‘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.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Dante’s Purgatory Canto 10. A New Translation

[Dante, having passed through St Peter's Gate, climbs the narrow zigzag steps to the first cornice, a ledge running all the way around Purgatory Mountain a mere eighteen-feet wide, on which the Proud are purged of their vice by each carrying the crushing weight of a mighty stone around the terrace, bent double and humiliated by the labour.]

Now I had passed the threshold of the gate
that which—since soul’s aberrancy still thinks
the crooked way is straight—is seldom reached,

I heard the gate clang shut behind me and
strove upwards zag-zig in-between cracked rocks;
precarious beside the fall's immensity:

“We here must needs some ingenuity,”
my guide advised, “as both of us come near
this or the other side where the cliff wall drops.”

Our steps, so slow and steady-placed, meant that
the moon had sunk towards the sea before
reached the cornice's open plateau height.

I was exhausted; and not guide nor I
were sure which way to go. And so we stopped
and measured out how narrow was that ledge:

The distance from its rim, facing the void,
to the mountain's hefty flank, which climbs
and climbs, is thrice the height of a man;

My poet-guide observed: “Here comes a crowd
advancing, slowly, awkwardly along:
perhaps they'll tell us how to carry on.”

“Master,” I replied, “I see a something
but it does not resemble people, but
some strange confusing swarm of beings.”

And he to me: “that which makes them suffer
are heavy weights that bend them to the ground;
see there what penalty grinds each for pride.”

They were indeed bent down—some less, some more—
according to the blocks their spines now bore;
and as the crowd approached, the nearest called:

“I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, sorry me.
Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry,
Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.”

“I pray that justice and compassion soon
unburden you, and that you lift yourselves
far upward from this round of punishment.”

So spoke my guide, who added quick: “and please
show us on which hand lies the shortest path
to reach the stairs that we may there ascend.”

These words were answered by another soul
bent-doubled by the weighty stone he bore
first one and then the others joining in:

“Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,

Sorry, so sorry, sorry, sorry so,
Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,
Very, very, very, very, sorry.”

This helped us not at all, not gave us hint
As to our path, and so we left them there
And by ourselves explored the likely route

Until we found an upward path and left.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Christmas Blogpost 2019: Scroogeious RIP

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

Take it another way. The appearance of the ghost, right at the start of the play, situates Hamlet in a medieval world of supernatural terrors, where this Act 3 speech situates it in the modern world of interiorised anxieties and fears. And the truth of Shakespeare's great drama is that it stands Janus-like facing both the archaic past and the bang up to date. We could put it this way: the appearance of the ghost embodies an aspect of death and grief to which any bereaved person will attest: the way the dead won't lie still, the way they return to us and trouble us, that we can't stop thinking about them, that they make us worry about what we have left undone; where the reference to the country from whose borne no traveller returns articulates a different facet of our experience of death: that it marks an absolute breach with life. The grievous truth that those we love who die are gone forever. The existential abyss we face when we contemplate our own inevitable mortality. Hamlet is a play capacious enough to encompass both of these.
Turn to A Christmas Carol (1843), Dickens's wonderful yuletide fable. Hold this story in your heart for its manifest excellencies, for truly it is a moving, thrilling, uplifting little tale. Of course there's more to it than there seems. I've always been rather persuaded by Edmund Wilson's reading of the novel. Scrooge's psychopathology, a long period of gloomy introspetion and withdrawal followed by a short burst of manic energy, running around, generosity—well, it has a name: we call it manic depression and it doesn't bode well for Scrooge's ‘reformation.’ We know how people like this go, and he'll be depressed again (withdrawn, heartless) once the Christmas decorations are taken down.

Of course it's true that the last two paragraphs of Carol tell us that Scrooge was true to his word, that he reformed so completely that his name became a byword for generosity, and that Tiny Tim did not die. But I'd argue we can read that as part of Scrooge's projected wish-fulfilment rather than as a coherent element in any meaningful account of his character (his psyche, his subjectivity). Not least since it's contemplating his own mortality that finally tips him over into charity and generosity, and brooding on death is surely more likely to take its place in a depressive than a cheerful mindset. Also if we assume (as we are entitled to do) that Tiny Tim has, as it might be, polio, or perhaps some kind of catastrophic renal collapse, no amount of kindness from a rich moneylender will save his life.

Dickens's story has a number of obvious Hamletian connections. What I'm particularly interested in here is the way A Christmas Carol shares Hamlet's structural ambiguity with respect to death. Think of Stave IV, and the visit of the third ghost. The Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come resembles the grim reaper for the obvious reason that Scrooge's future is: dying, unmourned. This Spirit shows Scrooge various people gleeful at the news that a famously miserly money-lender and stock exchange bigwig has died. They are, obviously, talking about Scrooge; yet Scrooge is absolutely mystified, has no clue who it is these folk are discussing. Though he is a byword for shrewdness and calculation, and though he specifically resolves to get to the bottom of what is happening, he simply cannot plumb this mystery.
Scrooge was at first inclined to be surprised that the Spirit should attach importance to conversations apparently so trivial; but feeling assured that they must have some hidden purpose, he set himself to consider what it was likely to be. They could scarcely be supposed to have any bearing on the death of Jacob, his old partner, for that was Past, and this Ghost’s province was the Future. Nor could he think of any one immediately connected with himself, to whom he could apply them. But nothing doubting that to whomsoever they applied they had some latent moral for his own improvement, he resolved to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw; and especially to observe the shadow of himself when it appeared. For he had an expectation that the conduct of his future self would give him the clue he missed, and would render the solution of these riddles easy. [Christmas Carol 4]
The Spirit then shows Scrooge his own corpse. Scrooge does not recognise the man: ‘he thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly!’ Finally the Spirit shows Scrooge his own grave and gravestone. Only now does Scrooge start, haltingly, towards an understanding of what every reader guessed as soon as the chapter opened, the Bleeding Obvious: in the churchyard, ‘here, then; the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place.’ Not until it is written out, in graven letters, does the identity that Scrooge's consciousness has been avoiding come home to him.

