‘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 26 January 2020

Thoughts on Cyberpunk

I'm assuming the idiom ‘such-and-such is not all that’ is one with which you are familiar. What I like about it is the way it steers its course between harsher dismissal or snark on the one hand, and undercommitted neutrality on the other. I'm not suggesting that Cyberpunk was, as it were, actively bad, deplorable, anything like that. There's some Cyberpunk I like a great deal. But I am, I suppose, suggesting that it wasn't quite as cool, or as signficant, or as core to the larger narrative of science fiction's development, as is sometimes claimed.

These thoughts aren't exactly pursuant to the fact that William Gibson has a new novel out, although they are perhaps provoked in part by the excitement lots of people are performing on social media at the fact that William Gibson has a new novel out. I haven't read Agency yet. I will, although I wasn't especially bowled-over by The Peripheral (2014), to which it is, it seems, a kind-of sequel. Still, the level of online excitement suggests that plenty people are still invested in Cyberpunk as a mode. It hasn't gone away. Neuromancer was 1984, and 1984 was a long time ago now, but it can't be denied the movement still has acolytes. People are still attentive to, and in many cases prepared to put lots of money behind, it. The Netflix adaptation of Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, one of the most expensive TV series ever made, has been commissioned for a second series. CD Projekt have a team of 500 people working round the clock readying the game Cyberpunk 2077 for its September release (see Keanu, above). The gamble here is: cyberpunk is still cool. Maybe the gamble will pay off.

I wonder. There certainly was a moment, at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, when it looked as though Cyberpunk was coming true, and that in turn cast a certain neon glamour back upon Gibson's predictive and social-diagnostic talents. But, actually, Cyberpunk didn't come true. So it goes. There are two main criteria against which Gibson's nostradamusing might be measured: on the one hand there are the props and tech of his novel (and he was, it's true, the first to use the term ‘cyberspace’ in print); on the other is the new economic logic underpinning all that surface Blade Runnery, Matrix-y aesthetics and vibe. For the first of these, the salient is not that Gibson ‘saw that computers were going to be, like, really important in the future’, or anything so vague (lots of people saw that, long before Neuromancer). The salient was that the Gibsonian Matrix, and its many imitations in later SF, were to be immersive, their virtual reality ‘a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation’. This has not come to pass, despite vast sums of money having been spaffed on research for VR helmets etc. We remain absurdly, even ludicrously happy with screens mediating our cyberexperience, just as we were happy with (and continue to be happy with) screens mediating our televisual and cinematic experience.

The one genuinely revolutionary change of the last thirty years is one Gibson simply didn't foresee: phones. So far from abandoning our screens for a wholly immersive VR cyberpunkness we cling to our screens. We love our screens so much we want to take them everywhere with us. Moore's Law has been harnessed, mostly, to one great task: making our computers and screens small enough and wifi-connected enough to be able to take them everywhere with us. We love our screens so much that it even turns out we're only happy watching our big screens if we also have our small screens with us. What does the Matrix actually look like? Not ‘lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data, like city lights, receding’, but this:

Cyberspace turned out to be recursive, not linearly urban-topographic.

Neuromancer was wrong about its more fundamental things, too, I think. Its world is one in which (a) state power has effectively withered away with everything now being run by corporations, and (b) as a consequence of this things have defaulted to dystopian desocialiation, urban wildernesses, predatory violence, unregulated tech, organised crime and a general homo hominibus lupus vibe. Cyberpunk's imagined world is also decoupled from the traditional temporal structures of our social habitus (the city never sleeps, the action largely happens at night). The implication here is that it is these new cybertechnologies that have brought about the world's Hobbesification; that it's a case quite specifically of cyberhomo homini lupus. But this is not where we are. Folk sometimes talk as if it is, but it's not. Facebook, Google, Apple and Disney are huge corporations, no question, and make obscene amounts of money; but they haven't taken over actual governance. On the contrary, the nation state is as strong as it's ever been (arguably, with Brexit and the election in so many territories of aggressively tribalist-nationalist quasi-fascist leaders, it's stronger than it's been for a while). And moreover it seems to me a moot question whether Google, Facebook and Apple are huger, as corporations, than were (say) the Ford Motor Company or BP a century ago. We forget: not only did Ford generate eye-popping profits throughout the 1920s, he even bought up a five-thousand-square-mile chunk of Brazil in order to establish his own Fordlândia quasi-country. That came to nothing, of course, but actually that's my point. Big corporations have aggressively pursued myriad ways of maximising their profits, and it transpires taking over the business of national and international governance is not one of those. Which, if you think about it for thirty seconds, makes sense, actually.

