Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Pindar petering

Pythian Odes 3:109-110.
Do not yearn, O my soul, for immortal life!
Use to the utmost
the skill that is yours. [Translation by Frank J. Nisetich, Pindar's Victory Odes (Johns Hopkins UP, 1980) 171]
Very nice! As if the soul needs to be actively restrained from seeking immortality, to be redirected to better pursuits!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

On restoring fragmentary Attic tragedy

This has been on my mind lately, what with (you know) doing it; and perhaps I'm overly defensive. My sense is that most serious classical scholars would look down their noses at a Euripidean play 'restored' from fragments; an I can sort of see why. But fragments are all we have: I don't just mean with respect to the Phaethon, Telephus and Hypsipyle -- I mean for all Attic drama. Half the Alcestis or the Bacchae is words, and we have the words. Half is music and dance, and we've lost both of those irretrievably (indeed, the music and dance is prior, as far as the history of drama is concerned: the words come after). No classical scholar, except those who  abandon all attempts at realising or interpreting the plays, can say they object to restoring fragmentary versions.

Monday, 28 November 2011


Keith Ward's Why There Almost Certainly Is a God (Lion 2008) is a splendid book, a book of almost Pythonesque silliness. It is, as its subtitle says, a textual means of 'doubting Dawkins'. And since Ward is a former Professor of Philosophy from London, and is now Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford, I like to believe that he intends the whole thing as a joke: a confection of god-of-the-gaps and appeals-to-authority, mixed in with some marvellously stretched-out nitpicking and point-missing where Dawkins is concerned. God-of-the-gaps? There are, Ward asserts, two games in town: spiritualism or materialism. The latter won't do. Why?
We are no longer very sure what 'matter' is. Is it quarks, or superstrings, or dark energy, or the result of quantum fluctuations in a vacuum? It is certainly not, as the ancient Greek materialist Democritus thought, lumps of hard solid stuff -- invisible atoms -- bumping into one another and forming complicated conglomerations that we call people. [14]
It seems to me that this depends upon what we mean by 'hard', 'solid' and 'stuff'; but Ward is happy that he has herein completely demolished materialism as a viable philosophical position.
What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is? [15]
Parody doesn't get any sharper than this! Brilliant stuff. (Since not even Ward can claim wholly to comprehend the deity he worships, he is beautifully finessing the obvious 'What is the point of being a theist when we are not sure exactly what theos is?')

There's more: he says [23] that his decision to get up in the morning and write Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, rather than (say) stay in bed or have a cup of coffee, cannot be explained by science. Beautiful! 'How can my talk of knowledge, desires, intentions and awareness translate into statements of physics that only relate to physical states?' There are many rhetorical questions like this in the book; and Ward is aware that some scientists have set out to answer them; so where he's usually happy to leave his questions hanging, from time to time he fleshes out answers. Now, one book I admire very much, which does precisely that (lays out how the physics of brain chemistry underpins human behaviour) is Daniel Dennett's intellectually thrilling Consciousness Explained. There's the possibility that the arguments of Dennet's book will undermine Ward's splendid rhetorical question, and indeed his whole book; but it's ok -- he's got that covered:
Daniel Dennett [believes] that conscious states are 'nothing more than' brain-states and brain-behaviour. Dennett wrote a book called Consciousness Explained in which he defended this radical theory. Most competent philosophers were unconvinced and privately referred to his book as 'Consciousness Explained Away' [16]
No further enagement with Dennett is needful: for any philosopher who agreed with him would, by definition, be announcing their incompetence. But Ward's appeal to authority does not stop with philosophers. It also includes a large number of unnamed people who all agree with him about God:
If you are thinking seriously about the God hypothesis it will be very strong evidence if a large number of people, apparenttly well balanced, intelligent and virtuous, feel that God has met them in the proclamation of Christ's teaching, death and resurrection. [140]
Irrefutable! There are something like 2.5 billion Christians on the planet. That fact alone proves Christianity is true. Of course, there are also 1.5 billion Muslims, but you can disregard them: they are not competent philosophers -- in private we call their relgion 'Isnotlam'.

It would be nice to be more serious about the arguments Ward puts forward, but, really, it's difficult to see how. The main spine of the book's thesis is the appeal to 'personal explanation': that human consciousness cannot be explained by science and must therefore be grounded in a primary, infinite, divine consciousness. His 'two big' objections to Dawkins are: 'the irreducible existence of consciousness' and 'the irreducible nature of personal explanation'. As to the first, it seems to me that nobody who has observed a loved-one diminish under the effects of Alzheimer's disease could ever genuinely claim that human consciousness can never be reduced. (Ward means 'reduced to scientific explanation', but the point holds, I think: if consciousuness is a function of brain activity as Dennett says, then deterioration in the material capacity of the brain through disease or illness would lead to deterioration in the consciousness of the indvidual concerned. Which is precisely what we see). And as for the second, Ward uses 'irreducible' when he means 'distinctive', and it has no bearing on the larger question. That's not only my view, incidentally: it's also Ward's: 'what human beings can imagine or picture to themselves is not a reliable guide to the ultimate nature of reality' [109].

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Gerry Rafferty, Right Next Time

A great song, luminous with the possibility of atoning for one's past errors. But the irony in Rafferty's lovely, burnished voice is that he never actually got it right next time: he never lived up to his early promise, he never overcame his alcoholism, and it eventually killed him. This adds to the force of the song, I think. Also, the down-heel way Rafferty sings the third line here:
You gotta grow, you gotta learn by your mistakes
You gotta die a little everyday just to try to stay awake
When you believe there’s no mountain you can't climb
And if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time 'When you believe there’s no mountain you can climb' has a certain poignancy to it.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

theous nomizein

Martin Ostwald's essay, 'Atheism and the Religiosity of Euripides' [in Todd Breyfogle (ed), Literary Imagination, Ancient and Modern: Essays in Honor of David Grene (Univ. of Chicago Press 1999), 33-89] discusses what counted as 'atheism' in Ancient Greece:
Greek religion demanded of its adherents no more than participation in traditional forms of worship. It was free from dogma, and a concept of faith was alien to it. There was, before the coming of the sophists, no "belief" in the gods in the Christian sense of the term: theous nomizein describes the performance of ritual acts, predicated on the unchallenged assumption that the gods exist and demand veneration. Since the gods are also the guarantors of the stability of the social order, and since their displeasure would disturb it, the state tried to enforce divine worship through its customs, laws, and institutions: but neither the state nor the priesthoods entrusted with the administration of cult and ritual ever displayed any interest in enforcing uniformity of religious belief. Moreover, the gods themselves were thought to be concerned only that men pay them the customary respect owed them and offer the sacrifices that were their due: human morality, so integral a part of the Jewish and Christian eligions, remained a matter of indifference to the gods of the Greeks.[34]
Ostwald goes on: 'This meant that the established religion was intolerant only of attitudes that tended to undermine the public worship of the gods.' He gives some examples: Xenophanes and Pindat were both tolerated, despite protesting the immorality of the gods, the absurdity of anthropomorphic representations of divinity and disgust at the stories of gods eating the flesh of Pelops. On the other hand, though, 'Anaxagoras was charged by Dopeithes with having committed a crime against the state' for claiming that the sun was only a fiery stone in the sky (if this idea gained currency it would 'detract from the sun's divinity and thus from its worship') and Protagoras was expelled from Athens and had his books publicly burnt in the agora for declaring that he did not know if the gods existed or didn't exist.

Similarly, here is Mario Vegetti ['The Greeks and Their Gods, in J P Vernant The Greeks (University of Chicago Press 1995), 256]:
These absences make it difficult to speak of Greek "religion," at least in the positive sense in which the term is used in the context of monotheistic tradition. The Greek language does not even possess a term whose semantic field coincides with that of the word "religion". The nearest term, eusebia, is defined by the priest Euthyphro in the Platonic dialogue named after him as "the care (therapeia) that men have of the gods" (Plato Euthyphro 12e). In this sense, the term covers the punctual observance of services in order to express respect toward the gods, during which proper signs of homage and deference are displayed. These services usually took the form of votive and sacrificial offerings. The Greek equivalent of the word "faith" is equally weak. In everyday language, the expression "to believe in the gods" (nomizein tous theous) does not indicate a rational conviction of their existence (as it will come to do in a more developed philosophical language), but "to respect" or honor the gods by performing certain acts. Nomizein thus comes to mean the same as therapeuein: to devote the appropriate ritual care to the gods.
That is to say: 'we do not ask that you believe; we only ask that you act as if you believe.' This may be better than 'we demand you both act as if you believe and actually believe, too'. But then again: 'we ask neither that you nor that you act as if you do' is not the same thing as 'we demand you do not believe, and will punish you for the public performance of ritual.' That distinction is crucial.

More from Ostwald: 'Euripidean criticism of the gods of traditional religion is born of his concern for social justice. which pervades especially his early plays and in his later plays, especially in The Bacchae, turns into an attempt to come to grips with the problem of religion as such.' [39] he's surely right that 'the Bacchae is a statement not on the horrors of religion -- tantum religio potuit suadere malorum is frequently cited by scholars who believe that it is -- but on the dire consequences that failure by the intellect to acknowledge the reality of divine power can bring in its train' [46]

Friday, 25 November 2011

Book of Job

I found an old 1906 edition of this Biblical or Torahic book (edited by S R Driver 'Regius Professor of Hebrew and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford'), bought it for £3 and read it straight through. An interesting experience. Driver says this in his introduction: 'the main aim of the Book is a negative one, to controvert the dominant theory that all suffering proceeds from sin.'
The doctrine that righteousness brings prosperity, while wickedness results in misfortune, is often taught in the Old Testament ... the doctrine was deeply impressed on the ancient Hebrew mind; and all exceptions were a source of great perplexity to it. [viii]
So Job sets out to argue that 'God's retributive justice is not the only principle by which men are governed'.
Positively the book teaches -- 1. that sufferings may befall the righteous, not as a chastisement for their sins, but as a trial of their righteousness, and a test of its sincerity ... 2. The book teaches the danger of conceiving too narrowly of God and His providence. 3. Inasmuch as Job, in spite of his combined physical and mental suffering, does not succumb to temptation, it teaches, in opposition to the insinuation of Satan, that man can love God for His own sake. [ix]
This last one interests me; because I very much didn't get the sense of it, reading the book straight through. Job is doing well in life until disaster strikes with appalling suddenness and (apparent) arbitrariness. He is helpless to prevent the loss of everything. Suffering, in other words, overmasters him; it is presented precisely as a force (almost as Simon Weil's capitalised 'Force') that is always, necessarily, stronger than we. Another way of putting this would be to say that had Job's sheep died of murrain and his servants run away we might mistake the point of the book as being something along the lines of 'Job should have kept better care of his livestock, and maintained better discipline amongst his servants'. But 'the fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants, and consumed them' leaves us in no doubt. Job is interested in the way sufferings overmaster us, and more specifically interested in how we react to such suffering. But the structure of the whole, from Job's first sufferings (the loss of his 'property' [which I put in inverted commas because his property is taken as including his children and servants]), his second sufferings (his 'boils' -- though according to Driver the Hebrew is better translated, strikingly, as 'elephantiasis'), his despair, his comforters, and the cycle of hearts'-crying and recrimination -- that structure is abruptly interrupted by the appearance of God's own voice at chapter 38:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? ... Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
It's undeniably stirring stuff, but the majesty of it tends to reinforce my point: that Job's 'redemption' is effected by the overmastering force of God's angry words. he is made to suffer by the overmastering calamities of the beginning, and then his complaints are crushed by the overmastering rhetoric of the Divine.

Job's wife says to him: 'Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.' I take the implication here to be, in effect, zero sum: at such times either one can retain one's human integrity and curse God; or one can continue to praise God, provided you sacrifice your integrity. Something like this seems part of the point of the conclusion of the book (Job's last words are the self-abnegating 'Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes'). After this Job is rewarded: he has learnt his lesson, which is precisely to abandon his integrity.

A couple of other things intrigued me about the book. One is the skin trope. I already knew, of course, Satan's striking expression: 'and Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life' [2:4], something Driver glosses in a curiously deadening manner ... 'the meaning apparently is: a man will sacrifice one part of his body to save another, an arm, for instance, to save his head, and he will similarly give all thathe has to save his life', [4].  Norman C. Habel's commentary is a little better, but only by acknowledging the oddness of the phrase: 'Satan's cryptic expression "skin for skin" is probably an ancient folk saying with innuendoes now lost to us [Book of Job: a Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 95]). This skin is important, though: 'For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God' [19:25-26]. Driver notes that the Hebrew 'means struck off' and compares Isaiah 10:34 ('the only other place in which the word occurs, used of striking away the thickets of a forest'). This, according to Driver, supports his reading that the Hebrew has Job afflicted not with boils but with 'elephantiasis' ('the reference is to the ravages of his disease: in Elephantiasis pieces of ulcerated flesh, and even of bone, often fall away', 55). Maybe, but I read this is having a broader relationship to the convenant of circumcision. Indeed, I'm half tempted to put together a reading of the whole book as a symbolic drama of the necessity for circumcision to appease God. (The reasoning, I suppose, would go something like this: sometimes God rewards virtue, but sometimes he sends sufferings to afflict the virtuous too. The best way to understand this strange lack of larger existential justice is in terms of a chosen people; remove a piece of skin, as a covenant, and you establish a situation where (as it were) God will speak with you directly, and convert your sufferings into redemption).

Still, my first instinct is that the skin thing serves as a marker of boundary. In other words: where conventional accounts of Job say that the protaognist endures two separate bouts of affliction (first the loss of his possessions; then the sickness of his own body), I wonder if the point of the book isn't precisely that he suffers three: to the two external ones he stands up well (to the first he says 'Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD'; to the second 'What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?'. 'In all this,' we're told, 'did not Job sin with his lips.') The third affliction is on the other side of the skin, however: it is internal -- Job's own despair. It is clear that this, both in terms of the amount of space the text gives over to it and the intensity and eloquence of the poetry, is the real challenge. It's easy to endure losing things, and even one's health; it is very hard to endure prolonged depression. In fact the book suggests that the way out of depression is via the short, sharp shock of God's anger ('Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place? No? Then SHUT UP with your complaining!')

Thursday, 24 November 2011

This be the verse

A rather obvious point about Larkin's 'This Be The Verse'.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Wikipedia (that fount! It's a veritable fount!) suggests the title 'is an allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem"', which also contains familiar lines:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
A touch egregiously, the 'pedia then adds: 'Stevenson's thought of a happy homecoming in death is given an ironic turn'.

But I've always assumed the title makes reference to Pope's couplet from Arbuthnot [283-4]:
Cursed be the verse, how well so e'er it flow,
That tends to make one worthy man my foe.
Larkin's poem has, it seems to me, has a cleverer, more ironic relationship to this famous sentiment than to Stevenson's gooey sentimentality: because the 'cursing' (in the vernacular sense of the word) is precisely what is most memorable about Larkin's ditty; because it is about the inevitable enmity and misery that shapes even the relationships between the worthy.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Augustinian againigan

I came across this Augustinian quotation heading a chapter called 'the Reasonableness of Faith' in Robert Louis Wilker's The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale 2003):
Nothing would remain stable in human society if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty.
I'm missing something important here, as far as both Augustine and Wilker are concerned. Because nothing remaining stable is, surely, precisely the point of the Christian event -- no? The incarnation means: everything is different now. It comes to bring a sword, not to shore up stability. Or is this, counter-intuitively, precisely Augustine's point? (It's clearly not Wilker's).

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

God the Parent

I can see the force those arguments that God is not an entity 'in' the world, one amongst many existing things -- that instead He is the ground of existence itself. But I don't see why it follows that existing things (like us) should therefore orient our lives in His direction; like the colours and dabs of paint in a Monet painting devoting their lives to the canvas, rather than the people in the gallery.

Or, another analogy: parents give their children life. Some parents may then expect their offspring to orient their existences entirely around them, to all-but-worship them -- we would call such people 'bad parents'. Good parents want their kids to outgrow them, to make their own way in the world. The perfect parent would want their kids wholly to forget them (as their grandkids may, their great-grandkids probably will and their descendants a hundred generations hence certain will). But, as religious discourse rightly stresses, human beings are not perfect. I am a parent, and I hope that when my kids are fully grown and able to look after themselves they'll still stay in touch, think of me -- occasionally -- with love. But I also hope that the main thrust of their lives is oriented not towards me, but towards their own joys and challenges (and, eventually, their own kids). So with God.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Euripides' Telephus

Clytemnestra has been driven to hate her husband by his sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon was persuaded that only by making this sacrifice would the winds become favourable for his battle fleet to sail to Troy and make war. In the broadest sense, this myth is about a terrible, core truth of war—all war—that it is always predicated upon the older generation sacrificing the lives of the younger. What gives it particular poignancy in the particular story of Iphigenia is the gender of the sacrificed child. One undercurrent of the myth is that girls matter less than boys; indeed, that girls don’t matter at all. Euripides’ play puts that pitiless perspective into the context of gender. The Telephus sets Agamemnon’s terror at the prospect of losing his infant boy against the background of his indifference to the death of his daughter. That her sacrifice resulted not in the sack of Troy buy only in a mistaken attack on a completely different country, followed by an ignominious return home to plan a second expedition, only adds to the tragic irony.

The Telephus is a play profoundly interested in the relationship between the ‘worthy’ and the ‘worthless’—kings and beggars, men and women, adults and children, gods and mortals. More, Euripides is developing a thesis about the ways the former depend upon the latter.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

On Darwin

Looking through The Descent of Man (and without in the least, of course, doubting the central thesis of that work) I'm struck by the great extent to which Darwin's evidential base is anecdotal. One example of what I mean:
Many animals, however, certainly sympathise with each other's distress or danger. This is the case even with birds. Captain Stansbury found on a salt lake in Utah an old and completely blind pelican, which was very fat, and must have been well fed for a long time by his companions. Mr. Blyth, as he informs me, saw Indian crows feeding two or three of their companions which were blind; and I have heard of an analogous case with the domestic cock. We may, if we choose, call these actions instinctive; but such cases are much too rare for the development of any special instinct. I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket, and was a great friend of his, without giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog. [103]
Captain Stansbury found a fat, blind pelican; Darwin himself saw a dog lick a cat. On such slender pillars is modern science balanced.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Nabokovian Sequels

Invitation to a Re-heading
Bend Dexter
Lolit B
Pnin 2: Pninner
2 Pale 2 Fire
Ada Again

Friday, 18 November 2011


Reading and (indeed) writing Euripides' Phaethon, leaning heavily on: James Diggle (ed) Euripides: Phaethon (Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries XII; Cambridge University Press, 2004). It hadn't occurred to me before, but I'm now wondering whether the point of the play isn't to literalise, in the tumble from the sky, the sense of a 'downward' trajectory in familial inheritance. The play opens with an intense confab between mother and son about the true identity of Phaethon's paternity; this (with slightly heavyhanded irony) is followed by the ceremony of the impending marriage of Phaethon to a royal bride -- the ceremony, that is, designed to confirm and legalise the process of paternity. But, in the broadest sense this is a play that says: unlike maternity, paternity is never certain, and that single, terrible fact can strike down anybody, no matter how talented, how loved by the gods, or how guiltless (‘Still more guiltless [than Hippolytus] was the young Phaethon of Phaethon, who was destroyed by Zeus as he tried and inevitably failed to drive his father Helios’ sun-chariot across the skies. Euripides' Phaethon makes this attempt not through hubris, but through inexperience and insecurity’ [Martin Cropp, 'Lost Tragedies: a Survey' in Justina Gregory (ed), A Companion to Greek Tragedy (Blackwell: John Wiley & Sons, 2005), 271-292; 283]) they might be. That's a very unsettling thought, really; one of the most unsettling.

Thursday, 17 November 2011


Starlings flow about the sky like iron-filings under the influence of a vast and moving magnet.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Madame Sos/sesostris

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, The Lady of the Rocks, The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
I knew from the scholarly notes that Eliot lifted this name from Aldous Huxley ('Sosostris' is 'A mock Egyptian name, suggested to Eliot by 'Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana', the name assumed by a character in Aldous Huxley's novel Crome Yellow who dresses up as a gypsy to tell fortunes at a fair.') But I only recently got around to reading Crome Yellow: much funnier than Eliot's poem, though just as much, in its way, of course, a portrait of a wasted land. It seems to me siginficant that the 'character who dresses up as a gypsy to tell fortunes at a fair' is a man -- the saurian intellectual Mr Scogan -- and that he chooses as his stage-monker 'Sesostris' (which was, of course, a man's name) as, I take it, an erudite joke at the expense of the foolish people who flock to his tent and believe both his female persona and the nihilistic fortunes he tells them. Here's the passage (Denis, the sexually frustrated young man who is sort-of at the centre of the novel's narrative, eavesdrops):
Mr. Scogan had been accommodated in a little canvas hut. Dressed in a black skirt and a red bodice, with a yellow-and-red bandana handkerchief tied round his black wig, he looked—sharp-nosed, brown, and wrinkled—like the Bohemian Hag of Frith's Derby Day. A placard pinned to the curtain of the doorway announced the presence within the tent of "Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana." Seated at a table, Mr. Scogan received his clients in mysterious silence, indicating with a movement of the finger that they were to sit down opposite him and to extend their hands for his inspection. He then examined the palm that was presented him, using a magnifying glass and a pair of horn spectacles. He had a terrifying way of shaking his head, frowning and clicking with his tongue as he looked at the lines. Sometimes he would whisper, as though to himself, "Terrible, terrible!" or "God preserve us!" sketching out the sign of the cross as he uttered the words. The clients who came in laughing grew suddenly grave; they began to take the witch seriously. She was a formidable-looking woman; could it be, was it possible, that there was something in this sort of thing after all? After all, they thought, as the hag shook her head over their hands, after all...And they waited, with an uncomfortably beating heart, for the oracle to speak. After a long and silent inspection, Mr. Scogan would suddenly look up and ask, in a hoarse whisper, some horrifying question, such as, "Have you ever been hit on the head with a hammer by a young man with red hair?" When the answer was in the negative, which it could hardly fail to be, Mr. Scogan would nod several times, saying, "I was afraid so. Everything is still to come, still to come, though it can't be very far off now." Sometimes, after a long examination, he would just whisper, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise," and refuse to divulge any details of a future too appalling to be envisaged without despair. Sesostris had a success of horror. People stood in a queue outside the witch's booth waiting for the privilege of hearing sentence pronounced upon them.

Denis, in the course of his round, looked with curiosity at this crowd of suppliants before the shrine of the oracle. He had a great desire to see how Mr. Scogan played his part. The canvas booth was a rickety, ill-made structure. Between its walls and its sagging roof were long gaping chinks and crannies. Denis went to the tea-tent and borrowed a wooden bench and a small Union Jack. With these he hurried back to the booth of Sesostris. Setting down the bench at the back of the booth, he climbed up, and with a great air of busy efficiency began to tie the Union Jack to the top of one of the tent-poles. Through the crannies in the canvas he could see almost the whole of the interior of the tent. Mr. Scogan's bandana-covered head was just below him; his terrifying whispers came clearly up. Denis looked and listened while the witch prophesied financial losses, death by apoplexy, destruction by air-raids in the next war.

"Is there going to be another war?" asked the old lady to whom he had predicted this end.

"Very soon," said Mr. Scogan, with an air of quiet confidence.

The old lady was succeeded by a girl dressed in white muslin, garnished with pink ribbons. She was wearing a broad hat, so that Denis could not see her face; but from her figure and the roundness of her bare arms he judged her young and pleasing. Mr. Scogan looked at her hand, then whispered, "You are still virtuous."

The young lady giggled and exclaimed, "Oh, lor'!"

"But you will not remain so for long," added Mr. Scogan sepulchrally. The young lady giggled again. "Destiny, which interests itself in small things no less than in great, has announced the fact upon your hand." Mr. Scogan took up the magnifying-glass and began once more to examine the white palm. "Very interesting," he said, as though to himself—"very interesting. It's as clear as day." He was silent.

"What's clear?" asked the girl.

"I don't think I ought to tell you." Mr. Scogan shook his head; the pendulous brass ear-rings which he had screwed on to his ears tinkled.

"Please, please!" she implored.

The witch seemed to ignore her remark. "Afterwards, it's not at all clear. The fates don't say whether you will settle down to married life and have four children or whether you will try to go on the cinema and have none. They are only specific about this one rather crucial incident."

"What is it? What is it? Oh, do tell me!"

The white muslin figure leant eagerly forward.

Mr. Scogan sighed. "Very well," he said, "if you must know, you must know. But if anything untoward happens you must blame your own curiosity. Listen. Listen." He lifted up a sharp, claw-nailed forefinger. "This is what the fates have written. Next Sunday afternoon at six o'clock you will be sitting on the second stile on the footpath that leads from the church to the lower road. At that moment a man will appear walking along the footpath." Mr. Scogan looked at her hand again as though to refresh his memory of the details of the scene. "A man," he repeated—"a small man with a sharp nose, not exactly good looking nor precisely young, but fascinating." He lingered hissingly over the word. "He will ask you, 'Can you tell me the way to Paradise?' and you will answer, 'Yes, I'll show you,' and walk with him down towards the little hazel copse. I cannot read what will happen after that." There was a silence.

"Is it really true?" asked white muslin.

The witch gave a shrug of the shoulders. "I merely tell you what I read in your hand. Good afternoon. That will be sixpence. Yes, I have change. Thank you. Good afternoon."

Denis stepped down from the bench; tied insecurely and crookedly to the tentpole, the Union Jack hung limp on the windless air. "If only I could do things like that!" he thought, as he carried the bench back to the tea-tent.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Marvell's Triffid

I can't be the only reader to be struck by how sinister is the supposedly-paradiscal horn-of-plenty eagerness to please of the vegetation in Marvell's Garden:
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.
There's no positive gloss I can see on that 'annihilation': it (surely!) can only convey a kind of rural carthago delenda est with respect not only to cities but to human consciousness. Ugh!

Monday, 14 November 2011


One last thing on Empson (for now), which is to remark: how very like Landor's is his voice, as a critic. This from D. E. Richardson's essay 'Cheering up with Empson' [The Sewanee Review, 104 (1996) 106-7)]:
Empson's Toby-jug English personality bursts from his sentences. His style is racy, colloquial, plain-spoken, and gentlemanly in the hearty sense of the word. His could hardly be further from the clotted, undramatic style of contemporary high-academic literary alienation ... long time ago.) Empson's gruff Enlightenment rationalism gives him the courage to undertake many very complicated arguments against what he takes to be the obscurantism of scholars perverted by Christianity and conservatism. ... His attitude derives from an ethos worlds away from the edgy careerism of contemporary English departments. It is the ethos of the independent country gentleman on his ancestral acres quite convinced of his fairness, although giving many orders and obey ing few. This ethos can be stretched to describe Milton's Satan, Lord Rochester, and Shelley -- all of them among Empson's heroes. His deep sympathy with the type makes him an excellent commentator on the tone of eighteenth-century writing, in which the country gentleman who scoffs at the court is so often an ideal type.
It doesn't follow from this, of course, that Empson is necessarily the best critical glass through which to spy Landor -- but he may be, especially for Landor's prose. I'll come back to this.

Sunday, 13 November 2011


Soft-edged ridges and hills of mist.
The black tree trunks shiny as liquorish
wet as morning bathroom mirrors.
Clouds of satsuma-coloured leaves.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Found poem 2

Via. A neat concrete poem:
candor candify candific candid
fervor fervify fervific fervid
horror horrify horrific horrid
liquor liquefy liquific liquid
livor livify livific livid
lucor lucify lucific lucid
pallor pallify pallific pallid
rigor rigify rigific rigid
stupor stupefy stupific stupid
terror terrify terrific terrid
torpor torpify torpific torpid
vigor vigify vigific vigid
tepor tepify tepific tepid

Friday, 11 November 2011

Double plotting

Some Versions of Pastoral is one of those books of criticism (the Biographia Literaria is another) that I read breezily as a student, thinking 'yeah, yeah, cool, I get that', only to re-read as a grown-up to think 'gracious, I've really no idea what's going on here ...' Not that I want to overstate it.  Some of the chapters are more lucid than others, and I grasp (I think) some of the core ideas: putting the complex into the simple; the ironies of class; the relationship between heroic and pastoral modes. And re-reading it recently, the 'myth'-criticism stuff comes clearer to me than once it did; and the way Empson's pastoral is much more a temporal than a geographical location ('the child as swain' -- the Alice chapter was a revelation to me, actually; in my memory it was a straightforward Freudian decoding of Carroll's books. In reality, it's nothing of the sort, despite the fact that Empson, tricksily, insists that it is ('the books are so frankly about growing up that there is no great discovery in translating them into Freudian terms', 253). In fact the stress of the chapter is, on the contrary, on the way the (sexual) world of adulthood becomes nonsensical when it is, in E.'s rather brilliant phrase, 'seen through the clear but blank eyes of sexlessness.')

Anyway, the chapter that puzzled me the most on re-reading is the second: 'Double Plots'. I've read it twice now; and it starts out making what seem like quite modest points about the relationship between main plots and subsidiary plots in Renaissance drama -- the way Henry IV juxtaposes Hal's narrative and Falstaff's narrative in order to bring out the tension between heroic/tragic and pastoral vision; the way Lear's troubles with his children is mirrored, in a sort of ratio inferior, by Gloster's troubles with his children ('the effect of having two old men with ungrateful children, of different sorts, is to make us generalise the theme of Lear and feel that whole classes of children have become unfaithful, all nature is breaking up, as in the storm', 54). I see, I think; although that second example is perhaps a jump. But the chapter then spirals off into discussions of the one and the many, the relationship between individuals and God, love and madness, monarchy as a spiritual as against a mundane political phenomenon. It's hard to see how all these different things embroider the same point, or even the same group of points.

In a rather clotted essay, ‘Figural narrative and plot construction: Empson and pastoral’ (in Christopher Norris, William Empson: the critical achievement (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 196-97), Pamela McCallum takes the double plot to be a distinction ‘between the manifest content of texts and their hidden deep structures’:
His complex theory of double plot always and everywhere stresses the inner-textual or deep structural elements of a given dramatic work. As Paul de Man points out, Empson’s pastoral convention is based on an opposition between “the mind that distinguishes, negates, legislates, and the originary simplicity of the natural’.
I can see the latter as a rather cumbersome gloss on E.’s ‘putting the complex into the simple’; but I don’t see that the double plot, as E elaborates it in this chapter, is hidden in the way Norris implies here. It’s in plain sight – isn’t it?
By an insistence on the primacy of double plots he is able to articulate the essential mechanisms or deep structures which are buried somewhere within the dramatic form itself. [198]
Again—‘hidden’? In what sense is Henry IV's Falstaff element (for instance) hidden? Clearer is Nick Hubble, (in David James, Philip Tew (eds) New versions of pastoral: post-romantic, modern, and contemporary responses to the tradition (Associated University Presse, 2009), 125):
‘In the double plot … there appears to be a division between high-born, heroic, tragic strands on the one hand and lowborn, common, comic strands on the other. Empson points out that these two “halves”—which he calls “heroic” and “pastoral”—naturally belong together, demonstrating “a proper or beautiful relation between rich and poor”. This form was ambiguously poised: on the one hand, it decayed into allegorical pastoral, which “describes the lives ‘simple’ low people to an audience of refined wealthy people, so as to make them think first ‘this is true about everyone’ and then ‘this is specially true about us’”; while on the other, it also gave rise to mock pastoral in its fully developed form, exemplified for Empson by John Gay's The Beggar’s Opera (1728)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Friar Bacon

To be more specific, Friar Bacon and Friar Bacon Bungay (1589). The brass head, in particular, interests me: that proto-robot, and the concomitant notion that this head will somehow 'surround albion with mighty walls of bronze'. Here, at the end of the play, and after the magic head has been broken, Bacon dismisses his servant, Miles, from his service:
Villain, if thou hadst call'd to Bacon then,
If thou hadst watch'd, and wak'd the sleepy friar,
The Brazen Head had utter'd aphorisms,
And England had been circled round with brass.
But proud Asmenoth, ruler of the north,
And Demogorgon, master of the fates,
Grudge that a mortal man should work so much.
Hell trembled at my deep commanding spells,
Fiends frown'd to see a man their overmatch;
Bacon might boast more than a man might boast!
But now the braves of Bacon have an end,
Europe's conceit of Bacon hath an end,
His seven years' practice sorteth to ill end--
And, villain, sith my glory hath an end,
I will appoint thee to some fatal end.
Villain, avoid! Get thee from Bacon's sight!
Vagrant, go roam and range about the world,
And perish as a vagabond on earth!
Brass: the metallic defensor. 'Asmenoth' has puzzled commentators.  There's a demon called 'Asmath' in Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI 1:4:24; although editors sometimes correct this to 'Asnath', to make it an anagram of 'Satan'/'Sathanas'; perhaps both relate to 'Asmodeus the evil spirit' in Tobit 3:8-17. This latter seems likely, except that 'Ashmodeus' (in Tobit as elsewhere) is specifically a demon of lust. Some vaguely sexual connotations may be at work here; but surely in a purely alchemical-coded sense: two demons, one standing for zinc, another for copper, 'mating' together to produce the magical, prophylactic 'brass'.  We could go a little further down this alley, and see the celebrated prophetic speech at the play's end as engendered, via strange copulation, in this manner:
Why, Bacon,
What strange event shall happen to this land;
Or what shall grow from Edward and his queen?
Which is to say: 'what will be the result of this uncanny 'knowledge', both carnal and alchemic?'
I find by deep prescience of mine art,
Which once I temper'd in my secret cell,
[anachronistically, this has picked up additional resonance; for as we know now, sex produces a fertilised 'cell' that then grows into a future human body]
That here where Brute did build his Troynovant,
From forth the royal garden of a king
Shall flourish out so rich and fair a bud,
Whose brightness shall deface proud Phoebus' flower,
And over-shadow Albion with her leaves.
Till then Mars shall be master of the field,
But then the stormy threats of wars shall cease--
The horse shall stamp as careless of the pike,
Drums shall be turn'd to timbrels of delight;
With wealthy favours plenty shall enrich
The strand that gladded wandering Brute to see,
And peace from heaven shall harbour in those leaves
That gorgeous beautify this matchless flower.
Apollo's heliotropion then shall stoop,
And Venus' hyacinth shall vail her top;
Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Juno shall shut her gilliflowers up,
And Pallas' bay shall 'bash her brightest green;
Ceres' carnation, in consort with those,
Shall stoop and wonder at Diana's rose.
This prophecy is mystical.
But, glorious commanders of Europa's love,
That make fair England like that wealthy isle
Circled with Gihon and swift Euphrates,
In royalizing Henry's Albion
With presence of your princely mightiness--
Let 's march: the tables all are spread,
And viands, such as England's wealth affords,
Are ready set to furnish out the boards.
You shall have welcome, mighty potentates!
It rests to furnish up this royal feast,
Only your hearts be frolic; for time
Craves that we taste of naught but jouissance.
Thus glories England over all the west.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

SF Images

Since my take on SF, fundamentally, is that its belated dominance of visual media has changed it into an art of the expressive poetic image, I ought perhaps to take more seriously what C Day Lewis says (quoted in Kermode's Romantic Image [138]): 'the poetic myths are dead: and the poetic image, which is the myth of the individual, reigns in their stead.' It's the middle bit that really strikes me: the myth of the individual. Is this SF?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Empsonian Pastoral

The central ideas of Some Versions of Pastoral are already present in Seven Types of Amibguity:
It is this (in some sense conscious) clash between different modes of feeling which is the normal source of pleasure in pastoral; or, at any rate, in so far as pastorals fail to produce it, one may agree with Johnson and call them a bore.
Thou shalt eat crudded cream
All the year lasting,
And drink the crystal stream
Pleasant in tasting;
Whig and whey whilst thou lust
And brambleberries,
Pie-lids and pastry-crust,
Pears, plums, and cherries. (ANON., Oxford Book.)
The delicacy of versification here (alliteration, balance of rhythm, and so forth) suggests both the scholar's trained apprehension and the courtier's experience of luxury; but it is of the brambleberry that he is an epicure; the subject forces into contact with these the direct gusto of a "swain." That all these good qualities should be brought together is a normal part of a good poem; indeed, it is a main part of the value of a poem, because they are so hard to bring together in life. But such a case as this is peculiar, because one is made to think of the different people separately; one cannot pretend to oneself that the author is the rustic he is impersonating; there is an element of wit in the first conception of the style. (Seven Types, 114-15)
This formal relation between 'simple' and 'complex' ('putting the complex in the simple', the closest thing in Some Types of Pastoral to a nutshell-definition of the form, is actually a slogan for all art, as Empson himself knows) stitches form to social relations. Pastoral embodies and therefore enables, as well as representing, a coming-together of poor-simples and rich-sophisticateds.
The essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor, was to make simple people express strong feelings (felt as the most universal subject, something fundamentally true about everybody) in learned and fashionable language .... The effect was in some degree to combine in the reader or author the merits of the two sorts; he was made to mirror in himself more completely the effective elements of the society he lived in. This was not a process that you could explain in the course of writing pastoral; it was already shown by the clash between style and theme, and to make the clash work in the right way (not become funny) the writer must keep up a firm pretence that he was unconscious of it. (Some Versions, pp. 11-12)
According to George Watson [The Literary Critics (Hogarth 1986), 184] 'Empson has later insisted that his Marxism in the thirties and after -- at least until the Communist revolution in China in 1949, which he witnessed -- was more serious than his writings reveal, and Some Versions assumed the class analysis of society and the ideal status of the "proletariat".' This is true, although the point for Empson, at least in this book, is always to bring the potential for social harmony back into the orientations of individual subjectivity. René Wellek [A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950: V English Criticism 1900-1950 (Yale 1986), 280] puts forward a slightly more reductive reading.
[The book's] subject is the collapse of the pastoral relation between the swain-hero and the sheep people. It is again the theme of the loss of community, of the presumed original unity which underlies Eliot's concept of history. Pastoral is used in a very wide sense: thus the first chapter discusses proletarian literature which Empson considers a covert pastoral. But even proletarian literature is used in a much wider sense than the usual one ... Proletarian art is pastoral. The old pastoral implied "a beautiful relation between rich and poor" [11] but this relation has broken down, and the old pastoral had been replaced by the mock pastoral, the comic variety at first. Both versions, straight and comic, are based on a double attitude of the artist to the worker ("I am in one way better, in another not so good"), and this may well recognize a permanent truth about the aesthetic situation. "To produce pure proletarian art the artist must be one with the worker; this is impossible, not for political reasons, but because the artist never is at one with any public." [15]
Wellek might have added, though he doesn't, that this is a peculiarly Romantic version of 'the artist', which itself problematises the case being made (something of which Empson himself was aware: 'Mob thought may kill us all before our time, but the scientist's view of it should not be warped by horror, and the writer who isolates himself from all feeling for his audience acquires the faults of romanticism without its virtues.'). Actually, the implied individualism of all this is central to what Empson is arguing: not that the poet is alienated from society, but precisely that the (simple) poet holds within him/herself the (complex) of society. Here's Paul Alpers:
Marvell and Milton represent for Empson a withdrawal-to quote the verses that prompt the essay on "The Garden"-of the mind into its own happiness. The strengths of the "old pastoral" are most fully manifest in Elizabethan works, particularly the dramas, which are discussed in the chapter on "Double Plots." The Elizabethan double plot is a version of pastoral, because it is a convention-the strongest and most capacious, it would seem, in all our literature-for the stable presentation of conflicts and con- tradictions and for putting the complexities of life into the "simple" effects of art. [112]

"In pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one, and a suggestion that one must do this with all life, because the normal is itself limited, is easily put into the trick though not necessary to its power" (Some Versions of Pastoral, 114).

Monday, 7 November 2011

International Pastoral

One of the strengths of Raymond Williams's deconstruction of the facile binary 'country'/'city' in his The Country and the City (1973) is the way he follows through his analysis of the way the interpenetration of 'the rural' by Capital* expanded in the 20th-century via that process we call globalisation:
The unprecedented events of the nineteenth century, in which Britain became a predominantly industrial and urban society, with its agriculture declining to marginal status, are inexplicable and would have been impossible without this colonial development. There was a massive export of the new industrial production. Much of the trade of the world was carried and serviced by Britain, from its dominant position in shipping, banking and insurance, the new "City" of London. [335-36]
This remains, of course, one of the key contemporary valences of 'City': a shorthand for international capital focus and flow. Williams goes on:
The traditional relationship between city and country was then thoroughly rebuilt on an international scale. Distant lands became the rural areas of industrial Britain. [336]
This is an excellent point, I'd say: that 'pastoral' now must locate itself either in an idealised past, or in a version of former colonial geographical alterity (the tourist industry feeds this discourse, of course: as does the large literature of, essentially, pastoral ease, erotic play and freedom from care that locates itself 'somewhere foreign') -- or, most strikingly, both at the same time. This helps me come to terms with the way the text that may well prove the most significant pastoral text of the 20th-century -- I mean Tolkien's Lord of the Rings -- is simultaneously promiscously pastward (to a bourgeois 18th-century country gentility in the hobbits, to an idealised Medieval culture in Gondor, to a sturdy Anglo Saxon equine arcadia in Rohan) and international. This last feature is one that has long puzzled me about Tolkien's imagination: the whole of middle earth is essentially pastoral; the wickedness of the 'city', and the industrial revolution, is personalised -- it is what the wicked Saruman brings in his wake. Yet Middle Earth is somehow both a hypertrophic England, and a world-map, with varied and distinct 'foreign' nations and cultures. Williams point explains why this might be, I think.


*Here's Jonah Raskin's summary of part of Williams's argument:
In England, and in this country too, establishment critics have tended to be politically reactionary; they have idealized feudalism, and the slave South, and they have condemned cities as the seats of evil and corruption. Today, Toryism has settled in rural England. Writers have long praised "the Golden Age/' and "the good old days." Williams demolishes the myths about the beautiful, peaceful past. He reveals the commercialism, exploitation, and ruling class brutality in rural England. In the poetry which celebrates the English feudal order he points out that the whole question of labor is generally omitted, that workers are not even pre- sented as figures in a landscape. He reminds us that old property, like new property, was based on theft and conquest. At the same time he presents the continuing struggle in the countryside to improve the con- ditions and the quality of life. Rural folk are not simply idiots or quaint creatures. They have forged vital communities.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Lad of Kent

Lad and the Devil agree to build a bridge together. The bridge will link the east bank of the Kentish Stour and the western bank of the Welsh Wye; and Lad needs it to visit his wife, who otherwise would be weeks' of walking away. Now, the bridge must be built all in one night, for if it is unfinished in daylight it falls into the rivers as a heap of stones. 'I'll help you, Lad, and we'll agree to labour together at the task,' says the Devil; 'but the first soul to cross it shall be mine; such is my bargain.' 'Very well,' says Lad; and Lad knows that the Devil believes the first soul across will be Lad's wife--or Lad himself. So they two come at sunset, and the Devil carries a great brass hammer, and Lad carries only an old bone. 'You'll neither drives piles nor split rock with that,' said the Devil. And Lad replied: 'but I shall try, and it was my labour, not my success, you bargained for.' So the Devil had no choice but the do all the hard work himself, setting the piles and laying the heavy stones; whilst all Lad had to do was to set the slate to cope the parapet, and he did so by thwacking it into place with his bone. And before the dawn the bridge was finished, and the sky began to blush. And the Devil put out from his throat Lad's own voice, as the Devil can do, and called Lad's wife to come try the new bridge and visit her husband. But Lad was quicker, and with all his strength he hurled his bone over the bridge. His dog, Siôn Cent, ran after the bone and over the bridge, and laughingly Lad said: 'our deal is done, for there's your soul.' But the Devil shook his head, and said 'there's no soul in a dog, my Lad. The bargain is unfulfilled.' And Lad began to tremble with fear.

Just then, as the dawn swelled over the horizon, Lad saw his wife start on the Wye-side of the bridge and come towards him. All his lightness of spirit left him then, and he felt a terror and dread; for he loved his wife and could not abide the thought that she would become the Devil's. So he ran himself onto the bridge, and met his wife halfway. 'If you cross the Devil will take you,' he said. 'And if I cross, the Devil will take me!' 'What then?' replied his wife, 'must we abide on the middle of this bridge forever?' 'Return you to the far side, and I shall take myself back to the near, and though we never see each other again we shall at least escape the devil's clutches.' 'No!' cried his wife, 'I would rather die than face such a fate!' 'Then we must stay here,' said Lad, embracing his wife in the midst of the bridge, 'until we perish of old age! For we cannot go on.' But the sun was up now, and a piece of slate that Lad had laid carelessly fell away as the couple leant against it, and fell into the river: for an old bone does not settle a coping slate as well as a coping hammer. So the bridge was incomplete by daybreak, and all tumbled to loose blocks in the daylight. But Lad and his wife, clasping close together, fell into the river--whether the Wye or the Stour it is not possible to say, for they stood exactly in the midst of both yet wholly in the realm of neither. Certainly they were not seen again, and some said they fell into the waters and were drowned and so went to hell, and other said they dropped into some new land and began a new life, and the Devil was thwarted.

Saturday, 5 November 2011


Rousseau spoke truer than he knew when he said 'Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it we have always to combat with ourselves'. As Nietzsche might have said, and as the word itself encodes, virtue is a manly business: muscly, strenuous, combative. Virtue is the extracted conceptual essence of testosterone.

Friday, 4 November 2011


Obscurer and obscurer, as Alice might have said. I'm reading (for reasons to dull to go into here) some Gothic novels by Eliza Parsons. A couple are available on Google Books; so should you have a spare afternoon -- for it won't take you much longer -- you could read Parsons's The Peasant of Ardenne Forest (1801). You can see the epigraph, quoted on the title page there:
Hereditary honour in worldly estimation is accounted the most noble; but reason and sound judgment speaketh in favour of him who hath acquired distinction by his merit; for tis virtue and not birth which maketh men truly noble:--And poor is his boast, who is compelled to borrow his claims to respect from a long list of titled ancestors.
I wonder where this is quoted from. My suspicion is that Parsons made it up herself; but it's possible it's from something. Sentiments of this sort were common enough in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Perhaps Parsons is half remembering Voltaire:
• Les mortels sont égaux; ce n'est pas la naissance,
C'est la seule vertu qui fait la différence. [Eriphile, II:i (1732); Voltaire re-used the lines in Mahomet, I:iv (1741)]

Thursday, 3 November 2011


This link to the The Poetry Archive's page for Empson's poem 'Let it Go' includes a splendid reading-by-the-poet himself, from which we discover that Empson's voice was a lot posher than I previously assumed (the way he pronounces 'there' as they-are). Here's the poem:
It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
The more things happen to you the more you can't
Tell or remember even what they were.

The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don't want madhouse and the whole thing there.
The site suggests this is a poem about giving up writing poetry; the slightly mangled, wrongfooting syntax, the over-determined rhyme-scheme, the brevity, the studied vagueness of 'deep blankness' leading into the fluent mundanity of lines 2-4, the way the final word ('they-are') is used without any discernable specificity ... all this would fit such a reading. But the notion of a reading being 'fitted' to a poem, after the manner of a crossword clue being solved and the word fitted into the grid, rather revolts me, I must say.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Story Ideas

A genetic tweak creates the blue-green glaucophil, more efficient at processing sunlight into energy for plants than chlorophil (this latter having evolved at a time when there was a redder bias in the sunlight reaching the earth). It is not long before blue, rather than green, becomes the dominant vegetative colour. This in turn changes the planet's Albedo: and although this is only a marginal alteration, it is enough to alert extraterrestrial civilisations -- this being the trigger for which they have been waiting.

The development of a hugely sophisticated virtual world, modelled closely on the actual world, works as a laboratory in which social and political ideas are tested. The presence of this 'test' helps fine-tune a balance of right-wing and left-wing ideological ideas, identifying precisely the right mix of welfare and laissez-faire, which in turn leads to decades of unprecedented growth, stability, environmental and cultural balance. Some, however, brow anxious that this virtual world cannot accurately model the real world because, unlike the real world, it lacks a recurive virtual model of itself within itself. Altering the mdoel to include such a model-within-the-model fractures the coding, perhaps because the recursive model is already seeded with a model-within-a-model-within-a-model, which in turns opens an infinite regress. The model's processing needs collapse the worldweb, and precipiates collapse, civil war and disaster. Or ...?

Harry Gill. A punishment for crime, the Chills, alters the body's perception of how cold it is -- even though you are warm enough to remain healthy, you feel bitterly cold. Harry is brought to a lab attempting to chill something below absolute zero (which can be achieved by holding all its constituent atoms perfectly motionless, and then shrinking them all such that the distance between them increases). The experiment succeeds; and cold enters the bones of the world.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Wouldn't it be a shame if these were lost to posterity?

What do you mean, no?

Mr Stanley David Raine: "Ms Peebles, can you help me out with a joke on Twitter?" Ann Peebles: "I can't, Stan D. Raine."

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.

1% of sealife hog 80% of the legs: Octopi Wall Street!

Tilda Swinton stars as a US woman who finally accepts her reading of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is wrong: We Need To Cave About Tolkien.

My favourite writer who is also a Japanese cow is probably Moo-rukami.

I tend to shirk. Don't get me wrong, I don't like doing it -- in fact it's hell. But what can you do? It's the shirk-hell of life.

Take Deleuze Train To Clarksville #PopSongLiteraryCritics

'Hair gel' and 'hedge-L' are pronounced the same. This explains the trouble I had trying to buy an L-shaped hedge at the garden centre.

Treebeard's activity was vital in the war against Sauron. Hence the Chinese curse: ‘May you live through Ent resting times.’

There's a reason why sans serif is a godly font: Satan lurks in serif letter-tails and adornments. The Devil is in the D-tail.

JMW Turner was a great artist, no question. But the nudes painted by his racier brother, NSFW Turner, have more commercial appeal.

Publishers have rejected my novel about a Vampire landlord called Ian & his difficulties in today's housing market: Let the Right One, Ian.

He discharged his firearm and gouged a line in this metal plate. He shoots, he scores.

Oh no! The Hindenburg has set off on its maiden voyage without sufficient supplies of Middle Eastern dip & Earl Grey! Oh, the hummus an’ the tea!

Winnie the Pooh's death moved Kierkegaard deeply. He published his attempts to make sense of it in Concluding Unscientific Pooh's Crypt.

I've written a study of problematic paternity in Arthurian Literature from a Kierkegaardian perspective. It's called Uther/Or.

I bought a fork with operating instructions actually engraved upon it. It does what it says on the tine.

They call them ‘Velociraptors’, but I'VE never seen one on a bicycle.

My friend Paul's Tiscali email account auto-correct suffers paranoid delusions. It's Paul@Tiscali correctness gone mad.

I used to buy all my knitwear from ‘Predatory Fish Wool Clothing Inc’. But, frankly, they jumpered the shark long ago.

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.