Arcadia: A Play

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Hot Beats and High Genre: Submergence by J.M. Ledgard

I have a dark and abiding love for the electronic dance music of the nineties and aughts. If it shows up on the “Faithless” Pandora station; if it has been compiled in a collection like “I Love Ibiza” or “Ultimate Trance Vol. 18”; if it has the seductive hooting of indigenous pipes and angelic female voices over a thumping beat; chances are I like it. They have machines that pulse a beam of sound and cause you to fall down shitting; I hear this kind of music and compulsively yearn. I first heard it when I was a cooped-up teenager watching MTV Europe in a hot Athenian apartment, and it has always seemed to represent all of the sexy, free, mystical things that are expressly forbidden the adolescent. None of my experiences with this music in the wild have approached its promise when it vibrates in that apartment or in my headphones, while I vacuum the house or write this review. Of all this genre’s notes, the plaintive thumps the loudest.

I tell you this now only because something about the experience of reading J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence recreated this feeling so profoundly that I felt compelled to break out the Faithless and examine the component parts of my enthusiasm. I learned about Submergence on Twitter (never say that Twitter never gave me anything). The novel is, variously, a love story, martyrology, heresiography, science book, and spy novel. Like its Twitter supporters, who spoke in rapturous terms, I was sucked into the novel right away, from its commanding first line — “It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the year 2012″ — to its final epigraph from Horace: “Plunge it in deep water: it comes up more beautiful.”

The plaintive is alive in this novel. It is largely the story of a James More, a British spy who is being held by Somali Jihadists. The latter are beleaguered and ineffectual in the scheme of their own ambitions, but deadly effective for people in “a very dark and specific place” — like James More in his unfinished bathroom, like the fourteen-year-old Somali girl who is hooded with burlap before her stoning. As More is taken out and mock-executed, as he is worked over and then marginally repaired by a marginally sympathetic doctor, as he is taken to a desolate waterless part of Somalia and then to a mangrove forest, he contemplates damp England, and his forebear Thomas More, and, most importantly, a romantic week during which he met and fell in love with a dazzling scientist based in London. The scholarship of this woman, Danny Flinders, forms the leitmotif of the novel: she is interested in the patterns and mysteries of the deepest ocean, the least known part of the world. The novel follows More in his dark and specific place and Danny in hers — a submersible in a near-mythological section of the ocean called the Hadal deep. Submergence flirts both with what is called Big History, a an all-inclusive discipline of which the human experience forms a miniscule part, and with the genre of “CliFi.” As Danny tells James during their interlude:
Let’s say the Atlantic is 160 million years old…We appeared less than one million years ago. We walked in yesterday. It’s not much of a claim. Yet somewhere in the Atlantic right now and in other oceans…some man is smashing up a seamount more ancient than any greenwood on land, which he can’t see and refuses to value.
I have a weakness for bizarre analogies, but I think this novel aligns with my secretly cherished dance music, both its content and its praxis. Thematically, the novel shares many of the same elements with electronic dance music — the erotic, the foreboding, the melancholy, the mystical, the vaguely orientalist. There are reasons that electronic dance music and club culture has been cited in scholarly articles about modern forms of religious or spiritual practice. James himself thinks along these lines — one of his dreams in captivity describes:
…a Lenten carnival. A Christ-like figure on a carnival float was leading a crowd of young people in a dance. The music was techno. The street was narrow. Bodies were pressed up against old buildings…the Christ and the crowd repeated over and over with their hands a thousand years of love, a thousand year of peace.
(The bacchanal is cut short by a suicide bomber.)

Electronic dance music invokes mystical themes, with lines like “This is my church” or nonsense about the ocean: “Open my eyes/ Bigger/ Listen to us/ Swimming in Saltwater.” Its beats are structured for maximum epiphany and release. It is culturally affiliated with mind-expanding drugs that promise vast sensation and awareness that will be lost in the morning. Submergence too encourages spiritual-philosophical meditations about things you don’t really understand. The novel is full of information about the most mysterious parts of the planet and its inhabitants; never before have I heard about a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, let alone pondered the romance of its liminal existence. Ledgard concludes an unforgettable description of decomposition and reanimation at the bottom of the ocean thus: “Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.” Submergence offers up a similar, if headier and wetter, line of inquiry than the bio-mathematics of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “We exist only as a film on the water,” Danny tells James. Whoa.

