Religion in Vajhoros, V. b.

Six Caravans School

Six Caravans recognises the four caravans originally made explicit in the Four Caravans Edict as well as two more made explicit during the Aquien Reforms. The six caravans are: the ikôda (“icon”), the shonimô (“church”), the family, the Empire, the mvavaskantolkomtas (“monastery”) and the vasjaktemnas (“talking group”).

Ikôda

An icon, or ikôda, is a tool for the sokurmas of a tulmăn. Most commonly it is a depiction of the saint in question – a painting, relief carving, occasionally a sculpture – although it may sometimes be a relic of their life. It calls the attention of the tulmăn toward the devotee, and by showing respect and devotion to the icon devotion can be shown to the tulmăn itself. This provokes the saint to act on behalf of the devotee.

Icons are held to be a caravan toward three cities: devotion to the icon weakens provukă; the saint has the power to alter the devotee’s spirit in a way that eliminates or prevents unnecessary eribarkam; and by influencing the spirits of others, and by calming or controlling malign shojkam, the saint can bring material success to the devotee.

In formal theology, and in the more philosophical strains of thought common in the upper echelons of society, the role of icons is downplayed – it is recognised that their aid is unpredictable and the devotion required considerable. In popular religion, however, icons are central to everyday practice. No element of life is free from icons. Any building has icons over its doors; every hearth and dinner table, every office desk, has an icon. All the more important possessions are protected by icons. An individual will likely carry half a dozen icons at least; women, many more.

The choice of icon operates along two principles: one henotheistic, one polytheistic. The former begins at birth, when by calendrical calculations each child is allotted a patron saint to appeal to; later in life, an individual may change their patron to a saint they feel personally connected to. The second principle is one of portfolio, in which particular saints are appealed to in particular cases – certain saints are connected to cookery, for instance, and hence their icons will appear at hearths, while others are connected to swords, dogs, sea travel, prostitution, conception, blight, fair weather, gambling, rats, prosecution, road-laying and so forth. It is likely that for any subject a handful of conceivably-relevant saints could be named, often varying with geographic region.

Icons themselves can be divided into the devotional (seen in churches, or in bedchambers), to which full devotion is given, the protective (placed on or over anything for a general protection from harm or failure) which are rarely more than kept clean, and the invocational, to which quick prayers are said in time of trouble.

The manner of devotion is not prescribed, but there are several common elements, which may be divided into the preparatory, the exterior, and the inner. To prepare for devotion, the devotee must keep the icon clean, place themselves in a posture that is conducive to abnegation (commonly protestation or kneeling) and avoid any sources of distraction – they should not be afflicted through the sense, or be subject to hunger or lust. The exterior component of devotion is seen through physical contact with the icon and through symbolic sacrifice, often of alcohol or of a burning candle. The interior component is primarily thinking favourably of the saint, and often comparing the saint’s life to the devotee’s own life. It may also feature communication with the saint, particularly the asking of favours and the making of promises.

Shonimô

The Shonimô is the established church organisation of the Empire. It consists of a great many shoniam, ‘cults’, responsible to a small number of ankraonam, ‘metropolitans’. Cults are divisible into makshoniam, ‘small cults’ and vepshoniam, ‘big cults’. The former are responsible for minor shrines, and are usually devoted to a single saint; the latter are responsible for cathedrals, vepshonivarkoam.

The chief importance of the vepshonivarko is as a venue for weekly acts of mass abnegation. In these, devotees enter into the building, remove their clothes, cover themselves in ashes, and lie on the floor for periods of time, interrupted by bouts of kneeling. During this time, a leader will preach their inadequacy and the folly of the human race, illustrated through recent public news. At the end, they are washed clean through immersion. Abnegation is not, as may be thought, an activity designed to produce guilt, but rather a method for weakening provukă, the self-concept, by demonstrating both the weakness (and hence transience) of human flesh and also the fundamental unity of mankind, and the unity of mankind with other living animals. It is a small dose of humiliation to pierce the walls of vanity and delusion that maintain provukă.

Shoniam also provide icons for public devotion, and have an important educative facility, teaching the public about the lives of the saints. As the saints were real people with real lives, their stories act as illustrations of good (or bad) principles in life, and make people more able to fulfil their desires, and to attain the constancy that prevents the creation of unnecessary desires. They also provide experts to advise individuals on morality and prudence.

All shoniam are subsidiary to and supervised by an ankraon, or else they are illegal. There are perhaps a dozen ankraonam in total, with the same word being used for the individual, the authority, and the physical vepshonivarkoam that acts as their seat. No ankraon can exist without the license of the Emperor, and that license may be revoked. Each ankraon is responsible for its own employees, but they are also joined together in the Camera, which has the ultimate religious authority. The Shonimô has sole jurisdiction over crimes of heresy and apostasy, and over clergy throughout the Empire. The jurisdiction of the ankraon is not geographic, but rather, as the name suggests, an authority of founder over founded, with the link usually reflecting the origin of conquering armies, or the favourite cults of founding governors.

Those who feel a vocation toward the priesthood serve for a span of years as talna (sworn slave, legally a child) to a shonikonat (elder of a shoni), before becoming a shoniket (brother in the shoni). The shoniketam retain their status for life, though they do not always remain in a religious role until death. A shoniketam belongs to one shoni only, though they may move from one to another. The shoniketam of each shoni elect their own shonikonatam – in the case of makshoniam, these may be sole governing figures, but in the case of vepshoniam they are in essence a board of governors. In addition to their administrative role, they have an important function in society, acting as ‘councillors’ or ‘chaplains’ to aristocratic families and to vasjaktemnam. From the shonikonatam, the ankraon selects a dushoniari, the chief official. The shonikonatam of the ankraon (who have usually served as shonikonatam, if not dushoniari, themselves) select the new ankraon.

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Religion in Vajhoros, V. a.

Movolkasproagmăthe kingdom of attenuation – An Introduction

In modern mainstream religion, movolkasproagmă is the main emphasis. The great majority of people practice one of three schools of this kingdom: Tajhuônănjioka (“Six Caravans School”, the orthodoxy), Tajhuôkemjioka (“One Caravan School”) or Tajhuôvotjioka (“Four Caravans School”), all three of which are closely related and often referred to collectively as Tajhuôjioka, “School of the Caravan”).

For Tajhuôjioka, the aim of attenuating tsaien is to be accomplished through self-improvement. At root, tsaien arises because the incorporeal spirit is filled with desires it cannot attain without a body. These desires accumulate through generations, because a desire unattained does not dissolve, but lingers perpetually. These desires are then inherited by new incarnations as ill-formed, instinctual desires that bring frustration and bad faith. In order to attenuate tsaien, these desires must be first brought forth and interpreted and then fulfilled or dissolved. At the same time, new desires must be of a kind that will not linger unfulfillably beyond death.

Desires (or more properly ‘willings’) it may be said, are of three kinds: the kind that cannot be fulfilled; the kind that can be fulfilled with a body but not without one; and the kind that can be fulfilled even without a body. Any desire that is limited by any form of provukă, self-concept, that is dependent on a perception of body or mind is inevitably of the second kind, which are called eribarkam, ‘fields’, after a popular board game – the meaning is essentially ‘hostages to fate’. It is impossible to avoid willing, but it is better if willing is more commonly selfless, as selfless willing is less likely to go unfulfilled after death. In particular, empathy enables individuals to have wills that are not self-centred: “for me to have money” is entirely self-focused, and entirely unobtainable after death; “for my children and their children to have money” is less self-focused, and can be satisfied posthumously, at least for the next few generations; “for my nation to prosper” is even more general, and can be satisfied for even longer after death; “for humanity to endure” is more general still. By weakening provukă, individuals can shift the balance of their willing toward these more general, universally achievable goals.

Within the kingdom of attenuation, then, several ‘cities’, or objectives, may be determined: knowledge of one’s own inherited desires; weakening provukă to avoid eribarkam; avoiding the creation of unnecessary eribarkam; and fulfilling or dissolving as many eribarkam as possible before death. These objectives may be reached in several ways, which is phrased as a choice between different ‘caravans’ setting out for the same cities, taking different routes.

Legend: Reaction

It was with considerable trepidation that I opened my well-worn copy of Legend. Once, I loved this book. I first read it, I think, when I was nine, or maybe ten, and I reread frequently from then on. At the time, I was reading mostly Eddings and Pratchett, a few old copies of minor Dragonlance novels, and the occasional Isaac Asimov. Legend was something quite, quite different. Of all the fantasy I had read up to that point, it came closest to capturing what I had felt reading Tolkien, but it did it in a far more accessible manner. Yet those days were a long time ago now, and I hadn’t read Legend for many years. In that time, my horizons in both life and literature had expanded considerably, and I would like to think my tastes had improved. Would my childhood memories be despoiled by going back?

Well, no. To be honest, any part of them that could be despoiled by rereading had already been despoiled by a decade of retrospection – by the time I opened the book, I was already expecting it to be badly written. And, indeed, it was.

Legend is not written so poorly as to be painful; rather, the writing kept me at a pleasant distance where I could try to understand what it was that was wrong. Why did this book that so enchanted me now ring hollow? The question echoed something I had thought recently when re-watching a childhood cartoon: why did the plot seem so much more complex when I was young? Now, I see a problem posed only to be answered a second later – then, I saw a saga of epic twists and turns. What has changed?

My conclusion is that our perception of time is malleable; specifically, our perception of time is warped to fit the importance of what occurs. Looking back at that cartoon, I remembered the story in the form of a sequence of events, each event having its own internal constitution; yet looking at it now, I can see that each ‘event’ is no more than a single scene, perhaps only ten or twenty seconds in length. To me it seemed at the time far more lengthy – not because I had invented additional occurrences to fill the gaps, but simply because the drama of the event caused me to assign more time to it in my imagination. I would have taken a long time to overcome that problem, so the character must have done so too – even if we only see it portrayed briefly. And along with the expansion in time comes an expansion in drama – what are presented as minor difficulties attain the status of epic calamities.

I’m not sure I’m explaining myself well. Here’s a trio of theoretical equations: detail + sensation = magnitude; magnitude + investment = drama. Because it is difficult to remember sensation directly, in hindsight we (or at least I) ascribe a higher degree of detail to an event than it had, in order to explain the drama. Ascribing more detail means ascribing more time. Rewatching, the sensation is less than it was, so I can see plainly that everything is much quicker than I thought it was. Why has the sensation lessened? Perhaps simply because with age I have found more shiny things, and am thus less easily distracted. I think that writing for children is like shooting down biplanes: the best way is to come at them out of the sun. A certain glamour can be cast by bright sensation that hides all inadequacies.

Anyway, Legend. The most striking thing is that the first half of the book is concerned with a sequence of very short events, which are meant to find dramatic, and which indeed I did find dramatic as a child, but which now read much the same as watching a children’s cartoon – the events unfold so quickly and with so little detail that I am unable to build up any care for what happens. This, in turn, makes it harder to care about the characters in time for their next episode, creating a vicious cycle of apathy.

If I had to pick two words to describe the general style of Legend, they would be ‘blurred’ and ‘sketchy’. Gemmell seems just to indicate in the direction of things, rather than outlining them clearly. I found this highly problematic. Dialogue does not seem to represent spoken words, but merely a vague idea of the information transferred, together with a general tone of voice. There are very few such tones of voice, meaning that no nuance of situation is possible, and no real differentiation of character. It is never Rek speaking, or Druss, or Bowman; it is Cynical Voice, or Heroic Voice, or Flippant Voice, and any one of these voices can be in the mouths of any of the characters, depending on the situation. “Character” is simply in this book a certain ratio between the prime voices. It feels like a combination of an over-literal Myers-Briggs test and a sort of latent multiple personality disorder pervading the entire cast list. Accordingly, there is little or no actual character development – merely mentions by other people that development has occurred, which we must take at face value.

This lack of strong characters is particularly surprising given the rapid, blurry camerawork (Legend should be seen primarily, in my opinion, as a film or miniseries related in words). The narrator resides behind the eyes, but has no faithfulness to one character or another – it zooms from head to head, paragraph after paragraph. We walk into a conversation in one head and leave in another; we see a man from a distance and suddenly we hearing that man’s thoughts. This is a prime source of those miniature ‘events’ I mentioned, because whenever we explore a new brain we must always, in Legend, explore their entire life history. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it is always welcome to see new viewpoints on the action – but in Legend it is badly performed. Each vignette lasts in general no more than a couple of paragraphs, and it is simply too difficult to care about a man from so little information. When I was nine, perhaps the knowledge that a brigand had lost his family to government oppression, and had set out as a freedom fighter but had increasingly come to question the morality of his life of crime, was enough to make me empathise with a character. Or the knowledge that an engineer had fought all his life against a crippling disability, and had become an intellectual, but still retained his loyalty to the man who saved his life as a child. But now, merely being told these things is not enough to make me care. I need to see the character.

Gemmell does not literally ‘tell’ us these facts, but he conveys them in flights of thoughts so rapid and summarised that he might as well be giving us bullet points – we do not get to ‘live’ with how the character has been shaped by these formative influences. The best example is a man who climbs a wall and gets killed at the top of it – the brief potted life history we see on the way up does not make the man’s depth any more powerful to me, because it is so disembodied, so distant, so safely encapsulated. It is, after all, only a paragraph or two. The sin is particularly great where, as in the case of the aforementioned brigand, the backstory and its impact on the character are central to the plot. It feels like a deus ex machina, because although we glimpse the natural machinery by which such events could occur, we see it so fleetingly that it feels as though the god has simply put on a hasty disguise. Or, more seriously, that the author has decided what will happen and then simply written in a paragraph of hypothetical justification for it.

Because these vignettes feature flashbacks, we get to see yet more shaky camerawork – through time. Back a decade, forward a year, back three days, forward three months – the time shifts alarmingly between paragraphs, and every line must be read to understand what is going on. Nor does the author choose to follow such outmoded notions as consistent use of tenses. No! A paragraph may begin in the pluperfect, and yet migrate to the preterite in the second sentence, yet be referring to the same time in both cases. Or the shift to the preterite can mark a shift to the ‘present’ occurrence (which may itself be in the past relative to the rest of the story, which is of course in the past tense itself). The worst instance is in a very early chapter, where Hogun is on a scouting mission with his cavalry – a single short chapter cuts between a three or four different times during the weeks-long mission, as well as cutting back to the briefing where the mission was assigned. It is all rather confusing. Each time something happens, we must ask when it is happening – is this attack in the ‘present’, or did it follow on from the event the narrator was just describing? The author gives few clues, and I had to reskim the chapter two times to piece together what happened when.

This is not a fault unique to the handling of tense. The author is sketchy in the extreme about all sorts of things, from physics to time to setting to motivation. Sometimes the problem is simply bad writing. For instance, as the walls fall, I found myself on the wrong wall – I had not realised that two retreats had happened in quick succession, one of them occurring in a single line or two at the end of a paragraph about something else. To be honest, I still don’t understand the actual architecture of Dros Delnoch – the walls, the ramparts, the gates, the tunnels, the battlements, the towers, the killing grounds – again and again I found myself fiddling in my mind with different models as new information came in (eg sometimes the ramparts seem to be behind the walls, but other times things fall or jump from the ramparts; sometimes the ramparts are next to the gates, and other times they seem to be above them) until eventually I just gave up and concluded “everything is next to everything else”. Or, who on earth in Earl Drada of Dros Segril? We know he hates the Drenai, but his fortress is clearly named in the Drenai fashion, and he was clearly within travelling distance of the Temple, which seems to be in the heart of Drenai territory – and it never seems to say what nation he belongs to (and there is no mention elsewhere of ‘Earls’ in either Ventria or Vagria). And speaking of that, why does Ulric refer to Dros Delnoch as “Dros”, when it clearly means “fortress”? Everyone else calls it “Delnoch”, and Ulric is not an uneducated man to make such a mistake.

This confusions are more of a problem because there has clearly been little editing, and there are numerous minor inconsistencies, making it hard to distinguish authorial error from reader’s mistake. A prominent example that I went back to check on: when the mercenary bowmen are recruited, it clearly says that they are contracted to stay until Wall Three (Kania) falls; yet in fact they leave after Wall Two (Musif) falls, having ‘fulfilled their contract’. I thought at one point that this was part of a wider mistake regarding wall numbers that explained the apparent error regarding retreats noted above – but in fact the error in the latter case was mine. On the subject of walls, however, there is at one stage a detailed explanation of what the wall names mean, according to the emotions that will be felt on each. Musif, for instance, is a wall of despair, after the retreat from Eldibar, while Kania is a wall of renewed hope, because the defenders have survived Musif and Kania is easier to defend. This is a powerful, if brief, passage. Yet in fact none of this is borne out – Musif is held confidently, for a long time, and when they retreat to Kania there is panic, as Kania cannot be defended for even a fraction of the time that Musif could, it seems. Now, some authors would create this contrast between expectation and reality on purpose – I regret to say that I do not trust Gemmell to be so sophisticated (and there is no sign anywhere that he is cognisant of the issue).

Finally, a more serious problem: how many men does Ulric have? Wild numbers fly around, but we are given to believe that he has half a million men. That’s a lot, when Dros Delnoch never has more than eleven thousand. But not all those men go to the siege, and it is explicitly stated that Ulric has only twenty thousand men. That should hardly be a problem for eleven thousand men behind impregnable fortifications! And later Ulric himself says he has four more armies the same size, putting his force at one hundred thousand. So perhaps the half a million figure was still an exaggeration. But even one hundred thousand is enough to crush the Drenai, as they have only the eleven thousand at Delnoch and a few thousand more elsewhere. Yet Woundweaver is able to summon up an army of fifty thousand men in what can’t be more than a few months. My suggestion to Woundweaver: given that Ulric only has twenty thousand men, don’t hang around until you’ve got fifty thousand, just run to Delnoch as soon as you’ve got 10k and win that that battle! So maybe it’s simply a mistake when we’re told that Ulric has only 20k. So, if we take 500k as his total force and divide by five (taking him at his word as to the number of his armies), we’re left with 100k. That is impressive. But then why are they bothering to buy time for Woundweaver’s 50k, when that army will be swept aside anyway? Maybe Woundweaver thinks that 50k can hold Ulric if they get to Delnoch in time. But then he doesn’t have much faith in the impregnable fortifications, does he, if he wants to only be outnumbered 2:1. After all, if we open our Gemmell corpus to (iirc) Waylander, we’re told that fortifications can withstand direct assaults at ratios of 5:1 or even 10:1 – and Delnoch is meant to be the strongest fortification going, so even the 11k stationed there should be able to hold off Ulric’s force. I guess the best option is to ignore the later books, ignore the 20k figure, and assume that Woundweaver’s only hope is to arrive before Delnoch falls. But I don’t like having to do detective work on something so simple and important!

So, as you can tell, I’m rather critical of the writing. Dialogue is not only characterless, it is also unrealistic and clunky, particularly when moving forward the plot. Events occur with no concern for feasibility – the utterly predictable love-at-first-sight thing it cringe-inducingly bad, since not only is it out of character for both characters, it is not even at genuine first sight. Rather, two characters complain about each other for a few days in a ‘oh, they’re going to quarrel a lot but love each other eventually’ way, before suddenly, spontaneously and utterly falling in love one morning for no apparent reason and with no qualms or reservations, and being inseparably romantically entangled from that point forth with (iirc) only a single brief argument (ie one page) in the rest of the book. To me, the overwhelming feeling is that the author has been planning a slow romance before suddenly realising ‘oh shit, they’ve got to be in love really soon, let’s just say they’re in love now’. And the prose? Mostly not painful, but very rarely inspired in any way, and frequently predictable. Characters barely exist. The plot in the first half of the book is rambling, and in the second half is unvarying. Few ideas are put forward.

And yet… halfway through the book, something magical happens. Everything… starts to work. This is not because the problems are done away with, but simply because… they don’t matter as much anymore. Battle is joined. Suddenly, it’s OK for everyone to be alternating Heroic Voice and Flippant Voice – they’re half asleep anyway, and shellshocked, and don’t have time to be individuals. They don’t have time for character progression, they’re in a battle damnit. So what if the prose is unable to withstand flashbacks coherently – we’re in a battle, we don’t need flashbacks any more. Relationships? They’ll have to wait, I’m afraid. Don’t care about the vignettes? That’s OK, all that really matters is the mounting panic as the battle is slowly lost. Dialogue seems forced and unrealistic? Of course it is, they’re making a speech for the good of the men! All the errors in the writing fade into the background.

What comes to the front is, to be honest, saccharine and one-dimensional honour-porn. Endless speeches about honour and death and defiance and killing. Honour. So much honour. It’s like the blood-drenched fantasy version of To Kill a Mockingbird, only every character is Atticus! It’s a Churchill speech, drawn out into a book!

I can’t deny, I came very close on occasion there to shedding a manly tear, in a defiant-speech-and-heroic-last-stand way. It may be entirely one-dimensional, but it’s good at its dimension. Really, really good.

It may be objected that even the second half of the book is littered with increasingly improbably deus ex machinas – sometimes almost literally. I had no problem with that. Legend, you see, is not a typical mechanical magic world – it is a medieval magic realist world. It is about legends – and just as Garcia Marquez conflates the myth of an event with the truth of the event and tells us the myth as though it were true (and sometimes the truth as though it were myth), so too Legend presents us with exactly the sort of ‘miracles’ that the legends and sagas are full of, and tells us that they really happen. In my opinion, it works.

Where it does not work is where the other side of the equation is lacking – the realism. The technique relies upon a firm ground of realism to make the magic powerful, and Legend never really succeeds in doing that. It’s clear that it tries to – so many of its characters are cynics who do not believe in sagas and magic. But it still remains, ultimately, a children’s cartoon – where, as in a cartoon, an entire army is represented by a handful of men, every single one of whom fights on the front line. The heroes in cartoons fight on the walls? Well then, every single one of the higher echelons of the Drenai strategic command will be out on the battlements every single day fighting hand-to-hand like champions. Who cares about realism? The Nadir are barbarians who practise polygamy, so obviously every single one has seven wives – even the soldiers in the front line assault, explicitly described as the dregs of the army. Would that be a realistic economic model? Who cares? And who cares if that Nadir warrior has a life story that makes him sound like a noble despite the fact he’s clearly a low-ranked peasant footsoldier? Time and time again, it’s clear that the battle is no more than a cartoon – larger than life, oversimplified, melodramatic, with no real attention paid to logistics. This is not a fatal flaw – as time goes on, it becomes less important, as the massive death tolls make it more believable that there seem to only be ten men actually left in the battle. But it does weaken the power of the novel – a grittier, more realistic tone established from the beginning would make the heightened, legendary conclusion even more overwhelming.

Only, not the conclusion. Because although the book gets better as it goes along, the ending is still appallingly bad. If, indeed, it can be said to exist at all. Dear gods, I don’t even want to think about that ending any more. Not the magical bit of it – actually, not any bit of it. Just the fact that there are so few bits of it. Can’t you devote a few more pages to the most important events of the novel? No? Just a little more? No, the epilogue does not count…

Finally, one last topic: the breadth of the perspective. Legend goes far beyond most pulp fantasy in its fairness and greyness. As said above, we get to see Nadir perspectives as well as Drenai ones, and it is far from clear that the Nadir are villains (despite the fact they want to slaughter everybody in the city and sell the children into slavery). The Nadir individuals we meet are all sympathetic individuals, and Ulric even makes explicit the fact that the story would look very different told from his side (because he knows the tale of the siege will be the tale of Druss the Legend, and he is on the other side, which makes him the villain). It’s a charmingly and refreshingly insightful view into the important of perspectives, and the nature of legends. It’s only a pity it’s usually done so summarily. Legend could have been a genuinely good book, if it started halfway through and used the extra length to flesh out the characters.

Unfortunately, the same favours are not done for non-warriors, and to a lesser extent for women. Politicians and merchants (seen as essentially the same) are more or less equivalent to cockroaches or excrement in this book – and while great care is taken to show that the warriors are not superior to the farmers (indeed, even suggesting that they are inferior), we never actually see too much of the farmers. It is true that the nature of heroism is that it is the focus – but much could have been gained by having seen more through the eyes of those who are not heroic. Including, pardon the heresy, giving a voice to some of the burghers – as it seems that as neither straightforwardly destructive like the warriors nor destructive like the farmers, all townsmen are essentially untrustworthy scum with no place in society. With the exception of one honest innkeeper and his daughters), every single town-dweller is a villain, or at best a culpable fool. It is not only tiring, it is worrying.

Women are given some voice, but not enough. I am normally the last person to argue for more female viewpoints (I think the viewpoints should be those demanded by the story, and some stories do not have much place for women – this may be annoying for female readers, but in my view the onus is on readers to sympathise more widely, rather than for writers to conform to pre-set quotas, or even to distort their books by bowing to public or sectional opinion to any degree greater than that strictly required to get published and promulgated) – yet in this book I keenly felt the invisibility of women. This, I think, is because there are useful female characters already. They are simply not used! We see inside two female heads – Caessa and Virae. Both are immensely clichéd, but that is no worse than the men. What galls me is that both characters have room to be used – both are strong-willed, both have backstories, both are or could be involved in the events related, both have viewpoints quite distinct from those of the other characters. Caessa, in particular, seems perfect for a major character – her peculiar flaws and obsessions, while not really believable, have a powerful sympathy with the events in which she finds herself (as I speak carefully to avoid revealing what her ‘thing’ is). Virae too would have had an interesting perspective – whether as an inexperienced but eager fighter on the walls, or as a woman reluctantly caged behind the lines while her beloved husband risks his life for her. The poor woman must be wracked by doubts and hopes, but we hardly see any of them. Both characters are criminally underused. Likewise the woman we see preparing to leave the city late on, trying to persuade her husband to leave. A view from the city is sorely needed, and given that there is a woman provided who has that view, it feels criminal to relegate her to a single scene. I feel the lack of women because it feels natural to have these female characters – they seem slighted intentionally, not merely superfluous to requirements.

Anyway, I think that’s it. Short version: if you like fantasy and war films, you’ll like the second half of this book. I’m not sad I reread it – it’s a lot better than I feared it might be. I genuinely found it enjoyable to read, at least once I got to the good bits.

Review marks:

Adrenaline: 3/5. This is an average – the second half would easily be a 4, but the first half drags it down.

Emotion: 4/5. Overall, not that emotive – the characters just aren’t strong enough. However, as I say, I did feel my chest tighten and my eyes moisten as we came toward the end, and I think that has to merit an automatic 4.

Thought: 3/5. I thought this would be lower, but I want to be fair to the book – it did try to raise issues surrounding perspective and storytelling and the nature of war. In particular, the treatment of warriors was nuanced, suggesting they may be both greater and lesser than ordinary men.

Beauty: 3/5. Badly written and generally ugly – except that as it approaches the status of streamlined purified honour-porn it festoons itself in powerful images of life and death and human nature, which pushes the score up to average.

Craft: 2/5. It’s simply badly written – and until we reach the point where more interesting things are happening, the bad writing shouts from every page. That said, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen, and above an entire echelon of bad fantasy books.

Endearingness: 2/5. Well, I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll be rereading it for a long time. I found the book, as it were, an obstacle – something was going on that was appealing, but the book kept getting in the way, like a boring man relaying interesting events. You’re glad you heard about them, but you wish you didn’t have to listen to him to get that information. Against that, there are few redeeming features – the power of the heroism is not a particularly endearing power (except in a very few particular moods). So… I can envisage situations where I would read this book for comfort and enjoyment, but such situations are unlikely ever to occur. Hence, this is not an endearing book. Perhaps if I find myself in a war-zone or all my family become terminally ill, I’ll reconsider.

Originality: 2/5. It’s simplistic, it’s predictable, it’s unsurprising. It escapes a 1 rating because it does try to do new things. It is more nuanced in its treatment of both heroes and enemies than it might have been, and the overall structure of the book, with its constant ratcheting of pressure in a fixed environment, while not really successful, is a departure from conventional fantasy structures (though clearly enormously in debt to the siege of Minas Tirith).

Composite Score: 2.71

Overall Score: 4/7: Not That Bad Really

On another day, I might have pushed this down to ‘bad with some redeeming features’, but I’m being charitable – and I’m granting it the benefit of the doubt not only because I used to love it, but also because although it is quite bad in quite a lot of ways, it’s not actually appalling in any of them – every flaw has some redeeming features, and, while its virtues are likewise not pristine, I think its high points are higher than its low points are low, so to speak. So, I won’t go so far as to say that overall it’s a bad book – but there are simply too many egregious problems for me to honestly call it a ‘good’ book.

The length of bits of wood

A thought occured to me while writing that Dhalgren review:

It should be allowed that:  if two men each believe they possess a true meter-rule, and each accordingly measures distances and arrives at different numbers, neither has any objective way to demonstrate to the other which of their measurement systems is ‘correct’. The most they can do is turn to a friend for corroboration with a third meter-rule.

Or: we judge length with a scale. How do we judge scales? Whatever system we employ is itself just another scale – we see how their scale ‘measures up’ to our scale – but when we do that, they can simply see this as our scale failing to measure up to theirs.

A related but different metaphor: how do we judge which of two sticks is longest when we cannot touch either of them? We can apply our scale to our vision of them, but the answer will vary with respect to where we stand relative to them.

However (and this is the thought I had): while we may not be able to tell objectively which stick is longer than the other, can we not tell when a stick has been extended? If our perspective remains the same during the change, the new stick will always look longer than the old stick!

The application to reviewing is clear: the issue of comparing one book to another may be distinct from the issue of comparing a book to its own potential. So, while we may not be able to say “book a is better than book b” (in an objective way rather than as a statement of taste), perhap we can say “book a would have been better if…”.

This is only possible if:

a) we are right to draw the analogy to Euclidean space, where an extension cannot make something appear smaller from any perspective; and

b) we are right in believing our perspective can remain stationary while the extension occurs; and

c) we are right in believing that we can effect this extension in our minds (ie we can ‘extend’ the stick, not merely create a new stick of a different and purportedly longer length).

This are, obviously, all contentious issues. In the third case, I think the assumption is justified. The A` we imagine has, or can be made to have, no characteristics other than those specified in the A and in our extension, which to me implies that the imagination is indeed of A being extended. Now, it can be objected that unless we create the whole of A` in our heads (eg write the entire new book), what we have is not A` at all but only, so to speak ~A`: a vision that might not reflect the actuality. This is true. However, it seems to me that the issue of how closely the vision meets the hypothetical reality is a plain ignorance problem, not a problem of perspective.*

What does b) mean? Well, if a stick is enlarged at the same time as we move to a new location, the stick may continue to appear the same length to us. BUT: if we bear in mind a second stick in a different location, we will see THAT stick change in length as we move! Thus, we should in theory be able use our view of other sticks to hold our perspective steady as the imagined extension occurs – or at least know when we have failed.

a) seems to me to mean the same as saying that polarity is universal – what we see as a unit of length is always seen as a unit of positive length from any perspective, even if how long it is to other units is not agreed on. Clearly, this is not always true – what I see as a positive, you may see as a negative. However, die-hard relativists should consider closely what a linear framework of this kind actually requires. It does not require objective agreements on magnitude. It does not require a unitary scale: if two scales both have a positive and negative axis, they can both be incorporated into this linear framework without us having to make any prejudicial decisions regarding their interaction or relative significance.

Can linear frameworks be agreed? First order frameworks, based on, eg, utility, clearly cannot be – but I see no reason to think that second-order frameworks (based on, eg, potential for utility) cannot be, at least between large groups of people. To take an example, both utility and freedom have been held up as positives, but there is no consensus on how these scales should be seen as interacting. But for a linear framework, we do not need this: we only need both to be recognised as, prima facie, positive. This seems far more achievable – while probably still not universal.

The practical issue, of course, is that pure extension is rare. In the political example, an extension of liberty often requires an decrease in utility and vice versa, and a linear framework cannot help us here.

As you can see, I’ve hardly worked out the consequences of this thought – but I think that nonetheless it’s an interesting (if very minor) step away from relativism, which allows a greater degree of agreement between people than a fully dimensional analysis. In practice, we can seek to find consensus on polarities, and when we are forced to assume them we can state these assumptions. The significance for book reviews I leave to the (imaginary) reader.

*Ok, this isn’t actually true.

—–

Two other thoughts on those analogies: for the Wittgenstein one, does this mean that which stick is longer than the other can be measured objectively? This, I suppose, does not matter, as the length of the stick is not importance, only the distance measured. If we apply this to the discussion above, what is the implication?

For the Nietzsche: does the analogy of perspectives imply a distant, untouchable, object? If so, how does this interact with the dissolution of the noumenal/phenomenal distinction? Or is this only an artefact of the analogy?

Rambling now…

Reaction: Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany

“the boys i mean are not refined
they go with girls who buck and bite
they do not give a fuck for luck
they hump them thirteen times a night […]

they speak whatever’s on their mind
they do whatever’s in their pants
the boys i mean are not refined
they shake the mountains when they dance”

[First and last stanzas, “the boys i mean are not refined”, E. E. Cummings]

Perhaps this is a strange place to begin; but when entering a wilderness we cannot follow roads. To enter the unexploited territory, we must at some point step off from where we know, and navigate by moon and stars, and by the rough and uncontrollable topography of the earth, as the earth curves, and not by lines and human compasses; and one point to step off the road is much the same as any other. And if, as quite unarguably is the case, this strained analogy is too pretentious, too verbose, too ceremonial, for the purpose of opening a handful of thoughts on an old book… well, that’s probably appropriate, given the book in question.

For those of you who don’t know, Dhalgren is a novel from 1975. A man, suffering from amnesia and lacking, arrives in a city in the American West, but Bellona is not an ordinary city. The tops of the buildings burn eternally, and the sky is perpetually overcast – when it clears, strange things are seen. No contact can be had with the outside world – radios and televisions do not work. The world outside remains, but has forgotten about Bellona. Most of her inhabitants have fled – of one of the dozen or two largest cities in the world, only a few thousand people remain. Our anonymous hero is born into the world in surrealism – words give way to images, give way to strange, dreamlike scenes, give way, after the first chapter, to seeming realism. My copy bears a blurb from the Libertarian Review, calling it a “Joycean tour de force” that stakes a claim as “one of the enduring monuments of our national literature“. Strong words. The front page bears the tag line: “The Major Novel of Love and Terror At the End of Time“. Bold. The opening epigram: “You have confused the true and the real”. The famous first lines?

“to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.
All you know I know:”

I wanted to like this book. I succeeded, and I failed.

—————–

So, my strange starting place: there are many kinds of homoeroticism. I mean this word in a literal sense, and not as some euphemism for homosexuality. Eros, as Plato defines the concept, is the love of an internal beauty. This should not be confused with Kantian ideas of beauty, in which we are to admire beauty in a disinterested fashion; as Nietzsche says, Pygmalion was not without aesthetic feeling. The love of beauty can be a visceral love, and when that beauty is encapsulated in a human being, the expression of that love can be a sexual expression. Yet at the same time, there is something alienating about eros: Plato says that ultimately what is loved is beauty itself, not its presentation in a particular person; Nietzsche, less metaphysical and more psychological, says that it is desire itself that we love, and not the desired. And most often what is desired is desired for what is lacking in ourselves.

One type of homoeroticism, eros between two men, sprang loudly and repeatedly to mind, like an overstimulated puppy, when I was reading Dhalgren: the erotic (in the above sense) fixation between a (usually) old, scholarly, introverted artist and his strong, young, unlettered, wild and beautiful subject. It’s a timeless theme, both among gay writer and among (theoretically) heterosexual ones. Cummings turns to it repeatedly, but most unambiguously in the poem quoted, where nearly five stanzas of what seem like superior condemnation pass before the inferiority complex of the artist takes the stage in the final line. “Oh, how wonderful they are,” we might imagine the poet’s subconscious sighing, “they actually do things. Not like poor old me, out of touch with the world.” We can see it in Ginsburg, likewise. Perhaps we can see some part of it in the suave, athletically amoral heroes of cowboy and gangster films – we can hear the bespectacled writers sighing with lust, not sexual, but existential. “Oh, to be like that…” We see it, sticking with muscular American writers, in McCarthy’s depictions of young cowboys in Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy. A century before, we saw it, both implicitly in his work and explicitly in his philosophy, in Oscar Wilde – and he in turn traced it back through Shakespeare to the Greeks.

Yet alas the svelte young bucks so many old men seem to fantasise about (in some cases sexually, in other cases only philosophically) are not always good subjects for literature: they only act, they do not explain, and so we need some other viewpoint to see them through (unless, as in Blood Meridian, we are content with dreamy and absurdist orgies of mechanical bleedings and ejaculations, our dancing boys on the stage silent like marionettes). And at the same time, perhaps it can become awkward for such writers to justify themselves in their tweed apartments. Why don’t they go out and be like the men they write about? The question must have seemed particularly pressing in the wake of the War, when social norms were falling and men no longer had to ride out west to be wild, but could do it in their own living rooms, and on their local streets. Yet the answer was inescapably clear: what, be like them? Be like those idiots?

“the boys i mean are not refined
they cannot chat of that and this
they do not give a fart for art
they kill like you would take a piss”

 

What decent self-respecting middle-class intellectual artist would want to be like that? The last bit, yes, that’s strong and bold and manly and noble savage and why can’t we just murder those irritating critics wouldn’t that be wonderful… but the rest? Oh good god, think how boring the dinner parties would be!

No, what was needed was a middle-class savage – an artistic savage. Somebody who had all that erotic savagery but could still talk about alexandrines. What was needed was, as Kerouac described his movement:

“a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way… characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization…”

The Beatnik: Cummings and his dancing boys unified in a single unwashed man, topped up with a little Nietzschean malaise and countercultural antimaterialism.

Incipit… The Kid!

Swoon over his youthful beauty!

Shiver at his manly scars!

Sigh at his ability to pen sweet poetry in public toilets!

Tremble before his fearless daylight robbery and gun battles!

Thrill to his tales of debauchery, his unquenchable libido, his iron erection!

(But don’t worry, he can conduct himself well at polite dinner parties too, even if there is a polite little sneer on his face when he does so… who knows, maybe that weedy little poet sitting next to you and looking so superior does so because really, in his secret identity, which he never quite gets around to acting out, he too is the wonderful man-machine of many-levelled beauty we know as…. the Kid!!!!!) (and yes, he hitchhikes into town – what respectable beatnik wouldn’t?)

In case you hadn’t guessed yet…. Dhalgren really, really, annoyed me. That’s not to say it’s a bad book – just an infuriating one.

I’ve spent a thousand words on this line of thought. Perhaps the same effect could have been achieved more quickly with the concept of a “Mary Sue”. You know what it means. There’s a nice test on the internet to tell you how much of one your favourite character is. They advise you to take heed at a score of over twenty, and worry over thirty. By my calculation, the central character of Dhalgren scores over one hundred on that test, only a few points this side of Jesus Christ, in a realm usually reserved for the central messianic self-insertions of truely bad epic fantasy. In a world with no (or little) magic and no Messiahs, that’s quite an accomplishment for the Kid.

Or, to summarise: if you don’t like characters who never wash and yet have sex five times every night because every woman swoons over how sweatily manly they are, despite their scarred hands, and who then sit naked in a public park in the morning writing insightful lyric poetry…. you, like me, will find this book annoying. And yet… and yet… he almost pulls it off. Annoying as he can be, I never dislike Kidd. I dislike Samuel Delany (oh, how I dislike him [Later edit: NB. ‘Samuel Delany’ strictly as the author of this novel, I know little about him as a person]), but I don’t dislike his characters. Nothing personal, I’m sure he’s very nice, but his book forces me to dislike him. I either dislike him or I dislike his book, and I think he’d be happier with me blaming him for its sins and trying to take it on its own merit. Try to forget that, like the central character, he’s a mixed race bisexual poet. (No, there’s nothing wrong with being mixed race or bisexual. Or even, probably, with being a poet. There’s not even that much wrong with his characters sharing his racial and sexual identity. My problem is that the book is written in such a way that it is instantly obvious that the author is bisexual and mixed race and a poet simply from the fact that his beloved main character is, and so I knew this with absolute certainty before I read any biographical detail about him). Imagine that I can’t see thinly-veiled and homoerotic self-adulation under every paragraph…

Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that Kid looks younger than he (thinks he) is. The paradox of his age is part of the central paradox of his character – which, and I am trying not to beat a drum here, honestly, is a paradox of homoeroticism. Kid is both lover and loved. On the one hand he is young, suave, svelte, aliterate, a man (or boy) of action; on the other, he is middle-aged, gruff, alienated to a degree from the excesses of the boys around him, and a poet. Delany is able to adore himself doubly – he can adore his idolised boy-image, and he can also adore his older poet-image. And, because his character is bisexual and because he doesn’t limit himself to one idol per book, he can even adore his poet-image while his poet-image is in the act of adoring his idolised boy-image.

That sentence started out mocking Delany, but by the end of it I found myself unable to escape admiration. That’s sort of how I see this book. Each time I try to deride it, the thought is perverted into praise. Each time I try to praise it, the thought is diverted into derision.

The duality continues. On the one hand, Kidd is a hero; on the other hand, he is a villain. One the one hand, he is respectable, concerned, curious, polite; on the other, he is violent, amoral, antisocial, rude, superior, filthy and countercultural. The duality is his chief characteristic. When he complains about misrepresentation by the public, he is told that a noble action “isn’t two-sided enough for you. It’s just straight heroics”. Everything he does must have two sides to it.

A character with depth and texture and tone? Well, no. Because duality isn’t just his central characteristic – it’s his only characteristic. He is, essentially, a passive and colourless man – he says himself, “I don’t think, I’m just an observer”. And that’s what he does: observes. The facets of his public image are only that – an image woven by exaggeration from a handful of acts that, as he says, represent only a fraction of his time in Bellona. Those acts are not themselves the product of a conflicted personality, but only, and self-admittedly, moments of whimsy in a sea of boredom. He’s immensely bored all the time so occasionally does things that might be mildly vaguely interesting. What he seems to do a lot of is write poetry – but we don’t exactly get to see much of it, so it has little impact on our perception of him. Even when he does things, he shows little interest or volition: as he puts it, they are “things that have happened to me, not that I have done.”

I have just this moment finished reading the book. I decided to insert this paragraph randomly into the review as a homage to its style. I have thrown the book at a wall, hard – the first book I’ve ever thrown (I wanted once to throw a book by MacKinnon against a wall, or preferably something more damaging, but it was a library copy and fragile, and I didn’t dare). Then I picked it up again, paced around the house, and spent a few minutes throwing it against things, partly out of anger, partly out of melodrama, and partly just because it actually felt quite nice and made a nice sound. It dented it a bit and scratched it, but it’s a solid and strong old second-hand copy and the bruising just adds to the character, I think.

The dullness of the central character need not be a deadly flaw, if the people he observes are themselves interesting. Here again Delany fails, albeit with style. He write his characters well. He has that knack of making a man real with a few words, and I know the minor characters here better than the main protagonists of many novels. Some of them are even interesting. Kidd’s girlfriend, for instance, is genuinely multifaceted and sympathetic, and merely having more of her in it would have made the book a lot more enjoyable. But against this is a certain violent bloody-mindedness the author seems to exhibit, in which he intentionally makes his book as painful to read as possible. In this case, many of the minor characters are obnoxious, and those who could be tolerable are portrayed so unsympathetically that they become repellent. I was particularly horrified by the treatment of Frank – the only character in the novel who avoids fawning over the beautiful wonderfulness of Delany/Kidd, his punishment is to have both author and character determined to undermine, second-guess and vilify his every move and word.

Instead, Delany/Kid prefers people who can’t stand up to the Kid, and as the book goes on it increasingly focuses on mostly-brain-dead personality-free thugs who spend their time in meaningless sex and vandalism. Worst of all is the Kid’s boyfriend (no, it’s not a big spoiler, it’s obvious he’s going to get one), who, while admittedly sympathetic and even likeable as a person, is dead weight in a narrative – aside from being beautiful and (illegally) young, his chief characteristic is getting confused whenever he thinks too hard. Even the Kid admits how boring he is. The most flattering description of him in the book is “like a warm dog” – an unconditionally-loving happy bounding puppy.

A few hours later: I have felt drunk all evening and filled with an inarticulate bloody-mindedness and an urge to make poetically vatic and/or surreal replies to everything said around me. It cannot be denied that the book has had a deep effect on me, though not an altogether good one. In any case, much of this may be put down to me – I tend to become strange when I’ve finished a book.

If not the characters, perhaps the plot is worth commending. Ha! A laughable suggestion. There is no plot. Thing happen – dreamlike, symbolic, usually sexual in content or suggestion or import. Things don’t relate to other things, and things die away without consequence. Sometimes we don’t know what things have happened, or are happening; other times, we don’t know what order they happen in. It is, in the strictest sense, a surreal book. The Kid merely wanders around observing things: a surreal picaresque. As he himself says: “My life here more and more resembles a book whose opening chapters, whose title even, suggests mysteries to be resolved only at closing. But as one reads along, one becomes more and more suspicious that the author has lost the thread of his argument, that the questions will never be resolved, or more upsetting, that the position of the characters will have so changed by the book’s end that the answers to the initial questions will have become trivial.” So there. If you go to Delany asking for a plot, he’ll react the same as if you asked for a character: by attacking you with an axe. He is above such mortal things as plot…

Some people will at this juncture interject that I am missing the point, and they would be right. I have glossed over a major defence: all this is intentional. It is part of the purpose, perhaps the entire purpose, of the book to question things like plot and character and other ‘narratives’. These things, the post-narrative artist will object, are not what we should look for from artists. But the question remains: what SHOULD we look for from them? What do they want to give us instead?

I liked this book (as well as hating it). If I seem critical, it is because I am trying to find a reason to like it, and failing at great length. This is a long book – why is it worth reading? Why was it worth writing in the first place? If it takes away narratives, what does it give us instead?

Surrealism means the emulation of a dream. In a dream, plot and character are meaningless and fluid. Likewise here. All there is is a series of events, loaded with symbolic meaning. What to they symbolise?

Sadly, not much. With no characters or plot to enrich, they are relegated to conveying ideas – fair enough. I like ideas. These ideas are mostly unobjectionable ideas. In essence, the book has four themes:

1: Perspectivism. Every narrative is told by somebody. Every argument has at least two sides. Characters are social constructs, which both in reality and, more powerfully, in Bellona then constrain and mould the human being around whom they have formed – public image becomes self-image, yet at the same time self-interpretation of that image remains distinct from the public interpretation. Both the self and the other have their roles in a system of values and expectations that is unique to the individual and that can never wholly be comprehended by another.

2: Relatedly, the inadequacy of language. Writing cannot represent speech; speech cannot represent either thoughts or events: “I suppose I’m getting frustrated by what written words can’t do”.

3: Sex. “Balling a couple of dozen people in one night is merely a prerequisite for understanding anything worth knowing”. And “is art and sex replacing sex and death as the concerns of the serious mind? Life here would make me think so.” [One helpful hand Delany offers to the reader is that if you ever miss a theme he’ll reiterate it for you four times symbolically and then shout it at you again a final time explicitly].

4: Counterculture: the rejection of everything bourgeois and middle-class and quotidian and conventional – a peculiarly bourgeois and middle-class convention/obsession in art, I think.

All four themes are problematic. The first is what destroys all other dimensions of the book. The second is hugely self-centred and annoying, as it revolves chiefly around the agonies of being a successful author and how terribly difficult it is (actually, a lot of the perspectivism revolves around that as well, about how terrible it is to be so greatly admired by strangers who don’t know you at all, and how maddening it is to be driven by hyperbolic fantasies of success and acceptance that your real astonishing success and acceptance can’t live up to). Three objections: if you’re frustrated by what written words can’t do, don’t write eight hundred pages of them. The solution to ‘words can’t represent anything’ isn’t to write a long, long (and it feels longer than it is), long novel in which words represent nothing at all happening. Second: oh, how terrible it is to be you, Samuel Delany, I have sooooo much sympathy. How much am I paying you for this simulation of artistic suffering, exactly? Third: I like my authors to be magicians. I don’t like to see everything being made. I don’t want long soul-searchings about how fraudulent you are, how much is random and how much is meant, whether there’s anything other than fraudulence, and so on (I’m quite able to scent the fraudulence and randomness within this book without it you yelling at me about it). I certainly don’t want you to do your own criticism, or to pre-emptively criticise your critics. Just give me a book, and then we can talk about it. A book talking about you talking about you talking about a book you wrote about you talking about (etc) is just far too self-servingly obsessive, in my opinion.

The third theme is not altogether unwelcome, but it adds to the sterility of the novel. Sex is good colour; it can even play a part in the plot. But ultimately I just don’t accept the Freudian obsessions of the novel in which ultimately everything is about sex. To me, sex in this novel seems causally isolated: it happens for no reason, and has no consequences. It seems as though it’s meant to be important enough by itself to not need consequences. Both those quotes above were given shortly after a ten-page gangbang scene. I have no objections to gangbangs in my novels, and I guess that on a theoretical level I don’t necessarily even object to them being ten pages long – although this one certainly became rather monotonous by the end. But remarkably for ten pages of group sex, this scene was not titillating in the slightest, nor in any but the most peripheral way (a chance for a brief lecture about accepting other people’s sexualities and a moment of superficial self-analysis ending in a shrug) illustrative of, or progressive/productive in terms of, character. Nor did it advance the plot. Nor did there really seem to be any theme or meaning displayed other than the ubiquitous ‘think how other people feel, perspectives are important’ and ‘woah! yay! sex! cool!’. Nor do the repeated ‘thoughts’ that reduce to thinking about each observed event in turn and thinking ‘maybe this is all about sex’ really illuminate the meaning of life for me. Yes, sex, we got it. That’s nice.

Last, and indeed least, the countercultural obsessions are frankly childish. I am the last person to argue in defence of ‘mainstream’ culture, but Delany make the two disappointing errors of trivialising his opponents (it’s easy to make people look despicable when you give them no redeeming features and then explicitly, in case we didn’t get the message, say ‘he’s despicable’) and hagiomorphing his allies. The result is an argument so lopsided it’s hard not to oppose it from sheer stubbornness.

The hagiomorphy is most worrying. Much of the book revolves around the Scorpions, essentially street gangs – and essentially the “unrefined boys” of the Cummings poem. Strong, usually handsome, sex-obsessed, healthily counter-cultural, mostly bisexual, frustrated, bored, sporadically violent – cf earlier comments on the homoerotic fixations of middle-aged academics. Now, street gangs are not a purely speculative-fiction business: we have them in real life, too. Delany does an admirable job of making them and their world and motivations sympathetic and understandable, showing that they aren’t just criminal thugs. Bravo!

…And then he looses all control and makes them saints. They’re unlettered, but they’re constantly reading the Kid’s poetry. They’re apparently uneducated, but they still use elaborate words and make insightful comments into the nature of life and humanity. Oh, they’re vandals, certainly, but they just smash things because they’re bored, they aren’t actually malign. Violent? Here’s a sample confrontation, describing a rival group of youths who get into a fight with the gang: “But after they got as nasty as they dared, I guess it struck them how stupid they were being; a couple of times they got pushed into a wall, though.” Oh, well, that’s OK then. As long as you’re not suggesting that gang violence might actually, you know, be violent. It’s just a matter of realising how stupid you’re being and getting pushed into walls a little. Honestly, a more bourgeois street gang I’ve never seen! [Similarly the sex scenes – despite the clear ‘we’re not bourgeois’ screaming throughout the book, they mostly reminded me of middle-class swinger parties (err, the popular representation thereof, that is, I should clarify, not speaking first-hand there). In fact, there’s barely one or two characters in the book who are believably non-middle-class]. In a similar manner, a rapist character is given his say: it was just rough sex, she really wanted it even if she didn’t say so. Fine, OK – show the different perspectives… but don’t side with the rapist every single time! Anybody who opposes any form or instance of sex seems always to be wrong in this book – and usually contemptible. And how about drugs? Oh, there’s lots of drugs. The gang members are all on drugs. But don’t go suggesting that drug addiction might possibly be a factor behind the violence – don’t go suggesting anything other than pure, uncontaminated nobility of spirit as an explanation. As a member explains: “Most people here have taken a lot of dope. But we don’t got too many people here who need it”. Of course not. Drug addiction, you see, is one of those things that mainstream culture has. You just don’t find drug addiction down in the streets, authentic beautiful young sex-positive gang members don’t have that problem. And certainly not the beatniks! Beatniks, of course, don’t have flaws.

Of course, he has his reasons. Bellona is a town with a self-selecting population – those who can’t stand it leave. That’s why only libertarian superheroes and their contemptible antitheses have remained (with a few others passing through). But, to be frank, that just tastes of stacking the board in his favour yet again.

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So: character, plot, and themes. What else could redeem this novel? How about prose? How about… no. Delany adopts the sort of hyper-macho muscular (yet super-educated) prose that one would expect, given what I’ve said about his latent homoeroticism. The three writers I would most compare his writing style to are Joyce, Cummings and McCarthy. Unfortunately, the comparison would almost always be “not as good as…”. He simply doesn’t have the ear for rhythm and beauty that McCarthy has, or Joyce’s ability to move from showmanship to workmanship whenever needed, or Cummings’ sweet and sharp simplicity of word-choice. A fourth and less flattering comparison would be Stephen Donaldson: long, rambling sentences stocked with barely-appropriate five-syllable words. As it happens, I sometimes kind of like that style. Delany just isn’t much good at it. He isn’t outright bad at it, either – there’s some really beautiful things in this book. Beautiful images, beautiful lines, even beautiful paragraphs. There ought to be – there’s eight hundred pages of it and every second sentence is a flight of metaphoric, lexical or syntactic fancy. Entire pages are given over to prose ‘poems’ that are nothing more than disconnected meanders of mad, meaningless muttering, sounds floating by without purpose or apparent symbolism. If there weren’t some beautiful moments now and then, in among all that, it really would be an astonishing failure. Monkeys and typewriters spring to mind.

I suspect the model the author sees himself most in the shadow of is Joyce; and indeed Joyce is a frequent comparison, looking at reviews. And he hasn’t just limited himself to Joyce’s sweep or grandeur or inaccessibility – he’s also followed the master into the toilet. Masturbation… eating nasal mucus… examining the colour of faeces… explaining the feeling of having a shit. Delany is a Real Man, and he’s not afraid, in his masculine way, to talk about whatever he wants to talk about, because he’s a Man. Not that he wants to talk about those things, specifically, but he makes a strained and very visible effort to not avoid talking about them when they come up. If he’s showing us a man’s consciousness and he happens to be having a shit, that’s what we’ll be thinking about for that page. And given the characters in question, we’ll be lucky if they wash their hands. Now, none of this is a big problem necessarily. In Joyce, it was perhaps admirably shocking. In Delany, though, it just looks childish – ‘look what a real man I am, bourgeois readers! I bet you think this is shocking! Respect how little I need your respect!’. Somebody once said that the toilet was the ultimate taboo – that many people had brought us into the marital bed long before Joyce brought us into the toilet. I think it’s just that toilets are really fucking boring. There were reasons to show us people in bed – not only was in interesting in itself (assuming that, as in most books not by Delany, it’s not a ten-page repetitive gangbang (the intimate scenes that actually were relevant to plot or character I had no problem with, and some of them were even rather sweet – I am, I’ll admit, a hopeless romantic at heart, and the romantic domesticity of the threesome was well-conveyed and pleasantly unusual)), but it could even have an impact on the plot! People on the toilet is just… dull. Delany only does this once (plus a few short flashbacks), but it’s entirely pointless and it’s stuck in near the end of the book as though he realised he had forgotten to include such a scene. Am I going on too much about it? Yes, it’s only one scene – but it’s a scene that showcases both his dedication to dullness and his tedious quest to shock. That’s not an exciting combination.

One last tangent: I don’t think it’s a great spoiler to say that there’s a threesome in the book (in the relationship sense, not in the event sense, although of course there’s plenty of those as well). Hooray, frankly. So many romantic subplots are boring and predictable – it’s nice to see something new. Of course, most books should probably go for romantic plots that aren’t QUITE so new, but this was definitely welcomed – in particular, I enjoyed the way that it was treated maturely, not as an source of titillation. Yes, there were graphic sex scenes, but at the same time there were also intimations of actual emotion and depth in the relationship, and, perish the thought of it in the world of the Kid, actual suggestions of relationship difficulties. Perhaps this is one area in which I should be glad of the similarities between the Kid and the author, as from what I understand his own experiences may be one reason he was able to treat the subject with seriousness, rather than schoolboy prurience. This also should be said: while I’m not thrilled by the constant emphasis on sex in the book, the actual treatment of the sex is mostly, in my opinion, quite healthy – it’s able, mostly, to make the sex something enjoyable to read about by making it clear how fun it is, and the generally positive impact of this on the characters, without presenting it as something to leer over (though it does occasionally fall of the line in both directions, into both mechanical and prurient – when there’s that much of it, some missteps are inevitable). My objections are not to do with how it’s portrayed, only how much it’s portrayed.

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You may think I hate this book: I do. I also think it’s a very good book. This, I accept, may not really seem to follow from all of the above. Why would anybody want to read this rubbish? Well:

1: Because the prose is good. Yes, it’s sometimes hideously over the top, especially at the beginning – but it does have great moments. Like Rossini describing Wagner, really: “great moments, and some incredibly dull quarters of an hour”. It’s very different from ordinary bad prose, and might be worth reading for the good bits. If not, at least it’s different. Who knows, you may even love the style.

2: Because the characterisation is good. Yes, the characters are almost all unsympathetic or dull, but they are well portrayed, there’s no doubt, and they’re varied enough you’ll probably like at least one or two of them. One character has even stuck with me somewhat.

3: Because the plot is good. Plot, what plot? Well, better to say the plots are good. He builds suspense well, he just doesn’t execute it – and that’s intentional. There are plot twists that throw previous events into a new light. There are some really great developments: not to spoil too much, but the words “red eye caps” 2/3rds through the books sent a shiver up my spine in a way that has seldom happened reading any book. There’s a whole bunch of fragments of plots thrown together; some of them are good.

4. Because the ideas are good. It’s not usual to see an author make himself as naked as this, particularly regarding the creative process. I found it off-putting and self-obsessed; your opinions may differ. More importantly, the perspectivism is greatly welcomed by your perspectivist standing here. I had no objection to the presence of these ideas per se, and they are put across well. Sometimes, they are put across brilliantly – in particular, the relevant soliloquies by Kamp and Newboys are masterful, and I’ll have to keep the book if only to be able to refer to them in future. [Tangent: the BBC’s documentaries commemorating the moon landings have shown a sequence of astronauts reiterating, less adroitly, Kamp’s explanation of what it’s like to be on, and then to return from, the moon]. If you aren’t familiar with the perspective he’s trying to put forward, the book would be worth its length for that alone. Unfortunately, I’ve read Nietzsche already. I’ve read Wittgenstein; I’ve even read a little Derrida, and summaries of Gadamer, and a fair bit of generic postmodern commentary. Hence, being hit over the head time after time after time by themes I’m already convinced by was mostly frustrating. But if you’re not convinced by them…

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What do I think overall? I think it started questionably, got better, got a lot better… then stalled. Then it had a few moments of brilliance before gradually stuttering into a long lacuna of tedium with moments of interest spattering irregularly through. The typographical experiment at the beginning of the final section was pointless and distracting. The wider experiment in the final section (he has multiple texts side-by-side, with frequent lacuna and unclear timelines) was genuinely intriguing and filled with potential, but wasn’t really exploited satisfactorily.

What does that add up to? Samuel Delany is an extremely talented and promising writer who’s gone a bit astray here but who will go on to do great things. Except that he’s now somewhat old, and Dhalgren was written at his peak, not at his start, and it’s universally acclaimed as his masterpiece. So… a tragically wasted talent? I don’t know, I’d have to read his other works to find out. Maybe his critics were just carried away by the shock and awe of Dhalgren (and their philosophical ignorance and naïveté? Quite possibly), and wrongly judged it better than other, more subtle and sophisticated, works of his. I’ll probably find out some day – there’s enough in Dhalgren to make me want to double-check his talent by reading other books, even if they haven’t been put to the top of the list.

Finally: where did he go wrong? Extremism, in my opinion. His philosophical commitments dominate the novel, making its ultimate value rest on their shoulders – I found them appealing, but neither original nor fully explained. I think many of his points could have been compatible with telling a conventional tale (essentially, he’s got a semi-nihilism that I think isn’t merited and that makes him attack his own plot structure). More importantly, he has gone flat-out at making his book unreadable by destroying narrative tropes, when he did not need to have done so – even if he wanted to ultimately stab the reader in the back (ha! take that, expectations of plot resolution and revelations! take that, naïve belief that things will happen chronologically and that we’ll know what happens to all the characters! chaotic, disorganised, meaningless – that’s life, live with it!), he could have done it just as well, and in fact rather better, if he’d thrown us a few more bones throughout the novel. Don’t build everything up and then spontaneously end the novel without resolutions – give us some little resolutions first! Otherwise, we know from halfway through that everything will ultimately be unresolved (even if we’re a little sceptical of just how far he’ll go, expecting more brinksmanship than he displays) – and that just makes the end of the book tedious (which it is, barring the tension created by the curiosity of how he’s going to end it, and the final glorious relief of finishing it).

I think I’ve probably run out of things to say, now. So, verdicty bit:

Adrenaline: 3/5. I want to give it less – it’s one of the few books I’ve come close to abandoning. Some parts do drag. However, my urge to give up came almost entirely when I had for some reason put the book down – it’s hard to pick it up again. On the other hand, when actually reading it it was easy to read for long periods, and actually quite tense. Some bits were genuinely exciting.

Emotion: 3/5. Would have been 4/5, or even 5/5, but I don’t think extreme (albeit passing) anger that the book exists really counts. For the contents, the characters, and in particular the protagonist, are too dull to rarely care about too much. That said, they’re well enough drawn that  I had to care a bit, and there are some tragic elements. Also cosy romantic bits. So, middle score. Maybe harsh?

Thought: 4/5. Difficult to judge. Personally, I didn’t find my thoughts provoked by it, as it was all familiar. But the material is certainly there for the right reader to be really intellectually shaken by it. On the other hand, the ideas are quite simplistic and repetitive, once you’ve seen where they’re going, so not a top mark.

Beauty: 4/5. Yet again, I want to give it less because there’s large chunks of ugliness in it, and a lot of it isn’t to my taste. However, I’ll have to give it the benefit of the doubt – the amount of good (both in prose and in demi-plot, and some conceits and images) means I can’t honestly call this ‘average’ aesthetically.

Craft: 3/5. This might be harsh. Ultimately, it comes down to how much of the failure of the novel is an inevitable consequence of conscious philosophical commitments, and how much is down to a lack of imagination. And that, of course, depends on what you think he’s trying to accomplish. I think, given my reading, that it could all have been done better while retaining everything important – just by being more imaginative, more subtle, and more polished. So, average – or great but badly flawed. If you take the other decision, it’ll go up to 4 or even 5.

Endearingness: 2/5. At last a chance to express my hatred! Actively repellent! On the other hand, I can’t honestly give it a 1 – as I say, I mostly blame the author, and the characters themselves are often quite likeable. It does have some endearing qualities. To be honest, if I’d given lower marks in the other categories, I’d have bumped this one up to average. This is mostly the ‘compensation’ category for things I can’t really express, after all – despite high scores elsewhere, there’s something else off-putting about this book.

Originality: 4/5. In terms of content, I found very little that was fresh or exciting. At the same time, very little was clichéd or predictable either. And the originality of style and structure push it up to 4. If I didn’t have a philosophical and/or liberal background, I’d have called it a 5, I suspect.

Overall: 5/7. I didn’t originally intend to have half-marks (it’s only a vague indication, and I don’t believe it’s possible to be too precise about relative qualities, particularly at the higher levels), but I was tempted to give this 5.5. It’s just too hard to decide whether this is a ‘good’ book or a ‘great’ book. If I compare it to great books, it fails. 5/7 seems fair. But then I look ahead at the sort of solid, reliable books that might be called ‘good books’ – and this clearly has something they don’t. But these a broad bands. And will it really be head and shoulders above other Good books? I think most of those ‘solid’ books will fall into 4/7 (‘not too bad, really’), rather than Good. Yes, Fatherland is there now. Yes, it does seem a bit obscene to give the same mark to Dhalgren (literary, erudite, ambitious, exotic) and Fatherland (popular, pedestrian, straightforward, familiar). But is it really? I think it is tempting, and easy, but also wholly wrong-headed to impose a clear distinction between literature and popular fiction. I want to judge books here on quality, not on which social group they appeal to. Those two books would appeal to entirely different groups – but does that mean they shouldn’t share the same mark? I don’t think so. In particular, I want to give these opinions without fear of shame. You don’t know me – you can’t ostracise me for my lack of taste. So, I want to stand up proudly with this opinions – honest as they are. Fatherland is a very well written book, even if what it attempts is not very great. Dhalgren is ambitious, but it does not fully succeed. I think they should share the same grade. 5/7 it is!

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EDIT SOME YEARS LATER:

After reflection, more reviews, and reading some interesting essays about the book, I’ve ruled the other way on this borderline case and upgraded the overall score to 6/7, and “Very Good”, though the individual componant scores remain the same (in hindsight, I might give Delany more credit for how much is intentional, and hence bump the craft score up to a 4, but I’d have to read it again to be sure about that).

In particular, I kind of want to write another review coming at this from the angle of an autobiographical account both of Delany’s mental health problems and of the experience of urban countercultural revolt in the USA in the sixties and seventies, which may go someway to answering my whole “what’s the point?” criticism. But doing that would mean reading the book again… and I don’t think I’ll be doing that for a little while yet…

Why Tolkien Isn’t a Conservative

A while ago, I was involved in a debate about Tolkien, centring around whether he was simply putting forward a simplistically conservative morality in his work – a surprisingly common accusation.  I had some good thoughts (by my low standards) while contributing, and felt I ought to put them up here. Had I the remotest scintilla of proactivity, I should have reformed them into a coherent essay of my own. Instead, I’m just putting up a bunch of small essays in response to various comments/question/allegations, which are in red and italics. These sections are more or less word-for-word the opinions of others. I’ve taken out who they’re by and sometimes changed the order, and I’ve concentrated on what I think were the core themes (there were also some peripheral discussions of, eg, marxism and monarchy, as well as considerable padding about the personalities of the participants in the discussion). I hope nobody will be offended by this – the quotes are meant to stand as emblematic for common complaints, rather than representative of one person’s views.

I should also clarify that I mean conservativism in an ideological sense (the view that things should remain the same and that change, particularly social change, is generally bad), rather than in an applied political sense (the view that particular actual social changes should be resisted), which can come from many different ideologies, not merely conservativism. In particular, this reading of Tolkien paints him as fairly staunchly religious in viewpoint – which may make him a natural ally of conservatives in many social debates, but does not make him conservative per se.

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On change and how it’s represented in LotR: I’ve read the books a few times now. And never do I get the feeling that change is ever a positive value in the world. I don’t get the hope; LotR is above all an ending, not a new beginning to me. Do others so fervently disagree?
Tolkien’s view of change is far more nuanced that you give him credit for. Change is good, and bad, and inevitable, and impossible. Everything changes, but everything stays the same. The death of Sauron does not end evil; there are a great many threats still in the world after his death; pettier threats, no doubt, as Sauron himself was petty after Morgoth, but threats nonetheless (the Balrogs, most obviously; but are there not also dragons remaining? Most of the world has been under Sauron’s sway, much of it is filled with monsters, his other lieutenants are mentioned here and there, there’s two corrupted Istari somewhere in the east, and so forth and so on). Tolkien’s plans for a sequel were not based on eternal light and happiness – they were about Gondor being in danger of being taken over by Satanists. All the good things that arrive at the end of the book are explicitly only the last light of a dying age, and there are troubling times ahead. Change in one sense is impossible – evil can never be eradicated, and the same vices and temptations will plague all the ages… until, in the end, Melkor Morgoth returns in glory and corrupts and destroys the world in the last days at the end of time, when only God will be able to defeat him by ending his creation in the day of judgement. Everything changes, and everything stays the same.

Change is bad, because it sees the passing of great and noble things. But don’t get caught up with the glamour of the elves – that, after all, is the sin of the elves themselves. The elves are great, and have the potential for great good and great evil. What passes with the elves, what Tolkien and his characters mourn for, is the passing of a certain kind of hope, a hope for a certain kind of world. The elves are great, and bore the possibility of a great and noble, magical and kind, heavenly and pleasant world; and with their passing, that possibility has also passed. But that world never existed! The elves never did create that world. The elves were great, and the elves were proud and vain. Whether by their pride preventing them from coming to the Valar, or their pride driving them out from the protection of the Valar, the elves made a home for themselves in Middle Earth, with the hope and intention of creating a glorious kingdom. They failed – because the vanity that drove them to make the attempt bore within it their own, tragic, destruction. They were glorious in their attempt, just as Feanor was glorious in his vain defiance, but the elves as a whole, just like Feanor, destroyed themselves.

The world is better off without them. Over the generations, the elves became twisted, bitter, petty, militaristic, and despairing. It is explicitly said that if any of them acquires power they will use it for evil. Galadriel is perhaps wise, having more experience than the others, and knows to avoid power, but she is not so wise as to use it well. Cirdan, also, is perhaps wise, having his own cause to devote himself to that has little impact on the rest of the world. The rest of the elves are portrayed, in general, negatively – paranoid, vengeful, despairing. In a world without Sauron, a world of men, the elves have the ability to seize power – and that is why they have to go. Why they have to, as Galadriel says, “diminish, and pass into the West”.

Ultimately, I think that if we want to see his experiences in Tolkien, it’s not the experience of war that’s evident, but the post-war experience – the world is left broken after the war (not only the war of the ring, but the centuries, millenia, of war against Sauron), and the only way it can renew itself is through the passing of the generation of veterans.

Man is, as it were, the child of the series. At the end, the parents leave and it’s forced to grow up itself. Is that a ‘negative’ change? No! Yes, we should lament the death of the parents, lament not having them around any more, and appreciate their achievements. But the world is better off without them. Mankind does not have the potential for greatness that the elves had, but a potential for greatness is a potential for great evil and great good. From now on, yes there will be evil, but until the last days it will now be a pettier evil – and a pettier good. There is something to lament in that – but at the same time, we should recognise that now, finally, there is hope for a better world.

This returns, I think, to the issue of war. For Tolkien, the important thing about war is fear. This is what is conveyed so well in the battlescenes – whether in the ‘trenches’ of Helm’s Deep or behind the walls of Minas Tirith, a creeping sense of dread. That fear drives all the evil of the world. Even Sauron, after all, is motivated by a fear of evil – Sauron’s sin is not a love of industry but simply perfectionism. He wants to make the world perfect, and he cannot do that without having power, so his fear drives him to seize power. The elves, for their part, are likewise terrified in their forest fortesses. The difference between good and evil in Arda is how you respond to fear – with hope, or with despair. The elves have to go because they have become infected with despair.

Really? Your telling me the entire history of Middle-Earth is not of a gradual slide from the perfection of original creation towards the imperfection of the present? And that this is not seen as bad?
I don’t know about him, but I’M telling you that. There is not a slide from perfection (which never existed, as Melkor’s pride entered in before the music was complete) toward imperfection, but rather a slide from greatness, glory, power and magic toward pettiness, mundanity, ordinariness and triviality. And no, this is not seen as monotonically bad – it is seen as in some ways a loss of some great potential, which is worth mourning, but at the same time it is an escape from great evil to a world of potentially greater happiness. The tone at the end of the book is hardly unremitting sorrow – things have been changed irrevocably, things have been lost forever, but the world can go on now into a new and freer era in which mankind is able to forge a new world for itself. The last words before the appendix, “Well, I’m back” shouldn’t be read as “everything how it was before” but rather as “*sigh* OK, that’s out of the way, let’s get down to work”.

The Shire is represented as this wondrous place of harmony and innocence and the obvious positive role it plays in the story. No allegory necessary – it’s a simple place with simple people, and it represents the best the world has to offer.
Are you sure you’ve read the parts with the Shire? It’s not harmonious, it’s petty and quarrelsome. It’s not innocent, it’s xenophobic, ignorant and naive. It has survived as it has in its blind little way not by its own measures but by being guarded by adults who know better. The hobbits are children, and as stupid and petty as children. As with the elves, the positive role is not played by the Shire, but by a possibility inherent in the Shire – Gandalf does not like the Shire, he likes something about the Shire. There is something desirable about it – who can deny that it has any appeal?

But it is not something that is attainable. You cannot have what is good about the Shire without what is bad, because the Shire is a nation of children, and can only be kept in that way in an age of parents. At the end of the story, the Shire is integrated into the new urban civilisation of Arnor, and eventually hobbits die out – and this is not a bad thing! The Shire grows up, and in doing so it has to say goodbye to some good things about it in order to find a sustainable place in the world. The end of the book is the end of the shire, and is the end of childhood. The end of childhood is something to be lamented, and childhood deserves nostalgia, but it is also something that is inevitable – and fighting it will only bring despair. The Shire, like everything else, has to adapt – and improve. We hope.

The Ring creates an internal struggle within the person. It’s still the same “Evil from Outside” idea though. Sauron, Morgoth, whatever, it’s always the same. Stuff is good and then along comes evil over the horizon to wreck everyone’s nice shit. The source of evil in LOTR is an outer force. Sure, it has a sympathetic echo within the person themselves, but the outside force is what makes that come to the fore.
This just isn’t true. The ring doesn’t warp people’s minds into evil or anything – the Ring is just really, really powerful. Saying that the ring is an exterior force is like saying that Plato’s Ring corrupts people through an exterior force. No, Plato’s Ring corrupts people because it makes them invisible, giving them power and anonymity. Tolkien’s homage is rather more subtle – it’s not the freedom from accountability that corrupts, it’s the lust for power, and, ultimately, it’s pride and fear. Gollum becomes evil because he is terrified of loosing the Ring, and that fear drives paranoia that overcomes morality. Boromir is ‘corrupted’ not by some magical ‘corrupt-o-matic magic’ in the Ring, but simply because he wants to save his country. Without the Ring, Boromir is vain and proud and wants to fight Sauron to save his country and exact revenge. With the Ring… he is exactly the same! The temptation of the Ring doesn’t change him, it only offers him the power to achieve what he wants to achieve. The Ring’s greatest power over the mind is simply that people can sense how powerful, and hence how useful, it is. The ‘evil’ is already within the individual, the Ring only gives an opportunity for that evil to be seen.

This means, of course, that everybody is evil, since everybody is susceptible to the temptation of the Ring. Only the wisest can reject it, and even then only with great struggle. This should be no surprise – Tolkien was a Catholic, and he believed in Original Sin. The morals of the story are really very Catholic: the one and ultimate sin is a lack of faith in God, which is expressed through fear and pride.

The same process is seen with Feanor. Yes, Feanor is tempted by Morgoth, and yes, that leads to his fall. But Morgoth does nothing to change Feanor – Feanor is already proud, Feanor is already paranoid, and Feanor is already in conflict with the gods. Morgoth only pushes him over the edge – and even then only negatively, in that Feanor rejects Morgoth, and errs on the side of opposing Morgoth too strongly and with too much hate. From then on all the evil deeds committed by the Sons of Feanor are done without intervention by Morgoth. In fact, if you look at all the tragedies of the Silmarillion, from Melkor to Sauron to Feanor to Eol to Turin, what you see time and again is the exact opposite of your message: evil comes from within, from pride and fear. “Evil” with a capital letter, in Tolkien, is there as something to be frightened of, something the proud believe they can overcome on their own. Evil is only a temptation – so it becomes pointless to say that all evil comes from outside, because where is is temptation going to come from? In one sense, evil comes from within – it’s the individual who chooses to sin. In another sense, any time there’s a setting where the characters are surrounded by a world, evil will always come from outside – because it’s the world that offers the temptation that is yielded to.

When you say “stuff is good, and then along comes evil” you are DOUBLY wrong. Firstly, evil has been there all the time. Sauron doesn’t come over a hill, he’s been there since the beginning. Evil entered the world with Melkor’s pride, and that took place before the world had even been created. The lack of evil was only in the original idea – it has never been the place in the realisation.

Secondly, even if we’re not looking for ‘good’ in an absolute sense – when has ‘stuff’ ever ‘been good’ in Middle Earth??? Middle-Earth has endured thousands of years of unending war in which most of the planet has been subjugated by evil, and almost all traces of rest and comfort have gradually been destroyed (eg the dwindling of Fangorn and Lorien, the destruction of Arnor, the crippling of Gondor). Unending warfare and the death of all nice things is hardly ‘stuff is good’. If you go further back, only Beleriand was ‘good’, and wracked by wars just as bad against Melkor, a far worse evil than Sauron. If you go before those wars, there was no civilisation in middle earth at all, and everywhere was eternal night where tribal bands quailed before unutterable monsters. No matter how far back you go, ‘stuff’ has never ‘been good’.

Stuff APPEARED good to the hobbits in the Shire, perhaps. One forgotten corner of the world was able to maintain a child-like state of indolence and ignorance and pettiness for a couple of centuries because other people worked tirelessly to protect them and because evil had better things to care about. The fact that this situation was only an illusion all along is made quite clear throughout the books (iirc Gandalf says it explicitly). In the end it’s an illusion that can’t be sustained – they don’t go back to that state of ‘goodness’, they change it irrevocably, and in the end destroy it entirely. Nor, indeed, do they WANT to go back to it. The heroes are clearly in conflict with the Shire’s values when they return – it’s an atmosphere no longer restful to them. Even Sam’s much-quoted restoration of the Shire is not a restoration in the conservative sense. Sam’s vision of the Shire, with magical trees and magical flowers and visits from elves and visits from the human King, and expanded trade beyond the borders of the Shire… all this is perhaps ‘good’ in a sense, but it is a fundamentally different kind of ‘good’ from the ‘good’ of the Shire in the beginning of the novel – resolutely close-minded, isolationist, anti-magic, anti-human, anti-elf.

On industry being evil: so really, you can’t take the step from Saruman – the fallen Valar sorcerer who is in league with Satan – being the only one using industry (and here, Tolkien is actually graphic) and showing the rampant pollution and environmental havoc he causes, and saying that it’s evil in the book?

Tolkien does NOT say that industry is EVIL. He says that industry is DANGEROUS, because by becoming devoted to industry we can lose sight of our PURPOSE for industry. It’s exactly the same point as he makes with regard to war: if we become too involved in war, we lose sight of what is being fought for. Saruman fights Sauron through industry; Gondor, through an almost fascist society devoted to warfare. Both ultimately serve Sauron.

Yes, the orcs are industrious; Saruman and Sauron are industrious. But the dwarves are industrious too, and they’re not villains. Gondor and Arnor were industrious, and they’re not villains – the great victory at the end, after all, is that they start the process of transforming the depopulated, rural northwest back into the urban, industrious kingdom of Arnor. The Noldar, explicitly the greatest non-divine beings in Arda’s history, and on a par with lesser gods, are also explicitly the greatest and most enthusiastic craftsmen, engineers and mechanics. Early versions of the Gondolin tale were explicit in stating that the great wonders of that city (and, we might extrapolate, of other great Noldar cities not described in such depth) were technological in nature.

In all these cases, technology and industry are seen as threats, because they can lead astray. But they are not threats that cannot be overcome – Feanor is an admirable character despite his fall, and many other Noldar are almost as great in craft as he and avoid his pride.

Yes, Sauron and Saruman were both probably originally servants of Aule, the angel of technology, but Aule is also staunchly on the side of good, one of the greatest enemies of evil, because he retains his faith in God. Tolkien’s view of industry is summed up in the tale of the creation of the dwarves. Aule, losing faith in God’s plan because he sees nothing occur, creates the dwarves, creatures of industry, to complement the world God has created. God chides him, and does not allow the dwarves to walk the earth, because his actions came from losing faith in god. All is righted by having the dwarves sleep until the elves arive, putting the work of man (or in this case Aule) after the work of god – and god recognises not only that the industry of the dwarves makes the world better, but also that Aule’s industry in creating them has IMPROVED on God’s own original plan. The industry of the dwarves is a good thing, as is the industry of the Noldar – so long as it remains subordinate to the love of God. When they lose faith in God through pride or fear, they become a menace, and their industry supplants rather than complements the natural (ie God-given) world.

Unless, of course, you mean ‘industry’ purely in the sense of environment-destroying polluting factories with slave labour. In which case, yes, he does see industry as being a bad thing. I see nothing wrong with that view, myself.

Hell, the whole melancholy aspect to the end of LOTR comes from the fact that shit can’t be put back the way it was again. That even though they “saved the world”, the world is forever changed and that’s sad.

First, I’d like to point out the contradiction in what is said by those who try to paint Tolkien as a conservative. Take the above quote and then compare it to “good, honest hardworking people can fix that and get back to the good stuff that is now” and “The current setup is good and we’ll get back to it at the end of the tale for a happy ending (Where “happy ending” means everything back to the way it was before)”. Do you see the problem?

Tolkien-labellers can’t with one hand say “oh, Tolkien’s about going back to a happy ending where everything is how it was before, because good people can put everything right” and with the other hand say “oh, Tolkien’s about everything good going away and there’s nothing we can do about it”.

The truth that people will run into if they try to follow the first route is that, no, everything changes in the end. The truth they will run into if they follow the second route is that, actually, even though everything changes and we should be a little sad about that, there is nonetheless a happy ending! It is bittersweet, yes, but it’s still happy.

Finally, one last point about the ‘everything’s worse now’ school of analysis of Tolkien: Tom Bombadil.

What we see in the end of LotR is a transformation to a human, mundane world away from the magical one – the end of glory and majesty. The magical paradises of Lothlorien or Dorian, or even Gondolin or Rivendell are gone forever. Instead, happiness in the future will be mundane, domestic, happiness. Happiness without any pride or greatness or power, just a quiet, unspectacular enjoyment. The closest we get to this, I think, is Tom Bombadil’s idle life with Goldberry. Tom, however, is the oldest thing around – he represents what has remained of Eru’s original plan.

Everything that “Tolkien is conservative” people say we should be sad about the end of is the work of Melkor. The power and the glory of the elves is what the elves have become having been corrupted by Melkor – the Noldor only CAME to Middle Earth because they were corrupted by Melkor. At the end, they’ve acknowledged their mistake and they go back. The other elves finally overcome their pride and go to meet the Valar they refused to meet before. The world of the elves that is passing has been a prideful world. It has been the world as Melkor left it. At the end of the book, with Morgoth banished, Sauron dead and the elves departed, Middle Earth is finally left more closely as Eru intended than ever before.

Why do we lament the elves passing? Because the elves are, as I say, glorious, and glory is something it is painful to see pass. But a lust for mortal glory, both in the elves themselves and in humans for the elves, is a sign of Melkor’s pride. This, I think, is one way Tolkien is far more subtle than he is given credit for: he recognises that giving up evil is painful. The elves are not evil, but they have a power that can be used for evil and for good. Abjuring evil means giving up that power, and having faith that God/Eru will do the good for us. At the end of the story, the world in essence humbles itself before God – and that is the right thing to do, and it will result in a happier world (we hope), but it is still a painful and bittersweet experience.

——–

Is this what Tolkien ‘meant’? Not in the sense of an allegory, no, I don’t think so. But I think the tensions in his work are best resolved by seeing it from this sort of “Catholic” (or at least Christian) perspective, and so I certainly think it’s legitimate to describe his themes in this way. In any case, whether you accept this neat tying-up or not, I hope you see that the themes to be tied-up cannot be tied up any more neatly by the “Tolkien was just a social conservative who wanted everything back the way it was” perspective – because whether or not that was true it certainly doesn’t seem evident in what he wrote.

Religion in Vajhoros, iv

Pentarshasproagmă – the kingdom of incarnation

Theory

During vrtaikă, a great pain of tsaien is experienced. It is therefore rational to seek to reduce the duration of vrtaikă, by increasing one’s ability to reincarnate. Parents, meanwhile, wish to have their children inhabited by superior spirits. From both sides of the equation, then, there is a demand for more control over the incarnation process.

Incarnation is an unclear affair. There appear to be four key elements: calling a spirit to a body (sokurmas); an affinity (vrbultas) between a new body and a spirit; expertise (inshagamtô); and the intervention of a tulmăn.

Sokurmas rests on the ability of spirits to hear without physical bounds – one spirit can hear everything on the planet. They are, however, assailed by a great many sounds, and so sokurmas depends upon finding distinctive sounds.

Vrbultas is mostly a matter of genetics, but also involves ideas of sympathy between mother and child – by shaping her body and mind (which is considered part of the body), she can shape her child into an appropriate shape for a particular spirit. Moreover, the egg is altered directly in the womb by the father, who in the moment of orgasm temporarily distorts his provukă, becoming a momentary shojkă, changing the physical nature of the woman’s eggs. He, she, or a third participant may interfere in this process to call a better spirit to the new body.

Inshagamtô is simply knowledge possessed by the spirit seeking to be incarnated. However, the nature of this knowledge is problematic, as it can depend neither on the mind nor on the body, both of which are material and hence absent in the incorporeal spirit. That this knowledge is not retained after death is evident from the fact that children must learn it all again. What is known to the spirit, therefore, is what can be known to a child without learning, which is broadly what we might call ‘instinct’. As instinct is a practical faculty, it must have originated in previous lives. Hence it can be seen that experience in one life can translate into instinctive knowledge in the next – a child flinches from fire or is afraid of large growling dogs or repulsed by unclean food because in previous lives it has learnt that these things are dangerous. This is considered to operate through a ‘shaping’ or ‘mirroring’ principle – the body’s actions shape the spirit. This likewise accounts for why some children are particularly talented in certain areas – they have learned the skills before, and simply have to learn how to apply them with their new body and mind.

In the case of incarnation inshagamtô, however, the body cannot shape the spirit directly, because the body cannot incarnate. Nor, for that matter, can the mind. However, it is observed that certain mental things, such as words, may stand in place of other mental things, such as thoughts, and some believe that certain mental actions may likewise act as analogues to spiritual actions, such as incarnation. This process is known as vrmainas, ‘mirroring’.

Tokônivôas, ‘intervention’, is the process by which a tulmăn exerts pakvas over the spirits fighting for a particular incarnation to favour one spirit over another. It cannot be controlled, but may be besought of a particular tulmăn through devotions.

Practice

The practice of pentarshasproagmă varies exceedingly widely between groups. There are in general three types of groups involved: ordinary religious institutions; Shahal cults; and lineage cults.

Lineage cults are repositories of inshagamtô – when a master dies, they are swiftly reincarnated in a new body, often of a direct descendent born soon after their death, sometimes instead the child of a disciple. Through esoteric mantras, inshagamtô is transferred from master to disciple, and from disciple to novice – novitiate is an institution for those not born with considerable inshagamtô, and exists to prepare them for disciplehood in a future life. These cults often teach mothers practices to shape their babies into a form that can receive a dead master: if the master had a limp, mothers are encouraged to limp, if the master was tall, mothers wear high shoes; if the master liked morning walks, mothers take morning walks.

For many lineage cults, procreation is particularly significant. Various medicines are often given to fathers to encourage anorgasmic ejaculation, so that the father is unable to shape the eggs of the mother, as that would encourage his ancestors to incarnate in his child, rather than a master of the lineage. Instead, a living master may observe the procreation and himself reach orgasm in order to shape the woman’s eggs. In some cases, semen is given particular reverence, as a material receptacle for a fragment of spirit, and it may be used for ingestion or anointing – not only to warp eggs but also because as a receptacle of spirit it may be a receptacle for inshagamtô: by imbuing his semen with his inshagamtô, a master may transfer it to a disciple without mantras. Furthermore, some cults consider the egg-warping act of male orgasm as essentially similar to the act of incarnation itself, and hence impart inshagamtô through encouraging tantric sex practices.

Both lineage cults and the mainstream church may practice sokurmas, with two purposes: to bring about the incarnation of beloved dead into new bodies, and for parents to bring a powerful and admirable spirit into a newborn. The process essentially involves the chanting or reciting of words and mantras that have particular significance for the spirit being called, such as their name, the names of loved ones, the names of places significant to them, or recitations of their deeds. These things are often accompanied with the chiming of bells, tuned esoterically to represent the name of the spirit.

Mainstream church groups also beseech tokônivôas from the tulmnam through devotions. Other groups, called Shahal cults, teach that certain tulmnam are willing to transform the eggs of a woman into their own image, so that their relatives may incarnate in the newborn. When those tulmnam were powerful kings of ancient lineages, this is greatly desirable to the parents. Moreover, such incarnations often carry the supposition of freedom from political control – no modern ruler has any authority over these heroic monarchs and their families.

Status

Sokurmas and tokônivôas are mainstream practices, incorporated into the rituals of death and birth. Inshagamtô lineages are in general deprecated as a waste of time, and often as obscurantist or manipulative – but they are powerful in remote rural areas, and growing in popularity in the cities. Shahal groups are forbidden under pain of death, due to their historically divisive nature, having encouraged several rebellions; nonetheless, they continue to exist in secret.