La Torre Guinigi - photo by Juliet Clark
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Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

The Warm South by Paul Kerschen

“God knows how it would have been — but it appears to me — however, I will not speak of that subject.”
- John Keats to Charles Brown, November 30, 1820

Fiction begins in mean-spirited gossip, and the fictional career of “John Keats” began in 1818 when Blackwood’s Magazine cast him as little Sirrah Aguecheek, sticky sidekick to Leigh Hunt’s insolent Master Belch. Three years later, Keats’s death provided Percy Bysshe Shelley with Adonais, whose preface described a fluffy duckling skewered mid-peep, ne’er to reach full-fledged quackery.

These two accounts largely (and inaccurately) agreed on the facts of the case, differing by the tone in which they pronounced it “pathetic.” The magazine’s Keats was a bad poet who published bad poems, received bad reviews, and died badly; Shelley’s Keats was a promising poet who did the same. As Blackwood’s and Lord Byron feared and Matthew Arnold lamented, Shelley’s deflected self-pity won undisciplined hearts and minds, and the Martyrdom of Saint Mawk supplied a low-impact model for sad underbred poetic youths until punk duckling Rimbaud finally edged it out.

In post-Victorian fiction, Rudyard Kipling’s Medium-is-the-Medium short story “Wireless” transmitted Keats’s voice to 1902, but all it could find to do was recite a bit of “The Eve of St. Agnes” before fading into static. At much greater length at the other end of the century, Dan Simmons used Keats as the props department for a series of super-science space sagas, and a Keats-shaped token made the midpoint shit-is-getting-real sacrifice in The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers’s Lives of the Poets with Vampires. Anthony Burgess’s more delicate reinterpretation of literary history, ABBA ABBA, hung a series of elaborate set-pieces from Mr. Finch’s account of the dying Keats’s uncooperative mood and the dying Keats’s own account of compulsive punning. More recently, Andrew Motion mulled a drowsy muddle of reincarnation and/or transmission and/or alternative history in The Invention of Dr. Cake.

None of these “Keats” characters resembled the “Keats” in my head; none of these Keats stories satisfied me as storytelling. And that bothered me not at all; I didn’t particularly expect or crave a believable Keats in a satisfying fiction. Writers are people so extraordinarily dull that they need to put themselves through the ridiculous fuss of writing and publishing merely to make anyone notice them at all. Why should we turn to a pillow-bellied mimic of Henry James when the original had so much more incentive to hold our attention? Gluing a fake nose on Nicole Kidman is its own reward; why drag poor Virginia Woolf into it?

The Warm South taught me what was missing from the previous two hundred years of John Keats stories and why I should have missed it.

All of them shared at least one characteristic besides the nominal presence of “Keats”: immobility. Their Keatses consist of funeral orations, Royal Academy paintings, quotations, checklists, and holographic freeze-frames of that-living-hand. Blackwood’s goofus was hopeless from the start; the hottest action in Adonais was Shelley flipping the Mourn / Don’t-Mourn switch. Tim Powers drew a loopy narrative line, but it connected the dots which had been printed long before. And Motion’s heavy concentric Victorian frames unleashed all the narrative force of an after-dinner speech at the Keats-Shelley Association. To repurpose Jeffrey C. Robinson’s summary of a hundred verse tributes, they were “driven not by Keats’s life or by his poems but by his death; Keats is that poet who by definition died young.”

It’s true enough that John Keats was besieged by death from childhood, and in good sad underbred poetic youth fashion he indulged occasional suicidal fantasies (Chatterton being the definitionally dead poet of his generation). But he was never une nature morte; allowing for the constraints of wealth, health, and family, he careened and caromed as wildly as Byron or Shelley, and, lazy though the Keats children might have been by nature, he refused to stay still when it would be the wisest course of inaction. You might be certain that he wouldn’t follow good advice or accept assistance gracefully, but past that all bets were off. “He would not stop at home, he could not quiet be.”

The Keats in my head was, if anything, that poet who by definition made mistakes. Of course, many of us have made more and larger mistakes than Keats could manage. But Keats seemed unusually enthusiastic about the prospect and more determined to be content with the result. It was a way to go adventuring on the cheap, to elevate unprovisioned circumstances into self-earned manly independence.

“I refused to visit Shelley, that I might have my own unfettered scope.”

“I will write independently. I have written independently without Judgment. I may write independently, and with Judgment, hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself.”

“I feel that I make an impression upon them which insures me personal respect while I am in sight whatever they may say when my back is turned.”

Paul Kerschen’s Keats convinced me by making Keatsian mistakes in a Keatsian manner. And although it might sound odd, his Keats carried even more conviction for having changed. Death should be, after all, a life-changing experience, and one rarely survives one’s mid-twenties without some self-definitional trait being revealed as ballast; it’s the age when, for example, most sad poetic youths stop writing poetry.

In pre-posthumous Keats’s letters and his circle’s memoirs, we encounter an instantly charming young man: warm, forthright, engaged, generous, even pretty in a peculiar way. Byron and the Keatses’ icy guardian, Richard Abbey, were immune, or allergic, to his appeal, but more appear to have been susceptible. And we also encounter a moody, thin-skinned abandoned child: distrustful, paranoid at times, misanthropic and misogynistic, and quick to break his most fervent attachments.

During his last summer, Keats began to note his own role in this repeated drama: “I am in the wrong, and the world is in the right, I have no doubt. Fact is, I have had so many kindnesses done me by so many people, that I am cheveaux-de-frised with benefits, which I must jump over or break down.”

The benefactors responsible for his Italian trip and Roman residence would have piled such chevaux past overlooking or misinterpretation. But rather than letting this new clarity break his established cycle, the novel’s post-posthumous Keats redirects his distrust inward: he’s not so manic, not so prone to gush puns and bouts-rimes and fill all available verbal space to sustain engagement between those abrupt retreats.

Environmental changes, also, would put adaptive pressure on Kerschen’s subject. Rebirth drops Keats into an impoverished, repeatedly conquered and divided land, with little command of the language, no family, no funds, and a great deal of debt — albeit the countable debts of a middling sort rather than the transfinite debts of the rich. Counter-revolutionary reaction blankets Europe; science is sedition; incarcerations and executions are frequent and fast; and by year’s end democratic movements in Italy and Spain are as dead as Napoleon. The insecure upper crusts fail to imagine how life might be managed without servants; on the other side of that unfathomable gulf, the division between those who hire laborers and those who wait to be called, between beggars and those who pass by beggars, is very thin indeed.

One might reasonably ask if this is the sort of world to bring a new (or renewed) life into. The novel’s most experienced resurrectionist, Mary Shelley, was less than sanguine about the procedure’s prognosis. Having tended the deathbeds of mother, brother, and utter strangers, Keats himself rejected heroic measures, and the final horror of his short nonfictional life came when Joseph Severn overrode his advance directive.

Presume then, for the sake of review-reading, that Kerschen’s machinery works and Keats Lives. Should Keats live?

A third into The Warm South, we reach a “Is he really...? Did he really...?” sort of passage and feel generic ground shift a bit. Nothing that breaks the surface, mind; Keats doesn’t don a domino to thwart the reactionary terrorism of the Scarlet Pimpernel, or collaborate on a prophecy titled Content-Purveyor “K” Anno CCXXVII. Aside from one spontaneous remission of end-stage pulmonary tuberculosis, Kerschen sticks to the rules of well-researched historical fiction; the closest we come to meta is Lord Byron’s public denunciation of well-researched historical fiction.

Instead, as pages turn and narrative focus glides, an increasing sense of artifice rises from the arrangement of incidents. Some situations which might find simple resolution instead become more complex — which, I admit, in the context of the Lives of the Second-Gen Romantic Poets remains strictly naturalistic. Less predictably, situations which might resolve tragically do not always do so, and some tragedies we vaguely recollect seem delayed, or have we passed them by entirely?

And mistakes? Mistakes all the way down. In certain times and places — maybe most times and places, maybe even all — success is out of the question. At best, we might have a choice of failures.

Which tempts us to call any move, any sign of life, worthless, pointless. But having been placed in a game whose outcomes exclude lasting worth, its non-attainment can’t reasonably be considered a loss of points: by definition, we can only lose what’s at stake and build with what’s available. Therefore the game at hand, overhead, underfoot, in our blood and in our bellies, beyond reach of resignation, calls for a different scoring system. How well were our failures intended? How immediately damaging were our attempts? In the past, or elsewhere, what happened when failed attempts were not made?

Closing a fannish review, twenty-two-year-old Keats apostrophized Edmund Kean, “Cheer us a little in the failure of our days! For romance lives but in books.”

Unlike our days, our books have the benefit of choosing their end. Adjust the trim, and a self-cast Hamlet or Timon might be revealed as Telemachus, or Viola’s brother. And The End may determine the genre: death delimits a proper biography, for example.

A proper comedy begins in sorrow and ends with a hat trick of happiness. As for its sequel — well, we learned how that goes when John Marston checked in on the rom-com marriage of Antonio and Mellida and found the bridegroom on a killing spree. We know the chorale of forgiveness which ends The Marriage of Figaro won’t prevent further transgressions and retaliations, and if we didn’t, Beaumarchais reminded us in a third play. To reference the lore of my own rustic childhood, when Luft Stalag 13 survivors convene, they don’t analyze Colonel Hogan’s fatal sexual drives or Frenchie’s Algerian atrocities — they retell that time they really put one over on Klink.

The Warm South ends, in a chorus of forgiven indebtedness, where its characters would have ended their retold story.

I’m grateful to Kerschen for telling it the first time. It comes as a balm in the failure of our days; not a cure, but a welcome tonic. As Edmund Kean, I think it was, said, “Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool.”


I wrote the above to work some things out. For Music & Literature, I wrote this review. I thank editor Daniel Medin for the opportunity and his guidance.

. . .

Justice Waite's Three Laws of Robotics

From the moment I heard the Rapture described, I knew with divinely inspired certainty that it had already happened, probably before I was born, and had consisted of sixty or seventy people, none of them ever missed.

And it seems just as silly for us to start worrying about an AI Singularity now, so many years after humanity created something more powerful than humans but competing for the same resources.

mpowell 04.02.19 at 1:23 pm
In particular, the combination of limited liability, principle of shareholder value uber alles as a governing principle of corporate management and corporate personhood – this triumvirate is very much a mistake. I could accept any 2 of the 3, but not all of them together because what they imply together is that corporations should behave in a completely amoral way (corporate ethics as taught in business school is to be exactly unethical as you get away with), that they should be empowered by the courts to pursue these ends with all possible tools at their disposal (eg. political donations) and that liability for crossing legal boundaries is mainly a civil matter for the corporation and rarely reaches the humans behind the decisions. It should be fairly obvious to all that allowing entities to exist that possess all 3 of these properties is purely a creation of state policy and does not flow naturally, even from a principle of natural individual property rights (how do you restrict your liability towards 3rd parties by forming an agreement with just a 2nd party – it doesn’t make sense).

. . .

Movie Comment: L'Enfer (1994)

The credits claim this is a Clouzot script directed by Chabrol, but it's actually Kiss Me, Stupid as interpreted by Frank Tashlin. Blanket misanthropy conveyed through vividly immersive cartoonishness turns out to provide as sticky a nightmare as Polanski or Lynch ever dreamed of making us dream. The movie makes no fucking sense but I was scrubbing myselfs for hours afterwards.

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The Mechanical Jurk

Dear Hollywood, I sympathize, I know you must butter up for greased palms to trickle down; I know MBAs make the world go brown. But Hollywood, on behalf of those negligible folk who mean well yet are neither Forrest Gump nor Dexter, FYI:

Sociopaths are no more remarkably intelligent than they're remarkably ethical. They merely follow impulses which waste the time and ruin the lives of intelligent and ethical people around them. They're not master puzzlemakers laboring to gift us a masterpiece puzzle. They're white noise generators asking us to derive a signal.

Dr. Lecter, Professor Moriarty, Herr Gruber, Kevin Spacey how different from the home life of our own dear Queen, who learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten: "I'm rubber, you're glue" and Roy Cohn's phone number.


Josh Lukin advances the narrative:

This romanticization of sociopaths must be why the movies billed Parker, of all people, as "a thief with a unique moral code." Well, that and the inability to distinguish a moral code from a management strategy.

House Republicans been schooled:

Liar Liar Pants on Fire

. . .

Murder on the Berlin Express

The Death of Democracy:
Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

by Benjamin Carter Hett

Having reviewed the latest evidence, Dr. Hett declares that the Republic's demise was not the inevitable result of Versailles terms (which weren't notably harsher than those dictated to France in 1871, and which were softened over time), or the global Great Depression (for which he assigns German leaders more responsibility than I've seen before), or Joel Grey camping it up.

Instead, the killing blow came after years of poisoning by the Reich's established pre-Armistice powers the wealthy, the propertied, the generals who would do anything to protect that power from the ignorant mob. For the good of the nation, of course, only for the good of the nation; it's a sad noblesse oblige that the good of the nation so invariably depends on propping up its existing executive class. I believe that truism also guided Allied reapportionment of power after V-E Day.

Even as the Great War was being concluded, Hindenberg and other conservatives entered on (or in good conservative fashion continued) a policy of self-serving deceit and conspiracy. (Because it's not an Unseen Hand if you actually see it picking your pocket.) And they continued to rely on those well-established techniques, rejecting or sabotaging any actions whose success might rebound to the political benefit of the left, until they encountered a group far more dedicated to and skilled at deceit and conspiracy.

My favorite bit apologies for the spoiler came when General Kurt von Schleicher collaborated with the Nazis to bring down Prussia's popular Social Democratic administration through a combination of fradulent reporting (James O'Keefe avant la vidéo) and manufactured emergency.

Whereupon the Nazis threatened to reach way, way across the aisle to help Communists bring down the national administration on the pretext that "Hindenberg had acted illegally in ordering the Prussian coup." Lie down with wolves, get up with your face eaten off.

Hett's convincingly dismal account ends with the usual attempt at a pick-us-up:

Few Germans in 1933 could imagine Treblinka or Auschwitz, the mass shootings of Babi Yar or the death marches of the last months of the Second World War. It is hard to blame them for not foreseeing the unthinkable. Yet their innocence failed them, and they were catastrophically wrong about their future. We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.

He seems like a sincere, unsarcastic sort of guy, and so he probably didn't intend me to immediately recall his books's chief example of someone learning from history:

Twelve years later, on April 27,1945, as the Soviet Red Army closed in on his Berlin bunker, Hitler chatted about old times with his loyal propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, and an SS general named Wilhelm Mohnke. [...] Mohnke commented, “We haven’t quite done what we wanted to do in 1933, my Führer!” Hitler seemed to agree, and he gave a surprising reason: he had come to power a year and a half too soon. [...] Coming to power when he did, with Hindenburg still alive, he had had to make deals with the conservative establishment. “I had to wriggle from one compromise to another,” Hitler complained. He had been forced to appoint many officials who were not reliable, which explained why there had been frequent leaks of information. Hitler also said that he had planned to bring “ruthlessly to account” people such as Hammerstein, Schleicher, and indeed “the whole clique around this vermin.” But after eighteen months in office he had grown milder, and in any case, the great upswing in Germany’s economic and political fortunes was under way. “You regret it afterwards,” Hitler said, “that you are so kind.”

. . .

Things that scare me ha-ha

I used to describe Ruben Bolling as "Tom Tomorrow except funny." Now I view him through a more beatified glow, like a cross between Herblock and St. Cassian (except funny), the one public voice perceptive and honest enough to have frozen into a continuous throat-shredding scream of disbelief and horror. How better to enjoy Hallowe'en than with his remake of Gaslight?


But, as Dr. Josh Lukin knows, nothing scares me more than dissent:

And a voice said, Nah, nah! You thought it was good...

. . .

In fake news which stays fake news, the Repress has recently added a second self-parody by Algernon Charles Swinburne to its collection. Less a stylistic attack than a personal one, it combines Swinburne's three favorite things: verse, flagellation, and the ocean. He shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach....

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .