Thursday, 31 December 2009

Year's End

The year feels like it has just gotten started.

Another few 2009 months and we'd see la face cachée de la lune. But instead of that, the whole thing turns itself just as we rotate, perfectly in time, and another January becomes visible.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Whiteness poem

Mist, a cataract in the world's lens.
The knife blade loses its edge.

The sound of this gushing stream
invisible amongst the blackleaf trees

in a valley lidded with white haze
turns out to be a van revving its engine.

Away we go, away go, the gone horizon:
The knife blade loses its edge.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Three new food names

Cowcumber, cucumber, eucumber.
Tomato, nomato, frommato.
Pepper, snapper, whepper.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Some Aesthetic Rules

  • Completion trumps perfection.
  • 'Show, don't tell.' A 'show' is the intimation of new birth; a 'tell' is the sign of a bad poker player.
  • Under pressure, the readers' complacency turns into anger and resentment.
  • The hidden spring of postmodernity is satire.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Staines poem

Staines: a circle of stone hyphens
Stitching a structure, propped
each on doubled bag-shaped legs.

Long gone from the dark green grass
of the bridge roundabout, Sainsbury-side:
long hauled off, or sunk, or shattered

transformed into a word, more durable
than the rock was: the vowel laid flat,
twinned with itself as circles are.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Friday, 25 December 2009

New Moon Poem

Bite a crescent from this apple;
this white image is the moon,

which is white and black together,
and gives up a tar-dark seed.

Seed is settled in the darkness:
how high does the stem ascend?

Viewless, spiring, quailing leaf-tip
touching whose white, elevate face?

Thursday, 24 December 2009


A pearl like a mint imperial. This pearl is called Costly.

The oyster is called Tomorrow, closed tighter than than the seal betwen sky and horizon.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Scrooge 2

Christmas Carol, Fourth Stave:
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead", said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"
The Spirit was immovable as ever.
Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge. "Am I that man who lay upon the bed?", he cried, upon his knees.
The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.
"No, Spirit! Oh, no, no!"
The finger still was there.
"Spirit!", he cried, tight clutching at its robe. "Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!"
Now, we might wonder why Scrooge is so very smitten by this; why his ontological horror is so great upon him. The Ghost of the Future shows him that he will die ... in the future! It needs, we might object, no spirit come from the grave to tell us this. More, what Scrooge has already seen (Marley's ghost, and what Marley's ghost shows him) that death is not extinction. It's like Hamlet, worrying about whether death is annihilation, 'from whose bourne no traveller returns' having previously met a returned traveller, the ghost of his father, who stands as absolute evidence that death is not the end!

But I'm being obtuse. In fact Dickens's book is much cannier than this. It understands, for instance, that there is a difference between the death of others, like Marley, which death may haunt us (as Marley does); and our own death, which is not an event comprehsible in life. The former may shake our life; the latter renders shaking and life itself extinct.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Scrooge 1

Joel Waldfogel's Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays is based on the premsie that Christmas gift-giving generates economic waste, because it is inefficient. To quote Ralf Dobelli's (approving) summary:
University of Pennsylvania professor Joel Waldfogel takes an economist's look at gift giving and pronounces it wasteful. Every time you receive a gift that's not what you want, the item loses value. For example, you wouldn't pay more than $10 for the ugly orange teapot Aunt Bea bought you for $50. What's the solution? Cash, of course, but giving cash is often seen as being in bad taste. How about gift cards? A little bit better, theorizes Waldfogel, but people don't always redeem gift cards, which generates waste as well.
This in turn is to perpetrate a sort of 'content' reading of Christmas gift-giving (valuing the $50 orange teapot in terms of intrinsic monetary value) rather than on the form ... but most people understand, if instinctively, that it is the form that counts. You might have only valued the teapot at $10; but the value of the social performance of Aunt Bea in giving you the gift is, though hard to quantify in those terms, much more important. Homo sapiens culture is radically predicated upon gift-giving; it predates the invention of money.

Monday, 21 December 2009

For good

We speak more than we know when we use the idiom 'good' to mean 'ever after' ('he's back for good'; 'she's gone for good' ... do we always use it, I wonder, if this dative motion-from-and-towards sense?) Intuitively we seem to be saying: the temporary, the changeable, the uncertain is bad; the known, the unchangeable, the eternal is good. Which is to say, we speak the subconscious affective fantasy of our restless hearts -- peace -- and not the conscious knowledge of our minds, that looks upon anything that has come or gone 'for good' and sees desolation.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Return of the King 2

Ultimate portion of my 2009 LotR re-read (the previous five: I, II, III, IV and V).

So. As an undergraduate, I studied Eliot's Waste Land (I say: 'studied'. I could just as well say 'memorised') and one of the things I learnt is that Eliot's notes at the end of the poem were added after the book had gone to the printer, when it was explained to T.S. that, on account of the way the book bound its sheaves of paper, there were going to be many blank leaves at the end, and did he have any more poems to go on those? He didn't, but he had scribbled down some notes on The Waste Land and maybe those could go in instead. Then, as a postgraduate -- and the passage from the former to the latter, broadly speaking, marked my transition from a broadly New Critical/Modernist critical aesthetic to a broadly Deconstructive/Postmodernist one -- I attended a lecture (can't remember by whom) in which the lecturer discussed the note to 'The Fire Sermon' which says this:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a "character", is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant selling currants melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
The lecturer's point (and it struck me with great force as one of those things that seemed inconceivable before he said it and inevitable after) was this: where in the poem does Tiresias 'unite all the rest' of the characters? Why, here in this footnote, and nowhere else. It is something that happens in the text, though; it simply happens in this part of the text, rather than during the monologue that starts 'I Tiresias, though blind ...'

This preamble is by way of sidling up sideways to the problem of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, which occupy more of book 6 (novel, pp.931-1069 = 138 pages; appendices 1070-1193 = 123 pages, but with much smaller type, perhaps 100 words more per page) than the narrative does. As with The Waste Land, I wonder if the best way to read this material is not as some subsidiary or secondary textual body, but as part of the LotR as a whole.

This time through that's what I did, and the result was interesting. It's not that the appendices blended seamlessly into the reading of the whole, of course -- in fact, they don't; they're jolty, discontinuous set. But that in itself is the point. Because Return of the King 2 is a pretty jolty, lurchy-abouty narrative. After going to some lengths to set up an effective cliffhanger re: Frodo's fate at the end of The Two Towers, Tolkien extricates his hero, via Sam's improbable heroics (improbable not in terms of Sam's character, but just in terms of how he's able to get away with storming one of the major fortresses of the enemy armed just with a short sword). That reads as a pretty abrupt turnabout; and then there's a rather fine chapter of parched slogging through the hellish landscape of 'the land of shadow', and suddenly (indeed: after nearly a thousand close-printed pages of build-up, we might say abruptly) we're at Mount Doom. The denouement is still superb, Frodo losing his will-to-goodness, and then losing a finger, and Gollum proving himself inadvertently essential to the quest. But re-reading it this time I was struck by what seemed an almost indecent haste in getting to this point. And then before you know it we're skittering down the scree-slope of victory on the far side of this narrative prominence.

This is very hippity-hoppity stuff. A chapter in which the phrase 'praise them with great praise' is repeated, parsed and varied over and over is probably fair enough; but that's followed in 'The Steward and the King' by a lot of faffing about with Faramir and Eowyn which reads like the pay-off to a story (their slowly developing love) Tolkien doesn't actually tell earlier in the novel. Then some stop-start dallying, and a trip home calling in on some minor characters (much more from Butterbur than I remembered) and others pointedly not present: 'they hoped and half-expected to see him [Bombadil] standing there to greet them ... but there was no sign of him' [1033]. Then the Shire is scoured; but again, this circumstance is sorted-out almost as soon as it is established: as soon as an evil-doer appears in the narrative ('"Bill Ferny" said Merry, "if you don't open that gate in ten seconds you'll regret it"', 1036) than he is overcome (the very next paragraph begins: 'Bill Ferny flinched and shuffled to the gate and unlocked it'. Merry demands the key, and Bill hands it over, before running off into the dark). From the first inklings that the shire needs scouring (the chapter begins on 1035) to the end ('at last all was over; nearly seventy of the ruffians lay dead on the field') is less than 20 pages. Another 10 pages and Saruman and Wormtongue are disposed of; and all other consequences are hustled of in a single sentence: 'the clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared'. Then the final chapter, 'the Grey Havens', defocalises the narrative tempo markedly; and at 10 pages is one of the shortest in the book. The final line, and Sam's stoic admixture of desolation and consolation, still has the power to move me, I discover:
He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said.
But overall the book seemed much choppier to me than it has on previous readings.

