Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Ventriloquist

"For Ventriloquy, or speaking from the bottom of the Belly, 'tis a thing I think as strange and difficult to be conceived as any thing in Witchcraft, nor can it, I believe, be performed in any distinctness of articulate sounds, without such assistance of the Spirits, that spoke out of the Daemoniacks."

From Joseph Glanvil's Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681).

After the eighteenth-century Englightenment ventriloquism was absorbed into popular culture as entertainment. But the notion of the doll that finds a life of its own was also to have its own rebirth in gothic literature, grotesque thrillers and in the horror market /film industry.

In 2000 Oxford University Press published Steve Connor's wonderful history and critical analysis of 'ventriloquism':

"By `ventriloquism', I mean, not merely the practice of making one's voice appear to proceed from elsewhere - although I am, indeed, interested in the history of this particular form of entertainment or illusion. I use the word to designate all of the many forms which may be taken by sourceless, or dissociated or displaced voices, along with the various explications of such voices and ascriptions of source to them. This makes for an exhilaratingly, perhaps even a nerve-wrackingly large subject, which has no very good reason to exclude such disparate and historically far-flung examples as the following, many (but not all) of which are discussed in Dumbstruck:"

You can read more about his book and his archive here.

Raphael Salkie, writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement stated that the book was

erudite and broad in scope. Its strength is the way it links cultural phenomena in new ways ... Connor gives us an intelligent study of a domain of skilful cultural creativity, against a background of several millennia of appalling irrational behaviour.

The book is available on Kindle and in a Hardback Edition.

The Grotesque in Catch-22

"Heller wallows in his own laughter and finaly drowns in it. What remains is a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behaviour the children fall into when they know they are losing our attention" New Yorker Review (1961) by Whitney Balliett.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 has been a cult book and a bestseller since its publication fifty years ago in 1961.

It’s a difficult book to frame, define, or to catch in a critical net. For that reason it is appealing to those of us with a taste for the grotesque – a place were opposites collide and interconnect.

Catch-22 sits between the mechanistic worlds of the military-industrial complex of modernism, the bureaucratic nightmares of Kafka and the dead ends of postmodernism. It has become a cult book that rises above passing fashions because it appeals to our sense that there is something comic, absurd, and degenerate in human nature.

When I try to define the novel in formal terms, I recall Wolfgang Kayser’s description of an earlier protean novel of winding circularities, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy which was written two hundred years earlier:

“I emphatically subscribe to the classification of Sterne as a writer of the grotesque, for the categories of humour, satire and irony […] fail to do full justice to the form and content of Tristram Shandy.”

I’m also reminded of that other great writer, Jonathan Swift, and I suggest that there are manifest similarities to Catch-22 in (1) the playful metamorphosis of logic into grotesque absurdities (2) the collapse of spirit or reason into an obsession with the body and body functions (3) and interest in regimes of terror and discourses of containment. If you’ve read Gulliver’s Travels (1726) you will know what I mean.

There is a striking example of the grotesque on several levels in an early part of the novel.

“The soldier in white was encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze.

Sewn into the bandages over the insides of both elbows were zippered lips through which he was fed clear fluid from a clean jar. A silent zinc pipe rose from the cement on his groin and was coupled to a slim rubber hose that carried waste from his kidneys and dripped it efficiently into a clear, stoppered jar on the floor. When the jar on the floor was full, the jar feeding his elbow was empty, and the two were simply switched quickly so that the stuff could drip back into him.”

The notion of a soldier in white is the first clue to a hypocritical sanitization of the dirty business of war. Also, the grotesque typically has a focus on the liminal intersection between inside and outside (mouth/anus/genitals) that comes into play in this quotation. An additional level of the grotesque shifts between body/machine and the natural/artificial (the ‘zippered’ lips). The machine-like and the non-human are also picked up in the ‘silent’ and ‘efficiently’. In the filth of the recycled world excretion of urine is just another version of ingestion. It is an apt metaphor for the military-industrial complex as an input/output bureaucracy devoid of moral integrity or ethical standards.

If the human body has a grotesque logic so does the human mind. Here then is one version of the famous Catch-22

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

I mentioned Kafka (above) but one also thinks of the doublespeak and bureaucratic hypocrisies that George Orwell explored in 1984.

The ability of Catch-22 to sit between popular culture and the canonical (literary works) best explains its enduring appeal to a wide readership. This view is admirably summarised by Howard Jacobson in his introduction to the Vintage Classics edition (2004). For him the book is ‘positioned’

“between literature and literature's opposites – between Shakespeare and Rabelais and Dickens and Dostoevsky and Gogol and CĂ©line and the Absurdists and of course Kafka on the one hand, and on the other vaudeville and slapstick and Bilko and Abbott and Costello and Tom and Jerry and the Goons (if Heller had ever heard of the Goons).”

Further Reading

Meindl, Dieter.  American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque. University of Missouri Press (1996)

“By synthesising Kayser's and Bakhtin's views of the grotesque and Heidegger's philosophy of "Being", this work demonstrates that American fiction has tried to convey the existentialist dimension: the pre-individual totality which defines itself against the mind and its linguistic capacity.”

McNeil, David. The Grotesque Depiction of War and the Military in Eighteenth-century English Fiction. University of Delaware Press; illustrated edition edition (1990)

“A discussion of the tradition of grotesque portrayals of war and the military, especially their proliferation in Restoration and eighteenth-century English literature. Swift's the Travels is examined in particular, as well as the novels of Smollett, Fielding, and Stern. Illustrations of graphic satire by Hogarth and others.”

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

We Need to talk About Kevin's Dirty Protests

We Need to talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is not a book that you would recommend to pregnant mothers and/or their partners. Despite its disturbing subject matter, it is not a difficult book to read. But at times its ambiguities make one ponder and reflect.

The book plays on anxieties that parents may have about their role and influence. It raises questions about their ability to shape their child's upbringing towards forming a happy and well-integrated child. Kevin moves from shitty protest to sociopath; his parents shift from aspiration to despair. The narrative of massacres in public places is now all too familiar, but still not well understood, if indeed it is comprehensible to understand massacre beyond the notion of  A Singularity of Evil and Celebrity Seeking Media Event.

I've not yet seen the film but the book is best described as grotesque, harrowing, and ambiguous. Recent British reviews have suggested that the film is presented in the horror genre. For me the book is more of a psychological thriller and possibly a political allegory.

Reviewing the book for The Guardian in 2003, Sarah A Smith noted a tendency to exaggeration that works against a more realistic approach and a more credible explanatory model.

Shriver isn't writing about ordinary motherhood or an ordinary boy, however, and this is where the novel begins to feel dishonest. Kevin is a monster, a gross caricature of childhood.[...] By linking motherhood's most ordinary fears to this cartoon horror, Shriver exploits parents' very worst thoughts - that somehow, despite their best efforts, their offspring will turn out to be sociopathic - while undermining them with the implication that really, raising a mass murderer is just one of those things, much like mastitis.

We Need to talk About Kevin was described by The Daily Mail as a novel that

Knocks you sideways and takes your breath away ... horrifying, original, witty, brave and deliberately provocative.

The Daily Telegraph suggested that

This superb, may layered novel intelligently weighs the culpability of parental nurture against the nightmarish possibilities of an innately evil child.

What intrigued me was the mother's more sympathetic moments of comprehension that shift the moral judgment into more questionable zones.

But underneath the fury, I was astonished to discover, lay a carpet of despair. He wasn't mad. he was sad. (280)

She is also honest about her role as domestic violator / victim / perpetrator

... the additional humiliation of living, for over six years now, up to my elbows in shit (228)

I threw him halfway across the nursery. (229)

I had committed a war-crime (237) 

In a world so dominated by evil and wickedness the only thing that surprizes are the 'unremembered acts of human kindness' that the Romantic poet William Wordsworth managed to summon up as the true pulse of poetry and life.

But the reality for our world is more bleak. Our minds are now accommodated to monstrous acts of torture, massacre and war; as Kevin's mother admits

Holocausts do not amaze me. [...] Kevin does not amaze me. (250)

The problems of toilet training and associated psychological damage have been well documented. But one also recalls the politics of the dirty protests, such as those that occurred during the Dirty Protests of the IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland.

Why Kevin is protesting we don't discover, but the political dimension is a nagging question that the novel hints at but never fully exposes

I gather that you can make bombs, for example, out of methanating manure. For his part, Kevin, too, ran a seat-of-the-pants operation, and Kevin too, had learned to form a weapon from shit. (223)

Perhaps most shocking then is the sense that the family is presented as a site of struggle and power. If we are to believe the mother's account, the evil family is a microsm of the larger wickendness that defines our political world:

The crude truth is that parents are like governments: We maintain our authority through the threat, overt or implicit, of physical force.  (239)

More shocking still is the sense that Kevin's nihilism is a critique of American education, society and politics. In a curious twist of irony he shifts in his friend Lenny's eyes from being the Resident Evil to Redeeming Messiah:

You took the heat like some superhero, like --- like you was Jesus. (314)

Kevin is less of a caricature and more of a contradiction. Massacre is grotesque territory in deed.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Invertebrate English

"Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable soddingrotters, the flaming sods, the sniveling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulse-less lot that make up England today. They've got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it's a marvel they can breed."

D. H. Lawrence, 1912

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Irish Giant - Charles O'Brien

Hilary Mantel, whose novel Wolf Hall enjoyed critical praise is also the author of a novel called The Giant, O'Brien. Charles Byrne (1761 – 1783), also known as Charles O'Brien or "The Irish Giant", was a human curiosity. Byrne's corpse was bought by John Hunter and his 7 ft 7 in skeleton now belongs to the Royal College of Surgeons Hunterian Museum in London. Review

Like Andrew Miller and Penelope Fitzgerald, Hilary Mantel turns to the 18th century in order to make a universal point. Her eighth novel, The Giant, O'Brien, takes place during that bifurcation of mind and spirit commonly known as the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment. The year is 1782 and Charles O'Brien has fled Ireland, bringing both his massive frame and his ancient folk tales to England, where he hopes to make his fortune as a sideshow exhibit.
"His appetite was great, as befitted him; he could eat a granary, he could drink a barrel. But now that all Ireland is coming down to ruin together, how will giants thrive? He had made a living by going about and being a pleasant visitor who fetched not just the gift of his giant presence but also stories and songs ... many hearths had welcomed him as a prodigy, a conversationalist, an illustration from nature's book. Nature's book is little read now, and he thought this: I had better make a living in the obvious way. I will make a living from being tall."
Unfortunately, O'Brien's height attracts more attention than he might wish for: John Hunter, a surgeon, becomes fascinated with the giant and obsessed with the possibility of dissecting him after he's dead. Thus Mantel sets up the central conflict of her novel: Hunter's thirst for knowledge and fame versus O'Brien's conviction that, without his body, his soul cannot go to heaven. In the mean streets of 18th-century London, the author explores the division of soul and body, imagination and rationalism, as she juxtaposes the two men's lives. In this collision of cultures and paradigms, she offers no easy answers, but instead turns a disturbing spotlight on questions that continue to resonate to the present day. --Alix Wilber


'[A] novel that magically creates an illusion of the Age of Enlightenment. Hilary Mantel puts the stink of the eighteenth century into our nostrils.' Independent

'A novelist of remarkable diversity!She writes about curiosity, companionship, art, love, death and eternity. She writes with wit, compassion and great elegance. Her books never fail to surprise, nor to delight: in this one she is at her very best - so far.' Independent on Sunday 'Mantel can out-write most writers of her generation, male and female. What she has done here is disturbing, grievous and extraordinary.' Maggie Gee, Sunday Times

'Filled with bizarre happenings, brazen images and characters whose earthiness you can smell.' TES 'Hilary Mantel has felt herself into the poetics of history with singular intensity.' New York Review 'Pathos and humour as they are elsewhere in the book are blended to perfection.' Sunday Telegraph

'Simultaneously vigorous and poetic, full of satisfying earthy details.' Sunday Independent (Ireland)

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters - Parody


The reinterpretation of Jane Austen's novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) will be followed with the release of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters... The books were created by US-based publishing house, Quirk Books. Jason Rekulak, the editorial director, said he pioneered the format after meeting dozens of Austen fans at a Californian sci-fi convention. He told the Independent that he was a "lifelong fan" of the works of Jules Verne, and thought it would be fun to enliven the follow-up with some rampaging giant squid and man-eating octopuses...'
--The Telegraph, 13 August 2009

The crossover between fans of Jane Austen and lovers of B-movie horror is small, but it is enough to warrant a follow-up to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. An instant classic that saw the Bennet sisters meet the undead, it sold more than half a million copies in English and was then translated into 17 languages. This follow-up literary 'mash-up' has the Dashwood girls looking for love in a watery England at the mercy of vengeful sea creatures. Forget sprained ankles in Devonshire, Ben Winters has introduced a gigantic, man-eating jellyfish and packed the poor girls off to the Pestilent Isle under the care of retired adventurer Sir John Middleton, who sports a necklace of human ears, while Colonel Brandon's sideburns are a horrific abberation. Winters lets Austen set the tone and the plot swims surprisingly faitfully in her wake. It's a very silly conceit, mixing Regency manners with a Jules Verne topography, but it is as attention-grabbing as a two-headed creature rising from the deep, while diving suits are far more becoming than frocks.
--The Guardian, 3 October 2009

Product Description

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is expanded edition of the beloved regency romance--with thrilling all-new scenes of giant lobsters, rampaging octopi, two-headed sea serpents, and other biological monstrosities. As our story opens, the Dashwood sisters are evicted from their childhood home and sent to live on a mysterious island full of savage creatures and dark secrets. While sensible Elinor falls in love with Edward Ferrars, her romantic sister Marianne is courted by both the handsome Willoughby and the hideous man-monster Colonel Brandon. Can the Dashwood sisters triumph over meddlesome matriarchs and unscrupulous rogues to find true love? Or will they fall prey to the tentacles which are forever snapping at their heels? With many strange and wonderful illustrations throughout, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters invades the prim and proper world of Jane Austen with the outrageous mythology of Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft, Lost, Spongebob Squarepants, Red Lobster, and Popeye the Sailor. Let the monster mash-up begin.

Absurdity, Hogarth, and The Bathos

William Hogarth (British, 1697–1764)
The Bathos, or Manner of Sinking in Sublime Paintings, inscribed to the Dealers in Dark Pictures
Etching and engraving, 1764

The Bathos is intrinsic to the fallen world presented in satire; as society decays into chaos the world comes to an end.

William Hogarth's "THE BATHOS, or Manner of Sinking, in Sublime Paintings, Inscribed to the Dealers in Dark Pictures [...] See the manner of disgracing ye most Serious Subjects, in many celebrated Old Pictures; by introducing Low, absurd, obscene & often prophane Circumstances into them."

The poet Alexander Pope also wrote an essay on bathos.

Lady into Fox: A Sign of the Times

When I was a boy one of the most enchanting, curious, and queer stories that I heard on the BBC Radio 4 was Lady into Fox by David Garnett.

Published in 1922 it was his first novel under his own name. I was reminded of it last night during another Radio encounter; on this occasion the voice was Ruth Padell's in her exploration on BBC Radio 3 of the role of the fox in our social, cultural and political life.

Garnett's fairy-tale for adults begins by informing us that

Wonderful or supernatural events are not so uncommon, rather they are irregular in their incidence. Thus there may be not one marvel to speak of in a century, and then often enough comes a plentiful crop of them; monsters of all sorts swarm suddenly upon the earth, comets blaze in the sky, eclipses frighten nature, meteors fall in rain, while mermaids and sirens beguile, and sea-serpents engulf every passing ship, and terrible cataclysms beset humanity.

The narration is artful and pathetic and that's the key to its attraction: the perfection of a tone of voice that draws the reader into the bizarre situation:

Yet I would not dissuade any of my readers from attempting an explanation of this seeming miracle because up till now none has been found which is entirely satisfactory. What adds to the difficulty to my mind is that the metamorphosis occurred when Mrs. Tebrick was a full-grown woman, and that it happened suddenly in so short a space of time. The sprouting of a tail, the gradual extension of hair all over the body, the slow change of the whole anatomy by a process of growth, though it would have been monstrous, would not have been so difficult to reconcile to our ordinary conceptions, particularly had it happened in a young child. But here we have something very different. A grown lady is changed straightway into a fox. There is no explaining that away by any natural philosophy. The materialism of our age will not help us here.

The monstrous transformation provides an opportunity to examine the role of women, the institution of marriage and inevitably the politics of fox-hunting. In fox hunting, of course, far more is at stake than the appealing or detested creature that stalks the country and the town.

Mr. Tebrick and Fox With Stereoscope

Just how significant the fox is in British culture was demonstrated by the fact that the ban on 'hunting with dogs' required the British government to deploy the 1949 Parliament Act in order to proceed to enactment. And that Act has only been used four times in the last half century:
  1. War Crimes Act 1991, which extended jurisdiction of UK courts to acts committed on behalf of Nazi Germany during the Second World War (the only time that the Parliament Acts have been used by a Conservative government).
  2. European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, which changed the system of elections to the European Parliament from first past the post to a form of proportional representation.
  3. Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, which equalised the age of consent for male homosexual sexual activities with that for heterosexual and female homosexual sexual activities at 16.
  4. Hunting Act 2004, which prohibited hare coursing and (subject to some exceptions) all hunting of wild mammals (particularly foxes) with dogs after early 2005.
More than just a fox, then?

Fox Lying on Cushions

Monday, 10 October 2011

Monster Deficits and Grotesque Politics

It's entertaining and instructive to observe how the Left and Right in politics compete for ownership of Frankenstein and his Progeny.

This one's quite well known now and depicts The Irish Frankenstein (Punch 1886)

Monsters and banking seem to be happy bedfellows in the satirist's imagination:

"Jackson slays the many-headed monster of the Second Bank of the United States (1836)"

I suspect in the next example it's the victim that looks more disturbing than the smiling monster.

(The Banker runs off with the nation's wealth?)

The Monstrous State and the Grotesque Empire

Doubting Castle

As an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews, I was taught Philosophy of Religion by John Haldane. It was 1986. The Philosophy departments were divided between Moral Philosophy in one half of the Gothic building, Logical and Metaphysics in the other. The building known as Edgecliffe was perched on the Cliff facing the Scores, on one side, and the North Sea on the other. There was the sense of being part of a long and venerable tradition of Scottish philosophy. But there was a sense also of the urgency of moral questions and life and death situations.

I recollect that Dr Haldane (now Professor) used to hang precariously out of a high window in the Moral Philosophy Department and ask us to spot errors in logic, urging us to construct arguments against suicide or war, or any other moral topic of the hour, as he bit voraciously into his 'final' apple. He's now a Professor of Philosophy and Papal Advisor to the Vatican.

The renowned Haldane family apparently includes J.B.S. Haldane, the Marxist, geneticist and evolutionary biologist. (He also appears in a disturbing 1940 film that records the successful experiments in the resuscitation of life to dead animals (dogs), as conducted by Dr. S.S. Bryukhonenko at the Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy, Voronezh, U.S.S.R.).

My research on J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) suggests an artful, intriguing and entertaining fusion of theology, teratology and politics. The following quotations hint at his ability to range across multiple domains. On his view, small is beautiful. It's an argument that he extends to a debate about the future of socialism. Empires are monsters that are unable to function well in reality. Politically systems are more effect when they main a due proportionality; when they avoid gigantically over-reaching themselves.

J. B. S. Haldane's discussion begins with a recollection of the Christian allegory Pilgrim's Progress (1678):

"Let us take the most obvious of possible cases, and consider a giant man sixty feet high-about the height of Giant Pope and Giant Pagan in the illustrated Pilgrim’s Progress of my childhood. These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bone had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step. This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens one’s respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer."

[...] "To the biologist the problem of socialism appears largely as a problem of size. The extreme socialists desire to run every nation as a single business concern. I do not suppose that Henry Ford would find much difficulty in running Andorra or Luxembourg on a socialistic basis. He has already more men on his pay-roll than their population. It is conceivable that a syndicate of Fords, if we could find them, would make Belgium Ltd or Denmark Inc. pay their way. But while nationalization of certain industries is an obvious possibility in the largest of states, I find it no easier to picture a completely socialized British Empire or United States than an elephant turning somersaults or a hippopotamus jumping a hedge."

From J.B.S. Haldane On Being the Right Size [1928]

On Being the Right Size and Other Essays (Oxford University Press 1985)

Political Teratology is a common topic in satirical prints and illustrations as this example shows:

"The Hydra of Socialism. You Beat Them Down in Vain; They Always Grow Back."

It shows Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877) with the Club of Common Sense trying to destroy the hydra-headed socialist monster.

Clearly, theological /allegorical monsters have become more ideological, compared to those of Bunyan.

"So he went on, and Apollyon met him. Now the monster was hideous to behold: he was clothed with scales like a fish, and they are his pride; he had wings like a dragon, and feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke; and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion. When he was come up to Christian, he beheld him with a disdainful countenance, and thus began to question him."

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress