‘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, 22 July 2016

Immortan Lear


These are thoughts provoked by a conversation I had with a friend some months ago about Kurosawa's Ran (1985), and more specifically about that movie's bona-fides as a version of King Lear. Now, I should say that I consider Kurosawa a cinematic genius, and Ran a magnificent movie. Even so, there seems to me something not quite there about it, compared with Kurosawa's other films. I wonder if this has to do the way that, following the necessity of the social logic of medieval Japan, Kurosawa swaps out Shakespeare's daughters for sons. He does, it is true, also includes one woman: the villainous and scheming Lady Kaede, daughter-in-law of his Lear-character (Hidetora). Still, in Ran the centre of gravity is located between men, and accordingly the movie becomes about a kind of stylised oedipal battle between father and sons, rather than, as in Shakespeare, the conflict between father and daughters.



This, if you'll pardon the knight's-move of the train of thought, makes me wonder whether we couldn't argue that George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) works as a more effective cinematic King Lear than does Ran.

Now, of course I concede that any such claim is pretty much absurd on its face. Ran was developed as an adaptation of Shakespeare's play (sparked by Kurosawa's interest in the historical Japanese warlord Mōri Motonari) and incorporates specific elements from Shakespeare's play. Mad Max: Fury Road was not, and doesn't. I can't find any evidence that Miller had Lear anywhere in mind as he scripted and shot his picture. Nonetheless, I wonder whether by foregrounding one element which also happens to be core to Lear—the rage of the patriarch at his loss of control over the young women that are both the source and the purpose of his power—Fury Road doesn't better capture in stylised form the distinctiveness of Shakespeare's great play. Of course Immortan Joe has his women stolen from him, where Lear gives his power away freely. [Update 23.7: several people have pointed out to me that this was clumsily expressed: the women in the movie escape Joe and are not 'stolen'; indeed the agency of Furiosa and these women is, in a crucial sense, the point of the film. But Joe regards them as property, and their removal as theft, which was my point]. Then again, part of the point of Shakespeare's play is that he doesn't understand, when he does so, that he is really giving away his power. He thinks he is relinquishing the onerous parts of rule, and retaining all the fun parts. When he discovers that, no, he has given it all away, he becomes so angry he quite literally loses his mind. Lear remains not the only, but surely the most potently brilliant, of Shakespeare's Mad Monarx.

And here's another difference between Kurosawa and Shakespeare. Ran starts very slowly, with elegantly designed and poised representations of the social harmony (or, if you prefer, frigidity) of Hidetora Ichimonji's rule. Everything is balanced; the movie presents a series of largely static and carefully composed tableaux vivants, as when Hidetora lectures his interchangeable, colour-coded sons.


When Hidetora goes mad, this movie says, society descends into violent destruction and death. Hidetora himself, his stagey make-up making something mask-like and mannered about his mental distress.



But that's right: Hidetora's insanity is performed, projected outwards onto a world that is riven and destroyed by it, because the political logic of Kurosawa's film is that the madness of the king is the derangement of the social order. It is a visualisation of the decay of political order into political disorder.



Individual character-motivation flows in one direction ('my sole desire was to avenge my family', says Lady Kaede, just before Kurogane decapitates her). And, if the phrase has any meaning, the society-motivation of Kurosawa's film-built world flows in one direction as well, from overdetermined, stiffly symmetrical and rather tedious order, to visually much more interesting but, of human terms, disastrous disorder.

King Lear is a rather more complicated text than this. (I'm not suggesting that complexity necessarily correlates to dramatic effectiveness, of course). The play's society is already compromised, before we even get to Lear's foolish decision to give away his kingdom: the opening scene sees Gloster and Kent cracking wise about the illegitimacy of one of Gloster's sons, and the fun that was had with the whore at his conception. Legitimacy, in the sense of legal succession and political stability, is already in question. When Lear goes mad it is not the individuation of a larger social collapse, it is something more profound even than that: something radically amiss with reality.

Still, I concede that it's a leap from that to Immortan Joe. But I want to suggest a few points of consonance. In King Lear, it is Lear who goes mad (as, in Ran, it is Hidetora who goes mad) whilst the people around Lear (or Hidetora) are various kinds of 'sane': some virtuous, some wickedly self-advancing, some like the fool and 'Poor Tom' only pretending to be mad. But in Mad Max: Fury Road all the men are mad except Mad Max himself, the only non-woman in the film who repeatedly demonstrates a strongly-motivated instinct for self-preservation. Max is traumatized, and haunted by the ghosts of those he has ... well, the film isn't clear: let down, failed to protect, been responsible for killing, something like that. But he's not mad the way the war-boys are mad, spraying their mouths with chrome paint and yelling into the explosion-strewn whirlwind deathtrap desert 'oh what a day, oh what a lovely day'; and he's not part of the structural madness of Joe's authoritarian cult. Max is our barely-speaking p.o.v. into madness as weltanschauung. And in a strange way this connects with King Lear. In his 'Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool' essay (1947), Orwell notes that 'Lear is a play [that] contains a great deal of veiled social criticism—but it is all uttered either by the Fool, by Edgar when he is pretending to be mad, or by Lear during his bouts of madness. In his sane moments Lear hardly ever makes an intelligent remark.' The madness in Lear is not a tragic collapse of meaning, but a necessary focussing of meaning in a mad already world, a sort of alignment of consciousness with insane reality. In this, I'm arguing, Mad Max is closer to Lear than is Ran.

Meaghan Morris discusses the original Mad Max trilogy (though her analysis predates Fury Road) as ‘reworking Australian historiographical understandings … moving from a loss of family to a nomad/settler conflict (Mad Max 2) and then the making of a new society based partly (in Beyond Thunderdome) on convict labour’:
The Max trilogy revised the dreams and nightmares of white settler mythology, as well as probing fears of a nuclear future. Rhetorics of movement, loss and alienation have often shaped the telling of histories in modern Australia, a nation created by and for trade flows, transportation, immigration and anxious dreams of conquering space. Max is an emigrant with no hope of returning home; his is a story of displacement and traumatic severance and it serves on many levels as a myth of origins projecting into the future scene of repetition in which the repetitive (‘on the road again’, heading for the Unknown) can always been redeemed as a brand new start. [Morris, Identity Anecdotes: Translation and Media Culture (Sage 2006), 82]
This, of course, is a reading with Australian cultural and socio-political specificity, appropriately enough for a text made by an Australian director at a certain time in Australian history. But it's a reading that scales. So, for one I’m struck by the parallels with the situation out of which King Lear was produced. It is a play both about ancient origins—pre-conquest king more myth than history, the legendary territory out of which ‘Britain’ as such comes—and about the particularities of Shakespeare’s contemporary life: the Cordelia-virtues and the Goneril/Regan-dangers of having a female ruler, the potential for violence and anarchy in a disorderly royal succession, it could hardly be more late Elizabethan. (Let's not forget that it was Cordelia's Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, who divided his kingdom in the most far-reaching ways imaginable). Morris also has interesting things to say with respect to Mad Max and what she calls ‘phobic narrative’, something she argues is ‘widely used in the media to frame economic and political debates about Australia’s future’, but which, again, clearly has a broader reach than that:
Phobic narrative constitutes space in a stifling alternation of agoraphobia (fear of ‘opening up’ the nation to an immensely powerful Other, typically now ‘the global economy’) with claustrophobia (fear of being shut away from a wider, more dynamic, typically ‘Asian world): pressure accumulates in this way on the figure of the border between forces pushing in and forces pushing out. History is then caught in an oscillation. [89]
This is a nice reading of Mad Max, which does indeed balance often claustrophobic interiors (most often the interiors of cars) with the rolling wide-open spaces of its post-apocalyptic wasteland milieu. And it’s the sort of ideological critique that transfers, mutatis mutandis, from Australia to—say—Brexit Britain. But what strikes me is that it also describes the dramatic topography of King Lear’s madness: the tension between the agoraphobia of Lear’s raging encounter with the raging storm on the open heath on the one hand, and on the other the claustrophobia of Poor Tom’s hovel, where human beings become footstools, or the choking suffocation of which Lear actually dies at the play's end.

But, to return to where I started on this post, the two connected things that Mad Max captures about Lear (advertently or inadvertently) that Ran doesn't are (1) the way patriarchal authority depends upon male power over women, to the point of being deranged to madness by losing that power, and (2) the way that power is explicitly sexualised. Immortan Joe has a harem of beautiful women young enough to be his daughters. We presume (I don't think it's ever specified in the movie one way or the other) that they aren't his actual daughters, although he is certainly the patriarch, and he certainly regards them as his sexual property. Conversely there's nothing in Shakespeare's play specifically to suggest that Lear's attachment to his daughters is an erotic attachment. Nothing, for our post-Freudian sensibilities, except ... except, well, everything, actually: from the professions of love the old man solicits at the beginning (Goneril's insistence that she feels 'a love that makes breath poor and speech unable' has always struck me as startlingly physical-orgasmic) to his slightly creepy vision at the end of the Cordelia and Lear in the cell like a new-married couple in their starter home: 'We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage: ... so we'll live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh/At gilded butterflies.' Right at the beginning Cordelia strikes the keynote when she asks 'Why have my sisters husbands if they say/They love you all?' It's tactless of her, really: the difference between a father's love and a husband's is, of course, sex; and Goneril and Regan are deliberately eliding precisely that difference in their peroration to the loveliness of the patriarch. But if the cell Lear talks of in Act 5 is a bridal home, then the play inverts the tradition of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold by having Lear carrying the dead body of Cordelia on-stage. This is a moment quoted (deliberately?) in Fury Road. Immortan Lear's favourite daughter/bride is Angharad, and when she is killed he carries her lifeless body and howls.



I want to avoid simply listing parallels between Lear and Fury Road, because I'm not aiming for the flatly literalist thesis that George Miller actually adapted Shakespeare and decided not to tell anyone that he had (although, that said, you know ... the storm!


... the fool in motley who inserts musical interludes into the mayhem! 'when that I was and a little tiny boy ...'


... the unaccommodated men as such poor, bare, forked animals as these are ...



... but that's not the sort of analysis I'm proposing here, so I won't mention any of that.) Instead I'd suggest that Fury Road forcefully represents the buried dynamic of the name-of-the-father's erotic power-over integral to patriarchy and also central to the narrative of King Lear. That it does so vividly, penetratingly, critically; and that as such it develops a midrash upon Lear as powerful as any in cinema. Lear's madness is a mode of wrath as well as a mode of loss of power over women, and a wrath that sees the latter deprivation as a world-ending cosmic tempest. You of course remember the scene in Miller's film where Kent asks where Immortan Joe has gone, and one of the war-boys replies that he's
Contending with the fretful element
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,
Catch in their fury ...
Fury, see. Madness not as disintegration but as concentration, and specifically a concentration of the white-haired rage of the dethroned patriarch. Roll, trucks, and crack your chassis! rage! blow!/You car tracks and hurried war-rigs, roll/Yon sulphurous and SFX-drawn fires/Singe my white head!



Saturday, 9 July 2016

Vergilius Vaticanus



The Vatican digitization project (which is, I don't need to tell you, one of the wonders of the age) continues with, as the Washington Post reported today, the digitization of one of the oldest MSS of The Aeneid in the world, the famous Vergilius Vaticanus.
The Vatican Apostolic Library announced Friday that it has digitized a 1600 year-old manuscript that contains “fragments” of the epic, which tells the tale of the ancient hero Aeneas as he ventures from Troy to Italy. The manuscript also includes portions of Virgil’s second major poem, “Georgics,” which is about agriculture and mankind’s struggle with nature.

Virgil originally wrote “Georgics” and “The Aeneid” between 29 and 19 B.C. The manuscript, which once likely contained the entirety of Virgil’s canonical work, was assembled several centuries later. It was studied by famed Italian painter Raphael during the Renaissance period, and finally donated to the Vatican Apostolic Library in 1602.

The digitization of the manuscript is part of a years-long effort to create electronic versions of the church’s oldest and most sacred texts. In all, that includes some 80,000 manuscripts comprised of 40 million pages being converted into 45 quadrillion bytes, according to Digita Vaticana, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the library that raises money for the project.
It's here and it's amazing: I've just spent several hours poring over it. The interface is nicely designed, and whilst the bulk of the e-text is like this:


... and occasionally this ...


.... there are a great many gorgeous illustrations too. Here is what amounts to the frontispiece (just preceding the first page of the Aeneid itself, a detail of which is at the head of this post).


That's Iris, coming down to Turnus (in Aeneid 9) in order to tell him to attack the Trojans: 'quid dubitas? nunc tempus equos, nunc poscere currus' she tells the warrior: 'rumpe moras omnis et turbata arripe castra'; 'how can you doubt it? No delays now, now is the time to call horse and chariot and seize hold of the panicked Trojan camp'. I like the way she appears to be floating down on her own rainbow, like a sort of parachute. This Iris/Turnus image was also used as cover-art for the edition of the poem I had as a student, so for me it has added nostalgia value. Scroll a little further on, and ...


That's the storm in Book 1 (sent by angry Juno, who bribed Aeolus with one of her nymphs to fill the air with tempest). You can see Aeneas imploring the gods in the nearer of the two ships. But what sea serpents! And most excellent personifications of the winds!


That's Book 4. Tucked neatly into the bottom-right corner are Dido and Aeneas, having a rather stiffly awkward cuddle inside the cave whilst the storm rages outside, and their attendants make the best of it. I like the guy using his shield as an umbrella: that's smart thinking, that is. And a few pages earlier, this double-spread:


On the left, there, is Dido and her sister Anna at the feast (well: one single fish, and a couple of dwarfs serving wine: I suppose that counts as a feast) listening to Aeneas, in the centre, telling them the story of his adventures. And on the right is part of that tale, viz. the fall of Troy. You can see the wooden horse, and the deceitful Sinon. I don't believe his nudity is specified in the poem as such, but I suppose it adds a little spice

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Post-Tolkien Fantasy? We Need To Have A Chat About Dwarfs. You're Doing Them Wrong.

From this:


... this:





This volume, as you can see, was published in 1763 (it represents one of the first English translations of Icelandic verse). It also includes this tantalising disclaimer on the verso of the title page:

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Dante’s Inferno Canto 10. A New Translation



[Canto 10. Descending into the sixth circle of Hell, the poet encounters heretics, beginning with Epicureans who believed that 'the soul dies with the body', and who are punished after death by being trapped inside flaming tombs. Dante holds discourse with a famous Epicurean Florentine in one of the tombs: Farinata degli Uberti, a Ghibelline who had been posthumously condemned for heresy in 1283.




And so we passed along a narrow path
Between the torments and the city wall,
My Master first, and me close at his back.

"Master, O power, that makes me turn through all
These circles of unpiety," I said,
"Please tell me, if you care to, where we are:

Who are the people lying in these graves?
They're on display: the covers of their tombs
Are lifted up, and no one’s standing guard."

And he replied: "These lids will all slam down
When they return out of Jehoshaphat
And bring the bodies they have left above.

Their final place is in these burning graves,
Bad Epicurus and his followers,
Damned to fire for saying soul dies with body."

Abruptly then a clamour echoed out
From one of the near sepulchres; and I
Stood closer to my Leader, sudden-scared.

He told me: "Turn round: What are you doing?
Look: it's Farinata, sitting tall,
His body visible from the waist on up."

I had already locked my eyes with his,
Half upright, breast and chest displayed
Hard shaking with the tremors of the damned.

My Leader pushed me on with his brave hands
Between sarcophagi, towards the grave,
He told me, "Talk to him and don't hold back."

I stumbled to the edge of his grim tomb
As he glared at me, filled with hot disdain
And said: "AAAAAAARRRRGGGGGHHH!!!"

I offered no equivocation then,
But opened up my heart in answering;
Whereat he wrinkled up his brow and said:

"Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrggggggggggggh! Agh! Agh!
Oh God THE PAIN OH MERCY MAKE IT STOP!!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

"It's hard to know how best to answer you,"
I said, "or what the right expression is;
Your eloquence has not acquired true art."

He stared at me, sharp madness in his eyes
As if in search of someone else but me.
But seeing only me, he wept in pain

And said: "ARGH! ARGH! ARGH! ARGH! ARGH! ARGH! ARGH! ARGH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRrRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

I told him: "Don't blame me for your dolour;
You see that guy back there? That's Vergil. He
Knows more than ever I will do. It's true."

Up starting suddenly, he cried out: "AAAAAAHHH! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

"IT HURTS," he screamed, sucked in a painful breath
"AARRGH! AARRGH!" he yelled, "NO-NO-NO-NO! AH! AH!,
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

I said to him: "The slaughter and great carnage
Which have with crimson stained Arabia, cause
Such orisons in our temple to be made."

He gasped a dry gasp, struggling with words,
"AAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGH!" he said, "PLEASE! STOP!
PLEASE STOP THE AGONY I CAN'T ENDUUUUURE!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

"There is some limitation to your speech,"
I told him, "and that makes it hard to follow,
Which has entangled my conceptions here.

It seems that you have grasped, if I hear right,
The fundamental principle of Hell,
And so give voice to man's most truthful sounds."

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"


"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"


"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

And now my Master was recalling me,
Wherefore more eagerly I prayed the spirit
That he would tell me what his message was.

He said: "I am in agony! Ach! Ach!;
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

And then he hid himself, collapsing down;
And I turned back to my most honoured guide
Reflecting much on what I had heard there.