Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Leap year

We need more nuance in this phrase. Some years leap from the 28th Feb to the 1st March. Some stumble, or collapse. This one, for me, is struggling over the steeplechase-hurdle, panting and gasping.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

On whimsy

In the middle of a discussion at Crooked Timber, on the prevalence of whimsical examples in certain schools of philosophy, I wondered whether what was being discussed was actually a valence of Englishness, more specifically:
I wonder if you’re putting your finger on something in the cultural DNA of certain sorts of thought-experimenting. Salman Rushdie has an essay on the difference between US and English comedy in which he characterises the former as ‘isn’t it funny that’-style humour (Friends et al) and the latter as ‘wouldn’t it be funny if-style (Monty Python and so on). I wouldn’t want to stick my neck out, but I suppose it might have something to do with living within more restrctive, though largely unwritten, codes of proper behaviour, and having mild eccentricity—whimsy—as the socially acceptable pressure valve. And being English I’m perhaps likely to think more positively of whimsy for that reason.
Actually I don't mean 'English'; I think I'm referring to something more narrowly class defined. This morning I happen to be re-reading Tolkien's 'The Monsters and the Critics' essay, and the tone of it is very erudite-whimsical, within certain precise boundaries.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Grendl the Green Man

I have to assume that somebody, somewhere has made this argument before (because it seems to obvious to me); but Google isn't helping me find priors, and I'll jot my notion down here.

In a nutshell: Beowulf is a John Barleycorn narrative; or its first third is. Beowulf fights a humanoid creature called Grendl, who has come into the hall and drunk the blood of one of his warriors; he rips his arm off, and the creature runs away. We do not see him die; but Beowulf pins his arm to the wall like a lucky branch. Then everybody gets drunk and sings songs.

This is the evidence I'd constellate to make the theory, had I time.

1. Grendl's name is the OE for 'Green man'. Really, it is.

2. The 'Beow' in Beowulf means 'barley'. ('Scholar Kathleen Herbert draws a link between Beowa, a mythical figure stemming from Anglo-Saxon paganism that appears in early Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies whose name means "barley", and the figure of John Barleycorn. Herbert says that Beowa and Barleycorn are one and the same, noting that the folksong details the suffering, death and resurrection of Barleycorn, yet also celebrates the "reviving effects of drinking his blood."')

3. As in the ancient ballad, Grendl has one of his limbs uprooted; and seems to die; but he comes back to life (in the form of his mother). The whole thing is a symbolic narrative of the seasons and fertility.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Two Ainsworthy murders

Here are two violent murders from Harrison Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard (1839-40). Mrs Wood is murdered in a burglary:
And seizing her by the hair, he pulled back her head, and drew the knife with all his force across her throat. There was a dreadful stifled groan, and she fell heavily upon the landing.
The wealthy Sir Rowland is wrapped around with a sheet and murdered for money:
Jonathan, rushing upon him in front, struck him several quick and violent blows in the face with the bludgeon. The white cloth was instantly dyed with crimson; but, regardless of this, Jonathan continued his murderous assault. The struggles of the wounded man were desperate – so desperate, that in his agony he overset the table, and in the confusion, tore off the cloth, and disclosed a face horribly mutilated, and streaming with blood. So appalling was the sight, that even the murderers – familiar as they were with scenes of slaughter – looked aghast at it.
This second is of a different order of writing, I think:  The first is more shocking; death as disposal. The second is like a sort of malign conjuring-trick, death as unveiling ...

Saturday, 25 February 2012

A-Time and B-Time

The philosophy of perceptual time is clearly a huge field. I came across a review of some recent essays [Adrian Bardon (ed.), The Future of the Philosophy of Time (Routledge, 2012)] in which the reviewer, Meghan Sullivan, says some fascinating things.
There are two basic stances one might take on the metaphysical structure of time: the A-theory and the B-theory. A-theorists contend there is an important, objective distinction between the present and other times. They typically add to this a thesis about time "flowing" from past, to present, to future. B-theorists deny this package -- they think of time as "spread out" the way we ordinarily think of space as spread out. They deny there is a fundamental directionality to time, at least any directionality beyond some times being earlier or later than others in the manifold. B-theorists are often thought to have a special challenge in explaining why we experience an asymmetry in time if none is actually there.
Naturally this knocks sciencefictional sparks from the flint of my mind. I think of Herbert's prophet, in Dune Messiah, who is blind, but who can 'see' the world around him by remembering the very detailed visions he had of the then-future, now-present, in the past. Herbert makes no larger philosophical claims for this notion (surprisingly, perhaps, given how crammed with second-hand philosophy the Dune novels are) but I wonder if it mightn't be an illuminating way of thinking about perceptual time?

Or again: 'why do we seem to experience time passing, if in fact we inhabit a directionless manifold?' Taking up the 'if', here, and suggesting an answer to the question: presumably for the same reasons we experience motion in space. Presumably there is a time-gravity, and we are being accelerated (hence the sensation of motion) towards a very massive temporal 'object' located in a particular direction of the manifold. Presumably again there is no upper limit to our absolute 'speed' through time -- unlike space -- although the acceleration is constant and enough to give us a sense of one day passing every day (it must be temporal acceleration, or we wouldn't have the sensation of moving forward at all, of course). But what happens when we collectively arrive at the temporally supermassive object that is drawing us? And what if there were a temporal equivalent to 'c'?

This last notion gives me an idea for a story.

Friday, 24 February 2012


Thank heavens I archive these, here! Think of the loss to humankind if I didn't.

I really believe Duct-tape is better than Sellotape. I tried to make my case on the BBC but they said they didn't allow pro-Duct placement.

As Beckett said when the aluminium foil he was using to wrap his chicken broke: foil again. Foil better.

Religion. Or as I like to call it, ‘The Origin of Specious’.

‘Knock. [25 second pause] Knock.’ ‘Who's there?’ ’Harold.’ ‘Harold Who!’ [Very lengthy pause] ‘Pinter.’

Timothy Leary: LSD guru, quest-master and the topic of the famous song ‘I Can Seek Leary Now’.

After a great deal of thought I've come to the conclusion that the least savoury children's book is: Flatus Stanley.

The strangest surname I ever heard is probably the guy in the Hendrix song: A. Joe Whereyougoinwiththatguninyourhand.

Are we human, or just the housepets of our gas-guzzling cars? Each of us needs to ask: am I a man? or am I Hummer pet?

By my Latin reckoning, 'Rick Santorum' means 'Rick of the Santas (plural)'. There are many Father Christmas clones, and they own him.

Judging by his middle name, that old painter Leonardo ‘Dave’ Inci wasn't as highfalutin as some people imply.

Judging by his middle name, that old painter Leonardo ‘Dave’ Inci wasn't as highfalutin as some people imply.

Who is this lout loitering in the Greek bay, and why don't they get rid of him?

Ooh, topical!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Em-Bayeux Strikes Back

Just on account of its awesomeosity, this image:

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Phillipsian Exchange

In the most recent LRB, Adam Phillips has an article on 'autism' that starts, rather shakily, with a riff on 'exchange' as the bedrock of psychic ease and disease:
Descriptions of mental illness depend on what a society regards as a desirable form of exchange. Behaviour is seen as a symptom (or a crime) rather than a foible or a talent when things deemed to be essential – sex, words, money – are being exchanged in a particularly disturbing way, or not being exchanged at all. Sex with children is unequivocally wrong, and possibly an illness, while exchanging sex for money is merely controversial. In the relatively recent past there was something wrong with men exchanging semen with each other, but nothing wrong with men and women exchanging words with God. Now, for some of the authorities, exchanging words with people who are not there, or using words in a way that makes exchange extremely difficult, or not using words at all, as in psychosis, is an illness or at least a problem. Because these are simply agreements between people and not divine fiats or laws of nature – because diagnoses are now understood to be more or less authoritative forms of consensus – our beliefs about these things are up for grabs in a way that they haven’t been before.
This doesn't strike me as very well thought-through. When person A rapes person B, or when an adult forces sex on a minor, nothing is 'exchanged'; the interaction is all one-way. To suggest that the rapist gets whatever he gets (I was going to write 'pleasure', but that doesn't ring right, somehow) in exchange for the victim's misery is to miss the point about what 'exchange' entails. It's a soggy sort of metaphor, at any rate, on which to build a conceptual model of the psyche.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012


Bytuene Mershe ant Averil
When spray biginneth to spring,
The lutel foul hath hire wyl
On hyre lud to synge:
Ich libbe in love-longinge
For semlokest of alle thynge,
He may me blisse bringe,
Icham in hire bandoun.
An hendy hap ichabbe y-hent,
Ichot from hevene it is me sent,
From alle wymmen my love is lent
Ant lyht on Alisoun.

On heu hire her is fayr ynoh,
Hire browe broune, hire eye blake;
With lossum chere he on me loh;
With middel smal ant wel y-make;
Bote he me wolle to hire take
For to buen hire owen make,
Long to lyven ichulle forsake
Ant feye fallen adoun.
An hendy hap, etc.

Nihtes when I wende and wake,
For-thi myn wonges waxeth won;
Levedi, al for thine sake
Longinge is y-lent me on.
In world his non so wyter mon
That al hire bountè telle con;
Hire swyre is whittore than the swon,
Ant feyrest may in toune.
An hendy hap, etc.

Icham for wowyng al for-wake,
Wery so water in wore;
Lest eny reve me my make
Ichabbe y-yerned yore.
Betere is tholien whyle sore
Then mournen evermore.
Geynest under gore,
Herkne to my roun—
An hendy hap, etc.

GLOSS: on hyre lud] in her language. ich libbe] I live. semlokest] seemliest. he] she. bandoun] thraldom. hendy] gracious. y-hent] seized, enjoyed. ichot] I wot. lyht] alighted. hire her] her hair. lossum] lovesome. loh] laughed. bote he] unless she. buen] be. make] mate. feye] like to die. nihtes] at night. wende] turn. for-thi] on that account. wonges waxeth won] cheeks grow wan. levedi] lady. y-lent me on] arrived to me. so wyter mon] so wise a man. swyre] neck. may] maid. for-wake] worn out with vigils. so water in wore] as water in a weir. reve] rob. y-yerned yore] long been distressed. tholien] to endure. geynest under gore] comeliest under woman's apparel. roun] tale, lay.
AQC's second poem -- and incidentally, I note that Bartleby has the whole collection here. It is, indeed, a rather powerful poem about being properly smitted in love with a woman called Alison (unlike this perhaps even greater 'Alison' lyric, in which the desire of the male narrator is more complicated and, even, ironic). He has, by his own admissions, 'fallen down feye' ('like to die' is a rather poor rendering of 'feye', I think; Keats's Belle Dame Sans Merci is a better sense of it). Perhaps this explains the slightly odd colouration of the beloved person: with her brown brow and white neck.

Monday, 20 February 2012


There have been a few pieces recently, here and there, about Martin Amis's old 'Space Invaders' book. I'm less interested in that (writer picks up paying gig: it's a dog-bites-man sort of headline) and more in the implications of this comment over 'alex' added to the LRB blog:
Can’t remember if it was Amis himself or a critic who described him as having a stylistic prowess out of proportion to his emotional development: but this subject seems commensurate to his talents, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
This has some intriguing implications: why should it be, after all, that a sophisticated style correlates to a sophistocated emotional awareness? Mightn't we want to suggest that in fact something the reverse is true?

Sunday, 19 February 2012


The sound 'dscr' is almost impossible to say as a single syllable. Yet (for instance, in the middle of the word 'widescreen') it has the quantity of one syllable -- doesn't it? I'm missing something.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Sumer Is Icumen In

Picked up a 1900 first-edition of this old warhorse from a charity short (£2), and have decided to work through it, poem by poem, on this blog -- though not, obviously, on consecutive days, since that would turn the Europrog wholly over to the project for years to come. But from time to time, starting with AQC's first poem:
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!
There's a whole wikipedia page devoted to this poem, I discover, including a modern English version:
Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,
Don't ever you stop now,
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!
But I prefer the original (could anything be flatter than 'summer has arrived'?). I remember my first-year-poetry-course lecturer dilating upon the farting buck of line 8 -- he told us that when the grazing animals get onto the fresh green grass in later spring it makes them much fartier than old grass, or hay, which seemed to me an Interesting Fact, and certainly one that has stuck with me.

