Tuesday, 31 May 2011


Dreams have the feel of the brain trying to remember something; but doesn't neuroscience say that they're actually (as the neurones fire) a means of clearing the decks, a kind of disorderly forgetting? If that's the case then why should they feel so different?

Monday, 30 May 2011

Truth and stability

Many people confuse truth with stability. Of course the venn diagram of the interaction of these two terms includes an almond-shaped zone of intersection, but most of the time stability is a lie, comfortable or oppressive depending; and most of the time truth is more like the northern lights than a boulder.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Wordsworth's spottiness

Spots of time? The descriptions of the ephiphanies themselves seem so luminous, it has perhaps distracted us from the Lady-Macbeth-ish quality of this piece of Wordsworthian terminology. Are the spots of time a mode of contamination? Do they (to appropiate Shelley's phrase, anachronistically) stain the white radiance of time?

Saturday, 28 May 2011


A fan of piano hammers like the whale's baleen; the gill-filter strings; the fusiform black body, shiny as wet orca. The music, of course.

The Anglo Saxon for whale breathed its thorn hard: hthal. All the world's difference between that exhalation, and the water whale we know and love.

Friday, 27 May 2011


My favourite moment on Ben Folds and Nick Hornby's Lonely Avenue album (and there are many): the moment in 'Doc Pomus' ('Pomus, Shulman, nineteen-sixty ... two') when the 'swan call' theme from Sibelius's Fifth comes in.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Burning Bush Poem

Breaking waves as big as houses send
spray up over the puzzled brow
of the cliffs at Pwlldo at Gower.

Foam shoots up through the branches
of the cliff-topping willow shrub
like smoke from the burning bush

made magically into baptism-water.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Two babies in public

The intermittent seagull shriek of this baby. The percolator gurgle of this other. One is happy and one is not. They’ll swap places by and by. By and by is easily said.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Hunted Boar

A poem from the Mabinogion, attributed to Amairgen.
I am wind on sea,
I am Ocean-wave,
I am Roar of Sea,
I am Bull of Seven Fights
I am Vulture on Cliff,
I am Dewdrop,
I am Fairest of Flowers,
I am Boar for Boldness
I am Salmon in Pool
I am Lake on Plain.
Powerful in a way that depends upon its muscular obscurity. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that this is, really, boasting (I am Ocean-wave!/I am Roar of Sea!/I am Bull of Seven Fights...) in a distinctively masculine manner. The mirror verse would retreat into itself, like Tennyson’s tiny seashell on the Brittony shore:
I am the windless air,
I am ebb,
I am the mourning ocean,
I am calf on unsteady legs
I am grassblade bending down,
I am teardrop,
I am fallen redleaf,
I am the hunted Boar
I am the Salmon that pounds the soil with my tail
I am as I am not.

Monday, 23 May 2011


In his Temple and Contemplation (translated by Philip and Liadain Sherrard; Institute of Ismali Studies/KPI/Islamic Publications, London 1986) Henry Corbin meditates upon the figure, or realm, of the temple
In speaking of the Imago Templi I intend to remain at the level of phenomenology, a ‘temenology’ if I may risk the word (from the Greek temenos, a sacred precinct) which exists at the level of the imaginal world (alām al-mithāl), the world in-between (barzakh), at ‘the meeting-place of the two seas’ ... according to our philosophers’ premises of the metaphysics of the imaginal, the Imago Templi is the form assumed by a transcendent reality in order for this reality to be reflected in the soul at ‘the meeting-place of the two seas’. Without such a form, this reality would be ungraspable. However the Imago Templi is not allegorical but ‘tautegorical’; that is to say, it should not be understood as concealing the Other whose form it is. It is to be understood in its identity with that Other, and as being itself the thing which it expresses. [276]
This notion that some places are more holy than others is widespread, of course; but I wonder that we consider such holiness restful or appealing. How can we? The ruins of Chernobyl are more radioactive than other places, which turns that building into a kind of temple, a holy space, surrounded by Europe’s purest wilderness. The perfect temple is a place quite unlike other human spaces; and the thing that is most unlike a house, or shop, or factory, or school, or any place in which human beings congregate—is a house in which human beings never congregate.

