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Review – Matrix Resurrections

Review – Matrix Resurrections

(Spoilers ahead)   

The difference between 1999 and 2022 can be seen in the difference between two Matrix films.

The 1999 film could be heralded from multiple sides. As Neo Anderson (New Man) dodged bullets and bent space-time, it was possible to read the film from a Christian viewpoint: there was a vague Christ figure, ‘the one’; there was the awakening to the lies of mass culture and modern society. There were cool shades, black leather and fast bikes, stylised shots of bullets exploding concrete: an amoral reading could also attach without too much trouble. For a classical reference there was Morpheus, ancient Greek god of dreams. For the Buddhist, or the New Ager who liked the sound of Zen, there was vague spoon-bending and non-reality. It was a metaphor waiting to be interpreted. A poster-film for postmodernism, with ground-breaking CGI.

The 2021/22 version is The Matrix remade, but with the woke-progression-of-postmodernism added in. So heavy-handed has this culture become that the open plotting – which still let us read and revise from a range of cultural inputs – has been swamped.

The direction we are supposed to think is telegraphed throughout. Matrix Resurrections is at once an homage to the 1999 original, founded on references and flashbacks, a replica cast and a closely mirrored storyline, and an attempt to imprint a new meaning onto what has become culturally familiar. The ‘red pill’ of this remake is not readily interpreted as an awakening from liberal, politically-correct, culture and brain-washing (as it has been widely referenced in online Conservatism for two decades), but is an awakening into extreme liberalism. The character of Trinity must free herself from her false husband and children (the Christian root of the character’s name is a long way away from this remake); at the finale she announces her intention to remake the world as one of ‘rainbows’ – in an on-the-nose pro-LGBTQ reference. The ship’s crew of camp men and lesbian-leaning women are the new norm.

This film is very much the remake of Lana (formerly called Larry) Wachowski. It seems he wasn’t content with the original and wanted to pull it into what he now envisages reality to be. We are given regular, unsubtle nudges that Neo and Trinity need to find their true selves, and not be controlled by what society has put upon them. Is Trinity a mother and wife (in the fake world) she wonders, because she was made to feel she must be? Did she choose? In this new Matrix, what is queer, and left-wing-liberal, is choice – the meaning of which being simultaneously, and conversely – unmistakeable, unalterable identity, that you must discover; every other idea is a hegemonic false reality (taking from Gramsci and Adorno’s Neo-Marxism). In the 2021/22 sequel, freedom from the matrix means liberal-left wing, progressive, identity politics.

And yet, it is, for some reason, the love of Neo and Trinity that is the spiritual, technology-defying key to bringing down all this machine-controlled hegemony. The story doesn’t know why. That these rebuilt clones (not resurrections) of Neo and Trinity are machine made, also doesn’t seem to factor. We are shown a materialist and presumably soulless view of humanity on the one hand, and on the other, a fatalistic, all-conquering, immutable love as salvation, upon which the storyline wholly depends.

The film fails to work because its ideas do not stand, and cannot go together. It tries to present a story of escaping false reality (including family and morality), for a real reality that is clearly false. If we can choose our postmodern identity, then the notion of Neo and Trinity being joined unfailingly, timelessly together can’t be true; if Neo and Trinity’s love is true and has the power to reshape the matrix, then the film’s ‘choose your identity rhetoric,’ is not. Queer theory, Gender theory, social constructs, and Marxism do not fit, at all, with a great redemptive love. They fundamentally cannot. The result, in Matrix Resurrections, is a film that feels hollow: it simply doesn’t ring true, because the two realities presented – both matrix and real world – are false; because a ‘progressive’ conception of the person is one without grace or hope; one that inextricably denies the need for redemptive love.

It’s sad that the filmmakers have not understood the reason for the original 1999 film’s success. It worked as a narrative because – in spite of a mishmash of ideas and inconsistent meanings – there was room enough to see amongst the shades, bullet-time, and cryptic-babble, a story of freedom and love and destiny against evil control. The new attempt to reshape the story speaks moreover, of a desire to shackle that basic metaphor to a particular current of liberal-left wing consensus on identity and politics. To be freed from the Matrix in this sequel, is not to be freed at all.

Copyright © 2022 by Dominic Graham

Review of Mothers Swam

Review of Mothers Swam

As I prepare the new edition of Mothers Swam for release, here’s one of my favourite reviews:

 

Mr. Richard Lw Bunning

5.0 out of 5 stars War, Survival and a Love that Transcends the Greatest of Cultural and Social Divides

Reviewed in the United States on 23 January 2018

Verified Purchase

Such a good read! Well told story of one man’s war, fought against the Japanese and a ghost, a guilt, from the past. A story of that same man that fought in the jungles of Burma, survived as a prisoner-of-war, and then as a prisoner on the run across Korea with an escaped ‘Comfort Girl’ that would later, eventually, become the very heart of his life. Then this same couple in a struggle against one Japanese, samurai sword wielding, sadistic, devil incarnate doctor.

This is an outstanding read, especially when one catches the rhythm of the prose, which then seem to dance through the desperation of tragic, blood-stained, battering chapters. I couldn’t put this book down until the return in 1946 to battle weary Britain, only to briefly draw breath while looking into the post-war character of the ever-changing, ever the same, Britain. Graham looks deep into the souls of those bruised, prejudiced, broad-shouldered, struggling survivors, as they slowly come to terms, or not, with their ever-changed country. Then still recovering the reader is thrown back to Korea, to the terrible war between North and South, and renewed struggles simply to survive. The climax of the book is desperate, as we cling to the hope that at last all will eventually come right for those tortured souls that so deserve happiness together.

This is a book by an English born writer whom so well draws on his understanding of the North-East Midlands of Britain, and of East Asia, where he currently lives and works. He has clearly read a great deal about the WWII history of South-East Asia, and I believe listened a great deal to the now passing generation to which we all owe so much. This is more than a war story, this is a drama about what it felt like to wear the shoes of those that lived the terrors that started for many in the 1930’s and only ended on the DMZ of the Korean Peninsula in 1953. The message of the book is one of hope, that eventually different cultures can finally walk our lands together. We must still live in that hope and do our individual best to combat those that ever carry the mindset of this book’s sick, elitist, doctor. There is after all only one true war, that between those that fight for a vision of nurturing humanity and those that remain ever jealous, selfish, cruel, elitist animals that willingly destroy all that would restrict them.

Fin de siècle – different settings

Fin de siècle – different settings

Posted on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/19387231-fin-de-si-cle—different-settings

I’m writing this from China in the midst of the Coronavirus shutdown. I’ve just had a great holiday with my parents, starting in Singapore and travelling by cruise-ship up the coast. I saw the outbreak beginning on news reports, but it was another thing to arrive at HongKong airport. My flight to Shanghai was cancelled, and on the next morning’s flight the combined group of passengers filled not a fifth of the three-hundred seat plane.

This is a city, a country, of surgical masks. You can’t buy them anywhere, and if you don’t have one on your face you are regarded as a danger. I got mine from the cruise-ship’s medical bay before leaving.

I travelled to the safest supermarket in the city centre – and had my forehead scanned by temperature gun. The streets are almost deserted, just occasional people at a distance. The subway trains are running, where we sit at intervals, facing no one opposite; the buses carry one or two, still driving their routes along empty streets. This is Shanghai – debatably – the largest city on the planet. I was at People’s Square, where once horses raced around the oval track, watched by Europeans from their tree-lined concessions, and where the Municipal government now sits. The sky is frequently pollution-grey in this land, lasting for days, weeks.

Before my holiday I had been working hard to complete the revision of an article on Thomas Hardy, which will soon be published. I find the nineteenth century a fascinating time, as the period of history which set the stage for so much of the modern world. The second half of the century, in particular, captures my attention, as it leads to the ‘fin de siècle’. The French came up with the term, and the sense of despair about which it refers. Literally, it means ‘the end of the century’. It caught on, and has come to be applied to literature, the arts, and society in general. You can trace its development, building – or collapsing – in the writing of Hardy, Conrad, and others, such as those of the Decadent movement. Essentially, people felt like everything was slipping away, that chaos was gathering storm-like, around and through ‘civilisation’; too few of them, I would argue, saw their own role clearly in dismantling it. This is Edvard Munch and his ‘Scream’; this is existential angst. They tore at the foundations, even as they screamed at the sensation of collapse.

What came at the end of the long-century was World War I, Europe – the Old World – destroying itself, and the tumult and change which followed. Yet, as many have discussed, that sensation of things coming apart, is by no means original to the 1890s. I would say it is of fallen humans, and we destroy with ease; even as we arrogantly pronounce to ourselves and others that we build and achieve.

Perhaps one of the things I find fascinating about 19th century literature is that the words still contain the hope and vision of a foundation holding aloft. There is a beauty and a tragic tension in the work of writers who glimpse, but often fail to recognise it.

An Easter Poem

An Easter Poem

Jesus Arrested

 

He spoke and all torch fire, clubs weld, they collaps’d

He stood man-God; brow bled in prayer this night.

They soldiers, priests repeat the Name despatch’d

Who’s he? All know; his Words through dark are sight

 

Jesus, Messiah, “I told you I Am he”

How many dug seed wells then dirt and down?

As olive bark crowds eyes beneath the tree

Then rise, arms hung, lit leaf and face and crown

 

His friend’s kiss; where soon palms will turn by plan

The grounded step, stand back, oh see or flee!

To look so close at God, and not know the Man.

Empire and Jew holds breath, one word it may be

 

He loses none given, he will be seiz’d

“Buy Sword”, The Rock for King will learn to fight

Blade thuds, ear lifts as dirt, belief receiv’d?

They lead him bound to drink the cup in Might!

 

The Garden pressed and caught on back and knee

Cloak weave and under nail, Gethsemane

That night of torch, dark soil, plant light as day

Did tumble memory as brushed away

at barrack, court and wood post three?

Twig or fruit, recall, you fell, you can be free

 

Did some who collaps’d under olive leaves

carry sapling dirt, see God and believe?

 

It’s Finished.

 

His legs won’t break, won’t kneel; pierced heart, crown, hand and heel.

The Gardener knelt with towel the very day before

with dust and feet, the Branch; Dead, then never dead more.

 

 

 

(the poem is inspired in particular by John: 18)

 

Copyright © 2019 by Dominic Graham

 

On Colonialism and Japan

On Colonialism and Japan

If you walk around Hiroshima in Japan you can experience a particular history. There is the one the ground beneath your feet speaks of in the form of absence: where once searing flames roared across the landscape, burning people, dogs, buildings, and possessions; where atomic winds blew through wooden houses and the people within them. You can stand outside the ruins of one landmark building that wasn’t felled: a heavy stone hall of industry, still there with its broken dome and blackened walls, and get an ever-insufficient sense of the terror and devastation. The information on display around the memorial park tries to give direction to your senses: it tells of staggering loss, of how many and how much, and of a great tragedy for humanity. Yet there it stops. The direction refuses to go further. It never says sorry on behalf of Japan; neither does it ever exactly say the Americans shouldn’t have done it. Instead, it tells of war as awful results, not of causes. It does not admit origins, blame, guilt, or culpability.

 

Hiroshima seems in fact to be a memorial in denial, a place where a history is told which seeks to exist simultaneously as a thing to regret, and as no action to be regretted.

 

Across Asia wounds remain, and the distinction has often been observed, that whereas in Europe, Germany hung its head, weighed heavy with accepted blame, Japan has been consistently reluctant to fully do likewise.

 

In a 1995 Sunday Times article on the semi-autobiographical, Empire of the Sun, J.G. Ballard gave a profound endnote to his novel of a young boy starving in a Japanese prison camp near Shanghai:

 

“American power had saved our lives, above all the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not only our lives had been spared, but those of millions of Asian civilians and, just as likely, millions of Japanese in the home islands. I find wholly baffling the widespread belief today that the dropping of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs was an immoral act, even possibly a war crime to rank with Nazi genocide.

During their long advance across the Pacific, the American armies liberated only one large capital city, Manila. A month of ferocious fighting left 6000 Americans dead, 20,000 Japanese and over 100,000 Filipinos, many of them senselessly slaughtered, a total greater than those who died at Hiroshima.

How many more would have died if the Americans and British had been forced to fight for Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong and Shanghai?

… Some historians claim that the war was virtually over, and that the Japanese leaders, seeing their wasted cities and the total collapse of the country’s infrastructure, would have surrendered without the atom-bomb attacks. But this ignores one all-important factor – the Japanese soldier. Countless times he had shown that as long as he had a rifle or a grenade he would fight to the end. The only infrastructure the Japanese infantryman needed was his own courage, and there is no reason to believe that he would have fought less tenaciously for his homeland than for a coral atoll thousands of miles away.

The claims that Hiroshima and Nagasaki constitute an American war crime have had an unfortunate effect on the Japanese, confirming their belief that they were the victims of the war rather than the aggressors. As a nation the Japanese have never faced up to the atrocities they committed, and are unlikely to do so as long as we bend our heads in shame before the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

 

With the war in Europe concluded several months previously, the United States had given serious thought to sending more of its bombers to the far east. They decided against it and in favour of the two atomic weapons. Had they instead doubled the size of their conventional bombing capabilities over Japan, then that nation’s cities would have suffered far greater total devastation and loss of life than the two targeted but profound warheads brought. Had they chosen the slow, protracted attrition of fighting island by island, then young boys in prisoner-of-war-camps would likely have starved, or been executed as the defeat and humiliation crept up on Japanese soldiers.

 

Should the innocent have died in these camps, rather than the two bombs have been dropped? In this horrific situation some people had to die, and in huge number, before Japan would surrender. Can we reach any other conclusion than to say the dead ought to have been Japanese rather than American, the wrongful aggressors, rather than the wrongfully attacked?

 

There is though, an argument sometimes heard, that Germany, Japan, and Italy, have been hard-done-to by the narrative of western history. Were they not the last of the colonial expansionists, doing largely what others had benefited from before them? Were they not unfortunate to find themselves at a turning point of history, when aggression was out of vogue and the immutable nation state was in? The British had established the American colonies, Australia, South Africa, Indian rule, and more; they had relocated, and fought indigenous populations; Germany had formerly colonised Rwanda, Botswana and other African countries, as well as Pacific islands (they were governed by other powers after defeat in World War I, and the Treaty of Versailles). Belgium had made a disaster of the Congo. France. The Netherlands. Spain, Portugal. Everyone who was anyone had colonised.

 

Two and a half millennia ago the Greeks had found the farming on their narrow coastland insufficient for growing populations and had settled colonies around the Mediterranean. On the Island of Thera, each Greek family had watched one adult son sail away to the African coast, founding Cyrene. Across the shores of modern day Italy, Spain, and France, colonies struggled and thrived. Massalia (Marseilles) is one colonial name to survive. When the Roman Empire eventually wrapped the Mediterranean coastline, it was essentially an imperial collection of ancient colonies. And when Rome built their own straight roads and blood-spilling amphitheatres, founding Florence, Bonn, London, and numerous other cities, they continued the imperative of colonialism. In fact, it is highly likely that you are reading this from the location of a famous colony. It could even be argued that the spread of human civilisation and culture is effectively synonymous with the action of colonisation.

 

However, academia and the media now routinely proclaim that ‘colonialism’ is something to be regretted, to be stopped, to be fought against and opposed. If someone is ‘colonial’ it is meant as a slur; if a nation behaved colonially, however long ago, it needs to repent in the present. Colonial statues need to be torn down. The descendants of colonists need to pay reparations. According to this understanding, Germany and Italy and Japan were wrong in the twentieth century because they had a colonial, racist and fascist ideology (these terms often being used interchangeably). ‘Colonial’ equals criminal by default.

 

But, if ‘colonialism’ is at heart something so integral to human culture as, ‘leaving home and setting up a new home somewhere else,’ then we cannot reasonably state that the wrongs of World War II were attributable to this word and be done and dusted with the case.

 

Even if we use a narrower definition, and frame the sin of colonialism as, rather, ‘the taking of land or home which belongs to someone else, without their due consent,’ we don’t reach anything which can rationally hold water. Instead we immediately get into a quagmire of self-refutations because we must argue ‘human rights,’ ‘land laws,’ and rules and obligations of ‘nations,’ which may seem universal, but are very much derived from western culture. We are in effect criticizing long dead colonisers using concepts which neither they nor those who lived in colonised lands would have adhered to. The case falls apart.

 

Is the taking of land where someone else lives, a guaranteed crime?

 

Take, as example, the now much-maligned British Empire. It is a blind-man’s broad-brush stroke that seeks to delineate British colonialism under the same sweep as Japanese – though that is now commonly what is done. It is not that the British Empire was not guilty of great wrongs – few historians would evade this admission – but that it is not reasonable to compare its conduct or intent with that of the Japanese or German empires:

 

The British Empire brought trains and institutions of governance to the world; the Indians still use those British railways lines, and many parts of the world rely on British parliamentary and civil service derived institutions. India, and numerous other countries, also retained English as an official state language long after colonialism’s end. As examples of law and order, justice and civilian life, the British hunted down and wiped out the Thugee cult – murderous robbers who strangled travellers across India and made any journey life-threatening – and put an end to ‘sati,’ the widespread practice whereby women were expected to set fire to themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. Christian missionaries were often key to such beneficial changes, and journeyed beyond the empire’s boundaries, telling the gospel to diverse cultures.

 

The Japanese also took trains – British-derived technology – to parts of Asia and Korea, alongside Japanese governance. The Koreans still use the Japanese railway routes, but not much else from those days of the Empire of the Rising Sun. The Japanese attempted to supplant and eradicate Korean names and the Korean language, but Koreans returned to their own language as quickly as possible at the end of occupation. Attendance at State Shinto shrines had been made compulsory, but shrines were soon brought down. The ‘Korean National Shrine’ in Seoul was removed after war’s end, and notably a Christian Seminary was constructed where it had stood.

 

Is it not the qualities of the culture to be colonised and of that which does the colonising, which define how the action and its result are to be appraised? Teach Polynesian cannibals about the message of the Bible, and lands where men gnawed human bones can become lands where hymns and spires point to heaven. But, construct ‘comfort’ houses of prostitution for occupying soldiers and you strip souls beside the train tracks.

 

It is extremely counter-cultural these days to say what is obvious, but plainly, no two cultures are equal. Cultural relativism can only be the proclamation of someone in denial of real, historical and experienced culture – it is itself a particular ‘correct’ and ‘unrelative’ view, which claims it knows best: a self-defeating argument like so many others from postmodernity. For history does not reveal a story of purely materialist oppression upon oppression as Marx said, nor of relativism nudging harmlessly against relativism, where all cultures are of equal value – and thereby, no discernible value. What history shows is a story of cultures of different values battling for what is valuable, and of claims as to the good or evil of those cultural values. It’s about right and wrong.

 

This is what most of us actually know deep down. Should a wife die on a funeral pyre, or live free? Should a road be built between cities, or people remain isolated? Should medicine be brought to an Amazonian tribe, or disease reign? Should devilish cannibalism rule an island, or the authority of Jesus Christ? Should fascism rule Europe, East Asia, or ultimately America? These are questions of value and truth; they involve that truth being taken from one place and person to another. Or not being.

 

Japan and Germany and Italy were truly wrong before and during the Second World War, not because of their ‘colonialism,’ but because of the heart with which they conducted it. A colonial outlook is not necessarily a mistake.

 

After all, it was the vast British Imperial Empire and its colonised cousin, America, which were able to hold back and ultimately defeat the colonising Japanese and German Empires. You are free to agree or disagree because the colonials with the better values, won.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Dominic Graham

Amazing Events in North/South Korea

Amazing Events in North/South Korea

I thought I’d share some thoughts about what has been happening this past week – an about-face by Kim Jong Un that appears to have been so complete as to be verging on the absurd, and the sudden steps toward future reunification of North and South Korea which it has put in the headlines.

 

Kim met South Korean President Moon on April 27th, to shake hands and cross over the border to the South, before ‘spontaneously’ inviting Moon to step over to the North. They then stood and watched as a large tree was symbolically planted, joining the two sides of the demilitarized zone.

 

The theatrical aplomb of Kim is quite stunning; he appears to have transformed from buffoon and pariah into an intelligent and seasoned statesman in a matter of weeks. His off-the-cuff meeting and friendly rapprochement with Moon was consummate, staged for the world audience as holistic theatre-in-the-round has rarely been achieved for any audience. It makes one question whether the same expert stage management has not actually been in play for past years, running rings around a west, deplete of genuinely wise and international statesmen.

 

It had seemed that Kim Jong Un had taken up the deranged footfalls of his father, Kim Jong Il, who was mocked in The Onion in 2009, as planning to bring the Moon (the actual one in orbit) down to North Korea. There it would sit on the largest ever constructed ‘moon hand pedestal’ to be studied, ‘to learn the effects of moon possession on national glory.’

www.theonion.com/kim-jong-il-announces-plan-to-bring-moon-to-north-korea-1819594768  

It was funny because it seemed not totally implausible. It now appears the English educated son does not see the Juche (Korean ethnic, political, self-reliant, personality cult) with quite the same dearth of pragmatism as did his father and grandfather before him – or he was at least not so far gone from reality as to hastily drag himself back when his own rule and therefore life was in jeopardy. He welcomed a real-life Moon onto the North Korean side of the border, and does indeed seem to have been awarded a hefty prize of ‘national glory’ by the watching world’s media.

 

My thoughts when first hearing the news were mixed. Amazement, hope, and a sickening feeling. I have found it quite distasteful how easily the western media have dropped all knowledge of Kim’s past actions from their broadcasts and reports. It is as if they can only whoop and applaud at the full-pelt U-turn Kim has pulled off before them, three-wheeler shouldering the turn against all past precedent and hurtling around toward peace. What of the thousands dying in gulags as Kim stepped so gallantly over the DMZ? It should trouble us when the media reveals such ease and willingness to forget Kim’s past due to a great set of photos and live, then ever-rolling footage. This is the same man who fired anti-aircraft guns at his former Defence Minister. He knows about symbolism and its effects.

 

The smiling, tubby man stepping over the border, shaking hands, and planting a tree, was a mass-murderer. How should we deal with such an opportunity for peace? It must surely be seized, for the hope and freedom of millions of trapped, oppressed Koreans north of the border, for the starving and broken political prisoners, for the prospect of no more nuclear tests and missiles flying over Japanese islands. Yet we should not be immoral/amoral in our rush to embrace Kim. Embrace the opportunity, but not the unrepentant criminal, who would perhaps murder on mass again should it be beneficial to him. A balanced reply is difficult to maintain when so much seems to rest on optimism, but it is discomforting to see the western media applaud so readily a monster; and at the same time do their utmost to remove any credit from the ‘monster’ in their own midst, President Donald J. Trump.

 

At the recent Winter Olympics, this tactic was egregiously on display, as Kim Jong Un’s preening, arrogant sister was lauded, while Republican Vice President Mike Pence was mocked and criticised – for… not being as fashionable… for being Christian… the exact reason is rarely spelled out, though is so unabashedly recurring that is not hard to reach a sound conclusion. You could read of the accomplished tyrant’s sister with little mention of her accessory to the mass murder of her own people; meanwhile no one had a kind word for the man tasked with representing the west against the newly strutting starlet. When this same strategy continues on to favour the gulag-inheriting brother rather than the real-estate-inheriting American President, any fair observer has to be shaking their head.

 

The reality is that it is hard to imagine Kim planting any tree without the believable threat of Trump and his generals ordering military action. There have been South Korean presidents offering peace-pine-branches before, but all were slapped down. There have been numerous U.N. sanctions before, but a starving regime never relented. The only thing that has really changed is an America which might genuinely use its military and respond to the nuclear rhetoric. The Obama worldview, in which talking could solve everything, did not pan out well; murderous dictators do not respect notions of international peace. They do, however, get scared by the prospect of losing their megalomaniacal love of power.

 

The collapse of North Korea’s hollowed-out nuclear mountain likely also played a part in Kim’s trip to Panmunjom, to shake hands with President Moon. As things stand, Kim would still struggle to put a functioning warhead on a fully functioning intercontinental missile – but with the implosion of the radioactive mountain his chances of improving that nuclear capability have taken a hit.

 

Thus, Kim Jong Il has emerged with a theatrically staged U-turn, both sickening and hopeful in its immediacy and future prospects. We ought to remember the actor who has taken the stage, not be fooled into thinking the part played and the man playing the part are the exact same thing. I’m hopeful, that long-term, the North Korean prisoners freezing and working to the bone may have a chance at freedom, but cautious at trusting the propagandist who chose anti-aircraft guns as his means of censure. I hope the western media and political class may have a little wisdom and proportion when watching the show to be staged, for the manner and enthusiasm of their applause will certainly affect the gusto of the centre stage performer.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Dominic Graham

The Semi-Colon and The Dotted Note

The Semi-Colon and The Dotted Note

The Semi-Colon and The Dotted Note     (February 11th, 2018)

 

Music sheets shuffled. Cases unlocked. Orange gleaming brass lifted out; fingers rolled over pneumatic keys. Reed tested, discarded, new one wetted, whistled and squeaked. The thumps of drums settling, legs extended; key on lugs, turning; stick tap-dancing light hits, skipping across the drum head; turns on the screw and tones rising to the key. Chairs shunted, guitar note loud over all – fingers across a fret board, horizontal; fingers up and down the heavy double bass – vertical, pulled and dropped, and pressed on. A dozen different runs and scales and beats, trying out, each individual, even syncopating yet in spite of themselves. The band leader turned:

“No-dotted notes.”

Head sprung from a rachet. What? Looks amongst them.

“No dotted notes. No triplets.”

Stares. Blank-faced. Plain.

“Those are the rules. No off-beats. Certainly no grace notes.”

The lead guitarist looked across to rhythm; rhythm looked across to the saxophone. The saxophonist glanced to the drum kit, to the shadows at the back of the stage and the man with arm ready extended over the ride. The wooden stick caught the light; it slowly withdrew, leaving only the gleam of the cymbal.

“Let’s play.”

 

The jazz band banned from playing jazz.

 

If you’re wondering what a dotted note is, or are trying to draw out some lost impression from age-eleven piano class: it’s what makes jazz swing. Think of the swoosh sound of a big band in your head, the ping of stick on cymbal that seems to skip along – that’s dotted notes. If you looked at the sheet music you might see that swing written in triplet form – another attempt to capture the elusive feel on paper. Talking definitions, a dotted note is when you simply put a dot after a note, and thereby increase the note’s value by half again. So, a quaver (half a beat) gets a dot and now lasts for three quarters of a beat. A semi-quaver (a quarter of a beat) gets a dot and lasts for a quarter of a beat plus an eighth of a beat. There are even dotted, dotted notes…

This musical punctuation is what makes jazz jazzy; it’s what makes much of rock roll. Think of the familiar drum rhythm of every single ‘Oasis’ song and you are also listening to dotted notes: half beats, which pull out beyond the off-beat – the typical nodding of the head and even tapping of the foot – and then fall again before the next whole beat arrives. Think of the bass drum-snare drum pattern at the beginning of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ and you are hearing in your mind close-cousins of the dotted note: driving beats landing a breath before or after – somewhere in the mysterious in between.

Remove the possibility of such graceful notes and rhythms, and what possibilities would be left to music? For martialling rhythm means that everything becomes a march; and when everything is a march, few, in time, even remember they are marching.

Yet, as the title lets on, I’m talking about literary punctuation here, not just time signatures and drum solos: The Semi-colon.

There are probably few things less well understood in English, and less frequently dared into use, than this half-way shape of hovering full-stop and comma; and yet I am presenting the case that trying to write expressively without it is like trying to play jazz saxophone while only staying on the 1, and beat.

Commas, Full stops, Semi-colons; Colons, Dashes, and Parentheticals, are neglected proportionate to our ability to express ourselves. Taking a step away from the music analogy – put it in terms of simply speaking. We don’t usually consider the punctuation that girds our speech, but imagine enforced conversation rules where the only pauses allowed were the full stop and comma. No ellipses… no dash aside when a new thought occurs, muddled with morphing brackets as your thoughts congeal, jumping to a colon as you splutter a list of semi-colons, commas, started full-stops, which sprout comma’s wing beneath, or mirrored dot above. We would speak as rhythmic robots essentially. And yet that is what has been advocated increasingly on the page/screen since the styles of some very talented modernist writers became the new norm. We don’t speak this way, and wouldn’t listen to rhythmically shackled music this way – so why on earth do we think we should write and read this way?

The language of our memos and emoji laden messages has forgotten what punctuation can do. We articulate in solely starts and stops – and occasionally dashes. Now, I’m not saying there is no benefit nor purpose to shorthand. English needs to fit its purpose, and the needs of business English are clearly not the same as those of stream of consciousness or poetry. But when novels are written, by and large, in a comparable standard of active English – with a few italics for emphasis – to emails, something important may have been lost.  

The achievements of modernism should inform our literature. But not encapsulate it. Hemingway. Orwell. The power of direct English: it serves an ideological purpose, a persuasive, particularly compelling purpose. But if that’s all you can do, then you’re a drummer banging in a 2/2 time signature for every single song. Yet, by the 1960s’ ‘postmodernism’ of Kurt Vonnegut, the writing and rhythm often heard was largely that: a shorter, heavier punching frame, which had lost the foresight to see what it was swinging for. As Vonnegut wrote: Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons… all they do is show you’ve been to college.” Not the colleges of the present time, certainly. You won’t learn about them there.

In the World War II of Vonnengut’s ‘Slaughter House Five,’ fire-bombing Dresden serves little purpose; war is pointless; death is neither here nor there; for time and life are pointless too. I feel about Vonnengut’s ‘Slaughter House Five,’ much as I do about his views on writing – his lack of insight ran parallel. In what is supposedly a very meta novel, can an attempt to describe and define existence really make do without the ‘;’ ?

Even if the fascists are coming for you? No need to take a quicker, a more panicked, a more careful, a more devastating breath?

For that is what punctuation symbols are. The breaths that you breathe. That characters breathe. That readers breathe. They are the pause in thought, the glance aside, the dead stop in rage; they are the look up of your antagonist and the view that meets his eyes, which filters through him, requiring less than a weighted full stop and more than a sudden comma. They are experience and thought and meaning, and to exclude their use and deem it as solely ‘showing off’ is to forget half of the timing of being human. We should no more attempt to live or write life with only commas and full-stops, than we should attempt a guitar solo without dotted notes. The result. It clunks.

Sometimes writing must clunk. Sometimes, as in an academic essay, a semi-colon must follow the ‘Manuals of Style’ and ‘connect two independent, closely related and individually complete clauses.’ Sometimes, it must both flow, and clunk, and then also be the balance between ‘two independent clauses;’ and sometimes the dotted note can add its counterpoint, giving rhythm, leaping quickly on, in an attempt to fully express more than language can achieve through words alone.

Writing needs its dotted notes.

To finish with a finely composed symphony; and first as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of ‘The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ and Daniel Defoe’s use of semi-colons (whether they were improvised by Defoe or a later editor is another question):

“Worthy of Shakespeare; and yet the simple semi-colon after it, the simple passing on without the least pause of reflex consciousness is more exquisite and masterlike than the touch itself. A meaner writer… would have put an ‘!’ after ‘away,’ and have commenced a new paragraph.”

And by Defoe:’

“I smiled to myself at the sight of this money. “O drug!” said I aloud, “what art thou good for? Thou art not worth to me, no, not the taking off of the ground; one of those knives is worth all this heap. I have no manner of use for thee; even remain where thou art, and go to the bottom as a creature whose life is not worth saving.” However, upon second thoughts, I took it away; and wrapping all this in a piece of canvas, I began to think of making another raft; but while I was preparing this, I found the sky overcast, and the wind began to rise, and in a quarter of an hour it blew a fresh gale from the shore…”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Dominic Graham