‘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 20 September 2018

What is Doctor Who?

There are several ways to answer this question of course. We could position ourselves outside the logic of representation and say ‘s/he's a character in a long-running BBC TV science-fiction drama serial’. Or we could step inside the logic of representation and say ‘s/he is a centuries-old humanoid alien, a so-called Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, who can travel through time and space’. Other answers might include: popular, often recast, British, a lucrative piece of intellectual property and so on. But there's a particular answer to this question that is, I think, crucial to understanding the character's enduring appeal, one broadly (I think) overlooked by fans and critics. Doctor Who, as he initially appeared, and through most, but not—as I'll discuss in a moment—all, of his incarnations, is a gentleman.

I'm going to talk about the Doctor as a man for the next few paragraphs, since I'm trying to address what the character has been so far rather than guess what the franchise's future holds. And although it is wonderful to see a woman play the role, it can't be denied that questions of masculinity have always been intricately bound up with discourses of class and gentility in the English social and ideological imaginarium. So what is the Doctor? He is a man of breeding and wealth (the two things don't always go together, but this case they do), factors that enable him to evade the responsibilities of work that bear down upon the rest of us. Unoppressed by such necessity the Doctor can do what he likes, and what he likes is, broadly: travel and a kind of elaborate philanthrophy, both perfectly respectable gentlemanly pursuits. The Doctor has tremendous charm and is at ease in whatever company he finds himself; he has immaculate manners and solicitude for others—Robin Gilmour's The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel (1982) defines a gentleman as, amongst other things, somebody who never knowingly causes pain to another. And I might cite Gilmour's book to raise two other features of the Doctor's personality that are not only gentlemanly but more specifically Victorian- or Edwardian-gentlemanly: he is eccentric, and he is not a snob.

Eccentricity is a marker of class in the practical sense that a gentleman can get away with acting oddly and indulging his personal crotchets in a way that would lead to a working man (or woman) losing their jobs, or being otherwise socially sanctioned. The gentleman can do as the common man cannot and dress strangely, behave peculiarly, ignore social convention, lark and sport. And the figure of the gentleman as eccentric is increasingly a feature of later Victorian and Edwardian representations of (celebrations of, we might say) the type. So Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison is impeccably conventional in his behaviour; but by the time we get to, say, Sherlock Holmes his whimsies of manner and habit, from playing the violin badly to keeping his cigars in the coal-scuttle and his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper (and, indeed, taking cocaine) are absolutely part of his gentility.

As for disdaining snobbery—which we see in the way the Doctor goes out of his way to be polite to nobodies, to folk working menial jobs, or without any kind of job, or people otherwise manifesting generic Cribbinsness—well: this becomes quite specifically part of the armoury of gentleman in the second half of the nineteenth-century, and does so because one writer, Thackeray (who was absolutely fascinated with the figure of the gentleman) made it so. Thackeray's Book of Snobs (1848) is little read nowadays, but I'd make the argument that it has proved more influential and enduring than Thackeray's most famous novel Vanity Fair, coincidentally published the same year. ‘Let us remember,’ P N Furbank says,
that it was Thackeray who invented our current concepts ‘snob’ and ‘snobbery’, ones which no other country possesses in quite that form. I mean the form of an infinite regress, by which the abusive term ‘snob’, in the sense of low, vulgar, cobbler-like, is not rejected but is transferred to, or reversed upon, those who would use it in that sense. Thus, the vulgarest thing (sense 2) you can do is to look down on somebody for being vulgar (sense 1) or to curry favour with somebody for being non-vulgar.
This is important, because a large part of what for want of a better word I'm going to call the Doctor's ‘progressive’ reputation depends upon his repudiation of snobbery. It's something at once a marker of class and, as Furbank notes, of Englishness, and both those things feed into the representation of the Doctor.

Or largely do, because of course there have been incarnations of the character as not English (Capaldi's Scottish 12th Doctor) and not well-bred (Eccleston's working-class 9th Doctor). But of these the interesting one is Eccleston's, since Capaldi, by playing the Doctor as an elderly eccentric Scottish gentleman, was hardly moving the figure far from the way Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee and Hurt played the role as elderly eccentric English gentleman, or indeed the way Baker, Davison, Baker mk 2, McCoy [edit: commentators below point out that McCoy's Doctor was actually Scottish], McGann, Tennant and Smith played the role as a youthful eccentric English gentleman. The standout is Eccleston, a popular iteration of the Doctor amongst Whovians and a very fine actor, but somebody who proved never at ease in the role, who left the show prematurely after disagreements with the production team (and who has, uniquely amongst living former Who-actors, never returned to it). The most notable through-line in Eccleston's ninth-doctor adventures was the introduction of a working-class ‘companion’, Billie Piper's Rose Tyler, although the romance between Rose and the Doctor was postponed until Eccleston's one-series tenure ended and the prettier and posher David Tennant took up the role (Tennant, a Scot, affected an RP accent for his portrayal). It's a little hard to assess the place, or significance, of the Eccleston Doctor in the larger Whocanon, I think: I don't know if it would be right to say that it represented the Doctor in effect ‘slumming it’, and it would be lazy to present Eccleston as the exception that proved my larger rule.

Still, the main point I'm trying to make here is that the positive valences of ‘the gentleman’ absolutely cannot be separated out from the larger ideological structures of class and privilege in which they occur and which, in various ways, they sustain. There is a lot of (as it were) semiotic leverage applied to the concept that attempts to distance it from questions of class, to suggest that one can be a gentleman without breeding or money if one behaves in a certain way; but actually this is all part of a larger false consciousness. Irrespective of all that other touchy-feely stuff about having good manners and not being rude to one's social inferiors, the gentleman is a figure with a structurally copestoning role in social hierarchy. Above I quoted Robin Gilmour (who, incidentally, taught me Victorian Literature at Aberdeen University in the 1980s, and is one reason why I specialised in that period as an academic) to the effect that a gentleman never knowingly causes another person pain. But whilst Gilmour does say this, the larger thesis of The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel is that the Victorian preoccupation with the gentleman manifested an underlying social fact, ‘the transference of ruling power from the landowning and aristocratic élite to the rising middle classes’. The gentleman is a different sort of social superior to the older aristocrat (who was, by and large, much less concerned with the wellbeing of his inferiors, and more defined by a haughty insistence on his own honour and privilege), and he came about, partly, in reaction to the Revolutionary culling of aristocracy. But the gentleman remains a type of social superiority for all that.

And the British, and more specifically English, obsession with the figure of the gentleman is all tangled up with a larger socially reactionary anti-egalitarianism. For most of its history the fundamental logic of the British Army has been that proletarian men should be led into battle by officers whose most important qualification has not been leadership skills or grasp of military strategy, but simply breeding—it's insane, really, but there you are. Sherlock Holmes is, as has been mentioned, a gentleman. Old Etonians James Bond and Captain Hook are both gentlemen. The TV decade that gave us Doctor Who also gave us the now forgotten (but in-its-day huge) Adam Adamant, a gentleman, and the still very much remembered The Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan plays a gentleman spy whose sang froid remains untouched through all manner of weirdnesses—as well as the gentlemanly Steed in The Avengers. Quatermass is a gentleman. Simon Templar is a gentleman.

Today, when the limited but significant gains made in the direction of practical social egalitarianism of the 1960s and 1970s are being so comprehensively rolled back all around us, the British obsession with the gentleman has experienced something of a reflorescence. Our film and TV stars are all Cumberbatchy, Redmaynesque, Hiddlestonian public school posh-boys; our hits are Downton Abbeys and endless adaptations of Jane Austen, our movies are gentlehobbits defeating the forces of evil with the power of their politeness and persistence, or fantasy versions of Eton churning out gentlewizards of both sexes (if you think Harry Potter is about anything other than a uniquely English version of class you're fooling yourself: it's about finding the right line between the cruel and outmoded aristocratic values of Voldemort and his clan on the one hand, and the vulgar money-grubbing of the goblins and tabloid press and suburban lower-middle-class ghastliness on the other). Roald Dahl's enduringly popular fictions combine the sadism of James Bond with the eccentricity of the archetypal English gentleman. Much British TV comedy depends upon audiences intuitively grasping the unspoken absurdities of class, which perhaps explains why some of the shows that have enjoyed the biggest domestic success have not travelled well abroad. For example the central, as-it-were structural ‘gag’ of Dad's Army is that Captain Mainwaring has a higher military rank but a lower social rank than the gentleman Sergeant Wilson. Out of this mismatch whole series of hilarity are construed.

Still, soon we will have a female Doctor and that will be interesting. Because the semiology of the gentlewoman differs in important ways to the semiology of the gentleman. The latter exists as a means of fixing class hierarchy by redefining that structure's apex, and therefore exists as a way of resisting any levelling modes social change: the Doctor might be friendly, but he's always going to (literally) have more heart than we do. But the structural imbalance of gender means that the gentlewoman figures rather differently. This has to do with what has historically always been true: that as women broadly have less power and social prestige than men, so gentlewomen have less power and social prestige than gentlemen. It also reflects the social facts of marriage: a man is born into his status as a gentleman, but a woman might marry into it—one of the ways that Richardson's Mr B. attempts to seduce Pamela is by making the rather threatening promise ‘I will make a Gentlewoman of you.’ Pamela isn't taken in, partly because she shares with her class and time the gut-feeling that women so elevated aren't really gentlewomen: so she scoffs in one of her letters that ‘this very Gentleman (yes, I must call him Gentleman, tho’ he has fallen from the Merit of that Title) has degraded himself to offer Freedoms to his poor Servant!’ Defoe’s Moll Flanders ruefully recalls her youthful dreams of social elevation, when she dreamed of being a ‘Gentlewoman’ and ‘sit[ting] at my window dressed in fine clothes’. Of course some women are born into the requisite social class, but although they are permitted some eccentricities of manner these ought not to trespass so far as a gentleman's for fear of ruining their chances of making a good marriage and sinking into the risible-tragic status of a batty old maid. But the emphasis in the polysyllable gentleman is on the man; gentlewomen are subsidiary figures. Through the 19th century often manic preoccupation with the figure of the gentleman married to an equally desperate engagement with questions of manliness. The period was marked by the deeply homosocial nature of middle and upper-class English cultural life, from same-sex schooling to same-sex gentleman's clubs and pastimes, the sexes being highly segregated. Which means that situating a woman, like Jodie Whittaker, in this particular position is a much more radical act than is sometimes realised.

All this is a roundabout way of saying: I have some specific hopes for the new female Who. It certainly seems to me that many of the reactionaries who greeted the news of her casting with howls of outrage were only partly motivated by misogyny (though of course they were motivated by that); they were trying, with the hysterical volume of their complaining, to rally to the defence of class itself as a defining feature of British self-identity. It will be interesting to see how Whittaker and her scriptwriters take the character, and to what extent the role can be reconfigured to escape this particular straitjacket.

Monday 17 September 2018

Shelley's Dome of Many-Coloured Glass

I've been reading Statius's Thebiad, for non-Shelley-related reasons, when I came across something that put me in mind of the wonderful image from the last bit of ‘Adonaïs’:
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek! [‘Adonaïs’, 460-65]
The Thebiad is an epic retelling of the story of the Seven Against Thebes, and in Book 1, as per epic convention, Jove commands the gods to assemble so as to consider the sorry mess Oedipus's descendents are making of things. This is where they gather:
                                  Mox turba vagorum
semideum et summis cognati Nubibus Amnes
et compressa metu servantes murmura Venti
aurea tecta replent, mixta convexa deorum
maiestate tremunt, radiant maiore sereno
culmina et arcano florentes lumine postes. [Thebiad, 205-10]
In English:
Soon enough a multitude of wandering
demigods and cloud-kin river deities
(timidly restraining their usual roars) and wind-spirits
crowd under the golden ceilings; the mingling of gods made that
majestic dome tremble, its heights glowing sky-bluer,
and its doorways florescing with arcane light.
There's no glass here, but there is a divine dome that shines with many colours (gold, blue, and whatever colour ‘arcane light’ is) mediating, through semidivine multiplicity, the divine oneness of Jove. We know Shelley read Statius: he mentions him in the Defence of Poetry. Was this mixtum convexum, this many-coloured dome, in his mind as he wrote his great Keatsian elegy?

