't that I had a particular interest in WW2 or planes or anything like that) ... something about the way it was written, and structured, or the way it arranged its scenes and images, and the emotional affect it generated, rushed my 13-year-old conscious mind like a tidal bore, and made me want to write things myself. It was, more or less, as simple as that. I didn't want to be a writer before I read that story; I wanted to make animated cartoons. After I read that story, I wanted to be a writer. I have, as you might expect, thought about this a great deal since then, but I still can't understand why this particular story had so profound an effect on me. That I have never written anything like Roald Dahl, and have no desire so to do, flows naturally from this impetus, I think. The force of it upon my mind did not impel a desire to imitate, you see.


All this means that I'm probably too close to him, as a writer, to be able to discuss him properly. Critical discussion of Dahl tends to involve negotiating that debateable land between love for Dahl's writing, which had shaped many critics, and disdain for his cranky, bullying, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, occasionally sadistic, sexually incontinent self. Steering gingerly around the biographical fallacy, we nevertheless probably do want to discuss the extent to which his children's books revert to a misogynistic default (aunts Spiker and Sponge in James and the Giant Peach, the Witches, Miss Trunchbull in Matilda) as opposed to their string of positive fathers and father-figures (Willy Wonka, Fantastic Mr Fox, Danny's Dad in Danny the Champion of the World, the BFG). And we probably do want to talk about how the books' worldview treats things in terms of stereotypes (hence their occasional racism); about Dahl's cruelty and the reason it appeals to children so much—because it is, we might want to argue, a paradoxically joyful cruelty. Adult dismissal of Dahl, from the early snooty de haut en bas rejection of his 'violence' and 'nastiness' (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published successfully in the States in 1964; but it took another eleven months to find a UK press willing to issue it, because the publishers over here thought it too nasty for their lists) through to the latter-day critiques of his work's misogyny, racism and so on .... such critiques, I think, miss an important point. Which is to say, they prove themselves unable to tune-in to the kid's-eye view.

Tim Minchin said something interesting with respect to adapting Matilda as a musical, which he did (of course) to international critical and commercial success. He said that when adults read Dahl, and see in those stories other adults being sadistically cruel to children, they think of Baby P. But (Minchin said) that's not how kids take it; those aren't the associations children carry through to the stories. They find it all funny, not ghastly; or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that they find its ghastliness funny, not depressing. There's something in that.

It is also worth talking about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and more specifically the things Dahl added to Ian Fleming's rather narrowly conceived original novel. Dahl created Truly Scrumptious for instance; and the whole 'Vulgaria' plotline and—best of all—he dreamed up the Child Catcher. A genuinely scary creation, this last; the excellently camp incarnation of the principle of Adult Animus Against Children. In many ways a one-man embodiment of the Dahl ethos—which is, roughly: that the world is full of wonder and twisted fun for kids, but it is also full of large lumbering malevolent beings who hate children and want to hurt or kill them. These later are called 'adults' and all but a very few are irremediably malign. Dial F for Fun, but Dial M for Maturity which is as much as to say, for Murder. A case in point, dial BFG for example:

There's a sense in which Dahl is like Kafka. Not in the specifics of their respective fabulations, nor even in tone (although I'm reminded that Deleuze in Coldness and Cruelty insists that the original audiences for Kafka's stories positively fell about laughing at them, so hilarious they were deemed). And not in the sense that both Metamorphosis and James and the Giant Peach are 'about' gigantic insect life (although that is true). But in this sense: Kafka's stories only look like they describe nightmarishly aberrant worlds, worlds where the principles of kindness, logic, reason and decency do not obtain and individuals are persecuted relentlessly by motiveless bureaucrats or other powers. The mistake, of course, is in thinking that Kafka wrote 'fantasy' at all. The whole of the twentieth-century stands testament to the fact that he wrote the most precise kind of verisimilitude: a century in which this Kafkaen social logic covered most of the globe, from Communist and Fascist dictator states to the deracinated blankness of the deserts of late capitalist consumption.

There's something similar at work in Dahl. It seemed to many adults in the 1970s and 1980s that there was a perversely wilful nastiness in the way Dahl saw the world—not that people thought child abuse never happened, but that they thought it was a marginal, rare and regrettable deviation from the 'normal' course of childhood. Now we look back, through Operation Yewtree tinted glasses, at the sheer stomach-turning scope of the abuse that was going on, from Christian brothers schools and other church-related scandals, through secular schools, abuse in borstals and hostels, hospitals and asylums to the home. In Europe a tenth of all children experience sexual abuse at some time during their growing-up; in Asia the rate rises to a quarter of all children; in Africa the rate is a boggling one third of all children.

The crucial thing here is not that it goes on, or has gone on, sickening through the fact of it is; the crucial thing is that nobody really talked about it back then. This is not the same thing as saying that it was a secret, or more precisely it is saying that it was a secret of a very particular kind, a secret hidden in plain view. To look back at footage of the BBC's own Child Catcher, Jimmy Savile, in his heyday is to be struck by the thought: he could hardly have been more obvious about his delinquent weirdness. The great thing about the Child Catcher performance turned in by Sir Robert Helpman (by all accounts a thoroughly nice chap in real life) was the way it so hyperbolically performed its exaggerated sinister-ness, the way its spurious child-friendliness was so transparent, the way it was all so evident, right there on the surface.

Dahl's various unpleasantnesses as an adult were all, in their way, symptoms of a deep rooted immaturity. He was the sort of kid who loved playing practical jokes on others, often quite unpleasant ones, and he never lost that attitude as an adult. Which is to say, he seemed not to realise that there is a point in one's life when such things stop being mischievous and endearing and start being the symptoms of mere dickishness. Still, that refusal properly to grow up was the reason he was able to write the sorts of books that children love so forcefully. It drove his prejudices, too. It's not, I think, that Dahl hated females, blacks, Jews and so on; it was that he hated adult women, adult blacks, adult Jews. He hated them because he saw in them hatred; he gave his sadistic personality free rein with them because he saw sadism in them. In the same way that Kafka's prison societies turned out, after all, to be the most accurate emblem of the 20th-century global polis, so it may well turn out (after all) that the proper emblem of postwar adult-child relations is the gurning face at the head of this post.

It's worth saying something more, I think. The way Dahl writes his adult characters gets at something important as far as the question goes of why adults abuse children. I daresay we don't wonder too deeply about this, because inside the minds of people who do these things is not a comfortable place to project our thoughts. But presumably we imagine that an adult sexually molesting a child is doing it because he considers his own sexual gratification more important than the wellbeing of his victim. This isn't the truth, though, I think—which is to say, I don't think that saying so gets the heart of the molester's own motive. I think the truth is plainer. I think adults abuse children because adults hate children. Pinning this animus to sex is just the sort of thing adults do with those inchoate but potent negative emotions they find swirling around their inner beings. Trying to fathom such abuse entails the Coleridgean game of motive hunting for a motiveless malignancy. But Dahl gets it: adults hate children because that's what adults are. Because children have the crucial thing (youth, futurity—life) that adults are losing. And Dahl gets this, too: kids know it. On an instinctive level, they know it.

What Dahl adds to this unprepossessing vision of modern life is a twist of glee. After the manner of Freud's understanding of jokes, he take the grounds for existential misery and terror and imparts enough of a spin to mean that those things can occasion a pleasurable rather than a painful psychic release. Why does Agatha Trunchbull hate Matilda so? Why is she so violent and horrible to her? Trunchbull's power comes from her larger size, muscularity and ruthlessness; but she can only harm her victims' bodies. But think how unequal the struggle really is! Matilda Wormwood has telekinetic powers, after all, and uses them to torment Trunchbull both physically and mentally, eventually driving her away altogether. There's no contest; Trunchbull is so comprehensively outmatched. One might even feel a little sorry for her. It's like The Midwich Cuckoos was rewritten with the alien children as the heroes. Which is to say: the moral universe of Dahl's books has no place for such trivial quantities as 'right' and 'wrong': it is a matter of different valences of ruthless force grappling with one another, and the books understand that ultimately the kids are the stronger parties. Which, of course, they are. They're in it for the long game, after all. We adults are all, in our various ways, old, alone and done-for.

Miss Honey is pretty, of course, and Miss Trunchbull ugly; and The Twits starts with that little riff about how exterior ugliness is always the index of interior ugliness of the soul. Thinking ugly thoughts has a sort of Lamarckian effect upon the individual:

But this is only to say that kids make less of a distinction between inner nature and exterior reality. Perhaps they're right to do this: we adults can get rather hung-up on the astonishing existential irony that things aren't always as they appear to be! Like, duh! The more radical, and I'd suggest more profound, insight is how often things are precisely what they seem to be. Nor does ugliness as such deserve punishment in Dahl. Jenny Diski recalls trying to read George’s Marvellous Medicine to her daughter:
The last time I read Roald Dahl was to my seven-year-old in 1984. I’d got to page 46 of George’s Marvellous Medicine, beyond the first description of Grandma: ‘She was a selfish grumpy old woman. She had pale brown teeth and a small puckered up mouth like a dog’s bottom.’ I’d managed George’s later depictions of Grandma as ‘a grumpy old cow’, ‘a miserable old pig’ and his remorse at not being able to cover her with sheep-dip: ‘how I’d love to ... slosh it all over old Grandma and watch the ticks and fleas go jumping off her. But I can’t. I mustn’t. So she’ll have to drink it instead.’ By page 46 George’s medicine is ready and I was about to read: ‘The old hag opened her small wrinkled mouth, showing disgusting pale brown teeth.’ But I’d had enough.
You see what she means; but by the same token, there's something marvellous about George's Gran: a vitality and a jouissance in her later various monstrous mutations that aligns her more with the children than the adults. ‘Hallelujah, here I come!’ she screams in joy, as her head crashes through the roof. And why wouldn't she be happy? She's doing what kids do, but what adults cannot: she is growing.


Saying 'growth' is the key Dahl virtue' looks odd, since his own emotional and psychological development was, in many ways, so arrested. But he was big, physically; and becoming big, like Gran in George’s Marvellous Medicine, or the insects in James and the Giant Peach, or like the BFG himself, is usually a sign of fundamental goodness in Dahl. Apparent contradictions to this, such as the miniaturisation of The Magic Finger or The Minpins, actually (paradoxically) reinforces it: because such shrinkage has the effect on our heroes of rendering the otherwise mundane and tedious world around them gigantic. And since the real 'value' in these novels is force, that same force that through the green fuse drives the flower, they have a grudging respect for those monstrous adults who understand that force. The Witches look like ordinary human beings, but reveal themselves to be monsters in the course of the story; but then the same thing happens to the children, turned into mice and quite context to live musiform lives. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory it is the kids who suffer the most: stretched, bloated, attacked, and all for the delight of ... well, of the children.

This is why it strikes me that 'sadism' is the wrong way of taking Dahl's novels. Not that his imagination didn't have its sadistic side—clearly, it did—but that sadism can't be neatly separated out from masochism, with both forces together dynamically constituting the development of subjectivity which is the true kernel of growth as such. Of Dahl's novels we might say, quoting Freud's famous passive-voice, 'a child is being beaten'. Tim Armstrong summarises:
Freud’s 1919 paper “A Child is Being Beaten” discusses the fantasy which he found in a number of patients, encapsulated in the bare statement “A child is being beaten.” Briefly, Freud’s account of the three-stages of the fantasy runs like this. It its adult form it is anonymous, “A child is being beaten” (always a boy, for reasons we need not consider here). However the origins of the fantasy lie in a very different situation: sibling rivalry. The very young child fantasizes a pleasurable scene in which “that other child, the bad child” – its rival for parental affection – is being beaten. The middle stage is the one which is repressed: the child expresses its Oedipalized love for its parent via a fantasy in which it is being beaten (“I am being beaten”). The punishment expresses a dual and contradictory purpose here: as a displaced expression of desire, and as punishment for that desire; if one desires one’s parent one deserves to be punished, but the punishment is also a pleasure. In the final stage the fact that the child is oneself is repressed, and the fantasy again superficially resembles the first stage: “A child [any child] is being beaten,” though that situation has a sexual charge attached whose origins have been forgotten. Across this trajectory, there is no fixed position for the self: at different stages in the fantasy one is sadistic, masochistic; present and non-present; guilty and innocent. The final formula: “A child is being beaten” disguises a shameful truth: “I am being beaten,” but also, even earlier, a pleasurable violence against a rival. Love becomes repressed and transferred from self to other via its attachment to a situation where a special kind of love is asserted, the incestuous love of Freud’s Oedipus complex. The beating fantasy is both sadistic (aggressive) and masochistic (passive): its aggression comes from its origins in sibling rivalry and in projection, its masochism from the desire to be punished for a transgressive fantasy.
This fantasy propels a model of individual subjectivity, which is the painful but exhilarating logic of growth itself. George's concoction (just look at how toxic many of the ingredients are!) really ought simply to have poisoned gran, to have killed her. And in a sense it does that: ‘Hallelujah, here I come!’ is poised between a kind of orgasmic vital joy and an into-thy-hands-I-commend-my-spirit deathbed hopefulness. Growth: it's murder. In a fun sort of way.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Keanu Achilles: John Wick and Modern Anger


Everybody knows what the Iliad is about. It's about the anger of Achilles. It says so right at the beginning: Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληιάδεω Ἀχιλῆος. Rage be your song, goddess: the rage of Pēlēus' son, Achilles. One of the most famous openings in all poetry.

Now, Homer uses two words for 'anger' in his poem: χόλος (kholos, the root of our English word 'choler') and μῆνις (mēnis). Lots of individuals in the Iliad manifest χόλος, gods and mortals both; which, after all, is what you'd expect. This is a poem about war, and war is an angry business. But when Homer uses μῆνις he reserves it for the gods: χόλος might be human or divine, but μῆνις is only divine. This is because the anger of the gods is a different thing to the anger of mortal men and women. You and I may get angry, but our anger usually burns itself out. We can be placated. Our anger is as temporary as our mortal lifespans. The anger of the gods, in Homer, is a different matter: it may be provoked by the smallest slight, but once it is roused it is implacable, relentless, pitiless. The angry god sets out to destroy the object of his or her ire and will not stop; does not care about collateral damage, cannot be dissuaded or defused. On those rare occasions in classical mythology where a god or goddess stops persecuting a mortal, as when Juno finally relents after decades of animosity against Aeneas, it is not because their anger has dampened down, but because they are yielding to a superior divine force. The moral is clear: don't piss-off the gods, because once they are angry with you they will never stop being angry with you. This is the difference between χόλος and μῆνις in Homer's view of the world, and it encodes a core truth about the cosmos. People may forgive you, but the universe is not like that. The ocean won't stop trying to drown you. The whole rainy, stony earth doesn't care that you are starving. The night-sky won't do anything to save you from its lethal cold. Stopping, caring and saving are human attributes, not cosmic ones.

There's only one exception to this Homeric usage of anger-words: the single human being for whom μῆνις is the fitting nomenclature (it's at the top of this post, the first word in the very first line of the poem): Achilles, of course. He is the one mortal who manifests μῆνις, and his rage is as destructive and as implacable as you'd expect that kind of anger to be. No mere human ire, because Achilles is no mere human. He is, after all, semi-divine, the mother who gave him birth a beautiful goddess, and although he is himself doomed to die he treats his fellow human beings the way gods do. The crucial thing about the rage of Achilles is its implacability. It is sublime because it is inhuman. His is anger on a more-than-human scale.

I've been thinking about the topic of anger lately. There seems to be an awful lot of it around at the moment. Future historians of the sudden rise to global prominence of the new social media will surely have a hard job explaining why platforms that brought so much joy to people, and enabled so many new friendships and connections, were also platforms that facilitated such quantities of trolling, vitriol, contumely and despite. Twitter-rage be your song, goddess, and the implacable rage of Blogkillese. Stephen Fry described deleting his twitter account as 'a massive relief, like a boulder rolling off my chest'. He's not the only one to feel that online media are becoming poisoned by a swirling miasma of intermittently focused ire. Recently I wrote the (much expanded) revised second edition of my old Palgrave History of Science Fiction, which includes a new chapter on 21st-century SF.

I debated with myself whether to include an account of the recent Gamergate/Puppies online meltdown ragefest, and decided in the end that it would be more distorting to omit it than include it. So I wrote as neutral an account as I could muster, and in turn tried to frame my discussion in the context of one of the core arguments of the History as a whole, namely that post-Star Wars SF has shifted its cultural logic from being primarily a written literature of ideas to being primarily a visual artform. Meditating upon the implications of this, I discuss Walter Ong's distinction between the 'alphabetic' logic of modern typographical societies, and the more ancient 'old oral' logic after which pre-literate societies were framed.
One aspect of this thesis is asking whether our present-day intensification of the logic of the visual is a development of the typographic world of the 20th-century, or a departure from it. The question is whether our culture is morphing into newer, less ‘alphabetic’ forms. Does the unengaging and affectless post-Pomo flatness of The Hobbit trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2012-14), or the scrambled visual kaleidoscope of the perfectly vacuous Transformers franchise (Michael Bay, 2007-17) move genre in some new direction? Perhaps we are witnessing a return to a mode of more immediate access that in turn informs a sort of faceless orality—to the sort of thing we might associate with (for instance) social media such as Twitter. Online interactions lose the old alphabetic sequential rigour and logic; they function as emotional rather than intellectual megaphones. Poke your head into online interaction—about the new Star Wars movie, about Doctor Who’s representation of women, about Gamergate, about the 2015 Hugos, anything you like—and what comes across most strongly is that people feel intensely and are moved to express those feelings with a vehemence that cannot comprehend that others might feel just as strongly in a different way. ‘The characteristic mental disorder of alphabetic societies,’ according to Ong, ‘is schizophrenia, but of analphabetic societies it is anger and polemicism. Old oral was very angry.’ I really can’t think of a neater encapsulation of the online culture surrounding genre in the twenty-teens than ‘Anger and Polemicism’. Perhaps we are indeed moving towards a combination of oral choler and typographic flatness. Renaissance and Reformation scholars attacked one another with furious rage over things they believed mattered intensely—God in the world, how we are saved, how we must live. People today employ the same furious rage, and many of the same rhetorical tactics, over the issue of the crossguards on the lightsabre glimpsed, for less than a second, in the trailer to the forthcoming Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens (J J Abrams, 2016).
It's possible I overstate the levels of anger in contemporary online discussion. But I don't think so: anger is the height and breadth and depth of Gamergate or the Puppies, for instance. There's really nothing there but anger. And anger was how the other camp (a group that includes myself) greeted Gater/Puppy attempts to harass women and pervert the course of the Hugos. We all got very, very angry. That's modern Fandom for you. 'Why do we get so worked up?' I ask myself, in the new Palgrave book. 'Because, presumably, it matters to us to a degree larger than our capacity for tact and courtesy.' Not a very comforting thought, really.

Producing a taxonomy of online anger would be a vastly larger project than I can here attempt. But we might start by distinguishing between three varieties: regular anger, indignation and hatred. We all get angry, from time to time, but one of the differences between anger and hate is that the former can be appeased in a way the latter can't. Anger is prompted by the desire, more or less reasonable, for redress of a specific wrong; hatred is not particular in this way. There is no way a Jew could ever apologise to an anti-Semite for being a Jew. Nor should they have to, of course; but that's not the point I'm making.  Perhaps I said something thoughtless or slighting about you, or about someone you love; perhaps this made you angry. But I am, genuinely, sorry. I apologise. Your anger starts to diminish.  The key thing here is that the anger-apology dynamic is a two-way road, healthful for both parties, a way of negotiating all those interpersonal frustrations occasioned by civilisation and its discontents. You telling me what I said annoyed and upset you is part of the same process of de-escalation as me apologising to you. William Blake knew this:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
This notional example is personal, of course, because it is the actual slight that is most easily defused. Offence in the abstract is a different, much more tangled matter. If what makes you angry is sexism, homophobia, transphobia and so on, then it's hard to see what is liable to de-escalate the situation. There are good reasons for being angry about the injustice and suffering caused by sexism (for example), but this is not the kind of anger that an apology from a man (me, say) is going to diminish. What would? The systematic, global dismantling of sexism? The problem there is not that it's a bad idea (although, you know, what Spongebob said); the problem is that working towards it leaves many of its most destructive features in place for generations, and does nothing to address its historical enormity, where this latter, like the legacy of slavery in the USA, will endure for centuries to come regardless of whether we clean up the current situation.

So I suppose I am talking about a new cultural moment defined by the logic of indignation, a mode I'm suggesting exists halfway along the line between regular anger and hatred. Now, the nature of indignation is that it is unlikely to be defused by an apology. For example: the recent affaire Fry was sparked by a comment he made at the BAFTAs: Jenny Beaven, a friend of his, happened to win an award, and he presumed upon their mutual intimacy to make a joke at the expense of what she was wearing. Many people who knew neither party were incensed, and focused their anger at him on Twitter. Since there was no specific injured party at the heart of this spat, an apology would have been meaningless; but, then again, neither would an apology have mollified those rendered indignant by his comments, since their indignation was about something much larger than any one individual, about the way women are routinely belittled and denigrated on the grounds of their appearance, the way female achievement is so often undercut and diminished by men. But this gave Fry two options: to weather the storm of fury directed at him, or to walk away. He chose the latter.

Might not a primacy of indignation lead to a stifling social and cultural environment in which placable rage is constantly hothousing itself into implacable rage? You don't want to be Achilles, believe me. That Aristotelian line about how only gods and beasts can live outside the city cuts both ways. Living with what Nietzsche called ressentiment corrodes the spirit, and (if Nietzsche is right) does nothing to address the notional cause of the ressentiment anyway, since that's not the purpose of the ressentiment. Of course I need to tread carefully here, and probably haven't been treading carefully enough: I don't want to give the impression I'm saying to women outraged by all the indignities and terrors of actual everyday sexism 'don't get angry! bottle it up!' I'm not saying that. Indeed, I wouldn't presume to tell anyone, woman or man, black or white, gay or straight, how to handle their own wrath. That's not my business. What I'm interested is the broader cultural context, the valence of anger in the world today. And that brings me to John Wick.


