Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Game of Thrones and the Difficulty of Being Clever

Of all the complaints about the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, the one that resonates with me most is: why did the clever characters get so stupid?

One of the distinctive things about George Martin's world was the prominence of clever schemers. Much of the action in the books was dominated, not by the big guys with swords, but by backstage operators like Littlefinger and Varys the Spider. Even Tywin Lannister seemed to accomplish more by treachery than battle. When Robb Stark was a successful fighter it was by trickery as much as by courage. The best character was the smartest, the dwarf Tryion.

Once the TV show outran the books, all that fell away. Jon Snow's apparent imbecility has become a meme, and after Tryion went two whole seasons without having a single good idea the other characters started mocking him for it. Which was amusing, but a poor substitute for characters actually doing smart, interesting things.

Various writers have offered theories online about why the showrunners "abandoned the smart characters," you know, something about giving up on plot and just going to dragons and fireballs and other easy stunts.

The real reason, I think, that the show stopped having clever tricks or brilliant stratagems is that the writers couldn't think of any. It is hard to come up with clever plots or stunning battlefield maneuvers. A brilliantly sinister ploy like the one Littlefinger nearly pulled off is just hard to imagine; of all the fantasy authors I have ever read, none have close to Martin in this department. As commenter Observer29830 put it on Youtube:
First rule of writing fiction: You cannot write a character that is smarter than yourself. And the authors of the last season are not particularly stellar.
(Not that the Game of Thrones writers are unique in this; their battles are works of genius compared to the Imperial Bungling at Hoth.)

As I have watched the final season with my children I have continually pointed out better strategies all the commanders could have used in battle, to the point that my children have started to telling me to write my own damn series.


Lund Cathedral

Lund Cathedral in Sweden is a quite nice Romanesque work, construction begun in 1104. Much of the twelfth-century fabric survives, too, although the upper works had to be rebuilt after a major fire in 1234.

The towers have changed shape over the years; the current form dates to the nineteenth century.

Some nicely weird sculpture.

And a downright Byzantine-looking mosaic in the apse. Maybe somebody involved had been in Constantinople as part of the Varangian Guard?

Lots of fifteenth-century woodwork on the interior, including this bear.

This impressive clock, completed around 1380, is one of the dozen oldest in the world. It has a name –  Horologium mirabile Lundense, the Wonderful Clock of Lund – and its own wikipedia article.

But what inspired me to write about Lund was this drawing of the North tympanum. Who is that in the middle?

The first thing that occurred to me was Hel (Norse goddess of death and sorcery) and her demon brood. On the other hand it looks like she might be wrestling that dragon instead of nurturing it, and if this were a pagan image on a medieval cathedral, wouldn't the neopagans be all over it? Which they're not, at least not so far as I can discover.

So is this maybe some dragon battling saint, like Margaret of Antioch? If so, why would somebody have carved Margaret of Antioch onto a Swedish cathedral in the 13th century?

And why can't I find a single discussion of this sculpture online in English or German? A mystery.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Game of Thrones and the Nazi Punching Problem

More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the last season of Game of Thrones be remade. I am not really sure what they are mad about. Yes, it was badly rushed and some parts felt phoned it, but at least Weiss and Benioff managed to finish this gigantic story, which is more than George Martin will ever do.

I suspect that people are really just mad that the ending didn't come out like they wanted. Case in point is how many people are furious about the treatment of the dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen. The end of the series revealed her as a dangerous, violent megalomaniac, and thousands complained that this was simply not justified by her character arc. "You don't get to do this!" someone wailed on Slate. "You didn't do the work!"

Every time I read this I think, you obviously don't know what dangerous, violent megalomania looks like.

It does not look – most of the time, anyway – like people storming around being bad for the sake of badness. It looks like people fooling themselves into believing that all of their actions are justified, all of their enemies are evil, and all of their victims deserve it.

Like, in other words, Daenerys Targaryen. Daenerys kills thousands over the course of her rise to power. Most of them, it is true, are either bad people or soldiers in the pay of bad people. But really no person with a conscience should revel in killing, and you should be intensely suspicious of anybody who does. In one famous scene, Daenerys makes a deal with a slave master, trading one of her dragons for an army of slave soldiers. Then she has her new army kill the slaver's men and orders the dragon – which, despite being sold, is still loyal to her – to burn him alive. Cue cheering.

This brings me to what I call the Nazi Punching Problem. Millions of Americans cheered when some guy walked up to Richard Spencer on the street and punched him in the face, then laughed when establishment fuddy-duddies like me said, you know, there are reasons why we don't encourage punching our political opponents in the face. But there are. Civilization doesn't depend everybody being good all the time; that's impossible, Civilization depends on people following the rules. Because if we throw the rules out, it won't be the good people who win, it will be the powerful, the rich, and the ones with the biggest guns.

