Sunday, September 30, 2018

The End of The End

 The End - 
My Struggle 
Volume 6 
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Before starting this essay, I eat a crumpet.

The Marmite tastes salty. Salty Marmite. We used to have Marmite for breakfast when I was a child. Granddad called it rat's poison. He died. 

I am also going to have a mouthful of coffee. It is in a red cup. The coffee is warm and coffee coloured and tastes of coffee. There is a granual floating on the surface. It makes me think of a drowning refugee child or that old joke about the soup. I wonder if the Moors Murderers ever drank soup?

This is my essay. I am writing it now.


Strange that in the era of social media and limited attention spans, the novel everyone is talking about runs to six volumes and is stuffed full of philosophy and literature and art history, all translated from the original Norwegian.

But perhaps it is not that strange. My Struggle  (yes, I know) is essentially a seven million character Tweet: a macro blog in the age of micro-blogging. It is the tangible remains of hours spent at the keyboard recalling the details of day-to-day existence: what Karl Ove had for supper (prawns, probably); how many cups of coffee he drunk (dozens, on the balcony mostly, with a cigarette); what Karl Ove said when he settled his three little children down in front of Bolibompa (Norwegian Tellytubbies?) — yet prone to shoot off at any moment into thoughts about God and identity and the holocaust and the terrible burdens of being an artist.

For every passage which reads like this:

We hold the absolute at bay, firstly by levelling down the bigness of our existence, that which has to do with the very boundaries of life and materiality, to the commonplace, addressing the issues that concern us all, the great collective, mankind, only in the quotidian; secondly by ritualising the absolute in an unreal world of images: death is to us not the physical death of the body, but the figurative death, as it occurs in images, in the same way as violence is not physical violence, but figurative violence.

There is one which reads like this:

I snatched two packets of red sausages, the ones with the highest meat content, something I had suddenly and rather neurotically become obsessed by after someone at the nursery made me realise there were big differences from brand to brand, then dropped a bag of hot-dog buns into the basket along with a regular loaf, a bag of coffee, the dark-roast French blend I’d settled for after six months of experimentation and had since stuck to, a litre of milk, a litre of yoghurt, a six-pack of beer, toilet paper, and a packet of four bars of soap, seeing as how we had visitors and they probably washed their hands more than we did, and finally three ice creams.

The first volumes were written quite slowly, the culmination of a long period of writers' block during which Karl Ove went from being the most promising Norwegian novelist of his generation to the person journalists phoned up if they wanted to do a feature on one-book authors. But this final volume is written against the clock. His first manuscript ran to 1,200 pages, so his publisher suggested putting it out in twelve monthly installments of a hundred pages each. "If you are going to do that anyway" said Karl Ove "Can I expand it to 6,000 pages?" So this final volume is full of a sense of urgency and spontaneity and desperation and the need to keep on going; like a sort of high class NaNoWriMo.

Karl Ove has read more books than I have had Ikea Meatballs. While working flat out to finish this volume he is also working on a new Norwegian translation of the Bible. He doesn't believe in God but isn't sure quite how we are going to get along without Him. Although it can veer into the preposterously over-written — I am told the translation accurately reflects the original Norwegian, warts and all — he is so damn knowledgeable about nearly everything that he can hardly fail to be interesting. If he is going to talk about Abraham and Isaac — and since the whole epic is kind of about his father, he is more or less bound to talk about Abraham and Isaac sooner or later — then you can be sure he has studied his Kierkegaard and his Freud and his Girard before he begins to type.

But his real genius lies in descriptions of ordinary life; what he calls, over and over again until you want to throw the book across the room, the quotidian. (It is a very large book.)

It is easy to poke fun at this sort of thing. Here is Karl Ove making yet another cup of coffee: 

Impatiently I lifted the kettle before the water had started to bubble, and the crescendo of noise was interrupted and replaced by a soft murmur as the coffee rose inside the cup, at first a golden brown from the powder, visible as an earthy clump at the bottom, until over the next few seconds it completely dissolved and the surface became an impenetrable black with some lighter-coloured froth at the edges.

But this obsession with trivial detail is essential to the project. It is what makes you feel that you are inside Karl Ove's head; inside his life; inside his underpants. I am a slow reader and I found myself gobbling down these domestic disasters and private embarrassments in hundred page chunks.

One extended passage in this volume describes a disastrous holiday at a tourist resort in Gran Canaria. (Or perhaps it describes an idyllic, expensive holiday in a resort which Karl Ove cynically and snobbishly despises?) In one mercilessly specific episode Karl Ove and his wife agree to go on a free excursion without realizing that someone is going to try to sell them an expensive time-share. It literally felt like being there; it made me feel agonizingly embarrassed on behalf of  the characters; scared to turn the page in case Karl Ove really is persuaded to phone his mother to ask her to guarantee the loan. (Does this embarrassment and identification depend on my knowing that Karl Ove is real and this really happened: or would I have cared just as much if it had been two made-up people I was reading about?) The long description concludes:

‘Me too,’ Linda said. ‘Imagine you actually considering buying a timeshare!’
‘Yes, it’s unbelievable. But the worst is that I didn’t twig. I didn’t twig what was happening until afterwards! But you did, right?’
‘Yes. I wondered what you were up to.’
‘I was taken in hook, line and sinker....
Linda laughed.
‘Yes, go on, laugh,’ I said. ‘We won’t breathe a word of this to anyone, OK?’

"We won't breathe a word of this to anyone."

Karl Ove does a lot of mildly stupid things. He takes on an allotment he is never going to be able to manage, and then can't sell. He allows his wife to make her own way back to the psychiatric hospital after he has been specifically told not to. He does much stupider things too, when he is younger, like self-harming and glassing his brother and cheating on his wife. The sort of thing you wouldn't normally breathe a word to anyone about. 

It would be misleading to describe the book (as some people have) as an enormously erudite soap opera, a conjuring trick in which you are forced to care about Karl Ove's football practice and Heidi's ice cream cone by sheer weight of detail. It does that, certainly. The quotidian minutiae (you see, it's catching) make it the best and funniest account of what it's like to be a hands-on Dad as you are likely to read. But that's not really what the book is about. 

