‘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 26 March 2019

Lord of the Sommes

It's often argued that The Lord of the Rings owes much to Tolkien's experiences in the First World War. In many ways that's kind of a no-brainer.

One of the best recent works of Tolkien criticism, John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (2005) argues the case at some length, although it may surprise some readers how little space, relatively speaking, Garth gives to equating the Dead Marshes to the Western Front and so on, and how much more time he spends on a particular nexus of friendship: Tolkien, G.B. Smith, Rob Gilson and Christopher Wiseman, all of whom were at King Edward’s Grammar School together, and who called themselves the “TCBS” (Tea Club, Barrovian Society).

Gilson and Smith both died on the Somme. Tolkien was invalided home with trench fever (Wiseman, who was in the navy, survived the war; although his friendship with Tolkien was never the same again). Garth makes a compelling case for lasting importance of the TCBS for Tolkien's writing, and he finds in this bond, rather than any more facile translation of real-world warmaking into pseudo-medieval magical conflict, the crucial carry-over from the Somme to Sauron, from the Western Front to Westernesse. Tolkien and the Great War ends by quoting C.S. Lewis on the accuracy and realism of Tolkien's portrayal of the psychology of wartime, something concerning which Lewis himself (of course) had first-hand experience.

Perhaps there's a tendency, nowadays, to think of war primarily in terms of its hardware: technologies of transportation surveillance and destruction—to think of it, in other words, as spectacle. We can certainly argue that Fantasy and especially TV/Cinematic Fantasy is largely rendered today in terms of an aesthetics of the spectacular: vast armies, huge special effects, gigantic budgets. But that's not particularly true of Tolkien's mythographic reworking of the war, or at least, not in the novels (the films are a different matter). The foci of the Lord of the Rings as war-novel are much more about fellowship, bravery and determination, and especially about the first of those three, than about the large-scale set-piece battle. In terms of the creative decisions Tolkien took adapting his experiences into myth that speaks to his priorities.

It's true that some of Tolkien's earlier fantastical re-imaginations engaged with the specifically mechanised-industrial aspect of World War 1. Here, from the 1920s, is one of Tolkien's early goes at transmuting his experience of war to Fantasy: a draft of the Fall of Gondolin material in which Melkor attacks the city with mechanical dragons, some made iron, some of bronze:
Melko assembled all his most cunning smiths and sorcerers, and of iron and flame they wrought a host of monsters such as have only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End. Some were all of iron so cunningly linked that they might flow like slow rivers of metal or coil themselves around and above all obstacles before them, and these were filled in their innermost depths with the grimmest of the Orcs with scimitars and spears. [Fall of Gondonlin, 69]
These sorts of (as we might now say) steampunk accroutrements are purged from Tolkien's later, published stories, and the mythological reimagining of war retreats that much further from industrial modernity to a intricately stylised medieval world. Unlike much of the commercial Fantasy that followed in LotR's wake, it's not the materiel of war that fascinates Tolkien so much as its spirit. And in many ways the spirit of the War of the Ring is a photographic negative of the actual war. Helm's Deep aside, Tolkien's war is very mobile where the actual war was trench-bound and static. Tolkien's war is waged between separate species, where the war between England and Germany can be thought of as a battle between two wings of the same tribe (the German and British royal families are the same family; Tolkien himself was an Englishman of German familial extraction and so on). Like a heavyweight boxer with a glass jaw, Sauron's attack is large-scale but comically vulnerable; once the one ring is destroyed it entirely unravels. I'm not sure any national military has ever been unknitted so simply in actual war.

Robert Eagleston quotes Paul Fussell on how Tolkien stressed both the heroism and the horror of war (when war-poets like Owen, Sassoon and Graves tended only to stress the latter). Fussell is also good on the way the discourse of war as such was subject to a specific kind of heroising elevation:

Eaglestone explores how this ‘inflationary’ rhetoric is only one of several in the novel; to read LotR is to realise it is written such that these sorts of ‘conscious heroic archaisms’ are intermixed with a different, more deflationary idiom, and as well a third, more laconic or practical one: he locates ‘one of Tolkien’s greatest strength as a novelist’ in the way he ‘mixes and plays’ these ‘usually very separate rhetorics.’ The blend of registers tracks a mixture in cross-hatching of representational translation. The ways war in Europe becomes war in Eriador are not straightforward.

Tolkien's allies fight because they volunteer, or are honouring an oath they have taken, not because they have been press-ganged. The situation was different in WW1: October 1915 saw the promulgation of Lord Derby’s ‘scheme’—that is, conscription—and the Military Service Act was passed at the beginning of 1916. At this point, in Fussell’s phrase, ‘England began to train her first conscript army, an event which could be said to mark the beginning of the modern world’ [Fussell, 11]. If we look in LotR for conscription then the closest thing (the analogy is not, I suppose, exact) is found amongst the orcs, few of whom (one presumes) have actively chosen to join this army. Likewise it is the orcs that command the air, with their flying Nazgûl; there is no Royal Flying Corps equivalent for the armies of men and of elves, a point the (famously) late arrival of the Eagles rather reinforces I feel.

And it is the orcs who actively poison their enemy: Eaglestone notes how Tolkien’s description of Merry after his attack on the Nazgûl (‘Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast, and such a horror was on him that he was blind and sick’; Return of the King 5.6.128]) contains ‘shades of the gas attack casualty’ in Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (‘what nazzing gûls for these who die as cattle?/Only the monstrous anger of the orcs’). It's true, of course, that the Germans were the first to use poison gas, but the Allies quickly copied them: releasing 140 tons of chlorine gas at the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915. This was a military disaster: the wind changed, blowing some of the gas back onto British troops; and more gas was released into British trenches when German artillery hit unopened barrels of the stuff (these barrels were unopened because the wrong sort of key had been supplied). But although there was a good deal of propaganda about gas being a wicked Germanic horror in fact the Allies used gas rather more than did the Germans. Overall some 12,000 German and Austrian troops died from gas, as against 8000 British and British Imperial troops.

The argument, here, though is not about national affiliation so much as how Tolkien restages the First World War as a conflict between modernity as such (the orcs, and the machine-making Saruman) and an older, more elevated vision of comradeship, sacrifice and heroism. And I suppose the reason for this is that Tolkien thought of this specific war as, in one crucial sense, not the real war. This is what I said a few weeks ago:
This is why Tolkien writes a war novel. It’s not because he was himself a soldier—or perhaps we should say: it’s not only because he was himself a soldier. It’s because he believes life is war. I don't mean that he knowingly adopted a Nietzschean, post-Darwinian homus homini lupus view of things. Perhaps he did believe that was the logic of the world; but, if so, he also saw that circumstance as a symptom of a more profound struggle, something going on behind the scenes of which man’s wolfishness was a secondary expression. For Tolkien the universe was a great, spiritual war, and art ought not only to reflect that, it ought to encourage to take our proper place in the struggle.
One of the things Fussell argues in his Great War and Modern Memory book is that the war, and literary responses to the war, effected a change in the idiom of literature itself. Literary Modernism was (make-it-new, fractured, ironised and so on) a response to the trauma of the war, just as it was also an attempt to get beyond the war. It's not just the fact that Tolkien wrote his fantasy in a traditionalist idiom, but the fact that it has (manifestly) connected with so many people that reflects a reaction against that impulse. This in turn has to do by what we mean when we talk about ‘war literature’ as such.

One context for all this is the opposition, as critics frame things, between the literary traditions of avant-garde Modernism on the one hand and popular fiction like Fantasy on the other. It has become something of a cliché to oppose Ulysses and Lord of the Rings as two candidates for ‘novel of the [20th] century’: the stuffy ‘high culture’ text and the popular culture fan-favourite. This has always struck me as a bit ... well, crazy actually. How can we oppose them when they're basically the same novel? They’re two big Catholic novels full of invention and power and fascinated by the same things—legends and their relationship to the ordinary (the bourgeois, the mundane), language and the play of language. They're both novels about ordinary people, wandering about. But I understand that people don’t tend to think of them as the same. To some extent I sympathise, because I admire Ulysses but I love Lord of the Rings. And I don't mean to pretend to denseness on the manifest differences between the two: Ulysses certainly is experimental and difficult, fractured and tricky to apprehend; Lord of the Rings of course tells a fantastical story in a traditional way: a linear narrative, likeable rounded characters, a prose style that aims for clarity and comprehensibility, and above all a coherent, holistic world-building vision. But there is, perhaps, more consonance than dissonance between these two things.

James Gifford's recent A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (2018) sets out to complexify this too-facile opposition, triangulating High Modernism and its notional not-a Other, mass media genre fantasy, via traditions of anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought. One of the bugbears in Gifford's account is Marxist Literary Theory (especially Fredric Jameson and Darko Suvin) and its habit of situating Fantasy as inferior to Science Fiction: as reactionary rather than subversive, conservative rather than experimental and fundamentally counter-revolutionary: ‘an archaic and enslaving ancestor to the aesthetics of modernism and a symptom of the inertia of a dead social system to progressive politics.’ Gifford quotes Jameson's argument that Fantasy essentially manifests an ahistorical and ‘oneric’ obsession with an individuated ethical realm, characterised by novels in which the ‘antagonistic religious ideologies of the Middle Ages’ are ‘harmoniously combined into a contemporary anti-Enlightenment spiritualism.’ [Gifford, 2] As against this Gifford sets out to explore the ways in which a more radical reading of Fantasy can grow, although his aim is not to rescue Tolkien, but rather to shift the centre of the genre's gravity away from Tolkien and Lewis and towards William Morris, Hope Mirrlees, Mervyn Peake, John Cowper Powys, Henry Treece, Michael Moorcock, Samuel Delany and especially Ursula le Guin.

One salient, not really discussed by Gifford, is memory. The intermittencies and sinuous complexities of memory are at the heart of Proust's Recherche, one of High Modernism's holy books; and Woolf, Eliot and Richardson are all, in their various ways, obsessed with memory and committed to finding new ways of representing its action in art. Paul Fussell's book is called ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’ but, as Leonard Smith says, surprisingly, ‘“memory” is a wonderfully unproblematic and self-evident concept in Fussell's book’, taken as in effect ‘always a clear window on the nature of reality’ [Smith, 242]. This is striking, not least since one might assume war reverses the polarities where memory is concerned. In peacetime our general problem is precisely remembering things, if only in the trivial ‘where did I leave my keys?’ sense. Coming out of war the problem can be forgetting them. Those occasions when Fussell talked of his own military service during WW2 ('marines sliding under fire down a shell-pocked ridge slimy with mud and liquid dysentery shit into the maggoty Japanese and USMC corpses at the bottom, vomiting as the maggots burrowed into their own foul clothing [Fusell, Thank God For The Atom Bomb (1988), 36]) rather reinforce this. PTSD is an inability to forget certain traumatic events, of being trapped in a cycle of recalling them over and over.

How does memory figure in Lord of the Rings? It's more complicated than one might think. In one sense, the whole book addresses the question of historical memory: styled (as per the prologue) as the ‘deep’ history of our own world, although one which we have forgotten, and rehearsed in the body of the story as an inset level of ‘deep’ history (the First and Second Ages, preceding the latter days of the Third in which LotR is set), retold as song and story by characters in the text. In the ‘Council of Elrond’ chapter, Elrond relates events from the Second Age from memory, since elves are immortal and he was there. Tolkien at no point hints at any Funes-the-Memorious downside to living forever and remembering everything. The individuals in Middle Earth all seem to have more or less functioning memories. And yet the past is slipping into a realm of forgetting. How, we might wonder, can that be?

It's linked, for Tolkien, to mortality, and there are intimations of the problematic of memory as a function of deathlessness as such. As the fellowship leaves Lothlórien, and Gimli bids his sorrowful adieu, Legolas attempts to console him: ‘the memory of Lothlórien,’ he says, ‘shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.’ Gimli, though, declines to be reassured:
‘Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram. Or so says the heart of Gimli the Dwarf. Elves may see things otherwise. Indeed I have heard that for them memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves.’ [Fellowship of the Ring, 2.8 ‘Farewell to Lórien’]
Memory is not what the heart desires is really quite a striking thing to say, I think. What might Gimli mean? Obviously in one sense he means: I'd rather have the actual thing than a memory of that thing. But I think he means something more. In Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, life-extending treatments have the unintended consequence of overloading and collapsing people's memories, as finite brain-space struggles to remember more and more life-events. Borges' ‘Funes’ story positions its omnimemorious protagonist as unable to get out of bed in the morning, so overwhelming and debilitating is his perfect memory. Tolkien takes a view entirely opposite to this: an immortal being, with flawless memory, would find themselves in a situation in which memory outweighed reality, when the balance between the happily remembered and the suffering now became so disproportionate that they would live much more in memory than in life. For dwarfs, as for all mortal beings, that sort of life would be merely delusive; but maybe immortality alters the case. I can't claim competence to discuss the theological implications of this: but doesn't it rather imply Tolkien believed eternal life would be lived much more in memory than in the actuality (whatever that might be) of heaven?

Its hard not to read Frodo's sufferings at the end of Return of the King as a form of PTSD. He has been shell-shocked (‘shelob-shocked’) so severely he can never again find peace. His problem is memory, and it afflicts him despite the fact that Queen Arwen has prescribed a magical panacea precisely for memory:
‘A gift I will give you ... Wear this now in memory of Elfstone and Evenstar with whom your life has been woven!’ And she took a white gem like a star that lay upon her breast hanging upon a silver chain, and she set the chain about Frodo’s neck. ‘When the memory of the fear and darkness troubles you,’ she said, ‘this will bring you aid.’ [Return of the King 6:6: ‘Many Partings’]
We can see how a veteran, troubled by horrific memories of combat, might yearn for a magic gem to take the pain away; but Tolkien is too honest to allow Frodo release from that pain in this life. When the memory of the fear and darkness troubles you this will bring you aid: is ambiguous between ‘this will erase the memories’ and ‘this will address the fear and darkness’. The first of these is an ostrich move, where the second is not the kind of problem that can be addressed by drugging one individual's recall.

Memory is not an unalloyed good, certainly. Treebeard has had a long life, and struggles to remember his song of naming (‘Hoom, hmm: hoom, hm, how did it go? Room tum, room tum, roomty toom tum. It was a long list’ [Two Towers 3:4 ‘Treebeard’]) but perhaps that's for the best: Tom Bombadil warns the hobbits that the trees of the Old Forest, survivors of ‘a vast forgotten wood’, spend their time ‘remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice’ [Fellowship 1:7 ‘In the House of Tom Bombadil’]. Does this imply that malice tends to ferment where memory endures? Better, perhaps, forgetting: although best of all would be for that evil itself to vanish so comprehensively that it is forgotten. An anticipation for the chill trauma of Frodo's final PTSD is his imprisonment by the Barrow Wight in Fellowship:
Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never more to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.
In the black wind the stars shall die,
and still on gold here let them lie,
till the dark lord lifts up his hand
over dead sea and withered land.
A vision of death as, in effect, incapable of letting go life; of memory as ontological refrigeration. Tom's counter-charm, freeing the hobbit, is interesting:
Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness. Fussell talks about the First World War as rendering battle a troglodytic experience, and I wonder if something of that is behind Tolkien's tendency to render his imaginary land a Deleuzian holey-space—the mountains all interpenetrated by vast networks of corridor and cave, hobbits living in holes and getting trapped inside barrows. Memory is an underground phenomenon, as Freud, in effect, said: subterranean. Memory for the elves is a vertical orientation, a kind of starlight (‘A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!/We still remember, we who dwell/In this far land beneath the trees/The starlight on the Western Seas’). For the dwarfs, though, who delve under the ground memory is a more opaque, buried and potentially dangerous matter. When they go digging for the starlight-coloured mithril of memory they instead unearth something ghastly: ‘they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin's Bane’ says Gandalf, sternly [Fellowship, 2.4‘A Journey in the Dark’]. The dwarfs, we are told, never speak of it. Trauma personified in flame and punitive whips and a warrior's sword: war as such.

Friday 15 March 2019

Fantasy Mythography of WW1: the Case of Robert Graves

[This image is of a window in St Tannwg and St Eithrias Church (Royal Chapel of the Prince Owain Glyndŵr) in Pennal, Gwynedd, North Wales. It is one of the very few representations of a Green Man figure in church stained glass anywhere in Britain.]

It's a curious coincidence that three notable writers happened, in the summer of 1916, to be on the same bit of the Western Front at the same time. Robert Graves was wounded in the fighting at Mametz Wood in July 1916. David Jones, a private in the same battalion in which Graves was an officer, also fought in this engagement (Mametz Wood is an important location in Jones's masterpiece In Parenthesis). J R R Tolkien, though in a different battalion, the Lancashire Fusiliers, was on the same line at the same time, only a little way north of Graves and Jones. More remarkably, each of these people went on to adapt their war experience into new mythologies: in Tolkien's case, most famously, as ‘Middle Earth’ and the War of the Ring, in Jones's case as the strange and beautiful fusion of Arthurian legend and modernity than informs In Parenthesis, and in the case of Graves as The White Goddess, his prose ‘historical grammar of poetic myth’, and a great many attendant poems.

In each of these cases the mythography involved a radical reconfiguring of the actual experience—transforming modern reality into an alternate realm of magic cod-medievalism in the case of Tolkien, adding a superposition of English/Welsh myths to modern life for Jones, and for Graves swapping prosaic masculine reality for poetic female myth. It's an interesting question as to why only one of these invented legends, and why that particular one, went on to colonise the entire cultural world. I'm not sure I have the answer as to why. A couple of years ago I posted a short thing about the differences between the globally popular mythography of Tolkien and the little-regarded mythography of Graves, and what the two of them mean to me, personally. Your mythage may vary, of course.

Graves wrote a lot of war poetry but suppressed almost all of it from his later collections of poetry. Goodbye To All That (written in a hurry in 1929 to make money, something Graves needed urgently in part to pay for Laura Riding's medical bills after her suicide attempt) remains a very readable, often blackly droll memoir of his time at the front. Re-reading it recently I was struck by how deftly it insinuates the many continuities between public school life (the all male environment of Charterhouse which Graves hated) and military life in wartime (the all male environment of the Western Front, which Graves hated), and the various ‘homosocial’ (to use Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's famous term) logics of both modes of living. The physical dangers of the Western front (maiming and death) were, obviously, a step-up from the physical dangers of public school (fights and corporal punishment) but otherwise the social logic, emotional tenor and oppressive stresses of the two worlds are portrayed by Graves as being more-or-less the same.

Goodbye To All That is a masculine book, both in terms of its detailed account of day-to-day living with lots of other men and in its rather more veiled account of the emotional intensities of male-male desire. Graves is, up to a point, frank about about his time at school and the intense love he felt for a beautiful younger boy ‘Dick’ (actually: George Harcourt Vanden-Bampde-Johnstone, later 3rd Baron Derwent), a love he insists was ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’, and how betrayed he felt when Dick was later arrested for propositioning a Canadian corporal for sex in 1915: all that paradoxical complexity of male same-sex desire. The whole book is written in what, wary of gender essentialism, I am nonetheless going to peg as a male style: detailed, no-nonsense, matter-of-factual, interested in the intricate machinery of things, but also drily funny and gallows-humorous:
One day I walked out of the mess to begin the afternoon’s work on the drill ground. I had to pass by the place where bombing instruction was given. A group of men was standing around the table where the various types of bombs were set out for demonstration. There was a sudden crash. A sergeant of the Royal Irish Rifles had been giving a little unofficial instruction before the proper instructor arrived. He picked up a No. 1 Percussion-Grenade and said: ‘Now lads, you’ve got to be careful here! Remember that if you touch anything while you’re swinging this chap, it’ll go off.’ To illustrate the point, he rapped the grenade against the table edge. It killed him and the man next to him and wounded twelve others more or less severely. [Goodbye to All That, ch 11]
There's lots in the book like this, and though it's certainly entertaining I suppose it doesn't really reflect terribly well on ‘masculinity’ to gender it that way. It is funny, but this is manifestly a strategy for avoiding emotional intensity, a deliberate deflation. The point is that this kind of sniggering at sex and death, the superannuated schoolkid of the type that the English upper-class public school system was so prolific, only takes us so far.

What else? Well, the stuff that isn't anecdotal and humorous is drily factual:
The troop-train consisted of forty-seven coaches and took twenty-five hours to arrive at Béthune, the rail-head. We went via St. Omer. It was about nine o’clock in the evening and we were hungry, cold and dirty. We had expected a short journey and so allowed our baggage to be put in a locked van. We played nap to keep our minds off the discomfort and I lost sixty francs, which was over two pounds at the existing rate of exchange. On the platform at Béthune a little man in filthy khaki, wearing the Welsh cap-badge, came up with a friendly touch of the cap most unlike a salute. He was to be our guide to the battalion, which was in the Cambrin trenches about ten kilometres away. He asked us to collect the draft of forty men we had with us and follow him. We marched through the unlit suburbs of the town. We were all intensely excited at the noise and flashes of the guns in the distance. [Goodbye to All That, ch 12]
‘We were all intensely excited at the noise and flashes of the guns’ is entirely told, and in no respect shown. The tone here is the blandly dialled-down underexcitement appropriate to Graves's class and generation. Most of Goodbye to All That is like this.

The really interesting thing, so far as I'm concerned, is that by 1929 Graves had already gone most of the way along the path that reconfigured his whole aesthetic: from whimsical offhandedness, juvenile black humour and a protective shield made out of blocks of unremarkable prose, and to a mythic ingenuousness, to poetry, and to a sometimes frankly embarrassing open-heartedness: his new mythos and ethos. The remarkable thing about The White Goddess is how assertively feminine it is: an (invented) myth of matriarchal prehistoric Europe being conquered by a patriarchal culture, but keeping the religious adoration of the triple goddess (maiden/mother/crone) alive in subterranean ways, for instance through poetry. It completely inverts both the medium and (male) subject of Goodbye. And although part of David Jones's greatness as a poet was his willingness experimentally to meld prose and poetry (and although Tolkien embroidered the edges of his prose Fantasy epics with long stretches of weakbeer verse) Graves was the only one of the three fully to commit to poetry as poetry, not just formally but in terms of an entire Being-in-the-World. In the 1949 Preface to The White Goddess he described poetry as his ‘ruling passion’: ‘I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric’. Mark Ford glosses:
His eccentricity took many forms, as many as the mercurial goddess herself, yet Graves seems never to have doubted the central narrative to which his life and work were dedicated:
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling
he declares in one of his best-known poems, ‘To Juan at the Winter Solstice’. Although Graves only began formulating his Muse theories in the mid-Forties, the ‘one story’ of his vocation dominates his entire career. Graves’s ‘poetic principles’ involve a wholesale rejection of 20th-century civilisation and complete submission to the capricious demands of the Goddess: ‘a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into snow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag. Her names and titles are innumerable.’ All true poems are invocations of this volatile ‘Mother of All-Living’, and their effect is immediate—‘the hair stands on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine.’
It's a narrow vision of what poetry is, but a compelling one for all that, I think. And there's no doubt in my mind that, so far as his persitently unliteral mind could ever be described in these term, Graves literally believed in this Goddess. He was a deeply superstitious man, who saw meaning and pattern in what others would ascribe to chance, and who genuinely thought that a particular kind of poetic intensity was the gift of a muse-deity who sometimes, if rarely, granted acolyte-poets the idiom of reality truly apprehended. That reality was often terrifying (the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine) and thrilling; erotically mysterious and overwhelming.

What this means, I think, is that the story is not that Graves ‘suppressed’ his war poetry, but rather that his war poetry evolved strangely but directly into his Muse poetry. Here he is in 1927:
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way. [‘The Cool Web’ (1927)]
This is a war poem not just in that it insinuates those alarming marching-soldiers into its infant's sensorium, but because it balances the traumatic immediacy of overwhelming youthful experience (fighting a war, we might say) against the cooler, more Robespierrean version of that experience that is captured by words. Its the White Goddess's lunar night sky, it is her rose, and therefore poetry that drives us mad; and it is rationally considered prosaic representation that takes that edge away, that settles what was once dreadful and spine-tingling into mediocrity. It's the difference, in other words, between a poetic and a prosaic account of juvenile trauma—between, perversely enough, ‘The Cool Web’ itself and the cool web of prose that constitutes Goodbye To All That.

Graves's poetry reopens, by feminising, the horrific chasm of his youth at the same time as Graves's prose sardonically and entertainingly distances himself from it. It's even in his book's name: Goodbye To All That as a title has, I suppose, a carefree, tossed-away sort of vibe; except that it's also evidently apotropaic, an attempt at emotional and spiritual prophylaxis, a magic charm of warding away. In Ancient Greece χαῖρε was what you said when you met up with or parted from somebody (so ‘goodbye’), but it was also a religious invocation, meaning rejoice (religious congregations aimed at συγχαίροντας, ‘rejoicing together’, just as goodbye actually means god-be-with-ye); and I wonder if the remaining emphasis isn't ‘... to all that’ so much as it is ‘... to all that’. Of course you know that the name of the god Pán, Πάν, means all, and that Pan was the hyper-masculine, randily phallic, goatish deity of herds of cows, the only god to have died in our time. It wouldn't stretch things too far to see Graves as bidding all that Pannishness goodbye as he headed off to Majorca with Laura Riding to serve the Muse.

Consider the poem he wrote as epigraph to the book The White Goddess, at the other end of his time with Riding (earlier in the 1940s she had left him to return to America with Schuyler B. Jackson, whom she married). Graves is still haunted by her, though:
All saints revile her, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo's golden mean—
In scorn of which we sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom we desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.

It was a virtue not to stay,
To go our headstrong and heroic way
Seeking her out at the volcano's head,
Among pack ice, or where the track had faded
Beyond the cavern of the seven sleepers:
Whose broad high brow was white as any leper's,
Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips,
With hair curled honey-coloured to white hips.

The sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir
Will celebrate with green the Mother,
And every song-bird shout awhile for her;
But we are gifted, even in November
Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
We forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall. [‘The White Goddess’ (1949)]
Those bright bolts coming down like mortar fire, that headstrong heroism, that journey to the place where the paths run out and people hide in caves and dug-outs, even the details like November, rawest of seasons—Armistice month, of course—all speak to a poem that refracts and reinvents Graves's war service as an encounter with the cosmic death-goddess. An encounter that rends the web of language and returns us to an immediacy of terror of wonder.

I'm confident I could work through Graves's various later White Goddess poems and find in almost all of them a magically inverted version of his war service,. Indeed, I'd even be prepared to make the case that the more conventional war poetry (later mostly suppressed by Graves) as much as the prosaic language-webbing of that experience in Goodbye To All That, work proleptically mythic resonances into their reportage. Here is a poem Graves wrote in 1915:
To you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
“War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard. [‘The Dead Bosche’ (1915)]
Not a very good poem, really; that first stanza is mostly padding, a prolix restatement of what it itself concedes is a cliché, and though the word-portrait in the second stanza is certainly vivid and gross, it doesn't do much more than hold that grossness before the reader for him/her to ugh! at. Here, slightly better, is the prose account of the same encounter in Goodbye To All That.
For the next two days we were in bivouacs outside the wood. We were in fighting kit and the nights were wet and cold. I went into the wood to find German overcoats to use as blankets. Mametz Wood was full of dead of the Prussian Guards Reserve, big men, and of Royal Welch and South Wales Borderers of the new-army battalions, little men. There was not a single tree in the wood unbroken. I got my greatcoats and came away as quickly as I could, climbing over the wreckage of green branches. Going and coming, by the only possible route, I had to pass by the corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had a green face, spectacles, close shaven hair; black blood was dripping from the nose and beard. He had been there for some days and was bloated and stinking. There had been bayonet fighting in the wood.
This account, woven fourteen years later into the web of language, is no longer a simple war is hell datum. Something still horrible but more ambiguous is going on. The White Goddess, the book, is honest about its indebtedness to Frazer's Golden Bough, although it finesses Frazer's argument to claim that the sacred king, the lame god ritually killed (cut down with a sacred axe, or nailed to a magic tree, or castrated with a sickle and then slain)—killed, of course, in order that he might be reborn and the land reborn with him in spring—was always a specific sacrifice to the Goddess. Graves's whole book is fascinated by sacred groves and woodland, and goes into the magic qualities of trees, and sacred tree-alphabets, at wearying length: its working title was The Roebuck in the Thicket.

 In this poem, and in these sections of Goodbye To All That, the thicket is Mamet's Wood. Graves's dead German is green-faced because, on the level of documentary verisimiltude, skin as it rots can acquire a greenish tint; but more importantly for Graves on the level of myth he is the green man in the green sacred wood, just as Graves, as quasi-priest, ‘climbing over the wreckage of green branches’, and the point becomes not why has hellish war rendered this man dead? but rather to whom has he been sacrificed in this terrifying and thrilling ritual?

This level of meaning is not merely adventitious. It is, or at least by 1929 it had become for Graves, the core point. Here, quoted at some length, is Graves's own plain-prose account of what happened to him at Mametz Wood, a year after encountering his alarming Greenman-German. It's July 1916. Two Scots and one English regiment has been sent forward, at 5am, to pitch the German defenders out of the wood. Graves is waiting for the orders to bring up his battalion to support the attack. This order, in the event, was not given until 11am (the subsequent attack reduced the already battle-depleted battalion numbers from c.400 to fewer than 80 men: it took them the rest of the year to get back to strength). But Graves wasn't part of this assault. The Germans, having sighted the waiting attackers, began bombarding them with six- and eight-inch shells.
There was so much of it that we decided to move back fifty yards; it was when I was running that an eight-inch shell burst about three paces behind me. I was able to work that out afterwards by the line of my wounds. I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: ‘I’ve been hit.’ Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos [at which Graves had fought the previous year]. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietszche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:
Non, tu ne peus pas me tuer.
It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him ...

One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.

My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: ‘Old Gravy’s got it, all right.’ The dressing-station was overworked that day; I was laid in a corner on a stretcher and remained unconscious for more than twenty-four hours. [Goodbye To All That, ch 20]
His commanding officer wrote to his parents, offering his condolences, talking of his sorrow at the loss of so gallant a soldier. Graves is officially dead.
The next morning, the 21st, when they were clearing away the dead, I was found to be still breathing; so they put me on an ambulance for Heilly, the nearest field-hospital. The pain of being jolted down the Happy Valley, with a shell-hole at every three or four yards of the roads, woke me for awhile. I remember screaming. But once back on the better roads I became unconscious again.
At a hospital behind the lines he was able to write to his parents:
An orderly gave me a pencil and paper and I wrote home to say that I was wounded but all right. This was July 24th, my twenty-first birthday, and it was on this day, when I arrived at Rouen, that my death officially occurred. My parents got my letter two days after the letter from the colonel; mine was dated July 23rd, because I had lost count of days when I was unconscious; his was dated the 22nd. They could not decide whether my letter had been written just before I died and misdated, or whether I had died just after writing it. ‘Died of wounds’ was, however, so much more circumstantial than ‘killed’ that they gave me up.
He is 21: an auspicious age (three times the magic number 7; just as the strange little life-preserving charm he mutters out of a French translation of Nietzsche consists of seven magic monosyllables, the final one doubled to seal the spell)—the threshold between childhood and manhood in many cultures—and he is both officially dead and strangely alive. Despite the seriousness of his chest wound, it is his finger that bothers Graves the most: ‘I had little pain all this time, but much discomfort; the chief pain came from my finger, which had turned septic because nobody had taken the trouble to dress it, and was throbbing. And from the thigh, where the sticky medical plaster, used to hold down the dressing, pulled up the hair painfully when it was taken off each time the wound was dressed.’ Graves concludes this chapter with an account of a comrade, a soldier called Roberts (a name of kings and princes!) also from the Royal Welch, who happens to be in the next bed to him in the hospital:
Next to me was a Welsh boy, named O. M. Roberts, who had joined us only a few days before he was hit. He told me about High Wood; he had reached the edge of the wood when he was wounded in the groin. He had fallen into a shell-hole. Some time in the afternoon he had recovered consciousness and seen a German officer working round the edge of the wood, killing off the wounded with an automatic pistol. Some of our lightly-wounded were, apparently, not behaving as wounded men should; they were sniping. The German worked nearer. He saw Roberts move and came towards him, fired and hit him in the arm. Roberts was very weak and tugged at his Webley. He had great difficulty in getting it out of the holster. The German fired again and missed. Roberts rested the Webley against the lip of the shell-hole and tried to pull the trigger; he was not strong enough. The German was quite close now and was going to make certain of him this time. Roberts said that he just managed to pull the trigger with the fingers of both hands when the German was only about five yards away. The shot took the top of his head off. Roberts fainted.
This passage is written with a little more boys-own stylistic brio than the rest of the book, but it's a little puzzling as to why Graves rounds-off the chapter with it, unless it's just to add a little more battlefield colour. Could it be more? Roberts O. M. is wounded in the groin (for Graves, the druidic sickle that castrated the fisher-king, and the sickle that emasculated Ouranos that he could be reborn as his own son Kronos, was the crescent moon, and therefore sacred to the lunar triple-goddess) just as Robert(s) Grave is wounded in his left thigh ‘high up near the groin’ (only the fact that he was running at full pelt meant he ‘escaped emasculation’). Roberts O. M. is in a dead swoon, left for dead, without even enough vitality to pull the trigger of his pistol; and yet somehow he lives. Grave Robert(s) is more comprehensively pegged out: both hands symmetrically wounded (though at different battles) like stigmata, his brow penetrated by a small piece of death itself—a chip from a gravestone—and a lance of shrapnel right through the side of his torso. He dies, but he does not die. He is the green man, sacrifically pierced in the sacred wood in order to come back to life. His English name ‘Robert Graves’ with its intimations of death of burial (‘Old Gravy’s got it, all right!’) is shown as containing within it his German name ‘von Ranke’ (ranken means ‘to grow in tendrils; especially of plants like ivy’); to make, yin-yang, the Green Man, the fisher king, the death of the year in winter and its regrowth in spring. In all this I'm not suggesting that Graves didn't suffer these wounds; but I am suggesting that he weaves language into a web to recuperate the raw, ghastly, inarticulable experience into something auto-mythographic. School was all boys, and the army was all men, but war itself, he is saying, is the Goddess in one of her many guises, and not only was he sacrificed upon her altar in the thicket he is now, in retrospect, glad to have been her victim. In realism is found, magically hidden, true myth.

If nothing else, this account of the charm that wards off death is worth knowing: non tu ne peus pas me tuer is a lovely tangle of paired and cross-mixing sounds: non/ne, the tu ne half-rhyming with the terminal tuer, the alliteration of peus pas centring the alliterations of non ne and tu tuer to leave me, the object of the charm, standing proud. It has a compactness and musical riff-on-variation sonality that could not, I think, be equalled in English. Remember it and say it yourself when your life is threatened: it might save you. I mean, who knows?

Thursday 14 March 2019

Jacqueline Wilson: the Moral Defence Against Bad Objects

The success of Jacqueline Wilson is a striking thing. In a YA literary landscape dominated by Fantasy, she has published 109 novels in a simplified realist mode, aiming to represent the often complicated nature of modern family life—her novels characteristically concern children living with single parents, or step-parents and step-children, with a focus on the emotional intensities, rather than the external adventuring, of her characters. She almost always writes about what we might, in slightly sweeping manner, call ‘the poor’: working class and lower-middle class life, lived in council houses or too-small flats, financially precarious and full of the petty existential diminishments of life lived under the iron logic of social deprivation. Often she tackles sadness directly: bereavement, separation, bullying, depression. Of her own autobiography Jackie Daydream (2007—written in the same style as her fiction; that’s its cover at the top of this post) she notes:
My childhood wasn't happy. I could have written a misery memoir for adults with lots of harrowing details, but it seems a little sad and pathetic to be whimpering about such long-ago things. It's not elegant and it's not even wise, when there could be all sorts of repercussions. In my fiction for children I deal with worrying topics like divorce, death and domestic violence, but I always try to write from a child's point of view and don't dwell too insistently on disturbing incidents. [Jacqueline Wilson, ‘I was a girl for gritty realism’, Guardian, Saturday 24 February 2007]
Yet despite this rather grim and gritty focus Wilson has been prodigiously successful: many of her books have been bestsellers; Tracy Beaker was the most borrowed library book in the UK for the first decade of this century; TV spin-offs (especially Tracy Beaker and Dustbin Baby) have become UK cultural icons. There was even a weekly magazine for a while, The Official Jacqueline Wilson Mag, though I think it's ceased publication now.

How does the textual articulation of unhappiness inform such success? Some of this has to do with the skilful way Wilson handles her subjects. She manages to simplify and, in a good sense, cartoonify the experiences of her characters (an approach neatly reinforced by the upbeat, colourful, doodly visual style of her main illustrator, Nick Sharrat). She concentrates more on the emotional resilience of her child-characters than on their misery, and she captures something important about kids, the intensity and centrality of emotional attachment to their lives, especially the bonds forged between best friends, siblings and select adults. So this means that although her books don't always end in conventionally 'happy' ways, they're pretty uplifting to read.

And actually one of the things I like very much about Wilson is the way she engages with one of the most common tropes of Children’s Literature—the fantasy of being an orphan. In a core way she remixes this notion. Being an orphan, she says, isn’t about going on magical quests; it isn’t about discovering that you have hidden royal parents, or magic powers. Actually it’s about living in a care home and feeling lonely. Where a predominance of YA writing today gifts magical powers to its protagonists, she sticks closely to observation, plausibility and a focus on the way people feel: action in character rather than characters in action, as it were.

It’s worth dilating on the semiology of ‘orphan-ness’ in children’s literature, in order to get a little closer to what Wilson is doing, and why it speaks to so many readers. Although in fact ‘orphan’ isn’t a very good word for what we want to talk about here. Some of the child-heroes and heroines of children’s literature are orphaned because their parents are dead; but more often their parents are not dead: they are absent, or distant, or otherwise compromised. Since I’m going to discuss Wilson’s abandoned children, I may need another term. Terri Windling folds both kinds of child together in her ‘Lost and Found: The Orphaned Hero in Myth, Folklore, and Fantasy
We find them everywhere in fantasy fiction: the "orphaned heroes," young men and women whose parents are dead, absent, or unknown, who turn out to be the heirs to the kingdom, the destined pullers of swords from stones, the keys to the riddles, the prophesies' answers, the bearers of powerful magic. Think of J.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo Baggins, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, Philip Pullman's Lyra Belacqua, Garth Nix's Lirael, and Jane Yolen's White Jenna. Think of the orphaned protagonists at the heart of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books, Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn Chronicles, Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori, and countless others.
These fantasy-story clichés, says Windling, are actually ‘mythic archetypes’, and go back a long way in human culture:
This archetype includes not only those characters who are literally orphaned by the death of their parents, but also children who are lost, abandoned, cast out, disinherited by evil step–parents, raised in supernatural captivity, or reared by wild animals. We can trace the archetype back from the popular fantasy books listed above to the literary orphans of the 19th century (Dickens's Oliver Twist, Mark Twain's Huck Finn, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, to name just a few), and then further back through "foundling" stories such as Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones and William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, to a world–wide body of folk tales and myths about children orphaned and abandoned.
She goes on to talk about: Moses, Romulus and Remus, and the many orphaned or half-orphaned kids in Grimm. It evidently speaks to something important in storytelling.

Francis Spufford (in his memoir The Child That Books Built) also ponders this, and concludes that ‘the situation of abandonment seems to be a necessary one to imagine, to hug to oneself in the form of story. It focuses a self–pity that everyone wants to feel sometimes, and that perhaps helps a child or an adolescent to think through their fundamental separateness. The situation expresses the solitude humans discover as we grow up no matter how well our kinship systems work.’

There’s another way in which this works, I think, in terms of the logic of story. The point of the orphan is that s/he steps outside of the restrictions of the mundane. This is because the mundus for most child readers is defined and indeed delimited by the family; and so escaping the oppressions of the family is a symbolically magical (non-mundane) action—stepping aboard the huge flying peach and sailing through the sky; discovering one’s magical powers and so on.

What interests me here is the role death plays in this, and more particularly the way Wilson handles death. Orphan means ‘with both parents dead’ (a child one of whose parents had died and who was being raised by the other would not, I think, be called ‘an orphan’). Yet the more common type of the special child protagonist identified above is not orphaned in this sense; some, like Lyra in His Dark Materials, only think they are orphans: their story is the discovery of their parents, or indeed discovering that people close to them are actually their parents. Often, as in Grimm, only one parent is dead; and a cruel stepmother drives the child away, and so to adventure. Since ‘orphanness’ is primarily a symbolic role, its practical exigencies don’t concern us in these sorts of story. One exception to this is Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, where the almost Kafkaesque protocols of who can and cannot be appointed the Baudelaire’s legal guardians is one of the main topics of the story. Another exception, of course, is Jacqueline Wilson.

Let's start with The Story of Tracy Beaker (1991), for a long time Wilson’s most famous book (a fame compounded of the success of the CBBC series based on it, and the continuing rise to fame of Dani Harmer who played the role). Tracy Beaker treats the legal protocols of orphandom in mimetic rather than Lemony Snicket-y fantastic mode. One of the main dramatic insights of the novel, and the source of much of its emotional power, is its unflinching recognition that losing your parents is not liberating in actuality; the reality of the situation is a care home, and life in a care home is not only more emotionally denuded than family life, it is more restrictive. Her mother is not dead, but has abandoned her; her behavioural difficulties result in her being deprived of sweets and subject to other punishments; another girl called Justine Littlewood bullies her. Tracy herself deals with the deprivation of her situation by creating a compensatory fantasy-life: she repeats the story that her mother is a glamorous Hollywood movie star, and that she is coming to collect her someday soon. The fantasy Tracy spins is that the only reason her mother can’t take care of her is that she is so busy being in films. Pleasure Principle collides, as it always does, with Reality Principle: in the second Beaker novel, The Dare Game (2000), Tracy has been fostered by a woman called Cam. Tracy is a difficult child, not enjoying her school, and Cam not perfect; so the two often clash. But Cam does have Tracy’s best interests at heart.

Abruptly, Tracy's mum, Carly, reappears on the scene, and says she wants her daughter back. Cam very reluctantly agrees to let Tracy stay with her for a weekend, during which time Carly gives her many expensive presents and makes her the centre of attention. Tracy pushes to be allowed to live with her mum permanently; but a second stay is less rosy—her mum leaves her on her own for hours in order to attend a karaoke night at a pub.

It was a train of such abandonments that led to Tracy being taken into care in the first place; and she feels frightened and anxious. Carly finally comes home drunk with a man, with whom she arranged to spend the following weekend rather than seeing Tracy again. Tracy runs away, and winds up choosing to stay with Cam. In other words, the trajectory of the story is that Wilson stages a choice between delinquent biological mother and caring (though not perfect) foster mother, and Tracy chooses the latter—chooses, in a sense, to reaffirm her ‘orphan’ status. It is a surprisingly powerful piece of writing, emotionally speaking; enhanced by the deliberate simplicity of style and the pared down narrative line. ‘Realism’ is evident in the inertia of the dramatic situation: Cam doesn’t adopt Tracy, and Tracy doesn’t live happily ever after—she stays with her Foster mum at weekends and holidays.

In other words: ‘orphandom’ in the Wilsonverse is a function not of Death, but of Neglect. Death, in fact, has remarkably little purchase on her characters’ destinies. In Vicky Angel (2000) Jade’s best friend, the extravert Vicky, is hit by a car and killed; but death cannot keep them apart—Vicky returns as a ghost, although a spectre only Jacky can see.

This is a story about bereavement, and letting go; as Jade gets on with her life the ghost of Vicky becomes more controlling, prompting her to (for instance) saying horrid things to the boy who has expressed interest in her. Jacky accuses her:
'You want them all to be miserable.’

‘Of course!’

'For always?’


I swallow. ‘What about me?’

'Double definitely!’

'But that’s not fair.’

'It’s not fair I’ve been killed, is it?’

'I know, but …’

'You can’t be happy without me.’

It’s an order. I have to obey orders. [101]
Jade feels guilty: it was after a fight between the two of them that Vicky ran off, and got run over—she blames herself. The twist at the end is that Jacky, overcome with guilt during her evidence at the (delayed) inquest into Vicky’s death, rushes from the courthouse and in front of a car.
I can hear a car, I run, out into the road …

A squeal of brakes, a scream, my scream … But here are arms round me, pulling me back, hands digging right into my shoulders, pulling my hair, yanking my clothes. I turn. It’s Vicky. … ‘You saved me,’ I say. ‘But I didn’t save you. It was all my fault. I pushed you away.’

'You pushed me, yeah. But you didn’t push me under the car. I ran out, you know I did. It wasn’t your fault. It was mine. My bad luck the car hit me.' [156]
By absolving her of the guilt at her death, Vicky achieves an It’s A Wonderful Life-style redemption:
'Oh Vicky I love you!’

'I love you too.’

We hug tightly, my arms round her. I feel her warmth, her smooth skin, her silky hair, and …

‘What on earth?’

Vicky looks over her shoulder.

'Oh my God!’ She bursts out laughing. ‘Hey! Vicky Angel! I’ve made it.

We have one last hug and then, as Mum and Dad catch up, Vicky leaps into the air. She flaps wings as white as swansdown, waves one last time, and flies away.
The corporeality of this ‘ghostly’ appearance that interests me. It is less sacramental (and religion, as belief system or social praxis, is oddly absent from the Wilsonverse) and more practical—kids understand the tactile, hugs and comfort, better than the abstract. ‘No ideas but in things’ might be Wilson’s mantra, actually—it’s all very show-don’t-tell, and I approve.

Let’s summarise the storylines of a couple of Wilson novels. We’ve mentioned two: Tracy Beaker is a lively, sometimes naughty but good-hearted girl, who is abandoned by her mother at a care home; when her mother comes back (in The Dare Game) Tracy eventual disappointment leads to her running away to a secret house where she meets her care home friends to plan ‘dares’. Here she gets into an argument with Alexander, a feeble kid: she pushes him and he breaks his leg. Tracy feels very guilty.

In Vicky Angel Jade is the timid good girl, Vicky the outgoing naughty best friend. The two are inseparable. One day they have a fight, Jade pushes Vicky away, Vicky runs off and gets hit and killed by a car. Jade feels terribly guilty.

In Hetty Feather Hetty is a lively, sometimes naughty but good-hearted girl, who is abandoned by her mother at a Foundling Hospital. A circus comes to town and Hetty becomes enamoured of the idea that a red-haired circus performer is her mother. As a result of this (for rather complicated plot reasons) Hetty’s foster-brother Gideon, whom Hetty tricked so that she could go to the circus, has fallen from a tree and been badly injured. Hetty feels terribly guilty.

In The Lottie Project (1997), Charlie lives with her single mum, Jo. Jo loses her job and has to make ends meet with cleaning and child-care jobs; one of her charges is called Robin. Charlie is horrified when Jo and Robin’s (single) Dad Mark manifest signs—like kissing in the fairground—that they might cop off with one another. She tells Robin that neither of his parents want him. Upset, Robin runs away from home, and Charlie is wracked with guilt.

I’m not trying to suggest that all Wilson’s stories are the same. Many are not like this at all; and she’s capable of spinning all sorts of twists. In My Sister Jodie (2008), sisters Pearl and Jodie are at a posh school (their parents take jobs at the school as cook and caretaker to make this happen), but Jodie gets bullied—unjustly—as a ‘tart’. Resentful, she deliberately scares the younger kids with ghost stories; but after dressing as a ghost in the school tower (it's the kind of school that has a tower) she scares one so badly he runs off weeping. She feels bad. Attempting to call after him from the tower to reassure him she falls, breaks her neck and dies.

In Bad Girls (1996) 10-year-old Mandy White is a timid, good girl, raised by very overprotective mother; she is bullied at school. She makes friends with Tanya, a lively older girl being fostered by their next door neighbour. Tanya quickly becomes Mandy’s best friend, though she is a troubled girl with a long criminal record for shoplifting. In the end Tanya and Mandy are caught by police when Tanya steals from an upmarket clothing shop in town. Tanya is moved to a distant foster home; Mandy’s mother, though angry at first, realises by the end of the book that she has been smothering her daughter, and permits her to restyle her hair to look older.

In Lily Alone (2011), Lily’s dippy (single) mum goes off to Spain with her new boyfriend, telling Lily to contact her biological father and have him come down to look after her and her younger half-sisters and half-brother. Lily’s Dad refuses, and tells Lily to insist that her Mum doesn’t leave; Lily says she has passed this message on (in fact her Mum is already in Spain). Angry, she doesn’t contact any other adults and tries to look after siblings alone; when a teacher comes round to see why they’re not at school Lily is afraid social services will come and separate her from her siblings; so she persuades them to run away with her. Lily steals food for them and they sleep rough in the park; when Lily sleeps Bliss, her half-sister, falls out of a tree and breaks her leg. Lily remorsefully calls an ambulance; and social workers do indeed get involved—Lily’s mum is charged with child endangerment and neglect, and Lily is separated from her siblings.

It’s more often than not ‘mothers’ at fault in these books (not always, though: Cookie (2008) is about a horrible, hypercritical moody and tantrum-prone father). And the protagonists are almost always (always? I’m trying to think of a counter-example) girls. So the ‘thing’ Wilson is tapping into has to something to do with the mother-daughter vertical psychodynamic (often inverted—that is to say, with daughters having to look after mothers, as in The Mum Minder or The Illustrated Mum), and the daughter’s ‘horizontal’ sibling or friendship relations.

There is something impressively sophisticated about all this, psychologically speaking—a sophistication perhaps belied by the apparent ‘simpleness’ of Wilson’s textual strategies. It’s a lot, actually, to unpack; and I’m going to close by quoting an An Und Für Sich blogpost (one of Jeremy’s) that discusses David Celani’s 1994 book The Illusion of Love: Why the Battered Women Returns to Her Abuser. Celani is a clinical psychologist who has been influenced by the Scottish psychoanalyst, Ronald Fairbairn:
Whereas Klein attempted to reconcile drive theory with object relations, Fairbairn rejected drive theory (and the notion of death drive & innate aggression), believing that aggression is a reaction to deprivation. Moreover, Fairbairn prioritized attachment over the pleasure principle and famously suggested that the libido is object-seeking. Fairbairn began his career in a Scottish orphanage and worked with many children who had been abused and/or neglected. Fairbairn observed many things that were troubling that made him question classical psychoanalytic theory. Celani writes, “these children preferred to face the threat of being beaten to death in their own homes by their own parents rather than the physical safety of staying in the foundling home without their parents.” (p. 24). Second, Fairbairn recognized that these deprived children were more attached and dependent upon their mothers than are children in non-abusive situations. Celani states, “The more they are deprived, the more they are fixated” (p. 26). For Fairbairn, these observations make sense if one understands that the child’s greatest fear is [the fear of] not being loved by the primary caretaker. Their desperate clinging to bad objects is based on the hopeless fantasy that one day their caretaker will give them the love for which they yearn. Fairbairn described typical defenses used by these children to cope with their painful, traumatic situations. First, they might use “the moral defense against bad objects”, which are complex rationalizations that the child uses to justify parental neglect and/or abuse. For instance, “my father did not beat me because he’s an alcoholic sadist who might injure me at any moment” but “if I had cleaned my room better I bet father wouldn’t have been so mad. I’m so lazy sometimes, and I probably deserved to learn that lesson the hard way.” Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morality, “Man, as the animal that is most courageous, most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering as such: he wants it, even seeks it out, provided one shows him some meaning in it, some wherefore of suffering” (p. 136). These children cannot acknowledge the fact that they randomly suffer because this reality is absolutely terrifying. Instead, they find ways to maintain a sense of control by citing trivial personal and moral flaws (any attempt to create meaning) that explain parental mistreatment. Second, these children often regularly engage in splitting (a psychological mechanism that separates good experiences from bad experiences). Celani suggests that the splitting of the ego leads to two separate selves: the hopeful self (created by experiences when the parent was gratifying) and the abused self (created by experiences when the parent was rejecting). Splitting is necessary when the child’s primary objects were abusive and/or neglectful and allows the child to keep the parent (and the resulting self-states) into separate parts of their mind. If the child were to integrate these self- and object-representations then the child would be forced to confront the fact that their parent was much more abusive than gratifying. Children avoid integration because it might permit “the small moments of past goodness from being washed away by the larger tide of rejection” (p. 134).
The hopeful self and the abused self maps well onto Wilson’s dramatic instincts for representing two-party girl friendships; but the thing here that most strikes me is the way her novels orchestrate such affective potency about, precisely, the ‘moral defense against bad objects’. The more I think about this, the more it seems to me central to the being-in-the-world of kids—not just abused or abandoned kids, or kids growing up in environments of social deprivation (the actual constituency of Wilson’s dramatis personae) but all kids. And that may be why so many kids not from those backgrounds find Wilson’s fiction so absorbing and even consoling.

Friday 8 March 2019


[Below is my translation of the OE poem The Seafarer. The image above is ‘Contact’, an installation by the Japanese art collective 目 (pronounced ) presently in the Mori Art Museum.]

May I by my self         reckon a strong song,
share my sea-travels, speak         of struck sufferings,
weary weeks         of wakeful worrying,
how burdens of bitterness         brought me low. 
Aboard my craft I knew         crowds of cares:
a wrangling wavewash         often worked me
nervy nightwatches         navigating the ship
lest we be cliff-crashed.         Cold-throttled
were my feet,         frost-fixed,
cold clasped me,         and cares seethed
hot in my heart,         hunger slating my innards
marineweary mood.         Most men never know it.
A fellow on farmland?         Fine things befall him!
But I, always illstruck         on an icecold sea,
wasted my winter         down the ways of exile,
bereft of fine kinsmen,      
hung heavy with icicles         harangued by hail.
Nothing to hear         but the howling sea
and its icecold surge.         A swan's song
was all my company;         gannets' calls
and curlews' cries         came to me as a comfort:
seamews' moans         instead of mead-drinking!
Storms beat the stonecliffs         where the terns sang
icy-feathered;         eagles' fanfares
gleaming-feathered.         No glad-kinsmen
made this mourning         man more comfortable.
Little does he realise,         life's lucky-one
abiding in some borough         far from all bad things,
proud, tipsy on wine,         whilst I'm punchdrunk
stunned on the sealanes         stuck solid.

Nightshadows enlarge.         Snow gnarls from the north;
ice seals the soil;         hail is sown on the ground,
glacial grains.         How grievous now are
my heart's hard thoughts,         and these high streams
my sole struggle         are self-selected.
Months mark my desire,         measuring when next
I again unfurl sails         heading far from here
to the stranger's land         that I set out to seek.
For there is no man so         majestic on earth,
none so generous with gifts,         no juvenile so juiced-up,
no longshanks so lionhearted,         none so loved by his lord,
but that as soon as he sails         anxiety assaults him:
dreading what his lord         might do with him.
No harp's glissando         nor gifts of rings,
nor the winning of wives         nor worldly glory,
nor anything else either         except ocean's agitation.
But he's driven by wanting,         at war with the waves.

Forests blossom         burghs become fairer,
the wolds look wonderful,         the world renews
and all is urgent.         So the eager soul
is inspirited to sail out,         and sets itself to
follow the floodways         as a far-traveller.
It's the cuckoo's counsel,         her melancholy call:
summer's ward sings         a prophecy of sorrow and
bitterness in the breast.         The bloke back-home barely knows,
(though a celebrated soldier!)         what others suffer
those that wander wide         through exile's wilderness.

While my soul writhes         under my ribs,
my spirit soars         skimming the saltwater 
over the whale paths         wandering wide,
to all earth's corners,         coming back to me
eager, still greedy,         a gabbling one-flier,
urging the whale-way         on the unresisting heart
over heaving seas.         Hotter for me the
delights of the Lord         than this dead life,
brief on earth's bosom.         I do not believe
that all this earth-wealth         ultimately endures.
One of three things         through it all
is destined to         dissolve all dubeity:
illness or old-age         or the edged-sword's hate
will dig out the soul         from those doomed-to-die.
It's this way for all of us:          afterwards, eulogies and
love from the living         the best last words,
this one's works          before he went his ways:
wealth in a world         at war with fiends,
his daring deeds         defying those devils,
heirs yet unborn         will be in awe of him,
and his after-fame         will abide with the angels
always and ever,         the honour of eternal life,
a deathless delight.         But the great days have declined,
the regal renown         of earthly riches.
There are not kings         nor great commanders,
nor wealthgivers         as once there were,
those mighty men         who accomplished marvels,
so much amazing         majesty was theirs!
That delight's dead now:         the dream has departed.
Weaker ones now dwell         with the world their holding;
hard-work made it theirs.         Higher glory is humbled,
earth's nobleness and         all its ages evaporate,
as does each man         across middle-earth.
Old-age overtakes him,         obscures his face:
his grey-hairs grieve         for the friends who have gone,
aristocratic offspring         all interred in the ground.
His flesh unfastens itself         as his soul's fire fails,
he can't taste the sweetness         nor sense the sour,
no heft in his hand         nor thought in his head.
Though his graveside will         be strewn with gold
by brothers of his blood         though they bury with him
cornucopias of cash         you can't take it with you.
No person's soul,         so full of sin, can
grasp such gold         given God's displeasure,
though he'd hidden it all         when he still had his health.

In awe of the Almighty         earth averts her eyes.
It was He gave us         the hefty ground,
the earth's whole surface         and the sky above.
Only a fool doesn't fear God;         death finds such a fellow faceless.
The holy man is humbler         husked in heaven's mercy,
the Maker sets his mind steady,         who fathoms His might.
Man must steer a strong spirit,         and keep a settled course,
and cleave to his crew         with a clean wisdom,
his men must be         mustered effectively
love him in the light times         and be loyal in the dark.
He must firm his will to the         final fall of fire
when the funeral pyre         flames balefully 
fashioned by his family.         Fate is far stronger,
the Maker much mightier         than any man's mind.
Come, consider         where we can locate home,
and then think hard         how best to get thither,
to make every effort,         so that we might
enter in that everlasting         ecstasy,
whose life relies         on loving the Lord,
in the hope of heaven.         Thanks to the Holy One,
that he gave to the world,         this gift of Glory,
everlasting God,         in all the earth's ages!