Thursday, July 29, 2010

Short Story: Exiles

Lieutenant Wilhelm Weishaupt was the commander of a very small platoon—five soldiers, guarding a border tripoint that had not seen military action for, depending on how you counted it, either sixty-odd years or nearly a century. He loved his job. It was, perhaps perversely for a military position, relaxing, affording a lot of time to go out strolling along walls older than the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs, looking over the hills, dales, and rockslides, honest and free in his fatigues beneath the sky.
            The Bundesheer had seen better days to be sure, but that was a long time ago, and besides, any way of thinking that considered going out and raping and pillaging the western Balkans ‘better days’ than standing and watching the birds was a way of thinking that Lieutenant Weishaupt wanted absolutely no part of. This was one of many border forts that had been built in Carinthia and the Tyrol throughout the period when the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation had been a world power. It was one of if not the only one of these forts that still served any military function whatsoever, and Lieutenant Weishaupt was keenly aware that his platoon, 1444 Squadron, existed basically as window-dressing, one of the army’s token ‘romantic’ settings, reminders of days gone by. It was like joining the Foreign Legion and shipping out to Djibouti.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Poem: Nathan, We Don't Live in the Forties

Ziz and Behemoth broke the air
Leviathan churned the waters below
Lo, all the pomp of Welthaupstadt
Was lost amidst the crimson flow.

Cleverly, perceptibly, the contact came
And I looked into a world formally constructed
Beyond logic, acting on concept
As if on concept the fact acted
And perceiving on a grainy reel
The world’s celluloid dream.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why do I do these things to myself?

A while back, I had the privilege of reading Vachel Lindsay's The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race for a class on modernism and post-imperialism. It is a STRANGE AS FUCK poem, because...well, it just makes no Goddamn sense whatsoever. It seems to have been written by two people. One is blatantly racist in that special early-twentieth-century way and may or may not have been in communication with H.P. Lovecraft. The other is a friend of W.E.B. DuBois, works with the nascent NAACP, and writes lines like 'Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost, / Burning in hell for his hand-maimed host. / Hear how the demons cackle and yell / Cutting his hands off down in hell.' And I don't mean that these segments appear to have been written by somebody who hated black people but hated what Leopold II did to them even more. Many of them are actually racially progressive. The whole thing seems to just have been cobbled together out of Lindsay's better angels and his darkest 1910s flights of fancy without any attempt either in writing or in editing to differentiate them. Then in the next part he goes into a thing about 'baboon butlers' and 'parrot bands' that (a) entirely ignores the actual distribution of African fauna and (b) FOR GOD'S SAKE, IT SOUNDS LIKE MARIA USHIROMIYA'S CHARACTER SONG. And for somebody who seems to want to get Europeans to leave Africa alone, Lindsay sure spends a lot of time harping on the 'inlaid porches and casements' that 'Shone / With gold and ivory and elephant bone' and 'long-tailed coats with gold-leaf crust / And hats that were covered with diamond-dust'. Then just as quickly he starts talking about how violence in this part of Africa originated with the Atlantic slave trade. Finally in the third section he apparently says that although Africa getting colonised by European nations is unfair and bad, it would be a good thing if Africa was colonised by...wait for it...ANGELS. Not some sort of metaphorical angels. Actual, literal angels.




I can't say I recommend this poem to...anyone, really.

South of the Border, West of the Sun

I recently reread the Murakami novel South of the Border, West of the Sun, and I have three observations to make:

  1. Part of Murakami's signature style seems to be having male narrators who are utterly horrible human beings and come to realise this because of the women in their lives. Hajime in this book is a serial adulterer (although he's painted more sympathetically, and more convincingly sympathetically,  than I even thought was possible for a character of this type), K in Sputnik Sweetheart was a homophobic sleazy libertine, and Tohru in Norwegian Wood was an incredibly flaky and pretentious hippie. (To be fair, in Sputnik Sweetheart Myu was a pretty unpleasant person in the past too, and it took a doppelganger and several years of living as a ghost to make her more sympathetic.) I'm not sure what I think of this trend. I hear that Kafka on the Shore, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, After Dark, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are very different, though, because they don't focus on sex and romance.
  2. My theory? Shimamoto is either a revenant or a secret agent. It speaks volumes to Murakami's writing that both of these explanations make equal amounts of sense.
  3. Does anybody know if hysteria siberiana is actually a real condition? It reminds me a little of susto.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Wherein I Attempt to Justify Ill-Advised Behaiour on the Part of Fictional Characters

In Sasameki Koto, Ushio wants a girlfriend badly.

You'd expect: Ushio looks for an LGBT group nearby (nowadays you can find them in towns all over Japan) and/or uses the Internet. Since she's incredibly pretty and very friendly herself, she would probably not have much trouble finding somebody that way, even in heterosexist Japanese society.
Instead: She loudly goes after girls at her school, making them think that she's some kind of idiot.
Justification: Ushio is in fact in love with her friend Sumika (who's hiding from her in an increasingly shoddily-built closet) and uses her crushes to fuel her severe emotional problems that prevent her from acting on this out of fear. Also, she's in high school. She has plenty of time to meet girls the old-fashioned way, and since most of her peers already know that she's gay, what's the point of being shy?

In Harry Potter, Voldemort has a set of magical objects keeping him immortal.

You'd expect: Voldemort makes them impossible to discover: a pebble in the Gobi Desert, for instance, or a nondescript tree in a forest in Albania (where he's canonically spent a lot of time).
Instead: He uses symbolically important artefacts and hides them in places with personal relevance.
Justification: Voldemort is not a master planner. He is a vain, solipsistic psychopath.

In The Lord of the Rings, the characters have to undertake an arduous journey to destroy the Ring.

You'd expect: Gandalf asks the eagles from the Misty Mountains to drop them off in the Emyn Muil or somewhere.
Instead: They undertake said arduous journey on foot.
Justification: Sauron can very, very easily monitor Middle-Earth's airspace, which under normal circumstances doesn't have much flying in it other than the normal birds of the air and his own Nazgul. If the eagles left the Misty Mountains, he would know that something was very wrong.

In Kara no Kyoukai, Cornelius Alba is given Aozaki Touko's severed head and told not to destroy it because otherwise she'll be able to reincarnate into a purpose-built magical puppet, with all of her memories intact inculding those of the severed head while Alba is holding it.

You'd expect: Alba preserves the head in formaldehyde like the person who had it before him was doing.
Instead: He screams insults at the head, including the one insult that Touko has a proven track record of killing people for calling her. Then he smashes it and starts beating up one of Touko's employees, knowing full well that Touko is like a mother bear when it comes to them. Sure enough, she comes back and kills him horribly.
Justification: By this point Alba is batshit insane and also doesn't know that Touko has the ability to reincarnate. However, this only raises the further question of why he never bothered to find out, considering that by this point he and Araya have been planning to attack Touko and her group for some time.

In The Adventure of the Devil's Foot:

'Hey Watson, look, a hallucinogenic drug that drives people insane and then kills them! ...LET'S TEST IT ON OURSELVES.'
Justification? No, for some things there's just no excuse. Sorry, Holmes.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Aliens, Academics, and Gender

For the past few weeks I've been re-reading C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) for the first time in quite a while. The last time I read these books I was eleven years old and on a plane from Dublin to Newark so I don't remember much. I got through the first two books double-quick but like many people I'm finding That Hideous Strength a bit of a slog. I LIKE it, but it's much slower reading.

One thing that I've been noting this time around is how these books deal with gender. I don't generally go to C.S. Lewis expecting great things with regards to gender issues or female characters, for three reasons: first, the whole Susan Pevensie debacle; second, how Dorothy L. Sayers once said that when the topic was sex and gender Lewis's mind just kind of went to static until somebody changed the subject; third, 'Ministering Angels' was truly awful. So when, late in Perelandra, Lewis suddenly started talking about gender and sexuality, and didn't stop in That Hideous Strength, I was kind of expecting to be angry at him.

And I am. But, weirdly, not as much as I thought I would be.

The bad things about the way the Space Trilogy handles gender are both really bad and obvious, so I'll list them first: gender is presented as real, the feminine gender is presented as 'lower' (though Lewis tries really hard to avoid equating this with 'worse', this was doomed to fail from the start and Lewis and all of his loved ones knew it) in some kind of spiritual hierarchy than the masculine, God is explicitly masculine, there is a character who is a gratuitously vicious butch lesbian stereotype, and the anti-contraception arguments in That Hideous Strength are completely insane and revolve around a deliberately absurd warning about eugenics and Merlin chopping people's heads off.