Tuesday 11 September 2018

J R R Tolkien, "The Fall of Gondolin" (2018)

We've been here before, in The Silmarillion, in greater detail in Unfinished Tales and even (briefly) in verse form in The Lays of Beleriand; any Tolkien fan worth his or her salt knows the story of Tuor and the fall of Gondolin. Tolkien considered it one of his legendarium's three ‘Great Tales’, stories from his imaginary world eons before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—the other two being Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin.

So: Tolkien's son Christopher has, over the last four decades, edited eleven thousand (give or take) posthumous volumes of his father's unpublished writing. The previous instalment in that endeavour, 2017's Beren and Lúthien opened with him declaring: ‘in my ninety-third year this is presumptively the last book in the long series of editions of my father's writings’. Such presumption evidently proved premature, for here is The Fall of Gondolin (HarperCollins 2018), plumped-up with eight full-colour Alan Lee illustrations and prefaced by Christopher Tolkien's wryly revisited promise: ‘I must now say that, in my ninety-fourth year The Fall of Gondolin is (indubitably) the last’. This is the end/Beleriand friend/The end.

I didn't need this book. I bought this book anyway. I already knew the story of the mighty human warrior, Tuor, beloved of the Vala Ulmo (a sea-god, Tolkien's Poseidon), who travels through a Middle Earth occupied by the forces of darkness under the evil Vala Melko (in essence; an in-the-world Satan) and his armies of orcs, Balrogs, dragons and other nasties. If you're a Tolkien fan, you'll know it too. Tuor eventually makes his way to the elven city of Gondolin, hidden inside a sealed ring of mountains and maintaining its precarious existence as a free polis under the Noldoli king Turgon (‘robed in white with a belt of gold and a coronet of garnets was upon his head’). Tuor becomes one of the warriors sworn to defend Gondolin. He marries the king's daughter Idril, and they have a child: Eärendil, the half-elven, who will grow up to become the famous mariner, which figure, indeed, was the starting point for all Tolkien's middleëarthy imaginings. But King Turgon's nephew Maeglin is angry that Idril has married a mortal man instead of him. He betrays Gondolin to Melko, in return for a captaincy in Melko's evil army and Idril as his prize (joke's on him though: ‘but Melko wove about him a spell of bottomless dread, and he had thereafter neither joy nor quiet in his heart’ [68]). Melko assembles a huge attack force, including some rather cool steampunky giant robo-dragons:
Melko assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrought a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End. Some were all of iron so cunningly linked that they might flow like slow rivers of metal or coil themselves around and above all obstacles before them, and these were filled in their innermost depths with the grimmest of the Orcs with scimitars and spears. [69]
That last detail speaks to one of the mythic underpinnings here: the Fall of Troy. Tolkien writes a Vergilian Troy-centred rather than a Homeric Achaean-centred account of the sack of the city, and here, for about twenty pages, The Fall of Gondolin earns its place in the world of books. The retelling of Tuor's story in Unfinished Tales, though written in a more novelistic and readable style than The Fall of Gondolin's archaic thee-and-thou confection, unfortunately ends before the actual sack of the city. This book gives us the whole thing, and works up a fine head of steam doing so.

Here, then, and for the first time, we get a vivid account of the assault on the city: swarming orc armies, the robo-wyrms (some iron, some brazen), ‘creatures of pure flame that writhed like ropes of molten metal’, gigantic dragons, all are excitingly described. Gondolin is destroyed and many Noldor killed, king Turgon amongst them. Evil Maeglin tries to lay hands on Idril, but Tuor breaks his arm, leaps onto the battlements and chucks him over the side: ‘great was the fall of his body and it smote Amon Gwareth three times ere it pitched in the midmost of the flames; and the name of Maeglin has gone out in shame from among Eldar and Noldoli’ [82]. The city cannot be saved, so Tuor, Idril, little Eärendil and various others (including, I was surprised to see, a young Legolas Greenleaf) pass through a secret tunnel out of the city, over the mountains and down into Dimbar, then down along the river Sirion to settle eventually in Avernien. As we all know, Eärendil went on to become a mariner/who tarried in Avernien/and built a boat of timber felled,/in Nimbrithil to journey in. But that story is beyond the remit of this particular volume.

