Today's vote for the most uneuphonious opening line in any poem published during the Romantic period goes to: Eyles Irwin's Nilus, an Elegy: Occasioned by the Victory of Admiral Nelson over the French Fleet (1798), which commences thuswise:
And this David Attenboroughish moment of local colour:
Quite a big if, in that last line, surely. Though Pestiferous Torrents are no doubt disagreeable things to have in one's veins.
‘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.
Friday, 29 April 2016
Sunday, 24 April 2016
The Jungle Book (dir Jon Favreau 2016)
I've heard this described as a live-action version of the classic 1967 Jungle Book, but it's really not. There's one live-action actor: young Neel Sethi as Mowgli (and a very natural and charming performance he gives too), but the rest of the cast are not only animated, but animated to a degree of technical polish and panache that approaches the breathtaking. Nothing here looks CGI, although everything here is CGI. And the storytelling is good, too; well-paced and well-rounded. I watched it with my 8-year-old and found myself thinking what a refreshing change from endless MCU and DC cinematic blather it was.
This movie exists in a fascinating relationship with its source text: the 1967-Disney, I mean, not Kipling (though there's some Kipling in here too). It clearly expects its audience to know that movie—a reasonable expectation—and plays off that knowledge in a raft of clever ways, from plot-tweaks and character upgrades, to nifty weaving of themes from the original songs into the orchestral soundtrack. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Idris Elba's performance as Shere Khan is a particular stand-out: dripping with menace and genuinely intimidating.
There were a couple of flaws in the mix, I thought. On two occasions characters actually sing truncated versions of the 1967 songs, which is a bit neither-one-thing-nor-the-other: either the film should give us the full musical glory, or else stay true to its chosen new aesthetic. The comedy was only patchily effective, too. Some of the minor characters had laugh-aloud moments, but Baloo is a problem. His voice is pleasantly rendered by the ever amiable Bill Murray, but his photorealist ursine exterior is so actually and alarmingly bear-like that it undercuts the dialogue, making it more eek! than ho-ho. And this leads to my main complaint.
This version of The Jungle Book has two big climactic scenes, one with Mowgli and King Louie in the ruined temple, and the second final showdown with Shere Khan in the burning forest. In the 1967 film these don't interfere with one another, since the first is played for laughs and the second for its dramatic excitement. But in this remake, King Louie is reimagined as a house-sized Gigantopithecus. Voiced with sinister relish by Christopher Walken in mafia don stylee, Louie squats huge in the shadows of his temple, surrounded by thousands of chattering acolytes, occasionally leaning out to let the light shine upon his huge bald cranium. The visual quotation of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now must surely be intentional. Which is fine, and in places both properly creepy and (when the monstrous Louie pursues Mowgli through the temple) pretty scary too. But it utterly deflates those moments when Favreau wants to gesture towards the original's humour. The result is a big, dramatic smash-em-up denouement, which is then followed in short order by another big, dramatic smash-em-up denouement. This second climax treads on the first's toes, with the consequence that the movie feels too long, the final confrontation between the tiger and the man-cub too drawn out and the whole thing overbalanced and over-topply. A shame, because up to that point it was doing a really good job.
The film's repeated quotation of Kipling's four line poem from The Second Jungle Book (1895), 'The Law of the Jungle', is suitably stirring, but a long way from the artless charm and bright-colour lightness of the 1967 movie:
Now this is the Law of the Jungle—as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back—
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
Tuesday, 19 April 2016
The last Eagleton book I read was On Evil (2010), and having read it I concluded that it was not much cop. Culture and the Death of God is not as thin as On Evil, but its level of cop-ness is not much higher. It's a synthetic and rather breathless summary of several dozen philosophers from the eighteenth-century through to the present, strung along the thread of ... well, I'm not exactly sure what the main thesis is, actually. It's more or less: 'the Enlightenment believed it had replaced Religion with Reason and Science, but it was wrong', to which is added the corollary 'people like Dawkins who think Reason and Science have replaced Religion are ignorant of Religion and ignorant of History'. Which is fair enough, though hardly news. Looking for a more nuanced thesis in this 200-page whistlestop tour of 'everybody important who wrote about God and Philosophy from the 18th-century' is more of a challenge. Less of the whistling, and a little more stopping, would have resulted in a longer, slower, but surely a better, book.
It's a fun read, as Eagleton often is; although the accounts of people I happen know about in some detail invariably struck me as thin and distorting, in each case because they relied heavily on one or at most two secondary sources (almost nothing gets quoted in this book from primary sources, and nothing at all gets any in-depth analysis). That fact makes me doubt the other stuff. Coleridge, for instance, gets a three-page discussion. According to Eagleton, he started a conventional Anglican, 'gravitated to German Idealism and metaphysical obscurantism' dallied with 'merely secular' beliefs for a bit, and then 'recircled to the genuine article'.
What was the point of this excursus? ... As popular discontent erupted throughout England, and the poet himself shifted sharply to the political right, he felt the need for a religious faith more lucid and dogmatic in its zeal for political authority than anything to be found in Kant or Spinoza. The Idealism which had enthused him proved in the end too cerebral. There's a blurry sense, here, of something not entirely unrelated to Coleridge's evolution as a thinker, but Eagleton's summary is pretty distorting. Though a deep-dyed Kantian (to the end of his days) Coleridge angrily repudiated 'Idealism', always disliked Spinoza, at no point in his life stopped being a Christian, and really didn't redefine his religion later in life in order to justify social or political authoritarianism. The whole thing is a kind of crude caricature, of the kind that nobody who has read (say) Pamela Edwards's brilliant The Statesman's Science would perpetrate. But Eagleton isn't interested in precision. The broad caricature serves his purpose.
