Friday, July 30, 2010

Five Wounds: Dogs

Chantal Montellier, Like a Dog
Dogs occupy a prominent and sinister role in Five Wounds, partly because of events in the autobiographical backstory to the novel, which are described in The Art of Grief. But there are other reasons for this canine presence. Dogs are ubiquitous in modern Venice, which is actually quite baffling given the lack of parks in the city. Hence Venetian streets are notoriously littered with dog shit, which no-one ever bothers to clean up. Considering this, I imagined a variation on Kipling's animal tales ('How the cat got his tail', 'How the camel got his hump', etc.), in which a child might ask her father, 'Why are there so many dogs in Venice, daddy, and why are they so spoilt?', and the answer might be, 'Well, daughter, once upon a time, the dogs ruled this city, and they still have their ancestral privileges, although they have no real power any more'.

Below I review a menagerie of fictional and literary dogs, many of whom were barking away down in my subconscious as I wrote. I am just listing the ones that come immediately to mind now as I write. I didn't ever make a comprehensive list, and I omit here several relevant examples already mentioned in Dan's post about the Black Dog.

The most explicit historical reference to dogs in Five Wounds is to a passage from the Hierogylphics of Horapollo, which is quoted by Crow in the chapter 'A Meeting of Minds', as follows (I may have tweaked the text slightly to fit the context; I don't have the original in front of me):

When the Egyptians wish to indicate a scribe, or a prophet, or an embalmer, or the spleen, or a judge, they draw the hieroglyph of a dog. A scribe, since he who wishes to become an accomplished scribe must bark continually and be fierce and show favours to none, just like dogs. And a prophet, because the dog looks intently beyond all other beasts upon the images of the gods, like a prophet. And an embalmer, because he looks upon the bodies which he has taken care of naked and dissected. And the spleen, since the dog alone among other animals has a very light spleen. If death of madness overcomes him, it happens because of his spleen. And a judge, because as the dog gazes intently upon the images of the gods, so the judge of ancient times contemplated the king in his nakedness.

Horapollo's treatise is a neo-Platonic interpretion of Egyptian hieroglyphs from the early Christian era. It was very influential in the Renaissance, but it is based upon almost entirely erroneous premises, a fact that was not proved conclusively until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in the nineteenth century. Horapollo therefore fits the theme of interpretation / misinterpretation that runs through Five Wounds, which is why I was reading the treatise in the first place, but then I came across the passage on dogs, which could be made to fit my five protagonists.

Other dog references are less openly acknowledged, like the famous last line from Kafka's The Trial, 'Like a dog', which is quoted above in a comic-strip version of the novel, adapted by David Mairowitz and Chantal Montellier. The phrase is Joseph K.'s final reflection upon himself, and upon his treatment at the hands of the law, as the executioner's knife descends. Here the dog is a figure of the abject, of the pariah, who is excluded from human society, like the outlaw of medieval legend, whose figure is the wolf.

Several dogs in Dante's Inferno are rendered below in William Blake's illustrations. The first image is of the three-headed Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld from classical mythology (Dante's text, like Five Wounds, jumbles its mythological and historical frames of reference). In the Inferno, Cerberus torments the souls of the gluttonous, whose fate is elucidated in Dorothy L. Sayers' commentary, as follows (p. 107):

The Gluttonous: The surrender to sin which began with mutual indulgence leads by an imperceptible degradation to solitary self-indulgence. Of this kind of sin, the Gluttons are chosen as the image. Here is no reciprocity and no communication; each soul grovels alone in the mud, without heeding his neighbours - "a sightless company", Dante calls them. .... [Cerberus] is the image of uncontrolled appetite; the Glutton, whose appetite preyed upon people and things, is seen to be, in fact, the helpless prey on which that appetite gluts itself.

William Blake, Second version of Cerberus

Later in the Inferno, Dante and Virgil travel through the Wood of the Suicides, in which the souls of the inhabitants are imprisoned in sterile trees. The trees cannot speak, unless their branches are broken, whereupon they bleed, and they can whistle through the coagulating blood, until it clots, when they are once again condemned to silence. Also trapped in the Wood of the Suicides are the Profligates, who run through it, pursued eternally by black dogs (aha!), and in fleeing, they tear the branches from the bleeding trees as they pass.

