Ferrets and Weasels

Image: Peasants Ferreting, Tapestry from Southern Netherlands c. 1470-90, now part of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

This is just a little short note to say that sometimes it is very sweet and good to be a little wrong about something. At the end of our recent essay on Virgil and “transformative” fiction we mentioned graphic novelist Reimena Yee’s project to create a “21st c. Alexander Romance.” However, hypercritical bastard that I am, I may have come off as a little mean when I had no real intention to do so. To our essay Yee has written a response – very quickly and eloquently at that. I do not think I could ever have expected to encounter such an excellent grasp of and love for the Alexander Romance material. I feel like a bit of an eejit because of this. She has more than corrected my final paragraph. I kind of feel a bit like the silly professor in that daft old meme I couldn’t find.

Exactly as we had hoped that she or someone else one day might do, Yee has clearly spent a great deal of time familiarising herself with the huge wealth of styles and “energies” behind all the visual instantiations of the Romance. I did not know that she had archived the first several chapters of the work on her blog. I had not read these, but now I busily am. I would highly recommend, reader, that you go and look at them too. They’re astounding. This is going to be amazing when it’s all finished.

If there has been one all-important theme that runs through everything that we have written this year, it is to try to be done with the zero-sum Saturnine humours that so infect the Too Clever By Far, especially online. Just as the very heart of Paper Heroes proclaimed, it is very difficult indeed not to expect to find what one was already expecting. The net is very good at reinforcing this. If you’re up to your navel in information and noise, human “common sense” (in the sense that William James might mean it – those deep and unmoveable ways of dividing up and understanding the world), is going to have to endlessly generalise to make sense of all the confusion. This is surely as reciprocally true as the fact that we are mimetic animals. We cannot help but end up becoming “generic” in speech and performance and desires when thrown into the same mass-cultural environment.

I chose to bring up Yee because I wanted to finish the essay with something positive rather than to end it, as I had originally intended, merely with the closed metaphysical trap of allegory. To merely conclude that allegory is but part and parcel with the “vicious circle” of critically demythologising in order to mythologise better, philosophing with a hammer only in order to erect more idols, is not merely rather miserable, it is also completely infertile and rather old hat. By comparison, the Alexander Romance seemed to offer at least the first beginnings of a way out quite simply because there is no real allegoresis to it – except perhaps in an ironic sense that the “real story” behind it is that it is “open source” and never stopped moving and changing.

Thus, I am indeed “cautious” as Yee would say, because one cannot help but be cautious when one becomes aware of the fact that no author or artist can ever predict all the weird ways in which their work shall be creatively (mis)understood. Virgil is perhaps just the most astounding example of what can happen. On the other hand what I am “against” is “illiteracy” in a double sense: both lack of awareness of the history of ideas and stories and of the benefits and limits of different varieties of media. This is how you get stuck and today it seems very easy to get stuck given the immense monocultural dominance of the American “culture industry.” Deep down I perhaps cannot help but still want to believe in the naive old pre-Platform Revolution fantasy that the net might give us the chance to be gloriously creatively benevolently feral instead of simply the nasty war-of-all-against-all that it so often seems to degenerate into when left to its own devices. Thus, I am very glad indeed for her response.

Nevertheless, it is my speculation on her Disney influence that Yee concentrates on in her reply. She does a marvellous job of explaining the provenance of her style that left me a little flabbergasted. She’s also very much right that lots of very original people have drawn influence from Disney. For instance, it’s hard to imagine filthy old bastard Robert Crumb without the strong influence of Disney artists like Carl Banks behind him. But here’s where it gets really interesting, at least to me at least as incorrigible player of metaphysical games. Yee writes:

So it’s more like, Owl projects from my style that I MAY or MAY NOT be projecting the Disney way to Alexander.

(It’s like if a biologist was told that the weasel and the ferret are the same animal because they look alike, even if it’s true they are the same species)

I’ve been around ferrets all my life. They’re most likely the same species as the European polecat instead of the weasel, but the point still very much stands. My old mum still has a couple she uses for hunting rabbits. Many years ago, I remember drunkenly and very animatedly explaining to a Mongolian friend how hunting with omkhii khurne (lit. rancid weasels) works – the nets; the box; the fat old male or hob, kept on standby to get the younger ferrets to come back out of the warren if they kill a rabbit down there and, being carnivores, decide afterwards to settle in for a nice long sleep. He thought it was ridiculous. But then again, he had no idea what an octopus was, so one for one I suppose.

The thing about ferrets, though, is that they do not easily survive in the wild, down here in Australia at least. At most there may be three small wild populations of them, though two of these are somewhat dubious (p. 9 here). I’ve seen the occasional feral one, sure, thin as a stick, but they rarely seem to live longer than a couple of months or their own. They’ll always come looking for humans and a free meal – and sadly, a dog usually winds up killing them. A major reason for this is they don’t deal with heat well, but just as important is the fact that as noxious as they can be, ferrets are extremely domesticated. In New Zealand, on the other hand, there are both feral ferrets and weasels (and stoats too), introduced in the late 19th c. to keep down the rabbits that had just been introduced. Sigh. With no competition and lots of ground-dwelling birds to eat, all three varieties of mustelid flourished. Apparently, it’s been illegal to breed ferrets as pets or even sell them over there for twenty years now. Nowhere else to my knowledge has such a a feral ferret problem except perhaps, in a far small way, Guernsey.

Isaiah Berlin famously spoke of writers and thinkers as being either foxes or hedgehogs. The clever “fox” has lots of tricks; the spiny old “hedgehog” only has one, but it’s a real good one. The ferret and the weasel might teach us something too (though in English of course both of these animals have negative figurative connotations). In the spirit of that most artificially-selected of cartoon mustelids, the spice weasel, one may “knock it up another notch” and say that “weasel”-artists survive well in their niche, even thrive in places where they have no competition. The “ferrets”, by comparison, are largely doomed to fail unless they have a nice cushy life. On first glance it is all too easy to confuse them. On second look, I think Yee looks to prove herself a “weasel” – not on account of the fact that some eccentric classicist or another such as myself might like or dislike what she has done (we are irrelevant), but rather that by being the sort of person clever and enterprising enough to take up a subject like the Romance and truly think about the best way to (re)present it, she shall do amazing things. People who know nothing about the Romance are going to love this quite simply because it is adventurous and very beautiful, which is precisely why it has been loved by so very many different peoples over millennia.

Nonetheless, Yee’s Alexander seems to very much be intended as a serious allegorical Alexander, one that is: “relevant to 21st century concerns like the weakening of kingship as a power structure, climate collapse, and the very loaded imagery of walls (the Gate of Alexander, the Berlin Wall, Trump’s Wall) Every age has its own Alexander; Alexander is a mirror, etc.” In short, it is what this blog would call a political-theological Alexander. Does not Alexander’s deification set in motion the later deification of the Roman emperors as surely as it likely produced (perhaps obsequiously) the euhemerist theory of religion in which all the gods were once but outstanding mortals? We have said more than enough in the past about the king’s ghost, especially concerning Trump’s Wall, the soteric monarch etc. The issue is not so much the “weakening of kingship” – an exotic institution that on the face of things seems to barely be around these days, but the ongoing legacy of its “power structure.” I think one can assume that Yee would understand this.

Here it is interesting to note that Alexander’s Wall became to mediaeval Christian and Islamic minds a kind of katechontic symbol – that which “holds back” the End of Days in the form of the armies of Gog and Magog (which were often antisemitically represented as the feral Inner Asian “lost tribes of Israel”). If you want a far better katechontic symbol than Donnie’s Wall it would perhaps be found in the curious conviction of eccentric evangelical Tom Horn that the real purpose of Trump’s amusingly named “space force” was to stop Wormwood, the meteor that announces the beginning of the cycle of the End in Revelation. A great deal of the wilder American evangelical types are often “accelerationists” of a sort – speed up the old age of the world to get to the End! Horn, nutty as he is, simply seems to think that Wormwood shall strike the Earth in 2029 and that there’s nothing the “space force” can do. What is of central concern to him is that Trump knows but at the same time also does not know his powerlessness before History.

Here we find one of the most pathological and strange inherited aspects of Western understandings of the Order of Things. According to Revelation the End must come and the Beast(s) must take over government for a time before all is set aright. Therefore, Christian rulers have long rationalised their Order in relation to pushing that End as far as they can into the Future, to the End remaining “not yet in spite of wars and rumours of wars.” In liberalism this is “secularised” in the form of the imperative that “there is no alternative”, or more accurately: “we have already seen all the other alternatives that shall ever be and all of them are worse than me.” Its means of “holding back” is not merely Fear (though this plays a central part of its deep Hobbesian lizard-brain), but the encouragement of the poverty of imagination as far as what “a better world” might entail. Add climate collapse, and all that the Leviathan shall do is tighten its grip – on bodies, concepts, desires, dreams, information, everything. This of course is why I am such a merciless critic of what passes for “leftism”, even to the point of avid “anti-leftist” anarchism. I’ve read the dang books, I’ve spent years talking to all sorts of weirdos on the net, I’ve seen the factories where the watery “change the world” ideas are cooked up by Ivy League ponces. And yet, in spite of that I remain an unironic Utopian. So perhaps, reader, should you.

All that aside, good luck to Yee. I’m off to Kyrgyzstan for a bit to sit by the Issyk Kol and haggle for some old books. There should be a couple more essays to see out the end of the year when I come back. I’ve also recently rewritten a whole lot of our old material on early speculative fiction, Margaret Cavendish and The Wonders Beyond Thule into a nice little fifty page monograph. It should be out in December care of a couple of dear friends who earn their crust as book binders. Might upload a copy here too. Also, for those who are interested, I just published a paper here on the Buryat-Mongol heroic epic Shono-Baatar. It’s a marvellous story with an even more marvellous history.

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