Saturday, 31 January 2009


Wittgenstein said: ‘philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’ Wouldn’t this make more sense the other way around? Intelligence is no more to be bewitched than a leg or an arm is; language is where thought is alive, and the danger is surely rather that language may fall in love with intellect. Words began as a means of communicating emotions, after all. Intellect is important, but probably shouldn't seduce language wholly away from that first love.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Montaigne, Tontaigne, Notretaigne

Montaigne: ‘my thoughts go to sleep unless they and I wander.’ Really? The reverse is the case for me. I wander—not going anywhere, but round and round—precisely in order to encourage my thoughts to nod off, like a toddler in a pushchair, so they can get their much-needed sleep. In dreaming sleep is the expression of thought that is most useful to what I do.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Deserts and oceans

In his short critical account of Naguib Mahfouz (TLS 23 Jan 09) Robert Irwin notes that ‘although so much of the Middle East is desert, this hardly features in modern Arabic fiction, which is overwhelmingly urban in its concerns.’ But why is this surprising? Fiction is about people, not landscapes; therefore it goes where the people are. It would be like saying, ‘if we define the UK by its territorial boundaries, then overwhelmingly it is water—yet it novelists focus only on its land-based inhabitants: where are the novels of its fishermen and oil-riggers in the North and Irish Seas, the Channel and the Atlantic?’

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

To the Queen of Elsewhere

Does elsewhere mean everywhere else? Like the old logical puzzle: you meet twins where the road forks, and one always lies, and one always tells the truth. The former twin has the much harder task; because the lie is always more fertile than the truth. If you happen (unable to tell them apart) to ask the truth-twin ‘which is the right way’ he will point down the correct road; but ask the other, and he will have to decide: ‘should I point down the wrong fork, or—to be the truer liar—should I point down both the wrong fork and back along the road the traveler has come? That’s not a question that admits of easy resolution.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Momento Mori

The skull is no death’s head. It signifies what endures, not what passes away, and death is only interested in the latter. That peanut-shell hole where the nose goes. Those eye sockets. But, even there: sockets is not a good word: it implies, say, a hip joint, the solidity and heft of bone in bone. Where what is lodged in the eye socket is soft as soft. Soft is death's realm.

Monday, 26 January 2009


'In his book The Plurality of Reality published in 1921 Polish logician and painter Leon Chwistek suggested that there are four kinds of mutually independent (and thus presumably non-interfering) realities; of things, as they are perceived by common sense; of physical science; of impressions; and of the imagination. Artistically these are expressed respectively by primitivist, naturalist, impressionist and futurist painting.' [Lesek Kołakowski, Metaphysical Horror (1988: Penguin 2001) 111]

I don't buy the painting angle. But something about this quotation speaks to me; I think because my instinct is to put all four together, and to imagine what sort of Gesamtkunstwerk would result. The answer, it occurs to me, is: science fiction, and that alone.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Poetry week: Shimmer Poem

I have this poem by heart:
I have it systole and diastole;
It pulses inside me.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Poetry week: Whitsun Weddings

In the Guardian, recently [10.1.09], Jonathan Miller had this to say about Larkin's 'Whitsun Weddings:
I'm more interested in the way that someone like Larkin can write verse in which you are aware of the puzzlement that he expresses about the oddness of being alive. On that 'Whitsun Weddings' train: 'An Odeon went past, a cooling tower, / And someone running up to bowl'. It makes me cry. I'm welling up now. Noticing, as your train slows down, something that you didn't see before it happened and you won't see the result, but a salient event for the man who was coming up to bowl. That is huge and that is what it is all about. I'm not interested in anything else.
Maybe you need to be a cricket fan to start welling up at that particular image. Or maybe not. But this reminded me of reading that poem in an American anthology (I can't remember which one) as an undergraduate: they printed those two lines as:
An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to a bowl.
Clearly that was set in type, or at the very least proofread by, somebody with no idea about cricket. It's bizarre. It replaces Miller's poignantly observed detail of actual life with a moment of surrealism: in what context are they running up to a bowl. Indoors (ie, seen through a window) or outdoors? What kind of bowl? Big, small, full, empty? Are they running up to, I don't know, kick it to smithereens? Or to pick it up and run away with it. And, as I think about it now, I find myself pleased by the Pythonesque note this misprint adds to an otherwise too restrained piece of poetic pathos.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Poetry week: 10pm

The glow of gutter puddles.
The mirror sheen of a sky

where forty thousand lights
reflect forty thousand lit windows.