But my point is not really to twit Gibson as a prophet. It is to suggest that Cyberpunk, though often entertaining and thought-provoking, and though it once was (but, I think, no longer is) cool, wasn't actually all that. Its kudos is notional rather than actual. Some of that derives from the fact that it used to be cool back when a lot of middle-aged SF fans were young. I grew up in the 1970s and early 80s reading SF promiscuously, and back then, although there wasn't anything so interconnected or immediate as today's congeries of plugged-in fandoms, there was a kind of consensus that ‘proper’ SF was Golden Age-y, hard-ish, masculine, can-do. That was because middle-aged SF fans of the 1970s and 80s had grown-up reading SF in the 1940s and 50s. It's the way of things, and nor do I absolve myself. I retain within me, if I'm honest, a sense that ‘proper’ SF is New-Wave-y: Le Guin and Delany, Phil Dick and Brian Aldiss and Lem. Joanna Russ and Chris Priest. Ian Wat- and M John Harri-, son. It's certainly what I tend to write. Give me more by way of Moorcock, cock, and less of this video-games-in-novel-form gubbins, thank you very much. Give me Leguinity or give me death! But folk a decade or so younger than me are also middle-aged now, and they look back to the stuff that was cool in the 80s and early 90s, and that was cyberpunk.

Having written that, I now look at it and think: no, it's too facile an explanation. I'm actually sidling-up to a different kind of argument, along the lines of: critics and fans embraced Cyberpunk in the 1980s and 1990s because they thought it was the wave of the future. So, one history of the mode goes like this: science fiction begins towards the end of the nineteenth-century, with Verne and Wells, because the nineteenth-century saw such rapid and socially disorienting advances in industry and technology. SF is a way of apprehending this pace and many of the specifics of such change. It is the literature of industrial and technological change, because it does what no other kind of literature can, and extrapolates change as such into the future, bodying forth textually the many ways, utopian or dystopian, in which industrial and technological advances are liable to impact human existence.

OK: I don't, as it happens, buy that argument. But perhaps you do, and perhaps you're right and I'm wrong. Say, then, that people looked around them in the 1980s and 1990s and said: ‘if the main driver of change over the last 150 years has been primarily industrial, has manifested in manufacturing and technological advances, then the main driver of coming change will be advances in information storage and processing, in computers and interconnectivity, and therefore the most relevant and important science fiction will no longer be about gigantic spaceships or world-destroying guns, but about computers and information. If Verne's imagined big machines were the wave of the 1860s' future, then Gibson's Neuromancer is the wave of our future.’

I run the rusk of strawmanning, I know. So let me say, instead: I don't think SF begins with Verne and Wells. There's plenty of stuff prior to them that we can only avoid calling SF by engaging in semantic contortions: trips to the moon and planets, crazy speculative technology, futurology and so on. My argument is that SF first distils into something recognisable as SF around the time of the Protestant Reformation. My thesis nutshell is: ‘fantasy’ is the default mode of human storytelling (people by and large like a bit of magic, or surrealism, or transcendence, in their tales) from which something like ‘literary Realism’ is an 18th-19th-century aberration. Also: the difference between Fantasy and SF is that the former extends beyond mimesis through novums predicated on magic, where the latter does so through novums predicated on science, or pseudo-science. In my Palgrave History I argue that this distinction was connected with the European cultural revolution of the Reformation, in which Catholicism insisted on the durability of its magical worldview where Protestantism took a step away from the whole transubstantiation/holy-relics/pilgrimages/miracles-and-saints side of things into a more austere, less enchanted form of faith. This disenchantment has been experienced by many as a painful thing, such that a form of literature that offers to restore enchantment, as much Fantasy does, will always find an appreciative audience. It's not that SF has turned its back on enchantment, of course: it's just that the characteristic SFnal mode of it, ‘sense of wonder’, in essence a high-tech, galactic-scale revisioning of the old Burkean or Kantian sublime, tends to be future-oriented, materialist and individualist, where High Fantasy, influenced heavily by that great Catholic writer Tolkien, tends to be past-oriented, quasi-religious and communitarian. But in neither case does your average Joe, Joanna or Jenderneutral SF Fan particularly care about the new railway networks, new modes of factory production, or even new ways of launching satellites into orbit. The appeal is techno-numinous, not socio-economic.

