‘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.

Monday 28 October 2019

O Superman

Chabon's pretty super The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) threads its story about two (fictional) comics creators in New York in the 1940s and 1950s together with many actual characters and events, from Harry Houdini, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí to Jack Kirby, Shuster and Siegel and other real-life comics properties and people. It is in part a novel ‘about’ Superman, I think; and certainly it is a novel about superheroes and superheroism. Jo Kavalier, having escaped Nazi Europe (although he's forced to leave many of his family behind) writes, and his closeted gay, polio-survivor cousin Sammy ‘Clay’ Klayman draws. Together they create ‘The Escapist’, a hero whose superpower is, well, escaping. Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to the character:
The Escapist's true identity is Tom Mayflower. He is the crippled nephew of escape artist Max Mayflower (who performs under the stage name of Misterioso). When Max is fatally shot while performing onstage, he reveals that he isn't his real uncle, having rescued him from a cruel orphanage as a baby. He gives Tom a golden key and a costume, explaining that he was recruited long ago by a mysterious organization called the League of the Golden Key to fight tyranny and free the oppressed. With his dying breath, Max commissions Tom to carry on his work. As long as Tom is wearing the costume and the key, he finds that he is no longer lame of leg and can perform amazing feats of escapology. Tom uses his powers to fight crime under the guise of the Escapist, especially against the evil forces of the mysterious criminal network, the Iron Chain ... The Escapist is also sometimes aided by his benefactors, the League of the Golden Key, a secret society dedicated to freeing the oppressed and imprisoned. They are the source of the mystic key that grants the Escapist his powers, having granted it to Tom's uncle after freeing him from kidnappers when he was younger.
I've been thinking about Superman lately (teaching him tomorrow, see) and about superheroes more generally, not least pondering the question of why they have become so culturally ubiquitous in the last decade or so. Should I go back to Kavalier & Clay? (What if it's not as good as I remember?)

Anyway: I'm struck by Chabon's governing metaphor in this novel, and wondering about how it scales to thinking about Superman and his variants. I mean escape, the actual superpower of The Escapist, translating into (comic) text the actual life-story of Kavalier, whose training as an escapologst in Czechoslovakia facilitated his escape from the Nazis (inside a coffin also containing the famous Golem of Prague). The novel spins various riffs on this theme: Clay is imprisoned by his own body in terms of disease, of his shyness, but also his, for the 1940s-50s, socially unacceptable sexual orientation, and his through-line narrative explores the ways in which he might ‘escape’ that as-it-were prison. It's also, obviously enough, Chabon twitting the notion that SF and comics are mere escapism, which is to say, the notion that such escapism is in any sense bad.

There are less successful grace-notes on the theme too: halfway through the novel Kavalier joins the navy, hoping to be able to fight Hitler; but is instead posted to a base in the Antarctic. A blocked chimney kills everyone inside by carbon monoxide posioning, all except Kavalier who is able to escape. For me this episode is a misstep, and the novel starts to lose it way afterwards. Your mileage may vary. But I very much like the way Clay is so-named both on account of his connection with the magical baked-clay golem, but also as a clef, a key, a magical way out of prison.

It is, though interesting to reconsider Superman as an escapologist rather than a super-strong, invulnerable godling, or anything along those sorts of lines. To suggest that the important thing about him was not so much that he came to Earth to fight ‘for truth, justice and the American way’ but that he came from a dying world, that he managed to escape certain death and get away. I mean, it requires some fogging of the lens to make that case, I think (Kal-El was a baby when he left Krypton after all, sent out like a parcel: he can take no credit for that escape), and I'm not sure I see that being Clark Kent was in any existential sense a prison for Superman. On the contrary, the problem with Clark Kent is that that identity is too fragile, too liable to be seen-through by anyone prepared to look twice, or add two and two. Still, that's not Chabon's take, here. ‘“To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,” Kavalier would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angoulême or to the editor of The Comics Journal. “You weren't the same person when you came out as when you went in”.’ I can sort-of see that.

But if I'm honest, the superheroes are escapologists line seems to me to put the emphasis in the wrong place. The power-fantasy of being Superman is in the can-do, isn't it? The strength and magical powers to do anything. The only can-do manifested by escapologists is that they can and do get out of the locked-box, a power that kicks-in only if they've been locked in the box in the first place. You might want to argue existentially, as it were: that in an escapological universe there are only boxes and so on; but I'm not sure how much I buy-into that particular weltanschauung, either speaking just as me, personally, or as a way of reading superheroes. Isn't it a confusion of the old chestnut concerning freedom? I mean that freedom from and freedom to are quite different valences of the term. Chabon's interested in the former, where Superman strikes me as being all about the latter. Isn't there a kind of Berlinian muddling going on here?

Krypton is backstory where Superman is concerned; the story is Earth, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and so on. Isn't it? But neither of Chabon's two main characters can escape the past, and one of the things the novel is, tacitly rather than directly, saying is: the utter destruction of Krypton, which is to say the Holocaust, still defines what it means to be a Jew, even today. Chabon, to be fair, does hint at ways of reconfiguring, or of trying to reconfigure, the vector of escapologist (‘“Forget about what you are escaping from,” he said, quoting an old maxim of Kornblum's. “Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to”.’) I don't know if he quite manages this, though.

