"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, March 20, 2022

My review of Supernatural Tales 49

I have purchased more issues of Supernatural Tales than I have read. Each issue has at least one story by an author I enjoy, and the ebook price is always right. Issue 49 is the first issue of ST I have read cover to cover. 

*   *   *

"The Woofle Dust" by Steve Duffy is a wonderful evocation of UK end-of-the-pier entertainment in late August 1939. Regular readers will not be surprised at Duffy's skill here. In stories as varied in setting and historical period as "The Vanishing Hitchhiker," "The Oram County Whoosit," and "The Clay Party," Duffy has displayed superb skill in the short story and novella modes.

"The Woofle Dust" is a trap for the unwary, both the reader and the story's protagonist. It has a sunset mood: the shadow of impending imperialist war skews each human act and interaction.

*   *   *

Hardy's sublime story "The Withered Arm" came to mind repeatedly as I read "Godless" by Sam Dawson. It has a historically indeterminate rural village setting, and Dawson does a skilful job conveying a pre-industrial era.

By any means necessary, protagonist Ruth Darnell works to ensure her son, hung for murder, ends up buried in consecrated ground. Dawson is at his best in the story when delineating this struggle: a woman against men and against a man's world.

*   *   *

"All Talk" by Rosalie Parker is a carefully observed timeslip story. The narrator tells us about her employee Gregory, a successful young family man who, for a  while, lives two lives in two different years. Ultimately, one life must win over the other, and one does.

Est enim magnum chaos.

*   *   *

"Another One To Love Them" by David Buchan

She wondered where they had learnt the game that they were playing. It certainly couldn't have come from their aunt. The woman had seemed too self-absorbed to teach something like that to the children, something that was....

Gwendolyn shepherds three siblings around a stately home, once the site of a terrible crime. The children, working class and normally unruly, surprise her by seeming to rise to the occasion.

In the end they are happy to sit on the lawn, playing together with something that "had the texture and colour of aged leather, and what might have been strands of hair that sprouted from one edge."

*   *   *

"Candler's Ceremony" by Sam Hicks describes urban disorientation in the early Covid period: empty streets, few and different faces. 

"I wanted, hoping all this would only happen once, to go somewhere where I could really see the change," our narrator says. So he heads to London's City, and wandering the emptiness meets Candler. Is Candler simply another person unmoored by the pandemic's dissolution of routine? Or an altogether different order of guide?

This is the first Sam Hicks story I have read; its brevity lends an almost molecular weight to each sentence. The sense of "last things and last people" is palpable.

*   *   *

"Not That Kind of Place" by James Everington starts out as a search for two runaway daughters. It ends atomization into contingency and uncertainty, conveyed with the confusions and unreason of dream. 

Stories that refuse to make conventional sense, or tell their stories in a conventional way, have always challenged me. (And by challenged, I mean annoyed). When a writer gets it right in this game, the case for their method is irrefutable. Everington's story falls short, but the world he builds is initially compelling.

*   *   *

James Machin's use in "Cave Canem'' of skewed perspectives and intentional lacunae recall de la Mare and Aickman here, but also the queerly suggestive landscapes of Buchan and Ramsey Campbell. Repressed motivations and apparently arbitrary clueing are in play, but action is sharply grounded for all the strange-making procedures afoot.

In a way, the story's skewed assignments and god-building are objective correlatives for the protagonist Mark's developmental prosopagnosia.

These rhetorical wire-modelings aside, "Cave Canem" is a compelling story about the risk of calling up that which cannot be put down again. 

*   *   *

"Four Vignettes" by Jane Jakeman is a bravura collection of short-short stories. They display real skill at deftly renewing different historical periods and horror clichés.

*   *   *


19 March 2022

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Culture by Terry Eagleton (2016)

Terry Eagleton makes it look easy, and it is clear to the reader he is enjoying himself in his books. Culture (Yale, 2016) is no exception. It could have been a dour exercise, but Eagleton is more interested in explicating and celebrating contradictions than he is in scolding, shaming, or burying.

Culture is the result of human social labor. Works of and ideas about culture are developed and presented by individuals within changing historical contexts. Explaining and tracking these contrasting and interpenetrating factors while explicating specific expressions is a strength of this book. Eagleton juggles the plates with confidence.

Some excerpts that struck me as useful to keep in mind:

[Herder compared to Burke]

[....]The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder was Edmund Burke's contemporary, and an author whose importance in the history of ideas is hard to overrate. He was one of the first great historicist thinkers, attentive to the historical circumstances of cultures, texts, events and individuals. It is an approach which has been described as one of the great intellectual revolutions of European thought.36 He has also been hailed as the father of modern nationalism, and has even been credited with introducing the idea of culture as a whole way of life into European thought. As if all this were not impressive enough, Herder was also one of the founders of modern literary theory, as well as one of the first thinkers to recognise the role of popular culture in social life. As such, he stands at the source of what we know today as cultural studies. He was also a pioneer in the philosophy of language, a subject which some credit him with having effectively invented. The philosopher Charles Taylor claims that Herder 'originates a fundamentally different way of thinking about language and meaning', and speaks of 'the Herder revolution'.37

     Despite these achievements, Herder's name is less familiar in Anglophone circles than that of his Irish counterpart. The fact that the Nazis revered him as a racist is no doubt one reason for this relative neglect, though he was for the most part no more of a racist than Burke was a reactionary. It is true that like a good many thinkers of his time, including the great liberal Immanuel Kant, he believed that some races were more advanced than others, and occasionally deployed demeaning stereotypes of those he considered backward or childlike. Unlike the Nazis, however, he did not consider that such peoples were any less entitled to their full human rights, including the right to be neither colonised nor enslaved.

