Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

One Pound is a Tragedy, a Thousand Pounds is a Statistic
The human mind is a strange thing. I can get quite annoyed with myself for losing a 50p food coupon, but when I get a car repair bill for £1,300 (as I did yesterday) I take it philosophically. Don't get me wrong, that's a lot of money to me, but even so my brain switches to "These things happen" mode. "In 100 years, who's going to care?" I ask - as Sarah Connors' flatmate asked, just before she got her head smashed in by the Terminator. I feel strangely serene.

Still, I'm glad I finished my Christmas shopping before the bill came in, or I might be skimping a bit on those last few presents...

Old French
For years, I've been remembering the old Milky Bar ads as pronouncing the word "Nestlé" like the English word "nestle". Checking on this video, however, I found that even the oldest advert from 1961 has the words "Nestlé Milky Bar" rather than "Nestle's Milky Bar", as I remembered. Was my memory wonky? Apparently not, if the video description and several of the comments are to be believed: rather, the soundtrack has been silently remastered so as to correct the French pronunciation. For proof whereof, this New Zealand version from the 1980s retains the classic "Nestle's", which to me will always be the "proper" way to pronounce the name of that particular grasping conglomerate.

It's interesting that they went to the trouble of retrospectively changing things, though. It got me to wondering how many people these days say "caff" rather than "café"? Fewer than of yore, I'll warrant. That was always partly a class thing, of course, with the question of whether something was a caff or a café depending not only on the speaker but the establishment in question. "Greasy spoon café" wouldn't sound right at all, to my ear.

Then there's Michelin - perhaps an even more interesting case, since the same company is well known for three different things, each of which falls into a different stereotypical class bracket...

Poll #1992866 Old French


Meesh-e-lain (last syllable to rhyme with the French word for 'bread')
More than one of the above, depending whether it's in connection with tyres, travel guides or restauruants
More than one of the above at different periods of my life
Some other answer, which I will explain in the comments.

Summerisle in Winter
Shambling towards Bedlam, our thoughts naturally turn to the Muppets, but who knew that there was a Muppet version of The Wicker Man? (strange_complex, probably.)

Gonzo is a ringer for Christopher Lee.

Delayed Gratifications and Ancient Ethnography
At my first Worldcon, in 2005, I attended a panel on sex in YA literature. One of the speakers complained that YA writers were too coy in describing sex: "Sometimes you can't tell whether sex has taken place or not." At which Terry Pratchett heckled from the audience, "My wife often says the same thing."

Being published's a bit like that. It's true that the day my first novel was published back in 1997 Orion sent me a bouquet, and that was lovely. I think I might have got a bottle of something from HarperCollins on one occasion, too, but generally publishers and agents don't think publication dates worthy of note, and (if you're not a headline author) they pass unmarked.

Hence, I'm not entirely sure whether Modern Children's Literature has been published yet or not. It appears to be for sale at Palgrave's own site, where the publication date is listed simply as December; at Amazon, which has today listed as the publication date, it is still only available for pre-order. I've not yet had my copies, but the Christmas rush may be to blame. Oh well, let's say it's out today - featuring LJ's own fjm, amongst other luminaries:

Modern Children's Literature

Also out this week, and this time I do have a paper copy, was The Author magazine, with an article by me featured on the cover:

Author cover

All this is very pleasing, of course, though the time lag on such things is such that they come like the ghost of Christmas Past, as a rebuke to present indolence. The Author article is just an edited version of a talk I gave more than a year ago, and I sent the proofs of Modern Children's Literature off in July. Meanwhile I've a chapter to write for someone else, and I just don't feel like doing it.

Instead, I've been re-reading Gombrich's Art and Illusion, a book which waved to me from my shelves yesterday, having lain mute for a couple of decades. Back in the day it did a lot to sensitize me to questions of interpretation, and may well help me now in my maunderings on intentionality (see previous post), but the first thing I was struck by was a passage from Philostratus's life of Apollonius of Tyana. Here the sage is travelling the world, engaging people in Socratic dialogue. In India, he finds himself talking to an artist about the shapes we see in clouds, and how far the resemblance to a centaur, wolf, etc., comes from the eye of the beholder rather than the clouds themselves. All very interesting. Then he adds, pointing to a nearby metal relief "in the Greek style": "Even if we drew one of these Indians with white chalk [...] he would seem black, for there would be his flat nose and stiff curly locks and prominent jaw".

Gombrich doesn't remark on this description, but doesn't it look awfully strange? Presumably Apollonius is standing somewhere in modern Pakistan or northwest India, given the Greek influence of the reliefs - i.e. within the bounds of the Seleucid empire. But by no stretch of my imagination at least are flat noses and stiff curly locks a feature of that population. (I'm not sure I've seen a prominent-jawed race anywhere, so I leave that aside.) Perhaps the most likely explanation is that Philostratus, inventing recording the story a couple of centuries after the event and being unfamiliar with the appearance of the inhabitants of India, has simply latched onto sub-Saharan Africans as the go-to exotic physiognomy. In Gombrich's terms, these define the schema he uses to describe - and perhaps to perceive - any unfamiliar race. Gombrich suggests that "What we read into these accidental [cloud] shapes depends on our capacity to recognize in them things or images we find stored in our minds." Ironically, he didn't find it worth mentioning the example just a little higher on the same page.

Ego About the House
A couple of further thoughts on the focus of intention - which I should probably have called "focus of intentionality" from the beginning, because I actually meant by it something much more like intentionality in the phenomenological sense than intention in the ordinary English one, with the caveat that I'm not talking about mental states as they really exist but the way in which we (as readers and more generally) impute mental states, real or imagined. I'm still not sure what the best phrase is for this is, but "focus of intentionality" will do for now.

In my first post on this subject I said that "In literature, the usual location for intention is assumed to be the author’s mind", and I suggested that there was frequently a bias in the case of collaborative works, towards identifying one person as the "author" - the director of a film, say - because we feel more comfortable locating the focus of intentionality within a single human mind (even allowing that it may come equipped with points of access for inspiration, collaboration, etc.). In that and the subsequent post I argued that, despite this preference, we (or some of us) may expand the focus of intentionality to far larger groups, perhaps including fandoms.

In fact, imputing a focus of intentionality is a far more general phenomenon, going well beyond artistic production (although only there does it have that interesting dynamic with "black-boxing"). We establish a focus of intentionality whenever we personify, attributing mind to inanimate objects and abstractions, or indeed to groups of people such as pop groups and nations. It seems to come as easily to us as the perception of faces in ceiling cracks, wallpaper and tree stumps. In fact it's very hard not to do it, as I was reminded by the amusing-though-deeply-mired-in-the-hoariest-gender-stereotypes trailer to Pixar's forthcoming Inside Out. Even when talking about the components of mind, we can't help personifying them and attributing to them entire minds of their own.

(I wonder who first came up with that plot idea, by the way? I first encountered it in "The Numskulls", and subsequently in the ejaculation scene in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), but it's hard to believe it's not older.)

The "little people inside our heads" idea runs headlong into the infinite regression of the homunculus fallacy, but it's still very hard to resist, so wedded are we to intentionality in all things. Even Freud realized that personification might be a regrettable aspect of the ego-id-superego division, but all the same his description of their dynamic sounds like a pitch for a 1970s domestic sitcom, with the harrassed ego (probably played by Leonard Rossitter) simultaneously trying to put food on the table, placate his snooty neighbour (Penelope Keith) and control his boisterous children:

The proverb tells us that one cannot serve two masters at once. The poor ego has a still harder time of it; it has to serve three harsh masters, and has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three. These demands are always divergent and often seem quite incompatible; no wonder that the ego so frequently gives way under its task. The three tyrants are the external world, the super-ego and the id. When one watches the efforts of the ego to satisfy them all, or rather, to obey them all simultaneously, one cannot regret having personified the ego, and established it as a separate being. It feels itself hemmed in on three sides and threatened by three kinds of danger, towards which it reacts by developing anxiety when it is too hard pressed. Having originated in the experiences of the perceptual system, it is designed to represent the demands of the external world, but it also wishes to be a loyal servant of the id, to remain upon good terms with the id, to recommend itself to the id as an object, and to draw the id's libido on to itself. In its attempt to mediate between the id and reality, it is often forced to clothe the commands of the id with its own rationalisations, to gloss over the conflicts between the id and reality, and with diplomatic dishonesty to display a pretended regard for reality, even when the id persists in being stubborn and uncompromising. On the other hand, its every movement is watched by the severe super-ego, which holds up certain norms of behaviour, without regard to any difficulties coming from the id and the external world; and if these norms are not acted up to, it punishes the ego with the feelings of tension which manifest themselves as a sense of inferiority and guilt. In this way, goaded on by the id, hemmed in by the super-ego, and rebuffed by reality, the ego struggles to cope with its economic task of reducing the forces and influences which work in it and upon it to some kind of harmony; and we may well understand how it is that we so often cannot repress the cry: "Life is not easy." When the ego is forced to acknowledge its weakness, it breaks out into anxiety: reality anxiety in face of the external world, normal anxiety in face of the super- ego, and neurotic anxiety in face of the strength of the passions in the id. (‘The Structure of the Unconscious’, from New Introductory Lectures)

I'd watch it.

A Second Helping
I was at the training session for the Christmas homeless shelter today: I enjoyed it enough last year to sign up for a couple more shifts this. This time I'm going to be working in the kitchen, though, rather than front of house. With luck I'll be assigned washing up, an activity I always find satisfying.

My first shift will start at 7.30am on Christmas Day, which I applied for in part because I thought there might not be many takers, but it turns out that I was lucky to get it. Apparently I'm not the only one who remembered the second chapter of Little Women when filling out the application form.

I was impressed with the chef. No doling out stew with a big ladle for him. Highlights from the projected menu include lamb tagine and roasted vegetables with herb and fruit cous cous, as well as rib-sticking puddings and enough custard to drown a duke in - to say nothing of options for people with allergies, dietary restrictions, etc. And there's no limit to helpings, either: the guests there hear the word "No" more than enough the rest of the year.

Crying over Spilt Ink
I enjoyed Anne Rooney's piece at the Awfully Big Blog Adventure yesterday, on living a 1960s day (a British child's one, anyway). It all sounds very familiar - except for the ink-dip pens.

Our desks still had ink wells, but I never got to use them, to my regret - they looked fun. We had fountain pens instead, rather primitive ones that lived up to their name by leaking from many an unexpected orifice. Being left-handed increased the complication, not only because I had to get special nibs but because of the danger of smudging the wet ink with my following hand. Blotting paper was my friend, but often alas a false one.

For decades I assumed that it was my early ink-smudging experiences that caused me, like many lefties (though far less than some), to assume the characteristic "hook" position for writing, which involves looping one's hand up in a wide evasive manoeuvre and surprising the paper from behind. However, I've noticed that almost all my left-handed students continue to write this way (and one or two righties, too), even though they're unlikely to have been traumatised by fountain pens at an impressionable age. So perhaps there's another explanation?

Now I need a Wellcome Trust grant so that I can travel the world watching left-handed children writing in Arabic, Hebrew and Chinese, and produce a learned report about it all. If only boustrophedon were still in common use I could study that too! (I wonder why it isn't?)

"Why Do they Dig So Deep? It's Only Beneath the Surface - Why Do they Dig So Deep?"
Today is the tenth anniversary of my last meeting with my father, who died in the small hours of 5th December, 2004. That was obviously pretty significant for him, but it also started a chain of events that was to change my own life very fundamentally, and more than once. I think the best tribute I can pay (not being much of a hand at speechifying) is to link to two existing entries, which give small flavour of him.

Here is the story of his ill-fated solo cycling tour of Europe in the summer of 1939.

And here is his one published foray into fiction (to the best of my knowledge), a story written after the War and looking back at one hot and steamy corner of it.

Finally, here is a two part interview he did, I'd guess in the early '90s. I believe it was for a collection of interviews his interlocutor was making on the subject of inspiration, and he begins by talking about that subject, but covers a lot of ground by the end, from pottery, to Quaker meetings, to healing, to the way he became a schoolteacher. This is characteristic of the way he talked in later life, before he declined into dementia, and I'm very glad to have it.

The Mahou Shoujo Must Go On 8 (Fandom)
To give a full account of Madoka means saying something about the world of the show beyond the original 12-episode anime, and acknowledging the complex set of interactions between the anime and the various other manifestations of its world, both official and otherwise.

When I first thought of this post, all I was really planning to do was to point at some cool stuff that had arisen from Madoka. Things like this game, this article, this petition and AMVs such as this. There’s a lot more out there, of course, some good and some bad (in the usual Sturgeon’s Law proportions). This post could end right here.

ThesisCollapse )

AntithesisCollapse )

Synthesis (sort of)Collapse )

And an anti-masqueCollapse )

Allegations All Around
Weighing up the competing claims, the judge said PC Rowland was "not the sort of man who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in temper."

In other words, the judge agreed that that PC Rowland was a pleb. Far too much of a pleb, ironically, to have invented being called a pleb. (They probably didn't do Latin at his school.) Sometimes, the class system bites you in the bum.

PC Rowland is reportedly delighted. If he noticed that the judge was calling him a pleb, he refrained from comment. After all, the judge thought him "a rather old-fashioned officer", so how could he do less than reciprocate and think that the judge was a real old fashioned gent?

Gawd bless us, every one.

Foci of Intention and Black Boxes
This started out as a Madoka post, but I think it will have to be the prolegomena for a future one.

In the West we’ve tended in the last 100 years or so to consider works of art (I’m thinking particularly of literature, but much of this would apply to music too, and to the visual arts) in two different ways: either as an expression of some idea, mood, state of being, etc., on the part of their creators or as autonomous aesthetic objects, to be considered without regard to where they came from or what anyone meant by them. Most literary critical movements can be lined up broadly under one or other of those headings: Freudians, Liberal Humanists, Feminists to the left, please – no jostling! - Structuralists and New Critics to the right.

“Intentional” reading

Those who think of art as human expression normally assume some kind of intention behind it, though this intention need not be fully conscious, nor necessarily articulable in language. The idea of a work of art that lacks any intention is troubling to them. Hence a piece of music generated by a computer will, however beautiful “in itself”, be less satisfying to them than an identical piece of music written by a human composer. A while ago there was a lengthy debate between John Searle and the critics Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels concerning the (im)possibility of meaning without intention. If the stones cast on the beach by the sea happened to fall in a pattern that spelt out one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems, would that be a poem, or would it merely “resemble” one? I’m not going to be drawn: the fact that such a debate could even be thought worth having makes the point I need here – that there are people for whom intention is criterial to judging whether something is a work of art (or even meaningful at all), and a sense of intention is criterial to a fulfilling experience of art.

What I am interested in is where intention is located for people who feel this way. In literature, the usual location for intention is assumed to be the author’s mind. Even this is far from being a problem-free description, of course: the author’s intention evolves over time as the work is written; ideas occur during composition and are changed during editing. It may even be that the author goes back and revises published works, imposing on them a new intention: is that more, or less, “authentic” than the earlier ones? Or should we say that the new version is not the same work of art at all? But let that pass too for the moment. For the purpose of this discussion, the author’s mind might be called the “focus of intention” in the minds of many readers.

In collaborative works, the focus of intention is not so easy to locate. Take a feature film, for example: the director, producer, actors, screenwriter, cinematographer, composer, etc., all contribute to the work of art, so locating and delimiting the focus of intention is far less straightforward than in the case of the novel. (And even the novel, of course, has – in addition to the author’s mind in its numerous aspects – various editors, agents, friends and family, and the other usual suspects of the Acknowledgements page, all suggesting a rather more “distributed” model of authorship, and thus of intention.)

In the case of films, there is a convention – perhaps no more than a comforting fiction, for people who like their focus of intention narrowed conveniently to one human head – of treating directors as authors – or auteurs. Hence, in bibliographies it is the director’s name that is listed first, with others mentioned only if the context requires. This isn’t to say that directors don’t have an important role to play – perhaps the most important – but only to note that those who enjoy cinema may feel more comfortable thinking of a film as being “by Fellini”.

In other contexts, we may feel happy to expand the focus of intention. When we listen to “A Hard Day’s Night”, we may focus our sense of intention on Lennon as the song’s writer, or on the Beatles as a group, bestowing on them a kind of collective group intention. Depending on context, we may even expand beyond the Fab Four to include others with a hand in the recording, such as George Martin, who not only produced it but played the piano. The focus of intention may grow or shrink, in other words, depending on context and what questions we’re interested in.

How much wider can the focus of intention get? Quite a bit, I think. When I see commenters on Madoka’s style of animation say things like “That’s just Shaft [the studio that made the show] being Shaft”, then it surely includes the whole studio, with its distinctive approach to anime. The intention behind Madoka includes that, as well as whatever was going through the head of the Urobuchi (the writer) or Shinbo (the director). Or, for a far better known example, muse on the concept of “Disneyfication”.

Perhaps more controversially – and this will be my jumping off point for the next proper Madoka post, so I’ll just flag it here as a reminder to myself – we might see the focus of intention expanding to include fandom itself, through its transformative fictions, its speculations, and the overall reception of the show.

Black Boxes and Autonomist Reading

The focus of intention has more than one function, but an important one involves the way the “intentional” mode of reading interacts with the “autonomous” mode, in which we consider the art work as an autonomous aesthetic object. For, pace the critics, I don’t believe intentionalists and autonomists (for want of better names) are discrete groups of readers (or viewers, or listeners, or whatever). Incompatible as the literary theories supporting them may be, I suspect that as readers we are normally both simultaneously, and indeed that in practice the two modes are fundamentally connected.

Engineers and computer programmers talk about “black boxes”: a notional box with certain inputs and certain outputs. There may be many different engineering solutions to the problem of converting those inputs into the required outputs, but the point about a black box is that doesn’t matter which solution has been adopted: that process is opaque. I think that the autonomist position requires us to put the work of art into a kind of black box. “Yes, some process went on to produce this work, but what matters is the output, the work, so let’s not get distracted with the question of how it came to be” – would be the pure autonomist position. I don’t suppose many people read in quite that spirit – the opacity of artistic black boxes is never total – but constructing a black box is one way we mentally “frame” a use of language (or sound, or physical space) so that we can recognize it as an art work at all. (Note that this contrasts with and contradicts the demand noted above that classifying something as a work of art should imply ascribing an intention to it.)

My contention is that the construction of these black boxes is in fact intimately connected to the focus of intention.

I’ll give a Madoka-related example to illustrate what I mean. Someone mentioned on a fan board recently that the Faust references in Madoka, which include graffiti quotations from Goethe, did not originate with the show’s writer, Urobuchi. It was the design team, noticing some of the parallels the story had with Faust (most notably in the idea of a contract that costs one’s soul) who made that connection, and then incorporated Faustian motifs into the show. For the fan reporting it, this information tended to invalidate the Faustian elements. Because they didn’t come from the mind of Urobuchi, they weren’t an integral element but a bolted-on extra designed to flatter pseudo-intellectual otaku. For this poster, the show’s focus of intention was narrowly centred on the mind of Urobuchi himself, and anything (at least to do with the plot) that came from elsewhere was less authentic, less integral, and thus less fit to be considered part of the autonomous aesthetic object called Madoka.

Now, I happen not to see it that way. For me, the focus of intention includes the whole production team, and indeed the studio: I think of Madoka primarily as a Shaft show rather than an Urobuchi show. Consequently, what goes on within Shaft exists in a “black box”: it doesn’t matter that the Faustian references got added late in the process, or by whom, any more than it would have mattered to the poster had Urobuchi thought of them himself in a late draft rather than an early one. The difference in the foci of intention makes us see this feature of the show in very different lights.

I could multiply examples, but that will have to do, since I’m tired. I’m still thinking these things through, anyway. However, my tl;dr hypothesis is this: that even though intentionalist and autonomist positions tend to be viewed as incompatible, in reading practice they are intimately connected, because the focus of intention largely determines the dimensions of the "black box" that allows us to enjoy the work as art.

