Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Evening aerial phenomenon

The sun outlines one
crinkly lobed cloud-edge
against the mauve

like a strike of lightning
turned to lit gold
and fixed in the sky.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Serpentine Seraphim

No, really: the Hebrew word 'seraph' comes from a root that means 'to scorch', or 'to burn'. So I learn from a letter to the TLS (25 Sept 09) by Yisrael Medad: 'Deuteronomy 8:15 ... "who lead thee through the great and dreadful wilderness , wherein were serpents, fiery serpents [seraph] and scorpions." This recalls the incident when, while encompassing the land of Edom, the Children of Israel once again murmured against God's plan and "the Lord sent seraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many died' as recorded in Numbers 21:6.'

The snakey sibiliance of the initial s; the sloughing, crawling snake-in-motion sound of the final 'f'.

In this sense there is something actually seraphic about Macbeth's line: 'we have scorched the snake, not killed it ...'

Monday, 28 September 2009

Laughter a bad criterion for falsification

I enjoyed reading this neat little dig at Giordano Bruno, and Leibniz, via a deft thumbnail of The Entirety Of Western Thought:
His [Bruno's] metaphysics seems to me about as diametrically opposed to the truth as possible (for realists, that is; correlationism is much worse). But he’s always a pleasure to read.

There’s also one example of archaic backsliding in his metaphysics– his assumption that something must be permanent to count as substance. One of the highlights of Aristotle compared with earlier Greek thinkers was his breaking of the link between substantiality and permanence. In fact, this link is perhaps the most regrettable feature of all the pre-Socratics as well as Plato. Aristotle broke it. Bruno’s back with it, as are Descartes, Spinoza, and (unfortunately) Leibniz.

Bruno wasn’t the first to backslide on it, of course. Most of Christian philosophy and neo-Platonism did the same thing. But point your finger at “natural kinds” in Aristotle all you like; at least he lets individual frogs and trees be substances without having to last forever. Bruno blows that sky high, and Leibniz too, but even more comically so (dead animals still live somewhere, invisible, attached to tiny bodies).

Permanence: a bad criterion for substance.
Hard to disagree, of course. But what interests me is the (attractive enough) slippage into ridicule, the 'dead animals still live somewhere, invisible, attached to tiny bodies' and so on ... there's a problem there. I take it the logic is: you can see how wrong this is beause it's ridiculous!' The ambiguity in that last word isn't helpful, I think. If we mean 'ridiculous' in the modern sense of 'no serious person could believe this' then the statement is tautological. If we mean it in a stricter sense, 'this thing you believe is laughable' ... well, being comical isn't incompatible with being true. Plenty of comical things are true. Indeed, Freud might argue that laughter is precisely an index of truth, albeit a truth our conscious minds are disinclined to acknowledge. The danger is invoking the second of these meanings pretending it's the first. I can believe that permanence is a bad criterion for substance: but I don't see that 'permanence is a bad criterion for substance because the very idea makes me laugh' is good argufying.

Sunday, 27 September 2009


On the wide, forty-five-degree grass verge of the dual carriageway, the tender shoots of new trees have all been enclosed in dark blue plastic tubes to protect them from grazing. So many of them. They look, as we hurtle past, like miniature gravestones.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Voyage Towards the Earth's Centre

The problem I'm sure many English readers have noted about the title Voyage au centre de la Terre is that the protaognists get nowhere near the centre de la Terre. They travel in that general direction, but go no more than a few score miles down. But I wonder (a native French speaker could doubtless tell me): is this actually a problem with the standard English translation? "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" implies a journey that eventually arrives at the centre of the earth. Verne's title, of course, is not Voyage vers le centre de la Terre; but could it be that "à" in its directional sense of 'to' actually means 'towards'?

Friday, 25 September 2009

London is Tintin

According to the Dictionnaire des Orientalistes de Langue Francaise, Hergé based Tintin on 'much-travelled campaigning journalist, Albert Londres' (a possibility not noted here). Londres certainly seems to have lived a varied, much-travelled life, but its the naming that really intrigues me; the idea that francophone Tintin was named after the French for 'London'. I wonder how much, to a French ear, the awkward reduplication of '-on-on' sounds: how close it is to the French pronunciation of 'Tin-tin.' A slight lightening to the sound, maybe.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Forest poem

I can remember a great many
towering columnar trunks;

bark like dinosaur hide,
and the ground scattered with

a hypodermic junkie-tangle
of old fir needles.

I can remember a bonfire:
greenwood made flame-quick

by gasoline, and punching smoke
into the air. I don’t recall

a single other thing.
My memory is scooped

and planed and smooth.
A sky perfectly empty of tips.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Religion and art

I've only read reviews of Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity; but those reviews, whilst uniformly respectful and even enthusiastic, suggest that one of the arguments is that the truth of religion is like the truth of art rather than (say) the truth of science. It's a familiar thesis. Here's John Cornwell's summary [FT, Sept 12-13]:
“I make no pronouncement as to whether Christianity, or indeed any religious belief, is true,” [MacCulloch] warns us. “Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet true?” he asks. “It never happened”, he goes on, “but it seems to me to be much more true ... than the reality of the breakfast I ate this morning, which was certainly true in a banal sense.”

The comment locates the author squarely within the concluding drift of his own history. For the culmination of 2,000 years of the Christian religion in secular societies has widely resulted in the relegation of Christianity’s realism to the ambit of imagination, comparable to art. Would you die for your personal interpretation of Hamlet? Most of the battles fought between Christians down the centuries, and between Christians and non-Christians, have been precisely over the hard realism of religion, as opposed to its soft metaphorical values. Who would object, including scientist Richard Dawkins, to the soft “realism” of uplifting fiction? Once the Book of Genesis is taken as a myth rather than a realist account of the origins of the world, it takes the sting out of the heated science-religion polemic unleashed by Darwin’s theory of evolution.
I think I'd have more respect for this argumentative strategy by theologians if they followed-through with it. If, for instances, they showed more respect for, and put some intellectual effort into writing about, religious practice literally derived from art: the Jedi religion, for instance. They don't do so, I suspect, because they don't in their hearts take such things seriously. But doesn't such a reaction radically undermine their position? (You'll notice I don't say anything about whether the Jedi religion, as it manifests in our world, merits being taken seriously; I don't need to, because I'm not trying to advance the case that Christianity is true after the manner that Hamlet is true.)

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


'Rivermouth' is a strange word. Surely the river pours out through this orifice -- even at high tide. It does not breath-in or devour through it. Riveranus would make more sense.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene is in all four gospels as a witness at the crucifixion. According to Luke she was a woman from whom ‘seven devils had gone out’; and according to John she was the first to encounter the risen Jesus. Some exegetical traditions have conflated her with one of the other Marys in the gospels—the prostitute who dried Christ’s feet with her hair; and the Mary who bought expensive oils with which to anoint him.

She may not touch Jesus (noli me tangere, he tells her, so very famously) although male disciples are not only encouraged to touch him but to penetrate him with their fingers. Why? Because he expects women to have faith intangibly, whilst men can only believe the tangible? A testament to female credulity, or male stubbornness, neither very flattering to humanity.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Battle poem

I rode in a lorry with a great many stacked rifles.
I leant against the secured back flap and watched
the darkened landscape running away from me.

The moon was alongside, a breathless pace-keeper,
spectral cannonball on a perfect trajectory.
Cars goose-honked us as we went past them

mistaking us, I suppose, for the Regular Army.
By the time we came over the hill into town the
winter trees had all thrown their arms up in surrender.

The attack, when it began, had that surreal flavour
all night-assaults share. The Guy Fawkes stench
that trailed the wind; the son, the lumière;

and tart contrasts, cool dark, hot brightness:
sudden curled scoops of compacted flame,
starfish flicks of daylight at the ends of rifles.

Darkness brings things to within touching distance,
and simultaneously removes them a great way away.
Darkness is the idiom of the bedroom and

your lover’s breath upon your skin, but also
the medium of those interstellar vastnesses.
These two exactly the same thing, and exactly it,

if you think about it. To the bayonet
every membrane's a hymen. And afterwards
comes an adrenaline dip that's deep enough

for the soldier to sleep like the dead he's made,
hard and long as King Arthur's honour guard.
Dawn's an explosion you can ignore, I find.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Passage over a Landscape of Ice

John Ruskin to Robert Browning in a letter 2nd December, 1855: 'Your Ellipses are quite Unconscionable; before one can get through ten lines, one has to patch you up in twenty places. Wrong or right, and if one hasn't much stuff of one's own to spare to patch with! You are worse than the worst Alpine Glacier I ever crossed. Bright, & deep enough truly, but so full of Clefts that half the journey has to be done with ladder and hatchet.'

Walter Savage Landor, 'Ovid and the Prince of the Getæ', Imaginary Conversations (first published in the Examiner, 7th April 1855): 'But neither my verses, nor thine in Getic, ran so glibly as what thou repeatedst in thine own tongue. Thine resembled a car running smoothly over the frozen river; mine the same car jolting upon rough masses of ice.'

This coincidence of writers in 1855 troping poetry as passage over a landscape of ice intrigues me. Is there something larger going on here?

Friday, 18 September 2009

Universal Veil

There's part of me that thinks it a shame to waste a term like 'universal veil' on mushrooms. But that should be 'waste', not waste; and my preconceptions ought to be shaken up. Mushrooms are exactly as universal as I am.

Thursday, 17 September 2009



'I, Sam, The Walrus'
'Shire Loves You'
'PS Uruk-hai Love You'
'The Long And Winding Frodo'
'She Came In Through The Balrog Window'
'Orc Region Wood (This Bard Has Flown)'
'Ticket to Riders of Rohan'
'Smaug-ical Mystery Tour'
'Happiness is a Warm Gollum'

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Blake's Adam and Steve

Blake's illustration to the very end of Paradise Lost: you can see, if you click on the image to enlarge it, the lines quoted there (PL XII: 637-9). It's beautiful. Now there is an interesting post to be written about the relationship of this image to Blake's illustrations of his own work: comparing those fiery flaming manifestations of God's wrath, for instance, with the positive creative fires of imaginative energy in Blake's own mythos. But for now I'm interested in two things.

One is the pronounced physical similarity between Adam and Eve. Eve, really, is very manly. The whole thing, actually, is prodigiously masculinised: those hairy-faced cherubim on their stallions sending barely-dressed Adam and Steve out into the world under a squirming iconic red gigantic spermatozoon. It could be rendered very nicely in stained-glass by Gilbert and George.

Two is the whole equine thing. Are those horsey heads Blake's version of Milton's dreadful Faces throng'd and fierie Armes? Arms perhaps implies cavalry, although it looks to me like Blake is trying to make some point. These four horsemen, what do they mean? Strange, I think, to see Poseidon's animal so fierily rendered. Four setting suns; four separate worlds; Tharmas, Urthona, Vala, Urizen?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Miltonic Pairs

No need to tell you which poem these lines end:
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way. [XII: 646-49]
It's beguiling stuff, but playful too. It hinges, I think, on 'solitarie', or rather on the seeming paradox of calling two people bound in lifelong companionship 'solitary'. The faint whiff of paradox, or flat contradiction, haunts the lines: how is it they apparently have (646) unbounded free choice, whilst simultaneously (647) being guided by Providence? How can they, the first creatures, have a world before them? (surely nothing comes before Adam and Eve?) But above all, of course, the emotional jarring of 'hand in hand' and 'solitary.' The point, of course, is that human is not sufficient companion for human; there's a tertium quid, because there's God. Adam and Eve have wilfully separated themselves from God, and hence their solitude. But that is not to say the Deity has abandoned them.

This is what underlines the sonic logic of the lines: this pairing, the solitary Adam-and-Eve doubling, is haunted or echoed by a third thing. Take the alliteration: World and was, echoed a little along the line by where; steps and slow leads over the line break to solitarie; with wandring plays a similar game with way. The interplay of voiced thetas (The ... them/Thir ... thir/They ... with/Through ... thir) anchors the lines.

There's also something clever, though a little harder to untangle, going on with the interference pattern established by the regular iambic ictus (di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum) and the more subtle patterning of classical long and short vowels: this pattern being approximately iambic in 646 and the first half of 647, then lengthening dactyllically for the rest.

Monday, 14 September 2009


The heaviness of youth; the levity of age.

Sunday, 13 September 2009


Checking up a little background detail on the Scythians [thank you, Wikipedia], to give me a little Ovidian background (nothing too heavy). Fierce warriors, horsemen, mound-burialers, mentioned in Herodotos, leaving us no written literature. Ah, but here's Skunkha, king of the Sakā tigraxaudā (the 'wearing-pointed-caps' Sakae, a group of Scythian tribes) in a detail from the Behistun Inscription:

That he looks like one of Santa's Little Helpers may not augment his reputation as a fierce warrior; but it endears him to me. And check out this Pazyryk Horseman (from a felt artifact, ca. 300 BC. Yes, I said felt. What of it?) Tell me he doesn't remind you of somebody wearing an outsize Mardi Gras papier-maché head?

I also like that the Scythian army was an equal opportunities employer, as with these conjoined twins:

Now all I need do is find out whether 'scythe' derives from 'Scythian'.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Stephen Edgar’s ‘Dreaming at the Speed of Light’

These beautiful lines from Australian poet Stephen Edgar’s ‘Dreaming at the Speed of Light’ (History of the Day, Blackpepper 2009) see the world from the perspective of a ray of light:
The falling autumn leaves would stall
Above the lawn, their futile red
A stationary fire;
The dog erupting from the pond would spread
In hanging glints its diamanté shawl
Of shaken spray midair;
The blue arc of the wave would climb no higher,
A gauze of glare
And water that would neither break nor sprawl.
It’s lovely, although it patently owes more to slow-motion cinematic photography than to notional saddles upon imagined rays of light. And isn’t there a problem here? Don’t these lines rather imply that time is somehow the contaminant? Take away the t-axis and everything is gorgeous and lovely; as if Edgar has revisited Keats’s Grecian Urn and decided that, you know what?--the the pastoral is perfectly warm and lovely, thank you very much.

Still, it’s exquisite poetry. ‘Stall’ is exactly the right word, both in its sense and its clogging rhyme with ‘fall’ at the beginning, there; and the blue arc of the surfers' wave neither breaking nor sprawling is excellent too (although ‘gauze’ isn’t the right texture to capture what’s being described, surely; and describing the red of the falling-stopping leaf as ‘futile’ seemed to me a bum note). But it all pales into insignificance beside the extraordinary loveliness of that dog, and its diamanté shawl. Bravo!

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Theology of Shaving

Smithee's Theology of Shaving looks like an interesting book. A brief account of the contents page:
Chapter 1. Literal Shaving. A survey of the scriptural rules concerning hair-removal in seven major religions, attempting to demonstrate that the emphasis some religions give to this matter codes a core spiritual truth.

Chapter 2. Circumcision. Smithee reads Jewish and Islamic instruction on circumcision in the broader context of shaving. ' ... this literal shaving of extraneous skin from the human body,' he argues, 'differs from the shaving of hair only in its permanence; for it is a manifestation of precisely the same spiritual logic. It is a tidying, or in the more loaded vocabulary I attempt to avoid in this study, a cleasing of the literal skin borderline that marks the place of separation between the self and other, which is to say, between the individual and God.'

Chapter 3. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. This may be the least persuasive chapter: Smithee sets out to argue that the shift from hunter-gatherer to farming society was not only prompted by religious beliefs (hence the rhetoric of eg shepherd and seed-farmer in the New Testament) but manifests a desire to 'shave' the earth, in harvesting crops, that is the precise externalisation of core religious truth. 'God gives us a hairy world, shaggy with forests and fields of wheat; it is our religious duty to shave it.'

Chapter 4. Fishing. A bizarre attempt to move from a two-dimensional mode of shaving (drawing a blade over a topographically 2D surface) to a three-dimensional, via the example of fishing: the net being the blade, the fish themselves the 3D stubble embedded in the water. 'Central to Christianity, implicit in the injunction I shall make ye fishers of men, is the idea: I shall make ye shavers of waters.'

Chapter 5. Shaving the soul. 'Sin is not an external crust that accrues upon the surface of the soul from exterior sources, but a manifestation of our internal original sinfulfness. Sin grows out of us, bristly and repulsive. It is a spiritual necessity that we shave this off.'

Chapter 6 Conclusion: Jesus Shaves. A counterblast to the iconic notion of a bearded Jesus. 'Before 800 CE all visual representations of Christ show him to be beardless.'

Thursday, 10 September 2009

End of Time

What's behind that common trope from SF and Fantasy: the end of time? The pull of the city at the end of time; the dancers at the end of time; the terminal beach? That's not hard to see: 'Time ends with one’s own death' (BT, 330). The desire to stand outside time itself is the desire to stand outside of—to survive—our own deaths.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


Tickle earth with plough: the laughter of wheat.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Tommy (Who 3)

The last piece of Whoishness for a while: but the treasurehouse of trivia that is Wikipedia informs me that 'Pinball Wizard' was added to Tommy as something of an afterthought, to leaven the doughy-solidity of Townshend's Meher Baba spiritualism:
Townshend once called 'Pinball Wizard' "the most clumsy piece of writing [he'd] ever done"[1]; nevertheless, the song was a gigantic commercial success and one of the most recognized tunes from the opera ... The song was introduced into Tommy as an afterthought. In late 1968 or early 1969, when The Who played a rough assembly of their new album to critic Nik Cohn, Cohn gave a lukewarm reaction. Following this, Townshend, as Tommy's principal composer, discussed the album with Cohn and concluded that, to lighten the load of the rock opera's heavy spiritual overtones (Townshend had recently become deeply interested in the teachings of Meher Baba), the title character, a "deaf, dumb, and blind" boy, should also be particularly good at a certain game. Knowing Cohn was an avid pinball fan, Townshend suggested that Tommy would play pinball, and Cohn immediately declared Tommy to be a masterpiece[citation needed]. The song "Pinball Wizard" was written and recorded almost immediately.
That explains something that's always bothered me about Tommy: the cognitive dissonance of (as per the film) a narrative evidently about post WW-II trauma and the cults and spiritual journeys of the 1960s nevertheless seems to position itself so firmly as being (on the original album) about post WW-I trauma, and the run-up to Nazism and WW-II, something dated quite precisely by the second song, '1921'. Although Tommy seems so completely a product of its age, and although the film has I suppose overwritten our memories of the original, this latter makes it a much more interesting text I think.

But pinball (a postwar phenomenon; prewar it was more likely to be coin-operated versions of bagatelles, now known as "marble games" or "pin games") really doesn't fit this careful chronology. I'm not sure whether that disorientation is a good or bad thing.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Shaky hands (Who 2)

And whilst I'm Whovering ...

That strand of Who songs that treats sexual matters with transparent, daft, adolescent humour: 'Squeeze Box', for instance, on the By Numbers album. OK: but 'Mary Ann With the Shaky Hands' ... what's that about?
Linda can cook
Jean reads books
Cindy can sew
But I'd rather know

Mary Ann with the shaky hands
What they've done to a man
Those sha-a-aky hands
What have they done to a man? Wanked him off, presumably; unless we truly are dealing with a song about early-onset Parkinsonianism and a very specialised medical fetish. So is the song suggesting that full sex with various talented women is all very well and good, but can't compare with manual stimulation by Mary-Ann? Hard to swallow. If you see what I mean.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Boris the Spider (Who 1)

Ah, John Entwhistle's one notable contribution to the Who's playlist (I don't count the trudgy, misogynist 'My Wife'): those downward stomping chords; that step-step-step-and-wait ... rhythm; Entwhistle's splendid throat-o profundo singing of the titular refrain. All charming, childish fun. But something strikes me, and indeed leaves me surprised that I hadn't thought of it before: is it, in 1966, a coldwar song? That Russian name, that Rasputin growl, the narrative of fear, or even paranoia, at the alien threat: Black and hairy, hanging like a military satellite overhead, 'maybe he's as scared as me.'

... or am I overreading?

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Utopia, dystopia

We think of dystopian writing as apotropaic, but it’s not—it is merely descriptive. It is utopian writing that is properly apotropaic.

Friday, 4 September 2009


The Victorians tried to learn the lessons of the Romantics, and they almost succeeded, with their belief that a thing of duty is a joy forever.

Thursday, 3 September 2009


The problem with Waterhouse’s eroticism (Frank Whitford in the TLS, 7 Aug 09, has it right) is that it's not very erotic: or that it goes through the motions of erotic representation (‘sexy young girls lounging in revealing shifts, maidens whispering promises of adulterous encounters to handsome knights’ is Whitford's summary) without actually generating erotic affect.
Most of Waterhouse’s pictures are dominated by women who do their best to ensnare men. Most are very young, pale-skinned , and have small firm breasts with rose-pink nipples. Many are naked or barely clothed in semi-transparent or suggestively revealing robes. … Women like these are perhaps fatales in a literary sense, but they are postulant nuns by comparison with, say, Franz von Stuck’s “Sin” (1893) or Gustrav Klimt’s “Judith” (1901) … It is difficult to believe that the love Waterhouse’s women supposedly inspire would be lethal. It’s difficult to worry about the link, widely speculated on at the time, between the female libido and the collapse of masculine moral reserve.
Indeed it is. So what is the problem, here? Part of me reacts on a literal level—which is, of course, one of the ways the masculine libido works. “Hylas and the Nymphs” is a painting about sexual temptation; the nymphs are all very pretty and are all actively enticing the handsome young hero into their pond (‘into’ in Whitford’s words, ‘a pool choked with waterlilies where he will obviously drown, no doubt happily’). But the pool is very obviously an English pool, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it'll be chilly. That’s not erotic. I wonder if there’s a culture-shift in the location of pornography: a taste for alfresco sex, nine times out of ten, depends upon a warm climate—on the beach in the tropics, say. In autumnal England it is less appealing. Has the older eroticisation of the indoors (doing it on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire—like the Feelie in Brave New World) passed, largely, from cultural logic? Global travel and tourism, a more general libidinous investment in ‘the Environment’ and, who knows, central heating have changed the location of ideal sensual encounter. Heat isn’t much in use as a euphemism for sexual desire nowadays, except when we’re talking about animals—because animals have to copulate outdoors.

Maybe its not that; perhaps its simply that Waterhouse’s essential melancholy is a minority erotic taste: the majority prefer positive, bouncy and bubbly. Fuck’em.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Woman of Shalott poem

The Shalott woman: it’s not the knight that kills her
But neither is it herself.
It is being caught between the inner space
Where the web is,
And the wet outdoors, where winds swell
And voice their wailing.
It’s the neither having nor the not having.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009


How absurd to call the ninth month September! Let us organise a petition, you and me, the two of us together; start it out. This month must be renamed November; October must become December, and November and December must be called Undecember and Duodecember respectively. That will clear up any confusion!

Plus, Undecember has a nicely topsy-turvy negating logic to its name. It will catch on.