‘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.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Medieval Church Graffiti

These circular designs (all from East Anglian churches, although similar graffiti can be found in churches across Britain) were inscibed onto church walls as ‘ritual protection marks’. The image is from this BBC History Extra blogpost on the phenomenon, which includes many other fascinating designs.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

The Twenty-Four-Book Aeneid

I've read many translations of the Aeneid. I've even, from time to time, had a go at translating bits and pieces from the original myself so I know how hard that job is to do well. And Sarah Ruden, in her 2009 Yale edition, does it exceptionally well. This may be the best verse version of the poem I know, actually: a line-for-line rendering written in nimble, expressive blank verse that manages to compress Vergil's more capacious hexameters without losing force or specificity, and which over and over finds clever, eloquent solutions to the many translation problems this tricky text presents. (Since we're on the subject I might add: I also rate Robert Fitzgerald's verse, and David West's prose, translations.)

Today, though, I'm not blogging about her translation, but rather about a passing comment Ruden makes at the beginning of her introduction:

So far as I can tell, this notion that Vergil originally planned a 24-book Aeneid is entirely Ruden's invention. We know (from Donatus) that Vergil on his deathbed considered the poem unfinished: but that was a matter of ~60 incomplete hexameter lines and a general polishing and finishing-up, not a whole unwritten second half.

I do find myself, nonetheless, intrigued by her idea. What would a 24-book Aeneid even look like? All that's left to tell of Aeneas's life is: marrying Lavinia and founding his city Lavinium, fathering his son Silvius, succeeding Latinus as king of the Latins and finally being apotheosed into heaven by his mother Venus. There's not twelve books of epic verse in that little story: Maffeo Vegio fits the whole thing into six hundred hexameters in his Aeneid 13, and even that reads a little, shall we say, slackly. We could, maybe, spin it out into three books: one detailing the aftermath of the death of Turnus, one the founding of Lavinium and the birth of Silvius and one the passing of Aeneas.

That leaves us nine epic books to fill. Since one thing I would certainly never do is waste my, and everybody else's, time by actually writing a blank-verse second-half-of-the-Aeneid, I feel uninhibited from suggesting the following contents list:
Book 13: The burning of Ardea; Aeneas reconciled with Latinus
Book 14: The founding of Lavinium
Book 15: Aeneas rules for three years and ascends to the heavens
Book 16: Ascanius founds Alba Longa
Book 17: Silvius
Book 18: Tiberinus and the river
Book 19: Romulus Silvius: pride and punishment
Book 20: Numitor and Amulius and the births of Romulus and Remus;
Book 21: Romulus and Remus come to manhood
Book 22: The Founding of Rome
Book 23: The killing of Remus
Book 24: Remus's appears as a ghost and prophesies future glories.
That would more or less work, I think; and though it would shift the centre of gravity of the epic away from Aeneas as such, there's no evidence that The Aeneid was even Vergil's preferred title. Maybe he was working on a Romiad all along.

Wednesday 18 April 2018

Aeneid 13

[This is a translation of Maffeo Vegio's once-celebrated continuation of Vergil's epic. The original Latin is here. Vegio (1407-58) was born near Milan, studied law at the University of Pavia and then tried to recruit the Duke of Milan as patron by writing him flattering poems. When that didn't work he used his contacts to obtain a position under Pope Eugenius IV, first as a papal abbreviator and later canon of the Basilica of San Pietro. His Aeneid XIII, sometimes called the Supplement, was an early production—Vegio wrote it in 1428, and went on to write more than fifty other things. It proved extremely popular, and its popularity endured for many centuries. Indeed, it was often included in Renaissance editions of the Aeneid as if integral to the poem. 

The 630-line poem picks up the story directly from the end of Aeneid 12: the Trojan prince Aeneas has escaped the destruction of Troy and brought his people, and his penates or household gods, through many dangers to make a new home in Italy. King Latinus, a native ruler, welcomes him: a peace-treaty is signed and Latinus offers his daughter Lavinia to Aeneas as bride. Other inhabitants of Italy, though, are hostile; and one, the Rutulian prince Turnus, breaks the peace-treaty and makes war on the Trojans. He was engaged to Lavinia before the Trojans arrived, and resents his future-bride being taken from him. If books 1-6 of the Aeneid, detailing the Trojans journey from Troy to Italy, are Vergil's Odyssey, then books 7-12 are his Iliad: mostly given over to lengthy accounts of fighting and killing.

In standard epic style, Vergil gives his characters epithets; and the one that most particularly attaches to Aeneas is pius: a descriptor poorly rendered by the English word ‘pious’—although that is its etymological descendent in our tongue. For a Roman pietas was a complex of religious fidelity, duty (especially duty to one's family), virtue and compassionate respect for others. One of the adventures Aeneas has on his journey to Italy is a descent into the Underworld during which he meets the ghost of his father Anchises, who offers him a glimpse of Rome's future glory. ‘Your task, Roman,’ Anchises tells him, ‘and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts—to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to spare the defeated and war down the proud’ [this is David West's translation of Aeneid 6:851-3]. In the climax to the poem Aeneas and Turnus fight in single combat, and Aeneas wins. Turnus surrenders, but then Aeneas kills him anyway in a sudden access of rage. Notionally he does this because he catches sight, on Turnus' kneeling body, of a trophy the Rutulian took when he killed an Italian youth called Pallas; but this seems a thin motivation. Unlike the Homeric prototype for this scene, when Achilles pitilessly cuts-down Hector because Hector had killed his lover Patroclus, Aeneas barely knew Pallas. At any rate this apparent violation of his duty as a Roman to spare the defeated, this act of Aeneas's so seemingly opposed to his pietas, has troubled many generations of readers and commentators. It seems an oddly jarring note on which to end the poem, and it especially bugged Renaissance readers, who wanted to take Aeneas as a flawless model for kingship in the world. It's this problematic, really, that Vegio's supplement to Vergil addresses.

I first read Aeneid 13 in Michael C. J. Putnam's handy prose translation (it's in his Maffeo Vegio: Short Epics, a volume in the I Tatti Renaissance Library, Harvard University Press 2004), but I don't think there's been a modern verse translation. At any rate I wanted to know the poem better, and the best way to really get to know a poem is by translating it. What follows is, pretty much, a line-by-line rendering, and I've tried to respect Vegio's frequent enjambments (something he copies from Vergil, who also does it a lot), although since I naturally wanted to avoid weird or archaic word-order inversions, and since the Latin word-order would, in many cases, look merely jumbled if translated directly into English, I've had to undertake some shifting about. Nonetheless, I think this is a pretty close rendering. All except for the reference in line 107 of course. But otherwise.]

As Turnus, fallen in the war's last battle,
gushed out his life, the victor stood with his men:
magnaminous Aeneas, triumphant hero;
and all the astonished Latins groaned aloud
bitter sorrow from the core of their beings,
their minds collapsed—like a huge, leaf-fringed
grove of trees flattened by north wind's tumult.
They drive their spears into the earth, lean on swords,
slough shields from shoulders and curse war
the madness of their infatuation with Mars:                      [10]
they can't refuse prisoners' chains and neck-yokes,
and only pray now for peace and an end to evil.
It's like when two great bulls, in bitter enmity,
charge at one another, colliding in a mess of gore,
and each herd supports their champion, until
one wins, and the cattle who backed the loser
now willingly offer obedience to the victor,
they, though sorrow gouge their minds, submit.
That was the Rutulians now: as huge sadness
hurts their hearts, and their lord's death terrifies them,       [20]
they bend to the strength of Phrygian Aeneas, treat
for peace, and hope for a final end to war.

