Friday, December 17, 2010

Signing Off For Now

I won't be posting much on this blog over the next few months. More detailed discussion will resume in early May 2011, when Five Wounds is published in the US and UK.

In the meantime, if you have arrived here in search of information on Five Wounds, I recommend the following posts:

Video Interview
Video Introduction
Making of
Indepth interview with Jon and Dan at The View From Here
An Anti-Historical Novel

If you have arrived here in search of information on Pistols! Treason! Murder!, I recommend the following:

Introduction at Rorotoko
Short monologue on Radio National
Punk history
Explanation of the title
Commentary on the first chapter

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Discipline Can Take the Fun Out of History (The Australian, 2007)

Following on from my last post, which reprints the text of an editorial I wrote for The Sun-Herald in 2007, here is a similar piece published in The Australian at about the same time. It's basically the same argument, but it's written in a different style for a different publishing context.

The Australian

April 28-29, 2007 (Weekend Edition)

Discipline can take the fun out of history

It took me about 3 1/2 years to obtain a doctoral thesis. It took me the next 3 1/2 to unlearn all the bad habits I acquired in the process. So why did writing a PhD feel like learning to suppress everything that attracted me to history in the first place?

Hayden White has argued that the transformation of a subject or a literary genre - in this case history - into a university discipline is principally a matter of deciding what is illegitimate: that is, making a list of all the things you are not allowed to do if you want to be considered respectable, qualified and - most important of all - employable. That is a far more important part of the process than establishing a positive set of skills and investigative techniques appropriate to the subject.

By definition, the transformation of history defined as a literary pursuit into history defined as a university subject involved the establishment of professional examinations and qualifications. Anyone who could not pass these exams was then by definition not a real historian. Whether failure implied an excess of imagination or a lack of skill was beside the point.

Postgraduates are taught valuable lessons; for example, paleography (how to read handwritten historical documents), which is only the most basic of the critical skills required for the interpretation of sources written in alien historical contexts. Students are also exposed to a rich body of work written by their predecessors, which contains valuable practical and theoretical insights that prevent them from having to reinvent the wheel. But at the same time they are acculturated (to borrow a piece of jargon from anthropology) into academic life. I used to watch it happen in seminars in Cambridge, which I single out not because Cambridge is an inherently stuffier or cleverer institution than any other university but because there are a lot more students and seminars there, and so the indoctrination is much more blatant. Students listen carefully to their elders and betters and practise asking the right kind of question, one that reveals their erudition rather than their ignorance and does not betray any emotional involvement in the subject (although political commitment is acceptable at times).

Despite the variations in technique and approach among different disciplines in the humanities, there is an identifiable academic style to all of them: an acceptable vocabulary, a way of phrasing questions and structuring papers, a shared understanding of what constitutues an intellectually serious argument, along with some more obvious formal elements such as the use of footnotes and referencing conventions. The precise nature of this shared set of values and conventions evolves from generation to generation, but the primary function of each generation's members is to pass on as much of their cultural inheritance to their successors as they can, to ensure that the culture survives and thus secure their place in its canon.

These academic conventions - and the related practice of using anonymous referees to review work submitted to presses and journals - are ostensibly intended to preserve minimum standards, which they do. But they also encourage rigid conformity. Anonymous refereeing is a particularly vicious process for those who genuinely wish to try something different, as the writer has absolutely no means of defending his or her self against attack from an unidentifiable quarter and no opportunity to bring the pilloried work into the public arena for discussion. As a result, experiments are strangled at birth, as my book would have been but for the intervention of several generous editors (especially those of Rethinking History) who took the unusual step of overruling hostile peer reviews.

As graduate students, we are led to believe that the academic voice is a universal language, a guarantee of comprehension among a world-wide community. Actually it is more like a dialect. Now, there is nothing wrong with that. Obscure languages and dialects have particular powers of expression that make them ideal for analysing previously undreamed-of nuances in subjects that seem self-evidently simple to outsiders. The most famous (and possibly mythical) example is the generous number of words for snow in certain Inuit tongues. Similarly, even the most abstruse article in the most obscure journal may contain important insights, but that does not mean its style should be adopted as a universal standard of judgement.

In essence, I have no problem with the way in which we are taught to write and think as graduate students. It is the equivalent of learning how to draw and model at art school. I use that analogy deliberately because in art school the purpose of that training is to prepare you to move beyond the limits of this basic education and find your own voice. I agree with whoever said that you have the right to break the rules only if you are capable of keeping them. Indeed, I make a point of periodically writing and publishing entirely conventional academic articles in peer-refereed journals just to prove that I can do it, so that if and when I choose to do something different it is clear that it is a deliberate choice and not a question of incompetence. I value the training I received, but why would I want to rewrite my thesis over and over again for the rest of my career? One of the most basic insights of cultural history is to argue that many practices and beliefs are constructed and not naturally given, but historians are seemingly unwilling to apply this obvious insight to their own writing.

The academy is the only place in which the entrance examination - the thesis - marks a definitive statement of the values and techniques that are supposed to define your future written production. This conservatism masks a deep-rooted insecurity that is revealed most clearly by the intolerance of anonymous referees for jokes. I think jokes are useful as a form of criticism, as a way of encouraging greater self-consciousness and scepticism. But to referees, not taking oneself - and by extension, them - seriously is an unforgivable sin.

So, do I long for a return to the days when history was left in the hands of gentlemen amateurs who were more concerned with crafting an elegant phrase than racking up the required number of refereed publications, irrespective of whether anyone read them (and nobody does, not if they can help it)? No. After all, I hold a post within an academic institution and I hope to continue to hold productive debates with my colleagues there for many years to come. Rather, I would like more of us to acknowledge that imagination, creativity, playfulness and, above all, risk-taking and formal experimentation are essential to the survival and growth of history and the humanities in general. As a discipline, we need to become more undisciplined.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Dusting off the Pages of History (The Sun-Herald, 2007)

In 2007, when my first book Pistols! Treason! Murder! came out in Australia, I did several radio interviews and wrote a couple of editorials for newspapers. One of the latter was for The Sun-Herald. I don't really know why they asked, but I said 'Yes' anyway. I thought I owed it to my publisher to accept every such request. Moreover, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if I could adapt my style to several different publishing contexts, and write copy to deadline. The result is a bit cartoonish (in the pejorative sense of the word). Nonetheless, I think it's a fun piece.

I found the text online here. Thanks to whoever posted it there.

I also wrote an op-ed. piece for The Australian at approximately the same time. I'll put that up too if I can find it.

Sun Herald

Sunday February 25, 2007

He is our first punk historian. And his tale of a masterful Venetian spy has been praised for pushing boundaries. Damn it, Jonathan Walker writes, history doesn't have to be boring.

HISTORY. It's not exactly rock'n'roll, is it? Imagine a typical historian. I'm betting the figure you see in your head isn't standing under a spotlight dressed in black with his eyes rolled back in his head, as Pentecostal tongues of flame crackle around him and the audience roars its approval.

