Thursday, 31 December 2009

Year's End

The year feels like it has just gotten started.

Another few 2009 months and we'd see la face cachée de la lune. But instead of that, the whole thing turns itself just as we rotate, perfectly in time, and another January becomes visible.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Whiteness poem

Mist, a cataract in the world's lens.
The knife blade loses its edge.

The sound of this gushing stream
invisible amongst the blackleaf trees

in a valley lidded with white haze
turns out to be a van revving its engine.

Away we go, away go, the gone horizon:
The knife blade loses its edge.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Three new food names

Cowcumber, cucumber, eucumber.
Tomato, nomato, frommato.
Pepper, snapper, whepper.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Some Aesthetic Rules

Advisory.
  • Completion trumps perfection.
  • 'Show, don't tell.' A 'show' is the intimation of new birth; a 'tell' is the sign of a bad poker player.
  • Under pressure, the readers' complacency turns into anger and resentment.
  • The hidden spring of postmodernity is satire.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Staines poem

Staines: a circle of stone hyphens
Stitching a structure, propped
each on doubled bag-shaped legs.

Long gone from the dark green grass
of the bridge roundabout, Sainsbury-side:
long hauled off, or sunk, or shattered

transformed into a word, more durable
than the rock was: the vowel laid flat,
twinned with itself as circles are.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Friday, 25 December 2009

New Moon Poem

Bite a crescent from this apple;
this white image is the moon,

which is white and black together,
and gives up a tar-dark seed.

Seed is settled in the darkness:
how high does the stem ascend?

Viewless, spiring, quailing leaf-tip
touching whose white, elevate face?

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Pearl

A pearl like a mint imperial. This pearl is called Costly.

The oyster is called Tomorrow, closed tighter than than the seal betwen sky and horizon.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Scrooge 2

Christmas Carol, Fourth Stave:
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead", said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"
The Spirit was immovable as ever.
Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge. "Am I that man who lay upon the bed?", he cried, upon his knees.
The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.
"No, Spirit! Oh, no, no!"
The finger still was there.
"Spirit!", he cried, tight clutching at its robe. "Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!"
Now, we might wonder why Scrooge is so very smitten by this; why his ontological horror is so great upon him. The Ghost of the Future shows him that he will die ... in the future! It needs, we might object, no spirit come from the grave to tell us this. More, what Scrooge has already seen (Marley's ghost, and what Marley's ghost shows him) that death is not extinction. It's like Hamlet, worrying about whether death is annihilation, 'from whose bourne no traveller returns' having previously met a returned traveller, the ghost of his father, who stands as absolute evidence that death is not the end!

But I'm being obtuse. In fact Dickens's book is much cannier than this. It understands, for instance, that there is a difference between the death of others, like Marley, which death may haunt us (as Marley does); and our own death, which is not an event comprehsible in life. The former may shake our life; the latter renders shaking and life itself extinct.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Scrooge 1

Joel Waldfogel's Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays is based on the premsie that Christmas gift-giving generates economic waste, because it is inefficient. To quote Ralf Dobelli's (approving) summary:
University of Pennsylvania professor Joel Waldfogel takes an economist's look at gift giving and pronounces it wasteful. Every time you receive a gift that's not what you want, the item loses value. For example, you wouldn't pay more than $10 for the ugly orange teapot Aunt Bea bought you for $50. What's the solution? Cash, of course, but giving cash is often seen as being in bad taste. How about gift cards? A little bit better, theorizes Waldfogel, but people don't always redeem gift cards, which generates waste as well.
This in turn is to perpetrate a sort of 'content' reading of Christmas gift-giving (valuing the $50 orange teapot in terms of intrinsic monetary value) rather than on the form ... but most people understand, if instinctively, that it is the form that counts. You might have only valued the teapot at $10; but the value of the social performance of Aunt Bea in giving you the gift is, though hard to quantify in those terms, much more important. Homo sapiens culture is radically predicated upon gift-giving; it predates the invention of money.

Monday, 21 December 2009

For good

We speak more than we know when we use the idiom 'good' to mean 'ever after' ('he's back for good'; 'she's gone for good' ... do we always use it, I wonder, if this dative motion-from-and-towards sense?) Intuitively we seem to be saying: the temporary, the changeable, the uncertain is bad; the known, the unchangeable, the eternal is good. Which is to say, we speak the subconscious affective fantasy of our restless hearts -- peace -- and not the conscious knowledge of our minds, that looks upon anything that has come or gone 'for good' and sees desolation.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Return of the King 2

Ultimate portion of my 2009 LotR re-read (the previous five: I, II, III, IV and V).

So. As an undergraduate, I studied Eliot's Waste Land (I say: 'studied'. I could just as well say 'memorised') and one of the things I learnt is that Eliot's notes at the end of the poem were added after the book had gone to the printer, when it was explained to T.S. that, on account of the way the book bound its sheaves of paper, there were going to be many blank leaves at the end, and did he have any more poems to go on those? He didn't, but he had scribbled down some notes on The Waste Land and maybe those could go in instead. Then, as a postgraduate -- and the passage from the former to the latter, broadly speaking, marked my transition from a broadly New Critical/Modernist critical aesthetic to a broadly Deconstructive/Postmodernist one -- I attended a lecture (can't remember by whom) in which the lecturer discussed the note to 'The Fire Sermon' which says this:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a "character", is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant selling currants melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
The lecturer's point (and it struck me with great force as one of those things that seemed inconceivable before he said it and inevitable after) was this: where in the poem does Tiresias 'unite all the rest' of the characters? Why, here in this footnote, and nowhere else. It is something that happens in the text, though; it simply happens in this part of the text, rather than during the monologue that starts 'I Tiresias, though blind ...'

This preamble is by way of sidling up sideways to the problem of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, which occupy more of book 6 (novel, pp.931-1069 = 138 pages; appendices 1070-1193 = 123 pages, but with much smaller type, perhaps 100 words more per page) than the narrative does. As with The Waste Land, I wonder if the best way to read this material is not as some subsidiary or secondary textual body, but as part of the LotR as a whole.

This time through that's what I did, and the result was interesting. It's not that the appendices blended seamlessly into the reading of the whole, of course -- in fact, they don't; they're jolty, discontinuous set. But that in itself is the point. Because Return of the King 2 is a pretty jolty, lurchy-abouty narrative. After going to some lengths to set up an effective cliffhanger re: Frodo's fate at the end of The Two Towers, Tolkien extricates his hero, via Sam's improbable heroics (improbable not in terms of Sam's character, but just in terms of how he's able to get away with storming one of the major fortresses of the enemy armed just with a short sword). That reads as a pretty abrupt turnabout; and then there's a rather fine chapter of parched slogging through the hellish landscape of 'the land of shadow', and suddenly (indeed: after nearly a thousand close-printed pages of build-up, we might say abruptly) we're at Mount Doom. The denouement is still superb, Frodo losing his will-to-goodness, and then losing a finger, and Gollum proving himself inadvertently essential to the quest. But re-reading it this time I was struck by what seemed an almost indecent haste in getting to this point. And then before you know it we're skittering down the scree-slope of victory on the far side of this narrative prominence.

This is very hippity-hoppity stuff. A chapter in which the phrase 'praise them with great praise' is repeated, parsed and varied over and over is probably fair enough; but that's followed in 'The Steward and the King' by a lot of faffing about with Faramir and Eowyn which reads like the pay-off to a story (their slowly developing love) Tolkien doesn't actually tell earlier in the novel. Then some stop-start dallying, and a trip home calling in on some minor characters (much more from Butterbur than I remembered) and others pointedly not present: 'they hoped and half-expected to see him [Bombadil] standing there to greet them ... but there was no sign of him' [1033]. Then the Shire is scoured; but again, this circumstance is sorted-out almost as soon as it is established: as soon as an evil-doer appears in the narrative ('"Bill Ferny" said Merry, "if you don't open that gate in ten seconds you'll regret it"', 1036) than he is overcome (the very next paragraph begins: 'Bill Ferny flinched and shuffled to the gate and unlocked it'. Merry demands the key, and Bill hands it over, before running off into the dark). From the first inklings that the shire needs scouring (the chapter begins on 1035) to the end ('at last all was over; nearly seventy of the ruffians lay dead on the field') is less than 20 pages. Another 10 pages and Saruman and Wormtongue are disposed of; and all other consequences are hustled of in a single sentence: 'the clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared'. Then the final chapter, 'the Grey Havens', defocalises the narrative tempo markedly; and at 10 pages is one of the shortest in the book. The final line, and Sam's stoic admixture of desolation and consolation, still has the power to move me, I discover:
He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said.
But overall the book seemed much choppier to me than it has on previous readings.

Choppiness, and a further narrative defocalisation, characterise the appendices too, of course. But reading straight through this time (I'd read the appendices before, in bits and pieces, though never consecutively straight through after finishing the novel like this) a couple of other things struck me. One is that by moving from discursive narrative into Annals mode, they continue a principle of shifting narrative mode or genre that characterises the novel as a whole. LotR starts out as a piece of late 19th century bourgeois scene-setting, shifts into an earlier, prose-Romance adventure mode, and then shifts again in the later books into a cod-Biblical elevated Epic mode. The move to Annals is abrupt, but of a piece with this broader, backward-facing meta-trajectory. One purpose of all this is its very density (or, pace Umberto Eco's new book valorising open-ended, 'infinte' lists as against closed-down, limited aesthetic form) the sheer suggestivity of it all. On the other hand, that suggestivity is hamstrung by the dullness of much of this.
These are the names of the Kings and Queens of Númenor: Elros Tar-Minyatur, Vardamir, Tar-Amandil, Tar-Elendil, Tar-Meneldur, Tar-Aldarion, Tar-Ancalimë (the first Ruling Queen), Tar-Anárion, Tar-Súrion, Tar-Telperiën (the second Queen), Tar-Minastir, Tar-Ciryatan, Tar-Atanamir the Great, Tar-Ancalimon, Tar-Telemmaitë, Tar-Vanimeldë (the third queen), Tar-Alcarin, Tar-Calmacil.
Cough-inducingly high-tar stuff, that. One response to such density is start to see patterns, or suggestivities, in it. I remember as a kid, browsing the chronological listings, feeling the strange, if distant, thrill of reading about the events of 1974 (Third Age: 'End of the North-kingdom; the Witch-king overruns Arthedaun and takes Fornost') actually in 1974!. And that fact that the events of the novel take place from the year 3018 onwards gave this most old-fashioned of books a nicely sfnal-futurist frisson. And whilst Tolkien would presumably have disowned them, there are little nuggets that look like pokes at pseudo-contemporary relevant here. The timeline of the second age hops directly from 'c.1800' to the year '2251', which looks rather like JRRT recording his disdain for contemporary modernity; and, in the third age, the Númenorean line of kings peters out thuswise:
1944. Ondoher and his two sons were slain in battle. After a year in 1945 the crown was given to the victorious general Eärnil, a descendant of Telumehtar Umbardacil.
Hard to see how somebody writing as the Great War of 1945 ends couldn't be thinking of the parallel.

It's not all strictly annalistic. There's stuff on Aragorn and Arwen's wooing, and various pretty drily discursive paragraphs on factual matter, leavened by some barebones storytelling: (that said, I found A:III, 'Durin's Folk', rather affecting this time through). But the main effect of appendices A and B is to suggest that temporal chronology provides a grid into which may be fitted the flux of character-based narration. Appendix C, a series of four Shire family trees, provides another grid. Appendix D' Shire Calendar', is yet another (the fact that this one looks like an exercise in regularising our own calendar, such that 365-and-a-fraction days might be disposed into 12 uniformly 30-day months, with two special days -- Christmassy Yule, and Midsummery Lithe -- added in, only reinforces the procrustean flavour of all this. Appendices E and F, on writing and 'languages', provide some lovely invented orthography, although looking at this again I'm surprised I didn't realise how much this is also a sort of Shavian exercise in regularising the haphazard alphabet anglophone writers like JRRT are lumbered with.

Now, all of has something to do with one of JRRT's core textual strategies, namely the creation of a sense of 'deep past' underlying the detailed present-day action of the novel. Which is well, and fine, and powerful; and which isn't as dissipated by the density of detail as you might think. But to end with this material counterweights the book in a backward-oriented, small-c conservative sort of way. Which is probably a suitable note on which to end this year's re-read of Lord of the Rings.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Bird tree

The bulb of migrating birds, turns and bulges in the sky, sways from north to south like a great tree's head.

The evening, when bird-tree meshes with the ground-tree

Friday, 18 December 2009

Honour

A word, I suppose, poisoned and deformed by a very long possession by the devils of amour-propre and egotism. But if those devils could be cast out it would be a slogan worth something again.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Noggsy Newman

In the Grammar of Assent (1870), Newman grounds religious faith in 'assent' (rather, say, than in 'certitude'). Which is fair enough. But he also puts great trust in what he calls the 'Illative sense': a sort of Catholicised Keatsian negative capability: 'the faculty of the human mind,' (to quote Wikipedia) 'that closes the logic-gap in concrete situations and thus allowing for assent'.

According to him, we use the Illative sense all the time. For instance:
We are in a world of facts, and we use them; for there is nothing else to use. We do not quarrel with them, but we take them as they are, and avail ourselves of what they can do for us. It would be out of place to demand of fire, water, earth, and air their credentials, so to say, for acting upon us, or ministering to us. We call them elements, and turn them to account, and make the most of them. [9:1]
Which provokes the response: dude, have you ever actually met a scientist? Demanding the credentials, so to speak, of apparent fact is pretty much their whole modus operandi. Now, we might say: no--no, not that, Newman is talking about the ordinary man and woman in the street. OM/WITS takes it kind-of on trust that the world works the way the world works; the manifold mysteries of existence get sealed into common-sense Illatively. But I don't think this is right either. More specifically, people quarrel with facts all day every day; people prefer fantasy to fact, people ignore fact, people translate fact into something more in tune with the song sung inside their cranium. Religions themselves are, in part, eloquent quarrels with the facts of (as it might be) personal death and extinction; pain and suffering; meaninglessness. And so on.

Put it another way: Newman compares his Illative sense with Aristotle's phronesis, or judgment. But phronesis can be wrong, of course. Newman doesn't seem interested in the valences of a wrongheaded Illative judgment.

He touches on it, of course; but seems to make the case that our Illative sense is in one iteration precisely that 'common sense' that tells us something is daft, without needing to prove it ... that is able to distinguish what merits our sincere faith and what doesn't, just on gut:
Unless we had the right, when we pleased, of ruling that propositions were irrelevant or absurd, I do not see how we could conduct an argument at all; our way would be simply blocked up by extravagant principles and theories, gratuitous hypotheses, false issues, unsupported statements, and incredible facts. There are those who have treated the history of Abraham as an astronomical record, and have spoken of our Adorable Saviour as the sun in Aries. Arabian Mythology has changed Solomon into a mighty wizard. Noah has been considered the patriarch of the Chinese people. The ten tribes have been pronounced still to live in their descendants, the Red Indians; or to be the ancestors of the Goths and Vandals, and thereby of the present European races. Some have conjectured that the Apollos of the Acts of the Apostles was Apollonius Tyaneus. Able men have reasoned out, almost against their will, that Adam was a negro.
Gracious! Imagine that last notion! Surely the subcionsciously racist Illative sense cannot be wrong in dismissing it?

Adam was Illatively a white male. Wrong on both counts! Who'd have thunk! Or to sum this whole post up in one word: a piece of 21st-century terminology that equates to Newman's Illative Sense? Truthiness.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Augustinian


Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674); or 'My Giant Strawberry Appears To Be On Fire'.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Line

The---line-is----along
line---is----a----way
is-----a----long--down
down-long-way--line.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Return of the King 1

The penultimate of the six LotR portions (here for I, II, III and IV). And hard now for me not to re-read this book except as an elaboration of the theme of Death-in-Life/Life-in-Death I read-into, or found in, The Two Towers. So, (after settling Pippin in Minas Tirith) the book opens with a big-set piece scene in which the restless alive-in-death are granted peace via the only route possible, Aragorn. They cluster, and get their very own capital-D to distinguish them, presumably, from the regular small-d dead.:
'The Dead are following,' said Legolas. 'I see shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following.[III:61-2]
They are likened to winter because winter is what they are; Aragorn's magic is in turning them from an arrested, eternal winter into the sort of winter that passes on to make way for Spring. And as the book ends, it passes through Chapter 8 'The Houses of Healing' and the near-deathly-alive, wounded in the battle, are brought back to life, again by Aragorn's special magic. And in the midde (or at the two-thirds point, actually) the odd, rather striking scene of Denethor's suicide. I wasn't sure what to make of this, actually. In one sense he has to die, in order for the rule of the Stewards to end and the rule of the King to begin. But suicide is so semiotically tangled and troubled a thing for JRRT's imaginatino; he doesn't want to parse it as a nobly Roman action, and strains it into the straight-jacket of over-coded pseudo-Christian moralising:
'Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death' snaps Gandalf -- perhaps forgetting that he himself effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum in order to save his comrades. Or perhaps it's one law for wizards; another for Gondor. Anyway. he goes on: 'only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair ...' [III:129]
But this seemed to me pretty much a double standard. For in point of fact one of the general trajectories of this book is precisely that pseduo-samurai or Horatius-at-the-Bridge sacrifice of self: Frodo and Sam going (as they think) into certain death; the Rohirrim galloping will-nill towards a massively larger army; Gandalf rejecting the truce terms and dooming (they all think) the entire army to destruction.

Also, I found the cod-Biblical style ('But lo! suddenly in the midst of the glory of the king his golden shield was dimmed' and so on) much more distracting than I have on previous readings. My view, now, is that the ideal number for uses of the exclamatory 'lo!' in a novel is: zero. Also, when the Nazgul mocks her ('Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!'), how is Eowyn able to get so much speechifying and rhetorical fancypanting out without getting e.g. her head bit off?
It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That &c. &c.' [III:116]
I know; it's dramatic, not realistic. And this touch of Macbethy plot twistage is still a neat turn. But as I finish it I find less here that's new-to-me and cool than in the earlier books.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Dreaming

The idlers' dream is a fence around them. The workers' dream is an OOF.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The moon

So, these stories we tell ourselves about the moon turn out not to be true. The moon is not white (and the sun is not yellow); the moon's light is not pale and gentle (it is caustic and bright); the moon is not round and blunt (it is sharp and cutting). This, though, is to be expected. The moon, after all, is the very definition of hidden-in-plain-view.

She turns her bright side upon us, and away; as the siren light upon a police car rotates its alternate shining and occluded sides.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Thanes

The experts tell me that the word 'thane' (as in "All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!/All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!") is an anglicisation of the Gaelic word "Taoiseach". But I don't see that at all. The two words have no phonemes in common at all; not an initial 't' (T/TH), not a vowel (AY/EE and OH), not a consonant (N/SH and K). How would you possibly get from one to the other?

Unless it's an obscure English joke ...

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Two Towers, Book 2.

Onto the fourth of the six LotR portions (here for I, II and III).

So, as noted already, this time round my sense of Two Towers I was of a book artfully, and I think eloquently, passing from the tower of Death to the tower of Life (Gandalf, dead, revivifying; Theoden, a living corpse, returned to youth; Trees, rooted and insentient, transformed by Tolkien's imagination into roving, powerful Ents). Two Towers II, in complementary fashion, seems to me now to trace the opposite trajectory; from Life to Death, or some ghastly state in between which is not yet dead but not quite life. [It does not seem to me either irrelevant or random that the main characters of TT1 move, broadly, east to west; where Frodo, Sam and Gollum move, broadly, the opposite way, from west to east]. One way of summing up this book would be to invoke Coleridge's famous but, I think, poorly understood phrase: Nightmare Life-in-Death. That's what the book delineates.

Gollum is a major figure in this section partly because he embodies this Coleridgean fate: a creature who has lived far beyond his natural span of life and is more profoundly damaged and miserable as a result than is easily described. But the theme of the book hits home most powerfully in Chapter II, 'the Passage of the Marshes'. This is introduced by a clever little glance back to the Hobbit's riddles:

Alive without breath
as cold as death
never thirsting, ever drinking;
clad in mail, never clinking. [646]
The original answer to this ('fish') is joined, in this chapter, by a second, much more eerie possibility: for these words perfectly describe the warriors ('they lie in all the pools,' says Frodo, dreamily: 'pale faces, deep deep under the dark water ... grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad/ Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead' 653). These cannot be actual corpses, as Sam points out ('that is an age and more ago ... the Dead can't be really there'); but whatever they are they turn the very landscape into a place in which some grisly remnant of life clings to death.

As with the warriors alive-without-breath beneath the waters of the Dead Marshes (and as with Gollum himself), so with Frodo ... stung by Shelob at the end of the book, and so mortified that Sam initially believes him a corpse; yet a poisoned body in which life still clings. Shelob, also ancient, also more Death than Life (the 'stench of death' is about her, we're told; [748] and 'little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body' [751]). The Nightmare of Life-in-Death is very different, indeed profoundly so, from Death-in-Life. The latter is natural; a ripeness; the grain of existence. The former is a kind of violation. This book understands that.

This is why, I'd say, this is right place (in Tolkien's pattern) for Faramir's account of the Numenoreans. This quasi-Atlantean civilisation is JRRT's revisioning of Ancient Egypt, and an object lesson in pride punished. But the crucial details are the way the Numenoreans tried to cheat death, and created a population of ghastly mummy-like individuals as a result:
Death was ever present, because the Numenoreans still, as they has in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered afer endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs ... [704]

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Masks

Masks do not make us free. I suppose that masks make us less free, by some small margin, than going naked; but in both cases freedom isn't the point. This is about interacting with others, and that's precisely the point where freedom goes out the window.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Sirens

Three ambulance sirens
almost together:
The honking of geese.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The skeleton says

The skeleton says: 'we're all thin
within,
stomachs full of holes
as collander bowls.
Between life and death
is more than breath.'

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The gleam

The cellophane shimmer of the swimming pool's surface; the flexing and warping of light into life; the Tennysonian gleam.

It says: it's all possible. Follow me and I'll show you how.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Fear

The real fear, if we can see clearly-enough into ourselves to understand it, is not annihilation. The real fear is precisely that death will maim us, and that we will have to continue living in that wounded state. Annihilation's a doddle by comparison.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The Two Towers, Book I

My slightly belated 2009 Lord of the Rings readathon continues (previously: Fellowship I; Fellowship II). Nothing on Frodo, of course, in this bit; but a great deal about trees.

There's the 'difficulty' of the movies to discuss, of course; but I'm not sure I can do that justice, here. I loved the movies in almost every respect; even my carping at various aspects is actually an index of how (generally) successful I thought Jackson was. But the motion picture is, speaking broadly, an insidious and plaguey thing, with a tendency to overwrite one's memory of the source text. I'd read this book many times before seeing the films (and since) but even I find myself 'surprised' by how different the emphasis is between this book and that film. This is more than the fact that the movie braided-together the stories of Frodo/Sam and Aragorn/Legolas/Gimli; it's the treatment of the latter. Broadly this amounts to: [Jackson's Two Towers]: pursuing the hobbits, Pippin/Merry meets ents, A/L/G meet the Rohirrim, and then a lengthy bang-smash-crash climactic hour-long battle sequence at Helm's Deep!. Re-reading the novel, I was struck by how localised and, in a way, low-key the Helm's Deep material is (just the one chapter); and how elongated and emphasised, by comparison, is all the stuff on Fangorn and the Ents. As if Tolkien loves trees more than battles; where Hollywood loves battles more than trees.

Of course, put it like that, and it seems obvious. But I think something else is going on here. There's the question, say, on the referent of the title: which two towers? Let's check Wikipedia:
Tolkien wrote, "The Two Towers gets as near as possible to finding a title to cover the widely divergent Books 3 & 4; and can be left ambiguous." At this stage he planned to title the individual books. The proposed title for Book III was The Treason of Isengard. Book IV was titled The Journey of the Ringbearers or The Ring Goes East. The titles The Treason of Isengard and The Ring Goes East were used in the Millenium edition.

A note at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring and Tolkien's final illustration of the towers gives the pair as Minas Morgul and Orthanc. However, in a letter to Rayner Unwin, Tolkien instead gives Orthanc and the Tower of Cirith Ungol, but felt such an identification was misleading due to the opposition between Barad-dûr and Minas Tirith. Loosely, any pair from the set of five towers in the story could fit the title: the tower of Cirith Ungol (Cirith Ungol being a pass), Orthanc, Minas Tirith, Barad-dûr and Minas Morgul.

However ambiguous the title may be in the book, director Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Two Towers designates the title as referring to the towers of Barad-dûr in Mordor and Orthanc in Isengard.
I'll come back to the towers in a moment.

Anyway; now, from time to time I wonder if my proximity to this novel makes it nearly impossible for me to get the requisite critical distance upon it. Gandalf's return, for instance. It now seems to me (on this umpteenth, or perhaps umpty-first, reading) perfectly natural and logical. I know that some who did not know the story watched the movies and groaned mightily when Ian McEllen popped up again: and perhaps it is a cheesy and ridiculous plot-twist. But I can't see it as such, and I think that's for the following reason.

Gandalf's return is not gratuitous, or out of context. Indeed, the whole of the third book (Two Towers 1) is about this ... about, that is to say, rebirth. It is the return from death; or more precisely it is about the vivification of the inert. So on the one hand characters are presumed dead and then discovered alive: Merry and Pippin, for instance; but more centrally Gandalf himself. Of course the case with Gandalf is more than that the others thought him dead but actually he was alive. Gandalf actually dies, becomes a corpse, and then is reborn.
The darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back ... I lay staring upward while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth.' [524]
'Wandered', with its hint of 'wondered', is nice. But the thing that struck me (had this really never struck me before?) is that Gandalf comes back invulnerable. The last we see of Gandalf the Grey he is complaining that he is tired ('what an evil fortune! And I am already weary' [348]). Now he has almost limitless energy -- when the four of them ride all day and all night across Rohan, Gandalf permits them only 'a few hours rest'.
Legolas and Gimli slept and Aragorn lay flat, stretched upon his back; but Gandalf stood leaning on his staff, gazing into the darkness.' [528]
Not only does he not need sleep, he cannot be harmed by weapons: 'Indeed, my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me' [516]. This carries with it the suggestion that all Gandalf's subsequent battlefield galavanting with Glamdring is a kind of play-acting: for he can no more be slain than could Milton's Satan. (Not a very flattering comparison, of course; and actually the state of affairs is logical, according to the shape of Tolkien's imaginarium .... G. has been put on the same level viz-a-viz mortality as the Nazgul, who similarly cannot be killed ... though Saruman, it transpires, can.) Gandalf then performs a sort of lazarus-act on Theoden: the king goes from being functionally dead, an inert and seemingly beyond-aged man ('a man so bent with age he seemed almost a dwarf ... There was a silence. The man did not move in his chair', 534-5) to being a vigorous leader and warrior.

This brings me to the Ents. Trees, whilst being, of course, alive, are more or less inert. Tolkien's brilliant move with the Ents, and much of the focus of this book, is the vivification of the insentient and unmoving. The Ents trope the coming to life of inert matter: the Ents are the scenic, character and structural externalisation of Gandalf's return to life. They (Ents, Gandalf) share a sense of the intense, beautiful slowness of everyday time -- in G.'s words: 'each day was as long as a life-age of the earth.' Yet both act swiftly, and decisively, against evil. To put it in a nutshell: in this book, the inert comes alive.

This, then, is (I think) the real meaning of the two towers of the title. The reference is not to the architecture of the secondary world, but rather to life and death themselves. This book traverses the hinterland between the Tower of Life and the Tower of Death, the crisscrossing and unexpected reappearances that weird space enables.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Gnosis

Be still, and know.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Landor's 'pure' style

It helps not to go looking for a Keatsian richness and profusion of expression when reading one of Landor’s poems. Indeed; at the very heart of Landor’s aesthetic is a committment to cleanness of style that gives many of his poems a purged, even a bleached feel. It is mostly the case that what can strike the reader as a Landorian line purified almost to desiccation—parched, we might say—reveals its richness only upon closer reading.

The 5-line epitaph he wrote for his own tomb in 1831 starts with four mimosas. It is characteristic of Landon, it differentiates him from other nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets, and it is illustrative of what I mean by his cleanness of style that these mimosas are not elaborated, or rendered, or pictured, or compared, or indeed gifted any descriptive adjectives at all. We are told that they are mimosas, and that they are four in number. The effect pares the whole poem down: because the mimosas are the only things mentioned in the poem. There's quite literally nothing else in it. The rest of the text is, we might say, ‘abstracted’ from the particular. We can intuit a tomb as well, of course, because the poem is an epitaph and because that’s where the mimosas have been planted. But Landor’s approach is one that deliberately avoids providing the reader with specific visual prompts.
Lo! Where the four mimosas blend their shade,
In calm repose at last is Landor laid;
For ere he slept he saw them planted here
By her his soul had ever held most dear,
And he had lived enough when he had dried her tear.
Landor is certainly capable of evoking brilliant visual imagery. It’s just that he chooses not to do so here. And this is the distance between a style picked clean, here, and the generous profusion and spillage of images and effects characteristic of, say, Keats, or even Shelley. Landor’s is not a beauty of loding every rift with ore; but the beauty of inflections—not any wrought account of mimosas, but our knowledge of what mimosas look like (the whole poem depends upon us knowing at least that). And, actually, the poem is working not with an image of mimosas as such, but with the shadow cast by the mimosas. At the same time, the poem exhibits an extraordinary degree of formal pattern and finish. The rhyme scheme, a simple-enough aabbb, works back into the body of the poem itself. The lyric’s emotional thrust connects its two agents, Landor and ‘her’ (Ianthe, we presume). The shade/laid rhyme of lines 1 and 2 toy with the open ‘a’ and the ‘d’ of Landor’s name; just as the ‘here’ rhyme of the final three lines lengthens the vowel of ‘her’. It doesn’t overstate things to suggest that the ‘eh’ sound that recurs and shifts assonantially through the poem (‘where’, ‘blend’, ‘re’, ‘ere’, ‘he’, ‘slept’, ‘he’, ‘them’, ‘here’, ‘her’, ‘ever’, ‘held’, ‘dear’, ‘he’, ‘en-’, ‘when’, ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘tear’) literalises a kind of panting, or gasping. This is appropriate to a poem about unconsummated love, I suppose; except that the poem is actually about death—not about love, we might say, but about the shadow cast by love, the lack, the death of love. Not gasping, then, so much as parching. Fiesole’s is a hot, dry climate; the sort of environment mimosas prefer. And then we see, and understand, the way this little poem’s final image sets the whole. To dry a loved-one’s tears looks like a gesture of consolation, but this love is an unreciprocated one. The poem implies without ever quite stating that it is Landor’s death that has, paradoxically, dried ‘her’ tears. And that emotional desiccation, has freeze-dried the whole poem. Cleanness of style, it seems, can be a bones-picked-clean sort of purity.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Sweet pastries

As I slide another doughnut into my maw, and make those little mews of sensual satisfaction, I'm abruptly caught short: 'oh no! ... does this mean I'm Salieri?'

Monday, 30 November 2009

On Balrogs

When I was a kid, I thought 'balrog' distractingly close to the bathetic 'frog' to really work (just as 'Nazgul' distracted my ear with its faux-resemblance to 'seagull'). But in both cases I was wrong. These are two nicely chosen examples of Fantasy terminology.

Re-reading the book now, I'm struck that I didn't see before what Tolkien was doing in coining his Balroggy name: glancing, cleverly, at 'Baal'. His beast is a sort of pagan god of fire and pain (Wikipedia: 'Classical sources relate how the Carthaginians burned their children as offerings to Ba'al Hammon'), a literalisation of the theological evil against which the novel pits itself.

There's more: Ba'al ["(Arabic: بعل‎, pronounced [ˈbaʕal]) (Hebrew: בעל‎, pronounced [ˈbaʕal])(ordinarily spelled Baal in English) is a Northwest Semitic title and honorific meaning master or lord"] is connected with root-words that mean 'high', or 'elevated'. [Hobson-Jobson talk about the Persian 'bala meaning 'above, over']. Tolkien neatly locates this 'elevated' entity in the very deepest, least elevated place; hidden below Moria).

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Trains

Trains in the distance, under the stars, away behind the houses somewhere. They make a weird, metallic, plangent, tubular sort of sound. Urban whalesong.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

A Non-genuine Asymmetry

Here's Uriah Kriegel (reviewing Katalin Farkas The Subject's Point of View [OUP 2009] in the TLS of the 20th November 2009, p.28):
There is a genuine asymmetry between our access to ourselves and out inner life on the one hand, and our access to the external world on the other. This asymmetric access had two aspects: in certain fundamental respects, we know ourselves better than we know others, and we know ourselves better than others know us. In retrospect, the discovery of asymmetric accesss is not all that surprising. Consider: what am I visualising right now? The correct answer is: a three-headed kangaroo. But how is it I know the correct answer when you could not?
That last isn't the question, though. The question is: in what sense is this asymmetric? Or, since the answer is 'in no sense', the more pointed question is: how could anybody genuinely think there's any genuine asymmetry here?

Put it this way: the world doesn't know us (the nature of our thoughts about kangaroos); but there's nothing assymetric about this because we don't know the world either. Or more precisely: the world knows something about us, but not everything; and this exactly ('symmetrically') describes our situation with respect to the world ... we know something about it, but not everything.

Of course, if we had a perfectly comprehensive and transparent knowledge of the cosmos, some asymmetry might creep in. But quantum physics and chaos suggest such knowledge isn't in the grain of things. Or to put it another way: if we had a perfectly comprehensive and transparent knowledge of the cosmos, then the state of affairs would obtain in which the cosmos (of which we are a part) had become perfectly transparent, and our thoughts about many-headed kangaroos would be precisely as knowable as everything else.

There's something very profound in this, I think.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II

On with this year's LotR re-reading: despite various other reading duties intervening, I've now finished book the second, and with it The Fellowship of the Ring. In fact, it occurs to me now that 'the Fellowship of the Ring' only describes this, second, half of the two-book section actually called 'the Fellowship of the Ring' (and not even the first two, lengthy chapters of that). It's not a very large portion of the whole thing.

So: the standout of this book is still the wonderful, chilling journey through Moria, which is as I remembered it. More to the point, I read this section with a quarter-of-my-mind on this 'Hobbit Holey-Space' paper, written out of collaborative discussion at the Third Annual Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass (University of Liverpool June 10-12, 2009), in part because the passage through the holey-Misty-Mountains figured largely in that. But actually, book II contains (Moria aside) almost no holey-spaces, which seemed, somehow, striking to me. Unless we take the fellowship itself, as a Round-Table-style collective, as somehow 'ring-shaped', as see a metaphorical hollowness at its heart.

No, what struck me the most on this re-reading was the writing. Specifically, the two,splendid inset writing-images in the Moria chapter. This one:

The speak friend and enter image; and this one:

BALIN SON OF FUNDIN LORD OF MORIA. They're lovely; and the book's appendices stand testament to Tolkien's interest in fine calligraphy. But they got me wondering. One thing I wondered was: why are there so few written texts in the world of the Lord of the Rings? Lots of oral texts; the novel is littered with interpolated songs and verses and riddles. But tabulating all the written texts mentioned doesn't give us very much:
1: Moria-writing. Namely the two texts already mentioned, together with the written record the Fellowship discover inside Moria. They attract attention by virtue of being so slpendidly, visually rendered.
2: Bilbo's book. But this exists in the novel largely (until the very end) as unwritten; something Bilbo will get around to at some point. More, it exists in some complicated metatextual relationship with the novel we are reading, so I'll put it on one side for a moment.
3: The odd single rune: Gandalf marks his fireworks with a G-rune, for instance; and scratches '3' on a stone at Weathertop.
4: One 'scroll' mentioned and quoted in the 'Council of Elrond' chapter, in which Isildur writes down what the ring looks like, records its inscription, and declares it is 'precious' to him. Which leads me, of course, to:
5: This:

That's, obviously, writing of the profoundest and most penetrating significance for the novel. More, it is evil. It precedes, and determines, all the (actual) writing that constitutes Tolkien's novel. Can we say, taking things a little further, that it in some sense stains written text with some malign mark or quality? The ring-writing itself, and Isildur's scroll, are permanent records of the wickedness of the ring in action, after all.

So I started thinking of the way written marks can be misinterpreted: Strider and the hobbits don't understand Gandalf's '3' rune at Weathertop; Gandalf himself misses the true meaning of the Moria-Gate inscription. But then I thought: actually, the opposite is closer to the truth of it.

Gandalf's problem with the Moria-gate inscription is that he over-reads; he assumes a level of complexity that isn't there. When he sees how straightforward the instruction is he laughs. Something similar is the case with 'the remains of a book' they find at the beginning of II:5. Initially it looks as though this, with an almost facetious literalness, is going to be 'difficult to decode', in this case because it is so materially damaged.
'We drove the orcs from the great gate and guard -- I think; the next word is blurred and burned: probably room -- we slew many in the bright -- I think sun in the dale.'
And so on. But in fact, the reading of this text reveals a near-fatal facility, a slippage between text and world. They read the words 'We cannot get out. The end comes, drums drums in the deep .... they are coming'' and without intermission these words becomes their reality.
There was a hurrying sound of many feet.
'They are coming!' cried Legolas.
'We cannot get out,' said Gimli. [341]
In other words, the thing with written language is not that it is too obscure, or ambiguous, or slippery; but on the contrary, that it is too plain. It does exactly what it says (you speak 'friend' and enter). It bridges the gap between text and world too immediately, and renders itself real with a dangerous completion. This is at the heart of the power of the ring. The whole novel is a written-textual articulation of that fact.

Writing in this sense is prior; foundational (LotR is a logocentric text): it is what you find when you excavate down, below the surface logic of the represented, past the oral traditions and remembered songs. Which is why Moria is the precisely the right place for these two fine calligraphic interpolations, and why no such writing (inserted into the text) is found anywhere else in the novel, the ring excepted. The symbolic logic of Moria is: dig down deep enough, and you free a terrible, destructive evil. This evil is literalised as 'Balrog', a fiery agent of destruction. But the novel has already established the crucial fiery agent of destruction in the literal letters of the One Ring ('"I cannot read the fiery letters," said Frodo, in a quavery voice.') Oral literature connects you with a living tradition of other people; but written literature short-circuits community and conducts a spark of terrible danger directly into reality.

At this point, I could launch into an involuted meta-textual discussion about how this potential-for-evil danger of written language inflects a text that is itself embodied in written language. And there is something interesting, and important, there: it explains, for instance, why Tolkien gives over quite so much of the Return of the King's appendices to alphabets. But such a section would, really, write itself; and I can safely leave it as an exercise for the reader.

One last, not-really connecting observation, though. The ring-inscription; take another look at it, up there. Once you know the phonemes ('ash nazg durbatulúk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk' and so on) it's striking how much the Elvish script looks like a deliberate and rather beautiful confection of manuscript 'a's, 's's, 'h's, 'n's, 'g's and 'z's (or '3's).

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Cogito II

Let's go back to Descarte's cogito. He gets it wrong; not substantively, but in emphasis. Strip back everything, and we're left not with I think therefore I am, but rather: I think therefore I'm not dead yet. The whole cogito, in fact, hinges and turns about that yet.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Death

In the Anti-Oedpius [p.363, in fact] D&G insist in what I take to be a deliberately anti-Heideggerian manner that 'death ... does actually happen.' Which is to say, it is more than just a being-towards; it's an actual intensity. But I don't know if this is a purely anti-Oedipean perspective. Do they still think death 'really happens' in 1000 Plateaus? I'd hesitantly suggest not (not because 1000 Plateaus is Heideggerian, of course; but because the 'assemblages' trope is less actual in its antifreudian stress). But what do I know?

Interesting quotation from Blanchot, though:
Maurice Blanchot distinguishes this twofold nature clearly, these two irreducible aspects of death; the one, according to which the apparent subject never ceases to live and travel as a One -- "one never stops and never has done with dying"; and the other, according to which this same subject, fixed as I, actually dies -- which is to say it finally ceases to die since it end up dying, in the reality of a last instant that fixes it in this way as an I, all the while undoing the intensity, carrying it back to the zero that envelops it.'
Heidegger would want to say the former is determined by the latter. But isn't Freud also saying this? We don't confuse his 'death drive' with actual death, after all.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Emo Rilke

I chanced upon the following passage from Rilke here.
O Lord give to each his own death,
That dying that comes from the life,
in which he had love, sense and want.
For we are just the husk and the leaf.
The great death that each has in himself,
This is the fruit around which all revolves.
Doesn't it make you think: golly, Rilke is pretty Goth, though, isn't he? I wonder if this exists in some sort of relationship to this famous Shakespearean image.

It's obviously Heideggerian; I get that. But if I say Rilke's poetic is also cancerous, I don't necessarily mean it in a bad way. Not an entirely bad way.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Norsex

Now for a question that's bothered me for a long time. Here's Middlesex (I live there, so I should know): there's Essex and over there is Sussex. I've even heard talk of Wessex. But where's Norsex?

I have a theory, now. Norsex is the great lost English county: the Atlantis of the shires, a place still reachable, if only you know the magic access ...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Intense

I'm not sure, exactly, what to say about this. I used to think that intensity was a function of life; that intensity (for instance, aesthetic intensity, lyric vividness) connoted intense vitality of one sort or another. Now I wonder if there isn't an intensity of death, too. An intensity, or intensities. A gradual accentuation.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Commandments

I'd be the first to concede that I don't have the grounding to insist upon this; but it seems to me that, by the most cautious appraisal, the ten commandments break down like this: four, relating to the work of God; six, relating to moral and social duties among human beings. Surely even the most literalist and fundamentalist Christian should take the hint: if God is taking up more than 40% of your time you're overdoing it. Spend more time with people.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Cotton

Wikipedia says of cotton: 'The name derives from the Arabic (al) qutn قُطْن , which began to be used circa 1400.' But that can't be right, for here's Pliny the Elder well over a millennium earlier than that: 'ferunt mali cotonei amplitudine cucurbitas, quae maturitate ruptae ostendunt lanuginis pilas, ex quibus vestes pretioso linteo faciunt' [XII: 10 (21)]. Lewis and Short have cotonea, 'a plant, wallwort, comfrey, black briony', and cotinus 'a shrub', which are presumably unconnected with the Arabic.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I

It used to be the case that I re-read The Lord of the Rings every year. But last year, for whatever reason, I didn't get around to it. (The year before that I read it with a half-an-eye on the larger questions about Fantasy that were being kicked around, critically, thenabouts. And the year before that, I read it with a specific task in mind: namely writing this essay, for this excellent collection: Robert Eaglestone (ed), Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic.)

Anyway, and although the year is fairly advanced, I've started rereading the whole book once again, and this time without any particular agenda in mind. It's still an enjoyable experience.

And here's the thing: I've just finished the first book (the first half of Fellowship of the Ring). Now when I used to read it as a teenager, this was always my least favourite section. I hurried through on my way to what I then considered the book's first highlight, the Mines of Moria, and the shivers that sent up my spine. But I've now re-read it with a new appreciation. There's something very clever, novelistically speaking, about the way Tolkien beds-in his larger narrative. I like the slow pulse of the first book, with its day-night alternations of comfortable domiciles (the Shire, Crickhollow, Bree, heading for Rivendell) and dangerous or disorienting wild spaces inbetween. But above all I like the way the characters keep getting lost, and the way in turn this propensity for getting lost glosses one of the novel's central conceits -- invisibility. The hobbits set out with a clear aim in view, and they are neither excessively foolish nor inexperienced ramblers. Yet when they go into the Old Forest, or when they set out across the Barrow Downs, lost is what they get: because (in both cases) they cannot see properly. The trees in the former, and the fog in the latter, makes as it were the rest of the world invisible. It's a nice, photographic-negative of the way the ring can render one individual invisible.

The writing stands-up better than I remember, too. Not all of it, by any means ('"Lawks!" said Merry' [116]); but some of the descriptive passages about landscape are lovely:
As they journeyed the sun mounted, and grew hot. Each time they climbed a ridge the breeze seemed to have grown less. When they caught a glimpse of the country westward the distant forest seemed to be smoking, as if the fallen rain was steaming up again from leaf and root and mould. A shadow now lay upon the edge of sight, a dark haze above which the upper sky was like a blue cap, hot and heavy. [151-2]

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

New novel

Planning a new novel: I want to set it here. Doesn't that look like an interesting location?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Ineffable, glamorous noise

I'm very struck by this quotation [which I found, incongruously enough, here; p.37] from an ancient Hermetic text called the Poimandres. The links, above, have the Greek; here's C H Dodd's English:
I seemed to see the darkness changing into a sort of moist nature, unspeakably agitated, giving out smoke as from a fire, and producing a sort of ineffable, glamorous noise; and then a cry was sent out from it inarticulately.
Isn't that wonderful? I don't mean to trivialise it, but it's easy to imagine precisely the sort of music that passage suggests.

Which is to say: the creation of the universe troped as a rock concert.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The sleep of monsters

As the sleep of reason produces monsters, so the sleep of monsters produces reason. It's dialectical.

Stands to reason. Or stands to monster. Which is better.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Tension

This is how you do tension, Tolkien style. Aragorn ('Strider', still, at this stage) and the hobbits have been assaulted on Weathetop by the ringwraiths; Frodo has received a deadly wound in his shoulder from a poisoned knife. Unless they get to Rivendell quick, Frodo will die, or worse than die. They are alone in the wilderness without help. Time is pressing. Chapter XII: 'Flight to the Ford': 'they think their purpose is almost accomplished,' warns Strider, of the wraiths. 'Sam, they believe your master has a deadly wound that will subdue him to their will.' It's very exciting. Then? Then this sentence:
Four days passed.
Actually, the whole sentence is:
Four days passed, without the ground or the scene changing much, except that behind them Weathertop slowly sank, and before them the distant mountains loomed a little nearer.
It's extraordinary; and one of the most extraordinary things is that it works.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

K2

Wikipedia really is a box of wonders. Slice it whicheverway you may it comes up Interesting Fact.
The policy of the Great Trigonometric Survey was to use local names for mountains wherever possible and K1 was found to be known locally as Masherbrum. K2, however, appeared not to have acquired a local name, possibly due to its remoteness. The mountain is not visible from Askole, the last village to the south, or from the nearest habitation to the north, and is only fleetingly glimpsed from the end of the Baltoro Glacier, beyond which few local people would have ventured. The name Chogori, derived from two Balti words, chhogo ('big') and ri ('mountain') (شاہگوری) has been suggested as a local name, but evidence for its widespread use is scant. It may have been a compound name invented by Western explorers or simply a bemused reply to the question "What's that called?" It does, however, form the basis for the name Qogir (pinyin: Qiáogēlǐ Fēng) by which Chinese authorities officially refer to the peak. Other local names have been suggested including Lamba Pahar ("Tall Mountain" in Urdu) and Dapsang, but are not widely used.

Lacking a local name, the name Mount Godwin-Austen was suggested, in honour of Henry Godwin-Austen, an early explorer of the area, and while the name was rejected by the Royal Geographical Society it was used on several maps, and continues to be used occasionally.

The surveyor's mark, K2, therefore continues to be the name by which the mountain is commonly known. It is now also used in the Balti language, rendered as Kechu or Ketu (Urdu: ے ٹو). The Italian climber Fosco Maraini argued in his account of the ascent of Gasherbrum IV that while the name of K2 owes its origin to chance, its clipped, impersonal nature is highly appropriate for so remote and challenging a mountain. He concluded that it was "...just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man - or of the cindered planet after the last."
The Wilkiecollinsesque Fosco is right, of course. It's not just the nakedness of 'K2' qua name that makes it appropriate; it's also the moniker's angular look -- the jags of the K, the sharp-bottomed, upwards-curving summit of 2. K (from the local name of the range: Karakoram) is the right sort of letter. It gestures at thousands ... as it might be, thousands of metres high. Still, it's possible to feel a little sorry for Godwin-Austen: it might have been nice to have glancing allusions to two Romantic novelists associated with this peak.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Fighting the transformer

Punching that piano in the teeth, over and over, smacking away at its stupid big grinning mouth, failing to dislodge a single one of its rabbit-long teeth. Hammering the clavier.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Dover

John Greening’s new poem, ‘Dover’ [TLS, 6 Nov 2009], is dedicated ‘to Isaac Rosenberg’:
The white cliffs are like all the paper they could not have—
the men who were not rich enough to be officers
and that steady grey horizon is a never-ending pencil-lead.

The Channel is shifting with misty shapes of things that were said
but never written, for lack of paper, for want of pencils,
and beneath it currents and sands of what they really meant
.
The cliffs are paper (are they?) stacked and seen edge on? That’s not the side of paper poets write upon, though. But I like the idea that pencil lead and paper cannot come together to print the poem because between them lies Arnold’s unplumbed, salt, estranging sea. The Arnoldian touch is there in the last line, too, with its notion of a buried-life. And the title, of course. Of course, the title.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Elegies

The world of difference between the ‘please explain tears’ elegy and the ‘please provoke tears’ elegy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Youth

This is my hunch: reactionaries who complain about homosexual behaviour in certains terms ('I wouldn't mind, but they flaunt themselves so ... I don't want it rammed down my throat ...' and so on) are not, whatever they might think, complaining about homosexuality. They are complaining about youth; and more specifically about the fantastic overspilling broadcast nature of young sexuality, of whatever orientation. That's just how young people are, when in lust. It doesn't excuse homophobic bigotry, of course, to say so.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Contact

“It is in language that an expectation and its fulfilment make contact”—Wittgenstein [Philosophical Investigations, no 445]. Imagine a dog (say) that sees a piece of bacon on the floor, plans to eat it and then eats that bacon. So, for this animal there is no contact between its expectation and its fulfilment? I don't understand what Wittgenstein means by 'contact' in that case.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Autumn 2

Keats liked the phrase 'stubble fields'. On the 21st Sept 1819 he wrote to his friend J.H. Reynolds:
How beautiful the season is now -- How fine the air. Really without joking, chaste weather -- Dian skies -- I never liked stubble fields so much as now -- Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble field looks warm -- in the same way that certain pictures look warm -- the thought struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it...
And then, of course, in 'To Autumn' we get:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue.
I used to think this took its poetic force from the implied comparison with the stubble on a man's chin, a fairly intimate physicalisation of the landscape. But, actually, it's the other way around. The OED notes the primary meaning of stubble: 'each of the stumps or lower-ends of grain stalks, left in the ground after reaping'. OED derives this from both the OE 'stobb', meaning 'stub', and the Latin 'stipula' ('a stalk. stem, blade, halm'), itself a diminutive version of 'stipes', 'a log, stock, post, trunk of a tree.' The notion that unshaved beard is 'stubble' is the poeticization ... and that's something wholly untouched in this poem. Rather, and looking at it now, stubble echoes, or rotates through, the 'bars' of the clouds. The clouds are like posts, or 'stripes' (is there a connection between this word and stipes?); but so are the remnants of the wheat harvest. I was scratching my chin in error.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Autumn 1

"The freed leaves, blood-coloured, gush fruitfully down. " [Fraser]

Onto the black ground
the trees drizzle leaves
with cloudy benevolence.

Cars rattle their phlegm;
umbrellas sprout their fungi.
The mulch and clutter of morning.

Each and every streetlamp
is the light of the world.
The wind trails its invisible

silk gown over the floor.
And all the trees are
ponderously headbanging

to a tune only they can hear.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Line of Beauty

Near the beginning of The Line of Beauty I thought I'd hit on something. So, sensitive Tory aesthete (or, more precisely: senisitive wealth-inebriated quasi-Jamesian aesthete) Nick is staying with his friend, bipolar self-harming young Catherine, in her parents' large London house (whilst they're away). She sees the cosmos as a beautiful, poisonous shimmer; he is aestheto-autistically addicted to a rarified Kantian aesthetic purity. Nick was due to go on a date, but Catherine's parasuicidal melodrama hijacks the evening, and he spends it with her instead.
Schumamnn had given way to The Clash, who in turn had yielded to a tired but busy silence between them. Nick prayed that she wouldn't put on any more music -- most of the stuff she liked had him clenched in resistance. [18]
By 'onto something' I mean, onto my dislike of the character and the mileu of this novel, a dislike superbly distilled (sublimed, even) by Hollinghurst's technical and stylistic brilliance. It's to do with an ethos of passivity, I think; or more precisely an aesthetic and ethos predicated wholly on receptivity. Entirely lacking the capacity to clench, like that, in resistance, Nick is if anything a pitiable character; capable of experiencing bliss, but without traction, like a man subsisting on a hummingbirdish diet of only sugar. Maybe I shouldn't dislike, so much as I should feel sorry for, him.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Vampire

Will I write a Vampire story? And if I do ... then, what? Well, I would have my vampire hunters carry supplies of saline solution blessed by a priest -- for medical saline is most assuredly water, and once blessed and intravenously infused into the body it would turn the vampire hunter into an unassaible creature. 'Drink my blood and ... die!' Such men and women would wade fearlessly into vampire nests.

Or (the best writing always starts with an or) ... would they? Maybe some vampires would prefer blood whose plasma was mingled with holy water. Maybe that would be like a really really spicy curry to a human.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The ghost rockets

None of these rockets died a peaceful death
In their beds, or keeling over whilst gardening.
They all died in flames, blood boiling on their shells.
How could their ghosts be anything but grim?
Angry, sharp-edged spirits, resentfully there.
'We went to heaven before we died,' they say.
'And all the way up: there's nothing there.
We want our afterlife down on the deck.'
These jigsaw ghosts, the disassembled ones.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Bronze man poem

Meet Braze. This bronze man thinks
hollowness an absolute virtue:

the cavity within him vacates
otherwise overwhelming density.

Think: emotional singularities.
Think of shelling such voids.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Magic Realism

David Simpson wonders about the great vogue in magical realist novels; and more specifically, wonders why books mostly consumed in western cities are so often set 'in the (to us) remote corners of the undeveloped or developing world, the colours, smells and flavours are more intense, life is more meaningful and death less absolute than in the grey industrial or post-industrial landscapes of the north.' To that end he cites Moretti:
Moretti has speculated that this novel [100 Years of Solitude] and others like it speak to the world system from the peripheryin ways that would be impossible if they were set in Europe or North America: they hold out the possibility of re-enchantment in our disenchanted world
That's right, I think; and also explains much of the continuing appeal of both Fantasy and Sense-of-wonder SF. But it also exposes a fundamental problematic: because, in the terms of the novels themselves, the re-enchantment is literal (actual magic) whereas the prior disenchantment is only metaphorical. From this core imbalance all sorts of difficulties, failures and problems proceed.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Equality and inequality

A fascinating piece in 22nd October's LRB: David Runciman's 'How messy it all is', reviewing The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Wilkinson and Pickett's book sounds like exactly the sort of thing to gladden the heart of an old liberal socialist like me:

Among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use). The evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett supply to make their case is overwhelming. Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even the amount of rubbish that gets recycled, the more equal the society the better the performance invariably is. In graph after graph measuring various welfare functions, the authors show that the best predictor of how countries will rank is not the differences in wealth between them ... but the differences in wealth within them (so the US, as the most unequal society, comes last on many measures, followed by Portugal and the UK, both places where the gap between rich and poor is relatively large, with Spain and Greece somewhere in the middle, and the Scandinavian countries invariably out in front, along with Japan). Just as significantly, this pattern holds inside the US as well, where states with high levels of income inequality also tend to have the greatest social problems.
Sympathetic as he is to this line, Runcimann makes one excellent core point, and several less telling other points, against it. Crucially he asks: 'is the basic claim here that in more equal societies almost everyone does better, or is it simply that everyone does better on average?' Although Wilkinson and Pickett 'want to insist that it’s the first' in fact it's generally the second. This is no good. That's because the data may mean, and probably do mean, not that more equal societies improve life for everyone, but that in unequal societies the rich do very well where the poor do so disproportionately badly that it skews the average sharply downward. And the problem with this, as Runcimann notes, is that 'the idea that finding ourselves on a steep social gradient is something we all have in common is not going to have much political bite. What matters to most people is where they are on the slope, not the fact that those higher up and lower down are on the slope with them.' Runcimann shows that you don't get very far passing off 'the average improves' as 'everybody wins!' They're actually far from being the same thing.

In fact, and much as I want Wilkinson and Pickett's argument to be right, I'm not sure Runcimann is hard enough in his demolishing. So, he says:

The single most compelling chart in the whole book comes near the end. It compares infant mortality rates for England and Wales as against Sweden, dividing the data up into six segments according to the father’s social class. This shows two remarkable things. First, whereas in England and Wales the chances of your child’s surviving rise with each step you take up the social ladder, in Sweden children from the lowest social class have a better chance of surviving than members of three of the five classes above them. Although the figures are fairly constant across Swedish society (around 4-7 per 1000, as compared to around 7-14 per 1000 in England and Wales), it remains the case that children from the highest social group are slightly more likely to die than children from the lowest. Second, even children from the highest social group in England and Wales, though significantly less likely to die than children from other social groups, are more likely to die than children from any class in Sweden; they are very nearly as likely to die as children of Swedish single mothers, who do worst of all in Sweden just as they do in England and Wales. Here, we have clear evidence that a more equal society does leave almost everyone better off. It is not simply the case that in England and Wales economic inequality means bad outcomes are shunted down the social scale; it is also true that inequality means bad outcomes are being distributed across the social scale, making even rich English parents more vulnerable than poor Swedish ones.
But doesn't this ignore the fact that in the UK rich and poor alike use the same technical mechanism (the NHS) to have their babies delivered? Mightn't that account for the 'across-the-boardness' of Wilkinson and Pickett's results?

One other thing struck me as unsaid in this piece, something which, if it's true, will tend to be horribly corrosive of the political agenda for equality. Runcimann compares the data on infant mortality with the data on education, and says that 'Education, unlike infant mortality, is a comparative as well as an absolute good. Parents want their kids to do better than other kids (whereas, one hopes, they don’t need to see other people’s children die in order to enjoy bringing their own safely home from hospital).' But I wonder if his 'one hopes' isn't too sanguine. I don't mean that people actively want others' kids to die; but I do mean something related to that unsavoury notion.

It seems to me that one metaphorical sheet anchor, holding back progressive political programmes that work towards equality, is precisely the inertia of a large group in any society that actively wants to see a set of society (the underclass) suffer; or perhaps it might be more accuare to say: a large group that doesn't want to see people rewarded for behaviour they deem sinful. Sinful, though tendentious, seems to me the right word here. For many middle-class Brits and Americans, the problem with welfare is not the absolute cost of it, but rather that it is perceived to reward indolence, and indolence is seen as sinful. Arguments that it results in less social inequality and so moves us towards Wilkinson and Pickett's utopia crash and break upon the rocks of middle class moral indignation ('I work hard to afford the mortgage payments on this house; Mr and Mrs Chav are getting their house for free, and I resent that'). This, sadly, is an argument that adapts to various ideological environments. For example: many Americans will not be sold on sex education programmes (up to and including abortion) by the manifest and rational arguments concerning social and public good: more deeply ingrained is their belief the illicit sex (which is most sex, for them) deserves to be punished, not rewarded, which in turn means that they are, essentially (and though they may not even admit it, perhaps even to themselves) happy to see unmarried mothers living in squalor and people dying of AIDS.

Or again, it is better to treat drug addicts as people with an illness than as sinners ... better in social terms, I mean. But many people cannot bear the thought that, after abdicating all social constraits and responsibilities, after perhaps stealing, and above all after enjoying the pleasure of getting high on heroin, an individual should be 'rewarded' with medical care. They feel that such people should be punished. The root of this, I suspect, is a profound twist in the bourgeois soul, almost a psychopathology: the horror that somebody somewhere is having fun, which in turn translates into the belief that such people must be punished and hang the consequences. It should be challenged; although it won't be easy. We could start by pointing out that being really poor really isn't fun; that punishing people for being poor involves a deplorable sort of double-jeopardy. Or maybe we should put our efforts on the other side: and convince people that it's OK for others to enjoy themselves ... really it is.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Dying Light

Light cannot die, though eyes, of course, may.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Inverted World II

This hypothetical novel is set in a universe the inverse of ours: finite in size, but infinitely old (our cosmos being infinite in size and finitely old you see). How finite? The size of the medieval solar system, and bounded by a primum mobile. As our universe began with a big bang, and is a godless and material space, this universe has always existed in a steady state and is a godmade locale interpenetrated by spirit.

What happens in this novel? Well, in such a universe (though not in ours) there is an 'outside', topography beyond the boundary of things--though this outside is not quantifiable in the terms of the universe; and actually the 'side' and the 'out' that make up 'outside' are both features of the home universe as so do not properly obtain. So let's call it, rather, C. But creatures come into the universe from C; and they are us. The creatures we discover living in the innards os this shell resemble angels, or perhaps virtuous devils. The closer to the surface of a planet you go, the further removed you are from Grace, the substratum of this cosmos, and the more miserable you feel -- in this respect, it's like the Cosmos of Lewis's Ransom books. But even walking around on the surface of the planets the beings are more beautiful, stronger, cleverer, less prone to illness and so on. Nevertheless the novel takes a Dawkinsesque twist: it transpires that, having being created whole by a god, the one thing these entities are not so good at is surviving. The visitors, however, have been shaped by evolution; not only in the epiphenomenal manner of gradually upgraded physical and mental acuteness, but in the core sense ... every one of them (every one of us) is the end of a vastly long line of survivors. Every single one of our ancestors survived long enough to pass on its genes. There were countless other organisms in our reality that did not survive, but since they did not pass on their genes they have passed out.

'But,' the natives complain. 'We were created by God! We are perfect!'

'Of course that's exactly the problem,' one kindly-minded infodumper from the C-realm explains. 'Perfect is not an absolute term, or else a "perfect" being would be simultaneously perfectly tall and perfectly short, perfectly young and perfectly old. No, "perfect" only relates to a limited number of aspects of existence. In those respects you exceed us. But our inherent, evolution-granted survivability trumps all of them.'

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Strawb

The upholsteryishness of a strawberry, when viewed close.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Truth and clarity

According to Niels Bohr 'Truth and clarity are complementary'; or, according to a different version of the same sentiment, when Bohr was asked what was the complementary variable of Wirklichkeit, he replied with the word 'Klarheit'. I'm not sure this statement has been properly understood. It is usually taken, I suppose, as a kind of occam's razor: things are truest that are clearest, clarity presupposes truth and vice versa. But that's really not the same thing at all: a photon's wave-ness and particle-ness are complementary, yet particles and waves are very different things ... as if Bohrs were actually saying 'truth is to clarity as a hail of machine-gun bullets is to Radio 4'. And that seems to me closer to the nature of things. Because, after all, truth is empirically very often not clear: not 'common sense', not 'obvious'. Truth is sometimes dark and obscure.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Cimbri

The question: in what ways do I resemble the Cimbri? The answer, in two parts: (a) that tea and coffee are of such importance to my days that we might as well say I hold the kettle sacred; and (b) that I too am enormously and perhaps disproportionately impressed by tidal motion ("... see! see! the whole ocean is coming for us, creeping wetly over the ground like a slug the size of God!..."). And here's Strabo [Geographica 7.2.1, trans. H.L. Jones]:
As for the Cimbri, some things that are told about them are incorrect and others are extremely improbable. For instance, one could not accept such a reason for their having become a wandering and piratical folk as this that while they were dwelling on a Peninsula they were driven out of their habitations by a great flood-tide; for in fact they still hold the country which they held in earlier times; and they sent as a present to Augustus the most sacred kettle in their country, with a plea for his friendship and for an amnesty of their earlier offences, and when their petition was granted they set sail for home; and it is ridiculous to suppose that they departed from their homes because they were incensed on account of a phenomenon that is natural and eternal, occurring twice every day. And the assertion that an excessive flood-tide once occurred looks like a fabrication, for when the ocean is affected in this way it is subject to increases and diminutions, but these are regulated and periodical.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Abraham and Isaac

Abraham and Isaac. Let me see if I've got this straight: the curious tangle of significance, the aporia, at the heart of this story goes something like this: God says to Abraham, 'you will be the patriarch at the head of a chosen people, and for this to come about you must show your obedience to me, God, by killing your first-born son, the very agent by which your descendents will come into being!' That has the look of a paradox about it, I suppose. Or at least, this is at the heart of Kierkegaard's 'absurdity/fidelity' thang, the knight-of-faith's suspension of normal ethical demands and possible futures for something strictly absurd ('kill your son to guarantee your son!'). Or I suppose what I'm actually talking about here is a more Zizekian gloss on K.

But the literalist in me thinks: couldn't you have another son, Abraham? (Or, indeed: don't you have any other sons?) Peasants understand the importance of having lots of sons. Maybe that's what God is trying to tell you: something the very opposite of absurd. 'Don't put all your posterity's eggs in one basket! What happens if Isaac falls under a camel train? Have more sons! Indeed, to ram this point home I'm going to insist that you eliminate Isaac from the picture yourself ... you see?'

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Past

Faulkner, in Requiem for a Nun, famously said: 'the past is never dead; it is not even past.' Well, I say famously. It's famously misquoted -- from Obama to Peter Carey it comes out the memory mill as 'the past is not dead; it is not even past.' I wonder why we silently correct it like that? The effect, I suppose, is to turn the sentiment from a general statement that applies to all pasts ('...never...') into a specific statemtent about the vividness with which our past lives in us ('...not...'). But that's not what Faulkner actually said.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The Lark Ascending

Vaughan-Williams made something lovely from it, but even the reflected musical glory can't redeem the ghastliness of this awful, awful poem:
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet.
There's neither blitheness nor spirit to this: it's weirdly, inappositely material, solid, metallic: that heavy anchor chain being dropped into the ocean of the sky, together with the specific (tide, ripple, eddy) and inadvertent (can we read 'fleet' without thinking in a naval, rather than a swift, idiom?) semantic field of the poem's vocabulary, lead us to this conclusion: Meredith is troping a lark as a fucking battleship. 'The Dreadnought Ascending' ... now there's an intriguing title for a Science Fiction Story. I hereby pledge to write it.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Toys

Wouldn't it be fine to open an Ian Curtis-themed toyshop: Toy Division. Toys are unknown pleasures. I'd set up a returns/customer help stall for people who bought remote-controlled toys and now can't operate them, under the banner 'She's Lost the Control?'

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Negotiation

Negotiation implies entrenchment on either side, the no-man’s-land of negation inbetween. What might a positive negotiation look like? A posotiation?

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Hurt thumb poem

If you had kept your thumb
History would have happened somehow different. [Mahabharata]



Thumbpain. The dolmen thumb:
The Stonehenge of my cupped hands
Waiting to receive the flying ball.

The glans of it plastic-shiny nail
The dotage of its wrinkles
at the point where the knuckle

goes round the corner:
ach, my dumb-kopf thumb,
ach the plug of it, between my lips.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Here comes the breeze

Here comes the breeze, they say; here comes the gale. I cannot see it, so I do not believe it. Nerveendings are no substitute for good clean sight, is what I say.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Berlin

‘Berlin is the testicles of the West. Each time I give them a yank, they holler’ [Krushchev].

East Berlin, West Berlin, two orchids (Hitler died there, in a single Berlin; but of course folk wisdom is convinced he only had one ball). Tender and vulnerable, but also the signifier of adulthood, virility, courage. Hmm.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Moral bankruptcy

‘Moral bankruptcy’ is a frequently invoked cliché these days. What occurs to me is that, by its own logic, it must refer to people of moral standing who have lost it—people who have never been moral cannot be bankrupted of it.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Spidery

Spiders: the way their legs come out from
the knot of their body in all directions
Like slender thorns: the spurs of a spindly
Asterisk, an expanding jaggedness.
Star-shaped beasties: wormwood their name.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Kelly's sock

The single most memorable and resonant description of socks in all of art: Carey’s Ned Kelly pulls on a pair for the first time in his life at the age of fourteen:
My darling girl your father never knew what he were looking at for he never wore socks in all his life. He sometimes put grass inside his bluchers it had served him well till now. The cove showed him how to arrange the sock correctly and it were a wonder of a thing just to see it turn the corner at the heel. You must not laugh at him for being so simple. [p.82]
No indeed! How sweet (what clever writing) to emblemmatise turning the corner via a sock. And turning the corner is central to Kelly's story.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Mahabritannia

Would a novelistic reimagining of the Mahabharata, set in contemporary Britain, need to be two thousand pages long? Let the plot concern the five sons of King Pan, called the Pandacars, fathered by the elemental forces of the remote and wind-scoured British isles. They embody the varying degrees of Britishness: Dharma-Harma, the martial or belligerent spirit; Yudhishthira/Lud-is-there-a, the tutelary spirit of London; Be(m)art, the spirit of creativity, but also of shopkeeping and trade; Arjuna-Farjuna, the impulse to travel and the twins, the Dioskuroi: the Deep-scored: the principle of repression, depression, the hidden and inaccessible, the marks and scars that all Britains carry upon their hearts. All five marry Draupadi: Drawaparti: the coalescent, or decoalescent, force: the principle that may unify these qualities into a whole, or might set the people squabbling amongst themselves.

You know what: second thoughts say ... no.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Belief

This Coetzee quotation (its from Elizabeth Costello) puts belief posterior to idea: 'Belief may be no more, in the end, than a source of energy, like a battery which one clips into an idea to make it run. As happens when one writes: believing whatever has to be believed in order to get the job done.'

It's striking, but I'm not sure it's quite right ... the implied separation of belief and idea, I mean: the implicit assertion that belief is something deeper than an idea, something in the bone, where ideas are how our minds articulate and manoeuvre their activity. I suppose I don't see how belief is, except as ideas. Belief is always a structure of thought, always a constellation of ideas, not a reservoir or energy. But maybe that's not right.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Twain and Tolstoy


A rare photograph of a young Mark Twain meeting the elderly Leo Tolstoy. We may wonder what these two giants of the literary world had to say to one another!

Eh, hang on a minute...

Monday, 12 October 2009

Hardy

Thomas Hardy rarely wrote more truly than when he said: ‘today has length, breadth, thickness, colour, smell, voice. As soon as it becomes yesterday it is a thin layer among many layers, without substance, colour or articulate sound’ [27 Jan 1897 ... this is from his Autobiography (Wordsworth ed.) p.293]. The sandstone or slate geologic metaphor is eloquent; but there's also an implicit scienfictional or futurist meaning, I think: that the future is a plenum, plump with possibility.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Loose change

These are the smoothed stones we carry in our pockets; of what sort, and from what beach -- coins like metal pebbles, and skipping stones of tin and nickle.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Longing

I am winter, that doth keep
Longing safe amidst of sleep. [William Morris]

Longing is fragile, and needs to be protected—to be deep-frozen, like food. But does anybody else situate longing, rather than love, at the heart of the lyric like this? St Augustine's old line about being in love with love is surely actually about being in love with longing ... Morris understands that: but who else does?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Of, at

Colour me doh: it never occurred to me, until this day, that Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale naming convention ('Offred' and so on) might have some relation with the prefix-noun nature of her own surname ...

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Barred spiral galaxy NGC1300


The laughing e of this stellar multitude
The swept-back hair; the cartoon eagerness,
Or comic-book menace. The devilish goatee.

Its eye like a whale's eye, though pinker,
And with a gleam of intelligence about it
That is not human. Who is it laughing at?