‘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.
Saturday, 23 June 2018
I started this exercise curious to see, really, how large is the gap in my knowledge of world literature. It turns out: it's pretty huge. The majority of nation-states listed below are followed by I have never read any fiction from that country. I am, of course, limiting myself to novels written by citizens of the countries concerned (which is to say, I am not counting fiction merely set in that country, or by people born elsewhere who lived in those countries for a while); and I could mumble something here about the unavailability of translations, the need to pay literary translators more and commission them to do more work. But that's a torn and shabby sort of Get Out Of Jail Free Card. The fact is I am lamentably under-read in non-anglophone literatures and need to do better. K through M is particularly dire, isn't it?
In my own defence, I have read a lot—and I mean: a lot—of British and American fiction, and a fair whack of fiction from some (but, evidently, not all) European nations too, plus unevenly distributed chunks from Commonwealth and other countries. But the overall picture, for me, is: bleh.
Afghanistan – I have never read any Afghan fiction.
Albania – Ismail Kadare, The Palace of Dreams (Pallati i ëndrrave, 1981). This counts as my favourite Albanian novel by virtue of being the only Albanian novel I have ever read.
Algeria – Apuleius, Golden Ass (Asinus Aureus, c. AD 180)
Andorra – I have never read any Andorran fiction.
Angola – I have never read any Angolan fiction.
Antigua and Barbuda – Jamaica Kincaid's Mr Potter (2002). But see: Albania
Argentina – Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (1944/56). Not a novel, I know, but: bite me. It's Borges.
Armenia – I have never read any Armenian fiction.
Australia – Les Murray, Fredy Neptune (1999)
Austria – Franz Kafka, Der Process (‘The Trial’, 1925)
Azerbaijan – I have never read any Azerbaijani fiction.
Bahamas – I have never read any Bahamian fiction.
Bahrain – I have never read any Bahraini fiction.
Bangladesh – I have never read any Bangladeshi fiction.
Barbados – I have never read any Barbadian fiction.
Belarus – I have never read any Belarusian fiction.
Belgium – Hergé, Les Bijoux de la Castafiore (1962)
Belize – I have never read any Belizean fiction.
Benin – I have never read any Beninese fiction.
Bhutan – I have never read any Bhutanese fiction.
Bolivia – I have never read any Bolivian fiction.
Bosnia and Herzegovina – Aleksandar Hemon, Nowhere Man (2002), but: see Albania.
Botswana – I have never read any Batwana fiction.
Brazil – I am surprised to discover that, so far as I can see, the only Brazilian writer I have read is Paulo Coelho. I have to say: I draw the line at listing The Alchemist as in any sense a favourite.
Brunei – I have never read any Bruneian fiction.
Bulgaria – I have never read any Bulgarian fiction.
Burkina Faso – I have never read any Burkinabé fiction.
Burundi – I have never read any Burundi fiction.
Cambodia – I have never read any Cambodian fiction.
Cameroon – I have never read any Cameroonian fiction.
Canada – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin (2000).
Central African Republic – I have never read any CAR fiction.
Chad – I have never read any Chadian fiction.
Chile – Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (2004)
China – Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone (18th century)
Colombia – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad 1967).
Congo – I have never read any Congolese fiction.
Costa Rica – I have never read any Costa Rican fiction.
Côte d'Ivoire – I have never read any Ivoirean fiction.
Croatia – I have never read any Croatian fiction.
Cuba – I have never read any Cuban fiction.
Cyprus – I have never read any Cypriot fiction, Greek or Turkish, a fact which surprised me.
Czech Republic – Karel Čapek, War with the Newts (Válka s mloky, 1936)
Denmark – Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (Enten–Eller, 1843). Don't @ me.
Djibouti – I have never read any Djibouti fiction.
Dominica – I have never read any Dominican fiction.
Ecuador – I have never read any Ecuadorian fiction.
Egypt – Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (بين القصرين 1956)
El Salvador – I have never read any El Salvadorian fiction.
England – Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853).
Equatorial Guinea – I have never read any Equatoguinean fiction.
Eritrea – I have never read any Eritrean fiction.
Estonia – I have never read any Estonian fiction.
Ethiopia – I have never read any Ethiopian fiction.
Fiji – I have never read any Fijian fiction.
Finland – Tove Jansson, Comet in Moominland (Mumintrollet på kometjakt, 1946)
France – Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1922-31)
Gabon – I have never read any Gabonese fiction.
Gambia, The – I have never read any Gambian fiction.
Germany – Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg, 1924). Sigh.
Ghana – I have never read any Ghanese fiction.
Greece – Homer's Iliad (7thC BC)
Grenada – I have never read any Grenadan fiction.
Guatemala – I have never read any Guatemalan fiction.
Guyana – I have never read any Guyanese fiction.
Haiti – I have never read any Haitian fiction.
Honduras – I have never read any Honduran fiction.
Hungary – Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)
Iceland – Njáls Saga (c. 1280)
India – Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (1981)
Indonesia – I have never read any Indonesian fiction.
Iran – Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003)
Iraq – Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014 فرانكشتاين في بغداد). But: see Albania.
Ireland – James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Israel – Lavie Tidhar, A Man Lies Dreaming (2014). Don't tell him I said so.
Italy – Vergil's Aeneid (4 BC)
Jamaica – Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)
Japan - Shūsaku Endō, Silence (沈黙 Chinmoku 1966)
Jordan – I have never read any Jordanian fiction.
