In 1901 Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, two of the greatest literary writers of the 20th Century, pooled their talents to write a novel about inte...moreIn 1901 Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, two of the greatest literary writers of the 20th Century, pooled their talents to write a novel about interdimensional terrorism. Almost no one has read it, and those who have do not seem to think much of it.
To critics, it is a mere curiosity, only of any possible interest to completists of Ford or Cobrad's works--so, to any of you who have been looking for reasons to dismiss my opinions and paint me as incoherent, here is the gift: I found this book perfectly fascinating. But then, I have come at it from a much different direction than any critic I have seen.
In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a speech on Beowulf that completely changed the way scholarship on the poem was approached. Prior to this, it was studied for almost purely historical reasons, as a portrait of a time in history of which we have very little documentation. However, Tolkien argued that the critics were missing much of the meaning and subtext of the work by ignoring the symbolism of the fantastical elements: the monster Grendel, his mother, and the dragon.
The same oversight seems to have taken place in the approach to this book: critics talk about common themes of Ford's and Conrad's, such as the obsolescence of nobility and the class system, or the foul cruelty of colonialism. They talk about how the book represents the politics of the times, how certain events mirror and comment on history. Yet they completely ignore the central symbolic thrust of the work, the extended conceit which ties the whole thing together.
Unlike most critics, I was primed to look for the meaning behind the fantastical elements, coming to this book not from the context of Conrad's and Ford's more famous works, but from the works of Lovecraft, Chambers, Hodgson, and Blackwood--here, once more, is the tale of the sensitive man, the artist plagued by an otherworldliness that draws him on inexorably to the forfeiture of his very humanity--and of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Moorcock, and Griffith, of powerful revolutionaries set to topple the order of the world.
Since magic is the physical representation of an idea, a metaphor sprung to life, it behooves us to ask: what does the magic in this tale represent, and how does it operate within the work? Most intriguing for analyzing the tale is the fact that--unlike most critics claim-the supernatural element is not merely 'tacked-on', but is a vital part of both Conrad's and Ford's views.
To Ford, these alien beings infesting our world--Body Snatchers-like--are the very spirit of the changing Zeitgeist. It is their arrival, and their insidious effect on society that is to destroy a thousand years of hereditary rule, plunging the whole world into a war from which it will emerge reborn, a new land of new ideas which leaves the old powers amongst the ash.
To Conrad, it is the subtle treachery of colonial influence, the ability of the ruling power to seduce, to use and abuse its subjects, to make them doubt, to reshape their minds without their recognizing it, to cause them to betray and subjugate themselves through art, ideal, faith, and symbol.
And all of this meaning is wrapped up in a single character, a woman, who with the protagonist creates a rather odd romance: a romance of the colonized mind, a romance of personal obsolescence--but then, perhaps it really isn't so odd, after all.
The subtle turns of the way her alienness is explored would do credit to any of the classic authors of Supernatural Horror. Firstly there is the fact that as we're looking at it, we can't be quite certain if it's even real, or if perhaps the girl is simply mad, or playing a trick on our hero, as he believes.
Additionally, it is implied that somehow, we are descended from these beings, that they are our source, but that we have since forgotten, ceased to see the wonder of other realms, and grown petty and a bit unhinged--and that they periodically return to recolonize us. Of course, there is a sort of hint of Dunsany's Elfland in this: the mystical, untouchable realm which fades away, but which makes us dream, and which we remember without ever realizing it.
Then there is the impression that, not only are the thoughts of these outsiders infectious and transformational, but that they must be careful not to be changed, themselves, by their interactions with humanity--it is a more delicate way of playing with the notion that 'man himself is the monster'--that he is not so in a physical, violent sense, but in the cosmic, Lovecraftian one: that perhaps in this universe, man is the incomprehensible, insane force, not the merely the staid victim--the notion of idea as a disease, of the infection of the meme.
Of course, there is also a colonial commentary here: that even as the colonizer forces her will upon the other, she in turn is changed by their biases and values, no matter how carefully she guards herself against that influence, the natural tendency is for both sides, conqueror and conquered, to draw ever closer together, and even to bind.
In that sense, there is a deep parallel between this story and Kipling's famous representation of a love affair between overseer and vassal: Without Benefit of Clergy--and an even closer similarity to Tagore's less-romanticized reversal, The Postmaster--excepting that in this case, it is the woman who possesses the power.
It is also interesting to see Ford and Conrad, who were not yet successful authors when they collaborated, write about the life of the struggling author, the hopelessness of it, the sense that one is always 'selling one's self' to do work that is little more than propaganda for the state, contrasted with the intense desire to do something worthwhile.
There is also a great deal of clever drawing-room humor, which I expect if Ford's, as Conrad's humor tends to be less that of the wit and more the ironic and morbid cynic. From Conrad, we get those utterly characteristic digressions, a sentence here or there where some fundamental aspect of human life is encapsulated in a few profound phrases.
Of course, there are some problems, as well--both authors are young, trying to find their way, and the whole project was, to them, an attempt to make a bit of money--meaning there is some deprecating cleverness to the fact that it is about a writer who gives up his artistry in order to write things that will pay. The most prominent issue is Ford's constant use of the word 'infinite' in his metaphors. Of course, we understand that he is trying to touch on matters of the sublime 'Fourth Dimension', but it could have done with more variety instead of simple repetition.
The Fourth Dimension itself was coined by H.G. Wells, a friend of both writers, whose success with The Time Machine inspired them to write a fantastical political tale. Wells tried to publish an essay on the topic, exploring the concept that time, like heighth, width, and length, might be seen as traversable, or at least as a coordinate for describing matter, but it went over the head of his editor, who told him to put it in a story, which he did.
In that sense, The Inheritors can also be read as a time-travel story, and that is is not a more perfect place which colonizes us, but a more perfect time. To put it briefly: there are so many fantastical and speculative threads coming together in this story that it would be quite dizzying, if it weren't all performed by subtle implication. Really, we never know just what is going on--all we can do is take in clues and surmise as best we can.
But of course, that's the whole nature of the fantastical: that even when it touches us, we are unable to explain it, to make sense of it, to wrap our minds around it. We tell ourselves that it is impossible, we try to ignore it, to concentrate on art or love--on those mad human passions that always draw us away--and yet the fantastical has a way of getting inside of us, no matter how we try to fight it off, of changing us, in such a way that we can never quite go back to the way it was before.
We are left suffused with a feeling of strange nostalgia, and of a kind of bitterness--that now we are worldly, we have seen, and cannot be simple again. But then, the true searcher in the dark would never choose simplicity--for when the world has broken one's heart, at least it can be said you loved it--and in the end, that is the true message of Ford's and Conrad's strange little book, too long unknown, ignored, dismissed, but no longer lost to me, or to you.
Lovecraft once said:
"Conrad's reputation is deserved -- he has the sense of ultimate nothingness and the evanescence of illusions which only a master and an aristocrat can have; and he mirrors it forth with that uniqueness and individuality which are genuine art. No other artist I have yet encountered has so keen an appreciation of the essential solitude of the high grade personality -- that solitude whose projected overtones form the mental world of each sensitively organised individual"
And it seems such a shame not to know what he might have made of this book.(less)
Indeed, many of our most cherished fantasies tend to relate to the place we were born--when we find ourselves defending it, or singing its praises. It's not that the details we give aren't true, it's that we have a sort of rosy-quartz view about the place that made us. It also comes out in what we dislike about our home, what tired and frustrated us--there is a whole mythology within us of what exactly we believe our provenance to be like, and it is more the truth of us than the truth of that place.
Kipling's Kim is often considered his greatest work, and as Said's introduction notes, it is one of his only works that profits from close reading. His others are certainly enjoyable, and have certain themes, but tend to wear these on the chest, while Kim presents a rather more complex relationship.
Of course, there was an uproar when it was announced that the Penguin edition would feature an introduction from Said, but as someone who has actually read his work, I was not concerned he would do Kipling wrong. Indeed, his treatment is even-handed, noting both the strengths and flaws of the text, and bringing together many interesting observations from other sources.
It is a boys' club book, about the doings of men in their 'Great Game' of death and deceit. Of women there are two: a whore and a mother figure, and neither one strays beyond the bounds of her given role. Indeed, this book was one of the inspirations for the creation of the Boy Scouts, after the romantic adventure of Kipling's young fellow.
It's also certainly a tale of privilege, as of course, that is the role Kipling himself was born into: of being free from social constraints, on the top of the heap, able to go where and when he liked, and in whatever guise, for there was none to gainsay him.
But beyond these bounds, it is certainly a wondrous and vivid tale, full of color and character, all those little details and curious turns of phrase that make a good adventure. Indeed, there is much more of the fantastical in this than in many adventure books--magic and mysticism have central roles, as do cultural dissonance, even if Kipling ultimately ignores the great and central conflict which first showed itself in the Sepoy Uprising, and grew to eventual fruition in Gandhi and at last, independence.
Rarely have I seen the Other and the defamiliarization of ideas portrayed so wholly, particularly in a colonial work--and if Kipling had used these strengths to tackle the great central conflict that looms over all, the work would have been truly profound.