I was late to this 2014 movie, only getting around to watching it a few weeks back. And I enjoyed it, rather more than I thought I would. It's tosh, of course, but immensely stylish and watchable tosh; and I find rather fascinating the way Keanu Reeves, a man with the most rudimentary acting skills, brings such charisma to the screen. I don't say so to knock him: many people can act; very few have genuine movie star charisma, and Keanu has that latter quality in effortless spades, if you see what I mean.

Hmm. 'Effortless spades' is not a good phrase.

What surprised me was how much the film stayed with me, after I'd finished with it. It is, after all, an eminently disposable piece of action entertainment of a kind with which culture is liberally supplied: man is wronged, goes on revenge spree. We are asked to admire the remorseless professionalism with which this man (always a man, I think; and always a man with—to slip into Liam Neeson's growly voice for a moment—a very special set of 'skills') kills everyone. Insofar as these films 'mean', they mean at a kind of rudimentary and raw level. They enable mostly male viewers to live vicariously, and vent their frustrations with life and the world.

In what way is John Wick different to the usual run of this mill? Thinking about it, I'm wondering if it is something to do with the disjunction between provocation and reaction in this work. When nasty people kidnap Liam Neeson's on-screen daughter, it licenses him to enact a series of (we can be honest: horrid, reprehensible and fundamentally racist) revenge fantasies. Arnold Schwarzenegger did the same thing in Commando, all the way back in 1985. When Denzel Washington kills innumerable gangland goons in Man on Fire, again in revenge for the kidnapping (and he thinks murder) of an innocent young girl, I suppose we're being invited to admire the coolly professional way he goes about his task. There's something of that in John Wick too. Professionalism is machinic in this context, which might make us think of a more iconic Schwarzenegger role: The Terminator. On some level, the Terminator is Death himself, a figure whose implacability reflects the inevitability of our own mortality, inflected in intriguing ways for our tech-saturated modern sensibility. But the crucial thing about Schwarzenegger's machine is how affectless it is. It's nothing personal. He's not angry. He's not anything, the apotheosis of extinction and therefore of nothingness. And in their various ways, that holds for all of the roles mentioned in this paragraph.

John Wick, though, is angry. He's angry because they killed his dog. His response is akin to that of the elements when Coleridge's mariner kills that bird: mass-murderous, cosmic, out of all proportion to the original transgression. Alfie Allen's pathetic-despicable gangster son whines on and on about this, about the unfairness of it: it was only a dog! he keeps saying. Just a fuck'n dog!

As pointless as Agamemnon telling Achilles: she's just a fuck'n slave girl! It's not that Achilles was in love with Briseis; that's not what motivates his fury. By Heroic Greek standards it's a trivial provocation, but it's enough. He is angry now, and thousands of Greeks will die (his own people, just as the Russian gangsters Wick kills are his own people). The important thing in this story is not how the μῆνις happens to be triggered, which albatross you happen to harpoon (it was just a fuck'n bird!). That's not the point at all. The story is about how μῆνις works through, in the world. And it works through bloody, and comprehensive, and it trails death in its wake.

This is what separates John Wick from other films of its ilk. Keanu's character is Achillean, not because like Achilles Wick is a superb warrior. That, after all, is also true of the characters played by Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Washington, Neeson et al. Wick is a peerless soldier, of course, after the manner of his particular warmaking; that's part of his story. But he is more than just a soldier, because he is more than a man. He approaches nearer to being a god than those around him, as did Achilles before him. He is invulnerable, implacable and beautiful.

The appeal here is of a dangerous kind, I think. It flatters that sense we have, on whatever level, that because μῆνις is divine, pursuing our own anger with μῆνις-level implacability will in some sense make us godlike. Ours, after all, is not any old anger: no, no, it is righteous, justified and magnificent. Except that it's actually none of those things. Except that it doesn't work that way, I'm afraid. We will only wear ourselves down. We are not gods. You, and I, are not invulnerable as John Wick. And though I can't speak for you, I know that I am not as beautiful as Keanu Reeves.

The coda to all this is the reframing of these questions occasioned by the shift from a pagan to a Christian religious context. The Greek gods, capricious, occasionally loving, more often marked by indifference or animosity, and absolutely unyielding in their anger, reflected the universe as the Greeks experienced it. But Christianity tells a different story. It says: as humans can forgive, so can the universe, ocean, night-sky and the whole rainy, stony earth included. Stopping, caring and saving become cosmic attributes in Christianity because in Christ the cosmos itself became human. Two sparrows are still sold for a farthing as before, but now not a one of them shall fall on the ground without God seeing and caring. The Christian God inverts the Homeric order: He's still capable of χόλος, as when (let's say) He discovers money-changers in the temple and angrily throws them out. But, the crucial but: μῆνις isn't His nature. He can forgive. Which is either a relevant or an irrelevant consideration to you in your life; although it does I think suggest that there's something pagan about John Wick, old school in a very old sense. Maybe that's why one of the core scenes in the movie is precisely him shooting up a Church with, as you can see at the top of this post, a really big gun. Maybe that's why one of the most memorable lines in the film is about how he has returned. It's not just him who's back: it's a whole BC Homeric ethos of implacable anger.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Some Notes on the Newly Discovered Portrait of William Shakespeare

Click on the image to see it properly.

Apparently, a 1614 dandy-roll watermark on its paper dates this portrait to some point between 1614 and 1616, this latter cut-off being, of course, when Shakespeare died. The image is bound into an octavo volume entitled Caroli Neapolis Anaptyxis ad Fastos P. Ovidii Nasonis (1622), as part of a separate pamphlet called Northwarde Worthies, undated but presumably 1614-16. None of the (five) other portraits included in this pamphlet are identified, or carry any kind of legend, but this sheet has Gull. Shakspar Seniore Strattfordii inked on the back in a small, neat hand.

The nose is a little broader around the nostrils than the Droeshout portrait, although not much; and the face is a similar shape, the hairline and facial hair close, and the eyes, though perhaps more careworn than those that peer from the more familiar Folio image, are unmistakeably his.

Mahon on Meaningfulness

This Paris Review interview with (Protestant) Irish poet Derek Mahon is pretty interesting. I was struck by this section in particular:

Let’s get back to composition itself, which you’ve described as a shaking of the bars, a link moment between the human condition and the song.


Something like that. There’s a certain moment in which that happens, but that’s a very rare occurrence, of course. Although every poem, I suppose, is an attempt. I suppose it’s religious—the notion of art as consolation, the belief that “everything will be all right.” I suppose I can’t finally seriously believe that we’re not immortal. So yes, in some sense everything is going to be all right. That seems a really crass thing to say. But it would be pernicious to insist that this was the be-all and end-all; it’s not. It’s only one of the poetic experiences—although it has a kind of privileged status, I think. For example, in “The Sea in Winter,” writing to O’Grady below in Paros, I assign such a moment to him:
You too have known the curious sense
of working on the circumference—
the midnight oil, familiar sea,
elusive dawn epiphany,
faith that the trivia doodled here
will bear their fruit sometime, somewhere.
That reflects on it.


Would you call the poem, then, any poem, a secular act of faith?


I suppose it is. If we’re going to start from religion, yes, “a secular act of faith” would do. A faith in meaningfulness, a defiance of nihilism—to which one is rather prone, of course.
A faith in meaning as such, not what things means but that things mean. What Browning has his corrupt, gifted (Catholic) brother Lippi say: 'This world's no blot for us,/Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good'. Ah and wouldn't that be fine, though, if it were true?

