Friday, 30 September 2011

Spenser's E.K.

Spenser's Shepheard's Calendar comes ready supplied with scholia, supposedly written by one 'E.K.' This used to be critical debate about the identity of this individual, which is still not known for sure: ('In spite of the fact that E. K.'s initials are attached to the comments on the Shepheards Calender and that Webbe considered him a high authority in critical matters, his contemporaries have not told us who he was', says C R Baskerville). Some critics think him a pseudonym for Spenser himself (Raymond Jenkins, "Who is E. K.?" Shakespeare Association Bulletin for instance), though C S Lewis thinks this unlikely as 'E.K.' and Spenser profess very different tastes. Still, it's possible for an alter-ego to have alter-tastes, I'd say. Louise Schleiner ('Spenser's “E. K.” as Edmund Kent (Kenned/of Kent): Kyth (Couth), Kissed, and Kunning-Conning', English Literary Renaissance 20:3 (1990), 374–407) ingeniously interprets the letters. Here's a passing thought: might 'E.K.' mean what it says? That is, taking the 'e' as long, might it not be saying 'eke' (OED lists the following early spellings: ec, ek, eek heke. eke, eik, eake)? That, in other words, the poem was written by Spenser and the notes also?

Just a thought.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Isolated lands

Amland. Areland. Island. Beland.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Adam Phillips [74]:
More has been written about how relationships don't work than about how they do. We have virtually no language, other than banality, to describe the couple who have been happy together for a long tmie. We would like them to have a secret, we would like them to have something they could give us. Or thet we could give them, other than our suspicion. There is nothing more terrorising than the possibility that nothing is hidden. There is nothing more scandalous than a happy marriage.
But they have a secret! It is 'uninterestingness'. Phillips is channelling Tolstoy's famous 'All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way' -- but Tolstoy's point is dramatic; not that unhappy life is better, but that it is more interesting from the point of view of a writer. May you live through interesting times is a curse, after all; not a blessing.

Here's another Tolstoy quotation, from Family Happiness: 'I longed for activity, instead of an even flow of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to renounce self for the sake of my love. I was conscious of a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life. I had bouts of depression, which I tried to hide, as something to be ashamed of…My mind, even my senses were occupied, but there was another feeling – the feeling of youth and a craving for activity – which found no scope in our quiet life…So time went by, the snow piled higher and higher round the house, and there we remained together, always and for ever alone and just the same in each other’s eyes; while somewhere far away amidst glitter and noise multitudes of people thrilled, suffered and rejoiced, without one thought of us and our existence which was ebbing away. Worst of all, I felt that every day that passed riveted another link to the chain of habit which was binding our life into a fixed shape, that our emotions, ceasing to be spontaneous, were being subordinated to the even, passionless flow of time… ‘It’s all very well … ‘ I thought, ‘it’s all very well to do good and lead upright lives, as he says, but we’ll have plenty of time for that later, and there are other things for which the time is now or never.’ I wanted, not what I had got, but a life of challenge; I wanted feeling to guide us in life, and not life to guide us in feeling.'

Tuesday, 27 September 2011


I met a man called Eugene Ellai, and I said to him: ‘Eu-gene Ell-ai? You ain't GOT no alibi -- you ugly! You ugly!’ He was not amused.

If only Burt Reynolds would put on a bit of weight! I like big Burts, and I can not lie.

One day I shall write a novel about the personal development of an individual & publish it under the pseudonym 'Bill Dungsroman'.

A nightingale sang in Berkeley square, but only if perceived to do so, for the reality of sensible things consists in being perceived.

If you love conditional statements you'll LOVE this tweet!

I propose SF Strictly Come Dancing: famous writers performing in spangley leotards. Karel Čapek could dance the Ča-Ča-Ča.

I've recast "Paradise Lost" as a medieval tourney, with Adam & Satan as knights on horseback. My aim is to joustify the ways of God to man.

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' -- what's the big deal? It's obvious who the spy is. The fourth one! It's right there in the title!

Strictly speaking, ‘Leo Sayer’ ought to be a talking lion. Strictly speaking.

Next week, The Hairy Bikers drink too much lager, have their bikes confiscated & are forced to hitch-hike, in: ‘The Beery Hikers’.

The most Kierkegaardian of the great 20th-century English poets is probably W. H. Either/Auden.

If Rule 34 were true, it would be possible to buy a dildo shaped like Dilbert. A Dilbertdo. But you can't.

The ancient Oriental game of Go has many variants. But which is best? If only there were some website that compared them ...

‘Rhino’ is short for Rhinoceros. Also for the less sober-minded Rhinosilly.

The little hammer behind its glass: ‘in case of emergency, break glass.’ But I look at the ’mergency Hammer & think: ‘you can't touch this.’

The Coalition do plan on keeping the NHS. It's just that, under them, the ‘N’ will stand for ‘No’.

My favourite website-flavoured tea is probably Url Grey.

Who is this Dorothy Com, after whom all those websites are named?

Picasso: not the only artist whose surname begins with an irrational number. There's also Peter Paul Squarerootoftwobens.

He's not inhibited by being a small rodent resembling a mouse but with a stouter body. He's a real vole of confidence.

Scots spell it ‘ceilidh’. This is because Scots spelling is a bit feilidh.

I'm scared of the idea of being scared of Iraqi spiders. It's Iraqarachniphobiaphobia.

So the polar sea plans to protect its intellectual property by enforcing its copyrights. It's only the IP of the iceberg.

No! The Hindenberg has crashed into the sea and is being devoured by an enormous sea cow! Oh the huge manitee!

I'm afraid my plans for a Yorkshire-based Naturist newspaper, ‘The Nude York Times’ have stalled.

‘So Mr Vader: what kind of theatre are you most interested in?’ ‘Noooooooooh!’

Did the Black Panthers have a gay wing? If so what was it called? And did it have a slinky theme tune?

Why does nobody want to play my game, ‘Tech's Arse Hold ’Em’. You have to hold the entirety of a Tech worker's arse for 17 minutes.

So Beyoncé's expecting? I'm amazed none of the papers have made reference to her 'pregnancé'.

Story idea: undead creatures who feed not on human blood but sick. Title: ‘Vompires’. You have to feel sorry for them, really.

Not only one of Christianity's greatest theologians and a saint -- but a woman! Let's hear it for Ann Selm!

Like many Atheists I worship the letter ‘A’.

The Cookie Monster is a deeply tragic character. Such a craving for cookies! And yet -- neither oesphagous or stomach! Like Tantalus.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Turning the century -- and after?

Are we looking for patterns? Turns-of-the-century are important for human beings; we invest them with symbolic significance. Then, shortly after the century has turned, for reasons that appear to relate to international politics and mility, but in fact speak to the things that stir collective human unrest and enable violence, we go to war. After 1700: the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714); after 1800; the grand Napoleonic war (1803-1815); after 1900 the First World War (1914-1918). If we make it to 2015 without a world war, we'll have bucked the trend. Unless we're persuaded that the War on Terror (2001-?) is precisely that.

Sunday, 25 September 2011


I'm intrigued by this fellow. Here's the Oxford Classical Dictionary:
In mythology a Sicilian shepherd. According to Stesichorus (ap Aeliean VH 10.18) and Timaeus (ap Parth. 29) he was son or favourite of Hermes, and loved by a nymph, Echenais, who required of him that he should be faithful to her. this he was, til a princess made him drunk and so won him to lie with her. Thereupon the nymph blinded him; he consoled himself by making pastoral music, of which he was the inventor, or it was first invented by the other shepherds, who sang of his misfortunes; the langauge of our sources is ambiguous. But Theocritus 1.66ff. tells allusively a different story. In this, apparently Daphnis will love no-one, and Aphrodite to punish him inspires him with a desperate passion. Sooner than yield to it he dies of unsatisfied longing, taunting and defying her to the end, mourned by all the inhabitants of the country, mortal and immortal, and regretted by the goddess herself.
That's two stories, right there. But there are other: in a drama by Sositheus (which we have second-hand), Daphnis is in love with the excellently-named 'Pimplea' and she with him, when disagreeably for both of them she is kidnapped by pirates. Daphnis chases after her, and when he finds her she is a servant in the court of King Lityerses. This king has the habit of challenging strangers to a crop-mowing contest (which he invariably wins), killing the loser. Daphnis agrees, but his pal Herakles, taking pity on him, competes in his place, beats Lityerses, and beheads the king with his mowing scythe. He then gives Pimplea back to Daphnis, and they live happily ever after. Or else there is Longus, and his novel Daphnis and Chloe in which the boy and girl are foundlings, raised by shepherds, fall in love, and stay chaste only through their ignorance of the mechanics of lovemaking. Both are kidnapped, and endure many trials before reuniting in the end.

'Daphnis' means the bay-tree. If I had time, and inclination, I'd develop a reading that explored the extent to which this myth encodes a general puzzlement about vegetative sex. We know how humans enable their generational fecundity: shagging. We can see that this is how goats, sheep and cows do it too. But how do plants do it? It's a puzzle. In other words I'm suggesting that reading Theocritus' Idyll 1 as a hymn to human chastity misses the point: it's soaked in sex, but of a weird kind where, though desperate with sexual desire, and egged on everyone around him, including eager-and-willing females -- and, it seems, nothing loath himself -- Daphnis shags not, neither is he shagged, and so dies. The poem addresses him: 'you used to be called cowherd, but now you are like the goatherding man/The goatherd, when he sees how the she-goars are mounted/wastes away in his eyes because he was not born a he-goat. And you, when you see how maidens laugh,/you waste away in your eyes because you are not dancing with them' [Theocritus Idylls 1:86f]. The implication of the 'as x, so y' shape of this rhetorical comparison is that Daphnis is not of the same species as the dancing human females. Manifestly this is wrong (for Daphnis is a man); but latently it's true, because Daphnis is an embodiment of vegetation.

What it looks to, I think, is a not wholly coherent belief amongst the ancients that vegetative sexuality was expressed via the death of the plant. Crops are mowed, John Barleycorn must die, not only to feed us but in some sense in order than new crops can grow up, and John Barleycorn can live again. Theocritus is troping the whole vegetative world of Nature in this sexualised, passive and death-fixated manner.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Some thoughts on pastoral

1. The odd thing is that although one cannot have 'nature' until one has the not-nature of the city (before that, nature is just the world), yet -- oddly -- pastoral poetry develops in the complete absence of anyh 'urban' poetry. Indeed, it's hard to think what 'urban' poetry might mean (before, you know: 'The City Of Dreadful Night' or 'The Waste Land'), unless it is Roman satirist's knowing insistence that a man keep only an appartment in the corrupt city, and spends what time he can at his spacious villa in the country.

2. The history, or critical narrative, of pastoral itself reproduces the dynamic of the poetry itself. Bucolic poetry is written by Hesiod, but he is a working farmer, and embedded (as the phrase goes) in nature, and the poetry is all muscular and practical and gets dirt under its fingernails. Then pastoral poetry is written by Theocritus and Vergil, and both are court poets (Theocritus at the court of Ptolemy Philadelphus at Alexandria; Vergil at the court of Augustus in Rome) and their realtionship to the bucolic is cultural rather than natural: idealised, sentimentalised, the natural world a site for singing, love-affairs, modish melancholia and so on. Spenser's Shepheard's Calender is neatly poignarded by Robert Graves (this in his Collected Writings on Poetry, 67):
In the Shepheard's Calender Spenser tried to escape from this rhetorical paralysis and to make the pastoral a more serious -- or at least superificially a more serious -- poetic mode. Improving on Sidney's classicism, he engrafted the classical pastoral, in all its impure variety, upon native English rusticism, thus inventing a looser and yet more immediate pastoral technique. His Colin Clout, borrowed from Skelton, and his Piers, borrowed from Langland, graze their flocks in fields where Kentish and Arcadian trees and flowers and deities are mixed up together.
He goes on to talk about Spenser's 'creation of thsi self-sufficient lunatic world' won him the title 'the poeple's poet'. But its precisely in this synthesis of familiar and foreign, cutting creatively across the diagonals of nature and culture, that generate the affect of post-Renaissance pastoral. It's almost always informed by a stated desire to 'get back to nature' (Crabbe; Wordsworth; Clare) and may even be written by actual farmers (Ted Hughes, say). But it is always a melange of natural and cultural, a blend of the classical and the actual.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Works, Days

I have sometimes thought 'Ethos' would be a better title for this famous Hesiodic poem; since, aetiological myth aside, it is crammed through with advice (of an often frankly hectoring sort) to the narrator's brother as to how to live his life: to work, not to make war; to earn his bread not steal it and so on
He who adds to what he has, will keep off bright-eyed hunger; for it you add only a little to a little and do this often, soon that little will become great. What a man has by him at home does not trouble him: it is better to have your stuff at home, for whatever is abroad may mean loss. It is a good thing to draw on what you have; but it grieves your heart to need something and not to have it, and I bid you mark this. Take your fill when the cask is first opened and when it is nearly spent, but midways be sparing: it is poor saving when you come to the lees. Let the wage promised to a friend be fixed; even with your brother smile -- and get a witness; for trust and mistrust, alike ruin men. [ll. 360-72]
. And so on. The contradictions are rather beguiling; so the poem opens with reverent address to the female Muses, and the bounty of 'Demeter's grain' is repeatedly praised, but by ll. 373-375 Perses is being nagged 'do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn. The man who trusts womankind trust deceivers.' Or more broadly, the poem as a whole is 'about' the need to work hard, to compete (healthily) against other workers and make your way in the world; but also about the way the good and happy life is actually the gift of the gods, and the result not of a work ethic but a life of piety. Except, perhaps, this last one only seems like a paradox: the Protestant maxim 'God helps those who help themselves' approximates to this, in paradoxical value if not in specific semantics.

1-201: the relation of humanity to the gods, including the myth of the 'five ages'
202-764: detailed instructions: when to do what (planting, marrying, sailing etc), when (ie 'never') to do bad things, and the like,
765-828: day calendar of events.

The manifest didactic themes -- the relationship between justice and farming -- are therefore shadowed by a latent theme: the relationships between the divine, whose idiom for Hesiod is precisely 'justice', and man, who business is work. It's the intimate blend of the mythic and the practical, divine narratives and 'what is good about mallow and asphodel.'

Thursday, 22 September 2011

On fear

In human beings, fear and curiosity are essentially the same emotion.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The First Seven Vowels of the Greek Alphabet

I'm surprised more isn't made of this (from Gnostics and Their Remains Ancient and Mediaeval [1887], by C. W. King):
ΙΕΗΩΟΥΑ (i-e-ē-ō-o-ü-a, [ieɛɔoya]), the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet arranged in this order, was, so reports Charles William King, who cites a work On Interpretation supposedly written by Aristotle, the Egyptian name of the supreme God. King comments: "This is in fact a very correct representation, if we give each vowel its true Greek sound, of the Hebrew pronunciation of the word Jehovah."[115] (2nd century)
Even with the best will in the world, English simply hasn't enough vowels: AEIOUW -- one short of the sacred number. Also it has the disagreeable consequence of giving God a name that sounds like a man hitting his thumb with a hammer.

Along similar lines: notes for a future story, in which an English religious Tetragrammatist cult insists upon the spelling 'Godd' and, indeed, considers it a hideous blasphemy to spell the word 'God': because, YHWH, θεὸς and deus all have four letters ('The world is fourfold, the tetragrammaton! YHWH, the holy name of God—the Christian trinity plus mankind, folded into the bosom of the divine, three plus one is four! Earth, Water, Air and Fire!' and so on).

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

From the Red Notebook

No, I don't know what it means either: it's jotted on a page of one of my red notebooks. I quite like the sound it makes, though. Underneath is written, at (I think) a different time, and unrelated to the above: 'the call of the water is the call of the stone: moss-furred, like tongues; wet, like tongues; bulging, like tongues.'

Monday, 19 September 2011

God Hates Prophets

God hates prophets. How can he not? What is a prophet's business, but confusing tomorrow with today, when God has gone to such assiduous lengths to separate those two quantities out for us?

Sunday, 18 September 2011


The shield-shaped breasts of pigeons; coloured like petrol-poisoned grey puddles in the sunlight. The airbag, the beak, the eye glistening like a conker. The 50s rocker strut is all confidence; coo is short for cool.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Eating and being eaten

You lunch upon the hardened heel of bread,
and apple-juice and yellow crisps and cheese.
No mind to wander with the hungry dead;
when hollownesses are filled with such as these.

And such two mouths are quite unlike each other;
As shy as ever doubled mouths were shy:
One breathes in pink with kisses for your lover,
The other hazes mauve to kiss the sky.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Ye Living Lamps

If ever a poem would be improved by shaving off its last stanza, it's this Marvell:
Ye living lamps, by whose dear light
The nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the summer night,
Her matchless songs does meditate;

Ye country comets, that portend
No war nor prince’s funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Than to presage the grass’s fall;

Ye glow-worms, whose officious flame
To wand’ring mowers shows the way,
That in the night have lost their aim,
And after foolish fires do stray;

Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come,
For she my mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.
You think it's a poem about the natural world, as illuminated beautifully as any medieval MSS? No, it's a poem about him wanting to shag Juliana. Boo!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Story Opening: First Three Paragraphs

As I was cycling along I swallowed a bug. Inadvertently, of course (who would do such a thing advertently?) It was a midge, I thought. It was a gnat. It was some tiny flying creature. I felt it on the back of my throat, and I couldn't help but swallow.

When I got home and put the bike into the garage I felt hot around the eyeballs. By the time I got my coat off I had a headache. My brow was sweating. I sat down in the sitting room, with aching joings and a muzzy monsoony sensation in my brain. My hands were trembling. I couldn't focus properly. I felt the urge to vomit and got up to take myself through to the toilet; but my legs had stopped working and I fell face down upon the rug. I threw up. I started fitting and moaning. Throughout all this I remained conscious, though in a hazy, pain-drenched sort of way.

My wife called an ambulance. I remember -- the image swims up out of the phantasmagoria of suffering that had possessed my consciousness -- I remember the look on her face as the ambulancemen took me away. Her leaning over me and looking not concerned, but terrified. I was blotchy: mauve and scarlet patches big as maple leaves all over my body. Blood was oozing out of the follicles where once (I am bald) hair used to grow. My legs and arms flopped so uncontrollably I had to be strapped to the stretcher.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The shock of self-recognition

Reading Andy Sawyer's excellent essay 'Stanisław Lem - Who's He?' (in the very excellent collection of fiction and criticism, Lemistry (Comma Press 2011, ed. Ra Page & Magda Raczyńska), I was struck by the feeling that he was describing another Sf writer, rather closer to home:
To an extent, Lem is anti everything most science fiction stands for. There is no Gernsbackian optimism, no Campbellian foregrounding of the importance of the scientific method, none of the visionary hope of a Clarke or a Stapledon. ... [He believes] that whilst Science is about asking questions, attempting to describe the world and looking for answers, Literature on the other hand "may pose questions that have no answers. It may pose questions that are not understood or understandable." And both enterprises have elements of play. Which may, of course, be another reason hardcore SF writers are so offended by him: the man isn't taking our enterprise seriously! [266-67]
As if play isn't serious! As if irony isn't the truest form of seriousness. (Perhaps people mean: 'he isn't treating our enterprise with enough earnestness.' Or maybe, '... with enough respect!' I can see that a disrespectful seriousness might not appeal to some.
Rarely are there characters you want to follow ... his attacks on science fiction, whilst refreshing and welcome for those of us who are exasperated by the field's pretensions, are nevertheless uncomfortable for those of us who have a sneaking regard for unpretentious hackwork or big dumb objects.
Oh, bravo! Let us, as SF writers, become more Lemmy. In more than a 'singing Ace-of-Spades' sense.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

John 1:5

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. Coudl it be otherwise? Quite apart from anything else, how completely does the light comprehend the darkness anyway? To shine is only synonymous with to comprehend in oblique and poetic metaphor. Or to put it another way: and and the darkenss maketh shadows within the light, and the light comprehendeth it not.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Blindung and Passion

Susan Suleiman's Authoritarian Fictions (Princeton University Press 1983) theorises the Bildunsgroman as 'a story of apprenticeship' in which 'the protagonist undergoes two parallel transformations ... first, from ignorance (of self) to knowledge (of self); second, from passivity to action. This is interesting. She's particularly interested in what she calls 'authoritarian fiction', fiction that argues a case or advances a thesis with a view to persuading the reader (she distinguishes these sorts of tales from the rest of the fictional universe). The various ways in which constructions of female passivity (or passion) and activity (or action) intersect with an ideology if 'authority' strikes me as a particularly fruitful area of enquiry.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Opening Paragraph of James's Portrait

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do,—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one's enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o'clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration and was the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.
When I first read the novel I thought those three first words were havery non-committal nonsense. Now I tend to think they are an elegant periphrasis for "if one is wealthy" ('Under certain circumstances, those circumstances involving lots of money ...') Also: I wonder how many Jamesian sentences begin with a stressed syllable, as this one does. In the paragraph here we have 'Those that I have in mind...' and 'Part of the afternoon had waned...' But is it true to say that, generally, James prefers to start his sentences with unstressed syllables?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Du Gard

Was contemplating Pont du Gard
Smoking a fine old Roman cigar.

This bridge's art, above, below,
Is double crossing precious eau.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Achat Bijoux

A plane of bubble wrap, buoyed on an underlying cushion of air. Writhing maggots of sunlight on the choppy water.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Couple More Story Ideas

A story in which first one letter and then another start to go missing from words. The reader thinks it a string of typos until she groks that it is central to the narrative -- the abolition of c r. We start to see that an alien intelligence is waging war not against our infrastructure but our language.

A story in the form of a series of scientific papers, each with multiple authors, detailing a dangerous experiment. Each new paper, adding more detail and narrating advances in the experiment, has one fewer authors than the previous one. It dawns on the reader that the experiment is killing the scientists off, one at a time.

A whodunnit with a twist: our very concept of 'who' -- human identity and personality -- is the criminal.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Travel poem

The fields are green trays
The sheep are rice grains.

The vessel is a kaledoscope tube
The triangles all at one end.

These duncecap wings are filled
of petrol, of sloshy burnable petrol.

And down we go.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Turtles All The Way Up?

From chapter 15 of Anselm's Proslogion
Therefore, Lord, you are not only that than which a greater cannot be conceived; you are also something greater than can be conceived. It is possible to conceive that there is something of this kind. If you are not such a thing, it is possible to conceive that there is something greater than you—which cannot be.
Why not? Which is to say (I’m not being simple-minded about Anselm, here; I’m speculating more broadly)—viewed simply from the point of view of divine authority over humanity, mightn’t it be that God, though (as it were) our ‘superior officer’, has Himself a superior to whom he defers? Such a hyperGod would no more impact upon the specific duties we owe to our God than the existence of a Field Marshall has on the direct relationship between a sergeant and a private. Indeed, might this Godgod not also have a superior God figure, and so on ad infinitum? Perhaps it is, to coin a phrase, Turtles all the way up?

More specifically related to Anselm’s celebrated, much discussed ‘proof’ wouldn’t such a conception be necessarily ‘greater’ than the notion Anselm himself develops here? To put it another way: the traditional (the as it were medieval) conception of infinity as 'the greatest thing' is trumped by Cantor's invention of an infinity of infinities, with dire consequences for Anselm's thinking.

Stephen Maitzen has some very interesting things to say about this passage in his article ‘Anselmian Atheism’ (published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70: 1 (Jan., 2005), 225-239):
‘I develop an argument that confronts theology with a trilemma: atheism, utter mysticism, or radical anti-Anselmianism. The argument establishes a disjunction of claims that Anselmians in particular, but not only they, will find disturbing: (a) God does not exist, (b) no human being can have even the slightest conception of God, or (c) the Anselmian requirement of maximal greatness in God is wrong. My own view, for which 1 argue briefly, is that (b) is false on any correct reading of what conceiving of requires and that (c) is false on any correct reading of the concept of God. Thus, my own view is that the argument establishes atheism. In any case, one consequence of the argument is that Anselmian theology is possible for human beings only if it lacks a genuine object of study.’
Here’s his argument:
In the following argument, the phrase "our cognitive equals" means "whatever beings have only the conceptual power had by actual human beings." The argument uses "actual" and "actually" as rigid designators whose reference does not vary across possible worlds: from the perspective of any world, actual human beings, for instance, are all and only those human beings (past,
present, and future) who inhabit our world, the actual world.
(1) In at least one possible world, there exists something too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals. [Premise]

(2) In any possible world, whatever is at least as great as something too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals is itself too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals. [Premise]

(3) So: In any possible world, whatever is not too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals is not as great as whatever is too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals. [From (2)]

(4) So: If God actually exists but is not too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals, then God actually exists and God's actual greatness is not as high as the greatness of at least one thing in at least one possible world. [From (1), (3)]

(5) If God actually exists, then God's actual greatness is at least as high as the greatness of anything in any possible world. [Premise] 
(6) So: It is not the case that God actually exists but is not too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals. [From (4), (5)]

(7) So: If God actually exists, then God is too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals. [From (6)]
I’m not sure about this myself; there seems to be some creakage in the logic here. Why should I swallow (1)? Maitzen has a suggestion: ‘Why accept premise (1)? In a word, humility. (1) asserts, not that there is something too great to be at all conceivable by anything with only human conceptual power, but only that there logically could have been such a thing.’ The Humble Philosopher: fair enough—although humility, as a Christian (rather than, say, a Nietzschean) virtue, might be thought complicit with the subject of enquiry. And saying ‘there is in a possible world’ doesn’t seem to me the same thing as saying ‘there could be’. My imagination, after all, does not constitute a possible world. What else?
Premise (2) looks obviously correct.
Really? Doesn’t it depend upon a buried belief that absoluteness (infinity) is a multiple, diverse and differentiated matter?—a dedicated monotheist (let’s call her ‘Ann Selm’) might reply: there is only one ‘inconceivable greatest’ -- bringing other inconceivable greatnesses is a false step, analogous to talking about temperatures below absolute zero.
(2), in turn, implies (3), the plainly true claim that whatever fails to achieve a given level of greatness—the level fixed by the predicate "too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals"—is not as great as whatever succeeds in achieving that level of greatness.
’Fails’ and ‘succeeds’ are hardly neutral comparators. And isn’t neutrality required here? Humility, if nothing else, ought to dictate that.

He goes on to consider a number of ‘objections and replies’, of course; and there’s nothing dogmatic or clumsy about the article. Still.
Objection A. Premise (1) is false for a reason you have not yet considered. Actual human beings understand the description "greatest possible being." Thus, the conceptual power had by actual human beings at least partly comprehends the greatest possible being, and so even the greatest possible being does not fit the description "too great to be at all conceivable by our cognitive equals." Since it is impossible for anything to be greater than the greatest possible being, it is impossible that anything should fit the description in (1)

Reply. The objector's reasoning breaks down where it might appear least vulnerable: the claim that it is impossible for anything to be greater than the greatest possible being. For suppose that the expression "greatest possible being" fails to refer; suppose that it picks out nothing at all. Now, I am greater than nothing: I have nonzero greatness (however little)—something that, we are supposing, is not true of the greatest possible being. In a clear sense, then, I am greater than the greatest possible being.
This isn’t exactly my objection, but it’s allied to it; and Maitzen’s reply seems strained. It reminds me, rather, of the ‘a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness’ argument, which (as you’ll know) goes like this:

1. Nothing is better than eternal happiness.
2. A ham sandwich, clearly, is better than nothing
3. Ergo a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness’

Hmm ...

On the other hand, and to bring this post back to its starting point, there's some interesting discussion of premise (5), objection and reply:
Objection C. Premise (5) is false. God's actual greatness need not be logically unsurpassable, provided that God is the creator of all contingent beings and possesses enough of the traditional divine perfections—in particular, omniscience, omnipotence, and perfect goodness. Such a God remains worthy of worship, even if he should turn out to be logically surpassable because, say, being timelessly eternal is a perfection that he lacks. God's actual greatness, therefore, need not be unsurpassable, provided it is actually unsurpassed and it exceeds a threshold minimally sufficient to ensure that God is worthy of worship.

Reply. This anti-Anselmian objection invites four replies. First, the objection threatens to change the subject: if my argument is construed as concluding the non-existence of the Anselmian God, it is no rebuttal of that argument to reject the Anselmian description of God. But, second, the Anselmian description can be defended by noting that the objection suffers from the following instability. The more reason we have to regard, e.g., timeless eternality as a perfection, the more reason we have for insisting that anything properly called "God" must possess it and that, therefore, any scenario in which God lacks it is incoherent. On the other hand, the more confident we are that such a scenario is coherent—the more reason we have for allowing that God could lack, e.g., timeless eternality—the less reason we have for regarding that property as a perfection, in which case God's lacking the property would not imply that God is surpassable. The Anselmian description famously avoids this instability by insisting that the concept of God is the concept of an unsurpassable being. Third, there is the intuition, championed most notably by Morris, that "the divine perfections are all necessarily co-exemplified" and thus any scenario in which God has some but not all of the perfections is impossible. Fourth, there is Morris's argument that the Anselmian God exists in every possible world and thus excels any less-than-Anselmian God in any world in which the latter exists. In any world, then, in which the objector's God exists, there exists an even greater being, and our intuitions tell us that at most one of those beings—the greater one—deserves to be regarded as the one true God of monotheism.
One, here, doesn’t interest me (I’m curious about God, not just about Anselm’s conception of God); Two requires a paper all itself (though I don’t agree); Three introduces a brand new concept—cool, but hard to justify—of co-exemplification. And Four doesn’t seem to me to pass the ‘do I orient my service life via my sergeant or some distant Field Marshall a thousand miles away?’ test I suggest at the start of this post.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Werewolf story

Werewolf story idea: as men and women, the characters are brutal and violent, with limited worldviews ridden by stereotypes. As 'beastfolk', they become much more creatively aggressive. The tale hints that the great advances in 'human' culture and science are down to beastfolk interventions -- Da Vinci with his hirsuite hide; Einstein with his great, bear-like tongue and so on.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Don't Übermention It!

I love this, from (who else) Friedrich Nietzche (in Ecce Homo):
The word Übermensch [designates] a type of supreme achievement, as opposed to 'modern' men, 'good' men, Christians, and other nihilists ... When I whispered into the ears of some people that they were better off looking for a Cesare Borgia than a Parsifal, they did not believe their ears.
What's so splendid is the way Nietzsche automatically elides 'I do not agree with what you say' and 'I do not believe my ears'. The world of difference, there, surely! But not in the world of the Übermensch!

Vergil's Eclogue 1

The main shape of Virgil’s first Eclogue seems clear enough: two shepherds, Meliboeus and Tityrus are in conversation.  Things are going well for Tityrus, but Meliboeus and his companions face a less certain future. The poem’s opening five lines spell this out:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena;
nos patriae finis et dulcia linquimus arva.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas. [1-5]

You, Tityrus, lie under the canopy of a spreading beech, wooing the woodland Muse on slender reed, but we are leaving our country and its sweet fields. We are outcasts from our country; whilst you, Tityrus, at ease beneath the shade, teach the woods to re-echo “fair Amaryllis.”
Where are Meliboeus and the others going? And why? We are not told until right at the end of the poem:
At nos hinc alii sitientis ibimus Afros,
pars Scythiam et rapidum cretae veniemus Oaxen
et penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos.
en umquam patrios longo post tempore finis
pauperis et tuguri congestum caespite culmen,
post aliquot, mea regna, videns mirabor aristas?
impius haec tam culta novalia miles habebit,
barbarus has segetes. en quo discordia civis
produxit miseros; his nos consevimus agros! [64-72]

But we must go away from here – some of us to thirsty Africa, some as far as Scythia and the chalk-rolling Oaxes, and some to the Britons, completely cut-off from the world. Ah, shall I ever, long years hence, look again on my country’s bounds, on my humble cottage with its turf-clad roof – shall I, long years hence, look amazed on a few ears of corn, once my kingdom? Is a godless soldier to hold these well-tilled fallows? A barbarian these crops? See where strife has brought our unhappy citizens! For these have we sown our fields!
The cause, in other words, is ‘discordia’—discord or strife—which in turn has resulted in foreign soldiers and barbarians (‘miles novalis’ and ‘barbarus’) taking over Meliboeus’ land.  The traditional interpretation of this is that Meliboeus has been the unfortunate victim of a policy by the Roman leader Octavian, the man who later became Caesar Augustus.  To reward his army for defeating Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in Macedonia, and to keep them loyal (he would soon afterwards use this army to defeat Mark Antony and so become sole ruler of Rome) he gave the soldiers grants of land in Italy.  This meant expelling the present inhabitants.
There was no more government-controlled land to allot as settlements for their soldiers, so Octavian had to choose one of two options: alienating many Roman citizens by confiscating their land, or alienating many Roman soldiers who could mount a considerable opposition against him in the Roman heartland> Octavian chose the former. There were as many as eighteen Roman towns affected by the new settlements, with entire populations driven out or at least given partial evictions. [Werner Eck, The Age of Augustus (Oxford: Blackwell 2003), 19]
But how is it that Tityrus escapes having his land confiscated? Meliboeus says he is not jealous of Tityrus’s good fortune, but he is puzzled: But how is it that Tityrus escapes having his land confiscated? Meliboeus says he is not jealous of Tityrus’s good fortune, but he is puzzled: ‘Non equidem invideo, miror magis; undique totis/usque adeo turbatur agris’ [‘Well, I’m not envious of your good fortune – but I wonder at it; there’s such unrest everywhere about the land.’] We might take this ‘unrest’ to be the long civil war between the assassins and the heirs of Julius Caesar, and afterwards between those heirs. How does Tityrus escape? It seems 'a god' preserved him; and the name of that god is 'Rome' ('Tityrus, who is this god of yours?' 'The city they call Rome, Meliboeus'). Later in the poem we learn that he has recently achieved 'Libertas' -- freedom. He couldn't do it when he was in a relationship with Galatea, because she spent all his money; but since he's been seeing a different woman, Amaryllis, he's been able to save enough to get this 'freedom'. Meliboeus recalls that Amaryllis had recently been upset by Tityrus's absence (she 'called on the gods' and 'let the apples hang unpicked on their native trees [because] Tityrus was gone from home.' Indeed 'the very pines, Tityrus, the very springs, the very orchards were calling for you!' [36-39]. But Tityrus says it couldn't be helped; he had to go to Rome. After this, Meliboeus praises his good fortune:
Fortunate senex, ergo tua rura manebunt
et tibi magna satis, quamvis lapis omnia nudus
limosoque palus obducat pascua iunco.
non insueta gravis temptabunt pabula fetas
nec mala vicini pecoris contagia laedent.
fortunate senex, hic inter flumina nota
et fontis sacros frigus captabis opacum;
hinc tibi, quae semper, vicino ab limite saepes
Hyblaeis apibus florem depasta salicti
saepe levi somnum suadebit inire susurro;
hinc alta sub rupe canet frondator ad auras,
nec tamen interea raucae, tua cura, palumbes
nec gemere aeria cessabit turtur ab ulmo.

Happy old man! So these lands will still be yours, and large enough for you, though bare stones cover all, and the marsh chokes your pastures with slimy rushes. Still, no strange herbage shall try your breeding ewes, no baneful infection from a neighbour’s flock shall harm them. Happy old man! Here, amid familiar streams and sacred springs, you shall enjoy the cooling shade. On this side, as of old, on your neighbour’s border, the hedge whose willow blossoms are sipped by Hybla’s bees shall often with its gentle hum soothe you to slumber; on that, under the towering rock, the woodman’s song shall fill the air; while still the cooing wood pigeons, your pets, and the turtle dove shall cease not their moaning from the elm tops. [46-58]
What are we to make of this? The poem nowhere specifically says either that Tityrus was a slave who bought his manumission, although almost all commentators on the poem say that's what must have happened.  Nor does it anywhere specifically say that the soldiers who will occupy poor-old Meliboeus's land have been given it by Octavian, a figure whose name is not mentioned.  There could be other ways in which the soldier and the barbarian (the latter, we might think, by no means assuredly the former) get Meliboeus's land: they could have invaded and seized it; or they could just have bought it, in the regular way.  Indeed, this latter possibility opens up a possible reading of the poem that says: Tityrus is not a slave who has bought his own freedom, for why would that render him immune from Octavian's confiscations?  Perhaps the confiscations have nothing to do with it, and the clever thing Tityrus has done is: to buy his own land.  It's certainly not a very fertile or desirable plot, according to the poem: bare stones, marsh and slimy rushes and all.  But it makes Tityrus an owner, not a tenant; and so he can't simply be turfed off the land when the actual owner chooses.

Now this is at odds with the to the traditional interpretation of this poem (in the words of Ernest A. Fredricksmeyer [from his essay, 'Octavian and the Unity of Virgil's First Eclogue', Hermes 15: 3 (1961) 156]: 'we know that it was composed in 4I/40 B.C., after the confiscations of lands in Virgil's native province of Northern Italy on orders of Octavian, for the settlement of discharged veterans, and ... there is almost complete agreement that the ['god' referred to] is Octavian ... Most critics have interpreted the eclogue as an expression of the poet's personal gratitude to Octavian for the preservation of his property or, in any case, have seen unqualified praise of him in the poem.' But one of the reasons I prefer this reading of the poem is because it inflects the matter of pastoral itself through the lens of ownership, rather than patronage. It is a poem that says: it is not enough to praise the beauty of land in the countryside; we must also know -- who owns this. Rome, I am suggesting, is the locus not of political power (although obviously it was that) but of legal power, the place where property is bought and sold, and rightful title deeds recognised. The emphasis elsewhere in the poem is an almost Hesiodic emphasis on work, labour and trade: goats and cheeses, fruit and oxen -- not, whatever the critics say, a Theocritan sensual indolence in a bucolic paradise. All this, the poem is saying -- all the things Meliboeus lists in his mournful adieu at the end ('away, once happy flock! No more, stretched in some mossy grot, shall I watch you in the distance hanging from a bushy crag; no more songs shall I sing; no more, my goats, under my tending, shall you crop flowering lucerne and bitter willows!'), means nothing except as property.

Perhaps one reason why this reading has never, so far as I know, been advanced is that it seems to suggest a rather cynical, even money-grubbing financial ethos that is, or is seen as being, at odds with the escapist pleasures of pastoral more broadly conceived.  But I don't think this is right: more to the point, the poem very straightforwardly opposes two modes of apprhension of pastoral beauty and pleasure.  The difference is that one, Meliboeus's, is inflected via elegy and loss, and the other -- Tityrus -- through the sensual assuredness of possession. This also avoids the need to read the dialogue between the two of them in terms of the 'callousness' of seemingly-uncaring Tityrus for poor Meliboeus (as Christine Perkell puts it ['On Eclogue 1.79-83', 171]: 'many current critics view Tityrus as being of pedestrian imagination, callous, evasive, and morally insensitive'). But this is to miss the point: Tityrus isn't uncaring, any more than he is an allegorical representation of Virgil himself: he is, simply, representative of one mode of apprehension of pastoral living ('ownership') over another, less permanent one.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Passion by light

I've said it before on this blog, but I'm going to reiterate it now on account of (you know, you know) having a new novel out, to which these questions relate. It's a novel about being rich and being poor; about being a parent and being a child -- since after all, though parents are the ones with all the wealth ('can I have an ice-cream daddy? buy me that toy, daddy! Where's my pocket money, daddy?'), children have all the life. Indeed, more to the point, children are wealth. They embody it.

So, yes. 'Passion': the words means a powerful emotional charge, a commitment towards and energy for. But all that makes it sounds very active; when in fact 'passion' is a word formed of 'passivity' (hence: 'the passion of the Christ': not the furious emotional charge of the Christ, but the appalling passivity of that Being who is (after all) the most active, creative agent in the cosmos). But the two meanings of this word, the with and without agency meanings, tangle creatively together.

Great wealth is a passion. You have the power to buy lots of things; but your wealth defangs you in other ways. This (of course) has to do with Hegel's celebrated master-slave dialectic; something my novel, I suppose, relates not only to monetary masters and slaves, but to parents and children ('the Hegelian parent-child dialectic').

Friday, 2 September 2011


Students sometimes complain about the excessive length of the nineteenth-century novels we ask them to read. And they do seem long, these triple- or quadruple-decker narratives. But here's Hazlitt, prefacing his 1807 abridgement of Abraham Tucker's eighteenth-century masterpiece, The Light of Nature Pursued, with some grumpy complaining about how short books were getting in the nineteenth-century:
A philosophical work in seven large volumes presents no very great attractions to the indolent curiosity of most readers. Even the seven volumes of Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison, are at present viewed with doubtful looks by the eye of taste, and reluctantly engaged in: and our modern novelists, that happily privileged race of authors, whose works "not sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," are exempt from the charge of dulness or ennui, have been obliged to contract the boundless scenes of their imagination within four slender volumes, where the diminutive page vies in vain with the luxuriant margin.
Woh, dude. Right on.

Thursday, 1 September 2011


He knows what affection feels like; and he knows desire. But he had not until this point understood that love—that devouring feeling, that obsession—was a function not of attraction but of not being able to have ...