Saturday, 31 May 2008

Scared to death

Scared to death? Nicely paradoxical—to think of all the reasons people deliberately scare themselves in order to feel more alive. Or perhaps that’s what the phrase means; to have one’s aliveness stimulated and intensified to the point where one dies. As if a surfeit of life is the same thing as death.

Friday, 30 May 2008


Finally, it has been established. What is a Snark? What is a Boojum?

It’s obvious what the Snark is. The Snark is a monster. Now, monster is an interesting word. It derives from the Latin, monstrum, which means (I pluck Lewis and Short from my shelf) ‘a divine omen, indicating misfortune, an evil omen, portent’. This word is in turn from moneo: ‘to teach, instruct, tell, inform, point out; to announce, predict, foretell’. Originally a calf (say) born with two heads would be a monster in the sense of being ominous: through it the gods would be trying to tell us something. Though the word now has the connotation of a large and terrifying fantastical beast, the earlier meaning still haunts it. Godzilla, say, is a monster in the contemporary vulgar sense, but also in the sense that he is trying to tell us something (in his case, something about the evils of nuclear testing). What Carroll’s monster teaches us concerns the process of enquiry itself: what it means is meaning itself ... unless, of course, it is a boojum in which case the monster means the devouring of meaning. What devours? What is it that chews endlessly, endlessly? A boojum is a cow (jum short for jumentum, the Latin for draught-cattle; and bo, from bos, ‘ox, bull, cow’). Imagine how disappointed you’d be if you went to all that trouble to find a Snark only for it to turn out to be—a cow. Do you think you’d be disappointed enough to softly and suddenly vanish away?

A calf with two heads indeed.

Thursday, 29 May 2008


Dubium sapientiae initium, says Descartes: 'Doubt is the origin of wisdom' [Meditationes de prima philosophiae, 1641]. The implication seems clear enough; the business of the person in search of wisdom (the wisdom-lover, the sopho-phile) is to start in doubt and move beyond it. But doubt should be doubt enough to doubt this conclusion; that there could ever be a wisdom entirely purged of doubt. Descartes knew this, of course; and this apothegm deserves to be remembered, like the cogito ergo sum, as a deliberate hall-of-mirrors paradox.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008


This long journey from tropics to the poles, from the warmth of the cot to the unremitting chill of the grave ...

Tuesday, 27 May 2008


The rage of Achilles; Aeneas, hardening his heart to abandon Dido and surrendering to anger to kill Turnus; the wrath of God. Epic, as a mode, has been absolutely marked and determined by this emotion. Epic is an angry literature.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Path poem

The path is sheer
To far, from near:
Its name is fear.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Insubstantiality and substantiality

All that is solid melts into air, yes, of course. But it is also true that all that is air congeals into solidity. It's all a matter of timescales; and there's no obvious reason to prioritise one over the other.

Saturday, 24 May 2008


Yeats wrote:

Hands, do what you're bid
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

... and the extrasyllabic middle two lines bulge out suggestively, like the balloon. There ought to be a specific name for this rhetorical trick: a sort of formal meta-onomatopœia. (The off-rhyme, or sight-rhyme, mind/wind plays its part too). The narrow shed is the skull of course, and the balloon, filled with its spiritual hot-air, is the material brain matter, splodgeing and squishing like a jellyfish (why else do squid have such a pedigree in science fiction as icons of thinking aliens?) But what's particularly nice here is the way in which Yeats implies that hands trump thoughts. Homo sapiens is a handling animal before s/he is a pondering animal.

Friday, 23 May 2008


Egyptians call themselves Kemet: from '(kṃt), or "black land" (from kem "black"), [which in turn] is derived from the fertile black soils deposited by the Nile floods, distinct from the deshret, or "red land" (dšṛt), of the desert.'

As a red man what can I think, but that the desert is my proper home? Conversing with the shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses. And thinking: Adam Kem would be a good name for a character.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Egyptian gods

What's so disconcerting about the Ancient Egyptian pantheon (for an outsider, I mean) is that they worshipped gods they couldn't eat. For the rest of the world edibility is a key component of a God-Animal: a lamb, a fish, a cow. But a scorpion? A dog? A lion? Those aren't on the menu ... how can we worship them?

Wednesday, 21 May 2008


Tolstoi said: 'if we allow that human life can be governed by reason the possibility of life is annihilated'. Crazy old bird! Or is this the deliberate paradox of a man who knows very well that in War and Peace he has written one of the most thoroughly reasonable novels in literature?

Tuesday, 20 May 2008


The greenery of spring is a wreath upon winter's grave. The cherry tree positively weeps blossom.

Monday, 19 May 2008


Life is modest; it is consciousness that is not. It is in the nature of consciousness to exaggerate, in the sense that a non-exaggerating consciousness could hardly function.

Sunday, 18 May 2008


Ravens todd about the sky like wind-blown leaves. White, and whites. Will the world end in white? Or we could say, winter construes the whiteness of tornados into something static? She says Atlases and he says Atli--it's a kind of game between them. Oranges, oranges, the bloom of their scarfs. The birds are a mess against the whiteness. She says muster, he says muster? mustard? She could speak up. He could be less deaf. The birds could quieten down a little. It's not as if the world is ending. The ice snip-snaps scissorlike when they step onto the puddles. The crack spreads, the cracks spread. It's not as if the world is untried, or untrying, or untryable. The copse of trees on yon hill: an acropolis. The west sucks the sun through the milk. Her mind is a blank. She thinks she remembers where they parked the car. She is trying to remember exactly where.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

One thing the gospels understood

Though powerful, unrequited love can never match the intensity of passion of unrequited hatred.

Friday, 16 May 2008


A poet, if she chooses not to inhabit an idiom of deliberate simplicity ('transparency') will try to fracture syntax and sense just enough to make interesting patterns in the glaze of language.

And? 'Sometimes we scratched the surface too much,' she added later. 'People don't like to be touched that way.'

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Hum Drum poem

Hum, suck and buzz like a hornet drones
Crack like the snap of your own green bones;
Heart beats a rhythm of years, weeks, days
Red skin a hum drum no man plays.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008


Not superposition; but subposition. Paraposition. Light, dark, the third thing.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008


I was tired enough such that the tumble of the water over the rocks began to seem the tramp of a million glittering insects.

To sit, dozily, beside the constant equal rush of water along and down it occurred to me that the phrase stream of consciousness could hardly have less actual application to human thought.

Monday, 12 May 2008

A simple test

The best (the as-they-say acid) test of any belief-structure ... any religion, or political ideology, any philosophy of life ... is: to what degree is it aware of its own preposterousnesses? Most such systems of belief fail this simple test.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Considering Phlebas

Of Phlebas the Phoenician (a fortnight dead) Elizabeth Gregory has this to say: 'Phlebas ... alludes to Philebus, Plato's dialogue on the nature of pleasure' [Quotation and Modern American Poetry, Texas Rice University Press 1996, p.52]. Really? Isn't it more likely that Eliot knew that phleps (the genitive is phlebos) is the Greek for a vein? It is derived, suggest Liddell and Scott, from phleo, 'to flow'; a whispery, almost onomatopoeic word ('A current under sea/Picked his bones in whispers'). In what, in other words, is Phlebas drowned? Seawater, we think; although mightn't it be possible that he has slipped into another form of salty water, into the whirlpool of his own bloodflow? We all drown in that, in the end.

Saturday, 10 May 2008


If I were called on to stage The Tempest I'd cast an adult as Prospero, but fill all the other roles with child actors.

Friday, 9 May 2008


The moral of Hamlet is that revenge must, in some sense, be a performance --more, that this aspect of revenge is so much more important than (as it might be) justice, assuaging anger or punishment as wholly to eclipse it. Hamlet's so-called procrastination is nothing more than a process of necessary gathering of an audience.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

How he sees the city

He sees rain scorching the river.

Everywhere he looks he sees people abasing themselves before him: men bending forward to tie their shoes, women leaning over to rest laden shopping bags on the floor. Bowing down.

He imagines sound propagating through space from a pinprick, as through a pinhole.

He sees girders speckled with strawberry-blonde rust.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008


A cannibal need not eat an entire human being to merit the name cannibal. It is enough that he devour a portion of a person. So: watching my son this morning feeding at breast, consuming a portion of my wife's body, I thought to myself ...

Tuesday, 6 May 2008


I have heard the word glitterati three times in the last week ('...all the Hollywood glitterati were there ...'). I can't remember the last time I heard anybody use the word literati in any context. The one word, derived from the other, has now supplanted it. Eventually the latter will simply wilt to nothing, and the origin of glitterati will become a philologists' talking-point.

A related thought: did Coleridge coin the term clerisy because he, with a poet's ear, wanted it to be haunted by the word heresy? A buried critique within the word itself?

Monday, 5 May 2008


A cavity is a cave; a dentist is a spelunker.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

'Let me take you down...'

'...(be)cause I'm going to ...' It's this locating opening line that unlocks Strawberry Fields Forever as a song. It is about depression, but in the specialist sense of the absolute passivity of non-living. The song takes us into the Underworld, where strawberries bloom in scarlet honour of Proserpina. The irony of that title: at first we think it is a cheer, a hurrah (Strawberry Fields Forever! Strawberry Fields Are the Best!) until we listen again and realise that the 'forever' is operates on a more literal level. These fields will be our home forever; we will never leave. She said, after all, I know what it's like to be dead. She is Proserpina.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Michel de Certeau

Certeau walks the city (as an individual), tactically reappropriating the spaces that Power has strategically laid-out: and because we read him as individuals -- you do, I do -- it's hard not to identify with him. But there are collective, social tactical reappropriations too, and not necessarily in a good way. Nature, for instance, has blindly but forcefully strategically ordered the world; and humanity, collectively, seems to be engaged in tactically fucking it up.

Friday, 2 May 2008


'Every true sacrifice deserves to be celebrated!' But what if one chooses to sacrifice precisely celebrity itself ...?

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Science Fiction

In Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities (a title, it seems that would be better translated as The Self Unmade Man) we find this spot-on definition of science fiction put into the mouth of Ulrich: 'I believe that some day before very long human beings will be -- on the one hand very intelligent, on the other mystics. Perhaps out mortality is even today splitting us into these two components. I might also call it: mathematics and mysticism -- practical amelioration and adventuring into the unknown.' Like Proust, and Conrad, it seems that Musil was an SF author without being aware of the fact.