This version of the story fills 75 pages of this 302-page book. The rest is the sort of thing we're familiar with from previous Christopher Tolkien productions: variant versions of the same story, the story told again in multiple drafts. We get ‘The Earliest Text’ (‘important elements in the early evolution of the story’, CT glosses, using important in an idiosyncratic, and indeed fallacious, way, ‘are my father's hurried notes’); then a ‘short, prose’ retelling, then ‘the form of the story of the Fall of Gondolin that my father wrote in 1926’, then the version of the same story upon which CT based the relevant Silmarillion passages, then finally a 55-page version from 1951 which takes us up to Tuor seeing Gondolin for the first time but doesn't go any further. The remainder of the volume is notes, a list of names, a ‘glossary of obsolete, archaic and rare words’, more notes, family trees and a map. That is to say, something over a fifth of this book is a new version of The Fall of Gondolin, and the rest consists of other versions and para-gubbins related to that version. Expanded polystyrene, really, howsoever handsomely packaged.

I still bought it, mind.

What did I buy? (Why did I buy it? Well, duh). So: the first version of the story here dates from 1917, when Tolkien was recovering from the Somme, which gives the iron war-dragons filled with warriors an interesting context (Christopher Tolkien edited the iron dragons out of his 1977 Silmarillion redaction because he thought they jarred with the broader mood or atmosphere of the legendarium—a pity, that). The downside is that the whole is written in a stiff-necked archaic lo!-prithee-forsooth style that is grating is small quantities and immensely wearing in large ones. Here's how Turgon greets Tuor:
“Lo! thy coming was set in our books of wisdom and it has been written that there would come to pass many great things in the homes of the Gondothlim whenso thou faredst hither.” [55]
Whenso thou thither readst, mayhap thy teeth will itch as verily did mine. Here's Turgon on Valinor:
“The paths thereto are forgotten and the highways faded from the world, and they that sit within in mirth reck little of the dread of Melko. Nay, enough of my people have for years untold gone out into the wide waters never to return, but have perished in the deep places or wander now lost in the shadows that have no paths, and at the coming of next year no more shall fare to the sea, but rather will we trust to ourselves and our city for the warding off of Melko, and thereto have the Valar been of scant help aforetime.” [57]
The aim, here, is for a formal elevation and dignity, pursuant to tonal grandeur and resonance, but the effect tumbles into mere quaintness. It's a question of stylistic judgment, a bar this book repeatedly fails to clear. Elf used to be a twee and pretty-pretty sort of word, and Tolkien can take the credit for shifting and dignifying the semantic field of that particular piece of nomenclature; but Gnome, his preferred term for the Noldori in this volume, has not been so modified, and so today evokes tiny ceramic beardos dangling their fishing rod into the rainfilled hole of a discarded tractor-tyre. Or David Bowie novelty singles.
But the Gnomes were numbered        by name and kin
marshalled and ordered        in the mighty square ... [33]
Names in all Tolkien's drafts tend to be fluid, of course. Melko later became Melkor and then Morgoth. Tuor, here, is sometimes ‘son of Peleg’ and sometimes ‘son of Huor’ (‘war? Huor! What is it good for?’). The Lord of the Balrogs is called Gothmog which sounds more like a cat in a miniature Sisters of Mercy leather jacket than a terrifying flame-demon, and ‘Penlod, tallest of Gnomes’ and ‘Rog, strongest of Gnomes’ are names it's hard to imbue with the requisite prestige. Rog is that character's whole name, of course. It's not short for Roger. Even Tolkien would baulk at ‘Roger the Gnome’.

There are a couple of other curious details. Turgon has a fountain in his courtyard that spouts up twenty fathoms, which seems both a lot, and is moreover a word more usually associated with depth than height. Also we learn that Melko has been capturing eagles and torturing them to learn the ‘magic words’ they use to fly, hoping to be able to fly himself and so contend with his fellow-Vala Manwë, the god of the air. That eagles fly not because they have gigantic wings but because they can speak certain magic words seems a curious thing to believe, especially for an intellect that is literally godlike.
Thorondor, King of Eagles, loved not Melko, for Melko had caught many of his kindred and chained them against sharp rocks to squeeze from them the magic words whereby he might learn to fly (for he dreamed of contending even against Manwë in the air) and when they would not tell he cut off their wings. [106]
It's all a bit King-Louie-in-the-Jungle-Book:
Now I'm the king of the wingers, yeah
The jetblack V.I.P.
I want to fly and I'll tell you why
So I can fight Manwë.
But it's easy to snipe. To be fair to Tolkien, he never authorised the publication of these early sketches, and can hardly be blamed for occasional lapses in tone. And there is something more interesting at work here.