Grass grows whiskers through
pavement cracks. Cars pass

like they’re swishing their capes.
A parade-ranks of streetlights,

on monstrous steel stalks,
with angled Mars-red bulbs

makes you think of Wells:
they are absolutely fuck-

ing about to start plaiting together and
striding the streets wailing ullah,

frying the chip-shop’s broad-lit
glass front, the yeast-stupefied

pub, with a focused energy beam
exactly the colour of the nighttime.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Poetry week: Snowfall

‘Clouds shed their cargo of crystallized rain’
Armitage’s Gawain and the Green Knight
A tremor across
five wide miles
of atmosphere;

cold hurling a
million missiles
at the taut earth.

each hailstone a few
pixels: the slow
tetris-fall snowdrift.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Poetry week: Swimming lesson poem

In the viewing balcony with
other parents: looking down
as through Larkin’s high windows.

Eight 7-year-olds lined at the side
happy chatting and aquafidgeting.
Water shudders at their chests.

They hold their floats like prayerbooks.
One by one swim-teacher sends them
over the shimmering chasm of one width,

sometimes laying on her hands
guiding the less assured. Backstroke.
One cascades her limbs

like cilia in a waterdrop. Another
like he’s having conniptions:
threshes an angled way.

Swim-teacher supports another’s back
with her left hand, her right forefinger
on the tiny chin to keep the head back

like pressing the invisible button
that activates the limbs’ pistons.
Her T-shirt, over her black onepiece,

reads swim, large lowercase,
and underneath TEACHER, small caps:
this difference in fonts--

maybe to stress the importance of
the line separating above from below:
the echoing air of splash and shriek

from the severe depths, where eels of light
tangle themselves about the lane lines
like ghost snakes about Asclepius’ staff.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Poetry week: Rilke's first Orpheus sonnet

Don Paterson's version:

A tree rose from the earth. O pure transcendence—
Orpheus sings: O tall oak in the ear!
All was still. And then within that silence
he made the sign, the change, and touched the lyre.

One by one they crept out of the wood,
emptying each set and form and lair;
and looking in their eyes, he understood
they’d fallen quiet in neither stealth nor fear,

but in their listening. Growl and bark and roar
died in their breast as each took to the clearing.
Before this day there hadn’t been a shack

that might have held the song, a plain earthwork
hollowed by their most obscure desire:
today the temple rises in their hearing.
I like the Scots rhyme ‘lair’ and ‘fear’. And I like the way the plain and (of course) perfectly comprehensible vocabulary of animal habitat carries within it something more abstract and even algebraic: the mathematic echo of ‘set’ and form, the quasi-Platonic ‘form’, the blue-vacant echo of ‘l’air’ in ‘lair.’

I like the way ‘growl and bark and roar’ traces a crescendo of bestial utterance that is then, as we step across the line-ending, silenced (‘died in their breast’)

The first four lines are wholly monosyllabic, save only the titular poet-magician Orpheus, the ground against which he works ‘silence’, and that which he achieves 'transcendence'. Monosyllables predominate in the sonnet as a whole in Paterson’s version, of course: but in a stately manner.

I like the way ‘a tree rose’ imports, spectrally, the bloom and beauty of a rose into the description of the tree’s growth. (A rose is a rose is a …)

Paterson even handles those potentially awkward vocatives (‘O pure transcendence—O tall oak in the ear’) deftly: for they seem to echo and play with the grand O at the start of Orpheus’s name, the wide-open mouth of the poet singing.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Poetry week: The spousals of fair Florimel

The spousals of fair Florimel,
as day turns into night,
uncases manhood's boastfulness:
how pale he is! how slight!

Sunday, 18 January 2009


People fit a forest; not the plain, or the mountains; or the coast. This is why, of course, humanity in its habitation seeks unconsciously to reproduce the arboreal vibe—-nothing too literal-minded, of course; but the light; the proximity; the fragrance; the upper foliage limit of celing, the soft moss carpeting; the sound of traffic outside the window in place of forest streams; and more importantly than all that the immediate somatic scale, the way being amongst the trees in a temperate zone (not the cathedral excesses of tropical zones) positions and situates a human being.

Saturday, 17 January 2009


The road winds up the mountainside. You think it hugs so closely to the rock from affection? You think it wants that intimacy? Look again: how high of the eminence. How vertiginous the drop.

Friday, 16 January 2009


Don't say your hands are faceless. Nobody's hands are faceless. Some people have more face in their hands than on their heads.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Paradoxes 2: Curry's Paradox

Wikipedia says of Curry’s paradox: ‘The resolution of Curry's paradox is a contentious issue because resolutions (apart from trivial ones ...) are difficult and not intuitive.’ The paradox itself:

Claims of the form "if A, then B" are called conditional claims. It is not necessary to believe the conclusion (B) to accept the conditional claim (if A, then B) as true. For instance, consider the following sentence:

If a man with flying reindeer has delivered presents to all the good children in the world in one night, then Santa Claus exists.

Imagine that a man with flying reindeer has, in fact, done this. Does Santa Claus exist, in that case? It would seem so. Therefore, without believing that Santa Claus exists, or that this scenario is even possible, it seems that we should agree that if a man with flying reindeer has delivered presents to all the good children in the world in one night, then Santa Claus exists, and so the above sentence is true.
Now consider this other sentence:

If this sentence is true, then Santa Claus exists.

As before, imagine that the antecedent is true - in this case, "this sentence is true". Does Santa Claus exist, in that case? Well, if the sentence is true, then what it says is true: namely that if the sentence is true, then Santa Claus exists. Therefore, without necessarily believing that Santa Claus exists, or that the sentence is true, it seems we should agree that if the sentence is true, then Santa Claus exists.

But then this means the sentence is true. So Santa Claus does exist. Furthermore we could substitute any claim at all for "Santa Claus exists". This is Curry's paradox.

But the first sentence, here, isn’t stated in a very precise way. It would be better to say: “If a man with flying reindeer has delivered presents to all the good children in the world in one night, then we might as well call him Santa Claus.”

This exposes the problem with attempting to hook a conditional claim after Curry's manner: “If this sentence is true, then we might as well call him Santa Claus.”

Obviously this doesn’t make sense; a sentence isn’t a him. In other words what Curry’s paradox actually pinpoints is that any paradox that relies on the selfreflexive gambit of ‘this sentence is true’ cannot be moved from the pure to the applied maths magisterium. ‘All Cretans are liars’ can’t generate any paradoxes, even if the Cretan uttering it is a liar, because all Cretans aren’t liars. (If somebody speaks a falsehood it does not mean they are necessarily a liar--they might be mistaken or misinformed--and that somebody is 'a liar' does not mean that they lie every time all the time).

It does not follow that ‘we could substitute any claim at all for "Santa Claus exists”’; but even those terms that can be inserted (let's say: ‘if it is possible to evenly divide every single positive integer, then nine is an even number’) needs to properly formulated, initially (better: ‘if it is possible to evenly divide every single positive integer, then we could call nine an even number’), such that the subsequent conditional state no more than it may: ‘if this sentence is true, then we could call nine an even number’. Could is crucially (logically) different to is. Like many supposed paradoxes, Curry's depends upon a sleight of hand [I originally wrote 'sleigh of hand'--ha!] that deliberately elides the indicative and the subjunctive mode.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Paradoxes 1