Kazakhstan – I have never read any Kazakhstani fiction.
Kenya – I have never read any Kenyan fiction.
Korea – I have never read any Korean fiction.
Kuwait – I have never read any Kuwaiti fiction.
Kyrgyzstan – I have never read any Kyrgyz fiction.
Laos – I have never read any Laotian fiction.
Latvia – I have never read any Latvian fiction.
Lebanon – I have never read any Lebanese fiction.
Lesotho – I have never read any Mosotho fiction.
Liberia – I have never read any Liberian fiction.
Libya – I have never read any Libyan fiction.
Liechtenstein – I have never read any Liechtensteinian fiction.
Lithuania – I have never read any Lithuanian fiction.
Luxembourg – I have never read any Luxembourgian fiction.
Macedonia – I have never read any Macedonian fiction.
Malawi – I have never read any Malawian fiction.
Malaysia – I have never read any Malay fiction.
Maldives – I have never read any Maldivian fiction.
Malta – I have never read any Maltese fiction (I don't count Anthony Burgess).
Mauritania – I have never read any Mauritanian fiction.
Mauritius – I have never read any Mauritian fiction.
Mexico – Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz (La muerte de Artemio Cruz, 1962) Micronesia – I have never read any Micronesian fiction.
Moldova – I have never read any Moldovan fiction.
Monaco – I have never read any Monégasque fiction (I don't count Anthony Burgess).
Mongolia – I have never read any Mongolian fiction.
Montenegro – I have never read any Montenegrin fiction.
Morocco – I have never read any Moroccan fiction.
Mozambique – I have never read any Mozambican fiction.
Myanmar – I have never read any Burmese fiction.
Namibia – – I have never read any Namibian fiction.
Nepal – I have never read any Nepalese fiction.
Netherlands – I'm astonished to discover I appear not to have read any Dutch fiction at all. How can that be?
New Zealand – Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)
Nicaragua – I have never read any Nicaraguan fiction.
Niger – I have never read any Nigerien fiction.
Nigeria – Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958). I think about this novel all the time.
Northern Ireland – Bernard MacLaverty, Grace Notes (1997)
Norway – Knut Hamsun, Hunger (1890)
Oman – I have never read any Omani fiction.
Palestine – – I have never read any Palestinian fiction.
Pakistan – Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (2017)
Panama – I have never read any Panamanian fiction.
Papua New Guinea – I have never read any Papua New Guinean fiction.
Paraguay – I have never read any Paraguayan fiction.
Peru – Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World (La guerra del fin del mundo, 1981). But: see Albania.
Philippines – I have never read any Filipino fiction.
Poland – Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900). A toss up between him and Lem.
Portugal – José Saramago, Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, 1995)
Qatar – I have never read any Qatari fiction.
Romania – Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair (Pe culmile disperării, 1934). Yes, I'm bracketing this as fiction.
Russia – Tolstoy, War and Peace (Война и мир 1869)
Rwanda – I have never read any Rwandan fiction.
Saint Lucia – Derek Walcott, Omeros (1990)
Samoa – I have never read any Samoan fiction.
Saudi Arabia – I have never read any Saudi fiction.
Scotland – Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian (1818).
Senegal – I have never read any Senegalese fiction.
Serbia – Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars (Хазарски речник, 1984). But: see Albania.
Seychelles – I have never read any Seychellois fiction.
Sierra Leone – I have never read any Sierra Leonean fiction.
Singapore – I have never read any Singaporese fiction.
Slovakia – I have never read any Slovak fiction.
Slovenia – I have never read any Slovene fiction. I refuse to recruit Žižek into this category.
Somalia – I have never read any Somali fiction.
South Africa – J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (1999)
Spain – Cervantes, Don Quijote (1612)
Sudan – Tayib Salih, Season of Migration to the North (Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal, 1967). But: see Albania.
Suriname – I have never read any Surinamese fiction.
Swaziland – I have never read any Swazi fiction.
Sweden – Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump, 1945)
Switzerland – Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Emile (Émile, ou de l'éducation, 1762)
Syria – I have never read any Syrian fiction.
Taiwan – I have never read any Taiwanese fiction.
Tajikistan – I have never read any Tajikistani fiction.
Tanzania – I have never read any Tanzanian fiction.
Thailand – I have never read any Thai fiction.
Togo – I have never read any Togolese fiction.
Tonga – I have never read any Tongan fiction.
Trinidad – V S Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas (1961)
Tunisia – I have never read any Tunisian fiction.
Turkey – Yaşar Kemal, Memed, My Hawk (İnce Memed, 1955)
Uganda – I have never read any Ugandan fiction.
Ukraine – I have never read any Ukrainian fiction.
United Arab Emirates – I have never read any UAE fiction.
United States – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962) [If VN is not allowable as a US author, then I suppose Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (1972), or maybe Updike's Rabbit is Rich (1981)]
Uruguay – I have never read any UAE fiction.
Uzbekistan – I have never read any Uzbek fiction.
Venezuela – I have never read any Venezuelan fiction.
Vietnam – I have never read any Vietnamese fiction.
Wales – The Mabinogion (12th-Century)
Yemen – I have never read any Yemeni fiction.
Zambia – I have never read any Zambian fiction.
Zimbabwe – I have never read any Zimbabwean fiction.
