terça-feira, novembro 21, 2017

Reality and Illusion: "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick



The one faithful film adaptation of a PKD story I'm aware of was the Linklater version of A Scanner Darkly. All the others take a major conceptual element of the story's basic premise, but then seriously alter the narrative in ways that often make them very different thematically. I really liked the Linklater film, too, because I think the "slavish" recreation of the story does a far better job of presenting the ideas that Dick had in their full nuance and depth than any other film version of his work ever has.) Most other adaptations of his work (there are some I haven't seen) tend to fall far short of that, which is really a shame. I mean, Blade Runner (the 1982 version) is a great movie. I like it a lot, but the novel has layers of philosophical depth that the film just doesn't get anywhere near. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is one of Dick's many explorations of what was clearly his favorite philosophical topic, namely "what is the difference between reality and an illusion?" The movie is reasonably accurate in its representation of the basic plot points (a police officer hunts for escaped androids from space colonies, who are illegally living on Earth and posing as humans) but doesn't even attempt to probe the weirder, but more thought-provoking elements of the story--e.g. that the human race is actually going extinct, and that the robots' brains are distinguishable from those of humans by the robots' inability to feel empathy toward living things. Or how keeping pets has become a quasi-religious practice because there are so few living, non-mechanical things left on the Earth in general. (Or the whole weird virtual-reality religion where people experience the pain of a man who is perpetually pelted with rocks while struggling to climb a steep mountain--again, the capacity for empathy being something that people in that world see as a definitive difference between genuine life and a mere mechanical imitation of life. All of this makes “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” a classically PhilDickian work--the theme and general unsettling ambiance of existential paranoia from living in a world where nothing can be assumed to be what it appears to be, and in which the future of the Earth is to be virtually devoid of life yet filled instead with mocking superficial simulacra of life--in a way that Blade Runner, for all its own copious merits as a work of art in its own right, just isn't. And while I understand the critique, I've never personally found Dick's writing style to be bad. It's just not very literary--if what one means by "literary" is basically "florid, convoluted, and abstruse." E.g. I find that a lot of Dick's science fiction is similar in its thematic content and general tone to most of Thomas Pynchon's famous novels as well as the fact some of Phil Dick's novels seem to me to have a somewhat Beckettian feeling. But maybe that's just me. Food for thought. When I'm in the mood, I'll explore this further.

domingo, novembro 19, 2017

Unreliable First-Person Narrative: "Mightier than the Sword" by K. J. Parker



It’s an interesting debate about SF being written by mainstream writers, and whether it is still SF. Most of the early examples are female writers who coupled SF and feminism. Atwood, LeGuin, Lessing, Octavia Butler (who also brought in race topics, of course). Whether you see them as SF or mainstream really depends which editions of their books you pick up. And it really doesn't matter either way, they were (and are) just good. When it becomes embarrassing is when mainstream writers start playing with SF tropes but don't have the skill to carry it off well. At the moment I'm reminded of that point in the eighties when mainstream white pop acts started rapping - embarrassing to say the least. You can tell when an artist has a real grasp on the tradition they are working in. You don't expect classical musicians to be able to play rhythm and blues without at least listening to John Lee Hooker for a while, yet mainstream writers go stumbling into the depths of Hard SF territory without apparently reading any of what has come before. Fair enough if they can do it, but if Cormac McCarthy and Winterson are any guide it seems that they can't. What's "rebellious" about conforming to current expectations and ideology? Stereotypes and political correctness are two sides of the same coin, treating characters as statements or representatives and not as individuals.

Quite apart from believing there is space for pure entertainment, I also do not believe that interesting, challenging work usually comes about as a result of a writer sitting down and consciously thinking "OK, I'm going to tackle this important topic". Writing is more often a process of exploration and discovery, with a lot of unconscious input. As a provision, I would also suggest that the expectation that writers must "treat characters as statements or representatives and not as individuals", reliable narrators or not, is also a presumption and taste of our own particular time, place, and culture.

Why "must" this be so?

Are allegorical and symbolic modes of narration always somehow less rewarding? I’ve fed up with people saying they don’t bother reading books with unreliable narrators. Why? No idea. I think that the whole palette should be available to the writer and the reader. I also think that imperatives about making SF "representative" reveal the degree to which contemporary notions of Realism have saturated aesthetic discussions. Representative values and individuation are certainly not as necessary (or necessary at all) for the success of works such as Dunsany's The Gods of Pegana, Cabell's Jurgen, Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, or Lindsay's The Voyage to Arcturus. And I would maintain that -- viewed retrospectively -- two works that I greatly admire, A Wizard of Earthsea and Perdido Street Station, now seem as much about "types of narration" as anything else. This is not meant to mark down Le Guin or Mieville. Far from it. Rather, I think that A Wizard of Earthsea and Perdido Street Station will endure despite their politics or ideology -- which will increasingly date over time -- by virtue of their style, tone, and aesthetic achievement.

When it comes to first person narrators aren't they all essentially unreliable? Who cares? David Copperfield, Holden Caulfield, anything by Gide, Mersault, and so on. Also, shouldn't we distinguish between 'twist in the tail' narratives where an objective truth is revealed in the denouement, and more nuanced novels that describe the fine line between knowledge, story telling, and madness.  


I'll never understand the people, and I've met several, who say they don't like unreliable narrators. For me, they're the only interesting kind and K. J. Parker is, undeniably, the SF master of the form.



SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, novembro 18, 2017

Representation of Human: "The Odyssey" by Homer (translated by Robert Fitzgerald; read by Dan Stevens)



I humbly declare this book to be the greatest literary work of mankind. If you don't learn Greek (worth it just to read this Meisterwerk, never mind the rest of the immortal trove of Greek literature) you can read it in so many translations that have become classics in their own use of the English language, Fagles and Murray, just to mention two. Oh, what the Hades, let's throw in a third, not just for its brilliant translation, but also owing to the exotic character behind it: no less than Lawrence of Arabia.

The Homeric poems were sung in a less-enlightened time, in comparison with the later Greek tragedies, and with the later epics too. Apollonius' Argonautica was composed, post Greek Tragedy, and his audience would have been, no doubt, familiar with Euripides' Medea. Questions such as how justice and revenge affect societies were addressed by Aeschylus in the Oresteia; likewise, the reception of the anthropomorphic gods, and their pettiness, was raised by Euripides in Hippolytus and the Bacchae. Furthermore, the real nature and brutality of warfare was also raised in the Trojan Women. Throw in how one state views another state, and questions of racial identity, and you have The Persians by Aeschylus, and Medea by Euripides. Additionally, if you include Philoctetes by Sophocles, and the issue of how youth should conduct themselves is also raised. If you consider, too, Ajax by Sophocles, and you find that the bloodthirsty myths of an earlier age are filtered through questions that C5 Athenian society faced. What is better, the brute force of an unsophisticated Ajax, or the sophistry and rhetorical arguments of Odysseus in Ajax? By the time we arrive at Virgil, and The Aenied, brutal events such as the death of Priam by Neoptolemus in Aeneid Book II, are tempered with a more enlightened approach. Neoptolemus is condemned for killing Priam, and rightly so, as mercy is important, and exemplifies the Romanitas of 'Sparing the humble, and conquering the proud'. However, Aeneas doesn't show mercy in his killing of Turnus at the end of Book XII.

I have always thought of “The Odyssey” as the story of a man tainted, infected, by the corrupting virus of war who has to undergo a sort of purging 10 year quarantine as he struggles to get home. And yet, in spite of everything, he returns home still as deadly and full of murderous intent as the day he set out from Troy. Indeed, as the day he first set sail from Ithaca. He is a carrier of the virus of war, rather than a victim.

Odysseus is one of the most deadly and dangerous characters in the whole of literature, as much for his friends as his enemies, and this intensely human quality withstands everything the Gods can and do throw at him, as his wife's suitors learn to their cost. Not vile, just deadly, in a very individual, human way that the others who appear in the Iliad, who are more symbolic of particular qualities than real, rounded characters, are not. He is deadly in the way that a fisherman is, dreaming of his Summer holiday afloat while he watches Christmas TV in Croyden, and a Great White, going about its blinkered business in the deep, unaware of what fate has in store for it, is not.

Odysseus is perhaps the first well defined representation of a human, individual character, as opposed to a hapless plaything of the gods or embodiment of some strength or weakness, in the whole of literature. His imagination, his cunning and his indomitable will, his determination that if anyone is going to die, its, first of all, his enemy, and failing that, the guy standing next to him, makes him more dangerous than the most horrible monster, the strongest giant and the most seductive witch the gods can chuck at him. What chance does a bunch of soft, complacent suitors, unused to the possibility, the probability, even, of sudden death that Odysseus has not only seen but dealt out, have against him on his return to Ithaca, carrying the plague of war and violence in him?

I see “The Iliad” as a rhetorical piece of writing. It is no accident that Odysseus is the most beloved of Athena, goddess essentially of being clever and Achilles is notably not (unlike Heracles, Perseus, Jason et al). Achilles time is passing, the sheer logistics of the Trojan campaign which Homer bangs on about in depth are evidence of that. The stylised combat is in tension with the use of tactics, the honourable but suicidal tough guy has no place. It might be personally satisfying but you're going to lose wars that way. But how to convince proud people of this? Odysseus starts off wanting peace and hating war, this is the seed of his cruelty. This is, I think, actually our modern view of warfare as well, the less we revel in it, the more we demand overwhelming victory.

For a number of years in my youth, I didn’t want to read translations – I just felt that the presence of a third party between me and the author’s words seemed more opaque than transparent. Getting a bit older, I started to worry less about the issue (as well as a lot of other things) and generally just read what I feel like reading, though I still remain vaguely conscious of the translator at work when reading a translation. "The Odyssey" was one of those cases that made me read the translation, because I don’t read Greek.

I think that reading Tolkien must have helped me in dealing with the patronymics, since I didn’t have much difficulty with them. Are both Agamemnon and Menelaos referred to as Atreides? I seem to remember this happening in my reading, though it was usually clear which one the passage referred to.

Long before reading “The Iliad”, I picked up a lot of the story from operas: Berlioz, Gluck, Tippett, and, yes, Offenbach, not to mention the musical “The Golden Apple” by Jerome Moross and John Latouche. That last one sets “The Iliad” and “Odyssey” in late 19th / early 20th century America, very enjoyable, especially if you recognize the parallels. Right after finishing “The Iliad”, I listened to Sir Arthur Bliss’ "Morning Heroes", his tribute to his fallen comrades from the Great War. Its settings include two passages from “The Iliad: Andromache’s” farewell, which I linked to in Alexander’s version, and the passage in book 19 where Achilles arms himself for battle. I wanted to get a sense of how Homer’s poem spoke across the millennia to others caught up in war.

We see the same evolution in various forms of warfare since, consider how the longbow had a rather unsporting effect on chivalry or how air combat tactics changed between World War 1 and World War 2. I think this is most obvious when Homer, trying too hard, goes on about Odysseus's macho credentials as if he's saying, you can study for your exams and still play on the school football team. It seems like those bits are added under some pressure to avoid Odysseus seeming effeminate or weak and keep his argument on track.

It’s quite a carefully balanced piece of "writing" Odysseus is; Achilles isn't so much criticised as, well, literally laid to rest. No one would call Odysseus a pacifist, least of all me, and nor have I suggested that, but he certainly doesn't show any psychopathic lust for war. He goes out of his way to avoid war and conflict, but once he finds himself in that situation, he uses his brain, rather than any kind of blood-lust or crazed all-out assault to achieve his objective, which is to end it as quickly as possible and get home to his wife in one piece.

It is not his responsibility, in all of this, to look out for the Trojans.

As for the Trojan Horse, it woks out as the least costly solution, in terms of human life, at least for the Greeks, to their Trojan problem, which has been dragging on, at great cost in life and suffering to both the Greeks and the Trojans, for many years. As for what happened to Troy after the Greeks got in, that was a forgone conclusion from the beginning, and not the fault of Odysseus. I'm sure he would have been totally satisfied with a civilised arrangement at the beginning that allowed everyone to save face and go home happy and alive. The Trojans resisted and paid the price of all cities that resisted a siege, right up until relatively recently. They knew what would happen to them and would have done the same themselves, in similar circumstances. It was the rules of war, at the time. It made sense to torch the place, kill and enslave the inhabitants, because it made them an example to other cities in the future that might think resistance was an option.

Surrender was usually by far the wisest, if not a wholly palatable course of action, faced with a foregone conclusion. The opposite of a pacifist is not a psychopath. I think if you showed a little more empathy (a quality alien to psychopaths, of course) for the situation and the times in which Odysseus found himself, you might see things slightly differently.


As a tale, the Odyssey is a far better tale then “The Illiad” - the latter I find is more like a bloated Viking saga "he was son of X who gloriously killed son Y who was also a glourious son of a noble called C" - more personal/psychological in its themes and hence more identifiable as a figure, throughout the story Odysseus is contrasted with other figures like his friend Achilles/Agamemnon, and in his travels he never trusts a person without testing them first a far-fetched tale and only then does he either destroy them or uses them to help him. It is one of those stories I love returning to again and again. A tip to other potential readers of “The Odyssey”: trying listening to the story on audio - as it was originally intended for - it's an even more enjoyable experience.

sexta-feira, novembro 17, 2017

I Do Repent, and Yet I Do Despair: "Doctor Faustus" by Christopher Marlowe, Simon Trussler



For me, the key to Faustus is his interaction in Act V, Scene I with the "old man". The old man gives us Marlowe's theology:

Yet, yet, thou hast an amiable soul,”

—even after Faustus has made his deal with the devil and used the power he got for the previous 23 'years' and 364 'days', Faustus's soul is lovable. Just repent! Faustus replies:

Where art thou, Faustus? Wretch, what hast thou done?
Damned art thou, Faustus, damned: despair and die.”

Echoing the stories of Cain after his fratricide and Jesus on the cross, Faustus insists on his damnation. The old man contradicts him:

“Oh stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps.
[. . .
…] call for mercy and avoid despair.”

The old man leaves, and Faustus speaks out his dilemma:

“I do repent, and yet I do despair.”

Mephistophilis calls Faustus a "traitor", and "arrest[s his] soul / For disobedience" — don't doubt the keenness of Marlowe's irony, or sarcasm —, and Faustus repents of his repentance —irony! sarcasm! —, and gets his final wish, to see "the face that launched a thousand ships". While he's going on about how he'll "be Paris" and get Helen—does Faustus not remember how that turned out??—, during his poetry the old man returns to the stage. When Faustus leaves, intoxicated with sexual love for Helen, the old man, before defying the devils who've come to take his body to fire (but not his soul), says of Faustus:

“Accursed Faustus, miserable man,
That from thy soul exclud'st the grace of heaven,
And fliest the throne of his tribunal seat.”

Faustus doesn't crave knowledge: he goes through the catalogue of human expertise at the beginning of the play and finds, study by study, their futility, and turns to "necromantic books": "A sound magician is a demi-god."

It seems he might want a short-cut to immortality—but he never doubts he has a soul.

He says he wants power: "Oh, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence, / Is promised to the studious artizan!"

What Faustus wants is love, and what he convicts himself of is unlovability, and in Marlowe's brilliant, radiant perspective, the great sin within Christianity is not pride, but despair. And feel the sharpness at the end of the play: how can it ever be too late? How can a merciful god ever turn away from true repentance? And should not a merciful god save the souls that need mercy most? Almost Mephistophilis's last words are "'Tis too late, despair."—because Faustus has condemned himself. That's Marlowe's insight, the devil doesn't come to you and tempt you: "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it." Devils are there—in the despair of amiable souls.

As I said, the Old Man is crucial. The key thing about the Old Man in my view is that he is Faustus' "good angel" that has grown old and tired of waiting for him to repent. In ordering Mephistophilis to torture/kill him Faustus is essentially killing his last chance of redemption. Interesting the fabulous Helen speeches take place as the Old Man is being murdered. Helen is, arguably a succubus who is taking away the last of his soul, "see how it flies".

It raises a fascinating theological question as to which part of us is condemned to Hell. The Old Man aside, Faustus does not actually do anything particularly wicked in this play. He serves as an entertainer, teaches the Pope and horse-courser a lesson or two, and serves up a pregnant woman some grapes. The flabby middle is actually essential in showing how very little Faustus actually gains for his soul... it is the residual Morality Play.

It is interesting and often overlooked, that Faustus signs a second contract before the Old Man is killed and he is "rewarded" with Helen. The London merchants, students and lawyers who made up much of his audience would have been acutely aware of how important a second contract was. Isn't there a symmetry between the beginning and end of the play, so that the impaired theological reasoning is reflected back in Faust's refusal to repent? His pride is emphasized at the outset. He reviews not just his achievements in various fields, but the merits of those fields and dismisses them. In wanting to raise the dead he wants to play god. He is repeatedly confronted by the Good & Bad Angels and later by the Old Man, whose goodness and that of the 3 Scholars is a counterweight to the Devils. It is his decision to give up on God, not God's. (Not a theological axe to grind, just an observation). You don't hear a voice telling him to get lost, just a reference to an angry face in the final hour.

Yes, Faustus, apparently after signing the second contract in "blood", commands—he still has the 'power' to order Mephistophilis—Mephistophilis to "[t]orment […] that base and crooked age" — he seems to think temporarily that he's been lied to by the old man. But does he? While Faustus is, I think, front-stage, and Mephistophilis out of his sight (but on stage), he says, upon the old man exiting, that he “repents and yet despairs”:

Hell strives with grace for conquest in my breast.
What shall I do to shun the snares of death?”

He still wants immortality — as I argue, not spiritually (he never doubts that he has a "soul"), but bodily — even as he wants "grace" (that is, to repent and deserve grace). It's then that Mephistophilis steps forward (as I enact the scene) and snarls that he'll "in piecemeal tear thy flesh". It's the cold ferocity of this threat — that vibe is repeated later in the play; it's really important that the actor get this fearsomeness right —, but I think it's also the physical nature of the threat, that tips Faustus back to repenting his repentance. (—unless you think this double-back and giving up of the old man to be emptily rhetorical tactics?)

Then Helen is wished for, then she appears, then they lock lips, then the old man enters again for Faustus's boasts of being a victorious Paris (?), then Faustus and Helen exeunt, then the old man says Lucifer gets his body (for, I think, as long as it takes to torture and burn it) but not his soul. The old man talks Faustus into despairing less, then Mephistophilis counters with a threat of torture and Faustus panics and goes back to the side of the devil. Sure, Faustus wimped out: the prospect of irreversible disaggregation will do that.

It'll even get one to believe in an immortal soul!

But pettifoggery aside, how can it ever be too late to repent? Or, pettifoggery all in, how can repentance ever make things okay??

The Faust Book is a far more leisurely, episodic folk tale depicting a more serious, almost likable character. At the beginning, Faust's questions (from an orderly checklist) are more determinedly pursued, more searching and finally Mephistophilis lies to him. Faust is further tricked into believing that he visits hell. He is more embedded in society, more helpful to acquaintances, such as the forlorn lover, has the capacity to love Helen of Troy and their son and virtually adopts his servant, Wagner, bequeathing his magic books to him and making him spiritual heir (to Perdition).
The sin of hubris was a theme Marlowe introduced in Tamburlaine, Part One,

"Nature, that fram'd us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure after every wandering planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Ills us to wear ourselves and never rest,"
(Act II sc 7)

Marlowe's play shows the compressed rise and fall of a flawed character. His Faustus has a more exclusive and intense relationship with Mephistophilis. Despite his ambitions, he is quickly fobbed off, less in control, his sorcery is trivialized, he becomes more hardened to evil and orders Mephistophilis to torment and kill the Old Man. Although there is a certain realism in the Faust Book's depiction of Faust lying depressed on his bed, his final speeches are boringly anticlimactic. There is no dramatic tension: he is going to hell, a two dimensional character in a fairy tale that cannot touch the psychological complexity of Marlowe's final soliloquy. 

Despite some shortcomings, this is the mother lode as far as I am concerned. I have not a doubt that Shakespeare heard this and it has influenced many of his plays; not least "Macbeth" and its final scenes of anagnorisis when Mephistophilis knows he has been made a fool of by the Witches/Devil, call it what you will, but shows heroic resolution to see it through right to the bitter end. It's as good as anything in Shakespeare:

“You stars that reign’d at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist.
Into the entrails of yon labouring cloud[s],
That, when you vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend to heaven!”

This is why contemporary poets should leave "stars" well alone. How can you compete with that?
The entire scene is just stunning poetry. Sheer, cold terror is communicated in those opening lines, partly through a shortness/constriction of breath. Richard Burton, in an otherwise ropey film version of this, reads and sweats through this speech wonderfully. The chilling note when Faustus unconsciously names "Lucifer" as his Christ; quite, quite brilliant. The moment when he sees an angry God, worse than any devil... the willingness to be atomised and yet at the same time still thinking in an enquiring, philosophical way about whether beasts have souls - or not. Flipping and flopping between windy bombast and acute sensitivity; the ultimate flawed/broken Renaissance man. It was of course Burton's own story too - and he knew it.

I also love how, structurally, the way time speeds up, the second half of the speech takes half the time of the first speech and neither is anywhere close to half an hour. Time itself has spiralled out of control. I saw an excellent amateur production a few years back, I forget where, that was full of conjuring tricks where time was compressed to 24 hours rather than 24 years and it all made perfect sense.

One of the greatest achievements in world Art.


Nb: This edition has the two texts (A and B, being the latter the longest).

quinta-feira, novembro 16, 2017

Academic Side-Shows: "Owning Shakespeare” by James J. Marino



“Those who have taken Heminges and Concell at their word, hoping for some unmediated record of the authorial intent, have made a serious miscalculation. The writer, William Shakespeare, is not to be found in the Folio pages. The figure critics have embraced is an actor.”

In “Owning Shakespeare” by James J. Marino

Mediocrity has always ruled. And it still rules today, but in a different form. Someone once said that great poetry can no longer be written because we are now all democrats, aren't we? Mediocrity is good these days because it is 'democratic', not because it is aristocratic or Oxbridge elitist. But what we mean by "democracy" here is really bureaucracy. The plethora of creative-writing scholarships and courses promoting the most mediocre work is just one expression of this. For me, I think some of the great Shakespeare debates are side-shows (in Marino’s case the so-called “Sincklo/Soto Problem” in the play “The Taming of the Shrew”, or, should I say “The Taming of a Shrew”?) distracting us from the fact that mediocre values continue to be triumphant in our present poetic culture. I’m sure books and “problems” like these contribute to a true appreciation of Shakespeare unlike the ones dealing with the ill-reputed Authorship Question...Everyone is dancing round their handbags at this party... Once you get into the core truth of what Shakespeare is about - the philosophy, the language, the breathtaking understanding of human nature, the poignancy, you have to concede to a greater power somewhere within. Yes a genius, there's no other word, but surrounded by a core group to feed ideas, information, tales from Italy, the classics, translations (and works not yet translated). But there are so many questions and interrogations regarding Shakespeare: The Authorship Question I mentioned above, Who Edited the 1623 Folio, Who Shortened King Lear, etc. I am assuming Marino is a stratfordian trojan infiltred into de Vere/Oxfordian camp. That’s why I bothered reading his book and his assertions. When it comes to the editing of Shakespeare, the point is that most scholars now believe Shakespeare made first drafts of his plays and then, with the assistance of the players, prepared a draft for actual performance. This draft might be copied once or twice for the benefit of the actors and would then also have additions made to create a "prompt-book", listing entrances and exits the way the players needed them and other stage directions as necessary. Once a play had been performed, further revisions might take place - perhaps to smooth it out because certain bits weren't working, or even changing quite a lot because, say, they were to move the performance to an entirely different theatre (maybe a play originally designed for King James littler 'chamber' type theatre might be allowed to go to something larger, or go on the road). This is the general idea of the history of Shakespeare's plays, with usually the promptbook or similar early draft possibly being used to print for the Quarto texts (though some show signs of having been reconstructed from the memories of the actors rather than from a text). When Heminges and Condell put together the First Folio they probably used the best sources they could find - one of these may well have been a version of Lear that Shakespeare had revised in the eight years between first publication and his death. 

But it rather depends on what "the task of the author” in question is. And the notion that there is only one "reality" is one that neither scientists nor studies of the humanities have espoused for a while. For instance, how closely does quantum mechanics model reality? At one level, it does so with extraordinary accuracy. How closely does it model the reality of modern artillery shelling a town - well, still with an extraordinary degree of elegance, but in a way that gives no modelling of the reality which concerns the man doing the aiming? How far does the Newtonian mechanics concerning the artillery man model the reality of those trying to understand the grounds of the conflict? And then how does the work of the diplomat (or the historian) model the reality of the doctor trying to deal with a shattered leg on the person who has just been hit by a piece of metal from the artillery? And only a few of these "realities" will model that of the moral philosopher trying to work out whether we can we deduce anything useful about the behaviour of all men from the behaviour of those involved in the scenario just described? Is the reality of human nature best modelled by looking at men in groups or men as individuals - and who decides?

And is any of these "the task" relevant to a mother on the other side of the world with a crying baby?

And in literature, different authors have addressed themselves to different "tasks", so that Shakespeare was not trying to do the same thing as Spenser, for example. Even when it comes to literary criticism work which seemed exciting and illuminating to one generation asks all the wrong questions, as well as coming up with all the wrong answers, to another. Analysis of Shakespeare by Marxist-Leninists and Psychoanalysts come up with different answers, but both set of critics despise earlier generations as "having no methodological under-pinnings" and are despised by later ones who can't imagine how anyone believes that there is such a thing as "truth" anyway.

Even in "real life" no two people have the same experience of a single event. What you find "plausible" in fiction (or non-fiction for that matter when one thinks about this book) surely depends on what you are looking for.   


We all use different stories to make sense of our own lives, and when it comes to taking on the stories of others, the plausibility of the sociologist is not necessarily superior to the plausibility of the schoolboy.

terça-feira, novembro 14, 2017

Intellectually Arid Work: "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood


This is the second time I'm reading Atwood's book, and one of the things that stood out was the fact that an important feature of "The Handmaid's Tale" was that the women in the book are as responsible as the men for the gender roles being enforced. The older women at the place where the protagonist was first held captive were important reinforcers of this. It's like a nunnery or girls school where the older women subjugate the younger. Just take a look at countries where female circumcision takes place for a real world example of how older women act to control the lives, and bodies, of the younger. Also in the book, the rich woman - the military man's wife - who the protagonist acts as a surrogate for, is as much part of the system of enforcing the handmaiden's role as anything.

One of things I find disturbing about people labeling "The Handmaid's Tale" as "feminist" is how easy it makes it to overlook this part of the book. The female characters are an integral part of the system of societal control which brings about handmaidens. It's not a question of "men versus women"; it's a question of two different ideas about how society should function.

This to me is feminism's Achille's Heel - you're never going to get wholesale buy in from wide sectors of society when there's this undercurrent of 'blame the men' - particularly, as young pips like me will just be left feeling alienated by being blamed for something which predates our existence. Atwood was trying to highlight how roles are reinforced by both genders - and in the case of "The Handmaiden" show how within a generation a change could happen for the worse. The corollary would be that change within a generation for the better should be possible too, but it will need buy in from a majority for it to happen.

Unfortunately Atwood’s book doesn't really engage with ideas behind society, gender etc. One could contrast with works like Suzette Haden Elgin's "Native Tongue", Suzy McKee Charnas' "Holdfast Chronicles" or Josephine Saxton's wonderful "Jane Saint" books which offer exploration and analysis through their portrayal of dystopian cultures rather than Atwood's emotionally riveting but intellectually arid work.

Categories don´t really exist - they are a psychological device to carve up the chaos of existence in ways that suit some temporary purpose. The purpose of genre is marketing, part of the capitalist systems endless quest for maximum efficiency. This is all a dispute about the internal organisation of shelf-space in bookshops. So unless you work in Waterstone´s, who cares?

However, some folk identify with a certain genre to the extent they actually feel insulted by an author who sees these things differently, especially when they are only going on what that author has said second (or third or fourth) hand in some highly edited interview. This kind of BS brings together two negative aspects of modern society - people getting worked up over the internet over what strangers say (when in reality they have no idea what those people really think) based on a few random utterances taken out of context and the corporate machines tendency to prepackage everything for easy consumption and consumers tendency to define themselves through branding.

If Margaret Atwood had said that everyone who reads science fiction is an imbecile, maybe they´d have a point. All she said is that her arbitrary definitions of genre are slightly different from the arbitrary definitions of the outraged parties. It´s like that entirely manufactured controversy over one of Kazuo Ishiguro's novels.

Those who do over-identify with their own marketing categories, sorry, genres, seem to have problems with anyone who reads anything else - people who over-identify with Mundane Fiction sneer at sci-fan fans; SF types call Mundane Fiction fans and authors snobs and project their own insecurities onto the void by seeing snobbery everywhere. Two sides of one very boring coin.

Personally I just read books, the last few have included everyone from Ursula Le Guin (re-reading the Earthsea series), to yes, Margaret Atwood´s Oryx and Crake trilogy to the last James Kelman. I couldn´t care less what you call them. Bad books are just an original mash together of worn out tropes, generic in the extreme, good books transcend genre. There are examples of "Literary Fiction" of the sort that clogs up the Booker prize shortlists every year that are just as generic as any SF potboiler with space squid and spaceships.



SF = Speculative Fiction.

domingo, novembro 12, 2017

The Holy Book of Blake: "The Poetic Image" by Cecil Day-Lewis


Word of Warning: What you're about to read might not make much sense if you don't have read the book. Read at your own peril...


Perhaps what Blake also represents to me is the “thou” in performance, on a threshold over which lay different spacial awareness, new, thee in triplicate state, digital long haul through double-number's realm - restoring boring patter to the even lie that led to this.

PS

Goodbye

I cannot go on for very much longer, because Carol's shelf-life, at the bottom of a reject-pile, thee's words, alert the authorities to one's 'undercover' performance as thine own Songs of Experience and Failure, 'shit', you know how it is. Blake here, he did you feel injustice because it is all there?

Anonymity, rejection, failure. It's all you knew and experienced, as a prophet: not only unrecognised by the community in your own land of 'Albion', as their Prophet; but also viewed with bafflement, indifference, disconnection, de-friend quality in personal dealings with your fellow bards, more or less, wholly inconsequential; you have, like, 'zero' effect you, in Albion thine of a too, too soppy mug, sceptic tank, this beach, this hut, this sea, this dump, this fecking Portugal’s greater glory, God and Lady AD's words, offering tokens of animal sacrifice and conditions on a toilet by the lake where

Homeric chimes will bring back to you, Spoils from Annwyn's cauldron of song.
Platonic Romantic poets. No need to hype you, for being aware of the crooked source, you're all the same.

"...cracked country lips,
I still wish to kiss,
As to be under the strength of your skin."

Bob

Your magnetic movements
Still capture the minutes I'm in,

But it grieves my heart, love,
To see you tryin' to be a part of
A world that just don't exist.
It's all just a dream, babe"

To Ramona..

"I experienced 'The Sick Rose', with the voice of Blake reading it, as something that applied to the whole universe, and at the same time, the inevitable beauty of doom ... '

It was all very beautiful
All very awesome

"As if Blake had penetrated the very secrety core of the entire universe and had come forth in some little magic formula statement in rhyme and rhythm that, if properly heard in the inner inner ear, would deliver you beyond the universe,' I said.

Blake

Boring person: stuck up and preying on the names of real talent and radical Art, but it's OK, I forgave her, 'Carol' who wrought every success, just that little bit better, that

'..vacuum, a scheme, babe,
That sucks you into feelin' like this..'

'I who wrote a song for you
About a strange young man called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words of truthful vengeance
They could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
And put the fear in a whole lot more'

David, Blake and Bowie Jones

'...call yerself poets? arseholes more like it, little drippy idols of a forgotten mass of dead and dying core 'in the Rainbow at the final Ziggy Stardust gig' mugs, getting served up for the last time, when Dave killed him off, live as teenagers dreaming of suicide, broken, racked with responsibility into a dangerously offence state, the kids and fan-base of idiots who talk utter tripe, then and now David Bowie, since last we met in the realm of Albion, you little wonder, little wonder, little wonderful londoner, OAP, Anonymous you read only half of your self and show respect, I and the rest of you who can go fuck yerself.

Life, it is a dress rehearsal for ourselves as petty minded criminally academic interests, in numbers adding, subtracting and the time we feel the 'entire universe as poetry' with, just like it says in and on the tin

Ana

..thinking is more than thee's pals, at least, well, have a go, go and live in a small, confined space, a bedsit, and try being the least intelligent of all of you feckers. You haven't got it sorted from fact, not sussed out how you got it straight in the new dispensation - myth ... ha ha ha ...i can satirise to make you appear divs who wanna be like me ... get gassing about Carol's words, Beckett, Bowie, Bob, Blake and Milton, dickheads in shite and tatty tossers, Joyce, Shaw, Wilde and yeah ... Yeats?

. you are not even funny anymore than MacMillan bending for His Position, as god is marm, stuck up Unity, you are yer

'Oh hear this Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you'

Tits, it's called, and it's all about a bloke called Dave who is consumed by you, and who stole some of your make-up to create one of his most infamous incarnations, passing himself off as you.

Tosser

Enter the world of Harry Potter. Be alert, be extraordinaire and ask yerself a big phat Q: What is it about you, I don't like and why?

Wankerz Massive - Deptford.

Blake

Ah! Feck off! We don't do flowers
so will you ever just go and stick the whole of yourself, up your own arse

Bowie

Carol Anwynn's words

Get over me, you I.

Lady D.



Postscript: I find it interesting about this business of interpretation. As has often been said on this blog, the best interpretation now may not be the best interpretation of a work. In say, Shakespeare's play, King Lear, his choices of words may have meant something interesting to audiences in the 16th century, giving lines a significance that we cannot grasp. Their best interpretation may be quite different from our best interpretation. But that leads us to conclude that the work meaning today differs from the work meaning when the play (or poem) was written. It seems too easy to have works of art, for which almost no one will be in a position to give the best interpretation, not even the specialists, always defeating the point of identifying work meaning with the best hypothesis.


There!

sábado, novembro 11, 2017

Sexual Proclivities: "The Politicians and I: what I couldn't (or didn't want) to write until today" by José António Saraiva


"Eu e os Políticos: o que não pude (ou não quis) escrever até hoje" = "The Politicians and I: what I couldn't (or didn't want) to write until today".

Is it possible for a journalist (or an author “who was once a journalist”) to cross the line? When someone gave me this book I wasn’t sure I’d read it. I’m not really into the gossipy side of politics. But because I was on a boat cruise on route to the Greek Islands everything sort of made sense...

António José Saraiva makes quite clear what’s wrong with this kind of book; a book of this kind chooses a bunch of people who didn't consent to be a subject, rather than the ones who did. If Miguel Portas were alive this kind of privacy violation would probably be traumatic and maybe involve legal action. He's dead, yes but ..is it not still better that Saraiva should just have found a consenting subject? (For my foreign readers, Saraiva claims Miguel Portas said to him that Paulo Portas, his brother, was/is gay).

I mean; are you interesting? Are you flawed? Is it ok for a book to talk about things you wished to remain private, and said in a private conversation, to be made available to audiences without your consent? If you are dead, is it OK then, and if you say yes, does it matter how it will affect other still living people who knew you and if you still say yes - should journalists assume it's OK for all subjects just because some subjects would be OK with it? Audiences might not care about any of this, but how to get the story without doing anything defamatory or breaching privacy for the subject is what journalists question all the time. I do think it is a more complex issue than that when we are still dealing with the all-pervasive structures of the closet. Individual agency is not always what is keeping something secret in such structures. And I really don't think that one is right that people would have been shouting louder about journalistic ethics if the subject were a straight man.

In journalism there is, as far as I'm aware, a test called "the public right to know". What is the public's right to know about the sexual activities of a third party that he did not choose to commit to public broadcast during his lifetime? Or any other aspect of said other parties for that matter? He didn't consent to the use of the recorded material being used for the purpose for which it was. Perhaps the apparent fact that his brother wasn't "openly gay" in his own lifetime indicates that he would not have consented to a book being made about his brother with a focus in some episodes on his sexual private life. Because maybe Miguel Portas wanted irreconcilable things; privacy and to have his story told. Maybe he shared with a journalist, because of this conflict about wanting to be heard even if still he wanted his brother’s privacy while alive. If this was the case, it’s possible that it is a line cross, as he definitely did not consent, but he might approve now anyway, if we could speak to him from the grave, because publishing after his death and in an empathetic way resolved his two conflicting wishes? And I think that it might be possible. But it's still a line cross, because we only know for sure that he didn't give consent while alive, not whether he was telling that the journalist all that in hopes of being documented, or just because they got along, and he wanted to chat.

So, it is not at all clear to me that the subject didn't give consent to his private conversations being available to the journalist. It is sensationalist; does Saraiva consider the extent to which Miguel would have wanted his story told? We’ll never now Miguel’s side of things because he’s no longer among us.

Having said this, I am also less able to trust journalists who sit at arms' length from a story and who discuss it in a vocabulary tinged with disdain for the subject. However mild you might think that disdain, it's there. I also know that the logic of the closet makes claims to privacy much more complicated than a matter of personal choice. I also don't think that privacy has, in fact, been significantly breached in some of the other instances in the book concerning Portuguese political and media figures, namely when it concerns our former prime minister, José Socrates, who is as corrupt as they come. Incidentally he and Trump are best buddies. Go figure. I hope Socrates rots in jail, but I’m not sure will see a conviction any time soon. At least he’s been indicted.

António José Saraiva was the director, for 23 years, of our most prestigious newspaper, Expresso. Why turning now into a guttersnipe? I know he now claims he’s no longer a journalist. I have journalist friends and they say “once a journalist always a journalist”. I tend to agree with that.  This is professional malpractice, rooted in major deceit. Saraiva hasn't just shown major contempt for his subjects, he's done major damage to a bunch of people, who remain alive. It's something like gaining access to the psychiatric records of a person who's been investigated without consent, and turning into a TV Show because you want to win awards and be famous.

Incidentally, is anyone sure the man you listened to as he was peeing into a sink while describing his own ("tiny") penis would be even half as upset by this as me, or even the author of the book? Perhaps I am being inconsistent, because consent and approval can be slightly different things and whether they are still alive when something is published can be a relevant factor? Like if people praise my work, after a teacher has made an example of me in front of the class, but I did not consent to the teacher doing that, I even said please don't, and was mortified when she pushed me, I might later on, when no longer facing my fellow students, at least approve of the fact that they did praise my work.

You know who doesn't give a toss about privacy?

Dead people. But what about the living?


NB: I don’t give a rat’s ass about what Socrates said in the media when this book came out about what was written about him. He’s still alive and living off the money he stole when in office.

sexta-feira, novembro 10, 2017

Spies Catching Spies: "A Legacy of Spies" by John Le Carré



The most impressive aspect is the self-examination, described late in the story. Was all the effort poured into Cold War intelligence work worth it? Did it stop wars? Did we do it because they did? Or was it a case of politicians wanting to think they are "one up" on the other fellow? And his European outlook is so refreshing. Reminds me of the heyday of Robert Maxwell's newspaper, The European". Maxwell's story is somehow akin to the world of Mr. Smiley, but will probably never be told.

What's all this guff about him not being an 'artist' and 'at its best, operates at a high literary level?' 

When is the poor man to be rid of snarky comments? Possibly the best policy is to have a journalist review Le Carré, rather than the rat pack of other, less successful, writers. Le Carré has earned the right to be gloriously appreciated without the endlessly snide bollocks debate about genre writing.

Is there any clue as the year in which this book is set? Because if it is set in 2017 (or thereabouts) George Smiley would be well over 100.

It is clear from Le Carré's earliest novels that Smiley had left "his unimpressive school" in the 1920s and been recruited, while at his "unimpressive Oxford College" by the "Overseas Committee for Academic Research" on "a sweet July morning in 1928." As such I'd be expecting George to be celebrating his 110th birthday about now. Perhaps Peter Guillam, who must be well into his 80s, merely imagined his old colleague - the way old people have conversations with the dearly departed dead, because they seem more real than those who are left alive. Le Carré employs two layers of flashback to get us into the appropriate time period. Peter Guillam, talking to us in the present day, recounts events of a few years previously, when he found himself belatedly held responsible for the events of many years earlier still. These rather awkward temporal logistics are necessary because several characters from the past make an appearance as their latter-day selves - Jim Prideaux, Millie McCraig, Smiley himself. In order for them to be still alive and well at the time Peter Guillam finds himself hauled in for questioning about that bit of unpleasantness in Berlin, they have to be older, but not too old. Smiley himself would indeed be 100-odd years old if the entire story was set in the here and now. So, we flashback...and back again.

At times it's hard for the reader to keep track of exactly which layer of flashback the story currently inhabits - but hey, this is John le Carré. "Hard to keep track" is pretty much his signature style. The only temporal anomaly which struck me is when we meet Jim Prideaux (spoiler alert, look away now), who is still living in his caravan in the school grounds, still with his Alvis parked alongside. Several years on from his arrival, now a senior member of staff and part-owner of the school itself, you'd think he would have got himself an agreeable flat in the main building by then.

Having just finished it, I was startled - like many readers - at how flat the writing is compared to Le Carre's usual lyrical exuberance and eccentric dialogue. Then I began to realise that we are inhabiting the shrivelled soul of Peter Guillam, pummelled to dust by his experience of the Circus and particularly the operation behind the events of the “Spy Who Came in From the Cold”. Guillam is not given to poetry.

I did not like it as much as I wanted to. I am usually very sure that I like Le Carré, but so much of Legacy is told in the dry, deliberately unemotional language of old case reports, and the emotionally defensive recollections of Guillam, that it's like reading a different author entirely. An author who doesn't like Smiley and Guillam very much and doesn't see why they should be let off the hook for the awful things they did. And perhaps that's the point. From the geek's perspective, Le Carré has taken the thread that runs through the Karla trilogy and beyond - that of the hunt for the Circus mole and the aftermath of his treachery, and spun it backwards to draw the earlier books into that tapestry. Hence we see the operations described there in a new light: that of the growing suspicions of Smiley and Control that an insider is betraying Circus secrets and field agents to Moscow. So that's good fun. One for the completist perhaps? You would certainly need to have read “Call for the Dead”, “The Spy Who Came In from The Cold”, and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” to get full value out of this legacy.

Flashes of it are there, where appropriate. Alec Leamas is his angry, whiskey-fuelled self. Tulip, the agent from Leamas' East German spy ring is well drawn. The little cameos of Haydon, Mendel, Smiley, Mundt, Connie and other old friends are pitch perfect. But Guillam's narrative voice is not the authorial voice you hear in most Le Carré novels: it's Guillam's own voice, that of a spy who has had the emotional stuffing knocked out of him and buried it where he doesn't have to look at it.
The point of the story is that he's being forced to confront a period in his life he's been trying to forget ever since.

Despite mostly working in a genre that relies on suspense and mystery I find Len Deighton the more re-readable as it is more character/atmosphere based storytelling. Smiley is an enigma while Palmer/Samson are flesh and blood, it is a treat to stand over Bernd's shoulder as he navigates a world out to get him. I came to Deighton late but it seems he never gets the credit or recognition of Le Carré, the literati seem to dismiss him and maybe Deighton does lack Le Carré's world view politics agenda, but I think, in every other area, he more than matches Le Carré and should be more widely celebrated.

I re-read the whole Bernie Samson series a few years ago. I had not realised until re-reading them how much of a comedy of manners the whole thing is, not to be taken anything like as seriously as Le Carre's interest in sin and redemption in a world with no gods except the heartless flags and ideologies of the establishment. I think Le Carré is a great writer. Have read all his books and some of them many times to savour his style, his love of certain human traits (mostly disreputable), how he creates character out of light and shade. But Le Carré is, as he once said about himself: “I’m writing about a closed world that has a complete disconnect from cause and effect in the real world”. It has its own rules, fantasies, notions of truth, honour, deception (I’m paraphrasing here).”

It is actually completely irrelevant.

It's about spies catching spies, not about spies discovering what President Putin is in the mind of (for example). Because no spy not even in the real world has ever achieved that about Putin or any Russian leader you care to name. The CIA in all its history never had one agent inside the Kremlin. Plenty inside the KGB as the KGB had inside MI6/CIA. You see my point?

As for 'Legacy' the opening pages are just not Le Carré. Endless amounts of guff about Peter G. (I already kind of knew) and was desperate to skip. Yes, I knew it was called the Circus, yes I knew old Pete was once a young Turk, Smiley? Yes, yes, oh, get on with it! And what's it about? Some old file in the Registry now under the microscope. Le Carre loves this plot device, uses it many times to great effect. But it's wearing a bit thin these days.

'Bit of a cliché'? That's Le Carré's problem. His characters have become cliché and passé. They belong to another age. But publishers, authors and agents, have a code - never speak ill of each other. Only in private among friends, in that closed world of publishing, can you give an honest opinion. It read like a (useful) clarification of plot holes and oddities in the originals, rather than a full stand-alone contemporary novel. I actually quite liked the modern lawsuit idea, though I do think its execution was a tad clunky, both within the SIS world, and in those extraneous characters. All that said, I read it in one extended sitting - I'm an addict!

It's possible that Le Carre, like Rushdie and a few others, suffers from bad editing. That is, no editor prepared to say this won't do. . . you got it wrong here. . . tone this down a bit. Or if there is such a one, perhaps they're ignored. It's a problem with authors who sell in the hundreds of thousands, no matter what. They have to be kept sweet at all costs. But can't wait to read this next.

I like Le Carre's style, because he conveys the emotional intimacies of a given moment exactly as one would expect them to be, in the context of the story. Sometimes, he does lead us down the garden path with a neat twist, but it all "fits". Le Carre has a rare gift and for "realism" in a fiction novel set in the Cold War period, Len Deighton is another that conveys the underlying menace of the time.

As to the ending, I thought Le Carre (and maybe even Smiley!) was being a little disingenuous. Smiley's entire career has been defined by a love not of "Europe", still less of the UK - but by a love of Germany as the epi-centre of western civilization, hacked and corrupted in turn by the Nazis, the Russians and the Americans. Le Carre's entire output seems to me to be a paean to the land of Goethe, which he regards as what "Europe" really should be....... That interpretation echoes in our times a little differently than our reviewer tells.