In volume two or three — I am certainly not going to look it up — Karl Ove is visiting Paris and lays a wreath on the grave of Marcel Proust. Which can only elicit the response from the reader "Son, you're no Marcel Proust." My Struggle and In Search of Lost Time are both very long books, and they are both full of the details of ordinary life; although Marcel spends more time attending exquisite dinner parties and admiring beautiful scenery and less time making coffee. But Proust is writing about consciousness and memory, about reconciling the subjective world with objective reality. Knausgaard is much more about the process of writing. Like Proust he makes connections and linkages and wild digressions. We go from the quarrel with his Uncle and the realization that he is going to have to disguise the names of some of the real people in the book to a discourse on the significance of Names in general, to a long critique of a poem by Paul Celan. (Pity the poor translator, offering an English version of a Norwegian. close reading of a German poet!) But these links are links which occur to him on the page, while he is writing. He doesn't know what he is going to say until he starts to say it.

So the enormously long canonical text of which The End most reminded me was not In Search of Lost Time or Ulysses but Don Quixote. You remember how volume two is very largely about the consequences of publishing volume one; about how the anonymous knight has become a public figure; about how his life is now being read, misunderstood and contested by strangers? That's what this feels like. An enormous book which turns out to be an account of its own coming into being.

The structure of My Struggle emerges only gradually: in the first volume, we see Karl Ove arranging his father's funeral and clearing the house where he was living at the time of his death; the second volume shows us Karl Ove as a Daddy himself. Only in the third book do we see his relationship with his father and start to understand why he is writing all this down. By the end of Volume Five he is a published author, struggling to begin his next book. Volume Six begins with the first volume of My Struggle already written and about to go to press. So he has to show it to his friends and family. And, astonishingly, they don't like it.

There is nothing you can say about Knausgaard which he hasn't already said about himself. I went to hear him give a talk in London last month to launch the English translation of the final volume, I was surprised at how pleasant and self-effacing and urbane he was: how patiently he answered the audience's doubtless very predictable questions. I had imagined that the craggy man on the cover would be distant and a little frightening.

But here his is in the last pages of The End:

It is therefore as though I can only be warm and sincere in front of a group of strangers and not with kith and kin. That is why what I do is a kind of trick. When I am sitting on the stage talking to an audience there is a great distance. I can manage that and appear close and warm.

When I queued up for him to sign my copy after the talk (and no, gentle reader, there is no other contemporary writer whose signature I would wait an hour for) I wanted to say something. So I said that it seemed strange to be standing in the same room as Karl Ove Knausgaard; that it felt as if I was meeting a character from a novel. Does that make sense? "Yes it does," he said politely and did one of those squiggles that pass for authors' signatures. But here he is in the last volume:

‘Actually we’re all characters in a novel sitting around this table,’ Yngve said.
‘That’s true,’ Asbjørn laughed.
‘We should set up a web page for characters in a novel so that we can discuss our experiences,’ Yngve said.
‘I can be the moderator,’ I said.

The first question anyone asks is whether the book is true of fictionalized; the second is how he can possibly justify writing about his late father, his kids, his wife and his ex- in such detail. And there we have pretty much the entire text of this final volume, which pretty much justifies the entire three thousand page construct. Not so much a book, more an experiment. Not the literary equivalent of a Tweet, after all: more the literary equivalent of Big Brother. The previous volumes are about being a Dad and a student and a teacher; this final volume is about being a writer who has committed himself to writing a 1200 page book in time for a deadline. The previous five volumes have told us everything in horrible, intimate, fascinating detail: This double sized final issue is about a man who has already told everybody everything and what that feels like.

People say things on Twitter and are surprised by the firestorms they set off. Sometimes firestorms which only effect Twitter and are meaningless outside that sub-culture; sometimes firestorms which have tangible effects on real people in the real world. Karl Ove seems astonished by the storm his macroblog unleashes; as if somehow he expected his family and friends to be happy with him publishing the intimate details of their lives because it was all true. His uncle reads the book and more or less accuses him of a hate crime. That's what the first half of this volume is about. Karl Ove eats prawns and takes the kids to the beach, but mostly all the time he's worried about whether his uncle is going to sue him. His wife reads the book, and finds out that he's cheated on her with other women. He never told her: she finds out when she reads the manuscript. She spends several weeks in a mental hospital, while he takes the children to kindergarten and drinks coffee and promotes the book. (She was probably bipolar so the book probably didn't literally cause the breakdown but it presumably didn't help.) He feels guilty; he feels sorry. He disguises some of the names. He cuts some passages. But he won't back down from the book. Telling the truth (the truth about where he buys his breakfast cereal and when he first learned to masturbate, and what rock bands he likes) is some kind of moral obligation.

And then there is the middle section. 

Desperately worried that his Uncle is going to sue him, stop the book being published, ruin his life, and desperately wanting to reach the end of this monstrous undertaking, Karl Ove writes a meticulously researched biography of Adolf Hitler.

We see the point, of course. Hitler's life is probably the most well-documented of any human being who ever lived; but at the same time his life is more than usually unrecoverable. It is impossible to find out what Hitler was like before he became Hitler just because we know he is going to become Hitler. For what it's worth, Karl Ove thinks that prior to the first world war Hitler was not very different from a lot of young men and aspiring artists. But it's the journey that's the point; the very idea of putting a 400 page historical essay in the middle of an autobiographical novel. Do we know what Karl Over Knausgaard was like before he became Karl Ove Knausgaard? Before his name became an adjective and his face became a logo? And if not, how does anyone ever know anyone?


It is ten in the morning. I have finished writing my review. I am no longer writing it. For two weeks now I have been getting up early and writing from as soon after 7pm as I can manage for as long as I can manage, until I have to go to the library or need breakfast. My flat is quiet and I feel as if I am being virtuous but also as if I am somehow playing truant. I remember at infant school when two little girls bunked off for an afternoon on a dare. They left the school and sat in the park for a few minutes; I think playing at being Enid Blyton characters more than anything else. The teachers knew perfectly well what had happened but pretended to be very worried and called the police to give the rest of us a scare. I suppose if they had been boys they would have been smacked. I was in Miss Griffiths' class. There were Gerbils in the corner by the book shelf. They died. 

I walk across my study to the toilet and notice that there are two plates and four cups on my desk: three containing undrunk half cups of coffee and one containing an undrunk half cup of Twinings jasmine tea, purchased from Tescos in a little green box. There were demonstrations when Tescos opened, riots even, and for years I wouldn't use it. There is also a plate on the floor, with a smear of Marmite on it, next to a pair of pink suspenders which I bought partly because they were eccentric and partly to keep my trousers up. Suspenders are more comfortable than belts, but you have to wear a jacket or a waistcoat or leave your shirt untucked. I suppose you could wear them outside your shirt, but then you would look like a violent American blue collar worker, or a children's entertainer, or a comedy policeman.

Anyone can type this kind of shit. Once you start with the trivial detail, there is no end to it, the tangled white headphones to my left, the big black letter edition of Spider-Man to my right, the dog-eared Douglas Adams in the left hand corner of my desk by the pot of pens which I took off the shelf to look up the quote for the Brexit essay and never put back. I don't write with pens any more.

It was C.S Lewis who said that writing was about structure and that stream of consciousness was merely a puddle, even if it was a puddle that contained very fine raw materials.

My Struggle gives the impression of rambling and going off at tangents but it is highly structured and full of artifice. It differs from Proust in one important respect. When I got to the end of, In Search of Lost Time, which I am very proud to say I did, I breathed a sigh of release and knew I would never read it again. When I got to the end of The End, I wanted to go back to A Death in the Family and experience the whole thing all over again.

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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Sausages or Dog Shit?

"I checked it very thoroughly" said the computer "And that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is." 

The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy

I have almost nothing to say about Brexit. And here it is.

To start with, it's a silly word. So let's put quotation marks around it. "Brexit". 

Foreigners sometimes ask "Why are you doing it? Why is Britain -- England -- seceding from the European Union? Why would a tiny little country say that it doesn't need the great big continental mainland and can do perfectly well all on its own?" 

I reply "We are doing it because the bin-men all went on strike in 1979." 

That isn't the whole truth, of course. We are also doing it because the leader of the opposition made a poor decision about his wardrobe on a cold Autumn day in 1981. And because a South American dictator launched an expedition against the last few acres of the British Empire in 1982. 

The suicidal 2016 European referendum was simply the logical end point of a right-wing slope which Britain has been sliding down since before I was allowed to vote. There have been individual progressive victories since 1979, of course, but all the ideological ground has been conceded to the Right. I do not think that The People are any less socialist or any more conservative than they were in 1945. Many of The People think that paying taxes to pay for hospitals is a good idea. But then they always have done. They don't call it Marxism, they call it Fairness or Sharing. On the other paw, many of The People don't see why they should give so much of their hard-earned wages to the Government to fritter away. But many of the People have always thought that, too. God knows, no-one ever won an argument. We simply all agreed to take it for granted that The Left were funny and unpatriotic and silly. It would be political suicide for any politician to talk about socialism or the redistribution of wealth or anything more radical than Sure Start nursery schools. That kind of talk will bring the country to a standstill (winter of discontent, winter of discontent) and anyway it's insulting to our glorious dead (donkey jacket, donkey jacket.) 

"Brexit" is simply the latest move by the Right to wind back the post-war-Liberal-Consensus. "Brexit" is not a political theory you are persuaded of, but a holy mystery you are initiated into. "Brexit" is "Brexit"! Question ye not the details of "Brexit"! Have faith in "Brexit"! For the faithful, the endgame is not trade deals with former imperial colonies outside of the European free trade zone. It is not even bendy passports and blue bananas. The prize which is now within reach is a gallows in Wandsworth prison, a cane in every classroom, and the Black and White Minstrels on the television.

That is the answer to your next question. I do not think that Tony Blair was no different from Margaret Thatcher. I do not think Tony Blair was no different from David Cameron. I do not even think that Centrism leads necessarily to egomania and wars fought on the basis of personal intuition. The fact that we had a crazy Centrist Prime Minister doesn't prove that Centrism drives you crazy. Blair did some liberal things and some illiberal things. But I do not support Centrists even when they come bearing gifts. Centrism doesn't halt the slide to the right. Centrism doesn't want to halt the slide to the right. Centrism says we're moving in the right direction but going a bit too quickly. I support Jeremy Corbyn because he is the first politician in my lifetime who would, in power, start to move things (slowly, tentatively, sensibly) back to the Left. I would not follow some hypothetical Centrist Messiah because he happened to be an Anti-"Brexit"-Centrist-Messiah. Those kinds of pacts are never a good idea. Christopher Marlowe wrote a very good play about that kind of thing. 

I do not think it is possible to stop "Brexit". I think that the best we can hope for is a "Brexit" that does as little harm as possible; a form of words which allows us to tell the referendum cultists "You see, we did come out of Europe; 'Brexit' did mean 'Brexit' after all" while retaining some semblance of a functional economy. "Brexit" in name only, as the fellow said. That appears to be what both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are working towards. Because neither of them are lunatics. 

I do not support a second referendum.  The best option would be not to have had a referendum in the first place. 

The second best option would have been for the sane side of the argument to have said "We deny the legitimacy of this Referendum. Referenda are not how parliamentary democracies work. We regard Referendums as purely advisory. We will not necessarily abide by the results."

The third best option would have been for the sane side to have fought a decent and compelling referendum campaign and put the issue to bed for another 43 years. But that's a problem because the sane side is always going to feel boring and wriggly and evasive where the mad side is always going to sound dynamic and exciting and committed. The sane side will always come out sounding like that slimy lawyer who keeps saying "Objection, your honour" and trying to introduce pedantic little facts into the argument, where the mad side is quite free to shout "Millions of Turks flooding through the channel tunnel! Give us back our conkers." 

But we decided not to go with any of the sensible options, and we are where we are. 

Once you have jumped off a cliff, your options are severely limited. This is the main reason that jumping off cliffs is widely regarded as not being a great idea. The choice, as I see it, is between growing a pair of wings and reversing gravity, or facing the fact that we are going to be hitting the ground relatively soon and doing something to mitigate the bump. 

Jeremy Corbyn is a sensible man and sensible people sometimes change their minds. He is also a sensible politician and sensible politicians sometimes do what the majority of their party want them to do, even though they would rather have done something else. So it is possible that, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow (the day after that would be a bit too late) Jeremy might say something like this. 

"As you know, I supported 'remain' because although I think that the EU is flawed, I think that we should remain members and try and fix the flaws. And as you know, when 'leave' won the referendum by a small majority, I said that we should abide by the result but work towards a 'Brexit' that does as little harm as possible. But I have listened to you members who elected me, and I am very happy to change my mind and say that we should try and halt the whole process. Accordingly, we will fight the next election with a clear manifesto commitment to reverse article 50, and with a clear set of principles about the reforms and improvements we want to push for."

This would be sensible, pragmatic and democratic. It would also be politically suicidal. The press would crucify him. The Labour leavers would defect to UKIP. The Labour remainers would say that he didn't really mean it. The BBC would say it was all about the Jews. Labour would lose the election; the cause of socialism would be lost for the next 40 years; and the Tory hard right and the Labour Centrists would see themselves as vindicated. 

Scenarios in which Corbyn steps aside and Chuka Umunna fights the next election on a Remain platform; or in which Tony Blair returns from the Isle of Avalon in a swan-shaped barge crash into the same rocks. They wouldn't win.

I would very much like a socialist Labour Party to fight the next election on an anti-"Brexit" platform and for them to romp home with an overwhelming majority. I would also very much like a unicorn. 

So then: the last best hope is a Second Referendum. 

I don't believe in The People; I just believe in people. I don't believe that there is such a thing as The Will of the People; I just believe that people have opinions, different ones, some good some bad, some sensible, some silly. I don't believe that a vote taken on one particular day can possibly have the kind of Scriptural force that the "Brexit" fundamentalists ascribe to it. But if you treat referendums as really, really, big, really, really, expensive opinion polls, then they are obviously of some value. They force the government to engage with what Public Opinion actually is, as opposed to what they think it is or would like it to be. 

The really, really big opinion poll which we had on 23 June 2016 told us that slightly less than a third of the population agreed with Europe, slightly more than a third of the population disagreed with Europe, and slightly less than a third of cats who expressed a preference didn't express a preference either way. 

The People Spoke, and The People Said "We don't know."

If the referendum had been about abolishing Prince Charles, it would certainly have come out with seventy or eighty per cent saying "Gawd Bless Your Royal Highness" with the balance split between "Orf With His Head" and "I'm sorry, why are we even talking about this?" When the Irish asked the people about legalizing abortion, it went two thirds "Yes we should " and one third "No we shouldn't" which might not be overwhelming but is pretty decisive. The Irish wrote into their Constitution that you have to have a Referendum to Amend that Constitution; and they know exactly what Amendment they are voting on before they vote. We haven't even got as far as having a Constitution yet.

Please, please don't call it a People's Referendum. That makes it sound as if the last one was a kangeroos' referendum. It also makes it sound as if we believe in the daft idea that there is a thing called The People who have a thing called a Will, which is what got us into this mess to begin with. Let us rather call it the Purely Advisory Referendum Which Will Allow The Government To Accurately Gage Public Opinion Before Making Their Own Decision Which They Will Take Full Responsibility For. 

Having had one Bloody Stupid Referendum, there is no objection in principal to having a Second Bloody Stupid Referendum. The True Believers will say "I suppose you are going to ask over and over until you get the right answer?" To which I reply "Yes, and if the first answer was manifestly stupid, then asking again and again until you get a sensible one is obviously the right thing to do." 

"Do you want sausages or dog poo for your supper." 
"Dog poo." 
"No, listen, I am going to ask you again, sausages or dog poo?" 
"Dog poo." 
"I am going to ask you one last time, do you want sausage or dog poo?" 

"Are you sure you want to go through with this?" is not a ridiculous question to ask before making a big decision. I believe that is how they treat euthanasia patients in jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal. They don't say "I am sorry, you have booked your ticket to Switzerland, now we have to kill you." They, say, at each stage of the process "Are you quite sure about this?" I believe about a third of people get as far as the clinic and then decide to carry on being alive after all. I am sorry to have used such a morbid metaphor. If I need another one I will go back to the dog shit.

So, the question is, what is the question? 

We could rerun the 2016 vote and see if The People have come to their collective senses. (Clue: They haven't.) 

"Three years ago we asked you if you wanted to Leave the European Union or Remain in the European Union. Because this is such an important question, we are giving you the opportunity to change your mind: 

𐄂Carry on as we are and LEAVE the European Union.
𐄂Revoke article 50 if they will let us and REMAIN in the European Union." 

But we already know that the country is split down the middle on the issue, and the result will be 50/50 plus or minus 5% either way. If Leave gets 55% again, we're stuffed. If Remain gets 55% this time, then we have two advisory votes, one narrowly saying "Jump" and another one narrowly saying "Don't Jump". I suppose we could average them out and do nothing. (Do you remember that bit in Dune where Paul can see all the possible outcomes of all his actions, and all the possible outcomes of all those outcomes, on to infinity, and decides to do nothing at all, and realizes that that's still a choice, with its own consequences?) Those of us who enjoy political schadenfreude would get to see the Leavers saying "But the vote was too narrow to mean anything" and the Remainers saying "You lost! Get over it".

So, then: we must be voting on the actual Deal; whatever compromise Mrs May eventually comes up with. So the Question looks something like this: 

"Mrs May has cleverly worked out a damage limitation exercise, in which we leave Europe technically, but agree to stick to some of their rules and get some of the trade advantages we would have had if we had stayed. Do you vote to

𐄂ACCEPT Mrs May's Clever Compromise or
𐄂REJECT Mrs May's Clever Compromise and..."

...and what? And leave with No Deal? That is what the Incredibly Far Right have wanted all along: Britain as a mighty island with no tax, no welfare state, no pesky human rights. Singapore with chips instead of noodles. 