I'm reading West only in part because she's a major if neglected 20th-century author (though she certainly is) and more, if I'm honest, because I have to write this H G Wells biography thing and West loomed so large in Bertie's middle life. To that end I've previously blogged about her first novel The Return of the Soldier (1918) and also had some things to say about her semi-autobiographical novel The Fountain Overflows (1957). And now here's The Harsh Voice (1935), a collection of four novellas.
The first, ‘Life Sentence’, is about a marriage that fails. Sam Hartley is engaged to the beautiful Josephine Houblon, but right at the start of the story he tells her ‘Josephine you'll think me just the dirtiest skunk in the whole world but I can't help it: I've got to tell you. Josie, I can't marry you’ . Josephine however proves disinclined to release him from his promise and so they do get married after all, and both make a material success of life (Sam in business, Josephine by investing in real estate) and have three children, two girls and a boy. But the marriage never really works, and by the halfway point in the story they are divorced. Josephine marries young Jack Lambert (to Sam's disgust: ‘that college boy? You don't want a husband. You want a cheer-leader’ he sneers ) and Sam finds contentment in marrying a young girl the story doesn't even name (‘she was the prettiest girl in town and she had a nice steady temper’ ). But though Sam and Josephine genuinely dislike one another neither can quite purge the other from their lives. The story's denoument happens after the 1929 crash when they agree to travel to the neutral ground of a Chicago hotel for a meet-up. Sam thinks Jospehine has lost all her money in the crash and resolves to help her financially, telling himself it's for the sake of their kids; but it turns out she thinks exactly the same thing about him. And on that misunderstanding, and the open-ended suggestion that this is not the end for them as a couple, the story closes.
The longest tale here, ‘There Is No Conversation’, is also the best. It starts when our narrator bumps into her old aquaintance, the vain, ageing Marquis de Sevenac on the streets of Paris. He invites her up to his apartment to view his art collection—for the last time, he says, since his personal fortune, all tied-up in US Railway stocks and shares, has just been wiped out. Hélas! But how? He spends thirty pages telling our narrator the circumstances. It all has to do with an affair he recently conducted with a visiting American woman: Nancy Sarle, plain and middle-aged, but with piercing blue eyes. This was a love affair the Marquis entered into partly through pity, partly because it flattered his vanity to be able to show her around his city, and partly on mere whim. When he first wooed her he had no idea who she was, and realised only belatedly that she happens herself to be an immensely wealthy railway magnate. But the Marquis doesn't care about that, since he is himself so well-off. But then, she falls in love with him and things become tiresome. He has a new belle now and so he breaks things off with l'Américaine quite ruthlessly. Later he discovers Sarle has used her position on the stock market to destroy the value of his shares, and that he is ruined. The narrator dislikes de Sevenac for his self-centredness, his desperate clinging to his long-vanished youth, but indulges his complaining narrative. When she later finds herself in New York she tracks down Nancy Sarle, befriends her and eventually hears her side of the story from Sarle's own mouth.
Sarle is an interesting piece of characterisation, actually, especially for 1935: a highly successful businesswoman, plain-talking and no-nonsense, entirely unillusioned about her own lack of pulchritrude (‘I wasn't dolled-up like the women he went with, I never had as much looks as a street car’). She assumes at first that he's after her for her money, and is content to play along while she's enjoying herself; but when she discovers he is, himself, very wealthy her self-possession takes a knock. If he's not after her for her money, then why is he with her? Might it be that his professions of undying love were not just amorous convention, but actually heartfelt? And when this idea occurs to her it creates the equal-and-opposite reaction: what if she's in love with him? The story's subplot has to do with Sarle's complicated Wall Street strategy to ruin the value of one of her American rival's stock, something she's been planning for years. But this strategy is suddenly threatened: because these are the shares upon which Etienne de Sevenac's wealth depends, and she doesn't want to ruin the man she is in love with. There are two twists at the end: one, when Sevanac angrily insists he never had feelings for her it makes her abruptly and unexpectedly happy: it clarifies the situation and means she can go ahead with her stock-market play. The second twist has to do with the narrator, and I won't spoil it here.
The complex ironies of this story don't only have to do with its portrait of two people talking, as per the title, at such profound cross-purposes that they're not really talking at all. There's also a compelling account of the radical opacity of erotic motivation: not just the, at the end, unanswered question as to why Sevenac was ever attracted to the unalluring Sarle, but also what both Sarle and (we discover) the narrator ever saw in the preening, egotistical and melodramatically-posturing Sevenac.
The other two novellas in this volume aren't, I think, quite up to the standard of these first two.‘The Salt of the Earth’ is a pen-portrait of Alice Pemberton, a sensible, middle-class, middle-aged Englishwoman, self-declared salt of the earth, who interferes with the lives of those around her for, she thinks, the best reasons, but who—spoiler—dies, having been handed a fatally poisoned cup of hot chocolate by those very friends (‘nobody likes having salt rubbed into their wounds,’ one of them tells her, ‘even if it is the salt of the earth’ ). The mix of ordinariness and melodrama, here, is only intermittently successful. Then there's ‘The Abiding Vision’ the story of Sam Hartley, a successful businessman, who loves his wife Lulah in a rather distant way, gets something more immediate from his relationship different out of his relationship with his mistress Lily, and who eventually cracks under the pressure of it all. It's a good piece of writing, although perhaps lacks the expressively oblquity of the first two in the collection.
