‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Friday 29 December 2017

McAuley's Hymn

[The germ for my novel Jack Glass (2012) was a piece of Kiplingiana I wrote, based on his dramatic monologue ‘The Mary Gloster’ (1896). I took Kipling's late Victorian seafaring tale, shifted it wholesale to outer space, added in various details and called the result ‘The Mary Anna’. It was published in the second collection of StarShip Sofa Stories (2010); and, if you're curious, it's available online here. But though this story took the form of a Kipling poem, its worldbuilding was an exercise in Golden Age SF nostalgia, and after its publication I found it wouldn't leave me alone. I kept returning, mentally, to the world I'd sketched. This lead, eventually, to the idea of combining a Golden Age SF setting with a Golden Age puzzle-whodunit plot, and so to Jack Glass.

Now: when Jack Glass had been written and was being edited and readied for publication by Gollancz, I wrote a few other things to flesh out the world, and to provide extra bonus material for the e-book edition. This is one of those pieces, previously available only as an Easter Egg on the JG e-book, and not otherwise reprinted.

The Solar System of Jack Glass is one that has been colonised by man according to a 1950s American SF logic: aggressive free trade, capitalist exploitation of resources, big disparities in wealth, all ruled in more-or-less-enlightened mafia style by a set of powerful, sometimes feuding, families. By decree of one of these families, the Ulanovs, some limitations are put on access and expropriation, and  a rudimentary police force mandated. But the ‘Lex Ulanova’ aside, it's a frontier-logic free-for-all. And it's a sub-lightspeed free-for-all: no FTL has (yet) been invented.

Now, one of the subordinate plotlines of Jack Glass concerns the rumour, busily repeated and aggressively investigated, that a working FTL has been invented, the technology having been suppressed by its inventor, the eccentric genius Allie McAuley. Stories as to why McAuley held his invention back circulate, but nobody knows the truth: some say it's still a work in progress, others that he was trying to ramp up the bidding by various interested parties and so make himself rich, and still others that he was just a front for somebody else—for McAuley, though achieving the best grades his tech university had ever seen, and reputedly brilliant, had dropped-out without taking a degree and had worked for decades in menial engineering jobs on a variety of space-freighters. What happened to McAuley was: one of the families kidnapped him and tortured him in hopes of forcing him to reveal his technology, but he died before he gave anything away. 

All that's in the background of Jack Glass, although McAuley himself doesn't appear as a character. But in this piece I give him a voice. You'll see it's based on another Kipling dramatic monologue, ‘McAndrew's Hymn’ (1894); but although I've taken the form, and the Calvanist religiosity, of Kipling's poem, pretty much everything else has been changed (and I don't just mean: transferred to outer space). With Paul McAuley's permission, I swapped the Scots surname of Kipling's original to something more appropriate to a Hard SF idiom, although Paul's personality is utterly different to the one represented here. At any rate, here it is. Happy New Year, everyone!]

Lord, I know the cosmos is but shadow thrown out by your light,
And I’ve learned the truth—man’s sphere is interplanetary flight.
There once was a conflict in my heart, I do confess it so,
But to reach the stars is further than the Lord permits us go.
Coupler-snaps to spindle-poles, in thrust I see Your Hand, O God—
Yours the grace and wrath that drives the spinning antimatter-rod.
The Bible’s a complex machine with many million parts intact,
And Man can barely ken the myriad ways they mesh and interact.
Every verse and word is placed within the working of the whole
To form a spiritual motor meant to launch and fire and guide the soul
Accelerate escape velocity beyond the pull of sin
And take us to the final coupling gate where God’s Love pulls us in!
And as an engineer can’t pick and choose components of his ship,
Maintain these few, but let those others rust or seize or slip,
Just so a soul can’t pick and choose amongst the Bible's just commands,
He takes the whole book up, or lets the whole fall deadweight from his hands.


I can’t get my sleep to-night; old bones and limbs are hard to settle;
So I'll stand the watch up here—alone with God and spaceship metal.
My engines whirr: a hundred days of thrust and delta-V and strain
Crossing intermundial space, around Thy Sun and home again.
It is too much—the driveshaft moans—and all the angle-jets are loose;
Twenty billion miles of thrust has given them a fair excuse.
The perfect dark of God outside: great black of blacks that baffles sight
The mystic void, infinity, the Ancient of all Days—at Night.
Here’s Ferguson relieving me. Three years gone by since his home pass:
His wife’s back there with both their kids; an outdome domicile on Mars.
He yearns towards his planetfall .... and who of us can blame the man?
It’s been a long and homesick time since his contracted work began.
There's none on any world for me, no-one to fly to, fast or slow,
Since dear Lucilla Chong went on to Thee, Lord, thirty years ago.
And since that time I’ve found Thy medium’s truly neither void nor ’cuum
But a flower of awe and grace, infinitude’s dark dazzling bloom.
I recall Mkoko most, whose habitation now is space
Whose corpse, if ever found, could reignite man's interstellar race.
But God will not permit mankind to find him: no, my work’s secure!
His frozen body circulates in darkness and for evermore.
Nor yet alone; the spaceways throng with bodies in grim circulation
Prizeless jetsam of our mortal-danger spaceflight occupation.
When the New Apollo burned! What then was our space-voyage worth?
Venus out to Neptune on a long ellipse, and back to earth—
What worth?—for as soon as docked at Orbital, waiting at bulkhead,
A flash fire burst straight through and left most of us carbonblack and dead?
Not but that they're not civil in the Merchants. I heard Ivan say:
‘Engineer, McAuley! How's the Tachyon Thrust machine to-day?"
True he gets the tech-talk wrong, but at least he leaves me clear
To coax the best from thrust and slew—I am the lead House Engineer,
So they phrase it: ‘still with engines? Weren’t you top of Phys at Cape?
Named ‘most promising’ and feted, sashed with ‘top of class blue tape’?
Planet-beating tech at school, and my Uni’s star at Thrust?
How did your bright prospects turn to engineering grime and rust?
True, I won the scholarships; I topped exams and glowed inside
Then I kenned the hook that Satan hoped to snag me with was—pride.
So I left the Cape Space School, walked straight from the lecture hall
Signed a fifty year full contract with a freightline for space haul.
There I started as a fuel-whelp—regulating engine feed,
In the old-style bucket spaceships, with the old-school pilot breed.
Ten-a-second was the fastest then—eh!—inefficient drive;
To think that now our haulers manage in excess of fifty-five!
Soon we’ll move yet faster: the advances made since I began!
No, I do not doubt machines—but what about the soul of man?
Faster’s good, but there’s a limit—set by God and space and time;
And only fools could miss it, only sinners hope to cross its line.
I’m a man that’s travelled far, at tiny fractionals of c,
Two light years in all I’ve ventured .... far, how far, O Lord, from Thee?
You were with me night and day. I still recall that first frag hit,
When the sensors missed the debris and the main compartment split—
All those shards came shooting through us faster than artillery rounds,
Twenty breaches in the hull and banshee decompression sounds;
Fire, alarm and panic; Anson lost her leg and lost her life
Amputated—half a gram of space ice was the surgeon’s knife.
All her lifeblood shot and clouded, filled the cabin with red fog
And I felt Satanic presence, the evil breath of Gog-Magog,
So I prayed, and prayed it double: spoke the words, but acted too:
For the nearest prayer to man is work—words stray, but deed is true.
Sealed the breaches, damped the yawing, set the engines to reboot
Lacking even time to wipe my comrade’s blood from off my ’suit
Never seen a ship take damage like it and come back again to O:
None of it were possible without that Your grace had willed it so.
And how did I repay your mercy? Entered on that Orbital
Showered, drank a tub of whisky, found a whore and paid her full.
I’ve still scorch marks from the flare-ups on my arms and on my back
But I’ve worse than burnmarks in me: deep inside—my soul is black.
All the sun’s atomic fire could never burn this sin from me
My one hope is: strive to lose myself in Thy Immensity.
Sins of five and fifty years: Apollo, Pug and Hesperus
Can even God’s forgiveness match the orbits of my trespasses?
Voyages I’d drug myself into a stupor every month along,
Years when every dock I stopped at turned my Right around to Wrong.
Nights when I'd observe my crewmates, ire and envy in my gaze,
Hating them for loving, filled with fury rather than Thy Praise.
Blot the wicked hours of mine, Lord! when I spent my time ashore.
Soma’d in Pataweyo's Moon-house, thinking less and sinning more.
Worse than all—my crowning sins—were foulest blasphemy and pride.
Stoker ten years, hardened to it: bad without and bad inside.
I saw Saturn’s cities built: green beneath the ring’s great arc
Dazzled by those Christmas baubles shining dim amongst the dark
Coming round the darkside there were miracles to fill my eyes:
All the cosmos’ stars were shining weldspot bright in oil-black skies.
I spent all my downtime porthole gazing, tracing constellations, each
And every star (I thought) should be within the fearless spaceman’s reach.
Pride, pure pride! I know it. The whole cosmos only hymns Thy Will
Thou set distances to put the voyage far beyond man’s skill!
Blasphemy and disobedience if I doubt the speed of light!
Thou could set it otherwise, and Wrong; Thou has set it thus, and Right!