Still, a ‘temenology’ is an interesting prospect.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


Peter Singer: 'Derek Parfitt's On What Matters is a work of epic proportions and ambitions ... a total of more than 1,400 pages of densely argued text that seeks to establish that moral judgments can be true and false ...' [TLS, 20.5.11] Very interesting sounding: although since not even Parfitt is going to argue that moral judgments can be true in a '2+2=4' sense, or even in a 'my wife is the most wonderful person in the world' sense, the danger is he ends up proving that moral judgments can be true in a moral sense. Not sure how far that get us.

Saturday, 21 May 2011


Here's William Ian Miller on the subject ['Gluttony', Representations (1997), 93]:

We are somewhat conflicted about the precise moral status of gluttony. Indeed, as we shall see, so were earlier ages, although the grounds of their ambivalence were rather different from ours. Among us the sin of gluttony is the sin of fat, whether it lolls about men's paunches (note that fat transforms stomachs into paunches, pots, or beer bellies) or else squiggles loosely about women's thighs, or clogs the arteries in a gender-neutral fashion. Gluttony for us is the sin of ugliness and ill health, but chiefly ugliness. Except for philosophers and theologians, most of us have never managed to distinguish too well between the good and the beautiful, between the ethical and moral on one hand and the aesthetic and pleasurable on the other. As a matter of practical morality, ugliness remains, despite centuries of pious exhortation to the contrary, a sin. And the very cachet of gluttony's historical pedigree as an honored member of a select group of capital sins helps relax the grip of those niggling scruples we may have acquired about blaming the fat for their obesity. There is nothing quite like the sin of fat. Its wages, we are told, is death-physical, moral, and social. The author of a best-selling how-to-raise-your-adolescent-daughter book reports that 11 percent of Americans would abort a fetus if they were told it had a tendency to obesity. Elementary-school children judge the fat kid in the class more negatively than they do the bully. In this life, the fat are damned, the beautiful (who manifestly are not fat) are saved, and we are not sure that this ordering doesn't also anticipate arrangements beyond the grave.

But this is a very recent historical development, for when the poor were thin, fat was beautiful. And when poverty came to be characterized less by insufficient calories and more by too many calories of the wrong kind, fat became ugly. In a perverse way, the poor determine fashion by providing an antimodel of the ideal body type that the rich then imitate negatively. I will discuss these issues more fully later but let me not loosen my grip on this morsel of an argument without adding the following tidbit: although not all gluttony leads to obesity, nor is all obesity the consequence of the voluntary indulgence in the vice of gluttony, we antigluttonous moralists are never quite willing to pardon fat. The burden of proof, we think, is upon fat people to adduce evidence that they are not gluttons, for fat makes out a prima facie case that they are guilty and thus owe the rest of us an apology or an explanation for having offended.
Of course this is true, something with which excuse-making (it's not me it's my glands! I'm not fat I'm big-boned!) tends only to reinforce, a kind of counterproductive collaboration with prejudice. But what if, as seems to be the case, the ethical valences of the traditional seven deadly sins are being reversed. Capitalism makes greed good; anger is harnessed by politicians and revolutionaries all the time; contemporary erotic discourse prizes lechery as a healthy component of modern existence, and medicalises or therapizes individuals for insufficiency of lust. I make no moral assertion in saying this, either way -- arguably it is inevitable. But gluttony, and its physical index 'obesity', must surely follow: in twenty years time fat will be attractive, and thin not.

Friday, 20 May 2011


One of my favourite bits of the Prelude [1850; XII:269-71]:
Feeling comes in aid
Of feeling, and diversity of strength
Attends us, if but once we have been strong.
Rather like Keats's beauty-truth equivalence (with which it has, I think, something deep in common) it doesn't seem to impair the effectiveness of this as poetry that it is, patently, untrue. That in itself is a puzzling thing.

Thursday, 19 May 2011


Would Kubrick have made more, slightly-more-flawed films if he had been less of a perfectionist, thereby improving the overall balance of 'good art'/'bad art' in the world? Of course not. It takes no time at all to understand that Kubrick's 'perfectionism' was his flaw; the machine-tooling of the Hubble mirror over and over that nonetheless results in a fuzzy picture. The elevation of OCD to an aesthetic ideal.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


Keith Thomas's review of The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern England and Ireland (by Alexandra Walsham) [LRB, 19 May 2011]:
Most of the world’s religions have their holy places, thought to offer closer access to the divinity. Sometimes they are associated with key events in the history of the religion concerned. They may, like Bethlehem and Mecca, have been the founder’s birthplace, or, like Jerusalem and Lourdes, the scene of apparitions, martyrdoms or miracles. Mount Ararat in Turkey is sacred to the Armenians because it is where Noah’s Ark came to rest. Mount Kailas in Tibet is venerated by Hindus as the paradise of the god Siva, and by Buddhists as the centre of the cosmos. Even when they lack any historical associations, natural features can take on religious significance, particularly if they are intrinsically mysterious and awe-inspiring. Ayers Rock, that giant monolith, is spiritually important to Aborigines, just as the symmetrical, snow-capped cone of Mount Fuji is sacred to the Japanese. Rivers and springs with healing qualities can become objects of worship. Caves and grottoes may be associated with deities and credited with prognosticatory powers. Other holy spaces are built by human hands. Churches, mosques and temples assume a numinous quality when they are seen as places where, as T.S. Eliot put it, prayer has been valid. Often containing relics and other holy objects, they are sites where wonder-working rituals may be performed. Their interior space is frequently differentiated, with some parts more sanctified than others; access for women may be restricted and entry to the holiest areas confined to the priesthood.
Christianity, initially, was different: 'the early Christians were encouraged to see themselves, not buildings or sanctuaries, as the temple of the living God' (II Corinthians 6.16). For them, God was ubiquitous, rather than located in some particular spot. Only in the fourth century did Christians begin to construct their own sacred topography.' This is one background to the Reformation. In the Middle Ages 'the landscaoe was dotted with thousands of churches, chapels and monasteries; their dedications to Christ, the Virgin or the saints were often incorporated into the names of towns and villages. Crosses were erected by the wayside. Shrines housing the relics of saints became the object of pilgrimages by the faithful, seeking a place where their prayers would be more efficacious.' But 'this sacralised landscape was dealt a devestating blow by the Protestant Reformation. Like the earlier Christians, the Reformers attacked the very notion of the immancence of the holy ... one place was as holy as another, prayer was as efficacious in a field as in a church.'

At this point I want to leap, knight's--move-wise, away from the review and the book it analyses, to think about atheism. Does it make sense to think that some places are 'more' atheistical than others -- that (for instance) one might feel closer to the truth of a godless universe inside the Science Museum than inside Canterbury Cathedral? Surely not. Atheism, insofar as it represents a mindframe, is Reformation-Protestant in its logic, rather than Catholic.

The questions, then, become; both how much is this a question of intellectual lineage (as if we were to argue: the Reformation was the intervention of a little bit of atheism into the larger discourses of Christian belief -- although, it's hard perhaps to think of' atheism' as a quantity that permits degrees like this), or heritage (the Reformation is associated with the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the rise of science, and therefore ...)? And: how far might the analogy be pursued?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Landoriana Latini

A Latin epigram ('Ad Ianthen XXI') from Poemata et Inscriptiones (1847):
Non ut ames, ut amere peto; da dulcis Ianthe!
Est mihi, si merear plura, datura dies.

It's because you don't love me that I seek your love. Give it, sweet Ianthe!
If I deserve more, such loving will one day be mine.
Also, from the same volume, 'Ad Bonapartum, V':
Parce tuae famae, et maneat sua vera locuto
Gloria! Quid laudes dejicis ipse tuas?
Verte retro gressum; aeternas Niloctica palmas
Terra parit; Syriae cur aconita legis?
Erue saxa situ, fragiles evolve papyros,
Barbariem veterem vince, repelle novam.
Possunt, Napoleo, crudelia quaeque minores;
Magnum si facerent, magna vel aspis erat.
Est aliquid laudem vatis meruisse Britanni,
Haud pretium falsae Gallica regna forent.
Praestat, crede mihi, quam triste relinquere nomen
Quo vocet ultorem Thraxque Syrusque deum;
Quo puer horrescat fabellas inter avitas
(Tecta notus quoties stupea quassat) Arabs.

Pare away your fame, hold true to the glory of your word!
What can you conquer with your own praises?
Turn back your steps. Countless Egyptian palms
Spring from the earth; why choose too-easy Syria too?
Deliver the blocks to the site: unroll the fragile papyrus,
Conquer the old barbarism; and ward away the new one.
These have the power, Napoleon, to lessen cruelties;
Those who can choose greatness: be a hero not a snake.
Britons consider it no mean feat to merit a poet's praise,
Better that than the false prize of French-won kingdoms
Much better, believe me, however sorrowfully, to leave
The name of 'Avenger of Thrace and Syria' to a god;
Shudder at the ancestral stories (part soaring wisdom
part trampled reeds) of an Arabian boy.
One more:
Et quae supra sunt nebulo pro suis venditaret

His mihi surreptis ipsa sub imagine Bruti,
Ter furi incutiens flagra, ter abstinui.

The scoundrel offers for sale as his own things that come from a higher source

These things of mine, stolen from under his very image of Brutus,
Three times the thief trembling at the whips; three times I held off.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Markings Upon The Flank of a Spaceship

Engineers made me
To betray my pilot
On my first fight.

To gather iron
From in close the sun
I am sent.

The iron I gather
Comes to the Ulanovs
Out of deep gravity

Like a coal-coloured fish
Leaping -- to descend
Into deep gravity.

It is not used
For goods or gear,
But for The Law.

The iron I gather
Rulers covet
For cruel uses.

I am shaped as a sword
Sharp with whitefire
Cooled in vacuum.

The iron I gather
Is drawn up
Out of deep gravity.

Like a coal-coloured Fish
Leaping, to descend
Into deep gravity.

It is not given
For goods or gear,
But for The Law.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Sleep as Worship

I'm intrigued by this, via the improbably named rob helpy-chalk:
There's a bit in 100 Years of Solitude which describes a wise priest whose afternoon meditations on scripture had become so subtle he was actually asleep. I've had something like that happen to me both in Buddhist meditation and Quaker meeting, although it is not really appropriate for either.
Why not appropriate? Isn't sleep (as opposed to dreaming, which presumably has a different set of religious valences) a perfect passivity, a perfect harmlessness, the epitome of Christian observance? I don't mean this as snark: I love to sleep. De Quincey says something like this somewhere ...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Russian Dolls

And this is the true secret of the Russian dolls. Let us take seven such, A to G. B is fitted inside A; C in B, D in C, E in D, F in E and G in F. But the mystery is such that when you open F you find (because the universe is infinite, and space embedded in itself) A inside, containing all the other six.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The eyes

The eyes look foreward. Where best to hide from the eyes? Behind the eyes, behind the wall. The wall of made of bone. What lurks behind there, in the one place the eyes can never look? The brain.

Thursday, 12 May 2011


Here's something I never knew.
In the interview of the dying Darius with Alexander, Darius proceeds to make certain requests, which conclude as follows:
"And as for Trandokht my mother, regard her now as if thou thyself wert born of her, and consider my wife as thy sister, and take my daughter Roxane for thy wife, that the seed of Darius and of Philip may be mingled in her." Then Alexander brought his hand to the face of Darius, who said, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit"; and straightway his soul departed.*
The element of imitation in the version amounts, practically, to a commentary, particularly when the equation or parallel between Alexander and Jesus, in Persian Syriac literature, is borne in mind. It contains not only the parallel noticed by Budge but also a parallel to John 19:28-29. [F. W. Buckler, "Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?" The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 55:4 (Oct., 1938), pp. 385-86]
Buckler's footnote: '*Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, The History of Alexander the Great (Cambridge, 1889), p. 81. Budge notices the "reminiscence of S. Luke's Gospel ch. xxiii. 46, "betraying" the Christian translator."' But I never realised that statements of this sort were part of the repertoire of the dying king. Does this mean that the famous gospel sentiment is actually not only regal, but a kind of admission of power passing from one authority to another? That's not how conventional Christianity takes it, of course.

Buckler thinks the phrase has been distorted by scribal error, and that what Jesus actually said was: 'Into thy hands I commend my people, O my Lord'. Here's his summary of the context of that hypothetical statement:
Dalman has shown that among the rights and responsibilities of a dying criminal was the testamentary disposition of his estate and rights. For instance: "Jewish marital legislation insisted that everything should be definitely settled before it was too late. It happened, for instance, that one who was crucified gave his wife, shortly before expiring, freedom to marry again, and so a bill of divorcement could be written out, which entitled her to marry another man before the actual death of her present husband." The case of Our Lord was parallel to that of a married man, in that a principle of dominium was at stake. As the firstborn of Mary, He had both the authority and the responsibility, which would have de- volved on her second son James. The automatic devolution was ap- parently undesirable, so Our Lord used the authority He possessed as a dying criminal to commit her to the care of one whom He could trust-the Beloved Disciple. This was the first commendation (John 19: 26-27). The second was His commendation of His people to His Lord God (Mark 15:34a-c, Matt. 27:46a-b), by which He delivered up His Kingdom unto God even the Father (cf. I Cor. 15:24). The signifi- cance of this clause of the Testamentum Christi was missed by the Evangelist and remained obscured behind the oracle of the Psalmist (Ps. 22:6). By the irony of circumstance, this final act of the establish- ment of the Kingdom of God on earth," relegated by Saint Paul to the realm of eschatology (I Cor. 15:24), was greeted by the crowd in derision as His appeal to Elias!'
But Buckler, I think, has an agenda: he likes his version more, because 'it removes the element of despair and the complete breakdown of faith, inherent in the inter- pretation of the Evangelist (or his redactor), and with it the air of disillusionment which surrounds the accepted view of the Crucifixion, by which the way was paved for the intrusion into Christianity of the despair, of which Jewish Apocalyptic eschatology is the embodiment.' That's the part I like best, though.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


The more Dolly Parton musically pleads with Jolene "please don't take my man", hymning her many charms and repeating her name over and over, the more we start to suspect the song has little to do with any man, and more to do with the singer's evident desire for the titular individual.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Blockhouse

Here am I in the Blockhouse,
Full fed up with the game;
Locked here five months and more,
Inside a sphere without a door
And every day the same.

Here am I in the Blockhouse,
Like a hornet under glass;
Watching the mecha sentry go,
Up and down, and to-and-fro,
As the policeships pass.

Here am I in the Blockhouse,
Sand from a floating shore;
A daily spin of dark and shine
Tied by the same old bit of line
Spun from imperishable Law.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Karl Rahner

God, as transcendental experience, is a 'horizon' rather than a 'thing':
"The horizon cannot be comprised within the horizon ... the ultimate measure cannot be measured; the boundary which delimits all things cannot itself be bounded by a still more distant limit" [Rahner, Theological Investigations, IV:51]
(Rahner's favourite image, the image to which he returns most frequently, is that of a horizon', Karen Kilby, Karl Rahner (SPCK 2007), 5) Only a metaphor, of course; but arguing by metaphors is dangerous. Because the horizon is virtual not actual, nothing more than a product of the particular location of our perception. There is no 'horizon' as such on the Earth. Or to put it another way: as atheists are fond of saying of God, it doesn't exist, it only seems to exist on account of where we happen to be standing.' That's not where Rahner hopes to go with this image, of course.
We are perfectly entitled to think of the creation and of the incarnation, not as two disparate, adjacent acts of God ... but as two moments and phases in the real world of the unique, even though internally differentiated, processes of God's self-renunciation and self-expression into what is other than himself. [Theological Investigations, V:177-8]
This reads rather as wish-fulfillment, a desire to smooth over the gnarliness of the actual narrative -- the (whisper it) whiff of arbitrariness of creating the cosmos and then, after billions of years, adding a second divine incarnation to it.
There can be people who consider themselves atheists whilst in truth they affirm God, for example, by unconditional dedication to an honest search for truth, or by fidelity to the absolute judgement of conscience. [On Heresy, 16]
This, on the other hand, seems to shy away from one of the things that is distinctive about Rahner's thought: the sense of the divine as a radical alterity. Here the desire to bring atheists into the communion of Rahner's church, whether they like it or not, looks like a shying away from that organising principle.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The undeserving poor

I've noticed that very Victorian concept, 'the undeserving poor', being deployed recently, often as the pendant to a sentence beginning 'the problem with socialism is ...' The thought the someone, somewhere, is living it large off taxpayer's money ('they don't use the money to buy healthcare and education, they prefer fags and a widescreen telly...') is the knockdown argument against all welfare. I think we should take it seriously, accept it on its own terms, and turn it about. For of course the undeserving rich are much better off, and therefore much more egregiously undeserving, than the undeserving poor. That's a simply matter of semantics.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Man making God in his own image

In The Dogwood Tree: a Boyhood (in Assorted Prose, 1968), John Updike recalls the ‘mighty’ Lutheran hymn he sang as a boy:

For still our ancient foe
Doeth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And arm’d with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Updike, rightly I think, remains impressed by ‘this immense dirge of praise for the Devil and the world, thunderous, slow, opaquely proud.’ He goes on to say that it is this, rather than ‘the patently vapid and dreary businesslike teaching to which I was lightly exposed’ that ‘nourished the seed’ of Christianity in him. It ‘branded him with a Cross’:

A brand so specifically Lutheran, so distinctly Nordic; an obdurate insistence that at the core of the core there is a right-angled clash to which, of all verbal combinations we can invent, the Apostles’ Creed offers the most adequate correspondence and response.’ [Updike, 79]
I like this phrasing: the obdurate core of the core and its right-angled clash—the notion that the God man has created in his image (as we atheists like to put it) is, for some unfathomable reason, not simply a magnified and outwardly projected of our own high opinion of ourselves, but on the contrary, a register of an ornery, self-thwarting and loving self-hostility.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Are there any atheists in the Old Testament?

More on this, in effect.

Are there any atheists in the Old Testament? The fool hath said in his heart there is no God, perhaps; but fools aside—how could Adam, Enoch, Abraham or Moses deny the existence of God? In their world he was a straightforward presence, one more actor on the world stage. Or to put the question another way: if we read through the Bible as a narrative (which exercise, however distorting it almost certainly is, has been the pastime of millions of believers) we see not so much a gradual withdrawal of God—from another body in the garden, to a burning bush, to spiritus sanctus--but rather a breach, or break. Who is the first atheist? Which is to say: who, taking Old and New Testament together, is the first figure in the Bible to doubt what everybody else takes as manifest and self-evident, the presence of God in the world? Surely the answer to that question is: God himself, incarnated as Christ, with his cry from the cross that God has withdrawn from him. This, to be sure, is not an assertion of Dawkinesque atheism (which would be: there is not and never has been a God); but rather the infallible assertion that where God was once a part of the world he now no longer is. Adam and Eve are banished from proximity to the divine into the world, but that world is one in which the physical reality of God is still a part: God is glimpsed, or manifests Himself in natural phenomena—or supernatural ones, indeed. The God of the Old Testament, taken in terms of the internal logic of the world-building of those texts, is a certainty; and opposition to such a God can only be a matter of obstinancy, pride, or idiocy. Individuals who deny Jahweh are on a par with flat-earthers, or individuals suffering from hysterical blindness.

Not so the New Testament. Here we see the same broad premise as the Old Testament, the presence of God in a fallen world, in a completely different light. God’s incarnation is also the occasion for Him to forsake the world. The crucifixion, via a complex process of reiterated incarnation and ascension, destroys the body of God. God himself, on the cross, proclaims atheistical doubts about the presence of God. Of course it is true that after his heartfelt cry of loss-of-faith, why hast thou forsaken me, God himself passes back into faith; and the last of the seven utterances from the cross (into your hands I commend my spirit) functions as a pure and indeed moving article of faith. But the language is not that of certainty—as it might be, ‘now that it is finished, I go to my certain reward’. It is, on the contrary, the language of uncertainty, of hopeful but unsure self-commendation. The truly strange portion of this is, to resume the Chestertonian point, this is both Christ, a man who has been tortured horribly to death, hoping that he will be reunited with the heavenly God’ (a very human thing) and God, omniscient and all-powerful, who has freely chosen passivity—hence ‘passion’—in the teeth of human persecution. When we start to consider how it might be that God can consider God has forsaken Him, or how He can talk with anything other than certainty about what happens next, we may find ourselves coming to the conclusion that the real subject of the Passion is, precisely, doubt. Death, the one thing certain for all mortals, becomes the aperture through which doubt enters the world; both in the sense that we do not know when it is coming for us, or what happens after, and in the sense that it is death—transience, annihilation—that is most forcefully at odds with the spiritual narrative of immortal souls created by an immortal gods. This is why it is after the crucifixion that Doubt becomes the tenor of the human encounter with the divine, and the new subject of the Bible. Peter’s triple denial of Christ; doubting Thomas, Paul’s sermonizing on the valences of faith instead of proof—this is all part of a new pattern. Once God has withdrawn himself physically from the world, doubt becomes the necessary currency of belief in Him. The mood shifts from imperative to subjunctive.

This is, I suppose, has some relationship to Karl Barth’s celebrated argument that ‘metaphysical absolutes are an abomination unto the Lord and abolished in Christ.’ That, in other words, one of the points of the divine principle supplementing itself (as it were) in Christ is, once and for all, to introduce a saving doubt as the ground of individual faith. Barth objects to all attempts at ‘proof’—St Anselm’s, or St Aquinas’s—as misunderstandings (more precisely; he argues that subsequent thinkers have mistaken the grounds and purposes of these ‘proofs’) of the nature of the way that lies between God and man. In The Word of God and the Word of Man: ‘there is no way from us to God—not even a via negative—not even a via dialectica nor paradoxical. The God who stood at the end of some human way would not be God.’ If that looks as though Barth’s beef is with a human arrogance and superbus in thinking we can define, or determine, or in some sense fix God, that’s actually only part of it. For Barth, the point is as much that positive assertion as to the existence of God is replaced, theologically speaking, with a mystic negation of the human. In crude terms, the road does not run from man to God; it runs from God to man. This is also the thrust of that splendid though rather under-appreciated piece of creative theology, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The babel-fish knows the truth. Once we accept that proof denies faith, we find ourselves in the situation where any absolute certainty as to the existence of God would be precisely the grounds on which God ceases to exist. ‘Proof denies faith’, here, means something more than ‘proof would tend to degrade or corrode faith’. It means, more starkly: proof and faith together constitute a zero-sum game.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Death again.

The salmon thirsts for its stream ... But does it manifest, this Distinguished Thing, even to a fish, as thirst? Might it not be a process of deliquescence that is itself liquid?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011


Digby Durrant, reviewing Romancing. The Life and Work of Henry Green (by Jeremy Treglown) ten years ago:

The war saved Green. He had managed to write Party Going, a satire about the shallowness of the “flash social milieu” of which he had been a part, but it had taken him ten years. He was proud of being one of the first to join the Fire Service. A sensation of purposeful activity such as he had not felt since his early days in Birmingham, put the spring back into his step. The Blitz which Green describes in Caught was short but terrible, frightening but exhilarating. Green describes not only fighting fires from the inside of burning buildings, expecting the walls to collapse around them but also the shock and beauty of sudden macabre moments—‘the pigeons catching fire in the air’—and when the All Clear sounded the scramble to reach a rendezvous with the girl of the moment.
If it perhaps looks as thought that extraordinary, piercing image of the pigeons (the more piercing since it is conjured not from a metaphysical poet’s imagination, but observed from life) illuminates the real subject, the eroticised human intensity and connection of the last words. I tend to think something the reverse is true. Sex, though marvellous, is in one sense the commonest thing in the world; those pigeons are, in their horrifying beauty, a literalised poetic image for a kind of agonised orgasmic death that jumps off from our actual experience in strange, unique directions.

From the same review I discover that George Painter (Proust’s biographer, no less) praised Green’s Concluding as ‘unforgettable’ but added ‘the reader will never know just what it is he’s unable to forget.’ That’s just beautiful. If I have any ambition left as a writer, it might be to inspire such a reaction. Goronwy Ree’s assessment of Green (‘Very near to genius, if genius means a completely individual view of life which reveals reality in an entirely new and unexpected light’) looks rather run-of-the-mill by comparison.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Matthew 27:46
Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying "Eli Eli lama sabachthani?" which is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Mark 15:34
And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, "Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?" which is translated, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

The invaluable w.: 'This saying is traditionally called "The Word of Abandonment" and is the only saying that appears in more than one Gospel. This saying is given in Aramaic with a translation (originally in Greek) after it. This phrase is the opening line of Psalm 22, a psalm about persecution, the mercy and salvation of God. It was common for people at this time to reference songs by quoting their first lines. In the verses immediately following this saying, in both Gospels, the onlookers who hear Jesus' cry understand him to be calling for help from Elijah (Eliyyâ). The slight differences between the two gospel accounts are most probably due to dialect. Matthew's version seems to have been more influenced by Hebrew, whereas Mark's is perhaps more colloquial.'

What interests me here, at the moment (actually, this particular saying of the cross interests me a great deal), is the implied atheism of the divinity -- Chesterton says somethng like this in his Orthodoxy book. It's the phrasing: Christ doesn't say, as presumably he might have done, "My God, my God, it feels as though you have forsaken me?", or even "My God, my God, have you forsaken me?" He starts from the assertion that God has indeed forsaken him, and asks why. If we leave aside the notion that he (Christ, God himself) could be mistaken on this matter, as beneath the dignity of omnipotence, even in its human incarnation, we're left with the startling conclusion that God indeed has forsake himself. The crucifiction is the death of God in a more than Nietzschean sense.

Monday, 2 May 2011

My Personal Cosmology

This is, of course, tantamount to a declaration of faith (after all; what evidence could I provide to support it?). My answer to the question: why did the big bang bang? I posit a single hydrogen atom. It is all that exists; it exists and that's all. It travels back through time, setting up a complicated interference pattern with itself. But there is no 'time' or 'space', not as we currently understand it, not yet. So it arrives back when it starts and exists once again following the arrow of time forwards. This means (since there's no time it doesn't happen sequentially like this, but bear with me) that 'now' there are two atoms, coexisting in the same 'location'; but the topography of the pre-universe can bear this. The atom exists, moving forwards and backwards through time (40 billion years, perhaps) 10^80 times. This happens to be the density threshold, according to the pre-universe topography, beyond which the copresence of so much 'matter' becomes unstable. The reduplicated unity breaks down, and the big bang occurs, spreading this matter into -- or more accuratety, creating the spacetime of -- the observable universe in which we live.

Sunday, 1 May 2011


I didn’t until recently realise that the ‘roi pêcheur’ of the old Grail romances was as often called the ‘riche pêcheur’. Why should this be? If the latter is rich because he fishes (because, say, the fish he catches is of superlative worth), does that mean that the former is a king for the same reason? The legend has so often been interpreted in the light of Christian fish-imagery and Eucharistic ritual (and as often in terms of pagan myth, the Celtic ‘salmon of wisdom’ and so on), but this distinction perhaps seems unimportant. But Christ turns his disciples into fishers of men; the salmon and its wealth is us, and the fisher king a rebus of the autochthonic ruler. To put it another way: the fisher king is old and crippled; what he fishes-up is himself, young and hale.