Saturday, 30 June 2012


I sometimes wonder if Don Paterson isn't the most technically gifted living British poet.  Here's a short one from 1999's The Eyes, 'Paradoxes':
Only in our sorrows do we live
within the heart of consciousness, the lie.
Meeting his master crying in the road
a student took Solon to task: "but why,
your son so long in the ground, do you still grieve
if, as you say, man's tears avail him nothing?'
'Young friend,' said Solon, lifting his old head,
'I weep because my tears avail me nothing.'
Neat. But also a portrait of an egotism so huge as to be almost monstrous ... 'I will not weep for my dead son, but I will weep for myself, that I do not weep for my dead son.'  Or perhaps it's not egotism.  Perhaps this is the dark truth we try to ignore about bereavement: we're not sad for the dead, who are beyond troubles. We're sad for ourself.  Grief is a mode of self pity.

Friday, 29 June 2012

OMF Title

Fowler’s Modern Usage is stern on the idiom that makes up the title of Dickens's last completed novel.
‘Mutual is a well-known trap. The essence of its meaning is that it involves the relation, of x is or does to y as y to x; and not the relation z is or does to z as y to z; from which it follows that out mutual friend Jones (meaning Jones who is your friend as well as mine) and all similar phrases are misuses of mutual. An example of he mistake, which is very common, is: On the other hand, if we [ie the Western powers] merely sat with our arms folded there would be a peaceful penetration of Russia by the country [ie Germany] which was the mutual enemy [ie of both Russia and the Western Powers]. In such places common is the right word, and the use of mutual betrays ignorance of its meaning.
My Common Friend would, of course, have a completely different set of associations. Some have been less circumspect.
G. K. Chesterton, in love with the Dickens of the earlier farcical period before he was "gradually absorbed by modern cul- ture and good manners," dwells with "gloomy pleasure" on the "illiterate title," Our Mutual Friend. With "unholy joy" he comments on it, in the introduction to the Everyman edition of this novel, as an indication that Dickens was " still the old self- made man with its disadvantages and its merits." He is no doubt right in his main contention that Dickens was still in 1864 dis- tinctly a man of the middle class, liable to slip in his speech. [Eva M. Campbell 'On the Title, "Our Mutual Friend"' Modern Language Notes 38:4 (1923), 250]
My theory is that the title (despite Dickens mischievously suggesting otherwise in the book itself) has nothing to do with this idiom. It's about 'mutuality' in the general, and more forcefully in the commercial and mercantile sense. But I don't have time to go into all that here.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Alphabetic apocalypse

I've been thinking about this for a few weeks, with respect to an academic paper I had to write.  In his recent polemical account of the apocalyptic logic of contemporary life, Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek argues that “the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point. Its ‘four riders of the apocalypse’ are comprised by the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions”  Zizek is a frantic sort of fellow, intellectually speaking. Against his ‘explosive’ apocalypse, we might set Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, which describes a “glacial world”: “a world in which there is no longer any up or down, centre or periphery, nor anything else that might make it a world designed for humans. For the first time, the world manifests itself as capable of subsisting without any of those aspects that constitute its concreteness for us” Caroline Edwards delivered an interesting (to me, at any rate!) paper on ‘Pastoral Post-Apocalypse’ at the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture 2011 'Apocalypse and its Discontents' conference. My novel The Snow (one of the texts discussed at that conference) works in this mode, I think: the apotheosis of the blank page, the alphabetless experience. The alphabets this novel attempts to tippex over include the narratives narratemes of flood and SF alien encounter, but also the socio-political structuring elements (‘letters’) of race, gender and capitalism.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Neon Nietzsche

To quote Neon Nietzsche: ‘From the school of the female video-game warrior: that which does not kill you makes you Tron-girl.’

Tuesday, 26 June 2012



It is one of the striking things about the novel: the way it builds its tension of buried threat, building unfairness, in order to pay it out in the final sections in actual violence. Of the various plotlines that draw their narrative energy from the sense that injustice is slowly growing: that Wegg will succeed in his evil schemes, that Boffin is sinking into actual miserliness; that Headstone’s rival Eugene will seduce and abandon Lizzie—it is the sexual tension last that pays out, symbolically, most striking. As if the sexual tension of the first three books breaks out, in the final quarter, in a flurry of transferred physical beatings—Headstone beating Eugene (‘the blows fell heavily and cruelly on the quiet of the night’ 4:6); Lammle beating Fledgby and making his writhe and cry out; Boffin beating up Wegg. This novel is much less about money, then, and much more about sex. That statement will need a little defending, since Dickens is not often thought of as novelist skilled in the delineation of the sexual life. And so perhaps it would be safer to say that Our Mutual Friend is about the relationship between what can be shown and what ought to be hidden. Between if we want to put it this way, propriety and the improper; between decency and the indecent. On the one hand are all the civilised virtues of the nineteenth-century, the things that are fit subjects for a mainstream Victorian novel. On the other is all the stuff across which the veil of discretion is conventionally drawn: waste; shit; sex; violence; exploitation; deformity; drunkenness; deceit; death. One of the most striking things about this striking novel is the way all its money comes from the latter half.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Other Roberts

Michael Symmons Roberts (no relation) knows why the world is so mournful.

That's why rivers dry to scabs,
that's why the grass weeps every dawn,
that's why the wind feels raw. ['Pelt', 2005]

It's because 'the earth is an open wound'.  But what he doesn't say, in this poem (although he implies it, in this poem) is that wounds heal; and that scabs, like tears, and the feeling of being raw, are symptoms of that healing.

Sunday, 24 June 2012


From Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811):
COCKNEY: A nick name given to the citizens of London, or persons born within the sound of Bow bell, derived from the following story: A citizen of London, being in the country, and hearing a horse neigh, exclaimed, Lord! how that horse laughs! A by-stander telling him that noise was called NEIGHING, the next morning, when the cock crowed, the citizen to shew he had not forgot what was told him, cried out, Do you hear how the COCK NEIGHS? The king of the cockneys is mentioned among the regulations for the sports and shows formerly held in the Middle Temple on Childermas Day, where he had his officers, a marshal, constable, butler, &c. See DUGDALE'S ORIGINES JURIDICIALES, p. 247.—Ray says, the interpretation of the word Cockney, is, a young person coaxed or conquered, made wanton; or a nestle cock, delicately bred and brought up, so as, when arrived a man's estate, to be unable to bear the least hardship. Whatever may be the origin of this appellation, we learn from the following verses, attributed to Hugh Bigot, Earl of Norfolk, that it was in use, in the time of king Henry II:
Was I in my castle at Bungay,
Fast by the river Waveney,
I would not care for the king of Cockney; [i.e. the king of London].
I don't believe a word of it, of course; and neither do you.  You might as well say:  'a visitor from London, eating for the first time that country delicacy called cooked bullock's knees, did praise the dish so loudly the locals began calling him the COOKED-KNEE MAN, whence derived &c. &c.'

Saturday, 23 June 2012


I rather like this, from Swiss poet and (of all things) phrenologist Johann Kaspar Lavater: 'Who in the same given time can produce more than others has vigor; who can produce more and better, has talents; who can produce what none else can, has genius. [Aphorisms on Man (c. 1788), No. 23]' Hard to think of a better thumbnail of literary production.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Interesting Facts about Our Mutual Friend, No 2

Chapter 2, and Mortimer is about to tell the story of the 'Man from Somewhere'. Or does he come from nowhere?
 'Sorry to destroy romance by fixing him with a local habitation,' says Mortimer. 'But he comes from the place, the name of which escapes me, but will suggest itself to everybody else here, where they make the wine.' 
Eugene suggests 'Day and Martin's.' 
'No, not that place,' returns the unmoved Mortimer, 'that's where they make the Port. My man comes from the country where they make the Cape Wine.'
Now this slightly complicated joke that will probably not gain in hilarity from being explained. But here I go anyway. In the nineteenth-century, boot blacking was sold either as a paste, or else in liquid form. The main manufacture of this latter kind were Day and Martin [‘To give some idea of the extent of the operations still carried on at "Day and Martin's," it may be stated, that on the average 150 casks, containing a quantity of blacking equal to 900 dozen pint bottles, are sent out per day. ‘Black Manufacturers’, Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (1851), 631]. Now, the bottles in which this blacking was shipped were widely reused to serve wine that had been bought in a cask or butt [‘wine is wine, whether in a hogshead, a flask or one of Day and Martin’s blacking bottles’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 10 (1821), 79]. Hence Eugene’s joke. Mortimer’s riposte invokes the facetious habit of describing bad port wine as ‘boot blacking’ (For instance: ‘we drank the health of our entertainer in a glass of most execrable port-wine, which my husband stigmatized as "Day and Martin's blacking, ink," &c.’ Anne Mathews, Memoirs of Charles Mathews, Comedian (1839), 3:134). So there you have it.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Madness in 1860

An article from The London Review, 7 July 1860.  I'm parking it here because it interests me, and may be of use a little later.


""Be warned, you victims to an ill-regulated ambition, you money-grubbers, you pleasure-seekers, you sad bigots, and yon who allow your souls to be filled with an all-engrossing passion. Yon are mad!—mad!—all downright mad! Come, listen to me, and I shall convince you of your insanity."
The Obscure Diseases of the Brain and Disorders of the Mind, 4c. By Forbes Winslow, M.D. London: John Churchill.

