Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Evil and the Grotesque in Mieville

"Scribblingwoman" has a post up discussing Mieville's Iron Council, with some discussion of Perdido Street Station (as is inevitable in treating of Mieville's later New Crobuzon works). It was interesting to read, in part because I have such very different reactions to Mieville's work.

She asks (of PSS) "And, are not male readers also uncomfortable with Lin's fate?" I don't know about others, but I confess that I am not at all. I often empathize fairly strongly with characters; but I have no sense of why people find Lin's state at the end of the book particularly disturbing. I find her beginnings, as they are unfolded in the book to be a fate much more uncomfortable and sad. My own view is that Mieville failed completely in his attempt not to aestheticize Lin's fate; I think it's a general problem with Mieville's work that he can't avoid romanticizing suffering and pain as a form of heroism in the face of the grotesque. Grotesquerie, in fact, generally replaces real tragedy. We don't get a Balin. (In Le Morte D'Arthur, Balin performs the apparently insignificant act of drawing a sword. From that moment on, he is doomed, no matter what he does, as inevitability, ignorance, and immoderation turn his every attempt to extricate himself, no matter how noble, into a means for greater suffering, pain, and destruction.) It's difficult even to imagine a Balin in Mieville's world. There is no genuine tragedy there; the closest it gets is the grotesqueness built into the system, a grotesqueness that assimilates everything, manifesting itself in physical and mental and even political form. This can be fairly gritty and uncomfortable, but it is much weaker sense of evil and suffering than one can get in a real tragedy, because it is evil only under the sign of ugliness. All evil is aestheticized in such a world. It is the foundation for the ambivalence that surrounds New Crobuzon throughout the novels: twisted, misshapen, packed to the brim with suffering, but something for which one can still have (as the characters often have) a sort of affection. This is not entirely a criticism of Mieville; he has a powerful talent for grotesquerie; but we shouldn't try to make it into something it is not. To return to Lin: my own view is that, as events were set up, she was lucky, for things might have been much, much worse. At the end of the book she is broken (she has been mentally assimilated by the grotesquerie, in a brutal fashion), but she is left alive and insulated from the evil that has been done to her. The problem again is that Mieville can't avoid romanticizing senseless suffering and pain into a form of grotesque art. It may repulse but the repulsiveness is born of art, not nature; it is an aesthetic repulsion in the face of an ugliness, not a sympathetic repulsion (who can sympathize with someone raped, mutilated, and mentally destroyed, particularly when they'd had a life like Lin's?). There isn't even much done in the story to encourage moral repulsion.

She also asks, "Why can we accept evil overlords but not an evil bourgeoisie? Orcs can suck the marrow from hobbits' bones, but a Mayor of a large city can't pop out people's eyes?" Which is fair enough as a response to some criticisms of Mieville (as I suggested above, I don't think Mieville's world actually has anything in the way of real moral evil); but I think it's also clear that blatantly evil overlords and monsters are much more plausible than evil bourgeoisie, from the very fact that real bourgeois evil is characterized by vicious banality. (Hannah Arendt) Portraying it any other way is an obscuring of the real way bourgeois evil works. A genuinely bourgeois villain would be much more like Austen's Lady Susan or Eliot's Tito than like Orcs or Sauron; more like Eichmann than like Hitler. I think something of the same can be said for evil under the aspect of the grotesque; but Mieville can be more easily defended on this ground, since bourgeois evil can be portrayed as grotesque, if done correctly.

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