Monday, May 31, 2010

Article on The Revenger's Tragedy

A while ago, I wrote a post on The Revenger's Tragedy, which is the source of my title, Pistols! Treason! Murder! I have just found this fantastic article on the play, in The Guardian, by Gary Taylor. (It's two years old, but better late than never.) An excerpt below:

The cover of Harold Bloom's best-selling Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human features a painting by Michelangelo, whose images of titanic individuality have long been recognised as a visual correlative of Shakespeare's great tragic heroes. By contrast, the Italian artist whose vision most resembles Middleton's is not Michelangelo, but his darker, more realistic successor, Caravaggio - who, like Middleton, was celebrated in his own time, but then ignored or disparaged by centuries of critics uncertain of his canon and shocked by his style.

Caravaggio's sympathetic, sensual Mary Magdalen could be the protagonist of Middleton and Dekker's comedy The Honest Whore. Middleton's tragedies can be as lurid, brutal and demystifying as Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes. Caravaggio's torn, furrowed-browed Doubting Thomas, caught red-handed in that electric moment when scepticism thrusts its finger into faith, could be doubting Thomas Middleton's Timon ("I must ever doubt, though ne'er so sure") or Vindice ("O, I'm in doubt, whether I'm myself or no"). Caravaggio's Saint Jerome, alone, writing at a desk dominated by a skull, could be Middleton's morbid, isolated, intellectual revenger.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Five Wounds: Heraldry, Part 2

[Continued from the previous post:]

So why did Dan and I use heraldry in Five Wounds, and to what ends? When I was looking for a way to represent the book’s structure visually, I needed a system with seven elements, but that in practice only made use of five them regularly: because there are five protagonists in my book, but two other characters whose status is sometimes brought into question. Moreover, of my central five characters, I needed to be able to subdivide them into two groups, of three and two respectively, because this is how their various relationships play out.

All of this found an analogue in the heraldic code, in which there are seven basic tinctures, but only five that occur with any regularity, and of those five, there are three colours and two metals. This sounds suspiciously convenient. It is possible that, at an unconscious level, I was already thinking of how to relate the structure of the book to that of heraldry right from the start, so the correspondence may not be entirely coincidental.

In any case, thinking that the heraldic code could perhaps be converted into a map of the book’s structure, I began to develop this idea by assigning a tincture to each of my protagonists: blue to the crippled angel, Gabriella; red to the man of blood, Cur; black to the amorphous man with a wax face, Cuckoo; silver to the daguerreotypist, Magpie; and gold to the alchemist, Crow. These designations loosely follow traditional colour symbolism, so they have a logic of sorts, although such symbolism is not part of the heraldic code.

My next step was to design five shields, one for each of the protagonists, each using the schema outlined above: that is, Gabriella’s shield has a blue field, while Cur’s has a red field, and so on; and the addition of other elements (ordinaries, subordinaries and charges) onto the field in other tinctures would then, in each case, map the various relationships between the five protagonists.

Gabriella's Coat-of-Arms

Magpie's Coat-of-Arms
Above: Gabriella’s and Magpie’s motto shields

Along with these ‘motto shields’ (designated thus by Dan and I for obvious reasons), there is an entirely separate series of miniature shields, which are distributed throughout the book, one on each double-page layout. These serve as a visual index of which characters appear on the layout in question. Thus, if Gabriella and Cur feature on a particular layout, then the accompanying ‘index shield’ will combine blue and red (as at 55 and 77 below).

Grid of Index Shields for Five Wounds (draft)
Five Wounds Sample Layout (right)
Above: grid of index shields and recto page layout

There are important differences between the motto shields and the index shields. The former use pictorial charges to help define the protagonists: wings for the angel, Gabriella; a wolf for the rabid Cur; the moon and stars for the nocturnal daguerreotypist, Magpie; and so on. By contrast, the index shields are purely abstract, consisting only of the field, ordinaries and subordinaries. And, whereas the motto shields use only five tinctures to refer to five protagonists, the index shields use all seven tinctures, which therefore refer to seven different characters. There are therefore two overlapping but separate indexical colour systems in Five Wounds: one with five elements, and one with seven elements.

Every index shield is unique. When successive layouts involve the same group of characters, and thus use the same tinctures, each of these is represented by a different shield design. And even on the layouts in which only one character appears, and which are therefore indexed with an undifferentiated shield of a single tincture (as at 61-65 in the grid above), I had Dan repaint the shield every time we used it, so that the patterning of the pigment would be slightly different each time.

Having gone to the trouble of learning the language of heraldry, it may seem perverse that the first thing I decided to do with it was to violate its integrity by forcing it to describe something external to itself: that is, my five (or is it seven?) protagonists. In Five Wounds, then, the language of heraldry is persistently construed wrongly. Dan and I deliberately created ‘ungrammatical’ visual statements, which are the inevitable consequence of forcing the code to express things it was never intended to express. There are, for example, many index shields that violate the rule of tincture by combining colour with colour and metal with metal, depending on which characters happen to appear on any given layout: that is, according to a criterion that is entirely irrelevant to the internal logic of the code.

However, the books still acknowledges the existence of the heraldic code, because any index shield that violates its rules is marked by hand as being somehow incorrect, although the reasons for these mysterious critical annotations are not specified in the book itself. (This relates to my ideas on misinterpretation and appropriation, discussed in a previous post: Five Wounds does not merely appropriate; it misinterprets.)

Gules, a cross purpure, a bordure argent (marked as incorrect)
Above: an index shield that appears in Five Wounds, but which breaks the rule of tincture, and is therefore marked for ‘correction’

Forcing heraldry to perform such an unnatural function creates interesting problems, which were highlighted for me when I tried to encode the motto shields I designed for the five protagonists in written descriptions thereof. Below is the horrific result of this exercise, which illustrates the impossibility of trying to describe a series of (deliberate) mistakes using a code whose entire purpose is to eliminate ambiguity. It can’t be done.

Motto Shield Descriptions
Above: A failed attempt to provide written descriptions for the five motto shields

This unreadable attempt at definition is not included in Five Wounds, but it inspired one of several handwritten annotations added to the text of the novel, in which a garbled representation of the five motto shields (drawn by Dan) is accompanied by the cryptic note, The problem with a perfect notation system: It can’t describe an error. Of course, this observation has much broader implications in the context of the novel than its application to heraldry.

The problem with a perfect notation system
Above: annotation from the end of Five Wounds

If a work is to be coherent, then certain ideas have to present in its DNA: they have to run through every aspect of its narrative and presentation. In Five Wounds, these ideas include: translation, garbled transmission, insecure attributions of meaning, the relationship between signal and noise, the nature of interpretation, and what constitutes a misinterpretation. It should be obvious how the book’s use – and abuse – of heraldry helps to dramatise some of these themes. If the colours represent the book’s protagonists, they also necessarily oversimplify their interactions by rendering them in diagrammatic form. Thus the colour coding is not only a misinterpretation because it makes improper use of heraldry: it is also a misinterpretation because, in doing so, it reduces each of the characters to a single, deterministic attribute.

None of this would be of any interest, of course, unless the heraldic shields communicate something to the viewer emphatically and immediately, as images; but that is the advantage of using a visual code designed to do exactly that.

Postscript: At some point, I'll provide a separate explanation of why Dan’s colour renditions of the shields are painted (deliberately) incompetently, with the paint spilling over the borders indicated by the underlying patterns.

Also, see here for another short analysis of heraldry as a semiotic system.

Five Wounds: Heraldry, Part 1

In a previous post, I showed some of the sketches for the heraldic shields in Five Wounds. To create these shields, Dan and I had to learn the visual code of heraldry, which is governed by strict rules about how its various elements may be combined. These rules are analogous to a grammar. Indeed, heraldry is one of the few instances where this analogy really works when applied to a visual code. Heraldry is therefore a highly distinctive semiotic system, one might even say a uniquely pure semiotic system, and as such it represents one of the earliest historical examples of a coherent system of graphic design.

According to the classic analysis of Ferdinand de Saussure, the signs that make up any given semiotic system can be broken down into two elements: the signifier (the actual sign, e.g. the word ‘dog’), and the signified (the concept that the sign represents, e.g. the dictionary definition of the word ‘dog’). A third possible element is the referent (the thing to which the concept refers, e.g. an actual dog), but for Saussure, language actually makes more sense if you think of it purely in terms of the relationship between signifier and signified, and exclude consideration of the referent altogether. What makes heraldry ‘uniquely pure’ is that it anticipates this conclusion. Nothing in heraldry claims to represent anything external to the code itself, or at least the referential aspect of the system is attenuated, as if heraldry has already evolved beyond this primitive function, which remains only in a vestigial form, like the tail on a human skeleton.

How, then, does heraldry work? It is best understood as a code, like a computer code, which is used to generate shields or coats-of-arms. The sine qua non of heraldry is therefore the shield itself, but the most basic elements of the code, which are combined to create the shield, are the heraldic tinctures, which are split into two basic groups: colours and metals. The colours are blue (azure), red (gules), black (sable), and green (vert), although the last is used far less often than the first three. Some versions also add purple (purpure) to the colours, but it almost never occurs in actual historical shields. The metals are silver (argent) and gold (or), which may also be represented by white and yellow respectively.

Every shield has one of these tinctures as its base or field, onto which are laid successive layers of additional elements – almost like layers in Photoshop – all of which are also assigned a tincture, and which cumulatively make up the shield. Thus the shield is always viewed as a single, combined image, but its component elements can always be broken down into a series of two-dimensional layers laid on top of one another in a predetermined order. From top to bottom, this order runs thus: field, ordinaries, subordinaries, charges.

Ordinaries consist of geometric devices such as a bend (a diagonal stripe across the shield), a pale (a vertical stripe down the middle of the shield), a fess (a horizontal strip across the middle of the shield), a cross, a saltire (a diagonal cross), a chevron, and so on. These are all laid on top of the field, and one of their functions is to subdivide it, so that their proportions in relation to the total area of the shield are therefore strictly controlled. For example, a pale or a fess should occupy roughly one-third of the shield’s area, while a chevron should occupy roughly one-fifth.

Subordinaries are also geometric devices. They include the chief (a horizontal strip across the top third of the shield), the canton (a small square in the dexter chief, i.e. the top left from the viewer’s perspective [1]) and the bordure (a thin border around the shield’s outer edge).

The final layer is that of pictorial charges. The most common of these are lions and eagles. Charges do have a notional referent, but they are always rendered in a highly abstract manner, and their relation to actual lions and eagles, or even to the symbolic meanings conventionally associated with lions and eagles in medieval bestiaries is, in effect, ‘bracketed’: it is irrelevant for how the pictorial code actually functions.

The field is not always an undifferentiated, single tincture. It can also be divided in various conventional ways. For example, a shield divided ‘per bend’ has its field split in two diagonally, whereas a shield divided ‘per pale’ has its field split in two vertically.

The ‘rule of tincture’ governs the way in which tinctures may be assigned to the various layers of a shield. It states that a colour cannot be laid directly on top of another colour; nor can a metal be laid directly on top of a metal. So if the field is a metal, any ordinary laid on top of it must be a colour, while any charge laid on top of that must in turn be a metal. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule, notably that it does not apply to subordinaries, or to divisions of the field. [2]

In heraldry, blue represents only the idea of blue, and red the idea of red, and it does not matter which specific shade of blue or red is used to embody that idea. Indeed, in the seventeenth century, when it became common practice to print compilations of coats-of-arms in black-and-white reproductions, a system of cross-hatchings was invented to represent the tinctures, and these cross-hatchings represent their respective associated pigments perfectly: that is, in heraldry, a regularly-distributed pattern of dots signifies the idea of gold just as adequately as any particular yellow or gold pigment can do.

As I have described it thus far, heraldry is a purely visual system, but – to return to our metaphor of computer code – it has a written analogue, whereby a description of a shield can be created, which serves as a programme, whose output is the visual representation of the shield.

Gules, a bordure argent

So, for example, the shield above is encoded as ‘gules, a bordure argent’, which means ‘a red field with a silver border’; whereas the shield below is ‘Per pale sable and argent, on a chief vert a canton or’, which means ‘a field divided in two vertically, with black on the left and and silver on the right, which is surmounted by a green strip occupying the top third, which is in turn surmounted by a gold square in the top left corner’.

Per pale sable and argent, on a chief vert a canton or

Any written description should allow you – if it is parsed correctly – to generate the output of a correct shield with total accuracy. And as with computer code, any ambiguity in the initial command constitutes a fatal error, while any elements or aspects of the output that are not predetermined by this code are by definition irrelevant. Minute variations in the written code may have larger consequences when it is translated into a shield. For example, the first shield below is ‘argent, a bend sable’; conversely, the second is ‘Per bend, argent and sable’; the third is ‘Per bendy, sable and argent’; while the last is ‘Per bendy, argent and sable’.

Shields to illustrate Heraldry Post on Blog

According to Shaun Tan, an image only works insofar as it can't be reduced to a written description (an argument that recalls Robert Frank's insistence that a photograph should nullify explanation), but heraldry is based upon the opposite assumption. As such, it offers one possible way of exploring the relationship between word and image, which is both a recurrent theme and a practical challenge in Five Wounds.

[Continues in the next post:]

[1] ‘Dexter’ actually designates the right-hand side of the shield, and ‘sinister’ the left-hand side, but these are determined from the point-of-view of the fictional person holding the shield out in front of them towards the viewer. I have therefore simplified matters by sticking to the viewer's point-of-view here. This account of heraldry is also simplified in other respects.

[2] It does not apply to divisions of the field in theory. In practice, I have never seen a divided field that does not alternate a metal and a colour for the division.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Inspirations: William Blake

When I pitched the idea of an 'illuminated novel' to Erica Wagner of Allen & Unwin in late 2008, I used the example of William Blake's 'illuminated books' as a historical precedent: editions of Blake's poetry, in which the words were incised calligraphically on engraving plates, where they were accompanied by Blake's own illustrations. In many cases, the printed copies were also painted by hand afterwards in watercolour. However, when Dan and I were working together to create Five Wounds, I found Blake's illustrations for Dante's The Divine Comedy and The Book of Job more useful, perhaps because these raise the issue of collaboration and interpretation more explicitly, but also because (to be honest) I find much of Blake's own poetry unreadable.