There are a few places where the writing wobbles. Here's West's description of a character called Judy Mandeville:
A girl of twenty-one who had come to them to rest up after her first divorce. a slender creature who has the bright colour and the air of being coated with syrupy juices characteristic of canned fruit. Er ... what? And here's Josephine—a regular, indeed a beautiful, woman, and not as you might think from this description a scoliolis-blighted cripple:
Jospehine was standing in the doorway. There was always a suggestion of something spiral about her, as if under her clothes and her flesh there coiled up a spring, and the long dress she was wearing made this seem more so than ever. I think moments like these (and, in amongst some very finely written passages, there are various examples throughout the book) bother me more than they might otherwise because West is trying for a series of quite precise effects, and indeed affects. There's still a sense, here, that her instrument isn't calibrated to quite the Nabokovian exactness her larger themes need. Still a very memorable and powerful collection of stories, though.
Thursday, 21 June 2018
R F Kuang’s The Poppy War (HarperVoyager 2018) is a fluently-written fantasy novel set in a China-alike realm struggling, as real China did in the 19th-century, to prevent powerful external naval powers flooding their society with opium. The drug in the novel actually is opium, and many elements of the novel's chinoiserie are so close to their actual prototypes as to make the reader wonder why Kuang has written fantasy at all, rather than historical fiction—the imperial capital is called ‘Sinegard’, students study ‘Sunzi’s Principles of War’, a Red Emperor rules over a coalition of provincial warlords, and so on. Of course, Fantasy allows Kuang to introduce elements of magic into her story, and to reorient historical actuality to underline her main points in the service of her larger story, but there are losses as well as gains in that strategy.
The story is linear: Fang Runin, known as Rin, is a scrawny orphan and outcast from the provinces who manages, by sheer determination, to win a spot in the elite Imperial college in Sinegard, where her abilities with magical ‘Lore’ single her out for future greatness. The first half the novel is Rin’s training, and the rest a series of crunchy and rather icky accounts of battlefield ultraviolence.
Rin starts out likeable and engaging, although the novel perhaps leans too heavily on the ‘badass’ aspect of her character—badass, here as in much other popular culture, is a euphemism for ‘energetically homicidal in a manner untroubled by conscience’, which has never seemed to me a human virtue, in man or woman. And, particularly in its later stages, violence in this novel is troped as exciting with only minor drawbacks for the perpetrators (so, Rin kills a shape-shifting monster called a chimei, ‘she smashed the blunt of the torch into his face … his face lost shape altogether. She beat out those eyes, beat them bloody … when he struggled she turned the torch around and burned him in the wounds’—and afterwards ‘Rin climbed off the corpse and sucked in a great, heaving breath. Then she vomited’ [p.366]). But the cause is just, the enemy are monsters both figuratively and in some cases literally, so (as it might be) torturing prisoners is a justified and effective strategy and so on and so forth. ‘The jammed boats began to burn in earnest … the soldiers on the boats began to scream in earnest. It was utter carnage. It was beautiful’ [p.313].
My problem here is more than just squeamishness—though I concede I am squeamish, and I very much disliked reading these later sections. I have, in point of fact, become more squeamish the older I have gotten, with a coastal-shelf step-down into Deep Squeam when my kids were born. After that doubled event I found it much harder to bear representations of torture and mutilation in my art, especially where kids are concerned. But there is a less subjective element here too, I think. My problem is that the novel’s violence is all sealed away inside the structure of the story. This is a novel about making war, but in itself it prefers not to make war on cliché, that formal and stylistic war to which all authors, without exception, are called. Clichés, as Martin Amis says, are symptoms of used thinking. A writer of Chinese birth and upbringing, now American, reworking the hackneyed European biases of Heroic Fantasy is a commendable and exciting development, but it really (I think) ought to be a more disruptive—a more textually violent—matter than this smoothly-written and easily-paced read. It’s a text that records but doesn't embody violence, something that's there in the chatty, distinctly 21st-century dialogue that makes up a good third of the whole, in the descriptions (‘Winter descended on Sinegard with a vengeance. The icy weather was the last straw for most of the class’ [p.105: italics mine] … there are hundreds of similar examples), in specific scenes and also in the overall shape of the narrative: the orphan/chosen one is trained by the wise old mage to become a major player in world-wide war to combat the external wickedness of, and so on, and so forth.
Descriptions (and depictions) of violence tend to evoke a strong response in audiences, and it’s easy to mistake that intense affect for disruption. There’s a whole mode of gore-lit, ultra-violent horror shows, especially dominant in culture over the last quarter-century: in cinema with the whole Saw/Hostel sub-genre and everything from Tarantino to Omaha Beach at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan; in literature too, as with the whole post-Martin Grimdark Fantasy tradition, in which Kuang’s account (for instance) of the invader’s atrocities can be situated:
I saw women disembowelled. I saw the soldiers slice off their breasts. I saw them nail women alive to walls. There was a pregnant woman in the house with us …the general howled and grabbed at her stomach. Not with his knife. With his fingers. His nails. He knocked her down and he tore and tore. And he pulled out her stomach and her intestines and finally the baby, and the baby was still moving … the general ripped her baby in half the way you’d split an orange. [p.425]This, though, flattens all possible response into an ugh. Atrocities such as this are recorded as happening in the Rape of Nanking; but what was hideous in actual history, and might be edifying (in an appalling way) in a historical novel, loses moral force in a Fantasy novel. The Japanese soldiers who committed war crimes in Nanking were ordinary human beings, from which fact the ethical imperative of this terrible episode takes its force. The Federation soldiers who commit the crimes in Poppy War are ciphers for wickedness. By conflating three or four historical contexts from the nineteenth- and the twentieth-centuries in one made-up Fantasy conflict, Kuang muddies the ethical as well as the dramatic waters to the point of actual opacity. The historical record tells us anybody—you, me, any person—is capable of atrocity. Poppy War says that atrocities are horrible, and that we should feel an intense affect of slyly-eroticised revulsion and rage about that fact, up to and including genocidal revenge. But it also says that the perpetrators are the outsiders, the invaders, the Others, and the way to combat atrocity is to take the Empire’s most badass kids and train them into the further reaches of combat badassery in the Empire’s most ruthless training college. Since the narrative encourages us to identify with Rin and her friends this is as much as to say: atrocities exist in this text to license and encourage our counter-atrocities. After all, look how bestial our enemies are! Super-bestial reprisals are proportionate responses. It’s emotionally coercive to write this way, I think, although I'm aware that, whilst I dislike being coerced by my books, many people don’t.
The Poppy War has been well-reviewed in SF/Fantasy circles (I can see why) and has generated a good deal of positive buzz. And it is in many ways an impressive achievement, especially for a first novel. My beef is not with this one novel, but with what seems to me a particular aesthetic of somatic ultraviolence that is very widespread in contemporary culture. This, I think, is something distinct from other modes of representing violence. There are plenty of graphic and stomach-turning accounts of wounding and killing in the Iliad (say), but those, in their clinical precision and the counter-intuitive way they coolly describe the heat of battle, work very differently on the reader to a passage like the one quoted above. Homer never describes torture, or gratuitous violence. And for all that he gives us, in Simon Weil’s resonant phrase, a glimpse into Hell, a world ruled entirely by Force, Homer really isn’t interested in cruelty.
No: the source for that particular fascination in later literature is Sadean, and the vibe of contemporary body horror and atrocitypunk owes an unmistakeable, if sometimes subterranean, debt to Les 120 Journées de Sodome. Guillaume Apollinaire predicted that de Sade would ‘dominate the 20th century’ and I tend to think he's been proved right, at least so far as the constellation of eroticised violence and cruelty so prevalent in our culture texts nowadays is concerned. Are we crueller, in our art, than we used to be? Why might it be that our collective preferences where art is concerned are crueller than our actual lived experiences? This is something that predates the relative deracination of social interaction occasioned by social media, I think; but, then again, I wonder if our ubiquitous social media have acted as an accelerant.
All this may have something to do with cinema's ‘electricity problem’. So: electricity is a major part of modern life (and continues to play a major part in cinema's various SFnal futures). Ah, but here's the thing: electricity is invisible. Since cinema recoils from the visually unrepresentable a convention has grown up such that ‘electricity’ means: ‘sparking electrical discharge’. That's pretty much the height and breadth of the way all electricity is represented in popular cinema, from the animation of Frankenstein's monster, to the Jawas zapping R2D2. Much as, in The Simpson's celebrated movie gag, cows have to be painted to look like horses because ‘horses don't look like horses on screen’, the movie convention for the representation of electricity is a kind of white-blue matrix of shimmering and sparking firework light-effects.
We know this isn't now electricity works in real life, but we accept the visual convention by whcih something internal and invisible is externalised and visualised in order to fit the representational logic of the medium. And that's fine, just as long as we don't confuse a representational convention with reality.
I suspect violence is like this. The thing to bear in mind is: the fact that physical violence is simpler to represent visually than other kinds of violence doesn't make physical violence the truth of violence as such, especially in the 21st-century world. I'm not of course denying that actual physical violence happens in the world: not denying that men beat women, that people injure and kill people. But I am suggesting that, outside actual warzones, other forms of violence are more pervasive and intrusive. A punch to the gut hurts for a while; growing up female, or gay, or Black in a sexist, homophobic and racist society presses violently upon your very soul the whole time. Some rape involves the sort of additional physical violence that leaves bruises on the skin or bones broken. Most rape does not do this. But only a fool would suggest that a rape victim who emerges from the trauma without bruises and broken bones has not suffered. On the contrary, such a person is likely as badly, or even more severely, traumatised by the experience because the violence of rape is not essentially the violence of broken bones but of broken spirits: domination, violation of personal space, invasion of personal integrity, degradation and breaking of peace of mind.
To the extent visible, somatic modes of violence come to stand-in, as a representational convention, for the larger and more malign trauma of internalised, systemic and invisible violence, they run the risk of actually supplanting violence as such in the popular imagination—so as it might be, people end up making the (false) distinction between ‘rape’ and ‘real rape’, reserving the latter category for instances where physical violence has been added to the fundamental violence of the traumatising invasiveness of the act as such. Sometime post-facto justifications are added to this prejudice, such that bruises show a victim ‘fought back’ or ‘resisted’, a datum treated as justifying our compassion as the expensive of implying that a victim who does not garner such addition, visible markers of violence somehow doesn't deserve our pity. Germaine Greer's recent comments about the need to reform our rape laws were vehemently criticized by many. It seems to me, for what it's worth, that her actual proposals have something to recommend them (‘rape trials are foundering and not ending in convictions as lawyers argue over the issue of consent; why not believe the woman and lower the penalty?’) but I wonder if there is a one-dimensionality in the way she uses the term violence: so that when she says ‘most rapes don’t involve any injury whatsoever’ she is consicously or unconciously conflating externally-evident physical injury (where her statement is probably true) with internal less-evident injury (where her statement is, clearly, simply wrong).
It all speaks to what is, I think, a widespread belief that physical violence is more ‘real’ (more important, more terrible, more worthy of representation) than psychological or conceptual violence. This, though, is the wrong way about. Physical violence is horrible, but psychological violence tends to be both more profoundly traumatising and longer-lasting. A gunshot wound may heal in weeks, where PTSDs last years, even decades. The domestic goods stolen by a burglar can be replaced on the insurance, but the sense that a malign stranger has been in your house lingers, and makes you feel unsafe and unhappy for a long time. That's a psychological reaction (though no less devastating for that), but I wonder if it is conceptual violence—by which I mean, whatever does violence to the principles, assumptions and mental models by which we navigate this complicating and alarming universe—that is the most radically destabilising.
In either case, there is a bias against the invisible. It's not true that bodily illness is more real than psychological illness, or that conceptual violence is a mere chimera. It's just that people's responses are more easily recruited by the somatic. Trans activists I know tend to stress the physical dangers trans men and women often face: the risks of being actually beaten-up and murdered. Those risks are real, and undeniably higher for trans people than the general population, and that is not something to brush under the carpet. But might it not be that the conceptual violence people endure when their sense of self is denied by the communities to which they belong is, because it is continual, vastly more pervasive, and internalised in ways that are psychologically violating, more significant? I've always thought ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is exactly the wrong way around. It is terrible to be beaten-up for being gay, but being beaten up will send you to the hospital for a poultice, where decades of verbal taunts, societal invalidation, disdain and rejection can send you to suicide. It's not that sticks and stones won't break your bones; it's that it's the stuff that gets inside your head that kills you.
Nor is this state of affairs ideologically neutral. Indeed, I'd suggest it is on the contrary precisely how ideology as such works. There may be a temptation to think of ideology as a sort of add-on, in some sense less importat than the brute existential facts of living, finding food and shelter and all that. But, again, I think this gets things the wrong way about. ‘Ideology’ is a shorthand term for those structures of belief, those attitudes to mind and habits of living, by which we orient ourselves in our social world. These beliefs can sustain us, and motivate us to acts of great kindness or courage; but they can also prompt us to atrocity, and can even overwhelm such basic biological drives as self-preservation, as the anorexic starves herself to death or the suicide-bomber blows himself up. Given this, something we see all the time around us in small as well as large ways, it strikes me as foolish to treat ‘ideology’ as a kind of afterthought, or as somehow secondary to the biological, somatic fundamentals of life.
I'm not, of course, the first to say so. A lot of Žižek's oeuvre is more-or-less disposable Extruded Lacanian Product, but I quite like his 2008 book Violence.
Žižek argues that we fixate on ‘subjective violence’ (assault, murder, terror and war) at the expense of other, more important modes of violence: Z. is particularly interested in what he calls ‘objective’ violence (‘the symbolic violence embodied in language and its forms’) and ‘systemic violence’ (the ‘often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems’). This isn't quite the distinction I'm trying to make in this post, actually, but Z and I are at least in the same ball-park. So, for instance, despite the professed conviction that it's actual violence that is the traumatic and destructive kind, Žižek is surely right to note that Western society remains absolutely unruffled by the actual violence of its armies and police forces (in reality and as reflected in our hyper-violent popular culture-texts) whilst at the same time being highly agitated by the merely conceptual violence offered to hetrosexual norms by (say) gays in the military. The people unfazed by the 270 million firearms sloshing around the civilian population of the USA and 30,000+ deaths annually these weapons facilitate—actual violence, by any measure—are often the same people genuinely rattled by the purely conceptual violence offered to the dominant social (ideological) logics of heteronormativity, gender fixity and racial homogeneity by the mere existence of gay, trans and non-white segments of the population.
Now: it ought, I think, to be possible to think and talk about the pervasiveness and damage of conceptual violence without in effect crowding-out the concrete horribleness of actual violence. Women are beaten and murdered around the world in horrifying numbers every day. The thing is: some women are victimised by this kind of crime, but all women live under the conceptual coercion of fear of it—all women have to curtail their freedom of movement and hobble their peace of mind, live existences constrained within the procustean bed of this conceptual space.
That said there is, I think, a correlative here. If we take conceptual violence seriously, then we need to take it seriously across the board. There is, of course, an asymmetry to the way marginalised groups suffer, and the inertia of history and privilege determine a steep gradiant of oppression from privilege downward. But being born into a privileged group is not the same thing as being born wicked. We can certainly say that the pervasive social and cultural pressure telling gay or trans people that they are disgusting, unnatural, shameful and so on enacts a violence upon those people worse, because it is both ubiquitous and liable to be internalised by the victim, than bruised skin and broken bones. But we might also want to ask ourselves: is there anything to learn from people whose atttudes are shaped by conscious or unconscious homophobic or transphobic views? Maybe your answer to this question is: no, these are bad people, worth only our contempt. Most people aren't bad, though; and cleaving to a different set of life-values is not in itself an index of moral turpitude.
Imagine somebody for whom fixity of gender was one of the conceptual props that helps them navigate the various shoals and whirlpools of everyday life, perhaps as a function of a larger religious faith supporting and maintaining the stability of their life. Lets's say the performance of gender fluidity by others enacts a degree of conceptual violence upon these assumptions, and makes the person unhappy and upset and unnerved. You may think: good, they deserve it. You may go further (fuck their feelings, this is right-and-wrong and they're wrong. It's possible they think the same of you). Maybe that's justified. But it's hardly an approach calculated to end hostilities. How might negotiation look, in this particular situation? How to defuse a stand-off in which both sides' strategies boil down to loud declarations of fuck your feelings? To say ‘their feelings don't matter, only mine do’ is self-evidently unsatisfactory, even given the asymmetry of the social status quo. My point is, retreating to ‘what I'm doing is not really violence, it's not as though I'm literally punching them in the face’ also isn't a load-bearing position in this context. Which backs us, rather, into the situation of believing something along the lines of: ‘though it would be bad if it happened to me, it's good for them to have their values challenged’. I find this really difficult to process, I'll be honest. It seems to me ‘it's good for them, but not me, to be on the receiving end of violence’ both ethically untenable and not a probable position from which a mutually satisfactory compromise could be negotiated. Of course, it may be that neither side is interested in compromise.
I don't mean to be hyperbolic. It may be that the facility with which people from all over the globe and from every position can now rub-up against one another has increased the friction, which is to say the potential for psychological and conceptual violence. By the same token the evidence strongly suggests that actual violence today is at its lowest level in human history; and recent studies show that human beings are bad at actual violence, inflicted on the bodies of actual people. We don't like it, and with good cause. It's sickening. Armies all around the world know that people have to undergo lengthy training, both physically and psychologically (in Full Metal Jacket stylee) to acquire the remoteness from normal human empathy to be able to do it at all. It's a process that's very time- and resource-intensive. More, even after centuries of honing this technique, it is surprisingly ineffective: up to 70% of soldiers in combat don't even shoot their weapons, let alone confirm any kills.
This is one reason why the modern military is so fond of remote-control warmaking, drones being the most prominent example of what I mean, and this surely point the way future belligerance will go. It's not just that it's cheaper and reduces your own casualties; it is also much easier to persaude soldiers to do it. A person who would have genuine, humane difficulty sticking a bayonet into somebody's chest can be blithe about sitting in a room in front of a monitor playing war as if it were a video game, directing drones to dismember and kill men women and children.
This is to speak of ‘actual’, somatic violence. The point is: when it comes to conceptual violence, the way online interaction has shifted the centre of gravity of our manifold intersubjectivities includes, baked-in as it were, a great deal of precisely this remote-controlling. People who boast online about relishing the tears of their ‘enemies’ would, in almost all actual cases, be genuinely distressed to see somebody driven to weeping in front of them in real-life. People in real-life are generally nice to one another; people on Twitter are, generally, horrible to one another. And this, of course, is precisely the problem.
This brings me back to my earlier point about de Sade. In art, violence can indeed be cathartic. It's just that we need to be clear what manner of catharsis we're talking about. The violence represented in King Lear is extreme and sometimes disgusting, but the invisible forces it makes physically manifest are social and political. Something similar is true of Julius Caesar, War and Peace and Ubu Roi. I think, though, that the Sadean tradition entails something different, and the present-day success of this mode says something more worrying about who we are. Sadean catharsis operates via an eroticised cruelty and dominance that is, in turn, individuated and fixated on specific bodies, and ultimately on one specific body, one's own. It is not a template for actual erotic interaction so much as it is a hyperbolic projection of violent masturbatory fantasies back onto the body of the consumer him- or herself. De Sade is about withdrawing from the wider world, into a fantasy of sealed bourgeois individualism: the four aristocratic libertines of Les 120 Journées de Sodome lock themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle in the heart of the Black Forest with their 36 victims. ‘An enjoyment shared is enfeebled,’ de Sade writes: ‘there is no passion more egotistical than lechery; there is none that must be served more severely; one must absolutely think only of oneself.’
This solipsistic and eroticised quality is the logic of much of the grimdark and body-horror that plays such a prominent part of contemporary culture: Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991) or Tarantino's grisly set-pieces are Sadean exercises: apolitical and individualised, exercises in a reversionary solipsistic excess. So, despite its larger ensemble cast and pretentions towards realpolitik, is Game of Thrones: ‘Tits and Dragons’ as Ian McShane memorably called the show, after appearing on it (‘Peter Stringfellow's Lord of the Rings’ is Stewart Lee's pithy put-down). Here physical violence, lavishly illustrated on screen via distressingly lifelike special effects, combines wth a good deal of nudity and sexual activity to create a distinctlty Sadean Fantasy flavour. To pick one example from many: Ramsay Bolton's lengthy, ghastly sexualised torture of Theon Greyjoy that ends in the creation of a wholly subjugated Untermann called ‘Reek’, a process so drawn-out and egregious it overshadowed pretty much the whole of series 3.
One defence for all this Sadean excess might be the same one a couple of late-20th-century philosophers advanced with respect to de Sade himself: not that he was a nice person (since he very clearly wasn't) but that his fantasy, by manifesting the oppressive logic concealed in all sexual interchanges under patriarchy, can be recruited to revolutionary ends.