That caricature is a sort of cartoon narrative to which Eagleton's book returns again and again, and which goes something like this: post-Enlightenment, people give up 'Religion' for high-flown reasons but they inevitably find that life becomes banal and so 'Religion', in altered shapes, always comes back in. I don't think this statement is true on its face (lots of people lose their faith in an uncomplicated and even a liberating way; lots of people find in science, reason or social service both sublimity and purpose), and although there's something in Eagleton's larger case, it's not a something well-served by Eagleton's style of argument.
What I mean is that, though jolly to read, he has a bad habit of sacrificing cogency and even plain sense to the b'dum-tish of his rhetoric.
It was the fate of the Enlightenment to help usher in a civilisation which in its pragmatism, materialism and utilitarianism tended to discredit some of the very exalted ideals which presided at its birth. There can be hymns to Liberty, but hardly to proportional representation. Eagleton clearly thinks that second sentence a zinger, but it really isn't. It's fuzzily, which is to say lazily, reasoned. He means that though the Project may be grand and stirring its practicalities inevitably descend to pettifogging and pedantic procedural matters, and that this therefore disqualifies the Project itself. But he is not comparing like with like. We could just as easily rewrite the sentence: 'people can devote their lives to God but hardly to whether parish meetings in Henley-on-Thames should convene on a Wednesday or a Thursday evening'. That the latter element is a part of being a Christian does not nullify the former. (‘There can be hymns to God, but not to the raffle being organised to raise funds to repair the plaster in the church transept’)
Eagleton's argument is that 'Rationalism was able to damage the clerics but not to step into their ideological shoes'. This was because 'it was a style of thought too thin in emotional and imaginative resources, too shorn of a symbolic dimension, to provide modernity with an assured means of self-legitimation.' He thinks people turned for those 'emotional' and 'imaginative' resources to things like Culture, Nationalism and Marxism (he's emphatic on the Judeo-Christian heritage of this latter, which is kind of refreshing). Again, there's something broadly right about this, and insofar as he uses it as a stick to beat the new-atheists—and that's a stick flourished lustily in the latter sections of the book—Eagleton turns it to good use. But I'd've been happier if the specific points didn't so often dissolve into crumbs when poked with even the most cursory of 'let me think about this for a moment's.
Like culture and the aesthetic, Romantic nationalism is an anti-political kind of politics. It maintains a certain fastidious distance from the workaday world of power and administration. It is hard to imagine Pearse or Sibelius chairing a sanitation committee. But it's not hard to imagine Wordsworth collecting stamp duty in Westmorland, or Victor Hugo sitting through endless committee meetings on legislative matters as a member of the French Parliament, since both of them did just that.
Nationalism is the most poetic form of politics ... nationalist politics are especially hospitable to the creative imagination. They tend to give rise to some distinguished works of art, as neo-liberalism and social democracy do not. That must be why North Korea has produced so many masterpieces, and why Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Browning, Dickens, George Eliot, Whitman, Joyce, Woolf, Proust and the whole cultural tradition of modern fiction, music and cinema are all so shit. Eagleton devotes a great many pages to attacking Matthew Arnold's 'vacuities' [123-42], which he is perfectly entitled to do, though I think he is wrong in the main and demonstrably wrong in myriad specific details. By the time we get to the end of the book, where Eagleton proposes 9-11 as the disproof that History has ended, and fundamentalist terrorism as a kind of QED that God is not dead, his rhetorical imprecision rises alongside his indignation. He ends up adopting a kind of Peter Hitchens tone: 'ideologically speaking the West has disarmed at just the point when it has proved most perilous for it to do so' —Hitchens would shy away from 'ideology', but otherwise this really is the kind of statement that makes the reader go: dude! are you high? His real scorn is reserved for what he calls 'leftist fellow travellers' with religion and 'defenders of capitalism'. For the latter category he selects two indicative examples:
Religious faith, suitably cleansed of its primitive propositions, may figure as a kind of aesthetic supplement to an uncouth social order. Francis Spufford's Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense is symptomatic of this trend, as is Alan de Botton's unwittingly entertaining Religion for Atheists. What follows is a cremation of de Botton that, inadvertently, demonstrates that Eagleton hasn't so much as cracked open the front cover of Spufford's book: 'there is something unpleasantly disingenuous about this entire legacy: "I don't happen to believe myself, but it is politically expedient that you should" is the catchphrase of [these] thinkers' . But Spufford says no such thing, not least because he does happen to believe, himself; and many things he argues in his powerful book anticipate the Eagletonian insistence that the 'return of God' ought to inform 'just and compassionate communities ... a solidarity with the poor and powerless' . It's an unfortunately symptomatic note on which to end a hasty and shallow piece of writing.
Friday, 1 April 2016
Chambers's Eleven Planets
I had occasion today to consult Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), Robert Chambers's very famous and influential account of cosmic and natural history which includes, among many things, a kind of proto-evolutionary theory. Google Books has the American third edition, from 1845, which seemed to me close enough. This is how the book opens:
Wait: eleven planets? This is long before Pluto, so .... which eleven did Chambers have in mind?
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