‘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.

Friday 30 November 2018

Andrzej Sapkowski, "Season of Storms" (2013/2018)

I’m no aficionado of the Witcher video games. I asked my gamer son and he supplied me with one key datum: ‘they changed it so that if you keep killing cows a demon appears to stop you. In the first version you could just keep killing cows, since you got money for each cow, so you could just kill thousands of them and get all the money, but in the third game they’ve stopped you doing that.’ Good to know, I feel. I was aware that Henry Cavill, upon whom my wife has something of a crush, is set to play him in an upcoming Netflix adaptation, but I’d never read any of the books upon which both games and movie are based. So Season of Storms was a first for me.

Season of Storms will be a last for me.

Hoo what a bad book. On the upside, it’s entertainingly bad rather than just depressingly bad: a mismash of High Fantasy generic clichés, with the Witcher himself a Van Helsing/Clint Eastwood gunslinger combo (“the Van with No Name”) roaming the world killing monsters and having sex with large-breasted sorceresses. If there are nuances to this formula in other Witcher volumes I am, and will I’m afraid remain, unaware of them. In this one the Witcher kills a monster, has his magic swords stolen from him and then spends a very long time looking for them. He’s tortured by an unscrupulous magician, gets into more fights, goes on a sea-voyage, fights a cave-troll. There’s a superbly irritating character called Dandelion who interrupts the action with songs on his lute, like the bard in Asterix. The aged king is going to marry a seventeen year old, and this entails some kind of opaque political conspiracy-ising. On his travels the Witcher meets alluring raven-haired women and flame-haired women and sometimes has sex with them.

The whole has been translated out of Polish into a deliberately fruity High Fantasy idiom by David French (‘nought like a Witcher for dealing with troubles!’) and without access to the original it’s hard to know how much is French and how much the echt Sapkowski. Suffice to say the writing is bad: fond of needless repetition (‘Gonscorek was dead. He was, quite simply, deceased’ [35]) and often just baffling: ‘Sorel Degerlund grinned a vicious smile, a smile calling to mind centipedes squeezing through gaps under doors’ [155]. Indeed, sometimes, the sheer pressure of stylistic badness squeezes the prose into something that’s almost memorable: ‘a stentorian voice tore through the hubbub of the fracas’ [34]. But mostly it’s stuff like this:
The bodyguard … was a half breed, the result of a cross between an ogre and a dwarf. The result was a bald dwarf with a height of well over seven feet. [85]
If the seven-foot-tall dwarfs don’t bounce you out of the story, the unreconstructed 1970s sexism might. The women have ‘raven hair’ or ‘fox-red hair’, wear dresses with ‘plunging necklines’ and ‘cross their legs provocatively’. One female character is described as ‘a moderately attractive blonde’ [121] and some of the women are fat, farting hoydens (‘the Witcher, who always maintained there was no such thing as an ugly woman, suddenly felt compelled to revise this opinion’ [17]). But most are boobsome babes: ‘erotically alluring red hair … attractive figure … plunging cleavage’ [47]. A female warrior wears the following practical and credible outfit: ‘leather shorts with the legs split at the seams to accommodate her thighs. Two belts crossing her chest were pretty much all she had on above the waist.’ The Witcher is seduced by a busty sorceress called Lytta Neyd. ‘You lured me,’ he complains, afterwards. ‘Like an insect. With magical freesia-and-apricot pheremones’ [67]. But his insect-pheromone-related objections in no way prevent the two of them bonking all over the place for pages and pages and pages. ‘I do have a bed you know,’ Lytta tells him, a fact upon which the narrator dilates:
Indeed, she did have a bed. An enormous one. The bed was huge and had a canopy. The bed linen was of silk. It’s no exaggeration to say that they made use of the entire bed, of every single inch. Every inch of the bed linen. And every fold of the sheets. [65]
This erotic olympiad includes one of the flat-out weirdest similes for breasts I’ve ever encountered.
The Witcher brushed Lytta’s hair from her back. Slowly one by one, he unfastened the hooks and eyes and slid the dress from the sorceress’s shoulders. After that he utterly devoted his hands and attention to a pair of galleons under full sail. Galleons one would search for in vain on all the maritime routes, harbours, ports, and registers of the admiralty. [70]

The worldbuilding is perfectly cavalier where consistency is concerned: it’s a pseudo-medieval world of magic, swords, horses, taverns, and castles that is also furnished with wicker chairs, checking accounts (‘“Please make out a cheque for four hundred crowns from the sum to the paid” she instructed the clerk. “I know the bank takes a commission’ [244]) genetic engineering and steam engines. In amongst the many hey-prithee archaisms characters say such profoundly un-medieval things as ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ and ‘that says a great deal about the individual’s psychological state’. For every ‘ye gods! Begone I say!’ there’s a ‘there’s a commotion down there in the suburbs’ [116]. The plotting is higgled-piggled, the tone veers all over the place and the overall effect is profoundly adolescent. Then again, so-bad-it’s-good is its own genre, and in this book is a remarkable example of the mode. On the evidence of this, it doesn't look good for poor old Henry Cavill. Serves him right, for my wife having such a crush on him.

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Fin de Partie (1957)

Tragedy, it's tragedy, nearly tragedy, it must be nearly tragedy. Generically speaking, I mean. What is Endgame about, after all? It is about meaninglessness, absurdity, yes yes, no question. But it is about play, a play about play, about the end of the play. Chess pieces are stylised figures that are moved according to limited rules about a simplified board. Endgame suggests that our reactions (for we always react and we never proact) to suffering are as ritualised and constrained, which they probably are. Theatrical performance entails learning lines and repeating them, on cue, whether or not you want to, whether or not you understand them, just to fill up the time allotted; and life, says Beckett, is the same. ‘Ah, the old questions, the old answers, there's nothing like them!’ enthuses Hamm. And although Hamm's first words gesture towards some mode of game (‘Me—[he yawns]—to play’), it is Hamm's second comment that turns out to be the more relevant, actually:
[He holds the handkerchief spread out before him.] Old stancher! [He takes off his glasses, wipes his eyes, his face, the glasses, puts them on again, folds the handkerchief and puts it neatly in the breast-pocket of his dressing gown]
That is also how the play ends, of course: ‘[he holds the handkerchief spread out before him.] Old stancher! [Pause.] You ... remain. [Pause. He covers his face with handkerchief, lowers his arms to armrest, remains motionless.]’ We can believe he's dead at last, or perhaps that he's been dead the whole time and has now moved into a different, stiller phase of death. Death is the end of all things and the game of things. Fin. A handkerchief is a stancher in the sense that it stanches the flow of tears, snot, blood. The word is from the Latin, stāns, stāntis: standing, staying, remaining, from stō (“stand”) Archimedes very place from which the whole world could be leveraged—if only you could reach it. What stands, in the flow of life? Death. What can be leveraged from death? Nothing very much but, maybe, something after all; and that something we bracket as tragedy.

Why a handkerchief? Because Othello. Why is Hamm blind? Because Oedipus Coloneus. Why are the two main characters called ‘Hamm’ and ‘Clov’? Because Beckett is playing name-games with theatre's most celebrated graveyard. Hamm is a half-Hamlet, mouthed at the point where the name is cut in two so to draw out the mm; Clov is the Gravedigger, and here the severance is more pedantically precise, taking the character's moniker as used in the First Folio, ‘CLOWN’ and bringing the cleaver down to isolate the middle of the middle of its Renaissance orthography, ‘CLOVVNE’. Hamm gets his medial ‘M’ doubled, because to those that have (even when those that have have very little) shall be given; Clov gets his upturned medial ‘W’ sliced rudely in half because from those that have not shall be taken away, even when there's nothing to be taken away. Very Beckettian that. Endgame is located in the ruins of civilisation (‘the setting must be after a nuclear war’ the critics speculate), in the ruins of life itself, but above all it is located in the ruins of canonical literary greatness. We're in the bone orchard with Hamm and Clov and Beckett is cutting his Shakespeare-in-modern-clothes dialogue directly from the original fabric:
HAMLET. I will speake to this fellow: whose Graue's this Sir?
CLOVVNE. Mine Sir:
O a Pit of Clay for to be made,
for such a Guest is meete
HAM. I thinke it be thine indeed: for thou liest in't.
CLOV. You lye out on't Sir, and therefore it is not yours: for my part, I doe not lye in't; and yet it is mine.
HAM. Thou dost lye in't, to be in't and say 'tis thine: 'tis for the dead, not for the quicke, therefore thou lyest.
CLOV. 'Tis a quicke lye Sir, 'twill away againe from me to you.
HAM. What man dost thou digge it for?
CLOV. For no man Sir.
HAM. What woman then?
CLOV. For none neither.
HAM. Who is to be buried in't?
CLOV. One that was a woman Sir; but rest her Soule, shee's dead.
HAM. How absolute the knaue is?
All this sort of laugh-thin, pointless, time-filling roundabout of chatter and jokes is, entirely, Beckett's play. That potentially endless roundel of talk circling the big hole in the ground into which we are pitched at the last, unhoused, uncoffined (‘put me in my coffin’, Hamm orders, near the end; to which Clov replies ‘there are no more coffins’), unfleshed, just our bones like Yorick's naked skull, your-Beckett's naked skull. It's about tragedy and that means it's about death, because tragedy is about death. Momento mori, hammenti clovi. All these little self-referential in-jokes: ‘let's stop playing!’ shrieks Clov (‘imploringly’, says the stage direction), immediately before Hamm requests his coffin. ‘this is slow work’; ‘this is not much fun’; ‘why this farce, day after day?’ ‘“What’s happening, what’s happening?”—“Something is taking its course”’. A play about playing, about players, and the play of the play is a tragedy. It's about tragedy in the sense that it is about specific tragedies. It returns us to the origins of the mode: back to Aeschylus himself and the earliest of all plays, when a play was a chorus and two actors, before Sophocles came along and contaminated it with a third actor. Two actors and a chorus, and that chorus as limited as possible: just two people (do two grains together count as a heap? do two individuals add-up to a chorus?), Nagg and Nell, father and mother, alternately provoking and grieving, hectoring the actors and uttering a lament for them, alternately (that is) nagging and sounding the knell. It's a father's job to nag, and a mother's to grieve. When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.

Freud noted how alike are laughing and weeping, physiologically: the bared teeth, the involuntary gasping sounds, tears in the eye. If you don't have the whole context can you even be certain whether somebody is laughing or crying? ‘When I fall,’ says Clov, ‘I'll weep for happiness.’ Conversely, tragedy is hilarious. ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,’ says Nell, from her bin. ‘Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will.’ With a Will whom? There's only one Will that matters, really, in this play's DNA: the Shakespearian one. (Watson and Crick had made their widely celebrated discovery five years before this play was first staged: eDNAgme). The play is called Absurd and though there's a tendency to bracket Absurdism with Existentialism the movements' key players didn't see it like that. Camus, for example, resisted the tag Existentialist, and expressed surprised that people always linked his name with Sartre's (‘je ne suis pas existentialiste’ [Les Nouvelles littéraires, 15 November 1945]). You can see where the confusion creeps in. Camus, like Sartre, believed that there was no external power or deity that could guarantee meaning and purpose for our lives. He thought we have to generate that in ourselves. Le Mythe de Sisyphus (1942) famously argues that there's only one serious philosophical problem nowadays: ‘le seul problème philosophique vraiment sérieux: est-ce que la réalisation de l'existence du non-sens et de l'absurdité de la vie entraîne nécessairement le suicide?’ Does understanding that our lives are meaningless and absurd mean that we should commit suicide?

Camus answers his own question with an heroic no, in thunder: Est-ce que la réalisation de l'absurde nécessite le suicide? Non, elle nécessite la révolte. We must revolt, not commit self-slaughter with a bare bodkin. We're all Sisyphuses, rolling our great bolder up the hill. None of us will ever reach the top. But we can claim this labour as the basis of our liberation. Sisyphus, says Camus, at least has his task. Even considering all his misery, which is also our misery (trapped as we are in ‘cet univers désormais sans maître, ni stérile, ni fertile’) we must believe that Sisyphus is happy: ‘il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.’ I've always assumed that this is the Camusian rewiring of Voltaire's recipe for happiness: il faut cultiver notre jardin, with the twist that we don't get to choose our garden. We don't roll plymouth rock up the land; plymouth rock lands on us. Actors and patients. Beckett's characters are always patients, not just in their passivity (though obviously that) but in the fact that there's always something medically wrong with them. And though these patients had to be played by agents, by actors, Beckett liked to constrain the way his play is performed: all those endless pettifogging stage directions, all that fuss and refusal of permission when directors try anything new.

There's something austere and rather forbidding about Camus, I'd say; or maybe it's just me. Is it just me? Beckett used to drink in the same Parisian bars as Camus, but that doesn't mean they were friends. And whatever else it is, Endgame has never seemed to me a very Camusian play. It is, for one thing, and above all things, just funny. Those bickering men. Clov rolling Hamm around the walls of his room and then setting him in the middle, for Hamm to complain that he's not in the middle enough, and when Clov moves him just a nudge in this or that direction to start complaining again.

Take Sisyphus, Camus's tragic hero-figure. Which is the greatest, and far and away the greatest, twentieth-century adaptation of that myth? The answer's clear: this one, of course:

If, by some appalling and malign chance, you've never seen Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box (1932), then follow the link and watch it now: twenty of the funniest minutes ever put on screen. And that's the point: Sisyphus's predicament is hilarious not despite but because it is so painful and frustrating. Beckett loved Laurel and Hardy, and Chaplin too, and stole bits and pieces from various film comedy for his plays (think of the bowler-hat-swapping sequence in Waiting for Godot: a direct lift from L&H). And that's Beckett's Myth of Sisyphus: two mismatched individuals, one (Hamm) stouter, bossier, mock-pompous, the other (Clov) his inferior, skinny, picked upon, sometimes complaining. Claurel and Harmmdy. And here they are, as-it-were pushing this Sisyphean burden up the slope only for it repeatedly to slip from their hands. Only they're not pushing up a Music Box so much as a Silence Box: a coffin full of soil (‘put me in my coffin’, ‘there are no more coffins’), death itself being hauled contrariwise up the entropy hill. If only we could heave this monstrously heavy bolder, death, to the top of Entropy Hill we'd be free of it! And death is so fearful: so we struggle and push and try. We'll never do it, of course. But that doesn't stop us. It doesn't because we're not really doing it to get to the top. We're doing it because it makes us laugh.

Thursday 22 November 2018

Rock Pagan

Post-Disney, ‘Peter Pan’ is a name rather tainted with ‘cuteness’ cooties, I suppose. And if we translate it into its root forms we get: ‘Rock Pagan’, which sounds like the name of the lead singer of an epically naff US Heavy Metal band. Something has gone awry. What happened to the Pan in Peter Pan?

There are three main Barrie versions of Peter Pan. In the first, he is as a seven-day-old half-bird, half-human creature flying around Kensington Gardens: this is in chapters 13–18 of Barrie’s adult novel The Little White Bird (1902; these chapters were excerpted and republished in 1906 as a standalone, with nice Arthur Rackham illustrations, under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens). Then there was the stage play, the celebrated and for many core representation: Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (first performed 27 Dec 1904, and a big hit). Finally there is the novelisation of that play, Peter Pan and Wendy (1911). I’d like to say something about the play, and maybe I’ll get around to that some day; but its copyright status is tricky (see here under this entry on ‘perpetual copyright’), and I’m going to stick with the novel for the time being.

The question, then, is 'why Peter Pan?'. And perhaps it is not that surprising that the Disney clean-cut young lad or the girl-actor-in-green-tights-and-tunic versions of ‘Peter Pan’ have overwritten older apperceptions of the god. The crucial thing about Peter is that he is a child; he is, indeed, always a child (moreover the only child who will never be troubled with puberty). Remind me of the famous opening line of Peter and Wendy? Oh, that's right: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ Pan, on the other hand, is the goat-cocked god of adult appetites such as drinking wine and hearty bestiality.

That’s a statue from the rectangular peristyle Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, and therefore pre-79.AD in provenance. But, golly, that’s an arresting image though, isn’t it? Not even Rock Pagan would get up to that, in a suite of the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile, no matter how much coke he'd snorted. Could anything be further from our sense of what ‘Peter Pan’ represents? Something odd is going on here.

One way to understand what that ‘something’ is would be to excavate the modern English resurgence of interest in Pan. This, it turns out, has two phases. First there is an 18th century revival of interest in Pan as a phallic god (probably non-coincidentally, 1757 was when that Herculaneum statue, above, was excavated). Richard Payne Knight published his Discourse on the Worship of Priapus in 1786. Knight explores a variety of fascinating highways and byways of the worship of Priapus, tracing its spectral presence in the Christian era (chapters include ‘Scotland, and its Phallic celebrations’; ‘Phallic figures on public buildings’; ‘Ireland, and its Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘Horseshoes nailed to stable doors, a remain of the Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘The ancient god Priapus becomes a saint in the Middle Ages’; ‘Robin Goodfellow’; ‘Easter, and hot-cross-buns’; ‘May-day festivities, and the May-pole’; ‘Bonfires’; ‘Lady Godiva, the Shrewsbury show, and the Guild festival at Preston’; ‘The Knights Templars’ … wait, what was that about hot cross buns?). But the main thing Knight does is trace all this back to Pan. Originally ‘worship of generative and nutritive, powers of the Deity’ focussed on animals, especially bulls. But:
The Greeks, as they advanced in the cultivation of the imitative arts, gradually changed the animal for the human form, preserving still the original character. The human head was at first added to the body of the bull; but afterwards the whole figure was made human, with some of the features, and general character of the animal, blended with it. Oftentimes, however, these mixed figures had a peculiar and proper meaning, like that of the Vatican Bronze; and were not intended as mere refinements of art. Such are the fawns and satyrs, who represent the emanations of the Creator, incarnate with man, acting as his angels and ministers in the work of universal generation. In copulation with the goat, they represent the reciprocal incarnation of man with the deity, when incorporated with universal matter: for the Deity, being both male and female, was both active and passive in procreation; first animating man by an emanation from his own essence, and then employing that emanation to reproduce, in conjunction with the common productive powers of nature, which are no other than his own prolific spirit transfused through matter. [35]
Not sure about that; but OK—Pan.
These mixed beings are derived from Pan, the principle of universal order; of whose personified image they partake. Pan is addressed in the Orphic Litanies as the first-begotten love, or creator incorporated in universal matter, and so forming the world. Lycæan Pan was the most ancient and revered God of the Arcadians, the most ancient people of Greece
The Greek ‘Pan’ means, ‘all’, of course.
According to Plutarch, the Jupiter Ammon of the Africans was the same as the Pan of the Greeks. This explains the reason why the Macedonian kings assumed the horns of that god. The case is, that Pan, or Ammon, being the universe, and Jupitera title of the Supreme God (as will be shown hereafter),the horns, the emblems of his power, seemed the properest symbols of that supreme and universal dominion to which they all, as well as Alexander, had the ambition to aspire.
See also: the horns on the brow of Moses. Now this is exactly the sort of thing we are today deeply uncomfortable associating with childhood, except that Knight’s Pan must be a ‘youth’, since he represents new life, the rebirth of the cosmos after the death of the year. Perhaps we are happiest thinking of this in more abstract terms, as ‘the piper at the gates of dawn’ rather than (to quote Knight one last time) ‘Pan pouring water upon the organ of generation; that is, invigorating the active creative power by the prolific element.’

I mention the Piper, there, for obvious reasons: Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. The novel postdates the first appearance of Barrie’s Peter Pan by a couple of years, but Grahame had been meditating upon ‘Pan’ long before his fellow Scot. Grahame’s first book, Pagan Papers (1893) includes this essay on ‘The Rural Pan’. Here are its opening three paragraphs:
Through shady Throgmorton Street and about the vale of Cheapside the restless Mercury is flitting, with furtive eye and voice a little hoarse from bidding in the market. Further west, down classic Piccadilly, moves the young Apollo, the lord of the unerring (satin) bow; and nothing meaner than a frock-coat shall in these latter years float round his perfect limbs. But remote in other haunts than these the rural Pan is hiding, and piping the low, sweet strain that reaches only the ears of a chosen few. And now that the year wearily turns and stretches herself before the perfect waking, the god emboldened begins to blow a clearer note.

When the waking comes at last, and Summer is abroad, these deities will abroad too, each as his several attributes move him. Who is this that flieth up the reaches of the Thames in steam-launch hired for the day? Mercury is out -- some dozen or fifteen strong. The flower-gemmed banks crumble and slide down under the wash of his rampant screw; his wake is marked by a line of lobster-claws, gold-necked bottles, and fragments of veal-pie. Resplendent in blazer, he may even be seen to embrace the slim-waisted nymph, haunter of green (room) shades, in the full gaze of the shocked and scandalised sun. Apollo meantime reposeth, passively beautiful, on the lawn of the Guards' Club at Maidenhead. Here, O Apollo, are haunts meet for thee. A deity subjectively inclined, he is neither objective nor, it must be said for him, at all objectionable, like them of Mercury.

Meanwhile, nor launches nor lawns tempt him that pursueth the rural Pan. In the hushed recesses of Hurley backwater where the canoe may be paddled almost under the tumbling comb of the weir, he is to be looked for; there the god pipes with freest abandonment. Or under the great shadow of Streatley Hill, "annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade''; or better yet, pushing an explorer's prow up the remote untravelled Thames, till Dorchester's stately roof broods over the quiet fields. In solitudes such as these Pan sits and dabbles, and all the air is full of the music of his piping. Southwards, again, on the pleasant Surrey downs there is shouting and jostling; dust that is drouthy and language that is sultry. Thither comes the young Apollo, calmly confident as ever; and he meeteth certain Mercuries of the baser sort, who do him obeisance, call him captain and lord, and then proceed to skin him from head to foot as thoroughly as the god himself flayed Marsyas in days of yore, at a certain Spring Meeting in Phrygia: a good instance of Time's revenges. And yet Apollo returns to town and swears he has had a grand day. He does so every year. Out of hearing of all the clamour, the rural Pan may be found stretched on Ranmore Common, loitering under Abinger pines, or prone by the secluded stream of the sinuous Mole, abounding in friendly greetings for his foster-brothers the dab-chick and water-rat.
When these paragraphs are written Wind in the Willows is still a decade and a half away, but Dawngate scene is here in nascent form. The difference is one of whom occupies centre stage—in the earlier book, Pan; in the later book the mole and water-rat. The chapter ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (from which Pink Floyd took the title for their first album, thereafter rendering the phrase forever hippy, weed-scented and a bit naff) reinscribes the encounter:
"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me," whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. "Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!"

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

"Rat!" he found breath to whisper, shaking. "Are you afraid?"

"Afraid?" murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. "Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!"

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

This is a vision of Nature as the vehicle of the Numinous from which all specifically phallic reference has been carefully removed (though I do wonder about the artfully positioned vine in that Paul Bransom illustration, there: the frontispiece to the 1913 edition, no less). Grahame's is the inheritor of Knight’s ‘pantheist’ Pan, but there’s nothing mischievous about him; nothing playful, lustful, goatish (there's nothing mischievous, either, about Machen's monstrous 'Great God Pan' (1890), although there's plenty that's shudderworthy, not to say horrible and misogynistic). We might wonder why Ransome's figure is half-goat at all. (In a related datum: Rock Pagan, we all know, played woodwind, uncredited, on Pink Floyd’s first album). It's not an archetype that has disappeared, either; and I don't only mean in terms of repeated adaptations of Wind in the Willows or Peter Pan. The first Narnian encountered by any of the children in Lewis's could-hardly-be-more-Christian Lion/Witch/Wardrobe is the Pan-ish faun, Mr Tumnus; who beguiles Lucy back to his home where he drugs her with tea. Very odd. Two is the fact that Lyra's demon in Dark Materials is called 'Pan'. A series of books about, in the final analysis, killing God.

I’m not sure this brings us any nearer to an answer to the ‘why Peter Pan?’ question. I’ve gone on too long (and not for the first time), so I’ll wrap up with two related points. One has to do with Captain Hook—played on the stage, according to the venerable tradition inaugurated by Barrie himself, by the same actor who plays Wendy’s father. I leave the ‘Oedipal reading’ as an exercise for the reader. Instead I want to suggest a different interpretation of this figure: with his splendid hat, and his hook-for-a-right-hand, and his inexhaustible energy and vigour that is, somehow, intimately tied to the being-in-the-world of Pan himself. Here’s Richard Payne Knight one last time:
We find on the medals of Melita [a representation of Priapus] who seems by his attitude to be brooding over something. On his head is the cap of liberty, whilst in his right hand he holds the hook or attractor, and in his left the winnow or separator, so that he probably represents Ἐρως, or generative spirit brooding over matter.
Maybe Hook is a type of Ἐρως, though Barrie also positions him as a malign anti-Priapus, existing in a poised opposition to the pro-Priapus of Peter himself.

But there’s something more directly relevant, I think. The thing about Pan is that he’s the only god to have died in our time. Gods don’t die; that’s what ‘immortal’ (a synonym for ‘god’) means—indeed, that’s pretty much all it means in the Greek and Roman pantheons, where gods are otherwise exactly as petty and moody and selfish as the worst of humanity. So what happened with Pan? Plutarch’s De defectu oraculorum (c. AD 100) relates how a sailor voyaging to Italy at some point during the time of the Emperor Tiberius (AD 14–37), and passing the island of Paxi, heard a voice booming across the water: ‘Thamus, art thou there? When you reach Palodes be sure to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.’ Thamus did so, and the news was greeted from shore with groans and laments.

In Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, the cry ‘Great Pan is dead’ becomes an ecstatic celebration of the Christian succession to diabolic Paganism. But one thing Barrie’s Peter Pan clearly isn’t, is an ecstatic celebration of Christianity. It is, however, a famous expression of the tendency of the young to laugh in the face of personal extinction. To die, Pan declares gloriously, would be an awfully big adventure.
"Pan, who and what art thou?" [Hook] cried huskily.

"I'm youth, I'm joy," Peter answered at a venture,
In the movie adaptations, Hook doesn’t share his existential bravery—a ludicrous gibbering coward in the Disney film, a desperate old man in the rather good 2003 movie (‘old, alone, done-for!’). He’s not like that in the original story; on the contrary, he meets death bravely and with honour (the only thing that scares him, were told, is the sight of his own blood, which is ‘an unusual colour’). In his final battle with Pan, he actually undergoes a kind of symbolic rejuvenation, returning to his days as an Eton schoolboy—and doing so, as it were, ‘fittingly’:
Hook was fighting now without hope. That passionate breast no longer asked for life; but for one boon it craved: to see Peter show bad form before it was cold forever.

… What sort of form was Hook himself showing? Misguided man though he was, we may be glad, without sympathising with him, that in the end he was true to the traditions of his race. The other boys were flying around him now, flouting, scornful; and he staggered about the deck striking up at them impotently, his mind was no longer with them; it was slouching in the playing fields of long ago, or being sent up [to the headmaster] for good, or watching the wall-game from a famous wall. And his shoes were right, and his waistcoat was right, and his tie was right, and his socks were right.

James Hook, thou not wholly unheroic figure, farewell.

For we have come to his last moment.

Seeing Peter slowly advancing upon him through the air with dagger poised, he sprang upon the bulwarks to cast himself into the sea. He did not know that the crocodile was waiting for him; for we purposely stopped the clock that this knowledge might be spared him: a little mark of respect from us at the end.

He had one last triumph, which I think we need not grudge him. As he stood on the bulwark looking over his shoulder at Peter gliding through the air, he invited him with a gesture to use his foot. It made Peter kick instead of stab.

At last Hook had got the boon for which he craved

"Bad form," he cried jeeringly, and went content to the crocodile.

Thus perished James Hook.
Stop a bit: go back to the novel’s opening sentence. ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ That’s not true though, is it? Or to be more precise: it’s true only from the perspective of adulthood. A roomful of adults can say to one another, ‘well, we all grew up, didn’t we? That was an inevitable part of our life.’ But that’s not the way the matter presents to children themselves; and surely its children whose perspective should predominate in a case such as this? Not all children grow up. Barrie knew this better than most.
When he was 6 years old, Barrie's next-older brother David (his mother's favourite) died two days before his 14th birthday in an ice-skating accident. This left his mother devastated, and Barrie tried to fill David's place in his mother's attentions, even wearing David's clothes and whistling in the manner that he did. One time Barrie entered her room, and heard her say "Is that you?" "I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to", wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), "and I said in a little lonely voice, 'No, it's no' him, it's just me.'" Barrie's mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her. [Andrew Birkin, J. M. Barrie & the Lost Boys (Constable, 1979; revised edition, Yale University Press, 2004)]
Everybody knows that the closest thing we have to an ‘Alice Liddell’ original for Peter Pan, are three of the Llewelyn Davies boys: George, Peter and Michael. George died in the Trenches barely out of his teens, and little Michael (Barrie's favourite: he wrote to him every single day, which sounds ... weird and rather oppressive to me) drowned in suspicious, probably suicidal circumstances in 1921. Peter survived to the 1960s, but never outgrew the fame of his connection to Peter Pan, which he came to loathe. He drafted an account of his family history, cheerily titled Morgue, walked out of his house and threw himself under a tube train.

Everybody knows that Barrie had no children of his own; that his own marriage was almost certainly unconsummated. But more relevant, I think, than biographical data, is the larger context. One thing reading into the 18th and 19th-century grounds of Childrens’ Literature does for you is reveal how intertwined it is with death. Eric, or Little By Little. Alice. The Water Babies. It’s the Psychic Death Klaxon. It has to do with the way this mode of literature was born out of an age when children died as a matter of course. At the moment I’m torn between different interpretations of this persistent feature of the mode. Is it that children are involved dialectically in death because they are new life? Or is it that having children entails confronting your own mortality—because howevermuch you love you kids and however earnestly you pray that you predecease them (how horrific it would be to outlive your own children!) nonetheless it is an absolutely central part of raising children that they will be loving and laughing and drinking wine in the sunshine when you yourself are cold and dead in the ground—that this, in a core sense, is the whole point of having children. Not a terribly comforting thought, no matter how awfully big the promised adventure may be. Rock Pagan's new solo album is about precisely this, as a matter of fact.

Tuesday 20 November 2018


I used to think Nietzche's Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik) easy enough to understand. On the one hand we have the Apollonian, all rational clarity, order, harmony and balance, Apollo the god of sunlight, poetry and the golden mean. On the other the Dionysian, all creative chaos and irrationality, Dionysus the god of theatre, wine, revels, frenzy and wildness. The greatest art is tragic art, because tragedy does what other forms of art tend not to, and looks the grim truth of reality (which is mostly suffering and is certainly death) in the face. But the greatest tragedy is neither mournful or depressing. On the contrary, it grounds a transcendent joy in its representation of suffering by balancing the Apollonian with the Dionysiac, keeping them in a creative tension with one another. Then again, says Nietzsche, only the best tragedy manages to do this properly and when we say best we're really only talking Aeschylus and Sophocles. Even so early after the birth of tragedy as Euripides the rot has set in, with too much Apollonian rationalisation and discussion unbalancing the whole. When tragedy loses touch with the dark violence and irrational chaos of Dionysus it becomes unfit for purpose. It's been all downhill since the Greeks. Or at least it has until now (that is, until 1872) when the mighty opera of my *clears throat* close personal friend actually Richard Wagner—to whom The Birth of Tragedy is dedicated—means that tragedy has once again ascended to the greatest heights of its own aesthetic possibility.

There's a temptation, which we should resist, to style the ‘Apollonian’/‘Dionysiac’ thing as a neat little binary that ‘explains’ specific instances of art and culture, this text here, that author's career there. Or we might be tempted to take Apollo/Dionysus as a dialectic in the Hegelian mode (although that is certainly not what Nietzsche is getting at: his tension between Apollo and Dionysus is never processed and synthesised: ‘the Apollonian and the Dionysian: involve perpetual conflicts with only periodically intervening reconciliations’ is how he puts it).

I put my hand up: when I first read this book, I misunderstood it. I can best explain how I did so, and what my misunderstanding says about Nietzsche's argument, by isolating two of its elements and discussing them a little. And the two are: dreams and music.

Music is particularly important to the book's argument. The birth of tragedy, N. says, right there in the damn title of his work, is out of the spirit of music, and one of the things Birth of Tragedy does is advance the thesis that the very first and now-lost-to-us tragic texts were just choral odes, sung and danced in the Dionysiac ritual. Wagner, of course, was a great composer, although it was as important for Nietzsche as it was for the Massive-Ego-That-Was-Wagner himself to see him as more than ‘just’ a composer, and to argue that that he fashioned the gesamtkunstwerk in all its totalising glory. Put that on one side for now. Dreams are important to Nietzsche's thesis too. Now: after I first read this book as a student, way way back in the late 1980s, my mind was captured by the Apollo-Dionysus binary. Very cool, I thought. Then I put the book down and did not pick it up again for a long time. When I finally returned to it, decades later, and reread it (to teach it) I discovered that I had radically misremembered the argument Nietzsche makes.

How so, you ask? Well: I'd assumed that music was the province of Apollo, and dreams the province of Dionysus. Wrong! It's the other way around.

Wrong but, I think, not randomly wrong; and here I move towards the nub of my jist, the crux of my blogpost's nub. Nietzsche says that dreams are Apollonian and music Dionysiac. That, though, goes against common sense. Doesn't it? Music, surely, is a matter of harmony and balance, of regular tempi and intricate formal patterning, of aesthetic bliss achieved by the control and proportion of sonic elements. Isn't that Apollonian? As for dreams: we're all post-Freudians now where dreaming is concerned, surely. Dreams are those fundamentally weird and often disruptive bubblings-up from the irrational id, random dislocations of cause-and-effect, laughable or sometimes nightmarish disproportions, desires thwarted or terrifyingly indulged. Dreams, surely are Dionysiac!

To understand why Nietzsche didn't think so is to rehearse the central through-line of Birth of Tragedy. And to do that is to realise that, actually, the Apollo-and-Dionysus stuff is in a sense peripheral to the main argument Nietzsche is making.

So: dreams, Nietzsche insists, belong to Apollo.
The beauteous appearance of the dream-worlds, in the production of which every man is a perfect artist, is the presupposition of all plastic art, and ... half of poetry also. We take delight in the immediate apprehension of form; all forms speak to us; there is nothing indifferent, nothing superfluous. But, together with the highest life of this dream-reality we also have, glimmering through it, the sensation of its appearance: such at least is my experience, as to the frequency, ay, normality of which I could adduce many proofs, as also the sayings of the poets. ... And perhaps many a one will, like myself, recollect having sometimes called out cheeringly and not without success amid the dangers and terrors of dream-life: “It is a dream! I will dream on!” I have likewise been told of persons capable of continuing the causality of one and the same dream for three and even more successive nights: all of which facts clearly testify that our innermost being, the common substratum of all of us, experiences our dreams with deep joy and cheerful acquiescence. [Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy (transl. Hausmann), 23-24]
You can say ‘dude, my dreams are not like that’. Mine generally aren't. But we have to believe that this is the dream-dimension as Nietzsche experienced it: a sort of heightened aestheticised fantasy realm bathed in golden light.

With music, the mistake I made is to assume that by talking about music Nietzsche was talking about the formal and structural qualities of music. But he's not. He's talking about the effect music has on us, and his argument is that its effect is to dissolve ‘the principium individuationis’. This is the sense we have of ourselves as individuals, as separate human beings all living our separate lives. That separateness is obviously part of what it means to be human, and we neither can nor should lose it entirely, even when immersing ourselves in the greatest art (hence Apollo is always part of the Apollo-Dionysis balance). But Nietzsche believes the thing-in-itself is neither individuated nor hospitable to individuation, and it's this exhilarating and terrifying fundamental reality that tragedy gives us insight into:
In these Greek festivals a sentimental trait, as it were, breaks forth from nature, as if she must sigh over her dismemberment into individuals. The song and pantomime of such dually-minded revellers was something new and unheard-of in the Homeric-Grecian world; and the Dionysian music in particular excited awe and horror. If music, as it would seem, was previously known as an Apollonian art, it was, strictly speaking, only as the wave-beat of rhythm, the formative power of which was developed to the representation of Apollonian conditions. The music of Apollo was Doric architectonics in tones, but in merely suggested tones, such as those of the cithara. The very element which forms the essence of Dionysian music (and hence of music in general) is carefully excluded as un-Apollonian; namely, the thrilling power of the tone, the uniform stream of the melos, and the thoroughly incomparable world of harmony. In the Dionysian dithyramb man is incited to the highest exaltation of all his symbolic faculties; something never before experienced struggles for utterance—the annihilation of the veil of Mâyâ, Oneness as genius of the race, ay, of nature. ... To comprehend this collective discharge of all the symbolic powers, a man must have already attained that height of self-abnegation, which wills to express itself symbolically through these powers. With what astonishment must the Apollonian Greek have beheld him! With an astonishment, which was all the greater the more it was mingled with the shuddering suspicion that all this was in reality not so very foreign to him, yea, that, like unto a veil, his Apollonian consciousness only hid this Dionysian world from his view. [Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, 31-33]
Now I'm not a dunce, or at least not markedly more duncelike than the next person. And I can see that there are situations in which this dissolution of the principium individuationis certainly is facilitated by music. The crowd at Live Aid, when Freddie Mercury led that collective ay-oh, ay-ay-ay-oh singalong, was made up of individuals who were, in their holistic antiphonal musical responses to the Queenman, joyously dissolving their individuality into their collectivity. I'm a fiftysomething professor, so obviously I'm not off clubbing of a weekend, but I assume that people who do go to crowded nightclubs where drinks cost five times what they do in a regular bar and the music is nonstop and much much too loud are seeking precisely to subsume their individuality in a collective Dionysiac frenzy. This kind of thing:

You can see how out of touch I am by the fact that my idea of a rave is a scene from a science fiction movie released full fifteen years ago. So it goes. My point is: when I listen to music it tends to accentuate my individuation rather than anything else. I put on headphones, and wrap my subjectivity in a hermetic layer of personalised sound. Often I'm in a public space (I write, for instance, in coffee shops, surrounded by people) where putting music through my headphones seals me away from all of everybody-else. I don't think I'm alone in this. The technologies that mediate music for us nowadays, undreamt of in Nietzsche's day, are hyper-individuation devices. I mean: aren't they?

I don't mean to romanticize the old days; and indeed, I'm very happy (or at least I think I am) in my little cell, listening to my music, reading my books. For Nietzsche, I suppose, appreciating music just did mean sitting in an audience as the whole group lost its individuation and immersed itself en masse in, say, Götterdämmerung—that for him listening to music was by its nature a collective matter. The point of art, for N., is its capacity to de-alienate us, to reintegrate us into something more holistic than our isolated, lonely, miserable existences, turning what for an individual is distress and misery into the ground of transcendent joyousness by virtue of collectivising it. And that's the through-line of the Birth of Tragedy: not the formal stuff bracketing certain things with Apollo and certain other things with Dionysis, but the utopian possibilities of redeeming human suffering via a tragic art reborn.

And so I wonder whether our reading of the Birth of Tragedy must necessarily encounter it as a document out of time. Surely, now, it finds itself in a radically altered modernity. Wagner was not, as it turned out, the new aesthetic messiah, ushering in a revivified age of great tragic art. The twentieth- and twenty-first centuries have increasingly brought with them new technologies of cultural production and dissemination in service of the commodified reification of art, blah blah: you all know the Frankfurt School drill. Individuation principium has become the cultural dominant under a tyrannical neoliberalism that wants us separated and weak en masse, rather than collectivisied and strong en masse. I don't know. Honestly I don't. I do know that I, personally, make for a very poor case study, and if my dreams are Dionsyiac splurges and my music an über-Apollonian reinforcement of the individuation of my Late Capitalism reified subjectivity, then perhaps that is just me.

It brings me back to a subject over which I fret, sometimes. Fret probably overstates it: but the cultural regime, or logic, of the present is surely one of an absolutely massive connectivity. We're all connected with everybody else who has a means to get online, and that's almost everyone nowadays. Twitter and instagram and all the other social media link us in with global millions. Does this make us a global mob, easily manipulated by unscrupulous influence-peddlers to vote for Brexit or support Trump, or vice versa? Or is there any sense in which this massive interconnectivity actualises, in a radically new magisterium, precisely the aesthetically liberating life-art Nietzsche theorises in Birth of Tragedy? Do social media give us the simulacrum of social interaction whilst actually sealing us away, or are these technologies in fact creating a new Dionysiac collectiveness in which we can glimpse the escape from the prison of individuation of which Nietzsche writes?

I'm not sure I know. Indeed, I wonder if I'm too old to know. I grew up before these technologies and I was a largely solitary, rather bookish child. I did not, for example, have anything like the number, range and easy intimacy of friendship my teenage daughter has; and although she has this wide circle of supportive and brilliant friends partly because she is a more charming and less mulish human being than I was at her age, she also belongs to this wide circle because she has these new technologies with which to stay in continual inwardness of friend-communion. We tend to catastrophize these media, but maybe we shouldn't. They seem to be enabling genuine community in my kids, even as I fume and splutter over the horrorshow that Twitter has become.

I think it would be hard to deny that there is an erotic energy to Nietzsche's inspired babblings in The Birth of Tragedy, and that his escape from the principium individuationis is modelled less on (say) a pseudo-religious mystical communion, and even less upon the kind of political collectivity Marx spun out of his reading of Hegel, and more on a sense of the blurring of subjectivities that happens in really good sex. That is also, or so I understand, the other reason people go to nightclubs.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Tragic Floss


Is there anything the novel can't do? It's a genuine question.

Since I write novels, I'm predisposed to want to answer that question hopefully. But I do wonder. The question, why hasn't there been a novel about ...?, whether implicitly or explicitly framed, suggests the form could tackle anything. Why hasn't anybody written a whodunit set in the Hittite Empire? Why hasn't somebody novelised Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding? Should I write an 80,000-word novel-version of St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul? And indeed, beyond the ‘should I?’ is the deeper question: ‘can I’? Is it even possible? Maybe there are some things fundamentally immiscible with the form of the novel.

For all its contemporary artistic dominance (the novel bestrode the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries like a colossus and although it has ceded its dominance to screen narrative nowadays, these newer forms—cinema, and latterly TV—have appropriated many novelistic features to their art)—for all, I say, its contemporary dominance the novel is a relatively recent arrival. Prose romances stretch back to the Ancient Greeks, but ‘the novel’ is a basically 18th- and 19th-century development, and although it has now spread globally it still manifests a particular, European, bourgeois-Protestant logic.

Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel is half a century old now, and whilst there are reasons to be dissatisfied with it (especially its near total neglect of female writers) Watt's fundamental thesis remains (I think) sound: viz., that ‘the distinctive literary qualities of the novel’ relate directly to ‘those of the society in which it began and flourished’, and that it's a form that rises in step with changes in the reading public, of the rise of economic individualism, and of the ‘spread of Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist or Puritan forms’ [Watt, 7, 60]. It starts, in other words, as a bourgeois mode of art that sells to a rising middle-class, focusing on things that mattered to them and reflecting their values back. So: individualized, self-reliant characters. So: detailed descriptions of material possessions (houses, furniture, clothes etc), and a particular emphasis on courtship narratives as framed in terms of prosperity. So also: the mode's hospitality to Bildungsroman, a spiritualisation of economic growth and return on investments. Students are, in my experience, sometimes hostile to Watt's thesis because they are disinclined to ‘reduce’ such human experiences as ‘love’ and ‘spiritual growth’ to socio-economic bases in this manner. To such people I would say: suck it.

If this argument is correct then we might expect the novel, as a form, to work for some things better than others; and we might even argue that there are some things that the novel is just really poor at capturing. And rather than continuing to talk in these windy generalisations I'm going to ask a specific question: can the novel do tragedy? It's clearly, of course, possible to write a novel in which characters suffer and die, and even to reproduce, should you be so minded, the lineaments of a Sophoclean or Shakespearian play in prose; but does tragedy, as tragedy, work in the novel? This seems to me at once a question about the specific form of the novel and a question about our larger cultural addiction to happy endings and disinclination to follow the pity and the terror to its logical catharsis-end (The Lion King is Hamlet, yes; but it's Hamlet-With-A-Happy-Ending, which is in a very large sense to miss the point of Hamlet). Terry Eagleton agrees with Henri Peyre that the novel as a mode simply isn't hospitable to tragedy:
A tragic theatre bound up with the despotic absolutism, courtly intrigue, traditional feuds, rigid laws of kinship, codes of honour, cosmic-world-views and faith in destiny gives way to the more rational, hopeful, realist, pragmatic ideologies of the middle class. What rules now is less fate than human agency … The public realm of tragedy, with its high-pitched rhetoric and fateful economy, is abandoned for the privately consumed, more expansive, ironic, everyday language of prose fiction. And this … is certainly a loss: some critics, as Henri Peyre suggests, blame the death of tragedy on the novel, which “captured the essentials of tragic emotion, while diluting and often cheapening it.” [Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: the Idea of the Tragic (Blackwell 2003), 178]
Eagleton thinks that tragedy qua tragedy depends upon precisely that public, focused, elevated authenticity that has been dissolved away by the privately consumed art of the novel: which is, of course, more expansive, ironic, told in everyday language and concerning ordinary people. Maybe he's right.

One way to address this question would be to look at a specific case study. OK; but, casting around, it starts to dawn on you (or at least, it did on me) that proper examples are thin on the ground. Perhaps that's already a kind of confirmation. Richardson's Pamela is a twisted sort of courtship novel and though laugh-free, and very inadvertently creepy, ends comically in generic terms. Richardson's slumberously vast Clarissa ends with Clarissa's death, but I'm not sure we can genuinely make the case that it generates properly tragic momentum. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina lacks the tragic focus of, say, the Antigone, not just because Tolstoy is committed to balancing Anna's downward path with his account of Levin's upward one, but because its one main purpose is to create a widescreen portrait of a whole society, which necessarily diffuses the tragic focus we find in Sophocles. I could discuss Thomas Hardy's Casterbridge mayor, probe his Pure Woman or peer into the obscurity of his Jude (although that Hardy himself abandoned writing novels after this latter and devoted himself to writing poetry suggests that he wasn't convinced what he'd been doing was really working). But instead I want to say a few things about George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860). I want to concentrate on that novel because it is Eliot's conscious, deliberate exercise in re-writing Greek tragedy as a contemporary English novel; and because Eliot is a great writer.


Shall we call The Mill on the Floss a tragedy? It certainly ends unhappily, with the deaths of its two main characters, siblings Maggie and Tom (‘the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means’ as Stoppard's Player so pithily puts it in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). And we can go a little deeper. Eliot was a particular fan of Sophocles, and there are several ways in which she set about crafting her novel to transfer, from Greek into English, from drama into this new mode of fiction, a quasi-Sophoclean heft and expressiveness. She particularly loved the Antigone, and we can intuit reasons for that in her private life: openly living with the already-married George Henry Lewes put her beyond the pale of many in polite Victorian society, and her own brother Issac, with whom she had been extremely close as a child, cut off all communication with her. After decades of happiness together, Lewes died in 1878. A couple of years later, in 1880, Eliot married a young admirer called John Cross. Only then, with breathtaking and priggish self-satisfaction, did her brother re-open communications with his sister. The pompous little letter he wrote to her is in the BL now:

So, yes: we can see why Sophocles' great play, with its potent swirl of pseudo-erotic connection between sister and brother superseding the conventions of society at large (even unto death) and its portrait of a wilful individual woman following her heart rather than giving-in to the pressures of convention, spoke so directly to Eliot. She often wrote about it. In her ‘The Antigone and its Moral’ [The Leader (March 29, 1856)] she defined the central problem in Sophocles' play as lying between ‘reverence for the gods’ and ‘the duties of citizenship: two principles, both having their validity, are at war with each’; the conflict between ‘the strength of man's intellect, or moral sense, or affection’ and ‘the rules which society has sanctioned.’ Her essay draws a general conclusion: ‘whenever man’s moral vision collides with social convention the opposition between Antigone and Creon is renewed.’

There's a lot to say about Eliot's preference for Sophocles over Aeschylus and Euripides, but there's one thing that's peculiarly relevant to Eliot's project as a novelist I think, and it goes back to Sophocles' great innovation in the drama itself: Aeschylus, we're told, was the first writer to introduce a second actor on stage. Before him plays had been a single actor interacting with the chorus. Sophocles, though, is the first dramatist to introduce a third actor and suddenly, we might say, things start to get interesting. George Eliot, certainly, was fascinated by the dramatic, ethical and expressive possibilities of this triangulation, and it is the fundamental interpersonal structure of The Mill on the Floss: Maggie Tulliver, her older brother Tom and their father; Maggie, Tom and little Lucy (whom, in a fit of childish jealousy, Maggie pushes in the mud); Maggie, Tom and sensitive, hunchback Philip Wakem, at least until their father's ruination at the hands (as Tom sees it) of Philip's lawyer father makes him put an end to Maggie and Philip's burgeoning relationship. Then, as the novel moves into its final straight, the story focuses on Maggie, cousin Lucy and Lucy's fiancé Stephen Guest, a more conventional love-triangle.

This final situation brings to the fore the main (as it were) triangulation of the novel: one, Maggie; two, the object of her love—the sexual connection she has with Stephen, the spiritual and intellectual connection she has with Philip, and three, her larger context; family, or social, powerful represented by the blood connection she has with Tom. The main theme of the novel, of course, is that Maggie comes into conflict with larger, impersonal but restrictive forces, of economic necessity, gender oppression and, when she runs away with Stephen, moral disapprobation; and this is most forcefully manifested in Tom's individual disapproval, just as the worst aspect of Eliot's (patchy, in truth) social ostracism was the way her beloved brother Isaac cut her:
At the center of The Mill on the Floss lies the human dilemma from Sophocles’ Antigone that George Eliot believed to be permanent: the conflict between the conventions of society and individual judgment. An honourable but conventional person, Tom Tulliver, clashes with his more imaginative sister Maggie over these opposing claims … Tom seeks conventional honor in exacting middle-class conventionalism; but Maggie seeks honor in her ideals of love and charity. In many ways Tom symbolises the Old Law, Maggie the New. [David Moldstad, ‘The Mill on the Floss and Antigone’, PMLA 85 (1970), 527-31]
Eliot also works structurally, as it were: setting out in this novel formally to reproduce the structure of a Greek drama.

So: Attic tragedy follows a particular formal pattern. There's an opening speech by a character or a god, that sets the scene: this is called the parodos. The bulk of the play consists of stasima (a stasimon is a choral ode) alternating with episodes (epei(s)-odia, between the odes, you see) in which two, or in later tragedy three, actors interact with each other and with the chorus. Things end with an exodos.

How many episodes? In Greek drama there could be as few as three, or as many as six. In Seneca and Roman tragedy, largely copied from the Greek, the number of episodes was mostly five, which is where Renaissance theatre derives its convention that a play should have five acts; but Eliot is very particularly not copying Shakespeare or even Seneca, but instead going back to the Sophoclean source. So: Floss has a parodos in its first chapter, whose narrator (‘I remember those large dipping willows, I remember the stone bridge…’) takes the role of chorus. The episodes of the story are interspersed with stasimon-like commentary by the narrator. There are 6 episodes: [1] Maggie’s youth; [2] the family’s loss of the Mill; [3] Maggie’s friendship with Philip; [4] Tom’s recovery of the fortune, Tulliver horsewhipping Wakem and dying; [5] Maggie’s affair with Stephen; [6] the Flood. In each case Eliot interposes narrative with observation, commentary and sections of what amount, almost, to prose poetry in describing the world she has created. The exodos is Eliot's ‘Conclusion’.

The Greek element exists beneath the surface, as it were, of a thoroughly and minutely realised English idiom—the same idiom that Eliot would refine and hone, without classical underpinning, ten years later for her Realist masterpiece Middlemarch. In this earlier novel, though, Eliot is doing sophisticated things with the Greek mode of externalising interior states and the novelistic mode of internalising them. So, for example: Philip Wakem is physically deformed, but Mr Tulliver is emotionally or psychologically deformed, a fact reflected in his surname, since the Greek τυλιος, tulios, from τυλη, means ‘lumpy or hunchbacked’. Eliot plays many such Greek games in her novel. ‘St Oggs’ is a perfectly English sounding name, perhaps related (we might think) to the Gaelic ‘Ogham’. Then again we might want to note that the Greek: ὄγκος, ogkos, means ‘pride, self-importance, pretension’, as well as ‘swelling, tumour’. ‘The Floss’ is another very English sounding name, from the Old-English for ‘flow’ [cf the German flosz, river]. But then we turn to the Greek verb φλύω and find that it means ‘to boil over, to bubble up, to overrun’, but also ‘to babble, to fill up with words’, both of which are peculiarly appropriate to this work.

Then again, not every critic has seen Maggie as a straightforward Antigone.
Clearly Maggie shares Antigone’s strong-minded rebellious spirit, and her “sisterly piety”, and she too is torn by opposing principles “at war with each other.” But when we consider Maggie’s case she seems to be divided by principles of a very different kind to those exerting their contrary influence on Antigone. Opposing Maggie’s version of “sisterly piety” and “reverence for the gods” … are not the “duties of citizenship” as for Antigone, but rather other forms of feeling, or in Eliot’s vocabulary, varieties of sympathy: her compassion for Philip Wakem and her passion for Stephen Guest. [Josephine McDonagh, ‘Eliot’s Early Novels’, Levine (ed) The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (2001) 53-4]
‘Maggie’s dilemma,’ argues McDonagh, in a point to which I'll return in a moment, ‘seems reducible to a conflict not of laws or duties but of feelings, and indeed feelings for opposing men; the father and brother versus the friend and the lover’. It's interesting, and may or may not be significant, that Mill on the Floss contains no references at all to Antigone. Maybe Eliot felt she didn't need to spell out explicitly what was so obvious; but that doesn't seem to have been her practice elsewhere. Take Philip Wakem, the intelligent, sensitive crippled boy whom Maggie rejects (because he's ugly, and then because her brother tells her to) but whose quiet, empathetic intellect proves essential to Maggie's own spiritual growth. It seems clear to me that he is called Philip in allusion to Sophocles' magic cripple Philoctetes; and it seems that way in part because Eliot all but lays it out. When they are still children, Tom injures his foot, and during his convalescence he, Maggie and Philip become close (although after his recovery Tom distances himself from Philip again):
After that, Philip spent all his time out of school-hours with Tom and Maggie. Tom listened with great interest to a new story of Philip's about a man who had a very bad wound in his foot, and cried out so dreadfully with the pain that his friends could bear with him no longer, but put him ashore on a desert island, with nothing but some wonderful poisoned arrows to kill animals with for food.

“I didn't roar out a bit, you know,” Tom said, “and I dare say my foot was as bad as his. It's cowardly to roar.”

But Maggie would have it that when anything hurt you very much, it was quite permissible to cry out, and it was cruel of people not to bear it. She wanted to know if Philoctetes had a sister, and why she didn't go with him on the desert island and take care of him.

One day, soon after Philip had told this story, he and Maggie were in the study alone together while Tom's foot was being dressed ... “What are you reading about in Greek?” [Maggie] said. “It's poetry, I can see that, because the lines are so short.”

“It's about Philoctetes, the lame man I was telling you of yesterday,” he answered, resting his head on his hand, and looking at her as if he were not at all sorry to be interrupted. Maggie, in her absent way, continued to lean forward, resting on her arms and moving her feet about, while her dark eyes got more and more fixed and vacant, as if she had quite forgotten Philip and his book.

“Maggie,” said Philip, after a minute or two, still leaning on his elbow and looking at her, “if you had had a brother like me, do you think you should have loved him as well as Tom?”

Maggie started a little on being roused from her reverie, and said, “What?” Philip repeated his question.

“Oh, yes, better,” she answered immediately. “No, not better; because I don't think I could love you better than Tom. But I should be so sorry,–so sorry for you.”

Philip colored; he had meant to imply, would she love him as well in spite of his deformity, and yet when she alluded to it so plainly, he winced under her pity. [Mill on the Floss, 2:6]
Poor old Philip! But maybe this sort of textual specificity is not something carried systematically through the novel. Indeed elsewhere Eliot pokes mild fun at Tom's tutor, the Rev. Mr. Stelling, who ‘was so broad-chested and resolute that he felt equal to anything’ and who was certain he ‘would by and by edit a Greek play, and invent several new readings. He had not yet selected the play, for having been married little more than two years, his leisure time had been much occupied with attentions to Mrs. Stelling; but he had told that fine woman what he meant to do some day, and she felt great confidence in her husband, as a man who understood everything of that sort’ [Floss, 2.1]. This is a dig at scholarship, of course, rather than tragedy as such, but it stages the larger issue: the Rev. Stellings domestic duties, insofar as they come into conflict with his Attic ambition, take precedence. The novel is much more a domestic, private mode than it is a tragic, public one, we might say.

Early in the novel Eliot is explicit on precisely this matter. Young Tom and Maggie are entertaining their younger cousin, pretty little Lucy (who will go on, when grown-up, to plight her troth with handsome Stephen Guest). The kids are supposed to stay in the garden, but Tom wants to look at the pond and leads the two girls astray to see if they can find any water-snakes.
“Here, Lucy!” he said in a loud whisper. Lucy came carefully as she was bidden, and bent down to look at what seemed a golden arrow-head darting through the water. It was a water-snake, Tom told her; and Lucy at last could see the serpentine wave of its body, very much wondering that a snake could swim. Maggie had drawn nearer and nearer; she must see it too, though it was bitter to her, like everything else, since Tom did not care about her seeing it. At last she was close by Lucy; and Tom, who had been aware of her approach, but would not notice it till he was obliged, turned round and said,–

“Now, get away, Maggie; there's no room for you on the grass here. Nobody asked you to come.”

There were passions at war in Maggie at that moment to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passion only; but the essential τι μέγεθoς which was present in the passion was wanting to the action; the utmost Maggie could do, with a fierce thrust of her small brown arm, was to push poor little pink-and-white Lucy into the cow-trodden mud. [Floss, 1:10]
The Greek, τι μέγεθoς, means ‘that greatness, magnitude’ or ‘necessary sublimity’. Little kids may feel with heroic, or tragic, intensity (do indeed feel, I'd say, with an intensity of which adults are incapable), but they can't do anything very much, and that means that their little dramas can never be properly tragic. And what Eliot considers true of children, scales in her telling to adults as well. We are not heroes, she says; we are ordinary, middling people. Tragedy does not describe our sorrow, even when that sorrow is very acute. Here is Floss's narrator on the plight of Tom and Maggie's father, whose pride and obstinacy bring him to financial ruin, and take somatic form in an apoplexy that leaves him bedridden.
Mr. Tulliver, you perceive, though nothing more than a superior miller and maltster, was as proud and obstinate as if he had been a very lofty personage, in whom such dispositions might be a source of that conspicuous, far-echoing tragedy, which sweeps the stage in regal robes, and makes the dullest chronicler sublime. The pride and obstinacy of millers and other insignificant people, whom you pass unnoticingly on the road every day, have their tragedy too; but it is of that unwept, hidden sort that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves no record,—such tragedy, perhaps, as lies in the conflicts of young souls, hungry for joy, under a lot made suddenly hard to them, under the dreariness of a home where the morning brings no promise with it, and where the unexpectant discontent of worn and disappointed parents weighs on the children like a damp, thick air, in which all the functions of life are depressed; or such tragedy as lies in the slow or sudden death that follows on a bruised passion, though it may be a death that finds only a parish funeral.
Poor old Mr Tulliver, who evokes in us neither pity nor any sort of terror. Perhaps it's not that Gray's mute inglorious Milton is denied his public eloquence and glory by the mere happenstance of being born to ordinary parochial life, but rather that ordinary parochialism ontologically contradicts greatness as such—not that Gray's villager might have written Paradise Lost if only things had gone a little different to him, but rather than a Milton who doesn't speak gloriously isn't Milton in any meaningful sense at all. Indeed, isn't it within the bounds of possibility that Gray is celebrating, rather than lamenting, this silent ingloriousness? The next line mentions Gray's parochial Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood: isn't it better to be laid in a country graveyard without blood on your hands than with? (Pericles' on his deathbed declared his proudest boast was that ‘no Athenian ever had to put on mourning because of me’). Maybe it's not the novel form, or even the larger social ethos, that makes tragedy such an ill fit to Eliot's art. Maybe it's that the lines of force of her ethical imagination are always tugging her out of drama as such, away from the conflict, and towards something neither comic nor tragic but rather a sense of the fundamental undisclosure of life as it is lived, and the spiritual benefits of that state. Adam Mars-Jones somewhere says that ‘mourning is a wound that is also somehow an achievement’. He wasn't talking about tragedy when he said so, but he might as well have been. Tragic drama stages mourning as a mode of ritualised social-religious sublimity, parsing its shattering absences and ruptures into a sort of transcendent achievement. But Eliot, however hard she tried to capture a Sophoclean grandeur and depth in The Mill on the Floss, was working against the grain of her genius. At her best she understands not that grief is not an achievement, but rather than achievement itself is a kind of chimera, that the best things we can do as human beings, things to do with kindness and connection and unobtrusiveness, are actually pointed, forceful, marvellous unachievements. When she writes novels—even when, as in this case, she writes a tragic novel—her aim is to capture the wisdom of the sort of being-in-the-world that evades the drama of tragedy and the melodramatic eventfulness of fiction.

At the end it's the river that is the uncertain quantity, flowing through a pastoral landscape for most of this novel only to rise up, a deus ex machina (or deus ex fluvio) to wrap-up the plot with preternatural abruptness. By the time she came to writing her greatest novel, Middlemarch, she knew better, and specified breaking the power of the river as a precondition for her heroine's happy blankness: Dorothea's energy ‘like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’

Sunday 11 November 2018

Dalek Et Decorum Est

Hunched, squat, a giant pepperpot on wheels,
Blob-skirted, screeching loud and cursing life:
Hate-anger is the only thing it feels
Its only passion is a love of strife.
Stairs prove no obstacle; it floats right up
On levitating platforms, and moves on:
Its right prong is a deadly sucker-cup
Its left a laser-shooting deathray gun.

Thals! THALS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of shooting
Zapping the clumsy humans just in time,
Though someone still is yelling out and hooting
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
And via cheap BBC effects, we see
Him flailing as the screen flicks dark and bright
And falling down, in death-scene Equity.

If you could see, on Sat’day's early night
Enemies tumble, victors gliding high,
The lasers blasting, explosions loud and bright
Distorted voices voicing their one cry—
See eye-stalks rising in heil-hitler mode,
Aggresive in pursuit of destiny
The Kaled Reich now set upon the road
That gifts the master race the galaxy—
My friend, you'd also hotly advocate
Those words, the ones that silence all debate,
The old Truth: Exterminate! Exterminate!

Friday 2 November 2018

Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

Alice in Wonderland (1865) is a masterpiece of literary nonsense, that mode in which ‘the formal elements of language and logic that facilitate meaning, such as semantics, syntax, phonetics, context, representation and formal diction, are balanced by elements that negate meaning’ [Wim Tigges, An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense (Rodopi 1988), 47]. One way to think about a work like Alice is to say: it inhabits the form of the riddle, or the joke, but without providing the solution or punchline to make (comic) sense of the strange juxtapositions or bizarre worldbuilding of its riddle or joke. Carroll structures his story like this, orchestrates its various episodes and even works his characterisation this way—that is, as a riddle without an answer.

He even adds actual riddles-without-answers into the fabric of the text. The most celebrated of these is to be found in the ‘A Mad Tea Party’ chapter when the Hatter asks Alice: ‘why is a raven like a writing desk?’ When Alice gives up and presses him for an answer the Hatter says: ‘I haven't the slightest idea!’ This is funny and frustrating (it's funny because it's frustrating, which is really the whole logic of the book) but frustration has a habit of persisting. In the aftermath of the book's initial success, many readers, child and adult alike, wrote to Carroll pestering him for the answer. In his preface to the 1896 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll wrote:
Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter's riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, ‘because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the riddle as originally invented had no answer at all.
To answer the riddle is, in a sense, to miss the point; and the point is that the riddle has no answer.

This, though, really isn't a hard riddle. Or perhaps it would be truer to say: it only seems hard to those who insist on trying to locate its answer in the manifest content of its text. The Alice books are dreams, and their logic is a dream logic—which is to say, they are a deliberately fashioned waking approximation or pastiche of such logic. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) Freud argues that dream-content is always a (condensed, displaced) re-presentation of notions and affects originally repressed out of the conscious mind into the Id, things that either made us anxious and scared, or else manifested desires we felt to be taboo, that made us guilty. But the repressed, Freud insists, always returns, in twisted or ludic forms, as neurotic symptoms, or slips-of-the-tongue, or dreams. Especially dreams: Freud described them as ‘the royal road to the unconscious’. The trick to understanding dreams, according to Freud, lies in distinguishing the garbled-seeming manifest content of the dream from its more comprehensible latent content, and also in grasping that the ‘meaning’ of this latter is affective rather than rational. That is: it has to do with fears and desires that have been repressed and which are returning.

So what, in a dream context, might be signified by the juxtaposition of a raven and writing desk? The ‘dreamer’ here is Charles Dodgson: that shy stammerer, a man whose waking life was dominated by rituals of polite respectability, High Church Anglican orthodoxy, codes of social courtesy and exactness. A stickler for proper forms, a gentleman-don, a retiring individual who invested considerable energy in the avoidance of scandal and impropriety. The one arena in which Carroll permitted himself to unbutton, emotionally, was his intense affective attachment to pre-pubescent girls. He made friends with hundreds of these over the course of his life, played with them, took them on trips, wrote riddling and comic letters to them, photographed them and so on. In every instance, and with an eye to the proper and respectable way to proceed, he acted under the metaphorical and sometimes the literal eye of the girls' mothers. So: he never approached a young girl on her own, but always through her family. Sometimes he photographed these girls naked, but he would always write to ask permission of the mothers first (sometimes this permission was declined, but, remarkably enough, sometimes it was granted). Even when his emotional attachment to particular girls was very strong, as it seems to have been with Alice Liddell and her sister Lorina, when Mrs Liddell expressed even modest disapprobation (in 1863) Carroll broke of all contact and never saw Alice or Ina again.

His hypercorrectness, we can intuit, was the manifestation of a prodigious anxiety that his attraction to pre-pubescent girls would be misconstrued—by society at large, but also, I think, in a more inward sense. That is to say: Carroll was on some level afraid that his own understanding of this attachment (desire he presumably rationalised to himself in terms of the pure and spiritual beauty of pre-sexual innocence) was liable to be misconstrued as per its true nature. We should tread carefully, I suppose. The proneness of moral panic to accrue around the topic of pedophilic sexual desire doesn't diminish the capacity for human wrong and suffering such desire entails. Carroll almost certainly never acted on his desires. Do we judge him for having those desires and repressing them? Hypercorrect stammering Dodsgon in his frock-coat and his pale-grey kid gloves (he had stained his hands purple from the chemicals he used developing his photographic plates and always wore the gloves) hovering around young girls—the point isn't whether we find this figure creepy, because of course we do. It's whether he found himself creepy. Many of us do.

What is a raven except a bird of ill omen, croaking itself hoarse on the battlements of Macbeth's castle, or spying out wickedness in the world as Odin's roving eye? What is a writing desk except paraphernalia by which text get itself manufactured, from notes and letters all the way up to books—to books, let's say, like Alice in Wonderland? And most importantly of all: why might we connect these two things, the publication—the in-plain-view display—of this one man's taboo love for this particular, named little girl, and the avian manifestation of things about to go horribly and publicly wrong? Linking inauspiciousness and the production of written text. The evidence that the sky-god has spied into your wickedness and will not be pleased? I mean, what do you think? If Carroll were your psychiatric patient, stretched on the couch in your consulting room, and told you about a weird dream he'd had that jumbled up ravens and writing-desks, how would you Joseph-bar-Jacob it?

Children loving play generally, and playing games in particular and games are the formal codification of desires that in large part would, without the structure of play, be much more disruptive (as the footballer kicks a ball into a net rather than decapitating his enemy, or as kiss-chase both purifies and, in a way, oxygenates nascent and perhaps taboo sexual desire). Nonsense is playful in this mode, but contra to the Wim Tigges definition I quoted at the start of this blog it is not really a semantic or syntactic game that is being played. The game is about desire and the obstacles to desire, and it always has been.