Monday, August 20, 2012

bran mak morn & the race of the picts

[Bran Mak Morn, as painted by Jeffery Jones – the cover of Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard ]

It's a long story, the windings of my mind lately. When we were in Tennessee, I sought out and found a couple of sets of model soldiers I'd messed about with in my childhood – Airfix ancient Britons, a lovely set including two chariots and a chieftain with a wonderfully winged helmet, and Airfix Romans, a set every bit as poorly sculpted and anachronistically detailed as the review on Plastic Soldier Review (a site where I've been spending way too much time) makes it out to be.

I had determined that I was going to "finish" these soldiers – ie to paint them in realistic colors, and to use them for some sort of diorama (I have the Battle of the Teutonberg Forest in mind, in case you're interested, but it's a while down the road). I'd always been fascinated with ancient military history, & excelled in the "history" category at the Latin Club competitions back in the day. And I have indeed painted a couple dozen of the Romans, and some of the Britons, and a handful of ancient Germans and Picts that I've picked (pict – get it?) up over the past few months.

But while I was home, I also rummaged thru my books, and came away with among many other things a complete set of Robert E. Howard's Bran Mak Morn stories – not merely his own stories, collected in Bran Mak Morn and Worms of the Earth, but a couple of pastiches by other authors. (Karl Edward Wagner's Legion from the Shadows, I seem to recall, is actually far superior to Howard's own Bran stories.) This is all pulp trash, of course, the sort of thing a pimply 15-year-old reads avidly, but it's interesting trash.

Unlike Conan the Cimmerian, Howard's most famous creation, Bran lives in a recognizable historical period – 3rd century Britain, where he's the king of the Picts in northern Scotland, and endlessly engaged in fighting off the encroaching Romans, not to mention the Gaels, the Northmen (Vikings), the Cymrians (Welsh?), and various other tribes who are all sharply differentiated in terms of physical appearance, fighting tactics, weapons, and clothing. The Picts themselves are described as dwarfish, olive-skinned, and vaguely neanderthalish. Bran himself, however, has retained the high forehead and upright stature of his ancient, pre-Atlantean Pictish ancestors (ie, he may be dark-skinned, but he looks white). His people have intermarried with the debased Teutons of north Britain, and thereby lost their handsomeness.

Bran is a typical Howard hero. He's a barbarian, so he hasn't been affected by the softness and effeminacy of civilized life. He's smart and cunning, but brave and straightforward as well. He fights for the honor & the survival of his people, though he knows they've become debased over the centuries. Indeed, decadence of one sort or another is a pretty constant theme in these stories, & in that they're very much akin to Lovecraft (with whom I spent some time this summer). In Lovecraft, half the time the horror of the story involves some kind of racial mixing or evolutionary debasement, as in "The Shadow over Innsmouth," where the villagers intermarry with creepy immortal sea-creatures, or in "The Lurking Fear," where the descendents of the reclusive Jan Martens eventually become dwarfish, apelike killers who nonetheless retain their ancestral mark of differently colored eyes. Both Howard and Lovecraft are one variety or other of racists (lump Edgar Rice Burroughs in there, as well), who see various races as being higher or lower on the evolutionary scale, and moreover are constantly worried about the possibility of decadence or atavism, of retreating back down that scale.

What's this got to do with my toy soldiers, or my fascination with ancient history? Well, when I was studying Roman history, I whizzed thru those various chronicles of Rome's struggles with other cultures – the Carthaginians, the Gauls, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, etc. – thinking of them largely in Howardian terms: ie, that a given foreign nation must have not merely a given culture, but a given racial identity as well. It never occurred to me – frankly because I haven't even thought of such issues for decades – until I spent some time recently with a big Osprey compilation, Rome and Her Enemies, that most of the armies Rome fought were every bit as multicultural and multiracial as the contemporary US Army. Take the Carthaginians, for instance – there's a core in Hannibal's army of "Carthaginians" – read Semites – but up to 80% of his army consisted of Celts, Iberians, Numidians, and other allied and mercenary groups.

Howard's notion of the conquering Roman army, commanded by "hawk-faced" Italians and consisting mostly of Italians and Teutonic recruits, facing down monoracial enemies, is clearly modeled on an early 20th-century American mythology of the Wild West, in which white cowboys and bluecoated soldiers battle it out with  monoracial Native Americans. (And Howard's sympathies, interestingly enough, are always with the noble "barbarian" group.) What's even more interesting to me is the extent to which Howard, in a strikingly Herderesque move, pretty much equates race with culture. That is, to be a Viking may be to wear a horned helmet, to fight behind a shield wall, to carry a particular sword or axe, but it's always to be big and blonde or red-haired. (Similarly, in Conan's Hyborian Age the Stygians are all dark-skinned, the Kushites are black, the Cimmerians are pale but dark-haired...) And Howard's Picts are the purest example of this equation. Reading thru all the Bran stories, we learn almost nothing about the Picts' social organization, their folkways, their clothing, their traditions; even the distinguishing feature that gave them their Latin name – "pictus," painted – their tattooing or painting themselves with woad – is pretty much elided. Instead, we learn that they're olive-skinned, small of stature, and gnarled, almost apish. The racial degeneration of the Picts, in Howard's account, trumps anything else that might define their culture; because for Howard, race equals culture.

Alas, it's a pretty familiar theme, if you've read much Victorian adventure fiction. And ashes on my head that nothing about this rank boys'-own mix set off any alarm bells in my own adolescent head, when I was reading reams of this stuff back in Tennessee.

Friday, August 17, 2012

the other blog

I should have posted a link here already, since I mentioned it last week: the new Ruskin-related blog, The Ruskin Seminar, is up and running now. Just posted the syllabus for this fall's graduate seminar, which masochists are welcome to follow along with.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I spent one of the latter weeks of July in my parents' home in Tennessee, grimly sifting thru papers & boxes, drawers, shelves full of things they accumulated during their decades together. I never thought of my folks as hoarders, as pack-rats even, but I was amazed at what they had managed to keep.

My father didn't retire from the military until 1974, I think. He had done tours in Austria, the Philippines, Germany (three times), California, upstate New York, and I imagine places I don't know of. The house is full of furniture and tchotchkes from Germany; many of them I'll want to keep, I suppose, others will go.

I finally gritted my teeth and loaded the trunk of the rental car with Dad's beloved wardrobe-full of tweed blazers. He loved nothing so much as buying a new blazer, and must have rewarded himself at least twice a year. (I'm not sure if I've bought a dress jacket in the last decade.) I saved one suit:  a nice woolen job in charcoal grey, a German suit from the mid-1960s. It fits me pretty well, and has a great Austin Powers vibe. The ties – scores and scores of them, all too conservative for my taste – went with the blazers to Goodwill.

In exploring the attic, which I'd thought was simply the resting place of every toy I ever accumulated in my childhood (more on that later, perhaps), I found box after box after box, each of them full of old copies of The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books. Imagine that! – at least ten years' worth of newsprint, hundreds of pounds' worth, most of which he had carted around with him from house to house, from post to post (for many of them dated from well before his retirement).

I thumbed thru a few copies, looked longingly on the covers of a few TLSes – look, Terry Eagleton back when he had hair!, a new essay from Susan Sontag! – and proceeded to organize a carrier brigade: I would carry armfuls of magazines out of the attic; Daphne would carry them down the stairs; Pippa would dump them into the trunk of the car.

I don't know how many trips Daphne made up and down the stairs to the attic – she didn't complain much – but it took two trips to the recycling center to dispose of the whole mass. It's given me pause: do I want to inflict this paper scourge on my own children? And we've still barely begun dealing with his books.

Monday, August 13, 2012

slavoj zizek on writing

I'm totally behind the curve on most things, so it's not surprising that I only got around to watching the Zizek! documentary the other day. It wasn't great; it was okay, diverting. I like Zizek – more for his shambly self-presentation than anything else. But I very much like what he has to say about the perennial torture of writing:
It's psychologically impossible for me to sit down [and write]... So I trick myself. I put down ideas, in a relatively sophisticated form, a line of thought, full sentences and so on. So up to a certain point, I'm telling myself, "no, I'm not yet writing, I'm just putting down ideas." Then at a certain point, I tell myself, "everything is already there – I just have to edit it." So that's it – I split it into two: I put down notes, I edit it. "Writing" disappears.

Friday, August 10, 2012

summer reading

Things of interest I've read this summer:

I downloaded from the internet someone's coding (for the Kindle) of the Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, and finished reading the entire corpus (!) over this past summer. I'd read almost everything, mind you, by the time I was 12, and spent many hours in wide-eyed terror at night, worrying over colours from space and multiply-tentacles elder demons. I must have revisited Lovecraft a decade ago or so, & found him unreadable – the prose too purple, the horrors too "eldritch." This time around, however, surprisingly compelling. Even a few shivers, and glances over my shoulder to make sure nothing was behind me in the darkness.

China Miéville's The City and the City, which won every SF and fantasy award available, it seems, pretty much deserved them, if you ask me. Somebody describes it as Raymond Chandler meets Kafka meets Borges, which is about right; but I suspect Miéville's been reading Eyal Weizman (Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation), which describes how the IDF makes use of Deleuzian theory in their carving up of the West Bank. (This is probably already a commonplace of Miéville criticism; if it isn't, let me know – there's an article to be written.)

Much, too much perhaps, of Ruskin & Ruskin-criticism. It's hard not to tip a hat to Bernard Shaw's blistering Ruskin's Politics, however.

Christopher Benfey's Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is about pottery and clay, mostly, but it's also about art-making and family (his mother is related to Anni Albers, whose husband Josef headed Black Mountain College for most of its existence). Written in that spare, laid-back manner that characterizes lots of the nonfiction I encounter these days (few New Yorker adjectival flourishes, thank God); lyrical nonetheless.

The winner of the books of contemporary poetry – which have in truth been rather thin on the ground since I burned through over two dozen back in April, and well-nigh burned myself out on the genre – is – by a mile – John Peck's I Came, I Saw: Eight Poems. Is it enough to say that Peck is at once the most learned and the most lyrical of contemporary American poets? Is that a hyperbolic enough claim to make you buy the book and read it for yourself? Do it anyway, even if you don't believe me. Peck is an extraordinary poet.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

last ruskin

Once again I've reached a crossroads point in my Ruskin reading, & it's time to take a deep breath. I have, for all intents & purposes, finished the Library Edition. That is, I've finished the first 34 volumes. All that remains are Vol. 35, Praeterita and Dilecta (which I've already read a few times in other editions), vols. 36 & 37, which are a small sample (but hefty in themselves – well over 1000 pages) of Ruskin's letters, and vols. 38 & 39, a bibliography and index. Maybe in days to come I'll post a few notes on the last few volumes I've read (but not here – see note at end of post); right now I'm wondering about Praeterita.

You see, I'm teaching a graduate seminar devoted to JR this fall (beginning in a bit over two weeks – eek!), and of course Praeterita is on the reading list. And this summer I read well into the book in the edition I'll be using, a nice Oxford World's Classics edited by Francis O'Gorman. It's gotten pretty marked up, as any teaching text should be. But I'm wondering: I've got just about enough time, given the various projects on my desk – a major essay to finish by next week, a couple of tenure review files, the usual beginning-of-semester mishugas – to reread the book before classes begin. Should I a) forge ahead in O'Gorman, leaving the Library Edition volume untouched, or b) begin again with the Library Edition, and then read the rest of O'Gorman along with my students over the course of the semester (which, truth to tell, I'd do anyway), or c) do a "parallel" reading, working mainly in (and marking) O'Gorman, while consulting each page of the LE for useful footnotes and snazzy illustrations?

This "quandary," I'm afraid, does little more than illustrate my mild OCD, which gets more & more obvious as the years go by.

Cook & Wedderburn's introduction to this volume, however, is quite interesting. As usual (every volume in the LE has an introduction that clocks in somewhere over 50 pages), they give a narrative of Ruskin's life during the years in question, then a compositional history of the works contained in the volume proper. Here, there's very much a valedictory feel to the whole thing. They know it's really the last volume, so they provide a touching but not over-thorough account of Ruskin's last years, along with a summary of all the memorials given him. The latest, they point out, is this very edition: "Last among the memorials to Ruskin comes the present edition of his Life, Letters, and Works."

I'm struck by this formulation, how much it sets the LE within a very Victorian context (think Strachey's preface to Eminent Victorians, where he slams the Victorian commemorative biography:  
Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead – who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshop style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortége of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism. One is tempted to suppose, of some of them, that they were composed by that functionary, as the final item of his job.
Cook would later digest the biographical portions of his volume introductions into a single two-volume biography of JR.) The LE, unlike most modern editions of an author – think the Oxford Shakespeare, or the Oxford Middleton, or the California Duncan – aims to give us the whole of Ruskin. Not just the works, but the life, the letters, every possible interesting scrap. In the volume I've just finished (#33), there's a substantial section of "Ruskiniana," which consists of descriptions of Ruskin's writing habits, his thoughts on typography, reported conversations with him, etc. etc. ("Ruskin on Cats in Heaven," for instance.) 

As I recall, Auden is the most recent author for which we have a volume devoted wholly to "table talk." I can't say I wouldn't welcome such collections for any number of contemporaries. But then, I'm turning into a Victorian as I speak.
For those of my 7 readers who've borne patiently with my Ruskin-obsession over the past few years – you'll be glad to know that I'm farming off further Ruskin commentary onto another blog, which will run parallel with the Ruskin seminar I'm teaching this fall semester. So Culture Industry will be devoted, as I always meant it to be, to poetry & music & other matters of kulchural interest, & this irritating Ruskiniana will be thankfully sequestered to its own little space on the blogosphere. But I'll let you know when that's up & running, in case you're interested.