In The Sadean Woman (1978) Angela Carter argued that de Sade was ‘a terrorist of the imagination’ whose works ‘turn the unacknowledged truths of the encounters of sexuality into a cruel festival at which women are prime sacrificial victims’ (‘the pornographer as terrorist may not think of himself as a friend of women…but he will always be our unconscious ally because he begins to approach some kind of emblematic truth, whereas the lackey pornographer, like the devious fellows who write love stories for women’s magazines, that softest of all forms of pornography, can only do harm’). For Carter de Sade functions as a sort of way-station on the road from oppressive-repressive sex to a more inclusively pornotopian vision of ‘a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders’. Not everyone was convinced: Andrea Dworkin threw shade on Carter's book by calling it merely ‘pseudofeminist’. For Dworkin, Sade's rape fantasy was all about the rape and not even a fantasy, because for her there is nothing hidden or, as it were, aspirational about male rape. It's all front and centre all around us all the time; it's written in letters of fire on the forehead of the patriarchy.
A more nuanced defence of de Sade is Simone de Beauvoir's ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ (1952), which argues that de Sade ‘posed the problem of the Other in its most extreme terms’. Beauvoir has interesting speculations about the extent to which cruelty establishes the relationship between the self and the other (‘cruelty reveals us to each other in the particularities and ambiguities of our conscious and fleshed existence. The tyrant and victim are a genuine couple. They are united by the bonds of the flesh and freedom’). She does concede that de Sade fails to work through this dynamic, becoming snared in his own erotic self-absorption and moral myopia, but refuses to give up on, or censor (‘burn’) him. I'm not so sure.
And actually, to be quite frank, I could care less about de Sade, who has always struck me as plain dull (other people's monomaniacal obsessions are almost always boring, of course). But I am interested in, and I do care about, the Sadean turn in modern culture. Because although I take the force of Beauvoir's attempt to renovate his reputation as a radical thinker of Otherness, the fact remains that his mode of fantasy is of an interaction with the Other that cannot comprehend the Other as anything other than a reversion of the subject's erotically intensified cruelty of affect. It's not that de Beauvoir is wrong to suggest that ‘Sade is trying to communicate an experience whose distinguishing characteristic is, nevertheless its will to remain incommunicable’; it's just that his incommunicable is never God—the least compelling and most adolescent elements in de Sade's writing is his febrile fist-shaking at God—and always only the Other as projection. It's not even, really, that de Sade hates women; you can't really hate something that barely impinges on your egoism. De Sade desires to do certain things to, never with, women (and men) but de Sade cannot comprehend women and men, and so not only his erotic energy but his whole universe reverts into an close-walled existential echo-chamber. His works are masturbatory not just in the instrumental sense that they have been used as handbooks for that harmless human activity, though I'm sure they have, but in the formal sense that they construe an aggressively hostile withdrawal from the Other as such.
That's the worrying aspect of the modern Sadean Fantasy. De Beauvoir is quite right to identify something cruel about the Other, or more specifically something cruel about the ethical and practical demands the Other necessarily places upon us, whether we like it or not. The pain of the other—the weeping child torn from her mother and placed in a camp, say—cannot make allowances for your convenience or ease. But de Beauvoir is not suggesting that cruelty is the whole theatre in which our encounter with the Other takes place. Grimdark, in effect, is suggesting that. This, it seems to me, doesn't critique the contemporary political turn to the right so much as translate it into the representational logic of fantastika. The one thing that unites today's Brexit agitators, and Trumps, and Viktor Orbáns, the basic Brexitrumpbán premise, is that the world is dark and full of horrors, and that the polity must pull up the drawbridge and arm the cannons in the face of these things. Hobbes is very much back in fashion nowadays. And TV SFF, the Game of Thrones and Westworld and True Blood and Altered Carbon vibe (something also true of recent rape-and-sandals hit epics like Spartacus and Rome) embroiders a fundamentally Sadean-Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and sure-to-include-female-nudity.
I'm not suggesting there's a disconnect between the larger political context and these Sadean-masturbatory fantasies of bourgeois hermeticism (sealed in our livings rooms with our box-sets, like de Sade's aristocrats, whilst all these beautiful young people are sexually tortured for our pleasure). On the contrary, the two are clearly intimately linked. We are at the moment plagued, we are absolutely ridden, by a ghastly political discourse of toughness, that horrible euphemism for ‘sadistic’. Our taste for bad-ass (that is, psychotic) heroes and heroines exactly mirrors our electorates' perverse fascination with ‘tough’ (that is, psychotic) leaders like Trump and Putin. American voters elected a President who promised to lock immigrant children in concentration camps, and so it has come to pass. Be honest: when I confessed, early on in this post, how squeamish I am about the representation of violence in art, did you nod in agreement with me? Or, on the contrary, did you find yourself tut-tutting: really? you don't have the stomach for this kind of art? what kind of weakling are you, Adam? Man that's lame: I'm certainly tougher than that. Perhaps part of the appeal of this art is that we flatter ourselves that we can take it. We might even egg ourselves on to watch increasingly violent representations. That's how desensitization works. The political logic of ‘toughness’ is that we need to ‘toughen up’ (to ‘grow a pair’, to ‘man the fuck up’) whenever our conscience prompts us to show compassion for our fellow human beings. That we need to harden our hearts, like pharaoh. ‘Le crime’, swoons De Sade in Les 120 journées de Sodome: ‘n'est-il pas toujours plus sublime, n'a-t-il pas sans cesse un caractère de grandeur et de sublimité qui l'emporte et l'emportera toujours sur les attraits monotomes et efféminés de la vertu?’ Fuck that.