‘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, 27 May 2013

Powellian architecture

I'm on the second of Powell's Dance of the Music of Time novels (1952's A Buyer's Market) and enjoying it all very much. Part of the pleasure is the deliberately overegged and rococo descriptions of the landscape of London. Here's the Wellington Arch:
By this time we had come to Grosvenor Place, in sight of the triumphal arch, across the summit of which, like a vast paper-weight or capital ornament of an Empire clock, the Quadriga's horses, against a sky of indigo and silver, pranced desperately towards the abyss. [p. 316]
And here, from earlier in the same chapter, is the Albert Memorial:
We strolled, all three, towards Kensington Gardens. The Row was empty. Sparkles of light radiated this way and that from the clusters of white statuary and nodular gilt pinnacles of the Albert Memorial, towards which we were steadily moving. [251]
Sparkly! You can also see from those page numbers (251 isn't especially near the beginning of that chapter; and 316 not particularly near the end of it) that the chapters are lo-o-ong.

In other news, Nodular Gilt Pinnacles is the name of my next band.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Communism, Fascism

Lord Radcliffe's report on 'Security Procedures in the Public Service' (1962) stated at the beginning of its second chapter: 'For the sake of brevity we have followed the common practice of using the phrase "Communist" throughout to include Fascists.' I trust that clears that up.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Simenon on Criminals

'Professor Sydney Smith of Edinburgh said: "Criminals are ordinary people like you and me".'

'You believe that?'

'Down at the lake here, at Vevy, two old men, men in their seventies, had a quarrel in a café, about the weather, politics, nothing at all. And one hit the other in the head with a glass. Killed him. He looked at his friend in horror. "Jean," he said. "what have I done to you?" Is that a criminal?'

[John Mortimer interviews Georges Simenon; from In Character (1983), 19]

W H Auden's Advice To Writers

Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever,
And do not listen to those critics ever
Whose crude provincial gullets crave in books
Plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks,
As though the Muse preferred her half-wit sons;
Good poets have a weakness for bad puns.

Wise words indeed. [from Auden's 'The Truest Poetry is the Most Feigning']


I'm intrigued by the new Steven 'I stopped making films with the last one' Soderbergh's new Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra (HBO 2013). Hopefully I'll get to see it (though it's not produced by Pixar or released as a PG, so I may have to wait until it turns up on telly). But the timing is fortuitous; I'm just polishing a SF story I have written, called 'Gerusalemme Liberace', prior to sending it off to the Italian journal La Torre di Babele. As I'm just now composing a headnote for the piece; Liberace, and kitsch more generally, are accordingly on my mind.

For much of its history science fiction has been dismissed as precisely this: as trash, disposable and immature art. This has been so large a part of the genre’s cultural history, in fact, that it has woven itself into SF’s DNA. The best SF today is aware of its own ridiculousness, even as it explores the mode’s technological sublime and ludic metaphysical potential. SF that takes itself too seriously just isn’t as effective as SF that embraces its kitschiness: Stanisław Lem; Douglas Adams, Calvino’s Le Cosmichomiche, Iain Banks’s Culture novels, Josh Whedon, Dr Who—sf that is witty as well wonderful; or to put the case more strongly, SF whose wit enables its wonder. There’s a deeper structural reason for this, I think: it is connected to the fact that SF’s perspective on the world is ironic rather than mimetic. SF seems to me integrally a playful mode of art (it plays games with the basic assumptions equally of Realism and of physics) and it baffles me that so many SF writers and fans take their art so very earnestly, and react in so hostile a manner against it.

‘Irony’ is a much larger category than kitsch, of course; and although kitsch generates its affect through its ironic relationship with seriousness it is a much more specific cultural category and must be considered as such. Celeste Olalquiaga suggestively traces the beginnings of ‘kitsch’ to the nineteenth century, linking it with (as she puts it) the way ‘industrialization transformed nature into an artificial kingdom of miniature scale’. For Olalquiaga this aesthetic is ‘at once exhilarated and melancholic’; and although she doesn’t not specifically discuss science fiction she might as well do. The desire to model the cosmos, to ‘reduce’ it to a working scale model (a process called ‘worldbuilding’ amongst sf types) [Celeste Olalquiaga, Artificial Kingdom: a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (University of Michigan Press 1988), 7].

There is a naffness about science fiction; something cathected onto the archetypal science fiction fan by general culture—think of the Comic Book Shop Guy from The Simpsons. But this naffness is a redeeming one. I go so far as to put words from Susan Sontag’s celebrated essay ‘Notes on “Camp”’ (1964) into the mouth of my story’s title character, because they—and that whole essay—do such a good job of summarising what makes SF so potent. Camp ironizes its source material; it plays games with it, putting a premium on a deftness and smartness.

I suppose I am, more or less, proposing an alternative cultural history of recent SF. For many on the more academic side of the genre, a more-or-less embarrassing ‘kitsch’ mode of sf (from 1930s Pulps, bug-eyed-monsters preying on startled space princesses in skimpily futuristic clothes, Flash Gordon and Godzilla, through to the improbably adventures of comicbook superheroes of the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the popular success of Star Wars) is contrasted with a ‘serious’ variety of the genre. This latter embraces Aldous Huxley and Olaf Stapledon, writers of the 1960s New Wave like Ballard, Le Guin and Delany, the strenuously gritty ‘street’ quasi-realisms of Cyberpunk and respectable literary crossover novels like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and McCarthy’s The Road. My quarrel is with those who take it as axiomatic that this second strand is superior to, or in some sense overwrites the former.

‘Romanticism is outmoded,’ Jacques Sternberg once claimed; ‘symbolism disused, surrealism has always appealed to a small elite but kitsch is everywhere. Even more pervasive and indestructible now that it is fused to a civilisation based on excess consumption.’ [quoted in Thomas Kulka, Kitsch and Art (Pennsylvania University Press 1996), 13] Nothing consumes quite so conspicuously as SF, cycling with prodigious energy through all the concepts and constructions human ingenuity can imagine, constructs planet-sized death stars only to explode them in a rain of firework-sparkles (not once but twice in Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy), which casually snuffs out whole worlds and even whole universes. The other elements of Sternberg’s quotation are interesting too, were there but space here to discuss them (‘symbolism’ has an interesting relationship to the way SF deploys certain novums as pre-loaded, as it were, with semantic signification; the creative distortions of the best SF have much in common with surrealism; and a lasting strand of Romantic idealism still informs the mode).

I once published a history of Science Fiction that argued that the genre was older than is generally thought (I dated its origins to the Protestant Reformation, when a new mode of ‘fantastika’ rooted into newly developing scientific idioms split away from the older, larger body of Catholic ‘magical fantasy’ works). I also suggested that SF owed more to poetry than to conventional narratives, because it is a metaphorical rather than a metonymical mode of art. In my Palgrave History I discussed such resonant ‘poetic’ images as the bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey turning, mid-flight, into a space-ship, or the final paragraph of Clarke’s ‘Nine Billion Names of God’. I could equally have picked out images that resonate according to a more kitsch or camp logic, yet which possess equal staying-power. I’m thinking of the rocket sticking out of the squelchy-faced Moon’s eye in Melies’ Le Voyage dans la lune, the elegantly camp design of Maria, the robot in Lang’s Metropolis, the design of Mike Hodge’s 1980s motion picture Flash Gordon or the witty pasticheing of Futurama.

Of course, kitsch is not the only mode of SF; but it is one of the most valuable. In John Varley’s 1984 novel Demon (the third of his Gaea trilogy, an excellent if rather overlooked masterpiece of 1980s writing) the sentient space-habitat in Saturnian orbit, ‘Gaea’, has started to go mad. The habitat manifests itself within itself as a 50-foot tall avatar of Marilyn Monroe. In an early chapter, this giant is lying, naked, on the hills of Gaea being scrubbed clean by an army of zombies and human servants, using soapy water and brooms. This, the kitsch flipside to the clean sublimity of Kubrick’s bone/spaceship jump-cut, captures something the ‘high art’ equivalent cannot. It has the same expansiveness and mind-startling wonder about it, but married to a gonzo energy and disrespectfulness that animates it more brilliantly. It has the grandeur, but also a kind of innocence pathos of silliness. ‘The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,’ is how Sontag puts it. ‘Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious."’ That relation—ironic, metaphorical—is precisely the structure of SF. One can, as Sontag notes, be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. That SF remains a silly mode of art, adolescent, daft, over-reaching, often preposterous; this (as the phrase goes) is a feature, not a bug.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Interstellar travel

Out of a long, ill-tempered, repetitive and mostly nothing-new-here comments thread to a Crooked Timber John Quiggin article on interstellar travel, I found this one, very intriguing (story-making intriguing) observation by 'Patrick':
The time for the sun to orbit the galactic center is about 250 million years.(galactic year, 18 having elapsed since the earth was formed.) That is a long time, but we’re also traveling an extraordinary distance. During that time, the earth is oscillating up and down out of the galactic ecliptic. (Like a buoy in the ocean, bouncing up and down.)

What this means is, although there are no stars that we can easily reach now. Many,many stars will venture quite close to us on the scale of a galactic year.(and in far less time.)

If habitable planets are not too rare, our best bet is to wait for one to come to us, then send people across when our stars are closest. This is not too different from how orbital windows work when sending spacecraft to Mars: Reaching habitable planets is expensive now, but it will not always be so, even if we do not develop any amazing new technologies.

To put it in perspective. The earth has gone about 90 degrees around the galactic center since dinosaurs went extinct. In that time numerous stars will have passed within a light year of earth. Some of them probably had habitable planets.
I hadn't thought of it like that. That's a very suggestive idea. I might write fiction about this.

Modernism is not what it used to be

Oskar Lafontaine laments: ‘If you try to figure out what the people called “modernisers” today understand under the term 'modernity', you find that it is little else than economic and social adaptation to the supposed constraints of the global market’ [from here].

Monday, 13 May 2013

Out of the Frye-ing pan

This caught my eye:
The basis of critical knowledge is the direct experience of literature, certainly, but experience as such is never adequate. We are always reading Paradise Lost with a hangover or seeing King Lear with an incompetent Cordelia or disliking a novel because some scene in it connects with something suppressed in our memories, and our most deeply satisfying responses are often made in childhood, to be seen later as immature over-reacting ... As a structure of knowledge, then, criticism, like other structures of knowledge, is in one sense a monument to a failure of experience, a tower of Babel or one of the "ruins of time" which, in Blake's phrase, "build mansions in eternity". [Northrop Frye, The Critical Path: an Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (1971), 27]
I think this resonates so strongly with me partly because science fiction was something I fell in love with as a child-reader. I still love it; still write it and write about it. But I'm increasingly conscious of the ways in which the exercise is based upon a kind of structural hermeneutic inadequacy. 'Our most deeply satisfying responses are often made in childhood, to be seen later as immature over-reacting' is almost a too perfect thumbnail of the adult apprehension of SF; and SF criticism always a kind of running-to-catch-up uttering various post-facto justifications. What's neat about this Frye quotation is the sense it conveys that, actually, all criticism is in the business of doing this.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Lewis, Miracles (1947)

Generally speaking, the more I read of C S Lewis’s non-fiction the higher I rate his intellect; he has insight, lucidity, quiet charm and that most valuable thing, the ability to reframe familiar topics so as to make them seem fresh, even startling. Nonetheless, Miracles (1947)—which I read because I’ve been finishing up something on Tolkien and riddles, and I wondered if Lewis’s perspective on the paradoxical-miraculous might be useful (it wasn’t)—disappointed me. Bits of the book are neat; most of it is mired in a strange desire to reason from first principles towards proof of the existence of God, of an objective Moral Law and therefore of the possibility of miracles. The whole larger project to prove the existence of God seems to me more than a category error (although surely it is that); it seems to me the index to a prideful, almost blasphemous desire to force God into the straitjacket of human reason and logic. In his other writings Lewis is cannier than that; but here he argues doggedly from the position that ‘all possible knowledge depends on the validity of reasoning.’ Chapter 2 and 3, ‘The Naturalist and the Supernaturalist’ (basically: the former believes only the cosmos exists; the latter believes the cosmos exists because something outside the cosmos made it) and ‘The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism’—these chapters hang their argument on what Lewis considers a materialist logical double-bind. He quotes Haldane: ‘if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms’; and adds:
Naturalism discredits our processes of reasoning or at least reduces their credit to such a humble level that it can no longer support Naturalism. [Miracles, 22]
Why? Because ‘all reasoning must begin with the Ground-Consequent because’ (ie, unless you can trace the logical chain of your reasoning all the way back to the Big Bang, and also ground that, you can't reason at all). The simplest counter-argument here is to say ‘phooey’. The thesis is: ‘materialism is absolutely wrong unless it can prove, by its own logic, that it is absolutely right.’ The unspoken correlative is: ‘Supernaturalism doesn’t need to do this, because it includes within its system a magic blank scrabble-tile that explains away all inconsistencies.’ Quite apart from this latter argument being a cheat, it has nothing to say to that version of materialism that deals not in absolute certainties—and which version of materialism is that, by the way?—but rather in balanced probabilities, in falsifiable theorems and so on. ‘We have not escaped from the difficulty,’ Lewis scolds the materialist, who traces the origin of consciousness through evolution. ‘We have only put it a stage further back’ [46]. As if saying ‘God did it’ doesn’t do exactly the same thing! Often Lewis is clumsily tendentious.
In a pond whose surface was completely covered with scum and floating vegetation, there might be a few water-lilies. And you might of course be interested in them for their beauty. But you might also be interested in them because from their structure you could deduce that they had stalks underneath which went down to roots in the bottom. The Naturalist thinks that the pond (Nature—the great event in space and time) is of an indefinite depth—that there is nothing but water however far you go down. My claim is that some of the things on the surface (i.e. in our experience) show the contrary. These things (rational minds) reveal, on inspection, that they at least are not floating but attached by stalks to the bottom. Therefore the pond has a bottom. It is not pond, pond for ever. Go deep enough and you will come to something that is not pond—to mud and earth and then to rock and finally the whole bulk of Earth and the subterranean fire. [Miracles, 45]
The analogy is false: because we know ponds have bottoms we are invited to mock the stupid Materialist who thinks they don’t. Of course cosmologists don’t talk about ponds; they talk about the whole cosmos. It’s Lewis who is bringing ponds into it. He is insinuating that there is something belittling in the Materialist vision of the universe: ‘silly materialist thinks the universe is a scummy pond—I know better, I can see the grandeur of the subterranean fire.’ But actually it’s the other way about. Asimov’s cosmos is vastly bigger than Dante’s, after all. Modern science says we are drifting perilously in infinite space; it's the New Testament that says we live in a sheepfold.

Chapter 5 is called ‘A Further Difficulty in Naturalism’. The further difficulty is the impossibility of morality unless that morality is underpinned by absolute, divinely-sourced right-and-wrong. Were I minded to call a spade a spade, I'd suggest Chapter 5 is idiotic—a harsh judgment, and one I would almost never apply to Lewis, but there you go. The choice is starkly laid out: either you believe in absolute good and evil or you believe ‘all ideas of good and evil are hallucinations’ [57]. Taking it as axiomatic that materialists believe this latter (materialists ‘like Mr H G Wells’ and ‘General Franco’), Lewis then attacks materialism for hypocrisy: ‘a moment after they ['Naturalists'] have admitted that good and evil are illusions, you will find them exhorting us to work for posterity, to educate, revolutionise, liquidate, live and die for the good of the human race.’ ORLY? ‘If the “oughts” of Mr Wells and Franco are both equally the impulses which Nature has conditioned each to have’ they ‘tell us nothing about any objective right or wrong.’ [58] It is not clear to me why a thing must be classified as absolutely good or absolutely evil before we can talk about its goodness or wickedness. Indeed it is hard for me to think of any examples of things that could be described as 'absolutely' moral or immoral. But Lewis’s argument is that a thing must be ethically absolute, or at least grounded in such, and can never be—let us say—better or worse. This doesn’t seem to me to map onto the world. Unless I give a million pounds to this beggar on the street, there is no good in me giving him a fiver. Or more realistically: the question as to whether a country should go to war is, whatever else it is, an ethical question. All war will involve misery and death, and most of those who will suffer will not deserve so to suffer. Nonetheless, going to war is sometimes the right thing to do (and sometimes the wrong). Lewis's argument is that unless we are sure that the war is 100% right, and contains no quantity of wrong, we cannot make it. ‘Now I know,’ says Lewis’s caricature Materialist, ‘that my impulse to serve posterity is just the same kind of thing as my fondness for cheese … its transcendental pretensions have been exposed for a sham…’ [59] This is presented as what Humpty Dumpty was pleased to call ‘a nice knock-down argument’. But it’s far from glorious. I can argue that my impulse to serve posterity is the same kind of thing as my impulse to eat cheese without sacrificing my belief that one of these two things is more important than the other. Lewis’s argument, in a nutshell, is: ‘if I value justice, and I value cheese, then this is tantamount to admitting I treat these two things as exactly the same.’ To repeat myself: phooey.

Wait: I’m turning snide. There are good things in Miracles too. And it occurs to me that it would be a mistake to decontextualise the book. It came out in the immediate aftermath of the horrifying misery and mass-death of World War 2. There was strong pressure on those trying to make sense of life in the late 1940s to find something ‘outside’; since it so strongly appeared we, left to our own devices, had the capacity of almost unending autotorture. Olaf Stapledon’s SF novella The Flames, though not Christian, articulates the same urgent desire. In it, gaseous alien beings are woken from their ineffable slumbers by ‘the fires of war’ and establish telepathic communication with humanity. They request a permanent base on our planet.
In return we offer you the salvation of mankind, if I may so put it. As I have already told you, though we are novices in the physical science, our science of the spirit is far more developed that yours. And it convinces us that, without some kind of spiritual help from outside, your species is doomed. [Stapledon, The Flames (1947), 104]
Lewis’s book is informed by the same sense. He is perfectly upfront, actually, that where ‘Naturalism’ is to be judged for what it is, religion should be judged instrumentally, for what it can do for us—something that relieves it of the same burden of proof and analysis. ‘A drowning man does not analyse the rope that is flung to him’ [120] is the way Lewis puts it.