The Strange Disappearance of Paradise Lost

Now I don’t know if the following is good news. There may be some of you who greet it with a shriek of delight, others with horror, while the great middle ground is likely, as always, to scratch its head and go ‘uh, what?’

It seems that a group of people which includes the actor Martin Freeman is trying to bring a version of John Milton’s epic poetry cycle, ‘Paradise Lost,’ to the screen. What approach they intend taking towards the mighty tome is unknown, but inevitable statements about ‘the new Game of Thrones’ are already being made.

If any of this comes to pass, it will at least generate new attention for a work that has all but disappeared from public discourse over the last thirty years. Paradise Lost was, at least until recently, considered one of the definitive classics of English Literature.

It attained one of the hallmarks of literary immortality by bestowing new words on the language, including, apparently, ‘jubilant,’ ‘terrific,’ ‘space’ (in the sense of outer space) and ‘Pandemonium,’ which is the name Satan gives to his newly created Capital of Hell.

Most people in middle age today in the English speaking world were likely forced to study the poem in some shape or form in school. And yet it is hardly ever mentioned today.

As an online article in the Weekly Standard points out, the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death in 2017 saw books, articles and TV programmes springing from every orifice. But that was as nothing compared to 2016 where, in between all the celebrity deaths, Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary featured not just books, articles, performances and Google doodles, but the usual raft of dubious claims from people claiming to have unearthed / written the Bard’s missing magnum opus.

But last year was also the 350th anniversary of the first publication of Paradise Lost, and outside of fairly low key circles of Milton devotees, barely a word was said.

Why? Well, part of it obviously has to do with the fact that Paradise Lost is an unashamedly religious work. Global media is virulently queasy about anything that smacks of God bothering.

Game of Thrones may be full of graphic sex and violence, but its militantly agnostic tone means that everyone can relax with it.

In many places, God – whatever he, she or it may be taken to be – has become the ultimate taboo. Everyone’s much more relaxed about listening to secular zealots like Richard Dawkins, with his frantic urge to prove that anyone who has ever believed in God in the entirety of human history is a violent murderous cretin.

Religion makes people far more nervous than porn, and hence the sense that there’s something dodgy about Paradise Lost, with its lack of moral equivocation and its attempt to re-energise the myth at the heart of Christian iconography.

The Weekly Standard suggests that readers are missing out on something here, because another part of what makes Paradise Lost so difficult for modern audiences is its sense that there are no easy answers. The giant poem is concerned particularly with how, to quote Milton himself ‘in moral evil much good may be mixed, and that with singular craft.’

Milton’s Satan is arguably the first really compelling anti-hero in English Literature. He gets the best lines. Readers can empathise with his plight, the anger that follows his sense of ultimate loss. Here, Milton’s creation may have turned out to be a little too real.

As my old English Professor was fond of remarking, ‘some of Milton got into Satan.’ Ever one to go the extra mile, good old Percy Shelley proclaimed that Milton’s Satan was actually morally superior to his God.

This certainly wasn’t Milton’s intention. He seems particularly worried about what happens when man starts looking for sources of moral authority inside himself, rather than accepting the established divine order.

Satan is, according to the Weekly Standard, the ultimate individualist, parroting phrases about individual liberty while seeking to gain mastery over others.

But it is one of the paradoxes of ‘Paradise Lost’ that its rebels seem more compelling than those who respect God’s authority. Maybe that’s just because today, on the rare occasions when we read it, we are doing so with modern eyes. How do we really feel, in our heart of hearts, about Satan’s dictum that it is ‘better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’?

Advertisements

Goodnight, Marty!

There are some actors who possess a gift that is almost miraculous. This is something beyond the awesome technical skill of a Daniel Day Lewis. It involves technique, yes, but is also mysteriously bound up with who they are as people.

It is a quality I once heard loosely named – by another actor backstage in a play – as ‘maximum communication,’ though I’m not sure the label does it justice.

A clumsy definition runs something like this: somewhere beyond the lines or even the subtext of character as explored with a director, some actors accomplish the miracle of transmuting some essence of themselves through the hundreds of trillions of flexing electrons that first record their performance, then beam them into your homes.

Somehow, some indefinable quality of humanity survives all the digital cutting and pasting, transmits itself into mysterious photons which piggy back on those carrier waves taking fake image all over the globe, then reassembles itself, its unexpected message intact, right in front of your armchair.

It is something mysterious and almost mystical, analogous in its way to those tales from the wilder fringes of science fiction about computer viruses who somehow attain their own forms of consciousness.

John Mahoney, the much loved actor who passed away this week, possessed it. So, interestingly, did Marilyn Monroe. It is something that is almost beyond and independent of acting. Somehow, whether through need, vulnerability or sheer genius, the actor is communicating something far beyond a script or a director’s vision.

They make of themselves solid, hauntingly real seeming holograms centuries before such things are likely to be invented. They somehow manage to bring you within touching distance of a character you have never met, nor ever will.

For hundreds of millions, Mahoney will always be Martin on ‘Frasier,’ the unlikely father to the world’s prissiest psychiatrist (or possibly second prissiest, losing the crown only to his brother, Niles). But he was a richly accomplished stage actor, and indeed theatre seemed to be his first love.

He confessed at one point that he wasn’t entirely heartbroken when Frasier came to an end, because he missed the theatre. To those who never wish to repeat that awful, stomach churning fear that memory of your first line will disappear the instant the curtain rises, it’s a reminder that some of us are indeed set apart. It’s also a reminder that (oh mortal sin in our consumer age!) some people aren’t just in it for the money.

