Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Two New Answers to Riddle 86

Translated by Jonathan Wilcox:
Riddle 86 in the Exeter Book is unusually difficult to solve.

With cwom gongan, þær weras sæton
monige on mædle mode snottre
hæfde an eage ond earan twa
ond twegen fet, twelf hund heafda
hrycg ond wombe ond honda twa
earmas ond eaxle, anne sweoran
ond sidan twa. Saga hwæt ic hatte.

[A creature came walking where men sat, many in an assembly, wise in mind; it had one eye and two ears, and two feet, twelve hundred heads, a back and a belly and two hands, arms and shoulders, one neck and two sides. Say what it is called.]
Wilcox goes on:
the survival of a partly analogous Latin riddle has made possible a solution to the puzzle posed in riddle 86. Symphosius composed in the fifth century a sequence of one hundred three-line Latin enigmata, three of which serve as sources for the Exeter Book riddles. Symphosius's enigma 95, Luscus alium vendens, can be translated as follows:
Now may you see what you scarcely may believe: one eye within, but many thousand heads. Whence shall he, who sells what he has, procure what he has not?
This is less teasing than the Old English riddle: it contains more clues and is, in any case, entitled with the answer, "One-Eyed Seller of Garlic." Since the Old English riddle contains the same paradox, albeit in more bewildering form, this same answer has been universally (and gratefully) accepted by modern editors and commentators ever since the discovery of the analogy by Dietrich."
Wilcox is surely right, though, that 'nevertheless, riddle 86 clearly cheats on the conventions of a riddle. Obliquely described elements should add up to a recognizable object, whereas the object assembled here is arbitrary and unusual. The text violates the rule that a riddle "is potentially solvable from the information included in the question if the riddlee is able to determine the witty devices for confusion employed to frame the riddle" -- [this is part of the definition of riddles proposed by W. J. Pepicello and Thomas A. Green, The Language of Riddles: New Perspectives (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984), 88]. Wilcox thinks the riddle all chaff; the answer ('say what I am') being 'riddler' (he compares the 'As I Was Going To Saint Ives' rhyme).

Here are two possible other solutions. We could follow a similar logic to Wilcox and ask: what does hæfde modify? Does 'it had' refer back to the creature, or the assembly? The latter, after all, may have 1200 heads, but act with one willl, speak with one voice and so on.  Another possibility is that the riddle quibbles on 'twelve hundred heads' and 'twelve hund, or 'dog', heads'; and that the body parts are not to be assembled, but rather to be understood as dissociated -- the creature having been torn apart by the pack of dogs, and carried severally between them.

Monday, 30 January 2012


Cynewulf: we know very little about him. He wrote a number of the poems in the Exeter book, but received wisdom from the early 20th-century is that he didn't write the riddles therein
The Riddles were not written by Cynewulf: all evidenlce of the least value speaks against his claim. It seems fairly certain that they are products of the North. Their place as literary compositions (not as folk-riddles) in one collection, and their homogeneous artistry, which finds abundant vindication in a hundred common traits, argue strongly for a single author, though a small group of problems brings convincing evidence against complete unity. That their period was the beginning of the eighth century, the hey-day of Anglo-Latin riddle-poetry, is an inviting surmise unsustained by proof.' [Frederick Tupper (ed), The Riddles of the Exeter Book (Boston: Ginn and Co. 1910), lxxix]*
...(which suggests that the received view before this was rather that Cynewulf had written the riddles.)  He's famous for two lines, riddle-like though not technically a riddle, that had the most prodigious effect upon the imagination of J R R Tolkien:
Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended

Hail Earendel brightest of angels
Above Middle-earth sent under men
Tolkien wrote "There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English." That's all from Wikipedia: here's a more assonantially exact translation:
Hey-there Earendel, angel-the-brightest,
Over Middle-earth men you sent down.
*On the other hand, this review by R W Chambers adds this: "In the meantime Professor Tupper has become convinced that the so-called First Riddle, which in his edition he passed over as 'demanding no place here,' is in reality an enigma which conceals the name of Cynewulf, and so shows us who is the author of the Riddles. The lot of a convert is seldom an easy one, and Professor Tupper has been in- volved in a good deal of controversy, which is by no means over yet."

Sunday, 29 January 2012


I spent some fruitless time looking for Landor's Quaestiuncula; a book to which several contemporaries make reference, but which doesn't seem to exist anywhere. I finally found it, bound in with another Landor volume, Idyllia Heroica Decem, Librum Phaleuciorum Unum ('Ten Heroic Idylls, and One Book of Hendecesyllabics', 1820); actually, I don't now believe that it was ever published as a separate volume. The full title (Quaestiuncula cur poetae Latini recentiores minus legantur) means: 'little questions as to why the modern Latin poets are less read today'.

Some of this essay has to do with the provenance of the 'heroic idyll' itself:
Idyllium, ut quibusdam videtur, heroica esse non potest. Veteres alia fuisse sententia versus quo unico scribitur declarat. Talia sunt Theocriti quaedam, ejusdemque esset generis Catullianum illud de nuptiis Pelei et Thetidis, nisi pepli descriptio intercedisset; ea non tantum episodia est sed pars major ut et melior poematis. Ex Ovidio excerperemus plurima.

[The Idyll, according to some, cannot be heroic. Only one exception to this rule is admitted in classical literature. That is the example of Theocritus, although something similar could be said of the Catullus’s ‘Marriage of Peleus and Thetis’ (unless that poem's famous description of a robe might persuade us otherwise); for it is more than just a collection of episodes, and is rather part of a larger, more coherent version. And from Ovid a great many examples may be chosen.]
But more interesting, perhaps, is the aesthetic rationale of Landor's own Latin verse; which is to say, his forceful linking of personal morality and great art. He attacks Byron in these terms:
Summu poetæ in omni poetarum sæculo viri fuerunt probi: in nostris id vidimus et videmus; neque alius est error a veritate longius quam magna ingenia magnis necessario corrumpi vitiis. Secundo plerique posthabent primum, hi malignitate, illi ignorantia, et quum aliquem inveniunt styli morumque vitiis notatum, nec inficetum tamen nec in libris edendis parcum, eum stipant, prædicant, occupant, amplectuntur. Si mores aliquantulum vellet, corrigere, si stylum curare paululum, si fervido ingenio temperare, si moræ tantillum interponere, tum ingens nescio quid et vere epicum, quadraginta annos natus, procuderet. Ignorant vero fabriculis non indicari vires, impatientiam ab imbecillitate non differre; ignorant a levi homine et inconstante multa fortasse scribi posse plusquam mediocria, nihil compositum, arduum, æternum. Si mores aliquantulum vellet, corrigere, si stylum curare paululum, si fervido ingenio temperare, si moræ tantillum interponere, tum ingens nescio quid et vere epicum, quadraginta annos natus, procuderet.

[‘the ancient poet was a man of supreme moral probity: but amongst our poets we have seen (and we continue to see) great minds necessarily alienated from the truth because corrupted by great vices. A great many second-rank writers follow this first-rank one [ie Byron], some from wickedness, others ignorance, and when they encounter his viciousness (both stylistic and moral), not being yet corrupted either in their lives or in their books, they mob him, plundering him, possessing him, twining themselves around him. This poet should correct his debased morals if he wishes to improve his style even a little bit—if he could hold back his fervor, if he could manifest even the smallest amount of moral probity, then who knows how truly great an epic, now that he is in his fourth decade, he might produce! However unsure of his strength, impatience being nothing more than weakness; unsure whether so light and inconstant a man could write more modestly, the arduous, endless labour of such composition has not been undertaken.’]

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Kepler in Wells's War of the Worlds

Wells opens War of the Worlds with an epigraph:
'But who shall dwell in these Worlds if they be inhabited? ... Are we or they Lords of the World? ... And how are all things made for man?' KEPLER (quoted in 'The Anatomy of Melancholy')
Burton's citation comes in Anat. Mel. 2:2.  He cites Kepler as authority on meteors; and includes his opinion in the debate as to whether 'every star in heaven hath a soul'.
Kepler between jest and earnest ... seems in part to agree with this, and partly to contradict; for the planets, he yields them to be inhabited, he doubts of the stars. ... But who shall dwell in these vast bodies, earths, worlds, “if they be inhabited? rational creatures?” as Kepler demands, “or have they souls to be saved? Or do they inhabit a better part of the world than we do? Are we or they lords of the world? And how are all things made for man?”
Interesting that Wells omits the Copernican anxiety about souls, the uniqueness of Christ's atonement and the question about whether alien worlds could be better than ours (presumably his dramatic need for Mars to be worse-off than Earth informs that). Here's the original Latin:"Quid igitur inquires, si sunt in coelo plures globi, similes nostrae telluria an cum illis certabimus, quis meliorem mundi plagam teneat? Si nobiliores illorum globi, nos non sumus creaturarum rationalium nobilissimi: quomodo igitur omnia propter hominem? Quomodo nos domini operum Dei?"

Friday, 27 January 2012

Lucie-Smith 2

From the same collection (A Tropical Childhood, 1961) as yesterday’s Lucie-Smith poem, here’s the title poem:
In the hot noons I heard the fusillade
As soldiers on the range learnt how to kill,
Used my toy microscope, whose lens arrayed
The twenty rainbows in a parrot’s quill.

Or once, when I was swimming in the bay,
The guns upon the other, seaward shore
Began a practice shoot; the angry spray
Fountained above the point at every roar.

Then I, in the calm water, dived to chase
Pennies my father threw me, searched the sand
For the brown disc a yard beneath my face,
And never tried to see beyond my hand.

That was the time when a dead grasshopper
Devoured by ants before my captive eye
Made the sun dark, yet distant battles were
Names in a dream, outside geography.
It seems a bit harsh to pinion a young boy’s knowledge of the larger geopolitical and military world: of course swimming in the bay and watching ants devour a dead grasshopper are going to loom larger to you when you are six. Or perhaps the point of the poem is to suggest that these things, somatic and immediate and local, actually trump the other? But Lucie-Smith was born in Jamaica in 1933; so the war the army is practising for here is more than just another colonial skirmish.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Lucie-Smith 1

A two stanza poem.  That there’s something a little awkward in the way this personal memorial is squeezed into its iambic pentameters and abcbdacd rhyme-scheme doesn’t necessarily undermine the poem’s effectiveness; for its deals with an awkward moment in an awkward environment—the young Edward Lucie-Smith hearing of his father’s death from his boarding-school headmaster.
“Your father’s gone”, my bald headmaster said.
His shiny dome and brown tobacco jar
Splintered at once in tears. It wasn’t grief.
I cried for knowledge which was bitterer
Than any grief. For there and then I knew
That grief has uses—that a father dead
Could bind a bully’s fist a week or two;
And then I cried for shame, then for relief. [‘The Lesson’, 1961]
‘Splintered’ describing the bald head and tobacco jar from the point of view of eyes blurring with tears, is too brittle a word; and—though I hate to nitpick—the young lad can hardly have known ‘there and then’ what will by the poem’s own admission take ‘a week or two’ to learn (that the bullies will take pity on his bereavement and leave him alone, temporarily). But the poem isn’t really about bereavement, or even about this childhood recollection, as the second and final stanza makes plain:
I was a month past ten when I learnt this:
I still remember how the noise was stilled
In school-assembly when my grief came in.
Some goldfish in a bowl quietly sculled
Around their shining prison on its shelf.
They were indifferent. All the other eyes
Were turned towards me. Somewhere in myself
Pride, like a goldfish, flashed a sudden fin.
That visual image of pride, as a goldfish, has a positively Martian affect. I like it; and I like the waythe headmaster’s bald skull and bowl of tobacco is picked up and refracted by the goldfishes ‘sculling’ around their bowl. Well-played.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Acts, three

What is the moral of Jesus healing the lame man and the leper? That God made this man lame, and then God unmade the lameness that he made? The circularity of this touches on pointlessness; for we are tempted to ask—wouldn’t it have been more perfectly efficient simply to make him able to walk in the first place? The obvious retort to this is that God set up this narrative two-step in order to dramatise the working of His grace—that it was, in other words, for our benefit. Implicitly in this reading is a rebuke: that we ought to be able, but somehow aren’t, to see a normally healthy human walking around (or: we ought to be able to look upon unleprous skin) as miraculous testament to God’s grace. Because we can’t do this, God is put to the roundabout rigmarole of making a man broken so that he can be mended. For this reason, the healing must be a rare thing; or we would take it for granted—almost all lepers remain unhealed, almost all lame men stay lame. But this does strike me as a dangerous line of thought to begin to pursue. It suggests that the miraculous is actually just another word for the novel; that Grace can only be seen in the unusual—that Grace is a mode of novelty.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Purity and meaning

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966; London Routledge, 2002): ‘There is nothing fearful or unreasoning in our dirt-avoidance: it is a creative movement, an attempt to relate form to function, to make unity of experience.’ [3] I’m struck by the way Douglas takes the attempt to make unity of experience not just as creative but as positively so. Something the reverse is surely true? Lady Macbeth makes a huge unity out of her dirt-avoidance, after all.

Douglas goes on: ‘rituals of purity and impurity create unity in experience. So far from being aberrations from the central project of religion, they are positive contributions to atonement. By their means, symbolic patterns are worked out and positively displayed. Within these patterns disparate elements are related and disparate experience is given meaning.’

It’s not just that this meaning is as likely to be ‘stone adulterers’, ‘kill gays’ and ‘foreigners are vermin’. It’s that these sorts of meanings are actually the horizon for this mode of conceptualising purity, surely. I know; I’m being crass. But ‘generating meaning’, though I'll admit it is 'positive', is by the same token neither ethically or ideologically neutral.

Monday, 23 January 2012

It Isn't The Miller’s Daughter

Much as I admire Burgess (no: because I admire Burgess so much) reading through Kevin Jackson’s well-made edition of Revolutionary Sonnets and Other Poems (Carcanet 2002) was a strangely demoralising experience. So much energy, so much inventiveness and earnest play, to so little actual memorable or penetrating poetic effect. I love AB’s prose, but maybe this reaction is what the naysayers feel when they read his novels (‘not to everyone’s taste,’ Jackson notes in the intro, ‘this heavy stew’). As to why the heavy stew so often works so very well for me as prose, and so rarely as poetry ... well, that's a tricky question. The poems are all (without exception, I think) technically very well done. Some of them stand out, too, like this brief but plangent lyric, in which word-play, pared down to letter-play, pierces the carapace and touches something mysteriously rather moving:
Our Norman betters
Taught English letters
To bathe in the fresh
Warm springs of the south.

So turn your backs on
The þ in the flesh,
The æ in the mouth
There’s also quite a good poem called ‘Adderbury’ about water, attributed to the fictional French poet Albert Ritaine and originally written for ‘the abandoned novel It Is The Miller’s Daughter’, the existence of which I learnt for the first time reading this collection. My interest, it is piqued. For a while last year I was in discussion with the Burgess estate about maybe completing this incomplete project. That came to nothing, tant pis; but the body of fragmentary Burgessiana still fascinates me.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Voltaire on prayer

Nicely rhyming title! Here's what he says:
L’Éternel a ses desseins de toute éternité. Si la prière est d’accord avec ses volontés immuables, il est très inutile de lui demander ce qu’il a résolu de faire. Si on le prie de faire le contraire de ce qu’il a résolu, c’est le prier d’être faible, léger, inconstant; c’est croire qu’il soit tel, c’est se moquer de lui. Ou vous lui demandez une chose juste; en ce cas il la doit, et elle se fera sans qu’on l’en prie; c’est même se défier de lui que lui faire instance ou la chose est injuste, et alors on l’outrage. Vous êtes digne ou indigne de la grâce que vous implorez: si digne, il le sait mieux que vous; si indigne, on commet un crime de plus en demandant ce qu’on ne mérite pas. En un mot, nous ne faisons des prières à Dieu que parce que nous l’avons fait à notre image. Nous le traitons comme un bacha, comme un sultan qu’on peut irriter ou apaiser.

The Eternal has his designs from all eternity. If prayer is in accord with his immutable wishes, it is quite useless to ask of him what he has resolved to do. If one prays to him to do the contrary of what he has resolved, it is praying that he be weak, frivolous, inconstant; it is believing that he is thus, it is to mock him. Either you ask him a just thing, in which case he must do it, the thing being done without your praying to him for it, and so to entreat him is then to distrust him; or the thing is unjust, and then you insult him. You are worthy or unworthy of the grace you implore: if worthy, he knows it better than you; if unworthy, you commit another crime by requesting what is undeserved. In a word, we only pray to God because we have made him in our image. We treat him like a pasha, like a sultan whom one may provoke or appease. ["Prayers", 1770]

Saturday, 21 January 2012

"How To Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later" (1978)

Philip K. Dick's famous speech, available online here.

"Unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing." Ah, if only that power were as potent as Dick assumes! The key is not the creation of pseudo-realities, nor even in their sophistication, but in getting people to pay attention them. This, I suppose, is the key question of the incipient Internet Age: being heard. The significant figures will not be those with the greatest aesthetic or literary or intellectual talent, but those best able to attract the attention of a critical mass of people. Everything else will become secondary to that.

"Science Fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can't talk about science because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful." Fair enough.

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." One of PKD's most famous utterances, this; but a problematic one nonetheless. It works for, let's say, furniture: you'll still bark your shin upon the coffee table whether or not you believe it is there. But it's hard to see how it can be true of things like love, honour, truth, meaning and (crucially) belief itself.

Friday, 20 January 2012


No man is an island; but many wish to be.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Moebius detour

How many years has this blog run, with that masthead, and without the satisfaction of a follow-up image?

From “The Detour,” originally published in Metal Hurlant in 1973.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


I've been struck recently by how often people say 'you're not listening to me!' when they actually mean 'even though you are listening, you're not agreeing with me.' Listening is danger of becoming a euphemism for 'doing what I tell you'.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Junk poem

Sentiment that takes the form of photos.
Figurines and books and other oddities.
Old Homer's secret yearning for the lotos,
The Persian cravings of Herodotos.
A white-fused pleasure, burning like a star
In which all colours of the spectrum are.

Morning tai-chi in a stone-paved yard,
And every empty window is unprinted;
Foxed first-editions, speckled like a pard,
Bookshop- and mildew- and old-pleasure-scented.
A white-fused pleasure, burning like a star
Comprising codices and junk and objets-d'arts.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Gaggage 2012

I like to do one of these every now and again.

My favourite line of poetry about Origami is probably Byron's "The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold ..."

I take it this new Adele song is a hymn of praise to the great Hungarian logical-positivist, Rumer Hasžit.

[Queenly voice]: we have decided to knight the first man on the moon! Kneel, Armstrong.

They're discussing Nimbyism on "Newsnight". I assume this refers to that great English comic actor, Derek Nimbo.

Looking forward to the BBC version of the one Dickens story set in Ancient Britain: 'The Mystery of Edwin Druid'.

I have mastered the ancient human art of breathing in AND THEN breathing out. I call this: 'Lung-Fu'.

I've had this cough so long I'm starting to worry it has acquired squatter's rights under the law.

It's Kierkegaard’s favourite band, the Either/Orsmonds!

I would watch a movie about a man called Ronald having gender-realignment surgery, "I, Ron Lady". I won't watch a film about Thatcher.

I feel confident on asserting that I ain't no hollerback girl. On gender grounds alone, if nothing else.

‘Dover Castle.’ ‘Rabbi Lionel Blue, there, with his Fort for the Day.’ #Radio4Joke

If they’d consulted me about the ‘Matrix’ sequels I'd have advised them to go with ‘Junetrix’ and ‘Julytrix’. But they didn't consult me.

“The entire island of Bute remains without power after the storm on Tuesday” http://bbc.in/xoFN7E Can they fall back on Bute-ane gas?

'Who here is the Spanish waiter/philosopher -- give yourself up, or we'll crucify you all!' 'I'm Manuel Kant.' 'No, I'm Manuel Kant!' etc

Do I practice my stammer, or pose about in a wet 18th-century chemise? Choices, choices. #FirthWorldProblems

My father was useless at dipping his face into a bucket to pick up apples floating in the water there. Daddy was a rank bobber, but he never hurt nobody.

You better watch out, you'd better beware/Albert said that e=mc^2. Who knew Batman's butler was so clever?

My favourite Verdi aria is the one about women who are folded over so as to have only one side & boundary condition: La Donna e Möbius.

And now to tone up with my favourite philosophical callisthenic song: ‘Heads, Shoulders Nietzsche Toes (Nietzsche Toes)’.

The knight I find it easiest to believe in is probably Sir Spension of Disbelief.

Jean le Rond D'Alembert spins me right rond, baby, right rond. Like a record of the Encyclopédie project, baby. Right rond. Right rond.

Dick Turpin galloped from York to London in a day on Black Bess. I did it in 4 hours in a Passat. In your FACE, Highwayman!

This is the night train closing down Borders/By bringing all books now as Amazon orders.

Cyndi Lauper. I assume her family originally got that name because they were expert at Lauping.

We're playing Pictionary. It turns out this game does NOT involve classifying Picts, as I thought.

My visage is half Po from the Tellytubbies, half Deborah Kerr. Can't read my, can't read my, you can't-a read my Po/Kerr face.

There's no bris-ness like show-bris-ness, as our theatrically inclined Rabbi likes to say.

It doesn't seem right to say ‘I have a cough’. With chest-spasms this vehement it's much more: the cough has me ...

I took the kids to see ‘Puss in Boots’. Puss bought some prophylactics, bubble bath & aspirin and had to queue for ages.

I rented duck feathers to the headmaster for school use. He wasn't happy: ‘you've let me down, you've let the school down ...’

I Fought Jude Law -- And Jude Law Won. #WimpyPop

'Daddy was a bank robber, but he never hurt no-body....' This song is the story of my life! Provided you change 'bank robber' to 'doctor'.

Caesar Salad for supper. I'm eating it in historically-appropriate fashion: by stabbing it repeatedly with a knife.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Kipling's Whitehead

Prompted (belatedly) by a comment to this old post, I checked out this Kipling poem:
The wind took off with the sunset--
The fog came up with the tide,
When the Witch of the North took an Egg-shell
With a little Blue Devil inside.
"Sink," she said, "or swim," she said,
"It's all you will get from me.
And that is the finish of him!" she said
And the Egg-shell went to sea.

The wind fell dead with the midnight--
The fog shut down like a sheet,
When the Witch of the North heard the Egg-shell
Feeling by hand for a fleet.
"Get!" she said, "or you're gone," she said.
But the little Blue Devil said "No!
"The sights are just coming on," he said,
And he let the Whitehead go.

The wind got up with the morning--
The fog blew off with the rain,
When the Witch of the North saw the Egg-shell
And the little Blue Devil again.
"Did you swim?" she said. "Did you sink?" she said,
And the little Blue Devil replied:
"For myself I swam, but I think," he said,
"There's somebody sinking outside."
A 'whitehead' is a naval torpedo (named after its inventor, the actual grandfather of The Sound of Music); and this is a poem that tropes the WWI war at sea as a sort of dark fairy tale. The eggshell submarine is a nice notion; not just its fragility but the sense of it as hatching something out (death, in this case).  And I like the way the submarine's captain's name suggests not only his diabolic purpose, but a sense of his depression -- his mood as well as his physical low-ness. It can't be a jolly business, lurking through the waters and killing civilians.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

What God Wants God Gets

Imagine God as an old white-skinned man with a snow-coloured beard and a finger that sparks electricity into an inert Adam-shaped body he has just created. We appreciate, of course, that God does not ‘really’ look like that. But there we have it. In this case, after all, we are not conceptualising something that 'has' reality. We are talking (I am assured) about the ground of existence, of which we might as well say 'reality has it', or perhaps 'reality is it'. I, as atheist, cannot assert with certainty that God isn't ‘really’ this or that—because how can we be sure? But I can surely assert that he doesn’t ‘really’ look like anything I can imagine. The reason for this (the theist might say) is that to think of God in terms I can imagine gets the vector of actuality the wrong way about.  It is to turn God into something that exists inside my mind, rather than that my mind exists inside God.

There’s a strong version of this line of thought, which says that it is equally heretical to conceptualise God as a cockroach, a white-skinned man with a long beard, or a superintelligent shade of the colour blue. The heresy lies not in the specific thing conceptualised, but in the action of conceptualising at all. God thinks us, we don’t think God. God ‘believes in’ us; it would be impertinent for us to ‘believe in’ God.

I have heard the expression ‘God wants us to worship Him’ deprecated on the grounds that we don’t know what God wants. The practical problem with this is that religious observation is predicated upon the notion that the things we choose to do are in some sense pleasing to God. It seems to me that the problem with a phrase such as ‘God wants us to worship Him’ is not that we don’t know what God wants, but that we are daring to imagine that God wants.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Despising the Bourgeoisie

One of the points I made in this post was that Dickens deliberately exaggerated the rights and wrongs of the European ancien regime, by way of adding dramatic emphasis to the ethical force of Revolution. But I happened recently to read a few things that make me wonder whether Dickens's melodrama is exaggerated at all. Here, for example, is a passage from Nancy Mitford's biography of Frederick the Great:
Frederick William [F. the Great's father] had few intimates. His only advisers were his cousin and greatest greatest friend, the Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, and General Count from Grumbkow ... The Old Dessauer was a violent and wilful man. When very young he had fallen in love with a bourgeoise, the daughter of an apothecary, murdered her fiancé, and committed the unheard-of eccentricity of marrying her. He was perfectly happy with her for more than fifty years. The Emperor legalised the marriage, a most unusual step in such a case, and the children were Princes of Anhalt-Dessau. [4-5]
Charming. Then there's Voltaire. In 1725, Voltaire (the son of a civil servant, and thoroughly middle-class) met the young French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan. The Chevalier mocked Voltaire's name, and V. demurred. Taking offence, the Chevalier had six of his men ambush Voltaire in the street, and beat him badly. Voltaire then challenged Rohan to a duel; but this challenge was considered so outrageous -- not the fact of it so much as the outrageous vector of connection it implied from commoner to aristocrat, that the Rohan family obtained a royal lettre de cachet, a penal decree signed by King Louis XV himself, that caused Voltaire to be imprisoned in the Bastille indefinitely, without a trial and without giving him an opportunity to defend himself. Rather than rot there forever, Voltaire petitioned that he be exiled to England as an alternative punishment, and the French authorities accepted. Hurrah for French justice!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Social Status of Jesus

Mohammud came from a very respectable family; and Buddha was a prince. But the social status of Jesus is interestingly conflicted. On the one hand, he was mortal royalty; directly descended from King David, a fact to which the NT adverts with suspicious regularity. On the other hand -- and this, I think, is one of the things that makes Christianity so very distinctive as a world religion -- he was a nobody; a commoner; a carpenter who had given up carpentry for a life of holy vagrancy. In the words of the great Kurt Vonnegut (an unjustly overlooking theologian, I'd say), he was a bum.
It was The Gospel From Outer Space, by Kilgore Trout. It was about a visitor from outer space...[who] made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.

But the Gospels actually taught this:

Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected. So it goes.
The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought...:

Oh, boy - they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And that thought had a brother: "There are right people to lynch." Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.
So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn't possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that too, since the Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.
And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of the Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this:

From this moment on, He will punish anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!
The point of this splendid midrash (it's from Slaughterhouse Five, of course) is that the gospel message loses force if Christ actually is the sort of person you shouldn't lynch (a king, the son of God) because that necessary establishes the category of 'people it is OK to lynch'. However insistent the scriptures are that Jesus was aristocracy both in mundane and heavenly terms, the force of the Gospel story is that of the outsider, the nobody, the bum.

There's one way in which I can see the text's insistence that Jesus is the lineal descendant of David works for, rather than against, its core purpose; and that is that it adds pathos to Jesus's situation. We are, after all, familiar with people who (for example) claim that they, not the present incumbent, are the Rightful King Of England, with their forlorn stare-eyed Miss-Havisham-like intensity and their filigree family-tree documentation. When we encounter such a person we feel certainly not reverence, and probably not even a sense of the tragic aspect of 'how are the mighty fallen'. The situation, on the contrary, is ludicrous. My old Welsh gran used to tell me that we (through her) were lineally descended from Owain Glendwr. At 7 years old I used to be impressed by this datum. Now that I'm older, I tend (a) to doubt it, (b) to reflect that I've yet to meet a Welsh person who doesn't claim the same thing. I quite like the thought of it, not because of its putative grandeur, but for the exact opposite reason -- precisely because its mildly comic and bathetic.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012


You want me to believe that light can bullet 93 million miles faster than anything else, punch through many kilometers of increasingly thickening atmosphere to slam against my face ... and a thin smear of cream can hold it back? Bah!  Bah, I say.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Machine poem

I took the poem from yesterday's post, fed it into Google translate on an English-Dutch setting, then took the result and fed it back through the Dutch-English filter. What emerged is below. I prefer it to the original, I think.
The hawk comes down from the sky.
Grinding his eye
Wheeling a horizon
Test run prayer.

He recommended that the cowering prey
Below, and learned to keep
The distance that strip
The earth for its black contours.

Then enter the air, the contents
With contemplation of
The truth of the valley and hill
Must of course be

Or as the Lark
Whose veins the sky singing,
Questions from dawn to dark
No income of spring:

But with the night falls
In his chosen tree,
And the famous singer ends
In anonymity.

So from a summer height
I come into my peace;
The wings have earned their night
And the song may be present.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Day Lewis's hawk

C Day Lewis's poem, 'The Hawk Comes Down From The Air' (1936), starts as Ted Hughesy avant la lettre:
The hawk comes down from the air.
Sharpening his eye upon
A wheeling horizon
Turning scrutiny to prayer.

He guessed the prey that cowers
Below, and learnt to keep
The distance which can strip
Earth to its black contours.

Then trod the air, content
With contemplation till
The truth of valley and hill
Should be self-evident.
The cowers/Below enjambment is a bit clumsy; and the third stanza has the feel of marking time that makes it seem more anticlimactic than it needs to after such a sweeping opening. But then the poem takes a turn for the twee:
Or as the little lark ...
I'll stop there, for a moment, to observe that I don't think there's a poet in the English tradition with the skill to prevent 'Or as the little lark' coming off as soppy.
Or as the little lark
Who veins the sky with song,
Asking from dawn to dark
No revenues of spring:

But with the night descends
Into his chosen tree,
And the famed singer ends
In anonymity.

So from a summer's height
I come into my peace;
The wings have earned their night
And the song may cease.
That ending, retrogressing from Hughes to Newman or indeed Newbolt, feels unearned. A shame, because it starts pretty well.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Liberty the Conqueror

I'll round off this week of eighteenth-century obscuriana with Richard Glover's London: or, The Progress of Commerce (1739). Lots of interesting things here, but one thing that leapt out is the vision at the end of the inevitable future triumph of London, Commerce and Liberty (that great slogan of the Capitalist right):
… behold, th’aërial seat
Of long supported Liberty, who thence,
Securely resting on her faithful shield,
The warrior’s corselet flaming on her breast,
Looks down with scorn on spacious realms, which groan
In servitude around her, and, her sword
With dauntless skill high-brandishing, defies
The Austrian eagle, and imperious Gaul. [498f]
Glover really doesn't seem to see any conflict in this portrait of Liberty (that's Liberty) with her foot on the necks of various Europeans, brandishing her sword. Neocons: same now as then.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Mallet's ancient mariner?

David Mallet’s The Excursion (1728) was one of those early 18th-century epic poems, enormously popular in its day, entirely unknown now. Its first half ranges around terrestrial locations; but in the second Mallet leaps into space as his ‘excursive traveller’ moves from planets to stars. The verse is mostly humdrum, although sometimes it lifts itself. And, in particular, I found myself wondering about this description of the polar ice-cap:
Now beneath the North,
Alone with Winter in his Frost-bound Realm!
Where, a white Waste of Ice, the Polar Sea
Casts cold a cheerless Light: where Hills of Snow,
Pil’d up from eldest Ages, Hill on Hill,
In blue, bleak Precipices rise to Heaven.
Yet here, even here in this unjoyous World,
Adventrous Mortals, urg’d by Thirst of Gain,
Thro’ floating Isles of Ice and fighting Storms,
Roam the wild Waves, in Search of doubtful Shores,
By West or East, a Path yet unexplor’d. [28]
Could Coleridge have read this, rather vivid polar poetry, and (consciously or subconsciously) have transferred the north to south, the blue ice to green, and given the Adventrous Mortal the identity of his Ancient Mariner? Hard to prove. Suggestive, though.

Friday, 6 January 2012


Twinkle twinkle little star
I don't wonder what you are.
Scientists have made it clear
you're a giant hot-plasma sphere.

Thursday, 5 January 2012


Since this week appears to be turning into 'Odd Pieces of proto-SF' week, here's Joshua Barnes's Gerania: a new discovery of a little sort of people anciently discoursed of, called pygmies. With a lively description of their stature, habit, manners, buildings, knowledge, and government, being very delightful and profitable (1675). This is a rather jolly adventure story, in the old Fantastic Voyage tradition. The narrator relates how ‘sailing pleasantly on the Ganges’ his ship was driven by a freak storm into a hitherto hidden ‘great lake on the utmost Borders of India’. He meets first a race of people who don’t speak, dress in moss and have knives for fingernails; then they chance upon pygmies so small they at first cannot believe them human, thinking them instead miniature robots or automata (‘we began to admire with ourselves at the Ingenuity of the Inhabitants, thinking they had invented these little Engins, so as by Clock-work to make them walk’ [10]. In the kingdom of ‘Gerania’ they encounter tiny people who are not only ‘able in all the sciences’ but speak English (‘we are skill’d in fifty four Languages; a thing which to the Europeans may seem incredible’, 48) and are Christians, although on the downside they only live on average to forty. There’s a good deal of anti-Catholic stuff in here, and some strange political theory  ...the Geranians have no taxation (‘for Taxes, we are wholly unacquainted with them’) because the population spontaneously gift the exchequer with voluntary donations [88].  Which might just work, I suppose.  Or maybe not.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Umbrageous Ham

So I read John Armstrong's The Art of Preserving Health: a Poem. In four books (1744). According to Adam Budd [John Armstrong's "The Art of Preserving Health": Eighteenth-Century Sensibility in Practice (Ashgate 2011), 45] ‘The Art of Preserving Health received serious consideration from physicians as well as critics’; and was cited in contemporary medical textbooks as well as noted in literary journals. And I can see its appeal; the verse is lively, if stilted in that uniquely eighteenth-century way. Of course, its medical philosophy is fundamentally flawed: Armstrong believes not in germs but in miasma. The first book, 'Air', lauds fresh air as a panacea, when plagues 'rise from the putrid watry element … and all the breathless winds’. He also seems to think that direct sunlight is actively harmful to health -- in too sunny climes ‘the air may be too dry’. Hot sun ‘too fast imbibes the attenuated lymph … the lungs grow rigid, and with toil essay/Their flexible vibrations’. Good health, Armstrong argues, therefore depends upon living in a place both properly airy and nicely shaded, which leads him to his splendid peroration to shadowy pork:
See where enthron’d in adamantine state,
Proud of her bards, imperial Windsor sits;
There chuse thy seat, in some aspiring grove
Fast by the slowly-winding Thames; or where
Broader she laves fair Richmond’s green retreats,
(Richmond that sees an hundred villas rise
Rural or gay) O! from the summer’s rage
O! wrap me in the friendly gloom that hides
Umbrageous Ham! [1:108]

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Two aboriginal steampunks: 1791, 1847

Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUERED STEAM! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide waving wings expanded bear
The flying chariot through the fields of air.
—Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior bands alarm the gaping crowd,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud. [1:289]

The optimistic Erasmus Darwin there, from his The Botanic Garden. I particularly like the way the 'fair crews' of pilots and passengers shift into more sinister military oppressors. 1791, ladies and gentlemen.

Fly, puffing and huffing, a half century on.  Here's 'Daedalus Britannicus's Aerial navigation: containing a description of a proposed flying machine on a new principle (1847) (alas not viewable on Google books, presumably because Daedalus Britannicus is still alive and the work therefore still in copyright, grr, grr) but there's a detailed contemporary account of the book here, in an 1864 Athenaeum. A 'Mr Henson' had failed to actualise his steam-powered aerial machine in 1843, despite bringing a bill to Parliament to incorporate 'The Aerial Transit Company'. Steam engines were too heavy to generate the necessary power-to-weight, I suppose. But 'Daedalus Britannicus' had a better idea: 'the moving power being the explosion of mixed hydrogen and air'. This, I feel, could have worked. There's a whole sheaf of possible Steampunk alt-historicals to be written, branching off from this, I'd say.

Monday, 2 January 2012


Great conjurers and prestidigitators are worthy of the highest admiration, and those who work in prose most of all. But it is, actually, all the more disappointing when you get a sudden giveaway glimpse of how the trick is done. As a reader (or maybe: as a reader who is a writer) you simultaneously want that and don't want it. Here, for instance, in one of the greatest prestidigitators in prose, G K Chesterton:
The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self-evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. [The Thing (1930)]
But you can see the card sliding up Chesterton's sleeve with the unobtrusive introduction slippage from 'establishes' to 'goal' in that passage. It is not self-evident that agnosticism is the goal of science in any sense. We might rather say that science maps out the territory of knowledge, and that where those areas in which it is not able to establish knowledge it says so, plainly, and does not pretend otherwise.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Venus, 1714

Reading William Derham's Astro-Theology, or a Demonstration of the Being and attributes of God from a survey of the heavens (1714), I came across this intriguing aside:
Viewing Venus with Mr. Huygens’s glass divers nights, when near her perigee, and much horned, I thought I saw anfractus or roughnesses on the concave part of the enlightened edge (such as we see in the new moon), which I have represented as nearly as I could in fig.12. [4]
The Google-books copy doesn't include any figures, alas; but I wonder about this. The obvious thing would be to say: Derham was mistaken; for we now know that Venus's cloud cover is so thick as not to permit any glimpse of any feature that might accord with what Derham saw. But if it wasn't a mistake, and Derham reported accurately what he saw, then what might it have been? Perhaps an asteroid or cometary strike upon Venus at the start of the eighteenth-century, that temporarily disturbed the cloud-cover?