An Argument in Time

by Henry on January 11, 2005

Iron Council, like Mieville’s earlier novel The Scar has a lot to say about betrayal. However, the most important betrayals of Iron Council have less to do with personal deceit than the the more subtle treachery of political mythology; its ambiguous consequences and necessary faithlessness to the individuals whose struggle is mythologized. On the one hand, political myths hold out hope and inspire action, on the other, they don’t reflect the aspirations of the individuals whose actions gave rise to them. Iron Council has at its heart an unresolved and unresolvable argument about the relationship between revolution, myth and history.

Michael Chabon says in the introduction to the latest issue of McSweeney’s (an issue which contains inter alia a new story by Mieville) that:

Like most people who worry about whether it’s better to be wrong or pretentious when pronouncing the word genre, I’m always on the lookout for a chance to drop the name of Walter Benjamin.

In this essay, I up Chabon’s ante. Not only do I drop Benjamin’s name; I try to construct a debate between Iron Council and Benjamin’s brilliant, fragmentary essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History. Even if, as Mieville says in his reply, he didn’t directly refer to Benjamin in writing Iron Council, juxtaposing the two can help us pick out some of the skeins of his novel – Benjamin’s mixture of messianic Judaism and revolution has a surprising amount in common with Mieville’s runaway train. If you squint from a certain angle, even the city of New Crobuzon seems Benjaminean – less the collision of London and Rio de Janeiro that it was in Mieville’s earlier novel, Perdido Street Station than a refraction of Weimar Berlin and nineteenth century Paris, where shopping arcades rub up against with the Commune’s barricades, and flâneurs theorize their endless walking as “a reconfiguration of the city” (IC, p.376). Finally, and most importantly, Iron Council’s account of the myth-maker and golemist, Judah Low, is reminiscent of Benjamin’s ideal of the revolutionary historian, who “takes cognizance of a historical subject” only “to blast” it “out of the homogenous course of history.” (TotPoH, p.263). Unlike Benjamin, Mieville problematizes this form of history-making; while it may be necessary (and provides the tempered hope of the novel’s ending), it betrays those whom it celebrates, by not taking their own goals, their own agency, seriously.

One of the early chapters of Iron Council prefigures this theme in its account of the Flexible Puppeteers’ production of the ‘Sad and Instructional Tale of Jack Half-a-Prayer.’ The puppet play tells how the anarchist rebel Half-a-Prayer, who has already appeared in the interstices of Perdido Street Station, is captured and dies at the hands of a mysterious pock-marked figure. The story, as it has been told over the intervening decades has several different interpretations, each with particular political implications. The ‘official’ story of New Crobuzon’s corrupt parliamentary government has it that Half-a-Prayer was killed in vengeance by a relative of one of his victims. A later version of the story has Half-a-Prayer dying at the hands of one of his gang-members, who wished to give him a mercy slaying; this version too has the approval of the official censors (it portrays Half-a-Prayer, and his confederates as noble but doomed to failure, and isn’t going to inspire rebellion). In the Flexible Puppeteers’ new and more subversive version of the story, Half-a-Prayer dies in an attempt by one of his confederates to free him; “the two little figures were not doomed or cursed with visions too pure to sustain or beaten by a world that did not deserve them, but were still fighting, still trying to win” (IC, 68). This version of the story provides political inspiration to the streetfighter Ori and other characters, but it’s almost certainly wrong. Readers of Perdido Street Station will recognize that the ‘pock-marked man’ is the renegade garuda Yagharek, and that his effort to free Half-a-Prayer is in all probability the repayment of a personal debt rather than a political act (Yagharek refuses Half-a-Prayer’s invitation to join his political struggle at the end of PSS). While the Flexible Puppeteer’s version of Half-a-Prayer’s end incites a riot, and thus helps precipitate a more general revolution in New Crobuzon, it isn’t and can’t be true to Yagharek’s intentions; its political significance crowds out what the events meant to the actors caught up within them.

So too, the “Iron Council” itself, and Judah Low’s mythologizing of it. As Matthew Cheney has already said, the “Anamnesis” section of IC, which describes Judah Low and the rebellion that creates the Iron Council is perhaps the best and most powerful extended piece of writing that Mieville has ever done. He’s found a new language – terse, agrammatic, sometimes extraordinarily moving. The train itself is a powerful and multivalent metaphor. The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda has noted the parallel to Lenin’s famous train journey to the Finland Station to foment a revolution; John Quiggin points to Trotsky’s famous armoured train. I suspect that there’s a third skein of reference here too – to Lenin’s famous essay, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, which saw the spread of the railways as a concrete indicator of the global progress of imperialism (Mieville hints that New Crobuzon’s economic crisis is one of imperialist overproduction; access to external markets has been choked off). In IC the Transcontinental Railroad Trust’s attempt to lay tracks across the continent is symptomatic of a particular mode of economic and social organization; and of the efforts of New Crobuzon’s capitalists to spread their influence across the continent. Indeed, it’s more than that; it’s the assertion of a particular ideal of political and economic progress. As described by Weather Wrightby, the capitalist visionary behind the Trust, the railway is a force of history:

– I will only tell you that history is coming and your new tribe best move from its path.
– But dammit, says Judah. – This isn’t empty land!
The old man looks bewildered. – What they have, what they’ve had lying there for centuries in that marsh, whatever it is, it’s welcome to face the history I bring, if it can.

As its path is carved through the heart of the continent, the railway transforms space, disrupting the communities that it passes through and remaking them in its own image, throwing up temporary settlements of gamblers, workers and whores. In its own way, it’s compelling; Wrightby is a genuine visionary, even if he’s a monster. The Perpetual Train has the force of apparent inevitability, of a linear process in which the wilderness is ineluctably transformed into the hinterlands of capital. Judah Low, a surveyor who goes native with a tribe of aboriginals (the stiltspear), is paralysed at first, unable to protect them from the railway and the forces of progress. “He feels pinioned by history. He can wriggle like a stuck butterfly but can go nowhere.” (IC p.161).

The creation of the renegade train, the Iron Council, disrupts this linear progression, so that a new set of forces spill out into historical time. The revolt that culminates in the Iron Council begins with a stilling of time, a momentary hesitation, followed by the action of an anonymous worker, who

Steps out and raises his arm. It is as if he pushes through a tension that has settled on the world, breaks it and pours out into time like water breaching its meniscus and others come with him

Mieville doesn’t glamourize this moment and its aftermath – they’re shot through with brutalities, with disagreements, with contradictions. They could have gone many different ways. But they have profound consequences – they allow the workers and slaves to take control of their own history, of what has been done to them, and to forge it into something new. In the words of Ann-Hari, one of the leaders of the revolt.

We don’t give up what we have, says Ann-Hari … We give up nothing. All our blood and muscle. All the dead. Every hammer blow, the stone, every mouthful we eat. Every bullet from every gun. Each whipping. The sea of sweat that come from us. Every piece of coal in the Remade boilers and the boiler of the engine, each drop of come between my legs and my sisters’ legs, all of it, all of it is in that train. (IC, p.260)
She points into the darkness of the tunnel where the work continues. – All of it. We unrolled history. We made history. We cast history in iron and the train shat it out behind it. Now we’ve ploughed that up. We’ll go on, and we’ll take our history with us. Remake. It’s all our wealth, it’s everything, it’s all we have. We’ll take it.

The train quite literally departs from its tracks, taking a new direction into the wilderness, building new rails in front of it and pulling up those behind

Miles of track, reused, reused, it is the train’s future and its present, and it emerges a fraction more scarred as history and is hauled up again and becomes another future … . No longer a split line through time, but contingent and fleeting, recurring beneath the train, leaving only its footprint.(IC, p. 262)

In contrast to the failed revolutionary Ori, whose hope is to become a myth (IC, p.307) like his hero Jack Half-a-Prayer, the rebels of the Iron Council are concerned with the here-and-now – they want to take control of their lives, to take their history into their own hands. It is exactly this desire which is betrayed by the golemist Judah Low.

In order to understand Low, it’s useful to turn away from Iron Council to Walter Benjamin’s arguments about materialistic historiography. Benjamin’s essay on the philosophy of history is an attack on both Rankean historicism, and the meliorism of Social Democratic historians. For Benjamin, the former makes history into a triumphal progress for the victors, robbing history of its political force; the latter abandons the struggles of the past in favour of a (never to be realized) promise of improvements in the future. Historicists see history as a linear process, telling events one after the other “like the beads of a rosary.” Instead of this, Benjamin proposes a materialist conception of history in which the historian seeks to act as a sort of weak Messiah, to redeem the struggles of the past by connecting them to the present. The historian grasps the constellation of a past era with the present, thus establishing a present which is “shot through with chips of Messianic time,” which has the possibility of being redeemed, and simultaneously redeeming those who struggled in the past. When the past rubs up against the present, the spark of revolution may flare. For Benjamin, this requires that materialist historians adopt a quite particular method.

A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled.

In Iron Council, Judah Low is a historian of just this kind, and golemetry, in its highest form, is precisely a manipulation of time, an “interruption.” Lowe has a twofold role in the book; he is both a golemetrist (a creator and controller of golems) and the Iron Council’s bard in exile, who keeps its myth alive for the citizens of New Crobuzon, the city that the rebels have left behind. The two roles are intertwined; Low’s golemetry is a literalization of his role as an itinerant propagandist for the Iron Council; both involve abstracting the Iron Council and freezing it as an image. Low’s final use of golemetry in the book is the culmination of his role as a bard; after mythologizing the Iron Council for many years, he quite literally turns Iron Council into a myth.[1] Like Benjamin’s materialist historian, he compels the Iron Council out of its own era, its own track of history so that it becomes something outside of time, caught in an eternal nunc stans.

Low is able to do this because he has learnt golemetry from the stiltspears, who were fishers and hunters in the swamplands. Low begins by animating brute matter, but uses recordings of the stiltspear to learn how to trap time. In his final act, he ‘saves’ the Iron Council, which is about to arrive in New Crobuzon, and almost certainly to be destroyed by the massed forces of the city’s militia. On the point of its arrival, Low sets a golem trap so that the train is quite literally blasted out of time, becoming a frozen image that cannot be touched but is always on the point of arriving.

The perpetual train. The Iron Council itself. The renegade, returned, or returning and now waiting. Absolutely still. … The train, its moment indurate.
It could not always clearly be seen. The crude rips in the temporal from which the golem was made gave it edges like facets, an opalescence of injured time. From some angles the train was hard to see, or hard to think of, or difficult to remember, instant to instant. But it was unmoving.

This simultaneously saves and betrays the train. Or, to use Benjamin’s description, the lifework of the renegade history is “preserved,” but at the same time “cancelled.” Even while the image of the train survives as an inspiration for others, the hopes and desires of the renegades on the Iron Council, who were perfectly prepared to go to their deaths, are negated. Low’s beatific ruthlessness, his willingness to take the Iron Council rebels’ decision about their ultimate fate from their hands is symptomatic of his disconnection from them as people. He “looks at the world through glass,” (IC, 193) and as another renegade says, he isn’t quite to be trusted:

“Oh gods, don’t get me wrong, I ain’t saying you’re a traitor. … but you watch from outside. Like you get to be pleased with us. It ain’t right, Judah.” (IC, 472)

Low treats the renegades of Iron Council just as he treated the stiltspears who fled and died as the railways advanced; as a historical lever, a means towards an end. He loves them in an abstract way, but he doesn’t really respect them as individuals. As Ann-Hari says at the end of the book:

We were never yours, Judah. We were something real, and we came in our time, and we made our decision and it was not yours. Whether we were right or wrong, it was our history. You were never our augur, Judah. Never our saviour.

If Low is a materialist historian in Benjamin’s sense of the word, then Benjamin’s enterprise of historic redemption is flawed by design. If it is to do what it is supposed to (to preserve the myth of Iron Council as an inspiration for struggle), it has to betray the real people who made the Iron Council live and breathe, and turn them into an abstraction. The ability of the historian to act as a messiah, to ‘redeem’ those who fought in the past is at least in part illusory; she can’t save them on their own terms.

And this leads to the tension which is at the heart of the book. Myths betray. While they inspire political action, their meaning does not and cannot remain faithful to the people whose struggle they celebrate. The conscious desire to make a myth (Judah Low) or to become a myth (Ori) can have ambiguous or even devastatingly awful consequences. The most unambiguous hero of the book, Cutter, does something that will allow the enemy to create their own counter-myth, because the alternative is so appalling. And yet (this is the rub, the contradiction, the dialectic), the blasting of Iron Council out of history works. In the closing chapters of the novel, we see how it creates a historic tension between the present and the past, between the myth of Iron Council – always coming, always coming – and the sordid reality of political struggle and compromise. A tension that may explode, and allow the meniscus of history to be broken through again. In Walter Benjamin’s closing words:

We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter.

Or in the words of Iron Council’s revolutionary newspaper, the Runagate Rampant:

“Order reigns in New Crobuzon!” You stupid lackeys. Your order is built on sand. Tomorrow the Iron Council will move on again, and to your horror it will proclaim with its whistle blaring: We say: We were, we are, we will be.

fn1. Another interesting possible parallel is between the golemist and theoretician. When Mieville has Judah Low prophesy that the renegades will find a place where they can “hunt, fish, rear cattle,” read books and write others, he’s of course quoting the early Marx.