Michael Moorcock, The Land Leviathan

1Of course I’ve read a moderate amount of Michael Moorcock, but I haven’t for some time and, as I finished the Jack Vance book and went to the library for the next volume I looked for a change of pace to take along with the Vance. Moorcock had been on my mind for a while now, because he, as much as anyone I can think of–save Octavia Butler–is the great example of an intellectually-rigorous, politically-Left sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction.

Genuinely excellent politically engaged literature is not easy to come by, but it’s fantastic when one does. I wouldn’t even say so much that both Moorcock and Butler are writers first and advocates of a political agenda second but that their politics is inseparable from their storytelling and their storytelling is that much more compelling because it does have political content.

Now, I had been very aware of Moorcock’s politics even before I’d read any of the Elric books, which threaded a critique of the type of Christian morality (and its political form) that presented itself, much more artfully to be sure than in C.S. Lewis‘ fantasies, in Tolkien. It is easy and not wrong to link Moorcock’s coherently anarchist sensibilities to his most famous hero, whose first act in the narrative was to dismantle a government.

I write this, but I will say that I was almost taken aback by precisely how front and center the politics are in The Land Leviathan, much more so than in at least the original Elric stories. Briefly, the book can be described as an “alternate history,” the first of its kind that I’ve read per se. Oswald Bastable, Victorian Englishman, has become, much like Vonnegut’s hero but admittedly less funny, unstuck in time. Bastable finds himself bouncing back and forth between alternate futures and pasts. In the one that occupies this book’s narrative, he finds himself in an alternate first decade of the twentieth century. Development of advanced technologies have given the human race extraordinary powers of destruction, and by the time Bastable arrives on the scene global war has been going on for years and the countries which had run the nineteenth century more or less have been reduced to rubble. Bastable uses the word “Apocalypse” more than once.

The healthiest society on the planet, pacifist and isolationist, is the former South Africa, named Bantustan, led by President Ghandi. Other African peoples are led by “The Black Attila,” a black American man who only appears if my memory is correct in the last third of the book. Prior to that, he exists only in reputation. The Europeans or those of European ancestry from whom Bastable hears rumor consider him to be simultaneously a genius and a savage. He has, it is said, declared genocidal war on the white race. Moorcock’s alternate past is, more or less, an inversion of the nineteenth century imperialist world order, which to be certain persisted in essential features through until 1974 when the book was published and indeed continues in broad strokes until today.

Moorcock caught me off-guard. It was very clear that Bastable, with whom I felt sympathy for the overwhelming reason that he was the protagonist of the narrative, had a clear distaste for what he imagined to be the Black Attila’s project, and he voiced his distaste in terms colored by the type of garden-variety racism of middle-class white people. Without doubt, Bastable wouldn’t attend a lynching, let alone participate in one, yet he certainly wouldn’t support a Federal lynching law. I wondered, indeed was concerned, that Bastable, in a book written as the 1960’s left coalitions, to the extent that they ever really operated as coalitions, had fragmented, largely through a concerted effort by the FBI to infiltrate and otherwise discredit radical organizations, particularly black radical organizations, the Black Panther Party above all. I wondered if Moorcock had bought the bull***t about the Panthers.

I was relieved, then, to find that as the book progressed that Moorcock revealed not only that the Black Attila’s reputation among the remaining white powers of the world was a reflection of racist ideology rather than reality, but that those white powers, particularly in the course of the narrative those in North America, were themselves the barbaric forces of the world. Moorcock deserves huge credit for using the technique of alternate history to expose the historical reality of the overwhelming virulence of classical white ideology. “Classical white ideology”: if the term doesn’t yet properly exist, I’m pleased to have coined it. In any event, Moorcock is correct to show the white power structure of the United States trying to reinstate racialized slavery. There continue to be lots of white people in the United States today who wish precisely that.

It’s interesting, though, that Moorcock uses the plot device of a race war. I’ve heard lots of people talk about the idea of a race war, or as they saw it the inevitability of a race war. I’ve heard people speak of it with fear, and a few with relish. Whatever the approach, every single one of these people has been white. I have never, not once, heard a person of color talk about a “race war” except to tell the white knucklehead that such a thing was a crazy idea and that in any event were such a thing to happen, given how the past 500 years have gone down, it wasn’t white people who needed to be scared. It should be stressed here that Nat Turner’s rebellion spared poor whites. “Race war” is simply not something any people of color I have ever known want to imagine. The reality of North America–I write of where I live–is a low-intensity race war to this day, if one we can qualify in any number of different ways.