There are reasons why we don't encourage people who have made deals with wicked people to then double cross them and burn them alive.

This is of course a very broad problem with our popular culture and has been for thousands of years. We love stories in which the good guys throw out the rules and gun down the bad guys in cold blood, in which bold rebels smash the system so the world can be rebuilt in a more pure and beautiful way.

But George Martin, devotee of sado-masochism at a disturbing level, is a deep student of the darkness that lurks in all of our hearts. He constructed Daenerys as a modern revolutionary messiah: a survivor of horrible abuse, a hater of injustice, a liberator of slaves, a slayer of tyrants. He well understands how these things tug at our hears. But for the very reason they appeal to us so strongly, they are supremely dangerous.

Game of Thrones ends with a parable about violence and utopia like the ones written by so many liberals in 1945. If you believe that you are working for paradise, then surely it is worth burning a few cities to get there? Daenerys believes she is fated to lead the world to paradise. That makes her the most dangerous kind of person, but also in a certain way the most appealing. If we had faith, would we not follow her? If we do not believe in the future she promises, what do we believe in? If we do not believe that burning cities may somehow  lead us to a better future, then why do cities keep burning?

Contrast her with the story's other transcendent star, singled out by fate for greatness: Jon Snow. Jon has been mocked for years by fans (including me) for his constant brooding, his reluctance to find joy in life, and his indecision at crucial moments. But really this is because he, unlike Daenerys, cannot escape the consequences of what he does. Born into an aristocratic family in the violent borderlands of a violent age, he cannot escape becoming a soldier. Indeed he has a natural gift for it and is soon celebrated as both a great warrior and a great leader of men. But he cannot forget all those he kills, and all his followers who die. Eventually he ends up in a sort of civil war and has to kill many of his former friends. This wounds him nearly to death. And this makes him, as the story shows, a questionable choice for leadership in violent times. He at least is convinced that he would be a terrible king. But if the Jon Snows of the world are too sad and indecisive for leadership, and the Daenerys Targaryens are too dangerous, where does that leave us?

Mired in the ordinary. Where life, outside stories, is lived.

It the problem were just a few street brawls with Nazis, then our fondness for bold rule breaking would hardly be a big deal. But the desire to "break the wheel," as Game of Thrones puts it, is close to universal and has led to far, far worse. It has been the battle cry of every modern revolutionary. It inspired George W. Bush and the people around him to invade Iraq, sure that if they overthrew Saddam something far better would rise from the rubble. At the dark end it inspired Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to genocide.

From the wreckage of World War II and the terror of the Cold War we should have learned this: killing and burning are not the way to a better future. Smashing our enemies, either with bombs or our fists, is not the way. If the modern dream is true, if our science and our machines and our devotion to freedom can truly make a better world for us, then it will come gradually and painfully, or it will not come at all. If a messiah arises who promises to smash the wicked and create a better world all at once, walk swiftly in the other direction.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Edward Gorey: Serial Lives

Reading Mark Dery's Born to be Posthumus: the Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey (2018), I was struck by how greatly Gorey changed his appearance and persona during different phases of his life.

After he graduated from Harvard in 1950 Gorey hung around Cambridge and attached himself to the Poet's Theater. In the mid twentieth century there was a vogue for plays in verse; among others, Yeats, Auden, and T.S. Elliott wrote verse dramas. The Poet's Theater was a low-budget space devoted to these plays, a real insider clique whose board of directors included Archibald Macleish, Richard Wilbur, Thornton Wilder, and William Carlos Williams. Gorey threw himself into working for the theater in whatever way he could: set design, creating hand bills, even lettering the tickets. This was a counter-culture but a very academic one, full of tweed jackets, and Gorey blended in.

In 1958 Gorey got a job designing book covers for a New York publisher and moved to Manhattan, embarking on a real New York life. He lived in a tiny apartment where he never cooked, eating every meal out. He became a fanatic for the ballet, attending almost every performance of Balanchine's New York City Ballet. One nights when there was no ballet he often attended a film society that screened silents and other offbeat classics. Gorey began exploring the gay scene and developed the flamboyant persona for which he was long known: floor length fur coats, some of them dyed shocking colors; showy rings on numerous fingers; gaudy necklaces; and on his feet, white Keds (as shown in the photograph above, taken at the ballet). His manner of speaking was high pitched and affected, with lots of sighs and gestures. He seemed flamboyantly gay, although he denied being interested in any sort of sex. It was during this phase that Gorey wrote the little books that made him famous, and people regularly asked him about his persona. Was it a put on? Or was he really just like that? He mostly dodged the question but a few times gave an answer like, "It's a total put on, which makes it my true self."

Then in 1985, at the age of 60, Gorey left New York and never went back. He moved to Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod and lived in a small frame house. The fur coats and gaudy jewelry disappeared, and he stopped going to the ballet. Instead of Manhattan restaurants he began eating all his meals at a small town diner. In New York Gorey had never owned a television, but on the Cape he bought one and became a fan of shows like the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He gradually stopped writing books, much to the dismay of his fans, and threw his energy into offbeat local theater. He wrote little plays in verse like the ones he had helped put on back in Cambridge with the Poet's Theater.

It makes me wonder how many people around me are playing parts that they will one day discard. I suspect that not many are; it takes a lot of energy to create such a role and sustain it for years. But I do wonder.

May Garden

Saturday, May 18, 2019


I've just watched the first two episodes of HBO's Chernobyl and I have never seen anything more gripping on television. Amazing.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Aaron Westerberg, "Transition in Rose"

2011. Many more at his web site.

Corruption and Voter Loyalty

Here's an interesting little tidbit about how democracy actually works, from Ann Pettifor's TLS review of Nicholas Shaxson's The Financial Curse. Shaxson has a whole chapter about Charles Haughey, probably the most important Irish politician of the 1970s and 1980s, who never held any job but elected office yet somehow died with a mansion on a large estate near Dublin, a huge yacht, an art collection and a stable of racehorses. Establishment types called him and his associates "gombeen men," which translates to "shysters" or maybe just "crooks."
By shining a light on Haughey's popularity with his voters, Shaxson illuminates an aspect of crookery well known to anyone who has worked for any length of time in Nigeria, or in Berlusconi's Italy or Donald Trump's America: "a taint of corruption can sometimes help politicians." Fintan O'Toole of the Irish Times explains: "As a reaction to the idea of faceless, fluid forces shaping one's destiny, an extreme of local loyalty and of personal intimacy is an act of defiance against Them – whoever They are. Doing the last thing you're supposed to do may be the final assertion of power against a feeling of powerlessness. The real wonder was not that the fraudsters got elected but that more politicians did not claim to be crooks in order to get elected."
Loyalty, you know, is nothing great if you are only loyal when your friends do the right thing. But loyalty given despite high crimes or monstrous sins is, for some people, something much more powerful.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What Readers Put in Books

When Tyler Cowen interviewed Margaret Atwood last month, someone in the audience of course asked her what she thought of the Hulu Handmaid's Tale. Unfortunately the transcript doesn't cover the question and answer period, so I'm working from memory here. The questioner said she didn't like the TV show because it changed too much, for example, they use the main character's name, which does not appear in the book. Atwood said that the name they use was arrived at by noting that of all the names mentioned in the opening scene, only one never appears again; which, she said, never occurred to her, but it's in the book so she didn't mind. The questioner said, I hated that because I thought the whole point was that she was denied her name. Atwood said, "That isn't in the book, it's something the readers put there."

This made me wonder; does this happen with every book that has a community of devoted readers? What have we read into Lord of the Rings, or the Foundation trilogy?

I suppose a more serious example is all the stuff people claim to have read in the Bible, which others deny, like the Trinity.

Anyway this just set me thinking about the relationship between a community of readers and a book, and how it is changed by the people who love it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Edward Gorey: Originality and Influence

I have been a lover of Edward Gorey's books since I first discovered them as an alienated teenager, and I have more recently been fascinated by the glimpses of his life I gleaned from magazine articles and the like. So I eagerly snatched the new Gorey biography away from my elder daughter when she checked it out of the library, and I just finished it today. Mark Dery's Born to be Posthumous: the Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey (2018) is a fine book with some lovely writing, a serious attempt to come to terms with a man whose art baffled millions, and whose best friends said that they never really felt that they knew him. In fact I have so much to say about Gorey and this book that my thoughts are going to spread over a series of posts.

Gorey's art was always at least as much about what was not said and not shown as anything on the page. Dery explains:
Graphic violence is the exception in Gorey's stories. He embraced an aesthetic of knowing glances furtively exchanged or of eyes averted altogether; of banal objects that, as clues at the scene of a crime, suddenly phosphoresce with meaning; of empty rooms noisy with psychic echoes, reverberations of things that happened there, which the house remembers even if its residents do not; of rustlings in the corridor late at night and conspiratorial whispers behind cocktail napkins – an aesthetic of the inscrutable, the ambiguous, the evasive, the oblique, the insinuated, the understated, the unspoken.

Gorey believed that the deepest, most mysterious things in life are ineffable, too slippery for the crude snares of work or image. To manage the Zen-like-trick of expressing the inexpressible, he suggests, we must use poetry or, better, yet silence (and its visual equivalent empty space) to step outside language or to allude to a world beyond it. with sinister tact, he leaves the gory details to our imaginations. For Gorey, discretion is the better port of horror. (12-13)
This reticence extended beyond the books. As he ascended to fame Gorey was bullied by his publishers into numerous interviews and even one appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, but he never enjoyed it. Gorey hated to be asked about his work and refused to ever explain himself, developing a repertoire of non-answers he could employ. He once advised an artist friend,  "Always be circumspect. Disdain explanation." (19) He also hated to talk about his family or his past or anything that might feed into psychobiography:
When asked what he was like as a child, Gorey replied, "Small." (21)
The most impressive part of Dery's book is his very thorough investigation of the sources of Gorey's style. I have always thought of Gorey as a great original, indeed as one of the most original artists of my lifetime. Whatever you think of Gorey's work, it isn't like anything else. Gorey worked at this and was always determined to be an artist in his own way. He never saw himself as part of any movement or artistic group, and he usually refused to compare himself to other artists. Dery sees Gorey's refusal to talk about being gay – which he seems to have been, in a very complicated way – as part of this refusal to be pigeonholed. He had no interest in being seen as a "gay artist" and mocked the idea of an anthology of gay writers, at a time and place (New York in the 1970s) when gay consciousness was on the rise and many of his friends were very caught up in the movement.

And yet Gorey, like every other artist, worked within the parameters set by his tradition and found sources of inspiration in art of the past. He had something of a photographic memory and his drawings are full of little quotations from a wide range of imagery: classics of Edwardian illustration like the work of Oliver Rackham, painters like Manet and Hopper, and especially silent film. Gorey was a great lover of silent movies and his drawings include several images that might have been traced from stills of his favorite films. Almost all of Gorey's work seems to be set in a late Victorian-Edwardian-Roaring Twenties milieu, and the ease with which he recreated the past owes much to his encyclopedic knowledge of art from those eras. The illustrations in this post come from one of my favorite Gorey books, The Willowdale Handcar (1962); is there any image more instantly evocative of the silent film era than someone pumping a handcar down the railroad tracks?

Gorey's broader sensibility, his deadpan horror and elided disasters, draws on other trends. Maurice Sendak was an acquaintance, and some of Gorey's work fits into the movement to create children's books that capture the violent, frightening imaginary worlds within which many children live. (Yes, some of Gorey's books were marketed as children's literature, especially in the 1960s, before he acquired his cult following among adults.) Even more Gorey was influenced by the Surrealists. He was familiar not just with the famous painters but the whole movement: poets, essayists, and of course filmmakers. Once when Gorey was asked why "stark violence and horror and terror were the uncompromising focus of his work," he gave a perfect Surrealist answer: "I write about everyday life." (33)

The most extended discussion of his approach to art that Dery was able to find explicitly references the Surrealists:
What appeals to me most is an idea expressed by Eluard. He has a line about there being another world, but it's in this one. And Raymond Queneau said the world is not what it seems — but it isn't anything else, either. Those two ideas are the bedrock of my approach. (49)
Originality does not mean throwing out the past; it means learning the past thoroughly enough to twist it to your own ends. At this Gorey was a master. His works evoke many things, from famous nineteenth-century paintings to B horror movies, and they owe much of their power to those evocations. But they are very much his own.

One more wonderful detail from Dery's book. When Gorey died in 2000 his fame was such that obituaries were printed all over the world. The one from Reuters includes a line that might have come from one of Gorey's own books:
It is not known if there are any survivors

4th-Century Coin Hoard Unearthed in England

The hoard, found by metal detectorists, contained more than 3,000 copper alloy coins.

It was buried within this stone-lined pit, which makes it look like a ritual offering rather than a treasure hidden for later. These days many people are fascinated with the rational side of Roman life, the Stoics and Marcus Aurelius and all, but cults of Cthonic gods appeased with gold and blood were also part of that world.

Via The History Blog.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, Barcelona

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia is a magnificent example of a "living" cathedral that evolved over the centuries into the form we see today.

Saint Eulalia, so the stories say, was a girl who lived in Barcelona during the Diocletian persecution of AD 303-311. She naively went to the governor of the province to protest the killings of Christians and was for her trouble tortured in inventive ways and then crucified. A body identified as hers was kept in this crypt by the 6th century; her tomb was built in the 14th century.

