‘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 30 October 2016

Thoughts on Pastoral

[This post is a series of more-or-less oblique notes-to-self, rather than a carefully laid-out argument with the general reader in mind. It may strike such a reader as baffling, or self-indulgent. I could apologise for that, but, really: nobody is forcing you invest any of your time in it, are they? Although I will just note that it ends with one of my favourite short poems of the 20th-century. So you could just skip to that?]


We put culture on one side, bracketing with it society, architecture, religion, art and so on; and we put nature waaaay over the other side, there. Nature doesn't make culture, we think. We make culture. Of course, nature makes us first (inevitably we are, in one sense, a product of nature). But once nature has made us we go on to make another thing, which I'm here calling culture. That two-step is essential to the form of distinction being made; and its doubleness is the structure of pastoral.

That's doubtless a little over-stark, as assertions go. Put it this way: does nature have culture? Nature may manifest society, or something close to it: the pack of dogs, the beehive. But does the beehive have culture? When the bees do their little dance, is that art? We're tempted to say no because the dance of bees is functional, and because we assume bees don't reflect upon the dance as dance. That self-reflection is needful for a performance to be art, presumably. But, really, how can we possibly know? What the bee-dance says to me is that our grasp of the natural world is defined, indeed is constituted, by a kind of existential paucity. It is what we cannot apprehend as culture that is the core of nature. In The Beast in the Nursery Adam Phillips says: 'we prefer the barbarity of culture to the barbarity of nature even though we usually can't tell them apart.' He adds a rather neat after-all: 'there is nothing more cultured than our fantasies about nature' [26]. True, that.

Nature is always the resource that has always already been worked. The landscape is not 'nature'; it is what cultivation has made of the natural resource. Nature is worked, and therefore Pastoral is always reworked—practically speaking, an eclogue is always a reworking of Hughes as a reworking of Wordsworth as a reworking of Vergil as a reworking of Theocritus. Pastoral is a kind of blockchain, and in a more acute and formally self-reflexive sense than the standard 'intertextuality' argument, that insists all literature is a kind of blockchain.

Pastoral as escape, means: there is a benchmark existence from which escape looks both desirable and possible. This rather simplistic explanation, though, leads us into to some surprisingly complex and relevant places. At the risk of over-simplification, we might say: start from a position when life is hard, relentless—when life is work, and life is urban, is scarcity and frustration—then fantasy becomes: ease, unobstruction, leisure, rural, abundant and satisfaction. This is the pastoral of Theocritus and Vergil and Spenser, the classic understanding of the locus amoenus. But something happens to pastoral in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth centuries that rewires this, we can be honest, rather simplistic understanding. (What's facile about it is the way it contains its own contradiction: a life that is all holiday is no holiday at all, since there's no benchmark of tedium and stress from which to escape, and it is the release, not the merely sensual pleasure, that is the key thing). The modification of pastoral entailed a two-step: first Goldsmith's Deserted Village (1770) and Crabbe's The Village (1783) described rural life as hard, draining, frustrating and poor (as indeed it largely is) whilst insisting that once upon a time it had been golden, Arcadian. That is to say, they, and other poets from around this time doing similar things with the pastoral mode, such as John Struthers, Clare and Balfour, were engaged in relocated the nature of Arcadia from being a different place to being a different (past) time. Instead of being defined as a (good) place distinct from the (bad) city or court, it becomes a good (past) time distinct from the bad present. That in turn connects with a longer tradition of 'past Golden Age' mythology. The fit, there, is so precise that pastoral itself can become seen as an mode of nostalgia, or more precisely as the faux-nostalgia of yearning for a time you never yourself actually experienced.

That's not right, though; because, after Vergil, the most important intervention into the pastoral tradition is Wordsworth's poetic creation of 'Nature' as a ground of transcendental aesthetic and ontological value—and that flows directly from the eighteenth-century traditions of Goldsmithian or Crabbean 'anti-pastoral'. I could devote a long passage to establishing this, but this blog-post is long enough already, so I'm going to ask you to take it on trust. You might trust less my insistence that it is from this new thing—I mean, from Wordsworth's new version of 'Nature'—that much of the force and a surprising number of the specifics of modern-day environmentalism as ethos and aesthetic derive. It's true. I mean, I don't want to overstate the influence; although, actually, its hard to overstate the way the 19th-century's most influential English-language poet shaped a whole culture, and the ways in which the later 20th-century Green movements, in reacting against the machinism of early 20th-century Modernist and Popular cultures, inevitably reached back to something always-already Wordsworthian in their revalorisation of natural spaces.

Wordsworth is the second footprint in the 'two-step' I mentioned above. From pastoral as a pleasant Arcadian other place we stride, first, to pastoral as a pleasant Arcadian past-time, to which the anti-pastoral of contemporary rural suffering is contrasted; and second, we move to pastoral as a mode of transcendence grounded in contemporary rural suffering. Wordsworth's Michael (the hero of what the 1815 printing calls 'A Pastoral Poem') has grown very old in a life of ceaseless labour, physical restriction and hardship. But because it has always been a life in Nature, it has been an authentic existential experience of the kind unavailable equally to those to live in the town or the past:
So lived he till his eightieth year was past.
And grossly that man errs, who should suppose
That the green Valleys, and the Streams and Rocks
Were things indifferent to the Shepherd's thoughts.
Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed
The common air; the hills, which he so oft
Had climbed with vigorous steps; which had impressed
So many incidents upon his mind
Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;
Which like a book preserved the memory
Of the dumb animals, whom he had saved,
Had fed or sheltered, linking to such acts,
So grateful in themselves, the certainty
Of honorable gains; these fields, these hills,
Which were his living Being, even more
Than his own blood—what could they less? had laid
Strong hold on his affections, were to him
A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
The pleasure which there is in life itself. [Wordsworth, 'Michael', 61-77]
His son Luke goes into the town, and is instantly lost. Only by staying in the country can Michael stay strong, even to his death in his late 80s. Something similar is true of all of Wordsworth's rural poor: the Leech Gatherer, Cumberland beggar, even the mad woman in 'The Thorn'. Nature homes them, in a profound ur-Heideggerian sense, and that fact reconfigures the force of pastoral itself. To cut what could become an over-lengthy excursion short, I'll sketch a line straight from Wordsworth's natural world to the late-20th-century pastoral of Hughes's superb Moortown poems (1979).

Not, as I say, wanting to labour the point, I'll point only to Moortown's 'Tractor' (it's one of my favourites amongst the whole capacious oeuvre of Hughes, actually) as one place where the pleasant sunny Arcadian wish-fulfillment of pastoral has come all the cold, hard way around to bite its own tail.
The tractor stands frozen—an agony
To think of. All night
Snow packed its open entrails. Now a head-pincering gale,
A spill of molten ice, smoking snow,
Pours into its steel.
At white heat of numbness it stands
In the aimed hosing of ground-level fieriness.

It defied flesh and won't start.
Hands are like wounds already
Inside armour gloves, and feet are unbelievable
As if the toe-nails were all just torn off.
I stare at it in hatred. Beyond it
The copse hisses—capitulates miserably
In the fleeing, failing light. Starlings,
A dirtier sleetier snow, blow smokily, unendingly, over
Towards plantations Eastward.
All the time the tractor is sinking
Through the degrees, deepening
Into its hell of ice.

The starting lever
Cracks its action, like a snapping knuckle.
The battery is alive—but like a lamb
Trying to nudge its solid-frozen mother—
While the seat claims my buttock-bones, bites
With the space-cold of earth, which it has joined
In one solid lump.

I squirt commercial sure-fire
Down the black throat—it just coughs.
It ridicules me—a trap of iron stupidity
I've stepped into. I drive the battery
As if I were hammering and hammering
The frozen arrangement to pieces with a hammer
And it jabbers laughing pain-crying mockingly
Into happy life.

And stands
Shuddering itself full of heat, seeming to enlarge slowly
Like a demon demonstrating
A more-than-usually-complete materialization—
Suddenly it jerks from its solidarity
With the concrete, and lurches towards a stanchion
Bursting with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting Where Where?

Worse iron is waiting. Power-lift kneels
Levers awake imprisoned deadweight,
Shackle-pins bedded in cast-iron cow-shit.
The blind and vibrating condemned obedience
Of iron to the cruelty of iron,
Wheels screeched out of their night-locks—

Among the tormented
Tonnage and burning of iron

Weeping in the wind of chloroform

And the tractor, streaming with sweat,
Raging and trembling and rejoicing. [16 February 1975]
What's particularly nice about this is the way Hughes's uses a machine as a means of focusing the existential authenticity of post-Wordwsorthian pastoral. It's the right machine, of course; since modern farming could hardly happen without tractors. But still, there's a near-miraculous metamorphosis in the poem, in which an artefact of culture becomes, without slipping into any foolish pathetic fallacy, nature itself. Becomes, we might say, the objective correlative of Michael's persistence, strength and labour. Out of hardship is generated beauty (for surely we can agree this is a very beautiful poem).

I don't know if there's a larger context here, which tracks the increasing pleasantness of general human existence (the case that Pinker makes, and which I suppose persuades me) against an increasing valorisation of hardship as such. If one's life is actually hard, one is less likely to enjoy the artistic re-presentation of that hardship back upon yourself. The starving human finds no pleasure in contemplating going on a diet. If your life is basically comfortable, and your sufferings inward rather than outward, then hardship acquires greater appeal. I don't know: there may be a parallel with politics. When real life is living with an empty belly four days out of every seven, is being cold day after day and dying in your thirties, you'll follow the leader who promises to make your life easy. When seven days are defined by fourteen square meals, and your home is heated and you're staring down the barrel of 70-years-plus, the apparent perversity of valorising hardship makes more sense, and you follow the leader who says he has nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. I don't know.


This leads me to think again about Empson, the critic who has probably done the most to shape my attitudes towards pastoral. Some Empsonian ideas, for example that the mere representation of rural pleasure is boring, elaborated at length in Some Versions of Pastoral are actually already present in Seven Types of Amibguity:
It is this (in some sense conscious) clash between different modes of feeling which is the normal source of pleasure in pastoral; or, at any rate, in so far as pastorals fail to produce it, one may agree with Johnson and call them a bore.
Thou shalt eat crudded cream
All the year lasting,
And drink the crystal stream
Pleasant in tasting;
Whig and whey whilst thou lust
And brambleberries,
Pie-lids and pastry-crust,
Pears, plums, and cherries. (ANON., Oxford Book.)
The delicacy of versification here (alliteration, balance of rhythm, and so forth) suggests both the scholar's trained apprehension and the courtier's experience of luxury; but it is of the brambleberry that he is an epicure; the subject forces into contact with these the direct gusto of a "swain." That all these good qualities should be brought together is a normal part of a good poem; indeed, it is a main part of the value of a poem, because they are so hard to bring together in life. But such a case as this is peculiar, because one is made to think of the different people separately; one cannot pretend to oneself that the author is the rustic he is impersonating; there is an element of wit in the first conception of the style. (Seven Types, 114-15)
This formal relation between 'simple' and 'complex' ('putting the complex in the simple', the closest thing in Some Types of Pastoral to a nutshell-definition of pastoral itself, is actually a slogan for all art, as Empson himself knows) stitches form to social relations. Pastoral not only represents but also embodies and therefore enables, a coming-together of poor-simples and rich-sophisticateds.
The essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor, was to make simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language .... The effect was in some degree to combine in the reader or author the merits of the two sorts; he was made to mirror in himself more completely the effective elements of the society he lived in. This was not a process that you could explain in the course of writing pastoral; it was already shown by the clash between style and theme, and to make the clash work in the right way (not become funny) the writer must keep up a firm pretense that he was unconscious of it. [Some Versions, 11-12]
According to George Watson [The Literary Critics (Hogarth 1986), 184] 'Empson later insisted that his Marxism in the thirties and after—at least until the Communist revolution in China in 1949, which he witnessed—was more serious than his writings reveal, and Some Versions assumed the class analysis of society and the ideal status of the "proletariat".' This is not untrue, although the point for Empson, at least in this book, is always to bring the potential for social harmony back into the orientations of individual subjectivity. René Wellek [A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950: V English Criticism 1900-1950 (Yale 1986), 280] puts forward a slightly more reductive reading.
[The book's] subject is the collapse of the pastoral relation between the swain-hero and the sheep people. It is again the theme of the loss of community, of the presumed original unity which underlies Eliot's concept of history. Pastoral is used in a very wide sense: thus the first chapter discusses proletarian literature which Empson considers a covert pastoral. But even proletarian literature is used in a much wider sense than the usual one ... Proletarian art is pastoral. The old pastoral implied "a beautiful relation between rich and poor" [11] but this relation has broken down, and the old pastoral had been replaced by the mock pastoral, the comic variety at first. Both versions, straight and comic, are based on a double attitude of the artist to the worker ("I am in one way better, in another not so good"), and this may well recognize a permanent truth about the aesthetic situation. "To produce pure proletarian art the artist must be one with the worker; this is impossible, not for political reasons, but because the artist never is at one with any public." [15]
Wellek might have added, though he doesn't, that this is a peculiarly Romantic version of 'the artist', which itself problematises the case being made (something of which Empson himself was aware: 'Mob thought may kill us all before our time, but the scientist's view of it should not be warped by horror, and the writer who isolates himself from all feeling for his audience acquires the faults of romanticism without its virtues.'). Actually, the implied individualism of all this is central to what Empson is arguing: not that the poet is alienated from society, but precisely that the (simple) poet holds within him/herself the (complex) of society. Here's Paul Alpers:
Marvell and Milton represent for Empson a withdrawal-to quote the verses that prompt the essay on "The Garden"-of the mind into its own happiness. The strengths of the "old pastoral" are most fully manifest in Elizabethan works, particularly the dramas, which are discussed in the chapter on "Double Plots." The Elizabethan double plot is a version of pastoral, because it is a convention-the strongest and most capacious, it would seem, in all our literature-for the stable presentation of conflicts and contradictions and for putting the complexities of life into the "simple" effects of art. [112]
To quote the man himself: 'in pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power' [Some Versions of Pastoral, 114]. The element that's missing here is the way that paucity, and poverty, can become precisely the focus for strength in this reading of Nature. After all, Nature is so much bigger than we are. The really Arcadian thing in the natural world is that we have survived this far, at all. To switch back to Hughes it's the superbly insouciant potency of Crow's 'Me, evidently', from the close of 'Examination at the Womb-Door', another key late 20th-century pastoral work:
Who owns those scrawny little feet?      Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face?     Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs?       Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles?       Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts?       Death.
Who owns these questionable brains?       Death.
All this messy blood?       Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes?       Death.
This wicked little tongue?       Death.
This occasional wakefulness?       Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth?       Death.
Who owns all of space?       Death.

Who is stronger than hope?        Death.
Who is stronger than the will?         Death.
Stronger than love?       Death.
Stronger than life?        Death.

But who is stronger than Death?

Me, evidently.

Pass, Crow.
It probably speaks to a continuing adolescence in my aesthetic sense, but by thunder I love that poem.

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Further Thoughts on Alice

Further, that is, to these old posts:

1. Through the Looking-Glass and What Apuleius Found There.

2. Up With The Smoke And How Alice Flew; or, How I'd Like To Write A New Alice Book.

3. Animals in Wonderland.

It is surprisingly hard, with a book one has loved and read since early childhood, to find a way of coming back to it with fresh eyes. A problem for any critic, really. At any rate, recently I've been re-reading, and trying to re-think, Wonderland and Looking-Glass (mostly Wonderland, actually) and this post is by way of logging the resultant jottings. It's in three slightly disconnected parts, in honour of the fairy-tale rule of three. Or, something. Life, what is it, but a dream?

:1. Logic:

I tried re-reading Alice in Wonderland straight through with as few preconceptions as possible. Not easy (the parking of preconceptions, I mean: the read through was very easy, and a delight as ever). If I notate my reactions here in a rather disconnected manner, that's in part because the surface of the novel is itself so gloriously disconnected. The plot hops from place to place, domestic animals to fantastic beasts, Alice herself abruptly grows bigger and smaller: all this is the point of the novel, in one sense, and Carroll's success is in rendering all these dislocations in a beguiling, flowing manner. Wonderland is never herky-jerky, the progression feels in some sense logical, even if the logic informing it is not that of, and indeed sets itself playfully in opposition to, the logic of rationality and science. It is a dream-logic, as many commentators argue, which is to say, a surrealogic.

Invoking 'dream logic' makes it look as though I intend to proceed immediately to Freud, without passing Go, but, appropriately perhaps, I'm going to tack against the Freudian sea-breeze for a little first. Because Freudian dream-logic is a logic of content and coherence, like mathematical or scientific logic. It's just that the location of that content is downshifted into the murky realms of the subconscious. Your random accretion of successive dream images is meaningful, Freud says, once you apply the tiny golden key of whichever unconscious anxiety or desire is secretly motivating it. The Alice books aren't like that, I think. They cannot be satisfactorily decoded as being 'really' about sexual desire, or the anxieties of growing up, or whatnot.

That's not to say that the novels' accretion of successive dreamlike episodes is random. I don't think it is. But I wonder if the 'sense' underlying the playful nonsense of the books is formal, rather than being an affective content like 'desire' or 'anxiety'. In Looking-Glass, indeed, this formal logic is spelled out very clearly: all the weird 'surface' aspects of the story are the superstructure of a chess game. That novel, in a sense, asks the question: 'what would it be like, to experience a game of chess as one of the pieces?' and answers: 'it would be reverse-mimetic, as through a glass fantastically.' The novel is not wholly estranged from mimesis, and in many ways is closely representative of the quotidiana of later nineteenth-century bourgeois life; but all those elements are, of course, subject to a glorious fantastical shift. The story of the novel is about a series of transitions from stages to stages, and all those transitions in Looking-Glass are determined by a small number of chess-derived transitions: primarily the notion of travel as something punctuated by a series of discrete borderlines where things swap from one mode (black, say) to its opposite (white); but also things like relationships between people as fundamentally antagonistic, individuals as agents in a vertiginously hierarchical network, a chain-of-being stretching from pawn to Queen. That the novel is troped as a game works both to reinforce this in-story conceit and also to justify the fundamental point of the whole enterprise: that it is playful.

In Wonderland the equivalent pastime to Looking-Glass's chess-game is the game of cards, but playing cards are not a structural element of the story in the same way. For one thing, the cards don't appear until quite late on: in chapter 8, out of 12. For another, no actual game appears to be being played with them. Rather, the cards themselves are agents, not patients, when it comes to game-playing, for it is they who play croquet (for instance) rather than being played with or upon.

Still, there is a structural principle underlying the elegant dislocation of Wonderland's surface plot, I think. It's just not as obvious as Looking-Glass's chess game. I might thumbnail this as 'inversion', if that didn't sound vague. I think Carroll was being particular in this, though.

So: one of the constants of Alice's adventures through Wonderland is that she keeps changing size, bigger and smaller. Until the very end of the book (when she starts spontaneously growing in the courtroom) these alterations in size are always provoked by ingesting food or drink. So: one the one hand this is a very canny point-of-entry into the world of the child. This is because children (pre-pubescent and not sexual in the adult sense of the world) cathect much of their libido into the pleasures of eating and drinking, especially eating and drinking sweet and delicious things. This is something the best Children's Literature understands very well, from Lucy relishing Mr Tumnus's high tea in Narnia through Charlie cavorting through the chocolate factory and the Very Hungry Caterpillar. I'm not saying anything terribly original when I add that Carroll's version of eating and drinking is oriented both inward as desire (the pleasure a child has in eating something) and outward as anxiety (the fear a child has of being eaten), externalised in Wonderland as encounters with a series of predator animals: cats, dogs, lions, gryphons, little dogs called 'Fury' who eat mice, panthers who eat owls and so on. It is on precisely this topic that Alice's otherwise impeccable etiquette blunders: she is forever scaring mice by telling them of how her pet cat, at home, likes to devour rodents, or terrifying birds by blithely announcing how much she enjoys eating eggs, or having to bite her tongue in conversation with a Gryphon ('"Perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster—" Alice began to say "I once tasted—" but checked herself hastily' [10]). Freud has a thing or two to say about the reasons for such 'slips'.

That's not my main point though, here. I'd suggest that we can see a formal sense behind the surface nonsense of these comestible-provoked alterations in size. In chapter 1 she discovers 'a little bottle' on the label of which are 'the words "DRINK ME"' which shrinks her down and 'a very small cake, on which the words "EAT ME" were beautifully marked in currants'. So the liquid makes her smaller and solid makes her larger. In chapter 4 the reverse happens: this time it is drinking (from 'the little bottle that stood near the looking-glass') that makes Alice grow very large, where eating the little cakes she finds on the floor makes her shrink. In chapter 5 growing and shrinking are amalgamated to the same cause, as getting big or small is occasioned by eating one or other side of a giant mushroom. In chapter 6 it is the ideas of 'drink' and 'food' that are amalgamated, as the Duchess's peppery soup (a drink and a meal!) leads, via a process not spelled-out, to a different sort of metamorphosis, and the Duchess's boy-baby (inedible) turns into a pig (very tasty!).

What's clear from this, I think, is that Carroll is orchestrating the events of the novel according to a particular pattern. Having established a fantasy premise, whereby drinking something makes you small and eating something makes you big, he first inverts it, then combines the cause, then inverts the combination. This takes us to the novel's halfway point, and the Hatters tea-party. Here 'tea' figures almost as a conceptual pun; since tea is both a hot liquid which people drink and the term for an afternoon meal where people consume solids (cakes, scones, toast and so on). It is fitting that this tea-party is construed as a never-ending process and that it is wrapped-up not with any kind of closure but with Alice transitioning to the Queen of Heart's palace. Here key players from the novel's first half reappear in reverse order. So in chapter 6 we meet the Duchess and then the Cheshire cat, in chapters 8 and 9 we meet the Cheshire cat and then the Duchess. The order of food in the first half is: drink, cake, soup, in the second it is soup ('Soo—oop of the e—e—evening/Beautiful, beautiful Soup!' [11]), then cake—well, tarts—and finally, well, waking up beside the river.

There are, of course, many many instances of curiosa and comedic moments fashioned out of inversion, combination and the reversal of the previous elements in this book.
"That's very important," the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: "Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course," he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

"Unimportant, of course, I meant," the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, "important—unimportant—unimportant—important——" as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down "important," and some "unimportant." Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; "but it doesn't matter a bit," she thought to herself. [12]
It doesn't matter on the level of content, of course, because Wonderland exists under the aegis of joyous nonsense. But it matters in terms of how we choose to read the underlying structure, Wonderland's equivalent to Looking-Glass's chess-game. It adds a transformation function to simple repetition (the caterpillar's repeated 'who are you?' [5]; the Hatter and Hare repeating 'no room! no room!' [7]); in one sense a fractal transformation, of the 'London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome, and Rome ...' [2] sort. This trio of processes—repetition, inversion, amalgamation—collaborate via such devices as wordplay, conceptual puns, pastiche and so on, formally to constitute the whole novel.

:2. Unnoticed Jokes:

One thing I found myself doing as I re-read these books was wondering about jokes that Carroll might have inserted that generations of readers and scholars have missed. There's one, I think, in Looking-Glass [3], when Alice wanders into the forest in which nothing has a name:
She was rambling on in this way when she reached the wood: it looked very cool and shady. 'Well, at any rate it's a great comfort,' she said as she stepped under the trees, 'after being so hot, to get into the—into what?' she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. 'I mean to get under the—under the—under this, you know!' putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. 'What does it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it's got no name—why, to be sure it hasn't!' She stood silent for a minute, thinking: then she suddenly began again. 'Then it really has happened, after all! And how, who am I? I will remember, if I can! I'm determined to do it!' But being determined didn't help much, and all she could say, after a great deal of puzzling, was,'L, I know it begins with L!'
Scholars explain: 'L is for Liddell', which was the real Alice's surname of course. But this is surely not right: for when she recovers her name she does not call herself 'Liddell', but 'Alice.' No, the joke is otherwise. She is in a forest, but she cannot remember it is a forest. She meets a fawn, who cannot remember it is a fawn. When it leaves the forest it does remember ('I'm a Fawn!' it cried out in a voice of delight, 'and, dear me! you're a human child!' A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes'). So what of our heroine? 'I know it begins with L!' she says. What begins with an 'l' is: lice. I used to wonder if the joke is that for a moment she thinks she is a louse, which would have the added resonance of closing a chapter on looking-glass insects by positioning Alice as the biggest insect of all. The problem is that lice is a plural and my sense is that Carroll was too particular to countenance describing a plural noun with the singular article. So now I'm wondering if the joke is that she is a lys, as the 'lice' element in her name is pronounced: which is to say, a lily (this old form of lily is retained, for instance, in the term 'fleur-de-lys').

A couple of other examples. maybe. I don't know. I puzzle about 'Lobster Quadrille': is the joke here a dancing and cooking ('Lobster grill') thing? What about Alice's confusion of the lobster's head and feet? She recites:
"'Tis the voice of the lobster; I heard him declare,
'You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.'
As a duck with its eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes." [10]
This puzzles her auditors. '"She can't explain it," said the Gryphon hastily. "Go on with the next verse." "But about his toes?" the Mock Turtle persisted. "How could he turn them out with his nose, you know?"' Alice can't explain it; but confusing head and tail was, it seems a common thing with lobsters in the nineteenth-century. See?

So maybe the joke's in there, somewhere.

I definitely think there's a (heroically obscure, really) theological joke in chapter 8, when Alice first comes into the Queen's gardens, a joke that nobody has hitherto noticed. White roses have been planted instead of the red roses the Queen demanded, and Alice sees some cards trying to make up for this error by painting the roses red. Two of these cards talk with one another, and later converse with Alice: a Five of Spades and a Seven of Spades. Then the Queen comes in and, in a fury, demands that the gardener-cards be decapitated. I think the '5' and the '7', via quintus and septimus, are Carroll's way of gesturing towards Quintus Septimius Tertullianus, the hugely influential second-century theologian who used the natural beauty of roses as an argument for the goodness of God: Rosam tibi si obtulero, he insisted, non fastidies creatorem ('if I offer you a rose, you cannot despise its Creator'). If there's a serious point about this deeply buried gag, it might be that it was Tertullian who said, famously: fiunt non nascuntur Christiani; 'Christians are made, not born'. Or, we might say: it doesn't matter which rose seeds were planted; the true nature of the rose comes later.

A couple more things I noticed on this read-through. One is that the Mad Hatter's wonderful non-riddle, "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?", is a line of prose when the Hatter asks it, but when repeated back by his baffled interlocutor, by way of admitting defeat and requesting the answer, it becomes a perfect iambic pentameter: "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?".  And later in the same chapter, I found myself thinking more about all the 'M's.
"They were learning to draw," the Dormouse went on, yawning and rubbing its eyes, for it was getting very sleepy; "and they drew all manner of things—everything that begins with an M——"

"Why with an M?" said Alice.

"Why not?" said the March Hare.

Alice was silent.

The Dormouse had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on: "——that begins with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness—you know you say things are 'much of a muchness'—did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?"

"Really, now you ask me," said Alice, very much confused, "I don't think——"

"Then you shouldn't talk," said the Hatter.
This rudeness is too much for Alice, and she leaves. But we can't help wonder what, or rather in what manner, all this business with 'M' means. It's striking that Alice herself, a book in which much happens, and in which there is much delight, and which contains several mice (not least the doormouse speaking here), also plays with memory. Almost as soon as she arrives in Wonderland Alice forgets who she is. Perhaps, she thinks, she is Mabel? Later the white rabbit mistakes her for 'Mary Ann', a servant girl. The card-gardeners call her 'Miss'. Why might 'M' be Alice's alter ego in this manner? I have a theory as to why, and it brings in the last of the (door)mouse's terms, there: moon. I dilate upon that theory here, if you're interested in it, so won't hold the present post up any further.

:3. Nonsense and Endings:

The previous link prompts me also to post this, related one (they're all at the head of the post anyway, I know, I know). That's a post in which I speculate how a third Alice book might go, which in turn raises the questions of endings. I might put it this way: do Wonderland and Looking-Glass end? I don't mean in merely practical sense that they are finite textual artefacts, because of course no novel printed on paper can go on forever. I mean in the sense of closure. Do they round-off their stories in such a way as to block-off the possibility of a third installment, of the kind I propose in the post linked-to a few lines above? Do they do what the Narnia books do, and incorporate a distinct telos in their textual progress? Or is the flow of Carroll's nonsense, here, one that could in theory spool on and on?

Of course, we could say that Alice's adventures end 'when she wakes up', which is clearly true in one sense. But it seems pretty weak beer. In real life, dreams play a subsidiary role to the business of really living, but in Carroll's textual universe this relationship is inverted. Of course her dream is realler than her reality, or we wouldn't have these two novels. More to the point, waking up from a dream may stop it, but doesn't end it. It's one of the curious features of the human mind that a dream ends only if not remembered in the first place, if it has already gone from our brains when we wake—if, that is, it has never really gotten going in the first place, conscious-mind-wise. It is precisely waking up from a dream that brings the dream out of its chrysalis and into the butterfly palace of consciousness itself.

This larger point is the important one, I think. 'Stopping' is not at all the same as providing closure. It's one of the oldest of clichés of narrative theory that stories never really 'end'; they just break off. We may yearn for closure, but its neatly-horizoning margin fades for ever and for ever as we move. If that sounds laborious, well, perhaps it is. Freud talks, after all, of Traumarbeit (‘dream-work’). He doesn't talk of Traumspiel. What better term, though, for Carroll's fiction?

So, yes, this is where I return to Freud, or more precisely to the post-Freud of Donald Winnicott. There is an essay by Adam Phillips I like a lot about the process of psychoanalysis as nonsense. Phillips' essay does not discuss Carroll. It is, rather, concerned with exploring the consequences of two premises: that 'it is impossible to know the consequences of one's words' and that 'to adapt Valéry's famous remark about completing a poem, an analysis is never finished, it is only abandoned.'
What are loosely called endings in analysis should often be called something else, but that a capacity for abandon, and the abandon that is abandonment, could be one of the things we might hope to get from psychoanalysis. Giving up, or giving up on, is better than finishing because it acknowledges limitation in the way that the sense of a good ending never can. [Adam Phillips, 'Talking Nonsense and Knowing When to Stop', Side Effects (Penguin 2006), 24]
One thing clear about Alice is that she is good on giving-up, in this sense. When she has had enough of the Mad Hatter's rudeness she simply walks away ('"At any rate I'll never go there again!" said Alice as she picked her way through the wood'). Phillips takes one key strategy of analysis, free association, and talks about it in terms of the (pleasurable) play of nonsense. What he has to say, via Winnicott, about these things strikes me as very illuminating for a reading of the Alice books.
Winnicott is the first analyst who wanted to let the nonsense speak. There is clearly, he acknowledges, a desiring subject as described by Freud and Klein. But there is also an incoherent, chaotic, nonsensical, eccentric subject, described by nobody in psychoanalysis but suggested by the idea, the method, of free association, but free association listened to in a certain way. This is the person Winnicott wants to introduce us to. The chaotic person who needs, however temporarily, to speak nothing but his own nonsense. [Phillips, Side Effects, 28-29]
Winnicott 'finds it extremely difficult to marry, or even link, the nonsensical person with the desiring person' but does offer this distinction:
The desiring person, as he develops, is always involved one way or another, in having to know when to stop. But knowing when to stop is the enemy of chaos, or it is the omnipotent delusion that chaos can be under control. Perhaps, Winnicott intimates, what we need most to defend ourselves against, what most needs to be stopped, is not the appetite, but the nonsense. And nonsense can only be stopped by making sense. [29]
'Why, he asks us to wonder—but in a psychoanalytic context and language—can't we let the nonsense be? Why couldn't an aim of analysis be to enable the patient to speak and bear, and even enjoy, his nonsense?' Carroll might frame this question a little differently, since many of the assumptions of the psychoanalytic context and language would surely have shocked and distressed him. But I think the Alice books understand the need to hold in tension these two different subjects.

So, for example: one thing that struck me quite forcefully on my latest re-read was the way Carroll's novel uses 'nonsense' in two distinct ways. The main usage is to refer to something that doesn't make sense ('Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking!’ [2] and so on). But the word is also invoked, very precisely, as a way of giving up on something, or stopping it in its tracks.
‘How should I know?’ said Alice, surprised at her own courage. ‘It’s no business of mine.’

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’

‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.
This is a very powerful, instrumental use of the term 'nonsense'; one capable of silencing a Queen, no less. Nonsense, then, is the (pleasurable) ongoing free play of deranged significance and the signifier of a (psychologically healthy) breaking-off the engagement.

Thinking about the novel in these terms helps me (if nobody else) understand the strange little coda to Wonderland, where Alice having woken-up, runs off to get her tea, 'thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been.' Then we get the following five paragraphs from the point-of-view of Alice's sister:
But her sister sat still just as she left her, leaning her head on her hand, watching the setting sun, and thinking of little Alice and all her wonderful Adventures, till she too began dreaming after a fashion, and this was her dream:—

First, she dreamed of little Alice herself, and once again the tiny hands were clasped upon her knee, and the bright eager eyes were looking up into hers—she could hear the very tones of her voice, and see that queer little toss of her head to keep back the wandering hair that would always get into her eyes—and still as she listened, or seemed to listen, the whole place around her became alive with the strange creatures of her little sister's dream.

The long grass rustled at her feet as the White Rabbit hurried by—the frightened Mouse splashed his way through the neighbouring pool—she could hear the rattle of the teacups as the March Hare and his friends shared their never-ending meal, and the shrill voice of the Queen ordering off her unfortunate guests to execution—once more the pig-baby was sneezing on the Duchess' knee, while plates and dishes crashed around it—once more the shriek of the Gryphon, the squeaking of the Lizard's slate-pencil, and the choking of the suppressed guinea-pigs, filled the air, mixed up with the distant sob of the miserable Mock Turtle.

So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again and all would change to dull reality—the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds—the rattling teacups would change to tinkling sheep-bells, and the Queen's shrill cries to the voice of the shepherd boy—and the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all the other queer noises, would change (she knew) to the confused clamour of the busy farm-yard—while the lowing of the cattle in the distance would take the place of the Mock Turtle's heavy sobs.

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long-ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.
It's going to seem like a rather heartless thing to say, but the problem with the sister's 'dream' is its banality. Heartless and rather perverse. 'Banality' is another word for 'psychological health', after all, and the sister's vision of Alice growing up normally, and having a normal and happy family life, is surely what any sane person would want to transpire. This epilogue still feels like a clanking wrong step in the novel itself, though: not because it describes Alice as grown-up and happy, but because it insists upon translating the nonsense of the novel out of the idiom of nonsense and into the idiom of sense: the sneeze of the baby, the shriek of the Gryphon, and all the other queer noises merely the clamour of the busy farm-yard dimly apprehended by Alice's sleeping mind and rendered into dream phantoms. Boo! What this coda is, is an attempt to close-off the world of nonsense by making sense of it, which violates the whole jouissance of the original text.

Looking-Glass is much cannier where this matter is concerned. Instead of the clumsy explaining-away of the above passage, we have a final chapter in which Alice ponder whether she dreamed her dream, or whether the elements of her dream dreamt her, and the last line of the novel is that most open-ended of syntactic forms, a question: 'which do you think it was?'

This, I would argue, licenses a sequel. Indeed, it licenses more than that, an open-ended Winnicottian reconfiguring of 'interpretation' (finding meaning, reading the novel) as the play of nonsense itself. But it also reverts back upon the matter of the novels themselves. If Carroll anticipates Freud, it is not because his fictional 'dreams' are liable to simple decoding from nonsense into sense, but quite the reverse, because Wonderland and Looking-Glass grasp the way nonsense is more than sense. A little Slavoj Žižek goes a long way, I find, but his account of Freud's theories on dreaming is relevant here. 'Why do we dream?' Žižek asks. 'Freud’s answer is deceptively simple: the ultimate function of the dream is to enable the dreamer to stay asleep.' I quote the next portion of Žižek's critique with an eye on Carroll's unsatisfactory Wonderland coda:
This is usually interpreted as bearing on the kinds of dream we have when some external disturbance – noise, for example – threatens to wake us. In such a situation, the sleeper immediately begins to imagine a situation which incorporates this external stimulus and thereby is able to continue sleeping for a while longer; when the external stimulus becomes too strong, he finally wakes up. Are things really so straightforward? In another famous example from The Interpretation of Dreams, an exhausted father, whose young son has just died, falls asleep and dreams that the child is standing by his bed in flames, whispering the horrifying reproach: ‘Father, can’t you see I’m burning?’ Soon afterwards, the father wakes to discover that a fallen candle has set fire to his dead son’s shroud. He had smelled the smoke while asleep, and incorporated the image of his burning son into his dream to prolong his sleep. Had the father woken up because the external stimulus became too strong to be contained within the dream-scenario? Or was it the obverse, that the father constructed the dream in order to prolong his sleep, but what he encountered in the dream was much more unbearable even than external reality, so that he woke up to escape into that reality[?] [Žižek, 'Freud Lives!', LRB 28:10 (25 May 2006), 32]
There's something very touching, almost heartbreaking, about that story of the bereaved father. Nothing so grim in Alice, perhaps; although she certainly emerges from this book as a virtuoso of maintaining the dream. This point brings me back to the start of this post: Alice's dreaming is not a business of 'sense' coded as 'nonsense'. It is, rather, a much fuller dramatisation of the structural principle of inversion (and collation) that makes plain the paradoxical truth of dreams as such, that they precede, and are not pendant to, reality. Žižek illustrates via the Holocaust:
Adorno said that the Nazi motto ‘Deutschland, erwache!’ actually meant its opposite: if you responded to this call, you could continue to sleep and dream (i.e. to avoid engagement with the real of social antagonism). In the first stanza of Primo Levi’s poem ‘Reveille’ the concentration camp survivor recalls being in the camp, asleep, dreaming intense dreams about returning home, eating, telling his relatives his story, when, suddenly, he is woken up by the Polish kapo’s command ‘Wstawac!’ (‘Get up!’). In the second stanza, he is at home after the war, well fed, having told his story to his family, when, suddenly, he imagines hearing again the shout, ‘Wstawac!’ The reversal of the relationship between dream and reality from the first stanza to the second is crucial. Their content is formally the same – the pleasant domestic scene is interrupted by the injunction ‘Get up!’ – but in the first, the dream is cruelly interrupted by the wake-up call, while in the second, reality is interrupted by the imagined command. We might imagine the second example from The Interpretation of Dreams as belonging to the Holocaust survivor who, unable to save his son from the crematorium, is haunted afterwards by his reproach: ‘Vater, siehst du nicht dass ich verbrenne?’
I'm not suggesting that Carroll's texts articulate anything so politically charged as that; but the core point does seem to me to the point: 'the ultimate lesson of The Interpretation of Dreams,' Žižek thinks, is that 'reality is for those who cannot sustain the dream.'

Sunday 23 October 2016

Thoughts on Dylan's Nobel

We're in a strange commentarium-space with regards to Dylan winning the Nobel. Simple reactions (as it might be, 'he deserves it!' or 'he doesn't deserve it!') are neither here nor there, it seems. But even first-stage meta reaction—the whole, 'should I inflict my "hot take" on Dylan's win on the world or not?' commenting-about-commenting thing seems otiose, somehow. We're further down the rabbit-hole than that, I suspect. Not only does nobody care whether I'm in favour of, or hostile to, Dylan's win, nobody cares about my thoughts about the fact that nobody cares whether I'm in favour of or hostile to Dylan's win.

Yet here I am, blogging, and there's Dylan at the head of this post. Why's that, you ask? Well, it's because the whole brouhaha has brought home to me something about the nature of awards. Indeed, as I write it out here it strikes me as such a glaringly obvious observation about awards I'm rather ashamed that it hadn't occurred to me before.

Although we pretend we give prizes to recognise and 'reward' excellence, we actually do it to provoke a particular response of gratitude in people we admire. So when Dylan declines to play the gratitude game, and refuses be all excited about and grateful to the Academy, people's niceness instantly curdles and they start calling him 'impolite' and 'arrogant' and saying he shouldn't get the prize after all—which of course makes no sense, if the prize is about his work. (My respect for Dylan has been greatly enhanced by his reaction, I must say).

I think all this is best framed in terms of the Barthesian 'Author is dead'. I should declare an interest where that notion is concerned, because it seems to me broadly right: the author has to die in order to allow the text, which is what matters, free movement through the world. But the outrage at Dylan's ingratitude suggests that I'm out of step with many people. Many people are libidinally (and, in some cases, financially) heavily invested in the 'idea' of the author, and grow irate if the reciprocity of that is interrupted in any way. Turns out people actually do think George R R Martin is their bitch.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

"Orlando Fvrioso in English Heroical Verse" by John Harringto[n] (1591)

This first edition of Harrington's translation of Ariosto is for sale at Bonham's (guide price £4,000-6,000. Were I rich, I'd be properly tempted). As you can see, this edition has had its illustrations hand-coloured. I don't know how common this practice was, but presumably it was a way of adding value to, and therefore charging more for, your book. Very pretty, at any rate, in a psychedelic sort of way.

 If you click on the Bonham's link, there, you can zoom in on the coloured plates to your heart's content. And if you choose to buy the book, can I come round to yours and have a look at it?

Ronald Searle "Punch's Map of Mars" (1956)

This is by the mighty Ronald Searle (he of the Molesworth and St Trinian's book illustrations). Click to Embiggen.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

"As You Like It" as Spensarium


What's up with the naming in Shakespeare's As You Like It (1599)? In his other plays WS has no problem coming up with different names for his various different characters. It is, after all, not hard to do. But in this play various pairs of characters have to share the same name. There are two Olivers (the older son of Rowland de Boys and the vicar of the Arden country parish); two Jaqueses (the famous sardonic commentator attending the banished Duke and the younger son of Rowland de Boys). It's confusing for audiences: when the second Jaques enters he has to spell out that he's not the first Jaques: 'I am,' he explains, 'the second sonne of old Sir Rowland' [5.4.150]. There are two Dukes, the wicked one called Frederick and the older, virtuous one not given a name, and generally referred to by editors as 'Duke Senior'. Perhaps he's also called Frederick. The Duke's wrestler is called Charles; the starveling shepherd Corin's master is called 'Old Carlot' [4.5.108], that is, 'Charles'. The hero of the play is Orlando, whose name is a simple variant of, which is to say basically the same name as, his father, Roland. And the heroine, Rosalind, has a name that is almost an anagram of the name of the man with whom she falls in love. We might say that Rosalind is the active and present 'Orland(is)' to his passive 'Orland(o)', since she so dominates the play in which she appears.

In a broader sense the play is built around pairs of characters: two Dukes; two daughters, Rosalind and Celia; two fools (Jaques is not a conventional fool after the officially licensed manner of Touchstone, of course; but he occupies a similar place, commenting wittily and sardonically upon the world for his master), two shepherds, Corin and Silvius; two shepherdesses, Phebe and Audrey, and so on.

It's more than just an enthusiasm for pairing things off. This is a play that keeps playing with words and puns, with homophones and near homophones. 'Come sweete Audrey,' Touchstone says to his girlfriend: 'we must be married, or we must live in baudrey' [3.3.88] (the Audrey/bawdry gag might be funnier if one didn't suspect Shakespeare had chosen the name precisely in order to facilitate the joke). There's a ruder gag in the name Rosalind adopts when she dresses as a boy: Ganymede, taken from classical mythology (it's the name of Jupiter's young male lover). There's an obvious applicability in the name, given the gender-bending Elizabethan stagecraft practice of getting boys to dress as girls to disguise themselves as boys and so on. But there's a cruder, comic double-meaning in the name too, since ganny was a variant of cunny or cunt and mede, as pronounced after the Elizabethan fashion, is a homophone for 'maid'. So the girl, dressed as a boy but still very obviously a girl in men's clothes (and indeed praised by other characters for the femininity of his/her beauty) adopts as a male name the transparently female 'Cunny-maid'. Ho ho. Not that all the wordplay and naming larks are rude. Jaques reports meeting Touchstone for the first time, with: 'as I do live by foode, I met a foole' [2.7.14], which almost looks like one of those word-chain games where you one letter at a time. Or consider the multiple wordplay games in Duke Senior's first speech, from the beginning of Act 2:
Now my Coe-mates, and brothers in exile:
Hath not old custome made this life more sweete
Than that of painted pompe? Are not these woods
More free from perill then the envious Court?
Heere feele we not the penaltie of Adam,
The seasons difference, as the Icie phange
And churlish chiding of the winters winde,
Which when it bites and blowes upon my body
Euen till I shrinke with cold, I smile, and say
This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly perswade me what I am:
Sweet are the uses of adversitie
Which like the toad, ougly and venemous,
Weares yet a precious Jewell in his head:
And this our life exempt from publike haunt,
Findes tongues in trees, bookes in the running brookes,
Sermons in stones, and good in euery thing. [2.1.1-17]
This, famously, is the Duke saying that though life in the country is sometimes hard, it is at least honest: no flatterers or court politics, truth and therefore good everywhere. It is, in point of fact, one of the key statements of a fundamental belief about the worth of pastoral as a mode: city life, or courtly existence, may be civilised and pretty, but is fundamentally inauthentic; whereas country life, though rude, is fundamentally authentic. But look how he has said it! Wordplay and puns: the alliteration of tongues/trees, the one-letter-away wordplay of books/brooks, or the more complex game played by equating the religious discourse of 'sermons' in the stonily petrifying 'Peter' on which Christ, of course, built his church. It's there at the beginning too. The Duke addresses his exiled nobles as 'co-mates', which is both a perfectly functional English phrase and also a pun on the Latin comites, 'companions, comrades, friends'. And so all the way through: so the chill winds 'persuade' the Duke 'he is what he is', which persuasion he pronounces 'sweet'; fittingly, since the Latin for both words derives from the same source, the word suavis, sweet. And so on.

There are lots and lots of other examples of this sort of thing in the play, but I don't want to labour the point. 'Shakespeare liked wordplay and puns' is hardly news. It's just that, in this play specifically, I think there's something else going on. Puns and wordplay depend upon the same word, or two nearly-the-same words, having different meanings, which is actualised in the dramatis personae of As You Like It by having so many pairs of characters with the same, or nearly the same, names. What's happening?


Instead of trying to answer that question I'm going to take this blog-post in a knight's-move away from it, and in the direction of: Edmund Spenser. There he is, at the top, wearing one of those ruffs that makes it look as though he has been decapitated, his head put on a doily-topped-plate and then balanced back on his shoulders. It's a good look.

Why Spenser? Well, I've long entertained the notion, more or less idly, that As You Like It was a play Shakespeare wrote with Spenser in mind; and more specifically, that he was prompted to write it by the poet's death. Spenser was only 46 when he died, on the 13th January 1599, having lost his large estates in Ireland—that is, his draconic gubernatorial policies having provoked an armed uprising of put-upon Irishmen, and his mansion burned down. He died, according to Ben Jonson, in penury.
Spencer's Goods were robbed by the Irish, and his House and a little Child burnt, he and his Wife escaped, and after died for want of Bread in Kingstreet; he refused 20 Pieces sent him by my Lord Essex, and said he was sure he had no Time to spend them.
Once one of the Queen's favourites, Spenser appears to have fallen from favour, and to have alienated the Queen's principal secretary, Lord Burghley (William Cecil). He got a grand funeral, though, paid for by the Earl of Essex, whom Spenser had praised in poetry, and whose star with the Queen seemed, at that precise moment in time, to be in the ascendant. Here's James Shapiro's account of the procession, from his rather good 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (Faber 2005):
William Camden, who eulogized Spenser as one who "surpassed all the English poets of former times, not excepting even Chaucer himself" recorded the unusual funeral arrangements. Spenser's hearse was "attended by poets, and mournful elegies and poems, with the pens that wrote them, thrown into the tomb." Cambden later added that poets even carried Spenser's hearse ... The verses, which the poets had but three days to compose, would have first been read aloud before being ceremoniously tossed into the grave. Not just a great poet was celebrated this day, but English poetry itself. It's unlikely that many of London's writers would have missed the occasion. [79-80]
Was Shakespeare there? There's a tradition, but no hard evidence, that he was one of the pallbearers; and it's possible the two men knew one another. They certainly would have been aware of one another, and presumably admired one another's verse, and both were at Whitehall in the winter of 1598-99, and so could easily have exchanged words then, if they hadn't before. Spenser wrote nine plays, although these were not for the popular stage, and none of them have survived; but one not-noble-born dramatist and poet might very plausibly have sought out another not-noble-born dramatist and poet, at least on those occasions when both of them were in the same town. Perhaps Shakespeare was one of those who read aloud a Spenser elegy and then threw it, and the pen that had written it, into the grave. Shapiro notes that 'three centuries later' eager scholars opened Spenser's tomb, 'hoping to unearth the long buried tributes, especially one by Shakespeare'; but that they 'failed to find what they were looking for', for the very good reason that they exhumed the wrong grave, and were in fact rummaging around in the mortal remains of Matthew Prior.

Whether Spenser and Shakespeare actually knew one another is speculation, though; and scholarship is quite properly allergic to unsubstantiated speculation. Which leaves my specific As You Like It theory high and dry.

What theory is that, you ask? Let me tell you. It is an extrapolation from a few things that are not in doubt. So, As You Like It is Shakespeare's great pastoral play. Spenser's first masterpiece was The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), the book that made his reputation and ushered in an energetic vogue for Elizabethan pastoral writing. Much bucolic poetry and prose followed hard on the heels of this collection, some of it frankly imitative of Spenser; and The Shepheardes Calendar was still selling well and being reprinted in the 1590s (there was a fifth edition in 1597). Nowadays Spenser's reputation is more intimately tied-up with The Faerie Queene (the first six cantos—of a prospected twelve—were published in 1596). But although The Faerie Queene was admired, it didn't catch-on with contemporary readers the way The Shepheardes Calendar had done. We have to wait until 1609 for a second edition, for instance. So let's say that at his death in January 1599 The Shepheardes Calendar was by far Spenser's most popular work.

Two other things to note that are fact rather than speculation. One is that the name of Shakespeare' heroine, Rosalind, is taken from Spenser's pastoral poem. And two is that As You Like It was almost certainly written in 1599, the year Spenser died. Its title was entered in the Stationer's Register in 1600, and so must have been written before then; and there are several reasons (listed in the Arden edition intro, xxvi-xxvii) for placing it after 1598. One oddity though: although the play was entered in the Stationer's Register, there are no contemporary records of any performances, nor were any quarto edition of the play (licensed or unlicensed) published. The earliest published edition of the play is the Folio of 1623. Since it has subsequently become one of Shakespeare's most often performed and most popular plays, this lack of any kind of theatrical record of it 1599-1623 is a little strange. Either it was publicly performed and wasn't a hit (possible, but surely unlikely) or else it just wasn't performed. If this latter circumstance is the case, then why not? Did Shakespeare's company not think it good enough? Might there be other reasons?

But that's not much to go on. If we're looking for actual evidence of a connection between the two men, or support for the thesis that Shakespeare was prompted to write his pastoral play by the death of this master of pastoral verse, then there isn't anything. That's largely because these two figures, Shakespeare and Spenser, giants of their literary era though they were, are more poorly served by biographical data than almost anybody else of comparable stature in literary history. The thinness of Shakespeare's biography is well known, of course, but if anything even less is known of Spenser. A C Hamilton’s 'Longman’s Annotated Poets' edition of The Faerie Queene (2001, rev ed 2007) concludes its scanty biographical essay with this:
In a review of Judson’s Life, Conyers Read noted the paucity of our knowledge: ‘outside what Edmund Spenser himself wrote all that is positively known about his life could probably be written in a few short paragraphs. The rest is inference, surmise and conjecture’ [AHR 51:539]. D Cheney [1996:172] concludes that evidence for S.’s life is questionable ‘not merely doubtful but calling its own authority into question and demanding that we question it.’ [xix]
Of course it would be nice if we had other evidence: letters, pamphlets, reports of conversation in which Shakespeare talked of his friendship, something like that. But there's nothing. So, absent 'hard' evidence, what sort of evidence might we admit to the bar in support of a far-out theory? I don't mean a theory of the 'Shakespeare-didn't-write-Shakespeare' kind, which mode of conspiracizing is invariably fruity-loops. (Isn't it interesting that nobody has proposed a Spenser-didn't-write-Spenser, The-Faerie-Queen-was-actually-written-by-the-Earl-of-Oxford style theory? One wonders why not?) I mean something more in line with plausible literary speculation.

Something like this: Shakespeare makes specific praising reference to Essex in Henry V (Jonathan Bate calls this the only verifiable contemporary reference in the whole Shakespearian corpus). And whilst nothing can be proven, Leeds Barroll's 'William Shakespeare's Regnal Connections' [Renaissance Drama 40 (2012), 185-195] makes a persuasive case that if not Essex himself then what Barroll calls 'the Essex group' of wealthy and powerful noblemen attached to the Earl, acted as patrons to various theatrical writers and troupes, Shakespeare's amongst them. There's hard evidence that Richard Burbage was a favourite of the group, and received gifts from them; Ben Jonson was gifted £20 a year for books; and it doesn't strain credulity to think that a little of this patronage might have come Shakespeare's way (Southampton, to whom Shakespeare had dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece a few years earlier, was part of the 'Essex Group').

So imagine this: Essex organises and pays for Spenser's funeral, which is conceived as an extravagantly literary affair. He maybe gets Shakespeare to write a brief elegy, and read it at the service. But perhaps he also commissioned a play, for private performance at Essex House, before a select audience (rather than a public showing at the newly constructed Globe) commemorating his friend; not a biographical piece, but something inspired by, or in some other way connected with, Spenser. Shakespeare decides to take The Shepheardes Calendar as inspiration. He can't dramatise that directly, since it doesn't have a dramatic through-line or narrative; so he lifts a plot from a recently published pastoral novel called Rosalynd by Thomas Lodge, (published 1590 and itself quite heavily indebted to Spenser's pastoral), soaks the story in a metaphorical marinade of Spenser, and writes As You Like It.

Unproven and probably unprovable, I know: but this notion does provide a possible explanation for the strange way the play made no impact at all on London theatrical culture 1599-1623. Let's say Shakespeare accepts the commission and makes a start on the play soon after Spenser's funeral, January 1599. Say the play is finished by the spring. Any performance at Essex House would be postponed by Essex's departure for Ireland at the head of his army in March. His Irish campaign, of course, did not go well; on his return to London in September Essex found himself committed for trial and imprisoned. That trial on 5th June 1600 lead to his conviction and removal from all public office. This in turn lead to Essex's abortive rebellion at the start of 1601, and finally his second trial and decapitation on Feb 25th 1601.

In such a circumstance, Shakespeare might well have been in a tricky position. However close, or otherwise, he had personally been to Essex he would certainly want to distance himself from a decided and executed traitor. If As You Like It had been written for Essex, the events of 1600 would make performance impossible; but Shakespeare, surely conscious that he had written a good play (it is, after all, one of his undisputed masterpieces) would surely not want simply to abandon it. After Essex's conviction in June 1600, he would naturally have given up on the idea of ever seeing it performed at Essex House; but the fact that it was entered into the Stationer's Register on the 4th August 1600 (marked 'to be stayed'; that is, not performed but held back and noted in an attempt to preserve it as company property and prevent piracy) suggests he, or his company, wanted to hold it in reserve. After that speculation gets mistier and mistier. Perhaps Essex's final disgrace meant that Shakespeare, or the company, thought this play too dangerous to stage. Maybe Elizabeth's death in 1603, and the coming of James, pushed it onto the back-burner: too 'Elizabethan' maybe, or too Spenserian. I'm flailing here, you can tell. But the play is a great play, and Heminges and Condell certainly recognised as much when they included it in the First Folio.

