Monday, 30 November 2009

On Balrogs

When I was a kid, I thought 'balrog' distractingly close to the bathetic 'frog' to really work (just as 'Nazgul' distracted my ear with its faux-resemblance to 'seagull'). But in both cases I was wrong. These are two nicely chosen examples of Fantasy terminology.

Re-reading the book now, I'm struck that I didn't see before what Tolkien was doing in coining his Balroggy name: glancing, cleverly, at 'Baal'. His beast is a sort of pagan god of fire and pain (Wikipedia: 'Classical sources relate how the Carthaginians burned their children as offerings to Ba'al Hammon'), a literalisation of the theological evil against which the novel pits itself.

There's more: Ba'al ["(Arabic: بعل‎, pronounced [ˈbaʕal]) (Hebrew: בעל‎, pronounced [ˈbaʕal])(ordinarily spelled Baal in English) is a Northwest Semitic title and honorific meaning master or lord"] is connected with root-words that mean 'high', or 'elevated'. [Hobson-Jobson talk about the Persian 'bala meaning 'above, over']. Tolkien neatly locates this 'elevated' entity in the very deepest, least elevated place; hidden below Moria).

Sunday, 29 November 2009


Trains in the distance, under the stars, away behind the houses somewhere. They make a weird, metallic, plangent, tubular sort of sound. Urban whalesong.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

A Non-genuine Asymmetry

Here's Uriah Kriegel (reviewing Katalin Farkas The Subject's Point of View [OUP 2009] in the TLS of the 20th November 2009, p.28):
There is a genuine asymmetry between our access to ourselves and out inner life on the one hand, and our access to the external world on the other. This asymmetric access had two aspects: in certain fundamental respects, we know ourselves better than we know others, and we know ourselves better than others know us. In retrospect, the discovery of asymmetric accesss is not all that surprising. Consider: what am I visualising right now? The correct answer is: a three-headed kangaroo. But how is it I know the correct answer when you could not?
That last isn't the question, though. The question is: in what sense is this asymmetric? Or, since the answer is 'in no sense', the more pointed question is: how could anybody genuinely think there's any genuine asymmetry here?

Put it this way: the world doesn't know us (the nature of our thoughts about kangaroos); but there's nothing assymetric about this because we don't know the world either. Or more precisely: the world knows something about us, but not everything; and this exactly ('symmetrically') describes our situation with respect to the world ... we know something about it, but not everything.

Of course, if we had a perfectly comprehensive and transparent knowledge of the cosmos, some asymmetry might creep in. But quantum physics and chaos suggest such knowledge isn't in the grain of things. Or to put it another way: if we had a perfectly comprehensive and transparent knowledge of the cosmos, then the state of affairs would obtain in which the cosmos (of which we are a part) had become perfectly transparent, and our thoughts about many-headed kangaroos would be precisely as knowable as everything else.

There's something very profound in this, I think.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II

On with this year's LotR re-reading: despite various other reading duties intervening, I've now finished book the second, and with it The Fellowship of the Ring. In fact, it occurs to me now that 'the Fellowship of the Ring' only describes this, second, half of the two-book section actually called 'the Fellowship of the Ring' (and not even the first two, lengthy chapters of that). It's not a very large portion of the whole thing.

So: the standout of this book is still the wonderful, chilling journey through Moria, which is as I remembered it. More to the point, I read this section with a quarter-of-my-mind on this 'Hobbit Holey-Space' paper, written out of collaborative discussion at the Third Annual Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass (University of Liverpool June 10-12, 2009), in part because the passage through the holey-Misty-Mountains figured largely in that. But actually, book II contains (Moria aside) almost no holey-spaces, which seemed, somehow, striking to me. Unless we take the fellowship itself, as a Round-Table-style collective, as somehow 'ring-shaped', as see a metaphorical hollowness at its heart.

No, what struck me the most on this re-reading was the writing. Specifically, the two,splendid inset writing-images in the Moria chapter. This one:

The speak friend and enter image; and this one:

BALIN SON OF FUNDIN LORD OF MORIA. They're lovely; and the book's appendices stand testament to Tolkien's interest in fine calligraphy. But they got me wondering. One thing I wondered was: why are there so few written texts in the world of the Lord of the Rings? Lots of oral texts; the novel is littered with interpolated songs and verses and riddles. But tabulating all the written texts mentioned doesn't give us very much:
1: Moria-writing. Namely the two texts already mentioned, together with the written record the Fellowship discover inside Moria. They attract attention by virtue of being so slpendidly, visually rendered.
2: Bilbo's book. But this exists in the novel largely (until the very end) as unwritten; something Bilbo will get around to at some point. More, it exists in some complicated metatextual relationship with the novel we are reading, so I'll put it on one side for a moment.
3: The odd single rune: Gandalf marks his fireworks with a G-rune, for instance; and scratches '3' on a stone at Weathertop.
4: One 'scroll' mentioned and quoted in the 'Council of Elrond' chapter, in which Isildur writes down what the ring looks like, records its inscription, and declares it is 'precious' to him. Which leads me, of course, to:
5: This:

That's, obviously, writing of the profoundest and most penetrating significance for the novel. More, it is evil. It precedes, and determines, all the (actual) writing that constitutes Tolkien's novel. Can we say, taking things a little further, that it in some sense stains written text with some malign mark or quality? The ring-writing itself, and Isildur's scroll, are permanent records of the wickedness of the ring in action, after all.

So I started thinking of the way written marks can be misinterpreted: Strider and the hobbits don't understand Gandalf's '3' rune at Weathertop; Gandalf himself misses the true meaning of the Moria-Gate inscription. But then I thought: actually, the opposite is closer to the truth of it.

Gandalf's problem with the Moria-gate inscription is that he over-reads; he assumes a level of complexity that isn't there. When he sees how straightforward the instruction is he laughs. Something similar is the case with 'the remains of a book' they find at the beginning of II:5. Initially it looks as though this, with an almost facetious literalness, is going to be 'difficult to decode', in this case because it is so materially damaged.
'We drove the orcs from the great gate and guard -- I think; the next word is blurred and burned: probably room -- we slew many in the bright -- I think sun in the dale.'
And so on. But in fact, the reading of this text reveals a near-fatal facility, a slippage between text and world. They read the words 'We cannot get out. The end comes, drums drums in the deep .... they are coming'' and without intermission these words becomes their reality.
There was a hurrying sound of many feet.
'They are coming!' cried Legolas.
'We cannot get out,' said Gimli. [341]
In other words, the thing with written language is not that it is too obscure, or ambiguous, or slippery; but on the contrary, that it is too plain. It does exactly what it says (you speak 'friend' and enter). It bridges the gap between text and world too immediately, and renders itself real with a dangerous completion. This is at the heart of the power of the ring. The whole novel is a written-textual articulation of that fact.

Writing in this sense is prior; foundational (LotR is a logocentric text): it is what you find when you excavate down, below the surface logic of the represented, past the oral traditions and remembered songs. Which is why Moria is the precisely the right place for these two fine calligraphic interpolations, and why no such writing (inserted into the text) is found anywhere else in the novel, the ring excepted. The symbolic logic of Moria is: dig down deep enough, and you free a terrible, destructive evil. This evil is literalised as 'Balrog', a fiery agent of destruction. But the novel has already established the crucial fiery agent of destruction in the literal letters of the One Ring ('"I cannot read the fiery letters," said Frodo, in a quavery voice.') Oral literature connects you with a living tradition of other people; but written literature short-circuits community and conducts a spark of terrible danger directly into reality.

At this point, I could launch into an involuted meta-textual discussion about how this potential-for-evil danger of written language inflects a text that is itself embodied in written language. And there is something interesting, and important, there: it explains, for instance, why Tolkien gives over quite so much of the Return of the King's appendices to alphabets. But such a section would, really, write itself; and I can safely leave it as an exercise for the reader.

One last, not-really connecting observation, though. The ring-inscription; take another look at it, up there. Once you know the phonemes ('ash nazg durbatulúk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk' and so on) it's striking how much the Elvish script looks like a deliberate and rather beautiful confection of manuscript 'a's, 's's, 'h's, 'n's, 'g's and 'z's (or '3's).

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Cogito II

Let's go back to Descarte's cogito. He gets it wrong; not substantively, but in emphasis. Strip back everything, and we're left not with I think therefore I am, but rather: I think therefore I'm not dead yet. The whole cogito, in fact, hinges and turns about that yet.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


In the Anti-Oedpius [p.363, in fact] D&G insist in what I take to be a deliberately anti-Heideggerian manner that 'death ... does actually happen.' Which is to say, it is more than just a being-towards; it's an actual intensity. But I don't know if this is a purely anti-Oedipean perspective. Do they still think death 'really happens' in 1000 Plateaus? I'd hesitantly suggest not (not because 1000 Plateaus is Heideggerian, of course; but because the 'assemblages' trope is less actual in its antifreudian stress). But what do I know?

Interesting quotation from Blanchot, though:
Maurice Blanchot distinguishes this twofold nature clearly, these two irreducible aspects of death; the one, according to which the apparent subject never ceases to live and travel as a One -- "one never stops and never has done with dying"; and the other, according to which this same subject, fixed as I, actually dies -- which is to say it finally ceases to die since it end up dying, in the reality of a last instant that fixes it in this way as an I, all the while undoing the intensity, carrying it back to the zero that envelops it.'
Heidegger would want to say the former is determined by the latter. But isn't Freud also saying this? We don't confuse his 'death drive' with actual death, after all.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Emo Rilke

I chanced upon the following passage from Rilke here.
O Lord give to each his own death,
That dying that comes from the life,
in which he had love, sense and want.
For we are just the husk and the leaf.
The great death that each has in himself,
This is the fruit around which all revolves.
Doesn't it make you think: golly, Rilke is pretty Goth, though, isn't he? I wonder if this exists in some sort of relationship to this famous Shakespearean image.

It's obviously Heideggerian; I get that. But if I say Rilke's poetic is also cancerous, I don't necessarily mean it in a bad way. Not an entirely bad way.

Monday, 23 November 2009


Now for a question that's bothered me for a long time. Here's Middlesex (I live there, so I should know): there's Essex and over there is Sussex. I've even heard talk of Wessex. But where's Norsex?

I have a theory, now. Norsex is the great lost English county: the Atlantis of the shires, a place still reachable, if only you know the magic access ...

Sunday, 22 November 2009


I'm not sure, exactly, what to say about this. I used to think that intensity was a function of life; that intensity (for instance, aesthetic intensity, lyric vividness) connoted intense vitality of one sort or another. Now I wonder if there isn't an intensity of death, too. An intensity, or intensities. A gradual accentuation.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


I'd be the first to concede that I don't have the grounding to insist upon this; but it seems to me that, by the most cautious appraisal, the ten commandments break down like this: four, relating to the work of God; six, relating to moral and social duties among human beings. Surely even the most literalist and fundamentalist Christian should take the hint: if God is taking up more than 40% of your time you're overdoing it. Spend more time with people.

Friday, 20 November 2009


Wikipedia says of cotton: 'The name derives from the Arabic (al) qutn قُطْن , which began to be used circa 1400.' But that can't be right, for here's Pliny the Elder well over a millennium earlier than that: 'ferunt mali cotonei amplitudine cucurbitas, quae maturitate ruptae ostendunt lanuginis pilas, ex quibus vestes pretioso linteo faciunt' [XII: 10 (21)]. Lewis and Short have cotonea, 'a plant, wallwort, comfrey, black briony', and cotinus 'a shrub', which are presumably unconnected with the Arabic.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I

It used to be the case that I re-read The Lord of the Rings every year. But last year, for whatever reason, I didn't get around to it. (The year before that I read it with a half-an-eye on the larger questions about Fantasy that were being kicked around, critically, thenabouts. And the year before that, I read it with a specific task in mind: namely writing this essay, for this excellent collection: Robert Eaglestone (ed), Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic.)

Anyway, and although the year is fairly advanced, I've started rereading the whole book once again, and this time without any particular agenda in mind. It's still an enjoyable experience.

And here's the thing: I've just finished the first book (the first half of Fellowship of the Ring). Now when I used to read it as a teenager, this was always my least favourite section. I hurried through on my way to what I then considered the book's first highlight, the Mines of Moria, and the shivers that sent up my spine. But I've now re-read it with a new appreciation. There's something very clever, novelistically speaking, about the way Tolkien beds-in his larger narrative. I like the slow pulse of the first book, with its day-night alternations of comfortable domiciles (the Shire, Crickhollow, Bree, heading for Rivendell) and dangerous or disorienting wild spaces inbetween. But above all I like the way the characters keep getting lost, and the way in turn this propensity for getting lost glosses one of the novel's central conceits -- invisibility. The hobbits set out with a clear aim in view, and they are neither excessively foolish nor inexperienced ramblers. Yet when they go into the Old Forest, or when they set out across the Barrow Downs, lost is what they get: because (in both cases) they cannot see properly. The trees in the former, and the fog in the latter, makes as it were the rest of the world invisible. It's a nice, photographic-negative of the way the ring can render one individual invisible.

The writing stands-up better than I remember, too. Not all of it, by any means ('"Lawks!" said Merry' [116]); but some of the descriptive passages about landscape are lovely:
As they journeyed the sun mounted, and grew hot. Each time they climbed a ridge the breeze seemed to have grown less. When they caught a glimpse of the country westward the distant forest seemed to be smoking, as if the fallen rain was steaming up again from leaf and root and mould. A shadow now lay upon the edge of sight, a dark haze above which the upper sky was like a blue cap, hot and heavy. [151-2]

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

New novel

Planning a new novel: I want to set it here. Doesn't that look like an interesting location?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Ineffable, glamorous noise

I'm very struck by this quotation [which I found, incongruously enough, here; p.37] from an ancient Hermetic text called the Poimandres. The links, above, have the Greek; here's C H Dodd's English:
I seemed to see the darkness changing into a sort of moist nature, unspeakably agitated, giving out smoke as from a fire, and producing a sort of ineffable, glamorous noise; and then a cry was sent out from it inarticulately.
Isn't that wonderful? I don't mean to trivialise it, but it's easy to imagine precisely the sort of music that passage suggests.

Which is to say: the creation of the universe troped as a rock concert.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The sleep of monsters

As the sleep of reason produces monsters, so the sleep of monsters produces reason. It's dialectical.

Stands to reason. Or stands to monster. Which is better.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


This is how you do tension, Tolkien style. Aragorn ('Strider', still, at this stage) and the hobbits have been assaulted on Weathetop by the ringwraiths; Frodo has received a deadly wound in his shoulder from a poisoned knife. Unless they get to Rivendell quick, Frodo will die, or worse than die. They are alone in the wilderness without help. Time is pressing. Chapter XII: 'Flight to the Ford': 'they think their purpose is almost accomplished,' warns Strider, of the wraiths. 'Sam, they believe your master has a deadly wound that will subdue him to their will.' It's very exciting. Then? Then this sentence:
Four days passed.
Actually, the whole sentence is:
Four days passed, without the ground or the scene changing much, except that behind them Weathertop slowly sank, and before them the distant mountains loomed a little nearer.
It's extraordinary; and one of the most extraordinary things is that it works.

Saturday, 14 November 2009


Wikipedia really is a box of wonders. Slice it whicheverway you may it comes up Interesting Fact.
The policy of the Great Trigonometric Survey was to use local names for mountains wherever possible and K1 was found to be known locally as Masherbrum. K2, however, appeared not to have acquired a local name, possibly due to its remoteness. The mountain is not visible from Askole, the last village to the south, or from the nearest habitation to the north, and is only fleetingly glimpsed from the end of the Baltoro Glacier, beyond which few local people would have ventured. The name Chogori, derived from two Balti words, chhogo ('big') and ri ('mountain') (شاہگوری) has been suggested as a local name, but evidence for its widespread use is scant. It may have been a compound name invented by Western explorers or simply a bemused reply to the question "What's that called?" It does, however, form the basis for the name Qogir (pinyin: Qiáogēlǐ Fēng) by which Chinese authorities officially refer to the peak. Other local names have been suggested including Lamba Pahar ("Tall Mountain" in Urdu) and Dapsang, but are not widely used.

Lacking a local name, the name Mount Godwin-Austen was suggested, in honour of Henry Godwin-Austen, an early explorer of the area, and while the name was rejected by the Royal Geographical Society it was used on several maps, and continues to be used occasionally.

The surveyor's mark, K2, therefore continues to be the name by which the mountain is commonly known. It is now also used in the Balti language, rendered as Kechu or Ketu (Urdu: ے ٹو). The Italian climber Fosco Maraini argued in his account of the ascent of Gasherbrum IV that while the name of K2 owes its origin to chance, its clipped, impersonal nature is highly appropriate for so remote and challenging a mountain. He concluded that it was "...just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man - or of the cindered planet after the last."
The Wilkiecollinsesque Fosco is right, of course. It's not just the nakedness of 'K2' qua name that makes it appropriate; it's also the moniker's angular look -- the jags of the K, the sharp-bottomed, upwards-curving summit of 2. K (from the local name of the range: Karakoram) is the right sort of letter. It gestures at thousands ... as it might be, thousands of metres high. Still, it's possible to feel a little sorry for Godwin-Austen: it might have been nice to have glancing allusions to two Romantic novelists associated with this peak.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Fighting the transformer

Punching that piano in the teeth, over and over, smacking away at its stupid big grinning mouth, failing to dislodge a single one of its rabbit-long teeth. Hammering the clavier.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


John Greening’s new poem, ‘Dover’ [TLS, 6 Nov 2009], is dedicated ‘to Isaac Rosenberg’:
The white cliffs are like all the paper they could not have—
the men who were not rich enough to be officers
and that steady grey horizon is a never-ending pencil-lead.

The Channel is shifting with misty shapes of things that were said
but never written, for lack of paper, for want of pencils,
and beneath it currents and sands of what they really meant
The cliffs are paper (are they?) stacked and seen edge on? That’s not the side of paper poets write upon, though. But I like the idea that pencil lead and paper cannot come together to print the poem because between them lies Arnold’s unplumbed, salt, estranging sea. The Arnoldian touch is there in the last line, too, with its notion of a buried-life. And the title, of course. Of course, the title.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


The world of difference between the ‘please explain tears’ elegy and the ‘please provoke tears’ elegy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


This is my hunch: reactionaries who complain about homosexual behaviour in certains terms ('I wouldn't mind, but they flaunt themselves so ... I don't want it rammed down my throat ...' and so on) are not, whatever they might think, complaining about homosexuality. They are complaining about youth; and more specifically about the fantastic overspilling broadcast nature of young sexuality, of whatever orientation. That's just how young people are, when in lust. It doesn't excuse homophobic bigotry, of course, to say so.

Monday, 9 November 2009


“It is in language that an expectation and its fulfilment make contact”—Wittgenstein [Philosophical Investigations, no 445]. Imagine a dog (say) that sees a piece of bacon on the floor, plans to eat it and then eats that bacon. So, for this animal there is no contact between its expectation and its fulfilment? I don't understand what Wittgenstein means by 'contact' in that case.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Autumn 2

Keats liked the phrase 'stubble fields'. On the 21st Sept 1819 he wrote to his friend J.H. Reynolds:
How beautiful the season is now -- How fine the air. Really without joking, chaste weather -- Dian skies -- I never liked stubble fields so much as now -- Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble field looks warm -- in the same way that certain pictures look warm -- the thought struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it...
And then, of course, in 'To Autumn' we get:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue.
I used to think this took its poetic force from the implied comparison with the stubble on a man's chin, a fairly intimate physicalisation of the landscape. But, actually, it's the other way around. The OED notes the primary meaning of stubble: 'each of the stumps or lower-ends of grain stalks, left in the ground after reaping'. OED derives this from both the OE 'stobb', meaning 'stub', and the Latin 'stipula' ('a stalk. stem, blade, halm'), itself a diminutive version of 'stipes', 'a log, stock, post, trunk of a tree.' The notion that unshaved beard is 'stubble' is the poeticization ... and that's something wholly untouched in this poem. Rather, and looking at it now, stubble echoes, or rotates through, the 'bars' of the clouds. The clouds are like posts, or 'stripes' (is there a connection between this word and stipes?); but so are the remnants of the wheat harvest. I was scratching my chin in error.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Autumn 1

"The freed leaves, blood-coloured, gush fruitfully down. " [Fraser]

Onto the black ground
the trees drizzle leaves
with cloudy benevolence.

Cars rattle their phlegm;
umbrellas sprout their fungi.
The mulch and clutter of morning.

Each and every streetlamp
is the light of the world.
The wind trails its invisible

silk gown over the floor.
And all the trees are
ponderously headbanging

to a tune only they can hear.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Line of Beauty

Near the beginning of The Line of Beauty I thought I'd hit on something. So, sensitive Tory aesthete (or, more precisely: senisitive wealth-inebriated quasi-Jamesian aesthete) Nick is staying with his friend, bipolar self-harming young Catherine, in her parents' large London house (whilst they're away). She sees the cosmos as a beautiful, poisonous shimmer; he is aestheto-autistically addicted to a rarified Kantian aesthetic purity. Nick was due to go on a date, but Catherine's parasuicidal melodrama hijacks the evening, and he spends it with her instead.
Schumamnn had given way to The Clash, who in turn had yielded to a tired but busy silence between them. Nick prayed that she wouldn't put on any more music -- most of the stuff she liked had him clenched in resistance. [18]
By 'onto something' I mean, onto my dislike of the character and the mileu of this novel, a dislike superbly distilled (sublimed, even) by Hollinghurst's technical and stylistic brilliance. It's to do with an ethos of passivity, I think; or more precisely an aesthetic and ethos predicated wholly on receptivity. Entirely lacking the capacity to clench, like that, in resistance, Nick is if anything a pitiable character; capable of experiencing bliss, but without traction, like a man subsisting on a hummingbirdish diet of only sugar. Maybe I shouldn't dislike, so much as I should feel sorry for, him.

Thursday, 5 November 2009


Will I write a Vampire story? And if I do ... then, what? Well, I would have my vampire hunters carry supplies of saline solution blessed by a priest -- for medical saline is most assuredly water, and once blessed and intravenously infused into the body it would turn the vampire hunter into an unassaible creature. 'Drink my blood and ... die!' Such men and women would wade fearlessly into vampire nests.

Or (the best writing always starts with an or) ... would they? Maybe some vampires would prefer blood whose plasma was mingled with holy water. Maybe that would be like a really really spicy curry to a human.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The ghost rockets

None of these rockets died a peaceful death
In their beds, or keeling over whilst gardening.
They all died in flames, blood boiling on their shells.
How could their ghosts be anything but grim?
Angry, sharp-edged spirits, resentfully there.
'We went to heaven before we died,' they say.
'And all the way up: there's nothing there.
We want our afterlife down on the deck.'
These jigsaw ghosts, the disassembled ones.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Bronze man poem

Meet Braze. This bronze man thinks
hollowness an absolute virtue:

the cavity within him vacates
otherwise overwhelming density.

Think: emotional singularities.
Think of shelling such voids.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Magic Realism

David Simpson wonders about the great vogue in magical realist novels; and more specifically, wonders why books mostly consumed in western cities are so often set 'in the (to us) remote corners of the undeveloped or developing world, the colours, smells and flavours are more intense, life is more meaningful and death less absolute than in the grey industrial or post-industrial landscapes of the north.' To that end he cites Moretti:
Moretti has speculated that this novel [100 Years of Solitude] and others like it speak to the world system from the peripheryin ways that would be impossible if they were set in Europe or North America: they hold out the possibility of re-enchantment in our disenchanted world
That's right, I think; and also explains much of the continuing appeal of both Fantasy and Sense-of-wonder SF. But it also exposes a fundamental problematic: because, in the terms of the novels themselves, the re-enchantment is literal (actual magic) whereas the prior disenchantment is only metaphorical. From this core imbalance all sorts of difficulties, failures and problems proceed.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Equality and inequality

A fascinating piece in 22nd October's LRB: David Runciman's 'How messy it all is', reviewing The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Wilkinson and Pickett's book sounds like exactly the sort of thing to gladden the heart of an old liberal socialist like me:

Among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use). The evidence that Wilkinson and Pickett supply to make their case is overwhelming. Whether the test is life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity levels, crime rates, literacy scores, even the amount of rubbish that gets recycled, the more equal the society the better the performance invariably is. In graph after graph measuring various welfare functions, the authors show that the best predictor of how countries will rank is not the differences in wealth between them ... but the differences in wealth within them (so the US, as the most unequal society, comes last on many measures, followed by Portugal and the UK, both places where the gap between rich and poor is relatively large, with Spain and Greece somewhere in the middle, and the Scandinavian countries invariably out in front, along with Japan). Just as significantly, this pattern holds inside the US as well, where states with high levels of income inequality also tend to have the greatest social problems.
Sympathetic as he is to this line, Runcimann makes one excellent core point, and several less telling other points, against it. Crucially he asks: 'is the basic claim here that in more equal societies almost everyone does better, or is it simply that everyone does better on average?' Although Wilkinson and Pickett 'want to insist that it’s the first' in fact it's generally the second. This is no good. That's because the data may mean, and probably do mean, not that more equal societies improve life for everyone, but that in unequal societies the rich do very well where the poor do so disproportionately badly that it skews the average sharply downward. And the problem with this, as Runcimann notes, is that 'the idea that finding ourselves on a steep social gradient is something we all have in common is not going to have much political bite. What matters to most people is where they are on the slope, not the fact that those higher up and lower down are on the slope with them.' Runcimann shows that you don't get very far passing off 'the average improves' as 'everybody wins!' They're actually far from being the same thing.

In fact, and much as I want Wilkinson and Pickett's argument to be right, I'm not sure Runcimann is hard enough in his demolishing. So, he says:

The single most compelling chart in the whole book comes near the end. It compares infant mortality rates for England and Wales as against Sweden, dividing the data up into six segments according to the father’s social class. This shows two remarkable things. First, whereas in England and Wales the chances of your child’s surviving rise with each step you take up the social ladder, in Sweden children from the lowest social class have a better chance of surviving than members of three of the five classes above them. Although the figures are fairly constant across Swedish society (around 4-7 per 1000, as compared to around 7-14 per 1000 in England and Wales), it remains the case that children from the highest social group are slightly more likely to die than children from the lowest. Second, even children from the highest social group in England and Wales, though significantly less likely to die than children from other social groups, are more likely to die than children from any class in Sweden; they are very nearly as likely to die as children of Swedish single mothers, who do worst of all in Sweden just as they do in England and Wales. Here, we have clear evidence that a more equal society does leave almost everyone better off. It is not simply the case that in England and Wales economic inequality means bad outcomes are shunted down the social scale; it is also true that inequality means bad outcomes are being distributed across the social scale, making even rich English parents more vulnerable than poor Swedish ones.
But doesn't this ignore the fact that in the UK rich and poor alike use the same technical mechanism (the NHS) to have their babies delivered? Mightn't that account for the 'across-the-boardness' of Wilkinson and Pickett's results?

One other thing struck me as unsaid in this piece, something which, if it's true, will tend to be horribly corrosive of the political agenda for equality. Runcimann compares the data on infant mortality with the data on education, and says that 'Education, unlike infant mortality, is a comparative as well as an absolute good. Parents want their kids to do better than other kids (whereas, one hopes, they don’t need to see other people’s children die in order to enjoy bringing their own safely home from hospital).' But I wonder if his 'one hopes' isn't too sanguine. I don't mean that people actively want others' kids to die; but I do mean something related to that unsavoury notion.

It seems to me that one metaphorical sheet anchor, holding back progressive political programmes that work towards equality, is precisely the inertia of a large group in any society that actively wants to see a set of society (the underclass) suffer; or perhaps it might be more accuare to say: a large group that doesn't want to see people rewarded for behaviour they deem sinful. Sinful, though tendentious, seems to me the right word here. For many middle-class Brits and Americans, the problem with welfare is not the absolute cost of it, but rather that it is perceived to reward indolence, and indolence is seen as sinful. Arguments that it results in less social inequality and so moves us towards Wilkinson and Pickett's utopia crash and break upon the rocks of middle class moral indignation ('I work hard to afford the mortgage payments on this house; Mr and Mrs Chav are getting their house for free, and I resent that'). This, sadly, is an argument that adapts to various ideological environments. For example: many Americans will not be sold on sex education programmes (up to and including abortion) by the manifest and rational arguments concerning social and public good: more deeply ingrained is their belief the illicit sex (which is most sex, for them) deserves to be punished, not rewarded, which in turn means that they are, essentially (and though they may not even admit it, perhaps even to themselves) happy to see unmarried mothers living in squalor and people dying of AIDS.

Or again, it is better to treat drug addicts as people with an illness than as sinners ... better in social terms, I mean. But many people cannot bear the thought that, after abdicating all social constraits and responsibilities, after perhaps stealing, and above all after enjoying the pleasure of getting high on heroin, an individual should be 'rewarded' with medical care. They feel that such people should be punished. The root of this, I suspect, is a profound twist in the bourgeois soul, almost a psychopathology: the horror that somebody somewhere is having fun, which in turn translates into the belief that such people must be punished and hang the consequences. It should be challenged; although it won't be easy. We could start by pointing out that being really poor really isn't fun; that punishing people for being poor involves a deplorable sort of double-jeopardy. Or maybe we should put our efforts on the other side: and convince people that it's OK for others to enjoy themselves ... really it is.