‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Vlaster Than Empires: Notes on the "Wolfhound Century" trilogy



"My Wolfhound Century should grow
Vlaster than empires and more …"

So.

Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century trilogy [Wolfhound Century (2013) Truth and Fear (2014) Radiant State (2015)] is one of the most remarkable Fantasy works of the twenty-teens. This assessment seems to me so obvious that the series' relative neglect by the SFF community becomes a real puzzle. Rarely has a literary/historical imagination been so powerfully combined with heartfelt sciencefictional and Fantasy sensibilities. Of course it may be that very hybridity—the bald fact of it, I mean, rather than its calibre—is precisely why this work has been under-appreciated by the genre community and largely ignored by the literary. I don’t mean, in saying so, to sound personally aggrieved. Higgins isn't a personal friend (I've met him once, briefly, at a publishing do) and I've no desire at all to become the patron saint of lost literary causes. But it bears repeating: this trilogy deserves much more than it received. Perhaps its time is yet to come.

The setting is ‘the Vlast’, a variant 20th-century Soviet Union in which a variety of fantastical elements coexist with the apparatus of a Stalinist police state, and all its quasi-Orwellian quotidian indignities—overbearing bureaucrats, the smell of boiled cabbage in corridors, cheap vodka, queues in freezing weather and so on. The fantasy aspect of the novels is rooted in a kind of forest magic (indeed, the huge forest is almost a character in its own right). Giants are pressganged into physical labour, shapeshifting werewolves and smoke spirits walk the streets. Also it means angels. These creatures, it seems, throng the dark interplanetary spaces, and at the beginning of the trilogy one such celestial being has tumbled to earth. It is still sort-of alive, gigantically embedded in the ground in the middle of the wilderness.

If I say the plot is not the most notable achievement of this trilogy I don’t do so to disparage Higgins’s narrative. Volume 1, Wolfhound Century, spins a very readable Gorky Park-y policier/thriller, in which Vissarion Lom, his main character, too principled a policeman to get promoted, is sent to investigate nefarious goings-on in the Vlast's capital city Mirgorod, and in doing so uncovers plots and criminality that go right to the top of the politburo-equivalent. This works well. The worst we could say is that, as a mechanism for keeping the reader reading, the gears of this plot stick a little in the first half of the second volume, Truth and Fear (2015). It doesn't really matter. By this point the story and its characters have built up enough momentum to carry the reader through, and the denouement to vol 2 and the unexpected upward trajectory of Radiant State make for more impetus in the reading experience. What I'm trying to suggest is that plot is subordinate, in this trilogy, to something else. I'm tempted to call this something else ‘atmosphere’, but that’s not quite right. The writing certainly is very atmospheric, sometimes intensely so. But although Higgins loads every rift of his paragraphs with the ore of description and mood, I wonder if there isn’t something else at play here.

On publication of the first volume, some reviewers made comparisons with China Miéville. I can see why, although it’s a parallel that misrepresents the balance of mimesis and fantasy in Higgins’ novels, pitched as they such that the latter quality is used to inflect the former, rather (as in Miéville) the other way about. Though it lacks the fantastical aspect altogether I wonder if a better point of comparison would be Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty. What Higgins, Miéville and Spufford all share, I think, is a complicated mix of partiality and horror in their attitude to the old Soviet Union, an attitude compacted out of left-leaning political affiliation, historical knowledge of what actually happened, humane sensibilities and imaginative capacity.*

[*I could mention my own Yellow Blue Tibia here, not as any kind of comparator text, but only because I also share this mix of feelings concerning the old USSR. Of course, perhaps that means I'm merely projecting when I talk about Spfford, Miéville and Higgins. Those latter two mediate their Soviet-y Unions through the lens of Fantasy; Spufford through the lens of alternate history and speculative economics. My own novel uses a UFO fantasia and a self-reflexive SF writing trope as its inflection. It's also supposed to be funny, which is a point I return to below. I don't mean the hilarity or otherwise of my own writing. I mean the rather more significant question of what Martin Amis calls 'laughter and the twenty million'. Higgins, it's fair to say, is not trying to be funny in Wolfhound Empire.]

I have a theory that, in idle moments, I sometimes dandle on my metaphorical knee. It is that one of the ways we can differentiate between Fantasy and SF is the way they handle dystopia. SFnal dystopias are often very horrible, but more to the point they are horrible in a way that is designed to repel. I mean this in the sense that nobody sane would want to live in Zamiatin’s Onestate or Orwell’s Airstrip One. Fantasy is less thickly supplied with dystopias, I’d say, since for many fans the primary purpose of the genre is escape. So it goes that the broad sunlit uplands, romantic snow-peaked mountains and surging blue waters of your terra fantastica may be under siege or even under occupation by the forces of evil, and so temporally dystopified, but it will only ever be temporary. The book’s Shaytan equivalent is defeated and banished and the drought or plague or whatever lifts from your land. This, though, raises interesting questions about those Fantasy texts that don’t do this, Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, I suppose, being the most obvious counter-example. You might want to live in Middle Earth; indeed, when I was a kid I had periods when I yearned to live there, rather than in my suburban SE English mundaneness. But who would yearn to live in Westeros? Psychos? Masochists? I don't know. The popularity of the books, and especially of the TV series, suggests to me that there are people who do indeed yearn for the escape Westeros represents; presumably an escape from civilisation and its discontents.

It has to do with enchantment, or more specifically it reacts to the sense of modernity as a site of disenchantment. One of the notable thing about Wolfhound Century is the way it wholeheartedly commits to the materialism of the Soviet experiment (it is science fiction; there are even spaceships) and to fantasy of magic, giants, ruskalas, golems, vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches and colossal alien fallen angels. It's both at the same time: a superposition of SF onto Fantasy, or (with appropriately dialectical balance) vice versa, sometimes more and occasionally less effectively achieved but always uncomfortable and powerful. We can say more. To these two modes, or inflections, the trilogy adds a third, since the genre most typically associated with Cold War Russia is neither SF nor Fantasy but the thriller. That’s the element frontloaded in the first volume, Wolfhound Century (2013). The book starts with a nod to the opening scene in Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, with our hero, Police Inspector Vissarion Lom, sitting in a café watching his operation through the window, like Le Carré’s Leamas:
Investigator Vissarion Lom sat in a window booth at the Café Rikhel. Pulses of rain swept up Ansky Prospect, but inside the café in the afternoon crush the air was thick with the smell of coffee, cinnamon bread and damp overcoats. ‘Why don’t you go home’ said Ziller. ‘Nobody’s going to come. I can call you if anything happens. You can be back here in half an hour.
The narrative moves on in a more  Martin Cruz Smith/Gorky Park-y direction from this opening, but it works well. Or at least, it does in the first volume. I mean ‘works well’ in the sense of generating an effective thrillery vibe, a noir mood: the degrees of tension and excitement and that make reading easy. But it proves hard to sustain as the trilogy goes on, since such a vibe depends upon an agent working within the more tightly structured environment of law and order, and towards the end of Wolfhound Century that order breaks down in two ways—the war that the Vlast has been prosecuting comes home to ruin its capital city, and the magical elements in Higgins’s fictional conception become much more heavily foregrounded. Indeed when Higgins tries to return to the ‘Lom is a brilliant investigator overlooked by his superiors because he’s too honest’ vibe halfway through the final volume Radiant State (2015) it doesn’t work nearly so well, because by this stage in the trilogy the tonal logic has shifted comprehensively from policier to Weird Fantasy. It's not a problem, exactly, because the latter element is very powerful. The forest, the giants, the fallen angels and—in Radiant State—the undead soldiers are especially dream-haunting. It’s a question of the larger miscibility of the trilogy's generic ambitions.

Now, as I say, I would argue that this book articulates and therefore appeals to a particular, niche, variety of quasi-nostalgia that a particular sort of person may well feel about the old Soviet Union: that place of tyrannous disaster; that exotic political ‘other’; that homeland to Grossman and Shostakovich and Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn and the Strugatskis and Akhmatova and Tarkovski; that place of Gulags and mass-murder and Stalin and Beria and so much depressing Social Realist strain and muscle. The 'particular sort of person' I'm talking about will probably be of a certain age, and probably on the left.

This is the appropriate moment to bring-in Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread (2002), a book about the strange double-standard the intellectual left apply to Stalinism. He points out that if we play the numbers game then Stalin was worse even than Hitler. And yet there’s this residue of what amounts to affection in western intellectual discourse for that whole world, especially now that it has vanished (no—not vanished, of course: morphed into the mafiaform kleptocracy of the modern Russian Federation). Amis worries away at the why of this in Koba the Dread; and although it got a rough ride from reviewers when it came out, it seems to me one of Marty’s better books.

Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’ We could adapt this as a way of approaching Higgins’s Wolfhound novels. He has created a true description of the Soviet Union that exactly resembles a dark fantasy of the Soviet Union; and it works as well as it does because our sense of the latter elides our sense of the former.

If I have one reservation (I'm a little inhibited from raising it, for reasons noted above) it's that Wolfhound Empire is not a humorous work. For many this will not be a problem; but I felt the absence of the laughter. Amis's Koba subtitle, ‘Laughter and the Twenty Million’, identifies something important, I think. Higgins's Stalin-figure, Josef Kantor, is a parched, driven, psychotic and humourless little man. He is well-drawn, especially in the later books, and Higgins absolutely makes the reader believe in the way his sheer will, and puritanical charisma, drives the people around him on, and forces whole cities, and later whole countries, forward. But Stalin was not humourless. He projected an avuncular geniality, and he often laughed. He was, indeed, often at his most terrifying when he laughed. Amis describes how he, with feigned reluctance, took to the stage at the Bolshoi Theater in 1937 and agreed, with faux-modesty, to be a candidate in the upcoming ‘election’. What Amis focusses on is the servile laughter that greeted him. He quotes a contemporary transcript (‘ ... of course, I could have said something light about anything and everything. [laughter] ... I understand there are masters of that sort of thing not just in the capitalist countries, but here, too, in our Soviet country. [laughter, applause]...’) and glosses:
Ground zero of the Great Terror—and here was the Party, joined in a panic attack of collusion in yet another enormous lie. They clapped, they laughed. Did he laugh? Do we hear it—the ‘soft, dull, sly laugh,’ the ‘grim, dark laughter, which comes up from the depths’?
Amis then makes the connection with the laughter of western socialists, remembering his old friend Christopher Hitchens addressing a London audience in 1999 in a venue that had often hosted socialist and communist gatherings. Hitchens made reference to this past, and, Amis says, was greeted with 'affectionate laughter.' Of this, and leaning a little too heavily on the outrage pedal, Amis asks:
Why is it? Why is it? If Christopher had referred to his many evenings with many ‘an old blackshirt,’ the audience would have been outraged ... Well, with such an affiliation in his past, Christopher would not be Christopher—or anyone else of the slightest distinction whatsoever. Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub? One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous laughter? And what kind of laughter is it? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million.
The larger argument in the book is not quite so self-righteously dismissive. Amis understands, I'd say, that the laughter, dark or desperate, cruel or even liberating, was part of the whole Soviet experiment in a way not true of the Nazi one. The laughter does not deflect, but on the contrary illuminates, the horrors. Nor should we confuse laughter with levity. On the contrary, indeed. In his own review of Koba the Dread, Hitchens himself recalls a footnote to Amis's earlier book, Experience:
Batting away a critic [Amis] describes as ‘humorless,’ he adds, ‘And by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.’
I like that very much. Indeed, it seems to me really quite profound. Hitchens's point, I suppose, is that Amis loses his sense of this great truth in the thickets of horror and outrage that hem in Koba the Dread. There's something in that.

Well: I don't want to perpetrate the fatuity of criticizing Higgins for not writing the kind of book he never set out to write in the first place. I'm entitled, as any one is, to write a quasi-una-fantasia Soviet SF novel structured via irony and laughter if I want to (and have indeed done so). Earlier I praised Spufford's Red Plenty, and one of the things that works so well about that book is its effortless wit. Spufford can be very funny when he wants to be. Miéville, I have to say, can't: despite his many excellences, laughter is not part of his skill-set. So perhaps the comparisons with Bas-Lag have some point after all.

'Why is it? Why is it?' asks Amis. Why the double standard? A Wolfhound Century set in Nazi Germany—The Adolf Century—would indeed be a much less palatable prospect; but why? One possible explanation that Koba the Dread doesn’t consider is: orientalism. The Nazis (according to this logic) did unspeakably wicked things and in doing so they betrayed the high ideals of post-Enlightenment civilized European values. Conversely, the Soviet authorities committed all manner of barbarity, violence and cruelty—but the Soviet Union was an oriental, not a Western, regime, and, as the deep-rooted prejudice goes, those orientals have always been all about the exotic barbarism and colourful violence. They did not fall from so high a eminence in our estimation, because they didn’t occupy such a perch in the first place. It’s bollocks, of course; and whatever problems there are with Said’s Orientalism (and there are plenty of problems) its polemical spearing of the mendacity of this caricature remains powerful. But the fact that it is bollocks hasn't stopped it permeating western culture and society.

Michael Ignatieff, looking back on the Communist experiment from the vantage of the mid-1990s, suggested that Soviet Russia was
a violent but passing form of Oriental despotism, as relentless as Fascism, as single-minded in its appropriation of modernity’s tools to oppress and control, yet fatally compromised, both by its organised contempt for those in whose name it ruled, and by the central conceit that there could be a systematic, total alternative to capitalism. Here, Fascism was shrewder, because it vampirised the capitalist system; it did not wish to break it up, and so could deliver both the goods and the terror. It is because Fascism can live with capitalism that it will remain as a possible nightmare for us long after the last Communist is dead and buried.
Interesting that Ignatieff feels unembarrassed about deploying an orientalist stereotype in his analysis of his grandfather’s fatherland.

I'm not, incidentally, suggesting that the Wolfhound Century books are 'orientalist' in this fashion. It's true that Higgins eschews the trappings of post-Tolkien ‘western’ or northern-European fantasy (wizards and dragons and elves, oh my) for an Eastern Fantasy of ruskalas and endless forests. But he does so wholeheartedly from the perspective of the Vlast: the West (here, the 'archipelago') is a marginal presence. Higgins wholly commits to his Vlast as a lived-in habitus. This is in no way an orientalist novel.

***

In A Secular Age (2007) Charles Taylor fleshes out, at impressive length, the Weberian thesis of disenchantment as constitutive of modernity.
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.
Alan Jacobs discusses the pros and cons of this state of affairs:
a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark — of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family ... The problem with this apparently straightforward transaction is that the porous self is open to the divine as well as to the demonic, while the buffered self is closed to both alike. Those who must guard against capture by fairies are necessarily and by the same token receptive to mystical experiences. The “showings” manifested to Julian of Norwich depend upon exceptional sensitivity, which is to say porosity — vulnerability to incursions of the supernatural. The portals of the self cannot be closed on one side only. But the achievement of a safely buffered personhood — closed off from both the divine and the demonic — is soon enough accompanied by a deeply felt change in the very cosmos. As C. S. Lewis notes in The Discarded Image (1964), the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” gives way to the modern person who perceives only emptiness and silence. Safety is purchased at the high price of isolation, as we see as early as Pascal, who famously wrote of the night sky, “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”).
Jacobs goes on to explore the way some modern Fantasy novels (and some other modern things) attempt a mode of re-enchantment. What makes the deeply-felt, poetic and absorbing re-enchantment of Wolfhound Empire so remarkably is the very fact that Higgins attempts it in a fictional version of the acme of dialectical materialism. It's one thing to re-enchant the old England of Mythago Wood; it's another to try and re-enchant Leningrad (the source, I assume, for Higgins's Mirgorod). To try and make myself clear, at the risk of merely repeating myself: Higgins's ambition leads him to embed fantasy enchantment in the least hospitable territory imaginable: a land of Stalinist five-year-plans, sprawling urbanisation and nuclear-pulse rockets. What's so remarkable is how close he comes to pulling this off.

Taylor's A Secular Age argues that we have replaced the numinous apprehension of a cosmos brimming with spiritual grace and danger with what he calls the 'immanent frame' of the moral and existential perspectives of reason and science. Taylor's 'buffered self' is an aspect of this immanent frame, and although he thinks there have been significant attempts to re-enchant the world—he mentions Romantic poetry and philosophy, “New Age” spirituality, various religious fundamentalisms—none of these have broken the immanent frame. For Higgins to join these variegated frame-breakers manqués by choosing the industrial wastelands and furious materialism of Soviet Russia is very bold indeed. That he comes as close as he does to pulling it off is even more remarkable.

By ‘pulling it off’, I don't mean ‘dismantling Taylor's immanent frame altogether’. That would indeed be a big ask. It is enough to attempt to add a third element to Marx and Engels's famous Communist Manifesto declaration. All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned; all that is repressed returns. I think this may be why the half-alive zombie soldier-corpses in Radiant State, dreamily wandering woodland and village, all in their various loops (as the HBO Westworld would put it)—why these characters resonated so powerfully with me. At the heart of this trilogy is a haunting of some kind. Something is trying to get back in, some third element. Trilectical Materialism, maybe.

Still: coming close to pulling it off isn't the same as pulling it off. The epistemological fictions of detection and Modernism chafe, sometimes, against the ontological fictions of High Fantasy. The strain of aligning the two modes, the Soviet-modern-SF one and the Old-Russian arborial magical one, becomes a particular focus of Radiant State, where time itself is pulled into two parallel but differently-paced iterations. It's one of the ways Higgins differs to (and I'd say is better than) Miéville. The Bas Lag novels refract their ideological critique and engagement into in-text monsters and weirdnesses, oddnesses concocted out of Miéville's imagination. Wolfhound Empire of course contains many traditional Russian fantastikons, but its real work is in refracting the Soviet union into this formal, structural disarrangement. Because it is structural it is more systemic, and that works better.

What this is, I suppose, is another way of addressing the question of re-enchantment. Conceivably it is Higgins's commitment to this that explains why SF/Fantasy readers haven't seemed to know quite what to make of his trilogy. Miéville's fantasies are many things, but they are not enchanted (I suspect Miéville shares Moorcock's distrust of the whole enchantment kit-and-caboodle as bourgeois mystification and crypto-fascist little-englander nostalgia). But Higgins, though far from bourgeois in his sensibilities and aesthetics, is interested in enchantment. There is a magic in these novels, in a strong version of the word's double-sense—doubled, that is, in the sense of content and mood. There are problems with this, I think: but whatever else it is, it is a royal road to the marvellous. And Wolfhound Empire is a marvellous work.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

'Death to the Reading Class'?


This Fortnightly Review piece by Marshall Poe really doesn't pay-out on its provocative title. Poe doesn't actually want the class to which he and I both belong to perish. He just thinks it needs to accommodate newer visual cultures. Well alright then.
Why don’t most people like to read? The answer is surprisingly simple: humans weren’t evolved to read. Note that we have no reading organs: our eyes and brains were made for watching, not for decoding tiny symbols on mulch sheets. To prepare our eyes and brains for reading, we must rewire them. This process takes years of hard work to accomplish, and some people never accomplish it all. Moreover, even after you’ve learned to read, you probably won’t find reading to be very much fun. It consumes all of your attention, requires active thought, and makes your eyes hurt. For most people, then, reading is naturally hard and, therefore, something to be avoided if at all possible.
I grok a wrongness here, although of course this may simply be my personal, bibliophilic bias showing. Still: wouldn't this logic apply to plenty of other things too? It's a struggle getting my 9-year-old to read, but he loves-loves-loves playing video games. Humans, though, weren't evolved to play video games; all that tricky digital manipulation of the controller, all that arcane acquisition of the rules and conventions of the game. People like driving cars, and sipping VSOP brandy, and playing Real Tennis, and building scale-model Taj Mahals out of matchsticks. None of these things run along the grain of our evolutionary development. ('Note that we have no car-driving organs ...')

Thursday, 26 January 2017

(Sene)Chaka Demus and Pliers: "Thyestes me, tease me / Tease me, tease me baby / Till I lose control"



Not going to apologise for that title.

So, yes, this is a post about Seneca's great tragedy Thyestes; and yes, that's how you pronounce its final syllable (long 'e', you see). Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in AD 1, in Spain. He was the son of a famous philosopher (Seneca the elder) and went on to become an even more famous philosopher himself. Of the ten tomato-coloured volumes of the ‘Loeb Classical Library’ Seneca only two are drama—there's the one containing the Thyestes, at the top of this post. The other volumes are all letters and philosophical works that articulate his controlled and Stoic approach to life. But it’s his take on tragedy that interests me here, specifically in response to the aesthetic tenets laid down so famously by Aristotle, katharsis and so on.

All the best classical tragic drama is, if you believe the critics, Greek. There are thousands of monographs on the Aeschylean and Sophoclean and Euripidean stuff, and only a few specialists resurrecting the musty violence of the Latin. It’s difficult to deny that Attic drama has a much greater importance for our current literatures than the Roman plays. But of course there’s one sense in which Seneca has been even more influential on the development of tragedy. This is because it was Seneca, and not particularly the Greeks, who exercised the greatest influence on English Renaissance drama, and therefore upon the world’s single most significant writer of tragedy—I mean Shakespeare, of course. It’s a old chestnut of Shakespearean studies how much he took from Seneca, not only in-effect rewriting the Thyestes (in Titus Andronicus) but also developing the very Senecan, very Thyestian (and profoundly un-Greek) theme of revenge in a play such as Hamlet. It can, then, be something of a disappointment actually to read a play like the Thyestes. It really does come over as rather unpleasant, even crude. Body horror.

For one thing, it's not dramatically very interesting: the five ‘acts’ (though ‘act’ needs to go in inverted commas, since there’s nothing in the original text to indicate that it was designed to be broken down into separate scenes or acts despite the Renaissance assumptions on that score)—the five acts are rather discontinuous from one another. First we have the ghost of Tantalus and his goading Fury; after they exit they never return to the stage. Then we have a scene with Atreus planning his revenge, followed by a scene in which Atreus greets his brother with a false bonhomie: neither is very dramatically kinetic or engaging. There’s very little action, no development of character or plot. We do get a couple of extra, minor characters, but the whole drama depends really on only these two players. Then there is a scene in which a messenger reports actions from offstage—exciting if revolting, but removed from the audience by being reported at second hand. Only in the last act, in which Atreus gloatingly reveals his hideous crime to his brother, do we see some dramatic action.

In other words, and for the benefit of those who aren’t as familiar with the play as perhaps they should be, here’s a summary of its structure:
‘Act 1’ The ghost of Tantalus is summoned from Hades by a Fury to work evil in the royal house of Argos, his own descendants. Tantalus is reluctant, but is compelled.
Choral ode 1: A prayer that the gods will end the tradition of evildoing that has dogged the house of Argos.

‘Act 2’ Atreus prepares to take revenge on his brother, Thyestes. His attendant is horrified by his schemes.
Choral ode 2: True kingship is not about power over others but power over oneself. The chorus praises the life lived in rustic obscurity.

‘Act 3’ Thyestes returns to Argos from exile. He does not trust his brother, but is persuaded by his son. Atreus greets him warmly and dresses him in royal robes.
Choral ode 3: The chorus praises the change from hatred to love in the relationship between the two brothers, noting with unwitting irony that nothing endures.

‘Act 4’ A messenger describes how Atreus sacrificed Thyestes sons, cut their bodies up and cooked them.
Choral ode 4: An ode of horror at the violation of the natural order—there is darkness at noon, and surely the world is coming to an end.

‘Act 5’ Thyestes is enjoying the feast that Atreus has prepared for him, but has strange misgivings. Atreus reveals what he has been eating his own offspring. Horrified Thyestes prays to the gods for justice, but without response.
In other words, as drama and judged by the standards we now tend to apply to theatrical work, Thyestes is a static, awkwardly constructed piece, saved from a wholly debilitating clumsiness only by the dark intensity and unremittingness with which it treats its central topic. On the other hand many critics see in the play’s pared down focus an startling modern, almost absurdist potency lacking in other classical drama: more Beckett or Anouilh than Euripides.

One thing that critics of ‘tragedy’ have tried to decide, then, is whether this Roman development of the form simply negates Aristotelian aesthetic tenets:—a new focus on the nihilistic, godless extremes of human violence; a shift from an emphasis the place of catharsis in provoking psychological health to unremitting horrors that are likely to provoke only disgust and despair. Where does this leave tragedy? Any place good?

Norman Pratt identifies two separate sorts of tragic impulse. He takes Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy as representative of what he considers a particular Greek form of tragedy. Then he looks at Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play famous for its Senecan horrors, (most notoriously, the scene played on stage, in front of the audience, in which poor old Gloster gets his eyes thumbed out), the extreme and horrific degeneration of a noble king into madness and beggary and so on.
Oedipus is trying to make sense in a world that does not make sense. He is in a divinely ordered system where his rational purpose is disastrously turned against him by the force of capricious circumstance. The divine order brings disorder to human experience. If in this fashion we can say that Oedipus transmits the picture of disorder in nature, Shakespearian criticism is in substantial agreement that King Lear expresses the theme of nature in disorder. The terms “disorder in nature” for Sophocles and “nature in disorder” for Shakespeare are only superficial catch phrases, but they show a contrast between two types of tragedy, radically different in their conceptions of evil. In Oedipus nature wounds human life. Suffering is built constituently into the nature makeup of how things are …. In Lear nature itself is not defective, but only part of it, the human dimension. [Norman T. Pratt, Seneca’s Drama (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1983), p.6]
Now here’s a very notable oddity. In Seneca’s plays, and despite the fact that they unmistakeably take place in the pagan universe of ancient Greek and Roman myth (a world in which gods and mortals promiscuously interact, and even appear on stage), characters repeatedly wonder where the gods are, or pointedly deny that the gods even exist. It really is a very puzzling thing. When Thyestes returns to Argos he talks of ‘my native soil and the gods of my father (if there really are gods)—(si sunt tamen di)’ [406-7]; and the play ends with Thyestes praying for the gods of vengeance to come—a prayer that remains noticeably unanswered. The last line of the play is giving over to Atreus’s mockery, not to any deus dangling down from any machine to mete and dole justice. In Seneca’s Medea, Medea kills her own children to spite her husband Jason; and the play ends with her flying away in a chariot pulled by flying dragons. The last lines of that play are Jason’s: ‘travel on high through the lofty spaces of heaven, and bear witness where you ride that there are no gods’ [testare nullos esse deos, 1027].

To restate Pratt’s view in more banal terms: the story of Thyestes and the ruthless violence of Atreus is not so much about the cruelty of the cosmos as it is about the evil in men’s hearts. Accordingly there is an inward, choking, human corporeality about the plays. It is the revolting intimacy of Thyestes devouring his own children, which turns us away from the ‘higher’ concerns of any spiritual realm.

Alessandro Schiesaro considers the Thyestes 'the most important of Seneca's tragedies, Thyestes, which has had a notable influence on Western drama from Shakespeare to Antonin Artaud'. During the course of his book-length study, 'Thyestes emerges as the mastertext of "Silver" Latin poetry, and as an original reflection on the nature of theatre comparable to Euripides' Bacchae. More than this, Schiesaro argues that this horrible practice of eating your offspring is 'actually' about incest and the incest taboo. As he puts it: ‘incest “pollutes” the body with the seed of a close relation … eating one’s own children is a similar form of unacceptable ingestion’ [Alessandro Schiesaro, The Passions in Play: Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press 2003), 94]. Instead of being quite separate things, Atreus ‘identifies between these two very different gestures [incest, familial cannibalism] a common element which becomes central to his thinking’. In doing this he is, says Schiesaro, ‘follow[ing] a form of logic that is akin to the logic of the unconscious.’ It seems inevitable that Freud must come into the critical equation: ‘it is one of the greatest achievements of post-Freudian thought to have realized that this strange logic, where symmetry replaces the rigid conventions of Aristotelian thought, is actually an ineliminable component of the mind, given free rein in the workings of the unconscious but normally kept at bay during conscious activity’. This, in a nutshell, and sic as regards the inelegant neologism ‘ineliminable’, is the approach Schiesaro takes to the Thyestes.

Is this right? Does Thyestes represent the supercession of rational, ordered Aristotelian tragedy by something irrational, something driven and subconscious? I could put this another way. We might want to see Aristotle’s Poetics, with its firm rule and its assurance that literature like tragedy can be accounted for, defined and determined, as the conscious component of the literary psyche; and the weird horrors of Senecan tragedy, its dissociated nightmare-like succession of images, its unrestrained expression of the most brutal impulses of humanity towards revenge and violence, as the subconscious element. Critics often talk in these terms about literature more generally, or more precisely, they often work within this kind of unstated paradigm: as if, for instance, the balanced, rational fictions of Jane Austen embodies the ‘conscious’ mind of late eighteenth-century literature, where the buried horrors and haunted catacombs of the Gothic novel represent its ‘subconscious’. There's a danger in being too fatuously literal-minded in the way we deploy Freud's metaphors, of course; but I wonder if there isn't something in here.

If I have one main problem with Schiesaro’s approach it is this: I can think of very few dramas less sexually conceived than Thyestes. It is a play almost entirely purged of erotic charge; or perhaps it would be close to the truth to say that all the erotic charge is sublimated into the more primal appetites of revenge, self-glorying, of eating and drinking. There are no female characters at all in this play, which is a very striking thing, when you think about it. Neither do the text's various male characters express any sensual or homosexual impulses. Where’s the sex? It has been, we might say, crowded out by the horror. Some people get turned on by silk stockings; some by gas masks; but I don’t know the name given to the perversion whereby people become sexually aroused at the prospect of a father literally devouring the flesh of his children

But is this the way horror actually works? I ask because I wonder if something closer to the reverse isn't, actually, the case? I’m thinking of how sexualised most Gothic horrors are, or most horror films today: the logic of the genre is that it almost has to be sexy young teens being terrorised by violent ghosts and monsters precisely because the libidinal response and the excitements of fear and thrill are so closely associated for most of us. So why is Thyestes so thoroughly unsexy?

Maybe this question comes across as merely fatuous, but I ask it to try and get to something that I think is important about the way the play works. And Schiesaro may well be right to argue that Freud provides a very useful way of understanding how the play works. Take for instance Freud’s interest in inversion, the way some obsession or fascination in the subconscious mind only emerges into consciousness in flipped-about form. To decipher one’s dreams or neuroses it is often necessary, Freud suggests, to look to the opposite of what they apparently mean.

One thing that critics have often noticed about Thyestes is that, despite being one of the darkest and most distressing plays ever written, it nevertheless takes the form of comedy: or more specifically that the play inverts comic topoi. John Fitch (in the introduction to his Loeb translation, the edition pictured at the head of this post) notes the ‘familiar comic pattern’ by which ‘young people escape the control of their elders and establish themselves as adults’. A feast is often a central feature of comic drama, the celebration of life and healthy appetite at which everybody eats their fill of good food and drinks themselves happy. Both these tropes get spun about in Thyestes: most obviously the ‘comic feast’ is hideously inverted; nothing further from the joyful celebration of life can be imagined. Fitch notes that ‘the inversion of natural processes is particularly clear when children are thrust back into the body of the parent in a travesty of birth and pregnancy (see lines 999-1000, 1041-44)’ [Fitch, 226]. When we look further into the matter we find that the key dramatic devices of the Thyestes are precisely the mainstays of comic drama: a character misled by another, trickster character; the misunderstanding which brings the main character low and so on. Reading Thyestes though the lens of psychoanalysis might give us the feeling that we’re making sense of its otherwise rather baffling perversity. And it does seem to me that the perversity of this play has indeed baffled commentators, some of whom have been disinclined to call the play tragic at all. Here’s Fitch again:
Though unmistakeably a masterpiece, is Thyestes’ effect that of tragedy? It does not evoke that sympathy for the victims of disaster on which many Greek tragedies base their emotional effect: for Thyestes is too weak-willed, too gross in his feasting, too dim-witted in comparison with his brother, to command much sympathy. Atreus himself is paradoxically far more attractive, at least initially: in his exuberant ruthlessness, in his frank devotion to power as the only good, in his macabre wit, he has an appeal like that of Shakespeare’s Richard III. But he becomes repellent in his demented sacrificing of the youngsters, and in his sadistic toying with Thyestes. [Fitch, 225]
The way out of this cul-de-sac is not to see the play as being about ‘character’ in the full sense (and perhaps not even about ‘character’ in the Greek sense), so much as it is about appetite itself. Indeed, one way of taking Thyestes would be to see it as a dramatic exaggeration of appetite until that alone becomes the sole substantive constituent of human character. The actors in this drama are like children without authority figures to control them in; children given absolute free rein to their urges. Perhaps it’s this very childishness that explains the absence of sex in this play. Young children understand some appetites very well (food, anger, joy, misery) but have no purchase on the post-pubertal peculiarities of sex.

There’s one particular feature of Seneca’s portrayal of this play’s horrible scelus—its crime, or villainy—that particularly strikes me: and that’s the way a purely human atrocity infects the whole of the natural world. The sky goes dark in the face of such infamy. The messenger, reporting Atreus’ murder of the children, addresses the sun: ‘O patient Phoebus … you have fled backwards, snatched the day from mid-heaven’ [776-7] such that ‘the evil deed is smothered in strange darkness by oppressive night at an alien time’ [786-7]. The chorus pick up the theme: Phoebus has left the sky in disgust at this human iniquity, and surely the end of the world is foretold:
The regular cycles of heaven are lost;
sunset and sunrise will not exist.
The dewy mother of dawning light,
accustomed to hand the eastern reins
to the god, is stunned
by such disorder on her kingdom’s threshold [813-18]

[The Sun] bids the darkness rise, yet night
is not yet ready;
no stars appear in their turn, no fires
gleam in the ether,
no moon disperses the heavy shadows.

Our hearts are shaken and trembling, trembling
with enormous fear
lest the shattered cosmos fall in the ruin
ordained by fate,
lest gods and humans be engulfed once more
in formless chaos …. [823-33]
Of course the world doesn’t end. Despite the enormity of the chorus’s (and our) horror, the world continues on its way. In fact, despite the artistic rightness of this perhaps melodramatic insistence on darkness at noon, there is when we reflect upon it something rather pitifully naive about it. All our experience teaches us that, horrible though Atreus’s crime is, human beings have committed crimes, and uncountably many of them, that are much worse; and that when these things happen the cosmos takes absolutely no notice at all. The sun rises and sets no matter how beastly we are to one another. George Steiner’s Death of Tragedy book ends with a coda that relates a true-life story from WWII. Captured Russian officers were being detained by Nazi guards in a Polish castle. Supplies of food, erratic towards the end of the war, ceased entirely in the winter of 1944-45. The guards ate what they had, but there was nothing for their dogs, so they turned the hunger-maddened Alsatians on the Russian prisoners. Shortly after this the Nazis retreated, leaving the remaining Russian officers locked in the castle’s cellar. Those who survived did so by devouring their colleagues. Advancing Russian troops found the last few alive. They gave them a good meal and then shot them all, lest the Russian soldiers see to what depravity their commanding officers could be driven. The castle was then burnt to the ground.

This is a very nasty story, made all the nastier by the fact that it is true. Steiner does not consider it tragic, because he thinks the Holocaust, in its meaningless and nihilistic hideousness, has emptied the significance from the very concept of tragedy and rendered it void. For Steiner this story is merely horrible, with a deep horror of the sort that Conrad's Kurtz famously glimpsed in his last moments. But what interests me here is how sickeningly familiar this sort of thing is to our sensibilities. And the point about that is that when we hear this story we don’t, of course, expect also to hear that the sun fled the sky in disgust, or that the stars refused the glint the darkness because of man’s iniquity. The enormous indifference of the cosmos to every human being is one truth that every person learns as they grown out of childhood and into adulthood.

This in turn makes me wonder whether Seneca’s pathetic fallacy undermines and even, in a peculiar way, trivialises the story of Atreus and Thyestes. It is in a strict sense childish to think that our transgressions are directly mirrored in the universe as a whole, like young Pip in Great Expectations stealing food and a file for Magwitch and then running through a landscape he sees as accusing of his crime: every cow looking at him seems to be saying ‘stop thief’ and the fog he runs through symbolically embodies his own ethical confusion. In Dickens’s novel this is more obviously the pathetic fallacy, because we understand that the guilt is in Pip’s mind, not the external world, even as we understand that his guilt is colouring his perspective on the outside world. But in Thyestes the starless darkness at noon is presented as an objective fact. What are we to make of it?

In part it is a very accurate embodiment of the cosmic pretensions of tragedy itself: the suffering in tragedy is always a particular, human suffering. Yet so many critics want to claim that the significance of tragedy is precisely that it articulates a universal significance. Isn’t this just based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between human life and the universe?

Thyestes is a childish tragedy; and I use the adjective neither flippantly nor pejoratively. It inhabits a mode of childish intensity, one in which those appetites that loom most large for children (hunger and physical appetites; rage and the desire to get your own back) assume monstrously god-blotting-out proportions. It is a sexless world because it is in touch with the primary experience of all of us: the prepubertal child’s vehemence. It is an intimate world, physically and spiritually, because when you are a child everything is close to you. It is a universe that is both god-filled (every corner bears the mark of the magical authority of the gods) and godless precisely because children comprehend the godlessness of the cosmos, even if they cannot articulate it. What I mean by this last shocking assertion is that, although many children believe in God they do so from a structure of belief and experience in which the conceptualising of God (as carer, as rulemaker, as the horizon of the world) elides for young children very precisely with their experience of their parents, and adults in general. God is both a magical presence, and merely another sort of adult. And because Seneca’s play is all these things it makes the most profound point about our adultish appropriation of tragedy. We flatter ourselves that we understand tragedy in a way that children cannot; their lives are too limited, they can’t count to six million and therefore can’t grasp the holocaust. This is very wongheaded of us. The anxieties we experience (Is there a god? Does my wife really love me? Will I lose my job?), whilst real, are milk-and-water compared to the horror that children face every night with the monster in the closet, or in the shadows of the corner of their bedroom. For adults, angst and even tragedy is a portion of our lives; but for children, moment by moment, it is everything and all consuming. And that’s what Seneca’s strangely over-focused and powerfully ghastly play captures.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Further Thoughts on the Problem of Susan



'The Problem of Susan' is Neil Gaiman's phrase for what happens to Susan Pevensie in C S Lewis's Narnia books. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Susan and her sister Lucy personally witness the death of Aslan, weep over his corpse and witness his resurrection. Aslan personally crowns her Queen of Narnia, along with her sister, as he crowns her two brothers Kings of Narnia. Then Susan goes back to our world, with her sister and brothers. Later Narnia novels shift the focus increasingly away from the Pevensies, until the end of the sequence when Lewis inserts them, rather abruptly, into the very last chapter of The Last Battle. At this point, though, Susan is not with them. Narnia is finished; the friends of Narnia get to go to the heaven of which Narnia itself was but a shadow. Peter, Edmund and Lucy, having all been killed at the same time in an our-earthly train-crash, find themselves suddenly in Narnia, and from there proceed to the real heaven. As a bibliophile, I've always loved the way Lewis describes this latter destination:
For them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Not Susan, though. She is no longer a 'friend of Narnia'. Indeed, she no longer believes Narnia is real ('Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children', she tells Eustace, dismissively, back in our world). The killer is this assessment of Susan's priorities from Jill Pole: 'she's interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.' Invitations to parties, that is. In a word: sex has become more important in her adult life than Narnia. Ergo: no heaven for her! J K Rowling in an 2004 interview summed up the 'problem of Susan' thesis:
There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.
Quite. Now, one can consider (as I do) the gender politics of Lewis's writing problematic in lots of ways without considering him a dedicated sexist or misogynist. Indeed, I really don't believe he was either of those latter things. To read his theological works is to see that he didn't have a problem with sex as such. He had a problem with people becoming so focused on sex that it crowded out the things that really matter in life, like the young couple at the beginning of The Great Divorce so caught-up in one another's physical allure that they literally can't see the possible road to heaven. For myself that line of argument, which clearly has some merit to it, would be more convincing if Lewis included any (to use the modern jargon) 'sex positive' representation at all in his Narnian writing. We can speculate why he doesn't. It's an unsurprising omission in children's books written in the 1950s, I suppose.

When I teach Narnia, a good proportion of my students become quite animated in their critique of the books' gender politics: Lewis making his satanic figure of evil a beautiful woman, for example; the lack of female agency when compared to male among the various characters; the problem of Susan itself. I used to be with them on that. But my perspective on the problem of Susan was altered by this clever and, I think, perceptive essay by my friend Alan Jacobs, written in response to an earlier blog post I wrote on this matter. The 'gender critique' perspective on Susan's lack of access (maybe temporary, maybe permanent) to the true Narnian heaven is: she's excluded because she has become a sexually mature woman. Alan disagrees:
I think that the right way to put it is to say that Susan simply chooses not to return to Narnia. That we paltry little humans have the power to refuse God is a point that Lewis returns to often in his theological writings. As he writes in The Problem of Pain, if we demand that God leave us alone, “that is what he does” — and, interestingly, Lewis prefaces that statement with an “Alas,” as though he might well prefer God to operate in another way. (Which also helps us understand that in sparing Susan from the train wreck that kills the rest of her family he is trying to give her a chance to turn back around towards Narnia. However, the emotional tenor of all this is muddled by this catastrophic contrivance to get the rest of the Pevensies into Narnia one last time; it's one of Lewis's unwisest narrative choices.)

I think this point — that we can refuse God and that some of us do — was important enough to Lewis that he was determined to get it into the Narnia books, but how was he to do it? The point wouldn't be made strongly enough if any of the less dominant characters embodied it, so it had to be one of the Pevensies. He couldn't make Lucy a backslider: she was the one who had always had the greatest faith and the greatest spiritual discernment. And he couldn't use Edmund either, since any renunciation of Aslan by Edmund would destroy the whole portrayal of Edmund's redemption in the first book. So it had to be either Peter or Susan, and I suspect that Lewis was not quite ready to face the possible theological implications of the High King of Narnia becoming a rebel against Aslan. So Susan it had to be. Lewis was backed into a structural corner, as it were.

This is not to say that Lewis didn't have some deeply troubling ideas about women, only that I think he couldn't have gone in another direction if he were going to make this theological point about our ability to be “successful rebels to the end.”
This seems to me the most likely explanation for why Lewis wrote Susan the way he did (I actually give this passage to my students for discussion).

Lately though I've been re-thinking Susan. Quite possibly I've been over-thinking Susan. The thing is: the way we style the throwaway reference at the end of The Last Battle as 'the problem of Susan' makes it into the problem of puberty. The thing about that is that we tend to forget Susan has already gone through puberty, at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. All the Pevensies have done the same. The experience has turned them less into sexual beings and more into Renaissance Fair cosplayers:
“And more,” said Queen Lucy, “for it will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern either we shall find strange adventures or else some great change in our fortunes.”

“Madam,” said King Edmund, “the like foreboding stirreth in my heart also.”

“And in mine, fair brother,” said King Peter.

“And in mine too,” said Queen Susan. “Wherefore by my counsel we shall lightly return to our horses and follow this White Stag no further.”

“Madam,” said King Peter, “therein I pray thee to have me excused. For never since we four were Kings and Queens in Narnia have we set our hands to any high matter, as battles, quests, feats of arms, acts of justice, and the like, and then given over; but always what we have taken in hand, the same we have achieved.”

“Sister,” said Queen Lucy, “my royal brother speaks rightly. And it seems to me we should be shamed if for any fearing or foreboding we turned back from following so noble a beast as now we have in chase.”

“And so say I,” said King Edmund. “And I have such desire to find the signification of this thing that I would not by my own good will turn back for the richest jewel in all Narnia and all the islands.”

“Then in the name of Aslan,” said Queen Susan, “if ye will all have it so, let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, ch 17]
The white stag here is either Lewis's gesture towards Celtic mythology (in which the uncatchable stag represents the beckoning other-world; quite a neat reversal if so, for Narnia's otherworld, here, is our mundane one) or else, perhaps, it is a nod towards Saint Eustace. Eustace was a high-up Roman general who converted to Christianity during a hunt, when the stag he was hunting displayed a crucifix in amongst its antlers.



[Lovely image there, by an artist called Swandog]. Conceivably Lewis thought back to this stag when he came up with the name for Eustace Scrubb. But could the stag in some way stand for grown-up sexuality, some iteration of a sex-positive Christianity not in thrall to the dreaded lipstick, nylons and invitations? A clean sort of desire? Hard to parse it that way, I think. Ezra P might disagree:
I ha' seen them mid the clouds on the heather.
Lo! they pause not for love nor for sorrow,
Yet their eyes are as the eyes of a maid to her lover,
When the white hart breaks his cover
And the white wind breaks the morn.

Tis the white stag, Fame, we're a-hunting,
Bid the world's hounds come to horn!’
I suppose 'they', there, is us, humanity, chasing our ever-receding quarry with eyes of love-yearning. Which is all well and good, except that, at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it is Susan who advocates giving up the pursuit: 'wherefore by my counsel we shall follow this White Stag no further'.

I wonder if it doesn't present, in effect, as a kind of thought-experiment. What would happen if you went through puberty into adulthood, then reverted abruptly to childhood again, and then went through puberty a second time? Speaking for myself I'd like to hope I'd handle the whole business better. But the Narnia books say the reverse: Susan handles puberty well, winds back time, goes through it again and makes a hash of it.

We could read this several ways. One would be to say: 'growing to adulthood is less sin-prone in Narnia than in our world'. But another would be more, shall we say, Tiresian. Imagine you could try puberty twice, first (for want of a better word) 'virtuously', the second time (again: terminology is tricky) lustfully. Could it be that the order in which Susan goes through these twinned experiences tends, conceivably even to Tiresias's proportion of nine-parts-to-one, to the conclusion: a virtuous puberty is fine, but a lustful puberty is ... better.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Dante and Clive: Live



Over the last few days I've been re-reading some Dante, in part because I've been kicking around the idea that Tennyson wrote his Maud on Dantean lines (you can read the post that resulted from that kickage here). Since my Italian is molto molto rudimentale, that has meant pulling up the online Divina Commedia, opening my English translations, and picking my way awkwardly through. Those translations happen (through no very carefully planned-out strategy) to be: the Dorothy L Sayers version of the whole poem, Robin Kirkpatrick's more recent and not-at-all-bad Penguin Inferno, and Clive James's 2014 rendering.

Pausing only to note what a great title "Penguin Inferno" would be for a major motion picture, I'll go on to:



I've always liked reading Clive James's prose. His writing provokes in me a mixture of delight and professional envy at his technical chops—writing good comic prose is really hard to do, and James writes truly excellent comic prose. His poetry has always seemed to me a lesser achievement, although writing poetry is clearly something that matters to him immensely. Still, I've read a lot of it (the poetry I mean), and acknowledging that comedy isn't the function of most of his verse, I have found some things to admire in some of it. So when his Dante translation came out in paperback a few months ago, I treated myself and bought the book.

I can't say I've been able to read the whole thing, straight through, which, I think, is what the book would like me to do. Not for want of trying, either. But I've had some long stretches with it. So far I'm struck mostly by a kind of mismatch between the stated aims, in the nifty preface, and the actual verse. I feel boorish saying so, actually, since the preface makes very plain that the whole, huge enterprise of Englishing, or Australianing, the Divine Comedy is all bound up with James's wife, an academic Dante specialist, and a woman James is very open about having repeatedly wronged. The two are separated now, and James is dying, which makes him offering-up this undertaking to her rather moving. And what he says about the difficulty of rendering the original is persuasive. He recalls his wife, from their courtship days, taking through some of the many patterns in Dante's writing:
One of the first moments she picked out of the text to show me what the master versifier could do was when Francesca tells Dante what drove her and Paolo over the brink and into the pit of sin. In English it would go something like:
We read that day for delight
About Lancelot, how love bound him.
She read it in Italian.
Noi leggevam quel giorno per delitto
Di Lancelotto, come l’amor lo strinse.
After the sound “-letto” end the first line, the placing of “-lotto” at the start of the second line gives it the power of a rhyme, only more so. How does that happen? You have to look within.
This is a simple but wonderfully telling point. James goes on to note how often English translations, by straining for the rhymes at the end of their lines (rhyme being so much harder in English than in Italian) butcher the echt Dantean tone. 'Dante isn’t thinking of rhyme,’ James says, ‘which is too easy in Italian to be thought a technical challenge: in fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.’ He adds:
Dante’s overt rhyme scheme is only the initial framework by which the verse structure moves forward. Within the terzina, there is all this other intense interaction going on. Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn’t just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.
I like the thought of this last sentiment very much; and it sets us up to look for this internalised dynamic in James's actual verse. But to turn to the actual poetry is ... look, see, here're the opening lines of the Inferno:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
And here's Clive:
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear—
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,
It lead to good things too, eventually.
Those first three lines, including that choppy, wholly monosyllablic opening line 'at the mid point of the path through life I found' (that's an almost robotic stretch of English) read like somebody stumbling instead of somebody getting into their stride. I query the merit in starting a broadly iambic verse epic with two trochees (AT the MID point) followed by a hurrying-to-catch-up anapest (ofthe PATH), starting to settle with two iambs before interrupting the patter with another trochee (LOST in). By the time the reader gets into the swing of things by lines 4, 5 and 6 she can hardly look back on the opening without feeling its awkwardness. Add to that the inversion in lines 7-8, a tic that jars in what is otherwise a confident contemporaneity of vocabulary and syntax: what's wrong with 'so bad, that death would be worse by only a degree'? Apart from the rhyme, of course. And the rhyme is not very deftly handled here. I don't mean the replacement of the terza rima with quatrains: that's a legitimate tactical decision made by the poet. I'm talking about the greetings-card tweeness of rhyming 'degree' with 'eventualee'. Fiddlededee.

I would also say that going back to the Dorothy L Sayers version has re-impressed me with how solid an achievement that old warhorse is. I note this in the understanding that Sayer's Dante is not very highly regarded, although maybe I'm wrong about that. The worst one can say of it is that it is unashamed of archaism: 'thee' and 'thou' are awkwardly sore-thumb English renderings of the perfectly ordinary Italian tu, and sometimes Sayers indulges in old-school idioms and inversions of idiomatic syntax in ways that must have been distracting even in the 1950s and which are actively wincing nowadays.
Breathe in me [Apollo], breathe, and from my bosom drive
Music like thine, when thou didst long ago
The limbs of Marsyas from their scabbard rive. [Sayers, Divine Comedy 3: Paradise, 1:19-21]
That aside, her verse is mostly very effective. Here's the famous opening of Paradiso 2:
O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,

tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.

L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l’Orse.
And here's what Sayers makes of it (her Paradise was completed and edited by Barbara Reynolds after her death, but the impression given in the preface is that the lion's share of the finished work is still Sayers's):
O you that follow in light cockle shells,
For the song's sake, as my ship sails before,
Carving her course and singing as she sails

Turn back and seek the safety of the shore;
Tempt not the deep, lest, losing unawares
Me and yourselves, you come to port no more.

Oceans as yet undared my vessel dares;
Apollo steers, Minerva lends the breeze,
And the nine Muses point me to the Bears.
The only wrong-step here (and, really, I'm being supercritical in saying so) is that 'light' as a modifier of 'cockle-shells' is a touch ambiguous between flimsiness and illumination—are these sailors following in frail cockle-shells or sailing their cockle shells to follow the light?—a consideration that has more weight than it might otherwise given how important actual and spiritual light is for Dante's paradise. Otherwise it's perfectly decent verse; even somewhat better that decent. The way she plays with the internal near-rhyme of 'shells' and 'sails' in that first terzo (not to mention the 'cockle'/'carving'/'course' alliteration) reproduces some of the musical inscape James notes in the introduction to his edition I quote above. And here's James's version of those lines, from that very edition:
You sailors in your little boats that trail
My singing ship because so keen to hear,
By now it might be time for you to sail
Back till you see your shoreline reappear,
For here the sea is deep, and if you lose
My leading light just once, then steering clear
Might bring bewilderment. So you must choose—
Be warned, this sea was never sailed before.
Minerva breathes, Apollo steers, the nine
Muses will navigate me by the store
Of stars.
That's just ... off, I think. Prolix (ten and a half lines to do nine lines' work), with wrongfooting enjambments and odd phrasing. There's the weirdness of a sailor navigating by a 'store' of stars. Who talks like that? Apart, that is, from poets desperate for a rhyme with 'before'? And why lose the specific detail of Dante's named constellations Ursa Major and Minor? Beyond that: 'you are trailing my singing ship because so keen to hear' is really not very idiomatic English (to hear what?), 'By now it might be time for you to sail/Back' is slack and chatty, and crunches pointlessly over its enjambment; 'steering clear' is inappropriately ambiguous between 'setting a clear path into ocean open' and 'avoiding something', and 'Minerva breathes', whilst sticking close to Minerva spira, doesn't convey that what Minerva is breathing is the breeze that fills the sail, and leaves us with the shadowy sense of Minerva sitting belowdecks somewhere, wheezing. Plus 'the nine/Muses' throws out the prosody so sharply it's almost like the verse twists its ankle at that point.

Another example, again from the Paradiso, since that's the part I've been reading the most, lately. In Canto 14, Dante rises above the sphere of the sun into the sphere of Mars. The canto's opening simile, quite famous, is also quite tricky to put clearly into English:
Dal centro al cerchio, e sì dal cerchio al centro
movesi l’acqua in un ritondo vaso,
secondo ch’è percosso fuori o dentro:

ne la mia mente fé sùbito caso
questo ch’io dico, sì come si tacque
la glorïosa vita di Tommaso,

per la similitudine che nacque
del suo parlare e di quel di Beatrice,
a cui sì cominciar, dopo lui, piacque: [Paradiso, 14:1-9]
Sayers/Reynolds go with:
Water in a round bowl makes ripples glide
Centre to rim, or back from rim to centre,
As from within 'tis jarred, or from outside.

This image dropped into my mind instanter
When Thomas' glorious life had said his say;
Like an apt simile it seemed to enter

In likeness of the verbal interplay
'Twixt Beatrice and him; for she, as suited,
Her pleasure, thus took up her cue straightway:
A bit clumsy, that 'instanter' (for the rhyme), and rather creaky with the 'tis' and 'twixt' and the wrenching of what would work much more effectively as 'it seemed to enter like an apt simile'. But it gets the image across. James:
The water moves from rim to centre when
A round container is struck from without.
The water moves, when it is struck again—
But from within—the other way about,
Centre to rim. This proof from science fell
Into my mind the instant that the soul,
So glorious, of Thomas, ceased to tell
His story, because Beatrice took the role
Of speaker, and was pleased to follow thus:
That's just a muddle. 'But from within—the other way about' is worthy of The Stuffed Owl, and its just hard to get a sense from this of who's banging which bowl and why. I don't want to give the impression I'm doing whatever the opposite of cherry-picking is, so one last instance. On to Mars:
Ben m’accors’ io ch’io era più levato,
per l’affocato riso de la stella,
che mi parea più roggio che l’usato.

Con tutto ’l core e con quella favella
ch’è una in tutti, a Dio feci olocausto,
qual conveniesi a la grazia novella.

E non er’ anco del mio petto essausto
l’ardor del sacrificio, ch’io conobbi
esso litare stato accetto e fausto;

ché con tanto lucore e tanto robbi
m’apparvero splendor dentro a due raggi,
ch’io dissi: «O Elïòs che sì li addobbi!». [Paradiso 14, 85-96]
Sayers/Reynolds:
That I'd been lifted up I saw by this:
The warm smile of the star, whose burning ball
Seemed ruddier to me than his custom is.

With my whole heart, and in that tongue which all
Men share, I made burnt-offering to the Lord,
Such as to this new grace was suitable,

And ere the sacrificial fire had soared
Forth of my breast, I knew my prayer had sped
Accepted and found favourable accord;

For such bright splendours, and so ruby-red
Within two rays appeared, "O Eloi,"
I cried, "that giv'st them thus the accolade!"
So that last word is not much of a rhyme, and there's a stiffness here and there in this version. James: 'I saw myself moved'
Up to a plane exalted even more,
Of whose high ranking I was given proof
By Mars. More rose-coloured than before
It now seemed. With my heart not held aloof,
But fully yielded, I employed the tongue--
Befitting all the loving care and grace
That lit the favours I was now among--
Of one and all when making, in that place,
The burning sacrifice to God, and still
It burned my breast though I knew it was
Accepted, and propitious. For the spill
Of splendour was so shimmering because
Of two beams, and so roseate, I said,
"Divine Sun, that so glorifies this!" As ...
I'll stop there. Fourteen lines for twelve lines' work; some padding ('not held aloof/But fully yielded' doubles up its point not because Dante does, but because James needs an -oof rhyme). Rose-coloured works in Italian (and French) for pinky-red, but not in English, where roses (as Lewis Carroll knew) might just as easily be white; and 'more rose-coloured than before/It now seemed' is a pointless and therefore distracting inversion of the natural word order. 'The spill/Of splendour was so shimmering because/Of two beams ...' starts well, but pisses it all away in its last four words: that clunking 'because'! That what-are-we-doing-woodwork-now? double beam!

The most damning thing about this Jamesian Dante is that, unlike his smooth onflowing prose, it really doesn't lend itself to long bouts of reading. It clogs and turns about and stalls, or at least that's how I have found it.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Divina Co-"Maud"-ia



This is how Tennyson's beautifully strange 'monodrama' Maud (1855) opens:
I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,
Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,
The red-ribb’d ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
And Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers “Death.”

For there in the ghastly pit long since a body was found,
His who had given me life—O father! O God! was it well?—
Mangled, and flatten’d, and crush’d, and dinted into the ground:
There yet lies the rock that fell with him when he fell.
The unnamed narrator (nobody in this poem is named, with the sole exception of the woman with whom the narrator falls in love, the titular Maud)—the narrator has been rendered distraught to the point of near-insanity by the suicide of his father, who killed himself because 'a vast speculation had fail’d'. A financial speculation, that is. The poem's speaker rails at the evils of 1850s Britain in a Thomas Carlyle manner, frets that he has inherited the black blood of his father ('What! am I raging alone as my father raged in his mood?/Must I too creep to the hollow and dash myself down and die?') and ponders 'the singular beauty of Maud', a girl he played with when they were both children and who now lives in the great hall. Maud's father has done well out of the financial speculations that ruined the narrator's father, and although the narrator resolves to withdraw himself from the world he ends up falling in love with the now seventeen-year-old beauty.

Maud is in three parts. In Part 1, by far the longest of the poem, the narrator falls in love with Maud, and she with him The course of true love unsmoothly-running, Maud's brother (the proxy for Maud's lupine father, who is off in London making more money) disapproves of the match. He thinks Maud should marry a local aristocrat, disdainfully called 'the babe-faced lord' by the poem's narrator. The brother's refusal of permission, and his generally haughty and dismissive manner, leads to him being called 'the Sultan' by the two young lovers. An elegant party is planned at the hall where Maud can dance with the babe-faced-lord, but the narrator is not worried: Maud has promised to sneak out at dawn and meet him for a love tryst, and Part 1 ends in the hall's flower garden as the narrator excitedly-anxiously awaits her coming:
Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
To the flowers, and be their sun.

There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”
And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”
The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”
And the lily whispers, “I wait.”

She is coming, my own, my sweet,
Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat, Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red. [Maud, 1:902-23]
That understated echo of the blood-coloured foliage at the poem's opening strikes an appropriately ominous note. In Part 2, the speaker is suddenly in France, where he has fled to escape prosecution. Backstory: Maud's brother and the babe-faced-lord surprised Maud with the narrator in the garden, and the brother rebuked and struck him. They immediately fought a duel (a detail which has always bothered me: shouldn't it take longer to arrange a duel?) in which the narrator killed the brother. In Brittany he learns that, Ophelia-like, Maud has herself died of grief, which news is too much for him. He himself loses his wits. Part 2 ends in an insane asylum, where he believes himself dead, but buried too shallowly:
Dead, long dead,
Long dead!
And my heart is a handful of dust,
And the wheels go over my head,
And my bones are shaken with pain,
For into a shallow grave they are thrust,
Only a yard beneath the street,
And the hoofs of the horses beat, beat,
The hoofs of the horses beat,
Beat into my scalp and my brain, [Maud 2:239-48]
The brief Part 3 is one over which critics tend to disagree. The speaker has now, according to Tennyson, recovered his wits: 'sane but shattered'.
Thro’ cells of madness, haunts of horror and fear,
That I come to be grateful at last for a little thing:
My mood is changed, for it fell at a time of year
When the face of night is fair on the dewy downs,
And the shining daffodil dies, and the Charioteer
And starry Gemini hang like glorious crowns
Over Orion’s grave low down in the west,
That like a silent lightning under the stars
She seem’d to divide in a dream from a band of the blest,
And spoke of a hope for the world in the coming wars— [Maud, 3:344-53]
The Crimean War, that is: to which the narrator goes in the hope of a glorious and redemptive death. Not sane behaviour in my book; others have disagreed.

There's a lot to say about all this, but I want to register one idea in particular, something which occurred to me for the first time this week. In a nutshell: was Dante in Tennyson's mind when he wrote Maud? He certainly read and loved Dante; his 'Ulysses' is based on Inferno 26, and The Vision of Sin (1842) ends with a sort of panegyric to Dante himself.

Go back to Maud's opening stanza, quoted above. It kicks the poem off with a dark wood, beyond which is a ghastly pit, in which everything spoken returns as 'Death', and which drips with a silent horror of blood. Sound familiar? Maud's narrator finds himself in the middle of this selva oscura, contemplating the way nature violates itself ('the whole little wood where I sit is a world of plunder and prey' he says). In the Commedia, Dante finds his way out of the wood blocked by a savage a wolf, and Virgil tells him he must find another way,
ché questa bestia, per la qual tu gride,
non lascia altrui passar per la sua via,
ma tanto lo 'mpedisce che l'uccide;

e ha natura sì malvagia e ria,
che mai non empie la bramosa voglia,
e dopo 'l pasto ha più fame che pria. [Inferno, 1:94-99]
'This beast, that makes you cry out in fear, allows no-one to pass, and instead attacks and destroys them; and has a nature so malign and ruthless that no amount of feeding can glut its greedy will and rather, after eating, is even hungrier than before.' In Tennyson's poem, Maud's father is the 'a gray old wolf and a lean' [Maud, 1:471]; and he, through his son, represents the implacable opposition to the narrator's love for Maud.

Since the narrator can't go on to a happy life with Maud he instead goes down, into the same pit that claimed his father, through cells of madness and haunts of horror and fear. Just like Dante. The key difference, of course, is that Dante is an external observer of the madness, horror and fear of others, where Maud's narrator not only re-presents but himself is the madness, horror and fear. But that's of a part with the project as Tennyson conceived it ('the peculiarity of this poem is that different phases of passion in one person take the place of different characters' is how he put it).

It would take quite a lot of labour to develop this notion, that Maud is a deliberate reworking of the Divina Commedia: more than I have time for at the moment. But the idea throws up some interesting implications. It would mean, for instance, that all the febrile love-lyric-ing of Part 1 is actually part of the narrator's Hell, which makes a kind of sense to me (Paolo and Francesca, and so on). It would mean that the up-reaching mountain of Purgatory becomes inverted into a shallow grave, and that Heaven means not just a restoration of sanity (the madness having been purged) but the narrator being elevated to the 'Heaven of Mars' (Paradiso cantos 14-16), where the souls of the warriors of God are picked out as rubies in the empyrion, and Mars is 'redder than usual, a bright and splendid ruby light': 'la stella, che mi parea più roggio che l’usato ... ché con tanto lucore e tanto robbi/m’apparvero splendor' [Paradiso 14:86-94]. By this point in the Paradiso Dante is being guided not by Vergil but Beatrice herself; just as Tennyson's narrator is being guided through the starfield by the spirit of Maud, who has 'divided from a band of the blest, ... and pointed to Mars,/As he glow’d like a ruddy shield on the Lion’s breast.' Here's Waterhouse's painting of Tennyson's Beatrice-y heroine:



That lass's hair is più roggio che l’usato in representations of Maud, I think. It works, mind you.

In all this, Tennyson is, I think, as much working with Dante-filtered-by-English-Romanticism as he is going back to the echt Florentine. In this interesting essay on the influence of Dante on 19th- and 20th-century poetry, John Bayley thinks that
in our poetry, Shelley is the prime case. Keble observed that the intensity of the Paradiso is produced by a harmony of abstractions – light, motion and music – and Steve Ellis points out that this is precisely the Shelleyan formula in his long poems, notably in the last act of Prometheus Unbound.
It's also very precisely the formula Tennyson follows in Maud. We tend to think of Byron as a bigger influence on Tennyson than Shelley, I suppose; but of course Byron was also a deep-dyed Dantean:
Both in ‘Epipsychidion’ and in the unfinished Triumph of Life Shelley uses the elements of Dante’s poetry to create poetry of a wholly different kind. Shelley couldn’t abide anything in the nature of an orderly and regulated hierarchy, whether of crimes or virtues; his wife recorded, moreover, that he ‘shrunk instinctively from portraying human passion, with its mixture of good and evil, of disappointment and disquiet’. But no other English poet has made more inspired use of the music and the feel of Dante’s verse, transubstantiating its often homely precision and clarity into an equal precision of dream-like beauty and melancholy. Byron’s interest was much more local, centring on the incestuous figures and the guilty lovers. Guilt meant nothing to Shelley, but to the Scotch Calvinist latent in Byron it meant a great deal, and in his translation of the Paolo and Francesca episode, the part of the poem which especially engrossed him, as it was to engross in more sentimental fashion the later Victorian poets, he emphasises the curse upon the lovers and the way in which they are compelled to fulfil their ‘evil fortunes’.
One last point: Bayley astutely (I think) notes:
The tragedy implicit in the Commedia is of course the political one, the betrayal of an imperial ideal, the greed and wickedness of those who in life have blindly betrayed it, or sought in vain to uphold it, and whom now in his great afterscheme Dante makes articulate and perceiving. For Browning, too, 13th-century Italy provided, as Ellis says, the suitable setting to study a soul whose divisions are a microcosm of a wider political polarisation and non-fulfilment.
This also explains, I would say, why Maud makes its connections between the doomed love of the narrator and Maud herself on the one hand, and the hellscape of Britain's broken socio-political world, where 'a Mammonite mother kills her babe for a burial fee,/And Timour-Mammon grins on a pile of children’s bones.'

Friday, 13 January 2017

Plunging Stained-Glass Ship



Amazing piece of glassy art, this: Burne Jones's "The Viking Ship" (1883).

Monday, 9 January 2017

Plane



Christopher R. W. Nevinson, 'From a Paris Plane' (1917). More Nevinson, including more plane sketches, here.

Samuel Johnson, science-fictioneer


Samuel Johnson's 1757 review of Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil is a masterpiece of the form. Considering the entire ‘universal system’, Jenyns says, ‘there is no more pain in it than what is necessary to the production of happiness.’ Johnson replies, with a lovely understatement, that perhaps ‘the degree of evil might have been less without any impediment to the good.’ When Jenyns wonders in passing whether there may be, in the larger scale of things, creatures higher than we who might treat us as we treat the lower animals, Johnson develops this idea with a sharpness worthy of Phil Dick:
I cannot resist the temptation of contemplating this analogy, which, I think, he might have carried further, very much to the advantage of his argument. He might have shown, that these "hunters, whose game is man," have many sports analogous to our own. As we drown whelps and kittens, they amuse themselves, now and then, with sinking a ship, and stand round the fields of Blenheim, or the walls of Prague, as we encircle a cockpit. As we shoot a bird flying, they take a man in the midst of his business or pleasure, and knock him down with an apoplexy. Some of them, perhaps, are virtuosi, and delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher in the effects of the air-pump. To swell a man with a tympany is as good sport as to blow a frog. Many a merry bout have these frolick beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive and tumble again, and all this he knows not why. As they are wiser and more powerful than we, they have more exquisite diversions; for we have no way of procuring any sport so brisk and so lasting, as the paroxysms of the gout and stone, which, undoubtedly, must make high mirth, especially if the play be a little diversified with the blunders and puzzles of the blind and deaf. We know not how far their sphere of observation may extend. Perhaps, now and then, a merry being may place himself in such a situation, as to enjoy, at once, all the varieties of an epidemical disease, or amuse his leisure with the tossings and contortions of every possible pain, exhibited together.
Finally, the zinger: 'Many of the books which now crowd the world, may be justly suspected to be written for the sake of some invisible order of beings, for surely they are of no use to any of the corporeal inhabitants of the world.'