Saturday, 31 December 2011


The opening chapter of The Book of Hosea is an intriguing puzzle:
2.And the LORD said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the LORD.
3: So he went and took Gomer the daughter of Diblaim; which conceived, and bare him a son.
4: And the LORD said unto him, Call his name Jezreel; for yet a little while, and I will avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu, and will cause to cease the kingdom of the house of Israel.
5: And it shall come to pass at that day, that I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.
6: And she conceived again, and bare a daughter. And God said unto him, Call her name Unloved: for I will no more have mercy upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away.
7: But I will have mercy upon the house of Judah, and will save them by the LORD their God, and will not save them by bow, nor by sword, nor by battle, by horses, nor by horsemen.
8: Now when she had weaned Unloved, she conceived, and bare a son.
9: Then said God, Call his name Stranger: for ye are not my people, and I will not be your God.
10: Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered; and it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God.
(The image at the top is of Hosea, Gomer and their three children; from the 1560 Geneva Bible) the names of the last two children ('Lo-ruhamah'' Lo-ammi' in the KJV) are from J B Phillips Four Prophets rendering (1963). The conventional reading of this strange passage is that the 'marry a prostitute' command is a way of symbolising Israel's relationship to Jahweh:
While scholars suggest the marriage metaphor presented in Hosea describes the relationship between Israel and Yahweh, the metaphor itself remains controversial in its meaning and interpretation in modernity. This is particularly true among feminists ... Biblical scholar Ehud Ben Zvi reminds readers of the socio-historical context in which Hosea was composed ... Ben Zvi describes the role of the Gomer in the marriage metaphor as one of the “central attributes of the ideological image of a human marriage that was shared by the male authorship and the primary and intended male readership as building blocks for their imagining of the relationship.” Tristanne J. Connolly makes a similar observation, stating that the husband-wife motif reflects marriage as it was understood at the time. Connolly also suggests that in context the marriage metaphor was necessary in that it truly exemplified the unequal interaction between Yahweh and the people Israel. Biblical scholar Michael D. Coogan makes an interesting point regarding genre that can also lend a hand to the interpretation of this metaphor. Coogan describes the importance of understanding the covenant in relation to interpreting Hosea. Hosea falls under a unique genre called “covenant lawsuit” where God accuses Israel of breaking their previously made agreement. God’s disappointment towards Israel is therefore expressed through the broken marriage covenant made between husband and wife.
This doesn't seem to me to address the issue of the flat contradictions of the passage.  Observing the commandments is a way of following God's instructions; but in this passage God instructs Hosea not to follow his instructions ('Would God really command his prophet,' asks one commentator, 'to marry someone that, according to Deuteronomy 22:20 was supposed to be stoned?); he tells Hosea that Israel will not be saved and that Israel will be saved.  It looks as though the passage is deliberately trying to short-circuit the larger master-follower logic of humankind and God's relation.

Friday, 30 December 2011

A Copernican Revolution in religion

There are several forms a Copernican Revolution in religion might take, but they all share one feature: they challenge the notion that mankind is of unique, central importance to God. This is not, necessarily, to say that God has no care for mankind at all; but it is to suggest that God's love for (let's say) whales, sheep, lions and starlings is just as important to Him as his love for homo sapiens. One consequence of that would be: we should reconfigure our human practices of worship to make them more like the practices of worship of whales, sheep, lions and starlings.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

A jogger

A jogger, stretching himself at the roadside prior to his run, looks as though he is trying, by main force, to push that car over.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Postulate of Impoverished Reality

I came across Iredell Jenkins's 'postulate of impoverished reality' (originally an article so titled appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1942) at second hand, here. But, alright. The postulate is that 'reality in its essence is somehow simpler, barer, more mechanical and in general terms less exciting than our experience of it -- e.g., that the "primary" qualities of matter, mass, figure, extension, are more "real" than the attributes matter presents to us.' Jenkins thinks this fallacious, and there is some appeal to that notion that 'reducing' King Lear to certain word-shaped marks printed upon paper, or 'reducing' Don Giovanni to certain notes positioned about certain pages of stave-printed sheets is to miss something important. But nobody would ever claim that these printers' marks wholly encompass the texts they encode. Of course not. A better (less fallacious) comparison might be a chess game. It is not to 'reduce' such a game to the board, its pieces and the rules that govern how they are moved about. But those elements, plus the intellects of the two players engaging with those elements, is the game, at a fundamental level.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

How many species of Hobbits?

Tolkien, having coined the name, then (as was his wont) invented a mock-etymology for it. But this is widely misunderstood -- as for instance does Wikipedia: 'He set out a fictional etymology for the name in an appendix to Lord of the Rings, to the effect that it was derived from holbytla (plural holbytlan), a speculative reconstruction of Old English, meaning “hole-builder”'. This isn't right, though. Tom Shippey knows better:
Hol of course means hole. A "bottle" even now in some English place-names means a dwelling, and Old English bytlian means to dwell, to live in. Holbytla, then, = 'hole-dweller, hole-liver'.
What this means is that there are at least five peoples in The Hobbit who can be described, without distortion, as Hobbits: Bilbo's people; the Dwarves; the Goblins -- and Gollum (both of whom live in the caves under the Misty Mountains) and Smaug himself. The titular 'The Hobbit' starts to look like ironic understatement.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Tantalus key

“Sorry I can’t offer you a drink,” said Uncle William, blowing a little in his embarrassment. “The key of the tantalus has been removed again.” [Allingham, Police at the Funeral (1931), 95]

Police at the Funeral is certainly ingenious. It takes Allingham’s sort-of detective, the private gentleman Albert Campion, up to Cambridge. Campion is a strange figure; invented (apparently) as a parody of Lord Peter Whimsey; a boyish, bland, blond-haired nobody who is quite well-connected in polite society and amonbgst the police, hangs around murder-scenes innocuously and ends up solving them. Campion is a self-chosen pseudonym; his actual surname begins with a ‘K’ and his actual Christian name is Rudolf; the suggestion in Police at the Funeral is that he is the illegitimate offspring from an aristocratic Cambridge family; in other novels, apparently, there are suggestions he might be related to the Royal family. But as a deliberate move by Allingham, he lacks any defined role or purpose, and rather drifts through the books. Here’s the blurb:
Great Aunt Caroline rules the roost in an old Cambridge residence which is riddled with mystery, evil ... and terror! Uncle Andrew is dead, Aunt Julia is poisoned, Uncle William attacked ... and once again Albert Campion, that much-loved hero of detective fiction, comes to the rescue. With her customary skill Margery Allingham takes the reader through a delightful maze of intrigue as Albert Campion, bland, blue-eyed and deceptively vague, encounters the formidable Great Aunt Caroline and her bizarre household of horror.
The household is well drawn, actually: a bickering community of mostly elderly individuals, ruled by the implacable Victorian relict Great Aunt Caroline. The claustrophobia of this, and the pettiness of the grounds of dispute, are neatly-enough done. Uncle Andrew, whose death occasions the mystery, was a thoroughly unpleasant individual in life: a wastrel, gambler and domestic monster who delighted in tormenting his family members in petty but infuriating ways. He disappears coming back from Church one Sunday. Ten days later his corpse is discovered, shot through the head, tied hand and foot, in the Cam. Suspicion falls on his elderly, irascible cousin William, who hated Andrew during his life and was cordially hated in return. He was the last person to see Andrew alive. William is a drinker (something expressly forbidden by Great Aunt Caroline), and a man who suffers from improbable fugue-state interludes during which he doesn’t know where he is or what he’s doing; suspicion naturally falls upon him, and accordingly we would not be so callow as to believe that he is actually the murderer. There’s also the corpulent, elderly Aunt Julia; withered Aunt Catherine, and cousin George, who is living life as a tramp, but who comes round to the Cambridge house from time to time to blackmail Great Aunt Caroline for small sums of money. What hold does he have over his Great Aunt? Who killed Uncle Andrew? Campion thinks he knows, but has no proof. Other characters include the beautiful, feisty young Cousin Joyce—who asked Campion along, in effect for moral support—and her fiancé, a young Cambridge lawyer also related to the family called Marcus.

Campion investigates the murder and aids the police whilst claiming, mildly but insistently, to be doing neither (‘“fair dos,” said Mr Campion. “You know exactly how I stand in this matter. I’m not the clever amateur helping the important policeman. I’ve just been asked down for the murder. If it wasn’t for Joyce and Marcus and possibly Uncle William I think I should go home.”’ [138]. I consider it a shame Campion appears innocent of the correct use of the subjunctive). And, yes, bickersome old Uncle William grows on Campion, and to an extent on the reader as well. But the plot doesn’t dawdle. Uncle Andrew’s body has been floating in the Cam with a bullet in its forehead and ropes around its hands and feet for an improbably ten days—but almost as soon as it is discovered, Aunt Julia is killed by poison in her morning cup of tea (something she drank in secret, since tea is another thing interdicted by Great Aunt Julia: ‘tea-drinking in the early morning,’ she says, rather splendidly, ‘has always appeared to me as an indulgence for which there is nothing but spinelessness as an excuse’ [71]). Campion and Joyce investigate the old woman’s bed, and discover a secret stash of slimming powders inside her bedknob. She was drinking the morning tea as a way of ingesting these, something the murderer clearly knew. Then somebody stabs Uncle William in the hand one night, although he tries to cover the incident up with a unconvincing story about being scratched by a cat; he rinses the wound in a lot of iodine and is not further incommoded.

