In Competition No. 2382 you were invited to supply pretentious ‘intellectual’ tosh in the form of a review of a play, book, film or piece of classical music.
Back in 1990 that grand old comper Roger Woddis sent me a wonderful specimen of pseudocrap perpetrated by James Wolcott in the Observer. It deserves some space: ‘What’s interesting about Richard Ford’s Wildlife is not its chipped polish but its numb insularity. For all its Western smoke, it reads like a chamber play for phantoms. It has the ghostly rustle of white folds begging for a bloodstain.’
My apologies to those of you who misread my intentions: the tosh, I presumed, belonged to the reviewer not the work reviewed, and the latter, I also presumed, would be real, not imaginary. There was a general tendency to go over the top, with grotesque, near incomprehensible results which amazed rather than amused. The prizewinners, printed below, avoided this temptation and are rewarded with £30 each, Watson Weeks taking the bonus fiver.
With a more than cursory glance at Euripides’ Cyclops (the one extant satiric drama), Carry on up the Khyber confronts us with the realities of Empire, ably assisted by Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Sid James, together with other ‘abstracts and brief chronicles of the time’. The title is richly resonant, hinting at farce and the inevitable schadenfreude, yet with a subtextual high moral seriousness that reflects the zeitgeist and the final endgame. Thus, the scatological (note the rhyming slang in ‘Khyber’) mutates into the eschatological. Likewise, we pause at yet another inflexion of the genre, and the quasi-Empsonian ambiguity of ‘Carry on’. Are we to expect unrestrained, even salacious, behaviour (however overlaid by the angst that is inseparable from the ‘white man’s burden’)? Or is it Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’, tinged with the stoicism of Seneca? The film demands nothing less than the most attentive scrutiny.
In Meet Mr Mulliner, P.G. Wodehouse is at his most abstractly experimental, with the meta-narrative device — a Greek chorus of regulars at the Angler’s Rest, reduced to the socio-economic signifiers of their beverage preferences, compelled to listen to the eponymous Mulliner’s unreliable reminiscences — amounting to a vigorous nod in Beckett’s direction. Mulliner’s own narrations treat exclusively of his relatives, an obsession with genetic contingency suggesting Wodehouse’s little suspected adhesion to Joycean notions of author as deity. Yet Mulliner’s fictive universe, contained, Russian doll fashion, within the meta-narrative, brims with the well-worn tropes of the Wodehouse canon: farcical confusions, thwarted romances and ineffectual clergy. While these tales all end happily, the contortions of plot required to bring about such counter-realist resolutions strongly suggest the paradox that an omnipotent Creator can only secure His role in Creation by relinquishing control, thereby engendering the necessity for His intervention.
Treasure Island is an iconographic text, a template for later works where physical disability in others provides a psychosomimetic rite of passage for superficially stable characters. Stevenson, beset by the demon of ill health throughout his vagabondage, proselytises from the start for the handicapped, the maladjusted, the excluded, those on the outside. Significance lies in the fact that Jim has to hide, to be symbolically ‘inside’, to acquire quintessential knowledge about himself and the outside world, first behind the inn door observing Blind Pew, then in the dark of the inn to search the Captain’s trunk and, most significantly, in that iconic sanctum sanctorum, the apple barrel. Similarly, the stockade assumes pharaonic significance on the eponymous island. Stevenson’s obsession with schizophrenia, combined with the heterodoxy of reincarnation inherent in island dwellers, results here in the rebirth of the pirate captain, Flint, as a parrot. Note the linguistic consanguinity of pirate and parrot.
The complexity of Paradise Lost has always eluded its exegetes, who have chronically reduced it to propaganda, to tendentious grandiloquence, to a hallucinated fantasy of ‘inner space’, to mere irony. The Procrustean bed, the Arian heresy and the hermeneutic circle have been among the clumsy instruments used to map its architecture and trace its intricate, supercharged circuitry of meaning, all foredoomed to failure. ‘Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy,’ as the poet expressed it. Without such distorting lenses, one sees a mesmerising attempt to build ethical and linguistic hierarchies that are progressively dismantled in a ‘double negative’ structure. When Einstein wrote to Picasso that ‘sometimes none of what I think makes sense’, he might almost have had Milton in mind, for isn’t it that presence of a self-consuming vision heuristically driven light years beyond the possibility of deconstruction by any strictly formal apparatus that makes Milton a keystone?
Often thoughtlessly catalogued as a classic British ‘weepie’, Brief Encounter is better understood as a modernist masterpiece that throws into doubt the epistemological basis of our taken-for-granted ‘reality’ both more subtly and more audaciously than Last Year in Marienbad. Its dizzying plethora of spatial and temporal dislocations, and especially the radical way in which they invite us to reflect on Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘chronotope’, consistently undermine the mythic stability of a known, referential ‘England’ even while asserting it. For all the banal concreteness of its cinemas and teashops, ‘Milford’ has the ideality of Prospero’s island, the site of cathexis but equally of the ‘tragic’ recognition that it would be suicidal for desire to extinguish the lack which gives it birth. In the film’s triadic structure, it is Fred Jesson’s paradoxical strength that he favours the tortuous lexis of crossword puzzles over both memory and desire.
No. 2385: A tricky hand