Tariq Jahan

Tariq Jahan is an inspiration to us all. If there is one man in Birmingham who could have been justified in an outburst of rage at recent events, surely it is him – the tragically bereaved father of two young men so needlessly killed during the chaos of the early week. Instead of succumbing to rage, he has helped to calm the city. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that his words played a part in quelling a (potentially racial) conflict that could have wrought untold destruction on our city. So powerful and heartfelt were his words that even the certifiable fuckwit running the Neo-Nazi Stormfront Twitter account (click here for up-to-the-minute, Web 2.0 bigotry) applauded him, saying ‘The old boy who lost his son in Brum is a legend. Asian or not. That’s a proper man.’ When a Muslim’s words are supported even by a mental fascist, who would in any other circumstance speak only of him in terms not worth typing, then we can easily see that the guy has got to the heart of the matter. Tariq Jahan has articulated what everybody with even the smallest grain of sense is feeling – and has asked us the mother of all questions, the one that must be answered in the days, weeks, months, and years to follow: why?

 

Birmingham riots

These are depressing times for Birmingham. Barely a single person in Birmingham could have predicted the extent of the damage caused over the past few days – damage not just caused to shops and businesses, not just to individuals tragically caught up in the unfortunate and shocking events (my heart goes out, as I’m sure do the hearts of all the sane amongst us, to the family and friends of those 3 individuals who were injured, two of whom fatally, during a brawl on Dudley Road), but to the social psyche of Birmingham. Let us not allow this chaos, this madness, to further divide our city. This is no longer, if it ever truly was, a protest about politics, or class, or race. These are attacks upon our city, upon our country, upon our society – all of us together. White, black, brown – these things should be irrelevant to us. My heart is warmed by reports of Sikhs and Muslims standing together in the north of our city to defend their homes, businesses, and places of worship, against the – and I fear there is no weaker term available – thieving little bastards who are currently running amok.

I cannot, in general, condone violence – but I can and will condone the necessary use of force in order to protect ones family, friends, and community. The north of Birmingham currently seems like a dangerous area to be in, – in the past few hours, the aforementioned incident on Dudley Rd occured, as well as reports of a shot fired at a police officer. I implore the residents of these areas to stay safe, and not to put themselves in any danger – but at the same time, I feel that those who stand together against those who would attack their community deserve undying praise. We are only strong if we are together. Please, do not put yourselves in any danger – stay indoors if at all possible, and keep in regular contact with people. Call the police if anything happens. I merely wish to offer my support for those who are unfortunate enough to have been forced to defend themselves over these nights, and a hope that this solidarity will continue and, together with police work, end swiftly these unneccesary events.

The individuals in the police force deserve credit – they are doing a tough job, and deserve credit for their bravery. To see such scenes on home turf is as distressing for them as for any other resident of this city – this is our home. However, their resources appear to be stretched thin. Politicians and the media seem mostly to focus on London, as if it were the only area currently experiencing problems. It is not. There is always a media and political bias in favour of London in our country, but surely now of all times our elected leaders must realise that the wellbeing of every affected area is of equal import, and not treat the problems outside of London as if they happened in a different country?

Finally, I must praise the work of both Sangat TV, a local Sikh-focused station in Birmingham, which has provided tireless coverage and calls for calm over these past fews days, and @CaseyRain, whose blog has provided me and countless other Brummies with information over the past few days. These 2 outlets combined have been far more informative and useful than the entirety of the mainstream media, and deserve credit and praise for their work.

Kaliningrad Zoo

Videos in this post may not be pleasant/safe for work.

On a recent trip to Kaliningrad, I paid a visit to the city zoo.  To say that Kaliningrad Zoo shocked me doesn’t cover the emotion that I felt. I can lay no claim to expertise in animal welfare or conservation, and so therefore cannot write with any true authority upon the matter, but I feel the necessity of sharing what I saw there. Let me state first that I do not accuse the staff of Kaliningrad Zoo of anything; nor do I presume that I am so perceptive as to fully understand the normal working conditions of a zoo, or any of the needs of the animals. I have been informed that similar conditions are to be found in British zoos (whether this is true or not, I cannot truthfully say) – a claim which shocked me further, as to think that such conditions which I considered to be abhorrent are standard for zoos and expected as normal either betrays a deeper level of ignorance on my part, or shows that zoos still do not live up to the childhood myth.

Kaliningrad Zoo is not the most miserable place on earth. In no way do I wish to imply any wilful mistreatment or neglect of the animals under the care of the staff of the zoo. From my understanding, the staff there have long struggled against financial problems, and have on occasion had to resort to feeding the animals out of their own cupboards. For this nobility and dedication to the care of their animals, they deserve applause. Fortunately, in recent years, the zoo has recieved sponsorship from various companies, which has gone some way to help with their financial problems – although exactly how far, I cannot say. Others have noted poor conditions there –  for example, an elephant at the zoo, Pregolja, was briefly the subject of international attention when news of her cramped living conditions became widely known. An appeal was launched for her removal from the zoo, but to no avail. I don’t know whether conditions are the same now as then (certainly, a further public appeal for aid proved fruitful), but they still don’t look pleasant.

Again, I must reiterate that I could be mistaken about things – but, I must say, the zoo really shocked and disturbed me. Maybe I’m soft, but seeing animals in such conditions isn’t pleasant to me in the slightest. When I saw the bears standing, waving, and posing for the crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the animals (so many of which approach anybody who stands near their cage) have been conditioned so that they are not, in fact, any longer the noble beasts of the wild – but are now broken and degraded examples of their respective species, no more representative of their species than an animatronic puppet would be.

Bears Fighting

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iFEk2flads[/youtube]

Finally, I must discuss the birds at the zoo. .The cages are far too small. This video will show it more concisely than I shall be able to write.

Bird Cages

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4W7auUAlBJM[/youtube]

Birds, in general, fly. A small number lack this gift, but for the most part, avialae are characterised by their mastery of the air. A bird denied flight is as a writer denied words – a situation so ridiculous that it defies sane comprehension. Freedom of mobility characterises birds more perhaps than any other type of animal, even free roaming fish of the sea – a pelican may swoop, dive, and return to the sky, but his piscine quarry gains the freedom of the air only in the cage of the avian mouth. Yet, it is considered normal for us to cage birds, to imprison them – to deny them their evolutionary birthright. Surely part of the magic of seeing animals in the flesh is the sense, no matter how small, that these animals are getting on with their day-to-day business with the minimum of disruption from their surroundings and captors? That we are, in some small way, seeing, and perhaps understanding these animals in a way that we just can’t experience through pictures and words? In a way that is lost completely to us, when this is how we see them? I do not propose that we do away wth zoos – but perhaps they should be designed and run in ways that suit the animals more, so that we in turn may better experience them.

 

Back to Poland

Here I am, in Poland again. It seems as if I’m never away from the place. Still, I do like it here – ever since I lived in Torun for a semester, I’ve been kinda in love with Poland. It’s a strange place, in that it’s shaken off the Soviet shackles, but still feels very different from Western Europe. Cross the border from Germany and you’ll definitely know that you’re not in Western Europe any more. One obvious reason for this is the language barrier – in many other countries, one can easily get away without using the local tongue, but this isn’t Malaga. In Krakow, people know English, because so many Brits go there for stag parties, but for the most part, unless you’re in an airport, a hostel, or an English book shop, you’re gonna need some Polish. For us Brits, that’s pretty scary – but only because, when it comes to learning other languages, we’re a nation of fannies. We’re not incapable, we just like to tell ourselves that we are. Of course, one can use German in many parts of Poland, but that’s no help to most Brits – and you’re not guaranteed to find any use for it, especially if you’re far away from the border.

 

I don’t speak Polish. I lived here for a semester, and learned enough to get by in shops, trains, taxis, and restaurants, but that’s it. Oh, I can swear a bit too, but I think that’s the first thing any Brit learns in another language. Besides, ‘chuj w dupę policji‘ isn’t really a useful phrase. Yet, I keep coming back here. Some of the coolest people I’ve ever met either came from or lived in Poland, and, even though I absolutely hate Polish transport (the trains may as well be pulled by horses, and many drivers here seem either criminally negligent or medically retarded), I enjoy every single visit. Even right now, when I’m all alone and in agony, having just had my brace adjusted (yes, my orthodontist is in Poland – sorry, NHS fanboys, but dental treatment in the UK is extortionate), I find myself more relaxed here, drinking and eating alone, than I ever was in Wolverhampton, my university town (it’s not a city, don’t believe the hype). The reason I first came to Poland was because 2 years of living in Wolverhampton broke me completely – I had to get as far away as I could.

 

I’ll write more on Poland soon, but I want to finish my beer and go back to my room, so I’ll end on this note. Come to Poland, because it’s bloody great. Don’t go to Wolverhampton, because it’s bloody shit. Great beats shit, right?

Infanticide as an evolutionarily adaptive strategy

Infanticide, at first glance, seems to be nothing more than a grisly phenomenon, showing merely the overwhelming potential for brutality present in the animal kingdom. It is, however a practice performed by many different species in many parts of the globe. If infanticide was localised to one group of one species, in one localised region, then the assumption could easily be made that it is indeed merely a localised practice, and perhaps merely an evolutionary misfiring – a non-adaptive strategy that would be quickly lost in the face of other, more useful ones. However, the fact that it is so widespread, and crosses not just group boundaries within species but is performed in many different species suggests that it is not just an act of violence, but is in fact an adaptive strategy with very real benefits for its practitioners.

From the point of view of a modern, western, and (most importantly) human society, infanticide is a reprehensible practice, both sickening and lacking in morality. However, when discussing evolution, reproduction, survival, and the strategies employed in these processes, there can be no pretence of morality. Nature does not care whether a successful strategy is disgusting by our standards, but merely that it is indeed a successful, and therefore adaptive strategy. Indeed, we must be careful not to anthropomorphise any facet of the processes of evolution, reproduction, and survival – there can be no question of judging the morality of evolutionary strategies, because the only thing that matters in evolutionary terms is what works. With this in mind, we must first recognise that despite our feelings towards it infanticide does indeed exist within the animal kingdom, and therefore examine the potential reasons as to why this practice continues.

Examples of infanticide in the animal kingdom

Historically, infanticide as a conscious strategy for selecting offspring by phenotype has indeed occurred in humans – not just as an act of warfare, or as an attempt to wipe out members of another group, but as a way of eliminating weak offspring, and removing the ‘weakest’ genes (i.e. those that contribute to creating these examples of weaker offspring) from the gene pool, in order to ensure the continued strength of the group – perhaps most famously known as a practice of the ancient Spartans. However, human incidences of infanticide can be problematic to study. Historical examples such as the aforementioned practice in Sparta cannot be used to form adequate models because we cannot verify the data attesting to the extent of both the usage and the success of the practice, not least because we are so far removed from that era. Furthermore, scientific studies regarding infanticide in humans are few and far between. As Hausfater (1982) states, ‘Infanticide has not received much study because it’s a repulsive subject…many people regard it as reprehensible to even think about it.’[1] Finally, it is important to remember that, even were we able to fully account for infanticide in humans, our findings would not necessarily hold true for the rest of the animal kingdom – for example, a strategy that is evolutionarily successful for humans need not be a beneficial strategy in other species. We should not think of humans as the pinnacle of evolution, as if we had somehow attained the grand prize in the game of life – in scientific terms, humans are just another species.