The relationship between Kim and the Lama is the crux here, the deep and genuine friendship between stereotypically Eastern and Western figures, which crosses boundaries of faith, philosophy, race, and language, seeking ever for mutual ground and further understanding. Yet that the old man is a fool, and that Kim ultimately tricks him, secretly committing himself to the colonial role while paying outward respect is unfortunate.
There is a conflict between the two, but it is never allowed to come to the surface, it is never confronted and dealt with. Instead, the hope seems to be that if two disparate people can agree on the surface, that the fundamental contention between them is not worth exploring--when indeed, its usually the only thing that is, especially for a novelist, whose work is to drive to the heart of the matter.
But then, as Said points out, it was a conflict that Kipling did not see, or did not want to see, and in the end, it weakens the tale. Kim is not really answerable to the people he claims to serve, and as he tries to work for them in secret, he really serves himself. The condescension of 'knowing better' and with that excuse, keeping others in the dark is perhaps The Great Sin of governance.
But for that, it is an exciting tale, a thorough and palpable exploration of India and its people, as Kipling saw them, and brings to mind many important questions of the colonial role, Indiamania vs. Indiaphobia, and what it means to find yourself between cultures. If only Kipling had delved a bit more.(less)
This 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts se...moreThis 'horror classic' was such a strange mixture of psychological terror and late-night campfire yarn that it never really came together. He starts setting the mood in classic Blackwood fashion--slow, deliberate, and philosophical:
"The silence of the vast listening forest stole forward and enveloped them.
". . . that other aspect of the wilderness: the indifference to human life, the merciless spirit of desolation which took no note of man."
"When the seduction of the uninhabited wastes caught them so fiercely that they went forth, half fascinated, half deluded, to their death."
But then, just as he's building this slow-burn terror of strange noises, of things brushing against the tent, of a queer and unsettling scent on the wind, we get our first victim, torn away into the woods at 'furious, rushing speed', and as he disappears, he yells
"Oh! Oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! Oh! This height and fiery speed!"
And so, in one line, all the tension was deflated and I couldn't help but laugh out. The same line gets repeated several times over, which is what reminded me of a campfire tale--that there is a sort of repetitive motif that ties the thing together. Yet it really seemed to be in conflict with the general tone of the piece.
Other than that, and as usual for Blackwood, there were some quite disturbing and effective images, and some unpleasant implications. It really is a thoughtful and well-constructed story, I only wish he had found a voice for the victim's terror that wasn't so oddly specific in observing and reporting on the details of his predicament.(less)
It is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, o...moreIt is not necessary to have been to a place in order to write about it--indeed, even those who spent years there, or who were born and raised there, or who are of that very culture can still show biases just as deep. After all, as I'm sure you're tired of hearing, The East is a fantasy, just as any unified notion of Europe or America is a fantasy--or really a collection of competing fantasies--and just because someone is born and lives in America does not mean they have an unbiased view of it--quite the opposite.
But then, Howard never pretended he was writing anything but fantasies. Certainly, he spent a lot of time reading, taking notes, getting his details down, forming an understanding of culture and history--but he could still only prevent his own view on the subject, his own experience and philosophy.
In some ways, his views could be short-sighted--particularly his views of racial and cultural 'types'--but there is also a grand thrust of the human spirit in his works which often raises him above mere prejudice--and the thrill of his prose doesn't hurt, either.
Of course, as with all his works, there are problems with his style--he is always somewhat uneven--and it's the same problems: as each short story was meant to be separate there's some recycling of descriptions, and themes, some redundancy in presentation. As always, he picks a certain animal and bases half his metaphors around it: for Conan, it's the panther, for Solomon Kane, the Lion, and for his desert heroes, the wolf.
It works best in Conan, where we can take it as a sort of 'Homeric epithet'--a nod to the purposefully repetitive cadence of epic poetry--but there is no such excuse for stories about cowboys in the Khyber. He also repeats uncommon phrases in a way that makes them stand out unnaturally--such as 'beetling cliff' or 'hell-burst' only a couple of paragraphs apart, or even using the same word within a sentence:
"with a moaning cry the Jowaki released him and toppled moaning from the wall"
And of course, there's the fact that every cliff is 'knife edged', every silhouette 'etched against the sky', every muscle 'corded'. The most frustrating part about Howard's writing is that these are such simple errors to fix--the sort of thing that would have been, if he'd had a competent editor, and that it's clear from other passages that he's entirely capable of perfectly lovely, effective passages:
"Crumbling pinnacles and turrets of black stone stood up like gaunt ghosts in the grey light which betrayed the coming of dawn."
Or this speech about a cursed ruby:
"how many princes died for thee in the Beginnings of Happenings? What fair bosoms didst thou adorn, and what kings held thee as I now hold thee? Surely blood went into thy making, the blood of kings surely throbs in the shining and the heart-flow of queens in the splendor."
