All the Victoria & Albert Museum. Well, all the mediæval stuff. That I could find. Plus some renaissance stuff, and a couple of other nice pieces. Masses of art from a Sunday afternoon with the awesome Jennifer Evans for company. Shared hangover also. In the sun in the courtyard garden. Romping the halls and galleries.
I saw: half of Level 0; less than a third of Level 1; a bit under half of Level 2; not much more than a quarter of Level 3; nothing of Levels 4 and 5; dunno if Level 6 even exists. All that in five hours until I got kicked out. I get booted from museums at closing time like most people get booted from bars, pubs, and clubs.
I missed: The brilliant Würzburg St. Maurice wooden statue because … I dunno. Was the room closed? Did I think there was nothing in the next room? Like many museums, incompleteness is a reason to return, to the city and the museum.
Best thing: It’s free! Blimey! So was the National Gallery. What kind of witchcraft is that where museums are free? Other best thing: It’s organised by material as well as chronologically. Which is frankly awesome. Another best thing: It was packed. And I mean packed. They must get millions of visitors a year. Yay, art! (Good estimate based on a single day, Frances: 3.5 million in 2015.)
How many photos did you take, Frances? A shade over 300, including captions. And how many have you blogged? This is the bit that always embarrasses me when I’ve finished editing them all: 111. The number’s kinda like an objective remark on my tendency towards excessive fun. I mean it’s not like I’m banging heroin anymore, is it? Museums it is, then.
I took another diversion through the Asian Collection again before heading up one of the many sets of stairs to Level 2. More mediæval art. I was kinda committed to it at this stage, as much as I wanted to go off at random. I could have spent the whole day on the ground floor, working my way through the Asias. One thing I really liked here, and I reckon it has a lot to do with both the museum being free to visit, and London having a far more confident mob of people from more recent-ish immigration backgrounds — even the Mayor, the most awesome and we can all agree pretty bloody fine Sadiq Khan, son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver — was so many people were not the default white / northern European I see in Berlin museums. Plus I find it entirely awesome when I see groups of young guys running around the Middle East, South Asia, and Islamic collections getting really excited about the pieces cos they identify with them and see themselves or their history in them. This is something I genuinely miss and struggle with in Berlin, the monoculturalisation and paucity of the rest of us in — I don’t know exactly what to call it — in mainstream German/-ic culture. It feels to me that in London at least (despite the white nationalism of Brexit and all) immigrants of any generation are Londoners / British / not sure the most applicable appellation here, but you get what I mean, in a way I feel the comparable groups in Germany are not and perhaps will never be allowed to be. I miss that confidence and feel in Berlin being an immigrant or just somehow being marked as an outsider means keeping your head down, constantly scanning in case whoever walking towards you on the street is going to bring one of the so many forms of bullshit with them.
I was also thinking, as I plundered the Level 2 mediæval stuff, that it might be time to properly go eastwards and indulge my enthusiasm for Islamicate and Persian art as much as I do old European stuff.
There’s a couple of pieces here (The Adoration of the Kings, images 1 and 2; Descent from the Cross, images 9 and 10) are only details because I couldn’t photograph through glass. One of the most spectacular pieces is the wooden altarpiece by (probably) Giovanni Angelo del Maino and Tiburzio del Maino (images 3-7). This is simply extravagant and endlessly intricate. The detail is in the crush of the public arrayed along three levels and decreasing in size as they move higher and further back. The three crucifixes stick like masts high above the mass, the flanking pair bowing outwards in the emptiness, a forest of spears, halberds, and pikes at their feet. Lower left, the first figure above the predella is a woman breastfeeding. There’s children everywhere. In the predella itself, the central panel is the Adoration of the Shepherds, which I saw a lot of in London.
Plenty of other beautiful pieces. The Dish with a Couple and an Inscription by Workshop of Giacomo Mancini I loved because it’s secular, and one of the first pieces I saw that went this way; Plate with Three Graces by Workshop of Maestro Giorgio because it goes into Greek mythology; the various Virgin and Childs all of which so different from each other. The out of that and into Cast of Judith and Holofernes, from the original by Donatelli. It’s in the Simon Sainsbury Gallery high up on a plinth, suitably brutal and awful.
Up to Level 3. I spent a long time in the Materials and Techniques sections, a lot of design in metal, glass, enamel, porcelain, silver. I didn’t photograph much; there was far too many pieces to even think coherently about. Even with a full day I doubt I’d get through everything. Two to three days would be probable. So I finished with stained glass.
There’s a brilliant, small piece, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, with the Imago Pietatis, what I call a Bynum (because of her work, Wonderful Blood), Jesus literally dripping blood and filling a bath with it, the objects of his torture arrayed around him. I’ve never seen this subject on glass and despite being from the mid-1600s, it looks like it belongs three hundred years earlier. Then lucky last, The Adoration of the Magi by (possibly) Master of the Holy Kindred, another work massive and far above me (so it’s a little distorted from straightening it out). And shortly after I got kicked out. Out into the late-afternoon sun, onto a bus and see London pass by for an hour as I northwards home.
Speaking of massive altarpieces, here we go. Level 1 of Victoria & Albert Museum, the ground floor entrance, lofty, airy ceilings and art stretching up to them. It’s a bit like the Bode Museum for scale of art and architecture. Unlike the Bode, it’s packed. People are promenading like it’s life’s greatest accomplishment to wander around mediæval art. Which it is.
I’m first taken by The Troyes Altarpiece. We’re getting into very Late Mediæval / Early Renaissance here, and it’s not the most virtuoso altarpiece I’ve seen, it’s in limestone so the finesse possible in wood isn’t here, but it has a solidity and depth, like exaggerated perspective between the foreground and background figures. It’s not even especially large compared to The Brixen Altarpiece, which is so huge it’s impossible to look up at without seeing converging lines. Because photographs turn everything, no matter how big or small, into objects of the same dimension and all scale is lost, my head is about level with the heads of the four saints in the predella of The Brixen Altarpiece.
There were also several works I couldn’t or didn’t photograph, either because they were under glass, or I was too hasty. The Brixen Altarpiece was only one of many similarly gigantic altarpieces; The St Margaret Altarpiece was another. An especially fine Northern Germanic piece of a saint I rarely see, and certainly never with her life and torture so disturbingly depicted. This was made around the same time as The Brixen Altarpiece, yet shows the style that continued to develop north of the Alps, distinct from the Renaissance in Italy.
And then there’s Andrea della Robbia’s The Adoration of the Kings, also around the same time and from Italy, in tin-glazed terracotta, and very much committed to Renaissance and even anticipating the Baroque. I think this is one of the V&A’s more famous pieces, and it’s gorgeous in real life. It exemplifies the character of the V&A collections. They’re concerned with materiality; the works on display emphasise the diversity of choice of materials, of techniques, of aesthetics, making the museum as much a place of science and technology as art.
Last piece in these rooms, Perino del Vaga’s The Raising of Lazarus I mention because I realised I’m attracted to works like this fresco, or some of the preparatory sketches or unfinished works (I’m thinking of Pieter Brueghel’s De Aanbiddung der Wijzen here) where there’s a softness and visible exploratory process.
From there, I went into the Cast Courts, where I knew I had no hope; the V&A had been playing with me up to then. It wasn’t quite Louvre scale of tiny people in epic architecture, but for sure reminded me of it. So I got lost trying to find the sculpture corridors, completely missed the St. Mauritius sculpture in the last room (I still have no idea if I was inattentive or if it wasn’t open), turned around, got lost in acres of the Asian collection (Persian miniatures are my thing and I almost put the brakes on the rest of my mediævaling for this and the Islamic collection), found the Raphael rooms—he’s really not my thing, I think people like him because they confuse their fascination with a kind of seductive, transfixing blandness for the sublime, a lot like how people do over the Mona Lisa—the altarpiece was impressive the way the megalith is in 2001—also not Raphael but the ‘Master of the Centenar’ (possible German painter Andrès Marçal de Sas)—sometimes I wish museums put multi-level viewing platforms (with binoculars) in front of these towering pieces, but that’s just because I love smearing my nose right up against the art. Then I’m off up the stairs to Levels 2 and 3.
