Wednesday 31 October 2007


This tug, some invisible fibre has grown into his flesh, or some fishhook latched there that yanks and yanks him along; or because there is a pressure inside him that hurries him on, a packed straining bladder, say, as you dash along the pavement eyeing every door for access to a toilet. The fidgets: the tapping feet, the fingers fumbling over his own face like a blind artlover apprehending sculpture as best he can; turning and folding and releasing his lower lip between finger and thumb; tugging his nose; rolling the flesh upon which his eyebrows grow and plucking hairs from it; pinching his own cheeks; rubbing the back of his neck, exploring the roots of his hair all the way back over his broad head. Nor would it be true to say that this is a pressure that never relents. Sometimes the impatience recedes. Sex, for instance, is a usually-reliable machine for transmuting fidgety impatience into temporary calm. He may even look at the ceiling, as the sweat cools on his skin and soaks into the Egyptian cotton, and realise that he is calm: almost a startling thing, almost a shock, excepting only that it figures as some sort of anti-shock, an discharge and decoupling.

And his head is so large, larger than a usual head. You'd think his head large enough to splinter the neck bones should it sag at a sudden angle. But his head, though bigger than average, is light; the wide brow and the wideset eyes that looked estranged from one another, the shallow-U chin that scintillates grey in the sunlight, the global curve of his cranium, all this is built upon a skull made of sinus-bone and aluminium. Because the head bounces, because the head bounces about on its neck, and is always in motion, and his expression is always mobile, and his smile comes and goes, and his broad brow wrinkles like a pond troubled by a sharp breeze and then untroubles itself and is again smooth. Why is he so impatient? It's the coffee, it's the nicotine, it's the deadlines my dear the deadlines, the so much to do, the such little time, the petty done, the undone vast, the sleep-when-I'm dead, or not even then, for he moves through this world as if rehearsing and rehearsing until it becomes second nature his repertoire of poltergeist shufflings and bangings and spectral fidgetings.

People say he is always in a hurry, and that's the least of it, hardly expresses the way impatience goes down into his bones, down into the restless iron inside the scrumhappy red flood of red-blood corpuscules, all the very way down into his galumphing great unresting endlessly fitting heart. He is walking, now, though he keeps his limbs oddly straight; and he illustrates perfectly the maxim that to walk is to coordinate a string of expertly interrupted fallings-forward.

Tuesday 30 October 2007

Chaplin and Valentino versus Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor

Silent cinema gave its audiences less (no colour, no sound, less sophisticated codes of representation and so on). Therefore those audiences supplied more from their own psyches—and accordingly those stars assumed a potency and glamour and sheer fame no subsequent star has ever been able to manage. The more cinema offers its audiences, the less those audiences will care about cinema. That’s common sense.

Monday 29 October 2007

Rothko poem

Lying in a midnight bed the
two blocks of curtain glimmer
on the left hand, on the right

a living Rothko, cyan-black
rectangled and haze-edged
against the black-black,

that painter of tombstones
of the opacity of doorways
the particoloured cataract,

the page, the two blocks of grey
shredded edges, merging white
smaller rectangle in larger, the page.

Sunday 28 October 2007

Golden Age

We're familiar with the idea that the golden age is lost, but we make the mistake of assuming that it is lost in the past. What if it is lost in the future? That wouldn't make it any easier to find, of course; in fact it would make it harder--to the point of impossibility.

Saturday 27 October 2007


Oblivion gets a bad press. Oblivion is not the same thing as obliteration.

Friday 26 October 2007

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

How strange the fate that has befallen "liberté, égalité, fraternité" ... the first portion of the slogan has been seized by the Right, the second by the Left and the third by Islam as a radical movement, like carrion animals fighting over the carcass of revolutionary ambition.

Thursday 25 October 2007

Maximum Grip

Merleau-Ponty said: 'Consciousnesses present themselves with the absurdity of a multiple solipcism, such is the situation which has to be understood.' But why not 'a solipsistic multiplicity'? Which is to say, the drawing of multiplicity to the notional point of singular view, rather than an expansion of singularity into fracturing multiplicity ...?

Wednesday 24 October 2007


Each after each the whales come up to the surface, and one after the other they eject each of them a mighty white feather of breath and planted in their backs.

Tuesday 23 October 2007


We could extrapolate from, say, the great vowel shift to add extra increments, or perhaps precision, to the superlative:


('I'm going to reach the top--in fact I'm going to reach the type of the tap of the very tip of the top...') If that doesn't sound right, perhaps we could augment with a separate marker of superlative: toppermost, tippermost-toppermost, tappermost-tippermost-toppermost ...

Monday 22 October 2007


Aphorism 55 of Beyond Good and Evil:

There is a great ladder of religious cruelty, and, of its many rungs, three are the most important. People used to make human sacrifices to their god, perhaps even sacrificing those they loved the best ... Then, during the moral epoch of humanity, people sacrificed the strongest instincts they had, their 'nature,' to their god; the joy of this particular festival shines in the cruel eyes of the ascetic, that enthusiastic piece of 'anti-nature.' Finally: what was left to be sacrificed? In the end, didn't people have to sacrifice all comfort and hope, everything holy or healing, any faith in hidden harmony or a future filled with justice and bliss? Didn't people have to sacrifice God himself and worship rocks, stupidity, gravity, fate, or nothingness out of sheer cruelty to themselves? To sacrifice God for nothingness — that paradoxical mystery of the final cruelty has been reserved for the race that is now approaching: by now we all know something about this.

As is often the case, Nietzsche is using 'finally' here ('...finally: what was left to be sacrificed?') ironically. Something does remain to be sacrificed, and indeed he is advocating precisely that sacrifice: he is, in other words, asking us to sacrifice sacrifice itself ... the ultimate sacrifice.

Sunday 21 October 2007

Water becomes bone

One of the Exeter Book riddles says: 'on the way, a miracle: water becomes bone.' Scholars agree that answer to this riddle is: ice.

But: climbing Cooper's Hill, and looking back at the curve of the Thames in the bright, cloudy light: the afternoon sun polishing away all grey or blue from the water until it is white, its edges sharpened by the angle of illumination, looking like nothing so much as a mighty rib-bone gleaming, set in the flesh of the land ... and I thought to myself yes, water becomes bone.

The answer ice identifies two points of similarity (hardness, colour) with bone; but my vision of the Thames identifies three (colour, shape, setting). Does that make it a 'better' answer to the Exeter Book riddle? 'Aha,' says the scholar, 'but your answer is over-ingenious.' And I think to myself: really? If ingenuity is really out of place in the discourse of riddling ... then where is it appropriate?

Saturday 20 October 2007

Metaphor is ...

The extremes can be extended along their natural axes; but to extend something in the middle means pushing it along the z axis, into metaphor. That's what metaphor is, in a sense; this z axis poking three-dimensionally out at right angles to the 2D of ordinary signification. For example:

Too hot, too cold, is literal; but too tepid is metaphorical.
Too clever, too stupid ... too average.
Too expensive, too cheap ... too reasonably priced.

In each case the third term means in a different way to the first two items.

Friday 19 October 2007

Kinds of life

Robert Nozick says: 'Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Hefner, Socrates, Henry Ford, Lenny Bruce, Baba Ram Dass, Gandhi, Sir Edmund Hillary, Raymond Lubitz, Buddha, Frank Sinatra, Columbus, Freud, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Baron Rothschild, Ted Williams, Thomas Edison, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Ellison, Bobby Fischer, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, you, and your parents. Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people?'

One kind of life, indeed: which is to say precisely life, and maximal protection from pain, want and death. But, though it is what he says, Nozick doesn't actually mean 'life' here: her means 'modes of passing the time', 'ways of filling the day'. Which is important, but not the same thing as life.

Thursday 18 October 2007


The sun, low, adding brunette and copper tints to the green of tree and meadow. Mist had moved its eraser in long horizontal strokes across the lawn and along the edges of the river. The sky was cautious of its light.

Wednesday 17 October 2007


A bald man says: 'oh! I have forgotten my hat!"

A bald man says: 'oh, I have forgotten my hair."

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Rewrite the Encyclopaedia

Umberto Eco’s understanding of the necessity of openness of critical inquiry to revision: ‘the cultivated person's first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopaedia’ [Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998)]. Actually there is a group of people who undertake to rewrite the encyclopedia along wholly new and unprepeared-for lines; they are called science fiction writers, and the activity is known as ‘worldbuilding’. This isn’t what Eco meant, more's the pity; it's what he should have meant.

Monday 15 October 2007

A few hours a year ...

Descartes apparently said that one could only 'do' metaphysics for a few hours a year. What do we make, then, of our current academic philosophers, who 'do' philosophy for many hours every single day? Are they simply heroically strong, mentally speaking, in a way Descartes could not have comprehended? Or did Descartes mean something else by metaphysics, something so mentally debilitating that we have quietly sidelined in it modern intellectual discourse for fear of sapping our energies? Have we substituted some elaborate metaphorical sudoku game for the strenuous, enervating practice of genuine metaphysics?

Sunday 14 October 2007


It's a strange notion, 'perfection', and doubly strange as an ideal ('be ye therefore perfect' and so on). If perfection is perceived as a negative ideal then such perfection becomes a sort of vacuum state (Northrop Frye: 'if this idea of "pure" perfection is pressed a little further it dissolves in negatives, as all abstract ideas do. God is infinite, inscrutable, incomprehensible, all negative words, and a negative communion with some undefined ineffability is its highest development'; [p.37]). Attempts to define perfection in positive terms (such that perfection implies being fully grown or mature) are similarly unconvincing. What's strange about positing perfection as an absolute is that it is a thoroughly dialectical piece of terminology: the perfection of my health is the imperfection of my disease; the perfection of my heart is the imperfection of my head and so on. We need to decode 'be ye therefore perfect' not as 'be ye complete', but be ye becoming--in fact, as be ye incomplete.

Saturday 13 October 2007

Father Time

Father Time declares: 'there are three types of crime ... the crime against the past, the crime against the present and the crime against the future. The last of these (murder, for instance) is the worst...'

Friday 12 October 2007


Cave-ceilings trailing their shag
of stone jellyfish tentacles;
and the yearning stalagmites

bristling upwards, gorgonized
sound-baffles licking out reverb,
tubular silence: cold-wet,

the guts of stone hills, these,
the villi of the earth itself,
absorbing no nutrient but sound.

Thursday 11 October 2007

Maps for happiness

I'd underestimated what Wilde was saying about utopia ... famously in The Soul of Man Under Socialism he claimed that 'a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.' Without really thinking about it I'd assumed that last word was standing in for something like '...orienting themselves towards' or '...dreaming of reaching one day.' But, no, Wilde is clear: landing. Utopia needs to be included in our maps not so that we can set our bearings, but because we keep stumbling across it--and, presumably, keep stumbling on, leaving it behind.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

The lonely person's craving for telepathic intimacy

"There are other people. That's good. I value my connection with them. But they are not present to me as intimately as I am to myself ... they're not in my mind the way I am--not under my skin. That's the Other than I crave; somebody closer to me than my own jugular vein ..." This is the mental state out of which God is created by some; or, more precisely, the mental state that renders some receptive to the penetrating revelation of divinity. The prophylactic against the deepest and least remediable of existential lonelinesses. The lonely person's craving for telepathic intimacy. I suppose that's why so many monotheistic religions seme, in their way, to stress the isolation, self-sufficiency and in effect loneliness of God himself; he feeds but is not fed, God who is one, not many, the solitary God.

Tuesday 9 October 2007


Conkers covered the ground, as if an artist had expended an unimaginable effort to reproduce in carved mahogany the immediate aftermath of a hailstorm.

Monday 8 October 2007


So, what does the immediate future hold? By far the most straightforward way of answering this question is with a straightforward pessimism that goes something like this: our living is market-determined. Supply-and-demand means that if the supply of something exceeds demand its price goes down, where if demand exceeds supply the price goes up. There are, broadly speaking, three important quantities in the world; people, energy, raw materials. The supply of the latter two is diminishing and will continue to diminish; therefore raw materials and energy have been getting, and will continue to get, more expensive. On the other hand, human beings continue to breed, which is to say, the supply of people is increasing. Therefore the price of people (for instance, what we will be able to earn in wages) will continue to fall. In other words, the future will be more expensive to live in, whilst we, speaking generally, will have less money to pay for it.

Sunday 7 October 2007


Anthony Storr described his attempt to psychoanalyse Ranulph Fiennes as 'like stirring the void with a teaspoon'. It's one of the single most eloquent phrases I have heard all year--doesn't all psychoanalysis perform this manoeuvre, with different varieties of spoon? (For that matter, doesn't physics? Philosophy?) And who is to say that such an activity isn't revealing? It may tell us little about the void, but it gives valuable information about the spoon, and most of all about the stirrer.

Saturday 6 October 2007


A human face, like a coin, has only two sides. An animal face, like a cliff, only one.

Friday 5 October 2007

Escape into madness ...

At the end of Bend Sinister Nabokov suggests that his trapped protagonist, with no other modes of escaping the tyrannous cruelty of the powerful dictator Paduk, can by losing his wits rob the villainous of his triumph. In other words, Nabokov is arguing that madness can be a happy release, an escape from the pain of the world. But whatever else madness involves, it never involves happiness; it always entails, to one degree or another, anxiety, distress, angst, fear and misery. What Nabokov needed to do was give Adam Krug a lobotomy instead ... but he wouldn't have done that; that would have been destroying Kurg's wits, not pushing them through a knight's-move on the chessboard of consciousness. Which is a flaw in the otherwise flawness novel, I think: an inability to renounce at the point where renunciation is required; a sentimental attachment to thought itself.

Thursday 4 October 2007

First chorus from Euripides' Phaethon

Already the fresh-appearing
Dawn is riding over the world,
and above our heads the
Pleiades’ choir has fled away.
Nightingales in the trees delicately
..... chorus their songs,
woken at sunrise and grieving for
Itys, Itys the much-lamented.

The flutes of mountain-wandering
drovers accompany their tending of flocks.
Workhorses go to pasture,
chestnut-coloured, led by their grooms.
Already off to work with dogs at their heels
..... go huntsmen, to kill their prey.
Swans on the stream of Ocean are
sweetly-sounding their songs.

Small boats are moved out by oar
and by the wind’s favouring liveliness.
After they raise their sails the sailors
cry out “Bring to us, O Mistress Breeze,
smooth-passing guidance, and
..... a hushing wind
a way to our children and our loved wives!”
and the middle of the canvas closes on the forestay.

All this is other people’s business;
the honour of singing at my master’s wedding
is my own right, and so I hope
to hymn this: good times coming for our lords—
these bring confidence and happiness
..... to slaves and to their singing.
But if ever something is born to a fate that is
heavy, heavy fear comes down on the house.

Today is singled-out for celebrating marriage,
a day I have long prayed for,
and I come forward now to sing a wedding hymn
sweetly for my sweet masters.
..... God has willed it, time brought it to pass,
this marriage for my masters.
Let the singing celebration begin!

[From Euripides' fragmentary tragedy Phaethon; text taken from Euripides: Selected Fragmentary Plays (Aris and Phillips 1995) ed. C. Collard, M.J. Cropp and K.H. Lee.]

Wednesday 3 October 2007


The mountains tuck their tips
Into the pleats of the clouds.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Out of love ...

‘Out of love, God becomes man. He says: "See, here is what it is to be a human being."' (Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, p. 161) It’s always struck me as a little unfair, this; which is to say that God has an unfair advantage when it comes to being a human. In other words, when religion commends us to the good life it’s as if Christ is addressing us: ‘you’re finding it hard to live a virtuous, ideal life? Well, I managed it!’ To which we might very well reply, but you’re God; it’s easy for you--easy, at least, relative to the way it is for us. As if a grown-up were to join a football game where all the other players were 5-year-olds, score dozens of goals and then say ‘but why do you say scoring goals is so hard?’

Monday 1 October 2007

Human varieties of truth

Charles Pierce said: “Every man is fully satisfied that there is such a thing as truth, or he would not ask any question” [Collected Papers V: 211]. Of course, what men (and women) hope for from their questions is ‘an answer that pleases me’: but actually, when you come to think about it, that’s not a bad definition of truth, in its human sense.