No, you probably have a hazy image of someone in a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, possibly smoking a pipe.

Why is that?

Poetry has Byron and Baudelaire. The novel has Joyce and Kerouac. Painting has Picasso and Pollock. Where are history's iconoclastic heroes?

After all, it too is an art form, or at least a literary genre. Yes, it has its own distinctive rules and restrictions, the most important of which is accountability to sources. But history still has to be written and, as such, its authors must make choices regarding style and form. Why does no one want to talk about that? Or rather why is it assumed that the form in which history is written is unimportant as well as unchanging?

Tradition and conservatism seem built into the genre. The opening chapter of most doctoral theses is a pointless exercise in ancestor worship known as the "literature review", where the initiate abases himself or herself by reciting everything ever written by anyone on their chosen subject.

And whose idea of a good structure is: "Tell them what you're going to say. Say it, then summarise what you've just said."?

Imagine a detective novel that begins: "According to the precedents established by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, this book will set out to prove that the butler did it by reviewing 10 significant clues".

If academic historians humbly aspire only to contribute to the debate or to advance our understanding of some previously neglected topic, popular historians are equally unadventurous. Either they batter the reader into submission with an unending list of minutiae about kings and battles, or they make whimsical claims for the epoch-defining importance of insignificant nobodies.

Both camps stick to established formulae like glue. There is no risk, and no sense of adventure.

I should admit that my book Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise And Fall Of A Master Spy is also guilty of making exaggerated claims for its hero: the 17th-century Venetian spy Gerolamo Vano. But at least I do so with a degree of facetiousness and cynicism.

The difference is that in going in search of Vano, one of history's most elusive characters, I know I'm playing a game, just as he was. In both cases it's a gambling game. He bet his life; I bet my career. In my case, the rules of the game are clear at any given point, even if I am making some of them up as I go along. In Vano's case, matters are rather murkier. The suspicion remains that his game was rigged.

My subject, then, is not just the spy Vano, but rather how Vano challenged my complacency about the proper way in which to write history.

My main source was Vano's surveillance reports: urgent dispatches from the front line of the 17th-century intelligence war. What are they like? Just like the work of a hack Jacobean playwright: melodramatic, cliched, and often completely implausible.

But if Vano's reports lack psychological subtlety and the richness of expression to be found in the plays written by his contemporary Shakespeare, their meaning is still far from obvious. The problem is that Vano's characters were real people, many of whom were arrested and executed as a consequence of his farcical descriptions in which they foam at the mouth and stamp their feet. So why did anyone take Vano seriously?

One answer may be that if you stick with his reports, weird things start to happen. You begin to doubt your own instincts. His reports just go on and on, in a closed loop of cursing ambassadors and treacherous nobles whose exclamations constantly undercut statements made by their predecessors.

The only moments of light relief in this interpretive bidding war - "I'll see your double-bluff and raise you to a triple!" - are intermittent acts of extreme violence.

If Vano was more than a deluded psychopath - if he was, in fact, an author in control of his material - then surely I had to follow suit in writing about him?

But it cannot be denied that Vano is also an extremely unreliable narrator, as his execution for perjury in 1622 suggests.

And the contents of his reports are impossible to assimilate into a traditional narrative for other reasons: they have no index, no cross-referencing and no explanatory commentary. Worse, the file begins and ends without warning, and at some point it has been stripped. What remains, then, is a mutilated fragment.

The archive containing Vano's file is similarly disorganised. Thousands of other documents survive - ambassadorial dispatches, interrogation transcripts, police reports - but they, too, are hopelessly confusing and convoluted.

So I needed a new kind of history to do Vano justice, in which every detail is distinct and potentially meaningful, as indeed it is in Vano's reports. The typefaces, layout, illustrations, rhythm and structure of my book all had to become part of its argument.

The key question is not, "How can I justify this?" Rather it is, "Why not?" Why not use comic strips in a historical biography? Why not use transcripts of imaginary conversations to introduce background information? The challenge is to dramatise the problems raised by the evidence and in doing so escape the cliched succession of one damn thing after another.

Like Vano, I'd rather risk everything than play it safe.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Digital Editing, Digital Humanities: A Symposium at the University of Sydney

I shall be one of the participants in the symposium Digital Editing, Digital Humanities, which takes place in the Woolley Common Room, Woolley Building, University of Sydney, tomorrow (Friday 10 Dececmber 2010), from 9.30-5.00ish. The symposium has been organised by Mark Byron and William Christie. Further information is available on Mark Byron's blog. I'm on in the afternoon as part of a group presentation.

Plenary Speaker: Bethany Nowviskie, University of Virginia

This event brings together scholars, artists, and archivists working within the digital domain, both in Sydney and further afield. A primary focus of the symposium is to raise awareness of the variety of digital projects currently in progress in the Digital Humanities, and to discuss the kinds of digital resources available to scholars.

The symposium aims to showcase projects across the humanities, and to foster discussion of potential collaboration, funding, and the best use of available and potential resources. Three sessions will follow the plenary:

1. scholarly editing of medieval and modern literary texts;

2. projects in the visual arts, Buddhist Studies, history, the culture of robotics;

3. a roundtable concerning resources on campus, including SETIS, Heurist and Fisher e-Scholarship.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Typographic Design in Jean-Luc Godard's Films

The talk above is by Laura Forde. For more on the same topic, see this blog post by Andrea Hyde.

I have been watching the Godard films under discussion recently as part of the preparation / research for a new graphic project I am working on with Dan Hallett.

Friday, December 3, 2010

'Little Dorrit' by Christine Edzard (1987)

[Originally posted on Literary Minded:]

In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was never my home, not after my mother died. I couldn’t stand it there, in my father’s home, in the dark there, with the recessed windows and the ceilings, so low I used to bang my head on the doorjambs. The smell was what really used to get to me, as if it had seeped into the stone floors.

Child of an unfortunate father.

In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was no longer my home. I left for Liverpool, knowing that I would only be there a few months, until I went north to university in October. I had no job and no money, but an older friend had just bought a gutted house that he was planning to renovate. I could stay there in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

A delicate appeal for a small temporary accommodation.

There was a streetlamp directly outside my window, which had no curtains. I turned the bare lightbulb off before I undressed, and I slept under the orange glow of sodium, on the floor, in a sleeping bag, on cushions I borrowed from the sofa downstairs. I took the cushions back downstairs every morning.

I shared the house with three other young men: two mechanics and a binman, who were in the habit of lying around watching television and eating takeaway food when they got home, in their workclothes, lying on the same sofa I used for my bedding. So the cushions were never especially clean.


Some things in the house worked. The toilet in the bathroom flushed, and there was an electric shower mounted over the bath that emitted a thin, feeble stream, which alternated between scalding hot and lukewarm as the circuit breaker kicked in and out. The cold tap in the kitchen also worked. But that was it for water. You had to boil it on the gas stove if you wanted it really hot, and most of the washing took place in the kitchen sink.

Faculties evidently decaying.

The boards on the kitchen floor had been ripped up in preparation for redoing the plumbing, exposing the gas pipes feeding the cooker, and the only heat source in the house was a fire in the living room, the same room with the sofa and the television. The electricity was supplied by a meter system, into which coins had to be fed regularly.

Tuppence please.

Nobody had figured out the local council’s garbage collection system, but there was a backyard, so whenever a garbage bag filled up, one of us tied it off and threw it out the back door. No-one dared to go out in the yard after dark.

The flies trouble you, don’t they me dear?

It was entertaining enough for a couple of months. I was glad to get away in October, but it was still the only available place to stay when I came back to Liverpool after my first term at university. I didn’t want to go to my father’s home. I couldn’t go back there. He wasn’t speaking to me. So I was back sleeping on the smelly sofa cushions. Still, it wasn’t so bad. It’s never bad with people who care about you.

I’m a friend. Remember?

A film version of Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit was part of the Christmas television schedule that year. It was a six-hour adaptation, shown in two separate three-hour parts.

I decide to give it a go. Thirty minutes later, I’m hooked, but there’s hardly any credit left on the electricity meter, and there are no fifty-pence coins anywhere in the house.

Nobody’s to blame. Noise, fatigue, a moment’s inattention.

‘Turn everything off except the television’, I say. ‘All the lights, the fridge, don’t take a shower, don’t use the microwave, don’t wash your clothes, don’t dry your hair, don’t listen to music. If the power cuts before the film ends, I’m going to go crazy’.

Paid to squeeze. Squeeze to pay.

I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t even guess how it’s going to end – except that probably somebody is going to get married, and probably somebody else is going to die.

‘What are you watching?’
Little Dorrit’.
‘How long?’
‘Three hours’.
‘Three hours? Bloody hell’.
‘Six, actually. Two parts’.
‘Are you mad?’
‘Humour me. I want to know what happens’.

Pancks the gypsy. Fortune-telling.

Another thirty minutes later, I’m shivering in the twilight glow of the television when the doorbell rings.

‘Can you get that?’
‘Merry Christmas!’, someone outside says. ‘What’s up?’
‘Sssh! We’re watching Little Dorrit!’
‘What’s Little Dorrit?’
‘Come in. I’ll explain’.

We watch Little Dorrit, together.

The meter turns, infinitesimally slowly.

How can you speak of forever to a maimed creature like me?

The story advances, faster.

[All phrases in Arial are excerpts of dialogue taken from the film version of Little Dorrit, dir. Christine Edzard (1987).]

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Santa Maria Formosa, Venice, 2002

36 Church

I had about forty-five minutes inside the church of Santa Maria Formosa before the light went. I shot eight frames (I think), of which this is the best. What was I looking at? I remember noting the following (in no particular order):

1) The light in the window on the right shining through the columns of the altar.

2) The red of the carpet, the green on the front of the altar and the mottled, pinkish organ booth. If a space is not articulated by contrasts in the distribution of colour, then there’s no point in using colour film.

3) The two prominent hanging lamps, which represented a problem that I was unable to solve to my complete satisfaction (so that their current positions within the frame were a compromise).

4) The golden angels, and in particular the fact that one of them is being ‘stabbed’ in the head by a partially-visible statue on the altar behind.

5) The position of the column at the left in the foreground relative to the pediment of the doorway in the background.

6) The four objects covered in white cloths on the left side of the frame. (What exactly is the tilted object on the floor? I don’t know and it bothers me.)

7) The difference in the source and intensity (and hence the colour) of the light through the doorway on the left. I was less aware of the patch of cold light at the bottom right and I didn’t notice the colour shift in the column on the left at all. The latter effects are stronger on the film than they appeared to the naked eye.

8) The red thread running around the benches, which is a more delicate but more absolute boundary of the space within than the benches themselves. And it is somehow important that the thread is red. (N.B. The thread may not be visible in the miniatruzed version above. For a clearer view, see the main sequence, in which this photograph is no. 36.)

9) The figure in the painting through the door on the left. It was important to show all of it. (The figure is also difficult to see in the version here.)

The list could be extended – but never to the point where it includes everything in the frame.

Friday, November 26, 2010

'Tree of Codes' by Jonathan Safran Foer

Tree of Codes
is Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, which is a 'treated' edition of The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, in the spirit of Tom Phillips' A Humument. It is published by Visual Editions. There's a good interview with Safran Foer in the NYT (extract below).

Q.Where did this strong affinity for graphic design come from?

A.Where would the lack of interest in design come from? Why wouldn’t — how couldn’t — an author care about how his or her books look? I’ve never met an artist who wasn’t interested in the visual arts, yet we’ve drawn a deep line in the sand around what we consider the novel to be, and what we’re supposed to care about. So we’re in the strange position of having much to say about what hangs on gallery walls and little about what hangs on the pages of our books. Literature doesn’t need a visual component — my favorite books are all black words on white pages — but it would be well served to lower the drawbridge

Monday, November 22, 2010

Podcast on the Design of Five Wounds

The podcast of my talk on the design of Five Wounds, originally delivered to the Centre for the Book at Monash University on 20 Oct., is now available to download if anyone wants to listen to it at home. Alternatively, I have also uploaded and embedded the audio below.


The original talk was of course accompanied by illustrations. I have posted the most important of these below. The numerical headings are time cues, which refer to the point in the audio file at which I discuss the image in question. Anyone who wants to get a sense of what the book looks like before listening to the talk can check out these short videos, in which I flip through a copy and explain the various elements.

4:55: Freud Caricature

Freud Caraicature: What's On a Man's Mind

6:40 : Synaesthetic Paradise Diptych [I can't get this double image to work in the audio, and I waste a couple of minutes fiddling about with it]:

Synaesthetic Paradise (left panel)

Synaesthetic Paradise (right panel)

10:55: Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection.

Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection

12:00: Alternative Representation of Cuckoo's Face


13:50: Gabriella's Shield

Gabriella's Coat-of-Arms

13:57: Magpie's Shield

Magpie's Coat-of-Arms

15:00: Heraldry Sketches

Heraldry Sketches for Five Wounds 1

15:15: Heraldry Grid

Grid of Index Shields for Five Wounds (draft)

15:40: Sample Page Layout [see also 18:30 for discussion of the illustration included within this sample page]

Five Wounds Sample Layout (right)

17:00: Running Head [N.B. The pages above and below are two sides of the same layout, and thus the running head below serves as a title card for the illustration on the page above.]

Five Wounds Sample Layout (left)

24:55: Geneva Bible Page Layout (1560)

1560 Geneva Bible

25:00: King James Bible Page Layout (1611)

1611 King James Bible

25:30: Modern Bible Page Layout

Modern Red Letter Bible

40:00: Plate 15: Cut me

Plate 15: Cut me

[All illustrations except the Freud caricature, the heraldry sketches and the page layouts are by Dan Hallett.]

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sydney Freecon, 19-21 November 2010

This weekend I shall be participating in the Sydney Freecon, organised by Garry Dalrymple of the Sydney Futurians. There will be several events featuring local science-fiction / fantasy / horror writers, all taking place in Bankstown public library or nearby. As the name implies, there is no charge for attendance.

I shall be there on Friday evening (when I shall be giving a short reading) and Saturday afternoon (when I might possibly be available for a 'kaffeeklatsch' open discussion with other attendees, depending on interest).

The current draft programme is here.

Friday, November 12, 2010


[Originally posted on the Melbourne Writer's Festival blog:]

There’s a scene from Robert Bresson’s film Pickpocket, which the screenwriter and director Paul Schrader quotes repeatedly in his work – but Schrader alters it.

The version in American Gigolo takes place in an official area. A woman visits a man. They’re separated by a pane of glass. The woman brings her right hand up across the line of her body, reaching forwards, and rests the outer edge of her fingers along the inside of the glass. The man leans in to press his forehead against the same point on the other side of the glass, hard. Their movements are reciprocal rather than identical. It’s the closest they’ll ever get to touching.

In Pickpocket, Bresson’s protagonists are also separated, but by bars rather than glass. They can touch, if only obliquely. She kisses his fist, which grips a bar. He presses his cheek to her temple; or rather they press together the small cross-sections of skin that can be contained within a single square of the prison grid.

In the version of the scene from Schrader’s Light Sleeper, there are no bars and no glass, and the final shot initially appears to be a still, which freezes the image of Willem Dafoe’s character kissing the hand of Susan Sarandon’s character. But even as the credits roll, even as they keep rolling, it’s only the flickering of Dafoe’s closed eyes – moving like those of a dreamer in the R.E.M. phase – that betrays the patience of both actors.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Transcendent Blankness

[Originally posted on the Melbourne Writer's Festival blog:]

The film Morvern Callar by Lynne Ramsay is based on a book by Alan Warner (although the source novel has a completely different tone to the adaptation). The title character is a young woman whose boyfriend has committed suicide as the film opens, leaving behind the manuscript of a novel, which Morvern then submits to publishers under her own name, successfully, as it eventually turns out.

The clip above is the final scene. It may not be apparent that Morvern is actually wearing earphones connected to a Walkman (this is pre-iPod), which provides an implied diegetic source for the soundtrack, even if the version we hear is obviously overdubbed. This theory is subsequently confirmed by the final few seconds of the clip, in which the sound is ‘overheard’ through earphones turned up too loud, although by that point there is no accompanying image, so that the sound only becomes literally diegetic after it has ceased to make sense in diegetic terms.

Clearly there is something else at stake besides narrative logic by the time we get to the black screen.

I remember going to a concert with friends when I was a teenager, when one of our group also insisted on wearing a Walkman, through which he listened to heavy metal, to register his disgust at the sappy Christian folk being performed on stage. This has always struck me as a peculiarly eloquent and perverse gesture, which expresses both the need to belong to a group and the inability to reconcile oneself to that need. I think that this same gesture, whose perversity goes unremarked in the clip, except insofar as its eloquence is amplified by the sound design, means something more in Morvern Callar, as the title of this post implies.

The sequence also works visually of course. It is not merely moving bodies filmed under a strobe. Rather, it is a tour-de-force of choreography and editing, in which a series of jump cuts disguise abrupt focal shifts as well as changes in the lighting.

'Transcendent blankness' is actually a pretty good description of the effect obtained in the films of Robert Bresson, who is one of Lynne Ramsay's influences (and on whom, more anon).


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Five Wounds: Review at 'Transnational Literature'

The latest issue of the academic e-journal Transnational Literature includes a review of Five Wounds, written by Aliese Millington. An extract is below:

Think back to your first trip with Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, or how it felt
to enter the Matrix after Neo takes the red pill.
Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel
takes you down a similarly twisting path and leaves you pondering the journey well
afterwards. Pooling influences trans-national, trans-cultural, trans-temporal and transart
form, authors Jonathan Walker and Dan Hallett spin the story of ‘five wounded
orphans [who] must face their traumatic origins’ (blurb). These tales are told through
the fascinating combination of Walker’s proclamatory prose, Hallett’s
Goya and
comic-book influenced illustrations, a Bible-like layout and handwritten notations.

Described as ‘cruel and arbitrary’ (blurb) by the authors, the world of
looks and feels
at once early renaissance, modern and apocalyptic.

I am particularly pleased to see a review in a journal on transnational literature, since many of the sources for Five Wounds are Italian: notably, Italo Calvino and Tintoretto. Below is a selection of transnational sources taken from a detail of an illustration (by Dan Hallett) on p. 100 of the novel.

Transnational Literature

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


[Originally posted on the Melbourne Writer's Festival blog:]

At this hour of the morning,’ he said, addressing nobody in particular, ‘people who are awake fall into two categories: the still and the already.

So says a character in Italo Calvino’s story ‘The adventure of a wife’ to the protagonist, who has wandered into a cafe at six a.m. She, like the speaker, falls into the first category, since she is on her way home after being out all night.

In 1994, I was up at six a.m. almost every morning, but for the first part of the year I was a ‘still’ and in the second part I was an ‘already’. In the 'still' part of the year, I worked on the night shift as a security guard at a cardboard factory. (I think that’s what they made. I didn’t really care, so I never bothered to find out). In the 'already' part of the year, I worked as a postman, and I started work at 5.45. In both jobs I set a record of sorts: I had the longest hair of any security guard in Glasgow that year; and later I was the slowest postman in the entire city.

I became a connoisseur of tiredness during this period. The first critical distinction to be made on that subject is related to Calvino’s observation, since the tiredness of staying up too late is qualitatively different from the tiredness of getting up too early.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Guest Post on Literary Minded

The blog Literary Minded has now posted a short essay I wrote about watching Christine Edzard's film of Little Dorrit. An extract is below.

In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was never my home, not after my mother died. I couldn’t stand it there, in my father’s home, in the dark there, with the recessed windows and the ceilings, so low I used to bang my head on the doorjambs. The smell was what really used to get to me, as if it had seeped into the stone floors.

Child of an unfortunate father.

In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was no longer my home. I left for Liverpool, knowing that I would only be there a few months, until I went north to university in October. I had no job and no money, but an older friend had just bought a gutted house that he was planning to renovate. I could stay there in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

A delicate appeal for a small temporary accommodation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Seminar at Monash University on 20 Oct.

Cover image for Five Wounds

Next week I shall be giving a talk sponsored by the Centre for the Book at Monash University on the design of Five Wounds. The talk will discuss in more detail some of the issues introduced in these videos, and will also explain the ways in which Five Wounds draws upon the history of the printed Bible.

Details are below:

Wednesday 20 October 2010
5.45 – 7.15 pm

McArthur Gallery, State Library of Victoria, Swanston Street, Melbourne CBD

(Directions to the McArthur Gallery at the SLV: walk through main ground-floor reading room, take the stairs adjacent to central lifts to Cowen Painting Gallery [level 2A], walk straight across into the Redmond Barry Reading room, then look right for the double glass doors "Maps, Rare Books etc." If any problems, ask staff on the main reference desk)

Attendance is free and everyone is welcome.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tristram Shandy by Visual Editions

VE1 Tristram Shandy from Visual Editions on Vimeo.