Enter via the Tube. Any city where you get off the subway and there’s a direct entrance into a museum is a proper city. The Victoria & Albert Museum, or V&A was on my, ‘probably worth a quick perv’ list, but I had no idea what I was in for. Six massive floors of art, pilfered from around the world? Oh, yes! I turned up on a very sunny Sunday with Jenn, both squinting with a bit of a hangover. She works in the British Library, in the Asian and African Reading Rooms, full of stuff from the Dunhuang Buddhist caves — something for my next visit to London. We spent at least an hour not budging from the lawn of the courtyard before going down into mediæval land.
The rooms of the Medieval & Renaissance 300 – 1500 collection is quietly spectacular. What distinguishes V&A from other museums I’ve visited is how they understand the inseparable history of art and design. In Berlin’s Staatliche Museen you get paintings in the Gemäldegalerie, sculpture in Bode Museum, and arbitrary divisions putting a bunch of pieces that are too 3-dimensional to be painting but not enough to be sculpture in one or the other. By looking at the materiality of the works (and I’m thinking of Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe here) there’s not such a need to force arbitrary categories (though I’m aware the National Gallery is also full of altarpieces as paintings), and we get works in ivory, metal, wood, glass, stone, and any combination of these that seemed appropriate to the artist. Further, there’s a seamless flow from Early to High Middle Ages, where frequently I see Early split off into more archæological contexts, and High as art proper.
Many of the early works — from around 400 to 1100 — are small pieces in walrus ivory, with stone becoming more prevalent in the 1100s, and highly competent techniques in all materials developing in the following couple of hundred years. One of my favourite shifts happens with International Gothic, where the flat, verticality of bodies suddenly burst into movement, things flourish and flow everywhere as if caught in a fresh breeze, and the public begins to appear in the picture: individuals, groups, crowds arrive to fill the vision and comment on the main action. And I can’t choose between this or the styles they supersede. Or rather seem to swing between. When I look at The Deposition from the Cross (image 3) or Fragment from a Deposition (image 9), both from the mid-late-1100s, and compare them with The Symmachi Panel (image 1), Front Cover of the Lorsch Gospels (image 2), and Panel with the Adoration of the Kings (image 15) from 400, 800, and early-mid-1100 respectively, all from variously Germany, England, Italy, Spain, I see a shifting back and forth between ideas of representation that don’t strictly propose progressive development or evolution — at least maybe until the Late Middle Ages.
I mention those pieces also because I find them beautiful and even strange, like the popping eyes of Panel with the Adoration of the Kings, or the intricate opulence of the Tabernacle (images 4-8), which looks like it should unfurl with mechanical glory. One of my favourites is the small Portable Altarpiece (images 27 and 28) by the Master of the Louis XII Triptych, in painted enamel on copper, which the V&A describe at length. My photos are more faithful to the original, but still don’t do service to the sublime colours, shadows, movement. I also love the Tapestry (images 29-31), because it depicts a woman “in fashionable dress undertaking a spiritual journey … she finally enters a convent” and I imagine it’s the story of Hildegard of Bingen or Mechthild of Magdeburg. As well, it’s an entire work of art devoted to a woman’s life and story, which is something I love mediæval art for.
Master Bertram’s Triptych with Scenes from the Apocalypse (images 32-37) is frankly scary bonkers. The V&A have an excellent article on the decision whether to clean the altarpiece — in fact their entire journal archive is worth losing a week or two in. I’m not sure why Jesus has a green-black face, but that’s what he has. There’s so much to see in this triptych, it’s worth opening the images and scrolling around their vastness.
As usual there were plenty of pieces I didn’t or couldn’t photograph (even really good lighting and presentation doesn’t mean a photographable work will result), plus this was only one half of one floor and I had no idea how overwhelmed I was going to get. Up the stairs and into Level 1 for more mediæval awesomeness.
Last stop on my Landesmuseum Oldenburg visit, the Oldenburger Schloß, where I was looking forward to a whole stack of medieval and Baroque applied arts and design, and wouldn’tcha know it? All that was closed. Lucky for me of the three it was by far the most massive, three and an half floors of a possible four open and only an hour before I had to get back to the theatre. And straight into mediæval wooden sculpture I land.
I was reminded of Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, which remains one of the finest collections I’ve seen, and for a small town frankly shames big city museums with the care and pleasure taken in displaying art. So I land in the exhibition room Kirche im Mittelalter and am totally giddy with joy. It’s the way museums should be: a visceral, emotional effect. I’m quite aware of being manipulated by the curators, how they’ve arranged a wall of standing Marias and Katharinas and Barbaras, and how I want to run past them all to see what else is there. This is small museums’ strength, so far from the overwhelming endurance of say, the Louvre or London’s V&A (which I’m yet to blog, but it’s coming) where there’s an expectation of quantity and size; it’s like in Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes, walking into a hall and seeing floor to ceiling colossal Rubens, and having no idea this was about to happen, and suddenly I’ve got to deal with being slammed by art.
Two of my favourites here are Hl. Katharina and Hl. Barbara, probably a pair flanking a central figure or tableau, like the Hl. Maria mit dem Kind between them, given how they’re leaning like they’re both well stoned. Katharina’s all, “Nah, I’m good—no wait, just a little toke, cheers,” can barely focus her eyes.
In another room there’s the weirdest Pennyfarthing-ish bike I’ve ever seen, the Hochrad ‘Xtraordinary’, which coincidentally I’ve seen recently revisited in crossfit-extreme-bro-fixie-distruption-Kickstarter land, except with moving handles. There’s a reason why this engineering design is a bicycling evolutionary dead-end.
Next room over, more of a chamber or hall, all white and gold, chandeliers, refined opulence, is a tapestry in its home. In all my museuming I’ve seen a stack of tapestries, but never hanging as it would have done, a part of the environment, an extension of architecture and design. Despite sun bleaching and fading on the lower third, water stains, and generally ‘needs restoration’ it was beautiful. The colours when it was new must have been overpowering, as must have the power and wealth it signified.
There were other, similar rooms in the top floor and throughout which I never saw, being closed for renovations and new exhibitions. Some of them are on the museum website, along with a virtual tour. And with that, I split. Another brilliant museum joyride. Out the door, around the road on the former city wall, back to Exerzierhalle for the second evening of theatre and festival.
First stop on my Landesmuseum Oldenburg visit, the Augusteum for Galerie Alte Meister, which for me means mediæval art. It’s not very large, only four medium-sized rooms over one floor — the upper floor reserved for temporary exhibitions. It also suffers from frankly atrocious lighting of the “dark, lacquered artwork facing open, sunny windows” variety, so quite a few pieces I’d have loved to have photographed were not only camera-impossible, but not even viewable. Plus side: The captions are extensive and in English and German; the works themselves in all the museums are obviously loved, and there’s a lot of care taken in arranging them, in considering them within the whole.
There were a few special pieces, like the Florentiner Meister’s Musizierende Engel; a double-sided Madonna sculpture (photograph was blah so not included here); the remarkable Fragment des Krapendorfer Altars showing Christus in der Vorhölle und Anbetung der Könige by Meister des Krapendorfer Altars (Heinrich Blanckebiel); a small Cranach (the Elder, of course); Franz Timmermann’s Die Bekehrung des Paulus, an apprentice of Cranach, and which is a representation of a story I don’t think I’ve seen before. Benedetto Caliari’s Der reiche Mann und der arme Lazarus I assembled from multiple images, and it’s surprising it came out even presentable — let’s just say this is a good approximation of it.
Franz Francken D. J.’s Die Welt huldigt Apoll is one of those colonial Baroque pieces of the allegorical Four Continents type. I couldn’t help look at white Apollo sitting there above the sycophantic children of the lesser continents, the wealth of their world stacked at his feet and think this is an allegory of another kind. A small detail is the red coral the figure denoting Africa holds, which was so popular in Northern Mannerist gold- and silverware in the 17th century, which I saw masses of in Dresden.
Finished with the Augusteum, across the road to Prinzenpalais for the Galerie Neue Meister.
Me messing around with mediæval art, Photoshopping it until it’s far from the 3/4 of a millennium ago of its origin. It started as a visit to the Gemäldegalerie when I decided to do closeups of some of my favourite works. This is part of the Altarretabel in drei Abteilung mit dem Gnadenstuhl, from after 1250. Last night, feeling unexpectedly inspired around midnight, I realised I could mash another few score of layers into an image I was working on six months ago, and increase the density in ways that somehow appeal to my brain and eyes and emotions. I always zoom in on these images, like there’s myriad possible paintings in each. This time I took screenshots of those, and wanting to know what they might look like animated, threw them into Final Cut X and spat out 48 seconds of video.
I was asking myself if this is art. I know art and make art, but still. Maybe they’re sketches of possibilities. I like the artefacts generated from the process. I have no control over this. I have some control in which direction to push an image, but a lot of the detail is only minimally editable. Things happen, I make decisions, other things happen, possibilities open and close, I try and steer it towards a particular satisfaction, but each individual line and gradient and tone, no, that’s the software making its own decisions based on what I ask it to do. And as always, the further I get from using software as it was intended, the more interesting it becomes to me.
When I saw the exhibition, I felt it was comprehensive, yet reading Showing Our Colour I find again Germany — like all colonial and colonised countries — hides post-war and recent history, as though 1945 marked the moment when the fugue lifted and from that moment on there’s not much to report. Instead, Germany’s history of eugenics and racism continued unbroken. Perhaps not as explicit, but that is a function of systematic oppression, to put the onus on the victims to prove the crime, whereas the truth is it’s fundamental and pervasive.
A dear friend was visiting me this week and we were talking about this. She said, “So there was a Stolen Generation here.” There isn’t a more succinct or accurate way to describe it. While on a much smaller scale than in Australia (and while I don’t want to appropriate a specific term that describes a part of an ongoing genocide), the mechanisms and underlying logic are identical. Children removed from their mothers, families broken, forced sterilisation, cultural ‘whitening’ in orphanages and the adoption/foster home system; a unified, systematic project from the top of the government down to individuals to erase any trace of contamination in the white race.
This is a history of Germany throughout the 20th century that is barely mentioned, let alone recognised. It’s a history I would expect to find variations of in earlier history also, such as with the African-American soldiers who returned with the Hessian soldiers after the American Revolution. Post-World War I, Rhineland was occupied by French forces using soldiers from the colonies, just as after World War II, US African-American soldiers were in the American Sector. In both periods, male soldiers and local women got together and thousands of ‘Brown Babies’, or ‘Mischlingskinder’ (the derogatory Nazi-era term) were born. It was these children and their mothers (and fathers if they happened to be immigrants from the colonies) who were subject to medical, jurisprudential, social, and religious abuse and control. The children and grandchildren of these children are women like May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, coming of age in the ’80s, writing a history that remains contemporary.
Sometimes I’m reminded that it was published thirty years ago. These days I more or less expect if I’m reading a black or brown woman on racism and oppression in the Anglo-Euro-American-Australasian worlds, she’ll — or they’ll be queer and/or a trans woman. In Showing Our Colours, none of the women explicitly identify as lesbian (as far as I’ve read, though May Ayim was), and often describe their heterosexual lives. As for Afro-deutsch trans women, it’s a different world now. ADEFRA has a monthly get-together where trans and inter sisters are explicitly welcome, and ISD has a Black LGBTIQ* group.
I want to stop here, say something like, this is a critical history of Afro-Germans, it’s an unfinished history because colonialism still defines us, because Germany and Europe’s ability to critically regard its history is so inadequate; things have got better but they’re still same old shit, thirty years on Germany needs another book like this translated into English. Read it if you can.
I put off buying Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction for a long time because it’s ridiculously expensive. And because the last ridiculously expensive volume on Banks, Martyn Colebrook’s and Katharine Cox’s The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders was kinda unimpressive. I’m getting this bit out the way first: The Culture Series is one of those academic publications that’s needlessly expensive}. Chumps like me, living in a country with relatively cheap access to books, buy them anyway. I’m in a continual internal debate whether to scan them and upload to an audience that is denied access.
Caroti’s book-length essay reminded me why I love Banks, with or without an M., Culture or not, and reminded me I’ve not had a full Banks binge for a couple of years. Breaking the flow here, I feel I always need to point out here me writing on books I’m reading, am about to read, have read, is not a review. Sometimes it becomes that, but if you’re looking for a review of The Culture Series or a coherent set of thoughts, this isn’t the place. Unlike The Transgressive Iain Banks, which was frankly disappointing, Caroti did the research, brings together almost forty years of a writer spanning thirty works, comes up with a bunch of interesting analysis and criticism, and competently keeps it all rolling for almost 300 pages.
Much of how Caroti interprets Banks is through the lens of John Clute’s term Fantastika. While working on the Tiptree website, amid conversations around categorising works from a more technical perspective, Debbie Notkin said they (the Motherboard) preferred the term Speculative Fiction over Sci-Fi/Fantasy or other terms which delineated between the sometimes disparate and sometimes analogous twins of the genre. Caroti’s choice of the term might represent the (Eastern) European traditions of Skiffy he’s engaging in, contra Speculative Fictions very Anglo-American leanings. Still, I don’t recall him addressing Banks on the the latter terms, even as a comparison with Fantastika. Perhaps I’m missing something that Caroti’s erudition makes clear to himself, but I didn’t find the argument for calling Banks’ work — or even reading it as — Fantastika particularly compelling.
As a needlessly picky aside, I’ve long had a thing for Derrida, and make no claims to understanding more than the mere shallows fringing his vast oceans of incomprehensibility, but any form of “deconstruction then reconstruction” is not a thing. I know it’s a lost battle, but words and meaning matter. Whatever process a writer means by preparing the scene for ‘reconstruction’, it isn’t deconstruction, indeed is a fundamental misunderstanding of what deconstruction is and can do, which even Derrida was gloriously gnomic on. I think at times Caroti is engaging with Banks’ work consciously in a kind of deconstructive process, which makes it all the more annoying for me to have him undermine the rich possibilities in such a reading by pairing those two words.
Which leads me off into a couple general ramblings and criticisms of Caroti’s work — some of which he addresses himself.
I’ve been reading Banks since 2004 when a friend gave me the Culture novels Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, and the non-Culture Against a Dark Background, and Feersum Endjinn. Anyone who’s persevered with me blabbing here for the last almost 13 years knows I think Feersum Endjinn is Banks’ best work; I’m also well fond of The Algebraist (Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult is his superior villain), Transition, and The Business. Another aside: while in Leipzig working with Melanie Lane, I met her partner, Chris Clark (the musician). Opening night drinking led to a long Banks conversation in which we got onto what an excellent book The Bridge is, and him saying obviously I’d read Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books, to which I replied I’d not even heard of it. Much incredulity and astonishment! It’s now on the top of my To Read list. I mention this in part to underline my often egregious gaps in ‘self-evident’ knowledge, and to point out that just because a connection may seem self-evident, doesn’t presuppose a clear path from one to another. Also to point out that reading an author’s influences doesn’t necessarily add anything to the experience. With the exception of Jo Walton, who writes her influences into profound and clever stories, I’m more likely to be bemused, like say, Iain Banks being influenced by Jane Austin.
The received separation of Banks’ works lies on either side of the M. Sci-fi with, and proper literature without. Caroti elaborates on this throughout his work, making it clear how poorly Banks’ genre work is critically regarded. Caroti though makes another division: Culture and non-Culture. If he hadn’t his book would be several hundred pages and unaffordable. But still, it’s an arbitrary division that obscures the singular thematic structure of Banks’ work. This is one of the points Caroti makes at the end, and in Banks fandom is a ripe subject for contentious debate.
Caroti describes some of Banks’ works as the Scottish series (The Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, among others). Excluding the space opera component, there’s little that separates these from Against a Dark Background or Use of Weapons, particularly in setting. Equally the railway of The Bridge returns in a form in Feersum Endjinn; the levels of the Shellworld in Matter in the Dweller wormhole network in The Algebraist; The Concern of Transition in The Business in the eponymous novel; the politics in Complicity return throughout the Culture’s Special Circumstances and disaffected individuals who populate main character roles; not even including the hints and mentions of the Culture in supposedly non-Culture and non-genre works. My reading of Banks has always seen all his works as variations on the same story. It’s not so much that the Culture appears as say, a variation on The Business, or that characters in Transition could be read as Use of Weapons’ Cheradenine Zakalwe, Complicity’s Andy, or from The Business or Walking on Glass, rather that Banks had a comprehensive, unified framework upon which he built his novels out, and from which major ideas like the Culture emerged. Repetition and variation of these thematic constants occur in almost all his novels. Whether his novels were space opera or Scottish landscape is integral to this, but not primary, like scenery being changed on stage. Which is to say, by concentrating on the differences, be they M. or no-M. Banks, Culture or non-Culture, we’re missing reading Banks as a forty-year, philosophical, political project.
One idea he worked with from first to almost last novel, which is very much part of that framework, and for which he seems to get little credit, is identity. His opinion on identity and gender was well-formed even before his first novel, The Wasp Factory. Caroti discusses this, specifically the Culture understanding of sex, gender, identity through going back and forth between male and female as a normal, indeed expected part of life. It’s maybe here that the rupture between Banks as one of the queerest authors I’ve read and his pretty heteronormative audience crops up. Banks was a hoon, totally enjoyed booze and drugs, was publicly hetero, a bit of a lad, all of which appeals to a cisgender, hetero male demographic, be they reader or critic. And yet, unlike other cis-male writers of what we currently call trans and/or intersex characters (Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is a good example here), Banks wasn’t writing these characters to represent say, ‘the alienation we all feel’ or ‘so sad, how tragic’.
A diversion on The Wasp Factory and the protagonist with whom I share a name. I think trans/intersex criticism of the novel is valid, though less so than Middlesex or a lot of that ’70s / ’80s feminist-ish stuff like Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. Maybe I’m biased, but it sits for me more in the camp of say Laura Jane Grace calling her biography Tranny. It comments in an excessive way on the ideology of gender as it was at the time, of which Dr John Money’s beliefs and experiments serve as a real-life mirror. The horror and disgust at what is done to Frank as a work of fiction might be better read as an allegory on real life and be directed into the real world at doctors and theorists who still carry out violence on trans and intersex bodies little different from what Frank’s father did.
Nonetheless it makes a reading of Banks’ understanding of gender less than simplistically utopian. What Banks proposes isn’t a ’70s/’80s radical feminist destroying of gender and androgynous utopia, much like his Culture utopia isn’t a Communist one. I still find this surprising since there was little outside these dominant and ubiquitous theories at the time to provide alternatives, and Banks’ thinking on gender and identity still reads as contemporary and relevant. A way of illustrating this is in the ending of Excession, where Genar-Hofoen, as a condition for having provided services, is given the body of an Affront, the buffoonish and sadistic alien tentacle monsters. If transposing yourself into an alien species is both possible and unremarkable, how mundane must identity of self bound to gender and sex be? Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference. It’s dead fucking sexy.
As I was reading The Culture Series, the chapter on The Player of Games, I remembered reading somewhere that the main character, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, was written as brown or black — which flies in the face of the mid-’90s Orbit print with Mark Salwowski cover where he’s so white he’s pink. I had to reread to confirm, but there it is. Early in the novel he’s described as having a “dark-curled head”, “black locks of hair”, “dark beard”; compared to the Culture ambassador, “Shohobohaum Za was a little lighter in colour than Gurgeh, but still much darker than the average Azadian”, and his partner, Yay having “gold-dark skin”. So with Player of Games, we have a novel where the main character is a person of colour, and it’s indicated the Culture is a whole lot more brown than might be expected in the history of Anglo-American Sci-Fi and space opera, and a whole lot more than it’s still discussed as. And as with gender, reading ethnicity in Banks is critical to understanding if not his entire body of work, then certainly the Culture.
One final thing to finish with, Caroti mentions a few times the work on Banks’ opus by Moira Martingale, Gothic Dimensions: Iain Banks, Timelord, which I’d (naturally) never heard of, and is now obviously on my list.