From Judge Dredd to modern poetry...
Inspired by a podcast episode of George Daniel Lea’s Strange Playgrounds, in which he discusses consuming games, comics, novels and poetry during Covid-19—almost as a kind of self-care exercise—I wanted to write about how my own consumption of narrative mediums has become similarly eclectic during this time. At the end, he invited listeners to respond, to ‘come at me with what you have been writing, what you have been exploring’, and the provocation seems an apt one.
After purchasing a Humble Bundle of 2000 AD comics, I have started to read—chronologically—the old Judge Dredd series. At the same time, I have jumped back into poetry by reading through the Bloodaxe anthology Staying Alive by Neil Astley. I have read and reviewed (on Patreon and my blog) novels such as Amos Tutuola’s The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town and short story collections such as Jonathan Littel's The Fata Morgana Books. And I have been consuming socialist theory at a steady pace too; at the time of writing, I am in the process of finishing Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capitaland William I Robinson’s The Global Police State. The former for a podcast I am producing with a comrade, the latter for a socialist reading group hosted by the Anti*Capitalist Resistance.
As a general rule, I prefer a more singular focus. This is not even usually confined to only reading one book at a time, but also extends to reading books connectedly; that is, reading a group of books by the same author, within the same genre, across a tradition or with shared subjects. Indeed, I do not even tend to seek out fiction when I am preoccupied with nonfiction, or vice versa. So, I might read a set of five utopias, or three novels by Cormac McCarthy, or a complete manga series. That might not apply so consistently to poetry, which I will pick up dependent on highly context specific and therefore fleeting moods (as Lea also notes about the medium), but if I were to purchase an on-sale collection of comics while already engaged with surrealist short stories, the collection would no doubt have to wait.
Why, then, have I felt the need to indulge so broadly right now? I suspect it is intimately connected to the general feeling of being in a fractured moment. That is, a period of acute social crisis experienced in a highly atomising way. Given the oncoming convergence of such crises—fascism, ecological disaster (of which Covid is an instance), and economic collapse prefigured by low profitability— such fractured moments might characterise more and more of my life. In such a moment, it makes sense to seek meaning in diverse places. My customary monomanias no longer cover enough of reality to anchor me in something that has a sufficient explanative force.
By themselves the exaggerated satire of Dredd is too surface; the precise encapsulations of poetry too universal; the strange folkloric realities of Tutuola too distant; the identity-interrogating strangeness of Littel too specific; the theory too abstracted. It is not that they perfectly compensate for one another or provide, in sum, some total encapsulation of reality—that is as beyond the capacity of diverse works of art and philosophy as it is beyond any single work of art and philosophy. Rather, even in the sharp contrasts of aesthetic registers this multiplicity of competing perspectives is more suggestive of a feeling of rupture.
Judge Dredd confirms in my mind (a thesis I have entertained before, and would like to expand in the future) that the British punk sensibilities of grim dark are not really grey and serious as, say Christopher Nolan’s (mis)handling indicates, but properly satirical. Dredd is an antifascist comedy. It has many of the faults of all comedy, such as coming a little too near glamorising its subject, but as with Dr. Who’s Daleks or Warhammer 40,000’s Space Marines, the titular character is clearly a mockery of a hypermasculine, violent death culture, impossible to read literally. The undead Dark Judges perfectly encapsulate this logic, a parallel reality of Judges who have deemed life, the precondition of crime, to therefore be a crime in itself, a clear extension of the death cult sensibilities of reactionaries.
Ideas and readings such as this one, emerge from the seams of my current reading eclecticism. From reading early Judge Dredd (which is admittedly more overt in its satirical bent) alongside the more clearly serious exploration of contemporary capital in The Global Police State, where Robinson explores the fascist trajectory of ‘a contradiction between the accumulation function and the legitimacy function of nation-states.’ Likewise, all too easily the dreamscapes of Tutuola, Littel and poems such as ‘Goat’ easily merge together.
In the poem by Jo Shapcott we encounter a two minute metamorphosis of the poet’s voice into the titular animal, which it took ‘for the horns to pop out of my skull,/ for the spine to revolutionise and go/ horizontal, for the fingers to glue/ together and for the nails to become/ important enough to upgrade to hoof.’ The whole poem is like this; visceral, powerfully yearning to be free of dulled urban routines (or lockdown blues). Transplanted out of its context, it could easily be one of the episodes experienced by the Brave Hunter protagonist of The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town.
Of everything I am currently reading, Neil Astley’s Staying Alive has been the most grounding. So much so that I have its sequel, Being Alive, on standby. The selection demonstrates a consistent focus on what transcends a specific experience to something more metaphysical—a poetry that displays a breadth and variety only belied by its constant humanism. It elevates the rest of my reading; it is a relief often to put down these other works—whether the silliness of the comics or the weightier historical depth of Fossil Capital—and feel the deep connection of verse.
I will end this essay by reiterating the challenge issued by Lea: what narratives are you currently consuming? Are they similarly from diverse genres and mediums, or has the period of pandemic lockdown instead honed your focus rather than diffused it? If you find your focus more driven to one subject, what have been the benefits of that intense fixation? Or, if—like me—you have spread your interests widely, has anything emerged from the cross-pollination of influences?
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