Or is the idea that we might reject Mrs May's Chequers compromise but ask her to go back to the negotiating table and start all over again? And what then? A third referendum on the third deal? 

Which leaves us with the only remotely sensible possibility:

"Chequers. It's bad, but it could be worse. What do you reckon?

𐄂LEAVE under the terms of the Chequers Agreement
𐄂LEAVE with no deal at all! Go it alone! This fortress built by nature for herself! Cry ho for England, Boris and St Cecil!" 
𐄂This is a stupid idea. Let's give the whole thing up and REMAIN if they will still have us, which frankly, I wouldn't if I were them."

I do not think that it is a foregone conclusion that, faced with a choice of Bad Deal / Terrible Deal / Remain the majority of people would chose to Remain. All of the press, most of the Tory party, some of the Labour party and that nice Mr Putin want us very badly to leave. The populist press and Nigel Farage will represent anything less than No Deal as a betrayal as bad as the betrayal when Judas Iscariot betrayed Robin Hood to William of Orange at Runnymead. I think that a three way referendum is the shortest possible path to No Deal, which is the worst possible outcome.

Rest assured: if we have Another Referendum I will do the Decent Thing. But I think that "Brexit" is now inevitable, that negotiating the least worst deal possible is the least worst strategy available and that playing Fantasy Referendum has a very high chance of making things considerably worse.

And yes, I know what the gentleman in the third row wants to say. "Brexit" will be so disastrous that it doesn't matter whether Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson or Alan Sugar is the next Prime Minister. Once all those lorries are queued up in the English channel no-one in this country will be able to have nice things ever again. My English teacher used to tell me that we didn't need to worry about our exams or our career very much because there would certainly be a nuclear war before the millennium. (Do you ever wonder how I got to be where I am today? That is how.) Hadn't we seen Threads? Apocalyptic thinking has its appeal. Eat drink and be existential because we are all going die. I think it's still worth talking about having the least worst apocalypse possible. But if I were going to Armageddon I wouldn't start from here.

Monday, September 24, 2018

the amazing spider-epilogue

turns out that there are things to say about Spider-Man #34-#38 after all

amazingly, it turns out that it takes a lot longer to explain why a terrible story doesn't work than to explain what is so great about a classic

and i couldn't really work out any way of talking properly about #39 & #40 (the big green goblin story) without talking about the issues which lead up to it.

so, here come my last six or seven spider-essays and then i really am done

thanks for staying on board

spread the word on sociable meejah and drop some money into patreon if you haven't already

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Rhetroical Strategies of Sensible Conservative Commentators

In the increasingly out-of-control comments on my harmless little article about an old TV show, one of our regular commentators wrote the following:

Andrew Stevens said...

Eh. I grew up poor. There were a lot of problems - crime, drugs, growing up fatherless, etc. But we were relatively quite poor in the U.S. We were far wealthier than virtually every human being who had ever walked the planet prior to 100 years before. Sure, my mother had to avail herself of our church's food pantry, used food stamps, and free school lunches to feed us, but we didn't actually lack for food. My clothes may have been hand-me-downs, but I was clothed.

I realize that most people think poverty causes crime, drugs, etc., but I think that's just a slander on poor people. My grandparents grew up even poorer than I did and did not become alcoholics, drug addicts, or criminals. So I am strongly of the opinion that the arrow of causation goes the other way. Obviously, I am also strongly of the opinion that not all poor people are criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. Many people are poor from bad luck or because they have been denied opportunities due to race. And obviously poor children are always poor due to bad luck.

As I said earlier in this thread, I am for a Universal Basic Income. I far prefer just giving poor people cash instead of our current inefficient paternalistic bureaucratic methods. And I think it would be enough to lift many people out of poverty though the primary benefit of that would be to allow them to relocate out of poorer neighborhoods. I think that it would still not cure poverty. It seems obvious to me that there are people who, if you just give them money, would simply waste that money to live indolent, drug-besotted, miserable lives. Take the Kennedys, for example.

My thoughts wouldn't fit into the comments box, so I am starting a new posting. I am not charging anyone for this, but if you find it interesting then the decent socialist thing to do would be to redistribute some of your wealth to me via Patreon. The decent conservative thing to do would be to give me an honest days pay for an honest days work in the expectation that someone else might do so for you, again, via Patreon. 

The core of Andrew Stevens argument appears to be: 
1: Some poor people do not become criminals.
2: Therefore, poverty is not a cause of criminality. 

3: However, the majority of criminals are poor.

4: Therefore criminality must cause poverty. 

I am not for the moment interested in whether or not this argument is logically valid. (NOTE: It isn't.) What interests me is the rhetorical clothing Andrew chooses to present it in. 

"I grew up poor...My grandparents grew up poorer than I did and did not become alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals."

The writer begins with a proverbially bad argument, one that is frequently deployed to characterize a certain sort of muddle-headed, blimpish thinking. It is classically stated as "My Uncle Louis smoked a hundred cigarettes a day and lived to be eighty three" or "I was regularly caned at school and it never did me any harm." He must be flag signalling that he rejects normal forms of reasoning and wishes to argue from gut feeling instead. 

c.f "You can prove anything you like with statistics" and "This country has heard quite enough from experts."

"We were far wealthier than virtually every human being who had ever walked the planet prior to 100 years before. Sure, my mother had to avail herself of our church's food pantry, used food stamps, and free school lunches to feed us, but we didn't actually lack for food. My clothes may have been hand-me-downs, but I was clothed"

The next move is to deliberately blur definitions; in ways that do not advance the argument but do introduce a certain amount of fog. Certainly, we can define poverty as "dying from malnutrition" and "actually having to go to school naked"; equally clearly we can define poverty as being "significantly poorer than those around you." Andrew appears to be claiming that relative poverty cannot statistically be a cause of criminality because it is distinct from absolute poverty which is at best a non sequitur and at worst nonsense. I suspect it is introduced into the argument to smuggle in the idea that the poor people nowadays (as opposed to when I were a lad) are whingers who complain too much.

"I realize that most people think poverty causes crime, drugs, etc., but I think that's just a slander on poor people."

Next, we go for some false indignation, and an attempt to shift the burden of proof. Note that this could have been done either way. Andrew says "How dare you say poverty causes crime! That insults poor people!". but he could equally have said "How dare you say poverty causes crime! That insults the victims of crime! Poverty is no excuse!"

The idea is to create a false dichotomy between complete autonomy on the one hand and complete determinism on the other: so if something has a social cause then individuals are absolved from blame; but if individuals have personal responsibility there cannot be a social cause. At a more fundamental level, the idea is to say "liberals are amoral: they don't believe in personal responsibility." 

Either fat people are fat because they choose to be fat and could instantly become thin tomorrow by simply choosing to eat less; or else they are string puppets forced to be fat by forces over which they have no control. The idea that social environment can make it easier to make bad choices or hard to make good ones is rejected out of hand. 

Many people are poor from bad luck.... And obviously poor children are always poor due to bad luck.

Another idea comes in under the radar. Class and wealth are part of a game -- a game which has winners and losers, but which is essentially fair. To complain is to be a unsportsmanlike. You are poor because the neutral dealer dealt you a poor hand; you are poor because you rolled a double one on a pair of fair dice.

Andrew does not make the argument that this is true: he just takes it for granted. And he does not consider the alternative point of view: poor people are not poor due to "bad luck" but because society is run in such a way as to keep them poor (apart from Mr and Mrs Exception.) 

The question of whether the poor are poor because of bad luck or because the rich won't increase their wages is, in fact, not relevant to the argument in hand. It might be that poverty results from honest bad luck, and that people who are dealt a bad hand are much more likely to become criminals. It might be that the house is crooked, all the dice are loaded, but poor people carry on as best they can and don't turn to crime to improve their circumstances.

"So I am strongly of the opinion that the arrow of causation goes the other way."

The claim here appears to be that while in a few exceptional cases people are relatively poor because an arbitrary supernatural force called "luck" has made them so; the majority of them started out wealthy, made a free choice to spend all their money on alcohol and drugs, or to take up criminal activities, and as a result ended up on welfare. This is the contentious claim on which the whole argument rests: and no argument or evidence is provided -- we are just informed that the writer has a strong intuition that this so. 

c.f I just happened to feel that going to war with Iraq was the right thing to do. 

Andrew correctly says that moving people out of poor areas or giving them free money would not abolish poverty. He concludes that poverty is an intractable problem because there are a certain number of people who will waste whatever resources they have. Again, this is a narrowly focused false dichotomy "If poverty were soluble, it would be solved by handouts; since some people will waste even these handouts, poverty is not soluble." There may be a buried thought that if a problem is not completely solvable, there is no point in trying to ameliorate it. There is no point in vaccinations because some people will still get sick; there is no point in laws about health safety because reckless people will ignore than. (There may also be a hint that Socialists are silly enough to think that they do know the solution to poverty.)

The alternative position: that poverty exists because of the way we choose to organize society; that simple justice requires that the rich pay more for goods and services so that the wages of the poor can be increased; and that this is most likely to be achieved by trades unions making demands -- does not come into the writer's consciousness. Naturally, as a conservative he doesn't want too much power given to trade unions and fears the results of paying people enough to live on. (I suppose he believes that if the rich are allowed to get as rich as they like they will suddenly decide to pay the poor better wages out of the goodness of their extremely well fed hearts. That is what all conservatives believe, isn't it?) But that point of view isn't reflected in this piece of writing, even as a false opinion to be shot down.

Andrew is happy to have a certain amount of hand-outs to the poor, but skeptical about what he called "inefficient paternalistic bureaucratic methods". When arguing that no-one in the United States is truly poor he says that when he was growing up his family had to rely on "food stamps, and free school lunches" (and also charity from religious organisations.) I am going to hazard a guess that he attended school, and that he took books out of the library, played sport in a park, swam at a municipal swimming pool, and other examples which I have possibly forgotten. That is to say he was protected from the worst evils of even relative poverty because the State redistributed money from the moderately wealthy and used it to pay for things which the poor could use. These are socialist principles; from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. "The left" and the "the right" may well disagree about the extent or degree to which the state should play Robin Hood. (I do not particularly want to take from the rich and give to the poor. I want to take from the moderately well off and use it to buy things which everyone can share.) But however much they may talk of the evils of Communism, it seems that most Conservatives are a little bit Socialist, and doubtless most Socialists are a little bit Conservative.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Continuing to Dangle

With reference to my essay on the non-resolution of the Betty Brant sub-plot in Spider-Man, JHW asked: 

For fans, do these sub-plots to nowhere in particular enrich or detract from the overall experience of being a fan? They seem pretty unsatisfying when considered in terms of the individual stories, but do they make the "comic book world" as a whole seem more real, with their roads not traveled?

I think the following almost entirely fails to answer that question.

Yes: I am reading Knausgaard at the moment. Why do you ask? 

Girls didn't read comics so much as Boys. Girls read Magazines.

Girls' magazines were almost entirely about Boys. Boys' comics barely acknowledged that such things as Girls existed. Girls' magazines presented Boys as fascinating aliens that you might pass on the way to school. Boys' adventure comics were set on football pitches and army barracks and other places where Girls weren't allowed. Girls with names like Minnie and Beryl were sometimes allowed into the funny comics, but they were pretty much the same as Boys, only with skirts. 

There were Girls comics too, about witches and ballet dancers and poor but honest Girls being locked in cupboards for giving too much gruel to the orphans, but the Girls in our sample didn't read them. The Girls in our sample read Disney comics with names like "Donald and Also Mickey", "Goofy and Also Pluto" and subsequently "Donald and Mickey And Also Goofy." The Boys in our sample sometimes sneaked into the bedrooms of the Girls in our sample and read them when the Girls in our sample weren't looking, but the Boys in our sample can't remember if they included any of the classic Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge strips.

While British Boys' comics were unashamedly for little Boys (or at any rate for big Boys who didn't mind admitting that they were little Boys on the inside); the Girls' magazines were for little Girls who wanted to be big Girls. They had names like "Just Seventeen" and "Sixteen Plus" although actual teenagers wouldn't have been seen dead with them. (They read "Smash Hits".) They were constructed to look a little like the Women's Magazines that Mum and Granny still read. Both the Girls' magazines and the Grown Up Lady magazines had recipes and sewing projects in them, although the Grown Up magazines never really went in for photo-strips. But what the Girls' magazines were mostly about was meeting Boys. 

The Girls liked to pretend that they were quite sophisticated and grown-up because they were reading publications that were meant for teenagers. They were no more likely to go out with Boys in real life than Boys were to score the winning goal at Wembley and defeat the Luftwaffe. They were probably more interested in ponies.

I don't know if any of this is true, but it sounds as if it should be. 

What is definitely true is that 100% of the Boys in my survey discovered Spider-Man way before they discovered Girls or dating or s*x. Before, indeed, they had any clear and distinct idea of how human reproduction worked, which was a closely guarded secret until 1978. Our parents' generation learned about s*x by observing farm animals and pets; ours learned about it by reverse-engineering Jimmy Tarbuck punchlines. (The Girls learned about it from the problem pages in Girls' magazines which were far dirtier than anything the Lady's magazines would have tolerated.) I suppose the current generation relies on pornographic YouTube videos which I think is on the whole an improvement. 

Spider-Man grew out of a comic called Amazing Adult Fantasy, although the fantasies it contained weren't adult in that sense. When Jack Kirby and Joe Simon arguably created the genre of "romance" comics in the 1950s, they claimed they were "designed for the more ADULT readers of comics." There was no sex, nor any suggestion of sex, but there were grown ups having relationships. (I recall one which turned on a middle class lady deciding to break off her relationship with a very decent church goin' fella because she has a criminal record for shoplifting. It turns out he knew from the beginning and didn't hold it against her. Awww...)

The adults in my survey all agreed that Spider-Man Comics Weekly was rather too old for the Boys in my survey. (It remained too old for them right up until they turned Twelve, when it became much too babyish.) I suspect that Stan Lee knew exactly what he was doing. Spider-Man was a comic for kids that was superficially designed to look like a comic for adults; just like the dating magazines were aimed at little Girls but designed to look as if they were for teenagers. The target audience for Spider-Man was people a little too young to read Spider-Man. Peter Parker was an eight-year-old's idea of a seventeen year old. He worries endlessly about a thing called "study" but there is no real sense of what he does at school or who his teachers are -- it's all just one mysterious grown up thing called Science. He worries about Gals but there are no clues as to why a superhero would want to spend time with one of these strange beings who stick life sized posters of David Cassidy on their doors and sit down to go to the toilet. Peter and Betty never actually go on a date. (He does on one occasion help Liz with her homework, and in fairness, that happens behind closed doors.) There is no sense of anyone being attracted to anyone else: literally not so much as a kiss. When Ned comes home and takes Betty for coffee, we realize it is all over. Coffee is about as close as we come to consummating a relationship. I suppose that is why the Coffee Bean Bar becomes important once Peter leaves High School. Girls mainly cause misery and complication. Boys fight for the ownership of particular females; females storm off in huffs if "their" guy so much as returns a lost handbag to another Woman. 

We can blame the Comics Code for some of this. There is a persistent oral tradition that the morality clause was so strict that writers were reluctant even to show married couples: if  there was a Mummy and a Daddy then it was hard to avoid the fact that there might also be a Bed. Peter Parker and Mary-Jane are both raised by their Aunts; Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacey were brought up by widowers; Johnny Storm was raised by his big sister. But even if the Comics Code was the proximate cause, the result was a comic that the Boys in our sample could easily make sense of: a pre-pubescent idea of what being grown up must be like. 

In 1974, a twenty page comic was incredibly long; and a seven day wait between episodes was an almost unimaginably long time. (Mary Whitehouse was kind of right about this: a little Boy's imagination can do a lot with the image of a drowning Tom Baker in a week.) This made it relatively easy to accept Stan Lee's confused approach to time and his fluctuating depiction of history. If Peter said "I have been longing for months for Betty to return" we were not inclined to say "Hang on, two issues ago you said you were over her." When you are eight, the week before last is somewhere in the last century, and for every twenty pages in the comic there are a hundred thousand pages in your mind. 

And anyway, if Spider-Man was in the category of grown-up things, I didn't expect to fully understand it. If there was a continuity error or an unresolved plot thread, I ignored it, or made up an explanation on the spot, or thought "I am sure all the Big Boys understand what happened there, and I had better pretend that I do as well or else the Big Boys will realize I am not one of them." Between the ages of eight and sixteen I believed that the word "albatross" simply meant "guilt", and rather suspected it of being a Stan Lee coinage. I was very confused when Monty Python based a whole sketch around people shouting the word for no reason. If anything, I was disappointed when I finally read the Ancient Mariner. I accepted without question that Marvel Comics were the highest form of literature. When Daddy said I could say up past my bedtime to watch The BBC Television Shakespeare (provided I was quiet) I was excited because Stan Lee said that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be writing Marvel Comics. So if Peter Parker's relationship with Betty Brant came to an end without any resolution, well, that was an example of how realistic and serious Marvel Comics were compared with those childish duck comics my sister read and especially compared with the TV Batman which I didn't watch, or if I did, only to remind myself of how much better Marvel was. 

"I think I am missing something here: I will probably understand when I am older" is by no means a bad way of approaching books.

(Church comes into it as well. Church was full of questions which the grown ups simply wouldn't answer.)

I wanted, very badly, for Peter and Betty to live happily ever after; and I wanted, very badly, for Gwen to stop being awful. I wanted equally badly for Dr Blake and Nurse Foster to get it together, because it was obviously what the nice doctor wanted. Yet Betty Brant is a fully realized character, and her relationship with Peter Parker has ups and downs, or at any rate, downs and ups. Jane Foster is not much more than a Barbie doll, a place holder for the love interest Stan Lee can't be bothered to write, a McGuffin for Thor to fall out with big daddy Odin over. Don Blake is barely a character either. But I honestly don't think that, in 1974, I could see the difference. Either I was missing something because I wasn't old enough or else I was filling in the gaps, or both. 

(And Star Wars, of course. Star Wars above all.)

