‘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)

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

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?