Maybe I'm being unfair. The Superman is a Jew argument has been so thoroughly rehearsed, nowsadays as to have become pretty much a cliché: so, sure, he comes from a dying world with an exotic-sounding name, but he comes to America, like millions of immigrants before him, and reinvents himself as a clean-cut, suit-wearing, hard-worker with a gentile name. All that. And in parallel with that thesis is the idea, which I kick around in my Palgrave History of SF, that as SF owes its orgins to, and still contains in its semiological DNA a bunch of questions to do with, the Protestant Reformation (read the book if you want to know more), so the huge vogue in SF superhero characters, from Superman in 1938 through Paul Atreides in the 60s, Neo in the 90s and then back to the big-budget megagrossing MCU movies of the last decade and a half, are all ways of thinking through anxieties to do with the nature and status of the messiah, one of several grounds of ferocious contention between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th century that still, shorn of its doctrinal specificity, has powerful resonance to day. How are we saved? Are we saved? What kind of figure is this saviour, anyway? Man, or god? Strange mixture of the two? Can he marry and have kids, or is that impossible for him? If he's so powerful and good at saving, how are we not all saved and happy now? And so on.

One view of baby-superman in his escape-pod is that it's a version of baby Moses floating down the river in his basket. Sure, why not. Except ... well, except that there's little that's specifically Mosaic about grown-up Superman, is there? There's none of that let-my-people-go or burning-bush stuff even in analogue. Where (and here I'm tiptoing back to the idea that maybe Chabon has a point) there is a specifically escapological element to Christ, the prototype, I'm arguing, whose secularised iterations so dominate our present-day comic book narratives. Christ himself is locked in a tomb, with a giant stone in front of its mouth, but he gets out, Houdini-like. In a more profound sense Christ is locked in a magic box, called ‘death’, whose absolute inescapability is proved by the fact that although literally everybody in the world is locked in it at one point or another, literally none of those people have ever found a way out. But Christ does find a way out, and his apostles repeat the trick, in a stepped-down mundane sense, by breaking out of brick-and-mortar prisons. With a little angelic help, of course.
And when [Herod] had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. [Acts 12:4-7]
Pretty escapological, that, right down to the trick with the chains. Nor can the ordinary punters work out how the trick was done: ‘as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter. And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the keepers, and commanded that they should be put to death.’ Maybe that is what superheroes are about after all: breaking chains and getting out of jail as a metaphor for breaking death and evading mortality. Here's a 1939 Captain Marvel cover showing him doing both things at once:

1992's big comic event sold itself on its sheer outrageousness: Superman? Dead? The very idea!

But of course he's not dead, or rather he's only temporarily dead. The creators knew, and so did the fans, that he'd be back. And so it proved. Not dying is the key thing Superman does for us, after all.

We might say that the point of superheroes is that they blur the line between being and not being our saviours. They aren't Christ, except insofar as they symbolically are. They save the world only to discover that the world somehow isn't saved (as Mr Incredible himself says: ‘no matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid: I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for... for ten minutes?’)—which is another way of saying that they save the world in a material but not a spiritual sense, I suppose. And maybe that's the real escapology at work here. To quote Chabon again, from a different novel: ‘a messiah who actually arrives is no good to anybody. A hope fulfilled is already half a disappointment’ [Yiddish Policeman's Union, ch. 39]. We want but also don't want our saviour to come, and SF's superheroes deliver on both halves of that conflicted desire, just as SF itself both puts its fans in touch with a transcendent sublime (the scale of the universe, the sense of wonder) that is at root basically religious and flees religion into realms of exaggerated materialism, technology and science. A tricky piece of escapological evasion, really.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Brave New World and Social Stratification

[The rather lovely image at the head of this post is by Ben Frost and can be yours for a mere $950]

I've undergone, speaking personally, something of a volte face with respect to the role SF fandom, and more specifically that fan-labour of interrogating the in-text worldbuilding of this or that SF work with a view to reconciling apparent contradictions, might have in criticism more generally conceived. Why Klingons have smooth foreheads in TOS and big wrinkly ones in subsequent Trek franchises: that kind of thing. I used to think addressing such questions fun but outwith the proper business of criticism, a naive obsession with in-text plot and worldbuilding instead of attending to form, context, intertextuality, discourse and so on. Now, though, I find myself thinking that the intensity of hermeneutic pressure this kind of fan-attention manifests (at its best), combined with its special mode of suspension-of-disbelief unirony, treating culture industry ephemera as if they were at once holy texts and windows into a really existent world, can sometimes combine into something diamond-distinct and odd, something often surprisingly illuminating where texts are concerned.

At any rate, re-reading Huxley's Brave New World has tempted me down this path. So far as the novel is concerned you know the drill: Huxley's hygienic, sex-positive, radically happy utopian-dystopia is set AF (After Ford) 632 (which is to say, AD 2540). Citizens are hatched from artificial wombs rather than being born vivipariously, and are treated chemically and psychologically via Pavlovian conditioning in the hatcheries to create perfectly social individuals disposed into five separate classes (or castes). At the top are the Alphas who dress in grey and Betas who wear magenta, who do all of society's intellectual and managerial work. Then in decreasing status are the cloned Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons (dressed in green, beige and black respectively) who do all the menial, boring or repetitive work. Oxygen is deprived from these latter foetuses to varying degrees in their artificial wombs, creating degrees of brain damage, so that the Gammas are dim, the Delta's stupid and the Epsilons near moronic. All, though, are conditioned to love and feel happy in their pre-allotted roles, to shun solitude and seek out company, and to consume the products of capitalist production with unthinking enthusiasm.