The following are from the illustrations for Dante's The Divine Comedy. The first is Dante running from the three beasts (the Leopard, Lion, and She-Wolf respectively from the bottom up); the second is the Wood of the Suicides:

William Blake, Dante Running from the Three Beasts

William Blake, The Wood of the Suicides

The following are from Blake's illustrations for The Book of Job. The first is Behemoth and Leviathan; the second is the original watercolour of the same on which the engraving is based; the third is Job's Despair; the fourth is The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind:

William Blake, Behemoth and Leviathan

William Blake, Behemoth and Leviathan Watercolour

William Blake, Job's Despair

William Blake, The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind

We did consider framing the Plates in Five Wounds in a similar manner to the way that these engravings for the Book of Job have been surrounded with text, but in the end we felt that it might have been too much in the context of the novel. It is, however, an idea I intend to return to.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Five Wounds: Review in 'The View from Here'

The literary magazine The View From Here has just posted a review of Five Wounds, written by Paul Burman. Below is an extract. Dan and I also did a joint interview for them, which will be available in a few days.

Jonathan Walker’s delight in playing with words, names, images, extends to Dan Hallett's wonderful illustrations. There’s the sense that each picture adds extra detail to the story – beyond the words. Take, for instance, the description of the public servant’s half-eaten salami sandwich when Cur is receiving instructions for an assassination. The reader is invited to question exactly what the salami is constituted of and then presented with an illustration of the salami-bound pig in question feeding on the entrails of an earlier assassin's victim. Certainly a case of what goes around comes around.

Pig, just pig

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Five Wounds: Interview on FBi Radio

Below is my interview on Canvas, the arts programme on FBi Radio, 94.5FM in Sydney, which was originally broadcast earlier this month. I sound reasonably coherent for a Sunday morning, although I am obviously trying to set a record for how many times I can use the words 'weird' and 'garbled' over the course of twenty minutes. Thanks to host Anna Burns.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Graphic Novels vs. Illustrated Texts at the Sydney Writers' Festival

Just a quick reminder that this Sunday, 23 May, I am appearing on a panel at the Sydney Writers' Festival at the Museum of Contemporary Art, from 1-2 p.m., in the midst of the Zine Fair, with Josh Neufeld and Zoë Sadokierski. The panel is on 'Graphic Novels vs. Illustrated Texts', and there will be a signing afterwards. See you there!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Five Wounds: Review from The Age, 15 May 2010

Review of Five Wounds from The Age, 15 May 2010, by Owen Richardson.

The template suggests an old-fashioned children's classic: handsome proportions, elegant print, fancy chapter headings, centre plates on shiny paper. But a virus has gotten in there: the illustrations are nightmarish and hermetic, calling on the Tarot, Escher, psychotic heraldry, and the text here and there is scribbled through, the nice fonts mocked by scrawled block capitals. And the story likewise takes the blackness that underpins traditional fairytales and brings it front and centre.

The last book writer Jonathan Walker and illustrator Dan Hallett collaborated on was Pistols! Treason! Murder!, a "
punk history" about the life of a 17th-century Venetian spy and rogue. This book breathes something of that atmosphere, while taking the properties into a fantastical realm.

In an imaginary city-state five outsiders, each with their wounds and powers, become involved in an obscure conspiracy, five cards being played by unseen hands. There's eclecticism in the writing as well as the illustrations: the X-Men and the Bible are both here, Heart of Darkness, Calvino, and although the book is too text-based to be a graphic novel, it's in the vein of comics that happily steal from all over. This makes for instability, and the writing has its flat spots, but the book takes you places, and the illustrations are wonderful.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Inspirations: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

“[I]f one is to read Dante, and understand him, one must become a Christian if only for a few hours”.
Donna Tartt, The Secret History, p. 184

“He thou dost gaze on, pierced by the triple stake,
Counselled the Pharisees ’twas expedient
One man should suffer for the people’s sake.

Naked, transverse, barring the road’s extent,
He lies; and all who pass, with all their load
Must tread him down; such is his punishment.

In this same ditch lie stretched in this same mode
His father-in-law, and all the Sanhedrin
Whose counsel sowed for the Jews the seed of blood.”

Then I saw Virgil stand and marvel at him
Thus racked for ever on the shameful cross
In the everlasting exile.

Dante, Hell, canto 23, lines 115-26, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers

I read Dante as an undergraduate, in the Penguin translation by Dorothy L. Sayers, who is better known as the writer of a series of detective novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but was also an accomplished scholar. She not only translated Dante for the Penguin Classics series, but also the early-medieval French chanson, The Song of Roland.

The Sayers translation of Dante is aggressively odd, because, rather than writing in idiomatic English, she used conscious archaisms. It’s not quite cod-Shakespearian, but ‘dost’ and ‘twas’ were verging on the ridiculous even in 1949, when ‘Hell’ (as the first volume was bluntly translated) was first published. The odd locutions were further exaggerated by tortuous syntax, which was the result of Sayers’ ambitious (some would say foolhardy) decision to retain the terza rima structure and stress patterns of the original verse as far as was possible in English.

Terza rima is an Italian verse form of great elegance, which uses the rhyme scheme ABA BCB CDC DED etc. I always think of this interlocking structure in visual terms as being like a dovetail joint in woodwork. Rhymes are ubiquitous in Italian poetry, which is one of the reasons why English poets have always felt obliged to use them, i.e. because of the influence of Italian models like the sonnet, and in spite of native Anglo-Saxon precedents that were instead based on alliteration and assonance, but – for technical reasons it would be tedious to explain here – it is actually much more difficult to find rhymes in English than it is in Italian. In an epic work like Dante's, this is a serious problem, and one that becomes progressively more difficult for a translator to resolve satisfactorily.