(This novel encourages you to look for the meaning of things. I learned later that “Hadal” is also the term for “word, “speech,” or “expression” in Somali. I don’t know what this means, but it just seems important. After all, the Angel Gabriel told Mohammed, “Recite”; the miracle Qu’ran was his recitation. For better or worse, this is the mode that Ledgard puts you into.)

Some of my interest in techno music is rooted in that yearning teenage place, trapped in a parental apartment and wishing to be out among the European youth, to whom everything, I erroneously believed, was permitted. The novel is finally calibrated to exploit yearning for the world. Danny and James embody the infinitely attractive versions of statelessness. She is a brilliant and great-looking woman of Australian and Martiniquan descent, with a cabin in Italy, an apartment in London, at home in Switzerland and the bottom of the ocean. James is both personally and professionally tied to his particular state, but he is still at home in the world, a speaker of Arabic. In his normal life you can find him among the Jacaranda trees, wearing linen shirts and eating breakfasts of “papaya and scrambled eggs, toast, and Kenyan tea.” These are cosmopolitans.

Americans are sensitive to the very existence of people this cosmopolitan, and they show poorly in the novel. They are the CIA guy in a food court talking over a terrorist’s errant appendage: “We think it’s an Arab hand, don’t we Bob?” They are on the boat with Danny, the un-fun ones who spend the voyage “sipping iced water,” who “purchase ugly expedition t-shirts.” The women “covered themselves in such loose-hanging cotton garbs…seldom wore high heels in their lives, and…felt [Danny] was a snob and an ice maiden.” Their hotels are “prefabricated, with piped music, airless corridors, tinted windows that would not open, circulated air that could not be shut off, a small plastic bathtub, chlorinated water…” Meanwhile, the British have “Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle” (and lots of club hits). The American reader is left feeling a bit resentful: Just you wait, motherfucker — our uniformity is contagious. And then Ledgard has the last laugh, because he shows the very American-ness of that instinct — the blind, obliterating force of American reaction:
It glinted. It burned from its tail. It was an astonishing creation. Entirely human, wholly American…It was impossible in the final moment not to see the missile as something more.
There are several versions of statelessness. In addition to Danny and James, there is the decidedly nasty kind, the men who leave home turf of Saudi, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or the United States, to come to Somalia and build a frontier of Jihad, a sad inversion of the roving Muslim scholars of centuries past. Jihadists are often described as harboring a medieval view of things, but this is in many ways an affront to medieval Islam, when the practice of religion and the pursuit of knowledge in the sciences and humanities were often the same thing. I think Ledgard knows, although one is never sure whether James More does, that without these Muslim scholars and their translations from Greek to Arabic and back to Greek, James More’s ancestor Thomas, his beloved Francis Bacon, might never have known their Classical philosophers. (Ironically, a real-life “Thomas More Law Center” exists, in benighted America of course, to forestall those “Radical Muslims and Islamic organizations in America” who “take advantage of our legal system and are waging a ‘Stealth Jihad’ within our borders.”) I disliked how little room the novel made for the non-Jihadi varieties of Islam, but why should it, I suppose, when More’s captors make even less?

Many critics have made passing reference to John le Carré as a point of departure for Submergence, since this novel, because of all the mythical deep and so forth, is so much more than just a spy novel. But some of its success, I think, lies in the dexterous deployment of elements of genre fiction. John le Carré is himself a departure and elaboration of genre. And while he is not poetic in the Ledgard mode, like Ledgard he is so observant, so fond of characterizations, and makes them in such a way — with the dangerous seduction of erudite British public servants — that you are certain they are true. Like the novels of John le Carré, who has a conscience and is often concerned with dark matters, Submergence thrums at the level of high genre from which wonderful novels emerge. Lonesome Dove (the ne plus ultra). Neuromancer. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels.

High genre is fiction that allows you to investigate an individual text, because it is full of its own traits and merits, whether in its characterizations, its plot, or its prose. Regular genre, I suppose, is something you can only talk about as a family — tracing the themes shared collectively among its members. High genre will always be vulnerable to the taint of its lower peers, because it shares the equipment, the same beats. This is why people are drawn to True Detective, and yet can accept assertions that it is just another dead naked lady show. I mentioned the praxis of electronic dance music. Detractors would have it that this music is derivative noise, the artless patching together of beats at just the right frequency to make the ladies tear off their cardigans in the middle of the dance hall. These are the same kinds of things that people say about genre novels. But DJs (like medieval Islamic poets, in fact), demonstrate their mastery through use of the material of their peers and predecessors. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to be really good at spinning it.

There is some less-high genre at play in Ledgard’s novel, too. Rand Richards Cooper’s New York Times review of The Constant Gardener called le Carré “the writer who rescued the spy novel from the clutches of Ian Fleming by creating an anti-James Bond — the spy as brooding skeptic, whose freedom from conventional mores conferred not playboy romance but the loneliness of exile.” This was 2001, several years before the Bond franchise was reanimated in a darker key, with all the visual pleasures of earlier Bonds but decidedly more brooding. I’m thinking of the film Casino Royale, which, like Submergence and techno music, is sexy, sad, and possessing of high production values.

Ledgard wrote a scholastic hero and turns your head with trippy descriptions of oceans and molecular life, but some of his pleasures are carnal in the Bond tradition. Consider here, when Danny and James meet over Christmas at the Hotel Atlantic, a Ritz hotel on the French coast, which, with its copper bathtubs and Turcoman rugs, its lobster bisque and suckling pig, is probably the best approximation of one version of heaven in modern fiction. (The ceiling beams have been “soaked in milk for a year to harden them.”) In rustic French country splendor, as the snow blankets the world outside and the wind howls across the Atlantic, these sexy people meet for dinner. She, who will be described as both “a Persian and an alley cat,” is looking spectacular: “Her dress shimmered purple and brown and in and out of those colors, showing off her breasts and hips.” He wore “a blue suit with suede shoes and a gray Turnbull & Asser shirt. He had only his regimental cufflinks with him. A silver parachute on maroon.” As the snow pours, they eat:
…servings of duck foie gras with a peach wine jelly, Scottish scallops, ham, deboned saddle of lamb from the Auvergne, white beans with truffles, sea bream, poached apricots, bay leaf panna cotta, cheese and chocolates. They drank champagne, a house white wine, Rothschild Bordeaux, Chateau Villefranche dessert wine…
And more. They smoke cigarettes. They go upstairs and do it on the rug. By the middle of the novel I was Googling the hotel to see if it existed and if it were possible to get a room. It is now my single greatest material aspiration to stay in a hotel like this.

The Bond element resurfaces in funny little ways, as here, when James travels to a small island to track down the family of a terrorist. A sister cooperates, and after their interview, James has another request.
“You’ve been very kind,” he said. “Might I ask one more favor?”

“But of course.”

“I need a haircut. Do you think you could cut my hair?”

“I’ve never cut gold hair!”

They took a communal taxi across the town. They were squeezed in the back with another woman. He was buttock to buttock between the two…[she] rested her head absently on his knee.”
It’s such a pointless, comparatively light-hearted, pseudo-sexual, weirdly colonialist interlude, right out of Bond. I’ll cut your hair, I murmured to myself, picturing Daniel Craig.

Some people interpret the invocation of genre as a way to temper enthusiasm, which is not my goal here. I am very enthusiastic about this novel, because I found it transporting. Those dinners, those Bondian wine lists, those Condé Nast interiors, are so materially exciting that they do not necessarily detract. If the novel’s national and civilizational categories are shallow, its ecological meditations are deep, its imagery sublime. How can I forget the ship Challenger trawling an unexplored trench, its nets bringing up “slime that covered the inside of the dredge…all that remained of the most exquisite forms of millions of sea squirts, salp, and jellies, whose diaphanous musculature — more remarkable than any alien species yet conceived — had lost its form in air”? Like the dance music of my teens, Submergence takes me to another plane. I’m so young in evolutionary terms, after all, and addicted to consciousness.

Modern Library Revue: #30 The Good Soldier

1.