     Herder and Burke do not always think alike. Herder, for example, greeted the French Revolution with acclaim, though like many an initial enthusiast he was later to be disillusioned. Whereas Burke treats women with old-style chivalry, Herder speaks up boldly for their emancipation, announcing that 'no fact shows more decisively the true character of a man or a nation than their treatment of women'.38 Most women, he believes, are slaves within their own societies. If Burke prizes order, Herder values freedom. Burke's vision of humankind can be dark, while Herder's is far too sanguine. There is no such thing as evil, he proclaims, and death is merely a metamorphosis. History is the work of God. Burke is rather less dewy-eyed about the evolution of humanity. In the Irishman's view, the political state is to be revered, whereas in the German's eyes it is a heartless administrative machine which suppresses all individuality. The true makers of history are the poets and prophets, not the politicians.

     Even so, there are some striking affinities between the two men. Herder, like Burke, holds that culture is more decisive than politics. Both men see religion as central to culture – unsurprisingly in the case of Herder, who was a Lutheran minister. Ideas are the province of the intelligentsia, but religion is a species of emotional democracy, a treasure-house of instincts and affections accessible to all. Both writers thought that nations are to be governed through customs, traditions and sentiments, and society must be seen as an organic growth. As such, it resists the kind of centralised organisation that Burke abhors in French Jacobinism and Herder finds distasteful in German absolutism. Both men are Romantics wedded to the concrete and circumstantial, yet both refuse to give way on certain universal standards. At the same time, they are at one in decrying what they regard as a bogus cult of universal humanitarianism, as opposed to local loyalties and domestic bonds. 'Ideals of universal love of humanity, for all nations, and even enemies, are exalted', Herder complains of the spirit of the age, 'while warm feelings of family and friendship are allowed to decay.'39 Sympathy and love, for him as for Burke, are more precious than what he dismisses as 'cold reason'.

     Herder shares Burke's hatred of slavery, despotism, colonial rapacity and the destruction of native cultures. Like his Irish counterpart, he champions the cause of small nations and warns the imperialist powers of Europe that they are likely one day to get their comeuppance. 'The more means and tools we Europeans invent to enslave, cheat and plunder you other continents', he remarks, addressing himself to the subjects of colonial power, 'the more it may be left to you to triumph in the end. We forge the chains by which one day you will pull us along.'40 Europe, he insists, should not seek to mould its colonies into pallid replicas of itself. Instead, the culture of other nations must be respected, since each of them contributes in its distinctive way to the universal development of humanity.41 'Is good not dispersed over the earth?' he asks.42 To grasp the unique character of other peoples, one needs to suspend one's partiality and grasp their form of life from the inside, rather as Burke believed of India. 'It is but just, when we proceed to the country of the blacks', Herder insists, 'that we lay aside our proud prejudices, and consider the organisation of this quarter of the globe with as much impartiality as if there were no other.'43

     Herder, then, is far from the rampant German nationalist the Nazis claimed to see in him. Yet neither is he a full-blooded cultural relativist, at least in his later writings. He would have been unenthused by the coy refusal to criticise 'the other' which marks so much contemporary postcolonial thought, and which can simply be a shamefaced inversion of colonial values. Instead, he is not in the least reluctant to pass negative judgements on a whole span of human cultures, from the ancient Romans to the modern Tibetans. These assessments are sometimes coloured by racism or ethnocentrism, and sometimes not. Some nations are superior to others in particular respects; but no culture is inferior or superior as such, and none of them has the right to behave aggressively or expansively towards others. Far from being a self-satisfied European, Herder holds that the continent has been in a lamentable state of decay ever since the Middle Ages, and is in need of radical cultural renewal. It is a civilisation, to be sure; but it has lost touch with its vital cultural roots, a calamity which Herder's own work sets out to repair. His project, along with that of many another Romantic, is to convert civilisations into cultures.

     Herder believes in the perfectibility of the human species. Civilisation can regress from time to time, but taken as a whole it is evolving towards a state of universal well-being. Yet he combines this Enlightenment optimism with a rejection of the standard Enlightenment view of progress. History for Herder is by no means a single, uniform, unilinear process of evolution; rather, each culture unfolds at its own pace in its own inimitable way. The idea of progress is pluralised. At the same time, the notion of culture as Bildung or harmonious self-development is transferred from the individual to entire nations. Herder sees the spiritual evolution of these nations as a value in itself, not simply as a contribution to some universal march towards utopia. The point, as one critic comments, is 'not to trace the trajectory of "progress" but to discriminate the varieties of human excellence'.44 There is no inexorable teleology at work here. 'You people in all parts of the world,' Herder announces, 'who have passed away over the ages, you did not live only to fertilize the earth with your ashes, so that at the end of time your descendants could become happy through European culture.'45 Non-Western communities are more than sacrificial lambs to be lain on the altar of universal improvement. Nor is history a one-way street: there is much that the present can learn from the supposedly benighted past. For Herder, as for Marx, civilisation involves both loss and gain, and some degree of decline is a function of all social advance.

     Both Herder and Burke maintain that reason is rooted in felt experience. Cognition and sensation are on intimate terms with one other. Among other things, this means that power, which depends upon concepts, must be grounded in culture, which is an experiential affair. As one concerned not primarily with art but with perception and sensation, Burke is an aesthetician in the original sense of the word. In fact, modern aesthetics begins as a discourse of the body.46 In his treatise on the sublime and the beautiful, he is fascinated by what happens when we hear low vibrations or stroke smooth surfaces, by the dilation of the eye's pupil in darkness or the feel of a slight tap on the shoulder. Herder, too, believes that thought is bound up with the body, and that language is affective and expressive rather than simply communicative. A slight change in human physiology, he claims, would transform the destiny of the planet. For Burke, too, language is a question of performance rather than conveyance, rhetoric rather than reportage. It is a view exemplified by his magnificent prose style, laced as it is with burnished metaphor and theatrical gesture.

     In viewing language as bound up with our social and sensory activity, Herder anticipates the thought of both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. For him, as for Wittgenstein, words have meaning only in so far as they are woven into a practical form of life. It is because of language that we can inhabit different worlds even when we live on the same street. Speech is an organ with which we cope with our practical environment, and all of our more abstract notions evolve from this humble root. Pure reason is a chimera. Like Burke, Herder promotes faith, sense, experience and intuition over rational speculation. In fact, he has the nerve to criticise his great mentor Kant for underestimating the role of language in the process of cognition, as well as for failing to anchor the categories of time and space in bodily experience. To insert language into the Kantian system, he argues, would be to throw it open to the forces of history and culture. Like Burke, too, he is impatient with philosophical system-building, though his work is far more ambitious in scope than the Irishman's, ranging as it does from the grunting of the ape to the structure of the cosmos. He even modestly contemplated writing a history of the world….

*   *   *


[....]The Romantic concept of self-realisation tends to assume that the self's faculties are inherently positive. The only problem is that they are being blocked by some external obstacle: the state, law, despotism, patriarchy, superego, imperial authority, the governing class, bourgeois morality and so on. But what if the impediments to freedom lie closer to home than that? In Freud's view, we internalise the Law in the form of the superego, which means that to violate its diktats is to risk doing injury to ourselves. Burke, too, is aware that the only effective sovereignty is one which we make our own. It is this that Antonio Gramsci was later to call a hegemonic power, as opposed to a coercive one. For Freud, we are also inveterate masochists who love the very Law in whose presence we tremble, which further complicates the matter. Power and desire are not simply antagonists but co-conspirators. In any case, how can we know what we desire until we give expression to it? Even then, it is not obvious that we always know what we want. Since we are not transparent to ourselves, as the Romantic libertarian tends to assume, we can easily be deceived over the question. There are false desires and specious forms of freedom. Besides, what if, as Freud suspects, we harbour an unconscious wish not to fulfil our desires, since to realise them would be to abolish them? What if desire is out to defer its own gratification? In Freud's view, there is a flaw or glitch at the heart of desire which deflects its aim and turns it awry. There is also always a residue of it left unrealised, however fully and freely we express ourselves. Discontent is of our nature, and the science of discontent is known as psychoanalysis.

     Not much of this is taken on board by the Romantic humanist tradition, a lineage which includes Karl Marx. Marx would seem to assume that human powers and capacities are positive in themselves, and that we can have fairly direct access to their nature. Human beings may be mystified and manipulated, but they are not constitutively self-opaque. In this view, there would appear nothing botched or intractable at the heart of humanity, whereas Freud sketches his own version of original sin. Even so, Marx turns the Romantic vision in a new direction. What he does is harness it to an actual political force: the labour and socialist movements. It is a move that William Morris will repeat in the English fin-de-siècle. Without such a material incarnation, the idea of culture is bound to remain abstract and academicist. Unlike Schiller and Arnold, both Marx and Morris inquire into the question of what material conditions would be necessary for social life to prove more fulfilling, and find an answer to their query in the abolition of capitalism. In particular, Marx offers a response to the question of how my self-realisation is to avoid colliding with yours. His implicit recommendation would appear to be: realise the self only in a way which provides the means for others freely to do the same. It is this that he has in mind when he remarks in The Communist Manifesto that, in communist society, the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all. It is not a knockdown solution to the problem; nor is it original to Marx himself. Like much else, he lifted it from Hegel. But it is a richly suggestive ethics all the same.

     Without the move that Marx and Morris make, the concept of culture remains a resourceful critique of modern civilisation, but a politically ineffectual one. Culture becomes a refuge from civil society rather than a means of transforming it. From Coleridge to F.R. Leavis, it sets itself above the inferior domain of politics, work and citizenship. It is a moral, personal or spiritual affair, aloof for the most part from the material realm of famines and economic slumps, genocide and women's oppression. Like religion, it provides some spiritual compensation for what it tends to castigate as an almost wholly sterile civilisation. Indeed, there are times at which, from its Olympian height, it can see hardly anything affirmative in a degenerate modern existence. The link between culture and politics that Burke considered so vital, is gradually eroded.

     * * *

     While the notion of culture was becoming a critique of industrialism around the turn of the eighteenth century, it was also laying the foundations of Romantic nationalism. Herder, as we have seen already, was one of its most impassioned advocates. The idea of the autonomous, self-determining nation is not much more than a couple of centuries old, even though nations themselves are fond of fantasising that their origins lie buried deep in the mists of time. Nationalism was to prove the most successful revolutionary movement of the modern era, dismantling empires, toppling tyrants and bringing a host of new political states to birth. Yet it was to some extent, in the words of one commentator, 'the invention of literary men',18 which is not usually the case with world-transformative projects; and the chief reason for this was the prominence it assigned to the idea of culture. As a British army officer remarked when his men executed the nationalist rebels of Dublin in 1916: 'We have done Ireland a service: we have rid it of some second-rate poets.' It was through revolutionary nationalism above all that the concept of culture, however abstract and ethereal it might seem at first sight, did indeed succeed in refashioning the face of the earth. The desire of nations to be free of their colonial masters was to prove the most potent coupling of culture and politics of the modern age, far more effective than the so-called cultural politics of our own period.

     Unlike civic nationalism, which concerns itself with such questions as citizenship and political rights, Romantic nationalism is a spiritual principle before it is a political programme. It is a poetic brand of politics, hospitable to image, archetype and the creative imagination, as much concerned with myth, symbolism and blood sacrifice as with protecting indigenous industries or thinking up a name for one's currency. Only when colonial nations finally achieve their independence does the poetry of revolt yield to the prose of constructing a state and building an economy. One author describes Romantic nationalism as the elevation of sentiment from the private to the political realm.19 At an extreme, it can figure as a secular version of religion, one of the more successful of modernity's numerous surrogates for the Almighty. Like God, the nation is sacred, indivisible, self-sustaining, without origin or end, the ground of all being, the source of identity, transcendent of the individual and a cause worth dying for. There is a galaxy of nationalist heroes, as there is a pantheon of saints and martyrs. Like religion, nationalism couples everyday life with visionary idealism. The nation, observed Herder's colleague Johann Gottlieb Fichte, is a work of God.

     With the rise of national liberation movements, poets, artists and scholars attain a public prominence to which they are hardly accustomed in less turbulent times. Intellectuals can now become social activists in the manner of a Yeats or a Léopold Senghor, placing their work at the service of their country and proclaiming their solidarity with the more menial members of the nation. Historians, philologists and antiquarians find themselves dragged from their studies and thrust into the political limelight. Shelley saw poets as the unacknowledged legislators of humankind, a description that W.H. Auden thought more appropriate to the secret police; but with the rise of anti-colonial wars, a number of nationalist artists became legislators in reality. Nationalist movements tend to give rise to a body of distinguished artistic culture, and thus forge a link between culture as the arts and culture as a way of life. It would be hard to say the same of neo-liberalism or social democracy.

     Romantic nationalists like Herder view nations as unified, self-creating and self-determining. In this sense, they can be seen to resemble works of art. It would be hard to overrate the havoc this doctrine has wreaked in the modern world. For one thing, there are no unified nations. Most societies are ethnically diverse, and all of them are socially divided. Nations are political constructs, not natural phenomena. If the citizens of a region or country are suppressed by a foreign power, they have a right to self-determination; but it is arguable that they possess such a right because they are people, not because they are a people. It is Romantic mysticism to believe that being Swiss or Somali automatically entitles you to your own government. What is wrong with oppressing Angolans is not the fact that there is something inherently precious about being Angolan but that there is something inherently offensive about being oppressed. Individual Angolans may well be inherently valuable, but that is a different matter. A group of people of British origin who have long inhabited another country do not have a right to establish their sovereignty there simply because they are British. This is how Northern Ireland, along with its subsequent history of bloodshed, arrived on the agenda. There is no natural connection between having an ethnic identity and exercising political citizenship. Being colonised by others is objectionable on much the same grounds that being thrown out of your own home by bullying neighbours is. As far as the injustice of it goes, the fact that those who dispossess you spring from another race or nation is neither here nor there.20 Colonialism is at root a political and economic reality, not (as some postcolonial theory imagines) a cultural one. A benevolent brand of colonialism like Edmund Burke's may seek to cherish and protect a native culture, but this is no reason why it should not be resisted.

     We have seen that for Burke culture could be both a way of imposing power and a mode of contesting it. Much the same ambiguity can be found in nationalism. If it was the creed of the Nazis, it was also the means by which colonial peoples could shake off their overlords and achieve a degree of self-determination. Nationalism is both the British Empire and the global revolt against it. Anti-colonialism is both America's uprising against the British and the mutiny of one down-at-heel nation after another against the dominion of the United States. It would be hard to find a more self-contradictory form of politics.


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[....]If culture is what allows us to survive and flourish, it is also what men and women are prepared to kill for, a fact to which both anti-colonial insurrections and subsequent ethnic conflicts bear witness. Only seriously weird people are prepared to kill for Balzac or Berlioz, but large numbers of men and women will slaughter, or be martyred, for culture in the sense of an ethnic, religious or national identity. Language, belief, kinship, symbol, heritage and homeland are now potentially lethal sources of dissension. They are zones of contention rather than nodes of unity. This marks a seismic shift in the history of cultural ideas. For thinkers like Schiller, Coleridge and Arnold, culture is above all a force for reconciliation. It allows us to transcend our sectarian squabbles, converging instead on the ground of our common humanity. If literature and the arts are indispensable, it is not least because they seem to encapsulate that humanity in peculiarly graphic, sensuously immediate form, in a way that nothing as anaemic as philosophy or political science can rival. They are the means by which we can almost literally weigh in our palms the fundamental values by which we are supposed to live.

     Moved by the harmonising power of culture, we are able to rise above our petty material preoccupations with rank, class, power, gender, ethnicity, social inequality and so on, suspending these disputes in a higher sphere. If there seems no ready political solution to such antagonisms, culture will furnish us with a spiritual one. It thus performs a function similar to that of religion, which is one reason why it has so often aspired to become a secular version of such belief. Like religious faith in Marx's renowned phrase, culture (or the humanities) is the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is also often enough the opium of the intelligentsia. As such, it is at once invaluable and largely ineffectual. If it can be a solvent of human strife, it is only by providing an imaginary resolution of such antagonisms, one which might then distract our attention from the need for real-life ones. There is cultural as well as theological pie in the sky. If culture in this sense of the word can foster values which have been driven from the public realm as superfluous and dysfunctional, it is not least because it stands at a disabling distance from that workaday world, and so is ill-equipped to transform it. The problem for authors like Schiller, Arnold and Ruskin is that, with the rise of industrial capitalism, the need for such a transformation has now become pressing, but the means of its achievement are as murky as ever.

     What happens with the rise of revolutionary nationalism, however, is that culture ceases to be part of the solution and instead becomes part of the problem. It is no longer the sworn enemy of politics; rather, it is the very idiom in which political demands are framed, articulated and fought out. It descends from heaven to earth, still trailing clouds of glory, to become an active political force. If this is true of nationalism, it is equally true of the so-called identity politics – feminism, ethnic struggles, gay rights and so on – which follows hard on its heels. At the same time as the capitalist labour market goes truly global, men and women migrate across the planet in search of work, converting what were once largely mono-ethnic nations into multicultural ones. In this way, too, culture is redefined as part of the problem, as tensions between different ethnic groups pose a threat to political stability. In the form of ethnicity and immigration, though not in the form of Stendhal and Schumann, culture is now a daily subject of debate in the Western heartlands. The idea that human cultures can overlap, or that one might share in a range of them simultaneously, is by no means new. There are countless examples of such hybrid life-forms throughout history. What is new is the fact that a high degree of cultural diversity will be the routine condition of social existence from now on. An ideal of unity and purity can usually be found lurking beneath the classical notion of culture, which has now for the most part been put to rest. Culture and purity no longer march hand in hand.

     'The milieu in which the modern anthropological notion of culture was born', writes Robert J.C. Young, 'was class and race conflict.'21 Given the unholy alliance between colonial power and nineteenth-century anthropology, the concept of culture is contaminated to its core by racist ideology. In fact, one of the sources of the word 'culture' is the Latin verb colere, meaning to occupy or inhabit. A word that stands for some of the most exalted of human achievements also smacks of some of the most unspeakable. It is hard for us today to rid the concept of its role in the 'scientific' study of premodern peoples, one that tended to freeze them in their subhuman otherness.

     At the very moment that they suppressed colonial peoples, however, the colonialists also exoticised them. In the case of Ireland, as Luke Gibbons writes:

     The Celt was granted an unlimited poetic licence as a consolation for the loss of political power, in keeping with the elegiac note in Romanticism where communities excluded from the march of progress – Orientals, Africans, native Americans, or, closer to home, an idealised peasantry – enjoyed an afterlife in the realms of the imagination.22

     Values which a utilitarian civilisation has expelled as so much surplus baggage – sensuality, bodily grace, sexual energy, imaginative brio – take up an imaginary home on the colonial margins, as they do on the artistic ones. They can then be consumed at a judicious distance. Roughly speaking, the colonialists have civilisation, while their colonial subjects have culture. We envy those subjects because they are guileless and sensual, whereas they envy us for our dishwashers and cathedrals. They are more organic than us, while we are more stylish than they are. If there is one piece of culture sufficient to discredit this banal wisdom, it is art, since art can boast no evolutionary progress. Aboriginal art is as sophisticated as abstract Expressionism. There is no upward trek from the Icelandic sagas to Saul Bellow.

     As the colonialists pursue their civilising mission, they encounter a striking diversity of cultures, most of them (at least until they themselves arrive on the scene) in tolerably good working order; and this is bound to prove somewhat disquieting, not least when the business of foisting your sovereignty on such cultures may require a robust faith in your own racial or cultural supremacy. 'May', because subjugating others does not necessarily involve a belief in one's own pre-eminence; but even when it does not, the sheer proliferation of other life-forms may be enough to rattle your faith in your own. That there are innumerable different ways of doing things, most of them reasonably viable, is not exactly what you want to hear, not least when you are busy sending your gunboats up foreign rivers. It smacks too much of a cultural relativism that risks corroding your self-assurance, as with the colonialist-turned-nihilist Kurtz of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Kurtz starts out as a bearer of civilised sweetness and light to colonial Africa; but because this encounter with an alien culture serves to highlight the contingent nature of his own concept of civility, his faith in the white man's burden soon turns to ashes in his mouth.

     There is a parallel to this situation in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, a novel in which the middle-class Englishwoman Mrs Moore finds her identity grievously undermined by an encounter with cultural difference in colonial India. As a result, she keels over into a nihilistic disgust with humanity and loses her grip on life. There is a sense in which she dies of cultural relativism, a privileged kind of demise. If Kurtz shifts from enlightened colonialist to barbarous nihilist, Mrs Moore is a Bloomsbury liberal whose pluralism has been pressed too far. The fact that she is a liberal rather than (like her imperialist prig of a son) a stiff-necked chauvinist, a woman with an instinctive respect for the customs of others, fails to save her from this ontological collapse, which suggests just how deep the problem runs. In fact, it is her sensitivity which brings her to such spiritual fatigue.

     The novel, however, is careful to relativise her collapse into relativism. It is not to be taken as the final truth. Perhaps one would be less susceptible to such disorientation if one had a suitably ironic sense of the fragility of one's own values in the first place. Mrs Moore has come to recognise the difficulties of cross-cultural communication and the intractable nature of human misunderstanding, along with the fact that no particular set of cultural values is underwritten by the universe itself; but it does not follow from this that such values are vacuous. From the novel's own standpoint, her despair is premature. All the same, there is always the possibility of a cultural perspective that can sabotage one's own. Perhaps there is a well-nigh infinite regress of them. Gulliver speculates in Swift's novel that there might be a people somewhere in the world to whom the giant Brobdingnagians would look like tiny Lilliputians. Cultural relativism was by no means unknown to the eighteenth century.

     Indigenous peoples cannot be entirely different from oneself, since there would then be no possibility of holding them down. It is hard to impose your authority on men and women who do not understand that rifles can kill. Yet they must not resemble you too closely either, since then they are likely to appear as a monstrous parody of yourself, estranging your own conduct to the point where you are forced to view it in an unpleasantly new light. Gulliver cannot dismiss the Lilliputians as mere freaks or exotics since their behaviour is too unnervingly close to the least admirable features of his own compatriots. The book encourages us to expect that these minuscule creatures will be alien to ourselves, only to pull the rug out from under the reader by showing that they are intimates in all the most disconcerting ways. Greed, vanity and a lust for power, so the suggestion goes, are universal characteristics. If Europeans complacently believe that their own nature is universal, Swift turns this faith satirically back upon them.

     Swift was a member of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, the social class in Ireland lambasted by Edmund Burke, and as both English and Irish could never be sure whether he was conqueror or victim, installed at the heart of power or banished to its periphery. He is both thoroughly bound up with Ireland and looking in from the outside. The boneheaded Gulliver displays a similar ambiguity. He is either too remote from the cultures he encounters, or too pathetically eager to conform to them (a gull, in short). He is foolishly proud of the meaningless title the Lilliputians bestow on him, and hotly denies having sex with a microscopic Lilliputian female despite the comic impossibility of such congress. When he is presented to the king of Brobdingnag, however, he turns out to be too narrowly imprisoned within his own cultural norms, boasting of his nation's military might with a chuckleheaded chauvinism the king finds detestable. The natives of Brobdingnag reflect on how contemptible their own character must be if it can be mirrored in such a despicable insect as Gulliver himself. The whole text of Gulliver's Travels turns on this interplay between the intimate and the outlandish. The familiar is made strange, while what appears at first sight to be foreign turns out often enough to be too close for comfort.

     Gulliver is eager to distinguish himself from the repulsive, shit-coated Yahoos, while being aware that the governing breed of Houyhnhnms regards him as no better than a Yahoo himself. He is caught between the two species rather as Swift himself is caught between the English governors and the Gaelic masses. There are those 'upper' natives in the colonies (the Anglo-Irish, for example) who dissociate themselves from the common people and identify with the colonialists, as Gulliver throws in his lot with the Houyhnhnms; but the colonialists themselves will never embrace these displaced souls as equals, and the people will spurn them as well. Like Gulliver, then, one will end up with the worst of both worlds, lacking both the superior culture of the Houyhnhnm rulers and the rude natural vigour of their Yahoo underlings.