Thus Sayers’ sets herself an impossible task, in the pursuit of which she frequently ties herself up in lexical knots, but, even so, I find her translation more compelling than most of the modern editions, which abandon the attempt and therefore inevitably render the verse as elevated prose. Sayers’ translation instead treats the text as something alien, something fundamentally other, that can only be expressed in English via a series of violent and artificial transformations (a pity she never had a go at Ovid). Some of it is truly risible, like her decision to render the sections of Provencal dialect as Scots brogue, but even there, you have to admire her chutzpah.

The crowning glory of the Sayers translation is not, however, the verse itself, but the extensive commentary, which takes up as much space as the poetry. Sayers has a great advantage over other editions here, in that she was a committed Christian who took all the theology very seriously, as, if not necessarily the literal truth, then certainly an essential truth, which is inseparable from the allegorical cast of mind that informs The Divine Comedy. In the Introduction to Hell, Sayers quotes Dante’s own explanation of allegorical interpretation.

The meaning of this work [The Divine Comedy] is not simple ... for we obtain one meaning from the letter of it, and another from that which the letter signifies; and the first is called literal, but the other allegorical or mystical. And to make this matter of treatment clearer, it may be studied in the verse: “When Israel came out of Egypt and the House of Jacob from among a strange people, Judah was his sanctuary and Israel his dominion”. For if we regard the letter alone, what is set before us is the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt in the days of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if the moral sense, we are shown the conversion of the soul from the grief and wretchedness of sin to the state of grace; if the anagogical, we are shown the departure of the holy soul from the thraldom of this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory. And although these mystical meanings are called by various names, they may all be called in general allegorical, since they differ from the literal and historical.

The subject of the whole work, then, taken merely in the literal sense is “the state of the soul after death straightforwardly affirmed”, for the development of the whole work hinges on and about that. But if, indeed, the work is taken allegorically, its subject is: “Man, as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of his free choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing Justice” (quoted in Hell, ‘Introduction’, pp. 14-15).

(The last term in this schema, ‘analogical’, means using the literal event to figure a spiritual reality, or sometimes more specifically a truth relating to the fate of the soul after death.)

In the 1949 Penguin edition, the translation and the commentary are two sides of the same effort of interpretation, in which re-enactment is both the enabling technique and the goal, an endeavour to which Sayers is willing to commit herself, because, for the most part, she shares (or believes herself to share) Dante’s presuppositions and beliefs.

Sayers applies Dante’s four-part interpretative schema to the passage quoted above, which describes the fate meted out in hell to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who decided to seek Christ’s execution, who is crucified eternally (the same punishment he wished upon Christ). He is also laid on the ground to be trod underfoot by the Hypocrites, whose step is heavy indeed, since they are all wearing lead cloaks. (Such efficiency is common in the moral economy of Hell, where, for example, the Profligates run through the Wood of the Suicides, pursued eternally by black dogs, and in fleeing, they tear the branches from the bleeding trees in which the souls of the Suicides are imprisoned.) With regard to Caiaphas, Sayers explains:

This image lends itself peculiarly well to Dante’s fourfold system of interpretation ... (1) Literal: the punishment of Caiaphas after death; (2) Allegorical: the condition of the Jews in this world, being identified with the Image they rejected and the suffering they inflicted – “crucified for ever in the eternal exile”; (3) Moral: the condition in this life of the man who sacrifices his inner truth to expediency (e.g. his true vocation to money-making, or his true love to a political alliance), and to whom the rejected good becomes at once a heaven from which he is exiled and a rack on which he suffers; (4) Anagogical: the state, here and hereafter, of the soul which rejects God, and which can know God only as wrath and terror, while at the same time it suffers the agony of eternal separation from God, who is its only true good (Hell, p. 217).

I have only read through The Divine Comedy once, and only in Sayers’ translation (although I can at least claim to have read all of it, i.e. I did struggle through the Purgatory and Paradise after Hell). Several passages and images from it have remained with me, but, with all due respect to Dante, it is through the force of Sayers’ imagination that his original lives for me. It is the relationship between the translation and the commentary that is truly compelling. It is her effort to understand, and to communicate that understanding, which moves me as much as anything in the poem itself.

Sayers’ relationship with Dante is therefore quite different to the relationship between Eric Newton and Tintoretto, as I described it in a recent post. She proves that it is possible to collaborate with someone who has been dead for hundreds of years (something I also tried to do in Pistols! Treason! Murder!).

As a postscript, I might also mention two artistic ‘collaborations’ with Dante: the first is a series of watercolours by William Blake, to which I may dedicate a subsequent post; the second is another edition of the Inferno, now long since out of print, which was both translated and illustrated by the artist Tom Phillips, whose work in A Humument is also an important precedent for some of the features of Five Wounds.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Five Wounds: Heraldry Sketches

There is a more detailed post on heraldry on the way, but in the meantime, here are some of my original sketches for the miniature shields that appear on each double-page spread in Five Wounds. The finished versions of these indicate in colour-coded form which characters appear on any given layout. At the bottom of the post is part of the grid that Dan created on the basis of these sketches, from which Zoe cut and pasted the individual shields into successive layouts.

Some of these designs were altered subsequently for editorial reasons.

Heraldry Sketches for Five Wounds 1

Heraldry Sketches for Five Wounds 2

Heraldry Sketches for Five Wounds 6

Grid of Index Shields for Five Wounds (draft)

Friday, May 14, 2010

New Database for 'Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels'

This new database is on trial at the University of Sydney Library until mid-June (sadly only available to staff and students). It includes scans of many classic titles, such as American Splendour, and some lesser-known curiosities from the underground comic scene of the late 60s and early 70s, such as the charmingly-titled Bum Wad (1 issue, 1971, sample strip, 'The Regurgitate Raga'). From the 80s, there is an almost complete run of Flaming Carrot Comics, a title I remember being bemused by in a fusty comic shop in Liverpool c. 1984 when I came across it as I rummaged around for books by Cordwainer Smith.

The database is probably available via your local college / university too. If it's not, you're at the wrong institution.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Word Frequency Map for Five Wounds

Five Wounds Word Frequency Map

Created using the Wordle generator, which was invented by Jonathan Feinberg.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Tintoretto's Paradise

Tintoretto, Paradise (detail)

The version of Paradise that Tintoretto painted for the Ducal Palace in Venice in 1592 is reproduced above. It is referred to several times in the text of Five Wounds (although I never name the artist in the novel). It is also quoted visually in a diptych on pages 28-29. In the standard scholarly biography of Tintoretto, by Eric Newton, there is a long passage on the painting, which I sent to Dan as reference material. Starting on p. 198, this passage reads as follows.

The finished painting is, as it were, a colossal three-dimensional wall-paper, a vast pattern representing space itself, marked out in dark patches, between which one’s eye [199] seems to penetrate into a radiant, crowded infinity, as though innumerable groups and clusters of figures had arranged themselves like galactic systems one behind the other in the interstellar void.

At first glance this absence of formalized planes and, in particular, the lack of a base with a firmly established foreground, confuse and bewilder the eye, but gradually the brave pattern, with the noble silhouettes of Christ and the Virgin as its climax, asserts itself. One begins to see it as the only possible solution to the problem. .... The finished painting is ... governed by none of the normal optical laws. The effect is not of standing in this world and gazing into the remote distances of the next but of seeing through a glass wall into a celestial aquarium in which both light and distance mean nothing. Single figures and groups of figures float through this supernatural ether, towards or away from the glass wall, in a ceaseless rhythmic movement, not under the spell of gravity but in obedience to the magnetism that radiates from Christ and the Virgin who bend gently towards each other above them. The gaps between them are not areas of radiance but glimpses of interstellar space, and that space is not so much occupied by the myriads of the blessed as composed of them. The radiance in which they have their being has become interchangeable with their being itself. The world of visual experience with its vocabulary of ‘near,’ ‘far,’ ‘upper,’ ‘lower,’ ‘towards,’ ‘away from,’ no longer exists. This, in purely practical terms, gives Tintoretto the immense advantage of being able to enlarge or diminish any figure at will without contradicting the laws of perspective; it retains the medieval system of scale by importance without abandoning the Renaissance system of scale by distance.

Newton’s insistence on seeing the Paradise as the crowning achievement of Tintoretto’s career (he died in 1594) seems misguided, given that the painting is now usually attributed jointly to Tintoretto’s son Domenico, a much inferior artist, and to the workshop. With this revised attribution in mind, the peculiar composition seems less the result of unconventional artistic genius and more like incompetence, but this illustrates a more general point about the nature of interpretation, which is always the result of a series of enabling preconceptions. As Gabriella concludes in Five Wounds, an illegible message was easier to transcribe if one already had some idea of what it might say.

Newton starts with the presumption that the painting is by Tintoretto, and Newton knows that Tintoretto is a genius. Everything in his account follows from that basic premise. My own, admittedly uninformed, first impression was that it was rather turgid, whoever painted it, but that makes Newton's achivement in this passage even more impressive. It is a brilliant piece of creative writing, insofar as it succeeds in reinscribing this apparently mediocre work as a masterpiece. Even so, Newton's approach seems rather old-fashioned now (the biography was published in 1952), and not only because it is based on obsolete research.

Newton is a late descendant of a tradition of conoisseurship that goes back to Giorgio Vasari, who founded art criticism as an academic discipline in the sixteenth century, and in the process suggested what it is that critics should be doing. Vasari’s purpose was three-fold: to provide clear descriptions of paintings that, in an age before photographic reproduction, could often only be viewed in situ; to establish a set of criteria by which one could distinguish great painting from good, and good from bad; and to establish a canon of painters who, collectively, embodied those criteria.

Titian, Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere

Vasari was perhaps the first major theorist of Western art, but one of the first important art critics in the same tradition was Pietro Aretino, whose literary output was far more varied and whose ideas on art were far less systematic, but whose letters and sonnets about Titian helped to establish the latter as one of the most successful painters in Europe in the middle of the sixteenth century. For example, Aretino described Titian’s portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino (above), painted c. 1536-8, as follows.

The union of colours laid in by Titian’s brush expresses, besides the concord that reigns in Eleonora, her gentle spirit. Modesty [modestia] is seated with her in an attitude of humility, purity resides in her dress, consciousness of her virtue [vergogna] veils and honours her breast and hair. Love fixes on her his lordly glance. Chastity and beauty, eternal enemies, are in her likeness and between her eyelashes the throne of the Graces is seen.

The flattery is obviously aimed at Eleonora as well as Titian, but its effect depends on the assumption that Titian’s painting displays her character rather than merely representing her appearance. According to Aretino, the painting opens a window into Eleonora's soul. Eleonora, the painting, Aretino's description: each of these things is, in some sense, identical with the others. There is no mediation. Everything is transparent.

Aretino claims to be ‘reading’ the portrait, but what he’s actually doing is interpreting it, and, as with Newton's description of the Paradise, reinscribing it: that is, writing meaning over it. I defy anyone to look at this picture unprepared and say, ‘I see the concord that reigns in Eleonora, her modesty, purity, etc., etc’. Aretino is trying to influence the way we read the portrait by annotating it, but at the same time insisting that his annotations add nothing that is not already there.

One way of clarifying this problem is to reverse the terms of the relation between word and image. Would someone who only had Aretino’s description of Titian’s portrait – or Newton’s description of Tintoretto’s Paradise – be able to visualise the paintings in question accurately on the basis of the description alone? The answer is surely, ‘No’.

I am interested in this question for practical reasons, because my collaboration with Dan involves writing descriptions of pictures that do not yet exist, which Dan then uses to bring these potential pictures into actuality. In this case, the description generates the picture, rather than the other way round, but that actually makes the role of interpretation much more explicit. Dan’s illustrations are always a loose translation of my instructions, inevitably, because they are rendered in a different medium by a different process and via a different sensibility. They always add something to the written description, no matter how exhaustive my instructions aspire to be. So I can never predict what they will look like.

One might argue that Dan is doing the same thing that Newton and Aretino are, but in reverse. I think it's a bit more complicated than that. We may see Tintoretto's and Titian's paintings in a new light as a result of their efforts, but Newton and Aretino are not actually attempting to open a conversation: rather, they aim to have the last word. The painter, or rather the painting, has no right of reply. In the classic version of conoisseurship, the definitive interpretive act is an attribution: 'Yes, this painting is an authentic Tintoretto'. But the authority of that attribution derives not from Tintoretto himself, who lacks the insight to understand his own talent (Tintoretto does not know what it is that makes him Tintoretto), but from the disinterested mind of the conoisseur.

What I am doing, by contrast, is inviting Dan to alter the meaning of my work, to divide the responsibilities of authorship with me (quite literally in the case of Five Wounds).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Five Wounds: An Anti-Historical Novel, Part 2

[Historians] have always … written in the mode of magical realism. In strictly formal and stylistic terms, a text of social history is very closely connected to those novels in which a girl flies, a mountain moves, the clocks run backwards, and where (this is our particular contribution) the dead walk among the living.
Carolyn Steedman, Dust, p. 150

This was a psalter in whose margins was delineated a world reversed with respect to the one to which our senses have accustomed us. As if at the border of a discourse that is by definition the discourse of truth, there proceeded, closely linked to it, through wondrous allusions in aenigmate, a discourse in falsehood on a topsy-turvy universe, in which dogs flee before the hare, and deer hunt the lion.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, p. 69

In an earlier post, I described Five Wounds as an ‘anti-historical novel’. It relates to early modern Venice, the subject of my historical research, in much the same way as the marginalia in an illuminated manuscript relate to the sacred text that they accompany: except that in this case the sacred text, which alone justifies the marginalia, is absent or has been rewritten in a profane form. Here, then, the marginalia are promoted to the centre of attention, where they blasphemously assume the outward form of Scripture (I mean that the text is typeset in imitation of the Bible).

In the quotation from Umberto Eco above, the topsy-turvy world in the margins is related to the central reality of Scripture through the lens of mockery. Mockery also has a central place in Five Wounds, but violence is an equally important organising principle. So the novel literally describes a violent world, in which mutilations and murders are commonplace, but that violence is not restricted to the events described in the plot. The novel’s mode of representation is also violent, in that it deliberately misrepresents historical sources: it forces them to say things that they did not intend.

The action of Five Wounds is set in an unnamed city that is obviously a version of Venice, but is equally obviously not the historical Venice. Rather, it parodies selected aspects of that historical context, in a manner that sometimes draws upon the so-called ‘anti-myth’ of Venice, in which the Venetian state is portrayed as a corrupt, disguised tyranny rather than a virtuous, transparent republic (the anti-myth also underlies my first book Pistols! Treason! Murder!, which is a biography of a Venetian spy). In Five Wounds, there are also numerous garbled references to Venetian topography, including (notably) the Ghetto, which is here occupied by dogs, and is on the site of an abandoned foundry, this last taking up an etymological speculation about the origin of the word, ‘Ghetto’, and rendering it literally.

If Five Wounds is set in several different historical periods simultaneously, as I suggested in that earlier post, then perhaps we might ask, Which, and in what proportion?

Historical References in Five Wounds
Above: Historical References in Five Wounds

The pie chart gives you a rough indication of the book's chronological range. With regard to the book’s conceptual universe, for example, there are references to theoretical arguments put forward by Machiavelli and Paracelsus; to theories about the physiological origins of anger and rabies; to Neoplatonic debates on the meaning of hieroglyphs (which are themselves garbled interpretations, based on erroneous premises); and so on.

This game of historical mix-and-match bears some resemblance to what anthropologists and cultural theorists call ‘bricolage’, a sort of ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude to culture, in which a world is made out of borrowed odds and ends, which are put to use without much interest in their original or intended function. Bricolage replaces the idea of misinterpretation with that of appropriation. Misinterpretation presupposes an original meaning that retains priority over all subsequent readings. It excludes unbelievers and heretics. By contrast, appropriation permits anything. It knows no sin. Its only law is, 'Do what thou wilt'. I remain committed to the idea of misinterpretation, if only because a world without sin - without laws - is profoundly boring.

We are told that it is possible to deconstruct any literary text: to force it to the point of self-contradiction. But Five Wounds positively invites you to do this. It it does not really make sense, and in particular it does not make sense when considered from a historical point-of-view, but it is not even internally consistent. There are, for example, several instances in which statements are underpinned by mutually exclusive frames of reference. Consider the following sentence, which refers to a falling drop of blood: For a few moments, it would be free: free to obey the law of gravity, whose operation was purest within the element of air. This sounds innocuous enough, but it actually jumbles Aristotelian and Newtonian physics.

This ‘doubling’ of reference is also apparent in the plot, which culminates with two alternative endings, a state of affairs that is foreshadowed throughout the book, especially in the illustrations. Thus the hand icon on the cover, which is inspired by an illustration from a seventeenth-century treatise on palmistry, presents to the viewer mutually exclusive readings: that the bearer will live long, and die young; that he will die by fire, and by drowning; and so on.

Five Wounds Hand

Above: the Five Wounds hand

The ‘doubling’ motif is most obviously applicable to a character named Cuckoo, who is, in certain respects, the central figure in the book. He is a gambler with a face made of wax, which he manipulates freely. It is his fate that is at stake in the two different endings, and he is therefore represented as doubled in several images, i.e. as a copy of himself.

At the heart of this fictional world, then, there is a vacuum. Everything it requires to sustain stable meanings has been erased, or is ‘under erasure’ - simultaneously asserted and denied, like a phrase that is crossed out but still remains visible - a condition that is not only alluded to by several handwritten corrections added onto the surface of the typeset text, but also once again in the person of Cuckoo, who is always represented in the illustrations with his face scratched out.

Cuckoo the trickster
Above: Cuckoo the trickster

What is the point of all this? It is an attempt to explore the limits of historical explanation by violating all of its essential preconditions. It is also an exploration of the nature of interpretation. As such, Five Wounds opposes a book like The Da Vinci Code, which does not admit the possibility of error in interpretation. In The Da Vinci Code, this means this, and that means that; therefore this, with all the seductive inevitability of a false syllogism. In Five Wounds, mistakes are what drive the plot, or rather, the characters never know whether or not their interpretations are correct.

Even blasphemy admits of too much certainty. Self-contradiction is the only honest strategy.

[All illustrations are by Dan Hallett.]

Friday, May 7, 2010

Interview on Canvas on FBi Radio, 94.5FM, Sydney, etc.

This Sunday, 9 May, I shall be one of the guests on Canvas, the arts show on FBi Radio, 94.5FM, Sydney, after 10.30 a.m. Canvas also has an archive of podcasts, so the show may be available for streaming for those outside Sydney, probably a few days after broadcast.

I also did an interview recently for the Faster Than Light show, which is broadcast first in Perth, and then syndicated to community radio stations all across Australia. Not sure when that will be available, but I'll let you know.

My apologies for all the short, bitty entries. I shall shortly be posting some substantive discussion of Five Wounds, via guest posts at Spike, the Meanjin blog (on collaboration).

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Five Wounds is Released!

Five Wounds is released today!

Come and say hello at Kinokuniya in Sydney, above Town Hall station, from about 1-4 p.m. There are copies of the book for sale, and I have free postcards and stickers to give away.

There are also definitely copies available at my local book store, Better Read Than Dead, in Newtown, Sydney (thanks Karen!). Check in the window. Postcards there too.

Also available in all good book stores throughout Australia, probably from Monday-ish.

Also available direct from the publisher, Allen & Unwin, here.