In the novel everyone is happy except Bernard Marx, a clever but short and ugly Alpha Plus, living out an unconventional sexual morality. Although I don't know any critics who say so, Bernie is surely Huxley's unkind caricature of H G ‘Bertie’ Wells (whom Huxley knew and disliked). Real-world Bertie was clever but short, ugly and sexually unconventional in terms of his repeated extra-marital affairs. Since Huxley's satire inverts 1930s sexual convention, making monogamy a shocking moral delinquency and sexual promiscuity the social norm, Brave New World saddles his Bernie with a shameful singularity of desire, fixated as he is on the pneumatic but vacant Lenina Crowe. Marx takes Lenina to New Mexico, to visit a reservation where dwell a small population of primitive natives, still living by the old ways. Here they chance upon a Brave-New-World-er called Linda, who had been abandoned in the desert by misadventure some decades before, and has, without the benefit of Brave New World science, grown old and fat; together with her son John, who—improbably enough—has (a) learned to read, (b) chanced upon a six century old edition of Shakespeare's Complete Works that somehow hasn't crumbled to dust and (c) has not only read but memorised and utterly fallen under the spell of said Shakespeare.

Marx brings them both back to Britain, where Linda quickly overdoses on the (legal) happy-drug soma and dies. Meanwhile her son tours the new world and is suitably horrified by the vapidity and shallowness of things. John the Savage is a literary device, of course (fair enough, in a way) by which Huxley can test the balance of banal-but-happy and profound-but-miserable in different iterations of the human condition. The novel's climax, effective if talk-y, is a long interview with one of the New World's rulers, Mustapha Mond, who politely but firmly banishes Bernard Marx to an island and debates the novel's issues with John the Savage. John's immersion in Shakespeare has (one of Huxley's not-so-little ironies, this) conditioned him to yearn for beauty and tragedy, the numinous and sublime, for all those echt Shakesperian intensities, including intensities of suffering and anguished sexual frustration—all the things that the set-up in the New World is designed to smooth over and erase.
“My dear young friend,” said Mustapha Mond, “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended—there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren't any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There's no such thing as a divided allegiance; you're so conditioned that you can't help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren't any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there's always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there's always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears—that's what soma is.”

... “But I like the inconveniences,” [said the Savage]

“We don't,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you're claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right, then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I'm claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”

There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You're welcome,” he said. [ch. 17]
The older I get the more I find myself agreeing myself with Mond on this matter, I have to say. The bourgeois-sentimental attachment to ‘suffering’ seems to me always one of two things. It might be a sham, or if perhaps sham is unfair then a titillation: a touch of hot chilli powder on the tongue (which is to say: absolutely not a life lived malnourished, crippled by preventable disease, overworked, trapped with your family in a war-zone, raped, tortured and murdered as is the lot of too many millions of ordinary human beings in the world, even today). Or it might be, much more rarely, something morbidly masochistic. Either way it seems to me that the baseline comforts of life are that which not only validate but make fundamentally possible these artfully staged ‘I-fall-upon-the-thorns-of-life-I-bleed’ pressing-of-the-back-of-the-hand-to-the-brow poses. Then again, Brave New World succeeds or fails, I suppose, on the extent to which we concede that John the Savage has a point, actually: the sublime, Otto's numinous affect, something transcendent is precisely the element missing in this dystopian-utopia.

Anyway: re-reading the book recently, to teach it again, brought something else to my attention, something I'd not noticed before, more along the lines of SF-fan consistency policing. In that same end-of-book megachat, John asks Mond why his society must be socially stratified. Why starve the majority of foetuses of oxygen to diminish their mental capacity? Why mutilate four fifths of your otherwise perfectly potential population? Why not a society entirely comprised of Alphas? Mond replies that a society of Alphas has been tried, and found to fail:
“It's an absurdity. An Alpha-decanted, Alpha-conditioned man would go mad if he had to do Epsilon Semi-Moron work—go mad, or start smashing things up. Alphas can be completely socialized—but only on condition that you make them do Alpha work. Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren't sacrifices; they're the line of least resistance. His conditioning has laid down rails along which he's got to run. He can't help himself ... You cannot pour upper-caste champagne-surrogate into lower-caste bottles. It's obvious theoretically. But it has also been proved in actual practice. The result of the Cyprus experiment was convincing.”

“What was that?” asked the Savage.

Mustapha Mond smiled. “Well, you can call it an experiment in rebottling if you like. It began in A.F. 473. The Controllers had the island of Cyprus cleared of all its existing inhabitants and re-colonized with a specially prepared batch of twenty-two thousand Alphas. All agricultural and industrial equipment was handed over to them and they were left to manage their own affairs. The result exactly fulfilled all the theoretical predictions. The land wasn't properly worked; there were strikes in all the factories; the laws were set at naught, orders disobeyed; all the people detailed for a spell of low-grade work were perpetually intriguing for high-grade jobs, and all the people with high-grade jobs were counter-intriguing at all costs to stay where they were. Within six years they were having a first-class civil war. When nineteen out of the twenty-two thousand had been killed, the survivors unanimously petitioned the World Controllers to resume the government of the island. Which they did. And that was the end of the only society of Alphas that the world has ever seen.”
This has a patina of plausibility, I suppose. But a few lines later Mond reveals something else about the design of the brave new world he runs:
“The optimum population,” said Mustapha Mond, “is modelled on the iceberg—eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.”

“And they're happy below the water line?”

“Happier than above it. Happier than your friends here, for example.” He pointed.

“In spite of that awful work?”

“Awful? They don't find it so. On the contrary, they like it. It's light, it's childishly simple. No strain on the mind or the muscles. Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for? True,” he added, “they might ask for shorter hours. And of course we could give them shorter hours. Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn't. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them.” Mustapha Mond made a lavish gesture. “And why don't we put them into execution? For the sake of the labourers; it would be sheer cruelty to afflict them with excessive leisure. It's the same with agriculture. We could synthesize every morsel of food, if we wanted to. But we don't. We prefer to keep a third of the population on the land. For their own sakes--because it takes longer to get food out of the land than out of a factory. Besides, we have our stability to think of. We don't want to change. Every change is a menace to stability. That's another reason why we're so chary of applying new inventions. Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive.”
But hold on a moment, Mondy boy. So you're saying you do have the technology to generate food and to dispose of menial labour, but that you don't deploy it? And when you shipped those 22,000 Alphas to Cyprus, did you maybe provide them with such technological marvels, such that they didn't need to try and divvy out the menial work and so fall to blows? What's that? You didn't?

It's almost as if you were deliberately sabotaging your ‘Society Of Alphas’ experiment ahead of time!

I know: the very idea. You are welcome, sirs, to Cyprus goats! and! monkeys! Except that, perhaps, rather than this being just Huxley compartmentalising different elements of his satire-leading-into-proper-novel project more or less roughly, with attendent worldbuilding inconsistency, maybe it's possible this inconsistency speaks to something more profound about the society of Brave New World. Perhaps Huxley's plastic utopia is predicated not upon comfort, or sex, or even soma, but instead upon precisely social hierarchy? Conceivably the core of this future society's stability is in the feeling of superiority that being an alpha offers, and which in turn depends upon the sheer existence of these lower orders. Rather than dissolving the distinctions of class, Brave New World absolutely concretizes class. And maybe that's the very point of this novel. The reification and eternalisation of class as such. Deeply English, I'd say.

Friday 11 October 2019


What's Rumpelstiltskin about? A boastful miller brags his young daughter can spin straw into gold. The greedy king seizes the girl, locks her in his castle and orders her to perform this magic or else he will have her killed. The despairing girl is saved by an odd little dwarf-fellow who finds his way (the Grimms' version doesn't make clear how) into the girl's straw-filled cell and spins the stuff into gold for her, enriching the king and saving her neck. In return the dwarf demands the girl's necklace. The next day the king has the girl taken to the larger room filled with even more straw, and orders her to repeat the trick. Once again the dwarf helps, this time in return for the girl's ring. On the third day, with the girl locked in an even larger room filled with even larger bales of straw, the dwarf again performs his magic. Since the girl has nothing left with which to repay him he insists that, when she gets around to having children, she give him her firstborn child. That, if you like, is the first act of the story

The second act sees the king marrying the miller's daughter. She gives birth to a child, and the dwarf returns to demand she make good on her side of the deal. When she weeps, and offers him riches instead, he relents only so far as to make her this offer: she has three days to guess his name. If she fails to do so he will take away her child. On the first day she guesses all manner of names (‘John?’ ‘Paul?’ ‘George?’ ‘Ringo?’) and all are wrong; on the second day she guesses again (‘Melchior?’ ‘Balshazar?’ ‘Caspar?’) and again she fails. But on the evening of the second day a servant chances upon the dwarf in the woods, dancing around a fire and, imprudently enough, singing this song:
Tonight tonight, my plans I make,
Tomorrow tomorrow, the babe I take.
The queen will never win the game,
For Rumpelstiltskin is my name.
On the final day, the queen correctly guesses Rumpelstiltskin's name. In the first 1812 edition of the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen the story simply ends here, with Rumpelstiltskin storming out and the king and queen living happily ever after. Much better, though, is the ending they included in their revised 2nd edition:
In his rage Rumpelstiltskin drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion he seized his left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.

So what's Rumpelstiltskin about? Well, it captures some straightforward features of pre-industrial-revolution European life (before the invention of spinning jennies and industrial looms, and the subsequent mass-manufacture of cheap cloth, spinning and weaving were very useful practical skills; women's work, in the main, and a wife who could spin and weave was a highly prized asset in a household). And the larger trajectory of the story is one common from many other Grimms' tales, that specie of wish-fulfilment that says: you, ordinary child that you are, will discover life to be a matter of challenges to be overcome, but if you can hold true, and pass these tests, providence will reward you with a good husband and wealth and status. It's not complicated so far as wish-fulfilment fantasies go, but its uncomplication doesn't correlate to any lack in psychological force or appeal.

What about the strange little fellow who has access to the king's castle, and who provides gold in return for his pound of flesh? An anti-semitic caricature, is it? ‘Rumpelstilzchen’ a folk-tale generic Ashkenazi-style surname, maybe? Rumpelschaechter, Rothschildstiltskin, that kind of thing? Hard to gainsay such a reading (Hitler mandated that every German household should own a copy of the Grimms' collection, describing these tales pure expressions of the authentic German Volk that taught children the sound racial instincts of seeking racially pure marriages). Then again, the antisemitism of the Grimms' tales doesn't usually veil itself: there are various stories in which wicked Jews appear, as Jews, and are punished. But that's not to acquit this tale, I think.

Rumpelstiltskin is a dwarf. What's ‘he’ about? A dwarf is an adult with the stature of a child. What is curious, or compelling, or perhaps ceepy about such figures (in popular culture, I mean) is the way they confuse the boundary of childhood and adulthood. And that's why this odd little man is the right figure for this story, isn't it: this peculiar helper-antagonist hyrbid. Because that's what Rumpelstiltskin's about, clearly. It's not so much a story for children as a fable about children. In what way can women, those (don't @ me: I'm ventriloquising an 18th-/19th-century rural weltanschauung when I say so) worthless creatures, generate wealth out of their uselessness? If you have sons, they can work your farm, or chop your trees down, or fight in your armies, or do whatever it might be you need doing. Sons can inherit you. Sons can carry your name forward (important, for a story in which riddling namelessness is the key salient). What can women do? Domestic work, yes, like cooking and cleaning, and indeed spinning, but that's not gold, now, is it. 