Standing over Turnus's corpse, his voice calm,
Aeneas speaks: “What madness hatched in you?
What Troy-hatred? We are sent by the Great
Thunderer himself! Why, people of Daunus,
expel us from Italy, our promised home?
Learn to honour Jove and follow gods' commands!
Jove's lasting anger won't forget such evil:
it incites the judgment of the gods. This end                     [30]
you brought on yourself, consequence of your mad
treaty-breach, of forcing hardship onto us.
Be advised: your days will serve as lesson
in times to come; it is insane to scorn Jove,
and set the world on fire with war's arid frenzy.
What joy in your weapons now? Ah, noble corpse,
dead Turnus: Lavinia won't lightly be yours;
No shame in falling to Aeneas' strong right hand!
Rutulians, take your lord, armour and body,
much honoured in the sad doom of his death.                   [40]
Take everything but Pallas' heavy belt, which
I will send to Evander as a solace,
to celebrate his great foe Turnus's death.
Ausonians, take from this one lesson:
war needs better causes! I swear on the stars,
I never wanted war, to send in troops:
but, driven by your fury, I had to defend
the integrity of my Trojan people.”

Having spoken Aeneas joyfully turned
presented himself to the tall Trojan city.                            [50]
A mass of younger Teucrians rush out
flowed joyfully towards him, spurring their
fast horses, hurling sharp words at the Latins
mocking them as cowards. Applause fills the sky.
And though unburied bodies require rites,
and setting funeral pyres pressed on his mind,
Aeneas knew a higher duty, and ordered
honours paid first at the gods' own altars.
By ancient custom they sacrifice fat bulls
at the temples, and pigs and pure white sheep,                  [60]
spilling the beasts' red blood upon the ground.
They pull out entrails, cut carcasses in chunks, spit
the meat and thrust it in the flowing flames.
They fill bowls with wine, Lyaeus-Bacchus' gift,
heap offerings; replete, to do right homage.
Incense burns in the fire. The laden altar smokes.
Praise thrums the houses: the Great Thunderer
is hymned; Venus too; and you Saturnian Juno,
—such high praise summons a serener glory—
and Mars exalted too, and all the gods                               [70]
are raised to the heights, summoned with voices
to the pearl-hued heavens.

                                               Gentlest of them all,
Aeneas, raised his hands skyward, palms up;
and embracing his young son Iulus, said:
“Son, you've been my one hope through all the trials
the complexities of fate I've brought us through.
Here is our resting place, misfortune's end,
our most yearned-for and our ever-welcome,
this looked-for day. When I waged hard war,
I knew the gods ensured our future: how                           [80]
could I forget! Now, when tomorrow's dawn
glows red, you'll go in glory to the Rutulian walls.”
Then turning a kind eye on the massed Trojans
he sent serene words out from his broad chest:
“O comrades, you've passed hard and deadly dangers,
come through fire and the doubled madness of war,
through many winters, and all the bitterness,
shocking hardship, oppression and iniquity.
Turn your minds away from cruel misfortunes
to today! The happy end! What we build here                    [90]
will last: we'll ally with the Latin peoples
in peace; my wife Lavinia will prove
haven from harsh war, Italian blood mixed
with that of Troy, and so passed to eternity.
Friends I ask one thing: treat the Ausonians fair,
unify, respect our father-in-law, Latinus.
He will wield the mighty scepter: it's my will
and decree. More, in my excellence of arms
and piety learn to follow me. What glory
we've accrued! I call sky and stars to witness                     [100]
I, who rescued all of you from nests of evils,
will lead you potently on, to greater gains.”

As he spoke his mind recalled the dangers
now behind them all, and the peace they'd won,
and he flared up with a blazing love for
his Trojans, joyous they were free at last
from danger: as when, falling stukha-swift
to seize the tiny nestlings a kite swoops
shrieking greedily and spreading havoc:
mother-bird, her feathered heart shaking fear,                    [110]
rises to defend her poor chicks from this terror
sharpens her beak as best she can—attacks,
forcing his retreat at last by her sheer verve;
then, clucking with worry, she searches, scared
for her panicked chicks, her little darlings,
glad of their survival, now rescued from danger.
Just so Anchises' son soothed his Trojans,
with friendly words, revisiting old fears
once heart-anxieties, now joys brought forth
at last from evil, taking pleasure now                                 [120]
in what had been a trial. Tallest among men
powerfully-built, most brilliant Aeneas
renowned for virtue, he offers prayers to gods,
extolling most of all the highest Jove.

Meanwhile, the Rutulian funeral march
carried their lifeless leader to their city:
all minds were gripped by sorrow, stormy tears
showering from eyes. The noise reached Latinus
age-worn and grizzled at the walls, brooding dangers:
he was overwhelmed by their high keening,                        [130]
and looking down on Turnus, saw his wound—
he wept aloud before the procession,
and called for silence with his hand and words.
As a boar spurts foaming blood when bitten
by the lead hound that has seized it, and the rest
of the dog-pack, excited by the beast's fate
run in frantic circles barking at their keeper,
greeting the spurting blood with clamoured shouts,
until, responsive to the trainer's hand and word
the whole pack settles, stops its noise, controlled.               [140]
So the Ardean Rutulians settle at his voice.

Heartfelt tears still falling, the Latin king
began: “how frail the scepter's transient pride;
How crazily does fate swing us around
whirlwinds the lives of men! Desire for power,
where do you blindly lead us? Where, glory, with such
danger, do you take our swaggering minds?
How many traps, how many snares, what evil
takes us? what arms, how many swords were there              [150]
that we were blind to? Oh sweet poison, dire
devotion to the world! Alas, sad throne
so costly to be held, the heaviness
of rulership which can never pledge peace,
and never bring tranquillity! Ach, bitter lot
of piteous royalty in a world of fears
that swarm at kings never to be denied!
Why, Turnus, did you bring this grief to Italy,
compel Aeneas' people to hard war?
What pleasure is there in defying sacred                               [160]
treaties? What huge impatience gripped your spirit
to battle a god's son, whom the Thunderer
himself summoned,—to chase him from our homes?
Outrage the promised pledge of my daughter
as Aeneas' wife? flaunt my express command
and raise your hand in war? What madness webbed
your mind? Why were you moved by savage Mars
on horseback in radiant armour, leading men,
though my anxiety rebuked you, urged restraint,
and called you back again to our threshold?                          [170]
How badly that played out our cities show,
half-wrecked, our wide fields glinting with white bones
and Latium deprived of rightful strength, a huge
ruin, rivers running red with human blood
these long, trembling terrors, this hard labour
which we city elders have so often endured.
Now, Turnus, there you lie! where's your youth now?
your glory, your once-famous mental sharpness?
Your honour? The imago of your decency?
Ach! such bitter tears does Daunus shed for you,                  [180]
Turnus! a river of them flows from Ardea!
And though our town won't see this cruel wound
it will at least have this bare comfort: that
your death came from the sword of Trojan Aeneas.”

