Monday, 28 February 2011

Christianity and Endings

The eighth of the Treatises of S. Caecilius Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (Google Books has John Henry Newman's 1839 translation) has some interesting stuff in it. As Rebecca West notes in her 1933 Life of Augustus, the point of this letter was to explain to he was wrong in supposing 'that the Christians' refusal to worship the gods was the reason for the wars and famines then vexing the world.' The letter starts with a hefty piece of chastisement of Cyprian's political powerful, Pagan reader:
The uproar of sacrilege and impiety which you are wont to raise against the one and the true God, I have heretofore, Demetrianus, passed over in contempt, thinking it more decent and better to put the scorn of silence upon a mistaken man's ignorance, than provoke a madman's frenzy by what I should say. Neither was I without authority of the divine instruction, herein, since it is written, "Speak not in the ears of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of they words". We are commanded also to keep what is holy within our own knowledge, and not to expose it to be trodden on by swine and dogs.
West thinks 'it must have taken a considerable degree of vitality for Cyprian to address in such terms an important representative of the government that not only has the power to put him to death but was ready to exercise it'. I'm not so sure whether this isn't a cannier piece of psychological teasing, an invitation to the Consul to come inside the tent rather than lurk outside with the swine and dogs. Anyhow, what's interesting is what follows. To quote West again: 'after much hearty thwacking of this sort he went on to propound a theory very strange to find in a man of naturally cheerful temperament and not ungratified ambitions:
You must in the first place learn (since you are ignorant of the divine teaching, and a stranger to the truth,) that the world is now reaching its old age, that it stands no longer in its pristine strength, no longer keeps its indwelling vigour and force. This though ourselves should speak it not, though we should draw no instructions of it from the holy Scriptures and the divine teaching, still the world itself declares it, and attests its own ruin in the tottering estate of tilings. The showers of winter fail us, for nourishing the seeds; the sun s heat in summer for ripening the corn; nor in springtide do the fields display their usual growth, and the trees of autumn are barren of their accustomed issue. Mountains disembowelled and ransacked yield a shortened store of marble layers ; the exhausted mines send up but a scanty wealth of silver and of gold; their impoverished veins day by day are narrowed and minished, while the husband man languishes in the fields, the sailor at sea, the soldier in the camp; honesty sinks in the mart, justice from the tribunal, love from friendships, skill from the arts, and discipline from conduct. Suppose you that the coherence of a thing that is decaying can continue in that strength, wherewith it flourished in its youthful and thriving season ? Needful is it that that must wax weak, which is now drawing near its end, and verges downward to the close. It is thus that the descending sun darts his rays with an obscured and impeded lustre, and that the moon, as her course declines, contracts her exhausted horns; thus that the tree once green and fertile puts on the graceless barrenness of the sere boughs in age, and the fountain which once poured out the large effluence of its overflowing veins, worn out by time, scarcely trickles with an insufficient moisture. It is a sentence passed upon the world, it is God s law, that as things rose so they should fall, as they waxed so should wane, the strong become weak, and the great become little; and weak and little when they are, then should they gain their end. [199-200]
I've quoted this at length, since it's good to get a flavour of how vehemently Cyprian bangs this particular drum.

I wonder if a fascination with endings isn't so tightly woven in with the very beginnings of Christianity that now it could never get unpicked, no matter how much the faith pays lipservice to the Christian message of radical newness and freshness coming into the world, or the Easter message that endings as such (like death) have been done away with now. It's a pretty radical heresy, it seems to me, to take that double-message and turn it on its head: to believe wholeheartedly that the world is clapped-out and dying, that the cosmos is so exhausted that its final extinction is just around the corner, that the importnat parts of the NT are not the gospels but the cartoon muddle and ennui of the Revelation of Saint John. And actually, I don't suppose 'heresy' can even be the right word for a belief that shapes the worldview of the majority of a given faith. The word for that, howevermuch it drinks from the cup of (what has always been officially attacked as one of the worst sins) despair -- is orthodoxy.

