The Tiger Manifesto

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Christian Kitsch #13: Riverdale Edition: Archie’s Parables

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In honour of the ongoing CW/Netflix series Riverdale, the seedy soap opera adaptation of the Archie universe, we will return to Spire Comics’ 1970s Christian propaganda comics featuring the Riverdale gang. There are two reasons for this, the yuks being one and the other is the fact that I think these old comics might provide fodder for another twisted Archie adaptation. These crinkly old pages might harbour a gold mine of intellectual property.

Today’s subject is another anthology comic, 1975’s Archies’ Parables, which attempts to appropriate the allegorical narrative form Jesus used to teach many of his most valuable insights to his clueless followers. I don’t expect storytelling on the level of elegance as, say, the parable of the sower or the Good Samaritan, but in the hands of Al Hartley even the most despicable material can yield some winking enjoyment. Note, however, that the book contains six parables rather than seven, meaning the editors of this volume missed out on a great thematic link with the rest of the Bible, which is as rife with 7s as lucky slot machines.

Crack open the book and behold, the first parable:

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Transported to the medieval setting, we see that Archie might have grown a Prince Valiant hairdo but still lusts after the rich girl in town. Meanwhile, Jughead is using tongs on an anvil. Hartley could have left this blacksmithing equipment as a nonsensical but innocuous bit of set dressing, but he’s far too insidious for that.

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What is wrong with him?

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And why is he staring at me?

Had Hartley given Archie and Jughead any other medieval-looking profession other than blacksmith, his logic would have been airtight. Armour was expensive! Only the wealthy could afford it! However, he decided to make Jughead and Archie blacksmiths, which, although not known their combat prowess, probably would have been able to make custom armour for themselves if they wanted to. Compounding the issue, we have the Ren-faire turkey leg trash can occupying some Magritte-ian void with three boards across a door leading into some kind of wood-floored room. Perhaps Hartley thought, “Hmm, Archie won’t be able to cut holes out of a metal trash can and wear it like armour if he isn’t in some kind of metalworking profession, but I also want to make sure Reggie is a rich asshole and make Archie look like a goof with his head stuck in a…lantern?” Indeed, Al, and a lantern that has no air holes in it, to add insult to injury.

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I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the star patterns around the dragon make it look drunk or at least punch-drunk

Off ride our Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, here to tilt at empty signifiers. Except in this case, the mythical beasts are quite real, though Jughead seems to be lusting after the dragon’s tender flesh. I think Hartley is trying to write a motivation for Jughead into the story while also moralizing about gluttony, but trying to do both at the same time makes Archie look weirdly manipulative. Indeed, this logic knot tightens further in the next panels.

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In addition to the weird perspective and hatch lines on Archie’s head making him look like bizarrely bread-like (about to be toasted!) in the left panel, Jughead has blurted out the supposed moral of this story without making it clear at all. It takes real effort to be both blunt and utterly puzzling, so let’s give Hartley a gold star for flexibility.

How is prayer supposed to help against a dragon? Well…

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…it doesn’t really. With Jughead serving as a distraction, Archie pulls out his Anachronism Machine and chases the poor beast across the countryside.Screenshot 2017-02-12 19.47.06.png

And of course Archie doesn’t get Princess Veronica, who ships off with a sketchy beau in her carriage, but still gets a Sexy Reward Woman for saving the kingdom, as is a man’s right (ahem). Betty, by the way, has not been in this story at all until the middle panel in this last set, which means her entire role in the story is to wander into Archie to serve as his Dragonslayer Trophy, no doubt doomed to be plucked, stuffed, and shut in a trophy case in some obscure basement.Screenshot 2017-02-12 19.47.16.png

And speaking of unsettling implications, note how Neighbourhood Watch Archie and his trophy doll Betty (she deserves better!) stare unblinkingly forward telling you how to clean up the riffraff in your area. As far as dog whistles in this comic go, this is one of the subtler ones, and Hartley covers for it by associating the dragons not with people but with bad vibes or antisocial tendencies, which is a Decent Save. But alas, we can’t tarry long, friends, for we have five more of these to polish off! Now that we have the format down, we can tear through these a bit faster. Hold onto your necks!

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From medieval fantasy-land we travel long roads before dusting off our feet at a seedy saloon where clean-cut Sheriff Archie finds himself nestled with the vipers.

Video posted apropos of nothing.

After some scuffles with the armed miscreants, racist-caricature Jughead bolts through the swinging doors with an urgent announcement:

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Oh, this is going to give me a headache.

Despite this story being dull as blanched tripe on stale bread, it manages to set off more racism tripwires in four panels than any comic I’ve read outside of Holy Terror. For one, as mentioned, Hartley has decided to dress Jughead up as a racist caricature and give him stereotypical speech patterns. If you don’t understand the problem with that, I’ve got nothing for you. On the other hand, my supersonic hearing has picked up another dog whistle, this one much sharper and more sinister.

For those who haven’t picked the signal, refer to the last panel (panel 7). While its reference to school busing is certainly jarring in the context of the Old West, this was in fact a huge hangup for racist conservatives in the 1970s. Institutionalized school busing designed to produce racially integrated schools had white people’s hackles all up in a dander, because God forbid (literally in this case) that black people and other “troublemakers” associate with their pure Aryan children. This is still a simmering issue in many places, especially as urban areas in the United States remain and become more segregated by neighbourhood.

In any case, choking back bile, we return to the task at hand:

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Indeed, with the knowledge of their simian origins, the schoolchildren unleash a reign of chaos, egged on by “Filthy Books.” Oddly enough, however, Archie’s scheme is not to bring the iron hand of the law down and enforce a strict censorship regime. It’s rather more…enterprising.

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While admirably non-coercive, I’m not sure that the children of the school will willingly head to the newfangled Christian bookstore (so many of those in the old western towns) when the local trading post will apparently peddle the latest “filthy books” to them without repercussion. And we’re treated to that trademark Hartley End-of-Book Stare from Betty––who at least had something to do in this story––and a hell of a coda:

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Archie making sure Jughead gets all of his fibre. Time for the third story. We’re almost halfway through this drudgery, and we’ve already cleared through the worst racist dog whistles.

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From one pulp genre to another, we streak out of the sandy, semiarid American West and into the final frontier. After annihilating the bleak stretches of nothingness lying between them and their objecting, our in-tepid explorers park their pale butts on a strange landmass.

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“A Tale of Two Planets!” is basically The Sneetches with its message chomped up and twisted into right-wing space trash. Here we have a brave refutation of genetic determinism as a multitude of identical twins abjure each other, and act more like evil twins than identical ones. The pedagogical point of this is probably clear already.

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Because the author understands that setting up a straw man still takes a bit of effort he pauses to consider “maybe they’re just stressed out because they live in an environment that’s been polluted and made inhospitable…”

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“Nah, that’s not stark enough.” Again, the Respectability Police creates a twisted Great Chain of Ill Logic, which basically looks like this: People who live in rundown areas=bad people=thieves…Screenshot 2017-02-12 20.03.09.png

= poor caricatures of anarchists, I guess. The people on the unhappy planet are, as usual in these comics, furnace-blasted alloys of every right-wing phobia-object forged into one. No doubt disappointed by the banality of space, Archie and Jughead haul ass back to the Pleasantville from whence they came.

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Nevermind, this Archie and Jughead are as good at recognizing banality as fish are at recognizing water. Or maybe they’re just shocked that they found their Riverdale counterparts sleeping in the trash heaps on the bad planet.

What genre are we pillaging next time, Al?

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Let’s just hope we find Bugs Bunny in there.

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I’ll just leave this here.

Because I know my audience, and what they expect, I assume that you’re wondering what kind of awful reactionary stuff Hartley pulls in this story. Patience, patience. We have some setup to summarize. Archie and Jughead find themselves in the hospitable care of Beelzebub, of course, but what form would this diabolical being take (other than the example I’ve contributed above)?

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I can’t say I’ve ever seen the Lord of the Flies represented as a mad scientist––

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––except here of course––

but other than his unsettling smile I see no sign of any diabolical intentions. And we know how Jughead, the gourmand, loves his banquet food.

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So it turns out that Dr. Beelzebub’s evil plan is to lure children to his castle and give them what they want––food, in this case––and then keep them in his “spare rooms” (AKA prison cells) for an indeterminate amount of time. Probably just long enough before they get boring. Or else his castle is some kind of subtle metaphor for hell and they’re stuck there until the winds of time skeletonize them. Indeed, there’s a whole cornucopia of vice-ridden teens in this ghoulish museum of horrors:

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Archie is an avatar of purity, of course, (laugh here if you’ve seen Riverdale at all) but we as an audience collectively gasp as he is put to the test. What could be the means of temptation that Dr. Beelzebub will use? In other words, what do you give to the protagonist who already has everything? Well, before we find out, the good doctor shoves Archie in a cell while he’s preparing his “killer app.”Screenshot 2017-02-12 20.06.14.png

As much as I disdain cops and marines, and the entire repressive system we have to wriggle under in this day and age, Archie is probably closer to a solution to his problem than Betty simply because muscles and other forms of kinetic energy will probably be necessary to spring him from a dungeon. And, once again, Betty appears like a bolt from the black, though here it’s more as divine intervention than a prize to be won.

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What would Riverdale Archie do in this situation? Yeah, the age difference probably wouldn’t bother that guy very much.

Beelzebub is clearly strained, worried that Archie might yet resist him, though I suppose he could just keep Archie confined regardless of whether he has his soul or not. And though I would chastise the Lord of the Flies for supporting sexual unions between teenage boys and adult women when that’s a clear violation of consent laws and customs in this day and age, he is a devil, so I would rather blame the author and leave it nice and clean. Well, as clean as possible.Screenshot 2017-02-12 20.06.53.png

And the swipe at peer pressure here is just weird, considering that a bunch of your friends trying to get you laid or drink or whatever is not quite the same as an evil scientist who has threatened you with eternal confinement trying to coerce you into joining an orgy. Just saying that even as a “parable” this particular grayble has some jarring narrative choices.

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Archie survives in his time-and-space transcending Didactic Bubble, but it sure looks like everyone else is fried jumbo shrimp. Hartley makes it quite clear that the Betty just wished for a lightning bolt to destroy the entire castle. Not, you know, just freeing everyone and moving them safely outside and then destroying the fortress of sin-itude. Betty and God have some ‘splaining to do, is what I’m saying.

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Dammit, Hartley, you don’t get to have it both ways!

I’m sick of this, let’s get moving. While I’m recovering from my Archie-induced illness, let me just show the first full-page spread from the fifth story and let you fill in the rest.

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Note all the Hartley-signature triple “!!!” in this panel.

No further comment needed on that one. Suffice to say that JoHnathan got nice and reintegrated into the status quo in the end. Goodbye and good luck, JoHnathan. Next!

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Stop grinning, it’s not what you think.

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Also, just quoting “go out and attack the enemy” out of Chronicles of all books is just disingenuous considering that that book is a family history of the disobedient, prickish kings of Israel and Judah. Yes, in context, this is a message from the spirit of God speaking through a priest telling good king Jehoshaphat and the rest of Judah to go out killing Moabite and Ammonite soldiers, but I hope this brief lesson shows how quoting pithy verse passages from esoteric corners of the Bible to justify, say, a terrible comic book might be a bad idea.

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I wonder what it could be?

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Oh. Huh.

I guess the German army fought WWI with balloons adorned messages that don’t fit the advertising standards regulations! Scholars weren’t wrong when they talked about how important the air was was in those days, let me tell ya. In any case, Archie and pals shred the lie balloons and win the day. How?

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Yes, by dropping bumper stickers on the balloons.

And if you’re wondering what the title has to do with anything…

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Yeah. Go to church. Find one for you. I’m not sure whether the comic is saying that you will get high by going to the 11:00 morning service, or whether you just get high at church at 11:00, or if it’s just referring to the aerial system of indicating directions by using the clock positions. Still, I hate it.

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Fiiiinally.

While I’ve complained about the various rightist screeds, hackneyed or lazy art, and other assorted oddities we’ve become so used to in this corner of the Internet, I wanted to address a big structural problem with Archie’s Parables. That problem is its use of the genre of “parable,” or at least its attempts to claim ownership of that genre. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to quote a parable in its entirely from the Matthew’s gospel, the so-called Parable of the Sower:

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.Let anyone with ears[a] listen!”

10 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets[b] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

A parable is pithy and highly metaphorical vehicle stories, using symbolic shorthand to get a moral or social point across while leaving ambiguities. Jesus uses parables, as he says here, to conceal and obscure his true purpose, which is an especially important theme in Mark’s gospel but shows up here as well. Note that Jesus didn’t say, “A man was fighting in a war and he was good and bombed lie balloons out of the air. Those lies were things like ‘churches are full of hypocrites’ and other such absurdities. Church is good and you should shop around before giving up on them. Good night.” Parables are didactic and allegorical, which Hartley gets, but they’re also to a degree ambiguous and riddle-like, creating as many questions (some good, some not, as the discipline show) as they do answers. Jesus’ parables vary in terms of their clarity and literalism (the Good Samaritan being more straightforwardly political and understandable) but none of them try to think for the listener as much as Hartley tries to basically substitute his work for listening and consideration.

This is the essence of bad propaganda kitsch: project an easy triumph against degenerate and weak-yet-powerful enemies and try to shut down thinking with appeals to emotion and prejudice. Trying to call these parables, while not a terrible crime in itself, shows the lack of appreciation these hacks have for their own supposed religion.

Film Review: Concerning Violence

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In the late 60s and early 70s, anti-imperialist films from directors like Gillo Pontecorvo and broader movements like Third Cinema had a significant if small presence in the film world. Filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson, responsible for Concerning Violence and Black Power Mixtape, is animated by more antiquarian concerns than films like The Battle for Algiers. Concerning Violence, which combines documentary footage with dramatic readings from Frantz Fanon’s classic book The Wretched of the Earth, retains immediate relevance but concerns itself with the national liberation movements of the past rather than the present. One could, therefore, make the argument that the film is pairing Fanon and footage of FRELIMO guerrillas to outline a purely historical conjuncture of theory and action.

Though I appreciate its presentation of the both the text and footage from the last major burst of national liberation movements in Africa (the overthrow of the Portuguese colonial regimes in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Angola as well as the collapse of Rhodesia), its excavation of the past leaves room for its audience to take a more comfortable position. Leftists can use the film as a nostalgic trip back to halcyon days, and even liberals, while probably not being as pleased with the Fanon readings endorsing violence, could say “well, it was a different time.”

Of course, the film is a product of a 2014 release. It also begins with a prologue by Gayatri Spivak that, while cinematically inert, positions Fanon and the events of the film in a context of revolt and revolution that continues to this day. The effectiveness of this move is somewhat blunted, of course, considering that Spivak’s presence only reinforces the sense of the film as more an academic exercise than a call to arms. At the same time, the ending, which inches closer to the present, pricks the film’s audience to link the past and a possible future. At all times, the film avoids the affectations of a propaganda poster, which is welcome, and the film’s limited historical scope is not necessarily a negative. However, Concerning Violence does not fill the desperate need we have for films to capture the revolutionary energy of present-day movements. That is simply not what it is, despite the obvious relevance of its core ideas.

One commendable aspect of the film is that it features interviews with white settlers and missionaries. The latter are memorable largely for the air of politeness and naïvety that they exude. After talking confidently about the un-Christian character of African polygamy, the interviewer asks whether their perspective is a religious one or a European one. He asks them whether there is explicit support for monogamy in the Bible, which gets a sheepish and evasive response. The missionaries are tellingly far more interested in talking about a church construction projects happening in the background than the basis of their theological assertions. It’s an attitude of empty-headed enthusiasm I have seen many times in my own long history of church attendance.

One final aspect of the film I want to address in this quick analysis is its treatment of a group of FRELIMO guerrilla women. FRELIMO, the Mozambican national liberation movement that drove out the Portuguese colonial government, had, like many other guerrilla movements, a large number of women soldiers and other cadres. These segments, in which the women discuss their passion to build a new nation and their equal position as soldiers for FRELIMO, has a complex relationship to Fanon. As Spivak notes in her prologue, Fanon rarely mentioned gender and wrote in a male-centric style that emphasizes the masculine aspects of national liberation. And, despite the long history of women playing a key if not leading role in the rank-and-file of revolutionary movements, gender liberation has not been systematically applied in most liberated countries. This is not to negate the example or the ardour of the FRELIMO guerrillas or the women serving in liberation movements and people’s wars now, but rather to say that their sacrifices have been, overall, unrewarded. I am glad that the film does not just let Fanon’s more male-centric language stand without commentary from within the film.

I have been looking forward to seeing Concerning Violence since it came out. Though this article has focused on my criticisms, I still recommend the film to anyone who has an interest in Fanon’s work. Moreover, the positive depiction of even historical national liberation movements is all-too-rare in the cinema, which doesn’t give Olsson a pass for mistakes but does mean there are few alternatives to which we can compare his work. The film is still a powerful document about the inhumanity of imperialism, its bankruptcy and bloody thoughtlessness, and the necessity of tearing it down and creating a new society in its place.

Rally on October 7th!

I’ve been sad at the lack of antiwar events in my city for quite awhile, but I hope this will kick off a new wave of anti-imperialist work.

15 Years of Imperialist War in Afghanistan

rally-poster-colour-v3 Poster for the 15 Years of War Rally

On October 7, 2001, the United States and Great Britain began bombing Afghanistan from the Air. The Americans and their coalition of the willing, began an attempt to destroy a country and build it back from scratch. We are all told that this war is for human rights, women’s rights and for the security of the people in Afghanistan and in the West.

It’s been 15 long years since the imperialist occupation of

Afghanistan as the so-called ‘Global War on Terror’ began. But it has also been 15 long years of people’s active resistance against foreign invaders, including Canadian imperialism and ISIS. Coming from a strong legacy of struggle, Afghanistan is rich with ongoing revolutionary and grassroots movements that warrant our support here in Canada. In the spirit of internationalism, join us on October 7 as we occupy the streets to express…

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Note: One Day Delay on Troll in Central Park Post

Because I participated in a trans pride event today, I decided to put off writing my piece on Troll in Central Park/Stanley’s Garden until tomorrow so I can unwind. Best of luck to everyone this evening.

 

White Fear of Savage Reprisal in the Course of Decolonization

While I’m taking a break from culture writing after finishing the Bakshi Retrospective, I wanted to point my readers to something much more important! We can scoff and say we’re so much better than the target of this critique, but I certainly need to take stock of my own backwards attitudes on indigenous liberation.

Maehkōn Ahpēhtesewen

After a bit of back and forth with myself on whether or not it was worth it to respond to this article by Ross Wolfe, in which a bumbling, academic attempt is made to paint my Decolonization is not a Metaphor as the height of absurdity, i have decided to jot down a few words. The article by Wolfe, for all of its demonstrable euro-chauvinist flaws does provide us with a nice teachable moment (indeed it is this property that helps provide the pedagogical tools here) because the article helps to demonstrate two particular points that i have been making for some time, on this blog and out in the real world. The first is one that has its antecedants going back at least as far as the thought of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, who discussed “the white man’s guilty conscience.” The second simply arises from direct experience and the…

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Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 7: Hey Good Lookin’

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Hey Good Lookin’ might be the least known of Ralph Bakshi’s filmography. Completed and intended for release in 1975, it was conceived as a live action/animation hybrid documenting life in New York in the 1950s. Using largely improvised dialogue, it would be a natural continuation of Bakshi’s work on Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, only taking it further by being mostly in live action with only the protagonists being rendered in animation. Warner Bros. balked at releasing a feature so experimental in the wake of Coonskin’s botched release, demanding that the film be entirely animated. For more than half a decade, Bakshi and a small team of artists worked on the film on the side while Wizards, Lord of the Rings, and American Pop were released, all to decent financial success. In a bittersweet conclusion to the story, Warner Bros. decided to give the film a token release in 1982, all but burying it on a few screens before it disappeared forever. We’ve seen a paltry home video release record since then, with nary a hair of the original live-action hybrid footage appearing.

Hey Good Lookin’ returns to the Brooklyn of Bakshi’s youth in the 1950s. Our protagonist is Vinnie, the leader of the Brooklyn Stompers gang and who seems to have earned his position more with impeccable hair and clothes than fighting ability or strategic acumen. His best friend is Crazy Shapiro, a hot-blooded son of a homicidal cop with an almost total lack of self-control. The third member of our main trio is Roz, the daughter of a strict rabbi who fancies Vinnie as some kind of Adonis. Much of the time, we’re also in the company of Roz’s friend Eva, portrayed as a soft-hearted naïf (who has an obsession with making peanut butter sandwiches). Many of the film’s scenes are just records of these characters hanging out getting up to youthful mischief.

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When a plot starts to take shape, it takes shape along racial lines. Vinnie, while dashing away from a confrontation with raging Sicilian mobsters, runs into the Chaplains, the local black gang. They arrange a rumble between the two gangs, and Vinnie is stuck with the task of motivating the lackadaisical Stompers into agreeing to fight the Chaplains. Like all of Bakshi’s “urban trilogy,” this plot functions as more the most important of a series of episodes rendered in jerky animation and performed with dialogue that at least sounds improvised most of the time. At the very least, we do have a proper climax, with the two gangs brawling while the cops start a firefight. Suffice to say that not all ends well for our band of friends, and that Vinnie’s habit of avoiding sticky situations––so as not to muss up his hair, most likely––does not earn him the greatest respect. After all, he has a difficult time even convincing the gang he supposedly leads to get into a scrap.

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A great shot of Vinnie’s taste for kitsch interior decorating.

Most of the appeal of this film, then, lies in the rapport between our leads. Vinnie, Roz, and Crazy are all rough characters, but endearing for the most part. Most notably, our cast includes Richard Romantus and David Proval as Vinne and Crazy, both fine actors who also starred in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Tina Romanus, credited under the pseudonym Tina Bowman, rounds out the main trio as Roz. Their conversations are naturalistic and have the variable, analogue pacing one would associate with chatting with friends. The contrast between the grounded dialogue and the highly stylized and frenetic animation produces frustration as well as enjoyment. Hey Good Lookin’ carries a sense of being rooted in a particular time and place, but it’s not a film one can get lost in or invest oneself in. There’s a constant sense of being put off, of being a mere and conscious observer at all times. That impression is occasionally shattered by the humour and the sense of good fun, but the film remains alienating overall.

Despite its rough production history, the final version that we got still features some striking images. SOMe of the backgrounds break from the scratchy, gritty style we know Bakshi for and uses photographic or pop-art collage. Vinnie’s room is the prime example, a menagerie of 50s ephemera that inform the character just as much as his trademark hair and many-zippered leather jacket, which eventually becomes a token of memory. Like American Graffiti (and Happy Days, though without any sanitizing impulses), Hey Good Lookin’ depicts the 50s through the eyes of the 1970s. It has little kinship to the media of the 50s except by way of short references, eschewing the sophisticated brooding of late noir and the insipid blandness of most 50s television. It’s not a postmodern comment on the nostalgia for the 50s but rather an earnest attempt to expose the roughness that Bakshi saw in New York in his youth, though never without that old-school cartoon sensibility that he brings to even his most realistic work. The film’s nostalgia is more honest than many other 70s attempts to revive the 50s, certainly revealing in a time gone by but without the desire to present the past as an idealized lost age.

Take, for example, the scathing portrayal of a white 50s rock vocal group who come to put on a show for our protagonists. Their mannerisms and appearances are grotesque, their talent questionable, and their end…rather messy. By which I mean, they get flattened by a car that bursts through the wall of the auditorium. It’s both laughably grim slapstick and a potential dig at the white appropriation of black music starting with Elvis. And while the soundtrack oozes in 50s nostalgia, with original songs standing in for classics Bakshi couldn’t afford to license, its relationship to 50s music in the narrative is much more ambiguous, as is the rest of the film.

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Which brings us to a question that I often reflect on when watching and contemplating Bakshi’s entire filmography: what is animation’s capacity for realism? So many of his films attempt to capture the sense of a particular time and place and to pass for a realistic portrayal of people and settings. Characters are set against photographic backdrops, dance to or sing real popular songs (in diegesis), and are voiced in unconventionally spontaneous ways. Character design and movement, however, are rooted in cartoon caricature and exaggerated animation styles. “Realism” in Bakshi’s urban trilogy emerges mainly from setting and writing rather than character animation. When cartoony characters are placed in a setting and in situations that are antithetical to more traditional animated fantasy, the effect is to highlight the alienating difference of the surrounding environment. It grounds the drama so that when more sombre moments arrive, they can be executed with more gravity.

Contrast this with the Disney’s approach, which is to animate characters as realistically as possible while placing them in fantastical and exotic settings. Though the difference is partly a result of economic constraints on Bakshi’s films, it also exposes an essentially different way of viewing animation as a medium as well as its role in reproducing reality. Disney creates worlds that are inviting and that stand in for the universal, beckoning viewers into a world that is comforting and familiar in its distance from our own. Bakshi wants us to see the world through his own perspective, taking us to his hometown and giving us the grand tour of his favourite dives and introducing us to the memorable people he knows. What’s important in Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and Hey Good Lookin’ is not so much that the characters look and move realistically but that they interact with their setting and fellow people in ways that we can recognize. They make no pretence to universality or accessibility, and their locations are both closer to our own and removed from us by gonzo exaggeration. It’s not an inversion of Disney, but a rejection of Disney’s approach in favour of something more explicitly political and personal on both an aesthetic and narrative level. A contemporary comparison for us would be autobiographical comics like Persepolis that similarly use highly abstract or exaggerated styles to tell much more specific stories.

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For me, Hey Good Lookin’ is the least successful of Bakshi’s movies. It exposes his weaknesses in ungainly ways and has a lower density of bravura surrealist moments or truthful introspection/commentary. Most of the quality in the film is much more low key. It’s in the conversations and performances, which are much more difficult to highlight in a short blog post. All of his failings in depicting women I’ve described earlier reappear here, though there is one scene of Roz and Eva encouraging each other and bantering that I rather liked. Let’s just say that you can readily identify the woman protagonist of a Bakshi film by finding the character whose nipples are visible through her shirt. Not a distinction I would personally covet.

That said, I would not write off Hey Good Lookin’, and it has its notable fans, including Quentin Tarantino (not an arbiter of good taste by any means, but worth pointing out). Someday, I would love to see the original live action hybrid film and see how much lustre the project lost in its seven-year hell of refashioning and neglect, but what we have is an occasionally hilarious, rough-hewn animated film with some scenes that make the viewing experience marginally worthwhile.

Alain Badiou: Theory of the Subject

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Standing Before the Door, A Structural Marxist:

When there’s a fire in the building, you have to be wary of doors. Grab hold of the wrong doorknob and you might earn a searing memento of your own foolishness. If we imagine that Theory of the Subject is one door among many in a telescoped hallway, we have to assume that trying to open the door will get us burned, at least a little. In Bruno Bosteel’s introduction to the English translation, he cites a number of authors who call this the most forbidding of the French philosopher’s three big books (Being and Event and its sequel Logics of Worlds being its younger siblings), a confounding volume that rifles through Symbolist poetry, psychoanalysis, Greek tragedy, and youth insurgencies looking for pieces of a renewed, well, theory of the subject.

Fortunately, I didn’t read the introduction until I had already finished the book. “Fools rush in,” and all that. You could criticize me for having a cavalier attitude towards Badiou, and I would confess that I’ve never taken him all that seriously as either a historian or a political subject. I have appreciated his fierce polemics against puppets of the French status quo and devoured his recent Ethics, which I reviewed previously. All the same, I was in no hurry to read his major works, mainly because I was passingly aware of their forbidding austerity and highly technical mathematical constructions. I hate reading Derrida, but at least the author seems to have fun conjuring up those tentacular sentences.

But after devouring both volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia I wanted to engage with one of Deleuze’s most famous sparring partners. So I opened the door of Theory of the Subject heedless of whatever difficulties might lie in my way.

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Page 17. My favourite chart of the many in the book.

 

Long-time readers might be aware that I have an affinity for Althusser and structural Marxism. In fact, I spent a great deal of time defending his legacy and using his theory as a framework for my historical investigations in undergrad. I’ve read and re-read all of his canonical essays and marked up my copy of On the Reproduction of Capitalism almost beyond readability. I’ve found his work, and that of Nicos Poulantzas, of great utility in developing my own theories of how to write Marxist history. Of course, the central attraction of the Althusserian approach is its conception of Marxism as a science of history (hold that thought for awhile) that can analyze modes of production and their development with uncanny precision. It’s a wonderful tool for understanding a given situation and placing its elements in their proper locations.

And so you can see my particular line of approach in reading Badiou, the set of questions I brought to my first reading of Theory of the Subject:

  1. What is its relationship to Deleuze and Guattari and their own views on subjectivity and structure?
  2. What does Badiou do with Althusser and the structural approach? Given that he’s a former student of Monsieur A., I have to assume that’s going to be on this book’s mind.
  3. What’s in it for me? As a historian? As a Marxist?

Because these are the questions I brought to the text, my most coherent impressions of Theory of the Subject concern these three topics. Before continuing with the review proper, I should mention the limitations of my reading:

I have no background in either Symbolist poetry or Lacan, and only a cursory knowledge of Greek tragedy. I know my Marxism quite well, particularly the Big Three and Althusser, but I am not trained as a philosopher nor in mathematics so my grasp of these threads is relatively tenuous.

Now let’s walk through the door!

Philosophy as Polemic:

First, Badiou embraces the conception of philosophy that Althusser (after Lenin) established in his own work. That is, every position a philosopher takes is both an affirmation and the act of drawing a line against an opposing line. Philosophy is a theoretical struggle that has its own separate arena, and its purpose is to defend scientific thought against incursions and ideological impurities. It reminds one of Machiavelli. For the Althusser of For Marx, the vital campaign is to defend the materialist dialectic against humanism and Hegel, to draw a firm line between Marx and Hegel in an effort to critique Stalin-esque politics from the Left. In Theory of the Subject, Badiou draws many lines––sometimes literally!––to distinguish the true political essence of Marxism from deviations.

His method for doing so is to do a number of philosophical readings to establish the nature of dialectics and the place of the subject as a radical break with what he calls the space of placement or “splace,” the rare emergence of the truly new within a structured reality. He reads Hegel, the poet Mallarmé, Lacan, and so on in the context of the aftermath of May, 1968. The result is a formulation of Marxism that rejects Althusser’s idea of history as a “process without a subject” (for if there is no subject how can revolutionary change take place?) as well as the conception of Marxism as a “science of history.”

“‘Science of history?’ Marxism is the discourse with which the proletariat sustains itself as subject. We must never let go of this idea.”¹

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Marxism is therefore a guide to action, and the subject that it guides is the revolutionary party of a new type that anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninism sought to build. And the account of its subjectivity, of the process by which this subject comes into being, is largely derived from a run-in with Lacan. Indeed, Badiou calls Lacan “our Hegel,” and argues that Marxism has to reckon with and purify Lacan of idealism in order to properly conceive of a revolutionary subject. This subject is not simply found readymade, but it does include elements that cannot simply be mapped and understood in advance. Overall, Badiou’s account of the subject endorses a certain voluntarism, a belief in the primacy of the political line and of subjective struggle against revisionism and for a new rupture.

“The party is the support of the complete subject, by which the proletariat, built on the working class, aims at the dissolution of the algebraic frame in which this class is placed…In the proletariat, the working class has disappeared.”²

Thus Badiou rearticulates the Marxist split between “class in itself” and “class for itself,” favouring the latter and consigning the academic uses for the term “class” to a second-rate prop. His method of historical periodization, likewise, is punctuated not by concepts like modes of production or social formations but by revolutionary ruptures. 1871. 1917. 1967-8. And though the professional historian in me complains about the inadequacy of such categories for sober analysis, I love that Badiou is linking his philosophical project so closely with the history and practice of militant politics. It certainly ameliorates my bewilderment at his lengthy readings of Lacan, and gave me a vantage point for understanding his aims that I would have otherwise lacked.

“Like Hegel for Marx, Lacan for us is essential and divisible. The primacy of the structure, which makes of the symbolic the general algebra of the subject … is countered ever more clearly with a topological obsession in which what moves and progresses pertains to the primacy of the real.”³

These political passages, along with his elaboration of an ethics of courage and persistence and against the anxious paranoia that can so easily beset revolutionaries, were my favourite bits, the points where I felt Badiou’s and my own interests coincided most.

Crumbs for the Academic Historians:

What Badiou does not have, unlike his teacher Althusser (and even Deleuze), is a bounty of tools for historians to pick up and work with. His emphases here are overwhelmingly on radical shifts and rare volcanic eruptions. It would be easy for a given historian (me for instance) to argue that history is instead composed largely of smooth and subtle shifts, little tectonic slips that happen because of structural contradictions. What need does history have for the subject? But while I certainly don’t reject, as Badiou does, the idea of Marxism as a science of history, I do think that historians can utilize his notion of rupturing subjects.

In my own work, for instance, I can look at the creation of the Chinese middle class “in itself,” in other words its objective placement within the structure of Chinese and global society and the conditions of its emergence. But, on the other hand, we have to have a notion of subjectivity or agency if we want to explain how this middle layer’s political consciousness is expressed and why it gravitates to certain forms of political action and organization. Even though Badiou’s elaboration of these concepts is largely concerned with the proletariat and the M-L “party of a new type” the same energetic political subjects also appear out of other class formations, and I’ll certainly keep this in mind going forward with my work.

Conclusion:

Reading Theory of the Subject’s many seminar-format chapters left a wildly mixed impression. I have been befuddled, inspired, irritated, and bored in equal measure. It’s been awhile since a book exposed my own intellectual limitations with such glee (Malabou was the last writer to do so). Hopefully I’ll be able to grow and re-read this book with a more mature outlook sometime in the future. In the meantime, I look forward with great anticipation to the next great world-historical rupture and the subject I’m sure to become.

P.S.

I couldn’t find a real space for a discussion of Badiou’s polemic with Deleuze, since it’s more of a peripheral concern in the book. My own position is that Badiou shares some of the same problems with Deleuze concerning more speculative elements in their philosophies. I also reject the way that Deleuze and Guattari use Nietzsche and the notion of debt to ground their reading of political economy. But if I’m asked where my heart leads me, I would say it prefers the path of Spinoza and the radical anti-Hegelian positions of D&G. Time will tell if that proves to be a sustainable position, but I’m excited by the possibilities that Deleuze opens up for, say, environmental history and ecological studies of humanity’s role in the world at this point.

Notes:

  1. Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject (New York: Continuum, 2009), xix.
  2. Ibid, 238.
  3. Ibid, 133.

Book Review List for April-May

When I decided that I would post a book review every Sunday, I failed to grasp that that meant reading and finishing a whole book every seven days. To be honest, I wanted to do a short review of Badiou’s Theory of the Subject today, but I was unable to finish it in time. That review will go up next week, after another Bakshi retrospective and commentary post. Now that I’ve picked my ragged self off the floor and gotten used to the idea of weekly reviews, I wanted to publish a short preview of the books I’ll be reading and reviewing in the next several weeks. A-like-so.

April 17: Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject. A dense philosophical tome I’m reading to counterpoint the Deleuze and Guattari I’ve been reading for the last couple of months. I’m within sight of the end of the book, but will not have a real review until next week.

April 24: Minqi Li’s The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy. I initially gravitated to this book because it has a class analysis of the PRC, which will be useful in my historical and academic work. But it also looks to be a worthwhile interrogation of China’s effect on the international capitalist system as a whole. Come to think of it, the latter point is also useful when applied to its relations with Japan. Huh.

May 1: Hisila Yami’s People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal. After I did a fair-sized study of the Peruvian Communist Party and the evolution of the Western historiography of it, I was interested in inside perspectives on other people’s wars being waged by Maoist parties. Nepal presents the most fascinating case, and luckily there is an English version of this book available.

May 8: Gavan McCormack’s The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence. Written in the mid-1990s, this book describes a Japan with all the puff and arrogance drained out of it. Vulnerable to earthquakes, trapped in economic decline, and beset with unresolved historical and political issues, the country was both affluent and, yes, empty. I’ve been putting this one off for some time, but I’m out of excuses.

May 15: Japan at Nature’s Edge. I’ve been tackling a couple of individual essays from the book, which I hope to do a couple more times before this review. But I also want to review the book as a whole as well as its contributions to a more general environmental historiography and my own research.

May 22: Jeff Vandermeer’s Authority. I read the first of this purportedly great trilogy of sci-fi novels last year, but haven’t dug into the sequels yet because of my tendency to push fiction onto the back burner and just watch movies or read comics for fun.

May 29: Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s Re-Inventing Japan. I’m not sure what to expect from this one. Like the McCormack book––which came from the same publisher––it covers a range of thematic topics that present certain political and historical problems for the Japanese state and its people. Should be a productive read, but it’s hard to tell this far out.

Well, I had better disconnect the wi-fi if I want to keep pace with this schedule! Happy reading everyone.

Japan at Nature’s Edge 1: “The Pelagic Empire”

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Print commemorating the Japanese naval victories over the Russians in their war.

Environmental history is a concerted attempt to add critical bite to the common sense assertion that the development of a country cannot be separated from its physical geography. Japan at Nature’s Edge, a bound collection of articles edited by Ian Jared Miller, Julia Adeney Thomas, and Brett L. Walker, contains a number of entries that have inspired me to write about them. Situating modern and premodern Japanese history within an oceanic, terrestrial, ecological, and health context, the collection’s authors all explore the relationship between the human and the non-human in Japan’s history. For each article, I will briefly summarize the contents before offering a brief word of criticism, praise, or insight inspired by the article.

Our first entry, and the opener of the book, is William M. Tsutsui’s “The Pelagic Empire,” which attempts to reframe modern Japanese imperialism and expansion in oceanic terms, correcting what he sees as a “terrestrial bias” in the work of historians to date. When considering imperialism theoretically and empirically, historians attend most closely to its earthbound elements: factories, workforces, military campaigns, financial institutions, colonies, neo-colonies, etc. Oceans, meanwhile, are considered, if at all, as “negative spaces” just serving as barriers/avenues for transportation between landmasses. Tsutsui’s goal is to see the sea itself as a zone of exploitation and expansion, as a live and human territory deeply marked by imperialism. An unusual goal, to be sure.

In order to realign his readers, Tsutsui chooses to focus on Japan’s exploitation of fishing resources in the Pacific Ocean. In the short history he produces, Japan’s late 19th century imperial expansion is identified with, though obviously not exhausted by, the growth of a modern fishing industry in the deep Pacific. What had been a traditionally subsistence or lower-scale mercantile economic activity largely confined to coastal fisheries ballooned, by the 1940s, into a complex, state-sponsored sector of imperial Japan’s economy. As Tsutsui notes, the Japanese state mobilized scientific resources to rationalize fishing:

“A number of prefectures opened their own fisheries experiment stations, the central government operated numerous oceanographic research vessels, and marine science degree programs were offered at imperial universities in Tokyo and Hokkaido.”¹

In other words, the creation of a vast industrial fishing army required not only immense capital investments in fuel, steel, proletarian workers, etc., but also the organization and regulation of knowledge. The empire Tsutsui discusses imposed its borders and logics––in other words, its sovereignty––over a vast area of the ocean from the Antarctic to the Arctic Circle.

In the second half of the short article, the author discusses what might be called the ideology or subjectivity of the Pelagic Empire. He asks how the material reality of Japan’s oceanic dominance reflected in the minds of its ruling class, citizens, and international observers. In Japan, academics and elites identified the Japanese as “children of the water,” or as native island people, seafarers who possessed a natural mastery of the ocean. In 1941, the country even proclaimed a Marine Memorial Day (海の記念日)dedicated to the “blessings of the sea and…the prosperity of maritime Japan.”²

Tsutsui’s argument is essentially that Japanese Empire of the early 20th century and late 19th was primarily a maritime one, and that it envisioned itself as such. These are two separate arguments but they are both fairly well supported despite the brevity of the piece. At the same time, a few of his historiographical claims and comments about prevailing theories of imperialism are more questionable. For instance, he argues that Lenin and Hobson, early theorists of imperialism, “were clearly not thinking oceanically when they proclaimed the motor of imperialism to be the capitalistic hunger for for new outlets of surplus capital and new markets for surplus production, neither of which could apparently be satisfied at sea.”³

Obviously, most Marxist theorizing on imperialism is not focused on the ocean because it is primarily focused on understanding not the territorial expansion of empires over the sea but rather its parasitic domination of dependent nations and peoples. It only takes a slight geographical adjustment to make Lenin’s theory of finance-driven imperialism apply equally to competition over oceanic resources, understanding the sea, too, as a site of imperialist exploitation of workers, nations, and natural resources. At the same time, the fact that people do not generally live out in the open ocean where Tsutsui focuses makes the impact of imperialism on its more muted from a human vantage point.

Still, it seems valuable to me to include the ocean in considerations of Japanese imperialism, at least. Its territories and ambitions clearly included marine conquests as well as land-bound ones, so I would consider Tsutsui’s intervention to be quite positive overall, even if it doesn’t present its case with much theoretical elaboration.

Notes:

  1. William Tsutsui, “The Pelagic Empire: Reconsidering Japanese Expansion,” in Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, ed. Ian J. Miller, Julia A. Thomas, and Brett L. Walker (University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 28.
  2. Ibid, 29.
  3. Ibid, 22.

Mind, Body, Environment in Decay: Titus Groan

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Like the bottom of Dante’s hell, Gormenghast is a flash-frozen world. Indifferent to the outside, its only concern is its ever-dwindling splendour. Everyone who lives inside the walls of fortress Gormenghast is captive to it, whether servant or Earl. And, inescapably, they are ensnared in time as well as place. It all seems to be at the end of its history.

Take the honoured Earl, Sepulchrave. His day begins with a vast breakfast that, every day, goes to waste. Afterwards, he spends his hours reenacting the rituals of Gormenghast, accompanied by Sourdust the librarian and keeper of ritual. True to his name, he is melancholic and withdrawn, taking some solace only in his vast collection of books. Learned and apparently great in intellect and grace, he nonetheless never wields his power as the Earl––there is no outlet for power. Whatever worlds he might have conquered are remote from the story, and he is isolated from all the others in his stone domain because of his legacy and duties.

Gertrude, his wife, has companionship a-plenty, though none of it human. Prickly and imperious around fellow people, she keeps her room filled with birds of all feathers, whom she dotes on. Perhaps more ominously, she owns a bevy of cats, often described in the language of the ocean as a “wave” of white fur. Wherever her husband is shrunken and defined by absence, she is defined by a distracted fullness: a large body, too many birds, too many cats.

They have a daughter, Fuchsia, but neither of them pay attention to her. She is left to the attic, her imagination, and the company of the castle doctor, Prunesquallor and the haggard Nannie Slagg.

At the beginning of Titus Groan, Gormenghast is thrown off balance by the arrival of a new male heir to the throne: the title character. Titus’ entry is of course expected, an event accounted for by well-honed tradition and ritual. There is his birth and his consecration as heir and that is that. But his birth coincides with a disruption of another kind; this one is named Steerpike. A kitchen boy with an outsized ambition and ruthless intelligence, Steerpike seeks power for himself and enjoys manipulating others. Titus and Steerpike are  the main plot engines in Titus Groan, though the former, being an infant for its entirety, seems to be at a distinct disadvantage, royalty or no.

On the one hand, the helpless boy born and nurtured into power. On the other, the grasping youth who will do anything to take it. One has to ask, of course, why Steerpike is interested in power in such a cold and desolate place. Ruling over Gormenghast, it seems, is just the end goal of a game, since it should be apparent to him that possession of this stone fortress, even an absolute command of it, yields no advantage.

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It’s difficult to say whether Titus Groan is fantasy, per se. It certainly is a masterpiece of fictional world building, creating an alien society that does not exist anywhere and filled with strange rules and customs. But there is no magic or anything supernatural at all. Where it’s most comparable to fantasy is its exploration of the feudal European world and, in this case, its inexorable decline. If Lord of the Rings is pastoral feudalism triumphant, Titus Groan is feudalism hollowed out and exposed in all its absurdity.

Absurdity is the right word, too. Though Peake has a terrific talent for building tension and resolving it effectively––the battle in the Spider Room is particularly memorable––much of the book is actually very funny. You probably notice the characters’ names, which are one part solemn fantasy nonsense and one part Lewis Carroll pun. Grave moments are undercut by uncomfortable disturbances, and characters like Dr. Prunesquallor manage to be both annoying and strangely endearing. The good Doctor, in particular, is prone to throw off some impressively composed nonsense:

“What did you say they were? My memory is so very untrustworthy. It’s fickle as a fox. Ask me to name the third lateral blood vessel from the extremity of my index finger that runs east to west when I lie on my face at sundown, or the percentage of chalk to be found in the knuckles of the average spinster in her fifty-seventh year, ha, ha, ha!––or even ask me, dear boy, give the details of the pulse rate of frogs two minutes before they died of scabies––these things are no tax upon my memory, ha, ha, ha!”

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1967), 185.

Long and verbose, the novel is nevertheless quite subtly developed because it allows its talkative and often ridiculous characters to expose themselves through their actions and thoughts rather than just directly stating what’s going on. Except for one chapter that recalls modernist stream-of-consciousness prose where we are let into the characters’ heads while they eat dinner together, we are often left to wonder what they are really thinking or planning, particularly side characters whose points of view we don’t normally see. Titus Groan is not particularly dense with incidents, but it is dense with manoeuvring, plotting, and skulking, all of which build towards the few key turning points beautifully.

What I most admire about the book, however, is its use of the Gothic to its full extent. It drains all the romance out of ruins, and instead substitutes an unyielding (but not un-humourous) grimness. There is grandeur in Gormenghast, but no life, no pulse. Its people and its walls alike are already ruins, and one gets the sense that the world has already passed it by. Capitalism and modern life will relegate it to a tourist attraction soon enough, and I’m not sure if its residents would be all that sad to see it go the way of Stonehenge. I’m sure it would make an excellent restoration job; maybe make one wing of it a hotel.

Of course, there are two books remaining in the core trilogy of Gormenghast, and I’ll be reporting back on them as soon as I can. For now, we can all rest assured that nothing will “out crumble” the great walls of Gormenghast.

 

Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

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