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misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Jerusalem, Post 3

HRSFANS Book Club – read-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.


This post has GUARANTEED 0, ABSOLUTELY NONE plot spoilers.

It has ridiculously hand-wavingly vague, I wouldn’t count it but maybe Kevin would concept/perspective spoilers.


NEW PROPOSAL for shorter version of the read

I propose that the official Book Club plan for February 6, 2017 meeting be to discuss Jerusalem‘s “Book One—The Boroughs”: the first third of the book. (Of course, if you don’t manage all of that, it’s also still fine to come! Book Club realized long ago that we can have good Book Club meetings whether or not people liked the book, and I think this also counts for whether or not people have finished the book!)

This book is long and dense enough that, considering other commitments, I’d have a lot of trouble finishing it by a month from now. The few people I’ve talked to who are also reading it are not yet so far along as me. So perhaps realism is the better part of valor.

“Book One” alone will presumably leave us hanging as to the main plot, but, seriously, this is not a plot-driven book. Let me say that again: this is a seriously not plot-driven book. It’s like Citizen Kane, which is less a story than a character study. Jerusalem is less a story than an set of character studies, linked to add up to a portrait of a place and a way of life.

Like the density of the writing, this may make Jerusalem pretty annoying for people who like their novels comprehensible. (Though I hope some of these people will try it out, then come to complain, anyhow: see above—Book Club is good with or without love of the book!) Also, it’ll mean we get more than usual chance to speculate on what the heck is supposed to be going on in general.

My husband’s told me that I’m really not making this book sound inviting in these posts. Well, what can I say? I was surprised that more people showed interest in reading Jerusalem: I had suggested it because I wanted the support of more readers for a task that was looking kind of daunting to me. I agreed to write about the reading experience—and that feels daunting, too—as a sort of giving back to those people who are also reading.

So thank you for reading this, and thank you for reading Jerusalem. And please come to HRSFANS Book Club meeting February 6, 2017, to help us all.

Is it SF/F?

Is Jerusalem a work of science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction?

Books that seem on the borders of genre, or beyond it, come up every now and then at Book Club, like River of No Return and Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore. (In the former case, the overall consensus was “maybe,” in the latter “no.”) I say science fiction uses technology as a vehicle for exploring aspects of humanity: “Given people being people, what about if …” I’m not sure what I’d use as a definition for fantasy: probably something similar, but using some set of outside-lived-experience-realistic tropes rather than using technology. very much welcome better definitions in comments.

So I’d say Jerusalem is not SF/F. There’s some things going on that are outside of what we can experience in average everyday life, but those aren’t being used to advance a plot or an argument or an understanding, so far as I can see.

Preserve a fragment of the life

Quotes, from “Atlantis,” perspective character Benedict:

On recently refurbished crab-paste brickwork were the words or possibly single word NEWLIFE, a sideways silver logo, more a label for a mobile phone or for an everlasting battery than for a tower [apartment] block, he’d have thought. Benedict winced, attempting not to look at it. For the most part, he found it comforting to still reside in the beloved neighbourhood, except for those occasions when you noticed that the loved one had been dead for thirty years and was now decomposing. Then you felt a bit like someone form an item out of Fortean Times, one of those lovelorn and demented widowers still plumping up the pillows for a bride who’s long since mummified. Newlife: urban regeneration that the’d had to literally spell out because of its conspicuous absence otherwise. As if just bolting up the mirror-finish letters made it so. What had been wrong with all the old life, anyway?

And this:

He’d always felt that he could talk to Lily, although looking back it pained him to admit that most of what he’d talked was drunken rubbish. That was largely what had finished it between the two of them. It was the drink and, if he were entirely honest, it was Ben’s insistence that the rules in his relationship with Lily be those that had suited his own parents, Jem and Eileen, thirty years before, particularly those that suited Jem. Back then Ben hadn’t really taken in that everything was changing, not just streets and neighborhoods but people’s attitudes; what people would put up with. He’d though that at least in his own home he could preserve a fragment of the life he’d known right here in Freeschool Street, where wives would tolerate constant inebriation in their husbands and consider themselves blessed if they’d a man who didn’t hit them. He’d pretended that the world was still that way, and he’d been stunned right to the core of him when Lily took the kids and demonstrated that it wasn’t.

About that place and that way of life, which it seems Jerusalem is designed to evoke: they’re in bad shape. They’ve been in bad shape for some time: by some counts, they’ve been declining for centuries. I don’t know whether Northampton is a known place to Englishmen and Englishwomen. There’s reference in the text to it not being known, rather unaccountably so, and quite unlike how a similar place would be talked up in America. Which leads me to: both my parents grew up in Flint, Michigan. I’ve never lived there, but the city’s always still been my family’s center of gravity, and I’ve heard all my life about the pain from the city’s decline, witnessed from inside and out.

There is something living about the innumerable people, resources, animals, ideas, ambitions, projects, and so forth that converge, then weave and dance and brawl, to create a city, and the livingness of a city can resemble a lifeform in ways more than just metaphorical (if I’m remembering correctly from Steven Johnson‘s Where Good Ideas Come From, the same back-of-a-napkin formula for the total length of veins in a human can also be used to estimate the total length of water pipes in a city — and by the way, if I’m remembering correctly, Johnson explains why that isn’t as trivial as it sounds). So there is something tragic about the death of a city, as for a person.

And there is also something tragic about a person who has the lifestyle he was led to expect ripped away from him by the arc of history. Do I think it would be good for anyone if more modern marriages conformed to that of Benedict’s parents? No. But I don’t blame Benedict for thinking what he grew up with was normal, or for assuming that what he’d seen growing up would suit him. (McNorris opening Boomtown Season 2 episode 2 is an amazing exposition of this.)

There are a lot of angry people in my country now. Some of them are angry and frightened, and very sad, because they feel like their lifestyle has been taken away over the past several decades, or because they fear a sudden apparent change in society’s course will lead to their lifestyle being taken away over the next several decades. They’re in pain. Whether or not the pain, or the changes that precipitate it, could be or should be avoided, it’s worth acknowledging people are scared and hurting, for reasons including (if certainly not limited to) that you should expect them to lash out.

And this year Britain’s been through its own unexpected change in course, in large part due to similar fear and anger.

3 comments

3 Comments so far

  1. Robbie Eginton February 12th, 2017 10:08 pm

    SPOILERS FOR “THE BREEZE THAT PLUCKS HER APRON” and “DO AS YOU DARN WELL PLEASEY” AND MINOR ONES FOR “ATLANTIS”

    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.

    Another:

    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
    are.”

    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.

  2. Robbie Eginton February 12th, 2017 10:33 pm

    NO SPOILERS IN THIS ONE

    *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.

  3. Jinnayah February 13th, 2017 9:55 am

    Thank you SO MUCH for adding your “complications” – that’s really valuable. I’m JUST ABOUT to start my workday but definitely want to do a closer read on the second of the Blake poems you copied before 9pm tonight. As I wrote in the very first introductory post, I was hoping to read Blake’s Jerusalem along with this, but TOTALLY didn’t manage that, and had no real prior knowledge of his poetry. I can say, though, just as an interesting tidbit, that the text of the Anglican hymn “Jerusalem,” the first poem you quote here, is slightly confusingly from Blake’s Milton, NOT from his Jerusalem.

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