From this perspective, the thing that the implicit prophetic excitement of 1980s/90s Cyberpunk got, as it were, ‘wrong’ had less to do with its particular props and toys, or its thrillingly grimdark dystopian urbanism (a conceptual playground in which you, yes you, get to be the badass and shake to earth like dew all those Civilisation and Its Discontents chains). What it got wrong was how un-numinous, how unsomatic and therefore unerotic, actual cyberspace was actually to become. Yes I know 99% of the world's porn is now delivered via the internet. That doesn't seem to me to contradict what I say about the uneroticism of our new screen-mediated Being-in-the-world. Porn is desomaticised sex, and whatever functional role it plays in 21st-century life, for better or worse, it indexes a disjunction between representation and actual sexual connection. This really doesn't strike me as a controversial thing to say, actually. Anyway: what Neuromancer promised, excitingly (for 1984), was a kind of techno-communion, a total immersion, a reconfiguration of existence as such. This did not come to pass. There's a reason why the sub-genre settled quickly into a variety of sex-n-violence poses: nudity and blood-spurting from bullet-riddled torsos (and how readily that aesthetic aligns with a set of right-wing, libertarian and techbro ideological priors, alas).

There's an interesting essay by Eric Korn from 1993, written at exactly the moment the more outré predictions of first-wave Cyberpunk were tripping over their feet of clay. In that year Korn visited a Virtual Reality Centre, located near Piccadilly Circus, where punters could roam around rudimentary VR landscapes (‘William Gibson’s man,’ Korn complains, ‘is coupled to the computer, brain to brain, while we had to make do with lumpy goggles, like a high-tech condemned man’s bandage over the eyes’). His experiences are disappointing; he feels nothing but awkward: ‘I find a new and more disabling clumsiness as I wave my unfamiliar limbs. I am not Superman but Gregor Samsa. I lumber, I dance wooden-legged, I fall off things: this is Turing’s problem as nightmare.’ What's the problem? Korn finds an explanation in an unlikely text:
I try to cram myself further into the mind of the monster whose body I temporarily inhabit. I realise that identity problems would be still more acute if my helmet delivered a split-screen image, my subjective view and God, the Overhead Monitor’s view, or better yet my view and my opponent’s. In the near-future, we shall see ourselves as others see us, the target and the target’s target, the loved one’s love. I find a description of all this, surprisingly, in Anne Carson’s study of Greek lyric poetry, Eros the Bittersweet:
Possibilities are projected onto a screen of what is actual and present by means of the poet’s tactic ... That godlike self, never known before, comes into focus and vanishes again in one quick shift of view. As the planes of vision jump, the actual self and the ideal self and the difference between them connect in one triangle momentarily. The connection is eros.
And again, with uncanny precision: ‘tactics of imagination ... all aimed at defining one certain edge or difference: an edge between two images that cannot merge into a single focus because they do not derive from the same level of reality – one is actual, one is possible. To know both, keeping the difference visible, is the subterfuge called eros.’ Ludus, jouissance or agape maybe, but there wasn’t a great deal of eros in Piccadilly Circus.
I think this lays its finger on the problem. The excitement of the original Cyberpunk, its beguiling dream, was of a new techo-eros, where actual cyberspace has moved us further away from, not more intimately into, our own and others' bodies. Cyberpunk promised us a shattering, perverse but orgasmic new kind of penetration (those prongs sliding with such resonant force into the docking-ports sunk into the backs of Neo and Trinity's necks in The Matrix, a literal as well as a metaphorical headfuck) when what we have actually gravitated towards is a kind of high-tech cordon sanitaire. A world of intervening screens, not of ports (the sky above which turned out to be, in the end, not the color of television tuned to a dead channel after all: for the cyberrevolution will not be televised). As the reality of cyberculture has not provided the eros, the techno-juissance, promised by Cyberpunk, the genre itself has reverted to more and more sexually explicit and body-penetratingly violence content, a facile sort of compensatory gesture.

