quinta-feira, novembro 23, 2017

Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water: "Ubik" by Philip K. Dick



"'I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be. ‘“

In “Ubik” by Philip K. Dick


This would feel like a meaningless read indeed if it wasn't, in fact, a very FUNNY one, full of a dry humor. In Ubik the characters are taken in such a subjective maze of crumbling reality, unexpected time-travelling and personal doubts, that it becomes a materialization of the absurdity of the human condition, in the form of an exhilarating fiction. If you are not into the humor of Kafka and Borges, it makes perfectly sense that you are not sensible to Dick's one. What makes Ubik a wonderful read still today? Dick didn't nail everything too tightly to the plot. The result may seem a potpourri but his worlds live and breathe. If he were writing now this book would make him a rebel and, given what he was like, would give most editors / publishers gray-hairs. It also begs the question (of others in the genre): Can you really do that?

I think the current fascination with Dick seems tied to the fact that most of his most popular books have dystopian or control themes. The other worldliness, or just around the corner-ness, of his stories, make it seem fictional, therefore enjoyable, yet also real and possible. I had been seeing a resurgence in sales of his books a couple of decades ago. This is just a speculative thought, but I wonder: If we had really been reading him for a spooky window into the future, then that means that the "seeds of the future dystopia" already started back then. Nixon had been around in Dick's time, but Reagan and the Republican nasties was their second coming. AI was only just poking its nose into things. 2000 was around the corner. Was Dick one of our clues to the future?

What nobody ever mentions when they write so earnestly about Philip K Dick is just how funny a lot of his stories and books are. None of his jokes have made it too small or big screen because they rely on wordplay. So how can one square that with the assertion he was a crap artist unless you have never read his books?

One of the joys of his stuff, and Ubik in particular, is that despite lots of functional detail, there's usually very little decorative embellishment in Dick's writing. Reading it first lets you paint your own pictures which are sometimes, but not always, much richer (and weirder) than what ends up on screen, and I’m just re-reading Phil Dick for the umpteenth time...

Phil Dick is like in a Goldilocks position for tapping into the creative world of the subconscious. He is not so straightforward and representative that you feel like a detail of his prediction being wrong or outdated invalidates the work (Asimov), but he is not so deep into the world of the subconscious that the makes no narrative sense and creates works that cannot be interpreted by many (Burroughs). Interestingly Asimov is more inspirational to people involved with "innovation" in organizations while Burroughs is more inspirational to musicians. Dick also taps into Gnostic Christianity which makes him a distinctive voice like William Blake who worked with similar themes. A lot of people are still Christian so they find something to latch onto him as opposed to the cold technocratic atheism or nihilism of some other fiction.

I’ve read this novel at least 10 times; questions left unresolved:

1 - Ubik- what is it?


According to the body of the novel it's a substance that reverses the disintegration, or reversion to earlier forms, of matter, and a prophylactic against energy vampires like Jory. But according to the comic advertisements at the beginning of every chapter, it's a universal panacea, a solution to pretty much every problem. What are we to make of those ubiquitous adverts? Are they in the 'real world' or in half-life? In our world the solution to almost every problem is digital. Maybe in Runciter's world, the solution to every problem is Ubik, and he just applies it, or uses the name, for a new purpose.

2 - Runciter's body


If Runciter is alive, (and I think we have to assume he is, and all the others are in half-life- that's left pretty unambiguous) what is his corpse doing in a moratorium in the half-life world? His corpse behaves in the same way as the other corpses of the half-lifers, but Runciter's situation is totally different. Is his corpse just a construct created by Jory, like so much else? I think it must be.

3 - Pat Conley- what's her role in the 'betrayal'?


We know that she has a special talent- her ability to rewrite the recent past and thereby reshape the present- and she demonstrates them early on, before the ill-fated trip to Luna. We also know- this becomes clear from the conversation between Joe and Runciter near the end, that Pat is in half-life like the others, that her 'gifts' do not work there, though she thinks they do, and that although she believes that she is in control, actually she has no more power than the others and Jory is the one who is draining the half-lifers of their remaining life, one by one. But it's also clear that she betrayed them all, was involved in the ambush on Luna, and was herself a victim of the explosion. What did her betrayal consist of and did it involve her special talent? My view is as follows: however dangerous her talent was to Runciter et al, her powerful (and unique) anti-precog talent is more dangerous to Hollis and his spies. They therefore lured her, their greatest threat, to Luna with the others. Like so many double-agents, she was double-crossed by the more unscrupulous of her two employers. Let us pity her- she is more a victim than a betrayer.

4 - Joe Chip- what are we to make of the final chapter?


Well, I think the final chapter, short as it is, is a master stroke. It reaffirms the ubiquity and all-powerful nature of the enigmatic Ubik. It brings the novel back to its starting place- the Zurich moratorium. And, like the ending to Gillam's film "Brazil", it introduces a moment of existential doubt, or ambiguity, just in case we thought we had a happy ending. My view is that Runciter here is still alive, he's become a regular visitor to the moratorium. Up to now artifacts from the "real" world have appeared in half-life world: Runciter money, the television commercials, the graffiti, and most importantly, Ubik. But the reverse communication is more limited: the only way half-lifers can affect the "real" world is by speaking through the moratorium's telephone equipment. Up to now. When he sees the Joe Chip money, Runciter realises that this is the beginning of something new.