The clearest scripture written there: that our lot’s Solar—and that’s all.
But in Saturn’s orbit I heard, silken-voiced, a devil’s call.
Warm as heated milk, beguiling: ‘See, McAuley! Pick a star!
‘Set your course now, engineer—make it near although it’s far!’
Firm and clear and low—no haste, no boast—the ghostly whisper went,
Laying out the evidential facts beyond man’s argument:
‘Though it takes you twice a generation, still you all must go!
Worship me, God Hyperspatial—leave your Deity of Slow.
Speed, now! Go still faster yet—learn new Elysian mysteries!
The FTL prize hanging low: McAuley—it is yours to seize!’


A spaceship is a million pieces, working all together true,
And the Bible’s a machine as complex, doing what God wants it to.
Starts off plain and clear: ‘let there be light’, is what the Good Book says.
When God set the universe in motion He speed-limited its ways.
Light, Light is the same as God: it’s holy, not to be denied;
And the voice that whispers different is but human’s sinful pride.
But I was just in my twenties, head all dazzled with my dreams
And I thrilled to think that c was not the limit that it seems.
It shone in my thoughts aurora-like; it racked me through and through:
Tempted far beyond the show of speech, unnamable and new—
Thou knowst all my heart and mind, Thou knowest, Lord, how far I fell—
Second Engineer upon the Hesperus, but first in Hell!
It came to me in a lightning strike, the way to make it yield:
Generate a cross-spun singularity inside a Bergson field—
And counterspin a second shell of strung-grav matter pitched outside
Using sub-quantum inertia to arc-tune that second wide,
With both Hawking thresholds moving spinwise close enough to c
Gravitational cross-shearing would work to break a bubble free!
And inside this free envelope—a ship! A heavy-shielded hull;
Balanced where the shearing forces cancelled each and each to null.
And in that ship a crew, made up of men’s and women’s souls,
Adams there, and Eves, new-tempted by my low trangsressive goals:
Truly they might reach the stars in weeks instead of centuries—or
It were closer to the truth to say: reach foul beyond God’s Law.
Ah, but young and wicked as I was I didn’t see behind the mask,
Instead I set myself a task to earn enough to fund the task.
The Merchant Houses had but lately finished all their battles off
The Lex Ulanova was a new thing: fair, said some; but harsh and rough.
Either way, I didn’t trust to patent office copyright,
Though I worked out all the specs, I kept my notion close and tight.
Dreamt of riches; had no thought to gift it to the human race.
At the time it felt like greed; but now I only see Thy Grace.
Now I feel Thy hand about me: and about my feet Thy care—
From cold Saturn to hot Venus, through the transit of despair,
Hesperus came to the fieldlands, hundred-thousand globes of green
All in solar orbit, basking in God’s Sunlight, bright and clean.
There we worked as mission tug, with ten million protein cargo tonne
Up the invisible slope to Earth-Moon docking at Lagrange A1.
Slow work in the old days, ships without the Tachyon Thrust
But it gave me time to ponder whether clever maps to just—.
And the opening verses of the Bible echoed once more in my head.
‘I made Cosmos out of Light, inviolate so,’ the great book said.
I was drowsing in my billet—sick with selfdoubt, drink and tire:
‘Better to rip out your eyeballs than watch stars with Sin’s desire!’
And the countervoice said: lo, the universal open road! 
Let man be a soaring eagle, and no more a pond-stuck toad!
God and devil battled for my conscience as I lay midship:
And my right hand clutched my whole life’s work—upon one data chip.
On that chip and nowhere else: the superluminal data was:
Heresy and sin, all written in the neutral tongue of maths.
Should I just destroy it—or disseminate it all instead?
Would my actions kill the living spirit, or restore the dead?
Then the alarm gonged, loud, incessant: everything was frantic rout
When a stopper-field explosion tore the main drive chamber out
And the guidance software flared and died, and all the ship was seared.
Every scrap of power plain vanished; every light flat disappeared.
The explosion killed Mkoko; Wei Hu Cho was blast-concussed
We were venting air and losing heat as fast as we lost thrust.
Everywhere on every side was blacker than a soul in sin;
Space was dark as death beyond us—darker still the soul within.
We were coming round about behind the moon’s unsunlit face
Not a single photon hit my eyes or pierced the dark’s embrace.
Not until we cleared the lunar arc, and sunrise gleamed again
And by Thy sweet grace I had the Light to see my duty plain.
One porthole, sun-lit—no more—bright as any welder’s flame.
Just in time to save the ship this illumination came,
Closed the bulkheads with my muscles (since the pisomotors failed)
Reset mainframes B and C and brace-rebooted core mainrail.
Saved the ship and all our lives—(except Mkoko, scorched and dead)—
And all because of God’s good Sun, and the spiritual light it shed!
Afterward I dressed Mkoko’s corpse, for burial in space,
And I slipped my data chip inside his Mortis Carapace.
I sprayed his body with the stuff, and I sealed my chip inside
Because I couldn’t quite destroy it—there, alas, you see my pride.
But at least I knew I couldn’t keep it, couldn’t follow through.
I had seen the light and seen my sin, and so I offer thanks to You.
Thus I wrestled with Apollyon—Ah!—I fretted like a bairn—
Threw away the working-plans at last, and all I hoped to earn.
Dropped my years of labour into space’s infinite wellhole
Lost the sweat and lost a fortune, but at least I saved my soul.


The human engine is entropic, ruled for sure by waste and slip,
And accordingly our humankind will never build the Perfect Ship.
I will never last to judge her lines or take her curve—not I!
But I’ve worked and flown in space and lived. All thanks to Thee, Most High!
And I’ve done what I have done—Thou’ll judge it soon if ill or well—
Not complacent of a place in heaven, thinking hard of Hell.
But when I’ve outflown my mortal grav-well and my soul is free
I may hope to ride the perfect starship, in excess of c.
It will fly by Grace—and God will pilot: light years by the million,
Flitting quickly by towards our home: the galaxy’s Avillion.


Still they pester, still they question: ‘Where, McAuley, are your notes?’
‘Your ideas—you’ll reconstruct them? Plan your interstellar boats!
‘Start afresh from first positions! Join your dots and sketch the line
Tell at least the core idea, your means for besting old Einstein!’
I was prideful, too much boasting, and I told the world my plans;
Would to God I’d cut my tongue instead, and severed both my hands!
‘Don’t deprive mankind of this new shortcut through spacetime
Do not swallow humankind’s future prospects in your crime!’
I could tell them; somewhere out there is the chip you crave
Locked inside a corpse’s shroud and buried in a vacuum grave;
You could seek it, but that’s not a quest you ever can fulfil:
For nothing happens in our solar-country contrary to His will.
Yes, the physics of it works: but that does not mean that it’s good!
And a jealous God must be served by a fiercer prelatehood,
Engineers—His truest priests! For whole else better knows his Law?
We know how it’s shaped, and how it tells man: thus far go—no more.

Wednesday 29 November 2017

The Second Coming of Georgie B.

Turning and turning in a widening gyre
The striker cannot beat the defender;
Wings fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere stagnation is loosed upon the pitch.
The offside trap is sprung, and everywhere
Are centre-forwards dispossessed of the ball
The best lack scoring chances, while the worst
Are closing down all movement in the game.