Take away its simulacrum of contemporary relevance, its pretence to devestating insight into our contemporary condition, and what is left of Cyberpunk? Some of the books are well written. Some of the ideas are cool. But without its tacit, tantalising sense of illicit insight into next year's reality, the mode falls back into a set of styles and story-conventions, more or less diverting. Cyberpunk is fine. It's OK. It's just not all that.

Monday 20 January 2020

Mask of Anarchy

Masque of anarchy, or mask of anarchy? ‘Ghastly masquerade’ [line 28] or murder wearing ‘a mask like Castlereagh’ [line 6]? The answer is: both. Shelley used both titles in manuscripts and when referring to the poem in letters to friends. I'll come back to this point in a bit.

He wrote the poem in 1819, out of the heat of his wrath and revulsion on hearing the news (resident in Italy though he was) of the Peterloo massacre: 91 stanzas of savage indignation, English's most famous work of political invective capped, as if by magic, in its last five lines, with one of the most genuinely stirring calls to revolution ever put into Engish. Shelley sent it to his friend Leigh Hunt to publish in his paper, the Examiner. Hunt, however bottled it. In the preface to the eventually-published first edition (title page at the head of this post) he wrote, mimsily enough, we might think:
This Poem was written by Mr. Shelley on occasion of the bloodshed at Manchester, in the year 1819. I was editor of the Examiner at that time, and it was sent to me to be inserted or not in that journal, as I thought fit. I did not insert it, because I thought that the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse.
I don't mean to be too hard on Hunt. He had personal reason to know how disproportionate and oppressive the authorities were liable to be where criticism was concerned. A sycophantic report in the press in 1813 describing the Prince Regent as ‘an Adonis in loveliness’ had provoked him: he had used the Examiner to scoff that this ‘“exciter of desire”—this “Adonis in loveliness”’ was ‘in reality a corpulent man of fifty!’

The result of this was that Hunt spent two years in a cell at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Surrey, convicted of seditious libel. Had ‘Masque of Anarchy’ been published in 1819, when it was written, something similar would surely have followed; not for Shelley as author, since he was safely beyond Home Secretary Sidmouth's jurisdiction (in Italy), but likely for Hunt as publisher. So the world had to wait until 1832, two years after the death of Fat George, before it could read the incendiary words:
As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him.

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed the human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell:

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies. [1-29]
Paul Foot notes that as these ‘three English despots, Castlereagh, Eldon and Sidmouth’ glide past him masked as Murder, Fraud and Hypocrisy ‘Castlereagh is feeding seven bloodhounds with human hearts. These are Britain’s seven allies, whom Castlereagh appeased at the Congress of Vienna after Waterloo by agreeing not to press for the abolition of slavery.’ The seven is also apocalyptic, of course; since St John's Revelation is full of mystic sevens, seven-headed beasts, seven seals, seven phials and so on. I have to admit, mind you, that the detail with the millstones has always bothered me: not that tears might swell and petrify into millstones—for Shelley's text-world is a satiric phantasmagoria in which such transformations are perfectly viable—but that children, even starving beggar children, might mistake such huge wheels of rock for valuable gems. I'm over-reading, I know; straying into pedantry. The larger point is that things are not what they seem in England in 1819: these men pretend (wear the mask) of compassion, justice and so on, but actually they are cruelty, violence and death. Their masquerade (‘a party or assembly of people wearing masks, and amusing themselves with dancing, conversation, or other diversions’) is for their own, rather than for our, pleasure. Or rather, it is for our distraction and their power, which isn't quite the same thing.
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw—
The nudge towards St John's Revelation encourages us, perhaps, to see the “I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!” as a version of the celebrated “666”, with each of the three faux-idendities, each mask, standing in some sense for a six. (Was Shelley perhaps thinking of, let's say, Deus sum, rexque et lex ...? That phrase has 3 x 6 = 18 letters). The God-king-law is the antichrist, the an-archos; atheist republican Shelley was pitching for a diametrically opposed figure than this as his prophesised saviour: not God-king-law but secular-republican-community.

What of Anarchy? It's a word with a complex semantic field. In classical Greek it generally meant ‘without leadership’: ἀναρχία, an (privative) + ἀρχός, archos, “first, chief, leader”. Since the problem Shelley's poem identifies is not a lack of leaders, but on the contrary a superfluity of bad, tyrannical leaders, this might look odd. Euripides' Hecuba [line 605] uses the word to mean mutiny (specifically, a naval mutiny, ναυτῐκή ἀναρχία); so perhaps we can take it that Shelley sees in Castlereagh and the rest a terrible kind of non-authority, a usurpation of proper (revolutionary) leadership by figures of chaotic savagery. And as every schoolchild knows, the Greek ᾰ̓- (ἀν before vowels) had two radically different functions. It might be what the grammarians called ‘the alpha privativum’, used to give words a sense opposite to the word (or stem) to which the prefix is attached; but it might equally be the ‘alpha intensivum’, used to strengthen the force of compounds. Adding an an- might be to negate or intensify the word to which it is prefixed; so anarchy might be a lack of proper authority, or it might be the intensification of (bad) authority. More: ὁ ἀρχός, ho archos, though it primarily means the leader, the ruler, the chief, had a secondary, unclean sense: ‘the rectum; the anus’. Anarchy as Big Anus? I don't think it impossible Shelley had this in mind when he wrote his satire on the shitty government of his day. Although it's more likely, I have to admit, that he was playing the more obvious game with the privative/intensitive ἀν-, and that his Anarchy is both a catastrophic lawlessness and a Big Leader, or Tyrant.
With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.

And with glorious triumph, they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.
‘Wine of desolation’ is a striking coinage. This passage, and much of the poem, takes its inspiratoin from Isaiah 24. The new wine mourneth:
Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof. The land shall be utterly emptied, and utterly spoiled: for the Lord hath spoken this word. The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant.

Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left. The new wine mourneth, the vine languisheth, all the merryhearted do sigh. They shall not drink wine with a song; strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it.
The ‘masque’ seems popular with the people; not only do children crowd to catch Eldon's deadly tears, but ‘the adoring multitude’ throng around them. But wait a minute:
O'er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down;
Till they came to London town.

And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.
The abruptness of this transition from adoring multitude to terror-sickened, panic-stricken mass is quite hard to parse, I think. Are we to take it that the multitude were previously fooled by the masks, but that at some point on the approach to London the mask slips? But, surely, this is to miss the larger point. What Shelley is talking about here, decades before Marx and Engels began to theorise the term, is ideology: the false consciousness of ordinary people, distracted by pageant and tradition from their own oppression; or the more complex Althusserian sense of a people called-forth by processions like this, aware on some level of the violence and injustice of it, and yet complicit.

At any rate; Anarchy assembles various bloodthirst goons and henchmen, sends them off to seize ‘the Bank and Tower’ and himself proceeds ‘with intent/To meet his pensioned Parliament.’ Then, a moment of solitary passive resistance:
When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air:

“My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!

“He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me—
Misery, oh, Misery!”

Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses' feet,
Expecting, with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy. [86-101]
Proverbially it is Truth, not Hope, who is the daughter of Time. Indeed veritas filia temporis is such a commonplace that perhaps Shelley is here inviting us to see Hope, as he conceives it, as a synonym for Truth, and vice versa.
When between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose,
Small at first, and weak, and frail
Like the vapour of a vale:

Till as clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast,
And glare with lightnings as they fly,
And speak in thunder to the sky,

It grew—a Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper's scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was as the light of sunny rain.

On its helm, seen far away,
A planet, like the Morning's, lay;
And those plumes its light rained through
Like a shower of crimson dew.

With step as soft as wind it passed
O'er the heads of men—so fast
That they knew the presence there,
And looked,—but all was empty air.

As flowers beneath May's footstep waken,
As stars from Night's loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where'er that step did fall.

And the prostrate multitude
Looked—and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien:

And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind. [102-34]
This frankly gaseous saviour, although it accumulates a degree of grandeur as its manifestations scales, seems a little impalpable, at least in terms of the likelihood of a vapour managing actually to defeat the forces of evil. It does manages it, though; which leads to the first iteration of the poem's great refrain:
A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt—and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose

As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother's throe

Had turnèd every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood,—
As if her heart had cried aloud:

“Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.” [139-55]
It is stirring stuff, who can deny it; although it is also a touch masculinist and patriotic. But just on the level of rhetoric, of poetics, the gorgeous positioning of that unspooling polysyllabic unvanquishable adds tremendous force and momentum to the sentiment, as if rendering it implacable by sheer force of prosody. The sleep that has fallen on the proletariat loops us back round to the very first line of the poem, Shelley's own Bunyan-like slumber and the allegorical fable that it engendered. These hideous monsters, like the great cloud saviour that defeated them, resolves back into the cloudy moisture from which they were made, and become the dew of a bright new dawn.

More than half the poem remains. Over the course of this, Shelley revisits the main movement of this first third. Mother Earth asks:
“What is Freedom?—ye can tell
That which slavery is, too well—
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own
I've always assumed this is a small piece of interlinguistic punning on the poet's part, since in Italy (where the poet is asleep as the poem begins) slaves is schiavi which sounds, just a bit, like a schieli-echo of Shelley. This might strike you as a stretch, however.
“Birds find rest, in narrow nest
When weary of their wingèd quest;
Beasts find fare, in woody lair
When storm and snow are in the air,

“Asses, swine, have litter spread
And with fitting food are fed;
All things have a home but one—
Thou, Oh, Englishman, hast none!

“This is Slavery—savage men,
Or wild beasts within a den
Would endure not as ye do—
But such ills they never knew. [197-208]
Consider the lilies, and so forth. So what about Freedom? Shelley's take on this concept is solidly materialistic:
“What art thou Freedom? O! could slaves
Answer from their living graves
This demand—tyrants would flee
Like a dream's dim imagery:

“For the labourer thou art bread,
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In a neat and happy home.

“Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude—
No—in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England now we see. [213-25]
I like the poem opens its definition of freedom withe practicalities, only afterwards moving on to ‘Justice’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Peace’, ‘Love’, ‘Science, Poetry, and Thought’, ‘Spirit, Patience, Gentleness’ and the like. Then the specific allusion to Peterloo:
“Let a great Assembly be
Of the fearless and the free
On some spot of English ground
Where the plains stretch wide around.

“Let the blue sky overhead,
The green earth on which ye tread,
All that must eternal be
Witness the solemnity. [262-]
The subjunctive ‘let’ is doing quite a lot of work here; and Shelley runs the risk, when he moves on to ‘Let the charged artillery drive’ and ‘Let the fixèd bayonet/Gleam with sharp desire to wet/Its bright point in English blood’ as if he is urging on the massacre, in order to create the martyrs necessary to stoke-up revolutionary outrage. Presumably that's not what he's doing, but the lines are arguably running uncomfortably close to a kind of complicity in the murder of its protesters here. It's traditional among critics to call this an anticipation of Gandhian passive resistance, although the starburst, almost firework imagery Shelley deploys has a more garishly ugly quality to it than that, I feel:
“Let the horsemen's scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war. [315-22]
Then again, if at times the poem trespasses on sheer naivety it might be because the whole ghastly congeries of crimes-against-humanity that characterises the twentieth-century was still to come, and the remarkable ability of such criminals simply to shrug-off their crimes was not so evident as it was to become:
“With folded arms and steady eyes,And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.

“Then they will return with shameTo the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek. [344-51]
Still, there's always that superb stanza, repeated at the poem's end. It really doesn't get much better than this:
“And these words shall then become
Like Oppression's thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again—again—again—

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.” [364-72]
If this entails another seeming contradiction within the poem—for lions, after all, are hardly known for practising passive resistance—then I suppose that's also ideology, although of a different, authorial kind. The blindness of insight. Ideology, after all, is both a masque, a procession that calls to us (Althusser's interpellation) to join in, not to be the awkward non-participant, to take the predetermined steps and sing the old songs; and also a kind of mask, a false face presented to the world, and which the world presents to us. Shelley's gaseous revolutionary giant is as much a product of ideology as Castlereagh's murderous visage.

Sunday 12 January 2020

Cædmon's Hymn

There's no shortage of translations of this, English's oldest surviving poem, of course. Why attempt another? Well, looking at the poem again I was struck, as I hadn't been before, that one way of reading it is as an expression of the many different ways in which we might name God (Lord, Almighty, Maker, and so on). So I had a go, picking out with capitals the way Cædmon rings those changes, whilst keeping as much of the alliteration and the original sound-patterns as I could.

Nu sculon herigean       heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte       and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,       swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,       or onstealde.
He ærest sceop       eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,       halig scyppend;
þa middangeard       moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,       æfter teode
firum foldan,       frea ælmihtig.

Now should we hymn again       heavenrealm's Warden,
the Measurer's might       and his mind's thought,
work of the Wielder-father       from his first wonders,
see this Sovereign,       what he established.
He earliest shaped       for earth's offspring
a heavenroof on high,       that holy Shaper;
middle-earth was made       by mankind's Guardian,
and that Emperor       afterwards adorned
our folk's fine fold,       almighty Führer.

This works, if it does, by a process of accumulation that pays off (if it does) on the last word—which I insist is not only justified by the alliteration and the etymology of it (and of the original frea; they both come from the same root, which means to lead forward) but also in terms of the increasingy oppressive hectoring of the piece itself, short though it is. It reminds me a little of Michael Palin's vicar, from Meaning of Life: ‘O Lord, ooh you are so big’ and so on. Cædmon? C'mon, man!

Friday 10 January 2020

Holbein's Africa

That, of course, is the globe from Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533). It's based, it seems, on an actual globe:
Holbein copied a globe from 1526. The original was a printed globe, made possible by the revolution in print technology that had transformed Europe since the middle of the 15th century. The globe was likely printed in Nuremberg, and was popular in the 1520s and 30s.
Several red lines also run through parts of the globe in Holbein’s portrait. One, which runs through Brazil and divides the Atlantic, was the line agreed to with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. This treaty resulted in much of the Americas being granted to Spain, while Brazil was granted to the Portuguese. Another line, one that resulted from the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529 (once again between Spain and Portugal), divided the map in the other direction, giving the Portuguese the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. The inclusion of these lines reveals the importance of the competition between colonial powers for land, resources, and people, and the far-reaching implications that European maritime voyages and colonial expeditions would have across the globe.
Politics, politics. But I'm interested for the moment in what this globe says, specifically, about Africa.

Click to embiggen. ‘Ethiopia’, for much of European history, was a general term more or less interchangeable with ‘Africa’ as such (it's from Homer), and sometimes used to distinguish Black Africa from Arab or Berber Africa. You can see that the map identifies both Ethiopa and, further east, a sub-Egyptian Ethiopia. Algeria is ‘Barbaria’, the land of the Berbers, but otherwise this is mostly recognisable: there's Senegal, ‘Melli Regnu[m]’ means ‘the kingdom of Mali’, ‘Nubii Regnu[m]’ is Nubia, and so on. Comparison between Holbien's version and a contemporary (1550) printed-book map brings out the two biggest differences between this notional Africa and actual Africa: the lack of any Saharan desert wastes, and the extreme north-south foreshortening of the whole continent.

Isn't the representation of the Nile interesting, though? Centuries before the source of that river was actually explored by Europeans, here it is shown as deriving from a network of large rivers all rising in the far south, and converging on a huge inland island. You can just about make out this isle in Holbein's painting. It's clearer in the woodcut:

Since this geographical feature is purely speculative, and has no basis either in travellers' tales or in reality, its inclusion must serve some other purpose. I can't find out what, though. Was this where Prester John was supposed to reign, perhaps? Some Utopian topography? We should probably ask the skull.

Friday 3 January 2020


One of the things I did last year was to re-read Middlemarch, adding my thoughts to those by other readers on Gail Marhsall's excellent Middlemarch month-by-month blog. 200 years since her birth, you see. Here, for instance, is my final blogpost, on Eliot, Pascal and infinities. Now: one of the things taking part in that process encouraged me to do was reconsider provincialism in art as such. One of the other contributors to Gail's collective blog, Ruth Livesey (a colleague of mine, actually) is presently an AHRC Leadership Fellow 2019-20 looking into questions of ‘Provincialism: Literature & Cultural Politics’, by way of ‘exploring how Eliot was shaped by the education and experience she received while living in the Midlands, and how she believed “art had a responsibility to show a provincial life could be just as full of insight and moral courage as one on the great world stage.”’ It's a very interesting question. Eliot is certainly both a great artist and an intensely local, midlands one. One might say the same about Tolkien.