Civilization, or something that is called by that name for want of a better, is rapidly advancing, and insanity is on the increase: can there be any connection between the two facts?  Horace—regarding Rome in the very height of its glory, when arts most flourished, when the state was most prosperous, and the empire most wealthy—detected a dark vein of insanity running through the Commonwealth :— 

Audire, atque togam jubeo componerc, quisquis
Ambitione mala, ant argenti pallet amore;
Quisquis luxurut, trigtive superstitione,
Aut alio mentis morbo ealet. Hue proprius me,
Dum doceo insanire omnes, vos ordine adite

The lines of Horace seem to be as applicable to us—the foremost people on the globe—as they were to the Romans. It is the boast of the age in which we live that the efforts of human industry during the last fifty years have outstripped in ingenuity of invention and in importance those of any half-century in the history of the world. Future generations will, in all probability, admit the justice of our self-congratulation; for it would be impossible to take even the most cursory view of the progress of science and art without appreciating the vast strides that have been made within the period indicated. We have had the galvanic current applied to the purposes of daily intercourse so effectively that no event of political or commercial importance can occur in any capital of Europe without its being known, within a few hours, from Stockholm to Lisbon and Constantinople. The progress of engineering stands recorded in the Britannia and Victoria Bridges, and the world has wondered at its last effort in the construction of the Great Eastern. Labourers in the field of chemistry have been rewarded with prodigious success,—the organic division of the science may almost be said to have come into existence within the century, and so rapid has been its development that at times the explorer seems to stand upon the very verge of final causes. The various branches of natural philosophy have shared the same rapid onward movement. Arts and manufactures have not lagged in the race of progress; every day ushers new inventions into life, and—alas! for our civilisation—the art of war has in an especial manner crowned its votaries with success in the extent and precision of destruction at which their inventions aimed. And do we not all know that our commercial operations are conducted upon a scale and with a boldness of which our predecessors never entertained a conception,—their happy ignorance or caution, however, saving them from the periodical throes of a commercial crisis. But the proudest laurels of the age have perhaps been won in the cause of education.

The labouring classes have had the opportunities of self-improvement afforded them, and how successfully they have availed themselves of the privilege is daily forced upon the attention of those who care to study the subject. A market sadly overstocked with candidates who as clerks seek to earn their livelihood at the desk, the introduction of middle-class and competitive examinations, and still more the severer competition of life itself, have given a powerful impetus to mental culture amongst the middle classes. The overcrowded state of the learned professions, and the resulting severity of the competition amongst their members, have operated strongly, though indirectly, to raise the standard of education. It is unnecessary to pursue farther the retrospect, nor is it desirable to add to the self-laudation of the age. There are other facts intimately connected with the same period which, if they are not so pleasant to contemplate, do not the less demand serious reflection.

Of these facts one of the most undoubted is the lamentable increase in the prevalence of insanity at the present time. The advance of science, the progress of civilization, the extension of education have been great, but insanity, in its various forms, has advanced pari passu with these triumphs of our day. We are forced to the conclusion that there is a connection between advanced civilization and the increased prevalence of mental disease. Upon no other supposition can we explain the fearful amount of insanity in our large cities, and its steadily increasing ratio as we ascend from the least to the most cultivated class of those who subsist by the labour of their brains. Such a state of things is not encouraging. What are the circumstances mainly productive of insanity, and at the same time prognostic of its increase? The causes which so operate appear, unfortunately, to be the very triumphs that we regard so complacently as the boast of the century; but in an especial maimer they are the extension of education and that competition of the day which may be designated as "the struggle of life." Nowhere is life so "fast" as in America,—nowhere is insanity so common, or manifested at so early an age. In England the number of persons in the various professions is so incommensurate with the demand for their labours that the severest competition results. Fearful of being outstripped in the race, men systematically and continuously overtax their mental powers, and, when they flag from want of repose, too often spur them on by artificial stimulus. Little physical exertion, constant mental strain, excessive brain-work by day, stimulants which exhaust nature's small reserve of power, while they appear to create new energy,—nights, how often disturbed by anxieties for the morrow, and all this for a series of years! What must be the last chapter of such a feverish existence? Unfortunately, too, the competition of life does not begin when the professional man enters the arena fairly to earn his livelihood: it operates at college, it is felt at school, and anxious parents whisper the first promptings of emulation as they strap the child's satchel on his back. The boy of eight or nine is too often urged on to study, while little heed is taken of his physical development. What was emulation at the preparatory school becomes hard mental labour in his teens, feverish work at college, fierce mental competition in his profession, until'at last the prematurely overwrought brain loses its coordinating balance, and madness or softening of the brain and dementia close a short and often a promising career. And, to descend a step lower than the learned and literary professions, amongst the class designated as "clerks," what continuous and anxious mental labour is often required; and, apart from the onerous duties which they have to discharge, how many there are of their number who, from the competition of the age, are unable, though willing, to find employment. When in a situation, uncertainty of tenure; when out of work, uncertainty of bread,—no wonder they furnish their quota to the lunatic asylums.

In England we are happily free from one great source of mental disease—violent political excitement,—and it is unnecessary to allude to such endemic causes of madness as religious excitement, evidenced, however, of late in the revival movement in the north of Ireland. A deeply interesting class of predisposing causes to insanity presents itself for consideration in our social state with regard to marriage and other cognate subjects, but the discussion of these could not be undertaken within the limits of this article. We have already alluded to the commercial operations of the present day, and on this subject it must be remarked, that whether it arises from the anxiety and tension of mind inseparable from the uncertainty of speculation or from the nervous consciousness of overtrading and daily impending embarrassment, it is an unquestionable fact that the commercial world furnishes an astounding number of lunatics to our asylums, and most medical men in London practice have had professional experience of the frequency of premature softening of the brain amongst the same classes. Absolute mental alienation, frequent as its manifestations have become, although the most evident, is not the only imperious result of excessive intellectual labour and the daily anxieties of life. There is a degree of mental disturbance short of well-marked insanity, but often its precursor, which is unhappily much more common than would' be suspected by those who have not had their attention particularly directed to this subject There are few physicians who devote their attention to psychological disease, who are not almost daily consulted respecting symptoms of premature mental decay, loss of memory, fancies and illusions of the most distressing and even hideous character amongst the educated classes of the community, and which long experience has taught them to recognize as the frequent heralds of advancing insanity. We might almost venture to say that a large majority of the brain-working classes have at tunes experienced mental symptoms of a character which their own judgment recognizes as so nearly allied to the diseased class of psychological actions that they have for a short time occasioned suspicions of the gravest nature in their own minds. Is there any remedy for this prevalence and increase of mental diseases 1 The question is full of difficulty. It would be hopeless to attempt to answer it shortly and satisfactorily, but its suggestion will at least attract attention to the subject, and perhaps induce people to pause and consider whether they are not living too recklessly. Its mere discussion may induce our brain-working classes to labour less continuously than they now do, and to give their minds that reasonable amount of repose which is essential to a healthy discharge of their functions. It has been our purpose throughout less to dogmatize on a subject so difficult, than to remind the reader of facts which, in the hurry of life, rarely attract his attention ; and after having suggested their existence, to leave him to make his own reflections. Great as | is the capacity of the human mind, it can be taxed beyond healthy limits; ami this observation, applicable to the individual, holds equally good when applied to a generation. Does not society en masse lose more than it gains by that feverish and railway speed of life of our day? The age has much to boast of, but it is possible for even an age to attempt too much. Festina hnte is the moral of our theme—a moral which requires iteration in this "go-ahead" nineteentli century. These reflections have been suggested by the perusal of Dr. Winslow's latest production, a valuable work upon obscure diseases of the brain and mind. Dr. Winslow has been long and honourably known to the medical profession and the public as one of the most earnest and enlightened labourers in the difficult field of psychological medicine. The work before us is worthy of Dr. Winslow's high reputation. We need hardly say that it is a volume intended for the professional reader, and in respect to mental dise.ises, and more particularly their premonitory symptoms, it is a valuable contribution to medical literature. Dr. Winslow earnestly impresses upon the profession the importance of recognizing and treating the early symptoms of brain disease, of which he gives a masterly outline for their guidance. To the professional reader his description of what he very happily names "the choreic phase of insanity," will be deeply interesting, and his hypothesis of molecular alteration in the nerve corpuscles, as influencing aberration of intellect, will be found of interest. We are glad to notice that the book is, to some extent, prefatory of a more extended work upon psychological disease, and we cordially commend the present volume to the attention of the profession.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Interesting Facts about Our Mutual Friend, No 1

Second paragraph of the very first chapter:  'The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognizable as his daughter. The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls very easily; the man, with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his hands loose in his waistband, kept an eager look out. He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a sitter, no paint, no inscription, no appliance beyond a rusty boathook and a coil of rope, and he could not be a waterman; his boat was too crazy and too small to take in cargo for delivery, and he could not be a lighterman or river-carrier.' 

Here's what I didn't know about this passage until today. Watermen ferried passengers and lightermen carried small loads of goods or cargo; larger loads were carried by bargemen.  The 1841 census recorded 2516 bargemen and women, 1503 lightermen and 1654  watermen working the Thames.  Though he belongs to none of these categories (he is technically a ‘dredgerman’) Gaffer Hexam would have been legally considered part of ‘the Amalgamated Society of Watermen and Lightermen’, the relevant professional body.  The presence of Hexam’s daughter in the boat—and Rogue Riderhood’s later insistence that he and Hexam should be ‘partners’—is explained by the recent passage of the Waterman and Lighterman’s Amendment Act in 1859, which had made it a legal requirement that boats be crewed by at least two people at all times.  (‘By the 35th bye-law, vessels requiring two able persons to navigate them, a licensed lighterman and an apprentice shall be sufficient—The section in the Act says so. To remove any doubt, in order that we may not stand in the way, we have altered the wording of the bye-law to "two competent persons.”’  ‘Minutes Taken before the Select Committee on Thames Conservancy’, 19 June 1863).  Interesting!

Well.  Sort of interesting. 

Tuesday, 19 June 2012


I dreamt last night, but I cannot remember my dream.
That is, I remember that I dreamed, but not about what.
I remember the form of dreaming, void of content,
the signifier dream without the signified.
This is how dreaming differs from real life:
We live the content, not the form; we sleep
the other about.  It is enough to dream, without
dreaming about.  Life is not like that.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Heavens Declare The Glory of God

The theist says 'the heavens declare the glory of God.' He or she says it triumphantly, as if the pettifogging objections of atheists and infidels are swept away by the scale and majesty and the sublimity divinity of the cosmos arrayed, all around us.  But the theist stops there.  Instead, that is, of adding (for instance) '... and the way the heavens declare the glory of God should inform our declaration of that same glory. We should model our worship on the way the skies above worship Him.  Like them our faith should be silent, undirected, volitionless; it should be something we are, not something we do.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Die Nasty

Hardy in the Dynasts:
The Prime, that willed ere wareness was,
Whose Brain perchance is Space, whose Thought its laws.
Is this is the ugliest couplet Hardy, that expert poet with (in other places, at any rate) such a superb ear for lyric and cadence, ever wrote?  The woo-woo alliteration in the first line, the clumsy archaism ('wareness', 'perchance'), the distracting mathematical ambiguity of 'Prime', the clot of 't' and 's's in the final three words that make them almost impossible to utter without tripping over one's own tongue.  Of course, the whole is contaminated rather by the limitations of what it is expressing: as if God is, like, a really giant giant, and the whole cosmos is, like, his body? What if we're, like, liver flukes swooshing around in his bloodstream?  Or more to the point: if the laws of nature are the thoughts of God, then at the very least we have to say that he thinks with machinic consistency and regularity over very large distances and timescales.  Where's volition here?

Saturday, 16 June 2012


Tolkien’s pseudo-medieval, philologically constructed fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings has broadly become the standard referent in people’s minds of medieval culture—of what those people who once inhabited the castles, churches, and walled towns that ornament much of England and the Continent were perhaps vaguely like. One important effect of this Tolkienesque Middle Ages to which I can attest both from personal experience and from my work in the classroom is the absence of religion from popular notions of medieval culture. Typically, American students understand the Middle Ages as a period that valued individual honor, nobility, heroism, and violence—that is, chivalric culture—but they have difficulty integrating the deep corporate religiosity of the era into this same understanding.  Of course Tolkien was not the first to eschew religion in a tale of medieval fantasy—Walter Scott, Mark Twain, and Robert E. Howard are but a few of his many notable forerunners in this regard. But Tolkien’s increasing influence over the last forty years in a variety of media has done much to secure this popular idea of a chivalric, impassioned, but essentially secular Middle Ages.  [Courtney M. Booker, ‘Btye-Sized Middle Ages: Tolkien, Film and the Digital Imagination’]

There's something very striking in this notion; Booker is surely right.  Tolkien left religion out of his world for good aesthetic reasons; but this lack has now been read back into the world itself, or the historical world, as a kind of reverse-mimesis.

Friday, 15 June 2012


As part of his campaign for alphabet reform, Shaw concocted the following wonderful sentence:

Chang at leisure was superior to Lynch in his rouge, munching a lozenge at the burial of Merrion Square of Hyperion the Alien who valued his billiards so highly.

But, of course, this strikes me as a splendid opportunity.  I undertake to write a short story, taking this as its first line.  Mouth-watering prospect.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Bat Out Of Hell

I last listened to this album in, I think, 1984 or 85; listening to it again this morning, cycling to work, I'm struck (a) how much less it is about teenagers having sex with one another, the obstacles to that process and its intense melodramatic affective highs and lows than I remembered it as being (obviously it's partly about that ... but still) (b) how much more it is about Vampires, Werewolves, Christian Superstition and the Fantastic.  It's an SF text, really, that says (like the later Harry Potter and Twilight series) that the best way of comprehending what it is 'like' being a teenager is ... kitschy gothic fantastika.  Something interesting in that, I'd say.

I'm also struck by how disorientatingly vivid the memories of 1984/85 unlocked by this listening experience were.  Not a happy time, really, by and large.  Still ...

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Prologue to The Patrician's Daughter

The last bit of Dickensiana here for a while; but this is a curiosity; a short poem that Dickens wrote and which I had not (before this morning) read before.  Early in 1842 Dickens read a play by an unknown young dramatist called John Westland Marston (1819-90), The Patrician’s Daughter, a Tragedy (staged later that year at Drury Lane by Dickens’s friend, Macready).  Dickens offered to write a verse prologue to help it on its way, an offer Macready gratefully accepted. The thing that particularly struck Dickens was the contemporary setting of the piece. Marston says in his own preface that the genesis of The Patrician’s Daughter was the precisely the attempt to stage tragedy as contemporary phenomenon.
He who would make his heroes his contemporaries, must also be prepared to dispense with many of the melo-dramatic effects incident to the earlier Drama. The display of the passions is now more subtle and less obvious than formerly; and their signs, while exciting deeper interest in the cultivated and thoughtful man, fail in their appeals to the gross apprehension.  Still the operation of human feelings in an intellectual era, must form a higher subject for delineation than that furnished by the ruder stages of their development. To limit to the past, the dramatic exhibition of our nature, is virtually to declare our nature itself radically altered. But, consider our Merchant when he returns from 'Change,—the Poet as he walks unnoted in our streets,—the calm demeanour of the agitated Diplomatist,—the smooth brow, and accustomed smile, of a regnant Beauty, while jealous rivals wound with courtesy, and torture selon les règles. What suspense! what aspirations! what inward struggles! what subdued emotions! There is truly stuff for Tragedy in the age of civilization. [John Westland Marston, The Patrician’s Daughter, a Tragedy in Five Acts (1842), vi]
This, of course, is the whole of Dickens’s art; and the verse preface he wrote for Marston makes much of it:

No tale of streaming plumes and harness bright
Dwells on the poet's maiden harp to-night;
No trumpet's clamour and no battle's fire
Breathes in the trembling accents of his lyre;
Enough for him, if in his lowly strain
He wakes one household echo not in vain;
Enough for him, if in his boldest word
The beating heart of MAN be dimly heard.

Its solemn music which, like strains that sigh
Through charmed gardens, all who hearing die;
Its solemn music he does not pursue
To distant ages out of human view;
Nor listen to its wild and mournful chime
In the dead caverns on the shore of Time;
But musing with a calm and steady gaze
Before the crackling flames of living days,
He hears it whisper through the busy roar
Of what shall be and what has been before.

Awake the Present! Shall no scene display
The tragic passion of the passing day?
Is it with Man, as with some meaner things,
That out of death his single purpose springs?
Can his eventful life no moral teach
Until he be, for aye, beyond its reach?
Obscurely shall he suffer, act, and fade,
Dubb'd noble only by the sexton's spade?
Awake the Present! Though the steel-clad age
Find life alone within its storied page,
Iron is worn, at heart, by many still—
The tyrant Custom binds the serf-like will;
If the sharp rack, and screw, and chain be gone,
These later days have tortures of their own;
The guiltless writhe, while Guilt is stretch'd in sleep,
And Virtue lies, too often, dungeon deep.
Awake the Present! what the Past has sown
Be in its harvest garner'd, reap'd, and grown!

How pride breeds pride, and wrong engenders wrong,
Read in the volume Truth has held so long,
Assured that where life's flowers freshest blow,
The sharpest thorns and keenest briars grow,
How social usage has the pow'r to change
Good thoughts to evil; in its highest range
To cramp the noble soul, and turn to ruth
The kindling impulse of our glorious youth,
Crushing the spirit in its house of clay,
Learn from the lessons of the present day.
Not light its import and not poor its mien;
Yourselves the actors, and your homes the scene.

Dickens wanted to use that last line, shifted about to ‘Your homes the scene, yourselves the actors here’ as the epigraph to Martin Chuzzlewit (Forster persuaded him not to, thinking it too confrontational).

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


Literary criticism, in almost all cases, tries to clarify things. Accordingly one of the problems the literary critic faces is: what to do with texts that resist the cleanness and order implied by clarity; or to put it more precisely, texts in which the process clarification smooths away or fails to transfer crucial aspects of the original. In terms of Dickens, I’d say there are two qualities: one—about which critics often speak, sometimes with a mournful acknowledgement that it slips through the net despite being patently one of the most important aspects of Dickens’s art—is his humour, his comic brilliance, his ability to make us laugh. The problem, of course, is the old one: a joke explained ceases to be funny. But there’s another element integral to Dickens’s work as a novelist that clarification misses, and that is, precisely, clutter. Dickens’s novels are full of stuff: lots of objects, myriad cultural references, in-jokes and out-jokes, subplots, interpolated tales, diversions, descriptions, catch-phrases and quirks and oddities. His novels teem, and that is precisely part of their distinctive appeal. But short of a bald taxonomy of the multitudinous items that constitute the clutter (and that is in itself a violation of the logic of clutter, an ordering of it), what can the critic hope to do with it? Clutter clarified isn’t clutter anymore.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Holy Grail Poem

Sir Bors achieved the Holy Grail and he took it home with him.
And it was naught but a handled beaker made of hammered tin;
And he set it on his sideboard to jostle with clutter and mould
And the blessed beaker hoarded its magic until his life was old.
For that's when he took it down again, and wondered at its design
And said 'I've owned this all these years, and forgot that it never was mine.'
And he polished it up and held it, and took it and threw it outside,
And soon as he'd done so he laughed in release, and lay himself down and died.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Masefieldesque: Blind Bill

He lay awake on the polished lawn and stared at the summer skies,
And the neon sun sent a searing line that burned a spot in his eyes:
"Bill's gone blind," was all they said; "from staring up where he lies."

When the rising moon was a copper disc and the city glimmered white,
And all of a black-soaked bandage strip was the calming nature of night.
Bill still watched the vanished sun in the hidden centre of sight.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Authorial control

'The fictional world as structured by the author is the world under control, in which even the loss of control is reduced to the level of a fiction directed and formed by the author.' [Sander L Gilman, ‘What are Stereotypes and Why Use Texts to Study Them?’ in Difference and Pathology (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp.15-36 (p.27)]

I can see this; but it also seems to me to give authors too godlike a sense of control.  Reading a text may give the impression of something carefully controlled, but the trick of writing is the calculated surrender of control; the relaxation of the hold that convention and preconception and limitation have over one's imagination.

Friday, 8 June 2012


I've been thinking about location and Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, in part because it is the only one of Dickens’s major novels to have extended scenes set in non-European locations (indeed: among the shorter fiction, I think only the novella Perils of Certain English Prisoners (1857) and the play he wrote with Collins, The Frozen Deep (1857)—minor works, both—venture beyond European settings).  The simple reason for this is that Dickens preferred to extrapolate from his own first-hand experience, and the only non-European place to which he himself had travelled was America.  But of course his novels apprehend the non-European world; as a writer with synoptic ambition writing in the heyday of the British empire could hardly fail to do; and he actively advocated emigration, especially to Australia, for the British poor.  The way Dickens’s novels represent the lands of beyond-Europe, though, is marginal:  Walter Gay is set away to the West Indies on company business in Dombey and Son, but whatever happens to him there happens offstage and is only of interest insofar as it affects affairs in Britain.  David Copperfield packs a number of its characters off to the antipodes by way of arranging their happy endings, but no scenes in the novel are set there.  Arthur Clenham is back from China at the beginning of Little Dorrit, although the furthest afield the novel itself travels is the south of France.

Martin Chuzzlewit, then, is unusual in moving its protagonist thousands, rather than hundreds, of miles from home.  But it is also unusual in the way it triangulates, as it were, the London-Salisbury axis of its main events in global terms.  The three apexes of this triangle are: the USA, India—Bengal, where Tigg’s supposed property in part underwrites the viability of the Anglo-Bengalee Assurance company—and Tasmania (the Van Dieman’s Land to which Moddle flees rather than marry the forbidding Miss Pecksniff).  Now what is interesting about the last two of these three locations is that they don’t, really, exist.  To be precise: of course Bengal and Tasmania exist, and existed in the 1840s as tangible imperial destinations.  But in terms of the novel, Bengal is a fraudster’s fiction, and Van Dieman’s Land is an anti-place, defined only in terms of being as far from his fiancée as possible, a kind of second-best to suicidal annihilation (the comedy of Moddle’s note is beautifully judged:  ‘Frequently—when you have sought to soothe my brow with kisses—has self-destruction flashed across me. Frequently—incredible as it may seem—have I abandoned the idea.’)  Then there is America.  It might seem absurd to argue that the USA in Chuzzlewit doesn’t exist: it is not only an actual place, it is described in a great deal of detail, and with much of the brilliant clutter of Dickens’s London.  Some critics might concur with P N Firbank’s ‘certainty’ that the American scenes represent a kind of attenuation of the proper Dickensian mode (‘certainly the American chapters strike us as generally thinner and more extravagant than the rest of the novel’ because American society itself was ‘much looser and thinner in texture’; Firbank, Martin Chuzzlewit [Penguin 1968], 25).  But there are many others who find the American scenes thick with life and laughter, for all that the tone is more bitingly satirical.  Rather, I am talking about what Rodney Stenning Edgecombe calls ‘topographical disaffection’ in the novel.  Edgecombe’s analysis takes as its starting point Robert Lawson-Peebles analysis of the relationship between Dickens’s letters from America, American Notes and Chuzzlewit itself:  As Edgecombe notes, Lawson-Peebles

makes some interesting discoveries—transpositions and conflations of the landscape—and is led to the following conclusion: "Previous analyses of Dickens's revulsion against America, then, identify the causes either within American society, or within the novelist's psyche. I would like to propose a third possible cause: the American terrain. The process of revulsion, I suggest, was reinforced as Dickens went westwards into the American hinterland. These new experiences provided him with a language which (so to speak) brought into full bloom an anti-pastoral element which had already taken root in his fiction." [Robert Lawson-Peebles, ‘Dickens Goes West’, quoted in Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, ‘Topographic Disaffection in Dickens's American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 93 (1994), 37]

What Dickens revolted against, the argument goes, is that (as Edgecombe puts it) ‘the shortcomings of American society were there for the noting, the psyche of a disappointed republican received the data, and the neutral American landscape, like a Rorschach Blot, obligingly configured with the revulsions and disappointments that filtered its perceptions.’  In American Notes Dickens touches on a kind of anti-sublime, a sublime of decay: ‘In so vast a country, where there are thousands of millions of acres of land yet unsettled and uncleared, and on every road of which, vegetable decomposition is annually taking place; where there are so many great rivers, and such opposite varieties of climate.’

Dickens had not seen the deserts of the West, but he had at least seen a prairie, and no doubt had some theoretic sense of its typicality. And yet here, in the closing pages [of American Notes] he projects America—its varieties of climate notwithstanding—as a vast swampy forest, unwholesome and endlessly rotting. [Edgecombe 38]

‘Eden’ turns out to be a utopia in the no-place, rather than the ideal-place, sense of that term; and in a weird sort of anticipation of Forster’s Marabar Caves this great immensity of nothingness reflects young Martin’s ego back upon itself, in what is (in a sense) the central chapter of the novel, where he encounters and is abashed by the egregiousness of his own selfishness.

Thursday, 7 June 2012


This high-res image was captured by the Japanese Hinode satellite during the transit of Venus two days ago.  Click it to see it larger; you'll not be sorry.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Sentiments from Nelson

As true today as they've ever been.
Firstly you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own regarding their propriety. Secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your king; and thirdly you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil. [To a midshipman aboard the Agamemnon, 1793]
That is: you must be lobotomitically lacking in initiative, anti-democratic and xenophobic. The three highest virtues in any man.
The measure may be thought bold, but I am of the opinion the boldest are the safest. [To Sir Hyde Parker urging vigorous action against the Russians and Danes, March 24, 1801] 
Rashness is prudence. Also, ignorance is knowledge, left is right, down is up.
Drink drink. Fan fan. Rub rub. [Nelson's last words]
These, really, cannot be improved.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012


Kenneth Williams’ suicidal last words -- ‘oh what's the bloody point?’ -- strike a chord. Not that they're unanswerable; but that it implies life cannot be lived diffusely; in an unfocused or divergent way. But of course it can. Something along these lines may be the secret of life, actually.

Monday, 4 June 2012


It fills, but does not fill itself. It fills but is unfulfilled. The fireworks sound in the distance, like popcorn; but they cannot be seen.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Relationship advice

With some more-or-less extreme exceptions, most of the things people categorise as 'relationship problems' would be better described as, just, 'relationships'.  Give and take, people; calm and storm.  If you don't pathologise it, then nine times out of ten it isn't a problem.

Saturday, 2 June 2012


Is there a bawdy pun in Dickens's made-up name, here?  'Chusherel', 'Chuserel' or 'Chuzerel' means (the OED informs me) 'a whoremaster, a debauched fellow', a man who indulges himself carnally.  If 'chuzzle' or variants thereof is slang for a fucker, then wouldn't that make Chuzzle-wit fuckwit?  Surely not, Charlie!

Friday, 1 June 2012

Coleridge's Alchemical Mariner

This is an extract and symbol key from the celebrated alchemical text by Kenelm Digby, A Choice Collection of Rare Secrets (1682). I bung it up, here, because I'm doing some work on 'The Ancient Mariner', and I discover that the alchemical symbol for copper is the same as for 'Venus', there.  So after passing through the iron-grey land of ice and snow the mariner's craft enters the Pacific [107-14]:

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
’Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

I've always taken the copper sky as merely descriptive of colour, and perhaps of smoothness and apparent hardness; but maybe there's an alchemical gloss here: the ship has moved from the martial, cold, vigorously windy, iron-coloured masculine Atlantic into the feminine, hot, lassitudinously windless, venusian female space of the Pacific; from Death to Nightmare-Life-in-Death.