Rimbaud Dreams of War

Jean Artur Rimbaud wrote strange prose-poems in the Belle Epoque. He was an exceedingly odd duck: not ostentatiously wierd like Van Gogh, but the sort of man who could drop everything and spend his final years as an arms-dealer in North Africa. He’s kind of like William Burroughs, except his stuff is short enough so that I can digest it in one go, rather than get tired of not understanding anything and chuck the book a the wall (how many times have I tried to read Nova Express? At least three. How many times have I got farther than 20 pages? I do not know).

I find his strangeness appealing perhaps because he is not dogmatic about it. Poetry works best when it is a process of discovery, of the writer overhearing himself. There’s a tradition as old as Pindar to the effect that poets are prophets; speaking truths they themselves dimly understand, throwing words together in a disciplined kind of way because it feels right. A purely right-brained approach.

Now, no artist actually works this way. The stuff gets edited. It is shaped. It is messed with. This is itself part of the process, so that you leave your own interpolations at the door and get to the Real Thing. How do you know you have the Real Thing? If you have to ask, you don’t have it.

So here’s War, part of the Illuminations collection:

When a child, certain skies sharpened my vision: all their characters were reflected in my face. The Phenomena were roused.–At Present, the eternal inflection of moments and the infinity of mathematics drives me through this world where I meet with every civil honor, respected by strange children and prodigious affections.–I dream of a War of right and of might, of unlooked-for logic.

It is as simple as a musical phrase.

Jean Artur Rimbaud, “war” The Illuminations, pg. 133

That’s it. The whole Madness. It is not analytical. It is not concerned with understanding, only with experiencing. It is an irruption of Id-sense, Id-longing. Might be the phenomenon Huxley was getting at in The Doors of Perception: certain folk have a spiritual sensitivity that can lead either to Enlightenment or Insanity. In times past the old boy might have become a monk or mystic and offered prayer-poems to whatever Deity would have him. Perhaps a martyr or a passionate heretic, if the cards played out right. Instead he became a pieta to the more erudite segment of nerds.

Still, there’s something to the economy of expression, something I’ve written on before and probably will again, as it’s never been something I could master. My sentences flow like rivers, like dams breaking. And so do some of his. But he doesn’t have eighty of them together. I am the more concerned, it seems, with not being misunderstood.

Notes on Ruskin: The Absurd Rule

Much of Ruskin’s On the Nature of Gothic involves a pre-Marxist critique of industrialization. I’m not sure if it qualifies as being From the Right, as I’m not certain of Ruskin’s politics, but it reads very Romantic, which is at least half a Reactionary movement. The old-school Romantics and Goths gazed back at pre-modern “natural” conceptions and the light footprint man had on Nature with longing. Rationalism and Enlightenment were, in their eyes, as tyrannical as they were liberating.

But so too are the critiques. There is much to sympathize with in Ruskin’s dislike of the Grand Standardization that industrialization entails, but he arrives at conclusions that boggle the mind. For example, he advocates regulation of industry in order to preserve human invention, human art. He creates three broad rules for this:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 20

Let’s not spend any time arguing about how such a schema would be practically enforced, as that’s the least of the difficulties with it. We could get lost in haggling about such terms as “necessary”, “noble”, or “imitation”, and even if we agree on what exactly Ruskin meant, we might not agree to be bound by them. This is the problem many 19th century texts leave us with.

But in his examples, he constructs a thing I have noticed many times among those who establish a strong rule, and implement it strongly: a rule yielding absurd results. And by “absurd” I mean widely divergent results among things of minor variation. You see it often in the self-flattering exceptions our Modern Puritans make for their particular prejudices and bigotries. I will refer to it as The Absurd Rule:

So again, the cutting of precious stones, in all ordinary cases, requires little exertion of any mental faculty, some tact and judgment in avoiding flaws, and so on, but nothing to bring out the whole mind. Every person who wears cut jewels merely for the sake of their value is, therefore, a slave-driver.

But the working of the goldsmith, and the various designing of grouped jewelry and enamel-work, may become the subject of the most noble human intelligence. Therefore, money spent in the purchase of well-designed plate, of precious engraved vases, cameos, or enamels, does good to humanity; and in work of this kind, jewels may be employed to heighten its splendour; and their cutting is then a price paid for the attainment of a noble end, and is thus perfectly allowable.

Ruskin, pg. 21

We have thus created a rule under which jewels may be used to adorn objects, but not people. This has nothing to do with the nature of jewels, objects, or people, and even less to do with the goals and results, but the way cut jewels are created. It’s a highly specific distinction being made, and the results is quite strange. And in any case, jewels are going to be cut.

And let me stipulate that I understand his distinction: between creative and monotonous work. I even agree with the criticism that monotonous work is degrading to the human spirit. But the center of our value should therefore be on the humans who do the work, not the objects. The market for jewels and the market for plate, vases, and other goods are the same market, that of having beautiful things. If there’s no reason why someone can’t both cut jewels and make fine plate – and evidently to Ruskin, there isn’t – then we can simply create a rule allowing workers time to work on stimulating projects, and not spend all their time on dull repetitive work. That pus the humans at the center, rather than the objects, and does not anathemetize something (wearing jewels) that carries almost no moral value.

One finds the correct solution by focusing on the primary value.

Caligulia Fights Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

No, not really. That’s the sort of click-bait stuff that everyone talks about as the Almagamation of Awesome, but no one actually reads. And with good reason. Juxtaposition for its own sake usually hides a paucity of narrative. Instead, an authorial update to announce progress.

First, I have in fact, completed a thing long talked of The Meditations of Caius Caligulia. Which is to say, I have completed a rough draft. I consider it a skeleton about which meat can be hung. I need to do some more deep diving into Virgil and Lucretius and Ovid before I can flesh out the Un-Mad Emperor’s thoughts and story. But it’s done. The sixth Chapter, On Conquest, will appear in the October issue of Unnamed Journal. The final chapter, On Death, will appear sometime over the winter, with the complete volume.

Second, I have also completed a rather long short story, Cantilever Jones Runs Hot, set in a space opera galaxy of my own devising, a universe that goes under the name “Gods of the Sky”. There’s a good few stories set in this universe, including two previous Cantilever Jones stories, and some Death-emperor vs. Star Buddhists expositions. I’m building the universe in shorts, with an eye towards a novel. I’ll probably put a collection out sometime next year. This story will also appear in the October UJ. The story clocks in at around 7,000 words, which is borderline a novelette. It can be frustrating when you’re trying to get a story finished, but also exciting when it keeps taking on a life of its own. But when your hero is trying to survive a battle he didn’t create on a jungle planet inhabited by velociraptors, you just go with it.

Anyway, I will be moving on to other projects shortly. Watch this space for publication details, and enjoy some cover art concepts while you do.

Books Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe and Joseph Conrad

Recently I went on a quick camping trip and happened to take along my copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It included some selections from Conrad’s “Congo Diary”, a record he kept of his 1890 journey into the Belgian Congo, events of which clearly informed the subsequent story. This made for an immersive diversion as I watched a soft rain fall on my tiny cabin.

A book as intense as Heart of Darkness, written about so vivid a topic as Colonialism, as it was happening, is bound to provoke an active critical response. So to pad out my paperback volume’s slim 100 pages, we are treated to a series of critical takes on the book, ranging from H.L. Mencken to Virginia Wolff. But the most significant is that of Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, which in many ways provides a mirror and counterpoint to the earlier work.

Achebe’s critique stipulates the book’s virtues and then cuts right to heart, as it were, of darkness: the book exists as a horror story for the European mind, an encounter with Dark Africa, who in her primordial sublimity, shreds the European man’s faith in Progress, and in Himself, like the lamb in the lion’s mouth.

It is important to note that Conrad, careful as ever with his words, is not talking so much about distant kinship as about someone laying a claim on it. The Black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad, “the thought of their humanity–like yours… Ugly.”

The point of my observation should be quite clear by now, namely that Conrad was a bloody racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely undetected.

From “An Image of Africa”, Massachusetts Review, 1977

I have no intention whatever of refuting Achebe’s point. To expect a European, observing Africa in its colonized state, in 1890, to come away without the revulsion that is Heart of Darkness‘ central theme, is to expect a thing that never happened. 1890 was the era in which common tribalism had been ballooned by “Science” into the Biological Racism that reached its thunderhead in the Second World War. The Races, as such, were in closer contact than ever before, and had very little understanding of each other. The fact that Conrad savages the European characters in the story for their pirate morality is beside the point. He does not want to see Africans as humans, even as he cannot help it. He reduces them all to cannibals on the riverside.

But as it happens, I have also read Things Fall Apart. Moreover, like many books I was assigned in High School, it made an impression on me. I enjoyed the story’s arc. I enjoyed the anti-heroic protagonist. I savored his rise and his hubristic peripetaia. And then the end happened, and I put the book down feeling rather suckered. I found it anti-climactic and frustrating. In retrospect, I was perhaps unable at that age to appreciate that kind of an ending. But underneath that, is the way the historical/racial aspect of the story interrupted the narrative arc I was expecting in the first part.

This is of course, the point of the story. The reader is introduced to a vibrant and complex clan culture, that of the Igbo, that’s survived for untold years. We see a protagonist struggle within the context of that culture, but also as an individual with his own strengths and weaknesses. It’s fascinating as a human tale.

And then, the book tells us, the White People Show Up, and every part of this is destroyed and/or adulterated. It is a cultural collapse both deliberate – the missionaries fully intended to change the Africans’ culture – and unintended, as not understanding the culture, they could not foresee how the Igbo would react. That some of the whites – such as Mr. Brown – have benevolent intentions is irrelevant. They are the destroyers of the world we’re now invested in. Others, such as the District Commissioner, do not even have names, and function less as characters than as events, irruptions of Whiteness.

One doesn’t have to excoriate Achebe to draw the obvious parallels. Europeans in Things Fall Apart are reductions of their race in the same way that Africans in Heart of Darkness are. It is a mirror, reflecting the same encounter from the other side (albiet in British Nigeria rather than Belgian Congo). And just as I do not expect Conrad to see Africans as anything but Other, I cannot but expect Achebe to see Europeans the same way. The reality of the encounter demands it, even as it frustrates our grander moral principles. Humans have tribal instincts that are tied to our social dynamic. Conformity within that social dynamic creates cohesion and expectation. So any violation of that conformity in one sense feels wrong. As the Africans on the riverside don’t fit Marlowe’s conception of what a man should be, neither do the Europeans to Okonkwo.

It’s important to recognize this, because if we refuse to do so, we allow our sense of Other to permit actions that our moral sense would otherwise have found repulsive. 19th-Century Europeans regarded Africans as sufficiently human to expend time and treasure to shut down the African slave trade. But despite that moral discovery, other economic exploitations, and concomitant cruelties, were allowed to go on. Africans were still Other enough that their lands, their religions, their traditions, etc. were regarded with contempt.

But that was 1890. The modern age pretends to have transcended this dynamic, but they’ve simply reversed the polarity on it. European civilization has gone from being The Best and Most Natural Standard of Good, to the Foulest and Most Horrid Excrescence of Wickedness. That the second fails under examination as clearly as the first did does not deter those who speak it. Anger and revulsion at the darkness in the human heart wheresoever it be found will usually find a scapegoat. Others gonna Other.

For that reason, I favor reading both these books, as both examples and examinations of the problem we have communicating across groups. Human nature might never permit us to transcend the problem, but forearmed, we might pull back some from the Horror.

Aesthetics as Performance: Tanner Guzy’s “The Appearance of Power”

I began reading this book some months ago, out of my growing general interest in aesthetics as such. In earlier posts, I’ve lamented how aesthetics became an academic sophistry rather than a practical philosophy, after spotting Tanner Guzy on Twitter, this seemed just the right tonic. I’ve always been a man who dresses himself and buys his own clothes. This struck me as one of the great privileges of adulthood: unless your job requires a uniform, no one gets to tell you what to wear unless you let them. Male professional dress has certain strictures, but within those strictures are variety and expression.

“Expression” is the key word. Style is a performance, and regardless of what we’re wearing, we’re communicating our sense of self and how we expect the world to relate to us. Clothes create expectation. They reflect your perception of your status and role in the world.

Women tend to understand this more easily, as non-verbal communication has always been a female area of comfort (and anxiety). Men tend to regard it with suspicion, as the ambiguity of NVC raises suspicions of deception. The mistrust of the statement “clothes make the man” lies here. The aspirational part of style cannot be discounted. One need only be reminded of the actor George Hamilton arriving in Hollywood without a contract, spending his last penny on a tux and a limousine, and crashing a premiere. It’s the flip side of “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” When dress is communication, it can be a lie.

But again, whenever you put clothes on, you’re already expressing who you are and where you consider that you belong. And once you get past this point, doing so intentionally becomes obvious.

In the sense that clothing is something that is put on and replaced, dressing remains a performance. But dressing well is also an expression, and a specific expression of you, as you are and as you see yourself. Understanding this spares us the worry that dressing well is somehow unmanly. Paradoxically, we can avoid that worry by being even more nonverbal. Giving off the impression that you dress well effortlessly, without giving a second thought to it, certainly without making any noise about it, silently conveys mastery, another word Guzy uses quite seriously. Physical, social, and financial mastery, among others, can be attested to in dress.

None of this is new. Armies and Aristocrats have always known the importance of appearance. Democratic ages have differing styles, but not an absence of style. Therefore, the conscious study of how style works will be to any man’s benefit, without the risk of becoming a false, dandified version of himself (Guzy spends some time varying Rugged, Refined, and Rakish style archetypes).

Drawing back from this, we note something central to Aesthetics: the conveyance of an idea, or more properly, the creation of an effect. The very point of literature, film, and the other arts is how we respond to them. Very often in film the important thing is less what a character is saying or doing than the visual framework under which you observe it. To craft that framework is to create an emotional effect. The great directors are known for how they build their visual frameworks. Many of them have a particular signature – Kubrick’s grand broad shots, Hitchcock’s feverish close-ups, etc. These individuated styles stem from learning and mastering the craft.

If style is an art – and what else would we call it? – then it can be learned, crafted, and mastered. I would recommend reading Guzy’s book to any man, as it has some beginning practical advice as well the argument of this point I have touched upon. Then you can begin the process of mastering your own sense of style, and become in a quiet way an artist of your own life.

Blood and Thunder

 

I have written in this space before, and discussed it at the S & P podcast, my recent discovery of Robert Howard. I have become something of a bore on this topic, truth be told.

The practical upshot of which is, I’ve started a project I’ve long tossed back and forth in the to-do pile. I’ve mentioned it before. Over this past week I finally sat down and wrote a first chapter.

It’s a draft, but steady reads of Fritz Leiber are improving my mood and feel for it, as are taking the time to draft character sheets and even some name-brainstorming with the wife (I had a name for my protagonist that I didn’t like, but couldn’t think of a better one. I now have one that fits the world and the character). It’s now my primary project.

In The Sword news, I submitted to an agent last week as well. I’ve a few more on deck should I get another rejection. We’ll see how it goes.

The Merry Spirit of War

A Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger is a book so opposite to All Quiet on the Western Front so thoroughly as to be hardly discussing the same war. And in a sense, they are. Storm of Steel is essentially a diary, a recitation of facts and occurrences, held together by the observer. All Quiet, is a novel, which, however much it draws from Remarque’s real life experiences, has the ambition of a social novel: to put the cast of characters as shadows of their social obligation, and make note of who suffers and who profits. Since we’re talking about German soldiers in the Trenches of WWI, it’s mostly suffering. All Quiet, like Siegfried Sassoon’s poems, are less a story than a dirge.

Which is what makes Storm of Steel so bracing. Junger dispenses with being shocked that war is horrible and does what most soldiers in that war did, i.e., gets on with it. Death is not ignored, nor randomness, nor folly, but they are treated with concision and immediacy. Junger’s prose, while evocative, is never purple.

Several times, I murmurd a phrase of Ariosto’s:

“A great heart feels no dread of approaching death, whenever it may come, so long as it e honorable.”

That produced a pleasant kind of intoxication of the sort that one experiences, maybe, on a rollercoaster.

It bears far closer resemblance to a book long forgotten, Over the Top by Arthur Guy Empey. Published while the war was still going on, by an American discharged from the British Army, it has more than a few touches of propaganda, clanging lines about “this great war for civilization” (After being wounded during the Somme, Empey was discharged from the British Army, and served as a propaganda officer in the U.S. Army until he made a speech critical of draftees and was withdrawn. He later had a career writing and directing in Silent-Era Hollywood). But the bulk of the novel is comic, casting the mud and the blood and the bombs in wry terms. It even includes “Tommy’s Dictionary of the Trenches” which takes precisely the Biercean tone it should:

Bayonet. A sort of knife-like contrivance which fits on the end of your rifle. The Government issues it to stab Germans. Tommy uses it to toast bread.

Empey does not cast himself in the hero’s role, but more as a comedic sojourner lucky to come out alive. He does not spare the generals, or pretend that things like shooting deserters by firing squad is not unpleasant business (one gets the overall sense that Empey has little interest in, or respect for, authority, and regards them as a necessary evil). His book gives wonderfully specific details about life in a front-line trench, and the routine of surviving it.

Both of these longer works remind me of C.S. Lewis’ discussion of his time in the trenches in his memoir. Lewis largely preferred the wartime army to public school, largely because one was not obligated to feign enjoyment of one’s time in the first. But his perspective was summed up in his reaction to the first time he heard a bullet crack the air near him. “Oh,” he thought, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”

 

Cover Aesthetics

I’m the sort of guy who likes minimalist covers. A single image, one or three colors, something striking, a bold font. I like seeing those kinds of books. I like buying them. One of the things that hold me off from a lot of Fantasy literature, especially the Pulp kind, is the genre of cover art just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m slowly getting over that, however, as I’ve read enough to know that the pulp style is usually an honest display of what’s in the book. That has it’s own merit, even if I still find it too busy for my eyes.

Something like this, for example…

25952316._uy2128_ss2128_

…is perfect. Dark colors suggest mystery, the image is striking and portends danger. And this novel is a Dragon-Award winner, and as good an example of the swords & sorcery genre as you’re like to find. 

Then there’s something like this…

9781513655604

Completely different genre, of course (comedic urban social novel), so it’s supposed to look slightly odd. But again, plain background, so everything is focused on the image, which is suggestive of graffiti and whimsy. I haven’t read it, but I kind of want to.

On the Shores of Cevalon – New Story in the Works

I have often mentioned my interest in epic fantasy, and that I have been working on my own homebrew world, in fits and starts, for a long time. I have put in some drawing time using the aforementioned Fantasy Maps drawing guide, and I’ve already started constructing a story on my new map. It’s part of the overall world of Cevalon, which I’ve been expanding to include more lands beyond its shores and a more clearly spelled out mythology & history.

And as part of getting myself back into actually writing in the world, I’ve outlined a new small project to start on for the new year. I actually started it without an outline, then junked the start and went back and did the scut-work. I was trying for a first-person narrative, which is usually fun, but for some reason didn’t work for me. A bit of Robert Howard (“The Black Colossus”, to be specific) and I decided to avoid a self-overhearing ironic approach, as is common to the Drunk Vampire Hunter stories (which really need a post of their own), and play it a little more straight. It’s kind of an experiment in world-building.

What’s it called?

The King’s Ransom.

What’s it about?

A bastard prince finds redemption in rescuing his full-blood brother, the King, from fiendish enemies. A trio of scheming princesses round out the family as a kingdom beset by enemies human and demonic dances on the edge of chaos.

It’s got the shape of a novella at this point, but who knows. I’ve got an outline.