Friday, 16 November 2018

"Lodg'd in me Useless": An Analysis of John Milton's "On His Blindness"

Many poems have the unfortunate virtue of using their final lines to beautify a platitude. It does not matter that the preceding lines do their best to undermine the platitude; those who read a poem only once, and never closely, remember the diamond at the end, never realising it’s a zircon. The most infamous example is Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled”, which is, bluntly, about a road equally travelled. A less famous example is the closing lines of John Milton’s “On His Blindness”:
‘… Thousands at His bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.’
This pretty sentiment is comforting, but, to wise people like Milton, comfort is always uncomfortably held. That despite his disability he does all that he is able, that he gives God all that God asks, that God will bless his stillness, the narrator does not know.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day labour, light deny’d,
I fondly ask; but patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

On a surface reading, the narrator of “On His Blindness” comes to accept his limits. He is rueful that he lost a ‘Talent’, but realises that all talents are equally superfluous to a self-sufficient God. God judges each of his children according to their own abilities, however impaired.

This is not what the poem is about.

Read closer and consolation falters. The reader notices that the platitude is not spoken by God, nor by the author, but by ‘patience’. Patience is not a virtue of truth; it is a virtue of endurance. Patience only aims ‘to prevent / That murmur’, not to prove the murmur groundless.
God demands no more than you are able. That, however, is the narrator’s worry: Is he doing all he is able? When he had sight, he wasted his powers. ‘That one Talent which is death to hide’ references the Parable of the Talents:

‘… a man travelling into a far country … delivered unto [his servants] his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one … and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents … His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant … He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant … Then he which had received the one talent came …  His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant … cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness …’    (Matthew 25:14-30 AKJV)

This is not a parable of a man who is excused for making nothing with nothing. This is a parable of a man who had something and did nothing with it. In the context of the poem, the narrator realises that when he had his sight, he ‘spent’ it wastefully, yielding no return. Now that he is blind, he fears he wastes his remaining talents.

‘They also serve who only stand and waite’ is obvious hyperbole. Being blind does not reduce you to standing and waiting. (Milton, for instance, wrote Paradise Lost while blind.) The hyperbole is, on first reading, rhetorical, not meant to be taken literally, and yet when taken literally, the hyperbole reveals the narrator’s dissatisfaction with his own efforts. He can do more than stand and wait. Why isn’t he speeding over ‘Land and Ocean without rest’?

The narrators fears his ‘milde yoak’ has broken him, not from its weight, but from his own weakness. When he could see, he wasted his sight. Now that he is blind, he fears – he knows – his remaining powers are lodg’d in him useless.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

"How Long You Dilly-Dallied Before Reaching Maturity": Looking at Franz Kafka's "The Judgement" (1912)

Georg Bendemann, the protagonist of Kafka’s “The Judgement”, thinks he’s a grown up. He runs the family firm, he is engaged to a woman with both looks and money, he has a place in his community. Georg has all the apparel of maturity, quite unlike his ‘overgrown schoolboy’ of a friend, who moved to Russia to start a business, who aimed high and crashed low. Georg, however, is not mature. Kafka smears his protagonist’s face in this fact. Georg is still under the thumb of his aging father: Georg is still a child. 

Monday, 9 July 2018

A Victim of Short-Lived Ambition: A Review of "The Knight of the Swords: The First Book of Corum" by Michael Moorcock

I will not be judging The Knight of the Swords as an adventure story. ‘But why?’ you ask. ‘It’s a cheap fantasy paperback. What did you expect? Depth!?’ To which the answer is: Yes. I expected depth not just because of the fawning pull-quotes on my edition*, not just because Moorcock is called a genius of fantasy fiction and 20th Century literature. I expected depth because the novel’s first act starts to interrogate racism and the nature of mass murder. It starts to say something, and, before the first act ends, it shuts up.

Prince Corum’s elven race, the Vadhagh, have holed up in their castles to spend their centuries of life studying abstract scholarship and art. Bid by his worried father to check on their relatives, Corum is the first to leave his family’s castle in centuries. During those centuries, the race of Mabden (homo sapiens) have risen, a race that the Vadhagh thought were mere animals. Rushing from Vadhagh castle to Vadhagh castle, Corum finds that each has been sacked and massacred by the Mabden warlord Gladyth-a-Krae, who vows to slaughter every member of the Vadhagh race. After Corum has a hand amputated, and an eye gouged out, he vows vengeance on the whole Mabden race. And then Corum finds some nice Mabden, falls in love with a Mabden aristocratic at first sight, fights a battle, and then sets out to fight a demon lord. (I have abridged the last two-thirds of the novel.)

When I say the novel shows signs it will explore racism and genocide, those signs are not the Mabden genocide of the Vadhagh. If that was it, I would no more expect The Knight of the Swords to explore genocide than I would expect Star Wars to explore Eastern philosophy. The novel creates false hopes for the novel’s depth by depicting the Vadhagh themselves as having a racist worldview conducive to mass murder. This irony intrigues the reader. This intrigue disappoints the reader.

Moorcock knows how to use dark topics as mere set-dressing, making sure the reader does not expect profound investigations of these topics. In his post-apocalyptic Hawkmoon series, the hero resists the expansion of the evil empire of Granbretan (Read: Great Britain). The reader never expects Hawkmoon to comment on imperialism because the enemy in the book is literally called an ‘evil empire’. The lords of Granbretan are evil, and their capital is a decadent and depraved Pandemonium on Earth. They want a universal empire because that is what evil lords think they are owed. They spread it through massacres because that is what evil imperialists do. Hawkmoon does not begin to interrogate the real life motivations and rationalisations of imperialists, it does not begin to seriously examine life under colonial rule, and because it does not begin, I feel no irritation that it does not continue. The Knight of the Swords does begin.

Before you can kill a people, you must convince yourself that they are not really people. Hatred is not sufficient. When the leader of the Mabden marauders, Gladyth, is asked why he kills Vadhagh, he says: ‘We hate your sorcery. We loathe your superior airs.’ This hatred is a rationalisation. More importantly, however, there is dehumanisation. Earlier, an unallied Mabden villager explains that Gladyth’s clan believes the Vadhagh are ‘evil’, and they call Vadhagh by a word which means ‘fiend’. These Mabden dehumanise the Vadhagh by calling them as demons. The Vadhagh also dehumanise the Mabden. Supposedly a scientific and rational race, the Vadhagh view the Mabden as less than human, indeed, they think Mabden literally are animals. To the Vadhagh, the Mabden do not travel in armies, but ‘herds’. They do not invade: they ‘infest’. When rumours arrive that Mabden have captured and slaughtered a Vadhagh castle, it is described as if insects had swarmed through. Before their murders, the only Mabden Corum’s family has seen is a woman they had ‘placed in the menageries where it was cared for well, but it lived little more than fifty years and when it died was never replaced.’ This is the best line in the novel because it captures that hatred is not necessary to completely dehumanise others. They make this woman a zoo animal, which they ‘care for well’. Even if the Vadhagh would not resort to killing Mabden, you can see how their dehumanising view of them could rationalise ‘controlling’ the Mabden population.

When Corum sees his whole race massacred, he adjoins hatred to his dehumanising outlook. ‘Corum had learned, as an animal learns, that the Mabden were his enemies.’ This is not a vengeance that limits itself to a band of marauders, but by identifying a race with a band of marauders, Corum’s targets a whole race. Even when his life is saved by a Mabden, Corum says:
‘… but Mabden you are. There are so many of you. And now, I find, there are even varieties. I suspect you share common traits …’
He says ‘varieties’ as if he were discussing different breeds of rat. He suggests that he cannot be convinced that there exist good Mabden.

But he is convinced. He realises that you shouldn’t make hasty generalisations about a race based on the actions of a few members, no matter how abhorrent those actions are. This would be a potentially compelling character arc, if it had occurred over the course of the novel, rather than wrapping itself up before the first act is done, rather than resolving the character’s internal conflict a dozen or so pages after the conflict is introduced. (Corum does have a character arc over the rest of the novel, but it’s something about learning his place in the battle between the Lords of Chaos and the Lords of Law, or maybe it’s about fighting fate. It’s not very interesting.)

I do believe Moorcock intended that the Vadhagh have a racist worldview. If his essay “Starship Stormtroopers”, published only six years after this novel, is anything to go by, Moorcock could certainly spot signifiers of far-right ideology in s-and-f adventure novels. If he did not intend the Vadhagh to be racist, I believe he would have spotted how racist he accidently made them, and then would have edited those bits out. Why he started down this thematic path only to ignore it, I will only briefly speculate on. The first and second halves of this seem to be two different storylines. The first half is what I have elaborated; the second half is Corum being sent on a quest by an immortal science-wizard to steal the disembodied heart of a Lord of Chaos. That second half does seem a lot more like a conventional fantasy adventure story. I imagine he didn’t want to weigh down his escapism with philosophising.  

The lesson is: if you start, finish, and if you don’t finish, clear up all evidence that you ever started. I would be less harsh on this novel if I didn’t see that initial thematic ambition. I probably would have said very little about the novel, but I would have been less harsh. Corum is an escapist fantasy story that promised to be more.

*A pull-quote from Angus Wilson that sets a bar the novel never passes:
‘No one at the moment in England is doing more to break down the artificial divisions that have grown up in novel writing – realism, surrealism, science fiction, historical fiction, social satire, the poetic novel – than Michael Moorcock’
Only later did I notice that neither this nor any of my edition’s hagiographic pull-quotes mentions the book they’re appearing on.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Even Shakespeare's Not Perfect: A Review of 'Timon of Athens' by William Shakespeare

Even geniuses need to redraft. Shakespeare was a jobbing writing, so I imagine he had to pick his creative battles, and Timon of Athens was not one of them. Narrative rules of thumb exist for a reason. Rules such as: ‘If you have a character arc, don’t give the first half to one character and the second half to another.’ If you start a play with a character learning to hate all humanity because a few people have wronged him, and you end the play with a character learning to put his hate away when he realises that those few people don’t equal all humanity, then you should ensure they are the same character. And if you are going to have a character realise that not all people are despicable, you should obey the parroting of creative writing manuals, and show us these non-despicable people, rather than just telling us they exist.
There is a rich Athenian called Timon, who gives much charity, gifts, and feasts. He is popular. It has slipped Timon’s mind that he’s paying for these charities, gifts, and feasts with debt. Because Athens has no credit rating authority, Timon’s creditor’s come calling long after he’s lost all ability to repay them. Believing his past beneficiaries will become his present benefactors, Timon asks his friends to bail him out. They refuse, given it is a very large debt, which is primarily his fault. After throwing rocks at his ‘mouth-friends’, he moves to a forest, where he moans about how terrible people are to every passer-by. Meanwhile, an Athenian general called Alcibiades tries to appeal the death sentence of a friend who killed a man in a pub fight. Alcibiades is refused, banished, and so decides to bring an army to destroy Athens. Meanwhile, Timon dies off-stage. In the end, two senators surrender to Alcibiades, and convince him not to kill everyone.            

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Creative Destruction: An Exegesis of Friedrich Nietzsche's 'David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer' (1873 essay)

Friedrich Nietzsche’s David Strauss, the Confessor and the Writer is not really about David Strauss. The polemic’s target is first mentioned ten pages in, and nowhere in the introduction. Nietzsche’s focus is the difference between productive thinking and lazy thinking, or in his terms, the difference between ‘culture’ and ‘cultural philistinism’. The cultural mind seeks to improve itself, to seek that which is good outside of itself, and weed out that which is bad within itself. The cultural philistine’s mind, however, believes it does not need to improve itself, for everything within itself is good, and thus needs no weeding, while everything outside itself is misguided, and thus deserves no seeking.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Rhetoric of Mass Murder: An Analysis of 'Fantastic Planet / La Planate Sauvage' (1973 animation)

Content Warning: Discussion of genocide; full plot details

Some works of art aim only to leave the audience with a feeling. Characters, story, aesthetic, all elements become secondary and instrumental to producing a state of mind. Fantastic Planet is about genocide, and, more strikingly, the mindset needed to commit genocide. The film guides the audience to, for even one small moment, adopt this mindset, and then realise with horror how easily they adopted it.

On the planet Ygam, the gigantic Draags treat Oms (humans) as animals. The Draags either keep Oms as pets or exterminate them as vermin. One pet, named Terr, flees into the alien wilds, dragging behind him a Draag education headset. Finding a ‘wild’ Om tribe, he gives them the Draag headset, allowing Oms the knowledge to escape Draag oppression.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

When Conscience Slept: An Analysis of 'Purple Noon/Plein Soleil' (1960 Film)

Spoiler Warning: This will reveal the entire plot of the film, and by extension the plot of the source material, The Talented Mr Ripley

Purple Noon is a work of amoral art. A rare film that playfully imposes judgement on its characters and events, not even on its central murderer and identity thief, Tom Ripley. Any praise or blame you may direct at Tom is very much your own morality, your own judgement, cast like a pebble to skim on an uncaring sea.

Tom Ripley wants what Phillipe Greenleaf’s got: money, luck, a life of leisure in Italy, and a beautiful, if too forgiving, fiancĂ©, Marge. Of all the men in the world to be so blessed, why did it have to be the self-centered, cruel Phillipe. Tom seems fine, basking in the spillover of Phillipe’s decadence. But then, on a boat trip with Phillipe and Marge, things take a turn. After Phillipe and Marge get into a fight, she disembarks at the docks. Tom and Phillipe sail off alone. Phillipe’s luck runs out. Tom doesn’t just want Phillipe’s money, he wants it all. Tom stabs him in the chest, and throws him to the sea. Tom steps into Phillipe’s emptied life. He forges signatures, passports, and romances Marge. Living with Phillipe’s name and money, Tom gets by swimmingly, until one of Phillipe’s friends, Freddie Miles, realizes the man living at ‘Phillipe’s’ apartment is not Phillipe. Tom bludgeons Freddie with a stone buddha. Even this second murder doesn’t sink Tom. To ensure his good life, Tom steps back into his old identity, but not before sending Phillipe’s ‘suicide note’ and all of Phillipe’s money to Marge, and trying to marry Marge. Tom lays in a deck chair, safe in the knowledge the law has no lead on him. And Tom would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for Phillipe’s corpse getting stuck to the hull of the boat Tom was trying to sell.