So: in Spider-Man #40 we cut away from Spider-Man's big and long awaited confrontation with the Green Goblin, and listen in on Betty Brant, talking to herself on a railway station. How did that strike me in 1974? Was it a digression; a boring bit of chat which interrupted the Origin of the Green Goblin. But come to that, was the Green Goblin's long, and completely uninformative monologue just something that you had to plough through to get to the fight?

I have a memory of a memory of reading those pages for the first time. I can hear the incidental music that was playing in the background while Betty waited for her train. (I cannot possibly have been aware of Brief Encounter?) I do not know that I was consciously aware that a new artist had taken over Spider-Man, but I do think that I was aware that Betty looked different -- more glamorous, more posed, more like a lady in a film and less like a character in a comic. But overwhelmingly I remember feeling that these scenes referred to something that I had missed, or forgotten; oh yes, there has been a storyline about Betty's travels, how could I have forgotten that, I don't suppose all the Big Boys forgot about it. And almost immediately the issues which I read Long, Long Ago last month shuffled around in my head and it became that they had contained pages and pages about Betty's travels; so that when I came back to the post-Master-Planner issues recently I was surprised, shocked even. Was there really so little of Betty Brant? Did those few frames "stand in" for the whole period when she was travelling round America on a train, like a screen-memory? 

Yes, I did find those parts boring. No, I didn't always understand them. Yes, I liked the fact that my comic had boring Grown Up bits about love and pay cheques and graduation and science because it showed it was superior to those Other comics that had nothing to them but bombing raids and football matches and slipperings. 

And yes, when I say "it was superior" I do of course mean "I was superior". You don't actually have to be Jewish or a Mutant to understand that you are one of the Chosen People and the rest of the world can't really be expected to understand you. We may come onto the Tomorrow People next year.

So. That is what I thought about the Betty Brant subplot when I was a little Boy. But what do I think about the subplot now I am, arguably, a grown-up? 

I think that the treatment of Betty Brant is quite a serious problem. Steve Ditko thinks he is writing a soap opera; but Stan Lee hankers for the endless status-quo of conventional comics. Stan loves melodrama; he loves dramatic break ups, Peter running off, Betty banging on the door, the orchestra swelling as they break into a torch song. But he really wants to put everything back in its place for the next issue, so we can go through the whole thing all over again. He certainly doesn't have any sense of the chronology of his own titles. In #41, Peter and Betty have a tongue tied-cup of coffee. If Stan Lee remembers that this is the first time they have spoken in eight issues (and that they last time they met, they had a shouting row) he doesn't let on. 

Betty could have been written out of the story after the death of Bennet in issue #11. The story tied up all her plot-threads, and it nixed any chance of her and Peter living happily ever after. (I sometimes like to imagine that "beehive haircut Betty" and "brown bob haircut Betty" are two different people.) But then, she could also have been written out after the big symbolic ending of issue #30, when Spider-Man's ghost pushes the lovers apart. And certainly she could have been written out after the big row at the very end of Spider-Man #33. Indeed, I wonder if Ditko had intended #34 to be her last ever appearance? He was writing the stories and drawing the pictures, but Stan Lee was still adding the words. In Stan's dialogue she denies that Peter could possibly be Spider-Man, and decides to leave town for a bit. But what if she had woken up from her nightmare and said "Oh no...oh no... It's true! It must be true! Peter is Spider-Man... It all makes sense now! I must leave New York forever. And I will return Peter's picture so he understands..." Certainly, Ditko didn't ever draw Betty again: and once Ditko has left, almost the first thing that Lee does is re-introduce her to the story. 

The problem is not that subplots are left dangling. The problem is that under Stan Lee's stewardship, Spider-Man increasingly becomes the kind of comic where subplots can't be resolved -- where Peter and Gwen are always on the brink of breaking up; where Flash is always on the brink of realizing that Peter is not the weak sister he always took him for; where Aunt May has an infinite series of almost, but not quite, fatal heart attacks. 

Umberto Eco's great essay The Myth of Superman correctly identifies this kind of narrative stasis as an intrinsic part of the aesthetic of Superman -- of what we would now call the Silver Age, Earth-1, Pre-Crisis Superman. Lois Lane discovers Clark Kent's true identity on a monthly basis; but by the end of each issue, everything has returned to the starting point. It often feels as if the characters have their memories wiped on the final page of each episode. We meet Superman as an adult, who never ages: stories about Superman when he was a college student and a schoolboy and a baby are retrospectively added to the narrative as flashbacks and prequels. Spider-Man, on the other hand, starts out as a school boy of maybe 15 and grows into a college student more or less in real time.

But after #33, his life pretty much just freezes: for a hundred issues at least, nothing happens. Until the Very Bad Thing On The Bridge, Peter will be caught in a love triangle with Gwen and Mary-Jane; he will just barely achieve a balance between college and crime-fighting and Aunt May will have so many heart attacks we won't know what to do with them all. 

But Superman is never presented as anything other than a fairy tale or a sequence of children's stories: of course all the toys are put back in their proper places when we have finished playing with them. Spider-Man exists in a world of contemporary slang, where hippies go on non-specific demonstrations, and Flash Thompson is drafted to Vietnam. Time ought to move forward: but Stan Lee needs Spider-Man to remain a constant brand.

The endless un-resolvable cycle of Peter and Betty's break-up is an early symptom of this disease. 

From the late 70s into the mid 90s, Chris Claremont's X-Men was by far the most popular and beloved Marvel Comic. It was unashamedly a soap opera: stuff happened, but nothing happened; there was change -- characters, good guys even, died -- but it was still definitely the X-Men. One month the huge nothing-will ever-be-the-same-again plot development would be that Evil Magneto realizes the error of his ways, turns himself in, and ends up helping Prof X run the school. We are just barely given long enough to accept this as a status quo before we are told that in the most amazing and shocking nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-again plot development of all time, Magneto is going to become a villain. 

And so on, forever. 

Len Wein who created the New X-Men said that fans do not want change. Fans only want the illusion of change. And I am not saying that he is wrong.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

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Monday, September 03, 2018

Thank you for everyone who said nice things about my last couple of essays.

Here is a song.