Infanticide is, of course, a practice not merely confined to Homo Sapiens. For example, Hrdy (1977)[2] studied the selective killing of offspring in Presbytis Entellus, the Hanuman langur. Two troops of Presbytis Entellus were focused upon, named ‘Hillside’ and ‘Bazaar’. It was noticed that, on many occasions, a male from one group would switch to the other group and usurp control – the average tenure of a male leader in the troops in the studied area was found to be 27.5 months. Often, the new male would be found to attack the offspring of the previous incumbent. Offspring were also found to have been attacked by the companions of the new male. For example, during a power struggle between two males (Shifty and Mug), in which the offspring of a third was presumed to have been attacked and killed by the companions of Mug. As Hrdy (1977) states, ‘a daughter born to Pawless during the period when both Shifty and Mug were vying for control of Hillside troop was assaulted on several occasions by the five newer invaders; the infant eventually disappeared and was presumed dead.’[3] Hrdy theorised that ‘Given that the tenure of a usurper is likely to be short, he would benefit from telescoping as much of his females’ reproductive career as possible into the brief period during which he has access to them.’[4]

Furthermore, the practice of infanticide is not confined solely to primates, nor to males. Cicirello and Wolff (1989)[5] studied pairs of white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus), and found that both males and females of this species engaged in infanticide. Their study found that ‘cohabitation for 15 days without successful mating did not inhibit infanticide for males or for females, but cohabitation that included successful mating did inhibit infanticide at 4 days postpartum.’[6] This suggests that infanticide in this species is related to the male progenitor – when a successful pairing resulting in offspring occurred, cases of infanticide within that pair were reduced. The study also found that ‘more infanticidal females bred than did noninfanticidal females, and they bred in a shorter period of time’.

Is infanticide an adaptive strategy?

As stated in Hrdy (1977), early studies reporting on infanticide in langurs suggested that ‘all troop members…were functioning so as to maintain the fabric of the social structure…it was difficult to explain such behaviour in terms of group survival.’[7] The traditional view was that infanticide was a result of a breakdown in normal social conventions[8], suggesting that it could not be an adaptive strategy. The closest that early research came to providing an account for the advantages of infanticide was that it may have occurred as a result of overcrowding. However, this viewpoint focuses too much on the group as the basic unit of evolution. As explained by Dawkins (1976), neither the group or the individual can be considered the basic evolutionary unit – ‘…the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity.’[9] Therefore, from an evolutionary point of view, the ‘needs’ of the group are insignificant – what really matters is the passing-on of genes. Genes can be considered ‘selfish’, because a successful gene is one that is reproduced. Likewise, a gene (or set of genes) that does not succeed in being replicated is unsuccessful. Therefore, an individual organism that passes on its genes can be considered to be successful – it has passed on its genes, and therefore fulfilled its purpose. Even though the individual male benefits from the practice of infanticide, the benefit comes from the successful passing-on of his genes.

Conclusion

In this way, we can see how the practice of infanticide can be an adaptive strategy, and be conducive to successful reproduction at the genetic level. A male killing the offspring of another male means that no resources are ‘wasted’ on that child, and increases the likelihood that the new male’s genes will be successfully passed on. The genes that promote the act of infanticide in the individual are therefore more likely to be successful than those that do not, because the individual male practising infanticide ensures that resources will be spent on rearing his offspring, and not on those sired by another.

[1] Hausfater, G, in Webster, B,’ Infanticide: Animal Behaviour Scrutinized For Clues To Humans’, The New York Times, 1982, Available: http://www.nytimes.com/1982/08/17/science/infanticide-animal-behavior-scrutinized-for-clues-to-humans.html?sec=health [Accessed 13 January 2010]

[2] Hrdy, SB, ‘Infanticide As A Primate Reproductive Strategy’, in American Scientist, Vol 65(1), Jan-Feb 1977

[3] Ibid, p23

[4] Ibid, p24

[5] Cicirello, D and Wolff, J, The effects of mating on infanticide and pup discrimination in white-footed mice, in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology Vol 26, No.4 (Berlin: Springer Berlin/Heidelberg, 1990), Available: http://www.springerlink.com/content/ng6w216wgrn06216/ [ Accessed: 13th Jan 2010]

[6] Ibid, p277

[7] Hrdy (1977), p.21-22

[8] Ibid, p22

[9] Dawkins, R, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p11

Essay on Paradise Lost

The selected passage, lines 358-392 of Book IV is, in terms of explaining Satan’s motivation for his part in the Fall of Man, perhaps the most significant in the entirety of Paradise Lost. Here, Satan’s plan for Adam and Eve to share in woe with him is voiced. Furthermore, in this short soliloquy many facets of Satan’s personality are expounded upon – we learn more of his grief at his eviction from Heaven, his envy of God’s new favourites, and we see his rationalisation of his terrible plan. The selected passage is therefore not only crucial in its importance to the plot, but also in its portrayal of Satan’s character and motivations.

The passage opens with Satan transfixed upon the beauteous forms of Adam and Eve, whom until now he has not set eyes upon. Although indeed mesmerised by their beauty, Satan is consumed with both anger and jealousy, envious of Adam and Eve, who are God’s new favourites. Satan’s opening lines explicate his jealousy of God’s new creation:

‘O Hell! What do mine eyes with grief behold

Into our room of bliss thus high advanced

Creatures of other mould’1

Here, Satan’s jealousy of Adam and Eve is apparent, and recalls his jealousy of the Son of God in the time leading up to the war in Heaven – Book V sees Satan talk of

‘The great Messiah, and his new commands,

Who speedily through all the hierarchies

Intends to pass triumphant, and give laws.’2

It is clear that Satan does not accept his place in the hierarchy ordained by God, just as he sees the Son being unfairly placed above this hierarchy. Satan does not understand why God would make another superior to him, and indeed considers himself unfairly placed in the grand order. The line ‘Into our room of bliss’ shows how Satan feels usurped by Adam and Eve – that they are taking his rightful place. Just as he considered the Son to be less worthy than he of God’s favour, Satan is again confounded by and jealous of the privileged position given to Adam and Eve.

However, it is important to note that Satan considers himself to feel no enmity towards Adam and Eve – he regards them with awe, declaring them ‘to heavenly spirits bright\ little inferior’3. despite his jealousy of them, and his terrible plan for them (‘Accept your maker’s work; he gave it me,\ Which I as freely give’4), he is merely using them, and their freedom as weapons in his war against God. Satan knows that he cannot compete with God directly in a contest of power – this was proven when God evicted Satan and his legions from Heaven. Satan is therefore engaged in asymmetrical warfare with God, and considers himself justified in using guerilla tactics. Milton’s familiarity with the works of Niccolo Machiavelli (both Arte della Guerra and Discorsi were mentioned in Milton’s Commonplace Book) is evident in his Machiavellian portrayal of Satan. Riebling makes the case that Satan is intended to be a partial analogue of Machiavelli’s ideal prince – knowing when to use cunning and guile instead of force, and at least partially steeped in Machiavellian virtù, which she describes as ‘the talent to act in whatever way will bring success’5. To this end, Adam and Eve are unwitting pawns.

Satan’s feelings on the matter are explicated in lines 386-7 – ‘Thank him who puts me loth to this revenge\ On you who wrong me not for him who wronged.’6 This shows how Satan does not blame, or hate Adam and Eve for their more favoured position in God’s hierarchy, but merely envies them. It also shows how Satan chooses not to accept the blame for his forthcoming actions, but instead to lays the blame at God’s feet. This particular section therefore also seems to be Satan’s way of justifying his actions against those born of ‘harmless innocence’7. He sees his perversion of Adam and Eve as a worthy means to an end, and as a necessary act of his revenge against God – a viewpoint explored by him in the closing lines of this passage:

‘Honour and empire with revenge enlarged,

By conquering this new world, compels me now

To do what else though damned I should abhor.’8

A key theme in Paradise Lost is the dichotomy of Satan’s personality. Satan is often shown in times of sorrow – if not regretting the war in Heaven, then certainly regretting the lot that it brought him. However, we often see a nobler, prouder side to Satan too; a side which all too quickly passes as his anger, or his predicament returns to him. His first speech in Book I contains inspiring words for the fallen host:

‘What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; the unconquerable will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome?

That glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me.’9

However, later, in Book IV, we see the other side of Satan’s personality:

‘Me miserable! Which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;

And in the lowest deep a lower deep

Still threatening to devour me opens wide,

To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.’10

This dichotomy is shown in his speech in Eden. Satan first speaks of Adam and Eve with reverence, speaking both of their ‘divine resemblance’11, and of the ‘grace’ with which they have been created, and which they embody. With these words, and others such as ‘wonder’, ‘love’, and ‘divine’, Milton neatly frames the blissful joy of Eden. However, Satan’s speech soon takes on a much more sinister tone. As stated by Knoppers, ‘Ironically, the joys of paradise make Satan even more miserable, since they only remind him of the lost joys of heaven they reflect.’12 Satan foreshadows the peril at hand to Adam and Eve:

‘Ah gentle pair, ye little think how nigh

Your change approaches, when all these delights

Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,

More woe, the more your taste is now of joy’13

The word ‘gentle’ here shows not only the divine, sinless, untainted nature of Adam and Eve, but also their weakness, and their inability to protect themselves against Satan’s machinations. The Fall of Man is foreshadowed here by Satan’s use of the contrasting nouns ‘delights’ and ‘woe’ to end his lines – foreshadowing that is echoed in the line ‘More woe, the more your taste is now of joy.’ Now we see Satan no longer transfixed by the beauty of Adam and Eve, but instead focused upon and committed to his terrible plan.

This passage portrays Satan as an extremely complex character. We see Satan as a complex character, with regret for the loss of heaven, and reverence for God’s creation (but ultimately hatred for God himself) – resolved to his task, whatever the means used.

1284 words

Bibliography

Daniells, R., 1964. Milton, Mannerism, and Baroque. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Demaray, J., 1980. Milton’s Theatrical Epic. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Eliot, T.S., 1965. On Poetry and Poets. London: Faber and Faber.

