‘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, 31 December 2018
Tyger tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night
I watch thee with anguish. Sir?
Fetch a fire extinguisher!
As the firemen aimed their hose
Where the plume of smoke arose
Did they smile this work to see?
Did he who made Roast Lamb make thee?
Tyger, have we come too late?
Art thou carved upon this plate?
What immortal hand or eye,
Adds Garlic and some Rosemary?
Tyger Tyger in my tum
With this glass of Sauvignon
I salute your fiery soul!
Now: for a profiterole.
Thursday, 27 December 2018
Long ago I wrote a book about contemporary Arthurian Fantasy—that is to say, about all the post-WW2 stuff, of which there’s a ton. The context was that, back in the 1990s at RHUL, I used to co-teach a course on Arthurian Literature with my colleague, medievalist Professor Ros Field. Ros taught Term 1 on Medieval Arthurian romance (up to Malory), and I taught Term 2 on the Victorian Arthurian revival (Matthew Arnold, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Morris, Swinburne, Pre-Raphaelite art) and into the 20th-century—T H White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Monty Python, Rick Wakeman, all sorts.
My interest in the topic predated this course. The truth is I’ve long been fascinated by the legends of King Arthur, something that goes all the way back to a teenage passion fostered by reading Geoffrey Ashe, seeing Boorman’s Excalibur and then discovering Tennyson. (I’d still make the case that Tennyson doesn’t get enough prosodic credit for what he does with blank verse in the Idylls). The book I wrote about the 20th-C Arthurian florescence was not very good, I'm sorry to say. I gave it the title Silk and Potatoes because one of its main arguments was about the way these texts use anachronism: their notionally dark ages peasants all scoffing potatoes, their aristocrats swanning around in silk. I’m not defending myself, mind. It’s a ghastly title, and it is a mercy that the book has now all-but ceased to exist. Even I don’t own it; the author copies I got from the publisher I gave away to friends/students years ago. A small-print-run obscure academic work: you can’t put your hands on a copy now for love nor money, I’m pleased to say.
Anyway bygones be bygones. Recently I've been thinking once again about the appeal of Arthuriana (there is of course a significant overlap between Arthurian Fantasy and Commercial Fantasy of the Tolkien and post-Tolkien variety, more broadly conceived), and something has occurred to me about this form that I didn't realise before, something to do with the reason why King Arthur has appealed so very much, and in the particular ways he does, to the British. And this belated realisation about Arthuriana has implications for how I'm currently thinking about Fantasy fiction more generally.
So: there are plenty of medieval Romances that include Arthur, in English and French, legends in which he is one of the seven worthies, along with Charlemagne, Roland and so on. Fun for all the medieval-romance-reading family: battles, quests, courtly love. But after the medieval period Arthurian legend falls pretty much into cultural desuetude until (there’s been a fair bit of scholarship on this) it comes roaring back into popularity in the 19th-century: Arnold’s Tristram and Iseult, Morris’s Defence of Guenevere, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Wagner’s Tristram und Isolde. This second flourishing of Arthuriana is, inarguably, a significant cultural phenomenon in its own right, as well as something that—it seems to me, obviously—pays forward in significant ways into the next century’s big boom in Fantasy.
To be a little more specific: the latter has to do with a handful of elements on which modern Arthurian fantasy particularly focuses: specifically, the return of the king (rex quondam, rexque futurus with a special attention paid to the latter); the Holy Grail; and Arthur as an English rather than a Continental king. In the medieval Arthurian romances Arthur conquers the whole continent, and his knights are as much French chivalric ideals (Lancelot du Lac: check the surname) as anything else. Recent versions of the story aren’t interested in that. Nowadays Arthur is almost always pointedly English, defending England against incursion from pagan Saxons.
Step back to an earlier piece of Arthuriana. There's a 1962 Frank Kermode essay on Spenser [collected in Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays, 1971] that argues readers misunderstand the allegory of The Faerie Queene by failing to grasp how, for Spenser and his audience, myth, history and religion braid together. In particular, according to Kermode, Spenser's poem expressed a distinctly English Protestantism, one where Una is ‘the True Church’, Prince Arthur the secular true knight and Redcross the true knight of faith. For Kermode the important thing is the breadth, as it were, of Una’s signification, premised on ‘the claim that English Christianity was older than the Roman church.’ Renaissance Anglicans considered this claim—that Anglicanism predated Catholicism, and was the true and aboriginal version of Christianity as such—to be historically as well as theologically true. ‘All the apologists of the Settlement made the appeal to history as a matter of course’:
Whoever agreed that the English was the true catholic church had to think of her history as beginning not with the convulsions of Henry VIII’s reign, but … with the arrival in England of Joseph of Arimathea. For Christianity came here not from Rome, but from the East; and Una is descended from kings and queens whose ‘scepters stretcht from East to Westerne shore’ [Fairie Queene, 1.5] … but ‘this catholic unity did not long continue’ says Foxe—thanks, of course, to the papacy. And Foxe enables us to recognise in Spenser’s text the features of certain especially guilty popes who were the progenitors of Duessa. [Kermode, 17]This is the context in which Spenser’s fantasy worldbuilding and allegorical signifying is best understood: ‘Rome has divided the world and exiled the catholic church. Who will restore and re-establish it?’
The right and duty of restoring the Church to her pre-Hildebrandine purity (Canterbury independent of Rome, the sacrament administered in both kinds to the laity, no transubstantiation, proper respect for Romans 13) belonged to the heiress of Empire, to Elizabeth, whom Spenser in the dedication of his poem calls ‘most high, mightie and magnificent Empresse.’This is the reason contemporary Arthurian Fantasy makes such a big deal of the quest for the holy grail—a feature (of course) of medieval and Maloryian texts, but not the central or defining episode the way it later becomes. And I’m interested in this because it seems to me centrally to inform important aspects of contemporary Fantasy. This, in other words, is what is at stake in a commitment to English Arthurianism: the direct line of Christ's ‘true’ church from Jerusalem to Glastonbury, via Joseph of Arimathea: Eden relocated to Avalon, Christian transcendence specified as an English topographic intensity.
Joachim of Fiore is, it seems, important this larger story. People, from medieval thinkers to seventeenth-century radicals were captivated by the thought that the first two of the three ages ordained by God (a ‘Father’ age, a ‘Son’ age and a ‘Holy Spirit’ age) were completed, and the time for the tertium status was at hand. Various critics have stressed the important Joachim’s weird cyclical historiography and ‘eternal evangel’ theology has been to the later development of Western society— Erich Vögelin isn’t messing about when he asserts ‘Joachim created the aggregate of symbols which govern the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day’ [Vögelin, New Science of Politics (1951)]. The four symbols Vögelin specifically identifies are: (1) a ‘third age’, which Vögelin reads into the third positive stadium of Auguste Comte and the Third Reich of the Nazis. (2) a leader or ‘Fuhrer’ who shows the people the way into the third age (3) an inspired Gnostic prophet. (4) a new order of a spiritual community.
The connection with Fascism can’t be ignored, and the fascistic political logic of much commercial Fantasy certainly shouldn't be brushed under the carpet: the valorisation of the warrior-king, the conflation of politics and magic, the emphatic racialisation of the built world. Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (2nd ed 1993) explores in detail the throughline connecting Joachimites to what he calls ‘modern Nietzschean primitivists and their elite of amoral supermen’ and so on to the Nazi revival of a medievalist chiliast known as the Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine. Kermode quotes Ruth Kestenberg-Gladstein’s theory that ‘Third Reich’ was a translation of Joachim’s tertius status. Lenin and Hitler both, according to Cohn, knowingly ‘secularised and revived’ traditions of apocalyptic fanaticism to serve their own political ends. ‘There are aspects of Nazism and Communism alike,’ he notes, ‘that are incomprehensible, barely conceivable even, to those whose political assumptions and norms are provided by liberal society’ [Cohn, 288]. Very important truth, there; and one that can be restated, in more watery form, by saying: Fantasy, and its idioms of magic and myth, because they are not rational, can never really be liberal, and so are structurally (ideologically) simply more compatible with fascism. I mean, I love all this stuff, and pointing this out is painful to me, but there we are. The dangerous charisma of the warrior-saviour shines in almost every classic example of the mode.
We’re at that dangerous intersection where history blurs into—or is deliberately confused with—myth. As Kermode puts it:
Arthur is not merely a Tudor ancestor, not merely a mirror of that chivalry which preserves the virtues in a troubled time, but also a Tudor version of that ancient eschatological dream, the Emperor of the Last Days. [Kermode, 21]The eschatological emphasis is particular striking, I think. The question could be framed this way: is Fantasy, as a mode, eschatological? A short answer might be: in a fairly complicated way, yes it is. I’d need a space longer than a blogpost to unpack all the ways in which it is. Wagner’s Ring is, straightforwardly, about the end of the world; Lord of the Rings is set at the end of the Third Age, as the world of magic and wonder the novel construes is dying, and its main storyline is an apocalyptic war to end wars (‘I am glad you are here with me,’ Frodo tells him companion, as Mount Doom spews its cataclysmic lava. ‘Here at the end of all things, Sam.’) in Westeros the dead have declared war on the living, and winter is coming. So there’s an end-of-the-world vibe at play, certainly. The wrinkle is that Tolkien adds-in a new terminus to the Götterdämmerung-y protoype: the eucatastrophe—something so widely copied in subsequent popular culture that it has now become a cliché. (The more I think about it, the more intriguingly problematic the eucatastrophe becomes. I'll say more about that in a moment).
Lord of the Rings, it seems to me, owes much to this English tradition. And there’s one other element which is important here. The religio-political discourse that frames Spenser’s epic is one deeply suspicious of the Papacy for political as well as theological reasons. One last quotation from Kermode:
The most insistent of all [Protestant] complaints against the papal antichrist is, probably, that which concerns the usurpation. Thus Foxe, like Luther, is always on the emperor’s side against the pope, and, like John Jewel, holds that the emperor has the power to call General Councils and the right to exact temporal obedience from the Bishop of Rome; an argument of great importance to the English. [Kermode, 17]Now, Tolkien was of course a Catholic; but he also self-identified as intensely English, and there are certainly ways in which the broader cultural assumptions of English politicotheology feed into his legendarium, and so through him into late 20th-C early 21st-C commercial Fantasy more generally. Spenser posits two knights, Arthur and Redcrosse, because he believes the secular knight and the knight of faith are both equally needful in the battle against the antichrist. Tolkien divides his anti-Sauron labour between his quondam-et-futuris king Aragorn on the one hand, and Gandalf, an Istar (a kind of angel) on the other, for related reasons. The Tolkienian eucatastrophe is a theological device rather than a plot-trick to toy with our emotions. It is a way of saying that our individual mortality (our human deaths, as functions of our human sinfulness) is brilliantly if unexpectedly redeemed in Christ, such that although it looks like we are doomed and continues looking like we are doomed until the very last moment, in that lastness lies the possibility for doom to be miraculously averted. As for the individual, so for the whole: the gloom of Pagan dying, and the severity of the Old Testament version of the Law, is unexpectedly transformed into mercy by the coming of Christ.
Slavoj Žižek somewhere says of contemporary culture's passion for apocalypsēs, that we find it easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of Capitalism. There's something in that, although it might be closer to the truth to say that it is the very immanence of capitalism today that means we imagine every end as the end of the world. Capitalism, the reduction of everything, including subjectivity, to the cash-nexus, is the apotheosis of a kind of super-charged narcissicism, and one of the features of the common-or-garden narcissist is that s/he finds it genuinely hard to imagine the world will continue after they have ceased to be. I mean, how can it? I'm reminded of a recent bulletin from Donald Trump's White House, where we learn D.T. is perfectly unconcerned by the stored-up disasters of such policy decisions as massively raising the US deficit, just as he is unbothered by non-policy facts-of-life like climate change, because he knows he personally won't be around to have to face them. That's the characteristic psychopathology of the modern world in a nutshell: I'll be dead before this comes to pass, therefore this won't ever come to pass. And this, I sometimes think, is the nature of twenty-first century eschatology. It inheres in this realisation, denied and suppressed though it be: the tragedy is not I am going to die; it’s that even though I am going to die the world will carry on. All these endless cultural recyclings of world's-end, meteors smashing into Earth, ice or fire wiping out humanity, viruses picking the cities clean and leaving us nothing but rolling green fields and a hare sitting up—what these really signify is our variegated resentments, imaginatively projecting our punishment onto a cosmos that cruelly insists on remaining after we have shuffled off our mortal coil.
What we're yearning for, with all this imaginative evil-eyeing of the cosmos, is something larger than ourselves; a sense of continuity with the land that predates and therefeore will survive us. A belonging. And so we're coming back around to the handsomely mounted cine-fascism of Boorman's Excalibur, and more broadly to the fascistic logic manifested by so many contemporary Fantasy novels. Boorman's Perceval retrieves the Holy Grail (the magic trophy uniting political leadership, English patriotism and mystic Christianity) by identifying it as Arthur. ‘What is the truth I have forgotten?’ the grail/king booms at him out of a gleaming dream-castle, and Perceval replies: ‘you and the land are one’ (he is echoing a moment earlier in the movie: ‘you will be the land, and the land will be you,’ Merlin barks at young Arthur when he first becomes king. ‘If you fail, the land will perish; as you thrive, the land will blossom’). At the movie's end Perceval returns the grail to the now elderly and ailing monarch and instructs him: ‘drink from the chalice and you will be reborn and the land with you.’ Even without all the visual splendor and Wagner blaring majestically out of the soundtrack, it could hardly be more straightforwardly fascistic, and one of its unarticulated implications is that, by this logic, the death of the monarch (the king, the President, the emperor-reader in command of his/her favourite imaginative fantasy) is the death of the world, quite literally.
The larger question is the extent to which this strange confabulation of king-and-land-are-one mystic nationalism, rewiring of Christianity to make it an English rather than a Middle Eatern religion and eucatastrophic tinkering with mortality in the service of (to adapt Robert O. Paxton's definition of fascist belief from 2004's Anatomy of Fascism) a ceremonial affirmation and conformity reconfiguring relations between the individual and the collectivity so as to erase the difference between the two qualities—the extent that all this informs Fantasy as such, rather than just being a description of Tolkienian Fantasy, is too spacious a question to cover effectively here, I think. And as for the question of why this peculiarly English religio-mythology has migrated so far out of specifically English contexts to become a strand of world culture (since this kind of Fantasy is globally popular): well that's also a large and puzzling question, larger, indeed, than Tolkien (I talk about it a bit here, or at least I ask the question). It's there, up to a point, in the Faerie Queene, hidden in plain sight behind the more trivial allegorical mode of the poem, where (to quote Mary Thomas Crane) ‘allegory repeatedly breaks down into more complex and confusing figures like metaphor.’ It's because this is a function of the poem's worldbuilding, I think, that it says something about Fantasy as a whole: ‘throughout the Fairie Queene Spenser presents us with a world—landscape and characters—which, he repeatedly tells us, ought to be intelligible but rarely is’, Crane, Losing Touch With Nature: Literature and the New Science in 16th-Century England (Johns Hopkins University Press 2015), 101-02]. We could say something similar about Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros. It's integral to the mode.
A postscript on Curiosity
One thing upon which Tolkienists agree is that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. ‘We’ know this because Tolkien specifies that it is not, and ‘we’ are far too mistrustful of the whole Author-is-Dead gubbins to contradict him. ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence’ he announces, rather haughtily, in the novel's preface. Some had suggested that the The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, a reading Tolkien denied, although—interestingly—this was a denial offered not on grounds of applicability as such but rather of the inappositeness of the fit:
The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-Dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.Tolkien's point is not that The Lord of the Rings exists in some hermeneutically sealed-away bubble by which it signifies only itself, but rather that its broader relevance works according to the right sorts of decoding. The problem is not allegory as such but of too narrowly-conceived an allegory. ‘Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power,’ he wrote to a friend in the later 50s, ‘but of Power (exerted for domination)’ [Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1995) 246]. We could put it this way: Tolkien's Fantasy means, in extra-textual and complex ways, because he believed the world as such had been created to mean, in extramundial and complex ways (Robert Browning's famous lines: ‘this world's no blot for us,/Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good’). Kermode distinguishes between the trivial or obvious allegories of Fairie Queene and the more involved, opaque and complex allegories, and there's something similar at work in Lord of the Rings, I think.
A model might be the Bible itself. Parables have simple morals, to be more-or-less straightforwardly deduced, and more complex interpretations, some of which may strike us as counter-intuitive or even rebarbative. Biblical legends figure as actual events, such that if one is a believer one may believe that Satan literally appeared to Christ in the desert and tempted him; but also as exemplary stories and allegories of deeper spiritual truths. Another and much more influential Frank Kermode book, The Genesis of Secrecy (1980), explores this topic rather brilliantly as a way-in to the reading of narrative as such. Kermode is particularly fascinated by what he calls the double function as parables, something he defines as their ‘simultaneous proclamation and concealment’, and the way these two things feed through into very similar ‘hermeneutic ambivalences’ in a whole range of non-Biblical narratives. [Kermode, 47]
The Lord of the Rings is, importantly amongst the various things it is, a book about sin, as Tolkien understood that concept. The one ring figures primarily as a sort of temptation-mcguffin, and only secondarily as an artefact in the internally-consistent worldbuilding of Middle Earth. Indeed, in the latter sense there are ... problems (I mean, how, exactly does it work? How exactly would one ‘use’ the ring to conquer the world, say? Do you need actually to own the ring to be corrupted by it, or not? And so on). But in the former sense Tolkien has created something genuinely memorable and effective.
Sin. In his commentary on Psalm 8, Saint Augustine insists that there are three kinds of sin (‘namely, the pleasures of the flesh, of pride and curiosity’) that in themselves contain all sin:
Now these three kinds of vice, namely, the pleasure of the flesh, and pride, and curiosity, include all sins. And they appear to me to be enumerated by the Apostle John, when he says, Love not the world; for all that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. 1 John 2:15-16 For through the eyes especially prevails curiosity. To what the rest indeed belong is clear. And that temptation of the Lord Man was threefold: by food, that is, by the lust of the flesh, where it is suggested, command these stones that they be made bread: Matthew 4:3 by vain boasting, where, when stationed on a mountain, all the kingdoms of this earth are shown Him, and promised if He would worship: Matthew 4:8-9 by curiosity, where, from the pinnacle of the temple, He is advised to cast Himself down, for the sake of trying whether He would be borne up by Angels. Matthew 4:6 And accordingly after that the enemy could prevail with Him by none of these temptations, this is said of him, When the devil had ended all his temptation. Luke 4:13 [Augustine Enarrationes in Psalmos: Exposition of the Book of Psalms (transl Tweedy, Scratton and Wilkins 1847) 1:70]It was a common-enough Renaissance attitude (Lancelot Andrewes: ‘under these three heads come all temptations’; The Wonderfull Combate Between Christ and Satan , 23) although it strikes a strange note by modern standards to see curiosity singled out like that. We are, I suppose, more likely nowadays to see curiosity as a positive, and indeed as the crucial virtue shared by the scientist and the creative artist. Not so traditional church teaching. It is one of the ways that Lord of the Rings is really quite an old-fashioned book that it takes the Augustinian line here. The most ‘curious’ individual in the novel is, perhaps, Saruman, who uses his gifts and skills to peek and pry into the mysteries of nature, to build all manner of curious devices and generally to make the world a worse place. Gandalf, by contrast is wise rather than curious, and part of Tolkien's point is to encourage us to reflect on the ways those two terms not only aren't the same thing but are actually mutually exclusive.
This line of thought, indeed, leads me to wonder about the ways we fans have, in effect, failed Tolkien's test. Temptation exists in the world for us to measure our powers of resistance against. Boromir, for example, is led astray by his pride and fails the test the ring represents. But the novel itself embodies a manifest temptation to a particular sort of fan: it gives us glimpses, in song and allusion, to a deep past lying behind the story's now. It teases us with bits and pieces in imaginary languages. We could, if we chose, simply take those things as they are offered, and enjoy the affect (let's say: awe, wonder, whatever the opposite of vertigo is) they generate in us. But we don't. We are overwhelmed by our curiosity, and become positively Sarumanic in our eagerness to winkle out all the myriad trivial details of that past, constructing for ourselves elaborate textual machines to that effect. I mean, look at me: I'm doing it now! I'd better stop.
Saturday, 22 December 2018
Thursday, 20 December 2018
I've reviewed a few 2018 books and films on this blog and thought it might be worthwhile to post links to them here. For, that is, a latitudinous definition of worthwhile. At any rate, you know the deal with me, I'm sure. Most of what follows are not so much conventional reviews (I've written a bunch of those for various outlets this year too) so much an more-or-less prolix and rambling essays on subjects that interest me.
Books: R F Kuang, The Poppy War (HarperVoyager 2018)
Madeline Miller, Circe (Bloomsbury UK 2018)
Christopher Priest, An American Story (Gollancz 2018)
Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon (HarperCollins 2018)
Andrzej Sapkowski, Season of Storms (Gollancz 2013/2018)
J R R Tolkien, The Fall of Gondolin (HarperCollins 2018)
Films and TV: Ready Player One (dir Steven Spielberg, 2018)
Black Panther (dir Ryan Coogler, 2018)
Doctor Who (BBC 1983-2018)
Friday, 14 December 2018
[image from here]
Recently there have been a couple of new engagements with the vexed question of Tolkien and race (follow @Dr_Dimitra_Fimi on Twitter and read what she has to say, would be my advice). It's not a question that can be evaded. In common with many of his class and generation Tolkien’s imagination was shaped by assumptions it's hard to avoid calling racist.
So: his elves are, to modern sensibilities, rather alarmingly Aryan in conception: tall, slender Überelfen, literally a superior race, in notable (though not all) cases blonde-haired and blue-eyed: a caste of wise, authoritative warrior-artists with a mystic connection to the land. By the same token Tolkien's enemy races, from his pygmy goblins to his orcs and hulking uruk-hai, are manifestly racially othered: barbarous, ugly, dirty, savage, bow-legged and long-armed (simian, we might say), dark skinned ‘as if burned’. If that doesn’t sound orientalist enough, here’s a letter in which Tolkien describes orcs as ‘squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes’ [Carpenter, ed. Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981), p. 274]. And then there are the men of Middle Earth who, we could say, exemplify that structurally racist logic whereby characters whose race is not specified default, as it were, to whiteness—figures like Aragorn and Boromir are Tolkien’s version of medieval European princes, just as figures like Éowyn and Théoden are his versions of Anglo-Saxons. So: white. The appearance of Southron warriors out of the Harad allied with Sauron—Frodo and Sam see one of these geezers up close, and note his brown skin, braided black hair and scimitar—confirms, by the contrast, the Caucasian nature of Tolkien’s ‘men’.
There are several directions, critically speaking, we can go from here; but flat denial is not one of them. Tolkien is writing a fantasy in which he imaginatively projects a battle between Good and Evil onto the widescreen of his invented world, and he tends to conceptualise good as, broadly, white, and evil as, broadly, black—it’s light versus darkness, it’s cleanliness versus dirt, its purity versus contamination, it’s all those things generations of scholars have identified as the sort of conceptual binary that underpins systemic racism. And the emphasis on the systemic component of this is important. One needn’t believe that Tolkien was, himself, personally racist to critique the ways in which his writing reproduces and reinforces immanent attitudes and prejudices.
Take the dwarfs, or, as JRRT idiosyncratically insisted on pluralising that word, ‘dwarves’. Now dwarfs are, of course, figures from Germanic and Norse legend (yes) who appear in various Grimms’ tales (of course) and whose anti-Semitic cultural associations certainly predate Tolkien. But nonetheless here they are, popping up in bulk in The Hobbit, a novel published in 1937 at a time when anti-Semitism was in the process legally and officially of swallowing the whole of Continental Europe. Here they are, these big-nosed, bearded, strange, keep-themselves-to-themselves folk, living in underground tunnels and dens like vermin, devoting their energies to accumulating and hoarding money, pursuing their own mysterious rites and secret rituals. We might want to argue that staging a work as Fantasy gives its author a kind of plausible deniability (‘how can you say Jar Jar Binks is a racist stereotype! He’s an alien!’) but we can be grown-up about this. Tolkien's dwarfs are no more to be blithely acquitted of anti-Semitism than are C S Lewis’s Narnian dwarfs, those willing assistants to Jadis, those stubborn refuseniks when it comes to the manifest bounty of Aslan’s grace (even the Calormen, or at least some of them, come to accept Aslan’s grace as Narnia ends in The Last Battle, but not the Lewisian Jews: ‘Yah! The dwarfs are for the dwarfs!’ they yell, turning their backs on the heaven-of-heavens opening directly before them. ‘“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is their own minds.”’) By the time we get to J K Rowling’s dwarfish goblins, hook-nosed crafty-eyed abstainers from the great battle of Dumbledoric good against Voldemortal evil who literally run the global banking system, the mask has slipped so far it’s lying on the floor.