It would be remarkable to see a Howard story where he maintained the care and skill he takes with such passages throughout the whole tale.
Yet his works are not just about well-put phrases, but quick and balanced plots, which Howard had a gift for. His tales are always exciting, always moving, always with some thrust of clear motivation to lead us from one scene to the next, full of odd characters and curious coincidences and hardships to test our hero.
It is interesting, as noted in the critical essay that accompanies this collection, that each of his desert heroes has a different approach to life, different desires and motivations for what he does. Some are scoundrels, some men of deep moral fiber. It's the fact that he succeeds so often in many areas of storytelling, from the prose to the structure to the characters, that raises him above other writers of the pulps--and indeed, above many modern-day genre authors, for all the sophistication of years that they can call upon when writing their story, where Howard had to make much of it up as he went along.
But then, that may also be the source of his power as a writer: that he wasn't writing a 'known subject', pre-defined and set up with a hundred different tropes that allow any hack to construct such a story 'by the book'. Howard instead had to piece his stories together from real histories, from classic adventure writers, and from legitimate authors of literature, which tends to give them much more depth and variety than simply following a standard model.
So, if the East is a fantasy, then what is Howard's fantasy? Not surprisingly, it is the fantasy of freedom, of a man making his own way in the world, unfettered by arbitrary social concerns. When the American Southwest becomes too civilized, crowding out the adventurer to make space for the cattle rancher and the homesteader, Howard's heroes go to Arabia, to Afghanistan--to places where life is not defined by train schedules and banking firms, but by will to survive, by camaraderie, and where the system of governance is the tribe and the warlord.
It is, for Howard, a place much like the ancient Hyborean world of Conan, a pre-modern world where the industrial revolution has not reshaped everything for convenience and assembly labor. Yet he can set his stories in modern times, with guns and trains and bombs, using modern characters with modern concerns, but still able to tell the same tales of valiant personal combat, where one man, alone, can make a difference.
It is the same fantastic life that men like 'Chinese' Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, and Richard Burton made for themselves--mixing fact, fiction, and self-mythology into lives that sound like they belong in fiction, not history. Howard's desert heroes have direct antecedents as well: white men who worked as soldiers and warlords in the 'Great Game' of the colonial powers as they struggled for control of central Asia--men like Josiah Harlan and Alexander Gardner.
It's certainly not difficult to see why such tales appealed to Howard, who was fascinated by the man out of his element, the clash of culture--as well as the mutual coming together of disparate cultures. There is, of course, a less flattering tradition of such stories as delivered by writers like Haggard, of the White Savior who out-nobles the Noble Savage--luckily Howard's characters, being loners with little interest in leadership roles, are less prone to this than many of their contemporaries.
Overall, these stories possess less depth and variety than the Conan stories, but they are largely well-crafted, apart from Howard's little bad habits, and perfectly enjoyable.(less)
The East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fe...moreThe East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fears. They will create it even where it doesn’t exist, and they will believe in it despite evidence to the contrary. When a lawyer in London convinces them with words, they will call him ‘shrewd’--when a Hakim in Delhi does the same, they lay it to ‘mesmerism’. When a young thing with a bare shoulder in Paris turns their head, it is because she is a pretty coquette, no more--when a musk-scented daughter of Persia does the same, it is laid to some ancient magic.
Tales of colonial adventure in the East, with few exceptions, are fantasies--true fantasies, of magic and impossible things, of notions which spring from the mind and come to life in the world. Indeed, that is part of the charm of such narratives: that in reading Burton, we learn more of Burton than we do of ‘The East’, as his sometimes questionable translations demonstrate--but even biased as he may be, to read of a man as large and queer and self-made as he is an amusing thing.
Of course, it is also makes the narratives false, and invites us to believe that the East is real, and not merely a fantasy. Hesse writes of the tenets of German Protestantism--but because he writes of them under the guise of Eastern wisdom, they are gobbled up as if they were new. In the fascinating (and sometimes uncomfortable) documentary Kumaré, a man born in New Jersey grows a long beard and imitates his grandmother’s accent, and easily fools everyone into thinking he is some wise guru, even when his words make no sense. It is the fantasy of the East, and while it can make for an entertaining story, we must not be fooled into thinking, as Kumaré's students are, that their own notion is the real story of a real people.
Mundy’s is a better fantasy than most, relying as it does upon all those little bits of oddness, verisimilitude, and turns of phrase that gradually build into a wondrous and strange realm. But then, Mundy lived during his youth in Africa, India, and elsewhere, making his way as a con man and petty criminal, which experiences certainly give his tales an excellent flavor. It is hardly surprising that his work was an influence on authors of Sword & Sorcery Adventure, inspiring Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar--and both construct their fantastical worlds along the same lines as Mundy's.
