Those of you who remember with fondness China Mieville's guest blogging on Omnivoracious and his award-winning novel The City & the City from last year will be delighted to know that he has a new novel, Kraken, out this summer...and that he's kindly contributed his thoughts on five underrated literary cephalopods below the cut.
As for Kraken, any novel that involves odd squid cults, natural history museums, and talking tattoos sounds like great summer reading to me, and Entertainment Weekly just gave it an A-.
'The Soft Intelligence': 5 Underrated Literary Cephalopods
It was Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Philippe Diolé who named cephalopods 'the soft intelligence', in the subtitle to their 1973 book Octopus and Squid. At first, the adjective seems vaguely simpering, as if these ambassadors of alterity are in fact safe, unthreatening, cuddly. But immediately comes a strangeness. If they are a, no, the soft intelligence, what are we? Hard intelligence? Soft unintelligence?Why are they soft intelligence singular? Is each but an iteration of some tentacular totality? What strange sentience. An opaque collective.
Animals that wear storms of colour. Animals whose infinite prehensility makes rather pathetic our simian pride in opposable thumbs. Polysemic but evasive of decoding, how could the cephalopod not squat in the crevices of literature? Sometimes inadequately, true - so the hobbled uncanny of the traditional English epithet for the octopus, 'devil-fish'. (It's a fish! It's like a devil! …FFS.) Sometimes tendentiously - thus the pomp of Oliver Wendell Holmes's 'The Chambered Nautilus' adjuring his soul to '[b]uild thee more stately mansions'. Whatever. But even such failures have (even if negative) worth.
There are rules to this exercise. No invented species nor chimerical monsters - though this doesn't preclude gigantism nor a little taxonomic vagueness. Thus the 'huge, brown, glistening bulk' of William Hope Hodgson's 'mighty devil-fish' in The Boats of the 'Glen Gerrig' would be permissible: haploteuthis ferox, that hitherto unknown squid that assailed the English coast in H.G. Wells's 'The Sea Raiders' is not: still less would be Cthulhu, despite his admirably tentacular visage. And as the effort here is to overturn a few rocks less jostled to see what coils beneath, much celebrated ceph-lit has been left alone. Captain Nemo's nemesis is not here. Benchley's Beast is absent, as is Lautréamont's octopus spirit from Maldoror. The astounding ruminations on the octopus-as-bad-ontology in Victor Hugo's otherwise 'prodigiously boring book' (Sebald) The Toilers of the Sea, remain indispensable - but elsewhere.
1) The uninvited guest. Alligators, rats, and even pigs have been claimed as sewer-dwellers. The cephalopod, however, is the classical ancestor of such cloacal ferality. In book 13 of his On the Nature of Animals, the Roman writer of Greek prose, Claudius Aelianus, circa 200 CE, tells of an octopus 'which attained to a monstrous bulk', swam up a submerged sewer in Dicaearchia (now Pozzuoli) and found its pipe-crawling, plundering way into a warehouse full of pickled fish. A terrified servant set to guard the wares saw the colossal intruder, and returned the next day with reinforcements. 'Later in the evening', Aelian reports, 'the marauder paid his visit'. There followed a full-on fight, knives, razors and axes against the python-strong tentacles of the octopus. The lack of a rubbish celluloid vision of this anecdote in some cod-Greco-Roman Hollywood epic is a miracle not to be taken for granted, nor to expect to last forever. (The humans won, incidentally.)
2) This monster with a strange gaze. Louise Michel, Bonne Louise, the red she-wolf, anarchist hero of the Paris Commune, condemned to exile in New Caledonia after its tragic failure, collected stories of and from the local Kanak people and their home (whose uprising, in her unflinching dedication to emancipation, she, unlike even many of the ex-communards, supported). 'The Cyclone' is a stunning meditation on the sea-storm and its aftermath. In prose as limpid as the rock-pools she searches, Michel itemises creatures thrown up by the upheaval, among them 'a half-dead octopus opens its human eye'. 'May he too return to the waters,' she urges, her sympathy unconstrained by species-chauvinism, 'this monster with a strange gaze.' A monster, a strange gaze, of an eye that is and yet cannot be human.
3) The end of moonspun dreams. In Japan, the octopus has an older (set of) tradition(s) than and a distinct one from the Anglo-American. And Haiku has its own rigours, of course. So it would take a scholar to make real sense of Basho's animal. This is not interpretation, then: it is, rather, an ignorance, a wronging, an inevitable misprision. But a poem belongs to those who love it, too, and their, our, wrongings might make something new. The surpassing beauty of these centuries-old lines is a springboard.
Octopus traps -
summer's moonspun dreams,
Questionably or not, this reads as a fable of the enWeirding. Enter the octopus and something ends. There will be no comprehensible dreams any more: those are done. There will be no more summer.
4) Strange beauty. Algernon Swinburne's overwrought lurve poem 'Dolores' may have given 10,000 goths eternal joy with the phrase 'Our Lady of Pain', but Oscar Wilde's mockery (that Swinburne was a wannabe) keeps stinging, and the unconvincing BDSMishness of the verse makes it parody-fodder. Parodied it was, by Arthur Clement Hilton, with 'Octopus'. But what is odd about the piss-take is how unparodish it really is. Certainly the ABABCDCD etc rhyme scheme means a unserious rumpty-tumpty rhythm. But still. Those opening lines: 'Strange beauty, eight-limbed and eight-handed, / Whence camest to dazzle our eyes?' Too odd for easy laughter. 'Wast thou nurtured in caverns of coral, remote from reproof or restraint?' Hilton asks, and it seems a reasonable question. And then the queries about the octopus's morality, the description of the beak 'craning forward to bite us', those 'bitings of agonised bliss', are a far more convincing eruption of erotic cruelty than Swinburne's self-conscious lubriciousness. The work is a more persuasive and strange evocation of decadence than the text at which it purports to snigger. Some of those aforementioned Japanese octopuses-of-culture have (as in Hokkusai's 'Dream of the Fisherman's Wife', or, in revolting and degraded form, much of the less pleasant Hentai) been erotic versions: for the most part this has not, until syncretically and recently, been true of the Anglo. But counterintuitively, this peculiar and uneasy priest-written 'joke' poem is one of the few counterexamples to that general asexualism. Along with Ernestine Mills' astonishing piece of enamel-work 'Mermaid overwhelmed by an octopus', and a very few others, Hilton exemplifies a rare Anglo anti-tradition of genuinely erotic cephalopodia. It is not typical: in that very oddness it deserves note.
5) Deceptively reserved and flat. Another of her poems, 'The Paper Nautilus', pins its ruminations on that most extraordinary creature the argonaut, and is better known, but here the celebration is of Marianne Moore's long, free-verse poem 'An Octopus'. A vivid, complex and problematic work about, well, truth, vision and whatnot (see various discussions), it immortalises the landscape of Mount Rainier. It is listed here not because of its debated meaning, but because it pins that meaning on 'An Octopus / of ice', a great spreading octopus inveigling its tentacles - its 'pseudo-podia / made of glass that will bend' - into the very landscape. No matter how explicitly Moore decodes her metaphor, explaining that the tentacles are 'twenty-eight ice-fields', the beast 'hovers… forward "spider fashion…"', baleful, and the 'Relentless accuracy [which] is the nature of this octopus' is no comfort, cannot make safe the unrolling formlessness, the predatory and abcanny, the mollusc-foundation of the earth. All who walk the world, even its highest mountain points, are dwellers in the abyss. We can climb the heights, in search of the sublime, towards the stratosphere; but we tread, no matter Moore's unconvincing claims about this octopus's 'capacity for fact', through jetted clouds of obfuscating ink. In darkness.