Hanford, H., 1966. John Milton: Poet and Humanist – essays by James Holly Hanford. Cleveland: The Press of Western Reserve University

Kermode, F. ed., 1960. The Living Milton. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Knoppers, L., 1994. Historicizing Milton: Spectacle, Power, and Poetry in Restoration England. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press

Knott, J., 1971. Milton’s Pastoral Vision. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Milton, J, Paradise Lost, 2nd edition, ed. Fowler, A, 2007, Harlow: Pearson Education

Shawcross, J., 1970. Milton: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

1Milton, J, Paradise Lost, 2nd edition, ed. Fowler, A, 2007, (Harlow: Pearson Education) , Book IV, lines 358-60

2Ibid, Book V, lines 691-3

3Ibid, Book IV, lines 361-2

4Ibid, Book IV, lines 380-1

5Riebling, B, Milton on Machiavelli: Representations of the State in Paradise Lost, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3. (Autumn, 1996), p.575, Available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/2863367 [accessed 1st November 2008]

6Paradise Lost, Book IV, lines 386-7

7Ibid, Book IV, line 388

8Ibid, Book IV, lines 389-392

9Ibid, Book I, lines 105-111

10Ibid, Book IV, lines 73-8

11Ibid, Book IV, line 364

12Knoppers, L, Historicizing Milton: Spectacle, Power, and Poetry in Restoration England, 1994, Athens, Georgia, University of Georgia Press, p. 81

13Paradise Lost, Book IV, lines 361-369

Sin Presents a Gift to Milton and Mankind

Veiled in black, an unfathomable train
Behind, below, my form ophidian
from your view most securely secured,
Amongst the happy crowd I cast myself.
The triptych most unholy formed anew,
Here gathered, for our scribe’s tribute to pay.
O Muse, that did our casting once inspire
Through song, and visions, and thine artifice
Once more invoked thou art, enlighten all,
Let song, thine ether, thy design so pure
Illumine to the purpose of my gift.
My garden low, from Eden far removed,
Bore fruit sufficient for the world to choke
Sustinence none, enlightenment withheld,
The countless centuries of misery
All in this mighty oak for good shored up.
The purpose of the fruit? Not quite divine,
To that within the blessed ground opposed,
In its name, compelled to repeat I am:
No fit food, no enlightenment is here,
But if ignorance be desired, then
Satisfied by this apple held here be.
As above, so below: the journey soon
Complete – firstly a taste of Eden’s fruits,
From the divine connection detatched
Thou art – then bite from the plant below grown,
And for thy toil be with ignorance struck.
With this, art thou to Satan, Death, and I
Forever chained, and never to escape.
In Eden did the fruit of knowledge grow,
So in a broken mirror did I craft
Its equal here amongst the cursed throng,
On grounds of fire and infamy, and hate.
This fruit I offer, take it and be full
And in ignorance for eternity dwell.

Watchmen

In placing the comic-book superhero in a realistic setting and social context, and discussing social and moral implications of vigilantism, Watchmen takes some of the most recognisable features of the superhero comic book genre and disassembles them, forcing the reader to question the moral, psychological and socio-political issues raised by the topic of vigilantism. The use of the comic book format enables Watchmen to address these issues in the format in which they were originally raised, taking the various superhero archetypes and applying them to a wider, more realistic context. The superhero-comic form of Watchmen is therefore not only its raison d’etre, but the most appropriate form in which to discuss these issues. By using the super-hero comic form to address these issues, Watchmen engages them on the home turf of the superhero, and in doing so puts itself in the most apt position to explore and deconstruct them.

Watchmen’s presentation as a comic book lets it fully use combinations of words and pictures in ways unavailable to other media. For instance, the use of the front page of each chapter as, in effect, the first panel of the chapter, is a feature unreproducible in other art forms. The front pages all feature objects of key significance to their respective chapters; the badge in the pool of blood from Chapter 1, the bright yellow fallout shelter sign from Chapter 3, the Rorschach pattern of Chapter 6 – these objects, as Hatfield states, ‘are associated with key characters and help to focus each successive chapter around one such character.’ They foreshadow the key characters, events, and concepts of their respective chapters.’ Another interesting feature of Watchmen is its use of mise en abyme; the tale ‘Marooned’ from the fictional pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter reflects not only the story arc of Ozymandias, and indeed the story of Watchmen as a whole, but also serves in its individual parts to describe and elaborate upon the specific chapters it intersects with. For example, the first panel (after the frontispiece) of Chapter 3 begins the telling of the story ‘Marooned’ in medias res, with the text ‘Delirious, I saw that hell-bound ship’s black sails against the yellow indies sky, and knew again the stench of powder, and men’s brains, and war.’1 Even this brief segment from the tale provides a strong parallel with the main story of Watchmen – the image of the black radiation symbol on the yellow fallout shelter sign coincides with the imagery of the text, just as the the excerpt from the tale accurately reflects the tension and apprehension of nuclear conflict that is inherently implied by the presence of the newly-mounted fallout shelter sign in New York. Allegory and enjambment are used in this way throughout Watchmen – both text and pictures combining to create a depth of meaning that could not be fully realised without both components.

Combinations of text and image in this way serve to ‘keep readers minds fully engaged because they require them to assemble meanings out of such different parts’2, as stated by McCloud. Indeed, this interplay is a crucial element in Watchmen, as the comic book format allows for text and images to integrate in ways unavailable to other media, and therefore allows Watchmen to elaborate on its key themes in ways unique to the medium. The comic book format allows for amounts of diegetic narration that would be unwieldy in other media, such as conventional literature or films, in both of which ‘the narrators voice is much more intrusive and often merges with the characters’ speech.’3 Narration in the comic book format (as opposed to in other forms of media), and indeed the format as a whole allows the reader to take their time to fully digest the significance of both text and imagery without becoming overwhelmed, or missing vital details. An image provides an immediately powerful point of focus for the reader, instantly drawing attention to itself; whereas text allows the reader to progress at their own pace to draw meaning – ‘with words, the reader controls the pace and emphasis of the reading; with pictures, the reader is more or less assaulted by the image.’4 By using the comic book format, Watchmen allows the reader freedom to digest the narrative, both textual and visual, at their own pace – while the image may indeed provide the initial assault on the senses, the text serves to elaborate and to aid in interpretation. Neither part stands alone here – the interplay of text and imagery in this way is key to Watchmen’s strength.

