Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Essay Rant Thingy

Elitism vs Populism. In case you missed it the first time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On Profanity: 4

Part 3

The Abuse of “Rape”

I made the case above that the usage of “rape” in question can be considered, strictly speaking, correct. The word “rape” has a wider sense that renders the claim that “Brent Weeks raped The Wheel of Time” not figurative but literal. It is not an abuse of “rape”, not an abuse of its essential meaning. If we decide that it is, actually, does that mean that somewhere down the line we might not even be able to describe it as an abuse of its essential meaning? Because in one sense of the word “abuse” it has come to signify a very specific type of criminal mistreatment perpetrated by one human upon another, acts of molestation up to and including the rape of children. The word is now so bound to domestic abuse and child abuse that it may only be matter of time before that specific sense overshadows the more general sense and someone, somewhere, somewhen, ends up discussing whether the use of the word “abuse” in relation to the meaning of words risks offending abuse victims and trivialising their suffering.

That said, times change and the meanings of words do change with them. There’s no question that the word “rape” is now so strongly bound to the sense of forced sex that this meaning has come to dominate almost completely. The more general sense, where it is basically cognate with “rapine”, has meanwhile clearly fallen out of use to the extent that we might well consider it obsolete rather than just archaic. Despite my own instinctual querulousness about the historical root of the term, I’d have to say that before my quick nosey through its etymology I would probably have labelled the sort of usage in question as figurative. In fact, a large part of the import of the word, when used in a statement like “Brent Weeks raped The Wheel of Time” indubitably comes from the shock power of the figuration, the imagery of sexual violence. It’s the same reason we talk about being fucked, fucked-up or fucked-over, about being shafted, buggered, screwed. No, we don’t actually picture Brent Weeks forcing himself upon an epic fantasy series, but the resonance is there. In the past a phrase like “the rape of the countryside” might have been readable as a literal description, it might have functioned referentially, but maybe it’s simply not possible now to read it without it functioning figuratively. And if this is the case should that change my ethical position? How likely is it that most will read this as a figurative use? How does that affect its impact on the reader? How ethical is it to exploit that figuration in this context? Does this sort of usage constitute an abuse of its power?

I can see where the idea would come in here that such quasi-figurative uses, exploiting the power of the word in contexts of negligible importance relative to that of forced sex, might be considered trivialising. But let’s say we have an ongoing process of wanton ecological devastation that most know nothing about and care even less, where those who do know and care are powerless to prevent it. Say those concerned people, in the attempt to put across to the unknowing just how shocked they should be by this plundering and violation, this rapine of the land — say the clearest way they can articulate it is in the phrase “the rape of the countryside”. I pick this example because it feels like a grey area to me. The spectrum of relative importance we’re dealing with in such quasi-figurative usages of the word “rape” runs from the triviality of “Brent Weeks raped The Wheel of Time” right up to “the rape of Belgium” or “the rape of Africa” or “the rape of Rwanda” — to usages, that is, which attempt to encapsulate in that word entire days, weeks, months or even years of atrocities on such a scale that it beggars belief. When those atrocities include multiple instances of rape that certainly couldn’t be seen as trivialising the term. But if you’re talking about different kinds of devastation, trying to convey how shockingly something has been violated, I could see a lot of people going either way on whether “the rape of a countryside” basically mattered enough. I’d lay money that if you found the right environmentalist and the right feminist you could spark a flamewar with that question. So as for me: Would my ethics tell me that this is trivialising rape, that in their position I wouldn’t use that phrase? And would those ethics tell me that I should step up to the mark and speak my mind about it?

To tackle the second question first, from a basic anti-censorship position, I’ll largely defend free speech regardless of most other ethical issues. I pretty much reject wholesale any moral dicta over what “must not” be said. And by that I mean I’ll argue against social disapprobation as well as actual legislation; moral dicta need not be written into law for them to effectively impose limitations on what can and can’t be said. At the point where the condemnation kicks in, when I start frowning at someone for using the phrase “the rape of the countryside”, telling them that this is an insult to rape victims, for me this is the point when my own judgements of what I should do become judgements of what you should do. And if enough of us agree long enough and strong enough, that judgement gradually establishes itself as a moral dicta; for that reason I’m just as ready to take a stand if people start meting out judgements of what “could but should not” be said. I’m all for the idea of having one’s own choice of words guided by an ethics of etiquette, but that choice is an individual’s prerogative, to my mind. I’ll happily volunteer an opinion if asked, or talk about ethical issues in a theoretical discussion, or cruelly mock a bad choice of words on aesthetic grounds, but when it comes to imposing my personal ethics on another’s turn of phrase… fuck that shit.

In general, that is. There are occasions, of course, when one of those key ethical maxims — “treat people with a bit of fucking respect” — comes into play strong enough that I reckon, actually, I think I will just make it clear what I think of the terms “paki” and “raghead”, your Royal Retarded Racist Fuckwitness. But that would generally be where the speech act is the bandying of a prejudice-born derogatory epithet, and it’s less about the person’s use of the word than it is about them breathing. Whether a phrase like “the rape of the countryside” trivialises rape or not it is not part of the distinct process of abjection that results in racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise asininely bigoted slurs. It is not in and of itself a racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise asininely bigoted slur. “Nigger” is insulting. “Kike” is insulting. “Wop” is insulting. “Slut” is insulting. “Bitch” is insulting. “Whore” is insulting. “Faggot” is insulting. “Homo” is insulting. “Queer” is insulting. They’re all insulting in a very specific way and for a very specific reason. They are deliberately and aggressively hostile, othering and demeaning. They are not just products of the process of abjection but actually constituent parts of that process, acts of abjection. A phrase like “the rape of the countryside” is not, so for me it simply doesn’t call for the verbal pistol-whipping that the sort of cretinous curs who use the epithets above do.

But if we’re talking purely theoretically, in terms of ethics, if it was simply me choosing what words to use in describing rural despoliation, would I baulk at “the rape of the countryside”, in case rape victims hearing or reading my words might feel insulted at the comparative triviality. It’s not very likely, I’d have to say. If we’re assuming that this was an important concern for me, given my propensity for rhetoric, figuration and just plain old-fashioned fucking swearing, I’d probably be a damn sight more colourful than that. Hell, we could probably cut to the chase here, because if I’d ever read any Brent Weeks or Robert Jordan and cared enough to comment, I can easily imagine myself throwing out a phrase like the one that started this all off. It’s all too likely that, asked to describe how I felt after seeing The Phantom Menace for the first time, for example, I might say something along the lines of “George Lucas raped my childhood”. Actually it would quite possibly be along the lines of “George Lucas raped my childhood. He kidnapped it from me when I was sitting in the cinema, drove it to an abandoned warehouse, tied it up and burned it with cigarettes it till it was sobbing for its mommy, and then raped it. He kept on raping my childhood with his brand new fucking CGI-enhanced gosh-wow-isn’t-it-so-fucking-spectacular dick until my childhood was fucking anally ripped to death, and then he took the corpse, he dug a shallow grave in the forest and he left it there to fucking rot. But, you know what? That wasn’t fucking good enough for him. Oh, no. He had to dance on the fucking grave. No, tell a lie, he pissed on the fucking grave to soften the soil so he could dig up the fucking corpse, wire it to a giant X-Wing Fighter and make it dance like a fucking puppet of Jar-Jar Fucking Binks while he fisted its rotting arsehole and wanked himself off over every single Star Wars comic I ever owned.”

In for a penny, in for a pound, I reckon.

So why the blithe disregard for the possibility that I might be trivialising rape here, not to mention murder, necrophilia and, by implication, the perpetrations of such actions on a child? It’s not that these are just words; because that would be a cop-out, and these words are deliberately chosen for their graphic transgression of any decent human being’s sense of what’s not just wrong but abhorrent. It’s not that I reserve the right to be as creatively hyperbolic as I damn well please, given that the craft of canting rant demands it; because I’d feel the same if I stuck to the root figuration that I’m riffing off, the simple “George Lucas raped my childhood”. It’s not that I simply don’t care about causing offence; because the general maxim of “treat people with a bit of fucking respect” is based on a general appreciation of people’s niceties and a tolerance of their quirks. (Although this is a more complex issue as sometimes said quirks becomes irks requiring the attention of a two-fingered salute. Sometimes the Grundys and Whitehouses are just asking for a “fucking rotter” — quite literally, in Grundy’s case. Hell, I will, on occasion — when dealing with homophobic hate-mail, for example — quite deliberately adopt a language of heteronormative behaviour-based insults which carry a sense of emasculation or sexual passivity (“pussy”, “bitch”, “cocksucker”) precisely because these terms are pretty much guaranteed to be the most effective tools for baiting someone driven by macho bullshit, and because I feel I can simultaneously make it completely bloody clear that I’m fucking proud to be called any of those things by a bigoted fuckwit, that I fucking revel in it because I know the pitiable crawling fear of domination they signify, and that makes me the top in this verbal shafting, no matter who the actual faggot is.) No. Rather I see such figurative language as “George Lucas raped my childhood” as acceptable because every such use is an implicit assertion that rape is fucking abhorrent, that the rapist is fucking abhorrent, and that the victim of such an abhorrent act has every fucking right to be furious. It does not, I think, trivialise rape. Rather it asserts, implicitly but certainly, that rape is a fucking benchmark in the field of abhorrent acts. As an act of hyperbole, I don’t think it can be dissipated with overuse. I don’t think applying it to books plundered for ideas will drag the concept of rape down in our minds to the inconsequential scale of plagiarism, no more than overuse of the word “cosmic” as an indicator of scale used in the most banal circumstances really affects the scale at which we imagine the cosmos. If anything, I suspect that just as “cosmic” points to the cosmos to signify a vastness we cannot really imagine, figurations of rape point to that act to signify an abhorrence at the edge of imagination.

Oh, I have heard that figuration used in truly suspect ways, heard it used in the “rapine” sense, applied to some resource or other, and the phrase turned with a sort of cosy, jokey wonder at the sheer thoroughness with which that resource was exploited. I’ve heard it used that way — in a business context, needless to say — with a sort of unquestioned obliviousness to any idea that where “pillage”, say, is fancifully redolent of Vikings and buccaneers and thereby open to a casual figurative use imbued with the romance of the rogue, “rape” is not something you really want to be comparing your own actions to with even a hint of ease in your voice let alone wonder. It’s one thing to describe a bargain, with relish, as “a total steal”. It’s another thing to describe an optimally utilised resource, with similar relish, as “totally raped”. But the problem here is not trivialisation; it’s the shift of valuation, the reversal of polarities that blithely paints rape in the charm of a rakish escapade. One key word by which this type of bullshit marks itself out is, I suspect, “totally”, and where it does, on message boards and forums in particular, we do have the sort of vague inchoate usages Larry points to, but as personal boasts and taunts rather than complaints — X “totally raped” Y, Y “totally raped” Z, with “rape” substituting for “ream” or “pwn” in a puerile crowing of one’s own domination or another’s victories vicariously-enjoyed. If you’re working with an ethical maxim of “treat people with a bit of fucking respect”, that sort of crassness fails on all counts, I’d say.

When it comes to “Brent Weeks raped The Wheel of Time” though, we’re not dealing with that sort of braggartry and boorishness. The question is whether or not it’s acceptable to say that a nation’s countryside has been raped, that a people’s heritage has been raped, that a city’s culture has been raped, that an archeological site has been raped, that a writer’s creation has been raped. I’m inclined to suspect that this particular claim vis-a-vis Weeks and Jordan is insubstantial given that the texts in question are Epic Fantasy and the basis for the comparison is shared tropes. And I’m not convinced that even straight plagiarism would be sufficiently violating given that it leaves the original intact. But I can imagine the situation where a writer of seminal fantasy series, say, specified that he did not want other writers to produce sequels, treating it as a shared universe, only for his estate to authorise prequels to be written after his death. Or where a publishing subsidiary of a vast American entertainment corporation, say, exploited their independence from a UK Act of Parliament, which extended in perpetuity the copyright of a classic children’s fantasy that had been gifted to a children’s hospital, in order to publish derivative sequels that display little concern with the integrity of the original. Maybe these classify as exceptional circumstances, but I’m not sure the word “rape” would be entirely unjustified here.

And morally speaking, if we garnered a broad spectrum of opinions, I doubt that the majority would consider this usage wrong. I’m tempted to say that it simply isn’t — that mores are based on consensus and therefore measurable, that whether or not there’s a moral injunction against this type of usage is a straight yes-or-no question which we can answer by simply studying the culture, and that the conventionality of such usages indicates the general consensus is, in this case, no. That the consensus of those few comments on Larry’s blog drifts in the other direction though is highly interesting, because it suggests to me that the perception I’m basing that judgement on may be either out-dated or parochial. I could be just plain wrong, but it feels more like I’ve websurfed into a moré that’s either nascent or alien, a consensus that’s emerging out of a general shift in attitudes or one that I’ve simply been unaware because it differs between UK and US cultures. It might be a mixture of both, for that matter. And the difference might be between the culture at large and a particular subculture of people with shared literary interests and political concerns. Whatever, it’s the general discomfort with “rape” as a “word of power” that niggles at me, the swirling cloud of vague apprehensions, notions of offense and profanity, responsibility and transgression.

