Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Book Review: Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life"

“The Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang
Read Tuesday, September 5, 2017

First, let me say, I watched Arrival, prior to Chiang's story which it was based on. I found Arrival’s plot moving and ideas compelling. I was surprised, after reading the story itself, at how much of a departure the film was from it. I would like to say something about that departure and what I think of it, but let's start with the story itself.


I don’t like pigeon-holing any creative work, but since you have to start somewhere, I think it is safe to say this is a story primarily about two things: free will and language's effects on how we live. After reading the story I recommended it to my  mom, whose first response was, “it’s sad.” Considering Chiang's overall story arc, that is an interesting first observation to make. The structure of “Story of Your Life” is composed of two interweaving plots. The first arc concerns Laurie Banks as she narrates her daughter's life to her, as yet, unborn daughter. This narration is told from multiple historical perspectives and so prefigures the sense of timelessness that the second structural element will deal with. The story of the family is fairly simple, Laurie meets her husband Gary during a research project. They eventually fall in love and have a daughter. At the age of 25 their daughter dies during a hiking trip. After her death, we assume, Gary leaves Laurie in grief. 

The second story concerns this research project. An alien species, referred to as heptapods, have mysteriously appeared on Earth. They have presented communication devices called "looking glasses" that the military and scientists are using to communicate with them. This second story arc is concerned primarily with the nature of the heptapod's language. Their language is reflected by their anatomy. The heptapods have a cylindrical structure, no front, no back. The military recruits the mother of the family, Louise, a linguist, in an attempt at interpreting the heptapod’s language. Her partner in research, Gary, will ultimately become her husband. We know from the first page of the book that their daughter will die and that they will divorce. What links these two story lines is the nuance the heptapod language adds to each of their responses to their daughter’s death. To go back to my mom’s reaction, is this a sad or a happy story? The meaning to that question is tied to the meaning of the story.

But before I can say more about the story’s larger purpose, I have to give a fuller account of the heptapod’s language. Chiang is doing here what SF does best, he is conducting a thought experiment. He imagines a civilization with a language based on Fermat’s Principle of Least Time. Fermat’s principle runs contrary to our basic intuition of how the world operates. We see things as operating causally. From our perspective events occur linearly, in a string. Object "A" hits Object "B" causing Object "B" to roll over and hit Object "C." Fermat’s principle, on the contrary, presents a view of physics that is teleological. In other words, events are dictated by their end, not by a cause. For example, a refracted beam of light as it enters a pool of water moves in the direction it does because that is the best way for the beam of light to get to its destination, not because something compelled it to move in the direction it is moving. Its goal is to reach its end in either the minimum or maximum amount of time. This strange idea, that a beam of light could know where it would end up, suggests a physics that is not causal but teleological. 

Chiang's example of causal relations is depicted through the military figures in the story who want to conduct a series of gift exchanges with the heptapods. Their logic is, "We give them some of our technology, they give us some of theirs." Their interactions with the heptapods are much less nuanced and subtle than Laurie and Gary's interactions. Unlike the military, Laurie's initial interactions are grounded on trust rather than suspicion. Laurie also realizes that coming to understand the heptapods is far more important and valuable than gaining any technological information. 

Chiang refers to the heptapod’s language as semagrams. We are likely intended to think of Chinese ideograms, where a picture represents an idea rather than a sound. Semagrams, unlike glottographics (writing that represents speech), represent thought without any reference to speech. They are semasiographic, that is, they conveys meaning through signs or icons rather than speech or sound. The consequence is that this language is not confined to the linearity that speech and sound are necessarily confined to. We listen to sounds from beginning to end. Pictures can be viewed from any point. They are not dependent on time. It is these images independence from time that gives them their multidimensionality and freedom from causality.

Another friend of mine, Larry Jamison, noticed the link between the viewing screen, called a “looking glass” and the looking glass from the second of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Alternate languages suggest alternate ways of being and existing, like another dimension, or Alice’s Wonderland. I think Larry is on target in making this link.

I say all this, but I still sense I’m missing significant elements of Chiang’s story. What is the final verdict? Is the story merely asking us to think in a broader and less localized, cause and effect, type mentality? Or is it richer than that? The purpose of the story of the mother and daughter is to illustrate how one might think in a non-casual mode. The mother seems to examine the life of her daughter from many angles of time, always taking into account the past and future of that moment. This is part of what Chiang is up to. 

One other aspect to consider is where this story fits within the larger scope of science fiction. Surely, there are scores of stories that consider how one's language shapes one's world view. I'm not deeply read in classic SF, so my examples are limited, but the two books I first thought of were Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 and China Miéville's Embassytown. Unlike Chiang's short story, these novels give much greater scope to the potentials and pitfalls of language. Delany's Babel-17, as an added bonus, has given me one of my favorite opening quotations:

"Nowhere is civilization so perfectly mirrored as in speech. If our knowledge of speech, or the speech itself, is not yet perfect, neither is civilization." 

Mario Pei 
(As quoted in Samuel Delany's Babel-17)


The film radically underplays the death of Louise’s daughter, a central element in the story, by adding an entirely new scenario—the conflict of nations as well as localized panic in the streets. Surely, one reason for these changes was to heighten the tension of the film and so make it more attractive to a general audience. Likewise, they radically simplify the language component of the story. Not surprisingly, the heptapods are now seen “face-to-face” and not on a video-screen. None of these changes significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the film. And there was one great innovation that I suspect Chiang might have been envious himself, the heptapods are now able to “write” by emitting a cloud of ink from their tentacles. In the story the heptapod script is described as being something like an MC Escher print. I imagined them to be more rectangular. They are elsewhere described as being like mandalas, which can be circular or rectangular. There is in the story the suggestion that the script is like calligraphy and there are also suggestions that it is similar to Chinese ideograms. There is one scene in the story where their script is described as being like frost growing across a windowpane. This is likely where the director took this image from. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Film Review--Alien: Covenant

"Who was the author of Ozymandias?"
"Shelley, when one note is off it destroys the whole symphony."

Alien Covenant

Shortly after I finished watching the latest Alien film I felt compelled to write something about it. I didn’t feel like Alien: Covenant was a great film, but I was curious why I was drawn to it and the other films in the series. I knew that I didn’t necessarily want to write solely about Covenant itself, but rather about its place in the series as well as within the larger genre of SF.

First of all, let it be said that I enjoyed this most recent installment and think it fits in nicely with the rest of the series. I knew going in that the reviews were mixed and not terribly high. This didn’t faze me much considering that every film, save the first two, has reviewed poorly.

                                                Metacritic:      Rotten Tomatoes:       My order of preference:
Alien                                        83                    97                                1
Aliens                                      87                    98                                3
Alien 3                                     59                    46                                2
Alien Resurrection                  63                    54                                6
Prometheus                             65                    68                                4
Alien Covenant                        65                    60                                5

There have been many criticisms launched at Covenant. I’ve heard the second half of it described as torture porn, others complained that there were not enough aliens while ironically admitting that the android scenes were the best parts of the film. It has been said to be both too serious and shallow. Like Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection it has been said to be so bad as to have turned people permanently off from the series.

Regarding the “torture porn” aspect, while I agree it is there, the depictions of torture in Covenant didn’t sink the film for me, as much as I hated having Shaw killed off. The series has always straddled the line between horror and SF. The screenwriter of Alien, Dan O’Bannon, was pretty explicit about his intention to create a film that assaulted its viewers in the most graphic means possible (see the article in Cracked).

Killing off Elizabeth Shaw and the Engineers before the movie began was a personal disappointment, although I have to admit that this too has precedent in the earlier films. The reasoning is, I assume, that each film, while obviously interconnected with the others, is also clearly a stand-alone work. One can merely note the variety of directors and tones in the first four films to see that they were never intended to be a seamless whole. 

That brings us to the question of genre—are these films SF, horror, or something else? Of course, they have obvious SF elements. SF itself has no single definition and many SF films, such as Star Wars, are more akin to romance than hard SF. Amongst SF's many definitions, the one I most prefer is Samuel Delany’s. Delany describes the work of science fiction to lie more in redefining or re-creating reality rather than in providing metaphors for reality. His famous example is of a dilating door. To describe a door as dilating is to expand our view of how doors can operate. This is the kind of work SF does best. That said, when we consider the Alien films from a literal and hard SF angle they can seem rather absurd. The earlier films pushed too hard on the idea that the aliens posed an existential threat to humanity. The refrain, most prevalent in Aliens, that if the aliens reach Earth they will wipe out humanity, is comical. The aliens’ slow reproductive cycle and the fact that they each require their own human host are evidence enough that impact would be slight. Nonetheless, they remain terrifying as images and this is why I feel the films are better seen as fables or allegories. The aliens are more threatening as metaphors than as a reality. As visions of the insatiable drive for survival they are vivid and arresting, fit horses for Shelley’s blind charioteer in his poem, The Triumph of Life.

Another criticism of Covenant is that it takes itself too seriously. The viewers who don’t mind the references to Wagner and Shelley, still find them unsubstantiated by the rest of the film. I don’t mind the references because I see them as serving two simple functions. First, they point to the Romanticism of the series and second, they work to outline the dimensions that creation has in the film. To these ends they are successful.

Covenant makes clear an argument first began in Prometheus. The pathos of Prometheus is found in Shaw’s drive to find the creators of life on Earth. Even after these creators present themselves as violent and hateful of Earth life she still holds out hope that she may be able to pry a reason for humanity's existence out of them. Just as there is an antagonism between the Engineers and humanity, so too is there an antagonism between humans and androids. Prometheus depicted the beginnings of this antagonism, showing the human crew of the Prometheus as generally looking down on David as something less-than-human. David responds, as if in spite, by making a creative gesture all his own. Covenant centers on this storyline, abandoning Shaw’s gnostic quest for knowledge entirely. There is a theme in these films of creations turning against their creators, mostly out of envy. Why? Well, if God is the creator then humans most closely approach godhood in so far as they are able to create. So why is this a horror SF film? It is interesting to observe that Frankenstein, often claimed to be the first SF novel, is also a horror novel. Just as there is an awe of god and a terror in Frankenstein’s creation, so too is their terror in the act of creation in these films. Covenant is successful for me because of how it advances these themes of biological creation with artistic creation. As far as I’m aware, the series remains unique as films in its juxtaposition of biological and artistic creation.

I’m hesitant to read too deeply into the Alien mythology. The series, for whatever intricacies it may possess, seems to be more important for the pure visceral reaction it creates. Whether this be from the disturbing sense of gestating and giving birth to an alien in the first film to the fear of an android subsuming the throne of God in Covenant. There is a great Slate article that traces the history of scholarship on the first film and can serve as a hilarious warning to the dangers of over-reading (it even includes a bibliography).

In conclusion, what was most attractive to me about both Prometheus and Covenant is not only Scott’s explicit Romanticism, but also a noticeable lowercase “g” gnosticism. The depiction of the creator as a tyrant and one’s world as a prison is central to Gnosticism. Likewise, the act of defiance seen most strongly in the films’ leading women are the central elements of the Gnostic mythos. In Covenant the colonists desire to recreate Eden. If Prometheus depicted the creations being both rejected by their creators and in turn the creations rising up against their creators. Covenant hardly seems to be a new pact being formed between creations and creators. What is being promised? What we do know is that before the promise came the flood.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

My Year in Books: 2016

The New Year, whether we are looking at the Gregorian or the Lunar calendar, is well under way. Time, the very attar of the rose, is running out. If I don't write my reflection on last year's reading soon, nay now, then you, my readers will just give up on this blog and find something else to read. Well, probably not since my only reader is me, this solitary self. But, hey, I should try to be consistent  anyways right?

So, every year I have a theme. 2016 was Chinese and Asian literature. I had a sizable list of books I wanted to tackle, but I must admit that I barely scratched the surface. Especially near the end of the year where I all but gave up on my list. Nonetheless, I did start off the year well enough and did read some very memorable and important books. 

I read close to half of the 5 volume Richard Hawkes translation of Hong Luo Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber; the Story of the Stone). As much as I liked it I was happy to leave off where I did. It was enjoyable, but the episodic nature of the book gave little narrative compulsion to see my way through. Likewise, I only made it through 100 pages of Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. I listened to two very good audiobooks on Asian history—The Fall and Rise of China by Richard Baum and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History by Mark Ravina. Richard Baum's audiobook was particularly eye-opening. He had many first hand experiences of the closing years of the cultural revolution and the transition to the opening up of China. I also began a R. Taggart Murphy’s very interesting history Japan and the Shackles of the Past. Taggart's approach to Japan should set a standard for all books of its kind. He is, first of all, passionate about his subject and writes so that one can come to share in his passion. Secondly, he gives a very useful bibliography of great books on Japan. I've been rather discouraged by the meager bibliographies of many of my books on China. I refuse to believe that there are not many great and passionate books on China. I'm simply not finding them. After these I have browsed through a few other books on Chiense history, philosophy, poetry, and religion (mostly Buddhism). I skimmed several of David Hinton's books, including Hunger Mountain and his translation of the Chinese classics. Needless to say I only touched the surface of this vast topic. One of my favorite books on China though was, oddly enough, written by a Westerner—Krasznahorkai’s Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens. The book is a memoir of his travels through China. I read this in conjunction with The Melancholy of Resistance. Both books share a common concern with entropy. In some ways the pathos is even higher in Destruction due to the brilliant way in which Krasznahorkai juxtaposes the longevity of Chinese culture which has maintained its cultural identity for five thousand years, but which is now, with the onslaught of the modern technological and capitalistic world finally coming to an end. This tension between hope in China’s ability to withstand these modern forces of entropy and his relentless questioning with whether his suspicions are true and Chinese culture is dead is what propels the book.

Another element in my reading plan each year has been to reread a few favorite books. The book I was most excited to reread was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and it did not disappoint. If anything the book actually improved upon rereading. There were many passages that vividly struck me, but perhaps the most memorable was this:

"Two hundred years ago," Settembrini said, "you had a poet in your own country, a fine old confabulator, who set great store by beautiful handwriting, because he said it leads to a beautiful style. He should have taken that one step further and said that beautiful style leads to beautiful actions." Writing beautifully was almost synonymous with thinking beautifully, and from there it was not far to acting beautifully. All moral conduct and all moral perfection emanated from the spirit of literature, from the spirit of human dignity, which simultaneously was also the spirit of humanity and of politics. Yes, they were all one and the same force, one and the same idea, and could be summarized in a single word. And what was that word? Well, it consisted of familiar syllables, but the cousins had probably never truly grasped their meaning and majesty. And that word was--civilization! And as Settembrini released the word from his lips, he thrust his small yellow right hand into the air, as if proposing a toast. 

...Hans Castorp listened to Herr Settembrini. With the best of intentions he tested the man's views on reason, the world republic, and beautiful style--and was prepared to be influenced by them. And each time he found it more permissible afterwards to let his thoughts and dreams run free in another direction, in the opposite direction. To put our suspicions and true understanding of the matter into words--he had probably listened to Herr Settembrini for one purpose only: to be given carte blanche by his conscious, a license it had been unwilling to grant him at first. And what or who stood on the opposing side of patriotism, the dignity of man, and beautiful literature--the side towards which Hans Castorp believed he should direct his thoughts and deeds? There stood... Clavdia Chauchat--listless, worm-eaten, Kirghiz-eyed; and whenever Hans Castorp thought of her (although thought is an all too inhibited word for describing how he inwardly turned toward her), it seemed to him that he was sitting again in that boat on the lake in Holstein and gazing with dazzled and bewildered eyes out of glassy daylight across to the eastern sky and the moonlit night draped in a web of mist.”

The entire book was entirely memorable. Most vivid on rereading were Han's reading of the physiology of the body, a very Blakean chapter, his vision in the snow storm, and of course, the marvelous appearance Mynheer Peeperkorn! I also began rereading Wuthering Heights, which I had to put down. I found the novel too dark, the drama too real, to push my way through. Rossetti’s description of the book seems very apt, “The action takes place in hell, although it seems the people and places have English names there.”

No doubt there were other books I read last year and so I will have to update this list as I remember them. For this year I’ve decided to catch up on some random books that I’ve been meaning to read for awhile. They are mostly Science Fiction, although there are a few others that have creeped in. I’ve already read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and am nearly finished with Charles Williams The Greater Trumps. I’ve begun reading Louis Trondheim’s brilliant Donjon books, which are by far the books I’m most in love and obsessed with right now.

So, here is my list:

Winter Quarter (January - March)
Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea
Williams, The Greater Trumps
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.1)
PKD, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich
Elizarov, The Librarian

Middlemarch: Prelude; Books 1-2

Spring Quarter (April - June)
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.2)
Zelazny, Lord of Light
Abaitua, The Destructives
Disch, The Businessman
Acher, My Mother: Demonology

Middlemarch: Books 3-4

Summer Quarter (July - September)
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.3)
Garner, Red Shift
Swanwich, Bones of the Earth

Middlemarch: Books 5-6

Autumn Quarter (October - December)
Park, A Princess of Roumania (v.4)
Park, All Those Vanished Engines
Hoban, Riddley Walker
Yourcenar, The Abyss

Middlemarch: Books 7-8; Finale

In addition to the novels above I hope to continue working on my larger projects. I have several intersecting interests: the works of Hans Blumenberg; studies on metaphor (Lakoff, Langer, etc); studies on complexity; studies on unity; and studies on Utopia. I had at first considered dedicating this year to Blumenberg, but I think that is too heavy for me just yet. Rather, I may start working with some books on Utopia and see how they branch out into other areas. Later projects I would like to start on include a renewed study of Romanticism; a deep dive into Finnegans Wake, and a deep dive into Shakespeare

But I’m quite sure I will focus on Utopia this year. Current books on my Utopia reading list include:

·      Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope Vol. 1-3 (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought), MIT Press, 1995.
·      Gray, John. Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
·      Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London & New York: Verso. 2005.
·      —. An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army. Ed. Slavoj Žižek. London and New York: Verso. 2016.
·      Marin, Louis. Utopics (Contemporary Studies in Philosophy and the Human Sciences),Humanity Books,1984.
·      Sargent, Lyman Tower. Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010.
·      Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1991.

·      Young, George. The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (Part 2--Review)

I finished reading The Sea, The Sea last night. My first observation is that Murdoch deliberately avoids isolating a center or central theme for the book. The character James does become a focal point near the end, but in such an exaggerated way that we almost question his centrality. James is portrayed as being beyond saintly and is almost a transcendent magical being, like the Buddha's that line his London apartment. He is a sharp contrast to his cousin Charles. Charles is very much of this world. Is it safe to say that James is the character in this novel who most approaches Murdoch's Platonic ideal of "the Good?"

What is Murdoch's Platonism? At the risk of oversimplifying Plato, in trying to understand Murdoch's philosophy it may be best to start with Plato's allegory of the cave. Plato compared our earthly existence to a person living in a cave. There is a transcendent reality outside the cave, but we can only perceive this reality obliquely. The transcendent reality shines its light inside the cave. This light casts shadows against the cave's wall of the outside reality. All we know of reality then is composed of those shadows. Murdoch's theater group, lead by Charles, live entirely in this world of shadows. James has discovered the means by which to separate himself from this world and so perceive the eternal world beyond.

What is the "transcendent reality?" Well, Plato called it the world of ideal forms. Every worldly object for Plato had an ideal form. We all know what a dog is because despite the diversity of dogs in our minds we have a vision of a perfect dog that represents all others. This is an ideal form.

Murdoch's novels, for all of their narrative excitement, are rooted in some very difficult philosophical arguments. One position Murdoch holds is that the idea of love is not adequately addressed in most of contemporary philosophy. Her work then seeks to address this omission. I remember once describing to a friend a Thomas Hardy novel I was reading. My friend responded, I thought you read only serious books, when did you start reading romance novels? Well, of course, Thomas Hardy is a serious author and romance is actually a serious subject, if done right.

Historical Romanticism (capital R) came shortly after the two great democratic revolutions in America and France. Romanticism is therefore historically intertwined with the history of democracy. One central concern of Romanticism was to explore our desires and see if they could not be brought into harmony with the betterment of society. Rousseau famously believed all human desires were good and that it was society that corrupted them. This tension though between desire and society was at the core of Romantic argument.

One thing this novel does is to illustrate how a person such as Charles can so deceive himself that he is almost incapable of seeing the good. The novel is rich in the various ways in which Charles deceives himself, to the point that the book is almost a lexicon of self-deception. One purpose of the Pre-History is to give Charles a fair chance to present himself as fully and accurately as he can. This sets the stage for the unmasking that will occur in the History section. Charles is not a deceiving character, he wishes to be honest, however self-deceived he may be. He believes himself to be egotistical and at times dictatorial, but is personally convinced that, at heart, he is generous and humane. One example is how throughout the novel Charles continuously reflects on his depictions of other characters, usually feeling that he has not presented them as fully or as accurately as he would like. His desire to see the world truthfully and honestly is what made him the famous director that he was. Yet, nonetheless, even a well intentioned and driven man such as himself is capable of extreme self-deception.

Another theme is the futility of trying to escape the world. Charles runs away to his seaside home, expecting to leave behind his theater world entirely, but of course, he lasts little more than a few weeks before he is once again engaged in it. Charles never escapes the world. Late in the novel he refers to himself as being impotent, to have lost his sex drive. This is as close as he gets to removing himself from the world. He does not take himself out, but is rather taken out.

There is much that could be said about the novel, but I am tempted to digress from a direct confrontation and instead travel further along Bloom's direction of reading Murdoch's novels as romances. In romances characters represent not real people but states of mind. What states of mind do the characters in The Sea, The Sea represent? Let's look at some of the key figures:
  • Charles Arrowy: the elderly, self-deceived, ego-maniac. He is Prospero, orchestrating his closest friends like players on a stage.
  • James: the mystical, saint figure.
  • Hartley (Mary Finch): the idealized object of love.
  • Lizzie and George: Servants and slaves to Charles.
  • Perry and Rosina: Violent lovers; extreme versions of Charles.
  • Charles's father, Clement, and Titus: absent figures

Bloom has generated his own patterning of romances in a schema that he borrowed from Freud and then applied to Blake, Shelley, Yeats, and later David Lindsay. In the Freudian pattern the states of being are Narcissistic Libido, Achieved Ego, Id, Super-Ego, and Imago.

Freud                Narcissistic Libido            Id                           Super-Ego                Achieved-Ego                  Imago
Blake                Orc                                    Tharmas                 Urizen                      Los                                   Emanation
Shelley             Prometheus Bound            Demogorgon         Jupiter                      Prometheus Unbound       Asia
Yeats                Mask                                  Body of Fate         Will                          Creative Mind                   Daimon
Lindsay            Maskul                               Krag (Surtur)        Crystal-Man             Nightspore                       ...

Murdoch          Charles and Friends          Sea Monster           The House               James                                Hartley

Freud's unconscious is usually depicted as an iceberg. The ego is the visible tip of the iceberg. The ego is how we view ourselves. I've listed Charles and his entire circle of theater friends under narcissistic libido because I see all of them as being stuck in variations of the ego cycle. They are all tied to the vicious wheel of desire (something Blake very powerfully depicted in his poem The Mental Traveler). The Romantics extended desire to apply to political aspirations, such as a desire for freedom. Blake divided the psyche into what he called his "Giant Forms." Freud's narcissistic libido is roughly equivalent with Blake's Orc. A revolutionary figure, Orc is someone who wishes to change the world through force. Likewise, Shelley's Prometheus wished to forcefully overthrow Jupiter. Blake has a phrase that is equally applicable to Shelley, "All Orcs age into Urizen." That is, all would be revolutionaries turn into the tyrants that had sought to overthrow.

For Freud the id composed our most basic drives and desires. Bloom argued that all the Romantics were united in their shared striving for unity with their id. Perhaps the figure that most clearly represents the id is Blake's Tharmas. As Bloom says, "Tharmas being the Zoa or Giant Form in Blake's mythology who was the unfilled human potential for realizing instinctual desires, and so was the regent of Innocence. Tharmas is a shepherd-figure."

In all of these patterns the ego as narcissistic libido is forced to mediate between id and super-ego. The imago is a vision of ideal love for the ego. The work of the Romantics and Freud was to show how one can cease this endless see-saw between the id and super-ego and achieved a renewed innocence as one had in childhood where one's desires were good and pure. Except this is not the naive innocence of a child, but a knowing innocence.

I hope to write one more post on The Sea, The Sea after I have further thought out how and to what degree Murdoch's characters fit into a Romantic or Freudian map of the unconscious. On a closing note, I should add that Murdoch herself was critical of Romanticism. In fact, she hoped that her work would function as a kind of antidote to Romanticism. As she said:

"Through literature we can rediscover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (Part 1--Introduction)

I started reading Iris Murdoch's, The Sea, the Sea yesterday. I'm about 50 pages in and so have nearly finished the first section, "Pre-history." This is the third Iris Murdoch book I've read. My first encounter with her was when I borrowed The Black Prince from a friend while serving as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. I had just heard of Murdoch after having read about her in Harold Bloom's book Genius. She was one of the 100 figures Bloom chose to represent literary genius. Bloom's description of her as a romance writer in the mode of Spenser's Faerie Queene and the High Romantic poems captivated me and made me very eager to pick her up. While in the Peace Corps good books were somewhat hard to come by. All of us were constantly sharing and exchanging books. The friend I borrowed The Black Prince from had just finished it and found it somewhat disappointing. He felt the combination of narrative and philosophical asides were jarring and preferred authors who showed their point rather than explained it. He said Kafka's short story, The Hunger Artist, was a perfect example of how to show it and not tell it. He had also just read Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim which he loved and felt to be another exemplary case of showing it.

I loved it though. The first books I had been truly obsessed by had been philosophical novels though, Dostoyevsky's novels and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain foremost amongst them. Many scenes from The Black Prince have stayed in my memory. The protagonist himself is memorable as as the perfectionist author who, if memory serves me correctly, only finished one novel and has been laboring for years to complete a second. His friend and rival is a successful author who has consistently publish well-received books. I have always been of the opinion that great artists are always outsiders and generally unpopular with rare exceptions like Shakespeare, Byron, Austen, and Dickens. My Peace Corps friend pointed out the irony in Murdoch herself being a prolific author of popular books. The protagonist also has an aversion to music. There is a vivid scene of him running from the theater, tormented by what sounded to him like screeching and screaming. This is, oddly enough, repeated in The Sea, the Sea, when Charles Arrowby confesses to hating the sound of the human voice. And then there is his infatuation with his rival's teenage daughter, whom he imagines as a kind of surrogate for Hamlet.

I didn’t read another Murdoch novel until at least 6 years later. I had met a doctor who was passionate about her. Out of the blue he approached me while at a Christmas party and said, “You have to watch this video.” I was surprised to see it was Iris Murdoch being interviewed on the BBC. It was an old video, I think from the 70s, but still popular. If you search for Iris Murdoch on Google it is one of the first videos to come up. Murdoch was discussing her role as a professional philosopher and novelist and what she saw as the relation between philosophy and art. The doctor friend and I talked a bit about what we each knew of Iris Murdoch. I confessed to having only read one novel and decided it was high time to start another. 

Shortly after I picked up The Good Apprentice. Like The Black Prince, my second Murdoch book did not fail to disappoint. It was immediately gripping and sustained its intensity throughout. The image of the two brothers, both struggling to attain goodness--one through sin and the other through discipline--has stayed with me. I remember the household of the brothers' father as seeming something out of the Faery Queene. The father, I cannot remember his name now, was a great artist, reveered by the women of the house (his wife and daughters?). The women had an orderly way of keeping everything together, leaving items at the bottom of the stairs and only bring them up when they were already heading that way. I remember the mother discussing the father's art phases, especially his heroic phase. The whole seen was very magical and supports Bloom's argument that Murdoch is more of a fantasist than the realist she claimed to be. Lastly, I seem to remember a character having a nightmare that was very vivid to me. Somewhere in the middle of the novel. I should look up the scene, as it has left a deep impact on me. 

So, what do I make of this third book? So far it is very intriguing. Murdoch has done a wonderful job of patterning images of the sea. The environment is very vivid and varied enough to easily sustain my interest.  Charles as a Shakespeare's Prospero retiring to his craggy cliffside home. He expresses an interest in permanence, but I think it is fair to question his sincerity. He seems thoroughly content to live a life "writ on water." His mistress, Lizzie is in part the kind of directness and permanence that his nature is both drawn to and also repelled by. 

I am thoroughly enjoying the book. Iris Murdoch is the kind of author I would like to be. I enjoy an author who deals so directly and clearly with ideas. There is both narrative drama as well as rich complexity of thought. I will admit that I do feel aware of the effort involved in her creation. It does not distract me from appreciating the book though. With an ambition as large as hers it is forgivable to fall short of perfection. When I say I am aware of her effort, what I mean is that in striving for a Shakespearean resonance she is almost doomed to fail. There are also allusions to Wordsworth and a general atmosphere of Romanticism in the opening. These are all very general reflections and I will be sure to be more systematic in my next post. I'll conclude with Bloom's reading of Murdoch as a writer of romance: