‘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, 30 April 2014

Jameson: Antinomies of Realism (2013)

I have this book to review. So anyway; I thought I might jot down my thoughts on the chapters as I work through them here over the next couple of weeks. Watch this space. Here's the blurb provided by the Verso website for the book:
The Antinomies of Realism is a history of the nineteenth-century realist novel and its legacy told without a glimmer of nostalgia for artistic achievements that the movement of history makes it impossible to recreate. The works of Zola, Tolstoy, Pérez Galdós, and George Eliot are in the most profound sense inimitable, yet continue to dominate the novel form to this day. Novels to emerge since struggle to reconcile the social conditions of their own creation with the history of this mode of writing: the so-called modernist novel is one attempted solution to this conflict, as is the ever-more impoverished variety of commercial narratives—what today’s book reviewers dub “serious novels,” which are an attempt at the impossible endeavor to roll back the past.

Fredric Jameson examines the most influential theories of artistic and literary realism, approaching the subject himself in terms of the social and historical preconditions for realism’s emergence. The realist novel combined an attention to the body and its states of feeling with a focus on the quest for individual realization within the confines of history.

In contemporary writing, other forms of representation—for which the term “postmodern” is too glib—have become visible: for example, in the historical fiction of Hilary Mantel or the stylistic plurality of David Mitchell’s novels. Contemporary fiction is shown to be conducting startling experiments in the representation of new realities of a global social totality, modern technological warfare, and historical developments that, although they saturate every corner of our lives, only become apparent on rare occasions and by way of the strangest formal and artistic devices.

In a coda, Jameson explains how “realistic” narratives survived the end of classical realism. In effect, he provides an argument for the serious study of popular fiction and mass culture that transcends lazy journalism and the easy platitudes of recent cultural studies.
You can buy a copy direct from the publishers, at the end of that link, with 30% off. It's also available on amazon.co.uk for £16.10; and on amazon.com for $21.43. And here is Michael Wood's LRB review, published in January this year.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Through the Sad Heart of Tooth, Amid the Alien Corn

The story so far: one of my teeth began aching last Saturday afternoon. Come nightfall it was giving me real problems, enough to keep me awake. This was Easter weekend, so I couldn't just go to my regular dentist in the morning. I eventually got a little sleep. It eased a little on Easter Sunday; but came back Sunday night. Bank holiday Monday morning, my usual dentist still closed, I rang the NHS helpline, and they directed me to an Emergency Dentist in Slough. Nice lady x-rayed, found no decay, concluded my nerves were inflamed and prescribed Metronidazole. Monday evening, Tuesday morning, things started feeling better. The pain receded. I figured I had it beat. As recommended, I booked an appointment with my regular dentist, for Friday at 9am.

Ah! But then ...

Then, Tuesday afternoon, a new pain started in the next door molar. Unlike my weekend pain (which came on, and then went away again on a roughly 45 minute cycle) this was a steady sensation, and it grew increasingly agonising as the evening went on. By 9pm it felt as if acid was pulsing under the skin of the right side of my face; dirks of pain sliding up and up through the tooth and into the sinus in time with my heartbeat. Painkillers didn't dim the pain in the least. It got worse and worse as the hours passed, inexorably. Sleep was impossible, so I sat downstairs in my pyjamas, wrapped in a blanket on the couch, feeling very sorry for myself. By now the pain was a constant, intense sensation, throbbing to repeated little mini-peaks with the rhythm of my pulse. Proper horrible. By about half two in the morning I was starting, almost, to hallucinate (I felt, for instance, that I was brushing rice-grain-sized head lice out of my hair -- there were no actual lice, but it felt horribly real. The telly narratives -- films, documentaries -- I was watching to take my mind off things twisted and buckled weirdly.)

Come this (Wednesday) morning, I rang the dentist and they agreed to see me as an emergency (the earliest they could do this was 11:40am). The dentist examined me, said that he thought the nerves associated with that tooth were 'dying, rotting inside you'. Ugh! He anesthetised me (the bliss) drilled and opened the tooth. Both he and his nurse recoiled a little from the smell, at this point, although I couldn't smell anything. Then they cleaned the innards, washed it with antibiotics, and closed it up. I have a proper root canal booked in first thing next week.

When my jaw began recovering sensation, soon after leaving the surgery, I had an hour-long repeat of the previous night's pain -- the last of the nerve dying, maybe; or just my inflamed flesh complaining at the way the dentist had hacked it about. By 2:30pm or so the pain had gone. I was shattered, but couldn't sleep because I had to do the school run. After the kids were both home, I had a fifteen minute nap (before Dan came to wake me), and felt immeasurably better. Now (8:30pm that same evening) the pain has gone away.

It was an interesting experience; though at the same time I hope with every fibre of Hope in my fibrous body I never experience it again. I've known toothache before, more than once (stretches of my mouth looks like Jaws's from a Roger Moore Bond film); and I've also broken my arms -- left arm four time, right twice, all when I was a kid or a teen. And though I remember the nastiness of those sensations, I don't remember anything as relentlessly accumulative a misery as this was. I don't believe I've had such a severe and prolonged bout of sheer pain before in my life.

One thing about pain is the way it shrinks time. The past flakes away in irrelevant fragments of memory. The future is measured in anticipations of incremental increases in agony or marginal decreases of agony, on a timescale of seconds. Any longer term future becomes quite impossible to imagine. Physicists tell us that, at relativistic velocities, the faster you travel the slower time passes, relative to an external observer; and that for photons travelling at the speed of light no time passes at all. Pain is like that; the worse it gets the more it approaches the ghastly asymptote of perfect timelessness, the eternal now when all the context of lived history and human anticipation is crowded out.

I felt that Something Had Gone Terribly Wrong Somewhere that I, white affluent Western I, had to suffer like this. Surely in the 21st-century there we possess the technology to put a stop to such sensations?  But some experiences just bring you hard up against the brute reality of corporeal existence. I endured it; resentfully, not heroically. There was nothing else to do. [I did contemplate driving myself to Casualty; but I didn't see what they could do for me. I'd been prescribed dihydrocodeine by the emergency dentist, and had taken as much as I was allowed, so I wasn't sure there was any further pain relief they could offer without trespassing on overdose territory. And having lived with medical students during my undergraduate days, I had learnt one key thing: don't let the tired junior doctors staffing hospital emergency rooms in the small hours practice their dentistry upon you.]

The only thing that gave me even slight respite was iced water. I sat on the couch and sipped at pint glasses of the stuff, running the cold fluid around the raging area of the mouth. Eventually I stopped do this, partly because though the ice reduced the pain briefly, it came back straight away slightly more intensely than before; but mostly because drinking all this water meant I had to get up repeatedly to go to the toilet, and getting up and stomping about made my face hurt more. But at one point in the endless small hours I was standing in the downstairs loo pissing, the right side of my face scorching and searing from a point just north of the tooth, and radiating hurt through skull bone and sinus, I had a kind of confused Bergmanesque Through A Glass Darkly moment. Everything I had ever done, it seemed to me then in a weird knot of hideous insight, amounted to nothing at all: everything I had written, everything I had read. The reality was the world seen through a shimmering veil of corporeal torment. The life in which things were cosy enough to enable me to read books and write them was a sort of illusion, a thin crust of tolerability layered over a planet of physical pain. Looking back now I don't think I agree with that: but at the time it felt debilitatingly real. The hallucinations were weird, too. I used sometimes to 'see' things when I was younger, but though they often looked real I was always aware that they weren't, just images in my eyes. But I don't think before I've ever had the queasily tactile sort of imaginary experience, that I had that night.

That's the thing: a tiny thread of nerve tissue, thinner than silk and maybe half an inch long, utterly dominated and prostrated me last night. Whilst it sang its horrible discordant bodysong, I could do nothing: couldn't concentrate on anything but couldn't ignore either; certainly couldn't sleep but couldn't really stay awake either. Pain forces rituals upon you: sitting in a certain way, moving in a certain way, eating (not eating in my case; any movement of my jaw on the right side sheathed crampons of agony up and down my teeth -- teeth plural, alas; referred pain thistled the suffering at multiple points on the right side of my mouth). Ritual is the idiom of religion, of course; but pain is a sort of anti-religion. It directs your thoughts not away from you towards others, but on the contrary forces your thoughts back onto yourself in kind of blasting short-circuit. Pain is a mode of cursed prayer that directs its malignancy only back again through the one who prays.

But I'm getting extravagant. You can tell that this is written afterwards, when the pain has gone. I wouldn't have had the energy to write anything like this whilst I was hurting; but even if I had there would have been no extravagance or fancy-pantsness about what I expressed. It would have been pared, to the point, repetitive; like a haiku in which one ugly syllable is simply repeated over and over again.

On the plus side, it's over now. I'm pain free. I am tired (living with physical pain, though a passive experience, is considerably more exhausting than active experiences like sports or exercise), and I can't have a drink until the course of Metronidazole is completed. But, hey: I'm not in pain. Perhaps the four most wonderful words in the language.

A prize, by the way, to the first person who identifies the source of the title of this blog post. I was going to call this post 'Is It Safe?'; but in the end decided that was a little too close to the bone.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014


I've started buying CDs again.

I have, for decades now, been listening to music through earbuds. I listen to music when I write (and I write a lot), so that's been god knows how many tens of thousands of hours of often loud-volume earbud usage. But latterly I've started worrying about the longer-term health of my hearing. Now much of my writing happens in coffee shops, where earbuds are still a necessity; but when I'm in my study, doing writerly stuff at home, I changed my habits. I put a CD in the CD player and listen to it as a sound-surround-y experience. I must say: I like it.

And CDs are everywhere, available to buy from charity shops and eBay for trivial sums of money, as people clear out their obsolete collections of thousands of the buggers they accumulated in the 90s and adjust to the glorious MP3 future where all out music lives inside our phones, or whatever. The other day I went to my local public library and they were having one of their periodic clear-out sales: I bought dozens of CDs, mostly classical, for 50p a go. Now I listen to them. It's great. It's less immediate, of course, aurally speaking; but it has a depth and richness to the experience that I hadn't realise I'd missed.

Then today I read this, which struck me with a force of belated revelation: Nick Messitte's 'How Earbuds Have Changed The Sound And Business of Pop'.
"This ... accounts for some of the sonic hallmarks of today’s pop music–that which audiences either love or flock to criticize: the aggression of today’s material, the piercing qualities of its vocalists, its unrelenting loudness, its synthetically undynamic nature. All of these features can be traced, in part, to the ways producers must represent certain frequencies for your earbuds. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t sell."

Saturday, 19 April 2014

New Critical Terminology

I was going through the copy-edits on my forthcoming OUP Walter Savage Landor monograph this morning. At one point the copy-editor (who has done a tremendous job, I must say) queried my use of the word 'retconning'—'Should this be reconnecting?' he asked. No, I replied. No, I'd like to keep it in, if you don't mind.

It got me thinking. Literary criticism took on board a raft of new terms in the 1950s from psychotherapeutic discourse; and then acquired a whole new terminological raft in the late 1970s and 1980s via 'Theory', a.k.a. 'The Theory Wars', vocab items which were either neologisms of sometimes breathtaking ugliness, or else technical terms from Continental Philosophy ('Being-in-the-world' and the like). I'm not sure there has been much traffic latterly, though.

I wonder if SF, or more broadly 'the internet' (an idiom largely shaped by SF fandom), couldn't provide a new injection. 'Retcon', for instance, strikes me as a tremendously useful concept, something for which we don't really have another word. (For example: Coleridge was a political radical in his youth, and a Church-and-State Tory in his old age. Now, as is the way with people who follow that particular ideology path he insisted that his political views had not changed one jot, and his whole intellectual life was marked by a remarkable consistency. When he reworked or republished his earlier political writings, he retconned them to various degrees, according to his later beliefs). Another fandom word I like, and which I've used in more academic contexts, and which copy-editors have blue-pencilled, is 'squee'. It connotes excitement, but of a peculiar kind that is both an infantile over-reaction and a mature recognition of one's own immaturity in reacting that way. I don't believe there's another word that means quite the same thing.

Another example that occurred to me: Frank Kermode somewhere regrets that the word 'cant' has fallen out of common usage. It was a concept (as he notes) that mattered a great deal to many Romantic and Victorian writers and thinkers, as something to be avoided. Kermode thinks the nearest modern equivalent is 'bullshit', which isn't, as he says, quite the same thing. A bullshitter, I'd say, knows perfectly well that s/he is being mendacious, just stirring the pot. Bullshit is spoken, almost, with a knowing wink of the eye. Cant is not like that: it's equally mendacious and damaging, but it is perpetrated with perfect seriousness, the pretence of honesty and upholding propriety. But I think we do now have a word (well: two hyphenated words) for the 19th-century category of 'cant': 'concern-trolling'.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

Critics like to challenge the reader’s automatic assumption that the lady of the title is Isabel Archer. Might we not (they say) take the lady to be Madame Merle? How might the novel read if we read it under the assumption that she is the heroine? But just for a moment I want to ponder a different emphasis embodied in the title—that the book is a portrait. That it is, in other words, about portraiture:

I’m a recent convert to this novel, incidentally. When I first read it, as an undergraduate, I hated it. It ends well, but starts glacially, awkwardly and uninvolvingly, and the whole is vitiated (I used to think) by one huge flaw, Archer herself. What I mean by that is that everybody in this novel, male or female, but especially all the men, fall immediately and deeply in love with Isabel. I simply don’t believe it. As a younger reader, less wary of essentialism, I put it to myself this way: James as a gay man just doesn’t get what it is about some women that makes heterosexual men fall desperately in love with them. He thinks it is a mix of prettiness, sharpness of wit, and brightness of demeanour. It’s not. Actually this may not be as essentialist a way of looking at the question as all that. Proust, by contrast, was a gay man who very evidently did understand what it is about some women that makes some men fall crazily, stupidly, headlessly in love with them. Isabel Archer is very nice, and possesses many charms, but she is no Odette. She’s not even an Albertine. She's rather annoying.

On the one hand, everybody has to fall in love with Isabel in order for the machinery of James’s plot to work: for Ralph to want to give her a fortune, for Warburton, Goodwood and Osmond to propose marriage. It is supposed to add piquancy to the tragic dilemma in which the book winds-up that such a thing could happen to an individual so delightful, with whom we (as readers) are so in love ourselves. But, on a first reading, I was much more annoyed than enamoured of Isabel Archer. It seemed a make or break feature of the book; more so than the equally annoying but thank-heavens marginal couple of Pansy and Rosier, as irritating a pair of Dresden china figures ever lifelessly adorned a novel.

Rereading the novel, I liked it much better second time around. Having laboured a little establishing his artificial arrangement of individuals, James manages some smooth and rather wonderful effects later on. I still found Isabel entirely resistable, to the point of being actively irritating, but I was much more drawn-in to the central portions of the book. The way James writes Isabel falling in love with Osmond is, indeed, brilliant. Where another writer might portray Osmond as a charming man who only after marriage reveals his charm to be superficial, James shows the appeal of bachelor (widower, I should say) Osmond at the same time as showing him to be a selfish egotist more interested in possessions than people. It’s a tremendous sleight of hand, because we do believe that Isabel could fall in love with him, just as we do believe that she could later hate him. The latter half of the novel, with its exquisite handling of the woe that is in marriage—that in itself a remarkable thing in a High Victorian novel—is simply wonderful. We watch Osmond’s cruelty to Isabel with a fascination grounded in part by how elegantly it is prosecuted: no raised voices, no physical violence or loss of control. Maintaining self-control is the mainspring of the man, of course. And yet he continues cruel, and she continues to pretend to submit to him whilst constantly—of course we might wish to say heroically—resisting him, passive-aggressively. Here they are fighting chillily over whether Pansy (Osmond’s daughter, Isabel’s step-daughter) should marry Rosier, whom she loves, or Lord Warburton, whom she doesn’t but whom her father prefers on account of his wealth and title.
“I have sent little Rosier about his business.”
“You were afraid that I would plead for Mr Rosier? Haven’t you noticed that I have never spoken to you of him?”
“I have never given you the chance. We have so little conversation in these days. I know he was an old friend of yours.”
“Yes: he’s an old friend of mine.” Isabel cared little more for him than for the tapestry that she held in her hand; but it was true that he was an old friend, and with her husband she felt a desire not to extenuate such ties. He had a way of expressing contempt for them with fortified her loyalty to them, even when, as in the present case, they were themselves insignificant. [622-23]
I’ll come back to that tapestry in a moment. But there is something excellent in the way James makes clear that Isabel likes Rosier because her husband dislikes him. Which is to say --because this is the more important point -- that she is with Osmond because he thwarts her. That she loves him because of, not despite, the fact that she dislikes him.
“My daughter has only to sit still, to become Lady Warburton.”
“Should you like that?” Isabel asked, with a simplicity which was not so affected as it may appear. She was resolved to assume nothing, for Osmond had a way of unexpectedly turning her assumptions against her. [623]
There is a deal of misery for Isabel in this, of course; but it struck me re-reading the novel that this is also the reason she married Osmond in the first place. More importantly, this is why she returns to him at the end of the book: not out of a sort of deontic, Kantian über-duty, but because she wants to. She is in love with the miserable existence she has with Osmond – a state of psychological plausibility much more effectively rendered than the states of mind of any of the many men supposedly smitten with her. The essentialist way (again) of putting this would be to say that James understands, in a deep way, what it feels like to be in love with an impossible man; he understands how love can make you miserable without ceasing to be love. A less essentialist way of putting it would be to say that Isabel falls in love with Osmond because he is oblique; because he cannot be immediately fathomed and understood: “Osmond had a way of unexpectedly turning her assumptions against her.” The problem with her other suitors is that they are all too straightforward, too open, too foresquare. This, for her, won’t do. Like James himself (of course) Isabel is in love with implication and elegance; she prefers the beauty of inflections, even bitter ones, to straightforward statements. She prefers her conversations to be chess games. She loves depth. Who has depth in this novel? Not many people.
[Isabel] was not indifferent to [the Countess Gemini], however; she was rather a little afraid of her. She wondered at her; she thought her very extraordinary. The Countess seemed to her to have no soul; she was like a bright shell, with a polished surface, in which something would rattle when you shook it. This rattle was apparently the Countess’s spiritual principle. [653]
Not all the characters are as brittle as this, but all of them lack soul in this postmodern shifting-gleaming-surfaces way—except, perhaps, Osmond himself. Isabel trapped in a world of surfaces, either the superficiality of the Countess or the deadening wysiwyg honesty of Warburton, of course falls for the man who has depth, even if (or perhaps precisely because) much of that depth is filled with a bulging 3D egotism.

This is a roundabout way of coming at the distinctiveness of James as a writer. He is a writer famous perhaps above all for creating the illusion of depth, particularly, of course, the sense of hidden depths—of much more going on than first meets the eye. Profundites the reader can only infer because they are never spoken about directly. The important thing about this is not that it isn’t compelling (because it is), or not that it isn’t expertly done (because, again, it is) but that it is precisely an illusion. It is the use of perspective and shading that implies depth. Like a painting the world of the novel seems round but is actually flat: a glorious, rich, scintillating flatness, a tapestry or brocade. (It’s not exactly a criticism of James to say this, of course). As with any work of the visual arts the flatness is revealed when we tilt the canvas. From this perspective (Isabel’s paradoxical love for horrid Osmond) mirabile! it looks deep! But from this one (say the fact that all the men in the novel fall instantly and improbably in love with Isabel at first glance) aha! It’s a flat board with gorgeous designs upon it.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Was Othello first performed as early as 1599-1600?

The answer is probably no. Most scholars date the play to 1604 (the earliest mention of it comes from a 1604 Revels Office account: "on Hallamas Day, being the first of Nouembar ... the Kings Maiesties plaiers [performed] A Play in the Banketinghouse at Whit Hall Called The Moor of Venis"). E.A.J. Honigmann [in his 1997 Arden edition of the play (Appendix 1, pp 344–350)] thinks it might have first been performed as early as 1602. But 1599/1600 is quite a bit earlier. Why might I think it was staged so early?

Because of John Weever's Faunus and Melliflora, or The original of our English satyres (1600). This
begins as an erotic poem in the style of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and after a thousand lines in this vein abruptly veers toward satire, with a description of the mythological origins of the form and translations of satires by classical authors. It concludes with references to contemporary satirists Joseph Hall and John Marston, and also to the Bishops' Ban of 1599, which ordered the calling in and destruction of satirical works by Thomas Nashe and others.
Here's how Jeffrey Knapp [Shakespeare Only (Chicago 2009), 103] describes Weever's attitude to Shakespeare:
In the years immediately following the completion of Shakespeare’s history cycle, the poet John Weever was fairly obsessed with him. As Ernst Honigmann notes, “four of Weever’s five publications” during this period allude to Shakespeare. A sonnet entitled “Ad Gulielmum Shakespear” in Weever’s 1599 Epigrammes constitutes “the first extant poem addressed to the dramatist”. Weever’s epyllion Faunus and Melliflora, published in 1600, recalls Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis; it even picks up and revises the story of Shakespeare’s poem. The next year, Weever’s Whipping of the Satyre invoked two characters from Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, Falstaff and John of Gaunt.
Concentrating on Faunus and Melliflora for a moment. Here's a description of love play between the two title characters:
Longer hee stove, that longer hee might stay
But Deiopeia bade her come away:
(For shee poore soule was liver-sicke of love,
And fear’d such strife another strife would move.)
And yield to Faunus, then the ports him froe,
(Though she from him, nor he from hir could goe)
Let us (she feard againe they would contend)
Of Barlibreake for this time make an end,
Some other play, some other sport begin,
That standers by, and lookers on be in:
It ended, thus the other play began,
Some fiftie maides, (too many for one man)
Tooke hand in hand, which made a spherie round,
Or globe the perfectst figure to be found,
Then one (whose lot is first among them all)
Must goe about and let a napkin fall:
And whomsoe’re it lieth next behind
So soon as ever she the cloth doth find,
Must with swift-running foote the other chace,
Until she come unto her ranke and place:
OK: that reference to the 'globe' seems forced; and prompts the reader to suspect a double meaning in the way 'play' is being used here (not play as in larking about; but play with an audience -- play 'that standers by, and lookers on be in'). Remember, Shakespeare's Globe was brand new in 1600 (it was built in 1599). Is Weever here playfully referencing the sorts of love-story plays his beloved Shakespeare was staging there? And in which play does the love story hinge upon a dropped 'napkin' or handkerchief?

It's a little tenuous, I know. But it's suggestive. [13th April: another thought -- is 'fifty maids' a reference to the fact that the Globe was built just off Maiden Lane?]

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Edenic riverrun

What manner of rivers are these?

