Archives for category: Literature

Voltaire’s Zadig ou la Destinée (1747), is usually just referred to solely by the name of the protagonist, Zadig. It is the first of the great French writer’s “romances” in my big volume of Voltaire stories, and the first I have read in 40 years. It is, all in all, an excellent tale, echoing the manner of the Arabian Nights, filled with amusing episodes and light philosophical insights:

A warm dispute arose on one of Zoroaster’s laws, which forbids the eating of a griffin.

“Why,” said some of them, “prohibit the eating of a griffin if there is no such animal in nature?”

“There must necessarily be such an animal,” said the others, “since Zoroaster forbids us to eat it.”

Zadig would fain have reconciled them by saying:

“If there are no griffins, we cannot possibly eat them; and thus either way we shall honor Zoroaster.”

No griffins were harmed in my reading of Zadig, for none appear. And neither does the Basilisk, which enters the story later on, but only as hearsay. This is not a work of high fantasy . . . or low.

C6D18A31-189B-4E43-975F-36EDC13D34C9I admit, I may be ambivalent about the story’s moral, but the character of the eponymous protagonist is heroic in his quests and honest in his struggle to meet his outrageous challenges in a world filled with pain and frustration, not least being the betrayals and stupidities of our fellow men . . . all the while trying to puzzle out the nature of Fate. Its inspiration never flags.

It is worth mentioning the full title as given in the edition I read: Zadig, or Fate. Destiny is the main theme, and Voltaire’s deism shows in a revelation towards the end, with an angel offering the great secret . . . pertaining to why a world with so much suffering exists. This explanation is very interesting. Today’s bewitched youngsters might be amused to learn that Diversity Is a Sign not of Our Strength . . . but of the Creator’s.

Note: This is not a novel. Voltaire tells his story in the manner of ancient tall tales, not in the modern novelistic style with its characteristic attention to moment, aiming to induce the reader into the soul of the protagonist, whether hero, victim or anti-hero. There is no “interiority” here. Do not read it expecting anything like a modern thriller, and most especially not like a classic novel such as Silas Marner and Fathers and Sons. This is a droll tale in the olden style, but with Voltaire’s wit woven in to leaven the lump.

I highly recommend Zadig. Every literate person should be familiar with this form of fiction. And what is that form, exactly? I believe it would properly be called an “anatomy,” to use the terminology of Northrop Frye, taken from Robert Burton. The ancient term is Menippean satire. Some of my favorite writers engage in this genre: Lucian, Denis Diderot, Aldous Huxley, and James Branch Cabell. But I have of course read a lot more of the standard novel form than of this genre. Still, it is the case that, as I grow old, and soak up our civilization’s scattered stores of wisdom — wringing them out, periodically, in the course of my many follies and foibles — I find my taste for reveling in the arts of feeling, of streams of consciousness and flows of tropisms, wane.

What waxes, instead, are the dazzling philosophical perspectives of Lucian and Cabell. And Voltaire.

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Lin-Carter-Down-to-a-Sunless-Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea by Lin Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lin Carter was important to my early literary education, such as it was. Were it not for his books Tolkien: A Look Behind ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy I may have never found some of my favorite writers, such as Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Peter S. Beagle, and the great James Branch Cabell.

But Carter’s own fiction did not beckon my attention. The books of his I saw looked like hackwork, rehashes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. And, what with their garish covers, I avoided them as if they were the Gor books by John Norman.

Well, as if to break a long habit, I bought two Gor novels, not long age. I took a dip its pages. Not exactly my cup of tea, and I did not get very far. Which does not mean I found anything objectionable. They seemed somewhat like throwback fiction, good Burroughsian fun. But of course their reputation is harshly negative, especially along “political correctness” lines. That is, as Jack Woodford might have said, there is no Communism in them, and (I hear tell) Norman does not believe today’s accepted feminist fictions, er, norms. I do not either, so I may return to Gor some day.

Not long after I put down Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor a few months ago, I bought a few Lin Carter fantasy/science fiction paperback on a whim. And I then read the one that seemed to have the most promising beginning, Down to a Sunless Sea, one of his last books, written, I gather, while he was dying of cancer.

The romantic-sexual interest in the book is not too far from what I have heard to be John Norman’s. The hero is masculine, and the two women are distinct and familiar feminine types, though both Martian. There is no political correctness in it, just as there is no Communism. But there is frank sexual talk, and acceptance of the Sapphic practice. Not very far from Woodford territory, after all, though the focus is on the hero, not the heroine — which is where it almost always was with Woodford (who claimed to have written the same book over and over).

This retro-sexuality does not bother me. It seems pitiful and weak to even bring it up. Masculine and feminine are archetypes, and reflect a lot of biological and historical reality. To object to it now is merely to accept current ideological fashion as Eternal Truth, which is of course bilge water.

Carter combines, as he states in his afterword, Brackettian fantasy with a Merrittesque descent into a Lost World. The first half or more of the short novel is adventure; the second half introduces our ragtag band of outlaws to a fantastic underworld civilization that is mainly shown to us in a slightly dramatized utopian format. The point being: the utopia is too good for these depraved, uncivilized Terran and Martian adventurers.

I cannot say that this seems in any way exceptionable — or very exceptional. Except — yes, there is an “except”: the writing, on the sentence level, is superior to popular No Style style writing of current popular fiction.

So, there is more than one way that Down to a Sunless Sea is throwback fiction. And more than one way that this is not at all a bad thing.

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The Loud Literary Lamas of New YorkThe Loud Literary Lamas of New York by Jack Woodford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bitter fun, Woodford at peak invective. The target? The book publishing industry at mid-century.

His main advice? Ignore publishers; self-publish.

Whether this advice be good or ill, the contempt and wit and contrarianism sparkle on every page.

If you are interested in writing, in literary culture, or, more generally, in American character, this book by an authentic American character is almost required reading.

Besides, the book is short.

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The Certain Hour: Dizain des Poëtes (Biography of the Life of Manuel, #12)The Certain Hour: Dizain des Poëtes by James Branch Cabell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first tale in The Certain Hour (1916), “Belhs Cavaliers,” is set in the England of 1210 A.D., and features a love triangle of

1. the hero, Raimbaut de Vaquiras,

2. the open antagonist, Guillaume de Baut (Prince of Orange), and

3. Dona Biatritz, with a fourth figure added to form a sort of love rhombus, Raimbaut’s servant,

4. the converted Saracen, Makrisi.

“Love prefers to take rather than to give; against a single happy hour he balances a hundred miseries, and he appraises one pleasure to be worth a thousand pangs.” The musings of the hero, at the outset.

The tale appears to be heading for tragedy, but romantic melodrama concludes the foray into doomed love — the doom being a happy ending.

First published in Lippincott’s Magazine, June 1915.

The second tale in the book is “Balthazar’s Daughter.” It is the only tale I had read before the present reading of all the book’s stories. It is quite good. Like all of the tales, it is what in the movies we would call a costume drama. But here we witness an early example of the sly sexual innuendo that would land the author in court and on the bestseller list: methinks the “jewels” that the heroine would like to see at court — and especially of which her interlocutor says the eminent men of the court would be delighted in showing her — might refer not merely to “the four kinds of sapphires, the twelve kinds of emeralds, the three kinds of rubies” etc. mentioned by the tale’s antagonist, Duke Alessandro.

The story first appeared in The Smart Set, May 1913. Cabell turned the story into a one-act play, The Jewel Merchants (1921), which was used as a libretto for an opera, by Louis Cheslock (1941).

The book’s third story is “Judith’s Creed,” which first appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine, July 1915. Our protagonist is none other than William Shakespeare, confronting his Dark Lady. Here is a defense of his modus operandi by the Bard: “The man of letters, like the carpenter or the blacksmith, must live by the vending of his productions, not by the eating of them.” His former lover, his “dark lady,” expresses disapproval of the “paunchy, inconsiderable little man” he has become, and for his lifelong besetting sin, “money-grubbing.” Judith, mentioned in the title, is his daughter; her creed is her much more natural, humble view of the world than contemplated by literary people demanding greatness.

The fourth story was apparently written directly for the volume, and deals with the author of the famous lines “Gather Ye rosebuds while Ye may.” Yes, Robert Herrick is the subject of “Concerning Corrina,” which more than suggests that the poet was an adept of the dark arts. Though technically a mystery-horror story, it is best categorized as a philosophical comedy.

The next is “Olivia’s Pottage,” originally titled “The Second Chance,” published in Harper’s Magazine (October 1909). It is a story I could not properly read. Oh, I read it, every word, but had trouble following it, or caring. Could be my fault. Or it could be the author’s early and quite unsuccessful effort.

“Verse-making,” says the hunchback dwarf Alexander Pope in the sixth story, “A Brown Woman” (Lippincott’s Magazine, August 1915), “is at best only the affair of idle men who write in their closets and of idle men who read there.” The great poet has fallen in love. With a milkmaid. And yearns to be happy. “To write perfectly was much,” our narrator informs us, “but it was not everything.”

Standing in the way of any traditional arrangement for happiness, however, is his own physical construction: “My body is at most a flimsy abortion such as a night’s exposure would have made more tranquil than it is just now.” So he does the honorable thing. And then fate throws in a monkey wrench.

“It is deplorable how much easier it is to express any emotion than that of which one is actually conscious.”

Yes.

“Pro Honoria” saw the light of the reading public’s gaze in 1915, courtesy of McBride’s Magazine. That is all I will say for it. The next story, “The Irresistible Ogle,” is something else again.

Selah.

After many months with this volume misplaced in one of my cluttered rooms, sitting in a corner under a few other books nowhere near as well written or conceived, I finally got back to this story collection last night. It is two months more than a year after I first opened up the pages of the Kalki edition (1920) of this book, and high time that I plowed through to the end.

It is easy plowing.

“A Princess of Grub Street” is yet another story of a writer and his love life. Normally I get tired of this sort of thing — stories about writers and stories about love. But when Cabell is telling the tale, and wit and elegance are what is paraded before us, not ripped bodices or psychological confessions of an embarrassing sort. This is all very civilized.

But there is a touch of frivolity here, too, and I have to admit something that probably will not please the litterateurs: this story would make a fine “rom-com” for either the silver screen or Amazon Prime, or suchlike. Here we have a tale of Prince Hilary (nicknamed “Prince Fribble”), a young nobleman who, to escape a life of dreary service to the class of royalty and duties of state, fakes his death with the help of his heir and cousin, and flees Saxe-Kesselberg for England, to live a life of poetry, hack writing, and freedom. And of course finds love.

Taking the name of Paul Vanderhoffen, he eventually becomes a tutor to the young charge of Leamington Manor, Mildred Claridge:

Prince Fribble would have smiled, shrugged, drawled, “Eh, after all, the girl is handsome and deplorably cold-blooded!” Paul Vanderhoffen said, “I am not fit to live in the same world with her,” and wrote many verses in the prevailing Oriental style rich in allusions to roses, and bulbuls, and gazelles, and peris, and minarets — which he sold rather profitably.

But there are complications to Fribble’s plan to live a quiet life of literature and penury. A visitor from Saxe-Kesselberg demands his return to the life of ruling.

“I repeat to you,” the tutor observed, “that no consideration will ever make a grand-duke of me excepting over my dead body. Why don’t you recommend some not quite obsolete vocation, such as making papyrus, or writing an interesting novel, or teaching people how to dance a saraband? For after all, what is a monarch nowadays — oh, even a monarch of the first class?” he argued, with what came near being a squeak of indignation. “The poor man is a rather pitiable and perfectly useless relic of barbarism, now that 1789 has opened our eyes; and his main business in life is to ride in open carriages and bow to an applauding public who are applauding at so much per head. He must expect to be aspersed with calumny, and once in a while with bullets. He may at the utmost aspire to introduce an innovation in evening dress,—the Prince Regent, for instance, has invented a really very creditable shoe-buckle. Tradition obligates him to devote his unofficial hours to sheer depravity——”

Fleshed out, as I say, this would make for great filmed comedy, especially with the final moments of his courtship of Mildren, which he had not been aware he was pursuing. And yes, I would keep in the long, droll, flowery speeches.

Which is why it will not get made. Not in the Ideal Form.

The story first appeared as “Prince Fribble’s Burial” in The Red Book (May 1911).

The final tale, “The Lady of All Our Dreams,” first found public view in The Argonaut (November 23, 1912), as “The Dream.” And here we meet one of Cabell’s recurring characters, the author John Charteris, who served as the fictional mouthpiece for Cabell’s first literary manifesto, Beyond Life: Dizain des Demiurges (1919). The tale begins, after the usual Cabellian prefatory verse and fake citations, this way:

“Our distinguished alumnus,” after being duly presented as such, had with vivacity delivered much the usual sort of Commencement Address. Yet John Charteris was in reality a trifle fagged.

And so the All Passion Spent motif serves as a contrast to the passion to come. Charteris characterizes his public speechifying as a “verbal syllabub of balderdash” when confronted by his lost love, Pauline. She expresses her disappointment at what he has become, and is becoming: comfortable.

“So I am going to develop into a pig,” he said, with relish,—“a lovable, contented, unambitious porcine, who is alike indifferent to the Tariff, the importance of Equal Suffrage and the market-price of hams, for all that he really cares about is to have his sty as comfortable as may be possible. That is exactly what I am going to develop into,—now, isn’t it?” And John Charteris, sitting, as was his habitual fashion, with one foot tucked under him, laughed cheerily. Oh, just to be alive (he thought) was ample cause for rejoicing! and how deliciously her eyes, alert with slumbering fires, were peering through the moon-made shadows of her brows!”

We have here Cabell’s recurrent theme: lost love, compromise, artistic egoism, and . . . many of the themes that bubble up on consideration of Cabell’s own twice-married life, ably narrated with enough veracity in As I Remember It (1945). And always there are dreams and regret, with Charteris (Cabell) saying:

Pauline, I haven’t been entirely not worth while. Oh, yes, I know! I know I haven’t written five-act tragedies which would be immortal, as you probably expected me to do. My books are not quite the books I was to write when you and I were young. But I have made at worst some neat, precise and joyous little tales which prevaricate tenderly about the universe and veil the pettiness of human nature with screens of verbal jewelwork. It is not the actual world they tell about, but a vastly superior place where the Dream is realized and everything which in youth we knew was possible comes true. It is a world we have all glimpsed, just once, and have not ever entered, and have not ever forgotten. So people like my little tales. . . . Do they induce delusions? Oh, well, you must give people what they want, and literature is a vast bazaar where customers come to purchase everything except mirrors.

And there is even a question of a past murder — ostensibly perpetrated by Pauline herself — as there was in the biography of young Cabell.

So, I suspect if you want to find about what this author, of the famous families Branch and Cabell, was all about, this tale might be a touchstone. Note, future biographers.

And though this ends with humor, the humor — liquid, you know — flows from the reader’s eyes.

The Certain Hour ends as it begins, in poetry — it is not for nothing that it is subtitled Dizain des Poëtes in the 1920 edition, and all subsequent printings. The prefatory poem, “The Ballad of the Double Soul,” is quite good. Excellent even. But this last one, “Ballad of Plagiary,” is not quite so easy to understand, or is not as profound — or is so profound that I cannot now understand it.

Explain it to me.

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spoiler alert!

In the movie Black Panther, we are introduced to a superheroic country hidden in the snowy mountains of Africa — this is very much an H. Rider Haggard/Edgar Rice Burroughs sort of utopia. The country, called Wakanda, is technologically advanced and has been for eons, but has kept out of world affairs on the grounds that its treasure, a philosopher’s lode of a supermetal, if transported out of the region, would destabilize the world and ruin the country. So it is isolationist. Yet technocratic.

Now, much has been made of the movie’s racial politics, and it has been lauded — and prodded into the limelight — for its social justice-y elements. But what struck me about the movie was that the baseline mythos could best be described as “Wakandan exceptionalism” of an almost Trumpian sort. The antagonist of the film is a bitter, resentful African-American criminal bent on world revolution (with a special attention paid on killing “oppressors”). In fact, he talks like a “Black Panther” of days of yore (racial solidarity, revolution) and it is he who must be destroyed so the country can grow into its new role as world benefactor. So the moral arc of the story is from isolationist exceptionalism to globalist benefactor — essentially moving from Trumpism back to standard-brand 20th century American globalism, where foreign aid is parlayed as the prime diplomatic value, above revolution, militarism and trade — the latter not even getting any mention. The real-world “Black Panther” type must be put down so the mythic “Black Panther” may triumph.

There is nothing radical here. It is essentially a JFK “liberal” movie.

It also contains a quite a bit of tribalistic mysticism, and rituals of a primitive, ooga-booga type. Rather embarrassing. We are really not far from Hollywood Tarzan tropes here.

As a Marvel movie, it is of course expertly made, a technical marvel; and if, like me, you enjoy watching scantily clad bald black women kicking ass, you will find some thrills. Andy Serkis has a fun role as a mad Russian criminal mastermind.

I saw it in Astoria, Oregon, in a theater half-filled with white Americans … and no one else. (Astoria has a sizable Mexican population, but is otherwise lily-white.) I did not feel a whole lot of excitement coming from the audience — not like in the Iron Man and Captain America flicks — but no hatred, either. I have no idea how it fares elsewhere, but in this neck of the woods it does not appear to be a hit.

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N.B. The popular meme of Wakandan exceptionalism being “alt-right” is accurate, for the most part, insofar as the country is portrayed at the beginning of the movie. It is 4C6A88CB-B755-4E6B-815C-786D49F5BA10also not inaccurate to describe the country at the end of the movie, though the kingdom’s new “black man’s burden” policy would surely undermine the stalwart atavisms of its traditionalist nationalism. As with most comic-book world-building scenarios, it does not bear close examination — just as the amazon-warrior theme does not. And alt-right dreamers might note that American exceptionalism came from open borders and trade — not anything like Wakandan autarky. There is a disturbing cargo cult element to much current political fantasizing. The wealth redistributed by any real or fantasied State entity has to come from somewhere. In Black Panther, it came from outer space and lies in the ground in the form of a metal that the Wakandans mine.

I forget the name of the metal, but it is really just a McGuffin, as in the goofy, embarrassing “unobtainium” of the horrible science fiction film Atavism, I mean Avatar. I could look up the name of this fantasy material, but memory tells me that it starts with a “v,” so I just think of it as “virkkalanium.”

Philip K. Dick’s 1952 short story “Human Is” is clever. Not great. Just clever. (You can find it in the collection We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.) It is not unlike, say, a Fredric Brown story, but not as well written.* It does not present an elegiac mood, or aim for anything like the sublime. It is a rather cynical sf tale about marital discord and unhappiness. And betrayal.

But it was taken as the inspiration for Amazon Prime’s new series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, appearing as the third episode. And was it changed! Only the ending of the short story remained untampered with, quoting (adopting) about two lines verbatim.

Yes, friends, there are spoiler ahead. . . .

The short story’s basic premise — of a mean, cold bastard of a husband (Lester) going off to an alien planet, Rexor IV, and coming back changed, turned into a nice, easy-to-live with loving man — that is the same. But instead of a literalist, a scientific researcher, the show features a callous warrior (renamed Silas, played by Bryan Cranston), bent on exploiting and killing an alien race for the good of “Terra.”

The short story’s subplot about the wife’s brother and nephew, that is gone. And all the dreck of everyday life? Gone too. The change of scenery and alteration of tone from the original make the show different. Very. Instead of reading about an unloved wife whose uncharitable husband will not help an inlaw out, we see an unfulfilled and tyrannized wife — emotionally abused and domestically oppressed despite her elevation to a major official role in the futuristic sealed-off society.

Yes, in the TV show she has been turned into a professional — a government official, even. And instead of suffering neglect from the man who won’t serve as foster father, we see our heroine suffer from coldness, indifference, and even envy from her husband. Actually, he is much worse, because minatory. Yes, he threatens violence.

The show’s penultimate scene takes place in a court room, in a trial that spells the issues out very clearly, cleverly. The written story is nowhere nearly so thematically tight.

But the big change? The whole story has become politicized. The husband in the show is portrayed almost exactly as leftists see “right wingers” — eager to kill and exploit foreigners (aliens), and as being emotionally withdrawn and cruel. And since the woman is now a career woman, a leader, this makes her a feminist heroine rather than the pathetic character that Dick imagined. With the child gone, it is just the microsocial antagonism of a childless couple, not a family drama — and the show carefully evades any issue of parental feeling from her husband to his brother-in-law’s son. This excision allows our feminist heroine to be portrayed as romantically and sexually unfulfilled. The very model of a modern Ms. obsession.

Indeed, in the show, because of her husband’s lack of interest in intimacy, early on she seeks out some sad satisfaction in a far-flung-future orgy in the sterile city’s underground (yes, the teleplay writers made sure to hit every possible mythic beat). When her husband comes back transformed, changed into a cheerful, sympathetic, and very sensual sexual partner (we “get” to see Cranston’s full-rear view nude form in a lovemaking session), she defends him — chooses him — even though it has been proved that he is not her husband.

Who is he? Well, her husband’s body, possessed by an alien metamorph. Invasion of the body snatcher!

The alien is from Rexor IV — as in the original PKD story. But where in the original the husband had been a careless innocent, his soul stolen by surprise while on a solo vacation, in the show there is war, and he was the aggressor and he became a casualty. At the beginning of the show, our heroine had politically opposed her husband’s plan to kill Rexorians and steal their atmosphere (or something like that). At the end of the show, she lets the enemy, the Rexorian, not only into her society but also into her bed, ostensibly because her human husband had not been nice enough to her. Not appreciative enough.

And was a bad guy anyway.

All this is standard left-right archetypes and stock figures and bigotries. Let me spell it out:

  • The husband? The very cliché of a left winger’s idea of a conservative.
  • The wife? The leftist self-image of a feminist heroine, ill-treated by her conservative partner.
  • The Rexorian? An exploited alien (foreigner) just “fighting for its life” and perhaps justifiably attacking our military and Silas, the Cranston character.

It would be hard to imagine a clearer allegory to today’s conflict with the Muslim world. The feminist women betray conservative men because those evil conservatives are bent on defending their nation by exploiting and killing foreigners (Muslims/Rexorians); further, those feminists replace the murderous conservatives with the foreigners, going so far to bedding them . . . because the frustrated, unfulfilled feminist women will be more sexually fulfilled by the foreigners/aliens than by their fellow nationalists/Terrans.

Also present is the “right wing” fear that the enemy will infiltrate and pretend to be “one of us” but then betray us completely, taking our place — this “paranoid” fear is exactly mirrored in the television story. And, going another step even further, the right wing suspicion that the leftists will betray us, preferring the other to their own, and making cuckolds of the West’s men . . . that is very close, too — for the woman does betray Terra, and just because the alien treats her better as wife and lover.

So, the fantasies and fears of both rightists and leftists are played to. Both sides could view the story with a kind of . . . indecent? . . . pleasure. And, because the Amazon version is so artfully done, it turns out to be a beautiful, sublime story, too. Much more powerful than the original.

It is now a philosophical horror story, not just a clever little domestic drama with a cynical sci-fi surprise ending.

The wonder of it is how brazen it is, how timely. The perpetrators — I mean, writers and actors and producers — of the new drama surely know what they are up to. But why? Why do it this way? I assume that these are all left-leaning Hollywood types. The story, though with all the biases of your standard-brand Hollywood Left Coast cosmopolitan written deep into the story’s premise, and played out as the drama unfolds, in the end gives away much of the game to the right wingers. What could be worse than the Left shown as the betrayer and the enemy shown as capable of using elaborate deception? And all because the leftist woman demands love she is not getting at home.

First world problems leading to the conquest of that world by the Third.

She even goes as far as cuckolding the Right in the end. In a sort of Gertrude-and-Claudius way.

A cautionary tale — an apocalypse! — indeed.

Ah, the culture wars. All-too-human, is.

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* Dick’s science fiction short stories, at least the early ones, are not very artful on the sentence level — his realistic novels were far more carefully crafted. The short stories are also rather tawdry, as are many of the science fiction novels, filled with the dreck of everyday domestic conflict.

N.B. I wrote the above before reading anyone else’s criticism. And now, as I clean this up, I flit around the net and find appraisals that do not go very far. And not a few just show the insipid shallowness of modern feminism.

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.

twv

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?

twv

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

twv

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