Fear and Loathing in Utopia

A reader’s notes on the Culture

Discussed in this essay:
  • Iain Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987), Use of Weapons (1990), et. al.
  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
  • John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
  • Ursula K LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973)

I. Authority

In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
— George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Despite his self-proclaimed socialism, Orwell seems to have been of that particular breed of Englishman who fundamentally and fiercely distrusts the non-hierarchical, the egalitarian, anything that lies outside the rigid structure of the Estates of the Realm (after all, socialists are often statists, too). I reckon he would have been truly aghast at the Culture novels, which makes it all the funnier that the books were written by a fellow Briton, albeit one from the other side of the wall. (There’s probably something in the water around Scotland – besides nuclear weapons – or the air that flows freely over the heaths and the highlands, that makes them rather more willing to accept loose-knit and non-authoritatian communities.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ham-handedly reactionary as Welcome to the Monkey House in many places, what with it’s fear of the careful use of language for maximum meaning and minimum cruelty1 (“fairness” and “government” apparently being the scariest things that either Vonnegut or Orwell could contenance in their later years; but then, they were both soldiers of their respective empires,2 and probably thought of themselves as liberal enough.3

Iain Banks is much more progressive, and self-conciously so. He’s constructed as near a perfect utopia as he can imagine (we’ll deal with the limits of his imagination later) and is worth writing about for the sake of interesting novels. But then, he started writing the Culture novels in 1970s – although the first in the series, Consider Phlebas wasn’t published until 1987.4 Where Vonnegut and Orwell saw the encroachment of collectivism and reeled in fear of sterile bureaucracy and enforced communal order, Banks saw the divying up of functional society into saleable parcels to be put at the mercy of some bizarre invisible hand called “the Market”. And continued to see that accelerate, even after the Labour Party came to power in the 1990s.56

So in that sense the Culture is a perfect blend of the “fruit-juice drinker and Quakers” set7 and the William Wallace types. I can’t help but think of some Platonic ideal of bucolic self-reliance: “fuck you, we’re out here in the woods doing our own thing. We have everything we need, and your cities smell bad and those things you call ‘jobs’ suck.”8 Fair enough. Except that these humans aren’t self-reliant. In the beginning of the Culture, the Humans created the Machines in their own image, and somehow, despite the infinite complexity of the task, saw that It Was Good. Ever since then, they’ve lived a mollycoddled existence at the Machines’ (somehow genuine and unwavering) pleasure. But the machines are much more powerful than the humans (intellectually, physically, even morally), and this means that in truth, the machines have all of the power. They literally run things, and it’s explicitly stated more than once that humans are really just along for the ride in pretty much all cases.9 This seems to suit the humans fine, of course, because like the ancient Greeks consulting Delphi, once the Oracle—er, Mind has spoken, then who are we mere mortals to argue?

However, this also means that the machines bear ultimate moral responsibility for the actions of the Culture and its members (after all, no human can break through a ship Mind’s effector field). The machines are in charge, for all intents and purposes, and although it is diagetically established that they care deeply for the humans that exist at their mercy, that does not diminish their ultimate power one iota.10

And remember – the Culture is a highly normative society. “Normal” in the Culture might be extremely free, but failing to share the Culture’s values is one thing they will not abide. That is the whole point of Bora Horza Gobuchul’s fight against them; indeed the first introduction the Culture ever receives is Horza’s view from the outside, looking in, at all of the self-righteous smugness of an empire vast in size, and nearly limitless in power.

“But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”12

Even Achebe could acknowledge (as he does repeatedly in Things Fall Apart) that the coming of the British Empire brought good things and abolished brutal customary practices (the leaving of children in the woods to die is the most obvious example that he highlights repeatedly). But this doesn’t excuse the fresh brutalities that the British visited upon the Nigerians, nor does the Culture’s internal paradise absolve them of even one of the corpses that Diziet Sma and “Cheradinene Zakalwe” leave in their wake. Much is made in Consider Phlebas of the Culture not being on a war footing when the conflict with the Idirans started; about having to fall back constantly until their ships were ready to go on the offensive – but the Culture was already at war, and had always been so, in a typically Culture way. Distributed, democratic, powerful, sneaky, and brutal: Diziet Sma’s whole career is based on fighting the ideological war of the Culture in the comparative backwaters of the galaxy.

On second thought, perhaps Orwell would have liked those books after all.

II. Empire

Perfect though your life may be inside the Culture, god help you if you are on the edge of it – or, indeed, that edge comes suddenly rolling over your homeworld. At least the Idirans were honest about their dogmatic zealotry. The Culture deny theirs, or simply wring their hands about it. Like good Guardian-reading liberals, they know the world is hard and complicated, and they know what is right, but most of all they know they don’t want to give up their creature comforts. They meddle in distant places they can easily walk away from, if things go too wrong. They don’t like other people meddling (as “Zakalwe” does when he tries to go free agent), because Culture Knows Best (and they reckon they are the only ones with moral authority).

In his Notes on the Culture Banks wrote,

Megalomaniacs are not unknown in the Culture, but they tend to be diverted successfully into highly complicated games …Virtual Reality games – up to and including utter-involvement level, in which the player has to make a real and sustained effort to return to the real world, and can even forget that it exists entirely – are far more satisfying.
Some people, however, refuse this escape-route too, and leave the Culture altogether for a civilisation that suits them better and where they can operate in a system which gives them the kind of rewards they seek. To renounce the Culture so is to lose access to its technology though, and, again, Contact supervises the entry of such people into their chosen civilisation at a level which guarantees they aren’t starting with too great an advantage compared to the original inhabitants (and retains the option of interfering, if it sees fit).
A few such apparently anti-social people are even used by Contact itself, especially by the Special Circumstances section.

Besides being an obvious character summary of Diziet Sma (well, to me, anyway), what of the megalomania of the entire Culture? At least the United Federation of Planets, for all of its fucked-upness13 has as its one rule above all “don’t fuck with civilizations smaller than you”. There’s at least some humility bound up in that. The Culture has no such humility. They “know” they are perfectly in the right, and they “know” that everyone else is backwards to some degree – so as long as you can’t resist them, or even detect them, they will come to your world and start wars and murder politicians until you’re back on course.14

Of course, diagetically they are. They might even be morally superior to every civilization previously imagined by humans. (Although I doubt it: Jernau Gurgeh in The Player of Games is evidence enough that heteronormativity and a certain amount of chauvinism are allowed to thrive even in the peaceful heart of the Culture; to say nothing of Contact and Special Circumstances. But then, he’s also the most interesting and three-dimensional of all of the novels’ protagonists.23) But what does it say about a universe – real or imagined – when the best you can do ethically is an organization that deploys unilateral, asymmetric, and unanswerable projections of force at will?1718

It’s also worth pointing out that the “wizards” of the Culture (as “Zakalwe” called them) have other methods at their disposal. With huge reserves of matter and energy, the freedom to convert between the two, and the amazing sytematical analysis ability of the Minds, there is no reason they could not impose their moral hegemony in ways that don’t require hiring mercenaries, starting wars, or the rest of it. But the fact is, they don’t want to. Diziet Sma likes her cloak-and-dagger tactics; so do the rest of Special Circumstances (after all, they all are there only because they want to be; at least for the Culture citizens involved in the organization – Gurgeh excepted – it can’t even be argued that there is any low-level coercion happening).

If the goal of your empire is to spread peace and love, and you do so only by non-violent and happy means, are you still in the right if you steamroll the unwilling – even if they love you for it afterwards? Probably. That would be the easy case, though, and nothing about the Culture’s methods are easy (except, perhaps, for the Culture). It’s wetwork of the kind and volume that would make SMERSH a bit queasy, and they know it. Sma is no better than George Smiley in that respect, willing to do and say anything to get her way, even to the people who trust her.

And to be sure, Sma uses up people the way Smiley does: to her, Zakalwe is just another Lemas. Interesting, sure, but also broken and disposable. The epilogue of Use of Weapons shows her recruiting yet another broken man to her cause – this time literally, his legs crushed by a tank in a war she and Zakalwe caused, and offers him reimbursement in the form of being able to walk again.19 The Culture’s victims become its agents, and I suppose that must assuage some of their guilt. “After all”, they perhaps tell themselves, “they would not fight for us if they hated us.” But then, Sma never asked Lemas how he felt about The Circus,15 and I doubt very much that Smiley is under any illusions.

III. Weapons

”You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world? Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried – children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive.”
— Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart16

The man called Cheradanine Zakalwe is the most miserable man in the universe; but then, every person is the most miserable person in the universe, when their misery is real. Human pain rarely looks up to understand that it could be worse, and even when it does it requires a feat of emotional strength to internalize that fact. This makes “Zakalwe” vulnerable, and that is Diziet Sma’s first weapon.

Sma’s second weapon is “Zakalwe” himself. A brilliant tactician who loves nothing more to win, and is infinitely bribable to her cause (although the bribe is the same every time). The third weapon that Sma wields is the power of the Culture itself – political, cultural, technological, and moral. The Use of Weapons after all, is not about the guns and bombs that “Zakalwe” uses, it is about the Culture’s weapons, of which Sma herself is (willingly and gladly) one.20 “Zakalwe” was a villain once, and maybe a hero to some people. But now he is an object, a tool, his desires and obsessions being the strings that Diziet pulls.21

Alec Lemas became a tool of the state, too, by having his weaknesses exploited. He paid for it more dearly22, and perhaps less deservingly. At least he did not think his grief was exceptional (and actually, I think le Carré goes to immense pains to make it utterly banal). But then, Lemas was also under no illusions that he was finally putting the world right.

“Zakalwe”, the Culture, its drones, all think they can make up for their sins with more sinning.11 Horza had the good grace to know he was fighting for the sake of billigerancy. Some individual Culture denizens – the GCU Grey Area/Meatfucker, Genar-Hofoen – have the good grace to realize that their fascination with violence is not for a higher moral purpose. But the truth is that Meatfucker is no better or worse than the Interesting Times Gang, or anyone else. Its only sin is that it does not lie to itself about its motivations (and again, this is the reason Genar-Hofoen likes the Affront so much: they are honest about their violence).

But perhaps every self-perpetuating organization needs such an entity, somewhere to channel the psychopaths and wrap their violence up in nice flags and statements of ideology. That other great self-righteous science fiction confederacy had its own Special Circumstances in the form of Section 31, and Luther Sloan’s justification for its existence (after kidnapping Bashir and using a bit of “enhanced interrogation” on him), could easily be lifted straight to a description of Diziet Sma & Co.:

Bashir:So if I had been a Dominion agent, what would have happened to me?
Sloan:We wouldn't be standing here having this conversation, I assure you.
Bashir:Starfleet sanctions what you're doing?
Sloan:We don't submit reports, or ask approval for specific operations, if that's what you mean. We are an autonomous department.
Bashir:Authorized by whom?
Sloan:Section 31 was part of the original Starfleet charter.
Bashir:But that was 200 years ago! Are you telling me you've been working on your own ever since. Without specific orders, accountable to nobody but yourselves?
Sloan:You make it sound so ominous.

The clandestine tendency is in the DNA of the organization, then; the only surprise is Bashir’s naïveté, for which Odo gives him a rightly deserved sneer.2425 So no wonder then that the ten-thousand year Reich— er, commune of the Culture has its own Department of Assasinations.

It’s telling, though, that these organizations allow their internal doppelgänger to continue to exist, despite being horrified by them. After all, Bashir and Sisko make a single phone call, and then basically decide “well, we tried!” when their higher-ups give them a flat denial. (Would Picard have left it at that? Now there’s an interesting question.) In that respect, the Culture is more honest than most: people know about Contact, they even know about Special Circumstances,26 and in a society where you have the resources at your disposal to literally fuck off completely if you don’t agree, everyone votes in favor of the brutality by sticking around.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window.... In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes – the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.

How many children does the Culture keep in the basement of its stately homes? None in a literal sense, of course, but we know there are those who walk away from its paradise: the hardcore pacifists, the Zentetic Elench, the “eccentrics” and the ones that go native.27 Jernau Gurgeh peered into the cellar and elected to go into storage, unable to bring himself to leave, but unable to stick around.

“Zakalwe” and Bora Horza Gobchul had the benefit of being outsiders, and knowing the Culture too well to be fooled by the “festival, the city, the joy.” The likes of Diziet Sma merely accept the justifications as presented. And the average Culture citizen – who knows? Banks is less interested in the ones who walk away.

But what of walking away, turning your back? On Earth in the 21st century, back here in reality, we can’t hop on a ship and fly to parts unknown. For those of us that live in civilizations propped up by our own scapegoats, be they the “War on Terror”, the looming threats of financial doom that necessitate austerity, whatever – we have nowhere to go. We are forced to stay put, to accept, or to engage in a political machine in the desperate outside chance we can shift it one micron in another direction. The scapegoats are all around us: the inner-city poor, the weddings blown up by missiles in the Yemeni desert, the endless piles of bodies just south of the Mexican border, the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. No one can accuse us of not having been to the basement. But unlike Omelas, unlike the Culture, we don’t even have the excuse of paradise to cling to. And yet still, we go to Saturday demonstrations and click on “like” buttons and sign “e-petitions” and vote in comically unfair electoral processes and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. Gosh, look at our progressive liberal values.

I would say that worst flaw of the Culture is complacency, of knowing you have it better, and of being afraid of risking your own misery to lessen someone else’s. But in a society where “money is a sign of poverty” and energy/matter conversion trivial, there are no worries about not being able to pay the rent, about failing to share. So no, the real flaw is actually apathy and indifference, and this is the giant gaping plot hole that allows the books to function as books, but not, ultimately, as a fantasy world I’d like to live in.

Why do these flaws of the Culture even matter? Most of them, removed, would make the books immanently dull reading (and although I don’t feel the need to explain this, having already spilled however many thousands of words on the subject, I do very much enjoy them, and Banks as a writer in general; I am not arguing that these flaws are fatal).

Science fiction, to mangle that quote often attributed to Brecht,28 is not a description of our aspirations, but rather a reflection of who we are now. The limits of Banks’s imagination – the imagination of someone who was genuinely progressive and tried very hard to think about and create a just and moral society – are a telling caution for the rest of us. Each time we cheer a robot fragging the bad guys, or Kara Thrace water-boarding a Cylon, or whatever – every time we are tacitly accepting that this somehow, in some universe or set of conditions, might be okay. Suddenly the high wall of moral prohibition has a chink, a place to be worked on and through.

This is the ultimate weapon of Banks’s Culture, as well as the small-c culture of the 21st century: if we have a good enough reason, we can excuse just about anything. And one can always fashion a reason.


  1. Pejoratively known as “political correctness”, but in truth just the practice of not going full Donald Trump on everyone you meet. The term “political correctness”, incidentally, comes from the 1950s reference to toeing the (Communist) Party line in all things, regardless of the moral content of the line being toed. [back]

  2. In Orwell’s case, also a policeman and an ideological functionary of the state – his famous list of “communists” probably being the work of his that tells you the most about the man. [back]

  3. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, suggesting that either or both don’t have redeeming works, or that the ones I’m namechecking here don’t have some redeeming qualities. But my God, reread those books as an adult and you hear Glenn Beck shouting up from the pages. [back]

  4. The same year as Watchmen; which is to say, the absolute insane fever-pitch of the Cold War, threat of collective nuclear annihilation, Regan and Thatcher’s neoconservatism, and the first deafening blows signalling the beginning of the end of the welfare state and the power of labor unions. So basically, a young, liberal Scotsman’s worst nightmare. [back]

  5. In this context, it’s tempting to try and draw comparisons between Tony Blair and Comrade Napoleon. [back]

  6. I wonder what Banks would have to say about Corbyn, now, or even the Scottish referendum last year. [back]

  7. Frankly, Orwell’s bogeyman bunch of socialists sounds like a fun crowd to hang out with. Certainly more fun than Orwell’s. [back]

  8. “You’re the king? Well I didn’t vote for you,” etc. [back]

  9. Specifically when talking about why ships even have crews, especially the tiny ones; or the motivations for hub Minds to play Facilities Maintenance Dept. for orbitals. [back]

  10. cf Cavafy, The Horses of Achilles [back]

  11. Mind you, the “sins” are self-imposed. There are no gods in the Culture universe (except totally indifferent ones in the form of the Sublimed). But the Culture feels it has sinned, just by having Special Circumstances around; “Zakalwe” seeks the forgiveness of Livuetia (selfishly – but then, perhaps penitence is always selfish); Skaffen-Amtiskaw seems to have at least some realization that his bloodlust is pretty messed up. And the closing words of the last chapter, of course, are about the drone trying to “put things right” by saving “Zakalwe” – but then, what has he put right? The Culture keeps its ultimate weapon, so he can go on killing; Livuetia is still miserable; the Culture itself no better. The dead are still dead, after all. [back]

  12. “Spoilers” or whatever, I guess. But saying I just ruined the ending of Things Fall Apart would be like shouting someone down because you don’t want to accidentally hear how Titanic ends. [back]

  13. And boy, is it fucked up – but that’s for another essay. [back]

  14. Yet somehow, Banks was against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Weird. [back]

  15. Which is actually an even better name for the Culture than “the Culture”. [back]

  16. For a particularly interesting discussion by Achebe of this passage and reactions to it, you should listen to this lecture[back]

  17. At least the Iraq war has the pantomime of public inquiry (in the UK anyway) in the person of Lord Chilcott. The Culture is possibly not that self-reflective. [back]

  18. And if that e-dust assassin that goes all Harris and Klebold on the Chelgrians at the end of Look to Windward is any indication, then it says nothing good. Banks doesn’t even try to pretend it’s anything but revenge, and the fact that the Culture has developed a sentient, weaponized Veleek-type thing in the first place is pretty fucking terrifying. [back]

  19. A physical remedy is the best she can do, anyway. Even the wizards of the Culture have limitations – both real and self-imposed – sometimes. Would a Mind really never reach into a human brain to repair psycological damage? And if so, what does that say about them? Small comfort that they consider the brain invoilable, when they’re happy to fuck your local civic infrastructure. [back]

  20. “The bomb lives only as it is falling” applies as strongly to Diziet as it does to “Zakalwe”. [back]

  21. Was it two or three times she had presented him to the sister of the real, murdered Zakalwe, and watched that other woman’s horror at the man standing before her, never once thinking “oh, maybe I shouldn’t torture this stranger in this way, just to get what I want”? [back]

  22. Banks makes it very clear that “Zakalwe” never dies at the end of Use of Weapons: first, because Zakalwe reappears, in various guises, across the Culture books (I count him in Player of Games and Surface Detail at the very least, and there was another appearance I can’t quite remember now) and second, because it is explicitly understood through details of Use of Weapons epilogue and prologue – the length of his hair – that he survives his aneurysm. [back]

  23. He is one of the most interesting Culture people, precisely for his chauvinism and insistent heteronomativity in a society that purports to reject both wholly. (Although – to go back to Banks’s poverty of imagination – it’s interesting that whenever they want to have children, the Culture’s oh-so-open-minded citizens revert to female-standard and male-standard formulations to do it, although something less gendered is certainly not beyong their biological sciences.) Gurgeh has lines and borders that define his personality, instead of an ever-changing melange of shapes. Where does identity not reside except in the form of one’s own body, and how it interacts with other bodies? Isn’t that the whole point of transgender movements, of drag, of sexual identity? [back]

  24. That William Sadler channels “bored bureaucrat” during the entire scene makes it all the better – really, why is Bashir surprised at all? [back]

  25. All from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Inquisition[back]

  26. To the point that Special Circumstance’s hyper-paranoid use of the most esoteric and secure variants of Marain is a source of idiom and humor among Minds. [back]

  27. Ah, and there’s that normative language again – I guess even Marain, for all the effort the Culture went to to make it free of built-in prejudice, can’t make up for some things. [back]

  28. Although also to Trotsky, which I think is somehow more appropriate. [back]

‘Banned by the land of their birth / Rhine refused them’

To the happy memory of 800 African refugees, exiles by the Schengen laws, drowned between midnight and morning of April 19th, 2015.

The Wreck of the Deutschland


I
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones & veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.

I did say yes
O at lightning and lashed rod;
Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess
Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
Hard down with a horror of height:
And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

I am soft sift
In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.

I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west:
Since, tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

Not out of his bliss
Springs the stress felt
Nor first from heaven (and few know this)
Swings the stroke dealt—
Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt—
But it rides time like riding a river
(And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss).

It dates from day
Of his going in Galilee;
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
Manger, maiden’s knee;
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat;
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,
Though felt before, though in high flood yet—
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard at bay,

Is out with it! Oh,
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full!—Hither then, last or first,
To hero of Calvary, Christ,’s feet—
Never ask if meaning it, wanting it, warned of it—men go.

Be adored among men,
God, three-numberéd form;
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.

With an anvil-ding
And with fire in him forge thy will
Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring
Through him, melt him but master him still:
Whether at once, as once at a crash Paul,
Or as Austin, a lingering-out swéet skíll,
Make mercy in all of us, out of us all
Mastery, but be adored, but be adored King.

II

"Some find me a sword; some
The flange and the rail; flame,
Fang, or flood" goes Death on drum,
And storms bugle his fame.
But wé dréam we are rooted in earth—Dust!
Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.

On Saturday sailed from Bremen,
American-outward-bound,
Take settler and seamen, tell men with women,
Two hundred souls in the round—
O Father, not under thy feathers nor ever as guessing
The goal was a shoal, of a fourth the doom to be drowned;
Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing
Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even them in?

Into the snows she sweeps,
Hurling the haven behind,
The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,
For the infinite air is unkind,
And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

She drove in the dark to leeward,
She struck—not a reef or a rock
But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
Dead to the Kentish Knock;
And she beat the bank down with her bows and the ride of her keel:
The breakers rolled on her beam with ruinous shock;
And canvass and compass, the whorl and the wheel
Idle for ever to waft her or wind her with, these she endured.

Hope had grown grey hairs,
Hope had mourning on,
Trenched with tears, carved with cares,
Hope was twelve hours gone;
And frightful a nightfall folded rueful a day
Nor rescue, only rocket and lightship, shone,
And lives at last were washing away:
To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

One stirred from the rigging to save
The wild woman-kind below,
With a rope’s end round the man, handy and brave—
He was pitched to his death at a blow,
For all his dreadnought breast and braids of thew:
They could tell him for hours, dandled the to and fro
Through the cobbled foam-fleece, what could he do
With the burl of the fountains of air, buck and the flood of the wave?

They fought with God’s cold—
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the wreck.
Night roared, with the heart-break hearing a heart-broke rabble,
The woman’s wailing, the crying of child without check—
Till a lioness arose breasting the babble,
A prophetess towered in the tumult, a virginal tongue told.

Ah, touched in your bower of bone
Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
Do you!—mother of being in me, heart.
O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth,
Why, tears! is it? tears; such a melting, a madrigal start!
Never-eldering revel and river of youth,
What can it be, this glee? the good you have there of your own?

Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine!—
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.

She was first of a five and came
Of a coifèd sisterhood.
(O Deutschland, double a desperate name!
O world wide of its good!
But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,
Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:
From life’s dawn it is drawn down,
Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)

Loathed for a love men knew in them,
Banned by the land of their birth,
Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;
Surf, snow, river and earth
Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light;
Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.

Five! the finding and sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the Life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
Lovescape crucified
And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters
And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wildworst Best.

The majesty! what did she mean?
Breathe, arch and original Breath.
Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?
Breathe, body of lovely Death.
They were else-minded then, altogether, the men
Woke thee with a we are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.
Or ís it that she cried for the crown then,
The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?

For how to the heart’s cheering
The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky way,
What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

No, but it was not these.
The jading and jar of the cart,
Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease
Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,
Not danger, electrical horror; then further it finds
The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:
Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s
Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.

But how shall I … make me room there:
Reach me a … Fancy, come faster—
Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,
Thing that she … there then! the Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head:
He was to cure the extremity where he had cast her;
Do, deal, lord it with living and dead;
Let him ride, her pride, in his triumph, despatch and have done with his doom there.

Ah! there was a heart right
There was single eye!
Read the unshapeable shock night
And knew the who and the why;
Wording it how but by him that present and past,
Heaven and earth are word of, worded by?—
The Simon Peter of a soul! to the blast
Tarpeian-fast, but a blown beacon of light.

Jesu, heart’s light,
Jesu, maid’s son,
What was the feast followed the night
Thou hadst glory of this nun?—
Feast of the one woman without stain.
For so conceivèd, so to conceive thee is done;
But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,
Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.

Well, she has thee for the pain, for the
Patience; but pity of the rest of them!
Heart, go and bleed at a bitterer vein for the
Comfortless unconfessed of them—
No not uncomforted: lovely-felicitous Providence
Finger of a tender of, O of a feathery delicacy, the breast of the
Maiden could obey so, be a bell to, ring of it, and
Startle the poor sheep back! is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?

I admire thee, master of the tides,
Of the Yore-flood, of the year’s fall;
The recurb and the recovery of the gulf’s sides,
The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;
Staunching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;
Ground of being, and granite of it: past all
Grasp God, throned behind
Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;

With a mercy that outrides
The all of water, an ark
For the listener; for the lingerer with a love glides
Lower than death and the dark;
A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,
The-last-breath penitent spirits—the uttermost mark
Our passion-plungèd giant risen,
The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.

Now burn, new born to the world,
Doubled-naturèd name,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame,
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!
Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;
Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.

Dame, at our door
Drowned, and among our shoals,
Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:
Our Kíng back, Oh, upon énglish sóuls!
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,
Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

Tag Der Deutschen Einheit: Kinderhymne

Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe Leidenschaft nicht noch Verstand Dass ein gutes Deutschland blühe Wie ein andres gutes Land.

Dass die Völker nicht erbleichen Wie vor einer Räuberin Sondern ihre Hände reichen Uns wie andern Völkern hin.

Und nicht über und nicht unter Andern Völkern wollen wir sein Von der See bis zu den Alpen Von der Oder bis zum Rhein.

Und weil wir dieses Land verbessern Lieben und beschirmen wir’s Und das Liebste mag’s uns scheinen So wie andern Völkern ihr’s.

(Bertolt Brecht)

Open My Country

Discussed in this essay:
  • Trouble Will Find Me (The National: Matt Berninger, Aaron Dressner, et al. 2013)
  • Shaking the Habitual (The Knife: Karen Dreijer Andersson, Olaf Dreijer, et al. 2013)
“…in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

—Harry Lime in The Third Man

I

It’s tough out there for white American guys. Expectations are high. The price of the best first-class berth on spaceship Earth is that society – and by that we chiefly mean other white American guys – is pretty quick to turn on you if you don’t seem to be availing yourself of all the benefits: wealth, power, respect, fear, the obedience of others. Every white man in America is expected to enjoy these things and as much of everything else as money can buy. Which, at the capstone of the socioeconomic pyramid, you are expected to have a lot of. Not for the purchase of flashy frivolities – that’s for the other male races, the seekers, the triers, the movers-on-up – but for the distribution of patronage and the projection of power in the form of providing for others. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, an Americanman is expected to be the castle himself: an entity which both envelops and makes possible the domestic; upon whom others can depend, can draw out of a limitless reservoir of strength.

And solid though they may appear from the outside, the walls of fortress Americanman are hollow with angst and battered by the loneliness and precariousness of that dependence – of his wife and kids, in the classical formulation; of the company, of the relatives: everyone needs a piece, financial, material, emotional, of something that is expected to continually replenish itself under its own power with no help from outside. For about a hundred pop music years, the soundtrack to this terrible privilege has been The National, whose music thrusts with the necessary outward virility of postmodern Americanman while their lyrics scream his panic:

I carry the dollhouse safe on my shoulders
Through the black city, nightlights are on
in the corners and everyone’s sleeping upstairs
All safe and sound, all safe and sound
I won’t let the psychos around
I won’t let the psychos around

or

All night I lay on my pillow and pray
For my boss to stop me in the hallway
Lay my head on his shoulder and say
“Son, I’ve been hearing good things”

Both of these are from Alligator (2005), the moment in their oeuvre when Americanman’s stage boner probably came closest to being a sword for him to fall on. Taken out of context, the lines of the first quotation, from Mr November, seem like the hardest of hard-man trumpetings that he has everything under control here. But consider why he repeats himself at the end of the stanza, and then notice the refrain that immediately follows it:

I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November
I’m Mr November, I won’t fuck us over
I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr November
I’m Mr November, I won’t fuck us over

This isn’t a boast or a war-cry, it’s a mantra, a desperate prayer uttered under the narrator’s breath: Please don’t let them notice that I have no idea what I’m doing. What does Americanman lay awake at night (in the second song quoted above, “Baby, We’ll Be Fine”) hoping for? No – sorry – this is America – praying for? What does he want most in the world? Not just the approval of his boss, but approval coupled with outward signfiers of affection. And those are more imporant; they come first. After the family is safely tucked in bed and the ‘night lights are on in the corners / and everyone’s sleeping upstairs’, family-Americanman is so hollowed out that he can only moved by the emotional overtures (‘lay my head on his shoulder’) of even more powerful Americanmen. He could never be the one to reach out, to nuzzle, or to express these needs in broad daylight. He – and this is the essence of Americanman – has something to prove.

II

Sweden, in case you didn’t know, or in case your image of it was colored in by the tropes that their Eurovision halftime number wonderfully and with surprising arrogance at an enormously sensitive time condensed into a single blissful montage, is on fire.

The causes are multifaceted – neither immigration nor unemployment nor poverty is alone sufficient to cause a riot – but what happened in Sweden this summer is just another eruption of a toxic cocktail that bubbles under Europe all the time, seeping out variously in London, in the Paris suburbs, in Greece, and even sometimes Germany (though they’re better at leveraging their ancestral brutality to plug the dike). The toxic cocktail is a combination of inequality (status, money, discrimination) and the demand that Europe makes of its outsider populations that they conform while at the same time denying them any chance of ever achieving that conformity: you must become Swedish to live here, goes the thinking, but it is impossible for anyone not born to Swedes with blond hair, blue eyes, and a silver Ikea screwdriver in his mouth to ever be Swedish. Every outsider in Europe stands, mutatis mutandis, in front of the same cliff.

Let’s sweep aside Americanman’s problems from Part I by saying that Americanman can go lay his heavy crown-wearing head on a psychiatrist’s couch if he’s so worried about society not letting him express his precious affection deficit to his satisfaction. As real as his dilemma is, and as much as I personally like the music it produces with Matt Berninger as the bard of put-upon Americanmen from Allston to Ypsilanti, it’s probably fair in view of what’s going on. The country is on fire.

One person – two people – who can’t take it anymore are Karen Dreijer Andersson and her brother Olaf Dreijer, who are, by current events, snapped out of their examination of more fashionable expensive-fundraiser social problems (Like a Pen) and quite entirely out of the party mode of their even earlier work (Heartbeats) and into a new album which begins with what is quite frankly the finest six minutes of music that The Knife have ever produced. Here’s how it begins:

Under this sun
Look what we have got
And those who haven’t
Bad luck
We’ve been running ’round
Pushing the shopping cart
January 2012
Even in the suburbs of Rome

Look on our wealth, ye lowly, and despair. Interesting is that even as they protest the boasting excesses of the society they live in, they admit their own complicity: we is a broader accusation and a deeper confession than self-centered Americnaman is capable of. And the dagger sticks so perfectly: the crime – our crime – is constituted by ‘pushing the shopping cart’. For all the ruthless efficiency of empires past, the modern European citizen – sorry – this is Europe – consumer – can oppress the world from the comfort of the airy aisles of Ikea, perusing what all the shitty human underclass has toiled to lay at his card-wielding feet.

Border’s lies,
the idea of what’s mine,
a strange desire
Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fire

Conquest doesn’t happen by lines moving on a map anymore. Rumsfeld knew that: it happens in ‘hearts and minds’: in the broken will of the poor, the black, and the female; made possible by the pleasure-intoxicated indifference of the privileged watching Netflix (now available in Scandinavia!) on the wall of Plato’s cave while the decisions – the lines drawn by rulers (double entendre of the year)–are made somewhere else.