Choppiness, and a further narrative defocalisation, characterise the appendices too, of course. But reading straight through this time (I'd read the appendices before, in bits and pieces, though never consecutively straight through after finishing the novel like this) a couple of other things struck me. One is that by moving from discursive narrative into Annals mode, they continue a principle of shifting narrative mode or genre that characterises the novel as a whole. LotR starts out as a piece of late 19th century bourgeois scene-setting, shifts into an earlier, prose-Romance adventure mode, and then shifts again in the later books into a cod-Biblical elevated Epic mode. The move to Annals is abrupt, but of a piece with this broader, backward-facing meta-trajectory. One purpose of all this is its very density (or, pace Umberto Eco's new book valorising open-ended, 'infinte' lists as against closed-down, limited aesthetic form) the sheer suggestivity of it all. On the other hand, that suggestivity is hamstrung by the dullness of much of this.
These are the names of the Kings and Queens of Númenor: Elros Tar-Minyatur, Vardamir, Tar-Amandil, Tar-Elendil, Tar-Meneldur, Tar-Aldarion, Tar-Ancalimë (the first Ruling Queen), Tar-Anárion, Tar-Súrion, Tar-Telperiën (the second Queen), Tar-Minastir, Tar-Ciryatan, Tar-Atanamir the Great, Tar-Ancalimon, Tar-Telemmaitë, Tar-Vanimeldë (the third queen), Tar-Alcarin, Tar-Calmacil.
Cough-inducingly high-tar stuff, that. One response to such density is start to see patterns, or suggestivities, in it. I remember as a kid, browsing the chronological listings, feeling the strange, if distant, thrill of reading about the events of 1974 (Third Age: 'End of the North-kingdom; the Witch-king overruns Arthedaun and takes Fornost') actually in 1974!. And that fact that the events of the novel take place from the year 3018 onwards gave this most old-fashioned of books a nicely sfnal-futurist frisson. And whilst Tolkien would presumably have disowned them, there are little nuggets that look like pokes at pseudo-contemporary relevant here. The timeline of the second age hops directly from 'c.1800' to the year '2251', which looks rather like JRRT recording his disdain for contemporary modernity; and, in the third age, the Númenorean line of kings peters out thuswise:
1944. Ondoher and his two sons were slain in battle. After a year in 1945 the crown was given to the victorious general Eärnil, a descendant of Telumehtar Umbardacil.
Hard to see how somebody writing as the Great War of 1945 ends couldn't be thinking of the parallel.

It's not all strictly annalistic. There's stuff on Aragorn and Arwen's wooing, and various pretty drily discursive paragraphs on factual matter, leavened by some barebones storytelling: (that said, I found A:III, 'Durin's Folk', rather affecting this time through). But the main effect of appendices A and B is to suggest that temporal chronology provides a grid into which may be fitted the flux of character-based narration. Appendix C, a series of four Shire family trees, provides another grid. Appendix D' Shire Calendar', is yet another (the fact that this one looks like an exercise in regularising our own calendar, such that 365-and-a-fraction days might be disposed into 12 uniformly 30-day months, with two special days -- Christmassy Yule, and Midsummery Lithe -- added in, only reinforces the procrustean flavour of all this. Appendices E and F, on writing and 'languages', provide some lovely invented orthography, although looking at this again I'm surprised I didn't realise how much this is also a sort of Shavian exercise in regularising the haphazard alphabet anglophone writers like JRRT are lumbered with.

Now, all of has something to do with one of JRRT's core textual strategies, namely the creation of a sense of 'deep past' underlying the detailed present-day action of the novel. Which is well, and fine, and powerful; and which isn't as dissipated by the density of detail as you might think. But to end with this material counterweights the book in a backward-oriented, small-c conservative sort of way. Which is probably a suitable note on which to end this year's re-read of Lord of the Rings.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Bird tree

The bulb of migrating birds, turns and bulges in the sky, sways from north to south like a great tree's head.

The evening, when bird-tree meshes with the ground-tree

Friday, 18 December 2009


A word, I suppose, poisoned and deformed by a very long possession by the devils of amour-propre and egotism. But if those devils could be cast out it would be a slogan worth something again.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Noggsy Newman

In the Grammar of Assent (1870), Newman grounds religious faith in 'assent' (rather, say, than in 'certitude'). Which is fair enough. But he also puts great trust in what he calls the 'Illative sense': a sort of Catholicised Keatsian negative capability: 'the faculty of the human mind,' (to quote Wikipedia) 'that closes the logic-gap in concrete situations and thus allowing for assent'.

According to him, we use the Illative sense all the time. For instance:
We are in a world of facts, and we use them; for there is nothing else to use. We do not quarrel with them, but we take them as they are, and avail ourselves of what they can do for us. It would be out of place to demand of fire, water, earth, and air their credentials, so to say, for acting upon us, or ministering to us. We call them elements, and turn them to account, and make the most of them. [9:1]
Which provokes the response: dude, have you ever actually met a scientist? Demanding the credentials, so to speak, of apparent fact is pretty much their whole modus operandi. Now, we might say: no--no, not that, Newman is talking about the ordinary man and woman in the street. OM/WITS takes it kind-of on trust that the world works the way the world works; the manifold mysteries of existence get sealed into common-sense Illatively. But I don't think this is right either. More specifically, people quarrel with facts all day every day; people prefer fantasy to fact, people ignore fact, people translate fact into something more in tune with the song sung inside their cranium. Religions themselves are, in part, eloquent quarrels with the facts of (as it might be) personal death and extinction; pain and suffering; meaninglessness. And so on.

Put it another way: Newman compares his Illative sense with Aristotle's phronesis, or judgment. But phronesis can be wrong, of course. Newman doesn't seem interested in the valences of a wrongheaded Illative judgment.

He touches on it, of course; but seems to make the case that our Illative sense is in one iteration precisely that 'common sense' that tells us something is daft, without needing to prove it ... that is able to distinguish what merits our sincere faith and what doesn't, just on gut:
Unless we had the right, when we pleased, of ruling that propositions were irrelevant or absurd, I do not see how we could conduct an argument at all; our way would be simply blocked up by extravagant principles and theories, gratuitous hypotheses, false issues, unsupported statements, and incredible facts. There are those who have treated the history of Abraham as an astronomical record, and have spoken of our Adorable Saviour as the sun in Aries. Arabian Mythology has changed Solomon into a mighty wizard. Noah has been considered the patriarch of the Chinese people. The ten tribes have been pronounced still to live in their descendants, the Red Indians; or to be the ancestors of the Goths and Vandals, and thereby of the present European races. Some have conjectured that the Apollos of the Acts of the Apostles was Apollonius Tyaneus. Able men have reasoned out, almost against their will, that Adam was a negro.
Gracious! Imagine that last notion! Surely the subcionsciously racist Illative sense cannot be wrong in dismissing it?

Adam was Illatively a white male. Wrong on both counts! Who'd have thunk! Or to sum this whole post up in one word: a piece of 21st-century terminology that equates to Newman's Illative Sense? Truthiness.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009


Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674); or 'My Giant Strawberry Appears To Be On Fire'.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009



Monday, 14 December 2009

The Return of the King 1

The penultimate of the six LotR portions (here for I, II, III and IV). And hard now for me not to re-read this book except as an elaboration of the theme of Death-in-Life/Life-in-Death I read-into, or found in, The Two Towers. So, (after settling Pippin in Minas Tirith) the book opens with a big-set piece scene in which the restless alive-in-death are granted peace via the only route possible, Aragorn. They cluster, and get their very own capital-D to distinguish them, presumably, from the regular small-d dead.:
'The Dead are following,' said Legolas. 'I see shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following.[III:61-2]
They are likened to winter because winter is what they are; Aragorn's magic is in turning them from an arrested, eternal winter into the sort of winter that passes on to make way for Spring. And as the book ends, it passes through Chapter 8 'The Houses of Healing' and the near-deathly-alive, wounded in the battle, are brought back to life, again by Aragorn's special magic. And in the midde (or at the two-thirds point, actually) the odd, rather striking scene of Denethor's suicide. I wasn't sure what to make of this, actually. In one sense he has to die, in order for the rule of the Stewards to end and the rule of the King to begin. But suicide is so semiotically tangled and troubled a thing for JRRT's imaginatino; he doesn't want to parse it as a nobly Roman action, and strains it into the straight-jacket of over-coded pseudo-Christian moralising:
'Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death' snaps Gandalf -- perhaps forgetting that he himself effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum in order to save his comrades. Or perhaps it's one law for wizards; another for Gondor. Anyway. he goes on: 'only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair ...' [III:129]
But this seemed to me pretty much a double standard. For in point of fact one of the general trajectories of this book is precisely that pseduo-samurai or Horatius-at-the-Bridge sacrifice of self: Frodo and Sam going (as they think) into certain death; the Rohirrim galloping will-nill towards a massively larger army; Gandalf rejecting the truce terms and dooming (they all think) the entire army to destruction.

Also, I found the cod-Biblical style ('But lo! suddenly in the midst of the glory of the king his golden shield was dimmed' and so on) much more distracting than I have on previous readings. My view, now, is that the ideal number for uses of the exclamatory 'lo!' in a novel is: zero. Also, when the Nazgul mocks her ('Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!'), how is Eowyn able to get so much speechifying and rhetorical fancypanting out without getting e.g. her head bit off?
It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That &c. &c.' [III:116]
I know; it's dramatic, not realistic. And this touch of Macbethy plot twistage is still a neat turn. But as I finish it I find less here that's new-to-me and cool than in the earlier books.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


The idlers' dream is a fence around them. The workers' dream is an OOF.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The moon

So, these stories we tell ourselves about the moon turn out not to be true. The moon is not white (and the sun is not yellow); the moon's light is not pale and gentle (it is caustic and bright); the moon is not round and blunt (it is sharp and cutting). This, though, is to be expected. The moon, after all, is the very definition of hidden-in-plain-view.

She turns her bright side upon us, and away; as the siren light upon a police car rotates its alternate shining and occluded sides.

Friday, 11 December 2009


The experts tell me that the word 'thane' (as in "All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!/All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!") is an anglicisation of the Gaelic word "Taoiseach". But I don't see that at all. The two words have no phonemes in common at all; not an initial 't' (T/TH), not a vowel (AY/EE and OH), not a consonant (N/SH and K). How would you possibly get from one to the other?

Unless it's an obscure English joke ...

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Two Towers, Book 2.

Onto the fourth of the six LotR portions (here for I, II and III).

So, as noted already, this time round my sense of Two Towers I was of a book artfully, and I think eloquently, passing from the tower of Death to the tower of Life (Gandalf, dead, revivifying; Theoden, a living corpse, returned to youth; Trees, rooted and insentient, transformed by Tolkien's imagination into roving, powerful Ents). Two Towers II, in complementary fashion, seems to me now to trace the opposite trajectory; from Life to Death, or some ghastly state in between which is not yet dead but not quite life. [It does not seem to me either irrelevant or random that the main characters of TT1 move, broadly, east to west; where Frodo, Sam and Gollum move, broadly, the opposite way, from west to east]. One way of summing up this book would be to invoke Coleridge's famous but, I think, poorly understood phrase: Nightmare Life-in-Death. That's what the book delineates.

Gollum is a major figure in this section partly because he embodies this Coleridgean fate: a creature who has lived far beyond his natural span of life and is more profoundly damaged and miserable as a result than is easily described. But the theme of the book hits home most powerfully in Chapter II, 'the Passage of the Marshes'. This is introduced by a clever little glance back to the Hobbit's riddles:

Alive without breath
as cold as death
never thirsting, ever drinking;
clad in mail, never clinking. [646]
The original answer to this ('fish') is joined, in this chapter, by a second, much more eerie possibility: for these words perfectly describe the warriors ('they lie in all the pools,' says Frodo, dreamily: 'pale faces, deep deep under the dark water ... grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad/ Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead' 653). These cannot be actual corpses, as Sam points out ('that is an age and more ago ... the Dead can't be really there'); but whatever they are they turn the very landscape into a place in which some grisly remnant of life clings to death.

As with the warriors alive-without-breath beneath the waters of the Dead Marshes (and as with Gollum himself), so with Frodo ... stung by Shelob at the end of the book, and so mortified that Sam initially believes him a corpse; yet a poisoned body in which life still clings. Shelob, also ancient, also more Death than Life (the 'stench of death' is about her, we're told; [748] and 'little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body' [751]). The Nightmare of Life-in-Death is very different, indeed profoundly so, from Death-in-Life. The latter is natural; a ripeness; the grain of existence. The former is a kind of violation. This book understands that.

This is why, I'd say, this is right place (in Tolkien's pattern) for Faramir's account of the Numenoreans. This quasi-Atlantean civilisation is JRRT's revisioning of Ancient Egypt, and an object lesson in pride punished. But the crucial details are the way the Numenoreans tried to cheat death, and created a population of ghastly mummy-like individuals as a result:
Death was ever present, because the Numenoreans still, as they has in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered afer endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs ... [704]

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Masks do not make us free. I suppose that masks make us less free, by some small margin, than going naked; but in both cases freedom isn't the point. This is about interacting with others, and that's precisely the point where freedom goes out the window.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


Three ambulance sirens
almost together:
The honking of geese.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The skeleton says

The skeleton says: 'we're all thin
stomachs full of holes
as collander bowls.
Between life and death
is more than breath.'

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The gleam

The cellophane shimmer of the swimming pool's surface; the flexing and warping of light into life; the Tennysonian gleam.

It says: it's all possible. Follow me and I'll show you how.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


The real fear, if we can see clearly-enough into ourselves to understand it, is not annihilation. The real fear is precisely that death will maim us, and that we will have to continue living in that wounded state. Annihilation's a doddle by comparison.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The Two Towers, Book I

My slightly belated 2009 Lord of the Rings readathon continues (previously: Fellowship I; Fellowship II). Nothing on Frodo, of course, in this bit; but a great deal about trees.

There's the 'difficulty' of the movies to discuss, of course; but I'm not sure I can do that justice, here. I loved the movies in almost every respect; even my carping at various aspects is actually an index of how (generally) successful I thought Jackson was. But the motion picture is, speaking broadly, an insidious and plaguey thing, with a tendency to overwrite one's memory of the source text. I'd read this book many times before seeing the films (and since) but even I find myself 'surprised' by how different the emphasis is between this book and that film. This is more than the fact that the movie braided-together the stories of Frodo/Sam and Aragorn/Legolas/Gimli; it's the treatment of the latter. Broadly this amounts to: [Jackson's Two Towers]: pursuing the hobbits, Pippin/Merry meets ents, A/L/G meet the Rohirrim, and then a lengthy bang-smash-crash climactic hour-long battle sequence at Helm's Deep!. Re-reading the novel, I was struck by how localised and, in a way, low-key the Helm's Deep material is (just the one chapter); and how elongated and emphasised, by comparison, is all the stuff on Fangorn and the Ents. As if Tolkien loves trees more than battles; where Hollywood loves battles more than trees.

Of course, put it like that, and it seems obvious. But I think something else is going on here. There's the question, say, on the referent of the title: which two towers? Let's check Wikipedia:
Tolkien wrote, "The Two Towers gets as near as possible to finding a title to cover the widely divergent Books 3 & 4; and can be left ambiguous." At this stage he planned to title the individual books. The proposed title for Book III was The Treason of Isengard. Book IV was titled The Journey of the Ringbearers or The Ring Goes East. The titles The Treason of Isengard and The Ring Goes East were used in the Millenium edition.

A note at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring and Tolkien's final illustration of the towers gives the pair as Minas Morgul and Orthanc. However, in a letter to Rayner Unwin, Tolkien instead gives Orthanc and the Tower of Cirith Ungol, but felt such an identification was misleading due to the opposition between Barad-dûr and Minas Tirith. Loosely, any pair from the set of five towers in the story could fit the title: the tower of Cirith Ungol (Cirith Ungol being a pass), Orthanc, Minas Tirith, Barad-dûr and Minas Morgul.

However ambiguous the title may be in the book, director Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Two Towers designates the title as referring to the towers of Barad-dûr in Mordor and Orthanc in Isengard.
I'll come back to the towers in a moment.

Anyway; now, from time to time I wonder if my proximity to this novel makes it nearly impossible for me to get the requisite critical distance upon it. Gandalf's return, for instance. It now seems to me (on this umpteenth, or perhaps umpty-first, reading) perfectly natural and logical. I know that some who did not know the story watched the movies and groaned mightily when Ian McEllen popped up again: and perhaps it is a cheesy and ridiculous plot-twist. But I can't see it as such, and I think that's for the following reason.

Gandalf's return is not gratuitous, or out of context. Indeed, the whole of the third book (Two Towers 1) is about this ... about, that is to say, rebirth. It is the return from death; or more precisely it is about the vivification of the inert. So on the one hand characters are presumed dead and then discovered alive: Merry and Pippin, for instance; but more centrally Gandalf himself. Of course the case with Gandalf is more than that the others thought him dead but actually he was alive. Gandalf actually dies, becomes a corpse, and then is reborn.
The darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. Naked I was sent back ... I lay staring upward while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth.' [524]
'Wandered', with its hint of 'wondered', is nice. But the thing that struck me (had this really never struck me before?) is that Gandalf comes back invulnerable. The last we see of Gandalf the Grey he is complaining that he is tired ('what an evil fortune! And I am already weary' [348]). Now he has almost limitless energy -- when the four of them ride all day and all night across Rohan, Gandalf permits them only 'a few hours rest'.
Legolas and Gimli slept and Aragorn lay flat, stretched upon his back; but Gandalf stood leaning on his staff, gazing into the darkness.' [528]
Not only does he not need sleep, he cannot be harmed by weapons: 'Indeed, my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me' [516]. This carries with it the suggestion that all Gandalf's subsequent battlefield galavanting with Glamdring is a kind of play-acting: for he can no more be slain than could Milton's Satan. (Not a very flattering comparison, of course; and actually the state of affairs is logical, according to the shape of Tolkien's imaginarium .... G. has been put on the same level viz-a-viz mortality as the Nazgul, who similarly cannot be killed ... though Saruman, it transpires, can.) Gandalf then performs a sort of lazarus-act on Theoden: the king goes from being functionally dead, an inert and seemingly beyond-aged man ('a man so bent with age he seemed almost a dwarf ... There was a silence. The man did not move in his chair', 534-5) to being a vigorous leader and warrior.

This brings me to the Ents. Trees, whilst being, of course, alive, are more or less inert. Tolkien's brilliant move with the Ents, and much of the focus of this book, is the vivification of the insentient and unmoving. The Ents trope the coming to life of inert matter: the Ents are the scenic, character and structural externalisation of Gandalf's return to life. They (Ents, Gandalf) share a sense of the intense, beautiful slowness of everyday time -- in G.'s words: 'each day was as long as a life-age of the earth.' Yet both act swiftly, and decisively, against evil. To put it in a nutshell: in this book, the inert comes alive.

This, then, is (I think) the real meaning of the two towers of the title. The reference is not to the architecture of the secondary world, but rather to life and death themselves. This book traverses the hinterland between the Tower of Life and the Tower of Death, the crisscrossing and unexpected reappearances that weird space enables.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


Be still, and know.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Landor's 'pure' style

It helps not to go looking for a Keatsian richness and profusion of expression when reading one of Landor’s poems. Indeed; at the very heart of Landor’s aesthetic is a committment to cleanness of style that gives many of his poems a purged, even a bleached feel. It is mostly the case that what can strike the reader as a Landorian line purified almost to desiccation—parched, we might say—reveals its richness only upon closer reading.

The 5-line epitaph he wrote for his own tomb in 1831 starts with four mimosas. It is characteristic of Landon, it differentiates him from other nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets, and it is illustrative of what I mean by his cleanness of style that these mimosas are not elaborated, or rendered, or pictured, or compared, or indeed gifted any descriptive adjectives at all. We are told that they are mimosas, and that they are four in number. The effect pares the whole poem down: because the mimosas are the only things mentioned in the poem. There's quite literally nothing else in it. The rest of the text is, we might say, ‘abstracted’ from the particular. We can intuit a tomb as well, of course, because the poem is an epitaph and because that’s where the mimosas have been planted. But Landor’s approach is one that deliberately avoids providing the reader with specific visual prompts.
Lo! Where the four mimosas blend their shade,
In calm repose at last is Landor laid;
For ere he slept he saw them planted here
By her his soul had ever held most dear,
And he had lived enough when he had dried her tear.
Landor is certainly capable of evoking brilliant visual imagery. It’s just that he chooses not to do so here. And this is the distance between a style picked clean, here, and the generous profusion and spillage of images and effects characteristic of, say, Keats, or even Shelley. Landor’s is not a beauty of loding every rift with ore; but the beauty of inflections—not any wrought account of mimosas, but our knowledge of what mimosas look like (the whole poem depends upon us knowing at least that). And, actually, the poem is working not with an image of mimosas as such, but with the shadow cast by the mimosas. At the same time, the poem exhibits an extraordinary degree of formal pattern and finish. The rhyme scheme, a simple-enough aabbb, works back into the body of the poem itself. The lyric’s emotional thrust connects its two agents, Landor and ‘her’ (Ianthe, we presume). The shade/laid rhyme of lines 1 and 2 toy with the open ‘a’ and the ‘d’ of Landor’s name; just as the ‘here’ rhyme of the final three lines lengthens the vowel of ‘her’. It doesn’t overstate things to suggest that the ‘eh’ sound that recurs and shifts assonantially through the poem (‘where’, ‘blend’, ‘re’, ‘ere’, ‘he’, ‘slept’, ‘he’, ‘them’, ‘here’, ‘her’, ‘ever’, ‘held’, ‘dear’, ‘he’, ‘en-’, ‘when’, ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘tear’) literalises a kind of panting, or gasping. This is appropriate to a poem about unconsummated love, I suppose; except that the poem is actually about death—not about love, we might say, but about the shadow cast by love, the lack, the death of love. Not gasping, then, so much as parching. Fiesole’s is a hot, dry climate; the sort of environment mimosas prefer. And then we see, and understand, the way this little poem’s final image sets the whole. To dry a loved-one’s tears looks like a gesture of consolation, but this love is an unreciprocated one. The poem implies without ever quite stating that it is Landor’s death that has, paradoxically, dried ‘her’ tears. And that emotional desiccation, has freeze-dried the whole poem. Cleanness of style, it seems, can be a bones-picked-clean sort of purity.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Sweet pastries

As I slide another doughnut into my maw, and make those little mews of sensual satisfaction, I'm abruptly caught short: 'oh no! ... does this mean I'm Salieri?'