‘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.

Monday 30 January 2017

Vlaster Than Empires: Notes on the "Wolfhound Century" trilogy

"My Wolfhound Century should grow
Vlaster than empires and more …"


Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century trilogy [Wolfhound Century (2013) Truth and Fear (2014) Radiant State (2015)] is one of the more remarkable Fantasy works of the twenty-teens. The series' relative neglect by the SFF community is something of a puzzle. It's rare for a literary/historical imagination to be so effectively combined with heartfelt sciencefictional and Fantasy sensibilities. Of course it may be that very hybridity—the bald fact of it, I mean, rather than its calibre—is precisely why this work has been under-appreciated by the genre community and largely ignored by the literary. I don’t mean, in saying so, to sound personally aggrieved. Higgins isn't a personal friend (I've met him once, briefly, at a publishing do [update Jan 2018: full disclosure, since writing this post, I've got to know Peter a little better; although it doesn't alter any of the views expressed below]) and I've no desire at all to become the patron saint of lost literary causes. But it bears repeating: this trilogy deserves much more than it received. Perhaps its time is yet to come.

The setting is ‘the Vlast’, a variant 20th-century Soviet Union in which a variety of fantastical elements coexist with the apparatus of a Stalinist police state, and all its quasi-Orwellian quotidian indignities—overbearing bureaucrats, the smell of boiled cabbage in corridors, cheap vodka, queues in freezing weather and so on. The fantasy aspect of the novels is rooted in a kind of forest magic (indeed, the huge forest is almost a character in its own right). Giants are pressganged into physical labour, shapeshifting werewolves and smoke spirits walk the streets. Also it means angels. These creatures, it seems, throng the dark interplanetary spaces, and at the beginning of the trilogy one such celestial being has tumbled to earth. It is still sort-of alive, gigantically embedded in the ground in the middle of the wilderness.

If I say the plot is not the most notable achievement of this trilogy I don’t do so to disparage Higgins’s narrative. Volume 1, Wolfhound Century, spins a very readable Gorky Park-y policier/thriller, in which Vissarion Lom, his main character, too principled a policeman to get promoted, is sent to investigate nefarious goings-on in the Vlast's capital city Mirgorod, and in doing so uncovers plots and criminality that go right to the top of the politburo-equivalent. This works well. The worst we could say is that, as a mechanism for keeping the reader reading, the gears of this plot stick a little in the first half of the second volume, Truth and Fear (2015). It doesn't really matter. By this point the story and its characters have built up enough momentum to carry the reader through, and the denouement to vol 2 and the unexpected upward trajectory of Radiant State make for more impetus in the reading experience. What I'm trying to suggest is that plot is subordinate, in this trilogy, to something else. I'm tempted to call this something else ‘atmosphere’, but that’s not quite right. The writing certainly is very atmospheric, sometimes intensely so. But although Higgins loads every rift of his paragraphs with the ore of description and mood, I wonder if there isn’t something else at play here.

On publication of the first volume, some reviewers made comparisons with China Miéville. I can see why, although it’s a parallel that misrepresents the balance of mimesis and fantasy in Higgins’ novels, pitched as they such that the latter quality is used to inflect the former, rather (as in Miéville) the other way about. Though it lacks the fantastical aspect altogether I wonder if a better point of comparison would be Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty. What Higgins, Miéville and Spufford all share, I think, is a complicated mix of partiality and horror in their attitude to the old Soviet Union, an attitude compacted out of left-leaning political affiliation, historical knowledge of what actually happened, humane sensibilities and imaginative capacity.*

[*I could mention my own Yellow Blue Tibia here, not as any kind of comparator text, but only because I also share this mix of feelings concerning the old USSR. Of course, perhaps that means I'm merely projecting when I talk about Spfford, Miéville and Higgins. Those latter two mediate their Soviet-y Unions through the lens of Fantasy; Spufford through the lens of alternate history and speculative economics. My own novel uses a UFO fantasia and a self-reflexive SF writing trope as its inflection. It's also supposed to be funny, which is a point I return to below. I don't mean the hilarity or otherwise of my own writing. I mean the rather more significant question of what Martin Amis calls 'laughter and the twenty million'. Higgins, it's fair to say, is not trying to be funny in Wolfhound Empire.]

I have a theory that, in idle moments, I sometimes dandle on my metaphorical knee. It is that one of the ways we can differentiate between Fantasy and SF is the way they handle dystopia. SFnal dystopias are often very horrible, but more to the point they are horrible in a way that is designed to repel. I mean this in the sense that nobody sane would want to live in Zamiatin’s Onestate or Orwell’s Airstrip One. Fantasy is less thickly supplied with dystopias, I’d say, since for many fans the primary purpose of the genre is escape. So it goes that the broad sunlit uplands, romantic snow-peaked mountains and surging blue waters of your terra fantastica may be under siege or even under occupation by the forces of evil, and so temporally dystopified, but it will only ever be temporary. The book’s Shaytan equivalent is defeated and banished and the drought or plague or whatever lifts from your land. This, though, raises interesting questions about those Fantasy texts that don’t do this, Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, I suppose, being the most obvious counter-example. You might want to live in Middle Earth; indeed, when I was a kid I had periods when I yearned to live there, rather than in my suburban SE English mundaneness. But who would yearn to live in Westeros? Psychos? Masochists? I don't know. The popularity of the books, and especially of the TV series, suggests to me that there are people who do indeed yearn for the escape Westeros represents; presumably an escape from civilisation and its discontents.

It has to do with enchantment, or more specifically it reacts to the sense of modernity as a site of disenchantment. One of the notable thing about Wolfhound Century is the way it wholeheartedly commits to the materialism of the Soviet experiment (it is science fiction; there are even spaceships) and to fantasy of magic, giants, ruskalas, golems, vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches and colossal alien fallen angels. It's both at the same time: a superposition of SF onto Fantasy, or (with appropriately dialectical balance) vice versa, sometimes more and occasionally less effectively achieved but always uncomfortable and powerful. We can say more. To these two modes, or inflections, the trilogy adds a third, since the genre most typically associated with Cold War Russia is neither SF nor Fantasy but the thriller. That’s the element frontloaded in the first volume, Wolfhound Century (2013). The book starts with a nod to the opening scene in Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, with our hero, Police Inspector Vissarion Lom, sitting in a café watching his operation through the window, like Le Carré’s Leamas:
Investigator Vissarion Lom sat in a window booth at the Café Rikhel. Pulses of rain swept up Ansky Prospect, but inside the café in the afternoon crush the air was thick with the smell of coffee, cinnamon bread and damp overcoats. ‘Why don’t you go home’ said Ziller. ‘Nobody’s going to come. I can call you if anything happens. You can be back here in half an hour.
The narrative moves on in a more  Martin Cruz Smith/Gorky Park-y direction from this opening, but it works well. Or at least, it does in the first volume. I mean ‘works well’ in the sense of generating an effective thrillery vibe, a noir mood: the degrees of tension and excitement and that make reading easy. But it proves hard to sustain as the trilogy goes on, since such a vibe depends upon an agent working within the more tightly structured environment of law and order, and towards the end of Wolfhound Century that order breaks down in two ways—the war that the Vlast has been prosecuting comes home to ruin its capital city, and the magical elements in Higgins’s fictional conception become much more heavily foregrounded. Indeed when Higgins tries to return to the ‘Lom is a brilliant investigator overlooked by his superiors because he’s too honest’ vibe halfway through the final volume Radiant State (2015) it doesn’t work nearly so well, because by this stage in the trilogy the tonal logic has shifted comprehensively from policier to Weird Fantasy. It's not a problem, exactly, because the latter element is very powerful. The forest, the giants, the fallen angels and—in Radiant State—the undead soldiers are especially dream-haunting. It’s a question of the larger miscibility of the trilogy's generic ambitions.

Now, as I say, I would argue that this book articulates and therefore appeals to a particular, niche, variety of quasi-nostalgia that a particular sort of person may well feel about the old Soviet Union: that place of tyrannous disaster; that exotic political ‘other’; that homeland to Grossman and Shostakovich and Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn and the Strugatskis and Akhmatova and Tarkovski; that place of Gulags and mass-murder and Stalin and Beria and so much depressing Social Realist strain and muscle. The 'particular sort of person' I'm talking about will probably be of a certain age, and probably on the left.

This is the appropriate moment to bring-in Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread (2002), a book about the strange double-standard the intellectual left apply to Stalinism. He points out that if we play the numbers game then Stalin was worse even than Hitler. And yet there’s this residue of what amounts to affection in western intellectual discourse for that whole world, especially now that it has vanished (no—not vanished, of course: morphed into the mafiaform kleptocracy of the modern Russian Federation). Amis worries away at the why of this in Koba the Dread; and although it got a rough ride from reviewers when it came out, it seems to me one of Marty’s better books.

Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’ We could adapt this as a way of approaching Higgins’s Wolfhound novels. He has created a true description of the Soviet Union that exactly resembles a dark fantasy of the Soviet Union; and it works as well as it does because our sense of the latter elides our sense of the former.

If I have one reservation (I'm a little inhibited from raising it, for reasons noted above) it's that Wolfhound Empire is not a humorous work. For many this will not be a problem; but I felt the absence of the laughter. Amis's Koba subtitle, ‘Laughter and the Twenty Million’, identifies something important, I think. Higgins's Stalin-figure, Josef Kantor, is a parched, driven, psychotic and humourless little man. He is well-drawn, especially in the later books, and Higgins absolutely makes the reader believe in the way his sheer will, and puritanical charisma, drives the people around him on, and forces whole cities, and later whole countries, forward. But Stalin was not humourless. He projected an avuncular geniality, and he often laughed. He was, indeed, often at his most terrifying when he laughed. Amis describes how he, with feigned reluctance, took to the stage at the Bolshoi Theater in 1937 and agreed, with faux-modesty, to be a candidate in the upcoming ‘election’. What Amis focusses on is the servile laughter that greeted him. He quotes a contemporary transcript (‘ ... of course, I could have said something light about anything and everything. [laughter] ... I understand there are masters of that sort of thing not just in the capitalist countries, but here, too, in our Soviet country. [laughter, applause]...’) and glosses:
Ground zero of the Great Terror—and here was the Party, joined in a panic attack of collusion in yet another enormous lie. They clapped, they laughed. Did he laugh? Do we hear it—the ‘soft, dull, sly laugh,’ the ‘grim, dark laughter, which comes up from the depths’?
Amis then makes the connection with the laughter of western socialists, remembering his old friend Christopher Hitchens addressing a London audience in 1999 in a venue that had often hosted socialist and communist gatherings. Hitchens made reference to this past, and, Amis says, was greeted with 'affectionate laughter.' Of this, and leaning a little too heavily on the outrage pedal, Amis asks:
Why is it? Why is it? If Christopher had referred to his many evenings with many ‘an old blackshirt,’ the audience would have been outraged ... Well, with such an affiliation in his past, Christopher would not be Christopher—or anyone else of the slightest distinction whatsoever. Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub? One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous laughter? And what kind of laughter is it? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million.
The larger argument in the book is not quite so self-righteously dismissive. Amis understands, I'd say, that the laughter, dark or desperate, cruel or even liberating, was part of the whole Soviet experiment in a way not true of the Nazi one. The laughter does not deflect, but on the contrary illuminates, the horrors. Nor should we confuse laughter with levity. On the contrary, indeed. In his own review of Koba the Dread, Hitchens himself recalls a footnote to Amis's earlier book, Experience:
Batting away a critic [Amis] describes as ‘humorless,’ he adds, ‘And by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.’
I like that very much. Indeed, it seems to me really quite profound. Hitchens's point, I suppose, is that Amis loses his sense of this great truth in the thickets of horror and outrage that hem in Koba the Dread. There's something in that.

Well: I don't want to perpetrate the fatuity of criticizing Higgins for not writing the kind of book he never set out to write in the first place. I'm entitled, as any one is, to write a quasi-una-fantasia Soviet SF novel structured via irony and laughter if I want to (and have indeed done so). Earlier I praised Spufford's Red Plenty, and one of the things that works so well about that book is its effortless wit. Spufford can be very funny when he wants to be. Miéville, I have to say, can't: despite his many excellences, laughter is not part of his skill-set. So perhaps the comparisons with Bas-Lag have some point after all.

'Why is it? Why is it?' asks Amis. Why the double standard? A Wolfhound Century set in Nazi Germany—The Adolf Century—would indeed be a much less palatable prospect; but why? One possible explanation that Koba the Dread doesn’t consider is: orientalism. The Nazis (according to this logic) did unspeakably wicked things and in doing so they betrayed the high ideals of post-Enlightenment civilized European values. Conversely, the Soviet authorities committed all manner of barbarity, violence and cruelty—but the Soviet Union was an oriental, not a Western, regime, and, as the deep-rooted prejudice goes, those orientals have always been all about the exotic barbarism and colourful violence. They did not fall from so high a eminence in our estimation, because they didn’t occupy such a perch in the first place. It’s bollocks, of course; and whatever problems there are with Said’s Orientalism (and there are plenty of problems) its polemical spearing of the mendacity of this caricature remains powerful. But the fact that it is bollocks hasn't stopped it permeating western culture and society.

Michael Ignatieff, looking back on the Communist experiment from the vantage of the mid-1990s, suggested that Soviet Russia was
a violent but passing form of Oriental despotism, as relentless as Fascism, as single-minded in its appropriation of modernity’s tools to oppress and control, yet fatally compromised, both by its organised contempt for those in whose name it ruled, and by the central conceit that there could be a systematic, total alternative to capitalism. Here, Fascism was shrewder, because it vampirised the capitalist system; it did not wish to break it up, and so could deliver both the goods and the terror. It is because Fascism can live with capitalism that it will remain as a possible nightmare for us long after the last Communist is dead and buried.
Interesting that Ignatieff feels unembarrassed about deploying an orientalist stereotype in his analysis of his grandfather’s fatherland.

I'm not, incidentally, suggesting that the Wolfhound Century books are 'orientalist' in this fashion. It's true that Higgins eschews the trappings of post-Tolkien ‘western’ or northern-European fantasy (wizards and dragons and elves, oh my) for an Eastern Fantasy of ruskalas and endless forests. But he does so wholeheartedly from the perspective of the Vlast: the West (here, the 'archipelago') is a marginal presence. Higgins wholly commits to his Vlast as a lived-in habitus. This is in no way an orientalist novel.


In A Secular Age (2007) Charles Taylor fleshes out, at impressive length, the Weberian thesis of disenchantment as constitutive of modernity.
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.
Alan Jacobs discusses the pros and cons of this state of affairs:
a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark — of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family ... The problem with this apparently straightforward transaction is that the porous self is open to the divine as well as to the demonic, while the buffered self is closed to both alike. Those who must guard against capture by fairies are necessarily and by the same token receptive to mystical experiences. The “showings” manifested to Julian of Norwich depend upon exceptional sensitivity, which is to say porosity — vulnerability to incursions of the supernatural. The portals of the self cannot be closed on one side only. But the achievement of a safely buffered personhood — closed off from both the divine and the demonic — is soon enough accompanied by a deeply felt change in the very cosmos. As C. S. Lewis notes in The Discarded Image (1964), the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” gives way to the modern person who perceives only emptiness and silence. Safety is purchased at the high price of isolation, as we see as early as Pascal, who famously wrote of the night sky, “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”).
Jacobs goes on to explore the way some modern Fantasy novels (and some other modern things) attempt a mode of re-enchantment. What makes the deeply-felt, poetic and absorbing re-enchantment of Wolfhound Empire so remarkably is the very fact that Higgins attempts it in a fictional version of the acme of dialectical materialism. It's one thing to re-enchant the old England of Mythago Wood; it's another to try and re-enchant Leningrad (the source, I assume, for Higgins's Mirgorod). To try and make myself clear, at the risk of merely repeating myself: Higgins's ambition leads him to embed fantasy enchantment in the least hospitable territory imaginable: a land of Stalinist five-year-plans, sprawling urbanisation and nuclear-pulse rockets. What's so remarkable is how close he comes to pulling this off.

Taylor's A Secular Age argues that we have replaced the numinous apprehension of a cosmos brimming with spiritual grace and danger with what he calls the 'immanent frame' of the moral and existential perspectives of reason and science. Taylor's 'buffered self' is an aspect of this immanent frame, and although he thinks there have been significant attempts to re-enchant the world—he mentions Romantic poetry and philosophy, “New Age” spirituality, various religious fundamentalisms—none of these have broken the immanent frame. For Higgins to join these variegated frame-breakers manqués by choosing the industrial wastelands and furious materialism of Soviet Russia is very bold indeed. That he comes as close as he does to pulling it off is even more remarkable.

By ‘pulling it off’, I don't mean ‘dismantling Taylor's immanent frame altogether’. That would indeed be a big ask. It is enough to attempt to add a third element to Marx and Engels's famous Communist Manifesto declaration. All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned; all that is repressed returns. I think this may be why the half-alive zombie soldier-corpses in Radiant State, dreamily wandering woodland and village, all in their various loops (as the HBO Westworld would put it)—why these characters resonated so powerfully with me. At the heart of this trilogy is a haunting of some kind. Something is trying to get back in, some third element. Trilectical Materialism, maybe.

Still: coming close to pulling it off isn't the same as pulling it off. The epistemological fictions of detection and Modernism chafe, sometimes, against the ontological fictions of High Fantasy. The strain of aligning the two modes, the Soviet-modern-SF one and the Old-Russian arborial magical one, becomes a particular focus of Radiant State, where time itself is pulled into two parallel but differently-paced iterations. It's one of the ways Higgins differs to (and I'd say is better than) Miéville. The Bas Lag novels refract their ideological critique and engagement into in-text monsters and weirdnesses, oddnesses concocted out of Miéville's imagination. Wolfhound Empire of course contains many traditional Russian fantastikons, but its real work is in refracting the Soviet union into this formal, structural disarrangement. Because it is structural it is more systemic, and that works better.

What this is, I suppose, is another way of addressing the question of re-enchantment. Conceivably it is Higgins's commitment to this that explains why SF/Fantasy readers haven't seemed to know quite what to make of his trilogy. Miéville's fantasies are many things, but they are not enchanted (I suspect Miéville shares Moorcock's distrust of the whole enchantment kit-and-caboodle as bourgeois mystification and crypto-fascist little-englander nostalgia). But Higgins, though far from bourgeois in his sensibilities and aesthetics, is interested in enchantment. There is a magic in these novels, in a strong version of the word's double-sense—doubled, that is, in the sense of content and mood. There are problems with this, I think: but whatever else it is, it is a royal road to the marvellous.

Sunday 29 January 2017

'Death to the Reading Class'?

This Fortnightly Review piece by Marshall Poe really doesn't pay-out on its provocative title. Poe doesn't actually want the class to which he and I both belong to perish. He just thinks it needs to accommodate newer visual cultures. Well alright then.
Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read. Note that we have no reading organs: our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets. To prepare our eyes and brains for reading, we must rewire them. This process takes years of hard work to accomplish, and some people never accomplish it all. Moreover, even after you’ve learned to read, you probably won’t find reading to be very much fun. It consumes all of your attention, requires active thought, and makes your eyes hurt. For most people, then, reading is naturally hard and, therefore, something to be avoided if at all possible.
I grok a wrongness here, although of course this may simply be my personal, bibliophilic bias showing. Still: wouldn't this logic apply to plenty of other things too? It's a struggle getting my 9-year-old to read, but he loves-loves-loves playing video games. Humans, though, weren't evolved to play video games; all that tricky digital manipulation of the controller, all that arcane acquisition of the rules and conventions of the game. People like driving cars, and sipping VSOP brandy, and playing Real Tennis, and building scale-model Taj Mahals out of matchsticks. None of these things run along the grain of our evolutionary development. ('Note that we have no car-driving organs ...')

Thursday 26 January 2017

"(Thyes)tes me, tease me / Tease me, tease me baby / Till I lose control"

Not going to apologise for that title.

So, yes, this is a post about Seneca's great tragedy Thyestes; and yes, that's how you pronounce its final syllable (long 'e', you see). Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in AD 1, in Spain. He was the son of a famous philosopher (Seneca the elder) and went on to become an even more famous philosopher himself. Of the ten tomato-coloured volumes of the ‘Loeb Classical Library’ Seneca only two are drama—there's the one containing the Thyestes, at the top of this post. The other volumes are all letters and philosophical works that articulate his controlled and Stoic approach to life. But it’s his take on tragedy that interests me here, specifically in response to the aesthetic tenets laid down so famously by Aristotle, katharsis and so on.

All the best classical tragic drama is, if you believe the critics, Greek. There are thousands of monographs on the Aeschylean and Sophoclean and Euripidean stuff, and only a few specialists resurrecting the musty violence of the Latin. It’s difficult to deny that Attic drama has a much greater importance for our current literatures than the Roman plays. But of course there’s one sense in which Seneca has been even more influential on the development of tragedy. This is because it was Seneca, and not particularly the Greeks, who exercised the greatest influence on English Renaissance drama, and therefore upon the world’s single most significant writer of tragedy—I mean Shakespeare, of course. It’s a old chestnut of Shakespearean studies how much he took from Seneca, not only in-effect rewriting the Thyestes (in Titus Andronicus) but also developing the very Senecan, very Thyestian (and profoundly un-Greek) theme of revenge in a play such as Hamlet. It can, then, be something of a disappointment actually to read a play like the Thyestes. It really does come over as rather unpleasant, even crude. Body horror.

For one thing, it's not dramatically very interesting: the five ‘acts’ (though ‘act’ needs to go in inverted commas, since there’s nothing in the original text to indicate that it was designed to be broken down into separate scenes or acts despite the Renaissance assumptions on that score)—the five acts are rather discontinuous from one another. First we have the ghost of Tantalus and his goading Fury; after they exit they never return to the stage. Then we have a scene with Atreus planning his revenge, followed by a scene in which Atreus greets his brother with a false bonhomie: neither is very dramatically kinetic or engaging. There’s very little action, no development of character or plot. We do get a couple of extra, minor characters, but the whole drama depends really on only these two players. Then there is a scene in which a messenger reports actions from offstage—exciting if revolting, but removed from the audience by being reported at second hand. Only in the last act, in which Atreus gloatingly reveals his hideous crime to his brother, do we see some dramatic action.

In other words, and for the benefit of those who aren’t as familiar with the play as perhaps they should be, here’s a summary of its structure:
‘Act 1’ The ghost of Tantalus is summoned from Hades by a Fury to work evil in the royal house of Argos, his own descendants. Tantalus is reluctant, but is compelled.
Choral ode 1: A prayer that the gods will end the tradition of evildoing that has dogged the house of Argos.

‘Act 2’ Atreus prepares to take revenge on his brother, Thyestes. His attendant is horrified by his schemes.
Choral ode 2: True kingship is not about power over others but power over oneself. The chorus praises the life lived in rustic obscurity.

‘Act 3’ Thyestes returns to Argos from exile. He does not trust his brother, but is persuaded by his son. Atreus greets him warmly and dresses him in royal robes.
Choral ode 3: The chorus praises the change from hatred to love in the relationship between the two brothers, noting with unwitting irony that nothing endures.

‘Act 4’ A messenger describes how Atreus sacrificed Thyestes sons, cut their bodies up and cooked them.
Choral ode 4: An ode of horror at the violation of the natural order—there is darkness at noon, and surely the world is coming to an end.

‘Act 5’ Thyestes is enjoying the feast that Atreus has prepared for him, but has strange misgivings. Atreus reveals what he has been eating his own offspring. Horrified Thyestes prays to the gods for justice, but without response.
In other words, as drama and judged by the standards we now tend to apply to theatrical work, Thyestes is a static, awkwardly constructed piece, saved from a wholly debilitating clumsiness only by the dark intensity and unremittingness with which it treats its central topic. On the other hand many critics see in the play’s pared down focus a startlingly modern, almost absurdist potency lacking in other classical drama: more Beckett or Anouilh than Euripides or Aeschylus.

One thing that critics of ‘tragedy’ have tried to decide, then, is whether this Roman development of the form simply negates Aristotelian aesthetic tenets:—a new focus on the nihilistic, godless extremes of human violence; a shift from an emphasis the place of catharsis in provoking psychological health to unremitting horrors that are likely to provoke only disgust and despair. Where does this leave tragedy? Any place good?

Norman Pratt identifies two separate sorts of tragic impulse. He takes Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy as representative of what he considers a particular Greek form of tragedy. Then he looks at Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play famous for its Senecan horrors, (most notoriously, the scene played on stage, in front of the audience, in which poor old Gloster gets his eyes thumbed out), the extreme and horrific degeneration of a noble king into madness and beggary and so on.
Oedipus is trying to make sense in a world that does not make sense. He is in a divinely ordered system where his rational purpose is disastrously turned against him by the force of capricious circumstance. The divine order brings disorder to human experience. If in this fashion we can say that Oedipus transmits the picture of disorder in nature, Shakespearian criticism is in substantial agreement that King Lear expresses the theme of nature in disorder. The terms “disorder in nature” for Sophocles and “nature in disorder” for Shakespeare are only superficial catch phrases, but they show a contrast between two types of tragedy, radically different in their conceptions of evil. In Oedipus nature wounds human life. Suffering is built constituently into the nature makeup of how things are …. In Lear nature itself is not defective, but only part of it, the human dimension. [Norman T. Pratt, Seneca’s Drama (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1983), p.6]
Now here’s a very notable oddity. In Seneca’s plays, and despite the fact that they unmistakeably take place in the pagan universe of ancient Greek and Roman myth (a world in which gods and mortals promiscuously interact, and gods actually appear on stage), characters repeatedly wonder where the gods are, or pointedly deny that the gods even exist. It really is a very puzzling thing. When Thyestes returns to Argos he talks of ‘my native soil and the gods of my father (if there really are gods)—(si sunt tamen di)’ [406-7]; and the play ends with Thyestes praying for the gods of vengeance to come—a prayer that remains noticeably unanswered. The last line of the play is giving over to Atreus’s mockery, not to any deus dangling down from any machine to mete and dole justice. In Seneca’s Medea, Medea kills her own children to spite her husband Jason; and the play ends with her flying away in a chariot pulled by flying dragons. The last lines of that play are Jason’s: ‘travel on high through the lofty spaces of heaven, and bear witness where you ride that there are no gods’ [testare nullos esse deos, 1027].

To restate Pratt’s view in more banal terms: the story of Thyestes and the ruthless violence of Atreus is not so much about the cruelty of the cosmos as it is about the evil in men’s hearts. Accordingly there is an inward, choking, human corporeality about the plays. It is the revolting intimacy of Thyestes devouring his own children, which turns us away from the ‘higher’ concerns of any spiritual realm.

Alessandro Schiesaro considers the Thyestes 'the most important of Seneca's tragedies, Thyestes, which has had a notable influence on Western drama from Shakespeare to Antonin Artaud'. During the course of his book-length study, 'Thyestes emerges as the mastertext of "Silver" Latin poetry, and as an original reflection on the nature of theatre comparable to Euripides' Bacchae. More than this, Schiesaro argues that this horrible practice of eating your offspring is 'actually' about incest and the incest taboo. As he puts it: ‘incest “pollutes” the body with the seed of a close relation … eating one’s own children is a similar form of unacceptable ingestion’ [Alessandro Schiesaro, The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press 2003), 94]. Instead of being quite separate things, Atreus ‘identifies between these two very different gestures [incest, familial cannibalism] a common element which becomes central to his thinking’. In doing this he is, says Schiesaro, ‘follow[ing] a form of logic that is akin to the logic of the unconscious.’ It seems inevitable that Freud must come into the critical equation: ‘it is one of the greatest achievements of post-Freudian thought to have realized that this strange logic, where symmetry replaces the rigid conventions of Aristotelian thought, is actually an ineliminable component of the mind, given free rein in the workings of the unconscious but normally kept at bay during conscious activity’. This, in a nutshell, and sic as regards the inelegant neologism ‘ineliminable’, is the approach Schiesaro takes to the Thyestes.

Is this right? Does Thyestes represent the supercession of rational, ordered Aristotelian tragedy by something irrational, something driven and subconscious? I could put this another way. We might want to see Aristotle’s Poetics, with its firm rule and its assurance that literature like tragedy can be accounted for, defined and determined, as the conscious component of the literary psyche; and the weird horrors of Senecan tragedy, its dissociated nightmare-like succession of images, its unrestrained expression of the most brutal impulses of humanity towards revenge and violence, as the subconscious element. Critics often talk in these terms about literature more generally, or more precisely, they often work within this kind of unstated paradigm: as if, for instance, the balanced, rational fictions of Jane Austen embodies the ‘conscious’ mind of late eighteenth-century literature, where the buried horrors and haunted catacombs of the Gothic novel represent its ‘subconscious’. There's a danger in being too fatuously literal-minded in the way we deploy Freud's metaphors, of course; but I wonder if there isn't something in here.

If I have one main problem with Schiesaro’s approach it is this: I can think of very few dramas less sexually conceived than Thyestes. It is a play almost entirely purged of erotic charge; or perhaps it would be close to the truth to say that all the erotic charge is sublimated into the more primal appetites of revenge, self-glorying, of eating and drinking. There are no female characters at all in this play, which is a very striking thing, when you think about it. Neither do the text's various male characters express any sensual or homosexual impulses. Where’s the sex? It has been, we might say, crowded out by the horror. Some people get turned on by silk stockings; some by gas masks; but I don’t know the name given to the perversion whereby people become sexually aroused at the prospect of a father literally devouring the flesh of his children

But is this the way horror actually works? I ask because I wonder if something closer to the reverse isn't, actually, the case? I’m thinking of how sexualised most Gothic horrors are, or most horror films today: the logic of the genre is that it almost has to be sexy young teens being terrorised by violent ghosts and monsters precisely because the libidinal response and the excitements of fear and thrill are so closely associated for most of us. So why is Thyestes so thoroughly unsexy?

Maybe this question comes across as merely fatuous, but I ask it to try and get to something that I think is important about the way the play works. And Schiesaro may well be right to argue that Freud provides a very useful way of understanding how the play works. Take for instance Freud’s interest in inversion, the way some obsession or fascination in the subconscious mind only emerges into consciousness in flipped-about form. To decipher one’s dreams or neuroses it is often necessary, Freud suggests, to look to the opposite of what they apparently mean.

One thing that critics have often noticed about Thyestes is that, despite being one of the darkest and most distressing plays ever written, it nevertheless takes the form of comedy: or more specifically that the play inverts comic topoi. John Fitch (in the introduction to his Loeb translation, the edition pictured at the head of this post) notes the ‘familiar comic pattern’ by which ‘young people escape the control of their elders and establish themselves as adults’. A feast is often a central feature of comic drama, the celebration of life and healthy appetite at which everybody eats their fill of good food and drinks themselves happy. Both these tropes get spun about in Thyestes: most obviously the ‘comic feast’ is hideously inverted; nothing further from the joyful celebration of life can be imagined. Fitch notes that ‘the inversion of natural processes is particularly clear when children are thrust back into the body of the parent in a travesty of birth and pregnancy (see lines 999-1000, 1041-44)’ [Fitch, 226]. When we look further into the matter we find that the key dramatic devices of the Thyestes are precisely the mainstays of comic drama: a character misled by another, trickster character; the misunderstanding which brings the main character low and so on. Reading Thyestes though the lens of psychoanalysis might give us the feeling that we’re making sense of its otherwise rather baffling perversity. And it does seem to me that the perversity of this play has indeed baffled commentators, some of whom have been disinclined to call the play tragic at all. Here’s Fitch again:
Though unmistakeably a masterpiece, is Thyestes’ effect that of tragedy? It does not evoke that sympathy for the victims of disaster on which many Greek tragedies base their emotional effect: for Thyestes is too weak-willed, too gross in his feasting, too dim-witted in comparison with his brother, to command much sympathy. Atreus himself is paradoxically far more attractive, at least initially: in his exuberant ruthlessness, in his frank devotion to power as the only good, in his macabre wit, he has an appeal like that of Shakespeare’s Richard III. But he becomes repellent in his demented sacrificing of the youngsters, and in his sadistic toying with Thyestes. [Fitch, 225]
The way out of this cul-de-sac is not to see the play as being about ‘character’ in the full sense (and perhaps not even about ‘character’ in the Greek sense), so much as it is about appetite itself. Indeed, one way of taking Thyestes would be to see it as a dramatic exaggeration of appetite until that alone becomes the sole substantive constituent of human character. The actors in this drama are like children without authority figures to control them in; children given absolute free rein to their urges. Perhaps it’s this very childishness that explains the absence of sex in this play. Young children understand some appetites very well (food, anger, joy, misery) but have no purchase on the post-pubertal peculiarities of sex.

