Archives for category: Literature

Reading today’s press and watching the news and news talk shows is very much like “going to church”: there is never any doubt about how to feel about anything said, for what we hear is never just the facts, the stories. Always there is a moral or attitude attached. The preachers take special pains always to communicate this clearly, for otherwise the flock shall stray.

img_5132What I’m saying is, the press’s function is almost identical to the Church’s in days of yore, and it is inhabited largely by the same kind of people, though surely not identical in substantive moral content.

Today’s Church worships the American State as understood by the two major denominations: the Center-Left — which has been compromised by having fallen under full sway of the ambitious and cultic Progressive Left — and the rebellious Protestant sects — I mean, the Center-Right — with Fox being the still-dominant force.

To understand this era’s politico-culture war think in terms of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, a bloody and inglorious affair, despite so much earnestness all around.

fingerpointingIt makes me yearn for the wall of separation between news and state. Though we do not have an Established News, we do very much have Establishment News, with newspeople circulating to and from the State in regular four-year cycles.

And that Establishment really, really hates the rising Dissenting Sects, who have taken Fox’s lukewarm Protestantism to Anabaptist extremes.

Historically, the Reformation led to the Enlightenment and modernity as we know it. One would hope that something of that nature is building up again, and that out of the current crisis of legitimacy and sectarian strife a new order will emerge.

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Cabell, The High Place illustration, Pape

The literature of contracts with the Devil — “selling one’s soul”; making a “Faustian bargain” — is vast. The Wikipedia article on the subject does not mention, however, a seed element to this literature: dealings with Faërie. The fey folk also made dangerous dealings with common folk, old legends relate, and their stories are many if not varied.

This came to mind last night as I watched one of the later episodes of the first season of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, a terrific fantasy series to be found on Netflix. Mr. Strange inadvertently makes a deal — is tricked into a binding contract — with a powerful fairy, the Gentleman, played magnificently by Marc Warren. And he loses his wife in the bargain.

In many of these stories, one is often bound to a contract in terms very much like duress or with minimal knowledge, often of the transaction itself.

It strikes me that this oeuvre presents a major theme in not only literature but also anthropology and history. The theme resonates because of the fear of contract itself, the fear of contractual relations as distinct from familiar and tribal relations.

Now, the power of contract is in its stickiness. We are bound to the contracts we make not merely by convention, but by our very own performances. Because we consent, we have little standing to object to the enforcement of a contract’s term, no matter how opprobrious it may come to seem.

And long-term contracts — terms with a time element, in which events can go very wrong and thus be very risky — are especially dangerous. So it is no wonder that the literature of dealings with dread powers has flourished.

But isn’t it more than that? This is my bleg: Is there literary or other criticism that treats these stories as expressions of a general fear of market order, of the open society itself?

I am not aware of this kind of analysis.

Yet it makes sense. Traditional society is not dominated by exchange contracts. Or insurance contracts. Family, clan, tribe, and village all depend on looser arrangements of gift exchange, straightforward coöperation, and command hierarchies . . . with honor codes as a means of social control. These come naturally to our species. As Herbert Spencer and F. A. Hayek both argued, our primeval evolution best adapted us to these older forms of social coördination.

But we seem to be alone in the animal kingdom in making bargains of a more cognitively complicated sort, trades of differing items and services. Sure, monkeys groom one another — you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But our reciprocal services can get elaborate and conceptually more difficult the more we opt for explicit trades — I scratch your back, you give me firewood.

And these sorts of trades can quickly take on a life of their own. They unsettle normal patterned social behavior. They seem “anti-social” from the perspective of straightforward coöperation, where we all pull together to achieve a common goal. In exchange, we work separately-but-discretely-together to obtain distinct, even divergent goals.

It is no wonder that trading, like thieving and combat, was mostly reserved for dealing with others, outside of the in-group. Trades along a time dimension — especially loans with interest — are often prohibited for in-groups: Jews, Christians and Muslims have all had to deal with these ancient prohibitions. And, on the North American continent prior to the arrival of European settlers and conquistadors, trade was mainly a lively inter-tribal affair, one of four characteristic inter-tribal dealings, the others being combat, exogamy, and gambling. Indeed, when you realize how closely associated these activities are associated, in our minds, with each other and with activities to folks one often has reasons to distrust, the common catallactophobia makes perfect sense.

Making the dealings with Darker Powers an elegant way to express and handle such fears.

As well as warn a person to Be Careful when making deals.

If you have any knowledge of the critical literature on these kinds of stories as they relate to the fear of a society of contract, please advise.

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N.B. The illustration at top is by Frank C. Papé, for James Branch Cabell’s classic tale of dangerous dealings, The High Place (1923; subtitled A Comedy of Disenchantment and published in 1928 in the definitive Storisende edition).

FLUENCY CONFLUENCE BOOK ONE

Is not the “No Style” style, in which most fiction is written, these days, what has been left us after the “keep it simple” demands of editors, publishers, and the influence of writers such as Hemingway, Orwell, and Camus?

And does that not leave us with works of fiction that read like film treatments more than literary endeavors?

Maybe the answer to the second question is a No, but sometimes I wonder whether it be better answered with a Yes. Hence my query.

Before 1950, the No Style style (hereinafter “NSs”) was not prevalent, even with popular fiction. F. Marion Crawford, for instance, had a “literary style” that attempted some subtlety in the prose, on a sentence by sentence basis (first novel, 1882; last, 1910). Jack Woodford, the “sex novelist” whose modus was never to mention a body part of an, um, intimate nature, sported sentences and paragraphs that can run circles around most of today’s bestselling authors (heyday, ’30s and ’40s). Even the initial run of the Hardy Boys (1927-1947) could boast more individuality in the literary presentation than nine tenths of what we get today.

Still, the NSs makes for easy and fun reading. As in the science fiction novel I opened up today (see cover, above).

Indeed, you can see the contrast in sf, where even today you are more likely to come across interesting writing qua writing than in most other genres.

Philip K. Dick wrote in the NSs, but Jack Vance certainly did not. Robert Heinlein wrote in the NSs, except in the prose failure (but story success) of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Alfred Bester was definitely not an NSs practitioner; A.E. van Vogt should have wished he had been. Terry Bisson writes beautifully, but close to NSs; Gene Wolfe is as close to a great literary artist the genre has produced, and writes far from the all-too-standard NSs pop fiction prejudice — and is not very popular because of it. I’ve read a lot of NSs authors. But my favorites tend to be those who did not and do not write quite that simply:

  • Ray Bradbury
  • Thomas M. Disch
  • Michael Moorcock
  • Harlan Ellison
  • Brian Aldiss
  • George Alec Effinger
  • Lucius Shepherd
  • J. G. Ballard

Any thoughts?

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All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing and for the State to do something.

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I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.

The problem, in re H. L. Mencken’s admission, above, is that to obtain freedom for yourself you must bar others from abridging it not only from self, but from some or even all others. Liberty cannot be advanced except by taking license away from others.

And forswearing it for self, as well.

This is a corollary to William Allen White’s great maxim:

Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others.

Or, to summarize, the words of J. H. Morse:

Liberty is no respecter of persons. Freedom with an exception clause is spelled L.I.C.E.N.S.E.


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IMG_4141If you have not read the work of James Branch Cabell, where would you start? I began with The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasion, when I was 17. I have no regrets. But I do not think there is any question about the ideal Cabell starter: The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome, from The Witch Woman (1948).*

But after that, what?

Well, it depends.

I have a go at a decision tree — hey, it branches! — to aid the curious reader:

The James Branch Cabell Oeuvre 

* The first printing of the story was as a large, stand-alone illustrated book published by the John Day Company in 1926. It is a lovely edition, but the final printing in The Witch Woman was the final revision of the story, and it is the best. Read that version.

CNN article

This is the modern world: teen male suicides spiked to almost 15 per 100,000 in 2015, but the headline and point of the article is to focus on teen female suicides, which have also risen . . . but to a mere 5.1 per.

This is the truth, men and boys: you are expendable. The general tenor of the culture expresses concern far more for girls than for boys, women more men, and in this case the difference of concern can be expressed as a mathematical ratio.

And let us not pretend that we are witnessing some sort of outlier, here. This sort of unequal concern, by sex, is visible in courts as well as headlines, in taxpayer-funded programs as well as colleges, in legislation as well as lifeboats.

Nevertheless, I suppose we can quibble to whom, precisely, we should impute this specific case of unequal interest:

  • to the female author of the piece,
  • to the editors of the site (it was picked up elsewhere, too, verbatim),
  • to their expectation of reader preference, or
  • to the readers themselves.

But experience allows me to make a generalization: this fits with the actual (rather than professed) aim of feminism, which is to promote women over men and girls over boys. Feminism has not been about sexual equality. It is a particularist, not a universalist ideology.

If this still astounds you, consider: doctrines of equality do not get named by merely one of the two things said to be equal.

Do not think, however, that I am especially incensed about this radical sexual inegalitarianism in favor of what used to be called “the fairer sex.” The preference is not new. It is biological, really, and boils down to the economy of scarce eggs and abundant sperm. I am subject to the bias myself.

But it does give us a cause for several distinct reactions:

  1. To doubt patriarchy theory;
  2. To conclude that feminism is a form of sexism; and
  3. To chortle.

Popular modern moral crusades (such as feminism) are risible, and their pretensions to lofty idealism cannot be believed by honest inquirers.

Young men: learn to laugh. Your enemies are many, but they are indeed ridiculous.

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CNN’s article was ably mocked this weekend by Sargon of Akkad, who noted that the gist of the piece (which he said drove him “nuts”) gives some cause to acknowledge the claims of Men’s Rights activists.

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Readers of The Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances, have probably wondered, as I have for nearly four decades, about the lore surrounding the word “geas,” apparently meaning a binding pledge or promise, which appears in the book repeatedly.

IMG_3989The word suggests the chivalrous approach to life that James Branch Cabell contrasts with the poetic and gallant attitudes.

The word popped into my head again today, and upon this occasion of memory I looked it up using Google’s ngram viewer.

The most interesting use I found, preceding Cabell, is by William Sharp writing as Fiona Macleod in 1899. The book is The Dominion of Dreams, and the word can be found in the chapter titled “Honey of the Wild Bees.”

“Geas,” we discover, is singular; “geasan” is the plural. (In The Grimoire, from 1990, we are told the plural is “geasa.”)

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Look for the volume on Google Books. The Dominion of Dreams actually appears more than relevant to Cabell’s work — the title indicates that clearly enough — even disregarding this particular strange word’s meaning and etymology, there illumined.

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Jurgen by Cabell

Chapter 34, in which our hero learns
the true nature of torture in hell:

Now the tale tells how the devils of Hell were in one of their churches celebrating Christmas in such manner as the devils observe that day; and how Jurgen came through the trapdoor in the vestry-room; and how he saw and wondered over the creatures which inhabited this place. For to him after the Christmas services came all such devils as his fathers had foretold, and in not a hair or scale or talon did they differ from the worst that anybody had been able to imagine.

“Anatomy is hereabouts even more inconsequent than in Cocaigne,” was Jurgen’s first reflection. But the first thing the devils did was to search Jurgen very carefully, in order to make sure he was not bringing any water into Hell.

“Now, who may you be, that come to us alive, in a fine shirt of which we never saw the like before?” asked Dithican. He had the head of a tiger, but otherwise the appearance of a large bird, with shining feathers and four feet: his neck was yellow, his body green, and his feet black.

“It would not be treating honestly with you to deny that I am the Emperor of Noumaria,” said Jurgen, somewhat advancing his estate.

Now spoke Amaimon, in the form of a thick suet-colored worm going upright upon his tail, which shone like the tail of a glowworm. He had no feet, but under his chops were two short hands, and upon his back were bristles such as grow upon hedgehogs.

“But we are rather overrun with emperors,” said Amaimon, doubtfully, “and their crimes are a great trouble to us. Were you a very wicked ruler?”

“Never since I became an emperor,” replied Jurgen, “has any of my subjects uttered one word of complaint against me. So it stands to reason I have nothing very serious with which to reproach myself.”

“Your conscience, then, does not demand that you be punished?”

“My conscience, gentlemen, is too well-bred to insist on anything.”

“You do not even wish to be tortured?”

“Well, I admit I had expected something of the sort. But none the less, I will not make a point of it,” said Jurgen, handsomely. “No, I shall be quite satisfied even though you do not torture me at all.”

And then the mob of devils made a great to-do over Jurgen.

“For it is exceedingly good to have at least one unpretentious and undictatorial human being in Hell. Nobody as a rule drops in on us save inordinately proud and conscientious ghosts, whose self-conceit is intolerable, and whose demands are outrageous.”

“How can that be?”

“Why, we have to punish them. Of course they are not properly punished until they are convinced that what is happening to them is just and adequate. And you have no notion what elaborate tortures they insist their exceeding wickedness has merited, as though that which they did or left undone could possibly matter to anybody. And to contrive these torments quite tires us out.”

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The artwork featured here are details from that produced by Virgil Burnett for the Limited Editions Club edition of Jurgen, 1976. The female figure is of the vampire Florimel, who was created from the mind of Jurgen’s father, Coth, as fit punishment for his own sins. She is featured in the chapters on hell as one of Jurgen’s two romantic dalliances, the other being the wife of Grandfather Satan.

Chapter 39, in which our hero laments the
affection shown to him by his demon lover:

“It is my title she loves, not me,” reflected Jurgen, sadly, “and her affection is less for that which is really integral to me than for imperial orbs and sceptres and such-like external trappings.”

And Jurgen would come out of Florimel’s cleft considerably dejected, and would sit alone by the Sea of Blood, and would meditate how inequitable it was that the mere title of emperor should thus shut him off from sincerity and candor.

“We who are called kings and emperors are men like other men: we are as rightly entitled as other persons to the solace of true love and affection: instead, we live in a continuous isolation, and women offer us all things save their hearts, and we are a lonely folk. No, I cannot believe that Florimel loves me for myself alone: it is my title which dazzles her. And I would that I had never made myself the emperor of Noumaria: for this emperor goes about everywhere in a fabulous splendor, and is, very naturally, resistless in his semi-mythical magnificence. Ah, but these imperial gewgaws distract the thoughts of Florimel from the real Jurgen; so that the real Jurgen is a person whom she does not understand at all. And it is not fair.”

Then, too, he had a sort of prejudice against the way in which Florimel spent her time in seducing and murdering young men. It was not possible, of course, actually to blame the girl, since she was the victim of circumstances, and had no choice about becoming a vampire, once the cat had jumped over her coffin. . . .

Chapter 39, in which our hero continues his
search for justice (and his missing wife):

“It is a comfort, at any rate,” said Jurgen, “to discover who originated the theory of democratic government. I have long wondered who started the notion that the way to get a wise decision on any conceivable question was to submit it to a popular vote. Now I know. Well, and the devils may be right in their doctrines; certainly I cannot go so far as to say they are wrong: but still, at the same time—!”

For instance, this interminable effort to make the universe safe for democracy, this continual warring against Heaven because Heaven clung to a tyrannical form of autocratic government, sounded both logical and magnanimous, and was, of course, the only method of insuring any general triumph for democracy: yet it seemed rather futile to Jurgen, since, as he knew now, there was certainly something in the Celestial system which made for military efficiency, so that Heaven usually won. Moreover, Jurgen could not get over the fact that Hell was just a notion of his ancestors with which Koshchei had happened to fall in: for Jurgen had never much patience with antiquated ideas, particularly when anyone put them into practice, as Koshchei had done.

“Why, this place appears to me a glaring anachronism,” said Jurgen, brooding over the fires of Chorasma: “and its methods of tormenting conscientious people I cannot but consider very crude indeed. The devils are simple-minded and they mean well, as nobody would dream of denying, but that is just it: for hereabouts is needed some more pertinacious and efficiently disagreeable person—”
And that, of course, reminded him of Dame Lisa: and so it was the thoughts of Jurgen turned again to doing the manly thing. And he sighed, and went among the devils tentatively looking and inquiring for that intrepid fiend who in the form of a black gentleman had carried off Dame Lisa. But a queer happening befell, and it was that nowhere could Jurgen find the black gentleman, nor did any of the devils know anything about him.

“From what you tell us, Emperor Jurgen,” said they all, “your wife was an acidulous shrew, and the sort of woman who believes that whatever she does is right.”

“It was not a belief,“ says Jurgen: “it was a mania with the poor dear.”

“By that fact, then, she is forever debarred from entering Hell.”

“You tell me news,” says Jurgen, “which if generally known would lead many husbands into vicious living.”

“But it is notorious that people are saved by faith. And there is no faith stronger than that of a bad-tempered woman in her own infallibility. Plainly, this wife of yours is the sort of person who cannot be tolerated by anybody short of the angels. We deduce that your Empress must be in Heaven.”

“Well, that sounds reasonable. And so to Heaven I will go, and it may be that there I shall find justice.”

“We would have you know,” the fiends cried, bristling, “that in Hell we have all kinds of justice, since our government is an enlightened democracy.”

“Just so,” says Jurgen: “in an enlightened democracy one has all kinds of justice, and I would not dream of denying it. But you have not, you conceive, that lesser plague, my wife; and it is she whom I must continue to look for.”

“Oh, as you like,” said they, “so long as you do not criticize the exigencies of war-time. But certainly we are sorry to see you going into a country where the benighted people put up with an autocrat Who was not duly elected to His position. And why need you continue seeking your wife’s society when it is so much pleasanter living in Hell?”

And Jurgen shrugged. “One has to do the manly thing sometimes.”

from Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, James Branch Cabell

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In Harold Bloom’s introduction to David Rosenberg’s translation of The Book of J, he floats the notion that it was a woman who authored this ancient portion of the Torah.

nausicaaToday I read Samuel Butler’s thesis in his 1897 treatise, The Authoress of the Odyssey, in which he develops the idea that “Homer” did not compose The Odyssey, but a Sicilian woman did.

Comparing the two theses, Butler’s seems the more likely. Butler has more to work with. His arguments are a bit stronger.

Neither idea is all that important, I admit, though both spark interest, a very human interest in the authorship questions. Which Butler directly addresses early on in his book:

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While I deny that art is only as interesting as its revelation of an artist — deny quite strongly — I nevertheless understand Butler’s scratching of an ancient phantom limb.

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I am now going to have to read Butler’s translation of the Odyssey. But once I have set my mind to that, reading his prose Iliad seems a pre-requisite, no? Alas, I tend not to read long fiction, any more — I call it my “Bleak House Rule”: no long novels until I have read Bleak House, and since I haven’t yet read the Dickens masterpiece. . . well, you get the idea. So my new project seems a bit daunting. And doubly so, since the first few pages of Fagles’s poetic translation of the first Homeric epic strikes me as far more entertaining than Butler’s rendition in prose. Well, I would become neither the first nor last reader (or writer) to kick himself.

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FullSizeRender 4According to Samuel Butler — whose Erewhon is a strange sort of masterpiece of science fiction, a sort of comedy of ideas (I wrote a foreword to an ebook reprint edition) — it is Homer’s Iliad and Nausicaa’s Odyssey. The sheer bravado of the thesis reminds me of other great revisionisms, such as Freud’s outrageous reinterpretation of Moses or Julian Jaynes’s speculative history of the “breakdown of the bicameral mind.”

This could be fun.

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