Tuesday, 30 June 2009
I do not know: I may know could,
If we match death's walk stride for stride,
And hurry through this wood.
And through the branches' tangle, stars;
And netted by the nightcloud, moon;
It comes-to harder than to pass;
It will be over soon.
Monday, 29 June 2009
Sunday, 28 June 2009
"Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini" [The Irish Times, April 19, 2003]. I guess he means that poetry achieves a kind of marvellous escape act from the apparent restrictions of its form, but that's not what he has said. What he has said invites the reply: 'so form ... is a prop, is it?'
"The point of poetry is to be acutely discomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us in the eye, to punch us in the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take our breath away" [Princeton University Library Chronicle, Spring 1998]. I assume he means that poetry should fuck with our heads, which is quite right; but this emphasis on the unpleasantry of poetry looks lopsided to the point of masochism. Why would I want to hang out with a bully?
"Words want to find chimes with each other, things want to connect" [Interviewed in Thumbscrew, Spring 1996]. Paul? Meet Entropy. Entropy, Paul. I'll leave you two together.
Saturday, 27 June 2009
Friday, 26 June 2009
Infelix ego, omnium auxilio destitutus, qui cœlum terramque offendi: Quo ibo? Quo me vertam? Ad quem confugiam? Quis mei miserebitur? Ad cœlum levare oculos non audeo. Quia ei graviter peccavi. In terra refugium non invenio. Quia ei scandalum fui.Clearly 'cœlum' doesn't mean the literal sky; it means God's realm. 'Unfortunate I: I can ask no-one's help, I who have broken the laws of earth and heaven also. Where to turn? Where can I run? With whom will I find pity? Heaven is somewhere I dare not look, since I have sinned against it so grievously. Upon the earth there is no refuge. I have been a scandal there.' But the next paragraph immediately contradicts this:
Quid igitur faciam? Desperabo? Absit. Misericors est Deus, pius est salvator meus. Solus igitur Deus refugium meum: Ipse non despiciet opus suum, non repellet imaginem suam.'What then can I do? Despair? I shall not. God is merciful, my Saviour is pius. Only God shall be my refuge, he will not despise his own work, will not turn away his own image.' Which is fine, and plenty pius, but directly opposed to what the text just said ... that the speaker cannot turn to God, that what he has done puts him outside the pale of divine mercy.
Now the obvious way of reconciling these two paragraphs would be to say: in the first the speaker gives voice to an excessive pessimism; and in the second he comprehends that the mercy of God is much greater than he had realised. 'I thought I was beyond the pale, but it turns out God's mercy is sufficient for me.' The one thing necessary to move from the state of despair in paragraph 1 to the state of redemption in 2 is repentence. What's problematic about this, I think, is that paragraph 1 is precisely penitent, but that its self-abasement understands its abjection precisely in terms (we might say) of a sin against the Holy Ghost. Despair is itself sinful, yet self-abjection and repentence is, here, construed precisely as despairing.
Thursday, 25 June 2009
Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Now, I've also been working my way through Wagner, or more to the point, working my way past my Wagner inertia by forcing myself to attend repeatedly to each opera in turn until my familiarity with the richly shifting and often sprawly monotonous musical texture overcomes my hostility. It's working, too: first with Parzifal and Seigfried, now with Das Rheingold. But it has its disadvantages; the music becomes a sort of mental wallpaper, and although each new listen brings out more of the richness, I can miss blindingly obvious things ... such as the fact that the whole of the first act of this four-act opera is entirely and wholly about swimming. And in very interesting ways.
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Secondly he wrote 'The Harp Song of the Dane Women' (it appeared in Puck of Pook's Hill, 1906), which is an extraordinarily good poem: better than anything Hardy wrote, I think; as good as the best of Yeats.
What is a woman that you forsake her,The shift from 'what is a woman' to 'ah, what is woman' between the first and last stanzas is a superbly judged piece of sonic shuffling. The triple-rhyme is so effortlessly handled, the deliberate salt-waste monotony of the whole so flawlessly evoked, the sentiment so deftly switched about from the male adventuring Viking perspective to the female sedentary one (deftly because although the poem is piercingly eloquent about the emotional state of being abandoned, it also manages to contain a sense of precisely the glamour that draws the men away). Best of all, I think, is the associative logic that leads, like a sort of conceptual rhyming, from stanza to stanza. In st.1, 'woman' is linked to home and heat; in st.2 this is inverted into chill houselessness (those 'nesting' icebergs). But then K. really picks up imagistic momentum: st.2's whiteness of the icerbergs, and paleness of the polar sun sets (meta-terza-rima like) the tone for the image at the start of st.3: 'the strong white arms'. And so on through: st. 3 hideous, tangling green weed becomes st.4's green 'signs of summer'; the breaking of the ice frees not only the land (sr 4) but the sea (st 5) with its lapping waters; and the hint of tongue in this last image leads (st 6) to the 'talk at tables; 6's fullness of house and stable (kine in the shed, horse in the stable) sets up 7's hollow (swallowing) clouds and oarblades splash; and in the final touch, the sound of oars in the water (7) recalls the sound of the woman in song (8). In each case a principle of contrasting as-it-were rhyming propels the poem.
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
She has no house to lay a guest in
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.
She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you
Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.
Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken- -
Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters.
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter-quarters.
You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables
To pitch her sides and go over her cables.
Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow,
And the sound of your oar-blades, falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow.
Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
Life: death. The puzzlement of women at men's constancy in choosing the latter.
Monday, 22 June 2009
Presumably this detail speaks to peoples' interest: I can't say, unless it is to reinforce a national and, arguably, racist narrative of three Celts: the two Scots go off for glory, the Irishman is left behind.
Sunday, 21 June 2009
Saturday, 20 June 2009
Friday, 19 June 2009
Thursday, 18 June 2009
Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Man could not be Man nor God GodThe man/man God/God verbal mirroring; the skewed reflection of the words ‘crow’ and ‘grew’, which are almost the same word; the almost (but not, quite) overplayed tunings of ‘g’ and ‘c’ throughout: between God, God, (a)gony, grew, grinned—and crow crying creation. The artful asymmetry that hinges on the insolence of ‘grinned’——because the overall shape of the poem trips not once but twice on that line: once, in that the syllable count of the lines looks like it ought to follow the symmetrical pattern 8, 4, 1/1, 4, 8 with a final octosyllabic line as coda. But ‘grinned’ is three syllables short. Or, to look at it another way: ‘The agony grew. Crow grinned’ could conceivably be octosyllabic itself, giving us 4 eight syllable lines arranged with a bit of creative layout. But it’s not: ‘‘The agony grew. Crow grinned’ is a syllable short. And that metrical truncation is wholly in keeping with the tearing-off-head manners of the whole. The critical urge to uncover regularity in the prosody and structure of the poem is to ignore the poem’s third word—the key, in its negation, to the whole.
Crying: ‘This is my Creation’
Flying the black flag of himself.
But as with the whole collection of course it’s not nihilistic. Setting up and refusing to balance its various pairs, the poem ends with that superb final line: the crow in flight, solitary, suspending itself by (as it were) its own bootstraps, a flag without a pole. Out of kilter.
A PS: I had not noticed before how paradoxically unblack is the illustration on the first edition's cover:
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
It is probably the case that structuralist, or formalist, approaches to SFF predominate today, and there are good reasons why they do. The urge to categorise, obviously, has its cognate in science itself—the Linnaean, taxonomic impulse—but that’s a fact that makes it more, not less, questionable: in the sense of imposing a sort of necessity of deconstructing the assumptions underlying the impulse to categorise. What a structuralist account of SFF does is not so much bring ‘order’ to the flux of this body of text, as to prioritize the notion that categorizing itself mediates textual desire.
And of course, there is a sense in which it does: there is pleasure in spotting similarities and parallels between things, and grander totalizing pleasure in disposing of a large body of diverse individual texts into a small number of pigeonholes. The pleasure, to put it bluntly, has to do with control; and when it is applied to the world (as Linnaeus did) there is some point to it, for the world, for most human history, has been hostile and even dangerous. But when it is applied to SFF it misses the crucial thing that draws us to these texts in the first place: not the illusion of control (power), but the sense of transport.
Broadly speaking, this is what is distinctive about the appeal of SFF texts to fans of SFF. The technical vocabulary of criticism, by talking about ‘novums’ and ‘estrangement’ and ‘structural fabulation’, although they are talking about this thing, don’t sound as if they are, which may be a distraction. Closer to the money-shot is the descriptor ‘Fantasy’ itself: a word which has a spread of meanings, not necessarily negative or merely escapist in connotation, for the world of psychoanalysis. Why ‘fantasy’, then? Or, perhaps it would be better to say: what is behind the desire for fantasy?
Again, speaking very broadly readers of Fantasy pick up their favourite books because those books give them something missing from the world as it actually is (and missing, usually, from artistic representations of the way the world actually is; or ‘realism’ as it is sometimes called). We might call this thing ‘enchantment’, a sense of magic. Readers of SF are in search of something similar in their preferred genre: a newness that the actual world lacks—hence, of course, novum; except that it is too easy to imagine that this newness inheres in one or other prop or physical item (a time machine, a ray gun, a spaceship). But this is to reduce SF to gadgets; and the problem with that is that the world itself has no lack of gadgets—is, indeed, rather over-supplied with gadgets. Better to talk in terms of ‘sense of wonder’, provided we realize that this in practice is a slightly less rebarbatively awe-inspiring quality than the eighteenth-century ‘Sublime’ (sometimes used as a synonym). It might, in fact, be best to think in terms of ‘cool’ if that didn’t carry with it the odour of imprecision.
Fantasy carries us away. We want it to—that is why we go to it in the first place. As to why we get such pleasure in being carried away (get such pleasure, not to put a finer point on it, by focusing on what the world is missing, on its lack) ... this is a large question and I’ll come to it in a moment. But to begin with it’s worth dwelling momentarily on this trope of ‘carrying away.’
The difference between a metaphor and a simile is a question of semantic nicety that some people find hard to articulate. This is perhaps because there isn’t really a difference; the two words are used more-or-less interchangeably in many contexts. But I like to insist upon a difference for all that: simile, as the word suggests, is a way of talking about something by comparing it to something that is similar: ‘Achilles is courageous, like a lion’ focuses our attention on the point of likeness. The word metaphor, as rhetoricians remind us, means a carrying over, a passage of meaning from one thing to another thing. This might sound like hairsplitting, but there is a difference here, and it seems to me one that opens a chasm of signification that speaks directly to the desire at the heart of SFF. ‘Achilles is a lion’ metaphorically carries across from one thing to a completely different thing. Because, crucially, Achilles is not a lion—there are a wealth of ways in which Achilles and a lion are different. To say ‘Achilles is metaphorically a lion’ is in one part to bring out a point of simile (in this one respect—his courage—Achilles is a lion) but it is always, inevitably, to do much more: it is to generate (in Samuel Delany’s words) an imaginative surplus, a spectral hybrid of beast-human.
This imaginative surplus is what carries us away; and metaphor is its vehicle. That is partly what I mean when I talk about SFF as being in crucial ways a metaphorical literature: one that seeks to represent the world without reproducing it.
‘Desire’ then is, I’m suggesting, at the heart of SFF’s appeal; and I’m saying something else—I saying that, whilst desire is also at the heart of the structuralist, systematizing urge, it is a desire radically opposed to the desire we call Fantasy. Fantasy, in a healthful, ludic, rejuvenating way, is precisely about escaping the grid. It is about the imaginative and affective surplus, the overspill. Indeed, I’m tempted to say, because this is the case, the desire of Fantasy (let’s qualify it a little: of the best Fantasy—and without wanting to sound circular, I’d suggest that this is in fact by way of identifying what it is about those texts that makes them the best) comprehends the excessive nature of desire itself.
It tells us nothing about the reason so many people fall in love with (the phrase is not hyperbolic) The Lord of the Rings, to say that it is a portal-quest fantasy. That is indeed a feature of the text, and one it shares with many other texts; but most of these others texts are not enchanting (we do not fall in love with them) in the way we do with Tolkien. Actually The Lord of the Rings is a book precisely about desire, and what is so canny in its delineation of the operation of that desire is the way it dramatizes it as simultaneously transporting and isolating; it excavates, we might say, our instinctive understanding that desire is captivating in a wonderful as well as an enslaving sense. It’s a striking thing, in this respect, that nobody doubts the intense desirability of the ring at the heart of the narrative, even though (in Tolkien’s rendering) it is never made explicit what it is the ring actually does. It has something to do with power, we're told; and the person who has the ring will be able to wield power—tyrannically—although at the same time the various people who have the ring in the book (Gollum, Frodo, Sam) seem to derive no social, or practical empowerment. Indeed, on the contrary: the efficacy of the artefact seems pointedly antisocial: it can make them disappear, it can remove them completely from the social body.
In the first film of Jackson’s trilogy, fatally, even bathetically, there is a moment in the prelude sequence where Sauron is shown wielding the ring: sweeping his arm on the battlefield and sending scores of warriors flying into the air. But this is a rare lapse of representational sophistication in a film-trilogy otherwise, I’d say, sensitive to the point of the text—subsequently Jackson abandons such literal-minded idiocy, and is much better about finding visual analogues for the ring’s appeal. Because this is the whole point. The ring signifies not some active mcguffin (to go back to the phraseology I was employing earlier: it is not a gadget). Rather the ring construes desire itself, and in doing so makes manifests its intense, destructive desirability, precisely as absence. It is something not there: a little hollow, a badge of literal invisibility, something associated with the dark in subterranean caverns or the inaccessibility of riverbeds. The ring is lack, and Tolkien’s brilliance is in understanding that lack is the currency of desire. Actually, and to digress momentarily, I’m not sure this is what Tolkien thought he was doing; I think he thought of his ring in terms of lack because he meant the ring to symbolize evil, and for his Boethian/Acquinian theological perspective on the world evil is absence: the world itself, as God, is necessarily good except insofar as it has been eroded or perverted by evil. But that doesn’t alter what I’m saying, I think. There are reasons why The Lord of the Rings has had the global impact it has, that its myriad imitators (which have all, like true structuralists, scrupulously copied the form of the portal-quest narrative) have not. LotR construes desire (readerly desire) because it understands desire.
Adam Phillips, in Side Effects (2006) has some interesting things to say about masturbation which, strange as it might seem, are relevant here. (Shatner, in that celebrated Saturday Night skit, touched a nerve—which is why fandom still loves that sketch—bellowing at the fan-geek wearing the ‘I Grok Spock’ T-shirt: ‘you! Have you ever had a girlfriend?’). Philips starts by quoting Leo Bersani:
Bersani once said in an interview that the reason most people feel guilty about masturbation is because they fear that masturbation is the truth about sex; that the truth about sex is that we would rather do it on out own, or that, indeed, we are doing it on our own even when we seem to all intents and purposes to be doing it with other people. The desire that apparently leads us towards other people can lead us away from them. Or we might feel that what we call desire is evoked by details, by signs, by gestures; that we fall for a smile or a tone of voice or a way of walking or a lifestyle, and not exactly for what we have learned to call a whole person; and that this evocation, this stirring of desire, releases us rather more into our own deliriums of fear and longing than into realistic apprehension of the supposed object of desire. There is nothing at once more isolating and oceanic than falling for someone. Lacan formulated the ‘objet petit a’ to show us that the promise of satisfaction always reminds us of a lack … and that this lack, disclosed by our longings, sends a depth charge into our histories. 
It would be almost fatuous to note that the ring, in LotR, is an objet petit a—fatuous, really only because it is so extraordinarily obvious that this is what the ring is. But it’s another phrase from that little passage that leaps out at me in the context of understanding the desire behind SFF: ‘there is nothing at once more isolating and oceanic than falling for someone.’ That’s right, I think, as an account of what it is like to fall in love with someone. More than that, though, those two words, ‘isolating and oceanic’, seem to me wonderfully apt as a way of approaching how the best fantasy wins us.
The core of Tolkien’s book, then, is its apprehension—through its concrete realization, its worldbuilding and backhistory and characterization and so on—of the radical undesirability of desire; or the desirability of the undesirable. The point is that the phrasal superposition of desire and undesired only looks like a paradox. Actually it is an articulation of something much more significant. Philips again:
Anna Freud once said that in your dreams you can have your eggs cooked any way you want them, but you can’t eat them. The implication is clear: magic is satisfying but reality is nourishing … Indeed, we could reverse Anna Freud’s formulation and say that when it comes to sexuality it is the fact that you can’t eat the eggs that makes them so satisfying. The fact that, as Freud remarked, desire is always in excess of the object’s capacity to satisfy it is the point not the problem; it is the tribute the solitary desiring individual pays to reality. This is a problem only if you are a literalist rather than the ironist of your own desire. It’s not that reality is disappointing, it’s that desire is excessive. It’s not that we lack things, it’s just that there are things we want. 
In this passage I’m tempted to replace ‘dreams’ with ‘Fantasies’, and to extend the observation to those novelistic excrescences of fantasy life booksellers label under that term. And I’m tempted to suggest that ‘sex’, here, connects with the fundamentally libidinous energies that flow through our love for these narratives.
Monday, 15 June 2009
Sunday, 14 June 2009
Saturday, 13 June 2009
Friday, 12 June 2009
Thursday, 11 June 2009
El Haouaria, where they hollowed out
Carthage, is now a vaulted omega of absence,
its caves, striated by slaves whose daylight bout
was a dim, powder-fashioned shaft,
who lived breathed and doubtless died sandstone,
its colossal blocks floated up the coast on rafts
to count as bits of Punic monuments
that were swept away by a Roman broom
(by order of the Senate), with salt spread
for good measure, so not even scrog could bloom.
Beneath the silence you can hear the moans.
To think this might have been us, instead ...
There's some nice play, here, with alpha and omega (the Greek for Haouaria would begin with an alpha; now that it has been emptied it is 'a vaulted omega of absence'); and with the idiom of mathematics: 'count', 'bits'. But it's fairly slackly written, the rhyme scheme adds nothing, and the last line of the first stanza (there) is very weak. The second and final stanza redeems all, though.
a honeycomb of vowels we get wrong
like most visitors, preferring 'that quarry
on Cap Bon', is where it all belongs:
the temples, the arenas, the entire city.
Like Lego, it will never back into its box,
but here's the negative: each axe-chip fits
its equivalent bump, the subterranean dark locks
onto its reverse, heliotropic and built
high -- the Manhattan of its day. One moment it's there:
the next it's gone. Like us, I whisper ... it being unfair
to say this in front of the kids, who're yet to be filled.
'Here today gone tomorrow' is a pretty banal theme for a poem, or even for a tourist's observation on an archaeological site (and you know what? It's not that hard to get the lego to go back in the box, actually). But what lifts this piece is the implied fitting back together: the hinge-rhyme of 'locks', the sudden rush of vivid, somatic, connective images. The poem, in its two stanzas, is actually playing with the noncommutative nature of addition and (titular) subtraction. -2 + 2 = 0; and +2 - 2 = 0 also. And in human affairs? Well, taking away El H. is adding to Carthage. But taking away Carthage (the Roman Carthago delenda est mentioned in the first stanza) is not adding to El H. The poem stumbles over the entropy of things, except in those few magical lines where negative locks with positives.
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
of the Ditton's marina piers;
People embarking, disembarking,
gingerly cross the mini-chasm,
a sword's-width of spinach coloured water.
Preferring waterhouse to landhouse, and
because of the slow lar-star tilt.
It dislodges the locked silver ball
inside the mind, rolling it free
to make lights flash, the bumpers twitch
like the clenched skin of a horse's flank
and paddles sweep their tiny arcs.
Tuesday, 9 June 2009
When Shelley talks about life (consciousness, he means) 'staining' the white radiance of eternity, I wonder if he means something along these lines ... every washerwoman or washerman knows that there are some stains that you simply can't get rid of, no matter how assiduously you scrub.
Monday, 8 June 2009
Sunday, 7 June 2009
Saturday, 6 June 2009
Friday, 5 June 2009
Thursday, 4 June 2009
Each act of Siegfried moves in an upward curve from darkness to light, from a minor key and sinister orchestration towards a blaze of colour in the major. From the dominants of B flat and F minor to D and F-major in acts 1 and 2 respectively,a and from G minor to a glorious C major in the final act. …. No-one who has actually read Wagner’s writings and absorbed their basic idea can fail to sense in the smallest details as well as in the larger forms of the music in Siegfried an allegory of the movement from the “dark ages” to the bright light of the future.A movement from dark to light is well and good; but we might be forgiven for wondering what this movement means in more specific terms. Deathridge quotes W. himself: ‘Siegfried should not create the impression of a character drawn with the conscious intention of violating the standards of civilized society; everything he says and does—even the rather cruder aspects of his genuine boyishness—must be presented as the natural expression of an essentially heroic personality who has not yet found an object in life worthy of his superabundant strength. [quoted 62-3]
The same could be said, I suppose, of Fafnir: which is to say, he did find an object to which to devote his life (the gold); he just didn't find a worthy object. Similarly, Siegfried has an object—violence—just not a worthy one. W.'s too-much-protesting is significant, I suppose: because Siegfied does look like a problem He makes nothing and he keeps nothing; he only destroys. The former two activities are personified by Mime and Fafnir. What does that tell us about the priorities of Wagner’s worldbuilding?
Then there’s this, also quoted by Deathridge: ‘I was filled with proud joy’ (this is Hitler writing to Wagner’s son Siegfried) ‘I was filled with proud joy when I heard of the victory of the Volk—above all in the city where the sword of ideas with which we are fighting today was first forged by the Master.’ [quoted, 63]
Master means Wagner, of course; but if there’s one thing about which Siegfried is unambiguously clear it is that the person who forges the sword is not the person who fights with the sword. And maybe that's the disjunction at the heart of the opera: making and using.
It makes the opera look very twenty-first century. Because, if the big world-struggle in the C19th and C20th century was over the means of production, it's hard to deny the sense that today it is over the use of production ...
Wednesday, 3 June 2009
Tuesday, 2 June 2009
Monday, 1 June 2009
Why should it seem such an enormous age? I suppose it touches on the cliché of parenthood, that the days are long but the years short: forty years is a heartbeat (in the larger scheme of things) but fifteen thousand days draws your imagination into the sticky specifics of so many individual slots of times: getting yourself out of bed fifteen thousand times; fifteen thousand afternoons as the sun through the window pushes a parellelogram of light slowly across the carpet; fifteen thousands sinking, blushing suns.
I might hope to live thirty thousand days, or even thirty-five, conceivably—just—as high as thirty-eight or nine. Thinking about it like that puts it in the realm of the stone age—many people die in their teens (of thousands of days); some lucky few make it into their late twenties or thirties. Nobody makes forty. Life fleets.