In Howard, it is the story of the foreign man in the mystical East, amongst the arched temples, the scent of incense, the dancing girls, the wicked viziers, the brutal yet righteous warriors, debauchery, savagery, and ancient magics unearthed. For Leiber, it is the thousand-fold minarets of the eternal City of Brass: the old houses and old feuds, the corruption and tyranny of the priests, the bustling marketplace where the spoils of a hundred far-fetched lands are priced and weighed.
But then, of course, these are all traits of the great European cities, as well, which are no less ancient, no less strange and bustling--but somehow, a twisting alley in London is thought of differently to a twisting alley in Marrakesh. It is the process of showing us something old, but in a way that makes us think of it freshly, without preconceptions--a process known in literary criticism as ‘defamiliarization’. The Myth of the East is a sort of automatic defamiliarization, in that we are always primed to see its ways as strange and different, even when they are not.
This was how the Theosophists used it, to lend a sense of newness and authenticity to their own lives. Without that, they were merely eccentrics with loose morals and a dislike of honest labor, but shroud it all in a veil of pseudo-religious phrases and symbols, and it starts to read in quite a different way, altogether. It’s still how many New Agers live their lives: they do not sacrifice in order to practice a faith, they sacrifice the faith in order to practice themselves. It is just an exercise in self-prejudice.
Mundy himself was a known Theosophist, which is not hard to detect in his work. He has made of the East something like a fairyland, and espouses the same old philosophy of the stagnation of the Abrahamic faiths giving way before the more ancient (and hence ‘true’) and more infinite variety of the Eastern Gods.
In his bright and curious characters, his poetic bent, and his turns at spiritualism, he resembles that group of colonial authors whose works aspired to greatness: Conrad, Kipling, Doyle, Melville, H.G. Wells--but he never quite philosophizes the way they do. His action is planted too firmly on the ground, and his mysticism is too undefined and undifferentiated to reach the profundity of those authors. Thus he is relegated to the lesser tier of adventure writers, whose works sparkle and delight, but rarely challenge.
In style, Mundy possesses a cleverness and a passion that outstrips Haggard, though one will recognize in King--of the Khyber Rifles a story that very nearly parallels the Quatermain tale She--yet I found that Mundy’s take was more subtle, owing more to Realism than Pulp, and with greater sophistication and charm. The beginning, slowly playing out, is the superior part, introducing us to Captain Athelstan King of the Secret Service--a kind of early secret agent working for the Raj. He is an immediately recognizable type, that self-possessed, competent man who wins his way through life by wit and daring, of which the Colonial Period gave us numerous examples in the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Richard Francis Burton, or 'Chinese' Gordon.
Though in detail and subtlety, Mundy outdoes Haggard, there are some slower patches, particularly in a lengthy section of exposition about the middle which should have been the climax to the mystery that led us along the first third of the book. He begins to get bogged down in his plot, and then to make of his characters mouthpieces for his own Theosophical notions about true religion and ancient divinity.
Yet, after this stint, we're on our way again, towards the somewhat predictable climax. There is a rather delightful twist in the story that I happened to guess about the middle, due to the phrasing in a particular scene--and when I realized it, I was embarrassed not to have seen it sooner, as should be the case with a good twist. Yet, I think that without that one scene, I might not have realized it until quite a bit later, though it does grow increasingly obvious.
But, for all its inevitability and a few slow sections, it is overall a delightful adventure, and reminds me once more that as a fantasist, it is important that I study not only the blatant fantasies--the fantasies that call themselves fantasies--but also those fantasies that masquerade as truth, the ones that we use as convenient shortcuts to represent the world, and to confirm our own biases, that are true only in the mind, only as symbols, and which by habit we overlay upon a world that we can never fully understand.
For you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through ma...moreFor you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through many lands, making his way by his wits and his skill and always being drawn into the dangers of politics, secret plots, and local politics. But the hero of these stories comes with a twist: he's an awful cad who lies, cheats, and steals his way through the world, a coward who only survives by the skin of his teeth, but who pretends the role of the brave, bluff Brit.
The books are well-researched, full of delightful details and references for anyone interested in the period, as well as a vivid reconstruction of archaic slang. However, I find I liked the first book much better than the second one. For one, the character of Flash is much more of a rascal there--many of the things he does make you dislike the character greatly, despite his forthright charm. In this one, I wondered if MacDonald might have been making him a little more heroic, a little more sympathetic.