So it’s interesting that Moorcock’s imagined revolutionary-apocalypse takes the form of an inverted white imagination. Without question Moorcock knows who the villains of history are: he really does. He breaks out of that trap of classical white ideology. But he does so not by escaping it, but by inverting it, which is no escape at all.

Still, a fantastic read. Moorcock is tops, really tops.

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J.R.R. Tolkein, The Return of the King

I just finished Tolkein, for crying out loud. Enjoyed it, no doubt, but I got to a point after reading the first two that I ran out of steam for a while. Returning to Moorcock’s famous “Epic Pooh” essay, this description of Tolkein’s prose bears quoting:

sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy.

More than anything, I found that contrary to an assertion Moorcock alludes to from unnamed defenders of Tolkein’s prose, that the prose in The Return of the King was more grating than in the previous two books. Maybe I was moodier, maybe the gradual accruing of archaicisms just wore on me. But I put it down despite liking it and being generally interested in the story.  I picked it up a week ago, feeling strongly that I wanted to finish it and that Tolkein deserved better than George R.R. Martin, who in the fifth book of his series has seemingly lost me for good.

Briefly I should say a few potentially contentious things.

  1. Tolkein wrote a great read but by no means is he a Great Writer. Turgenev was a Great Writer. Ishmael Reed is a Great Writer. Octavia Butler was a Great Writer.
  2. Continuing, the entire Lord of The Rings is thoroughly flawed as a work of art, often poorly paced even when taken on its own terms, with, as I’ve written before, astonishingly shallow characterization.
  3. Tolkein’s political blind-spots are near killers for someone who does not share them. In this volume, the portrayal of the “wild men,” the Dunlendings, seemed straight out of Kipling at his worst.

All these, but I read the book, which is not something I always do. So, the pertinent question would be, now that I’ve finished it, “what does Tolkein do well?”

I don’t think the big attraction about the book is Tolkein’s “world-building,” though it’s something often pointed to even by critics as the chief virtue of the book. Certainly, having played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid I appreciated it and found the small allusions to long ago histories throughout completely engaging. But that said, it’s not like Tolkein drew all this up out of nothing. At some level while it’s not the inevitable outcome of an Oxford philologist, specializing in Old English, deciding to come up with a fantasy story and having the whole project snowball into an obsession, it seems certain to be one of the likely outcomes. But this isn’t good or bad, as people don’t generally invent something from nothing, and likely they never do.

Two things really strike me as Tolkein’s interesting and at some level original, at least in the genre, achievements. First, he has an understanding of the working of political power, particularly as it applies to Mordor, that is rare in the genre and valid. Particularly, and I think I’ve made this point before, Sauron is not an all-powerful evil. Maybe it’s the rash of movies in the past few years in which some overwhelming galactic enemy is going to destroy everything everywhere, and which is all-powerful and invulnerable, only to be suddenly defeated five minutes before the film’s close. Tolkein spends much time, generally through Gandalf, pointing out the tenuousness of Sauron’s position. The good guys are not all but doomed nor is their victory inevitable, but rather there is a both formidable and vulnerable enemy. This is a genuinely interesting approach and one which retains some meaning in our actually-existing world.

Second, Tolkein, for all of his flaws, approaches his subject from a fundamentally humane perspective. I have plenty of people in my life with whom I have real political disagreements and whose politics I am certain has bad effects on the world, but who, in their dealings with people in everyday life are generous and humane. I feel like Tolkein was like that. Critical here is his treatment of the orcs. There is an element in the portrayal of the orcs wherein they are evil hordes simply to be slaughtered. Functionally, in the novel, that’s what they are. Yet, particularly in The Return of The King, which in some scenes looks in relatively close detail at orcs’ relationships with each other, we get some detail to support–was it Gandalf’s assertion at some point?–that the orcs weren’t flawed at conception but developed to be so. This is really important and likely undercuts the narrative structure of the book, which is “good triumphs over evil.” At some level I get the feeling that Tolkein the person was more humane than his book.

I’ll close by noting that I picked up Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, and his descriptions of the countryside absolutely demolish Tolkein. There really is no contest.

Graham Lock, Blutopia

978-0-8223-2440-9_prBlutopia is not the first of Graham Lock’s books I’ve read. I’d gone to the library, having started a Sun Ra kick (transformed, over the read, to an Ellington kick, to Braxton), and found this on the shelf in the section, which unfortunately doesn’t actually have a straight biography on Ra. This worked.

