Happy Belated New Year

Well, 2017 was more or less a write-off as far as my writing was concerned; hoping for a write-on this year, if there is such a thing.

Not that the whole year was wasted. I did much work patching up the relationship with the Beloved Other, and more work putting ghosts to rest in my own head. This partly explains why I was never able to produce for more than a few days at a time; that, and a general want of mental maintenance. The last couple of months, I have been taking apart, cleaning, repairing, and reassembling all the instruments of my own internal orchestra; new strings for the fiddles, new reeds for the woodwinds, new thingumbobs for the doohickeys in the whatchamacallum section. (Is exploding TNT a percussion or a wind instrument? Depends where the gas comes out.) At present the band is tuning up and doing finger exercises, and it sounds as ghastly as that always does.

This week, the Beloved Other began a highly accelerated program of studies at an institution which I shall choose to call Rectocranial Polytechnic, or Wreck Tech for short. It is the kind of institution that Canada, it appears, excels at producing, where the faculty are highly accomplished practitioners in their field, but have long forgotten what it is like to be a raw beginner, and what their students need to be taught, which doesn’t much matter because they don’t know how to teach anyway. Nevertheless, Wreck Tech has a shining reputation for turning out good technicians in many fields. I attribute this chiefly to the industry and initiative and cooperative ingenuity of the students, who seem to have an admirable knack for doing through the grapevine what their instructors should have done in class. At least that is my impression so far.

A minor but typical example of how things are done at Wreck Tech: When you start out as a student, you are assigned a Wreck Tech email account with a default password. This is all well and good. The password is emailed to your Wreck Tech email, which you cannot open without the password. You could not ask for a more classic instance of what I call ‘Can Opener in a Can’.

(‘Yes, I did want a can opener, but now I need another can opener to open the can that the can opener is in.’—‘I can sell you another one.’—‘Is that one in a can, too?’—‘Of course. Can openers always come in cans.’—‘May worms rot all your insides, and may the Great Bird of Corruption come to feast on them and eat your innards instead and leave the worms behind.’)

It took a good deal of effort to get round that one. There is, fortunately, a PDF in the bowels of the Wreck Tech web servers that explains how the default password is constructed for each student, and I was able to find it by a modest application of Google-fu. Needless to say, that information was not given out to the students, either in printed or electronic form. It was left hidden in the monstrous and unnavigable depths of the website.

Institutional buildings are infamous for their bad design and baffling layout, but they are nothing compared to institutional websites. There are physical limits to how convoluted and inaccessible a building can be: for instance, it is not actually possible to build an office block in the shape of a Klein bottle. But the arcane complexity of a computer system is limited only by the diabolical imagination of the designer; and so much better if the designer does not have to use it himself.

Anyway, the Beloved Other is beginning to get the hang of things at Wreck Tech, and I am beginning to have time for my own work again. I wish you all (3.6 Loyal Readers and sundry visitors) a happy and prosperous New Year, and I hope and intend to have some new writing for you soon.

Many thanks to all!

I am heartily glad to see my 3.6 Loyal Readers still here (and with their fractional numbers apparently augmented), and thank you all for your kind comments, and for welcoming me back to active blogging. Your warm reception gives me the courage I need to keep working.

There is, alas, yet another unexpected delay on the Superversive collection. Part II of that book is a survey of seminal works in epic fantasy (portions freely adapted from my 1977 series of posts some years back), with a view to identifying the cause of the growing gap (in my judgement) between what epic fantasy can be and what it too often is. It appears obvious now, in not-quite-hindsight, that my recent piece, ‘Gormenghast and the Great Tradition’, has got to be included in that section; but it will want editing for the purpose, because some of the same ground is covered in Part I.

It also seems to me that I need to explain why it is epic fantasy particularly that I choose as my particular topic for that book, given that virtually any kind of literature (except, perhaps, outright pornography) can be done in a superversive way. The short answer is that epic fantasy offers a big canvas, bold colours, and a great variety of ways in which the moral choices of the characters can directly affect the world around them. These qualities make a story more entertaining, and they also lend themselves naturally to the business of ‘superversion’. It is, of course, convenient that for me, they also make for enjoyable reading and fluent writing; my own ideas for stories nearly always present themselves in that form. I could as easily make my points about some other kind of fiction, but I could not, perhaps, make them so clearly. Even this short answer, as you can see, begins to ramify itself and raise more questions; and so I am having to write a long introductory chapter to explain myself and ‘situate’ the reader.

A couple of small items of late news: A gentleman by the name of Bob Gassel inquires about my series on M*A*S*H, and wants to know if I am going to finish it off and give him some closure. I am happy to say that I have always intended that, and sheepish to admit that it has fallen by the wayside among many cares. Over the holidays, I hope to make time to binge-watch selected episodes from the last seasons of that series, and write a piece on what I find there. Also, I have received an offer which may possibly see one of my books translated into Spanish! My late mother would not have cared to read the book in question, but I think she would be gratified to hear of it.

Gormenghast and the Great Tradition

I began this essai in April, soon after John Wright wrote the blog post to which it refers, and shortly before I was taken ill. I offer it now with apologies, having decided that it still had something to say, and was worth finishing. —T. S.


John C. Wright, in a post at Castalia House, asks:

Why in the world does anyone consider the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake to be fantasy?

He sketches his own scheme of genre classification, which is radial rather than Aristotelian. In case any of my 3.6 Loyal Readers are unfamiliar with these terms, I offer brief definitions.

Aristotelian categories work by genus and species. (These words were borrowed from Aristotle by modern biologists and used in a different way. Ignore the biological usage for the present.) A genus is a category of things, distinguished by some particular quality only found among its members. This quality is called the differentia. A genus can be subdivided into species, by identifying some additional differentia to distinguish members of that species from the other members of the genus. The classical example is the definition, ‘Man is a rational animal.’ Animal is a genus: we can list off ways in which animals are unlike (say) plants, rocks, or locomotives. Man is a species within that genus, differentiated from the others because he is capable of reasoning.

(At this point, the Village Wag will claim that most men are anything but rational. This is a red herring. All humans, except infants and the severely brain-damaged, are capable of some form of rational thinking process. All of them fail to think rationally on some occasions, and some of them fail on nearly all occasions. This does not take away the capacity, which is the differentia of the species Man. A can-opener is still a can-opener, even if you never take it out of the shrink-wrap. Nuts to the Village Wag.)

There is an alternative system, less talked about but sometimes more useful. A radial category consists of a prototype, which is considered an ordinary or definitive member of the category, and any number of other things which share certain qualities with the prototype. If X is the prototype, the category can be defined as ‘things like X’. The similarity may be greater or lesser, so that there are central and peripheral members of the category.

To take an example used by Wittgenstein, chess is a game, and a ‘central’ game at that; it will do no harm to take it as our prototype for the class game. Chess is played for amusement (though in a professional match, it may be for the amusement of spectators); it has set rules and procedures; it is played with definite equipment (chessmen), in a definite playing-ground (the chessboard); it is a competition between the players, with a fixed standard (checkmate) to determine who wins and who loses. Football is unlike chess in some ways – it has many players instead of just two, and it is a contest of athletic rather than intellectual skill; but it, too, is played for amusement, with set rules, equipment, and playing-ground, in a competition with a winner and a loser. The details of play are very different, but in all the essential points, it is just as much a game as chess.

Tabletop role-playing games, on the other hand, are a peripheral member of the category. They are definitely played for amusement. Some equipment is used, and while the playing-ground is usually an imaginary place, it does have sufficient existence for the purpose of the game (like the imaginary chessboard in mental chess). But the rules and procedures are alterable at the game master’s whim, there is no defined winner or loser, and the players normally act in cooperation rather than competition. We feel that these entertainments count as games, but they are very atypical games.

Narrative fiction can be treated as an Aristotelian or a radial category, whichever you prefer. But once you come to subdivide it (for convenience in choosing stories that you are likely to enjoy), you immediately find yourself in a thicket of radial categories that cannot be approached in any other way. A mother reads ‘Cinderella’ to her child, and the child wants to hear ‘more stories like that’. Maybe what the child really wants is more about fairy godmothers, or young girls who marry charming princes, or magical transformations. But whatever the child wants, the mother is likely to find it in the radial category of ‘things like “Cinderella”’, which we call, for convenience, fairy tales. [Read more…]

When last seen

Just to let the 3.6 Loyal Readers know, I am still alive and (more or less) functioning. For some months past, I have had a number of illnesses that nagged at me and prevented me from doing much in the way of useful work, and it finally became clear that I would have to shut down and give my full attention to getting well.

I seem to have kicked the worst of the major depression that afflicted me earlier in the year (despite the happiness due to cows and ice cream), thanks to a concentrated bout of cognitive behavioral therapy. My G.P., at any rate, says I look noticeably happier; though I still get the mopes too easily. There have been assorted physical maladies as well, too tedious to report, and none life-threatening or requiring surgery. This weekend I have spent largely horizontal, trying to talk a severe back pain into going away so that I could rest. (The Beloved Other could hardly sleep at all last night because I had to keep getting up, taking medication, moving about, etc., etc. I feel considerably worse for her than for myself.) Of course the medication required has been industriously burning a hole in my belly, which gives me the curious feeling of having one continuous ache going right through my body from front to back: as if a Hong Kong architect were trying to carve a dragon hole in my torso.

I have made tentative arrangements for a sort of miniature writing retreat after my recovery, when I hope to get some real work done. In the meantime, I offer my sad and humble apologies to you all.

Happiness and cows

Yesterday, the Beloved Other and I went up to Banff for the day. We swam in the hot springs, had a picnic lunch at Lake Minnewanka, and on the way home, we stopped at Mackay’s ice cream parlour in Cochrane, which I heartily recommend to anyone. Their ice cream is as sound as their business philosophy, as expressed by this sign on their premises.

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Daring

Dept. of Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:

Any man living in complete luxury and security who chooses to write a play or a novel which causes a flutter and exchange of compliments in Chelsea and Chiswick and a faint thrill in Streatham and Surbiton, is described as ‘daring’, though nobody on earth knows what danger it is that he dares. I speak, of course, of terrestrial dangers; or the only sort of dangers he believes in. To be extravagantly flattered by everybody he considers enlightened, and rather feebly rebuked by everybody he considers dated and dead, does not seem so appalling a peril that a man should be stared at as a heroic warrior and militant martyr because he has had the strength to endure it.

—G. K. Chesterton, The Thing

Not quite genius

It has been truly said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

A genius once observed that all motion is relative. After long perspiration, he published the Theory of Relativity.

An idiot, too, observed that all motion is relative. After no perspiration at all, he decided to brush his teeth by holding the toothbrush in one place and shaking his head back and forth.

Poetics, science, and bafflegab

‘Poetics’, for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. ‘Literary theory’ is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

—David Warren, ‘On Science’

Fairy tales and realism

‘Can you not see,’ I said, ‘that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is – what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is – what will a madman do with a dull world? In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

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Sumer is icumen in

I posted this years ago on the old blog, but as the solstice approaches, I have been thinking of it and thought I would trot it out again.

The Hilliard Ensemble sings the earliest known example of six-part polyphonic song, one of the major hits of the 13th century – the first of exactly two periods in which the world was knocked off its pins by English music. I think it still stands up well.

 

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Pes:
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

 

In Modern English:

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag leaps,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now.

Pes:
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

(There is some controversy over the translation of uerteth. An alternative, favoured by the scatologically inclined, is that the stag is farting. This is an amusing idea, I suppose, but neatly destroys the parallelism of action in the line, and I find myself compelled to disfavour it.)