Tuesday, 16 February 2016


"Possibilities are projected onto a screen of what is actual and present by means of the poet’s tactic ... That godlike self, never known before, comes into focus and vanishes again in one quick shift of view. As the planes of vision jump, the actual self and the ideal self and the difference between them connect in one triangle momentarily. The connection is eros." Anne Carson

"Eros and Thanatos are not two opposite drives that compete and combine (as in eroticized masochism); there is only one drive, libido, striving for enjoyment, and "death drive" is the curved space of its formal structure." Slavoj Žižek

The image at the top: Giovanni Baglione's 'The Divine Eros Defeats the Earthly Eros' (1602, or thereabouts). Here's a little background on that painting, from the Fueilleton blog.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

John Keats and the Toe-Devouring Woman

Here's a curious Keatsian story of toe-eating, from a letter to James Rice from December 1819:
My dear Rice,

As I want the coat on my back mended, I would be obliged if you will send me the one Brown left at your house, by the Bearer … If you do not see me soon it will be from the humour of writing, which I have had for three days, continuing. I must say to the Muses what the maid says to the Man---"take me while the fit is on me.”

Would you like a true Story[?] There was a Man and his Wife who being to go a long journey on foot, in the course of their travels came to a River which rolled knee deep over the pebbles---In these cases the Man generally pulls off his Back. This Man did so; and his Wife being pregnant and troubled, as in such cases is very common, with strange longings, took the strangest that ever was heard of. Seeing her Husband’s foot, a handsome one enough, look very clean and tempting in the clear water, on their arrival at the other bank she earnestly demanded a bit of it; he being an affectionate fellow and fearing for the comeliness of his child gave her a bit which he cut off with his Clasp Knife---Not satisfied she asked another morsel---supposing there might be twins he gave her a slice more. Not yet contented she craved another Piece. “You Wretch cries the Man, would you wish me to kill myself? take that!” Upon which he stabb’d her with the knife, cut her open and found three Children in her Belly two of them very comfortable with their mouth’s shut, the third with its eyes and mouth stark staring open. “Who would have thought it” cried the Widower, and pursued his journey …

Ever yours sincerely John Keats—
What to make of this? Roy Booth reports back from his reading of Simon Goulart’s Admirable and memorable histories containing the wonders of our time. Collected into French out of the best authors (1607), which includes a whole clutch of stories about pregnant women devouring their husbands, part or whole. He ponders what it all means:
Perhaps one can hazard something about the story type. Obviously, it’s about long-suffering men and demanding women, but there’s the myth of Chronos here somewhere: the recurrent feature of the pregnant woman demanding to eat part of the man’s legs, and her unborn child suffering if she doesn’t get it, perhaps speaks of the disabling effect of fatherhood, the man who loses part of his strength to the unborn generation, and has to accept as much.
This sounds about right to me, although having spent two separate portions of my life living with a pregnant woman I am also struck how much the stories Roy reports from Admirable and memorable histories channel a very common experience of pregnancy, viz. weird food cravings. We might say that the craving to eat a husband’s toes is an extreme form of craving, but it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Luckily my toes aren’t very tasty. Actually my wife is oddly phobic about toes, so perhaps that’s what saved me.

Toes might strike you as a trivial matter; but I would suggest that they're an important subject, one which bears further study. No parent who has ever played This Little Piggy Went To Market can doubt that there’s a particular connection between toes and babyhood. Being struck by the sheer delicious edibility of tiny little babies is one of my primary memories of becoming a father—that and the extraordinarily lovely smell to be found on the exact top of their heads. I can’t be the only father to have felt the urge to gobble up his delicious, delicious children. I’d probably start with the gorgeous little toes.

Perhaps eating toes has advantages over eating other organs in that toes seem more disposable; we feel we can do very well without toes in a way we don’t about noses, eyes, kidneys, hearts and so on. We don’t really use them for anything. They’re hidden away inside shoes most of the time, so nobody can be sure if I have toes or not. They embody a sort of pleasurable abjection; a playful sense of the body as dismantleable that goes hand in hand with the sense of the body as, as it might be, mantleable—capable of assembly. Which of course is what happens during pregnancy; the assemblage of a whole human being inside the uterus. Look at that Keats letter again: he asks for a coat to be sent to him. Clothing is a sort of detachable organ. Then he excuses his lack of social interaction because the Muse has been so demanding upon his time (‘the humour of writing, which I have had for three days, continuing. I must say to the Muses what the maid says to the Man---"take me while the fit is on me."’). This notion of a demanding woman metaphorically devouring a man leads him, associatively, to a story about a demanding woman literally devouring a man. The little narrative keeps reverting to detachable body parts, so that Keats says not “in these cases the Man generally gives his wife a piggy-back” but rather “in these cases the Man generally pulls off his Back”, as if his back can be unlatched and dropped to the floor. I said at the top there that the lady in Keats’s letter ate his toes; but actually Keats isn’t so specific:
Seeing her Husband’s foot, a handsome one enough, look very clean and tempting in the clear water, on their arrival at the other bank she earnestly demanded a bit of it; he being an affectionate fellow and fearing for the comeliness of his child gave her a bit which he cut off with his Clasp Knife.
Why ‘foot’, not ‘toe’? Because, of course, Keats’s mind is running on poetry; and feet is what poems walk on—what the poetic line breaks into. What the letter actually codes, I suppose, is a weird masculine dream of poetry as a bodying-forth from oneself, a quasi-pregnancy, a giving birth to new life. The man cuts his own feet off to satisfy the cravings of his poems (cravings for feet). The three feet-eating babies (wide-open mouth, mouth-comfortably-shut, mouth-comfortably-shut) themselves constitute a foot. Famously Keats had so little Greek he could only encounter Homer in Chapman’s translation; but I wonder if he didn’t know, or if he somehow intuited as a poet, that the Greek for toe is dactulos, same as finger (the same applies in Latin, where digitus means both finger and toe). The same word, dactyl, describes the metrical foot that Keats’s three babies embody: stressed, unstressed, unstressed, o - -.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

"Philosophaster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!"