Surely the final whistle is at hand?
Surely a substitution is at hand!
A substitution! Hardly are those words out
When a swift winger out of Spirit of Man U
Troubles my sight: running over mud-green:
A shape with mobile body and feet of an angel,
A gaze drunk and impudent as the sun,
Is moving his slow thighs, while all about him
The crowd of frantic home supporters yell.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That all those years of dully nil-nil draws
Were vexed to splendour by this jinking ghost,
And what George Best, his hour come round at last,
Slouches towards the far goal-line to score?

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (1957)

I'm reading West because I am pulling together material for a literary biography of H G Wells, and West's ten-year affair with Wells (1913-1923) was, really, the most important of his life. Of course I don't mean to situate her in a manner entirely subaltern with respect to Wells (except insofar as I am writing a biography of Wells, not of West): she is her own person, a very interesting and important twentieth-century writer both of fiction and non-fiction. I read her first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918) and blogged about it in another place. Then I read her Henry James (1916) and her Augustine book (1933), which I may come back to, if I've time. Now I've read her bestselling novel, The Fountain Overflows: a semi-autobiographical tale based on West's own childhood. It's remarkable. I'm just not sure what else it is.

Which is to say, as with Return of the Soldier, I found the experience of reading The Fountain Overflows oddly hard to get a handle on. Having had that experience twice makes me suspect the problem is me—makes me wonder if I'm missing something, or hitting West's writing at some oblique angle. Or maybe it's not me! Maybe it is her!

The Fountain Overflows is about an unusual Edwardian childhood, not a million miles away from Gwen Raverat's Period Piece, which had been published a few years earlier in 1952 (although West's book is more creatively strange, I think, and avoids some of the dangers of eccentricity-as-tweeness of Raverat's book). The story centres on the Aubrey family. Our narrator, Rose, is West's fictional version of her younger self, and it is via her not, I think, wholly reliable perspective that we learn about her two older sisters Cordelia and Mary, and their kid brother, the oddly-monikered Richard Quin (named after a favourite, now deceased, uncle).

We also learn about Clare, their pinched, plain-faced, nervy and put-upon mother, a music-obsessed pianist whose own career was cut short by illness and who wishes her two middle children to become concert pianists in their turn, yet who repeatedly puts down the (on the evidence) remarkable attainments of her oldest daughter Cordelia on the violin. Finally we learn about the family's father: handsome and charismatic but feckless and unreliable. He's often absent pursing one or other get-rich scheme, picking up journalist jobs and losing them, investing imprudently on the stock market and the like. Mostly he is simply not there. The result is that the family never has enough money, and the mother grows more and more stressed in her efforts to maintain their genteel outward life.

At the beginning of the novel, Mr Aubrey goes off to England to edit a provincial newspaper, and Mrs Aubrey, compelled to cut costs, rents-out their Edinburgh apartment and takes the children to live cheaply in the Highlands. When the Edinburgh tenants come to the end of their lease and she brings the children back to the city she discovers that her husband has sold their furniture without consulting her and squandered the money. They all come down South where Mrs Aubrey grows yet more pinched and neurotic, and Mr Aubrey is yet more often absent and unreliable, and, after the logic of these things, the children love him more and more, and increasingly resent their mother.

The main focus of the novel during all this is on the children, their complex interactions, their strangely precise yet often oddly alienated perspectives on adult life. When in the story's latter third a friend's father is killed, and a rather garish murder mystery elbows its way into the plot, it doesn't feel as out of place as it might, because the children's worldview is so oddly off-kilter from the mundane throughout. We have already had a vision of ghostly London ponies (or perhaps not) and a haunting by a poltergeist (or maybe not). There are intimations of telepathy. The book is full of weird little details. Mr Aubrey, a socialist, uses his journalism to campaign against a Government proposal to dye all margarine purple. You find yourself wondering: was there such a bonkers-sounding campaign in the early 1900s? Purple margarine? It's possible, I guess.

There is a quantity of what reads very like padding, I must say: although it is leavened from time to time with some beautifully quasi-surreal visual moments. One example is when the children have to follow their parents home through night-time suburban streets lit—for reasons that are never, I think, explained—not by gaslights but by naphtha-flares (Rosamund is their cousin):
[We walked] quickly past shops lit by naphtha flares. Loose red and yellow flames burned on suspended plates, open to the wind, which sometimes blew them to a bunch of streaming ribbons and jerked all the shadows askew. ‘I love these lights,’ said Rosamund. ... We came to a stop to watch some very fine flares outside a butcher's shop, where a big red-faced man in a blue smock was shouting out long things about meat, as if he were making a speech in a historical play by Shakespeare, ‘attend me lords, the proud insulting queen, with Clifford and the haughty Northumberland and of their feather many more proud birds have wrought the easy melting kind like wax.’ ... The lights and shadows wavered on [Rosamund's] face without disturbing her look of being soft but immoveable. [The Fountain Overflows, 107]
Beautifully strange. I could have done with more such moments.

West is absolutely unsparing of her younger self's monstrous snobbishness and offhand selfishness: on a railway journey she and her sisters stare the backs of the terraced houses they pass and ‘try to work out from the washing on the lines the train passes which of the horrid little houses were inhabited by abnormally shaped families’ [335]. It's a bold move in an autobiographical work, and the novel as a whole doesn't entirely put the distance it might have done between this in-story snobbishness and a larger textual condescension. So, for instance, I found myself wondering if West herself could do no better by way of portraying lower class characters than having the husbands call their wives ‘me old trouble and strife’ [183] or drinking beer in the house (‘it was considered a vulgar drink in those days,’ Rose narrates, in case we miss the point; ‘I do not think that my father ever tasted it in his life.’) Anyway: as the story winds down the father abandons the family altogether; the novel ends when Mary and Rose get scholarships to study music at the Prince Albert College in Kensington and the Athenaeum respectively. (West worked on two sequels, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund but didn't finish them to her satisfaction; they were published, the latter incomplete, posthumously in 1984-85)

The style, mostly, is clean and expressive, although I wonder if the attempt to capture something of the on-flow, chatty flatness of a child's perspective makes the whole a little too tonally monotonous in large doses. There's a lot of rather wheelspinny dialogue, and a tendency towards descriptive itineraries of things, many many things. From time to time West slips back into over-writing: ‘[Mary's] oval face was as smooth as a silver teaspoon filled with cream’ [30]; a sleeping child is a ‘bright pupa in a vague case’ [194]; a woman has ‘a clumsiness which is the muscular equivalent of stammering’ [337]—doesn't really work, that one, I think.

But by the same token there are many very expressive and brilliant descriptive passages. When the family first come to London the train takes them ‘between dark, close-pressed houses with bits built out behind like ladies' bustles’ [87] which is nicely put (the passage goes on to note how the houses are ‘each as different as people are, some tidy, some riotous, some lovely, some nothing, and at last we came to our station’). In the hothouse at Kew gardens, the girls move ‘among the weightless, sawtoothed monotony of the great ferns’ [336]. Their Scottish cousin Jock comes and goes, and one evening plays his flute in their London house. As he readies his instrument, Rose looks through the uncurtained window into the back garden: ‘there was a square of light on the lawn, which meant Papa was working in his study’ [304]. Cousin Jock's flute playing ‘is like the call of a young owl through the summer night’ and awakens some primordial sadness in Rose's heart.

In a wonderfully striking passage near the beginning, the children cannot get to sleep in the new house in the Highlands because they can all hear, outside in the dark, the terrible pounding of some spectral drum. It's a properly eerie moment. They whisper to one another in their shared bedroom, trying to work out what is making the noise, and try to light a match to see what is making the sound only to discover the matches all damp. Finally their mother comes in with a lamp and scolds them for talking.
‘Mamma what is that terrible noise!’

‘A terrible noise! What terrible noise?’ she asked, her eyes and her mouth stupid with sleep.

‘Why, what we are hearing now,’ said Mary.

Mamma murmured, ‘Can something extraordinary be happening?’ With an effort she set herself to listen, and her face lightened. ‘Why children, that is the horses stamping in their stalls.’

We were astonished. ‘What, just those horses that we saw this afternoon?’

‘Yes, those. Why, now I listen, I do not wonder that you were frightened. It is astonishing what a tremendous noise horses make with their hooves.’

‘But why does it sound so sad?’

Yawning, she answered: ‘Well, so does thunder, sad as if everything had gone wrong for the last time. And the sea often sounds sad, and the wind in the trees nearly always. Go to sleep, my lambs.’ [The Fountain Overflows, 14]
Moments like this bring potently into focus the way distance, as with the distance from which middle-age looks back to early childhood, adds a plangent melancholy to experience. Things keep going wrong in life, after all; and at some point everything goes wrong for the last time.

But these moments are, to be frank, a little too few and too far between, isolated epiphanies in an over-long novel (easily over 150,000 words) structured so loosely that the reader struggles getting a clear handle on the overall shape; or at least this reader did. There are longueurs. There are many longueurs. The flattened affect of reporting everything on the same level may be deliberate, and is sometimes an expressive textual strategy, but it is also wearing. Some of the description is pinpoint and vivid, but much of it is a matter of listing things, often at great length—‘the end of the room was taken up by a gilded extension of the chimney piece, which rose in tiers to the ceiling, each shelf divided into several compartments, in each of which was a single curio, a Japanese cup and saucer, a vase, a carving in jade or rose quartz or ivory, and about the room were lacquered tables and flimsy chairs with cushions of oriental fabric; but on the walls, which were covered with straw wallpaper striped with fine gold thread, there hung alongside Japanese prints and Canton enamel dishes, more of these pictures in heavy gold frames representing motor-cars in ditches and cats and dogs dressed in motoring clothes’ and so on [173]—which, though perhaps it does reflect how children access and re-present the world, is still something of a grind, reading-wise.

My overwhelming sense of the novel was dominated by this latter sort of writing, and I honestly can't decide if me wanting more of the Shakespeherian butchers shouting out long things about meat in naphtha-lit streets, or more midnight horses stamping their feet like booming ghostly drums—and fewer lists of furnishings and flowers and musicians and so on—whether this is in some profound sense me missing the point of what West is trying to do in this strange, convoluted, sometimes dreary, occasionally extraordinary novel. It certainly could be.

Sunday 19 November 2017

Truth as Unforgottenness

Let's twitch away the veil for a moment. Core Heidegger, this (from p.17 of the above):

You can click that to embiggen it, if you need to: it's a major topic of Heideggerian thought, of course. Is he right, though? It's certainly the case that ἀληθής means ‘true, real, genuine’, both in the highfalutin philosophical senses that interest H., and also in idiomatic everyday talk. Also the accusative plural, ἀληθῆ, is used for ‘yes’, in the sense of ‘correct, you're right’ when replying to a statement or question. For example, here's Plato's
Εὐκλείδης: ὥστε μοι σχεδόν τι πᾶς ὁ λόγος γέγραπται;
Τερψίων:   ἀληθῆ· ἤκουσά σου καὶ πρότερον.

Eucleides: So I have pretty much the whole conversation written down?
Terpsion: That's right. I've heard you say so before. [Theaetetus 143a]
When Heidegger says ἀληθές ‘literally means’ uncovered he is sort-of correct, except ... well: only sort-of. The word comes from ἀ- (a-, ‘not’) +‎ λήθω (lḗthō) which is a term that can mean ‘hide, conceal’ but which more directly means ‘forget’. The mythological river Lethe (Λήθη) that flows before the entrance to the Greek underworld is the river of forgetfulness, after all, not the river of concealment. It makes you forget, it doesn't ‘hide’ your thoughts in some secret cache. To go into this in a little more detail: the -ληθή- part of ἀληθής is a variant of λανθάνω (lanthánō), which means ‘to cause to forget’, ‘to render [somebody] unknowing’, ‘to deceive’, ‘to flash that magic penlight-of-forgetting from Men in Black in somebody's eye’ (not that last one, obviously). You can see its meaning in use, for instance in Herodotus, διότι οἰκίοισι ὑποδεξάμενος τὸν ξεῖνον φονέα τοῦ παιδὸς ἐλάνθανε βόσκων; ‘because he invited the guest into his home he, without knowing it, fed the person who had murdered his own son' [Histories 1.44]. Or this from Homer:
ὅφρα Ἕκτορα ὀτρύνῃσι μάχην ἐς Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων
αὖτις δ᾽ ἐμπνεύσῃσι μένος, λελάθῃ δ' ὀδυνάων
αἳ νῦν μιν τείρουσι κατὰ φρένας

But let Phoebus Apollo rouse Hector to the fight, and breathe strength into him again, and make him forget the pains that now distress his heart. [Iliad 15.59–61]
None of this is controversial, or obscure, stuff (all these citations are taken from Wiktionary, for example). To say that truth is the anti-deceit, the opposite-of-deceitfulness, is a sort of tautology, but to say that truth is anti-forgetfulness, the antidote to Lethe, is to say something rather more striking and thought-provoking. And my point is: to describe the Greek ἀληθής, the anti-Lethe, the un-Lethe, as unconcealment is actually quite a distorting thing to be doing. Unless we want to argue, as Freud does, that nothing is ever really forgotten, to argue that memories are only ever hidden away in the subconscious, then it surely does not reflect our sense of how our minds work.

To be clear: Heidegger himself knew this perfectly well (a friend of mine, much more knowledgeable about Heidegger and the world of Heideggerian scholarship than I am, once described the latter community as haunted by their inability to think anything that their master had not already thought). Heidegger knew the main etymological root of the word. He just doesn't want it. Iain Thompson tries to spin this in a positive way:

[Iain Thomson's Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education (Cambridge University Press 2005) 145]. But I think Heidegger knows his own etymology is eccentric and that he just doesn't care. I think he really believes truth is an unconcealing, and really doesn't think truth is an unforgetting—as far as I know, he delves no deeper into Unvergessenheit in his writings (I could be wrong). But this makes sense, since central to H.’s approach is the notion that there is a ‘there’ there, a Da that seins: something substantive that can be veiled and unveiled but can never simply fade away into oblivion in the way in which memories are liable. Terry Eagleton's merry dig at H. in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, where he lists a series of quotations about Dasein in such a way as to make it seem that Heidegger is talking about his own schlong, contains a germ of truth, howsoever ribald. There is something to-hand and graspable and, frankly, gendered about Heidegger's Dasein.

Can you imagine a man getting hold of his willy and exclaiming in surprise ‘good grief, I'd completely forgotten I had one of those!’ No. No you can't and I'm guessing that Heidegger rejects the notion of truth as ‘unforgetting’ for related reasons. As he insists in the passage quoted from Plato's Sophist at the top of this post, it is primarily things, πράγματα, that are unconcealed.*

[*There's a nest of problems associated with that etymology too, mind you: a πρᾶγμα (prâgma) is not a thing-y thing, like a table or a penis: it is a thing that is done, something accomplished, the word deriving from πρᾱ́σσω, prā́ssō, “I do”, which is in turn the direct etymological root of our English word practice. But maybe let's not get into that].

The idea intrigues me, nonetheless. I've always found the whole ‘truth is disclosure’ thing hard to grok, if I'm honest. I think I understand H.s point, but that's not to say that it feels right to me, exactly. On the other hand, the long tradition of critiquing ‘truth as correspondence’ is hard to dismiss (what I mean is: I understand why so many philosophers have issues with the correspondence theory of truth). But what might ‘truth as unforgetting’ or ‘truth as unforgottenness’ look like? Truth as that which we cannot forget, what cannot slip our mind without returning to it? Or Truth as something we choose to prioritize in our memories? What might a mnemonics of veracity look like?

I suppose it would, for one thing, thinking of aletheia like this would tend to relocate Truth from the world of things, veiled or otherwise, into the human mind, which is where memories live and sometimes die. That seems broadly right to me. After all, a line is not ‘true’ until a human being checks it, animals do not act with fidelity or infidelity, they merely act—truth in that sense is a human concern. And so on.

Defining truth as the stuff that isn't forgotten, or perhaps as the stuff which can't be forgotten, has some strange implications, though: it's going to imply that the big things, the traumatic things, are ‘truer’ than the small-things, the trivial things, the forgettable neither-here-nor-there gubbins. One might think that's the wrong way about, I suppose. Although perhaps not: a trauma, of the sort that one cannot forget howevermuch one might wish to, presumably marks that place where one's wishful-thinking has come painfully into collision with reality, where (we might say) the truth of Reality has stomped onto our fantasy version of it. Perhaps there's merit in viewing such painful states of mind as true because unforgettable.

If we want to insist that trivial and forgettable things can also be ‘true’ we may want to determine in what way that holds. I meet somebody at a social function, and they tell me their name, and we engage in smalltalk; and half an hour later I can't remember his name, and the next week I've forgotten I ever met him. In what sense was that encounter ever ‘true’? It's not to suggest it is valueless (the opposition is surely not ‘true’/‘worthless’), but it is to suggest, I think correctly, that truth matters, and one of the indices of that fact is that we tend not to forget the stuff that matters. (Or do we? I don't know. Maybe this is completely off-base?).

And there are other strange implications of thinking along these lines. So for example, how would a false memory figure in a metaphysics of truth-as-unforgottenness? As a flat contradiction in terms? As an expressive aporia to be conceptually navigated with care? False memory is believed by some to be a codifiable psychological or psychiatric syndrome (defined by Peter J. Freyd as ‘a condition in which a person's identity and relationships are affected by memories that are factually incorrect but that they strongly believe’)—although it's worth adding that ‘False Memory Syndrome’ is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and plenty of psychiatrists don't believe in it. What's not controversial, of course, is that human memory is not a gold-standard flawless record of reality, that it is prone to distortion and elision, to a process of narrativisation and tidying-up, that it is malleable and that it stretches and compresses as we access it. That surely doesn't sound like the stoic capital-T truth of the philosophers, or (indeed) of the scientists. But that also may be part of what makes it worthwhile thinking of truthfulness in these terms: not totally to relativize the concept of truth, or to go all Jesting Pilate, but to acknowledge the procedures by which a notional but spurious ‘gold standard’ of 100% accurate memorialistion of ‘reality’ is a chimera, the extent to which all memory always already involves processes like selection and narrativization, by way of making the case that truth itself also always already involves those processes.

And maybe I was proposing a false step, earlier, when I suggested that thinking of truth as unforgettingness means relocating it into the human mind. It would certainly accord more with an Ancient Greek ethos if we instead pondered what unforgettingness might mean in a social and political, rather than a personal, sense. It matters that we remember history, because the alternative, famously, is to be forced to relive it: which is to say, the unforgetting of history is a truth which, if we lose it, leads to a state of collective falsehood hospitable to all manner of preventable horrors. That sounds about right, I think. ‘Holocaust deniers’ (to take one example) are people who wish to replace a terrible collective truth with a more politically serviceable (to them) lie. In his essay on this subject, Adam Phillips notes that ‘what we are urged to remember is bound up with how we are being urged to live. The preferred life has its set of preferred memories’ [Phillips, ‘The Forgetting Museum’, Sides Effects (Penguin 2006), 131] and that's both right, I think, and an important consideration if we want to think about the truth. Then again, Phillips, more Freudian than I (though I'm pretty Freudian, if I'm honest) thinks both that we tend to forget trauma, or at least that we try to do so, and that the repressed always returns, which commits him to a model in which, on some profound level, forgetting becomes literally impossible, and we are, often neurotically and painfully, condemned to truth. I'm genuinely not sure about that. Is it right?
An obsession with memory blinds us to the abuses of memory and to the uses of forgetting. Of certain things we should be asking—and perhaps the Holocaust is one, if one among many—not how they should be remembered, but how they should be forgotten? [Phillips, ‘The Forgetting Museum’, 133]
Should we, though? Would that be truthful, in the sense I'm arguing here?
Our (modern) fear is that we won't get our forgetting right, or that forgetting is not possible; it may, of course, be a wish that atrocities cannot be forgotten: that we cannot bear very ourselves as creatures who actually forgot things. We tend to forget experiences that are too much for us, that are, in the reductive language of psychology, either too pleasurable or too painful. We equate the forgettable with the trivial or the unbearable; but by the same token we believe that it (the memory, the experience, the desire) is still there, somewhere, and capable of returning. And we have a place for the trivial where it is effectively disposed of (‘Remembering everything is a form of madness,’ one of the characters in Brian Friel's Translations says). There is haunting and there is discarding; and it is not always within our gift to decide which is which. And it is this, perhaps above all, that makes forcing people to remember—rather like forcing them to eat—at once so implausible and so morally problematic. [Phillips, 133]
I don't know, in this essay on the Holocaust, whether Phillips brackets ‘the trivial and the unbearable’ together in deliberate allusion to Arendt's banality of evil thesis, but it is suggestive. Nobody, I think, has ever declared that the truth must be comfortable; indeed, a certain lack of comfortableness may well be the badge truth wears to distinguish it from the cosiness of lying, and lying to one's self. Forcing somebody to eat if, say, they are on hunger strike, or because a psychological pathology has rendered them anorexic, may well be morally problematic, but it is hardly implausible, or arbitrary, in the way Phillips is suggesting here.

And I find myself thinking that the limitation of our memory, though it is clearly a practical necessity after the fashion of the line from Friel Phillips quotes, may also be a kind of moral and personal falling-away. If we could remember everything without going mad, as Coleridge, in one of the odder passages of the Biographia, insists will be the case after our deaths when we all go to heaven, then we would at least have a truer sense of how things were, and therefore are. In Borges's ‘Funes’ we have our fable on the horrors of perfect unforgetfulness, and it's a deservedly famous piece of writing. But there are also fables of the mendacity of our conscious elimination of memory, and they deserve to be as well known. The moral of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for instance, is that the costs of wilfully killing our memories far outweigh its immediate benefits, and that rings true to me. Dickens's Christmas novel The Haunted Man (1848) advances the same moral: Redlaw is plagued by unhappy memories, is offered a bargain by a ghostly alter-ego to select his bad memories and forget them all. But doing so plunges Redlaw into a, to him now baffling, angry misery. The forgetfulness, and the anger, spread to Redlaw's family and friends; and only at the story's restoration of memories to all is happiness restored. The book concludes with this deeply Dickensian moral: Lord keep my memory green.

I've always been intrigued by this little book by Dickens: by no means his most successful work, commercially or aesthetically, yet a fascinating story to have been written by a man who spent his whole life suppressing the public (though of course never the personal) ‘memory’ of his deprived childhood, his sufferings and abandonment in the Blacking Factory.

I suppose it means thinking of, as it might be, Alzheimer's Disease not just as a distressing illness, but as a kind of existential mendacity, a falling-away from the truth of full humanity: not by way of making an Erewhonian judgement on the sufferer, but in terms of the sorts of stories we tell ourselves about our humanity. It might also mean that we define ‘true love’ as that love in which we find ourselves unable to forget the other person, both in the sense that we find our thoughts constantly reverting to them, but also in the sense that we are unable to forget their other-personhood, that they are another person, distinct from us, whose alterity we must respect and with whom we must keep faith. ‘Is desiring,’ Phillips asks, in a different book, ‘a way of telling the truth?’ [Phillips, Terrors and Experts (Faber 1995), 26] to which I'm tempted to reply: how could it be anything else?

There's one other thing that occurs to me, in this context, and that has to do with dreams. It is liable to entail me, though, in a some lengthy and involved elaboration, and this post is already long enough to be getting on with, so I'll try and keep it short. In a nutshell, though, it's the idea I talk about in this post, that came from writing an essay on the idea of ‘prosthetic memory’ for Bas Groes's Memory Project volume last year. What I came to think was that, in addition to those two undeniable features of mental life, short-term memory and long-term memory, there is a third mode (as it were) of memory: dreams. I don't, it is important to stress, mean our memory of our dreams, the bits and pieces of half-recalled gubbins with which we wake up in the morning. Those are conscious memories of the dream, conscious short- or long-term memories depending on whether they stay with us or not, and so reducible to the first two kinds of memory. I mean the dreams themselves, whether or not they get translated into our two kinds of conscious memory. And I mean to treat dreams as a third mode by which the mind remembers stuff.
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. 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.
One aspect of this would be to ponder the truthfulness, or otherwise, of dreams. Is the default state of our dreams, like the default state of our desires, necessarily true? And this takes us back to the Ancient world, to Homer and Vergil. Because, for those cultures, the truthfulness or mendacity of dreams, treated as prophesies, becomes very important. Here's how the end of Vergil's sixth book of the Aeneid ends, with Aeneas returning to the lands of life after his time in the chambers of the dead:
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; Heaney's translation]
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 the shine of polished elephantine-tusk,
but through this 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. And truth itself, I suppose, can be a phantom that haunts our desire to forget, or an easy remembrance. True, dat.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Gissing's "New Grub Street" (1891)

I'm ashamed to be coming so late in my life to this Victorian masterpiece: but better late than never I suppose—and I am very glad to have read it.  Gissing's triple-decker gives a compelling portrait, based closely on his own experience, of how hand-to-mouth and exhausting literary work could be in 1880s London. It works well on the level of story and character, and it works superbly as a detailed evocation of a particular social and cultural milieu. And pulling those two things off would be enough for most novels. But there was something else in this book that especially struck me, and that was a section in the book's middle where the protagonist turns into a more austere Molloy.

Let me explain what I mean.

The overall shape of the book balances the rise to social prominence and wealth of the clever but facile writer Jasper Milvain against the sinking down of the more talented but less worldly-wise Edwin Reardon. Milvain won't marry except for money, because he knows how degrading poverty can be, and one of the things the novel does is to portray him, though he is shallow and though he breaks the heart of the novel's heroine Marian Yule (she loves him: he proposes when she inherits money and then jilts her when bankruptcy nixes the inheritance) as no villain.

That's all good. But the most powerful sections in the novel, I think, are the ones where the principled-to-the-point-of-priggishness Reardon sinks into destitution. His writing income is the only means of supporting him, his beautiful wife Amy, and their young child Willie; but his novels are too refined for the popular taste and when he tries to dumb-down his art he can't even get published. When the money runs out, Reardon quarrels with Amy, who takes herself and Willie off to stay with Amy's well-off mother whilst Reardon goes to live, penuriously alone, as the clerk to a pauper hospital in the East End. Reardon's pride means that he insists on sending half his paltry wage to his wife, even though she does not need it (and indeed, writes to tell him to stop doing it). Accordingly he cannot afford to buy enough to eat, or proper clothes, or to replace his disintegrating boots. He falls in with a substratum of struggling hacks and edge-of-starvation fellows, writers unable to rise even to the medium-poverty of £100 p.a., scrabbling odd shillings together by tutoring work or begging off relatives: men like Harold Biffen, who literally lives on a slice of bread and some dripping a day as he works on his own three-volume novel (‘Mr Bailey, Grocer’), a work so dedicated to the principles of mimetic realism that nothing happens in it at all.

I loved Biffen.

In these chapters New Grub Street achieves something very unusual in Victorian fiction, something distinct tonally and, as it were, existentially: a mode of apprehending a kind of absolute attenuation of lived experience. It doesn't last—I mean, the tone of this section (not the poverty: the poverty does last. Indeed, the persistence of poverty is one of Gissing's main themes as a writer). The novel shifts back to Victorian mainstream by its end. So, although there's no financial deus ex machina to rescue Reardon, the novel does recuperate him into its Victorian plot-logic by giving him a reconciliation with his wife and a deathbed scene dripping with pathos . That's all fine, and works in its context and so on. But it also marks a kind of falling away.

In the same way that a novel like Dickens's Our Mutual Friend contains all the bustle and sentiment and aesthetic affirmation of any mid-Victorian work but also contains moments of powerfully drained-away affect, quasi-surreal landscapes, or literary-experimental automata characters alongside ‘rounded’ Victorian characters—that is to say, just as Our Mutual Friend manages to be both a richly Victorian and to anticipate Modernist experimental writing—so this section of New Grub Street cathects the spirit of Samuel Beckett into a more conventionally upholstered nineteenth-century novel: briefly pitches the book somewhere between Molloy and L'Expulsé. Nestling at the heart of New Grub Street is a chunk of Beckett's aesthetic of bare-living social-existential reductio ad absurdum absurdorum, and though it lacks the echt Beckettian gallows humour it's a very potent piece of writing. Indeed, it leads me to read the novel almost entirely in the light of these chapters. Though it looks counter-intuitive to say so, I'd argue that this is the only portion of the book in which Reardon is happy. His problem is not that he doesn't fit the literary culture of his day, or that he married too early, or married the wrong woman, even though all three of those things are true. His problem is that he can only be happy in renunciation, and the more complete the renunciation the more complete his existential contentment.

Sunday 5 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi 2017)

I enjoyed this very much, and so did my ten-year-old son. You've already encountered a bunch of reactions to and reviews of the movie, I know, and I don't presume to claim there's anything very much I can add to them. The design is superb. There's a wonderful, garish, proggy vibe throughout. The whole is rendered well-paced and exciting by embracing (rather than despite of) its many sillinesses. It's funny. I laughed aloud, many times. I read an interview with Waititi in which he said the initial cut of the film, omitting much of the farce, was under ninety minutes, but he decided it didn't work and reinserted all the funny stuff, which gives us the two-and-a-half-hour action-comedy on general release now. And it is funny. And I like funny.

It's a question of balance, though, isn't it? Because this is a movie that almost manages to say something quite interesting, in a kinetic and accessible manner, along the lines of there being no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. Almost. Cate Blanchett's Hela knocking away the outer layers of fresco to reveal the violent and warlike images beneath. But punches are pulled. As, for instance, when Anthony Hopkins's Odin walks to the edge of a Norwegian cliff and dissolves into a mystic cloud of petals, instead of (as it might be) expiring in a hospital bed in this universe's equivalent of Spandau Prison. That kind of thing.

Hela, gesturing at Asgard, and asking her brother ‘where did you think all this gold came from?’ ought to be the heart of the movie. But it's drowned out by the sheer insistence of the film's hearty guffaw, the politically sedative implication of which is that nothing under any of the nine suns is serious or urgent. I feel like a killjoy saying so, but it does seem to me an opportunity, of sorts, missed.

Thursday 26 October 2017

Synod of Nicaea: Constantine Burns Arius's Books

This beauty is an illustration from a northern Italian compendium of canon law, early 9th-century AD. It shows Constantine presiding over the Council of Nicaea—the lettering makes Ns look a little like Hs, but you can see the writing at the top there: SINODUS NICENI—and under the throne (helpfully labelled ‘CONSTANTINUS’) are a great many stooping monks stuffing Arius's books onto a fire: heretici arriani damnati. The Latin damno means I find fault, I reject, as well as referring to punishment, guilt and condemnation, so you'd probably translate this ‘Arius's heretical writings are rejected’ rather than ‘... are damned’.

I like the way this image's perspectivelessness makes it look as though the monks are lighting a fire underneath Constantine, like a swarm of diminutive Guy Fawkeses. Also: what kind of gesture is the emperor making with his right hand? Of course we're all aware of the pictoral convention in religious art by which the gesture of the hand communicates the holiness of the sitter, the fingers picking out the letters of Christ's name:

But Constantine isn't doing anything so precise with his hand. It looks, rather, as if he's just waving at us. Hiya!


[In case you were wondering, the positioning of the fingers on that hand is the same gesture priests would perform during the liturgy to invoke Christ's name, as explained by this chart]

Wednesday 11 October 2017

"This Is Just To Satan ..."

I have eaten
the soul
that was in
your brain

and which
you were probably
hoping God would save
for Heaven

Forgive me
it was delicious
so small
and screamy

Thursday 5 October 2017

Auden's "The Fall of Rome" (1947)

It's always been one of my very favourite Auden poems, this: and in my half-century of living I can't think there's ever been a year in which it has felt more apropos than 2017. An Age of Trump sort of poem; although since my youth I've had the inkling that there is something, somehow, hopeful in the terminal reindeer and their golden moss.
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
Don't think me petty, but my ear suffers slight tremulations at the Americanisation of
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.
I know Auden was in effect an American at this time, but still. Nor is it that I can suggest meaningful improvement:
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.
misses the understatement of the actual version. Ah well.

Sunday 17 September 2017

Incomparable Programme Eclipsing All Former Triumphs

I'm working through the whole of H G Wells's oeuvre and blogging about it (in Another Place) as I go. And now I'm into his 1914-1918 writing, which I'm supplementing with a little, rather desultory if I'm honest, for-context reading about the First World War. In the course of which I chanced upon this Canadian victory poster. I love the aesthetic mash-up of medievalised and modern styles in its main image, but the panel of text at the bottom is pretty wonderful too.

Tractors! Poultry shows! More than commonly picturesque! I'm sold.

Sunday 20 August 2017

How I Define "Science Fiction"

[Note: I'm just back from the Edinburgh Book Festival where I appeared on a panel about science fiction with the great Jo Walton and my friend Farah Mendlesohn: the event organised, and moderated, by the estimable Ken McLeod. The panel was fun—it was lively, which is code for ‘we disagreed’, or more precisely ‘everyone disagreed with me’—and one of the things it entailed was each of us offering a thumbnail definition of SF. Now: it occurs to me that my definition, such as it is, doesn't really exist in one single place. So I thought I'd sketch it here. I used to have a dedicated SF blog, which would have been the natural venue for a post like this, but I've been trying to rein-in my blogging habit, and my relationship to SF criticism is going a bit Dover Beach at the moment. Here will do. To be clear: neither Jo nor Farah agree with my definition of SF; and you should certainly read their respective writings to see what they have to say about the topic. There's a good chance their views will persuade you in ways mine doesn't.]

On those occasions when people ask me to define science fiction, I generally say it's this:

Probably the most famous jump-cut in cinema. You already know the context, so I don't need to spell it out for you: millions of years BC, an apeman throws a bone into the sky. It flies upward. The camera pans with it, following it a little shakily into the blue sky. The bone reaches its apogee and, just as it starts to fall back down, Kubrick cuts to a shot of a spaceship in orbit in AD 2001.

Now, this seems to me an extremely beautiful and affecting thing, a moment both powerful and eloquent even though I'm not sure I could lay out, in consecutive and rational prose, precisely why I find it so powerful or precisely what it loquates. It is, I suppose, something ‘about’ technology, about the way humans use tools, our habit of intrusively (indeed, violently) interacting with our environments, about the splendour but also the limitation of such tools, the way even a spaceship is, at its core, a primitive sort of human prosthesis. But when you start explaining the cut in those terms you become conscious that you are losing something, missing some key aspect to what makes it work so well in situ.

It works, in other words, not by a process of rational extrapolation, but rather metaphorically. I mean something particular when I say that, and I explain what I mean in detail below; but for now, and to be clear—I'm suggesting this moment actualises the vertical ‘leap’ from the known to the unexpected that is the structure of metaphor, rather than the horizontal connection from element to logically extrapolated element that is the structure of metonymy. Kubrick's cut is more like a poetic image than a scientific proposition;——and there you have it, in a nutshell, my definition of science fiction. This genre I love is more like a poetic image than it is a scientific proposition.

Now, if my interlocutor needs more, and if the picture doesn't make my point, I might add something Samuel Delany-ish: about how science fiction is a fundamentally metaphorical literature because it sets out to represent the world without reproducing it.

The danger, here, is that people will take what I'm saying as a statement about the content of the genre, rather than what it is, a statement about the form, about the genre's discursive structure. So, for instance, Darko Suvin's common-sense definition of SF as determined by one or more novums, things that exist in the SF text but not in the real world (and therefore not in texts mimetic of that real world) is too often, I think, treated only on the level of the content of the text. If a given novel or film contains a time machine or a faster-than-light spaceship or radically new concept of gender, then it is science fiction: end of. But what interests me about novums is the way the novum itself is so often a kind of reified or externalised embodiment of the formal logic of the metaphor, rather than just an, as it were, brute marker of difference as such.

Now, I need to acknowledge that most of the fans and critics of SF I know are not likely to be persuaded by what I say. More people, I think, would argue that a science fiction text extrapolates (more, or less, rigorously and quasi-scientifically) from knowns in our world into possibles in its imagined world. This is, on its face, perfectly sensible, and has the advantage of distinguishing ‘science fiction’, where the extrapolation needs to stay within broader guidelines of possibility, from ‘fantasy’ where magic, surrealism and so on may enter in to the equation. If you're writing about a colony on Mars, then you need to stick more-or-less within the bounds of what we know about Mars, and space travel, and humans-living-in-close-proximity and so on. Small deviations from probability may be permissible, depending on what they are and how cleverly the writer handles them; but large deviations are liable to ‘bounce’ the reader out of her reading experience. Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief is harder to sustain (the argument goes) in a story where the protagonist is a captain in the Proxima-Centuraian Space Navy than one in which they work in a shoe-shop in Colchester, so writers need to tread carefully not to tip-over their readers' delicately balanced sensibilities.

I don't think that's true, actually; but plenty of clever and knowledgeable people do.

This approach to SF tends to lead to prioritising things like: consistency and scope of worldbuilding, plausibility, rationality, the scientific accuracy of the way novums are extrapolated from present-day knowledge and so on. But once we get in the habit of judging SF by these criteria, I would say we are moving away from what makes SF so cool and wonderful in the first place. Put worldbuilding in the driving seat, as writer or reader, and Mike Harrison's clomping foot of nerdism comes stamping down on our human faces, forever.

Don't get me wrong: worldbuilding, the correlative of ‘extrapolation’, certainly has its place in SF. Not in my definition of SF, though, and that's what concerns this blogpost. It seems to me that worldbuilding is ancillary to the crucial thing that makes SF (and Fantasy for that matter), vital, crucial and wonderful. I'm enough of a Tolkien fanboy to enjoy reading the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, but I'm not enough of a fool to believe the appendices to The Lord of the Rings are the point of that novel.

Put it this way: worldbuilding is part of the system of a science fiction text; but the point of SF is not its system. The point is that it transports us—that it takes us somewhere new, that it brings us into contact with something wonderful, that it blindsides us, makes us gasp, unnerves or re-nerves us, makes us think of the world in a different way. I might differentiate a mediocre novum from a great one by saying that the former is embedded in a carefully worked-through and consistent web of worldbuilding, where the latter achieves escape velocity.

Now, if I say the point of SF is transport and you immediately think of a well-integrated network of trains and buses, then it may be you're more persuaded by that view of SF as coherent rationally-extrapolated worldbuilding. But if I say the point of SF is transport and you think rapture, well, conceivably you're closer to seeing the genre the way I do. Sometimes this transport is the full on mindblowing ‘Sense of Wonder’, a phrase I tend to take as a modern-day version of the venerable aesthetic category of the Sublime (to adapt Edmund Burke, we could say: mimetic fiction can be beautiful, but only SF can be sublime). Sometimes it is something smaller-scale, a woh! or cool!, a tingling in the scalp or the gut when we encounter something wonderful, or radically new, or strangely beautiful, or beautifully dislocating: something closer to Wordsworth's spots-of-time maybe. It needs to be at least flavoured with Strange (‘Weird’ as the kids used to say) to be properly SF. Great SF can never situate itself inside its readers' comfort zones, though commercially popular SF can and often does.

Fantasy has a related aesthetic uplift, which we might call ‘enchantment’, which can manifest in several ways, but which absolutely needs to be there, somewhere, in amongst your welter of maps and family-trees and invented languages and costumery and battles and elves and soap-opera-y comings and goings, if your Fantasy novel is going properly to come alive.

Now, I cannot deny that there is an ideological element to my definition here (there's an ideological element to every definition, whether we acknowledge it or not). It's hardly news that the genre I love exists over a particular political fault line. There are many right-wing SF fans, who, speaking socially, prize proper authority, tradition, following the rules and a congeries of what are essentially military values, and who prefer SF that embodies all that. Which is fine; there's plenty of that kind of SF out there. For myself I have little time for the whole ‘the rules of physics prove my ideology is correct!’ crowd: the there's-no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch crew, the ‘the pilot in The Cold Equations was right to throw that girl into space!’ cadre (together with their more deplorable ‘I cheered when the pilot in The Cold Equations threw that girl into space, serves the bitch right’ fringe). But there are many dedicated SF fans who find truth in some or all or those slogans. I can only speak for myself when I say I see SF as more fundamentally about the encounter with otherness, about hospitality to the alien, to the new and the strange and therefore with the marginal and the oppressed. This means it needs to embrace conventional and unconventional things, to be as much about gay as straight, trans as cis, colour as whiteness and so on. In all this I see SF as an art of disclosure, not enclosure. That's my ideological bias, and I'm content to own it.

I'll say two more things about my definition of SF as a fundamentally metaphorical literature. The first is to stress I'm not saying that (for example) SF's novums are symbols that can be decoded. I don't think so at all—that, as it were, the rocket ships are all symbolic penises, Hydra is a straightforward translation of Hitler's Nazi party and so on. This strikes me as a reductive and foolish way of reading texts. To repeat myself: it is not the content of any specific metaphor that defines SF for me; it is the structure of the metaphor as such. Mine is a formal, not a content-driven, definition. In order to explain what I mean by that, I'm going to bring in a little theory. Bear with me.

So here goes.

Roman Jakobson, one of the most influential linguistic theorists of the last century, makes what seems to me a really interesting and important distinction between metaphor and metonomy. Indeed, I hang my definition of science fiction upon that dyad. Metaphor is that trope that refers something to something it is not, invoking an implicit rather than explicit similarity between the word or phrase used and the thing described (a related but different trope is that of the simile, where words such as like or as are deployed): Achilles is a lion, all the world's a stage, chaos is a ladder and so on. Metonymy, on the other hand, is the rhetorical device by which a part of something is used to refer to the whole of something: a parish of a thousand souls, a hundred head of horse, calling the monarch ‘the crown’ and so on.

On a simple level, we recognise these rhetorical devices, and they take their place amongst the scores of other rhetorical devices that constitute our discourse. Jakobson, though, makes much more of them than this: although speech-acts and stories and novels only occasionally contain metaphors or metonomies, language as communication (he argues) is structured on a larger scale by the interplay between metaphor and metonomy. This is what he argues:
The message construction is based on two simultaneous operations (the terms metonomy and metaphor are not used as figures of speech but rather as pervasive forces organizing language):
Combination (horizontal)——constructing syntactic links; contexture.
Relation through contiguity, juxtaposition.
METONYMY: implying time, cause and effect, a chain of successive events

Selection (vertical)——choosing among equivalent options.
Relation on basis of similarity, substitution, equivalence or contrast; synonym/antonym.
METAPHOR: implying space, a-temporal connection, simultaneity.
In poetry the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection (metaphor) is used as the major means of constructing a sequence (combination; metonym). This projection is the defining characteristic of poetry, and it expresses itself in rhyme, meter, symmetries, repetitions, motifs.

The dominant mode in the poetic is therefore that of metaphor. Whereas in Prose the metonym prevails, the chain of events, the plot, successive actions, a sequence of occurrences. (The opposition is not an absolute one, but rather a mark of a tendency).
In fact, Jakobson developed his thought when he was working with autistic and asperger's-syndrome children. What he discovered was that these kids tended to understand metonymy, but tended to be baffled by metaphor. So, as it were, you could show them a headline that says the White House today issued a statement on immigration, and they would understand that ‘the White House’ was a metonym for the US Government. They wouldn't assume the actual building was talking (they're autistic, they're not stupid) but would, on the contrary, grasp the connection between the US Government and the White House, since the head of the US Government lives in the White House. In this case there's a logical connection, a conceptual copula, between A and B. But Jakobson discovered that if you said to them Achilles is a lion, they were liable to reply: no he's not, he's a man; and if you said Chaos is a ladder they'd stare at you like you were bonkers. Not, of course, that Jakobson's actual research involved him quoting Game of Thrones to autistic children. But you take my point.

I don't have hard data, and stand ready to be proved wrong by people who do, but I suspect that SF fandom contains a higher proportion of asperger's people than society as a whole. To be clear: such a statement is not a judgement. I have several friends on the spectrum, asperger's-wise, and they're clever, sensitive and wonderful people, precisely as worthwhile and valuable as people not on the spectrum. I make this observation to ask whether this might have something to do with why my way of defining SF is so marginal to how most of the fans and critics I know see the genre. Mine is an eccentric position, in the strict sense, and I know it: most fans who are happier with a metonymic model of the genre (extrapolation—which is to say, cause and effect, a chain of successive events—and worldbuilding: coherence, links, contexture). It may be they're right,of course. But that's not how I define science fiction.

The structure of metaphor as such is the knight's-move, my favourite manoeuvre in chess. It leads you in a certain metonymic direction, and indeed sometimes leads you quite a long way down that consecutive path, in order to leap suddenly, not arbitrarily, but poetically, expressively, marvellously, in its unexpected direction. It's the way the carefully worldbuilt society of Asimov's ‘Nightfall’ falls apart under stellar Sublimity, or the way the intricate anthropological detail of Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness is leavened by actual supernatural foretelling—a.k.a. magic—as a correlative to love, which is that novel's wondrous theme, wondrously handled. It's the way the scrupulously rational computational logic of Clarke's ‘Nine Billion Names of God’ steps, in its last sentence, into amazing impossibilities. It can be the beautifully unexpected outgoing, as when Ellie Arroway enters the alien world-construct at the end of Contact, or it can be the beautifully unexpected homecoming, as at the end of Kij Johnson's superb ‘26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’. It doesn't need to happen at the end of a text: it might occur at the beginning (as when Timur's scouts ride through a wholly deserted Europe in Stan Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt) or anywhere in the text, actually. It is more affective than rational, more lyric than narrative (though the narrative is usually needful to generate its lyrical affect, I think). It is the hurled bone that turns, unexpectedly, impossibly yet somehow rightly, into a spaceship.

I'll finish on a personal note. I write, as well as write about, science fiction, and have been doing it for long enough to know that the kind of science fiction I write does not find favour with the majority of SF fans. How I define ‘Science Fiction’ may well have something to do with this: although it's just as likely that my relative lack of genre success is (Okham's razor and so on) because what I do just isn't very good. But this structure I'm describing here as formally constitutive of science fiction is also formally constitutive of the joke, and jokes are very, possibly unhealthily, important to me. The structure of a joke is a knight's move: it leads you along a particular narrative trajectory only to finish with a conjurer's flourish of the unexpected. The joke can't be capped with a merely random or left-field unexpectedness, or it won't be funny: but the flourish at the end (the, to deploy a term invented by a giant of genre, prestige) must work. Here's a joke:
A man walks into a library, goes up to the counter and says brightly: ‘I'd like fish and chips, please!’

And the woman behind the counter replies: ‘but ... but this is a library.’

The man's eyes go wide. ‘Oh, I'm sorry!’ he says. Then he leans forward and whispers: ‘I'd like fish and chips please.’
Here's another: my 9-year old son's favourite joke, as it happens.
There was once an inflatable boy. He lived in an inflatable house with his inflatable parents. He went to an inflatable school with all his inflatable friends. But one day he took a pin to school.

The headmaster summoned the boy to his office. Shaking his head sorrowfully he said: ‘you've let me down, you've let the school down, but most of all you've let yourself down.’
I'm absolutely not saying that SF needs to be full of jokes. Indeed, on the contrary, successful comedy-SF is very rare indeed (The Hitch-Hiker's Guide is really the only undisputed classic in this narrow field). I am not talking content, I am talking form; and the point of this form is that the unexpected twist releases a quantum of joy. That's why jokes are great, and that, although its content is very different, is why SF is great.

So when I call SF a metaphorical mode of art I mean it in that Jakobsonian sense: as a structural or formal constitution rather than anything content-level. And, in the unlikely situation that such a thing should be of interest to you, it provides the key to my own creative and intellectual exercises. Structuralism, metonymic and procrustean, interests me less than various poststructuralist freaks and shakes; irony (though it's currently rather out of fashion) interests me more than earnestness, play more than preachiness, epiphanies more than consistencies. I think our genre needs more Keatsian negative capability and fewer grids, hierarchies and certainties. SF is in the prestige, not in the setup and the performance, although the setup and the performance are needful for the prestige to come off. SF should transport us or what's the point of it. At any rate, that's how I define ‘Science Fiction’.