Alex Preston dives into the Nilhilism in Fantasy debate.
I am going into battle unprepared. Not since anxiety dreams before school exams have I felt so intellectually exposed. There is, as I understand it, a skirmish being fought. Right-wing websites have launched barbed words from across the Atlantic, lines have been drawn, responses made. A British author, Joe Abercrombie, whose work I didn’t know, was attacked by a critic I didn’t know (Leo Grin), who labelled him a “nihilistic jokester” deriding his novels as full of “postmodern blasphemies”. Grin seemed particularly chagrined that Abercrombie should, in a strikingly ugly metaphor, “soil the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths.” Grin’s problem, it appeared, was that Abercrombie was playing fast and loose with the generic conventions of a famous author I’d never read (J.R.R. Tolkein) and a seemingly famous writer I’d never even heard of (Robert E. Howard).
Not wishing to render myself more foolish in the public eye than my over-large glasses and absurd hairline already do, I thought I’d decline the opportunity to stick my oar in. But then I started reading. Firstly Grin’s blog itself. On the sidebar of the article I noticed a link to an interview with Joel Surnow, rabidly right-wing creator of torture-justifying-propaganda-dressed-as-entertainment 24 and vile mini-series The Kennedys — Surnow’s attempt to poison the last liberal hero the year before his current incarnation seeks re-election. Some deeper digging revealed that Big Hollywood, the website that published Grin’s blog, is owned by Tea Party cheerleader and all-round bad egg Andrew Breitbart.
It used to be the case that you could leave something like Grin’s blog be. Stand firmly on the higher ground as these bitter shades expired in the valleys of their own ignorance. Trust in the levelling hand of history to make your case. But so much that is wrong these days is taken for truth, so many lives are lived based on the lies that drip from poison-tongued politicians and rhetoricians. Grin’s blog is intellectually meagre, the cry of a Luddite railing vainly against progress, a conservative trotting out the same tired reactionary line against all that is new and different. But it has struck a chord within, at least, the fantasy community. And as I’ve been researching this piece, it’s extraordinary how many are aware of the frisson caused by Grin’s blog and the responses from Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker and others. It is, perhaps, because the themes at play here — a conservative love of the status quo, longing for a (fictitious) literary golden age, for a time when things made sense — are somehow timeless. This is the divide that Virginia Woolf famously drew in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” between those authors happy to continue plodding in the well-worn furrows of literary convention and those whose work attempts to “make it new”.
Salon Futura asked me to contribute this piece because I write on violence in modern literary fiction, I have a wonkish love of literary theory and know my Kant from my Kierkegaard. And, thinking about it — and despite the fact I’ve never even tried to read The Lord of the Rings — I have a kind of back-door knowledge of fantasy. Two novels that I’m addressing in my PhD thesis — J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — are clearly much indebted to fantasy’s ability to bring new perspectives to our current concerns by locating them in imagined worlds. Coetzee deals more directly with the politics of torture elsewhere in his books; nowhere does he deal with it as memorably, and I think it’s precisely because Waiting for the Barbarians takes the torture outside of the specific South African context that spawned it: he extracts it without abstracting it.
Now we come to Abercrombie’s novel. I must be careful here not to be patronising, but it’s rather wonderful. I don’t mean to sound surprised. I had been told that it was a fine example of the genre, that he was doing interesting things. But The Heroes [Purchase] is magnificent. My mother used to damn her holiday reading with “War and Peace it ain’t” but I couldn’t help think of Tolstoy as I read Abercrombie. The skilful intercutting of battle scenes with the politicking that sits behind them, the exploration of war — not only what happens but why it happens, the way we manage to hold a vast array of characters in our head and feel something for all of them. It’s a lie that you need the character cheat-sheet at the beginning of War and Peace. If you’re reading the novel correctly, you know those characters better than you know your own family. I found the same with The Heroes.
I was also much taken by the story of the Northmen against the Union. David Peace said his Red Riding Quartet, ostensibly about the Yorkshire Ripper, was “not really about him, but about the general harrowing of the North.” Peace presents the repeated, violent murder of prostitutes in the deprived cities of Northern England as an indictment not only of the drunk, racist police, but also of the manner in which the north had been left behind in the growth and prosperity of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The Ripper is a metaphor for the violent currents that run through society, what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls “dark matter”. Abercrombie was born and brought up in Lancaster in the far north of England during the Thatcher era and it’s hard not read his novel as in part allegorical — the politically corrupt and bureaucratized Union in the south imposing its worldview on the culturally and linguistically other northerners.
If you were skipping forward to where I know what I’m talking about, then you can start reading here. The big slip Grin makes is a category error — a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of nihilism, and, particularly, the way violence operates in literature as a teleological tool, a way of constructing meaning out of a degraded world. I will set out below a brief summary of my argument and, I hope, persuade you that Abercrombie’s novel should be seen as part of this drive to use the violence of the twentieth century as a means of understanding what makes us human, something far from the “emptying of the world” that was (one of) Nietzsche’s figuration(s) of nihilism.
The first thing to say is that there is a strong argument that literature is per se anti-nihilist. For Jacques Derrida, Nazism represents the apotheosis of the “bad violence” of nihilism, and literature, with all its “otherness” is the ultimate challenge to this “bad violence”. Derrida took from Theodor Adorno a view of literature as a privileged art form and an interest in what it can “critically decentre in the field of universal philosophy.” Literature represents the “coming of the other”. It stands as the language of the other in its singularity and in opposition to “those other machines, bringers of death.” The Heroes is rich, full of complex ideas, linguistically and thematically heterogeneous — it is full of just the sort of “otherness” that sets it apart from the monochromatic “bad violence” of nihilism.
The Heroes is a violent novel, but not a novel of “bad violence”. There are severed heads, gored bodies, bloody executions — what Grin calls “endless scene of torture, treachery and bloodshed.” But this is not the distanced, cold violence of nihilism. In her long essay On Violence, Hannah Arendt suggests a method of redeeming violence from the evil that spawns it by viewing it as something inherently human, and thus in opposition to the dehumanizing tactics of evil in the twentieth century. “It is no doubt possible to create conditions under which men are dehumanized,” she writes, “such as concentration camps, torture, famine… under such conditions, not rage and violence, but their conspicuous absence is the clearest sign of dehumanization.” She goes on to present violence as something which is lamentable in the case of the individual, but both necessary and, indeed, laudable when viewed through a wider lens, across humankind: “It is as though life itself, the immortal life of the species, nourished, as it were, by the sempiternal dying of its individual members, is ‘surging upward’, is actualized in the practice of violence.”
The violence in Abercrombie’s novel can be seen as the expression of something that is very human, very real, the punch that is also the caress. It can also be read as a metaphor for the way things are now. It’s easy to think of fantasy literature as somehow outside the currents of the world in which it was written. This is to do it a disservice. The clash of cultures, the bloody, visceral presentation of war, the idiocy of the high command in The Heroes necessarily reflects as much on Iraq and Afghanistan as it does on Mordor. In a world of drones carrying out airborne raids, a world marked by the abstract evil of the gas chamber, a world of genetic and chemical warfare, there is something almost nostalgic in the sound of a battleaxe tearing through a collarbone, but there is also something relevant. The Heroes tells us a lot about the place of the individual within a world at war.
As we look back on the twentieth century, we see it as Walter Benjamin’s angel of history perceived it, as a Jetztzeit of violence piled upon violence, a chaotic constellation of man’s brutality against man whereby the violent acts of war, torture and terrorism are viewed not as linear events in a sequential history but as a unified whole. Benjamin’s angel of history, blown towards the future by the winds of progress, perceives these events piled upon one another, a chaotic rendering of this most bloody century. Benjamin’s idea of the constellation is a kind of montage whereby diverse elements are brought together by the act of writing, “blast[ing] open the continuum of history”. The constellation is “filled with the presence of the now”, challenging the periodizing discourse of modern history.
In his essay Terrorism and Modern Drama, John Orr states that “tragic art reminds us of what we cherish in the act of seeing it destroyed.” This comment recalls the passage in Holderlin’s The Grounds for Empedocles which speaks of “the whole being able to feel itself only through the suffering and splitting-off of one of its constituent parts. As long as reality remains undifferentiated, we cannot be sensible of it with any intensity.” This idea of the ability of negative experiences to emphasise the positive develops into the recognition that violence and pain can be in and of themselves beneficial — not the pointless gore that Grin so deplores. The sense of there having once been a better time, the closeness and fidelity of many of the marriages and relationships, the bonds of friendship that sustain the “Twelves” — these elements of the good, the noble, are not destroyed by the violence that surround them, but enhanced.
Abercrombie’s novel, however, is most interesting where it carries out precisely the iconoclasm that Grin despises. This formal violence against the tradition that spawned the work is a mirror of the violence that is its subject matter. Violence creates a fissure in the way we experience the world. Culture and tradition from before the violence are rendered unusable and memory becomes tainted by the fracture. Adorno said that writing poetry after the holocaust was “barbaric”: it is barbaric because it denies writers the civilizing tools of cultural memory. Creative imagination is fundamentally changed when it experiences fissures of this type and, particularly in the bloody history of the twentieth century, novelists developed a number of very clear strategies to access the tradition, culture and memory that lay the other side of the wreckage.
If we think about the wandering, ghostly, fact/fiction mash-up prose of W.G. Sebald, or Coetzee’s self-conscious, distant, metafictive novels, we can see that they attack the form of the novel as no longer able to handle the experience of what it’s like to be human. Violence is done to the novel form because it can’t capture the violence of life. This, again, is where Grin falls down. Tolkien’s novel is (as I understand it) partly a metaphor for the First World War. But war has changed and our way of thinking about war has changed. Abercrombie’s ironical, “realistic” presentation of warfare is a reflection of the many layers of bodies that have piled up on top of the corpses of the Somme. Abercrombie is tearing apart his literary forebears because their model is no longer appropriate to recording modern warfare.
It seems that at the heart of Grin’s attack on The Heroes is anger at the book’s post-religious stance. I think this is what he means by nihilism. The gods in the novel are dead. Indeed “by the dead” is a form of blasphemy in the book — the dead are the closest to gods that these guys have. The accusation of “blasphemy” and the treatment of Tolkein’s ur-fantasy as a kind of sacred text echo another debate going on in the States. This is about fundamentalism, about the fear of exegesis compared with strict literalism. Grin’s lamentation at the post-heroic status of the novel (and, by the way, I thought the novel was full of heroes, just heroes with a sense of irony) is a lamentation of a world in which, for many, the saints and Jesus and his angels dwell with Gandalf and Aragorn in the world of myth.