Like many people with at least some superficial veneer of culture and erudition, the books I read when I was a child fall into two main categories. First, I read the books that were just the kind of thing that come your way if you’re a young person surrounded by people who care: Newberry winners, ALA Notables, and books about the spirited young ladies of the past, who reside in places like New Moon, Silver Bush, and The Limberlost. Next, I read the books my parents had around the house. With a talent that stays with me today, I became adept at picking out the novels from among Loeb editions and other things that boded ill for my entertainment (although my strategy was not foolproof: I still give The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony the side-eye when I see it on the shelf).

We can all map our humanity by the oddities and accidents of our youthful bookshelves (or the absence of said shelves), but that’s outside the scope of this revue. The point is that I remember being lured by The Good Soldier because of its child-friendly size and obvious fiction-ness. Skimming through it, I had no idea what was going on. Clearly, though, it was something creepy. (I believe I had the idea that “cut his throat” was an expression meaning to be really upset about something, which is not totally inaccurate.)

The next time I read the Ford Madox Ford novel was in its incarnation as The Saddest Story, in crisp pink facsimile copy of Blast prescribed in a college course on Anglo-American Modernism. I was very taken by Blast as a concept, a look, a typeface, during what might be considered my most revolutionary period, which might also be considered the least revolutionary revolutionary period ever experienced by a person. I latched on to The Good Soldier then because it was far more comprehensible to me than almost anything else we read during Anglo-American Modernism (or indeed, Blast). This text was carrying some artistic ideology, we were taught, but it was written in sentences I could understand.

The Good Soldier is probably the best book to teach in an English class that I can imagine, covering all the hot formal and contextual bases. (First of all, forget Turn of the Screw — here we have our unreliable narrator sans pareil.) Who is this man? An American. Who is his author? An Anglo-German. Where was this published? Blast? And when? Why, just before World Blast I!

What a narrator! To read him is to hear a 100-year-old joke and get it, even if the terms on which you get it are slightly out of kilter from the original. Right off the bat, Dowell, this placid American, describes for us the Ashburnhams, the male half of which will disrupt everyone’s existence with wandering heart and loins: “They were descended, as you will probably expect, from the Ashburnham who accompanied Charles I to the scaffold, and, as you must also expect with this class of English people, you would never have noticed it.”

What else does Dowell, this Quaker with pudding where his balls should be, not notice? That the Ashburnhams don’t speak to one another; that while he ferries his non-invalid invalid wife to healthful spas at Nauheim and elsewhere, Captain Ashburnham is ferrying her vigorously to Pound-town. Talk about creepy. All slices of underdone beef and quiet chats around the bridge table and a particular shade of blue tie, while coursing through it is illicit sex, death, madness, and strong religious feeling.

2.

The Good Soldier has often been lauded as a formally perfect novel, a sentiment with which I am inclined to agree, but do not feel quite up to proving, when Julian Barnes has already done it. But I did want to revisit Blast (that “great MAGENTA cover’d opusculus,” as Ezra Pound described it, with characteristic bombast). What a strange, sad, vital text, and how curious it seemed to me that Ford’s story should be in it. Next to Wyndham Lewis’s aggressively experimental “Enemy of the Stars” and Rebecca West’s psychosexual vignette “Indissoluble Matrimony,” The Good Soldier seems formally rather bloodless and Edwardian, suddenly becoming, at its end, positively Gothic (Eunuch and Madwoman: table for two). However, while I found The Good Soldier a beacon of intelligibility among the experiments of the Vorticists, Theodore Dreiser, Ford’s contemporary, found the non-chronological narrative provocative and disorienting — bad modern Art.

Ford did not sign the manifesto part of issue 1, and his relationship with the Vorticists (the name for Lewis and the other people behind Blast) is a matter of some discussion, I gather, after reading several scholarly essays in an effort to understand the period. He was a Modernist, but also an Impressionist. He dabbled in Imagism, which is a kind of Modernism. The Vorticists disliked the Futurists. They all may have been nascent Fascists. So many currents and tributaries to movements — 100 years later, Modernism seems like a biggish tent. But really, it’s about as descriptive a term as “sandwich,” and reading the learned essays invoked, in my crude mind, a long-running argument that my friends have about what is or is not a sandwich. Is a taco a sandwich? A hotdog? It is all a darkness.

