Friday, November 24, 2023

23: Terry Eagleton wrote a clever essay on romantic poetry.

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Terry Eagleton wrote a clever essay on romantic poetry.

I have probably quoted it before. I have probably quoted most things before. He asked how you could justify swooning over Grecian Urns and weeping about Skylarks and writing long addresses to the West Wind in an era when small children were literally being forced to climb up chimneys and used as beasts of burden in coal-mines. He said that writing poetry was itself an act of resistance.

“In the face of such forces, the privilege accorded by the Romantics to the ‘creative imagination’ can be seen as considerably more than idle escapism. On the contrary, ‘literature’ now appears as one of the few enclaves in which the creative values expunged from the face of English society by industrial capitalism can be celebrated and affirmed. ‘Imaginative creation’ can be offered as an image of non-alienated labour; the intuitive, transcendental scope of the poetic mind can provide a living criticism of those rationalist or empiricist ideologies enslaved to ‘fact’.”

I don’t in fact think that writing long essays about Doctor Who and Spider-Man is an act of resistance against the coming Muskocracy. I don’t think that when I write about popular culture I am stepping outside of political discourse and writing about something neutral and therefore real.

I am currently looking at the code-numbers you can sometimes spot in the margins of very old comics. They can give you a clue to when the thing was written. The first Spider-Man story was V-789, since you ask. The first Thor story was V-786. Which makes Stan Lee’s tale about thinking up Thor because a god was the only thing bigger and better than a teenager who could climb up walls look decidedly iffy.

But I don’t think that “The first Thor story was in all probability written slightly before the first Spider-Man story” is a politically neutral statement. I think my beliefs about when Thor was published are bound up with the colour of my skin, my position in the Black/white dichotomy, the configuration of my genitals, my preferred pronouns and my chosen name for God. I think that language and narrative are male/white/’‘Christian’ constructs. 

Unless and until they are not.

But I feel I can write commentary on texts and feel fairly sure that I know what I am writing about. At least texts stay where they are and don’t move about. 

Unless they do.

I wrote a coda to my essay on the Micronauts called “Why Are You Wasting Your Time On This Shit?” I don’t know how I could have explained myself more clearly. When I write about old comics I am not really writing about old comics because I don’t think that old comics are particularly important. No more and no less important than anything else. When I write about old comics I am really writing about me. Because I think that I am very important indeed. As are you. Unless you are just a zombie controlled by a virus, in which case you might as well jump into the incinerator before they push you.

I understand that that essay hurt the feelings of people who rather like the Librarians Are Fucking Awesome posts, and I am sorry about this. But quite gratified a few of them read it.

I was fond of my golly. I have never seen Michelangelo’s David. I go by he/him. I think it is better to keep your pants on in public places. I think Show of Hands are an excellent folk band. Jack Kirby definitely created the Silver Surfer.

There is a monstrous odour…senses transfigures…boarding at that tower window crack and giving way…Ia…ngai…ygg… I see it….coming here…hell-wind…titan blur…black wings…Yog-Sothoth save me…the three lobed burning eye.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

22: I suppose that all groups develop their own patois

 I suppose that all groups develop their own patois.

That might even be what we mean when we say “group”: a set of people who all use words in the same way.

Most schools have slang expressions. But high-status public (i.e private) schools print their slang in little books and make the new boys learn it by heart. Because being an Old Etonian is a lot more important than having been to East Barnet Lower.

If you weren’t in the role-playing club you would probably be baffled when someone claims to have “failed their not-spill-the-coffee roll.” If you weren’t in the Christian Union you might legitimately wonder what the hell a “quiet time” was, let alone a “word of knowledge”.

Dave Sim, sorry, “the shitty aardvark writer”, pinpointed this some years ago. You may know what I mean when I say “Spider-Man” or “Wonder Woman”. But what if I say “Toro” or “William Burnside”? What if I say “Amazing Fantasy #15” or “Action Comics #1”? “Detective Comics #27”? “Incredible Hulk #181”?

The Internet and Streaming TV and those awful mobile phone things have caused the number of groups and the number of idiolects to multiply to the point when no-one is comprehensible to anyone else. How, given that this is the case can I ever write about politics again? How can I write about anything at all?

I could try to write as if I were addressing an intelligent eight year old. I could aspire to turning my prose style into that of Janet and John.

I could define every term. And then define every term in my definition.

I would not describe someone as a fundamentalist. That’s a loaded word; a word that tells you how I feel about the person I an describing and assumes that you feel the same way. But I could say that he’s “a Christian who takes the Bible literally.”

Except that “Christian” and “Bible” and “literally” are scarcely less loaded terms. Okay: a Christian is a person who believes in God; and who believes that God was specially present in an historical figure called Jesus. The Bible is a book which is specially important to Christians. To take something literally is, I suppose, to believe that it really happened, in real life, and not as fable or legend.

But when I tell you that someone is a fundamentalist I am not saying that they are a person who believes that the stories in the book which is special to the people who believe that God was particularly present in a person called Jesus really happened and are not just stories. I am also saying that they have conservative values; that they regard their beliefs as super-important and want to convert other people; that they are probably American, probably from one of the southern states and that they don’t like abortion or homosexuals. And I am almost certainly saying that I don’t approve of them. And this wouldn’t help even a little bit if what I had said was that someone was a free market fundamentalists.

So it might be better, in fact if I was deliberately obscure. If I eschewed words with obvious meanings and generated a kind of Klingon postmodernism."Quasi-scriptural theo-essentialist." "Non-narrative holy-writ absolutist."

Or I could say what I actually mean. American Christian. Bad Christian. Extremist. Bad thing.

All right: but what do you mean by American? And Bad? And Extremist?

Bad man have lots of money. 

Bad man say bad thing. 

Bad man like moon rocket. 

Me no like moon rocket so much.

—Thy reason, man?

—Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words; and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them.

—I warrant thou art a merry fellow and carest for nothing.

Lewis defined Magic as objective efficacy which cannot be further analysed.

This is a magic spinning wheel, and anyone who pricks themselves will sleep for a hundred years.

You can’t ask why: it just is. Lewis was happy to say that the deepest truths of Christianity—the Atonement and the Holy Trinity and the Eucharist—were magical beliefs.

Science is the exact opposite of magic. Everything can be analysed: nothing “just is”.

Before Science everything was Magic: no point in asking why the sun rises or trees fly south in the winter: they just do. Science has spent thousands of years answering the “why” questions and abolishing magic. But sooner or later—probably very much later—it will hit the Grand Unified Theory Of Everything or Fundamental Natural Law and science will be complete.

“But why did those conditions exist at the very beginning of the universe, or of all possible universes?”

“Well, there’s no answer to that, even in principle. They just did.”

“Nothing is magical” may turn out to be the same as everything is magic. Which, I happily concede, is not a very helpful or interesting insight. All places are one place but that place is very big.

Perhaps words are magic in the same way.

You can only ask “what does that mean?” and “what do you mean by that?” so many times. Eventually you hit the undefinable; and the undefinable is what you really mean.

“What do you mean by the Woke Mind Virus?”

“I don’t mean anything by the Woke Mind Virus. The Woke Mind Virus is what I mean. Brexit means Brexit.”

—The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight. Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh. What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by. Richard loves Richard: that is—I am I.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2023

21: Not infrequently people say to me that they are quite interested in my writing (I am not quite sure that I believe this) but that they don’t read my political essays (which I am perfectly happy to believe).

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Not infrequently people say to me that they are quite interested in my writing (I am not quite sure that I believe this) but that they don’t read my political essays (which I am perfectly happy to believe).

The reason, they say, is that I read things that they do not read, and this makes it very hard for them to understand what the hell I am going on about. I find this fairly flattering because it implies that they do know what I am going on about some of the time.

In particular, they say that there is an entire culture war raging that people who do not read the site formerly known as Twitter are blissfully unaware of. They understand the actual words, but they don’t know the layers of ideology which have accrued around them. They don’t necessarily know that common sense is, for some people, the opposite of political correctness (and indeed that political correctness may be defined as the opposite of common sense). They don’t know that being anti-fascist is not quite the same as being against fascism, or what taking the knee means this week. They may even think that Harry Potter is a children’s book about wizards. I myself was quite surprised to discover by accident out that having an interest in older versions of Dungeons & Dragons was potentially a way of signifying that you are a misogynist and a homophobe.

It’s a bit like joining a conversation at midnight and finding that you have said exactly the wrong thing because of something someone else said at nine o’ clock.

It’s also a bit like Star Wars. Everything is also bit like Star Wars.

One of the people who doesn’t read my blog and is almost certainly not reading this was very cross slightly miffed because the final part of the first series of the Mandalorian included (in a subsidiary role) some evil robots who had previously appeared in Star Wars: Rebels and Star Wars: Clone Wars, which are cartoon series set in the Star Wars continuity. The appearance of these robots in a live action show manifested a quality my correspondent described as “being up itself”. 

Similarly, a TV reviewer in the Guardian argued that George Lucas’s corpse was being violated and his life’s work trampled, partly because the eponymous character the latest live action TV show, Ahsoka, has previously appeared in the aforementioned cartoons. This, they said, meant that the current series, was a “spin-off from a spin-off”.

On several levels, this is an odd thing to say. We probably wouldn’t describe the Empire Strikes Back, or for that matter, the Godfather Part Two as “spin-offs”, and even if we did, I am not sure that would automatically be a bad thing. A lot of people thought Frasier, which was a spin-off from Cheers, was quite funny; and some of us are quite enjoying the new series in which he goes back to academia and turns out to be an old friend of Rodney Trotter. [Check This - Ed.]

It’s a little like our dear old friend “fan-fiction”. Fan fiction certainly exists: some of my friends write stories in which characters from their favourite TV shows have sex with each other, and even ones in which they don’t.

There certainly are such things as spin-offs. A producer reportedly looked at the script for the first episode of Man About The House and immediately spotted that George and Mildred could sustain a series of their own.

But there is a way of pronouncing fan fic or spin off which simply connotes contempt for the material. It might almost be one of George Orwell’s swearwords.

Ahsoka is -- from a certain point of view -- a sequel to Star Wars: Rebels. The cartoon series ended in 2018 on a cliffhanger. The juvenile lead, trainee Jedi Ezra Bridger, had surrendered to the Empire in order to save his comrades from destruction. Ezra is, in the jargon, the McGuffin for the new series: several familiar characters and some new ones are on a Quest to find and rescue their former ship mate. So, if you haven’t seen the cartoon, you may well feel that you are coming in half way through the story.

But isn’t coming in half way through the story very much part of the Star Wars aesthetic? Didn’t the Star Wars RPG begin all it’s adventures in media res? Wasn’t the first movie retrospectively labelled Episode IV?

“I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash” snarls Carrie Fisher at Peter Cushing. We don’t know what Leia’s past connection with Tarkin is: we never particularly find out. We just take it for granted that one of the good guys has had a previous encounter with one of the bad guys. One of the things which made Star Wars so endlessly fascinating was the way characters kept talking about things they knew about and we didn't. So I am unconvinced that Ahsoka is spoiled because some of the backstory is available to people who want it in a different media?

So far as I can see, all the actual necessary information is skilfully woven into the text. In the Mandalorian, we meet a mysterious Jedi Knight. In Boba Fett we find her at Luke’s Jedi school where she mentions that she has a prior connection with his family. In the first episode of Ahsoka, she mentions in passing that Anakin never completed her training. In Episode Five… 

Perhaps I’d better not say what happens in Episode Five in case you haven’t seen it.

“But it’s not quite like that, is it, Andrew? No one is saying that if you haven’t seen Rebels it is impossible to understand Ahsoka. What some of them may be saying is that if you haven't seen the former it is impossible to care about the latter. Sure, we didn’t know who Luke Skywalker was when the curtain first went up on Episode IV: but the film itself works hard to show you that he is an important and likeable character. Ahsoka takes it for granted that you have a prior investment in the quest. If you have seen the cartoon, the first time someone says ‘Ezra Bridger’ little fireworks go off. If you haven’t they don’t.”

There is a Star Trek episode called Who Mourns For Adonis. I think it makes total sense if you don’t know that Adonis was the son of Uranus who was mauled by a wild bull. I think it makes total sense if you don’t know that Shelley used the name in a poem about his friend John Keats, who (in his opinion) was mauled by a wild poetry critic. I think it makes total sense if you don’t know that the word Adonis is commonly used to describe a handsome and athletic young man, with or without nipples. But I do think you need to be able to spot that "who mourns for Adonis" is a line from a poem, or sounds as if it might be. The title isn’t enquring who is sad about a particular mythological figure. It isn't even saying "In this story Kirk feels the same way that Lord Byron did about John Keats." It's saying something more like “Star Trek is the sort of TV show that quotes classical poetry” or more generally “Please take this episode very seriously indeed.” 

It assumes a shared cultural framework. 

Which in our case, we have not got. 

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Monday, November 20, 2023

20: An obscure 1977 religious drama by Stuart Jackman recently got an unexpected airing.

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An obscure 1977 religious drama by Stuart Jackman recently got an unexpected airing.

Radio 4 Extra was doing a tribute to the Carry On films, and the play, Post Mortem, starred Kenneth Williams. He was playing an angel named, to the vast amusement of geeks everywhere, Azariel.

I assume it must have originally gone out at Christmas. It’s set in heaven’s waiting room, and various characters associated with the birth of Jesus are being interviewed by the angel. Within a few minutes, it becomes clear that this isn’t a kind of new-age Nativity Play, but a full-on debate about forgiveness and the afterlife. The tone is established early on when King Herod, who doesn’t realise that he’s dead and thinks he’s simply been kidnapped, says that he’s a rich man and can afford to pay the ransom. The angel informs him that The Ransom has already been paid in full. There’s a fairly interesting debate about salvation and universalism running through the piece: Herod, and one of Herod’s baby-killing soldiers, get into heaven relatively easily. A certain inn-keeper looks like she’s going to have a worse time, but fortunately is able to admit that what she did was selfish and wrong. The person who is in real trouble is one of the shepherds who saw the angels and the baby Jesus but then carried on living his life exactly as before. The piece seems to straddle a social-gospel message (having seen the son of God the shepherd ought to have tried to change the world) to a soteriology in which heaven is the state of accepting the sovereignty of God—something which kings and soldiers have not much problem with, but selfish hoteliers find much harder.

If you went to a particular kind of church at a particular time you have almost certainly read The Davidson Affair, by the same writer. Modern takes on the Bible were evidently his line. It is fairly surprising that the BBC religious department were still putting out such full-on evangelical material in the 1970s. The play was produced by Frank Topping, who did a prayer slot on the Terry Wogan show and who’s dull religious poetry was much in vogue with some headmasters and RE teachers. It is hard to detach Kenneth Williams voice from Will O’ The Wisp and Rambling Sid Rumpoe, even when he isn’t comically extending his vowels, but it’s nice to just hear him playing a straight, if that isn’t an unfortunate way of putting it, part.

The big take away from the play is “Don’t try to be C.S Lewis if you are not in fact C.S Lewis.”

None of this has anything whatsoever to do with the present essay.

Post Mortem had a nice little post-script in which Azrael is informed that a little girl has just arrived in the afterlife. Azrael instructs that she be given milk and chocolate biscuits, because “she won’t be staying long”.

“Do we know the name of her father?”


I assume that, even in today's secular world, relatively few listeners confronted with a list of dramatis personae which included Herod, Herod’s Soldier, the Innkeeper’s Wife and the Shepherd would have much difficulty in working out what story the BBC were riffing on. And, as a matter of fact, if a Martian or Prof Richard Dawkins had tuned in by mistake, everything is pretty much explained as we go along. “Herod” mentions that he has recently, for good and adequate reasons, massacred all the baby boys in Bethlehem, and the Innkeeper admits that she recently accommodated a heavily pregnant lady in a stable. But the post-cred gag assumes that the audience is able to identify Jairus’s Daughter—perhaps a safe bet on Radio 4 in 1977, but less so in 2023. If you don’t know, you are left thinking “Wha...what was the point of that?” 

Jackman made a fairly deliberate choice to reference Jairus’s daughter and not, for example, Lazarus. It’s an in-joke which derives its meaning from being “in”.

We need a word for this kind of thing. What do we call it when the meaning of a text assumes knowledge of other texts: when you have to have read one story to understand the meaning of another? You could call it an Easter Egg—something silly and trivial, only there because some people enjoy the game of tracking it down. You could say that it’s a Shibboleth: a little linguistic quirk that some people will pick up on and other people won’t, and which therefore serves to identify group membership. (The producers of Return to the Forbidden Planet said that lots of people laughed at the misquotes from Hamlet, but there was always a single person in the back row laughing very loudly and pointedly at the misquote from Coriolanus.) You could say that it is Fanservice or even Fanwank: something disreputable and self indulgent; a gift that the writer bestows on the cognoscenti; and a means for self-appointed so-called experts to pleasure themselves, while decent folks turn away in disgust. You could even say Intertextuality if you really wanted to.

Or you could smile sarcastically and say that it’s just a particularly clear example of what all writing is always doing at all times.

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