It's thrown me back on some earlier thoughts. There always has been localist literature; plenty of topographic specificity in 18th-century poetry, but where this is sometimes styled as (and sometimes self-presents as) a withdrawal from politics, that very act of withdrawal strikes me as political, or ideological-aesthetic. A good deal of 18th-century localism actually embodied a Cincinnatus-style withdrawal from the national stage to the local focus of one's provincial life. Cincinnatus was a much more important figure to the neoclassical world than is something realised, I think; and one of the aspects of that is the sense that national, or global, politics are inevitably corrupt and corrupting, such that a principled retreat from the larger stage to the local one is seen as a cleansing action. In the nineteenth-century too, the mainstream of Byronic international cosmopolitanism, or Tennysonian civic performance, existed alongside a more modest strand of provincial poetry, a la Clare or Barnes. But the question that really interests me is whether the 19th-century as a whole sees a shift away from a mode characteristed by large-scale social engagement towards a Cincinnatian withdrawal; from an attempt to make art systematic and global to a valorisation of the local in art.

The question is whether this correlates to a kind of abdication of the larger social project to understand the world—to, indeed, change it. In Dickens we see various textual strategies that are designed to use the metropolis as a way of apprehending and comprehending the whole world: all of society, men and women, young and old. Something is amiss, the world is not as it could be, and Dickens wants to understand what, and to see what can be done about it. London, according to this reading, is the urbs mundi; the whole of the world—the English countryside, America (in Chuzzlewit), France (in Bleak House and Dorrit) are all positioned in terms of London, as not-London from whence the story must inevitably return to London. London, in other words, is Dickens’s modular way of engaging with the largest questions. Compare this with Hardy, from the century’s end. Hardy’s Wessex is not a microcosm of the whole world; it is, quite specifically, Wessex. That's very much its point. The stories Hardy tells are human stories, and like all human stories they scale more generally as commentaries upon human experience; but they are local stories. The extent that Hardy’s writing represents a withdrawal from the ambition of a write like Dickens—the ambition to find a way of apprehending the whole, of writing systemically about the system—is precisely the extent to which Hardy’s writing is elegiac in tone, tragic in mode, a literature of enclosure rather than disclosure.

A parallel case (it is, perhaps, not the parallel that would spring readily to most people’s minds) is the career of Alan Moore. By which I mean: is there a similar withdrawal in his body of work? -- from the larger, politically engaged narratives of texts such as V for Vendetta and Watchmen—works that use the melodrama of the graphic novel mode to interrogate questions of the largest social and political relevance—into the private realms of pornographic sexual fantasy (Lost Girls) and localism—Moore has increasingly committed himself artistically to his native Northampton. The question, then, is: how fair would it be to describe this as a retreat from the very idea of the ability of writers to alter the larger political debate? In the case of Moore, his 1980s anti-Thatcher work was the product of a time (which I remember personally) when the left had a recognisable enemy, and was, broadly, fired-up and ready for the fight. Speaking (again) broadly, much of this energy was dissipated through the 90s and into the noughties, when the UK Labour Party was in power and instituting its nominally socialist, practically Thatcherite programme. Some of the harder left did rail against this, of course (the most effective rallying call was the Gulf War). Some were converted to New Labour; but many simply retreated from national political engagement altogther, to, as it were, plant cabbages in their back garden or become involved in local history. Or, for all I know, pursue elaborate pornographic fantasies or write mournful lyric poetry about dying.

Does something like this account for the drift towards localism in the later nineteenth-century? The struggle seems to avail naught, so the fighter withdraws as gracefully as possible from the national ring, and focusses instead upon private pleasures (Lost Girls) or local history, topography and life (in, say, Northampton).

Actually, now I'm starting to wonder if we might read Edwin Drood as about this: the (good) Cincinnatian remove to the countryside of Dickens's childhood and country residence, set against the (bad) abdication of social responsibility in favour of individual sensual pleasure represented by opium.

Thoughts provoked, or re-provoked, by the recent election result, staring down the barrel of five years of Johnsonianism and Brexit, five more years (likely enough) of Trump and the integral intensity and hostility of what passes, under the regime of social media, for non-local public discursive spaces. Sigh.