My point, though, is less about such speculation and more about evidential bases. And, to repeat myself, the theory I'm advancing is about Spenser, not about Essex. There have been theories that As You Like It has something to do with Essex's Irish campaign going back at least the to the 1930s (Sharpe's The Real War of the Theatres [1935] argues that; Chris Butler's ‘”The howling of Irish wolves”: As You Like It and the Celtic Essex Circle’, in Willy Maley and Rory Loughnane's Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers (2013) 89-102 elaborates a similar reading). Since Elizabeth and Essex, and Essex in Ireland, were the 'big' contemporary news of 1599, it's makes historicist sense to try and situate the play in that context. But that's not what my spurious argumentation here is trying to do. I'm not suggesting As You Like It is an allegory of Essex in Ireland, because I don't think it is. What I do think is that it is a play either 'commissioned', in whatever sense of that word would have been meaningful to an Elizabethan, in honour of Spenser, or else simply inspired by the memory of Spenser.

Spenser, author of the age's most famous pastoral poem, is memorialised by Shakespeare writing the age's most famous pastoral play. Said play puts at the heart of the bucolic drama Rosalind, whom Spenser (under the pseudonym 'Colin Clout') loved in his poem. Since Spenser (following Vergil) wrote pastoral narratives of love gained and lost, and interspersed that narrative with country songs, this is also what Shakespeare does.


But, as I finally wind my way back to my point. if I start combing the text itself for evidence of this, I find myself performing some of the fruity-loops hermeneutic maneuvres of, say, the famously loopy Ignatius L. Donnelly's The Great Cryptogram (1888). So my initial question returns after its knight's-move digression. Given that this is a playful play, a play about escaping the constraints of an oppressive court into the Ardenic territory of pastoral holiday, love and fun; and given that the playfulness of this play is apparent in its fondness for wordplay and puns, some bland, some bawdy, all so much a feature of the play's world that even the characters become punning and anagrammatising versions of one another ... given all that, would this sort of thing count as legitimate evidence that this play was written playfully to commemorate the pastoral imagination of Edmund Spenser?
Oliver: And what wilt thou do? beg when that is spent? Sir, get you in. [1.1.75]
Or this?
Rosalind: There were none principal, they were all like one another, as pence are ... [3.2.346]
a 'halfe' having been dropped out? Convinced?

No, I didn't think so. We'd be better off painting with broader strokes. Which is to say: a dramatist, setting out to write a drama that playfully memorialised Edmund Spenser (without narrating his life, or being too literal minded) would surely seek to reproduce the lineaments of his literary achievement. If Shepeardes Calendar remained his most popular work, then let the play be pastoral, interspersed (as Shepeardes Calendar is) with songs. If Spenser's pastoral is divided between some shepherds poor and put-upon, and some experiencing the ups and downs of love, then let us have two such shepherds in our play: Corin and Silvius. If Shepeardes Calendar posits an inhabitant of the forest in love with Rosalind, then let that be the name of our heroine. But as many critics have pointed out, 'Arden' in the play is both a wild wood, haunt of outlaws (Robin Hood is even namechecked) and wild beasts, and a cultivated, enclosed land where hireling herdspeople raise sheep and goats. Let us reserve the latter space for the Shepeardes Calendar portion of the play; and let us render the former a wilderness populated by allegorically significant monsters like sapient lions and snakes, maidens in peril and heroic travellers, in memory of the unfinished Fairie Queene. And in memory of Amoretti, let us have one character literally bedeck the forest trees with 'little love poems', some of which (eg: 'He that brings this love to thee,/Little knowes this Love in me') actually juxtapose 'little' and 'love' after the manner of Spenser's title. Throughout let us work-in key words, such that Shepearde appears 33 times, Faire (if not quite Fairie) 28 times and two lists of seven (after the seven extant cantos of Spenser's unfinished epic: six whole cantos and the Mutability canto) are paired: Jaques on the seven ages of man and Touchstone on the seven degree of the lie. Presto!

Monday 10 October 2016

The Horses of Westworld

I enjoyed the first episode of HBO's already-acclaimed Westworld series. Even episode one manages to say some deftly clever and unsettling things about entertainment, the abusive objectification of bodies (especially female bodies) and about the intimate relationship between fantasies of the 'true' originary American west and questions of power, violence, myth and horror. Of course one episode in is jumping the gun somewhat; and (of course) given the way the show is patently working on several layers at once, I feel sheepish about devoting this blogpost to one aspect of the in-story logic of the show's worldbuilding. Indeed, I feel doubly sheepish doing so, since it is one of the limitations of weaker SF criticism that it obsesses over in-text elements at the expense of formal, contextual and metatextual readings. Still: the horses.

The horses puzzle me.

'Westworld' is a park where real human beings come to play at being cowboys and cowgirls, in a sort of live-action RPG with added sex and violence. The characters with whom these holidaymakers interact are replicants, programmed with sophisticated-enough responses that they mimic human variability and liveliness, but memory-wiped (and if necessary repaired and rebooted) at the end of each day. It's already clear that one of the larger through-lines of the series will be the notion that Anthony Hopkins' lizardly-placid Dr. Robert Ford, Park Director and inventor of the androids, has, by adding new subroutines and tweaks to their programming over time, eased them into something like actual sentient consciousness. We'll see about that.

The show divides between portions set in Westworld itself, and other portions set in the behind-the-scenes control spaces and lower levels, where we see the replicants being constructed.

Now, in present day theme parks, Renaissance Fairs and the like, visitors interact with other human beings. But Westworld is a park where such interaction might include shooting, killing, torture and rape. Clearly human beings could not ethically or practically be hired to perform the subaltern roles in such a circumstance. Hence: robots. But the underground workshop scenes of the show make it clear that not only the people, but also the horses, are artificial organisms.

The problem I'm having is imagining any kind of economic context in which it would make financial sense for the Westworld company to manufacture expensive artificial horses—presumably rather more expensive to make than the human characters, since they're bigger—rather than just ... buying real horses. Horses may not be cheap, exactly (even if we rule out pedigree racehorses and the like, it seems we're still talking $500 -$5000), but we have to assume that this option is cheaper than painstakingly manufacturing the entire animal from scratch. If the concern is one of animal welfare, then presumably the same weaponry constraints that prevent the tourist 'newcomers' shooting one another could be applied to prevent people shooting the horses. Or, to come at the question from the other side: if Westworld is making its own horses, are they also making their own cattle? Dogs and cats? Are the fish in the rivers and the birds in the sky and the flies that so ickily crawl over people's faces also fake?

Three ways of addressing this niggle suggest themselves. One would be to say: get over yourself Adam. It's a show; it's not real. Artificial horses feed into the dramatic distinction between the fakeness of the park and the realness of the humans who interact with it, and that's reason enough. Fair dos.

Still. Two: on the offchance that I'm not in the mood to give up my in-text worldbuilding niggle, let's say: maybe the future of the show is one in which this technology is so cheap that it actually is cost-effective to build your horses rather than buying them. That, though, would be a little hard to swallow: if so, why are characters and specific androids being reused and recycled (as, for example, the manikin playing Dolores Abernathy's kindly old Dad used to live in the hills as a cannibal)? Why is the park so expensive to visit (as one of the tourists implies it is)? Why aren't there parks like this everywhere? Quite apart from anything, the swish high-tech manufacturing spaces with their 3D printers and many attendant technicians, don't look like a cheap operation.

Which leads me to three: what if the horses are artificial because everything in the show is artificial? What if the through-line story reveal will be that the distinction is not real-live human 'newcomers' and artificial androids 'hosts', but between different grades or ranks of androids? That everyone, from Hopkins's Dr Ford on down, is an android? What if the horses are 'made' because the future of the show is one in which natural parturition is a thing of the past? Now that would be a reveal.

Sunday 9 October 2016

'The Keeper's Nightmare' (Punch, 1871)

From Ann C. Colley's Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: Zoos, Collections, Portraits, and Maps (Ashgate/Routledge 2014). Click to embiggen. Caption: 'one of the officials at the Zoological Gardens has a bewildering nightmare. He dreams that all the animals have broken loose and swapped heads, and he doesn't know "what to feed with what".' I particularly like the Znakebra:

But the Boarstrich is also pretty cool: