Sinister Aesthetics: The Appeal of Evil in Early Modern English Literature (Joel Elliot Slotkin, 2018/#38):
This book deals a sort of aesthetic version of the problem of evil: as classical theories of poetry equate Beauty with Goodness, and enjoin the author to use poetry in a morally didactic way, how do you justify the use of evil in poetry — a since-influential but far from unique example in the period being Richard in Richard III
— and, most worrisomely, the fact that it attracts people? Is there something wrong with the audience or with the theory? The book paints a picture of Early Modern English authors holding a fundamentally ambiguous position in which they pay lip to normative theories, while at the same time being very well aware of its limits, and therefore going ahead and showing evil anyway. Two factors of interest: the Augustinian understanding of a chiaroscuro
Creation in which both evil and goodness are necessary for its proper appreciation (St. Augustine's description of his pleasure in pear-stealing because
it was wicked left a nice little problem, if a very realistic and unavoidable one, for further theologians), and the fact that the way sermon preachers and printers, theater authors, and pretty much everybody else had to compete for a significant discretionary and socially diverse budget of time, money, and attention; whatever Plato had said about what should and shouldn't attract people, you had to go, within limits, with what worked in practice.
The book posits, opposed to and complementing normative aesthetics, a sinister
aesthetics where people are also
attracted to normatively unattractive things in ways that partially overlap and are partially in tension with the usual norms, and a perverse
aesthetics where ugliness is deemed attractive because
it's ugly. It makes a very interesting analysis of Richard's seduction of Anne (you know, the one literally in front of the newly-bleeding corpse of her husband, whom he killed
), noting how both common sense and Richard himself make it untenable to suppose she forgets or excuses any of Richards normatively unattractive aspects, from his physical deformity to the bit about murdering her husband. Rather, Anne falls, not for Richard's falsehoods, but for the chutzpah, skill, and passion of his telling them, which aren't normatively attractive aspects but are certainly not perversely so, as proven by how often we
, as audience, find ourselves entranced by the same. It's not my original reading of the scene, but I think it has a lot of value — as the author says, that scene isn't problematic because Richard succeeds, but rather his success is a synecdoche of the problem the play addresses.
The final stretch of the book extends this analysis to Paradise Lost
in a most fascinating way. Quoth the author:
It is challenging but not insurmountably difficult to demonstrate, as a matter of doctrinal logic, that humanity is morally responsible for its own sins. Indeed, the Christian theological tradition is littered with such justifications. But God shapes the form that evil takes; as Shuger says, he "plots the didactic narrative of crime and punishment". It is precisely when we see divine providence as a literary narrative—as in the narratives of the Bible, of history, and of personal experience—that troubling questions arise about the sensibilities of the author.
Reconciling audiences aesthetically and emotionally to a teratogenic God is the most difficult element of a successful theodicy [The book engages quite interestingly with the way cheap prints of "monster ballads" and sermons dealt with the popular topic of "prodigious" births]. In order to make their vision of God palatable, religious writers must encourage audiences to cultivate and apply their sinister sensibilities, to take pleasure in God’s punishments rather than being appalled and repulsed by them as a normative framework would demand.
In this framework, Milton's sublime Satan (and in fact the theoretical concept of sublimity
in this context was partly derived from attempts to explain the character's aesthetic power) isn't a mistake, or even in conflict with Milton's religious beliefs. It's rather a bold statement of the problem
his theodicity has to deal with: not the justice of God's judicial choices, but the acceptability
of his aesthetic ones. Milton does this, the author suggests, first by acknowledging the sinister appeal of Satan, and then, instead of making God's normative goodness somewhat seem more appealing, making Him a more deeply and powerfully sinister figure
. In the religious world of Milton's age, that fear and dread could be part of the appropriate and pious reactions to the Divinity was much more accepted than in our own; while contemporary critics find Milton's God unappealing, that's in part because our religious normative views are, in a way, more Platonic — the Lord of Hosts was something else. He observes how the narrative shifts around the chronology so we shift from a sinisterly attractive, heroic, sublime Satan to a rather pitiful one under the heel of a much darker and, at least in Milton's intent, even more sinisterly sublime God — it's an aesthetic syllogism designed to teach readers proper appreciation of God's choices not by negating their cruel and horrifying aspects, but by activating and then leveraging the readers' own attraction for cruelty and horror.