He spoke as tears poured out and drenched his cheeks.
Facing the crowd, he ordered the wretched body
lifted up and borne into the bleak city,
charging it be done with all proper honours.
Quickly a surrounding crowd of Rutulians
moved the young corpse onto a hefty bier,                            [190]
piled with spoils previously taken from Trojans:
helmets and horses, swords and other weapons.
Chariots still slick with Phrygian blood follow;
weeping Metiscus slowly leads the horse
wet with the flow of its own tears, that once
carried raging Turnus to attack his foes.
Others come, their weapons held inverted; youths
trudging, wailing, wetting their breasts with tears.
And now they plod exhausted through night's silence
beating their breasts; and with slow step, Latinus                 [200]
makes towards the palace, thoughts desolate.
All the mothers weep, the young boys and old men
agitated and sad, fill the city with their groans.

But Daunus, ignorant of the pain to come,
not knowing war had deleted his son
was led by the sound of weeping to the walls,
already anxious with other cares and troubles.
For as the Latins were off being defeated
and Turnus soiled the ground with his hot blood
a fire had gashed through the high walls of the city;             [210]
Ardea was smoking, the father's palace ruined
reduced to clouds of ash and starbright embers
swirling upwards, no hope of salvation.
It was the gods' will—or maybe Turnus'
fate foreshadowed itself here, cut down by war.
Distraught, minds crushed, the anguished citizens
battered their chests in grief at this iniquity
this disaster. Mothers in their long dresses,
hurrying out, fleeing the hungry flames.
When ants, in black cohorts, struggle at a task                      [220]
beneath a tall tree, home-making in its root,
until a sharp axe breaks into their labour,
sundering and smashing-up their tiny
homes cruelly, at once they vie with each other
running out and around in desperate panic;
—or a tortoise upended, feeling fire's heat
on its flesh, wildly kicking its struggling feet,
thrashing its tail in panic, jerking its head,
trying over and again to escape as it burns;
in just that way the wretched citizenry                                  [230]
scattered confusedly in tumult of mind.

Before his people Daunus raised his voice,
an old man complaining to the gods above.
An omen was seen: from the midst of the flames,
a bird beat its wings and flew up into air,
the city's very name—Ardea means heron.
That which once stood as walls and soaring towers
changes, streaming on with outspread wings.
All stood stunned by this divine miracle
shoulders drooped and faces were perplexed,                       [240]
and Daunus, with ardent love of his country,
suppressed the spasm of his suffering heart.
The crowd heard that some marching men were coming—
Rumour herself flew down to panic hearts.
A soldier's death-march was approaching;
Turnus was dead, overwhelmed by a great wound.
A troubled crowd assembled, carrying black-shaft
torches according to custom: fields alight,
glistening with fire, joined with those who came.
After the mothers saw the advancing column                       [250]
they clapped their hands and sent shrieks to the stars.

Daunus saw his son's funeral procession ,
stood, seized with an immense and wrenching grief,
then suddenly cast himself amongst that company
clasped Turnus's corpse tight on the ground and
as soon as grief permitted speech, he said:
“Son, a father's pain, a tired and sad old age
all calm now shattered: dragged by those same dangers
which you drew to you, crushed by force of arms!
What has your outstanding spirit brought me?                      [260]
Is this the prize of virtue, power's glory?
This empire's magnificence? these the triumphs;
won by my son? Is this the balm you promised me
for my afflictions, the longed-for end of labours?
Oh! misery. Precipitous is the fall
that the fast-revolving ages bring about!
You, famous claimant to the highest honours,
Latium's right hand, whose armed strength the Trojans,
found so punishing, time and time again;
now, my Turnus, you lie dead, too sadly so;                         [270]
your once-sweet voice silenced; none handsomer
in the whole of Ausonia, none more graceful
or eloquent, nor more impressive when armed.
My son, where is your beauty's radiance, your brow's
fine shape, your eyes' tender glance, your long
neck's proud height? Did the glory of Mars
require such offering as this? You prepared
for war so eagerly and to this end?
Ach, hateful death, you who blunt the lifted
vengeance-weapons of our collective spirit                          [280]
you rule all nations, your contract never fails;
You level both the great and lowly man, the brave
and cowardly, captain and crew, old, young.
Obliterating death, for what gross cause
have you withdrawn my son from me, pierced with
this wound? Ah, lucky Amata, rejoice
that you are dead, my wife: these huge sorrows,
this endless pain-mnemonic, are things spared.
to you. How else torment a heartsick father,
you gods above? My son dead, Ardea burning                       [290]
overturned, consumed to ash, its wings batter
the sky. Oh my son, bloodsoaked Turnus!
Your old father's life still waits its end.
a pitiable creature whom the savage gods,
incensed by violent hatred, hound and torture
until he is destroyed. So fate turns the world.”
He finished speaking, and his drenching tears
covered his cheek, hard sorrow from his heart:
As if Jove's eagle seized with strong talons
a small fawn, ripped and sprayed its blood,                          [300]
whilst mother-deer looked on her baby's death.

Broad daylit brightness filled the world anew.
Father Latinus could see the doom Mars
inflicted on the faltering Italians, and
that fate favoured Aeneas. The storm of battle
preyed on his mind, and his duty to the pact:
to marriage and his daughter's plighted troth.
He calls forth men to represent their city,
chosen for their excellence, and sends
a thousand envoys to the Trojan chief
that worthiest commander. He adds togaed                           [310]
speakers to the deputation, with precise
orders—“since the gods' own auspices command
that Trojan and Italian blood be mixed
so both can share their destinies in peace:
invite Aeneas' folk inside the city.”

He takes his broken nation and his people,
shores them up, adds courage to their spirits;
pledges that enduring peace will come.
decrees a triumph soon will be paraded,
and decorates the royal palace with tributes;                        [320]
Cheerfully he urges them to unity—
to greet his son-in-law wholeheartedly
receive the Trojan people with acclaim, and
sing out in joy at peace's restoration.

His cohort now approached the Trojan camp,
Hair tied and olive-sprigged, suing for peace.
Aeneas orders them brought to his quarters
and cheerfully he asks why they have come.

Then aged Drances, obviously happy
at Turnus' death, began his heartfelt                                     [330]
speech: “Oh, famous ruler of the Trojans;
Phrygia's hope and glory, whose piety
and strength surpasses all: we testify
before all deities with what reluctance
Latinus watched Latium ignore him,
to break its treaty: he respected Phrygians.
and since the powers above decreed his daughter
should marry you, he embraced that union.
What has been wrought by chaotic hot war,
the furious effort of the work, its trials—                             [340]
was all just Turnus' mad hunger for the fight,
his headstrong fury. All against our will
he consigned the Latin people to the fray.
The army all beseeched him with the plea
to yield and keep the treaty, that Anchises'
mighty son might marry; and, though old,
Latinus clutched his shaking hands in prayer
begged him, although on fire with Mars's fury.
But neither our impassioned prayers, nor omens
of the gods could change his stubborn spirit.                       [350]
His mouth spewed fire, a wild beast for battle.
At least his violence finds its proper end,
stretched before you now, his vanquisher, biting
black soil. Now in the deepest depths of
Tartarus let him explore the possibilities
of other battleplans, of other marriages.
May you, the better man, accept Laurentian suit.
You are the hope of tired Latinus' house;
Italians see you soar beyond the golden
stars, armed by gods, revered for might in war.                   [360]
Their celebration marks a simple truth.
We are yours: the solemn throng of fathers
the worn-out men, the happy youths are yours;
the eager mothers, single boys and girls;
unanimous in relief that Turnus fell
to the force of your arms. We entreat you,
all Italy exalts you with its praise;
All eyes are fixed on you. Father Latinus
has now just one task left in his long life
to join his daughter to you, and ensure                                [370]
the mix of Trojan and Italian blood.
Therefore, come great leader of the Teucrians
Come in, and take the honours promised you.”

He ended: and all clamoured their approval.
Good Aeneas, turning to those who cheered
returned their greeting with choice words of friendship:
“I don't blame you, or Latinus who I know
wants peace. The wrath of this unbalanced Turnus
is to blame—together with his glory-lust
surely brought about this chain of events.                           [380]
Ausonians, I do not refuse the pact
the marriage and the sacred peace ensured
by this new union. My father-in-law
will remain king, my Trojans build for me
a new city, named after your daughter, home
to our household gods. Our legacy will be
a harmony of laws, and great hearts one in love.
Meanwhile, let's build pyres for the pitiable
bodies of the dead, whom war's insanity
have snatched away. Then, with tomorrow's clear              [390]
dawn light, let us rebuild Laurentian homes.”

He finished speaking and the whole crowd gazed
in awe at such an august instance of
his celebrated pietas; they heaped huge beams
for funeral pyres, and set the fires
cremating fallen countrymen. Smoke drifts high
and the sky above becomes a murky darkness,
countless sheep are sacrificed, black-headed
cattle slaughtered, and placed on these pyres.
The wide fields are blasted by the burning.                       [400]
A storm of lamentation fills the air.

Now, Phoebus's clear gold light had raised the day;
Teucrian and Ausonian men in battle gear
mounted their horses and rode straight to
that high-walled city, upright Laurentium
led by dutiful Aeneas and Drances
the old man recalling many memories; next came
Ascanius; and great-souled old Aletes;
llioneus, Mnestheusque, sharp Serestus
Sergestus, strong Gyas, Cloanthus as strong.                      [410]
Mingled Italians-Teucrians followed behind.

Hurrying citizens streamed along the walls,
nobility jostling with ordinary civilians
in eagerness to see the coming Trojans.
And, all his worries put to rest, Latinus
with a large crowd gladly received them all.
When he saw in the coming procession
Dardanian Aeneas, his true image
far surpassing all report, tall and fine
radiating a prince's charisma from eyes                              [420]
as bright as stars. Soon it was time for talk
after they clasped hands to welcome one another,
a meeting long anticipated. Latinus begins:
“At last you've come; we are not disappointed
of our hearts' hope, light of the Trojan nation,
you who, following the mighty gods' orders
settle in Italy, under our own roofs:
though inhuman chaos sought furiously.
to derange law and invite a divine wrath;
endangering even me against my will,                                [430]
forcing me to endure the rush of Mars.
We paid no small price for this; heaven's lawful
angry powers punished us dreadfully.
But, Trojan leader, since the source, the author
of rebellion is no more; let us proceed to
marriage, to union, and the promised wedding.
Though I have kingdoms, other towns with walls:
my daughter is my one hope for old age;
I embrace you, son and son-in-law combined.”

Then good Aeneas said: “Great king, I don't                      [440]
blame you for our conflict. No one believes
your love for sacred peace could lead to tumult;
Banish worry from your mind, dear father, please.
Now, here, I gladly claim you as both father-in-law
and father; a mighty vision rises up—
Anchises! I burn anew with love for a father.”

Joined to one another they entered the royal
palace; mothers and girls streamed out to greet them;
fathers and squads of youths, eager to gaze
on the handsome bodies of the Trojan men.                        [450]
Above all, they want to see the great Aeneas,
high-spirited, his heritage and his fine brow,
to praise this time of peace, long-coveted
gift of calm. As, when lengthy downpour
ceaseless rain holds farmer's plow long idle
until at last the Titan sends his horses
over the golden sky's broad path with brightness;
and happy peasants rush out filled with joy,
Just so the Ausonians greet this happy time                        [460]
of calm spirits. Now noble King Latinus
had entered the regal hallways, walking with
the great Aeneas, handsome Iulus following;
Italians and Phrygians behind. The bright
palace was filled with the happy group's applause.
To this procession a troop of mothers
and daughters brought in the virgin Lavinia,
her shining eyes cast down. When the Trojan
hero saw her beauty, mirabile dictu,
he stopped, enchanted by the sight, and inside                   [470]
sorrowed for the sufferings of Turnus who
moved by an ambition too great for his zeal
had levied soldiery, inflamed by arms.
So the eternal marriage bond is made,
and all are singing the praises of union;
applause and acclamation fills the air,
sounds of joy ring through the royal place.

Then Aeneas asks the faithful Achates
for the gifts Andromache once gave him, garments
woven with gold thread that had adorned her                     [480]
whilst Troy still stood; and a circling collar
of gold and gorgeous jewels that graced her neck;
and also a fine mixing bowl, in which Priam
had pledged his love for Anchises, long ago.
At once Achates brings these lovely gifts.
Latinus takes the great bowl as his son-in-law's
present; graceful Lavinia accepts the garments
and jewels as wife. Then they take friendship's
refreshment, and fill the hours with conversation.

And now the slow declining light marked time                  [490]
for the banquet; a royal convivial table
heaped high with fine food and palace settings.
All were invited to Tyrian-dyed couches,
to share in the delicious feast. They washed
their hands in cups of crystal glass; on the table
blond Ceres' bread; a corps of smiling servants
bustled round attending to all needs:
refresh the plates with food and mix the wine
refill cups and bowls. Circling now here, now there,
a medley of services within those halls.                              [500]

Father Latinus gazed at young Iulus
marvelling at his eyes and lovely face,
at the sophistication of his speech
a mind mature beyond its years; he asked him
many things, conversed and kissed him
sweetly, clinging to him in a fond embrace;
happy the gods would offer such a gift
as offspring, good fortune to Aeneas.

With their hunger satisfied by the meal
conversation cheats the long hours of night:                       [510]
recalling Troy's hard loss to the Achaeans,
and then remembering Laurentine war:
where the battle lines were drawn; which weapons
were hurled and struck; who charged the foe
wetting his sword with the hot blood of horses.
Trojan Aeneas and aged Latinus,
spoke of heroes, the power of the Latins,
of how, to escape the pursuit of his armed son
Saturn himself hid on latent Latin shores;
bringing order to the mountain-dwellers                             [520]
teaching them the law guaranteeing rights,
how to grow food and vines; and afterwards,
Jove came to his father's house; Atlas' daughter Electra,
bore Dardanus, who went to Ida's Phrygia,
with his followers, leaving Cortona behind;
taking the eagle his emblem: Jove's pride;
the blazon of Hector's race, and the founder of
the famous Trojan stock and all its honours.

With such and other chatter they filled up
the time. Now yells of joy roll through the courts              [530]
echoing beneath the mighty palace roofs.
Torches give light, flashing forth wide brightness.
The Phrygians jump to their feet, and as the guitar
is struck the Ausonians join then, clapping all together
and banging their feet in rhythm of the joyful dance.

Festivities had lasted nine luxurious
splendid days, when that great hero-ruler
Aeneas scored out the curved line of his city,
with a plough: houses, trenches, an embankment.
Then: a wonder! An undiminishing flame                          [540]
huge and bright, twisting up into the clouds,
appeared for pour from off Lavinia's head!
Father Aeneas, astonished, stretched his
hands to the sky and spoke: “If ever, Jupiter,
the Trojans heeded you on land and sea
willingly respected and obeyed your commands
if I, you high powers, ever revered your altars:
what does this omen mean? May it be happy
the felicity of peace, an end to our sufferings.”

At this heartfelt outcry, his golden mother,                          [550]
Venus herself, embraced him and spoke kindly:
“Son, banish your anxiety, accept these better
omens from the gods, rejoice, your future's good.
Now peace is won, your sufferings are over;
now history accepts your covenant of peace.
Don't fear the flame that carries to the heavens
from your dear wife's head; only stand firm and true.
Yes, she will be the one to raise your bloodline
and exhalt the Trojan race to the stars!
She will beget you many high-souled offspring                   [560]
great descendants whom the whole world will praise,
who'll use their strength and power to bring that world
under their yoke. Their glorious empire
will surpass the Ocean and over-top Olympus;
And what will lift them, after ardent deeds
beyond the sky, to godhead's source, is: virtue.
This flame heralds the signal achievement,
of your nation; the Almighty himself
has sent this sign down from his starry home.
Give your city you are founding your wife's name.              [570]
Establish there your sacred household gods
the ones you snatched from burning Troy; pay them
the honours they deserve, now and all time.
I'll tell you an amazing thing: your love
is so great that, even displaced, Lavinium
will draw them, they'll return of their own will.
O lucky man, greatness is yours! In peace
you'll rule the Trojans. When your father-in-law
drained by age, departs for Elysian shadows;
You will take the throne, and bring Italian law                     [580]
and Trojan into harmony. And then
ascend to heaven! The omen means all this.”
Then she flew away, borne on the light air.

Aeneas, though stupefied by what he'd heard,
carried out the commands of his divine parent;
And so he reigned, brought peace's blessings to
the Dardanians; and, when old Latinus died
dutiful Aeneas succeeded, and the whole
of Italy came under his great sway.
Union between the Phrygians and Italians                            [590]
grew stronger, an alliance of great love,
shared customs and the harmony of laws.
Then Venus came to the midst of Olympus
knelt before Jove and clasped his feet, saying:
“Mighty Father, you from the sky's summit
guide all things and observe the affairs of men.
When malign fate gripped the Trojans, I recall
you promised they'd be safe and to end their strife.
Your pledge, father, never has deceived me!
we have all seen the whole of Italy celebrate                        [600]
three years of serene peace, unbroken;
A pathway to the astral heights of heaven
for Aeneas you promised that, to make his worth
known to the stars. What does your heart say now?
Aeneas's virtue earns celestial zenith.”

The father of men and gods kissed her, and
spoke from the heart: “Cythera, my words tell you
how much I've loved Aeneas and his folk
enduring all they did on land and sea,
I grieved for them, touched by your love, my daughter,        [610]
until at last I won Juno's agreement
to end their woes. I stand by my decree,
the Phrygian leader will ascend the lofty
heavens: my will is firm; the gods' council
will accept him. You must erase what mortal
parts of him remain, so he can reach the stars.
And others with his virtue, those whose praise
is universal, whose deeds resound world-wide
those too will I convey beyond the Aether.”
The gods assented, not even royal Juno                                 [620]
demurred; she knew Aeneas deserved
to enter heaven, and became his friend.

Then Venus slides down aerial breezes, looking
for Laurentum: where the Numicius winds its
flow through reeds and runs-on to the sea,
she tells its waves to wash from her son's body
all that is mortal. Joyous, she conducts
the fresh and blessed soul above the air:
and stars Aeneas there. His Julian clan calls him
Indiges, and honours him in temples.                                      [630]

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Black Panther (dir Ryan Coogler, 2018)

The last thing the world needs now (of course I know) is another earnest hot-take on the representation of race in Black Panther written by a middle-aged white guy. Burying such thoughts in the decent obscurity of this blog is surely the best thing to do. Certainly, the prodigality of this film's 3Cs success (cultural, critical and commercial) speaks for itself. Nor is that success surprising: it's an extremely well-made and effective superhero action-thriller that does all the things the best of those sorts of movies do whilst also managing, apparently effortlessly, to open this mode of storytelling to a genuine racial diversity and to engaged and substantive political discussion too. And that's all marvellous. Manohla Dargis's New York Times review called Black Panther ‘a jolt of a movie ... in its emphasis on black imagination, creation and liberation, the movie becomes an emblem of a past that was denied and a future that feels very present. And in doing so opens up its world, and yours, beautifully.’ I'm not here to argue with that assessment.

So instead of discussing this film in any detail, I'm going to make what you will probably think is a very obvious, even an over-obvious, point about the cultural representation of race. Since racism (both in terms of one-to-one instances of neglect and oppression, and more importantly as a systemic feature of the way modern societies operate) has resulted in greater human misery and death over the last several centuries than any other of the various malign forces at work in human affairs, understanding it and more to the point effectively disseminating our understanding strikes me one of the most crucial tasks facing us. The recent flare-up of nativist, nationalist and quasi-fascist politics, from Brexit and Trump last year to Viktor Orbán winning the Hungarian parliamentary election earlier this month, is only one symptom of a long term refusal of racism to go away as a structuring principle of modern politics. This seems to me a very urgent problem.

What our immediate future holds, as a species, is increasing intercommunication between cultures, peoples and individuals; a new global intermingling of groups who were, until really recently (in relative historical terms) separated by huge travel times and a much more inertial human habitus into near-hermetic steads of ethnic and religious homogeneity. No longer! There's no avoiding this sociocultural fact, and indeed many reasons to celebrate it in terms of diversity and a pooling of human resources and ingenuities. But it would be foolish to deny that it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and not all those people are evil or stupid.

How we negotiate the fact that we are now encountering, and in the future increasingly frequently will encounter, people of many different cultures, religions and skin-colours is the great question of our time. The Brexitrumpbán answer is: shrink back into a siege mentality, purge the nation-state of ethnic diversity and build a wall to keep things inside as they used to be. That's no answer at all, of course; but the difficult work of overcoming human timidity (and thus resistance) in the face of alterity is by no means a simple one. There aren't any easy answers. It's also not a task we can shirk.

Now: encountering alterity is one of the foundation-stones of my favourite literary-cultural genre, science fiction. It's one of the reasons I love it. The alien can be many things in SF, but one of the things it has most often been is a means of engaging with the complicated questions of racial difference, the exhilaration as well as the anxiety of that real-world encounter.

It's because SF represents the world without reproducing it that the genre has more imaginative leeway to reconfigure race than mimetic modes of art. This has a good and a bad aspect, the former because, by simplifying and extrapolating ideological anxieties it can make them clearer, and allow a less prejudiced engagement with them; the latter because its isolation of ‘race’ from its actual historical embeddedness can ground a sort of special pleading (when D W Griffiths puts racist caricatures on-screen in Birth of a Nation there's no disavowing it; when George Lucas does the same thing in The Phantom Menace he can say, howsoever disingenuously, ‘but Jar Jar Binks is a Gungan! You surely can't be accusing me of anti-Gunganism!’). But the main advantage is the larger structural one of the fact that the whole genre is predicated upon encountering various kinds of otherness, such that mere engagement habituates the reader (the viewer, the fan) to that encounter. All the aliens in SF can't be repulsive Goebbelsian monstrosities, after all.

