Tag Archives: Sigmund Freud

Logan: In Trump’s America, Men must become mothers

The discourse surrounding Logan has emphasised its quality in contrast to not only the films of the X-Men franchise, but comic book movies in general, for the reason that Hugh Jackman has imbued his character with a heretofore unseen ‘depth’. I agree that there’s a far more substantial emotional pay-off from the film than one might expect but I do think this critical line requires nuancing. Logan has been one of the few well-characterised mutants in the X-Men series, and this has generally been accomplished by laying out his slow, reluctant departure from a strong-silent-Gary-Cooper-type demeanour in favour of a more pliable, loving attitude, usually in the direction of a younger, and mostly female, character. This is the case, not only in relation to his clone-daughter Laura (X-23) in Logan (2017) but also to Rogue in X-Men (2000), and in X2 (2003): the final scene has Wolverine walking away with that kid in his arms who has the power of having a blue tongue that makes noises. This is all to say that the melting away of a gruff exterior is a well-trodden path insofar as Wolverine’s characterisation goes.

This post will argue instead that there is something qualitatively different about Logan’s character in Logan and what it signifies, in presenting a thesis about familial relations in a milieu of economic and ecological precarity.

The strength of the film’s setting is the uniqueness of its dystopic vision; it functions as a slight modification of the present, in the direction of more overt corporatism. There are references to clean water being difficult to come by, there is a scene on a highway which indicates that trucking is now a job carried out via automation (implying, incidentally, that circa ten million people in this vision of a future America have become unemployed), Professor Xavier requires medication that is too expensive to acquire by legal means and most of the countryside seems to be owned by a food-producing conglomerate along the lines of Monsanto, which produces a ubiquitous food ingredient seemingly analogous to high-fructose corn syrup which functions also as an anti-depressant. Finally, it seems as though the only mode of employment is either as a medical worker, a hired enforcer for a corporation, or a casino worker.

A lot of these outcomes are a reality for many people within the United States today, as a result of decisions made by administrations over the past three decades, but by having so much of the plot predicated on the crossing of borders, and an antagonist named Donald, much of this could be seen as a reflection on Trump’s America, the outcome of the sort of policies (shutting down the EPA, repealing the ACA, deregulation of corporate America, etc.) that we can expect from the Trump regime.

The strength of this approach, I think, in comparison to a film such as The Road, is that it displays the failure of doomsday scenarios to bring about an end to capitalism. The market economy is far from incompatible with ‘the apocalypse’; many of the worst disasters of the past twenty years, be they natural or man-made, have proved extremely profitable for moneyed interests and I have confidence that as the anthropocene continues to unfold, that this will continue to be the case.

The X-Men franchise has always been unfortunately strong in its tendencies towards biological determinism — i.e. its emphasis on a reductive, ‘survival of the fittest’ mode of progress. Throughout Logan, that which is insufficiently ‘fit’ to survive, is dispatched, and each death informs us of the film’s stated intention regarding the ‘proper’ mode of familial existence in the anthropocene age. (See Benjamin Kunkel’s very good piece on the term ‘anthropocene’ in the London Review of Books here).

Having Xavier state directly that lionesses are superior to male lions because of the way they use the claws on their feet is as good as having the film state its thesis directly, i.e. the supersession of a defunct, inflexible mode of being, Logan’s, by a superior one, embodied by Laura. Logan’s death seems determined from the film’s outset; it is not novel that his claws or prowess in combat have functioned as phallic signifiers, and as one of them fails to protrude fully, and as he displays an inability to dispatch enemies as effectively as he used to, there is reason to believe that he is insufficiently resilient for whatever struggles will come next. To my mind there is of course nothing wrong with any form of masculinity, as long as it isn’t the toxic kind, but it’s clear that the text regards Logan’s passivity, the ‘bickering couple’ dynamic that exists between him, Charles and Caliban is negative. If we were feeling generous and were to give the film an out, we would say the text here uses conservative examples to further the radicalism of its larger point, which is that the conceptual notion of ‘the family’ will not survive late capitalism.

The claws on Laura’s feet, and her more pliable fighting style makes her more suited for success in 21st century America riven by the effects of climate change and the state as a guarantor of corporate survival. Indeed, x-23 does seem to be a better fighter than Logan is, and towards the end of the film, his choreography becomes more attuned to hers; rather than swinging in a maladroit way with his claws, he begins to put in more high kicks, jumps, etc. Further, despite Logan claiming earlier that he doesn’t ‘like guns,’ he uses one to dispatch Zander Rice. This anthropocene order will require the purging of previously held moral beliefs, or at least their suspension. Though Laura’s graveside oration may problematise this.

The X-Men are referenced briefly, in such a way that suggests that they were all killed by one of Xavier’s telekinetic seizures. What unites the demise of family units in the film is that they are all linked to a single location. The radio report in which we learn of the X-Men’s demise mentions Westchester County and it is obvious that even if the Munsons were not dispatched by the Logan clone, it would have been only a matter of time before they were wiped out by the farming conglomerate’s mercenaries. Their blackness should not be neglected in this discussion, and is emblematic of the ways in which the consequences of capitalism’s entrenchment will fall disproportionately upon communities of colour.

Shortly before he is killed, Xavier delivers a speech to Logan in which he informs him that he still ‘has time’ to create a family. This is the belief that the film is working most strenuously against; Xavier’s belief is naive and, in this current milieu, doomed to failure. What characterised the X-Men’s within the Marvel Universe, was, in Xavier’s mind, their nature as a surrogate family for outcasts, united by their being objects of hatred and fear for the outside world, a misfit family surveyed by a gruff father embodied by Xavier, and a shifting cast of mothers (Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Betsy Braddock, Hope Summers). Their attempt to replicate this conservative and Freudian model which was static, and rooted to one location, when a more flexible, unique one would have been more adaptable or responsive made them vulnerable. Therefore, their model of a family, as providing an in-built horizon of collectivity was insufficient; what form must the family take in these times?

Once Laura’s nurse Gabriella, is murdered, the film is about Logan failing to take on the role of a single parent. Laura chooses the clothes she wants to wear on the basis of two mannequins she sees holding hands in a shop window display and later mimics this behaviour at Xavier’s graveside. Logan only comes to do so in his dying moments, in a battle not against the film’s primary antagonists, but an older incarnation of himself, embodying this insufficient masculinity, a prior self, dispatched with the bullet that Wolverine intended to commit suicide with; his suicide is exteriorised by the act being projected onto an earlier version. We don’t even need to emphasise that it’s a big pointy yoke that kills Logan in the end, so we won’t.

The value system, or the family life that is validated, is that which takes place between the young mutants engineered by Transigen (NB semantic significance), one that is constantly on the move: mobile, nomadic, sustained by imaginative constructs such as the Eden they once saw in an X-Men comic book, or, in Laura’s case, a cowboy monologue in Shane (1957). It is the ethical values that Laura and the Transigen children embody that we should look to, in sustaining ourselves in the construction of a truly progressive society, one that is nomadic, precarious, sustained by the most far-flung imaginative possibilities and almost certainly doomed to failure.

A Lacanian Theory of Literary Style

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This post will begin, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a disclaimer. Any attempt to conclusively map Jacques Lacan’s theoretical network of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic onto my own notion of textual ontology, is likely to fall short, or fall to the kind of failure that Louis Althusser’s attempts to hybridise Marxist theory and Lacan’s psychoanalytic framework was prone to. Althusser incidentally neglected to take account of the Real, perhaps because of the difficulty involved in understanding it. But this is to perhaps miss the point, none of these categories can be expected to give a full account of themselves, let alone phenomena that they could be mapped to. As Malcolm Bowie puts it:

each of these three orders is singularly ill-equipped to be a guarantor or even a responsible custodian of Truth. The would-be truth-seeker will find that the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are an unholy trinity whose members could as easily be called Fraud, Absence and Impossibility.

This is not because Lacan’s theories are incomprehensible, I don’t believe that they are. But if they’re not, they’re just about to cross that boundary. The difficulty of applying these to the act of literary criticism, let alone the apprehension of literary style, has to pass over, to some extent, the degree to which Lacan was engaged in formulating a particular mode of clinical practice. Most of his seminars and lectures, as they appear in the collection Écrits at least, are motivated by the act of analysing a particular patient, partially subverting the popular notion of these French theorists fecklessly knocking back the absinthe while stewing themselves on the divan.

As the polemic aspects of his seminars make clear, Lacan was acutely aware of what we might call the Californian School, which had taken Sigmund Freud’s writings, in a commercial, lifestyle-oriented direction, which aimed to ‘heal’ the subject, de-fragment their psyches and ‘cure’ them of their neuroses. Lacan was horrified by the anti-intellectual tendencies of this school, as well as its simplistic ideation of ‘the ego,’ the actualisation of which the Californian school, and some other French analysts who should know better, took to be the aim of the psychoanalyst. Lacan’s writings, if we could treat them monolithically, therefore aim to complicate the notion of the ego, and undermine our sense of ourselves as a single, complete, individual subject.

The irony of this is that what is probably Lacan’s most well-known contribution to psychoanalysis, the mirror stage, has come to represent this very same tendency of egocentric psychoanalytic thought. The mirror stage is the point at which the human subject, in their first or second year of life, will understand themselves, in simplistic terms, as a singular being, or an autonomous self. It should be noted that no actual mirror is required for this to take place, it can occur in as simple a gesture of the baby moving their arm or something. Some might mistake this moment as something to be celebrated, the moment of the subject declaring itself, or developing a sense of mastery over its own body, but this would be an error. Instead, the mirror stage inscribes the tragic condition of the human subject, as it is not the ego that they identify with, but an ego-effect or Imaginary of the self, which now exerts power over them. In his words:

What is involved in the triumph of assuming…the image of one’s body in the mirror is the most evanescent of objects, since it only appears there in the margins.

This identification is a prelude to the subject’s fall into the Symbolic, an ever-extending network of exchanged meanings in consistent flux. This Symbolic order functions in much the same way as Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories regarding differential economies of signification. As we all know, no signifier (word or image) can be said to truly mean anything. If they do convey sense, it is in the distinction that exists between them and other signifiers, i.e. a tree is a tree because it is not a cat. This ego-effect instantiated at the mirror stage plays much the same role, and as a result it is fragmented, indecipherable and unknowable, as it is wrought out of milieu composed of everything that we understand it not be; it is how we, and our desires, remain mysterious and imperceptible, even to ourselves.

So, how can we make these theories, an amalgam of psychoanalytic discourse and theoretical linguistics pertinent to the reading of a literary text? Well, if we elaborate embroider our sense of the position of the reader somewhat, and transpose it into Lacan’s terms, we might be able to make something productive of the model. He saw the unconscious as not only constructed through language, but by the laws that govern our understanding of language, which explains his dependence on linguistics. We might quarrel with Lacan’s somewhat reductionistic take on the mind’s processes, and many did. The dead end that structuralist linguistics presented was too much for some, and Jacques Derrida gave him a sidelong rebuke once or twice but thereafter both remained too proud to overtly respond to the other. One could at least accept the fact that even if the unconscious isn’t structurally analogous to language, it must be outlined in these terms in the therapeutic encounter. Thereby, the repressions and other operations of the mind remain literary and rhetorical tropes.

One of Lacan’s concern in egocentric psychology was that the analysand was being overwhelmed and projected onto by the ego of the analyst, who, Lacan also believed, was insufficiently analysed themselves in the process. The myopia of both patient and analyst should be equally subject to these techniques, making the therapeutic process truly dialectical:

He communicates to the analyst the outline of his image through his imploring, imprecations, insinuations, provocations and ruses…as these intentions become more explicit in the discourse, they interweave with the accounts with which the subject supports them, gives them consistency…the analyst, who witnesses a moment of that behaviour, finds in it…the very image that he sees emerge from the subject’s current behaviour is actually involved in all of his behaviour.

In the apprehension of a literary text, I think, we see a similar process. Any given reader is driven to exert mastery over the textual materials; as we run our eyes over every word, we wish to understand them, to make them submit or yield themselves up to us. When they do not, we become frustrated. In pursuit of meaning, we also bring our own preconceptions, the discourses of which we are composed of and determined by; only very specific segments of the text’s meaning will be accessible to any given reader. To give an example, a reader of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway who is familiar with London’s topography, will come away with an acute sense of the novel’s landscape, and substantially more detail about Mrs. Dalloway’s position in the social hierarchy of the society of her time than someone who is not. This latter reader, from Paris say, who is familiar with impressionist painting, might notice a certain tendency in Woolf’s prose, to emulate the impressionist style of ambiguous expression, distorted subject and object relations and the use of interior sensibilities to depict reality. In this way, both readers are reading the same book, but very different ones at the same time.

And of course, both these readings develop their own momentum, and move irrevocably towards a certain conclusion. We notice phenomena that accord with our perspective, and gloss over material that contradicts it, especially when outlining an argument in a paper or blog post, as these media require demonstrative examples, rather than lengthy quotations. In this way, we come to identify with a textual imaginary, reminiscent of the ego imago of the mirror stage. Unbeknownst to us, the text is readily circulating through the Symbolic, iterating diffuse and infinitely referential meanings which are created and disbarred in our act of reading. In this schema, the Real would correspond with the unread sections of the text, that which is inaccessible or missed in the act of reading. It is important to say that the Real does not correspond to reality, Lacan means two very different things when he uses these words. In this case, I cannot give a direct example, as this would be antithetical to the notion; it’s slightly impossible to literalise as a phenomenon.

As a prose stylist in his own right, Lacan favoured digression, paradox and wordplay. Incoherence, excess, wordplay, these compose the lexicon of the experimental psychoanalyst.  He praised James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for its supposed capacity to access the language of pure signification, without offering any footholds for the reader; in apprehending his style we are confronted with the impossibility of tracing the turning over of signifiers. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the Wake, but it nevertheless allows us to develop an idea of what we should be looking for when we interpret our novels, not merely pursuing similarity, or seeking in it our own reflections; such is the role of the naive positivist; not the serious interpreter. A unified textual style or meaning is therefore a consolatory myth, one which we erect as a buttress agains the impossible, overwhelming quantity of meaning which confronts us when we read a novel. But this is perhaps the point. Lacan’s sense of the ego depends on paranoiac knowledge and networks based on exclusion. Our very ‘selves’ are just images; our personalities alienated responses to indifferent forces.

WD Clarke’s ‘White Mythology’ & The Unbearable Loneliness of Books

David Foster Wallace liked to make the point that books can act as a cure for loneliness. I found a longer version of the quotation in a place, the source of which I cannot verify:

“Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”

            Foster Wallace talks about curing loneliness via self-forgetfulness or transcendence, by first expanding the curative power of books beyond just the words on thin slices of tree soup, to art in general. Regarding the drugs or sex, I probably can’t quibble.

But I would quibble with the idea that fiction allows us to not be lonely. I can’t buy it. It reminds me too much of other Brainpickings sort of things I read about books, the ability that novels supposedly allows us to connect with another human, no matter how far removed we are from them by time, space, other variables. But ultimately, the reading of a book is a one-way dialogue and it’s not so much a cure for loneliness as a cosmetic treatment of a symptom.

We might consider this when reading WD Clarke’s two novellas, White Mythology, and the role that books, especially novels as distinct from books or narrative, play in the text. The first novella, ‘Skinner Boxed,’ is protagonised by Dr. Ed, a psychiatrist and a biological determinist. The novella documents Dr. Ed’s travails as the formerly neatly compartmentalised sections of his life become unsettled; his wife disappears, a son he didn’t know he had shows up on his doorstep and clinical trials of a new drug seem to not be going to plan. In this first half of White Mythology, the narrative voice blends with Dr. Ed’s own process of rationalising his experience of the world, and, as many satires of reason’s process are prone to be, the wording soon becomes recursive:

“The short term appeared to be so-not good that his long-term prospects were unchartable. The short-term chart was so very contra-positive that even the notion, even the suggestion of a ‘long’ term, as far as Max was concerned, was a dream originating in an opium pipe stocked with extraordinary psychotropic powers indeed.”

Dr. Ed’s peculiar distance from his own existence can be attributed to a formative experience at the hands of a Jesuit teacher, who offers him the moral lesson to be found in Great Expectations:

“If you visited Wemmick at the strange, miniature castle that was his home…he would have appeared to you to be the most generous and hospitable man you had ever met, and one full of colour, full of life. However, if you had the misfortune of visiting him at work, at the office of the ultracompetitive and successful lawyer Jaggers, for whom he toiled ceaselessly, you would have encountered an entirely different being…here was a man who worked in a black and white, in a world of instrumental reason…”

Dr. Matthews is opening the young Dr. Ed to the capitalist critique within Dickens, the play-acting and mechanisation that capitalism occasions in its participants, particularly in their working lives. However, Dr. Ed seems to have taken the intended whack of the lesson rather differently, and finds, while reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, that he can ‘turn off’ his ‘emotions’ by ‘flicking’ a ‘switch’ inside his head. The inverted commas deployed whenever he does so ironise the event sufficiently, and bode ill for his capacity to detect when his son might be reaching out for his attention, when he mentions that the novel he’s reading, Great Expectations again, is about ‘an orphan.’

His scepticism regarding the writings of Sigmund Freud should be viewed in a similar light. Bearing in mind that he finds himself plagued by dreams, apparently about eggs, and the emotions that he’s worked so hard to repress are coming to revenge themselves upon him, he could conceivably locate within Freud a more sustaining interpretative schema than what lies on the ‘More drugs, less talk’ end of the discipline.

It could be argued that it is in the second novella, the less chronological and more populous ‘Love’s Alchemy’ posits an alternative in its being slightly lighter on the literary references, (some good Donne lines appear) and being more dialogue driven. It makes an interesting contrast with the tortured ratiocination of Dr. Ed, aswell as providing a vehicle for the telling of stories within stories, particularly ones about childhood and generally formative ones from adulthood.

It may be that novels are more vehicles for confirming our own solipsism and outlook. We can talk about the death of the author all we want, our interpretations will never inflect a work’s DNA, but it is through narrative and storytelling, books without covers, that we can get outside, that we can feel less alone.

Modernism, Post-Modernism and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Psychology’

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I’ve yet to tell anyone what my PhD research question is without boring them. In the interests of brevity, key in not murdering conversational rhythm dead, I’m not above lying about what it involves, so I tell people I’m counting which authors use full stops and how many, and what that might mean. I suppose that I can’t blame them, just the word ‘modernist’ turns people off.

So, what it is that I am actually doing is utilising an open-source programming language (R) to ingest and index a large corpus of modernist prose authors, (using a wide-ranging definition of ‘modernist,’ to bring us beyond the tens and twenties of the nineteen hundreds to the fifties, in order to include people like Doris Lessing, for example) and compare them on the basis of a largely arbitrary range of stylostatistical indices (richness of vocabulary, sentence length, punctuation usage, among others) with a number of living authors who have, at one time or another, identified themselves as writing within the modernist tradition, as re-vivifying a presumably extinct ethic of novel-writing. These contemporary modernists will be Eimear McBride, Will Self & Anne Enright.

My hope in doing so is to move beyond the essentialistic critical reception of Anne Enright and Eimear McBride as existing within a canon of Irish modernism, consisting only of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, which reviewers are always keen to broach in analysing their works. Who’s to say Gertrude Stein might not be a better comparison? Or Proust? Or Woolf? Via computation and pseudo-formalistic analysis, I hope to focus my comparisons, and the comparisons of others, a bit more accurately.

All this justifies the Hegelian trajectory sometimes imposed on discussions of the novel as a genre; as if there was the modern novel, then there was the post-modern novel and now there is what we have now, the execrably named post-post-modern novel, or the newly sincere novel, which isn’t much better. How are we draw these lines, and are literary scholars doomed forever to cut the timeline of literature into ever thinner slices?

It is David Foster Wallace I think, that offers us the two best means of segmenting the modern from the post-modern in literary terms, by shaking his head and refusing to answer. But then he does answer, in two ways, though the first answer is Foster Wallace’s way of not answering, while still mounting a very astute point.

Answer the First

‘After modernism.’

Answer the Second

‘…there are certain, when I’m talking about post-modernism, I’m talking about, maybe the black humourists who came along in the nineteen sixties, post-Nabokovians, Pynchon, and Barthelme, and Barth, De Lillo…Coover…’

What engages Wallace about these authors, as he goes onto explain in the interview, is the fact that they wrote novels that were absolutely bristling with self-conscious possibilities; of the text as a text that is mediated, constructed, conflicted, created in the act of its reading, writing and post-mortem discussion(s), the writer as historically constructed, discursive persona and the reader as persona. So we have two things we can probably say about literary postmodernity. It is a temporal phenomenon, kicking off after whenever it is that modernism petered out, and secondly, that a post-modern text is more self-conscious than a modernist one.

My own take would introduce a third encapsulation, and that is that post-modernism is an outgrowth from, and potential response to, modernism, rather than a rejection. This will come as a surprise to exactly zero people, and gets me to the fault line of this issue; that it is impossible to speak in broad terms about any literary grouping worth discussing that wouldn’t be essentially true of any other one. Literature’s pesky way of valuing ambiguity, referentiality and innovation ensures this.

As I was reading Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Short Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, I was trying to locate some qualitative phenomenon that one would not find in a post-modernist novel. And I was unsuccessful in doing so. I might say that post-modernists are more prone to textual experimentation than the modernists were; I’m always disappointed by modernist writers’ words appearing in a linear, left to right, up to down way. You’re more likely to find an image, a font change, or interruptive clause in the counter cultural writers coming in Gaddis’ wake.

But, self-consciousness is not a quantifiable phenomenon, and to say that it increases or decreases is at least a little futile. (In the context of a literary discussion that is. Given a wide enough scope of inquiry, everything is futile.) To say that post-modern novels are self-conscious to an extent that was impossible before the sixties is untrue; Don Quixote encounters a counterfeit version of himself during one of his sagas, which was Miguel de Cervantes’ clever method of criticising those who were distributing pirated, unofficial and non-canonical versions of the Quixote. Laurence Sterne also provides a blank page in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman, so that the reader may draw a character according to how they think she might look. As always, far more valuable literary discussions operate in the range of the qualitative rather than the quantitative. As such, back to Mansfield.

One could turn to a story such as ‘Psychology’ for example, which appears in Bliss and Other Stories. It is a story of about six pages, deriving its title from a pseudo-scientific movement that was then disrupting the notion that the self was knowable, and that we acted according to rational impulses. It’s a bold title, and by choosing it, Mansfield promises us much about what it is that motivates us, how we judge, how we interpret. But, rather than calling the story something like ‘What It Is To Be Human,’ she calls it ‘Psychology,’ shifting the focus from some Platonic realm wherein such lines of enquiry are easily defined, to the discipline or institution of psychology itself. Which is of course, carried out by a human agent, just as flawed and prone to unreason as the subject, and, in Mansfield’s time at least, male. And no one writes about how stupid men can be better than Mansfield.

The story represents two unnamed characters, male and female. The narrator makes it clear that they are deeply attracted to one another, perhaps even in love, but something, whether it be their own defensiveness or social convention, prevents them from expressing it. Mansfield represents this by doubling the presences in the text, providing each character with a ‘secret self.’ Significantly, these secret selves, at one or two points speak with the same voice:

‘Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?’

Their ‘real’ conversation is stilted and awkward. The male character makes up an excuse to leave and in response, the female character inwardly rages:

‘You’ve hurt me; you’ve hurt me! We’ve failed!’ said her secret self while she handed him his coat and stick, smiling gaily.’

In her despair, the female character is overly affectionate and glad to receive a normally unwelcome friend, then writes a letter to the departed object of her affection, in which she is far more at home with expressing herself, almost as if the mediated, imaginative space of a letter is far more comfortable than the ‘real’ social encounter, in which both of them flailed.

The subject they discuss, is the ‘psychological novel,’ which I have seen practicing modernist authors use as a term which refers to the work that they and their contemporaries are doing with the novel form. (Joyce refers to Proust taking it as far as it can go in Á la récherche.)

It might not be a stretch to see Mansfield as doing some meta-commentary in referring to the psychological novel and in having here two characters, explicated in terms of their inner, imaginative psychology far more illustrative than in their outer, social one. So, we have a story that is pointing to its ‘about-itselfness,’ throughout, a narrative concerning the discontinuity of self-hood and the intractable crevasse that separates our inner being from the outer world. The contours of the inner/outer are perhaps more clearly drawn than you’d get in something written today, but were double-blind test to be arranged, adjusted for historical changes, (appearance of trains, telegrams v. planes & the internet) the emphasis upon social convention, the use and meaning of the word ‘gay,’ I’m not sure that a reader could be relied on to tell the difference between a modernist and a post-modern text.

Maybe it might be more useful to say that post-modernism is like modernism, only more so.

Benjamin Clementine’s Untitled Ode to Cavan and Kevin Barry’s ‘Beatlebone’

During an encore to a gig in the Olympia Theatre, Benjamin Clementine expressed a desire to live in Ireland in order to develop his understanding of Irish folk music. Dublin wouldn’t hold much interest for him though. Throughout the evening, having dealt with an intermittently attentive and somewhat rude audience, he realised he’d prefer to live somewhere more remote. The suggestions from the crowd came almost immediately.

Someone yelled up ‘Waterford!’ which got a laugh, as a Dublin audience getting reminded of other counties without warning can often be induced to guffaw. Another audience member warned him against living in Cavan, but however the acoustics in the theatre work, Clementine took Cavan as a suggestion also, making clear that he preferred the sound of it, to the ‘scary’ sounding Waterford. He then began musing on his pastoral Cavan idyll, picking out a few sparse notes and chords on the piano while singing and talking through some lyrics. Anything related to Waterford tended to be accompanied by the bass end of the keyboard, whereas Cavan, with its ‘pigs, cows and precipitation’ (‘rain’ didn’t quite ring correctly) was accompanied by more uplifting, higher notes.

This escape to the more remote parts of Ireland has a long history, as part of the communal living experiments practiced by those participants in the Age of Aquarius, as the character of ‘John,’ an analogue for John Lennon that appears in Kevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone, realises when he, wrestling with angst, depression, restlessness, fatigue, etc, attempts to escape to a remote island he bought, called Dorinish, off the coast of County Mayo.

Many ‘back-to-the-land’ intentional communities took to the West of Ireland in the sixties and seventies. Accounts of this bohemia emerge fleetingly in Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest, by the bye, and many of them thrived, enduring as pragmatic and solvent communities driven by the hard work and dedication of its members. John’s fictional journey to Dorinish, with the help of the local Cornelius O’Grady, is analogous to the impulse of the stereotypical would-be communal liver, a desire to reject ‘society,’ escape into the wilderness and rid himself of residual emotional baggage from his childhood via primal scream therapy, in typical Freudian fashion.

Very few remote parts of Ireland remain to be escaped to in 1978, especially when the British gutter press is trailing him. John encounters plenty of the locals in a pub, the residua of a primal scream-based commune called ‘Black Atlantis’ and a talking seal from Formby. John isn’t terribly successful in purging himself of everything that he might wish to, perhaps subverting the notion that isolating oneself from society and curing oneself through self-reflection is viable.

John spends some time with the Black Atlantis commune and adopts their therapeutic methodology, by getting ‘the rants on,’ removing the filter that would normally discourage one from speaking one’s true thoughts on someone else, or even reaching for nasty, negative things to say, with the rationale that they’re better expressed than repressed:

“SUE . . . all you want is others to give, give, give and justify all you’ve fucking done and said and you want us to say oh John, John, all your choices were the right choices, John and you didn’t want to hurt nobody never but the truth is you’re a fucking sell-out, John, and you’re a liar, John, and you’re just suck-suck-suck, it’s everybody else’s energy you feed on, John….”

This section goes on at some length, with no narrative interpolations, just stage directions, of a sort, in italics, depriving us of a hold on John’s thoughts, the interiority that indirectly colours the narration in other parts of the novel, giving our viewpoint an immediacy, as if the reader were participating in the process. The utilisation of the formal structure of a play within a novel comes from Ulysses and in a similar way to the ‘Circe’ episode in which this happens, we feel as though John’s character may be on trial, but in a synthetic, performative sense. The members of the commune seem to be reaching for subject matter to irk John with. When the break does happen, and John’s sarcastic, defensiveness disintegrates, it also seems synthetic, and not addressing the root cause of whatever his issues may be:

“JOHN Do you really want to know what I am? Do you? Well I’ll tell you exactly what I fucking am. I’m fucking anxiety. And I’m fucking lust. And I’m a fucking booze hound and I’m a fucking dope fiend or I was and I’m a fucking sad sentimental Scouse sentimental bastard…I want to scrape his peasant fucking eyes or what’s left of em from the sockets of his skeleton head and tear his fucking bones apart with me fucking teeth or what’s left of his fucking bones.”

It’s visceral dialogue, but I think that’s most important to derive from it, if you’re in deriving form, is to regard its excess, rather than see it as a breakthrough moment. When the press do find John, not necessarily on Dorinish, but on one of many islands he finds similar enough for his purposes, he slips right back into his media-playing persona, adeptly having them hanging on his pseudo-profound verbiage:

“Any follow-ups, gents? Any further enquiries? A little more Manley Hopkins? Certainly. Blue-bleak embers shall fall, gall themselves and gash gold-vermillion. He was a fucking laugh, wasn’t he? Good night, gentlemen. Safe home the sea road.”

Amidst all this, and there’s no shortage of extended, semi-sensical rambles of the sort in Beatlebone, there’s the following: “Nature? I’ve had my fill of it, gents. Turns out it’s all an illusion. Pull the fucking drapes back and it’ll disappear.” Barry has spoken on the inevitability of the Irish writer’s lyrical response to the landscape, and how easy it can be to lapse into the extolling virtues of the scenic mode, but in Beatlebone, you can see Barry resisting it. At a number of points, there are references to the night moving around John, or enfolding him, in an almost sinister way. Nature isn’t facilitating John’s flight from himself, ‘ he is very much the John he is when he sets out for Dorinish as he is when he significantly, fails to complete the journey.

That said, I hope Clementine does move to Cavan. The bleakness of the landscape could hardly do his next record harm, and seeing someone of Ghanaian descent re-invent Irish folk, because you know he would, would be class.

Beatlebone is also very good.

Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship and dialogue

Around the halfway point of Colm Tóibín’s novel The Blackwater Lightship, the text undergoes a strange shift; for about a chapter or so, it becomes very dialogue-driven. This has thematic significance aswell as formally relevance, as it relates to the novel’s main character, Helen, becoming increasingly expressive regarding her feelings. She, and the characters around her, begin to speak more often, and at greater length. This has the effect of ensuring that the quiet, descriptive prose that usually characterises Tóibín’s fiction takes a back seat for a while, letting Helen and the others in Helen’s grandmother’s remote house in Wexford (her mother Lily, Helen’s brother Declan, and Declan’s friends, Larry and Paul), talk and talk.

And I sort of missed it, firstly because I think this uncomplicated, transparent writing is what Tóibín does best. He’s one of the few contemporary novelists I can read who isn’t being even slightly stylistically innovative without getting deeply, deeply bored. His capacity to dial down irony, which is usually caustically deployed by almost every other writer I read, to a barely detectable zero-level, and inhabit the same mental space as his characters, with all the deprivation of information that the writer usually lords over their creatures, is unparalleled, as far as the novels I’ve read go, but secondly because the dialogue in The Blackwater Lightship is decidedly ropey.

Exhibit A

“When my father died, half my world collapsed, but I did not know this had happened. It was as though half my face had been blown away and I kept talking and smiling, thinking that it had not happened, or that it would grow back.”

Exhibit B

“Yes, it must have been very frightening.”

The dialogue comes to be as rife as it does in order that Helen and everyone else in the house can bypass their prejudices, insecurities and hurts from the past. Everyone has an origin story, a reason why they erected their walls against the others, and everyone gets to tell it, with no small amount of self-reflection. One wonders if these characters are really so sealed off, how it was that they come to be so capable of outlining their interior landscapes in such white and black terms, and especially with a group of relative strangers (the family is a distant, estranged from one another type of family) in the gaff. I think they’re all holed up together for less than a working week, yet they’re all hugging it out by the third dinnertime.

This has the effect of purging each character of what might make them interesting. At a few points in the novel Helen fantasises about leaving her husband and flirts with other men. There’s even a rueful note to her thought that Paul, because of his homosexuality, is unlikely to be attracted to her. This is fun, and interesting characterisation, that makes Helen compelling and complicated, especially when it is sat next to the tension that exists between her and her mother and her father’s absence, until, it is revealed to be a cause of her mother and grandmother being cartoonish autocrats, straight outta Dickens. Even Paul, the hard-bitten and antisocial cynic, turns out be a lovesick lad with a heart of gold; his hard exterior is purely manufactured.

This is all part of The Blackwater Lightship’s belief in the talking cure of the Viennese School, attested to by the moment where Declan, in the last stages of succumbing to AIDS, calls out for his mother: ‘Mammy, mammy help me.’

‘He’s been wanting to say that for a long time,’ one character helpfully diagnoses, ‘or something like it. It’ll be a big relief for him.’ In case the significance of this is passing you by, Lily goes on to sing Declan a selection of lullabies. Declan, by the by, has spent the eighties as a gay man in London and I so desperately would have preferred to read a novel about his life. My mistake was perhaps reading this after the glory that was the defiantly unresolved family unit rendered in Anne Enright’s The Green Road. Read that again.

Blade, Oedipus and the 1%

“There is no such thing as monsters.” The truth of this sentence resides within the capacity of the word ‘monster,’ to convey something inscrutable or ‘super evil,’ its raison d’etre is its unconveyability. There’s no such thing as vampires, zombies, werewolves as they always function as cultural diagnosis. The key to any film that makes use of monstrosity is that it is always-already pointing to something beyond the mere monstrosity. What vampirism in the first Blade film points to is the question that confronts us now.

Patton Oswalt has spoken on how he enjoys the representation of vampires in Blade – for him, it makes sense to envision vampires as participating in a very 90’s, eternally young, rave culture founded on exclusivity. This is an excellent point, well observed, but does miss the fact that the film’s primary antagonist, Deacon Frost, and the coterie of vampires who surround him are what seems to be a rather small subsection of the vampire community. The staid, less fun-loving members of the vampire council admonish Frost for his reckless business practices; in gathering large numbers of vampires together, he makes them an easy target for the vampire hunter Blade, who dispatches roughly nineteen of them at a rave in the film’s opening sequence.

In the ‘lousy dean’ role the vampire council are forced to adopt in the face of Frost’s nightclub antics, and at a number of key points they make during their meeting, we begin to approach Blade’s thesis on vampirism. In the film, vampires symbolise behind-the-scenes string-pullers, a Bilderberg group. As Whistler, Blade’s weapons guy/father figure explains to N’Bushe Wright’s character, Karen Jenson, “They own the police…they’re everywhere.” In contemporary parlance, they are the 1%. When Frost presents his Darwinist theories of vampires’ cultural superiority, (“We should be ruling the humans…for fuck’s sake these people are our food.”) the vampire council remain unresponsive and more pressing matters on that meeting’s agenda, such as “the matter of our off-shore accounts” come up before Frost has even left the room. This analogy established between vampires and the super-wealthy is among the more successful elements of the film and should be viewed in conjunction with its familial psychodrama, which I will return to.

First though, it is necessary to return to Frost. Frost’s subject position relative to the vampire council is made clear in the earlier scene where he is told off by them, but one or two members of the council seem positively bashful when doing so; Frost bullies the elder Dragonetti – his failure to nip Frost’s rebellion in its bud is both mystifying and difficult to not relate to the homoerotic overtones in the exchange between the two in the archives.

As Frost’s sacrifice of the elders demonstrates, Frost’s threat to the established vampire order lies in his capacity to set in motion a revolt of a younger generation, an underclass of ‘turned’ vampires in opposition to the ‘purebloods,’ who are born as such. Frost is insecure on this point – the only scene in which he sheds his disaffected coolness is when Jenson points out that rather than being part of a superior race, (hominis nocturna), he is just ‘infected’ with vampirism. In order to elucidate this further, we may need to turn our attention to what it is that Frost’s becoming the material incarnation of the vampire deity La Magra entails. As he says: “The blood tide’s coming and after tonight you people [humans] are fucking history. He’s a hurricane. An act of God. Anything he touches will instantly be turned.” This last line makes more sense in the context of an alternate ending to the film (its poor tests led to it being re-written) wherein Frost becomes a gelatinous blood-monster that swirls around the sacrificial ruin. One could envision Frost’s movement across the earth as a one-hundred foot tall blob monster touching every human as straightforward, but seeing as they replaced this scene with a swordfight, it would seem to confront Frost as more of a task.

In any case, what Frost is proposing in awakening La Magra is a disestablishment of the vampire hierarchy, a worldwide equalising in terms of class. Frost isn’t a selfless Marxist in this regard however. Frost’s response of “Sure we are,” to his second-in-command saying: “We’re gonna be Gods” demonstrates Frost’s belief that as the incarnation of La Magra, he would probably be at the head of the new power structure that he plans to inscribe.

Frost’s insurgency has implications for how we should understand Blade’s methodology as a vampire hunter. If Frost poses an existential threat to the established order – its more medieval sensibility in the European-located Blade II suggests that it may well have suffered a substantial blow at Frost’s hands, almost as if it has culturally regressed, if not technologically – is Blade’s representation analogous?

No. Frost may represent an existential threat to the vampires, but Blade does not. Blade targets Frost’s clubs because it is easier to murder ravers, whereas challenging the global world order, on which the vampires have a stranglehold, would be far more challenging. In this way we can cast Blade as having a code of practice that is as problematic and ineffective as Batman’s. Rather than dealing with the oligarchic billionaire industrialist class that are conceivably to blame for Gotham being crime-ridden, and lacking in job opportunities beyond becoming a hired thug for one of the many super-villains, he beats up said thugs, wallet-takers, etc. Rather than investing his money in better infrastructure, prison education programmes, Bruce Wayne spends money on increasingly sophisticated weaponry for his various bat vehicles. In the same way, Blade takes out young members of the vampire underclass, leaving elders such as Dragonetti to retain their positions as upholders of the status quo, ensuring wealth and power will continue to be concentrated in their hands. Blade’s ineffectuality in eradicating the vampire population may be attested to by the fact that he seems to have entered some sort of vampire folk tradition – vampires constantly seem surprised to be surprised that he really exists. If ‘the daywalker’ is at least half-rooted in the realm of myth, it’s difficult to take Blade seriously as the putative eradicator of the vampire race.

What is the cause of Blade’s lack of methodological sophistication? The explanation that is given for Blade’s actions brings us to the ‘daddy-mommy-me’ of the Freudian psychodrama. A vampire (who later turns out to be Frost) bit Blade’s pregnant mother, who dies (she returns later) while giving birth. Like Swamp Thing, Blade mourns for his supposedly lost humanity, which he doesn’t believe himself to have lost when he was born as a vampire-human hybrid, but during years spent sustaining himself in Chicago by sucking blood from the homeless. “I have spent my whole life looking for that thing that killed my mother,” he says, which in one way makes sense, but in another way, doesn’t. Blade’s kills, if executed balletically, are indiscriminate, and he’s hardly forensic in his detective work, such as it is. I don’t think he asks one vampire in the whole film where he was on a particular night in the late sixties.

Blade goes on to say that every time he kills a vampire he gets a piece of ‘that life back,’ by which I assume he means his lost life as a human, though I can’t be sure, the line seems nonsensical to me. Firstly because it is semantically obscure and secondly because Blade rejects Jenson’s offer of a cure, which will make him completely human. Rather than jumping at the chance to gain full humanity, he opts to stay in his unresolved hybrid state, proving I think, that he wouldn’t know what to do with his humanity, were he to get it. I don’t think that he is attempting to regain his humanity is a convincing explanation for Blade’s hunting, and a scene between Blade and his mother proves revealing in this sense; she has been re-animated as a vampire, and asks him if he has enjoyed hunting and killing as much as she has. In many ways he has become her perfect son. Whistler and Blade’s inability to contemplate the possibility that Blade’s mother is still alive further denigrates the extent of their know-how on vampirism at all, considering Jenson, within a week of finding out that vampires exist has engineered a super-weapon out of an anti-coagulant and cured (!) vampirism, yet still has the boys not take anything she says seriously.

The scene wherein Blade does kill his mother requires attention, of course. He does so with a bone that Jenson obtains, which I think places its phallic resonance under erasure, considering Jenson is herself on the way to become a conduit of subjectivation in Blade’s mother’s wake. This is particularly striking when the inscriptions of Blade’s mother and Jenson as ‘mommy’ involve misclassification and underestimation. In the case of the former, Blade’s mother has to be a woman in distress. She is captured in a frieze of peril, always bleeding and reaching out for her son, always in need of avenging, silently approving any and all acts of violence in her name when she is in fact just as capable and likely to hunt, kill as Blade himself. Jenson in turn, is to be claimed as a replacement for Blade’s now dead human mother, when she seems to be the most likely among herself, Blade and Whistler to put some sort of end to the vampire ‘virus,’ as she calls it. If she hadn’t removed Blade from his sarcophagus, he certainly would have been killed and, even after being drained of large amounts of blood, racks up a respectable body count.

The fact that Blade is returned to his full-strength/potency enough to defeat Frost and kill his mother after drinking Jansen’s blood, repudiating serum in favour of ‘the real thing’ instating the film’s nostalgic discourse surrounding organicism, (perhaps to be returned to) would seem to verify Blade’s capacity to escape the ‘daddy-mommy-me,’ but such emancipation is of course, impossible. First, breaking oneself out of any system still inaugurates it, one is conducting oneself relative to it whether one recognises that or not. Second, one should recall that the only reason Blade didn’t kill Jenson when Quinn bit her initially was that she reminded him of his mother, stretching her hand out in the final moments of the film’s first scene to Blade as a baby. The director, Norrington, makes this clear via flashback, but, this flashback wasn’t Blade’s memory. Blade was a newborn at the time of this shot, in the arms of medical professionals on the other side of the room. This flashback comes from outside Blade, so that his own motivations become clear to the audience, if not him. Blade concedes to Whistler that he should have killed her, but that he did not, but offers no explanation. Through Blade’s own lack of self-knowledge, the audience is made aware that it’s ‘daddy-mommy-me’ territory.

(Further, if we were to go extra-textual, Blade’s relationship with Nyssa in the Blade II suggests that his Oedipal attraction to vampires remains strong.)

In many ways, the father-figure of Whistler would seem to be an instinctive point of entry for any analysis along these lines. But I find these adoptive father relationships to be far less interesting. The familiar foil of reluctant father/son mutual gruffness, deeper concealed understanding paired with the scene at the climax of Blade II, wherein Whistler’s paternal instincts extend to hauling a comatose Blade into a convenient blood fountain, thereby avoiding the far more radical potential of having Blade suck his blood in the same way that Jansen volunteers herself. That would have been to go a step too far, presumably.