Game of Thrones or Sport of Kings?
I just asked this on FB, but would be interested in opinions here too.

I've never understood why Formula 1 is classed as a sport. Or, if it is, why chess is not so classified, given that both are sedentary activities characterized by periods of sustained concentration. Or, it's a question of quick reactions as well as concentration, why are marathon sessions of Street Fighter 2 played from the comfort of one's sofa not seen as a sporting activity?

Is there a real distinction between sports and games (albeit with the possibility of an intersection between the two sets), or is just a question of historical happenstance which activity acquires which label?

The Word and the Deed
A while ago I was fascinated by the latest rally in a long-running ping-pong match between fact and fiction. Our first timeline begins in 1605....Collapse )

More recently we've had this...

katniss salute

...which led to scenes like this in Thailand in June...

thailand protesters 1 june 2014

And now Mockingjay is bringing the protest to a head once again.

Collins claims to have been inspired to write the Hunger Games by watching the TV coverage of the first Gulf War. It's not clear whether she'd read Baudrillard on the subject, or indeed the Terry Pratchett of Only You Can Save Mankind, but she appears to have reached similar conclusions to both regarding the manufactured nature of news in the era of global television, along with the conviction that the system's weakness lies precisely in the globalization from which it derives its power. Still, I wish I could decide how far literature has been a real inspiration for social protest in these cases, and how far it has merely provided a convenient rallying point. Perhaps the point is that, in such a world, the distinction disappears.

Irrational musical dislikes

Orchestral strings played pizzicato. These have been thoroughly spoiled for me by being used "humorously" in reality TV programmes, where they're typically background music for people poking around French farmhouses they're thinking of buying, or failing to coax the best from a flan. They've nearly gone the way of the trombone and tuba, now for ever associated in my mind with the "comedy" parts of natural history programmes ("Look at the baby warthog as it learns to galumph around the water hole! Oompah, oompah!"). Yuck.

Pretty much anything played in 3/4 time. Yes, I know this covers an awful lot of territory. It really comes down to my being repelled as a child by the kind of grown-upness for which nineteenth-century Viennese waltzes were to me a metonym. Grown-ups twirling in pearls and thinking they were so bloody sophisticated when all they were was boring, boring, boring. At some point my brother pointed out that not everything in 3/4 was by Johann Strauss. "What about the opening of the Eroica?" he said. Fair point, but then that is my least favourite Beethoven symphony. (5 is the shit, except for the second movement, which is in lumbering 3/4: how I wish he'd used the second movement of number 7 there instead!) I admit 3/4 can be okay, but mostly when it's not at all insistent, or when it's so insistent as to become deliberately grotesque, as here or here.

Irrational musical loves.

The banjo. Just can't get enough of it. Can anyone?

I suppose this was inevitable...
Well, I've been and gone and booked myself a trip to Japan. It's the first foreign travel at my own expense (or wholly so) that I've done since January 2011, and that was just a Ryanair hop to Dublin, so my eyes are still watering - but a week's gap opened up in my work schedule just around sakura time, and I must needs enter.

What will befall me in Tokyo, Kyoto and Hakone? Will my Japanese be up to it? Will I find a nice yukata? Join me here in March/April 2015 to find out...

A Very English Sign
Outside the Folk House, off Bristol's Park St., where last night I watched my friend John Dougherty and his a cappella group Original Sing, there is a small courtyard with benches and tables, where customers can eat. By the entrance there is a sign that reads:

Please do not eat food in this courtyard that has not been purchased from the Folk House.

Underneath, in letters just as large, is printed:

Please do not put us in the awkward position of having to ask you to stop.

That, of course, is the greater crime.

Be Careful What you Wish For - and How
Although this is in part a Madoka post, and contains some spoilers, I haven't put it under my customary cut because it's as much about other things and is really a digression from my extended discussion of Madoka. (There's more of that to come, but I've got marking to do so my free time will be limited for a week or two.)

Liking as I do the aesthetics of Madoka, and also the only other anime I'd seen by Shinbo/Shaft, Dance in the Vampire Bund, I naturally sought out Shinbo's pre-Madoka hit, Bakemonogatari. I'll do a proper review of that once I've finished watching it (I'm halfway through), but suffice it to say that it's a collection of linked stories in which a high-school boy, Araragi (a recovering vampire), encounters a number of girls who have had troublesome encounters with theriomorphic spirits, often amounting to some kind of possession.

Anyway, one of these girls is basketball whizz Suruga Kanbaru, whose left arm has turned into that of a monkey. At first it was simply a monkey's paw that she inherited and kept in a box, but after reading W. W. Jacobs and wishing to be the fastest runner in her class she found that all the girls who were faster than her were mysteriously attacked in the night, knocking them out of the running, as it were. It was at that point that the paw attached itself.

First - I was surprised (but Japan never ceases to surprise me in this way) that W. W. Jacobs' story was well known enough in Japan to get an explicit name-check. I read it when young, when I was gobbling up M. R. James and his ilk, and it certainly stayed with me, but I don't remember hearing it mentioned much in the intervening years. How famous is it?

Still, I suppose the device of the badly-framed wish has a much longer history, whether it's misinterpreted through a kind of jobsworthy punctiliousness (as in the sorcerer's apprentice) or malice (as in the monkey's paw). Of course, anyone who has ever struggled to write a computer program will be familiar with the ease with which one of these can seem to slide into the other.

Suruga naturally attributes the injuries of her classmates to the monkey's paw. What's interesting is that she is wrong. The entity that attacked them, and that has attached itself to her, was actually a "Rainy Devil", the nature of which is also to grant wishes in a tricksy (but differently tricksy) way. The Rainy Devil knows that wishes have both a surface and an underside, and it's the latter that it grants. Suruga's wish to be the fastest in her class masked her real wish, which was to injure her classmates, and the Rainy Devil possessed her in order to grant that.

This psychologization of wishes, and the introduction (under a different name) of the unconscious is an interesting development, particularly when it's done as an explicit replacement for the old "monkey's paw" type wish, where the malevolence is outsourced to an evil spirit twisting the good (if unwise) intent of the wisher. Jacobs' story was published two years after The Interpretation of Dreams and two years before The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, but it's a pre-Freudian tale.

Not of course that the older kind of wish-twisting has been definitively superseded. Even though psychologists might like to claim that any sufficiently analyzed action is indistinguishable from a subconscious wish, it would be an arrogant kind of solipsism to suppose that there are no other forces in this world than human minds. But Rainy Devil vs. Monkey's Paw does offer an interesting choice of ways to tell the story of a wish gone wrong.

So, turning (inevitably) to Madoka and that other wish-granting entity of dubious morality, Kyubey, on which side of the divide does he fall? He certainly has an ulterior motive in wanting to grant girls wishes, and everything he does is aimed (ultimately) at bringing them to despair, so he might seem to have an excellent incentive to make their wishes turn out badly, either through some wilful misinterpretation of their words or through granting their unspoken rather than their spoken wish.

Watching Bakemonogatari brings home to me just how strange it is that he does neither. The wishes he grants are granted "straight": Mami lives and becomes a very competent Magical Girl (the Monkey's Paw might have let her live but in excruciating pain from her injuries); Kyousuke is healed; Kyoko's father is listened to by his flock; Homura really does go back in time to protect Madoka; and Madoka does remake the universe. Of course, arguably all these wishes turn out badly, at least in part. Mami lives, but she is alone and tormented by loneliness; Sayaka heals Kyousuke but loses him to Hitomi; Kyoko's father is driven mad by the discovery of what she's done; Homura's attempts to save Madoka turn Madoka in a potentially world-destroying witch; and even Madoka's wish, while it works out just as she intended, means that she ceases to exist in this world.

Nevertheless, these wrong turnings (certainly the first three) can't be directly attributed to wilfulness on Kyubey's part: they are simply foolish wishes. Mami, in her agony, didn't think to wish that her parents should also be saved (a regret that's brought out more clearly in The Different Story manga). Kyoko's was a child's wish: she didn't have sufficient understanding of her father's vocation as a priest to guess how he would react to having a congregation gathered by magic rather than faith.

And then there's Sayaka: here of course we really do have a two-sided wish, and Mami highlights the issue in Episode 3: "Miki-san, do you really want to make his dream to come true? Or do you just want to be his benefactor? The two may sound the same, but they are actually completely different." Of course, it would be unfair to say that Sayaka says she wants to heal Kyousuke but she actually wants him to be grateful so that he'll become her boyfriend. She wants both: her love of his music and of him as a musician are not simply feigned because she wants him (this is made clear in her final appearance in Episode 12), and her compassion for his suffering is also perfectly genuine. This is why, despite acknowledging the truth of Mami's warning, she goes ahead and wishes anyway: her conscious mind has a convincing (because true) story to tell that effectively masks the subconscious motivations that also exist.

Nevertheless, none of this is arranged by Kyubey: he didn't throw Hitomi in Kyousuke's path; he didn't tip off Kyoko's dad; he didn't refuse to save Mami's parents; he didn't know about the side effects of Homura's wish. What he does understand, and has found that he can rely on, is that human beings lack self-knowledge, and that for this reason their wishes will inevitably betray them. And that, my friends, is one reason why Madoka is more like Shakespeare than W. W. Jacobs.

A Domino Poem about Francis of Assisi
Quite a long time ago I introduced to this journal (and, as far as I am aware, to the world) a noble new verse form, in which the only rule is that every syllable has to be said twice. Considering this restriction I think an appropriate name would be "Domino Poetry", although ironically "domino" is one of many, many words that can never be included in a domino poem, consisting as it does of three consecutive dissimilar syllables.

My initial effort, “A very small amphibian is exhorted to open itself to ideas, to celebrate loudly both sibilance and fish, to run the gamut of emotions, and to travel the world", sadly appears to have sparked few (actually, no) imitators. I feel it's up to me to build up a corpus of domino poetry to inspire and delight the world, so here's another example, a little more focused in its subject matter. It dramatizes the thoughts of Francis of Assisi's disapproving father regarding his son's turn to the religious life. Think of it as a cross between Robert Browning and Bob Newhart. And a game of dominoes.

Pietro di Bernardone Complains of his Son's Behaviour

Frank? Frank, Papa here. Hear me, “meek and candid”!
Did you use to stoop? Or poor men mend,
And dandy’s ease (for forfeit fit) cease?
See sense! Ensconce concern, sir!
No? Oh, murmur lullaby, by Goo-goo! Con!
Consult sultans, answer errors, assert certain tenets… it's sad.

Sadder, Assisi Papa

Purists may complain that I was lax in a couple of places, for example in letting the voiced second syllable of "errors" double up with the unvoiced first syllable of "assert". However, purists are very welcome to do better, and add to the world's store of domino poetry.

The Mahou Shoujo Must Go On 7 (Structure)
As in all these Madoka posts, spoilers abound and I'm assuming familiarity with the show - so they will be of limited interest and comprehensibility to those who don't know it.Collapse )

Comparing the Market
I was going to write a fascinating account of getting my ears pierced for the first time this week, but the experience was so exactly like what I'd imagined that I somehow stymied myself. At any rate, I'm happy to report that, pace the ear-piercing scream in Among Others, my magical powers stand much where they did.

(Contrariwise, I feel very sorry for the mother in this year's John Lewis Xmas advert, who tragically loses the ability to see her young son's pet penguin as anything other than a stuffed toy. Made me sniff.)

Other signs of Christmas: the stencil they use at Costa for dusting chocolate onto cappuccinos now resembles a reindeer head. And the German market has appeared in the centre of Bristol. I was in town on Tuesday night with my friend Maryam (to watch Gone Girl), and saw the wooden stalls being swiftly and efficiently erected under floodlights by - yes, the adverbs are a giveaway - real Germans, working out of a real German lorry. It had never occurred to either of us that it was a German German market, rather than being stored eleven months of the year in a trading estate in Solihull. This somehow feels much more festive.

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