‘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.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Thoughts: Time Travel and Cinema 2

I appreciate this looks like a rather peculiar question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Would you say that 'time travel' has to do with permanence, or impermanence? We might say: the former, either because the very fact of being able to travel in time ('fact' in the thought-experiment we are conducting) speaks to some mode of subsisting architecture of temporality, permanent in the way that the house through which we walk is permanent. The permanence of the house is what enables the transience of the walk. Or else, perhaps, we might say: time travel shores up all the stuff that might otherwise be impermanent: if an object, an action, a person is doomed to transience, the existence of time travel would enable us to avert death, resurrect the fallen and so on.

But I wonder. 'Time', the necessary medium of any time travel, is the idiom of impermanence; and movies, which stage their narratives in motion across time, embody this impermanent logic. The static figures on the side of Keats's 'Grecian Urn' are in a different state (indeed, the whole point of the poem is to contrast this perfect but unconsummatable stasis with the fleeting joys of sorrowful life). It's this cusp, I think, that is the really important one: I mean the cusp between images in motion and images in stasis. The first give us the kinetic dynamism of the movies, a dynamism unrestrained by the actual arrow of time, and which can run its footage backwards or forwards, can slow down or speed up the passage of time and so on. The second, though, have an aura that film lacks, precisely because they stand outside of the entropic logic of movies. [I could say something more about that, if only to try and defend the use of so modish and oft-misused a word as 'entropy'; but I don't really have time, here and now. In a nutshell, then: a film can be watched, and then can of course be re-watched, but the re-watch is lossy in ways that trump what is gained. Gains can be detail and the comfort of familiarity; but loss necessarily includes the initial immediacy and punch, the potency of visual surprise, and that goes to the heart of the matter.]

I need to be careful that this post doesn't congeal into a series of notations towards a conceptual shorthand that will make sense only to me. So let me put it this way: the time travel film (a large and varied body of texts) very often uses the still photograph as crucial visual rebus. In Back to the Future, for instance, a still photograph represents the authentic 'baseline' reality that jonbar-point-style mucking about threatens, with individuals literally fading out of the photographic artefact before our very eyes.

In the Terminator movie, it is a photograph of Sarah Connor that future-warrior Kyle has somehow obtained, that motivates his actions and so the narrative loop of the whole film -- he falls in love with the image in the still, goes back in time to find her and impregnates her with the future world saviour.

The image at the top of this post suggests where I'm going with this: Marker's La Jetée (composed almost entirely, of course, out of a string of 'still photograph' images) seems to me one of the most significant of all time travel movies, and not just because it has been so often imitated and remade: to the most obvious case of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995) we can add music videos by Bowie, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Isis and Panda Bear; short films like La puppé (2003) or Lucy Benson's 2011 'homage to La Jetée'; and more broadly to works like The Time Traveler's Wife (2009), and if we stretch it a little to the whole genre of time loop and time paradox movies up to Looper, including both Back to the Future and Terminator.

This 'time loop' structure takes its cue from written science fiction, of course. By the 1950s and 60s hundreds of ‘time travel’ stories had been written, effectively codifying the parameters of the conceit. These cluster around two main varieties of temporal paradox that time travel, were it actually possible, might generate -- what we might call the 'positive' and 'negative' (or productive and destructive) archetype.
1: the ‘time loop’ paradox, whereby it might be possible for me to go back and become my own ancestor, or even my own parent.

2: the so-called ‘grandparent paradox’ (if I went back in time and killed my grandparents, my parents would never be born, so I would never be born; but then I wouldn’t exist to be able to go back in time and kill my grandparents, in which case they would exist and I would have been born able to go back in time and kill …’ And so on.
The key texts as far as this first paradox is concerned are two Robert Heinlein short stories; ‘By His Bootstraps’ (1941) and ‘—All You Zombies—‘ (1958). In the latter the contortions of a temporally dislocated plot result in the main character impregnating a sex-change earlier version of himself who thus gives birth to himself. This is, we could say, a kind of limit case of ‘control’: the ultimate male fantasy of perfect self-reliance and self-containment, bare existence itself created out of the self unsullied by interaction with others. That there is something claustrophobic and even psychopathological about this fantasy hasn’t stopped it becoming a staple of the genre. Cinema has been particularly taken with the structural neatness of this loopy trope: Groundhog Day (1993), Donnie Darko (2001), Déjà Vu (2006), Source Code (2011) Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and the aptly named Looper (2012) all rehearse this structure.

A paradox naturally invites attempts at solution, and this one has most commonly been ‘solved’ in fiction with the possibility that travelling back in time results in an alternate reality or ‘time line’ branching off from the moment of one’s arrival. An influential and much-parodied version of this is Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (1952), where a time travelling big game hunter travelling back to on a licensed Tyrannosaurus Rex hunt accidentally steps on a butterfly, such that when he returns to his own time finds everything different. This is a premise that has informed thousands of SF stories and films, in various ways; but we can say, a little more precisely, that the trope almost always posits the 'alternate timeline' only in order to fit-in bridges, doorways, paths, connections—in a word, loops—between the 'baseline' reality and our own. The point is rarely simply to present a version of history in which things are variously different; the point is much more often to reflect upon our own course of history by gifting a hero the chance to 'change' the future in a practical sense.

You may feel I am overplaying the significance of La Jetée a little. It could be. I’d say there are good grounds for identifying two main vogues for ‘time travel cinema’ (despite the more or less continuous presence of time travel films and TV serials throughout the postwar period): one in the 1960s and the other in the 1980s. Let’s take the 60s first, and argue that La Jetée, which construes time travel as into the past (with one brief excursion into the future), embodies the loopy ‘negative’ pole; the other, much more commercially successful movie is George Pal’s adaptation of Wells’s cornerstone time-travel story, The Time Machine (1960), mostly concerned with the 'positive' journey into the future. Interestingly, though forward-looking in the content of its narrative, this film took as much pleasure in the fixtures and fittings of its (by the 60s) quaintly retro Edwardian clothes and props as in its sciencefictional future. BBC TV serials like Doctor Who (1963-present) and Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-68) also construed a fundamentally cosy, Edwardian text out of their SF conceits.

The 1980s resurgence in time-travel cinema was occasioned by a different sort of blockbuster: an exercise not in nostalgia but high-tech cyber terror: James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) connects time travel with a sense of the danger posed by mechanisation: both the alarming implacability of the Big Machines that have increasingly come to dominate life in the west, but also a nascent fear of the possibilities of what was in the 80s a new kind of technology: computers. Both, in other words, look back to the Wellsian logic of the Edwardian machine, although with different emphases.

The aspect that needs explanation, I think, is the reason the ‘loop’ and ‘paradox’ conceits of time travel as a genre are realised in these movies in ways that give a visual pride of place to still photography. To dwell on La Jetée (1963) is set after a devastating third world war. A prisoner (Davos Hanich) is sent decades back in time to pre-war Paris, where he uncovers the truth behind a memory he has been obsessively rehearsing from his own childhood—standing with a woman (Hélène Chatelain) on the observation pier or ‘jetty’ of Orly Airport and seeing a man die. The film is composed almost wholly out of black and white still-images, a mode that resists the ‘temporal’ fluidity of conventional cinema, and also invokes the memorious habit of consulting still photos of one’s own past—because this is a film about childhood memory and trauma working itself out, on a global scale, in adulthood. The key to the memory (the dying man the child saw is that same child as a time-travelling adult) is a surprisingly resonant semiotic knot. It speaks to the way our anticipation of our death folds back into our past; time travel figures as a kind of feedback loop.

Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) plays the future-built humanoid robot of the movie’s title, sent back in time by a malign, intelligent computer system to kill a woman called Sarah Connor who, in 1980s LA, will give birth to the child John Connor who will grow up to defeat the computer system in its global war against humankind. Future humanity sends one of their own to protect Sarah Connor, and the movie strings together a series of exciting set-pieces in which this future-human fights the Schwarzenegger future-robot. The twist is that the future-human and Sarah Connor fall in love; he is John Connor’s by-his-bootstraps father, and by attempting to snuff-out the threat of Sarah Connor the wicked ‘Skynet’ computer system is actually guaranteeing the birth of the very man it was trying to prevent. His love was kindled by a photograph of the young Sarah that he carried with him through the future wastelands, and which he brings back. As with La Jetée the narrative loop has a pleasing symmetry to it, and it flatters our (human) sensibilities to think that ‘Chronology’, howsoever it is messed-about-with, will shake down into a timeline in which human beings win. The first film is about implacability. Future-soldier Kyle Reese describes the Terminator to its target, Sarah Connor: ‘it can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.’ This draws its imaginative heft from the cultural traditions of momenti mori—the ‘true form’ of the Terminator, stripped of its ersatz human fleshly covering, is that of a chromium skeleton complete with grinning death’s head. The implacability of death used to figure in human culture as a feature of the natural world, through plague, famine and old age. Now it is embodied by a man-made device, as if we actually are terrified of the future because of what we will make of it. But as cinema the Terminator (and to an even greater degree in Terminator 2) construes motion—the characters must constantly move on, the film is one long chase sequence in which the implacable agent of time travel continually and relentlessly pursues the human characters. It has something of the same forceful kinetic momentum that made Speed such a hit. This, we might think, is at the very other end of the conceptual spectrum from the still photograph.

The other big ‘time travel’ franchise of 1980s cinema was Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985). This movie played complexly satisfying plot games with the paradoxes of time travel; grounding its appeal in the opportunity to revisit ones family’s own past, back to that sinkhole is US collective nostalgia, the Happy Days 1950s of small town America. Its sequel attempted a minimally satirical vision of a commodified near-future, and is the less successful, a fact underscored by the much more successful final film in the trilogy, which reanimated the series’ nostalgia and moving back to a cleaned-up vision of ‘How The West Was Won’.

Yet despite tonal differences the through-line of this immensely popular series is not unlike that of The Terminator. ‘History’ in the larger sense must not be changed—the timeline registers such change slowly, and marks its occurrence by slowly rubbing out the hero Marty McFly from a photograph (shades again of La Jetée) to signify his existential un-becoming. Instead what must change is individual personality. In particular, Marty’s Dad must learn to stand up to bullies and not to be a coward, whilst Marty himself must learn something like the opposite—he must learn to control his temper, not to rise to taunts that he is ‘chicken’ and generally behave himself in a less belligerent, unconsidered manner. Both men learn these lessons, and are rewarded—not only does the ‘present’ of Marty’s Dad see him much more materially successful, but his childhood dream of becoming a writer of science fiction is realised. Marty gets the girl, and avoids existential annihilation, which outcomes are effectively presented as being the same thing.

There is in other words a kind of existential conservatism to the cinematic time-travel story, something that links back to its own form. Several critics have explored the analogues between the formal qualities of cinematic representation and time travel. Films can easily speed up or slow down the apparent passage of time; running film backwards gives a sense of how the exterior world might look like to somebody travelling against the vector of the arrow of time. Cutting between shots effortlessly disposes of intervening time (the most famous jump-cut in cinema—between the prehistoric monkey-man’s bone tossed into the air and the complex space ship falling through its earth orbital path in 2001—is a nicely extreme illustration of this). Whilst watching a film we do not, of course, literally travel forward in time hundreds of thousands of years; but the illusion of such time travel is more compelling for the viewer because it has been visually rendered.

We can see this if we step back to the early history of the mode, and watch a film like René Clair’s Paris Qui Dort (1925), a 35-minute silent picture released in anglophone countries under the title The Crazy Ray. A man wakes one morning, at the top of the Eiffel tower, to discover that most (though not all) of the population of Paris have been frozen in place. Though not specifically a time travel narrative, its ludic exploitation of the possibilities of the camera’s eye: the same machine that creates the illusion of movement can stop it, slow it down, speed it up and reverse it. The relationship between the La Jetée-esque still photograph and the kinetic always-in-motion of the Terminator films is embodied in the interaction of moving and frozen Parisians in this delightful film. It is, of course, a movie about movies, as all the best time travel films are. We start the history of time-travel in the 1890s with H G Wells; but it is no co-incidence that this is also the decade when motion pictures themselves begin as a serious form of art. There are metaphorical, as well as actual, points of comparison between photons and tachyons.

Which brings me back to the initial question. The 'loop' that I posited might guarantee permanence turns out to be a short-circuit pathway leading only to death. This seems to be because the loop is a backward-looking topography, linking the 'present' (whenever that is, for the movie) with the past. The loop is always a tangle, and the nature of the motion of these moving pictures always draws that tangle into a tight knot. Time travel into the future is different, but rather less popular. I suppose this is because 'time travel to the future' tropes prophecy (itself notoriously unreliable), prediction, planning and so on; variously arid and intellectual exercises, in most cases. But 'time travel into the past' tropes memory, and memory, in its tyranny as well as its pliability and intermittency, always haunts the now. Is constitutive of the now. All stories are the story of the man, or woman, marked by the frozen moment of his/her childhood; and the secret truth of time travel is the this mark, this static visualisation of the deep past, is actually our own death.

The momento mori is as much a memorious as morbid, after all.

Now I'm willing to concede that this style of lucubration tempts the writer into the cod-profundity of flat paradox. We can't actually remember our own death, and the images that haunt us from our youth are not of our own dying. But they are, by their very nature, of our own passing, and passage is the grammar of the motion picture. 'Passage' in this sense of moving on, moving through, of time passing and actors passing and the film passing through the gate (or the digitally coiled line of data passes beneath its reader) is what film is, in one sense. We love film because it passes, and we recognise as Keats did before us the pathological element in our urge to hold on to moment as stasis. Man is in love and loves what vanishes, as Yeats once said; and his own gloss on this assertion ('What more is there to say?') implies that understanding this horizons other understandings. Back in the fourteenth century Yoshida Kenko expressed this sense that without the pathos of passage the world would be powerful to move us. In his Essays in Idleness he wrote: 'if man were to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.' Kenko saw loopishness (he would never have deployed so ungainly a word of course) as the veritable reality: 'truth is the beginning of anything and its end are alike touching.' But what the loop guarantees is not permnance but a kind of saving transience.

I suppose that's what the still photograph 'means'. It reifies memory, and therefore visualises precisely the impermanence of things, the impossibility of fully recapturing the past and therefore of time travel. The photo in Back to the Future fades; the photograph in Terminator burns; the photographs in La Jetée draw the protagonist only back to his death.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Thoughts: Time Travel and Cinema 1

[Scattered, though. Pulling my thoughts together for a lecture I have to give at the BFI next Monday. Read these posts, and you can avoid shelling out the £6 they're charging for a ticket! Also you don't have to look at my beardy mouth opening and shutting as I say these things ...]

Movies embody 'time' materially and formally: they show the unfolding of events in motion across time, such that it's not possible to talk about their movement without acknowledging the extent to which time is the key axis of their visualities. We might want to invoke the contrast between ‘static pictures’, like Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, and moving pictures like Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I suppose this seems straightforward enough. But of course as soon as we do tyhat, we find ourselves wanting to blur the distinction by pointing to images that imply or suggest movement, like Turner’s Rain Steam and Speed (1844)

or the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge from the later century—

of perhaps Monet’s haystacks, painted at different times of day and (if exhibited together) marking a procession of light effects through dawn or dusk. This makes a kind of sense, since motion pictures themselves are nothing more than a string of Muybridge static images—which is to say, they only imply or suggest movement, rather than actually embodying it; our own eyes’ persistence of vision does the rest. This in turn suggests that the temporality of movies is based on a kind of misallignment with the time we actually live. As to whether this latter is a successsion of distinct temporal quanta, linked together by a sort of existential persistence of perception, or a seamless plenum, is a hard metaphysical question beyond the scope of these ponderings. But I’m wondering about a different perspective on this matter. [I don't want to bog down with lots of specific Deleuzian minutiae, but this is by way of me trying to think outside the conceptual frame of Deleuze's Cinema books.]

Take paintings, for starters. It seems to me that they register the passage of time in their material form, just as a spool of film or sequence of digital data does. It’s just that they do so on a much, much longer timescale—a suprahuman scale, in fact. This kind of thing:

These cracks are one iteration the semiotic of time, signifiers of time's passage. We read them that way. These pictures move, over the longue durée, not in terms of limbs flailing and smiles widening, but in terms of the picture itself shifting, darkening, cracking and complexifying its texture.

The parallel with cinema is less vulgarly textual (although faded colour prints, crackles and blotches and so on record this mode of temporal passage) as it is formal in other ways. The most obvious case here is 'black and white'. When Spielberg shoots Schindler's List in B&W he's doing so in order to code 'historicity' into every shot of the movie. We could say: this is a pretty facile strategy (and Spielberg is of course far from the only director to do this kind of thing): films actually made in the 1940s were (mostly) shot in black and white; by shooting this 1990s film in black and white the process apes the decades in which it is set. The problem here, I suppose, is that Spielberg doesn't wholly inhabit this logic: shoot in small format rather than widescreen, shoot with grainier film, copy the stagier framing and editing strategies of 1940s cinema. But that's deliberate: the black-and-whiteness of the film is a kind of temporalising code. That this is true is made manifest by the 'girl in the red coat' sequence, where the colour cuts across our suspension of temporal disbelief. The otherwise unnamed girl is us, is modernity itself; the heritage that Nazism tried to eradicate; a fact echoed in the movie's (in colour) coda, when actual Schindlerjuden survivors place rocks on Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. Colour here equates with: our present, the film's futurity. Time travel happens on the level of form.

This connects with ideas of pastiche, of course. It's possible to 'frame' Georges Méliès (as Scorsese does in his rather dull Hugo, 2011) in a modern day movie that restages the past. But it is also possible to inhabit the idiom of Méliès, as this notable Smashing Pumpkins video does:

Colour here is the least of it: directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris use a colour palate that recalls the colourized early movie prints; but they do more with the jerky frame-rate and mannered acting and staging than with mere 'black and white'-ness ever could. I like especially that the song's title and repeating lyric stresses a romantic intensity of 'nowness'.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”: One Last Note

Today I've been thinking a little about Robert Browning “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” (1842); and one thing that occurs to me (that never occurred to me before) is that Browning's starting point may have been Thomas à Kempis's Soliloquy of the Soul; and The Garden of Roses. Think of the poem's stress on roses! Think also of Saint Thomas's stress (which Browning's narrator so potently and ironically refutes) on brotherly forgiveness and kindness:
Be kind towards a tempted brother, and pray for an afflicted one as for thyself. Thy good, and my good, are cause of congratulation: thy evil and my evil of compassion. For we are all frail men; and are therefore bound by charity to pray one for another. None can upbraid another with his failings, when he neglects himself. Because when one despises an imperfect brother, it is as if a blind man mocks the blind, a deaf one chides the deaf, and a foolish one scoffs at the foolish. Speak not evil of another, but rather look to thyself, and amend what thou hast done amiss. If thou judgest rightly, and wouldst correct thy neighbour, begin with thyself. And then proceed, not hurriedly, but modestly and discreetly. If thou lovest me sincerely, and as a brother, feel for me, as for thyself, and pray for me. Whoso chides another, and does not pray for and grieve with him, is a cruel enemy, not a good physician, but a troublesome tattler. Whoso prays for another as for himself, doeth a double good. The more he hath of brotherly love, the more willingly does he pray for him, that he may the more perfectly amend, and not offend the eyes of the weak. The more bitterly does he grieve, if he will not hear, and is angry with his adviser. Each one is to another either a fragrant rose, or a piercing thorn.

Hy, Zy, Hine

Browning's "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" (1842) ends:
Or, there's Satan!—one might venture
Pledge one's soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he'd miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We're so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine...
'St, there's Vespers! Plena gratia
Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!
Glossing this, Woolford and Karlin (in what is, I think, the best-annotated scholarly edition of Browning) can't resist a little side-swipe at the myriad scholars who have laboured to explain ‘hy, zy, hine’:
Only two of the astonishingly numerous and frequently bizarre accounts of this phrase carry any conviction, those of G Pitts (‘Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”: Hy, Zy, Hine’ N&Q xiii [1966] 339-40) and J F Loucks (‘“Hy, Zy, Hine” and Peter of Abano’, VP xii [1974] 165-9). Pitts argues that B derived it from a medieval liturgical parody, the Mass of the Ass; Loucks that B. adapted the phrase from a string of nonsense words in a medieval manual of magic formulae, the Heptameron, or Elementa Magica, ascribed to Pietro of Abano (c. 1250- c.1316). Browning was certainly familiar with Abano’s work. [Woolford and Karlin Poems of Browning (1991), 2:171]
The multiplicity (and bizarreness) of interpretation has dried-up in recent years, I think; and a consensus generally arrived at, along the lines Karlin and Woodford indicate: the unnamed speaker of the poem is beginning some kind of Black Mass or evil magic charm to 'blast' Brother Lawrence's 'rose acacias', but, interrupted by the chiming of the vesper bells, the speaker breaks off with a final fist-shake at his blandly unaware fellow monk. That certainly makes sense of the poem's final stanza.

I have re-opened the interpretation box, and wish to propose a new reading of 'Hy, Zy, Hine', one I consider consistent with Browning's poetic practice in the 1830s, as well as plausible for the imagied speaker of the poem. And one, moreover, that fits the sense of the final stanza as well as, or perhaps even better than, the consensus. I agree the words are the start of a magic charm, but rather than macaronic or dog Latin, I think they are dog Greek.

The first thing to note is the convention of recording Greek 'υ' in English as 'y' (in his preface to his much later translation of the Agamemnon, Browning makes mild fun of this odd convention: 'it's a wonder we have escaped "Eyripides"'. But conventional it remains). This in turn leads me to wonder the following:

The phrase cannot be twisted into properly grammatical ancient or koine Greek, it's true. But it is strongly suggestive, in the context of the poem's repeated stress on Brother Lawrence's supposed 'swinishness' (not just the poem's last line, but stanza 2's mocking question at the expense of Brother Lawrence's nose, 'what's the Greek name for "swine's snout"?'). With that in mind, note that:

ὗς ‘hys’ means ‘swine’; and I'd argue 'hy' is plausible as an abbreviated or truncated form of the word, because the 's' of ὗς elides with the ζ of ζυ.

ζῷον ‘zōon' means beast, animal; but also ‘form, shape’. L&S also note alternate forms, including ‘ζώϊον’, which is a little closer to ‘zyn’. (Or perhaps the poem’s thinker is half-remembering that ‘ζύ-‘ (‘zy’) is the prefix for words to do with yoking together or joining up such as ζῦγμα (‘zugma’, ‘zeugma’: ‘anything which joins two bodies’; another common component of magical charms).

ὗν ‘hyn’ is the genitive form of the same word (‘of swine’, ‘swine’s’).

Might this mean that the words are there to evoke a speaker with poor Greek, vaguely remembering a Greek-language magic charm for transforming an enemy into the shape of a pig? The charm could begin: 'a swine in the shape of a pig ...' (and conceivably continue '... be thou now brought forth' or some such); or perhaps 'swine [assume thou] the actual shape of a pig ...'  That is to say, we can imagine a dog-Greek necromancical charm along the lines of 'let this person's pig nature be made manifest in a swinish exterior form ...' the articulation of which is interrupted before the speaker can finish the charm. 'ὗ[ς] ζύ ὗν ...'

We think of black magic charms as couched in Latin (as they often were); but medieval magic charms phrased in ancient Greek magic were not unknown, as Ogden's Greek and Roman Necromancy (2001) makes plain. After all, the very word "necromancy" is from the post-Classical Greek νεκρομαντεία (nekromanteía), a compound of Ancient Greek νεκρός (nekrós), "dead body", and μαντεία (manteía). All we need now is some charm that starts ὗς ζῷον ὗν ... either in a medieval black magic text, or else in a writer like Hipponax (not Hipponax, though, so far as I can see: I've checked). Surely there must be such medieval charms, designed to turn your enemy into a pig?

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Emily Apter's Twenty Theses on Translation

Emily Apter's The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton Univ. Press 2011) opens with her 'twenty theses on translation':
Nothing is translatable.

Global translation is another name for comparative literature.

Humanist translation is another name for comparative literature.

The translation zone is a war zone.

Contrary to what U.S. military strategy would suggest, Arabic is translatable.

Translation is a petit metier, translators the literary proletariat.

Mixed tongues contest the imperium of global English.

Translation is an oedipal assault on the mother tongue.

Translation is the traumatic loss of native language.

Translation is plurilingual and postmedial expressionism.

Translation is Babel, a universal language that is universally unintelligible.

Translation is the language of planets and monsters.

Translation is a technology

Translationese is the generic language of global markets

Translation is the universal language of techne.

Translation is a feedback loop.

Translation can transpose nature into data.

Translation is the interface between language and genes.

Translation is the system-subject

Everything is translatable.
Lovely, stimulating stuff. I don’t ‘agree’ with all of it, mind (I’m not supposed to agree with it, I suppose; any more than I am supposed blithely to 'agree' with Nietzsche’s more pared-down apothegms). But they are getting at something important by refusing to map meaning from grid to grid the way the ‘transparent’ paradigm for translation tacitly presumes. (To be a little more specific: I think ‘translation is a war zone’ is a hyperbole that muddies something true about the way texts are in conflict with other texts; the point about Arabic being translatable ‘contrary to what U.S. military strategy would suggest’ rather squanders its point—which I take to be about the sometimes murderous condescension of cultural imperialism—in cheap agit prop: the US military knows perfectly well that Arabic is translatable, after all, and sends its troops into battle with kitted-up Arabic translators alongside them. Also, I don’t see that translation is always the loss of native language, or always inevitably traumatic. But maybe that’s my Anglophone privilege showing. And the other theses touch on something really important: especially the Beckettian nothing and everything being translatable point, the feedback loop and ‘techne’ points, and translators as ‘the literary proletariat’.)

There’s an interesting review of Apter's latest book, Against World Literature, by Joshua Mostafa over at The Sydney Review of Books.

That's Not Even How You Pronounce "Prague" ...

Edward Lear: 1846.

1907 Alice in Wonderland cover

Art by Charles Robinson. Once you notice the way the March Hare is staring straight at you, the image becomes considerably more unnerving. No wonder Alice looks so alarmed. Also: apparently starring Richard Dawkins as the Mad Hatter:

Wednesday, 22 October 2014


There's something really quite upsetting about this Superman comic triplet of panels:

Does anyone else think the gigantic eye looks a litle bit like a breast? Or is that just me?

Is Man A Machine?

"Recently I was with a group of mathematicians and philosophers. One philosopher asked me whether I believed man was a machine. I replied, “Do you really think it makes any difference?” He most earnestly replied, “Of course! To me it is the most important question in philosophy.”

I had the following afterthoughts: I imagine that if my friend finally came to the conclusion that he were a machine, he would be infinitely crestfallen. I think he would think: “My God! How horrible! I am only a machine!” But if I should find out I were a machine, my attitude would be totally different. I would say: “How amazing! I never before realized that machines could be so marvelous!”

Raymond Smullyan, This Book Needs No Title

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Englishing Homer sonically rather than semantically

Not an exact translation, of course; that would be too strained and gibberishical. But to render (say) the first line of the Odyssey
Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
Andrew, my enemy. Mousy Polly, true upon horse: my love, Polly.
rather than 'Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far etc'. I wonder how far this could be sustained? I suppose it would be liable to get rather tedious, rather quickly.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Reading Without Tears

From Favell Lee Mortimer's, Reading Without Tears: or A Pleasant Mode of Learning to Read (London 1857):

I particularly like this ur-Ted Hughes poem:

And poor old Sally!

Death in Younger and Older Children's Fiction

This, from Roberta S. Trites [‘“When I can control the focus” Death and Narrative Resolution’, in Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature (University of Iowa Press 2000), 118] is interesting:
The greatest difference between how death is portrayed in children’s and adolescent literature lies in the use to which death is put in the literary text. According to Karen Coats. Children's literature is very much defined by children learning to separate from their parents (“Lacan with Runt Pigs” 116-120). Books from The Runaway Bunny to Harriet the Spy demonstrate children learning to individuate by separating from their actual or symbolic parents. Many children’s books are about death: Charlotte’s Web and Ruck Everlasting are two important examples. But in both of these books (and in many children’s books about death), death is portrayed as part of a cycle, as an ongoing process of life. Learning about death seems to be a stage in the child’s process of separating from the parent more than anything else. Wilbur, for example, becomes an adult only after death separates him from his mother figure Charlotte. … Mortality, however, has a different purpose in adolescent literature. In this genre, protagonists come to understand that death is more than a symbolic separation from the parent. Acknowledging death is more than a stage necessary toward growing up and away from one’s parents. Death in adolescent literature is a threat, an experience adolescents understand as finality. Few adolescent novels use the cycle imagery that dominates books like Tuck Everlasting and Charlotte’s Web because the Bildungsroman formula mandates a plot determined by the concept of growth as linear: death is the endpoint of that line. Adolescent literature thus sustains narrative investigations into death that are more than symbolic journeys into separation from the parent. Indeed I would submit that death is the sine qua non of adolescent literature, the defining feature that distinguishes it both from children’s and adult literature.
I wonder if the claim in that last sentence can be sustained. But, yes: it's hard not to think of stories like the Grimms' 'Juniper Tree', Bambi, Lion King (specifically referencing the circle of life!) and Charlotte’s Web on the one hand -- and Catcher in the Rye, The Bridge to Terabithia and Harry Potter on the other.

The image at the top, there, is from the extraordinary and beautiful Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (2007). You can find out more about that story here.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Devotional Somnium

A very interesting case, this: Rachel Baker was a New York woman who created something of a local sensation in the early 18teens by falling asleep and preaching the gospel in her somnific state. These sermons and prayers were collected in Devotional Somnium (1815), together with medical accounts of other sleep-walking cases famous at the time. Here's its title page:

It's Not Much Of A Job, Standing Here All Day Holding a Letter T, But I Suppose At Least It's Steady Employment

The opening paragraph of A History of Wonderful Inventions (London, 1849):

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Sonnet 146

I often use this poem as an early exercise for my first-term first-years (we have 'foundation tutorials' with small groups of these, designed to supplement their regular courses with extra readings, picking up stuff they haven't understood, sessions on essay writing and lecture notetaking ... all that sort of stuff.) I give them a photocopy of the poem. They have to read it, and work their way through the thicket of unfamiliar Shakespearese to get at the meaning. It's usefully estranging for them, because insofar as they are used to Shakespeare sonnets it is as love poetry and this has a rather different focus. After we've worked out what the poem says, we discuss the way the imagery works: the way the tropes keep restlessly changing their terms: the body is a planet and the soul the centre of the planet; the body is a city, being besieged by outward forces (and the soul, presumably, the prince of the city); the body is a decaying mansion (and the soul the house's inhabitant). Then, with the turn at the end of the octave, the scale swings about: now the soul is the master and the body the servant. Now the soul is not confined within the body, but somehow other to it, and -- able to devour and internalise death -- larger than it. Running alongside this, setting up a kind of interference pattern that doesn't facilitate easy comprehension, are a couple of other sets of images. Food and eating is one: worms will eat our dead bodies; but we may be able to eat Death. Another, more obliquely related to these others, is the stock-market flavour of buying 'terms divine' with the money obtained by selling hours of dross. It's a lot to pack into a short poem, and my experience is that students either come to like it -- they'll note, for instance, how craftily S. steps down the size of the comparators of the body (planet, city, house, actual body...) by way of de-emphasising bodily satisfactions and vanities -- or take rather against it. It's a muddle; it's a jumble; that kind of thing.

Then, if the group is awake (and at my prompting if they're not) somebody will spot the metrical eccentricity of line 2. 'Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,/My sinful earth these rebel powers that thee array'. They'll usually try to extract some sense out of the repetition of 'my sinful earth', or the garbled syntax of the second line as printed. Then I'll talk them through the circumstances of publication, the unlikelihood of Shakespeare being involved in the publication at all, let alone doing anything so modern as 'checking proofs'. Ahh! they say. The typesetter made a mistake! Then we finish off with the pleasant game of trying to guess what two-syllable phrase has been buried under the (I like to imagine, tired and rather bored) typesetter's inadvertent replication of 'my finfull earth,' from the end of line 1 to the beginning of line 2, complete with comma.

It's interesting to compare different editorial guesses on this point. Some editions of the sonnet simply leave a bracketed ellipse here, as honest if slightly pusillanimous acknowledgement that we can't ever 'truly' know what S. wrote.
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[ ... ] these rebel powers that thee array,
This is what the Norton Shakespeare does, adding a footnote: 'there is no way of discovering what Shakespeare wrote; amongt the guesses are "Starved by" and "Foiled by". Fair enough. I've also seen
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Fool'd by] these rebel powers that thee array,
Which, although adopted by several editors, rings false to me: party because the 'f' in amongst the sibilance of the lines many 's's strikes an uneuphonious note (also true of 'foil'd by'), and partly because it strains the sense not of the larger poem but of the specific analogy. Beseiged cities are hardly 'fooled' by enormous armies camped outside them. Or here (Mowat and Werstine in 2010):
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Pressed with] these rebel powers that thee array,
Seems a bit 'meh' to me. Or here:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Why feedst] these rebel powers that thee array?'
That's Thomas Tyler, in 1890: the Victorian Shakespearian explaining himself thus:
The principal subject is manifestly the feeding of the body and soul; and the conclusion come to is, that the latter, and not the former, is to be fed. The emendation, "Why feed'st," is thus suitable. Moreover, the "my" of the first line and the "why" commencing alike the second and third lines may have been the cause of confusion and error. Then, too, there is a verse of Southwell's Content and Ritche which Shakespeare may have had in view:
Spare diett is my fare,
My clothes more fitt than fine;
I knowe I feede and cloth a foe,
That pampred would repine
I don't know if I'm convinced though. For one thing, Tyler is forced by this to add in a question-mark at the end of the line. In the second: why would a besieged city give food to the army that is besieging it? (That might be the whole point, of course; as Tyler's quotation from Southwell implies; but it seems to me to strain the image of the siege). And the idea that the typesetter was distracted y the rhyme of 'why' at the beginning of line 3 to set 'My sinful earth' in line 2 is just daft. Typesetters proceed line by line; if something distracted him in this case it'll be because line 1 is still, in some sense, in my his head.