The good things are more subtle but also arguably more interesting, as the bad things are pretty much just what you'd expect of a conservative single male academic writing in the 1940s. In the realm of good things: gender and sex are different things and don't always go together in the allegedly 'normal' way (the main character, Elwin Ransom, is male in sex but actually feminine in gender as Lewis presents it), going 'against gender' isn't presented as sinful so much as something that just confuses the narrator and thus the author (the narration is first-person ancillary with Lewis appearing briefly in Perelandra), God isn't gendered in the same 'way' that humans and angels are (whatever that means), there are apparently five genders other than male and female that only exist in the Outer Planets, husbands who abuse their wives are roundly condemned, That Hideous Strength has a sympathetic coded-lesbian character in addition to its more explicitly lesbian evil character, and we're clearly not supposed to agree with everything Merlin says since he also recommends killing George VI for being a Saxon and insists on referring to Iraq as Babylon.

I think what this shows is that Lewis was interested in discussing gender within a small-l liberal Christian perspective but was hamstrung by his environment, which was filled with people who with the arguable exception of Williams were a lot more conservative than he was about these things, and by the fact that at the time that he wrote the Space Trilogy he had essentially no clue what a woman who wasn't Dorothy L. Sayers or G.E.M. Anscombe even looked like. Most of what he writes about sex is very questionable and I've spent a lot of That Hideous Strength with face firmly in palm.

It's interesting to think that with the exception of Til We Have Faces and maybe Surprised by Joy this is about as non-failing about gender as Lewis gets, and that most of my favourite authors tend either to have had 'of their time' views on gender (Lewis and all those premodern writers I love), to not really discuss it at all (Umberto Eco and his ilk), or to win at gender but fail in some other ways (Angela Carter, in my most humble opinion). I'm not sure if this means that I simply prefer older literature, that what I consider good portrayal of gender (as opposed to just awesome female characters, which is a broader category) simply isn't that common in general, that my interest in literature with religious themes or discussion ropes in questionable (though rarely if ever outright Godawful) dealings with gender as a sort of sacrificial lamb, or what.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Do I really HAVE to explain to some yutz the many, many reasons why Simoun is a better representation of queer people (even in a fantasy context) and theories and experiences of queerness than Queer as Folk is? Really? REALLY?

One is a Nishimura Junji series (some of the only serious and portentous work the man's ever done, so you know that he felt that this was a story that really had to be told) with input from Mashimo Kouichi (he of the Girls-with-Guns Trilogy) and major Japanese feminists of to-day, inspired heavily by works by Doris Lessing and Ursula K. Le Guin. It explores the nature of gender through a fantasy society and also touches on themes of transcendence, eternity, faith, class, purity, and real and fake realities.

The other is a Russell T Davies show and exhibits the general lack of interest in the ordinary as a mirror for the extraordinary that characterises the man's oeuvre. It doesn't even use the extraordinary as a tedious mirror of the ordinary as his time on Doctor Who did. It is simply (in my opinion) plodding and thinks that it is funnier and more subversive than it is. There is nothing transcendent, eternal, or pure about it.

I don't think there's a contest between these two shows, really. One of them has extremely compelling characters, nearly all of whom are SOME kind of queer, sometimes more than one kind at once, and a beautiful and evocative setting and plot, used to the service of important, resonant themes that lend real power to the idea of a universe in which strong, beautiful, queer people can 'give testament in a ruined world'. And it's not the one that the yutz I was talking to thinks it is.



Thursday, July 1, 2010

Which of these would you rather worship?

(Click images to embiggen.)

These are all images of the same person. Inari Okami, Japanse god/goddess/deity-thing of foxes, rice, agriculture, and wealth, and a chthonic and in some traditions afterlife deity. He/she/it can be a guy, a girl, an anthropomorphic fox (no word yet on George Clooney's involvement), a non-anthropomorphic fox, or, apparently, in the second image from the bottom, David Bowie from the film Labyrinth. Inari is associated with summer so I thought it'd be nice to post some of him/her/it for the beginning of the dog days.

Also, Google Image Search for "male inari" turns up mostly Inari-brand tennis shoes. THANKS A BUNCH, CAPITALISM.