Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The moon is white

The moon is black. ('Actually, overall the moon's surface is about the shade of an asphalt highway. It absorbs almost all the light that hits it. The moon appears pearly white to us only because of the tiny fraction of light that's reflected off the lunar blacktop.')

The sun is white. ('Puffy cumulous clouds on a sunny day are certainly bright enough to excite the cone cells in our eyes, so we should be able to detect any hints of color in them. They do reflect equally well all the wavelengths of light striking them, most of which comes from the Sun. So if the Sun is really yellow [and not white], then clouds should be yellow. But they aren't. And that goes to show that the Sun itself is much more whitish than it is yellowish')

Things are not always as they seem in black and white.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Is Aragorn a Good Leader?

Put the question another way: does Aragorn act as a good leader? I don't just mean: does he inspire his followers, does he lead from the front and so on. I mean does he make the sorts of decisions a good leader would make?

I don't think so. Boromir dead, Merry and Pippin seized by Orcs, Frodo and Sam off on their own to complete the mission. How should Aragorn lead Legolas and Gimli?
'Let me think!' said Aragorn. 'And now may I make a right choice, and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!' He stood silent for a moment. 'I will follow the Orcs,' he said at last. 'I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end; but if I seek him now in the wilderness, I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part. Yet we that remain cannot forsake our companions while we have strength left. Come! We will go now. Leave all that can be spared behind! We will press on by day and dark!' [439]
Our survey says: wrong. Merry and Pippin are your friends, and face torture and death, yes. Frodo and Sam, also your friends, are (probably) not in immediate danger, yes. But ... more important than anything, even the painful death of your friends, is that the ring be destroyed; and given the enormous danger and difficulty of doing this, Frodo and Sam (whatever they may have decided, themselves) need your help. Weigh it this way: you save Merry and Pippin, but the ring falls into the enemy's hands; you leave Merry and Pippin to their unpleasant fate, but you are able to help destroy the ring. The latter, though hard, is the right call.

You'll say, ah but Aragorn makes his choice and not only are Merry and Pippin saved by the ring is destroyed also. This, though, is a freakish chance. Good leadership does not base its decisions on the possibility of freakish chance. Besides, Merry and Pippin aren't saved by Aragorn and his band, but by the Ents; and Frodo and Sam did need help getting into Mordor (in Aragorn's absence they took this help from Gollum, and it nearly killed them).

In sum: bad call, Aragorn.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Comte and Christianity

This LRB article on Comte and the nineteenth-century (a review of Thomas Dixon's Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain) is interesting.
Possibly no political moralist in modern Western culture has been so widely influential – nor so often overlooked and forgotten – as the 19th-century French mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte, the inventor of positivism, altruism and the ‘religion of humanity’. In libraries throughout Europe, weighty editions of Comte’s works remain with their pages uncut more than a hundred and fifty years after his death. Yet the residues of Comtean visions and conceptions still permeate many aspects of European thought and institutions. They may be discerned in the emphasis on social science as the supreme guide to public policy, on the ‘priestly’ role of technical, medical and managerial ‘experts’, on human welfare as the sole touchstone of ethical life, on ‘law’ as a set of disembodied norms rather than the edicts of rulers or case law, and on the future destiny of Europe as a unified ‘Great Western Republic’ in place of an inchoate cluster of historic nations. All these perspectives are clearly recognisable in the public culture of Europe in the early 21st century. Yet the name of Auguste Comte is unknown to countless people whose daily lives and mental outlook are widely shaped or impinged on by his principles.
But this caught my eye:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh (1857) dismissed Comte's doctrines as intrinsically 'absurd'; yet the poem centred on the heroic tragedy of a man who practised the supreme positivist virtues of altruism or 'sacrifice for others', at the expense of the more prosaic Christian virtues of common sense, kindness and love.
I can see that as an account of the poem, sure (and certainly Aurora Leigh is as thoroughly in dialogue with Comte as anything by George Eliot). But the 'Christian virtues of common sense'? Arguably there is something commonsensical about Christianity, which might explain why it has caught on so ubiquitously. Yet my mind rejects the notion as a profound misunderstanding of what Christianity is about: the New Testament in particular is almost the Platonic form of anti-common-sense. It is a text that says: everything you know is wrong; everything you take for granted is upsidedown; the meek shall inherit the earth; the last shall be first; the worst of crimes isn't assassinating an emperor but killing a nobody, itinerant Carpenter. It says: the world appears to be one way to our common senses; it is actually quite other. It's perverse, as Zizek notes. That's the very ground of its appeal.

Saturday, 28 March 2009


This academic journal The Goethe Yearbook looks very swish. They should call it the Almanac de Goethe ...

Friday, 27 March 2009

What poetry is always about

In The Information Martin Amis gives us this: 'I know what his poetry will be about. What poetry is always about. The cruelty of the poet’s mistress.'

Very traditionally conceived But cruelty is not the correct word, really. Indifference comes closer to the mark; something mistaken for cruelty, occasionally, by those on the receiving end; but actually very different from it. Poetry is at root at attempt to puncture that indifference; to gain her attention.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Theist and Atheist converse

T: You say you don't believe in God? Ah my friend, but God believes in you. A: Think carefully about what you have just said. To be meaningful (to be more than just noise) the alternative must have some semantic purchase. So, consider what I put to you: my friend, though you believe in God, he doesn't believe in you. T: That means nothing to me. That concept is literally meaningless to me. A: Which is to say, you'd prefer not to consider its implications. I can understand that. But that doesn't stop it being true. T: It's nonsense. A: Precisely. It's the antithetical nonsense to your nonsense-thesis. T: You don't understand my point.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


'People are strange', Jim Morrison perceptively sang; although it's easy to forget the context. It's not that people are strange per se; it's that people are strange are strange when you're a stranger. People's strangeness is a function of you own alienation. Important to bear that in mind.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

White horse poem

The train is taking the curve,
metal wheels sharpening metal rails
and a speed-camera flash. It's dusk.

It hoots, it's mournful, and then it is
a grinding noise in the distance. Then gone.
The stars come out again. A frog moves.

The white horse is poured moonlight;
Assembled curves like an Arab alphabet
Cantering fluidly through its dark green medium.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Modern poetry

A sweeping critical assertion: 'modern poetry says I am in dialogue with my own absence ...'

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The spines of books

The French phrase les dos des livres seems warmer (more erotic) than the overly-anatomical, even surgical-evacuative, English equivalent: the spines of books ...

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Hell poem

According to Dante Hell is shaped
as a spout, or as a spigot, a
funnel to focus the fluid wash

of dead souls dashing downward
under that great gravity called death.
The heavyset and hairy face hoves to

sets his lips to the limit and swigs.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Patient Griselda

An excellent article by Colin Burrow ('She Doesn’t Protest'; reviewing J.G. Nichols' new translation of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio) discussing, amongst other things, the story of Patient Griselda:

Griselda marries Gualtieri, the Marquis of Saluzzo. He tests her by declaring that their first child—a daughter—must be put to death, likewise their second child—a son. Griselda obediently gives up both of them without protest and each is secreted away and raised rather than killed. In a final test, Gualtieri publicly renounces Griselda, claiming he has been granted papal dispensation to divorce and marry a better woman; she goes to live with her father. Some years later, Gualtieri announces he is to remarry and recalls Griselda as a servant to prepare the wedding celebrations. He introduces her to a twelve-year-old girl he claims is to be his bride but who is really their daughter; Griselda wishes them well. At this Gualtieri reveals his plan and Griselda joyously retakes her place as wife and mother.
Burrow's main point is that Boccaccio's bare-bones telling of this tale propels other writers to flesh it out. It's so baffling, on a psychological level; Griselda seems to have at her disposal none of the responses, emotional or practical, to which an actual living-breathing human being would have recourse. As if we should be talking about 'mentally defective Griselda', 'Lobotomised Griselda.'

Boccaccio's friend Petrarch wrote a Latin version of the story in which the inexplicably curel Gualtieri is implicityly identified with God, whose short-term impositions of suffering are offset by his amazing ultimate grace. Later readers generally responded to the tale not by allegorising away its unstated motives and emotions but by elaboratig them. Samuel Richardson's Pamela, and indeed all the explorations of the inner lives of suffering low-born heroines which were the staples of the early English novel, are among the offspring of Boccaccio's account of Griselda.
This is well put; but it's the emphasis on Griselda herself that is most bewildering aspect of this particular cultural tradition. Surely this is a story that invites the reader in not at the level of the perfectly blank, empty Griselda, but from Gualtieri's point of view; a story, moreover, not really about the man's obscure motives for his cruelty but about the actualisation of male desire. When you look at it that way you see how screwy it is. The notion that a man's ultimate fantasy is a Stepford Wife is one-eighty-degrees about. A better understanding is provided not by Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, but by Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale ... the former pretends to be about 'what men really want' when actually it presents something quite opposite. The latter pretends to be about what women really want, when in fact it is precisely about what men really want.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

I Fought The Law

It occurs to me that a song called I Fought The Law And I Won simply wouldn't work. This gives me pause. Is it because the Blues, and its necessary downbeaten ethos, has simply interpenetrated contemporary popular music to too ubiquitous a degree for genuine songs of self-assertion to be possible? I can't listen to self aggrandizing rap without taking it, on some level, as irony. Or is this me projecting my own downbeatenness onto an idiom that is perfectly capable of self-assertion?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


One form of spam comment/message I've seen quite a lot of recently: 'your website have great content!' (The idea is that you are flattered into pressing the 'accept' button and posting the comment, whereupon readers of your site click the poster's link to Viagrastan, or wherever). It's the unidiomatic form I like so much: website have great content!' What I like about this is its tacit articulation of the notion that 'website' (not websites) is the plural form. It has something of the charm of 'my name is legion for we are many.' An appropriate comparison on more than one level.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


A fantasia on contemporary cultural representations of the female body, with special attention to the world of modelling, and styled after La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel: to be called La vie de Gracilitas et de Panieiunium.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Eikon Basilike, again

I was wondering, having pondered in another place the extent to which visual images that deictically insist upon certain readings (and attempt to close off other readings) by virtue of inscribing official interpretation in words into the image itself, actually and necessarily spill-over the edges of their own hermeneutic limits ... I was wondering, then, about the famous frontispiece to the Eikon Basilike. To what extent would it be possible to read this image against the grain, as a critique, not a celebration, of its subject? There's a kind of perversity involved in such as undertaking, I'd be the first to accept. But perversity of an interesting sort. So, click to make it larger:

Consider the glosses (I lean heavily on wikipedia, here). The accusation against Charles is that he was a tyrant. How, might I ask, is that countered by having him with his foot upon the world, and the Latin tag 'Mundi Calco — I tread on the world.' Isn't that exactly what tyrants do? What does Lewis and Short say about calco? 'to tread something, or upon something ... to tread down, to oppress, to trample upon ... to scorn, contemn, spurn, despise, abuse.' Is that really the semantic field of a wise and benevolent ruler? (abuse? oppress?).

Those books on the table: IN VERBO TVO SPES MEA — "In Thy Word is My Hope" and Christi Tracto — "I entreat Christ" or "By the word of Christ". Fine, except that Charles isn't looking at them (he's looking up). 'Tracto' might mean 'I entreat Christ'; or it might mean 'I ponder Christ'; but L&S remind us that its primary meaning is 'to draw violently, to drag, tug, haul' and goes on to expand the possible uses of the word re: violence ('to be torn, rent, lacerated') or 'to strike'. The Roman soldiers at the crucifiction might be said to have traxerunt Christ, surely? And in verbo tuo spes mea is, at the least, ambiguous depending upon to whom the tuo and the mea refer?

That rock in the ocean is immota, triumphans, which of course suggests Charles beset by a troublous populace yet remaining unmoved and triumphant. But does a monarch accused of imperial tyranny really want the associations of the Roman triumph? Is it fitting that he has (perhaps Pharaonic) palm trees in his garden? With bells hanging from them (who would not think of 1 Corinthians 13's sounding brass?).

Most of all I'm intrigued by the line of the beam of light. Ostensible the light from the king (from the back of his head) shines upon the darkness, whilst he himself had his eyes fixed upon the heavenly crown that awaits him. But if we look again: doesn't it rather look as though Charles head (let's not forget, King Charles's Head) prisms the light of heaven into a spectrum of ... uh, cloudy darkness? (What a shame Newton's Optics postdates the Eikon by decades, or I could really go to town on this).

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Gold, lead

In the Eikon Basilike, Charles says: 'I would rather choose to wear a crown of thorns with my Saviour, than to exchange that of gold, which is due to me, for one of lead, whose embased flexibleness shall be forced to bend and comply to the various and oft contrary dictates of any factions.'

Damn but that's puzzling; for despite their evident differences one aspect that gold and lead undeniably share is that both possess equal flexibleness ... unless that is, in the some obscure sense, precisely the point here?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Sheep poem

This drystone wall, inedible;
Dwarf trees, their petrified tentacles, inedible;
This sky, inedible;
Soil, colour of blood-pudding, inedible;
Fossil-dung pebbles, inedible;
This wind, inedible; hailstones, inedible;
Night, inedible.
Thought, inedible.

This turf,
strands like the flames of a wide, low fire:

Friday, 13 March 2009

The sea, fussing

The sea fussing, tucking-up the body of the beach under its sheet only to pull it free again, like something that can't make up its mind. Compulsive, propulsive. Repeating, repeating. ('Really/ Are you saying that the sea is neurotic?' 'No ... or at least; only at the edges ...')

Thursday, 12 March 2009


Harriet Harvey Wood's The Battle of Hastings: the Fall of Anglo Saxon England expresses (in Tom Shippey's words) the author's view 'that the wrong side won on 14 October 1066: Anglo Saxon England was more civilised than William's Normandy.'

Maybe this is true, but I wonder if its mere residual Historical Whiggism in me that thinks there's something worse than pointless (worse because liable to feed ressentiment) about that sort of judgment. Asserting that with 1066 England would have 'skipped the middle ages altogether and jumped straight to the Renaissance' is fine Alternate History SF, and to the extent (it's quite a wide extent) that all History is a form of Alternate History SF, that's obviously OK. But this is to concede the SF angle. The broader point is the danger of valorising the Anglo-Saxon world, when you yourself--yes I'm talking about you sir, madam--would have hated living there. Accepting this, means acknowledging that the fact that 'Saxon' has now in effect become a code word for 'white yellow-haired racist' is also grounded in a creative appropriation of the past to the present (this is not to assert that the Anglo-Saxon world wasn't racist, because it pretty much was: but it is to insist that today's white yellow-haired racists would have hated living there. And for a great many reasons.)

In a related point: why, I wonder do my fingers stray when I try to type Saxon to spell out instead Sazon?

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Novel

What would happen to the Novel if all the pain were taken out of it? Anaesthetised drama: a contradiction in terms.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


What strange chance that those WW1 battles (culturally-symbolically more important than battles for centuries) have such semiotically suggestive names: the collective-existential Somme, the valley-of-the-shadow crucification of Passchendaele ...

Monday, 9 March 2009

The sentence

John Banville, with writerly understatement, asserts: ‘Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence.’ (The discovery of fire? Agriculture? The wheel? Medicine? Pooh-pooh).

I suppose there's something to be said for the idea that not just the invention of language but the proper structuring of language (the turning of language into an instrument of precision, descriptive power, predictive control and imaginative possibility) is the key event in human affairs. But this is hardly a function of the sentence ...

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Human poem

Let those who define human as
smart or souled take care:
The true test of the human is:
they chat with what's not there.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Writer's block

It's fallacious, and kind of insulting, to tell people suffering from writer's block 'there's no such thing as writer's block'; because, empirically, there is such a thing; and it can be very distressing. But there's a truth in the 'no such thing' line nevertheless, because writer's block is actually a simply collision of two things (writing something new, revising something you have written) that ought to be kept separate. First you get it written; then you get it right. Don't attempt to get it right whilst you are getting it written, or the block will clunk in. What writer's block is, in fact, is that portion of your mind that says 'not very well put, that could be better' and suchlike commendable sentiments at war with that portion of your mind that actually comes up with the shit in the first place. Don't put them in the same room at the same time. Good mental fences make good writers.

Friday, 6 March 2009


A dastard is a coward, or a pusillanimous individual; although 'dastardly' seems to have taken on a more generic, negative 'bad person' vibe. But what's nice about this synonym for coward (according to the dictionaries) is that 'it is derived most likely from Old Norse d├Žstr, exhausted'. There's something splendidly psychologically true about the notion that cowardice is not a sort of Falstaffian force of character, and more a function of the myriad forms of exhaustion.

Thursday, 5 March 2009


It's the lack of alphabetic-logic symmetry that bothers me. I understand u, and I understand that doubling that letter up (uu) leads us to double-u (w). But surely by the same logic we should call 'm' 'double-n'?

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Nature, as craftsman

Nature, as craftsman, seems to possess only abrasives: sandpapers and grinding wheels and acid washes. Although every now and again Nature, as craftsman, summons forth a new supply of unshaped raw material to start again the process of whittling.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


Gulls front the wind to fly. Face the breeze and air becomes opaque. It is after this manner that flight is a form of blindness. Headbutt the flow and it yields.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Moral excellence

Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics claimed that 'moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts'. There are, clearly enough, good cognitive-theraputic reasons for agreeing with him, except that this seems to place virtue itself into the realm of the autonomous, rather than the conscious, nervous system. And surely that can't be right ...

Or can it?

Sunday, 1 March 2009


According to Aldous Huxley, 'Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness.' That's very true; but by the same token happiness is achieved by conscious pursuit.