Performance Arts among the Là, IV

The Latter Banōm Dynasty (1678-1816aH)

Performance art under the later Banōm saw two great revolutions.

The first came with the highly innovative poetry of the minor kùnyi aristocrat, Luàng Rèmuli Somyang Nāji Rèkoda Maòkoro Tajangàon (b.1688-d.1724aH). Luàng Rèkoda, whose career began with private performances to her adopted family, followed by performances to family friends, and eventually to the royal court, used the technique, sporadically employed previously in the sōdahàra, of equating the natural pitch accent of contemporary Rawàng Ata with musical tones. Sung poetry thus implied a melody, and the suggested response to that melody could give form to the following line. Rèkoda’s invention, however, was to alternate sung lines of poetry with lines of instrumental melody, creating a dialogue. This enabled a humorous effect, as the melody of the instrumental line would suggest – but only ambiguously – a possible reply to the spoken line. Rèkoda’s poems/songs most often took the form of a dialogue between two lovers, in which Rèkoda’s chaste (but sometimes suggestive or ambiguous) side of the conversation would be met by an instrumental reply that mimicked the intonation of a ribald response. The audience was thus both crudely entertained by the implied vulgarity and flattered on their wit in guessing the suggested reply, while Rèkoda avoided saying anything vulgar herself.

In truth, the key innovation had been the decision of the anonymous sōdahàra dancers to experiment with pitch/melody implication – but they had left the technique at the level of an artistic experiment. Rèkoda’s blend of crude entertainment with artistic integrity, on the other hand, became wildly popular, and cemented in the noble mind the idea of the instrument as a poetic voice, and of the poetic voice as a form of music. Other poets, mostly likewise kùnyi, followed in Rèkoda’s footsteps, creating the artform of the somyangahàra (many early proponants incorporated elements of dance into the performance); these poets created more formalised poetic structures (both for artistic legitimacy, in emulation of foreign poetry traditions, and simply because a more rigid structure made it easier to ‘guess’ the implied responses), and diversified the content of the poems, finding many subgenres where a ‘censored’ instrumental line could be employed – most remained largely comic, though political and sometimes even dramatic elements could also be found. The full implications of Rèkoda’s innovation, however, would not be seen for some time.

The second great revolution sprang from the same source: the cultivation of taste. Rèkoda’s experimental poetry was only one aspect of a general tendency among the nobility at this time to show off their own artistic souls – under the Orasyà and the Luyang and the Former Banōm, nobles had sought the image of patrons of art, and had begun to themselves produce some visual art; under the Latter Banōm, they increasingly took on artistic roles in performance art. Aristocrats began to look down on paid dancers, singers, instrumentalists and reciters as mere ‘entertainers’, not to be considered true artists. Accordingly, the nobility attempted to involve themselves more closely with the production of art.

Aside from the growth of a tradition of courtly poetry and song, soon dominated by the somyangahàra, this was most strongly seen in the sōdahàra, the dramatic sung dance. While professionals were still required for the more physical luìmayao, the sōdahàra required no abilities beyond the grasp of a diligent dilettante, and was quickly colonised by aristocratic performers, who came to regard the form as the highest species of art.

The luìmayao itself, in this period, degenerated (or was elevated) to the level of highly athletic pornography, invariably highly erotic and in many cases featuring actual sexual acts between the performers. The rāmayao became larger and more politically significant, but stagnated as an art form, becoming increasingly simplified for the sake of the larger, less thoroughly trained crowds of performers. The vunamùnung continued in traditional form, while the sùintunung increasingly became a form of sōdahàra for the lower classes.

Significant change did occur in narrative poetry. The bardic schools were reduced to only three in number, with the Classics now learnt by the educated, literate aristocracy through written versions. However, the schools were charged with the endeavour of creating new works, the first to be commissioned in centuries. It was the decree of Èsaolu II that each king would commission a new Immortal Classic from the bards, creating the four ‘New Immortal Classics’: Èsaolu II’s The Fable of the Squid and the Sharks and of the Hidden House Beneath the Waves; Vàdanta II’s The Tale of the Courting of the Shy Goddess; Kòmoros II’s The Litany of All the Sorrows of the Houseless Men; and Èsaolu IV’s The History of the Later Kings (Èsaolu III neither comissioned a Classic nor had Èsaolu II’s Classic, unfinished at the time of his death, completed; this was left to Vàdanta II to accomplish). The first two of these are intended as entertainment; the third is a moral and political treatise pitying those who have no House (and by extension no nation and no king) to serve; the fourth is an extremely dry and political account of the succession of kings since the Fòanaka. In addition to these four Immortal Classics, several dozen other historical and fictional poems were written in this era.

The Interaccord (1816-1896aH)

The Interaccord, despite the chaos, war, famine and pestilence, was a fertile period for performance art.

The rāmayao, inevitably, all but disappeared: it was rarely feasible to stage such elaborate and expensive events, and even more rarely was it politically expedient. The vunamùnung also suffered, becoming more simplified. The sùintunung, on the other hand, developed considerably, as political pressures encouraged further differentiation from the sōdahàra. Its characteristics were its relatively small size (a dozen or so dancers), its colotomic rhythm made abundantly clear by skin drums, its simplicity of dance movements, and its vocal accompaniment by singers abiding by tone-cluster theory and repeating thematic words and phrases in song.

The luìmayao survived, but only barely, and it did so in a bewildering variety of forms, often highly experimental. The most honest descendant of the Banōm-era luìmayao was the so-called vùndiyao, the dance performed in brothels.

The sōdahàra survived in its old form only narrowly, as it was supplanted by a new equivalent, the sulungàhara. The distinguishing feature of the two forms was that the sulungàhara was primarily a spoken, rather than sung, performance. The newer artform also tended to strip out much of the music and dance of its predecessor, coming closer to a purely theatrical form. As with the sōdahàra, the sulungàhara in this era was primarily for performance by aristocrats for an audience of their friends.

Bardic verse thrived in the Interaccord, as bards turned for the first time to a primarily lower-class audience. The bardic schools became extinct, and bards took the written text as their only authority, and subordinated even that to their own wit and ingenuity. Bardic recitals, dujdahonday, became major entertainment events.

The biggest changes, however, came in poetry and music, and specifically in their combination. The artform of somyangahàra further diversified, and came to be considered the most precious of all arts; at the same time, a degraded form known as oradayhàra developed. Somyangahàra and oradayhàra are distinguished by the rigidity of their formal structures, and in particular by their melodic structures. In somyangahàra, the melody is strongly (though not wholly) determined by the pitch contour of the spoken line, and the pitch contour is in turn constrained by a poetic form; in oradayhàra, a pre-existing melody is the basis for the construction of the spoken line, which usually has to conform in its pitch contour only in the broadest manner. The latter is therefore far easier to compose, and lends itself more easily to simple melodies. Both oradayhàra and somyangahàra are sung to a harmonic accompaniment based on tone clusters.

Organologically, the Interaccord is a particularly fascinating era, for its rapid invention, adoption and dissimilation of dozens of new instruments, designed with the demands of somyangahàra and oradayhàra in mind. These particularly include the adoption of new and varied forms of aerophone, including several labrophones with finger-holes.

The Fourth Accord (1896-2021aH)

The Fourth Accord period has seen relatively little innovation in the performance arts. Aesthetic theory has inclined toward simplicity and perfection, rather than toward innovation. The oradayhàra has continued to diversify and develop, displacing the somyangahàra as the primary artform, though the latter remains more highly acclaimed by purists. In dance, the rāmayao and luìmayao have been revived, in the latter case in a more artistic and less pornographic form, though that niche has been taken up by the gentrified vùndiyao. The sùintunung has become a very popular entertainment/artform, while the vunamùnung has been relegated to ceremonial events.

In drama, the sōdahàra has become fossilised as a ‘high art’, but the sulungàhara and dujdahonday remain vibrant. The focus of the sulungàhara has shifted, from a tasteful performance by aristocrats to a therapeutic practice for aristocrats, in which the audience is superfluous, and often even undesirable. The dujdahonday, meanwhile, has developed immensely; what was once a simple recitation has become a multimedia event. The core text, typically a portion of one of the Immortal Classics, is dramatically recited, interspersed with oradayhàra to illustrate key moments, or to develop tangential subjects – these tangents may receive more narrative weight than the core text itself – and with interludes of sùintunung.

Performance Arts Among the Là, III

The Odà and Dèlong Dynasties (1428-1461aH)

The Odà sought to sweep away unnecessary tradition and modernise the nation through the import of foreign customs. Artistically, this was seen most strikingly in the creation of an entire new art form, colotomic music. In the larger context, this was not a creation at all, but merely the importatation of the main form of music in Gureha. This music was primarily concerned with the division of time into regular subunits; its primary instruments were labrophones, while a variety of drums and gongs marked different orders of subdivision. The labrophones meanwhile played drones on tightly-clustered bundles of tones creating a dense and highly discordant sound, with period resolution into slightly less discordant clusters. This music had long been associated with religious ritual on the continent, and the Odà repurposed it to their own cult of the royal family.

Several other musical instruments were imported at this time, though few gained any popularity. These included reed instruments, flutes, labrophones, and stringed instruments.

The rāmayao expanded even further under the Odà, who for major ceremonial events gathered together thousands of dancers. However, vocal accompaniment was dropped, slit drums were replaced with the new skin drums and gongs, and the dance, made more regular and mechanistic, became a physical extension of the colotomic royal music. The manungàng and luìmayao were permitted to continue unchanged, but were derogated as backward and primitive practices. In their place, the nobility turned to imported forms of dance.

Shamanic poetry and prose were eliminated, through a combination of cultural policies and the negative consequences of the failed Shamanic Revolts that those policies provoked.

The bardic schools were disbanded. Poetry was viewed as unproductive and decadent.

The Dèlong dynasty attempted to moderate the policies of the Odà; however, as they survived only two years, they are not worth dealing with separately.



The Orasyà and Luyang Dynasties (1461-1585aH)

The Orasyà Dynasty was a time of great artistic diversity: innovations introduced by the Odà co-existed alongside revivals from earlier eras, and novel and synthetic forms abounded.

The rāmayao was reinvigorated with character and originality, after the simplified and repetitive forms found under the Odà. On the other hand, the use of orchestral accompaniment largely remained, and the large dances seen under the Odà continued to be put on for particularly significant occasions. Under the Odà, staging a rāmayao was possible only with royal approval, and this continued under the Orasyà; although this approval was freely given, the rāmayao nonetheless had become a royal dance, a signet of royal approval.

The luìmayao returned, displacing the Odà’s foreign dances, but foreign elements modified the native dance: a colotomic meter and a greater emphasis on frozen tableau, for instance, and more importantly a greater emphasis on female dancers, rather than male. Dancers were now frequently nude (often painted), and the luìmayao took on an altogether more risque tone. Another foreign influence was in the synthesis of dance and text, with the vocal accompaniment provided by the dancers now featuring recurring words, rather than being pure sounds, in order to provide more narrative content.

Meanwhile, features from the luìmayao in turn modified the manungàng; most importantly, the expectation that the dancers themselves would provide the vocal accompaniment. At the same time, the manungàng was dividing again into two kinds: the sùintunung, or ‘city dance’, and the vunamùnung, or ‘country dance’. The distinction, despite the names, was not strictly between urban and rural settings: rather, the sùintunung was a relatively small dance for families and neighbours, which over time became increasingly relegated to the lower classes, while the vunamùnung was a larger dance, for the entire community. In rural areas, the more conservative vunamùnung was the dominant form, while in cities it was reserved for more important occasions.

In music, the forms introduced by the Odà, based on tone-cluster and colotomic rhythm, continued to flourish, though they were largely seen as formal arts. The theory of tone-clusters also saw application to luìmayao accompaniment, governing the pitches of the singers. Two of the imported instruments also cemented their place in domestic music, particularly in the context of the luìmayao – the hoshì, an open-ended fipple-flute with three finger-holes, and the kabolòka, an eight-stringed zither-board.

Shamanic music and poetry had by now ceased to exist as an independent tradition. However, when the Orasyà re-established the bardic schools, they commissioned a new, eleventh Immortal Classic, The Litany of Former Interventions, which recorded scores of the old shamanic bargaining-poems. While presentated as part of the dynasty’s respect for the old customs the Odà had tried to eliminate, in fact the creation of this Classic, transferring the shamanic knowledge from the shamans to the bards, signified the extent of the destruction of shamanic power under the Odà, and in turn cemented it.



The Former Banōm Dynasty and Its Usurpers (1585-1678aH)

The early Banōm rulers were more inclined to austerity than the preceding dynasties. Under their rule, the rāmayao declined in size and significance, and took on a more martial air. One beneficiary of this was the luìmayao, which became more important, and as a result also become more diverse, dividing into the luìmayao proper and the sōdahàra. The former of these grew more musically austere and thematically abstract, a purer display of the physicality of the dancers, with vocalisation limited to key passages and accompaniment stripped down to a single pitch of slit drum. Supporters of the form considered it the purest form of art; critics suggested that in removing distracting elements while keeping and even increasing the erotic suggestiveness of the dance, its supporters had turned it into mere pornography. The sōdahàra, meanwhile, emphasised the other side of the dance, increasing the significance and complexity of the sung lyrics, turning a dance with narrative elements into a sung drama with accompanying interpretive dance (although the narrative remained highly eliptical and the lyrics often symbolic).

The sùintunung, during this era, began to introduce further features from the luìmayao/sōdahàra: in particular, the suìntunung’s vocal accompaniment followed the path from wordless sound into symbolic repeated words into narrative content. The vunamùnung, on the other hand, remained more or less in its existing form.

Narrative poetry continued unchanged in content; however, the bardic schools declined in prestige considerably, and several were forced to merge. With increasing levels of literacy, the Immortal Classics were finally committed to paper, rendering the bards all but obsolete.

In music, colotomic forms gained in popularity.

Performance Arts Among the Là II

Continuing a discussion of the history of the performing arts in the fictional Là culture. Again, after the history there’ll be more details in the art-by-art status quo descriptions.

The Fòanaka and Kaìta Dynasties (1158-1428aH)

Under the Fòanaka and the shortlived Kaìta, the rāmayao continued to flourish, with larger ensembles of professional dancers. Dedicated performance areas were built, with tiered seats for the audience, and coloured, patterned tiles to make the patterns of movement more clear for observers.

The manungàng also developed in this period. While the rāmayao became increasingly abstract, the manungàng became increasingly representative and specialised to different functions. Meanwhile, a third form developed as a compromise between the two other forms: the luìmayao, or ‘room-dance’. This was performed inside the house of an aristocrat by professional dancers, and married the professionalism of the rāmayao to the greater, ‘rustic’ exuberance and individualism of the ordinary manungàng – where the rāmayao was an intricate display of discipline and teamwork, the luìmayao was a display of the beauty, athleticism and artistry of a small number of elite dancers. Both the rāmayao and the luìmayao became divorced from the ceremonial calendars, and came to be performed whenever the patron desired; in the case of the rāmayao, this mean increasing standardisation and abstraction, whereas the luìmayao became even more representational than the manungàng. The key model for the luìmayao was a particular kind of manungàng performed after a death, in which dancers symbolically represented some key incident or event from the life of the deceased; the luìmayao did likewise, drawing from the life of the patron or their ancestors.

Shamanic poetry and dance largely fossilised in content, but became more visible, through a shift from secret to public rituals. One significant development was the trend toward rituals incorporating multiple shamans.

Inherited oral poetry became codified under the Fòanaka. Each bardic school was charged with perfectly maintaining only ten poems, the Immortal Classics – although each school had their own, slightly different version of each one, and sometimes schools would preserve several variants of a poem. This preservation, however, remained entirely oral; indeed, writing down the Classics was considered tantamount to sacrilege, and would bring down severe punishments.

Of the ten poems, seven survive from the old Antaremese tales handed down through the generations. The Litany of the Possessions of God detailed the various things created by the Antaremese high deity; The Tale of the Goat That Devoured the Sun details the conflict between two brother gods over a beautiful woman, focused on a contest between the brothers to win a wrestling match against a particular mountain goat; The Tale of the War Between the North and the South details a war between two tribes of gods; The History of the Prince With Four Nipples recounts the erotic and political escapades of an Antaremese noble; The History of the Establishment of the True Kings briefly recounts a somewhat inaccurate history of Antarem before launching into a detailed, semi-legendary account of the rise of the Kōba; The History of the Flight of the Kōba recounts the fall of the Kōba regime due to treachery among the native Antaremese, and the exile of their noble families and their families to the island of Ebduria, where they became the Là; and The Fable of the Frogs, the Ants, the Bromeliad, and the Great Serpent details an anthropomorphised arboreal conflict that devolves from petty tricks into bloodshed, before all combatants are killed by a storm. Two more poems represent religious traditions: The Litany of the Former Rituals defines the proper rituals to praise and appease the old Antaremese deities, while The History of the Wise gives mythologised short biographical accounts of the founders (real or imaginary) of most important religions in the area, along with a few words on their religions. The tenth Classic was composed and added during the Fòanaka regime itself, supposedly from oral histories: The Litany of All the Kings, a work ‘proving’ the direct descent of the Fòanaka through the Angonāli back to the ancient Kōba queens of Antarem and back further to their ultimate progenitor, and, moreover, ‘proving’ the descent of all the Là from this single linneage, making all the Là one family and the Fòanaka kings their just hereditary superior. In addition, the Litany sets out the theory of the three Accords among the Là people, and in some detail recounts the tyranny of the Mèngitan and the national liberation by the Angonāli, before more briefly dismissing the illegitimate Petty Dynasties and recounting the Rasulu rise to power. Although both these key concepts, of the sequential Accords and of the familial unity of all the Là with the royal family as the hereditary rulers of the tribe, had been sporadically theorised by (and even before) earlier dynasties, The Litany of All the Kings, in its scope, precision and unquestionable authority, is perhaps the single most important work of Là political history.

The Immortal Classics are considered poetry, but for the most part they are not formalist. The Litany of the Possessions of God and The Litany of the Former Rituals are translations of Antaremese works, with little attention paid to linguistic details, but they are rich in parallelisms and metaphors; The Tale of the Goat That Devoured the Sun, The Tale of the War Between the North and the South and The History of the Establishment of the True Kings were for the most part written in lines with a fixed number of syllables, but changes in the language rendered this opaque even by the time of Fòanaka, and later modifications and additions do not respect this – in particular, North and South and Establishment are composed of several different sources, not all using the same metres, and these pieces are glued together with later additions that only loosely follow these rules; The History of the Flight of the Kōba, on the other hand, seems largely to reflect a single source text, which originally abided not only by syllabic line lengths but also a pattern of consonance and regular rhyme (the latter of which now entirely lost thanks to the decay of final syllables). The History of the Prince With Four Nipples is perhaps the most interesting of the ten textually, as it appears to reflect a variety of source texts in multiple languages; as more popular stories, sections of it, some sections of Devoured and most of The Fable of the Frogs appear to have been standardised at a later date, with metre and rhyme that make more sense to the later ear. The three later works make few if any concessions to form. In all the cases, the primary indicators of the ‘poetic’ nature of these works are their peculiar syntax and lexicon, their use of metaphor, and their tendency to relate events achronologically, both leaping back and skipping forward.

Music in this period continued to be largely a form of accompaniment to dance. Perhaps the most interesting development was of a concept of creative dissonance in chanting and singing: although singers were sorted into groups expected to sing the same note, rhythmically, without words, a degree of texture was introduced by intentionally encouraging the singers the be either closer to unison or further away from it and more discordant. This was combined with a distinction between singing and chanting, and with variations in volume, to create a richly-textured rhythmic effect. However, these effects were primarily employed in luìmayao; in ordinary manungàng, the non-professional singers could not be trusted, while in rāmayao the trend was increasingly toward instrumental accompaniment that did not replace singing but that did drown out nuanced vocal techniques – these instruments were primarily reeds and labrophones. Skin drums were also introduced, as were gongs. Labrophones were also increasingly used for royal ceremony.

Performance Arts Among the Là

Along with returning to Rawàng Ata this year, I’d also like to flesh out a little more of the culture of the people who speak it, the Là. And surely the natural place to begin such an account must be with… performance art. OK, so maybe that’s not actually an intuitive starting point, but I guess it’s as good a place as any.

By ‘performance art’, to clarify, I mean any artform based upon perf… OK, I guess what I really mean is those artforms where individuals behave in certain ways and that’s the art, distinct from those artforms (like painting, architecture, etc) where individuals shape the environment around them.

I’ve managed to end up with two different approaches to this topic: one a history, the other an art-by-art overview of the contemporary situation. Either could really stand without the other, and I’ve been going back and forth on which to post first, and whether to post both. In the end, I’ll post both, and I’ll start with the history. Those of you wanting more detail, it’ll follow in the art-by-art half of the series. The history section itself will have I think four posts. Here’s the first of them:


The First and Second Accord Periods (c.200-c.600aH and c.600-994aH)

The primary performative art in these early periods was dance. The function of dance was in turn largely ritual, and dance forms can be divided into solitary shamanic dance and collective communal dance.

Shamanic dances were performed without accompaniment of any kind – the shaman was expected to follow the rhythm in his head. These dances varied with the type of animal being negotiated with, and typically attempted to imitate the animal in rhythm and in distinctive movements. Typically, each dance would be broken into passages, the shaman adopting a frozen posture between passages as he recited shamanic poetry.

Communal dance, on the other hand, had a rich vocal and percussive accompaniment. Percussion was of two kinds: a simple regular beat struck out on wooden slit drums, and a more complicated rhythm created by the dancers themselves stricking together wooden sticks. Vocal accompaniment took the form of monotone, wordless chanting by spectators. Singers were divided into groups on the basis of pitch, and the different groups sung with different rhythms, to create a complicated polyrhythmic texture, the striking of the dancer’s stick representing points of contact between the conflicting rhythms. These dances, which were performed at all significant personal and communal rites of passage, in the open air, typically accelerated in pace over a period of hours, until only the fittest and most skilled dancers remained. Dance at this time was carried out by both sexes and a wide range of ages, with those too old, too young or too infirm relegated to singing (thus, as the dance went on and more dancers dropped out due to tiredness or inability to keep pace, the number of singers increased). These events were strikingly egalitarian, with rich and poor dancing together. These dances are known as manungàng, and would differ in style to match the ritual function of the occasion. During the Second Accord Period, personal ability in the manungàng became increasingly noteworthy, and some individuals began to be sought out by aristocrats for their dancing skill. Aristocrats increasingly favoured more complicated dances.

Poetry was a far less important art. Folk poetry of various kinds existed, often in the form of ritualised taunting, but these poems were never written down and rarely remembered, and were seen as a form of playful speech, rather than as a form of art. Most poetry was instead religious. The most important form of religious poetry was shamanic bargaining-poetry, in which, through words passed down from shaman to shaman, shamans sought to negotiate with animals. The success of these negotiations was often attributed to how correctly remembered the bargaining-poetry had been. Shamans viewed these words as the centre of their power, and guarded them jealously; they varied from shaman to shaman. Other religious traditions also employed ritual words – most prominently, the rituals of praise and appeasement directed at the old Antaremese pantheon of deities, but also chants associated with a variety of religions being imported from Gureha.

In addition to religious words, the Là brought with them and maintained several dozen long poems from their time in Antarem, which will be discussed in more detail later.

Music was primarily a matter of accompaniment to dance. However, a few other forms existed, with low prestige. Trumpets existed, but were not considered musical. The long, thin sarvarung transverse flute was played by a seated psychopomp while her apprentice held up the end by a fabric sling, to guide spirits into the afterlife. Rhythm was more important here than melody – the sarvarung lacks fingerholes, so pitch is determined only overblowing and is limited to the harmonic series. Reed instruments were known, with and without fingerholes, but were not standardised, and were considered a form of idle entertainment. More distinctive was the raò, an instrument formed from internodal sections of the culms of a bamboo-like plant, the ruàma. Pairs of close parallel incisions are made into the culm, creating narrow strips, which are pulled out from the side of the culm, with small wooden bridges inserted under them at each end, so that they may be plucked; in this way, the culm provides both the resonant chamber and the strings. In these periods, the raò, usually with three strings, was played for personal amusement, and by children, although in the later Second Accord Period it had also begun to be used as a teaching instrument to aid the practice of more complicated manungàng.


The Mèngitan and Angonāli Dynasties (994-1066aH), and the Petty Dynasties (1066-1158aH)

During these foundational dynasties, the increasing dichotomy between manungàng forms that had grown over the Second Accord Period developed into a complete schism. Popular dance continued as manungàng without qualifiers, and continued to be much the same as ever, though it increased somewhat in complexity over time. The new kings, however, favoured a form known as rāmayao manungàng, or simply rāmayao, indicating a royal dance. The rāmayao was notable primarily for its complexity, with hundreds of dancers divided into dozens of groups. Large ensembles of slit-drums were required to provide a rhythm; vocal accompaniment came from the dancers themselves, as well as from the audience, assisted (particularly in the later, wilder stages) by reed pipes and trumpets. The main sociological distinction, however, was that the rāmayao was performed by a professional royal troupe. During the Petty Dynasties, the rāmayao was simplified, yet became more common, as more and more nobles sponsored the art.

In this period, the old Antaremese long poems, which had long been remembered through popular retelling, began to be codified. Sometimes this took the form of writing them down – but the more important development was the establishment of bardic schools by the Mèngitan, charged with remembering precisely the classic poems, though the repertoire itself was not yet specified. At this time in history, very few were able to read or write, and writing was considered both alien and divine, unsuitable for the recording of folk tales.

Shamanic poetry and dance continued without change in this era, as largely did music.



Rawàng Ata (#14): Substantivisation of Verbs

Rawàng Ata possesses several constructions that allow verbs to be employed as nominal arguments. There are four rough categories  (although closer examination shows a more nuanced picture): concrete verbs, infinitives, action nouns, and deverbal nouns.

Concrete verbs are primarily used as independent verbs; however, they may also be used as the topic of a sentence, or as an argument of another verb:

Eg. 1      sakabàrban tawi kùnyika
ra-ka-bàrb-an tawi kùnyi-ya
3I-C3-sear-C fish kùnyi-ERG
the kùnyi seared the fish

Eg. 2      lakàbarban, kùnyika tawara kòma
là-ka-bàrb-an, kùnyi-ya tawa-ra kòma
MISS-C3-sear-C, kùnyi-ER see-3A girl
the girl saw the kùnyi, so we may suspect that the kùnyi seared it (Lit: as for its searing, the girl saw the kùnyi)

Eg. 3      sakabàrban tawi rahònda baryōngma
the searing of the fish burned down the mansion

Regarding the use of a concrete verb as an argument, two important restrictions must be made clear: first, the concrete verb may bring with it its own subject, which remains by its side, but may never bring with it its object or any other attached argument; and, second, the concrete verb cannot take overt case marking, which limits the situations in which it can be used.

It is also worth observing the compulsory agreement marking on the concrete verb, and its encoding of aspect. The use of concrete verbs is also limited by semantics – concrete verbs tend to be used for definite, perfective, often perfect, past tense, known events, and cannot be used for future or irrealis events.

One way in which these limitations can be overcome is through the use of infinitives. These are verbs that do not agree with any participant, and lack spatial and temporal specificity. They are formed by adding the suffix –àng to the verbal root: for instance, from rarawa ata, ‘they all come to agreement in behaviour amongst themselves’, derives rawàng ata, ‘to all come to an agreement in behaviour with one other’, or ‘determined convention’, as well as the name of the language.

Infinitives can be used for future and irrealis events, as well as for non-future and realis ones, although among those the decision not to employ a plain concrete verb may often be taken to imply a present-tense, imperfective, imperfect or previously unknown event. Furthermore, where concrete verbs are most often definite, infinitives may freely be indefinite.

Eg. 4      lakàbarban, nyakara kùnyi
the kùnyi smelled the searing

Eg. 5      barbàng, nyakara kùnyi
the kùnyi can usually smell searing

As with concrete verbs, infinitives cannot themselves take case markers. However, they  can be placed into a case with the aid of an ‘infinitive augment’. There are three infinitive augments, and they are allocated to verbs in a lexical and seemingly unpredictable manner. The presence of an augment by itself acts to further definitise the reference of the infinitive:

Eg. 6      barbàng

Eg. 7      uma barbàng
the searing

This augment takes noun cases as a proxy for the infinitive:

Eg. 8      umàjna barbàng
uma-‘jna bàrb-àng
for fear of searing

Eg. 9      umànga barbàng
in order to sear

The augment is also needed if the infinitive is to take an argument. This argument, semantically equivalent to the subject of a concrete verb, and in the direct case, comes between augment and infinitive.

Eg. 10    umànga tawi barbàng
in order to sear a fish


Infinitives, though lacking overt verbal markings, are still clearly verbs. Their meanings are invariably transparent and their derivation is entirely productive. They are also able to take verbal arguments, albeit with the aid of an augment.

Action nouns, on the other hand, are less straightfowardly verbal.  At first glance, they may appear only to be a subset of deverbal derived nouns. Action nouns are formed through several methods, in a non-productive way – although each method can generally produce an understandable action noun, not all these action nouns are commonly-used words; what’s more, the semantic derivation is often unclear or overly specific. They do not take typical verbal affixes, such as geographical deixis or aspect, and cannot be placed in the passive voice. Although they can refer to events, actions and states, they also frequently refer metonymously to results, agents, patients and the like.

Eg. 11    rawoyala
he constricts a passage

Eg. 12    woyalàka
the wharf-laden stretch of river (lit. the constriction (of the river))
OR: the wharfs on the river

Eg. 13    rahònda
he razes

Eg. 14    hondàka
ashes, ashy soil

The most important action-noun suffixes are -ana, -àka, -unda, -ùnga, and -umà. –ana is the most productive of these; –àka commonly derives results; –unda and –umà often derive ongoing, highly durative events; -ùnga is often more conceptual. These generalisations, however, are only generalisation.

Unlike most nouns, including most deverbal derived nouns, action nouns are subject to direct possession, which is to say that they take possessive prefixes. Alternatively, it could be said that action nouns are able to take subjects – as possessive prefixes and concrete agreement prefixes are identical, and indeed the ‘possessor’ in these constructs is usually the semantic object/subject, not a possessor:

Eg. 15    suhondàka baryōngya
the ashes from the razing of the mansion

Eg. 16    suwoyalàka uryoka
the wharf-laden stretch of the river

And, just as with concrete nouns, the semantics of the ‘subject’ are overridden by the presence of a first-or-second-person participant:

Eg. 17    angātuhondàka
your ashes (i.e. the ashes of your burnt body, OR the ashes you own, OR the ashes you made)

It is also striking that the –ana action noun forms closely resemble the –an concrete verbs, and in practice transformation into action nouns is one way to place an concrete verb into a case; noteably, although it is generally true that action nouns do not show aspect, it is possible to place transform aspect-marked concrete verbs into action nouns while keeping the aspect marking. Similarly, -ùnga action nouns have a parallel infinitive form in –ùng, less common, less productive, and less semantically transparent than –àng, and, occasionally, –àng infinitives may be transformed into –ànga action nouns. On the other hand, concrete verbs can at times be used to refer to the result of the action, rather than the action itself, or may even serve semantically as participles; infinitives are extensively used where other languages would employ nouns. It is possible, therefore, that this distinction, between verbal, inflectional and semantically predictable infinitives and concrete state verbs on the one hand, and nominal, derivational, and semantically unpredictable action nouns on the other, should be best considered a general guideline rather than an absolute qualitative distinction.

On the other side of action nouns like true deverbal derivative nouns. These are semantically even less predictable, are more likely to refer to concrete objects rather than processes, and unlike action nouns take indirect possession, which is to say that their possession cannot be mistaken for verbal agreement marking. However, all these generalisations have exceptions – in particular, derived nouns can sometimes take direct possession, giving them a more overtly verbal character.

Rather, then, than a clear qualitative distinction between nouns and verbs, it may be best to see Rawàng Ata as possessing a continuum of forms, from fluid state verbs on the one hand, through concrete state and infinitive verbs, to action nouns, deverbal derivatives, and finally to ordinary nouns.

The Concrete State
Verbal Morphology
Coördination of Clauses

Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett

Part of my on-going project to re-read the entire Discworld cycle in publication order.

1991 (or I guess maybe 1990, when he wrote it). Terry Pratchett’s last four Discworld novels (not counting Eric, a short, episodic illustrated novel only later retconned into the numbering system) had been Wyrd Sisters (a clear step up in ambition), Pyramids (his best book so far, with suprisingly deep themes), Guards! Guards! (his best characterisation yet, and opening up a whole new vista of setting), and Moving Pictures (very funny, very well-written, maybe a little shallow). Four books that by themselves could make an author’s CV. And during the same time period, he’d also put out all three (albeit slim) volumes of the classic children’s trilogy, The Bromeliad (which may explain why Discworld itself had become more serious and adult). Seven classic books, in two only two years. To say he was on a roll would be understating it. He must have felt like a writing god.

Which is probably a necessary part of explaining why anybody in their right mind would write Reaper Man. Becauseit’s… stunnning. It’s stunning that somebody would write this. And then that publishers would actually sell it to people.

Oh, and it’s also brilliant. It’s a work of genius. A work of a demented genius, to be sure, but genius nonetheless.


Looking around on the internet, views vary between ‘best book ever’ and ‘utter rubbish’, via ‘mix of brilliance and rubbish’, and probably somewhere ‘all brilliant and all rubbish all at the same time’. Personally, I think it’s just brilliant. But I also absolutely understand why some people might hate it.

To cut a long story short, this is a mess of a book. A glorious, glorious mess of a book.

Reaper Man does a lot of things. The core of the book is a novella about Death (and about death): mysterious beings, which will come to be known as the Auditors of Reality, conspire to force Death into retirement, and, while he waits for his replacement to arrive and kill him, he decides to find meaningful employment in a small rural community. It’s an acheingly poignant story filled with meditation on the meaning of life and death, and resonant both of British rural traditions and of American westerns.

But there is also a sub-plot set in Ankh-Morpork, about what happens in the city when there’s suddenly no Death. This is split into two sub-sub-plots. One is about the aged wizard, Windle Poons, who, in the absence of death, finds himself undead, giving him an excellent perspective to look at his life, and who wonders around Ankh-Morpork meeting some other undead, or honorary undead citizens. This story is mostly an excuse to follow up Guards! Guards! and flesh out Pratchett’s new vision of Ankh-Morpork. Along the way there is a very small, and if you think about it surprisingly risqué, romantic subsubsubplot. This is mostly a subdued story with a bit of weird humour.

Then there’s the other subsubplot. This is about the faculty of the University, as introduced in Moving Pictures (now minus Windle, of course), dealing with a more supernatural problem (and eventually intersecting with Windle’s storyline). This is all-out zany comedy, and centres on combining social and sociophilosophical satire/critique with an extended homage to the Alien SF horror film franchise.

If that sounds a lot to get through… well, Pratchett gives himself less than 300 pages to fit it all in.

It isn’t hard to pinpoint where Reaper Man goes wrong. Even taking a charitable interpretation, the problem is that the novella about Death is inherently short, which means that, to avoid drowning it out, the other concurrent stories also have to be short. This drains them of their own significance.

A more critical reader may also object that only an idiot would think that putting possibly the author’s most deep and sombre work right next door to possibly the author’s most batshit insane subplot could possibly be a good idea.

But they’d be wrong.

It’s hard to say exactly why I think it all works. A big part of it is just that the Death story is just so good. And I spent about the last twenty pages crying. Another part is that the tonal whiplash is sort of necessary – without the rest of the book, the Death plot would be too simple, and too sombre, and probably too sentimental. Contrasting it with utter craziness…. just works. I also felt that Pratchett did a surprisingly good job linking together the only-tangentially-related plotlines, through their thematic coherence.

I’ll backtrack here a little on what I said in my review of Moving Pictures. Reaper Man isn’t just about materialism… or rather it is, but not in just one way. The whole thing is strongly reminiscent of the Chesterton/White/Tolkien buccolic left-conservativism thing, in that it pretty straightly (and uncharacteristically for Pratchett) contrasts the wholesome (though unromanticised) rural past with the horrors of the coming future – whether that’s Simnel’s device or the predator in Ankh-Morpork. And yes, it’s about the stripping away of romance, of meaning, of storytales, to leave the stark matter of the world. But Pratchett gives us three visions of the materialist future, not one: the inhuman, totalitarian, malicious future of the New Death, the capitalist-mechanist future of Simnel, and the hyperreal-consumerist future of the predator; three dystopias which, Pratchett suggests, are all intimately connected. It is this question – what happens when the meaningful life breaks down? that unites the wizards and their plot with events in the Octarine Grass Country. Meanwhile, Windle Poon and the Fresh Start Club offer us an altogether more optimistic view: when their meaningful breaks down – when their life breaks down, even – they just scrabble about and construct a new one for themselves. Whether that’s Reg taking death as a political injustice to be attacked with graffiti slogans as though it were any other problem, or the unconventional romance that’s just going to try to work as though it were any normal relationship.

But maybe what makes it work so well is just that, while it’s clearly a book that wants to say something, it doesn’t want to insist on any one ‘moral’. The best example of this is the way that Death and Mrs Flitworth continually disagree on things, without the author simply insisting that Death, the immortal transcendental being, must be right. Indeed, Pratchett adopts a perspectivist point of view, allowing two or more directly contradictory attitudes to both be equally correct. This is made clear explicitly in the discussion on the transience of human existence – it is absolutely true, from the perspective of the universe, that all lives, short or long, are the same length, and are just as inconsequential as each other… yet it is also the case that, from the perspective of the owner, a long life is in general preferable to a short one. Pratchett achieves the sublime by the contrast between the immense and terrifying and the small and human – he does not allow the human to be treated as though it were all that mattered, as though death and inconsequence and the heartlessness of existence could simply be dismissed, yet at the same time nor does he allow the immense to crowd out or outweigh the diminutive haecceity of life. The mountain and the grain of sand seem to weigh the same in the balance, without inflating the weight of one or dismissing that of the other.

The same even-handedness I think can be seen in Windle’s story, and with the Fresh Start Club – Pratchett does not judge, does not dismiss or praise, barely even predicts… he merely displays.


However, all this is not to say that the book is without flaws. Far from it.

The best of the three plotlines is Death’s; but even this is not perfect. In fact, it’s slow to get started, and it has a disappointing anticlimax – though it’s easy to overlook this in hindsight thanks to the brilliance of the ending itself.

The worst, unfortunately, is Windle’s. This has a lot to do with it being aimless and not really going anywhere; but the real problem is its brevity. The story is so compressed – one third of a short book, that it doesn’t have time to go anywhere. We meet a whole bunch of characters, any one of whom could make for an interesting story even in the absence of any externally-imposed plot… but we don’t get to know any of them. At least 50% of my enjoyment of this plot comes from my sappy weak spot for quirky romance notes even when they’re far too underdeveloped on the page to rationally care about (amplified here, I suspect, by having read this in childhood, when we’re more prone to filling out the backstory in our imagination). And the biggest problem here is Windle himself – not that he’s unlikeable, which might have been an improvement, but that he’s just so bland. Pratchett does the thing he has a bad and tricksy habit of doing, of introducing a character as distinctive and then eliminating that distinction and reverthing them to his normal Everyman. So, just as Vimes in Guards! Guards! is introduced as entirely inebriate, but then gets on with the novel in a state of more or less sobriety, here the aged, peculiar Windle Poons we met in Moving Pictures quickly dies (or fails to) and becomes essentially a new man, a wholely different character. But while Vimes has enough distinctiveness that he can still work sober, Windle doesn’t have enough depth to be effective as a zombie. And again, much of that is surely down to the far shorter span of time Windle has to distinguish himself in, compared to Vimes. So Windle ends up barely a character at all, just a moving set of eyes for Pratchett to look through.

And this is disappointing, because there was a great deal of potential there. I loved old Windle, both in Moving Pictures and early on in Reaper Man, and I think there’s a lot that could be gotten out of an ancient, half-mad wheelchair-bound wizard in Ankh-Morpork. Even when we move on from there, there’s still potential: up above I said that this was Windle Poons, zombie, wandering around and looking back on his life; and that would have made for a very interesting book. But what’s striking is that he doesn’t look back, he just makes a few generic observations about life, some more about old age. He doesn’t feel like a zombie, let alone like the zombie of, specifically Windle Poons. I know Pratchett’s not going to write a whole novel about a zombie’s regrets, but this subplot could have been made so much more effective by just a couple of paragraphs of added content, giving us one or two brief anecdotes about Windle’s life. He’s a wizard, and he’s 130 or something, he must have had some interesting moments to remember. Even if part of the point is that he’s spent much of his life not really living, show us that rather than telling us. Show us some moment he declined to do something. Show us him remembering other people doing something. Show us him having done things when he was younger and then not doing them when he was older (there’s, iirc, one brief comment early on about how he used to go to pubs, but that’s not exactly earth-shattering. Even just show us him not doing anything. The brief bits we see early on of Old Windle’s last days seem far more filled with character than the subsequent novel. Make us care about him as a person. And come to think of it, Pratchett’s world is often bad at looking back, and this could have been a good opportunity to rectify that a little, given that Windle’s lived through the events of all the Discworld books so far, and seen Archchancellors and Patricians rise and fall.

It’s not that Windle’s unlikeable, or even that he’s bland, it’s that he’s such an infuriating waste of a character.

And then in between, there’s the plot with the wizards. This is silly and deletable, but also generally funny, if in quite an insane way, and it develops the characters of the Faculty further, and they will go on to play similar supporting comedic roles in several other books. So although their plot line here isn’t a great literary triumph, I’m not going to complain about it too much.

In fact, that applies to Windle too. OK, so maybe few of the characters introduced in his story will recur, but the story does its job. It adds a vaguely melancholy but slightly more proactive subplot, a more human lead character, and it helps develop the character of Ankh-Morpork itself.


That’s a theme it’s worth mentioning twice, actually. Because this was the first Discworld book where I really felt that Pratchett was starting to think about Discworld not as an excuse for unrelated books, nor even as a loose setting for linked books, but as an actual series of books. Reaper Man has far more awareness of its context that the earlier books. Most obviously, the faculty members introduced in Moving Pictures re-appear. So does CMOT Dibbler, introduced in Guards! Guards! and developed in Moving Pictures; so does Sergeant Colon of Guards! Guards!; likewise, Vetinari gets a new scene. It’s worth stressing how little connection there had been between books up until this point: yes, Rincewind had, early on, appeared in three ‘proper’ novels and Eric, but there had been little more concession to continuity than that. Granny Weatherwax featured in both Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters, but that was more a case of a borrowed character than a ‘sub-series’ in the later Discworld sense, with little in common in terms of setting, characters or themes. ‘The Patrician’ is only fixed as Vetinari from Guards! Guards! on (though he is named in that role in Sourcery), and the University only gets its Faculty in Moving Pictures (having previously seemingly been intentionally continuity-free due to their high death rate).  Reaper Man, then, dates from the phase when Discworld was solidifying into a real place with enduring and recurring characters; and so it forms a loose sequal both to Moving Pictures, to which there are multiple references and the characters of the Faculty, and to the earlier Mort, through the linking character of Death and the setting of the Octarine Grass Country (online resources say that the town Death visits here is Mort’s hometown from the earlier book, which seems plausible (in that it gives Death a specific reason to pick that town), but I don’t believe it’s spelled out in the text). There are also a surprising number of references to the following book, Witches Abroad  – I don’t know whether these are call-forwards to a book that Pratchett may well have been writing, or at least planning, at the time he wrote Reaper Man (they were published only six months apart), or whether we’re simply seeing the creative process in action, with several jokes and concepts considered worth following up on (there are also some glimpses of ideas that would come to fruition much later on).

All in all, then, Reaper Man is likely to be a divisive book. I would hope that all can agree that Death’s story here is, at the very least, well-crafted, powerful and memorable – and I would call it brilliant. The issue then is to what extent the inclusion of the other, clearly inferior, material detracts from it. Personally, I’m not sure that it does, or at least, while detracting in the sense of lowering the average quality of any given page, I think that it serves important functions. The Death plot probably wouldn’t have been as effective as a stand-alone novella. So, my impression is that the additional material adds much-needed tonal rounding, from the quirky to the zany and from the broadly comic to the slightly melancholy; without this background, I think the superior plotline would have lost much of its power, and become too one-note. In addition, the ‘filler’ material enriches our sense of Ankh-Morpork as a place, and of several characters in particular, and helps link the rather detached Death story back into Discworld, strengthening not just the book but also the series; and it also, I think, contributes thematically to the book, albeit in a less than crystal-clear way, and in the process lends further power to the conclusion. Oh, and it makes it funny and more fun to read.

Other readers, however, may take objection to the weirder elements as too strange to be funny, too detached to be moving, and too rushed to be exciting, while also objecting to the more straightforward additional material as too dull and predictable. They may also object to the sheer disconnectedness of the multiple plots – though personally I enjoyed the anarchic feel of the book.

So, when it came to this book Pratchett tried to write something really special… and ended up writing something really unique. It’s a baroque of a book. Some people may love it, some people may hate it. Some may feel that it’s a wasted opportunity to write a masterpiece… but to be honest I’m not sure it ever was (if he’d filled out the other plots more, the Death plot would then in turn feel swamped and disconnected, as it already does in the early going). Instead, I think that this is in its own right a masterpiece, if only because only a master could persuade me that a book with this many obvious and unavoidable flaws, is somehow a good book. But Pratchett has. This is a good book. And, what’s more, for me at least, it is also an extremely enjoyable book. And I don’t say that about too many books where a happy ending is that Death isn’t [apologies for the spoiler, but I don’t think this is going to be shocking to anybody] replaced by something worse.


Adrenaline: 3/5. The disconnected feel and some pacing issues (a slow start and a rushed end) counteract the anarchic excitement.

Emotion: 4/5. As I say above, I cried. For some time too, not just at one moment. I’m not giving it full marks only because it took almost all the book to get me to that point, and for most of it I didn’t engage all that much with most of the characters. When your main sympathetic character is deadpan, and almost entirely emotionless, and is, you know, Death incarnate, you’ve probably gone wrong somewhere else…

Thought: 4/5. OK, it doesn’t solve the great riddles of existence and the problems of living, but it does at least ask the questions, and look at some answers too, even if ultimately their logic relies more heavily on emotion and poetry, rather than cold reason.

Beauty: 4/5. It hits some really awesome moments – my crying was as much about how perfectly some lines are given as about their importance for the characters. On the other hand… it’s a total mess.

Craft: 4/5. Pratchett is so, so good in this book. And Pratchett is also so, so bad in this book. But I think that the biggest problems are inherent in the conception of the book that he tried to write, and he’s mostly done a good job of trying to write something that, on paper, looks ludicrous. It’s just a pity that there are a few corner cuts that could have improved the book considerably.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really, really like it. Really. If it weren’t so frustratingly flawed, I would adore it.

Originality: 5/5. If you sent a synopsis like this to a publisher as a book proposal, I imagine they’d either give you a million dollars or laugh in your face. Pratchett can often fairly be accused of skirting too close to second-hand material, but not here. Yes, there are echoes of some folk tales in the Death section, but that’s deep cultural resonance, not a lack of originality. Yes, the Fresh Start club are, while weird, probably weird in a slightly too predictably weird way. But I mean, come on. I guarantee that nobody opening this book has ever predicted at the start what would happen in it. Combine that with the mess of a plot structure and the total point-blank dissonance in tone, and this isn’t a book that’s someone else in disguise. This is all Pratchett, for better and for worse. In fact, while I wouldn’t recommend this for a first-time reader (both because it’s divisive and because it works better when you know the backstory), this may be the most pure concentration of Pratchett’s style he’s ever written.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. I rate this as the best Discworld book so far, marginally ahead of Pyramids. It is, however, strange, and a mess, and I can easily see how many readers would find it all off-putting. Personally, however, I thought it worked. I think this is likely to be one of the most divisive Discworld books, in terms of quality.

P.S. Old UK paperback editions of this book contain possibly the worst publishing cock-up in a bestselling novel. A key word in large and obvious font was meant to appear at the top of the left-hand page, thus being a total surprise until the last moment (and was in the hardback edition). Instead, publishers ended up putting it halfway down the right-hand page, so that it’s visible a page and a half in advance, draining away a substantial part of the suspense from a pivotal moment. Idiots.

Woolf and Modernism

This began with a conversation about how different ‘eras’ lined up across different areas of culture. Specifically, the question was whether certain writers in the early 20th century were “Modernist” or “Postmodernist”. One of the writers in question was Virginia Woolf. Now, as it happens I happened to have just come across a copy of an essay Woolf wrote about the condition of literature in the 1920s, which firmly contrasts two generations of writers. Her opinions seemed so strongly connected to what I considered modernism that I wanted to write something about it, but I didn’t get around to it. Now, gradually, I have.

In the following, I look at what Woolf has to say, and why I think that what she is saying sounds very Modernist.

I then go on to look more closely, through parallels with the history of philosophy, at different successive movements that might be considered part of ‘Modernism’, and at which ones Woolf seems closest to and which ones Woolf is rebelling against.

I also hope that people will agree to take Woolf as broadly representative of other potentially ‘Modernist’ writers of her day, although I cannot address all of them; in particular, I’m aware that some people believe that Joyce was a postmodernist, even if Woolf was a modernist, and that this is a significant difference between them; I don’t know enough about Joyce to comment.

Please note that this is just an over-inflated reply in an online conversation. It doesn’t pretend to be literary criticism or philosophical history, and neither its (top of the head and imprecise) content nor its (rambling and discursive) form pretend to be of academic quality. But hopefully somebody might find it interesting.


“Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” shows us how Woolf perceived the literary landscape of her day, and what she considered the purpose of writing.

Several things Woolf says in this essay lead me to think of her as a ‘modernist’, rather than a ‘postmodernist’.

First, and most voluminously, Woolf sets everything in terms of veracity, of successful representation of reality, of there being a truth that it is the writer’s duty to ‘catch’. That truth, for Woolf, is character – for Woolf, some character suddenly appears to the writer (in this case the eponymous Mrs. Brown, a woman Woolf met on the train), and demands to be represented accurately: “Come and catch me if you can”. Most, however, do not succeed – “few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair”.

Note that Woolf is not talking about a need to ‘build’ original characters, but a need to ‘catch’ real characters that already exist in the world. Everything is about reality – she approving quotes Bennett’s claim that “if the characters are real the novel will have a chance; if they are not, oblivion will be its portion.”

Woolf is not a naïve Enlightenment rationalist – she acknowledges that there are several ways to perceive and portray the truth. She expresses this in terms of differences in national character (essentialism! not very postmodern of her… later, she goes on to dismiss Conrad on the grounds that he is ‘a Pole’ and hence ‘however admirable, not very helpful’ – sure, he may write in English, but how could any English writer with an English soul learn anything from an essentially alien Pole!?): “The English writer would make the old lady into a ‘character’; he would bring out her oddities and mannerisms; her buttons and wrinkles; her ribbons and warts; her personality would dominate the book. A French writer would rub out all that; he would sacrifice the individual Mrs Brown to a more general view of human nature; to make a more abstract, proportioned, and harmonious whole. The Russian would pierce through the flesh; would reveal the soul – the soul alone, wandering out into the Waterloo Road, asking of life some tremendous question which would sound on and on in our ears after the book was finished… you see one thing in character, and I another. You say it means this, and I that. And when it comes to writing, each makes a further selection on principles of his own. Thus Mrs. Brown can be treated in an infinite variety of ways, according to the age, country, and temperament of the writer.” Woolf does therefore admit that there may be more than one way to get to the truth, and that different portrayals may be better suited for different audiences. Indeed, she very briefly goes further and toys with the idea of questioning the whole idea of reality: “I must ask myself, what is reality? And who are the judges of reality?… There is nothing that people differ about more than the reality of characters, especially in contemporary books.” Here she may begin to sound postmodern. But she does not dive into this way of looking at things, but instead immediately pulls back: “But if you take a larger view I think that Mr. Bennett is perfectly right.” Yes, she admits, we may not be able to have a clear and uncontroversial ranking of characters by how real they are, in the details of looking at each character one by one… but in ‘the larger view’, we know reality when we see it. So she praises the great classics for the reality of their characters, and goes on to criticise later authors for their failure to grasp reality.

Those are the grounds on which Woolf attacks the ‘Edwardian’ novelists, Bennett, Galsworthy and Wells: “They have looked very powerfully, searchingly, and sympathetically out of the window; at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at [Mrs. Brown], never at life, never at human nature”. Woolf thinks there is such a thing as life, such a thing as human nature, and that there’s a clear difference between a book that tells us about these things and a book that does not. Woolf explains how this is compatible with the diversity of novelistic styles: “Mrs. Brown is eternal, Mrs. Brown is human nature, Mrs. Brown changes only on the surface, it is the novelists who get in and out”. Reality is permanent and unchanging and essential, but different explorers can bring back different bits of it to show us. Yet there is still a fundamental difference between bringing back a part of reality and bringing back something else, something that does not ‘catch the phantom’ of truth, and that’s the treason-to-life of the Edwardians: “Mr. Bennett has never once looked at Mrs. Brown in her corner… there she sits and not one of the Edwardian writers has so much as looked at her.”

The utter artistic failure of this approach in Woolf’s view is hard to overstate: “For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.” Not playful words!

It’s not just reality, it’s specifically familiar, understandable, ordinary reality. “The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises… and it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark.” The task of the writer is “to make us believe in the reality of [their character]”.

Again, Woolf explains her method, contrasting an Edwardian novel with the one she wanted to write: “But if I had done that I should have escaped the appalling effort of saying what I meant. And to have got at what I meant I should have had to go back and back and back; to experiment with one thing and another; to try this sentence and that, referring each word to my vision, matching it as exactly as possible, and knowing that somehow I had to find a common ground between us, a convention which would not seem to you too odd, unreal, and far-fetched to believe in.” Saying what you mean. Finding common ground. Being believable, making us believe in the reality of the things described. Avoiding the unreal, the odd and the farfetched. Postmodern? No.

One last quote: Woolf describes Mrs. Brown, rather desparately, as “that vision to which I cling though I know no way of imparting it to you.” Woolf is a writer struggling to communicate accurately and comprehensively a particular meaning that is dear to her – she knows it’s difficult, maybe impossible, but she isn’t giving up – she certainly doesn’t seem to be endorsing the death of the author! Or again: “Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown.” Come on literary people, stop looking for adulation and applause and just make sure you’re describing reality truthfully…

The second thing I’d like to point out is Woolf’s sense of historicism. The essay (mostly in passing) lays out a very clear progression of history, through a series of stages. There is the old way of the world. Then, “in or about December, 1910, human character changed”. Woolf sees a paradigm shift in society – in life, since all of human life is ultimately just facets of the same reality. She connects the way that modern cooks, unlike their predecessors, might ask advice in buying a hat, or borrow a copy of a newspaper [again, note how Woolf sees people first as cooks, second as people, with no hesitation in her assumption that her audience was made up entirely of the employers of cooks, never of cooks themselves] with trends in literature. “All human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature”.

Woolf has an almost millenarian belief in a total transition from the old way of life to a new Modernity. It’s a shift that’s so fundamental that all other value judgements seem to have to be indexed to this dichotomy between the Modern and the pre-Modern (though she doesn’t use those precise words). Accordingly, she admits that the techniques of the older novelists (those that are ‘ruin and death’ to Moderns) were not only impressive and powerful and understandable in their time and place but actually good – “the convention worked admirably… for that age and generation, the convention was a good one.” So to the extent that prior conventions have to be discarded, it’s not because they were bad conventions, but because they no longer suit the material conditions. And the solution? Find new conventions to abide by. Unfortunately, that may take some time, and may involve a lot of loud noise as the old conventions are replaced. These new conventions will NOT involve getting rid of the representation of objective reality. Quite the contrary: “There was Mrs. Brown protesting that she was different, quite different, from what people made out, and luring the novelist to her rescure… at whatever cost of life, limb and damage to valuable property Mrs. Brown must be rescued, expressed, and set in her high relations to the world.”

So there is turmoil. “Thus it is that hear all around us, in poems and novels and biographies, even in newspaper articles and essays, the sound of breaking and falling, crashing and destruction… at the present moment we are suffering not from decay but from having no code of manners… the feeble are lead to outrage, and the strong are led to destroy the very foundations and rules of literary society… Grammar is violated; syntax disintegrated… the more adult writers do not, of course, indulge in such wanton exhibitions of spleen. Their sincerity is desparate, and their courage tremendous.”

But fear not! “Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction — we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.”

So that’s why I think Woolf is a modernist, why the movement she was part of was, largely, modernist. Three things: commitment to representation of reality and accurate communication of the author’s specific intentions; a linear interpretation of history that puts her age at the cusp, and demands violent reform to throw away the old world and usher in a new ‘golden age’ of society and literature; and an all-pervading seriousness and sense of importance, rhetoric of death and destruction and ruin and vast metaphysical and sociological significances and above all struggle and campaign.


But perhaps what’s more interesting is if we go beyond broad, sweeping cultural terms like ‘modernism’, and look at the specific philosophies Woolf is engaging with.

In the first corner, largely unmentioned, as a backdrop, you’ve got what we might broadly call ‘Romanticism’, an ideology of dualities, of free and autonomous souls in enslaved and mechanistic worlds, where reason, but only reason, can pierce through the illusions to the world beyond. Woolf’s description of the mystical questioning of the hypothetical Russian novelist, in particular, seems very Romantic.

Then you have what emerged out of that. Philosophers after Kant increasingly stressed the interconnectedness of things, the world-soul. Individuals were done away with into abstractions – the person came to be seen only as a reflection of greater things. Sometimes this was mystical or metaphysical, as in Hegel, or more importantly in Bradley. Sometimes it was sociological, as in Comte and Spencer. Sometimes it was economic, as in Marx. In literature, we can probably associate it with social realism, the key word there being ‘social’.

This is the ideology that Woolf is attacking when she attacks the ‘Edwardians’. She gives three different variants in turn: Galsworthy, who sees the individual in terms of social relations, of factories and exploitation and commerce; Wells, who sees the individual in terms of their historical, and specifically their future-historical position, as a series of problems and inadequacies to be overcome in the coming Utopia; and Bennett, who sees the individual as a sum of their social relations, and seeks to describe the individual by describing their bank accounts, their possessions, the view from their window, the occupation of their father, the amount of smokes that issues from the local flour mill, whether the houses nearby are held leasehold or copyhold and what powers the landlords have over the tenants, and so on.

In fact, I’ll quote her quoting Bennett, attempting (this is the fourth or fifth or sixth paragraph) to describe his character, Hilda: “It was one of the two middle houses of a detached terrace of four houses built by her grandfather Lessways, the teapot manufacturer; it was the chief of the four, obviously the habitation of the proprietor of the terrace. One of the corner houses had been robbed of its just proportion of garden so that the seigneurial garden-plot might be triflingly larger than the other. The terrace was not a terrace of cottages, but of houses rated at from twenty-six to thirty-six pounds a year; beyond the means of artisans and petty insurance agens and rent-collectors. And further, it was well-built, generously built; and its architecture, though debased, showed some faint traces of Georgian amenity. It was admittedly the best row of houses in that newly-settled quarter of the town.” And so on and so forth. One gets the impression that if you sat down with enough of Bennett’s books and a spreadsheet, you could work out the entire economic system of turn-of-the-century England, down the last flour mill. But would we know anything about Hilda, as a person? Bennett, Woolf thinks, assumes that she’s just a collection of facts about her place in society.

Where Woolf’s sympathies lie is instead the analytic movement. Both the analytic movement and the phenomenological movement reacted against this big-system style of thought by forcing concentration on the particulars: the particulars of experience, the particulars of thought. And having a great skepticism as regards all of the big systems. Where the systematisers stressed unity and integration, the analytics, as the name suggests, broke everything down into componants. They were atomists. Woolf’s approach seems very much a literary equivalent of this movement: she discarded the big-system synthetic thinking, the idea of using the individual to explore the wider social, biological, economic, historical or mystical context, or that the individual may perhaps be no more than one particular instantiation of that context, and instead wanted to focus on the individual. The pure, singular individual, not her parents or her handbags, but on her, and what made her different from all the other people.

Historically, of course, this allegiance of Woolf’s shouldn’t be a surprising: aside from her general historical context, she was personally a member of the Bloomsbury Set, a group almost defined and founded in expression of the immense personal and philosophical influence of G.E. Moore [fun fact: although sometimes you see him referred to as ‘George’ Moore, he so detested his given names that he refused to ever use them, and he went simply by ‘G.E.’ – or by some other name if that seemed inappropriate. His wife, for instance, called him ‘Bill’]. Moore was one of the founding figures of analytic philosophy, and relentless in his attacks on the previous generation of philosophers; Woolf’s essay can probably be seen as an attempt to extend Moore’s philosophical critique into the literary realm. Moore (along with Bertrand Russell, and later Ludwig Wittgenstein (also lesser influences on Bloomsbury – Keynes once described the latter’s return to England from his self-imposed exile as a primary school teacher and jobbing architect by saying simply “God has arrived”)) swept away the old metaphysics, almost entirely abolished metaphysics itself (their followers would later go the whole way), and focused attention on the analysis of each sentence to find out and assess it’s true content, if indeed it had any – Woolf seeks to do the same to people. Moore was also influential ethically – he stressed that some things and some actions had a purely intrinsic worth, regardless of their consequences and effects, made beauty the highest good (famously once suggesting that murder was wrong because the threat of being murdered was a terrible distraction from the real endeavour of appreciating beautiful works of art), and lauded personal friendship as the route to happiness, while encouraging rebellion against counterproductive social rules and mores. This ethic of intrinsic worth and of artistic justification is echoed, for instance, when Woolf complains of the Edwardian novelists that it feels as though their novels are not finished when one reaches the last page, and that one feels one has to do something in response, like donate to charity or something. Well, that’s all very well and good for the old world, suggests Woolf, but there’s something fundamentally wrong about art that exists to change people’s behaviour! Indeed, she’s not sure “if we are right to call them books at all.” It’s an odd comment, but it makes sense when you think about it in light of Moore – art is art, entire and of itself, and on some level the rest of society just exists to allow books to be written and read, so of course it’s perverse for novels to subordinate themselves to political action, as though, I don’t know, ending child labour or liberalising marriage laws or eliminating starvation were somehow important in their own right. Even if Woolf might(?) not consciously go as far as Moore in subjugating society to art, she probably thinks that at the very least a book ought to have its own value in itself, an intrinsic worth that comes only from what’s within the pages, not from any do-gooder-ism it may happen to inspire – and while that inspiration may not be a bad thing per se, putting too much effort into achieving it is likely to mean sacrificing the purity of art for art’s sake. Thus, a really good book is “self-contained; [it] leaves one with no desire to do anything, except indeed to read the book again, and to understand it better.” [my italics]

Woolf allies with Moore. But at the same time, it’s fair to say that she may not be speaking entirely in unison with him. Perhaps there are hints of postmodernism in her cursory discussion of truth and reality – or maybe they’re only premonitions of Wittgenstein’s ‘second philosophy’. But in truth, I think those abortive ruminations are a lot more to do with Bradley.

More important than the possible brief glimpse of the future is the amount of the past still in Woolf – the degree to which she’s still in debt to the pre-analytics. The most obvious part of that is her historicism – her sense of progress in mankind, of things being appropriate or inappropriate to their age, her perhaps naïve faith in sudden, epochal shifts in social relations. These are traits of the tendency she attacks in the ‘Edwardians’, the tendency toward big systems and context, and largely alien to the following wave of philosophy (except inasmuch as they perhaps thought themselves to represent the end of history).

But deeper than that, there are also echoes of British Idealism. This philosophy, the end-point of Hegelianism, can in turn be broken into two parts. The first part is F.H. Bradley.

Bradley was without doubt the most important, influential and famous philosopher of the age (though Russell and Moore have succeeded in largely eliminating him from history in the century after his death). He can fairly be described as the pope of the British Empire – not because he specifically supported imperialism, but because the culture of all those officials sent out all over the world was primarily Bradleyan. And Bradleyism was a form of late Hegelianism – or, as he would have seen it, an attempt to go beyond Hegel.

There are places where Bradley meets the Analytics. Bradley was an early and influential proponent of logical analysis, to whom Russell was greatly indebted technically. He also encouraged attention to the particulars, warning that all abstraction was falsification (and hence that all possible propositions were false), and here we can see some influence on Woolf. But Bradley was a very, very big metaphysician. Bradley’s metaphysics is a strange combination of the permanent and the transient: the self, he frames in terms of a ‘universal’, an identity that exists throughout time and space but only through a variety of actual instantiations, “Mrs. Brown” being a single unitary thing like the colour red, but only ever seen in “Mrs Brown doing X” and “Mrs Brown thinking Y”, just as we can never see ‘red’, but only a bewildering variety of red things, red letterboxes, red dogs, red leaves on a tree. Mrs Brown now and Mrs Brown yesterday are no more the same than a red dog and a red leaf… yet there is still something the same, the universal seen in all the particulars. I think there is something of this in Woolf’s evocation of her Mrs Brown as something unchanging and immortal – indeed, her conception of life and human nature as unchanging, despite being so different at different times, her metaphor of something that ‘changes only on the surface’.

But Bradley goes far beyond this. Eventually, he decides that there is only one true concrete universal: everybody is one person. Everybody, in fact, is one thing, the same thing as all the other things. There is only one thing in all the universe, including the universe: one thing, the Absolute. Things do not have relations with other things, except in that they are all the Absolute. The Absolute is not composed of matter, there is no matter, the Absolute is only experience (hence the ‘Idealism’). But where Hegel believes that the rational is the real, Bradley believes that the Absolute transcends all attempts to apprehend it. Appearances are illusions. All claims and judgements are false. Yet at the same time, everything we say must be partly true – the Absolute contains all things, including all possibilities. So rather than true and false being opposite, all things are false, but they can be more or less false. Specifically, each attempt at a description captures some part of the Absolute, and the more true a description is the more of the Absolute it manages to describe. And this I think is where Woolf gets her occasional moments of semi-postmodernism from: from this Bradleyan faith in the eternal and unchanging that at the same time cannot be captured, about which contradictory statements can be equally true, about which all statements are ultimately false. And it’s worth mentioning in passing, particularly given Woolf’s degree of passion, that Bradley also denied the correspondence theory of truth – that is, he did not believe that true beliefs must correspond with reality. Oh no – he believed in an identity theory of truth. A true belief IS reality – or reality is only true beliefs; beliefs, judgements, are only beliefs and judgements because of their place in a wider reality that proves them all false. In the end, there is only one true belief, the true belief that contains the whole of existence, and that belief is simply the same as existence itself, as the Absolute. And there is something thrilling about this for a novelist. Because in this account, if Woolf succeeds in saying something ‘true’ for some adequate value of truth, she is not merely saying something that corresponds to reality, thinking something that corresponds to reality, she actually is thinking reality. Mrs Brown is an idea in her head that she cannot convey not merely in a metaphorical sense, but in a literal sense. The injunction to be true to Mrs Brown, to ‘rescue’ Mrs Brown, takes on not merely an aesthetic importance but a thoroughly metaphysical, almost religious one!

And finally, it is worth mentioning briefly Bradley’s moral views. Although he is, in the modern world, most famous for his description of Hegelian ethics in his essay “My Station and Its Duties”, in which he outlines with persuasive power the Hegelian account of a society in which each person knows their place, and in which each place comes with its own particular and unique set of duties and obligations, a sort of tailor-made morality that recognises each person’s identity as a mechanism in the greater machine, Bradley himself did not hold such views (though he found them appealing). Instead, he rejected them on the grounds that such an account would end up endorsing the structure of society itself, whereas in reality some societies were themselves structured in immoral ways. Instead, and seemingly paradoxically given his monistic metaphysics (the two sides of his philosophy were never entirely reconciled), he argues that it is everybody’s duty to find a way to their own self-realisation within society. The emphasis thus shifts from the individual as the tool of society to the society as the tool of the collectivity of self-realising individuals. This was a view very much at odds with previous Hegelianism, whether right (nationalist) or left (communist); but a view very amenable to Woolf and her friends. Of course she’s not happy to see how Bennett describes Hilda through her society, to the extent it seems almost as though he’s describing society through Hilda – what really matters, after all, is Hilda’s own moral struggle to be true to herself, to discover what and who she is, in which context ‘society’ is mostly of interest only as an externally-imposed obstacle, an illusion to be seen through, an obstacle to be overcome. But more than that: of course Woolf shouldn’t be writing novels that force people “to join a society, or more desparately to write a cheque”! Then she’d just be a tool of society – no, her job is simply to realise herself as completely as possible by writing books that express her own self, and society’s job is to continue to provide her personally with an independent income, good food and drink, and sufficient leisure time to let her get on with this fantastic, ethically-endorsed, project of art.

Those who followed Bradley, however, for the most part attempted to stay true to his general ideology while dropping the belief that All Is One. These philosophers remained Idealists, they continued to believe that reality was composed of experience, not bricks and bones; they continued to believe that a great deal of appearance was illusion (the one philosophical argument that has been allowed to survive from that era and still be taught in textbooks is McTaggert’s argument that time does not exist, typical of the immense, countercultural swagger of the Idealist’s project, which seems at times to have set out to take a hatchet to common sense). But they tended to harken back consciously to Leibniz and his monadism – the view that the world consists of an infinite number of feeling, striving, indivisible substances or entities, with little or no connection between them (Leibniz’s famous saying that there are no windows in a monad). This view took Bradley’s ideas of moral struggle for self-realisation and applied them to the whole of reality, making not only every person but every inanimate object into a quest for self-realisation. And from my limited reading of Woolf (one novel, Mrs. Dalloway), I can’t but think that she was influenced by this sort of position. Mrs. Dalloway sees the eye of the narrator flit between numerous characters, who live in the same world, and, as it were, each contains a mirror of the others, but who at the same time seem fundamentally atomistic, each mind its own monadic arena for its own stream of consciousness.


Anyway, there we are. I think it’s fair to distinguish at least three ‘waves’ of ideas that we might associate with “Modernism”: and perhaps my inability to pick just one is a part of what Modernism means. Because Modernism was revolutionary, a casting out of the old and the formulation of the new. And if we accept that social changes take time, and social movements exist for a period of time, then a revolutionary idea will end up turning against itself. The revolutionary “Modernist impulse”, as we might call it, was a sentiment that affected the world for decades, for generations, and inevitably generation was lead to revolut against generation until the impulse passed. And so we can distinguish three waves: the first wave, the systematising, socialising wave; the mystical, universalising wave (it’s worth stressing here how influential Bradley and the other Idealists were on ‘Modernist’ artists, despite being forgotten today – T.S. Eliot, for instance, even wrote a doctoral dissertation on Bradley, and, later, Borges was deeply influenced and explicitly references him) (I’m no Continentalist, but I wonder whether maybe Heidegger might be an analogous figure there?); and then the analytic, de-metaphysicalising wave. One might perhaps also include a fourth wave, including both the behaviourists and the ordinary language philosophers, as the final phase of the impulse. Each wave was associated with ‘Modernist’ artists, but each wave rebelled against the previous – so Woolf, for instance, is primarily rebelling against the first wave, not against the Romantics. This may be why it’s tempting to assume that she’s postmodern, in that she’s arguing against modernist – but I would argue that she’s still several iterations of Modernism away from real postmodernism.


And now, then, I seem to remember that when I started writing this, I had some sort of aim or purpose in mind. If that was the case, I seem to have lost hold of it. I’ve written 5,000 words, over a period of weeks, and now I feel I can’t end before some sort of perorative conclusion… and I don’t have one. So…. I’m going to stop now. I think? Yes.