Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Philip Pullman and gnosticism

I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as they were published and loved them. I haven’t read them since and think it might be rather interesting to do so. An extract from his “controversial” (copyright, marketing departments everywhere) new novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was published in the Guardian last week, and it’s a curious piece of work. Firstly, it seems at times remarkably sloppily written. Both Mary and Joseph are described as having ‘wept bitterly’ within a hundred words of each other, which is indicative of poor editing. Pullman is straining for a voice that is part parable, part oral tradition, part modern-speak, and at times the combination sounds grating. For example:

Joseph was troubled. If this was really God's will, it must be his duty to look after her and the child. But it would look bad all the same.

Really, that ‘it would look bad’ is a dreadful piece of prose. It’s only a small step away from God ‘being there for him’. Similarly, the ending of the following sentence is simply lazy:

On the few occasions when Christ came close to Jesus, he did his best to avoid contact with him, but from time to time someone would ask him who he was, what he was doing, whether he was one of Jesus's followers, and so on.

And, what’s more, this is the second use of “and so on” within a page. It doesn’t read like a finished version to me.

But what most struck me about the story is how gnostic it is. People do comment that His Dark Materials is gnostic, but when I read the books I didn’t know enough about gnosticism to notice. Here, though, it is striking. The stranger who continually approaches Christ is clearly a gnostic Archon. He tells us:

"There is time, and there is what is beyond time. There is darkness, and there is light. There is the world and the flesh, and there is God. These things are separated by a gulf deeper than any man can measure, and no man can cross it; but the word of God can come from God to the world and the flesh, from light to darkness, from what is beyond time into time."


in writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor.

The word “shape” appears over and over in gnostic literature (and Cormac McCarthy) while the idea of the Kingdom of God being opened – man finding the way out of his current prison – is also suggestive of gnosticism. That the stranger explains that this will happen because of those “who know” clearly places it within a gnostic context.

As the story develops it becomes clear that Christ has been identified by the Archon as a carrier of the fire:

"There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God."

Compare that last sentence with McCarthy’s The Road: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” The boy in The Road is also, of course, a carrier of the fire, as we are told throughout the novel. Eventually, he comes to realise this. “I am the one,” he tells his father. Here, Christ also comes to understand his position: ‘The words "we who know" were some of the most thrilling he had ever heard.’

In a BBC webchat, Pullman was asked if he was gnostic. His reply was equivocal:

Not really. The essence of gnosticism is its rejection of the physical universe and the whole tendency of my thinking and feeling and of the story I wrote is towards the celebration of the physical world. Nevertheless, gnosticism is a fascinating and very powerful and persuasive system of thought.

This is something that Pullman is clearly wrestling with. He discussed it at length in a speech to the Blake Society in 2005 (opens in a PDF), in which he pondered whether gnosticism was a system within which he could feel happy. Referring to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, he concludes:

Gnosticism is a perennial system of radical existential scepticism that flares up in times of millennial crisis such as the present....The idea is that the real God is nowhere to be found in this universe, but is infinitely distant. Our souls... belong with Him, the distant unknowable God, and not here in this world, because each soul is a spark of divinity that was stolen and imprisoned here by the evil creator of the material universe, the Demiurge or false God who is worshipped by all those who aren’t in the secret. Only those who know can pass on the secret knowledge of how to find our way back to our true home. What could be more thrilling than to feel ourselves in possession of knowledge like that, and of a fate so grand and all-encompassing? To feel our own lives bound up so intimately with the origins and the destiny of the universe itself? It’s no wonder that the Gnostic impulse keeps flaring up again like an underground fire that can’t be put out.

Note that use of “thrilling”. It is the same word he uses to describe Christ’s reaction to “those who know”. Ultimately, though, Pullman edges away from gnosticism. He concludes:

The defining mark of Gnosticism is its mistrust and hatred of the natural world, its contempt for bodily experience, and that is why, for all the intoxicating excitement of the conspiracy theory of creation, I could never be a Gnostic...

Nonetheless, like many other modern writers, Pullman seems to find something seductive in the tenets of gnosticism, something which addresses the unedifying aspects of our contemporary existence. It is a dangerous seduction, precisely because of the objection Pullman raises that, at its most reductive level, it is antipathetic to the human experience.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Looking around YouTube for some Erik Satie, I came across this stunning piece of music by Alessandra Celletti. Talk about haunting, I can't get this out of my head.

Gatsby's journey to the end

The astonishing thing about The Great Gatsby is that it is so short. Fitzgerald has presented a full and rich plot in a mere 170 pages, and around it has built an analysis of the American psyche at a particularly important juncture in its history. Those self-indulgent and curiously conflicted years after the First World War helped to define what America has become. The moralising legislature which introduced prohibition made criminals of the smallest of individuals, suffocating them with a Protestant guilt entirely disproportionate to their actions, while men of ill intent made fortunes on the backs of others’ misery. The gaiety of the lives of the beautiful people masked a malevolence which still runs deep, while for the majority of Americans sobriety did not make of them better citizens, just more unhappy ones. Such is the futility of enforcing morality. Money, greed, chance, need, they all of them combine in the great human dumbshow and the winners trample over the losers in that eternal race for riches. Because, for people like Jay Gatsby, money is the one, true religion.

All of this Fitzgerald lays bare in his 170 pages. The characterisation is rich and convincing, the casual racism of Tom, the obsessiveness of Gatsby, the flightiness of Jordan Baker, and it all combines into a compelling narrative. But the true brilliance of the novel is the way that Fitzgerald presents us with this fraudulent and compromised society, with these flawed and weak human beings, and yet still manages to instil a sense of grandeur. Flawed, all of them, indeed, but not wholly worthless, and in the heedless aspiration of Jay Gatsby – for money and for love – there is almost a nobility. His world, and the worlds of those like him, are based entirely on expectation and a trust in the future and what riches it will provide. There is no thought of failure, and yet, as Nick Carraway reminds us, failure is ultimately what awaits us all. The future will always elude our attempts to capture it and so we will ‘beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ They say that the great genius and tragedy of mankind is our awareness of our own mortality, but that is only true to an extent. While the game is in play, while we are fashioning our lives, we are not aware of the end of it all, because there is no end, only an everlasting future of aspiration. Anything otherwise would be too crushing. This is what Fitzgerald depicts so brilliantly with Jay Gatsby and this is why his end, unlamented and unmourned, presents such an ache. “I thought there would be more,” he might have said. For isn’t that the greatest fear? When it is all over and done, and our life’s work is presented on an easel before us, ready for our inspection, and we stand back to take it all in, to assess the end result, compare it with those early dreams, only to realise that it isn’t, not at all, what we had hoped it might be.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Nobody came

‘Nobody came.’

It’s staggeringly easy, this writing game. ‘Nobody came.’ Two words, and yet they engender such a sense of pity in the reader that nothing else is required. No grand descriptions or high emotion could match those two words for the way they draw the reader into the unutterable sadness of the situation. Nobody came to the funeral of Jay Gatsby. The enigma reaches his nadir. You could almost cry.

This is extraordinary, of course, because Gatsby is not an especially likeable character. He is vane, self-obsessed, he uses people. He is involved in underground, probably criminal activity. When he dies it is hard to escape the initial thought that – well, probably he wouldn’t be that great a loss. In lesser hands than Fitzgerald, that is how it might have stayed, and The Great Gatsby wouldn’t be the classic it is. But then we get “Nobody came.” And a character on a page becomes a man at the end of it all. This is true pathos.

In some respects, Jay Gatsby is an odd character. We are told how enigmatic he is, but if you analyse his words and his actions, to be honest he does not come across as especially engimatic. Carraway, the narrator, even says as much when he notes: ‘I had talked with hm perhaps half a dozen times in the past month and found, to my disappointment, that he had little to say.’ So how does he become one of the great characters of twentieth century literature?

The answer, I think, is precisely because Fitzgerald does not try to make him enigmatic. A lesser writer would have felt compelled to continually tell the reader what sort of man we are dealing with. He would be described as “smiling enigmatically”, or “drawing the audience in with the force of his personality” or “holding sway in his typical fashion” or some such telly nonsense. Fitzgerald doesn’t bother with this. There is one description, when Carraway first meets him and records how he had ‘one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it.’ Other than that, Fitzgerald sees no reason to describe in detail Gatsby’s character or the hold he has over people. His parties are huge events and he is the talk of the town. That is enough.

And this, of course, makes the ending, that “Nobody came” moment, even more poignant. The other characters, those hangers-on and shallow party-goers, may have been seduced by the man’s mysteries, but we, the readers, have not been. They have lost nothing more important than the source of their weekend fun. We, however, have been intimate witnesses to the death of a man and his hopes and his dreams. And how sad is that?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bloom on the American Religion

Harold Bloom:

[Americans] are a religiously mad culture, furiously searching for the spirit, but each of us is subject and object of the one quest, which must be for the original self, a spark or breath in us that we are convinced goes back to before the Creation.

Cormac McCarthy
Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti

Auto da Fe was published in 1935, at a turbulent time when Canetti was living in Vienna. In 1927 he was caught up in a mob which burned down the Palace of Justice and he has written of how he felt himself swept along as part of it. As a result, the psychology of the masses came to interest him. Auto da Fe, however, does not deal with mass psychosis but rather seeks to understand the masses through a depiction of a complete outsider. The novel deals powerfully with disconnection, reflecting a rupture in society which at the time was profound. Its protagonist, Peter Kien, is an otherworldly figure, quite unable to comprehend or seek compromise with the modern world. He is a sinologist, devoted to his books and to the establishment of his own private library. He lives an ascetic life, poring over his books, buying new ones, seeking through study an understanding of society that is completely beyond his misanthropic nature.

He is duped by his housekeeper, Therese, who feigns an interest in his books and inveigles her way into his, if not affection, then at least comprehension. They marry and after a series of farcical interludes she robs him of his fortune. She is a seedy character, obsessed with sex and money, and she is drawn by Canetti in grotesque detail. Kien’s next acquaintance, a dwarf called Fischerle, is equally obsessed, this time with becoming a great chess champion. Thus, the novel begins to depict how the self-centredness of society leads to its breakdown. Each character, in want of his or her own gratification, sees others as merely tools, or stepping stones over which to cross in pursuit of a greater goal. This is how society disintegrates. It is easy to understand why the Nazis chose to ban Auto da Fe when it was first published.

Indeed, the novel’s most grotesque character, Benedikt Pfaff, the ex-police officer who is concierge of Kien’s block of apartments, is a hideous portrayal of the sort of small-minded, malevolent spirits who flocked to Hitler’s brand of grandiose mythologising. He is one of the most repulsive characters in literature, a man whose mistreatment of his wife precipitates her death and who, after this event, turns his daughter into his personal slave. In the following passage he forces his daughter to recite a perverse catechism which portrays starkly how she has become his “prisoner”:

“A father has the right to...” “...the love of his child.” Loud and toneless, as though she were at school, she completed his sentences, but she felt very low.
“For getting married my daughter...” – he held out his arm – “... has no time.”
“She gets her keep from...” “... her good father.”
“Other men do do not want...” “... to have her.”
“What could a man do with...” “... the silly child.”
“Now her father’s going to...” “... arrest her.”
“On father’s knee sits...” “... his obedient daughter.”
“A man gets tired in the...” “... police.”
“If my daughter isn’t obedient she gets...” “... thrashed.”
“Her father knows why he...” “... thrashes her.”
“My daughter isn’t ever...” “... hurt.”
“She’s got to learn what she...” “... owes to her father.”
He had gripped her and pulled her on to his knee; with his right hand he pinched her neck, because she was under arrest, with his left he eased the belchings out of his throat. Both sensations pleased him. She summoned her small intelligence to conclude his sentences rightly and took care not to cry. For hours he fondled her. He instructed her in the special holds he had invented himself, pushed her this way and that, and showed her how every criminal could be overpowered by a juicy blow in the stomach, because who wouldn’t feel ill after that?

This astounding passage works on two levels. Firstly, the depiction of the personal abuse of a child by someone in a position of familial authority is horrifying. That alone would make this a fine piece of writing, but Canetti elevates it above the merely personal by using it to parody the Nazi regime, its abuse of power, the insidious way it justified senseless violence by attesting that it is “good” for the individual, because it “cures” their criminal behaviour. Thus Canetti does begin to explore the mass neurosis that overcame Nazi Germany in that dark period of our history, and by personalising it in this way he makes the horror all the more real. It is a wonderful piece of writing.

Surrounded by such a cast of cheats and demons, the naive Kien has no chance and the novel spirals towards an inevitable climax. Kien’s brother, George, a psychiatrist who is practically the only sympathetic character in the book, appears and attempts to save him, but it is to no avail, and Kien and his library perish in a conflagration which mirrors the book burnings of the Nazi regime.

Auto da Fe is most certainly not an easy read. It is very long and, to our modern tastes, rather dense. There is humour, but it is particularly black, and the surreal horror it depicts is largely unleavened. The sort of Hobbesian society that Canetti conjures up is unappealing, but part of that lack of appeal may lie in the uncomfortable mirror it may be holding towards us.

Monday, March 22, 2010

John Dickson Carr

There's an interesting feature in this week's Independent, as part of their series on forgotten authors, on John Dickson Carr. I used to read a lot of John Dickson Carr when I was younger, especially the ones he wrote under his Carter Dickson nom de plume. As the article points out, realism or contemporary relevance were not a part of his make-up, but he wrote astoundingly well-plotted stories which are models of crafting. It's not the way I write, but I have nothing but admiration for the way he did it.

The fact that he wrote genre has also, inevitably, led to him being underestimated. He was a very good descriptive writer. There's a passage in one of his Carter Dickson novels, The Skeleton in the Clock, which takes place at night in the condemned cell of an old prison. It is such a creepy read it left me with an almost synesthestic taste in my mouth that I can still recall to this day. And he was also extremely funny. Sir Henry Merrivale was a truly Wodehousian character who erupted into any scene with comic brilliance. So much so that I take issue with the assertion in the Independent's article that he was the source of the Olivier character in Sleuth. I'd be very surprised if that was the case. Merrivale was a much warmer character and John Dickson Carr was a talented writer

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

War and the age of reason

A couple of quotes from Martin van Creveld's The Transformation of War:

Clausewitz’s ideas seem to have chimed in with the rationalistic, scientific, and technological outlook associated with the industrial revolution. Modern European man, his belief in God destroyed by the Enlightenment, took the world as his oyster. Its living beings – and its raw materials – were regarded as his to exploit and plunder, and indeed plundering and exploiting them constituted “progress.”

The more I read, the more I come across this notion that the age of reason somehow had a malign side, that the enlightenment was a spiritual disaster from which we have not recovered. Virtually the whole canon of modernist literature appears to be premised on this, and the current sense of fin de siecle which affects western sensibilities at the start of this century is undoubtedly a symptom of it. But I do not see how one can ascribe to the age of reason a sense of the efficacy of war as a means of promoting one's interests.

The final step in this direction was taken when Charles Darwin showed that humanity, too, was an integral part of nature.... that man was simply a biological organism like any other, subject to no rule but the law of the jungle. With war considered God’s (or nature’s) favourite means for selecting among species and races, it became hard to see why one’s fellow humans should not be treated as animals allegedly treat each other in “the struggle for existence”: that is, with the utmost ruthlessness and regardless of any consideration except expediency.

This seems a dubious argument. Natural selection is not war. Natural selection may advance through sexual means, through means of proliferance, or through lethal means. But lethal does not – not necessarily – mean antagonistic, and certainly not bellicose in the sense that humanity defines warfare. Are there wars of all against all in the animal world? Are there wars of honour? So the “struggle for existence” or the “law of the jungle” are simply not the same thing as warfare and to conflate them in this way is tendentious.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

While shopping in the local store, forty-year-old Delia Grinstead is asked by a young man, Adrian Bly-Brice, to pose as his girlfriend in order to make his ex, who is also shopping in the same store with her new boyfriend, jealous. She does so, and enjoys the frisson of excitement that this innocent deception offers. She subsequently meets the young man again and they form a friendship.

At this point, I feared I was about to read all over again the last Anne Tyler I read, Earthly Possessions. Unhappy woman? Check. Meets young man? Check. Promise of escape? Check. But this time, happily, there is a difference. She does not go off with Adrian as you are led to expect. Instead, while on holiday with her family she walks away and leaves them on the beach, and keeps walking. She doesn’t mean to leave them, but she does, and she finds herself living a new existence, alone, in a small town in Minnesota. That is the basic plot of Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler’s thirteenth novel. It is fairly typical Tyler territory, of course, but as ever it is beautifully written.

What I find fascinating about this novel is the way it confronts our perceptions of women. Women are the homemakers. Women are defined by their families. By coincidence, there was an article in the newspapers over the weekend about the son of Alison Hargreaves, who is about to follow his mother’s footsteps and head off to climb K2. There was an enormous fuss back in 1995 when Hargreaves died in her attempt to climb the mountain. How dare she leave two young children without a mother? the tabloids cried. No such fuss would have been raised if it had been the father who had died, but because it was the mother it was considered to be unacceptable. It is precisely this sort of preconception that Tyler addresses in Ladder of Years.

In society’s eyes, Delia does a terrible thing: she leaves her family, she abandons her children. She decides that she must live her own life and sets out to do just that. In this, of course, she is a modern day Edna Pontellier. I loved Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and I loved Edna Pontellier for her free-spiritedness. She was the antithesis of that other great literary love of mine, Tess Durbeyfield, because she was a woman who took control of her own life. I still find the ending of The Awakening hard to bear and, although it is nothing so grim, I find the ending of Ladder of Years equally disappointing. But that’s me, and that’s my personal reaction to the plot, rather than a considered literary view.

Having said that, in literary terms I think the ending of Ladder of Years is easily the weakest part of the book. It seems like Tyler felt she had come to the end and just looked for a way to finish it. An aged character, Nat, makes a two hour drive to Delia’s home for no logical reason other than to act as a plot device and everything resolves neatly from there. It feels terribly weak, given what has come before. Nonetheless, Ladder of Years is an entertaining read, a decent piece of literature and a provocative piece of social comment. In the end, Delia is no Edna Pontellier. Someone should do the decent thing and create an Edna for the twenty-first century.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

The world that Percy conjures up in Love in the Ruins, and that he rails against, is one of abstraction, lacking concreteness and mired in despair. It is entirely lacking in spirit, in what Percy would define as the human religious instinct. This is the familiar territory of modernist writers, but Walker Percy’s interpretation of the malaise is essentially religious. Bradley Dewey pinpoints this as a central theme of Percy’s work when he suggests it ‘maps the contours of the ailing American psyche.’ In Percy’s opinion, continues Dewey, the root is spiritual and the cure is Catholic. And it is his overt Catholicism that makes Percy stand out from the crowd of millennialist doomsayers. Even Flannery O’Connor, with her preponderance of essentially Baptist characters, has not flown the flag of Catholicism as resolutely as Percy. For him, any notion of liberal theology is anathema. Salvation through grace, the individual and societal struggle against nihilism, that is Percy’s goal. In a novel heavy on satire, a moment of genuine pathos makes this clear, when the central character, Tom More’s dying daughter tells him: “The sin against grace. If God gives the grace to believe in him and love him and you refuse, the will not be forgiven you.” “I know,” replies More, and it could be the voice of the author himself.

Published in 1971, Love in the Ruins is set in Louisiana in an imagined near future of the 1980s, ‘at a time near the end of the world’. The United States is riven by dispute, divided into factionalism – liberal and reactionary, leftists and knotheads, black and white, young and old, north and south. Even the Catholic Church has ‘split into three pieces: (1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; (2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; (3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.’ Amid the tension and violence that attends such discontent, Dr Thomas More is convinced that the world is about to end. He is holed up in a deserted hotel with three beautiful women and his ‘lapsometer’, a scientific device for measuring the emotions and beliefs and metaphysical condition of every individual, the ‘first caliper of the soul’. As the situation deteriorates, he is confronted by an enigmatic Mephistophelean character, Art Immelmann, whose motives are unclear but as the novel unfolds become increasingly malign. Finally, it is clear that Immelmann is the Devil incarnate and is bent on the possession of Tom More’s soul.

More is a flawed character – indeed the subtitle of the novel is ‘The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World’ – who falls prey to the usual temptations of earthly life: ‘longing, longings for women, for the Nobel Prize, for the hot bosky bite of bourbon whiskey, and other great heart-wrenching longings that have no name’. He is a doctor whose invention allows a diagnosis of spiritual malaise, but crucially it is only a diagnostic tool, and he cannot use it to cure the illnesses he discovers. Moreover, More himself suffers from mental illness and is also a patient in the hospital in which he works. The message is clear then – this is satire, after all – society is sick to the core and needs to rediscover its purpose. This is done, of course, through love, love amid the ruins of modern America, specifically the love of God. More resists the temptations of the satanic Immelmann and finds communion with God. He devotes himself to his scientific research and to his wife and family: he becomes human.

Thus, while Percy presents a dystopian vision of America, his analysis is essentially hopeful, based on individual redemption through accommodation of the self with God. In presenting this thesis, Percy draws closely on Kierkegaard. In an interview with Bradley Dewey he decries traditional American philosophy based as it is on the duality of science and art which, he argues in Kierkegaardian fashion, leaves out an essential aspect of our humanity, ‘the individual himself’. Modern man has become formless, abstracted, alienated. He is, as Romano Guardini describes it, ‘at the crossroads confronting the Call of God.’ If he does not answer the call, he will be enslaved by his own technology, become a machine, be reduced to the status of ‘mass man’. Tom More avoids this fate: he confronts his demons and the Devil himself; he continues to pursue his scientific investigations but not, any longer, out of the vane desire for a Nobel Prize; his science becomes an act of nature, a piece of art, a touch of beauty. Gary Ciuba suggests there is an apocalyptic vision present throughout Percy’s oeuvre, going as far as to argue that ‘the Apocalypse of John is the story of all Percy’s stories’. In Love In The Ruins that apocalypse is at its most explicit: we are told from the beginning that the end is nigh. However, I would suggest that Percy’s message is not eschatological, and while he is certainly warning man of the dangers inherent in our modern lifestyles, his work lacks the relentless dogmatism of Cassandras like McCarthy or O’Connor. Percy’s reaction against modernity appears to owe less to the Weberian idea of the stultifying nature of bureaucratic routine than to Habermas, for whom modernity was an ‘unfinished project’ which was capable of being moulded into something more sustaining. Thus, as Farrell O’Gorman explains:

In his fiction the modern world indeed seems to have come to an end, and there is much to fear, but also much to celebrate: for his seeking protagonists, the apocalyptic somehow culminates with the Edenic, and accordingly the locus of his fiction is not a present overwhelmed by a tragic past, but rather one which is paradoxically hopeful and carries within it the signs of an ultimately comic mystery.

Love in the Ruins is a complex novel. The broad humour masks a serious analysis of contemporary society. The answers to the questions we seek are, Percy tells us, resident within ourselves. Our contradictions and prejudices, our petty spitefulness and self-centredness may be the seeds from which disorder grows, but if we can learn to control them – in Percy’s view, to find grace – then hope remains. It is a noble vision, one that can be embraced by Christians and humanists alike, for underneath we are all of us nothing but Jock Tamson’s bairns.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Cohabiting with the dead

I was reading Martin van Creveld's Transformation of War earlier (somebody on here recommended it, Mark, I think) and came across this extraordinary sentence about the hangmen in England:

The hangmen themselves before proceeding to their gruesome business used to beg for the victim's forgiveness. Often they found it hard to get married, with the result that in sixteenth century england, for example, they received permission to cohabit with the dead.

The mind boggles. The library copy of the book I'm reading has a pencil marking at this point saying "Footnote?" and I have to agree with that anonymous critic. It's such a peculiar notion some explanation might have been expected. I'm assuming this is not cohabitation in the sexual sense - state sponsored necrophilia, even in the sixteenth century, seems unlikely - but I'd like to know more about it all the same.

(And I'm willing to bet this post brings some unusual surfers to the blog via Google searches...)

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Use of description to build character

A while ago I quoted a beautiful passage from Ken Kesey in which he used description specifically to create character. Here is another example, from Ted Hughes's Gaudete.

She hauls herself to her feet, towering
And walks
And enters the still house.

Rooms retreat.
A march of right angles. Barren perspectives
Cluttered with artefacts, in a cold shine.
Icebergs of taste, spacing and repose.

The rooms circle her slowly, like a malevolence.
She feels weirdly oppressed.
She remembers
A shadow-cleft redstone desert
At evening.
The carpet’s edge. The parquet.
The door-knob’s cut glass.
She observes these with new fear.
The kitchen’s magenta tiles. The blue Aga.

It is her fifteen years of marriage
Watching her, strange-faced, like a jury.

You can almost see this woman, early middle-age, wandering round her beautiful house and feeling the helplessness of it all. She has everything she has ever wanted, but now realises that none of it provides her with what she needs. The claustrophobia is palpable. Right angles, barren perspectives, rooms circling, malevolence - it all paints a disturbing picture of loneliness and despair, beautifully crystalised in the final couplet, with the wreckage of her marriage watching her, judging.

Wonderful stuff.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Gaudete by Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes’s Gaudete is a 200 page poem laying bare the neurosis at the heart of our western civilisation. In it, Hughes creates a myth about the nature of civilisation itself, about the forces that shape humanity and the malignity that can transform us. Although in his work Hughes generally eschews the dualism that is at the core of Christian thought, there is nonetheless a dualism at play here – not good and evil, God and devil, but order and nature, rationality and spirit. In Gaudete, he depicts what he considers to be the spiritual impoverishment of contemporary civilisation. What he sees as the overweening attraction to pure reason, at the expense of mythic invention, leaves us prone to psychic discontent, paralysed, passive and apathetic. Moreover, the hypocricy contained in the constricted teachings of Christianity make us stunted, unfulfilled and sexually repressed. Hughes is unsparing in his depiction of modern man. Lee Lance calls Hughes’s poems ‘messages from another world (inevitably a collective unconscious) meant to heal, guide or illumine.’ If that is so, Hughes’s prognosis is that we are in dire need of those messages.

The story centres on Nicholas Lumb, a minister in a small English community. In the first section of the poem he is seen wandering through an Eliotesque city of the dead, terror-struck by the despair and disaster which surrounds him. He becomes a changeling, and a shadow of himself returns to his parish, a shamanic magician who is set on founding a new religion. This will sweep away the puritanical Protestantism that shackles mankind. It is based on women, its adherents may only be women, and it proceeds in a Dionysian ecstacy of sexual excess. Lumb effectively turns the village and its female parishioners into his private harem and he brings to the surface the latent emotions of all those around him – sexual in the case of the women in his thrall and violent in the case of their cuckolded husbands. However, he later decides to elope with one of his parishioners, Felicity, setting in train a murderous climax which finally sees the church burned to the ground, taking with it the bodies of Lumb, Felicity and Lumb’s housekeeper Maud.

This section of the story – by far the longest – is suffused with sex and violence and death, a nihilistic danse macabre in which Hughes depicts a civilisation on the brink of disaster. Roelef Wigboldus suggests that the imagery contained within it symbolises ‘the outbursts of violence characteristic of Western civilization.’ That may be so, but I would suggest the symbolism is even wider: Hughes is not portraying only the violence of western civilisation, but western civilisation itself. Western civilisation is violence, he is telling us. It has succumbed, under the malign influence of repressive religion, to a neurosis which has rendered it incapable of dealing with its inner needs or creating beauty or understanding meaning in any other sense than hard, rationalistic facts. In a 1970 essay on myth and education, he noted: ‘A scientifically biased education has produced a chronically sick society. Some go even wider and suggest that our scientifically biased, technological civilization is ipso facto a chronically sick civilization, and that the whole thing is a complete mistake.’ Hughes’s remedy for this sickness is Jungian, based on a rediscovery of invention, ‘[t]he deliberate education of imagination by means of stories.’ Gaudete is an attempt to do just that, to establish a new myth at the core of our being.

The final section of the poem is explained by Hughes as being the poems of Nicholas Lumb himself, who has somehow surfaced in rural Ireland and speaks to three awestruck children. These elliptical poems are effectively paeans to a nameless earth goddess, setting forth Hughes’s alternative philosophy of anima, or spirit, a way in which humanity can recover from its neurosis. Nicholas Lumb is both Christ and the devil – old Nick and the lamb of God – and he is thus threat and opportunity, problem and solution. Ann Stevenson sees echoes of Aeneas, Orpheus, Dante and Christ in Lumb’s descent into darkness but, perhaps, Lumb’s journey is not an eschatological one: for all the nihilism of the main story, Hughes leaves us with a tantalising glimpse of freedom.