Thursday, 30 April 2009

Beyond Belief

One of the things I love about that supreme example of Elvis genius, 'Beyond Belief', is precisely that it is hard to get quite right in your ear. Or at least, that was the way when I was first listening to this album, in the 80s. Not now: now we have many websites dedicated to listing song lyrics. Testing my belief about the words in this song against this site, I discover I am wrong about some things ('Keep your finger on the button issues/With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues' is indeed, as I listen, '...important issues...'). But these sites are, clearly, not flawless. Its anonymous scribe has: 'I'm just the oily slick/On the windup world of the nervous tick.' But doesn't Elvis actually sing 'oil'? And, crucially:
So in this almost empty gin palace
Through a two-way looking glass
You see your Alice
You know she has no sense
For all your jealousy
In a sense she still smiles very sweetly
Listening to the way Elvis sings 'sense', in that last line, convinces me that the vital fourth line is: 'You know she has no sins.' The toxic mix of booze, heterosexual erotic obsession and tumbling solipsism which is the idiom of the song is (I'm tempted to say 'of course' ... look at the title of the piece, for heaven's sake!) refracted through Elvis's fascination with religion. I think with 'religion' more generally conceived, rather than with Elvis's more usual Catholicism (it's rose and thistle at daggers'-drawn, not rose and shamrock...') I think this explains 'the bone orchard', one of my very favourite Costello images: the spirit-denuded material body that still, somehow, bears fruit (the banging of bones in sexual congress, even boozily mediated as here, can indeed result in more life).

Wednesday, 29 April 2009


Wikipedia provides the likely etymology:

There are several possible etymologies of the word zombie. One possible origin is jumbie, the West Indian term for 'ghost'. Another is nzambi, the Kongo word meaning 'spirit of a dead person.' According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word entered English circa 1871; it's derived from the Louisiana Creole or Haitian Creole zonbi, which in turn is of Bantu origin. A zonbi is a person who is believed to have died and been brought back to life without speech or free will. It is akin to the Kimbundu nzúmbe ghost.
But it does not mention the unlikely one: that the word is linked to the Greek Ζωον ('a living being, animal'), which is to say, Ζωος ('life, alive'), as well as to βιός ('life i.e. not animal life, but a course of life, manner of living'). We know these words from their English derivations (Zoology, Biology). Zo-(m)Bios, The reduplicated 'living-life' having the effect almost of cancelling, or putting under the sign of ironic erasure, the entity so described.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Passive aggressive

Aggressive is, in most cases, not as good as peaceable. But given that, I'm puzzled by the widespread belief that passive aggressive is in some way worse than active aggressive. I suppose this is because passive aggression has the odour of dishonesty, or disingenuity, about it; where a good honest punch on the nose is a good honest punch on the nose. But this is quite wrong. Active aggression is much worse, and results in much greater actual harm and intimidation. Passive aggression, by contrast, not only breaks no bones, but (in a receptive individual) may even initiate a person into the wonders of ironic interaction.

Monday, 27 April 2009


I shall write a story about a future punishment for dissent, called 'Chill': a genetic tweak leaves victims feeling bitterly cold even though they are actually warm. No matter what they do they cannot seem to shake their inner sense of freeze.

Sunday, 26 April 2009


This is how Hesiod's Theogony opens:
μουσάων Ἑλικωνιάδων ἀρχώμεθ᾽ ἀείδειν,
αἵθ᾽ Ἑλικῶνος ἔχουσιν ὄρος μέγα τε ζάθεόν τε
καί τε περὶ κρήνην ἰοειδέα πόσς᾽ ἁπαλοῖσιν
ὀρχεῦνται καὶ βωμὸν ἐρισθενέος Κρονίωνος.
καί τε λοεσσάμεναι τέρενα χρόα Περμησσοῖο
ἢ Ἵππου κρήνης ἢ Ὀλμειοῦ ζαθέοιο
ἀκροτάτῳ Ἑλικῶνι χοροὺς ἐνεποιήσαντο
καλούς, ἱμερόεντας: ἐπερρώσαντο δὲ ποσσίν.
From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse's Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet.
Why are the muses' feet hapalos, soft? Because they hardly walk on them: because they are carried everywhere; because they fly; because they are aristocrats and don't have to work. But this isn't right! The muses are not idle ... on the contrary. Be careful; they will be angry if you imply they do nothing but lounge about all day. But Hesiod knows better than this. Their skin, he says, is tereen, smooth: but the word literally means rubbed smooth (perhaps with pumice) ... paned, sanded. Vigorous activity does not produce calluses on these beings; it only polished and tenderises their skin further.

Saturday, 25 April 2009


The night sky's profligate shower of white-hot stars are in motion, frozen momentarily by the peculiarity of our perspective—only by that. If we apprehended time more accurately then we would see the stars as they truly are, in fluid motion. As it is it is the nature of our handicap that we are effectively frozen, or trapped, or isolated in time, and everything—as we look about—appears to have stopped.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Ex nihilo

The ex nihilo thing has been a problem for thinkers. Hard to stomach the idea that everything was created out of nothing; and an easy step from the difficulty into thinking ('...creating ex nihilo would be really really difficult; therefore creation must be an act of overcoming difficulty, and so the act of an entity that's so powerful really really difficult stuff looks easy to Him ...')

But when we look at the universe we see it’s mostly nothing. It’s vacuum and emptiness and barrenness. If the sun were scaled down to the size of a golfball the earth would be a speck of dust smaller than a printed full-stopmany metres away, and the nearest star would be hundreds of kilometers further off. In other words the somethingness of the cosmos is a kind of thin crust over a vast cauldron of nothingness. It might be better, rather than saying, for instance, God created the universe out of nothing, to say God scratched the edge of nothingness with a sparse culture of something. Or it might be better to ask: If God created something out of nothing, then why did he do such an incomplete job?’

Thursday, 23 April 2009


Look into the oval eye. It is everything. Look well enough and you will see: you will start to see, dissolving in paleness against the darker oceanic tints—Africa in the middle: Europe and the arch of Scandinavia above. Asia, heavy on China (because that’s where most of the population is) on the right. Pulled and distorted away to the left, north and South America—this oval is the projection, remember, not the actual shape.

‘I don’t …’ said Victor.

‘You’re not looking for the geographical features of the world,’ I said, ‘but the intensity of population. Soul, if you like. If you prefer that way of describing it. Our world. What is written in letters a million light-years high? What is mapped in the very fabric of the universe itself? We are.’

‘I can sort of see China. But where’s Russia?’

‘That’s Siberia. Hardly anybody lives there.’

He peered again. Magic eye. ‘What about this along the bottom border of the oval? Shouldn’t that be Antarctica?’

‘That’s Australasia, Malaysia. It’s a trick of the projection. Malaysia is one of the most populous portions of the globe.’

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


Ruskin claimed 'mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery.' For this to be more than mere personal hyperbole (as it might be: 'ooh, I like mountains a lot...') there would have to be some sense in which mountain ranges actually embody, rather than merely superficially resembled, sublime eructions into the natural world. Life begins in the valley; death buries its corpses in little miniature imitation valleys. 'Natural scenery' is a concept in human beings' heads, not a meaningful category of landscape.

Put it another way: if you are in the mountains, looking down like Hitler in his eyrie (like Tennyson's Eagle) and actually find yourself thinking: 'this is truly the perspective of the beginning and the end of all ...' then you need to get yourself down out of the mountains double-quick and douse your brain in the spring of quotidian life.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The cauldron's shape

Mythic resonance, presumably to do with the shape of the cauldron. Something very ancient about it. Wellfed, or pregnant. Full, somehow, of promise. But then that term, parturient. Was that a word coined by people whose sly sexism liked the notion of importing pa into this most female of processes? Why not maturient?

Monday, 20 April 2009

Feather poem

The things you value most, bird,
About your soapbubble-coloured feather:
Don't interest us at all.

The plumes for lift, the lovely hues,
The warmth, the courtship bulk.
These are superfluous.

We want the spine only;
The plastic rigid capillary.
A part you barely knew you had.

We want this not for its fine contents,
Your lifeblood, flowing.
We want it wrenched out, emptied,

the red replaced with airless black,
a double nick to bring the socket point
To a writer's lancet arch

So as to write nightingales,
And crows, sometimes; but mostly
To write humans, and human sensitivities.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Mahon's Ursula.

A warm review of Derek Mahon's latest collection (Life on Earth) in the most recent TLS: Lucy McDiarmid makes a good case for his value as a poet, and the slightly diluted but nevertheless valuable 'musicality and syntactic simplicity' of his current voice. She quotes eight lines from 'At Ursula's', written 'from the inside of a restaurant in Kinsale, safe from the rain and cold':
A cold and snowy morning
I sit in Ursula's place
and fancy something spicy
served with the usual grace ...
Boats strain at sea, alas,
gales rattle the slates
while inside at Ursula's
We bow to our warm plates.
But I can't seem to like this. Rising up against a first-sight sense (that it's pleasant writing) is a reaction that starts, straight away, with 'strains', as if the boats are trying to shit in the bay ('strain at sea' is haunted, as a phrase, by 'strains at stool'). The 'alas', to rhyme with Ursula's, is filler, cheesy with it. Awkward and noncontributory puns dislocate the mood ('grace' meaning Ursula's pleasant manner, or the grace said before a meal? Gales or Gaels?); and the plus-one logic that shifts 'it was a dark and stormy night' into cold and morning makes that first line look not only cliche but, almost, facetious. It culminates in the last line, which hovers awkwardly between a deliberately formal, almost ritualised, rendering of diners tucking in (good), and a stuffed-owlish visual image of everybody at Ursula's poisoned and keeling over, their faces splatting into their grub (not so good).

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Darnley portrait

Roy Strong (The Spirit of Britain) on portraits of Elizabeth:
Fear of the wrong use and perception of the visual image dominates the Elizabethan age. The old pre-Reformation idea of images, religious ones, was that they partook of the essence of what they depicted. Any advance in technique which could reinforce that experience was embraced. That was now reversed, indeed it may account for the Elizabethans failing to take cognisance of the optical advances which created the art of the Italian Renaissance ... They certainly knew about these things but, and this is central to the understanding of the Elizabethans, chose not to employ them. Instead the visual arts retreated in favour of presenting a series of signs or symbols through which the viewer was meant to pass to an understanding of the idea behind the work. In this manner the visual arts were verbalised, turned into a form of book, a 'text' which called for reading by the onlooker. There are no better examples of this than the quite extraordinary portraits of the queen herself, which increasingly, as the reign progressed, took on the form of collections of abstract pattern and symbols disposed in an unnaturalistic manner for the viewer to unravel, and by doing so enter into an inner vision of the idea of monarchy. [177]
Hours of fun to be had with the Darnley portrait, there, certainly. I particularly like the detail of the pearls, looped over one breast as if thereby drawing attention the lack over the other breast. Signifying, in other words, that the queen was symbolically an amazon (that she is a-mazos, "without breast"); a figure of mythological strength and martial courage. The multicoloured feathers emerging, it seems, from her vagina is harder to parse; except that it has to do, I suppose, with a sort of fabulous and possibly airborne fertility.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Beginnings, Endings

Flann O'Brien (and why did he shift the a in Brian to an e for his pseudonym? Will the answer ever be arrived at?), in At Swim-Two-Birds: 'One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings. [9]' Wait, now. Might we shift the may to must, here? We might; we may.

Thursday, 16 April 2009


The human baseline, taking the long-historical view, is: eating, sleeping, fucking, fighting. I take (say) 'eating' here to encompass, asi t might be, hunting and gathering stuff to eat; just as I take 'sleeping' to encompass resting more generally--lolling about, staring at the trees.

The big shift-up comes with play. Play inflects these baselines activities in ways that parse culture. Dancing, music, science, poetry: all fucking inflected via play. Sport, games, religion, all fighting inflected via play.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


The key thing is not memory as such. It is the anticipation of memory.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Dark matter

Either advertently (in which case he's either keeping his cards close to his chest, or else perhaps he assumes it's blindingly obvious) or inadvertently, Al Reynold's new (Clarke shortlisted) novel House of Suns provides one possible explanation for dark matter. Maybe it's ordinary matter but we just can't see it; and maybe we can't see it because some form of FTL link, such as a wormhole, connects us and it. To preserve causality, the passage of information--like photons--between it and us would have to stop. I don't know (I don't believe) anybody has yet proposed that explanation for the universe's missing mass.

Monday, 13 April 2009


This battleground. We used to think our memories made us who we are. Then we thought who we are made our memories. Maybe it's worth considering that who we are and the memories we have are, actually, separate things.

Sunday, 12 April 2009


I'd read 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' as strung out (high tension, too) between 'being apart from somebody makes you love them more' and 'being apart from somebody drives your heart mad.'

Saturday, 11 April 2009


I'm trying to constellate these two observations by Stendhal, on love, without deranging my congitive faculties (this is the Stendhal who wrote: L'amour a toujours été pour moi la plus grande des affaires ou plutôt la seule)

'Ce qui est fort beau est nécessairement toujours vrai' ('What is really beautiful must always be true', Armance)

'Les vraies passions sont égoïstes' ('True passions are selfish', Le Rouge et le Noir).

On the other hand, the fact that I don't personally like where the trail of signification leads doesn't mean that it's a false trail ...

Friday, 10 April 2009

Duty, pity

'I go where I love and where I am loved,/ into the snow,' says H.D., a little austerely: 'I go to the things I love/with no thought of duty or pity.' The fact that it is beautifully put shouldn't prevent us from observing that love bleached of duty and pity is a pretty fucking Ayn Rand sort of loving ...

Thursday, 9 April 2009


Rubberneck has always made me think not of sightseeing, but robotics.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009


I don't write to be read, but to be memorised, as Nietzsche did. Not that I expect this, but a man's reach should exceed and so on. I appreciate, too, that this amounts to a sort of literary 'let them eat cake' address to the reader. That's OK, though. Metaphorical cake is not so insulting a notion as actual cake.

It may be worth at least entertaining the notion that bouncing around saying 'dislike me! dislike me!' is precisely as annoying as bouncing around saying 'Like me! Like me!'

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Hellmouth Munching

This image (from here), and the many, many others like it from the middle ages, have just provoked a belated relaisation in my brain. I had thought that the reason the medievals were so fascinated by the torture-porn of being eaten by a giant monster was that being eaten by a giant monster would be really painful. But, whilst that's clearly true, I wonder if a more potent aspect to the symbolism is that the medieval chappie liked to identify with predator not prey; that he regarded being eaten, over and above the pain involved, as enormously humiliating ...

Monday, 6 April 2009

Carry on

The Carry On films take their name from the first of them, Carry On Sergeant. Of that title, Wikipedia tells us:
"Carry on Sergeant" is a normal expression for an army officer to use. The title was used to cash in on the popularity of the 1957 film Carry On Admiral, which was written by Val Guest ... Carry on Sergeant had not been conceived as the start of a movie series; only after the film's surprising success did the producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas set about planning a further project. After reusing the Carry On prefix and some cast members in their next project Carry On Nurse (1959) and having success with that film, the Carry On series of films evolved.
It works not only (the obvious reason) because it taps into something profound, if slightly self-flattering, about the British psyche (that we get on with things, even in adversity, and laughingly too) but because it is self-reflexive. It directs our attention to what is being carried on, let's say to the stage, the visual scene of the film: what is transported (we are transported; that's us up there). But the irony is that these are films that in one sense do not 'carry', do not travel: foreigners do not find them as hilarious as we do.

Sunday, 5 April 2009


I'm not sure why, after many years, I'm suddenly finding myself annoyed by petty little lapses in Jam lyrics. 'English Rose', from All Mod Cons:

No matter where I roam
I will come back to my english rose
For no bonds can ever tempt me from she.
From her, Paul. From her!

Or there's 'Pretty Green', in which the colour is money. But it's 1970s banknotes that are green, not coins; and in the 1970s in England it wasn't possible ('I've got a pocket full of/Pretty green/I'm going to put it in the/Fruit machine'I'm going to put it in the/Juke Box...') to put banknotes into either fruit machines or jukeboxes.

I'm more of a pedant than I used to be. Perhaps it is spoiling my enjoyment of stuff ...

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Clockwork Orange

'Queer as a clockwork orange', of course, is supposedly behind Burgess's title. But could it be that Burgess, that famously Catholic writer, was thinking of another sense of orange, inflected via, will-less automatism (all that marching)? The novel is typically read as being about free will, from a Christian perspective; but maybe it's more sectarian than that ...

Friday, 3 April 2009

Déjà vu

This New Scientist article ('Déjà vu: Where fact meets fantasy' by Helen Phillips) is interesting. Apparently only 10% of people claim never to have experienced Déjà vu (I'm one of that ten, actually); whereas for some people, at the other end of the scale, it becomes a veritable psychopathology:
Mr P, an 80-year-old Polish émigré and former engineer, knew he had memory problems, but it was his wife who described it as a permanent sense of déjà vu. He refused to watch TV or read a newspaper, as he claimed to have seen everything before. When he went out walking he said the same birds sang in the same trees and the same cars drove past at the same time every day. His doctor said he should see a memory specialist, but Mr P refused. He was convinced that he had already been.

The article rehearses arguments from brain chemistry to explain this widespread feeling (perhaps it is indeed 'the consequence of a dissociation between familiarity and recall'). But I read the article wondering: could something as banal and everyday as this be behind Nietzsche's unflinching adherence to the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence? (A philosophical slogan: 'Eternal Return, the consequence of a dissociation between familiarity and recall...')

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus

One of the nicer John William Waterhouse canvases, dating from 1891 [you can click for a larger view, if you want to]. I like the detail of material strewn on the floor, the not-too-obvious swine carcass, and the way Odysseus appears only in the mirror (a nice riff on the story, on the edge of implying that she is real and he a reflection) although the composition has the perhaps unfortunate effect of giving the impression Od. has crept up behind the nymph and is sniffing her left armpit. Still, whatever lights your candle.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Obama's America

America (let's say not named after Vespucci) is so called because a Welshman, my countryman, sponsored fishing voyages to Newfoundland in the fifteenth-century. The name of this gentleman was Richard Amerike, or Ameryk, pronounced 'America' (c. 1445–1503), whose surname was in turn an Anglicisation of ap Meuric or ap Meurig, "son of Meurig". Meurig is the Welsh equivalent of Maurice; and Maurice is 'derived from the Roman Mauricius. It is of Latin origin, and its meaning is "dark-skinned, Moorish.' By this logic, America means 'Land of dark-skinned sons'. Which I like a lot.