Then the family’s black-sheep, Old Uncle George, arrives drunk, claiming that he knows who the murderer is, that it’s a member of the family, and that he must be paid off or he’ll reveal their shame to the world. He is put to bed in a highly belligerent state of inebriation; and in the morning he is dead, poisoned with arsenic.

Now, Allingham provides us with a family tree, maps of the house, and lots of specific detail. I did not, however, guess the identity of the murderer, and most of the herrings she serves us turn out to be red. This, I suppose, is what we’re looking for in a novel like this. But unlike Edmund Wilson, I didn’t find the revelation of the murderer’s identity a let-down. In part because it is so laughably improbable, when judged by the standards of ‘realism’, as to remove itself from that realm of judgement altogether (nobody would try to nominate La Cantatrice Chauve for ‘Best Documentary’).

The family, in their large house, with their antique routines and habits, are the structuring principle of the novel—I mean, the principle of the novel as whodunit. Allingham gives us a pattern that we can see only when we reach the end; and that pattern is, precisely, family.

Family in Police at the Funeral are ancient; old people ruled by a grandmatriach even older, who bicker like little kids. (In one scene Campion stays for dinner, and wonder why everybody has their own sets of salt, pepper and sauces; he is told in effect that a while ago the old folk quarrelled like toddlers over these items, so Great Aunt Caroline decreed they should all have their own). It is a grotesque, claustrophobic world. Any of them could leave, of course; but Great Aunt Caroline controls the purse strings, which would mean they’d have to work for a living—out of the question, naturally. Though often played for laughs, or at least for smiles, there’s no avoiding the sense that it’s a sort of glimpse into hell.

One aspect of this is the novels’ extraordinarily calcified attitude to class and race. To say ‘it is of its time’ seems to me to let Allingham too easily off the hook. William’s body is discovered by an Indian student at the university, who is brought into the narrative for a chapter only to be made fun of: his funny way of speaking, and his inability to dress correctly. Likewise, George has been blackmailing his Great Aunt with a ghastly secret, which ghastly secret turns out to be that he is himself mixed-race (‘“George,” said Great-aunt Caroline, “was the son of my husband’s brother Joseph ... a despicable character and a disgrace to his family. This person was shipped off to the colonies many years ago. He returned with a certain amount of money and a wife. They lived at Newmarket, quite near us, you see. She was a peculiar-looking woman and of a very definite type, which we in those days chose to ignore. They had a child, a girl ... by some horrible machination of heredity the stain in the woman’s blood had come out.” She lowered her voice. “The child was a blackamoor. They left, of course, and the disgraceful business was hushed up. But to my own and my husband’s horror, although the first child died these criminal people had a second ... George bears our name and is always threatening to reveal his half-caste blood”’ [244]). It is Campion’s frank admiration for this horrible old woman (‘Campion looked at her admiringly. “I think you’re the cleverest woman I’ve ever met”, he said’ [245]) that is most shocking. Then again, there is the de-haut-en-bas attitude to class. George is painted as a thoroughly despicable character, an abusive drunken blackmailer, because he has fallen in with tramps and the low.

And this brings us to the part of the novel that astonished me the most. That he has rendered himself déclassé turns Uncle George into the novel’s homo sacer. In the most astonishing plot development, he is locked, drunk and raging, in one of the house’s upper rooms in which Campion strongly suspects there also to be a deliberately constructed murderous device. Campion is right, as detectives in this sort of novel almost always are; and in the morning Uncle George is dead, poisoned with a massive dose of arsenic. How? Campion explains:
There was a pipe rack on Andrew’s dressing table ... It contained five extremely filthy and blackened pipes and one very good new one, a temptation to any man, I don’t know if you have noticed, the way a man picks up a pipe and sucks it vigorously to make sure the stem is clear? It’s a sort of involuntary movement.’ [242]
Poor old Uncle George. Unpleasant though he was it’s hard to believe that he deserved to be sacrificed upon the altar of Campion’s theorising. Because, you see, our vague detective has got to the bottom of the mystery, the key slips into the Tantalus’s lock. Uncle Andrew wasn’t the first murder victim after all; he was a suicide. We were led to believe that the ropes binding his wrists had rotted in the river, but in fact his hands were free, he shot himself in the head on a footbridge in Grantchester, having rigged an elaborate device to get rid of the pistol, and tumbled into the water. His wickedness was sufficient, however, to want to punish his own family from beyond the grave: he had replaced the eleventh of Aunt Julia’s sachets of powder with poison; he rigs a poisoned blade in a hollow book in which Uncle William keeps a secret supply of booze (the old fellow is lucky not to have been killed) and set up the pipe rack. Death came not only from within the family, the product of decades of accumulated resentment over trivial intrafamilial squabbling—it also came from beyond the grave. Allingham’s novel draws itself into a series of knotted conceptual circles whereby, metaphorically speaking, ‘the family’ and ‘beyond the grave’ become, almost, the same thing.

The fact that this solution is so involuted, that Allingham portrays the family as a stagnant, closed circle from which and contained within which death operates, gives the book the superbly claustrophobic feel, despite its antic and sometimes strained touches of melodramatic gaiety. As Campion and Oates drive away from Cambridge at the end of the book, the Inspector looks forward to ‘a nice little job in Stepney’. ‘Seems like a breath of fresh air,’ he announces. I can only agree. But the sense, in Allingham, as life defined by death, and both existing in an intricate, closed pattern, says more than the surface shenanigans of her novel can convey.

Sunday, 25 December 2011


Queen’s ‘Flash’ could well be describing Christ:
He’s for every one of us,
Stands for every one of us.
He’ll save every one of us!
He’s also ‘king of the impossible’, which I like as a description of the messiah.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Fall into Belief

What if the fall of man was precisely the fall into worship? It recalls the old Shavian fable:
Man and woman were content, as to the measure of content, when the whole world was a garden; and they worshipped God as animals do, blithely and brutishly, by their nature not their will. And God was well pleased, for faith sustained them unconsciously: it was something they were, rather than something they did. But Satan, whose name means pride, had fallen from the horizontal paradise of heaven, where all are equal in the love of God. Satan craved hierarchy, and rank, and to define his own superiority in terms of the inferiority of others—all monstrous in the eyes of all-loving God. He could do nothing to persuade the angels, for they knew that to surrender their equality with God and sink into hierarchy would be loss and no gain. But Satan recognised a kink in the soul of humankind, and visited them in the garden. He did not appeal to their self-interest, for they would have rejected such an appeal. Instead he said: why do you walk around, so arrogant in your nakedness? Do you not know that God who made you is vastly superior to you? Do you not comprehend that, when compared to him, you are loathsome, at the bottom of contempt? You should hide your abject bodies under cloaks and veils, fall down to your knees and worship the All High!’ To this, Man was struck, and fell to his knees; for he felt that a true note was being bowed out of the string of his soul. But Woman was not persuaded. ‘How can this be?’ she challenged Satan. ‘For we are made of God, and if our stuff is abject then so is His, and if He is exalted then so are we—there can be no vertical dimension to the logic of paradise.’ And Satan saw that he could not persuade Woman, and so returned his attention to the man. ‘Do you hear her? For as far as God is above, so you are above her, and when she thwarts your will your duty is to rebuke her.’ ‘Is it so?’ replied Man, feeling the intoxication of hierarchy seeping through his veins, and leapt to his feet. ‘Woman,’ said the Man. ‘Be quiet! For God made humankind; humankind did not make God. Therefore God is greater.’ ‘But woman gives birth to man,’ objected Woman. ‘Man does not give birth to woman!’ Satan grew wroth, and said: ‘Yours is a false analogy and thus evidence of inferior intellect. Man! Your duties are: to raise up a temple in which to worship God the All-High—and to chastise your wife, and teach her the ways of the hierarchy! Every creature has a place, some higher, some lower, and God highest of all!
Well, I say Shavian; the author (of course) was not in actuality as bearded, Irish or wise as that. But as the story continues the combined glee of Satan and Man is well drawn, for the more they look into the arrangement of natural objects the more opportunity for inserting hierarchical values they see—to discriminate on grounds of age over youth, of white skin over brown, of wealthy over poor and so on. The coda to this little narrative comes when God sends his Son (who is actually his self) to the world to undo all this mischief; but by the time he arrives in human form the human mind has become so saturated with the pride of hierarchy that not even He can escape it. Hence, instead of preaching the universal equality of God’s love, He ends up simply inverting the hierarchies that already exist (‘the last shall be first’ and so on).

Friday, 23 December 2011


Emma Jones, ‘Death’s Sadness’ (in The Striped World (2009) imagines how sorrowfully isolated Death must be. I liked this line: ‘Death was a sad Vatican, his own state.’

After all, what does the Vatican say? ‘Look at us, a Church that is as big as a country, its own state!’ Or, ‘look at us, though a billion people subscribe to our faith, our country is the size of Croydon!’

Thursday, 22 December 2011


I've been reading Michael Shermer's very good The Believing Brain: from Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies -- How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them As Truths (Times Books 2011). I recommend it. Of course, there's a degree of confirmation bias in my approval, for Shermer brings a large quantity of his research to bear on the question of 'belief' to support a Dennettian point-of-view that is pretty much mine (and many people's), so I'm likely to like it. But one thing that I liked, as a hoary old materialist-atheist, was Shermer's hospitality to various spiritualist and religious points of views.