     The situation, in short, is more complex and contentious than a simple 'colonials versus colonialists' distinction would suggest. There are those colonial citizens, for example, who reject both the native culture and the lifestyle of the colonialists – who demand political autonomy, but doubt that the best way to achieve it is through a Herder-like revival of the nation's imperilled language and culture. In the Irish context, the nationalist leaders Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell were both of this persuasion. In their view, colonisation was a political indignity, but one which brought with it the means by which the nation could spring from backwardness to modernity. Yet there were also groups like the Young Irelanders who held that this would simply lead the country to become a poor imitation of its colonial masters. Instead, Ireland had to find its own distinctive cultural path to political autonomy, a view also popular among the Gaelic Revivalists. If some of these intellectuals idealised the culture of the folk, so did some of the folk.

     There are likely to be renegades among the colonial ruling class who embrace the culture of the people even more fervently than the people do themselves. In Ireland, Yeats, J.M. Synge and Lady Gregory may serve as examples. As members of an Anglo-Irish coterie, they are uncomfortably conscious of themselves as a second-class ruling caste in the country, patronised or sidelined by the politicians at Westminster, and as such they feel some spontaneous sympathy for their rather more grievously dispossessed fellow country people, to whom they themselves form a rather more privileged parallel. Others, like Swift, may champion the common people while lacking any genuine fellow-feeling for them. It would not be too much to claim that Swift detested the Gaelic poor on whose behalf he spoke out so eloquently. Some citizens will be complicit with the colonial government; others, like Swift, will be semi-complicit, while some nationalists will resent colonial rule because they are keen to form a political elite themselves, and find their path to this goal blocked by foreign occupation.

     For a governing class to hold down a nation abroad may also serve to buttress its power at home. At least the humblest of its native citizens now have someone to feel superior to, and so may feel less aggrieved about their own lowly status. Marx thought this was true of British working-class attitudes to Irish immigrants. On the other hand, the working class at home may strike up a degree of political solidarity with colonial rebels abroad, which is rather less to their masters' taste. There are also likely to be those among the metropolitan elite who feel some sympathy for such rebels, as we have seen in the case of Members of Parliament like Burke and Sheridan. Others, again like Burke, may condemn the colonial rulers because they fear that their high-handed behaviour is driving the native population into disaffection, thus putting the whole colonial project in jeopardy. For their part, the common people tend be inconsistent in their view of their foreign overlords, veering between deference and defiance. In Ireland, members of the rural tenantry might read a loyal address to their landlord in the morning only to creep out to hamstring his cattle at night. Wearied by these contradictions, there will also be those who shake the dust of the colony disdainfully off their heels, like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

     One of the lessons of Swift's novel is that one must have a suitably ironic sense of the relativity of one's own culture, but not to the point where, like Gulliver, who ends up trotting around neighing like a horse, one repudiates it altogether and falls into madness and despair. You must try to grasp your own situation from the outside in the name of true judgement, but not thereby topple headlong into scepticism and self-loathing. There is no absolute vantage-point outside culture, but this is not to say that we are doomed to be the helpless prisoners of any particular cultural set-up. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss writes in his Tristes Tropiques that to feel one's way into other cultures is to grasp one's own form of life more fully, since what we find in the behaviour of others is an arrestingly unfamiliar version of the laws which regulate our own symbolic universe. For these laws to be made strange is for us to look upon them with fresh insight. Yet it is only because we share some common ground with others that such self-estrangement is possible. If there were merely difference, there could be no such transformative dialogue. In encountering another culture, then, we are also brought to confront a certain ineradicable otherness in ourselves, gazing with new eyes on our own activities through a recognition of these others as our kinsfolk. We must see ourselves, Lévi-Strauss remarks in his Structural Anthropology, 'as an other among others'.

*   *   *


6 March 2022

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

K. Koffka and A. Machen

This week I enjoyed reading Ramsey Campbell's 2009 novel The Creatures of the Pool. It's a thrilling story, enriched with a host of fascinating historical anecdotes. (At first I thought some of the more uncanny ones were made up. But they were all true.)

As I finished Creatures, I tried to recall the specifics of Machen's 1936 short story "The Children of the Pool," suspecting it might somehow relate to Campbell's story, given the similarity of titles.

Not that I could determine. However, "Children" is a great tale in and of itself, and repaid my re-read yesterday.

"Children of the Pool" is a weird summer vacation story. Meyrick flees London for a room in a Welsh farmhouse. In the first of  several imagination-beggaring coincidences, Myrick meets a city acquaintance boarding at another farm in the district. James Roberts seems happy and contented, and the two men relish their visit, even a walk to a benighted pool in a nearby valley.

But within a week Roberts is beset and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He tells Meyrick all: an unseen local girl is harassing him during forest walks and in bed at night by calling out the details of a shameful incident from his youth. It's certainly a three-pipe problem, but Meyrick throws himself into the facts of the case.

"Children of the Pool" can perhaps best be read as a mystery; not quite as on-point as a Dyson/Phillipps story from the Yellow 90s, but still captivating in its use of coincidence, misdirection, and back-to-front plotting.

A good portion of the story's second half seems at first Quixotic digression on the absurdities of the science of psychology. As Meyrick tells it:

....Now, everybody, I suppose, is aware that in recent years the silly business of divination by dreams has ceased to be a joke and has become a very serious science. It is called "Psycho-analysis"; and is compounded, I would say, by mingling one grain of sense with a hundred of pure nonsense. From the simplest and most obvious dreams, the psycho-analyst deduces the most incongruous and extravagant results. A black savage tells him that he has dreamed of being chased by lions, or, maybe, by crocodiles: and the psycho man knows at once that the black is suffering from the Oedipus complex. That is, he is madly in love with his own mother, and is, therefore, afraid of the vengeance of his father. Everybody knows, of course, that "lion" and "crocodile" are symbols of "father." And I understand that there are educated people who believe this stuff.

It is all nonsense, to be sure; and so much the greater nonsense inasmuch as the true interpretation of many dreams — not by any means of all dreams — moves, it may be said, in the opposite direction to the method of psycho-analysis. The psycho-analyst infers the monstrous and abnormal from a trifle; it is often safe to reverse the process. If a man dreams that he has committed a sin before which the sun hid his face, it is often safe to conjecture that, in sheer forgetfulness, he wore a red tie, or brown boots with evening dress. A slight dispute with the vicar may deliver him in sleep into the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition, and the torment of a fiery death. Failure to catch the post with a rather important letter will sometimes bring a great realm to ruin in the world of dreams. And here, I have no doubt, we have the explanation of part of the explanation of the Roberts affair. Without question, he had been a bad boy; there was something more than a trifle at the heart of his trouble. But his original offence, grave as we may think it, had in his hidden consciousness, swollen and exaggerated itself into a monstrous mythology of evil. Some time ago, a learned and curious investigator demonstrated how Coleridge had taken a bald sentence from an old chronicler, and had made it the nucleus of The Ancient Mariner. With a vast gesture of the spirit, he had unconsciously gathered from all the four seas of his vast reading all manner of creatures into his net: till the bare hint of the old book glowed into one of the great masterpieces of the world's poetry. Roberts had nothing in him of the poetic faculty, nothing of the shaping power of the imagination, no trace of the gift of expression, by which the artist delivers his soul of its burden. In him, as in many men, there was a great gulf fixed between the hidden and the open consciousness; so that which could not come out into the light grew and swelled secretly, hugely, horribly in the darkness. If Roberts had been a poet or a painter or a musician; we might have had a masterpiece. As he was neither: we had a monster. And I do not at all believe that his years had consciously been vexed by a deep sense of guilt. I gathered in the course of my researches that not long after the flight from Brondesbury, Roberts was made aware of unfortunate incidents in the Watts saga — if we may use this honoured term — which convinced him that there were extenuating circumstances in his offence, and excuses for his wrongdoing. The actual fact had, no doubt, been forgotten or remembered very slightly, rarely, casually, without any sense of grave moment or culpability attached to it; while, all the while, a pageantry of horror was being secretly formed in the hidden places of the man's soul. And at last, after the years of growth and swelling in the darkness; the monster leapt into the light, and with such violence that to the victim it seemed an actual and objective entity.

[Emphasis mine - JR]

And, in a sense, it had risen from the black waters of the pool. I was reading a few days ago, in a review of a grave book on psychology, the following very striking sentences:

The things which we distinguish as qualities or values are inherent in the real environment to make the configuration that they do make with our sensory response to them. There is such a thing as a "sad" landscape, even when we who look at it are feeling jovial; and if we think it is "sad" only because we attribute to it something derived from our own past associations with sadness, Professor Koffka gives us good reason to regard the view as superficial. That is not imputing human attributes to what are described as "demand characters" in the environment, but giving proper recognition to the other end of a nexus, of which only one end is organised in our own mind.

Psychology is, I am sure, a difficult and subtle science, which, perhaps naturally, must be expressed in subtle and difficult language. But so far as I can gather the sense of the passage which I have quoted, it comes to, this: that a landscape, a certain configuration of wood, water, height and depth, light and dark, flower and rock, is, in fact, an objective reality, a thing; just as opium and wine are things, not clotted fancies, mere creatures of our make-believe, to which we give a kind of spurious reality and efficacy. The dreams of De Quincey were a synthesis of De Quincey, plus opium; the riotous gaiety of Charles Surface and his friends was the product and result of the wine they had drunk, plus their personalities. So, the profound Professor Koffka — his book is called Principles of Gestalt Psychology— insists that the "sadness" which we attribute to a particular landscape is really and efficiently in the landscape and not merely in ourselves; and consequently that the landscape can affect us and produce results in us, in precisely the same manner as drugs and meat and drink affect us in their several ways. Poe, who knew many secrets, knew this, and taught that landscape gardening was as truly a fine art as poetry or painting; since it availed to communicate the mysteries to the human spirit....

Upon rereading "The Children of the Pool," I smiled knowingly to myself. Here, I thought, Machen has built himself an easy scientistic target in the guise of this Professor Kofka.


It's all true.  Here is Professor Kofka. And here is his book.

14 July 2019