‘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.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Kantian light


‘Light, whether it emanates from the sensible or from the intelligible sun, is since Plato said to be a condition for all beings … whatever may be the physico-mathematical explanation of the light which fills our universe, phenomenologically it is a condition for phenomena, that is, for meaning. Kant’s space is essentially a lit up space: it is in all its dimensions accessible, explorable … The world, whose existence is characterised by light, is not, then, the sum of existing objects.' [Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents (1978: translated 2001), 47-48]

I note this as context for the last line of my most recent novel, which is now in paperback, and available from all good bookshops. Also from amazon.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Scott Eric Kaufman



It's been a couple of weeks since my friend Scott Eric Kaufman died. He was 39. I've been sitting on the notion of writing a blogpost memorialising him for a while, and although I'm (evidently) now attempting just that, I'm still uncertain whether it's a thing to do. It seems an inappropriate forum for registering grief, somehow. And yet one of Scott's greatest accomplishments was to forge an idiom by which brilliant and serious critical work could be done via blogs and other online modes. His critical intelligence was both deep and wide, lively and compassionate and insightful, and although he cornered the market in illuminating analyses of the formal composition of visual texts he had a restless curiosity about a whole range of literary, historical and philosophical matters, and wrote superbly on all of these things. Above all he was funny: a brilliant observationalist with a wonderful gift for comic phrasing. Trust me when I say: that stuff is much harder to write than it looks; and Scott was a natural. If I had to pick one word to describe his mind it would be witty: his deft, capacious and penetrating wit is palpable in pretty much everything he did.

I got to know him when we both blogged for the now-defunct 'literary organ' The Valve and we became friends in the first instance without ever meeting face-to-face—that characteristically 21st-century state of affairs. I wrote him into my novel New Model Army as a minor character (he's the young professor researching the battlefront in a Watchman T-Shirt) and he was so pleased I did it again, in my forthcoming novel. He knew this was coming, but I'm sad that he'll never see it in print now. We met in person when he came over from the States to stay with us a few years ago. His stay was elongated by the fact that that Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull decided to erupt and his return flight was cancelled. He cooked us Southern cuisine and it was delicious. He slept half-sitting-up in an easy chair—we had a spare bed, but he preferred the semi-recumbent posture for reasons to do with the longterm effects of his cancer (in remission at that time, but still impacting his health), the same cancer that eventually claimed him. He joined us when I drove my wife and our kids to synagogue on the Saturday: I think, as a Jew, he was curious to see what an English synagogue looked like. Eventually he was able to return to the States, but I flatter myself that it was during his time with us that he picked up his taste for Doctor Who: he'd never seen the show before, he said, but a little saturation UK telly viewing turned him into a fan. Like all his many friends, I'm desperately sad that he has gone.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Woods of the Suicide: Hughes's "Moortown"


It's clear enough that Ted Hughes was personally haunted by the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. Her death, and the fact that so many blamed him for it, rode his life, a fact about which he was publicly reticent for many decades, but which he ultimately recorded in Birthday Letters (1999). That collection returns over and again to imagery of wild animals and wraiths and primal forces, and its later poems style Hughes as Plath-ridden from beyond the grave. For instance he records being struck down by her suicide and waking up
     upside down in your spirit-house
Moving limbs that were not my limbs,
And telling, in a voice not my voice,
A story of which I knew nothing. ['The God'; Hughes Collected Poems, 1165]
This is just what one would expect, of course. And as Jacqueline Rose's sensitively-pitched study, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1982) argues, Hughes wasn't the only one. In a sense the entire body of Hughes work is haunted, stylistically, thematically, tonally, by that one self-destructive and alter-destructive act of 1963; and the same spectre drifts through most critical discussion of both his and Plath's work. I say so by way of concession, because this blog-post is no exception. I want to suggest a few tentative readings of poems in Moortown (1979; a collection reissued in 1989 under the title Moortown Diary). These poems make no specific reference to Plath, or to anybody or anything outside the detailed day-to-day specifics of a farming life. But I am going to argue that they are haunted by a named wraith, nonetheless



These poems record Hughes' experience as a working farmer in the early 1970s, when he and his then-new wife Carol worked a farm near Winkleigh, Devon. 'Moortown' is the name of the farm. The poems were often drafted the same day as the events they record: ‘this sort of thing had to be set down soon after the event,’ Hughes wrote, in a note he added for the 1989 reissue. ‘If I missed the moment – which meant letting a night’s sleep intervene before I took up a pen – I could always see quite clearly what had been lost. By the next day, the processes of “memory”, the poetic process, had already started.’ The poems are written in a strenuous, vividly descriptive, powerful idiom, raw and direct, with a relentless and indeed wearying repeated emphasis on the sheer physical hardship of working a farm. Here's 'Tractor', one of my favourites:
The tractor stands frozen—an agony
To think of. All night
Snow packed its open entrails. Now a head-pincering gale,
A spill of molten ice, smoking snow,
Pours into its steel.
At white heat of numbness it stands
In the aimed hosing of ground-level fieriness.

It defied flesh and won't start.
Hands are like wounds already
Inside armour gloves, and feet are unbelievable
As if the toe-nails were all just torn off.
I stare at it in hatred. Beyond it
The copse hisses—capitulates miserably
In the fleeing, failing light. Starlings,
A dirtier sleetier snow, blow smokily, unendingly, over
Towards plantations Eastward.
All the time the tractor is sinking
Through the degrees, deepening
Into its hell of ice.

The starting lever
Cracks its action, like a snapping knuckle.
The battery is alive—but like a lamb
Trying to nudge its solid-frozen mother—
While the seat claims my buttock-bones, bites
With the space-cold of earth, which it has joined
In one solid lump.

I squirt commercial sure-fire
Down the black throat—it just coughs.
It ridicules me—a trap of iron stupidity
I've stepped into. I drive the battery
As if I were hammering and hammering
The frozen arrangement to pieces with a hammer
And it jabbers laughing pain-crying mockingly
Into happy life.

And stands
Shuddering itself full of heat, seeming to enlarge slowly
Like a demon demonstrating
A more-than-usually-complete materialization—
Suddenly it jerks from its solidarity
With the concrete, and lurches towards a stanchion
Bursting with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting Where Where?

Worse iron is waiting. Power-lift kneels
Levers awake imprisoned deadweight,
Shackle-pins bedded in cast-iron cow-shit.
The blind and vibrating condemned obedience
Of iron to the cruelty of iron,
Wheels screeched out of their night-locks—

Fingers
Among the tormented
Tonnage and burning of iron

Eyes
Weeping in the wind of chloroform

And the tractor, streaming with sweat,
Raging and trembling and rejoicing. [16 February 1975]
This is characteristic of the collection as a whole: vividly and forcefully written, capturing a sense of the immense inertia and stubbornness of the natural world the farmer is attempting to work, and of the sheer persistence with which the farmer has to attack his/her job. It's also characteristic in the sense that it posits a single figure, the lone man, in a hostile, even hellish environment. We get no sense, reading Moortown, that Hughes had a wife, or other farm workers, helping out. It's just him. And it's him in a world constantly on the brink of collapsing into apocalypse. And that's the key, I think:—what Hughes's poems are most fully about is endurance as such. They are elaborately direct expressions of what Able Seaman Joe Plaice had tattooed onto his knuckles in Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World:


This, I suppose, is the existential 'content' of a lot of Hughes's poetry: the valences of endurance, to which strength, will, myth and sheer vitality are all subordinate. Hughes had a lot to endure, as an individual. The landscapes and events of Moortown are recorded from the actual Devonian environment in which he lived and worked; but they are also a kind of punishing existential frame to the solitary enduring Dasein of a representative human. That statement can't help but look pretentious, put like that, I know. The thing is: what is my pretentiousness an attempt to conceal? Holding fast was not, it turned out, something of which Plath was capable. I don't say so to judge her. Far from it.

The opening poem in the Moortown collection, 'Rain', goes on and on, with an extraordinary, monotonous inventiveness, describing a seemingly-endless world-ending rainfall, 'roof-drumming', 'hammering', the whole world brimming with water. In the central section of this long poem the cows
     look out sideways from under their brows which are
Their only shelter. The sunk scrubby wood
Is a pulverised wreck, rain riddles its holes
To the drowned roots. A pheasant looking black
In his waterproofs, bends at his job in the stubble.

The mid-afternoon dusk soaks into
The soaked thickets. Nothing protects them.
The fox corpses lie beaten to their bare bones,
Skin beaten off, brains and bowels beaten out.
Nothing but their blueprint bones last in the rain,
Sodden soft. Round their hay racks, calves
Stand in a shine of mud. The gateways
Are deep obstacles of mud. The calves look up, through plastered forelocks,
Without moving. Nowhere they can go
Is less uncomfortable. The brimming world
And the pouring sky are the only places
For them to be. Fieldfares squeal over, sodden
Toward the sodden wood. A raven,
Cursing monotonously, goes over fast
And vanishes in rain-mist.
It's a heavily alliterative poem, more so than is usual for Hughes: 'brown water backing and brimming'; 'sinks at every sliding stride'; 'cows come close for company'; 'beaten to their bare bones ... brains and bowels beaten to blueprint bones' and the like. We might take this as onomatopoeia, reproducing the hammering and hissing of the rain; or as a gesture back towards a more primal Anglo Saxon idiom. Indeed, I wonder if the overall shape of the poem doesn't hark back further even than that: to Noah's flood, with Hughes keeping a clutch of animals (barely) alive in his ark-farm whilst outside the world succumbs to the remorseless inundation. That might explain why a poem that starts with descriptions of the landscape, and of the cows and calves enduring the rain, ends with the passage of birds overhead, like Noah's dove. That might even be a hopeful sign, signifying that the end of the world can be lived-through, that endurance may pay off. That's the moral of Noah's story too, of course. When catastrophe strikes, as when the woman you love but have betrayed kills herself, or when your next partner, the mother of your child, later kills herself and the baby, what do you do? Grieve, of course; deal with guilt in whatever way you can, I suppose; but most of all: endure. The world freezes as cold as Dante's central hell and you go on. The flood comes, and you struggle through.

But I want to make a different point, and it will involve me in a kind of nominal manoeuvre that may strike you as dubious. Bear with me. The landscape of the Moortown farm is fields (pasture for cows and sheep) interspersed with copses and bordered by a larger stretch of woodland. Woods and fields: it's hardly remarkable. Thousands of UK farms must occupy something similar, landscape-wise. How do the woods figure in the poems? The first distinct image of 'Rain' is
Wraith-rain pulsing across purple-bare woods
Like light across heaved water.
It's a wonderful image: ghostly and luminous and solidly autumnal-wintry ('purple-bare' is very stark, almost bodily so). Then later in the poem, from the passage already quoted:
          The sunk scrubby wood
Is a pulverised wreck, rain riddles its holes
To the drowned roots.
Dead, then, this woodland: as if shot by a machine gun, an almost First World War Western-Front sort of image. Dead in the sense of killed; or dead in the sense of deadly; or perhaps (which would be more disturbing) the latter because of the former.

So, here we come to the portion of my argument I was earlier veiling in the decent embarrassment of pretentiousness. It has to do with names. Names are important for Hughes, whose imagination was of the sort that saw mythic significance in everything, and liked to 'read' animals, landscapes, names and so on. In his lengthy introduction to A Choice of Coleridge's Verse (1996) there's a lot of this. One example to stand-in for many: Mount Abora, mentioned towards the end of 'Kubla Khan' is not a real mountain. So what is it?
In Abora he unites A + B (= Alphabet) + ora, imperative of the Latin "orare", which means primarily "to pronounce a sacred formula" or simply "to pray". The whole heiroglyph, or cryptophone 'Mount Abora' would be automatically deciphered as a rich pun by, say, Coleridge's close friend Charles Lamb, who, according to Coleridge (Notebook) "addeth to the Orphic epithetical polynomy of the Natura Naturata the title of the Diva Diapanta Punifica or the Divine All-puntress, and deemeth the Natura Naturata one great complex Pun, or Pun of Puns."
We can, Hughes insists, therefore 'read off' Mount Abora as 'Mount Alphabeta Oracular Mouth', or 'O Mountain of Alphabet pray for us!'
As if to say 'O Mountain of the Word, pray for us!' Just as we do now. So Mount Abora becomes the sacred mountain of the divinity within utterance itself. [Hughes, A Choice of Coleridge's Verse, 31]
Obvious now he's pointed it out, no? But I don't mean to be flippant. Names mattered intensely to Hughes, throughout his career. As did Plath, of course. It was Plath who gave Hughes his name as a poet, in a peculiarly literal sense. Yorkshire and Cambridge's 'Edward Hughes' became 'Ted Hughes' because of her.
Sylvia had typed up and sent off my manuscript to a Ninety-second Street Y first poetry book competition—judged by Marianne Moore, Stephen Spender, and Auden. First prize was publication by Harper Brothers. When it won, Sylvia sent Faber the typescript and a letter with that information in which, in American style, she referred to me as Ted. They replied that Faber did not publish first books by American authors. When she told them I was British they took it. That’s how I came to be Ted rather than something else. [from Drue Heinz's Paris Review interview, 'Ted Hughes, The Art of Poetry No. 71']
What does 'Sylvia Plath' mean? In one sense that's a very large question indeed, of course; and even 'What did Sylvia Plath mean to Hughes' could provoke a book-length study that only scratched the surface. But I mean the question in its more specific sense, as the following answer demonstrates: Sylvia means woodland. Plath (from the Pomeranian German of her father's family roots, Plath/Platt) means 'flat', not in the apartment block sense, but in the sense of 'low lying land', 'flat ground'. So 'Sylvia Plath' means: woodland, fields. In one sense the topography of Moortown is precisely the literalisation of Plath herself. She is the apocalyptic context through which Hughes, the poet-farmer, husband-husbandman, must struggle, and which he must survive.

I'm aware that this may come over as merely pat, a facile attempt to 'decode' the poems. I'd hope I'm not trying to do that. Plath, clearly, was a real person, and Moortown was (is) a real farm. But Plath was also one of the century's most celebrated suicides, and 'Sylvia Plath' is a heiroglyph or cryptophone for the natural world itself, as horizon for the ever-haunted Hughes's living and working and writing and imagining. Look again at that first distinct image of the first poem in Moortown: 'Wraith-rain pulsing across purple-bare woods/Like light across heaved water'. Whose wraith?

Or take a poem like 'Feeding out—wintering cattle at twilight'. I'm going to quote the whole of this, because it's not as long as some of the Moortown poems, and it exemplifies the topic of Hughes, solitary, enduring apocalyptically hostile elements (in this case, a wind so mighty it has got inside the landscape itself and threatens to blow away trees, buildings, everything):
The wind is inside the hill.
The wood is a struggle—like a wood
Struggling through a wood. A panic
Only just holds off—every gust
Breaches the sky-walls and it seems, this time,
The whole sea of air will pour through,
The thunder will take deep hold, roots
Will have to come out, every loose thing
Will have to lift and go. And the cows, dark lumps of dusk
Stand waiting, like nails in a tin roof.
For the crucial moment, taking the strain
In their stirring stillness. As if their hooves
Held their field in place, held the hill
To its trembling shape. Night-thickness
Purples in the turmoil, making
Everything more alarming. Unidentifiable, tiny
Birds go past like elf-bolts.
Battling the hay-bales from me, the cows
Jostle and crush, like hulls blown from their moorings
And piling at the jetty. The wind
Has got inside their wintry buffalo skins,
Their wild woolly bulk-heads, their fierce, joyful breathings
And the reckless strength of their necks.
What do they care, their hooves
Are knee-deep in porridge of earth—
The hay blows luminous tatters from their chewings,
A fiery loss, frittering downwind,
Snatched away over the near edge
Where the world becomes water
Thundering like a flood-river at night.
They grunt happily, half-dissolved
On their steep, hurtling brink, as I flounder back
Towards headlights.
This great wind is also a kind of flood, inundating a world made water, coming down like a tsunami from 'the whole sea of air', making Hughes himself 'flounder'. And it is simultaneously potentially destructive and vital, animating the cows, inspiring 'their fierce, joyful breathings'. But what I want to concentrate on is the description of the wind-shaken forest at the beginning of the poem:
The wood is a struggle—like a wood
Struggling through a wood.
It's a superb description: trees and bushes set in motion by the wind, like people trying to struggle through a dense wood, except that the people are the wood they are trying to struggle through. As an image its involuted knottiness, its essence of energetic blockage, is neatly rendered in the tangling repetition of its form: wood, struggle, wood, struggling, wood. But what else might it be, in addition to being an account of a wood in high wind? Possibly: a description of Sylvia-woodland.

Here's an illustration by Blake of two arborially rendered forms, Dante and his guide Vergil, struggling through what looks like a wood in motion, one that grows in infernal regions. Blake, like Shakespeare and Coleridge, was a key influence on Hughes.


Dante makes a useful intertext for Hughes' Moortown, I think, because the topographies and landscapes of the worlds of the Inferno are both actual and metaphorical expressions. The Wood of the Suicides, in Canto 13, is a nightmarish Sylva, its self-murderers transformed into trees that shriek with pain and bleed profusely when their branches are snapped (and Dante's imagination adds-in harpies whose job is to keep breaking their branches). Unique in the whole Inferno, these suicides are the only souls who will not resurrect into human bodies at the time of the Final Judgement, so unspeakable was their sin against those very bodies.

Dante's seventh circle contains one wood made up of many suicides. My sense of the topography of Hughes's Moortown is that it is surrounded by several sylvae. Several sylvae, but one suicide, I think.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

"The Lord of the Rings" as Pastoral


One of the courses I'm teaching this term is on Pastoral. We start with 'classic' examples of the mode: touch on Theocritus, go into Vergil's Eclogues in some detail, devote a week to Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar, and then another to As You Like It. Then we look at some 'anti'-pastoral, with Goldsmith's Deserted Village and Crabbe's The Village. After that we delve into Wordsworth, trying to understand his 'spots of time' and going through 'Michael' in depth. Last week was Adam Bede, and this week is: Tolkien.

Now, you may ask 'but is Tolkien really an example of pastoral literature, Adam?' A reasonable question. Part of the point of this week's session will be to try and tie-together some of the 'what becomes of pastoral?' discussion we've been having in class. And one of the things I'm trying to argue, with this syllabus, is that pastoral in its bare-bones form, as (that is) a set of recognised conventions, of the happy shepherds, sunny countryside, song contests, wine, food, sex and love-longing type, evolves into something broader, something shaped by a number of particular cultural forces, and two in particular. One is a fetish for 'authenticity': so Wordsworth's rural spaces are arduous, difficult places in which to live and work, but that enables precisely a hard-won existential authenticity, focused via the spot-of-time, which replaces hedonism as the transcendent value of the pastoral itself. Man is closer to his true being in the countryside than the city, Wordsworth thinks, and his true joy is spiritual rather than material. And that transcendence picks up on the second major force: the way Christianity itself has styled itself as a pastoral religion. Christ is the good shepherd, and we are the sheep: as a shepherd looks after material sheep, so Christian priests, pastors, look after spiritual sheep—us. So it is that Wordsworth's 'Michael' tells a story of physical and emotional endurance and hardship in order to ground the pastoral value of the life of the elderly shepherd title character, but also parses that tale as a story of quasi-Christian covenant: Michael with the angelic name, his son Luke with the apostolic one, the lost sheep, the sheepfold as covenant, and the sense throughout that although Luke strays never to return, and Michael dies, and even his sheepfold falls to ruin, yet there is something beyond the realm of matter that endures, and which finds expression in the body of, in the very existence of, Wordsworth's pastoral poem.

My sense is that pastoral, now, can't help but fold together these two traditions: the pagan and the Christian, the 'pastor' as rural shepherd and as priest. Adam Bede is, in part, a hymn to the beauty and existential wholeness of rural village life (Middlemarch is too); but Adam Bede literally begins with a sermon, preached by a woman no less, and the 'story' grafted into the fundamentally story-less literary-pastoral space, is a moral one of seduction and sin, death, pilgrimage, atonement and salvation. It's not coincidental that this all happens 'in Nature'.

It's also relevant that Eliot sets her 1859-published story in 1799. Pastoral starts as another, better place, a rural arcadia defined in contradistinction to the city, or (as in Shakespeare's play) the court. But soon enough it becomes another, better time—a past time, of course. This temporal mode of pastoral has the advantage of being unfalsifiable, but it also connects with the backward tug of human experience. That so many of share a sense that things were better 'back then' exerts a gravitational pull on the arcadian mode. This also chimes with Christianity; for Eden is of course the prime, originary locus amoenus; and Christianity as a faith is about not the omnipresence of God in the world so much as the past-historical arrival of God into the world and His departure therefrom, ascending post-crucifixion.

Now all this, it seems to me, has an important bearing on Tolkien's novel. The Lord of the Rings is, as he wrote to his Jesuit friend Robert Murray in 1953, '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.' I would argue that it is a profoundly pastoral work in a similar way to this.

It is, for example, a love letter to the English countryside, as rendered fictionally as 'the Shire', the most amoenus of all loci, as far as Tolkien was concerned. It finds not just beauty but a kind of wholeness and transcendent value in 'Nature', and goes further than most pastoral in gifting not just life but motion, speech and thought to such normally unthinking uncommunicative entities as trees. As pastoral traditionally does, it intersperses its text with songs, and insofar as pastoral is allergic to 'narrative' and 'plot' it is striking that the story doesn't really get going until Frodo and his friends have passed out of the Shire, and moved into other, still beautiful but less specifically pastoral locations. Indeed, re-reading it for the hundredth time to teach it again this year, I have been particularly struck by just how long Tolkien's novel tarries in the Shire—by, that is to say, how reluctant the story is to let go of its pastoral starting-place and actually become story. The Peter Jackson movie trilogy is, of course, much more impatient to crack on with things, so much so that it cuts out great chunks of the first half of Fellowship of the Ring: not just Tom Bombadil, but also the sojourn with Farmer Maggot and family, the Hobbits' misadventure with the barrow wight, and even the fact that Frodo initially leaves Bag End not to depart on some great quest, but only to move to a new house in Buckland. The movie is much more in thrall to Plot than the novel. Which is to say, the novel is much more invested in Pastoral than the movie.

So, yes, there are obvious things that can be said about Lord of the Rings as pastoral: the way it defines its value as anti-urban, anti-machine and nostalgic for the past, something with which it has endowed subsequent Fantasy novels (crudely: SF is urban, materialist, machinic, future-oriented and satiric; Fantasy is rural, invested in transcendent or 'magical' value, past-oriented and Pastoral). I could spool this out into a much longer discussion about Fantasy vs SF, but this blogpost is already really pretty lengthily unspooled. So I'm going to limit myself to noting a couple of things.

Say for the sake of argument that you buy my thesis that Lord of the Rings is pastoral. Say you agree that this explains the reluctance of the novel to leave its Shirey pastoral space and crack on with the notional 'story', and why the ending of the novel is so invested not only in returning to the Shire, but in restoring it specifically as pastoral. Say that you read, or re-read, Tolkien's novel in this light and are struck, as I tend to be, by how much textual space he gives to (often lovely!) descriptions of the natural scenery, by how much it is precisely Nature that externalises Value in the novel, such that people who work with the grain of Nature are good by virtue of doing so, and people who work against it are defined as bad. Say you agree with all that.

One puzzling question remains. Where are all the sheep?

There must be sheep in Middle Earth, at least in the north-west corner of it where we find the Shire. In The Hobbit the Trolls Bilbo stumbles upon complain about having nothing but sheep to eat ('Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don't look like mutton again tomorrer'). More, we can read the landscape Tolkien so lovingly describes. It's based on England, yes; but England doesn't look the way it looks now at random. Once, and not so very long ago in the larger scheme of things, England was all forest. The forests were cleared partly so we could grow crops, but mostly so we could graze animals, and the key animal for the history of England is the sheepish one. (Not for nothing does the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords sit on an actual woolsack). The Enclosures, one of the key events in British social history, happened largely because sheep were so much more profitable than peasants. So, reading across to Tolkien's alternate England, the fact that the ancient forests are so often interrupted by open grasslands must be because that territory has been cleared for sheep. It's a classical pastoral landscape in fact.

And yet, with an exception which I'll come to in a moment, there are no sheep in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien describes the landscape through which his characters walk with loving precision, but always in terms of landscape, never in terms of livestock. Horses and ponies are mentioned, but only in terms of their passengers. At one point the narrative even switches-out p.o.v. with a fox, startled by the wandering Hobbits:
A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.

'Hobbits!' he thought. 'Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There's something mighty queer behind this.' He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it. [85]
But no sheep! Fields, open to the sky, but no sheep in them. Isn't that odd, for a pastoral?

Well one way of addressing that would be to say: it's not a pastoral. But bear with me. I'm wondering if there is something studied in this absence of sheep, in the same way that there is something studied in Middle Earth's absence of churches, temples and all the paraphernalia of religious worship. I am, of course, both aware of, and wary of, that rhetorical strategy that goes: 'evidence of x proves my thesis, but the absence of evidence of x is even more conclusive proof of my thesis!' Still, might it be that the novel's lack of in-story references to shepherds and sheep indexes a larger story in which it's all shepherds and sheep? Since the novel is not allegorical, there is no simple Aslan-is-Christ correspondence between the characters in Lord of the Rings and Christian doctrine, but the two most obviously Christ-like figures are Gandalf and Aragorn. Can we read them as two lords-are-my-shepherd individuals? Gandalf 'shepherds' his flock, leading the other eight members of the Fellowship through the landscape (he even has a crook. Well a staff); and when he falls in Moria things go awry for his sheep. Aragorn, like the Good Shepherd, goes to immense pains to recover the two lost sheep from his flock, when the orcs seize Merry and Pippin. Does 'flock' oversell it? How many sheep make a flock anyway? (More than two; but eight would surely be enough). And 'flock', as Tolkien certainly knew, is an interesting word, linked to two closely-related Old English terms, flocc ‎(“flock, company, troop”) and folc ‎(“crowd, troop, band”), the latter being the root of our 'folk'. That's a significant convergence of meanings, I think.

So far as I can see, there are only two specific references to sheep in the novel (there may be others that I'm missing). The first comes, significantly I think, when the Hobbits stay with Tom Bombadil, and listen to his wide-ranging tales. He narrates 'many remarkable stories' and spends a good deal of time on the woods.
Suddenly Tom's talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the downs. They [the Hobbits] heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight. [145]
Hence, you see, the illustration at the top of this post. Sheep lived once in this landscape, but not anymore. What this means, I think, is that the novel's pastoral is inflected by a flavour of elegy. The old ways are passing. That's one of the novel's big themes.

One other datum, from Bombadil's house, which is relevant to the question: who is Tom Bombadil anyway? It concerns the Hobbits' bedding. They sleep, we're told, under sheepskins, or at any rate under 'blankets of white wool' [142] (not exactly the same thing, I know). So who is Bombadil? He is the oldest being in Middle Earth, closely connected with precisely the natural landscape the hobbits are about to leave (he himself leads them to the edge of his land, but will not cross over). When Gandalf calls-in on him at the novel's end, we discover that he has no interest in the seemingly great events that make up the bulk of The Lord of the Rings as a novel: 'quite untroubled,' Gandalf reports, 'not much interested in anything that we have done and seen'. But there's an exception, one thing that does interest him, and it's the group's encounter with the Ents.

Of course the Ents are, precisely, shepherds: or, more precisely herders of the trees ('arboriherds' I guess; or maybe a more Tolkienian neologism would be 'trēowherds', which I guess would rub down in use to 'trēherd'). As Treebeard tells Merry: 'Sheep get like shepherds, and shepherds get like sheep. ... But it is quicker and closer, with trees and Ents' [489]. That's the second specific reference to sheep in the novel. [Over on FB my friend Edward James points out another, elvish reference: “'To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different,’ laughed Lindir.”]

If Bombadil has an affinity to the Ents, that's because he is himself, as spirit of the natural world, a shepherd of sorts—a kind of meta-shepherd we might say. (It relates to the fact that these are all characters in a world shepherded by the author, Tolkien: it's always struck me that the name 'Tom Bombadil' is a soundalike Bombadilized version of the name 'John Ronaldreuel' ... let's sing together, shall we? "Old Jom Ronaldrill is a merry fellow;/Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are ..." Alright, alright. Maybe not). A short answer to the question who, or what, is Tom Bombadil would be to say: he is pastoral. He is the idiom of the beautiful natural spaces that are the locus of value in Tolkien's imaginarium, from which his characters have to depart to fight evil, but to which they must also return.





Appendix

A blogpost on The Lord of the Rings would hardly be complete without an appendix, preferably one quite dense and rebarbative, only glancingly relevant to the main body of text, sitting there inviting the reader to skip over it. And here's mine. It has to do with Timothy Morton's account of the novel as an 'environmentalist' work. This is one small part of Morton's hectic but stimulating Ecology without nature: rethinking environmental aesthetics (Harvard University Press 2007), situating Tolkien both in terms of the longer tradition of ‘Romantic nationalism’ and environmental art. For instance:
As the idea of world (Welt) became popular in German Romantic idealism, so the nation-state was imagined as a surrounding environment. The idea of the nation as “homeland” … demanded a poetic rendering as an ambient realm of swaying corn, shining seas, or stately forests. Nature appeared sublime “there” and yet fundamentally beyond representation, stretching beyond the horizon and back into the distant, even pre-human past. It was a suitable objective correlative for the je ne sais quoi of nationalist fantasy. Walter Scott’s invention of historical novels, realist fictions generating an entire world in a bubble of past-tense narrative, did as much for environmental nationalism as explicitly Romantic criticisms of modern society and technology. [Morton, 97]
He goes on to read Tolkien in this light.
The Shire, in J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings depicts the world bubble as an organic village. Tolkien narrates the victory of the suburbanite, the “little person,” embedded in a tamed yet natural-seeming environment. Nestled into the horizon as they are in their burrows, the wider world of global politics is blissfully unavailable to them. Tolkien’s work embodies a key nationalist fantasy, a sense of “world” as real, tangible yet indeterminate, evoking a metonymic chain of images—an anamorphic form. The Lord of the Rings establishes not only entire languages, histories, and mythologies, but also a surrounding world. If ever there was evidence of the persistence of Romanticism, this is it.

In Heidegger’s supremely environmental philosophy, the surrounding ambience created by Tolkien’s narratives is called Umwelt. This is the deep ontological sense in which things are “around”—they may come in handy, but whether they do or not, we have a care for them. It is a thoroughly environmental idea. Things are oriented in relation to other things: “the house has its sunny side and its shady side.” Others (elves, dwarves, men) care for their surroundings differently. The strangeness of Middle-earth, its permeation with others and their worlds, is summed up in the metaphor of the road, which becomes an emblem for narratives. The road comes right up to you front door. To step across it is to cross a threshold between inside and outside. There is a sense that the story, and the world it describes, could go “ever on and on” like the road in Bilbo Baggins’s song. But wherever we go in this world, however strange or threatening our journey, it will always be familiar, insofar as it has all been planned in advance, mapped out , accounted for. This planning is not quite as narrowly rational as a modern factory. Still, the recent film of The Lord of the Rings, with its built-in commentaries on the special edition DVD about the craftsmanship and industrial processes that went into making it, reveals something true about the book. The Umwelt is a function of holistic, total design, total creation: Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk with a how-to booklet thrown in. The holistic world that ‘”goes ever on and on” is exciting and involved, but in the end, it is just a gigantic version of the ready-made commodity. This is ironic, since one of the themes of the work is the resistance to industrialism and specifically to commodity fetishism, in the form of the hypnotic ring itself. [98]
This is interesting stuff, although Morton evidently feels rather condescendingly about the book itself: ‘what gets lost in this elaborate attempt to craft a piece of kitsch that could assuage the ravages of industrialism?’ he asks, answering ‘hesitation, irony, ambiguity’, glossing the middle term via Schlegel. I can see the ‘kitsch’ part, although it doesn’t strike me as a necessarily bad thing (on the contrary). But something is missing from this analysis; precisely the unexpected thing (the unexpected party) that Morton claims the novel erases. Since this is particularly true of the book’s engagement with ‘environmental aesthetics’, it’s a shame Morton doesn’t discuss it. Take: Tom Bombadil. It’s true he was smoothed over and erased by the more commodified film version of the tale; but he’s a crucial figure in Fellowship of the Ring (in some senses the crucial figure). He does not represent, but literally embodies, the irreducibility of ‘nature’ as something other than the ‘human’ world. Of course, he embodies this through a metaphysical logic of incarnation that is crucial to (Catholic) Tolkien’s world-view; and it’s possible that Morton has little sympathy with incarnation from an OOO-point of view—I don’t know, but I can imagine that the way the Christian concept prioritises ‘the human form’ over all over objects, to the point where the universe itself, or God, or (in LotR) Nature somehow metaphysically ‘is’ the human form … I can believe that such views are immiscible with OOO. Nonetheless one the things that is so wonderful about Tom Bombadil is precisely the way he doesn’t fit the well-tooled story model, the ‘road’ that the film-makers trod. It is precisely his gnarly peculiarity, his oddity, his naffness (blue coat, yellow boots! Endless fol-de-rol singing!). His non-identity. He represents precision a sort of narrative hesitation -- that's why Jackson and his screenwriters ditched him for their film version.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Fallacious Intentionalities



I read Wimsatt and Beardsley's famous paper 'The Intentional Fallacy' (The Sewanee Review, 1946) as an undergraduate, because I was told to do so by my teachers. I wasn't always so biddable I must say, but on this occasion I did my reading. And Wimsatt and Beardsley's argument persuaded me. Indeed I believe it did more, and softened me up for my journey deeper into the Tarkovskian 'Zona' of Theory as a postgraduate: the author is dead, il n'y a pas de hors-texte, the whole kit and kaboodle. Especially le kaboodle.

Now, Wimsatt and Beardsley persuaded me because the point they make is so sensible (although, actually, the paper itself is surprisingly tortuous and rather archly written). People often do want to judge literary works by what the author intended, or more broadly they want to import biographical considerations into the hermeneutics of interpretation. But when you think about it, that doesn't make much sense. Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that readings based on authorial intention are either irrelevant (because they draw upon extrinsic evidence, and therefore are about those other texts rather than the one under consideration) or else they are circular (when an author’s otherwise unknowable ‘intention’ is intuited from the very text that it’s invoked to explain). Nor do I come to bury W & B; on the contrary I intend to praise them. Ho ho.

Still: 'intention' seems to have real staying-power in the way people (my students, for instance) tend to think about literature. People like the idea of the author and don't wish him/her dead. This has a lot to do with our investment in 'intention' as such. I don't mean, by saying that, to open the door (huge and creaky like an ancient tomb) onto the philosophical discussion of 'intent', 'intensionality' and 'intention': this link gives you a primer, if you're interested, and it gets dense and counterintuitive pretty quickly (which is not, of course, to say the discussion is pointless or wrongheaded). There's a more common-or-garden reason for our attachment to the idea of 'intention'. We know, from our own experience, what it means to intend things, and it seems to us as though having intention and acting on it is integral to who we are as active (rather than passive) agents in the world. To lobotomize someone is to remove precisely their urgency of intention. And since it matters to each of us, we assume its significance in others. When we interact with other people, one of the things we're doing is trying to intuit their intentions.

It's this, I think, that's at the heart of the Turing Test, I'd say (and therefore is the point of shows like HBO's current Westworld). Turing's test argues that if we interact with a machine and believe that it is responding in the ways it intended to, rather than randomly, mechanically, or in a manner that utilizes some clever algorithm, then that machine is actually thinking. Turing doesn't put it in exactly those terms, but that's what it boils down to, I think. One immediate problem that suggests itself; the niggle I've always had about this famous test: mightn't intention itself be faked? How can we tell 'real' intention from 'fake' or 'ersatz' intention? This is one of those questions that can unnerve us, if we think about it too long. Philip K Dick based an entire career upon a variant of it.

And that is one of the ways 'intention' feeds through into my day-to-day as an academic. I teach Literature, but I also teach Creative Writing. Students of the latter sometimes wax jocular, or mock-outraged, by 'the author is dead'. Since they want to be authors and they don't want to be dead this is fair enough. Of course they understand that 'the author is dead' doesn't refer to the physiological status of actual authors, many of whom are manifestly alive. It refers to the status of the novel, published and launched into the world, something from which 'the AUTHOR' needs to disengage his or her claws. And this is a pretty common-sense position, really. Even if you 'believe' that authors' intentions do indeed have a part to play in the way we read and interpret literature, you will be unlikely to grant authorial intention too much power. If we really respected authorial intention, then we'd have to take on board, let's say, Vergil's deathbed intention to destroy the Aeneid, and be obliged to go around the world burning all copies of the finished poem. That's an extreme example of course, but it's there to make a point, viz. that there is a hard limit on one side of the 'intention' debate, That said, the hard limit is quite a long way over, and leaves a lot of territory for people who do not consider it fallacious to include authorial intent in their accounts of literature. If J K Rowling, in an interview, says that she intended Dumbledore to be a gay character, but there's nothing in the novels themselves that specifies Dumbledore's sexual orientation, then how do we 'read' Dumbledore? Is he gay or not? We might answer 'his sexuality is irrelevant to his function in the novels' but that's merely to evade the question.

The Creative Writing angle is an interesting one. W & B address it head on. One measure of falsification, where the supposed primacy of 'author intention' is concerned, is how rarely authors are able to say anything very illuminating or perceptive about their own writings. W & B suggest, without mentioning Freud as such, that this is because intention actually plays a much smaller role in writing than is often assumed. They quote Houseman:
Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon—beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life—I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular, only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once [W & B, 475]
Speaking as a writer, I recognise this. Or to be a little more precise: as I tell my CW students, writing is a two-step process. The first thing you must do is get it written. The second thing you must do is get it right. Good advice, especially for writers who are starting out, is: don't try to get it right as you are writing it, for that way lies what they call 'writer's block': finishing a sentence, then looking at it and feeling paralysed by the thought that it's not good enough, and losing momentum in the scrabble to improve it. All that. Better is: push through with your draft and don't worry overmuch about sunspots and infelicities. Which is to say, don't worry about them as you are going on. Worry about them when you come back to revise, and be confident during the writing of your initial draft because you know you will come back to revise it. And as far as the 'intentionality' argument goes, there is much more conscious intention involved in the revision portion of being an author than in the writing portion, at least in my experience. To write I create a space actually designed to minimise the rational, critical, intending mind: I take myself to a coffee shop, I put on headphones and listen to music, I defocus enough to let my fingers start moving over the keyboard. Revising is different: to revise I tend not to listen to music, I need to concentrate and think critically and so on. But that's a separate matter. And, to say one more thing about my writing praxis: the longer I have gone on, as a writer, the more I find my fingers, rather than my conscious brain, doing the thinking. Very often I have to write something out to discover what it is I think about it. I'm doing it right now, in fact.

Where does that leave 'authorial intention'? Not in a golden throne seated in the middle of my skull, that's for sure. But neither am I (of course) a mere robot, producing my works by a process of automatic writing. It does not feel true to me to say, as I have heard some other writers say, 'it writes in me' rather than 'I write'. It's conceivable, of course, that I'm fooling myself; and there's a sense that putting those two in opposition like that misrepresents matters: the 'I' in 'I write' has already been written by a thousand overlapping discourses and texts and so on. But 'it writes in me' seems too passive to me; almost an abdication of responsibility.

Enough generalised chatter (too much generalised chatter! I hear you cry). Some specific examples. Let's take the second of W & B's two intentional fallacies first: the circular one. The example they give is Homer. Longinus considered great poetry the sublime outpouring of a great soul; Homer's epic verse is great poetry; ergo Homer had a great soul. Now that we've established that, we can talk about how it is Homer's greatness of soul that is responsible for the majesty of the Iliad. W & B call this attitude 'Romantic', which is fair enough (Coleridge insists that asking 'what is poetry?' is essentially to ask 'what is a poet?') but it is, of course, perfectly vacuous when considered under the aegis of analysis. This mode of circularity thrives in situations, as a fortiori with Homer, when we know little or nothing about the author, because then we can inscribe whatever values we like upon the blank sheet of the author in question. By the same token, it tends to be falsified when we encounter the situation of great art being having been created by nasty people. Pope was a marvelous poet and an unpleasant human being; Schopenhauer a great philosopher but a shit; Thomas Malory, author of the Morte D'Arthur, was a convicted rapist, Pound and Wyndham Lewis were fascists and Heidegger a Nazi; Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper (he probably wasn't, but he was certainly violent towards women and generally not very nice). It needn't be examples as extreme as these. Henry James's short story 'The Private Life' (1892) came about because James was so profoundly baffled that Robert Browning, whose poetry seemed to him as rich and complex and full of eddies and depths, was in person, when James met him, such a bland and conventional human being. The story 'solves' this problem by imagining a kind of cloned pairing of Brownings ('Vawdrey' is the name of the character in the story): one who babbles on pleasantly at dinner parties and another who hides away writing the great literature. Absent such The Prestige-style contortions, we're led to a simpler conclusion: shabby people sometimes create great art. Indeed, I'd suggest that nowadays something the reverse of the old Longinus attitude prevails. The success of Shaffer's Amadeus, especially in its film version, speaks to a now-widespread idea precisely of a disconnect between character and greatness in art. Mozart is a foul-mouth gibbering child-man who also just happens to be able to write Mozartian masterpieces. Lots of rock stars and artists have been like that. So it goes.

What about the first of W & B's two objections to reading via authorial intention? Some examples. Michael Stipe has said, in interview, that when he wrote the lyrics for REM's 'Losing My Religion' he did not mean religion in the sense of God, church and faith; rather the phrase is a Georgia idiom for a secular sense of anger or disappointment (as in: 'I used to like The Walking Dead but lately I've been really losing my religion with that show'). Does that fact prevent us from reading that song as being about (say) Christianity and doubt? Surely not. When I first heard that song, that's how I read it, and that's still how it works for me, and works powerfully. What are you going to do: lock me up?

Another example, of a slightly different sort: what difference might it make to our reading of The Satanic Verses if we say either 'Rushdie had no intention of insulting the prophet', or 'Rushdie fully intended to insult the prophet'? If it doesn't make a difference to (say) our free-speech defence of the right of the novel to be published, then how can it to any other aspect of our interpretation? Or again: let's say we can read Animal Farm as a satirical critique of right-wing authoritarian governments like Fascism and Nazism or we can read Animal Farm as a critique of left-wing authoritarian government like Stalinism. Does Orwell's own left-wing political affiliation operate as, in effect, the casting vote when weighing the two? ('Orwell wrote to Yvonne Davet that the novel was 'un conte satirique contre Staline' and this means that we can only read Boxer the horse as Trotsky, and so on).

Tennyson's In Memoriam is a powerfully moving elegy for his dead friend Arthur Hallam. What makes it so affecting is that Tennyson clearly loved Hallam, and there is real tenderness and physicality in the expression of loss. When it was anonymously published in 1851, one reviewer speculated that it was 'the outpouring of a widow, perhaps a sailor's wife, for the death of her husband'. Many critics have explored the erotic power of the poem; but Tennyson himself firmly repudiated any implication of improper intimacy, and therefore any such reading: as he said to James Knowles: 'If anybody thinks I ever called him dearest in his life they are much mistaken, for I never called him dear.' Does this render Queer readings of In Memoriam illegitimate? Of course, it's also possible Tennyson was in denial about his feelings for Hallam; that his comment to Knowles is a small example of the idiom of the closet. But that's just to say that we don't always understand our own intentions.

This example, though, leads us into the marshy ground of speculating about something to which we don't have access (Tennyson's actual state of mind, behind the things he publicly wrote and said about his state of mind). A universal obstacle, of course. So perhaps a better example would be one in which a reading of a poem relates to something that we know the author cannot possibly have had in his or her mind, as with the reading of Merchant of Venice as being in some sense about the Holocaust, the notion that the young Socrates took dictation from Plato (as per Derrida's Post Card), that Shakespeare was thinking of Freud when he wrote the scene with Hamlet and Gertrude in the latter's bedroom. The jink here would be to think something like 'whilst, obviously, Shakespeare was perfectly unaware of Freud's theories, both men tapped into an underlying and broader existential truth about sons and mothers ...' It's not immediately clear to me what advantages this approach has over saying: 'it is irrelevant what Shakespeare knew or didn't know; what matters is what Hamlet says.'

Or, to pick up something I've talked about before on this blog: 'is Paradise Lost about association football?' By any criterion of authorial intention, we can be confident in saying: no, for Milton cannot possibly have had any such thing in his head when he wrote his epic poem. The question is, if we discard authorial intention as our prophylactic, then what can we use to prevent any and all such outlandish interpretive gestures? To quote myself:
Is Paradise Lost about football? The nay camp might point to the fact that Milton's epic was written centuries before the rules of football were codified in 1863; that it makes no reference to spherical balls being kicked into goals, or the offside rule or anything else related to that game. Ah, say the yea side, nodding knowingly, but consider Book 6. Think of The War in Heaven. The first great battle between God, or his general Christ, and the army of angels, pitted against the army of devils lead by Satan. If you're concerned about the anachronism of using football as a lens for reading Milton's epic, then consider the way anachronism itself becomes the focus of this war, with the devils inventing gunpowder and cannons to bombard the angelic army. And consider too the way Milton represents these immortals attacking, being attacked, wounding and being wounded. Michael hacks Satan with a sword, and cuts him right down the middle: 'in half cut sheer; nor staid,/But with swift wheel reverse, deep entering, sheared/All his right side'). But Satan being immortal can't be killed, so: 'But the ethereal substance closed,/Not long divisible'. (Pope makes fun of this bit of the poem in Rape of the Lock). In other words, this battle is a mode of war in which the combatants can't be killed. That is to say, it is a sport. This in turn opens up all sorts of critical avenues: to talk about the way football figures, culturally and socially, as a defanged mortality-free version of war; to discuss what is at stake in a battle if life cannot be forfeited—Milton might say, a huge amount, more than mere physical mortality (compare the celebrated Bill Shankly quotation 'football is not a matter of life and death; it is much more important than that'). And off we go, yomping through the thickets of interpretive glory, leaving far behind the nay-sayers, who are booing and calling after us 'but all that ignores the fact that Paradise Lost is not about football'.
Authorial intention protects us against all this. What else might? Then again, perhaps we don't want to be thuswise protected:
Claiming that Milton's epic poem is about football is not to make a literalist assertion about the content of the poem; it's a way of getting 'at' the truth of that text, viz., the truth of the way it elevates playfulness to epic dignity. We could put it this way: claiming Milton's poem is about football doesn't denigrate the epic so much as it dignifies the sport.
Maybe this is why I continue to consider the idea of authorial intention fallacious. I don't want, as a writer, to be restricted by my intentions. But maybe that's just me.

As for the image at the head of this post, I just liked it, is all. I think it's a lovely photo. I had no other conscious intention when putting it up there. I suppose there's some point in putting a too-all-intents-and-purposes random image at the head of a post about intention and meaning. But my pointed unintentionality here was not intentional. If you can believe that. Then again, why would you?

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Thoughts on Pastoral



[This post is a series of more-or-less oblique notes-to-self, rather than a carefully laid-out argument with the general reader in mind. It may strike such a reader as baffling, or self-indulgent. I could apologise for that, but, really: nobody is forcing you invest any of your time in it, are they? Although I will just note that it ends with one of my favourite short poems of the 20th-century. So you could just skip to that?]


:1:

We put culture on one side, bracketing with it society, architecture, religion, art and so on; and we put nature waaaay over the other side, there. Nature doesn't make culture, we think. We make culture. Of course, nature makes us first (inevitably we are, in one sense, a product of nature). But once nature has made us we go on to make another thing, which I'm here calling culture. That two-step is essential to the form of distinction being made; and its doubleness is the structure of pastoral.

That's doubtless a little over-stark, as assertions go. Put it this way: does nature have culture? Nature may manifest society, or something close to it: the pack of dogs, the beehive. But does the beehive have culture? When the bees do their little dance, is that art? We're tempted to say no because the dance of bees is functional, and because we assume bees don't reflect upon the dance as dance. That self-reflection is needful for a performance to be art, presumably. But, really, how can we possibly know? What the bee-dance says to me is that our grasp of the natural world is defined, indeed is constituted, by a kind of existential paucity. It is what we cannot apprehend as culture that is the core of nature. In The Beast in the Nursery Adam Phillips says: 'we prefer the barbarity of culture to the barbarity of nature even though we usually can't tell them apart.' He adds a rather neat after-all: 'there is nothing more cultured than our fantasies about nature' [26]. True, that.

Nature is always the resource that has always already been worked. The landscape is not 'nature'; it is what cultivation has made of the natural resource. Nature is worked, and therefore Pastoral is always reworked—practically speaking, an eclogue is always a reworking of Hughes as a reworking of Wordsworth as a reworking of Vergil as a reworking of Theocritus. Pastoral is a kind of blockchain, and in a more acute and formally self-reflexive sense than the standard 'intertextuality' argument, that insists all literature is a kind of blockchain.

Pastoral as escape, means: there is a benchmark existence from which escape looks both desirable and possible. This rather simplistic explanation, though, leads us into to some surprisingly complex and relevant places. At the risk of over-simplification, we might say: start from a position when life is hard, relentless—when life is work, and life is urban, is scarcity and frustration—then fantasy becomes: ease, unobstruction, leisure, rural, abundant and satisfaction. This is the pastoral of Theocritus and Vergil and Spenser, the classic understanding of the locus amoenus. But something happens to pastoral in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth centuries that rewires this, we can be honest, rather simplistic understanding. (What's facile about it is the way it contains its own contradiction: a life that is all holiday is no holiday at all, since there's no benchmark of tedium and stress from which to escape, and it is the release, not the merely sensual pleasure, that is the key thing). The modification of pastoral entailed a two-step: first Goldsmith's Deserted Village (1770) and Crabbe's The Village (1783) described rural life as hard, draining, frustrating and poor (as indeed it largely is) whilst insisting that once upon a time it had been golden, Arcadian. That is to say, they, and other poets from around this time doing similar things with the pastoral mode, such as John Struthers, Clare and Balfour, were engaged in relocated the nature of Arcadia from being a different place to being a different (past) time. Instead of being defined as a (good) place distinct from the (bad) city or court, it becomes a good (past) time distinct from the bad present. That in turn connects with a longer tradition of 'past Golden Age' mythology. The fit, there, is so precise that pastoral itself can become seen as an mode of nostalgia, or more precisely as the faux-nostalgia of yearning for a time you never yourself actually experienced.

That's not right, though; because, after Vergil, the most important intervention into the pastoral tradition is Wordsworth's poetic creation of 'Nature' as a ground of transcendental aesthetic and ontological value—and that flows directly from the eighteenth-century traditions of Goldsmithian or Crabbean 'anti-pastoral'. I could devote a long passage to establishing this, but this blog-post is long enough already, so I'm going to ask you to take it on trust. You might trust less my insistence that it is from this new thing—I mean, from Wordsworth's new version of 'Nature'—that much of the force and a surprising number of the specifics of modern-day environmentalism as ethos and aesthetic derive. It's true. I mean, I don't want to overstate the influence; although, actually, its hard to overstate the way the 19th-century's most influential English-language poet shaped a whole culture, and the ways in which the later 20th-century Green movements, in reacting against the machinism of early 20th-century Modernist and Popular cultures, inevitably reached back to something always-already Wordsworthian in their revalorisation of natural spaces.

Wordsworth is the second footprint in the 'two-step' I mentioned above. From pastoral as a pleasant Arcadian other place we stride, first, to pastoral as a pleasant Arcadian past-time, to which the anti-pastoral of contemporary rural suffering is contrasted; and second, we move to pastoral as a mode of transcendence grounded in contemporary rural suffering. Wordsworth's Michael (the hero of what the 1815 printing calls 'A Pastoral Poem') has grown very old in a life of ceaseless labour, physical restriction and hardship. But because it has always been a life in Nature, it has been an authentic existential experience of the kind unavailable equally to those to live in the town or the past:
So lived he till his eightieth year was past.
And grossly that man errs, who should suppose
That the green Valleys, and the Streams and Rocks
Were things indifferent to the Shepherd's thoughts.
Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed
The common air; the hills, which he so oft
Had climbed with vigorous steps; which had impressed
So many incidents upon his mind
Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;
Which like a book preserved the memory
Of the dumb animals, whom he had saved,
Had fed or sheltered, linking to such acts,
So grateful in themselves, the certainty
Of honorable gains; these fields, these hills,
Which were his living Being, even more
Than his own blood—what could they less? had laid
Strong hold on his affections, were to him
A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
The pleasure which there is in life itself. [Wordsworth, 'Michael', 61-77]
His son Luke goes into the town, and is instantly lost. Only by staying in the country can Michael stay strong, even to his death in his late 80s. Something similar is true of all of Wordsworth's rural poor: the Leech Gatherer, Cumberland beggar, even the mad woman in 'The Thorn'. Nature homes them, in a profound ur-Heideggerian sense, and that fact reconfigures the force of pastoral itself. To cut what could become an over-lengthy excursion short, I'll sketch a line straight from Wordsworth's natural world to the late-20th-century pastoral of Hughes's superb Moortown poems (1979).



Not, as I say, wanting to labour the point, I'll point only to Moortown's 'Tractor' (it's one of my favourites amongst the whole capacious oeuvre of Hughes, actually) as one place where the pleasant sunny Arcadian wish-fulfillment of pastoral has come all the cold, hard way around to bite its own tail.
The tractor stands frozen—an agony
To think of. All night
Snow packed its open entrails. Now a head-pincering gale,
A spill of molten ice, smoking snow,
Pours into its steel.
At white heat of numbness it stands
In the aimed hosing of ground-level fieriness.

It defied flesh and won't start.
Hands are like wounds already
Inside armour gloves, and feet are unbelievable
As if the toe-nails were all just torn off.
I stare at it in hatred. Beyond it
The copse hisses—capitulates miserably
In the fleeing, failing light. Starlings,
A dirtier sleetier snow, blow smokily, unendingly, over
Towards plantations Eastward.
All the time the tractor is sinking
Through the degrees, deepening
Into its hell of ice.

The starting lever
Cracks its action, like a snapping knuckle.
The battery is alive—but like a lamb
Trying to nudge its solid-frozen mother—
While the seat claims my buttock-bones, bites
With the space-cold of earth, which it has joined
In one solid lump.

I squirt commercial sure-fire
Down the black throat—it just coughs.
It ridicules me—a trap of iron stupidity
I've stepped into. I drive the battery
As if I were hammering and hammering
The frozen arrangement to pieces with a hammer
And it jabbers laughing pain-crying mockingly
Into happy life.

And stands
Shuddering itself full of heat, seeming to enlarge slowly
Like a demon demonstrating
A more-than-usually-complete materialization—
Suddenly it jerks from its solidarity
With the concrete, and lurches towards a stanchion
Bursting with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting Where Where?

Worse iron is waiting. Power-lift kneels
Levers awake imprisoned deadweight,
Shackle-pins bedded in cast-iron cow-shit.
The blind and vibrating condemned obedience
Of iron to the cruelty of iron,
Wheels screeched out of their night-locks—

Fingers
Among the tormented
Tonnage and burning of iron

Eyes
Weeping in the wind of chloroform

And the tractor, streaming with sweat,
Raging and trembling and rejoicing. [16 February 1975]
What's particularly nice about this is the way Hughes's uses a machine as a means of focusing the existential authenticity of post-Wordwsorthian pastoral. It's the right machine, of course; since modern farming could hardly happen without tractors. But still, there's a near-miraculous metamorphosis in the poem, in which an artefact of culture becomes, without slipping into any foolish pathetic fallacy, nature itself. Becomes, we might say, the objective correlative of Michael's persistence, strength and labour. Out of hardship is generated beauty (for surely we can agree this is a very beautiful poem).

I don't know if there's a larger context here, which tracks the increasing pleasantness of general human existence (the case that Pinker makes, and which I suppose persuades me) against an increasing valorisation of hardship as such. If one's life is actually hard, one is less likely to enjoy the artistic re-presentation of that hardship back upon yourself. The starving human finds no pleasure in contemplating going on a diet. If your life is basically comfortable, and your sufferings inward rather than outward, then hardship acquires greater appeal. I don't know: there may be a parallel with politics. When real life is living with an empty belly four days out of every seven, is being cold day after day and dying in your thirties, you'll follow the leader who promises to make your life easy. When seven days are defined by fourteen square meals, and your home is heated and you're staring down the barrel of 70-years-plus, the apparent perversity of valorising hardship makes more sense, and you follow the leader who says he has nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. I don't know.


:2:

This leads me to think again about Empson, the critic who has probably done the most to shape my attitudes towards pastoral. Some Empsonian ideas, for example that the mere representation of rural pleasure is boring, elaborated at length in Some Versions of Pastoral are actually already present in Seven Types of Amibguity:
It is this (in some sense conscious) clash between different modes of feeling which is the normal source of pleasure in pastoral; or, at any rate, in so far as pastorals fail to produce it, one may agree with Johnson and call them a bore.
Thou shalt eat crudded cream
All the year lasting,
And drink the crystal stream
Pleasant in tasting;
Whig and whey whilst thou lust
And brambleberries,
Pie-lids and pastry-crust,
Pears, plums, and cherries. (ANON., Oxford Book.)
The delicacy of versification here (alliteration, balance of rhythm, and so forth) suggests both the scholar's trained apprehension and the courtier's experience of luxury; but it is of the brambleberry that he is an epicure; the subject forces into contact with these the direct gusto of a "swain." That all these good qualities should be brought together is a normal part of a good poem; indeed, it is a main part of the value of a poem, because they are so hard to bring together in life. But such a case as this is peculiar, because one is made to think of the different people separately; one cannot pretend to oneself that the author is the rustic he is impersonating; there is an element of wit in the first conception of the style. (Seven Types, 114-15)
This formal relation between 'simple' and 'complex' ('putting the complex in the simple', the closest thing in Some Types of Pastoral to a nutshell-definition of pastoral itself, is actually a slogan for all art, as Empson himself knows) stitches form to social relations. Pastoral not only represents but also embodies and therefore enables, a coming-together of poor-simples and rich-sophisticateds.
The essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor, was to make simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language .... The effect was in some degree to combine in the reader or author the merits of the two sorts; he was made to mirror in himself more completely the effective elements of the society he lived in. This was not a process that you could explain in the course of writing pastoral; it was already shown by the clash between style and theme, and to make the clash work in the right way (not become funny) the writer must keep up a firm pretense that he was unconscious of it. [Some Versions, 11-12]
According to George Watson [The Literary Critics (Hogarth 1986), 184] 'Empson later insisted that his Marxism in the thirties and after—at least until the Communist revolution in China in 1949, which he witnessed—was more serious than his writings reveal, and Some Versions assumed the class analysis of society and the ideal status of the "proletariat".' This is not untrue, although the point for Empson, at least in this book, is always to bring the potential for social harmony back into the orientations of individual subjectivity. René Wellek [A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950: V English Criticism 1900-1950 (Yale 1986), 280] puts forward a slightly more reductive reading.
[The book's] subject is the collapse of the pastoral relation between the swain-hero and the sheep people. It is again the theme of the loss of community, of the presumed original unity which underlies Eliot's concept of history. Pastoral is used in a very wide sense: thus the first chapter discusses proletarian literature which Empson considers a covert pastoral. But even proletarian literature is used in a much wider sense than the usual one ... Proletarian art is pastoral. The old pastoral implied "a beautiful relation between rich and poor" [11] but this relation has broken down, and the old pastoral had been replaced by the mock pastoral, the comic variety at first. Both versions, straight and comic, are based on a double attitude of the artist to the worker ("I am in one way better, in another not so good"), and this may well recognize a permanent truth about the aesthetic situation. "To produce pure proletarian art the artist must be one with the worker; this is impossible, not for political reasons, but because the artist never is at one with any public." [15]
Wellek might have added, though he doesn't, that this is a peculiarly Romantic version of 'the artist', which itself problematises the case being made (something of which Empson himself was aware: 'Mob thought may kill us all before our time, but the scientist's view of it should not be warped by horror, and the writer who isolates himself from all feeling for his audience acquires the faults of romanticism without its virtues.'). Actually, the implied individualism of all this is central to what Empson is arguing: not that the poet is alienated from society, but precisely that the (simple) poet holds within him/herself the (complex) of society. Here's Paul Alpers:
Marvell and Milton represent for Empson a withdrawal-to quote the verses that prompt the essay on "The Garden"-of the mind into its own happiness. The strengths of the "old pastoral" are most fully manifest in Elizabethan works, particularly the dramas, which are discussed in the chapter on "Double Plots." The Elizabethan double plot is a version of pastoral, because it is a convention-the strongest and most capacious, it would seem, in all our literature-for the stable presentation of conflicts and contradictions and for putting the complexities of life into the "simple" effects of art. [112]
To quote the man himself: 'in pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power' [Some Versions of Pastoral, 114]. The element that's missing here is the way that paucity, and poverty, can become precisely the focus for strength in this reading of Nature. After all, Nature is so much bigger than we are. The really Arcadian thing in the natural world is that we have survived this far, at all. To switch back to Hughes it's the superbly insouciant potency of Crow's 'Me, evidently', from the close of 'Examination at the Womb-Door', another key late 20th-century pastoral work:
Who owns those scrawny little feet?      Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face?     Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs?       Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles?       Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts?       Death.
Who owns these questionable brains?       Death.
All this messy blood?       Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes?       Death.
This wicked little tongue?       Death.
This occasional wakefulness?       Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?
Held.

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth?       Death.
Who owns all of space?       Death.

Who is stronger than hope?        Death.
Who is stronger than the will?         Death.
Stronger than love?       Death.
Stronger than life?        Death.

But who is stronger than Death?

Me, evidently.

Pass, Crow.
It probably speaks to a continuing adolescence in my aesthetic sense, but by thunder I love that poem.