Looking back, the particulars of the day’s debates are not clear. But, set as they were against the great cataclysm of World War I, it is easy to focus on the irrelevance of a hotdog’s being a sandwich or not a sandwich, when we know now that millions of people were preparing to die in terrible circumstances.   That’s the saddest story!  Not some horny, deceitful woman!  Even while I admired the aesthetic on the page of the Vorticists, there is a kind of awfulness in all of it, as they celebrate, in a queerly un-celebratory way, those things that will soon blast them all to pieces. (It is worth checking out the searchable PDFs on Issuu, where both numbers are available in their entirety.)
The only way Humanity can help artists is to remain independent and work unconsciously WE NEED THE UNCONSCIOUSNESS OF HUMANITY-their stupidity, animalism, and dreams.

We do not want to change the appearance of the world, because we are not Naturalists, Impressionists or Futurists (the latest form of Impressionism), and do not depend on the appearance of the world for our art.
WE ONLY WANT THE WORLD TO LIVE, and to feel it’s crude energy flowing through us.

The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius, — its appearance and its spirit. Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.
The rest of The Good Soldier/Saddest Story didn’t appear in the second and ultimate issue of Blast, the “War Issue,” because the novel had already been published by John Lane. Meanwhile, Ford Madox Ford had gone off to war, which he wrote about in a poem for this second issue. The Vorticist sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, who rebelled against classical forms, died in action, not before sending this dispatch for the new number:
I HAVE BEEN FIGHTING FOR TWO MONTHS and I can now gauge the intensity of Life.
HUMAN MASSES teem and move, are destroyed and crop up again.
HORSES are worn out in three weeks, die by the roadside.
DOGS wander, are destroyed, and others come along.
WITH ALL THE DESTRUCTION that works around us NOTHING IS CHANGED, EVEN SUPERFICIALLY. LIFE IS THE SAME STRENGTH. THE MOVING AGENT THAT PERMITS THE SMALL INDIVIDUAL TO ASSERT HIMSELF.
THE BURSTING SHELLS, the volleys, wire entanglements, projectors, motors, the chaos of battle DO NOT ALTER IN THE LEAST, the outlines of the hill we are besieging. A company of PARTRIDGES scuttle along before our very trench.
IT WOULD BE FOLLY TO SEEK ARTISTIC EMOTIONS AMID THESE LITTLE WORKS OF OURS.
3.

Another short book that sat on my parents’ bookshelves was Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, with which I also struggled upon a youthful first read. This week, fresh off a week of reading Blast and trying to plumb its truths, I had a moment of serendipity when I went to see the play for the first time. Parallels abound. Stoppard’s play is about waging war on the styles that came before you — in this case the Romantic rejection of the Classical, with Mr. Noakes the landscape architect rejecting, like Gaudier-Brzeska, the smooth geometry of the Greeks. It’s about the great X factor that sex plays in the human enterprise. It’s about Art, Science, Math, and Machinery. It is also about looking back at the past and not totally understanding things because you are missing key documents and truths, and also see what you want to see. In one play, we cover the impulse behind the Vorticists, the root of the tragedies in The Good Soldier, and my own fumbling around for sandwich metaphors.

At the pinnacle of the play, the young heroine Thomasina laments to her tutor Septimus the wanton weakness of the “Egyptian noodle” Cleopatra, who allowed the great library of Alexandria to burn. For Thomasina, as for Dowell the American, a lady being horny and deceitful — her good soldier being such a fine, fatally weak fellow — wrecked things forever.

When Thomasina, thinking of all the lost books in the library, asks Septimus, “How can we sleep for grief?” He replies in a great moment of literature and humanity, giving us the softer side of Gaudier-Brzeska’s dispatch from the front:
By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady. You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.
Tom Stoppard wrote the dialogue for Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s other best-known work, which was lately made into an HBO miniseries. I don’t know what he thinks about The Good Soldier, Blast, or the rest of it, but he is humming on that creative frequency.  The first issue of Blast asserted: “The moment a man feels or realizes himself as an artist, he ceases to belong to any milieu or time. Blast is created for this timeless fundamental Artist that exists in everybody.”  

We die on the march, yes.  But we have our consolations.

Et in Arcadia ego.

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