Monday, 28 June 2010

A Master Word-Smith and Rhetorician: I Give You Taylor Mali

I love language. This is a statement which may well seem superfluous from somebody whose appreciation of narrative is fairly well documented; taking it as a given fact that narrative depends upon language of one form and another – and more specifically in its original sense depending upon spoken or written language. So, I love language, and that love also opens up to poetry, which admittedly may or may not be narrative in nature (just as narratives, of course, may be poetic in nature too; so there is the possibility for a nigh endless recursion right there).

So why this rather odd opening statement, you may ask yourselves, gentle readers. Well, I have recently become somewhat enamoured (in a very Platonic manner; albeit, to some degree admittedly textual) with teacher, poet and spoken word artist Taylor Mali. These warm feelings are rooted in an admiration for Mali's uncanny mastery of the English language, and not just in terms of choosing the right words to get his message across (like any good word-smith and rhetorician should), but in his delicate and pitch-perfect delivery when performing his work.

For instance, consider the following performance of "Totally like Whatever, You Know" (from Mali's poetry collection What Learning Leaves):

While the poem in and of itself is a well formulated reflection on a trend in language usage, Mali's performance stresses this trend even further by mimicking it, giving it a voice that becomes at once humorous, satirical and utterly serious. Or put differently, when Mali finally speaks of speaking with conviction, he speaks with conviction.

Another one of Mali's strong pieces, both in terms of written poems and spoken word performances (not that I have thus far read or heard one that could honestly be considered weak), is "The The Impotence of Proofreading" (also from What Learning Leaves). Here Mali once again flexes his verbal muscles and delivers something wittily funny yet simultaneously very serious: i.e. the importance of language, of knowing your language, and of controlling your language. Incidentally, this was my own introduction to Mali's work, and, to coin a phrase, he had me at "very, very hoard."

For more Taylor Mali, check out his YouTube channel or his latest collection of poetry, The Last Time as We Are.

Monday, 21 June 2010

"Who's rocking the cradle, if he is not?"

Apropos of things Satanic, metaphysical and whatnot... Last week while I was writing my post, I put on Bruce Dickinson's album The Chemical Wedding from 1998 for inspirational purposes, and this week I figured I would spend a few lines on that album. After all, that album and I do have a history.

For some reason or another, I was never really an Iron Maiden fan in my youth (I am one since a little more than a decade, but that is slightly beside the point), in fact, I don't think I had properly crossed paths with their music and therefore I had no real in-depth idea of who Bruce Dickinson was when a good friend introduced me to The Chemical Wedding late in 1998 or early in 1999. However, I took to the album instantly. Heavily influenced by William Blake (a poet whose work I really enjoy), Dickinson's lyrics drew me in and captured my full attention, introducing me to one of the best vocal powerhouses in the metal field in the process.

In fact, it was Dickinson's rejoining Maiden in spring 1999 and my joining my friend for the Göteborg leg of the ensuing tour that lay the foundation for my huge appreciation for Iron Maiden's music. I followed the voice, as it were, and it has not disappointed me thus far.

But I digress. While a long-standing relationship to both Dickinson's and Maiden's music would follow, I had no idea of that at the time, and last week's umpteenth revisit to this little musical and lyrical world (while typing away at "Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell"), which has prompted this week's session, sent me back to those early days in some ways (as so often). Because, of course, as I confessed last week, I do appreciate Satanic literature and what Dickinson does on this album, lyrically speaking, definitely (at least in part) qualifies within a tradition of Satanic poetry, walking in Blake's literary (and metaphysical) footsteps as it were.

While I like the album as a whole, there is one song especially which stands out in terms of literary Satanism, and that is "Killing Floor" with its haunting opening lines:
So this is dreamtime, and all is quiet
So this is dreamtime, and all is night
You've never been held by the hand of God
Who's rocking the cradle, if he is not?
The second stanza (or verse if you want to use musical terminology rather than literary) then in some sense answers this question posed at the end of the first one:
He turned the oil into his blood
Panzer divisions burning in the mud
The stain of freedom, he's washed it out
Who's rocking the cradle, I have no doubt
Satanic? I would say so. There is something disturbing (in a nigh metaphorical sense, I stress, as I reiterate my secular stance, taken in the preceding post) going on here, displacing the notion of divine authority and replacing it with something else.

The following stanzas (bridge and chorus, musically speaking) almost complete the lyric in terms of contents (textually and musically everything except the answering second stanza is repeated); I say almost because there are some subtle, yet important, changes to the first two lines of the first stanza when they are repeated (shifting "So this is dreamtime, and all is quiet / So this is dreamtime, and all is night" into "So now it's dreamtime for you tonight / So now it's dreamtime, and all is quiet" (emphases mine)). Most importantly the remaining stanzas bring up a sense of "The darker side of ecstasy" and the fact that "Satan has left his killing floor" (presumably Hell) and that "his fires burn no more," suggesting to me a Satan free from Hell and loose on earth. Yet also, given the first two stanzas, perhaps it is also a statement that this is the only (faux) authoritative presence the world has to offer (in a metaphysical sense).

Perhaps this in itself is merely a metaphysical or existential re-conceptualisation of what the Bard once wrote as part of another rather (albeit faux) Satanic speech: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves" (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene ii: 140-141).

Monday, 14 June 2010

"Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell"

The title of this week's post is line 76 of Book IV in John Milton's 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost, and the speaker is Milton's Satan. So, you may wonder, what is this all about? What's the topic of the post? Well, I have a confession to make. Gentle readers, I am a literary Satanist.

Now, before that mayhap controversial line gets twisted out of context, let me first off repeat it with some emphasis in the right places; that is, I am a literary Satanist. My approach here is purely secular and unrelated to faith, in fact focused rather on the metaphorical, perhaps mythical, and most certainly literary value of the figure of Satan. And in that context, there is a great value and a rich tradition as varied and wondrous as could be. Because the figure of Satan, the Devil, the Adversary, or the fallen angel – Samael, Iblis, Lucifer, the Lightbringer, the Morningstar, etc. – (many of which are merely repetitions of the same name or function in different languages) is pluralistic and pliable. Even the basic mythologies (if you will pardon that label) allow for varying literary interpretations.

The metaphysical rebellion against divine authority can be, and has been, envisioned as a righteous rebellion against an unjust authority (obviously then questioning the role of God for, at the very least, the duration of the story at hand); just as it can be, and has been, seen as an attempt to usurp righteous power. In some cases, as with Milton, this very question has been something of a controversial struggle between interpretations of the literary work itself. We need only remember William Blake's infamous line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
Note: The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it. (Plate 6)
Yet these two strands of interpretation and depiction (because let's face it, not all depictions are in and of themselves phrased so as to generate the Miltonic duality of interpretation seemingly inherent in Paradise Lost) are not the only ones. Myths, legends, religious and literary traditions offer an array of versions and interpretations of this struggle, and of the identity of Satan. The basic question that needs be asked is, of course: Why did he rebel?

Naturally, here we find the traditional notion of the old Biblical proverb "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18 (King James' Bible)), which is obviously a fitting one, but also one that many a poet and writer have challenged. After all, in some sense, God needs Lucifer's fall, needs an Adversary, for his conception of good and evil (and by extension free will itself) to work. Neil Gaiman draws upon this idea in his wonderful short story "Murder Mysteries" (found in Smoke and Mirrors and also beautifully adapted into a comic by P. Craig Russell), which points to this notion of divine necessity. Similarly, many years before Gaiman, the Swedish poet Karin Boye wrote the beautiful poem "Den fallande morgonstjärnan" (Eng. The Falling Morning Star (this link provides an, in my humble opinion, less than stellar translation, aesthetically speaking, of Boye's poem by David McDuff, but it does give those of you not versed in Swedish a chance to get the literal gist of what I am getting at here), which was published in her 1927 collection Härdarna (Eng. The Hearths). Boye's poem not only points to the divine necessity of Lucifer's fall, but the divine sacrifice involved. I have more than once conceptualised this myself, in purely fictional terms, as a first sacrifice later to be echoed in the image of the crucifixion of Christ.

Then there is a version found in Sufi tradition (one of the many of which I am particularly fond of myself, I confess), where God presents his newest creation, Man (i.e. Adam), to the Angelic host and commands them to bow down before it. Iblis refuses the command, but (in the version I most appreciate) this refusal is not prompted by either pride or an inherent contempt for Man, fleshly and material as Adam is (these versions exist too, of course); no, it is prompted by an extreme faith. Because surely God's command to the Angelic host to bow down before Adam is a form of idolatry and an offence against the first commandment as later given to Moses: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Here we have a paradox of sorts, obviously, since it could well be considered heresy to disobey a divine command (i.e. the command to bow down before Adam; hence, Iblis' fall would be justified as a violation of that command), but equally so to bow down before the non-divine (violating what at the very least will be the command of Exodus 20:3). As such, Iblis becomes a heretical preserver of divine law and (dare I say, at least in some sense, unjustly) punished for his firm faith in and strong love of the divine.

Naturally, these different depictions provide very different versions of the figure itself (righteous revolutionary, evil usurper, necessary sacrifice, heretical preserver of faith), all of which affects his relationship to us (i.e. human beings). We have the tempter, the pedlar in souls, the wheeler and dealer, but also the indifferent, sometimes even sad, observer of human behaviour and human nature (who in more than one case objects to being blamed for our own shortcomings). Most, if not all, of these open doors into a rich tradition of Satanic satire (e.g. C. S. Lewis' wickedly funny The Screwtape Letters); and especially the latter (i.e. the observer) is echoed in Ambrose Bierce's wonderful definition of Satan in The Devil's Dictionary:
SATAN, n. One of the Creator's lamentable mistakes, repented in sashcloth and axes. Being instated as an archangel, Satan made himself multifariously objectionable and was finally expelled from Heaven. Halfway in his descent he paused, bent his head in thought a moment and at last went back. "There is one favor that I should like to ask," said he.
"Name it."
"Man, I understand, is about to be created. He will need laws."
"What, wretch! you his appointed adversary, charged from the dawn of eternity with hatred of his soul — you ask for the right to make his laws?"
"Pardon; what I have to ask is that he be permitted to make them himself."
It was so ordered. (The Devil's Dictionary (online))

This notion of Satanic satire actually takes us to the roots of this post (because I am sure that at least some of you by now wonder what may have prompted this literary confessional); that is, the fact that I am currently reading Glen Duncan's I, Lucifer. The basic story of Duncan's novel (and thus far, over halfway through it, I love it) is this: Lucifer is offered to get a shot at redemption. All he needs to do is live out a mortal existence. He does not even have to decide all at once, but is given a trial month (with an option to renew the lease, as it were) in the recently and suicidally deceased author Declan Gunn (obviously a nice little anagram of Glen Duncan). Thus, the novel opens with a diabolical mission statement (from a Lucifer who has no intention of playing by the rules or accepting the offer permanently):
I, Lucifer, Fallen Angel, Prince of Darkness, Bringer of Light, Ruler of Hell, Lord of Flies, Father of Lies, Apostate Supreme, Tempter of Mankind, Old Serpent, Prince of This World, Seducer, Accuser, Tormentor, Blasphemer, and without doubt the Best Fuck in the Seen and Unseen Universe (ask Eve, that minx) have decided — oo-la-la! — to tell all.
What follows is a satirical review of humans and human nature, analyses of organised religion and questions of faith. Duncan's Lucifer is not necessarily what I would call nice (far from it), but nor do I think he is necessarily to blame for everything either. We (i.e. humans) are doing quite a good job all on our own (with a few nudges in the right, or perhaps more accurately wrong, direction), implying a less than perfect divinity (also pointing to some contradictions along the way). Even before having finished the novel, I recommend it warmly, partly because I like Duncan's way of writing (I will definitely be picking up more of his novels), but also because his take on the diabolical, and his wondrous Satanic ventriloquism, fascinates and engages me.

Incidentally, Duncan was not alone in paving the way for my writing this post. There are also related matters in my scholarly work at the moment which have brought these issues to the front and centre. And then, even more recently (apropos of the whole affair of the recent boarding of the Ship to Gaza flotilla), I stumbled upon the following, fantastic (in a double sense) comment on an on-line article:
I think the comment speaks quite clearly on its own, but would nevertheless like to stress my appreciation for it as very well-rendered and successful attempt at Satanic satire. The commenter (whoever he or she is) has managed ever so well to perform a similar act of ventriloquism to that of Duncan's, and its anonymous, yet simultaneously (in some sense) devilish, authorship fits perfectly into its satirical mission.

In short, as a literary Satanist, how could one not love this brief piece's sharpness and wit.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Why Censorship Does Not Work

I have written previously in here about the idea that freedom of speech also inherently entails responsibility for speech, but also (referring to Philip Pullman) that we do not have a given right never to be offended. For some, these two ideas might almost seem contradictory, yet I would argue that they are not. There are differences between setting out to offend and to accidentally offend, to challenge powers that be and to attack (mercilessly) those in a lesser position. There is not necessarily an easy line between these categories, of course; while clear cut cases exist in abundance, there are most likely even more things that are hard to position as either-or, and sometimes perhaps even more easily both-and.

The responsibility for speech that I favour is an on-going discussion of what we can say, not in terms of freedom of speech, but in terms of a moral relationship with the Other. However, and this brings us to today's main topic, censorship can never be a solution in this equation. On that level, freedom of speech must be absolute (or at the very least more or less; it is naive to think that it is ever absolute in any literal or pragmatic sense. Most countries have libel laws if nothing else). Because there is a problem with discussing something you have not read or seen, not to mention being offended by it.

In an interview taped on 27 January 1989 by Bandung File (and ironically aired on 14 February on British Channel 4 that year), Salman Rushdie said, "If you don't want to read a book, you don't have to read it. It's very hard to be offended by The Satanic Verses, it requires a long period of intense reading. It's a quarter of a million words" (in The Rushdie File 26). Rushdie's comment was a response to a number of rather vicious critics of the novel, who rather brazenly admitted that they had not read it, in fact had no intention of doing so. For instance, one of the politicians behind the banning of the book in India, Syed Shahabuddin, wrote the following in The Times of India on 13 October 1988:
You are aggrieved that some of us have condemned you without a hearing and asked for the ban without reading your book. Yes, I have not read it, nor do I intend to. I do not have to wade through a filthy drain to know what filth is. My first inadvertent step would tell me what I have stepped into. (in The Rushdie File 47)
Now, on one level (and bear with me, please), there is a certain level of logic in Shahabuddin's argument, and one which I think most of us apply to varying degrees and in different manners. As human beings, we continuously judge things unseen (or partly unseen) or unheard (or partly unheard) all the time; especially in terms of art in its various forms. This in itself is a natural form of selection for us, because, quite literally, there is too much out there for us to read, view, watch, listen to it all. And thus we make our choices, mostly based on what we think will be to our liking, or have some sort of artistic quality to it, or... Regardless of what criteria we apply, apply them we do; and like Shahabuddin (albeit, with hopefully a more modest and less aggressive tone) we deem some of the material less worthy of our attention, perhaps even to be filth we do not want to step into; and we are in our full rights not to.

However, while we do have the right not to read something, why would we have the right to stop others from reading it? And why would we blindly accept somebody else's interpretation of the work without wanting or even worse being able to make up our own minds by looking at the actual work with our own eyes? And this, to me, is at the very heart of why censorship does not work, in fact cannot ever work – because how can we judge art (or any type of utterance) properly without reading/viewing/watching/listening to the work in question? How can we debate a thing without knowing the thing itself, without having the reference? Simply put, it is one thing not to read/view/watch/listen to something and a completely different one to offer an unenlightened strong opinion on the matter.

A review of something where the reviewer has not taken in whatever he/she reviews is not worth a moment's time to read, because it is about nothing more than an uninformed opinion. Similarly, I do not think it is difficult to grasp the inherent problem in banning something without even taking the time to seriously take the work in question in; and even then, why should your opinion be the decisive one, the one to block this work from current and future generations (as if that one even ever truly works)? And if it is not your opinion, why should you trust it so inherently, without questioning it? Offence can be taken, and given, but offence taken at surface level echoes uninformed offence (i.e. the offended party does not even properly know what has offended it, there is merely the statement that it has been so).

Admittedly not all works of art are "a quarter of a million words." An image (e.g. a cartoon) can be so direct as to not allow us the option to avoid it in all contexts before it has managed to offend in a deeper sense (although, I would still say that offence taken without that exposition aligns itself with my discussion in the preceding paragraph). Naturally, this does not give us the option of forbidding the existence of this visual "utterance" any more than we can forbid the existence of a novel or a film. Once more, in this sense, freedom of speech, of expression, must be absolute (or as absolute as "absolute" gets). However, we do have a right to argue against this expression, to raise our voices and tell our own side of the story, to explain why it may be offensive, why it might be inappropriate – but, importantly, in order to do so, we must also see the thing we criticise, we must ourselves have access to it in order to criticise the thing and not a chimera, a phantom image of the thing.

In his article "The Satanic Verses and the Politics of Identity," Peter Jones writes that "[w]e may even fight shy of curtailing our conception of the non-legal rights of authors; we can criticise the use that people make of their rights without implying that they have no right to do what we criticise" (in Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie 321). Jones' approach is one that is in total accord with my own. Because if the freedom of speech cannot be used to criticise abuses of that very freedom, without necessarily prescribing a censorship (which by defaults robs the debate of its centre), then how free is that speech? How strong? I would argue that the freedom of speech is not only strong enough to include such a debate, but that it is a necessary condition that it includes this idea by default. If nothing else, because the freedom of speech is our best way to dissent and disagree, and to protect that right, we must also be allowed to vocally dissent against utterances made by others, against verbal or visual offences. Not in order to imply that these others did not have the right to do it (to echo Jones), but in order to question whether it was right to do it. There is a difference and it may seem subtle, but it is essential to discuss that. And censorship can never contribute to that discussion

Works cited:

Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland, ed. The Rushdie File. London: Fourth Estate, 1989.

M. D. Fletcher, ed.
Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994.