"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Aug 13, 2011

Down From the North

I was going to link to this essay by Steven Erikson no matter what. It's been sitting in a tab for a day and a half, while I fleshed out for myself what I wanted to write.

I don't have to write anything, luckily. (A happy accident, not unlike the comment section to the post directly below this one, where a brilliant discussion unfolded, and which was at least a hundred times better for me being too stupid to say much within it.) Cuneyt has writen, quite without knowing I was going to re-purpose it, a brilliant introduction, already:

"...I would say that here many of the right praise the small town, praise the rural and the wild (even as they seek to plow it all over). Makes sense; rural populism only has rightwing nationalism to feel good about itself. Leftism, true worker leftism, is dead in America. You might not find it everywhere. But sure, the right in the US adopt the survivalism and the posture of the independentist. But when it comes down to it, Democrats and Republicans both believe in state capture.

I'm not sure how much of the left really believes in Marx, understands anything about him, or really how much any of the left exist in America. The right is very diverse; it has libertarians and isolationists and neocons (who paleos call leftwing because they hate them) and religs and seculars and politicals and apoliticals.

They have, in Darwinist terms, speciated because they are a fucking bloom. They have dominated and they are finding greater and greater diversity. Leftists? Don't talk to me about American leftists. They are sickly because they are intellectually inbred, stuffed with antibiotics, scared of the sun. And Democrats are nothing more than the backbred hybrids of native left and native right..."

That's shiny, for its own merits.  But, being a bit of a dick, I'm going to add more value to it, as a preface to this:

"...Historically within the genre [fantasy] the role of the ‘barbarians’ has roughly split into two morally laden strains. On the one hand they are the ‘dark horde’ threatening civilization; while on the other they are the savage made noble by the absence of civilization. In the matter of Karsa Orlong, we can for the moment disregard the former and concentrate instead on the noble savage trope—such barbarians are purer of spirit, unsullied and uncorrupt; while their justice may be rough, it is still just. One could call it the ‘play-ground wish-fulfillment’ motif, where prowess is bound to fairness and punishment is always righteous. The obvious, almost definitive example of this is R.E. Howard’s Conan, but we can take a more fundamental approach and consider this ‘barbarian’ trope as representing the ‘other,’ but a cleaned-up version intended to invite sympathy. In this invitation there must be a subtle compact between creator and reader, and to list its details can be rather enlightening, so here goes.

We are not the ‘other,’ and this barbarian’s world is therefore exotic, even as it harkens back to a pre-civilized, Edenic proximity. The barbarian’s world is a harsh one, a true struggle for existence, but this struggle is what hones proper virtues (‘proper’ in the sense of readily agreeable virtues, such as loyalty, courage, integrity, and the value of honest labour). Against this we need an opposing force; in this case ‘civilization,’ characterized by deceit, decadence, conspiracy, and consort with evil forces including tyranny: civilization represents, therefore, the loss of freedom (with slavery the most direct manifestation of that, brutally represented in chains and other forms of imprisonment). In essence, then, we as readers are invited to the side of the ‘other,’ the one standing in opposition to civilization. Yet… we readers are ‘civilized.’ We are, in fact, the decadent products of a culture that has not only accepted the loss of freedom, but in fact codifies that loss to ease our discomfort (taxes, wage-slavery, etc). In this manner, we are offered the ‘escapist’ gift of Fantasy; but implicit in this is the notion that a) we need to escape; and b) that civilization is, at its core, evil.

[So, is it not ironic that Leo Grin (a great fan of R.E. Howard) attacks modern fantasy as nihilistic? This man's incomprehension of Howard's own nihilism and anarchic rejection of civilization is, simply, jaw-dropping. Amusing digression ends.]

This brings me (and I can almost hear the groans) to anthropology, although one could approach the notion of the ‘other’ from a whole host of theoretical stances, including mytho-Jungian, sociological, psychological, etc. The point is, the ‘other’ is universal to the human condition: it exists in every culture. I won’t go into too much detail here, since the singular point I want to make is that the notion of the ‘other’ is implicitly arrogant. Most cultures give themselves a collective identity (the ‘us’) and often attribute to themselves a name that means something like ‘the people,’ implying that the ‘others’ are not quite people. This has of course justified all manner of conflict and subjugation, from ancient times to the present. Accordingly, it is not unique to ‘civilization’ per se but to all cultures, regardless of their technological level and social organization. To be the (one and only) ‘people’ is an arrogant assertion: defined in terms of specific habits, behaviours, physical features, language, religion, and so on, but ultimately profoundly conceited in its essential world-view. By this means all manner of atrocity is possible when dealing with the ‘other’ (and all militaries impose psychological ritual to ensure that the soldier sees the enemy as an ‘other’ and therefore less than human and therefore permissible to kill).

[It's not all grim: the notion of 'us' has essential virtues in collective identity, through the sharing of values, community cohesion, and so on; but it's probably fair to say that the pay-off is not quite a balanced one, given that the inherent weakness of 'us' hints at fundamental flaws in that kind of thinking, even if the notion of 'us' also happens to be necessary for a society to function] 

Barbarian societies can be as arrogant as civilized ones: the only difference is in the expression of that arrogance. At its core it’s all one, and seems to be a characteristic of the human condition (to this day, for all of our efforts at self-identifying ourselves as a global culture, we continue to impose borders, define select privileges, exercise extortion of weaker peoples, and in the rejection of one community (the neighbourhood) we raise countless others, defined by political afiliation, religion, skin colour or whatever).

There are other implicit judgements to the ‘other.’ Among the Romans the ‘barbaric’ other was not viewed as less-than-human, but in terms of inherent weakness (of their culture). This justified subjugating them, occupying their lands, and enslaving as many of them as was economically possible. The notion of being ‘Roman’ was considered the height of civilized and cultural identity (though it came back to bite their Roman asses). [incidentally, and at the risk of offense, this is what made the teachings of Jesus so revolutionary, as they directly challenged the accepted definitions of self-identity and the institutions of authority in place to maintain them, only to be later co-opted and segmented into rival sects—more us's and more them's—in direct defiance of those very teachings. But one can also argue about the 'us' of believers and the 'them' of non-believers... I sense a vortex ahead so will end digression there]. This Roman stance was the notion of might-as-right and is of course yet another expression of arrogance. Later on, with the (re)-institution of slavery, drawing from Africa, the notion of less-than-human became the dominant ‘justification’ for brutalizing the ‘other.’ One can then turn to the treatment of Jews in Europe, and so on. The point is: history is the study of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and little else...

I wanted to address the fantasy trope of the ‘barbarian’ (from the north, no less, and isn’t it curious how so many heroic barbarians come down from the north?), but do so in recognition of demonstrable truths about warrior-based societies, as expressed in that intractable sense of superiority and its arrogant expression; and in recognizing the implicit ‘invitation’ to the reader (into a civilization-rejecting, civilization-hating barbarian ‘hero’), I wanted to, via a very close and therefore truncated point of view, make it damned uncomfortable in its ‘reality,’ and thereby comment on what I saw (and see) as a fundamentally nihilistic fantasy trope: the pure and noble barbarian. Because, whether recognized or not, that fantasy barbarian hero constitutes a rather backhanded attack on the very civilization that produces people with the leisure time to read (and read escapist literature at that)...

One of the areas of serious disturbance among readers is, quite understandably, the rape scenes. There is a counterpoint to these, found later in the novel, that includes Karsa’s very direct answer to it, which while on the surface may seem contradictory to his nature, is in fact anything but. Another area is the use of the word ‘children’ when voicing his exploits of slaughter (but then, if child-slaying is a universal taboo, what does that say about our culture, with its missing children; and what does it say about our foreign policies and/or our fanatic religious beliefs, that see children killed every day; or our notions of wealth, that see entire countries left to starve?).

Having established this tight, myopic point of view of the ‘classic’ barbarian (reasonable for an isolated people of remote mountain regions)—and structuring the tale empty of overt authorial judgement yet relentless in its detail, one might then expect to see me take the ‘dark horde’ route and offer up civilization as the beacon of virtue and enlightenment. But then… maybe Howard had a point? For all that his nihilistic rejection of civilization, personified in the Hyborian Tales of Conan, is an invitation to despair (like a bullet to the head), it cannot be dismissed out of hand. Civilization has its problems, and even more distressing, there was indeed a kind of freedom in the pre-industrial age that we can only dream of (but how rose-tinted are those dreams, discounting as they do death-in-childbirth, intestinal parasites, disease, disfigurement, starvation, slavery and so on? Just how far into the ‘escapism’ from reality should the Fantasy genre offer up? Oh, and that is the sixty-four dollar question I’m slowly approaching: the expectations of the fantasy readership, but everything in its time…). Accordingly, Karsa’s introduction into civilization is one made in chains—in the stripping away of his ‘barbaric’ freedom. But arrogance is an unruly beast and he will not so easily be tamed, and so the struggle between barbarism and civilization becomes his own personal struggle (even Conan grumbled as much)...

One of the traditional appeals to epic fantasy literature of the ‘dark horde’ variety was its simplification of morality. There was clearly defined good and clearly defined evil. Good was good and evil was reprehensible. We were invited into a world where we knew who the good guys were, we knew who the bad guys were, and we knew that by the end the good guys would win, standing triumphant on the corpses of the bad guys (restless corpses were better, since that invited sequels). This is the child-like, play-ground appeal, and in appealing to the child in us it comforts by virtue of its simplicity; while at the same time its codifies the ‘good’ virtues and the ‘bad’ vices, which could in one sense serve as life-lessons. Accordingly, this kind of fantasy’s engagement with reality was one of reduction, infused with exotic ‘otherness’ to stir the wonder of an imaginative mind. Comforting stuff, affirming stuff—in fact, the very stuff that Leo Grin applauds.

But that’s ‘epic’ fantasy. It’s not sword and sorcery fantasy: it’s not R.E. Howard (arguably, it’s not JRR either, but I’ll skirt that particular can of worms here). Howard’s barbarian hero promised chaos and destruction—well, he promised to maintain his barbaric virtues even if it took the world down around him (lovingly spoofed in Jakes’ ‘Mention My Name in Atlantis’). And it if did, well, that was a civilized world, wasn’t it, so good riddance. The sword and sorcery form of fantasy literature twisted things, but something of that simplistic, reductionist sensibility still remained. Good was good (if a little hard) and evil was evil. Only the stigmata had changed. The ‘good’ was the purity of the Cimmerian ice fields; the evil was the steamy civilized southlands with their serpent gods and all the rest. It’s escapism of the nihilistic vengeance sort, the fascistic scouring away of corrupting forces (that part Leo liked, so doubt), with the Northern (white-skinned) Man standing triumphant, a freed and happily large-breasted ex-slave wrapped lovingly round one leg, on her knees of course).

Escapism is seductive, and what it might reveal about us is not always pleasant on reflection: it comes down to the flavours we prefer, the paths we find most inviting to our more fundamental belief systems—whether self-articulated or not, and that alone is enough to make any thinking person shiver..."


Well, that's that. Apologies in retreat for copying as large a set of sections in as I have. I. Loved. It. Want to disseminate it as far and as wide as I can imagine. Erikson is, I believe, one of the finest English language writers with an audience, alive. And, although I don't know if it was his intention or not, he's helped tap a stake into the dessicated heart of the Tolkien vampire.

For that alone, he deserves a feast day and a plaque on the wall...


Cüneyt said...

If you think I'm a fitting introduction to that, I certainly appreciate the compliment.

Mandos said...

Eh. As a Tolkien character I'm unashamed to admit that I'm rather partial to the Tolkien vampire. :)

Peter Ward said...

The political implications of fantasy literature had troubled me since my intertextuality professor pointed them out. Unfortunately Erikson is too much enamored with Critical Theory (the academic genre my degree was based on) and I quickly become aggravated reading his text. Take the "Other"--a technical concept I believe at uni we had an entire reader dedicated to--: a truism identified in literature at least as early as the Old Testament is given some psychoanalytic airbrushing so it can be inflated to the status of a metaphysical law--"The point is, the ‘other’ is universal to the human condition: it exists in every culture." A less than modest and intellectually integrity-questioning claim considering we don't know shit about shit about most historic cultures (and what we know of extant cultures is frankly questionable--"we" being Western thinkers).

As further indictment, I believe he also whips out "codify", a time or two, another fashionable bit of theoretical jargon that I have yet to find a legitimate use for, bearing in mind St. George's Sixth Commandment: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

Finally, I'm not sure Erikson isn't haunted by an "other" of his own:

...whether recognized or not, that fantasy barbarian hero constitutes a rather backhanded attack on the very civilization that produces people with the leisure time to read (and read escapist literature at that)...

"Barbarian" is simply what an empire calls those who it wants to conquer. In this respect, it's to fantasy's credit it sides with the "barbarian"--i.e., the "other". Yet at this point Erikson betrays typical liberal-reactionary belief in the superiority of what he calls "civilization." For who's to say the barbarian Hoards didn't have rich cultural traditions which the Romans failed to appreciate (As the barbarian Iranians have rich art traditions and probably more time to indulge in them than those of us living in civilization)?

Really Erikson is just arguing from the other side of the same coin: the enlightened-city-liberal side against the ignorant redneck peasant he imagines is the fan of fantasy.

Jack Crow said...


Erikson is an archaeologist. I think that, more than intimations of CT, explains his literature.