There’s one particular feature of Seneca’s portrayal of this play’s horrible scelus—its crime, or villainy—that particularly strikes me: and that’s the way a purely human atrocity infects the whole of the natural world. The sky goes dark in the face of such infamy. The messenger, reporting Atreus’ murder of the children, addresses the sun: ‘O patient Phoebus … you have fled backwards, snatched the day from mid-heaven’ [776-7] such that ‘the evil deed is smothered in strange darkness by oppressive night at an alien time’ [786-7]. The chorus pick up the theme: Phoebus has left the sky in disgust at this human iniquity, and surely the end of the world is foretold:
The regular cycles of heaven are lost;
sunset and sunrise will not exist.
The dewy mother of dawning light,
accustomed to hand the eastern reins
to the god, is stunned
by such disorder on her kingdom’s threshold [813-18]

[The Sun] bids the darkness rise, yet night
is not yet ready;
no stars appear in their turn, no fires
gleam in the ether,
no moon disperses the heavy shadows.

Our hearts are shaken and trembling, trembling
with enormous fear
lest the shattered cosmos fall in the ruin
ordained by fate,
lest gods and humans be engulfed once more
in formless chaos …. [823-33]
Of course the world doesn’t end. Despite the enormity of the chorus’s (and our) horror, the world continues on its way. In fact, despite the artistic rightness of this perhaps melodramatic insistence on darkness at noon, there is when we reflect upon it something rather pitifully naive about it. All our experience teaches us that, horrible though Atreus’s crime is, human beings have committed crimes, and uncountably many of them, that are much worse; and that when these things happen the cosmos takes absolutely no notice at all. The sun rises and sets no matter how beastly we are to one another. George Steiner’s Death of Tragedy book ends with a coda that relates a true-life story from WWII. Captured Russian officers were being detained by Nazi guards in a Polish castle. Supplies of food, erratic towards the end of the war, ceased entirely in the winter of 1944-45. The guards ate what they had, but there was nothing for their dogs, so they turned the hunger-maddened Alsatians on the Russian prisoners. Shortly after this the Nazis retreated, leaving the remaining Russian officers locked in the castle’s cellar. Those who survived did so by devouring their colleagues. Advancing Russian troops found the last few alive. They gave them a good meal and then shot them all, lest the Russian soldiers see to what depravity their commanding officers could be driven. The castle was then burnt to the ground.

This is a very nasty story, made all the nastier by the fact that it is true. Steiner does not consider it tragic, because he thinks the Holocaust, in its meaningless and nihilistic hideousness, has emptied the significance from the very concept of tragedy and rendered it void. For Steiner this story is merely horrible, with a deep horror of the sort that Conrad's Kurtz famously glimpsed in his last moments. But what interests me here is how sickeningly familiar this sort of thing is to our sensibilities. And the point about that is that when we hear this story we don’t, of course, expect also to hear that the sun fled the sky in disgust, or that the stars refused the glint the darkness because of man’s iniquity. The enormous indifference of the cosmos to every human being is one truth that every person learns as they grown out of childhood and into adulthood.

This in turn makes me wonder whether Seneca’s pathetic fallacy undermines and even, in a peculiar way, trivialises the story of Atreus and Thyestes. It is in a strict sense childish to think that our transgressions are directly mirrored in the universe as a whole, like young Pip in Great Expectations stealing food and a file for Magwitch and then running through a landscape he sees as accusing of his crime: every cow looking at him seems to be saying ‘stop thief’ and the fog he runs through symbolically embodies his own ethical confusion. In Dickens’s novel this is more obviously the pathetic fallacy, because we understand that the guilt is in Pip’s mind, not the external world, even as we understand that his guilt is colouring his perspective on the outside world. But in Thyestes the starless darkness at noon is presented as an objective fact. What are we to make of it?

In part it is a very accurate embodiment of the cosmic pretensions of tragedy itself: the suffering in tragedy is always a particular, human suffering. Yet so many critics want to claim that the significance of tragedy is precisely that it articulates a universal significance. Isn’t this just based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between human life and the universe?

Thyestes is a childish tragedy; and I use the adjective neither flippantly nor pejoratively. It inhabits a mode of childish intensity, one in which those appetites that loom most large for children (hunger and physical appetites; rage and the desire to get your own back) assume monstrously god-blotting-out proportions. It is a sexless world because it is in touch with the primary experience of all of us: the prepubertal child’s vehemence. It is an intimate world, physically and spiritually, because when you are a child everything is close to you. It is a universe that is both god-filled (every corner bears the mark of the magical authority of the gods) and godless precisely because children comprehend the godlessness of the cosmos, even if they cannot articulate it. What I mean by this last shocking assertion is that, although many children believe in God they do so from a structure of belief and experience in which the conceptualising of God (as carer, as rulemaker, as the horizon of the world) elides for young children very precisely with their experience of their parents, and adults in general. God is both a magical presence, and merely another sort of adult. And because Seneca’s play is all these things it makes the most profound point about our adultish appropriation of tragedy. We flatter ourselves that we understand tragedy in a way that children cannot; their lives are too limited, they can’t count to six million and therefore can’t grasp the holocaust. This is very wongheaded of us. The anxieties we experience (Is there a god? Does my wife really love me? Will I lose my job?), whilst real, are milk-and-water compared to the horror that children face every night with the monster in the closet, or in the shadows of the corner of their bedroom. For adults, angst and even tragedy is a portion of our lives; but for children, moment by moment, it is everything and all consuming. And that’s what Seneca’s strangely over-focused and powerfully ghastly play captures.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Further Thoughts on the Problem of Susan

'The Problem of Susan' is Neil Gaiman's phrase for what happens to Susan Pevensie in C S Lewis's Narnia books. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Susan and her sister Lucy personally witness the death of Aslan, weep over his corpse and witness his resurrection. Aslan personally crowns her Queen of Narnia, along with her sister, as he crowns her two brothers Kings of Narnia. Then Susan goes back to our world, with her sister and brothers. Later Narnia novels shift the focus increasingly away from the Pevensies, until the end of the sequence when Lewis inserts them, rather abruptly, into the very last chapter of The Last Battle. At this point, though, Susan is not with them. Narnia is finished; the friends of Narnia get to go to the heaven of which Narnia itself was but a shadow. Peter, Edmund and Lucy, having all been killed at the same time in an our-earthly train-crash, find themselves suddenly in Narnia, and from there proceed to the real heaven. As a bibliophile, I've always loved the way Lewis describes this latter destination:
For them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Not Susan, though. She is no longer a 'friend of Narnia'. Indeed, she no longer believes Narnia is real ('Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children', she tells Eustace, dismissively, back in our world). The killer is this assessment of Susan's priorities from Jill Pole: 'she's interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.' Invitations to parties, that is. In a word: sex has become more important in her adult life than Narnia. Ergo: no heaven for her! J K Rowling in an 2004 interview summed up the 'problem of Susan' thesis:
There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.
Quite. Now, one can consider (as I do) the gender politics of Lewis's writing problematic in lots of ways without considering him a dedicated sexist or misogynist. Indeed, I really don't believe he was either of those latter things. To read his theological works is to see that he didn't have a problem with sex as such. He had a problem with people becoming so focused on sex that it crowded out the things that really matter in life, like the young couple at the beginning of The Great Divorce so caught-up in one another's physical allure that they literally can't see the road to heaven that's right in front of him. For myself that line of argument, which clearly has some merit to it, would be more convincing if Lewis included any (to use the modern jargon) 'sex positive' representation at all in his Narnian writing. We can speculate why he doesn't. It's an unsurprising omission in children's books written in the 1950s, I suppose.

When I teach Narnia, a good proportion of my students become quite animated in their critique of the books' gender politics: Lewis making his satanic figure of evil a beautiful woman, for example; the lack of female agency when compared to male among the various characters; the problem of Susan itself. I used to be with them on that. But my perspective on the problem of Susan was altered by this clever and, I think, perceptive essay by my friend Alan Jacobs, written in response to an earlier blog post I wrote on this matter. The 'gender critique' perspective on Susan's lack of access (maybe temporary, maybe permanent) to the true Narnian heaven is: she's excluded because she has become a sexually mature woman. Alan disagrees:
I think that the right way to put it is to say that Susan simply chooses not to return to Narnia. That we paltry little humans have the power to refuse God is a point that Lewis returns to often in his theological writings. As he writes in The Problem of Pain, if we demand that God leave us alone, “that is what he does” — and, interestingly, Lewis prefaces that statement with an “Alas,” as though he might well prefer God to operate in another way. (Which also helps us understand that in sparing Susan from the train wreck that kills the rest of her family he is trying to give her a chance to turn back around towards Narnia. However, the emotional tenor of all this is muddled by this catastrophic contrivance to get the rest of the Pevensies into Narnia one last time; it's one of Lewis's unwisest narrative choices.)

I think this point — that we can refuse God and that some of us do — was important enough to Lewis that he was determined to get it into the Narnia books, but how was he to do it? The point wouldn't be made strongly enough if any of the less dominant characters embodied it, so it had to be one of the Pevensies. He couldn't make Lucy a backslider: she was the one who had always had the greatest faith and the greatest spiritual discernment. And he couldn't use Edmund either, since any renunciation of Aslan by Edmund would destroy the whole portrayal of Edmund's redemption in the first book. So it had to be either Peter or Susan, and I suspect that Lewis was not quite ready to face the possible theological implications of the High King of Narnia becoming a rebel against Aslan. So Susan it had to be. Lewis was backed into a structural corner, as it were.

This is not to say that Lewis didn't have some deeply troubling ideas about women, only that I think he couldn't have gone in another direction if he were going to make this theological point about our ability to be “successful rebels to the end.”
This seems to me the most likely explanation for why Lewis wrote Susan the way he did (I actually give this passage to my students for discussion).

Lately though I've been re-thinking Susan. Quite possibly I've been over-thinking Susan. The thing is: the way we style the throwaway reference at the end of The Last Battle as 'the problem of Susan' makes it into the problem of puberty. The thing about that is that we tend to forget Susan has already gone through puberty, at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. All the Pevensies have done the same. The experience has turned them less into sexual beings and more into Renaissance Fair cosplayers:
“And more,” said Queen Lucy, “for it will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern either we shall find strange adventures or else some great change in our fortunes.”

“Madam,” said King Edmund, “the like foreboding stirreth in my heart also.”

“And in mine, fair brother,” said King Peter.

“And in mine too,” said Queen Susan. “Wherefore by my counsel we shall lightly return to our horses and follow this White Stag no further.”

“Madam,” said King Peter, “therein I pray thee to have me excused. For never since we four were Kings and Queens in Narnia have we set our hands to any high matter, as battles, quests, feats of arms, acts of justice, and the like, and then given over; but always what we have taken in hand, the same we have achieved.”

“Sister,” said Queen Lucy, “my royal brother speaks rightly. And it seems to me we should be shamed if for any fearing or foreboding we turned back from following so noble a beast as now we have in chase.”

“And so say I,” said King Edmund. “And I have such desire to find the signification of this thing that I would not by my own good will turn back for the richest jewel in all Narnia and all the islands.”

“Then in the name of Aslan,” said Queen Susan, “if ye will all have it so, let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, ch 17]
The white stag here is either Lewis's gesture towards Celtic mythology (in which the uncatchable stag represents the beckoning other-world; quite a neat reversal if so, for Narnia's otherworld, here, is our mundane one) or else, perhaps, it is a nod towards Saint Eustace. Eustace was a high-up Roman general who converted to Christianity during a hunt, when the stag he was hunting displayed a crucifix in amongst its antlers.

[Lovely image there, by an artist called Swandog]. Conceivably Lewis thought back to this stag when he came up with the name for Eustace Scrubb. But could the stag in some way stand for grown-up sexuality, some iteration of a sex-positive Christianity not in thrall to the dreaded lipstick, nylons and invitations? A clean sort of desire? Hard to parse it that way, I think. Ezra P might disagree:
I ha' seen them mid the clouds on the heather.
Lo! they pause not for love nor for sorrow,
Yet their eyes are as the eyes of a maid to her lover,
When the white hart breaks his cover
And the white wind breaks the morn.

Tis the white stag, Fame, we're a-hunting,
Bid the world's hounds come to horn!’
I suppose 'they', there, is us, humanity, chasing our ever-receding quarry with eyes of love-yearning. Which is all well and good, except that, at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it is Susan who advocates giving up the pursuit: 'wherefore by my counsel we shall follow this White Stag no further'.

I wonder if it doesn't present, in effect, as a kind of thought-experiment. What would happen if you went through puberty into adulthood, then reverted abruptly to childhood again, and then went through puberty a second time? Speaking for myself I'd like to hope I'd handle the whole business better. But the Narnia books say the reverse: Susan handles puberty well, winds back time, goes through it again and makes a hash of it.

We could read this several ways. One would be to say: 'growing to adulthood is less sin-prone in Narnia than in our world'. But another would be more, shall we say, Tiresian. Imagine you could try puberty twice, first (for want of a better word) 'virtuously', the second time (again: terminology is tricky) lustfully. Could it be that the order in which Susan goes through these twinned experiences tends, conceivably even to Tiresias's proportion of nine-parts-to-one, to the conclusion: a virtuous puberty is fine, but a lustful puberty is ... better.

Monday 16 January 2017

Dante and Clive: Live

Over the last few days I've been re-reading some Dante, in part because I've been kicking around the idea that Tennyson wrote his Maud on Dantean lines (you can read the post that resulted from that kickage here). Since my Italian is molto molto rudimentale, that has meant pulling up the online Divina Commedia, opening my English translations, and picking my way awkwardly through. Those translations happen (through no very carefully planned-out strategy) to be: the Dorothy L Sayers version of the whole poem, Robin Kirkpatrick's more recent and not-at-all-bad Penguin Inferno, and Clive James's 2014 rendering.

Pausing only to note what a great title "Penguin Inferno" would be for a major motion picture, I'll go on to:

I've always liked reading Clive James's prose. His writing provokes in me a mixture of delight and professional envy at his technical chops—writing good comic prose is really hard to do, and James writes truly excellent comic prose. His poetry has always seemed to me a lesser achievement, although writing poetry is clearly something that matters to him immensely. Still, I've read a lot of it (the poetry I mean), and acknowledging that comedy isn't the function of most of his verse, I have found some things to admire in some of it. So when his Dante translation came out in paperback a few months ago, I treated myself and bought the book.

I can't say I've been able to read the whole thing, straight through, which, I think, is what the book would like me to do. Not for want of trying, either. But I've had some long stretches with it. So far I'm struck mostly by a kind of mismatch between the stated aims, in the nifty preface, and the actual verse. I feel boorish saying so, actually, since the preface makes very plain that the whole, huge enterprise of Englishing, or Australianing, the Divine Comedy is all bound up with James's wife, an academic Dante specialist, and a woman James is very open about having repeatedly wronged. The two are separated now, and James is dying, which makes him offering-up this undertaking to her rather moving. And what he says about the difficulty of rendering the original is persuasive. He recalls his wife, from their courtship days, taking through some of the many patterns in Dante's writing:
One of the first moments she picked out of the text to show me what the master versifier could do was when Francesca tells Dante what drove her and Paolo over the brink and into the pit of sin. In English it would go something like:
We read that day for delight
About Lancelot, how love bound him.
She read it in Italian.
Noi leggevam quel giorno per delitto
Di Lancelotto, come l’amor lo strinse.
After the sound “-letto” end the first line, the placing of “-lotto” at the start of the second line gives it the power of a rhyme, only more so. How does that happen? You have to look within.
This is a simple but wonderfully telling point. James goes on to note how often English translations, by straining for the rhymes at the end of their lines (rhyme being so much harder in English than in Italian) butcher the echt Dantean tone. 'Dante isn’t thinking of rhyme,’ James says, ‘which is too easy in Italian to be thought a technical challenge: in fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.’ He adds:
Dante’s overt rhyme scheme is only the initial framework by which the verse structure moves forward. Within the terzina, there is all this other intense interaction going on. Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn’t just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.
I like the thought of this last sentiment very much; and it sets us up to look for this internalised dynamic in James's actual verse. But to turn to the actual poetry is ... look, see, here're the opening lines of the Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
And here's Clive:
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear—
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,
It lead to good things too, eventually.
Those first three lines, including that choppy, wholly monosyllablic opening line 'at the mid point of the path through life I found' (that's an almost robotic stretch of English) read like somebody stumbling instead of somebody getting into their stride. I query the merit in starting a broadly iambic verse epic with two trochees (AT the MID point) followed by a hurrying-to-catch-up anapest (ofthe PATH), starting to settle with two iambs before interrupting the patter with another trochee (LOST in). By the time the reader gets into the swing of things by lines 4, 5 and 6 she can hardly look back on the opening without feeling its awkwardness. Add to that the inversion in lines 7-8, a tic that jars in what is otherwise a confident contemporaneity of vocabulary and syntax: what's wrong with 'so bad, that death would be worse by only a degree'? Apart from the rhyme, of course. And the rhyme is not very deftly handled here. I don't mean the replacement of the terza rima with quatrains: that's a legitimate tactical decision made by the poet. I'm talking about the greetings-card tweeness of rhyming 'degree' with 'eventualee'. Fiddlededee.

I would also say that going back to the Dorothy L Sayers version has re-impressed me with how solid an achievement that old warhorse is. I note this in the understanding that Sayer's Dante is not very highly regarded. The worst one can say of it is that it is unashamed of archaism: 'thee' and 'thou' are awkwardly sore-thumb English renderings of the perfectly ordinary Italian tu, and sometimes Sayers indulges in old-school idioms and inversions of idiomatic syntax in ways that must have been distracting even in the 1950s and which are actively wincing nowadays.
Breathe in me [Apollo], breathe, and from my bosom drive
Music like thine, when thou didst long ago
The limbs of Marsyas from their scabbard rive. [Sayers, Divine Comedy 3: Paradise, 1:19-21]
That aside, her verse is mostly very effective. Here's the famous opening of Paradiso 2:
O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,

tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.

L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l’Orse.
And here's what Sayers makes of it (her Paradise was completed and edited by Barbara Reynolds after her death, but the impression given in the preface is that the lion's share of the finished work is still Sayers's):
O you that follow in light cockle shells,
For the song's sake, as my ship sails before,
Carving her course and singing as she sails

Turn back and seek the safety of the shore;
Tempt not the deep, lest, losing unawares
Me and yourselves, you come to port no more.

Oceans as yet undared my vessel dares;
Apollo steers, Minerva lends the breeze,
And the nine Muses point me to the Bears.
The only wrong-step here (and, really, I'm being supercritical in saying so) is that 'light' as a modifier of 'cockle-shells' is a touch ambiguous between flimsiness and illumination—are these sailors following in frail cockle-shells or sailing their cockle shells to follow the light?—a consideration that has more weight than it might otherwise given how important actual and spiritual light is for Dante's paradise. Otherwise it's perfectly decent verse; even somewhat better that decent. The way she plays with the internal near-rhyme of 'shells' and 'sails' in that first terzo (not to mention the 'cockle'/'carving'/'course' alliteration) reproduces some of the musical inscape James notes in the introduction to his edition I quote above. And here's James's version of those lines, from that very edition:
You sailors in your little boats that trail
My singing ship because so keen to hear,
By now it might be time for you to sail
Back till you see your shoreline reappear,
For here the sea is deep, and if you lose
My leading light just once, then steering clear
Might bring bewilderment. So you must choose—
Be warned, this sea was never sailed before.
Minerva breathes, Apollo steers, the nine
Muses will navigate me by the store
Of stars.
That's just ... off, I think. Prolix (ten and a half lines to do nine lines' work), with wrongfooting enjambments and odd phrasing. There's the weirdness of a sailor navigating by a 'store' of stars. Who talks like that? Apart, that is, from poets desperate for a rhyme with 'before'? And why lose the specific detail of Dante's named constellations Ursa Major and Minor? Beyond that: 'you are trailing my singing ship because so keen to hear' is really not very idiomatic English (to hear what?), 'By now it might be time for you to sail/Back' is slack and chatty, and crunches pointlessly over its enjambment; 'steering clear' is inappropriately ambiguous between 'setting a clear path into ocean open' and 'avoiding something', and 'Minerva breathes', whilst sticking close to Minerva spira, doesn't convey that what Minerva is breathing is the breeze that fills the sail, and leaves us with the shadowy sense of Minerva sitting belowdecks somewhere, wheezing. Plus 'the nine/Muses' throws out the prosody so sharply it's almost like the verse twists its ankle at that point.

Another example, again from the Paradiso, since that's the part I've been reading the most, lately. In Canto 14, Dante rises above the sphere of the sun into the sphere of Mars. The canto's opening simile, quite famous, is also quite tricky to put clearly into English:
Dal centro al cerchio, e sì dal cerchio al centro
movesi l’acqua in un ritondo vaso,
secondo ch’è percosso fuori o dentro:

ne la mia mente fé sùbito caso
questo ch’io dico, sì come si tacque
la glorïosa vita di Tommaso,

per la similitudine che nacque
del suo parlare e di quel di Beatrice,
a cui sì cominciar, dopo lui, piacque: [Paradiso, 14:1-9]
Sayers/Reynolds go with:
Water in a round bowl makes ripples glide
Centre to rim, or back from rim to centre,
As from within 'tis jarred, or from outside.

This image dropped into my mind instanter
When Thomas' glorious life had said his say;
Like an apt simile it seemed to enter

In likeness of the verbal interplay
'Twixt Beatrice and him; for she, as suited,
Her pleasure, thus took up her cue straightway:
A bit clumsy, that 'instanter' (for the rhyme), and rather creaky with the 'tis' and 'twixt' and the wrenching of what would work much more effectively as 'it seemed to enter like an apt simile'. But it gets the image across. James:
The water moves from rim to centre when
A round container is struck from without.
The water moves, when it is struck again—
But from within—the other way about,
Centre to rim. This proof from science fell
Into my mind the instant that the soul,
So glorious, of Thomas, ceased to tell
His story, because Beatrice took the role
Of speaker, and was pleased to follow thus:
That's just a muddle. 'But from within—the other way about' is worthy of The Stuffed Owl, and its just hard to get a sense from this of who's banging which bowl and why. I don't want to give the impression I'm doing whatever the opposite of cherry-picking is, so one last instance. On to Mars:
Ben m’accors’ io ch’io era più levato,
per l’affocato riso de la stella,
che mi parea più roggio che l’usato.

Con tutto ’l core e con quella favella
ch’è una in tutti, a Dio feci olocausto,
qual conveniesi a la grazia novella.

E non er’ anco del mio petto essausto
l’ardor del sacrificio, ch’io conobbi
esso litare stato accetto e fausto;

ché con tanto lucore e tanto robbi
m’apparvero splendor dentro a due raggi,
ch’io dissi: «O Elïòs che sì li addobbi!». [Paradiso 14, 85-96]
That I'd been lifted up I saw by this:
The warm smile of the star, whose burning ball
Seemed ruddier to me than his custom is.

With my whole heart, and in that tongue which all
Men share, I made burnt-offering to the Lord,
Such as to this new grace was suitable,

And ere the sacrificial fire had soared
Forth of my breast, I knew my prayer had sped
Accepted and found favourable accord;

For such bright splendours, and so ruby-red
Within two rays appeared, "O Eloi,"
I cried, "that giv'st them thus the accolade!"
So that last word is not much of a rhyme, and there's a stiffness here and there in this version. James: 'I saw myself moved'
Up to a plane exalted even more,
Of whose high ranking I was given proof
By Mars. More rose-coloured than before
It now seemed. With my heart not held aloof,
But fully yielded, I employed the tongue--
Befitting all the loving care and grace
That lit the favours I was now among--
Of one and all when making, in that place,
The burning sacrifice to God, and still
It burned my breast though I knew it was
Accepted, and propitious. For the spill
Of splendour was so shimmering because
Of two beams, and so roseate, I said,
"Divine Sun, that so glorifies this!" As ...
I'll stop there. Fourteen lines for twelve lines' work; some padding ('not held aloof/But fully yielded' doubles up its point not because Dante does, but because James needs an -oof rhyme). Rose-coloured works in Italian (and French) for pinky-red, but not in English, where roses (as Lewis Carroll knew) might just as easily be white; and 'more rose-coloured than before/It now seemed' is a pointless and therefore distracting inversion of the natural word order. 'The spill/Of splendour was so shimmering because/Of two beams ...' starts well, but pisses it all away in its last four words: that clunking 'because'! That what-are-we-doing-woodwork-now? double beam!

The most damning thing about this Jamesian Dante is that, unlike his smooth onflowing prose, it really doesn't lend itself to long bouts of reading. It clogs and turns about and stalls, or at least that's how I have found it.

Friday 13 January 2017

Plunging Stained-Glass Ship

Amazing piece of glassy art, this: Burne Jones's "The Viking Ship" (1883).

Monday 9 January 2017


Christopher R. W. Nevinson, 'From a Paris Plane' (1917). More Nevinson, including more plane sketches, here.

Samuel Johnson, science-fictioneer

Samuel Johnson's 1757 review of Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil is a masterpiece of the form. Considering the entire ‘universal system’, Jenyns says, ‘there is no more pain in it than what is necessary to the production of happiness.’ Johnson replies, with a lovely understatement, that perhaps ‘the degree of evil might have been less without any impediment to the good.’ When Jenyns wonders in passing whether there may be, in the larger scale of things, creatures higher than we who might treat us as we treat the lower animals, Johnson develops this idea with a sharpness worthy of Phil Dick:
I cannot resist the temptation of contemplating this analogy, which, I think, he might have carried further, very much to the advantage of his argument. He might have shown, that these "hunters, whose game is man," have many sports analogous to our own. As we drown whelps and kittens, they amuse themselves, now and then, with sinking a ship, and stand round the fields of Blenheim, or the walls of Prague, as we encircle a cockpit. As we shoot a bird flying, they take a man in the midst of his business or pleasure, and knock him down with an apoplexy. Some of them, perhaps, are virtuosi, and delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher in the effects of the air-pump. To swell a man with a tympany is as good sport as to blow a frog. Many a merry bout have these frolick beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive and tumble again, and all this he knows not why. As they are wiser and more powerful than we, they have more exquisite diversions; for we have no way of procuring any sport so brisk and so lasting, as the paroxysms of the gout and stone, which, undoubtedly, must make high mirth, especially if the play be a little diversified with the blunders and puzzles of the blind and deaf. We know not how far their sphere of observation may extend. Perhaps, now and then, a merry being may place himself in such a situation, as to enjoy, at once, all the varieties of an epidemical disease, or amuse his leisure with the tossings and contortions of every possible pain, exhibited together.
Finally, the zinger: 'Many of the books which now crowd the world, may be justly suspected to be written for the sake of some invisible order of beings, for surely they are of no use to any of the corporeal inhabitants of the world.'

Sunday 8 January 2017

Herbert George Wells

One thing I'll be doing in 2017 is starting a new blog (another one! I know!) to log, and reflect upon, my reading of the whole of H G Wells's oeuvre. I need to get properly on top of Wells for a Thing I may or may not be doing (I'm sorry to be evasive, but no contract has as yet been signed, so I can't say more), and I do find blogging a useful way of keeping track of my thoughts. That just leaves the name: what should I call it?

The Wells at the Blog's End
Herblog George Wells
Blogging the Wells Dry
All's Wells That Blogs Wells
The Food of the Blogs and How It Came to Earth
The Bloggic Argonauts
"The HTML Machine"
"No One Would Have Believed, In The First Years Of The Twenty-First Century, That Wellsian Affairs Were Being Watched Keenly and Closely by Intelligences Bloggier Than Man’s And Yet As Mortal As His Own"

Bit of a mouthful, that last one.

The Atheist's Fumi-e

I may not get around to seeing the new Scorsese movie Silence for a while. It does look interesting, so far as I can gauge from reviews and previews, and the 1966 Shūsaku Endō novel on which it is based is undeniably a very powerful piece of writing. At any rate, the trailers and the reviews and all the media paradiddle associated with the release of Scorsese's fillum have provoked certain thoughts in me, and though they inevitably approach impertinence, uninformed as they are by the appropriate spirit (Endo was a believer, and I am an infidel) nonetheless I thought I'd use the decent obscurity of this blog to work through them. When something bothers me I often have to write it out in order to understand what it is, so far has 'writing' overtaken 'thinking' in my mental praxis. And since that's what I'm doing here I should say at the get-go: this post is very long, abstruse, theological and not as clear or well-structured as it should be. You'd be best giving it a miss, I think.

There's a retrospective element in all this, for me. After the (notable, or unremarkable, I'm not sure) failure of my 2015 novel The Thing Itself to make any kind of impact on the world of science fiction, I spent much of 2016 discouraged and disengaged. I thought about quitting, although in the event I have, as of the start of 2017, got a few, more modest projects in hand. But this meant 2016 proved a fallow period for me, writing-wise. Indeed, I think I'm correct in saying that I only published two works of fiction over the twelve months: a story called ‘Between Nine And Eleven’ for an anthology of original fiction called Crises and Conflicts (the antho, and my story, is reviewed here), and a short novel called Bethany, which I self-published on amazon. The point of The Thing Itself was to suggest the reader should believe in God, and as far as that goes its approach is, I think, pretty ecumenical. Bethany, (a riff on the venerable Behold The Man SF conceit) is a rather more specific item of theological speculation. Probably too narrowly so, actually. It is the story of a modern-day man who travels back in time to kill Christ with a high-powered rifle, after he has resurrected from the crucifixion, but before he has ascended to heaven. Anyway: that is the context for what follows: thoughts on Endo's Silence and some other things.

Endo's novel parlays its historical specificity into something both profound and wide-ranging. It is set at a very particular moment in mid-seventeenth-century Japanese history, when the ruling shogunate has decided to extirpate Christianity. Its main character is a Jesuit priest called Sebastião Rodrigues, who is sent to Japan to support the nascent Christian church there, and also to investigate reports that his mentor, the respected priest Ferreira, has become an apostate to the faith. Rodrigues sets off knowing that he might himself be martyred, and fully accepting that possible fate; but the twist (a trivial way of putting it, but there you go) is that the authorities do not martyr him. Rather they torture and kill his flock, such that he knows he can end their suffering by treading on a 'fumi-e' (that is: stepping on a specially made representation of Christ, an action that signifies his apostasy). The image at the head of this post, showing precisely that action, is a still from an earlier film version of Endo's novel, Masahiro Shinoda's Chinmoku (1971).

It's a well-dramatised and thought-provoking ethical dilemma. After all: it is one thing to sacrifice oneself for one's beliefs, but quite another to sacrifice other people for one's beliefs. Rodrigues agony is that 'he had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him.' It is much harder to bear the pain of people we care about than it is to bear our own. Endo frames this dilemma in the larger context: why does God remain silent in the face of human suffering?

At one point in the story Rodrigues is made to watch the deaths of certain Japanese Christians, bundled up alive in matting and dropped into the sea. He sees
the sea stretched out endlessly, sadly; and all this time, over the sea, God simply maintained his unrelenting silence ... 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!' The priest had always thought that these words were that man's prayer, not that they issued from terror at the silence of God.
Christ's words from the cross (Matthew 27:46 of course: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?') figure in this book as a rebus for the silence of the divine.  Rodrigues' guide in Japan is a peasant and Christian apostate called Kichijiro, a cowardly drunk and weakling who often speaks a kind of holy-fool wisdom. For example, he echoes Matthew 27:46 when he asks Rodrigues:
"Why has Deus Sama [God] imposed this suffering upon us?" And then the resentment in those eyes that he turned upon me. "Father," he said, "what evil have we done?" [p. 55]
It's a distorting echo, though. And that brings me to my issues. Forsaking someone is not the same as imposing suffering upon someone. The difference is really quite important. Imposing suffering is what strength does to weakness; withdrawal is something quite other. Pontius Pilate and his soldiers imposed suffering on Christ; Christ's complaint on the cross is not that God has imposed anything on him, but in the contrary that he has removed himself from him. Pilate's pantomime of handwashing is, clearly, an empty parody of such withdrawal. Because of his place at the apex of political and military authority, Pilate simply can't withdraw from the injustice he knows is going on; or more precisely, he can't both retain his secular power and privilege and withdraw from the evil being done on his watch. It is in the nature of our social embeddedness that we don't always have the choice to withdraw from the suffering of others. Indeed, that last sentence is pretty much a thumbnail of human ethics as such.

With respect to Silence, Endo conflates 'imposing suffering' and 'withdrawal' in a way that may, I'm not sure, approach a kind of existential or spiritual mendacity. I'm conscious, even self-conscious, that mine is a spiritually myopic reading, since I am not myself a believer. Still, it strikes me that there's something important here, somewhere in amongst the misty blur that presents itself to my old eyes.

Christians in mid-seventeenth-century Japan were indeed a persecuted minority. And although the execution of believers ceased after 1805, Christians in twentieth- and twenty-first century Japan, like Endo himself, remain a minority in Japanese culture, disadvantaged in various ways. When you are small, powerless, persecuted (even tortured and killed) the story of Christ will of course speak to you in a very direct manner, because it is, unique among major religions, the story of how Omnipotence made itself small, powerless and mortal, and suffered torture and death.

There are many sorts of story that can be told from that point of view. But it doesn't seem to me that Christianity is intrinsically this story—that is to say, I don't think Christianity is inherently a religion of powerlessness. Even an atheist like me can see that Nietzsche's dismissal of Christianity's 'slave morality' misses something important about the faith. Christianity started out as a small, oppressed and socially fragile movement. But it is no longer those things. Now Christianity is the dominant religion on the planet (of our 7 billion earthly souls, somewhere between 2.5 to 3 billion are Christian; the next biggest religion is Islam, with something like 1.7 billion adherents); and even taking into account the decline into secularism occasioned by several centuries of scientific materialism, Christianity still culturally dominates two of the three major global power blocs: Europe and North America (although only 2.5% of the population of China are Christian).

I'm well aware that these are crude indicators, but they're here to make a point. It is, in brief, the same point Rushdie elaborates in The Satanic Verses (1988). Hard to go back to that novel, of course, through the fog of everything that happened because of that novel; but it's worth remembering what Rushdie said about it before it became such a cause célèbre religieuse (not to say cause célèbre de la liberté d'expression). He styled it as a novel interested in exploring two things: what one does when one is not strong; and then what one does when one later becomes strong. The verses of the title figure, for Rushdie, as a compromise offered by a canny Mohammed to the established Meccan religious pieties of the day (the verses in effect praise Allāt, al-'Uzzā and Manāt, three goddesses worshipped in Mecca) at a time when his new religion was vulnerable; and his later repudiation of those verses marks the point at which his religion had become established enough to be able to row-back on this compromise. C M Naim puts it well:
Rushdie describes his book as an attempt to "give a secular, humanist vision of the birth of a great world religion." ... Repeatedly, various characters in the book are asked: What kind of idea are you? When you are weak will you compromise; when you are strong will you be generous? Abu Simbel, the Grandee of Jahilia and an enemy of Mahound, answers the first question: "I bend. I sway. I calculate the odds, trim my sails, manipulate, survive." Rushdie's Mahound is also human, he too has his moment of compromise, the moment of the Satanic Verses, but then he transcends it and embraces the inevitable. [Naim, Ambiguities of Heritage (1999), 161]
Endo's novel is about human weakness in the teeth of oppressive cruelty. And it is scrupulous in its attention not only to historical but cultural and geographical specificity: 'This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.' (p. 147) The question is whether the spiritual core of the novel scales; whether he is only saying something specific about historical Japan, or whether he is saying something more universal.

It seems to me that Christ, for Christians, has to be a figure both weak and strong, in complex ways. I don't just mean 'weak enough to beg for the cup to be taken away, strong enough to accept that this couldn't happen'. Nor do I mean the more theologically inflected sense of 'weak enough to be killed even though he is God, strong enough to take the sins of the world on his shoulders'. I mean the way his whole ministry bridged weakness and strength, the way it critiqued the strength of the politically powerful and focused on the socially outcast and weak, the way Christ's preaching promised an inversion of conventional categories of strength and weakness, 'the last shall be first'.

If you were tortured for your beliefs, it would of course take strength to hold out. But if others are tortured for your beliefs, and you still refuse to yield, do we still call that strength? Doesn't it look more like a kind of pitilessness? Or even disingenuousness, like a person donating to charity with somebody else's money and taking all the credit?

To put the matter another way: it has always seemed to me that strength, like pride, is one of those Schrödinger's personal qualities that can be a profound virtue or a dangerous self-indulgence, even a wickedness, in ways that are opaque to us until they start having actual effects on other people. That Endo's Silence grasps this so cannily with respect to 'strength' is one of the things that makes it a great novel. When Rodrigues finally does tread on the fumi-e, he hears Christ's voice, and understands that he is, in a sense, treading on himself, or rather permitting his oppressors to tread on him, in a wrenching imitation of Christ.

I think I understand that. Even as a non-believer it strikes me as a powerful and moving moment. Clearly, the 'imitation of Christ' is one of the central planks of Christian praxis. I'm referring here both to the broader discipline and to Thomas à Kempis's De Imitatione Christi (the second-most translated book in the history of the world, after the Bible). Samuel Beckett, by no means a conventional Church of Ireland Anglican, used to say that there was a line from The Imitation of Christ that ‘seemed to be made for me and which I have never forgotten’. It was: ‘He that can well suffer shall find most peace.’

See, there's the nub.

Presumably imitating Christ is a man's-reach-should-exceed-his-grasp kind of deal (or what's a heaven for?). It would be an act of hubris to announce 'I am perfectly Christ-like in my life', after all. Still, even the reaching has its dangers, I think. Just below hubris on the reaching ladder is a kind of self-absorption, an occlusion of focus that neglects the situatedness of Christ's passion—I mean the way Christ's story is both that of suffering endured and suffering imposed. There's a more obvious a less obvious aspect of this, I think. The more obvious is that, if we think ourselves into the position of Christ, we necessarily think others into the roles of oppressors. Our suffering is not some abstract element; it is directed at us by the cruel and the wicked and the know-not-what-they-do blind. If we are the oppressed then they are the oppressors. In the early days of the faith, 'we' Christians were the minority, the put-down and martyred, and 'they' were the princes and the powers of this world. But we are not in the early days of the faith, and 'we' Christians are now the majority, 'we' are the princes and the powers of the world. If we nonetheless believe ourselves to be, in some core way, the oppressed minority things get gnarly. 'They' (Jews, say: or Muslims, or Blacks, or refugees, or the Liberals) are oppressing 'us'. It's is a surprisingly common mindset, by no means confined to religion; indeed, the recent American election has brought a great seam of it into the light. Whites are the real victims of racism; 'political correctness' is fascism; equal pay for women is sexist against men; and so on. In a nutshell this is the strong saying to the weak: back off, make no claims on the sacred category of suffering, for we are the real victims.

This is not a gesture of renunciation of strength. On the contrary, it is a strategy of consolidating strength: White people complaining that any changes to the status quo at all are 'racism against White people' are, quite specifically, doing so because they don't want to sacrifice power, privilege and status. And I'm certainly not suggesting that the root of this mindset is Christian theology, or the desire to imitate Christ. Clearly there will be many people who undertake this latter challenge out of genuine humility, in goodness and devotion of heart. But I do, I suppose, wonder about the dangers in ignoring the historical trajectory of Christianity as a feature of the social world: the vector by which Christianity was once weak and marginal and is now strong and central. It is unseemly to assume the mantle of victimhood when one is, in all practical respects, not a victim. Is it more than unseemly, though?

Now it may well be (indeed I'm sure for many people it is) the case that many people feel individually powerless and victimised even though they belong to one or other structurally dominant and powerful group. Of course, of course. And of course 'the imitation of Christ' may well be an entirely inward, personal process of withdrawal from the cruel world. Two of the four sections of Thomas à Kempis's De Imitatione Christi are called "Directives for the Interior Life" and "On Interior Consolation", after all. But where the individual is weak compared to the collective, the collective is strong compared to the individual, and if we replace 'collective' with 'church' it is clear that Christ's example must be about both how we deal with our powerlessness and misery and how we deal with our collective strength.

I'm not being very clear, here, I think: so I'll put it another way. What would Christ have done if the the Sanhedrin, or Pilate, had not tortured and crucified him, but had instead made him watch as they tortured and crucified his disciples, or his mother, or random citizens? He was strong enough to accept his own suffering, but would he have been strong enough to endure that? And if he was, if he gladly accepted the suffering of others whilst he himself remained unharmed, would we even call that strength?

The bald truth is: it's easier to endure our own suffering than the suffering of others. Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter (1948)—Graham Greene's single best book, I'd say—understands this. Serving as a police officer in Colonial West Africa, Scobie gets a letter from home telling him his young daughter has died of illness, quickly and without pain. This, of course, is heartbreaking news. But then afterwards, because of the vagaries of international post at a time of war, he gets a second letter, one his wife had posted earlier, telling him that his daughter is sick, but that they are all prayerful and hopeful that she will get better. This, the novel insists, is much worse than just discovering his daughter has gone. It is hard when a loved one dies, but at least then they are beyond suffering. It's the two letters, and the order in which they arrive, that breaks something inside Scobie and leads, down the winding path of Greene's plot, to his suicide.

Greene's conclusion, in this novel, is not a hopeful one. He asks: how can we live with the suffering of others? And his answer is: we can't. He presents two options. Either we banish those others from our hearts (“In our hearts there is a ruthless dictator, ready to contemplate the misery of a thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of the few we love”), or we sink into the swamp of pity and are consumed. It is one of Greene's broader conceits as a writer that pity, like innocence, is corrosive and dangerous. Christ showed compassion for others, but compassion is more than we can manage. In the novel's preface Greene writes:
I had meant the story of Scobie to enlarge a theme which I had touched on in The Ministry of Fear, the disastrous effect on human beings of pity as distinct from compassion. I had written in The Ministry of Fear: “Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn't safe when pity's prowling around.”
This pity is also what undoes Endo's Rodriguez, if indeed he is undone—the novel's ending is, I think, rather more ambiguous on this matter than Greene would ever be. But how rare is this sort of storytelling? How much demand is there for it? Isn't there simply more appetite for the heroic cadences with which Dickens sends his self-sacrificing (his pointedly not other-sacrificing) Sidney Carton to the guillotine? 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known': through accepting my suffering I will finally be free and at peace—it really is a perfectly Thomas à Kempis sentiment.

 I suspect we simply prefer stories in which an individual sacrifices him- or herself to stories in which people sacrifice other people for their ideals; and furthermore I suspect that stories in which people sacrifice others for their ideals without being automatically demonized for it are rarer than hen's teeth. (I mean: we like stories about idiot generals sending brave soldiers over the top at the Somme, so long as it's made very clear that the generals are indeed braying idiots).  Our retellings of the story of Joan of Arc centre on Joan herself.  Of course they do. I mean, can we imagine a version of that story sympathetically centred on Cardinal Cauchon? A version in which Cauchon fights his monster as Beowulf fought Grendel, or Sarah Connor fought the terminator? Of course we can't.

Another of Greene’s novels, The Power and the Glory (1940), is precisely this kind of Sidney Carton story, and for that reason seems to me a much less interesting novel than The Heart of the Matter (though Greene himself thought it his masterpiece). Even when we're dealing with a figure as compromised and venal as the unnamed priest-protagonist of The Power and the Glory, or perhaps even precisely because we're dealing with such a character, this Sidney-Cartonesque Imitation of Christ is beguiling to us. The Passion is the ur-scene of all this.

My question, though, when we look at this ur-scene, the whole scene, of Christ and all the people around him, is: who are we more like? Since we're talking imitation, take it as mimesis. Where are you, in here? Are you the central figure, nobly enduring suffering and death for the sake others? Or are you one of the other figures? A bystander; a bureaucrat; one of the Roman soldiers? Out of my own ignorance I ask: where are the novels that are about people who don't imitate Christ so much as imitate the killers of Christ? Where is De Imitatione Pontii Pilati? Because, unless I misunderstand it, one crucial aspect of Christian teaching is that the killers of Christ are not 'they'. The killers of Christ are 'we'.

(Parenthetically, to address my own question: the obvious answer, I suppose, is: Dostoevsky. But I'm not sure his particular brand of psychological ur-existentialism is what I'm asking after here. The narrative of the passion is a Copernican one, in that every character in it, from Peter to Pilate to Judas, traces a subsidiary orbit around the central sun of Christ. Dostoevsky's Christ-like characters, his Aloysha Karamazovs or Princes Myshkin, are fundamentally passive, not only unable to prevent the suffering of those around them but unable to act as a centre of gravity for their respective novels. It's a different matter where Crime and Punishment is concerned; but then Raskolnikov is not somebody who lives his life in imitation of Christ. And I wonder if that isn't the point.)

Stories may tell us otherwise, but the truth of the matter is that we are not, actually, Sidney Carton. We're the ones lining the street, cheering; or maybe the ones pulling the lever on the guillotine, because that's our job. A Tale of Two Cities is a story about a man who imitates Christ, and a very powerful and affective novel it is too. We flatter ourselves by engaging imaginatively with such a story, such an imago Christi; and the danger of that is not so much narcissism (though I think that probably is a danger) as it is separating ourselves from those who are not Christ: the court officer with the flail, the Roman soldier with the nails and the hammer. They become 'not us', and the best we can aim for with such wretches is being able to forgive them. Forgiveness, though, runs legally-speaking down the slope from the strong to the weak, and in spiritual terms it runs from the affronted to the affronter. It can't reverse either gradient. And most of us in the west are at the higher end of that slope.

I am, I hope it's clear, talking about literature, not actual Christian living. I know something about the former. I know very little about the latter. And of course they are very different things. In a sermon from 1626, John Donne berated himself: “I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in and invite God and his angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.” Yet the fly, the coach driving down the street outside, the opening door are the matter of The Novel. These are what novelists write about. If your novel can't create a world in which the fly, coach and door are believable, then it's not going to be able to say anything useful about God and his angels.

And it's this that brings me, belatedly, to my point. It's not that we ought to allow the buzzing fly and the creaking door to distract us from God; it's that this is what humans do, as Donne understood very well. And novels are about humans. Not that we ought to spend our lives in conscious imitation of Pontius Pilate—of course not! Just that most of us end up doing just that, in larger or smaller ways; doing our jobs, getting on with things, trying our best not to rock the boat. In the story of the Passion, God makes himself weak, such that the human characters are, by comparison, strong. The heart of this story is: what we do with our strength. The question then becomes: 'why do we use our strength to torture and kill?' This seems to me one of the quintessential Christian questions, yet I'm not sure which are the Christian novels that address it. The tug of the other kind of story, the Sidney Carton story in which strength bolsters the redeeming self-sacrifice, has too much gravity. And whatever reservations I have I must concede that Endo's novel is as powerful as it is because it denies Rodriguez the Cartonesque martyrdom and noble speechifying, even if by doing so Endo himself has been attacked by fellow Catholics for promoting a 'sinister theology'.

The final paragraphs, here, step down from the sublime to the ridiculous, or at least to the perverse. When I wrote Bethany I wanted to make a version of the Passion that wasn't about self-sacrifice. (I also wanted to flesh out, for my own satisfaction, the Géza Vermes 'Jesus the Jew' line; on account of having spent the 21st-century living with a Jew and raising Jewish children. Although that consideration is less relevant to the particular concerns of this post). So: I wanted to take seriously the idea that we humans killed Christ, and to individuate it. That meant writing a story about a devout man who is also a strong man:—both physically and psychologically strong, brave and determined and focused. His strength, inevitably, depends upon a certain distance from the rest of humanity, a resilience to the corrosion of Greene-y pity (Greene's Scobie is happiest when most removed from the messiness of human interactions. 'Except for the sound of the rain, on the road, on the roofs, on the umbrella, there was absolute silence: only the dying moan of the sirens continued for a moment or two to vibrate within the ear. It seemed to Scobie later that this was the ultimate border he had reached in happiness: being in darkness, alone, with the rain falling, without love or pity.' That's a completely different valence of silence to Endo's, of course). Because science fiction is what I do, Bethany includes some time-travelly speculation about the nature of time as a medium that is, I think (I think) new. Hard to be sure in a sub-genre as crowded as time-travel though.

Two other things, to note briefly: one is that the premise naturally provokes a 'why?' Why would a devout Christian try to kill Christ? Since it seemed to me, from the outside as it were, that this question should hinge not on 'would' but 'did', I made it the point of the story—what I mean is that I assume for a Christian this question is not a hypothetical but a historical one. God came to us and we killed him: why? (A more dilute version of this question might be: why would Christ's most devout follower, Peter, betray him? What sort of account of human motivation would satisfy you as an answer to that? I suspect such an answer would have to do with Peter's human weakness, just as the answer I sketch in Bethany has to do with human strength). The novel I wrote sets out deliberately to overdetermine my protagonist's motivations. His reasoning is not a mysterious blank, but a blizzard of overlapping possibilities..

And two: Bethany needed to be a violent novel, a story that included violent scenes and articulated a larger sort of structuring violence. And here I was most wary of all, because my intention was not to describe Christianity itself as inherently violent. As against the Crusades and the Inquisition we can put into the other balance, well, many things: Athens in the 420s-BC slaughtering the entire male population of Melos and Scione and selling all the women and children into slavery. We can put the Nankin massacre and Stalin's purges. Violence is a human proclivity, and a Christian proclivity only insofar as Christians are humans. I'm in two minds about Bataille's argument [from Le procès de Gilles Rais (1965)] that 'il se peut que le christianisme ne veuille pas un monde dont la violence serait exclue. Il fait la part de la violence, ce qu’il cherche est la force d’âme sans laquelle la violence ne pourrait être supportée.' (That 'il se peut' is a distancing tactic, I suppose; but still, this strikes me as a statement not about Christianity as such so much as about any system of law that relies upon violence to curb violence). Nonetheless, the heart of the Christian story is that a peaceful man is violently tortured to death. I don't pretend Bethany has anything new to say about that. I don't expect you to buy a copy; the reception of The Thing Itself taught me that the audience for such abstruse self-indulgence is very small. If I'm honest, I don't even expect you to have made it all the way down to the end of this very long, over-long blogpost. But I was moved to write, and I did; and although I was not aware of any proximate inspiration from Endo's great novel when I wrote my small one, the advertising buzz surrounding the release of Scorsese has made me think about it all again. Bête (2014) was a kind-of philosophical novel about 'l'animal que donc je suis' and wilderness and bereavement, and sank pretty much without trace. The Thing Itself (2015) was a more ambitious philosophical novel about Kant and time and why you should believe in God, and it suffered a similar fate. It's very possible that SF, a community with a higher proportion of Dawkins-y atheists than the general population, just isn't interested in being told it should believe in God. That's fair enough (It's also possible that SF didn't like the novel because it's shit: okham's razor and so on). At any rate, Bethany is a pendant to those two, I suppose; smaller in scope as well as size, and tucked away as a self-pub where nobody will notice it. And the SF logic that decrees trilogies be our structuring forms suggests I should stop worrying away at those sorts of questions now. So I will. Put it this way: The Thing Itself and Bethany are me, as it were, treading on the fumi-e of my own atheism. And after you tread on the fumi-e you need to get on with your life. It's just a question of: on what terms?

[Note: this Wikipedia article on the fumi-e suggests that the action of stepping on a fumi-e was called e-fumi, which means the title of this post should probably be 'The Atheist's E-fumi'. But the title is baffling enough as it is, so I think I'll leave it.']