Visual Editions manifesto:

We think that books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell; with the visual feeding into and adding to the storytelling as much as the words on the page. We call it visual writing. And our strap line is “Great looking stories.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Inspirations: Cattle and the Creeping Things by The Hold Steady

For the effortless way in which it integrates Biblical stories and idioms into a resolutely secular narrative. And for this genius theological analysis:


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Inspirations: A Matter of Life and Death by Powell and Pressburger (1946)

I saw A Matter of Life and Death on television in the 80s, and finally on a cinema screen in repertory in the early 90s at the GFT in Glasgow. Its current interest for me lies partly in its allegorical mode of storytelling, and its emphasis on production design in the service of this mode, as suggested in Ian Christie's essay on the film in the BFI Film Classics series (pp. 16, 18-19):

[A Matter of Life and Death is a] striking example of the reinvention of the masque. This form of spectacle, combining elements of verse drama, dance, music, scenery and costume, was popular in aristocratic and court circles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Masques were usually allegorical, with a mythological scenario which could also be read in terms of contemporary politics. The court masque reached its height during the reign of James I, with the playwright Ben Jonson developing its dramatic structure by adding a comic prelude or 'anti-masque', and the architect Inigo Jones using the almost unlimited funds available to introduce for the first time all the machinery of modern theatre - artificial lighting, moveable sets and magical effects - to create 'pictures with Light and Motion'. ....

It is by means of ... mythic association, together with the invocation of motifs from the two Shakespearian 'magic' plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, that A Matter of Life and Death creates its masque-like story. Its characters are indeed not realistic individuals, even by the standards of 40s cinema, but are emblematic and allegorical: the Poet, his Beloved, the Heavenly Messenger, the Magician. They move in equally symbolic spaces: the Other World; and on earth, the Seashore, the Wood, the Palace, and that modern temple of mysteries, the hospital. And the machinery of the spectacle - most notably the giant escalator and the celestial amphitheatre, but also such an ultra-filmic effect as the giant eyelid closing over the screen under anaesthesia - is as important as were Jones's stage 'machines' for Jacobean masques.

Throughout, A Matter of Life and Death shifts backwards and forwards between purely allegorical, or fantastic, scenes, and melodrama: that is, heightened realism, which is, in its deliberate exaggeration, equally contrived. For example, in the clip above, note the implausible isolation of Kim Hunter's character on a dark set lit principally by a lurid red offscreen source, and the presence of an exaggerated ticking clock on the soundtrack, not to mention the dialogue, which flirts with absurdity, notwithstanding the absolute conviction with which David Niven delivers his lines, and their undeniable emotional impact. But all this is still within the bounds of realism, unlike the film's distinctive representation of the afterlife. The clip below follows on immediately after the one above.

Similarly, Five Wounds combines highly abstract elements with Grand Guignol violence.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Up: San Marco, Venice, 2008

San Marco Vertical (Mar 08)

Michel de Certeau’s book The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) famously begins with the narrator atop the World Trade Center in New York, enjoying the godlike perspective available from that vantage point. For de Certeau, this perspective fulfils the promise of the modern map, which produces knowledge through abstraction: by collating data and representing the results on an inhuman scale and from an inhuman viewpoint using the device of orthographic projection.[1] The viewer of the map is master of all he surveys, but only at the cost of alienation from the object of his knowledge.

De Certeau contrasts the map with the itinerary, the latter always implicitly tied to the point-of-view of a pedestrian, who is moving through the city rather than hovering above it. I have argued elsewhere (see this article and this chapter on 'The Spy as Flaneur') that Venice is the city of the itinerary par excellence, in part because it is almost impossible to obtain an elevated viewpoint: the only obvious platforms are the belltowers in San Marco and on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Everywhere else, lines of sight are cut off by the confines of particular streets or alleys or canals.

De Certeau’s schema does not, however, take account of another kind of looking: that of the pedestrian, lost on the ground, who pauses to look up. To look up is to remove oneself momentarily from the flow of traffic, since anyone adopting such a posture immediately becomes an obstacle to that traffic. To look up is to exchange negotiation for contemplation: to prostrate oneself before the object of one’s gaze; to acknowledge its power; to become vulnerable. In Venice, only tourists look up. Residents signal their proprietary relationship to the space they occupy by moving through it as aggressively and quickly as possible. For residents, up does not exist.

In an earlier post, I described how, according to a self-imposed rule, my early photographs of Venice had to depict a space from which a pedestrian could look back. By definition, this meant that I could not look up – unless I happened to be at the base of a bridge or some other elevated structure that incorporated a pedestrian thoroughfare (as in this example, which shows the bridge at Rialto).

In 2008, I returned to Venice after a three year absence, and I decided to reverse the terms of this original prohibition. Now I would only look up with the camera, and I would use a telephoto lens to isolate details, something I had avoided doing previously (most of the photographs in the main sequence were taken on a normal or wide-angle lens). I often carry out exercises like this when faced with a creative impasse: i.e. I do the opposite of whatever the previous rule was, and see what effect this has on the outcome.

What happens to photographic space when you look up? The photograph above and the four included in the previous two blog entries (here and here) show the results.

The visual iconography of Piazza San Marco is so inescapable and so familiar that it becomes an interesting exercise to see how much of the context can be removed before the subject becomes unrecognisable. I had previously conducted similar experiments with the human figure: How small does such a figure have to be on the negative before it ceases to be identifiable as a person? How large does it have to be before it becomes identifiable as a specific individual, who can theoretically be distinguished from other individuals on the basis of evidence provided by the photograph alone? I tried to work in the space between these two thresholds whenever possible (see nos 11, 12, 21 in the main sequence).

The image above literally has no background. Early photographs often have blown white skies as a result of the sensitivity of the emulsions to blue light. In such photographs, the sky is white because it contains an excess of light. Here the opposite is true. The sky contains no information whatsoever, which exaggerates the effect of decontextualisation, but the subject – reduced to a blank white flagpole and the tip of the belltower – is still unmistakeable.

It is a peculiarly defamiliarising effect to walk around San Marco and imagine that the space that matters is not the one under your feet but the empty layer of air above your head, but this effect was already anticipated in the opening chapter of Pistols! Treason! Murder!, in which the protagonist is suspended in mid-air in San Marco, asphyxiating at the end of a rope on a gallows.

[1] The earliest orthographic maps of Venice date from the early eighteenth century (although there is a solitary seventeenth-century example).

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Five Wounds: Review at Smṛti-Śruti

A very positive review at the blog Smṛti-Śruti (is that Icelandic?), whose author has done lots of research on Dan, Zoe and I. An extract below:

Images and little details within: the excellent cartouches throughout; the Solomonic columns with spectacular capitals and how almost inky black foreground column is; the Rota Fortunae of characters with Crow in his appropriate place; Cur's harrowed reflection on the blade; pipework winding through the text during the banquet; the curlicue of the candle holders and the efficient linework used to indicate the direction of light outside Cuckoo's bedroom door; the fencing diagrams; Cuckoo's seduction scene; Gabriella a replica of a classical Venus in Magpie's dream - excellent.

