‘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.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Some "Hamlet" Obviousnesses


In the first book of Homer's Iliad, Agamemnon, the Greek king and military leader, takes away the prize of one of his warriors, Achilles. The prize is a beautiful slave-girl called Briseis, and Agamemnon takes her because he has lost his own prize (another slave girl) and doesn't see why he should do without; but he also does it publicly to mortify Achilles, the army's greatest warrior, whom he thinks has been getting above himself: ‘as Phoebus Apollo takes from me the daughter of Chryses,’ Agamemnon tells Achilles, with the whole army watching, ‘I will myself come to your tent and take the fair-cheeked Briseis, your prize, so that you will understand how much mightier I am than you’. This infuriates Achilles, who draws his sword and rushes at the king to kill him. Then this happens:
Athene came from heaven. She stood behind him, and seized the son of Peleus by his fair hair, appearing to him alone. No one of the others saw her. Achilles was seized with wonder, and turned around, and immediately recognized Pallas Athene. Terribly her eyes shone. [Iliad, 1:194-200]
There are two ways in which we might want to read this moment. On the one hand we could take it in terms of its in-text logic: in the Iliad gods and goddesses mingle promiscuously with mortal men and women, and this is just one more example of that. If Achilles hacks down Agamemnon in sight of the entire army, the repurcussions would be severe. Achilles would probably die. Athene, who loves Achilles, doesn't want to see that happen and so she intervenes. But there's an ‘on the other hand’ too, and it's this: Athene appearing and seizing Achilles' hair to pull him back from assaulting Agamemnon is how this poem represents Achilles changing his mind. His first instinct is revenge, but then he has second thoughts. In Homer, and indeed throughout Ancient Greek literature, mental processes of this sort, and which we tend nowadays to think of as interior dynamics, things that happen on the inside of our heads rather than out in the world, are consistently exteriorised. Instead of saying ‘Achilles drew his sword to kill Agamemnon, but then he thought better of it’ it came naturally to Homer to say: a goddess (that only Achilles could see) descended and grabbed him by his hair.

This speaks, we might think, to a larger logic. It has, for instance, to do with the shift from a shame to a guilt culture, from a world in which what torments us is out-there to one in which that which torments us is inside us. Were we ever (god forbid!) to kill our own mother, we would surely feel desperately guilty; but when Aeschylus' Orestes kills his own mother (to avenge the father she had in her turn murdered) he does not interiorize his guilt. Instead he is actually pursued across Greece by a troop of supernatural entities called Erinyes, or Furies. The Erinyes are both actual agents in the world of the Oresteia, and symbolic representation of the process of guilt and regret. We don't have to prioritize one over the other; it's fine to treat them as both at the same time.


Here are a trio of frankly odd contradictions in Shakespeare's Hamlet: death, ghosts and ears. First the ‘to be or not to be’ speech, surely the most famous bit of Shakespeare in the entire canon. Shall I kill myself, Hamlet asks himself, or not? Suicide would put an end to a whole series of miseries and torments, yes; but death might be worse:
             Who would these Fardles beare
To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of. [Hamlet, 3.1.78-84]
But doesn't it seem strange to you that this Hamlet, opening his heart to the audience via soliloquy in Act 3, should describe death as an undiscovered country from whose borne no traveller returns, when just a little earlier, in Act 1, this same Hamlet had met the actual ghost of his actual dead father, inarguably a traveller returning from the land of the dead? Maybe Shakespeare temporarily forgot, as he composed this peerless monologue, the larger context of the play in which it occurred (it's even conceivable he wrote this monologue for a completely different project and dropped it in here, figuring that it sort-of fitted, which is why it includes references to generic obnoxiousnesses like ‘the law's delay’ and ‘the insolence of office’ neither of which have any relevance to the situation in which princely Hamlet finds himself). But now we're slipping into the business of making excuses for Shakespeare, and that is surely beneath us.

