Saturday, 31 March 2012

Flying Machine Poem

We follow where the future zeppelins go, and
turn mankind to a louse. Rich
pickings to be had, my lads. Our slogan:
Per Ardua Ad Auschwitz.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Adam Phillips on William Empson

LRB, 3 August 2006: 'God, Empson intimated, was a figure of the man without conflicts who, by the same token, was a sadistic megalomaniac -- the attempt to eliminate conflict being the very thig that makes people most cruel. The "God whose only pleasure is gloating over torture" knows what to do with those who disagree: he might indeed want them to disagree so he can enjoy torturing them.' This is a very striking idea; monolithic of course, but appropriately so since the topic is precisely monotheism (polythesisms, such as the ancient Greek pantheon, can avoid this problem by having the different gods bickering amongst themselves). Phillips goes on to suggest that 'it is his conflict about the nature of conflict that makes Empson such an unusually subtle and provocative critic. Though he could acknowledge, again in Ricks, "how dismal quarrelling is", he always knew that the alternative was worse.' This is a sentiment that speaks profoundly to me, I must say.

Thursday, 29 March 2012


As Freud left Germany the Gestapo made him write that he'd not been mistreated. He added a PS: "I can recommend the Gestapo to anyone." This, in a nutshell, is one of the reasons I can never fall out of love with Freud: he is so witty, he has such an intuitive sense not only of how funny but how profound irony can be.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012


"We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom" ["Introduction: The Missing Ink", in Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (2002), p. 2]
Neat! But why isolate freedom like this? Surely this works with almost any value of x: "We feel happy because we lack the language to articulate our unhappiness"; "We feel oppressed because we lack the language to articulate our freedom"; "We feel because we lack the very language to articulate the fact that we are incapable of feeling." The possibilities are endless!
There is a somewhat analogous situation with regard to the heterosexual seduction procedure in our Politically Correct times: the two sets, the set of PC behaviour and the set of seduction, do not actually intersect anywhere; that is, there is no seduction which is not in a way an "incorrect" intrusion or harassment — at some point, one has to expose oneself and "make a pass." So does this mean that every seduction is incorrect harassment through and through? No, and that is the catch: when you make a pass, you expose yourself to the Other (the potential partner), and she decides retroactively, by her reaction, whether what you have just done was harassment or a successful act of seduction — and there is no way to tell in advance what her reaction will be. This is why assertive women often despise "weak" men — because they fear to expose themselves, to take the necessary risk. And perhaps this is even more true in our PC times: are not PC prohibitions rules which, in one way or another, are to be violated in the seduction process? Is not the seducer’s art to accomplish this violation properly — so that afterwards, by its acceptance, its harassing aspect will be retroactively cancelled? [The Fragile Absolute: or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? (2000), 111.
This, though, is not neat: it is blockheaded. It descends, rather shamefully, from that innocent-faced but profoundly disingenuous Freudian question 'what do women want?' -- as if women are alien beings, perfectly inscrutable. 'I fancy this woman and am contemplating asking her out, but I've literally no idea whether she'll say yes or scream rape and spray me in the eyes with a pepper spray!' What ... are you blind? Or just an idiot? This passage, though, from the same volume is very cleverly put:
It is also crucial to bear in mind the interconnection between the Decalogue... and its modern obverse, the celebrated 'human Rights'. As the experience of our post-political liberal-permissive society amply demonstrates, human Rights are ultimately, at their core, simply Rights to violate the Ten Commandments. 'The right to privacy' — the right to adultery, in secret, where no one sees me or has the right to probe my life. 'The right to pursue happiness and to possess private property' -- the right to steal (to exploit others). 'Freedom of the press and of the expression of opinion' -- the right to lie. 'The right of free citizens to possess weapons' -- the right to kill. And, ultimately, 'freedom of religious belief' — the right to worship false gods.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Old-Fashioned Views

People who are proud, defiantly, of holding 'old-fashioned views' are always banging on about women staying in the home, the 'unnatural' nature of homosexual love and so on. They never say; 'I know people say my views are old fashioned: but I don't see why I should apologise for saying we should hold a Diet at Würms to discuss the future of the Holy Roman Empire.' I think this a shame.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Monday Chesterton

GKC, from the opening chapter of Orthodoxy (1909) -- one, I might add, of the finest books of theology written after the death of Victoria, or so it seems to me.
I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. I always find, however, that I am either too busy or too lazy to write this fine work, so I may as well give it away for the purposes of philosophical illustration. There will probably be a general impression that the man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton, felt rather a fool. I am not here concerned to deny that he looked a fool. But if you imagine that he felt a fool, or at any rate that the sense of folly was his sole or his dominant emotion, then you have not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale. His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? What could be more glorious than to brace one's self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales. This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?
He goes on: 'I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England ... if this book is a joke it is a joke against me. I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.' It would make a fine fable.

I suppose it seems to me that what this imaginary traveller would actually embody is not so much the conceit of seeing England as if for the first time, but rather an I think more profound and interesting psychological drama of the man who had lost the capacity of recognition; the many upon whom habit had lost its hold. But then, I'm no Chesterton.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Sunday Chesterton

After belabouring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr. Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense, that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being with two legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake. If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.
The SF writer in me can't help but ask: but what if the rather bitter food is the only food available? What if the environment can't be bullied into providing anything more palatable? What if the very water and air is intolerable to the old-style baby? How far along this path ought we to go before we arrive at ManPlus?

Saturday, 24 March 2012


We set a net in Heralceitus' stream.
Next year we plan: a dam.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Problem books

Lavie Tidhar's thoughtful post 'Shall I Tell You The Problem With Adam Roberts?' is an interesting thing. Some books (some writers) are not problems, of course: we enjoy them, or perhaps deplore them, straightforwardly. But if a book presents us with a problem, we may go one of two ways. We might say: 'I don't really get this book, and that fact says something about me.' Or we might say: 'I don't really get this book, and that's a problem with the book.' And actually the key, here, is often reputational. If a reader reads Proust (say) and 'doesn't get it', she is more likely to think [a]; if she reads a new writer and has the same reaction it's more likely to be [b].

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Rich people and immigrants

Here's what I don't understand about well-off British people hating immigrants ('coming over here, cluttering up our beautiful country ...') as my occasional perusal of the Daily Mail leads me to believe they often do. Well-off people like to show off their wealth: an expensive car, a nice house. Discrete but unmissable signs that say: I have money, you know. Well, immigrants, legal or otherwise, don't come to the UK for the climate; they come because we are as a country, compared to whichever homeland they are leaving, better off -- because there is more money here. So what I don't understand is: why don't well-off people see immigrants as a symptom of our national prosperity (which, amongst other things, they are) and therefore of something of which we can be quietly proud, in the same way we might be quietly proud of a new consevatory, or a house in the Algarve -- rather than seeing them as a problem?

Personally I think of immigrants as, in the first instance, human beings. But then: I'm not rich.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


Byron said: 'But I hate things all fiction... there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric -- and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.' Fair enough; but a liar's talent is given to very few.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


V S Pritchett is rather wonderful on the subject of London:
No Londoner can be exact or reasonable about London. This place with the heavy sounding name, like coal being delivered or an engine shunting, is the world’s greatest unreasonable city, a monstrous agglomeration of well-painted property. The main part of the city, 120 square miles of low-lying and congested Portland stone, yellow brick and stucco, slate, glass and several million chimneys, lies a few minutes' flight from the North Sea. There are immense acreages of railway track, and the subsoil is a tangle of tunnels running into scores of miles. Such is the mere core of London; another 700 square miles of what was once pasture and woodland is now continuous red-faced suburb. ... There is an old story that someone was once mad enough to ask a Cockney whether the London he came from was London, Ontario. The Cockney groaned, 'Nah! London the whole bloody world.'
1956. The chimneys aren't such a feature, nowadays.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Shakespeare's mercy

Prospero asks for applause.
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free.
Applause, very good. But the assault upon mercy is a strange notion, isn’t it? Prayer, and the grace of God is calls down, may pierce the horny carapace of sin and neglect that wraps the sinners around—but how can it pierce mercy?

Sunday, 18 March 2012


I wonder if we could reframe Kierkegaard’s framous statement, from Stages on Life’s Way (1845): ‘the more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic. It is only by the deepest suffering that one acquires true authority in the use of the comic, an authority which by one word transforms as by magic the reasonable creature one calls man into a caricature.’ The more of an atheist one is, the more, I believe, one is open to a sense for the divine. It is only by the deepest alienation from God that one acquires true authority in the uses of the faith, an authority which by one word transforms as by magic the reasonable creature one calls man into a caricature.’ Atheism is the freedom of faith; which is to say—it is faith viewed from the perspective of the most profound existential freedom. This brings it close to what Kierkegaard describes as ‘anxiety’:
Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science will explain. [The Concept of Anxiety (1844)]
And there is anxiousness in atheism (how could there not be?) The paradox of anxious freedom has parellels with Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith has to do precisely with the atheism of his faith; the faithlessness of his belief. That place where paradox shades over into mere nonsensical babble is, in a precise sense, Kierkegaard’s point.

Fear and Trembling is most famous as a meditation on the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Sylvia Walsh summarises the situation:
As Johannes sees it, faith is a lifelong task that is not achieved in a matter of days or weeks nor can it be comprehended by reflection ... For an exemplar of faith Johannes looks to Abraham, traditionally regarded as the father of faith because he did not doubt when tested by God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, who has been given to Abraham and his wife Sarah in their old age in order to fulfil the Lord’s promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation (cf Genesis 12:1; 22:1-19). Abraham believed by virtue of the absurd that God would fulfil his promise in spite of the divine command to sacrifice Isaac, either by rescinding the command or by providing a new Isaac if he were sacrificed, which Abraham was willing to do in obedience to God even though it stood in stark contradiction to his love for Isaac, and to the divine promise. To Johannes, therefore, the faith of Abraham is a paradox that goes against all human understanding and expectation, a paradox that can be entered into only with much anxiety, fear and trembling, and courage. [Sylvia Walsh, Kierkegaard: Thinking Christianity in an Existential Mode (Oxford University Press 2009), 147]
Since Walsh’s purpose in her study is that ‘Kierkegaard was first and foremost a Christian thinker’ (indeed, to develop the case that ‘not since Luther has there been a Protestant thinker who has so uncompromisingly sought to define and present Christianity in its utmost integrity ... in the interest of reintroducing authentic Christianity as an existential possibility for every individual in the modern age’ [vii]) it doesn’t surprise us that her reading of this famously difficult Kierkegaardian figure—the Knight of Faith—is as an icon of Christian faithfulness.

For Levinas, however, the leap of faith implicit in Fear and Trembling is a type of violence:
Kierkegaardian violence begins when existence is forced to abandon the ethical stage in order to embark on the religious stage, the domain of belief. But belief no longer sought external justification. Even internally, it combined communication and isolation, and hence violence and passion. That is the origin of the relegation of ethical phenomena to secondary status and the contempt of the ethical foundation of being which has led, through Nietzsche, to the amoralism of recent philosophies. [Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Ethics (1963)
The end, in popular parlance, does not justify the means; indeed, in this Levinasian criticism the very isolation and elevation of ‘ends’ at all is a kind of ethical betrayal.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Badiou, Badme

There will always be a temptation for an artist—most especially, for an artist who is not enjoying either popular or critical success, but who does not therefore necessarily entirely give up on the merit of their art—to gravitate to the notion that there is such as a thing as ‘intrinsic aesthetic merit’. What I do is too sophisticated for the vulgar herd, and the critical community is too full of fools and knaves to appreciate it. And so on. It’s never a very likely explanation for artistic failure, but we can follow Bruno Latour and dismiss it altogether. Aesthetic merit is not a ‘presence’; it is not something that just ‘is’, lying like an undiscovered pearl. It is the product of a complicated series of interacting actor-networks, involving the work, its author, publishers, reviewers, fans, other readers, awards, bookshops and so on. Bad news for me, I suppose.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Mourning Moebius

Very sad to hear of the passing of Moebius, the man whose art has stood at the head of the Europrogblog for years now. Tribute art by Arzach.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Hippocratic Oath

I'd never really looked at the actual Hippocratic Oath; but, doing so, I'm surprised to discover that most of it is about not abusing one's position of power in order to (eg) have sex with patients, 'male or female, be they free or slaves'. What interests me about this is the way it inscribes a certain sort of power-relation into the foundations of medicine -- inscribes it all the more potently by framing it in terms of prohibition.
I swear by Apollo, the healer, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:

To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art; and that by my teaching, I will impart a knowledge of this art to my own sons, and to my teacher's sons, and to disciples bound by an indenture and oath according to the medical laws, and no others.

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.

I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.

In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of sexual intercourse with women or with men, be they free or slaves.

All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.

If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all humanity and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my life.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


Angst-stahn: the war-torn country of inward desolation and struggle.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Self love

Will Self, putting it nicely:
while you can know a man by what turns him on, you can only really understand him by what turns him off.
There's something very true here; and perhaps it could even go a step further. What you can know a man is that he can be turned on, assuming he can; or to put it another way, you can best know a man by understanding whether the-turn-on or the-turn-off is the defaulty against which his psychic economy struggles to balance itself.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Science fiction sequel

Phase two: in which the oats get Doris.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

AQC: Spring-tide

The third of these (after i, ii).  'Spring-tide' is AQC's title; not a very good one I think:
Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.

This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on wynne wele
That al the wode ryngeth.
The rose rayleth hire rode;
The leues on the lyhte wode
Waxen al with wille.
The mone mandeth hire bleo;
The lilie is lossom to seo,
The fenyle ant the fille.

Wowes this wilde drakes,
Miles murgeth huere makes
Ase strem that striketh stille.
Mody meneth, so doth mo;
Ichot Ycham on of tho
For loue that likes ille.
The mone mandeth hire lyht,
So doth the semly sonne bryht,
When briddes singeth breme.

Deawes donketh the dounes;
Deores with huere derne rounes,
Domes forte deme.
Wormes woweth vnder cloude;
Wymmen waxeth wounder proude,
So wel hit wol hem seme.
Yef me shal wonte wille of on,
This wunne weole Y wole forgon,
Ant wyht in wode be fleme.
Here's a translation, via the excellent Bella Millet at Southampton University:
Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.
The rose begins to blush;
The leaves in the light-green wood
All unfurl gladly.
The moon sends out its light;
The lily is lovely to see,
The fennel and the wild thyme.
The wild ducks are courting,
Animals cajole their mates
Like a quietly-flowing stream.
Many men of spirit complain;
I know that I'm one of them
Because I'm crossed in love.
The moon sends out her light,
So does the bright, beautiful sun,
When birds sing gloriously.
Dews drench the hills;
Animals murmur secretly,
Passing their own judgements.
Worms make love underground;
Women put on amazing airs,
it suits them so well to do it.
If I don't have my will of one,
I'll give up all this wealth of joys,
And flee straight to the woods.
I like the worms making love 'under the clod', or 'under the cloud' depending.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Gag Magag

Fewer and fewer of these:

The riddle is answered! Turns out the guardians are guarded by a geezer called Christopher. Chris Custodiet Custodes.

Sneezing is a kind of unknotting. That's why people often comment approvingly afterwards: 'gets untied'.

Who will defend ironic theological philosophy? Why the Kierke Guard, of course!

I wrote out a '1' followed by 12 zeros in my best calligraphy; but then disaster struck. My posh trillion has been struck by lightning.

I often hear people say 'such-and-such is truly wonderful.' I never hear '... is falsely wonderful.' This fact puzzles me.

This Rush Limbaugh chap sounds unpleasant. I wonder what his brother, Emerson Lake And Palmer Limbaugh makes of it all.

I don't understand why Colin Dexter doesn't write a Scandinavian-style crime thriller. He could call it ‘Inspector Norse’.

Wagner's ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ is stirring music; but I must say I prefer the funkier, guitar-based ‘Valk This Way’.

Watching ‘Night At The Museum 2’ with the kids & ice-cream. Not so disturbing as ‘Night Porter At The Museum 2’.

Taxitus Driver #ancientfilms

To Ra, to Ra, to Ra #ancientfilms

Alexander the Gray Lady Down #ancientfilms

We Need To Plutarch About Kevin #ancientfilms

Barcelona. That's Hebrew for ‘son of Celona’, you know.

So it looks like Hollywood has rejected my pitch for an all-cartoon Conan movie: CONAN THE HANNA-BARBARIAN.

The pirate mantra: live avast-ye, die young.

The best thing about the ‘Shaft’ films was the iconic theme song: ‘Shaft! ah-ah! Saviour of the universe!’

When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then in a position to outsource delving and spinning to cheaper overseas suppliers?

Look at those headbanging elephants! Is their state tusk-woe?

Poor old Bert and Ernie -- got scalded, both of them! They're hurt. And burn-y.

As a vet I'll treat large African river mammals, ravens and blood-sucking insects -- but nothing else. My Hippo-Crow-Tick oath binds me.

And, in conclusion: my single finest tweet gag:

‘To bring all the boys to the yard, or not/To bring all the boys to the yard. That is the question.’ William Milk-Shakespeare.

Friday, 9 March 2012


I we eat the cannibals, and afterwards convert to vegetarianism, have we done good? Is the problem with the cannibals not that they devour human beings, but that they have no future plans to stop doing so?

Thursday, 8 March 2012


We all dream one another's dreams.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

No Man Is A Carlisland

Sartor Resartus, (1:8): 'The World Out Of Clothes':
Pity that all Metaphysics had hitherto proved so inexpressibly unproductive! The secret of Man`s Being is still like the Sphinx`s secret: a riddle that he cannot rede; and for ignorance of which he suffers death, the worst death, a spiritual. What are your Axioms, and Categories, and Systems, and Aphorisms? Words, words. High Air-castles are cunningly built of Words, the Words well bedded also in good Logic-mortar; wherein, however, no Knowledge will come to lodge. The whole is greater than the part: how exceedingly true! Nature abhors a vacuum how exceedingly false and calumnious! Again, Nothing can act but where it is: with all my heart; only, WHERE is it? Be not the slave of Words: is not the Distant, the Dead, while I love it, and long for it, and mourn for it, Here, in the genuine sense, as truly as the floor I stand on? But that same WHERE, with its brother WHEN, are from the first the master-colors of our Dream-grotto; say rather, the Canvas (the warp and woof thereof) whereon all our Dreams and Life-visions are painted. Nevertheless, has not a deeper meditation taught certain of every climate and age, that the WHERE and WHEN, so mysteriously inseparable from all our thoughts, are but superficial terrestrial adhesions to thought; that the Seer may discern them where they mount up out of the celestial EVERYWHERE and FOREVER: have not all nations conceived their God as Omnipresent and Eternal; as existing in a universal HERE, an everlasting Now? Think well, thou too wilt find that Space is but a mode of our human Sense, so likewise Time; there is no Space and no Time: WE are--we know not what;--light-sparkles floating in the ether of Deity!
This seems orthodox Kantish, I suppose: 'but that same WHERE (ie Space), with its brother WHEN (ie Time), are from the first the master-colors of our Dream-grotto; say rather, the Canvas (the warp and woof thereof) whereon all our Dreams and Life-visions are painted' (indeed, I've seen this passage glossed as straightforward Kant by Richard Albert Wilson). But isn't it a bit odder than that? Not just the implied personification of space and time, or the troping of them as painters, but the way Carlyle wants to elide space with infinity and time with eternity, and we are sparkily floating around in an etheric sea. It's almost Marie Corelli. The capitalisation doesn't help. It's a shame, since this:
Is not the Distant, the Dead, while I love it, and long for it, and mourn for it, Here, in the genuine sense, as truly as the floor I stand on?
... is both eloquent and moving.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

On gay marriage

There's been another pother in the news, opposition to proposals to equalise gay marriage rights from religious spokespeople. This, in response, was on twitter:
When someone says ‘but the purpose of marriage is making children!’ we need to say: so you oppose infertile people late-middle-agers & OAPs marrying, do you?
This is quite a neat hermeneutic, I think, because the answer can only be 'of course not!' which in turn destablises the homophobic premise. But I doubt it would work that way, because the premise is not a rational one; it is an unconsidered 'ick!', a mental shudder and drawing away at the mere thought of men having sex with men, or women with women. What interests me is the extent to which this 'ick!' is akin to the 'ick!' some people feel at really old, wrinkly people having sex with other really old wrinkly people.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Springtime For Heorot, and Germany

I don't want to sound like a stuck record on this Beowulf thing (I'll be finished with my version soon enough, I hope; and then this blog can move onto to something, or -things, else); but I've just reached the bit where, having killed Grendl's mother, Beowulf's sword melts away:
Then the sword, because
of the blood on it, began to shard into sharp icicles,
the war-blade withering. It was weird to watch it:
all of it melting away the way ice does,
when frost’s binding is loosed by the Father,
and sea-ice unwinds, and everything eases
seasons and times; He is the true God! [1605-11]
I note this because it strikes me as more evidence for a 'Green Man' reading of the poem: by killing the monster Beowulf has killed winter. ('Germany' in the post title, up there, is vai this).

Sunday, 4 March 2012

London poem

The Thames runs red.
This is where the city was composed.

A thousand churches celebrate
the bulletholes in Christ’s palms
his shattered shinbones.

Financial institutions, and a woman
on the tube wearing a ‘This Is A
Fucking Expensive T-Shirt’ T Shirt.

Boat yourself upriver, and nod
nod, and be old again.

Saturday, 3 March 2012


History is a tricky context for Beowulf. The poem's relationship to actual events is a little less 'real' than Sharpe’s relationship to the Napoleonic wars, a little more than King Arthur’s to the actual history of the sixth-century. Michael Swanton notes that ‘some of the Beowulf-poet’s references are clearly intended to be historical, even in the context of the poem’, such as ‘the Swedish king Ongentheow, who was killed in battle by the Geats early in the sixth-century’. He goes on:
The latest externally corroborated historical reference in the poem is to the death of Hygelac, Beowulf’s own lord and uncle. We know from reliable historical sources that Hygelac was killed during a piratical raid on Frisian territory under Frankish suzerainty about the year 521 A.D. It is possible to erect a chronology based on the known date of this raid on the Rhine. Hrothgar must have reigned in Heorot during the last decades of the fifth century. Then after Hygelac’s death some time elapsed before Beowulf could be persuaded to take the Geatish throne—possibly as a puppet of the great Swedish king Onela; and then we are told that he had a long and successful reign before finally meeting his end confronting a dragon. If Beowulf can be said to have lived at all, then he must have reckoned to have died shortly after the middle of the sixth-century, say between 550 and 570 A.D. [Swanick, 7-8]
There is no ‘ Beowulf’ recorded in the histories (although some scholars think he may be a version of a Danish warrior called Bothvar Bjarki).  Maybe he is a purely fictional character; although as Swanick notes the fact that Beowulf fights supernatural monsters is not in itself a reason to dismiss his possible historicity—or else the fantastical stories that attached themselves to Charlemagne or Richard Lionheart would have us doubting their historical reality. But here's what I think.  If we take the name ‘Beowulf’ to be a version of the OE word for ‘bear’ (as some do), then it is possible the legend records something else. Beowulf’s stories share the sixth century with another mythic-historical figure, King Arthur; and it is perfectly possible that rather than being a single man, ‘Arthur’—whose name also means ‘bear’—is a conflation of stories in quasi-religious celebration of the bear-like warrior as a type. The Old English had a great deal of respect for the strength and reckless courage of the bear; not least its ability to mash-up a human being beyond all recognition. A bear-god was widely worshipped, and a warrior of particularly heedless ferocity would be honoured with the name berserkr, or ‘bear-like fighter’. Beowulf, the bear-warrior (like King Arthur, the Royal Bear), may articulate something more important to his culture than mere history.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Pinch Poem

Pinch the old man’s skin, and leave
an upstanding pinch-shaped ridge,

like the just-curled, not-yet-breaking wave
captured in this photograph of

a boy watching the sea
Daytona Beach, Florida, 1998.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Some brief notes on 'The Monsters and the Critics'

Tolkien's famous essay, upon which I am writing something that's not for blogging. But re-reading it was an interesting experience. One thing I liked (and which I'd forgotten) is the way Tolkien refers to Beowulf as 'The Beowulf', rather after the fashion of somebody talking about Batman as 'The Batman':
I have, of course, read The Beowulf,as have most (but not all) of those who have criticized it. But I fear that ... I have not been a man so diligent in my special walk as duly to read all that has been printed on, or touching on, this poem. But I have read enough, I think, to venture the opinion that Beowulfiana, while rich in many departments, specially poor in one. It is poor in criticism, criticism that is directed to the understanding of a poem as a poem.
This has been taken, rather, for granted I suppose; taken effectively on trust -- that Tolkien must know what he is talking about. But I'm not sure it's true, or more to the point I'm not sure it even was true in 1936. In my lap right now is the 1914 A J Wyatt edition of the poem (Cambridge Univ. Press 1914): which starts with a prefaratory note saying that whilst 'the editors of Beowulf have with rare exceptions concentrated their attempts upon the problem of fixing and interpreting the text and have avoided discussing the literary history of the poem', there are however many critics ('in monographs such as those of ten Brink, Mullenhoff and Boer) who do precisely that, and Wyatt himself promises a volume entitled 'Introduction to the Study of Beowulf' which will take the poem as poetry. Perhaps for my purposes what is more interesting is that Tolkien expressly considers Beowulf to be a 'riddle': an 'enigmatic poem', constituted by the bringing together of two apparently incompatible things. He quotes Ker:
The fault of Beowulf is that there is nothing much in the story. The hero is occupied in killing monsters, like Hercules or Theseus. But there are other things in the lives of Hercules and Theseus besides the killing of the Hydra or of Procrustes. Beowulf has nothing else to do, when he has killed Grendel and Grendel's mother in Denmark: he goes home to his own Gautland, until at last the rolling years bring the Fire-drake and his last adventure. It is too simple. Yet the three chief episodes are well wrought and well diversified; they are not repetitions, exactly; there is a change of temper between the wrestling with Grendel in the night at Heorot and the descent under water to encounter Grendel's mother; while the sentiment of the Dragon is different again. But the great beauty, the real value, of Beowulf is in its dignity of style. In construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous; for while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy, plots different in import from that of Beowulf, more like the tragic themes of Iceland. Yet with this radical defect, a disproportion that puts the irrelevances in the centre and the serious things on the outer edges, the poem of Beowulf is undeniably weighty. The thing itself is cheap; the moral and the spirit of it can only be matched among the noblest authors.
And then goes on:
This passage was written more than thirty years ago, but has hardly been surpassed. It remains,in this country at any rate, a potent influence. Yet its primary effect is to state a paradox which one feels has always strained the belief, even of those who accepted it, and has given to Beowulf the character of an 'enigmatic poem'. The chief virtue of the passage (not the one for which it is usually esteemed) is that it does accord some attention to the monsters, despite correct and sober taste. But the contrast made between the radical defect of theme and structure, and at the same time thedignity, loftiness in converse, and well-wrought finish, has become a commonplace even of the bestcriticism, a paradox the strangeness of which has almost been forgotten in the process of swallowing it upon authority.
After surveying some other critics, Tolkien insists: 'The riddle is still unsolved.' His solution (the thesis of his lecture: that the monsters are at the heart of it, not in the margins) is a good one, but -- as with OE riddles more generally -- perhaps not the only one.

This, though, seems to me profound:
The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done.
A hundred times yes. Then there's this:
One of the most potent elements in that fusion is the Northern courage: the theory of courage which is the great contribution of early Northern literature. This is not a military judgement. I am not asserting that, if the Trojans could have employed a Northern king and his companions, they would have driven Agamemnon and Achilles into the sea, more decisively than the Greek hexameter routs the alliterative line — though it is not improbable. I refer rather to the central position the creed of unyielding will holds in the North. With due reserve we may turn to the tradition of pagan imagination as it survived in Icelandic. Of English pre-Christian mythology we know practically nothing. But the fundamentally similar heroic temper of ancient England and Scandinavia cannot have been founded on (or perhaps rather, cannot have generated) mythologies divergent on this essential point. 'The Northern Gods', Ker said, 'have an exultant extravagance in their warfare which makes them more like Titans than Olympians; only they are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason' — mythologically, the monsters — 'but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat no refutation.' And in their war men are their chosen allies, able when heroic to share in this 'absolute resistance, perfect because without hope'. At least in this vision of the final defeat of the human (and of the divine made in its image), and in the essential hostility of the gods and heroes on the one hand and the monsters on the other, we may suppose that pagan English and Norse imagination agreed
'Perfect because without hope' is in many ways an even more resonant phrase than 'the creed of unyielding will.'