‘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, 12 February 2017

William Blake, 'Angel of the Divine Presence Bringing Eve to Adam' (c. 1803)

An engraving Blake made for his patron, the government clerk Thomas Butts. I took this from the NY Metropolitan Museum website (as per previous post), and you can download a huge, zoomable version of it if you go there, which is very cool. ʿInstead of showing the first woman emerging from Adam’s side,ʾ the museum notes explain, with a certain superfluousness, ʿBlake presents the couple meeting with ceremonial solemnity. A divine figure prepares to join their hands while a recumbent Adam looks up eagerly as his mate steps down from blue-tinged clouds.ʾ

It is lovely, and presumably a deliberate riff (as it were) on Michelangelo's creation of Adam, such that instead of Adam's hand lovingly-erotically connecting directly with Eve's, both lovers are mediated by the (is it just me, or) rather phallic-looking ʿAngel of the Divine Presenceʾ. This latter is not God, it seems; but a divine emanation of angelic presence. Adam's supineness, and the (rather oddly small-headed) Eve's lightness of foot as she steps down, are both beautifully expressive. The vines presumably signify fertility, and a lion lies down with a lamb peaceably in the bottom-right-hand corner. One little touch I especially like is the way Adam's hair mimics the texture and coloration of Eve's clouds, while Eve's hair mimics the texture of Adam's golden vine-leaves: a visual ʿrhyme' that links the two of them before they have even met. I don't know my birds well enough to be able to identify the breed of bird perched on the left. Would 'Bird of Paradise' be too obvious?

One last thing. I have a theory about this image, which it would be hard to prove, but which I'm going to air here anywhere. I think Blake has modeled it, formally, on the Hebrew letter שׂ, 'shin'. I'm not suggesting the underschooled, autodidact Blake was fluent in Hebrew or anything like that; but he certainly was interested in the Biblical languages, and one wouldn't need a detailed grasp of the alphabet or grammar to understand that this letter, 'sh' or 's', was of particular significance to Judaism. In Jewish worship it stands for the word Shaddai, a name for God; and the kohen, or priest, forms the letter shin with his hands as he recites the priestly blessing (unrelated interesting fact: young Leonard Nimoy, observing this in synagogue when he was growing up, later used a single-handed version of the gesture as Spock's Vulcan hand salute on Star Trek). Because it is so holy a letter, it is sometimes written with a special crown on the left hand upstroke.

Am I alone in seeing a structural echo of this in Blake's composition? The crown becomes the foliate vine; the central upstroke the angel of the divine, the right-hand one Eve, Adam the bar across the bottom? It would be a way of Blake saying, in effect: all these elements together constitute one holy name, God. God pervades all this.

Well Met by Moonlight

Rather brilliantly, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has released to the world images of 375,000 their artworks to use, share, and remix, without restriction. At the top of this post is one of them: a watercolor/gouache by British-born painter Henry Farrer called 'Winter Scene in Moonlight' (1869). I've just spent the last hour browsing the 19th-century collections, and I'm about to dive back in for more. It's addictive. Here's a 1848 Dante Rossetti pen-and-ink sketch of the end of Goethe's Faust:

Here's a characteristically rich, rather over-solid Burne-Jones, 'The Love Song' (1868-77):

Here's another watercolour, this one by Charles Reginald Aston, called 'Tree Branches' (1908):

And here's an 1880s albumen silver print of 'Athena Nike', from the Athenian Acropolis, snapped by William James Stillman:

I hadn't seen any of these images before, and there are hundreds of thousands of more just a click away. Amazing, really.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Gray Days

Alasdair Gray's 'The City', from this short Paris Review piece on him.

I wonder if I should revisit Gray. I read Lanark (1981) as a teenager and it spoke very directly to me. I bought it because I was a SF/Fantasy nut, and the fantasy element seemed intriguing; plus I loved the bravura touch of starting a four-book novel with book three. I can remember quite distinctly standing in the Albion Bookshop in Canterbury browsing it, and deciding to spend my hoarded pocket-money buying the paperback.

But my reading experience did not go the way I expected. As a child I suffered badly from asthma (badly enough for it to threaten my life, badly enough to bend my physical existence around the lines of its force where sport and exercise were concerned) and the mundane half of that novel, Duncan Thaw's pre-war Scottish life and especially his experiences as an asthmatic child, chimed with my own experience like Big Ben's bell. The fantasy elements were fine, too; but I had not previously read, and have not subsequently encountered, a fictional account of what it feels like to be an asthmatic so powerfully true. At any rate, it made me into a fan of Gray. Since then I've read, I think, everything he has published, novels and short-stories both. But with the sole exception of 1982, Janine (1984), which I read in my first year as an undergraduate, and which I still think an interesting novel, none of them have stayed with me. None of them!

My asthma is considerably better now that I'm an adult, partly because I have to a degree grown out of it, mostly because modern medicines are incomparably better at managing the condition than were 1970s-era drugs. But the debility asthma forced upon me had a deep and shaping effect on me growing up, and is therefore still part of who I am. Gasp, wheeze, etc.

When Orson Welles died in 1985 there was a comedy sketch on British TV premised on the conceit that he had lived his artistic life backwards: starting with sherry commercials and film cameos to raise funds, small-scale bits and pieces as he learned his craft as actor and director, moving onto low-budget adaptations like The Trial, to more ambitious Shakespearian films (Chimes at Midnight, Othello, Macbeth) and, as his skill increased, to technically accomplished thrillers like Touch of Evil. Finally, having perfected his craft, Wells was able to make his masterpieces: The Magnificent Ambersons and, the copestone to a glorious career, Citizen Kane. There's something of this about Gray, I think. But maybe I should give him a re-read. And his artwork is certainly very lovely.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Kierkegaarry Potter (or "Fear and Rowling")

1. Being and Time-Turners

When Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out in 1999, some fans wondered why the time-turner that Hermione possesses in that novel (and which she uses to slip back in time in hourly increments and so double-up the number of classes she can take, the swot!)—why that time-turner couldn't be used to put an end to Voldemort before he ever became Voldemort. You'd have to give the device 250,000 turns or so, but that's a small exertion to undertake to prevent all the horrors that Tom Riddle unleashes on the world, surely! So why is the time-turner used only for trivial, and never for world-saving, purposes?

At the time, I came up with my own answer to this question, one which satisfied me, though it may not you. Maybe people had tried to use the time-turner that way. Maybe they'd tried many times, but each time they'd only ended up creating a present that was more monstrous and unbearable than before: they tried killing Riddle as a baby, or educating him differently, or treating him with different magic spells, and it made things worse and worse. Eventually, after much experiment and tragedy, they (whoever 'they' were) lighted on the only timeline in which Voldemort could be defeated, and that's the one spelled out by the novels we now have. Possibly, possibly not. More interesting than the likelihood of this particular fan-theory are the grounds on which such theories address the text at all.

Come at the same question another way. A related issue with this device is why it appears only in Prisoner of Azkaban, and vanishes from the later novels. Such a trinket could come in very useful in (say) Deathly Hallows, after all, and its disappearance rather smacks of an author, anxious not to paint herself into an impossible corner plotting-wise with one too many magical get-out-of-narrative-jail-free cards, nudging this extraordinary item under the carpet with her toe.

Now Rowling is the kind of writer who pays attention to her fans, and later HP books quite often include incidental details papering-over the cracks in her earlier worldbuilding that those fans have pointed out. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016), for instance, reveals the previously unmentioned 'Croaker's Law' that limits time-turners to a maximum backtime-travelling of five hours (any longer, we're told, would create ripple effects that would harm either the time traveller or time itself; although of course the plot of Cursed Child depends upon an extraordinary and illegal time turner that takes us back many years, so at the same time as filling that worldbuilding divot Rowling gouges out another). As for the 'why not use time-turners in the battle of Hogwarts?' puzzle: in Half-Blood Prince Hermione reads a newspaper account of an accident at the Ministry of Magic, in which a cabinet containing all the time-turners in the world has been destroyed. On account of the turners' special properties, the cabinet falls, shatters and repairs itself endlessly in a rather neat temporal short-circuit, that happens to keep them conveniently out of the way of the remainder of the plotting Rowling has to do.

She hasn't plugged all such internal coherence gaps, I think. (Why is Hermione in Prisoner of Azkaban so tired all the time? We're told it's because, using the time-turner, she's doing twice as much school work. But she has a time-turner! Why doesn't she use it to do twice as much school work and get twice as much sleep?) But the longer I go on with this kind of nit-picking, the more you get the sense that I'm missing the point. You're right: I am. Hermione's time-turner has its manifest role in the plot, but it has a much more resonant and powerful latent role in the thematic through-line of Prisoner of Azkaban as a novel; which is why it appears in that novel only, and isn't needed for later installments. That's because Prisoner of Azkaban brings one of the main themes of the series as a whole into a particular dramatic focus. I'm talking about the relationship between the parental generation and the children who succeed them. Harry misses and idolises his parents. As the novels go on he discovers his Dad was a bit of a bully when he was Harry's age. In Azkaban, threatened by Dementors, Harry is saved by somebody casting a patronus spell: a stag. He thinks this is his father, except obviously it can't be, since his father is dead. At the end of the novel it turns out that it was he himself, time-returned, who saved himself. Wendy Doniger is right about how forceful and touching this scene is:
Thanks to a wonderfully complex and subtle episode of time travel that traces a Möbius twist in the chronological sequence, Harry encounters himself in the loop where past and present come together and overlap. The first time he lives through this period, he sees, across a lake, someone he vaguely recognises: perhaps his father? No, his father is dead, but that person sends a silver stag which saves him from present danger. When he goes back in time, he runs to the same place to see who it was, and there’s no one else there: he is the one who sends the stag to save himself in the future. The moment when Harry realises that he mistook himself for his father is powerful; and it is, after all, the only real kind of time travel there is: each of us becomes, in adulthood, someone who lived some thirty years before us, someone who must save our own life.
Fun though it can be to debate the in-story consistences and inconsistencies of Rowling's intricate worldbuilding, only a fool would think that the success of these novels was a consequence of intricate consistence of worldbuilding. That success has much more to do with the way these novels express a complex of, fundamentally, affective and existential truths, things that chime deeply with its readership of children and of adults both: things to do with friendship and solidarity, with school and love and loss, and especially I think to do with parents and children. The novels are littered with ingenious trinkets and amusing spells, but most of these remain mere narrative garnish unless—like the time-turner—they express something deeper. And when they do it kind-of misses the point to focus all one's attention on the epiphenomena of the artefact. Doesn't it? The scene in Azkaban where Harry sends the stag patronus to save himself is indeed a satisfying plot point, but it is more importantly a way of saying something profound: that we struggle for a long time to come to terms with the influence, good and bad, our parents have upon us, to find a way out from their shadow, to understand them, to love them properly, and then, without warning, we discover we have become them, and it is a surprise. It's no less of a surprise because we understand that this is the way of things; it's how the species carries on. And indeed it's not only the transition, it's the apparent elision of the two conditions. We are wholly dependent upon our parents; we separate ourselves from our parents; we resent and fight our parents; we are our parents. Just like that!

2. The Surveillance Unto Death

Another problem Rowling-as-writer has, in terms of boxing herself into a corner, is how massively over-surveilled her world is. The story needs mysteries to remain mysterious until the proper point in the narrative when mysteries can be revealed with the conjurer's flourish and the satisfied 'ahh!' of the audience. Disguises must not yet be penetrated, hidden people and things have to remain hidden a while longer, and so on. Yet magic allows anyone and everyone to see, pretty much, everything. Take the Marauder’s Map, which is easily filched, and passes from schoolchild to schoolchild. This map shows the true identity and location of everybody in Hogwarts. No magical countermeasure, not Animagus disguises, Polyjuice Potion or Invisibility Cloaks, can fool the map. So, we might wonder, how did Fred and George fail to notice that their brother Ron spent his nights cuddling up with a full-grown man, Peter Pettigrew? How, in the first book, did they not see, with appropriate startlement, that Lord Voldemort himself was in the school, always close beside Quirrel?

To follow my own advice, I'm going to focus less on the in-story manifest logic of surveillance artefacts and spells, and more on the latent significance. Because it's not just maps. An important thread in the novels is that characters are granted access inside the minds and memories of other characters. It takes what in conventional novels would be 'eavesdropping' to a new level of psychological intimacy (although there's is also a great deal of old-fashioned eavesdropping in the stories, as it happens). There are two main iterations of this. One is the use of magical artefacts such as the Pensieve to re-play the memories of others, most notably when Harry gathers tears from the eyes of dying Snape, and by dropping them in the Pensieve not only learns but, it seems, experiences the secret history of Snape's whole life: his love for Lily Potter, how he was bullied at school, and the double-game he played at Dumbledore's prompting to keep Harry safe. Another example of this sort of thing is even more intimate: the direct connection of mind to mind, primarily dramatised via the link that exists between Harry himself and Voldemort. This link is actualised via Harry's forehead scar, which grows more painful as the connection strengthens. It's a major narrative strand in the series, in fact: Voldemort tries to use the connection to possess Harry, and when he can't he plants false visions into Harry's mind (Harry nearly dies after V. lures him into Department of Mysteries by showing him false visions of Sirius Black being tortured, for instance.) Finally Harry learns to use the connection to surveil Voldemort and to track down Horcruxes—a plural form I insist in believing, despite all evidence in the text to the contrary, should be Horcruces. In Deathly Hallows Hermione scolds Harry for looking into Voldemort‘s mind: 'Harry, You are not supposed to let this happen anymore!... what good is it to watch him kill and torture, how can it help?' [Deathly Hallows, ch 27]. Harry's reply ('Because it means I know what he's doing') strikes us as weak beer, because we understand something far more crucial is represented by this linkage.

We could make a Foucauldian, Disciplinary-Punishing point with respect to all this surveillance if we wanted to. After all, Hogwarts School is a remarkably Panopticon-like space, in which the pupils are under continual surveillance by not only their teachers, but by prefects, by ghosts and house-elves and even by the portraits on the wall; not counting such items as the invisibility cloak and the marauder's map. But I'm going to go in a different direction, in part because Hogwarts, despite being so thoroughly surveilled, is such a Deleuze-Guattarian holey space: there are just so many hidden rooms, secret paths and veiled elements. Even the Marauder's Map doesn't show the Room of Requirement or the Chamber of Secrets. And that's as we might expect: it's part of Rowling's inheritance of the Gothic, where the actual structure at the heart of the story (castle, monastery, stately home) literalises the symbolic structures of society and, especially, of family, in order to dramatise the truth that such structures are built on secrets. Secrets, and the uncovering of them, are the entire plot-thrust of the Harry Potter novels. (That's an overstatement, I know: there are other things going on in these books that endeared them to readers: the inventiveness and charm, the strong central relationships, the apprehension of school as the most important forum of youth. But you see what I mean). And since this paragraph seems to have slipped into the nether reaches of Theorist name-dropping I'll add two more: the topography of Hogwarts is not Foucauldian: it is much better described by Abraham and Török.

There are many individual secrets and hidden-things brought to light during the course of the seven Harry Potter books. But in what remains of this blogpost I want to suggest that all of these lesser secrets are constellated around, and in various ways reflect upon, one core secret: the 'big' secret that the series works through. And that means we can finally get to the Kierkegaard. At last. I'm only søren it's taken me so long.

3. Dumbledeither/Or

So I propose that what I'm calling the 'big' secret of the Harry Potter novels is: Abraham and Isaac. Which is to say: the mystery (in the strong sense of that word) of why the old are called upon to sacrifice the life of the young, the kill the favoured child, the chosen one. And why they do so without any apparent qualm.
"So the boy ... the boy must die?" asked Snape quite calmly.

"And Voldemort himself must do it, Severus. That is essential."

Another long silence. Then Snape said, "I thought ... all these years ... that we were protecting him for her. For Lily."

"We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength," said Dumbledore, his eyes still tight shut. "Meanwhile, the connection between them grows ever stronger, a parasitic growth: Sometimes I have thought he suspects it himself. If I know him, he will have arranged matters so that when he sets out to meet his death, it will truly mean the end of Voldemort."

Dumbledore opened his eyes. Snape looked horrified.

"You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment? ... You have used me ... I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to keep Lily Potter's son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter." [Deathly Hallows, ch.33]
Dumbledore can't quite believe Snape's profession of outrage, here, if that's what it is. “But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” (In the movie this line of dialogue is shifted slightly to make it even more deflating: 'don't tell me you have grown to care for the boy?'). But Snape is quite right. 'The boy who lived' is revealed as 'the boy who lived in order to die at the appropriate time.' These two old men are conspiring in secret to sacrifice—literally, not metaphorically, to sacrifice—a favoured son on the altar of a cruel and unresponsive Providence.

It's a feature the Harry Potter universe shares with Middle Earth that none of its characters spend any time in church or temple, or devote any of their energies to worshipping God or pondering the spiritual dimension of things. In the case of Tolkien this was, perhaps counter-intuitively, because he was so religious himself. The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote to his Jesuit friend Robert Murray in 1953, 'is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.' It's possible Rowling, who was raised an Anglican and attended Church of Scotland services whilst writing the novels (her eldest daughter was baptised in Edinburgh), is doing something similar in which case 'Providence', at the end of that previous paragraph, may be too evasive a piece of nomenclature.

At any rate, the whatever-it-is that requires Dumbledore and Snape teleologically to suspend their ethics, is veiled in these novels. Rather we follow the major plot of Harry's sacrifice through Harry's eyes:
He felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. How strange that, in his dread of death, it pumped all the harder, valiantly keeping him alive. But it would have to stop,and soon. Its beats were numbered. How many would there be time for, as he rose and walked through the castle for the last time, out into the grounds and into the forest? Terror washed over him as he lay on the floor, with that funeral drum pounding inside him. Would it hurt to die? All those times he had thought that it was about to happen and escaped, he had never really thought of the thing itself. [Deathly Hallows, ch 34]
It's the story of Abraham and Isaac from Isaac's perspective; and it answers the question 'but why must we die at the hands of the nom-de-la-mort Voldemort?' with: because there is a little piece of this mort already inside your soul. But it does so in order to twist a surprise existential short-circuit out of the encounter: death ends up destroying not us but the shard of death inside us. Eucatastrophe!

This isn't what Dumbledore thinks will happen, of course. It's clear he believed that Harry would die. When his shade meets Harry after the event, he describes himself as a 'master of Death'. 'Was I better, ultimately, than Voldemort?' he asks, and the question is not a rhetorical one.'I too sought a way to conquer death, Harry.'
“Hallows, not Horcruxes.”

“Hallows,” murmured Dumbledore, “not Horcruxes. Precisely.” ...

“Grindelwald was looking for them too?”

Dumbledore closed his eyes for a moment and nodded.

“It was the thing, above all, that drew us together,” he said quietly. “Two clever, arrogant boys with a shared obsession.”
 [Deathly Hallows, ch. 35]
All the twists and turns of the seven novels, all the 'Snape's a baddie! no he's a goodie! wrong, he's a baddie! oh, final reveal, he's a goodie!' back and forth, they all resolve themselves into these three fundamentally Kiekegaardian problems. Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical in the Potterverse? On what grounds might it operate? Voldemort, and Grindelwald, and young Albus all suspended the ethical in search of a particular telos: overcoming death. That led to great suffering: in Kierkegaardian terms, a tragic, rather than Abarahamic, outcome. But to continue with Kierkegaard's 'problemata': how does the specific suspension of the ethical provision not to sacrifice Harry Potter merit any more suspension than those earlier experiments? Voldemort dispenses with the ethical for purely selfish reasons: that he himself might not die. Snape is prepared to do the same for less selfish reasons: to save the life of the woman he loves. But Dumbledore's rebuke to him on this ground carries meaningful ethical force: “You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die, as long as you have what you want?” Snape is abashed by this, and quite right too. So what about Dumbledore's reasons for doing what he does? That's trickier to justify, and trickier still even to identify. The answer is to be found in the eucatastrophic survival of Harry himself, just as, in the Genesis story, Abraham's faith is only retrospectively justified by the intervention of the angel, staying his hand. Could we say: the thing that justifies Dumbledore's secret scheme literally to send Harry Potter to his death is that he is, in a Kiekegaardian sense, a knight of faith? 'A wizard of faith' sounds odd; but maybe that's what we're dealing with.

Kiekegaard's third problema is also relevant here: 'Was it Ethically Defensible for Abraham Dumbledore to Conceal His Undertaking from Sarah Harry, From Eliezer Hermione and Ron, and from Isaac everybody else?' Just as Harry comes to understand this his Dad was a bit of a nasty bully, so he comes to understand that Dumbledore is secretive in a manner that approaches the pathological.
Harry thought fast, his scar still prickling, his head threatening to split again. Dumbledore had warned him against telling anyone but Ron and Hermione about the Horcruxes. Secrets and lies, that's how we grew up, and Albus ... he was a natural ... Was he turning into Dumbledore, keeping his secrets clutched to his chest, afraid to trust? [Deathly Hallows, ch 29]
This takes me back to where this starting point of this blogpost. Because all the secrets in the novel, though they do work on the level of textual content, also work on the level of textual form. Indeed, they are the level of textual form of these novels, which, once we get past 'learning the world of the Potterverse', boils down to: uncovering these various secret things. It's what a writer does to keep a reader reading: pulling them along on the leash of the promised revelation of the secret. And, to repeat myself, all the various specific secrets with which the neo-Gothic structure of the novels is supplied resolve into one core mystery, Dumbledore's sacrifice of Harry.

Why does he do it? What is hidden in the Abrahamic-Töröky crypt of Dumbledore's psyche? What is he hiding from the world? Something to do with the 'obsession' that he shared with Grindelwald. That same Grindelwald we now know, from the most recent Rowling/Potterverse movie, looks like that most handsome of movie actors, Johnny Depp. 'It was the thing, above all, that drew us together; two clever, arrogant boys with a shared obsession': to short circuit life and so overcome death itself. Ask another famously gay wizard, how is it that death comes into the world at all and he'll tell you: it's pretty girls who make graves. Dumbledore's secrecy is about more than just holding back plot elements until their most dramatically effective place in the story; it is constitutive of him. Of his modest flamboyance, his childlessness, the extent to which he is closeted. I don't want to disappear too far down the 'is Dumbledore gay?' rabbit-hole, but it has sometimes struck me that there's a Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard-y quality to Edelman's much-discussed No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004): a polemical attack on the 'reproductive futurism' culturally and socially embodied by the Child. Abraham kills his own son; Dumbeldore sends Harry to his death; Edelman sets out to symbolically slay 'the child' who 'remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention', intervention always framed as 'a fight for the future'. Edelman's is a kind of Leap of Queerness, the assertion of homosexual identity as 'the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism'. Instead of moving on to the broad sunlit uplands of reproductive futurity, queerness works through its magical disruptive loop, like those time-turners forever falling and crashing and resetting and falling and crashing again. It's a knot, and it ties together all these things, after the manner of the knot of Abraham's impossible rationale for doing what God tells him to do, his promise and command: I shall, through your son Isaac, make you the father of nations, but in order for this to come to pass you must kill your son whilst he is still a child and thus cut-off your destiny. It's more than a paradox; it's the foundational mystery of the tribes of Israel, and therefore of the Judaic-Christian heritage.

The blankness of Abraham's motivations, in the Genesis narrative, is the starting point for Auerbach's still-essential Mimesis (1946). Auerbach contrasts the expansive, detailed mode of representing reality employed by Homer with the elliptical, opaque and intriguing mode used in the Old Testament. We learn nothing of Abraham's thought processes as he receives his baffling, monstrous divine commandment; he simply takes up his son and goes to Moriah.

Fear and Trembling opens (after its quizzical 'Johannes de silentio' preface) with a section entitled 'Attunement' in which Kierkegaard repeatedly retells the story of Abraham and Isaac, each time adding a speculative explanation for Abraham's behaviour. So the first tells how he
seized Isaac by the throat, threw him to the ground, and said, "Stupid boy, do you then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Do you suppose that this is God’s bidding? No, it is my desire." Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his terror, "O God in heaven, have compassion upon me. God of Abraham, have compassion upon me. If I have no father upon earth, be You my father!" But Abraham in a low voice said to himself, "O Lord in heaven, I thank You. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he should lose faith in You."
In the second Abraham cannot forgive God for requiring so terrible a sacrifice from him; in the third 'he threw himself upon his face, he prayed God to forgive him his sin, that he had been willing to offer Isaac'. And in the fourth Abraham, at the moment of crisis, with the dagger raised, simply loses his faith.

Each of these midrashim establishes a different mode of understanding the mystery of Abraham. Could we construct four similar fables to explain the mystery of Dumbledore's motivations? The boy who lived must die, at the right time, and not only the specific manoeuvres to bring this about but the very fact of it at all must be kept secret. The sacrifice must be performed in the unwavering and whole-hearted belief that the boy will die, that this is necessary. It is only after the event, when the knight of faith has not only leapt but landed safely on the far side, that the sacrifice can be justified, and the boy saved.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Vlaster Than Empires: Notes on the "Wolfhound Century" trilogy

"My Wolfhound Century should grow
Vlaster than empires and more …"


Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century trilogy [Wolfhound Century (2013) Truth and Fear (2014) Radiant State (2015)] is one of the most remarkable Fantasy works of the twenty-teens. This assessment seems to me so obvious that the series' relative neglect by the SFF community becomes a real puzzle. Rarely has a literary/historical imagination been so powerfully combined with heartfelt sciencefictional and Fantasy sensibilities. Of course it may be that very hybridity—the bald fact of it, I mean, rather than its calibre—is precisely why this work has been under-appreciated by the genre community and largely ignored by the literary. I don’t mean, in saying so, to sound personally aggrieved. Higgins isn't a personal friend (I've met him once, briefly, at a publishing do) and I've no desire at all to become the patron saint of lost literary causes. But it bears repeating: this trilogy deserves much more than it received. Perhaps its time is yet to come.

The setting is ‘the Vlast’, a variant 20th-century Soviet Union in which a variety of fantastical elements coexist with the apparatus of a Stalinist police state, and all its quasi-Orwellian quotidian indignities—overbearing bureaucrats, the smell of boiled cabbage in corridors, cheap vodka, queues in freezing weather and so on. The fantasy aspect of the novels is rooted in a kind of forest magic (indeed, the huge forest is almost a character in its own right). Giants are pressganged into physical labour, shapeshifting werewolves and smoke spirits walk the streets. Also it means angels. These creatures, it seems, throng the dark interplanetary spaces, and at the beginning of the trilogy one such celestial being has tumbled to earth. It is still sort-of alive, gigantically embedded in the ground in the middle of the wilderness.

If I say the plot is not the most notable achievement of this trilogy I don’t do so to disparage Higgins’s narrative. Volume 1, Wolfhound Century, spins a very readable Gorky Park-y policier/thriller, in which Vissarion Lom, his main character, too principled a policeman to get promoted, is sent to investigate nefarious goings-on in the Vlast's capital city Mirgorod, and in doing so uncovers plots and criminality that go right to the top of the politburo-equivalent. This works well. The worst we could say is that, as a mechanism for keeping the reader reading, the gears of this plot stick a little in the first half of the second volume, Truth and Fear (2015). It doesn't really matter. By this point the story and its characters have built up enough momentum to carry the reader through, and the denouement to vol 2 and the unexpected upward trajectory of Radiant State make for more impetus in the reading experience. What I'm trying to suggest is that plot is subordinate, in this trilogy, to something else. I'm tempted to call this something else ‘atmosphere’, but that’s not quite right. The writing certainly is very atmospheric, sometimes intensely so. But although Higgins loads every rift of his paragraphs with the ore of description and mood, I wonder if there isn’t something else at play here.

On publication of the first volume, some reviewers made comparisons with China Miéville. I can see why, although it’s a parallel that misrepresents the balance of mimesis and fantasy in Higgins’ novels, pitched as they such that the latter quality is used to inflect the former, rather (as in Miéville) the other way about. Though it lacks the fantastical aspect altogether I wonder if a better point of comparison would be Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty. What Higgins, Miéville and Spufford all share, I think, is a complicated mix of partiality and horror in their attitude to the old Soviet Union, an attitude compacted out of left-leaning political affiliation, historical knowledge of what actually happened, humane sensibilities and imaginative capacity.*

[*I could mention my own Yellow Blue Tibia here, not as any kind of comparator text, but only because I also share this mix of feelings concerning the old USSR. Of course, perhaps that means I'm merely projecting when I talk about Spfford, Miéville and Higgins. Those latter two mediate their Soviet-y Unions through the lens of Fantasy; Spufford through the lens of alternate history and speculative economics. My own novel uses a UFO fantasia and a self-reflexive SF writing trope as its inflection. It's also supposed to be funny, which is a point I return to below. I don't mean the hilarity or otherwise of my own writing. I mean the rather more significant question of what Martin Amis calls 'laughter and the twenty million'. Higgins, it's fair to say, is not trying to be funny in Wolfhound Empire.]

I have a theory that, in idle moments, I sometimes dandle on my metaphorical knee. It is that one of the ways we can differentiate between Fantasy and SF is the way they handle dystopia. SFnal dystopias are often very horrible, but more to the point they are horrible in a way that is designed to repel. I mean this in the sense that nobody sane would want to live in Zamiatin’s Onestate or Orwell’s Airstrip One. Fantasy is less thickly supplied with dystopias, I’d say, since for many fans the primary purpose of the genre is escape. So it goes that the broad sunlit uplands, romantic snow-peaked mountains and surging blue waters of your terra fantastica may be under siege or even under occupation by the forces of evil, and so temporally dystopified, but it will only ever be temporary. The book’s Shaytan equivalent is defeated and banished and the drought or plague or whatever lifts from your land. This, though, raises interesting questions about those Fantasy texts that don’t do this, Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, I suppose, being the most obvious counter-example. You might want to live in Middle Earth; indeed, when I was a kid I had periods when I yearned to live there, rather than in my suburban SE English mundaneness. But who would yearn to live in Westeros? Psychos? Masochists? I don't know. The popularity of the books, and especially of the TV series, suggests to me that there are people who do indeed yearn for the escape Westeros represents; presumably an escape from civilisation and its discontents.

It has to do with enchantment, or more specifically it reacts to the sense of modernity as a site of disenchantment. One of the notable thing about Wolfhound Century is the way it wholeheartedly commits to the materialism of the Soviet experiment (it is science fiction; there are even spaceships) and to fantasy of magic, giants, ruskalas, golems, vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches and colossal alien fallen angels. It's both at the same time: a superposition of SF onto Fantasy, or (with appropriately dialectical balance) vice versa, sometimes more and occasionally less effectively achieved but always uncomfortable and powerful. We can say more. To these two modes, or inflections, the trilogy adds a third, since the genre most typically associated with Cold War Russia is neither SF nor Fantasy but the thriller. That’s the element frontloaded in the first volume, Wolfhound Century (2013). The book starts with a nod to the opening scene in Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, with our hero, Police Inspector Vissarion Lom, sitting in a café watching his operation through the window, like Le Carré’s Leamas:
Investigator Vissarion Lom sat in a window booth at the Café Rikhel. Pulses of rain swept up Ansky Prospect, but inside the café in the afternoon crush the air was thick with the smell of coffee, cinnamon bread and damp overcoats. ‘Why don’t you go home’ said Ziller. ‘Nobody’s going to come. I can call you if anything happens. You can be back here in half an hour.
The narrative moves on in a more  Martin Cruz Smith/Gorky Park-y direction from this opening, but it works well. Or at least, it does in the first volume. I mean ‘works well’ in the sense of generating an effective thrillery vibe, a noir mood: the degrees of tension and excitement and that make reading easy. But it proves hard to sustain as the trilogy goes on, since such a vibe depends upon an agent working within the more tightly structured environment of law and order, and towards the end of Wolfhound Century that order breaks down in two ways—the war that the Vlast has been prosecuting comes home to ruin its capital city, and the magical elements in Higgins’s fictional conception become much more heavily foregrounded. Indeed when Higgins tries to return to the ‘Lom is a brilliant investigator overlooked by his superiors because he’s too honest’ vibe halfway through the final volume Radiant State (2015) it doesn’t work nearly so well, because by this stage in the trilogy the tonal logic has shifted comprehensively from policier to Weird Fantasy. It's not a problem, exactly, because the latter element is very powerful. The forest, the giants, the fallen angels and—in Radiant State—the undead soldiers are especially dream-haunting. It’s a question of the larger miscibility of the trilogy's generic ambitions.

Now, as I say, I would argue that this book articulates and therefore appeals to a particular, niche, variety of quasi-nostalgia that a particular sort of person may well feel about the old Soviet Union: that place of tyrannous disaster; that exotic political ‘other’; that homeland to Grossman and Shostakovich and Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn and the Strugatskis and Akhmatova and Tarkovski; that place of Gulags and mass-murder and Stalin and Beria and so much depressing Social Realist strain and muscle. The 'particular sort of person' I'm talking about will probably be of a certain age, and probably on the left.

This is the appropriate moment to bring-in Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread (2002), a book about the strange double-standard the intellectual left apply to Stalinism. He points out that if we play the numbers game then Stalin was worse even than Hitler. And yet there’s this residue of what amounts to affection in western intellectual discourse for that whole world, especially now that it has vanished (no—not vanished, of course: morphed into the mafiaform kleptocracy of the modern Russian Federation). Amis worries away at the why of this in Koba the Dread; and although it got a rough ride from reviewers when it came out, it seems to me one of Marty’s better books.

Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’ We could adapt this as a way of approaching Higgins’s Wolfhound novels. He has created a true description of the Soviet Union that exactly resembles a dark fantasy of the Soviet Union; and it works as well as it does because our sense of the latter elides our sense of the former.

If I have one reservation (I'm a little inhibited from raising it, for reasons noted above) it's that Wolfhound Empire is not a humorous work. For many this will not be a problem; but I felt the absence of the laughter. Amis's Koba subtitle, ‘Laughter and the Twenty Million’, identifies something important, I think. Higgins's Stalin-figure, Josef Kantor, is a parched, driven, psychotic and humourless little man. He is well-drawn, especially in the later books, and Higgins absolutely makes the reader believe in the way his sheer will, and puritanical charisma, drives the people around him on, and forces whole cities, and later whole countries, forward. But Stalin was not humourless. He projected an avuncular geniality, and he often laughed. He was, indeed, often at his most terrifying when he laughed. Amis describes how he, with feigned reluctance, took to the stage at the Bolshoi Theater in 1937 and agreed, with faux-modesty, to be a candidate in the upcoming ‘election’. What Amis focusses on is the servile laughter that greeted him. He quotes a contemporary transcript (‘ ... of course, I could have said something light about anything and everything. [laughter] ... I understand there are masters of that sort of thing not just in the capitalist countries, but here, too, in our Soviet country. [laughter, applause]...’) and glosses:
Ground zero of the Great Terror—and here was the Party, joined in a panic attack of collusion in yet another enormous lie. They clapped, they laughed. Did he laugh? Do we hear it—the ‘soft, dull, sly laugh,’ the ‘grim, dark laughter, which comes up from the depths’?
Amis then makes the connection with the laughter of western socialists, remembering his old friend Christopher Hitchens addressing a London audience in 1999 in a venue that had often hosted socialist and communist gatherings. Hitchens made reference to this past, and, Amis says, was greeted with 'affectionate laughter.' Of this, and leaning a little too heavily on the outrage pedal, Amis asks:
Why is it? Why is it? If Christopher had referred to his many evenings with many ‘an old blackshirt,’ the audience would have been outraged ... Well, with such an affiliation in his past, Christopher would not be Christopher—or anyone else of the slightest distinction whatsoever. Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub? One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous laughter? And what kind of laughter is it? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million.
The larger argument in the book is not quite so self-righteously dismissive. Amis understands, I'd say, that the laughter, dark or desperate, cruel or even liberating, was part of the whole Soviet experiment in a way not true of the Nazi one. The laughter does not deflect, but on the contrary illuminates, the horrors. Nor should we confuse laughter with levity. On the contrary, indeed. In his own review of Koba the Dread, Hitchens himself recalls a footnote to Amis's earlier book, Experience:
Batting away a critic [Amis] describes as ‘humorless,’ he adds, ‘And by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.’
I like that very much. Indeed, it seems to me really quite profound. Hitchens's point, I suppose, is that Amis loses his sense of this great truth in the thickets of horror and outrage that hem in Koba the Dread. There's something in that.

Well: I don't want to perpetrate the fatuity of criticizing Higgins for not writing the kind of book he never set out to write in the first place. I'm entitled, as any one is, to write a quasi-una-fantasia Soviet SF novel structured via irony and laughter if I want to (and have indeed done so). Earlier I praised Spufford's Red Plenty, and one of the things that works so well about that book is its effortless wit. Spufford can be very funny when he wants to be. Miéville, I have to say, can't: despite his many excellences, laughter is not part of his skill-set. So perhaps the comparisons with Bas-Lag have some point after all.

'Why is it? Why is it?' asks Amis. Why the double standard? A Wolfhound Century set in Nazi Germany—The Adolf Century—would indeed be a much less palatable prospect; but why? One possible explanation that Koba the Dread doesn’t consider is: orientalism. The Nazis (according to this logic) did unspeakably wicked things and in doing so they betrayed the high ideals of post-Enlightenment civilized European values. Conversely, the Soviet authorities committed all manner of barbarity, violence and cruelty—but the Soviet Union was an oriental, not a Western, regime, and, as the deep-rooted prejudice goes, those orientals have always been all about the exotic barbarism and colourful violence. They did not fall from so high a eminence in our estimation, because they didn’t occupy such a perch in the first place. It’s bollocks, of course; and whatever problems there are with Said’s Orientalism (and there are plenty of problems) its polemical spearing of the mendacity of this caricature remains powerful. But the fact that it is bollocks hasn't stopped it permeating western culture and society.

Michael Ignatieff, looking back on the Communist experiment from the vantage of the mid-1990s, suggested that Soviet Russia was
a violent but passing form of Oriental despotism, as relentless as Fascism, as single-minded in its appropriation of modernity’s tools to oppress and control, yet fatally compromised, both by its organised contempt for those in whose name it ruled, and by the central conceit that there could be a systematic, total alternative to capitalism. Here, Fascism was shrewder, because it vampirised the capitalist system; it did not wish to break it up, and so could deliver both the goods and the terror. It is because Fascism can live with capitalism that it will remain as a possible nightmare for us long after the last Communist is dead and buried.
Interesting that Ignatieff feels unembarrassed about deploying an orientalist stereotype in his analysis of his grandfather’s fatherland.

I'm not, incidentally, suggesting that the Wolfhound Century books are 'orientalist' in this fashion. It's true that Higgins eschews the trappings of post-Tolkien ‘western’ or northern-European fantasy (wizards and dragons and elves, oh my) for an Eastern Fantasy of ruskalas and endless forests. But he does so wholeheartedly from the perspective of the Vlast: the West (here, the 'archipelago') is a marginal presence. Higgins wholly commits to his Vlast as a lived-in habitus. This is in no way an orientalist novel.