Sunday, 27 February 2011


What does the Bible say? Does it discourse upon the fragility of man? No -- it says: fish swallow us, but we come out alive. Giants assail us, but we come out alive. Death possesses us but we come out alive.

Saturday, 26 February 2011


Why do we get drunk? For the intoxication? Or the aftermath? Because the experience of intoxication itself, whilst pleasurable (I guess: I mean—yes?), is fundamentally banal. Whereas the experience of hangover, of post-drunken-excess guilt, has about it something more profound. It is by-and-large physically and psychologically disagreeable of course; but it carries within that temporary discomfort a mustard-seed of existential resonance. It says: I survived, which is to say: I can survive. I poisoned myself, but I have physically survived the trauma. I humiliated myself in public, but I have psychologically survived the shame. It’s addictive, that sense of survivability. No wonder we have a problem, as a society.

Friday, 25 February 2011


'Nothing says that the present reduces to presence' (Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative)

'Presence is not a quality or a property of the thing. Presence is the act by which the thing is put forward: prae-est. It is put forward or in front of its nature as a thing, and of everything which immerses this nature in the world of its connections: origins, relations, process, finalities and becomings. The nature of the thing is in its birth, as the word "nature" indicates, and in its unfurling within these relations. It can subsist only in this movement, and its permanence is in the passing. But presence is the act that subtracts a thing as it passes. In this way it subtracts the thing from its thingness, or it withdraws the thingness from the thing — that is, all the reality of the res — in the single foregrounding, in this single advancement. This advancement is that of the present. The present is not ahead in time, for that which is ahead in time in relation to a past, is immediately behind in relation to a future. Unless the contrary is true. But in either sense, the present in time is nothing: it is pure time, the pure present of time, and thus its pure presence, that is, the negativity of the passing. From "already no longer" to "not yet", is a passage without pause, a step not taken, neither disposed nor exposed, inexposable, only and ceaselessly deposing all things.' (Jean-Luc Nancy, 'The Technique of the Present')

Can't both be right. Talk of the prescence of the present only makes sense if the present contains the future in some nascent form? Impossible to tease the present out of the flow; but then again -- maybe we just don't have the right tools.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Pierce Ploughman

Part 19, shortened.

So when I woke up and I wrote it all down,
And dressed myself neatly in pants, shirt and gown;
And dashed off to mass to get myself shrived
Got there late and flustered and sleep-deprived
And fell asleep again, propped sitting in the pew
And dreamt the whole damn dream again, right through.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Durrell pastiche

Who says Lawrence Durrell was incapable of self-parody? This, from Zero and Asylum in the Snow (1946):
On Tuesday there will be a jewelled hush, an audit. The walks will be dressed in snow, the bushes incandescent with birds. Everything fallen into a divine abyss of lull, poem, zodiac, frost, butter. Perhaps today is the day, I do not know. I find it difficult to tell.
Spot on!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Space and time

Traditionally, there are four pillars of the debate. You might wish to say that Space and Time are each a thing, each of them a particular kind of thing in which other things, like bodies, are contained. That is what Newton thought. Or you might wish to say, following Aristotle, that space and time are attributes of things rather than things themselves (in the Physics Aristotle distinguishes between a thing and its topos, its place, the latter not being identical with the body, since a thing can change its place without changing its thinginess). Or, perhaps you’re minded to agree with Leibniz, and say that space and time are relations between things. Or, maybe you’re persuaded by Kant, and his argument that space and time are ideas our intuitions necessarily impose upon our sensations and thoughts—that they are forms of our sensibility and therefore transcendentally ideal. Kant believed that we can only talk about phenomena ‘being in’ space and time; not the ding-an-sich, the thing in itself. Einstein modifies Newton, arguing that space and time are actually aspects of the same thing (‘spacetime’) artificially divided by our perceptions. Heidegger disagreed, and held that time was different to space because—for instance—it is possible to go backward and forward in space, but not in time (I can go back to Canterbury; but I cannot go back to 1977. As if I would ever want to). Einsteinians might say: this happens to be true of me, and something similar happened to be true of Heidegger, but that these are particular not universal circumstances: that given the right equipment, which I happen not to possess, I could go back to 1977 – as if a man in 1700, considering that he personally could not travel at 100 mph, decided thereupon that ‘100mph’ was a radically different sort of thing to 5mph or 15 mph. Such a man would be an idiot.)