One of the most important issues surrounding Watchmen is framed by the quote that gives the work its name: ‘Who watches the watchmen?’; which, in this context can be read as asking ‘to what extent can those who operate outside the law be said to be beholden to it, and to serve it?’ Vigilantism has always been a key idea in the superhero-comic book genre; officially sanctioned superheroes such as Captain America are a rarity. Most often, the superhero in question is forced, either by the very nature of their operation, or that of their various antagonists, to work outside the usual confines of the law, while simultaneously defending it. In this way, superheroes often also exist outside the usual socially accepted confines of morality – for instance, many characters, such as Batman, or The Punisher, use what could be considered excessive violence to achieve their goals. Superheroes therefore work within a grey area of morality and legality, twisting and breaking these structures as they see fit. Watchmen addresses these issues by applying many recognisable superhero archetypes to a ‘real-world’ context, taking into account these legal and moral implications in a wider social context. The key characters in Watchmen all have their origins in the superhero-comic form; both in the sense that they are all adaptations of the original Charlton Comics characters, and in the sense that they can be seen to share key characteristics and themes with other superheroes. Therefore, they serve not just as characters in their own right, but also act as allegories for many of the issues raised by other superheroes.

As put by Geoff Klock: ‘…Moore’s characters resonate comic book archetypes in such a way as to suggest other established superheroes.’5 For instance, while Dr Manhattan is an adaptation of Captain Atom, he can also be seen in a wider context as a representation of both the character of Superman, and also of the general ‘Superman’ archetype. Rorschach may be based on Ditko’s ‘The Question’, but he also shares many common characteristics with other superheroes such as Batman – for example, his ‘reactionary, violent, obsessive-loner personality’6, (‘That’s what they’re saying about me now? That I’m paranoid?’7) and his status as a wanted criminal.

In using these archetypes, Watchmen forces the comic book reader to question the possible real-world implications of superheroes. After understanding Dr Manhattan, the experience of reading Superman is never quite the same. The archetype of the superhuman (a being with powers beyond that of a normal human – Watchmen is careful to describe the mortal vigilantes as ‘costumed adventurers, or some such variation) is explored here in terms of the effects such a being would have on the real world. Watchmen takes the stance that, were a superhuman endowed with powers comparable to a deity to exist on Earth, he/she would undoubtedly be used as a weapon for his/her host country. Furthermore, Watchmen explores the loss of connection with humanity that a true superhuman could encounter. Dr Manhattan is shown as a being who loses his connection with humanity due to both his immortality and his non-linear perception of time – for such a being, we are nothing but brief intrusions on the cosmos – ‘A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?’8

In using the concept of the superman in such a way, Watchmen performs an assault on the familiar archetype in its own home, the comic book – forcing the reader to reassess all previous incarnations in this new light. Similarly, the characters of Rorschach and The Comedian provide new readings of previously held ideas on vigilantism, and its representation in comic books. Rorschachs excessive violence, strict (almost fascist) moral code, and obstinate refusal to cease his activities in spite of his status as an outlaw are reminiscent of many comic book superheroes. These characteristics are at the forefront of his portrayal in Watchmen, and are used to force a reassessment of those characters and archetypes upon which Rorschach is based. Likewise, The Comedian is portrayed as an abusive, violent, murderous bully who seems to enjoy the carte blanche that vigilantism gives him to commit act after heinous act. In Watchmen, the society which the vigilantes are trying to protect turns against them, outlawing them with the Keene Act, due to their lack of accountability. This causes the majority of the active vigilantes to retire, with the notable exceptions of Dr Manhattan and The Comedian, who both continue to operate, albeit working for the government, and Rorschach, who continues his vigilantism as an outlaw. Although the outlawing of so-called superheroes is not a concept wholly unfamiliar to comic books, in Watchmen it is a key issue. By addressing this issue in such overwhelming terms, within the pages of a comic book, Watchmen forces the reader to reassess the idea and workability of the comic book vigilante in a realistic society – as the issue of accountability is explored through the pages of the book, so too is the debate raised of ‘whether the very foundations of superhero literature can in fact be maintained.’9

Watchmen is a work of art that could not be presented in another form of media without the loss of some of its most compelling features. While the superhero is a concept that is not alien to other forms of media, its roots are in the comic book, and it is therefore most fitting that it should be disassembled within the pages of one. The format allows for narrative progression at a much different pace to conventional literature or films, and allows for interplay between imagery and text (in both direct speech and narration) in ways unavailable to other art forms. While the story of Watchmen could certainly be told using other forms of media, its roots are in the superhero-comic genre – its history, both in terms of its creation by Moore and Gibbons and in terms of the fictional history it portrays, owes itself in its entirety to the superhero comic. It draws as inspiration the various superhero archetypes and, in bringing them to a more realistic setting while still retaining their original format, disassembles them entirely on their home ground. The superhero-comic format is therefore the only appropriate way for Watchmen to be realised, as it owes so much of itself to the comic book.