How does race get itself represented in SF? Often it is through a kind of duality: the bad other (the vampire, the monster, the hideous man-slaying invading alien) versus the good other (the alluring alien, the wondrous other, the sublime possibility of leaving our hidebound assumptions behind). The key thing is that specific ethnic groups are often represented as both of these in the same text.

So: the Jews of Star Trek are bifurcated into the 'good' Jews, who are rational and super-clever like Einstein and whose religion is a proper mystery, the Vulcans, and the 'bad' Jews, who are small and ugly and who worship only money, the Ferengi. The Vulcan hand salute is the ש sign kohens make as a blessing, which Nimoy observed as a child in synagogue. Where the anti-Semitic stereotype posits large noses as a defining feature of Jews, in Trek, this feature is transferred to ears: pronounced but elegant in Vulcans, grotesquely enlarged and strangely sexual in Ferengi.

You take my point, and indeed I'm sure you can think of lots of other examples. Tolkien was deeply in love with the old feudal-warrior world of the Anglo Saxons but was himself in his life (as I am myself in mine) a thoroughly conventional bourgeois individual who lived his life by a bourgeois code of respectability. One of the things he does in Lord of the Rings is work-through his buried anxieties about this identity by splitting it into two: the ‘good’ bourgeois hobbits, living their small, hidebound lives surrounded by creature comforts, and the ‘bad’ bourgeois Gollum, whose materialism and possessiveness have warped his life into a hideous parody of bourgeois ownership and conservatism. The original Planet of the Apes films included both the sensitive, virtuous chimpanzees and the violent, aggressive gorillas. And so on.

This tracks a key way in which racism as such sustains itself. So: back in the eighteenth-century (let's say) it was acceptable in White society to believe and express the view that Black people were not really human beings. This view was, indeed, a common one for much of European history. Of course it's a lie: Black people are precisely as human as White people. Nowadays only loonies and weirdos think that having a black skin makes you a species of higher beast rather than a homo sapiens.

And yet we see, every day in America, law enforcement treating Black people (even law-abiding Black people) in a markedly different manner to the way it treats White people (even delinquent White people): that is, as animals to be cowed and even killed, rather than as citizens to be recuperated into the law. It looks as though many White Americans hold two radically different view of Black Americans. Broadly speaking they accept that truth so patent that it was notated into the founding document of their nation as self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. But at the same time they regard some of their fellow citizens as subhumans, prone to murderous violence and a present threat to their own lives and property. That looks like cognitive dissonance, but I don't believe it's experienced that way by the average everyday Trump Voter. I think precisely this dualism enables a sort of mental two-step that lets the racist off their own internal-moral hook, as it were.

There are, in this worldview, good and bad African-Americans. On the one hand is there is the culture trope of the kindly, spiritual Black man, the sassy Black woman, the Magical Negro of so much cultural discourse. On the other there is the thug life criminal, the gang-banger, the mugger, drug-dealer, streetwise Fuck Da Police rapper urban-violent Black. Racist policing justifies itself in a society that ‘officially’ repudiates racism by pretending it's only targeting this second group. And it matters for this that the second group is styled, by the various discourses that prop-up racism, as an active threat—the American racist takes the assertion ‘Black Lives Matter’ not as a simple restatement of the Declaration of Independence's self-evidence (which is, after all, what it is), but, rather, as if a soldier in a First World War trench chose precisely the moment of a mass charge by the enemy to start yelling ‘German Lives Matter! Stop Shooting!’ That is to say: it's not that they'd disagree, exactly, in humanitarian-abstract terms. It's just that, right now, they're convinced that police officers gunning down Black motorists and Black customers getting handcuffed and marched out of Starbucks is a matter of (White) life and death. How to convince them of their manifest wrongness? Not easy. And one reason for that is that, because of their Feels where the first group of ‘good’ negroes is concerned. Many racists don't consider themselves racist. And it's that, the ‘I can't be racist, my wife/best friend/esteemed work colleague is Black!’ (and its more dilute version, ‘I can't be racist, I like the movies of Denzel Washington’ or ‘I can't be racist, I sing along when a Michael Jackson song comes on the radio’), that is the real nut that needs cracking.

Which brings us back to Black Panther. Because we might want to argue that this dualistic way of ‘reading’ race in our everyday lives is dialectic in the proper sense of the term: not that we should want ‘them’ to be more like the ‘good’ stereotype and less like the ‘bad’ one, but that both stereotypes are complicit with one another in maintaining the larger structures of racism as such. The magical Negro is, in its way, as malign as the Thug-life gangster.

It's this dualism that Black Panther is structured around. This movie is the story of a war between two kinds of Black man: the ‘good’ T'Challa and the ‘bad’ Erik Killmonger Stevens. I'm not suggesting that the movie handles this Manichean battle crudely. Not at all: it manages to be remarkably eloquent about the political issues involved without ever losing narrative momentum or set-piece excitement. But that is its structure, and as such it reproduces the lineaments of racial representation in contemporary US cultural discourse. The good character is literally a magical Negro (who visits a spiritual plane beyond death to acquire magical strength and endurance) and the latter is a Thug-life cold-eyed killer from the ’hood. That the good character is an African and the bad African-American is not, we might say, ideologically neutral:—as if a Black man can only be truly authentic if he undoes diaspora and returns to Africa; as if the existential inauthenticity of Killmonger is a function of his Americanness rather than his Blackness (I was struck that the marks on his body, notionally recording his many kills, resembled smallpox scars, harking back to the original ‘settlement’ of America, pox-infected blankets being distributed to the aboriginal population). That the whole film, and the larger series of which it is a part, figures the universe as a whole as a great war is also a problem, I think.

Friday 13 April 2018

Ready Player One (dir Steven Spielberg, 2018)

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. Several of the set-pieces are very well handled, and there's plenty of visual wit on display. I'd say it's better than the book, but that's not saying very much. The book really isn't very good. And however flashily-competently Spielberg adapts the novel, he's stuck with the main throughline of his mediocre source material: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with video games and 80s pop culture instead of sweets and chocolate. It's a tick-box adventure that, once all the boxes have been ticked, leaves the viewer feeling ... meh. This (to shift literary allusions for a moment) is a movie that scrambles breathlessly up its over-busy staircase only to burst into fulfilment's desolate attic.

So: James Halliday, creator of OASIS, the world's favourite immersive gaming-VR environment, (Halliday is played with an oddly distracted air and a silly wig by the usually dependable Mark Rylance) is the story's Willy Wonka. He has left a series of puzzles hidden in his games, the solver of which will collect the Easter Egg that gives him/her ownership of the Chocolate Factory that is OASIS. Our Charlie Bucket is Wade Watts, an orphan who lives in a shanty-town in the shithole that the real world has become. He goes through the various chambers of OASIS with his pals, finds the egg and wins. In Dahl's story five lucky kids, chosen at random, get the chance to ‘win’ the factory. In Cline's novel the entire global gaming population has that chance, and yet, somehow, it's only Watts and his four feisty companions who are able to figure out the Dan-Brown-level-of-obviousness clues and win through. There's a lot of chasing about, and all of it happens in a world of real examples of intellectual property: Back to the Future and Akira, Excalibur and King Kong, Pizza Hut and Fruit Rocks and Minecraft, all prominently displayed. They should have called the movie Logo's Run.

