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Friday, 30 December 2016

An Important New Year's Resolution

There once was a dream which was Rome. That dream was best elucidated by the famous words "When men of goodwill gather round a table to talk, there is no problem which cannot be solved." As you all know, this was first and most famously said by King Grover of Sesame Street, who reigned for eighteen thousand years in Ur of the Chaldees, beginning in 7000BCE and ending at some point in the future when he was deposed by lizard aliens from Sumeria or something.

If you have any kind of problem with the paragraph above, you urgently need to join me in my new year's resolution. Let me explain.

The world has changed. The establishment has been told in no uncertain terms that it will no longer be tolerated, and has therefore been replaced by an establishment from several decades ago. Tired of being locked out of making important decisions due to ignorance, incompetence, and mental incapacity, the silent majority has somewhat paradoxically decided to speak, and we now live in a world where priorities are very different.

What's important these days is not the common weal, or careful action with consideration for the future, or any of that pansy guff. Yes, I said 'pansy' you PC Nazis, so just deal with it. But don't you dare call me a bigot. Anyway, I digress. What's important now isn't any of that over-complicated foolishness, but rather how I personally feel about stuff. That's right, the big agenda setter for the coming year is how I personally feel about stuff. And if I lack the mental equipment to express that clearly or consistently, that's your fault, not mine.

As such, we have a number of urgent priorities:

  • Drain the swamp whilst not draining the swamp. If you don't know what the 'swamp' is, you must be one of those uni educated poofters who reckons words should mean stuff, so I'm not talking to you anyway.
  • Protect the sanctity of life by calling for the death of all hunters and Muslims and anyone else who ends up on an angry meme.
  • Make stuff great again - you know what I mean so stop pretending my slogan's so vague it's meaningless. You're just trying to trick and confuse me.
  • End the conspiracy. You know the one - it's got something to do with Hilary, kids, and possibly 9/11.
And there's only one way to achieve all this. We need to destroy the old world order and create a new world, where half-baked opinions composed of equal parts fantasy and ignorance are once again the sovereign force in complex state politics - just like it used to be in that time which never happened, but must have because I saw it in a movie once.

So yeah, that's my resolution. What actually was it, you ask? If you don't know, you clearly haven't been listening to me, and I'm the people, goddamit.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Insidious Passivity of Marvel

It's generally agreed that myth is fundamentally conservative. One of its main functions, aside from explanation of the world, is support of the established order. In any kind of organised society, the question is eventually going to be asked, "Why do I give so much of my stuff to the warrior elite/aristocracy/king/elected government?" Myth provides the answer, in a subliminal sort of way. Myth says it's because these people are the sons of gods and heroes, because they really are special and will provide you with protection. Assuming, of course, that you keep paying for it.

The Marvel universe, like most other comic book oeuvres, draws heavily and openly on myth. From entities as venerable as the Annunaki, to relatively (stress on relatively) newer deities such as Thor, Marvel's connection with the elder gods is close and overt. And what this means is that the comic book world is essentially conservative. I don't necessarily mean socially conservative, but more in the sense that comic book stories are similar to myth not just in the characters they use, but in the fact that they tend to support the established order. Comic books have been generally used to uphold ideas of law and justice and civilised society and, in more particular cases, the Allied war effort and the global monetary system. There's a deeper message inherent in comic books, however, and I don't think it's a necessarily good one.

Sometimes they're references, sometimes they're not
I recently watched Dr Strange, which wasn't at all a bad film. Sure, it's another Marvel 'product' rather than a story with any kind of soul, but I don't look to Marvel for my life changing moments. That'd just be juvenile. What I want from Marvel is wisecracks, explosions, and the comforting sense that the world as we know it, and all the people in it, are worth saving. What I don't want, however, is mental enslavement. 

Okay, so that sounds a bit extreme, but stay with me. Leading on from the obvious connection between Marvel and myth, we can take a step further in our thinking and unpack what all these gods and heroes saving the world actually means. Dr Strange is a very good case in point. In this film, there is the usual American hack and slash job done on Eastern culture, and we see that there is a secret order of wizard-type people who spend all their time defending the Earth from some unthinkable threat. The operative word here is 'secret'. The rest of the world goes on with their petty, day to day lives while this elite cadre of superhumans holds the line in a series of locations which are either hidden or actually non-existent for our given quantity of reality.

This fish wearing dude is Oannes
The strong implication of this is that we can just carry on. That it doesn't matter what's wrong in the world, what the threat is or what needs to change - gods and heroes will provide. Not only are the threats we face beyond our power to meet, we can trust in the idea that there are people out there who are better than us, who will rise to the occasion and save us. And we don't even have to live in such a way that merits saving. They will save us because it is their raison d'etre. This is an insidious and dangerous idea. It's reflected in our attitudes to elites of all kinds. Problem in North Korea? Why not send a SEAL team? Worried about China/Iran/Russia or whoever this week's enemy is? The US Military will provide. Economy up the spout? Let's vote in a larger than life billionaire who promises he has a magic wand.

Let's compare this with something like, say, Doctor Who. The Doctor isn't so much a god in the vein of Thor or Ishtar, but more of a culture hero, like Oannes. Sure, he saves us and promises to protect us, but most of the time he's relying on ordinary people to step up, and sometimes to sacrifice themselves, as a necessary element in any attempt to change the shape of the world for the better. Compare, if you will, these two philosophies, and it shouldn't be too hard to figure out where my preference lies.

We need to guard against world views that reflect our own feelings of marginalisation. It's no coincidence that we have a rash of superheroes in pop culture at the moment. If we look at critical points in history when gods and heroes were most prominent in the last couple of centuries, they've always been the times when the threats being faced were unimaginably powerful and complex. It's vitally important, to my mind, that we don't let pardonable escapism translate into fundamental world view. As fun as powerful, god-like superheroes are, we need to remind ourselves where power truly needs to be apportioned in order to guarantee our future.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Christmas - Feast, Famine and Fiction

I'd say I've always hated Christmas, but that's not really the whole truth. I've been in love with the abstraction of Christmas ever since the ghost of Jacob Marley scared the bejesus out of me by staring out at an oblivious Scrooge in the form of a doorknocker. It's the December/January shut down I hate. I usually find myself in one of two situations during this period - either paid to do nothing, or not. In the one instance idleness drives me to find new and creative ways to ruin my life and prospects, and in the other, I starve. This year is different. This year, I find myself with quite a lot of work to do and, somewhat unusually, receiving moneys to do it.

While I've always looked on the enforced good will of this season with a somewhat jaded eye, someone who loved Christmas with a fanaticism worthy of a better cause was Charles Dickens. A prolific author at the best of times, he seems to have extended himself when it came to seasonal fiction, his productions ranging from the unmemorable (and practically unreadable) Cricket on the Hearth, to his iconic Christmas Carol. It's in this second work where we see Dickens at his effulgent, heavy-handed best. This is really the man's true mêtier - a morality tale, simple to the point of crudity, hammered home with a variety of blunt instruments ranging from the pathetic (Tiny Tim) to the grotesque (Marley).

It's curious to note just how utterly childlike Dickens seems to have been. His adults, never particularly convincing, are even less so here. What anchors and redeems the novella is his disconcertingly keen insight into the inner lives of children. His description of the lone child at boarding school, Scrooge's grand nephews and nieces, are poignantly verisimilitudinous. And on another level, his conception of Christianity and ideal human relationships has more than a touch of the Mediaeval about it, an adolescent era if ever there was one. The whole book is, in fact, pre-modern, and not just because of its didactic insistence on the evils of modern commercialism. That heady mixture of fear, awe, pure love and open-handed patronage is classic, extravagant Mediaevalism writ large. This is what gives the book its most enduring quality - a keen, bittersweet sense of nostalgia. A yearning for simpler times, larger souls and purer hearts.

Compare this cockeyed idealism with the author I've always thought of as Dickens' modern-day counterpart, Terry Pratchett. The late great Pratchett had the same prolific imagination and focus on domestic detail. Both Dickens and Pratchett wrote quite a lot, hammered out quick and rough for money, but their works are saved from being trash by a core of keen humanity, intelligence and observation. But whereas Dickens pursues a childish fantasy of a decent world filled with decent people, Pratchett likes to look at deep origins - his fantasy is one of unbroken continuity. His Christmas book, Hogfather, inverts the feast in much the same way as the Carol, using Death as a flaneur to examine its traditions, but his focus is on paganism. Blood, ritual murder and snow. One gets the sense of a horde of blinkered, ignorant human cattle going through ritual motions they know not why. But it's vitally important they go through these motions because, if they don't, the conceptual world as we know it would end. Humanity is made of ideas, and it doesn't matter, according to Pratchett, whether we really understand them at all.

We see that where Dickens looks back with the eye of love, Pratchett looks beneath with a kindly, but sneering assumption of intellectual superiority. If Dickens is a mediaevalist, Pratchett is very much a benevolent Tory. Where both of them meet, however, is in pointing an accusatory finger at the essential hypocrisy of the season. Of a time when we all spout generosity and goodwill and lock ourselves in suburban fastnesses to gorge on plenty and ignore everything beyond our own little circles. Both of them point to the uncomfortable truth that care for the poor and downtrodden probably isn't supposed to be confined to a few weeks at the end of the year, and nor should it be limited to unobjectionable and photogenic little match-selling girls dying in the snow.

It's a bit dichotomous, this whole Christmas thing, and I think that's what I find most distasteful about it. That simultaneity of generosity and mendacity, the idea of households eating their fill in simulated joy while, just a couple of streets away, December is despair, empty pockets and a deep sense of failure. A season where you're significantly more likely to both get smiled at in the street and murdered by your partner. It's this dichotomy which generally flings me into such a slough of despond over the season. So it's a good thing, really, that I've got a bunch of work to do and will be far too busy to dwell on that sort of thing this year.

Friday, 16 December 2016

'Beowulf', Myth, and the 'Tears of Things'

We have heard of the thriving of the Danish kings,
How they flourished in days long past,
How those royal athelings earned their glory!

With this adjuration to 'Listen!' begins one of the most important stories in English letters. Any serious student of literature will have spent a great deal of time living and breathing this poem, as will a whole range of other bookish types - historians, archaeologists, philologists and so on, but it's not this experience of Beowulf I'm really talking about. Sure, it's important as the genesis of storytelling in English, for its verifiable glimpses of the material culture and mentality of Dark Age Saxons, and for the understanding of the language we all speak and write, but to my mind, these are really its least important aspects.

The central thing about Beowulf is that it tells the oldest and most fundamental story of humanity. It is a tale of civilisation's light against the dark of the ancient wild, of the hero, the cost of that heroism, and of the 'lacrimae rerum' - the tears of things: the tragedy inherent in inevitable death and decay. For a storyteller, an author of fiction, there are few stories it is more important to understand. For what story worth reading is not about heroes, order against chaos, the search for meaning as we hurtle toward oblivion?

The poem can be a little daunting to those uninitiated in the study of literature, and who therefore see reading as an enjoyable activity rather than a kind of intellectual self-flagellation. It begins with a genealogy, and the story of a magical child found without clothes, taken in by a kind family, who rises to become king. This may seem irrelevant, but it is important for establishing the relationships later in the story. More than this, however, it lays down the essence and core of what the whole tale is about. Of Scyld Shefing the poet declares, 'Þæt wæs god cyning!' He was a good king! It is in the exploration of what makes a 'good king' that we find inquiries into what it is to be a good man, of what consist the good things in life, and of our absolute duty to fight the darkness that lives beyond the light of the hearth - the evil which dwells at the edges of our minds.

This evil takes the form of Grendel, descendant of Cain and hater of human works - of light and conversation, of built things and of the songs in which history and memory are preserved. Grendel is the 'feond en helle', the fiend of hell, and he stalks the marshes, the fell and fen - the wild places unsettled by man. But it's not his otherworldliness which is Grendel's most horrific feature - it is his familiarity. He is a liminal creature, the personification of our own beast nature, and of the edges of civilisation within our own selves. The war between Beowulf and Grendel is emblematic on every level of the core struggle of humanity over its entire time here on Earth.

After Grendel comes Grendel's mother, an inverse portrait of a fundamental human instinct. Feminine imagery abounds in this section, and we can see that old warrior-cult dread of the female 'other', with our hero diving into deep caves and piercing the monster with a magical sword. But beyond this archaic misogyny is a progression of responsibility. The defeat of Grendel is a fine, pure beserk frenzy - power over power - as Beowulf rips off the creature's arm. But here, at the cave of Grendel's mother, the hero is required to plunge, cold-minded, into the pool of his probable death. This is our middle age, where we become aware of the costs and risks of what we do and, if we are worth anything at all, go on to do it anyway. Beowulf teaches us with what grace and good cheer we may face our fears, and our doom.

And then finally, with a strange skip in time, the poem takes us to old age, where Beowulf himself has risen to be a 'god cyning', a good king, his kingdom menaced by a dragon. As he eases his creaking body into his armour we feel the deep sadness of his predicament. He knows he rides to his death, but he is determined to do so with courage. And, immolated in the dragon's fury as he is, he meets his end not with vainglory, but with a grim determination to protect that which is good - his works, kingdom and people. And if the dragon represent death, what more powerful image than that of old Beowulf, clutched in its jaws, stabbing his knife deep into its heart even as it kills him?

It's classic stuff. In fact, it is the classic tale. Anyone can string pretty words or a complex plot into a more or less unified whole. Any idiot can place a thrilling sequence of events into line, and many do. But the most valuable stories are those which resonate with our deepest selves - which feel real at the most important level: the one which has nothing to do with objective detail, and everything to do with a recognition of our deepest nature and inmost struggles. Which is why I think it's compulsory for every author or would-be author to study old myths like Beowulf, and thereby understand the root and branch of storytelling: what it is, what it's about and, most importantly, what it's for.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Rush to Death, and Awaken From Your Dreams

I should probably start by saying that the title of this post is not meant to be taken literally, so all four of you who read this can stop worrying. The saying itself comes from a Samurai manual of sorts, and is typical of the absolutist interpretations arising from that particular warrior cult. These have always appealed to me, and not just because of the cool armour and beautiful swords that come with them.
The fact is that life and reality have always struck me as rather dreamlike. My earliest recollections are consistent with my current experience in being essentially surreal in nature. As I walk down a footpath, I have to remind myself that I will not sink down through the concrete, that I cannot jump to the roofs of nearby buildings and that if I walk off the edge of a precipice I will die. It is said that the mark of immaturity is the belief in the uniqueness of one's own experience, but I don't think it's juvenile of me to believe that, in this case, I am at least atypical.

The evidence for this is in the behaviour of other people. Almost everyone I've ever met has been hellbent on convincing me, sometimes by force, that stuff is real and that the things we do actually matter. Concerned observers - parents, teachers, friends - have made it clear to me that my behaviour and decisions are bizarre. I have been at great pains to explain, unsuccessfully, that they make perfect sense to me. I eventually came to the conclusion that the essential disconnect lay in the fact that they live in a world which is substantial and tangible, and I do not.

Huxley had an idea that the true role of any art was to 'transport' the viewer to another realm of the mind. I think that inherent in this is the implication that the artist is already in that other realm. As tempting as it is, however, the idea that the vagueness of my experience is down to an 'artistic nature' smacks of vanity, and I am therefore unwilling to accept it. A thing in myself which I do not recognise in others must, by my logic, be a flaw, and one which needs to be eliminated.

Which brings us to the idea of 'rushing to death'. I've always taken this to mean that a real and vibrant world is accessible through absolute immersion and absorption. That absolute dedication to some pursuit, lethal danger, service to a cause or deep connection with another, would provide a hard link to the universe and coalesce it into a coherent and 'real-feeling' reality. The theory is that by pushing oneself to liminal realms of thought and experience, one might gain an understanding of the boundaries of reality and thus define and understand it. And, ultimately, experience it fully, in a way which no longer feels like the faint imitation of a vivid dream. I believe I've tested this proposition fairly thoroughly and found it to be false.

Extreme situations feel, if anything, even less real than ordinary daily life, dedication and commitment to skills or causes increase rather then reduce the distance between the self and the other. And on the few occasions I have connected with others, they report that, far from their reality transferring to me, their time with me feels as surreal for them as every day has for me. So now I pause and reflect. I'm running out of things to try, and I'm beginning to suspect that my focus on external means has been profoundly stupid.

What's worrying me most, though, is the idea that I might simply be wrong about this. It's looking increasingly probable that this process of anchoring oneself in the real world is a task which every single human must undertake. That this is a challenge which everyone faces and that, far from being different, I might merely be one who has failed to overcome it.