Karen seems a bit upset about this, and her outrage climaxes at what I think, even though it comes in the first song, is probably the most important moment in the album. It’s at the end of the quotation above, which I have sort of mislead you by rendering in sober print like that. She doesn’t sing ‘bring the fuel to the fire’; she reaches the peak of the diatribe that “A Tooth for an Eye” undoubtedly is, and, frustrated with reading Sweden and Europe the riot act, explodes in outrage:

Drawing lines with a ruler
Bring the fuel to the fiiirrrrrreeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH

That scream is important because of what fuels it: outrage, striving, and action are all products of (and only of) suffering; and even bold pronouncements about the abolition of injustice are spoken by the voices of its victims. Consider this, from Jürgen Habermas’ On the European Constitution:

In this day and age, it is impossible to read the words “No one shall be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” (Art. 5, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) without hearing the echo that rings through them: the cries of countless tormented and murdered human beings. The invocation of human rights lives on the outrage of the violated at the loss of their human dignity.

Shaking the Habitual rattles with the screams of immigrants, women, workers, and the poor; offers an invitation to deconstruct whole skyscrapers of oppression. It is difficult to listen to; it is, at moments, ugly, harsh, and hard work. But then again, so is sewing H&M jeans in Pakistan for 18 hours a day.

III

Meanwhile, back in Vegas, or at the Western White House, or at this great new bar I just discovered in Brooklyn, Matt Berninger has said something alarming: The National “don’t have to prove their identity anymore.”1 This is troubling because, even as good as Americanman has it, his entire essence is that he must urgently, constantly prove himself.

What does it sound like when Americanman no longer feels the need to assert his dominance? The force of songs like Mr November is that even the insecure narrator, trying so hard to convince himself, rides across the spectrum of sound on a triumphant, take-no-prisoners melody that combines the shock and awe of Americanman’s prime positon with the stonewalling inarguability of closing movie credits. Unmotivated to claim dominance, Americanman withers. I Should Live in Salt, the first track of the new album, is limp, without force or even tension. The slow dad rock songs like Demons and Heavenfaced lack the overconfident sleaze of their ancestors like Karen or Slow Show, which could be the soundtrack to every sex scene involving a straight white American man with a college education.

At its worst, Trouble Will Find Me is just plain lazy, exhibit A and B for which are the songs Fireproof and I Need My Girl, one of which you can sing to the music of the other, like the anthems of East and West Germany. Which isn’t to say that the old National doesn’t peek through: for about 9 minutes, on Graceless and Pink Rabbits, they rediscover their striving youth and lay down two genuinely manly tracks. But mostly, Trouble will Find Me, is streamlined, spit-polished, and car-commercial-ready; or, to be less charitable about it, overproduced and boring. Berninger’s baritone is now a whole octave higher on average than it was on Alligator: testosterone, after all, is the hormone of both hardons and baldness. The Dessners’ music has all the edgy throb of a Vegas lounge act on a rainy Tuesday lunchtime in February.

I’m going to follow Americanman on his journey from the young man and his date at the reception in Apartment Story out of that rosy-minded fuzz and into the rest of his life: they are married, financially more secure, even if they still owe money / to the money / to the money they owe, and as the words TEN YEARS LATER appear on the bottom of the screen, Americanman puts down the New York Times, where he has been reading about how intense the competition is to get in the good private high schools. He is worried about whether Leo and Emma are going to be able to get in, so he calls his bandmates for a writing session, to put their angst into song. Everything is just perfect. This is the album that comes out.

Let the Atrocious Images Haunt Us

Two bodies in the rubble of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 24 April 2013. Photo: Taslima Akhter

“To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged one’s sense of, how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.

“There now exists a vast repository of images that make it harder to maintain this kind of moral defectiveness. Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: this is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.”

(Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others)

Political Questions

Bonfire Night has come and gone, although no doubt you will still hear the crackle of leftover fireworks being shot off for the rest of the week. It is a particularly odd event, especially for the outsider: the celebration of a four hundred year old arrest (and subsequent execution) in one of the longest religious conflicts seen on the European continent. The jihad is long over, but night remains as a tribute to the most enduring traditions of the kingdom: the monarchy, the English church, and a long memory. Perhaps Bonfire Night is most instructive for reminding us, in this age of ideological divisiveness realized on a global scale, that what we now consider the ‘developed’ world has also been responsible its share of zealotry and internecine conflict.

The idea that this country could, in 2012, tear itself apart on the scale that it once tried to (several times over throughout history) seems absurd. The worst that has to be countenanced is Scotland leaving the Union – far fetched though even that is – which would be a limited kind of separation. The EU and the de facto political economic community in Europe as a whole makes for a kind of international psychology which even the fiercest sceptics must acknowledge as unique in the world. Derisive laughter though there was at the awarding of the peace prize to the European Union, as protests flared up again in the austerity-hammered countries around the Mediterranean, it can surely be acknowledged that the lack of war inside its borders in the last fifty years is the glaring exception, rather than the rule, when taken in consideration with the last century, never mind the last five hundred or thousand years.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a much less deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize is about to have his political future put to the test. Although every presidential election in the last twelve years has been hyped as momentous for one reason or another (aren’t they all, in their own way?), this one seems particularly so. The latest and most damning evidence of climate change has just rocked the east coast, which is still picking up the pieces despite being pushed almost instantly out of the news cycle. (In any other year, one might expect at least a week of attention, especially as the other bookend to a landscape-altering decade of New York history.) But the climate isn’t on the agenda. Neither is war or foreign policy. Even the Guardian must admit that in Afghanistan and China the thought of the American election elicits not much more than shoulder shrugging. The drone strikes will continue, trade will flow. These things are certainties.

What isn’t certain is the political and social attitude of the country that perpetuates these facts. The political soul of America is being argued for in this election, and the choice is clear: a slightly right-of-center executive who inspires racist-tinged obstructionism in his opponents, or a corporate shill in thrall to the worst reactionary elements of the GOP. It is enough to make the idea of filling out an absentee ballot downright repulsive. Even though the cynic might delight in pointing to a Republican victory as a way of illustrating that things really haven’t changed in four years, or that as a nation American cannot and will not join the modern world, with it’s supposedly awful ‘socialized medicine’ and community-saving ‘welfare state’. The optimist in us does not delight in these things. The optimist thinks that maybe, given another four years and lessons learnt, we will see a rise in Democratic politics in America that pushes back against the hard right turn of conservatism of the last decade and a half, that given time and the realities of implementation, a healthcare system that acknowledges every citizen will become as politically untouchable as the NHS is in this country, even if an insurance mandate is only the pale shadow of actual national care.

Most of all, the optimist dares think that time might give way to reason, that the cynic will lose his bet against the incumbent, and that the slow crawl towards a new kind American progressivism might one day begin again. He admits that although the commentators crow on about the political realities of the last four years shearing away the idealism of the sitting president, that his own idealism has not been completely sheared away. He dares whisper that one, now guilty-sounding idea: there might still be some hope.

Until We Came to Hobbitgrad

The Lord of the Rings is ‘long and boring; no one can lift the damn thing’. As a child, your parents read you The Hobbit, and you are wide-eyed and beside yourself, because it is your first introduction to epic literature, clad in the irresistible garb of high fantasy and given potency by elements of actual drama. You are still reeling, delighted, and then your parents tell you that there are three more books of the stuff, in the form of the saga-in-chief, the Lord of the Rings. And so you pick it up, dive in, and set off on Ring Trek: The Next Generation with Frodo and company. Somewhere between Rivendell and the gates of Moria, however, the boredom overtakes you, and you become the first of the Fellowship to fall by the wayside, before even Bill the pony. You put the book down. You are eleven.

Every person to whom I mentioned that I was reading the Lord of the Rings told me a version of this story. ‘Ah, yeah, I started reading that when I was a kid; then it got boring.’ Part of the problem, of course, is that the book is not one for children; people just think it is because there are wizards.1 But the problem with the work itself – and this may be evidence of the fact that it is not for children – is that it is boring. Not entirely, of course, and the flaw of its boringness is often completely overwhelmed by its tremendous virtues,2 but one of the roughest stretches of boredom falls right after the departure from Rivendell toward the end of volume I and lasts until the appearance of the Rohirrim about a third of the way into volume II.3 No wonder you laid the damn thing aside.

I will not try to discuss all my problems with the Lord of the Rings in one piece, nor do I present them as a unified theory of the book; others here are more competent to discuss it in positive terms, and I will no doubt agree with every word they say. I will leave my racist critique of the saga for a later article (for it is hell of racist, a fact of which Tolkien, to his credit, seems to have been aware4), and I will relegate to an offhanded comment here my observation that what Tolkien accomplished in three volumes over a thousand pages he could easily have managed in two thirds of that. I reserve the right to return to and decimate his assertion that the similarities with Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen end in both rings’ roundness.5 No, today is about the most specious of Tolkien’s assertions about his own epic:

As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. […] it has been supposed by some that the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot […] without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever.” (I, 6-7)

With particular reference to the Scouring of the Shire,6 this is a big pile of what I imagine one must be extra careful not to step in when one is walking across the rolling plains of Rohan, densely populated as they are by the national animal. Unluckily for Prof Tolkien, I did not read his books when I was a susceptible child or a gullible undergraduate at the Oxford college he and I shared. When it comes to an author pulling rank to assert what significance a work does and does not have, I am “wise enough to detect all his counterfeits.” (II, 182).

The fact is, the Scouring of the Shire is the clearest and most obvious manifestation of the theme of counter-revolution and restoration that characterizes many of the political changes that occur throughout the Lord of the Rings. It stands in juxtaposition as a kind of anti-Caucasian Chalk Circle, a morality play about the evils of Communism and industrialization. In order for there to be true peace, asserts this last-gasp argument long after the main saga’s conclusion, everything must be put back exactly as it was and never change again, lest Elessar and Arwen be gunned down in the basement of Minas Tirith among their hemophiliac children.

The Shire and the Hobbits that live in it are peaceful,7 but not egalitarian: the metaphors of authority are monarchical,8 and there are very clear class divisions, with respect and influence awarded to the bourgeoisie.9 Social legitimacy is based on heritage,10 and the attitude toward outsiders moves between skepticism, phobia, and hostility unless they are exotic and amusing, in which case they are disregarded in every capacity except their ability to entertain.11 Even the extravagant formal requirements of such transactions as the transfer of property or inheritance12 echo the preoccupation in historical English law with certainty at the expense of justice,13 with keeping property in the family.

Class markers come in the form of wealth, but also of names (‘Sackville’, the Latin root is of significance14). Speech, the great brand of social status in England, is adapted here to serve the same function (as it is throughout Lord of the Rings), and the role of speech as a class and status marker is an allegory, one which the author-tyrant admits and encourages in the pages of his realm.15

Lest there be any doubt about the authorial attitude toward this ancien régime, consider its recurrence as a beacon of hope and a source of strength throughout the toughest going for the ring-bearer and his companions,16 and its position, both at the outset and the end of the saga, as the last good place in Midgard (apart from Gondor, whose own ancien régime has been newly reinforced), and its complete restoration to its unspoiled, pre-revolutionary state as the final sign that the tumult of the saga, the War of the Ring, is over once and for all.17

The revolution that I speak of is the ‘scouring’ of course, which is brought to the attention of the reader in Book VI, Chapter 8, the penultimate chapter of the entire three-volume work. To give you an idea of where we are located dramatically, the first sign that something is amiss in the land of Hobbits comes at III, 277: it has been 55 pages since Gollum fell into the lava with Frodo’s middle finger at the summit of both Mount Doom and that plot-tension diagram your English teacher used to draw on the board. Aragorn the Many-Epithetted has been King of Gondor for 47 pages, and we are so far into the protracted denoument – so close to the tearful departure from the Grey Havens – that, to quote Frodo, it “feels like falling asleep again” (III, 276).

Thus the scouring would be jarring enough simply from the sheer fact of its positioning. It is made all the more so by the terms in which it is presented. In rapid succession, the caricature elements of Stalinism are constructed: we have the Chief, the proletarian dictator, who has shed his pre-revolutionary class markings.18 (And Frodo forthwith announces his intention to deal with the dictatorship by returning it to the confines of pre-revolutionary Shire class structure: ‘it is evidently high time that the family dealt with him and put him in his place’: III, 277, emphasis mine.) The new regime has a secret police and a network of spies.19 He is enthroned at Bag End, the seat of Bilbo’s wealth- and heritage-based mystique.20 The major villainy of this new Shire order seems to be having introduced collective ownership of the means of production, or as Tolkien sneeringly names it, “sharing”. (As we are treated to a mocking, cartoonish explanation of the Shire’s planned economy,21 Pippin, avatar of the counter-revolution,22 greets it with a dismissive yawn.) The bourgeoisie and the authority figures of the old regime are disappeared to internment;23 a ‘green and pleasant land’ is ruined by centralization and industrialization.24

And so the bar to resolution of the story (which, I would argue, was really resolved when Frodo gave Gollum the finger, but that’s not Tolkien’s position25) is the toppling of this brave new Shire, accomplished by natives, yes, but natives who are now agents of the monarchs of the south,26 and perhaps the last great act of the ancient power structures fading from the world is that they put the Shire back exactly as the protagonist Hobbits left it, right down to every tree and leaf.27 Now we can finally be at peace, which is signified by Sam’s stepping into the pre-revolutionary social structures himself: a family,28 children, (inherited!) wealth, and status.29

The Lord of the Rings is not a four-legs-good, two-legs bad roman-á-clef about how the problem with the world is that we are not all white heterosexual subsistence farmers in rural England, and anyone who suggests so would be wise to put down their pens until their fever has broken. But as someone who is actually rather taken with high fantasy and predisposed to sympathy for it, even I could not look away from the “contemporary political reference” of this last episode of the novel.

Tolkien’s description of writing the Lord of the Rings during the years 1936 to 1949 is a fascinating foreword to the saga, and sheds perhaps more light on it than the author would like. I imagine grey, war-filled years; Tolkien, far removed from the Mordor-like destruction in London,30 nevertheless living in a time when the shadow was growing, a time in which there was war all around him and his own war, the “war which it was my task to conduct, or report”, deprived him of even inner peace. Sauron is not the Führer, nor was meant to be, but it flies in the face of reality to argue that Europe’s attempts to destroy itself did not pollenate the turmoil of Middle-earth.31

By the time the Lord of the Rings was completed in 1949, the elation of victory was giving way in the West32 to the beginnings of the Cold War. It would be nonsense, Tolkien is right, to look for allegorical parallels at the level of character or event, but the narrator’s lament at the passing of the Third Age is a mournful acknowledgment of the dawn of the atomic age; a conservative’s lament of the unstoppable march of ‘progress’. The counter-revolution is a victory, but one that the book itself says will not last forever: the price of peace is mortality. Don’t let the dwarves and elves and wizards fool you: The Lord of the Rings is not for children, and the struggles of the modern world are carved into it, their runes readable on every sword-blade.


  1. The full dismantling of this fallacy is something I will leave to my co-blogger Tanadrin, but suffice it to say that it is the biggest and dumbest barrier to this sort of fiction, and the raising of it by an interlocutor is pretty good evidence of irredeemably boring thought-processes. [back]

  2. Again, I am not the resident Tolkien fanboy, but Lord of the Rings is a damn fine book that you should definitely read. The problem, of course, is that repeating that assertion over and over again doesn’t make for very interesting articles. [back]

  3. Interrupted only by Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog, which I believed is best described in literary-critical jargon as ‘fucking bad ass.’ [back]

  4. Chism (J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, “Racism, Charge of”, 557) is probably right that this is a mixture of conscious and unconscious racism and/or Eurocentric bias; the racist undertones of Lord of the Rings are unmistakeable, particularly with regard to the juxtaposition of the races of men working for Sauron and the ones opposing him, and Tolkien should have known better. There is some evidence that he did, but even if guilty on all counts it’s not enough to sink the whole enterprise. [back]

  5. Laughable; they both rely on the same source material, for one. [back]

  6. As to the saga-in-chief, I accept entirely Tolkien’s assertion that it is not an allegory for World War II, even though (and especially because) it was written between 1939 and 1944. Tolkien eliminates this contention very convincingly, like so many Ents marching into Isengard, with what I choose to believe is criticism of the Allies’ own misconduct in the real-world war’s prosecution: “If [World War 2] had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron” (I, 7), and anyone who has read the work knows the implications of that for the moral integrity of the seizer and user. [back]

  7. “At no time had Hobbits of any kind been warlike, and they had never fought among themselves” (I, 14); “No Hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire” (III, 285). [back]

  8. “Yet the Hobbits still said of wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king. For they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws” (I, 18). [back]

  9. “the Took family was still, indeed, accorded special respect, for it remained both numerous and exceedingly wealthy” (I, 19; cf I, 30-31) [back]

  10. ibid. [back]

  11. Of Gandalf: “whose fame in the Shire was due mainly to his skill with fire, smoke, and lights. His real business was far more difficult and dangerous, but the Shire-folk knew nothing of it.” (I, 33) [back]

  12. I, 47: seven witnesses signatures in red ink, “among other things”; real-world wills require between zero and two. [back]

  13. Cf J Martin, Hanbury and Martin’s Modern Equity, ch 1. [back]

  14. So T Shipley, JRR Tolkien: Author of the century, but echoing a truth about formality-register and root origin in all post-1066 varieties of English. [back]

  15. Appendix F, Part II (III, 411). [back]

  16. Of the dozens of examples, the most poignant and desperate is III, 224: “His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire.” [back]

  17. III, 300: “And the very last end of the War, I hope […] To think that it should fall here, at the very door of Bag End!” and also III, 302-303. [back]

  18. ‘“Do you mean Lotho?” said Frodo. “I suppose so, Mr Baggins; but we have to say just ‘the Chief’ nowadays.” “Do you indeed!” said Frodo. “Well, I am glad he has dropped the Baggins at any rate.”’ (III, 277) [back]

  19. ‘The new “Chief” evidently had means of getting news.’ (III, 279), cf. descriptions of collaborators at III, 285. [back]

  20. “Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years […] and it was popularly believed that the hill at Bag End […] was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure” (I, 29). [back]

  21. III, 278-279. The phrase ‘fair distribution’ in a further description at III, 292 mocks the closing words of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944), either by coincidence or not. (Tolkien certainly read German.) [back]

  22. He is a Took, one of the authoritative families of the Shire (the Thain, “the Took”, is the only Hobbit with formal political authority, which he holds by hereditary office: I, 18-19) and musters the decisive military strength of the Hobbit rebellion in that capacity. [back]

  23. Even Lobelia herself, the veritable queen of bourgeoisie Hobbits, whose imprisonment is described at III, 293. [back]

  24. Described mostly in terms of construction, lumber-cutting, quarrying, and smokestacks at III, 292-293, 296. [back]

  25. cf. note 17. [back]

  26. Merry of the King of Rohan and Pippin of the King of Gondor, facts reiterated by the invocation of that mannish authority against their fellow-Hobbits at III, 285; perhaps an appeal to the Hobbits’ pre-revolutionary monarchical conceptions of authority (see note 8). [back]

  27. Accomplished with Elven magic: III, 302-303. [back]

  28. He may have Rosie Cotton once the counter-revolution succeeds (III, 288). [back]

  29. He moves into Bag End as a married man at III, 304, the daughter follows on straight after, and he inherits the Baggins wealth as heir at III, 309. [back]

  30. At the Oxford Union, they used to tell tales about why Hitler didn’t bomb Oxford, but they were surely as fantastical as anything to be found in Tolkien’s legendarium. [back]

  31. Which, after all, is Europe: cf. Tolkien writings ad nauseam. [back]

  32. Of Middle-earth and of the 20th century. This is not a coincidence: allegory or no, West is West and East is East. [back]