Friday, 31 August 2007

Car alarm

The car alarm made the noise of a dog whose tail had been trodden on. After its eighth or tenth iteration you really really began to wish that somebody would stop trampling on the damn dog ...

Thursday, 30 August 2007


Adam Phillips, in Terrors and Experts, says: 'Oedipus is so important in psychoanalysis because he does something that can be found out, something he can know about ...' [9] But it's not the doing, it's the desiring to do that's important psychoanalytically. Experiencing a desire, or orienting one's subjectivity along the lines of force of a desire, is hardly a doing ...

He goes on: 'the Oedipus plays would be a very different theatrical experience if everybody was walking around the stage completely baffled all the time (how would it end?)'

Well ... duh. How would it end? With death, of course. 'If everybody was baffled all the time'? The complexity and variety of critical responses to Sophocles shows that, in a deep sense, we are baffled; we have always been baffled; being baffled is kind of the point ...

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Girl's Pearl

Those dabs of brightness in the corners of the eyes and the mouth ... the appeal of Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring can be summed up, really, in one word: moist.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Free as a mole

We say 'free as a bird' because the bird has access to a dimension usually denied us. But we never say--for example--'free as a mole', although the same circumstances apply to the burrower. More, the burrower constructs the permanent archicecture of his own freedom as he tunnels, moves in any direction and is safer.

Monday, 27 August 2007

The aesthetic vacuum flask

Aesthetic insulation: the surrounding vacuum of ungainliness or ugliness that preserves the perfect aesthetic heat (or perfect chill) of the artwork itself.

Sunday, 26 August 2007


By day you may travel a thousand varied routes. To drive by night is always to drive the same road.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

The rough edges

It may be that an increasing professionalisation of writing, linked to increasing levels not only of functional literacy but semiotic and metacultural literacy, have resulted in cultural production that is much more technically finished, smoother and more polished than has ever existed before. But something is lost in this, as well as gained. A work such as--to pick an example--Macbeth, though it contains some of the very best writing in English, is rough-edged; it enacts a sort of violence upon literary texture and form. I don't mean this only in the obvious sense that the play is full of characters being violent to other characters, nor in the sense that many of its images are 'violent' or wrenching to convention. I mean something more: there's a powerful unfinished jaggedness in the weft and warp of the piece; a quality a writer can only achieve by forcing the writing at pressure, not spending too much time blotting the words. Something that articulates the necessarily rough-edged way experience presents itself to us; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, the necessarily rough-edged way our sensoria access that experience.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Working-class Ariel

Auden said that there were two modes of poetry; that of Ariel, singing private, formal lyrics of 'self-delighting beauty'; and that of Prospero, who hopes to hand down improving moral truths. Auden thought that 'every poem shows some sign of a rivalry between Ariel and Prospero'.

But there's something upside-down in all this. Despite the fact that 'Ariel' has become a synonym for the fey and otherworldly, the fact is that in Shakespeare's play he's the one who does all the work. Prospero is the game-player, the self-satisfier, the patternist; Ariel is the one indentured to labour, who has actually to engage with the real world, to get his fairy fingers dirty.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Ex nihilo

There's a common-sense aspect to the notion that everything was created out of nothing. After all, when we look as the universe we see that it is mostly nothing, vacuum, emptiness, barrenness (if the sun were scaled down to the size of a golfball the earth would be a speck of dust smaller than the dots in this sentence a few metres away ... and the nearest star would be hundreds of kilometers further off). In other words, the somethingness of the cosmos is a kind of thin crust over a vast cauldron of nothingness. It might be better, rather than saying (for instance) God created the universe out of nothing, to say 'God scratched the edge of nothingness with a sparse culture of something'. Or it might be better to ask: 'If God created something out of nothing, then why did he do such an incomplete job?'

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Dream diary

Having decided to keep a dream diary, I wake with no memory of the night's dream. So I fabricate a likely-sounding dream, a confection of oddity and image and narrative, and this in turn leads me to wonder: how--both to what extent and by what means--can the conscious mind mimic the subconscious?

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The madman

The madman is not he who loses his reason, but he who commits wholeheartedly to one reason, in place of many reasons ....

Monday, 20 August 2007

Cloud poem

The little sea
horse shaped

riding the without
the coherence
the windshield.

It is a reflection of
internal light
in proximity

that moves as we move
like the moon does
like for like.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

The Droeshout engraving

The very thing that leads so many scholars and Shakespearianists to despise this portrait--it's cartoonishness--is the very thing that makes it so perfect a portrait of Shakespeare. Not that Shakespeare was cartoonish, exactly; but rather than this cartoony mode enables us to identify with the Shakespeare myth: namely that, whilst he is is of course a genius and far above us, he is at the same time, somehow, ordinary, usual, he is us. Jonathan Franzen has this to say about the appeal of cartoons:
Scott McCloud, in his cartoon treatise Understanding Comics, argues that the image you have of yourself when you’re conversing is very different from your image of the person you’re conversing with. Your interlocutor may produce universal smiles and universal frowns, and they may help you to identify with him emotionally, but he also has a particular nose and particular skin and particular hair that continually remind you that he’s an Other. The image you have of your own face, by contrast, is highly cartoonish. When you feel yourself smile, you imagine a cartoon of smiling, not the complete skin-and-nose-and-hair package. It’s precisely the simplicity and universality of faces, the absence of Otherly particulars, that invite us to love them as we love ourselves.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Voluble reticence

A voluble reticence can be more effective than conventional reticence; but it's surprisingly hard to do well, and surprisingly easy to mess-up. That sort of volubility is a rare skill.

Friday, 17 August 2007


What we call anger is usually self-incomprehension; a state of mind to which we can respond either passively, with melancholy, or actively, with rage. And yet the beginning of wisdom is always going to be the acceptance that comprehension of the self is, in the fullest sense, inevitably beyond us ...

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Love is ...

Love is a wonderful thing for a human to experience; a self- and other-validating thing; an exciting and pleasurable thing; and moreover (in terms of the successful transmission of genes) an immensely useful thing. Now, what might an alien civilisation that had no concept of love think, observing the way we elevate Love to transcendental, cosmic and godly proportions? Might they not think that this is a little self-regarding? A little peculiar? As if because I enjoy eating beefsteaks, and because beefstakes serve the useful purpose of keeping me alive, I therefore declared that the universe is beefstake, God a beefstake and beefstake the universal core value of everything?

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Sexuality in plain view

People sometimes talk about homosexuality as a secret hidden in plain view, such that when it is mooted that Kipling (say) was gay, the revelation is supposed to go something like: "aha! now that this secret fact about him is revealed, we can see that it entirely explains his behaviour, his manners, his art--that indeed all his writing is plainly and evidently that of a gay man ..." But the most we can say about sexuality in plain view is that it is a kind of failure -- it is the dynamic of concealment and revelation that is crucial to sexuality.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Monday, 13 August 2007


These clouds look as if painted upon a vast transparency that is being slid slowly from left to right along the backrail of the horizon.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Le cauchemar

Nightmare is a psychological auto-immune response; or perhaps a psychological auto-immune malfunction ...

Saturday, 11 August 2007


Any society that includes slavery cannot be described as 'sensitive'. It is only possible for human beings to permit the slavery of others if they do not empathise with their slaves--for once you put yourself, seriously, for the long haul (not, that is to say, only for fleeting periods of sentimental or erotic fancy) in the position of a slave then of course you see how insupportable it is. On the other hand, the benefits of slavery to the slaveholder are obvious enough--the freedom from labour, the exercise of power-- that it doesn't take too much shrinkage of a human's natural sensitivity to reduce it to a level where you don't empathise with those you oppress. And any culture as a whole that accepts slavery is necessarily insensitive: is therefore automatically capable of, say, slaughtering the entire male population of a city with which it is at war, and selling the women and children into servitude. So when Nietzsche talks of the ancient Greeks as 'a race so sensitive ... so uniquely capable of suffering' it is more than usually baffling. But then it occurs to us: The Birth of Tragedy is not actually about Ancient Greece, and he is not describing the Greeks when he talks about their extraordinary sensitivity. He is talking about himself.

Friday, 10 August 2007

The phobosopher

Since love so often involves distortingly rose-tinted glasses, and since wisdom is most often best served by a properly dialectical-antithetical hostility, it is necessary to be the opposite of a philosopher: a phobosopher.

Thursday, 9 August 2007


The voice is a needle,
And the needle is a tower.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007


"Two hundred years before the birth of Christ the Chinese of the Han Dynasty demanded that their courtiers address their emperors only when their breath had been sweetened with a mouthful of Javanese cloves ..." Why has nobody written a cultural history of that most most essential topic, bad breath?

For instance it'es interesting that breath in this context is defined in terms of otherness, not of oneself (nobody ever described asthma as bad breath: I wonder why not?). The mingling of spirit, hygeine and fit, inner and outer purity, all voice and intimacy all contained within this boundary. One day I'll do it, maybe.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007


I do tend to lack patience; that supposed virtue. I am impatient; Is that a fault? Why do not the moribund and terminally self-satisfied not say: I lack impatience; I am unimpatient ...? It certainly seems to be the case with me that I, at least, am not unimpatient.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Some descriptions of southern European landscape

  • The sun gobbles as the sky, ferociously bright and hot. The hungry sun, the lean and muscular sun.
  • This tree is seven storeys tall. The detail of its million leaves would baffle any engraver.
  • Dust blowzes over the road in spectral tan-coloured folds.
  • The epilecting sunlight between and behind trees.
  • The sky the colour in which seas and oceans are printed in atlases.
  • The quality of shadow, rolled out slowly from this prone log by the sun, by the yard, for your inspection.
  • Mountains tuck their tips into the pleats of the clouds.

Sunday, 5 August 2007


The celebrated Baudrillard quotation: God as the guarantor of 'the depth of meaning', the exchangeability of signification for significance. "But what if God himself can be simulated? That is to say, reduced to the signs that constitute faith? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer itself anything but a gigantic simulacrum." It bothers me that he says "weightless" there, instead of "massless". It bothers me a surprising amount. Presumably he doesn't mean "massless". Presumably he means "weightless". But it's a question. It is grave. It possesses gravity.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Heroic pity

Nietzsche again. I'm sure I'm very far from being the first reader of Nietzsche to be struck by the strange weighting of his anti-pity position. From Der Antichrist [7]:

Pity stands in the antithesis of the tonic emotions which enhance the feeling of life: it has a depressive effect ... pity on the whole thwarts the law of evolution, which is the law of selection. It preserves what is ripe for destruction; it defends life's disinherited and condemned; through the abundance of the ill-constituted of all kinds which it retains in life it gives life a gloomy and questionable aspect.

The thing to do here is not to deny Nietzsche's premises, or to dissent from his anti-Christian perpsective; but rather to wonder how this position squares with the philosophy of heroism he is advancing. Pity here is deplored because it contradicts 'the law of evolution'. There is a misunderstanding of the way evolution works here, I think, but never mind that for a moment. Instead wonder: in what way is it the action of the noble, the elite, the best (" every noble morality it counts as a weakness...") thuswise timidly to accede in this evolutionary law? Is it not nobler to defy nature, whether or not such defiance is materially productive or not? To say, in heroic tones, "nature demands this hecatomb of the weak; but I chooose not to supply it"?

It may be possible to work out what I'm reading on holiday, right now.

Friday, 3 August 2007

The wind blowing

A breeze, or a gale, is merely particles in motion. This, after all, is what a wind is. But when we look at it from this perspective we see that existence as a whole is a wind. The big bang was a great stormwind blowing, and our cosmos is made from the eddies and tourbillons it has generated.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

We Hyperboreans ...

The Hyperboreans were supposed to live 'beyond the north wind' ... usually imagined as a chilly windswept place (Hull, say). But beyond the north wind must mean that we've left the winds far behind us ... it really ought to be a place of unnatural calm.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Science and tragedy

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche characterises "science" as "a subtle form of self-defence against -- the truth". The learned Nietzscheans remind us that he means Wissenschaft here, not "what we generally understand by the word science" ... as if there's any general understanding of the word science!

So what is Nietzsche getting at here? For him, "the tuth" is the glimpse into the abyss, the glimpse that kills action; and actually by "science" he doesn't mean anything other than keeping busy (inquiring and experimenting and looking through telescopes and so on) as a means of distracting us from that glimpse. But I can't help feeling that science is a bad word for this sort of busy-ness; and that Wissenschaft is no better. Sometimes science busies you, true; but by no means always. A better word for 'busy-ness' is capitalism; and few inventions of man have been better at distraction than the consumerist production-consumption merry-go-round. Perhaps it would be better to rephrase Nietzsche, replacing "science" with "consumer capitalism"? That would at least invoke one pleasing irony, since many thinkers see capitalism precisely as contemporary tragedy ...

As for those who object to the paradox in Nietzsche's phrase ("science is a subtle form of self-defence against the truth") on the grounds that science and the truth are actually versions of the same thing ... well, "self-defence" records what happens when one power invades and overtakes another so as to render it identical. Science is a form of immune-system response; or it is the French Resistance trying to prevent the Nazis making Germany and France the same thing.