So, here comes Roger Penrose, Cycles of Time (2010). Here’s David Kaiser’s LRB summary of Penrose:
During the earliest moment of one aeon, the universe would be hot and dense, as our observable was right after the big bang. When temperatures are much greater than particles’ masses, particles behave as if they had essentially no mass at all: they zip around at nearly the speed of light, just as photons do. That’s critical, because the behaviour of massless particles involves no inherent reference scale—no baseline unit of length or time, no metre stick or calibration clock against which other measures might compare. As far as a photon is concerned time simply does not flow. A spacetime filled with massless particles would have no inherent scales by which to measure length or time. It would be governed, in other words, by conformal geometry: shapes and angles would have meaning, but overall distances would not. Remarkably, the end of an aeon might behave in much the same way. As the universe expands and cools after the beginning of a cycle, the ambient temperature would drop (looking, for observers within that epoch, just as our own big-bang universe does to us). Massive [I guess he means ‘massy’] particles like electrons, protons, hydrogen atoms and all the rest would gradually lose energy; they would no longer zip around as fast as massless photons do. In that regime, length and time and scale would emerge; the symmetries of conformal geometry would be suppressed. The universe would behave as ours does today. Pockets of dust would clump and, fuelled by the energy of gravitational collapse, ignite into the nuclear reactors we call stars. [LRB 17 Feb 2011, 36-37]
A couple of things follow from this, or seem to. One is that the idea that spacetime itself, not only things inside space time, is in motion—expanding and contracting, for instance, and for some of that time ‘moving’ faster than light. Another is that ‘length and time and scale’ belong to a different logic than do ‘shapes and angles’—which seems to us counterintuitive, but is no less true for all that.
So much for the behaviour of the universe after a few tens of billions of years. We know from supernova measurements and WMAP data that our universe will almost certainly never collapse back on itself but continue to expand for ever. So Penrose presses on: what will our universe look like after, say, ten-to-the-hundred years? By that late time nearly all of the extant matter would be likely to have fallen into black holes. Indeed swarms of black holes would have swallowed each other, forming supermassive black holes. But even black holes, it turns out, are not foolproof containers. Stephen Hawking demonstrated 35 years ago that black holes should radiate, slowly but surely emitting energy in the form of low-energy light.
I don’t get this, I’ll confess. I always thought Hawking Radiation was generated by particles at the event horizon being split into positive and negative, the former being emitted and the latter falling into the black hole. But if we posit a single supermassive black hole as the end of the material cosmos, what is there outside the black hole (as it were) to be split in this fashion and so radiate out? I’m missing something obvious here, I don’t doubt. Anyhow:
Black holes behave like cosmic rubbish compactors; swallowing up massive detritus and ever so slowly seeping energy back into the cosmos in the form of massless protons. The process might contribute inexorably, until the black holes themselves evaporate. A nearly empty universe would be left, containing virtually nothing but massless particles—a spacetime once again governed by conformal geometry.
Penrose’s argument is that this end-point can be ‘stitched’ onto the beginning point; that the metahistory of the cosmos entails a process of ‘falling into’ time for many billions of years, until time itself dissolves form the picture, and the whole thing can start again. I’d like to imagine a civilisation finding a way to thread matter precisely amongst a geometrically counterbalanced network of black holes, and effectively putting an end to this cycle. Unlikely, but possible, surely? I’m also struck by the idea that massy spacetime and massless space might exist in a superposition, a kind of spacetimespace. What happens at the moment of transition? Is it like the weirdness of water becoming ice (in which case, is there a 4⁰ greatest density equivalent?). Very intriguing.

Monday, 21 February 2011


The great secret of nature is the blindness of butterflies.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Neither with nor without feathers

Reading George Steiner on hope:
Hope and fear are supreme fictions empowered by syntax. They are as indivisible from each other as they are from grammar. Hope encloses a fear of unfulfilment. Fear has in it a mustard seed of hope, the intimation of overcoming. [7]
Can't say I agree. There are many species of hope, and both passive hope (tending towards the asymptote of an absolute resignation) and active hope (where activity wholly occupies and so crowds-out doubt for the actor) can be free of fear. And to say that 'fear always includes hope' seems to me simply to misdescribe several key modes of terror.
It is the status of hope today which is problematic. On any but the trivial, momentary level, hope is a transcendental inference.
Ah, Professor NoTrueScotsman, how pleasant to see you here! What's that? My wholly untranscendental, material and mundane hopes (that my kids don't fall sick, that my family gets through the years, that my hurting ankle gets better, that I get a chance to do a bit of writing today) are trivial, are they? Thank you very much.
The theological foundation is that which allows, which requires the desideratum, the forward venture and intent to be adressed to divine hearers in "the hope", precisely, of support or, at least, understanding.
Or, let's try: not 'in "the hope", precisely...' but 'in "the hope", vaguely', in the imprecise hope of the succour from a non-existent entity. But let's not get bogged down:
Hope would be meaningless in a wholly irrational order or in one of arbitrary, absurdist ethics.
No it wouldn't. We may have reached the 'flat contradiction' part of our interaction, Professor.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Mountain poem

I am the mountain, granitine, and the stream that springs from me
Draws from deeper roots than even the strong Pinaceae tree.

The water flows because it chooses, not because it must.
It comes to join the air and iron in the marriage of their rust.

My flesh is stone, my heart is stone, and stone my only thought:
And all the marblehard sun-coloured sky is my consort.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The word, black

Blacken the word:
The word black comes from Old English blæc ("black, dark", also, "ink"), from Proto-Germanic *blakkaz ("burned"), from Proto-Indo-European *bhleg- ("to burn, gleam, shine, flash"), from base *bhel- ("to shine"), related to Old Saxon blak ("ink"), Old High German blah ("black"), Old Norse blakkr ("dark"), Dutch blaken ("to burn"), and Swedish bläck ("ink"). More distant cognates include Latin flagrare ("to blaze, glow, burn"), and Ancient Greek phlegein ("to burn, scorch"). Black supplanted the wonted Old English word sweart ("black, dark"), which survives as swart, swarth, and swarthy (compare German schwarz and Dutch zwart, "black").
My favourite is: bhleg. We should bring that one back. (Though 'blah' is also cool). The lovely paradox that the word black comes from a root that means 'burn, gleam, shine, flash'. Of course, burnt things are often black; but burning things are black in a rather more complex, interesting way. Or, to put it another way: it's always night -- or we wouldn't need light.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

A new ending for an old story

If you trace the Western Antarctic peninsular from Queen Maud Mountains in at the Ross shelf, along to the end of the western peninsular and the last of the Graham mountains, it spells نعم the Arabic for 'yes': naʿam. It is the world, it is affirmation. As he runs through the ruins of a place forty times older than the prophet, the captain hears a voice inside his head. The voice is reciting the Qu'ran, the eighty-first sura, about the end of the world. And is the world not ending? And all he can think is: it is her, it is the western girl, it is her. When the sun is overthrown, and when the stars fall, and when the camels big with young are abandoned, and when the wild beasts are herded together, and when the seas rise, and when souls are reunited, and when the girl-child that was buried alive is asked for what sin she was slain, and when the pages are laid open, and when the sky is torn away, and when hell is lighted, then every soul will know what it has made ready.

What has he made ready? Yes, he thinks. Yes, he thinks. He has almost reached the flank of the submarine when the first piece of the ceiling strikes him.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Gentleman Gag-a.

Gags. Back in the day, when John Peel still had his radio show, I remember tuning in one night to hear the man himself sign off with: 'that's all for tonight. I don't know why I bother.' Wise words.

Parts 2 & 3 of the trilogy have now been published: The Trial Separation of Heaven and Hell, The Divorce of Heaven and Hell.

I read Parts A-D, but they won't give me the final section. Looks like I got to fight. For my right. To Part E.

I plan to start tomorrow with some brouhaha. Or as I like to call it: laughing tea.

... pitched exactly between the C19th sea shanty specialists 'Bob Marley and the Whalers' and the Jam tribute act 'Bob Marley's Wellers'.

I have a moleskine notebook. I write it in using a plasticskin pen, held in my humanskin hands.

For some glasses are half-full, for some half-empty. To me they're simply pince-nez, and we should leave it at that.

Director Richard Dreyfuss sacked Toby McGuire from the Jaws remake for being too skinny. 'We're gonna need a bigger Tobe' he told staff.

To make gravy, I boil human toes in a pot not once but TWICE. I call it 'Bistoe'.

In olden days the worst criminals were flayed alive. Today they get sued. Ironically, our lightest meal is called ‘soufflé’.

The original plan was for me to pass lots of electricity through the front of my head. But now I've had a volte face.

You know what makes me cross? My Crucimatic Automated Cross-maker 2000. It can produce 30, full-size, a day.

Getting out of the shower I always ask myself 'To-well, or not to-well?' Then I generally shake myself dry like a dog.

I'm like an overcoat. I'm worn out.

Maybe I should stop drinking my coffee in Starbucks. It may be time to start patronising the Gaius Baltar Café instead.

Blake, Keats, and Yeats. I call them the Bleats poets.

My Titanic novelisation explores the tragedy of the great ship on the water, sinking. Yet the publishers reject my title: Water Ship Down.

After the joust, my lady gave me her silk kerchief. I cooked it in a pot with many spices. I admit -- I was trying to curry favour.

I knitted these mittens from yoghurt, but then foolishly left them out of the fridge all night. I tell you: the gloves are off.

The writing of Rudyard Kipling. Shorter and less satisfying than the work of either Rudyard Siestaling or Rudyard Sleepling.

The first Star Wars film was actually adapted from Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light-Sabre Brigade'.

Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, Titch, Pew, Pew, Barney-McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grout. Now they were a great band.

'It'll be a cold day in Hull before I ever read any Philip Larkin ...'

'Hibernation' is when an animal goes to sleep for the duration of the winter. In Ireland.

In the interests of accuracy 'Hundred and Thousands' must be renamed 'Hundreds and Hundreds'.

Someone should name a style of hat after Roger Federer.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Cunning Linguists

As I come, rather later in life than is entirely seemly, to the business of picking up some minimum sense of some other languages (other than French, of course; speaking French badly with an atrocious accent is a core skill we Brits all pick up in school) -- I am struck by the fact that learning a language is a complex task: it requires a lot of effort, the mastery of difficult interlocking skills-bases to do with vocabulary and syntax, grammar and idiom; plus, of course, it's eminently practical. Like building a motorbike from scratch. It ought (it occurs to me, as I slip deliberately into self-consciously sexist mode) to be an archetypal manly activity. But it's not: on the contrary. The popular conception of the linguistically multi-skilled individual is either fey, effeminate and ineffectual, like this geezer:

Or fey and psychotic like this one:

I appreciate, of course, that I'm only talking about an Anglocentric position (of course things are very different on the Continent, for instance). But even so: I'm at a loss to explain the default hostility aroused by the individual who can speak many languages fluently. Is it that linguistic versatility is seen as being fundamentally slippery, evasive and so on? But that's bullshit.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Escher Museum

I enjoyed my visit to the Escher House (as I stepped inside I resisted the temptation to yell out 'MC Escher IN DA HOUSE!'). There are various representations of the man's long face with its beard and fat cedilla moustache, like a Dutch D H Lawrence. Then the many, many lovely images themselves; variations on a handful of themes, exquisitely and almost machinically worked. There’s something Kraftwerk-y about almost all his prints and lithographs; which, clearly, is a very good thing.

Although, having said that: what struck me, which hadn’t struck me before, was the sexual aspect of his work. Of course, many—perhaps most—of these gorgeously intricate images have the chilly abstraction of geometry; but the tessellations of figures are something else. Or perhaps it’s just me—but the way the design fits two human beings, or indeed angels-and-devils, or animals—into such a close proximity can hardly help but carry with it erotic connotations. Take, for example:

The black man and the white man at the front are shaking hands; but the black man and the white man at the back are, surely, engaging in an act of oral sex. No? Excellent stuff.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

3 Dutch Pictures 3: M C Escher 'Relativity' (1953)

Splendid. As the Wikipedia entry for this lithograph points out:
In the world of Relativity, there are actually three sources of gravity, each being orthogonal to the two others. Each inhabitant lives in one of the gravity wells, where normal physical laws apply. There are sixteen characters, spread between each gravity source. The apparent confusion of the lithograph print comes from the fact that the three gravity sources are depicted in the same space.
The odd thing is that there are three, rather than four: in fact the 'gravity well', or line of alignment, that is missing is the upside-down axis, running from the bottom of the image to the top. This adds a nice foursided-triangle vibe to the whole.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

3 Dutch Pictures 2: Rembrandt, 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp' (1632)

Rembrandt's 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp' (1632) is a striking canvas, partly because it's bigger than reproductions of it might lead you to believe. Big old picture.

It's got something to do with left and right, something to do with making the hidden plain -- which is to say, something (most importantly) to do with inversion. The left arm is the one being dissected. It's striking, indeed, how few living arms the painting contains, given that it is so crowded with human corpuses: apart from Tulp himself, there are four hands (not all of them immediately visible) between seven men. But I think the key to the image is in the book in the bottom right hand corner, from which the Doctor is working, or against an illustration in which he is checking his actual progress. The significant thing about this, I'd say, is that we know woodcuts (such as will be found in the book) work according to a different visual logic than paintings (like the one we are looking at). Paintings reproduce what the artist looks at directly; woodcuts reproduce a mirror-image of what the artist sees. This in turn, I'd suggest, reflects back upon the leftness of the arm. The painting is a study in inversions and reversals: sinister, dexter -- life and death -- inside and outside.

Friday, 11 February 2011

3 Dutch Pictures 1: Rogier van der Weyden, 'De bewening van Christus' (1460)

Look closer. What is this painting about if not the decorousness of bereavement? -- a man with one hand to a black headdress, as if holding it on -- a woman in pale blue touching her stomach. Is this grief? Or the victory of breeding and manners over grief? This is no bewailing.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The 'ch' sound

The one that activates at the end of the Scots word 'loch' (I'm so English I don't know any other way of referring to it). It's used not at all in English, a little in Scots, more in Welsh and all the time in Dutch. Why? Is there a level where people just really like (or really dislike) the sound of it? Some cultures prefer the sound of massed violins to the sound of massed guitars: is that it? Is it something as random as this that determines how it becomes or doesn't become a part of speech?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Approaching Schipol

The plane sweeps us on, and below
velocity draws a bridal veil of
cloud over the water's face.

The plane trembles with excitement
approaching the nether land.
Wheels: you may kiss the runway.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011


The 're-' part. The word sounds like it ought to be something done again. Which, I suppose, in a sense, it is.

Monday, 7 February 2011


The word rhyme, or 'rime':
'derived from Old Frankish language *rīm, a Germanic term meaning "series, sequence" attested in Old English (Old English rīm - "enumeration, series, numeral") and Old High German rīm, ultimately cognate to Old Irish rím, Greek ἀριθμός arithmos "number"'
But there is nothing sequential about rhyme. On the contrary, it is precisely words in parallel: the superposition of two words on one sound.

Sunday, 6 February 2011


The father returns.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Dr Hughes' Tardis

There's been a run of quasi-theological noodlings of mine at this blog recently, so for a change, here's someone else's 'Theology':
No, the serpent did not
Seduce Eve to the apple.
All that's simply
Corruption of the facts.

Adam ate the apple.
Eve ate Adam.
The serpent ate Eve.
This is the dark intestine.

The serpent, meanwhile,
Sleeps his meal off in Paradise -
Smiling to hear
God's querulous calling.
Part of Wodwo, this; though something of a companion piece to 'Crow's Theology' too; its eating (and being eaten) as the horizon of being is certainly corvine. Hughes told Ekbert Faas '"Theology" was a note for a poem, and turned out itself to be a better poem than I could have written at that time.' Keith Sagar calls it, rather admiringly, a 'blasphemous redaction of scripture'; but I don't see the blasphemy (perhaps I'm blasphemy-blind). Three kinds of 'being inside' are folded one into the other, Russian-doll-like: the way in which something I eat (an apple) can be inside me; the way a human (a foetus) can be inside a pregnant woman; the way we are ontologically 'inside' the cosmos. Of course it parses all three as types of devouring, but in that it's merely taking its cue from the Biblical original. And the cosmos that we are 'inside' certainly looks much smaller from the outside than it appears to us, here, on the inside: it is Tardic, in that sense.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Great Nations and Small Wars

The Duke of Wellington apparently said ‘great nations do not have small wars.’ We can take this two ways. Perhaps it is a cautionary apothegm, a reminder that no state, no matter how large and mighty, can avoid being bogged down in a war with even the smallest adversary (that the USA, say, cannot get quickly and happily in-and-out of a war with Vietnam, or Iraq; that the same thing obtains for Britain in Ireland, or France in Algeria). But we might want to take it another way. ‘Great nations do not have small wars because, really, they don’t want them. If the US fights in Greneda and achieves a quick and easy victory then, after momentary jubilation, there’s the risk of people saying ‘wait, we’re spending trillions of dollars a year for this?’ If the US fights a large-scale, interminable and even (yes) unwinnable war on—let’s say—drugs, or terror, then there’s no space for people to question the insane levels of expenditure. For the military, the problem with victory is that the elation is short lived, and in the subsequent latency period called ‘peace’ the folk who actually pay for the military will start to demand a peace dividend ...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Dialectical Sense-of-wonderism

Dialectical Sense-of-wonderism: the thesis is some commonplace comprehension or unthought error about the cosmos. The antithesis is the correction by actual facts. The synthesis is the sudden yawning mind-blowing apprehension of the vastness of things. For example:
THESIS: scientists say the moon is airless, windless and wave-less. But you can see on the Apollo footage how fine-ground is its sand! I know how sand is made, and you couldn’t do it without wind and waves. It only goes to show how ignorant scientists are!

ANTITHESIS: the lunar dust is ground by repeated meteor strikes. Which, since meteors don’t strike all that frequently means ...

SYNTHESIS: [as the intimation of the true scale of the timescale involved flushes through the brain ...] Oh. My God.
You can set out similar sense of wonder dialectics to do with the stars in the night sky, evolution, heavier elements and so on.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


In the recent general election in my country, the parties competed on their different plans for addressing the economic calamities of the credit crunch. And the British population voted, despite the fact that almost all of us know almost nothing about economics. Or to take a slightly more contentious argument: by what criterion of expertise is it the democratic will of the United States to go to war in Iraq when a large proportion of the American electorate can’t even identify where Iraq might be found on a map of the world? To ask this question is not to insist the war was wrong, or right; and nor am I trying to score cheap shots at the expense of Americans (we might ask, for instance, why should an office worker in Ohio or Nebraska need to know the intricate political situation that obtains in Iraq? She has plenty of other things to occupy her life; indeed, she has remarkable expertise about a dozen areas of knowledge.) My point here is to suggest that an inevitable part of the way democracy works is that popular will is predicated not upon knowledge but intuition, not upon ‘truth’ but—that fantastically useful theoretical category—‘truthiness’. Not that decisions are made on the basis on ignorance, but certainly that ignorance need not be dissolved away by the acid of actually finding shit out before decisions are made. One (minor) manifestation of democracy in my country is radio phone-in shows: a host poses a hot topic of the day—immigration, sexual morality, the economy, religion whatever—and then ‘ordinary members of the public’ phone in with their opinions. The parameters are lightly drawn in these forums: if callers are actually incite hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation they will be rebuked or censored. But otherwise their views, no matter how oddball or ignorant, are given equal platform space. The implicit premise behind these shows is that merely by voicing an opinion, one is performing democracy. There is no requirement that opinion be modified by actual knowledge. To quote Mitchell and Webb expert parody of the form. ‘What about global warming? How should the situation in the middle east be resolved? Almost certainly you know nothing about these issues, but I’m sure you reckon something. Give us a call!’

Contemporary democracy, in other words, is a performative rather than a connotative statement. To talk about nuclear physics in a lecture hall with a view to teaching students, one needs at least a basic understanding of nuclear physics. But to utter the classic examples of performative utterances—to say ‘I do’ during a marriage ceremony, to say ‘you’re fired’—your discourse needs no actual expertise.* Or to put it another way, the knowledge is in the performance only. The statement ‘carbon 12 is an isotope of carbon 14’ includes knowledge, in the sense that it is possible to get it wrong. The statement ‘I do’, uttered during a marriage service, is perfectly ignorant in terms of marriage. I perform democracy by (let’s say) voting, going on demos, writing angry letters to the newspaper and so on. All these things, being performative, cannot be wrong—I may vote Labour or Conservative, but my vote cannot be wrong.**
Two footnotes.

* To be clear: I suppose it is possible to get the ‘I do’ wrong in the sense that one thereby marries the wrong person (years of fights and bitterness leading to a rancorous divorce). But this is a different kind of getting things wrong, I think. It’s not possible for the performative ‘I do’ to be wrong about what it performs—the act of becoming marriage, whether to your ideal life partner or some horrible individual. On the other hand a referential statement can easily be wrong on its own, referential terms: as I would be, if I began a lecture on geography with ‘Holland is a mountainous country.’

** This, actually, unpacks into large and important questions. One common criticism of the West’s project to ‘democratise’ the rest of the world is precisely that it violates this core principle—that the voters of ‘Palestine’ or Egypt or (potentially) Iraq and Afghanistan vote for the wrong people when they vote for radical Islamist politicians. I don’t have time to go into this here, I suppose, although it seems to me that such a position (Palestinian democracy means the perfect freedom of the Palestinians to elect whomsoever they choose provided it’s not Hamas’) has everything to do with international relations and nothing to do with democracy.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

What kind of writer am I?

The decadent ... always keeps self in the foreground in his art; the self becomes the centre of interest and the standard of value. Experience is valued for its own sake, the more varied the better. The decadent forgets that he is part of the universe and ignores his relationship to other forms of life. This in itself is decadence. [Ryals, ‘Towards a Definition of Decadent as Applied to British Literature of the Nineteenth-Century, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 17 (1958) 85-92; 88]
The most salient of these characteristics of decadence is the attenuation of emotion and the detailed analysis of it. Its great themes are ennui, frustration and moral confusion, all themes of disintegration and alienation. Its general temper is static; there is no sensation of movement; time acquires in this type of novel a spatial quality. Indeed, time and space are fused. .... The hallmark of the novel of decadence is conscious form, not only in structure, but more especially in language. [Haley, ‘Wilde’s Decadence and Positivist Tradition’ Victorian Studies 28 (1985) 215-229; 246]
This has quite literally never occurred to me before. My God, is this the kind of writer I am? Am I ... a decadent?