Happy Stanislav Petrov Day! And this is a special Stanislav Petrov Day, because 2021, in addition to being the second plague year, is the Year of Lem, so in addition to apocalypses that are and might have been, we must also confront the untranslatable other.
A Lem story was recently published in English for the first time, “The Truth,” in a translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I was reminded of Solaris by this passage:
Just before the explosion, the string of plasmatic flame, until now almost uniform, had narrowed at identical intervals like a plucked cord, and then, having broken down into a series of round grains, had ceased to exist as a whole. Each of these grains was growing and changing, the borders of these droplets of atomic heat became fluid, and projections began to come out of them, producing the next generation of droplets; then all these droplets converged toward the center and formed a flattened ball, which, contracting and inflating as if it were breathing, was at the same time sending out on reconnaissance something like fiery tentacles with quivering tips …
This short story was published three years after Solaris, and you can see the echoes of the one in the other. “I wonder what we could talk to the Sun about? What are the common issues, concepts, and problems that we share with it? … First communicate with the bacteria in your bodies, with the bushes in your gardens, with the bees and their flowers, and then you’ll be able to consider what methods to use for sharing information with the Sun.” Lem’s question is precisely not about the alien as the other, in fantastic literature’s all-too-easy (and racist) device of racialization, whether in elves or klingons, but about the alien as the incommensurable being: a response, perhaps, to the widespread failure of fantastical literature to imagine aliens that are not merely foreigners to be, in some fashion, conquered and tamed. The solar entities in “The Truth” are even more unknowable than the planet Solaris, which at least has the decency to haunt its intruders in their native guilts.
It’s easy to see why Lem was not fond of the cinematic adaptations of Solaris. The extended review of solaricist literature that takes up so much of the book is both masterful and unfilmable, because it is so very much a thing of text. Even the lovingly detailed descriptions of the transient formations of Solaris, the mimoids and the symmetriads and so on, are not about those visuals, for all that the images are stunning—rather, the book is about the different interpretations of what those phenomena mean, as advanced by generations of theorists of Solaris, and the dizzying effect of moving through these endless models and theories as we the reader mirror the history of futile attempts to make sense of something that is incomprehensible in any human frame of reference.
He was simply a pedantic classifier, one of those whose outer calm concealed an unflagging passion that consumed his whole life. As long as he was able, he relied exclusively on the language of description; when words failed him he managed by creating new words, often infelicitous ones that did not match the phenomena they were intended to describe […] “dendromountains,” its “extensors,” “megamushrooms,” “mimoids,” “symmetriads” and “asymmetriads,” its “vertebrids” and “rapidos” sound terribly artificial, but they do give some idea of Solaris even to those who’ve seen nothing but a few blurry photographs and poor quality films. Of course, even this conscientious classifier was guilty of rash moments. Humans are constantly coming up with hypotheses, even when they’re being cautious, and even though they’re quite unaware of it. Giese believed that extensors constituted a root form, and he compared them to greatly magnified and heightened versions of tidal waves in terrestrial oceans. Besides, anyone who’s immersed himself in the first edition of the work knows that he originally named them precisely “tides” led by a geocentrism that would be amusing if it weren’t for his helplessness.
Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris makes a heroic attempt to adapt all this rampant textuality to video. Where in the book we read the text of Burton’s testimony, in the film we see a film of it. There is even a film within the film within the film, as the recorded younger Burton attempts (and fails) to show his tribunal what he has seen on Solaris—while the older Burton impatiently fast-forwards through chunks of his younger self’s testimony. Or Gibarian’s cryptic note to Kelvin, which in the film is a (somewhat less cryptic) video instead. All of this works quite well. What doesn’t work is that film adaptations seem compelled to insert massive doses of sentimentality absent in the novel. Tarkovsky, for instance, adds forty minutes of opening prologue set on Earth, attempting to ground Kelvin before he’s sent off to space. There is a father and a crying aunt. After forty minutes of this, the film finally catches up to the novel’s in media res opening.
Interestingly, this is not where Tarkovsky breaks up Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 continues through Harey’s arrival, her dress without seams, their first conversation. It’s only when Kelvin takes her to the rocket that the film switches to Part 2, even though there is no significant gap in time and no break in setting. Even the theme of violence is not new by this point, because Kelvin reached for a gun (absent in the novel) as soon as Harey first arrived.
Other people’s ghosts are only eerie, perhaps, but our own are compelling. Kelvin, upon seeing again the woman he loved, who killed herself long ago, cannot help but respond to her with tenderness along with the terror and revulsion. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells the ghost haunting him. They are both afraid. How to tell the beloved dead that they are dead?
Neither Tarkovsky’s film nor the 2002 Soderbergh Solaris make any serious attempt to depict Solaris itself. At least in 1972, you could argue, maybe Tarkovsky didn’t have the technology to make a real go of it: he did what he could to suggest strange fluids and miasmas. The 2002 film is, unexpectedly, even worse on this front. There is no attempt to CGI up some mimoids. The planet is merely a vague blur in the distance while the focus is entirely on the romance between George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. “The book is called Solaris,” a caustic Lem observed on learning this: “Not Love in Outer Space.” Though this is true even of Tarkovsky’s film to some degree, or at least its marketing. All adaptations are, sooner or later, Love in Outer Space. But Solaris is not any recognizable human storyteller, and therefore not a romance novel author. The hauntings are not an opportunity for the guilty or grieving to make peace with their lost ones; it is not a neat device of closure or an attempt at communication. The hauntings are an epiphenomenon of human proximity to the truly alien: we only shatter along the faultlines that we bring with us.
In “Break It Down Logically” I wrote about a 1949 short story by Howard Schoenfeld, originally published in the anarchist journal Retort before being reprinted in F&SF. The editors and publishers of Retort, Holley Cantine and Dachine Rainer, also published Schoenfeld’s account of his incarceration as a conscientious objector to World War II.
Ten years after Schoenfeld’s story was reprinted in F&SF, Holley Cantine also published a story of his own in F&SF. It was called “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble”:
I found that by leaving the city I had shed the radical movement like a bad dream. While I still believed vaguely in the desirability of socialism, once I had the chance to achieve some perspective, it became perfectly obvious that the wrangling little sects that had consumed so large a part of my life would never amount to anything, and I was well quit of them.
To fill the void in my life left by the cessation of political activity, I began to revive my old interest in magic.
Holley Cantine,“Double, Double, Toil and Trouble”, F&SF, 1960.
Cantine’s story is about the narrator’s mastery of a single magical ability, which he calls doubling, whereby he can magically produce a duplicate of any object, including persons. This is an inversion, in a way, of the neat closed loop of Schoenfeld’s rabbit vs. not-rabbit. Cantine posits doubled rabbits instead, a profane multiplying of objects—like Borges’s “mirrors and fatherhood” (which, incidentally, was published the same year that Schoenfeld and Dellinger were in prison, though not published in English until the year after Cantine’s story), an abominable mass reproduction.
The narrator at first merely uses this ability to multiply his scant resources so he can sell them and make money. It’s not wealth he’s seeking: he is content with self-sufficiency. What he really wants is to form an amateur brass band with himself. So he duplicates himself, or rather, himselves, one per instrument, and in the process discovers that the process of duplication is not perfect and his copies are not identical, having inherited different aspects of his moods, interests, and politics. One of his doubles returns to the radical politics that the narrator himself had given up on, by doubling and redoubling himself into an army and invading the Capitol. (This story predates the Marvel Comics character Multiple Man by fifteen years.) The imperfection of the doubling is doubled down upon: the militant self, attempting to defeat a conventional army through sheer numbers, doubles and redoubles himself relentlessly, the fidelity of the copies and the copies of copies becoming only ever more degraded, their politics only becoming more violent and less coherent in every iteration.
Between the publication of these two stories in F&SF, Dachine Rainer founded the Committee for the Liberation of Ezra Pound with, among others, e.e. cummings. Pound was arrested for treason for his pro-fascist radio broadcasts in Italy during World War II, and institutionalized in an American mental hospital for over a decade. Rainer wrote this in his defense in 1991:
It was once fairly common knowledge and it must be stated here that Pound was declared insane as a humanitarian act in order to avoid a trial and what in the hysterical postwar climate would most probably have been an execution.
Rainer is fully a Pound apologist here, even to the point of denying that he was a fascist or antisemite, which seems to rather fly in the face of Pound’s extensive body of pro-fascist and antisemitic utterances. “He is obviously crazy,” Hemingway wrote of Pound a couple of years before his arrest.
He deserves punishment and disgrace but what he really deserves most is ridicule. He should not be hanged and he should not be made a martyr of. He has a long history of generosity and unselfish aid to other artists and he is one of the greatest of living poets. It is impossible to believe that anyone in his right mind could utter the vile, absolutely idiotic drivel he has broadcast. His friends who knew him and who watched the warpeing and twisting and decay of his mind and judgement should defend him and explain him on that basis. It will be a completely unpopular but an absolutely necessary thing to do. I have had no correspondence with him for ten years and the last time I saw him was in 1933 when Joyce asked me to come to make it easier having Ezra at his house. Ezra was moderately whacky then. The broadcasts are absolutely balmy. I wish we could talk the whole damned thing over. But you can count on me for anything an honest man should do.
Hemingway in a letter to Archibald MacLeish, 1943
A couple of years after this letter, about a month after Mussolini was shot, the sixty-year-old Pound was arrested. They held him at a detention centre in Pisa, apparently within sight of the leaning tower.
A photograph of the row of ordinary cages shows just a corner of this special one. All have concrete slab floors, about six feet wide and six and a half long, simple timber frames, ¼″ wire netting walls, flat wood and tar-paper roofs, except that for Pound’s the steel grille is about an inch deep with four-inch interstices. The cages were open to the elements, to the summer sun, to wind and rain, to the dust blown in from the road to Pisa or from the drill field on hot windy days; and open too to the constant observation of the guards posted to watch him night and day, and to the gaze of passing military police and prisoners on their way in or out of the camp. All night a bright ‘reflector’ light shone on the cage. For furniture he was at first given just a slop pail and six blankets, and slept on the concrete; after some heavy rain, a cot was put in, and took up half the space; then he was given a pup tent which could be arranged to provide shelter from sun and rain. There was a general order that he was not to be spoken with—anyone could stare at him in his cage, but no one was to have a word with him.
A. David Moody, Ezra Pound, Poet. Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (2015)
A young guard at this camp, David Feldman, wrote about Pound decades later, too.
After about three weeks of his caged existence I could see a change occur, an unpleasant change. He appeared to have lost weight and stopped all activity. He looked terrible in his army ‘fatigues’ that became larger on him daily.
I recall a three or four day gap between my strolls past “The Cage”. When I did find time to return to the area, I found him gone. It was at least a week later that I discovered him in the medical area. A good friend in the dispensary informed me that, “He cracked”. The truth is that he became hysterical, lost his memory, and was having nightmares […]
He made good progress and after about three months he was really fit. He was so fit that he asked for and received permission to use the dispensary typewriter. It was at the typewriter that I approached him just to say hello. (I never thought of him as a criminal, just a poet.)
A lot of sympathetic writing on Pound dwells on the cage. It is part of the iconography of his rehabilitation, or rather, the rehabilitation of his image, as Pound himself continued to associate with fascists and white supremacists during and after his incarceration, and he unsurprisingly continues to be an icon for neo-fascist movements like CasaPound today. The simultaneous project of imagistic rehabilitation is meanwhile ongoing (note The Tragic Years in the title of Moody’s biography above.)
For a particular type of unsympathetic response to Pound, we turn to Malcolm Cowley, to whom Hemingway once referred as a stupid-looking potato face. Cowley wrote:
The spoiled great poet was also a spoiled traitor, despised and laughed at by his foreign masters. After being arrested by his own countrymen he was sent to a mental hospital without being granted the dignity of a public trial. It was the perfect retribution, a spoiled punishment for a soiled crime.
Malcolm Cowley, “The Battle over Ezra Pound”, New Republic, 1949. This is after the imprisoned Pound controversially won a poetry award.
To Cowley, Pound’s imprisonment is “perfect retribution” for what he considers a failed treason, because he finds Pound’s broadcasts “silly and ineffective.” They were of course silly, but fascism is silly—the beliefs, the ideas, are so mind-numbingly foolish that they often hardly seem to bear refutation and yet they must be refuted. Both Rainer and Cowley point out that Pound is not directly responsible for any deaths, though from opposite directions: Rainer uses this to claim Pound’s total innocence, and Cowley to suggest that his guilt is ameliorated by his sheer incompetence as a traitor.
Hemingway, MacLeish, Rainer and others supported Pound’s eventual release, sometimes through gritted teeth. In 1957, Hemingway, then a recent Nobel winner, wrote yet another letter in support of Pound’s release, in which, Michael Reynolds writes in his biography, Hemingway continued to “emphasize that he could not abide Pound’s politics, his support of fascism, or his anti-Semitic and racist views.” When Pound was released the following year—the indictment of treason being finally dismissed because he was judged incompetent to stand trial—he received a cheque from Hemingway for $1,500 to sponsor his relocation to Italy. As he had said to MacLeish over a decade before, Hemingway did what he thought an honest man should do.
Of course, Pound had been a mentor and early champion of Hemingway, along with many of the other writers who supported him. Their campaigning for his release was also, perhaps primarily, driven by their sense of indebtedness to him, their need to rescue his celebrity status as a great poet. Where does that leave the less connected writer at the mercy of the state? Would Pound have been less worthy of support if he had not been a famous and much-admired poet with personal ties to Nobel Prize winners? Well, obviously not—and equally obviously, he would not have received that support either. Celebrity trumps principle, in practice if not in theory.
To become a traitor is easy, so easy that it often seems like treason is the natural point at which the citizen would come to rest, gravitationally speaking, if one were not artificially suspended above the pit, as it were, of this original sin by grace of the state—an unearned support easily withdrawn, if you were to oppose the wars of your state, for instance, or the state of your war, which would make you a traitor regardless of whether you oppose this war because you oppose all war, even a “good war”, or whether you support the enemy. For the paranoid state, it is the same operation in either case. Lacking the discerning organs of principle to distinguish between nonviolence and fascism, for instance (what states tend to have instead of principle are constitutions, which are, as self-proclaimed non-war-criminal Kamal Gunaratne indicated recently, just so much toilet paper) the pareidoliac state can find opposition in a grain of sand, enemies in a wild flower.
“Front rouge” [a poem by Louis Aragon] contained several lines advocating militant aggression against the liberal government of Léon Blum. […] Taking the commands “Feu sur Léon Blum” (“Shoot Léon Blum”) and “Descendez les flics” (“kill the cops”) literally as a call to arms (and extracting them from their poetic context), Blum’s Department of Justice accused Aragon on 16 January 1932 of attempting to incite unrest, an act punishable by a prison sentence of five years. […]
Upon hearing the news of the accusation against Aragon, [André] Breton immediately drafted a rebuttal. He circulated this rebuttal as a petition, acquired over three hundred signatures, and published it […]
Breton’s act of solidarity probably saved Aragon from being brought to trial, for the Blum government, at first incensed by the poem’s treasonous call for violent insurrection, felt even more threatened by the negative publicity it would receive as a result of surrealist agitation […] Not wanting to be associated with the dictatorial tactics of censorshop, Blum’s justice department simply dropped the case.
As Hemingway and others supported Pound despite disagreements, André Breton supported Louis Aragon in this situation despite their having fallen out. Upon his release, however, Aragon promptly doubled down by publishing a repudiation of Breton’s petition, the very one that may well have kept him out of prison. Aragon called Breton counter-revolutionary for arguing for the right of a poem to be read as a poem. He’d wanted it read, it seemed, as a call to direct action, and felt that Breton was unnecessarily muddying the clear waters in which les flics were to be descendu.
Howard Schoenfeld’s short story “Built Up Logically” was published in F&SF in 1950, when Schoenfeld was thirty-five. Ten years before that, he spent almost a year in prison for being part of a group resisting conscription for World War II, a group led by David Dellinger, who would go on to a lifetime of anti-war protests. He protested against the American war in Vietnam, for instance and so became one of the Chicago Eight.
Dellinger—played by John Carroll Lynch in Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), who also played the Zodiac killer in Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Marge’s husband Norm Gunderson in the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996)—spent three years in prison in the early 40s to Schoenfeld’s one. He could have been exempted from service as a divinity student, as were most of his group, but chose prison instead as a pacificist. In Schoenfeld’s account of their shared prison experience, Dellinger caused a stir on his very first day by crossing the colour line in the segregated mess hall and sitting with the black prisoners, for which he was of course punished. Dellinger’s background of privilege, a white man who went to Yale, is a big part of his story throughout his life. For instance, in 1969 the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven after the chaining and gagging of Bobby Seale (as Gil Scott-Heron puts it succinctly in “H20gate Blues”), the kind of treatment that Dellinger, as a white man, would not be subjected to. Over the years Dellinger became an elder statesman of protest, defanged through lionization. Here is how he was described in 1987:
For the past five weeks, Dellinger has been in a D.C. courtroom as one of 18 defendants in a First Amendment civil-disobedience case. The group was arrested last August while protesting nonviolently in the rotunda of the Capitol. It opposed what it saw as the government’s support of killing and violence by the contras in Nicaragua. On Feb. 12, he and his codefendants were found guilty on three counts: unlawful entry, blocking and impeding public space and unlawfully demonstrating in the Capitol. Dellinger and nine others will be sentenced in April. Last Monday, eight co-defendants were given suspended sentences.
At 71, Dellinger was the senior protester. He was also the most jailed—“oh, about 50 times, I guess, I’ve lost count”—and the most articulate.
Dellinger himself had something to say about that article in his memoir published a few years later under the same title.
To this day, I am more apt to mention the education I received in prison than the one I got at Yale. But that attempt at identification with some of society’s rejected can also bestow a different kind of unwarranted prestige. Having spent nearly three years in prison for the sake of one’s principles (and numerous shorter stays) is viewed in some circles as more impressive than it should be. So I point out that compared to most of the people I met in prison I was a short-timer. And for similar reasons, I have never kept count of how many times I have been arrested or in jail, a question I am frequently asked by the media and others. (One media writer wrote that I said “about fifty times,” but he made that up.)
David Dellinger, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter, Rose Hill Books, 1993
Howard Schoenfeld’s account of the prison time he shared with Dellinger in 1940 as a conscientious objector took the form of an essay published in the newspapers later in that decade and eventually, in 1950—the same year as his F&SF story—reprinted in Prison Etiquette: The Convict’s Compendium of Useful Information published by Retort Press.
Prison Etiquette was an anthology co-edited by Retort Press owners Holley Cantine and Dachine Rainer, anti-war activists and writers, themselves conscientious objectors and fascinating characters—more on them in a different essay. Rainer and Cantine had worked with Schoenfeld before: his F&SF story, “Built Up Logically,” was also a reprint, having been originally published in their anarchist journal Retort a year earlier, under the title “The Universal Panacea.” Retort didn’t pay contributors at all, so one hopes F&SF paid full rates for reprints back in the day.
There are some small differences in the text between “Built Up Logically” and “The Universal Panacea”. Here is an archive.org link to the full F&SF issue with “Built Up Logically” and here it is in audio, via a 2008 reading at the Slug of Time podcast; here is a PDF of the full issue of Retort that contains “The Universal Panacea.” The differences are mostly to do with drug references carefully excised in the F&SF version. This version has been anthologized numerous times—for instance, it appears in the 1973 Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss, which, via a second-hand bookshop in Colombo sometime in the mid-90s, is how I encountered this story for the first time.
“Built Up Logically” is funny, twisty, and metafictional: the initial narrator-author Aspasia, who writes himself into the story twice so that he can get laid offscreen in the background “without interference from the censors” while continuing to narrate in his primary characterization, is engaged in an eventually deadly struggle for authorship of the story with Frank, who has a certain gimmick whereby he can invent things and make it so that they have always been part of the universe, such as rabbits and pianos, and eventually the universe itself.
More than the contest between would-be narrators for authorship, more even than Sally La Rue’s time machine that moves the whole universe forward in time so that everything always looks exactly the same and you’re not sure if anything real has happened—is there a better image of Progress—this is the part of this story that stuck with me for the last quarter-century or so.
The universal panacea in question is, explicitly, marihuana, as Schoenfeld puts it—so “The Universal Panacea”, in its original form, is less about narrative metalepsis and more about being extremely high, unless you consider those, not unreasonably, the same thing. The F&SF version excises all explicit mentions of weed, but without changing the line to make the edit make sense. For instance, it simply replaces reefer with cigar, like so:
“The universal panacea,” Frank said, lighting a cigar. “Have one.”
Opening line of “Built Up Logically”, (F&SF, 1950)
This tobacco-ized version never made sense to me. I was a smoker for some fifteen of the twenty-five years since my first reading of this story and it didn’t seem like a natural thing for a smoker to say. But it’s a very odd story, so I’d chalked this line up to another random oddity for a long time, only to discover that it does in fact make perfect sense in the original, much in the way that the mysteries of the universe resolve themselves when you’re high.
The thing with the rabbit is one such profundity that, however, does not seem to lose relevance upon sobriety. Everything—any object, any creature, any sufficiently complex part of the universe you care to point at—implies the rest of the universe. The universe, considered as the union of rabbit and not-rabbit: not just the space and time it takes up as a particular being, but its ancestry and evolution, the environment it requires and is adapted to, the cosmic laws and material histories that must be in place in order to rabbit.
I say any sufficiently complex part of the universe because it seems to be that such cosmic reconstructibility relies on a focal point (the rabbit, the piano, a poem, a prison) that is the way it is because everything was the way it was. So the universe you build depends on your choice of focus. The world you make depends on the seed you use as its absent heart. You could reconstruct a universe from a hydrogen atom or from water or a rock, but such a universe does not necessarily need to include a human civilization. You could reconstruct a universe from a bone flute and it would not include the history that postdates that object. A rabbit born well before this story was published—say, while its author was in prison—would be markedly different from a rabbit born after: the latter would carry in its body the mark of the bomb pulse, as we do.
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I started thinking about this essay after my story “Redder” was published, to briefly talk about a specific technique of storytelling: stories whose structure is intentionally discontinuous but nondual, built out of seeming halves. As always, this essay is brought to you with the support of my patrons! Some personal news in the meantime: having written what will hopefully be my first novel, I am now represented by Michael Curry of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Satpralat (2004) is called Tropical Malady in English, not Strange Creature, which would be a more literal translation of สัตว์ประหลาด. Mostreviews speak of the film as having two halves. In fact, it’s difficult not to speak of it as having two halves—there is an explicit transition between the two, and while there is (some) continuity of character, there is a massive shift in style, register, and tone. This may not seem all that uncommon a device: for example, Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020) does something very similar, where Aubrey Plaza’s character goes from being the manipulator in the first half to the manipulated in the second. But Black Bear flattens itself with its framing device that repeatedly shows (yet another?) Aubrey Plaza character drafting multiple versions of a screenplay, of which the two halves—the bear in the road and the bear near the boathouse—are only drafts in different genres. So Black Bear is less what I’m talking about and more like an American remake of Sion Sono’s Antiporno (2016), where the first half is revealed in the second half to be a film, with the power dynamics of the film-within-the-film being inverted in the story of the production of that film-within-the-film. But both Black Bear and Antiporno have continuity between their halves: they are not discontinuous halves but unfoldings.
In Satpralat, the first half is a romance between two men set in a world seems like ours. The second half is a world apart, a fantastical sequence of transformation and apparition, where one of the lovers is sometimes a tiger, but not the generic cinematic weretiger that one might be forced to imagine, with the howls and chains and writhing and cracking bones and predictable guilts; no, this is not that. Between these worlds, these halves, there is a pause: a black screen that slowly fades into a tiger who announces that we are embarking on a new path.
The halves read each other, but we encounter them, necessarily, in sequence. So it is only in the second half that we understand that we’re meant to read both what we’re seeing now and reread what we saw before. An hour later, when we get to the tiger facing the man in the jungle, we understand their dynamic of desire and pursuit. The first half reads the second as much as the other way around. This isn’t metafiction: this is a mirror-fiction that doesn’t tell you which side of the mirror you’re on.
In Jess Barton’s strangely doubled poem “Lord, Be A Femme” (2017), published on Tumblr, read by the author here, and included in the Nameless Woman anthology, available here for free, the transition is similarly tight and explicit—“My asshole becomes a glorious portal through time and space fucked back to Mayan brothels in Guatemalan jungles.” Then it does, and we are in another world peopled by men who are jaguars, not tigers. But at the same time (and in another time) it’s the same people and the same story, too. This is what’s important about these strange halves: despite being clearly distinct, they are not dyadic but nondual. Not separate stories cut together, not unfoldings of a fiction into a metafiction, but each half precisely a reading of the other. A prediction, or a prophesy—a vision. The cloud of connotations shifts too much with each of those words. Prediction is too sfnal, a model or forecast; prophesy is too fantastical, a destiny, a fate, a doom. Vision, at least, feels appropriately mystical, or at least mysterious: a weird, a word, a word in your ear, whispered by the voices of the dead.
In April 2019, Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested for a short story that he had posted on Facebook. The story was in Sinhala, called “අර්ධ”: ardha, which means half. The strange arrest was instigated by a faction of Buddhist monks who I would have called hardliners if there existed a softer line worth speaking of; as it is, they are merely representative. Their problem with the story was, in a word, blasphemy.
It would be four months before Sathkumara was even given bail. The case is still ongoing, and the possibility of prison time is still on the table. Meanwhile, the story, originally written in Sinhala, was eventually translated into English and published by the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. I did my own translation, too, though I didn’t publish it at the time: well, there it is, for what it’s worth. It seemed redundant then, and perhaps it is even now, because such cases are not truly about the words or about art or its place in our lives.
What precisely about Sathkumara’s story was so objectionable as to land its author in prison is itself somewhat entangled. One half of that tangle is simply that it depicts monks in an unflatteringly realistic way, such as by acknowledging the rampant child abuse that characterizes Buddhist temples or by having a monk named Gnanasara show up as a character accusing social workers of helping “Tiger families,” or even just by having the main character be an ex-monk who sees monkhood as pointless and miserable and is glad to be rid of it. In other words, the story depicts Sri Lankan Buddhism as it is. Its genre is unbearable realism.
Then there is the other half, perhaps the major part of the offense that was taken: the blasphemy. This is the brief short-story-within-the-short-story where Siddhartha is cuckolded by his charioteer. This fiction-within is too small, you might say, to constitute a half. But considering its outsize impact, its wildly disproportionate consequence, it would be more correct to say that this paragraph is the bigger half of the story. As the fiction-within gives way to the metafiction, the characters acknowledge that the joke is unspeakable: the narrator urges its author to burn the story-within. Perhaps if he had, the author’s author would not have gone to prison. But what then would have been lost, and whose loss would it have been?
In May 2020, Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested for a book of poems, “நவரசம்,” Navarasam, written in Tamil. He is still in prison. The book is now online but not yet in translation. The accusation this time is not blasphemy, but promoting terrorism; where Sathkumara was detained under “hate speech” legislation, Jazeem is being detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. As that article notes:
Ahnaf’s book of poetry was also cleared by an eminent scholar of the Tamil language and retired Professor of Tamil at the University of Peradeniya, M.A. Nuhman, who famously authored “The Murder of Buddha,” a poem about the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981. Professor Nuhman said he had read Jazeem’s tiny anthology of 45 poems after hearing of the poet’s prolonged detention under the PTA and found nothing on extremism in the collection.
“On the contrary, there are several poems against extremism, violence, and war in this collection,” Professor Nuhman said in a statement on Jazeem’s arrest.
Professor Nuhman, a widely respected Tamil scholar, said Jazeem work mostly concerned religious morality, humanism, love and a peaceful life. “How can these sentiments be seen as promoting extremism,” he questioned, adding that the authorities who could not read or understand poetry in the Tamil language may have run away with that notion because there were a few pictures of people in arms depicted in the printed version of Jazeem’s anthology.
The discontinuity between prosecution and defense is so complete that these two halves of each case are not even debating the same thing. These cases are absolutely about the freedom of art (dead as it is on this island, are we not still haunted) but at the same time these cases are, clearly, not truly about art at all. What here has been lost, and whose loss is it? These cases aren’t even necessarily about words: Ahnaf was arrested and detained without investigators or magistrate being able to read the book, which they still are not. The prosecution happily wallows in illiteracy; it is the belated defense that must now read poetry, that must seek real translation, that must argue that words mean things and that the truth matters. The prosecuting state is happy to take the easy position that truth is reducible to power, and that art is at best a nuisance and at worst a kind of disease—hardly a pandemic, of course, merely the last remnant pockets of infection, something nearly eradicated.
Humorous or exotic collective nouns for animals—a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks and so on, known as terms of venery—apparently date back to a fad in 15th century memes. Venery comes from a PIE root which is probably a cousin of both வேட்டை and වැදි, all meaning to chase, to pursue: to hunt. So these various collectivities are terms of the hunt, but in their excess and general ridiculousness they are also, obviously, supposed to be funny. They are Bits, of long standing and continued memeability. From a perspective of naked utility, if you think in terms not of Bits but of Data concerned with the efficiency of the hunt, they are redundancies at best, errors at worst: a useless ornamentation of language.
Which, of course, is frequently repeated advice to the writer, usually parroted without attribution or explanation beyond the claim that it is self-evident: to kill your darlings, to murder your darlings, to avoid ornament. Specifically, the advice is to avoid superfluous ornament, but this has long since become streamlined through relentless citation into repudiating prettiness in general: down with the floral, the lyrical,the baroque. And obviously to some extent this is both perfectly reasonable—in that superfluous ornament is by definition superfluous, the extraneous has extra right there in the name, look—and useless by itself, because the trick is to be able to tell if it’s extra or not, isn’t it? If you could tell that it was unnecessary, you wouldn’t write it that way in the first place, thanks. But it’s not as simple as stripping out all the Bits and leaving only Data. For one thing, that would leave your language dead, which after all is what happens when you kill something. For another, and more complicatedly, there is the small problem that words mean things.
The meaning of a text isn’t only discrete units of data transmitting information in dots and dashes, but a vast and mutable weather system of connotation, subtext, and allusion that shifts and fluctuates as your mind moves along the sentence and reconstructs both it and the world around you. So killing darlings means changing what is being said: saying it a different way means saying something else. Another writers’ truism and a more useful one is that there are no true synonyms, if you account for the worlds they make.
But this is all besides the point, in a way: what made me want to add my own small note to this overcooked topic is that I have heard this advice cited a thousand times but rarely heard it correctly or fully attributed to its fascinating origin, which we begin by going back slightly over a hundred years to 1916:
Now you will find much pretty swordsmanship in its pages, but nothing more trenchant than the passage in which Newman assails and puts to rout the Persian host of infidels—I regret to say, for the most part Men of Science—who would persuade us that good writing, that style, is something extrinsic to the subject, a kind of ornamentation laid on to tickle the taste, a study for the dilettante, but beneath the notice of their stern and masculine minds.
Such a view, as he justly points out, belongs rather to the Oriental mind than to our civilisation: it reminds him of the way young gentlemen go to work in the East when they would engage in correspondence with the object of their affection. The enamoured one cannot write a sentence himself: he is the specialist in passion (for the moment); but thought and words are two things to him, and for words he must go to another specialist, the professional letter-writer. Thus there is a division of labour.
To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’
Arthur Quiller-Couch in On the Art of Writing: Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, 1913–1914 (1916)
So Quiller-Couch is asking us to murder our darlings so as to avoid this trap of the Oriental mind, this “extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation” which is something other than Style. But who is this Newman that he himself is citing for support? For that we have to go back another half-century t0 1852.
Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one: style is a thinking out into language. This is what I have been laying down, and this is literature; not things, not the verbal symbols of things; not on the other hand mere words; but thoughts expressed in language. Call to mind, Gentlemen, the meaning of the Greek word which expresses this special prerogative of man over the feeble intelligence of the inferior animals. It is called Logos: what does Logos mean? it stands both for reason and for speech, and it is difficult to say which it means more properly. It means both at once: why? because really they cannot be divided,—because they are in a true sense one. When we can separate light and illumination, life and motion, the convex and the concave of a curve, then will it be possible for thought to tread speech under foot, and to hope to do without it—then will it be conceivable that the vigorous and fertile intellect should renounce its own double, its instrument of expression, and the channel of its speculations and emotions.
Critics should consider this view of the subject before they lay down such canons of taste as the writer whose pages I have quoted. Such men as he is consider fine writing to be an addition from without to the matter treated of,—a sort of ornament superinduced, or a luxury indulged in, by those who have time and inclination for such vanities. They speak as if one man could do the thought, and another the style. We read in Persian travels of the way in which young gentlemen go to work in the East, when they would engage in correspondence with those who inspire them with hope or fear. They cannot write one sentence themselves; so they betake themselves to the professional letter-writer. They confide to him the object they have in view. They have a point to gain from a superior, a favour to ask, an evil to deprecate; they have to approach a man in power, or to make court to some beautiful lady. The professional man manufactures words for them, as they are wanted, as a stationer sells them paper, or a schoolmaster might cut their pens. Thought and word are, in their conception, two things, and thus there is a division of labour. The man of thought comes to the man of words; and the man of words, duly instructed in the thought, dips the pen of desire into the ink of devotedness, and proceeds to spread it over the page of desolation. Then the nightingale of affection is heard to warble to the rose of loveliness, while the breeze of anxiety plays around the brow of expectation. This is what the Easterns are said to consider fine writing; and it seems pretty much the idea of the school of critics to whom I have been referring.
John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1852)
But who is Newman even arguing with, this “the writer whose pages I have quoted”? For that we go back almost another century, to 1766.
This is Laurence Sterne. While I delight in the long s and the little ligatures of the c and t (a useless ornament if there ever was one) let me reproduce the relevant part, as quoted by Newman, in a slightly more readable format:
There are two sorts of eloquence, the one indeed scarce deserves the name of it, which consists chiefly in laboured and polished periods, an over-curious and artificial arrangement of figures, tinselled over with a gaudy embellishment of words, which glitter, but convey little or no light to the understanding. This kind of writing is for the most part much affected and admired by the people of weak judgment and vicious taste; but it is a piece of affectation and formality the sacred writers are utter strangers to. It is a vain and boyish eloquence; and, as it has always been esteemed below the great geniuses of all ages, so much more so with respect to those writers who were actuated by the spirit of Infinite Wisdom, and therefore wrote with that force and majesty with which never man writ. The other sort of eloquence is quite the reverse to this, and which may be said to be the true characteristic of the Holy Scriptures; where the excellence does not arise from a laboured and far-fetched elocution, but from a surprising mixture of simplicity and majesty, which is a double character, so difficult to be united that it is seldom to be met with in compositions merely human. We see nothing in Holy Writ of affectation and superfluous ornament … Now, it is observable that the most excellent profane authors, whether Greek or Latin, lose most of their graces whenever we find them literally translated. Homer’s famed representation of Jupiter—his cried-up description of a tempest, his relation of Neptune’s shaking the earth and opening it to its centre, his description of Pallas’s horses, with numbers of other long-since admired passages, flag, and almost vanish away, in the vulgar Latin translation.
Let any one but take the pains to read the common Latin interpretations of Virgil, Theocritus, or even of Pindar, and one may venture to affirm he will be able to trace out but few remains of the graces which charmed him so much in the original. The natural conclusion from hence is, that in the classical authors, the expression, the sweetness of the numbers, occasioned by a musical placing of words, constitute a great part of their beauties; whereas, in the sacred writings, they consist more in the greatness of the things themselves than in the words and expressions. The ideas and conceptions are so great and lofty in their own nature that they necessarily appear magnificent in the most artless dress. Look but into the Bible, and we see them shine through the most simple and literal translations.
Laurence Sterne, Sermon XLII, The Sermons of Mr Yorick, Vol. III (1766)
It seems the original Orientals with their gaudy, artificial, affected prose—those dashed darlingmakers—were the writers of the Greek and Roman classics from Homer and Herodotus on down, being chastised by Sterne for not matching up to the unornamented ſublimity of the Bible. Newman then argues with Sterne, attempting to rescue the profane writers by shifting the source of iniquity to the East and its dastardly scribes and freelance copywriters, filthy practices not behooving the white writer; Quiller-Couch agrees, and suggests that Style is that which the East is not, and that the path to racial purity lies in the ruthless purging of all that is Oriental within (and without, of course, as was a habit of the culture.) And from there this advice becomes a miasma that infects and endlessly reproduces itself tommyknockeresque in the bloated carcass of literary advice culture, from Stephen King in 2000 (On Writing) to, as recently as a month ago, some scam called MasterClass dot com, where you can sign up to be told the same thing by Neil Gaiman for $180 a year.
This blog has been quiet for a little while: I was here the whole time, but writing a book. In the meantime, I’ve had a number of new short stories published, most notably “The Translator, at Low Tide” in Clarkesworld, “Redder” in Nightmare, and “The Bombardier” in Three-Lobed Burning Eye, as well as a tiny nightmare for the Tiny Nightmares anthology from Catapult Books, called “Joy, and Other Poisons.”
Creator is a flattering but ominous title. Even creative, that horrible adjective hacked free of nouns: for all its ugliness, the word was meant to flatter, and perhaps to protect. Apart from the usual ways in which such flattery is intended to mislead in the outer world—that is, to make you think your kind of work isn’t work and that you shouldn’t care about fair payment or treatment—it is also misleading in the inner world, in what it might say to you as an artist about what is expected of you. You don’t, e.g., actually spew forth raw creation from an ineffable singularity nestled in your insides to put it out in the world, though it may sometimes feel that way, and though the idea of being a creator might seem to demand a self-image in this genre. The problem with this self-image is the accompanying self-expectation that when that intestinal spigot stops working you should take a wrench to it.
What it is, I think, is more that this you is more porous than you might know, or if you know, than you tend to remember. You are a vessel, if you like, a giver of shape, a shaper of form, and what you are giving shape to, what you are shaping the form of, is an expression of the experience of being in, of, and against the world. This is a nebulously vague definition because it’s necessarily a vast universe of expression: all of life’s expression is art, imo, and almost none of it is considered art, partly for the sensible reason that if you make a word mean quite so many things it stops meaning anything at all, and partly for the ugly reason that art—or Art, rather—has always been carefully bounded by privilege and prestige.
The reason I’m flouting the sensible reason here is because I think it’s often useful to go back to first principles. At root, there is something concrete and valuable in the idea that to be a person is itself art. A person is a knot, both Gordian and Möbius, tangled and tight, of self in friction with the world; personhood cannot be unknotted from this because personhood is the knot, and self/world only different surfaces of the same plane. The world moves through the self; art is everything that expresses that movement. It can be sublime, ludicrous, ordinary, ugly, or awful, just like the world, or anything in it. It doesn’t matter, to this perspective, what kind of art it is, or whether it’s a prestigious form or not. (Well, it matters to gatekeepers of prestige, but those are the opinions that matter the least.) It doesn’t even matter, at this juncture, whether the art, the thing itself, is any good.
For a title, I’ve always preferred the plainness of writer, myself; for a long time I thought of artist and creator as alternatives undesirable in the same way, to be avoided as pomp or pretension. They are both still those things, sort of? But now, at least, the two seem to have grown apart to me. They go in different directions.
All this is because I wrote (or rather, when I wrote this essay, was still writing) a novel. Part of the excess waste product is thoughts like this. I already know it’s a load of wank, you don’t have to tell me.
The functional affordances of the writer’s self-image have material consequences, it seems, from day to fucking day. I can’t afford to think of myself as a creator because of the problem of the spigot and the wrench; it can be paralyzing. I’m not suggesting this is a universal or even shared problem with these specific words and images, necessarily. I am suggesting that any writer might find it helpful to reconsider the words they write on their own meat and bone, much the same way as we edit the words on the page. So, for instance, I’ve learned that artist doesn’t grate on me the same way now. I think creative and creator became popular partly out of that class discomfort with artist, as a defense against accusations of pretension. And that’s understandable, it’s the same reason I still prefer good old writer, for its purely descriptive plausible undeniability. People can always point at your shit and say it’s not art because it’s crap, for instance—this is a nonsense but also a commonplace. But they can’t very well say it’s not writing, is it? There are words on the page and everything.
This is why I think going back to first principles is helpful. It broadens the horizons of what we consider art; it puts art in its proper place, which is everyday life, in our artful living. Do we not all sing and dance and make jokes and tell stories? These things bring us joy because we recognize the life and the death in them. There is no higher art than a perfect joke told to a loved one at exactly the right moment. There is no higher art than their answering laughter.
There’s a little note scrawled on the calendar on my table to remind myself that the work is itself the reward. I don’t care if that’s corny: I care if it helps, which most mornings it does.
There are always layers of intention and desire going on when you sit down at your desk to write. There are many implicit questions. Do you hope to get paid for this? Do you hope that it will be read and loved? Of course you do: of course I do. But my note reminds me those are questions about what you want—and which outcomes are, ultimately, in other people’s hands—not what you’re doing. About the latter, the only question is: will you be glad to have done this work, even if the doing was all you got for it?
The answer ought to be yes, I think, for a writer of fiction, but things aren’t always so clear. It depends on the project. So it’s a good question to ask, I think. It clarifies.
But yes, for me this time, the answer is yes. I wrote that sentence first when the manuscript was around fifty thousand words: I still had half the book left to write. It’s easy for me to say yes to it now, I think. It was harder then. This is not the first book I’ve written (I wrote that one fifteen years ago and promptly put it in the bin) nor even the first draft of this book (which it seems I’ve been writing in some form or the other since 2016) but this time was different. This time I knew it would work, and it did.
This is the sentence the draft of this essay ended on, abruptly, several months ago when I was halfway into the book: it feels like a fever, hyperreal, like the book is writing itself while I try to keep it from burning through or leaking off the page.
I do feel like I’ve come very late to the game of novels (though I’ve also gathered over the years that this is a common feeling among first-time novelists.) I didn’t intentionally set out to spend most of a decade selling a hundred thousand words of short fiction (and reading probably a thousand novels) before writing a book of my own, but … well, that’s how it’s worked out. Except in the very general sense that experience is experience, I don’t think of writing short stories as practice for a novel—a notion that has long annoyed short story writers by subordinating one entire form as junior apprentice to a rather different one—but on the other hand, reading novels is, especially if one reads widely and a little wildly. So I think the long wait was well-spent.
The book I wrote (that I was still writing, at the beginning of this essay) is strange. I think you’d like it. Or I hope so. I hope I will too. Do I think of it as art? Yes, kind of, even though the whole concept is still a little cringe when it comes so close to home. Well, it’s my bloody book so it’s high art to me, of course it is, and high gramarye besides. Or perhaps I mean low magic, though I wouldn’t know whether to call it high fantasy or low. That’s a question that revolves around the idea of a secondary world, and that seems wrong on some levels (and right on others.) But this is what happens when you attempt to speak with the stones of somebody else’s typology in your mouth. Look, with any luck you can peg it on the scale of high to low yourself, some day; in the meantime I’ll call it middle fantasy, perhaps, like a middle kingdom or a middle child. A middle world, a muddle, a midden.
Art is, in the parlance of our times, inessential; we don’t need it to survive, only to live. To make art is to receive art—these are the isomorphic, symmetrical movements into and out of the vessel, i.e., that the cup is filled and the cup is emptied. Art is made, which is to say it is received, by the flow of the world through this strange elongated vessel which is the span of a life, the great human centipede of a life lived in time, mouth questing to the future, asshole aimed at the past.
To be received, art must be given; this is grace, which here does not presuppose a god or a deep pool of accumulated cosmic star points but is only the recognition that unearned privilege is as much part of the inner world as the outer. Sometimes a gift is given, and we must learn to accept it gracefully. Given such a gift, and pain for a catalyst, sometimes, and time spent huddled in the tunica intima, right up there against the rushing red flow, there may result some new expression of the world in the world—some glorious coughed-up hairball, some sublime gut-slime, a great and mighty shit that the world will struggle to flush away. But it still won’t have been created, exactly: only in dreams do we hold the hammer and stand at the forge.
Naming is difficult for beasts and books: the worst, though, is to be given a forgettable name. A name that slides off the eye, that slips off the tongue and gets lost in the grass underfoot. The name of a work should be a signal-light from a great distance, something that catches the attention and compels the reader to chase it, because they simply have to know. So it befuddles me when books are published with what sound like placeholder titles that were only supposed to keep the cover warm while waiting for something better.
I’ve been thinking about names—the names of books, the names of stories—partly because I’ve been trying to title better, or at all, in the case of some as-yet untitled projects. I like my published story titles from this year individually, for instance, but three out of four have a bit of a repetitive pattern, all “the something”. Look, they were not written as consecutively as they were published? Anyway, this probably doesn’t even matter; I’m not even sure the repetitiveness of the titling structure is particularly noticeable to anybody else since it’s rare for uncollected short story titles by the same writer to be juxtaposed. But on the other hand, what if I wanted a bit of variety when trying to put a collection together? What about that, titling-brain? Well.
I like odd titles the best—the meander of “Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes” and the little joke in “On the Origin of Specie” remain personal favourites. Specie(s) is a cousin of speculative, incidentally; they are both about the seeing of things, the spectacle, the suspicion, the all-too-spicy haruspicy. Sometimes there is reason to agonize over titles. Last year’s “Apologia” was almost called “The Big Sorry”, after a phrase in the story, mostly because I worried that the distinction between apologia and apology wouldn’t be clear enough in casual reading (and titles are frequently encountered more casually than texts) to be striking—but I kept it, in the end, because the distinction was just too good to waste. Is it a good title, though? Hmm, no, I think probably not. Sometimes it’s like that.
What separates a good title from a forgettable one is specificity; that should really be the first axiom of titling, to try to find title-words in something particular to your work, ideally without limiting yourself to common words or phrases that will only confuse your work with every other work in the universe also using the same common words or phrases. For example, you should never title a work “Dust”, no matter how much dust is in it.
What do these three books have in common? Mostly just that I read them all recently and enjoyed them in different ways—but no, they’re here because of their godawful titles. I picked them specifically to illustrate this point because I did like the books; the strands of dislike would be harder to disentangle if I were talking about bad titles on books I didn’t like. But here, it’s easy for me to say that in each case the title is something of a disservice to the book: the books deserved to stand out more.
Miles Cameron’s Cold Iron (2018) is a well-made generic high fantasy written in a meaty, interestingly tangible style and setting. Arguably it is a kind of historical fantasy. The title is egregious, though, a cliché in not one but two contexts—war and magic, both of which unsurprisingly figure heavily in this book and its two sequels. (For me, it also evoked to its disadvantage Michael Swanwick’s 1993 novella “Cold Iron”, also a lacklustre titling especially given that in the same year the same text also appeared as the opening section of Swanwick’s iconic novel The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, a far stronger title even though it too is a bit of an overused snowclone; still, even though the pattern is hackneyed, the phrase itself is unusual enough to be striking. The novella version ends, if I remember correctly—I did in fact read this in Asimov’s sometime in the late 90s—at the point where Stilt runs past the Time Clock. Is the comparison unfair and probably meaningless? Yes, but that’s what you get for using clichés in titles: accidental juxtapositions with everybody else who ever used the same cliché.) The sequels to Cameron’s Cold Iron also have deeply uninspiring generic titles, it turns out: Dark Forge and Bright Steel. The books were fine: I enjoyed reading them and now remember little of them, which is about what I would expect. But I almost didn’t read them at all, despite a friend’s recommendation, because the titles were such yawners, and that would have been my loss, in our time of dreary coronation.
Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons (2019) is an even more extreme case of this problem, both in that I liked this book better than Cold Iron and I groaned even louder at its title. In fact, I made a horrible low-pitched noise like this: eeeeearrrgwhyyyyyyy. This is a book that works harder at breaking the well-worn patterns of high fantasy, so why this title? Though, I suppose, it’s true that when you get down to it both of these books do heavily rely on following the career of one special young man who spends a lot of time becoming ever more special through truly excessive amounts of sword-training, which gives the whole thing a kind of anime feel. Both books do manage to refresh that tired material, mostly through setting—especially Rage—which is certainly welcome in the formulaic world of high fantasy. And it should be said, in both cases, the titular cold iron and rage of dragons actually do mean very specific things in the story, not simply what they sound like. So these titles are not actually the random fantasy cliché title generator product they sound like, which is really almost as bad, or perhaps worse. It’s no good a generic-seeming title being meaningful in secret until someone reads the book; it’s no good having the reader hindsightfully plumb the hidden depths of titles that still have the shrinkwrapping on. So here is a second axiom: a title’s work is to bring readers to the story. Revealing futher hidden depths afterwards is great, it’s just a bit pointless if that primary obligation remains unfulfilled.
The sequels to Rage are yet to be announced, as far as I know: I suppose at this point it doesn’t matter so much how they are titled, since they will be read by people like me who’ve read and enjoyed the first book enough to follow it to its conclusion. But I still find myself wishing for the introduction of a striking series title, perhaps—something to separate it from this endless, undifferentiated flight of enraged dragons that surrounds us on all sides.
Antonio Moresco’s Distant Light (2013, translation by Richard Dixon in 2016) was originally called La lucina, I think, “the little light”; I think even that would have been a much better title in English. “Distant light” just comes off so much more leadenly portentous than either the original title or the text itself seems to call for. It suggests a sort of exaggerated hand-shading-the-eyes pose, eyes affixed to a horizon—what distant light through yonder window breaks? Or perhaps it is just this word distant that has grown wearisome from overfamiliar, mandatory social distancing. Distant already means “to stand apart”, the stan being the same in both words, not to mention the same stan as in having no choice but to stan—i.e., to stand together, which will not stand, man, because we are distanced, standing apart. The title aside, the book is a beautiful thing, a small, gentle novel of decay, isolation, and death. In a bizarre twist, it has apparently been made into a film starring Antonio Moresco himself as the protagonist. The book relies so heavily on the narrator’s intimate, conversational voice that I dread to think of how a film might handle it, even/especially a film starring the author. I have not yet ventured to find out. I am tempted, I admit, but I might not. Not all things are meant to be known. Sometimes you don’t have to chase down every unidentified and possibly otherworldly signal across the valley of the shadow, as Moresco presumably does in this film, as the narrator does in the book. The author is dead—he is not dead, to be clear, only acting—and it’s safe to stay home and safe, to close your eyes, to forget that which we are not compelled to chase. You feel for that lonely little light, though.
“Even your darkness shall be treasured then, and all your pain made holy.”
Cazaril to Ista, The Curse of Chalion (2000)
This scene, I believe, is unique in all Bujold: the moment where Cazaril, the protagonist of the first Chalion novel, formally passes the torch to Ista, the protagonist of the second. This kind of transition definitely does not occur anywhere else in the Chalion novels and novellas, or to give them their proper title, the books of the World of the Five Gods, Bujold’s most expansive fantasy sequence.
Bit of a clunky name for the series, though, I’m not typing it all out every time. Let’s just agree to disagree and refer to this series as 5G.
The first two 5G books, The Curse of Chalion (2000) and The Paladin of Souls (2003), are paired in this way, in time and consequence: so close that they are practically twins. This separates them from the third book, The Hallowed Hunt (2005), a prequel set a few centuries in the past, and from all seven Penric novellas to date, beginning from Penric’s Demon (2015) through to The Orphans of Raspay (2019), which are set in the middle of that temporal gap in the original trilogy. So Penric is separated by at least a century from both tortured Ingrey, in the past, and from traumatized Cazaril and Ista yet to come.
It’s strange to read the Penric novellas soon after reading the early 5G novels. The most striking difference between Cazaril, Ista, and Ingrey on the one hand, and Penric on the other, is that Penric has no trauma. Penric is something of a cartoonish vessel of consolation: he is brilliant, beautiful, good-hearted, educated, dedicated, comes from moderate wealth, has never suffered a day in his life. The demon that possesses him is urbane and sophisticated and no trouble at all, if anything being greatly helpful in sharing her powers and knowledge. This is a jarring shift from the agonies of life and death that Cazaril underwent (or rather, will undergo) in a theologically similar situation. So the 5G books divide neatly by decade of publication: a first decade of trauma and pain and guilt, and a second one of, well, not that. It’s as if Penric’s charmed life had been paid for by the traumas that bracket him in time. Arguably this is true in some sense that lies outside the texts proper and more in the experience of the reader, or at least the reader moving in publication order. I wonder how the 5G sequence would read to someone who read the Penric novellas first: they are light fare by comparison, and perhaps without the anchoring effect of the older novels would seem even lighter. There is a late attempt to give him some depth, but even that is through the pain of being the doctor who just can’t save enough lives—still a far different order of pain.
But it’s true that there is something of that sense of consolation about every 5G protagonist. When we first see Cazaril, he has already undergone all his traumas: he has been abandoned, enslaved, tortured, but all that is in the past. We meet him, a broken man, as he begins on the path of healing. Victories come to him one after the other, small ones and then large ones. And because he is so broken, we welcome them: it feels deserved. He rises in rank and esteem, and while we can see it, he doesn’t always: his traumatized internal narrative takes much longer to catch up with the change in his fortunes than the story itself, allowing us to take comic pleasure in his unknowingness—it feels like a kind of humility, which only strengthens the feeling that he deserves better things. It helps, too, that Cazaril is blameless; all his woes stem from a moment where he was just too virtuous, thus earning a great enmity that almost destroys him. It is that near-destruction, though, that makes him a character worth reading his story through: it is only with his aristocratic privileges and delusions about himself and his society shattered that his perspective is meaningful.
“Stop saying that. We slaves. You are a lord of Chalion!”
Cazaril’s smile twisted. He said gently, “We lords, at our oars, then? We sweating, pissing, swearing, grunting gentlemen? I think not, Palli. On the galleys we were not lords or men. We were men or animals, and which proved which had no relation I ever saw to birth or blood. The greatest soul I ever met there had been a tanner, and I would kiss his feet right now with joy to learn he yet lived. We slaves, we lords, we fools, we men and women, we mortals, we toys of the gods—all the same thing, Palli. They are all the same to me now.”
The Curse of Chalion (2000)
Ingrey, the chronologically earliest protagonist, is quite similar except that he is not (at first) quite as obviously broken as Cazaril; he too shares that sense of blamelessness, the absence of an originary sin, having suffered at his father’s hands as a child, not even understanding what was happening until much later. Though deep in his past, his trauma is ever-present in the form of his deeply, painfully repressed shamanistic inner wolf, which is not technically possession by a demon in the same sense that Penric or Cazaril would understand it, and not technically possessesion by a god in the same sense that Cazaril or Ista would understand it.
Still, despite the technical differences between saints, sorcerors, and shamans in 5G, they all work the same way and perform the same function, which is to connect a character operating in the laukika world with a lokottara power that has its own agenda.
Disease as possession is a familiar metaphor. The rites of the yaktovil, the daha ata sanniya, are about this: the identification, challenge, and exorcism of the demons that cause disease. As a metaphor, though, sanniya exorcism is adaptable. Variations of it have extended beyond the realms of disease per se: it includes exorcising bullet wounds, for instance, in the vedi sanniya, and, most tellingly, in some variations it includes exorcising the other, in the blatant racist xenophobia of the demala sanniya. Sanniya exorcism is therefore ultimately about the demons of fear rather than disease. It is the fear of the bullet, the fear of the other, the fear of disease, in the face of which the rite attempts to provide consolation. Fear is an infection in its own right. Fear is the ur-infection, the plague that runs ahead of every plague, folding them all into its slipstream.
Every imagined society is built upon the coagulation and institutionalization of that fear into its own death politics, the grouping and typing theory by which it defines its selves vs. its others. The foundational relation of that politics is always that there is a superior category, sovereign and supreme, to whom death is a stranger, and then there is an inferior category, the stranger who is, and therefore deserves, death.
Ingrey of The Hallowed Hunt is suffused with pain and loss in the same way as Cazaril, but he is less obviously a good person; he is himself violent and dangerous, and only gradually comes to seem more sympathetic and deserving of being rewarded by the narrative. By the end, though, the redemption of Ingrey’s pain follows the same arc as Cazaril’s. Each of them is rewarded with power, with status, and as if that were not enough, with a romance that integrates them fully back into the laukika world. Heterosexual pairing off is a classic, if tiresome, device of signaling the return to normalcy, and 5G uses it shamelessly: everything ends in a marriage.
Well, not quite, yes—Ista of The Paladin of Souls gets an arrangement rather than a marriage, because she is royalty and the boyfriend is too junior an aristocrat; he becomes her seneschal and lover instead. Ista is not quite like the others in several ways. Her traumas are more complex, more involved. We see her first from a distance in Cazaril’s book, accused of madness; we learn later that her strange statements and behaviours are in fact not insanity but accurate observations of a haunted world. She has been trapped by her marriage into a family doomed to death and misery because of an old curse, a “miasma of ill luck and subtle bitterness” that kills her husband and is accumulating around her children, filling her with anticipatory terror for so long that when her son dies, she responds with a kind of relief. (“The waiting is over. I can stop fearing, now.”)
But perhaps worse than the curse and the deaths is the guilt. Ista was part of a secret experiment to break the curse years ago, in which her friend dy Lutez participated at first willingly—and then, under Ista’s desperation for results, unwillingly, dying in the attempt. To cover up this death, Ista lied about dy Lutez being a traitor, and so perpetuated her guilt. Ista has been not only a victim of the curse but its instrument as well; she feels guilt, similarly, about unknowingly entangling her children into the curse. She can never stop grieving, for the one dead and slandered at her own hand, for the many dead that she lost, for the loved ones who are not yet dead.
MARK: I used to be afraid of you. But I don’t think I am any more.
HEINRICH: There’s nothing to fear except God … whatever that means to you.
MARK: For me, God is a disease.
HEINRICH: That’s why through the disease we can reach God.
This exchange, from Andrzej Żuławski’s film Possession, is both more and less than it seems. At one level it is just banter: Heinrich is cock-of-the-walk playing with Mark’s hostility and antitheism to show off his own moral, spiritual, and sexual superiority. Mark and Heinrich are the erotically rivalrous husband and lover respectively to Anna, played with legendary intensity by Isabelle Adjani. Where the 5G books use romance as a reward for suffering protagonists, Possession is about a marriage not merely disintegrating, but exploding, propelling its protagonists deeper into suffering and self-destruction.
Anna and Ista have a lot in common: for one thing, they both are targets of severe gaslighting, both the regular portion that accompanies the roles of wife and mother, as well as the extra load that comes from marrying grand liars and conspirators.
ANNA: And then I read that private life is a stage, only I’m playing in many parts that are smaller than me … and yet I still play them!
Both Anna and Ista have spent some time in acquiescence to those roles. Ista (under the curse, at least) lives for years in a state of deeply repressed resignation. Anna begins the film by asking for a divorce, she’s been cheating on Mark for a year while he was away, but they do seem to have loved each other once. So Anna, too, must have spent years in resignation and loneliness.
Ista’s husband, the king, is already dead when we meet her. We only learn of his gaslighting ways in flashback—he was a manipulative aristocrat who already had a boyfriend and a generational curse, who wanted to ensure an heir before his wife found out. (She adapted to the boyfriend, but not the curse.) But the drama of the marriage and its destruction is an old ghost in Paladin of Souls, long since exorcised. In Possession, the violent death of the marriage is centre stage. Anna’s husband Mark is played bug-eyed and violently clingy by Sam Neill.
The story is set in West Berlin during the Cold War (the wall is frequently visible) where Mark is some sort of clandestine agent for hire. He is debriefed by a committee of men in dark suits—we later learn they are the authorities, since they will be accompanied by uniformed police in a clearly subordinate role—about a “subject” Mark has cultivated while being away for a long time. Perhaps on the other side of the wall? It is not specified. The subject is a powerful figure who wears pink socks, who Mark appears to have negotiated with or suborned. The committee want to hire Mark back to continue to work with this subject, but he’s come home from spy shenanigans to his marriage falling apart, so he refuses. He insists that they should hand over working with the subject to a successor. Even at the end of the film, though, they’re still trying to recruit him. There is no successor. Whatever Mark has started, they want him to finish: they appeal to him for his help with “the drowning world”. When Mark’s handler approaches him at the end, though, he too has exchanged his anonymous dark suit for a colourful outfit—a green suit, yellow shirt, and … pink socks. It seems that the powers that be are not immune to influences; perhaps the feared power of the “subject” has reached across the boundary and infected them.
Anna says she doesn’t want to leave Mark because she met someone else, though we soon learn she has—but she’s not lying, either. She has not one but two lovers, one laukika, one lokottara. Heinrich is the mundane lover, and he is not the reason Anna is asking for a divorce: he is accepting of her ways and content in his contained role. She wants a divorce because of the other lover, an otherworldly, demonic being, though this is not revealed until we have run the jagged gauntlet of Mark and Anna’s relationship, fraught, violent, and claustrophobic. They cannot coexist any more, they are always violently opposed. It is a marriage bisected by a wall, like the city; instead, they recreate versions of each other within themselves, a reproduction of the other within the self, a version that they can love. They each want to possess their other as completely as possible, no matter who needs to be broken or carved up to make that happen—themselves, their others, or the people around them that they turn into raw material for their desires.
Mark, for instance, is attracted to another woman, Helen, his son’s teacher. He sees—and therefore we see—Helen with Anna’s face, except for her eyes. She’s a gentler, softer Anna, a green-eyed Anna happy to occupy the space that the original blue-eyed Anna so violently rejects, the safe, available carer and nurturer, for Mark and for his son alike. What Mark does to Helen is the same thing he did to Anna: by unseeing her real face, he has replaced her true identity with his version of her. This remains firmly in the laukika however, though; other people do not remark on Helen and Anna’s doppelgänger status (and in fact, Helen and Anna have been well-acquainted as teacher and parent for years), so the transformation is in his perception.
Much of ordinary life may have been disrupted in the extraordinary situation of a global pandemic, but it is telling which parts persist untouched: the social and domestic violence, the racism, the superstitions, the grifts, the failures of crisis response, the ever-ratcheting upswing of state surveillance, the opportunism, the unabated stink of the discourse. This is a constant hazard for Cazaril, Ista, and the others as much as Anna: they are each in constant touch with numinous lokottara powers, they are each graced or cursed by the otherworldly, but at the same time they must navigate the petty violence and politics of mortal life, which has far more power in the world than all the gods and demons put together. In 5G, it is the god that must pass through the eye of the needle to enter and act in the mortal world. In Possession, the otherworldly power relies on the fragile body of Anna for its protection against armed intruders and worldly powers.
Cazaril says to Ista that he is a cup and she is a sword, which is something more than the mere truism that Cazaril is absolutely a bottom and Ista a top. Cazaril is trying to articulate something about possession here, the uses to which a tool may be put by its possessor. A cup is to be filled and emptied out; a sword is for killing. Because of the disparate vicissitudes of their lives, Cazaril is saying, they have each been chosen to fulfil different roles in a divine drama. Cazaril was crafted on a potter’s wheel; Ista was hammered out on a forge. His role is to die as many times as is necessary to break the curse; hers is to kill demons. They are both exorcising functions of different valence.
If Ista is a sword, she spends her first book blunted. Anna is a flail from the opening scene, spiked and always whirling, always striking around corners and past the defenses of men who are older, more violent, more cunning, more experienced, better armed, and more manipulative. Like Ista, she is a paladin, a protector of something that is itself both holy and illegitimate: a bastard god.
Anna’s madness/possession is unlike Ista’s because instead of burying it deep as she is supposed to do, Anna allows it to tear itself out of her, to become self-but-separate as distinct from other. This is the famous “subway scene”, recreated in this much gentler homage by Rosamund Pike: I’m yours, I’m yours, why does the blood never stick to your teeth?
(I like that Pike here also re-enacts Zimmerman’s death scene in brief, the slow slide down a wall on buckling knees.)
Anna’s version of this is raw like a panic attack allowed to run riot. Part of a panic attack is the fear of the panic attack itself—will this be the one that breaks my body, my heart, my mind? So it must be controlled, contained, smoothed out, ridden out. Anna does not smoothen it out; it rips uncontrolled out of her like being possessed by Pan himself, howling at the moon and clawing at the walls. She seems and is possessed, but not by anything more or less than her self, her frightening, wild, undomesticated self infecting the pale and constrained body of this woman-wife-mother doing the grocery shopping. She smashes the groceries because they are abominable, a tangled rat queen’s tail of gendered shopping and religion, motherhood and mealtimes, grim loveless tradwifery under capitalism without end.
In a grimy West Berlin subway passage, her infected body reproduces like a virus, the organic matter that bleeds from her every orifice coagulating eventually into a demon lover, a bloody, tentacled, monstrously unfinished creature. But she protects it and feeds it the meat of threatening men for over a year, until it is at long last finished, at which point it looks exactly like a green-eyed Mark, a doppelgänger husband, her mirror-other, the only version of him that she can stand to love—the version that she (mis)carried within herself.
Unlike Anna’s faux-doppelgänger in Helen, Mark’s doppelgänger is a different order of being in the world. A god, according to Anna, or a disease, infecting and influencing anybody who comes near it—the same thing after all, in the gospel according to Mark. A mirror-other, in Possession, is not othered; it is back on the safe side of the boundary, a green-eyed shard of the self. People are hurt and used up in its making. We can no longer see the bodies of the men who were fed to the demon so that it could grow into the green-eyed Mark. We never once see the true face of Helen, who Mark sees as a green-eyed Anna. Possession is full of possession but there is no exorcism in it, only endless infection, the wilful, repeated violation of the boundaries of the self in the attempt to capture and domesticate the wild other, to reproduce it in an unthreatening form, or at least with its threat reoriented to face outward.
But no matter how much it looks like this has succeeded, possession can never escape that substrate of violence, the death politics of the de-othered body. There is no self in the end, only other: only faces that must always be masked, only collateral meat to be fed to monsters. Both the blue-eyed originals die bloody and bullet-riddled. Only the green-eyed others are left, pristine and untouched, flawless while the world drowns around them.
Chalion’s curse brings a miasma of ill-luck and subtle bitterness: I would have said it reminded me of ours—Kuveni’s curse—except there is nothing about it that is subtle, and none of it was about luck. The divi-dosa, the leopard’s bane, is a curse for kings, much like the curse of Chalion; it is a curse for the guilty, for the murderers, for the oathbreakers. This is an old story, and the magic that was developed in black laboratories to break the curse, the kohomba kankariya, is itself millennia old. Of course, you could quite plausibly argue that the ritual has never worked and the curse remains active to this day. One can only hope that our guilty rulers, our murderer-kings, our oathbreaker parliaments, all someday see the harbinger leopard in their nightmares, its red tongue hanging long and gory. Long may that curse endure.
To be possessed by a curse—to have that shadow fall on you, envelop you—is a fourth kind of possession in 5G, after animal spirits, demons, and gods. In Possession, all of those types are interchangeable. But we can learn from the adaptability of the daha ata sanniya here. To be possessed is a broad category: it means to be violated by the virus, the bullet, the un-person. The integrity of the self is violated through infection, through contact, through the tainted touch. Exorcism is a rite for placing the trauma of that touch in the past; to minimize and mock the demon, the other, to reduce the fear to nothing so that consolation can take its place. Of course that consolation is racist, by design: exorcism’s curse-breaking is not possible without grouping and typing theory, without firming up the boundary between selves and others. The virus, like the bullet before it, must be made to be borne by the un-person. This is why a pandemic does not bring the people of this island together. The language of infection, even comfortable middle-class possession like Penric’s, is always framed in the language of violation. The century-old death politics of this island have constructed Sinhala supremacism as the boundary wall between death as tragedy and—on the outside of that boundary—death as tainted, infected, viral, threatening. The former is mourned in public; the latter must struggle to even be mourned in private.
As a background character in Cazaril’s novel, we see Ista living her pain long before she becomes the protagonist of her own: she is reduced to prayers that go unanswered, even in a world where gods are real. Her every true utterance is treated as evidence of madness; her husband lets her believe herself mad rather than tell her of the curse. Her family and her keepers collude to treat her as insane; therefore, she is definitionally insane. Small surprise, then, that her own book begins with her running away from them. First as runaway, then as pilgrim, and finally as saint, Ista establishes her independence along with her sanity. She never goes back; one way or the other, she never stops moving.
In her own book, The Paladin of Souls, we finally get the same experience of post-traumatic consolation for Ista as we do with Cazaril and Ingrey: it is pleasurable to see her relearn how to be in the world and how to survive in it, and eventually, how to be a power in it again. But unlike Cazaril, who ascends to laukika power through lokottara means, Ista leaves her laukika power behind to take up full-time sainthood. Having defeated her own demons, she finds her life’s work in defeating everybody else’s.
Pain must be made holy: it is not, in itself. It is possession, according to Cazaril, here speaking for his possessor, that retroactively sanctifies pain. Or rather, not even possession itself, but the holy purpose of that possession, the uses to which the infected might be put. Holiness is utility to a higher power.
In the absence of gods, this is a lesson well understood by our possessor, the state—they possess us because they can dispose of us, to paraphrase Paul Atreides, and at this time more than any other, they may dispose as they wish, to homes, to hospitals, to courts, to prisons or out of them, to quarantine camps, to locked-down streets and neighbourhood, out of our houses en masse to the supermarkets and pharmacies, and then back home again, and ultimately, to crematoria regardless of the rites of our choice.
The practical use of those infected (with the coronavirus, with the fear of the coronavirus, with the fear of the other wrongfully blamed for the coronavirus) is to serve as a mass weight of support—the people have spoken, the people who are sovereign—behind the abandonment of fiddly little weak and superfluous details like the choice of last rites, civilian oversight, antiracism, the necessity of more than a single branch of government. We are told that the people have spoken, and what they want is the raw meat of the executive stuffed into the mecha-suit of the military, firing pew pew lasers at the corona till it goes away in time for avurudu, kokis for everyone.
And many people do in fact want exactly this. Like the heart, the people will want what they want. Sometimes, often by default, that is the pew pew lasers of fascism. Sometimes that is a hollow-laugh desire for a measured response to a health crisis that shows some signs of learning from everybody else’s failures rather than painstakingly replicating them, and doesn’t visibly have “can we still get a two-thirds majority in parliament out of this situation somehow” written in crayon on a post-it stuck to the forehead of the National Operations Centre for the Prevention of &c. Sometimes—perhaps most of the time right now—it seems that what the people want is just to run away and hide, and also simultaneously to have a good time while you still can, and perhaps most of all to not have to think about it. Sometimes it is to avoid the baleful robot eye of the mecha-state at all costs: is it surprising that some people will do anything to escape possession? Perhaps these collectively explain why people now violate curfew in numbers unimaginable during wartime, why people run away from quarantine and lie about symptoms. Perhaps a consequence of the state attempting to possess so many, so thoroughly, all at once is the inevitability of a steady bleed of lesser self-exorcisms slipping through their mechanical fingers. What gets lost in the usual masturbation over discipline at about this point is that this reaction is the consequence of an excess of fear. Ruling through fear, in a culture built so strongly on fear of the other, in the time of a pandemic of fear: fear overspills; we are swimming in it.
Fear is not intrinsically bad, nor are all fears fungible. A healthy fear of the virus, coupled with accurate information about it, would save lives. This tremendous excess of fear in all directions is not that. All that well-established xenophobic cultural machinery geared to blame Chinese or Muslim people for all ills adapts easily to blaming them for the coronavirus, too. This is an exorcism of that healthy new fear of disease, replacing it with the comfortable old fear of the other, providing consolation by allowing those so exorcised to fall back on racist demonization and other familiar instruments of the death politics—to be the cup or the sword at the need of their possessor.
We are all sick, now. We are to act as if we are, in public space, whether we are or not, whether we can tell or not; we could be asymptomatic carriers, curfew-breakers, critical-speakers, always and already in violation, one of tens of thousands to be arrested, surveilled, or quarantined. Of course, we are not we, and that pre-existing condition of fragmentation, the grouping and typing theory of social organization, determines the contours of crisis response in the pandemic.
It is long-standing practice in Sri Lankan death politics, for example, for the powerful to police, deny, and violate death customs to those they victimize: from the JVP forbidding the coffins of the people they murdered from being carried higher than the knee, from the Sinhala-dominated state forbidding post-war memorial rituals for the Tamil dead in the war, to the Buddhist-dominated state forbidding burial for the Muslim dead in the pandemic. Each of these forbiddings is petty, vindictive, punitive; they are each not only acts of violence in themselves, but follow-through on existing conditions of violence. In each instance, for the powerful, their fear of the other is so total that the defeat or subjugation of the other is not enough; they must be brought lower than death. We are all sick, but always, some are sicker than others.
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Blood and Dust is a trio of essays about, among other things, Philip Pullman’s paired His Dark Materials/The Book of Dust trilogies and what it means to be, or ideally not be, a Sinhala Buddhist. This is the third and final essay in the set, all brought to you by my patrons, those paragons of virtue and taste. Part 2 was Ruinous; Battering. Fair warning, this one is probably the most depressing of the three.
Theſe Elements in Mutinie
වඳ-fear, the fear of extinction, is widespread, deep-set, and powerfully tied to the root and founding myth of Sinhala Buddhism, which moves simultaneously in both directions: Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country because-therefore Sinhala Buddhism must have the foremost place in Sri Lanka. The possibility of losing that primacy, the threat of losing status and power for the race relative to other races, is what that dreaded extinction looks like in the present day: not losing life, but soul. The fear of extinction is not truly fear of the hard stop at the end, which is after all in the distant future even in the wildest nightmares of the Sinhala supremacist, but of the long decline on the way, which is where they believe we now are. The fear of the slippery slope, the ground already uncertain underfoot.
Of course, in Sri Lanka, race as such (especially in English) is often not how we talk about what are, nevertheless, clearly race-coded issues. We talk instead about ethnicity, culture, religion, majority/minority, north/south, specific historical actors and events. These do all have specific meanings: I don’t mean to suggest that they are always reducible to euphemisms for race. However, they are frequently used in a euphemistic way when what is actually being talked about is race/racism, with the result that many seemingly sober analyses begin by impatiently dismissing race/racism as either irrelevant or insignificant, the province of fringe extremists, and promptly rendering their analyses hollow, no matter how ascetic their sobriety. We are usually told that it’s all actually about something else—class, or the “economy” if you don’t want to say the c-word. Or to put it another way, that the problem is not about race but poverty and precarity.
It would indeed be a simplistic to suggest that all seven million people who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 are racists in the narrow sense of practioners of the local extreme of racist violence. Seven million people might not have seven million distinct reasons for that vote, but there will certainly be many reasons with permutations beyond easy counting. But all those individual reasons are founded upon shared fears, and while the justifiable fear of poverty and precarity is undoubtedly present, perhaps even primary among those fears, in this country all common fears for the self-identified Sinhala polity are framed, organized, and directed by that root වඳ-fear, the fear of slippery soullessness, the fear of a barren Sinhala no-future. It’s not poverty per se: it’s Sinhala poverty against the prosperity of others.
Precarity, economic disenchantment, youth disillusionment: all these things are real social problems, but as long as these anxieties are framed by race, the energies they generate are channelled and directed by racism. Not necessarily the firebombing kind of racism (that too); not even necessarily the kind that deplore-supports (supplores? deplorts?) the firebombing (that too); but rather the kind that sees Sinhala poverty as a problem distinct from වෙන අයගෙ poverty. It is impossible to bridge this fracture without first acknowledging how deep it goes. To even speak of bridging is wildly premature while the state of affairs is deep and ingrained denial.
Much commentary insists on that denial, framed as an optimism less of the will than of the gut. There is something digestive about this optimism, something masticatory. Hope is the fiber of psephology, the reduction of politics to electioneering and the elevation of electoral results to mythic resonance. In victory it manifests as the inability or unwillingness to see naked but tactically useful hypocrisies; in defeat it manifests as imitating the action of the (wounded) lion, stiffening up the sinews, summoning up the Sinha-le. I don’t want to make—and yet so often find myself making—an argument against hope, but the problem is that so much hope is dragged out like last year’s decorations and dumped in public in the very moment of defeat. The moment of defeat is too valuable to be so soiled. There is a clarity that comes from understanding the depth and extent and texture of defeat, its structures and histories. Without that clarity, hope is shallow.
By defeat I don’t here mean electoral defeats alone, or any particular election: I mean also this long defeat of progressive politics, perhaps what Stuart Hall called “the Great Moving Right Show” about the rise of the right in the late 70s—he’s mostly speaking about the UK, but the same is true across much of the world, and certainly here as much as anywhere. This was a rise that never stopped, and which some of us have lived in all our lives, and which continues without serious challenge to date. This is also why recurring post-election discourse in recent years about a newfangled “wave of strongmen” or a “rise in populism” is ridiculous: it’s not that this isn’t happening, it’s just that it’s been ongoing for decades. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not our first strongman president. It would be more accurate to say we have never had a non-strongman (or strongwoman) president, any more than we have ever had a non-racist politics. As an occupied colony or dominion, as an independent republic, even as something that once bore a distorted resemblance to a democratic socialist welfare state, our politics has been defined by racecrafted Sinhala supremacism. That abyssal history is the truth of our defeat.
Perhaps we are also fooled into too-easy hope by stories: it is a popular narrative convention that protagonists must begin deep in defeat to end in triumph. But the sharpest part of that kind of story is not in the triumphant ending; it is more often to be found in the troubled beginning. Not the very beginning but a scene soon after, usually a moment of utter defeat, where the story shows you the depth of what is at stake.
In the 2019 TV adaptation of His Dark Materials, they made two changes to that scene as it is in the book. First, they replaced Tony Makarios with Billy Costa, which makes sense. It’s one fewer Tony to keep track of, and presumably one fewer child actor to wrangle, not to mention making the scene that much more painful because we see and relate to the Costas more in the show, which is of course the whole point. But the second change is trickier. They took the dried fish away from Billy.
Taking the fish away is the heart of the scene in the first place. In the book, the boy—who has been severed from his daemon by the villains, having had his soul cut away—is near death, and is pathetically clinging to a dried fish in its place when Lyra finds him. When she and her allies are attempting to make him comfortable, some adult thoughtlessly takes the fish away from him because he doesn’t understand its symbolic value to the boy, or to this scene. When Lyra asks where the fish is, people respond with nervous laughter, and Lyra responds:
“Don’t you dare laugh! I’ll tear your lungs out if you laugh at him! That’s all he had to cling onto, just an old dried fish, that’s all he had for a dæmon to love and be kind to! Who’s took it from him? Where’s it gone?”
Lyra Belacqua, in His Dark Materials
This is one of the ways in which we know that Lyra understands instantly the true horror of the intercision of souls, well before any of the adults have processed it. It is important because it shows what happens when you lose your soul, which is that you cling to whatever you might find at hand that at least looks like a soul, something that approximates a lost soul’s shape and size and the memory of life, even if it is long dead and dessicated.
It’s important to the story that we see Lyra understand the cost of the dried fish: that it is beyond price. It is even important that someone should take it away from the boy, because that is how the story is able to demonstrate that the appropriate response to that loss is rage. The story, at least in that first book, understands the value of exploring defeat.
On the other hand, when the show removes the fish from the narrative entirely, when there is no fish, only a boy—when the text itself is playing the part of the random man who does not understand the value of a symbol—it is left to the watcher (or perhaps more accurately, the reader) to play Lyra’s part and ask, who took it from him? And of course, it does make sense that a TV adaptation in 2019 would do this. The Great Moving Right Show has done a lot of moving this quarter-century: perhaps a scriptwriter found it too obvious, too belaboured, too sentimental. Of course this is about defeat and loss, they might say, but what is even defeat and loss except the whole world as we know it? There has never been an alternative, so why dwell on a fish?
(I feel like I am arguing for the space between samudaya and nirodha here. Between cause and cure there are many questions to which the answers are beyond price: is this proximate cause or ultimate cause? Is this cause or correlation? Are there biases in the questions? Are there buried assumptions in the questions that are still there in the answers? Is the apparatus faulty? Who paid for this? This is why this essay will break with genre tradition and not end on a note of hope and exhortation. This essay is only meant to trouble.)
We—and here I mean Buddhists, including unbuddhists like myself—don’t have souls. This is not exactly what anatta means, but also, it sort of is. We are not, or at least were not supposed to be, a tripartite array of discrete components. Except we are that, now, like everybody else. For us, the horror is not intercision of souls but the grand intercession that ensouled us in the first place: the invention, between the late 19th and the mid 20th centuries, partly imperial and partly postcolonial, of the Christianized, modern, political Buddhism, which today is the standard establishment Theravada of Sinhala Buddhism, and more importantly, the selfhood that it makes out of us. The soul grafted on to us, dead on arrival: we have an old dried fish in our hands and are beating ourselves to death with it.
The ſtedfaſt Earth
In the long run, you can think of the Sinhala fear of extinction as a straightforwardly true prophecy, in one (or both) of two ways; it’s just that neither of those ways are the one that the fear itself is concerned with.
The first is the way of hope. This is the idea that the painful fiction of “race” can become extinct through people collectively, gradually learning how to disengage from it, to harmlessly discharge the energy, the mythic resonance, and the emotion that it has been imbued with for several generations. Nothing becomes extinct here except an idea that was never even ours, and which has caused only horror. The optimism of the spleen, if you will. It’s a lovely idea. I wish I believed it was possible.
The second way, which has the unfortunate quality of being real and underway, is the way of despair. It is that the greater crisis will overtake this fear of extinction and annihilate it along with much of the contested sacred land. This is the pessimism of the gallbladder. It is full of bile, you see.
These are Sri Lanka’s final decades as we know it. How do we know this? We are neck-deep in true prophecies.
The pessimism of the gallbladder teaches us that grandiose climate agreements will not be enforced or followed. Meanwhile, we are deep into the business-as-usual scenario already. Many writings on the subject still persist in the unearned optimism of the spleen and waffle about 1.5 degrees when we are already looking at much worse than that, and that is only going to accelerate. Weather, like racism, can no longer be defined as the local extreme of itself, because extreme weather is already becoming, simply, weather.
Our low-lying coasts will go under: the island whose territory was mythically sanctified by Buddha’s three-point landing, that sacred, prophesied island whose perfect unity vs. unitarity has been fought over for so long, will be unceremoniously redelimited by the sea. Almost all of us will live in moderate to severe climate hotspots in just three decades—there will probably still be Rakapaksas in politics at that time. Between the sea, the storms, the floods, the landslides, the bad air, the heat, the food shortages, and the indifference of our elites who will simply decamp when it gets messy, many Sri Lankans will become climate refugees.
All of this is in the next few decades; many of the people who will live it are already alive. By the next century, given the ongoing net global failure to act on climate change, Sri Lanka will be uninhabitable, along with much of the rest of South Asia. For this nation, there will be no twenty-second century.
For Sinhala climate refugees, the fear of racial extinction will lose some ground to true fears, but it will also become a rallying cry, a performance of the devoured past ever more frantic because of its attenuation. Sinhalaness will not, more’s the pity, simply go away by itself. This is the business-as-usual scenario of race and its story of blood: unlike climate, it doesn’t change. It is a fixed idea, still the hammer that made a nail of the world. It does not go away; it can only be relentlessly recognized and disavowed at every turn. How to do that, how to break it so it stays broken, is not an easy question. Any easy answer is a trap.
In this multiverse, there is no Dust to grace us, like Lyra, with the gift of understanding deep truths without effort; like the other readers of the alethiometer, we have before us only the possibility of doing the lifetime’s work to understand those truths on our own—and while we read and think and try to understand, to not allow ourselves to be co-opted by the grinding Magisteria of our worlds as most alethiometer-readers seem to.
“We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”
John Parry, in The Amber Spyglass
When Parry, Will, and Lyra speak of the Republic of Heaven in The Amber Spyglass, they are contrasting it with the more traditional Kingdom of Heaven: the idea is, stripped to the bone, is simply that people must try and make life on Earth a heaven instead of waiting for bliss in a next life. This is a profound idea but also a greeting-card truism, or perhaps more charitably a well-worn slogan, that the point is not to interpret the world but to change it.
What becomes of this idea when we have already made of Earth a hell? Given its own premises—because for us there is still no elsewhere—it would seem at first that nothing changes and we must work toward a People’s Republic of Hell. But those premises are themselves shopworn. Heaven and Hell are not fungible: this is the error of shallow hope, the hope that does not reckon with the depth of defeat.
Like Parry’s rejection of the Kingdom of Heaven, Sinhala Buddhism’s political turn in the 1940s and 50s—during the slow process of independence from the British Empire—put away childish things such as questions of soul and spirit and salvation, nirvana banished not just to the next life but to a future life unimaginably distant from the concerns of the day, to instead build the infernal republic of their heaven where they were. In this they succeeded: the Citizenship Act, the Sinhala Only Act, the 1972 constitution with Buddhism’s primacy written down in black and white. “For us there is no elsewhere” is to this day their rallying cry: that they have only this one sanctified island.
But perhaps John Parry is not the right voice for us to hear about the Republic of Heaven. In his mouth it just turns to ashes. Let’s hear it from Lyra instead, so we can hear the better version, too.
“He meant the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place […] we have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build …”
Lyra Silvertongue, in The Amber Spyglass
Ever since the rise of the right forty years ago—which is to say, ever since the neoliberal turn, the pilot episode of the Great Moving Right Show —the rulers of the world posited a new Kingdom of Heaven of their own: endless growth, endless prosperity, an end to troublesome history, capitalocene without end. And in that same forty years, at the very same time, those same rulers went to war with that same Kingdom of Heaven and overthrew it: plundered and exhausted its resources, burned through the world. A future conjured and destroyed at once, in the same movement. The price of this necromancy—in exchange for that beautiful moment of value for the shareholders—is the transition from capitalocene to chthulucene, or, more likely, the very cthulhucene that Haraway refuses, Black Tom’s revenge. This long moment of our lives when, it seems, the mask is always coming off.
Lyra’s tactical injunction to study, think, and work hard is straightforward regurgitation of Protestant work ethic; her definition of the republican affect is composed of childishly sensible commonplaces—kind, curious, patient—but cheerful is where the British child-hero’s sheer grating Britishness becomes disturbing, evoking that old chinuppery, a stiff-upper-lippery, a calm to keep in all this carrying on, the colonizer’s smug self-soothing. For everyone else, it is a reminder that overthrowing gods and heavens is far easier than overthrowing empire and its hellspawn, race and nation. As Lyra learns, overthrowing heaven is easier than overthrowing the church, too.
Sinhala culture will never overthrow its temples in the time it has left, of course, no matter how degraded its gods have already become: the pessimism of the gallbladder teaches us that. The temples will not be overthrown by too-few hands and too-weak wills, but they will fall to smog and sea and storm anyway. This is what it means to have one crisis overtaken by another. It’s been only a few decades since the Muhudu Viharaya was excavated and restored to the beach where it now stands—and where it has spent a lot of that time being a flashpoint for Sinhala anti-Muslim racism—and soon enough to be moot, when the sea takes back what it is owed.
I don’t argue against hope and cheer out of a love of misery; I argue against them because they manifest too soon in their shallowest form, as denial. Even this could seem harmless but for the things that are lost to drowning in those acidic shallows; grief, despair, and rage are a fragile mangrove biome, but somewhere in that swamp grows the ability to finally learn from plentiful defeat, to look for not only the roots of things but the underwater joins between those roots, the connections at once occulted and obvious, to find the everyday Sinhala/Buddhist daemon that’s been in our face the whole time, to understand how desperately we need intercision.