Saturday, 31 March 2007

Insincere novelists

We seem to be reconciled to the insincerity of our real-life politicians; but we excoriate passionately any perceived insincerity in our purveyors of fiction. This tells us where, life or art, our emotional investment in sincerity is made.

Friday, 30 March 2007


In the mythology of the Earth the entire globe was once covered with restless ocean, until Providence relented and drew the waters back to reveal dry land again. In the mythology of the Moon, the same is true, except that instead of oceans of water the myth talks of a single ocean of parching air, withdrawn by the merciful Sun.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

A non-debt theory of duty

Duty is suffixed from due, which in turn is the English derivative from Latin's debitum, owed. Which is to say, duty is the state of being in debt. One's duty, is what one owes. But duty in the sense we now understand the term is disinterested, whereas debt as we now understand it (which is to say, now that usury has been stricken from the list of appalling sins by the Western world) is precisely interested ... interest is due upon debt: interest, we might say, is the duty of debt.

This semantic separation figures a more profound shift of cultural meaning than is generally understood. We need, if the term is to be made fresh and socially valuable again (as it really, really needs to be)--we need to remove 'duty' from the semantic field of debt. Our sense of duty is too lamentably that of something we owe, the realm of the 'owed' or 'ought' (hence we say: 'I ought to do more about global warming, I ought to give more money to charity'); but the sorts of things we owe now (our mortgage, for instance) are things we seek primarily to get rid of. Duty, in the broadest sense, cannot be 'discharged'; we can never be, and should not seek to be, in a position where all our 'duty' is paid off, and we can relapse into destructive selfishness. Duty is a freedom, not an obligation: a freedom from the tyranny of self, not a mortgaging of that self to society as a whole. Duty is always a free choice, a flowing-out of the human from ourselves to others. Duty is a liberality.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The chauffeur

There's an anecdote connected to Dylan Thomas, that as a child he boasted to a friend "my Dad's got a chauffeur", to which the friend retorted "What's he want a chauffeur for? He hasn't got a car." I like this, because it expresses the sense that the exchange-value (the cultural or social-heirarchical exchange-value) of cars has always been more important than their use value. First, we consider the car as expressive of our status; secondarily, we consider the car as a means of getting about.

So I wonder about the future of the chauffeur. There's has, it's true, been a tension between cars as symbols and status and cars as symbols of our control and power (our seven league boots, our Sleipnir, our magic carpet). Hence the advertisers stress us in the driving seat, as if the car is an extension of our muscles and sinews. But driving is also work; and para-driving activities--locating parking, servicing the machine, filling it with petrol and changing its tires--is especially onerous. As the breach between wealthy and poor gapes ever wider, and as the wealthy gets relatively richer and richer, it's hard to believe that we won't contract this labour to others, as the wealthy tend to do with all the labour they find even mildly onerous. The chauffer will return.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007


I used to wonder, reading 'Even as the sun with purple-coloured face/Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn', and then reading the scholarly footnote to the effect that 'for the Elizabethans, purple was a colour much closer to the modern understanding of "red" than to the modern understanding of "purple"'. I'd wonder: how do you know? Then I'd wonder: but is this right? Doesn't this rob Shakespeare's poem of the ability to startle us with a striking image that itself distorts reality? Doesn't this merely suck the poem back into the grey and sluggish whirlpool of 'the expected, the normal', greying it in the process? I liked the borderline-surreality of a strenuous, purple-faced sun. I resented sacrificing it to Elizabethan pedantry.

There's a whole history of the way 'purple' signifies, of course. And red, too. But in red I have a personal stake; for Adam means red, they tell me. Adam means earth, out of which the first Adam was sculpted. And it means red too because earth is red.

But earth is not red. Earth is brown, dark or pale. And now, perhaps as I get older, I find that sauvage expressionist redness of earth too harsh on the sensibilties. Couldn't it be that Adam means red and earth, much as 're[a]d' is able to mean a particular colour and a book that eyes have excavated of meaning, without us having to believe that this colour and those books are somehow connected? ('The past participle of to read records the historical fact that all books were originally red in colour ...')

Monday, 26 March 2007


It's the most obvious thing in the world: that in the absense of a notional 'wholeness' everything is fragmentary. We need, then, a more nuanced vocabulary of incompleteness than we presently possess. At the very least, we need a way of talking about the joyful-fragmentary in a way that distinguishes it from the distressing-fragmentary. The former is the more interesting. The incomplete boat in Laurel and Hardy's Towed in a Hole is a more profound figure than Antigone. Indeed, despite supposedly embodying a fractured tragic being-in-the-world, Antigone has about her an unpleasant whiff of pretend self-completeness. Her brother dying is the best thing ever to happen to her; now she can stand hermetically and ideally alone, which is what she always wanted. But Laurel without Hardy? Hardy without Laurel? Their fishing boat whole and floating and reeling in fish? Inconceivable. That's the human situation.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

The puerile-tragic

In a letter to Hegel from the mid 1790s, Schelling writes: "the real difference between critical and dogmatic philosophy appears to be that the former proceeds from the absolute I (which has yet to be conditioned by the object), while the latter proceeds from the absolute object of non-I." This is where Peter Szondi starts his discussion of the philosophy of the tragic, with Schelling pondering the two choices that proceed from this: either taking the absolute as the object of one's knowledge and "paying the price of absolute passivity", or else positing everything in the subject and negating everything in the object, "the striving for immutable selfhood, unconditional freedom and unbounded activity". Schelling rejects both possibilities in favour of a third: "you are right," another letter begins, "one thing still remains--to know that there is an objective power which threatens to destroy our freedom and, with this firm and certain conviction in our hearts, to fight against it, to summon up all our freedom and thus to perish.". "And yet," Szondi adds, "as though shrinking from the recognition of the objective, the young Schelling permits this struggle only in tragic art, not in life."

This willed resistance against the overwhelming force of the Absolute Other, when the Other is God, or Fate, or Necessity or suchlike, produces the sort of tragedy that Schelling and Szondi like. But when this Absolute is "the tragic" itself ... when, for instance, it is the notion of human dignity obtained by willed resistance against overwhelming force ... then it is precisely the undignified, the sardonic, the idiotic and contemptible, the willed juvenility of opposition that occupies this privileged position. This is the space of the tragic today: the puerile tragic.

Saturday, 24 March 2007


My doggy-stoical persona says "self-indulgence is a flat impossibility: the self is created and sustained in self-discipline and is corroded and dissolved in self-indulgence". But that inner Diogenes isn't quite right. Indulgence does create a self, of course; just not the same self as discipline, and just not the self you necessarily want.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Shock tactics

Is it meaningful to talk of shock tactics? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? I suspect that 'shock' here is actually code for 'modulated emphaticism', something taken as being continually under one's control. Actual shock, though, would unweave the one's tactics as violently as it would assault the other.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Time and Times

The world of difference: 'sometime'; 'sometimes'.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Rhyming love

Famously, there are few rhymes for 'love', and most of the ones that exist are without, or of only glancing, relevance to the concept: 'glove', 'shove', 'dove'. Poets are left either with 'above', whose elevation, rather sentimentally (indeed, rather misleadingly) strikes an appropriate note, or else with sight-rhymes (a contradiction in terms, that phrase) like 'move' and 'prove'.

I wonder: what if this paucity of rhyme words is not simply a coincidence? What if it reflects a subconscious English cultural desire to separate 'love', in this small way, from the vulgar herd of other words, to preserve its uniqueness and singularity? That would suggest a nicety not shared by other languges (there are plenty of rhymes for amour, after all). It would also, rather oddly, suggest that certain other words ('orange') have a similarly unique position in our collection unconscious. For the love of any number of oranges ...

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Angelus Novus

‘A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.’ [Benjamin]

It has becomes almost a commonplace, today, that we move from past to future with out face to the past and our back to the future. (What does Kiekegaard say? ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’) There’s an intuitive sense of rightness about seeing things that way, I suppose. But is it correct?

I find myself perfectly able to scan out the landscape of my future, barring unlikely accident: I shall work, from day to day, at what I work at. I shall raise my child; she will go through school, to university and into work herself. I shall grow older, weaker, more set in my ways. It’s all perfectly clear. My past, however, is very shady: nothing at all from my early years, distorted and selected elements only from the last three decades. Am I oriented in that direction? No, my life is oriented towards what shall come. The past has died, and things that die cease to be. The only bit of the past still alive is inside my brain pan, and that’s mostly there to help me navigate the future. Benjamin has his angel facing the wrong way; A.N. is actually reading a science fiction novel, and peering as well as his eyes are able to the future.

Monday, 19 March 2007


Human reason is by nature persistently localised.

Sunday, 18 March 2007


It's almost a shocking or taboo thing to say nowadays, but pity is always very funny. Not that this hilarity of pity doesn't stops it being an effective social tool, or degrades its crucial and humane role in our affairs. But it is a passionate thing in the same way laughter is a passionate thing. As to why this is so, I'm not sure, though I'd hazard a guess it has something to do with empathy, common humanity, and the shared sense of the ridiculousness of our mutual circumstances. But I could be wrong.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Bad writers

The extraordinarily high levels of mass proficiency in novel-writing is, paradoxically, the greatest contemporary enemy of the novel today. It is drowning out, or flushing away, the particularity that used to give novels their appeal.

What we need now are bad writers. Not, of course, run-of-the-mill bad writers (which is to say, not incompetent, or banal, or trivial or merely conventionalised writers). No, what is needful are heroically bad writers, writers who are prepared to stain the form with their own fluids: writers prepared to be as dull as Mann, as self-indulgent as Proust, as sadistic as Nabokov, as creatively old-fashioned as Tolkien. Writers who have the genius to turn their particular badness into fertile new possibilities for the form.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Seaside and mess poem

Beached seaweed, piled
pasta verde everywhere.
The sand is veined.

A breakwater, bricked
stone loaves, bubble
wrapped in barnacles, lobed.

The clouds wring sunlight out in folds,
and these lurking sea brightnesses
are, maybe, how complexity looks.

Not to say that complexity is
merely mess. But only
that decay and complexity mesh

like the strands and gaps in a net,
each as necessary as each for
scooping the sea.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

O what a rogue and peasant slave am I.

This threeway lower-classness is the worst that Hamlet can think of himself: to be a vagrant or homeless man; to work the fields; to be owned by somebody else. In Hamlet's psychopathology, existence at any level below aristocracy is so contemptible than oblivion is to be preferred. So deepseated a sickness, so profound a misunderstanding of the human condition. To see the whole world through a consciousness so bent out of shape, and yet to believe it an olio of wisdom: how very peculiar.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007


It's almost always the case that a descent into the hell of self-conscious ‘piety’ (perhaps godliness, perhaps a secular holier-than-thouness) is needful to pave the way to self-knowledge.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007


'Treat humanity as an end, and never as a means'. Quite right. But how to separate out these ends from these means? Who believes that those two things are distinct and sealed away from one another?

Monday, 12 March 2007

Moon poem

The moon like an open-brackets,
The sky coloured blue-grape and white
chickenpox stars all over it.

The lawn is the darkest of purples
in the moonlight, the cold,
in such moonlight as there is.

Whatever you do is alright.
The moon looks no bigger from
an upstairs window than a down.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

In the fulness of one's grief

It's a mistake to talk about being full of grief, as if grief were a tumour, or a full stomach, or something oedematous. Grief is an absence. It doesn't push, it sucks. To make a metaphorical cut or slice in the sealed membrane of the grieving self is not to permit matter to gush out; on the contrary, it is to permit the unbearable world to come surging in.

Saturday, 10 March 2007


A rose is a flower is a symbol is a girl's-name is a wine is a finger-colour.

Friday, 9 March 2007

The novel

The currency of novels being memory, novels can be divided into those that perfectly and those that imperfectly memorialise their events. The latter case, of course, is truer to life; and therefore a more supple and effective aesthetic strategy.

Thursday, 8 March 2007


Selfishness is not 'a failing'; it is the form of all human failings at the sticking point.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007


We might claim that ‘our hearts are turned to stone’ but, as Shakespeare so cunningly puts it, even a hardened heart can pain us (‘I strike it and it hurts my hand’).

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

The sleep of reason ...

We might, as a thumbnail definition of madness, voice the idea that mad people have an insufficiency of reason (they're more like beasts, they manifest the fallenness of Adam's children etc); but the mad scientist is the reverse of this, mad through a sort of excess of reason.

It's not even a case of the sleep of reason producing monsters; it's the waking moments of reason that produce the monsters. The sleep (that moment in Frankenstein where Victor just, you know, passes out, wakes up and goes on with his life forgetting that he's just created a hideous monster) is the psychotheraputic part.

Monday, 5 March 2007

This microscopic god

'God' is another word for 'immortal'. Across its long history humankind has deified most of the things around it that has seemed, to its impermanent eyes, to possess undyingness: the natural world, the sun and stars, the sea and rivers, they were all here before we were and they'll all be here after we've gone.

Now we know better; but it sometimes strikes me as odd that nobody has thought properly to deify the one living process we know to be immortal: DNA itself. Is it the smallness of the object that makes this unappealing to people? We prefer not to confer deity upon the microscopic. We deny DNAity.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Death is all metaphors

Imagine an allegory; a large-scale, coherent and world-building allegory, something like The Faerie Queene. You got it, in your mind? Good. Have your knight, Virtue, ride in. Have him slay the dragons, Error, Sin and Doubt, and rescue the beautiful Lady Truth, good, good. But--next on the road he encounters the Monster Allegoria herself. After long fight he destroys this monster.

What then?

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Amazing rare things

The only true ground for amazement is rarity. Consequentially, amazement is always a relative judgment.

Friday, 2 March 2007


Of postmodernism Jameson says ‘the end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego—what I have called the waning of affect’ [Postmodernism, 15] But what would the world look like if, the bourgeois ego having been dissolved, its attendant psychopathologies somehow, spectrally, remained? Bourgeois bogeymen haunting a postmodern wasteland.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

nondum amabam, et amare amabam

We sometimes speak of, and occasionally medicate, the desire for desire. But could there be such a thing as a desire for the desire for desire?