Along the same line, most of the difficulties he gets embroiled in throughout the course of this book--the very things that drive the plot--are thrust upon him, leaving him a much less active character. He's kidnaped, blackmailed, and forced at gunpoint to take part in various plots, instead of being trapped into them by his own faults and greed, as he was in the first volume.
But then, that's part of the problem of a cowardly character: how do you make him an active agent in his own story without forcing his hand? How do you ensure that the mess he's in really is his own fault, and not merely a contrived circumstance that forces him to act against his own nature?
Without that culpability, he begins to become a victim, a lowly and sympathetic figure instead of the brash, bold personality which he is meant to be. We do get him taking a risk here or there for the sake of lucre, but pure greed isn't the most complex or intriguing of character motivations.
Hopefully in future volumes, I'll get to see him return to his old form--because other than that, this book is a delightful bit of adventure fiction.(less)
This one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of...moreThis one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of the time--which isn't to say childish, it's more of a young man's immaturity.
The whole premise: that a powerful terrorist force is trying to destroy all world governments is somewhat uncomfortable for a modern reader--and the fact that the terrorists are meant to be the heroes brings it to another level. However, their rebellion is a vague, nonsensical thing. The idea seems to be to destroy society, and not to worry about what the next step is until later.
I guess they've never heard of the 'baby with the bathwater' problem. I mean sure, society has lots of problems, but if you don't have something better to put in its place, then tearing it down is not going to solve anything--it's probably going to make things pretty shitty in the meantime. But then, it strikes one as being typical of a man in young adulthood: irate with the horrors and inequalities of the world, rebelling against anything society has to offer without really understanding why things are the way they are.
But conveniently, everyone just signs up and agrees that this is a great plan. There are no ideological disagreements or concerns about where this whole thing is going--everyone is stalwartly devoted to the undefined cause, and willing to die for it (whatever it might be).
There are actually a few members who betray the cause, but they always do it out of mere greed, not because this whole 'terrorism' things seems kinda shaky. They also rebel despite the fact that the terrorists have an infallible network of assassins, the only airships in the world, and a leader who can literally control men's minds with a thought. All betrayers die the same chapter in which they commit their betrayal.
I mean, I understand that this was a serial, but the fact that every problem gets solved as soon as it's introduced means that the whole thing doesn't have as much continuity as it might. Indeed, for the whole first half, they're just hanging around, waiting for things to happen, not even putting their plan into action.
Now, if this had been juvenile in a sort of fun, adventure way, that could have been enjoyable, but it's clear that Griffith is taking it a bit more seriously than is warranted. It's never a battle with a fleet of ships, it's always two destroyers, five torpedo boats, a complement of three thousand men, &c. Then there are all the wire telegrams and news stories that repeat information we already know, or just talk about various battles and parts of the war that don's seem to matter much to the story.
Then, of course, there is the titular 'Angel of the Revolution' herself, a totally gorgeous teen girl who all the terrorists want to marry, but whom they respect too much to romance overtly. She's also a crack shot, and utterly loyal to the cause, even if it means (horror of horrors) marrying someone she doesn't love. Our superscience hero, of course, does everything he can to get her, until she finally tells him that the best way to get into her pants is to destroy society and create eternal peace. Sexy.
Once again, what could have been a passable adventure story is ruined by the author's inane attempts to make it 'realistic' and fill it with all sort of unrelated details. It doesn't take much seriousness to ruin the guileless charm of a pulp romp.(less)
The hipsters are right: society is trying to destroy you--not your body, or your mind, but you, the part which makes an individual. That's what societ...moreThe hipsters are right: society is trying to destroy you--not your body, or your mind, but you, the part which makes an individual. That's what society is: the aspect of human life that is not the self, but is communal, the part that causes humanity to behave like a colony of ants.
As brilliant Nietzsche scholar Rick Roderick pointed out, advertisement is the opposite of psychotherapy. The idea of therapy is to take things that are hidden within your brain--biases, prejudices, hangups, fears, habits--and to bring them to the surface, to make you aware of them so they can be processed, or even gotten rid of. The idea of advertisement is to plant in your brain things you don’t realize are there, but which change the way you think. We conflate Coca Cola with comfort and familiarity, the Nike swoosh with athletic ability, Mickey Mouse with childhood; our idea of how relationships work is based on yoghurt commercials.
Today, we marvel at the idea that people used to memorize The Iliad and recite it aloud--but when you’re ninety years old, you’re still going to remember songs about alka-seltzer, plastic dolls that pee, cartoon ninjas, and the commercial theme of your local water park. Think for a minute just how much space in your brain is devoted to information like that, stuff you don’t know you remember until suddenly, you hear it again. Now, think of how else that space could have been used: what would you rather you knew instead of those jingles? French? Greek philosophy? How to rebuild a carburetor?
That’s how culture gets to you: it surrounds you all the time, trying to make you into a copy of itself, and you and everyone in that culture are a part of that system. We shame other people, we guilt them, we tease them, we make suggestions, we tell them little infectious phrases that are supposed to be helpful. Look over the comments on Goodreads some time and you’ll see it at work: people trying to shut up dissent, repeating mantras and plugging their ears, and who clearly think that insulting and belittling people is the same as discussion. But why shouldn’t they? It’s how they were socialized.
Then, when people confirm our biases--when they align with our groupthink--we listen and nod, we praise them, we tell them ‘it’s so nice to talk to a person who understands’. It’s the confirmation of that tribal need to all be in the same boat together, on the same course.
Then there are systems within that society--churches, military complexes, corporations, stores, entertainment industries, political groups--all of which are trying to sway you, trying to sway society, promoting their own best interests as if there were nothing artificial about it. It’s why we accept inequality, why we accept the massive scale of deaths every day from car accidents and untreated addicts and poor people who can’t afford medical treatment--we may not always like it--but we still accept it.
Really, it’s pretty remarkable that we retain any individuality at all. I mean, how strong must that impulse be to reject all these things that people tell us we are supposed to be? We are reminded of this shit every day by books, movies, adverts, and assholes on the bus. Sure, we internalize it to some degree, but for a lot of us, we retain an iconoclastic streak that stops us from being taken over completely.
As Roderick describes it, the mind is constantly under siege: we put up walls to keep out the overwhelming force of culture. Sure, some gets in, but our defenses keep a lot out. Ideas can be infectious, they can be viral, they pray on our hopes and fears, our prejudices and insecurities, but over time, we build up better and better defenses to recognize and root out these ideas.
So when hipsters reject something popular, there’s a reason they have that knee-jerk reaction: they feel society’s fingers reaching into their skull and they instinctively flinch. That's why they don’t want to look like other people, or listen to their music, they don’t want to be advertised to or pandered to. They have constructed a sense of identity for themselves--what makes them them--and when they see someone else doing the same thing, it threatens their sense of identity.
They’re wrong, of course, but their response makes a certain kind of sense. They’ve traded one aspect of culture for another. They are a subculture, but one that still feeds into and supports the main culture. They are rampant consumers, early-adopters who are constantly looking for new ways to spend their money because as soon as other people start liking what they like, they have to dump it all and buy new stuff. Every subculture becomes co-opted and sold back to the people for a profit, and the way corporations have maneuvered hipsters is brilliant. If they stop consuming fashion, products, information, politics, music, and craft materials, they lose their identity. And so, of course, we see that they are just as dominated and defined by the culture as the ‘sheep’ they so assiduously mock. They are conformists.
That’s always been the problem, though, way back to the Dadaists: if you are obsessed with rejecting mainstream culture, that means you have to follow mainstream culture closely enough to know what it is doing, so you can then reject it. All your actions are defined by that culture, it’s just that instead of following the example, you do the opposite, which makes you just as predictable--which means you are just as useful to the culture. Predictable ants are useful ants.
But of course, the real iconoclast doesn't identify themselves with certain bands or aesthetics, with clothes or objects. They create identity based around ideas--and society doesn't want to co-opt ideas. When society takes a movement and sells it back to us, the ideas are the first things stripped out.
The iconoclast doesn’t look left and right to see what everyone else is doing before they act, because their actions aren’t defined by conforming to or rejecting what others do. They have an internal motivation, a philosophy which tells them what is worthwhile and what is not, and why.
Real iconoclasts are cool. They are fucking amazing. They change the world, they have an ineffable magnetism. They control minds, they guide fashion, so that in a century, you can look back and say ‘we think the way we do, write the way we do, dress the way we do, because of a handful of people’. And what tends to define them when they are alive is a near-complete lack of recognition. Society attacks them in all the standard ways: guilt, mockery, critique. Society is uncomfortable, it wants to invade that mind, to break the siege and to remake the person as a useful ant under the status quo. This often kills the iconoclast, or drives him mad, or makes him bitter and misanthropic--sometimes all of the above.
But misanthropy and bitterness are mind-killers. They halt thought. They turn the thinker into a self-prejudiced creature who is no longer willing to think or change, who has been so embroiled in the frustrating stupidity that surrounds him that it stops him in his tracks. That is the trap into which Des Esseintes falls in Huysmans' experimental novel, called A Rebours in the French, variously translated in English as Against the Grain or Against Nature.
Des Esseintes is the false iconoclast, the man who is obsessed with being different for its own sake, but who does not know himself. The long lists of his preferences and dislikes that fill the book are, for the most part, empty opinions. They do not point to some grander philosophy or understanding.
Again and again, he tells us that he despises this or that thing because a merchant's wife likes it. His sense of identity is threatened--he has built it around these objects and movements, and his fondest wish is to keep them all for himself. That is why he locks himself away, alone, and refuses to see anyone. Yet, even then, even in complete isolation, it is not enough to let him discover himself. Still, alone and unobserved, his likes and dislikes are defined by an outside culture which he claims to have rejected, but which seems to rule his every thought. His attempted iconoclasm becomes mere contrarianism. It is the misanthropy of the problem child who does things he knows he musn't do--not because he enjoys them, but out of a desire to betray the image of authority he has created in his mind.
One of the more curious threads in the book is the effect which his religious education has had on him: though it has not made him a faithful man, it has inspired him to reject man and the world as worthless and flawed, and to instead spend his time living for another world, a false world which exists only in his mind.
He is the prototype for the man who sits and plays Warcraft alone all day, every day, until he loses his job, his friends, and his family. Des Esseintes harps again and again on a desire to live in an artificial world of his own making--a virtual world. It does not really give him pleasure, it is just a way from him to avoid the world. It is a life without risk, a life where he does not have to confront anything uncomfortable or challenging, which will never hazard upsetting or drawing judgment from anyone--a pointless life of perfect safety which he romantically paints as fraught and challenging, because it allows him to imagine himself as the noble struggler against hardship--but solely on his own terms.
Yet, ironically, he also complains about how there is 'nothing genuine' left in the world, how it is all artificial--for which he decries it--despite the fact that he spends the rest of his time trying to live in another artificial world of his own making. Clearly, artificiality is neither the problem nor the solution, but a mere cover-up for the real issues.
His aesthetics are a replacement for faith, which explains why his house is filled with religious iconography repurposed into furnishings for his museum to himself--and yet, not himself, for throughout the text, though he spends his fortune to pursue every idea which seems to him pleasing at the time, none of it satisfies him--indeed, it drives him mad, makes him sick--it destroys him. He is not pursuing his own desires, he is not following his own thoughts and needs, and so he is never satisfied. Instead, he tries again and again to create identity through external trappings, like a college girl who wears a beret in order to feel worldly.
These trappings invariably break down around him--they disappoint him, they do not live up to his hopes. He sits and recites opinions he already holds, and fearing disappointment, seeks nothing new. The whole situation is summed up in the fact that, when he thinks on the horror of being forced to return to society, he laments that he will not be able to meet any men like himself, men who share his opinions. He is not interested in engaging conversation, or in intelligence or brilliance, he does not despair of meeting remarkable people, he is upset because he cannot meet himself--or rather, the self he imagines himself to be.
Indeed, he will almost certainly meet himself when he rejoins society, for it is full of people just like him, who put on a false front to try to convince themselves that they are interesting, but who live hollow lives, providing nothing to the world, leaving nothing of worth to the future, and doing nothing in which they can take the least pride. The unexamined life is not worth living--which is why it destroys him.
If this had been a send-up of such a ridiculous fool, it could have proven a remarkable and wondrous work--it worked well enough for Carlyle, Cervantes, and Sterne--but, though there are certainly moments of irony and contradiction throughout, overall, the message seems to be that Des Esseintes is meant to be taken in earnest--that we are meant somehow to respect or find interesting the cobbles of his life, his scattered opinions, his false identity.
Again and again, the text harps on these facts, repeats them, wallows in them. Each book Des Esseintes mentions is described by its color, the make of its binding, the type of dye used, the provenance of the ink within, the typeset, but all this detail is to no purpose. It is not like reading a treatise of William Morris' and coming to understand a particular aesthetic of how a book should be bound and why--it is a mere litany of excess, the dull and trashy kind of overspending which marks the parvenu.
Certainly, there are some interesting scenes within the book--the famous tortoise episode actually achieving some real insight (and satire), but overall, the book is terribly dull--a piling on of detail upon detail without much central notion to hang them on. Some might argue that the theme is the gross emptiness of decadence, but I don't think the work's scattered repetition does very much to explore it.
It isn't surprising that the work proved influential to men like Wilde, who had come to concentrate so fully on form over function that their wit consisted mostly of switching about common words in convoluted ways until they no longer meant much at all, an absurd style which lacks real bite--and that was the overwhelming impression I took away from Huysmans' work: that for all the fine words and lengthy lists and precise descriptions, there simply wasn't enough conceptual structure underneath to make it hang together. It was a pile of Gothic trappings whose sheer weight broke through the roof of the old church to lay all in a shambles on the floor.(less)