What else? Wikipedia goes with Tyler, although it prefers 'Why feedst?' to 'Feeding' (to avoid the need for a question mark). It also notes: 'other guesses include "Thrall to", "Fool'd by", "Hemm'd by", "Foil'd by", "Fenced by", "Flatt'ring", "Spoiled by", "Lord of", and "Pressed by".'

I've a different suggestion. It strikes me as obvious (so obvious that somebody must have written about this; although I can't at the moment find out who) that the sonnet is a meditation on 1 Corinthians: 15:52-55
The dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?*
I think the sonnet's balancing of corruption and incorruption takes its lead from here ('victory' making S. think of a city being besieged, the notion of death 'swallowed up in victory' being specifically rephrased in the final couplet and so on). Indeed, I wonder if scholars would have gained a clearer sense of this had the typesetter not buried the true opening to line 2:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Stung by these rebel powers that thee array,
This carries the serpentine, worm-y (wyrm-y) hissing of soul, centre, sinful into the second line; the 's' might have tricked the typesetter into thinking the word was 'sinfg or sinfl and lead him to his inadvertence. 'Sting' is an unusual word to describe an army's attack, which might also explain why the typesetter became confused. That said, it is not an unprecedented usage. David Lyndsay, writing about King Harry fighting 'the King of France his greit armie' says: 'Bot thair wes daylie skirmishing,/Quhair men of armis brak monie sting' [The Historie and Testament of Squyer Meldrum, 253-54.] [Update: probably not -- see comments; though stung does have a military sense...]  And again: unlike 'feed' and its variants (which tends, in Stephen Booth suggests, to 'explain the joke' of the poem as a whole), this works more like the line in Hamlet about death's sting -- as a way of pointing the reader back to the Biblical original.

I'll make plain what's implicit here. I'm not suggesting I have magical access to what Shakespeare 'really wrote'. Indeed, I'm suggesting the exact opposite: that the emendations such as the one proposed here ought not to be advanced under the aegis of 'getting back to what Shakespeare actually wrote'. He's an author deader than most. Rather, emendation should be a hermeneutic business, offered by way of advancing a reading of the text. My reading here is that Sonnet 146 proceeds from an imaginative engagement with 1 Corinthians 15:52-55. You may think a different Biblical text is behind the poem (though you'd be hard put to persuade me that the poem doesn't have any Biblical inspiration in its DNA), in which case a different proposed emendation would bring that out. Have at it.

[*Note: to forestall the obvious objection: of course, Shakespeare and his audience didn't have the KJV in 1609; but Tyndale's version is pretty close: 'ye deed shall ryse incorruptible and we shalbe chaunged. For this corruptible must put on incorruptibilite: and this mortall must put on immortalite. When this corruptible hath put on incorruptibilite and this mortall hath put on immortalite: then shalbe brought to passe ye sayinge yt is writte. Deeth is consumed in to victory. Deeth where is thy stynge? Hell where is thy victory?']

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

J Miller's "The Universal Gazetteer, or Alphabetical Geography" (1826)

The title page:

I can't work if that intriguing dark-skinned Atlas, squatting painfully on one knee, is located outside a generic riverside town, or if that's supposed to be London. Is that an etiolated dome of Saint Paul's in the background? It may well be, because the frontispiece is Britannia attended, in 19th-C British fashion, by representative maidens from the four corners of empire.

The Magic Mountain: A Story of Exciting Adventure

I'm assuming 'Howard Austin' was the pseudonym Thomas Mann used in the USA. Pluck and luck indeed!

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Great Fable In Praise of Book Burning: Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

I've been thinking recently about the underlying logic of modern commercial Fantasy, and wondering whether we couldn't thumbnail it as mostly concerned with detailing the fault line between the raw and the cooked. So: let me inch towards my main point by starting with a personal anecdote. When I started out as an academic, in the backward and abysm of the last century, my older colleagues were all to one degree or another dismissive of my professed admiration for Tolkien. One, Peter Caracciolo, told me slightly haughtily that Fantasy began and ended with the Arabian Nights; ‘but,’ he added, ‘there is one moment in Lord of the Rings I have always loved.’ ‘Just the one?’ He ignored me. ‘It is when Sam, thinking he is doing Gollum a favour, cooks his fish for him. “What are you doing?” Gollum complains. “Scorching my lovely fish!”’ That has, strange to say, stuck with me.

We aren't surprised if our imaginary world of medievalised or Old English/Norse Fantasy tends to valorise fire. Fire the friend that keeps us warm and cooks our food; the fire around which we gather in groups and which therefore symbolises companionship. But fire warms by scorching, and scorching is more than simply destructive—it is the principle of aridity, of desiccation, that dries up the very juiciness that fans come to Fantasy for. In Lord of the Rings there is only one fire that will destroy a Ring of Power, and it is the one presided over by the novel’s fiery principle of evil himself, Sauron. This reflects back upon the book itself, of course. I think of one of Tolkien's key imaginative resources. Poor old Beowulf—I mean, the text itself, the actual physical object, sole and unique, upon which the words of that poem have been precariously carried down the centuries to us. Poor old Beowulf, scorched and singed in its old library fire. The book got burned!

Tolkien’s ring of power is a plain gold ring, of course, and embodies a series of quite complex valences to do with binding, with vows and marriage. But at the same time as being a blank surface, the ring is also paradoxically (which is to say, magically) lettered. The ring, in other words, is a book. To be sure it is a short book; its whole text is the one ring charm. But a short book is still a book. Looked at this way, Lord of the Rings becomes a strangely self-destructive fable—a book about the quest to destroy a book, a long string of carefully chosen words positing a world in which words have magical power to huge evil. How few books there are in Middle Earth! Indeed, I've written elsewhere about not just the paucity of written texts in Tolkien's world, but the way they keep getting misread. Gandalf scratches his run at Weathertop; the hobbits misread it. The elven door in Moria, beautifully lettered, commands 'speak friend and enter!' and nobody understands its simple instruction. The fellowship find a dwarfish book in the mines, as scorched and battered as poor old Beowulf; but as they read it aloud ('drums in the deep', 'we cannot get out') it becomes true to them, and they repeat the words as suddenly, horribly, appropriate to their own predicament. The repeated theme is the danger of words; their slipperiness but also the ease with which they can move us directly into the malign world of the text. One ring to bind us all. Books are bound, too.

We could put it this way: that Tolkien’s imagination positions itself between two iterations of ‘The Word’, one (oral culture) raw, the other (the printed word) cooked. This is not as straightforward as it might be. As both a Christian and a scholar of Old English, Tolkien has a necessary investment in the spoken word, especially as it is passed between a communion of loving friends: the logos, the face-to-face, the speak-friend-and-enter. The Lord’s Prayer (which Tolkien liked to recite in the Gothic language) was conveyed by Christ to his followers verbally, not in written form. Of course, Christ’s whole life is conveyed to us via a written text.

There are no books in Beowulf, except one—the Borgesian map-for-the-territory that is Beowulf itself. Tolkien works a similar logic: the story we are reading is supposed to have been written in a book by one or other bourgeois hobbit. This is an odd conceit when you think about it, for otherwise there are no libraries, or bookshops, or reading groups in the Shire. But of course the book is directed at us, not at the other hobbits; and of course we want to have our cake and eat it too. We love books. We don’t want to burn books. Except that we celebrate the burning of the book. We prefer the rawness of our imaginary realm unscorched. Gandalf is a ‘raw’ wizard compared to the ‘cooked’ wizardry of Saruman (though he’s not so raw as Radagast is reputed to be; he’s sushi, not the wriggling fish). The world of Middle Earth is a raw world compared to the ‘cooked’ world of 20th- and 21st-century urban living. And so for Fantasy more generally: the word is raw in its immediacy and naturalness, its directness and magic. Magic here is spoken aloud; songs are sung directly to an audience; nothing is written down except the everything that is written down to construe the Fantasy realm. Fire is warming insofar as it supports the wholeness of communion (you’re there with your friends around the camp fire, laughing and swapping verbal stories, singing verbal songs). But fire is a danger too.

‘Book burning’ is an emotive phrase, of course. We like to think that we revere books, hold them in a holy duty of care. Of course, we don’t. I've recently been reading Gillian Partington and Adam Smyth's edited collection Book Destruction from the Medieval to the Contemporary (Palgrave 2014). It's fascinating. The editors start with a vivid description of an ordinary day in a book pulping facility.
In the business of books, production and destruction are linked. Their shredding and pulping on a mass scale is a fact of life. Tens of thousands of books meet this fate every week in the UK alone, the equivalent of a small library. But, expressed in these terms, the reasons for the aura of secrecy surrounding “destruction work” start to become apparent. The spectacle of industrial shredding brings to light some awkward paradoxes We have investments in the written word as a lasting monument, yet its deliberate destruction is routine and even necessary. Books are two-faced; on the one hand they are totems: carriers of culture, values, beliefs. But on the other hand they are quotidian objects: material and ephemeral things, subject to decay and physical obsolescence like any other. We weigh them down with significance out of all proportion to their flimsy paper and cardboard construction. Their destruction, too, is a material fact that is overloaded with symbolism. It provokes unease, sometimes outrage or anger, eve in some cases violence. In 2010, when the Florida Baptist preacher Pastor Terry Jones announced his intention to burn 200 copies of the Quran he provoked a major international incident. The threat, though not executed, was condemned by Hillary Clinton as a “disgraceful, disrespectful act” and was considered grave enough to warrant a personal international from President Obama. A year later, Jones set fire to a single copy of the Muslim holy book, sparking riots in Mazar-i-Sharif Afghanistan in which a UN compound was overrun and twelve were killed. [5-6]
They go on to name-check the inevitable reference: ‘hovering inescapably in the background whenever books are burned is the spectre of the book pyres in Berlin’s Opernplatz in 1933. On 10 May that year some 40,000 people, included propaganda minister Josef Geobbels, gathered to watch as truckloads of “decadent” “un-German” books were burned by National Socialist students.’

At the site nowadays is a plaque, marking the spot with the legend (fashioned by Anthony Burgess out of an old Heine play): ‘das war en Vorspiel, dort man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen’: this was only a prologue; where people burn books they will in the end burn people. As Partington and Smythe point out, ‘given the scale of human suffering and death under the Nazis, a solemn monument to the destruction of inanimate objects seems in a principle a strange gesture; disrespectful, even.’ That's right, when you come to think of it. God knows I love books, but it's self evidently much much worse to burn a person. Books can reify our alienation from common humanity as well as enrich the mind and pass knowledge about. Of course, in Lord of the Rings, it is only the bad book (the ring) that gets burnt; and only the bad people (Denethor, Gollum) whom the narrative follows up by burning. But that’s exactly the point. Geobbels of course believed he was burning the bad. And the semiology of burning is of renewal as well as destruction. That's why it works as well as it does in this book and its myriad imitators. A song of ice and fire ends, phrasally speaking, in fire.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Guy of Warwick: Famous

Last of these today. I've no idea why this notable and worthy knight is accompanied by a pet cat with a man's face -- with, in point of fact, a man's moustachioed face.

The Urinal of Physick

Book of the week.

Levinus Lemnius on Sleepwalking

Levinus Lemnius was a sixteenth-century Dutch doctor and writer, whose Occulta naturae miracula (1559) was translated into English in 1658. Here is what he says about sleepwalking.