Category Archives: Art

Identity Crisis and Star Trek Discovery


Like many people (and unlike many others) I have been enjoying the first season of Star Trek Discovery which came to an end this week after many months. Personally I’ve enjoyed the ride through an uneven but interesting installment of a franchise I’ve been following on and off basically since birth. I know there’s an entire legion of people, however, who have hated the show with a passion for various reasons, to the extent that I’ve seen it described as the most divisive Star Trek ever.

Much of the discourse has been related to different ideas of what Star Trek ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be. Interestingly, this question of identity reflects many of the show’s own themes in a way that highlights why this incarnation of Trek is (whether successful or not) a fascinating examination of both itself and its audience.

Full spoiler warnings and all that. I’m going to be discussing the entirety of Discovery’s first season, so don’t read on if you’re still to catch it.


The opening credits hint at the theme of deconstruction and analysis.

Star Trek Discovery is, above all else, about identity. Klingons (whose design has been decried by many fans as not being faithful to their original look or first redesign) roar ‘Remain Klingon’ from the bridge of their ship of the dead, a huge warship adorned with the sarcophagi of their fallen comrades. They despise and fear Star Fleet whom they see as trying to dilute their identity, forcing them to conform and integrate themselves into what they see as a universal socialist empire. Star Fleet officers find themselves unable to agree on the role of their organisation and what actions are or aren’t acceptable during a time of war, often citing protocol and telling each other what is (or isn’t) the way Star Fleet should operate.

This has been a conversation that fans have (whether meaning to or not) been quite glad to get involved in. Much of the criticism against the show has revolved around fans’ expectations and demands of what a Star Trek show should look like. It doesn’t take long in any comment board to find instances of fans claiming that this isn’t ‘their’ Star Trek or that the characters don’t act as Star Fleet officers should, by which they mean they don’t act as characters from previous outings have. These sort of discussions are to be expected with such a well loved franchise and they are something that not only the show-runners expected but have relied on to aid the show’s narrative and to subvert the audience’s expectations of the show.

From the outset Discovery has been using the difference between the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the Terran Empire (as well as the opposing ideologies within each faction) to interrogate the social identity of the characters, us as viewers and of Star Trek itself. If Discovery seemed like it didn’t know what it wanted to be at first, that is because it has been questioning what it could be from the beginning.

Discovery’s story, in a nutshell, asks what happens when an inclusive, expansive society comes up against isolationism and nonconformity. At the same it looks at what happens in the opposite situation; if a person (or species) refuses to allow themselves be integrated (or perhaps assimilated, if you like the comparison) into this sort of conglomeration. In short, according to Discovery, they will come into conflict. Not just with each other but also with themselves, bastardizing and compromising their own ideologies. In the show this results in a war between the two species which is exacerbated by the in-fighting between the 24 Klingon houses. The war spreads engulfing everything in its path and wearing away the moral and ideological mentalities of everyone involved until no one’s sense of identity is left fully in tact.

This theme isn’t only explored in the series’ overall plot but also through each of its characters. The question of fractured ideology and damaged identity can be seen again and again through the many splintered personalities of the show’s cast. Each character represents and explores a different aspect of identity or the lack thereof.


Identity Perception Crisis – The ‘Disco’ t-shirts were a smooth way to discourage fans from using the acronym ‘STD’.

Michael Burnham doesn’t know who she is. Raised by Vulcans she struggles with the logic-based philosophy she was brought up with and the emotions she’s always been told to suppress. Despite this, she had made her way into the a second-in-command position under the maternal guidance of Captain Philippa Georgiou. When this reality is pulled away from her, through both internal and external miscalculations, her identity is thrown into crisis. Lorca gives her a second chance but the damage has already been done and Michael no longer knows who she is and what her place in society should be anymore. Much of the series is focused on the journey Michael takes in rediscovering herself.

As a complete counterpoint to Michael, Lorca knows very well who he is but it turns out that he is not who he says he is. Considering he is the captain of the Discovery (a role that has typically acted as figurehead in previous Trek outings) this deception colours the entire series until its reveal and has deep implications for Michael as well as every other character. To further explore the theme of hidden, mistaken or withheld identity we also have Empress Georgiou, Captain Philippa’s mirror universe double, who is physically not the person she was despite how much Michael (and the audience) want her to be.

Even the characters who are more secure in their identities are made to question it throughout the series. Saru knows who he is but is constantly challenged by his nature and even has a complete personality flip at one point. Ensign Tilly must act unlike herself in the guise of Captain Killy. Stamets must confront his doppelganger. The entire crew must, in the end, confront Lorca and measure the man he is against the man they thought he was, while weighing the validity of his words that he forged their collective identity, making them the tight-knit group of fighters they are by the end.

All these character interactions are a deeper, multifaceted exploration of the show’s wider question of identity. But of course, the rabbit hole goes even deeper and so does Discovery, honing in further on the fractured personality of one character; Taylor/Voq. This character is the most complex examination of fractured identity in the show but also has another function. Rather than simply provoking more questions it is through this character that Discovery begins searching for an answer.

tumblr_inline_oy1uws4y5L1qebpxc_540Taylor/Voq is a representation of what happens when two opposing ideas or ideologies are jammed together carelessly. Like the larger social and political framework, the result is confused, messy and desperate. Voq tries to claw his way out of Taylor’s body while Taylor himself begs for help understanding who and what he is. The two personalities can’t find a unified state. It’s like trying to forge a Hegelian synthesis from a thesis and antithesis that have been lain on top of each other but not given the chance to interact properly.

It’s what happens when left-wing radicalism meets right. Neither side wants to give way to the other and they’re unable (or unwilling) to see each others’ point of view. The result is chaos and aggression, and before long, both sides, although different in principle, begin to resemble one another. Each ideology begins using the others jargon and the same hateful rhetoric can be seen from each side, just inverted.

An example of this can be taken from Trek fans themselves and the way so many people have reacted to the show. A very vocal contingent of the audience has decried its use of diversity in casting. I’ve heard it said that the inclusion of women of colour and a gay couple as main characters is a result of ‘Social Justice Warrior’ mentality. Others, while acknowledging its positive contribution in this area, have called faul of the series’ darker, grittier and more violent tone in comparison to its predecessors, calling for a return to a more wholesome and faithful vision. Others still will defend it blindly, stating that Trek has always pushed boundaries and only looks blindly optimistic (possibly naively so) in retrospect. There are a lot of rage-filled message boards but not a lot of genuine conversation on the matter, or certainly not on the surface anyway. There definitely seems to be a ‘for or against’ mentality when it comes to the show which doesn’t leave much room for discussion and seems to mirror how a lot of political discourse takes place on the internet currently.

Most of Discovery’s criticism is wrapped up in the questions of what Star Trek ‘is’ or ‘should be’. There seems to be a disconnect between what Trek’s place in the world was and what it is now. This is exacerbated by the fact that when reading reviews of the show form pop culture websites such as io9 or gamesradar+ we seem to be getting a discourse about what the writer thinks the show should be rather than what it actually is. One gets the sense that these reviewers had decided on their opinion of the show long before it even premiered and as such the reviews become much less about the show and more about the reviewers themselves. Very few discussions about the show are able to reach a mutual understanding or even acknowledgment of each others’ opinions. Star Trek Discovery is either brilliant, embodying the true values of Roddenbury’s boundary pushing epic or awful, an insult to the series’ legacy and a product of contemporary television’s obsession with ‘grit’. The truth, of course, is probably somewhere in bstdetween.

Because of all the contrary opinions before the project had even taken off, the showrunners had a lot to consider. Not just regarding the story, design and style of the show, but also its politics, ideals and how it should approach them.

I think Taylor/Voq is what Star Trek Discovery might have looked were it not given the time to explore its place in the world: Retro, nostalgia-laden optimism pasted over an adverse sociopolitical climate and thrown into a more cynical and exploitative televisual landscape. It most likely wouldn’t have worked. But through Taylor/Voq’s suffering the show is able to begin reconciling its vision with its ideology and history. Taylor looks good to begin with, he’s tough, charming and has heart, but as time goes by the cracks start to show. He’s damaged, lost and, worst of all, it turns out he is not what he thought he was, what he wants to be or what he ‘should’ be. It’s a struggle Star Trek Discovery was always going to have.

When Voq’s previous second-in-command, L’rell, finally agrees to work with Star Fleet doctors to help him we begin to see a more real synthesis. Through a mutual love for the confused mess that is Taylor/Voq they put aside their radical ideologies and work together to save whatever identity is left in him. It’s the first real compromise on both sides and a sign that it is possible to forge a relationship between these two identities, both Tayor and Voq as well as Star Fleet and the Klingon Empire. It’s this compromise which will eventually lead to the end of the war which is neither won nor lost, but firmly seated in compromise.

Before they can get to this point though, the crew of the Discovery find themselves in the Mirror Universe during the second half of the series. Here they are forced to see their organisation reflected through a lens of race-hate and opportunism, in the form of the Terran Empire. Unfortunately, the reality they see isn’t so far away from that of their own universe and, in some ways, even closer to our own. The darkness witnessed there is the kind of darkness found in all humanity.

Jasen Issacs said, of the Mirror Universe:

How different are any of us from the Mirror version of ourselves? […] This particular administration in America has brought some of the ugliest parts of human nature out from in the shadows.
[…] What Ted (Sullivan, co-executive producer of the show) did, which I thought was so brilliant, is make [the Mirror Universe] not that far from us. So, it is a world where people are slightly more Darwinian. That whole “Make the Empire glorious again” and not all races are equal. We worked hard on that speech that Lorca gives to make it not that far from the way many people around us think.

In Star Trek Discovery all universes, all beings and all identities are bound together through the Mycelial Network; the roots that hold all of creation together. This shows that all these differing ideologies are intertwined and closer in kind than each would care to admit. It’s important that Lorca’s slogan ‘make the Empire great again’ is not a far cry from the Klingon’s ‘remain Klingon’, and both have very clear real world counterparts. The implication is that our own universe is also part of this network and Discovery hopes, as does all good science fiction, to act as our own mirror universe.


It is in Discovery’s Mirror Universe, the realm of literal and metaphorical self reflection, that the crew finally come to see themselves for who they are, who they could be and who they must aspire to become. This is all put into words by Saru in the engineering room where he speaks to the crew in what is much less an address and more a meeting. He says speaks about releasing themselves from their confused and fearful past by stating ‘Lorca abused our idealism. But make no mistake, Discovery is no longer Lorca’s, she is ours, and this will be her maiden voyage.’ The scene is a direct reversal of an earlier moment in which Lorca stands in the same room and announces that the ship was ‘not a democracy’.

It’s from the moment of Saru’s speech that the characters start to embody the true ideals of the Federation and we begin to see the original utopian ideals Trek is famous for. It’s no accident that one of the last lines spoken in the mirror universe arc is; ‘That is who Star Fleet is. That is who I am.’

This becomes a mantra of sorts and is constantly repeated throughout the final two episodes and culminates in Michael’s speech in which it becomes a kind of manifesto for the show.

In the end of the Mirror Universe arc the merging and fixing of the show’s fractured identities is reaffirmed as the crew make their way back to their original universe through the Mycelial Network and ‘the clearing in the forest’; a moment of quiet introspection where you can see the world around you and your place in it without being ‘among the trees’, as it were.

Of course, on their return, not all is as it should be and the crew instantly come up against yet another crisis and are forced to stand by their newfound sense of identity even when other member’s of Star Fleet bend under the pressure, allowing themselves to stoop to ever lower depths in desperation. But the crew of the Discovery have leant and grown throughout their journey. They have not only interrogated but embodied the ideals of Star Fleet and it is their confidence in who they must be that paves the way for true change and for the future of not just the show’s world but for the show itself.

After everything has been said and done, Michael puts into words the show’s statement of intent:

No, we will not take shortcuts on the path to righteousness. No, we will not break the rules that protect us from our basest instincts. No, we will not allow desperation to destroy moral authority. I am guilty of all these things. Some say in life there are no second chances. Experience tells me that this is true but we can only look forward. We have to be torchbearers. Casting the light so we may see our path to lasting peace. We will continue exploring, discovering new worlds and civilisations. Yes, that is the United Federation of Planets. Yes, that is Star Fleet. Yes, that is who we are and who we will always be.

Star Trek Discovery is a strange show that takes many risks both in terms of its story and as a show. It relies heavily on a novel-like structure more than many shows I’ve seen that may still be serialised but not novelistic. The show’s first half is much grimmer and more pessimistic than that of its second and the writers ran the risk of alienating much of the audience who didn’t want to see such things from the classic franchise. But the show needed that time to interrogate its own identity, asking what place Star Trek has and what form it should take in a world that seems to be turning its back on Utopian ideals. By testing its characters (and its audience) morally and intellectually it has endeavoured to justify its own existence in our current political, social and televisual climate. Michael’s final speech sums up the series investigation and its discoveries. Now it knows what it is and who its Federation is, the show can start working towards reaching the goal of creating a believable, honest vision of utopia that is relevant to today’s audience.

Ted Sullivan said about Saru’s speech;

We get it. We believe in Star Trek and Starfleet too. We just had to go through this journey of twelve episodes.



Live long and prosper



Tetsuo: The Iron Man – Futurism



I’m always on a quest to watch films that people recommend as being ‘odd’, ‘weird’, ‘surreal’ or otherwise ‘bat-shit mental’. As such, you can probably imagine that I’m no stranger to Japanese cinema. With their penchant for over-the-top violence, surreal imagery and absurdism a lot of really interesting and bizarre film comes out of Japan, some of which is beautiful, disturbing, fascinating and prolific, and some of which is just absolutely mad.

Despite my interest in expressionist and experimental cinema, I’d never actually seen the world famous Tetsuo: The Iron Man until last night. Wow, what a ride that was! It’s one of those films that you don’t so much watch as you experience.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a 1988 black and White tour de force of filmaking which explores concepts of dehumanisation at the hands of industry and technology. It’s often paired up with the Cyberpunk genre although I’m not convinced that’s a satisfactory label for the film. Tetsuo defies genre mixing elements of surrealism, body horror, sci fi, action, erotica and more into an hours bombardment of images and ideas.

The main thing that kept floating through my head as I watched it, was a paragraph from the Futurism Manifest written by F. T. Marinetti in 1909.

Futurism was/is an art movement which began in Italy. It sought to move away form ideas of the past and instead focus on the future. It was a bold, brash movement which reveled in concepts of speed, violence, machinery and industry. Motion became a staple of Futurizmo and objects such as motor cars and aeroplanes were incredibly important to them. The futurists sought to move the world forward into an industrial age with force, by fiercely rejecting the past and storming ahead with all the power of a locomotive. They glorified war and spat on ideas of morality, feminism and peace.

For me, watching Tetsuo: The Iron man was like seeing the ideas of Futurism on screen in beautiful and terrifying clarity.

Tetsuo begins as it means to continue as we are assaulted with harsh images of an industrial suburb of the city. A man, identified in the credits as ‘Fetishist’ enters his home, which is full of unidentifiable mechanics, wires, gears and metal rods. Here the camera glides erratically over the collection of strange and almost alien mechanics, set to a pounding, metallic soundtrack. Suddenly and without warning the fetishist slashes open his leg and forces a length of metal tubing into the wound. Later, when he unwraps it he’s horrified to see that the wound has become infected and has begun to rot, covered in maggots. In horror he runs out into the street and is knocked over by a car. This scene, in contrast, is backed by smooth 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll. Again we’re treated to an all too familiar but strangely otherworldly landscape of metal and wire, as well as the words ‘NEW WORLD’ written on a piece of scenery.

This cinematic punch to the face is a bold opening statement already mixing images of agony with pleasure, ugliness with beauty and progression with death. These mixed messages will continue and grow throughout the film until one is barely discernible from the other, pleasure becomes about agony, ugliness becomes beauty. This mirrors some of the ideas written in the Futurist manifesto about 80 years earlier when they speak of a ‘new beauty’, a beauty far away from the traditional concept which glorifies nature and calmness, but instead acknowledges speed, noise and the unnatural:


We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

The story of Tetsuo begins some time after the car crash and follows the man who knocked over the fetishist. He begins to notice bits of metal protruding from his skin and over the course of the film he slowly and painfully transforms into a sort of human junkyard.

In this context the idea of a man turning into a sort of mechanical monstrosity is of course a metaphor for the dominance of industry over nature. It mirrors the way a city grows, swallowing the landscape around it, exactly the way Tetsuo is swallowed by the metal in his body. It also speaks of the dehumanisation of man as we become just parts of a larger mechanism, a message which has been found in films before, most notably in another futurism inspired masterpiece; Metropolis. This isn’t the only similarity Tetsuo bares to Metropolis. The way Fritz Lang filmed close ups of moving machines in a way to make them otherworldly is very similar to what Tsukamoto is doing in Tetsuo. Some of the expressive performances in Tetsuo are also very reminiscent of certain scenes/characters in Metropolis.

Of course the story isn’t only working on an abstract level but on a literal one too. The idea of man literally becoming machine is very prominent in futurism and from it concepts such as Transhumanism and Technological Singularity have risen. In 1927 Fritz Lang was affected by this when making Metropolis in the wake of the First World War, as Anton Kaes noted in his essay Metropolis: City, Cinema, Modernity;

Millions of veterans with prostheses and mechanical body parts—half machine, half human—walked the streets… The war and its aftermath provided the ultimate context for modernism, Metropolis offers a hallucinatory vision of the relationship between humanity and machine.
For Tsukamoto in 1988 this was becoming even more prevalent with the use of computers and mobile phones and with the rapid expansion of industry in Japan. People were really experiencing their lives changed by technology as they were brought into a, as Tsukamoto puts it, new world. And it’s still relevant to us today. As our lives are becoming further integrated with technology the idea of man becoming machine (at least in part) is closer to reality than ever. In fact, in a recent interview Ray Kurzweil, an American inventor, writer and self proclaimed futurist spoke about an event he calls ‘The Singularity’ which marks the time when our machines will be so advanced and intelligent that they’ll be on-par with humanity. At this time our lives (and physical bodies) will start to become completely integrated with technology. In a statement that in some ways evokes the image of Tetsuo with his metal growths bursting from inside, Kurzweil says;

tetsuo early

It’s not some alien invasion of intelligent machines coming from Mars to invade us. It’s coming from within our civilization and the whole point of it is to extend our reach.

And this is what is happening In Tetsuo. As he metamorphoses into his new metal form, he in many ways becomes better, stronger, more powerful whilst all the while loosing his compassion, love and gentility. Seen from a futurist perspective we can acknowledge that these more human sensibilities make one weak and their loss is a positive thing. By replacing these with raw power and aggression he becomes stronger, better, more able to take on the future. As a metaphor this is strikingly similar to the way the futurists called for the destruction of art galleries, libraries and academies because they stifle creation. In order to move forward and create something new and extraordinary, one most let go of comforts that hold them back. In Marinetti’s words:

To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action… Indeed daily visits to museums, libraries and academies…is for artists what prolonged supervision by the parents is for intelligent young men…

After the opening sequence and a short scene showing Tetsuo noticing a shard of metal growing from his face we see him in relative normality, or the closest we’ll get to normality. He speaks to his girlfriend on the phone, a conversation in which the duo repeat the term ‘hello’ eight or nine times in a show of everyday monotony. It is only after one of them mentions the accident that the conversation, and the film itself is allowed to continue. Following this is a couple of nightmarish sequences in which Tetsuo is chased by a woman with a mechanical arm, and a second where his girlfriend (with Brigitte Helm style expressive make up) rapes him with a metal tentacle like appendage.


Both these scenes are genuinely unsettling and are probably some of the scarier things I’ve seen on film recently. Both reinforce the idea of progression through force as Tetsuo’s changes begin in a violent and violating manner. There may also be a sense that one cannot outrun progress, nor con it be beaten. The chase scene is filmed in short, frantic bursts as Tetsuo flees through a maze of underground corridors, perfectly invoking that sense of speed and constant motion that one associates with underground transport and power lines. The dream sequence (although distinctions between dream/wake, fantasy/reality should be taken very lightly here) mixes the erotic with the violent whilst none too subtly hammering the point that industry is a forceful invasion on nature.

The film carries on with this theme in some of the brashest film-making I’ve seen in a while. Eroticism continues to mix with violent, forceful symbolism until it reaches its bold and unforgettable conclusion. Metallic screeches and groans cry out while the woman’s teeth slide over a fork. With each sound Tetsuo reacts with a mix of pleasure and revulsion until it all becomes too much and…


There is an assumption here that the bizarre and violent sexual content tells a wider story of impotence, repression and the weakness of the flesh. I think it says more about human nature and thril in the face of violence and chaos. Here, the phallus is a symbol of destruction and invasion in the most literal form. Even the most normal instance of sex in the film takes place just after the couple have dumped the fetishist’s body in a ditch. It’s the thrill of having killed a man which ignites the passion in them, and then is furthered by the thrill of being watched. As the woman groans ‘honey, he’s watching us!’ the scene climaxes with a film stock explosion. Even here sex is seen as a destructive act and this only becomes more prevalent when Tetsuo literally drills her to death. It’s interesting to note that she is only drilled after she wins a confrontation with him, stabbing him in the neck. After this she becomes overtly sexual again which results in her gruesome death. Just like before, it is she who penetrates Tetsuo before he is allowed to penetrate her. There’s more phallic imagery at the end of the film when Tetsuo and the revived(?) fetishist are moulded together and transformed into a massive penis shaped tank ready to destroy the world.

The male genitalia here is nothing but a force of destruction, a symbol of power, strength and speed. This is in keeping with ideas put forward in the futurist manifesto which denounces feminism and literally hopes to breed contempt for women. For them femininity is a symbol of weakness and cowardice, something that only exists to subdue the destructive and creative power of male compulsion.

We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

As the film continues Tetsuo’s agonised screams become background noise, along with the pounding, mechanical soundtrack. Images of his ever-changing body become more and more grotesque as an already aggressive film ramps up the violence and horror, never letting up right until the credits roll.

The dead fetishist comes back from wherever he had been dumped and fights Tetsuo in a manga-esque battle put together with fast paced, angry stop-motion. After all is said and done the two characters are morphed together into that giant penis-tank I mentioned before. The imagery here is nasty and discomforting completely at odds with the feelings of the characters. Tetsuo himself is now nothing more than a head, surrounded by metal and dribbling blood or oil. Yet he gladly pronounces ‘I feel great’.


The fetishist, who is at the… head of the tank, brandishing a gun speaks of destroying the world: ‘How about turning the whole world into metal? You and me. We can rust the whole world and scatter it to the dust of the universe. Our love can put an end to this fucking world!’

Of course he’s talking about their love of violence, of speed and of industry. He’s speaking of ending the world as it is and driving it forward into a new age. Denouncing what is old and traditional, literally burying it in metal. In its final moments the film drives home the main focus of the futurist movement with crystal clear clarity. As Marinetti wrote:

Let the good incendiaries with charred fingers come! Here they are! Heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries! Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns! […] Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? it is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!


‘I feel great.’

Tetsuo: The Iron Man may not be the most profound film ever made, and certainly isn’t the most likable film I’ve seen. In fact it’s a hateful, vicious piece of film-making which takes the concept of subtlety and explodes it in front of the audience. But the futurists weren’t interested in subtlety either, and they sure as hell didn’t care if people liked them. What Tetsuo is, for me, is an almost perfect example of this particular art movement. I’ve never seen another film, or art work of any kind which has so thoroughly and accurately embodied the concepts and atmosphere of futurism.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about the film; that the role of the fetishist is actually played by the writer and director of the piece and how that changes the perspective of the film (just think of the ‘honey, he’s watch us’ scene); or about certain gestures (such as a man miming a drill-penis with an iron bar) brings the various scenes of sexual violence into a different light. But I feel like it’s unnecessary at this point. There are a lot of layers to this film and a lot to be said in its short run-time. Mainly though it’s a mad, frenetic bombardment of images which starts with a bang and never lets up, dragging the audience through with its visceral images and pulse-pounding sound scape, offering no exit from the ride. And that, in itself is a perfect representation of the kind of art that futurism was interested in producing.

Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.


Finding myself through words.


I realised recently that I love sculpture. This came as a slight surprise because I’ve never really put much thought into the sculpting arts before. I remember being absolutely bowled over by the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow and I also loved the Rivers of Siberia fountain in Krasnoyarsk. I was less enthusiastic but still impressed with the multiplicity of marble sculptures in Rome and the brass, militaristic statues in Beijing became one of the most interesting aspects of the city for me. Even so, I unconsciously logged all this information away without putting any of it together.


Monument to the Conquerors of Space

Monument to the Conquerors of Space


The reason I finally realised it, was the same reason I’ve realised so many of my personal tendencies; through my own writing. In particular I was toying with an idea about a city filled with living statues. While daydreaming about this I realised that sculpture has always played a part in my fiction, from my first novel Sketch to my latest, as of yet untitled, project. The statues in my fiction are always impressive and profound, if they’re not alive then they carry some special significance to the plot. In one story a man is slowly transformed into a stone statue after standing still for most of history.

It’s funny how it was only until after I’d written all this that I came to the realisation that I obviously have a strong appreciation for sculpture. Perhaps it comes from the fact that I actually know very little about sculpting, so had never really thought of it as anything but a periphery curiosity. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that this is not the first time I’ve realised something previously unknown about myself through writing fiction.

Through writing over the last five or six years I have discovered so much about myself. I’ve learnt what imagery I find beautiful or scary, what themes intrigue or infuriate me and what ideas have gotten stuck in my subconscious over the years. Through reoccurring thoughts and ideas I’ve discovered fears and concerns lurking in the back of my mind and had the opportunity to explore them. Writing has also helped me to put my social, political and spiritual views on paper and then deconstruct them, argue with myself and even take on the opposite point of view for a while. There’s also the fact that writing a novel, even a completely fictional one requires a nonsensical amount of research into related and unrelated material. I think I’ve learnt more about myself and the world through writing fiction than I have in any other medium or for any other reason.

At George Carling’s funeral Luis CK tells how he received advise for doing stand up from Carling. The advise was never to write the same joke twice, because that way you’re forced to look more deeply inside yourself for content. If the first joke comes from your head then the second comes from your heart, ‘until you get to the balls!’ says Luis CK. I think novel writing is similar to this in the ways that it’s more of a slow job than a sprint. I often find that my feeling of inspiration and excitement in telling a story only carries me so far before I realise there is an ocean of words between myself and the end of the novel. Pushing myself to write past the end of my inspiration forces me to really examine what it is in a story or theme that interests me. What traits in my characters do I find loveable or abhorrent, and if I find it abhorrent then why did I write it?

I’d always recommend that people write, whether it’s a novel, poetry or stream of consciousness, for this reason. It really can help you find and discover yourself. Through this act you might learn what it is you love and hate about yourself. If it’s not writing, then try something else that similarly stimulates you; sculpture for example.

I’m in Poland at the moment, working on a new theatre piece. But when I go back to England next week, I’m inspired to grab some clay and try my hand at making something. I hope I find out something new about myself in the process.


Creativity in the lines – Directing children’s theatre in Beijing.


I’ve been racking my brains, daunted by the task of just how I can put into words my time in Beijing. How would I describe such a place, such an experience, such a feeling? I’ve still not worked it out so I’m trying to split it up into more manageable parts. Whilst thinking about this I realised that I very rarely write about my work on this blog so I thought that might be a nice place to start.

So, this year I’ve been teaching theatre and acting at a drama academy in Beijing, China. I work solely in English, teaching students who range from about seven to twelve years old. They tend to have pretty good to excellent English and those who are of a lower level bring so much enthusiasm and dedication to my classes that it’s anything but an obstacle. Throughout the year my students demonstrated extraordinary talent and such a mature, almost intense work ethic which never failed to impress.



We split our year into two semesters, one was our ‘training’ semester in which we taught various aspects of drama and English. The second is the ‘production’ semester where we directed shows. We also, during summer and winter, ran five day camps where we would direct a full show in the week. So, as you can see, the majority of the work focused on directing.

I think the process of directing a show for a group of children is always difficult and complicated, but doing it in Beijing carries its own set of very specific considerations and requires a lot of technical juggling to make all the parts fit together.


Firstly, a large part of the job becomes about parent management. Chinese parents are very involved in their children’s upbringing and education, desperate to make sure their child is learning to the best of their ability and being given the opportunity to challenge and push themselves. It’s touching to see the level of involvement and care but it can also manifest itself in an ugly tendency to compete. Some parents, in wanting their child to do the best they can, also want them to be the best in the class and so be given the most attention. Managing this becomes an art that starts with the script.

Many of the scripts we were given (no, we didn’t choose them ourselves) were quite awful. Many were badly written and those which weren’t were often inappropriate in terms of language level, cultural applicability and designation of lines. The first thing on the agenda is to cut the script to ribbons. Most of them (but not all, to be fair) are not designed to be given to classes of kids who should all have roughly the same number of lines. This means that we have to be quite liberal in the way we reallocate lines. Anything that can be spoken in unison is, anything that can be split between multiple actors is, anything too reliant on cultural foreknowledge is cut and many sentences are simplified in a big way. Already, I know we’re going to have problems with some of the parents not understanding why one character’s lines suddenly belong to five others, but that is my burden to bear. This first draft is all about mathematics, not about the story, my students skill or level and certainly not about making a well written show. More will change as we go, but this is our first draft, cut down from the usually bloated and inappropriate original.

The funny thing about juggling the lines is that despite their insistence that the lines be reallocated with mathematical precision my student’s parents do not often share their children’s English abilities. More often than not we’re performing to an audience who don’t understand what we’re saying either way. This changes the way we direct and deliver the dialogue. Lines now need to sound impressive rather than actually being perfectly articulated. Tone, pitch and rhythm of the dialogue becomes of utmost importance as we cut and rewrite along the way, making sure everything carries a kind of singsong quality. Jokes are built up with rising tone and punchlines are delivered to sound like a drumbeat. At the same time our actors have to reiterate all this with their movements, undulating like waves with the rhythm of their speech and punctuating their meaning with gesture and pose. During rehearsal, it can sometimes look like some sort of bizarre Meyerhold etude before being pared down to something more manageable later.


This rhythm also informs the overall structure of the show. Again keeping in mind the fact the audience won’t be following us it’s important to keep the show flowing whilst putting an emphasis on visual action. Logical story telling tends to take a backseat to movement and action and this is, admittedly, exacerbated by the fact I tend not to prioritise linear narrative in theatre at the best of times; a product of having studied experimental theatre arts.

When working with young students it becomes very important to keep everyone as active as possible so whenever I can put everyone on stage, I will. This is a matter of logistics but also a hangover from a lot of my own theatre work which included large scale casts. A lot of the work becomes about the placement of students on the stage. I go to bed dreaming of geometric patterns formed of Chinese children dressed as sheep or broccoli. When successful the result of this is beautiful. A Kaleidoscope of action and sound which can be mesmerising and impressive in its simplicity. I often worked with ideas adapted and simplified from Greek chorus or, more often, from the way Kantor used procession and group postures. As often as possible I would have actors appear from and vanish into the collective in order to create a sense of ensemble which, as I discovered early on, was not typical of Chinese drama education which tends to focus on ‘star mentality’.


Something else I played with, especially towards the end of the year, was the actor’s journey rather than the character’s. Most of the audience were made up of friends and parents so the actor’s story became just as, if not more, important than that of the character. This culminated with a moment in my last show where one of my Witches jumped into the role of Lady Macduff in all of one second. My co-teachers were desperately telling me she needed a costume change which I didn’t want to make time for, knowing the rhythm would be thrown off. I was sure that the audience were more invested in the actress than the character so that even if our simple signifier demonstrating the change wasn’t clear enough (which it would never have been considering not all the audience would even understand who Lady Macduff is or why there are witches hanging around everywhere) it didn’t matter. The audience won’t care if she’s the Witch or Lady Macduff, I said, because she’s Connie. They would be following her journey as a performer from one scene and character to the next over the technicalities of the story. This was one of our most successful scenes in the end.

There’s a lot more to it, of course, but these are some of the ideas I’ve been playing with throughout the year.


Almost every decision made during the direction of these shows is underpinned by a logistic, mathematical need. Lines are counted and made equal as is the placement of performers on the stage (we can’t have certain actors downstage more often than others for example). The actor’s presence on the stage is checked so that if someone has been in the ensemble for a while they must (damned be the story) feature prominently in the next part. Delivery is designed in a non-naturalistic, descriptive way partially to help the audience understand and partially to entertain without them needing to. The funny thing is that fitting all these sliding parts together and trying to keep everyone happy actually sort of forces you to adopt a more expressive, less linear mode of performance which can be understood and enjoyed by all. I found many creative doors opening before us in part because of this focus on technical direction.

My year in this job has certainly taught me a lot of tricks when it comes to the directing (and writing) of plays. These are tricks that I’ll be taking with me whether I continue to work with children or with adults. It’s taught me to embrace and explore inside a forced structure and that creativity sometimes lies in the lines of a page rather than just between them.




Wonder Woman’s God Complex



Recently, I went to go and see the new Wonder Woman film in one of the better cinemas I’ve visited in Beijing. In comparison to most the other superhero films I’ve seen in the last few years Wonder Woman is pretty darn good, but I couldn’t help but feel as though there was a particularly large issue with the themes of the film and the fact that Hollywood doesn’t seem capable of dealing with those themes.

Full spoilers below…

Diana is the only child on a magic island hidden from the rest of the world and populated by Amazonian women. When wondering where such a child came from we’re told that her mother Hypolita wished for her so much that she moulded her from clay and asked the god Zues to give her life. This is something that Diana never questions despite the fact that she does admit the knowledge that men are ‘essential for procreation’.

We also learn that for some reason the God of War, Ares, chose to defy the rest of the gods, fighting and killing them. To combat Ares, Zues bestowed upon the Amazons the ‘God Killer’ which they used to vanquish (but not kill) Ares. The God Killer, Hypolita tells her daughter, is a grand sword which Diana, as a child, looks at with an almost forlorn gaze and asks her mother who would ever be able to wield such a weapon. Her disappointment when Hypolita tells her that it wont be her is palpable and the scene ends in such a way that I was left wondering whether or not it was the film-maker’s intentions that the young Diana display an almost psychopathic urge to kill a god one day.

As the film progresses we watch Diana grow up, conditioned by her mother’s obvious lies and her warrior aunt’s tutelage, becoming stronger, more badass but certainly not any wiser. Although Diana is brought up to be naive and unaware the audience hasn’t been, and anyone with a healthy upbringing on superhero movies will have already guessed that Diana is likely to be the daughter of Zues and that the God Killer is in fact her and not the sword at all. To the film’s credit these two revelations are never really treated as any great twist and so their obviousness doesn’t really hurt the story. They do however set the tone for what is to come during the rest of the run time and these two plot points feed into what seems to be the film’s main themes:

Firstly that Diana is a God. Invincible and supreme in her abilities. Secondly, she’s naive. Unaware of the nature of man and the nature of violence. It’s when addressing these ideas that Wonder Woman shows the most potential but also uncovers some of the downsides of the superhero genre as a whole.


There’s a good action scene about halfway through the film where Diana has had enough of watching the horrors of WWI unfold around her and decides to take matters into her own hands. Despite the German machine guns pointing at her she runs across no-man’s land to liberate a small French village. It’s in this scene we have the first full reveal of her iconic uniform, we hear the pulse pounding drums that have become her theme for these DC movies and we witness the extent of her badassery as she flips armoured vehicles with her bare hands, kicks people through walls and literally punches the catholic church so hard it collapses. It’s all good stuff but it’s also where my skepticism of the film’s intentions began. It’s very handy having a bullet-proof supergod on your side, I thought, as her actions inspired her companions to join the fight.

Their victory over the village is short lived however and the Germans soon drop a chemical weapon on it, killing everyone. Diana runs into the orange cloud, not even wrinkling her nose against the gas, to see first hand the nature of man’s hate. It’s the first time that we see Diana completely as ‘other’ to us. Where any man, woman or child faces certain death in the cloud, Diana isn’t affected in the least. The film states, in no uncertain terms, that Diana is not human and she is not in any danger from us or our weapons. She is, however, applaud by our actions.

Instead of readdressing her preconceived notions about men and war though, she carries on with greater resolve to end the war in her own way. Diana, brought up on stories of gods, thinks that the only way to end the war is to defeat Ares, the god of war, who she assumes is causing the fighting in the first place. For some reason she has decided that Ares is actually personified by Ludendorf, the German general who along with the fabulously named ‘Doctor Poison’ is manufacturing the terrible chemical weapons that mark the film’s biggest threat. She confronts Ludendorf who, for no other reason than ‘it’s a movie’ has some kind of magic drug that gives him super strength. Still, Diana kicks him through a wall (watching Wonder Woman kick people through walls never gets old) and impales him to the floor with her God Killer sword. Ares is dead, she thinks, and yet the war continues.

wonderwomantrailer213-470x310@2xAgain we wonder if she’ll finally have to confront her misguided views of the war, but no. Right on cue, the real Ares turns up; a Brit nonetheless. He reveals the minor twists that everyone already knew and sums up the films ideology very clearly. War is a man-made invention. Although he admits to whispering inspirations to the likes of Doctor Poison he tells us that men are the real threat to the world and that no interference from gods can change that. He’s echoing something Chris Pine said earlier when he admits ‘maybe it’s us’; maybe man is to blame for all the horror.

This is the moment the whole film has led up to, where Wonder Woman has seen first hand that war is not a fantasy or a fiction, men’s minds are not twisted by any supernatural being and that war can not be ended by just fly kicking one man in the face. It’s also the moment the film betrays itself.

Wonder Woman decides to kick the crap out of Ares anyway, it is her nature as a weapon, after all. While she’s fighting him her comrades are fighting against the German chemical weapon and loosing. In a moment of weakness she watches Chris Pine commit suicide, taking the weapon with him and this gives her the strength to fight back again. There’s lots of fire, punching each other through buildings, lighting shot from fingertips; it’s everything we’ve come to expect from a DC movie’s final act, and just as empty.

The problem is that we’ve already learnt that Ares has no hold over this war. Killing him will not save the world and yet Wonder Woman fights anyway, ignoring the suffering of her comrades and with such drive that brings back the image of a child coveting a sword she prays to one day use. It’s her singular vision that means Chris Pine has no help from her when he flies off to his death, a gesture that could have easily been prevented by the supergod. It’s all something that could have meaning if it wasn’t for the film’s climax.

Wonder Woman harnesses her power as a god-made weapon, kills Ares and the war ends.

The take away from this final conflict is that actually Wonder Woman was right all along. Killing one supreme bad guy did end the war which must also mean that the war was the fault of this one god and not man at all. None of the men’s struggles or sacrifices mean anything in the face of this revelation and we are all absolved of any responsibility we might have otherwise had to have claimed for the cruelties of war. The film has betrayed its own convictions and through doing so has undermined itself.

Right from the first line of dialogue Diana is being lied to. Her world view is twisted and distorted to the extent that when she enters our world she can’t distinguish reality from fiction. Likewise however, her presence and her actions show her comrades that there is more to the world than they knew. In the end it’s Diana’s world view that wins out. A world of gods and monsters and where the evil of man is actually the fault of someone else. If this was actually the intention of the film then I would argue that WWI was perhaps not the right backdrop for the story. War, chemical weapons, hate and violence are, without a doubt, not god-created issues. They are caused by man, inflicted upon man and no amount of supergod stories can change this sad fact. By sticking to her original intent Diana shows no growth as a character. She’s as confused and misguided as she was as a child and still views the world in black and white terms, what’s worse is that the film makers seem to share this world view.

As much as I love superhero films I can’t help but think they are loosing their relevance in our society. The story of one man or woman saving humanity by punching a single baddie in the face is an outdated concept. It’s an issue that Wonder Woman almost addresses but gives into at the end, more than likely just because this is an American film and needs to end in a predetermined way. It’s a shame that the trapping of the genre force Wonder Woman to betray and undermine itself in the last moments because there is a more interesting story than Diana vs Ares fighting to be told. I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if in those last moments Diana decided to cease her meaningless battle with Ares and go instead to help her new found friends in their struggle against their own kind. What if it was shown that Ares actually didn’t have much power over man and wasn’t causing the war? What if, because of this revelation, Diana showed us that the true power of a god is to inspire mankind to better itself rather than give into its basest instincts?

At the end of the film Diana, in the present day US, sums up her journey for us by saying that ‘only love can save the world’. However this is not what we’ve seen just moments before. Diana did not save the day by putting aside her outdated and ill-informed ideology and helping the war resolve in a peaceful way, she won through violence, just as the men of the film sought to do and in so doing proved that she really is, much like the German’s terrible gas, nothing more than the weapon she was designed to be. Unfortunately the film never addresses this parallel itself.

There’s a moment towards the end of Diana’s fight with Ares where the camera focuses on her, silhouetted in the air behind a red and gold sky. Her arms are outstretched and one leg slightly raised. It’s an image of Christ on the cross. Except here, Diana does not die to save mankind, she kills to save mankind. If love is the only thing that can save the world then perhaps superhero films need to find a gesture other than violence to bring their final acts to a close.



Sandwiches and cigarettes with Hayao Miyazaki


A few weeks ago I wrote a post detailing my first few days in Tokyo, with the promise that I’d follow it up with more details at a later point. A promise that I abruptly failed to deliver on. So, now I’ll try to fill in a bit on something cool which happened.

After our first show in the AiiA Theatre, we had a small meet and greet with members of our sponsors and other interested parties. During the night, we were told that our schedule was being suspended on a certain day because we were to be taken to the actual Studio Ghibli for a small tour. Now this, it may not be commonly known, is relatively rare. Rare enough that they have resorted to placing a very obvious piece of paper on the front door which states; ‘Studio Ghibli is a closed studio. We do not offer tours’.197758_10200499802631282_529193703_n

The studio is a collection of buildings in Koganei, Tokyo. It’s a lovely area and pretty perfect for the studio. It’s very green, very peaceful and very pretty. Jeff (who was showing us around and also happens to be the producer of the English dub of the upcoming From Up On Poppy Hill) told us that for some reason the local area was really badly planned, resulting in oddly laid out properties and lots of space in between them, filled with trees and other greenery. It really is the perfect place for the studio and gives the impression that these people are living the ideal ‘artist’ lifestyles.

It might also be interesting to note that Gainax have their studios there too. Unfortunately despite desperately wanting to meet Hiroyuki Yamaga (director of Wings of Honneamise (which I wrote a blog about here) and writer of Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket) I didn’t get the chance to see them.

On the way to the studio we were shown a beautiful building which was designed by Hayao Miyazaki himself and where all the Ghibli employee’s children stay during the day. As soon as they saw us, all the kids began running wild, shouting and jumping around, whilst their poor carer chased them desperately trying to calm them down. Next we walked passed, if I remember correctly, Studio 5, which is where the background art is done. And a few other studio buildings, but for the life of me, I can’t recall what happened where.


Studio 5

The one place I do remember pretty well, is Miyazaki-san’s private studio. Stopping outside the building, we were shown where Miyazaki’s car was parked and told how he spends his day before being invited inside. After an appropriate period of suspense had played out, the man himself appeared in all his prolific, fantastically bearded glory.

I guess it comes with being one of the most important artists currently working, but when such a man enters the room, the effect is profound. An excited (and almost fearful) hush falls over the room and you can almost hear the collective hearts in the room skip a beat. I must admit, I’m not the sort of person to get star struck and I had to laugh a bit looking around the room at all the faces filled with so much admiration that they’d lost all control. It was a beautiful moment which I’m so glad I could be a part of.

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That is me in the stripy shirt and spotty trousers.

After he kindly signed and personalised pictures for us all, he thanked us for all our work and cracked out some sandwiches. Saying; ‘please smoke if you like – I’m going to’, he sparked up and we all dug in.

And let me tell you, these sandwiches were completely excellent! I took the box mine came in, but I think it got lost in transit. It’s a shame, that was a memory I’d cherish.


Cast and crew of Princess Mononoke with Miyazaki and Suzuki.

We had a lovely time speaking to various people around the room and basking in the glory of the situation. Our Asitaka (the lead in the show) showed off riding Yakul (his trusty elk, played by another actor) and we all mingled most effectively.

After a wonderful time we were all hustled out and Toshio Suzuki took us into one of the other studios and showed us around a bit. Unfortunately I have to be a bit secretive about anything we may or may not have seen inside the studio, so I’ll stop there.

It was a wonderful, dreamlike time. We were told that we had somehow reminded Miyazaki and Suzuki of their younger selves and we had inspired them, just as they had us. Hearing that from some of our most respected figures was amazing and people cried and I laughed at them and a great time was had by all.

The next evening Suzuki took us all to dinner and I spent the evening talking about Ultraman G with Seiji Okuda, the executive producer of Death Note.


My autograph. The umbrella was added because the character I play carries one around in both our show and in the film.

This day really made me reflect on the last few years. I’ve done some amazing things in the past year or two, and this was just one of many. I’ve trained under Gennady Bogdanov, heir to the Meyerhold legacy. I’ve made a show with Andrzej and Teresa Welminski, lead actors from Tadeusz Kantor’s Cricot2 company and wonderful artists in their own right. I’ve performed at a whole bunch of international venues including the legendary Moscow Arts Theatre. And now I’ve met Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki.

All these things attribute to a rather bizarre feeling; the feeling that I actually exist. I’m not getting weird here, I’ve not had some grand existential breakthrough, but it is a real feeling. Not that I exist on a molecular level and not even that I’m someone worth knowing about. But, just that I’m managing to exist in this world that I’ve chosen to be a part of. When I decided that I would be an artist, I sort of meant I’d write in my room and perform to my friends and family. But now, I feel like slowly, slowly I’m actually beginning to exist within the art world.

Obviously it doesn’t actually make a difference to my art no matter who I might have shared sandwiches with. But it does encourage me that I’m on the right track, that I really do exist in the same world as these great things and people, and that I might actually consider myself a real artist sometime soon…As opposed to a pretend one, that it.


Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.


About a day ago, I arrived in Moscow to perform as part of the ‘Open Class: Stanislavski Continues’ festival with my show Pages from the Book of…

The festival is a congregation of international drama schools, in which we are the British contingency. It’s all very very exciting, and I’ll make sure to do a long post on it when I return to sunny England (I highly doubt I’m going to have time to do it here).

In the meantime, here is a post I wrote about a week ago, after I finished reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial and never got round to posting.

It’s interesting that the final chapter of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, is the shortest and most abrupt. Before now, the book had carried on in long-winded and excruciatingly eventless chapters. That’s not to say it’s boring or without meaning! No, no, no! Each chapter is carefully constructed to emulate the slow, or in fact motionless nature of the court which has accused Joseph K. At the same time, they supply just enough information and present enough intrigue to explain K.’s insistence to take his case into his own hands, and to keep the reader, at all times, on tender hooks.

The Trial is the most famous, and often regarded as the greatest of Kafka’s works. It’s a masterpiece of literature, and as such, I don’t need to tell you how beautiful the writing is, how profound the philosophy or engaging the story is. I also don’t have to recommend that you read it, instead I need only inform you that it should be read without need of recommendation.

So, instead of all these things, I’m just going to share some of my thoughts on the book, and specifically, on the final chapter. It goes without saying that there are SPOILERS AHEAD, so you have been warned. It should also be obvious that there will have been hundreds and hundreds of people, most of whom are smarter, or at least better educated than me, who have interpreted the book, so these are just my ideas.

The Trial, like much of Kafka’s work, remains unfinished. But this is merely a detail, and it doesn’t change the fact that the story does end. In an afterwards by Max Brod, a friend of Kafka, he explains that Joseph K.’s case would never have made it to the high-court spoken of in the book, and though Kafka planned to explore the later stages of the trial and the workings of the mysterious court, the case, in many ways, would go no further, and so the book could in fact ‘stretch on to infinity’. But, it doesn’t. The book ends, and the trial of Joseph K. is abruptly and violently closed, and this, is a very important thing. I think an interesting question, is why the book came to an end the way it did.

At an early stage in the book, I guessed thatJoseph K.’s case would come to a bad end, although, the dismal and somewhat cold conditions in which he was dispatched, did come as a surprise. The reasoning for this end, is highlighted in the final chapter. In fact, I think that the final chapter stands as a summery and parable for the entire book. It calls to mind another moment earlier in the story. In the chapter called ‘The Cathedral’ a priest, who is also the Prison Chaplin for the court tells K. a parable from the Court Scriptures. This parable is then deconstructed by both characters in so many ways that the meaning of it becomes completely lost and they take from it what they will. The final chapter acts as a similar parable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the unfortunate downfall of Joseph K. finds its way into the Court Scriptures.

After fighting his case for over a year, two men arrive at K.’s house to execute him. The arrival of these two men obviously mirrors the first chapter, in which two warders arrive to inform K. of his arrest. The difference, is in tone. Here, K. is not caught unawares, but he half expected the men to arrive and he resigns himself to his fate. The men do not try to appease him, hardly engaging him in conversation at all. Instead, they remain solemnly quiet. It is very important, that at no point do they explain the reason for their appearance to K. He asks them if they were appointed for him, and they merely bow. From here, K. collects his hat and coat and leaves with the men. When they try to hold him, he insists that he remain free until they are outside. So, when they do restrain K. outside, it means that he has not only presumed their mission, but he has begun the journey towards his death on his own free will, and he has also given himself over to their hold. I can’t help but wonder what would have been if he had refused to go with the men, or at least if he had insisted to remain unrestrained. But even when held by the two men, it is still K. who leads the way. The two men represent the court both literally, and abstractly. From the very beginning of the trial, K. has been in the courts grasp, but it has not physically moved him. Instead, he has remained under its shadow, but has been independent in his choice of where to go and what to do.

As they walk, the following passage follows; “Under the street lamps, K. tried time and time again to see his companions more clearly than he had in the dusk of his room.” But, trying as he might, he can only catch brief glimpses of them. Again, this passage exists as a metaphor for the entire situation with the court. K. is always attempting as hard as he can, to learn more about the workings of the court, but with every step he takes, the whole thing becomes more mysterious and unknown.

Put out by the sort of people the court has sent to collect him, and in this, the whole way in which the court conducts its workings, K. comes to a stop, and so do the two wardens. It is in this moment of defiance that K. sees Fraulein Buchner, or someone who reminds him of her. The two warders are said to “try to repel K. from the spot; but he resisted them.” In this chapter, there is at all times, both the literal reading and the metaphoric meaning. So taking it literally, I must conclude that the two warders were simply prompting K. forward, because I can’t see how the two large men could be resisted so easily.  In the abstract then, it could speak about the way that the court often prompted K. into action with small tidbits of information and glimmers of hope.

When Fraulein Buchner appears, we are reminded of K,’s tendency to become distracted from his case by women. In this moment, he realises that resistance is futile and so, carries on his way, again of his own accord and again condemned by no other than himself. He resolves to go to the end of his case dignified, and at peace with himself.

“In complete harmony all three made their way across a bridge in the moonlight…”

So we come to the third section of their journey. If the first step of the journey is K. leading the court, as he did in the first few chapters of the book, and the second step is K.’s forced stop of the warders. The third step, is when K. and the warders all move in unison, and work together to reach the final verdict. The next break, comes when the trio stop in unison, and K. actually prompts the warders to move on himself by stating “I did not mean to stop completely.” So we come full circle and when K. and the court come to a standstill, it is K. himself who restarts the solemn death march.

Police line the way and soon the group is approached by a policeman on account of looking suspicious. The two wardens stop, but as the Policeman is about to speak K. drags the wardens onward and forces them to flee the Policeman. I have a few ideas about this bit. My first, and most immediate thought is that this scene represents K.’s tendency to refuse help from others. The Policeman, depending on how you look at it, could be seen as a representation of the court (as the court is of the law, as is the Policeman) in which case he could represent characters like the Prison Chaplin, or the Advocate who K. dismissed, against all advice. Or he could be seen as representing those outside the court (because the court certainly doesn’t hold up the traditional law of the policeman) and he could represent figures like K.’s Uncle or the artist Titorreli who could have helped K. had he not run away. K.’s act of running from the Policeman could also be because simply at any time someone has interfered with K.’s case it has somehow become more convoluted and unachievable.

So it is K. who leads the court, running out of the town and to the place of his execution. Here, the roles change a bit and the court finally takes the lead. The warders undress K. and find a suitable place to carry out the sentence. They lay him awkwardly over a rock and present a manner of execution which is as unconventional as I would expect from this bizarre and cruel trial. They produce a large, double-edged butchers knife and begin passing it over K. to one another, unable to decide who should carry out the sentence. It is written; “K. now perceived that he was supposed to seize the knife and plunge it into his own breast. But he did not do so…”

The act of taking the knife and killing himself would affirm the idea, here, that all the events leading up to and including the execution were entirely in his own hands. What’s important, is that he doesn’t do it. It wouldn’t be unreasonable now, to imagine that his death be postponed indefinitely and that the wardens might pass the knife back and forth over K.’s head for the rest of eternity.

But this is not to be. Looking around he sees a figure, or figures, in a window. A sudden burst of hope ignites inside K. as he wonders who, or what it might be. “Who was it? A friend? A good man? Or were they all there? Were there some arguments in his favour that had been overlooked? Of course there must be.” And just as quickly as this hope sets in, it is forcibly extinguished as he is struck through the heart (and it’s too late).

And so the trial of Joseph K. comes to its melancholic end.

As I said, the last chapter basically sums up the whole book, through its various implied elements. But it does one other thing; it ends the story, and in doing so, changes the whole book. From the start, it is clear that Joseph K. will be the architect of his own demise. The only action of the court, is to inform K. of his arrest. After this a first hearing is held, which K. dominates and leads the discussion. From here, K. is advised not to take action and wait for developments. After this, almost nothing is heard from the court, and K. is not really worried about his case. But in time, and specifically after the visit of his uncle, he becomes increasingly frustrated and begins to make inquiries, etc, of his own accord. We are given every reason to believe that this is the incorrect course of action, and that through ignoring advise to allow the case move along on its own accord, K. is actually moving it forward, and it is through this, that the case becomes less likely to succeed. We can see this in characters like Block who, after taking things into his own hands by hiring a number of ‘hedge-advocates’ found that his case is going badly. Obviously, the best course of action would have been to take no action at all after the first hearing. However, as K. stands still with his two wardens, it is he, not they, that moves the case forward.

But a contradiction occurs at the end when he refuses to snatch the knife and stab himself. The wardens (the court) are the ones who do it. Therefore, at the end, it is not K. who condemns himself, but the court after all. K. may have helped arrive at this point, but it is the court who do the final executing. In this moment, K. is absolved of his many mistakes and again becomes a victim of the court, not a self destructive fool. The fact that the end of the trial mirrors the beginning makes one think that the outcome of the case was always inevitable, and that K. never had any sway over it whatsoever.

It’s also important that K. dies just as new hope is kindled in him, and that in his dying breath, he sees the faces of the two wardens watching him die. This reaffirms the cruelty of the court and calls into question its operation. Does it operate by feeding K. false hope and then taking it away? Does it trick K. into moving the case forward just so that it can watch him slowly destroy himself, and ultimately watch the life drain from his eyes?

Like the Prison Chaplin’s parable, this last chapter (and of course the whole book) could have a number of possible interpretations, and probably after much discussion would render the whole thing meaningless – maybe that’s the point. But for me, I felt that the parable was violently and interestingly changed in this last chapter with the untimely death of Joseph K.

All the ideas above are sort my first impressions and if I let myself I could quite happily sit here thinking about it for several more hours.

I’ve really enjoyed this book, and I’ll make sure to read Kafka’s other works at some point soon.