Thursday, 31 May 2012

New Wallace Stevens Poem

Wallace Stevens wrote what amounts to a new poem in the back flyleaf of his copy of I A Richards Coleridge on Imagination (1934), summarising what he took from what was, evidently, a detailed reading of this critical study:

14  affinities of the feelings with words and ideas 
24  Longinus26  imagination & values in nature
57  imagination & fancy
108 words as living, inexhaustible meanings 
137 the general disparagement of intellectual effort 
149 Plato’s “dear gorgeous nonsense” 
152 “The colours of Nature are a suffusion from the light of the mind” Doctrine 2 on p. 145 
157 The chief senses of Nature 
171 Mythologies 
220 a general drift .. in the West 
230 Poetry is the supreme use of language

Stevens copy of Richards’ Coleridge on Imagination is now in the Wallace Stevens Archive at the Huntingdon Library; these notes were transcribed by B J Leggett [‘Why It Must Be Abstract: Stevens, Coleridge and I. A. Richards’, Studies in Romanticism 22 (1983), 500-01].  Not only is this a new poem, it is a kind of synthesis of all Stevens poems.  He was, it seems, a much more Coleridgean poet than I realised.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Let your ears hear

I very much like these two Jewish stories:
Rabbi Nachman warns that "all scoffing is forbidden except scoffing at idols which is permitted" [The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, ed. Isador Epstein, trans. H. Freedman (London: Soncino 1935), I, 63]. A well-known Talmudic tale is equally iconoclastic. Abraham as a young boy smashes every one of his father's idols except one, in whose hands he places a stick. When the father asks who did the idol smashing Abraham says it was the idol with the stick in his hands. The father says "But these gods can't do anything!" And Abraham says "Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying."
There seems to me something distinctively Jewish about their recursiveness.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012


I'm struck by the (I have to say, rather beautiful) line from a believer: 'I know God to be good in the same way that I know sugar to be sweet.' But does this work the other way around? 'I know religion to the determined not by metaphysical truth but contingent human social-and-personal evolutionary anxieties and conceptual reinforcement loops, in the same way that I know sugar to be sweet.'

Perhaps not.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Facile Credo

Here's the epigraph to Coleridge's 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. - T. Burnet, Archaeol. Phil., p. 68

[English translation: I easily believe, that there are more invisible Entities in the universe than visible ones. But who can describe how they are grouped together? and their ranks and relationships and distinguishing features and qualities? What they do? In which places do they live? The mind of man has always circled about knowledge of these things, without ever attaining it. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that on occasion it is good for us to imagine, as if it were pictured upon a tablet, the image of a greater and better world; lest the intellect, habituated to the banalities of everyday life, contract itself too and be overwhelmed with trivia. But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and maintain a proper proportion, so that we may distinguish certainty from uncertainty, day from night. (Thomas Burnet (1635-1715), Archaeologiae Philosophicae (1692) p. 68)]
Thomas Burnet (1634-1715) was one of the most eminent theologians and writers on what was then called ‘natural philosophy’ of his generation. Born in Yorkshire, he studied at Cambridge University. In 1685 he became a master as Charterhouse School in London. He was most celebrated in his own day for his two part Telluris Theoria Sacra (published in Latin in 1681 and 1689; an English translation, The Sacred Theory of the Earth, appeared in 1684 and 1689). The book was an attempt systematically to harmonize geological knowledge of the Earth with scripture: for example, after calculating that the total water in the Earth’s oceans and icecaps is insufficient to account for Noah’s flood, Burnet deduces that the Earth must be hollow, and filled with water. His Archaeologiae philosophicae: sive Doctrina Antiqua de Rerum Originibus or 'The Ancient Doctrine Concerning the Origin of Things' (published originally in Latin in 1692; portions were later translated into English during Burnet's life, the whole things appearing in English after his death in 1729) was more controversial. Burnet had just, that year, become Chaplain to the British King William III; but the speculations contained in this book—not least, that the fall of man was a symbolic rather than a literal or historical event—created such outrage that he was forced to resign his position at court (a contemporary judged that Burnet ‘had very ill Principles, contrary to the Religion we profess’). The passage Coleridge appends to the beginning of The Ancient Mariner is not quoted verbatim, but boiled down from a page-long passage in Book 1, chapter 7: ‘De Hebraeis, eorumque Cabalâ’ [Of the Jews and their Kabbala’].  Here is that passage, as interesting -- indeed, more interesting -- for what Coleridge omits as what he quotes. After a lengthy demolition job on the credibility and coherence of the 'Cabala', Burnet goes on:

This much for the Jewish Cabala.  I am not sorry that I have dwelt so long on this Argument, since whatsoever used to be produced from the Jews, concerning the Knowledge of divine and natural Things depends upon it.  For the Jews set forth nothing under the name of Wisdom, but the Law and the Cabala; and the Mysteries which lie hid in the Law are explained by the Virtue and Help of the Cabala.  Nor have I written these things to confute that Doctrine, for that cannot be confuted which is hidden in Darkness; but my Design was to propose, either that a Method should be found out to make it clear and intelligible, or else that it should be condemned to eternal Shades.  In the mean Time, I gave this Caution, lest the unwary should be hurt by it; and have endeavoured to the utmost of my Ability, that it should not lead any into Errors, through cross, obscure, and winding Paths. 

The first Part of Wisdom is to cease from Folly, and the first Step to Truth, is to take heed of Errors, for the avoiding which in the Study of Wisdom, it ought always with us to have the Force of a Law, wholly to rely on no Authority, but what is Divine, and on no Reason but what is clear and distinct. We often fall into Errors from a too vehement Desire of increasing our Knowledge, or from an hasty assent of the Mind before due Examination; or sometimes it proceeds from a Desire of knowing those Things, the Nature of which will not admit of an Examination; that is, which we can never reach by our own Strength, nor by any Light given to us by Nature, or imparted by Revelation. Of this Kind are the Speculations about the Angelical World, and its Furniture, into how many principal Kinds and subaltern Ranks the Celestial Hierarchy are distributed; what their Employments are, and in what Mansions they dwell. I can easily believe, that there are more Invisible than Visible Beings in the Universe; and that there are more Orders of Angels in the Heavens, than variety of Fishes in the Sea; but who will declare to us the Family of all these, and acquaint us with the Agreements, Differences, and peculiar Talents which are to be found among them? It is true, Human Wit has, always desired a Knowledge of these Things, though it has never yet attained it. The Heathen Divines have very much philosophized about the invisible World of Souls, Genii, Manes, Demons, Heroes, Minds, Deities, and Gods, as we may see in Jambilicus’s Treatise on the Mysteries of the Aegyptians, and in Psellus and Pletho on the Chaldean Rites, and every where in the Platonic Authors. Some Christian Divines have imitated these also, with Reference to the Orders of Angels; and the Gnostics have feigned many Things in this Matter, under the Names of Eons and Gods. Moreover, the Cabalists in their Jetzirah (or World Angels) range Myriads of Angels under their Leaders Sandalphon and Metatron, as they who are Conversant in those Studies very well know. But of what Value are all these Things? Has this Seraphic Philosophy any Thing sincere or solid in it? I know that St. Paul [Col. i:16] speaks of the Angelic World, and has taken Notice of many Orders and Distinctions among them; but this in general only; he does not philosophize about them; he disputes not, nor teaches any thing in particular concerning them; nay, on the contrary, he reproves those [Col. ii:8] as puft up with vain Science, who rashly thrust themselves forwards to seek into these unknown and unsearchable Things.  I will own that it is very profitable, sometimes to contemplate in the Mind, as in a Draught, the Image of the greater and better World; lest the Soul being accustomed to the Trifles of this present Life, should contract itself too much and altogether rest in mean Cogitations; but, in the mean Time, we must take Care to keep to the Truth, and observe Moderation, that we may distinguish certain from uncertain Things, and Day from Night.  For it is the Part of a wise Man not only to know those Things which are to be known, but also to distinguish and discern those Things which cannot be known. [Thomas Burnet, De Rerum Originibus: or an Inquiry into the Doctrine of the Philosophers of all Nations concerning the Original of the World; made English from the Latin Original: by Mr Mead and Mr Foxton (London 1736), 85-88]
Omitting the line about how 'there are more Orders of Angels in the Heavens, than variety of Fishes in the Sea' seems odd in the epigraph to so nautical a poem; but more substantial is the way St Paul is cut from the whole.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Sometimes people are sad because they have cause, and sometimes they are sad because they want to be

There's a line in Woody Allen's Love and Death (that great film) in which, after a comically mournful exchange with Diane Keaton's Sonja, Jessica Harper's Natasha says: 'I don't want to get married. I only want to get divorced'.

There's a profound truth in that gag, I think. I was listening to Paul Simon's Hearts and Bones album recently, for the first time in many years -- the first time, really, since I was a young teenager.  I remember I bought the album when it came out; and that I loved it, listened to it over and over.  And it struck me, listening to it now, and particularly listening to the title track: how did I take this, back then?  What did it mean to me, that it meant so much?  So: the title song is a beautifully worn-down response to a relationship at its end, a mix of nostalgic glimpses back to happier times and a weary, emotionally-bruised sense of how things have now died between the singer and his inamorata. Listening to it as a young teenager, still virgin and almost wholly inexperienced in the emotions which are the idiom of the song, I wonder if I didn't think: this is how I want to feel. I wanted the happiness, but in a retrospective way (because then it's done and dusted and safe); and I wanted the melancholy because it just seemed so grown-up and sophisticated and suave. I wanted, in other words, to bypass the marriage and go straight to the divorce.

I could say, 'I didn't know any better'; which of course was true. But there's a broader point here. That there is a darkly complex pleasure (often a genuinely intense pleasure) to be derived from sadness is hardly a new notion; but perhaps what gets overlooked is the extent to which art (songs, movies, novels) in effect sell precisely that pleasure to inexperienced audiences, by taking for granted the assumptions (that simple emotional pleasures, a healthy functioning relationship and so on are consummations devoutly to be wished) that this portion of their audience precisely won't take for granted. On the other hand, it's possible that maybe I think too much.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Vidal on film

I'd like to sing the title of today's post to Duran Duran's "Girls on Film", but there isn't time for that right now.
A moving picture, because it moves, is the one form of narrative that cannot convey an idea of any kind, as opposed to a generalised emotion. Mary McCarthy used to counter dedicated cinéastes with 'All right. In Battleship Potemkin, what does that abandoned baby carriage bouncing down the steps mean?' [Vidal, The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2001 (Abacus 2002), 69]
Well, I'd say it means: Capitalism is bad for your baby. That's an idea, and although it's not an idea with a great deal of nuance it is an idea that has (demonstrably, as any browse through the history of the world since 1789 shows) enormous applicable power. < /br>< /br> The larger point is about that old canard 'motion pictures can express emotion, but not thought': films can think, although they often do so symbolically.

Friday, 25 May 2012


I remember chewing stalks of grass as a lad, lying in the sun, and thinking to myself 'hey! it kind of tastes of milk' and thinking how weird that was.  What I didn't have, then, was the insight to say see that what I was actually saying wasn't weird at all: that cow's milk tastes a little of grass, which is, when you think about it, exactly what you'd expect.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Who Can Prove Otherwise

The rational sanity of Blake directly fed into a seemly modesty, and an ability realistically to assess his own merits and success as a writer.  'I am more famed in heaven for my works than I could well conceive.  In my brain are studies and chambers filled with books and pictures of old, which I wrote and painted in ages of eternity before my mortal life; and those works are the delight and study of archangels.  Why then should I be anxious about the riches and fame of mortality?  [William Blake to John Flaxman; 21 Sept 1800; Life (1863), ii:21]

Wednesday, 23 May 2012


'I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book,’ Coleridge advised Thomas Poole in February 1797.  ‘Let him relate the events of his own life with honesty, not disguising the feelings that accompanied them.’

We are entitled to ask: why didn’t STC follow his own advice?  Or, of we choose (as we may) to read the beautifully disguised fantastica of the Ancient Mariner, ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel’ as honest autobiography, we must then surely accept that oine of the things that they do is redfine what constitutes ‘honesty’ in this mode of self-disclosure.

.      Prose = words in their best order; —poetry = the best words in the best order.’  Coleridge 12 July 1827; Table Talk (1874), 48

It never fails to amaze me how often this staggeringly wrongheaded statement gets repeated, by critics who really ought to know better.  I’d have more respect for Coleridge (in terms not only of poetry generally, but more specifically his own practice) if he’d said:  ‘Prose = words in their best order; —poetry = stranger words in a more disorienting order.’

3.  The Pilgrim’s Progress is ‘one of the few books which may be read repeatedly at different times, and each time with a new and different pleasure.  I read it once as a theologian … once with devotional feelings—and once as a poet.  I could not have believed beforehand that Calvanism could be painted in such exquisitely delightful colours.’  31 May 1830, Table Talk (1874), 88-89

Several things intrigue me about this passage,  One is the error, either unusually clumsy (for a writer like Coleridge particularly fascinated by the valences of nonconformism) or deliberately barbed, of called Bunyan a Calvanist. (Methodist, though anachronistic, would be closer to the true: in fact Bunyan belonged to a small sect based about a preacher called Gifford; and later established his own, supposedly Pauline, sect).  But I’m also intrigued by Coleridge’s distinction between reading a work ‘as a theologian’ and ‘with devotional feelings’, as if those are two completely different modes of reading.  Is it a question of the theological versus the devotional heart?  Maybe that’s the point about the Calvanist dig: the sense that Pilgrim’s Progress embodies a unique emulsion of the anti-fanciful and the fanciful, the religico-cognitive and the poetical-imaginative.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012


Some more of these (and from the same sources); this time for some pre-Victorian classics:

SHAKESPEARE.  ‘Not a Pug in Barbary that has not a truer taste of things.’  Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy (1693), 124

SHAKESPEARE.  ‘A damned humbug.’  Byron, to Tom Moore, 15 October 1819 [Memoirs of Thomas Moore (1854), iii:34]

MEASURE FOR MEASURE.  ‘A hateful work, though Shakespearian throughout.’ Coleridge, 24 June 1827 [Table Talk (1874), 42]

BEN JONSON.  ‘I can’t read Ben Jonson, especially his comedies. To me he appears to move in a wide sea of glue.’  Tennyson, to Frederick Locker-Lampson, 1869 [Memoir (1897), 73]

TOM JONES.  ‘A dissolute book. Its run is over.’ Samuel Richardson, 21 Jan 1759 [Correspondence (1804), v:275]

THE BEGGAR’S OPERA.  ‘A mere pouring of bilge-water and oil of Vitriol on the deepest wounds of humanity.’  Thomas Carlyle, [Reid Life of Lord Houghton (1891), ii:479]

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.  ‘Gibbons’ style is detestable, but his style is not the worst thing about him.’ Coleridge, 15 August 1833 [Table Talk (1874), 273]

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.  ‘I have seldom met with more affectation and less perspicuity. The instances of false English are many; and of false taste endless.  I find little of the sober dignity of history; and the notes are as immodest and they are profane.  Hannah More, 1788 [Memoirs (1835), ii:132]

TRISTRAM SHANDY.  ‘The dregs of nonsense.’ Horace Walpole to the Rev. Henry Zouch, 7 March 1761 [Letters (1891), iii:382]

DAVID HUME.  ‘The most insolent despiser of truth and virtue that ever appeared in the world’ John Wesley, 5 May 1772 [Journal, v:458]

I must say: I tend to agree with Tennyson on Jonson, especially.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Hughes' hand

Here's an interesting passage about handwriting work versus word-processing, from (of all people) Ted Hughes. It comes from a Paris Review interview from 1995:

What tools do you require?


Just a pen.


Just a pen? You write longhand?


I made an interesting discovery about myself when I first worked for a film company. I had to write brief summaries of novels and plays to give the directors some idea of their film potential—a page or so of prose about each book or play and then my comment. That was where I began to write for the first time directly onto a typewriter. I was then about twenty-five. I realized instantly that when I composed directly onto the typewriter my sentences became three times as long, much longer. My subordinate clauses flowered and multiplied and ramified away down the length of the page, all much more eloquently than anything I would have written by hand. Recently I made another similar discovery. For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W. H. Smith children’s writing competition. Annually there are about sixty thousand entries. These are cut down to about eight hundred. Among these our panel finds seventy prizewinners. Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent—a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring. It was almost impossible to read them through. After two or three years, as these became more numerous, we realized that this was a new thing. So we inquired. It turned out that these were pieces that children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin. Whereas when writing by hand you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it when you couldn’t write at all . . . when you were making attempts, pretending to form letters. These ancient feelings are there, wanting to be expressed. When you sit with your pen, every year of your life is right there, wired into the communication between your brain and your writing hand. There is a natural characteristic resistance that produces a certain kind of result analogous to your actual handwriting. As you force your expression against that built-in resistance, things become automatically more compressed, more summary and, perhaps, psychologically denser. I suppose if you use a word processor and deliberately prune everything back, alert to the tendencies, it should be possible to get the best of both worlds.

Maybe what I’m saying applies only to those who have gone through the long conditioning of writing only with a pen or pencil up through their mid-twenties. For those who start early on a typewriter or, these days, on a computer screen, things must be different. The wiring must be different. In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas. Perhaps that’s what I am talking about.


So word processing is a new discipline.


It’s a new discipline that these particular children haven’t learned. And which I think some novelists haven’t learned. “Brevity is the soul of wit.” It makes the imagination jump. I think I recognize among some modern novels the supersonic hand of the word processor uncurbed. When Henry James started dictating, his sentences became interminable, didn’t they? And the physical world, as his brother William complained, suddenly disappeared from them. Henry hadn’t realized. He was astonished.
I want to say something more than just 'true, dat'; although it clearly is true. Follow writers on twitter, or at least those writers crass enough to use that slightly boastful, thoroughly vulgar '#amwriting' tag, and you'll see proud iterations of wordlengths, in thousands of words, as if that's what matters. Books are more than a certain thickness of spine, after all. People mistake length for heft; that latter quality is the crucial one.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The wolf reads Little Red Riding Hood

My brother, my comrade, achieves more than any wolf has: he learns human speech, and dresses himself in human dress, all under his own power; it is true he eats a few people for that is his nature—but only a few! See how great his restraint—and in return humanity slaughters him as soon as they realise what he has achieved . It is a fable of human fear in teh face of change. For make no mistake: my brother, my comrade, was the first of many. Soon off wolves will be able to speak and wield tools. What will you do then, human?

Saturday, 19 May 2012


Every now and then, you know. Every now and then.

If a computer can wear a tiara convincingly, then it is human. This is called ‘The Tiara-ing Test’.

You know Raymond, who sells automobiles? He's a killer! It's in a poem. ‘I met murder on the way/He had a face like car-sell Ray’.

An everyday story of Kierkegaard folk: The Either/Archers. ‘On my naming day I gone front spear & kilt a wyld boar he parbly the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs.’ That pig's name? Riddley Porker.

Tomorrow is Wednesday. From the verb ‘To Dnesdsy’. I Dnesday. You Dnesday. We Dnesday.

Breaking news: they've discovered the manuscript sequel Ben Jonson wrote for VOLPONE! Apparently it's called VOLPTWO.

Hollande meets Merkel today. Their Brangelina-name would be ‘Merkellande’.

Eating a Curlywurly. Wondering what happened to the confectionary created by the other two of the Three Stooges. A man walked into a bar. Ding! It was a bar on a stave of music.

Some people don't like Mervyn Peake, but I'll tell you this: he's a much better writer than Mervyn Trough.

Cameron cricked his neck! Osborne cricked HIS neck ... Miliband too! It's political cricked necks gone MAD!

As the cannibal said when he devoured the Mycenaean king: ‘AgamemNOMNOMNOM’

Friday, 18 May 2012

Next life

Elizabeth Bibesco (in “Haven”, 1951) said ‘death is a part of this life, not the next.’ But this hardly goes far enough: for the ‘next life’ is part of this life too. Nextness is quintessentially the idiom of living; it is life that is one thing after another, and death by definition the cancellation of that order.

Thursday, 17 May 2012


My, how those Victorian greats disliked the other Victorian greats!

CHARLES DICKENS.  His eye rests always on surfaces; he has no insight into character. [Emerson, Journals (1839)]

CHARLES DICKENS. 'A child of genius, but only a child, he never progresses, never improves, never studies, never restrains. [John Brown, 6 Dec 1855; Letters (1907), 107]

JOHN STUART MILL.  'An utterly shallow wretched segment of human creature, incapable of understanding anything in the ultimate condition of it.' [John Ruskin, 12 Sept 1869; Letters to Charles Eliot Norton (1905), 1:245]

MACAULAY'S HISTORY OF ENGLAND.  'Full of low merits; it is like English manufactures of all kinds, neat, convenient, portable, saleable, made on purpose for Harpers to print a hundred thousand copies of.' [Emerson, Journals (1850)]

THACKERAY.  'A first rate journey-man, though not a great artist' [Matthew Arnold, 1853; Letters to Arthur Hugh Clough (1932), 132]
BULWER LYTTON. 'Essentially a man of tinsel; with versatile powers, but without genius. Dead, he and his works, as soon as he dies. [Charles Eliot Norton, 1873; Letters (1913), 1:461]
GEORGE ELIOT. 'Her views of life, of God, of all that is deepest and truest in man, are low, miserable, hopeless, and she seems always wishing to drag her readers down to her dead level ... she is unwholesome and in a high sense unreal, and I trust that in fifty years she will be forgotten except by critics.  [John Brown, 24 December 1872; Letters (1907), 213-14]
'That disgusting Mill of the Floss' [John Ruskin, Hortus Inclusus (1887), 122]
JOSEPH CONRAD.  'A completely worthless writer' [George Moore, Life (1936), 325]
See Holbrook Jackson, Bookman's Holiday (Faber 1945) for more.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012


There's a ditty I was, as a kid, fond of: 'How happy is the moron!/He doesn't give a damn./I wish I were a moron..../My God, perhaps I am!'  Here's Ben Jonson's slightly more up-market version of the same idea (Nano and Castrone sing this lyric in Volpone):
Fools, they are the only nation
Worth men's envy, or admiration:
Free from care or sorrow-taking,
Selves and others merry making:
All they speak or do is sterling.
Your fool he is your great man's darling,
And your ladies' sport and pleasure;
Tongue and bauble are his treasure.
E'en his face begetteth laughter,
And he speaks truth free from slaughter;
He's the grace of every feast,
And sometimes the chiefest guest;
Hath his trencher and his stool,
When wit waits upon the fool:
O, who would not be
He, he, he?
The thing is, folly strikes me as much more likely to be productive of sadness, sometimes excessive and suicidal sadness, than blithe lobotomised happiness. Surely it's always been that way?

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


For now we see as through the lenses of sunglasses, darkly, but then face to face ...

Monday, 14 May 2012

The odds of salvation

So let's assume the Bible is correct, and only 144,000 people will be saved. The rest, clearly, must be damned. How many people are alive today, and how many have ever lived? Add the numbers together, and conservatively I'd say we're looking at ooh I don't know—twenty billion. Probably more. So if the world ended tomorrow, 144,000 out of 20,000,000,000 would be saved. That gives any one individual a 0.00000072 chance of being saved. That’s (rounding up) about a millionth of a percent chance. I don’t like those odds. More, we can say that these odds are so monumentally stacked against any given individual that you, whoever you are, however virtuous you think your life or however earnest your repentance ... you will not be saved. Statistics say so.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Utility in News from Nowhere

A great achievement of News from Nowhere is the way it reconfigures work as freedom. It is the utility of Morris’s Romantic vision that is new; for the earlier Romantics (Blake, perhaps, excepted) utilty and its cognates were dirty words. In a 2008 London Review of Books essay on Terry Eagleton thumbnails Romanticism like this: 'For the Romantics both God and art belonged to that rare category of objects which existed entirely for their own sake, free of the vulgar taint of utility. The third member of this category was the human being. In their freedom, independence and glorious pointlessness, works of art were images of men and women—or at least of what they could become under transformed political conditions. In this sense art was a politics all of its own, pointing to a future society in which human beings would be treated as ends in themselves. It was a foretaste of utopia in its very uselessness.' [LRB, 24.1.08, p.14]. When Eagletson says 'images of men and women—or at least of what they could become under transformed political conditions' he means 'images of aristocrats', for even by the early 20th century the overwhelming majority of portraits were of well-to-do people. I remain personally unpersuaded by the notion that the point of Revolution is to make us all into Montagues of Beaulieu. My point is that Eagleton gets utility entirely the wrong way around: because utility is a uniquely human concept we can truly say that nothing exists for reasons of utility except humans. The cholera bacterium has no utility, and cares not; but that I can be of use is the proudest boast I can make as a person. And this is something Morris understands absolutely.

The way ‘work’ is parsed in the novel through art and architecture gives it a unique, almost revelatory force. We all know, of course, that in the world most work is not arty. Morris knew that too; that’s not his point. Rather he seeks, in this book and elsewhere, to re-define art in such as way as to encompass a whole range of human experiences not usually brought under the umbrella of that definition. His essay ‘How I Became A Socialist’ (published in the left-wing journal Justice, in 1894) explains his ideological journey. He was provoked by the manifest injustices and inequalities of Victorian society, ‘the wrongs of society as it now is and the oppression of poor people’ and convinced that change needed to be more than piecemeal and ameliorative—that it needed to be radical and systematic if it was to do any true good. But he also confesses, tellingly, that finally getting round to reading Marx caused him ‘agonies of confusion of the brain’ (he ‘enjoyed’ Marx’s historical analysis, he claims, but could not get his head around its ‘pure economics’). And, summing up his political allegiance, he picks out history on the one hand and art on the other as his personal prime movers:
To sum up, then, the study of history and the love and practice of art forced me into a hatred of civilisation which, if things were to stop as they are, would turn history into inconsequence nonsense and make art a collection of the curiosities of the past which would have no serious relation to the life of the present. .... It must be remembered that civilization has reduced the workman to such a skinny and pitiful existence that he scarcely knows how to frame any desire for any life much better than that which he now endures perforce. It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before him. [Morris, ‘How I Became a Socialist’]
Art is to be deployed to save Art; history is to be redeemed from inconsequence and nonsensical by making it consequential and sensible. Art, for Morris, is always the context of lived experience: the houses in which we live, the landscapes through which we move, as well as the books we read and the statues that fill our public galleries. History, in fact, is the same thing; which is to say, implicit in all that Morris writes is what we might call an anti-Annales mode of History: the belief that history is not a neutral succession of events, but is rather a story that can be more or less beautifully realised—that History is the lived experience of Art, and that it should be judged not so much according to statistical, or economic, or even socio-political criteria, but according to aesthetic ones, judged as to whether it is more or less beautiful.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Space Opera poem

To the heavens around us
Each globe and each world,
The planets that love us,
Each storehouse of gold!
What spacecraft, what weapon
Against us shall bide?
The whole world of heaven
Fights yet on our side!

Friday, 11 May 2012

Violence and respect

'The prison inmates I work with have told me repeatedly, when I asked them why they had assaulted someone, that it was because “he disrespected me” or “he disrespected my visit” (meaning ‘visitor’). The word disrespect is so central in the vocabulary, moral value system, and psycho-dynamics of these chronically violent men that they have abbreviated it into the slang term, “he dis’ed me”.' [Gilligan, Violence (New York: Putnam 1996), 106]
This is interesting, and of course rings true. But the (unexamined) notion that the way to get respect is not to -- you know -- act respectably, but rather to compel it by threat of, or actual, violence. It looks counterintuitive, until we realise that what is actually wanted here is that the Other respect precisely my capacity for violence.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Adventures in footnoting

Let's say you are generating the footnotes for an annotated edition of Nicholas Nickleby. In Chapter 27, Mr Pyke asks for a 'half-and-half'. How does Michael Slater (Penguin, 1978) gloss this?
A mixture of two malt liquors, especially ale and porter.
Fair enough. So how does David Parker (Everyman 1994) gloss it?
A mixture of two malt liquors, especially ale and porter.
That feels ... familiar, somehow. What will you do?
“half-and-half” One of a variety of possible mixtures of alcoholic drinks; either mild ale and bitter, or Scotch ale and India Pale Ale (especially in the north), or (in Ireland) ale and Guinness.
Of course, that took you almost a minute of research online, in the 19th-century sources on Google Books. Almost a full minute!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Banque de France

This puzzles me some:
The Bank of England had come close to failing altogether in 1825; only the transfer of substantial gold reserves from the Banque de France kept it afloat.
Isn't this as if the Bank of Germany were to prop up the Bank of America in 1955 with a transfer of gold? How could the banking system of a defeated and exhausted (and Revolution prone) France have been in so much stronger a position in 1825 than its British counterpart?

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Family Dickens

I've been pondering this, and (I daresay) coming up with some rather obvious thoughts -- the idea, in other words, that Dickens' huge contemporary fame was based on him as a family entertainer, not just suitable and diverting reading for the whole family, but in some sense reflecting the family to itself, both reinforcing and interrogating the values of 'family'. But having made that, perhaps, over-obvious point, I'm thrown back on the reflection that Dickens seems remarkably disinclined to actually represent a straightforward, vanilla, honest-to-goodness to family. I was re-reading Nicholas Nickleby when it struck me: this is CD's third novel, and fourth published book; and yet it is the first to portray an actual family, and a notably (to use the modern idiom) disfunctional one at that. The Pickwick club is a sort of benign alter-family, in which the lack of blood ties is exactly what enables everyone to get along so splendidly; Fagin's gang is a sort of mirror-universe version of the same thing. Early Dickens is full of boarding-houses, prisons and workhouses, alternate groupings of human beings that are kibbutzic, or anti-kibbutzic, as rival models of 'the family'. In David Copperfield, family is what is taken away, and which one replaces with friends (schoolfriends, say) on the road to replacing it with a wife and children of your own -- a fair approximation of many people's relationship to 'family' of course, although one which the novel stymies by killing off Dora in the process. Bleak House tropes 'family' as a horrible entangling lawsuit, and ranges promiscuously through variant models. Scrooges lives alone, before financially 'adopting' a stranger's family; in Tale of Two Cities and Little Dorrit family is the medium through which ancestral shame and guilt as passed to the present. In The Old Curiosity family is weirdly attenuated to incapacitated grandfather and grand-daughter; and in Dombey and Son CD wrote a novel that was in part a critique of precisely that attenuation -- the logic that says 'the only people who matter in this family are me and my first-born son'. There are, of course, lots of novels about lots of hidden, secret family relationships that CD's plots laboriously bring to the surface, but that is in itself a sort of critique: saying that what is, in life, almost unmissably present, day-by-day, in your face (often too in your face, as many people struggle to cohabit in a space too small for them) in art becomes so cunningly hidden away that it takes a 1000-page novel to bring it to light.

Monday, 7 May 2012


'The world of the happy is quite different from the world of the unhappy' (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.43). It puts me in mind of that gag about Fitzgerald's 'the rich are different' ('yes: they have more money'). 'The happy are different to the unhappy; they're happier.' Which is to say: is this the most banal thing Ludwig ever said?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Hartley Coleridge on Melancholy

From Essays and Marginalia (1851):
"Perfect melancholy," says honest Ben, "is the complexion of the ass." I have heard it asserted that the observation is no longer applicable. This is certainly a broad grinning age. A grave face is no longer the frontispiece to the apocryphal book of wisdom. Gravity is laughed out of countenance.—But melancholy is not the fashion of an age, nor the whim of an individual—it is the universal humour of mankind— so far, indeed, I differ from Ben Jonson (whose memory may Heaven preserve from editorial spite, and editorial adulation!) inasmuch as I think that melancholy is a passion properly and exclusively human. The ass and the owl are solemn, the cat is demure, the savage is serious, but only the cultivated man is melancholy. Perhaps the fallen spirits may partake of this disposition. So Ben would imply by the title of his comedy, called, "The Devil is an Ass," and if, as hath been more plausibly affirmed, the devil be a great humourist, then he must needs be melancholy—for whatever tends to laughter (unless it be mere fun) proceeds from that complexion.
Melancholy can scarce exist in an undegraded spirit—it cannot exist in a mere animal. It is the offspring of contradiction—a hybrid begotten by the finite upon infinity. It arose when the actual was divided from the possible. To the higher natures, all possible things are true; the lower natures can have no conception of an unreal possibility. Neither, therefore, can properly be supposed capable of melancholy. They may be sad indeed; but sadness is not melancholy, nor is melancholy always sadness. It is a seeking for that which can never be found—a reminiscence or an anticipation of immortality—a recognition of an eternal principle, hidden within us, crying from amidst the deep waters of the soul. Melancholy, I say, proceeds from the juxtaposition of contraries—of time and eternity—of flesh and spirit—it considers human life to be a— "Still waking sleep, that is not what it is." Whether this consideration shall give rise to laughter or tears, to hope or to despondence, to pity or to scorn, to reverence for the better, or to contempt for the worse element, depends much upon the heart, and much on the mind. But tears and laughter are but different modes of melancholy. Hope and fear, despair and scorn, and love and pity—(when they are anything more than mere animal emotions) are but various manifestations of the same great power.
Melancholy is the only Muse. She is Thalia and Melpomene. She inspired Milton and Michael Angelo, and Swift and Hogarth. All men of genius are melancholy—and none more so than those whose genius is comic. Men (those I mean who are not mere animals) may be divided, according to the kind of their melancholy, into three great classes. Those who seek for the infinite, in contradistinction to the finite—those who seek for the infinite in the finite—and those who seek to degrade the finite by a comparison with the infinite. The first class comprehends philosophers and religionists ; the second, poets, lovers, conquerors, misers, stock-jobbers, &c.; and the third comprises satirists, comedians, jokers of all kinds, man-haters, and womanhaters, Epicures, and bon-vivants in general. The philosopher, conscious that his spiritual part requires spiritual food, and finding none such among the realities of sense, acknowledges no permanence but that of ideal truth—truth is his God. He is in love with invisible beauty. He finds harmony in dumb quantities, grace in a diagram, and sublimity in the multiplication-table. He is a denizen of the mundus intelligibilis, and holds the possible to be more real than reality. The religionist, like the philosopher, craves for eternity, but his appetite is not to be satisfied with such ethereal diet. He cannot live upon matterless forms, and truths that have no life, no heart, no will. He finds that his spirit is vital as well as eternal, and therefore needs a God that is living as well as true. He longs and hopes for an actual immortality, a permanent existence, a blessedness that shall be felt and known. The heaven of philosophers is indifference, that of the religious is love.
In attributing to melancholy the origin of philosophy and of religion, let me not be supposed to attribute the love of truth and holiness to any mere humour or complexion. All that I mean is, that both presuppose a consciousness of a contradiction in human nature, and a searching for the things that are not seen. No man was ever religious or philosophic who was thoroughly contented with the world as it appears. The second class—those, namely, who imagine a spiritual power in things temporal or material, who truly seek for what they cannot find, may be said to comprise, at some period of life or other, the whole human race. All men are lovers or poets—if not in their waking moments, in their dreams. Now, it is the essence of love, of poetry, of ambition, of avarice,— in fact, of every species of passion,—to confer reality on imagination, eternity on the offspring of a moment, spirituality and permanence on the fleeting objects of sense. No man who is in love considers his mistress as a mere woman. He may be conscious, perhaps, that she is neither better nor fairer than thousands of her sex; but if he loves truly, he must know that she is something to him which she is not in herself—that love in fact is a creative power, that realizes its own dreams. The miser knows that money is more to him than metal—it is more than meat, drink, or pleasure —more than all which its earthly omnipotence can command. The lover and the miser alike are poets, for they are alike enamoured of the creature of their own imagination. This world is a contradiction—a shade, a symbol— and, spite of ourselves, we know that it is so. From this knowledge does all melancholy proceed. We crave for that which the earth does not contain; and whether this craving display itself by hope, by despair, by religion, by idolatry, or by atheism,—it must ever be accompanied with a sense of defect and weakness —a consciousness, more or less distinct, of disproportion between the ideas which are the real objects of desire and admiration, and the existences which excite and represent them. The poet does that for his subject which all men do for the things they long for, and the persons they love. He makes it the visible symbol of a spiritual power. In proportion to the adequacy of these symbols, men are happy or unhappy. But few, indeed, are wholly free from an aching suspicion of their inadequacy. The satirist is the poet's contrary. The poet's office is to invest the world with light. The satirist points out the light, to convince the world of darkness. When Melancholy assumes this, its worst and most hopeless form, it generally leads into one or both of two evils:—a delight in personal power, derived solely from the exposure of others' weakness; or a gross and wilful sensuality, arising not so much from an eagerness for the things of sense, as from a contempt and unbelief, say rather an uneasy and passionate hatred, of the things of the nobler being.
"Love is a creative power, that realizes its own dreams". I've no idea why this hasn't been taken up, and printed on a million T-Shirts, Inspirational Posters and tea-towels; it's a doozy.

Saturday, 5 May 2012


Munch, on the experience that lead him to paint The Scream (Shrik, which he originally titled Der Schrei der Natur, 'The Cry of Nature'): I was walking along a path with two friends — the sun was setting — suddenly the sky turned blood red — I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence — there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city — my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety — and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. [Munch's Diary, 22 January 1892].

Two things: One: why do we in England call this artwork 'the Scream', when 'Shriek' is both perfectly idiomatic and appropriate? Two: are we to take Munch's 'infinite scream passing through nature' as volitional? Is it the scream of something, or somebody? Or is it, rather, the friction of a cosmic motion, the expansion of everything tearing against the underlying fabric? I prefer this latter niotion, as more sciencefictional.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Amis on Updike

Martin Amis's piece on John Updike (in Visiting Mrs Nabokov, 1993) is good on Updike's unique mix of genial social optimism and often startlingly intimate personal-confessional. As Amis puts it:
Modern fiction tends towards the autobiographical and American fiction more than most ... Yet the case of Updike is unquestionably extreme. The textural contrast between your first and second wife's pubic hair, for instance, is something that most writers feel their readers can get along without. [51]
I am part of that 'most writers' grouping, in this instance.

Thursday, 3 May 2012


'Human beings,' says Graham Greene, 'are more important to believers than they are to atheists'. I think he's got this the wrong way round; human beings, after all, are all atheists have. Even if an atheist dismisses another human being, her dismissal bumps up against the limits of the human condition in a way a believer cannot match.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


More from George Shelvocke's A Voyage round the World by the way of the great South Sea, performed in the years 1719, 20, 21, 22 (1726). I find myself wondering if Robert Browning read this book. It's not in The Browning Collections; but that doesn't mean he necessarily, didn't read it, of course; and there's evidence in the Collections that he liked this sort of thing (for instance, A67: George Anson, Voyage Round the World in the Years 1740-44 [1748]). The reason I wonder is that this description:
On January 19, in the evening, we got safe in between Maritato and the Island of Sebaco, and anchor'd in 6 fathom water, over-against a green field, which is instruction sufficient, there being but that clear spot hereabouts. Our Pilot desir'd we might be going at least 3 hours before day-light, and that then we should be in good time at the plantations; accordingly I went away at the next morning, in our own boat, and order'd the two Lieutenants in the two Piraguas, leaving my Son, and a few with him, to take care, of the ship; our Pilot having us in charge carried us up some part of the river of St. Martin, and out of that into several branches of very narrow Creeks amongst Mangroves, where we had not room to row. I could by no means approve of this navigation, and therefore kept a strict eye upon our guide, and was ready to suspect that he had no good design in his head; we landed just at day-break, and when we came on the bank found ourselves in a fine Savanna, or plain, and after a march of about 3 miles, came to two farm-houses, but those belonging to them made their escapes, except the Wife and Children of one house. [Shelvocke, 299-300]
puts me in mind of this:
The gray sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim;
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Old Stratagem

I see now what Patrick O'Brien was reading. Shelvocke, on the far side of the world, is being pursued by a French ship, bigger and faster than he:
The nearer I approach'd to her, the less I liked her, and could not but think it adviseable to about ship, and crowd from her. However, she gain'd upon us, and advanced near enough to shew us that she was the Brilliant, the Admiral's consort; she was a French built ship of 36 guns, mann'd with people of that nation, and other Europeans. She was handsomely rigg'd, which is rare to be seen in these parts, and sail’d almost two foot for our one, so that, notwithstanding that we had a calm almost all the heat of the day, she would come near us apace upon every little breeze. But night coming on, I made use of the old stratagem (I thought it might be new here) of turning a light adrift in a half tub, instead of a boat, darkning one part of the lanthorn, that it might not appear a continued light, and alter'd my course. As the day broke, I handed all my sails, and in full day-light could perceive nothing of her.
This is George Shelvocke's A Voyage round the World by the way of the great South Sea, performed in the years 1719, 20, 21, 22 (1726), p.198; the first edition is available in full on Google books.