At the beginning he says: 'in fact all models of the world, not just scientific models, are foundational to our beliefs, and belief-dependent realism means that we cannot escape this epistemological trap.' Very (and very properly) Kantian; and he is quick to add that 'we can, however, employ the tools of science' to determine which beliefs are supported by evidence. But that initial position is one I have found stated by religious writers arguing against Dawkinsian atheism: Dawkins' mocks Christianity as 'faith'; but Dawkins's own belief in science is a faith too. More, Dawkins himself must agree with Shermer that all models of the world, not just scientific models, are foundational to our beliefs, and belief-dependent realism means that we cannot escape this epistemological trap.

It's not a very useful strategy, rhetorically or logically, because it cuts both ways. The Christian doesn't actually want to argue for the absolute relativism of belief; she wants to argue that Christian belief is true and atheism not. Nonetheless, I find myself wondering: what if we follow up the consequence of this? Suppose we say 'well neither Christianity nor Science are any better grounded than one another, so we might as well just pick and choose the belief system that we find most agreeable' (to be clear, Shermer is absolutely not saying this, and I haven't found any theist writers who are either; but bear with me).

One possibility would be to say: since I can choose a belief-system purely on what appeals to me, I might as well go the whole hog. I might as well believe that I am the emperor of the world, the greatest human being who ever lived, that all this cosmos is laid on for my benefit. I might as well believe that I am God! Obviously, few people, and no well-balanced people, do believe that. But might this be because, although such a belief might seem superficially preferable to the belief that (say) we are born into original sin and must abase ourselves before an all-powerful deity to earn the chance to enjoy the afterlife -- maybe it's not. Could it be that one reason why Christianity (to pick one example) does so well in the belief stakes is that it is very finely tuned, as it were, to provide believers with the optimum balance of self-aggrandizement (you are specially, God loves you, you will live forever) with the necessary condiment of self-perspective (you're a sinner, you are unworthy, your abjection meant that God was tortured to death)?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


Rousseau's desperately famous opening line from Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique (1762) --'L'homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers' -- is, obviously, behind Schiller lines from 'Die Worte des Glaubens' (1797):
Der Mensch ist frei geschaffen, ist frei,
Und würd' er in Ketten geboren.
'Man is created free, and is free, Though he be born in chains.' It's certainly a more hopeful, probably a more mendacious claim; and part of me thinks that only somebody who enjoyed both affluence and freedom from birth could speak so breezily about what it means to be in chains.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


To pick out a phrase from yesterday's post: le dieu caché. This, of course, is Lucien Goldmann's phrase, and the title of his study of Pascal and Racine.  It's worth thinking a little more about it.  Because 'hidden' is a passive, we perhaps need something else (autocached, perhaps) for a secret that is folded away into the interstices of things by itself.

Goldmann isn't very interested in this, of course; he's more concerned to frame the debate as to whether tragedy is possible in a century dominated by one of two fundamentally 'optimistic' world-views: Communism and Christianity:
Each of these three doctrines—rationalism, hedonism and tragic vision—is basically individualistic, the third even more so than the others since it defines man in terms of his absolute but impossible demand for transcendence … Other doctrines, whether that of Augustinian Christianity or that of dialectical materialism, change the very position of the problem by replacing the question What ought I to do? by the essentially different one of How ought I to live? [263-4)
That distinction looks pretty superfine to me, but perhaps I'm missing something.

For Goldmann, man becomes aware of tragedy when he ‘suddenly becomes aware, by a movement which, strictly speaking, is outside time, of the contradiction between the imperfect values of man and the world and the perfection of those to be found in God.’ Attempts to reconcile this problematic—as, for instance, the rationalist might insist that this world can be made perfect, or the Romantic might hope to retreat from the world into art—are wrongheaded. We must, it seems, live in the world, with all its suffering and horrors.
For if we refuse the world absolutely and unilaterally then we deprive it of any possible meaning, and reduce it to the level of an abstract anonymous obstacle, without form or qualities. Only an attitude which places itself within the world in order to refuse the world can, without abandoning anything of the absolute character of this refusal, still allow tragic man to know the world on which he passes judgment and thus justify his refusal of it by keeping his reasons for doing so constantly in mind. [18]
The tragic man robbed of community is reduced to soliloquy, or to talking to God who doesn’t talk back: indeed, that God can be both absent and present is what Goldmann means by calling him ‘hidden’: ‘at the very moment that God appears to man, then man ceases to be tragic. To see and hear God is to go beyond tragedy.’

Still, I'm minded to challenge the notion that Christianity is 'optimistic'. I can see that as a description of Islam, or Judaism (whose messiah is still to come). But surely Christianity its precisely about the revelation not of God so much, as of the fact that God can suffer pain and die (or at least, that Deity is not immune to suffering and death, and these things are part of the divine as of the mortal realm) -- that God is not in our future, but in our past; that we are belated. If this isn't tragic, I don't know what is. More, it is precisely the collective aspect that makes it tragic. It says: this is how things are for all. The indvidualist at least has the satisfaction of thinking: 'when this suffering is over for me, it is over.'

Monday, 19 December 2011

Vayled and Shadouued in the Olde

Coming across the following passage (from Bishop Griffith Williams' Seaven Golden Candlesticks (1624, or possibly 1627, it's not clear), quoted in Ruthven's excellent little 1969 book on The Conceit, got me thinking:
Christ was veiled and shadowed in the Old, and exhibited in the New testament; promised in that, preached in this; there showed the Father in types, here manifested to us in truths; for the Tree of Life, the Ark of Noah, the Ladder of Jacob, the Mercy Seat, the Brazen Serpent and all such mystical types and typical figures that we read of in the Old Testament, what were they else but Christ, obscurely shadowed before he was fully revealed? And so all the men of note, Noah, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samson, David, Solomon ...
Typology has its roots in Scripture, of course ('For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth', Matthew 12:40). What particularly interests me, here, is the implication of this larger belief. It relates, of course, to notions of 'le dieu caché'; assuming we reject so-called 'natural theology' as overly simplistic, we have to wonder why God hides Himself in creation.

Thinking about Griffiths's by-no-means unusual perspective, I see a strange symmetry in the arrangement. God-as-Christ is hidden in the OT, but can be discovered if you're canny enough to decipher the clues; God-as-Christ is not hidden in the NT, for He is front-and-centre-stage for the whole of that book. But God in the larger sense is not hidden in the OT, in the sense (which I've discussed before on this blog) He is an actual character, an agent in the world as well as outside it; whilst in the NT, this situation changes -- for the NT is precisely the place where God disappears from plain view, forsakes the world.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A one sentence history of the twentieth century

People at first thought that utopia would be a city; but later they began to wonder if utopia might not instead be a mode of countryside.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Weakness poem


Friday, 16 December 2011


The ancient Egyptians believed there were seven substances produced by the body, and that all seven were needful for proper magic: wax; tears; spit; phlegm; sweat; semen; urine. Faeces and vomit don't count, for reasons that are beyond me. How about a story based on the seven exhalations? (breath from the nose; breath from the mouth; yawns; odour; burps; farts; spirit -- this last being telepathy).

Thursday, 15 December 2011


This boozer is in pouradise;
Delirium tremendous, liver-let-die;
Strong, not too neat; he keeps on ice
The eyewash of mud-in-your-eye.
His coaster's there to help him coast:
This drinker knows all life is toast.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Book of Sand

Thoughts on the Book of Sand.

This occurred to me: open the book on a certain page, shut the page again, and you will never again be able to open at your earlier page. More: the pages cannot be numbered--there are an infinite number of them between the front and back boards; which means that, open it roughly in the middle, there are an infinite number of pages on either side.

But (and this is the part that troubles my head): let's say the book is an inch thick, and you took a half-inch paintbrush and painted the ends of the first half of the stack of pages gold. Afterwards, and whilst it would still be perfectly impossible for you to open the book at the same page twice, you could be 100% sure of opening the book in the first half. This puzzles me, because it suggest (counterintuitively) that it is possible to narrow down an infinite range of options. My sense is that this is no paradox: that half of infinity if still infinity, but it feels weird. It prompts me to ask: how far is it possible to narrow things down like this?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


From a online dictionary of Graham Harman concepts:
Harman is a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s science fiction novels. Harman argues that “science fiction is not only in ‘science fiction’ but in great literature of any sort” – the key criteria being the weirdness and strangeness of its idiosyncrasies (HOP, p.244). “For nothing resembles science fiction more than philosophy does – unless it be science itself” (HOP, p.333). “Few will object to the term ‘weird realism’ as a description of Lovecraft’s outlook” (HOP, p.348). “In Lovecraft, the relation between a thing and its surface is perturbed by irregularities that resist immediate comprehension, as if the object suffered from a strange disease of the nervous system” (HOP, p.356). Lovecraft’s materialism gives him a “philosophy rooted in the surface, but one in which the relation between objects and their crusts is rendered problematic”. Horror comes “from the declared insufficiency of the description, combined with a literary world in which the monster is a genuine player rather than a mere image” (HOP, p.357). Horror also “comes not from some transcendent force lying outside the bounds of human finitude, but in a twisting or torsion of that finitude itself” (HOP, p.360).
'HOP' is Harman's 'On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl'. The 'genuine player' line is a good one (not a million miles away from Tolkien's reading of the dragon in Beowulf), and important; although I'm tempted to suggest not that 'thing and its surface is perturbed by irregularities that resist immediate comprehension', but rather that irregularities that resist immediate comprehension constitute the main focus of the Lovecraftian text.

To constellate this with a passage from Harman's Guerille Objects:
In addition to being charmed by objects, we ourselves want to emulate them, and wish to charm the world. It is simply not the case that our fundamental wish is to be viewed as dignified free subjects with a chance to speak at the microphone of the universal assembly…. The kind of recognition we would prefer is always far more specific, since we often feel ourselves to be so painfully mutable that any specific role will do…. The one book that all of us would approach with greatest interest, that no human in history would be able to resist opening, would be a book of anecdotes about ourselves as told by other people. The appeal of such a book would not lie in some sort of grotesque human vanity, but in our wish to be something definite, a desire at least as great as our desire to be free. There is a profound need to escape the apparently infinite flexible subjectivity within, which feels far more amorphous to us than to anyone else.

Contrary to the usual view, what we really want is to be objects.
This may indeed be part of SF's core appeal: that it enables us to identify, to empathise and subsume ourselves into, technological object-ness. We become the robot; we sing along with McCaffrey's ship.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Beech Wood poem

A squirrel is watching us,
tail curved like a scorpion's.

Beech woods with their density
of bright green canopy

prevent sunlight from settling
to the forest floor, stifling

other trees' growth, and wildflowers.
Jedem das Seine, they say.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The "Not I" Defence

A follow-upto yesterday's post. If I were to ask my religious friends whether they considered atheists like me to be as bad as rapists, they would probably say: 'no.' And if I pressed them that many believers empirically do believe that, they might say: 'there may be Christians who think that way. Not I!' I wonder about this. It does double service, of distancing the believer from the loonier aspects of religious belief, and of de-fanging religion itself (as it might be: 'some Christians are idiots, sure, but the existence of reasonable Christians like me show that the Church isn't all bad'). I wonder. At the risk of an offensive analogy, isn't this like a Nazi being accused of anti-Semitism, and insisting that whilst there may be some Nazis who think that way, s/he doesn't. If a main point of religious belief is community, then how is one served by explicitly distancing oneself from that community? Of course, humans may disagree on aspects of doctrine, but thinking atheists no better than rapists touches on a core feature -- belief itself -- without which conventional believers have nothing. So ...?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Atheists As Bad As Rapists

Here's the story:
University of British Columbia researchers conducted a total of six experiments on 350 Americans and 420 UBC students, of varying religions (67% of the Americans were Christian). In one experiment, they presented participants with the story of an "archetypal freerider" who cheats and steals a lot, and asked what group they thought that person might belong to. Participants were more likely to categorize the person as an atheist than as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, gay person, or feminist (some of the groups were chosen because they were "often described as threatening to majority religious values and morality"). Only rapists fared as poorly — participants were about as likely to put the "freerider" in this group. According to the study, "People did not significantly differentiate atheists from rapists."

In another experiment, researchers asked what jobs the subjects would hire atheists to perform. Lead study author Will Gervais discusses the results:
People are willing to hire an atheist for a job that is perceived as low trust, for instance as a waitress. But when hiring for a high-trust job like daycare worker, they were like, nope, not going to hire an atheist for that job.
Study coauthor Ara Norenzayan told QMI, "Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them. While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists' absence of belief as a public threat to co-operation and honesty."
As a crystalisation of the public function of religious belief, this sounds not only believable but, actually, speaks to the antiquity of human beliefs about belief (I've posted about this before). But what interests me is the way 'belief' itself has effectively usurped the NT focus on riches. Terms deployed in the NT in order to evoke the knee-jerk disapprobation of its original readers -- 'Samaritan', 'tax collector', 'rich man', 'prostitute' -- are today subsumed into one key word: 'atheist'. We can rewrite the relevant scripture. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a believer to enter heaven. Unless you become again as an atheist, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Frost at Midday

A calculus of frost
whitens the fenceposts.

Fields are milk-coloured
the hill behind the house

is a cassock. The gospel
is glass, and the ministry

is iron in the soil, iron
in the air. Eye-blue sky.

Thursday, 8 December 2011


Lovely: Henry Holiday, 'The Snark'. This is an unpublished pencil drawing for The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll (1876). The sheet size is 20.3 x 20.95 cm. I found it in an article by Sarah Hamilton Phelps called 'The Hartley Collection of Victorian Illustration', Boston Museum Bulletin (1972), 56-67. I particularly like the sketches of the snark-hunters' heads around the margin.

This representation of the Snark as a sort of giant whale was never used, as Phelps reports: 'because Carroll "had made the Snark strictly unimaginable and wanted him to remain so." Holiday says of his own drawing in a letter to Hartley: "You may rely on my drawing being strictly accurate. I pledge my word that I have never met with anyone however critically disposed who was able to prove a single fault in it."'

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Huxley tries to have his cake and eat it too

Two quotations from Aldous Huxley's ‘Spinoza’s Worm’ (1929):

'The means by which men try to turn themselves into supermen are murderous’

‘Simple lifers, like Tolstoy and Gandhi, ignore the most obvious facts. Chief amongst these is the fact that machinery, by increasing production, has permitted an increase in population. There are twice as many human beings today [Huxley is writing in the 1920s] as there were a hundred years ago. If we scrap the machinery, we kill at least half the population. When Gandhi advocates the return to handicrafts, he is advocating the condemnation to death of about nine hundred million human beings. Tamburlaine’s butcheries are insignificant compared to the cosmic massacre so earnestly advocated by our mild and graminivorous Mahatma.’

Tuesday, 6 December 2011


SF, counterintuitively enough, is often a mode of nostalgia for the future. Steampunk, by articulating a nostalgia for the past, might appear to be a more straightforward, or less paradoxical, business; but in fact Steampunk actualises a nostalgia for the past as the impossible future.

Monday, 5 December 2011


Spacetime is expanding, and has been since the big bang.  We think of this as happening on the very largest scales, and so it is.  But it is happening on the very smallest scales too—spacetime is the ground of existence on all scales, after all.  Why, then, aren’t hydrogen atoms (say) getting bigger?  Why isn’t the ‘space’ between nucleus and electrons growing at a rate of tens of metres per second?  There are several possible answers to this question, and here’s one: the subatomic particles, out of which the material cosmos is constructed, are ‘actually’ the rents and fundamental flaws in spacetime magnified to the materiality by expansion itself.
Ooh, scare-quote overload.  Still: a good SFnal, if not a good Physics, idea.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Morton on Tolkien

Amongst many other arguments, Timothy Morton's hectic but stimulating Ecology without nature: rethinking environmental aesthetics (Harvard University Press 2007) situates Tolkien both in terms of the longer tradition of ‘Romantic nationalism’ and environmental art.
As the idea of world (Welt) became popular in German Romantic idealism, so the nation-state was imagined as a surrounding environment. The idea of the nation as “homeland” … demanded a poetic rendering as an ambient realm of swaying corn, shining seas, or stately forests. Nature appeared sublime “there” and yet fundamentally beyond representation, stretching beyond the horizon and back into the distant, even pre-human past. It was a suitable objective correlative for the je ne sais quoi of nationalist fantasy. Walter Scott’s invention of historical novels, realist fictions generating an entire world in a bubble of past-tense narrative, did as much for environmental nationalism as explicitly Romantic criticisms of modern society and technology. [97]
He goes on to read Tolkien in this light.
The Shire, in J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings depicts the world bubble as an organic village. Tolkien narrates the victory of the suburbanite, the “little person,” embedded in a tamed yet natural-seeming environment. Nestled into the horizon as they are in their burrows, the wider world of global politics is blissfully unavailable to them. Tolkien’s work embodies a key nationalist fantasy, a sense of “world” as real, tangible yet indeterminate, evoking a metonymic chain of images—an anamorphic form. The Lord of the Rings establishes not only entire languages, histories, and mythologies, but also a surrounding world. If ever there was evidence of the persistence of Romanticism, this is it. 
In Heidegger’s supremely environmental philosophy, the surrounding ambience created by Tolkien’s narratives is called Unwelt. This is the deep ontological sense in which things are “around”—they may come in handy, but whether they do or not, we have a care for them. It is a thoroughly environmental idea. Things are oriented in relation to other things: “the house has its sunny side and its shady side.” Others (elves, dwarves, men) care for their surroundings differently. The strangeness of Middle-earth, its permeation with others and their worlds, is summed up in the metaphor of the road, which becomes an emblem for narratives. The road comes right up to you front door. To step across it is to cross a threshold between inside and outside. There is a sense that the story, and the world it describes, could go “ever on and on” like the road in Bilbo Baggins’s song. But wherever we go in this world, however strange or threatening our journey, it will always be familiar, insofar as it has all been planned in advance, mapped out , accounted for. This planning is not quite as narrowly rational as a modern factory. Still, the recent film of The Lord of the Rings, with its built-in commentaries on the special edition DVD about the craftsmanship and industrial processes that went into making it, reveals something true about the book. The Umwelt is a function of holistic, total design, total creation: Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk with a how-to booklet thrown in. The holistic world that ‘”goes ever on and on” is exciting and involved, but in the end, it is just a gigantic version of the ready-made commodity. This is ironic, since one of the themes of the work is the resistance to industrialism and specifically to commodity fetishism, in the form of the hypnotic ring itself. [98]
This is interesting stuff, although Morton evidently feels rather condescendingly about the book itself: ‘what gets lost in this elaborate attempt to craft a piece of kitsch that could assuage the ravages of industrialism?’ he asks, answering ‘hesitation, irony, ambiguity’, glossing the middle term via Schlegel. I can see the ‘kitsch’ part, although it doesn’t strike me as a necessarily bad thing (on the contrary). But something is missing from this analysis; precisely the unexpected thing (the unexpected party) that Morton claims the novel erases. Since this is particularly true of the book’s engagement with ‘environmental aesthetics’, it’s a shame Morton doesn’t discuss it. Take: Tom Bombadil. It’s true he was smoothed over and erased by the more commodified film version of the tale; but he’s a crucial figure in the Fellowship (in some senses the crucial figure). He does not represent, but literally embodies, the irreducibility of ‘nature’ as something other than the ‘human’ world. Of course, he embodies this through a metaphysical logic of incarnation that as crucial to (Catholic) Tolkien’s world-view; and it’s possible that Morton has little sympathy with incarnation from an OOO-point of view—I don’t know, but I can imagine that the way the Christian concept prioritises ‘the human form’ over all over objects, to the point where the universe itself, or God, or (in LotR) Nature somehow metaphysically ‘is’ the human form … I can believe that such views are immiscible with OOO. Nonetheless one the things that is so wonderful about Tom Bombadil is precisely the way he doesn’t fit the well-tooled story model, the ‘road’ that the film-makers trod. It is precisely his gnarly peculiarity, his oddity, his naffness (blue coat, yellow boots! Endless fol-de-rol singing!). His non-identity. He represents precision a sort of narrative hesitation -- that's why Jackson and his screenwriters ditched him for their film version.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

More Burnet

This is how Burnet thinks planets come about:
We sometimes see the Face of the Sun overgrown with thick Spots, and perceive him for some Days pale, obscure, and, as it were, in the Pangs of Death; but he that is Sick may Die; and what happens to one, may happen to others of the same King (now all the fixed Stars are homogenous ) therefore the fixed stars are perishable. Now a fixed Star perishes, and is extinguished, when being crusted over with a thick Shell or Scurf which it cannot break through, it degenerates into an obscure and opake Body, such as is a Planet. [Thomas Burnet, Archaeologiae Philosophicae sive Doctrina Antiqua de Rerum Originibus (1692)]
It's rather nice, but, coming in the middle of a critique of the imaginative logic of Genesis, it suffers from the same problem as that book: a lack of the actual scale, in terms of space and time, of the cosmos. There's something ineluctably human-scale about it.

Friday, 2 December 2011


I'm sure there's an academic paper on this, somewhere; though I don't know it. The epigraph to Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner':
Facile credo, plures esse Naturas invisibiles quam visibiles in rerum universitate. Sed horum omnium familiam quis nobis enarrabit ? et gradus et cognationes et discrimina et singulorum munera ? Quid agunt ? quae loca habitant ? Harum rerum notitiam semper ambivit ingenium humanum, nunquam attigit. Juvat, interea, non diffiteor, quandoque in animo, tanquam in tabulâ, majoris et melioris mundi imaginem contemplari : ne mens assuefacta hodiernae vitae minutiis se contrahat nimis, et tota subsidat in pusillas cogitationes. Sed veritati interea invigilandum est, modusque servandus, ut certa ab incertis, diem a nocte, distinguamus.
This is from Thomas Burnet's Archaeologiae Philosophicae sive Doctrina Antiqua de Rerum Originibus (1692); and it speaks directly to the imaginative logic of the poem. This is what it means in English:
I can easily believe, that there are more invisible than visible Beings in the universe. But who shall describe for us their families? and their ranks and relationships and distinguishing features and functions? What they do? where they live? The human mind has always circled around a knowledge of these things, never attaining it. I do not doubt, however, that it is sometimes beneficial to contemplate, in thought, as in a Picture, the image of a greater and better world; lest the intellect, habituated to the trivia of daily life, may contract itself too much, and wholly sink into trifles. But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and maintain proportion, that we may distinguish certain from uncertain, day from night.
But maybe we should consider the larger design of the Archaeologiae Philosophicae and its relationship to Coleridge's poem: for this was a volume so unacceptable to contemporary theologians that Burnet was compelled to resign his post as chaplain in ordinary and Clerk of the Closet at Court. It is a detailed interrogation of the first chapters of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve that ponders, inter alia, whether the Fall of Man was a symbolic rather than literal event. And is not the 'Rime' a drama of a man's fall, rendered pagan and strange by its nautical resituation?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

John 10

Not trying to nit-pick; but trying to read the tenth chapter:
1 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
2 But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.
3 To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.
4 And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.
5 And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.
6 This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them.
7 Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.
8 All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them.
9 I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.
10 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
Not previously having given this much thought, I'd assumed that the point of the opening verses here is to say: only by entering licitly and in good gaith into the proper ways of the Christian church can you be saved (like the wicked man in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress who leaps over the wall at the beginning rather than going through the straight gate, undergoes all the trials of the progress himself and gets to the city of Zion, only to be carried off to hell at the last minute). But the emphasis, here, is not on the ordinary Christian: it is on Christ himself, or at a pinch, on his pastors: bishops and priests and whatnot. The regular Christian need not worry about this gate; the parable only concerns those who would seek to lead regular Christians (although, according to the logic of the tale, the wicked man would have no luck breaking into the sheep fold; the sheep would never follow 'a stranger' -- which makes the trope of the fence and gate and so on rather redundant). But the confusion is in verse 9, when Christ, having symbolised himself as a shepherd coming through the gate, goes on to symbolise himself as the gate as well. Christ enters the world as the good shepherd, but does so through Christ: a kind of sacramental existential short-circuit.

I think we've been getting this the wrong way about. The door is not 'from' the wider world 'into' the safety of the sheep-fold; for our world, though large, is finite and God infinite. The door is 'from' the smaller place to the larger (larger, indeed, is something of a misnomer): it leads out, not in.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Pindar petering

Pythian Odes 3:109-110.
Do not yearn, O my soul, for immortal life!
Use to the utmost
the skill that is yours. [Translation by Frank J. Nisetich, Pindar's Victory Odes (Johns Hopkins UP, 1980) 171]
Very nice! As if the soul needs to be actively restrained from seeking immortality, to be redirected to better pursuits!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

On restoring fragmentary Attic tragedy

This has been on my mind lately, what with (you know) doing it; and perhaps I'm overly defensive. My sense is that most serious classical scholars would look down their noses at a Euripidean play 'restored' from fragments; an I can sort of see why. But fragments are all we have: I don't just mean with respect to the Phaethon, Telephus and Hypsipyle -- I mean for all Attic drama. Half the Alcestis or the Bacchae is words, and we have the words. Half is music and dance, and we've lost both of those irretrievably (indeed, the music and dance is prior, as far as the history of drama is concerned: the words come after). No classical scholar, except those who  abandon all attempts at realising or interpreting the plays, can say they object to restoring fragmentary versions.

Monday, 28 November 2011


Keith Ward's Why There Almost Certainly Is a God (Lion 2008) is a splendid book, a book of almost Pythonesque silliness. It is, as its subtitle says, a textual means of 'doubting Dawkins'. And since Ward is a former Professor of Philosophy from London, and is now Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford, I like to believe that he intends the whole thing as a joke: a confection of god-of-the-gaps and appeals-to-authority, mixed in with some marvellously stretched-out nitpicking and point-missing where Dawkins is concerned. God-of-the-gaps? There are, Ward asserts, two games in town: spiritualism or materialism. The latter won't do. Why?
We are no longer very sure what 'matter' is. Is it quarks, or superstrings, or dark energy, or the result of quantum fluctuations in a vacuum? It is certainly not, as the ancient Greek materialist Democritus thought, lumps of hard solid stuff -- invisible atoms -- bumping into one another and forming complicated conglomerations that we call people. [14]
It seems to me that this depends upon what we mean by 'hard', 'solid' and 'stuff'; but Ward is happy that he has herein completely demolished materialism as a viable philosophical position.
What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is? [15]
Parody doesn't get any sharper than this! Brilliant stuff. (Since not even Ward can claim wholly to comprehend the deity he worships, he is beautifully finessing the obvious 'What is the point of being a theist when we are not sure exactly what theos is?')

There's more: he says [23] that his decision to get up in the morning and write Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, rather than (say) stay in bed or have a cup of coffee, cannot be explained by science. Beautiful! 'How can my talk of knowledge, desires, intentions and awareness translate into statements of physics that only relate to physical states?' There are many rhetorical questions like this in the book; and Ward is aware that some scientists have set out to answer them; so where he's usually happy to leave his questions hanging, from time to time he fleshes out answers. Now, one book I admire very much, which does precisely that (lays out how the physics of brain chemistry underpins human behaviour) is Daniel Dennett's intellectually thrilling Consciousness Explained. There's the possibility that the arguments of Dennet's book will undermine Ward's splendid rhetorical question, and indeed his whole book; but it's ok -- he's got that covered:
Daniel Dennett [believes] that conscious states are 'nothing more than' brain-states and brain-behaviour. Dennett wrote a book called Consciousness Explained in which he defended this radical theory. Most competent philosophers were unconvinced and privately referred to his book as 'Consciousness Explained Away' [16]
No further enagement with Dennett is needful: for any philosopher who agreed with him would, by definition, be announcing their incompetence. But Ward's appeal to authority does not stop with philosophers. It also includes a large number of unnamed people who all agree with him about God:
If you are thinking seriously about the God hypothesis it will be very strong evidence if a large number of people, apparenttly well balanced, intelligent and virtuous, feel that God has met them in the proclamation of Christ's teaching, death and resurrection. [140]
Irrefutable! There are something like 2.5 billion Christians on the planet. That fact alone proves Christianity is true. Of course, there are also 1.5 billion Muslims, but you can disregard them: they are not competent philosophers -- in private we call their relgion 'Isnotlam'.

It would be nice to be more serious about the arguments Ward puts forward, but, really, it's difficult to see how. The main spine of the book's thesis is the appeal to 'personal explanation': that human consciousness cannot be explained by science and must therefore be grounded in a primary, infinite, divine consciousness. His 'two big' objections to Dawkins are: 'the irreducible existence of consciousness' and 'the irreducible nature of personal explanation'. As to the first, it seems to me that nobody who has observed a loved-one diminish under the effects of Alzheimer's disease could ever genuinely claim that human consciousness can never be reduced. (Ward means 'reduced to scientific explanation', but the point holds, I think: if consciousuness is a function of brain activity as Dennett says, then deterioration in the material capacity of the brain through disease or illness would lead to deterioration in the consciousness of the indvidual concerned. Which is precisely what we see). And as for the second, Ward uses 'irreducible' when he means 'distinctive', and it has no bearing on the larger question. That's not only my view, incidentally: it's also Ward's: 'what human beings can imagine or picture to themselves is not a reliable guide to the ultimate nature of reality' [109].

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Gerry Rafferty, Right Next Time

A great song, luminous with the possibility of atoning for one's past errors. But the irony in Rafferty's lovely, burnished voice is that he never actually got it right next time: he never lived up to his early promise, he never overcame his alcoholism, and it eventually killed him. This adds to the force of the song, I think. Also, the down-heel way Rafferty sings the third line here:
You gotta grow, you gotta learn by your mistakes
You gotta die a little everyday just to try to stay awake
When you believe there’s no mountain you can't climb
And if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time 'When you believe there’s no mountain you can climb' has a certain poignancy to it.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

theous nomizein

Martin Ostwald's essay, 'Atheism and the Religiosity of Euripides' [in Todd Breyfogle (ed), Literary Imagination, Ancient and Modern: Essays in Honor of David Grene (Univ. of Chicago Press 1999), 33-89] discusses what counted as 'atheism' in Ancient Greece:
Greek religion demanded of its adherents no more than participation in traditional forms of worship. It was free from dogma, and a concept of faith was alien to it. There was, before the coming of the sophists, no "belief" in the gods in the Christian sense of the term: theous nomizein describes the performance of ritual acts, predicated on the unchallenged assumption that the gods exist and demand veneration. Since the gods are also the guarantors of the stability of the social order, and since their displeasure would disturb it, the state tried to enforce divine worship through its customs, laws, and institutions: but neither the state nor the priesthoods entrusted with the administration of cult and ritual ever displayed any interest in enforcing uniformity of religious belief. Moreover, the gods themselves were thought to be concerned only that men pay them the customary respect owed them and offer the sacrifices that were their due: human morality, so integral a part of the Jewish and Christian eligions, remained a matter of indifference to the gods of the Greeks.[34]
Ostwald goes on: 'This meant that the established religion was intolerant only of attitudes that tended to undermine the public worship of the gods.' He gives some examples: Xenophanes and Pindat were both tolerated, despite protesting the immorality of the gods, the absurdity of anthropomorphic representations of divinity and disgust at the stories of gods eating the flesh of Pelops. On the other hand, though, 'Anaxagoras was charged by Dopeithes with having committed a crime against the state' for claiming that the sun was only a fiery stone in the sky (if this idea gained currency it would 'detract from the sun's divinity and thus from its worship') and Protagoras was expelled from Athens and had his books publicly burnt in the agora for declaring that he did not know if the gods existed or didn't exist.

Similarly, here is Mario Vegetti ['The Greeks and Their Gods, in J P Vernant The Greeks (University of Chicago Press 1995), 256]:
These absences make it difficult to speak of Greek "religion," at least in the positive sense in which the term is used in the context of monotheistic tradition. The Greek language does not even possess a term whose semantic field coincides with that of the word "religion". The nearest term, eusebia, is defined by the priest Euthyphro in the Platonic dialogue named after him as "the care (therapeia) that men have of the gods" (Plato Euthyphro 12e). In this sense, the term covers the punctual observance of services in order to express respect toward the gods, during which proper signs of homage and deference are displayed. These services usually took the form of votive and sacrificial offerings. The Greek equivalent of the word "faith" is equally weak. In everyday language, the expression "to believe in the gods" (nomizein tous theous) does not indicate a rational conviction of their existence (as it will come to do in a more developed philosophical language), but "to respect" or honor the gods by performing certain acts. Nomizein thus comes to mean the same as therapeuein: to devote the appropriate ritual care to the gods.
That is to say: 'we do not ask that you believe; we only ask that you act as if you believe.' This may be better than 'we demand you both act as if you believe and actually believe, too'. But then again: 'we ask neither that you nor that you act as if you do' is not the same thing as 'we demand you do not believe, and will punish you for the public performance of ritual.' That distinction is crucial.

More from Ostwald: 'Euripidean criticism of the gods of traditional religion is born of his concern for social justice. which pervades especially his early plays and in his later plays, especially in The Bacchae, turns into an attempt to come to grips with the problem of religion as such.' [39] he's surely right that 'the Bacchae is a statement not on the horrors of religion -- tantum religio potuit suadere malorum is frequently cited by scholars who believe that it is -- but on the dire consequences that failure by the intellect to acknowledge the reality of divine power can bring in its train' [46]

Friday, 25 November 2011

Book of Job

I found an old 1906 edition of this Biblical or Torahic book (edited by S R Driver 'Regius Professor of Hebrew and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford'), bought it for £3 and read it straight through. An interesting experience. Driver says this in his introduction: 'the main aim of the Book is a negative one, to controvert the dominant theory that all suffering proceeds from sin.'
The doctrine that righteousness brings prosperity, while wickedness results in misfortune, is often taught in the Old Testament ... the doctrine was deeply impressed on the ancient Hebrew mind; and all exceptions were a source of great perplexity to it. [viii]
So Job sets out to argue that 'God's retributive justice is not the only principle by which men are governed'.
Positively the book teaches -- 1. that sufferings may befall the righteous, not as a chastisement for their sins, but as a trial of their righteousness, and a test of its sincerity ... 2. The book teaches the danger of conceiving too narrowly of God and His providence. 3. Inasmuch as Job, in spite of his combined physical and mental suffering, does not succumb to temptation, it teaches, in opposition to the insinuation of Satan, that man can love God for His own sake. [ix]
This last one interests me; because I very much didn't get the sense of it, reading the book straight through. Job is doing well in life until disaster strikes with appalling suddenness and (apparent) arbitrariness. He is helpless to prevent the loss of everything. Suffering, in other words, overmasters him; it is presented precisely as a force (almost as Simon Weil's capitalised 'Force') that is always, necessarily, stronger than we. Another way of putting this would be to say that had Job's sheep died of murrain and his servants run away we might mistake the point of the book as being something along the lines of 'Job should have kept better care of his livestock, and maintained better discipline amongst his servants'. But 'the fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants, and consumed them' leaves us in no doubt. Job is interested in the way sufferings overmaster us, and more specifically interested in how we react to such suffering. But the structure of the whole, from Job's first sufferings (the loss of his 'property' [which I put in inverted commas because his property is taken as including his children and servants]), his second sufferings (his 'boils' -- though according to Driver the Hebrew is better translated, strikingly, as 'elephantiasis'), his despair, his comforters, and the cycle of hearts'-crying and recrimination -- that structure is abruptly interrupted by the appearance of God's own voice at chapter 38:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? ... Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
It's undeniably stirring stuff, but the majesty of it tends to reinforce my point: that Job's 'redemption' is effected by the overmastering force of God's angry words. he is made to suffer by the overmastering calamities of the beginning, and then his complaints are crushed by the overmastering rhetoric of the Divine.

Job's wife says to him: 'Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.' I take the implication here to be, in effect, zero sum: at such times either one can retain one's human integrity and curse God; or one can continue to praise God, provided you sacrifice your integrity. Something like this seems part of the point of the conclusion of the book (Job's last words are the self-abnegating 'Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes'). After this Job is rewarded: he has learnt his lesson, which is precisely to abandon his integrity.

A couple of other things intrigued me about the book. One is the skin trope. I already knew, of course, Satan's striking expression: 'and Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life' [2:4], something Driver glosses in a curiously deadening manner ... 'the meaning apparently is: a man will sacrifice one part of his body to save another, an arm, for instance, to save his head, and he will similarly give all thathe has to save his life', [4].  Norman C. Habel's commentary is a little better, but only by acknowledging the oddness of the phrase: 'Satan's cryptic expression "skin for skin" is probably an ancient folk saying with innuendoes now lost to us [Book of Job: a Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 95]). This skin is important, though: 'For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God' [19:25-26]. Driver notes that the Hebrew 'means struck off' and compares Isaiah 10:34 ('the only other place in which the word occurs, used of striking away the thickets of a forest'). This, according to Driver, supports his reading that the Hebrew has Job afflicted not with boils but with 'elephantiasis' ('the reference is to the ravages of his disease: in Elephantiasis pieces of ulcerated flesh, and even of bone, often fall away', 55). Maybe, but I read this is having a broader relationship to the convenant of circumcision. Indeed, I'm half tempted to put together a reading of the whole book as a symbolic drama of the necessity for circumcision to appease God. (The reasoning, I suppose, would go something like this: sometimes God rewards virtue, but sometimes he sends sufferings to afflict the virtuous too. The best way to understand this strange lack of larger existential justice is in terms of a chosen people; remove a piece of skin, as a covenant, and you establish a situation where (as it were) God will speak with you directly, and convert your sufferings into redemption).

Still, my first instinct is that the skin thing serves as a marker of boundary. In other words: where conventional accounts of Job say that the protaognist endures two separate bouts of affliction (first the loss of his possessions; then the sickness of his own body), I wonder if the point of the book isn't precisely that he suffers three: to the two external ones he stands up well (to the first he says 'Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD'; to the second 'What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?'. 'In all this,' we're told, 'did not Job sin with his lips.') The third affliction is on the other side of the skin, however: it is internal -- Job's own despair. It is clear that this, both in terms of the amount of space the text gives over to it and the intensity and eloquence of the poetry, is the real challenge. It's easy to endure losing things, and even one's health; it is very hard to endure prolonged depression. In fact the book suggests that the way out of depression is via the short, sharp shock of God's anger ('Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place? No? Then SHUT UP with your complaining!')

Thursday, 24 November 2011

This be the verse

A rather obvious point about Larkin's 'This Be The Verse'.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Wikipedia (that fount! It's a veritable fount!) suggests the title 'is an allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem"', which also contains familiar lines:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
A touch egregiously, the 'pedia then adds: 'Stevenson's thought of a happy homecoming in death is given an ironic turn'.

But I've always assumed the title makes reference to Pope's couplet from Arbuthnot [283-4]:
Cursed be the verse, how well so e'er it flow,
That tends to make one worthy man my foe.
Larkin's poem has, it seems to me, has a cleverer, more ironic relationship to this famous sentiment than to Stevenson's gooey sentimentality: because the 'cursing' (in the vernacular sense of the word) is precisely what is most memorable about Larkin's ditty; because it is about the inevitable enmity and misery that shapes even the relationships between the worthy.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Augustinian againigan

I came across this Augustinian quotation heading a chapter called 'the Reasonableness of Faith' in Robert Louis Wilker's The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale 2003):
Nothing would remain stable in human society if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty.
I'm missing something important here, as far as both Augustine and Wilker are concerned. Because nothing remaining stable is, surely, precisely the point of the Christian event -- no? The incarnation means: everything is different now. It comes to bring a sword, not to shore up stability. Or is this, counter-intuitively, precisely Augustine's point? (It's clearly not Wilker's).

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

God the Parent

I can see the force those arguments that God is not an entity 'in' the world, one amongst many existing things -- that instead He is the ground of existence itself. But I don't see why it follows that existing things (like us) should therefore orient our lives in His direction; like the colours and dabs of paint in a Monet painting devoting their lives to the canvas, rather than the people in the gallery.

Or, another analogy: parents give their children life. Some parents may then expect their offspring to orient their existences entirely around them, to all-but-worship them -- we would call such people 'bad parents'. Good parents want their kids to outgrow them, to make their own way in the world. The perfect parent would want their kids wholly to forget them (as their grandkids may, their great-grandkids probably will and their descendants a hundred generations hence certain will). But, as religious discourse rightly stresses, human beings are not perfect. I am a parent, and I hope that when my kids are fully grown and able to look after themselves they'll still stay in touch, think of me -- occasionally -- with love. But I also hope that the main thrust of their lives is oriented not towards me, but towards their own joys and challenges (and, eventually, their own kids). So with God.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Euripides' Telephus

Clytemnestra has been driven to hate her husband by his sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon was persuaded that only by making this sacrifice would the winds become favourable for his battle fleet to sail to Troy and make war. In the broadest sense, this myth is about a terrible, core truth of war—all war—that it is always predicated upon the older generation sacrificing the lives of the younger. What gives it particular poignancy in the particular story of Iphigenia is the gender of the sacrificed child. One undercurrent of the myth is that girls matter less than boys; indeed, that girls don’t matter at all. Euripides’ play puts that pitiless perspective into the context of gender. The Telephus sets Agamemnon’s terror at the prospect of losing his infant boy against the background of his indifference to the death of his daughter. That her sacrifice resulted not in the sack of Troy buy only in a mistaken attack on a completely different country, followed by an ignominious return home to plan a second expedition, only adds to the tragic irony.

The Telephus is a play profoundly interested in the relationship between the ‘worthy’ and the ‘worthless’—kings and beggars, men and women, adults and children, gods and mortals. More, Euripides is developing a thesis about the ways the former depend upon the latter.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

On Darwin

Looking through The Descent of Man (and without in the least, of course, doubting the central thesis of that work) I'm struck by the great extent to which Darwin's evidential base is anecdotal. One example of what I mean:
Many animals, however, certainly sympathise with each other's distress or danger. This is the case even with birds. Captain Stansbury found on a salt lake in Utah an old and completely blind pelican, which was very fat, and must have been well fed for a long time by his companions. Mr. Blyth, as he informs me, saw Indian crows feeding two or three of their companions which were blind; and I have heard of an analogous case with the domestic cock. We may, if we choose, call these actions instinctive; but such cases are much too rare for the development of any special instinct. I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket, and was a great friend of his, without giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog. [103]
Captain Stansbury found a fat, blind pelican; Darwin himself saw a dog lick a cat. On such slender pillars is modern science balanced.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Nabokovian Sequels

Invitation to a Re-heading
Bend Dexter
Lolit B
Pnin 2: Pninner
2 Pale 2 Fire
Ada Again

Friday, 18 November 2011


Reading and (indeed) writing Euripides' Phaethon, leaning heavily on: James Diggle (ed) Euripides: Phaethon (Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries XII; Cambridge University Press, 2004). It hadn't occurred to me before, but I'm now wondering whether the point of the play isn't to literalise, in the tumble from the sky, the sense of a 'downward' trajectory in familial inheritance. The play opens with an intense confab between mother and son about the true identity of Phaethon's paternity; this (with slightly heavyhanded irony) is followed by the ceremony of the impending marriage of Phaethon to a royal bride -- the ceremony, that is, designed to confirm and legalise the process of paternity. But, in the broadest sense this is a play that says: unlike maternity, paternity is never certain, and that single, terrible fact can strike down anybody, no matter how talented, how loved by the gods, or how guiltless (‘Still more guiltless [than Hippolytus] was the young Phaethon of Phaethon, who was destroyed by Zeus as he tried and inevitably failed to drive his father Helios’ sun-chariot across the skies. Euripides' Phaethon makes this attempt not through hubris, but through inexperience and insecurity’ [Martin Cropp, 'Lost Tragedies: a Survey' in Justina Gregory (ed), A Companion to Greek Tragedy (Blackwell: John Wiley & Sons, 2005), 271-292; 283]) they might be. That's a very unsettling thought, really; one of the most unsettling.

Thursday, 17 November 2011


Starlings flow about the sky like iron-filings under the influence of a vast and moving magnet.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Madame Sos/sesostris

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, The Lady of the Rocks, The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
I knew from the scholarly notes that Eliot lifted this name from Aldous Huxley ('Sosostris' is 'A mock Egyptian name, suggested to Eliot by 'Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana', the name assumed by a character in Aldous Huxley's novel Crome Yellow who dresses up as a gypsy to tell fortunes at a fair.') But I only recently got around to reading Crome Yellow: much funnier than Eliot's poem, though just as much, in its way, of course, a portrait of a wasted land. It seems to me siginficant that the 'character who dresses up as a gypsy to tell fortunes at a fair' is a man -- the saurian intellectual Mr Scogan -- and that he chooses as his stage-monker 'Sesostris' (which was, of course, a man's name) as, I take it, an erudite joke at the expense of the foolish people who flock to his tent and believe both his female persona and the nihilistic fortunes he tells them. Here's the passage (Denis, the sexually frustrated young man who is sort-of at the centre of the novel's narrative, eavesdrops):
Mr. Scogan had been accommodated in a little canvas hut. Dressed in a black skirt and a red bodice, with a yellow-and-red bandana handkerchief tied round his black wig, he looked—sharp-nosed, brown, and wrinkled—like the Bohemian Hag of Frith's Derby Day. A placard pinned to the curtain of the doorway announced the presence within the tent of "Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana." Seated at a table, Mr. Scogan received his clients in mysterious silence, indicating with a movement of the finger that they were to sit down opposite him and to extend their hands for his inspection. He then examined the palm that was presented him, using a magnifying glass and a pair of horn spectacles. He had a terrifying way of shaking his head, frowning and clicking with his tongue as he looked at the lines. Sometimes he would whisper, as though to himself, "Terrible, terrible!" or "God preserve us!" sketching out the sign of the cross as he uttered the words. The clients who came in laughing grew suddenly grave; they began to take the witch seriously. She was a formidable-looking woman; could it be, was it possible, that there was something in this sort of thing after all? After all, they thought, as the hag shook her head over their hands, after all...And they waited, with an uncomfortably beating heart, for the oracle to speak. After a long and silent inspection, Mr. Scogan would suddenly look up and ask, in a hoarse whisper, some horrifying question, such as, "Have you ever been hit on the head with a hammer by a young man with red hair?" When the answer was in the negative, which it could hardly fail to be, Mr. Scogan would nod several times, saying, "I was afraid so. Everything is still to come, still to come, though it can't be very far off now." Sometimes, after a long examination, he would just whisper, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise," and refuse to divulge any details of a future too appalling to be envisaged without despair. Sesostris had a success of horror. People stood in a queue outside the witch's booth waiting for the privilege of hearing sentence pronounced upon them.

Denis, in the course of his round, looked with curiosity at this crowd of suppliants before the shrine of the oracle. He had a great desire to see how Mr. Scogan played his part. The canvas booth was a rickety, ill-made structure. Between its walls and its sagging roof were long gaping chinks and crannies. Denis went to the tea-tent and borrowed a wooden bench and a small Union Jack. With these he hurried back to the booth of Sesostris. Setting down the bench at the back of the booth, he climbed up, and with a great air of busy efficiency began to tie the Union Jack to the top of one of the tent-poles. Through the crannies in the canvas he could see almost the whole of the interior of the tent. Mr. Scogan's bandana-covered head was just below him; his terrifying whispers came clearly up. Denis looked and listened while the witch prophesied financial losses, death by apoplexy, destruction by air-raids in the next war.

"Is there going to be another war?" asked the old lady to whom he had predicted this end.

"Very soon," said Mr. Scogan, with an air of quiet confidence.

The old lady was succeeded by a girl dressed in white muslin, garnished with pink ribbons. She was wearing a broad hat, so that Denis could not see her face; but from her figure and the roundness of her bare arms he judged her young and pleasing. Mr. Scogan looked at her hand, then whispered, "You are still virtuous."

The young lady giggled and exclaimed, "Oh, lor'!"

"But you will not remain so for long," added Mr. Scogan sepulchrally. The young lady giggled again. "Destiny, which interests itself in small things no less than in great, has announced the fact upon your hand." Mr. Scogan took up the magnifying-glass and began once more to examine the white palm. "Very interesting," he said, as though to himself—"very interesting. It's as clear as day." He was silent.

"What's clear?" asked the girl.

"I don't think I ought to tell you." Mr. Scogan shook his head; the pendulous brass ear-rings which he had screwed on to his ears tinkled.

"Please, please!" she implored.

The witch seemed to ignore her remark. "Afterwards, it's not at all clear. The fates don't say whether you will settle down to married life and have four children or whether you will try to go on the cinema and have none. They are only specific about this one rather crucial incident."

"What is it? What is it? Oh, do tell me!"

The white muslin figure leant eagerly forward.

Mr. Scogan sighed. "Very well," he said, "if you must know, you must know. But if anything untoward happens you must blame your own curiosity. Listen. Listen." He lifted up a sharp, claw-nailed forefinger. "This is what the fates have written. Next Sunday afternoon at six o'clock you will be sitting on the second stile on the footpath that leads from the church to the lower road. At that moment a man will appear walking along the footpath." Mr. Scogan looked at her hand again as though to refresh his memory of the details of the scene. "A man," he repeated—"a small man with a sharp nose, not exactly good looking nor precisely young, but fascinating." He lingered hissingly over the word. "He will ask you, 'Can you tell me the way to Paradise?' and you will answer, 'Yes, I'll show you,' and walk with him down towards the little hazel copse. I cannot read what will happen after that." There was a silence.

"Is it really true?" asked white muslin.

The witch gave a shrug of the shoulders. "I merely tell you what I read in your hand. Good afternoon. That will be sixpence. Yes, I have change. Thank you. Good afternoon."

Denis stepped down from the bench; tied insecurely and crookedly to the tentpole, the Union Jack hung limp on the windless air. "If only I could do things like that!" he thought, as he carried the bench back to the tea-tent.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Marvell's Triffid

I can't be the only reader to be struck by how sinister is the supposedly-paradiscal horn-of-plenty eagerness to please of the vegetation in Marvell's Garden:
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.
There's no positive gloss I can see on that 'annihilation': it (surely!) can only convey a kind of rural carthago delenda est with respect not only to cities but to human consciousness. Ugh!

Monday, 14 November 2011


One last thing on Empson (for now), which is to remark: how very like Landor's is his voice, as a critic. This from D. E. Richardson's essay 'Cheering up with Empson' [The Sewanee Review, 104 (1996) 106-7)]:
Empson's Toby-jug English personality bursts from his sentences. His style is racy, colloquial, plain-spoken, and gentlemanly in the hearty sense of the word. His could hardly be further from the clotted, undramatic style of contemporary high-academic literary alienation ... long time ago.) Empson's gruff Enlightenment rationalism gives him the courage to undertake many very complicated arguments against what he takes to be the obscurantism of scholars perverted by Christianity and conservatism. ... His attitude derives from an ethos worlds away from the edgy careerism of contemporary English departments. It is the ethos of the independent country gentleman on his ancestral acres quite convinced of his fairness, although giving many orders and obey ing few. This ethos can be stretched to describe Milton's Satan, Lord Rochester, and Shelley -- all of them among Empson's heroes. His deep sympathy with the type makes him an excellent commentator on the tone of eighteenth-century writing, in which the country gentleman who scoffs at the court is so often an ideal type.
It doesn't follow from this, of course, that Empson is necessarily the best critical glass through which to spy Landor -- but he may be, especially for Landor's prose. I'll come back to this.

Sunday, 13 November 2011


Soft-edged ridges and hills of mist.
The black tree trunks shiny as liquorish
wet as morning bathroom mirrors.
Clouds of satsuma-coloured leaves.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Found poem 2

Via. A neat concrete poem:
candor candify candific candid
fervor fervify fervific fervid
horror horrify horrific horrid
liquor liquefy liquific liquid
livor livify livific livid
lucor lucify lucific lucid
pallor pallify pallific pallid
rigor rigify rigific rigid
stupor stupefy stupific stupid
terror terrify terrific terrid
torpor torpify torpific torpid
vigor vigify vigific vigid
tepor tepify tepific tepid

Friday, 11 November 2011

Double plotting

Some Versions of Pastoral is one of those books of criticism (the Biographia Literaria is another) that I read breezily as a student, thinking 'yeah, yeah, cool, I get that', only to re-read as a grown-up to think 'gracious, I've really no idea what's going on here ...' Not that I want to overstate it.  Some of the chapters are more lucid than others, and I grasp (I think) some of the core ideas: putting the complex into the simple; the ironies of class; the relationship between heroic and pastoral modes. And re-reading it recently, the 'myth'-criticism stuff comes clearer to me than once it did; and the way Empson's pastoral is much more a temporal than a geographical location ('the child as swain' -- the Alice chapter was a revelation to me, actually; in my memory it was a straightforward Freudian decoding of Carroll's books. In reality, it's nothing of the sort, despite the fact that Empson, tricksily, insists that it is ('the books are so frankly about growing up that there is no great discovery in translating them into Freudian terms', 253). In fact the stress of the chapter is, on the contrary, on the way the (sexual) world of adulthood becomes nonsensical when it is, in E.'s rather brilliant phrase, 'seen through the clear but blank eyes of sexlessness.')

Anyway, the chapter that puzzled me the most on re-reading is the second: 'Double Plots'. I've read it twice now; and it starts out making what seem like quite modest points about the relationship between main plots and subsidiary plots in Renaissance drama -- the way Henry IV juxtaposes Hal's narrative and Falstaff's narrative in order to bring out the tension between heroic/tragic and pastoral vision; the way Lear's troubles with his children is mirrored, in a sort of ratio inferior, by Gloster's troubles with his children ('the effect of having two old men with ungrateful children, of different sorts, is to make us generalise the theme of Lear and feel that whole classes of children have become unfaithful, all nature is breaking up, as in the storm', 54). I see, I think; although that second example is perhaps a jump. But the chapter then spirals off into discussions of the one and the many, the relationship between individuals and God, love and madness, monarchy as a spiritual as against a mundane political phenomenon. It's hard to see how all these different things embroider the same point, or even the same group of points.

In a rather clotted essay, ‘Figural narrative and plot construction: Empson and pastoral’ (in Christopher Norris, William Empson: the critical achievement (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 196-97), Pamela McCallum takes the double plot to be a distinction ‘between the manifest content of texts and their hidden deep structures’:
His complex theory of double plot always and everywhere stresses the inner-textual or deep structural elements of a given dramatic work. As Paul de Man points out, Empson’s pastoral convention is based on an opposition between “the mind that distinguishes, negates, legislates, and the originary simplicity of the natural’.
I can see the latter as a rather cumbersome gloss on E.’s ‘putting the complex into the simple’; but I don’t see that the double plot, as E elaborates it in this chapter, is hidden in the way Norris implies here. It’s in plain sight – isn’t it?
By an insistence on the primacy of double plots he is able to articulate the essential mechanisms or deep structures which are buried somewhere within the dramatic form itself. [198]
Again—‘hidden’? In what sense is Henry IV's Falstaff element (for instance) hidden? Clearer is Nick Hubble, (in David James, Philip Tew (eds) New versions of pastoral: post-romantic, modern, and contemporary responses to the tradition (Associated University Presse, 2009), 125):
‘In the double plot … there appears to be a division between high-born, heroic, tragic strands on the one hand and lowborn, common, comic strands on the other. Empson points out that these two “halves”—which he calls “heroic” and “pastoral”—naturally belong together, demonstrating “a proper or beautiful relation between rich and poor”. This form was ambiguously poised: on the one hand, it decayed into allegorical pastoral, which “describes the lives ‘simple’ low people to an audience of refined wealthy people, so as to make them think first ‘this is true about everyone’ and then ‘this is specially true about us’”; while on the other, it also gave rise to mock pastoral in its fully developed form, exemplified for Empson by John Gay's The Beggar’s Opera (1728)