What worries me at the core, I think, is the idea that a moral dicta imposed around “rape”, proscribing its “casual” use as vulgar, rendering it an act of moral transgression to speak this word flippantly, while it might serve to affirm the gravity of the crime, might at the same time, for that very reason, prime that word for exaptation into the realm of swearing proper. If it becomes a word we frown on others for using irresponsibly, when does it become a word we scold children for saying inappropriately? When does it become a word we scold them simply for saying, because they’re children, and they shouldn’t be using such words because they’re too young to know what they mean? When do they start to learn that the word has power simply in the utterance as much because of this taboo as because of its meaning? When do they start to use it as a deliberate transgression? When do they start to use it for the crude effect of it? When does the usage shift from a derisory description, “he totally raped you” to a directed insult, “rape you!” or “you rape victim!”? (Check the internet for the answer: it’s already out there in those forms.) So when does it become a word we need a euphemism for because it’s now considered a bona fide obscenity? So what does the rape victim say when “I got raped last night” just means you got drunk, got high, got wasted, got fucked?

As repulsive as I find those appropriations -- these abuses of "rape" -- my concern about tiptoeing around the word — reserving it from uses where it is at least figuratively appropriate, even if it is gross hyperbole — is that making it the focus of a moral dicta, a taboo of limitation, may simply fuel those appropriations, hasten its transformation into a “dirty” word that does sit comfortably alongside “pussy”, “sissy”, “bitch” and “cunt” to some future analogue of me because its literal meaning has long since been perverted and usurped, warped and twisted into a weapon.

On Profanity: 3

Part 2

Cunt, Cunt, Cunt, Cunt, Cunt

Across cultures, geographically and historically, profanities vary but they pretty much fall into certain semantic fields — religion, race, sex, organs, effluvia, disease. Other than with religion (where the profanity is actually a misuse of a word considered sacred) and disease (where modern medicine has largely disempowered the curses of old, and words like “scurvy” are just quaint antiquities,) the “dirty” word almost always has its “clean” counterpart — “black person” for “nigger”, “fellatio” for “cocksucking”, “vagina” for “cunt”, “faeces” for “shit”. Where we are concerned with profanity, worried about causing offense, we’ll use the “clean” word rather than the “dirty” one, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the profanity of those words does not simply reside within them as some mystical quality, a power they are essentially imbued with because of what they refer to, taboo as an invocation of that which is itself taboo. If this were the case the “clean” words would be equally offensive. Rather it is that these terms have become inextricable from the abhorrence or disdain in which the moral dicta defining the object as abject is articulated.

Take the variant usages of the word “cunt”. The word “cunt” was not considered even remotely profane when, back in the 1500s, it was used in a medical textbook to refer, in entirely anatomical terms, to “the cunt of a cow”. Now it is inextricable, for the conservative, from the abhorrence through which the vagina is judged as morally obscene, as a thing in and of itself. For the US conservative it is also inextricable from the abhorrence through which any “overly” strong woman is judged as a moral transgressor, in a vilely reactionary misogyny. Larry quite rightly points to the pairing of “bitch” with “uppity”, leaving the reader to make the connect with “uppity nigger”. As I understand it — bearing in mind this is an outsider’s perspective — “cunt” is loaded with similar connotations of stridency and domineering aggression. Where the insolence of a “bitch” (like that of a “cur”) is generally the underhand nastiness — back-stabbing or passive-aggressive sniping — of the abject, of one who knows they lack the status to confront their target full-on, the viciousness of a “cunt” is a step on even from that of the “shrew” or “harpy” in its openness, its assumption of the right to act aggressively. So, in the US, the use of the word “cunt” in relation to women alone becomes a negation of that right for women alone, a reification of a profoundly misogynistic power-dynamic. Interestingly, a counter-taboo has emerged as, for the US liberal, it has become inextricable from the abhorrence through which that conservative misogyny is itself judged as morally obscene. So across the political spectrum, for anyone thinking in essentialist terms, the mores render the word anathema from both directions.

In the UK and Australia, however, because the word has remained applicable across the genders, that counter-taboo has not developed. There is no abhorrence of a conservative misogyny that labels any “overly” strong woman a “cunt” because the word is not used about or at women specifically. Without that power dynamic of gender discrimination, in fact, a cunt in the UK is just a prick with a little added spite. Yes, yes, it’s still a female body part too, but that’s not the base issue. I’ll repeat this because I know how taboos work: the reaction of moral abhorrence that’s triggered at the breaching of the taboo generally overrides any ability to question the validity of that moral abhorrence; that’s exactly what taboos are designed to do; so I’m almost certain there’s Americans out there too busy reacting with outrage at spuriously projected implications (“you’re denying the reality of my outrage!”) to parse what I’m saying properly. In the UK and Australia the word “cunt” does not and cannot express the same type of direct misogyny it does in the US, because its applicability to males, privileged as they are with the assumption of legitimate empowerment, requires the excision from its significance of any sense that he or she to whom the term “cunt” is being applied is exercising an illegitimate empowerment. (In so far as that “illegitimacy” is a product of gender-based power-dynamics at least. Like “arsehole”, the word “cunt” challenges the legitimacy of overweening aggression in and of itself; it says, “You have no right to act like that, because no one does.”) This is not to say that the word is simply not misogynist. In fact, if we unravel the precise differences in cultural usages, we can reveal, I think, a deeply twisted misogyny that needs to be soundly thrashed.

So. In the UK, the word is condemnatory of any abhorrently vicious person, but that condemnation, as an action in and of itself, is not judged morally obscene. If we call someone an “arsehole”, this is rude, but it may be justifiably rude if the person is being an arsehole. However, on a feminist basis, using the term for a female sex organ to condemn a vile person and thereby implicitly denigrating that sex organ and potentially, by association, the gender it belongs to, can be judged as wrong. “I’d call him a cunt, but I like cunts,” I’ve heard said on numerous occasions as a way of articulating that sense, the notion that using the term in that way is an insult to a perfectly nice sexual organ and the perfectly nice people who have them. But this associative denigration is so indirect that it’s far less likely to become the subject of a taboo. Note that the comment is not “I’d call him a cunt but I like women.” There is no question that if you call someone a dog as an insult, you must consider dogs lowly enough that the comparison is insulting. So there’s an implicit insult being applied to all dogs. So too with cunts. But does the denigration carry over to the woman who possesses the cunt? What if I was to say, “I’d call him a dick, but I like dicks”? It makes perfect sense to me. If you call someone a dick as an insult, you must consider dicks lowly enough that the comparison is insulting. So there’s an implicit insult being applied to all dicks. I think that’s rather unfair to dicks. But does the denigration carry over to the man who possesses the dick? I’d call him a dick, but I like men? Hmmm.

I’d call him an arsehole, but I like arseholes? (Well, come on. I am THEE…. Sodomite Hal Duncan!!)

I’d call him an arsehole but I like humans?

I’d call him a dog but I like dog-owners?

In the US, the word “cunt” is wielded as a weapon against any strong woman, so it’s cut and dry. It’s patently bloody obvious that the word “cunt” is misoygnist when it directly expresses misogyny. If we used the word “arsehole” to refer only to gay men it would express a comparable homophobia, and in a comparable manner, binding the simple conservative taboo about the body part to an equally simple but nastier bigotry, multiplying the force of the venom, and implicitly attempting to reduce a human being to a passive object, a submissive thing, a hole subjugated by the penetrating phallus. But we do not use the word “arsehole” that way. And in the UK we do not use the word “cunt” that way.

Anyway, here in the UK, there’s a more complex judgement to be made of whether that associative denigration is even really taking place, and of how much impact it might have; and there’s enough variance of opinion there that the consensus sufficient for a moré to emerge just hasn’t coalesced. A person could go either way. Sure, you could construe it as an insult to all women, in the implication that they’re lowly enough to possess a thing that is, by implication, so lowly that comparing someone to it is an insult. But you could also see that as kind of fucking tenuous. And if you’re a liberal who disregards the conservative taboo attached to the vagina, the word “cunt” may be categorised with “fuck” and “dick” in their purely sexual meanings, as words which are ultimately as acceptable as the organs and acts they refer to. Indeed, if you’re a radical type you might well consider the use of those words an implicit assertion of the acceptability of those organs and acts, a defiance of the conservative moral dicta and the abhorrence it represents. And yet, “cunt” is still the most powerful swear word. As one of those radical types who feels no qualms at all about using the word “cunt” to refer to the vagina, I know that in my arsenal of insults aimed at people, it would take a hell of a lot for me to call someone a cunt. Is that because I instinctively worry about the associative denigration of cunts and women? I don’t think it is. For me, the physical link between cunts and women renders that word no more misogynist than the physical link between arseholes and gay men renders that word homophobic. Because in my culture there is no real semantic link, no use of either word in that specific way. So it must be something else.

Now, throw in Australia and it gets really interesting, because there, it seems, the condemnatory implication stands in stark contrast to the word’s use in affectionate badinage, at the level of “bum” — a greeting like, “How ya doin, ya cunt?” being equivalent to “How ya doin, ya bum?”. As surprising as it is to someone from the UK to hear the word used in that way, I can only imagine how shocking it would be to many from the US. But without the moral abhorrence of misogyny, I can make sense of it fairly quickly. In badinage, you can call your best friend a bum, a dick, an arse, a fanny, a twat, or a hundred other things, so why not a cunt? Is misogyny an issue in such cases? If there’s little or no real denigration going on, then there can be little or no real associative denigration, surely. And if we don’t have to worry that we’re slandering an entire gender, we’re faced with only the conservative taboo around the body part, a taboo that we can treat with the contempt it deserves. If there’s no reason to respect that taboo, we can use the word “cunt” as an informal term for that body part as freely as we’d use the word “dick”. Use it freely in affectionate badinage and we render it as mild as the term “twat” — which carries the exact same anatomical meaning. No?

And yet it’s still more complex, because regardless of the badinage, in Australia the word is still also used as a forceful epithet, just as it is in the UK. Sure, if you’re using it to a mate and don’t mean it, it’s fine, but if you’re squaring up to someone in a bar and you call them a cunt, that’s — as it is in the UK — way beyond the limits of civilised discourse and right at the limit of one-word verbal hostility. So where the fuck does “cunt” get this force from? Is there just enough concern in a liberal like me that it might be misogynist for it to have that extra weight of transgression? Is there just enough vestigial conservatism buried somewhere in my psyche that the vagina reference still imparts an aspect of abhorrence? If so why wouldn’t “twat” be just as powerful? I think there might be something sneakier going on. I think when that word surfaces in the consciousness, as anger brings you up to the limit of self-control, and you realise just how fucking angry you are in the summoning of that word, at that point the taboo kicks in and all reason is suspended, as the wave of abhorrence washes over you. Those two could easily be feeding off each other, or disguising themselves as each other. You can’t tell. Maybe that abhorrence you’re feeling is at the misogyny of the word alone, and you are actually entirely comfortable with female anatomy. Maybe it’s some deep-seated Freudian neurosis and you are misogynist down there in the depths. Maybe it’s an abhorrence of the misogyny of your own abhorrence, or maybe it’s an abhorrence of the mere possibility. Maybe there’s no liberal outrage or conservative misogyny at all, just abhorrence, at this person in front of you, abhorrence circling in a feedback loop of anger at this bastard in front of you, abhorrence building and reaching for the word that will encapsulate it in a communicable form not because of what it means, but simply because of what it is — taboo — because all you need to communicate right now to this person is that they’ve driven you to the limit, to the crossing of a line, the breaking of a taboo, because that’s how much you abhor this person, this prick, this arsehole, this bastard, this fucker, this cocksucking, mungmunching, gleetlicking, shiteating, goddamn…


We should not use this word, according to the moral dicta of both liberal and conservative, because to do so would be to cause offense. But largely it would cause offense because it is the “dirty” word, the profane word, the transgressive word, the taboo word — because, in other words, we should not use it. As Steven Pinker says, in The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, “taboo words, though evocative of the nastier aspects of their connotations, don’t get their punch from those connotations alone. Taboo status itself gives a word an emotional zing, regardless of its actual referent.” So here’s my hypothesis on that “deeply twisted misogyny that needs to be soundly thrashed”. I suspect that, outside the US, in the UK and Australia, those liberal and conservative dicta are part of what gives the word “cunt” its power. But I suspect that the vagina-squick is not actually so powerful and the PC-angst not so extreme as to fully explain the force it carries. Rather I think there’s another taboo shared by both liberals and conservatives alike that is just as crucial, maybe more so — the moral injunction against offending the delicate sensibilities of the fairer sex. It’s not universal, I’m sure, and it takes different forms according to different political stripes, but the sense that swearing is a male domain, that one should not swear in the presence of women, that one should certainly not swear at them, might have, I suspect, at least some part to play in the selection of “cunt” as the A-Bomb of swearing. What could be more offensive to the frail ears of a lady than the mention of her unmentionable. Why! She might faint! Or, oh my God, what if talking in such coarse, crude language about a woman’s sexual organs could conceivably be read as a vulgar, macho contempt for the concerns of womankind? She might be outraged! I mean, the idea of women talking about our dicks doesn’t bother us, cause we’re men, and men aren’t fussed about such things, but we can’t expect women to see our locker-room talk as anything other than sexist objectification.

Granted, the concerns of the liberal on the matter seem more justifiable, less condescending paternalism and more valid consideration for the feminist issues of language use. But if we’re dealing, as we are in the UK, with a word that’s not directly derogatory as it is in the US, if any associative insult to women is equivalent to that which occurs to men with the word “dick”, and if the whole taboo around the vagina itself is just fucked-up nonsense, then the feminist issues at play here, in this culture are negligible and that’s not consideration, it’s just pussy-footing. We’re really just avoiding the word “cunt” for the same reason Uncle Fred who was in the Merchant Navy and worked on the docks will strew filth willy-nilly through every sentence, but will never swear in front of his good missus, or any lady for that matter… unless maybe it’s the odd uncontrolled expletive at the stubbing of a toe, a “shit!” or a “bugger!”, followed by a quick “Pardon my French,” but, oh, even then, even then, there’s that word, that one word that’s just beyond the pale, that he’d just never use in the presence of the opposite sex, because it’s the one that would surely shock the little lady to the core. And if this is true it makes for a damn good candidate for the very mechanism of selection and reinforcement by which “cunt” becomes the swear word that trumps them all.

(It occurs to me that many of the other Big Curses — “bastard”, “whore”, “son of a bitch” (which in other countries is “son of a whore”), “motherfucker” — might owe their selection to a similar principle applied to children and parents, mothers in particular. If we think of two other moral dicta as being articulated in the phrase, “not in front of the children”, or the question, “Would you use that mouth with your mother?” it seems only logical that those taboos would empower words dealing with parentage, legitimacy and Oedipal incest. Further, it’s fairly common knowledge that swearing in previous centuries has been far more focused on religion than it is today, down to the fact that the semantic nonsensicality of using words like “fucking” as fucking emphasis more than anything else fucking suddenly makes complete fucking sense if we only realise that the goddamn word “fucking” has been damn well brought in to replace a goddamn religious epithet which does work semantically in positions that the goddamned word “fucking” just fucking doesn’t. So, is it simply that this religious swearing has fallen out of vogue, is it that our culture has rendered it less taboo just by becoming more secularised… or is it possible that the loss of import in a more secular age is specifically because any taboos as to what one would say in front of God can only be as strong as one’s faith in his existence?)

Anyway, the question that follows on logically from this gnarly, fucked-up hypothetical is whether all of this means that the appropriately feminist strategy in the face of such paternalism is to use the word “cunt” freely, breaching the taboos at each and every opportunity (cause taboos are cunts), using it when you stub your toe (cause that’s a cunt), using it in front of women (are there women reading this, cause if there are, and you’re offended, feel free to call me a cunt), using it indiscriminately about men and women alike (cause mankind and womankind have pretty much the same ratio of cunts) and to men and women alike (but, no, if you’ve got this far then you’re almost certainly not a cunt, so I’m hardly going to call you a cunt), as a way to dissipate its power. But given that the misogyny is revealed by the word’s adoption rather than fostered by its use, I’m not sure it actually makes much difference anyway. Still, if we scatter it willy-nilly like “bollocks!” and “arse!” maybe we can tame the wild “cunt”. As Pinker points out, “Words can shed their taboos over time.” As example he offers the scandalising effect of Elisa Doolittle’s outburst of “Not bloody likely!” in Pygmalian, the key word of which — “bloody” — had become so mild by the time of the play’s adaptation into My Fair Lady that the writers had to add in the Ascot races scene with her shouting, “Move yer bloomin’ arse!” Maybe we need a 21st century remake with her calling the bookie a cunt.

Whatever, the more interesting questions are those that arise when we bring in the American use of the term as a directly misogynistic label. Let’s suppose, for example, that we in the UK don’t embark on any grand desensitisation campaign but allow the word “cunt” to retain its power, continue to use it as the Big Bad Word for women’s sex organs and people, male or female, that we really don’t like. What happens as the interweb brings us into closer contact with all those Americans for whom it’s a hate-word as anathema as “nigger”? What happens when, in some forum discussion, someone from the UK dismisses Donald Rumsfeld or Walt Disney or Ann Coulter as a “cunt”? Two out of three times, applied to a man — a Rumsfeld or Disney — the gender-neutral meaning of the term might be gleaned from context or an awareness of other usages; even if some can’t sever the word from its gender-specific use, and wrongly project a sort of… emasculating intent, they might consider that an acceptable treatment of men ruled by their own bollocks, so to speak. That third time, however, when the term is applied to a woman, the meaning conveyed to most, if not all, US participants may be entirely different from that intended. Calling Ann Coulter a cunt may read as deeply offensive for its misogyny even to those who hate her with a passion. What happens then if an awareness of the US meaning causes those from the UK to avoid this potentially incendiary term in a reluctance to cause offense, if a recognition of that gender-specific use becomes an acceptance of that gender-specific use which becomes an assumption of that gender-specific use? Is it possible, in other words, that an acknowledgement of the US liberal taboo attached to the misogyny of the term could become a mechanism by which the gender-specific meaning usurped the gender-neutral one in UK English? And would this, in effect, constitute a propagation of prejudice, an empowerment of the would-be misogynist outside the US with the same weapon of a word that sits in pride of place in the arsenal of the US woman-hater?

Conversely, would a pragmatic strategy for the US feminist be to do their utmost to propagate the UK gender-neutral usage over the US gender-specific one, to flense the misogynist muscle from the word “cunt” by using it as an insult aimed at men as much as women, weakening its connotative links with “harpy”, “shrew” and “bitch”, strengthening its links with “arsehole” (or “asshole”), “bastard” and “prick”? The misogynist convention of use by which it articulates, as Larry puts it, “the reduction of a woman and her personality to that of her genital region,” is just that — a convention. That convention is intolerable, but what makes it intolerable is the targeting of women, the use of the term as a mechanism of discrimination, rather than the act of insult itself (as if it’s really so bad to call an evil shit an evil shit) or the use of genitals as a touchstone of disdain (as if it’s really so bad to call a spiteful prick a spiteful prick). Slapping a liberal taboo on the misogynist epithet — placing it out of bounds and using “evil little shit” or “arrogant goddamn fuck”, say — does nothing to dismantle that convention, may even reinforce it, I’d suggest, reserving it to that beyond-the-pale use, intensifying the power of that word in the mouth of a misogynist who would spit it in the face of a woman precisely because he wants to go beyond the pale, to say, this is how much I hate you, this is the depth of my contempt. Spitting that word back in such the faces of such woman-hating fuckwits often enough might, on the other hand, serve to redefine the convention.

Here’s another question: would this simply be a reversal of the process by which “cunt” acquired its direct misogyny in the US? It would be interesting to know which usage came first, whether the definition has narrowed to gender-specificity in the US or widened to gender-neutrality in the UK (assuming that the two usages did not develop independently and simultaneously). I’m aware of gender-neutral usage being reported amongst soldiers in WW1 (applied to each other), and I’m not aware of any earlier reported uses other than in the anatomical sense, which tempts me to speculate that the original exaptation of “cunt” was as a gender-neutral epithet, that the definition was only subsequently narrowed in the more conservative culture of the US… adopted by the reactionary in the face of female suffrage perhaps? I can easily see this sort of use emerging out of a culture of lynchings and McCarthyism. This is utterly hypothetical, but I don’t think it’s inconceivable that the word emerges out of male-to-male sexual and scatological vulgarity along with “dick”, “prick”, “arsehole” and so on; that it is appropriated with those terms and reconfigured as a general insult (“asshole”, as I understand, being first attested in this sense in the 1930s) as older terms fall out of fashion, becoming milder with familiarity (e.g. “bugger” or “sod” — short for sodomite) and/or simply antiquated (e.g. “knave”, “blackguard” or “cur”, the latter of which I rather wish we could reinstate along with “whelp”, just to balance off “bitch” with the whole canine family); and that it is only in the backlash against women’s emancipation, and only in the US, that it then comes to be targeted against women to the extent that it eventually specifies women.

I could, of course, be talking out of my arse here. If so though (again assuming that the two usages don’t develop independently,) this only demonstrates that the term can be unshackled from its direct misogyny as it has been in UK usage.

So what does this all amount to? I guess what I’m driving at is the notion that taboos, conservative or liberal, are a perilous way to deal with the potential to offend, that the processes which have rendered the word “cunt” profane over the last five hundred years need to be examined. That we need to ask ourselves, if the establishment of such taboos creates, in effect, a linguistic arsenal of words of power, if semantically non-loaded words can be appropriated to that arsenal and invested with profound shock-value, if that arsenal can be brought to bear — through that appropriation and empowerment — on the marginalised and othered… well, how careful do we want to be about where and when and how we decide to step carefully around a word?

Which brings us back to “rape”.

Part 4

On Profanity: 2

Part 1

Mores and Ethics

The “essentialist” type of thinking as regards right and wrong involves a sort of “law and order” mentality, a belief that there’s a moral/natural/social/divine order that can be parsed into specific rules, defining distinct acts as existing on a spectrum that runs from mandatory (acts we must do) through laudatory (acts we should but could not do) through discouraged (acts we could but should not do) to forbidden (acts we must not do). Considered essentially true, and more or less absolute depending on the depth to which they have been instilled in an individual, generally conceived as universally applicable, and very often traced to sources of wisdom granted profound authority (religious or philosophical patriarchs usually, if not God himself), these socially-constructed dicta are what I mean by the term “mores”. Theft is wrong. Murder is wrong. Rape is wrong. Mostly they make sense. Sodomy is wrong. Abortion is wrong. Miscegenation is wrong. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, in the law and order mentality these mores construct a system of beliefs and behaviours that is held individually but constructed socially and very often institutionalised formally. It’s this system that I’m talking about, quite specifically, when I use the terms “moral” or “morality”. Given the etymology, I think, this is a valid mooring of these terms to a precise usage within the philosophy of right and wrong. Indeed, I think it’s a necessary distinction to avoid confusion with quite different types of thinking as regards right and wrong.

Anyway, in this type of thinking, acts are, in and of themselves, right and wrong; and the speaking of words is, of course, an act. Heresy is wrong. Blasphemy is wrong. Profanity is wrong. And that’s the way it is, for the moralist. Certain things should just never be said.

The other type of thinking is an “existentialist” approach, in which that moral system is rendered subject to critique and abstraction. The belief underlying this mentality is that whether or not we view those mores as absolute and necessary truths, getting to know them and understand them requires a process of interrogation of the moral system, out of which we develop a set of premises and principles and practices which, crucially, we understand to be quite personal, informed by our different experiences and insights, or the different weights we place on empathic and pragmatic considerations. This is what I mean by “ethics”, why I distinguish “ethical” judgement from “moral” judgement. Given that one could see this type of thinking as beginning at the point when an individual begins to question whether this or that moré regarding what’s right and wrong is, in and of itself, right or wrong, it’s not hard to see how these two types of thinking can enter direct conflict; further, many those premises and principles and practices may be entirely interrogative rather than imperative. Which is to say, in any given situation, faced with an ethical dilemma, moral judgement consitutes the straightforward application of a moré, the result of which is a “do this” or “don’t do that” answer. Ethical judgement, on the other hand, consists of an active evaluation of the importance of some or all of the relevant mores, factoring in our own feelings of empathy and self-interest, our projections of consequences, our feelings as regards those potential consequences, the importance of some or all mores that relate to those potential consequences, and so on. The result of this, far from being a “do this” or “don’t do that” answer, may well be an action that ultimately articulates a suppositional premise rather than a categorical conclusion, enacting not “I should do this” but rather “should I do this?” An ethical judgement may well be, more often than not, “I really don’t know; on the one hand I should do this; on the other hand I should do that; my gut says this, so let’s go for it and see what fucking happens.”

Of course, systems of ethics can be socially constructed, codified across communities of individuals — c.f. the distinct “professional” ethics of an artist, a soldier, a journalist, a nurse — but the personal nature of those ethical codes remains. You and I might both live by the pirate code, me hearty. Alternatively, one of us might live by the pirate code while the other is a ninja, with a different code entirely; and both of us may entirely respect the other’s choice of path. Or not, as the case may be, pirates and ninjas being mortal enemies. Either way, even within those professional ethics, there may be distinct differences between individuals. One writer may avoid blasphemy and profanity in their work, not because they see them as simply wrong (i.e. in a moral judgement), but because of what they’re writing, who they’re writing for. For much the same reasons, with a bit of a flip in general premises, I’m probably a bit notorious for my flytings of God and general potty mouth. As far as I’m concerned, every single fucking swear word, every motherfucking sacrilege is, by God’s hairy cunt, entirely fucking justified. If I were writing for children, on the other hand, I’d maybe be inclined to tone it down… not by much, mind, but a little. This is kind of a personal professional ethic for me.

So, when I’m writing one of my scabrous invectives against God and religion, I know that I’m going to be throwing out heresy, blasphemy and profanity left, right and centre. I don’t subscribe to the mores that condemn such actions as just plain wrong, but I do know some perfectly nice people will be shocked. Empathy says that one shouldn’t distress folks like that, but then empathy for the folks I see as victims of the moral system I’m kicking against counterbalances that. Pragmatics, however, tells me that I might be alienating the very people I want to be talking to, defeating the whole purpose, and if I really want that scabrous invective to be anything more than preaching to the shaitanic choir, I should tone it down. But I don’t know if that’s actually how things will play out. And my gut says, fuck it, just say what you think, and don’t hold back. That’s the ethical judgement that wins out in the end: just don’t hold back; don’t censor yourself, because if you don’t have the guts to say it, maybe nobody else will and maybe it needs to be said. When they say that certain things should never be said, maybe they’re dead wrong. Maybe. I really don’t know, but let’s go for it and see what fucking happens.

That’s mores versus ethics.

But the struggle between them is not so clear-cut as that might make it sound. It’s not just directly mappable to conservatives versus liberals. Because the critique and abstraction of a moral system doesn’t tear those rules apart without new ones emerging in the process. That existential ethics bears comparison to the “post-conventional” type of thinking in Kohlberg’s theory of stages of ethical development, a type of ethics he characterises by abstract principles that are applicable across variant contexts — “from each according to ability, to each according to need”, “the greatest good for the greatest number”, “do unto others as you’d have them do to you”. The rules are not always so cerebral. We might equally well, I’d argue, be working with premises and principles that are far more loosely formulated, barely articulated rules-of-thumb. We might just as well be applying a rough-and-ready notion that we should “treat people with a bit of fucking respect”. What is actually pertinent about all such maxims is, I think, that they require, in their vagueness, precisely that existential process of evaluation outlined above. But then, when it comes to a fuzzy maxim like “treat people with a bit of fucking respect” its not hard to see how simple specific practices might be so blindingly obvious to anyone with a spark of decency that they’re bound to become fairly hard-and-fast, equally specific rules. Not calling a black person “nigger”, for example, that’s pretty much a no-brainer far as I’m concerned. Hell, unless I’m writing dialogue or referencing the term itself, I see no reason to use it at all. Same goes for all those racial epithets: “kike”, “paki”, “spic”, “wop” and so on. It’s not about “political correctness”. I don’t need a rulebook of words not to use. All I need to know is to “treat people with a bit of fucking respect.” But I’m damn sure that, in practice, the ethical certainty with which most civilised individuals shun those terms, and the social reinforcement of that certainty, will engrain them in those individuals as moral dicta.

So it’s interesting to note the quirks that emerge when this becomes obvious, as with those who refuse to even quote “nigger”, for example, but refer to it as “the n-word”, in a taboo exactly paralleling the taboo that subsitutes “the f-word” for “fuck”. We don’t dance around the word “fuck” in case the sexual act is offended; we do so because the word is so taboo to us that we feel the need to shun it completely. Same with “nigger”. That the word is a bona fide taboo now seems fairly well evidenced by the example of a Washington aide forced to resign after a staffer was offended by his use of the word “niggardly” to describe a budget. The word “niggardly” has fuck-all to do with “nigger” or the Spanish “negro” it derives from. It means miserly. But the sound pushed a button, breached a taboo, and where my own ethics, speaking personally, would have weighed up the trauma experienced by the poor staffer and the inconvenience of the Washington aide forced to find a new job — factoring in the pragmatic reality of linguistic meaning, the choice between validating ignorance and decency — and slapped the staffer upside the head for being a dumbass, instead the pig-headed self-righteousness of mores stomped reason into the ground and forced the aide to fall on his sword.

This is the sort of gross stupidity that sprinkles magic fucking pixie dust on the conservative straw man of political correctness and brings it to life. And the worst of it is that this is conservative fucking thinking disguised as liberalism. It’s mores disguised as ethics. Applying the “treat people with a bit of fucking respect” maxim would have meant ripping up that aide’s resignation letter and buying the staffer a fucking dictionary. Instead we have an absolute injunction against saying the word “nigger” applied to “niggardly”, seemingly on the basis that the second vowel is indistinguishable so the former is, like, acoustically contained within the latter. It’s like Beavis and Butthead laughing at the word “assets”. “Huh-huh, huh-huh, he said, ‘ass-ets’!” So, yeah. He said “nigg’r-dly”. And the rule says that’s wrong, so it must be. This is what I really fucking hate about mores, actually. Ethics is constantly redefining them, tearing them apart with critique and empathy, but even as the next generation inherits a culture where the mores maybe don’t condemn miscegenation or sodomy or abortion — or at least a culture where those mores are on the run, challenged on the battleground of public opinion — that next generation is full of dipshits who’re simply following a different set of rules with the same blind faith. And that may well mean they’re not really a liberal; they’re a bloody liability.

Now, the issues about particular usages of the word “rape” are eminently more reasonable than the “niggardly” example above, and I’m certainly not seeking to lump those who raised aforesaid issues in with the sort of liberal moralism that would lead to a resignation on such spurious grounds. Especially given that the comments are fairly short, reading more as general musings on the subject than strident disavowal. But it’s in the idle conversational agreements — that, no, you shouldn’t really do this, or that, well, it’s OK, I suppose, but I wouldn’t do that myself — that individual ethical judgements are affirmed and cemented into mores; and the question of how we should and should not use the word “rape” — where the grounds for concern are that it might cause offense and the word itself is categorised with “cunt” — does take us into the territory of profanity. For me it raises the spectre of an ethical consensus becoming moral dicta becoming taboo. Rape is too important, too terrible, too abhorrent for the word to be used just as any other. Rape is a special word to be afforded special treatment because it has the power to summon the abhorrence of what it represents. It is a shocking word. It is not to be spoken idly. It is to be used only in certain contexts.

It worries me that this attitude is the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy at the heart of what renders a word truly taboo, when we accept that because it represents a shocking thing, it is itself shocking, that because we abhor what it refers to it and uttering the work invokes all that abhorrence, we must take that word out of our everyday vocabulary, put it to one side so we can reach it if we need to but won’t use it unthinkingly… maybe in a little box of reticence because we don’t want the children to think they can just pick it up and play with it… maybe locked up nice and tight just to make sure they don’t. Not in front of the children, dear.

OK, my views on morality and taboos and profanity are probably not the most conventional, and almost certainly a little obsessive, but as I say: when they say that certain things should never be said, maybe they’re dead wrong. Maybe.

Which brings us to “cunt”.

Part 3

On Profanity: 1

The Rape of a Book

Over on OF Blog of the Fallen, a good week or so back, Larry pointed to a forum discussion with the heading Brent Weeks Raped “The Wheel of Time”!, noting (as a potential discussion topic) the use of the term “rape” to describe one author’s alleged plundering of another’s trope-set, and by implication raising the question as to how we should view such a usage… right or wrong? Although one commenter says that, in their experience, dancing coyly around the term itself is of no benefit to the victims whatsoever, otherwise in the comments there’s a clear drift towards such a use of this term being undesireable if not unacceptable:

Colinhead: “I think that any time you hear 'rape' you should be made to think of the horror and destruction that the act visits upon a person. Using it for something so (relatively) trivial takes away from that.”

Larry: “The cavalier way that title and others related to the traditional powerlessness of women[…] I do have to question the underlying attitudes that are associated with the way certain words are used.”

Larry then offers examples of the types of words he means, words loaded with anti-feminist meanings — “pussy”, “sissy”, “bitch”, “cunt” — in a list to which he adds “rape”. My immediate response to that part of it, I have to admit, is “What the fuck?!”

Sorry, but adding “rape” to that list doesn’t compute at all for me. These four words, all nouns, and all distinct types of noun — derogatory hostile epithets, used to verbally attack, to denigrate and demean, to abject an other — clash jarringly with the word “rape”. Rape is used as a verb in the phrase in question, as a descriptive label for an action that is reviled, rejected, spat upon as an abomination, yes — treated, in other words, with a similar level of disapprobation to that with which the misogynist regards women or the homophobe regards queers, sure — but justly so. It’s rape. Rape is a thing to be reviled and rejected, an action to be hated. There are verbs like “mince” or “castrate” (used metaphorically) that express an unjust hatred, the prejudice-born hostility of the user, loaded with scorn for the faggot who walks so swishily, the bitch who reacts so touchily, but “rape” does not sit with them. The word “rape” sits with “lynch” or “gaybash”.

Even taking it as a noun the word “rape” doesn’t fit with those epithets. Nobody is ever, I very much doubt, going to call someone else a rape. Nobody’s ever, I suspect, going to mutter quietly to their colleague about how their boss is being such a rape. Rather these words — “pussy”, “sissy”, “bitch”, “cunt” — sit quite comfortably with their masculine parallels — “dick”, “tomboy”, “cur”, “prick”. Setting the scope wider still, those words sit alongside a whole host of insults ranging from the innocuous — “dufus” or “numpty” — up through the insulting — “wanker”, “fucker” — to the incendiary — “nigger”, “faggot”. For me, the word “rape” simply has no place in that list at all, so it seems weird to see it thought of in that context.

(As a brief aside, just to be clear that I include the male counterparts (no pun intended) not as some simplistic anti-feminist bollocks as to how “men are treated with the same reduction-to-body-parts, yanno, so that makes it even, right?” there are intriguing differences of import, sense and usage across the genders in each pair, more if one considers variations across culture. Like the fact that “cur” is pretty much obsolete while “bitch” is probably one of the most common curses in the English language. Or that “sissy” is unquestionably insulting while “tomboy” is not an insult at all, at least not in my experience. Or that “cunt” and “pussy” have contrasting meanings when applied to people (referring to an active victimiser on the one hand, a passive victim on the other) while “dick” and “prick” are almost indistinguishable (both refer to a sort of active offender of etiquette, though a dick is perhaps more stupid than a prick, a prick more deliberate in his dickishness). Or that “cunt” is way more vicious than “prick” in the US and UK and yet used as a term of affection in Australia. Or that “cunt” in the US almost invariably applies to a woman while in the UK and Australia it can just as easily apply to a man. But we’ll deal with that further down the line. For now…)

The whole comment thread, even as short as it is, niggles at me on a number of levels, I’ve got to say, because seeing this use of the word “rape” challenged in this way, seeing the notion of offensiveness attaching to it, seeing it drift into contact with those derogatory epithets, it worries me. Why pick on this sort of idiom and not be concerned that we might be trivialising the suffering of a victim in a sentence like, “That singer murdered that song”? Why feel we should tread so carefully around this word, comparing the force of shock it is imbued with to that of swear-words?

So, instinctively, I have no problem with that usage. Where others seem to be treating it as (both historically and currently) a word that relates simply to forced sex, I’m not at all sure that’s accurate. Where Larry describes the word “rape” as “now seemingly used to describe certain undesirable changes, regardless of the centuries-long association of that word with the sexual trauma inflicted upon mostly women, but also quite a few males[,]” my immediate instinct is that this is a dubious characterisation of the word’s history. As a writer, my first thought is that this comes from the same root as “rapine” and “ravish”, right? Which both carry a more general sense of taking something by force — something which is not necessarily sexual gratification. A quick check of the dictionary confirms this, tracing both words back to their Latin root “rapere”, from which we also get “rapt”, “rapture” and “raptor”, that root term being, in fact, the Latin word meaning “to seize”. We also find, in fact, that the word “rape” has a subsidiary definition, as an (albeit archaic) term meaning “to plunder, to violate, to carry away by force”.

So, historically the word had that meaning, and etymologically it’s pretty damn likely that this was the primary meaning — to seize and take by force, with the implication that what is left behind is violated and diminished. Larry’s characterisation is most likely, it seems to me, arse-backwards, disregarding this centuries-long signification of the term and doing so a little cavalierly, the phrase “certain undesirable changes” glossing over the precision of the non-sexual meaning in order to present those usages as vague inchoate complaints. OK, I’m guessing Larry has seen the term used in that vague way often enough to justify that criticism. If someone says “that bloody interior designer raped my room” meaning simply that the designer made certain changes they didn’t desire, I’d see that as a pretty sloppy usage — because the sense of plunder seems only barely applicable. I could imagine that person using “raped” to mean “violated, ruined”, even an idea that the cosiness of the room has been “taken away”, but they’re adding a sense of “with force, without consent” that just doesn’t apply. So I can see where Larry’s coming from. In setting this sort of usage up as the alternative meaning to the “forced sex” sense however, I think Larry is doing a disservice to the countless examples where it’s actually being used quite precisely and conventionally with an entirely specific meaning.

For me, maybe because I subconsciously recognise the etymological root (and making the “rapture” connection was a sort of forehead-slapping “duh!” moment for me), that thread title is instantly understandable, as conventional as “the rape of Belgium” or “the rape of the countryside”. I can imagine talking about “the rape of a race’s culture” in a cultural appropriation debate. And I can imagine talking about “the rape of a book” in a discussion about plagiarism. And the reaction against such a conventional usage feels… extreme. Not in the sense that it’s histrionic — because it’s articulated in entirely civil terms — but in so far as it seems quite a logical leap to recast such a common idiom as being in the same league as “cunt”. Actually, I can’t help feeling that the trepidation here is all too similar to that which shrouds a taboo. There’s a part of me that can’t help wondering if this is indicative of a sort of conservatism in the guise of liberalism, mores in the guise of ethics. But to talk about why I feel this way, I should probably lay a little groundwork. What I mean by the distinction between mores and ethics is a little complex, and I’ve talked about it enough elsewhere, so I don’t want to go into it in huge detail again; but keeping it as brief as possible, I’d argue that there are two distinct types of thinking as regards right and wrong — the essentialist and the existentialist, roughly speaking.

So… Part Two

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Electric Mayhem: EfH! Review

Escape From Hell! is like a John Carpenter/Walter Hill late 70’s-early 80’s movie in book form. If you understand the references then you get it right off. I mean if the bridge scene doesn’t take you back to Escape from New York then nothing will. The action is ramped up to insane levels, and it just keeps pumping forward at a relentless pace.

Basically, a pretty bloody positive review. A few questions raised about some of the thematic points -- like which of the characters really belongs in Hell -- but actually those are exactly the questions I'd like the reader to be asking. Shit, if I had to write one of those Questions for Discussion thingumies, those would be top of the list. So, cool!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How Not to be a Writer

So, imagine for a second that you're a gay writer of strange fiction, with stories published here and there. We'll call you, for the sake of argument, Kevin W. Reardon. Now, you're kind of precious about it all, adopting the posture of the purely-driven auteur, oblivious to the temptations of cash and kudos. You're "not really in it for the 'career'." You're "in it for the writing." You write because you "have to." You even affect a casual indifference to publication and a(n apparent) modesty about the value of your own work. It's simply been your "good fortune" that "a few editors have liked a few of [your] stories enough to publish them. Maybe that will happen again. Maybe it won't." Emphasis on the affect.

Now imagine that one of those stories which had such "good fortune" was published in an anthology of gay-themed horror, UNSPEAKABLE HORROR. Far be it from you to claim greatness for that story. Far be it from you to proclaim your own genius. As an auteur, you're above such crass vanity. You care only for the work, and naught for the opinions of others. It's simply your "good fortune" if another editor happens to like your work. If another editor should happen to not like that same work, the logical reaction would be to see this as "bad fortune", no?

So, it turns out that this is the case. Another editor -- we'll call him, for the sake of argument, Steve Berman -- reads your story while he's putting together an anthology of the year's best in gay-themed strange fiction, WILDE STORIES; and it doesn't really work for him. He reads it as part of the UNSPEAKABLE HORROR anthology, and -- truth be told -- there's not a lot in that anthology that does work for him. As an editor and a writer, this Steve Berman has a LiveJournal, where he posts personal thoughts on different aspects of his life, his life as an editor and a writer. Some days, he'll post about the sense of despair he suffers from at times, how he wishes he had the same passion for it all that he once had. Other days -- one particular day, in fact -- he posts an entry which briefly outlines his thoughts on some of the work he's been considering for WILDE STORIES. As a writer or editor or critic might offer thoughts, cursory or detailed, casual or considered, laudatory or scathing, on a book they've just read or a movie they've just seen, so this Steve Berman offers his thoughts on each of the stories in UNSPEAKABLE HORROR. What he says about your story is pretty brief:

"[A] bad opening crippled this story for me plus the various relationships felt off."

It's not too scathing a comment. The middle of the story isn't slated. The ending of the story isn't slated. The story as a whole isn't slated. It's simply that, in Steve Berman's mind, the story has a false start that it doesn't recover from. This is offered as an implicitly objective assessment of the story, a judgement that the opening is bad, that the story has a bad opening, rather than that the opening doesn't work for this particular reader; but this sort of craft-based assessment is hardly as objectionable as a theme-based assessment that criticises a story for, say, latent misogyny or incipient racism, where a writer might well feel such implicit claims to objectivity require challenging. Anyway, in addition to this critique of the story's craftedness, a valuation which is explicitly subjective is placed on the plausibility of character relationships. It's not that they are "off"; it's that they felt "off". They don't work for Steve Berman. He didn't respond to them the way you wanted him to, didn't feel that they rang true. So, he doesn't like your story enough to publish it in his year's best anthology.

Ah, well, one might expect you to say. This is clearly a case of "bad fortune".

But, no. Despite your (apparent) modesty about the value of your work, you feel this to be an unjustifiable slight of your precious story. Despite your disregard for the base reward of kudos, you do a vanity Google on your name to see how much impact you have on the interwebs. Despite the fact that you're "in it for the writing", you find it deeply irksome that the top hit on your name -- Kevin W. Reardon -- is that LiveJournal post in which this Steve Berman dispraises your story. Despite your affectation of indifference, the idea that your story rates only a one-line dismissal, alongside all those other stories in UNSPEAKABLE HORROR which are rejected with equally casual judgements... this is just wrong! Such off-hand disregard! And the top hit on a Google search of your name! Why, what will people think when they search on your name and come across that editor's thoughtless negativity?

Not that you care, of course. Not that you "write for attention". Perish the thought that you would be driven by such base motives. Perish the thought that you would be driven by such base motives to post a spiteful comment, under a different name -- Cole, say -- on another post on this Steve Berman's LiveJournal. Perish the thought that when this Steve Berman posts a personal and confessional entry about his loss of writerly zeal, his desire to "light a candle" for "my passion, my devotion, my enthusiasm for the written word", your response of a petty vicious encouragement to commit suicide -- "Obviously, that'd be no great loss to literature... Just do us all a favor and take down your blog first." -- perish the thought that this might be motivated by the wounded vanity of a posturer and a phony who really does care deeply about acclaim. Perish the thought that you are in fact so invested in your grandiose self-image as an auteur that the slightest puncturing of that image in the public domain drives you to spiteful trolling. Perish the thought that the subject line of this comment -- "You should really just kill yourself" -- is the petulant bile of an egoist on the grandest scale, so wrapped up in your puerile arrogance, so incapable of accepting the mere existence of another's opinion, let alone its validity, so immersed in the delusion that the world revolves around you, so callously contemptuous of the feelings of anyone that isn't you that you see no ethical or simply empathic reason not to encourage someone apparently suffering from depression to commit suicide.

No, you're not driven by the base motives of vanity. You don't "write for attention".

Unlike this Steve Berman, of course, as you decide to make clear in a later comment, where you reiterate your encouragement for him to commit suicide, doing your best to communicate the full force of your malicious loathing with a baiting rhetorical question as to whether his apartment window is a good place to jump from ("Is it a high floor?") and an injunction ("If Dault will come to you, take your cat in your arms and jump.") which basically amounts to, "and kill your cat while you're at it." Given your sexuality, one might imagine, (albeit in a sort of "homonormativity",) that the whole Wicked Witch style "and your little dog too!" routine would be seen as... well... wicked by a "friend of Dorothy", so to speak -- as a cruel enmity taken to the level of outright malevolence against any and all associated with you.

But, no. You don't see it that way. Your vicious and vindictive reaction could not be at the possibility that others may not esteem your work as highly as you do. It could not be at the fact that, for all your hollow proclamations of the auteur's commitment to the work alone, this imposture is actually an artifical bolstering of a self-esteem that's actually quite frail and flimsy. It could not be that the grand role of the artiste is a desperately self-delusional shell around the soft and gooey centre of a very small and weak ego, all too easily hurt by even the mildest and most unconcerned critique.

No, such things are not your concern. You're "in it for the writing".

If we are to take your proclamations seriously, we might expect you to act in accordance with them. So, when this Steve Berman makes the connection between that passing critique and this otherwise apparently baseless but repeated hostility, when he posts the email exchange between the two of you on his LiveJournal, when we see you take exception to his "review", characterising it as a calculating and unscrupulous attempt to undermine the "competition, diminishing their work while simultaneously promoting your own," when we see Steve Berman calmly explain his position -- that anthologies in the same field do not actually compete in this way, especially when one is a year's best culled from these self-same "competing anthologies", open in its nature as an anthology of reprints rather than original fiction, and that the "review" is in fact merely a reaction, that it is really only about whether the story "worked for [him]" -- when this reasonable response is offered, we might expect that you would take it in good faith.

This Steve Berman's response is actually not just level-headed; it's actually quite sensitive in its advice in this regard -- to distance yourself from the judgements of readers -- and in its emphasis on the subjectivity of his opinion, its reassurance that you should not afford it too much authority:

"I recommend that you take a step back from any offense. Once you put a story out there all readers are allowed to offer their thoughts. What was the worst thing I expressed about your story: "a bad opening" - everyone who reads this knows I am stating an opinion. Do people listen to me as gospel? No. Have you ever told a friend that you disliked a book? I'm sure."

If we are to take your proclamations seriously, we might expect you to accept this. After all, you're "in it for the writing", not cash and kudos. The marginal and potential negative impact of this Steve Berman's nugatory critique on the sales and acclaim garnered by UNSPEAKABLE HORROR should hardly be of much concern. The fact that this review is the first hit in a vanity Google of your name should be a trifling matter for the auteur indifferent to attention. And if this editor doesn't like your story enough to publish it, that's just the flip-side of the "good fortune" you had when the editor of UNSPEAKABLE HORROR did. So it goes, as a writer wiser than most of us once said. You don't have an inflated sense of your work's value. It's just "good fortune" if it works for one editor, and if it doesn't work for another, well... such is life. And you don't care about esteem, so if they say so in public, well... them's the breaks.

Strangely, though, this explanation does not suffice, not for you. Rather you decide to take your umbrage to the editor's blog, not to engage with him in public on the relevant post, over your concerns that "the jobs of editing, writing and reviewing require discrete skills and should probably not be done by the same person", but to vent your spleen in direct personal attacks, not simply attempting to exploit his depression through contemptuous affirmations of his sense of barrenness, but even going so far as to deny the reality of that depression, asserting that this editor is "not really suicidal, or not really even that depressed". It does not occur to you, apparently, that should you be wrong (for it would never occur to you, it seems, that you could be wrong), what you are doing constitutes an act of the most abhorrent malevolence, a goading that is not just designed to verbally shove a potential suicide towards the execution of the act itself but one that might, in fact, have some effect towards its aim. At the very least the disrecognition of depression is exactly the sort of thing that fuels depression.

This last vilifying barb you offer in yet another comment when, having had the whole root of your hatred revealed in the posting of that email exchange, rather than actually give grounds for your risible concern with a purported conflict of interests, you continue your rancorous pillorying, not to mention the concomitant pompous self-aggrandisement. You root this editor's despondency in a vacuous desire for success. You contrast this with your own commitment to art-for-art's-sake, in invocations of Emily Dickinson and phrases like "labor of love"... and seemingly oblivious of the shallow and self-important posturing this will almost certainly communicate to most readers. Even as you affect your false modesty as regards the "weak[ness]" of your "voice" in comparison to the writers of the past, you depict yourself "in a dialog" with them; it is not that you assume your equal status with them, your place in such a dialog, but oh, you do see yourself as being in that tradition -- a writer like those before you, an author who can aspire to greatness as an author, not in their writing but in and of themselves. You might have said that your writing was in dialog with theirs, were you really only "in it for the writing"; that you do not could well be considered rather revealing of the perennial vice of the literary phony -- in love with the idea of being a writer more than the writing itself.

And all of this -- all of this -- you justify as a balancing of the "bile" you seem to perceive as being heaped upon you by that one-line critique, as an attempt to "fight fire with fire". And finally you reveal the sham of yourself, the lip-service you pay to the idea that "[f]or a reviewer, I suppose all published work is fair game and, as writers, we should expect to take the good with the bad, review-wise" in your email, when you mewl pitiably that, "if I had received that email, I would have taken down the review." In the end, you're so thin-skinned and self-involved you can't even resist rearticulating your manipulative whining, your implicit judgement of how Steve Berman should have had the decency to molly-coddle your fragile ego by removing his post, as an express desire for him to do so now: "I hope you will either post this, or take down the original review."

Imagine that you are this writer, this Kevin W. Reardon. Imagine that you dig a hole for yourself so deep through all this that it leaves every single reader of Steve Berman's LiveJournal aghast at the sheer folly of it alone, never mind the reprehensible nsatiness with which that folly is executed.