Tolkien's influence flows down the broad, deep channel he himself inadvertently excavated, the one now called contemporary commercial Fantasy. There is a lot of this latter, but they that sit within the mighty citadel of modern-day 1000-page epic high-fantasty novels reck little, by and large, of the profoundly moral purpose of Tolkien's writing. He was deeply and indeed fundamentally invested in the belief that life is a series of ethical engagements with the world and the people in it. His writing repeatedly returns to the way heroism entails not just knowing the right thing, but finding the strength to do the right thing. Over and again he explores that ethical point at which courageous determination blurs into mere stubbornness, where brave engagement with a dangerous world flips over into wilful retreat from that world. One of the ways he renders this in his fiction is through the logic of the seige: Théoden, King of Rohan, really should have listened to Gandalf and ridden out to meet Saruman's army rather than retreating into Helm's Deep. Denethor is in many ways an admirable figure, but turns in on himself, using his mighty strength of will to clutch at his own power instead of turning it outward to meet his enemies. The key point in the Gondolin story comes when Tuor first arrives at Turgon's court, and says what the god Ulmo had instructed him to say: ‘to bid you number your hosts and prepare for battle, for the time is ripe’. Turgon's reply embodies wrong judgement in Tolkien's ethical cosmos, not because it is wicked, disingenuous or selfish, but because Tolkien believes we have a duty actively to go out and engage evil, not to hunker down and hope merely to avoid it:
Then spoke Turgon: “that will I not do, though it be the words of Ulmo and the Valar. I will not adventure this my people against the Orcs, nor emperil my city against the fire of Melko.” Then spoke Tuor: “Nay, if thou dost not now dare greatly then will the Orcs dwell for ever and possess in the end most of the mountains of the Earth, and cease not to trouble both Elves and Men ...” But Turgon said that he was king of Gondolin and no will should force him against his counsel. [56]
He should have listened to Ulmo's messenger in this. Tuor, or not Tuor; that is the question. And the answer is: Tuor.

Sunday 9 September 2018

An (X) Story

Some people think the universe is made out of matter. Other people believe it is made out of something else, let's call it ‘spirit’ or ‘God’ or ‘noumenon’. But there's a third, I think smaller, group of people who believe that cosmos is made neither of atoms nor spirit, but of stories.

They're wrong, of course. Stories have many wonderful qualities, and are, I would say, as essential to human health and flourishing as air, water, food and shelter. But they are not what the universe is made of, because they are not true. This untruthfulness comes in many varieties, some more extreme than others; but it is the point of the stories—a feature not a bug. The feature, in fact. It's not, of course, that stories are entirely untethered from reality. Some stories cleave very closely to the texture of lived experience, and more broadly (to quote a now disgraced poet) stories that say nothing to me about my life will tend not to have any purchase on my imagination. But all stories, to one extent or another, refract reality into more interesting and engaging forms. That's why we tell them.

To be clear: I'm not making the facile if true observation that the contents of stories are lies, of one kind or another (that there is no such person as Oliver Twist, say; or that neither Hogwart's School nor the subjects it teaches are real—you know: the obvious stuff). Nor am I presenting the equally facile observation that the morals or implications of stories are often mendacious (reality licenses us to disbelieve, to pick a few examples: that the course of true love never runs smooth; that guns are exciting and empowering or that the universe cares what choices we make) although as a matter of fact they generally are. In fact, the course of love more often runs smooth than otherwise, guns are destructive, disempowering and socially toxic, and the universe has no concern for us. But that's not my point. My point is that the form of ‘the story’ as such is ontologically deceitful. The underlying logic of stories is conflict (no conflict, no drama; no drama, nothing interesting to storify) and this, by and large, is not the underlying logic of the universe. If I had to pick one word to describe the underlying logic of the universe it would be: indifference. Stories, though, are allergic to indifference.

Stories need conflicts, grit around which to grow their pearly selves. Better stories balance conflicts; so for example the Antigone is a better story than Superman versus Lex Luthor, because in the former both sides have a point, where in the latter one is too obviously in the right and one too obviously in the wrong. Indeed, when great artists take a Superman versus Lex Luthor-type story they will generally Antigonize it, for example by, as Milton does with his Satan, making the antagonist as interesting as the protagonist, giving him/her as valid a p.o.v. But the universe is rarely so balanced. Indeed, the universe is rarely so interesting. The universe does not tell stories. Only we do that. News reports distort the world they purport to represent whatever they present it to us as ‘a story’, which in point of fact they do all the time, so as to hook our interest and so make more money for themselves. For what are, I daresay, deep-rooted evolutionary reasons, we are cued to respond strongly to perceived threats; stories press those buttons and evoke those responses. Not only because of its extreme and ideologically informed selectivity but because of its desire to storify the world the news does not truthfully represent reality. It's not all knife crime and murderous immigrants, foods that give us cancer and skateboarding ducks out there you know. Really, most of it is pretty boring.

That's fine, so long as we don't start to mistake stories for reality. So long as we don't come to take Fox News for literal verisimilitude. And while absolute fidelity to reality is unachievable, it is both possible and desirable to be more, rather than less, truthful in our apprehension of the world around us. That's not really the point I'm trying to make. I am, rather, trying to get at something that seems to me core to human life. Christopher Priest's great early novel A Dream of Wessex (1977) opens with the epigraph: ‘May you live through interesting times. Ancient Chinese Curse’. It's taken me a long time fully to appreciate the wisdom of that sentiment, authentic Chinese or apochryphal concoction though it be. Young people, brimful of piss and vinegar, may think they want to live through interesting times. Older people come to this realistion: we want to live our actual lives in a placid and predictable environment and to reserve the interesting times for our imagination. We want boring predictable lives that are enlivened by thrilling dangerous stories. That's why our stories grow more extreme and violent and dangerous as our lives become more settled and prosperous. A universe that was actually made out stories would be a hellscape.

Of course, the fact that human beings make stories can give stories utility—for humans. We may take inspiration from Frodo's perseverance or Mr Polly's courage, from Odysseus's wiliness or Hermione's cleverness when we face challenges of our own. We can console ourselves that our broken hearts can mend, that everything happens for a reason, because our stories tell us so. It's probably not true, but it may be useful. Still: how much story to mix-in to our everyday common-sense engagement with the barely-tractable matter of existence is a ticklish question. Too little and we will grow disaffected with the indifference of the universe; too much and we lose touch with reality.

Which brings me back to the previously mentioned Christopher Priest, and to his new novel, An American Story (Gollancz, 2018). I'll put my hand up: I have too little critical distance on Priest—sitting in my little suburban bedroom as a teenager reading the Pan paperback editions of his first few novels is one of the main reasons I ended up writing SF at all. But I'll admit I started this one with a degree of apprehension. It's about 9/11 and occupies the debatable land between rejecting the official narrative on the one hand and simultaneously repudiating all the welter of loony-fringe YouTube parannoyings on the other. I think, on balance An American Story (just about) pulls this off. Obviously there are people in the world who genuinely believe the Twin Towers were an inside job; Priest inhabits the idea to destabilize the meaning of ‘genuinely’ rather than to peddle the usual jet-fuel-can't-melt-steel bananas, and so the novel grows into a dramatisation of ontological uncertainties pursuant to unreliable (and in the case of one of the characters, alzheimer's afflicted) memory, the clumping effect of mass media on concepts of truth/lies, the pressures of conformity and the irreducible oddness of things as such. It's quite an uneasy book; designedly so, and to interesting if uneven effect. Or perhaps it's a new type of thriller: usually we're on the edge of our seats as to whether our hero/ine will escape the clutches of their enemies etc etc. In this book we read through on the edge of our seats as to whether our respected author is about to go full batshit conspiracy loon ... In other words: my initial takeaway from reading this novel is that the key word in its title is not American but Story. It's a story about the way stories inevitably distort, the way the tidal pull of story-as-such can draw us down the whirlpool to where the current picks our bones in whispers.

This, I think, is the aspect of conspiracy-thinking that people tend to overlook. When somebody buttonholes us with ‘9/11 was an inside job’ or ‘Paul died in 1966’ or ‘we never actually landed on the moon’ the temptation is to critique their lack of veracity. But a conspiracy theory doesn't exist to make the world more veracious; it exists to make it more interesting. Can you  think of a conspiracy theory that took something inherently interesting and attempted to explain it in terms of an elaborate, secret and more boring counterplot? Of course not. Any given person's favourite conspiracy theory tells you what they find more interesting about the universe. In this sense all the successful stories are conspiracy theories. Priest's novel is only incidentally an American Story. What it is more centrally—is a Story.

Saturday 8 September 2018

Author Photo

My Dad's shoe, my Mum's legs and me with my back to the camera.

Friday 7 September 2018

Be is To Be

I'm very persuaded by my friend Ewan Fernie's reading of this Shakespearian soliloquy:
To be or not to be – that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
He asks students to take the question in the first line seriously: Hamlet gives himself two options (being, not-being). Which does he go for, in the end? Well clearly he decides to be: not to end his life with the bare bodkin; to eschew suicide and carry on. But he arrives at that decision by a curious route. In plain terms he considers life ('being'), and notes its many agonies ('the whips and scorns of time,/Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,/The insolence of office, and the spurns/That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes'). But then he considers the alternative, death ('not-being') and finds that just as bad, or possibly worse. Another way of putting this would be to say, he looks to 'not-being' and finds that it is actually just another sort of being. In other words his decision 'to be' is arrived at, paradoxically, through a process of rejecting 'to be' not once but twice; finding fault with two modes of being and still concluding that he must be. This profound ontological negativity, or perhaps confusion, has important resonance for the play as a whole; a text whose opening is dominated by an entity, the ghost, who is precisely strung ambiguously between being and not-being.

It sent me back to the monologue. And that in turn got me thinking about 'quests'.

Quest is an interesting word I think, although now rather bleached of meaning by its endless reiteration in the context of (for instance) Fantasy narratives -- interesting not least as a sort of conceptual structuring principle. OED says a quest is 'a search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something'; as well as 'in medieval romance: an exhibition or adventure undertaken by a knight to procure some thing or achieve some exploit.' The word has an obvious etymological relation to 'question', although it is, of course, a literalised exteriorised version of the process of mental enquiry. Or to be precise: it orients the question elswehere. OED also quotes the Romance of Merlin (1450): 'thei entered into many questes forto knowe which was the beste knyght.' In other words, the quest arrives at a conceptual answer (which is the best knight) by arriving at a material object. That's important.

Shakespeare writes blank verse (famously, so). But the first five lines of this, his most famous speech, amount to hendecasyllabics (only with the 'end' at the end of line 6 do we fall back into a decasyllabic rhythm). And part of the memorableness of that appallingly famous first line has to do with the way it spills beautifully over the limit of ten syllables we so strongly associate with blank verse, as well as the way the stresses of the verse reinforce the existential vehemence of the question. 'To BE or NOT to BE,' pause, 'THAT is the QUEST.' The '-ion' comes after, leaving us with that spectral sense that 'to be or not to be' is not so much a question as a quest. And in turn that not only points up the memorable trope of death as a linear, one-way journeying ('the undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveler returns...') it also carries with it the sense that such journeying is towards a palpable object, the reification of 'being/not being' itself. We might, if it didn't sound too facetious, say being, or the knot-(of)-being. The thing.

Monday 3 September 2018

Pinocchio (Disney, 1940)

I love this image from Disney's masterpiece Pinocchio. I love the way it shows the donkey wickedness of the boys on ‘Pleasure Island’ (they have defaced the Mona Lisa with graffiti!) whilst, at the same time, using the content of that graffito—a baby in the madonna's arms—to capture what it is these boys truly miss, and really want: maternal comfort. There's something quite profound in this throwaway moment, and Pinocchio is full of this kind of thing.