Word count: 1939

Bibliography

Hatfield, Charles, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005)

Klock, Geoff, How To Read Superhero Comics And Why, (New York: Continuum, 2002)

McCloud, Scott, Making Comics, (New York: Harper, 2006)

McCloud, Scott, Reinventing Comics, (New York: Harper Collins, 2000)

Miller, Frank, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, (London: Titan, 1997)

Miller, Frank and Mazzucchelli, David, Batman: Year One, (New York: DC Comics, 1988)

Miller, Frank and Varley, Lynn, 300, (Milwaukee: Dark Horse, 2006)

Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave, Watchmen, (New York: DC Comics, 1987)

Moore, Alan and Lloyd, David, V for Vendetta, (New York: DC Comics, 1990)

Moore, Alan, Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics (Rantoul: Avatar, 2007)

Rosenberg, Robin S., The Psychology of Superheroes, (Dallas: Benbella, 2008)

Sabin, Roger, Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels, (London: Phaidon, 2001)

Saraceni, Mario, The Language of Comics, (London: Routledge, 2003)

Spiegelman, Art, Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, (London: Penguin, 1987)

Spiegelman, Art, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (London: Penguin, 1991)

Varnum, Robin and Gibbons, Christina T, The Language of Comics: Word and Image (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Versaci, Rocco, This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature (New York: Continuum, 2007)

1Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 1987), Ch.3, 1

2McCloud, Scott, Making Comics, (New York: Harper, 2006), 137

3Saraceni, Mario, The language of comics, (London: Routledge, 2003), 63

4Versaci, Rocco, This book contains graphic language: Comics as literature (New York: Continuum, 2007)

5Klock, Geoff, How to read superhero comics and why, (New York: Continuum, 2002), 65

6Ibid, 66

7Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 1987), Ch.1, 12

8Ibid, Ch.1, 21

9Klock, Geoff, How to read superhero comics and why, (New York: Continuum, 2002), 62

The Foreigners

Ok, time for another one – and of course, another apology for my tardiness. There’s too much drinking to be done here, which is a bloody massive distraction from productive activities. A little about some of the people I met here:

Osman – Tiny little Turkish guy, and impossible not to love. Often says things that he shouldn’t (one specific word jumps to mind), but frankly, one of the coolest guys on the planet. Has started his own religion, Osmanism. He buggered off to Białystok in order to recruit new followers, and needs to get his arse back here as soon as possible.

Loic – A Frenchie with a TERRIBLE joke collection. An absolutely awesome guy, but sometimes I wish he’d stop rubbing my nipples. Now studies in Wrocław, which is a crying shame, because everyone misses him.

Alberto – A bloody Spaniard. Can’t handle his drink, and could take posing to the Olympic level. However, he’s a fucking awesome guy, even if he finds it literally impossible to stop talking bollocks. Has more surnames than any one person can really use.

Emilie – Mon petit cochon! An awesome girl – one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, and so much fun. Shame that she’s a bloody Frenchist. She often instructs me to go back to my island, which to me seems to smack of jealousy. Well, I guess we can’t all be fortunate enough to have no borders with Belgium.

Maria – A crazy little Russian girl, with whom I quickly fell in love. However, our occasional arguments truly taught me the meaning of cultural differences. One of the best girls I’ve ever known, and it was an unimaginably sad day when she had to return to Kaliningrad. Without her, my first few weeks here would have been far less happy, although I may have been better rested. Brilliant at Polish, amazingly well read, and one of the few people to ever amaze me with their intelligence.

Deborah – Yet another member of the Foreign Legion. Drinks a lot and dances a bit like a zombie. Surprisingly, she finds it physically impossible to drink shots. Another Anglophobe, but not quite as militant as Emilie. However, I’m pretty sure that her favourite phrase is ‘fucking English.’ I’m amazed that she finds time to study between beers, but somehow she manages. Definitely a great girl to have around.

Pierre – Well, he’s deifnitely not German. I have no idea how this guy got so good at Polish in such a short time. Oh, wait, yes I do – he actually works every now and then. Surprisingly, doesn’t seem to dislike the existence of England quite as much as the rest of les grenouilles, although this may just be part of his natural politeness.

Basak – A lovely Turkish girl, who probably doesn’t deserve to have her pronunciation mocked quite as strongly as is done by Alberto and I. That’s ‘pronunciation’, not ‘pronounciation.’

Apologies to anybody I’ve not included here – believe me, I haven’t forgotten anybody, but everything has to start somewhere! Trust me, I’ll write something insulting about each and every one of you – yes, including you, Ieva, although you’ll probably punch me again. Oh, Heini and Marjaana – that black stuff tasted like death.

Poland! First impressions

First, apologies for never continuing with my account of my first European trip…I’m a lazy sod, but I’ll put them up when I get my notebooks from England!

I was informed before I left that I’d definitely see a good number of unironic 70’s porn moustaches. Well, on that front, I wasn’t dissapointed – in fact, those seeking such pleasures need not even hunt, as it’s a matter of inevitability. The first notable lip caterpillar I bore witness to was sitting on the face of my first Polish taxi driver, who I had the pleasure of meeting within 15 minutes of landing at Bydgoszcz. Take heed, moustache seekers, Poland is your land of golden opportunity.

Now, just because this is an airport that regularly serves Ryanair flights from the UK (in fact, i think Ryanair may be the only operator at Bydgoszcz), don’t expect there to be an abundance of English speakers once one leaves the plane. Luckily, I’d learned enough Polish to get me to a train station, and to buy a ticket to Torun there. Sadly, all the other Polish that would have been helpful was in the notebook that I left in the taxi, along with all of my German notes from the past year. So, while I found myself reduced to knowing not much more than ‘bilety’ and ‘piwo’, my moustachioed friend has a lucrative career ahead of him in bilingual porn. (Space left here for joke about a Pole being waved around.)

Polish train stations will be a shock to anyone accustomed to Western civilisation. Not to denigrate the Poles, but I no longer think I have the right to complain about the British rail network. However, an hour-long journey for 7zl (less than £1.50) is not to be sniffed at, even if the train moves about as slowly as my taxi driver’s lip companion.

My first day in Poland passed mostly without incident. In all honesty, apart from the thrill of being in a country which I knew nothing about, I found myself pretty bored – too nervous and tired to find much to do at night, and almost compeltely alone in my dormitory, save for the few helpful Poles who really got me on my feet. However, over the next few days, a lot more people arrived – including a certain little мышь! Sadly, I never did find a suitable teapot for her…

European Nonsense – Day 1

(The following has been copied mostly verbatim from my notebook – most errors have been preserved in their original state, unless they really annoyed me. At some points I may go off on unfulfilled tangents, or appear to waffle. I make only the smallest of apologies.)

Firstly, speaking as someone who has never flown before – flying is fucking awesome. No other words for it. Sadly, I have to be brief, as it’s also a hell of a lot quicker than I expected. I’ll talk more about it later, about the potential hubris involved, but for the moment I’ll try to describe some of the things I can see, and what I’m experiencing.

First off, any apprehension I had regarding flying immediately dissipated as soon as the nose lifted, and I could see below me the most beautiful collection of fields. The realisation hit me suddenly – here I am, above beloved England! Such a flat country – from above it looks like a two dimensional map, with almost no variation in height.

Anyway, enough for now, but I’ll leave a few remarks.

  • Flying is cool
  • Windmills are HUGE
  • Holland smelt odd from the plane
  • Ships are BIG
  • Descent and landings are BUMPY and they make writing very difficult.

On the seperation between contemporary and more traditional musical styles

In current approaches to music, whether for the purposes of pedagogy or otherwise, there seems to exist a division between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ music. While it is undeniable that the most popular music in our western societies is much different from even so short a time ago as the Victorian era, and, superficially at least, seems to hold little in common with more ‘traditional’ music, nevertheless, it would be foolish to state that the practising musicians of today have nothing to learn from the music of previous eras. For the most part, modern musicians work using the same general theoretical principles of tonality, harmony, and rhythm as musicians in previous centuries, albeit often using sounds which would have been unachievable to the musicians of the past, and with differing purposes in mind. Indeed, living in these times, we are in the fortunate position of having all previous theoretical approaches to music available to us – it could be argued that the sum of our knowledge of musical theory is now higher than it has ever been.

It would be foolish to argue that there is no audible difference between, for example, the works of Bach and of Metallica, or between Mahler and Dr Dre, to give some perhaps extreme examples. However, one should care to remember that music has always evolved, and will always continue to. Perhaps evolution is not the best choice of word here, as it implies incompatibility. While there is difference in the approaches and goals of so-called ‘popular’ musicians today and those of yesterday, the theoretical knowledge that enables musicians to create the music of today is no different from that which was required for the great composers to create their music. The overall goal may be different, our approaches may be different, but the theoretical tools with which we approach our goals remain largely the same.

With this idea in mind, it seems also foolish to me to make too strong a distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ music. Just as we find genre theory unable to fully account for the myriad styles of ‘popular’ music today, due in no small part to overlapping musical concepts, sounds, and so forth, so too is the given distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ music unable to fully account for the connections between the two. However, just as we do not dispense with genre theory entirely, due to its value in helping us define and identify musical styles, I do not propose that we blindly ignore the fact that the music of today has marked differences from the music of ‘yesteryear’. I merely propose that these differences not be looked upon as reason for segregation. Most prominently in pedagogical approaches to music theory, there seems to be an effort amongst students and teachers of contemporary styles of music to strengthen this separation. This is, I feel, due in no small part to the alienation felt by these students and teachers, who find that many existing approaches to the teaching of music actually teach very little about contemporary ‘popular’ music. While it is understandable that today’s musicians will want to learn about the music of today, this does not mean that the music of the past should never be considered useful to them.

It almost seems as such seperation assumes that it is impossible for a listener to like both ‘modern’ and ‘classical’ music – after all, if teaching approaches to them consider them separate entities, and forces us almost to pick a favourite out of the two when considering them for study, then surely it is impossible for anyone to like both ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ music? Of course, this is nonsense: an individuals taste in music can easily range from Brahms to Burzum, through Afrika Bambaataa. Therefore, teaching approaches should not consider them incompatible; after all, music is all music, no matter the style.

It would be a tragedy for the musicians of today to think themselves unable to write such harmonically and melodically complex and interesting music as the great composers of the past. It would also be an injustice for to anyone to imply inferiority in the theoretical or in compositional skills of the musicians of today, merely due to differing musical goals. However, it would be fair, I think, to argue that many contemporary musicians feel that no theoretical knowledge is required to compose contemporary music, or at least that nothing can be learned from masters of ‘classical’ composition and theory such as Bach, which all to often leads to repetitive, uninteresting music. I feel that the given seperation between ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ music is much to blame for this – after all, if ‘popular’ music students are taught that their music is incompatible with ‘classical’ music, can anyone blame them for themselves believing in the divide?