My favourite piece of art is the beautiful bit of marbling, a mushrooming red blotch against the milk white of the page particularly because it was such a simple but bold and perfect visual analogue for the text.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Worldcon Schedule

From 2-6 September, I shall be attending, and participating in, the annual Worldcon meeting of the World Science Fiction Society, which this year takes place in Melbourne. There are some big names in the field taking part: the guests of honour include Kim Stanley Robinson and my fellow Allen & Unwin author Shaun Tan.

The full programme is here. I am appearing on several panels, and will also be doing an individual reading and signing, and a 'kaffeeklatsch' (an informal meeting between an author and a small group of interested persons). My panels include the following:

Thursday 2 Sept., 1600, Room 204: Steal the Past, Build the Future: New Histories for Fantasy Fiction

Many fantasy novels and stories base themselves around a medieval European setting. Others tread a little further from such comfortable territory, presenting worlds inspired by 18th century Paris, or 11th century Viking sagas, or Ancient Rome and Egypt. What’s left? What are the creative opportunities and historical settings lying in wait from which authors might draw inspiration?

Amanda Pillar, Catherynne M. Valente, Jonathan Walker, Kate Elliott

Thursday 2 Sept., 1700, Room 219: If you wrote it, they wouldn’t believe it

Maintaining realism and ensuring readers believe what is happening are all-important considerations when writing fiction - but when did real life ever consider its readers? A look at the significant moments in history so unlikely that, despite having actually happened, nobody would believe them in a fictional story.

Tansy Rayner Roberts, Jennifer Fallon, Gail Carriger, Jonathan Walker

Monday 6 September, 1000, Room 204: From ideas to images: Illustrating SF

When creating illustrations to accompany prose fiction, the artist is given a balancing act between finding a way to accurately express the author’s prose in visual terms and expressing his or her own creativity and artistic style in the
same way. How do different artists approach the art of illustrating fiction, and what are the benefits and drawbacks of that collaborative process?

Andrew McKiernan, Nick Stathopoulos, Shaun Tan, Bob Eggleton, Jonathan Walker

Monday 6 September, 1400, Room P1: Counterfactuals: Science fiction vs historical analysis

What role can alternate history fiction play in historical analysis? By examining the potential after-effects of a fictionalised course of events, do we gain a fresh and valuable perspective on what actually happened? If so, what requirements exist for alternate history fiction to achieve this aim? A look at alternate history fiction from two perspectives: as science fiction readers, and as historians.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Gillian Polack, Dena Taylor, Jonathan Walker

My individual events are as follows:

Friday 3 September, 1200, Rm 201: Kaffeeklatsch

Numbers are limited to nine, and you will need to sign up in advance, either at the Con, or by e-mail at kaffee@aussiecon4.org.au. More details here. The format of this meeting will be decided by whoever turns up for it.

Monday 6 September, 1100, Rm 219: Reading.

Mainly from Five Wounds, but I might throw in a little from Pistols! Treason! Murder! for contrast.

Monday 6 September, 1300, Rm 201: Signing.

At the same time as Charles Stross, Robert Hood and Helen Lowe.

I am a long-time reader of all things science-fiction and fantasy and comics-related, but this is my first ever Worldcon, and I am probably an unknown quantity to most of the attendees, so I am a bit worried that no-one will turn up for these latter events. If you are attending, and you enjoyed Five Wounds - or you are just curious to find out about local authors - please come along and say hello, even if you haven't read the book. Overseas visitors might want to note that Five Wounds is currently only available in Australia, so this is your chance to get an advance look at it before it's published in the US and UK next year.

For more information on Five Wounds, see my site, where you will find a free chapter and some introductory videos (the videos can also be found here).

Melbourne Writers Festival Authors on ...

Franz Kafka



Their First Computer

Listening (including my comments on the ending of Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

San Toma, Venice, 2003

San Toma, Venice, 2003

I described in a previous post how I began to take photographs under self-imposed restrictions. By the time I got around to writing these rules down, I had moved away from static architectural subjects to mobile human ones, which might explain the first point on the manifesto below. (A certain pomposity is regrettable but perhaps unavoidable in exercises of this kind.)

1) At least one human being must be visible in every image, and this human presence must not be casual or accidental. Rather, it must be essential to the image’s meaning.

2) Shots must not be posed, which I take to mean that there can be no contact whatsoever between photographer and subject. Naturally this means excluding anyone known to the photographer, together with any reference to his or her personal history.

3) Taken together, the first two rules imply an insistence on spontaneity. It should not be possible to repeat an image in every detail. To put it another way, each image must have an unstable, unpredictable element at its core. There are to be no controlled shoots, and no conventional portraits. Each image must acknowledge the decisive role of chance.

4) No clearly recognisable landmarks or other unambiguous indicators of location.

5) All shots are to be taken using available light (i.e. without flash) and the camera must be hand-held. Nonetheless, it is obligatory to photograph at all times of the day and in all weather conditions.

There may seem to be an implicit claim to authenticity in this prohibition – that one has not ‘added’ anything to the scene, even light. But I make no such claim. What interests me are the limits of the camera's ability to function, which brings me to:

6) No gratuitous degradation of the image. It is inevitable that degradation will result from working in very poor light. However, the image must be as clear and coherent as circumstances permit.

7) No automatic functions on the camera: no auto-focus, no auto-exposure, no motor-winder or multiple shot capabilities, no zoom lenses. On the level of technique and form, every aspect of the image’s composition must be the result of a conscious choice on the part of the operator. Of course these choices are limited in scope and conventional in nature, but that makes them more and not less meaningful.

8) Images must not be created or manipulated by digital means, because each must have a physical and unique existence beyond the possibility of immediate preview and erasure.

9) No sentimentality, and preferably no emotional engagement at all. This is not a claim to objectivity.

10) No events and no journalism, which I take to mean that no photograph can depict demonstrations, festivals, concerts or any other public event, or show any kind of interaction between human subjects that is clearly or unambiguously structured by work or other kinds of organised activity (e.g. sport). To put it more generally, the meaning of the image must never derive from the intrinsic interest of the subject. Rather it must come from the act of photographing alone. Every photograph must be of ‘nothing’, of a moment that has no possible public meaning. Moreover, there must be no implied narrative.

If one reviews the main sequence in the light of this ten point programme, it might be observed that several images violate one or more of its prohibitions. For example, this photograph violates nos. 1 and 4, and possibly no. 9 too. (Every image fulfils nos. 5-8, but one would not necessarily know this from the images themselves.)

The purpose of this manifesto was not to exclude alternative possibilities – as the exceptions noted above prove retrospectively – but rather to avoid the question of ‘style’. This is an obsession among amateur photographers, for whom it is closely connected to the question of whether or not they are creating ‘art’. I place these two terms within scare quotes because I wished to exclude them from consideration as irrelevant. Or rather it was an interesting experiment to replace style (a single positive value: the inimitable signature of an individual talent) with a set of impersonal prohibitions (multiple negatives: a list of what is absent).

The question remains as to whether it is necessary to be aware of the existence of this manifesto to understand the images taken under its influence. I think not (the existence of this post notwithstanding). Once I had figured out what really mattered - that is, my subject matter - I no longer needed any of this superstructure. The meaning of the images in the final sequence depends on the logic of that sequence, which has nothing to do with any of the ten points listed above.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Melbourne Writers Festival Authors on ...

Federico Fellini


Mornings (including my commentary on an excerpt from a short story by Italo Calvino)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rialto, Venice, 2002

4 Rialto

Exposure: c. 25s

In 2001, when I began working on Let Us Burn the Gondolas in earnest, I did not have a clear idea of what my subject might be. So I invented a set of (not quite) arbitrary rules, which turned every photograph into an exercise in problem-solving. This was an effective way of avoiding being paralysed by larger questions, but it also provided a framework within which those larger questions could eventually be posed more effectively. What, exactly, was I interested in? What did I care about? On what subject did I have something to say, photographically?

One such rule was that the camera must depict a space from which a pedestrian could look back. This rule was inspired by the photographs of Charles Marville. Many of these show areas of nineteenth-century Paris that were shortly to be restructured or demolished, and Marville perhaps saw his photographs as an essential preparation for this attempt to modernize and rationalize the urban landscape. According to Westerbeck and Meyerowitz, Marville spoke of the demolitions as “percements”, and his photographs were comparable efforts to pierce the old quarters of the city, to drive a needle of vision through the crevice of the streets.[1]

Photography is frequently described in these terms: as invasive, penetrative, colonizing, oppressive. I don’t see it that way (and I'm not convinced that Marville did either). If the space is cleared of other pedestrians, as it is here, the purpose is not to deny the possibility of reciprocity, but rather to invite speculation as to who - or what - might return the camera's gaze.

Like the Salute, the bridge at Rialto is inescapable in photographs of Venice, but here it is isolated from its setting on the Grand Canal. Here the crowds have gone and the Carnival lights that might have helped to define and articulate the space are turned off. Here we see an empty stage set, with only the spotlights left on. Or rather, not quite empty. There is a very faint blur towards the top of the bridge under the right streetlamp, where the paths of everybody who walked past during the exposure cross.

[1] Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, Bystander: A History of Street Photography, 1994, p. 107.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 2002

1 Salute

Exposure: c. 55s

This is the only photograph from Let Us Burn the Gondolas in which gondolas actually appear, and almost the only one in which the principal subject is an identifiable landmark: in this case, the church of Santa Maria della Salute, built to commemorate the end of a seventeenth-century plague epidemic. (The fog here therefore has a suggestion of miasma, to those with a sufficiently active historical imagination.)

The Salute is a ubiquitous presence in photographs of Venice, although it is almost invariably shot from one of two vantage points: the bridge in front of the Accademia gallery or the long waterfront promenade of the Riva degli Schiavoni. This image was taken from lower down and closer in, with the camera positioned on a wooden dock near the vaporetto stop at Santa Maria del Giglio, a location I visited in search of a quite different image: no. 16 in the main sequence, which was taken on the same night and from almost exactly the same camera position, but with the lens pointing in the opposite direction.

One might justify the inclusion of this image in the sequence in purely formal terms. The diffusion caused by fog in the upper, brighter half of the image (atmospheric interference, to do with light) is perfectly matched by the diffusion caused by the movement of the water in the lower, darker half (interference to do with time), whilst the reciprocal relation between these two elements is symbolized by the way that the mooring posts in the water are back-lit by the reflected light from the streetlamps.

But the real point of this image is that it fulfils every preconception of what a photograph of Venice is supposed to look like. It is a norm, from which every other image in the sequence deviates in one way or another. It is an easily recognizable point of departure for an itinerary that becomes increasingly unfamiliar as it proceeds, before it circles back again to its point of origin.

After all, cliché is an authentic aspect of the modern Venetian experience.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010

'Gouge Away' by the Pixies and the Alternative Endings to 'Five Wounds'

[Continues from the previous post:]

To be chosen, to be condemned: two possible outcomes of the same process. .... The Trial and The Castle share a premise: that election and condemnation are almost indistinguishable. .... The main difference is this: condemnation is always certain, election always uncertain.
Roberto Calasso, K.

In the last post, we moved rather abruptly from Blade Runner to Robert Bresson. Here we make another abrupt cut to the song Gouge Away (jumping over Franz Kafka as we go), from which we shall return to the multiple endings of Five Wounds.

Gouge Away is the final song on Doolittle, the breakthrough 1989 album by the Pixies, which Ben Sisario describes as:

among the most violent pop albums ever recorded, if not in body count then in the starkness of its calamities. It features rape, mutilation of the eyes, vampirism, suffocation, smothering by tons of garbage, and the chaos of blind gunfire; for the punchline, everybody gets crushed to death. When not killing or maiming, the album turns to depraved sexual loathing and visions of apocalypse. ....

Sisario describes Gouge Away’s subject in the following terms (I quote his discussion at length because there is little I can add to it):

The song is another bloody biblical adaptation, this one the story of Samson and Delilah from Judges 16. .... The story mingles sex and politics on a small scale with gigantic divine retribution, as Samson the seduced and ruined becomes Samson the instrument of God’s fury. [Songwriter Charles] Thompson’s 100-words-or-less summary: “Big strong Samson, toughest guy in town, partying with the Philistines – he’s got this Achilles’ heel thing, you know, with his hair. Somehow he lets some girl [the prostitute Delilah] know what’s up. That’s how the Philistines capture him. She goes in and cuts his hair. He becomes weak. God takes his strength away from him. There he is, chained, his eyes gouged out. Made a mockery by the pagans, you know. Chained there to the pillars. He asks God for strength one more time, to avenge these sinners. Pulls the columns in, causes the building to collapse on everybody. Pretty great story.” ....

The recurring chorus suggests that all along Samson knows what’s coming to him. It’s no surprise. .... ‘It’s a taunt,” Thompson says. “Go ahead, have your fun. Gouge away, because something’s going to happen. No one here gets out alive.” Retribution rocks:

Chained to the pillars
A three-day party
I break the walls
And kill us all
With holy fingers

In the Bible, of course, Samson really does mean “kill us all” – he knows that he only has one chance to get back at those nasty Dagon-worshippers, and offers God the kind of prayer that might come from John J. Rambo. “And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life” (Judges 16: 30). [Quotations from Doolittle by Ben Sisario.]

The world conjured by the lyrics and the sound of Doolittle is one familiar to me (I also listened to albums by Larry Norman, the Christian songwriter whose slogan ‘Come on pilgrim’ was used as the title for the Pixies’ first release). Here I want to draw out the relevance of the Samson story for the two alternative ending(s) of Five Wounds, and to relate this story back to the concept of the deus ex machina.