Or, still paraphrasing the author, while other poets had to deal with justifying why they used evil in their creations (with partial successes at explanation, and very palpable ones at execution), Milton had to deal with justifying why God
did it in His
creation, and while the doctrinal explanation (basically, we, all of us, have it coming, whatever it
might be) takes some space, the aesthetic appeal of the story itself is
Applications to contemporary literature and media, even in our more secular age, are both obvious and interesting.Shakespearean Arrivals (Nicholas Luke, 2018/#39):
First the regrettable bits: the theoretical underpinnings of this are Hegel (ugh) and Badiou (double ugh; listen: trying to use the mathematical language of Set Theory to try to "prove" things about the metaphysics of political or literary events is either confused or deliberately confusing cargo cult thinking, but, again: Hegel (ugh)). That said, the overall argument on its own, despite the frequent dips into unwarranted metaphysical wordplay-as-argument, is interesting. Luke claims that some of the most interesting characters in Shakespeare don't (even in Watsonian terms) pre-exist their plays. Rather, Romeo and Juliet become
Romeo-and-Juliet through, and because, what happens to
them in the play and whether or not they choose fidelity
this this exogenous, transformative Pauline Event (capital-E in the book) that's not something due
to the character or the situation of the play, but rather in excess
of it. They may or may not have some sort of previous receptivity — Macbeth isn't Duncan — but it's the Weird Sisters who introduce what I'd call a metanoia
in the character, turning Macbeth from whatever he was into the Macbeth we care about (the book has a very
ugly way of implying that only transformed characters matter, both in literature and in history
, and fuck you — a couple of times it veers into defending revolutions because they are transformative, and screw the sheep and the bloodbath) .Hamlet
, as always, is a pickle. Luke identifies two transformative events: The explicit one is the Ghost, who both tries to re-normalize the situation so Hamlet can Get On With The Program and
undermines it drastically by, well, being a bona fide Ghost; Hamlet's sort-of-but-not-quite-action root of his character, in this view, isn't a pre-play feature, but rather emerges from this encounter, as he tries to grapple with both the ghastly (heh) demands of the situation and the obvious inadequacy of the situation itself (what the book frequently and annoyingly calls the Void). The second transformative event isn't fully in our view, or localized in time and space; it's a bit of the trip to England, a bit of the graveyard scene, and a bit of everything, but whatever it is, it's what makes Act V Hamlet who or what he is, whatever the heck that is.
Finally, the book deals with Othello
(identifying as the transformative event Desdemona's love; it's an interesting view, and I can see how it can be de-stabilizing for Othello) and King Lear
; in the latter, and straining the interpretative framework almost to its limits, but what can you do, Cordelia's Nothing
*is* the Event, the unexpected, impossible excess (specially if you're Lear), but instead of transforming her, it ricochets and spreads, transforming the entire kingdom and many of the people in it.
All in all, it's an interesting framework — that Shakespeare's characters *change* is one of the most obvious and powerful things about the plays — you just need to ignore the author's metaphysical underpinnings and slightly problematic (implied) politics.The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Twelve (ed. Jonathan Strahan, 2018/#40):
Generally competent but, I don't know, uninspired? The "present concern bits" are handled perhaps too straightforwardly, and the "newness bits" are, by and large, the standard ones.Society and Individual in Renaissance Florece (ed. William J. Connell, 2018/#41):
A set of essays on Renaissance Florentine society, from urban violence to the economics and symbolism of dowries to the ways in which Florentine migrants and exiles did and did not integrate elsewhere. The writing is uneven, and overall it felt less interesting than I thought it'd be.The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (Hugh Greene, 2018/#42):
Don't be confused by the shared title: this is the collection of Master Detective late Victorian/early Edwardian stories compiled by Graham's brother and journalist/BBC honcho, not the collection of Master Detective late Victorian/early Edwardian stories compiled by Nick Rennison. Anyway, the usual suspects are there: Max Carrados, Dr. Thorndyke, etc. No specifically brilliant stories, but reliably enjoyable if the genre is among your jams.