*who has totally fucked up HIS life.
Freudian slip much?
I also want to amend that I think it’s less that Moore is COMPLICATING Blake (I think many/all of the complications are already there) and more that Moore is expanding and exploring Blake’s complications in a novelistic-literal, rather than a poetic-implicit/ironical, way.
The other, totally separate thing I wanted to say: I haven’t really thought much about the ways in which this novel is or isn’t SF/F. You talk about it more in the next post, and I more or less agree with what you say there, although I think there might be more to say. What I do want to mention here is that I disagree that fantasy is a genre that fundamentally conducts experiments in the same sense that science fiction conducts experiments. Some fantasy clearly does, especially contemporary epic fantasy and pseudo-medieval/renaissance low fantasy? Early Discworld, in its own way, as well, and probably much, though not all, of Diana Wynne Jones. But I think a lot of fantasy, especially some varieties of urban fantasy, and IMO the Earthsea Quartet, are more about myth/history-making, or speculation about the structure of the world or of imagination, or the creation of other aesthetic methods of seeing the world.* In other words, opening new kinds of dreams and visions to us, along a different axis than most experiment-based SF. I think that’s definitely true of most of the fantasy I love, and true of this book.
*I’m not sure where I think Harry Potter fits into all this.]]>
So, thank you for your bringing focus to JERUSALEM’s concerns about the decline of the Boroughs and Northampton in general. I tend to read literature as more optimistic than it is and hadn’t given them as much credence as genuine authorial concerns (as opposed to the depressive musings of the characters). But perhaps I should. To some extent, the book does function as a kind of leftist elegy for British working class life, and it would be a mistake to overlook that in favor of the visionary elements I’m about to discuss.
Here are a couple of William Blake poems that seem relevant here, although I imagine you and most people reading this may be familiar with some/all of them:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
The basic connection here should be obvious; the theme, throughout the novel, that something great is being built in England. Something perhaps less obvious: the temporal aspect. Jerusalem was builded here AMONG these dark Satanic mills. (Or was it, since it’s in the form of a question.) In other words, even when England, or Northampton, or the Boroughs, is really in trouble, in industrialization and in post-industrialized decay, THERE Jerusalem is being built. And yet not with any inevitability, necessarily. With surety, perhaps, but not without ceaseless mental fight. Hence my reading of optimism, I think.
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
How many connections can you spot here? I see: white hair (Snowy Vernall, and Ern Vernall, who at one point is described as “bleached” by his encounter with the Angel, chimney-pots, the relationship of the pastoral to the industrialized, the Angel who comes in a vision to the common workman, the vision in the night. And the last line, “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” reminds me of the following paragraph, a speech by Mrs. Gibbs the deathmonger to May Warren on (my) page 300:
“Well, I don’t know, my dear. You’re very
young. Young shoulders, though you might have
an old head. You will have after this, at any
rate. What you must understand, though, is
that you’re wrong. There isn’t any place away
from life where you can go and not be touched
by it. There’s no place where you can’t be
hurt, my dear. I’m sorry, but that’s just the
way things are. All you can do is find
yourself a spot that you can look at life’s
turmoil from, the babies born and old men
passed away. Take a position close to death
and birth, but far enough away to have a view,
so you can better understand them both. By
understanding, you can lose your fear, and
without fear the hurt’s not half so bad.
That’s all deathmongers do. That’s what we
Moore seems, here as elsewhere, to be complicating Blake’s visionary writing even as he affirms its core thrust. If you do your duty (here, as a deathmonger), you need never FEAR harm. But you will still FEEL harm. Similarly, the catastrophic, deranging effects of the visionary on everyday life are emphasized again and again, throughout the Vernall family tree. The danger of the transits of angels. Not that this is a reproach missing in Blake himself, the writer not only of Songs of Innocence but also of Songs of Experience. See his other Chimney Sweeper poem from the latter volume: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43653. I feel certain that there is sooo much more I’m missing here because of my basically limited knowledge of English poetry. Obviously the repeated references to John Clare, the low-class frequently-pastoral poet who ended up in a madhouse, in “Atlantis” — with that chapter’s rather Blakean adoration and critique of the pastoral.
In thinking about, say, Alma’s reaction to Mick’s vision, I was also reminded of Moore’s interest in ritual magic and the works of Alistair Crowley. I don’t have a whole lot to say on this subject, because I’ve only read a very little bit, but the idea of opening oneself to vision and to prophecy seems straight out of Crowley. Compare the chapter title “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey,” in which a visionary madman attends the birth of his child while standing on a rooftop, and uses two doorknobs to arguably cast a ritual spell on them, with the Crowleyan dictum that “Do What Thou Wilt shall be the whole of the law.” [Source for wording: Wikipedia.] (And the later Wiccan adaptation of this, the so-called Wiccan Rede: “Do as thou wilt, __an it harm none.__” [Emphasis added.]) What does vision offer, and whom does vision harm?
