‘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 29 May 2016

'We Are Seven'

This image, taken by Louis and Antoinette Thuillier, dates presumably to 1914 or 1915, and comes from what the Guardian today calls 'a photographic archive recently retrieved from a farmhouse in Picardy'. (It's a rather foolish Guardian article, that one, actually: 'Previous wars had been conducted like chivalrous tournaments, but now ...' This suggests a writer who has no sense of the broader history of war at all.)

Anyway: that image, at the top, especially struck me. It's partly the sheer human charm of it, the sense of a happy before that implies its own tragic after. It's also the literary connection. That sign! I don't need to tell you that Wordsworth's 'We Are Seven' is a poem about a simple-hearted country child who tells the poem's narrator that she is one of a family of seven. When her adult interlocutor asks for details we discover that only five of her family are actually alive, and that, in the girl's words, 'Two of us in the church-yard lie,/Beneath the church-yard tree'. The adult tries to get the girl to see that 'Ye Are Five', but she insists that their being dead does not separate her siblings from her, and won't give up her belief that 'We Are Seven'.

Don't you think that's a peculiarly eerie literary reference for seven young men, about to go into battle, to peg to their collective portrait? As if two of them are already dead (which two?) and yet somehow still there. This speaks not just to the human wastefulness of war, but also to the uncanny of photography itself, this process that preserves the life-likeness of the dead (or, as it might be, the black-and-white motionless dead-likeness of the living) via its strange new technology.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Aeneid 6 as OXO Cube

'L'Énéide: OXO, Bouillon concentré en flacons at en cubes.' Great, no?

A pendant to yesterday's post, this, prompted in part by chancing upon that splendid OXO advert. Because, in a very real and not-at-all spurious sense, book 6 of the Aeneid really is like a cube of bouillon concentré. Into it is compressed the whole moral and socio-political scheme of an entire epic poem: life and death, right and wrong, the ethos of the warrior, pietas, virtus, and their consequences. More, the entire future-history of Rome is squeezed into the final hundred lines, as (illustrated above, there) beefy future-Roman worthies and heroes parade past Aeneas and his father, whilst the Sybil looks on. Death, this portion of the poem is saying, is a compressed or concentrated form of life: all the unimportant stuff is boiled away, and we are left with only one's viler ethical transgressions, or one's more important virtues and strengths. And when we think about it that way, we are drawn to the perhaps odd conclusion that for Vergil the underworld is, in essence, three things. First it is sorrow and belatedness and incompletion, as with the wailing, teeming hordes of the newly dead on the sandy shores of the Styx, or Aeneas' encounter with abandoned Palinurus or broken-hearted Dido. Second, it is punishment (a huge triple-walled prison in which the wicked are tortured in various horrible ways, and grim-faced Phlegyas, 'miserrimus', 'the most unblest', bellows at the top of his voice 'discite justitiam moniti non temnere divos!' LEARN TO BE JUST AND NOT TO SLIGHT THE GODS!). And thirdly, it is pleasant open fields, the company of great men, athletic contests and, finally, a glorious parade back into the light and the coming glory of Rome. In other words, Vergil is saying death is a condensed version of three things: loss, punishment and Empire.

I've been thinking about Heaney's translation, off and on, all weekend. It's sent me back to the original, which is surely the highest praise a reader can offer a translator. Actually, I think Colin Burrow puts his finger on something important in his recent LRB review of the work. Burrow stresses how important Vergil was throughout the whole of Heaney's career. For early Heaney, the wraiths 'the multitudes that stand on the wrong side of the Styx longing for passage across at the start of his journey through the underworld' are the key figures: 'It’s as though Heaney wants to imagine that these homeless and nameless spirits would take over the centres of empire and power, and drive away the imperial heroes with which Book VI concludes'. The problem is that it's just really hard to get away from the deeply imperial ethos saturating the whole of the Aeneid, and this book in particular. Burrow thinks it made Heaney uneasy.
That association between the Aeneid and political unease grew out of Station Island (1984), in which Heaney first seriously engaged with the descent to the underworld and its literary implications. In the title poem of that collection he related how the spirits of dead priests, dead friends, victims of the Troubles and finally James Joyce, appeared from the pilgrimage site of St Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island to inform and rebuke him. Heaney implicitly presented himself as kin to Dante or Aeneas, or to T.S. Eliot in Dantesque prophetic mode: a poet who could absorb and transform voices from his own and from the literary past. But he combined that self-aggrandisement with a powerful dose of guilt. The imperial poets Dante and Virgil were unsettling doubles for a poet who had lived through the Troubles, and had seen friends and family killed by imperial rule ... The traveller in the underworld runs the risk of becoming a fellow-traveller, who is drawn away from honest engagement with Irish politics by a misplaced desire to beautify death, and to insinuate himself into a larger tradition of poetic authority
Burrows goes on to argue that
The death of Heaney’s father in 1986 brought with it significant changes in his attitudes to Virgil. The political edges are smoothed over, and Book VI in particular tends to be presented as more like a family drama than a political one. The ghost of Aeneas’s father, Anchises, flickers through Seeing Things (1991), and Heaney’s poetic responses to the Aeneid from the later 1980s onwards tend to be welded to the detail of domestic life. His final collection of verse, New Selected Poems 1988-2013, was carefully crafted in order to make it appear that Aeneid VI was central to his literary experience. The selection begins with a literal translation of the golden bough episode that had first appeared in Seeing Things. Close to its end is the sequence ‘Route 110’, which draws artfully wry parallels between Heaney’s own life and the events of Aeneid VI. The parallels begin with the young poet buying a copy of the poem at a secondhand bookshop from a sibylline bookseller. The book itself then becomes a golden bough that can guide the poet and draw him home. The Elysian fields are reimagined as ‘Not unlike a sports day in Bellaghy’, and Aeneas’ mutilated friend Deiphobus becomes ‘Mr Lavery, blown up in his own pub’.
A strange sort of compromise between old and new, Roman and Northern Irish, that. The recently-published translation of the whole of Aeneid VI does not play those sorts of games; but something in its very polish, the accomplished, stately earthy vividness of Heaney's versifying, oversmooths the finished product.

One of the biggest questions about the Aeneid, one critics and scholars still debate, is whether it is a simple encomium for Empire, sheer Augustan propaganda; or whether (as in Shakespeare, who presents us with a similar difficulty) the surface celebration of the triumph of the state and the authority of the strong leader veils a much more complex and critical sense of what Empire means. Since we nowadays tend to value complexity, and prize texts that hide cross-currents and ironies under their surface storytelling, it's tempting simply to assume the latter. I have to say, I'm not convinced. We might think that condensing together into one dark-coloured and potent cube loss, punishment and imperial glory is to force three immiscible elements into an unstable emulsion, that the contradictions and tensions in the ideological structure of the poem will pull it apart. But I don't think so. Of course we know that Empire is a grievous thing to be on the receiving-end of, as armies march into your homeland and subdue your way of life and prior freedoms to theirs. The Romans were perfectly well aware of that, too. The thing is: Empire is hard work for the conquerors, too, However asymmetric the balance, it entails losses and punishments on both sides. Maybe the mixture in Aeneid 6 speaks to a simpler truth.

Saturday 21 May 2016


My copy of this arrived this morning, and I've been reading it today. It's not long: 45 pages of verse, with a couple of extra pages by way of preface and afterword. And the Aeneid is a poem I know well. It's a little odd, actually: the Iliad and the Odyssey are, patently, greater works of art; yet however much I love them and return to them, the Aeneid still occupies a uniquely special place in my heart. I first read it as an undergraduate in the (alas, long defunct) Classics department at Aberdeen University. I have read the whole poem in the original, some parts of it many times; and I've also read, I'd guess, a dozen English translations. So there we are.

And what of Heaney's? In we go. From near the beginning:
At Cumae, behind the broad cliff, an enormous cave
Has been quarried: a hundred entrances, a hundred
Wide-open mouths lead in, and out of them scramble
A hundred echoing voices, the Sibyl's responses.
They arrived at that threshold and the vestal cried,
'Now! Now you must ask what your fate is. The god
Is here with us! Apollo!' Her countenance suddenly
Paled and convulsed, hair got dishevelled,
Breast was aheave, heart beating wilder and wilder. [65-74]
And you think: hmm. The 'they' in 'they arrived at that threshold' means Aeneas and his people, but looks, here, as if it refers back to the Sibyl's hundredfold responses. And some of this is just, well ... ungainly. 'Breast was aheave'—seriously? Hair got dishevelled? Woh.

