‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Dante and Clive: Live



Over the last few days I've been re-reading some Dante, in part because I've been kicking around the idea that Tennyson wrote his Maud on Dantean lines (you can read the post that resulted from that kickage here). Since my Italian is molto molto rudimentale, that has meant pulling up the online Divina Commedia, opening my English translations, and picking my way awkwardly through. Those translations happen (through no very carefully planned-out strategy) to be: the Dorothy L Sayers version of the whole poem, Robin Kirkpatrick's more recent and not-at-all-bad Penguin Inferno, and Clive James's 2014 rendering.

Pausing only to note what a great title "Penguin Inferno" would be for a major motion picture, I'll go on to:



I've always liked reading Clive James's prose. His writing provokes in me a mixture of delight and professional envy at his technical chops—writing good comic prose is really hard to do, and James writes truly excellent comic prose. His poetry has always seemed to me a lesser achievement, although writing poetry is clearly something that matters to him immensely. Still, I've read a lot of it (the poetry I mean), and acknowledging that comedy isn't the function of most of his verse, I have found some things to admire in some of it. So when his Dante translation came out in paperback a few months ago, I treated myself and bought the book.

I can't say I've been able to read the whole thing, straight through, which, I think, is what the book would like me to do. Not for want of trying, either. But I've had some long stretches with it. So far I'm struck mostly by a kind of mismatch between the stated aims, in the nifty preface, and the actual verse. I feel boorish saying so, actually, since the preface makes very plain that the whole, huge enterprise of Englishing, or Australianing, the Divine Comedy is all bound up with James's wife, an academic Dante specialist, and a woman James is very open about having repeatedly wronged. The two are separated now, and James is dying, which makes him offering-up this undertaking to her rather moving. And what he says about the difficulty of rendering the original is persuasive. He recalls his wife, from their courtship days, taking through some of the many patterns in Dante's writing:
One of the first moments she picked out of the text to show me what the master versifier could do was when Francesca tells Dante what drove her and Paolo over the brink and into the pit of sin. In English it would go something like:
We read that day for delight
About Lancelot, how love bound him.
She read it in Italian.
Noi leggevam quel giorno per delitto
Di Lancelotto, come l’amor lo strinse.
After the sound “-letto” end the first line, the placing of “-lotto” at the start of the second line gives it the power of a rhyme, only more so. How does that happen? You have to look within.
This is a simple but wonderfully telling point. James goes on to note how often English translations, by straining for the rhymes at the end of their lines (rhyme being so much harder in English than in Italian) butcher the echt Dantean tone. 'Dante isn’t thinking of rhyme,’ James says, ‘which is too easy in Italian to be thought a technical challenge: in fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.’ He adds:
Dante’s overt rhyme scheme is only the initial framework by which the verse structure moves forward. Within the terzina, there is all this other intense interaction going on. Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn’t just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.
I like the thought of this last sentiment very much; and it sets us up to look for this internalised dynamic in James's actual verse. But to turn to the actual poetry is ... look, see, here're the opening lines of the Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
And here's Clive:
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear—
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,
It lead to good things too, eventually.
Those first three lines, including that choppy, wholly monosyllablic opening line 'at the mid point of the path through life I found' (that's an almost robotic stretch of English) read like somebody stumbling instead of somebody getting into their stride. I query the merit in starting a broadly iambic verse epic with two trochees (AT the MID point) followed by a hurrying-to-catch-up anapest (ofthe PATH), starting to settle with two iambs before interrupting the patter with another trochee (LOST in). By the time the reader gets into the swing of things by lines 4, 5 and 6 she can hardly look back on the opening without feeling its awkwardness. Add to that the inversion in lines 7-8, a tic that jars in what is otherwise a confident contemporaneity of vocabulary and syntax: what's wrong with 'so bad, that death would be worse by only a degree'? Apart from the rhyme, of course. And the rhyme is not very deftly handled here. I don't mean the replacement of the terza rima with quatrains: that's a legitimate tactical decision made by the poet. I'm talking about the greetings-card tweeness of rhyming 'degree' with 'eventualee'. Fiddlededee.

I would also say that going back to the Dorothy L Sayers version has re-impressed me with how solid an achievement that old warhorse is. I note this in the understanding that Sayer's Dante is not very highly regarded, although maybe I'm wrong about that. The worst one can say of it is that it is unashamed of archaism: 'thee' and 'thou' are awkwardly sore-thumb English renderings of the perfectly ordinary Italian tu, and sometimes Sayers indulges in old-school idioms and inversions of idiomatic syntax in ways that must have been distracting even in the 1950s and which are actively wincing nowadays.
Breathe in me [Apollo], breathe, and from my bosom drive
Music like thine, when thou didst long ago
The limbs of Marsyas from their scabbard rive. [Sayers, Divine Comedy 3: Paradise, 1:19-21]
That aside, her verse is mostly very effective. Here's the famous opening of Paradiso 2:
O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,

tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.

L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l’Orse.
And here's what Sayers makes of it (her Paradise was completed and edited by Barbara Reynolds after her death, but the impression given in the preface is that the lion's share of the finished work is still Sayers's):
O you that follow in light cockle shells,
For the song's sake, as my ship sails before,
Carving her course and singing as she sails

Turn back and seek the safety of the shore;
Tempt not the deep, lest, losing unawares
Me and yourselves, you come to port no more.

Oceans as yet undared my vessel dares;
Apollo steers, Minerva lends the breeze,
And the nine Muses point me to the Bears.
The only wrong-step here (and, really, I'm being supercritical in saying so) is that 'light' as a modifier of 'cockle-shells' is a touch ambiguous between flimsiness and illumination—are these sailors following in frail cockle-shells or sailing their cockle shells to follow the light?—a consideration that has more weight than it might otherwise given how important actual and spiritual light is for Dante's paradise. Otherwise it's perfectly decent verse; even somewhat better that decent. The way she plays with the internal near-rhyme of 'shells' and 'sails' in that first terzo (not to mention the 'cockle'/'carving'/'course' alliteration) reproduces some of the musical inscape James notes in the introduction to his edition I quote above. And here's James's version of those lines, from that very edition:
You sailors in your little boats that trail
My singing ship because so keen to hear,
By now it might be time for you to sail
Back till you see your shoreline reappear,
For here the sea is deep, and if you lose
My leading light just once, then steering clear
Might bring bewilderment. So you must choose—
Be warned, this sea was never sailed before.
Minerva breathes, Apollo steers, the nine
Muses will navigate me by the store
Of stars.
That's just ... off, I think. Prolix (ten and a half lines to do nine lines' work), with wrongfooting enjambments and odd phrasing. There's the weirdness of a sailor navigating by a 'store' of stars. Who talks like that? Apart, that is, from poets desperate for a rhyme with 'before'? And why lose the specific detail of Dante's named constellations Ursa Major and Minor? Beyond that: 'you are trailing my singing ship because so keen to hear' is really not very idiomatic English (to hear what?), 'By now it might be time for you to sail/Back' is slack and chatty, and crunches pointlessly over its enjambment; 'steering clear' is inappropriately ambiguous between 'setting a clear path into ocean open' and 'avoiding something', and 'Minerva breathes', whilst sticking close to Minerva spira, doesn't convey that what Minerva is breathing is the breeze that fills the sail, and leaves us with the shadowy sense of Minerva sitting belowdecks somewhere, wheezing. Plus 'the nine/Muses' throws out the prosody so sharply it's almost like the verse twists its ankle at that point.

Another example, again from the Paradiso, since that's the part I've been reading the most, lately. In Canto 14, Dante rises above the sphere of the sun into the sphere of Mars. The canto's opening simile, quite famous, is also quite tricky to put clearly into English:
Dal centro al cerchio, e sì dal cerchio al centro
movesi l’acqua in un ritondo vaso,
secondo ch’è percosso fuori o dentro:

ne la mia mente fé sùbito caso
questo ch’io dico, sì come si tacque
la glorïosa vita di Tommaso,

per la similitudine che nacque
del suo parlare e di quel di Beatrice,
a cui sì cominciar, dopo lui, piacque: [Paradiso, 14:1-9]
Sayers/Reynolds go with:
Water in a round bowl makes ripples glide
Centre to rim, or back from rim to centre,
As from within 'tis jarred, or from outside.

This image dropped into my mind instanter
When Thomas' glorious life had said his say;
Like an apt simile it seemed to enter

In likeness of the verbal interplay
'Twixt Beatrice and him; for she, as suited,
Her pleasure, thus took up her cue straightway:
A bit clumsy, that 'instanter' (for the rhyme), and rather creaky with the 'tis' and 'twixt' and the wrenching of what would work much more effectively as 'it seemed to enter like an apt simile'. But it gets the image across. James:
The water moves from rim to centre when
A round container is struck from without.
The water moves, when it is struck again—
But from within—the other way about,
Centre to rim. This proof from science fell
Into my mind the instant that the soul,
So glorious, of Thomas, ceased to tell
His story, because Beatrice took the role
Of speaker, and was pleased to follow thus:
That's just a muddle. 'But from within—the other way about' is worthy of The Stuffed Owl, and its just hard to get a sense from this of who's banging which bowl and why. I don't want to give the impression I'm doing whatever the opposite of cherry-picking is, so one last instance. On to Mars:
Ben m’accors’ io ch’io era più levato,
per l’affocato riso de la stella,
che mi parea più roggio che l’usato.

Con tutto ’l core e con quella favella
ch’è una in tutti, a Dio feci olocausto,
qual conveniesi a la grazia novella.

E non er’ anco del mio petto essausto
l’ardor del sacrificio, ch’io conobbi
esso litare stato accetto e fausto;

ché con tanto lucore e tanto robbi
m’apparvero splendor dentro a due raggi,
ch’io dissi: «O Elïòs che sì li addobbi!». [Paradiso 14, 85-96]
Sayers/Reynolds:
That I'd been lifted up I saw by this:
The warm smile of the star, whose burning ball
Seemed ruddier to me than his custom is.

With my whole heart, and in that tongue which all
Men share, I made burnt-offering to the Lord,
Such as to this new grace was suitable,

And ere the sacrificial fire had soared
Forth of my breast, I knew my prayer had sped
Accepted and found favourable accord;

For such bright splendours, and so ruby-red
Within two rays appeared, "O Eloi,"
I cried, "that giv'st them thus the accolade!"
So that last word is not much of a rhyme, and there's a stiffness here and there in this version. James: 'I saw myself moved'
Up to a plane exalted even more,
Of whose high ranking I was given proof
By Mars. More rose-coloured than before
It now seemed. With my heart not held aloof,
But fully yielded, I employed the tongue--
Befitting all the loving care and grace
That lit the favours I was now among--
Of one and all when making, in that place,
The burning sacrifice to God, and still
It burned my breast though I knew it was
Accepted, and propitious. For the spill
Of splendour was so shimmering because
Of two beams, and so roseate, I said,
"Divine Sun, that so glorifies this!" As ...
I'll stop there. Fourteen lines for twelve lines' work; some padding ('not held aloof/But fully yielded' doubles up its point not because Dante does, but because James needs an -oof rhyme). Rose-coloured works in Italian (and French) for pinky-red, but not in English, where roses (as Lewis Carroll knew) might just as easily be white; and 'more rose-coloured than before/It now seemed' is a pointless and therefore distracting inversion of the natural word order. 'The spill/Of splendour was so shimmering because/Of two beams ...' starts well, but pisses it all away in its last four words: that clunking 'because'! That what-are-we-doing-woodwork-now? double beam!

The most damning thing about this Jamesian Dante is that, unlike his smooth onflowing prose, it really doesn't lend itself to long bouts of reading. It clogs and turns about and stalls, or at least that's how I have found it.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Divina Co-"Maud"-ia



This is how Tennyson's beautifully strange 'monodrama' Maud (1855) opens:
I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,
Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,
The red-ribb’d ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
And Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers “Death.”

For there in the ghastly pit long since a body was found,
His who had given me life—O father! O God! was it well?—
Mangled, and flatten’d, and crush’d, and dinted into the ground:
There yet lies the rock that fell with him when he fell.
The unnamed narrator (nobody in this poem is named, with the sole exception of the woman with whom the narrator falls in love, the titular Maud)—the narrator has been rendered distraught to the point of near-insanity by the suicide of his father, who killed himself because 'a vast speculation had fail’d'. A financial speculation, that is. The poem's speaker rails at the evils of 1850s Britain in a Thomas Carlyle manner, frets that he has inherited the black blood of his father ('What! am I raging alone as my father raged in his mood?/Must I too creep to the hollow and dash myself down and die?') and ponders 'the singular beauty of Maud', a girl he played with when they were both children and who now lives in the great hall. Maud's father has done well out of the financial speculations that ruined the narrator's father, and although the narrator resolves to withdraw himself from the world he ends up falling in love with the now seventeen-year-old beauty.

Maud is in three parts. In Part 1, by far the longest of the poem, the narrator falls in love with Maud, and she with him The course of true love unsmoothly-running, Maud's brother (the proxy for Maud's lupine father, who is off in London making more money) disapproves of the match. He thinks Maud should marry a local aristocrat, disdainfully called 'the babe-faced lord' by the poem's narrator. The brother's refusal of permission leads to him being called 'the Sultan' by the two young lovers. An elegant party is planned at the hall where Maud can dance with the babe-faced-lord, but the narrator is not worried: Maud has promised to sneak out at dawn and meet him for a love tryst, and Part 1 ends in the hall's flower garden as the narrator excitedly-anxiously awaits her coming:
Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
To the flowers, and be their sun.

There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”
And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”
The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”
And the lily whispers, “I wait.”

She is coming, my own, my sweet,
Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat, Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red. [Maud, 1:902-23]
That understated echo of the blood-coloured foliage at the poem's opening strikes an appropriately ominous note. In Part 2, the speaker is suddenly in France, where he has fled to escape prosecution. Backstory: Maud's brother and the babe-faced-lord surprised Maud with the narrator in the garden, and the brother rebuked and struck him. They immediately fought a duel (a detail which has always bothered me: shouldn't it take longer to arrange a duel?) in which the narrator killed the brother. In Brittany he learns that, Ophelia-like, Maud has herself died of grief, which news is too much for him. He himself loses his wits. Part 2 ends in an insane asylum, where he believes himself dead, but buried too shallowly:
Dead, long dead,
Long dead!
And my heart is a handful of dust,
And the wheels go over my head,
And my bones are shaken with pain,
For into a shallow grave they are thrust,
Only a yard beneath the street,
And the hoofs of the horses beat, beat,
The hoofs of the horses beat,
Beat into my scalp and my brain, [Maud 2:239-48]
The brief Part 3 is the one over which critics most vocally disagree. The speaker has now, according to Tennyson, recovered his wits: 'sane but shattered'.
Thro’ cells of madness, haunts of horror and fear,
That I come to be grateful at last for a little thing:
My mood is changed, for it fell at a time of year
When the face of night is fair on the dewy downs,
And the shining daffodil dies, and the Charioteer
And starry Gemini hang like glorious crowns
Over Orion’s grave low down in the west,
That like a silent lightning under the stars
She seem’d to divide in a dream from a band of the blest,
And spoke of a hope for the world in the coming wars— [Maud, 3:344-53]
The Crimean War, that is: to which the narrator goes in the hope of a glorious and redemptive death. Not sane behaviour in my book; others have disagreed.

There's a lot to say about all this, but I want to register one idea in particular, something which occurred to me for the first time this week. In a nutshell: was Dante in Tennyson's mind when he wrote Maud? He certainly read and loved Dante; his 'Ulysses' is based on Inferno 26, and The Vision of Sin (1842) ends with a sort of panegyric to Dante himself.

Go back to Maud's opening stanza, quoted above. It kicks the poem off with a dark wood, beyond which is a ghastly pit, in which everything spoken returns as 'Death', and which drips with a silent horror of blood. Sound familiar? Maud's narrator finds himself in the middle of this selva oscura, contemplating the way nature violates itself ('the whole little wood where I sit is a world of plunder and prey' he says). In the Commedia, Dante finds his way out of the wood blocked by a savage a wolf, and Virgil tells him he must find another way,
ché questa bestia, per la qual tu gride,
non lascia altrui passar per la sua via,
ma tanto lo 'mpedisce che l'uccide;

e ha natura sì malvagia e ria,
che mai non empie la bramosa voglia,
e dopo 'l pasto ha più fame che pria. [Inferno, 1:94-99]
'This beast, that makes you cry out in fear, allows no-one to pass, and instead attacks and destroys them; and has a nature so malign and ruthless that no amount of feeding can glut its greedy will and rather, after eating, is even hungrier than before.' In Tennyson's poem, Maud's father is the 'a gray old wolf and a lean' [Maud, 1:471]; and he, through his son, represents the implacable opposition to the narrator's love for Maud.

Since the narrator can't go on to a happy life with Maud he instead goes down, into the same pit that claimed his father, through cells of madness and haunts of horror and fear. Just like Dante. The key difference, of course, is that Dante is an external observer of the madness, horror and fear of others, where Maud's narrator not only re-presents but himself is the madness, horror and fear. But that's of a part with the project as Tennyson conceived it ('the peculiarity of this poem is that different phases of passion in one person take the place of different characters' is how he put it).

It would take quite a lot of labour to develop this notion, that Maud is a deliberate reworking of the Divina Commedia: more than I have time for at the moment. But the idea throws up some interesting implications. It would mean, for instance, that all the febrile love-lyric-ing of Part 1 is actually part of the narrator's Hell, which makes a kind of sense to me (Paolo and Francesca, and so on). It would mean that the up-reaching mountain of Purgatory becomes inverted into a shallow grave, and that Heaven means not just a restoration of sanity (the madness having been purged) but the narrator being elevated to the 'Heaven of Mars' (Paradiso cantos 14-16), where the souls of the warriors of God are picked out as rubies in the empyrion, and Mars is 'redder than usual, a bright and splendid ruby light': 'la stella, che mi parea più roggio che l’usato ... ché con tanto lucore e tanto robbi/m’apparvero splendor' [Paradiso 14:86-94]. By this point in the Paradiso Dante is being guided not by Vergil but Beatrice herself; just as Tennyson's narrator is being guided through the starfield by the spirit of Maud, who has 'divided from a band of the blest, ... and pointed to Mars,/As he glow’d like a ruddy shield on the Lion’s breast.' Here's Waterhouse's painting of Tennyson's Beatrice-y heroine:



That lass's hair is più roggio che l’usato in representations of Maud, I think. It works, mind you.

In all this, Tennyson is, I think, as much working with Dante-filtered-by-English-Romanticism as he is going back to the echt Florentine. In this interesting essay on the influence of Dante on 19th- and 20th-century poetry, John Bayley thinks that
in our poetry, Shelley is the prime case. Keble observed that the intensity of the Paradiso is produced by a harmony of abstractions – light, motion and music – and Steve Ellis points out that this is precisely the Shelleyan formula in his long poems, notably in the last act of Prometheus Unbound.
It's also very precisely the formula Tennyson follows in Maud. We tend to think of Byron as a bigger influence on Tennyson than Shelley, I suppose; but of course Byron was also a deep-dyed Dantean:
Both in ‘Epipsychidion’ and in the unfinished Triumph of Life Shelley uses the elements of Dante’s poetry to create poetry of a wholly different kind. Shelley couldn’t abide anything in the nature of an orderly and regulated hierarchy, whether of crimes or virtues; his wife recorded, moreover, that he ‘shrunk instinctively from portraying human passion, with its mixture of good and evil, of disappointment and disquiet’. But no other English poet has made more inspired use of the music and the feel of Dante’s verse, transubstantiating its often homely precision and clarity into an equal precision of dream-like beauty and melancholy. Byron’s interest was much more local, centring on the incestuous figures and the guilty lovers. Guilt meant nothing to Shelley, but to the Scotch Calvinist latent in Byron it meant a great deal, and in his translation of the Paolo and Francesca episode, the part of the poem which especially engrossed him, as it was to engross in more sentimental fashion the later Victorian poets, he emphasises the curse upon the lovers and the way in which they are compelled to fulfil their ‘evil fortunes’.
One last point: Bayley astutely (I think) notes:
The tragedy implicit in the Commedia is of course the political one, the betrayal of an imperial ideal, the greed and wickedness of those who in life have blindly betrayed it, or sought in vain to uphold it, and whom now in his great afterscheme Dante makes articulate and perceiving. For Browning, too, 13th-century Italy provided, as Ellis says, the suitable setting to study a soul whose divisions are a microcosm of a wider political polarisation and non-fulfilment.
This also explains, I would say, why Maud makes its connections between the doomed love of the narrator and Maud herself on the one hand, and the hellscape of Britain's broken socio-political world, where 'a Mammonite mother kills her babe for a burial fee,/And Timour-Mammon grins on a pile of children’s bones.'

Friday, 13 January 2017

Plunging Stained-Glass Ship



Amazing piece of glassy art, this: Burne Jones's "The Viking Ship" (1883).

Monday, 9 January 2017

Plane



Christopher R. W. Nevinson, 'From a Paris Plane' (1917). More Nevinson, including more plane sketches, here.

Samuel Johnson, science-fictioneer


Samuel Johnson's 1757 review of Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil is a masterpiece of the form. Considering the entire ‘universal system’, Jenyns says, ‘there is no more pain in it than what is necessary to the production of happiness.’ Johnson replies, with a lovely understatement, that perhaps ‘the degree of evil might have been less without any impediment to the good.’ When Jenyns wonders in passing whether there may be, in the larger scale of things, creatures higher than we who might treat us as we treat the lower animals, Johnson develops this idea with a sharpness worthy of Phil Dick:
I cannot resist the temptation of contemplating this analogy, which, I think, he might have carried further, very much to the advantage of his argument. He might have shown, that these "hunters, whose game is man," have many sports analogous to our own. As we drown whelps and kittens, they amuse themselves, now and then, with sinking a ship, and stand round the fields of Blenheim, or the walls of Prague, as we encircle a cockpit. As we shoot a bird flying, they take a man in the midst of his business or pleasure, and knock him down with an apoplexy. Some of them, perhaps, are virtuosi, and delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher in the effects of the air-pump. To swell a man with a tympany is as good sport as to blow a frog. Many a merry bout have these frolick beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive and tumble again, and all this he knows not why. As they are wiser and more powerful than we, they have more exquisite diversions; for we have no way of procuring any sport so brisk and so lasting, as the paroxysms of the gout and stone, which, undoubtedly, must make high mirth, especially if the play be a little diversified with the blunders and puzzles of the blind and deaf. We know not how far their sphere of observation may extend. Perhaps, now and then, a merry being may place himself in such a situation, as to enjoy, at once, all the varieties of an epidemical disease, or amuse his leisure with the tossings and contortions of every possible pain, exhibited together.
Finally, the zinger: 'Many of the books which now crowd the world, may be justly suspected to be written for the sake of some invisible order of beings, for surely they are of no use to any of the corporeal inhabitants of the world.'

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Herbert George Wells



One thing I'll be doing in 2017 is starting a new blog (another one! I know!) to log, and reflect upon, my reading of the whole of H G Wells's oeuvre. I need to get properly on top of Wells for a Thing I may or may not be doing (I'm sorry to be evasive, but no contract has as yet been signed, so I can't say more), and I do find blogging a useful way of keeping track of my thoughts. That just leaves the name: what should I call it?

The Wells at the Blog's End
Herblog George Wells
Blogging the Wells Dry
All's Wells That Blogs Wells
The Food of the Blogs and How It Came to Earth
The Bloggic Argonauts
"The HTML Machine"
Tumblr-Bungay
"No One Would Have Believed, In The First Years Of The Twenty-First Century, That Wellsian Affairs Were Being Watched Keenly and Closely by Intelligences Bloggier Than Man’s And Yet As Mortal As His Own"

Bit of a mouthful, that last one.

The Atheist's Fumi-e



I may not get around to seeing the new Scorsese movie Silence for a while. It does look interesting, so far as I can gauge from reviews and previews, and the 1966 Shūsaku Endō novel on which it is based is undeniably a very powerful piece of writing. At any rate, the trailers and the reviews and all the media paradiddle associated with the release of Scorsese's fillum have provoked certain thoughts in me, and though they inevitably approach impertinence, uninformed as they are by the appropriate spirit (Endo was a believer, and I am an infidel) nonetheless I thought I'd use the decent obscurity of this blog to work through them. When something bothers me I often have to write it out in order to understand what it is, so far has 'writing' overtaken 'thinking' in my mental praxis. And since that's what I'm doing here I should say at the get-go: this post is very long, abstruse, theological and not as clear or well-structured as it should be. You'd be best giving it a miss, I think.

There's a retrospective element in all this, for me. After the (notable, or unremarkable, I'm not sure) failure of my 2015 novel The Thing Itself to make any kind of impact on the world of science fiction, I spent much of 2016 discouraged and disengaged. I thought about quitting, although in the event I have, as of the start of 2017, got a few, more modest projects in hand. But this meant 2016 proved a fallow period for me, writing-wise. Indeed, I think I'm correct in saying that I only published two works of fiction over the twelve months: a story called ‘Between Nine And Eleven’ for an anthology of original fiction called Crises and Conflicts (the antho, and my story, is reviewed here), and a short novel called Bethany, which I self-published on amazon. [I also oversaw the significantly expanded 2nd-edition of this, which took some labour]. The point of The Thing Itself was to suggest the reader should believe in God, and as far as that goes its approach is, I think, pretty ecumenical. Bethany, (a riff on the venerable Behold The Man SF conceit) is a rather more specific item of theological speculation. Probably too narrowly so, actually. It is the story of a modern-day man who travels back in time to kill Christ with a high-powered rifle, after he has resurrected from the crucifixion, but before he has ascended to heaven. Anyway: that is the context for what follows: thoughts on Endo's Silence and some other things.



Endo's novel parlays its historical specificity into something both profound and wide-ranging. It is set at a very particular moment in mid-seventeenth-century Japanese history, when the ruling shogunate has decided to extirpate Christianity. Its main character is a Jesuit priest called Sebastião Rodrigues, who is sent to Japan to support the nascent Christian church there, and also to investigate reports that his mentor, the respected priest Ferreira, has become an apostate to the faith. Rodrigues sets off knowing that he might himself be martyred, and fully accepting that possible fate; but the twist (a trivial way of putting it, but there you go) is that the authorities do not martyr him. Rather they torture and kill his flock, such that he knows he can end their suffering by treading on a 'fumi-e' (that is: stepping on a specially made representation of Christ, an action that signifies his apostasy). The image at the head of this post, showing precisely that action, is a still from an earlier film version of Endo's novel, Masahiro Shinoda's Chinmoku (1971).

It's a well-dramatised and thought-provoking ethical dilemma. After all: it is one thing to sacrifice oneself for one's beliefs, but quite another to sacrifice other people for one's beliefs. Rodrigues agony is that 'he had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him.' It is much harder to bear the pain of people we care about than it is to bear our own. Endo frames this dilemma in the larger context: why does God remain silent in the face of human suffering?

At one point in the story Rodrigues is made to watch the deaths of certain Japanese Christians, bundled up alive in matting and dropped into the sea. He sees
the sea stretched out endlessly, sadly; and all this time, over the sea, God simply maintained his unrelenting silence ... 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!' The priest had always thought that these words were that man's prayer, not that they issued from terror at the silence of God.
Christ's words from the cross (Matthew 27:46 of course: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?') figure in this book as a rebus for the silence of the divine.  Rodrigues' guide in Japan is a peasant and Christian apostate called Kichijiro, a cowardly drunk and weakling who often speaks a kind of holy-fool wisdom. For example, he echoes Matthew 27:46 when he asks Rodrigues:
"Why has Deus Sama [God] imposed this suffering upon us?" And then the resentment in those eyes that he turned upon me. "Father," he said, "what evil have we done?" [p. 55]
It's a distorting echo, though. And that brings me to my issues. Forsaking someone is not the same as imposing suffering upon someone. The difference is really quite important. Imposing suffering is what strength does to weakness; withdrawal is something quite other. Pontius Pilate and his soldiers imposed suffering on Christ; Christ's complaint on the cross is not that God has imposed anything on him, but in the contrary that he has removed himself from him. Pilate's pantomime of handwashing is, clearly, an empty parody of such withdrawal. Because of his place at the apex of political and military authority, Pilate simply can't withdraw from the injustice he knows is going on; or more precisely, he can't both retain his secular power and privilege and withdraw from the evil being done on his watch. It is in the nature of our social embeddedness that we don't always have the choice to withdraw from the suffering of others. Indeed, that last sentence is pretty much a thumbnail of human ethics as such.

With respect to Silence, Endo conflates 'imposing suffering' and 'withdrawal' in a way that may, I'm not sure, approach a kind of existential or spiritual mendacity. I'm conscious, even self-conscious, that mine is a spiritually myopic reading, since I am not myself a believer. Still, it strikes me that there's something important here, somewhere in amongst the misty blur that presents itself to my old eyes.

Christians in mid-seventeenth-century Japan were indeed a persecuted minority. And although the execution of believers ceased after 1805, Christians in twentieth- and twenty-first century Japan, like Endo himself, remain a minority in Japanese culture, disadvantaged in various ways. When you are small, powerless, persecuted (even tortured and killed) the story of Christ will of course speak to you in a very direct manner, because it is, unique among major religions, the story of how Omnipotence made itself small, powerless and mortal, and suffered torture and death.

There are many sorts of story that can be told from that point of view. But it doesn't seem to me that Christianity is intrinsically this story—that is to say, I don't think Christianity is inherently a religion of powerlessness. Even an atheist like me can see that Nietzsche's dismissal of Christianity's 'slave morality' misses something important about the faith. Christianity started out as a small, oppressed and socially fragile movement. But it is no longer those things. Now Christianity is the dominant religion on the planet (of our 7 billion earthly souls, somewhere between 2.5 to 3 billion are Christian; the next biggest religion is Islam, with something like 1.7 billion adherents); and even taking into account the decline into secularism occasioned by several centuries of scientific materialism, Christianity still culturally dominates two of the three major global power blocs: Europe and North America (although only 2.5% of the population of China are Christian).

I'm well aware that these are crude indicators, but they're here to make a point. It is, in brief, the same point Rushdie elaborates in The Satanic Verses (1988). Hard to go back to that novel, of course, through the fog of everything that happened because of that novel; but it's worth remembering what Rushdie said about it before it became such a cause célèbre religieuse (not to say cause célèbre de la liberté d'expression). He styled it as a novel interested in exploring two things: what one does when one is not strong; and then what one does when one later becomes strong. The verses of the title figure, for Rushdie, as a compromise offered by a canny Mohammed to the established Meccan religious pieties of the day (the verses in effect praise Allāt, al-'Uzzā and Manāt, three goddesses worshipped in Mecca) at a time when his new religion was vulnerable; and his later repudiation of those verses marks the point at which his religion had become established enough to be able to row-back on this compromise. C M Naim puts it well:
Rushdie describes his book as an attempt to "give a secular, humanist vision of the birth of a great world religion." ... Repeatedly, various characters in the book are asked: What kind of idea are you? When you are weak will you compromise; when you are strong will you be generous? Abu Simbel, the Grandee of Jahilia and an enemy of Mahound, answers the first question: "I bend. I sway. I calculate the odds, trim my sails, manipulate, survive." Rushdie's Mahound is also human, he too has his moment of compromise, the moment of the Satanic Verses, but then he transcends it and embraces the inevitable. [Naim, Ambiguities of Heritage (1999), 161]
Endo's novel is about human weakness in the teeth of oppressive cruelty. And it is scrupulous in its attention not only to historical but cultural and geographical specificity: 'This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.' (p. 147) The question is whether the spiritual core of the novels scales; whether he is only saying something specific about historical Japan, or whether he is saying something more universal.

It seems to me that Christ, for Christians, has to be a figure both weak and strong, in complex ways. I don't just mean 'weak enough to beg for the cup to be taken away, strong enough to accept that this couldn't happen'. Nor do I mean the more theologically inflected sense of 'weak enough to be killed even though he is God, strong enough to take the sins of the world on his shoulders'. I mean the way his whole ministry bridged weakness and strength, the way it critiqued the strength of the politically powerful and focused on the socially outcast and weak, the way Christ's preaching promised an inversion of conventional categories of strength and weakness, 'the last shall be first'.

If you were tortured for your beliefs, it would of course take strength to hold out. But if others are tortured for your beliefs, and you still refuse to yield, do we still call that strength? Doesn't it look more like a kind of pitilessness? Or even disingenuousness, like a person donating to charity with somebody else's money and then taking all the credit?

To put the matter another way: it has always seemed to me that strength, like pride, is one of those Schrödinger's personal qualities that can be a profound virtue or a dangerous self-indulgence, even a wickedness, in ways that are opaque to us until they start having actual effects on other people. That Endo's Silence grasps this so cannily with respect to 'strength' is one of the things that makes it a great novel. When Rodrigues finally does tread on the fumi-e, he hears Christ's voice, and understands that he is, in a sense, treading on himself, or rather permitting his oppressors to tread on him, in a wrenching imitation of Christ.

I think I understand that. Even as a non-believer it strikes me as a powerful and moving moment. Clearly, the 'imitation of Christ' is one of the central planks of Christian praxis. I'm referring here both to the broader discipline and to Thomas à Kempis's De Imitatione Christi (the second-most translated book in the history of the world, after the Bible). Samuel Beckett, by no means a conventional Church of Ireland Anglican, used to say that there was a line from The Imitation of Christ that ‘seemed to be made for me and which I have never forgotten’. It was: ‘He that can well suffer shall find most peace.’

See, there's the nub.

Presumably imitating Christ is a man's-reach-should-exceed-his-grasp kind of deal (or what's a heaven for?). It would be an act of hubris to announce 'I am perfectly Christ-like in my life', after all. Still, even the reaching has its dangers, I think. Just below hubris on the reaching ladder is a kind of self-absorption, an occlusion of focus that neglects the situatedness of Christ's passion—I mean the way Christ's story is both that of suffering endured and suffering imposed. There's a more obvious a less obvious aspect of this, I think. The more obvious is that, if we think ourselves into the position of Christ, we necessarily think others into the roles of oppressors. Our suffering is not some abstract element; it is directed at us by the cruel and the wicked and the know-not-what-they-do blind. If we are the oppressed then they are the oppressors. In the early days of the faith, 'we' Christians were the minority, the put-down and martyred, and 'they' were the princes and the powers of this world. But we are not in the early days of the faith, and 'we' Christians are now the majority, 'we' are the princes and the powers of the world. If we nonetheless believe ourselves to be, in some core way, the oppressed minority things get gnarly. 'They' (Jews, say: or Muslims, or Blacks, or refugees, or the Liberals) are oppressing 'us'. It's is a surprisingly common mindset, by no means confined to religion; indeed, the recent American election has brought a great seam of it into the light. Whites are the real victims of racism; 'political correctness' is fascism; equal pay for women is sexist against men; and so on. In a nutshell this is the strong saying to the weak: back off, make no claims on the sacred category of suffering, for we are the real victims.

This is not a gesture of renunciation of strength. On the contrary, it is a strategy of consolidating strength: White people complaining that any changes to the status quo at all are 'racism against White people' are, quite specifically, doing so because they don't want to sacrifice power, privilege and status. And I'm certainly not suggesting that the root of this mindset is Christian theology, or the desire to imitate Christ. Clearly there will be many people who undertake this latter challenge out of genuine humility, in goodness and devotion of heart. But I do, I suppose, wonder about the dangers in ignoring the historical trajectory of Christianity as a feature of the social world: the vector by which Christianity was once weak and marginal and is now strong and central. It is unseemly to assume the mantle of victimhood when one is, in all practical respects, not a victim. Is it more than unseemly, though?

Now it may well be (indeed I'm sure for many people it is) the case that many people feel individually powerless and victimised even though they belong to one or other structurally dominant and powerful group. Of course, of course. And of course 'the imitation of Christ' may well be an entirely inward, personal process of withdrawal from the cruel world. Two of the four sections of by Thomas à Kempis's De Imitatione Christi are called "Directives for the Interior Life" and "On Interior Consolation", after all. But where the individual is weak compared to the collective, the collective is strong compared to the individual, and if we replace 'collective' with 'church' it is clear that Christ's example must be about both how we deal with our powerlessness and misery and how we deal with our collective strength.

I'm not being very clear, here, I think: so I'll put it another way. What would Christ have done if the the Sanhedrin, or Pilate, had not tortured and crucified him, but had instead made him watch as they tortured and crucified his disciples, or his mother, or random citizens? He was strong enough to accept his own suffering, but would he have been strong enough to endure that? And if he was, if he gladly accepted the suffering of others whilst he himself remained unharmed, would we even call that strength?

The bald truth is: it's easier to endure our own suffering than the suffering of others. Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter (1948)—Graham Greene's single best book, I'd say—understands this. Serving as a police officer in Colonial West Africa, Scobie gets a letter from home telling him his young daughter has died of illness, quickly and without pain. This, of course, is heartbreaking news. But then afterwards, because of the vagaries of international post at a time of war, he gets a second letter, one his wife had posted earlier, telling him that his daughter is sick, but that they are all prayerful and hopeful that she will get better. This, the novel insists, is much worse than just discovering his daughter has gone. It is hard when a loved one dies, but at least then they are beyond suffering. It's the two letters, and the order in which they arrive, that breaks something inside Scobie and leads, down the winding path of Greene's plot, to his suicide.

Greene's conclusion, in this novel, is not a hopeful one. He asks: how can we live with the suffering of others? And his answer is: we can't. He presents two options. Either we banish those others from our hearts (“In our hearts there is a ruthless dictator, ready to contemplate the misery of a thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of the few we love”), or we sink into the swamp of pity and are consumed. It is one of Greene's broader conceits as a writer that pity, like innocence, is corrosive and dangerous. Christ showed compassion for others, but compassion is more than we can manage. In the novel's preface Greene writes:
I had meant the story of Scobie to enlarge a theme which I had touched on in The Ministry of Fear, the disastrous effect on human beings of pity as distinct from compassion. I had written in The Ministry of Fear: “Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn't safe when pity's prowling around.”
This pity is also what undoes Endo's Rodriguez, if indeed he is undone—the novel's ending is, I think, much more ambiguous on this matter than Greene would ever be. But how rare is this sort of storytelling? How much demand is there for it? Isn't there simply more appetite for the heroic cadences with which Dickens sends his self-sacrificing (his pointedly not other-sacrificing) Sidney Carton to the guillotine? 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known': through accepting my suffering I will finally be free and at peace—it really is a perfectly Thomas à Kempis sentiment.

 I suspect we simply prefer stories in which an individual sacrifices him- or herself to stories in which people sacrifice other people for their ideals; and furthermore I suspect that stories in which people sacrifice others for their ideals without being automatically demonized for it are rarer than hen's teeth. (I mean: we like stories about idiot generals sending brave soldiers over the top at the Somme, so long as it's made very clear that the generals are indeed braying idiots).  Our retellings of the story of Joan of Arc centre on Joan herself.  Of course they do. I mean, can we imagine a version of that story sympathetically centred on Cardinal Cauchon? A version in which Cauchon fights his monster as Beowulf fought Grendel, or Sarah Connor fought the terminator? Of course we can't.

Another of Greene’s novels, The Power and the Glory (1940), is precisely this kind of Sidney Carton story, and for that reason seems to me a much less interesting novel than The Heart of the Matter (though Greene himself thought it his masterpiece). Even when we're dealing with a figure as compromised and venal as the unnamed priest-protagonist of The Power and the Glory, or perhaps even precisely because we're dealing with such a character, this Sidney-Cartonesque Imitation of Christ is beguiling to us. The Passion is the ur-scene of all this.

My question, though, when we look at this ur-scene, the whole scene, of Christ and all the people around him, is: who are we more like? Since we're talking imitation, take it as mimesis. Where are you, in here? Are you the central figure, nobly enduring suffering and death for the sake others? Or are you one of the other figures? A bystander; a bureaucrat; one of the Roman soldiers? Out of my own ignorance I ask: where are the novels that are about people who don't imitate Christ so much as they imitate the killers of Christ? Where is De Imitatione Pontii Pilati? Because, unless I misunderstand it, one crucial aspect of Christian teaching is that the killers of Christ are not 'they'. The killers of Christ are 'we'.

(Parenthetically, to address my own question: the obvious answer, I suppose, is: Dostoevsky. But I'm not sure his particular brand of psychological ur-existentialism is what I'm asking after here. The narrative of the passion is a Copernican one, in that every character in it, from Peter to Pilate to Judas, traces a subsidiary orbit around the central sun of Christ. Dostoevsky's Christ-like characters, his Aloysha Karamazovs or Princes Myshkin, are fundamentally passive, not only unable to prevent the suffering of those around them but unable to act as a centre of gravity for their respective novels. It's a different matter where Crime and Punishment is concerned; but then Raskolnikov is not somebody who lives his life in imitation of Christ. And I wonder if that isn't the point.)

Stories may tell us otherwise, but the truth of the matter is that we are not, actually, Sidney Carton. We're the ones lining the street, cheering; or maybe the ones pulling the lever on the guillotine, because that's our job. A Tale of Two Cities is a story about a man who imitates Christ, and a very powerful and affective novel it is too. We flatter ourselves by engaging imaginatively with such a story, such an imago Christi; and the danger of that is not so much narcissism (though I think that probably is a danger) as it is separating ourselves from those who are not Christ: the court officer with the flail, the Roman soldier with the nails and the hammer. They become 'not us', and the best we can aim for with such wretches is being able to forgive them. Forgiveness, though, runs legally-speaking down the slope from the strong to the weak, and in spiritual terms it runs from the affronted to the affronter. It can't reverse either gradient. And most of us in the west are at the higher end of that slope.

I am, I hope it's clear, talking about literature, not actual Christian living. I know something about the former. I know very little about the latter. And of course they are very different things. In a sermon from 1626, John Donne berated himself: “I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in and invite God and his angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.” Yet the fly, the coach driving down the street outside, the opening door are the matter of the novel. These are what novelists write about. If your novel can't create a world in which the fly, coach and door are believable, then it's not going to be able to say anything useful about God and his angels.

And it's this that brings me, belatedly, to my point. It's not that we ought to allow the buzzing fly and the creaking door to distract us from God; it's that this is what humans do, as Donne understood very well. And novels are about humans. Not that we ought to spend our lives in conscious imitation of Pontius Pilate—of course not! Just that most of us end up doing just that, in larger or smaller ways; doing our jobs, getting on with things, trying out best not to rock the boat. In the story of the Passion, God makes himself weak, such that the human characters are, by comparison, strong. The heart of this story is: what we do with our strength. The question then becomes: 'why do we use our strength to torture and kill?' This seems to me one of the quintessential Christian questions, yet I'm not sure which are the Christian novels that address it. The tug of the other kind of story, the Sidney Carton story in which strength bolsters the redeeming self-sacrifice, has too much gravity. And whatever reservations I have I must concede that Endo's novel is as powerful as it is because it denies Rodriguez the Cartonesque martyrdom and noble speechifying, even if by doing so Endo himself has been attacked by fellow Catholics for promoting a 'sinister theology'.

The final paragraphs, here, step down from the sublime to the ridiculous, or at least to the perverse. When I wrote Bethany I wanted to make a version of the Passion that wasn't about self-sacrifice. (I also wanted to flesh out, for my own satisfaction, the Géza Vermes 'Jesus the Jew' line; on account of having spent the 21st-century living with a Jew and raising Jewish children. Although that consideration is less relevant to the particular concerns of this post). So: I wanted to take seriously the idea that we humans killed Christ, and to individuate it. That meant writing a story about a devout man who is also a strong man:—both physically and psychologically strong, brave and determined and focused. His strength, inevitably, depends upon a certain distance from the rest of humanity, a resilience to the corrosion of Greene-y pity (Greene's Scobie is happiest when most removed from the messiness of human interactions. 'Except for the sound of the rain, on the road, on the roofs, on the umbrella, there was absolute silence: only the dying moan of the sirens continued for a moment or two to vibrate within the ear. It seemed to Scobie later that this was the ultimate border he had reached in happiness: being in darkness, alone, with the rain falling, without love or pity.' That's a completely different valence of silence to Endo's, of course). Because science fiction is what I do, Bethany includes some time-travelly speculation about the nature of time as a medium that is, I think (I think) new. Hard to be sure in a sub-genre as crowded as time-travel though.

Two other things, to note briefly: one is that the premise naturally provokes a 'why?' Why would a devout Christian try to kill Christ? Since it seemed to me, from the outside as it were, that this question should hinge not on 'would' but 'did', I made it the point of the story—what I mean is that I assume for a Christian this question is not a hypothetical but a historical one. God came to us and we killed him: why? (A more dilute version of this question might be: why would Christ's most devout follower, Peter, betray him? What sort of account of human motivation would satisfy you as an answer to that? I suspect such an answer would have to do with Peter's human weakness, just as the answer I sketch in Bethany has to do with human strength). The novel I wrote sets out deliberately to overdetermine my protagonist's motivations. His reasoning is not a mysterious blank, but a blizzard of overlapping possibilities..

And two: Bethany needed to be a violent novel, a story that included violent scenes and articulated a larger sort of structuring violence. And here I was most wary of all, because my intention was not to describe Christianity itself as inherently violent. As against the Crusades and the Inquisition we can put into the other balance, well, many things: Athens in the 420s-BC slaughtering the entire male population of Melos and Scione and selling all the women and children into slavery. We can put the Nankin massacre and Stalin's purges. Violence is a human proclivity, and a Christian proclivity only insofar as Christians are humans. I'm in two minds about Bataille's argument [from Le procès de Gilles Rais (1965)] that 'il se peut que le christianisme ne veuille pas un monde dont la violence serait exclue. Il fait la part de la violence, ce qu’il cherche est la force d’âme sans laquelle la violence ne pourrait être supportée.' (That 'il se peut' is a distancing tactic, I suppose; but still, this strikes me as a statement not about Christianity as such so much as about any system of law that relies upon violence to curb violence). Nonetheless, the heart of the Christian story is that a peaceful man is violently tortured to death. I don't pretend Bethany has anything new to say about that. I don't expect you to buy a copy; the reception of The Thing Itself taught me that the audience for such abstruse self-indulgence is very small. If I'm honest, I don't even expect you to have made it all the way down to the end of this very long, over-long blogpost. But I was moved to write, and I did; and although I was not aware of any proximate inspiration from Endo's great novel when I wrote my small one, the advertising buzz surrounding the release of Scorsese has made me think about it all again. Bête (2014) was a kind-of philosophical novel about 'l'animal que donc je suis' and wilderness and bereavement, and sank pretty much without trace. The Thing Itself (2015) was a more ambitious philosophical novel about Kant and time and why you should believe in God, and it suffered a similar fate. It's very possible that SF, a community with a higher proportion of Dawkins-y atheists than the general population, just isn't interested in being told it should believe in God. That's fair enough (It's also possible that SF didn't like the novel because it's shit: okham's razor and so on). At any rate, Bethany is a pendant to those two, I suppose; smaller in scope as well as size, and tucked away as a self-pub where nobody will notice it. And the SF logic that decrees trilogies be our structuring forms suggests I should stop worrying away at those sorts of questions now. So I will. Put it this way: The Thing Itself and Bethany are me, as it were, treading on the fumi-e of my own atheism. And after you tread on the fumi-e you need to get on with your life. It's just a question of: on what terms?

[Note: this Wikipedia article on the fumi-e suggests that the action of stepping on a fumi-e was called e-fumi, which means the title of this post should probably be 'The Atheist's E-fumi'. But the title is baffling enough as it is, so I think I'll leave it.']