Sunday, 31 May 2009

Cross purposes

Further to The Urge to Preserve, Weathercasting, the Anthropology of Mud, and Mapping Nipple Church at Unreal Nature and discussion at The hunger games at The Growlery (both of which impinged on swastikas) I just dusted off my copy of the 1920 Macmillan edition of Kipling's 1910 Rewards and Fairies (see Gutenberg EText-No. 556). This sequel to Puck of Pook's Hill 1 has nice examples of the swastika logo that appears on editions of Kipling works prior to the mid-1930s.

As the Kipling Society's Kipling and the swastika page tells, the Society frequently has to field the question of whether Kipling was a Nazi, and the answer is clear: this swastika, shown alongside an elephant representing Ganesha with a lotus flower, is used in its context as a Hindu good luck symbol. Arising from Kipling's familiarity with Indian culture and history, it was his trademark for some 40 years until he discontinued it when the swastika became associated with Nazism.

It's well-known that the swastika (aka fylfot, tetraskelion, gammadion, et al) is an astonishingly ancient symbol: see Wikipedia's swastika article and What's less known is its ubiquity in Western culture immediately prior to its Nazi use, as listed at Western use of the Swastika in the early 20th century. Kipling's use wasn't even particularly unusual; the Fylfot File has articles on swastikas in surprising places such as Cambridge churches and Scottish World War I memorials (.PDF). There does seem to have been a widespread craze in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - perhaps from a general fascination with shared Western cultural roots. The Nazi movement's grasp of propaganda was adroit, and from that point of view, hijacking the swastika as an emblem was appallingly brilliant.

Over 50 years later, we're left with difficult cultural fallout, with the issues exemplified by the German Strafgesetzbuch § 86a criminal code; this bans it except for scholarly and religious use (the latter, particularly, refers to Hindus and Buddhists, for whom it continues to be a traditional and benign emblem). But it's not far less inflammatory elsewhere, as shown by a stream of news items such as Swastikas on bank floor (The Bolton News, 23rd April 2006), about the local controversy over tiled swastika logos in the 1927-built premises of a Bolton bank.

There are, however, groups working to reclaim the swastika: see, for instance, Hindus reclaim their symbol of life (Ruth Gledhill, The Times, January 19, 2005) and the Reclaim the Swastika website. One of the boldest attempts is by the Canadian artist, mystic and lecturer ManWoman (birth name Patrick Charles Kemball) whose goal is "to begin a change of thought that will return the swastika back to its rightful place". His book Gentle Swastika: Reclaiming the Innocence collects many examples worldwide of harmless use of the swastika, historical and present-day. (He mentions Kipling, as well as Carlsberg Beer, whose Elephant Gate used swastikas similarly). He himself is heavily tattooed with swastikas in the styles of its sacred use in many cultures. He says of it:

How can a symbol be guilty for the acts of a madman?
This website has no connections to any racist propaganda. We do not deny the pain and anguish of the Second World War and the Holocaust. We feel that the time is ripe to put the Nazi decade into the proper context in full view of the ten thousand years of suppressed swastika history and to let the Swastika get on with its benign life. We invite Jews, and all others affected by the war, to look at the evidence for the existence of a sacred Swastika in the world.

The authors of some other books on the swastika - notably The swastika: symbol beyond redemption? (Steven Heller, Jeff Roth, Allworth Communications, Inc., 2000, ISBN 1581150415) and The swastika: constructing the symbol, Malcolm Quinn, Routledge, 1994, ISBN 041510095X) are generally more pessimistic about the chances of redemption for the swastika. (But personally, I think it's a very worthy aim).

Meanwhile, the swastika (and Nazi regalia in general) remains a very powerful meme, an instant shorthand for totalitarian evil. As I mentioned at The Growlery, even the subliminal hint of a swastika shape and strong allusion in colouring in the UK cover of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Game is enough to tell us what kind of world it's set in (a totalitarian future America); and likewise the many even more overt allusions, many closely modelled on Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens, in Paul Verhoeven's controversial Starship Troopers film - see Bug-hunts and militarism previously, and The Reich Stuff (Bejamin Svetkey, Movie News, #406 Nov 21, 1997).

While watching Starship Troopers on BBC1 a few days ago, I just remembered a different satire on the appeal of Nazism: Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (Avon, 1972). Check out the reviews by Thomas M. Wagner (SF Reviews.Net, 1999) and Ursula Le Guin (Science Fiction Studies, Vol 1, Part 1, Spring 1973). It's set in a alternative timeline in which Adolf Hitler emigrated and became a pulp writer who wrote a Hugo-winning sword-and-sorcery novel, Lord of the Swastika. At one level it's Swiftian satire: in a scholarly analysis the fictitious Homer Whipple analyses the text of Lord of the Swastika, its mass rallies and phallic symbolism, and concludes "Obviously, such a mass national psychosis could never occur in the real world". And yet Lord of the Swastika tells the real-world Hitler's rise to power seen through a Mary Sue fantasy filter. Spinrad's further point is to make explicit connection between the tropes of fantasy fiction and of Nazism: such as macho triumph over subhumans. It's worth finding. Bizarrely, as Spinrad tells in his SF cultural/litcrit book Science fiction in the real world (Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, ISBN 0809315386), there were those who didn't get the ironic intent: he found the book on the American Nazi Party's reading list, and also commented:

To make damn sure that even the historically naive and entirely unselfaware reader got the point, I appended a phony critical analysis of Lord of the Swastika, in which the psychopathology of Hitler’s saga was spelled out by a tendentious pedant in words of one syllable.

Almost everyone got the point…

And yet one review appeared in a fanzine that really gave me pause. "This is a rousing adventure story and I really enjoyed it," the gist of it went. "Why did Spinrad have to spoil the fun with all this muck about Hitler?"

- Ray

1. In both books, Puck, the last surviving fairy, introduces two Pevensey children, Dan and Una, to various historical figures who tell stories of their times. Rewards and Fairies contains two of Kipling's best-known poems, "If--" and "The Way through the Woods".

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Lurid covers 3: Leonardo

"The first and only novel written by one of mankind's ranking geniuses..." - San Francisco Chronicle

From the monumental works of Leonardo da Vinci have come some of the most thrilling discoveries of all time - among them the manuscript for The Deluge, a powerful and violent story of life and love in a time of blazing turmoil and savage upheaval.

One man... Two women... haunted by terror, pursued by destruction, caught up in the coils of desperate mob frenzy, of unfulfilled desires, of the primal hunger for survival...

This - click image to enlarge - is the blurb of The Deluge, Leonardo da Vinci, edited by Robert Payne, Lion Books, 1955. For those who missed out on this particular work of Leonardo, the small print for this curiosity says that it was put together by fleshing out material from Leonardo's enigmatic letters to "Diodario di Soria": see The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Drafts of Letters and Reports referring to Armenia, 1336 / 1337. These provide an outline and sketchy plot details of the destruction of a city by a deluge.


* The praise and confession of the faith
* The sudden inundation, to its end.
* The destruction of the city.
* The death of the people and their despair.
* The preacher’s search, his release and benevolence
* Description of the cause of this fall of the mountain
* The mischief it did.
* Fall of snow.
* The finding of the prophet.
* His prophesy.
* The inundation of the lower portion of Eastern Armenia, the draining of which was effected by the cutting through the Taurus Mountains.
* How the new prophet showed that this destruction would happen as he had foretold.

Payne appears to have filled this out with further detail from the variety of notes and drawings on the concept of a deluge that Leonardo made toward the end of his life. See, particularly, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, VIII Botany for Painters and Elements of Landscape Painting, Of depicting a tempest, items 606 / 607 / 608.

In the editor's note, Robert Payne writes that other material came from the fictional Sir John Mandeville's account of the use of carrier pigeons between Syria and Cilicia. The three main characters, Thresylla, Cecilia and Andreas, "are, of course, imaginary, and Father Anastasio has been introduced on the basis of a single sentence in the notebooks". The cover has a slight resemblance to Leonardo's sketch Deluge over a city, and the book is actually quite readable, seriously intended, and a clever (if short) execution of Leonardo's idea.

See the Robert Payne Collection, Stony Brook University, for more on Payne, who was a prolific and erudite writer on historical topics. His Times obituary on Feb 23, 1983 says of him, "He was, more than anything, a phenomenon of prolificity; probably no author of this century has produced so many books at such a relatively high level of scholarship" (see the bibliography). Cool guy...

Pierre Stephen Robert Payne was born on December 4, 1911 in Saltash, Cornwall, England; came to the U.S. in 1946; attended Diocesan College, Rondebosch, South Africa (1929-30), University of Capetown (1931-32), University of Liverpool (1933-36), University of Munich (1937), and Sorbonne, University of Paris (1938); was shipwright's apprentice, Liverpool (1932-33), shipwright (1939-41) and armament officer (1941), Singapore Naval Base; translator, British Ministry of Information in Chungking, China (1941-42); professor of English poetry and lecturer in naval architecture (1943-46); head of English department, Alabama College, Montevallo (1949-54); war correspondent in Spain (1938), and correspondent for the Times of London in Changsha, China (1942); was founding director of Columbia University Translation Center; wrote more than 100 books in a variety of subjects; publications include Love and peace (1945), Forever China (1945), China awake (1947), The rose tree (1947), A house in Peking: a novel of 18th-century China (1956), and Lawrence of Arabia: a triumph (1962); he died on February 18, 1983.

- Finding Aid for the Robert Payne Papers, 1946-1964, Online Archive of California

... and perhaps it's a pity The Deluge was packaged in that way. Then again, would I have spotted it and read it?

See BookScans for many more examples of pulp covers from Lion Books, which mostly focused on sensational novels, but occasionally tackled classier works, such as Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, Nigel Balchin's The Small Back Room, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Jack London's South Sea Tales, Voltaire's Candide (a quite restrained cover), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife, Graham Greene's Nineteen Stories, and Candide again (less restrained version). The Deluge (Lion #233) appears to be the last published title in its 25cents series.
- Ray

Holmes and a few variants

For your interest (or purist's disgust - delete as appropriate): the trailer of the Guy Ritchie's forthcoming Sherlock Holmes movie, starring Robert Downey Jr. as a Holmes reinvented as a martial artist (a concept not entirely created out of whole cloth, given the "baritsu" - actually Bartitsu - mentioned in the Conan Doyle works). See previous post, Martial heroics, of which the gist is:

A few years back an apparently unconnected curiosity appeared on the Web, reprints fromPearson's Magazine around 1900: The New Art of Self-defence: How a Man May Defend Himself against Every Form of Attack (Part 1 / Part 2) and Self-defence with a Walking Stick. All were by an Edward William Barton-Wright, and described his self-invented mixed martial art, which combined Jujutsu and Judo with various Western techniques such as boxing and stick fighting. This martial art - named "Bartitsu" - was finally solidly connected with the Holmesian "Baritsu" in a 1997 paper ("Further Lessons in Baritsu", Richard Bowen, The Ritual: Review of the Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society, 1997) and since then, Bartitsu has been solidly researched and developed by groups such as the Bartitsu Society.

I'm sure it won't be the last reinvention of Holmes. During World War 2, the Rathbone-Bruce version cemented an icon in British national consciousness for decades. But now - good through Basil Rathbone himself was - they look creaky for the clumsy incorporation of anti-Nazi themes, their reinforcement of the mistaken stereotype of Holmes constantly wearing a deer-stalker, and the appalling disservice to Dr Watson by Nigel Bruce playing him as a total buffoon. Of more recent adaptations, the Brett/Hardwicke series is the highlight, pairing a competent and thoughtful Watson with a Holmes played by Jeremy Brett with a complexity and nervous energy that to many seemed too animated at first, but rapidly took over as the currently definitive interpretation to UK audiences. It's slightly unfortunate that this made the extremely competent portrayal by Rupert Everett, in The Case of the Silk Stocking, rather wooden in comparison.

In literature, the list of adaptations and interpretations is endless. The format and characterisation of the stories are very easy to imitate, leading to a stream of pastiches that began even in Conan Doyle's time. A recent Times article commemorating the 150th anniversary of Conan Doyle's birth, Sherlaw Kombs and the Odd Impersonators (Andrew Lycett, May 22, 2009) skims a few: from JM Barrie's The Adventure of the Two Collaborators (story and background here):

We were in, our rooms in Baker Street one evening. I was (I remember) by the centre table writing out 'The Adventure of the Man without a Cork Leg' (which had so puzzled the Royal Society and all the other scientific bodies of Europe), and Holmes was amusing himself with a little revolver practice. It was his custom of a summer evening to fire round my head, just shaving my face, until he had made a photograph of me on the opposite wall, and it is a slight proof of his skill that many of these portraits in pistol shots are considered admirable likenesses.

I happened to look out of the window, and perceiving two gentlemen advancing rapidly along Baker Street asked him who they were. He immediately lit his pipe, and, twisting himself on a chair into the figure 8, replied:

'They are two collaborators in comic opera, and their play has not been a triumph.'

I sprang from my chair to the ceiling in amazement, and he then explained:

'My dear Watson, they are obviously men who follow some low calling. That much even you should be able to read in their faces. Those little pieces of blue paper which they fling angrily from them are Durrant's Press Notices. Of these they have obviously hundreds about their person (see how their pockets bulge). They would not dance on them if they were pleasant reading.'

I again sprang to the ceiling (which is much dented), and shouted: 'Amazing! but they may be mere authors.'

'No,' said Holmes, 'for mere authors only get one press notice a week. Only criminals, dramatists and actors get them by the hundred.'

to Robert Barr's The Great Pegram Mystery (featuring "Sherlaw Kombs", this arose from a dispute between Barr and Conan Doyle over the latter's decision to kill off Holmes - see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Canada) and O Henry's The Adventures of Shamrock Jolnes. Even Conan Doyle wrote an out-of-canon short, The Field Bazaar, for an Edinburgh University charity event.

The Times piece primarily focuses on what was essentially fan fiction, and follows it through to the present day, with its Holmes/Watson slash fiction, and Sherlock Holmes solidly in the Top 20 at However, this grades into a similar proliferation of published fiction, whether as pastiche, a desire to write serious stories within the mythos, or as extra-mythos interpretations. A fairly mundane further aspect was to get around the copyright (since 2000 no longer an issue in the UK, but still argued-about in the USA: August Derleth's "Solar Pons" is the chief among such examples; I've just been reading The Casebook of Solar Pons, and have to admit that the stories aren't at all bad. See Wikipedia's list, Non-canonical Sherlock Holmes works and the Pastiches page for many more homages and clones. I especially recommend (again) one of my favourites, Neil Gaiman's A Study in Emerald (PDF), a Lovecraftian inversion of the Holmes mythos.

- Ray

Monday, 25 May 2009

Lurid covers 2: SF

click to enlarge
In response to an ongoing discussion of 60s paperback covers and their surreal/lurid misrepresentation of contents - see Dr C's Front Covers - and Felix Grant's Judging a sardine by its can - here are a few more.

Top: Babel-17, Samuel R Delany, Sphere Books, 1969. This one's at the level being able to see the relevance once you know which book it is. The scenario is one in which the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis - "language shapes thought" - turns out to be literally true when the poetess and linguist Rydra Wong is asked to investigate Babel-17, an enemy code which appears linked to acts of sabotage. The linguistic theme explains the A-Z overlay, but Rydra Wong never gets naked.

Middle: Robert Silverberg's Hugo-winning Nightwings (Sphere Books, 1974). This is a superb novel about a group of pilgrims to "Roum" in a far-future world disrupted by a man-made climatic apocalypse. Silverberg skilfully evokes the long passage of time through the erosion of placenames - Roum, Perris, Stralya, Hind, Agupt, Jorslem, and so on. The cover isn't wildly inaccurate; it depicts Avluela, a genetically altered "Flier" who can only fly at night (hence the book's title) and has to divest herself of all weight to do so. This modification, however, is achieved at the expense of being more than anorexically thin, so the cover Avluela is considerably overweight. The cowled character is the Prince of Roum, who has cybernetic eyes after being blinded.

Bottom: Keith Laumer's A Trace of Memory (Mayflower Paperbacks, 1968). This one is just plain surreal, apparently inspired by memories being in the head, but to be fair, I think the book is quite difficult to encapsulate in a single image.

It's one of Laumer's more interesting ones. After a prologue, in which a space traveller is marooned among primitives, it moves to the present and introduces Legion, a typical Laumer hardboiled clever loner, who is hired by a Mr Foster. The latter has two problems, amnesia and being pursued by some kind of sentient ball-lightning. The story takes an epic turn when it turns out that Foster is the marooned traveller, who has been around a long time, long enough to have tried to fast-track human civilisation by modelling it on that of his own planet, Vallon, where the Rthr rules from the Great Ringboard at Okk-Hamiloth. With Legion's help, he manages to call the shuttle of an orbiting starship to its landing ring (Stonehenge - see the cover of the collection Legions of Space) and returns home; but Legion, forced to follow after his marketing of Vallonian technology attracts goverment attention, finds everything on Vallon has changed. Its space-faring civilisation has collapsed to medium-tech feudalism after loss of the technology that kept a continuity of memory across Vallonians' periodic memory-wipe rejuvenations, and Legion finds he has to work his way up from slave status. The scenario doesn't bear terribly close examination: for instance, is Legion really doing the Vallonians a favour? Their society, though feudal, is egalitarian: anyone can work their way by skill/talent up the social pyramid to the highest level. But he has restored a static culture based on a fixed feudal hierarchy and near-immortality (nice for the Rthr and his cronies, but not for the guy who's the permanent stable-sweeper). But it's a good yarn.

- Ray

Friday, 22 May 2009

Wondering ...

For whatever reason, conversation with several blog contacts has lately been skating around the topic of superheroines, of which some particular points just crystallised in The Growlery's Superhero(in)es wot I have(n't) known:

my adult gut responses are three. First is an aversion to the whole superhero concept (this has been discussed before and I won't belabour the benevolent dictator, might is right point here). Second comes a dislike for gender differentiation of nouns which ought to be gender neutral (actor/actress, hero/heroine), suggesting that the male is the norm and the female a special case). Third, related to the second, is the fact that Superwoman's lack of evolutionary survival compared to Super Girl illustrates another patriarchal use of language (for men, after puberty, "boy" is generally a belittling term; women are widely referred to by the juvenile "girl" for much of their lives).

Yep. A recent exposition of the first point was by Alan Moore - see Legendary Comics Writer Alan Moore on Superheroes, The League, and Making Magic at Wired - who isn't the first to see the whole superhero concept as a reflection of the politico-military stance of the USA, where the genre had its greatest success. Earlier critics, Matthew Wolf-Meyer 1 and Jason Dittmer 2, have argued that superhero stories foster the idea of maintenance of the status quo by a powerful elite.

And then there's the general stereotypical bias; as Felix says, it's significant that the direct counterpart of Superman is the juvenilized Supergirl, not Superwoman. It's also interesting to compare the publication histories of Supergirl and Superwoman. You find the former is a popular character of more or less stable appearance and persona; while the latter has been through a variety of identity tweaks, suggesting that the concept of a mature "super" woman didn't sit comfortably with comic creators and/or readers.

Counter to this, however, is the interesting story of Wonder Woman, well documented elsewhere but worth briefly re-telling. In 1940, a Family Circle interview appeared, "Don't Laugh at the Comics", in which the psychologist William Moulton Marston expounded his views on the educational possibilities of comics. On the strength of this, Marston was head-hunted by All-American Publications (later part of DC Comics), who gave him the go-ahead to develop the then radical concept of a female superhero, working name Suprema, who made her debut as Wonder Woman in 1941 and has been continuously in print ever since.

At one level, Wonder Woman's creation fits into trends of the time. In World War II, the USA government was campaigning to mobilise female labour through propaganda involving strong female characters such as Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter and J. Howard Miller's We Can Do It! lady. Wonder Woman, whatever her mythological trappings, was in many ways in the same vein (for instance, her costume was based on the US flag and eagle, and she began her career fighting Axis enemies). However, Marston's precise intentions are difficult to fathom. Marston was a definite original, whose life and career has many unusual facets. As a psychologist, he had devised "DISC theory", a psychological classification system (DISC = Dominance , Influence, Steadiness, Conscientiousness) and, with his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a blood pressure lie detection test. He wrote a number of books, some outside his field of work including F.F. Proctor, vaudeville pioneer and Venus with us; a tale of the Caesar (aka The Private Life of Julius Caesar). In personal life he was proto-feminist and (I'm not sure if this is a contradiction or not) lived in an amicable polyamorous relationship with his wife and his ex-student Olive Byrne, both of whom appear to have facets that inspired Wonder Woman (for instance, Byrne's wearing of heavy bracelets). See Who was Wonder Woman? (Marguerite Lamb, Bostonia, Fall 2001).

The complication was that Wonder Woman appeared to have a somewhat strange agenda. Whatever the mission statement

Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.
- William Moulton Marson, in The American Scholar, 1943

it was a matter of observation that the series, while Marston was involved, had a fixation with bondage, and with overt games of dominance and submission played by the Amazon-like characters in the all-female society from which Wonder Woman hailed (see El blog Ausente). As the Bostonia article says, Marston seemed to have a "competing fascination with female submission and female strength". Quite what he was trying to express isn't made much clearer by the interview Our Women Are Our Future (Olive Richard, Family Circle, August 14, 1942 - an insider job, as Olive Richard is Olive Byrne). He seems to swing between pro-feminism, pro fem-dom, and complete flakery

"In all seriousness," he continued, "I regard that as the greatest-no, even more-as the only hope for permanent peace. And as a psychologist I'm convinced that the ever-increasing counterparts of Wonder Woman in real life will lead the way. More power to them! Let them keep their Amazon chain bands polished. And their magic lassos limbered up! Women are nature-endowed soldiers of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, and theirs is the only conquering army to which men will permanently submit-not only without resentment or resistance or secret desires for revenge, but also with positive willingness and joy!"

No wonder critics are still puzzling over the subtexts, even to the point of speculating if the original Wonder Woman was lesbian - see Wonder Woman: lesbian or dyke?, Trian Robbins - which would explain the non-consummation of her non-relationship with Major Steve Trevor. This interpretation had been made in the 1950s, on largely reactionary and sexist grounds, in Frederick Wertham's moral panic book about the influence of comics, Seduction of the Innocent); but even non-hostile commentators can scarcely ignore that the strip presented unconventional gender relationships, apparently to a purpose. The Wonder Woman phenomenon is extensively discussed in Doing science + culture (Roddey Reid, Sharon Traweek, Routledge, 2000, ISBN 0415921120); see the section Wonder Woman and Her Disciplinary Powers: The Queer Intersection of Scientific Authority and Mass Culture by Molly Rhodes:

Wonder Woman emerged within a surprising national network of academic intellectuals, reform ideologies, science, and mass culture, a network focused not on what kind of cultural objects would further a short-term national war effort, but on the long-term resolution of national social ills through new forms of cultural literacy.

Wonder Woman had a brief appearance in newspapers, but

Unlike comic book audiences, who lapped it all up, newspaper readers never found these psychological intricacies particularly compelling. In August 1945 the Wonder Woman strip was unceremoniously dumped by the syndicate.
- 100 Years of American Comics, Maurice Horn, Gramercy Books, 1996

Wonder Woman has been through various incarnations. After Marston was out of the picture (he died in 1947) the fetishy elements were toned down, as eventually were WW's powers. Originally comparable to Superman, she was downgraded to a secret agent in the 1960s, but as told at Dance of the Puppets she got her powers back after a campaign by Gloria Steinem, who hailed her as a feminist icon. I admit I'm of an age to have first encountered the character through the campy TV series starring Lynda Carter, who made Wonder Woman thoroughly wholesome but distinctly lightweight. A number of more recent artists have drawn the character for comics and graphic novels. Some went down the standard superhero route and gave her body-builder musculature; but my favourite interpretation is that of Alex Ross, who works in a hyperrealistic style in watercolour gouache (see the example, left). His Wonder Woman in Spirit of Truth, modelled on his friend Rhonda Hampton, is both stylistically accomplished (see examples at the Alex Ross official site) - a million miles from the oddly naive 1940s comics - and, I think, highly successful in portraying her as a strong mature woman, neither juvenilized nor masculinized, in line with the original concept of the character.

1. The World Ozymandias Made: Utopias in the Superhero Comic, Subculture, and the Conservation of Difference, The Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 36 Issue 3, pp. 497-517.
2. The Tyranny of the Serial: Popular Geopolitics, the Nation, and Comic Book Discourse, Antipode, Volume 39 Issue 2, pp. 247-268.

- Ray

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Dead and dying media

Speaking chipmunk, at Unreal Nature, referenced among many other things an article about the Incan knotted-string data storage medium, the khipu: Conversations: String Theorist (Gary Urton interviewed, Archaeology, Volume 58 Number 6, November/December 2005). This is as good a cue as any to recommend The Dead Media Project, set up by the SF author and journalist Bruce Sterling to research and document obsolete forms of data storage (see the Manifesto). Probably the best way into this is the archive of working notes, categorised into areas such as Pre-industrial-age communication, telegraphy, magic lantern systems and writing systems.

While it's easy to marvel at the eccentricity of dead media such as the Flame Organ and "Sound Bites" musical candy, the historical and technological drift in media is a matter for intense practical concern. At this very instant, the VHS videocassette is making a rapid jump toward obsolescence with digital TV transmission; and in the computing field, there are already major difficulties in accessing records stored as little as a decade ago (read A fistful of Rosetta stones, in which Felix Grant tells of the complicated rigmarole necessary to recover 20-year-old epidemiological data backed up on VHS tape).  Looking at Dead Media, nothing much has changed; in fact the majority of now-weird storage and recording methods made perfect technological and practical sense at the time, only to go rapidly out of date.

Languagehat cited another example: shorthand (aka stenography), as described in a Leah Price London Review of Books piece, Diary, 4th December 2008.  It's quite surprising to read that the use of shorthand in secretarial and reportage situations, for which it's best known, was preceded by a rather different early history in a male subculture that used it for writing diaries, communicating with pen-friends, and other uses

clergymen (who used it to rip off each other’s sermons) and theatregoers (who used it the way some filmgoers use a handicam).

It's not generally remembered that Bram Stoker's Dracula (Gutenberg EText-No. 345) makes frequent references to Jonathan Harker's journal and letters to Mina being written in shorthand, partly to conceal their content from the Count.

The variety of competing forms (see The Shorthand Place for a history, list and chronology of such systems as tachygraphy, tachography, zeitography, zeiglography, semigraphy, semography, etc) eventually collapsed into a duopoly of Pitman and Gregg systems, and even these have withered with the introduction of audio-typing and voice recognition, except in areas such as British courtroom reportage, where even official audio recording is still forbidden under the same legal archaicisms that require the bizarre convention of court art.

Nevertheless, there are still fossils of shorthand's geeky heyday to be found on the book circuit.  At Joel Segal Books, we occasionally see the curiosity of Victorian novels in shorthand, like this imprint of Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four - "engraved in the advanced style of Pitman's shorthand" - at the Internet Archive (ID signoffour00doyliala).  Looking at Dead Media and repeated speculations about The Death of the Book, I wonder if a hardcopy book is likely to become a similar curiosity.  Personally I find it unlikely; it might happen with ephemera, but the short lifespan of electronic storage formats would make this a deeply shortsighted move for texts where long-term recovery is needed. But stranger things have happened, and very fast, in media.
- Ray

Addendum (upgraded from Comments as significantly interesting):

Julie Heyward wrote:

Very interesting that you've posted this topic just now. I've been monitoring (and trying to decide whether to post about) a thread, The future of archives over at The American Scene. In particular, the comments which are still (slowly) being added to. This bit in comments, for example:

"There are two tracks to follow here- the value of Information and the intrinsic value of “things” (artifacts is a fancier word, but it used by so many in so many ways, it does not suit here) To be able to see the development of a literary work, if possible, by forensic computing to pull out previous versions is measurable value to patrons and researchers. To have the item used by the literary great is of interest and value as well."

Do we need to save the thing itself (zip disk, CD, tape)? Does that matter when the information in question was generated? electronically?

I'm all for saving the things, for exactly that reason ("forensic computing to pull out previous versions "). You never know what unexpected insights/techniques might come along to extract novel historical material.  Examples: the Archimedes Palimpsest (lost work of ancient Greek maths proto-calculus recovered by multispectral imaging from under the prayer book overwritten on the same vellum); and the various video/photographic recovery projects I mentioned a while back in Re-colouring the past, all of which were dependent on access to the original media.

- Ray

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Gömböc

This isn't about books, but I love the word so I thought I'd copy this curiosity over from my other blog. The Gömböc (pronounced "gəmbəts") is an intriguing object devised by Hungarian mathematicians Gábor Domokos and Péter Várkonyi, that has the property of self-righting to a single stable position despite being homogeneous, completely convex and not being obviously "flat" or "thin". (That is, this self-righting property is easy to obtain if you allow internal hollows or heavy inserts that skew the weight distribution, as in the Weebles or Balancing Ovoid toys - but it's very difficult to achieve if the object doesn't curve inward, and is solid and the same material all the way through). More on this at the Mathematical Intelligencer article Mono-monostatic bodies: the answer to Arnold's question (PDF).

As with many other shapes with useful mechanical properties, this self-righting behaviour has already been achieved in nature in animals such as the Indian Star Tortoise. See The Living Gömböc (Adam Summers, Natural History Magazine, March 2009) - which rather debunks the scenario presented to Leon at the beginning of Blade Runner. High-domed tortoises self-right, and flatter ones use their limbs.

Compare the rattleback or celt, an object of no discernable application, but one also with unusual dynamic properties: in its case, a preferred direction of spin.

Gömböc is, incidentally, Hungarian for fatty or rotund, or a pork haggis, like the sinister one in the Hungarian folktale A kis gömböc that hangs in a cottage attic and eats a family. Would you believe, there's even a Gömböc Festival in the Hungarian village of Kömörő. A related word, gombóc (pronounced "gombawts", approximately) means dumpling (Serbian equivalent gomboce, I've just been kindly informed). "Gombóc" is also a Hungarian nickname for cute plump little animals: a great many such pictures have the caption "Gombóc Artúr" (Dumpling Arthur), who is a chocolate-obsessed overweight cartoon bird.

Addendum, 1 June 2009. Small world: at a bus stop at Exmouth today, I was sitting next to a family of unknown nationality but evidently Eastern European; and the one word that stood out in their conversation sounded like "gombosh". They were eating jam doughnuts, which explains it.
- Ray

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Lurid covers 1: classics

click to enlage
To be fair, one of the commenters on William Moulton Marston’s OTHER pastime warns that we shouldn't judge a book by the trashy cover style of its era. Point taken. As examples - found variously on the Web - check out the adjacent pulp versions of a few classics. There may, however, be more to these than meets the eye: the Frankenstein appears to allude to Fuseli's The Nightmare, and the Brave New World to many "expulsion from Eden" paintings; I can't see any justification for the 1984 interpretation, though.

I found the slightly lower-key, but still pulpy, 1960 Signet 1984 at Survival Arts, and some others at the Three Farms culture blog: Arthur Miller's Focus and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. With such real-world efforts, it seems scarcely necessary for Slate magazine to have commissioned a series of spoof covers, The Pulp Canon. Does anyone know of any other real examples?

To rinse away the pulpy flavour, check out the much-publicised The Art of Penguin Science Fiction site for its showcase of the striking and stylistically varied artwork of Penguin SF over the decades. Some are iconic, such as David Pelham's cover for the 1972 edition of A Clockwork Orange; others are not quite there, such as the John Griffiths The Day of the Triffids cover; I can't decide if the triffids look more like kiwi fruit, testicles or ... whatever the plural is of gömböc. (Ed: "Gömböcok", I'm told).

By the way (see left) the 1984 pulp cover is interesting for a number of reasons: I'm pretty sure the little figure staring into Julia's cleavage is a cameo appearance by Orwell himself. The hairstyle in particular is is pretty distinctive. Does anyone have a larger scan?

Talking of 1984, see George Orwell: An Exhibition from the Collection of Daniel J. Leab for a nice Orwell bibliographic collection. See also: Predictions. I'm still looking (unsuccessfully so far) for a confirming example of the claimed Bennett Correspondence College "Let me be your big brother" ad. (To Anon: yeah, I know Burgess says it existed, and the "Let me be your father" version is verifiable: I'm looking for a primary source of the "big brother" variant).

Addendum: sorry, having seen the efforts at Slate, I couldn't resist.

- Ray

Romans, religion and race

Christopher Derrick's characterisation of one type of overdone novel

A grand rowdy mix-up of sex, violence, and religion in some ancient world, real or imagined: gladiators, bosoms, toppling disasters, temples and sinister priesthoods with their rituals and their schemings: slave-girls being whipped to death

readily fits a number of works. Judging by the cover - see William Moulton Marston’s OTHER pastime at Heidi MacDonald's The Beat - Marston's The Private Life of Julius Caesar (aka Venus With Us) probably wins the prize. (Yes, this is Marston, the Wonder Woman guy - see Wondering...). Imperial Rome has all the ingredients ready-made, and no wonder it has inspired so many works, written and visual, right up to the 2000 epic Gladiator (itself rather closely modelled on the 1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire with a deal of input from Daniel P Mannix's factual 1958 account of the Roman Games, Those about to Die).

The Telegraph's Latin and Aramaic version of Ben Hur approved by Boris Johnson is one of many newspapers reporting on Franz Abraham's forthcoming O2 Arena production of Ben Hur - see the official site, Ben Hur Live. Abraham's aim is "to be faithful to the novel 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, instead of following the film adaptations". Nevertheless, spectacle is an essential ingredient that even Lewis Wallace, writing the original novel Ben-Hur; a tale of the Christ (Gutenberg EText-No. 2145) couldn't do without, whatever his pious intent. The The Robe (1942 book and 1953 film) is in very similar vein.

Quite in contrast ideologically, it's worth checking out Frank Yerby's 1968 Judas, My Brother. Whether it was directly intended as a riposte to Ben Hur, I don't know, but it has a Jewish central character who similarly suffers, gets into tangles with Romans, fights as a gladiator, meets Jesus and his disciples, Essenes, Zealots, the disciple Salome (depicted as the beautfiul prostitute Shelomith), etc. However, this central character is Nathan, sometimes called "The Thirteen Disciple", and the whole powerful and gory epic is woven around a heavily footnoted depiction of a demythologised version of the origins of Christianity. The Agnostic Musings of African American Popular Novelist Frank Garvin Yerby (by James L. Hill, Professor of English, Albany State University) mentions the basics of the novel in a general analysis of Yerby's agnostic beliefs, unusual for someone born in the heart of the Bible Belt.

See the New Georgia Encyclopedia and Eugene A Stovall's Frank Yerby Renaissance Project for more about Yerby, who is hardly known despite being the first best-selling African-American author and the first to have a novel - The Foxes of Harrow - bought by Hollywood for a film adaptation. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Yerby attracted criticism for his lack of racial consciousness in his novels, many of which involved white protagonists in the antebellum South. However, Stovall argues in the essay Why Frank Yerby costumed his novels that Yerby's work was iconoclastic in other, disguised, areas of challenging standard historical thinking. Neither was Yerby indifferent to racial issues, which featured in his later novels, written post-1955 after he left America permanently in protest against racial discrimination, spending the rest of his life in Spain (then under the Franco regime).

It's hard to see what he found more congenial about fascist Spain - in yesterday's Independent, Agree humbly... exploring marital advice from the Franco years mentioned just one of the repressions of Francoism. Yerby doesn't appear to have rocked the boat (unlike Mary Renault, who moved to apartheid-era South Africa because of its more liberal attitude to her being a lesbian, but still participated in the anti-racist Black Sash movement).

- Ray

Friday, 8 May 2009

Let me count the ways ... of writing cliches

An Unreal Nature posting today, Power Source, had an interesting quotation about poetry:

Bad poetry is almost always bad because it attempts to claim for itself the real power of whatever it describes in ten lines: a sky full of stars, first love, or Niagara Falls.

- Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard (1982)

This jogged my memory to dig out a clipping on the same subject that we've had around for probably a couple of decades: specific attribution lost, but I think it's from a US or Canadian writers' magazine:

The Poem You Must Not Write

1. It's Hell To Be A Poet.
This poem celebrates writing as a divine calling and the poet as a suffering, misunderstood bearer of truth in a cruel, indifferent world. Self-pity rarely interests readers, and when a poet blames his failure on forces other than himself, he only compounds his poem's problems.

2. I'm An Intellectual.
This poem combines high-sounding, philosophical, didactic and literary observations and allusions, usually in trite, archaic phrases of rhyme and metre. Poems whose main purpose is to impress usually don't.

3. Let Me Tell You How It Is.
This poem states obvious truths or preaches a little sermon urging readers to accept what is already generally believed: God is good, death is deadly, good is better than evil, nature is lovely, etc. Commonplace and preachy poems are never successful.

4. Look What I Can Do With My Computer.
This poem's typographical gymnastics may make a good ad for print fonts, but they don't hide careless writing.

5. Guess What This Means.
This poem is simply obscure (intentionally or otherwise), written in a private symbology about a situation or event that readers can only guess at.

6. Echoes Of The Past.
This poem is often, but not always, written in a correctly structured form, yet is heavily laced with poeticisms, grammatical inversions and archaic phrases and usages that went out of style more than a century ago.

7. Open Heart Purgery.
This poem has many variations covering all aspects of loving and losing, birth and death, and every other sort of emotional experience. Writing such poems may be therapeutic for the writer, but the work is generally too private to be of interest to other readers.

- John D Engle

I'm fairly sure that this John D Engle is the Kentucky-born poet, author and editor John D Engle Jr., who died in 2006 (see obituary), so I'm inclined to think the advice is sound. I'd be grateful if anyone could supply attribution and publication date.

Addendum: I just found a second clipping from a prose equivalent in Christopher Derrick's Reader's report on the writing of novels. Part of Derrick's work was as a book reviewer and publisher's reader, and the book crystallised his experience into advice for would-be novelists. I can't say I like the sexist tone in places, but it's a nicely barbed snapshot of overdone novel-forms that were turning up in publishers' slush-piles 40 years ago. After preamble about the flood of submitted Kingsley Amis imitations folowing the popularity of Lucky Jim, Derrick continues with:

Here are some further examples, some novels or novel-elements that have become cliches:

(i) The imaginative reconstruction of a remote past, prehistoric or mythological, as understood in the light of archaeology, anthropology, and comparative religion. This is a highbrow genre, calling for a certain amount of background study. At its best it makes magnificent reading, and notably in the hands of its high priestess, Mary Renault; but she and others have set an alarmingly high standard. The great mistake is to regard it as a soft option. When this kind of novel fails to be outstanding, it tends to be rubbish : the colourful background and properties draw attention to any central imaginative weakness, rather than making up for it.

(ii) A more lowbrow version of the same thing. A grand rowdy mix-up of sex, violence, and religion in some ancient world, real or imagined: gladiators, bosoms, toppling disasters, temples and sinister priesthoods with their rituals and their schemings: slave-girls being whipped to death. Much is commonly made of the fact that in a society conceived on these lines, people can be plausibly represented as not wearing many clothes, and also as carrying swords and spears all the time, with little public restraint upon the use thereof.

Sometimes we are taken right back to cave-man days, with uncouth characters called Ug and Pong spearing one another and having babies in ditches and stumbling about in swamps and forests. It can be good fun if you're in the mood.

(iii) The novel that is too simply and thinly derived from the fact that its author read English Literature at his university. Often he was a poet or novelist by vocation, but then had to go into some dismal job because he had a family to feed and couldn't get much money by writing. Typically, he became a copy-writer in an advertising agency: the point and tension of this story — which is plainly an autobiographical complaint — arises from the fact that while this job was, in a way, related to the author's education and ambitions, it also involved some loss to his integrity, his bright vision.

In another version that's commonly American, this becomes the campus-novel: the faculty-members who occupy the foreground invariably have Literature for their field, never Biology or Economics.

Literary studies at university level tend to generate a particular kind of stress or disappointment in later years. The same may be true of other fields of study; but where Literature is concerned at least, this is over-familiar territory to the publisher's reader.

(iv) The politico-military thriller of tough action, unless it takes the following principles into account: (a) If there ever were any 'atom secrets', we don't believe in them now: we find it hard to believe in military secrets of any sort. (b) Nobody believes in a dualistic world any more, with Good Us in total and righteous opposition to Bad Them, (c) We shall take it for granted that the Organisation — the one that employs your conscience-harrowed agent — is blind and absurd. If your story is to depend on his gradual and upsetting discovery of this, you have to account for his stupidity in not seeing it from the start. (d) You won't be able to curdle our blood with any newly-invented bomb, gun, ray, germ, or whatever. We're too hardened.

(v) The painfully Irish novel. Glory and heartbreak of wild uproarious youth in Dublin, with students and poets and poverty and fine whirling talk, and Guinness and the Gardai, and people being sick at parties, and mad-eyed mistresses and dotty peers, and great crumbling Georgian mansions where pigs loiter in the drawing-rooms, and everybody hallooing off into the night in some overloaded rackety old car, while the inescapable Church hovers over all.

(vi) The painfully American novel, in which everybody makes a full-time job of acting out — in roaring titanic fashion — some role selected from a Jung-styled repertoire of ancient myths and symbols. This is sometimes a poetical and prophetical lament for the world's despair and for the hellishness (erroneously seen as total) of modern American life; sometimes it's a great raw bleeding slice of history, full of violence and filth. Sometimes it's both. Two things tend to be wrong with Americans, affecting their novels disadvantageously. One is that they worry too much about being American: the other is that they take book-psychology much too seriously.

(vii) The holiday novel. How I — a nice English schoolmarm — was quite bowled over by the hot Mediterranean sun and the garlic and the bottom-pinching Italians.

(viii) The satirical danse macabre: a derisive raiding of dry puppets, a jubilantly sick capering through vistas of dimness, inspired by a vision of modern society' as corrupt (obviously), and also as phoney and daft in the highest degree, and indeed as actually dead, though unaware of the fact. There is usually some suggestion of nostalgia for grand colourful old reality, which is there all the time, if only people had the energy to reach out for it.

Smugness is the fault of this novel: its writer tends to be young and censorious.

(ix) The solemn and weighty D.Porn. thesis, in which the service of Venus is endlessly described in detail, and is made to seem like a necessary but very unpleasant kind of medical treatment.

(x) The young girl's novel about how I got seduced.

(xi) The young girl's novel about how I didn't get seduced.

(xii) The agonised Catholic novel about birth control. This is always written by a lady.

(xiii) The agonised Catholic novel about clerical celibacy. This is never written by a priest.

(xiv) The female novel which is too simply a complaint about how beastly men are to girls. You're right, dear; but it isn't a new discovery.

(xv) The novel that is based too simply upon this further fact: that each sex can, with some plausibility, accuse the other of being essentially predatory in amorous relationships.

(xvi) The novel that is based too simply upon the end of adolescent self-centredness and the learning of compassion. Usually it involves the late and upsetting discovery that this girl isn't just a luscious sex-machine but an actual human being as well, despite appearances.

(xvii) The novel that brings a group of strangers together in some confined and stressful environment for a prolonged ordeal, so that their shams and acts collapse and it becomes apparent what they really are.

(xviii) The army novel: though the English version of this has become rarer since conscription ended. It depends upon the conflict or tension between a young recruit who's cultured and sensitive and a bull-necked sergeant who isn't. Its weakness is that it tends to labour the obvious. War is a barbaric and irrational business, and if there are to be armies at all, they plainly can't be run on civilised and reasonable lines. Your discovery that the army is not so run is very far from being a new one: don't proclaim it too excitedly.

(xix) The psycho-clinical case-history. The writer of this novel supposes himself to have achieved the whole of a novelist's task if he has successfully conveyed to us the nature and flavour of (say) schizophrenic experience. It tends to be fascinating, in an awful way, since we're all amateur psychologists; but it seldom works as a novel.

(xx) The vast family chronicle, with a family tree that unfolds at the back and tends to get torn. It begins with old Josiah Heckthornthwaite, who indomitably founded the Mill in 1762, and who now glares down in disapproval, from his dark portrait on the boardroom wall, upon the disintegration of the modern world and the scruffy antics of the young.

(xxi) The novel that devotes all its energies to playing elaborate games with the novel-convention. As a novelist, you are fully entitled to be clever in any way that takes your fancy and lies within your powers; but don't overact the part of the man who, writing a clever novel, builds it around the character of a clever novelist, in whose work he himself features, and writes a novel that is in fact this one, the one that you're now reading, so that the narrator becomes a character within a novel written by a 'himself' who is (in a sense) a quasi-fictitious character in a novel written by anybody, except that ... After a certain amount of this, we all run lunatic and drop the book.

Each of these games has been played very often indeed, and possibly by yourself. If the novel that you wrote last year falls into one of the categories just listed, don't take it too personally: you aren't the only one.

- Christopher Derrick (Reader's Report on the Writing of Novels: a publisher's reader examines the pitfalls facing the aspiring novelist. London: Gollancz. 1969. ISBN 0575002662)

Christopher Derrick, incidentally, died only recently in 2007: interesting character, who knew a number of literary figures including CS Lewis and GK Chesterton (connected in part by religious interests - most of his published works related to Catholic philosophy). He was the younger brother of the Catholic journalist Michael Derrick.
- Ray

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Recycled place

Via Bad Science, I just ran into an interesting Australian magazine, Rouge, devoted to cinematic critique: plenty to browse. In the current issue, I especially liked Mark Rappaport's The Secret Life of Objects, which looks at some classic examples of sets and props recycled across different films. Viewed pragmatically, it makes perfect financial sense for film companies to do so, but Rappaport argues that such "connections" add psychological depth to films:

And for us viewers willing to believe that the transformation was complete, sometimes an unidentifiable prop that may seem like we’ve seen it before, or a familiar looking piece of furniture that we can’t quite place, the films with their sometimes interchangeable parts, provided the feeling of a dream or a sensation of déjà vu which may have all too well been true. The sad but also wonderful thing about this knowledge is that it really doesn’t demystify the movies, but only makes them seem more mysterious and unknowable, not more artificial but more densely textured, than ever – their histories even more complex and convoluted than we imagined, with even more cross-hatched and interlocking connections

This sort of thing is bound to set the reader thinking of more examples. A well-known one is the set of the 1964 Carry on Cleo, the re-used abandoned London set from the 1963 Cleopatra. A more geeky one: the rooftop sets of Dark City re-used in The Matrix. A pretty gross one: the exploitation film Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, made on the sets of the prison camp sitcom Hogan's Heroes.

My particular favourite, however, is the wonderful Bradbury Building in Los Angeles. It was used as the decaying mansion where JJ Sebastian lived in Blade Runner, but apart from being simple historical prop (showing location and urban decay) it seems more than coincidence that it features notably in the original D.O.A. (which is, unusually, in the public domain through failure to renew copyright - see the Internet Archive). The two films are connected thematically by a noir flavour, and by major characters seeking the truth in the face of impending death (in Blade Runner, replicants with an artificially short lifespan; in D.O.A., the hero poisoned by a slow-acting "luminous toxin"). I suspect intentional allusion.

- Ray

Monday, 4 May 2009

Syntax meets landscape

A nice example of how a term of brief vogue can persist in the language as a verbal fossil. Language Log's Syntacticians' hotels and bars mentions a number of pubs and bars called "Doctor Syntax". As is explicit in this example in Fylde Road, Preston, the pub names allude to a celebrated racehorse of the 1820s-30s. The horse in turn took its name from the hero of an immensely popular illustrated series by the artist Thomas Rowlandson and the author William Combe. During 1809-1821, they took Dr Syntax, an eccentric low-grade cleric and schoolmaster, off freeloading around the country on three picaresque misadventures - pretty ponderous stuff by modern standards, such as falling in lakes while sketching views - Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, Dr Syntax in Search of Consolation, and Third Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of a Wife.

See Google Books for the full illustrated texts of The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque and The second tour of doctor Syntax in search of consolation.

As described in an earlier LL post, The discovery of Dr. Syntax, the Doctor's excursions were a parody on the tours of the Reverend William Gilpin (1724-1804). Starting with his 1792 Essay on Prints, Gilpin expounded a theory on the nature of the "picturesque" - what aesthetic rules governed our appreciation of a picture of natural scene. For instance:

For Gilpin, both texture and composition were important in a "correctly picturesque" scene. The texture should be "rough", "intricate", "varied", or "broken", without obvious straight lines. The composition should work as a unified whole, incorporating several elements: a dark "foreground" with a "front screen" or "side screens", a brighter middle "distance", and at least one further, less distinctly depicted, "distance". A ruined abbey or castle would add "consequence". A low viewpoint, which tended to emphasise the "sublime", was always preferable to a prospect from on high. While Gilpin allowed that nature was good at producing textures and colours, it was rarely capable of creating the perfect composition. Some extra help from the artist, perhaps in the form of a carefully placed tree, was usually required.
- William Gilpin (clergyman), Wikipedia, retrieved May 5th 2009

Probably Gilpin's worst misfortune was to be followed by such able satirists, and some of his ideas were easy to ridicule, such as his statement in The Wye Tour about the ruins of Tintern Abbey being insufficiently picturesque:

... a number of gabel-ends hurt the eye with their regularity, and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it ?) might be of service in fracturing some of them; particularly those of the cross aisles, which are most disagreeable in themselves, and confound the perspective.

More recent commentators have given Gilpin better press, however. For instance, the paper by Francesca Orestano, 'The Revd William Gilpin and the picturesque; or, who's afraid of Doctor Syntax?' (Garden History, 31:2 (2003), 163-79. ISSN 03071243) - see intro - credits him as originator of a modern aesthetic of judging scenery simply by eye, rather than through some metaphorical moral filter, and many of his compositional ideas aren't much different from the kinds of decisions made in taking a photograph nowadays. But it would have been pretty radical in the face of an aesthetic shaped by upper-crust travellers who had been on the Grand Tour and were conditioned to approach ruins with emotions such as "pleasing melancholy" and "agreeable horror", and by Edmund Burke's 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful that divided aesthetic experience of landscape into the "beautiful" (the soft and reassuring) and the "sublime" (the deeply scary). The picturesque, according to one strong advocate, the landscape architect Uvedale Price:

holds a station between beauty and sublimity
- Essays on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and Beautiful, 1794

(This reminds me, in many ways, of the writer and computational scientist Rudy Rucker's term "gnarly", that he uses for the area of meaningful and productive complexity that lies between simplicity and chaos). The 18th -19th century categorisations of landscape may seem peculiar, but travel for the middle-classes, even within Britain was very much a novelty. People had little idea what to do and feel about landscape: how to handle, for instance, landscapes so unfamiliar that they seemed in equal measure beautiful and terrifying, as with Thomas Gray's comment on the Scottish Highlands, which left him feeling that the pretty and mundane images of art were pretty trivial in comparison:

the mountains are ecstatic, and ought to be visited in pilgrimage once a year. None but those monstrous creatures of God know how to join so much beauty with so much horror. A fig for your poets, painters, gardeners, and clergymen, that have not been among them, their imagination can be made up of nothing but bowling-greens, flowering shrubs, horse-ponds. Fleet ditches, shell-grottoes, and Chinese rails.
- Gray's Works, edit. E. Gosse, vol. iii. p. 223.

It really was a kind of culture-shock on experiencing alien environments, and the observers can't be blamed for being fazed and coming up with rather flaky theories about why. (One might compare the modern Paris syndrome).

The picturesque is so formative of perception of landscape that it has been heavily discussed. See, for instance, Keith Waddington's thesis Pictures and Poetry. Debunking the Bunk: An Examination of Picturesque Influence. Google Books also has extensive preview of The search for the picturesque: landscape aesthetics and tourism in Britain, 1760-1800 (Malcolm Andrews, Stanford University Press, 1989, ISBN 0804714029). One feels the early analysts would have liked prospect-refuge theory.

- Ray