William Blake, The Hell-Hounds Hunting the Destroyers of Their Own Goods

In the Inferno, dogs are therefore associated with the gluttonous and the profligate, and the latter group is also associated with suicide: All these ideas can also be linked to the theme of addiction.

At the beginning of the Inferno, dogs are also associated with avarice via the figure of one of the three beasts that terrify Dante in canto 1 (see illustration below): the She-Wolf, who can only be vanquished by the prophesied Greyhound, the Master-hound. Here is Sayers again on this image (p. 75):

The Beasts [Leopard, Lion and She-Wolf]: These are the images of sin. They may be identified with Lust, Pride, and Avarice respectively, or with the sins of Youth, Manhood, and Age; but they are perhaps best thought of as the images of the three types of sin .... The Greyhound has been much argued about. I think it has both an historical and a spiritual significance. Historically, it is perhaps the [p. 76] image of some hoped-for political saviour who should establish the just World-Empire. Spiritually, the Greyhound, which has the attributes of God (“wisdom, love, and power”), is probably the image of the reign of the Holy Ghost on earth – the visible Kingdom of God for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

William Blake, Dante Running from the Three Beasts

The following passage from Walter Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 152, refers to Albrecht Durer's engraving of Melancholy (which features a sleeping - no doubt dreaming - dog), and which 'portrays the dangers of excessive study', a highly relevant theme for Gabriella and Crow:

One of the properties assembled around Durer's figure of Melancholy is the dog. The similarity between the condition of the melancholic, ... and the state of rabies, is not accidental. According to ancient tradition 'the spleen is dominant in the organism of the dog'. This he has in common with the melancholic. If the spleen, an organ believed to be particularly delicate, should deteriorate, then the dog is said to lose its vitality and become rabid. In this respect it symbolizes the darker aspect of the melancholy complexion. On the other hand the shrewdness and tenacity of the animal were borne in mind, so as to permit its use as the image of the tireless investigator and thinker. 'In his commentary on this hieroglyph Piero Valeriano says explicitly that the dog which "faciem melancholicam prae se ferat" [bears a melancholy face] would be the best at tracking and running'. In Durer's engraving [of Melancholy], especially, the ambivalence of this is enriched by the fact that the animal is depicted asleep: bad dreams come from the spleen, but prophetic dreams are also the prerogative of the melancholic.
Albrecht Durer, Melancholy
Coincidentally, Dan also discusses Durer's Melancholy in relation to another illustration for Five Wounds, although it was not a reference that either of us ever mentioned to each other.

Another source I came across in the British Library in 2006, while I was researching Goya, is an English translation by Abraham Fleming of a Latin treatise by Johannes Caius, On English Dogs, first published in 1576. The following passage is from p. 17:

Of the dog, called the Thievish dog; in Latin, Canis furax.

The like to that whom we have rehearsed, is the Thievish Dog, which at the mandate and bidding of his master fleereth and leereth in the night: hunting conies by the air, which is leavened with their savour; and conveyed to the sense of smelling by the means of the wind blowing towards him. During all which space of his hunting he will not bark, lest he should be prejudicial to his own advantage. And thus watching and snatching in course as many conies as his master will suffer him; and beareth them to his master’s standing. The farmers of the country, and uplandish dwellers, call this kind of dog a Night Cur; because he hunteth in the dark.

I took one of the chapter titles in Five Wounds from this passage: 'Leavened With Their Savour'. Interpreted in the context of the novel, this passage might also be a way of linking the character of Cur, the dog-man, to that of Magpie, the nocturnal thief.

Finally, the barking of dogs represents the idea of non-sense or 'noise' (as opposed to 'signal' in information theory), as in the following passage from A. S. Byatt's Babel Tower, in which an expert witness testifies in court during an obscenity trial that serves as the novel's climax. The book on trial here is Babbletower, an allegory written by one of the characters within Byatt's novel, excerpts of which interrupt the frame narrative, along with several other competing, interpolated texts:

Well, let us start with the title. La Tour Bruyarde translates as the noisy, or shouting, or howling tower – the word ‘bruyard’ suggests the noise made by hound dogs. It is an image of the Tower of Babel which was constructed to displace God from Heaven, and was punished for its presumption by having a spirit of discord sent amongst its members, so that their languages were confused, they could no longer understand each other.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Melbourne Writers Festival Blog

This year the Melbourne Writers Festival has a blog, which is already up and running. One of the contributers is Angela Meyer, who wrote to all the participating authors in the festival a while back and asked them to send her short pieces that might fit under one or more themes chosen by Angela, who would then post anthologies of these pieces under each heading on the blog. I wrote something on 'Passion', 'Time', 'Mornings', and 'Listening' (though there's no guarantee that all of these will appear: Angela has editorial control, and may choose to omit particular entries depending on how everything fits together).

