How The Napoleon of Notting Hill can educate us

In an 1874 letter to members of the Augustinians of the Assumption, Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon, who founded the congregation in 19th century France, spoke about the “radical denial of the rights of God” in the post-revolutionary period. Society then – as now – did not understand the order of things and did “not want the truth to serve as its bedrock.” And he observed that “ever since society ceased to rest on this doctrinal foundation, we can see…the resulting turmoil.”

Like other thinkers and figures of the time, d’Alzon recognized that the disenchantment of the world caused profound disorder. His solution to this was to “proclaim everywhere in the world the rights of God, of Jesus Christ and of his Church.” To do this, the Assumptionists had to focus on education in all its forms. Elsewhere, d’Alzon had written that “humanity needs to be taught, but first we need to give humanity a heart of flesh, as Scripture says, to replace the one becoming like stone in its chest.”

I open with d’Alzon for two reasons. First, I am indebted to the Assumptionists and d’Alzonian thinking; I was educated by the Assumptionists at Assumption College in Massachusetts, now Assumption University, and briefly considered a vocation to the congregation. Secondly, I believe his observations on the turmoil of the modern period have much to teach both intellectuals and artists.

D’Alzon can help us approach art because art, good and bad, has an educative dimension to it, particularly a moral one. To demonstrate this, I’d like to take a moment to compare him to T.S. Eliot. In Religion and Literature, Eliot observes that modern literature seems to express “no higher ideal to set before us than [absolute liberty].” It has been “corrupted by…Secularism, that it is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life.” If we are exposed to this and do not think seriously about what we are reading, then, Eliot says, we will receive an improper formation, one that puts us at odds with the Truth. Emmanuel d’Alzon would likely agree with Eliot and has, in fact, used artistic language to talk about the seriousness of human formation. He has noted that the soul is “like a block of marble” that like the sculptor’s block can be chipped away meticulously until it becomes a work of art.

A good example of a novel that can shape the reader and demonstrate where we moderns have become unmoored is G.K. Chesterton’s 1904 novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. In the aforementioned essay, Eliot identifies Chesterton as a propagandist, used in its original sense to mean propagation of the faith. But despite its rather overt sensibility, the novel works quite well for my purposes.

It’s apt to describe The Napoleon of Notting Hill as a story about education and ideas – in particular, the Christian idea.

Before the novel – which is set 80 years after its publication date – begins in earnest, Chesterton’s introductory note runs through a litany of modern “prophets,” each of whom has offered a particular vision of what the future might look like – from H.G. Wells saying “science would take charge of the future” to Edward Carpenter’s assertion that “we should in a very short time return to Nature, and live simply and slowly as the animals do.” These are all attempts at what Eric Voegelin called “immanentizing the Eschaton.”  [Editor’s Note: From A New Science of Politics, Eric Voegelin, 1952: “The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.” The term “immanentizing the Eschaton” would become a satirical way of describing utopian thinking.]  

That so many people would strive for utopian solutions makes sense, because, like d’Alzon, Chesterton would have encountered similar disordered thinking. Ideas take root and spread. All these “prophets,” having jettisoned God, still needed to find ultimate meaning, in the form of capital-s Science or something else. But the order of things cannot be separated from God, and human life cannot be reduced to a series of predictions and numbers. Reality is deeper than ideological fads, and life is not a series of “cold mechanic happenings,” to quote from Chesterton’s poem he includes as an epigraph. Instead, it’s all bound by joy.

The novel opens in a London “almost exactly like what it is now.” Chesterton’s third-person narrator tells us that the people of this time have “absolutely lost faith in revolutions” and instead have accepted “Evolution,” in the sense that any changes must be done “slowly and safely,” as in nature. This flattening of the human spirit had resulted in the death of democracy, because “no one minded the governing class governing.” England, seemingly a world-bestriding colossus, because it seems to have conquered Athens, Jerusalem, and Nicaragua, was “now practically a despotism, but not a hereditary one.” The narrator tells us that “someone in the official class was made king.” The passive voice there suggests the passivity of the population, and indeed, in the next sentence, the narrator says that “no one cared how; no one cared who.” We then learn that, unsurprisingly, “everything…had become mechanical.”

Into this comes Auberon Quin, a comic figure whom the narrator describes as godson of “the King of the Fairies.” Apparatchiks of the regime arrive at Quin’s house and, to the shock of the people present, announce that he has been named king. Later that day, King Auberon makes a humorous speech in which he announces his desire to save “from extinction a few old English customs.” He suggests a form of local patriotism, in which each borough of London “shall immediately build a city wall with gates to be closed at sunset.” These places will be “armed to the teeth” and will “have a banner, a coat of arms, and, if convenient, a gathering cry.” Intellectuals turn “purple with laughter,” while others are “purple with indignation.” Most have their “minds a blank.” But not one Adam Wayne, who is there watching with “burning blue eyes.” He takes Quin very seriously.

It makes sense that Wayne would take Quin seriously. A mechanized, flat world is an inhuman world. People float through it like seaweed in the deep, because they have been given nothing to believe in. This is a world that isn’t foreign to us, but nor was it foreign to Chesterton or d’Alzon. The latter, in discussing his vocation to the priesthood – he founded the Assumptionists and became a religious later – observed that France had become a “decrepit machine.” Because it was “dangerous to try to repair,” he reasoned that the best approach would be to become a priest and press on the culture “with all the weight of the rights it had no authority to give.”

For d’Alzon, humanity is “deeply wounded” by “indifference and ignorance,” both of which “imply a total lack of faith.” His solution to this, as was mentioned, was to provide a serious education, one that would “penetrate” the world with “the Christian idea.” It would otherwise be in danger of collapsing. D’Alzon’s description of France and of his vocation should remind us of what Chesterton says about England in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There are striking similarities of language: machine, indifference, a loss of faith.

Another point of comparison: the reactions to d’Alzon’s decision to become a priest mirrored the reactions to Quin’s speech. He was from an aristocratic family. People were shocked that, as they saw it, he would renounce his inheritance to become a priest. In an 1830 letter, D’Alzon had chided a friend for not wanting “at all to be reasonable,” going as far to say, “I scare you in a priest’s robe.” In the same letter, he offers his thoughts on the state of France. In addition to describing France as a “decrepit machine,” he observed that “sovereignty did not exist any more in the Palais Bourbon than at the Tuileries.” This was a “society that was so sick, one could have influence only in separating oneself completely.”

The England of the novel is also a sick society and one that truly lacks sovereignty. In effect,  Quin is providing a kind of education. The fact that he views things as a joke fits his character as a “Fairy.” But fairy tales themselves – and Chesterton wants to link The Napoleon of Notting Hill to the fairy tale tradition – discuss very serious things. In his essay “Fairy Tales,” [Editor’s Note: Included in his 1908 book, All Things Considered], Chesterton points out that “if you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales.” He closes the essay by observing that fairy tales find “the great mystical basis for all Commandments.”

Quin’s speech, then, awoke something in Adam Wayne. To use d’Alzonian and scriptural language, you could say that Quin replaced Wayne’s heart of stone with one of flesh. And because his kingship sets off the events of The Napoleon of Notting Hill –Wayne decides to lead a rebellion, and this inspires others – we might say that Quin has effectively brought about a re-enchantment of the world. Indeed, Wayne says as much, both at the beginning of the novel and at its end. He says Quin has given him a desire to “fight for something greater,” noting that “this leadership and liberty of Notting Hill is a gift from your Majesty.” Wayne has been reminded that the purpose of human life is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict has noted,” is one of “greatness.” And he thus sees that there is a “mystical basis for all Commandments.” Now fully awakened, he believes these things are worth fighting for.

For Emmanuel d’Alzon, this was the exact purpose of an education, which he called a “great and magnificent work.” Through this, “we refashion the being of our students.” D’Alzon hoped the world would “receive [the Christian idea] by individuals who will be taken up with it.”

Adam Wayne was taken up by this idea of Quin’s, and it reshaped the world as it is. He brings it from a mechanized, empty flatness to “fairyland” and “elfland.” It leads to a re-enchantment and, à la d’Alzon, reorders the being of the world.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that both Wayne and Quin function as a dual symbol of “fairyland,” which, as Chesterton observes in “Fairy Tales,” is “a world at once of wonder and of war.” Wayne remarks that he and Quin “are not two men but one man.” He continues, and his remarks are worth quoting at length:

It is not merely that you, the humorist, have been in these dark days stripped of the joy of gravity. It is not merely that I, the fanatic, have had to grope without humour. It is that though we seem to be opposite in everything, we have been opposite like man and woman aiming at the same moment at the same practical thing. We are the father and mother of the Charter of the Cities.

In effect, he is saying that the complete picture of the created order is a place “of wonder and war.” This is the full picture of human life. Quin and Wayne broke the mechanized imposter that, demiurge-like, was posing as the created order and made things real again.

How, then, does The Napoleon of Notting Hill educate the reader, both then and in the present? Chesterton deliberately sets the novel in a London not far removed from the one of 1904 and peppers it with real places, in addition to references to real people. The reader from 1904 would then be able to recognize his world in the text. Then, if he is attentive, he would start to ask questions: are things detached and mechanized? Where do we find meaning today? What is the cause and purpose of my life? Am I ordering my life toward good and appropriate things? And so on. We do have a real-life example of this. According to Dale Ahlquist, president of the Society of G.K. Chesterton, Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary, was inspired by the novel to seek Irish independence.

But despite its references to early 20th century things, this is not a novel that is time-locked. We can read it and still be edified; the problems discussed by d’Alzon, Eliot, and Chesterton have persisted.

Consider Quin’s reflection during Adam Wayne’s initial audience with him at the beginning of the novel. He says that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” This madness consists of being obsessive about politics, caring for money, and thinking yourself right. These of course are perennial human concerns, but then Quin gets specific. He accuses people of trying to “spoil my joke, and bully me out of it, by becoming more and more modern, more and more practical, more and more bustling and rational.” This joke-spoiling and bullying has of course accelerated greatly since Chesterton’s time – leading to confusion and unhappiness, and eventually maybe even destruction.

As the American Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor once observed in Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose, “in the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness.” She continues: “It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

We can objectively call this true. The 20th century was one of theories, each of which, like Chesterton’s prophets, attempted to bring about utopia, but instead led to millions and millions of deaths. But this confusion has persisted. As Walker Percy observed inhis posthumously-published Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, ours is a “deranged age…because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

In 2017, in an essay for Crux on both d’Alzon and education, I pointed out that the Department of Education lists its purpose as “foster[ing] student achievement” and “preparation for global competitiveness.” I observed that we tend to see education as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Seven years on, the US Department of Education still lists its purpose as “preparation for global competitiveness.” Then, as now, these are buzzwords, but they also tell us something about how we view education:  a mere means to an end, a way to place people into a culture with only the basest of aspirations. When we are taught that there are no higher things, we will be led to believe that life is a mechanized existence, as described by both Chesterton and d’Alzon.

In a way, it’s all more of the same. Various techno-utopians have proposed that the solution to the human condition is to place us in a “metaverse,” where we’d live our lives in virtual reality. In City Journal, Jacob Howland has detailed the “destruction” of the University of Tulsa, where he holds emeritus status. Entire programs were eliminated or consolidated into minors: Greek, Latin, philosophy, religion. This, he pointed out, will result in students who are “credentialed, but…not…educated.” Sadly, his university is not unique.

But what are the results of this? A profound sense of malaise, particularly among the young.

Perhaps reading The Napoleon of Notting Hill – and having a good teacher discuss the novel with students – might provide a way forward for students who are feeling stifled by our deranged age. It would show them that the ideas that undergird our modern culture are ones that flatten the human spirit. They would not have to become revolutionaries or leaders of statelet neighborhoods, like Michael Collins or Adam Wayne, but perhaps they could be awakened to the idea that there is something profound about human existence. This is the purpose of good art and literature–to show people that there is a higher ideal than Eliot’s “absolute liberty” – because absolute liberty is  little more than nihilism.

I can speak to this. I felt a sense of aimlessness when I’d finished high school, with vague ideas about becoming a doctor or a politician, but then, while at Assumption, I received two gifts, which cannot be separated:  the Catholic faith, which I reverted to as a student, and liberal education. My professors – although not trickers or jokesters! – were my Quins. They awakened something in me and gave my life a telos. I don’t think it’s an accident that liberal education is often deemed a kind of lunacy. Quin and Wayne were seen as lunatics, but Auberon Quin notes that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” I am thankful that I pursued this “madness,” and was given access to the truth.

An education that featured books like The Napoleon of Notting Hill would send readers and students on a search, resulting in a deeper engagement with tradition, and helping settle the turmoil of our age. It might help sweep away the sadness and hopelessness that plague so many people today, by reminding us that the world is enchanted, and guiding us along “the starry streets that point to God.”

The ghost coast

Adam ran his hand over his balding scalp. The dunes shimmered all around – expectant, empty of any movement except his, although he knew rare beetles trundled through rough grass, and he could hear toads, chirring contentedly somewhere amongst orchids and buckthorn. He couldn’t see the sea from here, but it would be far out at this time, perhaps exposing the ribs of the Sprite, which had foundered here fatally in 1888.

A track wended up a slope surmounted by wind-tortured hawthorns and a World War Two pillbox – an outsized armoured helm in lichened concrete. This had always been a watchful coast, wary of invaders or worried by water, fearing one day it might break through to complete the drowning of Doggerland. There were times – more and more often – when Adam remembered the world’s hugeness, and hardness. Its terrible hardness…

He sighed, and sweated up the slope. Bone-weary though he was, his eyes were darting everywhere. He had tofind it. Had to. It would be his first. It would be his last. It would crown the day, this year – in fact, his nature-watching life. And it would be the perfect sign-off for this place, which he’d soon be leaving for good.

Angela had loved it here. So many days here with her, sharing the exultance of seeing some creature that according to the textbooks shouldn’t be there at all, some visitant magically manifesting thousands of miles outside its accustomed range. Once, when lying beside her under bushes, watching a vagrant warbler almost never recorded outside Central America, she had breathed just audibly, “It’s like a miracle!”

So it was – although there was also sadness surrounding such wanderers, so far from home, never to return, fated to end among unfamiliar dangers, trembling in unaccustomed cold, calling out plaintively into unanswering air for flock or mate.

Birds had been Angela’s passion – house-sparrows as much as any exotic warblers. She had never taken any species for granted since reading as a girl about the passenger pigeon. They had even given their daughter the name of Martha, in honour of the elderly endling which had fallen to the floor in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the last representative of flocks which had once broken branches by sheer weight of superabundance. On that proud day at the font in sunlit St Michael’s, with smiling family all round, they had never considered their choice might be so portentous…

Adam was more interested in insects. They had fascinated him since he was four, after a hoverfly had alighted on his outstretched hand like a benediction, a gold-and-black bejewelled being gracing his hand in a God-ray of sunshine slanting through trees.

He had lived insects and arachnids since, keeping ants and stick-insects, rearing moths, watching Attenborough, reading books like The Life of the Spider and The Soul of the White Ant, habitually turning over stones and rotten logs – in incessant search of insect lives, their meanings, their secrets, their symbolism.

Medieval illuminators had made minibeasts into miniature marginalia, and philosophers had seen them as metaphors of society and statecraft. The bee-kings that became queens as science advanced – the toiling workers so infinitesimal in themselves, but whose united efforts brought strength and sweetness to the world. Adam owned a small 1660s still-life, an anniversary present from Angela – a Delft bowl of apples, grapes, pears, and pomegranates, festooned with delicate butterflies – a Golden Age representation of Earth’s bountiful interconnectedness. Insects intersected with everyone everywhere always; their fall would also be ours.

He had become an academic, a writer of papers and addresser of conferences, a campaigner and charity trustee – so often dull and dry work, filled with frustrations, but energised always by that childhood encounter, and then the prospect of the whole planet losing its pollinators – losing its life. Losing its soul.

Whenever things got bad, there was balm in the multi-legged multiverse that began outside his back door. He would switch off machines and go into the garden – there to lose himself in the polished elegance of earwigs, watch whirligigs writing in an unknown language across the pond, or look into the compound eyes of bee-flies and wish he could see the world their way. Invertebrates had more sense than some vertebrates. Their unflagging energy was humbling as well as inspiring, an example of courage to him and to everyone – how they would resurge after every reverse, like bees building each spring, or Robert the Bruce’s spider in the cave. Insects had seen dinosaurs pass; woodlice would probably see us out.

He interested himself intimately in insects’ activities, intervening like a god when provoked by some miniscule plight. Even today, with his mind filled with his quest, he stooped to move a burnet moth caterpillar from a bare sandy tract that from its perspective must have seemed miles wide, and placed it on the sappy stem of a ragwort. Caterpillars found out in the open were often dying, he knew, driven insane by parasites eating them inside. But maybe this one might just make it. And anyway, it was indecent to leave a helpless creature – just as sick people deserved treatment, at whatever cost, and however distant the chances of success. However futile, even – however blackly written in the book of mitochondrial heredity.

An emperor dragonfly angled electrically into view, and he watched it zigzag away like an escaped ampere – a spectacular insect, whose even larger ancestors once darted over drowned Doggerland. Land and sea so often seemed interchangeable along this littoral, confusing even the animals. He sometimes found insect-falls along the advancing edge of the sea – ants, devil’s coach-horses, ladybirds – tiny fragments of feeling kicking their legs helplessly or crawling desperately away from the water at the salt end of all things, pitifully paralleling the great human-falls of history. He always lofted as many as he could away to safety, although aware he was making little difference, and that all safety was at best a postponement. Under every summer beachscape lay freezing physical forces, under sun-warmed wavetops a constant churning of cold deeps, and under the fine sand sliding earth plates, all part of the constant longshore drift of life into detritus.

As Adam aged and ailed, some of his students joked that he looked like a late-summer lepidopteran. Mr Mothman, they called him – an upright and ugly imago. His skin grew dry, thin and chitinous, and his bones increasingly prominent, as if he was turning inside out, developing an exoskeleton. But why shouldn’t his softness hide inside? Life had so often shown him need of a carapace.

How he wished Angela could have been here today, of all days.

Late yesterday evening, when Adam had been reading a local nature blog, he briefly stopped breathing. Just a few casual words, written by a local nature-guide, mentioning that a Camberwell Beauty had been seen the previous day. It was the most wonderful of shocks. A Camberwell Beauty!

For much of his life, Nymphalis antiopa had been flitting through Adam’s imagination – an apparition flapping always in front, just out of reach. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t known of the butterfly’s existence. But then his first home had been on Coldharbour Lane, where the butterfly was first recorded in 1748, by a man named Moses Harris, who called it ‘Grand Surprise’ to register his astonishment at its size and striking appearance – richly maroon wings, with blue dots and creamy yellow fringe, and powerful un-butterflyish flight.

It had stuck out even in Moses Harris’s still semi-rural, semi-magical London, with Camberwell still famous for fruit growing, and Peckham Rye nearby, where Blake would soon see angels in the elms. Science itself was still in a state of wide-eyed and wondering innocence, where each day brought discoveries which could still be attributed to God’s benevolent grace, and clustering new species were named after characters from Greek myth. There had been many Antiopes in Attica, but Adam was sure the Beauty must have been named after the daughter of Aeolus, or the consort of Helios, or maybe in honour of both, seeing that the creature was the most perfect union of air and light.

The boldness of the Beauty had clearly compelled Harris, who as well as being an entomologist, had also been an engraver and theorist of colour. Adam had sensed the other man’s aesthetic and aurelian excitement across the gulf of years – although for Adam excitement had always been mixed with melancholy, because the Beauty hadn’t been seen in Camberwell since the early twentieth century.

Others people had noticed, and mourned the butterfly’s absence. It had been referenced in literature and music, and there was a huge mosaic of one on a building in Burgess Park, moved there in 1982 from a demolished 1920s printworks, which had used the already rare butterfly as emblematic of their expertise. Adam remembered the mosaic in its prominent original location, and being told that the Luftwaffe had ironically used it as a navigation aid for raids.

But Adam felt the insect’s absence almost physically – felt it like a folk-memory of destroyed wildness, felt it like the pains amputees imagine in absent limbs. He almost envied the long-dead who had glimpsed the Beauty in habitats like those he had known – battening in Brixton back-gardens or fluttering up Forest Hill, or beating between the Hammer Horror monuments of Nunhead Cemetery, a Gothic shade among the white angels and the ivied urns – the Germans’ name Trauermantel (‘mourning cloak’) so suitable in that context, so redolent of the insect’s elusiveness, and adjacency to extinction.

Nymphalis was quite common elsewhere; Adam had even seen a subspecies in Sweden. But it was surrounded with special significance for him and all English lepidopterists, including the Edwardians who were the last to see it in London. Those Edwardians, with which Camberwell always seemed synonymous – those bicycle-clipped, moustached City clerks, with their copies of Illustrated London News, and Elgar on wax cylinders – so often seemed frozen in photos, fixed in period the way old collections of coleoptera were pinned to museum boards. But they had been wonderfully alive in at least one respect – to have had even an outside chance of seeing Beauties in their rose-gardens, flying in from some other realm to enrich their Arts and Crafts universe.

The Camberwell Adam had known as a child, then heard about as an adult – an anthill without purpose, a place of bad air, cars, crime, and riots – had seemed daily less likely to throw up Beauties. So now, one had kindly come to him, was waiting for him, possibly just over this hill – his personal ‘Grand Surprise’ sipping the sap of a willow, or winging royally across rabbit-nibbled clearings, the ultimate prize for hours of exertion on the hottest day of the year, the culmination of a life’s longing. This was circularity. It felt a little like – destiny.

How could it have come? Some came over the sea in some years, but very few, and never this far north. There were theories about pupae carried in cargoes of Scandinavian timber. There were also rare private rewilders, eccentrics or idealists who raised and released animals they felt ‘belonged’, animals which had a moral right to be in particular places. Aged eight, Adam had met one, the famous Leonard Newman, who had signed Adam’s copy of Complete British Butterflies in Colour – a book outdated even then, but still on Adam’s shelves. Newman had reared thousands of Beauties and let them fly in Kent one hopeful spring, then waited…and waited…and given up.

Adam knew why Newman had done this; skies that had known the Beauty must one day know it again. But he wanted to think this specimen had somehow made its own way here, acting on some unknown impulse, linking his early life with his late – bringing old London to modern Lincolnshire. It would be kismet – completion – closure.

He had sometimes worried that if he ever caught up with the Beauty it might feel like an anti-climax. Species ticked off lists were like sports trophies – wholly inadequate, tinny mementos of a very different day, a different outlook, whole other worlds of happiness and health. And this just wasn’t any species. The Beauty dwelled by itself. It had flown in front of him for so long that finding one might feel more like losing something. But if this was a risk, it was one he had to take. What else would he do? What else could he do? It was his nature. Angela would have understood – and Martha.

He fantasised hotly, the sun boiling the reddened skin of his scalp. There might be more than one. A venturesome individual might be the vanguard of a viable colony. Could this bold outrider be a scout – the crest of a climate-adapting wave, coping with change by expanding range? He knew, in truth, this was a fancy too far; the Beauty liked cooler climates. But somehow, somewhere among all this global destruction and private desolation, some species must find a way forward, lead a rebirth and recolouring of the cosmos. How wonderful it would be if at least a few beautiful things could defy the world’s contagion…Was that too much to ask? There was so much loss, so much waste and death…

He stopped to get breath, and looked up, to see the sun well on its way to the west. There weren’t many hours left. There were never enough. There was never enough time for anything. Angela and Jane were also now flying in front… He pushed on through trees and across a wide wasteland, while a large butterfly on the highest branch imperiously flared indigo wings, and indifferently watched him pass.

Refracted future

Humani Victus Instrumenta – Ars Coquinaria. 1570s engraving

The Mirror

Tim Bragg, Sycamore Dystopia, 2023, pb., 292pps., £10

Ever since the ancients invented automata, writers have wondered about the implications for humanity, and ruminated about the nature of consciousness. The Industrial Revolution would spawn increasing concern about subservience to machines and “Satanic mills.” The Great War and then Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (from which we get the word ‘robot, based on a Czech word, robota, meaning ‘forced labour’) made many people anxious about out-of-control technology – a theme revisited every generation since, as seen for example in the 1984 action classic, Terminator. Today, the growing sophistication of artificial intelligence has turned a trope into a cliché, the subject of articles, books and documentaries which often really tell us more about contemporary concerns than they do about possible futures. Musician-novelist Tim Bragg’s newest book is therefore in a certain idealist-nostalgic-pessimistic vein; this does not mean it is not distinctive or worthwhile.

As in Orwell’s Oceania, or the pages of Fahrenheit 451, the world of The Mirror is a surveillance society, where the state strives to control thought. Like Bladerunner, there are huge and ugly megalopolises, and androids, and people who might be androids. Like Logan’s Run (film version), there is a mysterious and romanticised threshold that must be crossed. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, the authorities limit fertility. Like The Matrix, almost nothing is what it seems. As in many dystopias, there is an unjust government with a privileged ‘Inner Party,’ sinister secrets, ecological impoverishment, and bleak living conditions for the lowest echelons – and of course ‘red-pilled’ rebels seeking to upturn the system. This highly literate author imbues all these obvious influences with ideas of his own.

He brings the genre up to (future) date, setting his story in 2073, and reflecting upon today’s worries about self-image, the control of data, the time we spend online, the cashless society, the food we eat (insects bulk large in The Mirror’s meals), and the erasure of the past. Every citizen wears a ‘mirror’ device, which delivers a limited range of computer-generated entertainment and information, but most importantly allows the authorities to monitor the population. Emotions and sensations are all suspect – except those provided by pills or virtual reality, from ‘conversations’ with ancestors to sexual intercourse. There seem to be no local or national identities, or even any kind of economy.

The pivotal relationship is between two girls, Mia and Karella, who are arriving at physical and sexual maturity; there seems to be no ‘transgenderism’ in The Mirror world (which is plausible, as those who are so exercised by this today will have exited the scene by 2073). Both characters are well thought-through, and nuanced. Bragg’s emphasis on youthful female sexuality however feels slightly discomfiting, even though of course novelists must always be permitted to imagine themselves in guises or roles other than their own. It is however germane to this story, because both girls are being exploited by a highly intrusive state, with Karella the subject of life-long transhumanist experiments, and Mia being viewed as a brood-mare for a eugenics programme. Their every emotion is parsed for psychological significance, and there are constant interventions – for example a dogged therapeutic insistence on treating Mia’s phobia about swimming (a happy intervention, because her instilled ability to swim matters greatly later).

Like everyone else, Mia and Karella are under the purview of a panoptical ‘Hub,’ and an elite organisation called Earthly Living Kingdom (ELK). Mia’s own mother is an ELK Guardian, a senior operative of a group whose sinister plans become increasingly apparent, and the mother-daughter relationship is consequently complex. Mia’s father is absent – or is he?

There are menacing ELK operatives, partly countervailed by a sub-world of gathering rebellion, led by Ned, an IT expert who convenes a secret cell to keep alive fast-fading arts – in effect, the authentic human spirit, at risk from rationalist thinking, cultural coarsening, and technological reductionism. Mia finds especial inspiration and solace in the music of Bach, which although available through approved channels, has fallen into desuetude. In 2073, those who wish to hear such antediluvian sounds risk seeming at best eccentric – and at worst, refuseniks in ‘need’ of pharmaceutical intervention, or biotechnological ‘rebooting.’ Bragg has clearly thought a great deal about the psychological benefits of music for everyone in all ages, here showing synaesthesia as a means of inner escape from one-dimensional mundanity.

The ‘biohacker’ artist Neil Harbisson, by Hector Adalid. Wikimedia Commons

He handles generally well one of the perennial problems of dystopian literature – accustoming readers to invented concepts and specially coined terminology without interrupting the narrative with long screeds of explication. He has tried hard to come up with new idioms. French phrases are unexpectedly widely used. Anglo-Saxon expletives however appear to have gone out of vogue, to be replaced with what seem now insipid new terms of emphasis (“sparking uterus”), which seems an unlikely eventuality – but maybe this symbolises his surmised society’s distance from earthy realism. Some are more believable, such as “abundant” to express enthusiasm. There is admirable restraint and wit in the conversations between the human protagonists and the Rai robots who do much of the work (and are constantly being ‘improved’ by technologists and theorists obsessed with ‘migrating’ consciousness from human to machine, and even more worryingly back again).

The Mirror is a deeply well-intentioned book, and what is even more important, sensitively intelligent – a worthy reflection on issues which are swiftly becoming salient, and which seem certain to become even more so.

Un-harkened Angel

Angel

Alex Kurtagic, London: Spradabach, 2023, hb., 997pps.

DEREK TURNER finds mordant fun in a tale of modern alienation

In 2009, Alex Kurtagic published Mister, his novel of a highly-cultured IT consultant operating within what he saw as the hellscape of contemporary Europe – a man too intelligent for an age suspicious of intellectual distinctions, and too independent-minded for a continent in thrall to neurotic pettifoggery. In Angel, we meet a similarly misfitting man, but one with even less adaptive ability – indeed, a man almost without agency. This is a behemoth of a book about a midget of a man, wandering solitarily in the drab wasteland of these times.  

Angel is a student of 17th Century literature at an English university, whose unhappy fate it is to combine refined tastes and fastidiousness with an inability to impose these on even his immediate surroundings. He is physically slight and correspondingly cowardly, chronically short of money, and not even compensatingly articulate. Traditionally, angels enunciate glad tidings, but this one (aspiring poet though he may be) can barely sustain a basic conversation. He is announced to, rather than an annunciator. His most obvious resemblance to Biblical or Hebrew angels lies in his essential insubstantiality.

Angel is surrounded by people infinitely more impressive than he is – especially women, from his formidable mother and sister, and brilliantly inductive fellow-students to the mothering Amelia who (for some incomprehensible reason) pants to enfold Angel in her ample embonpoint. He is an incel, but unlike some incels, not potentially dangerous. He is not even angry – although the debased nature of his university, and society, deserves almost unlimited contempt. Kurtagic’s front-cover oil of his Van Dyck-bearded subject excellently conveys the nervy nature of his character, his twitching worriedness and state of blinking surprise at the awfulness of almost everything.

We do not lose sympathy for Angel as the tale unfolds, because we never really develop any. Even if somehow we could, he would haemorrhage it with his every action, or more precisely inaction. It is only at the very end that we start to feel sorry for him, but we can never feel respect. He is epically inept and wholly dependent on others, unable to perform the simplest task without mishap. He gets a menial job, but can’t manage the hours. He is given expensive things, and loses them. He is given excellent advice, and makes no attempt to follow it. He gets blamed even for things that aren’t his fault – and we are neither surprised, nor particularly perturbed. The reason he has no money is that he burned through a generous grant from his wealthy and influential parents in pursuit of an American woman (Madison) so obviously unworthy that people who have never met her instantly smell the gold-digger.

Huge events unfold around him, which culminate in unexpectedly dramatic style, but he is so busy mooning about his love-interest (and feeling sorry for himself) that he misses all the portents. And yet this over-specialised evolutionary aberration ends up as one of his cohort’s rare survivors. His near-invisibility ensures that he is mercifully overlooked by the most malign influencers, except when he accidentally offends à la mode ‘activists’ of one kind or another. He does encounter real rebels, but (probably luckily for him) never capitalizes on these encounters, through distractedness or pusillanimity.

But if we cannot admire Angel, we can smile at some of his pratfalls and predicaments. The author’s mordant sense of humour is abundantly in evidence, as his protagonist lurches from one petty indignity to the next – building up debts, humiliations and resentments, borrowing money he can’t repay, exasperating his family, failing his few friends, irritating his tutors, losing all his clothes at the launderette (and all his illusions about Madison), and vomiting all over the fragrant front of the only woman in the world who wants anything to do with him. Angel’s phobias are Ruskinian in their rarefaction, as he registers disgust with bad table manners, dirt, drunkenness, earrings, oxter hair (on women), tobacco and tattoos.

This is however not just a novel of amusing incidents, but also of serious ideas. The author is a determined logophile, and even those with above-average vocabularies may encounter words that are new to them, or that they have forgotten. These pleasing encounters contrast with sometimes over-long staccato dialogue sections when Angel is trying to attract the attention of barmen or shopkeepers, or, yet again, failing to explain himself to his supposed intellectual peers.

Sophisticated sociopolitical arguments are seeded through this book – about sex differences, elitism, the nature and purpose of universities, and freedom of conscience – but none of these viewpoints are expressed by Angel, although we infer that he generally agrees with their conservative-reactionary tenor. There are shrewd observations of today’s cry-bully tendencies, with their manic oscillations between psychological extremes, attacks on easy Aunt Sally targets, and protesting-too-much parading – and excellent evocations of cityscapes in all their Bladerunner alienness, or broken-down decrepitude. Strewn names of books, films, and paintings betoken authorial wide interests, and the book’s production values hint at his awareness of the importance of aesthetics in shaping worlds. Kurtagic is certain there is such a thing as ‘good taste’, and that it is at root a moral choice. This is weighty literature, in more than just a physical sense.

We eventually leave Angel all alone, contemplating the ruins of all his hopes and with no obvious avenue of escape, with even his once-powerful parents implicated in his downfall. It is a desolate outcome indeed even to so inglorious an odyssey, and even for someone not obviously deserving of respect – because behind his seriocomic unfolding can be seen substantive insights into 21st century society, and in his deeply-grained disappointment something of ourselves.

This review first appeared in The Miskatonian (Home page – The Miskatonian) and is reproduced with permission

London Lies Bleeding – Prologue

Image: Derek Turner
GOMERY KIMBER introduces Justin Martello, “a new kind of hero”

‘No,’ I said. 

Saul Ruzo opened the cell door. 

‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’ said Ruzo.  ‘Strip.’ 

‘No.’ 

At knifepoint, Ruzo’s thugs stripped me naked and bundled me inside. 

‘You like it, Martello?’ Ruzo asked. ‘I call it the torture cell.  It’s based on a design by Alphonse Laurentic.  You heard of him?  He fought for the good guys in the Spanish Civil War. Only we’ve made a couple of improvements, bring it into the twenty-first century.’ 

‘American progress – where would the world be without it?’ 

Smirking, Ruzo slammed the door shut on my remark. 

The torture cell. 

It was impossible to rest. The concrete bed sloped at an angle of twenty degrees. It was impossible to sit comfortably on it either. And exercise was out of the question because the floor of the cell was an obstacle course of house bricks fixed haphazardly into concrete. 

Painted on the cell walls were surrealistic patterns designed to disorientate the prisoner. The clock above the cell door ran either too slow or too fast, and there was no window, making it impossible to know whether it was night or day. 

Air con and cameras were two of Ruzo’s improvements, the lighting effects also. 

Sometimes the cell was tolerably warm, sometimes freezing, and sometimes so hot that the sweat ran down my bare legs. And at any moment, the space might be bathed in lurid green light, or pitch suddenly black, followed by strobe lights, daylight, dusk, dawn, then back again to green, or crimson, or puce. 

And all the time the phantasmagoria was accompanied by repetitive music and noisy sound effects: death metal, advertising jingles, vicious dogs barking, babies screaming, women weeping. Over and over and over again. 

‘It’s designed to send you crazy,’ Saul Ruzo confided when his men returned me to the chamber after the first mock execution. 

And it had. 

With a start, I opened my eyes and looked at my visitor. 

‘Lieutenant Mbweha is very pleased with the progress you’ve made, Justin,’ said Piers Wyvern. ‘She says you might be well enough to be discharged in a day or two.’

I was seated in the uncomfortable armchair beside the hospital bed. Piers Wyvern glanced at me to gauge my reaction, but I was so full of sedatives that I barely reacted at all. I wondered where I would go, now that my house had been sold. 

‘Pity about the rain,’ he said. ‘We might have had our picnic in the grounds.’ 

Piers opened the wicker basket that he’d brought to the military hospital where I was being held. He claimed he’d just returned from a week in Venice where he’d lost heavily at the casino but enjoyed some wonderful food. He was certainly plumper than the last time I’d seen him. His sandy hair was sun-bleached and his florid face tanned. He wore a reddish-brown suit, and not for the first time he put me in mind of a well-fed fox. 

‘Still,’ he said, spreading out the picnic blanket on the hospital bed, ‘cosy little room they’ve given you. We can have a nice chat.’ 

I made an effort to stir myself. 

‘Chat?’ I said. ‘About what?’

‘Why, the future, of course. Now, what would you say to a glass of wine?’ 

I didn’t respond. I sat slumped in the chair wearing military issue pyjamas and dressing gown feeling nothing at all, apart from the draught from the window. So far as I could see I had no future. 

Piers removed the bottle of Gambellara from the wine cooler sleeve and poured two drinks. As I put my glass down on the wooden bedside locker, I spilled some wine. Piers produced a paper napkin and fussily mopped up the drops. He needn’t have bothered. The stained old locker was defaced with many a scratch and cigarette burn. 

‘There’s roast beef with watercress and horseradish,’ said Piers, trying to tempt me. ‘And antipasto, kalamata olives – or one of these delicious miniature scotch eggs.’

His voice was thick with anticipation, for Piers was a greedy man, at his happiest when there was the prospect of not just three, but four meals a day. 

‘Pour me some water,’ I said. 

Reluctantly, Piers did so, from the two-litre plastic jug that stood on the locker. The medication made my mouth dry and I drained the plastic tumbler as soon as he handed it to me. Piers looked disappointed.  I was spoiling a treat. 

‘I don’t wish to appear rude,’ I said. 

‘Not at all, Justin. They’ve got you doped, haven’t they? Silly of me. I thought you might be fed up with hospital fare, it’s always ghastly. But perhaps you’d have been happier with a bowl of clear soup and a soft bread roll.’ 

Disappointed, Piers popped one of the miniature scotch eggs into his mouth and devoured it with relish. 

I looked away. Summer rain ran down the dirty windowpane, and outside in the gardens a gusty south wind whipped the rhododendrons. I didn’t care for Piers Wyvern, just as I didn’t care for the Royal Navy psychiatrist, Lieutenant Missy Mbweha. Before diagnosing me, she’d gone and fetched the official manual of psychiatric disorders and consulted it for some minutes before pronouncing her verdict. 

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ she’d asked at one point. The question had made me burst out laughing. 

I looked at Piers. He was a confirmed materialist as well. As far as Wyvern was concerned, pleasure was the only thing of undoubted value, and it was around pleasure that he arranged his life. I watched as he decided what to devour next. 

‘Won’t you have something?’ 

‘Have you been discussing my health with Mbweha, Piers?’ 

‘Of course not. Patient confidentiality, and all that,’ said Wyvern, looking up sharply from the delicacies. He softened his tone. ‘The thing is, everyone’s concerned about dear old Justin, who’s come through a very rough time, who in fact has had a rough old life, all told.’

‘A very rough time,’ I repeated. ‘A rough old life.’

‘Your parents and everything,’ explained Piers with great kindness. ‘That sort of traumatic event in childhood, it’s bound to affect one in later life.’

The comment angered me. I wasn’t ‘traumatised.’ So far as I could see, the psychiatric profession pathologised any deviation from ‘normality.’ The only people considered ‘normal’ were those who posed no threat to the possessors of power. 

‘This has nothing to do with my parents’ murder, Piers.’ 

‘We just want what’s best for you,’ he went on, blithely. ‘I mean, you don’t want to be stuck in one of these places for the rest of your life, do you?’

So that was it.  I suppose I would have realised sooner if I hadn’t been doped. 

‘Where exactly are we, Piers?’ 

‘Thought they’d told you, dear boy. Rendlesham Hall, Suffolk.’ 

‘Yes, that’s what they told me, and I said I’d never heard of a military hospital of that name.’

‘Well, neither had I for that matter.’

‘It’s off the books.’

‘Now now,’ Piers chided me. ‘Don’t get upset. Why not try that wine? It’s Giovanni Menti.’ 

‘So, what is your plan for me?’ I asked. 

‘We thought you might like to do us the occasional service,’ Wyvern said, choosing one of the roast beef sandwiches. ‘Nothing too onerous, and nothing that will trouble your conscience, either.’

He bit into the finger sandwich. 

‘No.’

Hurriedly, Piers chewed so that he might respond. ‘There’s no need to decide right away. Have a think about it over the next few days.’

‘The answer is no, Piers.’ 

‘It will do you the power of good. The nine-to-five, there’s something to be said for it. Reason not to get hammered in the evening for one thing, or at lunchtime.’ With a smile, he raised his glass to me.  It was a thin smile and not entirely pleasant. ‘Ordinary life, more or less, keeps one grounded.’

Mounting anger was rousing me from my sedation. 

‘I flew too close to the sun, you mean.’

Piers regarded me sceptically. 

‘I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities,’ he quoted.   

Piers had no time for metaphysics, which was surprising given his ancestry (the Wyvern family had produced many an occultist and alchemist). I’d known him twenty years. As a green lieutenant, I’d been assigned to act as his bodyguard while on secret service in Iraq, and Piers had been delighted to learn I’d attended what he allowed was a fairly decent school and knew Latin and Greek. 

I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities

It was from Ovid, the opening line of The Metamorphoses. The poet’s unifying theme of transformation, I recalled, involved the hunter and the hunted, and more often than not, violence inflicted on the victim, as well. 

‘Come home, Justin,’ Piers said. ‘All is forgiven.’ 

I was feeling emotional.     

‘That’s right, drink your wine, there’s a good chap. Remember Thorne, your old Staff Sergeant? We thought he might act as liaison.’ 

I almost choked. 

‘What do you mean? I run my own ship.’ 

Piers frowned. ‘Not any longer, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘Theresa thought it better you step down. After all, it was only on an interim basis, wasn’t it? And you’re not really a businessman, are you?’

I took the comment personally. True, I wasn’t a businessman, but I was a leader, and it was on that basis that I’d agreed to run the Seton-Glennie operation.   

‘Theresa spoke to you?’ I said. 

‘Mrs Seton-Glennie did indeed speak to me, icily admittedly, but she told me she wanted you to step down. I’m sure you’ll speak to her, in due course.’ 

‘Get out.’ 

‘Steady, Justin, steady.’ 

‘Leave me alone, you bastard.’

‘Now that’s quite enough! Need I remind you I was the one who rode to the bloody rescue after you were shanghaied by Ruzo?’ 

‘Shanghaied?’ I repeated. ‘Abducted, you mean, from the most secure police station in London, Paddington Green. Do you really think I believe you people didn’t have a hand in it?’ 

We did not, asserted Piers, red in the face.  Handing one of our own to the Yanks so that they could torment you? Absolute rubbish!’ 

I bit my lip and looked away. I was absolutely certain that the powers that be had indeed handed me over to Ruzo and his loathsome ‘gators, but saying so, even to my ears, sounded like paranoia. 

Piers regarded me as though with great concern.   

‘Justin,’ he said softly, ‘you’re my friend and I have your best interests at heart. What has to be has to be. You’ll come back to work for us, and that’s that.’

‘Never.’

Wyvern was about to remonstrate but when he saw the murderous look on my face he decided that discretion was the better part of valour. I watched the smooth-talking cynic struggle to stand. 

‘I shall leave the picnic,’ he said, breathing hard, ‘for you to enjoy. Goodbye, Justin.’

After Wyvern left, it took me some time to calm down, and by then I was hungry. I stood up unsteadily and examined the picnic hamper. Amongst the food I discovered presents – Italian coffee and biscuits, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes (the brand we’d smoked in Iraq), a lighter, and a little box of Baci chocolates. On the back of a picture postcard Piers had written in his florid hand: ‘Dear Justin, trusting you’ll be on parade again very soon, much love from your DQ.’

DQ, Delta Quebec. That had been Wyvern’s call-sign in Baghdad, until the Americans learnt what DQ referred to, that is. 

I turned the postcard over and looked at the picture, not surprised to see the Botticelli self-portrait. When Piers first saw me in shorts he told me I had ‘Botticelli legs.’ 

Rejecting the nostalgia and the feeling I’d behaved discourteously to an old friend, I flicked the postcard aside, and helped myself to a sandwich. 

That was when I discovered the phone, in amongst the food.  It was of a special design, the kind issued to MI6 officers in the field overseas.  It contained only one contact number: Thorne’s. 

There was something else – my passport. But when I opened it I discovered it had been stamped ‘WITHDRAWN’ in red ink and the top corners of the pages clipped off. I supposed it meant I’d be working for 6 in the UK, MI5 territory, and therefore supposedly forbidden. I swallowed the food in my mouth, but without appetite. 

I remembered the time when I had dominated life, but for some time now life had been dominating me. 

Cutting the grass

That was the phrase Saul Ruzo had used. 

‘You got above your station, Martello, you need to be reminded who’s boss. You loused up my operation, Operation Eagle’s Nest! Well, now you’re gonna pay.’ 

Hands trembling, I cleared the picnic away, got into bed and tried to go back to sleep.

Anthony Burgess – The Professional

BENJAMIN AFER outlines an extraordinarily prolific and versatile author

Some weeks ago, I was offered a small commission by a respectable new journal to contribute a few thousand words on Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, but reluctantly deferred owing to considerable concern that a short essay composed under the duress of manic end-of-year busyness would result an inadequate treatment of such a monumental work. But when I was offered some column inches in this journal on the subject of Anthony Burgess, I accepted without hesitation. After all, Burgess has long been one of my most-admired authors, and I have more than a casual familiarity with his work, having read and re-read a good deal of his fiction many times over.

This cheerful attitude quickly fell into a tense anxiety when I realised, sitting down to write, that the great scope of Burgess’s œuvre would make this a more complicated and technically demanding matter than any essay on Proust. For even if Marcel still has Anthony pipped on word-count (and that’s not entirely certain), the latter’s ability to write masterful works in so many genres, in so many different styles, on endlessly varying subjects, in both fiction, non-fiction, symphonic music and poetry means that there is ample material for several lifetimes worth of Burgess-study. Both authors can be poked in the ribs, so to speak, with that infamous jibe given by a member of the royal family upon the presentation of yet another volume of Decline and Fall – “Another damn’d thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Even Burgess’s socially mobile origin story is so uniquely mid-century that it requires hefty contextual explanation, and the subsequent biographical aspects seem to go on twisting and turning forever. We have Burgess the precocious Catholic schoolboy, Burgess the soldier, Burgess the lover, Burgess the adulterous scoundrel, Burgess the schoolmaster, Burgess the august television intellectual, Burgess the tax-dodging expatriate, Burgess the linguist, Burgess the Joyce expert, Burgess the librettist, Burgess the avant-garde composer, satirist and poet. At least Proust remained mercifully confined to his bed, doing little else but huffing Escouflaire [Ed. Anti-asthmatic medicines] and “scribble, scribble scribble.”

Indeed, this systematic under-appreciation of Anthony Burgess seems to be less a consequence of any mediocrity on his part and more a consequence of sheer befuddlement on the part of lazy critics, academics, and other taste-making ne’er-do-wells. There is no adjectival hole into which the man or his work can be easily pigeoned. As G.K. Chesterton said of the Christian ideal, Burgess has not been tried and found wanting. He has been found difficult, and left untried.

John Burgess Wilson (later confirmed into the Catholic Church with the middle name Anthony) was born in Manchester, in February 1917. His mother, Elizabeth Burgess, died less than two years later of the Spanish Flu, and his father Joseph took up with Margaret Dwyer, the landlady of the pub in which he played the piano as an evening job. Though Joseph Wilson was by trade a shopkeeper dealing mainly in tobacco and alcohol (which kept the family out of poverty during the long depression years – “the poor always found money to drink”) Burgess always recalled his father as a frustrated composer, skilled enough to play all the favourite pub tunes and provide spontaneous accompaniment to silent films in the local picture house, but otherwise an archetypical mute inglorious. His self-description was always that of a composer who wrote books rather than a writer who dabbled in music.

Despite his father’s apparent gifts, Burgess remained ignorant to music as a whole until hearing a prelude by Debussy on his home-built radio. The attitude among lower-middle class Mancunians of the interwar years, both at home and at the Xaverian College to which the bookish young man had earned a scholarship, held against teaching music to young people – there was no realistic prospect of any money in it – so, undeterred and with characteristic bullheadedness, Burgess taught himself to play the piano at the age of 14.

Moreso than the solitariness of his schoolyears and the often-warlike relationship between himself and his stepmother (later given brilliantly repulsive illustration in the Enderby novels), Burgess was always quick to recall the Catholic, and particularly Irish, aspect of his background. At least one journalist joked that to hear Burgess talk of his home city, one would suppose that Manchester was a suburb of Dublin. With echoes of the late-century “Troubles literature” that familiarised many British and American readers with the largely self-generated Cagot-apartheid between denominations in Northern Ireland, Burgess recalled in print and on television interviews the automatic jeering and separation between “Cat-licks” and “Proddy-dogs” in Jazz Age Manchester, long before the children on either side of the dispute had any rational grounds to do so. Burgess’s father often took him aside and cautioned “Son, don’t give allegiance to any Hanoverian Protestant monarch. Your last monarch was James II.” It was taken both as a sort of nostalgic joke and as a deadly serious reminder of where the lines lay in the Britain of that era.

Once again hobbled in his ambitions to become a composer when the music department at Victoria University [Ed. Now part of the University of Manchester] turned down his application, he was instead taken in by the literature department in 1937, and a female economics student called Llewela “Lynne” Isherwood. Burgess was able to finish his degree before the inevitable call-up for National Service.

To put it plainly, the army did not suit him. He was constantly being arraigned for disciplinary offences and, most commonly, for overstaying his married leave. Despite his best efforts, the army promoted him to sergeant and found a place for him in the Educational Corps. Burgess’s flair for language earned him a posting in Gibraltar, working as a debriefer on behalf of stranded Dutch and French expatriates. A brief lock-up on the other side of Spanish border following an ill-advised tirade on the diminutive height and not-so-diminutive portliness of General Franco would be given its vicious counterpoint in an incident made famous by a disturbing quasi-literation in A Clockwork Orange: Lynne, still back in England and pregnant with the Burgess’s first child, was beaten and raped by a gang of marauding American deserters under the cover of the blackout, losing the baby as a consequence. Burgess, for reasons unknown, was denied home leave to see her. The horrifying inability to protect his wife or even comprehend the reasons for such an act seems to have given succour to Burgess’s mystical-Catholic belief in the existence of a pure evil that stalks out potential in every human being. Try to find any trace of rational-choice doctrine or liberal social-excuse theory in the following passage:

All right, Dim,’ I said. ‘Now for the other veshch, Bog help us all.’ So he did the strong-man on the devotchka, who was still creech creech creeching away in very horrorshow four-in-a-bar, locking her rookers from the back, while I ripped away at this and that and the other, the others going haw haw haw still, and real good horrorshow groodies they were that then exhibited their pink glazzies, O my brothers, while I untrussed and got ready for the plunge. Plunging, I could slooshy cries of agony and this writer bleeding veck that Georgie and Pete held on to nearly got loose howling bezoomny with the filthiest of slovos that I already knew and others he was making up. Then after me it was right old Dim should have his turn, which he did in a beasty snorty howly sort of a way with his Peebee Shelley maskie taking no notice, while I held on to her. Then there was a changeover, Dim and me grabbing the slobbering writer veck who was past struggling really, only just coming out with slack sort of slovos like he was in the land in a milk plus bar, and Pete and Georgie had theirs.

These are not horrors to be explained away by some bunk about absentee fathers or inadequate youth-group opportunities. The bucking refutation of modern sociological ideas in A Clockwork Orange is, in my view, the true cause of the furore later kicked up around the hitherto modestly known book when the Stanley Kubrick film appeared. As Burgess himself noted, the Russell-esque socially liberal literati, who normally kept their safe, snobbish distance from those poor working-class underdogs whom they supposedly championed, took great personal offence at the character of Alex – an obviously intelligent, strategically minded-young man with two loving parents and an orgasmic appreciation for “lovely Ludwig van.” They were forced to see, not as they usually did a violent, irrational sub-species in need of a good Pygmalion-job, but instead a character they themselves identified with.

A Clockwork Orange takes the territory explored by Dostoyevsky via Raskolnikov to a logical end by removing even the pretence of a reason for what Alex does. Unlike the would-be Übermensch Raskolnikov, there are no delusions of grandeur to Alex. His material needs are well-satisfied, and he delights in the pleasure of violence itself rather than violence as a means to an end like robbery or survival. He indulges in evil acts more or less for their own sake. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but simply fails to consider why such a contrast should impede him. More chillingly to the modern progressive mind, Burgess takes a firm stand on the human necessity that Alex be able to choose to live in such a way. A further insult is levelled at the intelligentsia by the way in which their “Ludovico Treatment” gives us a stronger feeling of nausea and repulsion than any of the crimes committed by young Alex, because the former is a hideous restriction on any moral choice that renders the victim an eponymous clockwork orange – only superficially organic and alive. By contrast, the ultra-violence and juvenile thuggery of the Droogs is all-too-human. Their lives are an expression of forces that cannot be created or destroyed; merely redirected; a fact so wonderfully illustrated by Burgess when a wretched, suffering, “reformed” Alex is torturously worked over by two policemen, whom he suddenly recognises as former members of his gang.  

Although A Clockwork Orange is the title most people will conjure in their minds when they hear the author’s name, for Burgess, the success and media frenzy around the book became a case-study in the ancient artist’s headache: the inability to choose which of your works becomes a public ‘favourite.’ Though the creation of Alex’s “Nadsat” argot is a deservedly acclaimed feat, Burgess was always quick to point out that he considered the work a minor one of his own canon, a jeu d’esprit knocked off in a couple of weeks. From the release of the film to his last days, he was continually badgered by obnoxious phone calls from tabloid papers and crusading members of the public asking if he felt personally responsible for that week’s nondescript heinous act of violence, particularly if the act in question involved sexual extremism. 

But Burgess, ever our dogged professional, was never one to pass up the opportunity to turn a unique life experience into fine prose. Picture a corpulent, dyspeptic middle-aged English poet-cum-lecturer staggering around a New York apartment borrowed from some ten-a-penny feminist academic on sabbatical. He’s naked. He’s staggering towards a telephone which, when answered, usually delivers a barrage of ranting phone calls from angry citizens who are eager to denounce him for what began as a film adaption of Hopkins’ poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, which has evolved to become a salacious piece of exploitation. The poor chap did not produce, write, or contribute to the project in any meaningful sense, but nevertheless his name has appeared all over the credits. A talk show has phoned asking him for an appearance that night:

[…] Some boys have been attacking some nuns. In Manhattanville. I’m shocked you didn’t know. I assumed–

“Nuns are always being attacked. Their purity is an affront to the dirty world.”

“Remember that. Remember to say that. But the point is that they said they wouldn’t have done it if they hadn’t seen the movie. That’s why we’re—”

I see. I see. Always blame art, eh? Not original sin but art. I’ll have my say, never fear.”

“You have the address?”

“You ignore art as so much unnecessary garbage or you blame it for your own crimes. That’s the way of it. I’ll get the bastards, all of them. I’m not having this sort of nonsense, do you hear?” There was silence at the other end. “You never take art for what it is – beauty, ultimate meaning, form for its own sake, self-subsisting, oh no. It’s always got to be either sneered at or attacked as evil. I’ll have my bloody say. What’s the name of the show again?” But she had rung off, silly bitch.

Enderby went snorting back to his poem. The stupid bastards.

Enter Francis Xavier Enderby. On the back cover of my copy of the excellent Vintage Classics edition of ‘The Complete Enderby,’ is a snippet of praise from Gore Vidal, who pronounces the Enderby series to be “even finer comedies than those by Evelyn Waugh.” I cannot really disagree with this, devotee of Messrs Pennyfeather and Boot though I am, but my first point of comparison would not be to anything by Waugh, but rather to the borborygmically-challenged elephantine Catholic Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

The Enderby novels (Inside Mr Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament and Enderby’s Dark Lady) belong to that august class of comedic books which can be called, without hyperbole or cliche, achingly funny. Concerning the declines and falls of a minor poet who writes in his filthy lavatory and lives off a small annuity left him by his detested stepmother (Burgess leaves little speculation room for biographical critics), Enderby appears to us as a kind of innocent shrew of self-supported masculinity, unsociable and fragile as he may be. His livings, though squalid, are secure, and his muse is to be reliably found in the WC whenever he wishes to call upon her. Any aspiring writer or artist will know what a screamingly enviable position this is to be in.

But alas, the forces of polite society, modernity, Ludovico-toting medical-establishment quacks and (shudder) females and marriage all conspire to destroy what precious little Enderby has in life. Like any master of the picaresque, Burgess knew that the plot is wholly superficial; what keeps the humour alive and glowing is the flavour of each situation the protagonist finds themselves in, and how they go about the inevitable extrication into the next one. Enderby’s numerous literary and menial vocations, alternate personalities, disconcerting love interests, expatriate nationalities and endless personal problems are navigated deftly enough by Burgess, though with a little slowing and self-indulgence at various points. 

It feels a little wrong to reserve so little space for the “serious” masterpieces. Like everything Burgess wrote other than A Clockwork Orange, the major novels remain ignored and little-read. Napoleon Symphony is a controversial, rather Freudian portrait of l’Empereur composed along the lines of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which in itself might be the only work of art famous for who it isn’t dedicated to. Earthly Powers deserves its own treatment entirely, but suffice to say it is a heroic send-up of a man Burgess fervently envied for his wealth and literary celebrity – the repressed homosexual author, intelligence agent and fellow Riviera-expatriate W Somerset Maugham. Christopher Hitchens pointed out that the novel’s famous first line (“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”) is such savagely accurate parody because it is so much better than anything “poor old Willie” ever wrote in his life.

There is so much more to Burgess than can be covered in a small essay such as this. He began his career, for example, with the superb Malayan trilogy, concocted when he was a colonial civil servant in the 1950s with a terminal diagnosis (obviously proved to be wrong) and a moody, alcoholic wife to support as best he could. The switch from “John Burgess Wilson” to “Anthony Burgess” was to accommodate the fact that in those days, it simply wasn’t on for respectable government men to write funny novels.  But Burgess knew which career beckoned most.

What I admire most about him was the sheer professionalism he brought to the craft of writing. There is nothing bohemian or “artsy” or, God forbid, “Bloomsbury” about his character or life. This is borne out in his habits – come rain, come shine, come hangover, he would swing his way to the writing room at nine o’clock each morning to set down his 2,000 words. Other writers chided him for this (“written your weekly novel yet, Burgess?”) but this was so obviously spurred by shame and jealously. There really never is any excuse for the loose manner in which so many scribblers comport themselves; writing is not some gentlemanly pastime but a profession, with all the great and grim caveats that label entails. When encouraged by his publishers to try a word processor, Burgess rejected it not for any romantic attachment to typewriters or pen-and-ink, but because the keys could be pressed all to easily – “the slam of key against platen is like the hammer to the anvil, you can hear that work is being done.” Ite, missa est, Mr Burgess.

Village lights: Huck Finn’s world, and ours

WILLIAM MARKLEY feels Twain’s great novel has much to say to our age

The ticking of a clock on a mantelpiece – the joy of eating corn pone after a hard day – lights of a hillside village, seen from a raft on the Mississippi River. Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn powerfully evokes the atmosphere of a long-ago America. Along with the details and flavours of everyday life, Twain looks at social problems, habits and moral quandaries that were significant before the American Civil War: slavery, mob violence, feuding families, hospitality to strangers, loyalties pulled in different directions. Some readers today will immediately assume how they would respond to such issues if they found themselves transported back to the 1840s. Yet Huckleberry Finn is concerned with timeless questions and inner struggles which aren’t as easily resolved as we might think. These loom large for the narrator Huckleberry, or Huck as he is known to his friends.

I befriended Huck Finn late in life. Although the book was long considered one of the greatest of American novels, it wasn’t among my schools’ required readings. I was a bookworm as a boy, but I avoided stories with children as principal characters. I wanted to read only about adults and their adventures. Little did I know how Mark Twain offered a narrative and a power of description that would grab a reader’s attention. Huck faces his inner dilemmas as he proceeds on an eventful trip along the Mississippi valley – and Twain weaves several unforgettable characters into the story—especially the runaway slave Jim.

I’m very fortunate to have an early-19th century clock. When I hear it ticking and chiming, I marvel at hearing the same sounds which meant something to people in Huck’s day, and which aren’t commonplace anymore. We still have many of the same yearnings, fears, and joys that people had when my clock was made. And yet, as the English novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.”[1] Americans in the first half of the 19th century had serious worries and troubles I don’t have: cholera, Indian attacks, how the crops would fare, and how many children in the family would survive the winter. All of us today make decisions about right and wrong, but I haven’t had to face the predicaments caused by slavery which plagued northerners and southerners.

Back to the book. Soon after Huck flees downriver to escape his abusive father, he encounters Jim, and the two develop a deep affection and appreciation for each other. Yet Huck grew up in a slaveholding society which stamped its values on him. His white family was destitute, without any slaves, but in this society everyone was expected to consider some people as the legal, legitimate property of others. Slaveholders’ rights were held sacred. At times, Huck is remorseful for going against the law and the feelings of Jim’s owner. Conscience for him isn’t the simple matter that it might seem to be, to one raised in a society that preaches egalitarianism or ‘equity.’ On the other hand, his torments resemble what we sometimes experience today when confronted with very different social matters. Ultimately, Huck decides that his loyalty to Jim and his commitment to help Jim find freedom override what society insists that he should do. Agonizing over this, he believes his conscience tells him that he’ll go to hell for this decision. His unsophisticated yet eloquent ruminations are memorable.

Such struggles might have rung true to thoughtful Southerners in the 19th century. Some of the most devoted soldiers of the Confederacy had principles regarding slavery which today’s readers might find surprising. General A. P. Hill was firmly against the institution, and he did not own slaves. “Stonewall” Jackson was very kind to his slaves, and, against the local laws, he devotedly taught them to read and write as part of a special “Sunday School” which he created for them. Some leaders, such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, believed that they offered their slaves better lives than would be available otherwise. Immediate emancipation might place former slaves in more dangerous conditions than they had lived under previously. Not all slaveowners considered these factors, but it’s undeniable that people of good will in the South found themselves in a situation without simple, easy answers. And over 600,000 men died trying to settle the issue.

While the West made tremendous, praiseworthy efforts in the 19th century to eradicate slavery, it still hasn’t gone away in the world. Various forms of human-trafficking are thriving, as the recent movie Sound of Freedom highlights. Most of us have been insulated from these all-too-hidden crimes, and yet the victims suffer as horribly as any slaves did in earlier eras.

Apart from slavery, there are other prominent moral issues which beg for our attention. We allow schools and other institutions to influence and indoctrinate our children in ways that earlier Americans would rightly find shocking, outrageous and deeply immoral, and we bow down meekly to governmental and corporate forces which our ancestors would have rejected with contempt.

C. S. Lewis aptly warned about the “chronological snobbery” of people who feel superior to those of the past. A prominent feature of ‘wokeness’ is a vicious form of this – an overwhelming disdain for our ancestors, based on historical ignorance and rampant self-regard. The destruction of monuments, memory-holing of politically incorrect writings, and transformation of public schools and colleges into indoctrination centers are among the manifestations – and of course there is the “cancelling” of individuals.

Huckleberry and other characters use coarse language, especially regarding race, which publishers and HR staff would now find shriek-worthy. Yet Mark Twain shows much more compassion, understanding, moral clarity and nuance about race, character and moral dilemma than many modern people will offer. And despite uttering words which would immediately get him cancelled today, Huckleberry clearly shows in his actions, and in his other words, that he loves others, no matter their race. Jim does the same, and is presented by Twain in a rounded way, rather than as an unblemished victim. Like Huck, he admits that he has acted in ways which he deeply regrets. Both characters are curious observers who sometimes think critically, yet sometimes succumb to superstition, as many of us still do. As T. S. Eliot says, Huck and Jim “are equal in dignity.”[2]

One unforgettable episode, while Jim is absent for a time, is a tragic feud between two families. After Huck is nearly killed in a mishap on the river, he is cared for by a cultured family, the Grangerfords. The intriguing Colonel Grangerford is a sympathetic, strong character, but he and several members of his family are urged on by dire imperatives imposed by their clannish local society. In some regions of America, where law wasn’t as firmly established as elsewhere, family and tribal ties and obligations were much tighter than we see today. This could result in feuds lasting for generations, with later participants not even understanding the origins of the violence. In the case of the Grangerfords and their opponents, Eliot noted that Twain allows “the reader to make his own moral reflections.”[3] My own reaction is that while the feud is undoubtedly a terrible folly, some of the Grangerfords show admirable loyalty to their own kin. Today, maybe we have strayed too far from such loyalty. Somewhere there’s a balance that should be sought.

For the most part, America has traveled far away from the kind of clannishness shown by the Grangerfords. We now have widespread rootlessness, and a separation from family and community. Many grandparents, parents and children live in different states, and social media doesn’t offer enough to make up for the distance. Neighbours rarely interact with each other compared with earlier times, when families frequently invited neighbors and even strangers over for a meal. This atomization has obviously grown more extreme with the growth of digital technology, and the influence of mass popular culture. In Huck’s day, the frontier encouraged some similar centrifugal tendencies, while it also offered opportunities to people who needed a fresh start. Mutual-assistance organizations strengthened community ties, even in frontier areas. These have almost completely vanished. A close-knit community can descend into a mob, as shown in Huckleberry Finn, yet something has clearly been lost.

Grimness isn’t the only mood of the book – far from it. And Twain has a way with describing the world of the Mississippi:

“Sometimes we’d have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands across the water; and maybe a spark – which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two – on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them…”

As much as I like the book and find it thought-provoking, a few parts of it are unappealing to me. Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer makes a welcome appearance at first, yet his elaborate schemes for pushing Huck and Jim into 19th-century romantic adventure-novel scenarios become tiresome. Nevertheless, the lyrical passages, adventure narrative, well-drawn characters and realistic, perceptive portrayals of moral questions and resolutions more than make up for any weakness. People act kindly, cruelly and with mixed motives, and in some cases this is all demonstrated by a single character. Like most boys, Huck can be callous, and also kind and generous. In his thoughts he contradicts himself, as most of us do. Along the river he meets murderers, frauds and other unpleasant characters, along with people who are models of charity, and although he and his creator wouldn’t want themselves to be pigeonholed into any particular church or creed, Huck develops a very Christian ability to love his neighbors.

Twain had seen a lot of the world and of people by the time he wrote this book. Born in 1835, he grew up in small Missouri towns, worked a variety of jobs including riverboat pilot, spent time in the American far west, and settled down in the more established east. He knew too much to present simplistic characters and an overly sentimental story. And yet, as critic Fred Pattee wrote, Twain “was a knightly soul, sensitive and serious, a nineteenth-century soul who would protect the weak of the whole world and right their wrongs.”[4] With Huckleberry Finn, Twain shows us a lost world, but he also helps us understand ourselves, if we’re willing to put our smartphones down for a while.


[1] Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953

[2] T. S. Eliot, “An Introduction to Huckleberry Finn”, in Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: Huck Finn, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004, p. 20

[3] Ibid, p. 19

[4] Pattee, Fred Lewis, A History of American Literature Since 1870, New York: The Century Co., 1915, p. 61

Five poems from The Book of Merlin

LARRY BECKETT’s poetry ranges from songs, Song to the Siren, to blank sonnets, Songs and Sonnets, to the epic American Cycle, including Paul Bunyan, Wyatt Earp, Amelia Earhart, and seven other book-length poems. Beat Poetry is a study of the poets and poetry of the fifties San Francisco renaissance. The Book of Merlin will be published in October 2023 by Livingston Press, the University of West Alabama.

Merlin was a 6th-century poet in northwest Britain, who spoke the Brythonic tongue. He was known as Myrddin Wyllt, or Merlin of the Wilds. He was a contemporary and comrade of Taliesin, and though The Book of Taliesin is extant, for Merlin, there are only a handful of poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen, The Red Book of Hergest, and other middle Welsh texts. But scholars have suggested that Merlin’s other lyrics were embedded in the Latin poem Vita Merlini by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Together, they tell of Merlin’s later life. My translation is the first time that his surviving words have been gathered in one manuscript since The Book of Merlin was lost in the 12th century.

Green Warriors

Can doom, so hard, so harm me by

spiriting away all my companions,

who made kings and far kingdoms

shake? We are uncertainty, death

is always here, and it’s in power

to strike with its secret blade, blow

poor life out of the body. Green

warriors, who will stand by me

in arms, stave off the commanders

coming to hurt me, and the armies

rising against me? You were brave,

and that bravery has spirited away

all your sweet years, your youth.

Oh only now you were charging

in armor and cutting all of your

enemies down. And now you lie

light on the earth: it’s reddening.

The Bride

I can hear Gwendolen grieving,

her tears: I grieve for her, down

in despair. No woman in Wales

of more beauty: beyond goddess,

the blossoms in the hedge, rose

in bloom, the lilies of the field,

in her, only, the light of spring,

in her eyes, only, constellations,

and in the gold glory of her hair.

All this is gone, the grace, away,

the blush, the snow, of her flesh.

She is not what she was, but worn

with crying, she knows nothing of

where her man is, or dead or alive,

and she lies sick, and she is fading,

in the dissolution of the long days.

Gwenddydd is by her side, in tears,

no consolation for her lost brother.

One, by marriage, one, by blood,

devoted, in mourning, pass time,

can’t eat, can’t sleep: they wander

all night in the wildwood together

with their anxiety burning inside.

To King Rhydderch

Let lords who think that they’re poor

have all these gifts, who, not content

with living simply, would have it all.

I’d rather have the oaks, the groves

of Celyddon, high hills, green vales

down below—that’s all that I want,

not what you offer, King Rhydderch.

And my wildwood, with all its food,

that I desire over all, will have me.

It’s men who pinch pennies, grab

for them, who go for gifts, and they

can be corrupted, so that their wills

can be bent any way they’re told.

What they have is not enough, but

for me only the acorns of Celyddon,

the shining creeks, and the grasses.

Let those misers have your bounty,
I can’t be bought: give me liberty.

Gwenddydd’s Lament

Mourn with me, women, mourn

the death of Rhydderch, a man

whose like’s unknown on earth,

peace-loving, all those warriors,

no violence, and fair to priests,

 with both high and low under

the law, the open hand, giving,

not keeping, all things to all,

doing right, knights’ blossom,

kings’ glory, kingdom’s pillar.

I am in pain, for what he was

is suddenly for worms to eat,

his body in the grave. We had

silk sheets: is this your bed,

your white flesh, king’s arms,

covered, under a cold stone,

nothing but dust and bones?

And so it is, our low destiny,

in the long years: none can

go back to what they were.

What use, this glory that comes

and goes, that fools and injures

even the mighty? The bee lays

out honey where it later stings,

like life. The best is brief; this

is its way: like flowing water,

all good passes away. So what

if a rose blush, a lily bloom,

a man, a horse, be handsome?

Questions for the god, not us.

So I’m leaving, all you kings,

high walls, local spirits, dear

sons, all that is of the world.

Today, by my brother’s side,

I’ll go live in the green wood,

and wrapped in a black shawl,

I’ll worship, with a glad heart.

I Decline

You are young, but at my time

of life, I can’t be asked to take

the scepter up, and to be fair.

I’m in old age; it has my body

and slacks my strength; I can

barely walk across the fields.

I have lived long, and enough,

in joy, in abundance, smiling.

In these woods there is an oak,

old and rugged, and so wasted

its sap’s failing, and it’s rotting.

I saw the acorn as it first fell,

and saw it sprout, woodpecker

above it, on a branch. I saw it

in detail, I honored it, I marked

in memory the place it stands.

I have lived long; age is heavy:

I will not reign again. I’ll stay,

green leaves: Celyddon Wood

is my delight, more than corn

of Sicily, grapes of Memphis,

robes in the perfumes of Tyre,

rubies of India, gold of Tagus,

tall towers, or cities in walls.

Nothing can touch me so, or lure

me away from the green woods,

so dear to me, as always. I’ll stay

while I’m alive; with its grasses

 and its apples, I’ll fast and purify,

till I’m worthy of everlasting life.

Look up, the cranes are flying,

in lines, in letters of the alphabet.

Thomas Malory’s civilisation-shaping chivalry

Photo; Shutterstock
LIAM GUILAR revisits the too little-read Le Morte Darthur

According to the blurb for one Audible version of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur:

Comparing Batman, Superman, and Captain America to Sir Launcelot, Sir Tristram, and Sir Galahad isn’t a huge leap of the imagination. Perhaps, for the 15th century reader, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were the equivalent of our modern day Justice League or Avengers.[i]

This is an excellent example of ‘dumbing down a book’.

At the end of Malory’s book, Arthur tells his one surviving knight, ‘In me there is no trust to trust in.’ The Arthurian experiment fails because the best of those involved in it may have perfected their craft, but as humans they still have to negotiate the problems inherent in being alive in their world. They are not superheroes, they do not have super powers[ii], and Malory was writing as an adult, for adults. Modern readers may have lost the ability to hold contradictions open to create a space for reflection; Malory’s text assumes this is exactly what the reader wants to do.  

When I was in primary school, memorising carols for the inevitable Christmas concert, I was convinced that ‘The first Noel the angels did say/was to certain poor shepherds’ meant that the doubtful shepherds were being ‘certained’. The purpose of so much modern writing, whether fictional or not, in film or print, seems to be ‘to certain’ the audience. Comparing Sir Lancelot to Batman might certain a prospective reader, suggesting they will encounter nothing unusual or unfamiliar, nothing requiring thought or effort, but it’s a gross misreading of the book.  

The book most people refer to as ‘Malory’ or ‘The Mort(e)’ was written by Sir Thomas Malory, and published by William Caxton in 1485. It is the last great work of medieval English literature and the first great work of modern English prose. It’s also the high point of the European medieval Arthurian tradition[iii]. It is a book that refuses to certain anyone.  

Malory took the sprawling mass of Arthurian tales which had been circulating in Europe for over five hundred years and translating them mostly from French sources, shaped them into a single narrative.

He wasn’t the first English writer to tell the whole story of King Arthur between one set of covers. But running from Arthur’s conception, to his death at the Battle of Camlan, Malory’s book contains everything you probably think you know about Arthur and his Knights – the magical conception at Tintagel, the round table, the sword in the stone, Merlin, the Lady in the Lake, Morgan le Fey, the love stories of  Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Gwenyvere; Tennyson’s Lady of Shallotte, Mordred, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the suggestion that Arthur doesn’t die and will return to save Britain.[iv]

We don’t know a great deal about Sir Thomas Malory, despite the strenuous efforts of scholars to track him through the surviving records. Given medieval assumptions about authorship, what we do know can’t add much to an understanding of his work. He’s not much more than his book and a trace in some legal documents. But when he lived his life is possibly more important than how he lived it.

He belongs to the last generation that could take the Romance version of Arthur and Camelot as historical fact. Caxton claims he printed the book only after he had been convinced that Arthur was real.[v]

The knight errant, the central figure of these stories, the young man who dons his armour, gets on his horse and rides out to fight for truth, justice and the Arthurian way, had been a popular figure in medieval storytelling since at least the 12th century. It’s an attractive idea and in many ways explains the popularity of the stories: leave the mess of your daily life behind and go seek adventures.

But it is an adolescent’s fantasy. All the knight’s problems can be reduced to a single enemy who can be defeated physically. He gets the gold, the glory, and often the bride, in a finite world utterly different from the mess and tedium of real life. It’s a world where problems are simple, figured as dragons and giants and evil lords dressed in black armour. In the hands of the best storytellers, it was more than that, but it was a world that never existed.

Malory enjoyed the fantasy. His book is full of knights who are free to roam the countryside looking for adventures. But his version of the fantasy is shaped by the times in which he was writing. He had participated in the Wars of the Roses. Men had swapped sides, sometimes in the middle of a battle. Primitive artillery was making an appearance on the battle field. Malory did not live to hear of Richard III’s failed charge at Bosworth. The last massed charge by mounted knights in a major battle on British soil happened in the year his book was published. The knight, who had dominated the battlefields of Europe for four hundred years, was finished as a military force.

Authors who live through ugly times don’t always avoid the temptation to escape into fantasy, but he did. He knew the reality of rich men with their castles and their private armies of armed retainers – a reality made all too visible in the civil and social disruption they caused, and at battles like Towton (1461), where anything up to thirty thousand men died hacking at each other in a snow storm[vi].

So what makes Malory worth reading, and what makes him more grown up than the majority of writers, was his understanding that while the landscape might have giants and dragons and witches and warlocks, the real challenges people face are always personal and rarely straightforward.

Photo: Shutterstock

His book begins and ends with a betrayal. ‘The Sword in the Stone’, Disney’s cute version of T. H. White’s retelling, obscures the darkness that permeates the early books. Born as the result of a trick, Arthur is a strange, impetuous figure, who unwittingly commits incest with his half-sister then orders all the boys born on one day murdered. Merlin warns him that the woman he intends to marry will be unfaithful with his greatest knight, and Arthur blithely ignores him.

To offset the darkness, Malory presents the great Arthurian experiment. The newly formed Round Table Fellowship swear an oath,

never to do outerage nothir mourthir; and always to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy… and always to do ladyes, damsels and jantilwomen and wydowes soccour, strenghte hem in hir ryghtes and never to enforse them upon payne of dethe. Also that no man take no batyles in a wrongfull quarrel for no love ne for no worldly goods.

It’s a radiant ideal: the people who would benefit most from anarchy; armoured knights, lords with castles, are promising to fight against it. The people who could most easily exploit the weak are promising to protect them. And the best of them do all those things most of the time.

But balanced against this idealism, is the picture of a court stained with jealousy, resentments and memories of old wrongs.

Perhaps the most adult of Malory’s perceptions is that the world is not divided into heroes and villains, into ‘good’ people and their polar opposites. There are caricatures littering the edges of some of the tales, giants and renegade knights and wielders of magic, who are little more than plot devices, but they are the gaudy inheritance of the genre. The challenges facing Malory’s characters are moral and personal as they attempt to negotiate different and often contradictory codes of behaviour. People do things, often with good intentions, but with unintended, unforeseeable, disastrous consequences.  

This is presented most succinctly in ‘The Knight of the Two Swords’, the second section of the first book[vii]. It’s a mini tragedy which feels Greek in its inexorable movement towards catastrophe. It turns the adolescent fantasy of the knight errant into a nightmare.

In a story that turns on the problems of recognition, everything Balyn, the Knight of the Two Swords, does, he does with the best of intentions. But he leaves a trail of misery and destruction in his wake as he heads towards a fatal duel. He kills, and is killed by, his twin brother and they recognise each other only after they have dealt the killing blows. It’s the darkest of the stories and it sets the tone for what follows.

If the Round Table is the best humans can manage, the quest for the Holy Grail shows that measured against the highest of ideals, it’s not good enough. But the lesson of the Grail, characteristically for Malory, works two ways. That so many knights fail is a critique of the value of the Grail ideology as much as it as a critique of the Knights. Galahad is the least likeable of Malory’s heroes. He is born to succeed in the Quest, and it never feels as though he won’t. When he achieves the Grail, he is transported on a beam of light to Heaven. To be human, to live in the world, is to try and find a way home through the forest, and the attempt to overcome greed and lust and ego is what characterises the best of humans. Perfection offers no way of living in the world.

The greatest of the Round Table Knights, Lancelot, is also the greatest contradiction. When he dies Ector speaks his threnody over his body:

And thou were the curtest [most courteous] knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest frende to thy lovar that ever bestrade hors, and thou were the trewest lover of a synful man, that ever loved woman, and thou were the kyndest man that ever strake with swerde. And thou were the godlyest persone that ever cam emonge prees of knyghtes. And thou was the mekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes, and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foo that ever put spere in the reeste.

But Lancelot is an adulterer. In the moral framework of the time this means he’s going straight to an eternity of terrifying punishment in hell. In medieval terms, adultery with the queen is treason and the punishment for that was terrifying enough before he even got to hell.

And he fails. He fails in the quest for the Holy Grail because he can’t stop thinking about Gwenyvere. He unintentionally kills his friend, Gareth, who worships him ‘this side idiolatry’. And this greatest of knights arrives with an army that would have saved Arthur, but only after the final battle is over and lost. By simplified modern standards of heroism, Lancelot is a loser.

The idea of the ‘flawed hero’ is common enough. But it’s a simplistic way of reading, or writing: ‘Identify the tragic flaw in Hamlet’s character’. Ten points and a pat on the back if you answer ‘indecision’. No points if you try to argue that a character who only has one ‘flaw’ is less than human or that to argue there is a ‘flaw’ suggests there is a perfect personality which is not only attainable but identifiable. It’s symptomatic of a binary, all-or –nothing argument.

Sir Thomas Malory, knight, prisoner, is excluded by name from two general pardons issued by the Yorkist King. Even P. J. C. Field’s exhaustive study of the documents doesn’t bring to light who he had annoyed, and why. But he had annoyed someone with the power to keep him in prison and manipulate the judicial process, so he never came to trial. When scholars first discovered that a Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel had been accused of various misdemeanours, including breaking into Coombe Abbey, cattle stealing, roughing up the locals, and raping the same woman on two separate occasions, there was a reaction against this identification. Surely this couldn’t be the man who wrote the Pentecostal oath.

But it could be and if Field is right, it probably is. Malory probably died in prison. We should qualify ‘prison’: not the kind of dungeon you can visit in a medieval castle. Wherever he was he had access to an impressive library, and time to write and stay focussed on his story. The temptation to escape into his fantasy must have been very powerful. And he obviously enjoyed whiling away the hours imagining two armoured knights bashing away at each other, a delight it is hard to share as a modern reader. But the ending of his book suggests that Sir Thomas Malory, Knight prisoner, had a very clear headed view of human nature.

The ending of the Morte is one of the great adult endings in English Literature. Malory’s best fictional creation is the relationship between Lancelot and Gwenyvere. They have grown older together, and they bicker like a fond old married couple. It’s difficult not to speculate: if Lancelot is Malory, then who was the Queen? And why did Malory resist the very human desire to allow his main characters to live happily ever after?

When Lancelot arrives from France too late to save Arthur, England is anarchic. It’s not clear who, if anyone is in control. He sets out on one last quest to find Gwenyvere. Traitor he may have been, adulterer he certainly was, but as Ector says, he was true to his lady.

He finds the Queen hiding in a convent. They have risked so much to be together. He tells her that now they can go to his lands in France and live without fear or guilt.

And she says no. She intends to spend the rest of her life praying for forgiveness. She knows that they have been instrumental in the destruction of their world. A lesser man might see this as a betrayal. But he accepts her decision and says he will follow her example and spend the rest of his life in prayer. Before he leaves, he asks her for one last kiss. And she says no.

This is the bare outline of the scene. It does no justice to the dialogue. He found this ending in his sources, and there are many ways he could have written it, but he stays true to the characters he had developed and the dialogue is his. If there was any doubt, at this point, Gwenyvere’s final refusal, you realise Malory didn’t flinch.

The Morte has been my desert island choice since the 1970s. It’s a book that rewards many readings. But it does belong to a lost world. It can hold contradictions in balance, admire what is admirable and leave judgements to the reader. It will not certain anyone.

Reading the Morte – a suggestion

If you’re interested in reading Malory, I would suggest using a version that hasn’t been modernised. Malory’s prose isn’t that unfamiliar, it takes a little getting used to but it’s worth remembering he probably spelt words as he pronounced them.

Hit befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of al Englond and so regned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the Duke of Tyntagil.  

At times his vocabulary does show the influence of the French he was translating, so there are words that are no longer in use, but the trick is to commit to reading a number of pages, and allow the rhythm of the prose to carry you over the occasional phrase that’s unfamiliar.

His world is still medieval, with its casual acceptance of both brutality, cruelty and indifference: “Then he raced of his helme and smote off his head. Then they went into souper.” (p.517)

If you’re the type of reader who only reads what makes you feel comfortable, or you insist on your heroes being squeaky clean, don’t bother with this book.

If you just want to sample Malory, I’d suggest reading the final book. I think he learnt to write as he went on, and by the end he had mastered his craft.

Eugene Vinaver staked his critical reputation on his belief that Malory didn’t write one coherent book but eight ‘tales’. Whether he’s right or not can be left to the purists, but it does give you the freedom to pick what interests you in no definite order.

If you want to begin at the start and keep going you will need a relaxed attitude to Malory’s eagerness to describe, at length, every combat between individual knights, groups of knights, or armies, and his knights’ habit of levelling their spears and charging into each other at every possible opportunity.

First time through, you might skip the tale of the Emperor Lucius, which is where Malory dumped the Middle English alliterative Mort[viii], and perhaps the two long books of Sir Tristam, where Malory seems to have been dragged off course by his sources.


[i] This is from the publisher’s summary for the Audible audio book version of Le Morte D’Arthur read by Chris MacDonnell and published by Spoken realms. 

[ii] Gawain’s strength waxes with the sun’s rise towards midday, and wanes as it moves through the afternoon, but that’s it.

[iii] Until the 1940s, editions based on Caxton’s version of the text were the only ones available. In 1934 a manuscript was discovered in Winchester (these things do happen) which is one step closer to what Malory wrote than Caxton’s printed text. Detailed analysis shows it had been in Caxton’s workshop. The Winchester Manuscript was edited by Eugene Vinaver as The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. This became the scholarly standard.  Vinaver was convinced Malory wrote eight tales rather than a single book. The best single volume edition currently available is P.J.C. Field’s. (Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur. 2017, D.S. Brewer Cambridge.) Claiming to be ‘the definitive original text’, this also contains a summary of Field’s extensive research into Malory’s life. Page references are to this edition. There is a two-volume edition, also edited by Field, in hard back. Translations and modernisations are unnecessary evils and are best avoided.

[iv] Not everything, the poem Gawain and the Green Knight, recently brutalised in the cinema, is missing and was probably not in his sources. Nor does Malory seem to have known the early Welsh story Culuwch and Olwen, in which Arthur’s retainers do have ‘super powers’.

[v] He notes in his preface that he had originally decided against doing so because ‘dyvers men holde oppynion that there was no suche Arhtur and that alle suche bookes as been maad of hym ben but fayned and fables’ however, having listened to the counter argument, he affirms: ‘Thenne, al these thynges considered there can no man reasonably gaynsaye but there was a king of thys lande named Arthur’.

[vi] How many fought, and how many died, at Towton is ‘a matter for scholarly debate’. The traditional figure of thirty thousand dead might be an exaggeration, but it is still the deadliest battle fought in England and a lot of the scepticism about the figure seems driven by an unwillingness to believe more died at Towton than on the first day of The Somme in 1916.

[vii] ‘Balyn le Sauvage’ in Field (pps. 47-75).

[viii]It would be a pity to shipwreck as a reader on the language of this section, since the language of the alliterative poem was probably old fashioned when Malory was transcribing it.

Joyce’s sense of history

Jacques-Emile Blanche 1861-1942. Portrait of James Joyce
MICHAEL YOST explores Joyce’s life, work, and theory of art

Homer’s Odyssey begins thus: “ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον…” or, in translation: “The man, to me, sing, O Muse, many-sided. . .”His word “polutropon” has been rendered as referring to a man “of twists and turns,” “of many devices” and, more recently and bathetically, “complicated.”  But in whichever translation one prefers, I could think of no better passage of literature with which to introduce James Augustine Aloysius Joyce.

Joyce himself interwove the warp of his artistic identity around the woof of several imaginary literary identities; most famously, Odysseus and Hamlet. Yet no matter whether we look through the world of Joyce’s creation through the eyes of Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s mock-heroic man of twists and turns, or watch Stephen Dedalus wrestle with his mother’s ghost, we are always looking through Joyce’s eyes. He never removes all of his masks. But neither does he ever seem to be wearing one. To read him is to be immersed in a delicate stream of emotional, physiological and mental observations that seems to belie the real intricacies of his craftsmanship. The intended effect is minutely historical; we are reading the collected and transfigured experiences of the author. Whenever we read Joyce, we are, in a sense, reading history. Or rather, we are reading personal historical experience that has been atomically restructured into story and myth.

It is no secret that Joyce was deeply interested in setting up a place for himself in the literary history of Europe, but he was also driven to arrange and rearrange his own history within it. If, as T. S. Eliot put it, Joyce makes use of a “mythological method,” he does so only to frame personal or individual history as myth, if we accept myth to be, very broadly, a story told about somebody that is really a story about everybody. For example, we see Joyce’s proclivity towards the grand, operatic gesture in the very titles of his works: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, The Exiles, and last, and certainly least read, Finnegans Wake.

Just as Dubliners is not merely a collection of vignettes, but a series of symbolic miniatures that, taken either together or individually, make up Joyce’s obsessively rendered critique of Ireland’s capital, so Portrait is not merely an autobiographical künstlerroman, but a depiction of the journey every true artist must undergo, if we abide by Joyce’s definition of the term as “a priest of the eternal imagination” (which he obviously thought applied perfectly to himself. If, as Joyce said to Marie Jolas (wife and collaborator with Eugene Jolas of transition fame), “In Ireland Catholicism is black magic,” then the real hero of Stephen Hero was, by contrast, attempting to practice something like literary white magic. When we reach Ulysses, we see Joyce’s method a little more clearly. Here he emerges as an architectonic creator on par with the mythical Dedalus or the historical Dante. Joyce’s choice of names (Dedalus and Ulysses or Stephen and Finnegan) conjure up not only notion of sojourning, craft, deceit, and labyrinthine cunning, but also of heroism, martyrdom, and the possibility of resurrection and return. We know from the beginning that Joyce is attempting something on a grand scale; an epic, but also something in which the multifaceted and constantly changing specie of perception and imagination can subsist, like an illuminated text from the Book of Kells, of which Joyce said:

In all the places I have been to, Rome, Zurich, Trieste, I have taken it about with me, and have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across a page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations.[i]

This method of transposing history into a superstructure of myth, (or, as we shall see later, of aesthetic philosophy) is also evident when we consider Joyce’s practice as a craftsman.

We can discern a repeating pattern in Joyce’s compositional method. First he creates a text, or texts, in which he musters his characters. He develops this to a greater or lesser extent, then abandons it, having since (with his characters now in situ) re-conceived it. He then newly develops the re-imagined version, occasionally cannibalising the earlier texts in the process. Thus we have A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man emerging from the fragments of Stephen Hero, Ulysses emerging from the fragments of a sequel to A Portrait, from Giacomo Joyce, and from a planned but unwritten Dubliners story (also called Ulysses).  His big books are, in a sense, a two-step process, a single step being too high a climb. The ur-works are like enzymes precipitating his creativity. [ii]

Such a statement ought to convince us of the sheer systematic effort with which Joyce crafted his work. We must also see on reading him, that one of his models, if not in style, yet in structure, is the Summa Theologica, insofar as the project of a systematic philosopher such as Aquinas is to create a whole out of parts, in which, to use a quotation from Schiller, “quietly and unceasingly he directs the greatest force upon the smallest point.” In such a system, the influence and weight of the whole is felt in each part, and the whole is itself a work of consummate artistry in which each part is ordered toward the achievement and weight of the whole. As Joyce himself wrote of Finnegan’s Wake: “every word can be justified.” But what, in the ultimate sense, is this justification? As I suggested earlier, it is nothing more or less than history itself.

In Dubliners, for example, the role of history is obvious. Joyce wished to bring Ireland to an examination of conscience. As he wrote to Grant Richards, a London publisher who would have the care of Dubliners, in 1906:

My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, Maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.

They were, he said, written “in a style of scrupulous meanness” with a complete commitment to representing exactly what he had seen. . . The Irish, he declared, needed to look at themselves.” [iii] History, in this case, is directed towards a kind of national confession, in which the repressed, unrepresented, subterranean evils of the subject’s psyche are made known in all their filth-bespattered amplitude. However, we should not imagine that Joyce did not re-arrange his experiences with an eye towards his own artistic goals. Such a merely documentary ‘realism’ would be far from him, as his later works show. In any case, in Joyce’s infamous correspondence with his wife, we see a similar desire to simultaneously hide and to disclose what Joyce, prior to his apostasy, would have known as sin. This confessional turn, which Joyce uses to wallow in sensuous and often disgusting detail, is a paradoxical counterpart to the ‘matter-of-factness’ that is the basis of Joyce’s fantasia.

But this sense of degradation is also, clearly, a projection. It was not the only projection that Joyce would make of himself and his inner states upon an unsuspecting world. A single reading of Exiles serves to confirm for the reader Joyce’s irritating, pompous, hyper-romantic level of self-concern. The main character is a nearly un-veiled version of Joyce, as the other characters are thinly veiled versions of Nora Barnacle, his son Giorgio, and other associates. It is a failure in the same way that Portrait is a success: in a way, we never step beyond the realm of Joyce’s imagination. In the same way, Joyce incorporates and re-schematizes Dublin in Ulysses, famously claiming that he wanted to write the book so that it could be used to rebuild the city if need be. Christ said he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days; Joyce fragments, coalesces, warps and congeals Dublin in the space of one. Here, history is the substance, the prima materia of artistic creation. It was to be so always with Joyce.

Yet Joyce, even in his lyric poetry, reaches towards the impersonal control of a creative demiurge. But although in Portrait, one sees a picture of Joyce-as-Stephen, his tongue as sharp as a sword, and his mind full to the brim of syllogisms, distinctions, and all the rest of the furniture of his Jesuitical-Scholastic education; by the time he re-appears in Ulysses, he is embarking on a screaming bender with Buck Mulligan. Likewise, from the time after he proclaimed his emancipation from Ireland, Catholicism, and his family, Joyce’s life as an exile was in a continual state of shipwreck. Much like his father John Joyce, James was a drunk, a narcissist, a pervert, and a spendthrift, frequenting brothels and regularly eschewing the responsibilities of a husband, father, son, and brother. He was an arrogant dandy, iconoclastic, cynical, and boorish, who “loved obscene words, ‘savoring them like candy.’[iv]” He contracted venereal diseases that may have caused the deterioration of his eyesight. After his marriage to Nora, he worried (rightly) about his potential for abusive behaviour, the kind which we see again and again in the fathers and husbands of Dubliners. By this time, Joyce’s utterly sottish father had once attempted to strangle his long-suffering, highly religious mother, only to be wrestled ignominiously to the floor by John Stanislaus, Joyce’s younger brother, who would, at great personal cost, bear Joyce’s financial burdens for much of Joyce’s life. It takes very little effort to see to what degree Joyce’s obsessions, sins, and failings were bound up with those elements of himself that he believed to be most important: his vocation as an artist, his apostasy, his devotion to his own freedom, et al. He suffered much, at his own hands and at those of others. But whether it was self-inflicted or not, it was all, in a sense, a martyrdom.

Adolf Hoffmeister. James Joyce, 1966

On the theoretical side, this failure of The Exiles comes, in part, from an inability on the artist’s part to live up to his own aesthetic theory. An understanding of the course of Joyce’s career, taken alongside the aesthetic theory advanced in Portrait, shows us while Exiles was attempted, but also why it failed, and why Ulysses and Finnegans Wake followed.  In Portrait, Stephen holds forth on his advancement of Thomistic aesthetic statements with the perverse and bestial Lynch: “Aquinas says ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur, integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony, and radiance.”  These, according to Stephen, correspond to the order of knowing. In his terms, we apprehend something in its “wholeness” when we see it as a unity, as one thing which is distinct from others. We apprehend the “harmony” of a thing when we grasp the nature of its internal order in what Stephen terms “the rhythm of its structure.” We grasp that “it is a thing.” We “apprehend it as complex. . . made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum. . .” At the third step, we reach what Aquinas terms “claritas.”

Here, Stephen brings to our attention the fact that he has chosen to translate this word in a certain way:

It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind. . . the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which it is but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas is the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions.[v]

In other words, a certain aesthetic philosophy threatens to become, for the newly fledged Stephen Dedalus, an aesthetic theology. It is a crucial moment for the “thoughtenchanted” boy. “But that,” he concludes, “is literary talk.” By this he means, with an echo of Ibsen trembling in the vibrations of his voice, that it is unreal. Rather, he returns, “You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks in the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination.[vi]” Rather than a transcendental, ‘Platonic’, theological aesthetic, Joyce, through Stephen, yokes his brand of Thomism to the wagon of materialist realism, rejecting outright the link between species and their genera, between universals and particulars, and between his art and God. In other words: non serviam. The affirmation of the term “quidditas,” usually referring to the formal qualities that a thing shares with others, should not fool anyone. Here, Stephen quite clearly uses the word to mean something closer to another scholastic term: “haecceitas,” which refers to the material, rather than the formal distinction between beings that might otherwise be members of one species. It is this obsession with a thing’s material particularity that plainly marks Joyce’s artistic concerns and style.

But Stephen quickly passes over into a consideration of the three genres of literature: lyric, epic, and dramatic insofar as they correspond to the three qualities of beauty:

…the lyrical form, the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form, the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others.

It is worthy of note that Joyce himself composed or attempted to compose in each of these three genres. Chamber Music, his first collection of poems, was published in 1907, but had been distilled and arranged from a mass of verse written while Joyce was still in Dublin. In that same year, Joyce began adapting Stephen Hero into Portrait,and was still trying, as he would until 1914, to find a publisher who would take Dubliners without major changes. The original title of his first novel, Stephen Hero, gives a suggestion of ambitions towards the epic, as per the English ballad Turpin Hero. If we accept the Joycean definition of “epical”, we see that Portrait does define Joyce’s relationship with himself relative to others within this work. That might be said, in fact, to be the burden of the novel. But of course, Portrait begins with the bedtime story being told to Stephen in the third person, and ends with fragments of Stephen’s diary, written in the first person. By the time we reach Finnegans Wake, Joyce has truly disappeared, “like the God of creation. . . within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.[vii]” But the material is the same: Joyce’s impressions, his fragmentary sensations and observations, his literary tics and typical menagerie of references to Shakespeare, the Tridentine Mass, and the Irish mythos. But as Joyce himself claims: the more the artist approaches the “claritas” in which the “quiddity” of his art is known to his reader, the more he himself retreats, though his image remains. His fiat creates, transforms, the flux into a thing. Here is the ultimate use of history: not simply to rearrange the past, but to re-present it, and to draw our attention more closely to its reality, and to the quiddity of things; to define them, and to reveal them for what they are. To return for a moment to Stephen’s earlier interpretation of claritas as the radiance of quiddity: it should be clear now that for Joyce, words are imitative of language, not symbolic of them. Because things are nothing more or less than themselves, words must be nothing more than themselves, or at least, their imitative objects. Consider Stephen’s attention to the onomatopoeic qualities of the word “suck.”

Suck was a queer word. The fellow called Simon Moonan that name because Simon Moonan used to tie the prefect’s false sleeves behind his back and the prefect used to let on to be angry. But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.

The word “suck” is not defined. It is felt. And herein lies an artistic challenge for Joyce. A word has no meaning beyond itself, as an object has no meaning beyond itself. There are no genera for Joyce, only species, and thus every object and experience become, ultimately, a thing unto themselves; the single member of a species of one, as St. Thomas says, for very different reasons, of the angels in paradise. Here we reach, perhaps, the place where Joyce’s aesthetic begins to devour itself in contradictions. Joyce has written works and passages of works that are truly unique in literature, and seem likely to remain so. He has created beauty. But he attempted to express things that were, perhaps, uncommunicable when he attempted to ground words almost utterly in the material, accidental eccentricities, of the ever-changing river of history, rather than on the formal, natural, essential qualities that are, in themselves, knowable. He may well have ended, not falling to the earth on burning wings, but rather trapped in a labyrinth of his own design.

 Bibliography

Joyce, James, Ulysses, Modern Library Edition, Random House Inc., New York, 1992

Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976

Joyce, James, Finn’s Hotel, Ithys Press, 2013

Bowker, Gordon, James Joyce: A New Biography, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York, 2012

Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, USA, 1983


[i] James Joyce to Arthur Power, Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, USA, 1983, p.545

[ii] From Danis Rose’s preface to Finn’s Hotel (Ithys Press, 2013)

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid, p. 234.

[v] Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976, pg. 480

[vi] Ibid, p. 480-481

[vii] Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976, p. 483