But now I'm wondering: is this a lewd poem? Is it a poem singing the delights of early summer shagging, 'cuckoo' sounding through it rather as the refrain does in Joyce's Ulysses? The virile stag and bullock, the female who groweþ sed as a result of the man who, cum-ishly, 'bloweþ med'? Perhaps 'murie' is not merrily so much as Mary, the girl with whom the narrator is enjoying his roll in the hay? Or maybe I have a dirty mind.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Beowulf prologue

The third of my Beowulf posts: a translation of the first 55-lines, aiming to reproduce more of the sounds of the original, line-by-line, and to give it a fresher, less archaic vibe:
We’ve heard the Germans of years-gone-by,
all their great kings, and splendid stories,
how those athelings earned their fame.
Scyld Scefing was skilled at scattering enemies! 5
He crushed many clans and many mead-settlements,
undid all those earls. Since from the first he was
found to lack funds, he fell back on friendship, and
grew great with welcome, thrived on his own worth,
until everyone who lived in that land, and 10
over the whale-road too all of them knew him,
offered him fealty. He was a good king!

Then came his heir afterward into the world,
a son in his sight, who the one God sent him.
The folk frolicked; after formerly grieving 15
that they’d until then lacked an earl to lead them
for such a long while. Him the Lord gave,
this Wonder-Wielder the whole world’s fame;
Beowulf was renowned (his fame spread wide),
this Scyld’s son through all Scandinavia. 20
So shall good children all go gracefully,
giving fine gifts of gold under his father’s name,
that when he’s older loads of loyal followers
and best bosom-buddies, they’ll all come,
to redeem their oaths; lovely deeds doing, 25
by the might of the many man shall prosper.

Then Scyld expired at his destined hour
he went off full of years, on the way to God.
They bore him away to the briny beach,
those who were dear to him, did what he’d himself said, 30
when he’d had power of speech over the Scyldings;
beloved land-befriender who had ruled for a long time.

There in the harbour stood a ringed ship,
iced-over and outbound, a floating palace.
There they laid-down their much-loved Lord, 35
he, the ring giver, on the beam of his ship,
main-man by the mainmast. And much treasure fetched
from faraway, finely wrought, was brought in;
I’ve never heard of a comelier craft being equipped
with all gear of war and grim battledress, 40
with cleaver and corselet. On his bosom lay
multitudinous marvels, that were meant to move
over the flood with him far to travel.
They didn’t stint the store of sovereign riches,
thane’s great gifts, those that did 45
those that in former times forth had sent him
alone over the waves when still only a wee one.
what’s more they up-lifted a golden sign
high overhead, the home bear him,
offered to the ocean; sad were their spirits, 50
a mourning mood. Men do not ken
how to tell, in truth, no territorial man,
or hero under heaven, where that hull reached harbour.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


The second of my three consecutive Beowulf posts ponders the poem's famous first word. How to translate it? I have seen 'Lo!' and 'Attend!' and 'Listen!' and, Heaney's 'So!' All very well and good. Me, I'd like to see the sound of the word reproduced a little better (although 'What?' would be a little Bertie Wooster for this context). In yesterday's post I proposed: 'Hey!' which, though doubtless too informal, fits the bill in other ways. Today I'm wondering whether 'Word!' might not have a suitably early 21st-century vibe to it.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012


The 'Gār‐Dena' are the 'Spear-Danes' from line one of Beowulf. All the translations I have read translate the name as 'Spear-Danes', which has a suitably tough-looking OE feel. But I was wondering: does it actually mean Germans? Can't find evidence to support it. The OED notes that 'Deutsche' and its cognates are ancient ('from the Old High German word diutisc -- diot "people"') but that the English didn't start calling them Germans until the 16th-century or later. 'Germans', of course, is from Tacitus' Germania. But where did that come from? Was it picked up from one of the German tribes themselves, who called themselves the Spear-folk, the 'Gār‐Diutisc' or Spear-men, 'Ger-menn'? I daresay there are endless dusty tomes already in the libraries arguing this thesis, or disproving it. But it gives me the chance to retranslate the opening lines of Beowulf:
Hwæt! Wē Gār‐Dena in geār‐dagum
þēod‐cyninga þrym gefrūnon,
hū þā æðelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaðena þrēatum,
monegum mǣgðum meodo‐setla oftēah.
Egsode eorl, syððan ǣrest wearð
fēa‐sceaft funden: hē þæs frōfre gebād,
wēox under wolcnum, weorð‐myndum ðāh,
oð þæt him ǣghwylc þāra ymb‐sittendra
ofer hron‐rāde hȳran scolde,
gomban gyldan: þæt wæs gōd cyning!

Hey! We've heard of the Germans of years-gone-by,
all their great kings, and splendid stories,
how those athelings earned their fame.
Scyld Scefing was skilled at scattering enemies!
He crushed many clans and many mead-settlements,
undid all those earls. Since from the first he was
found to lack funds, he fell back on friendship, and
grew great with welcome, thrived on his own worth,
until everyone who lived in that land, and
over the whale-road too all of them knew him,
offered him fealty. He was a good king!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Baby You're A Rich Man

Ted Hughes’ wife committed suicide, and that fact in some sense defines Hughes’ reputation as a poet. Adrienne Rich’s husband committed suicide, and that fact, somehow, doesn’t. I wonder why? Is it because, by later coming out as gay, Rich somebody diluted the importance of her preceding marriage (one which resulted in three children?) Or is there a sort of incipient reverse-sexism involved: that somehow marriage must matter more to a male poet than a female?

I’m thinking of taking this (from 1991’s An Atlas of the Difficult World) as the epigraph to my new novel:
Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
We dare not taste its water.
Do we dare? I suppose we don’t.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Christian Time

Christianity has to attempt to fold two radically different understandings of time into one. I’m not talking about the balancing of finitude with the infinite, however earnestly theologians, philosophers and poets have expatiated upon precisely that connection—it’s not that I don’t understand it, so much as that I don’t understand the sense in which it could be understood. I mean something that is, on the surface, simpler. One the one hand, in common with other major world religions, Christianity asks us to believe that God is not only coeval with the cosmos (the creation of which, though it happened a long time ago, is not lost in the backward abysm of an infinite past) but the chief cause of that creation. On the other, it says that, from the human perspective, God did not come into his own until a specific moment in history. A strict reading of Christianity as a salvational discourse, combined with a strict sense that it is only through Christ that salvation can be achieved, is tacitly a faith that dismissed billions of years, and many millions of human lives. Some iterations of Christian faith have addressed this issue straight on; the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, for instance, enact a policy of retroactive baptism, as if temporality were a sort of inconvenience, a simple obstacle to be overcome. But the notion that ‘we’ are saved, where all those who were born before us are ‘lost’ is a more profound thing than this. It reflects (as Heidegger probably says somewhere) the brute fact of our coming into an already existing world—the horrifying realisation that the world got-along perfectly well for enormous gulfs of time before we were here, and will do so again after our departure. The Christian story, in other words, puts God into the position of every human being: it articulates His belatedness. The sense that ‘we’ are special, because we have been born after Christ’s incarnation rather than before, in fact stands as a kind of photographic negative of the true state of affairs. It is that ‘we’ are precisely not special; that we are latecomers. In John 20:29, Christ himself puts a brave spin on the losses necessarily entailed by existential belatedness. ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed. How blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ This I have always assumed is an extension of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount; that the poor are more blessed than the rich, the hurt more blessed than hale and so on. It simultaneously finds consolation in loss and acknowledges that belatedness is a mode of poverty—that we can hardly not envy those who actually knew and saw Christ.