The film ends with an absolutely unearned panegyric to ‘the real’, such that on becoming the new owner of the OASIS young Wade Watts shuts it down on Tuesdays and Thursdays to compel people to spend time with their real-world loved ones. As we were leaving the cinema, I asked my ten-year-old Dan, a dedicated gamer (and if I'm honest the only reason I went to see this movie at all) if he'd do something similar, were he ever to be gifted ownership of the internet. He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. ‘Er, no?’ he scoffed. ‘That's like the worst idea in the world.’ And we can be honest: no matter what it pretends, this movie actually agrees with my son on this matter.

So, yes, target audience and so on. Maybe this flick just isn't for me. That's fine. And Dan did enjoy Ready Player One, he assured me. But although it's now been three days, he hardly talks about it. There have been films he has seen, and books he has read, that have resulted in literally weeks of excited chatter and speculation and fan-engagement. Despite the fact that he really is passionate about his gaming, this one ...not so much.

There's one granule of full disclosure I need to make, which may explain and indeed might be thought to invalidate the sourness of my reaction to this film. So here goes.

It has to do with one alteration, amongst several, that Spielberg makes in adapting his source material into his movie. Presumably unable to clear the rights to Blade Runner, whose universe and voight kampff test are important to Cline's story, Spielberg replaces that proprietary universe (which is at least the kind of thing Halliday would think cool) with the universe of Kubrick's The Shining movie (which, though Halliday might respect, he would surely not love in his heart of hearts). It makes for a tonally incongruous central section of the movie's larger narrative-line, I think. But I also had a more personal reason for tut-tutting this interpolation.

The situation in which the inhabitants of a degraded future-world take refuge in a more gratifying virtual world is an old warhorse of SF, going back at least as far as Neuromancer and doubtless earlier. Last year I published my own take on it: a book called The Real Town Murders. In this novel, the vast majority of people have migrated into a shared VR world I call ‘The Shine’, leaving a few people struggling in the dusty and decaying real world. Cline's book has been globally successful and it piqued the interest of one of popular cinema's undeniable geniuses; my book hasn't and didn't, so I don't offer the following observations in any comparative-evaluative sense. There's no question how that exercise would shake down. But you'll understand my personal attachment to my little novel, and this is my blog after all, so I hope you'll indulge me.

The Real Town Murders is a near-future-set whodunit written in intertextual relation with Hitchcock. I've now completed a sequel called The Pricking of Her Thumbs, also a whodunit, set in the same world and written this time in intertextual relation to Kubrick. This sequel includes an interlude inside a VR-recreated Kubrick movie (2001 in my case). My petty personal annoyance is that now people will think I'm ripping-off the movie of Ready Player One. I'm not: though I had read Cline's book, the The Shining interlude isn't in that version of the story, and I completed my novel long before seeing the film (I'm fielding the copy-edits at the moment, in fact). Ah well. Can't be helped. And though I say people will think ... in fact not that many people are going to think anything at all about my forthcoming novel. Indeed having a few thinking it's a rip-off of Spielberg's movie would probably be a small gain for me.

I'm approaching my larger point via Real Town Murders because it's easier for me to frame it that way, although it is a point that stands irrespective or me, Cline, Spielberg or anybody, I think. So: my novel is set (as I say) in a denuded future reality which most people have abandoned for glitzier, more gratifying online virtualities. And not just set there: my story entirely plays out in the real world. Various characters blather on and on about how wonderful the Shine is, but the novel doesn't ever go there. It simply didn't occur to me to write my novel any other way. Because: well, duh.

Cosmoi predicated upon the notion of frictionless gratification are inimical to conflict, and therefore drama, and therefore storytelling and the larger remit of the novel. In such environments nothing is really earned, everything is a succession of weightless, affectless sparkles and swooshes. More to the point, a text like Ready Player One is like this not in the ‘good’ estranging-deracinating mode of old-school postmodernism but in a ‘bad’ feel-good sugary all-pals-together vacuousness of an existentially pathological ludic passivity. There can be no story of any merit in such places, and the art of such places exists within a very narrow band, aesthetically-speaking (some of the visuals in Spielberg's Ready Player One are, I admit, pretty cool; some of the in-jokes and gags are kind of fun). It's not just the specular ennui of watching somebody else play a video game—although it is that, and this movie is nothing but that—it's the formal inability of story-spaces entirely predicated upon wish-fulfilment to provide anything other than the sterile fulfilment of commodified wishes. Wade solves the clues, beats the bad guy, gets the girl and literally not figuratively wins the internet. That's the whole story. The obstacles placed in his way are purely notional obstacles. There's more narrative and aesthetic drama in Marcel trying and failing to fall asleep in the opening chapter of Swann's Way than in the whole $200 million 140 minutes of this text—not because one is high art and the other popular culture, but because one is about the resistance of reality to human desire and the other about nothing but that desire.

To nail this to specifics is almost to miss the point. But still: in the big bossfight at the end of the movie, handsome young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his friends have to defeat evil corporate Suit Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn delivering a performance more smarmy than menacing). Since the fight is happening in a VR, our heroes send in the Iron Giant—in the novel this is Ultraman, but again presumably Spielberg couldn't clear the rights to that particular giant. Sorrento presses a magic button in his magic dimension and conjures a mechagodzilla with himself in its mechadriving-seat. The two big robots fight, with lots of crunchy-punching and lasers and explosions, which is good if you like crunchy-punching and lasers and explosions, although is unlikely to provide any deeper kinds of aesthetic satisfactions even if you do like those things. Sorrento's mechagodzilla is defeated, so he scrambles away to effect Plan B, a magic button that deletes all the players from the game. Why doesn't he just reboot his mechagodzilla I hear you ask? He's in charge of the game, after all. Why doesn't he deploy a million mechagodzillae and stomp all opposition to a desert of shattered pixels? The reason is: because that's not his function. His function is to provide a temporary impediment to the heroes on their inevitable-from-the-outset journey to fulfilment-of-wishes-town.

Since everything in the VR is arbitrary, narrative struggles and achievements are arbitrary too, set by designer fiat and player-adjustable. In-game difficulty is dirigible in order for it never to be too difficult. Nobody enjoys playing tennis entirely without a net of course, but video games allow players to set the net at any height they want, increase or reduce the diameter of their rackets, add musculature to their forearms and so on. I daresay that's fine if what you're interested in doing is playing a video game; but its death to drama and storytelling, and a text that purports to be doing the latter by actually doing the former is doom. The hero wins because his opponent is incompetent, or because the game designer has allowed him to, or both; not because s/he has actually achieved anything or proved anything.

I don't mean to rant. The long-story-short is: when I sat down to write my shitty real world/gleaming VR fantasyland story it seemed to me a no-brainer that a story about the former would be much more interesting than one about the latter. Despite a few nods to the real world, Ready Player One is all about the latter, though, a world with which it is in love. The prodigious commercial success of Cline's novel (and Spielberg's film), as set against the manifest commercial failure of my novel, its cultural profile so low it could double as a map of the Netherlands, might incline you to think I'm wrong about this. In terms of public success and adoration I probably am. But aesthetically I'm right.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

"I Got Ninety-Nine Novels/But a Burge Ain't One"

Hit me!

Ninety-Nine Novels: the Best in English since 1939 (1984) was pulled together, Burgess claimed, in a fortnight. When he wrote his (pretty good) entry on ‘The Novel’ for the 15th ed. of the Encyclopedia Britannica he included discussion of himself amongst the various other notable 20th-century writers. Not here. ‘I have, with right modesty,’ he says in his preface, ‘excluded myself from my list.’ If you like AB novels I feel bad for you son. We get ninety-nine novels, but ... look. Don't make me flog my jokes to death. Alright?

Sometimes the sheer speed of composition does show through. The account of the earlier novels reuses (‘plagiarises’ would be harsh) material from Burgess's prior The Novel Today (1963). There is a degree of repetition from entry to entry, especially when an unusual word takes Burgess's fancy. ‘The big theme of Lucky Jim (1957),’ he tells us, ‘is that of hypergamy—bedding of a woman of a social class superior to one's own.’ The very next entry is in John Braine's Room at the Top (1957), ‘a study in provincial hypergamy—or bedding of a woman from a class superior to one's own.’ Signs of haste are present, too, in the overall conception. In the preface Burge says that, although he is ‘an avid reader of Irving Wallace, Arthur Hailey, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follet and other practitioners of well-wrought sensational fiction’, such novels 'never stood a chance of being placed on my list’ [14]. That the list goes on to include such well-wrought examples of commercial fiction as Fleming's Goldfinger and Len Deighton Bomber is to its overall credit, I think, despite the inconsistency.

There are a few oddities (who in their right mind, really, would say that Updike's best novel is The Coup?) and if the choices grow less enduring as we approach the date of composition, that's probably not Burgess's fault: everybody in the 1980s thought Robertson Davies was a contemporary great, though nobody reads him now. Mind you, even back then it was clear that a lifetime is too short (and eternity barely long enough) to read Mailer's interminable Ancient Evenings. In the LRB Ian Hamilton was witty if cruel on the subject of Burgess's sometimes idiosyncratic choices:
Burgess’s book—as all the world must know—is a riposte to the Book Marketing Council’s ‘Best Novels of Our Time’ hype, and many of its quirks may have to do with his displeasure at having been, shall we say, disincluded from that list of the elect. Wherever possible, he sees to it that their taste is rebuked by his. He starts off by lopping two titles from the BMC list on the grounds that neither of them is what he would call a novel. Animal Farm, he rumbles, is a ‘fable’ and ‘hence cannot be considered for inclusion here’ and Lord of the Flies—although it ‘probably’ earned Golding ‘his Nobel wreath’—‘is a little too systematised and allegorical to be regarded as a true novel’. Bad luck, chaps. Would Burgess have been quite so vehement in more relaxed conditions? Would he, for instance, have included Henry Green’s Party Going in his 99 if this ‘carefully wrought poem’ had been favoured by the BMC? Probably not. Thus, Kingsley Amis’s Anti-Death League more or less has to be preferred to Take a Girl like You, Iris Murdoch’s The Bell to her The Sea, the Sea, Humboldt’s Gift to Herzog, Pale Fire to Lolita, and so on. With J. D. Salinger, he capitulates and picks The Catcher in the Rye, but then to have swerved here might have meant acknowledging the Glass tales as ‘true novellas’, or as, bits of a true-novel-in-progress.
There may be something in this (‘Where will this end? And when, oh when will somebody pick Earthly Powers!’), although at the same time we can say that The Sea, the Sea, for all that it won the Booker, is pretty turgid and dull compared to the lively symbolism of The Bell; and many people would agree with the proposition that Pale Fire is superior to Lolita.

Still a Burge ought to be one the 99, especially since several of these texts have been rather promoted above their abilities. Of Lady Snow's An Error of Judgement (1962) a novel that has I fear fallen right off the radar, Burgess says ‘alas, her style is undistinguished, even slipshod, but human concern shines through’ [84]. On the other hand, there's one way in which Burgess's list, whatever its provenance, was remarkably prescient. It's true that, with the single exception of Roberts's Pavane, he does not include any what-we-might-call ‘genre’ SF or Fantasy; yet he still grasps on some level that the SFnal and the Fantastic is the direction in which the novel is travelling. A good chunk of his choices are straight SFF—Aldous Huxley After Many a Summer (1939); James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939); Rex Warner, The Aerodrome (1943); Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946); Nevil Shute, No Highway (1948; the protagonist's daughter has ESP powers don't forget; and in his entry Burgess speaks very highly of On The Beach); George Orwell, 1984 (1949); T. H. White, The Once and Future King (1958); L. P. Hartley, Facial Justice (1960); Angus Wilson, The Old Men at the Zoo (1961); Aldous Huxley, Island (1962); John Barth, Giles Goat-Boy (1966); R. K. Narayan, The Vendor of Sweets (1967); Mordecai Richler, Cocksure (1968); Roberts's aforementioned Pavane (1968); Michael Frayn, Sweet Dreams (1973); Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973); J. G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979); Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980); Alasdair Gray's tremendous Lanark (1981)—and discussion includes quite a lot more. From Burgess's other picks I stop short of bracketing Ralph Ellison's brilliant Invisible Man (1952) as SFF, despite its strongly magic realist flavour; Doris Lessing seems to me a fundamentally SFnal writer, and not just because of the Shikasta books, though the utopian strain in The Golden Notebook (1962) is probably too thin to count in this context. We might call Kingsley Amis's The Anti-Death League (1966) a sort of theological Fantasy novel I suppose. Nye's Falstaff (1976) is Fantasy of a Rabelaisian sort. It seems perverse to choose, given the scope and range of Brian Aldiss's SFnal ouevre, his non-genre novel Life in the West (1980) for inclusion here (though Burgess does concede that Aldiss is ‘highly regarded as a practitioner of science fiction’).

It seems to me that what this list is missing is a sense that the logic of The Novel shifted profoundly in the 20th Century from being focused on individual writers to being focused of distinct genres. Or more precisely, 99 Novels is an exercise in genre, in the same way that the Booker is a genre prize. The genre is 'literary fiction', and Burgess's taste in that skews quite heavily towards fantastika without quite accepting that, really, he'd be happier if he moved right on over and included Tolkien, Le Guin, Phil Dick, Moorcock and so on. But there you go.

The whole list is, if you're interested, online.

Monday 2 April 2018


“Lastly, in this book there will be no scenery. This is not laziness on my part; it is self-control. Nothing is easier to write than scenery; nothing more difficult and unnecessary to read. When Gibbon had to trust to travellers’ tales for a description of the Hellespont, and the Rhine was chiefly familiar to English students through the medium of Caesar’s Commentaries, it behoved every globe-trotter, for whatever distance, to describe to the best of his ability the things that he had seen. Dr. Johnson, familiar with little else than the view down Fleet Street, could read the description of a Yorkshire moor with pleasure and with profit. To a cockney who had never seen higher ground than the Hog’s Back in Surrey, an account of Snowdon must have appeared exciting. But we, or rather the steam-engine and the camera for us, have changed all that. The man who plays tennis every year at the foot of the Matterhorn, and billiards on the summit of the Rigi, does not thank you for an elaborate and painstaking description of the Grampian Hills. To the average man, who has seen a dozen oil paintings, a hundred photographs, a thousand pictures in the illustrated journals, and a couple of panoramas of Niagara, the word-painting of a waterfall is tedious.” [Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel]