Tag: fiction

do I feel fine?


My friend Adam Roberts has recently released a delightful and provocative little book called It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? It’s not about the end of the world, but about the stories we tell about the world’s end — and why we tell them.

The central idea of his interpretation is announced fairly early on, in a discussion of Ragnarök — and what comes after Ragnarök:

The end turns out not to be the end – Ragnarök turns the universe off and on again. We still can’t bring ourselves to come to terms with the total absence of life. Something must continue, something must exist. And so we are locked into a cycle – imagining an end to the story, but afraid to really bring it to an end once and for all. This, counter-intuitively, turns out to be one of the most reliable features of all the stories about the end of the world. A world ends. The world never does.

In fact sometimes it does, and in texts Adam cites: Byron’s terrifying poem “Darkness,” the unsurpassably bleak vision at the end of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, etc. But yes, it is true that far more often than not the end of the world is the portal to a renewed cosmos: the New Heaven and the New Earth of John the Revelator’s vision; the end of this kalpa leading to the eventual emergence of another.

Having laid out this general framework, Adam moves on to instances, brief sketches of what we might call the various genres of conclusion: endings brought about by the gods, by zombies, by plagues, by machines, by the heat death of the universe, by climate change. You can see that for some of these the relevant phrase is “the end of the world,” while for others it’s “as we know it.” Climate change won’t end the world, though it will certainly reshape it; and as Adam writes, “the secret core of the zombie story” may be that it describes “not so much the end of the world, but the end of the values that underpin that world – not the end of humans as a species but of our very humanity.” (There’s a very stimulating comment in that chapter on Huxley’s Brave New World as a kind of zombie story.)

There’s also a fabulous digression on the horror of a world that won’t end: I’m compelled by Adam’s description of Groundhog Day as “a masterpiece of supreme existential terror.”

In his final pages he writes, “We use the stories to make sense of it all, to impose order on an uncaring and chaotic universe, creating the fantasy that we have some measure of understanding and control.” That’s something close to the book’s conclusion, but I think it conflates several different experiences. The problem lies in the phrase “understanding and control.” Understanding and control are not the same thing, and I’m not even sure they arise from the same impulse. After all, one of the things that we might understand about the world, or about our lives in more specific ways, is that we don’t have any meaningful control over it or them.

I think it’s fair to say that Adam shares the view articulated by Wells at the the of The Time Machine and by Byron in his great poem:

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them — She was the Universe.

If that vision is true, then to grasp that is certainly to understand something; but it is not to control anything, except perhaps — perhaps — our hopes for something better. The control of emotion that one achieves when one accepts what one cannot control: Stoicism in a phrase.

Which leads us back to one of Adam’s key points, that all of our stories about the end of the world are really, to some degree and often to a very great degree, refractions of our sense of our own ending, our own death. And Larkin, for one, didn’t think much of the Stoic answer:

                                      Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

One may control one’s fear, but that’s not the control that any of us wants. I think Larkin has understood something here.

For me, a Christian, everything about this, about what will happen to me when I die, about what will become of this sweet world, hinges on one question. As Auden put it: “Now did He really break the seal / And rise again?” The biggest of all Ifs, for me. But I’m staking my claim on “Yes.” And I think, along with the say-but-the-word centurion given voice by Les Murray,

If he is risen, all are children of a most real high God
or something even stranger called by that name
who knew to come and be punished for the world.

technocracy is impossible

I’m re-reading Kim Stanley Robinson‘s magnificent Mars trilogy right now, which might be something to blog about in the coming days and weeks, so why not get started?

Not long ago I was in a Zoom conversation with several people, one of whom is a very distinguished scientist, and he told me that when he read my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 and got to the end, he felt that I had given short shrift to the virtues of technocracy. He thinks technocracy would be a pretty good thing, especially as compared with the plausible alternatives. The conversation veered onto other paths soon after that, possibly more fruitful ones, but before it did I sketched out an answer that I want to develop a little more fully here — because it’s a little different than the view I (implicitly) endorse in that book, which is that Technocracy Is Bad. What I think I now want to say is Technocracy Is Impossible.

You see, in the strict sense there cannot be a technocracy as such, and Mars trilogy proves that point. If you read that story, you will discover that it is really more about politics than it is about the exploration of Mars, or perhaps it would be better to say, it demonstrates irresistibly that none of our scientific or technological pursuits can be detached from deliberations about the character of our lives together, that is to say, deliberations about politics.

Right from the beginning of the story there is great debate, forceful and even sometimes hostile debate, among the First Hundred — the 100 (or, to be precise, 101) people who are sent from Earth to start the first Mars colony — about what sort of society they should form once they get there. They are theoretically responsible to the national governments that sent them and to the U.N., but one of the things that becomes clear to them as even as they’re on their way to Mars is that upon arrival they’re going to have to make their own decisions about how to order their common life. And so a great deal of the book is about, for lack of a better phrase, political philosophy.

One of the things we are occasionally reminded of in the first book of the trilogy, Red Mars, is the international celebrity of the First Hundred. People back on Earth obsessively watch video of the colonists, and enter passionately into their debates:

So nearly everyone had an opinion. Polls showed that most supported the Russell program, an informal name for Sax’s plans to terraform the planet by all means possible, as fast as they could. But the minority who backed Ann’s hands-off attitude tended to be more vehement in their belief, insisting that it had immediate applications to the Antarctic policy, and indeed to all Terran environmental policy. Meanwhile different poll questions made it clear that many people were fascinated by Hiroko and the farming project, while others called themselves Bogdanovists; Arkady had been sending back lots of video from Phobos, and Phobos was good video, a real spectacle of architecture and engineering. New Terran hotels and commercial complexes were already imitating some of its features, there was an architectural movement called Bogdanovism, as well as other movements interested in him that were more concentrated on social and economic reforms in the world order.

All of this makes more sense if you have read the books and know the characters, but even if you haven’t, I think you’ll get the general picture. Terrans are not only interested in what the colonists will do to organize life on Mars, they‘re reflecting on the implications of those ideas for life on Earth.

For me, here’s the key thing: When you have an environment completely dominated by scientists and engineers — the only non-scientist we meet is a psychologist, sent to provide therapy to the colonists — there is no agreement among them about what kind of life they should live together. That is, scientific and technological expertise does not correlate with any particular mode of social and political organization. Scientists can vary just as much in their beliefs about what kind of life is worth living as any randomly selected group of people in a society. They don’t even agree about the importance of technology. Rule could theoretically be given over to people who have demonstrated certain kinds of scientific or technical knowledge, but we would be wrong to think that everyone who has the same level of STEM achievement will have the same views about politics. When you read Robinson’s great trilogy you will understand not only why this might be so but why it must be so.

Therefore it makes no sense to say that the decisions of political leaders should be governed by “the science.” Leaders should pay attention to scientists, dramatically more than the current Presidential administration does, but an immunologist will say one thing, an epidemiologist something slightly different, an economist something altogether other. The various sciences and academic disciplines will not speak with a single voice, indeed will not speak at all: individual scholars will speak, and what they say will arise from a combination of their scholarly expertise and their beliefs (derived from non-scientific sources) about what matters most in life, and a good political leader will have the general intelligence and moral discernment to sift the various messages he or she receives and make a decision based on all the relevant input. Which is another way of saying that there are not, nor will there ever be, charts and algorithms that can substitute for political judgment. Alas for the U.S.A. that political judgment is precisely what our leadership lacks.


Near the end of The Code of the Woosters, Bertie sagely comments of Roderick Spode that one can be either a fascist dictator or a designer of women’s undergarments, but not both. I thought of that as I read Russell Kirk’s wooden thriller Old House of Fear. You can make your villain either a Communist or a necromancer, but not both. Not both.



Tony Tanner, in his great essay on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, comments extensively on the peculiarity of a heroine, Fanny Price, who so rarely does anything. Contrast her to, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet, who marches miles across fields to care for her ill sister Jane, thereby arousing contempt from some — How she muddied her skirts! — and admiration from others — What a lovely flush the exercise brought to her cheeks! Fanny, by contrast, mainly … sits.

It is next to the ebullient Crawfords that we must try to appreciate Fanny’s stillness, quietness, weakness and self-retraction…. It is a way of showing that she is not quite at home in the world, that she cannot compete with its rampant appetitive energies. In Fanny’s case this weakness is also a token of the exhaustion and strain she incurs through her ‘heroism of principle’. In her stillness she is not inactive: on the contrary, she is often holding on strenuously to standards and values which others all around her are thoughtlessly abandoning. Typically she welcomes the ‘tranquillity’ made possible by Mansfield Park at its best. She is content to remain apart, silent, unnoticed, out of the ‘festivities’. Whereas Mary [Crawford] is a distinctly forward woman, always in her element in the arena of society, Fanny is marked by ‘natural shyness’. Indeed, when all the others complain of the dullness which comes over the house after Sir Thomas returns, she defends it, saying, ‘There must be a sort of shyness.’ To appreciate the full implications of this we should bear in mind a late remark of Jane Austen’s: ‘What is become of all the shyness in the world?’ By which she clearly means not a false modesty but a true unassertive reticence of soul. A selflessness; a quietness.

Tanner calls our attention to the ultimate clarification of this trait of Fanny’s in what for my money is the single most brilliantly conceived and executed scene in all of Austen. (And that’s saying a lot.) The characters have taken a day trip to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, and while they all go off exploring, often in pairs, sometimes in pairs that should not be pairs, Fanny finds a pleasant spot and, once more, just sits.

It is here that Fanny desires to sit down and be still, and she does so on a bench which confronts an iron gate which separates the wilderness from the unenclosed spaces of the park beyond. This is one of the most important gestures in the book. Mary, typically, has no taste for stillness. ‘“I must move,” said she, “resting fatigues me”’, and leaving Fanny immobile, she entices Edmund back into the wood. Then Henry Crawford and Maria and Mr Rushworth appear. Maria, always impatient of all restraints and enclosures, wishes to go beyond the gates and into the wider freedom of the park. The gate — perfect image for the rigid restrictions imposed by the conventions of civilised life — is locked. Mr Rushworth goes to fetch the key. Being engaged to Maria, he is in many ways the lawful person to ‘open the gates’ (there is perhaps a reference to virginity here, just as the locked garden represents virginity in medieval paintings). But in his absence, Henry engages in some very persuasive and suggestive double entendre with Maria. The improver of the estate is also the disturber of conventional life. The whole conversation should be looked at carefully; particularly when Maria complains that the iron gate ‘gives me a feeling of restraint and hardship’ and Henry answers, ‘I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited.’ Their final adultery also a bypassing of the ‘iron’ codes of society is here prefigured.

Tanner continues,

Again, Fanny is ‘left to her solitude’. And so it goes on. Mr Rushworth appears, upset to find he has been left behind; Julia turns up breathless and angry; Edmund and Mary continue their ‘winding’ walk in the woods. Only Fanny is still, silent, alone; not involved in the confused antics of all the others, who are variously pursuing their own desires and indulging their impulses. When they do all meet up again, one feels that some irreparable damage has been done.

A masterful scene, masterfully exposited by Tanner.

I’ve been thinking of this scene, and Tanner’s account of it, as I have reflected on Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. Franz Jägerstätter’s virtue lies almost wholly in stillness, in refraining, in simply maintaining his stability when all around him have lost theirs. They make vows he does not make; they talk emptily, while he keeps his counsel; they serve their Mortall God, which he politely declines to do; in the end, they kill him, while he is killed by them. Such is his passion — passio, passive, suffering. To quote Tanner with a change of pronouns, “In his stillness he is not inactive: on the contrary, he is often holding on strenuously to standards and values which others all around him are thoughtlessly abandoning.”

We are, generally speaking, not impressed. “Stillness, quietness, weakness and self-retraction” — rather negative as virtues go, wouldn’t you say? Not much to get excited about, is there? But maybe Jane Austen and Franz Jägerstätter understood something we don’t — maybe more than one thing — about what it takes not to be blown about by every propagandistic breeze (for so I render ἀνέμῳ τῆς διδασκαλίας), and about the distinctive kind of weakness in which Another’s strength may be made perfect. Christians who are “not quite at home in the world,” and cannot, or will not, “compete with its rampant appetitive energies” may not deserve our contempt. I find myself longing to exhibit something that no one has ever accused me of exhibiting: “true unassertive reticence of soul.”

Mantel’s Cromwell

Freya Johnston on Hilary Mantel’s new novel:

The Mirror and the Light, like Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, conceals through a mass of beautifully observed local colour the quiet work of advocacy it is constantly performing. Mantel is implicitly urging us to feel more sympathy for one character than for others. She does so by virtue of granting or withholding knowledge of what is going on inside her characters’ heads. The way that she handles the representation of thought processes and the mingling of those processes with an ostensibly impersonal narrative voice — in other words, her free indirect style — seem to rule out access to the ways in which bad characters think. Or perhaps she cannot help but make bad people into better ones. The prose is so raptly and sympathetically attuned to Cromwell that, despite his actions, we are made to find him at worst intriguing, sometimes manipulative — but even then, understandably so.

This comment is interesting to me, because I wrote something similar when reviewing the first volume of the trilogy ten years ago

This psychological focus is especially important because Mantel clearly thinks of Cromwell as the most modern person in her story — the one most like Us. In her vision he is an utterly non-ideological man with little intrinsic interest in power forced to live in a profoundly ideological and power-mad age. His strongest feelings are for his wife and children — he loses that wife and both of his daughters to the “sweating sickness” (we would call it malaria) — and when a colleague finds him weeping over his dead loved ones, Cromwell pretends that he cries for fear that he will fall when the Cardinal does. The lie is more than plausible: no one in Henry’s court could think of a more likely reason for tears. Cromwell is even tender towards animals, in an age noted for its cruelty to them. The conventional narratives of the Tudor age contrast Thomas More’s reluctant ascent to power, and stubborn loyalty to the Church even in the face of death, with Cromwell’s unprincipled Machiavellian shrewdness. Mantel doesn’t quite invert the equation, but she nearly does. Confined as we are to Cromwell’s perspective, we can’t know what really motivates More, but Cromwell certainly doubts that the piety goes all the way down: at one point he even asks More directly whether he could have risen to the place of Lord Chancellor “by accident.”

Later I wrote: “Mantel’s Cromwell is a characteristically late-modern Western man who happens to be living at the beginnings of modernity. By envisioning him so, Mantel has rendered much simpler the task of making the historical novel into a psychological novel. Could she have told the story of More, or for that matter Tyndale, in this manner? I think not. Author and protagonist merge nicely at this point: the True Believer remains inaccessible to them both.”

That’s why I didn’t go on to the second, and will not go on to the third, volume: Mantel seems interested in the inner lives only of those characters with whom she can muster significant sympathy. Oh for a writer who wants to grapple seriously with those whose beliefs and commitments are alien to her! 

a return to Narnia

(I had the privilege of reading Francis Spufford’s The Stone Table in draft, with what I believe the enthusiasts call “dawning wonder,” and also with increasing frustration at a copyright regime that made it unlikely to be published. So a few months ago I wrote the essay you see below. After some reflection I decided not to publish it; but now that the word is out about The Stone Table, I’m posting it here.) 

One of the best works of fiction I have read in the past several years was written by the acclaimed English writer Francis Spufford — and no, I do not refer to his award-winning novel Golden Hill, though indeed I loved that book too. The story I’m referring to is called The Stone Table, and before you Google it or look for it on Amazon, please understand that you will not find it. And that’s because of intellectual property law.

For Spufford’s book is set in Narnia, the fictional world created by C. S. Lewis. The Stone Table features characters who appear in other Narnia books: most notably, two children named Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke and the great lion Aslan. The seven Narnia books that Lewis wrote have already come into the public domain in some countries, and may even do so in the United States — though those of us who have seen the law extend copyright again and again may be pardoned for doubting that it will ever happen. But Spufford has written a new Narnia story, so copyright law doesn’t affect his: what matters is that the world of Narnia is a registered trademark of C. S. Lewis (PTE.) Ltd. — and trademarks, if they are consistently used and defended against infringement, last forever. (This is why so many companies will sue for trademark infringement even in apparently trivial cases: they’re afraid that if they don’t they’ll be accused of having abandoned their copyright.) Moreover, trademarks are often international in their scope.

So as long as there is money to be made from Narnia™, then books like The Stone Table cannot be published and sold without the express consent of C. S. Lewis (PTE.) Ltd.

Now, in many cases trademark holders are more than happy to give — or rather, sell — such consent. Certainly Middle-Earth Enterprises, the company that now holds the rights to Hobbit– and Lord of the Rings-related material, rights that Tolkien himself sold to United Artists in 1969, was pleased to make it possible for us to recreate Helm’s Deep in Lego. For instance. But the remainder of Tolkien’s writings are copyrighted, and several trademarks held, by Tolkien’s estate, which has sometimes led to confusing legal struggles: Wait, Tolkien is suing Middle-Earth? And Middle-Earth is suing him back?

And these different parties have not always had the same interests. Tolkien’s son Christopher, who directed the estate before his resignation in 2017 at the age of 93, did not like Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, would certainly have prevented the filming of The Hobbit if he could have, and would have been unlikely ever to approve a film or television version of his father’s vast legendarium, The Silmarillion — even though such a project could greatly enrich the Tolkien Estate’s coffers. Who knows what will happen now that the Estate is in other hands? But Christopher always had a strong sense of the character and purpose of his father’s work, and did not want that character and purpose to be violated. Money is not everything.

A very similar attitude seems to drive the C. S. Lewis estate, and especially Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham. When I was working on my biography of Lewis — in the year or so preceding the release of the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with which it was meant to coincide — a shadow of anxiety always hovered over the project, because no one knew exactly what Gresham would think of it. He couldn’t have stopped it from being published, but he certainly could have withheld the estate’s cooperation from my publisher, HarperOne, and made life more difficult and considerably less lucrative for them. That would have (de facto if not de jure) meant the quashing of my biography. I am certain that my editor, the shrewd and resourceful Mickey Maudlin, had to do some delicate negotiating both with Gresham, who wanted his stepfather’s memory properly honored, and with me, who wanted to be left alone to write the book I wanted to write. But Mickey played his cards very close to his vest, so I am not sure to this day how awkward those negotiations got.

Last year Mickey and I had a conversation about a new book, a collection of Lewis’s writings about reading. Lewis wrote very eloquently about the theory and practice of reading, and as his biographer and the author of a book about reading I might seem to be a good candidate to select and annotate his thoughts on the subject. But again approval of the estate was required; and approval, for reasons not wholly clear to me, was not granted.

It’s enough to make me long for estates driven by a list for filthy lucre. For, though I admire the determination of Christopher Tolkien and Douglas Gresham, and other directors of those estates, to be faithful custodians of rich and wonderful imaginative worlds, I am not convinced that they can legitimately offer the final, unquestionable verdict about what does in fact honor Lewis’s and Tolkien’s writings. Great writers — and I believe both Lewis and Tolkien to have been great writers — tend to have more comprehensive minds than those charged with their estates’ care. This is why I have for so long admired Edward Mendelson, W. H. Auden’s literary executor, who has for decades now offered unfailing support to scholars working on Auden, even when those scholars have views about Auden radically different than his own. Mendelson grasps what many literary executors and estates do not: that, just because Auden is a writer whose greatness is not reducible to a single point of view, it is better to be overly generous than overly restrictive.

The world will not much miss the book on Lewis and reading that I would have made. But The Stone Table deserves a very wide readership indeed. Spufford has suppressed his own distinctive and eloquent style and made himself a ventriloquist of Lewis: to read the story is really and truly to return to the Narnia millions of readers love. And this is not merely a matter of style: Spufford’s story is thematically and even theologically Lewisian. It is a marvelous and utterly delightful tale, as wise as it is thrilling. I so wish you could read it.

Christie and the mystery

After reading this fascinating essay by John Lanchester, my first thought, I will admit, was that he might have read my essay on “Miss Marple and the Problem of Modern Identity” — or ought to read it. But since he surely has never read anything by me and never will, let’s move on. 

“in fact the mind was poorly understood”

Astounding, really, that Michel could consider psychology any kind of science at all. So much of it consisted of throwing together. Of thinking of the mind as a steam engine, the mechanical analogy most ready to hand during the birth of modern psychology. People had always done that when they thought about the mind: clockwork for Descartes, geological changes for the early Victorians, computers or holography for the twentieth century, AIs for the twenty-first…. and for the Freudian traditionalists, steam engines. Application of heat, pressure buildup, pressure displacement, venting, all shifted into repression, sublimation, the return of the repressed. Sax thought it unlikely steam engines were an adequate model for the human mind. The mind was more like — what? — an ecology — a fellfield — or else a jungle, populated by all manner of strange beasts. Or a universe, filled with stars and quasars and black holes. Well — a bit grandiose, that — really it was more like a complex collection of synapses and axons, chemical energies surging hither and yon, like weather in an atmosphere. That was better — weather — storm fronts of thought, high-pressure zones, low-pressure cells, hurricanes — the jet streams of biological desires, always making their swift powerful rounds…. life in the wind. Well. Throwing together. In fact the mind was poorly understood.

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars

that’s what I want

Our love is all of God’s money

What is money? Hard to say, really. It’s easier to document what it does, as Dana Gioia has shown:

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,

holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.

Gathering interest, compounding daily.

Always in circulation.

“Circulation” is the key term here: money is always on the move, is always sliding from one location to another and then back to the first and then on to a third. People who work with money prize fluidity, because fluidity promotes circulation. And every development in computerized trading increases the speed of that circulation, so that now money moves faster than the human eye can see.

But the flow isn’t random, indeed is anything but random. Powerful gravity drags money towards other money. Think of how our solar system formed: the molecules that formed vast clouds of gas and dust drifted towards one another, forming clumps that attracted still more molecules, until eventually there condensed a star. That’s how money works. “Gathering interest, compounding daily.”

But, of course, as what is saved gathers interest, so too does what is owed. Money breeds money; debt breeds debt. And if not for debt, would money exist? “The first thing that happened in human history,” thinks a character in a new novel, “was not money, but debt – obligations and promises and duties incurred. Money arose only as a way of tabulating such owings.”

Most utopias and dystopias are concerned with money, and usually want to show the absurdity of it. This can be done whether a writer lives in an age of “Commodity Money” or “Representative Money” (to borrow terms from John Maynard Keynes). In Thomas More’s Utopia the shackles of prisoners are made from gold, so that that metal may be deposed; in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon the “Musical Banks” enact abstract rituals of circulation that are meant to remind us that the economy is a kind of religion and religion a kind of economy. In the most acute and insightful fictional exploration I know of these matters, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, subtitled in some editions “An Ambiguous Utopia,” the culture of a capitalist planet is contrasted in vivid detail with that of an anarchist planet which has tried to eliminate money as best it can — but is left with other, less clearly defined, structures of circulation, ways for power and control to flow towards those who already have power and control.

But LeGuin did not imagine a world in which near-instantaneous and near-universal digital communication enables money to do what it always wants to do. And here we turn to the novel I just quoted, Adam Roberts’s By the Pricking of Her Thumb.

Adam Roberts is a novelist of ideas, and I want to put equal stress on both of those terms: novelist, ideas. His books tend to be deeply reflective, serious and detailed and nuanced in their conceptual explorations, but those explorations are always embedded in really good stories — and cannot be simply extracted from those stories. That creates problems for someone who wants to write about his books without spoiling them for other readers. So if the discussion that follows is somewhat elliptical, that’s because I want you to read the book.

In this novel, four persons of great wealth have entered into an uneasy alliance in the hopes of achieving absolute wealth: to control nothing less than all the money in the world. The alliance is uneasy because the ultimate goal of each is to take everything from the others: to be the one rich person in a world of paupers, or at best dependents. The question is this: by what means might absolute wealth be acquired. The Fab Four have different ideas about that, and interestingly different ideas, but what they all come down to is this: seeking for ways to make every human relationship, every human desire, fungible — translatable into currency. One character here asks another, “You’re on the money can buy you love side of the debate?” And the other character answers: “I think love is the only thing money is any good for.”

But these Four are not the central figures in Roberts’s story, because the view from above does not interest him as much as the view from below. The protagonist of the book, a private investigator named Alma — she was also the protagonist of an earlier book, The Real-Town Murders — meets some of the Four, but her world could scarcely be more different from theirs. The flip side of absolute wealth is absolute precarity, and Alma is asymptotically approaching that even as the Four draw closer to their great goal. Increasingly Alma understands her life, and every aspect of her life, as shaped and formed by unpayable debts. Which means that the whole of her experience becomes a meditation on money — and its lack.

Grief, she saw now, was a mode of money. Death was a mode of money. Not, of course, the positive, cash-in-the-bank, the active fiction of money that the economic system painted so faux-optimistically. But that had never been the truth about money, had it? Money, by population mass, was debt, and debt was the key trope of negativity, and absence, and lack. Lack drove the economy, compelled people into work and ensured their persistence, lubricated the flow of capital and investment and liquidity. The whole system was a spider’s web stitched together, with a kind of tender fragility, over the empty mouth of debt, down which the wind was sucked.

All this is reminiscent of David Graeber’s 2012 book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, and in that wide-ranging and fascinating book Graeber cites an anthropologist and former economist named Philippe Rospabé who makes the provocative comment that money arises “as a substitute for life.” If you give me life, if you sustain my life, if you save my life, I cannot replay you directly — cannot repay you in, as it were, the currency of the benefit you provided. Money, then, as Graeber puts the key point, “is first and foremost an acknowledgment that one owes something much more valuable than money.” John Ruskin famously wrote — a line cited in Roberts’s new novel — “There is no wealth but life,” which may well be true, but would equally be true to say that there is no debt but life.

In this morally fraught context, the very thing that makes money useful — its fungibility, its ability to be converted — abstracts it to some degree from our lifeworld. As our currency moves from (say) chickens to cowrie shells to gold coins to paper bills to binary digits readable on our smartphones, money extracts itself from its human context — it becomes in an eerily powerful sense autonomous.

In Charles Williams’s strange poetic sequence based on Arthurian legend, Taliessen through Logres, one poem describes King Arthur’s building of a mint and issuing of coins. “Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics,” is pleased:

Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.

But Taliessen the poet is horrified: “I am afraid of the little loosed dragons” — the dragons, representing King Arthur Pendragon, stamped on the coins — because “When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.” The coins both represent the King and substitute for him: an abstract fungibility is meant to extend but ultimately threatens to replace the personal presence and authority of the monarch.

The Archbishop of Canterbury steps in and tries to pour oil on the troubled waters by demoting money, as it were: to Kay’s claim that “money is the medium of exchange” the Archbishop replies that “money is a medium of exchange.” The greater and more necessary currency is that of the circulation of gifts in Christian community, what Williams in his theological writings called the Way of Exchange: “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” The Archbishop’s speech is a nice little exercise in peacemaking, as perhaps is fitting the episcopal role, and it clearly attempts to incorporate Jesus’s bizarre commandment to his disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”; but such splitting-the-difference is perhaps too easy. It assumes that money can be constrained to accept its place as a secondary medium of exchange, subservient to the greater authority of charity. But Taliessen’s fear of what happens when the means become autonomous seems to me a well-warranted fear.

Which brings us back to By the Pricking of Her Thumb. The book concerns itself with many things — love and loss; the difference between “real life”and an increasingly compelling online world; the films of Stanley Kubrick — but the central and compelling concept is this: what if the long-promised Singularity comes, or something rather like it, and what has become self-aware is simply … money itself? What if our future is a future of, in the strongest sense possible, Smart Money?

It really and truly doesn’t bear thinking of. After all, money is powerful enough, influential enough, near-sentient enough, as it is already. As Gioia writes,

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,

but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

re-reading Trollope

I am re-reading the Palliser novels, for the first time in 20 years, which means I have largely forgotten what happens in them, and I am reminded that Trollope really is the most underrated novelist in the world. The casualness of his manner, and his intermittent insistence is that he is telling simple and insignificant stories, disguise from us just how penetrating his mind was, how clearly he sees the inmost workings of his characters’ lives, and how justly he deals out condemnation and mercy alike. I’m reading Can You Forgive Her? right now, and there is an extraordinary moment when George Vavasor has entered Parliament, having run a successful race thanks to the money he has extracted from his cousin Alice, whom he has manipulated into agreeing to marry him though he knows perfectly well that she does not love him. So when he comes to see her immediately after his election, he begins by thanking her for her financial contribution to his success – thanks which she does not want – but then strives to extract from her some expression of affection which she knows she does not feel. And Trollope pauses in the middle of George’s conversation with Alice and says, with brutal simplicity, “He should have been more of a rascal or less.” It’s one of the most devastating comments that any novelist has made about one of his characters.

George wants to be treated as an honorable man without being one. He wants Alice to give him credit for virtues and intentions which he has in a thousand ways made it clear that he does not possess. He insists upon being given credit for traits which as soon as he walks away from her he repudiates mockingly. He should have been more of a rascal or less. He should have frankly acknowledged the terms on which he and Alice have come to an agreement, or realized that he desperately needed to amend his life. But he does neither, and by doing neither makes himself and Alice equally miserable.

Can You Forgive Her? contains plenty of the broadish comedy that Trollope did so well – the protracted attempts of the farmer Mr Cheeseacre to woo the widow Greenow really are funny, even if there is more of it than one might think ideal – but the effect of these scenes is primarily to relieve the tension of what in other respects is a rather agonizing novel to read. Some may think “Ah, well, we know that everything will turn out all right in the end” – but we do not know that, not in a Trollope novel. Some of his most appealing and memorable characters (Lady Laura Kennedy, Lily Dale) do not receive the eucatastrophic resolution we would rightly expect from a lesser writer. If you know that, you know that you cannot simply expect a happy ending for his protagonists.

Which makes it all the more delightful when they get one.

Richard Powers and the third kind of story

An interview with Richard Powers::

The modern human assumption that trees, plants and all other wildlife are “just property” is, to Powers, the root of our much greater species problem. “Every form of mental despair and terror and incapacity in modern life seems to be related in some way to this complete alienation from everything else alive. We’re deeply, existentially lonely. 

“Until it’s exciting and fun and ecstatic to think that everything else has agency and is reciprocally connected we’re going to be terrified and afraid of death, and it’s mastery or nothing.” To that end, Powers hopes his book will be part of the restoration of a tradition that has all but ceased to exist in modern literature. “We are incredibly good at psychological and political dramas, but there’s another kind of drama – between the humans and the non-humans – that disappeared in the late 19th century, once we thought we had dominion over the Earth. Because we won that battle. 

“But now we know we didn’t, actually. And until you resolve that question, how do we live coherently at home on this planet, the other two kinds of stories are luxuries.”

The Overstory is next on my reading list.

The Black Prince of Burgess and Roberts

So: Anthony Burgess, back when he was alive, thought that a movie should be made about Edward the Black Prince and that he should write the screenplay. (Whether he is equally interested in the project now that he is dead I cannot say.) He drafted said screenplay, but nothing ever came of it. But, thought Adam Roberts, if the story cannot be a movie might it not become a novel? So he wrote said novel. (More details here.)

I have now read the novel, and it is remarkable: the imagination of Burgess combined with the imagination of Roberts and inspired technically by the method of John dos Passos in his U.S.A. Trilogy) — with a soupçon of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Literary collage: highly imagistic scenes rendered by Camera Eye, March-of-Time-style newsreels, brief character portraits, chunks of sermons. The story of a soldier called Black George is especially powerfully rendered. Roberts captures with precise and sometimes disturbing fidelity that interlacing of deep piety and sheer brutality that we discern when we look closely at the world of Medieval Latin Christendom.

The publication of the book, through Unbound, still needs to be fully funded. You can, and should, support the project by going here and paying the merest pittance. If you do, then I shall pray God to have mercy on your soul. If not….

Le Guin’s golden age

Between 1968 and 1974 Ursula K. Le Guin published

A Wizard of Earthsea
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Tombs of Atuan
The Lathe of Heaven
The Farthest Shore
The Disposessed

— along with a series of classic stories, including “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” “Winter’s King,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” That would be quite a literary career. She did it in six years.

“first epistemological impressions”

God appeared very early to me. His hair was parted down the middle. I understood that we were related because he had made Adam in his own image, breathed life into him. My eldest brother also combed his hair in the same style. Between the senior brother and me there was another brother. Senior to all of us was our sister. Anyway… This was the world. I had never seen it before. Its first gift was the gift of itself. Objects gathered you to themselves and held you buy a magnetic imperative that was simply there. It was a privilege to be permitted to see – to see, touch, hear. This would not have been impossible to describe to Ravelstein. But he would have answered dismissively that Rousseau had already covered the same turf in his Confessions or his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. I didn’t feel like having these first epistemological impressions anticipated or dismissed. For seventy-odd years I had seen reality under the same signs. I had the feeling, too, that I had to wait for thousands of years to see, hear, smell, and touch these mysterious phenomena – to take my turn in life before disappearing again when my time was up. I might have said to Ravelstein, “It was my one turn to live.” But he was too close to death to be spoken to in such terms and I had to surrender my wish to make myself fully known to him by describing my intimate metaphysics. Only a small number of special souls have ever found a way to receive such revelations.

— Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

I often think I’m the only person in the world who cares about this, but … here’s a very nice piece on dystopian fiction that uses the terms “sacrament” and “sacramental” far too loosely. It’s an unfortunately common trope (especially but not only among Christians) to use “sacramental” as a synonym for “meaningful” or “comforting” or “reassuring.” Experience or objects can be deeply meaningful, even life-transforming, without being sacramental. Sacrament requires not just meaning but the divine promise of meaning: the Eucharist is a sacrament because God promises to be present in it. And the same is true of the other sacraments. Where there is no promise, there is no sacrament, though for the attentive person there will often be deep meaning.

a thought on Endo’s Silence

(a comment on this post by Adam Roberts)

… let me just offer one thought about Silence (the novel — like you, I haven’t seen the movie)…. Rodrigues had always thought of himself as a Sidney Carton kind of hero, and had in a sense prepared himself for Cartonesque acts — but not for the choices he ended up facing. The key to his character, I think, is that he had always (Endo makes this clear) believed that it’s not wrong for the poor native Christians, weak as they are, to trample the fumie, but it’s wrong for him because he is a priest of God, a missionary, one presumably equipped for every challenge. It almost doesn’t matter whether he ends up trampling on the fumie or not, because his entire self-understanding is (I’m using the word advisedly) crucified by the mere fact that he has no idea what the right thing to do is. Is that really Christ telling him to trample? If so, then Christian faithfulness is not what Rodrigues always thought it was. Is it a false Christ, an apparition of his tormented mind giving him a way out? If so, then Rodrigues is not the Christian he always thought he was. The shift at the end to third-person narration is (to borrow your term) a withdrawal, but perhaps of a different kind: perhaps a gracious and compassionate turning away from the utter destruction of this man’s whole self-image.

For what it’s worth, I always think of Rodrigues in contrast to Isabella in Measure for Measure, who is given by Angelo a very similar choice: Do this thing you believe wrong or someone you care about will die. And Isabella never for a moment hesitates: “More than our brother is our chastity.“ Rodrigues may be (indeed is, in several ways) a miserable failure, but I’d rather be Rodrigues than Isabella.

And I think the plight of these two characters sheds some light on another question you raise, though in a complicating rather than simplifying way: When you learn that the choices you make for the sake of your own soul have profound consequences for other people, does that place you in a position of power? Or rather of a particularly miserable sort of powerlessness?

Douglas Coupland: ‘I’m actually at my happiest when I’m writing on a plane’

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

“poisoning your mind with novels”

People talk of keeping au courant, and no doubt an intellectual cannot ignore the human race, nor be indifferent to what is written in his special field; but take care lest the current should carry away with it all your capacity for work, and, instead of bearing you onwards, prevent you from making any headway against it….

What you must principally cut down is the less solid and serious kind of reading. There must be no question at all of poisoning your mind with novels. One from time to time, if you like, as a recreation and not to neglect some literary glory, but that is a concession; for the greater number of novels upset the mind without refreshing it; they disturb and confuse one’s thoughts.

As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little; and it would be easy to learn it all without settling down to interminable lazy sittings!…

A serious worker should be content, one would think, with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily papers only when a remarkable article or a grave event is brought to his notice.

— A. G. Sertillanges, O.P., from The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (first published in 1921)

[James] Wood praises [Hilary] Mantel for her “cunning universalism”, a slicker version of CS Lewis’s unchanging human heart. But there are great historical novels that insist on the past’s fundamental difference: William Golding’s The Inheritors, for example. Variations in behaviour in that book are not merely a matter of social constraint, as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

It may be that the historical novel genre is as unjammed with greatness as the crime genre, the science fiction genre, the romance genre and the “literary fiction” genre (come on, On Chesil Beach seemed to be rated by David Cameron and most book reviewers, but precious few readers). I rather suspect that Wood’s frustration is with “historical romance” in the true 19th century sense, rather than any of the novels mentioned above. Whatever differences we have, I always agree with Wood that the great is rare and precious.

Stuart Kelly. I like Kelly’s defense of the historical novel here, in opposition to Wood’s prim condescension, but he seems not to know that Lewis coined the phrase “the doctrine of the Unchanging Human Heart” in order to refute that doctrine. As a shrewd and learned student of the past, Lewis knew that those people didn’t think as we think at all.

Which leads to the chief problem with Hilary Mantel’s novels about Tudor England. Wood likes what he calls the “universalism” of making Thomas Cromwell seem modern, but that’s what’s wrong with the books. Mantel could only pick as her protagonist a figure whom she can plausibly construe — or so she thinks — as rather like a modern educated Englishman: shrewd, skeptical, tolerant when it serves him but ruthless when he needs to be. As Wood points out in his New Yorker review (not online at the moment) of the new book, Mantel seems neither to like nor to understand her “religious” characters, like More and Cranmer. (Operating in the narrow royal and aristocratic world that she does, she doesn’t have to confront someone like Tyndale, which is just as well.) Moreover, while it’s certainly possible that Cromwell was the pure pragmatist she portrays him to be, it’s also possible that his attitudes towards religion were more complex and more interesting.

By making Cromwell her protagonist, the one through whose eyes we see much of what happens in these books, and then making Cromwell so much like herself, Mantel evades the most serious challenge a writer of historical fiction can face: how to make characters vivid and human when they’re not at all like us.

For the early-twenty-first-century literary writer, the primary way that people from the past are “not like us” is in their religious beliefs. Aside from Marilynne Robinson, how many highly-regarded writers today even make an effort to imagine what religious belief might feel like from the inside? It’s odd that James Wood, who has written so intelligently and movingly about the displacement of religion from the center of European high culture, and from his own life, is blind to the problems this neglect poses.

A man, then, who portrays human beings excessively and extravagantly. A man who portrays human beings in hell. And yet when we read [Dickens], it does not read like bad news. What does he have to say at the end of the day about redemption? In some ways not a great deal. Or rather there is a tension again and again in his books between a carefully, neatly resolved happy ending, and an immense burden of recognised, almost unbearable, unresolved suffering. He achieves the balance of those two most perfectly, for one reader, in Bleak House, where the past tense of Esther’s narrative is balanced by the present tense of unhealed suffering, the rain still falling on the Lincolnshire wolds. But in that book, which one reader at least thinks is perhaps his most profoundly theological—though he wouldn’t thank me for that—we have one of the strangest, most shocking images that he ever gives us of compassion and mercy, and that is the figure of Sir Leicester Dedlock. At the very end of Bleak House, left alone in his decaying mansion, holding open the possibility of forgiveness and restoration, ‘I revoke no dispositions I have made in her favour’, says Sir Leicester, with his typical dryness, about the wife who has fled from him in guilt and terror. And in that appallingly stiff phrase we hear something of the hope of mercy. Almost silent, powerless, Sir Leicester after his stroke, dying slowly in loneliness, and stubbornly holding open the possibility that there might be, once again, love and harmony.