Here's a fascinating Garry Willis NY Review of Books takedown of Robin Lane Fox's recent Augustine: Conversions to Confessions biography. It brings out one thing I didn't previously realise about the saint from Hippo—not just his provincialism, but how much he was shaped by his linguistic deficiency:
The great world of the fourth and fifth centuries was Rome’s Eastern empire. That is where the theological and ecclesiastical action was. The ecumenical councils occurred there—Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451)—with little or no participation from the West, which was a lesser world intellectually. The early theological giants were from places like Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Constantinople. Among them were Origen, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and others. They debated and defined Christian teaching, in technical Greek terms, homoousion, hypostasis, prosopon, and the like. The Western church had fewer and lesser men before Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and Augustine, and of these only one—Augustine—was not in communication with the East, since he did not know Greek. ... As James O’Donnell, the best editor of Confessions, has rightly concluded, Augustine’s Greek was “pathetic”—in fact, Augustine was the only major thinker of late antiquity who was monolingual. O’Donnell measures the deep significance of that fact:
To come at the end of the fertile years that were marked by the literary careers of Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Evagrius Ponticus, to name only a few, and to be heir to a Christian tradition that numbered Origen among its most learned and original figures, and to be unable to read any of them except in very limited and partial ways reflected through translation was bad [enough]. But to be cut off from direct reading of the gospels and Paul as well was ultimately very damaging to what he could say and do. Yet he never seems to have been truly distressed by his lack, though there had to be people around him who sniffed at him for it.
There were indeed people who scoffed at Augustine’s provincialism. The well-educated Julian of Eclanum dismissed Augustine as “what passes for a philosopher in Africa” (philosophaster Africanus) and a “donkey keeper” (patronus asinorum) of his little flock in Hippo.
Top-class snark, there, from Julian. So why did Augustine not learn Greek? It appears he had ample opportunity, but Willis thinks he may have figured that not broadening the ground of his learning was the best way to express his particular genius:
Augustine intuited from early on that concentration on his own resources, especially those born out of inner needs, would foster his greatest gift as a thinker—his endless originality. He says that he sought God within himself, mystery seeking mystery. “You were more in me than I was in me” (interior intimo meo). “You remained within while I went outside” (intus eras et ego foris). Starting thus from his own inner place, he humbly invites others to join him in his exploration of the unknown:
Anyone reading this should travel on with me where we agree; search with me where we are unsure; rejoin me if he finds he is astray; call me back if I am astray. In this way, we may jointly proceed along the path opened by love, venturing toward the one of whom we are told, “Search always for his countenance.”
By starting every inquiry from a new place, Augustine surprises us, time after time, page after page, with the absolutely original things he has to say. The eminent classicist Albrecht Dihle, after devoting his famous Sather Lectures to a survey of Greek and Latin writings on the human will, concluded: “It is mainly through this entirely new concept of his own self that St. Augustine superseded the conceptual system of Greco-Roman culture.” The philosopher Gareth Mathews calls De Trinitate “the first ... treatise on mind in the modern sense of ‘mind.’” The Plotinus scholar Paul Henry claimed that Augustine was “the first thinker who brought into prominence and understood an analysis of the philosophical and psychological concepts of person and personality.” Augustine invented an entirely new theology of the Trinity by finding it reflected in the one-and-many aspects of human personality.
This strikes me as, in effect, a profoundly Protestant approach to the grand questions of God, spirit and truth; but maybe that's just my own culture-bias. At any rate, there's something similtaneously compelling and rather alarming in it. Isn't it, in effect, saying 'Ignorance is Strength'? Wouldn't you rather be a philosopher than a philosophaster?

The image at the head of this post, the chap with the attractive blue beard and the giant tangerine balanced on the back of his neck, is a stained-glass Augustine from, I think, Italy. It's from this tumblr, and the details of the specific church aren't given.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Desultory Thoughts on Entertainment

My experience of teaching cinema is not extensive. Usually I deal with books, although I did include some movies on a course about science fiction I used to teach, and there are a couple of films on the children's literature unit I have taught and continue to teach. Supported as it is on this slender experiential reed, I shall hazard an observation. Students are less tolerant of the earlier forms of cinema than they are of the earlier forms of poetry and drama. What I mean is that they will, more or less gladly, read, let's say, Jacobean tragedies and eighteenth-century poetry and so on, if their professors tell them to do so. They tend to be more resistant when it comes to the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century novel (getting students to engage with Pamela or Waverley is an uphill struggle). But cinema is in a different category. They are openly disdainful of being made to watch a film like Metropolis: 'boring', 'so slow', irmagahd' and so on. There may be a simple explanation for this: students approach Chaucer as an object of study, expecting to be educated and perhaps interested, but not expecting to be entertained as such. But novels to some extent and films/TV to a great extent are what they go to 'in the real world', outside of studies, when they are looking for entertainment. That such texts may not be entertaining after the manner to which they have become accustomed strikes them, on some level, as an affront.

Actually, though, 'entertainment' is a strangely tricky concept to pin down. What is it? I suppose the obvious place to start definition-wise would be to contrast 'entertainment' to 'boredom': Pamela, Waverley and Metropolis bore us; Star Wars: the Force Awakens, pop music and porn entertain us. This may look like a high-culture/pop culture snark, but it's really not. It has more to do with repetition, I think: we might think that the monotony of repetition would be boring, but in very many cases it is precisely the repetition of familiar elements that holds us. Nothing is more repetitive than porn. The great joy of pop music is the way a limited formal structure can be made, through a hundred thousand inflected repetitions, to yield endless variation and nuance.

The crucial thing is that at the heart of the word entertainment, etymologically, is the Latin teneo, I hold. Entertainment is what holds us (strictly what holds us inside, as per the word's prefix): what keeps us in our seat, which compels us to keep turning the pages and so on. Entertainment is mode of capture. But if that's true, it can only mean that boredom is a mode of release. The thing about watching Metropolis, if your idea of cinematic entertainment is predicated upon the biggest movies of the 21st-century, is how unlike such movies Fritz Lang's flick is: how slow and stagey, how arthritic and often incomprehensible in action. how dull, instead of being nimble and fizzy and instantly graspable like the sorts of films you usually enjoy watching. If these latter things are your fix, then of course being released from them feels uncomfortable. You are the man, or the woman, with the golden arm. Not to worry: I am too.

Of course it won't do simply to flip these categories about: to say 'actually I find Pamela very entertaining, whereas nothing could be more boring than these endless sequences of explosions and spandex-clad superheroes walloping one another ...' It's not that there is anything wrong with being entertained by Samuel Richardson and bored by the Age of Ultron, any more than there's anything wrong with being bored by the former and entertained by the latter. Each to his, or her, own. The problem isn't one's preference; its the sense that a superior taste is grounded in the less repetitive work. Not so. I'd be hard put to name a more repetitive novel than Pamela, though if pressed I'd hum and haw and eventually name Clarissa. These texts are not just the-same-things-happening repetitive; they are the characters-staying-the-same repetitive, they are living in a cosmos defined by sameness. One of the marks of classic literature is that it is not disposable, which is a way of saying 'I can read this novel over and over again for profit and pleasure', which is the very apotheosis of repetition. We tend not to think that reading Middlemarch forty times is an enactment of monotony, of course. On the contrary, we insist that we find new things every times. That's the whole point. Each re-reading binds us more closely. We are held-in by the thing that delights us. Maybe the Jam's jauntily carceral 'That's Entertainment' was always a more straightfoward statement of the name of the game, and less a matter of ironic juxtaposition, than I used to think.

We don't really talk about it, though; at least not in these terms. It's one necessary feature of captivity that we don't interrogate it, it interrogates us. We don't 'read' contemporary entertainment; it reads us. That's one advantage of the Boring, another thing it frees us from. The Boring allows us to read it.

It could be that what 'we' are looking for is emotions: and not just any emotions but the culturally specific emotions that both give us pleasure and inoculate us against despair. In today's entertainment-world I'd thumbnail those emotions as primarily: exhilaration, familiarity and a kind of communal validation. The emotions provoked by Clarissa, or Metropolis, though palpable, don't align themselves with our present-day affective tastes, I suppose; don't map onto those three qualities. The appetite for exhilaration is partly about kinetic action and motion and speed, and partly something closer to the sublime, an awe associated with scale and scope. Modern cinema is expert at addressing both: velocity in the rapidity of contemporary action montages, and the skill with which such scenes are choreographed, actors, props and sets; awe in the miraculous world of special effects.

I'm assuming that there a special kind of eloquence in the machine-made, repetitive, clichéform shapes that cinema serves its audience. Which is to say, I'm not proposing a neo-Frankfurtian attack on the culture industry.There was a time when Adorno and Horkheimer seemed to me to be on to something. Nowadays I'm not so sure. Their malign Culture Industry was, is, supposed to be based on an ethic of distraction, and what the people are being distracted from—the immanent and structural oppressions of capitalism, their own deracinated and repetitive lives—is the important thing. But it doesn't seem to me that contemporary entertainment is very distractive, actually. I think it cultivates attachment rather than distraction; although in many cases an ironic attachment that is aware of the shortcomings and naffness even as it celebrates the vitality and possibility of shared cultural discourse (memes! jokes! cosplay!), or vice versa elevates the individual's idiosyncratic taste ('hey, I actually like the Star Wars prequel trilogy!') as a bulwark against the conformist tide of, well, shared cultural discourse (memes! jokes! cosplay!). Modern entertainment is affiliative; it requires us to opt-in.

If there's something else, some glue holding the whole thing together, and holding (tenet, it holds) us in it (enter, inside), then I wonder whether it might be a sense of shared trauma, for which the neurotic repetition and re-repetition, the rocking back and forth and obsessive making and remaking of favourite franchise titles, stands as symptom. We have to watch London, Paris, New York, unreal city, your capital city, my capital city, smashed to smithereens over and over again: from Independence Day to Star Trek: Into Darkness, from the Avengers to that dour Superman: Man of Steel reboot; from Terminator 2: Judgment Day back to Doctor Strangelove and forward to the string of Star-Warsian death stars blasting entire planets, to ... look, I could go on and on. And actually that on-and-on-ness is the point.

Maybe the problem is that we're talking about a new mode of collective trauma. Not a specific event, like 9-11, so much as a great flow of ongoing traumatic events. Rolling trauma after the model of rolling news. News becomes the paradigm of trauma (because a news story must be a story, which means: drama, conflict, peril, and increasingly means big-budget destruction and catastrophe; which in turn reverts upon the news element in news story). The major forms of contemporary entertainment parse story (or plotting: the stories are variants of a very few baseline fabulae) via strong emotion, after all. And the thing about trauma is that it is a royal road to both those things at once. To suffer a trauma is to have a strong and compelling story imposed upon the otherwise undifferentiated stuff of our day-to-day; it is to impose a 'before' and an 'after' on memory, to create potent negative emotions that in turn provoke potent positive ones, for instance, of revenge, and rightfulness, and meaningfulness. I'm struck by something Adam Phillips said a few years back: 'Trauma theory is only properly secular when it stops needing to be morally reassuring; when it stops having to reinsert a plot. When we were being told that the world would never be the same after 11 September, that we would never forget that day, we were being reassured—i.e. coerced into believing—that we can still recognise a meaningful event when we see one.' Coerced into believing is another way of saying meaningfully held inside, which is another way of saying: meaningfully entertained. The grandiosity of contemporary entertainment is that it is all significant, that it all means, even as we all accept that it's all transient and worthless and meaningless. This explains our culture's abiding fascination with ways of quantifying significance, from box-office totals to top ten lists and prizes and numbers of followers on social media. We want to believe that it matters; and we want to believe that its mattering can be quantified, even as we understand, on some level, that the things that really matter are by their nature unquantifiable. We want to be held. We want to be entertained. Do we not?

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Byron's "The Giaour" (1813): Leila's Fate

That's Leila, up there, from an 1820s steel engraving illustration of Byron's poem. Her fate is not jolly. A member of the harem of Ottoman lord Hassan, she has an affair with the infidel (that is, Christian) Giaour—a Venetian nobleman, not otherwise named in the tale. This Giaour, rhymes with 'tower', is the work's Byronic locus: handsome, charismatic, driven, passionate, sexy, more than a little diabolic. At any rate, Hassan discovers Leila's infidelity with the infidel, puts Leila in a sack and drowns her off a Greek island. Thereafter the plot of The Giaour (1813) is simple: the titular hero thunders through on his black steed, like a meteor, 'scathed by fiery passion's brunt', vengeance on his mind. He catches up with Hassan, not to mention the twenty vassals in Hassan's train, ambushes them, and kills them all. Then he thunders off again to a Christian monastery where with the help of a generous financial donation to the Abbot he buys a cell, solitude and the chance to brood darkly over his loss, otherwise taking no part in monkish life. The only wrinkle in the telling of this tale, written in fluent and onrushing rhymed tetrameters, is that Byron chops it up and mixes it about; different sections are told by different individuals, but there's no hint as to which is which or who is whom. Some parts are narrated by a Greek (I think) fisherman, whose boat is appropriated by Hassan to take Leila out into the bay and sink her. Some parts are narrated by Hassan, and the later portions by one of the monks at the monastery, who proves no friend of the Giaour's. It's possible some portions are narrated by the Giaour himself.

None of it is narrated by Leila.

Byron is upfront about this fragmentary textual strategy. THE GIAOUR: A FRAGMENT OF A TURKISH TALE yells the title page, and then:

So the chopabout shifts of p.o.v. are by design, not by inadvertence. As for the story, there are various hints that we're being invited to read it as both an individual tale of melodrama, romance and revenge and as a fuzzy-at-the-edges allegory for the situation of Greece itself. Hassan is the Ottoman empire; Leila is beautiful Greece, slain by Ottoman tyranny; the Giaour is the West, intervening as Byron himself was later to do (indeed, as he was to die doing) too late. The opening lines of the poem point us in this direction:
No breath of air to break the wave
That rolls below the Athenian's grave,
That tomb which, gleaming o'er the cliff
First greets the homeward-veering skiff
High o'er the land he saved in vain;
When shall such Hero live again?
This Athenian hero to which this makes reference is Themistocles, whose clifftop tomb overlooks the Aegean. Themistocles, I'm sure I don't need to remind you, was the man who persuaded Athens to spend its windfall silver-mine wealth on a great navy rather than disbursing it equally amongst the citizenry. such that they were subsequently able to repulse Persian aggression, hold back the Spartans and build an Athenian empire. Once upon a time, Byron is saying, Greece was a land of heroes capable of opposing tyranny and assault, able to preserve and promote democracy and all the glories of Attic culture. But now? Now Greece is dead, although, according to a weirdly morbid-erotic extended simile inserted near the beginning of the poem, only just dead:
He who hath bent him o'er the dead
Ere the first day of Death is fled,
The first dark day of Nothingness,
The last of Danger and Distress,
(Before Decay's effacing fingers
Have swept the lines where Beauty lingers,)
And marked the mild angelic air,
The rapture of Repose that's there,
The fixed yet tender thraits that streak
The languor of the placid cheek,
And—but for that sad shrouded eye,
That fires not, wins not, weeps not, now,
And but for that chill, changeless brow,

Where cold Obstruction's apathy
Appals the gazing mourner's heart,
As if to him it could impart
The doom he dreads, yet dwells upon;
Yes, but for these and these alone,
Some moments, aye, one treacherous hour,
He still might doubt the Tyrant's power;
So fair, so calm, so softly sealed,
The first, last look by Death revealed!
Such is the aspect of his shore;
'T is Greece, but living Greece no more!
So coldly sweet, so deadly fair,
We start, for Soul is wanting there.
Hers is the loveliness in death,
That parts not quite with parting breath;
But beauty with that fearful bloom,
That hue which haunts it to the tomb,
Expression's last receding ray,
A gilded Halo hovering round decay,
The farewell beam of Feeling past away!
This is one of the most necrophiliac passages of English Romantic verse: a tone of weird leching over a female corpse, 'so coldly sweet, so deadly fair'. But then again, this is the tenor of the poem as a whole. Manifest 'story' of the poem's plot aside, this is a work that is about the way some dead things refuse to be dead, but carry on living; and more to the point, continue exerting a weirdly compelling attraction after their undeath. This is the text, several years before Polidori's The Vampyre (itself, of course, based on a Byronic idea, and cementing in itself a mode of the Byronic persona) that first brings vampires into the English literary mainstream. After he has killed Hassan, the Giaour is cursed by Hassan's people:
But thou, false Infidel! shalt writhe
Beneath avenging Monkir's scythe;
And from its torment 'scape alone
To wander round lost Eblis' throne;
And fire unquenched, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
But one that for thy crime must fall,
The youngest, most beloved of all,
Shall bless thee with a father's name--
That word shall wrap thy heart in flame!
Yet must thou end thy task, and mark
Her cheek's last tinge, her eye's last spark,
And the last glassy glance must view
Which freezes o'er its lifeless blue;
Then with unhallowed hand shalt tear
The tresses of her yellow hair,
Of which in life a lock when shorn
Affection's fondest pledge was worn,
But now is borne away by thee,
Memorial of thine agony!
Wet with thine own best blood shall drip
Thy gnashing tooth and haggard lip;
Then stalking to thy sullen grave,
Go - and with Gouls and Afrits rave;
Till these in horror shrink away
From spectre more accursed than they!
Whole libraries have been written about the vampire as symbolic articulation of appalling-appealing transgressive sex, of course; and here the Byronic Giaour is cursed to feed on his own beautiful wife and daughters in a way that fills him with shame from which no death can quit him. Odds are that, at the time of writing The Giaour, Byron had not yet begun his incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh (she is much more a presence in the follow-up tale, The Corsair), but that's not to say that he wasn't already thinking in terms of the closed-loop of arid intrafamilial desire that short-circuits life and death. Greece is dead, but Byron still loves her. Leila is dead, but she remains the centre of Giaour's life. Byron is dead but Byron goes on living.

As for Leila herself, she has no voice, and is given no lines to speak in this poem. Of her beauty, the poem speaks in more-or-less conventionalized manner:
Her eye's dark charm 'twere vain to tell,
But gaze on that of the gazelle,
It will assist thy fancy well;
As large, as languishingly dark,
But soul beamed forth in every spark
That darted from beneath the lid,
Bright as the jewel of Giamschild.
Still, re-reading The Giaour again to teach it, I was very struck by the passage that describes Leila's death. Hassan instructs the fisherman to row his boat out to the middle of the bay. The fisherman himself reports what happens next (the 'it' referred to here is the 'burden' Hassan is carrying, a parcel that 'claims his utmost care' and which the fisherman assumes 'holds some precious freight'):
Sullen it plunged, and slowly sank,
The calm wave rippled to the bank;
I watched it as it sank, methought
Some motion from the current caught
Bestirred it more,—'twas but the beam
That checkered o'er the living stream:
I gazed, till vanishing from view,
Like lessening pebble it withdrew;
Still less and less, a speck of white
That gemmed the tide, then mocked the sight;
And all its hidden secrets sleep,
Known but to Genii of the deep,
Which, trembling in their coral caves,
They dare not whisper to the waves.
This is an extraordinary piece of verse: the love-object sinking into the depths, diminishing and then vanishing. What's so remarkable is the way this vignette emblemmatises the emotional and erotic core of the whole: it's rather like the scene at the end of James Cameron's Titanic, where Jack (is it?) drops into the fathomless and chill depths of the Atlantic, a moment that consummates the overwrought romance between the di Caprio character and the Kate Winslett one. This, rather than the actual copulation inside that steamy automobile, is where the romance storyline finds its perfect expression. If you're tempted to say: 'that's a rather morbid thought, though, isn't it?' I wouldn't disagree with you. But just as all those sexy vampire tales, so prominently a feature of 21st-century cultural life, can trace their lineage back, through Dracula, and Heathcliffe, and Polidori's Vampyre, back to Byron himself, so does this imagistic expression perfection of erotic deathlove/lovedeath spread out from a Byronic kernel, here. Death is the true seal on love.

Look again at the passage quoted. In the original it is separated out from the rest of the poem:

(Apologies for wonkiness, here: blame Google Books scanners). Taken on its own this is a fourteen-line almost sonnet blending love-poem and elegy. Leila is 'it', not 'she'; and she disappears downwards. The loved one is quiet, calm, motionless (perceived motion turns out to be 'but the [sun]beam/That checkered o'er the living stream'). As 'it' goes 'it' changes, first to a pebble; then to 'a speck of white/That gemmed the tide'—a pearl, presumably. Finally Leila disappears into the realm of the sea's 'hidden secrets'
Known but to Genii of the deep,
Which, trembling in their coral caves,
They dare not whisper to the waves
We're bound to think this metamorphosis of a woman into an exotic, uncanny thing recalls The Tempest: as Leila changes in the rhetoric of the poem from flesh into pearls and coral, we think back to 'of his bones are coral made' and 'those are pearls that were his eyes'. My guess is that Byron is drawn, distantly, to this intertext for reasons similar to T S Eliot a century later: a disinclination, one, to separate out sexual desire and death, and, two, a flat inability to see death as either an end or as the opportunity for rebirth and new life. Instead the dead body marks a vampiric alteration into something neither alive nor dead, beautiful and inhuman and hidden:
Nought of Leila that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change.
Into something rich and strange.
Ultimately this hidden, metamorphoses creature of rich strangeness is desire itself, the structuring principle of the subconscious, the currency of the cult of Byronism. All of Byron's verse is about this: it is hidden because it is buried deep in the psyche; but if it is hidden it must be shameful, and from shame grows guilt and guilt turns out to be the transgressive, undead truth of desire in the first place.

In case we miss it, Byron follows his core unsonnet, loving-grieving Leila's drowning, with an image of a beautiful purple butterfly chased over the suspiciously artificial-sounding 'emerald meadows' of from-Greece-very-distant Kashmir; either a pointed underscoring of the great gulf separating the (male) lover and the possibility of apprehending what he desires, or else Orientalism 101, in which 'the East' is taken as a kind of catch-all single place:
As rising on its purple wing
The insect-queen of eastern spring,
O'er emerald meadows of Kashmeer
Invites the young pursuer near,
And leads him on from flower to flower
A weary chase and wasted hour,
Then leaves him, as it soars on high,
With panting heart and tearful eye.
The butterfly is the soul, I suppose; and here it symbolizes the tantalus impossibility of erotic consummation. And the transition from caterpillar to butterfly is a longstanding emblem of change itself. Except that, as we've already established, everything that changes in this poem changes into something richer and stranger and more vampiric than a purple papillon:

The verse-paragraph that follows this too-pretty butterfly switches-out its insect for something rather more severe:
The mind that broods o'er guilty woes,
Is like the scorpion girt by fire;
In circle narrowing as it glows,
The flames around their captive close,
Till inly searched by thousand throes,
And maddening in her ire,
One sad and sole relief she knows,
The sting she nourished for her foes,
Whose venom never yet was vain,
Gives but one pang, and cures all pain,
So do the dark in soul expire,
Or live like scorpion girt by fire;
So writhes the mind remorse hath riven,
Unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven,
Darkness above, despair beneath,
Around it flame, within it death!
This ('full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!') is a rather different Shakespearian intertext; but more to the point is replaces the mazy and evasive flight of the butterfly with a circle within a circle, a vampire state neither alive nor dead 'unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven' in which fire, pain and remorse complete the short-circuit circle of desire.