‘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.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Andy Warhol and Donald Trump: a Fable for Today

Andy Warhol comes across in his own diaries as almost heroically vapid: shallow and judgmental, watching an endless string of Dynasty episodes and noting down every dollar he spent on cab fares (for tax purposes? Why else?). But one particular thread from this vast volume has acquired fresh relevance in the light of the the ongoing US Presidential race. Warhol meets Trump, April 1982:

'Donald Trump is really good-looking'. 'These people are so rich.' 'He's a butch guy.' It's looking good! Warhol does the work which, he comes to believe, he has been commissioned to do for Trump. Naturally Trump stiffs him.This makes Warhol cross.

'... and she was trying to get away and she did.' Fast forward to Jan 1984:

He agrees to take part in this Trump Tower jamboree, but deliberately turns up two hours late 'because I still hate the Trumps because they never bought the paintings I did of the Trump Tower'. Andy is sticking it to the Man! And it turns out there's another reason why Warhol hates Trump:

This is from 2 May 1984. 'And I just hate the Trumps because they never bought my Trump Tower portraits. And I also hate them because the cabs on the upper level of their ugly Hyatt Hotel just back up traffic so badly around Grand Central now and it takes me so long to get home.' And the final, brilliant touch of pathos: '(cab $6)'. We've come a long way from 'Donald Trump is really good-looking'.

American people: pay heed.

Monday, 22 August 2016

'Camera Obscura' (2014) by Simon Armitage

I'm a genuine admirer of Armitage's poems (and his translations), and noticed this one, on the Poetry Review website from a recent-ish issue (Volume 104, No 2, Summer 2014, in point of fact). I'm unsure, having read it several times, whether the last section is supposed to be three long, fairly loose lines, or one single much longer line. If the latter then the poem (deliberately, I suppose) falls just short of being a sonnet, by extending the final line, as the final image shrinks down and the reunion of mother and child recedes, never to be consummated. So I suppose I prefer that.

The obscure room of the title is the sort that produces an image, inverted and small, on its rear wall; which is to say, it is memory. It's a poem of diminution, because memory (it says) is a process of magical image-conjuring that shrinks the object as you reach out to grasp it. You can't apprehend it because the idiom of memory is the past, and the past no longer exists. The eight year old is you (gender not specified, although I suppose the kicking-a-stone implies a boy). But this is not a universal you. It's not, for instance, me: for although I am old enough, just about, to remember pre-decimal currency, I grew up in south-east London not 'the North'. Still the poem makes the move that great poems do, from the particular to something more broadly resonant. In this case the specifics tail off: a whole shopping bag; four potatoes, still in their mud; a 'boiling' of peas and 'rags of meat' until we are at the tail-end of fish. From solid and whole, to fragmented and finally to the rag-end. The larger theme of the poem is the passage of the remembered mother from immediacy to distance, from largeness to vanishing smallness. 'How warm must she be in that winter coat' evokes her physicality, and also conveys her relative poverty: still wearing her winter coat in the spring, or perhaps the summer, because she can't afford two coats—as if the pennypinching adding up, and the purchase of cheap cuts of meat and fish didn't already tell us that. But the gorgeous final image sees her dwindling away to nothing at all.

I like the way the stone of the first stanza leads the mother's 'fist' in the second (she is holding the bag, tightly; but she is also tight-fisted because she has so little money), only to open up into the flat of the hand and the fingertip of the final image. There's something lovely in that unclenched fist; it's also emblematic of memory I suppose, or at least of a certain kind of memory. Or perhaps the final image is more unsettling. It reminds me a little of D H Lawrence's 'Humming-bird' poem, which imagines a huge Jurassic version of its titular avian, only to bring the creature down to modern-day size. Lawrence's poem ends: 'We look at him through the wrong end of the telescope of time/Luckily for us.' Is the circumstance Armitage describes lucky for us? Hard to say.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Everything Will Be Erased

A nicely bracing assessment of the durability of, well, everything is provided by this post over at BLDGBLOG. It cites Ted Nield’s book Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet (2008), a work which “literally imagines what the surface of the Earth might look like after hundreds of millions of years” worth of tectonic transformations have deformed it.
Nield writes, for example, that, “even if some civilization of 200 million years ago had completely covered [the Earth] in cities and then wiped itself out in some gigantic global nuclear holocaust, nothing—not even the faintest trace of some unnatural radioisotope—would now remain on the surface.” Some of us might think that writing books, for example, is a way to achieve immortality—or winning an Oscar or becoming a national leader—yet covering the entire planet with roads and buildings is still not enough to guarantee a place in any sort of collective future memory. Everything will be erased.
One of the smaller vortices of the Total Perspective swirl.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Bunyan's Glummery

Bunyan's pilgrim comes to the end of his progress when he reaches the Celestial City: 'Now, just as the gates were opened to let in the men, I looked in after them, and behold the city shone like the sun; the streets also were paved with gold; and in them walked many men, with crowns on their heads, palms in their hands, and golden harps, to sing praises withal. There were also of them that had wings, and they answered one another without intermission, saying, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.'

In 1924 a young C S Lewis wrote in his diary:
After tea I finished the first part of the Pilgrim's Progress. The end is poor: indeed nothing shows the lowness (in one respect) of the original Christians so much as their idea of Heaven which they have handed down. Compare this glummery of golden streets and hymn singing with Vergil's "largior hic campos" or the isle of the Hesperides or Isaiah or even Nirvanah. [Walter Hooper (ed), All My Road Before Me: the Diary of C S Lewis 1922-27 (HarperCollins 1991), 327]
This is pre-conversion Lewis of course, but you take his point nonetheless. Glummery indeed! The Vergil quoted is from his account of the Elysian fields in the underworld, Aeneid 6:640-1: largior hic campos aether et lumine vestit/purpureo, 'Here the air they breathe is more free and larger, and it radiantly lights the fields'. Lewis wants the representation of heaven to have more intimations of sublimity, and what Bunyan gives us is pious kitsch, the worse variety of kitsch. His illustrators have, presumably inadvertently, followed him into the vale of Ugh!—a cursory search throws up a great amount of this sort of thing:

We could, I suppose, walk this back a little by arguing that the focus of Bunyan's book is on the progress rather than the destination—it's not called The Pilgrim's Arrival, after all. Maybe it distorts our reading to put too much emphasis on Zion, rather than on the travelling-hopefully-towards-Zion. The one artist of genius to have had a go at visually representing this moment in Bunyan's book is William Blake, in the (unfinished) edition of the book he worked on between 1824 and 1827.

This is better than the other images (well, duh) because it puts aside the pretense of representing the city as a city, gold streets and endless-hymn-singing pedestrians and so on. Instead Blake does two things. One, consistent with all his art (and his poetry) is that he portrays holiness itself as a human form ('For Mercy has a human heart,/Pity a human face,/And Love, the human form divine,/And Peace, the human dress'). Human and angelic bodies take the place of the crenulations of an actual city wall, golden or otherwise. And connected with this is the way Blake takes his cue from one particular element in Bunyan's description of heaven: the crowns worn by the blessed. The triangular pattern at the top of this image—is it supposed to be the city wall, do you think?—is mimicked by the angels'-wings as they meet over Christian and Hopeful's head, a sort of meta-crown. This moment crowns the narrative, Blake is saying, but is not the body of the narrative. That body is the human form divine. No glummery there!

Thursday, 11 August 2016

"Youtube des Beaux Arts"

About buffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone is eating or staring through a window or bouncing up and down in their seat with frustration;
How, when the young are reverently, passionately linking
To the miraculous cat-video, there always must be
Dips in broadband speed that prevent specifically you from seeing it, spinning
Those circling spokes of never-completion:
They never forgot
That the dreadful loading will never run its course
As you sit in front of your computer in a coffee shop
Thousand-yard-staring, or at home
Scratching your innocent arse and waiting.

On Vimeo, for instance: how the buffer-wheel turns around
Quite leisurely, freezing, moving again,
Freezing, rotating a few spokes, and then again
Seizing up in motionlessness, whilst you
Mumble or mutter or cry a forsaken cry,
And the expensive delicate wheel that stands between you and
Something amazing, footage of a baby monkey riding on a pig,
Maliciously denies you the vision and spins calmly on.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Churchill's "Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears" speech

The new fiver is out soon: plastic and therefore more durable, and with Winston Churchill on the back. That quoted line, 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat' is, of course, from one of Churchill's most famous speeches, the one he delivered to the House of Commons on 13 May 1940. The speech even has its own Wikipedia page, from where we discover the lengths people have gone to in their efforts to track down sources for the phrase:
Churchill's sentence, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat," has been called a paraphrase of one uttered on 2 July 1849 by Giuseppe Garibaldi when rallying his revolutionary forces in Rome: "I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battle, and death." As a young man, Churchill had considered writing a biography of Garibaldi. Theodore Roosevelt uttered a phrase similar to Churchill's in an address to the Naval War College on 2 June 1897, following his appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy: "Every man among us is more fit to meet the duties and responsibilities of citizenship because of the perils over which, in the past, the nation has triumphed; because of the blood and sweat and tears, the labor and the anguish, through which, in the days that have gone, our forefathers moved on to triumph." Churchill's line has been called a "direct quotation" from Roosevelt's speech.
I have a different theory. I think the speech was inspired by Mein Kampf.

I'm interested less in the specificity of the blood and sweat phrasing, and more in the rhetorical device of making a rallying-speech that concentrates only on the obstacles and laborious challenges, rather than the justice of the cause or the rapidity with which victory will be achieved: 'we have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering' and so on. Now, I'm not arguing that Churchill read Hitler's memoir (although he might have done this, since an English translation was published at the beginning of 1940). But I do think Churchill read George Orwell's review of that new Mein Kampf translation, which appeared in the New English Weekly in March 1940.

Orwell thinks the book clumsily written, and of course is profoundly opposed to what it argues; but he still thinks the 'force' of Hitler's personality shines through the writing. He's particularly interested in the 'magnetic allure' Hitler evidently possessed for many Germans. Why might this be? After all Hitler offers only visions of endless struggle and conflict in the creation of 'a horrible brainless empire' that will 'stretch to Afghanistan or thereabouts'. But, Orwell thinks, the key is precisely this repudiation of hedonism:
Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people 'I offer you a good time,' Hitler has said to them, 'I offer you struggle, danger, and death,' and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
I think Churchill was struck by that notion, reading Orwell's review in March or April, and that when he came to give his own speech in May he thought to himself: well, if it works for Adolf, mightn't it work for me?

I could be wrong.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Immortan Lear

These are thoughts provoked by a conversation I had with a friend some months ago about Kurosawa's Ran (1985), and more specifically about that movie's bona-fides as a version of King Lear. Now, I should say that I consider Kurosawa a cinematic genius, and Ran a magnificent movie. Even so, there seems to me something not quite there about it, compared with Kurosawa's other films. I wonder if this has to do the way that, following the necessity of the social logic of medieval Japan, Kurosawa swaps out Shakespeare's daughters for sons. He does, it is true, also includes one woman: the villainous and scheming Lady Kaede, daughter-in-law of his Lear-character (Hidetora). Still, in Ran the centre of gravity is located between men, and accordingly the movie becomes about a kind of stylised oedipal battle between father and sons, rather than, as in Shakespeare, the conflict between father and daughters.

This, if you'll pardon the knight's-move of the train of thought, makes me wonder whether we couldn't argue that George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) works as a more effective cinematic King Lear than does Ran.

Now, of course I concede that any such claim is pretty much absurd on its face. Ran was developed as an adaptation of Shakespeare's play (sparked by Kurosawa's interest in the historical Japanese warlord Mōri Motonari) and incorporates specific elements from Shakespeare's play. Mad Max: Fury Road was not, and doesn't. I can't find any evidence that Miller had Lear anywhere in mind as he scripted and shot his picture. Nonetheless, I wonder whether by foregrounding one element which also happens to be core to Lear—the rage of the patriarch at his loss of control over the young women that are both the source and the purpose of his power—Fury Road doesn't better capture in stylised form the distinctiveness of Shakespeare's great play. Of course Immortan Joe has his women stolen from him, where Lear gives his power away freely. [Update 23.7: several people have pointed out to me that this was clumsily expressed: the women in the movie escape Joe and are not 'stolen'; indeed the agency of Furiosa and these women is, in a crucial sense, the point of the film. But Joe regards them as property, and their removal as theft, which was my point]. Then again, part of the point of Shakespeare's play is that he doesn't understand, when he does so, that he is really giving away his power. He thinks he is relinquishing the onerous parts of rule, and retaining all the fun parts. When he discovers that, no, he has given it all away, he becomes so angry he quite literally loses his mind. Lear remains not the only, but surely the most potently brilliant, of Shakespeare's Mad Monarx.

And here's another difference between Kurosawa and Shakespeare. Ran starts very slowly, with elegantly designed and poised representations of the social harmony (or, if you prefer, frigidity) of Hidetora Ichimonji's rule. Everything is balanced; the movie presents a series of largely static and carefully composed tableaux vivants, as when Hidetora lectures his interchangeable, colour-coded sons.

When Hidetora goes mad, this movie says, society descends into violent destruction and death. Hidetora himself, his stagey make-up making something mask-like and mannered about his mental distress.

But that's right: Hidetora's insanity is performed, projected outwards onto a world that is riven and destroyed by it, because the political logic of Kurosawa's film is that the madness of the king is the derangement of the social order. It is a visualisation of the decay of political order into political disorder.

Individual character-motivation flows in one direction ('my sole desire was to avenge my family', says Lady Kaede, just before Kurogane decapitates her). And, if the phrase has any meaning, the society-motivation of Kurosawa's film-built world flows in one direction as well, from overdetermined, stiffly symmetrical and rather tedious order, to visually much more interesting but, of human terms, disastrous disorder.

King Lear is a rather more complicated text than this. (I'm not suggesting that complexity necessarily correlates to dramatic effectiveness, of course). The play's society is already compromised, before we even get to Lear's foolish decision to give away his kingdom: the opening scene sees Gloster and Kent cracking wise about the illegitimacy of one of Gloster's sons, and the fun that was had with the whore at his conception. Legitimacy, in the sense of legal succession and political stability, is already in question. When Lear goes mad it is not the individuation of a larger social collapse, it is something more profound even than that: something radically amiss with reality.

Still, I concede that it's a leap from that to Immortan Joe. But I want to suggest a few points of consonance. In King Lear, it is Lear who goes mad (as, in Ran, it is Hidetora who goes mad) whilst the people around Lear (or Hidetora) are various kinds of 'sane': some virtuous, some wickedly self-advancing, some like the fool and 'Poor Tom' only pretending to be mad. But in Mad Max: Fury Road all the men are mad except Mad Max himself, the only non-woman in the film who repeatedly demonstrates a strongly-motivated instinct for self-preservation. Max is traumatized, and haunted by the ghosts of those he has ... well, the film isn't clear: let down, failed to protect, been responsible for killing, something like that. But he's not mad the way the war-boys are mad, spraying their mouths with chrome paint and yelling into the explosion-strewn whirlwind deathtrap desert 'oh what a day, oh what a lovely day'; and he's not part of the structural madness of Joe's authoritarian cult. Max is our barely-speaking p.o.v. into madness as weltanschauung. And in a strange way this connects with King Lear. In his 'Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool' essay (1947), Orwell notes that 'Lear is a play [that] contains a great deal of veiled social criticism—but it is all uttered either by the Fool, by Edgar when he is pretending to be mad, or by Lear during his bouts of madness. In his sane moments Lear hardly ever makes an intelligent remark.' The madness in Lear is not a tragic collapse of meaning, but a necessary focussing of meaning in a mad already world, a sort of alignment of consciousness with insane reality. In this, I'm arguing, Mad Max is closer to Lear than is Ran.

Meaghan Morris discusses the original Mad Max trilogy (though her analysis predates Fury Road) as ‘reworking Australian historiographical understandings … moving from a loss of family to a nomad/settler conflict (Mad Max 2) and then the making of a new society based partly (in Beyond Thunderdome) on convict labour’:
The Max trilogy revised the dreams and nightmares of white settler mythology, as well as probing fears of a nuclear future. Rhetorics of movement, loss and alienation have often shaped the telling of histories in modern Australia, a nation created by and for trade flows, transportation, immigration and anxious dreams of conquering space. Max is an emigrant with no hope of returning home; his is a story of displacement and traumatic severance and it serves on many levels as a myth of origins projecting into the future scene of repetition in which the repetitive (‘on the road again’, heading for the Unknown) can always been redeemed as a brand new start. [Morris, Identity Anecdotes: Translation and Media Culture (Sage 2006), 82]
This, of course, is a reading with Australian cultural and socio-political specificity, appropriately enough for a text made by an Australian director at a certain time in Australian history. But it's a reading that scales. So, for one I’m struck by the parallels with the situation out of which King Lear was produced. It is a play both about ancient origins—pre-conquest king more myth than history, the legendary territory out of which ‘Britain’ as such comes—and about the particularities of Shakespeare’s contemporary life: the Cordelia-virtues and the Goneril/Regan-dangers of having a female ruler, the potential for violence and anarchy in a disorderly royal succession, it could hardly be more late Elizabethan. (Let's not forget that it was Cordelia's Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, who divided his kingdom in the most far-reaching ways imaginable). Morris also has interesting things to say with respect to Mad Max and what she calls ‘phobic narrative’, something she argues is ‘widely used in the media to frame economic and political debates about Australia’s future’, but which, again, clearly has a broader reach than that:
Phobic narrative constitutes space in a stifling alternation of agoraphobia (fear of ‘opening up’ the nation to an immensely powerful Other, typically now ‘the global economy’) with claustrophobia (fear of being shut away from a wider, more dynamic, typically ‘Asian world): pressure accumulates in this way on the figure of the border between forces pushing in and forces pushing out. History is then caught in an oscillation. [89]
This is a nice reading of Mad Max, which does indeed balance often claustrophobic interiors (most often the interiors of cars) with the rolling wide-open spaces of its post-apocalyptic wasteland milieu. And it’s the sort of ideological critique that transfers, mutatis mutandis, from Australia to—say—Brexit Britain. But what strikes me is that it also describes the dramatic topography of King Lear’s madness: the tension between the agoraphobia of Lear’s raging encounter with the raging storm on the open heath on the one hand, and on the other the claustrophobia of Poor Tom’s hovel, where human beings become footstools, or the choking suffocation of which Lear actually dies at the play's end.

But, to return to where I started on this post, the two connected things that Mad Max captures about Lear (advertently or inadvertently) that Ran doesn't are (1) the way patriarchal authority depends upon male power over women, to the point of being deranged to madness by losing that power, and (2) the way that power is explicitly sexualised. Immortan Joe has a harem of beautiful women young enough to be his daughters. We presume (I don't think it's ever specified in the movie one way or the other) that they aren't his actual daughters, although he is certainly the patriarch, and he certainly regards them as his sexual property. Conversely there's nothing in Shakespeare's play specifically to suggest that Lear's attachment to his daughters is an erotic attachment. Nothing, for our post-Freudian sensibilities, except ... except, well, everything, actually: from the professions of love the old man solicits at the beginning (Goneril's insistence that she feels 'a love that makes breath poor and speech unable' has always struck me as startlingly physical-orgasmic) to his slightly creepy vision at the end of the Cordelia and Lear in the cell like a new-married couple in their starter home: 'We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage: ... so we'll live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh/At gilded butterflies.' Right at the beginning Cordelia strikes the keynote when she asks 'Why have my sisters husbands if they say/They love you all?' It's tactless of her, really: the difference between a father's love and a husband's is, of course, sex; and Goneril and Regan are deliberately eliding precisely that difference in their peroration to the loveliness of the patriarch. But if the cell Lear talks of in Act 5 is a bridal home, then the play inverts the tradition of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold by having Lear carrying the dead body of Cordelia on-stage. This is a moment quoted (deliberately?) in Fury Road. Immortan Lear's favourite daughter/bride is Angharad, and when she is killed he carries her lifeless body and howls.

I want to avoid simply listing parallels between Lear and Fury Road, because I'm not aiming for the flatly literalist thesis that George Miller actually adapted Shakespeare and decided not to tell anyone that he had (although, that said, you know ... the storm!

... the fool in motley who inserts musical interludes into the mayhem! 'when that I was and a little tiny boy ...'

... the unaccommodated men as such poor, bare, forked animals as these are ...

... but that's not the sort of analysis I'm proposing here, so I won't mention any of that.) Instead I'd suggest that Fury Road forcefully represents the buried dynamic of the name-of-the-father's erotic power-over integral to patriarchy and also central to the narrative of King Lear. That it does so vividly, penetratingly, critically; and that as such it develops a midrash upon Lear as powerful as any in cinema. Lear's madness is a mode of wrath as well as a mode of loss of power over women, and a wrath that sees the latter deprivation as a world-ending cosmic tempest. You of course remember the scene in Miller's film where Kent asks where Immortan Joe has gone, and one of the war-boys replies that he's
Contending with the fretful element
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,
Catch in their fury ...
Fury, see. Madness not as disintegration but as concentration, and specifically a concentration of the white-haired rage of the dethroned patriarch. Roll, trucks, and crack your chassis! rage! blow!/You car tracks and hurried war-rigs, roll/Yon sulphurous and SFX-drawn fires/Singe my white head!