‘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 28 May 2019
Thackeray drew a manuscript ABC as a gift for his young friend Edward Frederick Chadwick in 1833 (it was published in a facsimile edition in 1930). Most of the drawings are conventional: an alligator for A, a trout for T and so on. Thackeray's X is in a different class, though.
Sunday 26 May 2019
“‘Will Smith don't gotta cuss in his raps to sell records’The new Aladdin live-action is not terrible. That's as far as I'm prepared to go, value-judgement wise. It's colourful, lively, and manages to be unsaggy even if it is too long—43% longer than the original, according to Forbes. Then again, its fun is a little on the strenuous side, and Ritchie's direction, while often inventive in terms of where the camera is moving (and uninhibited about using pixilation to speed-up the dancing) isn't quite pacey enough, overall. Beats are consistently lingered-on when they should be bounced through. The mix of ‘Arabian’ cliché with Bollywood stylings and a splash of African-American wiseacre is either a cleverly inclusive move or else Orientalism 101, actually. Song-lyrics have been updated and a new song, ‘Speechless’, added. But though this is fine in itself, it's a Frozen-style belter that sorts poorly with the rest of the score, those gorgeous, light-footed, musically and lyrically witty songs ‘One Jump Ahead’, ‘Never Had a Friend Like Me’ and especially the glorious ‘Prince Ali’ (here denied its reprise).
Well, I do, so fuck him and fuck you too”
Wisely (‘choose wisely, May’ says the film’s poster, as if addressing its message to Theresa directly)—wisely, I say, Ritche and Smith decided to avoid any kind of Robin Williams impression where the genie is concerned. And Smith's personal charm communicates itself nicely to the role, although the fizz and anarchy that defined the original's brilliance is, inevitably, lost. But there are two things about this remake that are very bad. One is Marwan Kenzari's Jafar, a performance wholly missing the high-camp melodramatic excess and splendour of Jonathan Freeman's original turn. Gurn as he might, Kanzari simply lacks menace, and without that menace the whole thing falls apart.
The other problem here is the parrot. The production team decided not to ask Gilbert Gottfried to reprise his Iago, which removes what was, in the original, one of the film's funniest characters. Instead they try to make Iago sinister. It doesn't work. During the movie's denouement Jafar, having become the world's most powerful sorceror, sends a hugely enlarged version of Iago chasing after Aladdin, as the latter flies off on his magic carpet with the lamp. It's lame. What should be an exciting chase-scene is instead, Boy Evades Big Bird. The intention, clearly, was to create a Dread Parrot, but it is not dread, it's passed over. This parrot is no more, he has ceased to be (of interest to the movie): he's a stiff, bereft of cinematic life, he's run down the multiplex curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible. This is an SFX-Parrot.
Saturday 18 May 2019
You know what's foolish? Posting a blog about how Game of Thrones will end literally hours before Game of Thrones actually ends. Could I offer-up a more immediate hostage to fortune? I could not. Yet here I am, and I'm here in part because I want to notate my reactions to an interesting article by Zeynup Tufekci that diagnoses the ills of Thrones Series 8 in terms of a shift from Martin's broadly sociological novels to Benioff and Weiss more Hollywood-conventional psychological understanding of what storytelling is. It makes a persuasive case, although I don't think it's right, actually. But maybe I'm the one who's not right. At any rate if the final episode falsifies everything I say here, then I can always come back here and delete this whole post. It'll be as if it never existed, vanished like breath into the wind!
The truth is, I'm not really expatiating about Game of Thrones in this blog so much as I'm trying to think-through some larger questions with respect to Fantasy as a mode.
So my jumping-off point is Zeynup Tufekci’s recent Scientific American article ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones’. The article's thesis is summed-up in its subheader: ‘it's not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological.’ Once upon a time, argues Tufekci, Game of Thrones followed Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire in telling a story about society as a whole: individual characters mattered, but not so much as the larger shaping forces of society and culture. Since the show ran out of novels to adapt, show-runners Benioff and Weiss have taken over storytelling duties and in doing so have defaulted to the Standard Hollywood Storytelling Mode, viz. concentrating on a few psychologically-focalised, character-based storylines.
For Benioff and Weiss, trying to continue what Game of Thrones had set out to do, tell a compelling sociological story, would be like trying to eat melting ice cream with a fork. Hollywood mostly knows how to tell psychological, individualized stories. They do not have the right tools for sociological stories, nor do they even seem to understand the job.There’s something in this, I suppose; but not as much as all that. Martin does deserve credit for trying to round-out his worldbuilding with some sociological nuance and some economic context. I’m not sure he goes very far down this path, though. I don’t want to sound snippy, but I fear I will when I suggest: the economic component of Song of Ice and Fire never develops very far beyond the slightly sophomoric gotcha: ‘but how did Sauron pay his orc army, eh? Where did all the money come from, eh? eh?’ Some years ago Matthew Yglesias posted a three-part ‘analysis’ of the economics of Westeros: a fun read that depends on that particular brand of niche tongue-in-cheekery where ‘serious’ critique is expended on an unserious topic, a kind of geekbombing that makes serious points in a deniable way. That's pretty much the only way to address this aspect of Martin's writing, I think, without falling into sheer pompous-faced stiffness.
I suppose a Fantasy novelist describing a dark lord marching his swarming army of yrchs across green fields towards serried ranks of ulven warriors in their gleaming armour without addressing the question of how it all gets paid-for is, by one metric, being naif. But that’s really not necessary a problem, I think, in this specific context of Fantasy writing. Naïveté may be a kind of ludicrous gullibility, but it might also be a holier kind of innocence. The word comes, like nativity, from the Latin nativitas: which means a birth, a newness coming into the world. Many people turn to Fantasy precisely because they are yearning for a world in which innocence is possible, in which the grime and cynicism of modernity gets washed clean in a kind of re-birth. In a recent blogpost I quoted Dorothy Sayers on why she loved medieval art and culture, and I like the quotation so much I'm going to roll it out it again:
And so Roland rides out, into that new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown summer of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth. It is also a world full of blood and grief and death and naked brutality, but also of frank emotions, innocent simplicities and abounding self-confidence—and world with which we have so utterly lost touch that we have fallen into using the words “feudal” and “medieval” as mere epithets for outer darkness. Anyone who sees gleams of brightness in that world is accused of romantic nostalgia for a Golden Age that never existed, But the figure of Roland stands there to give us the lie: he is the Young Age as that age saw itself. Compared with him, the space-adventurers and glamour-boys of our times, no less than the hardened toughs of Renaissance epic, seem to have been born middle-aged. [Dorothy L Sayers, ‘Introduction’, The Song of Roland (Penguin 1957), 17]Youth is the very currency of nativitas, and the life blood of Fantasy. But Game of Thrones is not young. It's old, and even its young characters, like child-soldier Arya, are old before their time. Old does not necessarily map onto wisdom, any more than nativitas is necessarily naive. Real-life armies need more than just pay. They need whole logistics corps: supply lines and operations officers, organisation on a huge scale; and real-life medieval or Renaissance armies also trailed long queues of camp-followers behind them. We can talk about them, if we like, in our Fantasy novels; but many readers aren’t going to note their lack in the Fantasy blockbuster de jour, any more than we miss them in The Song of Roland. Omitting these details is not realistic, of course; but then again Fantasy is very particularly not Realism.
The obvious rejoinder here is that whatever it is that fans of Game of Thrones go to the show for, it's not innocence. On the contrary: the whole point of GoT is to deconstruct notions of honour, nobility, loyalty and innocence and reveal them for the whited sepulchres they are, or at least that the consensus nowadays believes them to be. Tolkien’s vision was Beowulf and the Song of Roland; Martin’s is Machiavelli. Fair enough—there, if anywhere, a properly sociological comprehension of Fantasy is merited, surely.
To return to Tufekci’s argument: she is putting her finger on something that has gone awry in the final season of the show. The anger of the fans indexes something, for sure; I’m just not sure it’s animadversion to a shift of storytelling emphasis. The fans who called their children Khaleesi or had Dani 4 Ever tattoos are angry that the character onto whom they projected their fantasies of redemption and justice is doing things they don’t like (burning children to death en masse, that is)—things they consider ‘out of character’. Which is to say, their investment in the show was always psychological, all the way back.
You might object that this is me conjuring up a purely notional and strawperson fan to bolster my theory. So maybe I should try and come at the question in a different way: which is, both in terms of Fantasy fiction, but also (to scale things a little) in the world as such, to insist that ‘sociological’ and ‘psychological’ are not separate and discrete terms. This, after all, is exactly what Freud argues in Civilisation and Its Discontents. So my strawperson fan, who named their baby Khaleesi, and is now outraged at the way Danaerys’s character has developed, is actually illustrating a political—and therefore sociological—point that is, in fact, core to Martin’s Machiavellian vision: that we, as social animals, tend to project our desires and hopes onto the blank screens that professional politicians present to us precisely for that purpose. It is how one gets elected. Telling a Trump supporter that Trump is, as a human being, corrupt, wicked or incompetent (as I, personally, believe him to be) will not disarray their support, because for any Trumpist Trump is overwhelmingly a creature they have themselves written into being, using their anxieties and hopes, their resentments and fantasies. Trump is, in this respect, no different to any other politician—leftists like me certainly undertook this projection with respect to Obama—except that his vulgarity and spiky personal mannerisms would be, one would think, more likely to get in the way of this process of voterly projection than would be the case with more designedly bland political figures. Not enough to deny him the presidency, though, evidently.
My point is that one consistent theme of Martin’s storytelling, a point to which Benioff and Weiss are I think adhering, is that reality keeps intruding into our fantasies, that cold actuality is constantly shaking us out of our dreams of how things and people might be. The Danaerys storyline is just this, magnified by being in a narratively climactic place in the show. Life is not inclined to accomodate your fantasies. It's a core truth of social existence, and it tends to make us unhappy. That's Freud's argument, in a nutshell.
Lionel Trilling (of all people) has a good take on Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents:
Despite Freud’s gifts of lucid expression, Civilisation and its Discontents is a difficult book, in some part because it undertakes to lead us beyond an idea with which we are familiar and comfortable, that society is the direct and ‘sufficient’ cause of man’s frustration. Its central thesis is that society is no more than the ‘necessary’ cause of frustration. As Freud now describes the dynamics of the unconscious, the direct agent of man’s unhappiness is an element of the unconscious itself. The requirements of civilization do indeed set in train an exigent disciplinary process whose locus is the ego, but this process, Freud says in effect, is escalated by the unconscious ego far beyond the rational demands of the societal situation. The informing doctrine of Civilisation and its Discontents is that the human mind, in the course of instituting civilization, has so contrived its own nature that it directs against itself an unremitting and largely gratuitous harshness. [Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), 151]Fantasy as a literary (and televisual) mode has a close relation to fantasy as a psychological driver, I think. We go to these texts because they provide something we lack in in our day-to-day: some sense of enchantment, or plenitude, or some connection with a past and a land—some myth, perhaps—and the pleasures of escapism to a more elegant, pre-industrial and pre-modern world. It might seem unlikely that people wish to ‘escape’ to Westeros (life is so nastily brutish-short there, after all) but it seems they do, and in large numbvers. Perhaps that’s not so counterintuitive, actually. I don't doubt there are Game of Thrones fans enamoured of all the Noble Houses and family trees, the city-states and legends, all the cod-chivalric trappings, and the fact that the show themselves reveals these as a mere window-dressing for a widespread Hobbesian social horrors means such fans get to have their chivalric cake and eat it too as knowing-moderns. And this is not to account for the simpler, more psychotic mode of ‘escapism’ pleasing, I daresay, to some, of a world in which consequence-free killing, raping and torturing is more readily to hand.
On the subject of Freud’s ‘social’ psychological theorising (‘from the first a conception of society had been central to Freud’s psychology: the ego was a social entity [and] society was the field of its experience’) Trilling goes on:
The specific agent of this extravagant severity is an element of the unconscious which has not been named in what I have said so far about psychoanalysis, though its activities have been referred to—they are those ‘extremely high ones’ of moral judgement and self-criticism ... the process it [the super-ego] has instituted against the ego is largely gratuitous beyond the needs of reason and beyond the reach of reason. The particular kind of pain it inflicts is that which Freud calls guilt [Trilling, 151-52]Guilt, here, is not ‘the consciousness of wrong-doing, which Freud calls remorse’; it is ‘precisely that which does not originate in actual wrong-doing and that is not conscious’. I wonder if this isn’t part of the way Game of Thrones figures, as culture-text, too; and whether this might explain in part its extraordinary popularity. We commit no actual wrong-doing in watching it, and yet it is designed to make us feel guilty for watching nonetheless—as we soak-up all the nudity and the torture-scenes, the violence and the double-crossing. What kind of person could enjoy sitting in comfort and watching such horrors unfold? Our kind, evidently. It's Sadean, is what it is. ‘Tits and dragons’ fans say, and that’s a twist of self-deprecation that's also a little guilty start. Saying we rate Thrones for its unflinching realpolitik is this generation’s ‘I only read Playboy for the articles’.
It may look like I’m now swinging back towards Tufekci’s position: that this show’s appeal is grounded in the psychological, not the sociological. But I don’t think so. Freud’s point is that the larger social structures, the possibilities and constraints of social life as such, are horizoned by these givens, this pushme-pullyou of our psychic desires, both socially acceptable and socially unacceptable, and the frictions of external and internal repressions to hold them in check.
Another way of saying this would be to make the argument that Benioff and Weiss are actually interested in the old Scottian dynamic—I'm talking about the Waverley dilemma: which of these two should be king? This figure from the romantic past, whose claim is based on succession and traditional lineal legitimacy? Or this figure from the unromantic present, whose claim is based on competence and a willingness to accept that times have changed? Do you go with the Tories or the Whigs, the charismatic but hopeless Bonny Prince Charlie or the dreary and in many ways repellent but competent and modern Hanoverians and their ministers? That, I would hazard my guess, is where the final series will end up, posing this choice: Danaerys the Jacobite? Or one or other Stark, the Hanoverian? For Scott the novelistic and dramatic potential was in the wavering of a middle-rank character between these two worlds—indecision is a kind of psychological quantity, I suppose, but as Lukacs says this is actually Scott’s canny formal mechanism for registering the dialectic of historical development in a novelistic idiom. If I’m right, Danaerys cannot rule, any more than The Young Pretender can capture London and sit on the British throne. We’ll see, I suppose.
This last point brings me to something I’ve been thinking about over the last few days—that part of the explanation for the current boom in Fantasy is that this has become how we apprehend history. Actual historical fiction is still being written in large amounts, and is still popular of course; but these sorts of Fantasy versions of history give ‘us’ something mere historical verisimilitude cannot where actual history is concerned. But that's a subject for a different overlong blogpost.
Friday 17 May 2019
On the 13th June, the paperback of my novelisation of Anthony Burgess's The Black Prince is published; and in the run-up to that auspicious event I am going to turn this blog over to some self-promotion. At the same time, I'm trying to get my thoughts into some kind of order with respect to Fantasy as a genre—germane, that, since The Black Prince is both a (carefully researched!) historical novel and a work of Fantasy, or at any rate the closest I have come as a writer to producing such a thing. That's not so surprising, I suppose. There are many parallels, obviously, between what a writer of Fantasy does and what a historical novelist does: worldbuilding an unfamiliar environment, recreating the mindworld of characters who believe in magic, construing the-past-as-such into some kind of present-day relevancy (for what else are Tolkien, Moorcock and George R R Martin doing if not that?)
I have a day-job: Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, which also proved relevant to my writing of this novel. You might be surprised by just how passionate the Victorians were about the medieval period. This was the century when interest in Arthurian legends revived (Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and all that), and thinkers, poets and artists from Ruskin to Swinburne and William Morris devoted most of their creative energies to the middle ages. So going medieval was, for me, something like a homecoming.
It’s making me ponder what it is about the middle ages that possess such glamour for minds like mine. After all, ‘medieval’ is sometimes used nowadays as a synonym for primitive, and life without proper dentistry, central heating or—for the vast majority of the population—any life opportunities at all beyond the local village and feudal chores is very far from an appealing prospect. Still: there’s some charisma in the period that can’t be explained simply by dewy-eyed cosplay nostalgia. How can we be nostalgic for something we’ve never experienced anyway?
One of the things that Burgess was adamant about in his Black Prince project was that he wasn’t interested in a rose-tinted soft-soap world. This was often a very violent time—by modern standards extraordinary and often casually violent—a calcified and stifling social structure, lacking many of the modern amenities that render today’s life bearable. But it’s also clear from reading his screenplay that he didn’t just think of the middle ages that way. After all, if life back then really was nothing but grime and pain, then why would we want to read about it at all?
So: in putting The Black Prince together I worked carefully to balance out Burgess’s unflinching portrayal of the darker side of Edward’s career with some feel for the allure of the historical period itself. Amongst the research I did was reading Dorothy L Sayers’s translation of The Song of Roland, first published by Penguin books in 1957—I’m ashamed to admit I’d never read it before. It’s wonderful! Though the battle it relates and celebrates took place in AD 778 the poem itself was written (by whom? we don’t know!) probably in the twelfth-century. Accordingly the whole poem is suffused with medieval attitudes and flavours.
This passage in particular, from Sayers’s introduction, leapt out at me as an articulation of what is so compelling about the middle ages as such:
And so Roland rides out, into that new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged) but which has perhaps a better right than the blown summer of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-birth. It is also a world full of blood and grief and death and naked brutality, but also of frank emotions, innocent simplicities and abounding self-confidence—and world with which we have so utterly lost touch that we have fallen into using the words “feudal” and “medieval” as mere epithets for outer darkness. Anyone who sees gleams of brightness in that world is accused of romantic nostalgia for a Golden Age that never existed, But the figure of Roland stands there to give us the lie: he is the Young Age as that age saw itself. Compared with him, the space-adventurers and glamour-boys of our times, no less than the hardened toughs of Renaissance epic, seem to have been born middle-aged. [Dorothy L Sayers, ‘Introduction’, The Song of Roland (Penguin 1957), 17]I think this passage struck me so forcibly because the subject of my novel, the Black Prince himself, was so extraordinarily young—his father deliberately held back and let him take charge at Crecy when he had just turned sixteen years of age, and, like a Romantic poet, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy his inheritance, or his maturity. And yet his unprecedented string of battlefield successes (and his ultimate untimely end) are the stuff not of legend, like Roland, but of history. Youth! Youth!
Take a closer look at the roundel that adorns the cover of that old penguin edition of Sayer's translation:
It is taken from a stained-glass window of Chartres Cathedral that is, as a whole, dedicated to telling the Legends of Charlemagne. On the right, there, you can see the mighty hero Roland himself, after his heroic but doomed defence of the pass of Roncevaux, blowing his mighty horn to summon the emperor’s army to avenge him. The figure on the left is also Roland, now dying, attempting to break his sword Durendal—‘Harder-than-hard’—on a ‘marble stone’ beneath a ‘fair tree fall’, rather than suffer it to fall into the hands of the Saracens (many of whose dead lie all around):
Count Roland smites the sardine stone amain.He dies before he can dispose of his sword, and the poem is neither evasive nor sentimental on death, on the savagery and hideousness of the battlefield and the waste of war. But it is a poem that captures the gleam of something finer too, and I hope that my novel, in its different way, manages to do so too.
The steel grides loud, but neither breaks nor bates.
Now when he sees that it will nowise break
Thus to himself he maketh his complaint:
“Ah Durendal! So brave, so bright, so gay!
How does thou glitter and shine in the sun’s rays! …
Now am I grieved and troubled for my blade;
Should Paynims get it, ‘twere worse than all death’s pains
Dear God forbid it should put France to shame!” [2312-37]
Tuesday 14 May 2019
I've been reading Gray's recent book on atheism. I'm not sure why I don't like Gray more; part of me thinks I ought to. He's smart, winningly pessimistic, wide-ranging and his interests overlap with mine to a large extent. Something's missing, there, for me; though I'm not sure what it is.
Anyway, near the beginning of this Empsonian volume Gray says something that intrigued me. His line is that ‘atheism’ as a term ‘does not amount to very much. It is simply the absence of the idea of a creator-god.’
There is precedent for thinking of atheism in these terms. In the ancient European world atheism meant a refusal to participate in traditional practices honouring the gods of the polytheistic pantheon. Christians were described as “atheists” (in Greek, atheos meaning “without gods”) because they worshipped only one god. Then as now, atheism and monotheism were sides of the same coin. [Gray, Seven Types of Atheism, 2]I'd not heard this, and it intrigued me. So I looked into it. So far as I can see it's not true: nobody in the ancient world used the word ἄθεος to describe people who worshipped only one god. But I don't suppose Gray simply made the fact up; I daresay he found it somewhere. I'm interested to know where. [Update: in the comments below, my friend Alan Jacobs shows that Gray didn't just make it up, and provides the sources after which I ask]
Liddell and Scott define ἄθεος as meaning ‘without God, denying the gods, esp. those recognized by the state’. They specify the last bit because their first reference is to Plato's Apology 26c, where Socrates asks Meletus:
I am unable to understand whether you say that I teach that there are some gods, and myself then believe that there are some gods, and am not altogether godless and am not a wrongdoer in that way, that these, however, are not the gods whom the state believes in, but others, and this is what you accuse me for, that I believe in others; or you say that I do not myself believe in gods at all and that I teach this unbelief to other people.Meletus says ‘that is what I say, that you do not believe in gods at all’ and Socrates replies ‘you amaze me, Meletus!’
L&S also cite Cicero's judgment of Diagoras, known as ‘Diagoras the Atheist’, from De Natura Deorum, iii 37: ‘a friend pointed out an expensive display of votive gifts to Diagoras and said, “You think the gods have no care for man? Why, you can see from all these votive pictures here how many people have escaped the fury of storms at sea by praying to the gods who have brought them safe to harbor.” To which Diagoras replied, “Yes, indeed, but where are the pictures of all those who suffered shipwreck and perished in the waves?”’ Atheus ille qui dicitur says Cicero, which seems fair enough. Then again, Diagoras was not a popular fellow in his native Greece. He was, notes J M Robertson, ‘charged with divulging the Eleusinian and other mysteries, and with making firewood of an image of Herakles, telling the god thus to perform his thirteenth labour by cooking turnips, became thenceforth one of the proverbial atheists of the ancient world, and a reward of a silver talent was offered for killing him, and of two talents for his capture alive; despite which he seems to have escaped.’
L&S go on to cite examples of the word as meaning ‘godless, ungodly’ and ‘abandoned of the gods’. There's a poem by Bacchylides (his eleventh ode) where Hera drives the daughters of Proteus mad by forcing them to disbelieve in the gods, a strange sort of punishment, one might think, for a god to inflict on a mortal: ‘while still virgins, they entered the sanctuary of the purple-belted goddess, and said that their father far surpassed in wealth the golden-haired consort of holy, widely powerful Zeus. In anger at them, she put a twisted thought into their minds, and they fled to the wooded mountain with terrible screams, leaving behind the city of Tiryns and its god-built streets’. At the end of the ode, Hera reverses her judgment and cures the girls of their μανιᾶ ἀθέων, their ‘atheist mania’ or ‘atheist madness’, and in return they (wisely, I'd say) ‘built her a sanctuary and an altar right away, and stained it with the blood of sheep, and set up choruses of women’ [this is Diane Arnson Svarlien's 1991 translation]. L&S also note that the word might be used adverbially ἄθεως, to mean ‘by the anger of heaven’ ‘in most unholy wise’. In all this there's a clear semantic field for the word: atheism is an ill-advised disbelief in the gods, perhaps a madness, certainly inauspicious and unholy.
Friday 3 May 2019
Cleanness interests me. I once wrote a literary-critical academic monograph about the subject, not something many people can, or indeed would want to, boast. Indeed, I'd say the topic tends to interest me more and more the further we retreat into retro-fascism as a species. Precisely because it's a manfest good in its simple sense—washing your hands, brushing your teeth—cleanness as a concept slides easily into some very dangerous places. Keeping your own body clean means soap and water, and is advisable; keeping your body-politic ‘clean’ means murdering many Jews, or locking up refugee children in cages, and is hideous. Think of that ghastly euphemism ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Becoming a parent focused the issue for me, I suppose: so much of parenting is drilling your little-ones in the necessity of cleanliness (‘brush your teeth!’ you yell into your cooling cup of tea as they ready themselves for school in the morning). When kids are tiny there is a great deal of cleanness rigmarole, since attending the little darlings means literally clearing up their shit, wiping away their sick, washing their nakedness and veiling it behind a talcum-cloud of unknowing. Of course, the struggle continues as they age (‘tidy your room!’ you yell into your cooling cup of tea as they return from school and thunderously clump upstairs).
In addition to these two things, cleanness's simple somatic sense and its much more contested and perilous political sense, cleanness has a spiritual sense that interacts with the other two in complex ways. Consider Cleanness, or I should say Clannesse, the lengthy Middle English alliterative poem written at some point in the late 14th century by we-don't-know-who. It's a religious poem stressing the need for us to clean up our act if we want to get into heaven. Here's how it starts:
Clannesse who so kyndly cowþe comende‘... in case of the contrary ...’ means: if this individual were to commend the opposite thing (that is, dirtiness) then huge cares and cumbrances would be his. A few lines later:
rekken vp alle þe resounz þat ho by ri3t askez,
Fayre formez my3t he fynde in for[þ]ering his speche
& in þe contrare kark & combraunce huge. [1-4]
He who would howsoever commend Cleanness,
reckon up all the reasons that she by right asks
may he find fair forms in furthering his speech
but, in case of the contrary, huge cares and cumbrance.
He is so clene in His courte, þe Kyng þat al weldez,I'm trying, though failing, to read this in the appropriately spiritual mode. It really does look like the poet is saying: ‘if you want to get to heaven, be rich’: be wealthy enough to afford the finest clothes, have time and money enough to wash and to stay clean; don't be a ‘harlat’ (‘a churl; a common man; a person, male or female, of low birth’), don't dirty yourself with manual labour. Don't hurry to heaven in hateful rags indeed. This is liable to provoke a fuck-off from most stripes of constant reader, not least because it seems directly to contradict one of the core messages of the Gospel: viz., that wealth is so far from being a guarantee of access to heaven as to be an actual impediment to it. Mark 10:25 seems unambiguous enough: ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’
& honeste in His housholde & hagherlych serued
With angelez enourled in alle þat is clene,
Boþ withine & withouten in wedez ful bry3t; ...
Me mynez on one amonge oþer, as Maþew recordez,
Þat þus clanness vnclosez a ful cler speche:
Þe haþel clene of his hert hapenez ful fayre,
For he schal loke on oure Lorde with a bone chere;
As so saytz, to þat sy3t seche schal he neuer
Þat any vnclannesse hatz on, auwhere abowte;
For He þat flemus vch fylþe fer fro His hert
May not byde þat burre þat hit His body ne3en.
Forþy hy3not to heuen in haterez totorne,
Ne in þe harlatez hod, & handez vnwaschen.
For what vrþly haþel þat hy3honour haldez
Wolde lyke if a ladde com lyþerly attyred,
When he were sette solempnely in a sete ryche,
Abof dukez on dece, with dayntys serued?
The King that wields all power is so clean in His court,
and honest in His household, and honourably served
with his angels enveloped in all that is clean,
both within and without wearing the brightest of clothes ...
I call to mind one example among many, from Matthew's gospel,
when he describes cleanness in full clear speech:
‘Wholly fair shall he be whose heart happens to be pure,
For he shall look on our Lord with blithe cheer’;
and says besides that this sight shall never be seen
by those that have any uncleanness anywhere about them;
for He that banishes all foullness far from His heart
may not bear a body that is blemished near him.
So don't hurry to heaven in hateful rags,
nor in a peasant's hood, with hands unwashed.
for what earthly aristocrat, what holder of high honour
would like to see a lad come so lamentably attired
when he had been seated solemnly in a rich seat,
above dukes on the dias, with dainties served? [17-38]
Obviously I'm missing the point. The poem is a symbolic articulation of its theme. It is not saying ‘only the rich, perfumed and well-dressed will get into heaven’, it is saying ‘these rich clothes and aristocratic manners are material representations of a non-material, spiritual truth’. We can imagine a wealthy man, outwardly well-dressed and fragrant in our world, whose soul is rag-clad and reeking; we can imagine a poor beggar, half-naked and muddy at the side of the road, whose soul shines like a babby in a Victorian advert for Pears Soap.
But, you see, here's exactly my problem. I'm not convinced people, in the main, are actually all that good at making such a distinction. I think they tend to see people-in-the-world (since in-the-world is, after all, where we all live) and to judge them on their in-the-worldness. This person is handsome, well-dressed and clean; that person is ugly, ragged and smelly. Whose is the better soul? The Cleanness poet might say ‘this individual, sitting on a fancy chair and dining with dukes isn't dining with literal lords; these are allegorical dukes and his dainty food is spiritual not bodily sustenance’. But we do not live in a world of spiritual chairs and allegorical dukes. That there is such a thing as Prosperity Theology at all surprises me, given the (it seems to me) unambiguous message of the NT regarding the disposition of loyalties where God and Mammon are concerned. But not only does such a thing exist, it dominates Christianity in America and Europe. Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can, as Wesley famously said (Margaret Thatcher quoted this line in a notable speech). It fits well with common sense: if you're doing well in this life, it must be because God likes you. And, more perniciously, vice versa: why are you poor and suffering if you have God's favour? Stands to reason. We're in a situation where it's now much easier for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God than for a man who smells like a camel to.
The answer, or so it seems to me, is to decouple physical and metaphorical cleanness. What societies need is not purity, but, precisely, admixture, contamination, variety, diversity. I strongly suspect that's what our spiritualism needs to: a kind of focused anti-puritanism, an openness of soul to otherness. A poem called Uncleanness.