Take it another way. The appearance of the ghost, right at the start of the play, situates Hamlet in a medieval world of supernatural terrors, where this Act 3 speech situates it in the modern world of interiorised anxieties and fears. The truth of this drama is that it stands Janus-like facing both the archaic past and the bang up to date. We could put it this way: the appearance of the ghost embodies an aspect of death and grief to which any bereaved person will attest: the way the dead won't lie still, the way they return to us and trouble us, that we can't stop thinking about them, that they make us worry about what we have left undone; where the reference to the country from whose borne no traveller returns articulates a different facet of our experience of death: that it marks an absolute breach with life. The grievous truth that those we love who die are gone forever. The existential abyss we face when we contemplate our own inevitable mortality. Hamlet is a play capacious enough to encompass both of these.

The thing is, this isn't the only discontinuity in the play. Consider the ghost of Hamlet's father, with which the play starts. This spectre dominates Act 1, first observed by Marcellus, Barnardo and Francisco, who report it to Hamlet, and then by all four of them together. This is, in other words, a well-attested phenomenon; there are many witnesses to confirm to the existence of this apparition as, we might say, a real ghost. But later in the play the ghost appears again: towards the end of Act 3, as Hamlet is rebuking his mother in her bedroom, and after he has killed Polonius (believing him to be Claudius). I mean, I say the ghost appears, but, like the Athene who grabs Achilles' hair, this manifestation is visible only to one person.
Enter Ghost.
Hamlet. A King of shreds and patches.
Saue me; and houer o're me with your wings
You heauenly Guards. What would you gracious figure?
Queen. Alas he's mad ...
Alas, how is't with you?
That you bend your eye on vacancie,
And with their corporall ayre do hold discourse.
To who do you speake this?
Hamlet. Do you see nothing there?
Queen. Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.
Hamlet. Nor did you nothing heare?
Queen. No, nothing but our selues.
Hamlet. Why look you there: looke how it steals away:
My Father in his habite, as he liued,
Looke where he goes euen now out at the Portall. Exit.
Queen. This is the very coynage of your Braine,
This bodilesse Creation extasie is very cunning in. [Hamlet, 3.4.93-129]
By this stage on the play Hamlet has been pretending to be mad for some time, and we, the audience, are beginning to suspect that the mask has become the face and that he has actually become mad (or else, perhaps, that he's been mad all along). Which is to say: we're less likely to take this appearance of the ghost as an ‘actual’ ghost, and more likely to take it as a hallucination.

This in effect restates the example from the Iliad in an Elizabethan context. For Homer, the goddess Athene is both an actual being in the world of the poem and an externalisation or symbolisation of Achilles' thought processes. For Aeschylus the Furies are actual divine beings and the emblematisation of Orestes' guilty conscience. So here: the ghost is a ‘real’ entity in the world of the play and an externalised representation of the state of Hamlet's griefstruck mind and his guilty and anguished will-to-revenge. Indeed, and strikingly, Shakespeare takes pains to style it in the poem as first the one and then the other. And this brings me to ears.


The crime to which the whole of Hamlet is a response is Claudius' murder of Old Hamlet. How does he kill him? You know, of course. He creeps into the old king's garden, where Old Hamlet is lying flat out after a boozy lunch, and pours poison into his ear.

So now I'm going to ask a really obvious question. Is it possible to kill somebody by pouring poison into their ear? And, having asked, I can supply the obvious answer: no, it isn't possible. Common sense, really. If you want to poison someone you pour the poison in their mouth, whence it goes to their stomach and is absorbed into the whole body. Unless you have serious lacerations inside the ear pouring poison in isn't going to do any good, or bad, at all.

Of course, I'm missing the point. That's not what Shakespeare is getting at. Claudius ‘pouring poison into Old Hamlet’s ears’ actually invokes the ancient trope of the Bad Advisor—the monarch’s councillor who offers bad advice, of the sort that might well prove fatal to the King and, through him, to his kingdom. This character, the Bad Advisor pouring metaphorical, verbal ‘poison’ in a King’s ear is something that retains its potency in modern times. Think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the damage wrought by the evil advisor Wormtongue. Think of the anxiety generated in the popular press by contemporary political advisors, the shadowy unelected, unaccountable goons who surround (let's say) a President notoriously gullible and none too intelligent. How can we be sure whether the advice these people are giving our leaders is good or bad? We can't. There's nothing we can do. That's an anxiety-producing thought.

Hamlet is about many things: the situation in the Court at Elsinore is ‘about’ politics and the protocols of social interaction; the scenes with the ghost are ‘about’ the relations between the living and the dead. The main character, somebody who isn’t necessarily quite sure what he should do, is surrounded by people happy to offer him all sorts of, usually conflicting, advice. Indeed, we could make the case that it is advice in the broadest sense that is the heart of this play: the role of official political ‘advisors’; the advice offered to people in more general senses; by the ghost to the living Hamlet; by Hamlet to the players; by Laertes to Ophelia; by Polonius to anybody prepared to listen. Advice is a strange thing. If you are in an undoubted position of authority you can command; but if you are not—and that’s most of us—then the best you can do is advise, and people can choose to follow your advice or not. Unsolicited advice is particularly problematic (Polonius has become a byword for offering tedious and unwanted advice for example), as is advice from those who don’t really know what they’re talking about offered to those who do (and what right has Hamlet—not, after all a professional actor—to advise the players, who are, on performance?). How often do we regard the advice we receive in our day-to-day as helpful, and act upon it? How often do we think of those who offer us advice as meddlesome, tiresome, intrusive and worse? How coercive is advice? How pertinent? These are the things that, in a deep way, Hamlet is ‘about’.

To take this an inch further: what is the role of a critic? It is not, surely, to compel agreement with a reader, but to offer interpretations and analysis that is much more akin to advice. The reader can take or leave it. It used to be axiomatic that the best literature helps us live; it offers us advice on how to navigate our own existences.

The status of the royal adviser was, we can assume, peculiarly acute in 1599 and 1600 when, in all likelihood, Hamlet was being written. Of course Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, would have expressed love and reverence for their Queen (the alternative was execution); but at the same time they would have experienced anxieties in being ruled by a female monarch. Only a few decades earlier John Knox, in his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment [ie Rule] of Women (1558), had declared that that monarchs ‘oght to be constant, stable, prudent and doing euerie thing with discretion and reason, whiche vertues women can not haue in equalitie with men … Nature doth paint [women] furthe to be weake, fraile, impacient, feble, foolishe: and experience hath declared them to be vnconstant, variable, cruell and lacking the spirit of counsell and regiment’. Women, the 16th-century believed, were not made for governance; and for a Queen to refuse to take a husband left the sacred authority of the throne ambiguous and fearful. Shakespeare might have agreed that God had anointed Elizabeth as Queen whilst also worrying that actual governance was being performed by her advisors, those in the shadows behind the throne, men he knew not, nor were they appointed to their role by divine grace. Hamlet, in this context, becomes a work that (among other things) expresses these anxieties, that works through the subtle channels of advice and the way that advisors operate in the social and political world.

But all this is to elaborate on the more basic point: when it comes to the event that kicks-off the whole drama of Hamlet, Claudius's murder of Old Hamlet, Shakespeare very deliberately elides a metaphor and an in-text actuality. And this is the key. Hamlet is a play about states of mind, really before it is anything else. If we want to be more particular we could say: it is a play about what happens to and in our minds when they are put under certain extraordinary strains: pressures of grief, and anger, and the impulse to revenge (for instance) as well as, of love and desire, of the anxieties as well as the exhilarations of adopting a public role. The question then becomes: how does a writer body-forth a state of mind in his/her art.

In a novel we might utilise the convention of textualised interiority, and have our narrator describe what was going on inside a character's thoughts and feelings; but Shakespeare is centuries before the novel and writing for a very different mode, theatre. He has, really, two strategies at his disposal. One is the venerable one that Homer and Aeschylus used, of externalising states of minds as agents within the logic of the text: gods, ghosts, furies and so on. Two is one of the great Shakespearian innovations: the monologue (I mean he didn't strictly speaking invent this component of the theatrical text, but it was his use that established the variety and suppleness of it as a dramatic possibility). The conceit with a monologue is that we—audience, readers but pointedly not the other characters with whom s/he happens to be sharing the stage—are being gifted a glimpse into the speaker's mind. It is no mere coincidence, I think, that the ghost of Hamlet's father occurs in the arena of the first of these logics of representation, the external action of the play, and that Hamlet's anxiety about death being the undiscovered country from whose borne no traveller returns occurs in the second, the monologue. But they're both, in their different ways—under, that is, the differing logics of their mutual representative modes—saying the same thing. They are both saying: death is scary, mysterious, destabilising; death is repugnant to comprehension and yet won't leave us alone, keeps preying on our minds; the dead will never come back to us and yet won't ever leave us alone. That death, and the dead, are somehow both hidden behing a cloud of unknowing and glaringly, terrifyingly obvious. And that's probably enough about Hamlet obviousnesses for now.


A coda, which has nothing to do with Hamlet. One thing that sometimes surprises me about that congeries of fandom-communities of which I am, in my way, a part—I mean science fiction and fantasy fandom—is how wedded fans are to the in-text reading of their favourite works, and the inertia of their resistance to the idea that these might be logics of representation rather than actual things in the world, or even in the Jonathan-Franzen-air-quotes ‘world’. That Harry Potter and his friends don't literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels (that these magical talents are how Rowling articulates the potency, specialness and vitality of young people as such). That MCU superhero texts are saying things about non-superheroic aspects of life, and not pretending that the Homeric gods have returned to the world in spandex. But there we are. Representation is a slippery logic, and we think we're on solider ground with brass tacks. We're not, of course; but we often think we are.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

W @ Auden, 2018

for Alan Jacobs

I sit here with my phone
Where fifty million voices
Are wrathful and alone
As unsocial social media
Frame adverse conversations;
Waves of anger and fear
Pour through all the websites
And webblindnesses of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
And the odour of Twitter affront
Offends the October night.

Future scholarship will
Unearth the whole offence
From Jack Dorsey until now
That has driven a culture mad:
Artificial unintelligence
Makes for collective backs
A psychopathic goad:
I and the State have repeated
What all schoolchildren learn:
Those at whom evil is tweeted
Tweet evil in return.

Thucydides' missing blue tick
Speaks volumes, or scrolls, about
Palsied Democracy,
And what US Presidents do,
The elderly rubbish they spout
To unapathetic hicks
All analysed in his thinkpiece:
The enlightenment baited our clicks,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief
We must suffer them all again.

All we have is a choice
To mute all the folded lies,
The multiple lies in the feed
Of the angry man-in-the-street
And the lie of Technology
Whose connections web the sky:
There is no compulsion to Tweet
There are two sides to every coin;
Addiction strengthens the voice
Of generic disturbers of peace;
We must follow each other or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of suspicion and of trust,
Synced to the same heartbeat
Of negation and despair,
Post an affirming tweet.

Monday 8 October 2018

The Oedipiad

Thinking about Oedipus this week: tomorrow I teach Antigone on my tragedy course; I'm still picking my way through the Thebiad and I have been having various thoughts about the myth. To that end I'm reposting, here, something I originally wrote about Wells's The Time Machine for another blog, a blog that's now an ex-blog, a blog that has rung up the curtain and joined the bleedin choir invisible. The immediate context for my Oedipal thoughts is the observation that Wells's Time Traveller, arriving in the year 802,701, meets, in the Eloi his own descendents. So when he sleeps with Weena, he is, in a manner of speaking, having sex with his children.
The Traveller repeatedly refers to the Eloi as children: ‘I felt like a schoolmaster amidst children ... like children, but like children they would soon stop examining me and wander away after some other toy’. Whose children are they? His of course (at once point he even calls them ‘my graceful children’). Like the Morlocks, the Eloi are his descendants. When he breaks-off a metal lever which which to defend himself and Weena against Morlock attack he notes:
I longed very much to kill a Morlock or so. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! But it was impossible, somehow, to feel any humanity in the things.
In strict terms Morlocks and Eloi both can be male or female; but in terms of the symbolic logic of the story the Eloi are feminised and the Morlocks masculinized: the former share ‘the same soft hairless visage, and the same girlish rotundity of limb’; the latter though also diminutive, are more aggressive, physically stronger, more of a threat. The Traveller's adventure, in other words, is to hop over time, encounter his own children, sleep with his daughter and murder his sons. Very inhuman, you may think, to want to go killing one's own descendants! It's a deliberate, and deliberately unsettling, inversion of the myth of Oedipus.
From there I spool-out some more general thoughts about the myth.
Oedipus, in the myth, solves two riddles. Indeed, one of the striking things about him in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus is how self-confident he is of his ability to generate such solutions, and how unhappy this facility makes him in the end. First he meets the Sphinx, and solves her riddle: ‘What is that which in the morning goes upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the evening upon three?’ It's a very famous story, and a very famous riddle, although that very fame should give us pause: Oedipus's answer is ‘man’, who crawls on all fours in his infancy, strides on two legs in his maturity, and walks with a stick in his dotage. It is the trajectory as much as the actual answer here that is relevant to Wells's sphinxine novella: the passage from our collective infancy, through maturity, and into the decay of the species: Eloi and Morlocks, rabbits and crabs, into something even less definite and so to terminal nothingness. (It may not be too fanciful to see the pick-a-number,-drop-down,-come-back-up-to-one-less-than-the-original-number shape of this ‘4, 2, 3’ pattern in Wells's famous future-date, 802, 701.)

This riddle is also posed by The Time Machine in a more straightforward manner: in the original myth the sphinx describes a strange monster, but the answer reveals that this monster is not so strange; that, in fact, the monster is us. Wells, in effect, does the same, asking: what are these vacuous, diminutive infantile beings, unable to care for themselves? And what are these other monsters? These pale troglodytes that feed on human flesh? These gigantic crabs? This blob of darkness? And once again the solution to the riddle is: they are man. Which is to say: they are you, they are us. It is in this answer that inheres the buried force of the original oedipal riddle, the enduring power of that myth. The sphinx says: ‘I shall describe to you a bizarre-sounding monster. Can you say what it is?’ And Oedipus replies: ‘Le monstre, c'est moi.’ We can speculate that all the previous challengers to the sphinx's puzzle failed not because the riddle is hard, since (famously) it really isn't that hard, but rather because they were unwilling to take that last step, and accept that the terrible beast being described is they, themselves. Rather than accept their essential monstrosity, many people would rather die. That's one of the things this myth is saying, I think.

But there's a second riddle in the Oedipus story, and it is posed not by a sphinx but by the land itself. The fields sicken, the crops die, a curse is on Thebes. Oedipus sets out to solve this riddle too, unaware that it has the same answer as the first one. What is the source of the curse? Oedipus himself. This second riddle both reveals and embodies the short-circuit of existence: man comes from sex, from the mother, into selfhood and along that temporal trajectory sketched by the first riddle towards death, and the mirroring of these two riddles reveals a profound and upsetting truth that all these things are the same thing. Sex is incest, birth is death, existence is a curse, all is folded into all.

My personal reading, here, is that this was always the coded significance of all those legs in the original riddle. After all, we can only claim that a crawling baby ‘walks on four legs’ by confusing arms and legs, a very foolish sort of confusion. Arms are not legs. No: though the answer to the ‘four-legs’ portion of the sphinx's riddle is indeed ‘baby’—which is to say, the answer is the origin of human life, its starting point—the actual solution is more ribald. Just as Shakespeare describes a copulating couple as ‘the beast with two backs’, so the sphinx describes two people having sex as a four-legged beast, two lower-bodies tangled together. It is not until the second riddle, the one at the heart of Sophocles’ play, that we finally understand the two individuals are Oedipus and Jocasta. The remainder of the riddle also anticipates the events of the Oedipus Tyrannus, I think: Oedipus standing alone, after Jocasta's death, in the blazing noon-light of total comprehension; and then Oedipus seizing a ‘stick’, a new limb—the bronze pin from his wife-mother's dress—and blinding himself with it, bringing the darkness, the ‘evening’ which the sphinx promised.

Wells's Time Traveller, as we have seen, provides himself with a ‘stick’ when he wrenches off a metal bar to kill the Morlocks, which is to say, to visit death upon his own children. But there is an earlier ‘limb’ that may be more relevant here: the lever that operates the time machine itself, and which he detaches and puts in his pocket to prevent monkey-curious Eloi from accidentally steering the device into an irrecoverable othertime. This, I think, in turn speaks to the story-logic of this Oedipal riddle. We walk on the two legs of conventional one-second-per-second time travel, but Wells's ingenious device gives is a third option: to leap over time altogether. He would return to this bizarre world-leaping figure, the tripod, in The War of the Worlds a few years later. We could put it this way: conventional time is a single road, but Wells's machine gives us a new-branching path, a short-cut, and turns the road into a tripartite crossroad; and if that recalls us to the site of Oedipus's fatal encounter with the man he did not recognise as his own father, then maybe it is supposed to. Aeschylus wrote an Oedipus trilogy before Sophocles (Laius, Oedipus and Seven Against Thebes, of which only the last play survives; it ended with a satyr-play called Sphinx). From Aeschylus's Oedipus only this one fragmentary line survives, spoken by Oedipus himself: ‘We were coming on our journey to the place from which three highways part in the branching roads, where we crossed the junction of the triple roads at Potniae’ [this is Herbert Weir Smyth translation]. It's the sense of returning to the fatal, triadic primal-scene that is powerful; of time rolling back to reveal what nobody saw until now but which has always been true.

Now, all this may seem like an abstruse and rather remote way of engaging with Wells's novella, but I do think it touches on something central to the way that work disseminated itself, and continues to disseminate itself, into the world. Really, it's the stroke of intuitive genius that Wells's imparted to his story: he invents a machine that offers a kind of ultimate freedom, escape from the ‘now’, the whole of the past and the future our playground. It is, when you boil it down, the fantasy of escaping mortality as such—for what is death but the formal structure of our various individual timelines? Wells's skill was to realise that the escape-route from death leads directly back to death: the death of the individual becomes the death of the species. There's a reason Wells's terminal beach has proved so iconic for science fiction writers:

The ultimate destination of humankind's evolutionary journey through time, according to The Time Machine, is a strange globular creature, at first mistaken for inanimation, as black as blindness, round like one of Oedipus's plucked-out eyeballs, subsisting at the very end of time that is death.
A shallow sandbank had appeared in the sea and the water had receded from the beach. I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it, and I judged that my eye had been deceived, and that the black object was merely a rock. The stars in the sky were intensely bright and seemed to me to twinkle very little.

Suddenly I noticed that the circular westward outline of the sun had changed; that a concavity, a bay, had appeared in the curve. I saw this grow larger. For a minute perhaps I stared aghast at this blackness that was creeping over the day, and then I realized that an eclipse was beginning. Either the moon or the planet Mercury was passing across the sun's disk. Naturally, at first I took it to be the moon, but there is much to incline me to believe that what I really saw was the transit of an inner planet passing very near to the earth.

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.

A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.
The rayless obscurity of this eclipse is Oedipus's blindness; the black, flopping blobby sphere is all of humanity resolved into its ultimate form, death as such, mortality as such. And the only escape from this terminus is to return, to come back in time, to go back to where you originally came from. The secret Oedipus discovers is that sex does not lead into new life and new possibilities, as the conventional wisdom claims that it does, but rather reverts back upon itself, returns to its source, the mother, folding sex and incest and death into one monstrous taboo-violating unity.

The Time Machine is informed by Wells's understanding that the sphinxine riddle superposes sex and death. This is why it is worth recovering the original perversity and monstrous transgression of the ‘romance’ between the Traveller and Weena, though normalised by fans and by the book's reception. It is an incestuous mirror-image of Oedipus and Jocasta, and just like the original myth it leads into the auto-involutions of death. It is no coincidence that, having invented this extraordinary device, a machine for travelling in time, Wells never re-uses it in his very many subsequent fictions—a fact that stands in the starkest contrast with all the SF writers who followed him, who all used and re-used time machines in their work all the time, sometimes reusing Wells's actual machine. On the one hand, Wells's refusal simply to rehash his earlier ideas is a testament to his impressive ingenuity and innovation. But on the other it is a tacit acknowledgement that there's nowhere else for the machine to go but back to its own source, and death. We might think that this device, and science fiction itself, will speed us through possibilities in ways that make appear dazzling new wonders transforming the everyday into the rich and strange, as per the quotation with which this blogpost opens: the sun hopping swiftly across the sky; the palpitation of night and day merging and the sky taking on a wonderful deepness, a splendid luminous color of blue, the jerking sun becoming a streak of fire, a brilliant arch, in space. Wonderful! Indeed, sense-of-wondrous! But although this novel shows us these things, and the technicolour far-future, and the pretty-faced young elven descendants of humankind with whom we can eat and take our ease and with whom we can even have sex, it only gives us a surface glimpse of the colour and excitement. The longer we sit on the saddle, the more these superficial excitements blue-shift into invisibility; the more alarming and disgusting truths begin to emerge from the subterra, the infra-realms of reality; things that have always been true and always before us, but unnoticed, hidden in the lower-depths. Humans are monsters that devour themselves, literally as cannibals and erotically as oedipal figures transgressing the taboo on incest. Futurity and the past are the same, inescapable path, and it leads only to death and blindness. The curse cannot be escaped-from, because the curse is us, we are the monster. Wells's Time Traveller has no name in this story because what we are, as humans, is nameless. It's a wonderfully riddling text that invites us to try and unriddle it. And generations of SF fans and writers have accepted that invitation. We should be careful, though. We're no more likely than was Oedipus to like the answer it gives us.

Thursday 4 October 2018

Tragic Content

Derek Walcott, writing in Poetry Review on the subject of ‘The Poet in the Theatre’ [PR 80:4, 1990-1], asserts:
Great tragedies are based on the propulsion of metre as well as of character; that is, a symmetry of sound as well as of plot.
Wishful thinking, this (of course a poet would like to think this is the case). But nobody ever cried at a poetic sound effect. Even if Walcott means 'tragic content is rendered more tragic by the proper use of metre and language (though that's not what he said), I suspect he is seriously underestimating the ability to drop into the melting mood at the prompt of an old song, an advert, a limerick, a pub anecdote, a look in a particular somebody's eye ...

Later he is more on-target:
The idea of vacuity in modern tragedy is like the idea of the existential or the nihilistic: spiritual vanity. The depth of modern contemplation is of staring into the holes, the emptiest ‘O’ of all. Such vanity lies in the faith that for the tragic poets of the modern theatre, be they absurdists or minimalists, history happens only where it has meaning. And since for such writers history is now meaningless—at least as morality—where history does happen is the only place where modern tragedy can be played.
There's definitely something in this, I think. Although, on the other hand, that 'O' has tragic potential, don't you think ...? A kind of Singularity of tragic content; the black hole of empathetic affective suffering.