Friday, 10 March 2017

Comparative literature and philosophy club I

+John Aegard made a post here which is a topic I like a lot so I started to write a reply but because my brain is stupid and works in unmanageable fractal patterns the reply started growing well beyond what I felt comfortable posting on G+, so I barfed it up here. No editing was done. You can see Part I in John's thread linked above, Part II was written later and posted only here. There's no formal reason why it's split in parts other than it was written in parts due to time constraints.

Part I The meme of rural vs. urban animosity is ancient. You've got Greek and Roman authors talking about how terrible and immoral the crowds of the city are and contrast it with solitude of the idyllic countryside. When ancient ideals and aesthetics are revived during the renaissance and classicism

But it's a shifting and complicated dynamic. By the time the Roman empire is falling Christianity is holding onto the vestiges of a complicated governmental machine, but unable to exert influence outside urbanised centres. The invading barbaric tribes don't hold any romantic appeal, the "noble barbarian" of Conan is a much later invention. Thus also the word pagan from the latin paganus (rustic, unlearned), suggesting that if you wanted to find a dark snake-worshiping cult you'd have to look in the rural areas and not among the city folk.

This dynamic largely persist through the middle ages: witches and heretics are on the fringes, in the forests and remote villagers. The idea of isolation remains however, so you have some monastic orders or hermits retreating away from civilisation. The meaning of "sacred" is closely linked to "set apart".

It is unsurprisingly after the renaissance and then the enlightenment that the dynamic starts to shift again. Bucolic landscapes become popular in art, cities are growing and are becoming a symbol of decadence and debauchery again. Education and the printing press mean people in cities are less likely to be deeply religious, so the Church starts losing influence there and instead digs in deep in the rural areas.

Now it's no secret Tolkien was a deeply conservative author and a catholic, so he (consciously or not) mirrored this dynamic to a degree, but like +Jason Lutes points out, he doesn't drag down Minas Tirith into the mud either. He was a medievalist, so he also understood the glory of the "point of light" city in a fallen, barbaric world. This has been a template for a lot of fantasy fiction since then, but it's by no means the only model. Criticism of Moorcock aside, his essay Epic Pooh, in which he chastises Tolkien precisely for this conservative, reactionary vision is important reading in this context:

Part II

China Mieville got a lot of inspiration from that Epic Pooh piece, and since he doesn't hide his marxist convictions he set out to write fantasy that was supposed to do the exact opposite of Tolkien. So in Tolkien you've got this image of Saruman's chimneys puffing smoke over the Shire as an allegory (Tolkien staunchly denied that his stuff should be read allegorically if I recall) of: "modernisation and industry bad, pastoral green englishness proper and good". It evokes how modern day English nationalists have taken Blake's "Englands mountains green" as a sort of unofficial hymn. But then in Mieville you've got New Crobuzon and the reMade and it's basically an allegory about how the powerful use industry as a dehumanizing tool (among other things) it really that different? For all the fuss Moorcock made about Tolkien's conservative idolatry of the pastoral rolling hills of the Shire, shifting the focus to write explicitly urban fantasy ends you with a lot of the same themes.

If Tolkien got his favourable descriptions of the pastoral Shire from his conservative catholic leanings (but again note that he doesn't really depict cities as evil, there's more of a melancholy resignation about losing the pristine countryside to modernity), I think Howard's similar overtones were more or less incidental. Howard was a body-builder and I think he was writing more under the influence of the ancients (Hyperborea is much more iron/bronze age than the middle ages) and the ancient moto "mens sana in corpore sano" (But that's just my guess).

And here we get back to the enlightenment and the idea of the "noble savage". It is a phrase often associated with Rousseau but comes from Dryden and is an old liberal idea that humans are innately moral and good (like in Eden) and become corrupted only through the mores of civilisation. This idea was formulated in opposition to Hobbes' "war of all against all" where the natural state is war and it is only civilisation & laws that create order and stop us from killing each other. The whole thing became a question of nature vs. culture and was never resolved, because it was predicated on the wrong assumptions. Up until the 19th century when Hölderlin was writing angsty stuff about how he wants to live in harmony with nature like the ancient Greeks (which he says were _so great_ precisely because of their "naturalness"), but seems unable to, obviously missing the point that any "harmony with nature" has never been possible in the first place. And then came Nietzsche (who also idolised the ancient Greeks) and said: "Yo, all this stuff, Christianity, enlightenment, this has all been _metaphysics_. We've been set on the wrong path by Plato who created an abstract notion of truth as existing above and beyond (meta) nature (physis). Thus man was turned away from the world he inhabits and began to curse and reject it as a fallen existence and retreating into an ossified and lifeless fortress of the spirit."

And this is the dynamic that Howard picks up (intentionally or not I do not know but probably someone has written about it somewhere) and it becomes a trope of a lot of sword & sorcery fiction. Conan's killing n' fucking is a nietzschean, Dionysian affirmation of life as opposed to the metaphysical negation of the religious, the mystic, the philosopher, the sorcerer. The way Thulsa Doom uses flesh is not "natural", he merely exploits the baser instincts of his followers, not for their own sake (like Conan does when he revels in drink, food, lovemaking or murdering), but to draw and display (sorcerous) power. So there is a long an complicated (I wouldn't dare to reduce it to just a simple binary) dynamic between the idea of the edenic-natural-body and the fallen-spiritual-mind and because of the misguided idea of an opposition between nature and culture it largely maps over to rural-urban. These ideas are persistent and ancient and show up in fiction and art in various ways, but the way the individual topos is presented depends a lot on whether your idea of Man's natural state is more Rousseau or more Hobbes.

Now, jumping back to politics, I come from a ex-socialist country and the rural-urban divide is starkly felt during election time, it's a polarization that has long existed. The cities skew left/liberal during election time and the rural areas skew right/conservative, especially in favour of a party that builds a lot of its rhetoric explicitly around anti-communism (we don't have a communist party). I'm no expert on US politics but it seems clear that this polarisation has intensified there in the last decade (even though it was probably present for a long time). Here the division makes sense as the rural areas suffered the brunt of the post-WW2 revolutionary violence, and as mentioned above, the church was more entrenched in the countryside ever since the enlightenment, and the church has a long standing conflict with atheist communism. The US doesn't have that dynamic but through other accidents of history the political alliances forming over the western democracies are largely oriented along the same axis.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that communism is anti-rural in this perspective though. There's the obvious hate of bourgeois culture as well as the the purges of intellectuals in various communist regimes. In Latin America various socialist movements and revolutions were much more concerned with land ownership and agrarian reforms and Lenin took land from the gentry to distribute it to the peasantry. So communism as an ideology doesn't really seem to follow this divide, it's more a matter of local customs and conditions that dictate who is going to suffer more.

Conversely Nazism is much more black and white. From nazi laws regarding the humane treatment of animals and the naturalist images of Riefenstahl's Olympia (nudism is still a strong movement in Germany today) to the concept of “blood and soil”, the nazis were quite overtly creating a romanticized and bucolic image of nature and noble rural living in harmony with the earth. This was contrasted with the fallen, decadent “high culture” of modern art etc. which was all attributed to a jewish conspiracy to destroy nations (and create a global dominion etc.). I do not with to retread the ugliness of it, but consider the pathological nazi descriptions of jews and contrast it to the dynamic described above and you could see why an excessive worship of the past mixed with romantic notions or depictions of nature and/or rural life can start to set off all kinds of alarms.

A lot of this is predicated on a false dichotomy since humans can't really be considered to have a culture distinct from their nature, having a culture is our nature. So it's about a conflict of cultures and these don't really have anything to do with their geographical location either (as mentioned in the beginning, once upon a time it was the rural areas that were pagan and the cities Christian and Christianity is prominent in many of the fast-growing cities of the so called third world). So these conflicts are historically contingent and not insurmountable. The fact however remains that polarisation between the rural and urban areas in the west is increasing and it's increasing along uncomfortable lines tied to dark ideas of the past.

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