The first two sets of themed posts have already appeared: The first is on 'Passion', and it includes some observations of mine on Paul Schrader and Robert Bresson. The second group is on 'The last film you saw ...' (Kathy Charles on Alan Parker is particularly good). I'll post links to future entries in this series too (whether or not I appear in them), because I think it's a great idea. Kudos to Angela for putting it all together.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Melbourne Writers Festival: Modern Dystopia

I shall be appearing at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival, on a panel with Booker-Prize winning author DBC Pierre, whose new novel Lights Out in Wonderland is about to be published. The panel is on Modern Dystopia, and it takes place at 4 p.m. on Sunday 29 August at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Tickets are on sale now.

UPDATE: You can now download a podcast of this session. I have also uploaded the relevant section of the audio and added some further written discussion of the ideas raised in our discussion here.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Open Day at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts

This coming Tuesday, 20 July, I am one of the guests at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Open Day. Their current theme is Mystery and Crime Stories, and I shall be talking about my book Pistols! Treason! Murder! in that light, and reading some extracts. Also appearing are Gabrielle Lord, Michael Duffy and Sulari Gentill. The Open Day is on from 11.00-1.30. Admission is free, and all are welcome. See here for how to get there.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Interview on 'The Comic Spot'

I will be a guest on 'The Comic Spot' radio show on 3CR in Melbourne this Thursday afternoon (15 July) at about 5.30 p.m. You can listen in Sydney via streaming (as I do!).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Five Wounds: Various Reviews

A round-up of several different reviews of Five Wounds:

A very positive assessment at M/C Reviews by Samantha Hagaman (an extract below):

It really is a case of mirrors within mirrors and themes upon themes in Five Wounds; even the very riddle-like nature of the novel’s illustrations relates to Gabriella’s stunted ability to read prophecies of the future. It requires a great scope of imagination to create an artwork such as Five Wounds, and it’s well worth taking a look and being inspired by Walker’s and Hallett’s collaboration.

A mixed review in The Big Issue by Jen Breach (online version at her site; extract below):

Jonathan Walker has successfully created a grubby and brutal otherwordly tone reminiscent of Patrick Suskind's Perfume. Dan Hallett's illustrations are either beautifully detailed and constrained or loose and distrubing, but always in synch with the text.

And finally, at Radio National's The Book Show, a (more or less) negative review from Simon Keck, but one that includes the irresistible description of Five Wounds as 'nerdy historian fan fiction'.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Inspirations: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tony Richardson (animations by Richard Williams)

Above is a compilation of several animated sequences (created by Richard Williams), which appear in Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). The film in general, and the animations in particular, were a big influence on my first book, Pistols! Treason! Murder! In the film, these sequences punctuate the live action sections, and provide a satirical commentary on events. Below I discuss these animations in an extract from the chapter I contributed to Historical Reenactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn (Re-enactment History), edited by Paul Pickering and Iain McCalman (see here for further discussion of this chapter).

Consider Tony Richardson’s underrated film, The Charge of the Light Brigade, made in 1968 and set during the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth-century. Richardson is immediately faced with the challenge of authenticity. Is telling a story set in the nineteenth century by means of modern media (that is, moving pictures intended for projection upon a cinema screen) an anachronism? Most complaints on the issue of anachronism concern questions of content or mentality—the latter usually involving the attribution of modern attitudes and beliefs to historical characters. The idea of formal anachronism is rarely raised.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is punctuated with animated sequences—made by Richard Williams—that are its most brilliant coup. These are very obviously not realistic at all, at one level. On the contrary, they consist of moving allegorical tableaux that dramatise relations between the European nation-states (the English lion and bulldog, the French cockerel, the Russian bear). However, their style is realistic in the sense that it invokes the satirical cartoons from the magazine Punch or the etchings that Phiz created for Dickens’ novels—and also perhaps their eighteenth-century forebears, William Hogarth and James Gillray. Considered as pastiche, the animations are lovingly detailed, and their tone faithfully reproduces the imperialist rhetoric of the mid-Victorian era. But they are not just pastiche. Something has been added to the original sources: most obviously, the simple fact of animation, but with it has come a different attitude, a kind of detachment and self-conscious manipulation of hindsight that is (by definition) absent from the primary sources. Very quickly, the integrity of the representation is (deliberately) undermined, as unified tableaux disintegrate into collaged fragments in a way that anticipates techniques later used by Terry Gilliam in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Anachronism is deployed as a critical technique.

For Fredric Jameson, the unwillingness or incapacity to acknowledge anachronism is one of the fundamental characteristics of pastiche. To put this in positive rather than negative terms, one of the achievements of pastiche is to actively suppress the concept of anachronism. By contrast, deliberate use of anachronism, and especially of formal anachronism, is a central feature of The Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the tension—even the contradiction—between modern methods of storytelling and the very different narrative techniques used by people in the past is a creative tension. The only unforgivable error would be to pretend that this tension did not exist–as pastiche does. History exists to map the fault lines between the past and the present, rather than to paper over the cracks.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Interview on Radio National's Late Night Live

Another one from the archives: This interview was originally broadcast on Radio National's Late Night Live, in February 2007, for the Australian release of Pistols! Treason! Murder!

The interview refers to my facetious manifesto on 'punk history', as discussed here.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Five Wounds: Photographs and Etchings

[The discussion below continues from two previous posts: one on 'Tone and Line', and one on 'The Making of Five Wounds', the latter being a copy of a guest post on Spike, the Meanjin blog ]

Because of my experience as a photographer, when I came to write instructions for Dan for the illustrations for Five Wounds, I had a default aesthetic in which maximum definition of detail, low contrast, and a long tonal scale were important values. This photographic aesthetic led me to misinterpret certain aspects of Francisco Goya’s etchings, which Dan and I used as a common point of reference in the early stages of our collaboration (a couple of examples from Goya's series Los Caprichos are reproduced below).

Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos, Plate 21

Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos, Plate 64

Etchings are a reproduction technique based upon drawing, but Goya’s also use acquatint, which deliberately introduces random ‘noise’ into their backgrounds. Areas that might, in a different kind of image, be represented as an undifferentiated, empty field, or as cross-hatched, murky shadows, are instead broken up by the application of acquatint, which creates an irregular textured effect, as in the examples above. I did not actually know what acquatint was when Dan and I began to work on Five Wounds, but I could nonetheless see that Goya had flattened the tonal scale by breaking up the backgrounds of his images with the visual equivalent of static. The only analogy I could think of was film grain in photography.

It did not help that the editions of Goya I consulted were printed at a lower contrast than the original etchings (this is not the case with the samples above, which are more accurate reproductions). Reproductions of etchings in modern books usually involve their conversion into half-tones via photographs of the originals. Getting thick blacks in a printed book requires heavy paper to hold the requisite amount of ink, and multiple passes through the press to build up the densities (in some cases, it may also involve the addition of other colours into the black areas, to create a so-called 'rich black'). Conversely, the white end of the tonal scale is represented by whatever the paper base is, and in cheap editions this is invariably a dirty grey rather than a bleached pristine tone. Cheaper, mass-produced images therefore almost always sacrifice accurate representation of tonal values for budgetary reasons, but I did not realise this, and so I thought that the flat contrast was an effect intended by Goya.

The first set of images that Dan created for Five Wounds were the ‘Plates’, and my scripts for these were heavily influenced by my misinterpretation of Goya, as mediated through my experience as a photographer. I therefore asked for an oppressive, clinical accumulation of detail, almost like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, except with the opposite emotional effect, and I wanted a flattened tonal scale that corresponded to a flattened emotional response: that is, to the experience of trauma, which results in an inability to organise memories effectively (that is, an inability to suppress irrelevant information, to forget).

I also conceptualised the desired compositions in photographic terms. So I often asked Dan for either ‘telephoto’ or ‘wide-angle’ effects. The former implies a flattened perspective, a compressed representation of space that makes it difficult to separate near from far; the latter, by contrast, implies that space is opened up via abrupt recessions and violent changes in scale between the foreground and background. Wide-angle compositions are inherently melodramatic; telephoto compositions create a feeling of constraint. Mostly, I wanted telephoto effects. But the most explicit manifestation of this collision between two different aesthetics was that I asked Dan to incorporate pseudo-photographic textures into his drawings.

Many of these textures are used to suggest that the physical integrity of the image itself is breaking down, but in a radical sense: that is, in these images, the medium of drawing itself cannot maintain its integrity as a specific technology of representation, and it is therefore 'contaminated' by photography. Hence my scripts for Dan jumbled up picture references from works on the conservation of etchings, and those on daguerreotypes (an early photographic technology that is referenced extensively within the text of the novel), but – somewhat perversely – in both cases I only copied those images that illustrated what happened when things went wrong.

Several of the Plates therefore have pseudo-acquatint effects as well as pseudo-photographic textures, and they have a long, soft tonal scale, with minute accumulations of detail. Ideally, I wanted the viewer to be able to go over them with a magnifying glass.

Plate 14: Dust, dynamic

For example, Plate 14, Dust, dynamic, above, includes acquatint effects in the background, which are here given a kind of diegetic justification within the picture space by analogy to the event depicted in the foreground, which shows Crow blowing a handful of dust towards the recumbent Magpie. In the novel, the dust represents the relationship between signal and noise in information theory (among other things). In fact, there are two 'clouds' of dust in the image here, representing the exhalations of the two characters shown, one cloud contained within the other, and both contained within the surrounding aura of the textured background. In other words, there is no clear conceptual separation between object and field, an idea I took from photography, and from Goya's use of acquatint.

The figure of Crow on one knee from Plate 14 is cloned and placed at the centre of the subsequent Plate 16, Bang!, reproduced below, which depicts the destruction of the ducal palace in Venice by means of an explosion, in a development inspired by Guy Fawkes. The use of concentric circles in the composition is a reference to Tintoretto's Paradise (which is also alluded to in several other illustrations). The reproduction of the pose from Plate 14 draws a visual analogy between the exhalation of breath in Plate 14 and the violent, massive displacement of air in the explosion of Plate 16, an analogy that is underlined via two handwritten annotations underneath Plates 14 and 16: 'I'll huff and I'll puff ...' on the former; '... And I'll blow your house down' on the latter (these annotations are not visible on the versions of the Plates included here).

Plate 16: Bang!

The level of detail and the minute variations in textural effect that Dan worked into the Plates is probably not apparent in these online reproductions, but it may be observed from a magnified detail from Plate 16, appended below.

Detail from Plate 16: Bang!

As might be expected, the photographic aesthetic I had in mind sometimes 'clashed' with Dan's instincts as an artist. As a result, he sometimes ignored (or perhaps creatively misinterpreted) my instructions. Dan seemed to prefer chiaroscuro effects and what I would describe as wide-angle compositions, but in editing these images, I would often ask him to break up areas of undifferentiated tone with noise, or to add additional layers to an image, to build up a sense of compression.

The final version of Plate 2, Cur’s first murder, followed by the draft, reproduced below, indicate this conflict – or rather ongoing dialogue – clearly. Note that, in this image, as in several others, the ‘effects’ (the textures that mimic picture damage) are both ‘inside’ and ‘on top of’ the image: they exist in both the picture space and on the picture plane, and, as I suggested above, one of their purposes is in fact to obscure this conceptual distinction, as the accompanying text obscures the distinction between realist narrative and allegory. The 'effects' therefore apply most visibly to areas of the image that would otherwise be rendered as either pure white or pure black.

Plate 2: Cur's first murder

Corrections to Plate 2

When we moved on to the later stages of the collaboration, and in particular to an entirely separate set of illustrations, which are integrated into the page layouts, Dan switched techniques. In contrast to the Plates, these later images embrace the limitations of drawing, and revert to its binary system of black line against a white field. This was a logical extension of my intention to give Dan greater creative autonomy in this phase of the collaboration: that is, he was no longer under any obligation to mimic photographic effects, or to conform to my aesthetic expectations. Below are a couple of these 'pure' drawings, which have a quite different feel to the Plates, emotionally as well as technically.

Cur and the black dog

Cuckoo the trickster