Monday, 30 June 2008

Languages poems

[Headers from K David Harrison, When Languages Die: the extinction of the world's languages and the erosion of human knowledge (OUP: 2008)]

['... the seventy remaining Yanyuwa speakers of Australia, amongs whom women and men talk so differently that their speech is really two different languages.']

He: Do you love me? I couldn't live without you.
She: So that when the children leave home ...
He: We can finally take that trip to Australia.
She: The tribe is diminishing. The language is dying.
He: The language of this family?
He: I love you, I love you, I love you.
He: I have said I am sorry. What more is there to say?
He: If not Australia then maybe somewhere else?
She: What's the weight of maybe?

['the Marovo speakers of the Solomon Islands, who depend on fishing for their livelihood, have a single word, ukaka, to describe the behaviour of groups of fish when individuals drift, circle and float as if drunk.']

Hope is a week, despair a year.
That's what life has taught me.
The clouds, in their urban density
Of population overhead, defy
Not only the Earth's gravity, but
The sun's, and refuse to circle
Around the focal optical point.
They move, but according to
A different logic than gravity.

:3: Elegy
['Vogul speakers in Siberai use a "movement towards" metaphor for counting, so that the number twenty-two is described as "two (steps) towards thirty".']

Two steps towards thirty.
There is sand inside the plimsoles
The beach contaminates the hallcarpet
The sun has slapped our faces.
Eight steps towards thirty.
The twilight wants to tell me something
And urges me to come closer, so
It can whisper. But I don't know
Which direction counts as closer.
Nine steps towards thirty.
He is Archimedes' arrow, sharp,
And fast, and maybe even deadly, but
Something will always halve the distance
Between himself and his arrival.
He will always be reaching for thirty;
He will never reach thirty.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Speech and silence

From Carlyle's 1830 notebook: "Speech is human, silence is divine, yet also brutish and dead: therefore we must learn both arts."

Splendidly muddled construction! I suppose he means that we need to learn both speech and silence; but it looks as though we need to learn both brutishness and death; and indeed that speech characterises the brute and the dead. The barking of a dog; the mutter of the grave.

Saturday, 28 June 2008


This girder is speckled with strawberry-blonde rust.

Friday, 27 June 2008


I've been thinking about the heroic buoyancy of Ruggiero: you can see it in this picture (you may need to scroll down), the way he slides over the surface of the water rather than moving through the sea with his head poking out as actual swimmers do. It put in my mind Shakespeare's description of Ferninand in the Tempest:

I saw him beate the surges vnder him,
And ride vpon their backes; he trod the water
Whose enmity he flung aside: and brested
The surge most swolne that met him: his bold head
'Boue the contentious waues he kept, and oared
Himselfe with his good armes in lusty stroke
To th' shore.

There's something in this over-water-swimming; I just haven't worked it out yet.

At the same time, it's made me realise that I, myself, am the product of a culture that prioritised the merit of swimming as prophylactic against drowning, over other possible qualities: let us say, athleticism, aestheticism, or the sheer somatic pleasure of the act.

Thursday, 26 June 2008


Dot, dot, dot. Three empty sentences.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008


What is time to a wolf? The medium of the prey. That which must be mastered if he is to eat.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Asthma poem

This rattle in my lungs, this solid wheeze
Is my familiar demon:
Why don't we call him Mephistopheles,

Why don't we welcome him; and try
To catch his eye.
He's been with me all through my life.

Its possible to love a friend
And hate him too:
And some accomplices can make an end.

Monday, 23 June 2008


'...only connect...' It sounds so perfectly expressed, so pared-down. But is it actually enough only to connect? Don't we need to do more than that? Connection is a starting point, or relationships would all be one-night-stands, and our social responsibilities would be a standing-back with 'there, I've connected ... that's all I'm prepared to do.' There's something similar in Swinburne's 'love the beloved republic', a phrase Forster was fond of quoting. Again it sounds splendid, and chimes with our sense that without love no republic can function -- that (in other words) law, authority and self-interest are not enough by themselves to make the republic cohere. But that's not the same thing as saying that love is fully sufficient. My mode of loving may be anathema to you, and vice versa, and yet we both need to get along in the beloved republic.

Sunday, 22 June 2008


He was on to something with this: "We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universe, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act." [Notebook N (1838), as quoted in Darwin's Religious Odyssey (2002) by William E. Phipps, p. 32]

This is a perfect heuristic by which to begin pondering the sorts of laws that govern the smallest insects, of course, and that's fine. But this also touches on something crucial to human thinking. We do tend to think of 'law' as applying on the larger scales; and for there to be something exceptional, or magical-divine, about the smaller. We do so because the smaller scale is the one we inhabit. We want the heavens to follow immutable necessity, but at the same time we want to reserve for ourselves the comforting belief 'ah, but I have free will.' This is the same rationale that informs beliefs like 'taxation is good, because I want the state to provide me with roads and hospitals, schools and police; people must pay their taxes ... but I'm the exception.' Or: 'global warming is a threat and people must reduce their carbon footprint ... although of course I shall still expect to fly about the world with impunity.'

What interests me particularly is the way physics falls into this big/small distinction ... that the physics of the very large talks of the inevitable operation of physical laws, where the physics of the very small talks about quantum uncertainties.

Saturday, 21 June 2008


And this is called action painting? Of course, we all remember that footage of Pollock himself leaping and dancing above his supine canvas spooling paint in great dribbly gouts; that's action, right there--but then again there's necessarily action in the activity of any painter in her/his practice. And look at the Pollockian result: about as far, visually, from action as it is possible to get. Now, this isn't to deny that it's an image of great textural interest; and it's not to deny that it constitutes a brilliant intervention into artistic traditions of form. But it is to point out that it is, for all that, an image nevertheless of a century's accumulated spiders'-webs; of the brambles occluding passage to the princess's castle; of the hairball to which scores of residents in an appartment have contributed and which has clogged the general drain. It is a representation of blockage. To say so is not to dismiss it of course; on the contrary. But it is to query where the action, here, is.

Friday, 20 June 2008


The inside of the plane is a tunnel; we congregate inside like Londoners hiding from the Luftwaffe in the Underground, huddling. There is a great rushing sound in the air, all the time. There is a waterfall of friction all about us all the time. The Blitz of the middle air.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Heidegger's Time

The main point, it seems, is (to quote Michael Inwood) 'time and space are not for Heidegger co-ordinate,' because he believes that our special mode of 'hey-here-we-are!' possesses a spatiality 'based on or "embraced" by temporality.' [p.222]. This sounds like Heidegger believes that time has a kind of priority over space, and that he disbelieves in spacetime (which is to say, as far as we can see, that he's on the wrong track); but in Being and Time it doesn't seem quite so simple as that.

'Dasein's specific spatiality must be grounded in temporality. On the other hand, the demonstration that this spatiality is existentially possible only through temporality, cannot aim either at deducing space from time or at dissolving it into pure time. If Dasein's spatiality is "embraced" by temporality in the sense of being existentially founded upon it, then this connection between them is also different from the priority of time over space in Kant's sense.' [p.418]

So, let me see if I understand. Time is prior to space, but not in the sense that Kant thought (so, for example: it is not that there was time and then, bang, along came space; a time into which space came). We can, let us say, move about in space in ways we can't in time: I can go into any corner of this room, but I can only go one way in time. At the same time, it is a simple cognitive mistake to spatliaze time: to think of it as a portion of space that must be travelled over, or talk of the 'river of time' or 'the city at the end of time' or 'the terminal beach'. Then there's the notion that time is somehow produced or generated: in German zeitigen, 'to make ripen, to bring to maturity, to bring about, produce'. Hence Heidegger talks about extemporising, not in the usual English sense but in the sense (like the standing-outside of ec-stasy) of the throwing out timelinessess: 'temporality "is" not an entity at all. It is not, but it temporalizes itself ... indeed, it temporalizes possible ways of itself.' [p.377]. I look at that and try to see whether it is describing what it seems to be describing, the many-worlds hypothesis, various possible futures (say) branching or webbing off from any given moment. Or, no: Heidegger won't have us isolating 'moments', not even (I suspect) as an exercise in conceptual modelling or calculus: 'the nadir of inauthentic temporality is "time as a sequence of nows" or instants, time conceived apart from Dasein's activities and purposes.'

I can't remove from my head the deliberate inversion of what Heidegger means: not time-space (Zeitraum) but time-light, or time-gravity. As with light, which is generated (ex-illuminated) by stars; or with gravity, the true grain of space, which is in-drawn by matter, so with time: at the heart of the cosmos as a whole, a vast Time Sun temporalising with a steady billennial flow time, time.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008


Reading Ackroyd's book on the Thames I'm struck by many things, not least the fact that the river is fed not by underground springs bubbling up and the like, but up to 90% by rainfall into its central English basin. That, in other words, this is what the Thames, in a literal sense, is: condensed rain, the epitome of the wet sky above.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Advice to a writer of SF

The known
Has not grown.

the strange.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Intelligence and dumbness

Cancelled stupidity is not the same thing as intelligence.

I may be too dumb fully to comprehend my own intelligence (and, as they say, if my intelligence were simplified to the point where I could comprehend it, I would still be too dumb). On the other hand, I may be too intelligent to comprehend my dumbness--many highly intelligent people construct complex justifications for dumb beliefs (religious beliefs, say). But if both these states of affairs obtain, then there must be a tipping point halfway between them when intelligence and dumbness perfectly balance ...

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Mega Omega

This is a lovely little paragraph on the theological habit of associating the Big Bang singularity with Biblical Creation: "The Big Bang singularity provides little or no evidence for creation in the finite past and hence for theism. Whether one dismisses singularities or takes them seriously, physics licenses no first moment of (space-)time ... The analogy between the Big Bang singularity and stellar gravitational collapse suggests that a Creator is required in the first case only if a Destroyer is needed in the second."

It wouldn't persuade a devout religious individual, I suppose: they would be likely to say 'there is a destroyer, the alpha is also the omega, He who rolls the universe up like a blanket.' Of course, that's to miss J Brian Pitt's reducto ad absurdum; but no matter. I like the cosmological-fictional possibilities of this idea: a universe ruled for precisely half its life by a creating God, who then smoothly passes the crown and sceptre over for the remaining half to a destroying God. The Big Alpha; the mega-omega.

Saturday, 14 June 2008


The soul is not like an egg yolk, floating in the watery white of the bodily albumen. It is like tea dissolved uniformly into medium.

Friday, 13 June 2008

The moral compass

It shows not North but good. Not South but bad. Not West but aesthetic. Not East but politic.

Thursday, 12 June 2008


There must be dark
To set the spark.

The acid, light,
Draws the night,

Scores that plate
that prints the page.

We rightly think
of light as ink;

We're wrong to say
Youth faces age.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008


1. In my dreams I see people I know
2. But I can no longer remember their names.
3. And when I wake up I have access to all the names in my head
For all the good it does me, with the faces blank
The faces turned away, or smoothed to O.
4. Crying strange-o, strange-o in the town square.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008


Language is a muscle. Use it or lose it. Words lift, contract, pull against one another; words clench. Silence is the bone.

Monday, 9 June 2008


Is the soul a fruit? or a sort of vegetable? Perhaps it is a kind of fungus, grown up on the rotten log of humanity, but which has been unable to find a foothold in the less decayed bodies of other animals.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Stonehenge Poem

....Sum pius Petrus. [Vergil, Aeneid]

The Salisbury classroom.

The stones sum 1s, and leaning 1s,
and pi, in massive stone, sublime
in the incomprehensible mathematics
of an earlier law of addition.
'Now,' the stones say, all together,
Glooming over their class
Of gawping humans, 'add it.
Be quick, or this flint knife will
Take away your beating heart
in blood.'
................The answer
Is found not counting up
But counting in, towards the I-AM
The I, the I, the rough-squared M.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Predictions of Astonishing Accuracy

John Cottingham, reviewing James Gilman's Faith, Reason and Compassion (in the TLS, May 30 2008) does not like the way Gilman compares God to quantum physics. So, Gilman says: 'the existence of God, as a kind of uniquely divine, uncaused quantum, situates itself asymmetrically in relation to the symmetry of creation as a whole.' Cottingham retorts: 'The analogy, I have to say, strikes me as unpromising, if not confused. the fact that events in the micro-world look anomalous with respect to other parts of physics, and when compared with out observations of the macro world, does not prevent the mathematics of quantum theory from yielding predictions of astonishing accuracy.'

This is interesting. Many believers would describe God as unknowable, ineffable, inconceivable and so on; but would any shade or stripe of believer describe Him as unpredictable? It would surely be a matter of simple semantics that the former implies the latter -- for we are talking about human predictions of God, not divine predictions of the future (prophecy and so on). For example: it is a central tenet of Christian belief that God not only loves us right now, but will love us tomorrow; that if we truly repent (at whatever point in the future) God will forgive us. How might Christianity function if its adherents thought: The Lord God is a loving and merciful God, but perhaps only for today ... who knows how He will be tomorrow?

Friday, 6 June 2008

Афанасий Фет

Afanásy Fet (1820-92), the illegitimate son of a Russian Squire (the Squire was called Shenshin; 'Fet' was his German mother's maiden-name) was one of the most romantic, and Romantic, poets of his lush generation. Here is a Fet poem from 1843:

I have come to you with greeting,
Telling you the sun's awake
And that its hot light is fleeting
On the myriad green leaves' shake.

To say the forest is alive
Its trees are filled with springtime's thirst
Its many tremulous branches strive
And every bird within it stirs.

To tell you that I've come again
As passionate as I was before;
My soul prepared once more to frame
Our happiness, our true amour.

To tell you that joy's billowing
Blows over me from everywhere,
To say: I don't know what to sing;
I only know a song is there.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The opium of hope

Religion gives people hope. The opium of the people, Marx called it (of course), just before he said it was the heart of a heartless world. And whilst most medical practitioners would decry drug-use, few if any would deny that opium may be needful, if a person is in severe enough and chronic enough pain. What does this say? ‘My faith gives me hope, and without it I would not be able to go on with life,’ the religious person tells me. I understand. Who can carry on living without hope? Oh, a rhetorical question … an atheist can, clearly. ‘My faith is my strength,’ the religious person tells me. I can only reply but that any strength I have is founded in my faithlessness. The atheist is, of necessity, stronger than the believer. It’s not much of a boast; but it takes more willpower, if one has a broken arm, to walk down the street without analgesic than with.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Varieties of freedom

In Taxation No Tyranny (1775) Johnson asked ‘how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ It’s a more profound question than is usually given credit for, because it pinpoints that the major fault-line in debates of liberty is not between ‘freedom to and freedom from’ but freedom for the individual at the expense of others, and freedom of the individual in consonance with the freedom of others.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008


A sexual perversion uncommon amongst humanity: sex that deliberates avoids any and all games or practices of dominance and submission.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Keen green rain

Grey-headed clouds like elders of the sky. The steel-blue, and silver etching lines of the drizzle, and everywhere a bubbling and exuberance of spring green. The green hill, with its pattern of irregularly posed sheep, was so steep that the view from the cottage made it seem two-dimensional—a wall, or a sheet, standing straight up. The small whinnying and bleating of the sheep bounced from this backdrop as if from a sounding board. It came over the valley like the wailing of children. Odd to reflect how easily the human mind turns all this fertility to sorrow: the keening of the sheep, the green, the rain.

Sunday, 1 June 2008


In On Liberty John Stuart Mill said a mournful but hard-to-deny thing: ‘The dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed for ever, it may be thrown back for centuries.’ On the other hand, attempts may be made to deny this by affirming, with Nietzsche, that victory and truth are the same thing; or, with Christianity, that defeat and truth are the same thing. Two very beguiling philosophical positions, those. Not true, though.