Put briefly, the book relates–out of chronological order, significantly–the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton through their relationships to ideas of the Black past and future. While Ellington might superficially seem the odd man out, I was aware enough of his agenda (“agenda” sounds pejorative, but it’s not) to know that while he comes from a different era he fits with the other two in the sense of taking an approach to music as not only making a bunch of records but making, as do Ra and Braxton, philosophical, ethical, and historical arguments.

An undercurrent in the book involves the general inadequacy of actually-existing critical writing on Black music generally and what we call “jazz” in particular. Critics are generally white and the best-intentioned carry with them a cultural baggage that leaves them prone to misinterpret the music and musicians. Lock as much as any white critic I’ve read successfully self-corrects for his own baggage and given this alone is worth the read. There is a type of anti-racist white person who displays his or her understanding of race, which may be very solid on its own merits, in an attempt, impossible at this moment, to extricate himself or herself from white privilege, or at least from the subjective feelings of guilt it brings. It’s a clever form of the classically white privileged sense of personal purity. Anyway, this really doesn’t seem to be Lock’s motive. Above all, he is moved by the experience of the music and by a sense that his role is to learn from the musicians, for whom he clearly has a deep, genuine respect and, in the case of Braxton with whom he has worked closely over decades, real friendship.

In a nutshell, then, Lock’s point is that none of the three musicians here understood their own music by correlating their work to some European aesthetic, despite the fact that the white critical establishment viewed and continues to view all three precisely through that European aesthetic lens. Sun Ra, then, becomes a kook, if a talented one. Ellington and Braxton both somehow become “less black” in their aesthetic. Ellington’s lengthier work, “Black, Brown, and Beige,” to take an example, becomes an attempt to adopt European symphonic norms in a jazz band setting, while the influence of Stockhausen and Cage on Braxton is overemphasized to the extent that it obscures all other discussion of how his music developed. Lock takes the radical step of suggesting that what these people said about their own work and selves should be taken seriously. “Black, Brown, and Beige,” far from looking to European symphonic models, was to Ellington of greater length than his previous work and more complex in its structure for the simple reason that he was telling a longer and more complex story, that of black people in America. Braxton for his part stresses that his is not an intellectual music but a spiritually functional one, and that his drawing from cosmopolitan sources is an entirely African approach.

I treat myself by getting a book out of the jazz section of the library to read. It’s rare that I don’t plow through it quickly–only when I find the basic argument offensive will I not bother finishing it, and while I will at times disagree with an author it’s rare that I find one genuinely offensive. Lock, though, I knew from past experience and I trusted him. Blutopia did not betray that trust. Truthfully, given the paucity of writers on his particular subjects (save Ellington, and particularly with Braxton), he’s essential reading.

J.R.R. Tolkein, The Two Towers

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As I write this I’m already a bit into The Return of the King. Despite what seems to be its reputation as the relatively boring middle bit, I thoroughly enjoyed The Two Towers. These books pass the most important test I give to books at this point in my life: I enjoy reading them.

Having said this, and feeling like the whole point of this blog is to say something, I’ll say that there are all kinds of flaws in Tolkein. The reverence with which some people approach his work, and the issuing of every single piece, it seems, of material he wrote to prepare for the trilogy, seems completely unwarranted. I know that there are classes offered in Tolkein as I’ve spoken with people who have taken them. I can imagine devoting a few classes to the work in a larger course, but a full course seems to me a desperate measure by untenured faculty to offer something–anything–which will boost their enrollment. The best use of Tolkein is to read the novels, not to study them.

One of the common praises sung of Tolkein is that he “invented a whole world” and “invented entire languages” that people spoke. These praises are generally presented with an endearing type of fanboy credulousness. But while Tolkein is certainly, in his creation of Middle Earth, hugely inventive, what is actually more interesting to me, reading it, is the extent to which it is visible that he did not invent out of whole cloth. This doesn’t make it less of a creation, but rather gives a sense of what it actually means to create. It’s not that there’s nothing new under the sun, because that’s not true. History doesn’t just repeat itself despite the cliche.

And so what’s interesting is not the extent to which Tolkein doesn’t invent something new. What he was clearly trying to do was to create a novelistic approximation of the type of otherworldliness one encounters in pre-Christian English literature, Beowulf specifically, and also like the various Scandinavian sagas. That literature presents worlds very different from the ones we inhabit. There’s magic, for example. Yet they are written not as fantasy, or not seeming to be as fantasy, but rather as a record of how things were, magic included. Behind the formal execution of those works, the actual words on a page, there is a full conception of a way the world works, or worked we would say from our current vantage point.