A certain amount of rough-hewnness has always been the Heaney USP, of course, and nitpicky pedantry is not the best frame of mind to appreciate the strengths of a poem, of course, of course. Except that Vergil, who would sometimes spend a whole day working on a single hexameter line (and sometimes end the day by scrubbing it out entirely) was one of the least rough-hewn poets who ever lived. The original behind 'hair got dishevelled' is non comptae mansere comae [Aeneid 6:48], which means 'nor did the trails of her hair stay braided' (by word-order the phrase means 'not braided remained her tresses': coma is the word behind comet, the 'hairy star'). The alliterative assonance of comptae and comae is lovely, and Vergil's non here is the third non in two lines, which uses repetition to build a more forceful sense of negation. Heaney doesn't capture any of that.

But maybe this is too fernickerty a way of reading the poem. So I drew back my focus a little, and read through. One of the problems facing a translator of Aeneid 6 is the Hamlet one: so many desperately famous lines. How to handle them? The Sybil looks forward:
But the day is one you will rue. I see wars,
Atrocious wars, and the Tiber surging with blood. [125-6]
That's fine (although 'rue' wobbles a little, credibility wise; and surging is rather more forceful than the Vergil's spumante, foaming, bubbling. You wouldn't translate Asti Spumante as 'Surging Asti wine', now, would you? What's that? You would? Well OK then!) And here's facilis descensus Averno, one of the most famous lines Vergil ever wrote:
The Sybil started to speak: 'Blood relation
Of gods, Trojan son of Anchises,
It is easy to descend to Avernus.
Death's dark door stands open day and night.
But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air,
That is the task, that is the understanding.
Only a few have prevailed, sons of gods
Whom Jupiter favoured, or heroes exalted to glory
By their own worth. At the centre it is all forest
And a ring of dark waters, the river Cocytus, furls
And flows round it. Still, if love so torments you,
If your need to be ferried twice across the Styx
And twice explore that deep dark abyss
Is so overwhelming, if you will and must go
That far, understand what else you must do.
Hid in the thick of a tree is a golden bough,
Gold to the tips of its leaves and the base of its stem,
Sacred (tradition declares) to the queen of that place. [172-89]
This is lovely verse: expertly using enjambment to complexify its steady, plain onward movement. 'At the centre it is all forest' (tenent media omnia silvae) is nicely economical, and 'in the thick of a tree' is beautifully vivid and tactile. Ah, but then the Sybil tells Aeneas he must
Pluck this sprout of fledged gold from its tree
and I can't be the only person to get distracted with visions of Brussels sprouts. Can I? It's alright though:
Then when they came to the fuming gorge at Avernus
They swept up through clear air and back down
To their chosen perch, a tree that was two trees
In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold.
Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods.
Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf,
Its yellowy berries in sprays curled round the bole—
Those flickering gold tendrils lit up the dark
Overhang of the oak and chimed in the breeze. [271-79]
Excellent stuff, in which Heaneyisms like 'bole' and 'cold winter woods' (silvae brumalae frigora in the original: 'forests frigid with wintertime') tangle expressively with Latinisms like 'refulgent' (from the original's refulsit).

And actually, the poem works best when it balances these two idioms. When it strays too close to just the Latin it tends to become inert:
Chaos and Phlegethon, O you hushed
Nocturnal expanses, let assent be forthcoming
As I tell what's been given to tell, let assent be divine
As I unveil things profoundly beyond us. [351-4]
Then again, moments of Heaneyish verbal clottedness sometimes misfire. 'In front of the house of the dead,/Between the dread jambs, is a courtyard': dead dread jambs? Dreadlocks? Dead jam? Hold up a moment.

A couple of the more famous passages. In the underworld Aeneas meets his late father Anchises, who narrates to him the future-history of Rome's glory, and sums up:
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
hae erunt tibi artes: pacique imponere morem
parcere subjectis et debellare superbos. [Aeneid 6:851-3]
Very important, this, as a statement of what it meant to Romans to be Roman. David West translates as follows: 'Your task, Roman, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts—to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to spare the defeated and war down the proud.' West's 'war down the proud' nicely catches the way the Latin debellare, which means 'to defeat' or 'to eradicate', contains within it bellum, war. Heaney goes with:
                         But you, Roman,
Remember: to you will fall the exercise of power
Over the nations, and these will be your gifts—
To impose peace and justify your sway,
Spare those you conquer, crush those who overbear. [1155-9]
But that's a little, what would you say: flat? Dull? He's picked out the super ('over') in superbos, but not the bellum in debellare, and that's the wrong way about: 'proud' is better, here, than 'those who overbear' (what does that phrase even mean?). And what about the celebrated two gates with which the poem ends?
There are two gates of Sleep, one of which, they say,
Is made of horn and offers easy passage
To true visions; the other has a luminous, dense,
Ivory sheen, but through it, to the sky above,
The spirits of the dead send up false dreams.
Anchises, still guiding and discoursing,
Escorts his son and the Sibyl on their way
And lets them both out by the ivory gate. [1212-19]
The two gates are from Greek mythology: Vergil, here, is adopting an image from Homer's Odyssey 19:562. The seemingly-arbitrary distinction makes more sense in Greek, where there is a play upon the words linking κέρας, "horn" to κραίνω, "fulfil", and linking ἐλέφας, "ivory", and ἐλεφαίρομαι, "deceive". Hard to capture that in English, but hard too in Latin: horn is cornū, which means both horn and the crescent moon; ivory is elephantus, which word also means 'elephant'; though Vergil also uses the different word, eburna, which also means ivory. Nobody knows why Vergil brings his hero back to the real world via the ivory, not the horn, gate. It does rather imply that the Aeneas of the rest of the poem is some kind of a lie. Still:
Sunt geminae Somni portae, quarum altera fertur
cornea, qua veris facilis datur exitus umbris,
altera candenti perfecta nitens elephanto,
sed falsa ad caelum mittunt īnsomnia Mānēs.
Hīs ibi tum nātum Anchīsēs ūnāque Sibyllam
prōsequitur dictīs portāque ēmittit eburnā. [Aeneid 6:893-8]
could be Englished as
There are two twinned gates of Sleep, of which one is made
of the moon's crescent horns, through which true shades exit easily;
the other gleams with sheen of polished elephantine-tusk,
but through here the spirit-sent dreams are all a phantom task.
So Anchises attends his son and the Sibyl,
dismisses them with these words through the gate of ivory.
Maybe elephant/all phantom is too cheesy a pun. My theory is that the crucial thing here is not the true shades/false dreams thing. It's the easy (facilis) passage of the one, and the implicit hard passage of the other. Facilis descensus Averno, remember. It's not that Aeneas is a false dream: it's that he is true and false, first off easily descending, like a moonbeam sliding down; and then elephantishly clambering back up, like Hannibal's war-beasts ascending the Alps, to his mortal skies.

Monday 16 May 2016


My contributor copy of Bas Groes' edited collection Memory in the Twenty-First Century: New Critical Perspectives from the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences (Palgrave 2016) arrived a couple of weeks ago. It's an interesting volume, though at $105 for a hardcover and nearly $80 for the ebook, nobody would call it cheap. My contribution is a piece on Borges, Philip K Dick and science-fiction memories, and its title involves a pun whereunto the descriptor 'tortuous' might, perhaps, be attached:

This book is one output from Groes' large-scale 'Memory Network' Project, which involved bringing together people from all sorts of different backgrounds to think about and talk about memory. There were various public colloquia, talks and presentations, a couple of which included me. Here's a picture from one. The body language and facial expression of my co-panelist here (Dundee's excellent Wendy Moncur) tells you everything you need to know about how much of my talk was the merest blather and nonsense.

Still it was great to be involved, and the Memory in the 21st-Century volume contains a wealth of fascinating stuff.

Speaking just for myself, though, there's one loose end. One of the things in which I participated was a panel at the LSE in October 2015, during which Jessica Bland, Bas himself, Professor Barry C Smith, Dr Hugo Spiers and I talked about memory in front of what was, surprisingly for these sorts of things, a large and appreciative audience. In the time allotted for my particular blather and nonsense, I floated the idea the conventional neurophysical division of memory into two kinds, long term memory and short term memory, needs to be augmented with a third kind of neurophysical memory which belongs to neither of these categories: dreams. A fourth kind, a sort of technological add-on version of memory, strikes me as a plausible way of thinking about the subject nowadays, but this led discussion into the 'extended mind theory', which notion Professor Smith, genially but very firmly, repudiated. I'm more persuaded by this theory than Smith, but it strikes me as less interesting than my initial notion, which we didn't really get around to discussing at all.

Long-term memory and short-term memory are, clearly, both actual features of the human mind, more or less rational and structured ways of sorting past events and states of mind into retrievable form. But it seems to me impossible to deny that dreams are also a way in which the mind 'remembers' stuff. Since it is not a rational, or retrievably sorted (except at a kind of second hand, where elements but never the totality of a dream are 'logged' in the conscious memory), it is possible to neglect this fact, but fact is nonetheless surely what it is. If dreams aren't a way of 'remembering' things, then I don't know what they are. But if they are, and given that they run on radically different lines to the sortable-retrievable logic of long and short term memory, then it is worth thinking about what this tells us about how dreams mean, how they factor into the being-in-the-world of human beings as examples of homo memorius.

I'm half idly thinking of following this up. I'm not sure, though. It's kindling in my mind a little (smoke threading upwards from the heap of woodchips that occupies the inside of my skull) from reading a little Ignacio Matte Blanco. There is bound to be a bias towards researching memory as a function of the conscious mind, since that's the sort of memory that is amenable to data gathering and the testing of hypotheses. But we ought, surely, also to consider memory as a function of the subconscious mind. To what extent, and with what effect, do dreams parse memory in terms of Matte-Blanco's 'generalisation' and (in particular) 'symmetry'? This latter quantity, the kind of leveling by which dreams flip-about asymmetrical elements of the remembered life as if they were symmetrical in particular interests me. We are such stuff as memories are made on, after all; and that making often entails not only a dream-logic inversion, but more particularly a dream-like elision of the asymmetric into the symmetric, far-off mountains turnéd into clouds, and the like. You don't need me to tell you where that line comes from, do you.

Friday 13 May 2016

Leper Colony Money

This is one of those topics with such delicious satirical resonance that, if it weren't real, some writer somewhere would have had to invent it. Leprosy colony money was a local currency that circulated only in leprosy sanatoriums or colonies. It reflected the fear that leprosy might be transmitted to uninfected people via money, although, as Wikipedia puts it, 'leprosy is in fact not easily transmitted by casual contact, and such transmission as there is only happens through long term, constant and intimate contact with leprosy sufferers and not contact with everyday objects used by sufferers.' Indeed, in 1938 one Dr. Ryrie in Malaysia proved that paper money was not contaminated with leprosy bacteria. After that the system fell into desuetude. At the top of this post is a rather pretty, though obviously cheaply-made, $1 note of the Sungei Buloh Settlement; and here's a Philippine 1 peso coin.

It makes me wonder why nobody has written a story about a society in which money itself is a site of possible infection. Presumably this would have to be electronic money (so presumably the infection would have to be some kind of computer virus, malware that very slowly corrodes the essential online presence of the user: a virtual leprosy). So, for example: you believe Dr Ryrie, don't you? You can't catch leprosy from handling leper colony money. Still. Would you? If someone offered you such a banknote, would you take it? Would you collect such money? Presumably people do, but would you? Would you be happy with your nine-month-old baby chewing on the edge of that 1 peso coin?

Money is dirty. We feel it, almost instinctually. This particular currency makes manifest what is latent in all our dealings with currency.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Cutest Caliban Ever?

Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo dancing, from a painting by Johann Heinrich Ramberg (1763-1840).

Sunday 8 May 2016

Be Bloody, Humboldt and Resolute

I'm reading Humboldt's Gift (1975) at the moment (I've read a lot of Bellow, but oddly not this one, although it is one of his most acclaimed titles). Good it is, too, as Yoda might say. I find myself thinking: how desperately Martin Amis wishes he had written this novel. No dice there. There's a depth and resonance to the ill-temper of Bellow's imaginative vision that Amis just can't seem to reproduce. With Marty it always come over as common-or-garden grumpiness. With Bellow, it starts to approach something more crankily magnificent. Although in this novel the rage starts slow. Charlie Citrine, the narrator, wrestles with his poisoned oedipal relationship to Humboldt, an older writer, and as ornery an old dinosaur as you please. When Charlie was young, Humboldt nurtured him. After Charlie became successful, Humboldt turned on him:
When reports were brought of the damaging remarks he made I often found that I agreed with them. "They gave Citrine a Pulitzer prize for his book on Wilson and Tumulty. The Pulitzer is for the birds—for the pullets. It's just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates."
Here's the bottom of the back of the bashed-about old Penguin edition I'm reading:

Lovely stuff.

Monday 2 May 2016

Captain America: Civil War (dir Anthony and Joe Russo, 2016)

Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about the recent Captain America: Civil War: 'a blast of a movie' according to the Guardian; 'Marvel's best film so far' according to the Telegraph. I enjoyed it, too. Quite apart from anything else, it's impressive that the directors are able to juggle so many narrative-lines and characters without dropping any of them. But there are two things in this movie, I think, that don't work very well; and they are fairly big things, not specific-point pedantry or snark. Not, of course, that I have any principled or personal objection to a touch of pointless pedantry and snark.

One is that Civil War doesn't really pass the Pixar test. One of the things that Pixar recognised early is that a movie aimed at kids also needs to include material that will entertain the adults who are accompanying the kids to the cinema, and more to the point to do so without making the movie incoherent on its own terms. Without making the film a mere laminate of kids-pleasing-stuff and adult-pleasing-stuff, welded clumsily together. Movies like The Incredibles, Up or Inside Out are masterclasses in the seamless blending of kid-enchanting and adult-entertaining elements.  Civil War frankly does not manage the same seamlessness. I enjoyed the serious talky-talky sections about whether the Avengers should submit to international political authority or whether such a strategy entailed greater dangers than it allayed. My 8-year old, sitting next to me, was bored out of his head by all that. He liked the big Iron Man/ Captain America/ Black Widow/ Panther-Man (Is It)?/ Carved-From-A-Giant-Stick-of-Rock Guy/ Ant-Man/ Spiderman/ Flyman/ Beetlebum/ Curly-Fingers-Eastern-European-Witch-Woman beat-em-up at the airport; where I felt that whole sequence went on too long, that nothing was very much at stake in it, and that it looked like it had been staged in a pub carpark.

Which brings me to number two. One thing I did like about Civil War was that it confronted the question of collateral damage: all the civilians inadvertently killed in New York during the climactic scenes of the first Avengers film, and then again in Sinitta's hometown Somachovia during Avengers: Age of Ultron. The first forty-five minutes of this movie did a good job (within the limitations of its mode, of course) of laying out some of the human cost of all that: the bereaved and the traumatised rubble of humanity, the stuff the adrenaline rush of the explosions and the tumbling towerblocks had encouraged us not to think about. This collective sense of ordinary people caught in the crossfire as 'enhanced' armies battle one another over remote and abstruse stakes is well caught in Civil War, and the demand made by the U.N. that the Avengers sign legal accords to try and prevent such collateral damage happening again was well dramatised and believable. What was less believable was the 'principled' stand of Captain America, and those of his superpeople who agreed with him, not to sign these accords. The reasons contra were debated, but in a rather arid, abstract sort of way.

The thing that's missing is the sense that being the Avengers has in any sense 'cost' the Avengers. There's been a certain amount of Tony Stark hyperventilating and getting a bit sweaty on his top lip, it's true: but only as a plot point on the way to his overcoming his panic and defeating the bad guys yet again. What's missing, in other words, are Avenger casualties. Imagine, for example, if Thor and Hulk had been omitted from Civil War because they'd both been killed in Age of Ultron, rather than because the contract negotiations to add Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo to the ensemble pushed the whole project over-budget. Then Captain America would be emotionally, as well as intellectually, invested in his opposition to William Hurt's gruff-voiced US Secretary of State. He could reply to the U.N. mandate with: 'civilians died during those battles, yes; but so did Avengers. People are angry and hurt by those civilians losses; so are we, by ours. Your plan to defang our attempts to combat evil are foolish, but also insulting to those Avengers who laid down their lives to etc etc.' It would give the Captain a reason to care, and make the whole dynamic work much more effectively.

The reason this couldn't happen is that the owners of this franchise are too commercially cautious to write-out any of their extraordinarily popular and merchandisable superheroes. And that's a shame. It's a shame for this movie, and for subsequent movies. Don Cheadle gets to totter around on poorly functioning automated leg-calipers because his back is broken (talking of which ... seriously? in a world where Bucky Barnes has a metal whole-arm prosthesis that is not only fully functional but super-strong and bullet-repellent? In such a world the best Tony Stark—Tony fucking Stark—can do for one of his closest friends is a pair of motor-driven calipers so bad the man can't even stand up in them?) ... wait: where was I? Oh, yes: so, Don Cheadle gets to totter around on poorly functioning automated leg-calipers because his back is broken. But that's the absolute closest these film-makers will ever get to actually thinning out their cash-cow herd. Tant pis.