There is, arguably, a simple explanation for all of this. Scrooge doesn’t want to confront his own mortality. Sure. People are like that. We like to pretend we won't die. We put our minds elsewhere. The thing is, Scrooge's blindness in this matter rather contradicts the way the Carol starts. Stave 1, after all, is given over to Marley’s Ghost telling Scrooge straight that he is going to die, and soon, and explaining what it will be like afterwards and that therefore mhe ust change his ways. But it only looks inconsistent, this: there is of course a vital difference between thinking about other people dying and thinking about yourself dying. Heidegger’s being-towards-death, this notion that we know we are mortal, has always struck me as, well ... wrong actually. We don’t know we’re mortal, not really. Or: we can erect an intellectual scaffold that resembles knowledge that we are going to die without it actually touching the core of us, the subconscious part that makes up most of us, because that core can’t bear this thought. Shakespeare knew that. Dickens too (tho he was conventionally Anglican and religious in his life). And, to be fair to the old Nazi, so did Heidegger, whose writing is much concerned with the various ways we hide from the authenticity of Being-towards-death in distractions, in ‘movements of temptation, tranquilization, and alienation’. Most of us conclude that Dancing With Fezziwig is preferable to recognising whose dead body that is, whose gravestone. If we truly were to open a window into our heart what we'd be liable to see there is existentially terrifying. ‘Why show me this, if I am past all hope?’ wails Scrooge to the unspeaking Sprit. In saying so he's emphasising hope—he means, in other words, to assure the Spirit that he will reform, become a better person. But this is a question that goes deeper than Scrooge putative nastiness or niceness. It's the question that is the inevitable correlative to our Being-Towards-Death as such. Why show us this, if we are past all hope? And we are, all of us, past all hope where this question of mortality is concerned.

Now you might object that A Christmas Carol offers Scrooge, and therefore us, a way out. The Spirit mutates into a bedpost ‘and the bedpost was his own’:
The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!

“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”
Hurrah! Still: strive within him looks like a strange way of putting it, we might think. Not trying to bring past, present and future into a harmonious balance? Keeping them, rather, in some mode of conflict? Really? Of course, we are into the manic phase of Scrooge's cycle now, when his apperception turns the very Christmas bells into something strenuously, almost diabolically, discordant (‘the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!’)

And maybe the point is not, actually, Scrooge's reformation. Maybe it's not about him reclaiming his future as a temporality in which he can remake himself, but, on the contrary, him turning his back on future and past both to live in a heightened, raucous present. Perhaps what was so incomprehensible to him about what the Yet-to-Come Spirit was showing him was not that he, Scrooge, would die but rather than he, Scrooge, could be a spectactor to that scene. Death, after all, is not lived-through; we won't be hovering around, spectrally curious, as our bodies are washed and put in our coffin [Wittgenstein: ‘Death is not an event in life. One does not experience death’ (Tractatus §6.4311)]. The uncanniness of those scenes is not that we die, but that in our death we might not die.

I go back to Hamlet's ‘to be or not to be’ speech, a much odder piece of writing than is often realised I think. Hamlet gives himself two options (being, not-being). Which does he go for, in the end? Well clearly he decides to be: not to end his life with the bare bodkin, to eschew suicide and carry on (much as Scrooge resolves to reform his ways and keep Christmas in his heart). But Hamlet arrives at his decision by a curious route. In plain terms he considers life (‘being’) and notes its many agonies (‘the whips and scorns of time,/Th’ oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,/The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,/The insolence of office, and the spurns/That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes’). But then he considers the alternative, death (‘not-being’) and finds that just as bad, or possibly worse. Another way of putting this would be to say, he looks to ‘not-being’ and finds that it is actually just another sort of being, a whole other country. In other words his decision ‘to be’ is arrived at, paradoxically, through a process of rejecting ‘to be’ not once but twice; finding fault with two modes of being and still concluding that he must be. This profound ontological negativity, or perhaps confusion, has important resonance for the play as a whole; a text whose opening is dominated by an entity, the ghost, who is precisely strung ambiguously between being and not-being. Life or death is revealed not only as not a choice, but as not even an opposition. The interminability of living is what sicklies o'er the pale cast of thought. Marley's chains are not so much externalisations of his lifetime's uncharitable acts, as representations of the unavoidability of being as such. Scrooge's mania, during the flashbulb moment of Christmas Carol's final brief chapter, is an attempt to seize nowness at the expense of past and future, prompted by the unchangeability of the former and the inexorable, inescapable nature of the latter. Hammer, clang, clash! Strife at Christmas.

I suppose I'm taking it as axiomatic (you might not, of course, agree with me) that Scrooge starts the story—that Scrooge's Christmas Present is defined by—a state of mind we can usefully call depressed. Anachronistic terminology for the 1840s, but we all know what I'm talking about. Maybe you think he's not depressed, that he's just wicked, selfish and so on. Fair enough. I disagree. The thing about depression, its withdrawal from the world, its thwarted and reverted anger, its curdled fury and hopelessness, is the way it manifests a pathological repudiation of the future as such. The depressed person sees no future, cannot conceive that the despair what s/he feels could ever change, conceptualises his/her relationship to time in terms of ‘what's the point?’ and ‘it's all already over.’ It is certainly possible to be depressed and still function socially, still go to work, interact with friends and family and so on (though, of course, not in any sense to function optimally) not despite but because the profoundly depressed person is in-a-sense dead, dead in the world, living the pared-down barely-alive experiential subsistence. That Scrooge is a miser, and a moneylender, feels right to us in this regard. We understand that life is a process of spending, that it is a distribution, rather than a hoarding or a grasping. We grasp the longstanding metaphysical connection between death and debt, and that this dyad positions the holder of the debt as mortality itself.

And what does Scrooge's future actually hold, in the terms laid out by Dickens text? Two things: incomprehension, and fear. The timor mortis of Scrooge on his knees, weeping in terror at his own graveside, is a pitiable thing indeed. But the moral economy of Carol is that this fear, this suffering, is nothing more than what Scrooge deserves. He has lived a Wrong life, and this is his punishment: mocked and shunned by his fellow men and women, a lonely and miserable death;—despair, having defined his debt-determined, debt-holding life, is here reified into endless non-nonBeing, the enchained self-haunting of Marley.

