Sunday, 31 December 2006


Where art is concerned, tradition and originality are incompatible. Or perhaps a better word would be immiscible: for some of the best avant-garde art has precisely that oil-and-water-y quality.

Saturday, 30 December 2006

Philosophical gas

We can think, perhaps, of philosophy as such as a metaphorical air: which is to say, not as the medium through which ‘concepts’ or ‘truth’ are carried, but as the possibility of concepts themselves. Schopenhauer said: “I have never professed to propound a philosophy that would leave no questions answered. In this sense philosophy is actually impossible; it would be the science of omniscience. But … there is a limit up to which reflection can penetrate, and so far illuminate the night of our existence, although the horizon always remains dark. This limit is reached by my doctrine of the will-to-live that affirms or denies itself in its own phenomenon. To want to go beyond this is, in my view, like wanting to fly beyond the atmosphere. We must stop here.’ [Schopenhauer, vol II, p.591-2]. It can be agreed that the philosopher flies on the air, and cannot fly without the air. But what if the air does not come to an end, only thins to one degree or another? Can a Philosopher fly this infinitely attenuating medium – to the moon?

Friday, 29 December 2006


‘Can you tell me who won the losers’ race?’ only looks like a paradox. Why should the losers, gathered together into one race, want to make a virtue of their failing? Which one of them wouldn’t think to themselves, ‘now, in this company of losers, I have my best chance yet to transform myself into a winner …’

Thursday, 28 December 2006

Criticism of Poetry

Lyric criticism. The ideal of a poem as a brief text that must be unpacked into much greater verbiage by the critic. Platonic form: the haiku that generates Gibbon’s-Decline-quantities of prose exposition. Like an airbag; or one of those inflatable life rafts that explodes into stiffness and into which dozens of survivors can wriggle. As if literary criticism were a form of explosion inflation …

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

‘The mystic obscurity of illumination…’

Sun cataracts a whiteness
across the mirror’s glare:
all light and all blindness
folded together there.

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

The mortality of space

'Time is money'. Why has no equivalent adage been coined, 'space is money'? Is it because, although we know from practical experience how limited space is--how in other words demand always exceeds supply for property, real estate, freedom from crowds and so on--nevertheless our sense of space is shaped by a fundamentally metaphysical understanding of space as infinite? Whereas time is inflected by our purely personal understanding of time as finite, as bounded by our individual deaths? Why this should be I don't know. Perhaps we do think of ourselves residually as plains apes, with the whole world spatially before us; as Natty Bumppos, as Tennysonian Ulysses forever roaming with a hungry heart, moving across a landscape 'whose margin fades forever and forever as we move'. It would be cannier, surely, to think in terms of the mortality of space, a separate, unanological but just as real equivalent to the mortality of time.

It puts me in mind of the last lines of Paradise Lost, a poem that ends almost with a metaphysical trade-off of, on the one hand, topographical containment and unbounded time; and on the other temporal finitude and 'the world was all before them ...' spatial openendedness. To put it another way, when the infinite time is lost to mankind via Adam's sin, the boundedness of Edenic space is rescinded. Metaphysically speaking, time and space are together a zero-sum, or infinite-sum, game.

Monday, 25 December 2006

Two contrary positions

1. My strength is not your weakness. My weakness is not your strength. A strength that finds itself only by taking advantage of my weakness is no real strength. A grown man does not prove himself by boxing with an infant.

2. Strength is a relative, and not an absolute, term. It is always strength to do such-and-such, or strength in relation to such and such. My arm is strong compared to an infant's but weak compared to a steam-hammer. To say so is to make more than a literalist or merely descriptive statement; because understanding that there is no such quantity as a reified 'perfect strength' (any more than there exists 'perfect goodness', 'perfect love', or 'ultimate evil' -- all of these being relative terms) frees one from the tyranny of hating one's own weakness. One's weakness is a necessary part of one's strength, and vice versa.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Varieties of Light

1. Snowday. It is a hard sunlight smearing off the snow, giving the white fields an odd and scorched look.

2. Astronomy. The raw light of a blue star. The cooked light of a red giant.

3. Starburst. You're walking on a wet beach, the bald brown sand that the withdrawing tide has planed. A circle of dryness spreads, fringed with coronal threads, under the pressure of each of your planted footprints, and dies back when your foot leaves the ground.

Saturday, 23 December 2006

On depression

They say that women forget the pain of childbirth. So do people who have lived through a period of happiness forget the pain of their previous depression. And when it returns it is with a startling oxymoronic combination of surprise and deep recognition, a sort of terrible returning home. Oh this again …

Friday, 22 December 2006

Jesus Christ as Lord and King

Once upon a time, of course, teaching people to think of Christ as Lord and King made sense, because it enabled them to relate their religious life to their actual social practice, in which obedience, loyalty to and love for an actual lord and an actual king were real features of life. Now, though, for a Western democratic citizen ‘lord’ and ‘king’ signifies two things: antiquity and, like, the fact that Jesus is really really elevated, or something, but in a way that is, like, symbolic and ceremonial rather than in a way that wields actual power in the world. As ‘monarch’ becomes a more and more outdated title, and actual monarchs becomes more and more obviously token figures, this semantic field will work more firmly as a shaping power in diminishing the potency of people’s conceptualisations of Christ. I’m amazed the Christian churches haven’t jettisoned it.

But then again, with what could it be replaced? Is making oneself a slave of Christ so incompatible with modern emotional and intellectual sensibilities that the very notion of the mastery of Christ becomes corroded? What about--Christ the President and Billionaire? Christ the Capo di tutti capi? Christ the Celebrity?

Not a terribly Christmassy thought, really.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

On atheism

This is a line of thought that 'atheism', though wishing to define itself as independent of God, is inevitably already defined in reference to God, and is therefore a sort of subset of religious belief. You can see why the logic appeals. But to say 'atheism is something always already grounded in theism' is to work with the presupposition that God is the ground, and the other quantity is always thrown into relief by that ground. The problem here is that the opposite argument has exactly as much legitimacy. In other words we could argue that godlessness in the ground -- let's say, the whole empty, rainy, stony Earth into which early man came into consciousness -- and religion, prophylactic against angsty nihilism and despair, is always thrown into relief against that ground. That atheism, in other words, is prior. So, not that secularism is a religion, but religion is another kind of seculairsm. That theism is another kind of atheism.

That's not to say that there's a way of deciding which of these, ying, yang, is the right way of looking at things, of course.

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

The image

There is room for the image in the eversplendid place. For certain kinds of image, at any rate.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Modern Times

One of the symptoms of modern times is the way that love as a general quantity has become so thoroughly personalised and sexualised. It’s about me and the person I want to fuck. It’s there to fulfil me, and it finds expression in my fucking, because that enables passion, excitement, danger, piquancy, ego-reinforcement and sexual pleasure. It’s, frankly, hard to beat. Most of us would of course acknowledge that family-love is also an important part of life: but it is something that seems to have been very sharply separated out from the eros-love. This leads to a number of awkwardnesses—for most of us come to sexual maturity within families, and therefore find ourselves experiencing the sometimes uncomfortable frictions of different and incompatible modalities of loving at work upon us. Best get the hell out of there, maybe: find yourself a girlfriend/boyfriend, find your own space and get down to it. These are the times we find ourselves filled with a disproportionate and rather nameless dread at the prospect of our own parents having sex (ugh! I don’t want to think about it!) On a cultural level, and lancing more sharply into the tender spots of the collective psyche, a mass hysteria has accumulated around the distressing subject of child-abuse. Sex and the family become increasingly so immiscible as to begin actively threatening one another. This really is not a healthy state of affairs.

‘Love has been personalised and sexualised in the past 200 years, and that process has been in part responsible for cutting the ties which bind individuals to a social sense, and an understanding (and acceptance) of her or his part in society. When we started to think of love in terms of romance, of sexual desire, and above all of a lifelong entitlement to both experiences, then we effectively turned away from engagement with the intimately social question of the impact of our actions upon others. Thus we can (and obviously do) theorize extensively about the ‘breakdown’ of the family and the rise of the single-person society, but until we address the beliefs that motivate and inspire these changes we examine only the consequences rather than the causes’ [Mary Evans, Love: an Unromantic Discussion (Polity 2006), 123]

Monday, 18 December 2006

On Tony Blair

The gag, famously, is: ‘the great thing is sincerity; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made’. But it’s easier said than done. There’s a trick, and I’ll tell you what it is: you must, knowing yourself to be insincere, nevertheless believe in your own sincerity. Now, the problem in putting it like that is in suggesting a diremption between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’, and that’s not the trick. I might with equal accuracy say, ‘you must, believing yourself to be insincere, nevertheless know that you are sincere.’ The trick is that this sincerity is rooted not in the content of what the person says, nor in the manner of the saying, nor the intentions of the person saying it. Sincerity becomes a universal category into which you tap regardless of your localised pragmatic deceitfulness. It’s not a task for the actor, even the method actor; nor is it something that can be accomplished by the self-deluder, or the non-believer. It is a rare and very valuable social ability that only a few possess. They often go far with it.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Fathers and daughters

A daughter will redeem a father, assuming he's capable of being redeemed. That's the difference between daughters and sons.

Saturday, 16 December 2006

Two summer poems (for midwinter)

Migraine weather, ninety,
or ninety-nine.

Blipping poplars
barcode a road

straight as rail, or
a thermometer line.

Four dogs, down, tongues
like untucked shirtstails.

Mud, or Assyrian concrete,
preserving the hook-prints

of its many past horses,
all facing in different directions.

Friday, 15 December 2006


There has been an act of what amounts to collective forgetting about air. Air has become a sort of vacuum—a strange paradox. There is, it seems, no air between us and the distant hills turning them blue; it is the hills themselves that are blue, or so we have fallen into the habit of thinking.

And yet air is the most intimate part of the natural world. It interpenetrates us; it is that part of the external world that most fully invades us. This air that circles the globe is also a component of my body, as essential and as internalised as my bones, my spleen, my heart. The sky over France is a huge extension of a part of my body that is rooted next to my heart. Air, in other words, is the only one of my body’s organs that is both common and ubiquitous. People on the other side of the planet are internalising my organ, as I theirs. The blowing of the winds is the most communal, orgiastic and deep-throated of blow-jobs.

Our thoughts about air see it as a medium, as the neutral and invisible solvent by which everything else is carried: sound waves travel in air (as if sound waves could be separated out from air! Say rather that sound waves are air); pollution is ‘air-borne’, as if air is the pure white packhorse and ‘pollution’ is the dirty sack of coals across its saddleback. This sort of thinking doesn’t help us. Pollution, in fact, is simply one of the manifestations of air. Thinkers who have long since chased away the superstitious old habit of thinking in terms of ‘appearance and reality’, of ‘phenomenal and noumenal’, of ‘truth and representation’ still assume this structure of thought with respect to the air they breathe. Freeing this sort of thinking from ‘air’ will open the windows.

So, for example, if we talk of ‘clouds existing in the air’, it implies that they might exist outside the air. But clouds are air, another one of its many protean forms.

To be more specific on this question: by talking of ‘the five senses’ we tend to hypostise the sensed material; so ‘a sense of smell’ implies that there is a material substance out there called ‘smell’ that our sense apprehends. This is not quite the case. ‘Scent’ is not some pure, ideal quantity that is carried ‘on the air’; it is, once again, one of the many forms of air. Similarly, sound waves can no more be separated from the air than ocean-waves can from the ocean. What would a ‘pure’ ocean-wave look like, the isolated ‘content’ separated from the ‘form’ of the sea? Perhaps we are tempted to think the answer to that question in terms of ‘information’, but that doesn’t get us any further, because information is always already embodied in one or other material form. There’s no such thing as ‘pure’ information.

Our sense of taste is closely bound up with our sense of smell; and the nerve-endings that mediate our sense of touch are fine-tuned for operation in air (although, of course, it is possible to feel pressure and temperature without air; but that's the crudest manifestation of the sense). This is to say: air shapes four of our senses. Only sight is exceptional, and it is so in interesting ways. So: the lunar astronaut only hears, only smells and tastes, only feels by virtue of the envelope of air inside his or her spacesuit, but he or she can see the stars without air. From this follow several interesting consequences.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

On Silence

How many does it take to make a silence? Is it two? Or one? But of course the answer is none. You cannot have a silence if somebody is there.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

On defining poetry

Poetry is a way of speaking that is not, in any one of a dozen senses, a usual way of speaking. It is determined by the tensions of its structure and style and idiom, inflected through the poised artificiality of its manner. It is a negotiation between form and formality.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Alice the Mystic

It is always the present in a mirror. Who says so? Ageless Alice says it; and so do you. You've looked in the looking glass (what a name! as if the glass is looking at you!) and you've seen the thing I'm talking about. You know as well as anybody that a looking glass has no future and no past.

If the mirror world and the real world mix, anti-matter and matter, there will be an explosion. This is because timelessness and time make a perilously volatile mix. It's a truth well known to the world's mystics. ("'For what use is a life,' said Alice, 'without visions and conversations'")

Monday, 11 December 2006

Volcano mathematics

What’s inside the volcano? Fire and the gleaming lava that washes the face with heat? Or soot and choking dust and hills of ash? Or perhaps the question should be: which quantity outweighs the other? This is a difficult mathematics.

Sunday, 10 December 2006


The word passion is linked etymologically to concepts of passivity. We don’t think of it this way anymore of course: we think of passion as a positive force (a positive good, often). It’s a wish fulfilment thing. ‘I feel passionately about this …’ ‘I feel passionately about you…’ These expressions actually mean ‘I have surrendered the agency and activity of my feelings; I am in a merely reactive and passive state.’ Dominos fall with exactly this passion.

But (and this is the nub) this does not entail a Stoic or a Rational imperative to escape our passions. To attempt to be free of passions is to be seduced by a dream of perfect independence: power, active control, the ideally circulating Unaccommodated Man. But it’s a false flicker. Passion is a relational term, and it is only our relations define us as fully human. Nobody can be passionate about themselves—enthusiastic, excited maybe, but not passionate, any more than the universe could ever passively react to the universe, or the Singulatity be passionate about the Singularity. It’s a misunderstanding of the term. So the attempt-Stoic or the attempt-Rational to overcome our passions is actually a project to isolate and dehumanise.

The original meaning of the word is now only recalled in archaic linguistic fossils. The Passion of the Christ is not about the fury or the intense desire of Christ, but the period of agonizingly passive suffering of the Christ. But even here the modern and original senses blend semantically, and indeed representationally: in Gibson’s film the quasi-erotic objectification of the naked body in pain parlays passivity into the passionate lust-for-pain which is so much the currency of contemporary cinema.

Saturday, 9 December 2006


The mistake is to think that age accumulates; the way, for instance, we will talk of a hundred-year-old as ‘a great age’. In fact a five year old is not only as full of age as a centenarian, she’s often more so. Now I don’t mean to imply, saying this, that 'age' is synonymous with 'life'. Of course it’s trivially obvious that a five year old has more life than a 100-year-old. (This is almost, indeed, as if we’re saying life is something that cannot be accumulated; but again, of course that's right.) Nor can it be said that ‘age’ is synonymous with ‘wisdom’; nor is it purely numerical. Rather it is constitutive, and a child consists of more than an adult. Or put it another way: life, like narrative, is a focalised thing; except that it focalises at every moment with equal force. And focalisation cannot be accumulated.

Friday, 8 December 2006


And here is a songbird so tiny, its bones so aeroed, its feathers so filigree, that in some cases its heaviest organs are its eyes. Because they’re filled with fluid, of course; like its belly, except that its belly can be emptied. Which makes you think: how heavy a thing sight is! Isn’t there a lighter way of apprehending light?

Thursday, 7 December 2006


Three trombonists, their hands
snagged on their brass loops,
heil in unison.

What battlements are these?
What sky-high white
citadel? Whose heralds?

Wednesday, 6 December 2006


Buoyancy is by definition a dual term: the relation between a thing and the medium in which it is contained. But we like to abstract it, to treat it like a singular and absolute quality. So, if I think of somebody's "emotional buoyancy" I tend is to forget that such resiliance depends precisely as much on the emotional environment as the person concerned. And, of course, some people live in emotional equivalent of the Dead Sea.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006


Fire, being a combustion, is always in the process of rendering itself inert.

Monday, 4 December 2006

On being a good teacher

War, says Thucydides, is a great teacher; an equivalence that can usefully be swung about its pivot. For the best teachers make war upon us, insofar as our ignorance determines us; and the worst teachers attempt to make a truce and peace with their pupils (you know: anything for an easy life ...)

Sunday, 3 December 2006

Lady Macbeth

Look over there—Lady Macbeth is still scrubbing at her hands. For her it’s not a problem; it’s a routine. It’s how she feels comfortable. You might stop her doing it, forcibly, and save her fingers from blisters; but to do so would only result in more severe blisters on the skin of her mind. Leave her alone. Obsessive compulsions, most of them minor, are surprisingly ubiquitous in society. There are reasons why. Many of these repetitive actions are codified by society (religious ritual, say); some are privately arrived at and privately observed; a very small number are treated as if they were pathological. I’d suggest the reverse; they are, in their myriad variety, a necessary prophylaxis against the chaos of the universe.

Saturday, 2 December 2006

Writing about love

Love is a difficult thing to write about, not because it manifests itself in the world in impossible ways (I mean, impossible to apprehend, impossible to reproduce in the novelistic idiom—although there may be something in this) but because love by its nature inflects so large a quantity of desire that its representation gets pulled out of shape. Love in fiction becomes the textual expression of how we desire love to be. As a result we are continually getting it wrong. I'm talking about more than the simple form, the familiar erotic-romantic fantasies where you get the guy, and he’s a splendid fellow; or you get the girl and she’s a doll (though that's clearly one way of getting it wrong). I'm talking about more complex forms too, for they do not escape the black-hole-tugging ellipses of desire mapped onto lived-experience; even tales of the woe in marriage, of desperate affairs or exploitative relations tend to represent sex as mind-blowing, love as life-consuming. This is the shape of our desire for desire.

Friday, 1 December 2006

On the re-definition of a commonly-used term

So, there’s the concept of body fascism. We all know what body fascists do. They oppress the fat man and the fat woman on account of their corpulence. The fat person is the victim, here, the body fascist the deplorable one. This is to read ‘fascism’ (loosely, of course, but comprehensibly) as trope for ‘systematic or oppressive cruelty’ on an individual level. But there are other perspectives.

So, imagine a world in which some nations so effectively hoard and consume food that they become, on a large scale, morbidly obese; whilst other nations have such a precarious supply of basic sustenance that major international organisations such as the Famine Early Warning Systems Network are necessary mechanisms to bellweather the phenomenon. These people over here have the power, the money, and therefore the food, and they are fat. Those people over there lack those three things and are thin, or are dying. Now: who’s the victim, and who the body-fascist, in such a world?

See, that’s what I hate about the way that term gets used.