Friday, April 10, 2015

Guy of Thrones


In his essay "The Geography of the Imagination," the American critic Guy Davenport writes that "when Europeans came to the new world, they learned nothing on the way, as if they came through a dark tunnel." In America they did their best to create some version of the civilization they had come from, but it necessarily morphed under the influence of this new continent with its strange new soil. With this in mind, we can fruitfully look for the foundations of European art buried beneath each new work produced in the New World.

This is a pretty dry way of summarizing Davenport's essay, which is gorgeous and almost godlike in its erudition, but I've got a lot to get through. The core of "The Geography of the Imagination" is an extended reading of Grant Wood's painting American Gothic, in which Davenport finds the embodied legacy of the Greek pantheon, the Industrial Revolution, and the cultural mores of the Celts. The barn's pointed windows come from Venice; the couple's pose comes from the Pharaonic funerary portrait. When a friend complained that Grant Wood couldn't possibly have known enough to include everything Davenport found in the painting, Davenport replied that "the painting knew it for him."

Paintings know more than their painters, is what I want you to take away. The essay starts with a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe, the grandfather of all American genre fiction, who, Davenport writes, divided his imagery into two categories, the grotesque and the arabesque. Davenport associates "grotesque" with the Gothic cathedral, the ultimate monument to the gloom of Northern Europe, and "arabesque" with the intricate tilework and and calligraphy of Jewish and Islamic cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, there's a missing category in Poe's scheme: Davenport writes that "if Poe had wanted to designate his imagination more accurately," he would have included a third term, "classic." This refers to the peristyle temples and freestanding statues of the Greco-Roman world. All of Poe's imagery falls into these categories, even if Poe himself didn't know it.

The grotesque-arabesque-classic triad comes together most succinctly in the image of the Raven. This most gothic of birds, redolent of the moors and forests of Northern Europe, still bears traces of the totemic birds of the arabesque and the classic modes. In early drafts of the poem it was a parrot, a bird that in 1850 was still associated with the mythic Orient, and even in the finished version it maintains the parrot's habit of verbal mimicry and repetition. While it croaks its single word it stands on a statue of the most classical goddess of all, Athena, whose symbol is the owl.

This is only the most concise example; the triad recurs throughout Poe's work. "Israfel" is written in an arabesque mode; "To Helen" is classical; both include symbols of the other two elements. Davenport believes that tracking the "metamorphoses of these symbols will give us a new, as yet unread Poe." He goes further: the triad isn't restricted to Poe but is integral to the communal imagination of the west, irrespective of ideology. It appears in the work of James Joyce—in Ulysses, a Northern European of Jewish extraction reenacts the voyages of a Greek—and in the work of the cryptofascist cultural historian Oswald Spengler, who divided world cultures into "Faustian," "Magian" and "Apollonian." (Spengler also wrote that we are entering the Winter Time of Western Civilization, so he's a pretty soft ball for this article.) Along with a few other figments, the grotesque-arabesque-classic triad is a trace of something unspeakably vast and ancient in the western imagination, something that goes so deep as to be impervious to mass migrations and the collapse of whole economic systems.


Edgar Allan Poe is exactly who we should expect to open himself up to such a vast and ancient cultural complex. A Europhile dandy with a tin ear for the American idiom (whatever that meant in 1845), Poe lacked Walt Whitman's indefatigable faith in democracy and Mark Twain's suspicion of high culture. In fact, as Davenport notes, he talked openly of the need to establish "an aristocracy of dollars" to compensate for our lost "aristocracy of blood." His characters live in cities of gabled roofs and winding cobblestone streets, but he created them at a time when Washington D.C. was still a town of farmhouses and bumpy dirt roads. Without Napoleon at the end of "The Pit and the Pendulum," there would be no evidence of the French Revolution ever having taken place.

When you read Poe you can sense his nausea at the idea of North America, a continent he perceived as basically a desert, lacking the fertile soil of European culture and tradition. We can read his madness for French and Greek quotations the same way we read Eliot's: as a method of shoring up fragments against his ruins. He wanted to create a copy of the old world and seal himself up in it. I suspect the reason he's so durably part of the American canon is not in spite of but because of this: for every Ahab there has to be a Roderick Usher. That sense of loss hasn't gone away; recent manifestations of it include Joan Didion, neoreactionaries, and the entire fantasy genre.


You know somebody like George R. R. Martin. He epitomizes the life path of a certain kind of nerd. All nerds have to fit their outsize interests into a functional life; the ones who are into math fit it into academia, the ones who are into video games subsidize it as a hobby, the ones who are into programming become Silicon Valley dickheads. Some nerds, though, fill a frightening liminal role: with enough innate confidence and social finesse to scrape by in everyday life, and with an interest, like baseball stats or literature, that is sort of borderline acceptable, they actually emerge into the hegemonic discourse. These people walk among us. They take showers, drink beer, and bitch about their jobs. You could spend years in a close friendship with one and not even notice they were a nerd. Maybe you have.

Know that they always have a tell. An aversion to caffeine, maybe, or a slight speech impediment. Irregular eye contact. The inability to sing along to songs on the radio. And always, always, always the monologues: they can barely keep their hypertrophied interest below the discursive surface, and it threatens always to burst forth. If you ask them the wrong thing at a party (chillingly, they do indeed go to parties) there is always a chance that, at first haltingly and then with increasing speed and rising volume, they will pour upon you a torrent of trivia about something—70s reggae, European cars, abstract expressionism, poker strategy—that you almost, but don't quite, care about. Left without interruption, these people will construct a prison around you and themselves that neither of you will ever escape. 

George R. R. Martin is probably unique in that he's almost a good enough writer to make that prison a goodly one. He's been building it for years, and its name is A Song of Ice and Fire. His interest—broadly, the history of the medieval and early modern periods—is nearly acceptable, and the way he narrates it—that is, luridly—is almost enough to keep you engaged. From his comments on the work of Maurice Druon, you can tell that he reads history for thrills, not enlightenment: he savors betrayal, cruel irony, and abrupt reversals of fortune. Formally, he looks in history for acts, characters and situations, all of which more properly belong to fiction than to history. This should reveal that George R. R. Martin essentially thinks of history as fiction—it's all sensation and drama, and inasmuch as it touches us it never happened at all.


To read history like this you have to believe with all your heart that you are outside of it, that history is over and you can now look at it as a whole. Otherwise you continue the struggle to get out of it. For George R. R. Martin, history might as well already be fantasy. This is his tell.

The basic feature of every nerd is that they dwell in the imagination. Look at George R. R. Martin as he attempts to communicate with glittering non-nerds Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers: you can see him curling up like a snail in an imaginary shell. Other people are happy to slot themselves into an actually existing institution like a sports fandom or a music scene. Nerds seal themselves up in imaginary pyramids and keep everything else out, from rap music to incorrect English grammar to the sucking undertow of history itself.

Beyond that I won't say anything about the man, because I've never read A Song of Ice and Fire and don't intend to, and because this article is about Game of Thrones anyhow. George R. R. Martin is not the author of Game of Thrones. He's barely responsible for it at all. As Tolstoy reminds us, the more you seem to stand independent of history, the more you are helpless in its grasp. If Game of Thrones did not exist, it would be necessary for us to invent it.


Every fantasy realm is a pastiche of Western history. The imagination is not a sphere of unbounded freedom; it has historical and geographic constraints just like the body. All we really get when we ask fantasy writers to imagine new worlds for us is the old world rearranged in a new way. Tolkien's constructed languages, for example: in Lothlorien they speak a centaur of Finnish and Latin; in Mirkwood they speak a version of Welsh; in Rohan they speak Old English; in Erebor they speak a version of Hebrew. As a child it used to bother me that Tolkien hadn't gone all the way and imagined really, utterly different languages, languages that had no relationship to ours. Why did he have to do this boring Anglo-Chthonic thing when he could just make shit up? Now I realize that that would be impossible, because the category "language" can't be transposed to another world; it doesn't meaningfully exist except as a projection of actually existing languages. To put it simply, you can't make shit up.

Game of Thrones is at least honest about this. Its world is a scrambled version of Eurasia; its history is a scrambled version of Eurasian history. Pastiche prevails on every front. The ritual solemnity and precognitions of doom in the Stark storyline come from Macbeth. The exotic setting and semi-picaresque structure of the Targaryen storyline come from the medieval genre of the Alexander Romance, in which the idealistic European conqueror triumphs over successive trials in the mysterious Orient. The coruscations of betrayal and resentment in the Lannister storyline come from the actual dynamics of Italian Renaissance history, although they've clearly been refracted through the Godfather movies.

Character, too: When Tywin Lannister appears on horseback at the end of the second season, he's performing as a condottiere, one of the mercenary warlords sculpted by Leonardo and Verrocchio, but his position as would-be dynasty head until the end of the fourth season lets us identify him as the famous family man Rodrigo Borgia. Rodrigo had a son of disputed paternity whose name was Gioffre, although Tywin's sadistic grandson Joffrey Baratheon is clearly taking his cues from Caligula. The eunuch Varys is Niccolò Machiavelli, down to his creepiness and his supposed desire to restore peace and unity to the realm. Cersei Lannister, quelling popular revolt in the capital, is the Byzantine Empress Theodora. Daenerys is a female Alexander the Great. Khal Drogo is a cuddlier Attila. Viserys is a thinner Crassus. 

Setting is where it shows most clearly, though: the continent of Westeros, where two-thirds of the show takes place, is clearly Britain, resized to reflect how important Britain thinks it is. In real life Britain is an island of two or three biomes, about as large and interesting as Pennsylvania. Westeros, on the other hand, spans thousands of miles and an enormous array of appropriated European cultures. In the North people inhabit a roughly Scottish countryside and practice an old, animistic religion; there are passions and blood feuds and the kind of unimaginably horrible political violence that we know from Macbeth. In the capital, King's Landing, there's a syncretic culture that occupies the geographic position of London but has the aesthetics of Constantinople—floral capitals on all the columns, pendentive domes redolent of incense, duels, spies, Greek Fire, and a parody of the Church.

The Game of Thrones version of the Eurasian landmass proper, Essos, is just a big turd-shaped blob, rapidly losing definition as you move east from the Italy equivalent. (This is the way that Anglo-Americans have always looked at it anyway.) Somewhere in it there is an enormous steppe, but Daenerys doesn't have to cross any Himalayas or Gobi Deserts to get all the way to the other end of the continent, which anyway isn't China or even India but a pan-Orientalist realm with features of Achaemenid Persia, Pharaonic Egypt and Ottoman Anatolia: opium, pyramids, deceitful merchants, ritualized speech, eunuch slave-soldiers, and the overriding sense that the inhabitants were not doing much of anything before Western conquerors arrived.

It starts to feel like something that would get filed away in the Western History section of if it didn't have HBO money behind it—some kind of Super Smash Brothers thing, one of those insufferable fever dream crossover fics, where Alexander gets married to Attila and Joan of Arc swears loyalty to Mary, Queen of Scots and Fezzik crushes Inigo's skull.

There's a method, though, and once you key into it you start to notice certain patterns. Characters from the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years' War tend to reappear in the North. In King's Landing the menu selects from the Roman and Renaissance aristocracies. In Essos, it's the Hellenistic period, the Roman Imperial frontiers, and French depictions of the Ottoman Empire. The mosaic floor of the dueling arena where Oberyn dies is a copy of the animal mosaics that archaeologists discovered buried in ash at Pompeii. The weirwood groves in the North are a version of the druidic groves that Pliny first mentioned and Chateaubriand popularized when he was trying to resuscitate the Gothic legacy. The Ghiscari harpy that surmounts each city that Daenerys conquers is an insulting parody of the Zoroastrian sun disk, which was ubiquitous for a thousand years in cities from Ctesiphon to Samarkand. Every image in the show circles one of three drains, and the names of these drains are Classic, Grotesque and Arabesque.


Thousands of people have labored to inscribe this story, a crew spanning the whole of Europe, a swarm of producers, consultants, horse wranglers, pyrotechnics supervisors, blacksmiths, makeup crew, PAs, interns and extras. Surely the biggest sustained enterprise in the history of screen art, bigger than Ben-Hur, bigger than Apocalypse Now. Production on Game of Thrones has gone on like this for five years now, longer than World War I. Who is responsible for this? Where, on an atomic level, is the impetus for this show coming from? Certainly not George R. R. Martin, who did nothing but rearrange. Is it the executives at HBO, then? They just anticipate market demand. Is it David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners, who write most of the episodes? They're just interpreting George R. R. Martin, and anyway every decision they make has to go through an army of line producers and actors before it reaches the screen. Is it the actors, who ultimately have final control of their performances? Their performances are compromised by the photography, the editing and the mise-en-scène. Is it the cameramen, the editors, and the set designers, then? They must defer to the line producers. Is it the audience? But we constantly ask for fewer Red Weddings, fewer dead characters, fewer horrific reversals of fortune, and we are always denied.

Tolstoy wrote that war is the process through which we most clearly sense the presence of the world-spirit; the twentieth century taught us that popular entertainment is just as good. The real author of Game of Thrones is a force that persists between the line producer and his headset, between the showrunner and his MacBook Pro, between the extra and the blood packet taped to his chest. It quivers in the buffer bar on HBO Go and the video artifacts in every torrented kilobit of every episode. This is a force of absolute necessity. Game of Thrones exists because it must exist, because that force, like every force, evolves a form.


George R. R. Martin is often called "The American Tolkien." What would it mean to be an American Tolkien? Tolkien wanted passionately to be connected to a different history, a different world, a world where the English had had horses at Hastings and Birnam Wood had really come to Dunsinane. George R. R. Martin, like his forebear Edgar Allan Poe, is content to imagine a connection to any history at all, even to a world that is essentially the same as ours—the same waves of bloody migration, the same wars fought for foreign debt, the same collapses of economic systems. He imagines that just because he wrote this history, it is fantasy. Nerds always think this. He doesn't realize that it's realer than he is. It speaks through him like it spoke through Poe, who may have been the first American nerd.

Have you ever seen a crowd of nerds come down the hallway? Maybe in high school or at the local library? Each one of them has real cognitive ability, real processing power, and knows it. Not intelligence, necessarily, but at least a high intelligence score, something that will let them be confident when they have to make certain saving throws. And yet they are always repeating, in their throaty voices, the same arguments about Buffy, about communism, about next-generation video game consoles. They even use stock phrases: fezzes are cool, kill it with fire, polyphloisboio thalassēs. (Sorry, that last one kind of crept in there.) Look at them long enough and you see the panic in their eyes. Each of them wants so badly to talk about something else, anything else, anything new. To be a different thing. How did we get like this? Why this body, why this acne, why this speech impediment? Why these base stats, why these TV shows, and not some other ones? In the end we're all tired of this ancient world. History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. But one must sleep the never-ending night. You already know what the three-eyed raven is saying. It's one word. Guess what it is.


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