So many of the men, especially Vernalls, are narcissistic visionaries, or narcissistic would-be visionaries, in this book. And yet the dutiful women seem to love them anyway. (Gender note: Alma, the one truly visionary woman I’ve noticed [not counting Thursa, who is limited to weird music], is continuously described as being not-quite-a-woman. Sexism, certainly, and also shades of the gender distinctions outlined in, say, Ursula Le Guin’s TEHANU, the belated fourth book in the Earthsea Quartet. Which book I have always found somewhat hard to parse from a feminist perspective. Or, indeed, in Pratchett, with his witches and wizards. Except that he is more skeptical than Moore of the male/visionary side of that binary.)
I was particularly upset reading “ATLANTIS,” about the would-be-visionary/poetical, narcissistic man who has totally fucked up my life. I think I’m very afraid of ending up like that — not as a failed poet, that’s just life, but as a failure to the people in my life (AND a non-practicing poet, if I’m being honest). I have a decent streak, and a very egotistical streak. It’s one of the reasons I don’t ever intend to touch alcohol, because if I did I don’t think I could keep the latter in check. Snowy has a decent streak, too. Benedict’s is mighty atrophied. I wonder whether Moore is afraid of ending up like these men. Or whether he embraces vision as equal in importance to duty.]]>
Hey Lark, so. I’ve been reading through your read-a-longs today and I’ve been wanting to mention NEVERWHERE. Since you’re talking about AMERICAN GODS, this seems to be the right post to comment on. NEVERWHERE, in case you haven’t read it, is another Neil Gaiman book, in which a boring man with an office job stumbles into a mysterious netherworld where all the dregs of London’s history are still alive. Sort of. So, clearly relevant here. In particular, I was thinking about NEVERWHERE while reading “Rough Sleepers,” which I think is by far the most “yep, this is definitely a novel with the supernatural (and not just weirdly serendipitous insanity)” chapter. In Neverwhere, there’s the idea of London Underground (a play on The London Underground, the metro system there), or London Below versus London Above. People from London Above (mundane London) mostly can’t see, or notice, the denizens of London Below, which has its own fiefdoms and districts, its own noble families and alliances, some, but not all, literally below the city. (Some denizens of London Below live on the rooftops, for example, or in the alleys.) In Jerusalem, too, history is mapped along an axis that is technically not height (“depth” when seen from above) but feels a lot like it: there is justice above the street, and Freddy goes UP to watch the angel’s billiards game — but, also, he’s described as “digging” back in time to Georgie Bumble’s office. That said, Moore seems to be a little more circumspect about identifying time with height/depth; he thinks of time more as layers, which could be layers of paint on a vertical wall, or archaeological layers, as in Gaiman. Like in Gaiman’s novel, Moore’s supernatural denizens of the hidden Boroughs are strongly linked with the homeless — “rough sleepers” — and, before we understand that Freddy and some of his acquaintances are ghosts, we see the barmaid serving them in a pub but barely noticing them, which is a moment straight out of NEVERWHERE. “The barmaid moved that fast that she was like a blur, not paying them the least bit of attention. That was how it was for ones like him and Mary Jane, for the rough sleepers. People hardly knew you were there. They just looked through you.” This is, I understand, a thing that people living on the streets genuinely often experience, but it’s also applicable to ghosts.
Anyway, what I wanted to say — and, if you haven’t read NEVERWHERE, this comparison probably works almost as well for AMERICAN GODS — Gaiman has a habit of conjuring up a deep past embedded in the present without, to my mind, a sense of the middle past through which it came. A very valid criticism has often been made in social justice circles that Gaiman somehow has Egyptian gods in AMERICAN GODS — but no Native American ones (if I remember aright). Gaiman’s past-related worldbuilding seems a little like that of Wicca, with its insistence on a direct line of tradition from the ancient to the contemporary (without fully explaining its passage through the Renaissance and the Modern) and its often somewhat-oversimplified-and-essentialized pantheons. Moore’s world seems overpoweringly and perhaps uncomfortably oriented towards a sort of abstracted or big-idea Christianity, as, probably, befits his source material. But he is certainly not guilty of skipping straight from the distant past to the immediate present for aesthetic effect. His thing seems to be continuity, all the way. And, similarly, I think Moore has much less of a tendency to aestheticize instead of investigating subjectivity. Which, frankly, is my biggest problem with Gaiman. This feels to me kind of like a grown-up NEVERWHERE, to be honest.]]>
MIT Technology Review article]]>