But stop a moment. Lots of Englishmen were anti-Semitic to one degree or another in the 1930s (lots are today, still, alas) and Tolkien was intensely English, small-c conservative, traditional and Roman Catholic. That’s the core demographic, right, for this brand of prejudice? Maybe not, though. In 1938 Tolkien was approached by the publisher Rütten & Loening with a view to issuing a German translation of The Hobbit: potentially a very lucrative proposition at a time when Tolkien, with a young family and an ill-paying day-job, really needed the money. But there was a sticking point. Under the Nazi race laws, and considering Tolkien’s unusual surname, they needed an assurance that he wasn’t a Jew. So they wrote, asking him to confirm his Aryan heritage. His reply was rather magnificent:
I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.(This particular draft of the letter may or may not have been sent, but it is splendid on any terms). The first German translation of The Hobbit didn't appear until long after: in 1957.
Let's go back to Middle Earth for a moment. If we're saying that in some sense Elves ‘are’ Aryans, Men Caucasians, Dwarfs Jews and Orcs Orientals/Blacks then what are hobbits? We could say ‘white’ (although I think I'm correct in saying the only colour-term associated with their skin is ‘brown’, as in sun-tanned: because, I suppose, they're so fond of being outdoors, gardening and walking and so on). But maybe a better way of talking about the semiology of Tolkien's hobbits is to stress not their race but their class. Uniquely, really, in all the peoples of Middle Earth Tolkien characterises hobbits by whether they are upper-middle-class, middle-class or working-class. When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a kid I suppose I assumed Frodo and Sam were just two friends on an adventure, but re-reading as an adult made clear what was obvious: Frodo is of a higher social class than Sam. Sam's not Frodo's servant in the sense that he's salaried staff, like Jeeves with Wooster; but he serves Frodo nonetheless, and Frodo is (in Gollum's phrase) master. All the comedy-of-manners stuff about the Sackville-Baggins's envious attitude to the Baggins's possessions, all the eighteenth-century gentlemanly attributes of Bilbo, and then of Frodo, situate this body of representation in a network of asumptions and unchallenged attitudes about class. I persist in insisting that nothing can be understood about any aspect of English culture or society without first understanding how completely Englishness is interpenetrated by bindweed constrictions of class and snobbery.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that class and race stand magically separate from one another. We need to think, to use the current term, intersectionally, of course. But I am suggesting that because the hobbits are Tolkien's closest approximation to Englishness (as he understood it) it's worth thinking about them in terms of class in the first instance, and race secondarily. The contrast with the other scare-quotes ‘races’ of Middle Earth seems to me undeniable, and important. Consider the elves (of the field, they toil not neither do they etc). Tolkien's text really doesn't construe them into aristocratic elves, middle-class elves and a large population of solid working-class elvish peasantry. Even thinking about them in these terms seems absurd, somehow. They have their heirarchies of nobility and royalty, but in another sense all Tolkien's elves are aristocrats, because elves themselves are his legendarium's natural aristos. Does dwarf society divide into upper, middle and working-classes? Are there middle-class orcs? Of course not.
Push it a bit further. What ‘race’ is Gandalf? He looks like a man but he's not. He is in fact one of the Istari, supernatural entities sent—by whom is only vaguely intimated in the novels—into Middle Earth as messengers and guides. In one sense we can parse the Istari as angels. (‘You! Shall not! Parse!’) ... Now: it is surely nonsensical to describe angels as a race. Wizards, like elves, are immortal: they can be killed but cannot otherwise die. Immortality is not a racial descriptor. Indeed, putting it like this throws the emphasis, in the terms of Tolkien's legendarium, elsewhere—what's remarkable in the logic of Middle Earth is not that elves are immortal, but that men are not: they labour under some opaquely-explained curse. I say they; I mean, of course, we: mortal men and women, doomed to die.
So let me come at this question of race once again, from another angle, and ask again: what are Orcs? In terms of ethnic semiology their (as it were) discursively orientalist provenance is inarguable, but where do they come from in terms of Tolkien's legendarium? The short answer is: we don't know, because Tolkien never made up his mind. He toyed with three different theories, none of which satisfied him. One was that Orcs were fashioned from mud (this is what he says in the earliest drafts of The Fall of Gondolin, written c.1917: made of mud through the sorcery of Morgoth ‘bred from the heats and slimes of the earth’). In these terms Orcs are something like golems or automata. There's a problem here though: defeating mere automata is hardly heroic, or indeed much of a challenge. Later, then, Tolkien toyed with the notion that Orcs, though they look somewhat like men, are actually a species of higher animal: ‘beasts of humanized shape’ fashioned by Melkor ‘to mock Men and Elves’. But how can they be animals, if they have their own unique language? Tolkien fretted over this question, and speculated. Maybe
their ‘talking’ was really reeling off ‘records’ set in them by Melkor. Even their rebellious critical words—he knew about them. Melkor taught them speech and as they bred they inherited this; and they had just as much independence as have, say, dogs or horses of their human masters. This talking was largely echoic (cf. parrots). [Christopher Tolkien (ed) Morgoth's Ring (1993), 34]Parrots. Right. Both of these theories proceed from one of Tolkien's core beliefs: only God can create actual life. Evil can pervert what has been created, but cannot itself create. But neither of these theories satisfied Tolkien, so he toyed with a third: that Orcs are descended from elves and men captured by Melkor, reshaped and uglified by dark arts or by some monstrous breeding programme into corrupted creatures. This is the origin-story Peter Jackson's movie trilogy endorses (‘Do you know how the Orcs first came into being?’ Christopher Lee's Saruman explains to his deputies: ‘they were elves once, taken by the dark powers, tortured and mutilated. A ruined and terrible form of life.’ Sarumansplaining, we might call this). But for his own part Tolkien wasn't happy with this theory either, and never fully endorses it. As we have it, Tolkien's legendarium nowhere categorically explains the provenance of the Orcs.
What's his problem? I'll tell you what I think, and why I see reasons therefore for not thinking of orcs as primarily racially-conceived. The ‘problem’ is that Tolkien's entire project in his legendarium is, at root, religious, Catholic, spiritual. Friends noted that Middle Earth, which contains so much carefully worked worldbuilding detail in terms of history, custom, culture, language, geography, architecture, dress and so on, includes no churches or temples, no priests of religious celebrants at all. This was no oversight; it was a deliberate choice by Tolkien. ‘The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,’ he wrote to a friend; ‘unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion,” to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’ If we ask where is the religion in Middle Earth? we can be answered: Middle Earth doesn't include religion; it is religion. Including specific cults and fanes into the worldbuilding would only tangle obstructively with that aim.
Now, for Tolkien ‘religion’, which can of course mean a thousand things, means certain things above all others, and one of the most central for his imaginative work is: free will. To a Catholic like Tolkien it is an absolutely fundamental fact of the cosmos that God created men and women with free will, such that we can choose to do good or evil. Indeed, Tolkien thinks we must choose: that the choice cannot be escaped or evaded, and moreover that the nature of our fallen world is such that choosing to do good will be difficult, painful, perhaps fatal. But nonetheless we must choose, actively and consciously. This is what The Lord of the Rings is, at root: a great dramatisation of the difficulty and necessity of moral choice, and the ring itself works as powerfully as it does because it foregrounds the urgency and inevitability of that choice, and the implacability of that choice's consequences.
Orcs, then, focus a particular problematic for Tolkien. In a nutshell the question is: do orcs have souls? If not, if they are mere automata or beasts, then the whole battle of good versus evil comes down to a sort of animal management issue, like hunting wolves or de-verminising your barn. Do we really want to conceptualise the Battle of the Pelennor Fields as the heroic defence of Gondor against hordes of evil parrots? We, I think, do not.
But if orcs have souls and therefore free will, how can it be that they all choose, in lock-step, to follow Evil? Wouldn't some of them choose otherwise? Can we imagine an orc repenting and joining the forces of good? I'm not sure Tolkien could, but I'm also not sure he wanted to surrender the idea that his characters were combatting active, wilful agents in a battle between meaningful good and meaningful evil. In fact I don't think he found a way of squaring that circle. Of shireing that cirith ungol.
This, though, has implications for the racial reading of Tolkien's work. Because a racist reads the world via a flattening essentialism, thinks en masse: as it might be ‘you were born with a black skin and that makes you by definition inferior to me, because I was born with a white skin.’ But despite the various (undeniable) prejudice-markers he bore from his generation, class and culture, Tolkien really didn't think that way. For him the most important thing about any given human is not whether they are born black or white, rich or poor, but that they are born with immortal souls and therefore free will; and the most important question is how they choose to engage that will in the world. Everything else, really, is epiphenomena.
Go back to elves. Why are they immortal? Because, I think, they not only have souls but in some representational sense in the (resolutely non-allegorical but undeniably semiotic) logic of this text, they are souls: material embodiments of a spirutual reality. And this is the larger symbolic architecture of Middle Earth: that mortal men exist in the middle between, on the one hand, a spiritual realm of maiar, istari and elves, and on the other a soulless realm of created life: animals and plants and so on. Hobbits are men in this broader sense (the question of whether other creatures are men in this sense remains moot: do Tolkien's eagles have souls? And if they do, why not Tolkien's ravens? How do Ents fit? And so on). It's not that this avoids the racial problematic of course; but it does frame it in a different way. Or so it seems to me.
Thursday, 6 December 2018
This brief series of blogposts on the first five Disney feature-length animations comes, I'm afraid, to a rather anticlimactic conclusion with my thoughts on Bambi; because I haven't really got any thoughts on Bambi. Of the five, it's my least favourite. I know people who had genuinely traumatic childhood experiences watching this film (Bambi's mother! Dead!!), and maybe that intensity of emotional response bonds a viewer to the movie. Not having had that particular experience, I'm not well placed to say. (That is to say: I didn't see it as a little kid. I caught up with the movie later on, when I was already grown-up). Without that electric moment of affect, the film surely falls back upon a rather underpowered narrative, and a series of pretty but not especially striking visual representations of nature. And Thumper, who's just fucking annoying.
I'm being harsh, I know. I suppose the problem is that Thumper is cutesy without being kitsch. Do I dance with the angels on a moonlit pinhead when I make that distinction? Perhaps I do. But it's my way of trying to get at something that seems to me important, about Disney in particular and about key modes of art that have mattered a lot to me in my life (particularly animation and SF). Cutesy may be part of kitsch, but Kitsch is much larger than cutesy. And Bambi isn't really kitsch enough. No parading pink elephants in this woodland glade.
Yes, it's about death clearly. Wikipedia points to the high praise it has won ('Mick Martin and Marsha Porter call the film "...the crowning achievement of Walt Disney's animation studio." In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "10 Top 10" — the best ten films in ten classic American film genres – after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Bambi was acknowledged as the third best film in the animation genre') and also puts its encyclopedic finger on a main reason for that praise: 'it is listed in the Top 25 Horror Movies of all Time by Time magazine. Bambi, Time states, "has a primal shock that still haunts oldsters who saw it 40, 50, 65 years ago".' To swerve away from animation for a moment, I remember being struck by one of the things Rosencrantz says in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966):
Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don't go on forever. Must have been shattering, stamped into one's memory. And yet, I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it. Before we know that there are words. Out we come, bloodied and squalling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure.I read this first as a teenager and it seemed to me right and, somehow, profound. But that may have been. actually, because my own growing up lacked the 'shattering' moment of realisation. For many, Bambi provided just that moment. (Katzenberg-era Disney tried something similar with the death of Simba's Dad in The Lion King, but fluffed the moment by having Mufasa return as a kind-of ghost in the sky. Bambi is more pitiless in its message: dead is dead.) This may be why the film is so under-kitsched: kitsch is not about death, or perhaps it would be more accurate to swing that about and say -- there's nothing kitsch about death. Its universality and inevitability give it seriousness that transcends the sparky restlessness of the truly kitsch. Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, after all. Perhaps my indifference to this movie is an index of my refusal to accept the importance and gravity of that apperception.
Not that I'm the only one to take refuge from individual extinction in humour and kitschy energies. For example, I give you, Zombi: Fawn of the Dead.
The story so far: Snow White had made a truckload of cash, and established Disney's studio as a global player; but the two follow-up films, Pinocchio and Fantasia had both lost a great deal of money. The studio blamed World War 2 for this, because the conflict had cut-off most of the lucrative European market; but the fact is, even in the States audiences just didn't fall in love with the later two films the way they did with the first. Dumbo was made quickly and cheaply in order to balance the books; backgrounds were drawn swiftly in watercolour, not meticulously painted in with gouache; animators for the first time were allowed to animate directly without having to work through elaborate preliminary animation processes, such as filming sequences with live-action actors to pose as motion models, or producing pencil animations of whole sequences (you can see the results of this glorious fluidity in the Pink Elephants sequence).
It's also this peerless sequence that does the (very early, chronologically speaking) postmodern thing of breaking the fourth wall by emphasising the framing of the movie, when the elephants parade along and up the edges of the screen. I have lots of clever things to say about this marvelous moment, but like Fermat with his margin, I don't have leisure to jot them all down here at this time.
Anyway, back to the budget: designs were simplified, frames de-cluttered, a smaller team of animators was assigned. The script was not fine-tuned over years, as the had been the case with the previous movies; indeed, the story could have been a little better balanced -- it pays-off and ends rather too abruptly and hurriedly. At any rate, the result was a motion picture that cost $900,000 (Fantasia had cost $2.3 million in 1930s dollars: a fortune. Pinocchio had cost an equivalent sum). It lasts a mere 64 minutes: the shortest of all Disney features. It made $1.6 million on its initial release, and much more over the re-releases through the 1940s. Job done, financially. Better yet: it was a film that actually moved audiences, to both tears and laughter.
It is, of course, Pinocchio Redux: only child, separated from parent, guided by externalised conscience (who happens to be a small talking animal) eventually overcomes adversity to reveal his true worth. But there are two things in particular that interest me about this reworking. One is that this is the first feature-length Disney animation to be set not in an idealised Old World Europe, but in the New World. There's a lot one could say about Disney's fascination with the Old World, in part because it is a significant part of the larger Hollywood fascination with the Old World, or more particularly with England and Englishness. But Disney is American, not merely in terms of the nationality of its founder but in terms of its global cultural logic. It stands, like McDonalds and WalMart, as a sort of shorthand for American-ness. It might, I suppose, be that Disney leavens its Americanness with a more 'global' set of flavours (see also: Aladdin, Lion King, Mulan etc) in order more effectively to penetrate global markets. It might, on the other hand, be that the Old World provides an ersatz historical depth to an otherwise too-too bran new cultural productive idiom at odds with the necessary historical resonances of fairy tales et al. Not sure about all this.
Related to this is the question of race. Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan's Deconstructing Disney (Pluto Press 1999) point to the paucity of African American representation in Disney's movies:
Not since James Baskett played Uncle Remus in the semi-animated film Song of the South in 1946 has a black man, that is an African-American male, been portrayed by Disney in an animated film in human form, and only in Hercules (1997) have African-American women appeared as black women. In fact the hybrid form of the semi-animated film cut with live action means that Disney has never figured an African-American man as an animated human in its entire history of feature-length films. This is an important point, and Byrne/McQuillan note the way Disney's Uncle Remus embodies a 'domestication of black representations that infantalise and emasculate the image of the black man through his elision with children, animals and entertaining cartoon capers, what James Snead calls "a rhetoric of harmlessness".' It wasn't until 2009 with The Princess and the Frog that Disney finally addressed this problem head-on; and although that was a perfectly nice movie, it was immediately followed by one of the Whitest movies in the entire Disney canon: Tangled. It may look like carping to mention the crows in Dumbo as a counter-example (not 'human', clearly; although I don't see by what codes of representation the 2D painted pot figures in Hercules count as 'human' either).
Still, race is present in the film in more complex and interesting ways than that. For one thing, the human circus workers, shown assembling the big top tent in the thunderstorm, are clearly African American, and although their appearance is marginal to the main line of the film they are neither infantalised nor domesticated. And Dumbo, despite his baby-blue eyes, is an African Elephant (check the ears!), the son of an literally enchained mother who learns to fly and astonish the world. As a fable for the African American inheritance in America it could hardly be more positive.
Well: I overstate things, I suppose. Perhaps there's a much less upbeat quality to this movie, and its representation of America. Because Dumbo is America through a double-code of representational simplification, two codes that tangle rather oddly with one another. It's animals as people: crows in little jackets, mice who can talk, mother elephants who gossip nastily like sour old middle-class matrons obsessed with respectability and so on. It's also 'the circus' as a symbolic apprehension of America itself. The tangle comes from the fact that one function of 'the circus' is precisely to present animals in non-functional, non-instrumental ways, as entertainers rather than livestock. Louis Marin (in On Representation) quotes Victor Witter Turner ‘in connection with ritual festivals’, and specifically his theory
that parades or corteges (like festivals) transform one or more real and specific social relations into communitas (both temporary and symbolic). Parades, corteges or processions represent this transformation, and by representing it they carry it out. [Marin, On Representation (1994), 52]Think of the circus's parade when it arrives in town. Or more to the point, think of the model of society the circus in Dumbo embodies: carceral and mocking and persecutory. Dumbo's mother locked up; the clowns whole show predicated upon bullying and mocking Dumbo himself. It is a circus of cruelty. Heirarchised and stratified and sadistic, its 'ruler' the circus master a mere shadow projected upon a screen. Turner posits two modes of ‘communitas’ ‘evoked’ by the parade, procession or festival: ‘the antagonistic communitas that symbolically “acts out” a real antagonism internal to society’ and the ‘communitas of the warlike type’. Dumbo is evidently the former, although the movie’s ending is tries to cloak the movie as a whole in the latter (Dumbo bombers and so on). And what is the real antagonism internal to society that the movie symbolically performs, if not race in America?
Here’s today’s interesting fact: at one point in 1938 Disney contemplated animating the recently-published The Hobbit, using music from Wagner’s Ring as soundtrack. [Gabler, Walt Disney: the Biography (Random House 2006), 307]. This idea emerged from the initial groundwork for Fantasia, a movie for which Disney had the highest hopes, but which—partly because it was so expensive to make ($2.28 million! in 1940 dollars!) and to screen (it had to be shown with special expensive ‘Fantasound’ systems in cinemas) and partly because audiences just didn’t fall in love with it the way they did with Snow White—lost the studio a ton of money.
Its original cut contains lengthy live-action preludes to each sequence in which Master of Ceremonies and narrator Deems Taylor, dressed in a Conductor’s Tux, condescends so breathtakingly to the viewers that it’s a wonder the original audience didn’t throw chairs at the screen. There’s a set of assumptions at work, familiar from Bourdieu’s Distinction book (of the ‘upper-class people like classical music, middle-class people like easy listening and working-class people like pop’ kind) that are wrong now and were surely just as wrong then; and the idea that we, as audience, have to be eased gently and uncomplainingly into listening to such discordant avant-garde musical assaults-upon-our-ears as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s fucking ‘Nutcracker Suite’ is—well, insulting, I suppose. But I daresay I overreact.
Stravinsky was asked what he thought. ‘I do not wish to criticize an unresisiting imbecility,’ he said. Harsh! Especially since Disney had paid him tens of thousands of dollars for the use of ‘The Rite of Spring’ and to act in the role of a general consultant for the film. In many way a more interesting response was the review by Dorothy Thompson (a nationally syndicated columnist) who ‘seethed that she had left the theatre “in a condition bordering on a nervous breakdown” and felt as if she had been subjected to an “assault”—a brutalization of sensibility in this remarkable nightmare.” Thompson’s complaint was that Disney and Stowoski seemed to extol the savagery of nature at the expense of man.’ [Gabler, 343]. The movie certainly is a designedly full-on experience, visually; and the ‘Night at Bear Mountain’ ending—or perhaps even more an assault on the senses, the quieter but infinitely more kitsch Ave Maria finale—are pitched to overwhelm.
Worse, the live-action lecturette interludes emphasize the fix-up nature of the whole, to its larger detriment. This is not a coherent movie and doesn't pretend to be one; it’s a string of small movies threaded together on one socially condescending premise: ‘you, yes you, I’m talking to you, will obviously never knowingly step inside a Classical concert hall, so we’re going to use your affection for Mickey Mouse to trick you into getting cultured, you horrible little prole.’ Unfair of me, putting like that, I know. Nowadays, when Classical Music accompanies every second TV advert, when Puccini’s Turandot is an integral part of the enjoyment of World Cup football and ‘The Four Seasons’ is every company’s call-waiting music, the danger is probably the other way about: not that Classical Music needs winching down from its high pedestal but on the contrary that it could do with being elevated slightly, or at least hosed down to wash off some of the odour of commodification. But I don’t want to get all ranty.
1. Bach, ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’: a long live-action sequence of the orchestra playing, artfully lit to cast multi-coloured shadows on a backdrop; then a fairly pretty sequende of more-or-less abstract shapes, lines and colours.
2. Tchaikovsky, ‘Nutcracker Suite’: fairies in nature—dewdrops, (racist Chinese caricature) dancing mushrooms, goldfish, more fairies in nature—autumn leaves and frost.
3. Dukas, ‘The Sorcerer's Apprentice’: Mickey Mouse, of course.
4. Stravinsky, ‘The Rite of Spring’: dawn of time; dinosaurs fighting; dinosaurs extincting.
5. Intermission: Meet the Soundtrack: excruciating.
6. Beethoven, ‘Pastoral Symphony’: kitsch rural idyll, flying horses, cute fauns (+ extraordinary racist black faun comic character)
7. Ponchielli, ‘Dance of the Hours’: Hippo and Alligator, dancing. Surprisingly charming
8. Mussorgsky, ‘Night on Bald Mountain’/Schubert ‘Ave Maria’: and we’re done.
Actually, I think the best way of grasping the film as a whole is to separate out its three most successful elements. The abstract sparkles and bow-string lines of the opening Bach sequence is very pretty, in an undemanding sort of way. ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ has a more complex kind of charm, dependent on Mickey himself, on the (to use a horrible word) ‘relatable’ situation in which he finds himself, and on the splendidly machinic Terminator-like implacability of the Golem-brooms.
Rewatching this sequence yesterday, I note that this is before the animators learned to draw Mickey’s ears side-on (they are two face-on black circles on top of his pate, and don’t shift their position in the least when he turns his head). It’s also clear that, even though Pinocchio had a whole team assigned just to animating water, the water in this sequence isn’t quite right. It’s too gluey in texture, too silver-transparent shiny, its splashes too soapy and it clings a fraction too closely to the things it dribbles over. It wasn’t until Jungle Book, I think, that Disney managed to get the ‘animating water’ thing spot-on. I say this not to sneer, by the way. Hand-drawing water so that it looks ‘real’ is a mind-boggling challenge, a sort of Fermat’s Last Theorem of animation, and the crucial thing is that Disney, eventually, did it. Otherwise ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ has two things really going for it: the way it renders its slow, inevitable build—the increasing nightmare of Mickey’s over-reaching position; and the hard-to-deny charm of the child analogue, Mickey himself. I wasn’t so sure what to make of the Wizard, with his Semitic conk and his blue traffic-cone-shaped hat adorned with stars and crescent moons.
When he comes in at the end and disperses the water he looks like Moses. Is that deliberate?
Thirdly, there's the Hippo Dance sequence. This could have been a wreck, since the central premise (clearly) is the fat-shaming one of ‘wouldn’t it be funny to see really obese women dancing with ludicrously incongruous grace?’ But the sequence is much more than this rather cruel set-up. The gracefulness is quite real here, it what it brings home is (a) the skill of the animators, able to draw so that their two dimensional forms take on appreciable 3D heft and force, and more importantly (b) the understanding that fat people can be just as graceful as thin. Some fat people are graceless, of course; but so are many thin people. The point, rather beautifully rendered here, is that it’s possible to be both very large and a very elegant mover.
But setting these three sequences aside, the main thing that characterises the rest of the film is: kitsch. It’s kitsch raised to the power of kitsch. I don’t say this to disparage it, mind you: kitsch is a sadly neglected mode of art, I think.
You may choose to disagree with my assessment that the fairies and gnomes sprinkling dewdrops on spiders’ webs in the ‘Nutcracker’ section, or the cutesy fauns and pegasuses (‘pegasi’?) in the ‘Pastoral’ section are kitsch. Doesn’t kitsch require a degree of ironic self-awareness? Isn’t it actually an ineluctably postmodern form of art? Well I’m in two minds on this question. On the one hand I agree with Tomas Kulka (in this, if in not much else) when he argues that ‘making kitsch is not the same thing as making use of kitsch’, and draws his distinction between ‘how kitsch may work in the artworld’ and ‘how kitsch works in the kitschworld’ [Tomas Kulka, Kitsch and Art (Pennsylvania State University Press 1996; 2nd ed 2002), 9]. Nobody who has spent any time at a Disneyland resort can doubt that the kitschworld is precisely the locus of Disney. At the same time, aspects of the ironic mode are a central part of what Disney does; in the humour of it, but also in the very form of it.
‘Irony’ is a much larger category than kitsch, of course; and although kitsch generates its affect through its ironic relationship with seriousness it is in itself a much more specific cultural category and must be considered as such. Celeste Olalquiaga suggestively traces the beginnings of ‘kitsch’ to the nineteenth century, linking it with (as she puts it) the way ‘industrialization transformed nature into an artificial kingdom of miniature scale’. For Olalquiaga this aesthetic is ‘at once exhilarated and melancholic’; and although she doesn’t not specifically discuss science fiction she might as well do. The desire to model the cosmos, to ‘reduce’ it to a working scale model—precisely, we might say (though she doesn’t make this particular point) what a cartoonist does to the material of actual life [Celeste Olalquiaga, Artificial Kingdom: a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (University of Michigan Press 1988), 7]. And there is a weird flavour of melancholy, I think, in even the most ostensibly exhilarating Disney sequences. I don’t mean the out-and-out pathos moments, when (say) Dumbo intertwines his diminutive elephant trunk with the trunk of his incarcerated, weeping mother. I mean something more pervasive: a sense of brightness and colour and variety pushed to the point of monotony; of the machinic repetition of animation itself seeping through, as in Mickey’s nightmare tireless broomstick servants, into the fabric of the film's content itself.
‘Romanticism is outmoded,’ Jacques Sternberg once claimed; ‘symbolism disused, surrealism has always appealed to a small elite but kitsch is everywhere. Even more pervasive and indestructible now that it is fused to a civilisation based on excess consumption.’ [quoted in Thomas Kulka, 13] ‘Consumption pushed to excess’ is, of course, the business model of Disney; and it is in kitsch that Disney assimilates its inventively surreal visual imagination—Disney collaborated with Dalí, after all—its reified ‘symbols’ calcifying all the time into brands, and its out-of-kilter relationship with sentimentality, Romanticisms cousin.
If it didn’t sound so philistine, I’d be tempted to peg key moments in art as bringing ‘something new’ to the table, visual-aesthetically speaking. Picasso’s Demoiselles Davignon brings a new approach to form and visual language; Jackson Pollock brings a new attitude to the brushstroke, the core compository strategy of painting. And so on. Well, by this metric Disney was a crucial figure in the visual avant garde: he brought something quite new—motion, music—to the visual image. This, the kitsch flipside to the clean sublimity of Monet’s ‘impressions’ or Rothko’s abstractions, captures something the ‘high art’ equivalent cannot. It has the same expansiveness and mind-startling wonder about it, but married to a gonzo energy and disrespectfulness that vitalizes it more brilliantly. It has the grandeur, but also a kind of innocence pathos of silliness. ‘The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,’ is how Sontag puts it. ‘Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious."’ One can, as Sontag notes, be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. That Disney’s remains a silly mode of art (amongst his first commercial hits were his ‘Silly Symphonies’) is, as the phrase goes, a feature, not a bug.
Tuesday, 4 December 2018
In Multiplane Technicolor, no less! Disney's second feature-length animation is an extraordinary masterpiece; immensely visually busy and vital and scintillant, all the more remarkable when you remember that the whole thing was hand-made by craftsman. Every frame has something visually wonderful in it, and there are many hundred thousand individual frames. It's like the monks at Lindisfarne produced not one but 100,000 gorgeously illustrated gospels. It is no wonder it cost the, in 1940s-money, heart-stopping sum of $2,289,247 to make; nor that it lost money quite heavily on its initial release. But equally it's not surprising that it made that money back handsomely on re-issue; for in the ingenuous Pinocchio, his nose and his externalised cricket-shaped conscience, Disney created a genuinely resonant cultural icon.
It is based on Carlo Collodi's once-famous (famous-no-longer, I suppose) book, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1882). But adaptation changed not only specifics but the tone of the whole piece. Disney declared that ‘the problem with Pinocchio is that people know the story, but don’t like the character’: in the book he is often cruel and capricious. A strategy for addressing this was to externalise Pinocchio’s conscience as Jiminy Cricket (check the Jesus-esque initials), and to insert the ‘blue angel’ in various scenes. In the novel the cricket is an actual cricket stamped to death on the hearth by the heartless Pinocchio, whose ghost comes back to advise the lad on morality. This was in the original script of the movie, but soon dropped as too savage, although aspects of it remain in the finished picture (the cricket is seemingly undrownable, for instance).
And there's one thing in particular this film shares not only with the first five Disney features, but with a great swathe of children's literature. That is the core conceit that the best way to represent children in your story such that children reading, or watching, will most fully identify with them is not to represent them, quite, as children at all. To style them as dwarf adult, or as animals like Mickey Mouse, Dumbo or Bambi. It's not immediately obvious why this should be, unless it is that on some level of subconscious self-representation children don't 'think' of themselves as children: but rather as dogs, or monkeys, as tigers or dinosaurs, as superheroes or robots, as gruffalos or princesses or what have you. Pinocchio is closest to being a boy of all these, but on the other hand the whole point of this story is that he is not a real boy.
This I suppose has something to do with the development of a psychologically robust self-image, objectifying one's subjectivity via actual objects. It has the additional advantage of consoling the tremulous child-mind with fantasies of invulnerability. Tender human bodies are hurt only too easily, we know from an early age; but toys are joyfully robust and deathless. Look how happy this little chappie is, despite what Saw-like horrors are being inflicted on his torso!
The name Pinocchio is Tuscan dialect for pine nut or pine kernel, which gestures both at the hurtless wood out of which he is made, but also at the chance that he might be planted and might germinate into something new. And Pinocchio the movie is a fable of growth, teleologically conceived as always already directed towadrs the anthropomorphism of true humanity. But this growth is not inevitable; as in Kingsley's Water Babies, the danger of bestial devolution balances out the possibility of positive evolution, a fact recorded in this rather wonderful Soviet Russian poster for the movie (from that period when the US and the USSR were allies, fighting a common fascist enemy):
In Collodi's original book it is Pinocchio himself who turns boys into donkeys, out of the sheer malice of his mischievous nature. In the film, of course, boys brings this devolutionary abasement on themselves by their wickedness. Becoming 'a real boy' runs, for our title character, the risk of decay as well as of growth. And talking of which:
I love this image. I love the way it shows the donkey wickedness of the boys on ‘Pleasure Island’ (they have defaced the Mona Lisa with graffiti!) whilst, at the same time, using the content of that graffito—a baby in the madonna's arms—to capture what it is these boys truly miss, and really want: maternal comfort. There's something quite profound in this throwaway moment, and Pinocchio is full of this kind of thing.
Production had begun in 1937; by the release date of 1940 Italy (the provenance and, patently, the setting of the tale) was a Fascist enemy. It's striking how little this inflects the working-out of the text, actually. And this potent nostalgia for a European past, oddly insistent in the work of a profoundly American studio, is itself a fascinating thing; I'll come back to it and say more when I blog about Dumbo, the fifth feature but first American movie of this American studio.
Instead I want to note something, briefly, about the Disney style. I don't mean the specific style of this movie, lovely though that is; I mean that je-ne-sais-quoi quality to which people refer when they say 'Disney'. It has something to do with an unashamed cuteness, a visual sentimentality and a smooth-lined, bright-coloured approachability. But it is also a very carefully crafted mode of simplification that works so effortlessly with the grain of animation itself that it approaches a kind of idea harmony with it. Any image must be simplified, codified and boiled-down to a modular version of itself in order to be animated, since pre-computers it must be endlessly and easily reproducible by hand-drawing. This interests me very much, because (I suppose) it occurs to me that if 'the novel' does this with life, the 'children's novel' or 'YA novel' must do it a fortiori. The development of Pinocchio as a main character was largely a process of smoothing away the rougher edges until a final form was arrived at that pleased Walt. What he objected to about the early sketches was that they looked too much like a puppet.
And actually the best example of what I'm talking about is not Pinocchio, but Walt's own signature. You can see it evolving, moving towards a final form that combines a visually charming 'handwritten' individuality with the maximum power of machine-made reproducibility.
This is one of the most perfectly achieved simulacra of the twentieth-century. It bears only a distant, genetic relationship to any actual handwritten signature, yet it more than supersedes the handmade, precedes the original. It ‘is’ Disney, his very hand guiding his very pen upon the page in his personal, individuated communication to each one of us. A personal, individual message that happens to have been sent simultaneously to another four billion people. The broader cultural codes of visual simplicity as against visual complexity may wax and wane around this fact (computing has made it much easier to do the latter, and so for a while that's what we got; but the advantages of a modular simplification, visually speaking, tend to win out in the longer run) this signature remains the same.
In some important way, we don't really want Pinocchio to become a real boy. He's more fun, and certainly more iconic, as a magical object. The notional trajectory of this film is from reified thing to humanised person; but the larger logic not only of the film but of the ‘Disney process’ itself is, as the evolution of his signature shows, exactly the other way about. It is simple in the sense that childhood is simple: never simplistic, never crude or half-formed (for childhood has access to intensities and complexities to which adult life is deadened and excluded) but rather a form of complexity cached in the simple.
Neal Gabler [Walt Disney: the Biography (Random House 2006)] suggests that Walt Disney had ‘deep-seated psychological reasons’ for choosing the ‘Snow White’ story as the subject for his—and the world’s—first feature-length animated cartoon.
Snow White had nearly all the narrative features—the tyrannical parent, the sentence of drudgery, the promise of a childhood utopia—and incorporated nearly all the major themes of his young life, primarily the need to conquer the previous generation to stake one’s claim on maturity, the rewards of hard work, the dangers of trust, and perhaps above all, the escape into fantasy as a remedy for inhospitable reality. [Gabler, 216]Of course, this is only of interest insofar as Disney’s individual experience scales up to society as a whole. That the film was a success—more than a success, a phenomenal success, grossing $6.7 million in receipts by May 1939 and going on ‘to become the highest grossing American [and therefore world] film to that point, eventually surpassing the previous record-holder The Singing Fool with Al Jolson by $2 million’—this suggests that there’s something about the film that resonated with a larger audience. Gabler quotes Bettelheim (‘stories that tell about an aging parent who decides that the time has come to let the new generation take over; but before this can happen the successor must prove himself capable and worthy …’) which seems like an odd observation, both in itself, and in terms of its fit to the Wicked Queen in Snow White. But really, Gabler’s angle is biographical (he is writing a ‘biography’ after all):
Though some analysts would apply a Freudian interpretation ... and others imposed a cultural interpretation in which the film promoted Depression values of hard work and community, the cartoon would ultimately become a parable of Disney’s own young life. He was Snow White, threatened by parental jealousy and capricious power and forced into his own world, the world of animation …There are several things we can say about Snow White; the question is whether those several things cohere into a single reading of the text. One thing is that the success of Disney’s ‘Snow White’ was more than just the fact that a great many people, worldwide, paid to see the movie at theatres—although, of course, a great many did. But $2 million worth of Snow White toys had been sold by the end of 1938; and another $2 million of ‘Snow White handkerchiefs’ (who knew handkerchiefs were so lucrative?). This is one of the four pillars of Disney’s success—merchandising—and it is striking that it was there from the beginning. Sidebar: what is the biggest grossing movie of all time? Avatar. I know that! It was a pub quiz answer I—not the right one. Oh, really? Was it Titanic, then? One of the Marvel films? Avengers: Infinity War perhaps? No. No? Oh, wait, did you mean highest grossing adjusted for inflation? Gone With The Wind, then. Or the first Star Wars movie? No, again, no. Try again. Well then I don’t understand. Those films top the lists of box-office gross. Ah, but box office is only one way in which a film earns money. Add up the box-office take, DVD sales, franchise rights and—especially—toys and mechandise, and the highest grossing film of all time is …
Cars 2. Seriously.
Anyway, back on topic If ‘merchandising’ is one of the four pillars of Disney success, the others are: art; music and character. The visual component ('and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?) is clearly central, and I’ll come back to it in future posts. The music gets overlooked, in some studies of the Disney phenomenon: but it’s hard to think of songs from the 1930s and 1940s that have the present-day cultural currency as ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’, ‘Heigh-Ho’, ‘Whistle While You Work’ (or for that matter: ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, ‘Hi Diddly Dee, An Actor’s Life for Me’, or—I could go on). ‘Character’ was something Disney, perhaps surprisingly, kept forgetting. Though I suppose it could be argued that audiences empathized to some extent with the rather drippy Snow White, and connected emotionally with her conflict with the Queen, the move scores especially in the individuation of the dwarfs—the exaggerated yet relatable separate personalities of all seven which, together, somehow aggregate into a single gestalt. That, I’d argue, are where ‘we’ are; positioned as outsider observers by the very logic of cinema itself as the love-story plays through and the beautiful young girl and the handsome young prince pair off.
And that’s the thing that interests me the most about Snow White as a movie. The dwarfs, yes; but the dwarfs as the way the film interpellates masculinity. It is a version of the world symbolically predicated upon the diminishment of maleness. The Queen, wicked as she might be, rules; the core emotional dynamic is between (quasi)-mother and daughter. The film parses 'masculinity' as the threat of violence, of death—think of the huntsman, sent by the queen to knife Snow White to death—but only to unthread it.
Scary! But of course the huntsman can't follow-through. Look what happens to him in the crucial sequence:
He shrinks! He shrinks before our very eyes to dwarfish dimensions; unmanned, we might say, by his tender heart. The very next scene is Snow White fleeing through the forest and stumbling upon the dwarfs. And from that moment on, until the final scenes with the perfectly blank manikin figure of the handsome prince, it is the dwarfs who carry the ‘maleness’ of the movie. They are, clearly, men—not boys—but they are also childish in stature and in terms of their relationship to Snow White. Infatuated with her, yes: but her bed is not a place for them—the bedboard keeps them all neatly at bay, their variously grotesque penile noses the only things daring to reach past the line of demarcation.
What is all this saying about manhood? Well maybe the point is a subtle undermining of the patriarchal dominance of 1930s US society, but that's a hard case to make stick. After all, one central thrust of the movie is really rather ostentatiously to establish a gendered division of labour. Snow White does work, but only at domestic chores; demonstrating, indeed, her fitness for marriage by showing herself super-skilled at the housework. The dwarfs may be small, but they do manly work in a manly way: digging in the mines and so on. Indeed, they bring out so many and such colossal gemstones it's a bit puzzling they all have to share a small rural cottage: they could surely afford a mansion and many servants. But wondering why they don't do so is to open an interpretive door we probably don't want to open. This land, wherever it is, clearly lacks almost all the infrastructure a functioning society would need. (See also Anne Bilson's excellent blog on the movie, including her livetweeting her viewing of the movie: 'If one of the dwarfs is a Doc, how come he’s working down mines & not operating on people? What kind of Khmer Rouge regime is this anyway?')
The broader point is that, in the words of Steven Watts' excellent The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (1997), 'Walt Disney operated not only as an entertainer but as a historical mediator … this role was unintentional but decisive. Disney entertainment projects were consistently nourished by connections to mainstream American culture—its aesthetics, political ideology, social structures, economic framework, moral principles—as it took shape from the late 1920s through to the later 1960s'. Perhaps we want to read the film's core shrinkage of maleness as an expression of cultural anxiety; or as a playful sense that 'we' no longer need to be the stuffy post-Victorian embodiments of maturity we were once expected to be. Which is another way of talking about a broader encroaching infantilising of men, leading us from Men to today's overwhelming prevalence of man-boys. Then again, the dwarfs do seem to be having all sorts of playful, childlike fun. And meanwhile, the older woman is passing to the younger woman the Improbably Bright Scarlet Globe of Sexual Allure And Power ('As Used By Scarlet Women Everywhere!'), by-passing the male characters altogether.
WARNING! Improbably Bright Scarlet Globe of Sexual Allure And Power may cause temporary death. This is nothing to be worried about, and is in fact only 'la petite mort', from which you will awake refreshed and, in some cases, married.