Now imagine that it gets back to this editor, this Steve Berman, that you have genuinely, actually threatened his life. You, Kevin W. Reardon, have now officially passed beyond the realm of posturing amateur who can't take critique, beyond the realm of internet troll too asinine to be taken seriously, beyond the realm of froth-mouthed, vicious cunt of a crazy man who nobody wants to deal with as a human being let alone in a professional capacity. You have now entered the realm of the police and criminal justice system. The nearest thing you're going to get to sympathy is the assumption that you've undergone some form of mental breakdown into the obsessive mania that defines a stalker; and rest assured that this will do as little for your career as an attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan would do for your chances of a relationship with Jody Foster.

And that -- if you can imagine it -- is how not to be a writer.

Escape from Hell! Guardian Review

"... a gripping and stylish read from one of the most talented new fantasy writers to emerge in a long time."

I think it's safe to say I'm pleased with that.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Neth Space Interview

Just to let yez know there's a wee interview with myself just been posted over at Neth Space.

In case yer interested.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Thoughts on Narnia

Edmund Must Die

So I caught the movie version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe over Christmas. It wasn’t as ropey as some of the write-ups had led me to believe, I’d have to say, but then I can be quite forgiving of big eye-candy movies when they’re on TV. If I haven’t wasted the money on a cinema ticket, I don’t feel the need to complain about something I didn’t pay good money for — not directly anyway. And if I can faff about if I feel like it, making cups of tea or footering with the laptop while it’s on, well, even if it’s a bit shit, I’m not going to feel (as I did seeing Alien 4 in the cinema, for example) that I want my fricking time back, never mind my money. But, of course, there is that whole Christian allegory thing lurking at the heart of it, which should surely alienate me from it. Truth be told though, it’s never bothered me as much as the subtexts that lurk within LotR. I got a lot of enjoyment out of the Narnia books as a kid, and for all the transparency of Aslan’s death and resurrection, it was only really the final book, The Last Battle, that really didn’t work for me.

Still, on watching the movie a good couple of decades since I last read the book, as much as I found it enjoyable enough, I couldn’t help but start to think through just what Lewis is saying here, in allegorical terms, just how it all turns on the idea that, by the rules of Deep Magic, Edmund must die. Just how it all turns, back-flips, somersaults, spins around until it’s dizzy, ties itself in knots and eventually collapses in complete disarray.

See… Edmund is a traitor. He sold out his own siblings for some Turkish Delight and a promise of princeship. In terms of a Christian allegory, it’s safe to say that this means Edmund is a sinner. This is where Deep Magic Rule #1 comes in: traitors belong to the White Witch, who gets to gut them like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, if she so desires. Which is to say, sinners are damned to the devil. Now the White Witch doesn’t strike one as being averse to that sort of thing, being evil and all. Hell, seems like she’d have a rare old time invoking that rule every time it's breached, just like the devil, being evil and all, enjoys this whole damnation malarky. The White Witch, the devil — they’re pretty much characterised by their cruelty and malice. Only thing is, this logically brings us to our first conclusion: the rules of Deep Magic bring joy to the sort of cruel and malicious bastards who get their rocks off from gutting someone like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Which is to say, God's Law is pretty damn groovy if you're the devil. It’s carte blanche to inflict a torturous death on any poor bastard you can sucker into betraying their family or friends. So Edmund betrayed his siblings?

So Edmund must die.

Needless to say, the White Witch, being evil and all, plays a fairly active part in leading Edmund astray. She’s the devil, after all. Temptation is a big part of her her modus operandi. But Edmund, being a child and all, is a pretty easy target, it has to be said. Let’s face it, she offers him Turkish Delight and a princeship, and the Turkish Delight is pretty much as important to him in the grand scheme of things as the princeship, so he doesn't exactly have a great notion of priorities. Hmmm, methinks. Not being able to evaluate the relative importance of Turkish Delight versus princeship… being more concerned with sugary treatness than with political traction… surely Edmund could be quite literally described as in-nocent here — as “not-knowing”. Yes, practically speaking, he done the crime and is responsible for it in that causative sense, but isn’t that why we have an age of consent or an age of criminal responsibility — because we recognise that you’ve gotta account for the naivety of youth? Maybe the White Witch believes in capital punishment for minors, but that’s because she’s up there with Elizabeth Bathory in the World’s Worst Au Pair Competition, surely. Nobody’s going to take her demand seriously, surely.

But, yes, we’re told by Aslan. She’s right.

Edmund must die.

See, this is where Deep Magic Rule #2 comes in, as we learn that any breach of the rules of the Deep Magic will lead to the End Of Narnia As We Know It unless the decreed punishment is meted out. Which is to say, in the whole Christian allegory malarky, that God’s Law is absolute. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a fuck about age and responsibility. God’s Law don’t care if you’re an ickle bitty kiddy. So fucking what? You gonna die, you pint-size but neverthelesss treacherous motherfucker. You gotta be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on that stone table… and for the sake of Narnia, no less. You gonna burn in the fires of damnation, short-stop. And if the White Witch invokes this rule, it’s Aslan who insists that it’s absolute, note. Which is something we’ll get back to presently.

But, wait! What’s that you say? Edmund was weak and foolish rather than malevolent, and he knows he done wrong now. He’s really sorry and it was all a big mistake, really, so let’s cut him some slack. Killing him on the stone table seems a tad extreme. He's entirely ready to make some sort of atonement. Or, to put it in Christian terminology, Edmund is repentant. This doesn’t matter. Shut the fuck up, we’re told. Go read Deep Magic Rule #2 again. This is the End Of Narnia As We Know It we’re talking about. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a fuck about a transgressor’s change of heart. God’s Law don’t care if you’re so so sowwy. Boo fucking hoo. Tell it to the judge when he’s reading your sins from the book of life. Scream it at the top of your little lungs as you’re being cast into the lake of fire. So you really really wish you hadn’t done it? Too late now, fuckwit.

OK. Well, it’s a sort of Christian allegory. Seems kinda weird that it’s so dismissive of repentance, but it’s not so far off the attitude of some strains of Christian judgementalism — the Westboro Baptists, say. Saying sorry to your actual victims, doesn’t cut it for them. Repentance is about apologising to God. So should Edmund be apologising to Aslan, throwing himself on the lion’s infinite mercy? This is not clear, to be honest. What is clear is that Edmund feeling miserable about his treachery is just not enough. Oh no.

Edmund must die.

But, but, but… But Edmund's victims don't give a shit about Deep Magic Rule #2. Peter, Susan, Lucy, they're all entirely ready to accept his atonement, to forgive him his betrayal. Victims can forgive sinners, can’t they? Can’t they just — metaphysically speaking — choose not to press charges? So what if the White Witch wants to gut Edmund like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table? So what if Aslan insists she has the right? Surely if Edmund’s victims are willing to treat it as all water under the bridge that’s their prerogative. Um, no thanks, guys. We appreciate the thought and all, but we’d rather keep our brother with his innards innnardly.

But, no. Deep Magic Rule #2 says that ain’t the case. End Of Narnia As We Know It, remember? Whole fucking realm will fall apart if we let one little betrayal slip by (or so we’re told, at least… but we’ll get to that.) So, no. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a fuck about forgiveness on the part of the victim. God’s Law don’t care about your pathetic human “mercy”. What kind of pussy are you, ya bunch of snivelling panty-waists? This is God’s Law, and there ain’t no getting round it. Victims, bystanders, fucking bleeding-heart human rights advocates — humanity don’t have a fucking say in the matter. You do the crime, you do the time. Traitors get gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Sinners burn in Hell for all eternity. What part of this do you not understand, sons of Adam, daughters of Eve?

But, no, no, no, no, NO! Wait. Listen. It’s not just about forgiveness. Edmund's family love him. They really don't want him to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. No more than those who love a sinner are going to be down with that sinner suffering eternal damnation. Sure, he’s a dickwad; but he’s still one of the family, and to say they’d miss him is kind of understating it. We’re talking about trying to live with the knowledge that your brother was gutted. Like a slaughtered lamb. On the stone table. Because of what he did to YOU. Dude, that’s gonna fuck you up. Picture these kids twenty years down the line, Peter driven to alcohol in a vain attempt to destroy the memory of Edmund’s screams. Susan popping pills to stop the shakes every time she pictures the entrails. Lucy waking from the screaming nightmares in the middle of the night, in the bed of some random stranger from whom she’s sought the solace of sex without love. Cause you can’t risk love, you know, if it might get taken away from you for the smallest crime, taken away just when they realised the error of their ways, strapped to a stone table, and… and… and picture Lucy weeping, muffling her sobs so as not to wake the stranger she’s just been fucked by, alone in her misery because she’s afraid of the grief that can come with love. No therapists to give PTSD treatment in those days, remember. Sooner or later, we could probably expect one of those Pevensey kids to just stick a shotgun in their mouth and pull the fucking trigger. For the sake of all that’s good, for the sake of human kindness, fucking empathy, simple love, surely we can exercise a little fucking leniency here!

But Deep Magic Rule #2 says otherwise. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a fuck about empathy. God’s Law don’t care about your pathetic human “love”. What? Are you a faggot or something? Oh, pleathe, Mr Athlan! Don’t gut our brother like a thlaughtered lamb on the thtone table! PAH! Next thing you’ll be saying that Edmund's family know him better than anyone in Narnia. And if they don't think he deserves to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb, surely they're the best judges of his character. Right? Right? Don’t make me fucking laugh. Deep Magic Rule #2 pisses on your character witness testimonies. The rules of Deep Magic don’t do leniency. The rules of Deep Magic don't give a flying fuck about what’s fair. God’s Law don’t care about your pathetic human “justice” any more that it cares about your naivety, repentance, mercy or fucking love. Goddamn bleeding heart liberal panty-waist. Don’t you fucking get it? THE END. OF NARNIA. AS WE KNOW IT. There is no probation here, no deferred sentence, no time-already-served, no mitigating circumstances, no clemency, just the Law written into the fabric of reality, and that Law is fucking crystal fucking clear:

Edmund must die.

So Much For Justice

But let’s look at just why he has to die. Let’s look at it just a little closer.

I mean, this whole situation has come about because the White Witch has invoked the Law and, according to Aslan, that Law is absolute. But all the evidence indicates that Law has to be invoked Cause when you think about it, the White Witch has a whole secret service enforcing decrees that make treachery compulsory on pain of death. She has informants everywhere, even among the trees themselves. Mr Tumnus is scared shitless of what she might do if he doesn’t betray Lucy. And given that the most likely punishment is being turned instantly to stone, a fairly quick and painless death, all things considered, this rather begs the question of why he’s not way more scared of being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Instant petrification or slow and gory torturous death? Cryogenic storage or ritual disembowelment? The choice seems fairly clear-cut, I’d say. And yet, it kinda seems like the White Witch’s whole totalitarian rule is founded on the fear she engenders. The good denizens of Narnia are a damn sight more scared of disobeying those decrees than they are of being gutted like slaughtered lambs on the stone table. And those who are just plain bad to the bone… seems they can carry out acts of betrayal with impunity, informing on anyone and everyone.

Now let’s parse this into the underlying Christian allegory. In terms of Christian allegory the devil (the White Witch) could just get his kicks by punishing sinners (gutting traitors on the stone table), but he’s more interested in driving us to sin (coercing Narnians into acting as informants) as a means to an end, that end being power, presumably. This is working out quite well. The whole temporal world is fallen so far into sin, in fact, that the devil rules it like a tyrant. (The White Witch even has the trees working as informants.) Shit, the denizens of Narnia who aren't betraying their fellows constitute a persecuted populace, living in fear of their very lives. This is a surveillance state, motherfucker, with its lupine Stazi, its wolven Gestapo, its Big Bad KGB. None of whom seem overly concerned about being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table for tittle-tattling on their neighbours. So, is there actually any gutting going on at all here? Or has that stone table sat abandoned and forgotten all through the White Witch’s reign of terror, through treachery after treachery after treachery? Hell, how about that fox who passes himself off as a loyal subject of Her Nibs but is actually one of the resistance? His betrayal of the White Witch is all in the name of what’s good and righteous, but it’s still a betrayal. Being a traitor to the Evil Overlord doesn’t make you any less a traitor. So…

So where the fuck does that leave Deep Magic Rule #2? Edmund, we’re told, has to get gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table or it’s The End Of Narnia As We Know It. Because of Deep Magic Rule #1. Well, Deep Magic Rule #1 means fuck-all to anyone under the White Witch's rule. It is not being enforced as the White Witch's decrees are. In practical terms, it is entirely irrelevant. Nobody is bothering with it. And guess what? Narnia hasn’t fucking ended. It’s got a bit intemperate, in more ways than one, but other than that… diddly squat. The only possible conclusion we can draw from this is that Aslan’s insistence that the rules of Deep Magic are absolute is kind of glossing over an important caveat: the punishment doesn’t have to be exacted if it’s not invoked. Which is to say, the rule is there but unless someone actually calls for it to be applied, it doesn’t matter a fuck. Which is to say, in allegorical terms, the devil can go merrily on his way in the world, coercing its inhabitants into sin regardless of any risk of damnation, because God’s Law is not being enacted upon sinners. It’s there as a threat, but it’s an idle one, unenforced in the temporal world. Because why the fuck would the devil inflict a moral lesson on those he’s been left to turn into minions by whatever means he so desires?

Unless, of course, Aslan comes back, and you can use all this Deep Magic guff just to get one over on him. Ah, so you’ve returned, Aslan, now that the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve have come to Narnia? Bad news though, I’m afraid. I haven’t been bothering with the old laws much up till now, but seeing as you’re all upstanding and law-abiding, you should probably know that one of those humans has been a bit naughty. Anyway, I thought I’d check up the divinely decreed punishment just to save you some time and… let’s see… what does it say here? Ah, yes.

Edmund must die.

If I were Edmund, I’d consider this a little sodding inequitable. I mean, countless traitors get off scot free, even prosper as enforcers of the White Witch’s reign of terror, but one little act of treachery and Edmund has to get gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Nobody else is getting gutted here. It’s not like there’s a queue of every informant this side of Caer Paravel all waiting for their turn to get gutted. Surely if it’s all about The End Of Narnia As We Know It, every traitor is of equal importance. How about that fox? Shouldn’t he be unpetrified just so he can be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table if its so bloody crucial? How about all those informant trees Tumnus is scared of? They can’t exactly be gutted like slaughtered lambs but if they’ve been acting as informants all these years surely there’s a Deep Magic Bylaw #3.27.(a) that says how they should be dealt with. How about the wolves? You’re not trying to tell me they’ve kept a secret service running without ever gaining someone’s trust just to exploit it. How about the Wicked Witch herself? If she’s as evil as she seems to be, it seems pretty fucking unlikely that she’s never stabbed one of her loyal followers in the back to further her ambitions. Even if Edmund has to get gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, why the fuck does he have to get shoved to the front of the line? Just because the White Witch decides to invoke Deep Magic Rule #1 on him and nobody else? So much for justice.

Of course, it’s conceivable… perhaps… just barely… that “betrayal” is defined very exactingly in the rules of Deep Magic, that grassing on your neighbour isn’t considered an act of treachery, that none of the White Witch’s informants and bully-boys and general bad eggs count as traitors in that way, that not one of the heinous acts committed throughout the whole history of the White Witch’s reign of terror actually constitutes a crime punishable by being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. It’s possible, I suppose, that only Edmund’s crime is covered. Perhaps this is part of the old “God’s ways are mysterious” malarky, a Deep Magic Rule #3: don’t ask why perfidies uncovered by Deep Magic Rule #1 don’t require the perpetrator to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table; that’s just the Way It Is.

Or perhaps Lewis’s Christian allegory is actually a cunningly libertarian message: hey, don’t worry; God’s Law doesn’t actually apply nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a million; sure, you’ll get damned for all eternity if you hit on the one-in-a-million unpardonable crime, and it won’t matter a fuck how much you plead for clemency for this, that or the other reason, because God doesn’t give a fuck if you’re a kid or a cretin, repentant or not; but it doesn’t matter, because as long as you’re not that particular kind of a criminal, you’ll be fine. Perhaps it’s all some sort of sophisticated subversion asserting the all-encompassing embrace of God’s benevolence: worry not, O fascist boot-boys; fear not, O Stalinist enforcers; do not dread, O henchmen of the ganglords of the earth; for all is forgiven, yea verily, all but for the crime of being seduced by Turkish Delight into selling out one’s siblings!

Or perhaps it’s just Standard Model Legalistic Morality rather than libertarianism. Perhaps it’s just that infantile moralistic mindset Kohlberg labels the “law and order” mentality, the one that tells us there’s no grey areas in right and wrong, no “moral relativism” to be considered, no ethical judgement to be exercised. It’s God’s Law, a divine, natural, social, moral order, and it’s absolute; and furthermore it can draw the lines wherever the fuck it arbitrarily wants to, defining transgressions and decreeing the severity of their punishments on the basis of proclamations that appear utterly spurious to those who might (foolishly and faithlessly) seek to apply rational ethical evaluations which consider multiple factors (like naivety, empathy, mercy, justice, and so on.) Perhaps the Deep Magic of Narnia, the God’s Law it represents is just the sort of fucked-up self-righteous dogma handed down from on high and taken as received wisdom, the kind of bullshit that says, OK, we’re not gonna bother with grassing on your neighbour because that hasn’t been defined as a sin, but grassing on your family is a mortal sin punishable by being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. You know the type of bullshit I mean. It’s the same one that says there’s nothing wrong with slavery, or raping your wife, or umpteen other ethically abhorrent acts, but if you’re a man who makes fuckee-fuck with another man, well, you gotta be stoned to death, cocksucker, or burned at the stake, or damned for eternity. Or gutted like a slaughtered lamb, you know. On a stone table.


Deep Magic Rule #2, motherfucker. The End. Of Narnia. As We Know It.

It’s nothing to do with justice. It’s all about survival.

Loose Threads and Knots of Logic

Do we detect, in that dire threat of the fantasy world’s utter collapse, the infantile moralist’s dread of their self-righteous certainty crumbling? To accept that the sinner might not be punished (somehow, somewhere, even if only in the afterlife)… isn’t that to question the absolute authority of the moral system? Isn’t that to suggest that the Deep Magic is not written into Narnia’s fabric, that God’s Law is not unconditional and supreme in its application across the entirety of the temporal world? Isn’t that to suggest that our moral systems are, in fact, complex constructs of ethical judgements, contingencies we formalise and calcify into imperatives because we desire the certainty, the solidity of rules? To accept that the sinner might not be punished, to refuse to recognise the necessity of Edmund’s punishment, to reject that Deep Magic Rule #1 as an illegitimate and unjust nonsense, isn’t that to challenge the very legitimacy of the moral system itself, to flick one card away and bring the whole damned house of them tumbling down?

Seems to me like there’s an excellent Christian allegory here, in Aslan the lion being the one who tells us that the Deep Magic requires Edmund’s death. Oh, yes indeedy. Aslan is a big fucking pussy. Literally, metaphorically, idiomatically and allegorically, Aslan is a big fucking pussy. In his assertion that Edmund has to die or it will be The End of Narnia As We Know It, Aslan gives voice to the cowardice of every moral absolutist too chickenshit to face the fact of their own ethical creativity, preferring to follow their received wisdom rather than learn to fucking navigate for themselves, clinging to their mad, blind, crippled guide and going round and round in circles rather than striking out on their own. Because the idea that their confidence might be misplaced is too scary, would shatter their sense of certainty, leave them lost and confused. So Edmund has to die or Narnia will fall apart? That’s the dread of every conservative arguing against those who stand up to prejudice, the dread that the entire moral fabric of society will crumble if we dare to discard even one obsolete taboo.

Cause the only conceivable alternative to Aslan is, of course, the White Witch, right? Godlessness is just the path to a human Hell of cruelty and greed, malice supreme over all. It’s not hard to see, in terms of Christian allegory, the significance of Aslan’s absence. The White Witch is only in power because Aslan has gone walkabout. (The devil only rules because Jesus has fucked off and left him to do whatever he wants.) So when Aslan comes back, the White Witch’s little tinpot dictatorship of arbitrary decrees is pretty much bound to fall. (When Jesus strides back into town, the devil’s mechanisms of temporal dominion aren’t going to stand up terribly well against the avatar of an omnipotent deity.) Flip that round and there’s another side to the message though: without Aslan, the Narnians are too weak to stand up to the White Witch; without Jesus, we can’t beat the devil.

But this is where drama, imp that it is, enters the picture and starts to kick at the foundations of the allegory. Because Edmund doesn’t give a shit about Aslan. He doesn’t give a shit about anyone other than himself much, selfish and greedy little boy that he is. But through the ramifications of his actions, the impact they have on his siblings, the conflict this creates with his empathic bond to them, the realisation of the scale of what he’s done and the fact that he fucking cares about it, Edmund learns. Wandering out into the winter wastes of his own amorality, he faces the White Witch, falls for her wiles at first, but in the end develops a far deeper ethical awareness than any of the others. He’s done wrong and he knows it. He knows why he did it. He knows why it was wrong. He doesn’t need no Deep Magic to tell him treachery is a Bad Thing.

Aslan does though, apparently. Narnia is Aslan’s world, indeed; it is the world of his belief system made manifest, sung into earth and sky. He was there, we’re told, when the rules of Deep Magic were written, as Jesus was there when God laid down the Law. He knows them better than anyone, as Jesus alone knows the Will of God. Edmund only has to die because the White Witch invokes the rules and Aslan is bound by those rules, bound in a way the White Witch isn’t. Jesus has to follow God’s Law; the devil doesn’t. They are the bedrock of his very reality. For Aslan, big fucking pussy that he is, you either accept the divine decrees — all of them — or it all goes to shit. So, faced with the winter wastes of an amoral cosmos, Aslan must restore the idyllic fantasy even if it means accepting an unjust absurdity. Good Cowardly Lion that he is, Aslan needs certainty so bad it’s inconceivable that he simply shrug off the whole “gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table” thing as the barbaric bullshit that it is. Hell, the White Witch’s invocation of that rule is as much a challenge to his legitimacy as it’s an attempt to maintain her hold. With Aslan returned, Jesus back in charge, the moral system of the Deep Magic / God’s Law established once again as the One True Way, all it takes is for one little thread to be pulled out and the whole fucking tapestry of belief will unravel.

Let’s play by your rules, Almighty One, she’s saying. The rules say the boy must die. You say you’re all about what’s right and wrong, good and evil. The rules written into the world — as far as you’re concerned — they say that the boy done wrong, and they impose a punishment no rational being could possibly consider just. Your system is fucked. Your entire fucking philosophy is unsustainable barbarism, because it requires you to accept — to condone — an utterly unconscionable act — to wit, the gutting of a small boy like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. So whatcha gonna do about it, ya big fucking pussy? You ready to ditch Deep Magic Rule #1? You got the balls to be a mensch about it? You got the fucking cojones to admit that all this absolutism is a crock of shit, that you don’t really know what’s right and what’s wrong just as much as I really don’t care? Eh, big boy?

Ah, but wait! Aslan doesn’t just let Edmund die! He bravely(!) valiantly(!) gives himself up for sacrifice in place of Edmund. In an act of martyrdom beyond measure, he offers himself to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. Such courage! Such love! Such mercy! Such blah fucking blah! Fuck that shit. Faced with a valid challenge to the entire moral underpinnings of Narnia, a dilemma that identifies an injustice intrinsic to the moral system at its most basic level, the inexcusable inequity of a system that would maltreat a child with such callousness that Charles Dickens would baulk at the melodrama of it, Aslan pussies out. He finds a legal loophole. According to the monumentally fucked-up rules of Deep Magic, a surrogate can be punished in place of the perpetrator. According to the rules of Deep Magic scapegoats are all well and good. According to God’s Law, whipping boys are A-OK. It won’t actually mean The End Of Narnia As We Know It if Edmund doesn’t die… just as long as some poor schmuck’s entrails get splattered on the stone. Sinners don’t actually have to go to Hell after all… cause Jesus died on the cross for our sins.

Not to undervalue Aslan’s suffering and all, but he does know, of course, that gutting an innocent person on the stone table invokes Deeper Magic Rule #0: should an innocent person be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, aforesaid person will return to life. We’ll leave aside the fact that Aslan fucked off and abandoned an entire realm to the whims of the White Witch, as apparently this does not constitute a betrayal. Abandoning his people, deserting them, leaving the weak and innocent to struggle on under a wicked tyrant — that’s not a betrayal. Oh, no. Aslan is innocent and as such will return to life. Oh, and aforesaid stone table will then be shattered as a grand symbolic sign that, yeah, OK, you’re right, the whole “gutting like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table” thing is a barbaric monstrosity, and we should probably just scrap it altogether; yeah, OK, you’re right, it would have been cruel beyond contempt to have Edmund gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, because all those ethical criteria you were using to argue for Edmund’s being spared — naivety, repentance, mercy, love, justice — they do actually matter a fuckload more than any moralistic Deep Magic rule; yeah, OK, you’re right, that sort of absolute decree of damnation with no recourse to appeal is ruthless to the point of psychotic; yeah, OK, you’re right, the punishment is so cruel and arbitrary it serves no purpose other than to give an opportunity for some jollies to the type of evil fuck you’d have to be to invoke it; it’s just… it’s just…

It’s just… you can’t expect us to just
admit that openly… not to ourselves, at least.

Sure, the stone table is shattered. Sure, this is clearly a big symbol of Christian salvation, a revision of the Deep Magic standing for the revision of God’s Law. Look, forget all that Old Testament eye-for-an-eye stuff, it’s saying. It’s all about God’s forgiveness now, dig? Aslan’s death and resurrection reset the terms. But do they really? Aslan’s Deeper Magic trump card doesn’t define “innocent” in terms that include Edmund’s childhood naivety. All indications are that had Edmund been gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table, unlike Aslan, he would not have been restored to life. It’s not that he didn’t deserve to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. It’s not that nobody deserves that because it’s fucking insane. It’s not that the Pevensey kids would have been entitled to recoil in horror from the leonine lunatic and his icy enemy the moment they started talking about Deep Magic Rule #1. It’s not that Edmund would have been quite within his rights to say a big fuck you to Aslan, the White Witch and the whole of fucking Narnia and, in the absence of anything even remotely resembling real justice, leg it for the wardrobe as fast as his little legs could carry him. It’s not that Aslan could have shattered that stone table the moment it was built, or thrown himself upon it before it had first been bloodied, torched himself upon it like a Buddhist monk rather than allow a single soul to suffer its rough justice. It’s not that Jesus the lion could have simply opened his big mouth at the point when Deep Magic Rule #1 was being written and roared out at the top of his lungs, FUCK THIS SHIT! It’s not that Aslan being there when the Deep Magic was written and being Jesus and all we might sort of wonder why he did fuck all to ensure it was set up in a way that wouldn’t entail little children being gutted like slaughtered lambs on the stone table. It’s not that Aslan was wrong to let it go down that way and now he sees the error of his ways, or that he was right then but times change and mores with them, so he’s just as right now to scrap it all as barbaric tosh.

Oh, no. Cause that would be an admission that such absolutist moralistic bollocks was just plain ethically retarded, that we all need to learn, like Edmund, how to behave as decent human beings by applying empathy and understanding to experience — which is just too damn scary to contemplate for most big fucking pussies. So instead we get the legalistic cop-out of a stand-in suffering damnation in another’s stead, a surrogate expiation of sin which works in the mindset of the moralistic cretin where two wrongs do make a right. Here’s that genius logic in all its twisted, knotted wonder:

All betrayal is bad. Duh… well, a torturous death is bad too, so if we inflict a torturous death on all traitors that’ll balance things out, yuh? But, duh… some traitors don’t really deserve torturous deaths. Cause they might have been, like, stoopid… or misled… or children, yuh? But… uh… don’t we still need to balance things out? Cause… uh… you can’t leave a crime unpunished. You gots to have a punishment, yuh? So… hey, I got it! We need to inflict a torturous death on someone, yuh? Duh… so how about we write in a loophole where you can just, like, inflict a torturous death on someone else, someone who has nothing to do with the traitor. Cause that’ll make things balance out. Yeah! Yeah! I mean, they’d have to be willing to die in the traitor’s place or… uh… well, that’d probably be kinda bad… I think they call that “murder”, yuh? And we should probably just let someone else do the killing, cause if we did it, we’d be bad too, yuh? But if we just find someone who’s willing to die so we don’t have to torture a child to death, and have the executioner do it to them instead… uh… then things will balance out. Cause you gots the betrayal on the one hand and the torturous death on the other. And that makes things even, yuh?

So Aslan Died For What?

Of course, it could be worse. The truly genius logic of St Paul was to say that one torturous death — the crucifixion of a young Jewish activist — serves to balance out not just one betrayal but all sins of every kind — or at least the sins of anyone who’s willing to join him in celebrating that torturous death as their means to salvation. When I say “genius” here, by the way, I mean in an evil, megalomaniac, Bond-villain sorta way. And I’m not being ironic with the “truly”. No, I really think Paul had a quite cunning realisation that the tragic story of Jesus’s death for his cause could be spun into a story of a scapegoat willing to take the wrap for anyone and everyone, and that this whole Jesus cult could be made much more compelling by pinning its mystical notions of sin and salvation to a grand symbolic act of blood-sacrifice. I mean, if Lewis’s Christian allegory took its cue from Paul, it would make the “two wrongs do make a right” message above look tame.

In St Paul’s Narnia, that stone table would already be broken, since Aslan would have died and resurrected and fucked off to fuck knows where years ago. In St Paul’s Narnia, the White Witch would still be in charge, the denizens would still be living in fear, and Aslan’s promise to return would remain unfulfilled. Oh, there’d be rumours among the resistance, faith even in the depth of wintry desolation, but the Pevenseys would have to save the realm without backup. In St Paul’s Narnia, we’d have one of the White Witch’s wolves having a Road to Caer Paravel experience, realising that they’ve been a bad, bad wolf. And after Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings, that wolf would be waiting there to tell him, hey, don’t worry; yes, you done bad; fact is, you done so bad that you ought to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table according to the Deep Magic; but Aslan loves you, and he died for your sins, so as long as you say these words of contrition along with me, you’ll be fine. What? You want to make amends to your siblings? Aslan forgives you and that’s all that matters. You want to help them in their struggle against the White Witch? Render unto the White Witch what is hers, I say. You heard that the White Witch just had Peter flayed alive, that Susan is to be hung, drawn and quartered, that Lucy is in hiding for fear of her life? Praise the martyrs of Aslan whose reward will come to them in Heaven.

Forget the temporal world, the Narnia of the flesh.

And in the Narnia that came after that, with St Paul the wolf preaching of Aslan’s death for all our sins, the White Witch’s minions included, it’s not hard to see Aslanianity really starting to catch on with the wolves and minotaurs. It’s not hard to see that Church of Aslan downplaying the role of the White Witch and her followers in his torturous death, blaming it on the centaurs, say. Give it a few hundred years and, who knows? We might even see the White Witch converting, a Holy Narnian Empire. Now there’s a Christian allegory for you.

Can we imagine Edmund buying the wolf’s take on the death of Aslan, taking that short-cut to a salved conscience? Or, with his newfound ethical awareness born from the drama of greed and pride, fear and folly, shock and remorse, do we maybe imagine Edmund telling the wolf where he can shove his eternal salvation, and heading off to fight beside his siblings if they’ll accept his deep and heartfelt apologies? And if he did? If Edmund rejected outright the whole idea that Aslan’s death was a valid expiation of his crime, would it make the slightest bit of difference? Even back in Lewis’s Narnia, if we reject outright the whole core of the Christian allegory, this notion that Edmund has to die, has to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table save for Aslan’s death in his place, does this make the slightest bit of difference?

See, the neat thing about stories, I think, especially fantasy stories where the archetypal aspect of the characters and the actions partake of the mythic, is that the rules of drama can fuck over any allegory. Lewis tries to give us his retelling of the crucifixion as the tale of Edmund’s redemption, tries to shape the action to suit his allegorical purpose, but the drama ignores that and goes blithely on. Edmund does not actually deserve to be gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table. We know it. Lewis knows it. Most important of all, the story knows it. He’s not that bad. He’s only a child. He was weak and foolish. He’s sorry for what he’s done. His siblings accept this. They love him, and they know him well enough to know he’s not that rotten an apple. As ready as he is to make amends, and as ready as his siblings are to accept that, all that is needed, in dramatic terms is the symbolic enaction of atonement and acceptance. Regardless of the Christian hogwash, even after Aslan’s sacrifice, the drama still demands that enaction. And in utter disregard of Lewis’s allegorical message, in direct contradiction of his apparent intent, the drama gives us just that.

Edmund takes a mortal wound in a noble act of heroic self-sacrifice, and Lucy heals him with her magic potion.

Atonement and acceptance.

So Aslan died for what? Not much apparently. It doesn’t matter a jot, the drama tells us, what Aslan has done, not if Edmund still has to go through a dramatically satisfying enaction of atonement and acceptance. Not if, in dramatic terms, the whole death-and-resurrection just reads as a mechanism for getting him temporarily out of the way so that the heroes can be driven to the point of defeat, only for Aslan to come roaring in at the last minute to turn the tide of the battle. It’s of no more religious import than Han Solo flying in to blast Vader from Luke’s tail. No more than if Lewis had given us Aslan offering himself for Edmund in a prisoner exchange, and being led to his execution only to bust loose from his chains and come roaring in to save the day. No more than if we’d seen him fall off a cliff, or be washed away by a river, or be buried by a landslide, only for him to reappear just at the point he’s needed most, having saved himself at the last minute by cunning, fortitude or sheer bloody good luck. In allegorical terms his death is just a horrific spectacle required by an arbitrary rule, this fancy of a Deep Magic, but in dramatic terms we need the all-powerful cat out of the way to up the ante for the climax. In allegorical terms his resurrection is just a happy miracle resulting from another arbitrary rule pulled out of Aslan’s ass, this fancy of a Deeper Magic, but in dramatic terms we need the restoration of the fighting spirit for that final turn of the battle in the heroes’ favour. Deep Magic? Deeper Magic? The drama knows that deeper than any such nonsense, Narnia is founded on the rules of Story. It was bollocks when Aslan said that Edmund had to die. It’s still bollocks when Aslan says that now he doesn’t. Yes, the drama tells us, for the crime that Edmund committed there’s a price that has to be paid. But before Aslan’s death, the drama tells us that being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on the stone table is not that price. And after Aslan’s death, the drama tells us that the price is still unpaid.

So must Edmund still die?

No. That price is not some torturous death, simply the proof of his repentance, or more, the proof of something deeper than even a profound remorse, proof of an active ethical judgement, a capacity or even drive to judge what’s right and act on that judgement, proof of ethics as an existential skill. Any pain and suffering involved in that is not a righteous punishment, the drama is telling us. Edmund’s punishment is his remorse. His wounding is only the requisite demonstration of his utter commitment to this solitary, but all-important, altruistic act. Yes, it carries a sense of repayment, pain taken for pain given — this is part of atonement — but the sincerity of his benevolent motivation is what really matters, the fact that Edmund’s ethical judgement is what drives him into danger for the sake of others. And with that demonstration made, that pain and suffering can and should be dispelled as quickly as possible. Fuck the Christian allegory, the drama says. Lucy’s tending to her wounded brother is a real benediction, a humanist blessing that gathers him back into the familial fold, enacting the forgiveness they all feel, the real love and mercy of one human being for another, the acceptance that symbolically completes his redemption. It has to be done quickly, the drama tells us. The White Witch, Aslan, all of Narnia fades into the background. They don’t matter now. This is all that matters now, in dramatic terms, that it’s not too late for Lucy’s magic potion to save him. It’s not, is it? Is it too late? It mustn’t be too late.

Edmund must not die.

Fuck the Deep Magic with its stone table and its insane rules. Fuck the White Witch’s demands. Fuck Aslan’s solemn pronouncements.

Edmund must not die.

He doesn’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve it. He never deserved it. And here’s the fucking proof, in a redemption that has sod all to do with anyone or any thing, man or beast, being gutted like a slaughtered lamb on a stone table… or nailed to a cross on a hill, for that matter. The prodigal son of Adam, who’s spent most of the novel being the villain’s willing pawn, has shown himself to be far more of a mensch than Aslan, ready to die for the sake of others and without a fucking secret loophole of Deeper Magic to ensure his return to life. And in dramatic terms, he must not die, because the Story says this — this — is How It Must Be. This is the story. This is how it has to play out. We need atonement and acceptance to complete the narrative of (entirely secular) redemption. Because for all the Christian allegory of Aslan and the grand instauration fantasy of Narnia, the human core of the story is Edmund’s narrative, the tale of the trials and tribulations of an apostate individual, a boy who doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong, who hasn’t taken onboard anyone else’s mores as received wisdom, and who therefore has to learn the hard way, for himself and by experience. And when he’s done so, then, by his own bloody-willed act of sacrifice — nobody else’s — he has to earn his redemption.

And the drama slams its fist on the table and the whole house-of-cards allegory collapses.

Which is probably why, I suppose, at the end of the day, I’m able to enjoy the story without vomiting at the allegorical import it’s aiming for. In failing in those ambitions, actually, I rather think it ends up working quite nicely as an unintentional critique, Aslan’s gone-in-a-way-that-shatters-hope loss and back-in-the-nick-of-time return functioning as a narrative device for raising and releasing tension, but the rationale underlying it rendered so paper-thin by the hokum of Deep Magic that thematically it only serves to point up the dubious nature of those rules. A little tweak of cynicism and one might even imagine Aslan as a rather Gnostic Jesus, there at the founding of Narnia, alright, but as a witness to that Deep Magic being written by the type of dark demiurge who would relish the entrails of traitors being spilled for his entertainment on a cold stone altar. One might imagine that Gnostic Aslan as a weaker paraclete, one whose abandonment of Narnia is only the necessary relocation of a limited force of light called away to battle evil on another front, a Phildickian saviour-in-hiding who “must invade reality in order to redeem it”. Hell, it makes more sense than the idea that he’s the Jesus of a traditional omnipotent and omnipresent God, who should hardly have to leave one realm to rot while tending to another. But that’s really just playing with the inconsistencies for the mischief of it. When push comes to shove it’s enough for me that the allegory simply rings hollow and imparts that echo of emptiness to all the bombast about Deep Magic, enough that when we’re told that Edmund must die the decree is so profoundly senseless we can’t help but question it, ask why.

Enough that when we do so Story is waiting in the wings to tell us: do not listen to that horseshit; here’s why he must not.