So, we should not say that the world of Tolkein’s is actually different than our own. A quick google reveals all kinds of predictable discussion about the underlying racism of Tolkein’s presentation. Predictable in that it’s not hard to see in the reading of it, and predictable how lots of people try to pretend it’s not there. This bit describes the problem well:

Tolkien did not write in a vacuum. Caught up in a generation of global war that profoundly and permanently altered British culture, he saw the world in terms Samuel Huntington might have recognized: the “clash of civilizations” in which East and West are pitted against one another. It is not a coincidence that Tolkien locates evil in Middle Earth in the East and South, or that the Haradrim mercenaries recruited by Saruman are readily identifiable as North African Arabs. Nor is it a coincidence that the dividing line between good and evil, the river Isen, is a homonym of the common German surname Eisen, and is given the same meaning (“iron”).

I will say that I was shocked but not surprised that at one point Orcs referred to some of the Rohirrim–people from Rohan–as “white skins.” It just made it all clear.

This isn’t about Tolkein as much as it is about how one goes about creating art. Tolkein clearly saw the world in a way that reflected the racism of the British Empire in which he grew up and which he defended. I can get past that. It doesn’t make him a bad writer. God help me if it’s only my worst qualities that count. What’s interesting to me is how generally well Tolkein actually does in presenting his world with an air of versimilitude. It’s only in moments like that use of “white skins” that the fictive nature of the endeavor peeks through. Really, it’s very good.

The same applies to Tolkein’s “invented” languages. Rohirrim, a plural, is a good example. Yes, Tolkein put a lot of effort into inventing an elfish language, etc. But the “-im” plural rang really familiar to me when I read it. It was one of those moments where, despite the best efforts of the author, the fictive nature of the novel becomes visible. It’s like a scene in a movie where you see the overhead mic dip onto the screen. The source for this plural–at least as it reads, which is the real test–would be seraphim & cherubim. My point is not that Tolkein wasn’t inventive, but that what he invented didn’t come out of nowhere.

The big problem in Tolkein, as a read, is the massive contrast between the thoughtfulness of the setting and the shallowness of the characterization. As I start to read The Return of the King, Gandalf is developing some depth as a character. Memory is imperfect, so maybe it was on display in The Two Towers as well. Here’s Gandalf, the wonderful celestial being, who flies off the handle at the slightest inconvenience. Not horribly interesting, but complex in a way that none of the other major characters are. None, except Gollum.

We'll tip our hat to Ralph Bakshi.

We’ll tip our hat to Ralph Bakshi.

Were I to advance a bold thesis, I’d say that Gollum absolutely ruins The Lord of the Rings as a work of literature, not because he’s poorly characterized but on the contrary because he’s the only figure in the series that is thoroughly well-drawn. I will say that once Gollum fully entered the narrative I had this sense that, for the first time, I had encountered a real person in this book. I thought of Tolstoy–now this is a real writer, I thought, with a real novel. Every tiny character in War and Peace is as well-drawn as Gollum, if through Tolstoy’s complete mastery of the small, telling detail. And those are the tiny characters. I thought, Tolstoy gave us hundreds of these characters, and Tolkein gives us one. I am not so much making a judgement as I am reporting a thought process. What is true is that, as I experienced it, the depth of Gollum only served to make all of the other characters look shallow. This is a real problem.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The-Fellowship-Of-The-Ring-Book-Cover-by-JRR-Tolkien_1I don’t know what precisely possessed me, but I finally started reading The Lord of the Rings. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the various writers, Moorcock, Durham, Martin, Leiber, who have in various ways attempted to up-end Tolkein’s model of fantasy.

In my responses to all of those writers, I sympathized. At any number of levels, I still do. Tolkein’s work is classist and legitimist, and it presents a simplistic moral philosophy in which good and evil appear to be things.

A read of The Fellowship of the Ring confirms at least provisionally all the elements of these critiques. I will say, though, that while, for example, Tolkein indeed presents too simple a dualism of good and evil–it doesn’t, in its simplicity fit my experience of the world–he’s also more interesting in the actual reading than one would imagine from the movies, or The Hobbit.

What struck me was that at one point, almost as an aside but huge in its implications, Gandalf noted that Sauron was not always evil. Now, that is interesting. Having no interest to read the Silmarillion, I used Wikipedia and found that Sauron was more or less a fallen angel as we would find in Milton. This certainly makes for a more interesting read, as a dynamic evil, i.e., subject to change, is vastly superior to a static one, if one is going to adopt a framework of good and evil as a moral philosophy. More interesting as moral philosophy, though it does make Tolkein’s overarching mythology, highly original in its copious, pushing obsessive detail, less so it its broadest, essentially Christian contours. I guess the lesson is that great artists steal.

What was most interesting about the read was not that the moral philosophy was a bit more nuanced than I’d come to expect, and I will say that Tolkein did not surprise me with an unexpected depth of characterization. Really, characterization is his biggest flaw as a writer. Great on conceptualization, not so much on characterization. What really took me surprise, however, was the portrayal of land in the book. My ex began reading The Fellowship of the Ring while we were together, and stopped, citing among other things interminable discussions of hills and dales. Surely, she had a point to make.

For my part, though, I was blown away. Tolkein clearly gave more thought to land than to people. I don’t think this makes him a bad person. I find the long discussions of the land in which the narrative takes place both enormously interesting and politically important. This gets to the contradiction in English politics of the 18th century, one that E.P. Thompson pointed to in his Whigs and Hunters. When I was a kid in school, raised with the politics I was, the Whigs, Liberals, were the good guys in that story and the Tories the bad.

But of course as time passed and I got a fuller story, it became more complex. The good guys weren’t so good, and the bad guys weren’t simply bad. Tories, in seeking to maintain traditional social bonds of necessity recognized, if implicitly, traditional social rights, however imperfectly as I am all too aware they upheld those rights on an individual level in practice. The Whigs, in seeking to “liberalize” social relationships threw the baby of traditional rights to use land, in this case for hunting, necessary for the maintenance of agricultural communities.

So, while working Englishmen in the countryside had reason to fear both Whigs and Tories, in significant ways Tories were much less of a threat than Whigs. Tories–the local, landed aristocrat–were of the land, too, at least in some kind of imagination. I did not expect to see that connection to the land, the aspect of European Conservatism with which I am most sympathetic, so fully displayed in Tolkein, but there it is. Good for Tolkein.

Alan Moore, Watchmen

watchmen-thumb-350x538I’d been meaning to reread Watchmen for years now, but I didn’t feel like I liked the book enough to spend money on it, and it was always checked out at the library. Then, lo and behold, it was on the shelf a few weeks ago. A part of me wants to write a lengthier piece, and may at some point. Here, 500 words or so.

My first take on Watchmen, borrowed from a friend about a decade ago after I’d first gotten into comics, was that its reputation greatly outweighed its value. I had heard “greatest comic ever” from any number of people, and once I’d finished it, it was clear to me that those people were simply repeating to me what any number of people had told them. It was as if there needed to be a greatest comic ever and Watchmen was in the right place at the right time and so took the title. My second read has confirmed that first impression.

I’ve written about Moore’s Swamp Thing elsewhere and all of the basic critiques of his writing there were really expressions of what I’d felt upon that first read of Watchmen. What became clearer on this second read, however, was just how full of holes he is as a writer, or rather how wide the gaps are in his understanding of the world as it expresses itself in writing. Moore gets plenty of stuff right, to be sure. As a critique of superhero comics from within, the work is brilliant. Moore is a guy who–it seems to me from the outside–has an understanding of his medium that few likely can equal in sophistication, however one may disagree. No need to over-rehearse the details, but Moore very clearly exposes the fascist implications of the genre. Watchmen is genuinely meta, and from a time–late 1980s–when meta remained semi-hip.

Likewise, the comic is one of the finest documents of British/European Center-Left Cold War nuclear angst of which I know. Outside of its place inside comics, this is probably its chief importance as literature generally. As the Cold War has ended outside only a few right-wing think tanks, the possibility of nuclear annihilation has faded from public consciousness, however real the possibility remains. So too, at the time of publication, the general discourse in the United States was all Reagan triumphalism. Falklands aside, there was more room in public for a robust anti-nuclear movement in England, possibly because England lay in the middle of the two nuclear “superpowers.” Interestingly, reading Watchmen in this light gave it a vitality where it might, in 2013, seem a relic. Moore clearly had passionate feelings on the subject, and his eggheadery needs all the passion it can get, as a tonic.

The flaw in the work is that Moore references things he doesn’t really understand. One example: Nite Owl’s ornithological article, “Blood From The Shoulder of Pallas,” at the end of issue #7. No actual 1980s academic journal would publish an article a) in the flowery prose of British gentleman historians of the late 19th century that b) questioned the whole premise of the academic discipline the journal represents. That’s not how journals work. It might have been a letter to a colleague. This is admittedly a detail, but from a guy who seems to want to be placed among literary titans, it is completely unacceptable. The work is littered with similar semi-understandings. I’ll get to those in depth later, maybe.

577 words, not 500. I gotta reel it in.

Michael Moorcock, The Stealer of Souls

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The book, and the man himself behind it.

Though I hadn’t read the Elric stories in this anthology the first time around–I read the old DAW versions, in order of the internal chronology–I continue this new pattern of rereading stuff. I like it. A good book read at a different point reveals something different.

I don’t know why, fix or six years ago, I decided to read Elric, but it was at the time the first work in the genre that, once started, I actually finished. For whatever reason, likely a piercing nostalgia for my childhood adventures in Dungeons & Dragons, I took Elric up. I’d tried to read Robert Jordan many years earlier when someone I worked with at a bookstore told me how genuinely well-written it was. I was not impressed. Maybe I’d read it differently, but the language seemed artificially archaic and I detected no moral subtlety. I made it through 50 pages at most.

Likely, one of the things that drew me not only into but through the entire Elric series, excepting Moorcock’s more recent novels, was what immediately impressed me again this time around. Moorcock, it bears repeating, came up in a literary world of monthly magazines and fanzines. He had to engage his reader from the start unlike something drafted with the intent to occupy a minimum of three volumes. I have read, as a glance at this “blog” indicates, plenty more since in the genre, but with the possible and for me likely exception of Fritz Leiber, for straight-up page-turnability, Moorcock has no peer.

Likely, as well, I initially chose Moorcock and Elric particularly because of his reputation as a critic of Tolkein. Rereading the work, it’s impressive how, working with the concision pulp literature demands of its authors, Moorcock provides an exceptionally clear and systemic philosophical framework for the narrative. Tolkein’s son–good for him–has milked his father’s background sketches for decades now, and while some point to the volumes Tolkein wrote with no expectation of publication to sketch the backstory to The Lord of the Rings as a virtue, it strikes me as more akin to the shut-in who works, in his dingy apartment, all week preparing volumes for the one evening he will act as Dungeon Master at the Wednesday evening D & D game at the local game shop, volumes the bulk of which will never get pulled out of his backpack but which will be lovingly filed in one of the stacks on his bedroom floor. Moorcock, very much the contrary, drew up a clear sketch, thought about it to see if it worked, and then, knowing it did, got down to the business of writing something he actually wanted to see published.

One thing to note about this particular anthology is that it apparently follows the date of publication rather than the internal chronology I’d first encountered. Stormbringer, in which Elric dies, was, I now know, written quite early, with intervening stories later. The upshot is that while I expected I’d read the first portion of Elric’s story, I got the first bit and then the last. The other volumes in this series I gather fill in the rest. This is fine, but to fact is that I would rather have kept the internal chronology. Bear this in mind if you investigate the work.

As an aside, while Alan Moore‘s introductory essay displays all of the pomposity that mars his own work, I read it and felt that I’d wished he’d become a literary critic rather than a comic book writer. He fully understands both Moorcock’s literary and his social significance, and communicates both objectively and entirely clearly. Moorcock’s essay which follows Moore shows a man less impressed with his own erudition and at the same time clearly more genuinely erudite. Moorcock comes off as someone aware of his talents but much more interested in the work itself than what the work indicates about his own value as a person, an enthusiast in the best sense of the term.

Alan Moore, Saga of the Swamp Thing

I have an ambivalent relationship to Alan Moore.  On the one hand, I admire his skill immensely.  Anyone who has genuinely mastered a craft and has, further, added to it, deserves respect.  Also, I sympathize with anyone whose ambition is create a work that will earn a chosen medium the respect it deserves but is often denied.  I work in popular (often “folk,” a term I really don’t care for) music, and Moore in comics.  I fancy myself an artist, and so does Moore.  All this is great.

Scriptor asinus est.

At the same time, having taken some Latin classes when I was a schoolboy, I recognize, to take the example, Moore’s frequent use of schoolboy Latin for the smarmy pretension that it actually is.  I know that dropping Latin phrases makes a person seem well-educated, but believe me, people, if I can read it without a dictionary or Google, all it means is that Moore attended Latin class when he was a kid, and he may or may not have passed it.

I also–and at some point I want to write a piece on this–take strong issue with the elevation of Watchmen above, more or less, every comic ever written.  It was at the right place at the right time, but as a coherent critique of the fascist tendency implicit in both the superhero as a literary device and United States history writ large, it misses the mark.  No understanding of race at all in it: Moore’s America is a drama among white people.  The real America is not so narrow and never was.

So, Moore’s Swamp Thing: everything that bothered me about Moore in Watchmen, which made Promethea unreadable for me (I tried) and which seemed toned down in the British setting of V for Vendetta, all this everything is there in Swamp Thing.  Somehow, however, it’s all made tolerable by the near-total inanity of the titular character.  The Swamp Thing itself, a walking, talking plant, is such an idiotic idea that the best of Moore’s brilliance–and to be sure, he’s brilliant–can shine.

I don’t know the back story of why Moore took on the series, and I’m not inclined to research it.  I prefer to imagine, possibly correctly, that, balls swollen from Watchmen, he asked for the single worst character in the DC universe, the one every writer dreaded getting, so he could do something fantastic and prove how small minded the other writers on the staff were.  No idea if that happened, but it would be nice.

The introduction makes a big deal about the first storyline in the book, which details how any why the Swamp Thing came into being, completely ignoring Len Wein‘s original idea, which, knowing nothing about it, apparently didn’t really make a lot of sense.  I will say that Moore’s take works beautifully: it’s internally consistent, and has a veneer of scientific plausibility that makes one forget in the moment how completely unrealistic the idea of a walking, talking plant actually is.  This reader forgot, while reading it, how totally stupid the actual premise of the comic was.  That’s an achievement.

Ultimately, I like my comics less artsy than highbrow “graphic novels,” but more substantial than run-of-the-mill superhero stuff.  A guy like Jack Kirby, however, I can admire because it’s so clear how talented he was, and how thoroughly he was in control of his medium.  In general I find Moore’s position–capital “A” “Artist”–annoying at best and juvenile at worst, even if the juvenile in question would doubtless be a child prodigy.  With Swamp Thing, the character itself tones everything down a bit, and we’re left with Moore’s considerable talent and intelligence.  Go ye forth and read.

Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: the Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton

I had known of Anthony Braxton for decades, but it’s only in the past year or so that I’ve really been able to connect to his music.  Partially, this is because I have a newfound living situation in which I can listen to what I want when I want to.  Bouncing around the internet, I read a post on the man’s work that made me realize that for most of us, digging Braxton or, really any of the avant-garde so-called, is a solitary pursuit, most often on headphones.

The single, blissfully single life affords this possibility.  That’s meant that I’ve gotten back to exploring the “free jazz“–we know the label isn’t ideal–movement of the 1960’s forward.  Lots of late Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, John Carter–a lot of John Carter–and Ornette of course, though especially Skies of America.  I’d heard much more of the New York school as opposed to Chicago, so opening up to Braxton was something of a revelation: there is a lot more to this music than just “energy.”  To be clear about what we’re dealing with, here you go.  Not exactly the same quartet, but the same year and 3/4 the same personnel:

Lock followed Braxton’s quartet on its 1985 tour of Britain.  The resulting book, Forces in Motion, takes the form of tour diary interspersed with interviews, primarily of Braxton but also of each of the group’s other members, followed by three postscripts on relevant topics.  Lock has other books, and one at the library here, that are more systematic overviews of the music, but this is what it is and the relatively unvarnished text preserves a spontaneity that among other things puts Braxton in a great light.  The man may have a reputation for forbidding music, but personally he’s very engaging with an enormously sweet quality to him.  He comes off as a very, very kind individual.

The takeaway from the book is very simply that it serves as what seems to me an ideal introduction to the deep significance of Braxton’s project.  It’s, for lack of a better word, a spiritual endeavor, among other things, and though he doesn’t put it in precisely these terms Braxton is trying, through sound, to turn back the world-nonsense of these last five hundred years.  As quick as he is to draw influence from white musicians–Braxton is generous even to those, like Phil Woods, who critique him viciously–Braxton demolishes the philosophical, musical, and spiritual underpinnings of white supremacy.

I took a class once in, more or less, critical theory, and the professor really wanted us to understand and engage the ideas at hand.  She assigned a fair amount of Foucault, but mostly from Power-Knowledge, a collection of, mainly, interviews.  She noted that when Foucault just talked, he said what he meant, and it made everything easier.  The same, I can glean from the excepts from Braxton’s Tri-axium Writings, would be true of Braxton.  If you want to really get everything, read the Tri-axium Writings, just like if you really want to understand Marx, you need to read Capital.  That said, Braxton can sum things up and give a person a lot to go forward with.  The book provides this.

Michael Moorcock, The Jewel in the Skull

English fantasy and science fiction writer Mic...
A smart cookie with good politics.

I finished the Fritz Leiber book but still had not had my fill of fantasy escapism, so, walking the stacks of the sci-fi section of the library (where fantasy books are kept, not without practical reason) I came to Michael Moorcock, whose Elric books–all of the original stories, six books all told if I remember, though they have been differently anthologized since–I enjoyed immensely and who can be depended on to have some substance in his fantasy.  It’s fantasy, but certainly with Elric not crap fantasy.

Moorcock, I could say, needs no introduction, but a couple of points need to be stressed, and probably I should say that this is the first book of his that’s not about Elric that I read, so I don’t write this as a Moorcock scholar, just as a reader.  In any event, Moorcock conceived of Elric, and as I think of it it seems his larger project of the Multiverse, so-called, as a rebuttal to Tolkien, at least in part.  Moorcock’s politics, and this is the second point worth stressing, are anarchist, which we in the anti-Soviet good old-fashioned revisionist Marxist camp can hang with, for sure–and if you’re in that camp and you can’t hang with anarchists, you need to get over yourself.  Tolkien’s fantasy was the worst kind of Tory in its sensibility and, worse still, prose style.  The Shire is the Village Green without Ray Davies‘ sense of humor (or sense of melody).  The enemy is the modern industrial world, with some Saracens tossed in anachronistically, and the goal is to return the legitimate heir to the throne to his proper seat of monarchical authority.

To be sure, Tolkien’s politics continue to exercise an influence on fantasy as a genre, because what in Tolkien was plot became, in the genre, convention.  Again, my first exposure to Moorcock was Elric, and I loved it.  Elric was a bastard–temperamentally, not literally.  He did things that were not cool to do to other people.  That, plus he was a drug addict.  Things got worse still when he got that sword who–yes, the sword was intelligent–ate people’s souls, which is a way worse thing to do than anything Elric would have come up with on his own.  Less tongue in cheek, though, is that Elric starts the series firmly on the side of Chaos as opposed to Order.  This last is the key to Moorcock’s critique of Tolkien: Chaos, not Evil, Order, not Go(o)d.  Moorcock tossed out Christian morality and replaced it with Balance.  Indeed, by the end of things Elric ends up doing work for Order as the forces of Chaos threaten to overwhelm the Balance.

So, Moorcock, in addition to writing stories that are fun to read–certainly a requirement of the genre–is dealing with serious philosophical, ethical in particular, thinking, and that he does so so seamlessly, that is, without ever having to draw the reader’s conscious attention to a philosophical discussion, is what makes him such a fantastic writer.  He really is good, and is probably the writer, were I to try to convince a skeptic that fantasy books can be “literature,” that I’d point to first.

Having said all this, Hawkmoon is a much more straightforward character, at least so far (I’ve read the first two books of the series) than Elric.  That’s not to say The Jewel in the Skull is not absolutely worth reading if you’re into the stuff.  For one thing (and this is a response, not a review), it meets the fun to read requirement handily.  That’s simple enough, but there is also critique to chew on here.  I won’t rehearse the plot, but the setting is of interest.  The book takes place in the distant, post-nuclear apocalyptic Europe.  The continent is threatened by the nasty empire of Granbretan–Great Britain–with its capital, Londra.  The English are the bad guys, and the hero, Hawkmoon, is a German who ends up defending southern France.  While Britain had begun to dismantle its Empire when the book was written, it still maintained it to a great extent, and it’s significant that Moorcock, born in the first year of the Second World War–1939, not 1941–makes a Hun the good guy.  We British, he says, are the barbaric ones.

I’d note that the plot takes Hawkmoon through Eastern Europe to Western Asia, and there’s none of Tokein’s orientalist nonsense.  These are simply places with peoples and cultures in Moorcock, which is very refreshing to read in a white, British writer writing in the 1960’s, before Edward Said published his book and it became cool for white Leftists to reference it.  Very good for Moorcock.