Ah but here's something women can do: they can have sons. They make babies, and babies are wealth. Millers need heirs just as kings do. Children are a tax upon the future, since they cost money to raise and keep, but they are also the only true investment in the future humanity can ever make. The only wealth, as Ruskin says, is life. Rumpelstiltskin is the conflicted symbolic articulation of this truth: this magic little man, the maker of wealth from nothing, who appears as if from nowhere when a girl gets to the age of puberty, and who is a threat only insofar as he remains nameless (for an heir is useless without a family name to carry with him). That, surely, is what that striking scene of Rumpelstiltskin's bizarre end means: a fantastical extrapolation of childbirth itself, in which a woman is painfully (yet also happy-ever-after-ishly) split-open by the process of bringing the golden child into the world.

Thursday 10 October 2019


Some lucubrations on Grimm. I’m not proposing to review Pullman’s ‘retelling’ of the Grimms from a few years ago (Penguin 2012)—beyond saying that I think he does a good job. He writes cleanly and vividly, and concentrates (rightly, I think) always on the story. The retellings come with little afternotes that give just enough bibliographic detail; whether, for instance, the version he uses comes from the Grimms’ first edition of 1812, or the more elaborated second edition of 1819. And he has some sensible things to say in his introduction. The serious student of Grimm (the grim student of seriousness) will probably want to buy this Routledge Classics edition—but Pullman will reach a far wider audience, and I for one am glad of that.

If not a review, then what? Well: I’m going to engage in some thinking aloud about Grimms’ fairy tales in general, and certain specific tales in particular. Today I want to think about Snow White (no relation to Breaking Bad's Walter I assume). But first, a message from our sponsor.


Our sponsor in this case is the broad theoretical frame for any larger study of Children’s Literature. Maybe I should write a book. Maybe I will. And if I do, it will start with Romanticism.

This may look shortsighted of me. People (of course) have had children ever since there have been people; and for all of human history people have loved their children, and cared for them, and told them stories. In one sense, clearly, Grimm represents a kind of pay-off to a millennial-old culture of oral storytelling for children. Nonetheless, something happens to ‘Children’s Literature’ in the 19th-, and to a much greater degree in the 20th-, centuries. Partly this has to do with the printed-text bias of University Literature courses—you’re much more likely to find university courses on medieval Arthurian Literature (which, because it was aimed at posh nobs, tended to be written down) than on Robin Hood (largely oral, largely working class), not because the former has had a greater cultural significance than the latter, but because we need texts to work from when we teach. So, literacy becomes a widespread matter in the later 19th-century, and then there’s this new market (kids) you can sell books to and, presto!, a whole flood of books appears.

But there’s another factor here, which is the way the Romantic period reconceptualised the child. I haven’t space here to expatiate on this important point with anything approaching nuance, so I’ll limit myself to sweeping generalisations. Before the later eighteenth-century such literature as was specifically aimed at children (and there wasn’t much) was almost all didactic in purpose. The point was to educate, not to entertain; to educate either practically --

Or morally:

Or perhaps behaviourally:

This in turn reflected a culture in which infants were defined via notions of ‘original sin’ as creatures who needed a firm hand to ensure they grew up correctly: spare the rod and spoil the child and so on. If we are liable to look down our sophisticated 21st-century noses at the crudity of this approach—and I readily admit it to be a caricature of what was, in practice, a much more varied complex of attitudes to childhood—then we should at least have the courtesy to bear in mind the social and therefore emotional context of this world. In 16th- and 17th century Europe, 60% of children died before their sixteenth birthday. I’m going to repeat that datum, because it is so gobsmacking. In the 16th- and 17th century, 60% of children died before their sixteenth birthday. There is nowhere on Earth today—not Somalia, not Afghanistan, not the most war-torn or AIDS-blighted portion of third world that even approaches that level of infant mortality. It quite literally defeats my imagination, trying to think myself back into it. How could parents do anything other than grieve, over and over again? And by the same token, how could parents invest emotionally in the future of their children in such a world without being driven mad? Infant mortality rates improved a little in the nineteenth-century, but really not by much. It is not until right at the end of the century when we realised the twin causes for this massacre of the innocents (nutrition and, above all, infection) and were able to do something about it. One of the most massive and yet unremarked revolutions of the 20th century has been the heroic reductions in infant mortality, down to levels where I, as a parent of two children (and however much I naturally fret and worry) have the reasonable (touch wood) expectation they will survive to adulthood. One thing this does is make you rethink the tendency of families to be so much larger back then. If 17th-century me had wanted to have what 21st-century takes for granted—namely, the reasonable hope that I shall see two children grown up—he would have had to father six kids.

Anyway, for whatever complex of reasons, attitudes to children began to change in the later eighteenth-century in ways that flowered in the Romantic period. The main motor here was Rousseau, who insisted that the doctrine of original sin mischaracterised children. Children were not born corrupt; they were born innocent, pure, even holy; it was life—and especially city life—that corrupted them. This trope of the child as holy innocent has Biblical provenance, and Rousseau’s ideas chimed with what was in the 18th-century cutting edge philosophy of mind (Locke’s tabula rasa and so on). Still, it went through Romantic art like wildfire. This is one of Blake’s core themes. This is the red, beating heart of all that is great and worthwhile about Wordsworth—read his Immortality Ode, surely the single most potent and influential restatement of this Rousseauian idea. This is what Coleridge kept coming back to. Children were more than just seeds that would one day grow into grownups. They came trailing their own clouds of glory.

One consequence of this was that, slowly, culture stopped seeing children in instrumental terms and began seeing them as loci of value in their own right. By the former I mean: that tendency (still prevalent) to see kids as on their way somewhere important—adulthood—but not there yet. To treat them as not-yet people, and to gear their education and treatment to that end. It’s really not until Romanticism that an alternative mode of ‘reading’ childhood comes into play: the idea that ‘the child is father to the man’ in the sense of assuming a kind of spiritual and personal priority. The idea that we adults can and very much should learn something important from kids.

Now ‘innocence’, which becomes something like a cultic quality in relation to childhood around this time, and which still exerts a colossal cultural pull on the way we regard children today, is not a straightforward Good. In some respects of course we want to ‘protect’ our kids from ‘corruption’ by the world; we want to preserve their ‘innocence’. But in another way innocence is merely a synonym for ignorance; and ignorance is a Bad Thing. This, actually (to drag this blogpost back to its actual theme) is one of the things Philip Pullman has often talked about; and one of the main themes of his Dark Materials trilogy.

Much of this preamble is only glancingly relevant to a discussion of Die Gebrüder Grimm; except to say that the huge and lasting impact that their Kinder- und Hausmärchen undeniably had was a function of two main cultural forces. One was this collection, and its many translations, were received into societies and cultures for which there was a new interest in the child as such. A new kind of kinder, we could say: a new-modeled figure, ‘the child’. The other, also relevant, was a Europe-wide surge of interest in land, history and folk-art, which in turn was a function of nascent nationalism. The myriad German statelets were starting the long process of coalescence, and a fascination with the roots of specifically German folk was part of that. Something similar happened across the continent, but its particular social acuity in Germany is one reason why it is the German versions of these (often) universal stories that have been set as the default versions. Nor is this an ideological neutral matter. I don't want to get all Godwin's Lawless here, but the various fascisms of the 20th and, alas, the neo-fascisms of the 21st-, centuries draw from this reservoir of nativist, volkisch belief. There's not a straight line, but there is a line, from Herder to Hitler, from Romanticism to the Nazis.

One more point about the German-ness of these märchen (bearing in mind that my focus is English rather than Continental literature) is the way the Germanic played in a wider Romantic context. Here is a quotation from Marilyn Butler’s excellent Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 (Oxford 1981). Butler explores what she sees as an ideological division in 1810s/1820s English writing between a ‘right-wing’ reactionary Germanic-influenced tradition and a ‘left-wing’ liberal classical emphasis on the Mediterranean. She discusses De Staël’s De l’Allemagne (1810)—which praises German culture ‘as a rallying-point for opposition to Napoleon’: ‘Europe had two dominant cultural traditions: the classical, Mediterranean inheritance, perfectly expressed in comedy, and culminating in a predominantly French modern classicism; and the Northern or Germanic alternative.’
The German races did not organise themselves into large states. Man was isolated in very small communities, effectively on his own and dwarfed among the vast, oppressive, unmastered phenomena of Nature. He was obliged to look inward for inspiration, or upward to the mountains or to God. The literature of the North accordingly became introspective, pessimistic and essentially religious. Its religion was not social but individual, an intense unfulfilled aspiration which was perfectly expressed in Gothic architecture, or in the passionate irregularity of Shakespearian tragedy. The Northern or Romantic tradition (which as Madame de Staël makes plain is the unified culture of the Germans and the English, Napoleon’s leading enemies) has become the most vital and imaginative intellectual force of the present day. [120]
My sense is that Butler slightly overstates her ideological perspective (‘no disinterested exegesis of contemporary German literature or philosophy –nothing that separated [it] out … from the now triumphant cause of the extreme Right’) by way of explaining why the younger, liberal or radical writers (Byron, Shelley and Keats) gravitated so enthusiastically towards classical Greek and Roman literature. But nonetheless there’s something important, here, I think in the way Grimm ‘worked’, certainly for the first few generations of readers through the 19th-century, and arguably further into the 20th- and 21st-centuries too. These are not ideologically neutral texts.


Enough preambling. Back to Pullman, and thence to Snow White. It’s clear from his introduction and notes that Pullman has not only worked from the original German, but has inflected his translations via a number of big name figures in the history of Fairy Tale criticism: Bruno Bettelheim, with his Freudian readings of these stories as symbolic narratives; the prolific Jack Zipes, who amongst other things recontextualises these stories via their original modes of cultural production, stressing things like rural poverty and suspicion of the ruling classes (that makes Zipes sound rather more Marxist than he actually is; and I suppose his main focus is on—to quote the title of his 2006 book—‘What Makes Fairy Tales Stick’); Marina Warner, with her very popular accounts of fairy tales as feminised discourses to do with culture power.

Pullman’s introduction makes a number of claims about the form. Here’s one:
There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good they are good, and if they are bad they’re bad. Even when the princess in ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious. [xiii]
We see what he means, but surely this is wrong. It is one thing to say that these characters are not interiorised—clearly they are not, any more than are the characters in Dickens or Star Wars. It is quite another to say that this mode is incapable of apprehending psychological complexity, for manifestly it is very much so capable. Fairy tales characters don’t have psychological depth; they are psychological depth. ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ is a fascinating case in point: because there seems to me something psychologically very acute in the princess’s emotional volte face. The nameless hero of that story is poor man’s son whose bravery wins the approval of the king. He marries the king’s daughter despite her rather extreme insistence that any husband of hers must promise to be buried in the ground with her corpse in the event she predeceases him. When she does die, off the hero goes, into the tomb with her, ready to die. But thanks to the titular snake-leaves (I won’t go into details) he is able to revive his wife. After her joyful reunion with her father, she agrees to travel overseas to meet her husband’s father.
But once at sea she forgot the great devotion the young man had shown her, because she felt a lust growing in her for the captain of the ship. Nothing would satisfy her but to sleep with him, and soon they were lovers. One night in his arms she whispered, “Oh, if only my husband were dead! What a marriage we two would make!” [89]
I shan’t spoil the ending. My point is twofold. One is that this is, psychologically speaking, very acute. You (yes, I’m talking to you) are a woman not unusually wicked of heart or perverse, and you are loved by a man who adores you, is stupidly devoted to you, would gladly lay down his life for you. Maybe this flatters you, and maybe you respond to his love. But there’s something, shall we say, sappy about that level of devotion. Isn’t there? Maybe we think Rory’s undying love for Amy Pond is sweet and touching, but we can also see that Rory is a bit of a dweeb, really. That doesn't mean that we don't love him, in a way. But it also doesn’t mean there’s anything illogical about falling for a more forceful individual should we happen upon him. Sexual desire, famously, doesn’t run along the neatly scooped out channels of Social Propriety or even of Individual Moral Obligation. That, in part, is what ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ is about; and the fact that the princess is eventually punished (uh-oh, I did spoil the ending) doesn’t deflect that. Somebody performing ‘undying love’ may be flattering, but it is also weirdly emotionally constricting. It is a type of over-performance that, in its way, is as offputting as active hostility. The shine goes off it surprisingly quickly, and -- oh, look! Here's this handsome ship captain!

Two is, I think, even more interesting. Years ago, when she was still little, I read this story to my daughter, and afterwards we had a really interesting discussion about it, focusing on the princess’s change of heart. Was it (my daughter wondered) that it was coming back from the dead that changed the princess’s heart? Did the revival via the magic snake leaves entail a kind of zombification of the heart? Because if so, the hero—who is killed by his wife and the ship captain, and then revived using the same leaves by his faithful servant—would be in the same situation, wouldn't he? But how could he be, and still be the hero? The point here, of course, is the one famously developed in the opening chapter of Auerbach’s still-essential, magisterial Mimesis book. Auerbach contrasts the detail-rich, digressive, immersive mode of storytelling mimesis in Homer’s Odyssey with the more pared-down, elliptical mode of the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible; and part of his point is that, perhaps counterintuitively, the latter mode is more engaging and evocative. But, look: I don’t want to insult you by implying that you haven’t read Mimesis.

So, yes, I’m not disagreeing with Pullman when he says that the characters in fairy tales are ‘flat, not round’; only with his imputation that—as with Dickens—this is in any way to the detriment of the stories’ abilities to excavate profound truths of human psychology.
They seldom have names of their own. More often than not they’re known by their occupation or their social position, or by a quirk of their dress: the miller, the princess, the captain; Bearskin; Little Red Riding Hood. When they do have a name it’s usually Hans, just as Jack is the hero of every British fairy tale. [xiv]
Fair enough. Pullman dilates interestingly upon this point, actually.
Some of the characters in fairy tales come in sets of multiples. The twelve brothers of the story of that name, the twelve princesses in ‘The Shoes That Danced Themselves To Pieces’, the seven dwarfs in the story of Snow White … Realism cannot cope with the notion of multiples; the twelve princesses who go out every night and dance their shoes to pieces, the seven dwarfs all asleep in their beds side by side, exist in another realm altogether, between the uncanny and the absurd. [xiv]
This is a good point, I think. It’s symptomatic that one of the ways Disney adapts Snow White into his (peerless) film version is, precisely, to individuate the seven. It works, in a way—though, that said, how many of you can recite all seven names straight off? I'm sure some of you could do it; but more, I'd wager would go: ‘er, Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, er, Gum-, er, Grumpy, he’s one, er, er, Blinky? Is it? Jockey. Is that seven? [counts on fingers] four, five six … and Kylie. That’s it.’ Be honest.


So. Right: Snow White. It’s a story so desperately familiar that precis is unnecessary. Pullman tells it well, with a brisk opening straight out of the original:
One winter’s day, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers, a queen sat sewing at her window, which had a frame of the blackest ebony. She opened the window to look at the sky, and as she did so she pricked her finger, and three drops of blood fell into the snow on the windowsill. The red and the white looked so beautiful together that she said to herself ‘I wish I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood and as black as the wood in the window frame.’ And soon afterwards she had a little daughter; and she was as white as snow and as red as blood and as black as ebony, so they called her Little Snow White. [206]
'As soon as the baby was born’ the story continues, ‘the queen died.’ Pullman notes: ‘In the Grimms’ first edition of 1812 the wicked queen was Snow White’s mother. She didn’t become a stepmother until the second edition of 1819.’ There is an evasion here in the Grimm retelling, a sort of symbolic splitting that is at root (of course) psychological. Marina Warner is good on this semantic strategy, as a way by which the interpolated female reader can simultaneously work through her feelings of frustration and anger with her mother without having to sacrifice her self-constructing sense that she loves her mother. Pullman adds: ‘what happened to her father? Dim, faint and sketchy, like many of the males in Grimm he was simply obliterated by the power of the monstrous queen.’ Modern versions often make this explicit: the king is already dead (in the recent motion picture Snow White and the Huntsman she is murdered by the wicked queen on their wedding night as part of an explicit military putsch), or away—in Sarah Pinborough’s retelling, Poison (2013) he is away on a conveniently prolonged military campaign in a distant country, giving his second wife free rein. But then again, Pinborough’s retelling opens with the wicked queen giving the compliant King a blow-job, which in turn highlights an important focus of the original tale. Why does it matter so much to the Wicked Queen that she is so beautiful? Or more specifically, that she is the most beautiful, that she can brook no competition, even to the point of attempting to murder her own (adopted) child rather than be outshone? The implication in Pinborough’s retelling is that we have to read ‘beauty’ more specifically as ‘sexual allure’, and that in the patriarchal world of the tale it is only by exploiting such allure that a women can get on in the world. This is to instrumentalise the fairy tale’s focus on ‘beauty’.

Now I’m not saying Pinborough’s interpretation doesn’t make sense; because it does. And, speaking personally, I’m with Woody Allen on the relative degrees of attractiveness of Snow White herself and the Wicked Queen.

But I wonder if there’s something else here. I don’t say so to knock Pinborough’s retelling, which I enjoyed reading. It is not so plain as Pullman’s (of course), and it adds in three things in particular: one, a kind of intertetuxality, where various other fairy tales intrude, Shrek-like, into the fabric of Snow White; two a sort of plain humour (Snow White, needing a partner for the ball, gets the seven dwarfs to stand on top of one another and puts a big coat over them); and three, well, sex. The sex is not especially explicit in Poision, and it manifests something very clearly latent in the original story, as in most fairy tales. Pinborough’s ancestor here is Angela Carter, and if Carter’s retellings have rather more eerie force to them than Poison that in part is a function of audience. Pinborough combines fairy tale and sex not for straightforward pornographic reasons, but to bridge precisely that readerly gap between the sexual ignorant reading of fairy tales of the very young, and the sexually knowing reading of grown-ups like Angela Carter. Still, the Wicked Queen is surely the most interesting figure in this story. Here she is, in Pullman’s version, with her mirror.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is the fairest of all?

Your majesty, you are still lovely, it’s true,
But Snow White is a thousand times fairer than you.
She recruits the huntsman to kill Snow White; when he can’t bring himself to do it he kills a boar and brings back its lungs and liver. ‘The cook was ordered to season them well, dredge them in flour and fry them, and the wicked queen ate them all up. And that she thought was the end of Snow White.’ It’s not, of course; wandering in the forest our heroine is taken in by the dwarfs, who love her, and for whom she keeps house. The Wicked Queen learns of the failure of her attempt to kill of her rival via the magic mirror.
Your majesty, you are still lovely, it’s true,
But far far away in the forest so deep
Where she lives with the dwarfs since they found her asleep
Snow White is a thousand times fairer than you
‘The queen recoiled in horror!’ So she tries three times to kill Snow White herself, failing twice and each time being informed of her failure by the mirror. The third attempt (the poisoned apple) succeeds; the grieving dwarfs put Snow White in a glass coffin and then the prince comes along, dislodges the apple from Snow White’s throat and marries her. The story ends with the Wicked Queen learning from her mirror that this new ‘young queen’ is the fairest in the kingdom. ‘The wicked queen gasped with horror. She was so frightened, so terrified, that she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to go to the wedding and she didn’t want to stay away.’ She goes, and this is what happens to her:
A pair of iron shoes had already been placed in the fire. When they were red-hot they were brought out with tongs and placed on the floor. And the wicked queen was made to step into them, and dance until she fell down dead. [218]
Ow. That's exactly how the original ends, too.

I’m going to say something rather obvious about the Wicked Queen now. She is a narcissist. Her magic mirror is the story’s way of focusing this aspect of her (the mirror is the narcissist’s prime tool); as is the weirdly unexplained absence of her husband, the king—it is not that he is away, or dead, it is only that the Queen has no need of him, psychologically speaking. Her self-love is all the love she needs. This is also what is so upsetting for her about Snow White: merely the fact of her, and that her beauty interferes with the perfect expression of her own narcissism.

Now the one thing that especially interests me about the Wicked Queen’s narcissism is that the story explicitly connects it with notions of omniscience. The Queen’s mirror both reinforces her own sense of her own perfect beauty, and grants her a magically panoptic knowledge of everything in the world. That she only ever uses this magical ability to reinforce her own narcissistic self-obsession is entirely in keeping with her personality.

The default position in our culture about narcissism is that it’s a bad thing. As Adam Phillips puts it, ‘scrutiny of the self, but not celebration or adoration of the self’ has been ‘integral’ to our Judeo-Christian culture. As he goes on to note, the actual status of narcissism is more complex.
Great claims, either positive or negative, are always made on narcissism’s behalf … Do “creative artists” need to be narcissistic, or is that what they suffer from, or both? Is masturbation bad for people because it doesn’t involve other people? Are we primarily interested in other people, so that self-preoccupation is a symptom of thwarted involvements, or are we essentially self-involved creatures interrupted, every so often, by our unavoidable dependence on others? [Philips, Promises, Promises (Faber 2000), 201]
These are, as Philips notes, ‘the old questions’ and carry ‘oppressive historical baggage’. One need not follow Philips down into his complicated post-Laplanchean, post-Symingtonian meditations on the matter to say (a) that Snow White is also about the positivity and negativity of narcissism, about artistry—the Queen is an artist of wicked ingenuity (disguising, acting, planning and plotting) to Snow White’s blankly passive housewifeliness—and about, in a way, masturbation; and (b) that these are questions that have peculiar bite for children as they mature through adolescence and into the world. But then this oughtn’t to surprise us.

The story says: narcissism is selfish, and cruel, and will be punished. But the story also says: narcissism is sexier than selflessness (Woody Allen surely had it right, here). This is because narcissism is more focused than the alternative: Snow White’s encounter with those, as Pullman notes, clone-line unindividuated seven dwarfs says something like this. As if the tale is a symbolic narrative that moves from childhood to married adulthood only via a sort of emotionally disintegrated dissipation of attachment seven ways.