wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: essaying

M. John Harrison, VIRICONIUM NIGHTS.

It seems to me that recession is one of the key features of the Viriconium cycle: the city is vivid, immersive, without ever actually being clear, and over the course of the series — particularly this maddening final ‘volume’ of short stories — it recedes entirely from view (like an eyeball drying out, or a chrysalis desiccating and collapsing onto itself) along with its citizens, its stories, any hint of clear meaning. What’s left, in ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,’ is less than an echo; and yet the city is unbelievably rich and present even in its (or rather as an) absence. When Harrison describes a building sited in a valley ‘like a metaphor’ there’s a cruelty to it. Light seemed cruel as well, beyond the grey pitilessness which characterizes all four Viriconium books.

Empty gestures and fading memories characterize the city in this final chapter. ‘A Young Man’s Journey’ takes place in our England, more or less, and while it ends with the musical acclamation which has characterized the series throughout — ‘Viriconium!’ — the weird hollowness of it is blacker than irony. But Nights is a coda; the whole series is a coda. The other short stories, especially ‘Strange Great Sins’ and ‘The Luck in the Head,’ depict a world in its Evening, reduced to reminiscence and meaningless recapitulation. I realize now that to call the mad goings-on ‘surreal’ is to dismiss them, to consign them to the aesthetic: this is a careful rendering of ugly nonsense, which after all sounds a lot like our world in our moment (or Thatcher’s, yes?).

The language of Nights varies, though it never returns (I’m glad, or relieved) to the terrible1 dense static of A Storm of Wings. After the deliberate slow movement of the two middle volumes, night comes, rest, the fog seems to recede — but there’s nothing left to see, or rather much to see and not to understand. The clocks have run down and the creative urge is gone.

It’s hard to talk about Viriconium. No: it’s easy but futile, like talking about entropy. The concept defeats you. Digging into Viriconium is like laboriously decrypting a piece of bad news. By the end it doesn’t promise anything; in the Evening even teasing is heartless.

I realized only now that I hadn’t thought of the Afternoon cultures since at least A Storm of Wings, maybe before. Harrison deals from the same deck as before — insects, horse heads, deranged artists, lightsabers, dwarves — but face-down, now. You hardly remember that any of it ever meant anything. Maybe there never was a fucking Viriconium.

I loved these stories (this story). I’m not sure I liked it in the end, though I’m sure Harrison doesn’t care; it filled me with an intense and unidentifiable emotion.

Viriconium!

and and and

I wrote that in early July, and I’m surprised at its negativity, or no, at its anger. I suppose I was angry that Viriconium had finally been taken away, though that taking was the work of the entire series, which seems to me altogether to be one of the great works of the imagination — or rather its imagination seems greater creeping up on me/mine than, oh fuck it. I adored the book and it angered me. I can’t decide whether Harrison loves or even likes Viriconium; he must, mustn’t he? but you wouldn’t know the way he lets it go. I resent his pitilessness as I’m not convinced it’s necessary, though maybe if I knew who/what/when was the butt of the joke and maybe if I also disliked him/it/then — well —

I catch myself wanting things from Viriconium that it was built (I imagine) precisely to refuse, and so catching, I get angry at the dwarf, the city, the insect, myself, and Mr Michael John Harrison, though not in that order. Me first. What a world, a world-city unlike any other, as they say in the ad-copy biz. Viriconium!


  1. ‘Terrible’ like ‘inspiring a kind of all-consuming existential dread,’ not ‘bad.’ Prosewise, Harrison is a living god. Also a darkdreaming fucker. 
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Men, man.

Attention conservation notice: Drafty outboard note-taking, of neither use nor interest to other humans, unless you wanna laugh at some dweebs.

The phrase ‘everyday carry’ has apparently come to mean ‘things you buy to pretend to be a real man, y’know, like your grandpa,’ which is a sad thing — when I first heard the phrase it just meant ‘a useful all-purpose knife,’ and the guys using it weren’t styleboy wankers. Here’s the founder of the site everydaycarry.com guest-posting at a site called, I shit you not, ‘The Art of Manliness‘:

At the most literal level, your everyday carry is the collection of items you carry with you in your pockets or in your bag on a daily basis.

You don’t say!

Like the ‘hipster PDA’ i.e. notecards held together with a binder clip, the ‘everyday carry’ kit (penlight, keyring, knife/multitool, wallet, watch, and of course your expensive smartphone — y’know, ‘what’s in your pocket’) is a dumb affectation; unlike the hipster PDA, it’s also a moneymaking opportunity for the kind of guys who carry moustache wax and wear $200 watches to their coffeeshop jobs. The ‘hipster PDA’ was mostly a moneymaking opportunity for Merlin Mann of 43folders.com, but only for about ten seconds.

Which reminds me, as so many things do because I’m wired wrong, of Susan Faludi, whose still-excellent book Stiffed came out around the same time as Fight Club and leveled a related critique of contemporary ‘ornamental masculinity,’ though her hangups are different from Palahniuk’s thank Christ. Faludi holds up the WWII-era G.I. (hey when was your grandfather born again?) as a lost ideal of manliness: stout of heart, simple of tongue, off liberating Auschwitz one day and back to work at the high-rise the next. In her telling as I remember it, a toxic stew of advertising dollars, economic disempowerment, the collapse of ancient social mores, rapid heedless postwar technologization, and good ol’ fashioned late-patriarchy led to the replacement of manliness as community service by, well, The Art of Manliness.

(The Sopranos tells a particularly nasty, ironic version of this story.)

I look at the EDC fetishists and see guys playing dressup. Which is fine, I’ve got nothing against dressup. But you have to acknowledge what you’re doing — and you ought to think a moment about why.

The EDC club use the word ‘functionality’ when they mean ‘style’ which means, basically, game over.

Game of Thrones and ‘narrative economy.’

Game of Thrones in its seventh season has become a different show, set in an entirely different world: instead of the densely populated, richly imagined world of the first few years, or even the rapidly collapsing stage set of seasons 5 and 6, the show now takes place in a purely abstract space unmoored from anything like actual geography. This makes for more efficient ‘narrative economy,’ but the transition from dramatic to almost comedic abstraction comes at enormous cost — to believability, obviously, and (worse) to the books’ delicately balanced historical consciousness.

What I’ve always loved best about Martin’s books is the sense that the history of Robert’s Rebellion is playing out across a second generation twenty years later; history is present for the book’s characters at just the right scale, if that makes sense, with just the right weight. The Starks and Lannisters relate to the past as people do, rather than as Player Characters, and the generational struggle which drives the various court intrigues is simply correct. (‘Realpolitik Tolkien,’ as they say.) The TV show has never given me that feeling, mainly because its world is so much smaller than the books’. The Citadel is three rooms onscreen, but Martin can situate it in a complex ecology. The same for, say, the Starks’ relationship to the ‘smallfolk,’ who don’t appear in the show because that kind of ‘worldbuilding’ (the kind that matters) means hiring even more extras. The fifth book in the series ends with Kevan Lannister grandly murdered by Varys — a complexly motivated chess move which the TV series is too coarsely plotted to accommodate. (Kevan Lannister barely appears in the show, as does his entire stratum of ‘second-string’ players in the titular Game.)

Season 7 has so totally collapsed the physical and temporal scale of the story that the connection to Robert’s Rebellion, say, has been lost altogether. This doesn’t seem to bother the audience, whose numbers swell further as the show abandons Martin’s sense of seriousness or purpose. But it bothers me.

All of which is maybe just to say: I told you years ago that the show would lose its brain when Benioff and Weiss passed Martin’s books and had to go it alone.

Tonight’s episode was funny and ‘heartwarming,’ and oh yes, patently absurd. It was, at several points, a literal parody of itself. Most disappointing.

Epistemic status; attention conservation warning.

Reading Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex (one of the best blogs out there, no question), I’m reminded of a feature of his blog that I wish were more widely adopted: the epistemic status note at the top of a post.

A recent example:

Epistemic status: idea for one’s toolbox of ideas; not to be followed off a cliff

Another:

Epistemic status: So, so speculative. Don’t take any of this seriously until it’s replicated and endorsed by other people.

You might think this is humourlessness, or the author assuming his readers’ humourlessness or poor reading comprehension, and some idiot is probably getting ready to use the phrase ‘Swiftian satire’; please don’t. What Scott is doing is suggesting one or more reading frames for his readers, in order to shape both their approach to the posts and the discussions that follow. But crucially, this isn’t about content — it’s just additional information about how strongly certain claims are intended to be taken.

This is the most important thing, I think, and the strongest indication that Scott’s site is ‘grownup’ in a way most modern-USA ‘intellectual’ discourse simply isn’t: he assumes that the point of his writing is to generate and contribute to robust adult communication, and avails himself of the right tools for that job. Moreover, he does not assume that his readers will agree with him (and they often don’t) — only that they’re willing to read in good faith and assume that he’s writing in the same spirit.

This isn’t quite the same as a content note: if you look at, say, shakesville.com, the ubiquitous content notes often (usually?) function as neutral guides to topics under discussion, but surprisingly often serve as editorial prefaces, e.g. a (hypothetical) discussion of rates of gender-detransition might be framed with a ‘transphobia’ content note. The purpose of such notes isn’t to increase reader flexibility, and they don’t assume readers’ good faith — they’re there in part to shape the readers’ attitude toward the content itself. They aren’t just warnings to stay away, of course: most readers will read the posts regardless of the content notes. For those readers, the content notes are just guides to reception posture at the level of content.

Scott’s ‘epistemic status’ warnings guard against unproductive forms of argument but are agnostic as to reader perspectives; Melissa’s, I’d argue, militate subtly against specific perspectives. Both are intended inclusively, I think, but my sense is that they don’t both function that way, at least not to the same degree.

The great and knowledgeable Cosma Shalizi includes ‘attention conservation notices’ atop his long posts, which are somewhat more complicated (or at any rate pretentious) than normal content notes/trigger warnings.

In theory, credentials serve as persistent epistemic status warnings: ‘I have a PhD in area XYZ, so I can be expected to know A, B, and C.’ But life is complicated and dumb.

But again: why would you take my word for any of this?

Important pennies.

Michiko Kakutani is retiring. I didn’t realize she was still working.

Ten years ago I’d have said ‘Good riddance’ — I thought she was dull on literature and embarrassing on politics, and I wrote in 2006 (on this blog’s forerunner) that I couldn’t remember ever learning anything from her reviews — but now I feel a little twinge of ohisthat…? sadness. My teacher said she was a fine interviewer in the 1970s at Yale, and the words ‘the 1970s at Yale’ remind me of the nearness of history: there’s another America within living memory, one where books mattered directly to the ‘average Joe’ and the idea of intellectual life wasn’t a sad joke.

My editor at Bloomsbury (yes I do enjoy typing those words) told me only the NYTimes could meaningfully drive sales with a review anymore, though I suppose she wasn’t counting Oprah Winfrey. Kakutani won’t be remembered as an intellectual, but she was part of a world that prized intellectual discourse even if only as fashion. The sadness I feel is for the passing of a world where not just ideas but contemplation itself mattered.

Ritual and control (systems): freewrite.

The word ‘ritual’ is overloaded w/judgment because the 20th century was horrible. We have a screwy notion of what time is — the body’s relationship to time, and the mind’s.

Neonates’ hearts have to be taught to beat in time. Ever wonder why they respond so well to bouncing at ~80bpm? Their hearts are learning how to keep a beat. They’re learning how to live.

Technologies collapse space and time, can we agree? One major effect of the Internet is that all libraries are local. My car lets me be 60 miles away in an hour; traveling five miles takes ‘no time at all,’ a unit of time so small I don’t notice it unless I’m in a hurry. Benedict Anderson wrote about this already — the psychic effects of 19C mass media. James Scott as well, in another register. Manovich, Kittler — yr Media Studies 101 reading list, basically.

(The Language of New Media put me off when I read it in grad school; I wonder how I’d feel about it today, where my almost unreadably marked-up copy is…)

What’s ritual? Programmatic action to imbue a moment with meaning: to change the relationship of the mind/body to spacetime. Ritual differs from habit by intention. It differs from ‘process’ in its metaphoricity — rituals aren’t always representational but the action/effect mapping passes through metaphor, which isn’t true of a functional process. How do you make scrambled eggs? Crack, whisk, milk, heat, scramble, no need to pour a ring of salt around yourself in the kitchen. Each step of the process accomplishes something physical, obvious; each step in the ritual (the crimson shawl, the ring of salt, the prayer to Pelor) accomplishes psychotropism.

Psycho+tropism: mind+changing. ‘Learning.’ I’ve been making this point (well it’s not a ‘point’ exactly) in writing for 15 years now.

Science — or no not ‘science’ but whatever hip idiots mean when they say ‘Yay, let’s do science!‘ — is supposed by now to’ve freed us from the Terrible Shackles of ritual. We no longer evoke or imbue or incant or call down the ______ but rather we ‘boot up’ and ‘lifehack’ and oh God it’s too stupid to write down. Point being we’ve replaced magical metaphors with technological ones and have failed to register the implied insult, i.e. that you and I are the same kinds of machines as the ones we serve all day. (On the other hand, given this subservience, maybe calling ourselves ‘computers’ is meant as a compliment? Well: I don’t take it as one.) The idea that you can pop a nootropic or microdose and unlock the awesome power of the human mind isn’t even wrong, it’s a betrayal on another conceptual register altogether — of dignity. The idea, I mean, that there’s nothing else to be gained by taking human time: time at a biological scale.

What am I angry about now. What am I going on about. Please, please look: Western minds have shifted over the last few decades toward a resentment/rejection of ritual, languor, symbol, secret, time as pleasure, mind as space — magic, basically. Magical thought. I mean even the phrase ‘magical thinking’ is a denigration now, as if magic hasn’t been a way of working (in) the world since the dawn of the species, as if ‘magic’ referred simply to the incorrect belief that a fingersnap can make a hated enemy feel pain and not to, oh, the years-long process of careful ego-thinning and -reshaping by which minds open up to an ecstatically imaginative (sur)reality.

Or from another angle: if you drink your stupid burnt Dunkin Donuts coffee-sludge in a hurry on the drive into work, the caffeine will make you somewhat more productive for a short time. There are better habits and worse ones. But you should know that in another world, that drink was part of an inexpressibly more potent behavioural psychotropic, a (don’t tell the boss) ritual of movement from hanging-at-home mode to whatever mode you need to get into to work for those predators at the top of the org chart — and billions of dollars are spent every year to convince you that you don’t need it, that there’s no time for that sort of New Age frippery. For those five minutes of generative peace and wonder and focused consciousness.

So: life gets faster and worse. And the other world, which was only ever within you, a metaphor of unspeakable power, gets smaller and emptier and harder to find.

How and what should you read?

Someone asked the other day whether the things I read bear directly on the writing I do.

I said somethingsomethingsomething but what I meant was:

You can’t plan knowledge

Learning is association-making, connection, but those connections are capricious (cf. those sexually aroused by feet, those who think they saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima, those who can play twelve games of high-level chess simultaneously without actually loving chess). Human brains aren’t purposefully wired, they’re grown; instead of plans they develop according to tendencies. The phrase ‘perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track’ might come to mind here if you’re me.

You can consume information according to a plan. I wanted to know about the influence of Charles Fort on midcentury pulps and comix; I read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics. I wanted to know what Jacques Vallée actually argued in Passport to Magonia; I read it, simple. But it’s silly and self-defeating to start out wondering what you’re going to do with that information. You can’t know, and in any case the action-arrow points the other direction: as it transforms interpenetratively into knowledge, the reading does something with you.

I mean that almost literally. We can only consciously control our learning with gross imprecision, which is why cramming for tests is a terrible idea (too much too late). You learn in a trickle or a rush, but crucially you don’t decide which, and it’s best to think of learning practice and knowledge-formation (not ‘-acquisition’) as distinct and almost disjoint practices. The making of your mind can go on without you. Good thing, too: it’s what ‘you’ are made of.

Point being, you can control the inputs to the psychotropic process (the books you read, the drugs you take, your adherence to or rejection of the diurnal cycle) but you can’t control the emergent coral-reef forms which knowledge takes in the mind/brain. And this is good, because while you are a sadly limited person living in a sadly limited world, the self-modifying bioelectrical system which epiphenomenally generates ‘you’ is a good deal less neurotic and scared.

And so you should read whatever you’re passionate about, because

  • passion intensifies and accelerates this mindmaking process, while
  • boredom kills it, and since
  • you can’t control whom you turn into,
  • your best bet for generating a robust mind-body ecology is richly varying inputs

Which brings us to the secret central question of all blogposts,

What does this have to do with my D&D campaign?

But the only reason anyone asks this question is that he hasn’t yet internalized the great paradox of our everything-bad-on-demand-everywhere time, which is that

Fantasy isn’t a genre, it’s an activity

If you get that fantasy is something you do (creation connection narrativizing spatializing eroticizing etc.) and not a set of genre markers (elves sorcery talkingswords) then you already know what all this has to do with your D&D campaign — the more and better you know, the more deeply and widely you experience, the richer your fantastic imagination.

False Patrick occasionally looks for D&Dables in James Scott or Geoffrey of Monmouth with superb results — you can see why G. of M. would be a good RPG source, but James Seeing Like a State Scott? Well, read the post. I picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror having heard it described as the book that birthed not only Game of Thrones but a generation of medievalists (who later went on to disavow it as decidedly non-scholarly history), but in the end I experienced it as a kind of hellish postapocalyptic dystopia, the apocalypse in question being the bubonic plague. That, in turn, put me onto William NcNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, a brilliant short book which argues for an advanced understanding of humans as coexisting in complexly evolving predator/prey relationships with, say, syphilis (or bubonic plague, or HIV). That was immensely clarifying as history, but it doubled for me as a kind of SFnal primer on both ‘deep time’ and dystopic transhuman history — a depectively matter-of-fact story about the place of the human species at the center of a slowly tightening ecological net.

Not longer after I finished Plagues and Peoples I picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first third of his Southern Reach trilogy, which is a kind of Rendezvous with Rama/Lost/Lovecraft mashup with mushrooms swapped in for tentacles. I liked it, but it was twice the book it otherwise would’ve been, and ten times the dream-fodder, for the way it echoed and weirded-up McNeill’s book.

Come to that, there’s no reason Lovecraft’s ‘cosmicist’ vision requires tentacles in the first place — the creepiest thing about ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is the bat-winged things in the swamp, and frankly the Cthulhu statue itself only creeped me out to the extent that it recalled the statue of Mbwun from Lincoln/Child’s Relic, which I read in middle school because I’d heard that ‘If you liked Jurassic Park‘ and of course I did, but then I only picked up Jurassic Park because there was an article about it in a science newsletter we read in our Earth Science class, and if we’re in honest-confession mode then the fact that my godfather went to MIT (Course 2, class of 1924) made me wanna attend that school slightly less than the fact that Michael Crichton had spent a year as Writer-in-Residence there…

See?

Evolutionary weirdness

The least interesting thing about fantasy is its content. (Have you ever had to listen to someone else tell you about last night’s ‘amazing’ or ‘hilarious’ dream? Soporific stuff.) What makes fantasy fantastic is its visionary quality, the way it animates primal urges and throws light on hidden mental corners. Worthwhile art is deeply personal: the work of a strong ego seeking out egolessness. The best stuff is necessarily at least a little inaccessible, mysterious, resistant to analysis, however welcoming its formal presentation; great art always proceeds according to an intuitive logic that’s inexpressible in rational terms. And because it speaks to a unified (continuous, cohesive if not logically coherent) vision, it could only have been made by the person or people who made it.1 Good, in other words, is always strange.

But ‘strange’ is the last thing central planners want to deal with — cf. the aforementioned Seeing Like a State. The inescapable, essential fallacy of the central-planning ethos is this:

Orderly processes do not necessarily produce orderly results.

Indeed the one’s got little or nothing to do with the other except by chance.
Working artists get this, hence the irritation/frustration/disappointment writers evidently all feel when asked when their ideas come from. Critics, meanwhile, tend not to understand this — if the disjunction between aesthetic means and ends were widely understood, entire schools of criticism woulda been strangled in the crib. I think of the weird mismatch between Joyce’s literary dreamworlds and his pedantic fan-critics, and (because I’m me, and have written the books I’ve written) of the way Phish’s most hyperrational practice exercises have generated their wildest improvisations while their most deeply structured longform improv has come at moments of surpassing looseness and intuitive responsiveness. (The same goes for other rational/ludic/dreaming improvisatory scholar-artists — think of Johns Zorn and Coltrane.)

I want to have The Right Information at my fingertips when I write, but I also want to experience and share strange knowledge, a Weird innerworld which only I can see but which through my craft I can make knowable to others. And I aim to build deep written structures through intuitive improvisatory methods — so that, for instance, the structure of my 33-1/3 book mirrors the structure of the album it discusses, and the fractal form of my Allworlds Catalogue embodies/allegorizes the Big Themes it bangs on about, etc., though both those formal arrangements were arrived at with those pretentious-sounding purposes in mind.

And I find that the best way to achieve these tight-loose performances, this particular pleasing-to-me dreamlike relationship between form and content and private experience, is to immerse myself in material and see what forms spontaneously appear.

We forget that evolution isn’t just a winnowing process of natural selection — it’s punctuated and catalyzed by far-from-equilibrium self-organization, which can altogether shift the topology on which the selection process works, ‘skipping tracks’ in terms of descent. This is biological innovation, and its absence from the standard schoolhouse evolutionary narrative is just one more expression of (and reinforcing element in) a dangerous, thoughtless cultural conservatism, a pseudosci retelling of the myth of heavenly bureaucracy. Evolution isn’t a one-way road running straight, it’s a network of migrations through an ever-shifting topology toward no particular destination — the endless fitness gradient scarred with switchbacks, channels, deep caves, inscrutable truths spelled out in the bones of lost travelers…

Back to the start

‘No one can see beyond a choice they don’t understand,’ said the Oracle in The Matrix: Revolutions. Put another way: you’re trying to get from one stable equilibrium (not exercising, say) to another (being in the habit of exercising daily) but between them is a hill down which you can backslide all too easily (forcing yourself to exercise daily for a few weeks until the habit has formed). The zone of extreme flux — of frustration, worry, pain, seemingly endless struggle — of uncertainty — between equilibria is a hard place to be if you can’t handle uncertainty. If you need to know the outcome before you begin the process, you’ll never do anything new. Everything truly new is a risk.

So how and what should you read?

My sincere answer:

Keep reading until you figure it out.


  1. Reasoning through the ethical implications of this paragraph for the art-consumer and the DIY creator is left as an exercise for the reader. 

Concerning a reread of LORD OF THE RINGS.

Wrote this in a bit of a swoon after finishing Return of the King couple months ago. I forgot to mention the thing that surprised me most, the conversation between the two orc soldiers in which one orc suggests running away and starting a new life away from the masters and their stupid endless war — but this is long enough as it is.

I first read Lord of the Rings in late summer and autumn of 1994. I can now see some of the ways it changed my life, revealing to me the previously unknown ‘categories of my imagination’ — though I’d already read the Dragonlance Chronicles and maybe Legends trilogies, the combination of the trip to Europe, the week at a guest house in the south of England, and my first exposure to Tolkien’s hobbits on the train back from Brighton was definitive. It was the greatest reading experience of my life, I suspect never to be surpassed.

That was a little more than 22 years ago. I mustn’t wait another 22 years for my next visit.

In fact I might go back at the end of this year.

What’s left to say about this story? It’s greater than its critics. The contemporary tendency to reduce books to their authors’ presumed political perspectives is more embarrassing than usual in contrast with Tolkien’s mythic vision, so I’ll refrain from moaning about Tolkien’s king-worship and luddite conservatism. They seem so small, so fanciful (in Coleridge’s usage), when set against his imaginative achievement.

Frodo and Sam’s trip through Mordor is fully imagined; you feel every step, every ragged breath, every precious sip from Sam’s water-bottle. My patience with descriptions of landscape starts out thin and wears quickly, but Tolkien wrote with extraordinary passion about the land itself, not the geography or topology but its meaning, its history; both past and present were fully alive for him in a way that (to me) anticipates the ‘psychogeographers’ without falling into the triviality of psychology itself. Tolkien’s ‘subcreation’ was infused with myth-history — there are interesting moments in Return of the King where the narrator will speed ahead for a paragraph, accounting briefly the future history of an artifact or figure, and it seems less like a modern literary device than a matter-of-fact reflection of his conception of time and place.1

I’ve seen the films too many times, and so been conditioned to think of Return of the King as misshapen in a sense — too many codas — but of course the Scouring of the Shire would be an anticlimax if it came too quickly after the eucatastrophe, or even the coronation. The long journey back to the Shire is a structural necessity, because the Scouring is essential to the arc and meaning of the whole story, and it mustn’t be hurried. Tolkien had more savvy as a storyteller than he’s given credit for by pop critics (though lay readers seem intuitively to understand this).

I responded most strongly, this time, to the smallest things, the extraordinary contrast effects which Tolkien’s shrewdly juxtaposed setting (a mysterious continent with 10,000 years of history) and subject (the suffering and triumphs of little hobbits, and little people) are uniquely able to generate. Lobelia’s resistance to Sharkey’s goons, her bequest, and the other hobbits’ candid assessment of both her personality and her pluck; Pippin’s umbrage at the gate-keeper’s disrespect shown to the Ring-bearer; Merry’s cocky hornblowing; Gimli and Eomer settling the matter of Galadriel’s beauty; Ioreth’s gossipy narration to her country-cousin; Rosie’s easy familiarity with Sam; the way the hobbits of Bree are less interested in business ‘away down south’ than in their own families’ safety; and of course the love story of Frodo and Sam: the passing of the Third Age would be mere abstraction (‘worldbuilding’) in the hands of a less humane author, and complaints about Tolkien’s royalism ring false when the book lingers so long (both at first and at the end) in the Shire. The King doesn’t matter much to the hobbits; in the end, as always, they defend their own, and Saruman’s men underestimate them at great cost.

In any other book, Pippin’s reaction to the arrival of the Eagles — his belief that they are characters from someone else’s story, and his consciousness of himself as a bit player in a story of his own — would seem like a modernist literary gesture. But here it seems like correctly ordered consciousness: Pippin has come to see the great Tale of Years unfolding, and perceives his place in the narrative. A whole life passes before his eyes. Zaphod’s trip to the Total Perspective Vortex is a joke about the same experience, but Tolkien — who like Robert Graves lost more than friends at the Somme, and who began writing about Middle-Earth while recovering from his wounds — was finding a way to report his own harrowing experience, and would never joke abut it. His battle scenes celebrate glory, but not for nothing does the Beowulf scholar dwell on the death-songs of the Rohirrim, the carnage and cost of every victory. What makes Lord of the Rings a great war novel is, I think, its attention to the impossibility of returning to the world after the war, the world that the war made.

Does Frodo survive his adventure? The answer isn’t simple, nor is his story. And as for Sam…

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

…in a scene of such happiness, with his wife drawing him in and setting their baby daughter on his lap, hot dinner on the table, and a fire in the hearth, I’m not sure that deep breath is necessarily one of ease or contentment. Several times during those final days, Frodo insists that Sam must be whole, because he (Frodo) can never be so — but Sam isn’t, is he? He survives, as Tolkien survived his friends at the Somme. Standing on the shore at the Grey Havens, looking west, he sees heaven — heaven is where his friend has gone, the ‘Undying Lands’ — and for the time being he’s denied passage. Someday he can go, but he can’t die yet, he has things to do: Frodo has laid down his burden, and Sam once again carries it for both of them. Frodo doesn’t survive his wounds. Tolkien awakens in a field hospital and begins to create another world whose true heroes will be little folk, boys really, who faithfully serve their masters and their quests and do not die at the appointed time. Crucially, his heroes live to tell their own stories, in their own time to their own people, but they all return to the world transformed, nearly unrecognizable. (Literally so: confronted at the gates and in the village, the Weirdly stretched out hobbits — Merry and Pippin by the ent-draughts, Frodo and Sam by the Ring — appear to their former friends and neighbours unprecedented, alien.)

In any case, I long to return to Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings has now given me not one but two of the best reading experiences of my life.


  1. Ursula Le Guin cites one of these depth-first narratorial maneuvers, a brief jaunt into the consciousness of a passing fox, in her book on writing. 

Spirited away; goodnight moon.

I saw Spirited Away (the English translation/adaptation) last night with my wife and son, and was reminded that this magnificent film would never, ever be made in the United States today — none of our animation studios, not even Pixar at its best, would trust children as Miyazaki does with scenes of such quiet contemplation, dream-logic, languor.

I’m reminded, actually, of Brown/Hurd’s Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown was both an acolyte of Gertrude Stein and part of the Bank Street Writers Lab, whose members emphasized the concrete details and intuitive surrealism of children’s own imaginative fancies, interviewing young children and mimicking their storytelling rhythms. (‘Goodnight noises everywhere’ is one of the great final lines in our literature.) Spirited Away gives me the same feeling of melancholy dissolution as Goodnight Moon, of drifting down into an inexpressibly vast strange universe, and celebrates the same virtue, the courage needed to face the world and speak the names of things.

Spirited Away is so full of visual invention that a complicated story would render it unwatchable. As it is, after the concise opening movement, there’s very little discrete incident in the entire film: the boiler room, the contract, No-Face’s arrival, the stink spirit, Haku wounded/Zeniba’s debt named, No-Face calmed, and then the extraordinary train journey to Zeniba’s home in the swamp — the last sequence with no obvious parallel in American animation, gorgeous and sad without being about sadness, if that makes sense. After that, naming the pigs is a brief formality — of course Chihiro can do it, the animals have gathered for a celebration not an execution — and what remains is the walk home, a final release of breath. Spirited Away is more than two hours long(!!), but I can easily imagine an American animation studio cramming its action into 90 minutes, complete with 3-D dragon ride around the bath house and more pratfalls from the sidekicks…

I first saw Spirited Away in 2002 when it made the arthouse rounds in the USA, and in all that time certain images have never left me: Kamaji working the boiler, Haku terrorized by the paper spirits, Yubaba wrapping herself in a shawl and flying away. But I’ve always treasured Chihiro’s train ride. I want to say it’s not like anything else I’ve seen, but the opposite is true; it’s like dozens of other sequences I’ve seen, almost exclusively in foreign pictures and ‘art movies,’ which invite the audience to watch the characters watch and wait,to take a long moment to see not what they see but as they do, not pedantically in terms of POV but in their time, so to speak — waiting as they wait, bored or curious as they are.

The train ride lasts three minutes, an eternity in children’s films. Chihiro’s companions fall asleep, No-Face bows its head and rests, and Chihiro simply looks out the window with an expression we haven’t seen before, seeming (to me) tired, resolved, resigned, fully present — I believe this is the moment when the fullness of her family’s outer-world (real-world) transformation, the frightening move to the new house and school, has finally settled in. By choosing to travel out, to assume responsibility for Haku’s theft of the seal, she has become…well, not an adult, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? But she’s transformed all the same. Not knowing what comes next, she changes because she has to. The train ride might be the end of her story, which is a hell of a thing for a children’s movie to dramatize: death as resignation and loss and the final turn of the page rather than glorious climax.1 And to do so wordlessly, as other worlds and stories drift by uncommented-upon, not for spectacle’s sake but because even in the third act of a film that’s just how long train rides (and nighttime soul-transformations) are, and the world is more important than any story we might tell about it…

This, I think, is the bravery that Spirited Away shares with Goodnight Moon, or rather that Miyazaki shares with Margaret Wise Brown. For kids (as I understand things), the world is full of stories, yet it isn’t itself a story — hasn’t yet been instrumentalized. Kids’ worlds are bigger than they are (not least because literally), bigger and stranger and terribly older, impossible to understand and so easier in a way simply to accept. In my experience kids deal with the world more sanely than adults in that specific sense, accepting that the world is a world. Which is why their own stories can at times be absurdly boring, their fantasies so repetitive: the world is enough for kids. The stories they find in the world are enough, and so are the trees, the uncapped pens, full and empty plastic bags, loud sounds, snatches of song, dogs playing, grandmothers, water and its coolness, its way of sneaking into every space… The visual richness of Spirited Away paradoxically serves the same end as the stark simplicity of Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon illustrations (and Margaret Wise Brown’s poetry): to see and show a world as it is, merely inescapably real — whether it contains a telephone and a little toy house and a painting of bears, or a flying river spirit and three friendly rolling heads and an eight-legged boiler-room demon.

Their animating principle is honesty; wonder and whimsy and whatever else follow from having resolved to see a child’s world on its own terms. Most kids’ stories (and ‘adult’ stories, now) can’t help but anxiously hang lampshades on their own fabulations, which right away dates them — you can place a story in spacetime by what it’s embarrassed about. But to depict a country of the imagination without embarrassment or self-consciousness, to see even imaginary things as they are, is to create something ‘timeless.’ We use other terms for this quality as well: ‘mythic,’ ‘sacred,’ though honestly I prefer ‘wise.’ Timeless children’s work goes beyond dated, socially contingent ideas of innocence and appropriateness, and discovers that the common element between children Then and Now, Here at home and unimaginably far Away, is the world itself.

Which is to say all great art explores the absolutely specific in order to discover the universal, but you already knew that, right?

If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, you should, you must. It’s beautiful because it’s true and vice versa, which I take to be a straightforward observation about the world rather than empty cliché, and by way of justification I submit the rest of this blogpost and the entire history of art and (why not?) the universe, amen.


  1. The phrase ‘death as glorious climax’ seems to me to sum up a lot of what’s sick about contemporary American culture. 

A note about STAR WARS and myth.

Episodes IV, V, and VI

Star Wars is a myth: ‘The Labours of Luke Skywalker.’ It accumulates story-stuff as it goes along, but the first trilogy focuses on Luke and his companions undergoing trials, separations, revelations, tests, purifications, and transformations (farmboy-to-knight, princess-to-soldier, thief-to-citizen) before the final confrontation with Evil. In the end, the knight enters the castle to slay the father-dragon and the corrupter-god, the princess and the citizen return to the primal/magic forest to do battle with great tree-sized monsters and faceless demons, and Good is restored. They gather by a fire and tell stories as night falls.

This is not news, nor is it terribly interesting on its own. Crucially, the original Star Wars films aren’t about myth — they’re ‘innocent’ in a sense, if anything is.

Myths, as I think Joseph Campbell said, are psychology misunderstood as history.

Star Wars is about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action.

Episodes I, II, and III

The prequels tell two stories: ‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker,’ in a mythic register, and the somewhat less popular but more contemporary-conventional ‘The Fall of the Old Republic.’ The latter political story is more complicated than what made it to the screen, all but disappearing in the third film; George Lucas reconceived Revenge of the Sith in the editing suite as a tightly focused story about Anakin, further imbalancing an already clumsy prequel trilogy.

The Fall of Anakin Skywalker is an inverted messiah/saviour story. Prophesied miracle-baby is taken from his mother, comes to the castle to become a knight, meets and is turned away by his future queen, and in his arrogance struggles with whether to turn his back on his teacher. His mother is captured and killed by monsters; in his fury he bloodily murders them. In his selfishness he courts a princess and conceives a child. In hubris he duels a master knight, losing a hand. In a second duel he bests the old master, and in his weakness of character murders him. Misled by the corrupter, in his terror and arrogance — in his inability to cast aside the misprision of Self which was always the primary obstacle for him and his fellow knights — he declares himself a servant of Evil and helps wipe out the knighthood.

Finally, he duels his teacher, and in his arrogance and pride and dogmatic certainty he is wounded and left for dead. The corrupter makes him into a dragon, and the dragon flies off to burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants…

The political story is there partly to provide context for the two myths. Because we know the outcome — these are ‘prequels’ — there’s no real suspense to it, only deferral. It takes up a far amount of the prequel trilogy, and is the prequels’ most enjoyable aspect, as far as I’m concerned, though primarily in the abstract, i.e. I enjoy reading the story more than I enjoy watching the movies, which are not entirely incorrectly regarded as shit.

‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker’ is also about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action. The political story is, in part, about myth and mythmaking. The prequels lack the laser-clarity of the original films partly because their second story-strand ‘problematizes’ the first; Anakin isn’t simply the author of his destiny, and while the tragic ‘Fall of Anakin’ story is told like an ancient myth, all archetypal locations and abstract gestures and iconic clashes, ‘The Fall of the Old Republic’ is a modern tale which fits uneasily with its parallel mythic story. When they converge — as in the magnificently pedantic wizard-duel in the Senate chamber between Sidious and Yoda, or Anakin’s quietly horrifying murder of the children at the Temple — the story seems somehow greater than itself; it all seems almost worth it.

Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for the complexity (and I’d say importance) of the task he set for himself in the prequels. He failed to bring it off, ‘as everyone knows,’ but throughout that series you can see flashes of something like a work of genius, which is to say, among other things, imaginative excess.

I say all this as prologue to a comment about The Force Awakens and millennials LOL, which I will not now write because it’s time to take my son to school.