Sunday, 31 August 2008

Reading Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony

It occurs to me that we don’t take this man – a dictator, and the author of literally millions of deaths – seriously. But then, neither do we really take Hitler seriously, with his bizarrely oxymoronic mixture of Chaplainesque psychopathy. This in turn leads me to wonder which dictators we do take seriously.

Is the ur-fascist leader an 18th invention? Frederick of Prussia may not count, not because he wasn’t warlike or autocratic, but because he was not able practically speaking to involve the whole world in his ambitions. On that criterion we have one nineteenth-century example (Napoleon), and two twentieth-century ones (Hitler, Stalin). This is a disturbing progression, assuming that its not too small a sample from which to extrapolate … which is to say, we’ll be looking at three twenty-first century dictators capable of shaking the world. This may be possible nevertheless, since the other progression here is of a technological advancement. For Napoleon to shake the world required him to assemble a machine of destruction as old as the pharaohs—his Grand Armée, a million men. By the twentieth-century Hitler and Stalin had much more efficiently destructive technologies of mass destruction at their disposal, which (although they also assembled enormous armies) enabled them to magnify the per-capita destructive power. By the twenty-first century we are soon arriving at a situation where technologies of mass-destruction are so powerful, and so concentrated, that a world-shaking dictator may be able to achieve Napoleonic destructiveness with an army no larger than an C18th-century minor state.

Saturday, 30 August 2008


People who believe in an afterlife tend to believe that it will be substantially better or substantially worse than the life we presently lead; but this is only to say that the afterlife will be different to this life. It’s not clear to me why this follows from the initial position. Why mightn't the afterlife (assuming such a thing) be exactly on a level with our life? Why mightn't it be exactly like our life?

Friday, 29 August 2008

French sky

You can see, here in the south, why Hugo as a poet is so fond of the word azure.

Contrails, some thin unbroken white lines against the blue like lines on a graph; some fuzzed along their entire length like uncarded wool.

Raybans give the sun a mane of geometrically triangular flares.

At sunset the sky becomes the colour of rosé wine: fresh and liquid.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Heart icon

♥ Two upended teardrops finding solace together.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Fat Earth

Bradshaw of the Future tells us: 'The Proto-Indo-European root *peiH- "to be fat, swell" in the extended o-grade form *poid- became in Proto-Germanic *faitaz "fat". This became Old English fæt and then English fat. In Proto-Celtic, the extended form *pī-wer- "fat, fertile" became *f–weryon- "earth, soil".'

Is soil 'fat'? Is the rotund, hippy Earth fat? Of course, of course.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Ontological proofing

Could it be that the third step in Gödel's ontological proof--because it sets up as inclusory particular exclusory sets (as it might be, mercy/judgement)--acts as the ground for the paradox, in a special sense, that ontological proofs by definition try and avoid?

Monday, 25 August 2008


Nothing is more hateful than banishment; for what is death, but a banishment from the things of life?

Sunday, 24 August 2008


Tentacles of foam where the water splashes, groping at the surface of the pond.

Saturday, 23 August 2008


It's strange to look back (strange in a properly estranging way) on my former life as a depressive. Substantial patches of my childhod, long foggy nautical miles of adolescence, much of my twenties and into my thirties, all of it given over to this foul, selfish pain-meme. Nothing, thank Providence, since then--not for a decade--but it used to be closer to me than my jugular vein. Looking back the main thing that strikes me is how obscuring the illness is. I seemed to spend all my time inwardly contemplating myself, painfully and obsessively, and yet with hindsight it is clear I had almost no accurate sense of myself. I hated myself for a whole tranche of perceived failings, and yet was blind to the major failing that used to define my personality (my selfishness, and the way that affected those around me). That's what's worst about depression; not that it was painful for me--though it was--but that it was more painful for those around me, for whom (I don't use the word carelessly) I was a kind of abomination, stuck cyclotropically between inanity and inertia. I'm less selfish now, I think (I hope), and on a much more even emotional keel. More, the silt has settled in my waters to the extent where I can now glimspe the seabed; not as deeply lying as I formerly thought.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Jewel poem

I am a jewel on your right hand
Ambiguously coloured, set in gold:
As mournful as a sapphire, and
As envious as emerald.

Thursday, 21 August 2008


How we love to tinker with the name 'Egypt'; we'd never bother to do so with 'Kettering'. It's a function of the exoticism we like to port into the concept: Aegypt; land of the Gypsies; land of the Copts' Edge-ypt, the country at the edge of the world. 'Aegypt', sounds attractively archaic to us, not just because it is a tanscription of the Latin, but because that 'ae' ligature is itself a marker of ancientness. The Egyptian Arabic word is Máṣr, it seems:

The English name "Egypt" came via the Latin word Aegyptus derived from the ancient Greek word Aígyptos (Αίγυπτος). The adjective aigýpti, aigýptios was borrowed into Coptic as gyptios, kyptios, and from there into Arabic as qubṭī, back formed into qubṭ, whence English Copt ... Strabo provided a folk etymology according to which Aígyptos (Αίγυπτος ) had evolved as a compound from Aegaeon uptiōs (Aἰγαίου ὑπτίως), meaning "below the Aegean".

The idea of this dust and dry land is named because it is in some sense under the sea is nice; but I'm struck that nobody has ever essayed the alternative spelling, and etymology, Oegypt: Oίγυπτος from Oίγυς [L&S: 'woe, misery, distress, hardship, suffering'] the land of hardship, the place of suffering.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Little dying

Odd that two such dissimilar things as sleep and orgasm should both, at various times, been called 'the little death'. 'The little depression' perhaps better describes the former; and for the latter I'm puzzled at the desire to belittle it in the first place ...

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


What would it be like to look at the grass smothered with dew in the early morning and not think, 'cellophane'? Or look at the same lawn, later in the day, when the sun has come unambiguously out, and not think 'pistachio in direct light, and ivy where the fence lays that block of shadow...'? I don't believe it's different from a poet, too thoroughly immersed in her practice, who thinks of everything in terms of rhyme; or a dedicated player of the rubik's cube who puts the toy down after several hours, and looks up to see the heads of the people around them in terms of shifting and turning and rotating the different planes of ears, noses, scalps, jaws and so on.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Five lines about this fly

This fly stands on inbent eyelash legs.

This fly purses his mouth to two tweezer-points.

This fly leaps into the air on daisypetal wings.

This fly's eyes are clumps of crumbs.

The job of this fly (tzz tzz!) is to admonish

Sunday, 17 August 2008


"Madame Bovary, c'est moi" ... but really? It's tantamount to conceding that Bovary is not a woman, but a big Frenchman. As if Shakespeare were to say: 'you know that Iago? That's me, that is!' False; or at the least a misunderstanding of the process of characterisation ... that the perpetrator of this misunderstanding was an author (and a genius at the delineation of character) doesn't excuse him.

Saturday, 16 August 2008


Sexual difference is exactly like any other kind of difference.

Friday, 15 August 2008


The chromosomal dangles of common hazel catkins.

Thursday, 14 August 2008


What was Othello doing in Aleppo?

..............................Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus. [V.v.]

It's part of a matrix of oriental references in the speech (the base Judean who threw away a pearl; Arabian trees dropping myrrh. But Aleppo stands out, not for its specific historical referent (although a Venetian did visit the city in 1555, and recorded what he saw), but simply because it follows a similar verbal logic, as word, to Othello's own name: the vocalic opening, the labial, the central 'e', the doubled consonant, and the terminal 'o'. It is a piece of wordplay that reflects upon the speaker.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Escher's hands

This is used so often as an illustration for the concept of 'strange loops' that it has become dead to our eyes; but a quick glance shows that strange-loopiness has nothing to do with it. Only a clumsy viewer would think that each hand here has drawn the other from scratch. How could they? Look at the bottom hand: it is tethered at the wrist by its two-dimensional sleeve ... it could hardly reach around with its pencil to draw all the elements of the upper hand (and vice versa ...) Nor is there space on the page for both hands to lie. No: the moral here is in the ambiguity of the title ('hands' means 'many hands' just as much as it means 'two hands'; we could do with an aliter/alius distinction in our plurals). Escher's portrait is actually of the invisible third hand that set the whole in motion .... Escher's own hand, in other words. It is, as much of his work is, a self-portrait.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008


But this way was not destined to be danger-free;
In the night a flock of Fantoums had entered the forest
Staffs in their clutches, claws sharp as scythes.
At first Uif crept, and strove to be stealthy,
But then, through the green-growth, she glimpsed the monsters:
Fear filled her, terror took her and trampled judgement,
Sudden, hare-like, she struck—ran straight like a runnel,
And the hooting and savage Fantoums got her scent
Turned their goggle-eyes all at once where she was gone
And unloosed their long limbs to come loping after.
There were three of them, throating like hounds, holloping
Through the trees, bounding over bush and bole.
In an lockjaw of terror she trod the ground,
Fast as her feet could, and the boy bouncing at her back;
Once she fell on a lime limb but leapt fast to her feet
She knew that the Fantoums were afraid of the forest's-end
That if she could get shot of the trees she'd survive
Only get free to the fields where the barley bristled,
And beyond to the houses, home of the Brights
Where braves would bear blades to repel the repulsive:
Axes for tree-tumbling, knives for unlocking pig’s-leather
Ungumming their guts, getting blood for black-pudding
And slicing up the carcass for choice succulent cuts.
So she ran, and her baby bawled upon her back
But the Fantoums were not far, breathing behind her;,
She snatched a glimpse over her shoulder: they were there
Eyes like two toadstools on the flats of their faces
Brown and spark-centred; mouths like sinks in their skulls
Rimmed about with raking teeth, sharp as scissors,
One was almost upon her, when she half-turned and hefted
Her small-sword to tear its sheer skin, to sever a claw
Or otherwise warn the ogre away. But it slinked like a snake
The sword swung without biting, and it boomed,
Never lessening the lope of its immensely long limbs,
The creature clutched at her arm with its clasping claws.
She dodged, best as she could, with the baby dragging her back,
A dead weight upon her, wailing and back-dragging.
She leapt to the left, over a rotted roll of fallen tree,
And ran on rapidly, fast as her feet could fly.
The beast was behind her; she could hear it, and smell its stink,
And then it had its claws in her—or not her, but her burden,
The claws in her son, her Leman, her lovely one,
But the loathsome thing had latched on the lad
And Uif was yanked backward, her feet flying up
And down she fell, breath bashed from her body,
On her spine-base, screaming, arms out; the ape was on her.
But it had hold of her boy—no grip on her body,
And so, in a panic she strained to stand and push on,
She broke the knot that was tied at her breastbone,
Cut the cloth there that was carrying her child
And, weeping with heart’s-woe, she leapt away
And sprinted through spring-coloured growth
Leaving her love, her fine boy, Leman,
Behind in the undergrowth for Fantoums to feast on,
And so she escaped, her tears tumbling from her,
Out of the edge of the woodland and into the wide space
Where crops were cultivated, and barleycorn grew.

Monday, 11 August 2008


In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche says: 'without music, life would be a mistake'. I understand (I think) the sentiment, but the phrasing puzzles me ('Ohne Musik wäre das Leben ein Irrtum': 'Sprüche und Pfeile', 33). Whose mistake? If we read this as 'it would be a mistake to try and live life without music' it becomes banal; but 'if there were no music in the universe, it would be a mistake for anything to be alive' surely rebukes an imagined creator? Imagine if the phrase were: 'without the ability to square the circle, life would be a mistake'; or 'without temperatures of minus 500 Kelvin, life would be a mistake' (or we might say: 'without psfugghl, life would be a mistake'). What else could we say to this except: possibly, but it is in the nature of life that sometimes we must make the best of it, mistaken or not.

Sunday, 10 August 2008


Olympic thoughts.

What the official meets test is not really athletic ability, or not only (and not primarily) that: rather they test the ability of any given athlete to peform on a day and in an environment specified by authority. Originally this was to ensure the legality of the timekeeping and so on; but presumably we will soon reach a day when timekeeping technology is accurate enough, ubiquitous enough and can be made secure enough to measure all athletes all the time. Sprinters have run 100m faster than 9.72 seconds; they just haven't done it in official environments. But, speaking personally, if somebody runs 100m in 8.99 seconds I don't care whether it happens in an official meet or in an unofficial practice session ... I'd just like to know about it.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

The Corwin amendment

Given that the right to make amendments to the US Constitution is guaranteed by the US Constitution itself, I wonder (alt-historically) at what would have happened in a logical sense had the Corwin amendment been passed: ""No amendment shall be made to the Constitution..." Would this not have resulted in a sort of legislative feedback squeal, a looping recursive passage of constitutional energy that would have short-circuited the whole document? It might have left the USA without a constitution in 1861, in effect an anarchy in which might would have been right, exploitation and guncrime would have permeated the land. Doesn't bear thinking about.

Friday, 8 August 2008

From the M1

Light breaking through low cloud over the peaks, coming down in angled shafts and long rods of brightness against the darker background: sunlight that looks like distant rain.

Thursday, 7 August 2008


Bluebells with their table-lamp blue-glass hoods angling light upon the ground.

The stained hearts of Sweet William.

The very unprim primrose, small but voluptuously formed, petals lavishly akimbo.

The ox-eye daisy, with its yellow-pupil and its cream coloured iris: Coats' disease of the day.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

National Portrait Gallery

I tend to feel, when I go there, like the monkey on the other side of the glass: there I am, but there are all these eyes, all looking at me. In a normal gallery I'm the one who does the looking! This is no normal gallery; it's an experiment in metaphysical inversions.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008


No Art without exaggeration?

Monday, 4 August 2008

Linking poem

We know the linking of two things
Is always balance, never muddle:
The song the mindless prayerwheel sings;
The sun reflected in a puddle.

Sunday, 3 August 2008


If there is a limbo for Hell (the "condition of those who die in original sin without being assigned to the Hell of the damned [gehenna]... Medieval theologians described the underworld ["hell", "hades", "infernum"] as divided into four distinct underworlds: hell of the damned, purgatory, limbo of the fathers, and limbo of infants"), then there must be a limbo for Heaven as well; for those who die virtuously without being assigned the Heaven of the blessed.

I wonder what that's like. Like, Earth, maybe?

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Augustus John's Portrait of Lawrence

Not so much the blue-eye boy,
Or the custard-coloured hair
Or dust-coloured skin, and lips
Marked with innumerable vertical lines
Like rungs: he sits not quite forlorn
It focuses our eye on the shroud
That scarfs his head to keep the sun off;
The balanced golden serpent coiled
In golden segments like a crown.
He wears his dagger like the thorn
In his side refashioned as gold.
His finger is pointed languidly down.
There is nowhere else to go.

Friday, 1 August 2008

The First Seven Roman Governors of Judea

Rome permitted Judea a degree of self-governance until Augustus banished Herod Archelaus, incorporated Judea into the colony of Syria and appointed governors directly from Rome. This is what puzzles me: the seven governors who followed all had oddly plebeian names, despite being, all of them, noblemen: Coponius ('Shopkeeper'), Ambivius ('Two-face'); Rufus ('Redhead'); Pilate ('Javelin Man'), Marcellus ('Droopy') and Marullus (‘Catnipper’). Why's that?