‘Whence comes,’ Derrida asked in his late-career seminar series, posthumously published as The Death Penalty, ‘this bizarre, bizarre idea, this ancient, archaic idea, this so very deeply rooted, perhaps indestructible idea, of a possible equivalence between injury and pain? Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?’ His answer involves the argument that ‘the origin of the legal subject, and notably of penal law, is commercial law; it is the law of commerce, debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.’ [Jacques Derrida, The Death Penalty, Volume I (eds Geoffrey Bennington, Marc Crépon, and Thomas Dutoit; transl. Peggy Kamuf (University of Chicago Press, 2014), 152]. Here's Judith Butler ‘On Cruelty’ (is Christmas Carol a cruel book, do you think? Isn't there a spark of jollity-sadism in Dickens's comedy? Even in its happy ending—think of Scrooge's sadistic joke at Cratchett's expense right at the end, making the poor fellow believe that he was about to be sacked and his family rendered destitute: ‘“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again ...’ Hammer, clang, clash! remember):
Debt, in On the Genealogy of Morals, gives Nietzsche a way of understanding how ‘the “consciousness of guilt”, “bad conscience”’ came into the world. Earlier he laments ‘that whole sombre thing called reflection’, in which the self becomes its own object of relentless scrutiny and self-punishment. If one wants to keep a promise, one must burn memory into the will, submit to – or submit oneself to – a reign of terror in the name of morality, administer pain to oneself in order to ensure one’s continuity and calculability through time. If I am to be moral and keep my promises, I will remember what I promised and remain the same ‘I’ who first uttered that promise, resisting any circumstances that might alter its continuity through time, never dozing when wakefulness is needed. The promise takes on another meaning in Nietzsche when what I have promised is precisely to repay a debt, a promise by which I enter into, and become bound by, a certain kind of contract. What I have apparently burned into the will, or had burned there, is a promise to remember and repay that debt, to realise the promise within a calculable period of time, and so to become a calculable creature. I can be counted on to count the time and count up the money to make the repayment: that accountability is the promise. I can count on myself, and others can count on me.
Scrooge doesn't give-up being a moneylender, after all. On the contrary, after having been tormented (for our entertainment!) he ends up embodying the painful reification of guilt and terror into debt in a more profound way: he keeps his word (indeed, were told, ‘Scrooge was better than his word’). And by appropriating Tiny Tim's God Bless Us, Every One, Dickens's novella is actually tying together debt and death, suffering and guilt, money and faith into one compact parcel. ‘This would mean, in sum,’ Derrida argues, ‘that what makes us believe, credulous as we are, what makes us believe in an equivalence between crime and punishment, at bottom, is belief itself; it is the fidiuciary phenomenon of credit or faith.’ And with that I bid you all: a very merry Christmas, burned painfully into the will of all and each!

Friday, 13 December 2019

"Mercat de Folletti" (1862)


The sensuality, or, let's spade-a-spade it: the sexuality of Christina Rossetti's most famous poem is hard to deny, and a little tricky (for some readers, at least) to square with the form of the work, viz. a children's fairy tale in which grotesque but not too scary goblins menace two sisters, tempting one to a kind of fall only to be bested by the other. But you already know the poem. It's very famous. Sisters Lizzie and Laura hear the cry of the goblin fruit-vendors every morning and evening:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy!” [GM, 1-19]
Lizzie knows not to trust these cat-faced, rat-faced, snail-like and tail-whisking goblins, but Laura, tempted, sneaks out and meets them. Lacking money she pays for their fruit with a lock of her golden hair. The poem describes her subsequent meal with lubricious intensity:
She dropped a tear more rare than pearl,
Then sucked their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flowed that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away
But gathered up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turned home alone. [127-40]
The pearl is a poetical way of describing her tear, but it's a symbolical way of talking about her virginity. Certainly all that intense sucking has a distinct sexual vibe. I note, as per the title of my post, that the Italian for goblin is folletto (in 1872 Christina Rossetti's cousin, Teodorica Pietrocola-Rossetti, a resident of Florence Italy, translated Goblin Market into Italian under the title Il Mercat de Folletti). This, I'm not inhibited from suggesting, floats the possibility of an interlingual, ribald pun, folletto fellatio shadowing this passage. Or else, with the ‘s’ in ‘sucking’ being replaced by the archaic long-s ‘ʃ’ in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's calligraphic rendering of his sister's name on the 1862 title page (reproduced at the head of this post) we have the ghost of ‘she ʃucked and ʃucked and ʃucked the more/She ʃucked until her lips were sore’. Lips, labia in Latin, has a double-meaning depending on whether we're talking above or below a woman's waist, a point to which I return below. But perhaps you consider this improper speculation on my part. I daresay you're right. Let's move on.

After her initial ecstasy, Laura goes into a decline. No longer helping Lizzie with the housework, she loses her appetite for regular food, pining for the fjords goblin fruit. Lizzie upbraids her: does she not remember Jeanie? Jeanie dead and buried in a grave where no flowers will grow? Jeanie
Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died
In her gay prime,
who tasted the goblin fruit.
For joys brides hope to have: that's pretty unambiguous. Laura wants more of the delicious bridal-bed-pleasure-fruit. But she can't have it. She and Lizzie fetch water together:
They went with pitchers to the reedy brook;
Lizzie most placid in her look,
Laura most like a leaping flame.
That leaping flame image is important, I think, and I'll return to it. It's here that Laura discovers that though her sister can still hear the goblins, she herself is now deaf to their traders' cries. The goblins, having ruined her, have cut her loose. She despairs, turns ‘cold as stone’, creeps to bed, ‘and lay/gnashed her teeth for baulked desire, and wept/As if her heart would break.’ ‘her tree of life drooped from the root’ [260]. She tries planting the kernel she kept as a souvenir in a pot hoping it will grow and produce fruit of its own, but it proves barren. She dwindles:
Her hair grew thin and grey;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay.
Lizzie resolves to save her. She puts a silver penny in her purse (Victorian slang for vagina, don't you know) and goes out to meet the goblins. They are very excited by her approach:
Laughed every goblin
When they spied her peeping:
Came towards her hobbling,
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing,
Chuckling, clapping, crowing,
Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and mowing,
Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Demure grimaces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel- and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter skelter, hurry skurry,
Chattering like magpies,
Fluttering like pigeons,
Gliding like fishes,—
Hugged her and kissed her:
Squeezed and caressed her [329-49]
Lizzie tosses them her penny and they offer their fruit, but refuse to let her take it away with her, insisting she eats it there and then. When she refuses they assault her, in a scene of really quite startling, rapacious violence:
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbowed and jostled her,
Clawed with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soiled her stocking,
Twitched her hair out by the roots,
Stamped upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeezed their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat. [397-407]
But she holds firm. Eventually the goblins give her back her penny, and then they all run away. Lizzie hurries home to her sickening sister:
She cried “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me:
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.” [464-74]
Had to “do” with goblin men. When Ben Jonson wrote, in Petronian mode, ‘Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short’, he was talking about fucking, which gives us a sense of what having to do with men entails (that whole 10-line Jonsonian poem reads as an interesting gloss on Goblin Market, actually; I wonder if Rossetti knew it). Still: although Lizzie did hand over her silver shilling (her virtue more broadly defined, perhaps, rather than her actual virginity-pearl) she managed to get it back again. And so the poem reaches its frankly orgasmic conclusion. Laura:
     clung about her sister,
Kissed and kissed and kissed her:
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.
... Writhing as one possessed she leaped and sung,
Rent all her robe, and wrung
Her hands in lamentable haste,
And beat her breast.
Her locks streamed like the torch
Borne by a racer at full speed,
Or like the mane of horses in their flight,
Or like an eagle when she stems the light
Straight toward the sun,
Or like a caged thing freed,
Or like a flying flag when armies run. [485-506]
For the second time in the poem, ecstastic Laura is compared to a flame, or more specifically the poem describes the burning flame of her goblin-yearning being out-burned by a larger, purifying flame of sisterly intensity:
Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart,
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame;
Spun about,
Like a foam-topped waterspout
Cast down headlong in the sea,
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past [507-22]
That's the money shot. You can see why Playboy reprinted in the poem in its September 1972 issue, complete with specially commissioned erotic illustrations.

We're on particular and, I concede, debatable ground here. We might retort, indignantly or otherwise, that Christina Rossetti was a devoutly religious woman, almost certainly a virgin when she died, and that the very idea (the very idea) that she had even heard the word fellatio, or knew what it connoted, is as absurd as it is offensive. Me, I prefer to avoid the intentional fallacy when I can, and I certainly prefer literary criticism to biographical criticism. Still: I wonder if it doesn't represent a rather deplorable condescension to assume Christina's blank ignorance of all sexual matters. We Other Victorians, as Foucault says; all that. Put it this way: Goblin Market is either intensely sexual in vibe because Christina was specifically using her fable to explore intense somatic and sensual desire, or else it is either intensely sexual in vibe because Christina was so extraordinarily innocent of sexual matters that she simply didn't realise how sexy her writing was. I suppose either reading is possible.

In what is still, probably, the most famous reading of the poem, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar claim it as a feminist masterpiece, although a masterpiece of a rather complicated kind. ‘There are no human men in the poem; even when the sisters becomes wives and mothers at the poem’s end no husbands are described ... Rossetti does, then, seem to be dreamily positing an effectively matrilineal and matriarchal world, perhaps even, considering the strikingly sexual redemption scene between the sisters, a covertly (if ambivalently) lesbian world.’ [Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (Yale Univ. Press 1979) 567]. That ‘ambivalently’, though, points to the fact that neither Gilbert nor Gubar actually see the poem as a celebration of sex-positivity. On the contrary, this orgasmic conclusion is, they argue, really about renunciation: Lizzie becomes ‘a eucharistic Messiah, a female version of the patriarchal (rather than Satanic) Word made flesh’ insisting that ‘Laura must devour her—must, that is, ingest her bitter repressive wisdom, the wisdom of necessity’s virtue, in order to be redeemed.’ [573] That certainly aligns with Rossetti's own, renounced mode of living, although it doesn't seem to me to quite explain the joyous note of soror-solidarity on which the poem actually ends:
For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands. [562-7]
Sisters: Goblin Market is the proto-Frozen, and considerably *ahem* hotter with it.


Christina had a sister of her own with whom she was very close: Maria Francesca Rossetti. Maria, moved by a sense of religious vocation, persuaded Christina to join her working as a volunteer at the St. Mary Magdalene Home for Fallen Women in Highgate. Some critics make the assumption that Christina's time among these former sex-workers in the late 1850s fed directly into Goblin Market, and although we have no hard evidence that it did the circumstance is suggestive. In 1874 Maria became a nun, joining the Society of All Saints, an Anglican order for women. Christina dedicated Goblin Market to Maria. In 1893 she wrote:
“Goblin Market,” first published in 1862 was written (subject of course to subsequent revision) as long ago as April 1859 and in M.S. is inscribed to my dear only sister Maria Francesca Rossetti herself long afterwards the author of “A Shadow of Dante.” In the first instance I named it “A Peep at Goblins” ... but my brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti substituted the greatly improved title as it now stands. And here I have to acknowledge the general indebtedness of my first and second volumes [of poetry] to his suggestive wit and revising hand. [Crump and Flowers (eds) Christina Rossetti: the Complete Poetry (Penguin 2001), 884]
Dante eh? That's interesting. And indeed, a few years after the appearance of this poem, Maria's book on Dante was published:

The lines quoted on the title page, there, are probably too small to make out. Here they are, bigger:

It means ‘So may God let thee, reader, gather fruit/From this thy reading.’ Fruit, eh? Interesting. The frontispiece roundel on the facing page is by Dante Gabriel; the Italian means ‘The body within which I cast a shadow’ and is quoted from Purgatorio 3:26.

Eating and fasting are purged on the sixth of Dante's seven mountain-terraces. The seventh terrace purges lust by burning lovers in a refining fire that burns away their lustful inner-fires. After passing through this fire himself, Dante lies down to sleep and has a vivid dream of two loving sisters: a vision of Leah and Rachel, one of whom passes out into the world and the other of whom stays home: female representatives of the active (non-monastic) and contemplative (monastic) Christian lives, both of which are important. Rather like Christina and Maria, respectively, one might think.

Is there any reason to think these cantos of the Purgatorio were on Christina's mind in the run-up to her writing Goblin Market? But maybe it would be better to ask whether there's any reason to think Christina wasn't thinking of Dante, constantly: with her Dante scholar father, her Dante-book-writing sister, her literally-named-after-Dante brother. Dante was the horizon within which all the Rossettis' creative labour took place. Dante Gabriel R, who (according to the 1893 note I quoted above) gave Goblin Market its title, and whose ‘suggestive wit and revising hand’ was all over Christina's poetry, spent his whole life translating and illustrating Dante. A few years before his sister wrote her great poem Dante Gabriel painted his ‘Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah’ (1855)

There they are, the two sisters, by the waters, like stay-at-home Lizzie and out-in-the-world Laura.

The sixth and the seventh terraces of Purgatory link the two (we could say) manifest and latent themes of Christina Rossetti's poem: gluttony and lust. For Dante, the food that the gluttons are being deprived is fruit: apples, ‘pomi a odorar soavi e buoni’ [22:132; ‘apples that smelled so sweet and fine’]. This is because the original sin of Adam involved fruit, something also manifestly at play in Goblin Market. The prayer for the sixth terrace is Labia mea Domine (Psalm 51:15: ‘O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise’), the opening words from the daily Liturgy of the Hours.
Ed ecco piangere e cantar s'udìe 
“Labïa mëa, Domine” per modotal, che diletto e doglia parturìe.  [23.10-12]

And, behold: “Labïa mëa, Domine”
was wept and sung and heard in such a manner
that it gave birth to both delight and sorrow.
Labia again. Interesting.

Just as Laura starves, dwindles and greys in Christina Rossetti's poem, so Dante's sinners are reduced:
Ne li occhi era ciascuna oscura e cava,
palida ne la faccia, e tanto scema
che da l'ossa la pelle s'informava. [Purgatorio 23.22]

Each shade had dark and hollow eyes; their faces
were pale and so emaciated that
their taut skin took its shape from bones beneath.
But Dante's own path takes him past the starvation of his gluttony, but through the refining fire of the next terrace. This latter circumstance, it seems, can't be helped: just as Laura's redemption involves passing through her own flames.
Swift fire spread through her veins, knocked at her heart,
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame;
... [507-22]
Dante himself observes both heterosexual and homosexual sinners being purged in the terrifying fire of this seventh terrace; and when he steps into the flames himself he says:
Sì com' fui dentro, in un bogliente vetro
gittato mi sarei per rinfrescarmi,
tant' era ivi lo 'ncendio sanza metro. [27.49-51]

No sooner was I in that fire than I’d
have thrown myself in molten glass to find
coolness—because those flames were so intense.
But there's no help; he has to pass through. Maria Francesca Rossetti, in her Shadow of Dante, is puzzled that this refining fire that purges us of lust completely fills the seventh terrace. What, she wonders, about people who have never sinned, sexually in deed or thought?

Maybe. Or maybe the truth is simpler: we are none of us, as Christina knew, free of this sin, this intensity. It's what makes life and it is in us. But we can, she thinks, burn through it, and if we do it leads to a vision of—what? Of perfect sisterhood, Leah and Rachel, the matriarchs of all twelve of the tribes of Israel, and therefore ancestors of Christ himself.

One of the things that particularly interests me here is that this is where Rossetti's poetry stops, at the peak of Purgatory, dreaming of sisters. What I mean is that it doesn't take the next Dantean step into actual Paradise. Everyone (we might say) in Purgatory is dead, but they're in-between dead, neither (as it were) negative dead like the damned nor positive dead like the blessed. And the remarkable thing is that this in-between morticity is precisely where Rossetti wants to be. Here, she says, between the wickedness of the masculine Devil and the virtue of the masculine God is a space where visionary sister and visionary sister can subsist. In one of her early poems Rossetti addressed a ‘drearest’ (male? female?) in these terms:
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
It's a very famous poem, of course; but its fame perhaps distracts us. The cypress is conventionally associated with death, and mourners may strew roses on a grave; but then again Wordsworth himself (in 1827) spoke of ‘the cypress with which Dante crowned His visionary brow’, and the Rose of God is the final destionation of the Commedia's Dante. This little poem repudiates them both in favour not of a atheistical oblivion, but rather of a placid middle-place: ‘haply I may remember,/And haply may forget’.

In other words, I'm proposing that there is something specifically purgatorial in Rossetti's verse, not in the usual sense of the word (which is to say: not in the sense that it purges or seeks to purge its readers) but in this specific, Dantean, symbolic sense. In Purgatorio 23 Dante describes his, and others', strenuous passaged up the mountain as ‘salendo e rigirando la montagna/che drizza voi che ’l mondo fece torti’: ‘ascending and turning round the mountain/which straightens you whom the world twisted awry’. Heaven is not corkscrew after this fashion: Paradiso 16 informs us that once we reach Paradice our appetites are no longer thuswise twisted (‘là dove appetito non si torce’). But Rossetti, it seems, likes the twist, and is disinclined to give it up.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Rudyard Kipling's “The Moon Miners”

[Excerpted here are lines 20-79; this is the passage immediately before the miners unearth the mysterious artefact buried deep beneath Copernicus crater. The text is taken from Smithee's edition. Kipling's Moon Miners antedates 2001: A Space Odyssey by half a century.]

We worked, digging down slant and delving deep from Copernicus’ crater
And each of us working a ten hour day, and grinding their Excavator.
Our suits’ remote commanding the drills, tunnelling lasers and Chutes
Six foot men are small as dwarves beside those mechanical brutes—
Moon miners we, paid to tunnel, the regolith over us all;
The only sounds our helmet-pent breath, the world coloured black and pall.
And the cavern advancing inch by inch, punching through lunar crust;
Each morning meeting the frozen rock, each evening leaving it dust.
And the days on the moon are a fortnight long and are hotter than boiled lead
And the nights are exactly as long again and cold as the thoughts of the dead.
And the dust is fine as sea-beach sand where breakers turn onto their side—
Though the moon’s an oceanless beach, and parched, and rockfall’s the only tide;
It's pebbles and rocks and meteors that come crashing out of blank sky
And millennia pass between each splash, and that surf is deathly dry.
Hurtling down, smashing and crashing, and milling rough rock into dust
An anvil of land and myriad hammers, and so the topography’s crushed.
Soundlessness, vacuum, eerie and dark, confusion of far and near:
The miner toils in his cell spurred on by ‘we’re building a city here!’
Die-cut shadows dance in the blackness thrown by the welder’s spark;
There are twenty types of moonrock, lads, but a thousand types of dark—
A thousand kinds of darkness there, and the cold comes on up through your boots:
Those lunar hilltops are bleak, for sure; but it's bleaker by far at their roots.

We’d dug the main chamber, and sealed the sides with Palmact agent and Glu
And we’d paved the floor with laze-planed stones, and fitted these flags to the true.
And the echoless cavern reared eerily over us, arc-lit, hooped and tall
Shadows seemed of elastic, and stretched, flitted and slid on the wall.
Our suits were black as charcoal up from the boots to the helmets’ peaks;
A thing you don't know about moondust, perhaps, is just how vile it reeks:
It stinks with the taint of sulphur, of a gunpowder fashioned in hell,
And you never quite wash yourself of it clean, though you scrub down ever so well.
So we eat and we sleep; and ready ourselves, and its back sublunar again—
Though it’s hard and ill-paid and dangerous too, yet we’re Lunewomen and -men.
And so we dig on, and the Vaters moved, jabbed blades, turn, dig and sweep,
On earth they’d have clanked, hissed and grumbled; but here all was quiet as sleep.
We drove three new tunnels, went downward slow, and aimed for the moon’s still heart…
But we found what we never thought to find, and it clattered our world apart.

We’re Lune, and we’re proud of that fact, though our suits bear House sigils now—
This is our world, and if you want digging it's us are the ones who know how.
We’ll take the Merchant House’s money, we'll let them supply new kit
But ours are the hands, and the minds and the lives we take down into the pit.
Ours are the death too: the pit is a deadly-dangerous workplace, and deep;
You need not think us your slaves, you Housers, though you have bought us cheap.
A human who’s gone inside the moon and crawled through the grave-holes there
Is indifferent to threats as to money—for us moonminers are hard to scare.
But scared I was, for all my vaunting, by what my Vater dug through
And my heart near stopped, and my breathing froze and my monitor light burned blue.

Friday, 6 December 2019

H G Wells " The Country of the Blind and Other Stories" (1911)

‘The enterprise of Messrs. T. Nelson & Sons,’ says Wells in the introduction to this volume ‘and the friendly accommodation of Messrs. Macmillan render possible this collection in one cover of all the short stories by me that I care for any one to read again.’ A Best Of, then. ‘Except for the two series of linked incidents that make up the bulk of the book called Tales of Space and Time (1899),’ Wells clarifies ‘no short story of mine of the slightest merit is excluded from this volume’. What, no ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’? Bertie, are you mad? Anyway: here, for reference (my reference I mean: of course you don't care) are the stories making up the collection, together with their places and dates of original publication.
‘The Jilting of Jane’ (Pall Mall Budget, 12 July 1894)
‘The Cone’ (Unicorn, 18 September 1895)
‘The Stolen Bacillus’ (Pall Mall Budget, 21 June 1894)
‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (Pall Mall Budget, 2 August 1894)
‘In the Avu Observatory’ (Pall Mall Budget, 9 August 1894)
‘Æpyornis Island’ (Pall Mall Budget, 27 December 1894)
‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’ (Pall Mall Budget, 28 March 1895)
‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (Pall Mall Budget, 6 September 1894)
‘The Moth’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 28 March 1895)
‘The Treasure in the Forest’ (Pall Mall Budget, 23 August 1894)
‘The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham’ (The Idler, May 1896)
‘Under the Knife’ (The New Review, January 1896)
‘The Sea Raiders’ (The Weekly Sun Literary Supplement, 6 December 1896)
‘The Obliterated Man’ (New Budget, 15 August 1895 as ‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’)
‘The Plattner Story’ (The New Review, April 1896)
‘The Red Room’ (The Idler, March 1896)
‘The Purple Pileus’ (Black and White, December 1896)
‘A Slip Under the Microscope’ (The Yellow Book, January 1896)
‘The Crystal Egg’ (The New Review, May 1897)
‘The Star’ (The Graphic, December 1897)
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ (The Illustrated London News, July 1898)
‘A Vision of Judgment’ (Butterfly, September 1899)
‘Jimmy Goggles the God’ (The Graphic, December 1898)
‘Miss Winchelsea's Heart’ (The Queen, October 1898)
‘A Dream of Armageddon’ (Black and White, May/June 1901)
‘The Valley of Spiders’ (Pearson’s Magazine, March 1903)
‘The New Accelerator’ (The Strand, December 1901)
‘The Truth About Pyecraft’ (The Strand, April 1903)
‘The Magic Shop’ (The Strand, June 1903)
‘The Empire of the Ants’ (The Strand, December 1905)
‘The Door in the Wall’ (The Daily Chronicle, 14 July 1906)
‘The Country of the Blind’ (The Strand, April 1904)
‘The Beautiful Suit’ (Colliers, 10 April 1909)

The frontispiece, there, illustrates a scene from ‘The Country of the Blind’. I'm sure you know the tale, since it is one of Wells's favourites. Nuñez, attempting the ascent of the hitherto unconquered (and fictional) Mount Parascotopetl in Ecuador, falls down the far side in to an inaccessible though fertile valley entirely populated by blind people. Wells provides back-story rationalisation as to how this blind community came to be, although he really doesn't need to. The fable runs beautifully along its lines without all that sort of scaffolding.

Anyway: Nuñez goes about reciting the old Erasmian proverb ‘In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King’ and assumes he will rule this place. But the locals not only refuse to acknowledge that he is sensorially superior to them, they have no concept of sight at all and assume he is mad. Nuñez,though frustrated, realises he has to make the best of his situation, since the surrounding mountains render escape impossible. So he tries to fit in, whilst continuing to insist to the people there that he can see.

He falls in love with a girl, Medina-Saroté, but the village elders disapprove of his marriage because they consider his obsession with sight idiotic and delusional. The village doctor proposes removing Nuñez's eyes, reasoning they are diseased in some way that is affecting his brain, and, because he loves Medina-Saroté, Nuñez agrees; but on the morning of the operation he sneaks off, hoping to find a way over the impassable mountains to the outside world.

Wells published two versions of this ending: in the original version (as printed in this volume) Wells leaves his protagonist high in the mountains at nightfall, his fate uncertain, but, as I read it, probably dying. A revised and augmented 1939 version of the story alters this: Nuñez sees an impending rock slide, cannot convince the villagers of the danger they are in, and flees the valley together with Medina-Saroté in tow just before the avalanche wipes the whole place out. They make it to the outside world, marry and have four children, all sighted, but Medina-Saroté refuses the medical attention that might restore her sight. She believes her husband's insistence that the world around her is wonderful, but insists that it would be terrible to see it.

It's one of Wells's best known, and best, stories, all spun out of a premise both simple to the point of obviousness and elegantly wonderful in its novelty: ‘in the Country of the Blind would the One-Eyed Man really be king? Wouldn't an entire country of blind people have adapted to their blindness, such that sight wouldn't be such a biggie? Maybe they wouldn't even believe there was such a thing as sight’ and so on.  Not that it's a flawless piece. The ending's ambiguity speaks to a degree of uncertainty about the dramatic conception (Patrick Parrinder's analysis of the MS reveals a buried third ending, where Nuñez simply returns to the valley, which points to a writer barely able to make up his mind) and the worldbuilding of the story has never struck me as watertight. So for instance: the inhabitants of the valley think the birds are angels, since they can hear them flying about but can't touch them—but surely they'd get their hands on dead and injured birds from time to time, trap them in their homes and apprehend them, and realise they were just another sort of animal, no? But it wouldn't do to be too nitpicky here. This isn't realism, after all. This is a fictional version of Plato's allegory of the cave. As such it works well, although I'd say which of the two endings Wells came up with for this story you prefer will tell us something about your attitude to Plato's famous myth.

What I mean is: the way Plato tells it, the prisoner who escapes the cave, sees real sunlight and returns to tell his other encaved captives, has seen something both real and manifestly superior to everybody else. And in real life it sometimes is true that the person who insists s/he has seen truth and is shunned by the mass consensus for his/her pains has indeed seen truth. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred that person is not a visionary who has pierced the veil of maya, but is rather a nutter, somebody the balance of whose mind is disturbed. A hallucinator, attention-seeker or major loon. It seems to me the population of Blind Country are right to shun Nuñez's tyrannical ambitions, and certainly are better suited to their niche living that he. The original version of the story implies as much. But the avalanche conclusion steps back to the original Platonic notion: in the later version of the story Nuñez does have something the Blind Countrypeople lack, a true vision, and Wells bends the story to prove his point. Me, I prefer the latter of my two readings of Plato's allegory, and therefore the earlier ending. Your mileage may vary.

In the preface to the 1911 Country of the Blind and Other Stories, Wells notes that ‘the task of selection and revision’ entailed by this volume brought home to him ‘with something of the effect of discovery’ that
I was once an industrious writer of short stories, and that I am no longer anything of the kind. I have not written one now for quite a long time, and in the past five or six years I have made scarcely one a year. The bulk of the fifty or sixty tales from which this present three-and-thirty have been chosen dates from the last century. This edition is more definitive than I supposed when first I arranged for it. In the presence of so conclusive an ebb and cessation an almost obituary manner seems justifiable.
He goes on to speculate as to why he has, in effect, stopped writing short stories. Such writing used to come to him as easily as leaves to the tree:
I find it a little difficult to disentangle the causes that have restricted the flow of these inventions. It has happened, I remark, to others as well as to myself, and in spite of the kindliest encouragement to continue from editors and readers. There was a time when life bubbled with short stories; they were always coming to the surface of my mind, and it is no deliberate change of will that has thus restricted my production. ... I found that, taking almost anything as a starting-point and letting my thoughts play about it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or vivid little incident more or less relevant to that initial nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower-beds of suburban gardens; I would discover I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity.
He inserts a potted recent history of the form: the 1890s were ‘a good and stimulating period for a short-story writer’ with great work being produced almost continually by a whole tribe of short-story writers (‘Barrie, Stevenson, Frank-Harris; Max Beerbohm; Henry James; George Street, Morley Roberts, George Gissing, Ella d'Arcy, Murray Gilchrist, E. Nesbit, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Edwin Pugh, Jerome K. Jerome, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Morrison, Marriott Watson, George Moore, Grant Allen, George Egerton, Henry Harland, Pett Ridge, W. W. Jacobs and Joseph Conrad’), all led by Kipling: ‘Mr. Kipling had made his astonishing advent with a series of little blue-grey books, whose covers opened like window-shutters to reveal the dusty sun-glare and blazing colours of the East’. For my money, Kipling is the greatest writer of the short story form in English literary history, but I don't mean to get distracted. At any rate, Wells thinks that's all passed away now:
I do not think the present decade can produce any parallel to this list, or what is more remarkable, that the later achievements in this field of any of the survivors from that time, with the sole exception of Joseph Conrad, can compare with the work they did before 1900.
There's an interesting discussion to be had, I think, as to whether Wells is right in his larger literary-historical diagnosis; but it can't be denied that it describes his own career as a short story writer. Despite being one of the true masters of the form, the inspiration of Borges and generations of SF authors, and despite the fact that some of his most enduring literary achievements are to be found amongst his shorts, he wrote no more of them. Why not?

It's not a question that admits of straightforward answer, I fear. He himself blames the figure he calls ‘the à priori critic’:
Just as nowadays he goes about declaring that the work of such-and-such a dramatist is all very amusing and delightful, but “it isn't a Play,” so we' had a great deal of talk about the short story, and found ourselves measured by all kinds of arbitrary standards. There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what any one of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes' reading or so. It was either Mr. Edward Garnett or Mr. George Moore in a violently anti-Kipling mood who invented the distinction between the short story and the anecdote. The short story was Maupassant; the anecdote was damnable. It was a quite infernal comment in its way, because it permitted no defence. Fools caught it up and used it freely. Nothing is so destructive in a field of artistic effort as a stock term of abuse. Anyone could say of any short story, “A mere anecdote,” just as anyone can say “Incoherent!” of any novel or of any sonata that isn't studiously monotonous. The recession of enthusiasm for this compact, amusing form is closely associated in my mind with that discouraging imputation. One felt hopelessly open to a paralysing and unanswerable charge, and one's ease and happiness in the garden of one's fancies was more and more marred by the dread of it. It crept into one's mind, a distress as vague and inexpugnable as a sea fog on a spring morning.
In comes the fog, it seems.

Still: fog, though Wells deplores it, may be part of the unique strength of the short story as a distinct form. In saying so I'm drawing on Timothy Clark's rather brilliant essay ‘Not Seeing the Short Story: A Blind Phenomenology of Reading’, which appeared as part of the Oxford Literary Review's special issue on ‘The Blind Short Story’ in 2004. Clark makes the case for the short story as a specifically blind mode of art, arguing that ‘what I propose to call, non-pejoratively, the “blindness” of the short-story revisits the issue of the form's relation to realism’. A long quotation from Middlemarch demonstrates George Eliot's commitment to as whole a sight as possible. The short story, by contrast, is necessarily determined by its pseudo-poetic brevity:
[Eliot's] passage of character analysis lasts several pages. However, were such a series of paragraphs as that about Lydgate to appear in a short story, might the mechanics of its realism not be more likely to echo back on itself, revealing its tautological basis? This element of the literary, that it actually conjures up what it seems merely to re-present as already there, is something this forms mere brevity—its lack of concretizing context—makes less ignorable. The short story, as they say, is more ‘poetic’. Eliot's effect of subtlety seems to escape this merely self-validating quality through its integration into earlier and later passages of the text. Without that, the kinship between the general ‘human truths’ of such a realist text and the kind of effects of ‘truth’ at work in a horoscope would be clearer. This lack of the trompe-l'oeil effects of a lengthy context constitutes what may be called the relative blindness of the short story. [Clark, ‘Not Seeing the Short StoryOxford Literary Review 26 (2004), 8]
Clark goes on to develop a larger phenomenology of blindness and reading, and whilst there's not space to get into all that here, it is, I think, worth drawing out one other point he makes. Metaphors of seeing, according to Clark, pervade short story theory. He finds a remarkable ‘predominance of countervailing metaphors of sight, of the striving to “see” a text whole, the flash of revelation etc’ in the way critics write about the short story form, and quotes one such critic:
‘Visual metaphors’, writes Dominic Head, ‘abound in short story theory, a fact which underlies the “spatial” aspect of the genre, but which also obscures the illusory nature of this aspect.’ The illusion lies in the fact that the visual pattern is constructed from out of the necessarily temporal movement of reading, its working through both memory and anticipation to achieve a seeming ‘overview’ of the text as a whole. Visual metaphors, he argues, often focusing the whole text through some crucial epiphanic moment of ‘insight’—itself usually described as if it were an instance of the miracle of the restoration of sight—repress the heterogeneity and ‘openness’ of a story. [Clark, 9; he is quoting Head, The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 10]
This all seems to me interesting in several ways, and although Clark doesn't might have some bearing on Wells's own praxis. Blindness either as a total state, as in ‘The Country of the Blind’ (or cast by the individual out upon the community in the short novel The Invisible Man), or else as a partial restriction or limitation of vision is a recurring theme in Wells's short stories: ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’, ‘The Plattner Story’, ‘The Crystal Egg’ and many others. Conceivably Wells's increasing dissatisfaction with the short story mode correlated to that belief, which increasingly gripped him as the 1920s and 1920s went on, that he ought to be aiming at a kind of whole sight. His next novel, Marriage (1912), is a positively Eliotian exercise in comprehensive vision, in concretizing context and sheer length—getting on for 600 pages in the first edition (Joan and Peter from 1918 is nearly 800).

No question but it's a shame. Wells blindness was prodigiously more eloquent and resonant than his attempts as clear-sightedness. But he didn't think so, and drew a line under his short story writing. The short story form is the enclosed valley of ‘The Country of the Blind’; it is the sightless but blessed inhabitants of that valley. And the truth of Wells's later career is that he could not rest content in that place, but had to engineer a gigantic rock-fall and the opening of a new breach in the surrounding mountains to be able to scramble back to Realism.

Monday, 2 December 2019

The Tweet Of My Enemy Has Been Ratioed

[In memoriam Clive James]

The tweet of my enemy has been ratioed
And it's a sight for sore eyes.
A vast disproportion has opened up
Between his likes and retweets, and his hostile replies:
A smallish number sits in his tweet's bottom-right-hand corner,
And in the bottom left two digits followed by a ‘k’.
People are informing my enemy that his opinions on women in popular cultural texts
Are not OK.
One scrolls through reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to relish all his doublings-down and linkings-through
His earnest pseudo-logic and not-all-menning
His thesis concerning the fundamental wrongness of a lady Doctor Who
The many reasons why female superhero costumery must be more revealing than male
How Captain Marvel should smile more
Why the Ghostbusters reboot was such an epic fail.
How a girl's is the wrong star war.

My enemy's online experience has become a battlefield
And I am crowing.
What used to be a pleasant meadow has become a nuclear warzone
Metaphorical craters still glowing.
What avails him now his flouncing-off?
His insistence that he is leaving now, and will not be back, and it's our loss
When we all know he'll be tweeting again by Thursday
A tosser arguing the toss?
I feel no sympathy for my enemy:
If you can't stand the heat stay out of the kitchen.
He's brought it all on himself with his posturing online persona, a mix
Of equal parts Milo Yiannopoulos and Peter Hitchen.

My daily scrolls through Twitter, though,
Have become distressing.
It used to be fun. I used to enjoy it.
But now I honestly don't know why I spend so much time and energy on an experience so depressing.
This site where everyone is so unpleasant and angry and judgmental all the time.
This hellscape, this mire, this unremitting shitshow.
This root-canal of the spirit, these men and women ungentle.
This everlasting no.
I should quit it, leave the spoils to my equally miserable enemy, I really should.
Draw my online draughts from quite another fount—
It would result in an immediate and palpable benefit to my mental health!
Still. I won't.