But if you want to appreciate something more of the man’s gifts, you could do worse than check out a 1987 movie called ‘Suspect.’ It’s basically a Cher vehicle in which a young Liam Neeson plays a deaf mute war vet accused of murder.

Mahoney is one of the supporting characters, playing a prickly, mostly unsympathetic judge whose role proves crucial near the end of the plot. He looks vastly different to the Marty Crane that was your frequent house guest. The trademark shock of white hair isn’t there. He even has a moustache, something which is greeted with horror when he attempts it in ‘Frasier.’

Unlike Marty, Mahoney’s character in ‘Suspect’ isn’t warm or, to quote the political vernacular, someone you’d go for a beer with. He’s in many ways a fussy little man, obsessed with procedure, apparently lacking in any form of empathy.

Yet Mahoney somehow makes him magnetic. You’re constantly watching his face for clues as to what he’s going to do. He manages to parcel his sparse dialogue to communicate something that can’t possibly have been imagined by the writer or director. What actors like Mahoney bring to the table is simply a wonderful bonus.

Tributes this week have very inaccurately described Mahoney’s character in Frasier as ‘misanthropic.’ This is almost exactly false. Grumpiness isn’t the same as misanthropy. To be human is to be grumpy on occasion. It is those who constantly project an unvarying outward sunniness that you have to be most careful of.

In fact, the show depended on the Martin Crane character for much of its humanity. It was a vital part of that sublime ensemble which made it so successful. Frasier and Niles would have been too ridiculous, too self-obsessed and ultimately perhaps too repellent without Marty to ground them back to some sense of shared human values (this is also why a lot of later ‘hit’ comedies tend towards the unbearable, but that’s another story).

Even after all these years, it’s impossible not to melt during the Christmas episode of ‘Frasier’ when the title character has screwed up yet again. He has refused to buy his son the toy which is the big craze that year, reasoning that his special little creature will be much happier with presents that challenge him intellectually.

Frasier is duly crushed when Frederick goes to bed on Christmas Eve, announcing that he can’t wait to open his new ‘Outlaw Laser Robo-Geek’ next morning. Martin suggests, by way of distraction, that he and Frasier open their presents to each other, and there is Martin’s present to Frasier, his very own ‘Outlaw Laser Robo-Geek.’

Years later, Frasier remains an example of outstanding comedy writing, backed up with superb ensemble playing. The first five or six seasons of the show are simply unsurpassed. After that, of course, Niles got together with Daphne, and Mahoney seemed to accept the general view that things went south.

The truth is simply that it had to go the way of all good things. Imagine if a visibly ageing Niles was still banging his unrequited head today. Comedy would have mutated into some Beckettesque nightmare.

Yet the show continues to bring joy and relief to millions today. I know plenty of people who still watch whole seasons on a loop, merely to escape the joys of daily living.

That is probably the main reason people will continue to feel affection – and a strong sense of identification – towards John Mahoney for many, many years. He was a house guest who always made you feel good, who never outstayed his welcome.

And he has left that mysterious essence of himself behind.

 

The History Channel And the Global Flight From Fact

If there is one single killer metaphor for the way traditional global media is escaping from fact at light speed, then it might be found in the curious case of the History Channel.

Time was when the History Channel could be viewed a little like Wikipedia today, as a slightly crusty but nonetheless fairly reliable repository of verifiable fact. It was basically a haven for the increasing numbers of people who wanted to flee the daily horrors of this world, but who weren’t all that keen on science fiction or fantasy.

What better place for them to turn than the past, with its murderous yet safely dead Kings and Queens, its long and slightly disturbing meditations on the construction of Hitler’s giant car, its mildly interesting expositions on vaguely interesting personages from the US Civil War?

Ok, its detractors would say, but there’s really an awful lot of stuff about Hitler. True, but a certain preoccupation with Hitler is a regrettable trait of the history buff. I’m not sure what it is, a very mild case of fetishism perhaps, and as Russell Brand pointed out, the Nazis did have a lot of gear that looked f*****g amazing.

There’s still a great deal of Hitler stuff on the History Channel, but its tenor has shifted somewhat. Where once programmes might have dwelt lovingly on the aforementioned car, or on how many times he and Eva Braun might have got it on, now they seem devoted to ‘proving’ that Hitler never died in the Berlin Bunker at all, and instead lived on to a ripe and prosperous old age in Argentina.

My attention was first alerted to the History Channel’s full on lurch into the realm of ‘alternative fact’ by an excited phone call from a friend shortly after Christmas.

‘We’ve just been watching how aliens really built the pyramids, and how they visited all kinds of places in South America. They showed landing fields and everything.’

‘Really? Oh well, it’s a bit of fun, I suppose.’

‘No, no. It’s a fact. It’s been proven.’

‘Er, really? How?’

‘It’s on the History Channel.’

I launched into some pointless monologue on the subject of Erich von Daniken. He was a Swiss chap who penned a series of bestsellers in the 1970’s and 80’s, basically purporting to ‘prove’ that ancient civilisations in South America had been visited, and essentially spawned by, the occupants of alien spacecraft.

I had actually read one of his books, being a bit of a sucker for the alien thing myself, and remember being impressed by the lack of anything resembling actual evidence.

On one page, von Daniken showed a photograph of some metal figurines from some museum in Peru, and wrote ‘I think these are alien artefacts and I’ll tell you why.’ I furiously turned page after page without ever encountering a reason why. Maybe he meant to get around to it in his next book.

Indeed, von Daniken is back on the bookshelves, possibly as a result of the extra ‘juice’ he’s received from the History Channel, and yes, he’s as maddeningly non-specific as ever. It’s nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

I protested that von Daniken was dismissed as a harmless crank ages ago. It didn’t matter. Whether they acknowledge him or not, the History Channel has decided to take up, or at least repackage, his cause.

So it seems we aren’t just living in the era of alternative facts, but of repackaged and recycled alternative facts as well. I guess you’ve got to take care of the environment.

The tiny drip of suspicion that the History Channel might be adopting an entirely new approach in its relationship to fact actually began a few years earlier, when I watched the TV show ‘Vikings.’

We’re told that the History Channel have an important hand in making the show, ensuring that it’s all historically accurate and stuff, whatever the hell any of that actually means anymore.

Now, virtually every episode of Vikings contains some piece of ‘history’ that smells a little strange, but one in particular stuck out.

In one of the early seasons, a former monk who turned his back on the Church to embrace the pagan views of his Viking captors is crucified by his former fellow Christian believers as a punishment. To anyone with even the scantiest knowledge of early Christian history, this wasn’t just inaccurate, it was completely f*****g nuts.

The idea that medieval Christians would have rewarded an apostate (apostasy in those days being considered far, far worse even than paedophilia today) by according him the same fate which had befallen Jesus Christ is utterly ludicrous.

They would have been much more likely to smother him in poo or make him watch as various bits of himself were sliced off and fed to dogs. If there was some History Professor hanging out near the script writing room, then he must have been out of his gourd on crystal meth.

The Italian writer Umberto Eco once commented on the irony that, while belief in institutional religion appeared to be crumbling, the willingness of people to believe any other load of old tosh imaginable was going through the roof.

It is entirely conceivable that, in years to come, a significant majority of people will believe that, either Hitler finished up in Argentina or, if they don’t watch the History Channel, that he and all his buddies perished in a fire in a cinema, a la the Tarantino movie ‘Inglorious Basterds.’

Will it matter when there are no longer any things we can agree on as ‘facts,’ as ‘things that actually happened’? Undoubtedly, but there doesn’t seem to be any way we can avoid it.

The Curious Herstory Of Wonder Woman

She’s a feminist icon, we’re told, the first true superheroine that little girls could look up to. She’s tough and capable of fulfilling her needs and busting bad guys without any need for all those nasty men; so isn’t it funny that Wonder Woman was actually invented by a kinky psychologist with a great enthusiasm for tying women up?

That man was Dr William Moulton Marston, one of those exotic figures to arise from the same mid 20th Century intellectual Wild West in America which also threw up people like L Ron Hubbard.

Marston was a psychologist who described himself as ‘leading an experimental life.’ In 1925, he met a woman named Olive Byrne, who was the niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. The two apparently fell in love. The only snag was that Marston was already married, to a lawyer named Elizabeth Holloway.

Marston proceeded to give Holloway what he doubtless presumed was a perfectly rational choice. She could allow Byrne to move in, or he would leave her. They went on to live in what appears to have been a relatively harmonious menage a trois, although I suppose, to paraphrase a would be poet: ‘who can see the underground, nor know the meaning of every sound?’

Marston proceeded to enhance the comic book boom by giving America its first female, and supposedly feminist superhero. However, the character’s frankly erotic overtones caused unease among the good mothers and fathers of middle America.

It wasn’t just a question of what Wonder Woman didn’t seem to be wearing; Marston found himself having to explain why it was that his heroine always seemed to be getting herself tied up in ropes and chains.

‘The secret of woman’s allure,’ he proclaimed to an Editor, ‘is that women enjoy submission, being bound.’ So there!

His notes to the artists who actually drew Wonder Woman contained very detailed instructions on the types and appearances of the different bindings to be used.

Elsewhere, he explained that people with a lot of what he called ‘pep’ sometimes needed to have this contained through the use of proper restraints. And who says psychologists are all a bunch of kinky cranks?

Marston told his Editor ‘you can’t have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touching off a great many reader’s erotic fantasies. Which is swell, I say.’

I couldn’t help being reminded of a lot of this during the eulogies which followed the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and the ritual denunciations which followed the outing of all powerful movie producer Harvey Weinstein as an alleged sexual predator.

Hefner, we were told, was a key figure in the genesis of the sexual revolution in the United States. Supposedly feminist shows such as ‘Sex And The City’ hailed him as a kind of touchstone.

It’s since emerged that many of the ‘bunnies’ he bedded and wedded in the Playboy Mansion have suffered from the usual array of post traumatic stress disorders, eating disorders and acute anxieties. Surely you don’t have to be a psychologist of Dr Marston’s genius to see how that might happen.

It makes you wonder just what exactly that ‘sexual revolution’ was all about. I’m sure I’d have been all for it, if it involved me being followed around well into my dotage by legions of scantily clad nubile disciples while drooling into my pyjamas. But who, exactly, is being liberated?

Likewise, Weinstein was venerated by good, rich, liberal types all over the world, at least until he became too hot to handle. Many of these good rich liberals were surely at least aware of the stories, but it seems power functions the same way wherever you are, be it in Hollywood or the Catholic Church, and you don’t poop inside your own tent until you’re absolutely sure that all other options have become impossible.

But isn’t it fascinating how the lives of Harvey and Hef, and before them the estimable Dr Marston, come to resemble not human stories, but tales of fantastically successful apes?

Aspects of their stories are identical to what happens inside cults which embrace so called alternative lifestyles and sexual practices. Without exception, once one of these weird little tribes has stepped outside what we might loosely call the general human order, they devolve into simian societies, with one, usually older guy having control over all the women, who vie relentlessly for his attention, while the other males are dependent on whatever sexual scraps he allows to fall from the table. This is exactly what happens with gorillas in the wild.

The genius of Hef, Harvey and Dr Marston lay in their ability to co-opt the language of liberation and equality into what was, essentially, their pursuit of the oldest sexual fantasy of all. Though let’s be clear, they did have quite a bit of help from some very silly and / or dishonest female academics.

As a little footnote, Dr Marston died way back in 1947, and Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Holloway continued to live together until Byrne’s death in 1990. Their last days were spent in different rooms in the same Hospital.

On being told of Byrne’s death, Holloway apparently burst into some lines from Tennyson, whom I’ve often found is pretty good for that sort of thing.

Being Judged By Street Jesus

Capital cities, we’re always told, boast a great deal more sophistication than their provincial counterparts. What a lot of us don’t realize, apparently, is that this sophistication extends to just about every area of life. The people who hassle you for money on the street are a great deal more sophisticated too.

Taking the air outside Dublin’s main railway station recently, I was approached by some bearded hominid who launched into a spontaneous disquisition about how he needed three euros for the trip home, wherever home was.

He didn’t look obviously destitute like the specimens who inhabit the centre of the city, proclaiming Leo Varadkar’s glorious Republic of Opportunity to anyone who can’t avert their gaze quickly enough.

But then, neither had the guy who approached me a year or so previously, announcing that he needed five euros to get a bus back to his home town.

On that occasion, I stopped and shot the guy a quizzical look. ‘I think you’ve got a problem with your memory,’ I said.

‘Whacha mean?’ he asked. ‘Can’t yeh just give me de feckin’ money like?’

‘You stopped me six weeks ago and told me exactly the same thing. You were trying to get the bus back home and didn’t have the money.’

If I thought I was going to embarrass him, I was of course mistaken. The hassling random strangers for money trade is a bit like the sales trade (some would argue it’s exactly the same trade), there’s no point going into it unless you possess a thick skin.

‘Sure where would you have come across a fella as good lookin’ as me before,’ he grinned (he may have even winked).

There is a well worn Irish phrase concerning the thickness of the genitalia of horse jockeys. Such thickness is an essential attribute in many Irish walks of life, including among lawyers, bankers, politicians, jockeys, and indeed people who walk up to you in the street demanding money.

My new acquaintance outside the railway station possessed it in spades, but he combined it with a couple of other techniques, including a new and rather aggressive line in guilt tripping. I couldn’t help feeling afterwards that he must have done some kind of formal study of his trade; perhaps he’d watched that scene in Glengarry Glen Ross’ where Richard Roma convinces a mark that since life is essentially pointless, he might as well buy some property.

I told him I didn’t have any money, at which point he launched into some ominous invective. ‘The Lord Jesus Christ is going to judge you,’ he announced, ‘you are going to end up in a place where you don’t want to be.’

Now, there was a time when such a statement might have bothered me greatly. But I flatter myself that some of the delightful experiences I’ve had in recent years have at least contributed to a certain growth in the thickness of my skin.

‘I’ve already been loads of places I don’t want to be, pal,’ I countered, ‘including standing here listening to you.’

Did this give him pause? Not a bit. ‘If you treat the Lord Jesus Christ in this way, the bad things will come to you.’

‘Oh, you’re saying you’re the Lord Jesus Christ, is that it?’

‘Well, I didn’t say that. You did.’

It appears we have reached the very apotheosis of the age of opportunity. It seems you can literally be anything you want now, be it Jesus, Gandhi or Hitler, especially if it’s worth a few quid.

Maybe I have missed out on eternal salvation by not falling to the ground in front of all the passers by, begging the forgiveness of this manifestation of the Lord and promising – once I can get the readies together – to build many churches in his honour, but possibly adding that since he was Lord of the Universe anyway, he couldn’t be interested in the contents of my meagre purse.

Actually, maybe I should have done it anyway. But it was cold, the pavement looked colder, and the old imagination hadn’t imbibed enough coffee yet, so all I could think of was the good old middle finger.

My bearded interlocutor (was it the presence of the beard that first convinced him of his divine status?) crossed the road to hover like a wasp among some of the clumps of people waiting for the tram service.

I noticed a group of women ignore him with rather more expertise than I had managed, and went on my way.

Stopping Old Men On The Road Like Toto

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for that Toto song ‘Africa.’ Sure, it’s got some spectacularly silly lyrics and quite a bit of naive patronising going on. But then, the biggest peecee hit of that age, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ actually contains a huge amount of white old Tory tosh that would be branded as outright racism today. No rains or rivers flow in Africa? Really, Sir Bob? Really?

But there’s just something about the feel of that Toto song. That fresh air, washed hair sense of clean cut US teens backpacking around the world in search of some mystical something or other. Presumably, it is part of the same impulse which drives young people to backpack to Indochina these days, at least until they discover the orgies.

There aren’t too many pop songs, at least since the 1960’s, which attempt to express mystical ideas, however vaguely. And I can even forgive lines about knowing how to do what’s right ‘as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like an empress above the Serengeti.’

There have, after all, been far worse atrocities of the pen and keyboard. No matter that it sounds like a throwaway metaphor by someone who’s been given a hundred quid and six hours to finish a travelogue, even though they’ve never actually been to Africa.

I have never been fortunate enough to see an Empress rise, at least other than on the telly. And what do I know, maybe the sight of a rising Empress does closely resemble that of the giant Mount Kilimanjaro looming over the horizon? I doubt it, but it’s possible.

But there are still loads of nice things about the song. That gentle rhythm so carefully reminiscent of African drums without, you know, being too ethnic or something, that sense of globetrotting freedom – at least for wealthy white guys – that perennial longing for love etc.

There’s just one bit I still don’t get, even today. The singer is talking about meeting someone whom I presume is his beloved, mentioning that she’s ‘coming in 12.30 flight.’ He is presumably driving someplace to pick her up from some sort of airport.

It is of course possible that ‘she’ is clever code for some precious African object, such as a snowball from the top of Kilimanjaro perhaps, but that would be way too clever for me.

On his way to the airport, however, our hero inexplicably stops to talk to an old man, hoping, he says, ‘to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies.’

In fairness, whoever the old dude is, he helpfully replies ‘hurry boy she’s waiting there for you,’ which presumably translates as ‘she’s waiting at the airport, you complete cretin. Take your giant head out of your ass and drive like a maniac, because you have mere minutes left to save your relationship.’

In all seriousness, how likely is it that anyone anywhere on the real Planet Earth would actually do this? ‘Oh hang on honey, I’ve just spotted an old man by the side of the road here, I’m just gonna pull over and ask him some stuff.’

Old guys on the road can take an awfully long time to say stuff. One can only feel for the guy’s girlfriend, bleary and irritable after what may well have been a long flight, left standing near the baggage carousel yet again.

‘You’re late again. Don’t tell me: you stopped an old man on the road again, didn’t you? When are you going to stop doing that? Don’t you know you could get arrested?’

And I obviously don’t get to meet the same sorts of people that Toto do, but any of the rare conversations I’ve been forced to have with old men on the sides of roads have been pretty one sided, torturous affairs.

‘What? What are yeh lookin’ for? Forgotten words or a melody? Sure if I could remember them then they wouldn’t be forgotten now, would they, yeh daft little eejit. And why would I tell it to you anyway, with yer stupid little microphone and notebook? How much are yeh goin’ to pay for it? That’s what I want to know. I had those feckers from Toto by about thirty year ago and I never saw so much as a fecken farthing from the f***ers.’

‘No no, you don’t understand, old man.’

‘Stop calling me that, yeh fecken little freak.’

‘Ok, ok. You still don’t understand the beauty of my mission. I want to make new mystical connections between different components of the human experience, between, say, you and the snow tipped peaks of Kilimanjaro. Perhaps your forgotten words or melodies can awaken me to some truth hidden from me until now. Perhaps I can use it to forge some melody, some new understanding.’

‘Just what I thought, in other words. Yer lookin’ to mine me poor old brain for money. Oh, I wasn’t born yesterday, sonny boy, as you appear to have noticed. You get nothing for nothing in this life. Did yer parents tell you that at least?’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Ah f–k it. At least turn out yer pockets and give me yer spare change.’

Maybe that’s really why I like the song. It’s like space fantasy, or romantic fiction, you find yourself sighing and saying ‘if only life was just the way it is in Toto songs.’

Quick: Give Me Attention, Any Attention

I understand from Twitter that controversial TV personality Megyn Kelly recently claimed that some women actually want to be ‘fat shamed.’ Really? Has the panting global lust for attention, any sort of attention, become that desperate?

It’s a question that first occurred to me years ago, when a period of confinement looking after infants left me face to face with the Doctor Phil Show.

Time and again I’d watch the Texan Freud eyeball his guests: the pill popping mothers, the violent mothers and fathers, the uber-promiscuous teens, the couple who’d left their baby in a washing machine, the people who like to go out and stab other people, the teens with stabby boy or girlfriends and think ‘why? Why are you doing this? Why are you on this show? What’s the payoff?

It’s pretty obvious, at least to someone who lacks Doctor Phil’s genius, that you’re never, ever going to get better. Is it really worth being patronised with half-truths by some good ole boy who – if he’s 2% as smart as he says he is – gets down on his knees every goddam morning and gives heartfelt thanks to the Great God OPRAH for his inexplicable and divine good fortune?

Why put yourself, the sadness of that fate which prevents you from being human, through the additional ringer of being talked down to by a moustache with a PR machine hanging out of it? Why let yourself be cannon fodder for the advertising of Doctor Phil’s wife’s range of cosmetics?

What do you reckon? Are they even given free samples? I do know that the cosmetics range wasn’t there a few years ago. Is it somebody’s price for something? What a great edition of the Doctor Phil show that would make.

Does the nature of Megyn Kelly’s own life and career render her chemically unable to understand anyone who doesn’t spend their entire life screaming for someone else’s attention, or is that the way things genuinely are now?

Everyone, from 400lb. women to Reality TV porn stars, everyone from ISIL killers to teachers who want to have sex with their students and put it all on Instagram, everyone just wants some attention.

Is it a uniquely modern disease, I wonder? What about all those peasants who mouldered in and out of life, quietly dying of plague without wanting anyone to make a fuss. Did they just not know any better? Were they just spectacularly less evolved than Megyn Kelly, Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, or, for that matter, than Doctor Phil’s daily parade of victims?

Was Joan of Arc just doing it for the attention?

My heart was with the tweeter who asked ‘this is news now?’ Yes it is, apparently, which is a whole other story.

Trump And The World Culture War

Not long ago, I got into a discussion with someone in a bar about the last US election result. Wise people will already have realized that virtually everything about this last sentence is wrong, that I really ought to have known better.

Never discuss politics in a bar. Never discuss anything in a bar. Never discuss the result of the American election with anyone unless you already know their opinion, in which case there is of course no point in having a discussion.

Anyway, it wasn’t one of my wiser moments. Worse, I thought I was being eminently reasonable, but everything I said simply drove my interlocutor into ever greater heights of homicidal frenzy.

The nub of my argument, basically, was that I was slightly less worried about Donald Trump as US President than I would have been about Hillary Clinton.

How could I even say such a thing? What kind of animal was I? I clearly wasn’t an even slightly civilised human being. The guy then opined – much to the delight of our small audience – that he might have to take me outside and fight me.

I repeated that I certainly wasn’t a fan of Trump’s; it was simply that he gave me slightly fewer creeps than Hillary. I may even have quoted Slavoj Zisek, the left wing Slovenian philosopher who, asked which he preferred as the lesser of two evils, replied ‘Trump. Because Trump does not wear a mask.’

Even Slavoj couldn’t help me out this time (normally, the mere mention of his name is enough to make my opponents glaze over). The right on peecee liberal opposite me was now shouting something about gas chambers.

The discussion had gone from zero to 200 in under 5 seconds, a level of acceleration that would have left even Jeremy Clarkson groping for words, so it’s unlikely that I got the chance to mention the moment in which my opinion of Hillary became fixed.

It was shortly before the election itself. I was watching one of those long documentaries where you are proferred the entire life history of both candidates, a fairly lumpen compare and contrast experience of the type handed out to secondary school students.

The segment I was watching dealt with Hillary’s time as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. A camera just happened to be present at the very moment when she received the news that Muammar Gadafi had literally been torn to pieces by a mob in Libya.

‘We came. We saw. He died,’ she proclaimed, with a triumphant venom that might have made Julius Caesar blush. Trump says an awful lot of stupid stuff. He can, justifiably or not, come over as the crassest idiot ever let loose in a china shop of delicate sensibilities, but he’s never managed to give me a chill quite like that, and somehow I doubt he ever will.

Libya, by the way, is still suffering through the chaos set off by Hillary and Obama’s continuation of George W Bush’s nation wrecking policy. That policy has also touched off Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, as hundreds of thousands of their victims attempt to free multiple artificially generated civil wars.

But hey, nobody’s interested in that. Trump’s a moron. He eats cheeseburgers in bed. He was and probably still is nasty to women. He beds porn stars. Let’s never think about Hillary’s actual record and instead keep shouting that she’s the best qualified person ever robbed of her divine right to the Presidency.

And this isn’t just my friend in the bar either, though his fulminating passion over things he can’t possibly control is instructive.

There’s a lot of hopeful talk in some circles these days about World War III. Someone somewhere has clearly decided that such a thing would be good for business.

But we are already deep inside the throes of a global war. It’s a culture war, a war over information, a struggle for control over the mechanisms through which people accept things as real.

It’s no wonder opposing factions of humanity are rushing away from each other at the speed of light: there is no longer any list of ‘facts’ that different sides can agree on as ‘objective reality.’

On one very definite side is a traditional media which has basically given up even the superficial claim to impartiality. From about 11.30 on the night of Trump’s election, this global monolith of tolerance and liberality decided it was going, come hell or high water, to get rid of Trump.

Election night marked day one of the campaign to have Trump impeached before he had even taken office. We’re now into month 14 or thereabouts. How well the campaign is actually going is anybody’s guess, because there is no way of measuring it objectively.

Traditional media on both sides of the Atlantic spends every day telling you that Trump will be gone any day now. Like the doomsday cults who predict the end of the world six or seven times during their life spans, I suppose they only need to be right once.

But I’ve never liked a fit-up, and since the days of George W Bush and Tony Blair, I’ve learned to doubt everything I hear on traditional media. Those media played their part in whipping up a frenzy for an illegal war in Iraq, in respect of which both the above gentlemen should still be serving extended terms in prison.

Traditional media has decided that all this is forgotten in order to proclaim that Bush is no longer the worst President in US history. And by the way, kudos to Will Ferrell for his overdue reminder as to just how special Dubya actually was.

This is what it has come to. Lady Truth is buried under new layers of intellectual violence by the sediment of today’s need. It’s not going to get better anytime soon.

IT DESTROYS BULLSHIT!!!

I genuinely thought I’d made it last week. I thought all my worries were over. I thought I had clapped hands together and magically opened the portal between dimensions to Aladdin’s Cave.

I pictured box after box of treasure, each unable to contain the sheer weight of gold and jewels bursting out. I saw myself dancing between mountains of diamonds, secure in the knowledge that I and I alone had the key. What would I buy first, I wondered, the undersea volcano or the unassuming mansion on Mustique?

There’s a reason why we spend so much time dreaming of untold wealth. It’s because modern consumerism keeps us on a kind of feedback loop, ritualistically eating and regurgitating. Consumerism wants to sell you the idea that this kind of madness is intrinsic to who you are, part of the your DNA.

It isn’t, but the need to feel secure is. The current dominant economic model sustains itself by telling us that we need ever larger and larger amounts just to feel that basic security.

This effect has been most pronounced in the area of property. Most people need property for some kind of shelter. It’s not really something we have a choice about, unless you are lucky enough to live in some place where people go naked all year round.

The cost of that property keeps being yanked up, out of all logic or consistency with what went before. Right wing governments such as the one in my country refuse to build public housing, thus ensuring an artificial scarcity which leads to huge profits for those fortunate enough to own loads of property.

We’re told that all this is ‘the marketplace, baby,’ a concept as illogical and mystical as saying ‘it’s the giant cosmic baboon baby.’ But most of us accept it because we’re just so bombed by false information (much of which comes from media outlets owned by people with huge property portfolios) to even think of anything else. Have you forgotten: ‘Communism doesn’t work’?

The fact, of course, that consumerism doesn’t work either is something we’ll never talk about, not on traditional media anyway. It works out spectacularly well for the rich, and most mainstream media is owned by rich people, so happy days all round for anyone who counts.

So like most people, instead of figuring out how things might be made better, I spend my tiny amounts of free time dreaming of how I too might become one of the rich, getting slowly bombed on my veranda while looking down on my vineyards, flying up there to Elysium with all the rest of them, sipping thousand year old champagne 200 miles above the Earth’s surface, peering through a telescope at the ground and saying to my rich brothers ‘seriously, when are the poor going to get themselves together?’

As I said, I thought I’d reached the dream only last week. I’d invented an app that detects bullshit. Just plug it into your computer, surf the Internet and hey presto!

The idea was that any website or news feed which was lying to you, either selling or telling you something which was flat out untrue, would get flagged with a big ‘THIS IS BULLSHIT’ tag.

I stopped dancing around my imaginary wealth cave, shut my eyes and tried to focus. At last I would possess the fleet of outsized yachts, portfolios of properties across six continents and assorted Ferraris, Bugattis and Maseratis consumerism now tells me are the basic requirements of security.

I plugged in the app, turned on the Internet and … in substantially less than a second, the entire Web had exploded, my computer had melted in my hands and the little dongle that had the app on it made a sad little noise like air escaping from a balloon.

Ah well, nothing for it but to optimistically keep reaching for that consumerist rainbow.

The Huge Debt Fantasy Owes To Dune

Fantasy literature is a strange and wondrous kingdom. It’s like a football club in a particularly divided city: beloved with homicidal fervour by its fans, the logic of their love impenetrable to anyone who doesn’t actually dwell inside the city walls.

But let’s assume you share something of the fervour, or are at least open minded, curious / bored enough to wonder what gets all those isolated nerds so excited.

The more you start to walk around the genre’s endless moody forests, its dark secret harbouring caves, its flowing haired mysterious maidens, the more you start to notice a few things.

One of these is the sheer regularity with which certain tropes appear across the genre. I know every genre has its tropes: how, for example, can the world possibly need yet another cynical alcoholic detective? Yet somebody clearly thinks it does.

I want to write a genre series in which some ultra-positive Mary Poppins type gets to investigate the most heinous crimes imaginable, responding to each new atrocity with a song in her heart. I think it could genuinely stretch the capabilities of the genre, but I’ve been warned not to be optimistic about finding a publisher.

But this is fantasy! It’s supposed to be a virtually infinite landscape, isn’t it? Why then does everything have to involve a magic dragon? Why so many swords when you can presumably have people blast each other with everything from magical toothpicks to beams of mental energy?

I know, swords are supposed to be cool, but aren’t we limiting ourselves unnecessarily? Like ‘The Moonstone’ with detective fiction a century earlier, mainstream fantasy literature as we know it was effectively launched by one book.

JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of The Rings, was a devout Catholic, so in spite of Aragorn and Arwen’s taboo busting inter-species love, there’s very little dwelling on the kind of nookie that is such a staple of later works like Game of Thrones.

Fantasy might not have grown up, but it is certainly going through a rich and intense puberty. Maybe it’s the climate, the rush of death which might pop out from behind a bush any second now, but today’s denizens of fantasy land are at it with gay, straight or inter-species abandon.

And they’ve been at it a long time as well. Many fantasy plots borrow heavily from the likes of medieval history or legend, relying for much of their premises on the fact that Lord So and So ran off with the daughter of a swineherd who was really a quadruple breasted sorceress in disguise, or something.

But a new arrival on Planet Earth – contemplating the ever mushrooming fantasy canon – might be confused about why everything kind of looks like everything else. He, she, it or other might be led astray by the term ‘fantasy,’ taking it to mean a tabula rasa, a glorious blank canvas on to which literally anything can be poured. Why not thinking blobs of lights that pursue other thinking blobs of light through the quantum tunnels that honeycomb the entire Multiverse?

Why not a genius kid with homicidal tendencies who keeps fashioning clones to replace characters who have displeased him? Why not an isolated religious sect on some undisturbed island who have gained mastery over other dimensions?

The sad truth is that entertainment functions just like any other consumerist industry. Capitalism isn’t nearly so dynamic as people imagine. Really new ideas are allowed to appear only sparingly: what capitalism really wants to do is spin out endless repackagings of earlier successful ideas.

The market is also conscious of the fact that, while ‘fantasy’ in theory means anything goes, their consumers like things to look safe and familiar. If the large breasted maidens and wisecracking sociopathic dwarves were to suddenly disappear from the landscape, then large elements of the curious comfort these tropes offer to fans would be lost.

The grim little lives of all those nerds would be about to get even grimmer.

In the case of fantasy, one brilliant, highly original idea which never gets anywhere near enough posthumous credit for the way its carcass has been mined by later writers is Frank Herbert’s incredible ‘Dune.’

The novel (the first of six) was written in the 1960’s, a time when completely new ways of doing things seemed possible, however briefly. As well as being a rollicking, epic page turner (the succeeding five books were curiously very different), ‘Dune’ explodes with ideas on virtually everything from planetary ecology (then a concept unknown to everybody except, er, planetary ecologists) to the possible far end of human evolution.

Herbert was also incredibly clever and prescient in the way he somehow moulded a medieval swords and monsters tale into a story about the very far future.

It shouldn’t have worked. He shouldn’t have been able to do it. George RR Martin began as a science fiction storyteller somewhat in the vein of Herbert, but any overt sci fi is carefully missing from the ludicrously successful Game of Thrones franchise.

But a combination of storytelling skill and Herbert’s incredible perceptiveness about human nature (something he has never received due credit for) meant that it worked. The society of Dune is a feudal one, with Great Houses and Lords and vassals, blood feuds and powerful covens of magicians holding on to secret knowledge. Sound familiar? Oh, it even has dragons, except they’re called sandworms.

Dune was Frank Herbert’s Mother Lode. It gave him, I suppose, the security to do the other things he wanted, and like poor old Douglas Adams in another context, he never managed to reproduce it.

He was, like Philip K Dick perhaps, a writer always more fascinated by ideas than stories. I’ve always been interested in scribes like that, but this is another curious fact about latter day capitalist publishing: having ideas about things tends to make you a little toxic.

If Dune had been his own, self-created Aladdin’s Cave, Herbert could be forgiven for quailing at the way others unashamedly plundered it.

Longtime fans of Dune will know that hip director David Lynch got the gig of transferring the epic to the big screen in the 1980’s, and that he made an absolutely sublime balls of it. But in a preface to a 1980’s edition of his short stories, Herbert commented ‘David had a lot of trouble with the fact that Star Wars used up so much of Dune.’

Herbert goes on to say that he, Lynch and the team tried to figure out the odds of plundering at this level having been a coincidence, but came up with a number greater than the total number of stars in the Universe.

Frank is no longer in this dimension these days, and George RR Martin seems like a generous enough fellow, so one assumes he won’t mind acknowledging the debt that Game of Thrones (or, to be accurate, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’) owes to Dune.

Although Dune officially belongs to sci fi, the number of tropes it has bequeathed to the current brand leader in fantasy lit is truly staggering.

We’ve already mentioned Great Houses and dragons, ancient vendettas, but how about climactic extremes and the sexual depravity of certain elements of the nobility? For the militaristic idealism of House Stark, simply take a little look at House Atreides, who initially suffer a similar fate to the Starks.

For the wealth, treachery and taboo busting sexual proclivities of House Lanister, it’s hard to see the similarities to House Harkonnen in Dune as being just a coincidence.

As to where the Dothraki came from, do you have to look much further than the Fremen, the half-savage band of super-warriors who eventually propel Paul Atreides into power?

Like Daenerys Targaryen, Paul Atreides is also the product of selective breeding which has caused him to attain abilities beyond the ken of mortal humans.

As mentioned already, instead of dragons, Dune is the home of sandworms, fantastical creatures with both chemical and mystical power, and the ability to ride them becomes a crucial military asset.

As in Game of Thrones, members of Great Houses have to be constantly aware of the possibility of assassination. The pharmacology of the various poisons is treated in some depth. Dune even features a version of the ‘irreversible poison’ used to assassinate key figures in Game of Thrones, with the difference that you have to keep taking an antidote in order to stay alive.

Dune was written in 1965, so it was impossible to treat of the sexual depravity of Great Houses in GoT like detail, but it is a constant presence. There is, for example, the obscure revelation that the young Paul’s education included specific training against sexual seduction. We’re obviously not told what this involved, though presumably it didn’t consist of cultivating the ability to fart very loudly at inappropriate moments.

Dune is also replete with the kind of set pieces that form some of the most memorable moments in Game of Thrones. Like Game of Thrones, Dune sometimes sends its readers on bum steers.

A long, brilliantly realized chapter involving a tension filled banquet inside the Atreides family keep crackles with the possibility of imminent violence, but this passes off quickly, only to be followed almost immediately by the long awaited Harkonnen assault.

Many of the most memorable battles and confrontations in Game of Thrones are incredibly reminiscent of the banquet scene in Dune. They are not signalled, so the characters are in full blown violence and death before the audience has fully woken up to what’s happening.

Game of Thrones has a caste of medicine men and all round knowledge heads known as the Maesters. Dune has two of exactly the same thing, Mentats (human computers) and a Sisterhood of enigmatic ‘wise women’ known as the Bene Gesserit. The all embracing conflict between Great Houses is shadowed by amoral, unaffiliated mercantile organisations. In Dune, they’re called the Spacing Guild, in Game of Thrones they’re the Iron Bank.

The list goes on. It’s kind of sad that Frank Herbert’s stock isn’t as high today as, say, Philip K Dick’s, because he is a giant on whom a lot of successful people are standing.