There was a large cathedral here by 599, when a church council whose records survive met there. That building had presumably fallen into disrepair by 1046, when Count Ramon Berenguer I and his wife Almodis began building a new one. In 1298 King James II the Just began building a new, Gothic cathedral on the site, but sources disagree on what  happend to the old one. A document cited by Catalan wikipedia says this was an "extension and enlargement" of the old Cathedral and was done gradually, one section at a time, but I'm not sure how that squares with the fact that 1) the new cathedral was much larger than the old, and 2) little or none of the Romanesque stonework seems to survive above ground.

The church was mostly built by 1448, but the main facade was fairly simple by Gothic standards, as you can see in the 1850 drawing above. A 15th-century plan survives that called for adding three towers. The towers were not actually completed until 1895-1913, when a local business magnate named  Miguel Girona i Agrafel offered to pay for the construction himself.

Door by Michael Lochner, c. 1480.

Much was added to the interior during Spain's glory days of the 16th and 17th centuries. These choir stalls, carved with the symbols of the Order of the Golden Fleece, were installed for the investiture of Emperor Charles V as Count of Barcelona in the 1519.

The Christ of Lepanto commemorates the great naval victory of Spain and Venice over the Turks in 1571. Local legend has it that the crucifix went into battle on the prow of a ship and ended up curved because Christ dodged out of the way of a Turkish canon ball.

Altar of Mary of the Rosebush, clad in American gold, 17th century.

Two carvings of warriors battling Griffins. No idea why.


The attached cloister now contains a lovely garden.

Two splendid photographs by Buiron Christophe, which got me started on this post.

Knausgård on Literary Freedom

Another passage from Tyler Cowen's interview with Karl Ove Knausgård, which I loved. Highly recommended for anyone interested in modern literature or the writer's life:
KNAUSGÅRD: What I’m struggling for in my writing is what I call literary freedom, and it’s a space where I can be free in every sense, where I can say whatever, go wherever I want to. And for me, literature is almost the only place you could think that that is a possibility.

My fear is that that space has come closing down on you. You’re closing it down yourself and becoming more afraid for what you’re saying. “Can I say this? Can I do this?” And this power is also strong, you know? It’s so hard to go somewhere you know this is wrong, or this is . . .

I did it with My Struggle because I wrote about my family, and I knew, of course, I shouldn’t do this, and really it is immoral to do this. And then I did it because I wanted to say what I wanted to say, and I wanted to be free to talk about, to write about my own life in a complete and in a free way.

That’s also why I admire writers like Peter Handke. He had the Yugoslavia controversy around him, and you have a lot of controversies around him. But what he does is, he’s there. He’s hardcore, saying what he thinks and stands for it, no matter how ugly it looks from the outside. And that’s what you can do in literature and no other place, I think.

This is an internal struggle in every writer, I think. And it goes in almost all levels of society. I find it hardest to go into the private places that belong to my family and my life, but you have all the political topics. You have a lot of things you can think of. But it’s good that it’s a struggle, and it’s good that there’s an arena where we can have these fights.

But the notion that literature should be good in a moral sense — that I find ridiculous. That’s useless.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Monsters and Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s

Went with my elder daughter this week to see Monsters and  Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's an excellent exhibit, starting off with one of the most famous Salvador Dali paintings (above) and going on to many fine works by Miro, Magritte, Ernst, and more.

Surrealists were much taken with Freudian psychology and its emphasis on dreams and the subconscious, and it shows in their work. (Wolfgang Paalen, Totemic Landscape, 1937)

Surrealism was an actual "movement", with a manifesto and everything, created by a community of artists (painters, poets, film makers) in Paris. They mounted exhibits together and published magazines where they showcased their work and their views. (René Magritte, cover for the surrealist magazine Le Minotaure, 1937.)

The Surrealists did not agree on everything but they did mostly agree that their bizarre art was a response to the sick age they lived in. After the horrors of World War I the world did not turn away from war, but instead seemed to be barreling back toward it. Some Surrealists were political in a leftist way, but others were disgusted with the failure of every sort of politics. (Miro, Red and Black Etchings, No. 7)

Accused of turning away from reality, they said, no, our broken bodies and shredded dreamscapes are closer to what life is like in this time than any sort of "realism."

After the Nazis came to power many Surrealists fled Europe, which led to the creation of thriving Surrealist scenes in Mexico and the United States. Some of them kept working in this vein for decades, but in the 1950s their work faded from prominence, replaced by various abstract movements. (Andre Masson, Metaphysical Wall, 1940; and below another Masson, The Moon, 1938.