How to Monitor Your Psychic Meltdown By the Culture You Consume:

A Love Note to Melvyn Bragg

imgres-3The past year and a half have been stressful.  Like many Americans, of many political persuasions, the nomination and election of Donald Trump to the Presidency showed me that I had badly misunderstood my country.  I
learned that I was wrong about the way the world worked, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding that realization desolating.

I used to be an active and engaged consumer of news, but I find now that my appetite for it is diminishing.  I am able to spend less time reading the daily news without becoming sad and apathetic, and so I have limited my intake.  The void left by news-reading has been filled with a series of other activities, psychic life-rafts I’ve reached for and discarded when they proved unable to adequately absorb my agitation.

When Trump received the Republican nomination, I went on a science fiction binge.  I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars Trilogy‘; Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash and ‘Seveneves‘; Cixin Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Trilogy.  Science fiction has the quality of being both escapist and morally relevant, and, for a while, I found it helped to inhabit the problems of worlds other than my own.

The day after Donald Trump was elected, when I walked into my lab, my labmates and I, all women, locked eyes and started to weep, and I found that my passion for dystopia had vanished.

Houghton_EC65.M6427P.1667aa_-_Paradise_Lost,_1667Escapism no longer seemed a viable option; reality felt urgent but overwhelming, and I needed something which would help me cope with the repulsion I felt towards the world around me.  I’m no optimist, and I especially wasn’t one this past winter, but I wVergilanted something hopeful.  So I started re-reading the old epics: ‘The Aeneid’, ‘The Inferno’, ‘Paradise Lost’.  There was something reassuring about the scope of these poems, their grandeur and their vintage.  They reminded me that civilizations may rise and fall, but that great monuments endure.  They broadened my perspective, and reduced the troubles of my country to the status of a mere chapter in humanity’s story.

images-1Eventually, though, the cycles of suffering and war which characterize epics started to make everything seem futile: so many men fight, so many die.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  I started to feel again that we are all doomed to the endless repetitions of violence which have characterized every human epoch.  Apathy came creeping back.

And then, in the past two weeks, when the House voted to replace a 58%-popular ACA with a 17%-popular AHCA, and the President fired the FBI director for investigating his ties to Russia, and then dashed off to a private photo shoot with a Russian spy, and North Korea threw a missile as high as it could into the air, and the whole world seemed too venal and stupid to be borne, and I was nearly lost in an apathetic stupor, I found my way back to Melvyn Bragg.

Once a week, Melvyn Bragg hosts a discussion on BBC Radio 4 called ‘In Our Time’, in which he and three relevantly-credentialed academics spend 45 minutes talking about…something.  These somethings are broadly classified into the categories ‘Science’, ‘History’, ‘Philosophy’, ‘Culture’, and ‘Religion’.  Since it first aired in 1998, it has covered topics as far-ranging as Japan’s Sakoku Period, Lyrical Ballads, Conductors and Semiconductors, The Baroque, Guilt, Antimatter, and Fermat’s Lost Theorem.

Melvyn telegraph
Melvyn Bragg on the occasion of the 500th episode of ‘In Our Time’, from the Telegraph,

Melvyn Bragg is a mellow, dry host, and he leads his academics in measured dissections of subjects both universal and abstruse.  He is at turns funny and serious, and the allegiance of everyone is, at all times, to the subject at hand.  These people are here to nerd out.

Though I am not normally susceptible to the allure of the English accent (Hugh Grant’s popularity baffles me), there is something about a round-table of dry, British academics earnestly discussing, say, whether Cleopatra was carried into Caesar’s tent in a carpet, or a bag, or a carpeted-bag, which makes the world seem sensible and good.  And I have not yet found anything else as effectively (and endlessly) distracting as this two-decades-old labyrinth of esoterica.  Melvyn has provided me not so much with an escape, but with a reminder that the world contains multitudes, vast stores of history and knowledge which I can never exhaust and which will never stop delighting me.  I need this right now; I need the world to be larger than my own dysfunctional corner of it.  His show is very popular in Britain, and so I doubt that it will give Baron Bragg an enormous thrill to know that he has rescued the sanity of one desperate American, but it is true nonetheless.

So I have this recommendation for Americans who are, like me, lost: download ‘In Our Time’.  Find a comfortable place to sit or recline (I have taken to lying, flat on my back, on the rug in my living room, in my sweatpants – as I said, it’s been a stressful time), put in your headphones, and let Melvin help.

Melvyn Bragg on the occasion of the 500th episode of ‘In Our Time’, from the Telegraph,

Quislings to All Humanity

Review of ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, by Liu Cixin

Warning: this post contains details of premise which are not revealed until midway through the first novel.

     I suppose there comes a time for every dedicated science fiction reader when they must ask themselves, ‘would I collude with an alien species to destroy the human race?’

The Three-Body Problem Cover     I have just finished the first two books of Liu Cixin’s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy, best known to English readers by the title of its first book, ‘The Three-Body Problem’.  ‘The Three-Body Problem’ was nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel and won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel (the first non-English language novel ever to win, I believe, and the award was shared with his translator Ken Liu), and has met enormous acclaim since its publication in English.

     The premise of the trilogy is thought-provoking: during the Cultural Revolution in China, a persecuted physicist discovers, via the Chinese equivalent of the SETI program, evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization.  These aliens live on a planet which is located within the gravitational field of three suns, and since three objects do not form a repeating orbit (the ‘three body problem’ of the title), they are subject to lethal climatic extremes.  The aliens are thus in need of a new planet and the human scientist, who had become convinced that humankind is unable to govern themselves justly, reveals the location and suitability of Earth to them.  The first two novels of the trilogy tell the story of this scientist and the organization she builds to destroy humankind, and, once she is discovered, of humanity’s preparations of for the coming of the alien fleet.

     The best purpose of science fiction is to pose moral problems in a context which, through novelty, clarifies them, and, by that metric, ‘The Three-Body Problem’ is a success.  The problem it poses is a particularly acute one for me.  The scientist at the heart of the premise believes that humans are innately and ineradicably evil – I believe that humans are innately and ineradicably evil.  She believes that, if left to govern themselves, they will always and inevitably turn to murder and wickedness – I believe that as well.  And so when she sees a technologically superior race, she decides to hand over mastery of our lives and world to that race – would I do the same?

     No, of course not.  There are several glaring errors of thought required to reach her conclusion, several unjustified leaps of logic.


     First, technological superiority does not imply moral superiority.  Simply because aliens are more advanced scientifically does not mean that they are more “advanced” ethically.  You encounter this thinking often in science fiction; the notion is that civilizations which divert resources into constant, intra-species strife lack the resources for the development of interstellar travel.  The conclusion is that, therefore, any extraterrestrials likely to reach us are probably going to be some hippy-dippy, beatific, highly pacifistic race which has “evolved” past war.  

     This is completely bogus.  If human history is any example, war is a great engine of technological progress, not an impediment to it.

     More than that, the fact of the approaching alien fleet almost certainly tells the morality of the approaching alien fleet: any race willing to conquer an alien planet and either enslave or exterminate another intelligent species is not pacifistic.  They are not morally superior to us; they are not better or kinder.  They are, to put it simply, as evil as we are.

     The last problem is this: that you are capable of evil does not mean that you necessarily deserve death.  It does not mean that you are capable only of evil and not capable of good, that evil and evil alone defines you, or that individuals among your population are incapable of living entirely good lives.  A species like ours which carries its capacity for evil within it, innate and unchanging, may also carry a like capacity for good, just as innate and just as ineradicable.  And each generation of that species should be given the chance to choose their own goodness over their own evil.

     So, after much thought, I have decided that, when the time comes, I will not help extraterrestrials exterminate humankind.  It was a tough call, but I’m going to throw my lot in with us.  I still think we’re our own best bet.

The three novels of the ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past‘ trilogy are: ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End.

Featured Image:

From the 1996 movie ‘Independence Day

Shame, Shame, Shame, and the New York Times

This week, the subject of the insufferable Bookends column of the New York Times was ‘Is There Anything One Should Feel Ashamed of Reading?’ (last week, it was ‘When It Comes to Reading, Is Pleasure Suspect?’, so clearly Bookends is in the middle of some sort of terrible binge-purge episode).  The highly predictable yet verbose answer to that question, written this week by James Parker and Charles McGarth, was essentially, ‘No, of course not! Reading is great!’

Reading is great, but so is shame.  Of course, it is unpleasant to experience and remember, and it has been used many times to evil ends, but let’s not throw the shameful baby out with the bathwater: shame is an emotion with high specific utility.

Shame is one of the leading indicators of wrong action.  Shame is what tells us when we have behaved badly, when we have been a lesser version of ourselves.  Shame is a measure of the discrepancy between who we want to be and who we have proved to be.

James Parker at least nods at this, with his distinction between “top-down shame”, which is imposed on us from someone else, and “bottom-up shame”, which we impose on ourselves, and which he endorses.  But he doesn’t believe that anyone does or should have bottom-up shame about what they are reading.

But we have all had the experience of hoping we are not caught reading something – that is shame.  And when we are ashamed of what we are reading, it is because we know that the book we are reading is beneath our ambition.  And our ambition so often defines our best self.

Books are one of the places where we express our hopes for ourselves.  We don’t just read for who we are – we also read for who we want to be.  We read books we ‘ought’ to read, to know more, to advance intellectually.

And that is right and proper, in appropriate measure.  All things in moderation; I don’t recommend reading exclusively for self-betterment.  Reading well is like eating well: it protects and strengthens you, but being too rigid about it robs you of joy and makes you a bummer to hang out with.

So we have our vegetable books, which we read because we should but which we may also love, and we have our junk food books, which we read even though, perhaps, we should not, because it’s really fun and we can’t help ourselves.

And our relationship with these latter is, in part, modulated by shame.  And it should be, no matter what the New York Times says.  The truth is, you’re going to die one day; your time on this earth is limited, and you are spending it reading Twilight.  That is a decision which deserves a second thought.

Which is not to say that you definitely shouldn’t read Twilight.  If you have the urge to, you probably should indulge it.  Fun isn’t evil – it’s fun.  But you should be a little ashamed.  That’s what keeps you from reading nothing but books like Twilight, and to read nothing but books like Twilight is to turn down an intellectual dead-end.

The cultural value which informs pieces like this week’s Bookends is one we’ve all encountered before: at least it gets them reading!  Parker and McGrath make a very good show of joshing around this point, but it lurks in the dark heart of all such discussions.  It’s also patronizing and wrong.  The New York Times knows full well that reading Fifty Shades of Grey is not the moral or intellectual equivalent of reading The Gulag Archipelago – the lack of shame they champion, the standard they promote, is one they do not and would not apply to themselves.  Of course they don’t read only for ‘fun’; of course they experience shame when they read trash.

But for the great unwashed, the mouth-breathing masses, whatever gets you idiots to turn off ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’ and crack open an actual book should be celebrated.  It’s hopeless to expect you to read anything at all difficult – dreck must suffice.  Charles McGrath will even jovially admit to having joined you, once, but then only really out of anthropological interest, to “understand the fuss”.

Don’t be fooled – Charles McGrath is ashamed of having read Fifty Shades of Grey (as would I be, if I had ever sunk so low).  But he doesn’t think you should be, because he never expected better of you.

I do, though.  I think we should all be ashamed of Fifty Shades of Grey.  I believe that a great day is within our grasp, when all people, rich and poor, black and white, young and old, will join hands and, whether they have read Fifty Shades of Grey or not, deny it.

The Knights of Malta Have the Same Requirements as Swarthmore College

On page 270 of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, there appears this paragraph:

“At Lyon, which they reached fourteen days after their departure from Paris, they were visited by the Archbishop, Cardinal Alphonse de Richelieu, the Prime Minister’s elder brother.  It had been intended by his parents that Alphonse should become a Knight of Malta.  But all Knights of Malta had to be able to swim, and since Alphonse could never learn to swim, he had to be content with the family bishopric of Luçon, which he soon resigned in order to become a Carthusian monk.  After his brother’s accession to power, he was taken out of the Grande Chartreuse, made Archbishop first of Aix, then of Lyon, and given a Cardinal’s hat.  He had the reputation of an excellent prelate, but was subject to occasional fits of mental derangement.  During these fits he would put on a crimson robe embroidered with gold thread and affirm that he was God the Father.  (This kind of thing seems to have run in the family; for there a tradition, which may or may not be true, that his younger brother sometimes himself to be a horse.)”

Do you know what this paragraph is?  It’s marvelous.  It’s the gift that keeps on giving.  It’s fucking Christmas morning, that’s what!

Where to begin?

First of all, Alphonse de Richelieu is described as “the Prime Minister’s elder brother” – that brother, the Prime Minister, is Armand-Jean du Ressis Cardinal de Richelieu, Prime Minister to the King of France from 1624 to 1642, and the fictional nemesis of the three musketeers.  He has been played, in movies and on T.V., by Tim Curry, Christoph Waltz, and Charlton Heston.  And, we are informed, the good Cardinal apparently spent significant portions of his time under the convicted impression that he was a horse.

Or how about those Knights of Malta?  The Knights of Malta, more properly called the Knights of Saint John or the Knights Hospitaller, were a Catholic military order (the other really famous holy military order was the Knights Templar).  They were an enormously rich order charged with protecting the church, her pilgrims, and the Holy Land.

And, apparently, they had a swimming requirement.  An enforced swimming requirement – you could not become a member of the order, even if you were rich and well-connected, if you couldn’t swim.  Which I admire – it’s extremely practical.  Who can say when the Holy Mother Church may require amphibious support?

But my favorite part of the above paragraph, far and away, is this: “He had the reputation of an excellent prelate, but was subject to occasional fits of mental derangement.”  Specifically, a derangement wherein he put on a fancy red outfit and believed he was God.

I would submit that, perhaps, part of being an “excellent prelate” is not being subject to any confusion about who is, and who is not, God.  And however competent the elder Richelieu might have been during his lucid spells, his holidays of announced divinity must have been doctrinally confusing for his flock.

And how about this snazzy red and gold outfit – why did he have it?  And what did he make of it when he wasn’t floridly psychotic?  Did he recognize it?  DId he think, ‘Oh, there’s the red bathrobe I wear when I think I’m God?’ Did he ever wear it when he didn’t think he was God?  To claim to be the Lord is blasphemy – why didn’t he throw out the costume of his sin?  If your right hand offendth thee..

Huxley is a great writer, and I don’t mean to rob him of any credit for what is a phenomenal book when I say this, but who could go wrong with material like this?  In a world where the men who rule France take periodic vacations into horse-space, and their little brothers dress up like the God float in a Mardi Gras parade, and everyone work in the service of a church guarded by swimming knights – in that world, who needs novelists?

War Must Be, While We Defend Our Books Against a Destroyer Who Would Devour All

I have seen the hill on which I die; I have seen the banner which flies above it.  I have read the words on that banner, the same words which will, I expect, adorn my tombstone, words which have never made anyone better loved but which have become a mantra, words which I have spoken a thousand times in vain: “That’s not in the book”.

The third Hobbit movie, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’, is also the worst, a particularly ignominious end to an already-bad trilogy.  The special effects are cheesy, the writing is abysmal, the acting is insufficient, and it is years too long.  However, the most urgent problem, one which is the most pronounced in this third installment, is that it isn’t ‘The Hobbit’!

‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ has characters, scenes, battles, sub-plots, creatures, and romances which are not in ‘The Hobbit’, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and for which lack that book suffers not at all.

I suppose it is the old story: absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Peter Jackson probably had something very like absolute creative power over the Hobbit movies, and the movies themselves have paid the price for that.

It must have required a monstrous, overweening arrogance to roll up to ‘The Hobbit’, a small, cinematic jewel of a book, penned by no less an eminence than Tolkien, and to say, “I know what this needs: Legolas, some elf-on-dwarf action, and yet more roles for Benedict Cumberbatch’.  All of these impulses were badly wrong, and it is startling that they should have been the impulses of the man who adhered so slavishly to the master’s text in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.  Between those movies and these, someone convinced Peter Jackson that he had better creative vision than Tolkien.  He had not.

The Hobbit’ was a tight, sweet little book, which could have made a lovely movie if Jackson had not determined that it be a swollen prelude to the ‘Lord of the Rings’, continuous in tone and character and preposterously identical in length.

But, despite its miserable badness and its total lack of integrity, ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’ made nearly $55 million its opening weekend in the United States alone, reaching a worldwide gross of $100 million in only four days.  I am alone on my hill, obviously, one confused and indignant voice talking to absolutely no one: “But none of that was in the book!”

Image taken from

The Hobbit‘, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

For Whom Does the Bell Toll?

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
-John Donne

Ebola has come to the United States (or, to be more specific, Ebola has come to the United States for the first time without our permission). As of the time of posting, there is only one confirmed case in Dallas, and that man, Thomas Duncan, while critically ill, is still alive. The American news media has been covering it extensively, it remains ‘Breaking News’ on CNN, and ‘Dallas’ and ‘Ebola’ have been trending pretty much constantly for a week straight.

To be fair, there has been a great deal of coverage of the African casualties of this latest Ebola outbreak in the United States as well, but Ebola’s arrival on our shores has clarified our focus. This is completely normal and understandable – people are more interested in the goings-on of their own communities than of the communities halfway around the world. It is not necessarily callous to care more about a minor local threat than a major remote one.

But simply because something is normal and understandable doesn’t mean that it should go unexamined. And while the African Ebola patients are in many ways distant from us, their own sufferings so far dwarf our own.

Most English speakers are familiar with the above quote by John Donne; many are also familiar with his quote, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself”. Fewer are aware that they are actually the same quote:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

This last and most famous part is usually spoken with menace, as though the quote were spooky. It is not. Donne is saying that the death of any man is, in some small way, his own death, and he is the less for it, because he is likewise part of mankind. So, when the church bells ring announcing a death, you need not ask for whom they toll; any man’s death diminishes humanity, and therefore you, and thus, in some measure, they toll for you.

As of writing, more than 3,400 men, women, and children in Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have died of Ebola. The news that Ebola has come, even in a limited way, to the United States may have more immediacy, but we are still diminished by those deaths so far away. So, indulge the news cycle, by all means – I certainly will. But remember: whether the bell tolls for an American or an African, it tolls for thee.

Donne’s most famous quotation appears in his book, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasionswritten when he believed he was dying.

‘The Breast’

When I was younger, I would read anything I could get my hands on that promised to be in any way about sex.  The promised connection might be tenuous in the extreme, but I would read it, anyway, and hope.

So, you can imagine my excitement when, in the 4th grade, perusing my parents’ library, I discovered a book called ‘The Breast’, by Philip Roth (I didn’t know it then, but Philip Roth can be absolutely relied upon to write about sex, always, even when you long for him to stop).

I waited until one afternoon when my parents were suitably occupied, and I crouched behind one of the big wing-backed chairs (Lord only knows what I thought that would accomplish – I was perfectly visible, and must have looked quite stupid) and read the entire thing.

The Breast’ is a novella Roth published in 1972.  It’s about a man named David Kepesh who turns into a giant breast.  It’s excruciatingly boring.  Whatever attraction they hold for some, breasts aren’t characterologically interesting.  And Roth, who hasn’t been able, in his decades of authorship, to imagine a single fully realized female character (besides Anne Frank, for whom he cannot take credit), probably wasn’t the best candidate to make a man-sized breast into an interesting, three-dimensional figure.

Of course, the penis is the only organ Roth has ever really been interested in – his own stars in nearly all of his books.  And, though it would seem an impossibility, his penis even stars in ‘The Breast’ – it simply turns into the nipple of the eponymous breast (literally).  Much of ‘The Breast’ is spent in long and loving description of the seemingly endless spongebaths the nipple receives from the nurses at the hospital.

Roth, and ‘The Breast’, taught me an important literary lesson that day, behind the wing chair: in the hands the right (or wrong) monomaniac, even sex, that great and complicated human motivator, can be boring.

Philip Roth, despite my irritations with him, is considered a great American author for a reason, and ‘The Breast‘ is not one of his masterpieces.  To get a better sense of why he is loved by so many, try Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, or Operation Shylock.

The book which features Anne Frank as a character is The Ghost Writer, and it is also, in my opinion, one of his best.


Don’t Read ‘Mein Kampf’ – Read Clive James

    “God does not rule the world outwardly by gravitation and chemical affinity, but inwardly in the heart of man: as in your soul, so will the destiny of the world in which you live and do.”  – Egon Friedell

If one ever attempts to read Hitler’s writings (and, for heaven’s sake, don’t – take my word for it), one is bound to be impressed by how boring he was.  There is an astounding amount of scholarship on the subjects of Hitler’s personality and thinking, an abundance which is puzzling when you consider that he left an entire book for us on the subject.  Crack open Mein Kampf and the need for all that scholarship becomes clear: the man was basically incoherent.

Which is maybe better for everyone – Hitler’s ideas were toxic and demented and the world would have been better off without them.  But we run a risk if we forget them: we need to be able to recognize them if we see them again.  And to do that, we need to understand them.

All this was brought to mind by something that Clive James wrote in his late-life masterwork, Cultural Amnesia:

“Hitler needed no telling that there were a lot of brilliant Jews from whom German-speaking culture had gained lustre.  That was what he was afraid of: of a bacillus being called clever, and of the phosphorescence of decay being hailed as an illumination.”

It is worth noting that, while this may in fact be what Hitler thought, he could never have expressed it so well.  And though it is impossible to read James and not be grateful for his lucidity of thought, it pains one to see Hitler’s thoughts expressed so well.  They do not deserve so graceful a presentation.

That quote is taken from James’ essay on Egon Friedell.  Friedell was a Jewish actor and writer living in Vienna in the first half of the twentieth century.  James may indeed understand Hitler’s thinking; Friedell certainly did: during the Anschluss, as the S.S. came down his street to arrest him, he jumped out his window to his death, shouting as he did to the pedestrians below to warn them to safety.

Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia really is a wonderful book, and is highly recommended to anyone interested in twentieth century history, the arts, or the general emotional arc of humanity.


Saturn Devouring His Own Son

First came the chasm, according to Hesiod, and then Earth.  Earth “bore first of all one equal to herself, starry Heaven”.  With Heaven, she had many offspring, who were the Titans, the youngest of whom was the “crooked-schemer Kronos [Saturn in the Roman tradition], most fearsome of children”.  Most fearsome, perhaps, but all the Titans were gnarly, and their own father loathed them from the beginning, so he locked them all away underground and refused to let them out into the light.

Earth fashioned a reaping hook of adamant, and approached her terrible children.

“Children of mine and of an evil father, I wonder whether you would like to do as I say?  We could get redress for your father’s cruelty.  After all, he began it by his ugly behavior.”

Only Kronos was willing, and he ambushed his father Heaven and castrated him.  Freed from their cave, the Titans had many children of their own.  Kronos lay with Rhea and fathered Hestia, Demeter, Hera, and Hades.

However, Earth and Heaven told Kronos that he was fated to be overthrown by one of his own children, so when each of them was born, he ate them.

This mythic episode inspired two disturbing paintings, one by Rubens, and one by Goya.


Rubens - Saturn Devouring His Own SonSaturn Devouring His Son (1636) – Peter Paul Rubens

Goya - Saturno Devorando a Su HijoSaturno devorando a su hijo (1819 – 1823) – Francisco Goya

Goya’s depiction, the more frightening, was painted between 1819 and 1823, as one his Black Paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his old age.  He never named the paintings, and in all likelihood he never meant them to be displayed.

Eventually, Rhea, overcome by grief for her lost children, tricked Kronos.  When she gave birth to Zeus, she wrapped a stone in cloth and gave that to Kronos, who swallowed it whole.  Rhea raised Zeus in secret until he was old enough to battle and defeat his father and free his siblings, who had been trapped, apparently also whole (despite the artistic imagination), in their father’s stomach.

Hesiod’s Theogony.

M. R. James and the Antiquarian’s Vagina

In 1904, Montague Rhodes James published his first book of ghost stories, ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’. Remembered best now for those and later stories, M. R. James was also an accomplished medieval scholar and antiquarian. He wrote, among other things, ‘The Apocalypse in Art’, which created a phylogeny of illuminated manuscripts of the Apocalypse, and he translated the New Testament Apocrypha. In 1905, James became the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and he served until 1918, when he left to become the provost of Eton College, a position he held until his death in 1936.

For a man who spent his scholarly life looking backward, James wrote prescient horror stories. In ‘A School Story’, two men compare the ghost stories of their school days. Here is an image that should be familiar to anyone who saw ‘The Blair Witch Project’:

“First there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, ‘I’ve seen it,’ and died.”

James is at his creepiest at times like this, when he leaves things unsaid. The most grisly action, the terrible spectre, always appears offscreen, and is more unsettling because you have to imagine it yourself.

Of course, the danger with leaving too much to the reader’s imagination is that readers bring their own, strange baggage to the encounter. Darryl Jones, who wrote the very good introduction to the 2011 ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James’, spends a while dissecting James’ resistance to marriage and preference for male relationships before turning to this passage, from ‘Casting the Runes’:

“…he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”

Jones decides, “…this image of the hairy, fanged mouth…is a powerful symbol of sexual terror, a vagina dentata.”

Is it, really?

Jones didn’t invent the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth; it appears in Jungian literature, and in several South American, Ainu, and Hindu folk tales (as well as in the memorably bad horror movie ‘Teeth’). It’s hardly a common trope, though, and while most of Jones’ analysis seems straightforward and sound, this abrupt veer into genitalia seems more his problem than James’. Surely, other perfectly normal and astute readers might have read and reread James’ passage without thinking, ‘Oh, yes, that’s clearly a toothed vagina”, or, as Jones himself puts it, “a nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine”.

Indeed, Jones finds vaginas all over the place. In ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, the antiquarian Somerton is exploring a ‘dark cavity’ inside a well when he meets “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind” (what else could that be, really, but a vagina?). He is “conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and of several – I don’t know how many – legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.”

“…’Abbot Thomas’”, explains Jones, “is ultimately a tale of uncontrollable sexual terror, a quest which leads Mr. Somerton to this nightmare vagina, and an encounter which he barely survives.”

Is every cave, odoriferous or not, a nightmare vagina? James may well have eschewed female company, and it may be the case that “the lifelong appeal of institutions for James was that they provided the security of all-male environments”. He may even have been a homosexual; does that really mean that there lurked in every dark corner of his expansive imagination a vagina? Is a dark, dank, smelly cave never just a cave?

Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James, with offending introduction by Darryl Jones.