Posts Tagged 'peter hitchens'

Pictures of Apollyon.

In a story called “The Bone of Contention” from Dorothy Sayers’s 1928 collection Lord Peter Views the Body, the amateur sleuth and bibliophile Lord Peter Wimsey, visiting a dilapidated country house, naturally accepts an invitation to tour the library. The host chatters away:

“It was always rather a depressing room,” went on Haviland. “I remember, when I was a kid, it used to overawe me rather. Martin and I used to browse about among the books, you know, but I think we were always afraid that something or someone would stalk out upon us from the dark corners. What’s that you’ve got there, Lord Peter? Oh, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Dear me! How those pictures did terrify me in the old days! And there was a Pilgrim’s Progress, with a most alarming picture of Apollyon straddling over the whole breadth of the way, which gave me many nightmares.”

For years I held onto my dad’s old copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress – a cheap paperback, un-illustrated – until, a few years ago, after one final glance at the daunting slabs of text, I conceded that it was beyond the threshold of my literary masochism, and traded it away unread.

So when I came across that reference to a nightmarish illustration of Apollyon, it wasn’t my own childish encounters with John Bunyan that came rushing back, but other people’s.

In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, little Maggie Tulliver is interrogated by an older visitor about the unfeminine reading material she’s absorbed in:

“Well,” said Mr. Riley, in an admonitory patronising tone, as he patted Maggie on the head, “I advise you to put by the History of the Devil, and read some prettier book. Have you no prettier books?”

“O yes,” said Maggie, reviving a little in the desire to vindicate the variety of her reading. “I know the reading in this book isn’t pretty — but I like the pictures, and I make stories to the pictures out of my own head, you know. But I’ve got Aesop’s Fables and a book about kangaroos and things, and the Pilgrim’s Progress…”

“Ah, a beautiful book,” said Mr. Riley. “You can’t read a better.”

“Well, but there’s a great deal about the devil in that,” said Maggie, triumphantly, “and I’ll show you the picture of him in his true shape as he fought with Christian.”

Maggie ran in an instant to the corner of the room, jumped on a chair, and reached down from the small bookcase a shabby old copy of Bunyan, which opened at once, without the least trouble of search, at the picture she wanted.

But though Maggie is too tough-minded to admit to being frightened by the pictures in her books, a bit later, while wandering alone down an unfamiliar country lane, she is oppressed by “haunting images of Apollyon … and other miscellaneous dangers.”

Eleven-year-old Jude in Jude the Obscure is similarly oppressed after he absent-mindedly stays out past nightfall:

He anxiously descended the ladder, and started homewards at a run, trying not to think of giants, Herne the Hunter, Apollyon lying in wait for Christian, or of the captain with the bleeding hole in his forehead and the corpses round him that remutinied every night on board the bewitched ship.

In this case we can verify that the young hero has unluckily been burdened with one of his creator’s childhood fears. Thomas Hardy’s wife recalled how Hardy, in old age, shared his memory of one of the few times he’d been frightened walking alone in the country:

[A]s a small boy walking home from school, reading Pilgrim’s Progress, he was so alarmed by the description of Apollyon that he hastily closed his book and went on his way trembling, thinking that Apollyon was going to spring out of a tree whose dark branches overhung the road. He remembered his terror, he said, that evening, seventy-five years afterwards.

But elsewhere (in a letter whose text I can’t find online) Hardy seems to have been explicit that it was “the picture of Apollyon fighting Christian” that had so disturbed him.

In moments of isolation, the spectre of Apollyon could disturb even sober-minded adults. In one of M.R. James’s most famous ghost stories, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”, from 1904, Professor Parkins has just excavated a strange relic from the ruins of a Templar church and, strolling homeward along a desolate seashore, notices a mysterious figure tailing him at a distance. Luckily, the professor is immune to primitive superstitions. However:

In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people’s fancy at some time of their childhood. “Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him.” “What should I do now,” he thought, “if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it.” [1]

Deliberately or not, James has the professor slightly misremember the passage which had had such an unsettling effect on so many generations of kids. Here’s how Bunyan describes Christian’s first glimpse of Apollyon:

But now, in this Valley of Humiliation, poor Christian was hard put to it; for he had gone but a little way before he espied a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him: his name is Apollyon. Then did Christian begin to be afraid, and to cast in his mind whether to go back, or to stand his ground. But he considered again, that he had no armour for his back, and therefore thought that to turn the back to him might give him the greater advantage with ease to pierce him with his darts; therefore he resolved to venture and stand his ground; for, thought he, had I no more in mine eye than the saving of my life, it would be the best way to stand.

So he went on, and Apollyon met him. Now the monster was hideous to behold; he was clothed with scales, like a fish, and they are his pride; he had wings like a dragon, and feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke; and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion. When he was come up to Christian, he beheld him with a disdainful countenance, and thus began to question with him.

In his memoir Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens recalls coming across this passage in Anthony Powell’s 1975 novel Hearing Secret Harmonies:

[H]e could never, even after he was grown-up, watch a lone figure draw nearer across a field, without thinking that this was Apollyon come to contend with him. From the moment of first hearing that passage read aloud — assisted by a lively portrayal of the fiend in an illustration, realistically depicting his goat’s horns, bat’s wings, lion’s claws, lizard’s legs — the terror of that image, bursting out from an otherwise at moments prosy narrative, had embedded itself for all time in the imagination.

The more vivid terrors of movies and comic books having displaced Apollyon from the nightmares of the young, Hitchens belonged to perhaps the last generation for whom a reference to that scene could summon a first-hand memory:

I put down [Powell’s] novel and was immediately back in the Crapstone of my Devonshire boyhood. … My younger brother Peter–aged perhaps eight–has so strongly imbibed John Bunyan’s Puritan classic as almost to have memorized it. (The “slough of despond,” “the giant Despair,” “Doubting Castle,” the fripperies of “Vanity Fair,” “Oh death, where is thy sting?” Can you remember when all these used to be part of the equipment of everybody literate in English? They are as real to my brother and to me as the shaggy, wild ponies on the nearby moors.) But, coming to the very decisive page that should show Apollyon in all his horrid magnificence, Peter finds that the publishers have bowdlerized the text, and withheld this famous illustration from the version made available to the under-tens. He is not to be allowed to look The Evil One in the face.

A very mid-20th-century child, Peter has no patience for those who would coddle him for his own supposed psychological safety. He pressures his father, who in turn contacts the publishers to send along the adults-only edition. At last:

[T]he day came when the unabridged version arrived, and we could both solemnly turn–with parental supervision, of course, but in our minds to protect our parents from any shock or trauma–to the color plate from hell. It was one of those pull-out pages that needs to be unfolded from the volume itself, in a three-stage concertina. And it was anticlimax defined. For one thing–Powell’s summary above may have prepared you for this–it was absurdly overdone. A lizard-man or snake-man might have been represented creepily enough, but this non-artist had hugely overdone the number of possible mutations of leg, wing, and pinion and also given Apollyon a blazing furnace for a belly. The demon’s wicked and gloating expression, looked at from one angle, was merely silly and bilious.

For the elder Hitchens brother, who would go on to become one of the world’s most famous evangelists of irreligion, the disappointment reinforces his conviction that hellfire is a laughing matter.

So what did it look like, this illustration that took up permanent residence in so many overactive juvenile imaginations?

Over at Pictures in Powell, “An exploration of the visual arts as they appear in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell”, the curator provides an assortment of possible culprits. But it’s unlikely that all the above authors would have been frightened by the same picture. The most common result in a Google Image search for “Apollyon and Christian” is this one by Henry Courtney Selous:

chrstian's combat with apollyon henry courtney selous

Pg. 81 of the Cassell, Petter, and Galpin 1875 (?) edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
From the University of Florida Digital Collections.

…Who is too recent for wee Maggie Tulliver (or wee George Eliot) to have seen his work as a child. In any case, whichever illustration she saw must have been uncoloured. Carrying on the scene from The Mill on the Floss begun above:

“Here he is,” [Maggie] said, running back to Mr. Riley. “And Tom coloured him for me with his paints when he was at home last holidays — the body all black, you know, and the eyes red, like fire, because he’s all fire inside, and it shines out at his eyes.”

In her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan, Anne Dunan-Page refers to this episode and observes that part of Bunyan’s appeal, for his younger readers, may have been “the opportunity to colour the line-drawings”. [2]

I wonder how many rare and precious editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress have had their pages marred by the artistic additions of overenthusiastic children?

M.

1. The BBC has twice adapted “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”: somewhat faithfully in 1968 and very loosely in 2010. Both versions strain to extend James’s economical tale to television length.

2. Confusingly, Henry Courtney Selous did two separate sets of illustrations for Bunyan’s work. Here’s his other version, from 1844, of Christian Combating with Apollyon. Maggie would have loved it: it looks like a page from a colouring book.

 

Advertisements

Provocation, martyrdom, and Muhammad.

I’d planned to wrap up my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series by New Year’s, but I prolonged it so I could publish this old essay in time for the fourth anniversary of the event it was written to commemorate: January 2015’s Charlie Hebdo massacre.

In 1994 my teenage punk rock band performed a song called “Pee on Jesus” at a battle of the bands at our high school in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

As a co-writer of the song I can attest that it had no coherent satiric agenda. It was pure juvenile provocation. The first verse began,

Pee on Jesus, pee on me
How I love the taste of pee

This was one in an escalating series of futile attempts to achieve some kind of high school martyrdom, all of them thwarted by the indifference of the authorities and my fellow students. True, halfway through our song, the vice-principal jumped from his seat and hustled backstage with the intention of unplugging the speakers. But the song was only a minute and a half long, and ended before he could censor us. Afterward our singer was given a mild lecture. Nothing at all happened to the rest of us. The singer went on to be elected senior class valedictorian.

I think of “Pee on Jesus” whenever someone gets killed or threatened with death over some supposedly insulting depiction of Muhammad or the Muslim religion. A few years back, during the flap over the Danish cartoons, it occurred to me that I ought to put up some Muhammad cartoons of my own, out of solidarity with the persecuted cartoonists. I didn’t, because first off, I couldn’t think of anything witty to say. Also, as you’ll see, I can’t draw. I’m the last person who should be making cartoons for any reason.

Secondly, I was hindered by a residual sense of white guilt. Who am I to be taking a dump on Islam? I don’t really know what it’s all about. My familiarity with Muhammad is limited to a couple brief biographical sketches in western history books. Based on those sketches, and compared with what I know about founders of other world religions, Muhammad has never struck me as an especially admirable guy. I don’t know much about Jesus either, or Buddha, but their reputations aren’t burdened with stories of child brides, assassinations, and mass executions. But some of the stories in the Old Testament are pretty bloodthirsty, too, and I don’t hold those against modern Christians or Jews. Who knows, maybe Jesus would’ve taken a bunch of wives and slaughtered a bunch of people if he hadn’t gotten himself killed so early in his messianic career.

Anyhow, it struck me as kind of gratuitous, drawing a Muhammad cartoon I didn’t really care about, merely to spite some zealots I was unlikely ever to interact with. Prior to the Danish cartoon controversy I don’t recall feeling the slightest interest in drawing Muhammad. In a more peaceful world I might go my whole life without the temptation once arising. If Islamist violence stopped today, as I hope and believe it someday shall, I would return within weeks to my default state of not giving a hoot one way or another about Muhammad, and thinking about Islam maybe once or twice a year, if at all.

So I can understand, in the wake of atrocities like the murder of the editor and much of the staff of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, why western political leaders would prefer if we’d all just please stop saying provocative things about Islam. If you and I could refrain from making inappropriate Muhammad jokes, the logic goes, maybe the more humourless Muslims would lose their enthusiasm for sawing our heads off, and after a few decapitation-free years we’d forget about Muhammad and go back to making inappropriate jokes about rape and the Holocaust like we used to, and the cycle of provocation and counter-provocation would finally be broken.

I don’t know, though. What keeps striking me is how not-terribly-provocative most of our side’s supposed provocations are. Take a look at those Danish cartoons again. Only five or six of the dozen could even be considered critical of Islam, and pretty mildly, at that. Or rewatch that hilariously incompetent YouTube trailer that was blamed for the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Hillary Clinton called that trailer “disgusting and reprehensible”. Is it really? I mean, as the co-writer of “Pee on Jesus” and half a dozen other punk rock songs whose titles I am literally too embarrassed to reproduce here, I know a thing or two about disgusting. I think I could come up with some disgusting things to have Muhammad do in a cartoon. Nasty, blasphemous, deviant, scatological things. I’m imagining some pretty hair-raising cartoons right now. You’ll have to take my word for it.

But it’s not just those disgusting imaginary cartoons that the guardians of sanctity would like me not to draw. It’s stuff like Muhammad petting a kitty cat:

kitty cat

…Or licking an ice cream cone:

ice cream cone

…Or receiving word that he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize:

nobel prize

That’s how easy it is to be edgy nowadays.

***

After scratching out the above masterpieces I checked out Peter Hitchens’s blog to find out how he would tweak our liberal pieties about the Paris massacre. He didn’t disappoint, reminding readers that the free-speech heroes of Charlie Hebdo were quite willing to enlist the power of the state to muzzle those whose opinions they found offensive:

The French Leftist newspaper Libération reported on September 12, 1996, that three stalwarts of Charlie Hebdo (including Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier) had campaigned in their magazine to collect more than 170,000 signatures for a petition calling for a ban on the French National Front party [the right-wing, anti-immigration party of Jean-Marie Le Pen]. They did this in the name of the ‘Rights of Man’.

In his Radio Derb podcast this weekend John Derbyshire mentioned an incident a few years back where a gang of leftist protesters assaulted some white nationalists who were meeting in a restaurant in suburban Chicago. Maybe I’d have heard of this event if the victims had died, instead of merely being hospitalized, but I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been much in the way of “I am a white nationalist” social media sloganeering afterward. Derbyshire’s point is that our culture has taboos too, and we’re willing to look the other way when our own hotheads act up, including in violent ways, in defense of those taboos.

In light of that, is it hypocritical of me to belatedly clamber onto the Muhammad cartoon bandwagon? While acknowledging it was brave of Charlie Hebdo to provoke Muslims as it did, Hitchens asks:

And what was the purpose of this bravery? What cause, anywhere in the world, was advanced by it?

It’s a question that deserves answering. I don’t claim any allegiance to, or knowledge of, whatever idiosyncratic and contradictory cause the Charlie Hebdo artists thought they were pursuing. Let alone a share of their undoubted bravery. My own cause is merely that a kid in Mogadishu or Damascus or Peshawar or Prince Albert ought to be able to get up onstage at his high school battle of the bands and sing “Pee on Muhammad”, or something equally stupid, and nothing gets burned, and no-one gets killed. I honestly don’t know if drawing Muhammad is helpful to that cause. But our current strategy, repressing and censoring ourselves in deference to Islamic sensibilities, doesn’t appear to be yielding great results either. I think we should try the alternative: free expression and open debate.

M.

April 2018’s Toronto van attack made me reflect on how my teenage surliness might have taken a dark turn in the internet age; also last year I tried to take an empirical approach to Hollywood’s purported stereotyping of Muslims; and in 2017, re-reading Kurt Vonnegut prompted some thoughts on the blurry line between principled free expression and just being an a-hole.

Defending metric.

**Note. I haven’t been updating. I’ve built up this self-defeating expectation that any time I post it must be a whole article – with its conclusions carefully reasoned out, and ideally supported by references. Rather than encouraging better blogging, this has only given me license to slack off. If each post requires a day and a half of work, it’s easier not to post. So I’m going to try editing myself a little less.**

Peter Hitchens today was grousing about the use of the metric system in Australia and New Zealand. He quoted George Orwell on metric:

[T]here is a strong case for keeping on the old measurements for use in everyday life. One reason is that the metric system does not possess, or has not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimetre, which is less than half an inch. In English you can describe someone as being five feet three inches high, or five feet nine inches, or six feet one inch, and your hearer will know fairly accurately what you mean. But I have never heard a Frenchman say, “He is a hundred and forty-two centimetres high”; it would not convey any visual image. So also with the various other measurements. Rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights, are all of them units with which we are intimately familiar, and we should be slightly poorer without them. Actually, in countries where the metric system is in force a few of the old measurements tend to linger on for everyday purposes, although officially discouraged.

Orwell was right about the old measurements lingering. I grew up with the metric system, which we’ve had in Canada for almost forty years, and I still think in an ungainly hybrid of metric and imperial. Centimetres are fine for estimating the distance between my fingers, and kilometres are fine for the distance between towns, but for most everyday functions – the width of a room, the height of a doorway – feet and inches are much more useful. I know in the abstract that a metre is roughly a yard, so 185 cm must be a shade under six feet, but the difference between 175 and 185 cm is not readily comprehensible to me. The lack of intermediate measurements between centimetre and metre is likely a major obstacle to metric adoption.

On the other hand, I’ve never met a North American who understands what a stone is – we calculate weight in pounds. So the lack of an intermediate weight between tonne and kilogram can’t be the reason we cling to the old weights. I would say I can “feel” a kilogram about as easily as I can “feel” a pound, which is not terribly well in either case. I could probably adapt myself to metric weights pretty easily, as I already have to metric volumes – buying milk in metric portions quickly gives one a grasp of the litre, which is small enough for ready visualization. I doubt many Canadians my age have more than a vestigial grasp of pints, quarts, and gallons – it’s only through checking Wikipedia just now that I verified my vague impression that UK and US volumes are not the same thing. My generation doesn’t seem to miss Fahrenheit much, either. It’s no easier to “feel” a Fahrenheit degree than it is a Celsius degree, and the dead simplicity of reckoning in Celsius – water freezes at zero, boils at a hundred – makes the trade worthwhile.

Hitchens mentions that the kilometre is closely equivalent to the old Russian verst, which demonstrates that the kilometre is no more inherently hostile to human comprehension than a mile. Distances that great are pretty abstract in any case. The kilometre offers the unbeatable advantage, in the age of long-distance highway driving – something neither Orwell nor the stubbornly bicycle-dependent Hitchens can have had much experience of – that it can be more readily converted into driving time, at the rate of 100 km to the hour. If someone tells me Sydney is 2450 miles from Perth, I have to do some mental math, but I know in an instant that 3950 km equals about a 39-and-a-half hour drive. (Granted, few people driving that far would actually stick to a 100 km/hr speed limit, but at least it gives you a sense.) If in the future we get around by high-speed rail or hyperloop, this advantage will disappear, and the kilometre will have nothing particular to recommend it besides an extra three syllables, which for certain personality types will always be recommendation enough.

I’m sympathetic to duffers who recoil at the cold scientific precision of the metric system. I can’t argue with Hitchens’s or Orwell’s contention that the old measurements just sound better, homelier, more poetical. Perhaps metrication has subtly influenced our thought processes – made us more susceptible to technocratic tinkering by our know-it-all governing elite – but on the level of day-to-day usability, metric is no worse than the old system. Maybe we should view the kludgy Canadian mix of metric and imperial not as a sign of an unfinished changeover, but as a rough-and-ready accommodation of the best of both systems.

M.