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…]

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

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.

[Read more…]

‘Sociology’

At some point I shall have more to say about the ‘New Criticism’ of the 1940s and its successors since then – the various ill-starred attempts to remove the subjective from literary criticism and thereby gank some of the prestige (read: grant money) hitherto reserved for the hard sciences. This program, as I have mentioned before, led to the ludicrous practice of analysing literature without any reference either to the intentions of the writer or the reactions of the reader; as if the mere text were an eternal and uncreated thing, existing solely to be studied in the abstract, and not a dirty, low-down, wilful attempt at communication.

Linguistics, which (almost alone among the social sciences) ought to be a science, and can at least be approached as one, is in a worse state than all the others. So I found out a decade ago, when I made the mistake of paying tuition to study it. The ‘Quantitative Methods’ in that field, as in most of the social sciences, consist chiefly of misapplied statistics and a smattering of logic. But if language is anything, it is an attempt to transmit a signal successfully; and you cannot really understand how signals work without studying information theory. Naturally, there was no mention of information theory in the linguistics syllabus; probably because the linguists don’t know any information theory themselves, and don’t even know that it’s there not to know. (These are the same people, in some cases, who laughed at Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’; more fools they.) You see, information theory is taught by the Maths Department, and requires other mathematics courses as prerequisites; at the university I attended, it was a third-year course, and by that time a linguist is supposed to have completed all his Quantitative Methods courses and relapsed into comfortable innumeracy.

The inimitable Tom Lehrer, in one of his lesser known songs, took a shot at the same tendency in the social sciences. In his younger days, the social sciences were (as he puts it) desperately trying to justify the word ‘science’ in their title. Social scientists, whose ostensible subject was the study of the nature and interactions of human beings, were instead abandoning that subject to go in for the aforementioned Quantitative Methods. It was this absurdity that spilled over into literature; and pretty nearly everything that needs to be said about it was said briefly and pithily by Mr. Lehrer in the song that follows.

[Read more…]

C. S. L. on entertainment

If entertainment means light and playful pleasure, then I think it is exactly what we ought to get from some literary work – say, from a trifle by Prior or Martial. If it means those things which ‘grip’ the reader of popular romance – suspense, excitement and so forth – then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

I am at the moment laid up with a bad case of viral bronchitis, so close to pneumonia that it took an X-ray for the attending physician to tell the difference. My essai in progress (and almost finished), on the inclusion of Mervyn Peake’s grotesque satires, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, in the fantasy genre, is therefore up on blocks in the yard, covered with a tarpaulin. It will have to wait until I am more lucid to finish it. Many other projects are also behind hand; I am too keenly aware of them for my own comfort. Meanwhile, I am trying to make some constructive use of my illness by re-reading some thought-provoking books, including the one quoted above – which my Beloved Other kindly found for me today, after I had long believed my copy lost.

I beg your kind indulgence for the delay.

The exotic and the familiar (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3.

Before we examine the merits that made our three breakthrough fantasies break through, I hope you will permit me a Historical Digression:

As luck or providence would have it, the other night I saw, for the first time, Tim Burton’s magnificently lurid production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That tale has been around, in various forms, for nearly two hundred years; it is one of the hardy perennials of horror fiction – far older than Dracula, almost as old as Frankenstein, almost exactly contemporary with the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Mr. Todd first appeared in 1846, in a story called The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Priest – who, for that achievement alone, deserve to be ranked in the first class of Victorian novelists, but never are. For, alas, The String of Pearls was a penny dreadful. That is a term, or insult, that may need a bit of explanation for the benefit of the modern reader.

Every so often, the business of literature is turned topsy-turvy by some new technological development, and the previously unchallenged assumptions of the Grand Old Men of the business are blown to atoms and scattered widely over the waste regions of the cosmos.

[Read more…]

On literary fiction

What you have to remember about ‘literary’ is that it could be defined as ‘things that college professors will read on a train’. I.e. ‘literary’ is an aspirational mark, a mark of prestige. The book might or might not have a plot (or a prayer of making sense) but it is generally viewed as ‘difficult’, ‘prestigious’, and ‘saying the right things’, and by right I mean political and social views as a positional good, which in the twentieth century has mostly hinged on being properly LEFT. And the twentieth century persists in critical and literary analysis, two notoriously conservative (in the proper sense of the word) fields.

Sarah A. Hoyt

Life, Carbon, and the Tao

My essai for the first anniversary of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Superversive blog is now up in full:

Part One: What’s so special about carbon?

Part Two: What’s so special about the Tao?

Reposted on SuperversiveSF in one piece.

Go, read, and I hope you enjoy.

In other news, I shall not be writing this week, as I have finally enlisted some help to do a top-to-bottom cleaning of my flat, which is many months overdue. The accumulation of books and papers was making it impossible for me to hoover up the dust, and the dust was making it difficult to do anything else. I have been living largely on a diet of antihistamines and facial tissue. Enough of that!

Advice on writing Great Literature

In a discussion at The Passive Voice, one Lorraine Devon Wilke was mocked for ordering writers, ‘Do NOT write four books a year.’ She offered, as an exemplar of Good Writing, Donna Tartt, who took eleven years to write The Goldfinch. Among many other responses, Ed Ryan offered this:

I’m a math idiot so bear with me. Let’s assume (so I don’t have to look it up) the ‘masterpiece’ in question is 100k words long.

11 years means 10,000 words per year (ok that’s 110,000, see how lazy I am?)

10,000 words per year/ 365 days per year us a blistering 27.3 words per day.

We can pretend this hardworking visionary took days off from that grueling schedule and slaved over the novel for a mere 200 days each of those 11 years – an electric 50 word per day pace.

If the author rewrote the book 10 times the average jumps to a staggering 500 words per day. Being generous that’s 60 minutes of work per day.

I only hope the other 23hrs were relaxing.

Our Evil Alter Blogger responds:

Don’t be silly.

If you want to become a Major Literary Figure, you have to spend the other 23 hours in a constant flurry of activity. Hanging out in seedy Left Bank cafes, drinking absinthe with deranged expatriates. Being addicted to hard drugs. Cultivating interesting but debilitating mental illnesses. Pursuing weird sexual kinks in wildly unorthodox ménages. Kissing the bums of some of your fellow verminous literary lions, and fighting lifelong feuds with others. Going into rehab. Getting out of rehab. Writing angsty pseudo-philosophical anecdota about what you learned in rehab. Forgetting what you learned in rehab so you can repeat the process. I tell you, it’s a busy and thankless life.

The ideal literary author will write ONE book, and spend the rest of his life (it is preferably a he; if a she, she should go into pop music instead and aspire to be Amy Winehouse) desperately striving to live fast, die young, and leave a corpse that may not actually be good-looking, but will at least furnish material for hundreds of Ph.D. theses by twitterpated would-be academics.

You see, that is the ultimate goal of Literature. It’s all about the doctoral theses. Authors and books are just a necessary nuisance along the way.

(signed)
H. Smiggy McStudge