Friday, 31 July 2009


July was named for Julius Caesar; which means it's named, more distantly, after Iulus. Now Iulus was derived from the Greek ioulos, which means 'catkin', or more generally any furry plant ('the down or woolly part of many plants', L&S). Which seems to me an oddly soft and literally fluffy sort of name for the warrior-ruler of the fiercest military empire the ancient world ever saw; and since catkins bloom in the spring, not in midsummer, makes it doubly inappropriate for this month.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Alexander Pope

Here's Pope:

Sir Joshua Reynolds once saw Pope. It was about the year 1740, at an auction of books or pictures. He remembers that there was a lane formed to let him pass freely through the assemblage, and he proceeded along bowing to those who were on each side. He was, according to Sir Joshua's account, about four feet six high; very humpbacked and deformed; he wore a black coat; and according to the fashion of that time, had on a little sword. Sir Joshua adds that he had a large and very fine eye, and a long handsome nose ; his mouth had those peculiar marks which always are found in the mouths of crooked persons ; and the muscles which run across the cheek were so strongly marked as to appear like small cords. [Edward Malone (1791); in Prior's Life of Malone (1860), 428-9]

This is a very striking, and oddly vivid, piece of descriptive writing; in part because of the focus it brings to its dominant image: the narrow line or cord: the 'lane formed to let him pass'; the pinched dimensions; the 'little sword'; the 'long handsome nose'; the creases at the corners of his mouth; and finally 'the muscles which run across the cheek ... so strongly marked as to appear like small cords'. As if Pope were a knotted tangle of whips; speaking both to his reputation as a satiristic (that is to say, a social scourge) and, of course, to the logic of his achievement: the physical embodiment of his textuality. He is, like his verse, almost literally made out of tight lines ...

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Ages of the Earth

They go, essentially, from old stone, to new stone, to metal. More specifically from Mesolithic and Neolithic to Chalcolithic, and thence to bronze, iron and finally, with glorious vagueness, to 'history'. What's missing from this picture?

Cloth, that's what. We still build our cities mostly out of stone (which is to say: in urban terms we still live in the neolithic); and our tools and machines either out of metal, or plastic (late iron age blurring into the petrochemical age). But we have been defining our immediate lives in terms of cloth since late mesolithic times. Human civilisation has happened under the umbrella of a Textile Age.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Das Rheingold

More Wagner? Yes, there's no getting away from him. But this is only the fleetingest of minor observations, really. It's to do with the musical descent into the underworld at the end of the second scene:
An orchestral interlude follows that "paints" the descent of Loge and Wotan into Nibelheim. As the orchestra fades, it gives way to a choir of 18 tuned anvils (indicated in the score with specific size, quantity and pitch) beating out the dotted rhythm of the Nibelung theme to give a stark depiction of the toiling of the enslaved dwarves.
The thing is, I've yet to hear a recording of this moment that articulates a stark sense of the toiling of the enslaved dwarves. Every version I've heard sounds like sleighbells, and that's far from stark. I'm starting to think the problem is not with the recordings I've heard, but with the original scoring.

Monday, 27 July 2009


Because we think (as it might be) 'atomic bomb' we think of atoms as hot: incandescent nodules of heat. But heat is atoms in motion; the atom itself is beyond, or beneath, or below, hot or cold. This is a very obvious, almost a foolishly obvious, thing to say, of course; but for some reason it's never occurred to me before.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

With the Beatles

I find Philip Larkin's All What Jazz, mostly, an uninvolving read, not having any particular interest in Jazz. But I have to concede his review of the Beatles is something special: 'With The Beatles suggests that their jazz content is nil.' If that doesn't sum up the entire Beatles phenomenon, then I'm a Dutchman.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Commercial passenger flights

Flight is a bath in light; brightness as cleanness, and the clouds like suds float around you.

Friday, 24 July 2009

On the text

Books burn; texts don’t.

Thursday, 23 July 2009


TV as ‘chewing gum for the eyes’ is a good phrase, not least because it connects the vacuity of endless telly-goggling with an oral pleasure, a sort of physical as well as specular consumption. The logic has changed, though, I think: the confessional and ‘reality’ bias has turned the box into a sort of virtual national vomitorium.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Afterlife Genderswapping

More from Thomas's book, this time on the resurrection of the dead. Thomas notes 17th-century speculation on the state of the human body after the resurrection of the dead, that ‘there would be no cripples in heaven, no blind persons, no sufferers from chronic disease. Some even believed that women would be reborn as men, that black people would become white, and that everyone would be in their early thirties (Christ’s age at the time of his death). Many centuries of Christian commentary underpinned these expectations.’ Eamon Duffy, reviewing the book in the LRB [23rd July 2009], notes that though some of these views were part of a centuries-long mainstream Christian thought, others were the oddities of sects: ‘the quasi-Gnostic view that women would be raised as men had been explicitly denied by Augustine, [and] was incompatible with the cult of the Virgin Mary … [those] who held this curious belief in early modern England belonged to the Muggletonians, a tiny, eccentric and emphatically heterodox sect.’

But it’s a striking imaginative fiction, for all that. One day I’ll get around to writing a story set in this afterlife. So, for instance, what would it be like spending one’s life believing it? How would it inflect one’s perspective of desire? Would the heterosexual woman so reborn retain the orientation of their desire, thus filling heaven with queers? Or would God reach into their hearts and alter their desires—but if he could do that, swing the perspective of our sexual love from one gender to another, then wouldn’t it follow that sexual desire is itself moveable thing? One final possibility would be that men (of course I am talking about men) with this faith would, in their hearts, simply not believe that there is any such thing as a heterosexual woman. Like Proust, they would see women consenting to lie with men whilst dreaming of lying with women. But any of these options would carry with it the commendable—we might say—but surely un-seventeenth-century perspective on sexual orientation as something fluid, and the normalization of queerness.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Eating a Wineglass in Early Modern England

Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life retells the story of ‘that manliest of men, the Elizabethan hero Sir Richard Grenville’, dining with the Spanish naval officers who had captured him. According to Thomas he ‘proved the robust superiority of the Englishman to the Don by chewing his wineglass and swallowing the pieces, the blood pouring out of his mouth.’ Was this, though, about demonstrating physical ‘prowess’, carelessly inflicting damage upon one’s own body to cow the enemy, as Thomas thinks? Or was it, I wonder, not about vandalism? Glass was fantastically, astronomically expensive in the 16th-century after all. Offering him a drink in a glass vessel was a recognition of their captive’s nobility; and smashing up that glass in this theatrical manner was perhaps Grenville’s way of saying ‘fuck you’ to his enemy. And that, rather than the performance of ‘prowess’, has been at the heart of the English warmaking for a long time. The essence of war; wrecking the other peoples’ stuff.

Monday, 20 July 2009


My heart is with the butterflies, because they can only be and move in the world by folding themselves repeatedly in half, like a letter that is finished and must be tucked into its envelope. But of course they live in the crease; they are the living crease; and so am I.

Sunday, 19 July 2009


A summary summer but an awesome autumn; winter a splinter; spring has zing.

Saturday, 18 July 2009


I like the sensual look of the word eros: the curled up e and s bookending it; the little cock-like 'r' and the tiny hole 'o' in the middle. Nor do I subscribe to the lobe-fetish English pronounciation, ear-oss; not whilst the bloom of eh-rose is available to me.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The world

However much you love, however high that experience reaches, the world persists and thunders against you.

Thursday, 16 July 2009


The moon comes down to earth, but the closer it comes the smaller is seems -- until it approaches your face as a white bubble of light, small enough to tuck itself into the bed of your fingernail.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Airplane Poem

Planes with their moomin faces:
That grand hum, the buzz

Of flight's friction, of jets,
Is the music of the spheres.

The chanting of monks, the drone.
The music of the spheres.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009


The sky is the band of the rainbow in which we always live. This is rather more true literally than it is metaphorically.

Monday, 13 July 2009


Wordsworth said ‘the child is father to the man.’ But he was pre-Mendel, and didn’t know any better. The true father to the man is this miniature tangle of worm-arms, this line of blotchy asterisks.

Sunday, 12 July 2009


The moon, bubblewrapped in craters.

Saturday, 11 July 2009


The big trees move with an underwater slowness in this forceful summer wind. There's a slippage of scale in the eye: the cloud slots beneath the sun, and the trees are seaweed swaying in uncontaminated waters.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Raspberry beret

The Language Log Dinosaur (as I like to think of him) makes the interesting point that 'no natural language uses the "blowing a raspberry" fart noise sound as a phoneme.' It's worth pondering why not -- for although it may be a noise too laborious to form (poking out tongue, coordinating the labial, getting the breathing right) to be able to fit easily into the flow of normal discourse, it stands very well on its own. Which is to say: 'It is un-["blowing a raspberry" fart noise sound]-believable' doesn't flow well enough to be selected for communication (unlike 'un-fucking-believable'), nevertheless 'My opinion of that? ["blowing a raspberry" fart noise sound]. That's my opinion' would be a completely ordinary piece of expression.

So, ["blowing a raspberry" fart noise sound] is a part of speech. But wait, given that it occurs in speech (like 'I' and 'Mm!'), in what way is this not a phoneme?

Thursday, 9 July 2009


Difficult to know which image of Machiavelli to prefer: this from the title page of the first (1532) edition of The Prince:

that makes him look like a Klingon, or this bust from the Palazzo Vecchio

that not only turns him into a black man, but puts his head on his shoulder the wrong way round, for that extra-diabolical, exorcist-neckworkout look.

On balance, I think the latter.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Livy n Yvil, sorry, Evil.

Did Livy really say Notissimum malum maxime tolerabile? ['The best known evil is the most tolerable'; or 'Those ills are easiest to bear with which we are most familiar'] That seems to be quite the wrong way about: the evils we know the most intimately, and which happen the most often -- particularly physical pain, bereavement and depression -- are precisely the hardest to bear. Perhaps seeing things too studiedly from the p.o.v. of the urbs distorts Livy's sense of what actually counts as an evil.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Landor 2

In every hour, in every mood,
O lady, it is sweet and good
To bathe the soul in prayer,
And, at the close of such a day,
When we have ceased to bless and pray,
To dream of thy long hair.

This little lyric 'On Lady Godiva' was written, according to Landor, when he was a schoolboy at Rugby; and the balance of five lines of praying to one line of erotic reverie looks like an imagination making a deal with itself—buying itself a little sensual indulgence at the cost of a lot of piety. This in itself is eloquent about the extent to which desire is not only gets repressed but is actually determined by the restriction. Does the schoolboy Landor really dream about Godiva’s hair? Or about what the hair conceals? The perhaps counterintuitive answer offered by this little poem is—the former; because by transferring libidinous yearning into a secondary, symbolic order the psyche actually increases the erotic charge. In this poem prayer is a cleansing and purifying thing (it bathes the soul) not despite but because young Landor is addressing his religious devotions to Godiva rather than the Virgin Mary.

Monday, 6 July 2009

[Van]Gellie Jon

Jackson's 'Billie Jean' (1983) is all over the radio. The praise for it is extravagant. Extravagant is the praise. There's a fair bit quoted here, to this effect: 'I'm delighted that Billie Jean has been voted the greatest dance record ever made. This is Jackson at his best ... The bass line is awesome, the production is killer. It's just perfect.'

Fair enough, although (of course) the bass-line isn't Jackson's; it's lifted from Jon and Vangelis's 'State of Independence' (1981); another synth-heavy squeaky-voiced paean to the condition of being unattached. That's not a problem, except insofar as it, you know, is.

Otherwise, there's something rather unnerving about this Jackson song (in which he proclaims over and over that he is not the father of the children being attributed to him) being played so much after Jackson's death, as the futures of the actual children attributed to him is being determined.

Sunday, 5 July 2009


The Old English for 'magic' was drycræft (from, the scholars say, the Irish draidecht, from which the Romans derived the word 'druid'). I like the idea of magic as drycraft very much; or at least prefer it to the messier, less precise fluid-spilling wetcræft.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


I've been pondering the status, and situation, of the bore. One way of defining a bore would be: a person who doesn't see that what interests him does not interest you; or who assumes thoughtlessly that you will also be fascinated in what fascinates him. The alternative, of course, is not that we can only speak to others about what interests them; it is that we be aware when our interests are shared, and when they are not we earn the interest of others by making what we say interesting, engaging or witty. Or else, of course, gracefully withdraw.

The internet, then, ought to be the veritable Kingdom of Bores. And a lot of people expatiate enormously, online, about stuff that doesn't interest me at all. But they cannot compel my attention (I, for instance, cannot compel yours) in the way base-level politeness in actual social engagement can.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Addiction is stubbornness

Addiction is a stubborn thing.

Fine: but we don't like to take the next step, and replace talk of 'addiction' with talk of 'stubbornness'. That would be to locate the stubbornness not in some hypothecated external demon called 'addiction', but in ourselves. But where else is the sticking point, when it comes to our addiction to things, if not in ourselves?

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Rose Aylmer

Ah what avails the sceptred race,
Ah what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.

This little elegy works—which is to say, generates its affect—out of its reticence.

The race is ‘sceptred’ in the first line because the Aylmers were ‘descended in the twenty-third generation from Edward I, and might also have claimed the blood of Charlemagne and three other royal ancestors’ [Super, 517] Virtuous, graceful and divinely formed, the ‘sceptered’ Rose nevertheless dies—of contagion (cholera) in Calcutta, as it happens. The first four lines, which say in effect ‘what use is it to be beautiful, well-bred and virtuous, if it doesn’t prevent you from dying?’ are perhaps too poised to invoke any more generalised existential angst; just as the last four (only one night of memories and sighs? No more? Clearly not too enormous a bereavement, then) set bounds of and restraint propriety upon the expression of grief. Hanley notes that the original version of the poem (which did not mention the deceased’s first name, replacing the first Rose Aylmer with ‘For, Aylmer,’ and the second with ‘Sweet Aylmer’) avoided ‘specific identification’ for reasons of ‘social discretion’ [Hanley, 218]. Reticence can be more eloquent than gush, of course; and this is a touching poem. Yet it is caught between the specific and the general. Very few individuals who die young can claim to be of ‘the sceptered race’; which leaves the poem either as a record of a specific, now long-past bereavement (which would rob it of emotional potency), or else muddles the general applicability. What is particularly interesting, I think, is the way the careful formal patterning balances twinned elements throughout (the two-part lines; the doubled iteration of the name, the pairings of sceptered/divine; virtue/grace, sorrows/sigh) invites us to consider the connections between the ‘scepter’ in the first couplet, and the ‘(con)secrate’ of the last … in which the sepsis, the sick, half-echo. ‘Aylmer’ (and ‘avails’) flirts with ‘ailment’; as if the poem is trying to ask, what is it ails thee, Aylmer Rose?

Her father, the fourth Baron Aylmer, wasn’t quite so sceptered, for all his Charlemagnean lineage: he was an Irish peer, and never obtained a British peerage—a distinction of importance to polite nineteenth-century English society. Maybe one night of weeping is all she merits.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Montaignes in our way

That witty commentor upon Montaigne's famously arresting skeptical ground, or (indeed) obstacle: 'Que sais-je? Quel séjour!'