Look at Joe Chip's initials. J.C. The initials of Jesus Christ- in Christian tradition the first man to die, descend into Hell, do an important job there, and come back (albeit briefly) to the "real" world, having changed the status quo for the rest of us mortals. Michael Moorcock used the same initials for his "Eternal Champion". Is it too much to see Joe Chip as the first person who is able to break free from the prison of half-life and infiltrate the "real" world. Considering how hopeless he is with money, it's kind of satisfying that the first manifestation of his power is his infiltration of Runciter-world currency.

5 - Ambiguity- flaw or strength


I think all these ambiguities make the novel stronger. If it was a detective novel, they might be flaws. But uncertainty, paradox, and concepts that give you a headache if you think about them too hard, are crucial to Dick's world view. Actually, the plot of Ubik is, on the whole, despite some of the obscurantism on this thread, pretty clear. If Dick leaves a few loose ends untied, I see that as reflecting the essential “unknowability” at the heart of life, rather than any oversight on the part of the writer.

As a footnote, I have been puzzling over why objects regress at different rates, e.g., the bottle of Ubik inside the car, and can't quite figure out why that would be. I wondered if it had something to do with Einstein's theory of Relativity but can't quite work it out. I'm also wondering if Phil was using the idea that consciousness of a dying person recedes in a nonlinear manner and so the time regression acts similarly. If you think of a person with dementia as well where the access to memory and the capacity make new memories fluctuates over time. There may be a further corollary in terms of how such a person is perceptually on occasion going back in time with kinds of distressing thoughts for example of for example of an 85 year old wanting to leave a nursing home in order to not be late home for the meal that her mother has prepared. Objectively unreal to all around her, this event has all the emotional impact of its veracity and immediacy to her.

Phil Dick had some interesting ideas about time and the evolution of man. He appears to believe that human beings will ultimately reach an enlightened stage where time becomes irrelevant and we gain awareness of all past lives, a bit like Buddha. Don't ask me how that is all supposed to work, but Pat, indeed, all the paranormal people in Ubik, may be intended to represent a stepping stone in that process.

I can't help coming to the conclusion that Phil Dick's beliefs might not be necessarily understandable, based as they on a rehash of fragments from religious texts and the ideas of many philosophers and psychologists throughout history. The resulting mix emanating from Phil Dick's far from ordinary mind is very complex and contains some elements that seem to be mutually incompatible. I think that probably goes a long way to explaining why his novels are so difficult to unravel in terms of plot and symbolism.

Bottom-line 1: For me, Ubik works as a theophany, an expression of the will and power of an omnipresent sentient being from outside our reality, and also a way of merging man with god, creating a saviour figure in the form of Joe Chip/JC. For me, the biggest question in Ubik is possibly, who is Dr Sonderbar, the founder? Ella and Jory may be the end of the chain of entities, representing as they do the forces of good and evil, rational and irrational. Then again, maybe not. For Phil Dick, reality seems to be like the layers of an onion. There are a lot of eye watering bits to peel away before you get to the middle, if you ever do.

Bottom-line 2: The writing is somewhat pedestrian, the characters are not fully developed and it is blatantly sexist. However, I don't agree that the novel should be dismissed purely on those grounds, even though in the vast majority of cases any one of those would be considered a terminal flaw. I've always thought that the envelope of human understanding is not expanded by those of us with average minds, sitting safely tucked in the middle. On the contrary, it's the people struggling on the boundaries of genetic diversity that enable change. They can connect the dots of existing knowledge in new patterns, and sometimes they make sense and sometimes they don't, but it is a skill the vast majority of people do not possess. The more I read of Phil Dick's work, the more I realise he had one of those rare, extraordinary minds. As my Granny used to say, don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

NB: And where's the film of Ubik??? Of all the Phil Dick books that have been adapted I'm surprised no one has had a go at making Ubik in to a film or mini-series as I think it would be great even though the plot is complex. He was a master of world-building and fantastic technological concepts, which is why his stories translate so well to Hollywood. They can hack and slash the characters and plot as much as they like, and it doesn't matter. The worlds and MacGuffins endure and give the breathtaking element.


terça-feira, novembro 21, 2017

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



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

domingo, novembro 19, 2017

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



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

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

Why "must" this be so?

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

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


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



SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, novembro 18, 2017

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

sexta-feira, novembro 17, 2017

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



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

Yet, yet, thou hast an amiable soul,”

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

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

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

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

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

“I do repent, and yet I do despair.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the greatest achievements in world Art.


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

quinta-feira, novembro 16, 2017

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



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

In “Owning Shakespeare” by James J. Marino

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

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

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

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

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


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

terça-feira, novembro 14, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



SF = Speculative Fiction.