Election and condemnation are almost indistinguishable. Samson invokes both: his divine revelation is an act of destruction. This story reveals (or perhaps hides) an essential truth: Forgiveness, like judgement, is always violent. It destroys the coherence and autonomy of everything it touches. I conceived the two endings of Five Wounds in these terms. The 'happy ending' is only possible because of an act of narrative violence comparable to that invoked by Samson, an arbitary event that brings the fictional world crashing down around the ears of the protagonists because its occurrence violates a fundamental rule, a rule that - so we have been led to believe - is necessary for this fictional world to make sense at all. In Five Wounds, this event is not obviously catastrophic (unlike the mass murders that occur just before the book's climax, which are perhaps a more obvious comparison for Samson's apotheosis). Indeed, the final event hardly happens at all, the narrative barely acknowledges it. It is described only by the last sentence in the book, because nothing can continue to exist after it has taken place.

Are you willing to pay Samson's price for a happy ending? Are you willing to bring the temple down around yourself by invoking the deus ex machina? Are you willing to be judged, or to be forgiven? You have to make a choice.

Friday, August 6, 2010

'Blade Runner' by Ridley Scott, and The Cinema of Robert Bresson

My novel, Five Wounds, has two alternative, and mutually-exclusive, conclusions. One is a ‘happy’ ending, and the other is a ‘not-so-happy’ ending, although (without giving anything away) it is not as obvious as it might first seem which ending is which. In the next two posts, I’m going to discuss some of the implications of using multiple endings, and of imposing a happy ending on a story that does not seem to support such an interpretation.

There are several precedents for alternative endings in literature, most notably perhaps The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, but the most obvious example from my own personal artistic canon is actually a film: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In this case, the two alternative endings are never present together in any single iteration of the film, but rather belong to two different ‘cuts’: the initial commercial release, which imposed an explanatory voiceover throughout, and a happy ending, and the subsequent ‘Director’s Cut’, which removed both. The latter did not, in fact, ‘change’ the ending as such: it just removed from the first version the final couple of minutes; but, in doing so, it radically altered the tone of the film.


Above is the ending of the initial release. The Director's Cut simply stops instead at about 0:24, and removes everything that follows.

Having seen the initial version of Blade Runner in the 80s, and then the Director’s Cut on its release in the early 90s, there was some debate amongst my friends as to whether the revision actually constituted an improvement. We were all familiar with the story, but would first-time viewers have any idea what was going on without the voiceover? It not only clarified events; it also clarified Deckard’s role as protagonist. Without it, he was a much more morally ambiguous character. Indeed, everything was murkier and more confusing.

In the video above, Frank Darabont puts the case for removing the voiceover, but it was also clear that the original ending was an arbitrary addition, not least from the contemptuous way in which Harrison Ford intones the relevant voiceover text, as if he can barely bring himself to say the words. But for some of us it was necessary to relieve the unmitigated gloom of the film up until that point. The original ending was like opening a window onto Scott’s fictional world, and letting light enter into it from outside.

The original version of Blade Runner is a classic example of a deus ex machina ending. Deus ex machina literally means ‘god out of the machine’. It originally suggested the introduction of divine intervention as a story device to resolve intractable plot complications. The phrase refers to the stage machinery that was used to frame such divine characters in theatres, where they descended (literally) from above, and the implication is that this kind of resolution was entirely alien to the logic of cause and effect that governs the succession of events within a realistic narrative mode. The gods descend from above: that is, from outside the sphere of the story itself. Thus the deus ex machina is a cheat, by definition, and the last resort of a desperate writer. While modern stories rarely resort to divine intervention, they do introduce such related, arbitrary devices as outrageous coincidence, or, in the case of the initial release of Blade Runner, the hitherto unsuspected revelation that Rachel, the android replicant with whom Deckard has fallen in love, is ‘special’: that, unlike all other models, she has an open-ended lifespan.

This is a deus ex machina move because absolutely nothing in the story thus far has prepared us for this eventuality. Indeed, the rules that give this fictional world its integrity would seem to actively preclude this possibility; and thus the revelation destroys the credibility of everything that precedes it. This impression is only reinforced by the visuals in the tacked-on ending, which reveals vistas of unspoiled nature, whose existence is similarly inconceivable in the polluted city that has been so meticulously constructed over the previous two hours (the final longshots were, in fact, borrowed from outtakes of Kubrick’s The Shining).

The whole concept of the deus ex machina implies a secular world view, in which divine intervention can never be the real subject of a drama, and so its introduction is always evidence of a failure of human imagination. But what if you actually want to say something about the nature of divine grace? By definition, it is arbitrary; by definition, it violates the laws of cause and effect; by definition, it is unmotivated and unforeseeable. Its true manifestations never provide closure. Rather, they radically destabilise narrative logic. That is what is implied by a conversion experience: that the entire story is rewritten retrospectively.

And this brings me to the films of Robert Bresson, which almost always conclude with some kind of deus ex machina. Or rather, the ending invokes divine intervention without dramatising it explicitly, as in The Trial of Joan of Arc, excerpted above. God does not actually appear; the contradiction is not actually resolved. It is up to the viewer to complete the story by making the requisite leap of faith (or not, according to one's personal beliefs). In Bresson’s earlier films, this invocation is presented as, generally, successful. Whether or not we choose to believe in it, the protagonists of his films experience that transformation as real. This is, as I understand it, the meaning of the empty stake revealed as the smoke clears in the clip above, which recalls – the comparison would be anathema to Bresson, but is irresistible precisely because of that – the empty cloak of the slain Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

This is a kind of negative theology. God is not a presence in Bresson’s films. He does not appear as a character, wheeled in from above, and therefore inevitably trivialised. He is instead manifest by His absence. He is arbitrary in cinematic terms as well as in narrative terms: that is, he is a non-diegetic effect, and as such, is associated with similarly non-diegetic cinematic effects, notably music, which in Bresson is often confined to the climax of the film.

This sounds like a radical Augustinian, Protestant theology, and Bresson’s background was Catholic, but perhaps of a Jansenist persuasion: that is, from a group within Catholicism that emphasised the unmotivated nature of divine grace, and the consequent inability of man to ever earn it. This allies him with Pascal, among others, for whom divine grace can never be an effect with a human (or a scientific) cause, and thus divine intervention can never be necessary in narrative terms.

In Bresson’s later films, this negative theology is taken to its pessimistic conclusion. These films are about failed attempts to invoke transcendence, most obviously in Lancelot du Lac, which begins with the return of Arthur’s knights from their unsuccessful quest for the Holy Grail. Here the Grail is, like the ritual of communion (itself, in Catholic theology, a miraculous, inexplicable transformation), a kind of metonymic substitute for the Body of Christ, and thus a symbol of divine immanence. But in the world of Lancelot du Lac, as in Bresson’s subsequent films, the divine presence is always out of reach.

'Lancelot du Lac' film poster

[Continues in the next post:]