Wednesday, July 27, 2011

the element that aroused people to stylized violence

Michael Dirda once asked, I recall, whether it was possible to go from a good book to a computer game, suggesting rhetorically that it wasn't, and sending out, I suppose, the message that the two things were too different, way too different, and yet people are always doing two things that are not similar. Waking is not like sleeping, and getting out of bed is not like either waking or sleeping, and playing chess is not like fighting a lion, but if an angry lion came into the room while you were playing chess and tried to eat you you would find a way to fight it, because you do not want to be eaten; no one does, or almost no one, though there are a few people who have a fetish for it, but they are so rare that they presented a court in Germany with a dilemma in 2004, namely, if you help a vorarephile act out his fetish by eating him, are you a murderer? Manslaughter, they decided, and gave the cannibal eight years in prison. Let that be a lesson to us all

But the memory of Dirda came to me earlier as I was reading Le Morte d'Arthur from cover to cover for the first time, because, "This book," I said to myself, "is built like World of Warcraft" -- in that the story is a series of quests, delivered to the hero by a series of people who are often complete strangers to him, and carried out with obedience and fidelity, even though the person might well be lying for all you know, and occasionally is.

Over and over again a knight meets a damosel or a wounded fellow knight, or some other person, and this person asks if the knight will help them by slaughtering an enemy, or rescuing a spouse, and Yes says the knight, he says yes I will Yes. In WoW this stranger is known as the questgiver and they wear a golden exclamation mark, but many of the questions they ask are the first cousins of the questions in Morte. Oh rescue my daughter, they say, or, won't you go to that hill over there and kill the demon who has locked my friends in cages? The centaur agitate me, they say, so please kill fifteen of them. Bring me their eyes.

And the knights don't argue, and in WoW you don't argue either, and there is the expectation that the quest will be accepted at face value, without the quester raising one eyebrow and saying, No, that sounds insane, or, I'm tired, why don't you do it yourself? Arthur's knights assume that the person is telling the truth. It's surprising that so few non-knights take advantage of this. Somewhere there is an alternative Morte, an even longer book, telling us about all the times somebody did the equivalent of calling an emergency number because their cat was stuck up a tree, or just because they were drunk.

The ritual action takes place, and then it happens again, and then it happens again: the quest is given, the quest is accepted, and the knight wallops away on his horse. But there are variations operating within this formula, and it's these variations that let the book be a book, a story, something impersonating movement, and not a laundry list of quests and walloping and helmets being brast, on and on and static like a Biblical Begat. (This corpse, it twitches, the statue, it moves.) The setting changes, the person giving the quest changes, the identity of the hero changes from one part of the book to another, the knight is maybe weary but he goes anyway, wondering if he will survive, or he is fresh and angry and goes off with confidence, or he is Sir Launcelot, who always wins, or he is Sir Cote Mal Tail, who is only an average fighter but does his best regardless. A surprising event will come between the knight and the end that he expected for his quest, and he will have to pursue goodness along another route. He can't walk away and leave the quest dangling unfinished, because he is a knight, and negligence looks not goodly in a knight.

In Book VI of the Morte a woman comes to Launcelot through a forest, pursued and terrified, begging him to save her from her husband, who believes, erroneously, that she has been sleeping with her cousin. Launcelot tells the man not to kill his wife. The husband courteously agrees to obey. "And so Sir Launcelot rode on the one side and she on the other: he had not ridden but a while but the knight bade Sir Launcelot turn him and look behind him, and said, Sir, yonder come men of arms after us riding. And Sir Launcelot turned him and thought no treason, and therewith was the knight and the lady on one side, and suddenly he swapped off his lady's head."

Traitor, says Launcelot, and goes to buffet him, but the knight refuses to fight. He falls "flat to the earth and gripped Sir Launcelot by the thighs, and cried mercy." Launcelot can't fight a man who won't fight, and to kill him as he crouches flat to the earth would be ignoble, and so he is presented with a problem, which he must think about, and solve, and so this episode in the book is not like any other, and nor is the one in which Sir Gawaine accidentally kills a lady who throws herself across the body of a knight he's trying to slay, and nor is the one in which -- but none of them are completely like the others.

So there are the constants and then there are the variables -- one thing stays stiff, one thing jiggles -- and it's like a life, or a day, because in a day you get up, you walk to the kitchen, you eat, but the food you eat might be an egg or it might be cereal or natto or maybe you have to run outside to the shops to find something edible because the cupboard is empty; and like this each day is different. But the larger structure is there, the sun comes up, the sun goes down, and food is eaten. And I start to remind myself that in literature there are variations on the nature of the repetition itself. Elizabeth Jolley repeats scenes almost word for word, pages apart, Gertrude Stein writes almost the same words in a different order, and Ann Killough, whose Beloved Idea I found at the library a while ago, sets a word down on the page and then repeats it stiffly in a new sentence, carrying this word on and picking up a new word -- first "wall", here, then "garden:"

She thought perhaps it was the wall

That perhaps the metaphorical wall around the garden was the element that aroused people to stylized violence.

That made them want to deposit their ideological ordnance inside the garden and make a clean getaway.

In How I Became a Nun, César Aira's narrator remembers that when she was six she played a game, pretending to be a teacher instructing an imaginary class; she invents forty-two children and all of them have to have (because this is a rule of the game) dyslexia, but in each case it's a different kind of dyslexia. "For example, then, one child's peculiar dyslexia consisted of putting all the vowels together at the beginning of a word, followed by the consonants … I hadn't invented disorders so much as systems of difficulty." And the large event is animated by vibrations as a cage is animated by birds. "The repetition that didn't always happen," writes Aira's narrator, "gave me a measure of life:a surprise gift for me to unwrap, mad with joy, as the flow of sound [from the radio] made up its mind to be the same or different."

Aira's book was translated by Chris Andrews. Malory's book has been rewritten several times by different authors, each author trying to make the language less antique. Mark Sarvas posted on the subject two weeks ago. The "original Malory" he quotes from (Oxford University Press, 1971) is written like this:

"I wyll wel," said Arthur, and rode fast after the swerd.

And whan he cam home the lady and al were out to see the joustyng. Thenne was Arthur wroth and saide to hymself, "I will ryde to the chircheyard and take the swerd that stycketh in the stone, for my broder sir Kay shall not be without a swerd this day."

My 1994 Modern Library copy modernises the spelling but not much else.

I will well, said Arthur, and rode fast after the sword, and when he came home, the lady and all were out to see the jousting. Then was Arthur wroth, and said to himself, I will ride to the churchyard, and take the sword with me that sticketh in the stone, for my brother Sir Kay shall not be without a sword this day.


  1. 'Somewhere there is an alternative Morte, an even longer book, telling us about all the times somebody did the equivalent of calling an emergency number because their cat was stuck up a tree, or just because they were drunk.' I like the implication that the Knights were the forerunners of the Fire Brigade.

  2. After nine hundred pages of people running up to these knights and shouting, "Excuse me Sir, but could you give me a hand with my mortal enemy / kidnapped spouse / jealous cousin / dragon / castle / inheritance / jousting problems," they start to look like the only emergency services in the entire kingdom. They're so sincere, and so responsive, that I can't believe there was never a time when someone came up and asked them to go over there and rescue a damosel and then pelted off snickering because it was really their best mate, half cut, tied to a tree, with his pants on his head.

  3. The stories I like are the ones like Erec et Enide, where someone has been slacking off on his Fire Brigade duties because he's been too enthusiastic about his wife for a change, so now he's got to make up for it by taking double shifts, so to speak, and his wife indignantly comes with him.

    What if people lied differently: not that it was a damosel when really it was a cat up a tree, but that it was a mortal enemy when really it was quite a nice fellow? How is Lancelot supposed to know?

  4. That's the problem I can see too. Why weren't people constantly siccing these knights on everybody they didn't like? If you wanted to look outside the remit of the book for a reason, you could say that they were afraid that the knight would discover the lie and return to visit his wrath upon them, and that it was better to suffer the agony of impotent enmity than suffer the agony of Sir Launcelot buffeting you across the head "until it brast." (This book is full of things brasting. Armour brasts, spears brasts, someone's neck brasts. It's all brast, brast, brast.) But in the Malory universe it just isn't a thing that people do. (There is at least one cat-up-a-tree episode. A damosel asks Launcelot if he will bring back her hawk and Launcelot agrees. He's reluctant, because climbing trees is not one of his strong points. He takes off his armour and climbs the tree. But lo, the lady's husband springs out of the bushes below. Ha ha, Sir L., he says, I've got you now. Dishonourable man, says Launcelot accurately, let me get my sword at least. Do you think I'm stupid? says the knight. No way. I shall smite thee right now as you are. Dammit, says Launcelot, now I have to get nasty, and he rips a limb off the tree and buffets the man to death.)

  5. The Eric et Enide story was one that I kept waiting for while I was reading Malory, but he left it out. Where is it? I thought. Where is it? Then I realised that we were virtually at the climax and still it hadn't happened yet and so it wasn't going to happen, and, darn, I thought.