In A Secular Age (2007) Charles Taylor fleshes out, at impressive length, the Weberian thesis of disenchantment as constitutive of modernity.
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.
Alan Jacobs discusses the pros and cons of this state of affairs:
a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark — of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family ... The problem with this apparently straightforward transaction is that the porous self is open to the divine as well as to the demonic, while the buffered self is closed to both alike. Those who must guard against capture by fairies are necessarily and by the same token receptive to mystical experiences. The “showings” manifested to Julian of Norwich depend upon exceptional sensitivity, which is to say porosity — vulnerability to incursions of the supernatural. The portals of the self cannot be closed on one side only. But the achievement of a safely buffered personhood — closed off from both the divine and the demonic — is soon enough accompanied by a deeply felt change in the very cosmos. As C. S. Lewis notes in The Discarded Image (1964), the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” gives way to the modern person who perceives only emptiness and silence. Safety is purchased at the high price of isolation, as we see as early as Pascal, who famously wrote of the night sky, “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”).
Jacobs goes on to explore the way some modern Fantasy novels (and some other modern things) attempt a mode of re-enchantment. What makes the deeply-felt, poetic and absorbing re-enchantment of Wolfhound Empire so remarkably is the very fact that Higgins attempts it in a fictional version of the acme of dialectical materialism. It's one thing to re-enchant the old England of Mythago Wood; it's another to try and re-enchant Leningrad (the source, I assume, for Higgins's Mirgorod). To try and make myself clear, at the risk of merely repeating myself: Higgins's ambition leads him to embed fantasy enchantment in the least hospitable territory imaginable: a land of Stalinist five-year-plans, sprawling urbanisation and nuclear-pulse rockets. What's so remarkable is how close he comes to pulling this off.

Taylor's A Secular Age argues that we have replaced the numinous apprehension of a cosmos brimming with spiritual grace and danger with what he calls the 'immanent frame' of the moral and existential perspectives of reason and science. Taylor's 'buffered self' is an aspect of this immanent frame, and although he thinks there have been significant attempts to re-enchant the world—he mentions Romantic poetry and philosophy, “New Age” spirituality, various religious fundamentalisms—none of these have broken the immanent frame. For Higgins to join these variegated frame-breakers manqués by choosing the industrial wastelands and furious materialism of Soviet Russia is very bold indeed. That he comes as close as he does to pulling it off is even more remarkable.

By ‘pulling it off’, I don't mean ‘dismantling Taylor's immanent frame altogether’. That would indeed be a big ask. It is enough to attempt to add a third element to Marx and Engels's famous Communist Manifesto declaration. All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned; all that is repressed returns. I think this may be why the half-alive zombie soldier-corpses in Radiant State, dreamily wandering woodland and village, all in their various loops (as the HBO Westworld would put it)—why these characters resonated so powerfully with me. At the heart of this trilogy is a haunting of some kind. Something is trying to get back in, some third element. Trilectical Materialism, maybe.

Still: coming close to pulling it off isn't the same as pulling it off. The epistemological fictions of detection and Modernism chafe, sometimes, against the ontological fictions of High Fantasy. The strain of aligning the two modes, the Soviet-modern-SF one and the Old-Russian arborial magical one, becomes a particular focus of Radiant State, where time itself is pulled into two parallel but differently-paced iterations. It's one of the ways Higgins differs to (and I'd say is better than) Miéville. The Bas Lag novels refract their ideological critique and engagement into in-text monsters and weirdnesses, oddnesses concocted out of Miéville's imagination. Wolfhound Empire of course contains many traditional Russian fantastikons, but its real work is in refracting the Soviet union into this formal, structural disarrangement. Because it is structural it is more systemic, and that works better.

What this is, I suppose, is another way of addressing the question of re-enchantment. Conceivably it is Higgins's commitment to this that explains why SF/Fantasy readers haven't seemed to know quite what to make of his trilogy. Miéville's fantasies are many things, but they are not enchanted (I suspect Miéville shares Moorcock's distrust of the whole enchantment kit-and-caboodle as bourgeois mystification and crypto-fascist little-englander nostalgia). But Higgins, though far from bourgeois in his sensibilities and aesthetics, is interested in enchantment. There is a magic in these novels, in a strong version of the word's double-sense—doubled, that is, in the sense of content and mood. There are problems with this, I think: but whatever else it is, it is a royal road to the marvellous. And Wolfhound Empire is a marvellous work.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

'Death to the Reading Class'?

This Fortnightly Review piece by Marshall Poe really doesn't pay-out on its provocative title. Poe doesn't actually want the class to which he and I both belong to perish. He just thinks it needs to accommodate newer visual cultures. Well alright then.
Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read. Note that we have no reading organs: our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets. To prepare our eyes and brains for reading, we must rewire them. This process takes years of hard work to accomplish, and some people never accomplish it all. Moreover, even after you’ve learned to read, you probably won’t find reading to be very much fun. It consumes all of your attention, requires active thought, and makes your eyes hurt. For most people, then, reading is naturally hard and, therefore, something to be avoided if at all possible.
I grok a wrongness here, although of course this may simply be my personal, bibliophilic bias showing. Still: wouldn't this logic apply to plenty of other things too? It's a struggle getting my 9-year-old to read, but he loves-loves-loves playing video games. Humans, though, weren't evolved to play video games; all that tricky digital manipulation of the controller, all that arcane acquisition of the rules and conventions of the game. People like driving cars, and sipping VSOP brandy, and playing Real Tennis, and building scale-model Taj Mahals out of matchsticks. None of these things run along the grain of our evolutionary development. ('Note that we have no car-driving organs ...')

Thursday, 26 January 2017

(Sene)Chaka Demus and Pliers: "Thyestes me, tease me / Tease me, tease me baby / Till I lose control"

Not going to apologise for that title.

So, yes, this is a post about Seneca's great tragedy Thyestes; and yes, that's how you pronounce its final syllable (long 'e', you see). Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in AD 1, in Spain. He was the son of a famous philosopher (Seneca the elder) and went on to become an even more famous philosopher himself. Of the ten tomato-coloured volumes of the ‘Loeb Classical Library’ Seneca only two are drama—there's the one containing the Thyestes, at the top of this post. The other volumes are all letters and philosophical works that articulate his controlled and Stoic approach to life. But it’s his take on tragedy that interests me here, specifically in response to the aesthetic tenets laid down so famously by Aristotle, katharsis and so on.

All the best classical tragic drama is, if you believe the critics, Greek. There are thousands of monographs on the Aeschylean and Sophoclean and Euripidean stuff, and only a few specialists resurrecting the musty violence of the Latin. It’s difficult to deny that Attic drama has a much greater importance for our current literatures than the Roman plays. But of course there’s one sense in which Seneca has been even more influential on the development of tragedy. This is because it was Seneca, and not particularly the Greeks, who exercised the greatest influence on English Renaissance drama, and therefore upon the world’s single most significant writer of tragedy—I mean Shakespeare, of course. It’s a old chestnut of Shakespearean studies how much he took from Seneca, not only in-effect rewriting the Thyestes (in Titus Andronicus) but also developing the very Senecan, very Thyestian (and profoundly un-Greek) theme of revenge in a play such as Hamlet. It can, then, be something of a disappointment actually to read a play like the Thyestes. It really does come over as rather unpleasant, even crude. Body horror.

For one thing, it's not dramatically very interesting: the five ‘acts’ (though ‘act’ needs to go in inverted commas, since there’s nothing in the original text to indicate that it was designed to be broken down into separate scenes or acts despite the Renaissance assumptions on that score)—the five acts are rather discontinuous from one another. First we have the ghost of Tantalus and his goading Fury; after they exit they never return to the stage. Then we have a scene with Atreus planning his revenge, followed by a scene in which Atreus greets his brother with a false bonhomie: neither is very dramatically kinetic or engaging. There’s very little action, no development of character or plot. We do get a couple of extra, minor characters, but the whole drama depends really on only these two players. Then there is a scene in which a messenger reports actions from offstage—exciting if revolting, but removed from the audience by being reported at second hand. Only in the last act, in which Atreus gloatingly reveals his hideous crime to his brother, do we see some dramatic action.

In other words, and for the benefit of those who aren’t as familiar with the play as perhaps they should be, here’s a summary of its structure:
‘Act 1’ The ghost of Tantalus is summoned from Hades by a Fury to work evil in the royal house of Argos, his own descendants. Tantalus is reluctant, but is compelled.
Choral ode 1: A prayer that the gods will end the tradition of evildoing that has dogged the house of Argos.

‘Act 2’ Atreus prepares to take revenge on his brother, Thyestes. His attendant is horrified by his schemes.
Choral ode 2: True kingship is not about power over others but power over oneself. The chorus praises the life lived in rustic obscurity.

‘Act 3’ Thyestes returns to Argos from exile. He does not trust his brother, but is persuaded by his son. Atreus greets him warmly and dresses him in royal robes.
Choral ode 3: The chorus praises the change from hatred to love in the relationship between the two brothers, noting with unwitting irony that nothing endures.

‘Act 4’ A messenger describes how Atreus sacrificed Thyestes sons, cut their bodies up and cooked them.
Choral ode 4: An ode of horror at the violation of the natural order—there is darkness at noon, and surely the world is coming to an end.

‘Act 5’ Thyestes is enjoying the feast that Atreus has prepared for him, but has strange misgivings. Atreus reveals what he has been eating his own offspring. Horrified Thyestes prays to the gods for justice, but without response.
In other words, as drama and judged by the standards we now tend to apply to theatrical work, Thyestes is a static, awkwardly constructed piece, saved from a wholly debilitating clumsiness only by the dark intensity and unremittingness with which it treats its central topic. On the other hand many critics see in the play’s pared down focus an startling modern, almost absurdist potency lacking in other classical drama: more Beckett or Anouilh than Euripides.

One thing that critics of ‘tragedy’ have tried to decide, then, is whether this Roman development of the form simply negates Aristotelian aesthetic tenets:—a new focus on the nihilistic, godless extremes of human violence; a shift from an emphasis the place of catharsis in provoking psychological health to unremitting horrors that are likely to provoke only disgust and despair. Where does this leave tragedy? Any place good?

Norman Pratt identifies two separate sorts of tragic impulse. He takes Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy as representative of what he considers a particular Greek form of tragedy. Then he looks at Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play famous for its Senecan horrors, (most notoriously, the scene played on stage, in front of the audience, in which poor old Gloster gets his eyes thumbed out), the extreme and horrific degeneration of a noble king into madness and beggary and so on.
Oedipus is trying to make sense in a world that does not make sense. He is in a divinely ordered system where his rational purpose is disastrously turned against him by the force of capricious circumstance. The divine order brings disorder to human experience. If in this fashion we can say that Oedipus transmits the picture of disorder in nature, Shakespearian criticism is in substantial agreement that King Lear expresses the theme of nature in disorder. The terms “disorder in nature” for Sophocles and “nature in disorder” for Shakespeare are only superficial catch phrases, but they show a contrast between two types of tragedy, radically different in their conceptions of evil. In Oedipus nature wounds human life. Suffering is built constituently into the nature makeup of how things are …. In Lear nature itself is not defective, but only part of it, the human dimension. [Norman T. Pratt, Seneca’s Drama (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1983), p.6]
Now here’s a very notable oddity. In Seneca’s plays, and despite the fact that they unmistakeably take place in the pagan universe of ancient Greek and Roman myth (a world in which gods and mortals promiscuously interact, and even appear on stage), characters repeatedly wonder where the gods are, or pointedly deny that the gods even exist. It really is a very puzzling thing. When Thyestes returns to Argos he talks of ‘my native soil and the gods of my father (if there really are gods)—(si sunt tamen di)’ [406-7]; and the play ends with Thyestes praying for the gods of vengeance to come—a prayer that remains noticeably unanswered. The last line of the play is giving over to Atreus’s mockery, not to any deus dangling down from any machine to mete and dole justice. In Seneca’s Medea, Medea kills her own children to spite her husband Jason; and the play ends with her flying away in a chariot pulled by flying dragons. The last lines of that play are Jason’s: ‘travel on high through the lofty spaces of heaven, and bear witness where you ride that there are no gods’ [testare nullos esse deos, 1027].

To restate Pratt’s view in more banal terms: the story of Thyestes and the ruthless violence of Atreus is not so much about the cruelty of the cosmos as it is about the evil in men’s hearts. Accordingly there is an inward, choking, human corporeality about the plays. It is the revolting intimacy of Thyestes devouring his own children, which turns us away from the ‘higher’ concerns of any spiritual realm.

Alessandro Schiesaro considers the Thyestes 'the most important of Seneca's tragedies, Thyestes, which has had a notable influence on Western drama from Shakespeare to Antonin Artaud'. During the course of his book-length study, 'Thyestes emerges as the mastertext of "Silver" Latin poetry, and as an original reflection on the nature of theatre comparable to Euripides' Bacchae. More than this, Schiesaro argues that this horrible practice of eating your offspring is 'actually' about incest and the incest taboo. As he puts it: ‘incest “pollutes” the body with the seed of a close relation … eating one’s own children is a similar form of unacceptable ingestion’ [Alessandro Schiesaro, The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press 2003), 94]. Instead of being quite separate things, Atreus ‘identifies between these two very different gestures [incest, familial cannibalism] a common element which becomes central to his thinking’. In doing this he is, says Schiesaro, ‘follow[ing] a form of logic that is akin to the logic of the unconscious.’ It seems inevitable that Freud must come into the critical equation: ‘it is one of the greatest achievements of post-Freudian thought to have realized that this strange logic, where symmetry replaces the rigid conventions of Aristotelian thought, is actually an ineliminable component of the mind, given free rein in the workings of the unconscious but normally kept at bay during conscious activity’. This, in a nutshell, and sic as regards the inelegant neologism ‘ineliminable’, is the approach Schiesaro takes to the Thyestes.

Is this right? Does Thyestes represent the supercession of rational, ordered Aristotelian tragedy by something irrational, something driven and subconscious? I could put this another way. We might want to see Aristotle’s Poetics, with its firm rule and its assurance that literature like tragedy can be accounted for, defined and determined, as the conscious component of the literary psyche; and the weird horrors of Senecan tragedy, its dissociated nightmare-like succession of images, its unrestrained expression of the most brutal impulses of humanity towards revenge and violence, as the subconscious element. Critics often talk in these terms about literature more generally, or more precisely, they often work within this kind of unstated paradigm: as if, for instance, the balanced, rational fictions of Jane Austen embodies the ‘conscious’ mind of late eighteenth-century literature, where the buried horrors and haunted catacombs of the Gothic novel represent its ‘subconscious’. There's a danger in being too fatuously literal-minded in the way we deploy Freud's metaphors, of course; but I wonder if there isn't something in here.

If I have one main problem with Schiesaro’s approach it is this: I can think of very few dramas less sexually conceived than Thyestes. It is a play almost entirely purged of erotic charge; or perhaps it would be close to the truth to say that all the erotic charge is sublimated into the more primal appetites of revenge, self-glorying, of eating and drinking. There are no female characters at all in this play, which is a very striking thing, when you think about it. Neither do the text's various male characters express any sensual or homosexual impulses. Where’s the sex? It has been, we might say, crowded out by the horror. Some people get turned on by silk stockings; some by gas masks; but I don’t know the name given to the perversion whereby people become sexually aroused at the prospect of a father literally devouring the flesh of his children

But is this the way horror actually works? I ask because I wonder if something closer to the reverse isn't, actually, the case? I’m thinking of how sexualised most Gothic horrors are, or most horror films today: the logic of the genre is that it almost has to be sexy young teens being terrorised by violent ghosts and monsters precisely because the libidinal response and the excitements of fear and thrill are so closely associated for most of us. So why is Thyestes so thoroughly unsexy?

Maybe this question comes across as merely fatuous, but I ask it to try and get to something that I think is important about the way the play works. And Schiesaro may well be right to argue that Freud provides a very useful way of understanding how the play works. Take for instance Freud’s interest in inversion, the way some obsession or fascination in the subconscious mind only emerges into consciousness in flipped-about form. To decipher one’s dreams or neuroses it is often necessary, Freud suggests, to look to the opposite of what they apparently mean.

One thing that critics have often noticed about Thyestes is that, despite being one of the darkest and most distressing plays ever written, it nevertheless takes the form of comedy: or more specifically that the play inverts comic topoi. John Fitch (in the introduction to his Loeb translation, the edition pictured at the head of this post) notes the ‘familiar comic pattern’ by which ‘young people escape the control of their elders and establish themselves as adults’. A feast is often a central feature of comic drama, the celebration of life and healthy appetite at which everybody eats their fill of good food and drinks themselves happy. Both these tropes get spun about in Thyestes: most obviously the ‘comic feast’ is hideously inverted; nothing further from the joyful celebration of life can be imagined. Fitch notes that ‘the inversion of natural processes is particularly clear when children are thrust back into the body of the parent in a travesty of birth and pregnancy (see lines 999-1000, 1041-44)’ [Fitch, 226]. When we look further into the matter we find that the key dramatic devices of the Thyestes are precisely the mainstays of comic drama: a character misled by another, trickster character; the misunderstanding which brings the main character low and so on. Reading Thyestes though the lens of psychoanalysis might give us the feeling that we’re making sense of its otherwise rather baffling perversity. And it does seem to me that the perversity of this play has indeed baffled commentators, some of whom have been disinclined to call the play tragic at all. Here’s Fitch again:
Though unmistakeably a masterpiece, is Thyestes’ effect that of tragedy? It does not evoke that sympathy for the victims of disaster on which many Greek tragedies base their emotional effect: for Thyestes is too weak-willed, too gross in his feasting, too dim-witted in comparison with his brother, to command much sympathy. Atreus himself is paradoxically far more attractive, at least initially: in his exuberant ruthlessness, in his frank devotion to power as the only good, in his macabre wit, he has an appeal like that of Shakespeare’s Richard III. But he becomes repellent in his demented sacrificing of the youngsters, and in his sadistic toying with Thyestes. [Fitch, 225]
The way out of this cul-de-sac is not to see the play as being about ‘character’ in the full sense (and perhaps not even about ‘character’ in the Greek sense), so much as it is about appetite itself. Indeed, one way of taking Thyestes would be to see it as a dramatic exaggeration of appetite until that alone becomes the sole substantive constituent of human character. The actors in this drama are like children without authority figures to control them in; children given absolute free rein to their urges. Perhaps it’s this very childishness that explains the absence of sex in this play. Young children understand some appetites very well (food, anger, joy, misery) but have no purchase on the post-pubertal peculiarities of sex.

There’s one particular feature of Seneca’s portrayal of this play’s horrible scelus—its crime, or villainy—that particularly strikes me: and that’s the way a purely human atrocity infects the whole of the natural world. The sky goes dark in the face of such infamy. The messenger, reporting Atreus’ murder of the children, addresses the sun: ‘O patient Phoebus … you have fled backwards, snatched the day from mid-heaven’ [776-7] such that ‘the evil deed is smothered in strange darkness by oppressive night at an alien time’ [786-7]. The chorus pick up the theme: Phoebus has left the sky in disgust at this human iniquity, and surely the end of the world is foretold:
The regular cycles of heaven are lost;
sunset and sunrise will not exist.
The dewy mother of dawning light,
accustomed to hand the eastern reins
to the god, is stunned
by such disorder on her kingdom’s threshold [813-18]

[The Sun] bids the darkness rise, yet night
is not yet ready;
no stars appear in their turn, no fires
gleam in the ether,
no moon disperses the heavy shadows.

Our hearts are shaken and trembling, trembling
with enormous fear
lest the shattered cosmos fall in the ruin
ordained by fate,
lest gods and humans be engulfed once more
in formless chaos …. [823-33]
Of course the world doesn’t end. Despite the enormity of the chorus’s (and our) horror, the world continues on its way. In fact, despite the artistic rightness of this perhaps melodramatic insistence on darkness at noon, there is when we reflect upon it something rather pitifully naive about it. All our experience teaches us that, horrible though Atreus’s crime is, human beings have committed crimes, and uncountably many of them, that are much worse; and that when these things happen the cosmos takes absolutely no notice at all. The sun rises and sets no matter how beastly we are to one another. George Steiner’s Death of Tragedy book ends with a coda that relates a true-life story from WWII. Captured Russian officers were being detained by Nazi guards in a Polish castle. Supplies of food, erratic towards the end of the war, ceased entirely in the winter of 1944-45. The guards ate what they had, but there was nothing for their dogs, so they turned the hunger-maddened Alsatians on the Russian prisoners. Shortly after this the Nazis retreated, leaving the remaining Russian officers locked in the castle’s cellar. Those who survived did so by devouring their colleagues. Advancing Russian troops found the last few alive. They gave them a good meal and then shot them all, lest the Russian soldiers see to what depravity their commanding officers could be driven. The castle was then burnt to the ground.

This is a very nasty story, made all the nastier by the fact that it is true. Steiner does not consider it tragic, because he thinks the Holocaust, in its meaningless and nihilistic hideousness, has emptied the significance from the very concept of tragedy and rendered it void. For Steiner this story is merely horrible, with a deep horror of the sort that Conrad's Kurtz famously glimpsed in his last moments. But what interests me here is how sickeningly familiar this sort of thing is to our sensibilities. And the point about that is that when we hear this story we don’t, of course, expect also to hear that the sun fled the sky in disgust, or that the stars refused the glint the darkness because of man’s iniquity. The enormous indifference of the cosmos to every human being is one truth that every person learns as they grown out of childhood and into adulthood.

This in turn makes me wonder whether Seneca’s pathetic fallacy undermines and even, in a peculiar way, trivialises the story of Atreus and Thyestes. It is in a strict sense childish to think that our transgressions are directly mirrored in the universe as a whole, like young Pip in Great Expectations stealing food and a file for Magwitch and then running through a landscape he sees as accusing of his crime: every cow looking at him seems to be saying ‘stop thief’ and the fog he runs through symbolically embodies his own ethical confusion. In Dickens’s novel this is more obviously the pathetic fallacy, because we understand that the guilt is in Pip’s mind, not the external world, even as we understand that his guilt is colouring his perspective on the outside world. But in Thyestes the starless darkness at noon is presented as an objective fact. What are we to make of it?

In part it is a very accurate embodiment of the cosmic pretensions of tragedy itself: the suffering in tragedy is always a particular, human suffering. Yet so many critics want to claim that the significance of tragedy is precisely that it articulates a universal significance. Isn’t this just based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between human life and the universe?

Thyestes is a childish tragedy; and I use the adjective neither flippantly nor pejoratively. It inhabits a mode of childish intensity, one in which those appetites that loom most large for children (hunger and physical appetites; rage and the desire to get your own back) assume monstrously god-blotting-out proportions. It is a sexless world because it is in touch with the primary experience of all of us: the prepubertal child’s vehemence. It is an intimate world, physically and spiritually, because when you are a child everything is close to you. It is a universe that is both god-filled (every corner bears the mark of the magical authority of the gods) and godless precisely because children comprehend the godlessness of the cosmos, even if they cannot articulate it. What I mean by this last shocking assertion is that, although many children believe in God they do so from a structure of belief and experience in which the conceptualising of God (as carer, as rulemaker, as the horizon of the world) elides for young children very precisely with their experience of their parents, and adults in general. God is both a magical presence, and merely another sort of adult. And because Seneca’s play is all these things it makes the most profound point about our adultish appropriation of tragedy. We flatter ourselves that we understand tragedy in a way that children cannot; their lives are too limited, they can’t count to six million and therefore can’t grasp the holocaust. This is very wongheaded of us. The anxieties we experience (Is there a god? Does my wife really love me? Will I lose my job?), whilst real, are milk-and-water compared to the horror that children face every night with the monster in the closet, or in the shadows of the corner of their bedroom. For adults, angst and even tragedy is a portion of our lives; but for children, moment by moment, it is everything and all consuming. And that’s what Seneca’s strangely over-focused and powerfully ghastly play captures.