I'm talking of the passage about the rivers in paradise (Genesis 2:10-14). It is very interesting:
10. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.
11: The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;
12: And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.
13: And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.
14: And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.
So I've been reading Gerhard von Rad, who summarises the scholarly opinion here. And incidentally, what a fine and groovy name 'von Rad' is.
One river waters Paradise and then divides into four branches. Now suddenly we find ourselves in our historical and geographical world! The author projects a picture of the great river system that surrounded the world he knew, for the number “four” circumscribes the entire world (cf. the four horns as the kingdoms of the world, Zech. 2/1ff) The first river … does it refer to the ocean surrounding the Arabian peninsula or even to the distant Indus? The second river cannot be the Nile, more probably the Nubian Nile, south of the first cataract … Or does Cush not refer to Ethiopia, but to kussu, the land of the Cossaeans in the West Iranian hill country? … The third river is the Tigris, the fourth the Euphrates. [von Rad, 79]
The urge topographically to pin down this Eden narrative, whilst of course understandable, human even, is daft: might as well try to pin down the exact relationship between our world and Middle Earth. The game, as von Rad sees, is not in the topographic specifics, but the fact of connection in the first place. The simplicity of this is obvious: nobody thinking twice about the narrative could believe (for instance) that a boat-trip up the Euphrates, or the Tigris, would lead to Eden. The point is a spiritual, not a geographical, one; that paradise is connected to reality in a direct and a sequential manner. To quote von Rad again: ‘what an inexpressible amount of water was in Paradise, if the river, after having watered the garden, could still enclose the entire world with four arms and fructify it! All the water outside Paradise, which supplies all civilisations, is, so to speak, only a remainder of residue from the water of Paradise!’ [80]

This has the smack of a poetic truth. But there’s another aspect to it, which the excellently-named von Rad does not touch upon. It is not just that according to this story the real world, our world, is connected to Paradise in a direct and (chronologically) sequential manner; but that the nature of that connection is fluid. Water, of course, is essential to life; a fructifying power (if I were called in to construct a religion…) But it is also formless, a fluid continuation of the oceanic formlessness out of which Genesis’s God creates the cosmos at the beginning of the book (viz., 'And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the sea of chaos. And the Typhoon of God vexed the waters.')

Where does this water come from? Not out of the sky, as rain; but not, either, out of the ground—as, for instance, a spring or source. The J-author is puzzlingly specific about this. Where does all the water in the world come from? ‘There went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground’ [Genesis, 1:6]. This ‘mist’ is a famous crux: the Hebrew is ’ēd.

What is it? Karl Barth thinks ‘surely we can see a reference here to something already well known to primitive man—the origin of rain from the clouds and of the clouds from the moisture which rises from the earth.’ [Church Dogmatics, 3:1 241]. But that can't be right. The point here is to locate the origin of the waters of the world as specifically not chthonic, nor as falling out of the sky. And this is fundamentally not because those realms are incompatible with YAHWEH’s power, but for a simpler reason: Eden, as a place, has neither a subterra, nor a sky. It is not material after the manner of our material world.

It is, though, evidently saturated with water; enough to wash the whole world. It is also the crucible out of which mankind emerges. But man is not water; man is the desiccated, adam-(a)dāma, man-earth/dirt/dust. For dust thou art, to dust though shalt—I forget how the rest of that goes.

Life flows fourfold, or manifold, from a single source not once but many times in the Bible. Here’s the first:
17: And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.
18: And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.
19: And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.
20: And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle.
21: And his brother's name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ.
22: And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.
Lamech begets Jabal, Jubal, Tubal-cain, Naamah; and these individuals stand at the head of the major divisions of human culture: shepherds; poets; metalworkers. But this is also a famous, major crux. Because immediately following this aetiological myth of origin we are given a narrative that absolutely contradicts it, or—since the story in question is The Flood, perhaps I should say dissolves it.
10: And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth.
11: In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.
12: And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
13: In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark;
14: They, and every beast after his kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort.
15: And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life.
16: And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.
17: And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth.
18: And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters.
19: And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.
20: Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.
21: And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:
22: All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.
23: And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
24: And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.
But if humanity must pass through this pinchpoint, Noah and his family, then the offspring of Cain cannot stand at the head of generations of shepherds, poets and metalworkers. How to reconcile this contradiction?

This, rather obviously, is what these rivers are: the flow of genealogy. And this is what the narrative is saying: from what seems like the most tenuous of origins (a ‘mist’; a single stream; a spurt of sperm; a helpless baby) oceans can flow. And this is why the writer is unconcerned that Noah’s flood contradicts the preceding narrative. What the Flood narrative does is dramatise the way the surging mass of everybody else in the wide-world threatens to overwhelm the individual coherency of the family-unit. Water in this text is fertility, and the flood is the fable of excess fertility. In symbolic terms, this ocean of people is Cainite humanity—is us, in other words; we shepherds, we poets, we metalworkers. And the ark is the much smaller group of chosen folk, Israel, beset on all sides.

That's what these rivers are.

Poem: Three Kinds of River

Thames is a river. Its surface is the writhings of a million worms of light and dark.

The horizon is another river, soft laminations of purples, blues, pinks and yellows, and the blobby clouds of a warm oil-and-water dawn.

My heart is another river.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Music As Holy Book

Familiarity perhaps blunts us to the oddness of the fact that it is three intertextually related books that are the starting points for religions which now claim as followers more than half the global population. Don't get me wrong: I love books, and books are a large part of my life. What I mean is that it’s odd that the visual arts and musical texts have not generated similar bodies of faith. Don’t works of music move us and inspire us just as much as works of writing? Indeed I’d say that, traditionally, music has enjoyed a greater reputation for putting the human listener in touch with numinous, transcendent or metaphysical states of mind. Yet no religion, to my knowledge, has been predicated on a sacred musical text or a sacred visual artefact.

Naturally, music has often been written in the service of religious practice, from Mozart’s Requiem and Taverner’s Akathist of Thanksgiving, from hymns to Christian pop. Similarly the visual arts have been marshalled with great vigour and often great success to the service of religion, from church frescoes and stained glass to rich and lengthy traditions of sculpture and painting. But this is not the same thing. However often works of music and works of visual art have been fashioned as adjuncts to religion, but no religion has been founded in the first instance upon a work of music or a work of visual art. Books, for some reason, are different. Why?

The salient detail here is the fact of mere bookishness; which is to say not necessarily the fact of Great Book-ishness. It so happens that the Koran, the Torah and the New Testament are great works of literature, consistently striking, powerful, poetic, uplifting. But this is not, it seems, a necessary prerequisite of a founding religious text. Some very widespread religions, belief-structures held sincerely by millions, have been founded on excessively feeble books: the Mormon testament, for instance, which reads as a desperately thin pastiche of King James’s Bible, or the dreadful writing of L Ron Hubbard, patched together from orts and scraps of Pulp SF and the discourses of popular self-help, but which have nonetheless inspired and continue to inspire many hundreds of thousands. Whatever it is that fills peoples souls with joy and meaning, it is not (it seems) literary or aesthetic quality in and of itself.

It's worth contemplating the counterfactual, I think. Why aren’t there widespread religions founded upon a markworthy visual artefact, or a stirring piece of music? Why do the musical and visual arts follow after religion, rather than—as is the case with the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran—determining religious faith in the first place? I’m interested in this question precisely not because I’m religious; because literature, music and art play so large a part in my life.

Ideas are important for human minds, but the visual arts are clumsy at expressing ideas. Ideas expressed in iconographic form are famously subject to misinterpretation. And music expresses almost no ideas at all. What music and the visual arts are good at is the affective: the emotional, stirring, exciting, moving, cheering, depressing and calming registers of the aesthetic experience. Written art can do these things as well of course—perhaps not so all-embracingly as music or the visual arts, but nonetheless—but words are really the only medium for the thoughtful, intellectual, metaphysical and ideational registers. I’m tempted to deduce from this that religion, so central a facet of social and individual human experience, derives in the first instance from the intellectual rather than the emotional requirements of homo sapiens. But that is so striking and peculiar a sentence that my fingers almost rebel against typing it: because whilst (of course) it is true that religions offer people intellectual and even metaphysical satisfactions it has become almost a dogma of recent theological studies that the religious experience very specifically is not reducible to and indeed goes beyond rational discourse. Many people, religious and otherwise, would concede that science provides us, by and large, with better intellectual explanations of the world in which we find ourselves than do religions. But Faith, it seems, does not seek to compete with Science on those terms. For instance, it concerns the sort of experience we can summarise with a word, ‘mystery’, a word which carries with it profound and particular theological connotations. But ‘mystery’ is better captured by music and the visual arts: by the music of John Taverner or the pietas art of the Christian tradition—better captured precisely because these forms of art need not be too specific in their construction.

Indeed, there are artists who have considered this question of the mystery of (say) creation and have come down on the side of music rather than a verbal legislative programme. J R R Tolkien, a very religious individual of Catholic-Christian stripe, created an imaginary cosmos which he figured as sung into existence. This is where the Silmarillion begins: Tolkien’s fictive God and angels singing a beautiful harmony, which in turn becomes materialised as Middle Earth. The original Evil enters the picture when Morgorth (Tolkien’s Lucifer) departs from the harmony to sing his own song, creating a dissonance in the divine music. C S Lewis, Tolkien’s pal, did something similar in one of his Narnia books (The Magician’s Nephew, of course). These are both touching and effective pieces of imaginative writing, but it’s just hard to see how such a cosmogony would work, given that music lacks the referential specificity to be able (say) to separate out water and land, or conjure animals and plants. A God who says Let There Be Light is one thing. We can understand that the utterance will lead to Light. But a God who whistles a pleasant melody? What sort of specific creation would follow from that?

Another way of putting this would be to say: religion manages to elide on the one hand a need for iron specificity and on the other the requirement not to be too literally or deadeningly specific. The letter killeth, after all. It is the spirit that keepeth alive. Or again: if we said of any statute law ‘this law captures and celebrates the essential mystery at the heart of justice’ then we’d in effect be saying it was a bad law. The purpose of law is to be as precise and unambiguous as possible. We maintain enormous and ruinously expensive social structures (courts, judges, lawyers) to mill Law as fine as it can be milled precisely for this purpose.

But it seems to me, from my outsider’s perspective (and setting aside, for a moment, the centres of barmy religious fundamentalism, populous though they be) that for many believers nowadays religion is no longer the Law. Religion is no longer statutes, but a melody, an aesthetic numinous in excess of the rational. It could be argued that the Christian holy text includes two, rather incompatible, myths of creation, as many many students of the Bible have pointed out. In Genesis the world is shaped, moulded or sculpted into existence by a hands-on creator—a world first illuminated, then landscaped, a world, in other words, that is primordially sculpture, both visual and palpable. John, on the other hand, insists that the world begins with the logos, verbally, that the world and God Himself is of a type with God’s holy book: in short, that it is literature. The Christian saviour, Jesus, shares this double identity. He is a carpenter, a practitioner of the plastic arts, a guy who heals people by laying on his hands. But he is also a story-teller, a shaper of parables and prayers. Christianity, in other words, elaborates a myth balanced between the sculptural and the verbal.

But surely Christianity as a religion is premised on the word, and not on the plastic arts? Imagine a particularly fine and aesthetically inspiring table, made by Jesus himself, paraded around the Mediterranean in the middle years of the first century AD. Imagine that the sheer physical beauty of this artefact converts millions, and eventually billions, to the faith. Surely this is an absurd supposition. But why should it be?

To be clear: I’m not talking about the medieval tradition of (in effect) worshipping shreds of Christ’s body or fragments of his cross: for those, like altar pieces or stained glass windows, are post, not prior, to the faith. I’m trying to make a different point. It is, I think, inconceivable that somebody could be moved heart and soul to give up their lives to Christ on the basis on some blood liquefying in a vial without the contextualising literary superstructure of gospel and myth. Can we imagine any non-literary artwork so profound that it would move people to give up their previous beliefs and adhere to a new god?

I’m not sure we can. Moreover it is something specifically abdured by both Christianity and Islam (I mean the worship of artworks, something which known as ‘idolatory’ and supposed to be injurious to the soul and the prospects of post-mortem reward). Worshipping the word is a different matter. There is a broad and long-standing Islamic tradition of extreme reverence for the actual material body of the Koran, the paper upon which the holy words are printed, as well as for the meaning of those words.

Is music a different case? Can we imagine a piece of instrumental music upon which a functioning religion could be premised? But I don’t think we can. For instance: a piece of music, composed by Christ himself, is played in many locations around the Mediterranean in the middle years of the first century AD, and the sheer physical beauty of this harmony converts millions, and eventually billions, to the faith.

I'm grateful to Bill Benson for drawing my attention to this foreword, written by Martin Luther’s to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae (a collection of chorale motets published in 1538):
I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them.... In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits ... Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms. This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God. However, when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvellous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.
The point, bracing Germanic rudeness aside, is that music like the verbal arts (but -- as the bower bird teaches us -- unlike the plastic arts) separates us from the beasts. Luther goes on:
If one sings diligently with skill and application, then music can make man good and at peace with himself and his fellows by providing him a view of beauty. Music drives away the devil and makes people happy; it induces one to forget all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and other vices, quia pacis tempore regnat musica (for music reigns in times of peace].
John Emerson adds a fascinating datum: 'music is processed through a track of its own. Aspergers people, for example, are oblivious to human relationships and have a flattened affect, but their appreciation of music is undamaged'. He cites Discovering my Autism: Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1999) by Edgar Schneider. In this memoir, Schneider 'explains how in order to experience "emotions" such as grief, sympathy or desire, he must intellectualise or aestheticise them. Dispassionately, he examines his difficulties with relationships, his high pain threshold, his lack of concentration and his highly absorbent intelligence, all of which are related to his autism. He also describes the pleasure he derives from art, music and literature [and] the importance to him of his religious beliefs.'