I've been dipping my toe in the world of logical paradoxes, and I’m disappointed. Since the first instinct when confronted with a paradox (this, of course, is Logic 101) is to assume that the contradiction is actually a way of disaffirming one or other premises underlying the paradox, I’m disappointed (reading R M Sainsbury’s book, Paradoxes) how little trouble the framers of mathematical paradoxes take with their premises. They shape them in such as way as to make the paradox that derives from them watertight, but that involves them in starting from positions of idiocy. For example, from Sainsbury’s book:

Newcomb’s paradox. You are confronted with a choice. There are two boxes before you, A and B. You may either open both boxes, or else just open B. You may keep what is inside any box you open, but you may not keep what is inside any box you do not open. The background is this. A very powerful being, who has been invariably accurate in his predictions about your behaviour in the past, has already acted in the following way: He has put $1000 in box A. If he has predicted that you will open just box B, he has in addition put $1,000,000 in box B. If he has predicted that you will open both boxes, he has put nothing in box B. The paradox consists in the fact that there appears to be a decisive argument for the view that the most rational thing to do is to open both boxes; and also a decisive argument for the view that the most rational thing to do is to open just box B. [53]
But the ‘decisive argument’ invoked here depends upon accepting that there is such a powerful entity (Sainsbury calls his ‘the Predictor’). There isn’t. In fact, it’s better to read this as a thought experiment about the sort of thing that cold happen if God exists, as a way of disproving that God exists (or at least disproving that a god with the power to predict what you will do with invariable accuracy).

Sorities paradoxes. Suppose two people differ in height by one-tenth of an inch. We are inclined to believe that either or both of them are tall. If one were 6’ 6” and the other 0.1” shorter than this, then both are tall. If one is 4’ 6” tall and the other 0.1” taller then neither is tall. This apparently obvious and uncontroversial statement appears to lead to the paradoxical and uncontroversial supposition that everyone is tall. Consider a series of heights starting with and descending by steps of 0.1”. A person of 6’ 6” is tall. By our supposition, so must be a person of 6’ 5.9”. However if a person of this height is tall, so must be a person of one-tenth of an inch smaller, and so on without limit until we find ourselves forced to say, absurdly, that a 4’ 6” person is tall. Indeed that everyone is tall. [22]
No we don’t. The logic here depends upon the unspoken assumption (contained in the two sentence beginning ‘Consider a series…’) that tallness is measured in relation to 6’ 6”; or even more absurdly tallness is measured top-down from a notional upper height. It’s not. It’s measured in terms of standard deviation from a rough sense of the average heights of a whole population. Nor is tall an absolute, but is rather a relative marker (quite tall, very tall and so on) moving upwards from that perceived mean.

Sainsbury ends with an appendix ‘some more paradoxes’. They don’t seem to me to be very paradoxical.

The Gallows. The law of a certain land is that all who wish to enter the city are asked to state their business there. Those who reply truly are allowed to enter and depart in peace. Those who reply falsely are hanged. What should happen to the traveller who, when asked his business, replies ‘I have come to be hanged’?
If we assume that this certain land has other laws, and that there are other reasons why people can be hanged (murder, say), then there’s nothing paradoxical in this. Probably they’d send him away; conceivably they’d hang him; there’s not enough information in the premises to enable us to determine which. If, though, the paradox is supposed to inhere in the supposition that in this land they only hang people who come and state their business, always hang liars, regardless of how trivial or unintentional the lie and so on … well then the paradox is being generated by a set of impossible-to-believe premises, and in fact functions as a way of demonstrating that no such state could exist.

The Lawyer. Protagoras, teacher of lawyers, had this contract with pupils: “Pay me a fee if and only if you win your first case”. One of his pupils, Euathlus, sues him for free tuition, arguing as follows: ‘if I win the case, then I will win free tuition as is what I am suing for. If I lose, then my tuition is free anyway, since this is my first case. Protagoras, in court, responds as follows: ‘If you give the judgment for Euathlus, then he will owe me a fee, since it is his first case and that was our agreement; if you give judgment to me, then he will owe me a fee, since that is the content of the judgment.’
But this isn’t a paradox. Protagoras just has a weaker legal argument than his pupil (his pupil is canny and has found a nice loophole in P.’s offer). P’s argument disingenuously slides from the nature of the agreement (in his first part) to the content of the judgment (in the second). These two things are not the same. Specifically, the judgment is a judgment about the nature of the agreement. That's a crucial distinction.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Asthma poem

The word itself: breath, a, before
and after, a, quick-quick

and in the midst only crush, an
unvocalic compacted clump.

It is anger, asthma--the lungs
clenching like a blooded fist.

But angry with the air? With me?
Or perhaps it doesn't make

that distinction when it assaults
this half-flesh, half-air organ.

Monday, 12 January 2009


David Moles quotes Lewis Hyde: 'Electromagnetism may trace a rose in iron filings, but it is powerless to induce order into sawdust.' A nice thought, although one in hock to entropy. A magnet can indeed make some pretty pattern out of atoms of metal, but nothing so grand as is made out of atoms of wood by a conker.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Found poem

The scarlet letter an I.

I feel your pain is now
best understood as sarcasm:

pursuing not Buddhism but orgasm,
not the ineffable but the effable

a convincing link to the term creature:
the relationship between height

and altitude, rise and ascend.

[TLS 2.1.9; Jordan Davis, Danny Karlin, Martin Buckley, Paul Dean]

Saturday, 10 January 2009


The writer who says: 'I wish to communicate something to you, but really communicate it. Like that scene in The Dark Knight, I shall be the Joker, balancing my pencil upright on the table, and you, reader, shall be the goon who steps towards me ...'

Friday, 9 January 2009

The Feeling-Repression Harmony

It is a strange fate, don't you think, that we go from finding it (as kids) so very hard to repress our impulses, to finding it (as adults) so very hard to access the very feelings we have fucking repressed. Presumably there must be a moment, a spot-of-time or pivot, when feelings and repression are in perfect equilibrium. Maybe that moment lasts, for some people, for a very long time? And now I sit me down to ponder how I might write such a character ...

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Charlie and the Chocolate Underworld

Golden Ticket? Golden Bough, more like. The point of the ticket is not to grant you access to the mysterious, subterranean factory of sticky death, but to permit you to return again to the light (indeed: Dahl understands the logic here, for the sequel projects Charlie up and up and up, away from the underworld in reaction against it). Once they descend to Avernus the children see a strange landscape, various tortures (bodies snatched and stretched and distorted for their misdemeanours) and a persistent emphasis upon eternity ('Everlasting Gobstoppers' and the like). Finally, at the end, like Aeneas, Charlie encounters his father -- his true father, 'Willy', not his mundane above-ground Dad -- and is revealed as son and heir.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009


I'd heard before that 'orangutan' meant 'man of the forest' (sometimes I'd heard the name transliterated into English as 'old man of the forest'; or 'wild man of the forest'). Wikipedia goes along with that meaning, as does the OED. But browsing my copy of Hobson-Jobson I discover this isn't true at all:
The great man-like ape of Sumatra and Borneo; Simia Satyrus, L. This name was first used by Bontius (see below). It is Malay, ōrăng-ūtăn, 'homo sylvaticus.' The proper name of the animal in Borneo is mias. Crawfurd says that it is never called orang-utan by 'the natives.'
H-J insert a note of caution about Crawfurd's tendency to be overinsistent, especially with negatives, but they go on:
Mr. Scott (Malayan Words in English, p. 87) writes: "But this particular application of ōrang ūtan to the ape does not appear to be, or ever to have been, familiar to the Malays generally; Crawfurd (1852) and Swettenham (1889) omit it, Pijnappel says it is 'Low Malay,' and Klinkert (1893) denies the use entirely. This uncertainty is explained by the limited area in which the animal exists within even native observation. Mr. Wallace could find no natives in Sumatra who 'had ever heard of such an animal,' and no 'Dutch officials who knew anything about it.' Then the name came to European knowledge more than 260 years ago; in which time probably more than one Malay name has faded out of general use or wholly disappeared, and many other things have happened." Mr. Skeat writes: "I believe Crawfurd is absolutely right in saying that it is never called ōrangūtan by the natives. It is much more likely to have been a sailor's mistake or joke than an error on the part of the Malays who know better. Throughout the Peninsula ōrang-ūtan is the name applied to the wild tribes, and though the mawas or mias is known to the Malays only by tradition, yet in tradition the two are never confused, and in those islands where the mawas does exist he is never called ōrang-ūtan, the word ōrang being reserved exclusively to describe the human species."
I like the idea of a sailor's mistake. It has always seemed to me something of a wondrous coincidence that orangutans, being coloured predominatly orange and tan, had a name in English that seemed to record the fact. Maybe that's not coincidental.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Klaatu barada nikto

"Klaatu barada nikto": as Wikipedia says, "no translation of the phrase was stated in the film". They go on: "Philosophy professor Aeon J. Skoble speculates the famous phrase is a safe-word that is part of a fail-safe feature used during the diplomatic missions such as the one Klaatu and Gort make to Earth. With the use of the safe-word, Gort's deadly force can be deactivated in the event the robot is mistakenly triggered into a defensive posture ... the phrase apparently tells Gort that Klaatu considers escalation unnecessary.'

Well, what might we say? My first thought was that 'nikto' (that 'k') must have something to do with the Greek for victory (let's say, 'Klaatu casts victory into the abyss'; what a mournful gloss on the film that would provide...) But then I thought: no. Clearly this is Latin we're dealing with, not Greek. What else would superadvanced alien robots speak? So: tuba means, as it still does, 'a trumpet, a horn'; rada (or ræda) means 'a travelling carriage, a cart with four wheels'; and nicto means 'I blink' or 'I wink' ('to move the eyelids up and down, to wink, to blink'). In other words, the phrase is saying (starting with an obvious friendly diminutive): 'Klaa: the blare of these car-horns makes me blink'.

Makes sense, in context, I think.

Monday, 5 January 2009


When Aristotle wrote that 'all causes are beginnings' what was he doing except undermining the very concept of beginnings? There's no such thing, it turns out.

Sunday, 4 January 2009


Autumn leaves, poised to fall, like popcorn bobbling over the top of the stem.

Saturday, 3 January 2009


I'll confess myself a little baffled why Also sprach Zarathustra gets translated as Thus Spoke Zarathustra I can understand (given what I am told is the lambent, self-consciously Biblical cadence of Nieztsche's prose throughout this book) retaining the delibarate archaism of inversion: which is to say, I can understand Thus Spake Zarathustra. But the halfhearted archaism ('...we'll invert the usual word order, but we won't go with spake') can hardly be defended. How about So Zarathustra Said (which I feel captures nicely the 'personally, I'm not sure I believe it' aspect of reading Nietzsche's book)? Or These Were Zarathustra's Words, or That's What Zarathustra Said? How, for that matter, about The Wit and Wisdom of Zarathustra? I'm holding back from This Was Zara's Thrust, or ThusZaraThus (Ra! Ra! Ra!), although maybe these are the best of all.

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Waves' Grief

The seagulls cry:
And it is
car alarms and contempt.

The fishes cry:
and the water is
always swallowing it, as they
are always swallowing the water.

The waves cry and dash
their foreheads on the ground--
theirs the most human grief.

The continual motion of it,
that clumsy onwards stagger
the constant tripping over
the hem of their own dresses,

that being all one
blue-black bruise;
hair turned white in dismay.
Grief's indignity and hiss.

Thursday, 1 January 2009


There are some words it's a shame to see fall into desuetude (like desuetude); not because I have any sentimental or nostalgic attachment to olde-speake -- but simply because there aren't really any alternative pieces of terminology that mean quite the same thing, and because the concepts embodied are quite important. Frank Kermode says somewhere that it's a shame the word 'cant' has fallen out of use; our nearest modern equivalent ('bullshit') doesn't quite have the same semantic field. I'd suggest 'eschew' is another. We can't use it in everyday speech nowadays without sounding like we're quoting the Bible, or taking the piss; but the alternative is ungainly periphrasis.