November 11, 2009

Link of the Random Interval of Time (LotRIoT), 11-11-2009: Threatened Voices

Threatened Voices: Tracking suppression of online free speech

This site describes itself as “A collaborative mapping project to build a database of bloggers who have been threatened, arrested or killed for speaking out online and to draw attention to the campaigns to free them.” The front page is an interactive world map of bloggers facing threats — or those for whom it’s already too late. The default view is by country (the USA has 2), but you can also filter by status, including “under arrest,” “released,” “threatened,” “deceased” and “unknown.” The map has its glitches. When I selected “Unknown,” Tanzanian blogger Malecela Peter Lusinde showed up in Texas.

The American bloggers are Elliott Madison, charged with hindering prosecution for using Twitter to help G20 protestors avoid police, and Elisha Strom, apparently arrested for publishing the address of a police officer.

When you view the page for a specific blogger, in addition to basic info and links to the blogger’s site and any help-the-blogger campaign site, you’ll see a related newsfeed from “trusted websites.” Like the map, this feed is a little flaky. Stories supposedly related to Elliott Madison show up because they mention Madison Square Garden, president James Madison, or musician Liam Madison.

The profiled bloggers aren’t always people I admire or agree with, but that’s the point of free speech: it’s for all sorts of speech, for all sorts of people. Agreeable speech doesn’t need protection.

In some cases, I might agree that the blogging/tweeting in question broke a just law; but those are the fringe cases the forces of censorship love to present as typical, and it’s easy enough to ignore them. Overall, I salute the work and goals of Threatened Voices.


February 15, 2009

Some Thoughts on The Worm Ouroboros

The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison; introductory material by Paul Edmund Thomas

Coleridge, and others after him, have written of the “willing suspension of disbelief” involved in reading imaginative literature, but I’ve seen nothing on the “willing suspension of disapproval.” Just as we must accept the physical world of the story – whether it includes dragons, shadow governments, or people who talk in aphorisms – we also must accept the moral world of the story.

For The Worm Ouroboros, this means accepting the glorification of war, which is implicit throughout. The virtues the characters admire are warrior virtues. It has this in common with the Icelandic sagas and Homeric epics that, according to Paul Edmund Thomas’s introduction, were major influences on Eddison.

I don’t read Icelandic or Greek, so I can’t say how much of Eddison’s prose style was based on his sources. Ouroboros is written in a pseudo-archaic dialect of Eddison’s own invention. This is part of the world the reader must accept. However, after a few chapters, I found the style mostly unobtrusive, sometimes delightful, and only rarely painful. As Tolkien and others have noted, the names of the characters don’t seem to belong to any unified cultural context, but I don’t think that’s a flaw. There are obviously a number of nations in Eddison’s world, with much contact and commerce among them. In the mundane world, my own circle of acquaintances provides names from at least five continents, and from too many languages to estimate.

Thomas, despite my snarky comments in an earlier post, is understandably defensive about Eddison’s powers of characterization. The heroes are mostly indistinguishable from one another. The one who stands out in my memory is Brandoch Daha, who is both a dandy and a berserker – and having told you that, I’ve told you all I remember of him. Eddison sometimes does a better job with the villains. King Gorice XII combines courage, cunning, charisma, and a number of other alliterative traits. The aptly-named Corsus, who panders his own daughter for a command position, is also memorable. But the most intriguing and nuanced character in the novel is the counselor Lord Gro, a bit player whose fidelity to his own principles (and they are not selfish ones) leads him to be a traitor to multiple sides.

As you might expect from a tale weak on character, events are plot-driven. Despite (or maybe because of) the careful construction of the symmetrical narrative, which circles around to bite its own tail, the novel feels episodic. Most acts and decisions seem to arise from force of plot rather than force of character. The “and so” is provided by a scheme outside the world of the story; within, all is “and then.”

According to Thomas, many readers have a problem with the beginning of the novel, which introduces a quickly-dropped framing narrative. I have more trouble with the conclusion, where the exaltation of war becomes explicit. If you can buy into that ethos, the ending gives the body of the tale more meaning. If your morals, like mine, are a little old and stiff and just won’t bend that far, the ending makes the main part of the book meaningless.

But I shouldn’t let that be the last word. I enjoyed the novel enough to go on to Eddison’s Zimiamvia trilogy, as soon as I find the volume I’m missing.

November 9, 2007

Writers I like more than I should

Mood: charmed, I’m sure

Recently, I wrote about writers I don’t like. Criticism is cheap fun, but risks nothing. This time, I thought I’d put my taste on the line by listing writers I consider underrated, or whom I like more than they deserve.

  • John Dos Passos. He’s out of style now, but his U.S.A. trilogy is the Great American Novel. The later Dos Passos, like the later Wordsworth (and for many of the same reasons), is best left to oblivion. The younger Dos Passos lives on in Eternity.
  • H. P. Lovecraft. He gave novice writers wonderful advice. He followed none of it. You don’t read him for his characters (colorless and passive), or his plots (he only had one), or his eldritch, dank, squamous, adjective-laden style. You read him for his cosmic imagination. He was a bad writer, but a great one. (Borges agreed with me on this.)
  • William Morris. A revolutionary whose motto was “forward to the 13th century!” The archaic prose of his fantasy novels moves, if it can be said to move, with glacial slowness. There’s little I like better than getting lost in one of his pre-raphaelite worlds. I can also recommend his translations of Scandinavian literature, and such of his poetry as is not “improving.”
  • Kenneth Patchen. He wrote too much, too quickly, and his experiments often seem purposeless. But he was his own storm, and I stick around for the occasional blinding crash of lightning. His poem “In order to” is marvelous.
  • Edgar Allen Poe. No one denies his primacy as a short story writer, but I’d like to see his poetic reputation revived. His most famous pieces are not always his best. I used to have “Dream-Land” memorized, and it’s a fairly long poem. I liked it that much.
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was preachy, self-righteous and condescending. His personal life was a tangle of troubled relationships. As a thinker, he was vague and self-contradictory. His poetry is diffuse. Yet, there’s something about him that appeals to me. Maybe I see more of myself in him than I’d like to admit–and if I could become as good a poet, I’d be happy to be in the second tier of literature. Also, his poetic reputation has suffered because modern poetry has cast Abstraction into the outer darkness. But with political poetry so much in vogue, isn’t Shelley due for a comeback?
  • A.E. van Vogt. Nominally, van Vogt wrote science fiction, but his understanding of science was neither deep nor broad. He wrote insanely dream-like stories — cheap diner Kafka with a side of Breton (and Breton’s lack of humor).

November 1, 2007

Writers I should like but don’t

Mood: esthetically fleeting

Writers I should like, or have been told I should like, but don’t. Some I think are overrated. Others are quite good, even magnificent, but I’d rather have my tonsils pulled out slowly with pliers than read them.

  • e. e. cummings. strip awa yhis (man)nerIsms and
    he’s no grot-
    esque and beautyful orc-
    hid, but a banal lielac. his images of(ten
    do not co(her)e.
    (I’m being unfair to him, and he’s probably a very good lyric poet, but too precious for me.)
  • Joan Didion. She wears her nakedness on her sleeve.
  • Robert Frost. I know he’s one of the great poets of the 20th century. Once I read a Frost poem, it’s in my brain forever. But his Yankee-farmer-philosopher persona draws a nutmeg-grater across my nerves. I have no problem with literary personae. In fact, I’d argue that every narrator is a work of fiction. I just don’t like his.
  • Horace. I wrote about him in an earlier post, and won’t go into detail here.
  • Henry James. I used to be an English major. I can give you a dozen reasons James is a world-class writer. But lordie, don’t ask me to read him. He bores me silly.
  • C. S. Lewis. I know he’s a hero to conservative Christians and fans of the fantasy genre, but a bitter hatred of life oozes from every paragraph.
  • Ezra Pound. He was a brilliant translator, a gifted mentor and editor, but his own works are either Edwardian knock-offs or madly-gummed treatises. Also, I have trouble getting past his anti-Semitism.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke. Everything is carefully wrought and fatally earnest. RMR had no sense of humor.
  • Voltaire. He had a sense of humor. (Rape is funny, isn’t it?)

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