Friday, 31 December 2010

Kipling's Changelings

One of Rudyard's more bellicose poems, this; but I like it nonetheless. Published 1915, 'The Changelings':
Or ever the battered liners sank
With their passengers to the dark
I was head of a Walworth Bank,
And you were a grocer's clerk.

I was a dealer in stocks and shares,
And you in butters and teas;
And we both abandoned our own affairs
And took to the dreadful seas.

Wet and worry about our ways--
Panic, onset and flight--
Had us in charge for a thousand days
And thousand-year-long night.

We saw more than the nights could hide--
More than the waves could keep--
And--certain faces over the side
Which do not go from our sleep.

We were more tired than words can tell
While the pied craft fled by,
And the swinging mounds of the Western swell
Hoisted us Heavens-high...

Now there is nothing -- not even our rank--
To witness what we have been;
And I am returned to my Walworth Bank
And you to your margarine!
What I like is the sea-had-soaked-his-heart-through way marine terminology haunts even the landlubber existences of these two characters: 'Walworth Bank' sounds like a rival to Dogger Bank; 'Margarine' sounds like a sea-y 'mar' word.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Ontological Turing's test

There ought to be, where the larger philosophical questions are concerned, a kind of ontological Turing's test. Take Substance. Say Aristotle was right all along; that there is such a thing. What difference does that knowledge make to us? If the answer is none: which is to say, if the Cosmos can convincingly give the appearance of functioning in a non-Substantive way -- then au revoir to that theory irrespective of its inherent rightness of wrongness. Surely.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Cola poem

Drink poured, dark.
Layered actres of bubblewrap
shrunk to the two-inch
Munch-scream 0 of the glass.

The texture of complexity,
But not the actuality of it.
It looks mind-blowing, the
myriad tiny bubbles. It's not.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Truth in religion

"The way, the truth, the light ...' Not, it's always struck me: 'a way, a truth, a light ...' Or to put it another way: I've read several contemporary theologians this year (either them, or reviews of their work) who have advanced variants of the following move: 'there is obviously such a thing as scientific truth, but to this is an insufficient criterion of veracity by which to live life. Atheists share with scientists too narrow a conception of truth; religious truth is not so narrow ...' Which is fine, although it always makes me want to replace the word 'narrow' with the word 'precise' and see how the argument looks ('scientific truth is too precise: religious truth's glory is its imprecision ...' and so on)

Monday, 27 December 2010


I propose we replace the word 'ecosystem' with the word 'ecodynamic'.

There. My work here is done.

Sunday, 26 December 2010


I've been reading a number of 19th-century attempts to reconcile Science and Biblical literalism recently, for slightly obscure reasons. I've read enough to know I've barely scratched the surface of a vast area of human intellectual endeavour. So here's my question: presumably (I say so because it seems to me very obvious) somebody somewhere has argued that evolution happened as scientists suggest, but that God intervened in 4004 BC to gift two individuals in the Middle East with 'soul', so distinguishing them from the animals? But who?

Saturday, 25 December 2010


The Catholic Encyclopedia has no entry on 'meekness', but this is what it says about humility:
The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and all other moral virtues are annexed to theses either as integral, potential, or subjective parts. Humility is annexed to the virtue of temperance as a potential part, because temperance includes all those virtues that refrain or express the inordinate movements of our desires or appetites.
So humility is actually a sort of temperance. Really? 'The meek shall inherit the earth' surely means something very different to 'those who have temperance shall inherit the earth.'

Friday, 24 December 2010

Browning's 'Amphibian'

Browning's 'Amphibian', one of his late poems, was fairly important to my doctoral work.
THE fancy I had to-day,
Fancy which turned a fear!
I swam far out in the bay,
&nbps;Since waves laughed warm and clear.

I lay and looked at the sun,
The noon-sun looked at me:
Between us two, no one
Live creature, that I could see.

Yes! There came floating by
Me, who lay floating too,
Such a strange butterfly!
Creature as dear as new!

Because the membraned wings
So wonderful, so wide,
So sun-suffused, were things
Like soul and naught beside.

A handbreadth overhead!
&nbps;All of the sea my own,
It owned the sky instead;
Both of us were alone.

I never shall join its flight,
For, naught buoys flesh in air.
If it touch the sea--good night!
Death sure and swift waits there.

Can the insect feel the better
For watching the uncouth play
Of limbs that slip the fetter,
Pretend as they were not clay?

Undoubtedly I rejoice
That the air comports so well
With a creature which had the choice
Of the land once. Who can tell?

What if a certain soul
Which early slipped its sheath,
And has for its home the whole
Of heaven, thus look beneath,

Thus watch one who, in the world,
Both lives and likes life's way,
Nor wishes the wings unfurled
That sleep in the worm, they say?

But sometimes when the weather
Is blue, and warm waves tempt
To free one's self of tether,
And try a life exempt

From worldly noise and dust,
In the sphere which overbrims
With passion and thought,--why, just
Unable to fly, one swims!

By passion and thought upborne,
One smiles to one's self--"They fare
Scarce better, they need not scorn
Our sea, who live in the air!"

Emancipate through passion
And thought, with sea for sky,
We substitute, in a fashion,
For heaven--poetry:

Which sea, to all intent,
Gives flesh such noon-disport
As a finer element
Affords the spirit-sort.

Whatever they are, we seem:
Imagine the thing they know;
All deeds they do, we dream;
Can heaven be else but so?

And meantime, yonder streak
Meets the horizon's verge;
This is the land, to seek
If we tire or dread the surge:

Land the solid and safe--
To welcome again (confess!)
When, high and dry, we chafe
The body, and don the dress.

Does she look, pity, wonder
At one who mimics flight,
Swims--heaven above, sea under,
Yet always earth in sight?
It didn't occur to me before, but I wonder if this is the product of some late reading of Plotinus?
Plotinus envisions psyche as having an amphibious nature (Ennead IV.8.4); the human soul has a 'double life' and a 'double nature' participating in both the intelligible and the perceptible realms (Ennead IV.8.8.11-13). It occupies a 'middle rank' at the boundary between the higher intelligible world of the Forms and the lower corporeal nature of the perceptible reality (Ennead IV.8.7.5). Plotinus' famous metaphor of the soul is that of a 'double city, one above and one composed of the lower elements set in order by the powers above' (Ennead IV.4.17.30 ff.). On this basis, Remes maintains that Plotinus conceptualises two notions of the self: the higher rational self and the lower corporeal self. Whereas the former marks soul's goodness, knowledge and intelligence, the latter signifies imperfection and opinion. The author supports the position that, for Plotinus, there is unsubstantiated connection between the higher self and the faculties and capacities of the embodied self such as that of sense-perception and phantasia. Remes correctly states that 'through its share of these capacities, the lower part does tend towards a rational organization even if it does not succeed in expressing this tendency. The inner self is the spring of the self-conscious and deliberative life of the composite. The rational or intellectual dimension dominates the whole picture, but the bodily dimension is not neglected' (p. 256)

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Writing of Time

As far as I can see, the convention that Christ was born on the 25th December dates from the early 3rd Century AD, and is the invention of this neat-minded individual (here's his 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry):
AFRICANUS, SEXTUS JULIUS, a Christian traveller and historian of the 3rd century, was probably born in Libya, and may have served under Septimius Severus against the Osrhoenians in A.D. 195. Little is known of his personal history, except that he lived at Emmaus, and that he went on an embassy to the emperor Heliogabalus to ask for the restoration of the town, which had fallen into ruins. His mission succeeded, and Emmaus was henceforward known as Nicopolis. Dionysius bar-Salibi makes him a bishop, but probably he was not even a presbyter. He wrote a history of the world (Chronografiai, in five books) from the creation to the year A.D. 221, a period, according to his computation, of 5723 years. He calculated the period between the creation and the birth of Christ as 5499 years, and ante-dated the latter event by three years. This method of reckoning became known as the Alexandrian era, and was adopted by almost all the eastern churches. The history, which had an apologetic aim, is no longer extant, but copious extracts from it are to be found in the Chronicon of Eusebius, who used it extensively in compiling the early episcopal lists. There are also fragments in Syncellus, Cedrenus and the Paschale Chronicon. Eusebius (Hist. Ecc. i. 7, cf. vi. 31) gives some extracts from his letter to one Aristides, reconciling the apparent discrepancy between Matthew and Luke in the genealogy of Christ by a reference to the Jewish law, which compelled a man to marry the widow of his deceased brother, if the latter died without issue. His terse and pertinent letter to Origen, impugning the authority of the apocryphal book of Susanna, and Origen's wordy and uncritical answer, are both extant. The ascription to Africanus of an encyclopaedic work entitled Kestoi (embroidered girdles), treating of agriculture, natural history, military science, &c., has been needlessly disputed on account of its secular and often credulous character. Neander suggests that it was written by Africanus before he had devoted himself to religious subjects. For a new fragment of this work see Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Grenfell and Hunt), iii. 36 ff.
This now-lost Chronographiae, 'Writings on Time' interests me very much. As Hagith Sivan notes, 'Africanus' chronological system, underpinned by the Judaeo-Christian conviction that the duration of history as a whole amounted to 6000 years, in accordance with the six days of creation. This straitjacket forced Africanus to be both ingenuous and imaginative in devising a system that ... was, on the whole, internally coherent.' (Alden Mosshammer 'determines that Africanus dated the Incarnation to the 25th of March in the year 5501 from Adam (= 1 B.C.), and the Resurrection to March 25th, Olympiad 202.2, year 5532 from Adam (= A.D. 31)') This will to neatness is the most fascinating thing of all: for why should time be neat? That other great innovator in the chronographic arts, H G Wells, didn't think it did.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Retrospective happiness

I've been pondering the strange phenomenon of being happy without realising you are happy; or more to the point, of realising only retrospectively that a period of your life -- perhaps a period during which, at the time, you were aware only of busyness and low-level anxiety and tiredness (let's say: to do with kids and your job and the like) -- was actually the happiest of your life. How can that be? I mean, how can a person not know they're happy? Yet it strikes me as a very common phenomenon. (I'm reminded, not for the first time on this blog, of the line from Blade Runner that works as a superbly profound gloss on human nature itself, 'how can it not know what it is?')

There's an SF story about this, by I-can't-remember-whom, that I read in the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus volume. I can't remember the title of the story either, and don't have the volume to hand.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Unbirthday poem

It's usually a good idea that the heart be moved,
from time to time, at least.
There's no call for self-pity, or the scarifying
of one's own clubfooted breast.

My days are now a bright banana yellow
The kids' rooms decorated with a flowers-and-fruits motif;
Warm and canny, Charlie Brown's good grief,
It's a gold-mine.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Ruskin SF

More inadvertent Victorian sciencefictionalising, this time from Ruskin's 'Work of Iron' essay (1858), which includes this rather splendid description of that worthy genre trope, the Trantor planet:
You think, perhaps, that your iron is
wonderfully useful in a pure form, but how would you like the world, if all your meadows, instead of grass, grew nothing but iron wire--if all your arable ground, instead of being made of sand and clay, were suddenly turned into flat surfaces of steel--if the whole earth, instead of its green and glowing sphere, rich with forest and flower, showed nothing but the image of the vast furnace of a ghastly engine--a globe of black, lifeless, excoriated metal?

Sunday, 19 December 2010


Superstition? Substition, surely?

Saturday, 18 December 2010

SF Alphabets

Why are SF and Fantasy so drawn to the making of new alphabets? This doesn't seem to me a so much a feature of culture outside SF (though I mention Voynich, below); but 'alphabetogenesis' is a hardy perennial of science fiction and Fantasy. I've talked about Tolkien's contribution to this body of work before on this blog. What else?

Klingon—the letters seem to be fashioned from knives and swords, or perhaps are as-it-were cuts made into the parchment. There is a telling literalism about this, a kind of grapheme conceptual short-circuit embodied by the alphabet itself.

Voynich—what’s significant here, surely, is that not only has this ‘code’ baffled the most sophisticated attempts at translation or solution—although it has—but that it is a script that prioritises a larger aesthetic logic above the alphabetic principle that each distinct grapheme represents a different phoneme. Voynich doesn’t do this (if it did, we would have cracked the code), but it does manifest the appearance of an alphabet, and in ways that connect it with the logic of the visual text. Which is to say these letters look like organic forms and shapes.

The Matrix—the baseline reality is precisely a mysterious alphabet. The atoms of the oppressive world of the machine intelligence, in which humanity is trapped, are literally made-up of made-up letters, the fabric of reality itself is an invented alphabet.

This, then, is my thesis; that SF’s fascination with invented alphabets is precisely a mode of apprehending apocalypse, the world-turned-upsidedown entailed by its novum.

Fantasising the new alphabet is the dream of grasping the root of the world. Plato speculated about learning the alphabet of nature, out of which all specific complexes are formed (Statesman, 278, Sophist 253a, Philebus 1bc). Even Heidegger—in the Heraclitus Seminar (1966-67)—saw ‘genetics’, or as he puts it ‘the alphabet of nucleotides’, as the most prodigiously significant development in human culture (‘in comparison the explosion of the hydrogen bomb means little’)

This in turn connects with a kind of contemporary, SFnal variety of magical thinking—that if we remake the alphabet we remake the world. More, we might say that this is a way of defining SF: it writes the world, and the world it writes is our world; but it does so in a modified alphabet.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Art is the objectification of feeling

Here's what Susanne K. Langer thinks of art:
The artist's eye sees in nature and even in human nature betraying itself in action, an inexhaustible wealth of tensions, rhythms, continuities and contrasts which can be rendered in line and color;a nd these are the "internal forms" which the "external forms" -- paintings, musical or poetical compositions or any other works of art -- express for us. The connection with the natural world is close, and easy to understand; for the essential function of art has the dual character of almost all life functions, which are usually dialectical. Art is the objectification of feeling ... Natural forms become articulate and seem like projections of the "inner forms" of feeling, as people influenced (whether consciously or not) by all the art that surrounds them develop something of the artist's vision. Art is the objectification of feeling, and the subjectification of nature. [Langer, Mind. An essay on human feeling, 87]
I like the emphasis on 'feeling' here, and I'm prepared to go a certain part of the way along with the Wordsworthian 'nature' stuff. But all the 'exterior' and 'interior' talk strikes me as too crude; a questionable binary at the best of time, and one, even if we take it as a longstanding metaphor, that is deployed with too clunking a binarism in this instance. Surely part of the point of art is precisely its capacity for threading together a 'pong'-style bounceabout between 'inward' and 'outward'?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Vampires and zombies

Vampires are huge right now, as are zombies (though zombies aren't quite as huge). What's the ground of their success? Well in their current, Twilight-y/True-Bloodish iteration, fairly obviously, vampires mediate sex via death. That there is such a huge cultural appetite for this morbid erotics is interesting in its own right, but I'm more concerned at the moment with what it is that zombies mediate via death -- since, like vampires, its their thanaticism that evidently grounds their appeal. What do zombies mediate via death? What else but death itself? -- the short-circuit of non-existence not existing, 'being' itself burnt out and blasted? Vampires are the dead who are really alive. Zombies are the dead who can nevertheless die, the tropes of an uncanny reduplication of death: an unsettling potlatch of death exchanged for death.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Setting Free

The truth will set you free, they say. But what of the many people who don't want to be free?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Rev J Mellor Brown

The Rev. J. Mellor Brown was a devout Victorian reconciler of Genesis and geology. There were a great many of these (P H Gosse being, perhaps, the most famous), and most of their theories were spectacularly silly. Mellor Brown's theory was as silly as any, but I like it a great deal. Why? Because the magic glue he uses to link the incompatible geological account of the Bible and science is .... science fiction!
God's most tremendous agencies may have been employed in the beginning of his works. If, for instance, it should be conceded that the granitic or balsaltic strata were once in a state of fusion, there is no reason why we should not call in the aid of supposition to produce a rapid refrigeration. We may surround the globe with an atmosphere (not as yet warmed by the rays of the newly kindled sun) more intensely cold than that of Saturn. The degree of cold may have been such as to cool down the liquid granite and basalt in a few hours, and render it congenial to animal and vegetable life; while the gelid air around the globe may have been mollified by the abstracted caloric. [Mellor Brown, Reflections on Geology (1838)]
Marvellous. 'The gelid air around the globe may have been mollified by the abstracted caloric' is currently my favourite sentence.

Monday, 13 December 2010


Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.
Green grey green.

Sunday, 12 December 2010


Peter Iver Kaufman's 1994 essay 'Augustine, Martyrs, and Misery' starts with a nice line from Augustine's Sermones (105:7:10):
Augustine said that Rome fell frequently, all too often into "utter moral depravity," occasionally into the hands of the city's enemies. Maybe Aeneas was to blame. He had shown poor judgment, hauling to Italy the gods that failed to save Troy. Subsequently, when the Gauls came to Rome's gates, those divine and purportedly vigilant protectors did remarkably little protecting. They later offered no resistance when Nero reduced Rome to rubble. Augustine held Aeneas's eulogist responsible for the terribly inflated expectations that made the city's humiliations all the more demoralizing; Virgil misled citizens, suggesting that Rome would stand forever. Christians should have known better. They had it on higher authority that heaven and earth would pass away.
I like this: the idea that the penates were 'failed gods', because they had not prevented the destruction of Troy (where Christ, who failed to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem is ...?) Or maybe there's something else going on here. The penates were 'originally the tutelary deities of the storeroom, Latin penus, the innermost part of the house, where they guarded the household's food, wine, oil, and other supplies. Cicero explained that they "dwell inside, from which they are also called penetrales by the poets. The 2nd-century A.D. grammarian Festus defined penus, however, as "the most secret site in the shrine of Vesta, which is surrounded by curtains." Macrobius reports the theological view of Varro that "those who dig out truth more diligently have said that the Penates are those through whom we breathe in our inner core (penitus), through whom we have a body, through whom we possess a rational mind."' In other words, the gods who failed were the inward gods, the gods of interiority, of consciousness. The God who succeeded, in Augustinian idiom, was the exterior God of outside judgment. There's a moral there, I suspect.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


I'm struck by the fact that 'misery' ('great sorrow or mental distress; a miserable or wretched state of mind; a condition characterized by a feeling of extreme unhappiness') and 'miser' ('a person who hoards wealth ... an avaricious, grasping, or stingy and parsimonious person') are versions of the same word; that, in fact, the former is a version of the latter ('Anglo-Norman and Old French miserie unhappy state < classical Latin miseria wretched or pitiful condition < miser(see miser adj. and n.1) + -ia-y suffix' OED) I wonder how far we can push this? It would be tempting to argue that a miser is so-called because his parsimony means he lives a miserable life, if this didn't get the etymological relation the wrong way about. Could it be that people are miserable, in an existential sense, because they are hoarding something?

Friday, 10 December 2010


In Das Kapital (and how much more forceful do German 'd's and 'k's seem, when set against the watery 'th's and 'c's of English words like 'the' and 'capital'), Marx writes:
The poorest architect is distinguished from the best of bees by the fact that before he builds a cell in wax, he has built it in his head. The result was already present at its commencement, in the imagination of the worker, in its ideal form. More than merely working an alteration in the form of nature, he also knowingly works his own purposes into nature; and these purposes are the law determining the ways and means of his activity, so that his will must be adjusted to them. [Capital, 193]
But this seems a little negatively suppositious with respect to the imaginative capacity of beekind. If only Marx had been alive to read Robert Adams great novel, Watership Beehive ...

Thursday, 9 December 2010


Towards the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said: 'it is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than Try to be a little kinder.' And it does look a little banal, doesn't it? The modest dimensions of 'little', the watery semantic field of 'kinder'. It's not banal, of course; it's enormously and startlingly profound. Its apparent banality is a kind of optical illusion generated, in part, by the distorting mirror of 'tragic dignity' and 'elevation' with which we are in the habit of melodramatising, and thereby rendering more piquant, our lives. But 'try to be a little kinder' takes its prodigious force in part from its implied dismantling of that prior habit of being.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Come, meet

We've been pronouncing it wrong.
The word comet came to English by way of the Latin word cometes. This word, in turn, came from the Greek word κόμη, which means "hair of the head". The Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle first used the derived form of κόμη, κομήτης, to describe what he saw as "stars with hair."
That eta deserves its place in the word: comeet. Not the hairy star, so much as the welcoming one.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Eyes poem

Eyes of amber, not the colour
But the hardness, and the sense
Of something gnarly, tangled, insect
Inembedded, inward lurking.

Eyes of sapphire, not the hardness
But the colour, and the knowledge
This is beauty long gestated
Pressure-crushed and cataclysmic.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Sunday, 5 December 2010


Speaking confessionally, Rousseau announced: 'je commençai ma réforme par ma parure; je quittai la dorure.' Indeed, he claimed this not once, but several times: 'Je quittai le monde et ses pompes, je renonçai à toute parure ; plus d'épée, plus de montre, plus de bas blancs, de dorure, de coiffure'. This is not quitting 'the world', though; this is performing for the world in a different, less kitsch costume. It's not beginning one's reform so much as beginning what one performs.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

What a work of art knows

Louis Arnaud Reid wrote an essay called 'Feeling and Aesthetic Knowing' in 1976, which begins:
The Exclusiveness of Propositional Claims. The Western world and its education have been dominated by a prejudice about the nature of knowledge so powerful that it is hard to know how to begin to question it with any effect. The prejudice is, briefly, that all that can genuinely and properly be called "knowledge" can be adequately stated or ex- pressed in true propositions for which sufficient reasons can be given. The prejudice is not in the positive claim that knowledge can be so stated and justified, but in its denial, implied in "all that can properly be called 'knowledge' " is of that type - i.e., nothing else can. Of course any philosopher who assumes this common view does not deny that there are other words claiming to be knowledge words. One "knows" a person or a color; one "knows" mugging to be wrong; one "knows" this symphony or this picture. But, except as far as those can be translated or analyzed into true propositional statements, they tend to be dismissed as mere "intuitions," "hunches," or sayings which ex- press feelings or emotions. Some attention has been given in our own time to "knowing how," but it is knowledge like science and mathe- matics which remains the paradigm of genuine knowledge. And this for a plain reason: the unchallengeable development and success of science and mathematics since the seventeenth century, the develop- ment of systematic conceptual thinking coupled with understanding and cognitive and technological mastery of the world of fact, of "what is the case."
This doesn't seem so very radical. He goes on to argue that affect is a mode of knowing: that 'the intuitions and feelings we have in these matters are cognitive experiences, and that they make knowledge claims' [12]
Feeling is not of course the whole of this knowing; to say that would once again be to abstract and isolate it. But it is an intrinsic part of knowing. In a moral situation, for example, perhaps someone may be in need and in dire distress. Compassion and help seem to be called for. What it is wise and right to do in that situation may require in- vestigation and understanding. A moral problem may often require a great deal of cool impersonal analysis - though done within a con- text which requires a cognitively intuitive feeling for the whole situa- tion. But on the other side, one cannot be truly compassionate, one can- not even know what compassion is, without at some stage feeling it. The wisdom of compassionate action, its rightness and appropriateness in that particular situation, its instrumental values-these are matters of a partly intellectual judgment that may be required to "prove" the action right, so far as the term "proof" can be relevant here. But the intrinsic goodness of compassion must be felt (at some stage) in order to be known; it can never be shown by purely intellectual means, by "knowing about" compassion and its uses, by being able to make cor- rect propositions about it. (A moral psychopath can do that.) There is a sense in which the intrinsic goodness of compassion must be tested "upon the pulses."
Where things get stickier, I'd say, is when he moves to the aesthetic. A fatal vagueness enters, cloaked as necessary brevity:
It is impossible in a short paper to do any justice to how feeling operates in our knowledge of the arts - one reason being because dif- ferent arts are so different from one another. In reading a good novel, for instance, our attention seems almost "transparently" directed towards the characters, ideas, and events depicted and imagined. Our cognitive feelings are the feelings mainly of all that; and although of course the scenes are conveyed in the medium of skillfully chosen words, focal attention to the feeling of the words can be distracting. In read- ing poetry it is very different. Poetry, of course, is about things as felt by the poet, but the feeling for the spoken, sounding, rhythmical, dynamically directional quality of the word pattern is central to the poetic meaning. Yeats's poem "Never Give All the Heart" is about its title, but every sounding word of the poem makes its contribution to the passion and the bitterness of the poetic meaning.
We need more, here. It's not enough to say that what King Lear 'knows' is that 'life is sometimes heartbreakingly sad'. Reid's example of the novel describes the empathy a reader feels for the characters about whom she is reading; but empathy is a very limited sort of knowledge. What separates out better art from lesser art is that the better art knows more; is wiser, is more effectively and potently demonstrative. One of the things that interests me about this is that this knowledge is very often a separate quality from the technical or formal accomplishment. Frankenstein is a very clumsily written novel, in many ways; gauche and melodramatic and lunkishly plotted. Yet Frankenstein 'knows' something eloquent and important about science: about the psychological logic of scientific discovery, about the balance of ambition and payoff, unintended consequence and violence. There are plenty of other examples: the Harry Potter novels are derivative, slackly written and sprawly; but they know something so significant that they connect, expressively and genuinely, with millions of people: they know that school, when you're of school age, is much more than a place you go to get educated, that it's the arena for all your most intense dramas, interpersonal and personal.

Friday, 3 December 2010


Bang bang bang.
Bang bang bang.
Bang bang bang.
Bang bang bang.

It's the pauses at the end of the lines that make it.

Thursday, 2 December 2010


I assume Bergman's quotation about self-portraiture ('self-portraiture is something one should never get involved in, since it is wrong to lie even though one endeavours to tell the truth') is ironic, at least to some extent. It is wrong to lie even if you're trying to tell the truth: wrong to attempt with all your heart to be truthful but, inadvertently, or because of the nature of the material with which you are working, to miss it? Surely not. Of course, that's not what Bergman means: he's saying where self-representation is concerned, and therefore presumably self-understanding, good intentions do not amount to veracity. That's fair enough. But neither do they necessarily amount to mendacity.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


Nassim Nicholas Taleb opens his aphoristic The Bed of Procrustes, with this: 'the person you are most afraid to contradict is yourself'. But it's not really a question of fear, surely. Isn't it more a matter of inertia, a kind of existential indolence? Indeed, there are rare qualities of pleasure to be had from contradicting oneself: humour, sense of wonder, that tingle of the hairs shifting at the back of one's neck ...