But—and this is the argument about time I am making—belatedness is integral to the Christian story. God for Christians is both father and son. Being a son means coming after one’s father; it is—not to be too literal-minded about it—a chronologically subsidiary relationship. It may also, of course, entail other sorts of belatedness; a desire to ‘live up to’ the achievements of the father and so on. But for this particular son, Christ, it includes within itself a transcendental folding back. For according to Christianity Christ is not merely a sort of belated temporal add-on to the divine principle, a secondary god who was budded off from the primary God just as BC swung on its invisible calendrical hinge around into AD. On the contrary, Christ is God, and God is Christ. Christ is a way of saying: God is at one and the same time prior and belated. In Islam, by way of contrast, Mohammed, peace be upon him, is only a man. As such his existential belatedness is no more and no less than that of any other human being. And although he appears relatively late in the larger narrative of the cosmos, Allah has prepared the way via a succession of increasingly important and wise prophets, a line which Mohammed fulfils and brings to a kind of climax. Christ in the Christian tradition is quite otherwise. Though the prophets are there, behind him, he is not a prophet: he is God. His belated appearance in world-history is not the culmination of a succession that serves to reinforce the motion of time in the world (as in Islam); it is a sort of contradiction of the idea of chronology at all.

It may be for related reasons that conversion narratives have so important a place in Christian tradition. Many Christians, I suppose, are raised in the faith and exist comfortably within it all their lives. But it is surely a truer sacrament to enact, as human beings, the spiritual belatedness of the larger Christian revelation—to come to faith only after a long, faithless period. The mid-life conversion provides the template for a great deal of Christian memorialising (from St Augustine onward); and mainstream, populous versions of Christianity enshrine the notion that a believer needs not only to be born, but to be born again. Kierkegaard’s insistence in Concluding Unscientific Postscript that ‘Christianity cannot be poured into a child’ is a way of saying this. It is his way of saying that to be a Christian must entail a belatedness:
No one begins with being Christian; each one becomes that in the fullness of time—if one becomes that. A strict Christian upbringing in Christianity’s decisive categories is a very venturesome undertaking, because Christianity makes men whose strength is in their weakness: but if a child is cowed into Christianity in its totally earnest form, it ordinarily makes a very unhappy youth. The rare exception is a sort of luck. [Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript Vol 1 (trans. by Howard and Edna Hong; Princeton University Press 1992), 591
I’m not sure, though, that the fullest implications of this understanding of the dynamic of Christian faith have been fully thought-through. A person who lives to 35 an atheist, converts, and dies at 70 a Christian is a soul who from the larger perspective (never mind sub specie aeternitatis) is a precisely balanced blend of atheism and faith. The atheism of her youth is not a embarrassing lapse to be brushed under the carpet, and not a sort of stain that is washed away by the miraculous detergent of conversion. On the contrary, her atheism is precisely the ground of her faith. Indeed—and this is the harder step to make, conceptually, however important—her faith is equally the ground of her atheism. Kierkegaard is surely right not just that compelling a child into Christianity is a mode of cruelty, but that a child who willingly, wholeheartedly embraces the faith is a freakish sort of creature. That mode of belief goes against the grain of the nature of Christ’s belated incarnation. Children, it has to be said, are usually wiser than that.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The anxiety of atheism

Atheism is the freedom of faith; which is to say—it is faith viewed from the perspective of the most profound existential freedom. This brings it close to what Kierkegaard describes as ‘anxiety’:
Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science will explain. [The Concept of Anxiety (1844)]
And there is anxiousness in atheism (how could there not be?)

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Onward poem

The beak of a birdlike boat.
The snout of a jet-schnelled plane.
My tender and soft-skinned throat.
The rushing feeling that comes again.
The rushing feeling that comes again.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Teleological Suspension of the Ethical

'Suspension', though? It has a tendentiously temporary sound, doesn't it? 'We're just going to suspend ethics for a little while; very soon we'll come back to it ...' Except that the ethical injunction in this case (thou shalt not kill) entails something -- death -- that cannot be undone. To 'suspend' the ethical in such a case is tantamount to obliterating it. That, after all, is the point of death: its permanence.

Thursday, 9 February 2012


Reading Carolyne Larrington's Oxford translation of The Poetic Edda (although, according to these disgruntled readers, it's not a very good rendering). I like her note on the meaning of 'Edda':
Why the name "Edda"? Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic author and historian who lived between 1179 and 1241, wrote a treatise on Norse poetry which he called an edda, a word whose etymology is uncertain but which clearly means "poetics" where it occurs in fourteenth-century Icelandic. [xii]
So, the title Poetic Edda means Poetic Poetics. That's splendid.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

SFX Weekender Couplet

They talk of Wales in macaronic Latin:
Quandoque bonus dormitat Prestatyn.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


‘Morn’ is the occasion for one of those interesting mini-essays with which the OED is so well supplied. The OE is ‘morgen’; the ON ‘myrginn’:
The affinities outside Teut. are doubtful. Some refer the word to the pre-Teut. root *merk- to be dark; but the absence of consonant-ablaut, as well as the inappropriateness of the sense, seems to render this view less probable than the alternative hypothesis that the root is *mergh-, represented by the Lith. mirgu, to twinkle, margas parti-coloured. [OED 9:1086]
Also relevant is the entry on ‘Morrow’, a word (now archaic) that comes via the ME ‘morwe’ or ‘moru’, both shortened forms of morwen, ‘the morn’.

Morning as the time of darkness (in the sense that it is when darkness dwindles, 'darkloss') doesn't seem so far fetched to me; but like the anonymous OED etymologist, I'm rather struck as the morning as twinkletime, howsoever twee that makes me.

Monday, 6 February 2012


Tolkien's ‘Ents’ literalise a deeper, older riddle than Shakespeare’s. He has in mind Mark 8:23-4:
He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man's eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, "Do you see anything?"
And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.
Commentary upon this passage tends to stress its mimetic potential: the blind man’s sight does not return immediately, but by a process of indistinct strengthening and gradual improvement (the next verse is ‘Once more Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.’) ‘I see men; for I see [them] as trees walking"-that is, he could distinguish them from trees only by their motion; a minute mark of truth in the narrative, as Alford observes, describing how human objects had appeared to him during that gradual failing of sight which had ended in blindness.’ [Jamieson Fausset Brown Bible Commentary] Presumably there’s also a typological reading here too: for Christ is the tree of life (the dead wood of his cross, and his own dead body, become vivid and in motion once again, to spread across the world).

Sunday, 5 February 2012


Holinshed: Macbeth "had learned of certaine wizzards in whose words he put great confidence (for that the prophesie had happened so right which the three fairies or weird-sisters had declared unto him) how that he ought to take heed of Makduffe, who in time to come should seeke to destroie him. And surelie hereupon had he put Makduffe to death but that a certaine witch whom hee had in great trust had told him that he should never be slaine with man borne of anie woman, nor vanquished till the wood of Bernane came to the castle of Dunsinane.'

It makes a difference, I think, that the prophesies come one after the other, rather than all at once (as in the play); not least because the whole point of prophesy is to interrupt the one-things-after-another logic of consecutive time. Hmm.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Mermaid man

One mermaid with the thrashing tail;
One sailor tying up his sail;
Love overcomes all ways and means
Except when water intervenes;
The sea-salt's fine astringent tang
Prevents the love of fish and man.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Nineteenth-century fiction and the Law

Discussing nineteenth-century fiction with a very bright PhD student of mine (she's working on law and the Victorian novel: the representation of lawyers, advocates, detectives and so on) we were struck by one difference between the British and French novel. There's a real emphasis in French fiction of the period upon stories about miscarriages of justice (Les Miserables, Comte de Monte Cristo, the people imprisoned for opposing Napoleon III in Zola's Rougon Macquart novels and so no -- leading up to the Dreyfuss affair and its massive impact on French lit at the end of the century). By contrast, in the English novel I can think of nothing like this; on the contrary, from mainstream Domestic fictions through Sensation fictions and even into Penny Dreadfuls and the like, there is a solidity in belief that justice and the law do eventually and inevitably coincide. Is it too sweeping a generalisation to suggest that the French (broadly) mistrusted the legal superstructure, as part of their larger distrust of state authority -- the Revolution, and all that -- where the English readership yearned to be reassured that the law, the executive branches of social justice and state authority itself were (despite the occasional hiccoughs, or wobbles) in the last analysis trustworthy and good?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Car Alarm

Seagullish car-alarm. Fiesta flashing all its lights on, off, on, off, like it's having an epileptic seizure. Theft, or the threat of theft, is the greatest outrage in the universe.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Moon! Moon! Moon!

Crescent moon on its back, like a hammock.