Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Obscurerer and obscurerer

I'm parking this here til I've time to follow it up properly. Trying to track down the Latin from the very end of BL:3 (‘Qualis es, nescio; sed per quales agis, scio et doleo’ 'I don't know who you are, but as for whom you are working through, I know that and it grieves me') has brought me to this: an article on 'Classical Criticism' from The Classical Journal 6:11 (1812), 45f. Is it possible Coleridge read this? It's certainly right up his street.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

More Fantastically Obscure Biographiana Coleridgeana

I'll be going through the Biographia in some detail, I'm afraid, for the next few weeks, and obscure tid-bits and commentary thereupon is liable to dominate the Europrog for a while.  Sorry about that; I appreciate that it's very niche stuff. Still, it beats getting the shit kicked out of me by infuriated SFF fans because I've reviewed a book in less than positive terms.  A vanishingly small readership is a happy readership!

Today I'm troubled by the footnote at the end of Chapter 3, in which Coleridge recalls being 'dishonoured at Cambridge for preaching Deism, at a time when, for my youthful ardour in defence of Christianity, I was decried as a bigot by the proselytes of French Phi-(or to speak more truly Psi-)-losophy...'

Now, ‘Phi-(or to speak more truly Psi-)-losophy’ is a thin sort of joke: the Greek roots of the word ‘philosophy’ mean ‘lover of wisdom’; Coleridge replaces the philos (‘lover’) with the Greek psilos which mean ‘bare; stript of hair or feather, smooth; bald; tenuous’ [Liddell and Scott] creating a new word, ‘stripped or bald wisdom’.

Oddly, Coleridge himself seems to have misunderstood his own joke. He explained it in a letter to a German friend, J H Bohte, February 1819 [Collected Letters, 4:922] like this: ‘from the Greek psilos, slender, and Sophia, Wisdom, in opposition to Philosophy, the Love of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Love, a thing still in some repute among your Country men but long obsolete in England.’ But ψιλος certainly doesn’t mean ‘slender’, and certainly does mean ‘bald, stripped, naked’. More interestingly, in several Platonic dialogues ‘psilos logos’, ‘bare or naked speech’ is used as a way of distinguishing prose from the ‘clothed’ speech of poetry [eg Menexenus 239C], and in Plato’s Theaetetus [165A] the ‘psiloi logoi’ are the mere forms of abstract argument, stripped of supporting evidence. My sense is that Coleridge knew what ‘psilos’ meant when he wrote this footnote in 1809, but his memory played a trick with him in 1819 when he wrote to Bohte; though it’s not possible to prove it. If I am right, however, then Coleridge’s point here is not merely to attack ‘French’ philosophy as meagre, but more specifically to engage it Platonically as too dialectically abstracted, too removed from specific example.

See?  Fascinating, no?

No. You're right.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Is Ebenezer Scrooge A Methodist?

Evidence, here and there, that 'Ebenezer' was taken by people in the first half of the nineteenth-century as an archetypal Methodist name. Here, for instance, is Robert Southey’s article ‘On The Evangelical Sects’, Quarterly Review 4 (1810), 480-515—a review of Hints to the Public and the Legislature, on the Nature and Effect of Evangelical Preaching (4 vols, 1808-10) by ‘A Barrister’—which begins:
It is now about fourscore years since a handful of young men at Oxford obtained the appellation of Methodists, the least opprobrious name that ever was affixed by scorn, and likely to become one of the most memorable. A single room in Lincoln College was then sufficient to contain the whole community: they have now their Tabernacles and their Ebenezers in every town of England and Wales: their annual increase is counted by thousands; and they form a distinct people in the empire, having their peculiar laws and manners, a hierarchy, a costume, and even a physiognomy of their own.
I'm guessing that 'physiognomy' is Scroogeish. Scroogesque. Scroogeus-Pip.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Darkling I stood

I'm going to look into this: I've a hunch Keats had read the Odes of Pindar, in their translation by Gilbert West (1749), possibly in their augmented version by Francis Lee, chaplain to the Prince of Wales [Francis Lee, The Odes of Pindar, in Celebration of the Olympic, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian Games, Translated from the Greek; not one fourth of which have ever before appeared in English. Including those of Mr. West (London 1810)], prior to writing his 'Nightingale' Ode in 1819.  I'm thinking particularly of West's version of the first Olympic Ode, lines 141f. (this is the fifth Antistrophe):
Anxious then th’Elean bride
From her royal sire to gain,
Near the billow-beaten side
Of the foam-besilver’d main
Darkling and alone he stood,
Invocating oft the name
Of the trident-bearing god:
Straight the trident-bearer came.
Lee glosses: the bride is 'Hippodamia, the daughter of OEnomasnus, king of Pisa, who being extremely fond of his daughter (the most beautiful woman of her time), and therefore unwilling to part with her, obliged every one who sought her hand in marriage to contend with him in the chariot race.' It's not just the 'darkling he stood' as a precursor to Keats's 'darkling I listened' -- although it seems to me likely that's where junkets got the phrase from -- but the perilous foam.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Renaissance Electric Telegraph

No reason for blogging this except -- well, it's just really interesting.
"Note on a Curious Allusion of a Writer of the 17th Century to a supposed Property of the Magnetic Needle, since verified in the Invention of Telegraphy," by Harry Grimshaw, F.C.S.  [The Electrical Engineer. A Weekly Journal of Electrical Engineering, June 1890]
Some little time ago my friend, the Rev. G. W. Reynolds, M.A., of Cheetham Hill, directed my attention to a paragraph in an old volume in his possession of some 250 years. of age, which struck me as a peculiarly interesting one; so much so, in fact, that I have taken the liberty of bringing it before the notice of this Society. The work in question is entitled, An Apologie of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World, or An Examination and Censure of the Common Error touching Nature's perpetual and Universal Decay, Divided into Four Books.' The author is one "G. H.," D.D. (Doctor of Divinity), and the work is printed at Oxford by John Litchfield and William Turner, "Printers to the famous University." Anno Domini 1627, being therefore exactly 250 years old. The third book of the four into which the work is divided treats of " The pretended decay of mankind in regard and duration, of strength and stature, of arts and wits." The tenth chapter of this third book is said to be "Touching diverse artificiall workes and usefull inventions, at leastwise matchable with those of the ancients, namely and chiefly the invention of Printing, Gunnes, and the Sea-Card or Mariners Compass." This tenth chapter again, for such is the orderly division of the subjects, is sub-divided into four sections, and the fourth of these is headed "Of the use and invention of the Mariners Compasse or sea-card, as also of another excellent invention sayd to be lately found out upon the Load-stone, together with the conclusion of this comparison touching Arts and Wits, with a saying of Bodius, and another very notable one of Lactantius." It is in the account of this " excellent invention sayd to be lately found out upon the loadstone" that the curious prevision or dream, so to speak, of the application of electricity as a means of communication occurs, and there is small wonder that the old philosopher called it as he does further on, "an excellent and secret conclusion upon the stone," for, whilst perusing his description, one can hardly imagine that the writer has not in his mind's eye one of our most modern telegraphic instruments. I quote the paragraph in its entirety: "Another excellent and secret conclusion upon this stone, pretended to be found out in these latter times, is that by touching two needles with the same stone, they being severally set so as they may turne upon two round tables, having on their borders, the Alphabet within circlewise, if two friends agreeing upon the time, the one in Paris, the other in London (having each of them their table thus equally fitted) be disposed upon certayne dayes and at certaine houres to conferre, it is to bee done by turning the needle in one of the tables to the Alphabet, and the other, by Sympathie will turn itself in the same manner in the other table though never so farre distant: which conclusion if infallibly true, may tikewise proove of good and great consequence; howsoever I will set it down as I find it described by Famianus Strada in imitation of the stile and value of Lucretius." 
Magnesi genus est lapidis mirabile, etc etc
Then follows the extract in Latin, with the English translation in verse attached.
It's the Strada quotation that interests me (Coleridge mentions Strada in the Biographia). So this follow up article is particularly intriguing:
"Note on a Passage in Strada containing a Prevision of the Electric Telegraph," by William R. A. Axon, M.K.S.L., F.S.S. 
The interesting quotation from Hakewill's Apology brought by Mr. Grimshaw before the last meeting of this Society, seems to need an additional word of comment. Hakewill, it will be remembered, quotes a passage of Latin verse from Strada in which he supposes the loadstone to have such virtue that "if two needles be touched with it, and then balanced on separate pivots, and the one be turned in a particular direction, the other will sympathetically move parallel to it. He then directs each of these needles to be poised and mounted on a dial having the letters of the alphabet arranged round it. Accordingly, if one person has one of the dials and another the other, by a little prear range me nt as to details, a correspondence can be maintained between them at any distance by simply pointing the needles to the letters of the required words." The date of the first edition of Hakewill's Apologie or Declaration of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World is 1627; but the work of Strada's from which he quotes was published ten years earlier. Famianus Strada was born at Rome in 1572, and his Prolusionos Academecise et Paradigmata Eloquentise appeared at Rome in 1617. Several editions of his Prolusiones have been printed in this country. The particular poem referring to the loadstone has been translated into English and is printed in "The Student or Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany," 1750.

Friday, 26 October 2012


Reading more widely in Coleridge it occurs to me: he has a real bee in his bonnet about envy.  There may be something here, about the way envy (which, according to the Latin etymology, invidia, in-video, starts with sinful looking) structures his own poetic imagination.  In chapter three of the Biographia, though, he's more concerned to diagnose it in those who write negative reviews:
Still less can I place these attacks to the charge of envy. The few pages which I have published, are of too distant a date, and the extent of their sale a proof too conclusive against their having been popular at any time, to render probable, I had almost said possible, the excitement of envy on their account; and the man who should envy me on any other, verily he must be envy-mad!
He pretends to be discounting envy as a motive, but actually he's doing the reverse. And he's inventing a new psychopathology, one that Google tells me nobody has thought of before: invidimania!

(Well, obviously, Google will now return searches for that term back here, so it will no longer have the beautiful blank return it once did. But you take my point).

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The problem with the 24-hour clock

The problem with the 24-hour clock is the teens.  Not '1300', and not -- speaking from experience -- 1400 or 1500.  But '1600' makes me think, even after many years familiarity with the system, of '6 O'Clock', not 4pm and '1800' brings '8 O'Clock' to mind rather than 6.  Oddly, as I think about it, I don't really have this problem with 1700 or 1900; and obviously the 20s don't correspond to a 'pm' timeslot.  I wonder why the ambiguity is limited, for my stubborn brain, to those two times?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Taj Mahal poem

Are you planning, when I die, a Taj Mahal?
I hope not. I hope you're never fooled by the lie
of fossils.  Death is not white stone, it's just decay
and vanishing, and a perfect removal
from the stony world. Don't build a Mahal.
Instead, be sorry for a time, and blank
for a time, and then meet somebody else
and pick up life again for a time.
And I hope the wind moves through
the strands of the green grass as a comb through hair
and then moves on, and vanishes away.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


The epigraph to Brave New World is a bit of Nicholas Berdiaeff:

Les utopies apparaissent bien plus réalisables qu'on ne le croyait autrefois. Et nous nous trouvons actuellement devant une question bien autrement angoissante: comment éviter leur réalisation définitive? ... Les utopies sont réalisables. La vie marche vers les utopies. Et peut-être un siècle nouveau commence-t-il, un siècle où les intellectuels et la classe cultivée rêveront aux moyens d'éviter les utopies et de retourner à une société non utopique moins "parfaite" et plus libre.
'Utopias appear much more achievable than we used to think. Indeed, now we find ourselves presented with the following worrying question: how to prevent utopias from coming into existence? …Utopias are achievable. Life moves towards the creation of utopias. And perhaps the new century will begin, a century in which intellectuals and the cultured classes will dream of ways to preventing utopias and returning to a un-utopian society at once less “perfect” and more free.'  I can't, for the moment, track down where this is originally from. According to this list (the second dates mark first English publication) there weren't any books by the beardy Marxist available in English by 1931, when Huxley was working on this one.

Monday, 22 October 2012


Describing his compositional technique, John Adams said: 'rather than set up small engines of motivic materials and let them run free in a kind of random play of counterpoint, I used the fabric of continually repeating cells to forge large architectonic shapes, creating a web of activity that, even within the course of a single movement, was more detailed, more varied, and knew both light and dark, serenity and turbulence.'

Yeah. Me too.

Sunday, 21 October 2012


I've spent hours this morning tracking this down: a reference in a footnote to the first edition of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria.  It's from the first chapter, and comes after a passage in which STC complains that too many English poets make up their poetry by pastiching lines of earlier poets, a habit made worse by training up schoolboys to compose Latin verse via their Gradus rather than their hearts.  Here's the footnote:

‘In the Nutricia of Politian, there occurs this line:

"Pura coloratos interstrepit unda lapillos."

Casting my eye on a University prize poem, I met this line:

"Lactea purpureos interstrepit unda lapillos."

Now look out in the Gradus for purus, and you find, as the first synonyme, lacteus; for coloratus, and the first synonyme is purpureas. I mention this by way of elucidating one of the most ordinary processes in the ferrumination of these centos.’

The point, presumably, is to demonstrate that a representative contemporary English Latinist (author of the ‘University prize poem’) has taken a line from Italian Renaissance poet Poliziano’s Nutricia (1486; the title means ‘reward for nursing’, and the poem praises and discusses the most influential poetry), modified it hardly at all and then tried to pass it off as his own.  The first line of Latin means: ‘the pure stream goes murmuring over little coloured pebbles’.  The plagiarised line means: ‘the milk-white stream goes murmuring over the little purple pebbles.’

Coleridge scholars have pointed out that (a) the quoted Latin is not from Poliziano’s Nutricia, but rather from his Rustica and (b) the Gradus does not include the synonyms Coleridge claims.  But Coleridge is perfectly correct that the second gauche and essentially plagiarised line did appear in a ‘University poem’: the Oxford Prize Poem of 1789.  This latter was by George Canning (1770-1827; the man who went on to become Prime Minister) and was on the subject of ‘The Pilgrimage to Mecca’). Coleridge had been ridiculed in Canning’s reactionary newspaper The Anti-Jacobin, and the young STC had attacked the whole of Pitt’s Napoleonic War cabinet (which had included Canning). But he had later been introduced to Canning by Frere, and seems to have mellowed towards him; quite apart from anything else Canning was one of the original subscribers to The Friend.  The actual force of the note, in other words, is an obscure though gentle mockery of a prominent political figure.  ‘Ferrumination’ seals the joke: it is an Anglicisation of the Latin ferrumino, which means ‘to cement, solder, glue, unite, bind, join’ [Lewis and Short].  ‘Soldering’ is, of course, the principle strategy involved in canning.  (Peter Durand’s patent on his new method for preserving food using tin cans had been granted in 1810).

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Sophocles, long ago, ...

Sure, you may need to click on this to enlarge it in order to read it; but I wonder if that little bit of Sophocles, and more to the point (what I take to be) Crowe's translation of it, didn't directly inform that bit of Arnold's 'Dover Beach' the scholars find so hard to pin down, source-wise. 'Sophocles long ago/Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought/Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/Of human misery' Pebbly!

Crowe's Lewesdon Hill is mentioned in passing (and praised) by Coleridge in the Biographia; it was originally published in 1788 but so far as I can see this Sophoclean epigraph only appeared in later, collected editions.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Invisible Retina

Wells's invisible man ought to be blind, of course (an invisible retina stops no photons). But he isn't. His blindness is of another sort. But there's a secret logic to Wells' dramatic elision of physical impossibility -- and we have to concede that a blind Griffin, stumbling helplessly about the Sussex countryside, would give a writer fewer opportunities for compelling storytelling. We approach it by comparing the quasi-scientific literalism of Wells's fable with the approach taken, for example, by Ralph Ellison in his powerful 1952 novel Invisible Novel, or Christopher Priest in his later The Glamour (1984). Both of those novels concern invisible characters, but in both instances they are invisible only in the sense that people somehow don't notice them. Otherwise their flesh is as good as stopping photons as yours or mine. The contrast with Wells's Griffin is instructive. Science (or pseudo-science) has made him literally invisible.  But, because rather than despite this, people notice him all the time.  His Gyges ambition compels him to meddle with the world, to disturb people and roil up the town, and this makes him the centre of attention.

Thursday, 18 October 2012


People are much more comfortable dealing with exteriorised fears than interiorised ones. That's why they keep turning the latter into the former.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Gyges: jeez, what a guy

Wikipedia summarises Plato's version:
According to the legend, Gyges of Lydia was a shepherd in the service of King Candaules of Lydia. After an earthquake, a cave was revealed in a mountainside where Gyges was feeding his flock. Entering the cave, Gyges discovered that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse containing a corpse, larger than that of a man, who wore a golden ring, which Gyges pocketed. He discovered that the ring gave him the power to become invisible by adjusting it. Gyges then arranged to be chosen as one of the messengers who reported to the king as to the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, Gyges used his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murdered the king, and became king of Lydia himself.
I appreciate that the point of the story is didactic, by way of elaborating Plato's thesis that it is our sense of what other people think, say and might do that keeps us on the straight and narrow (and that if we could render ourselves invisible, even the most upstanding of us would do terrible things) ... still: that's some rapid, underpants-gnomesish elision at the end of that story. He seduced the Queen because, er, Queens famously find invisible men sexually irresistible? The magic ring enabled him to kill the king because no monarch has ever been assassinated by a visible man? What?

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Ode: On Being Comfortably Numb

I can remember when I first listened to 'Comfortably Numb' and, scales-falling-from-eyes-ishly, said to myself: 'hey, this is basically Wordsworth's "Immortality" Ode, with guitars'. Specifically, the Floyd jumble up the young jouissance of spiritual apprehension of the cosmos ('when I was young I had a fe-e-e-e-ever') and the gloomy, shades-of-the-prison-house older man (basically: all the Roger Waters groaning bit).  But on balance I'd say that the whole thing works better jumbled up than it does in Wordsworth's original, more linear progression from youth to age.

Monday, 15 October 2012


Proposed title for my future project on the intimate relationship between writing SF and critiquing it: Litographia Bioraria.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Terms and conditions

Isn't 'terms and conditions' unnecessary reduplication? Don't both of those words basically mean the same thing? And talking of which: wouldn't 'reduplication' be better spelled 'redupliduplication'?

Profound and puzzling questions, these.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Bioshock Paradigm

Sounds like a Bourne novel title, doesn't it? Not that. Some years ago, John Lanchester published an essay about video games called ‘Is It Art?’ London Review of Books, 1 Jan 2009]. It’s an essay that deserves to be better known than it is. Lanchester considers gaming intelligently as a sort of invisible seismic shift in culture, and one of the things he's good on is the difficulty of most video games. Here he is on Ken Levine's 2K Boston/2K Australia game Bioshock, which he likes a great deal:
As a video game, BioShock fully subscribes to the conventions of the medium, and if you as a non-gamer were to pick it up and give it a try, it is these you would probably notice most. Not just the conventions of which buttons and levers you press to move about the world of the game (annoying and hard to recollect as these often are) and not just the in-game mechanics, such as the ‘plasmids’ which you have to inject to give your character the powers he needs, or the tapes which are conveniently left around for you to discover and play back to hear the story of Rapture; but also the whole package of conventions and codes and how-tos which become second nature to video-game players, but which strike non-gamers as arbitrary and confining and a little bit stupid. Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all – and it’s not by accident, either. One of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy. (It would be nice if a little bit of that leaked over into the book world.)
In the spirit of that sentiment, I say: often, science fiction and Fantasy is too easy. As to why this should be—why, that is, the same fans who actively prize ‘difficulty’ in their video games spurn it as they might spurn a rabid dog when it crops up in their novels and short stories—well, that’s a profound and unsettling question. From time to time I had a go at addressing it when I reviewed, and occasionally on this blog too. At the very least, one of the aesthetic crotchets that informed my own reviewing was a preference for the difficult over the easy. An active valorization of the friction of the best art, not despite the fact that I was reviewing SFF but precisely because of it. The problem with Realism, it seems to me, is that it is almost inevitably superficial. But the problem with the metaphorical modes of fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, 'magic realism' and the like, is almost that they are too deep.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Mahmoud Darwish

A fine poem on the subject of Jersualem by Darwish (transl. Fady Joudah).  The whole thing is here, and I don't want to trespass on the poet's copyright by reproducing it on my blog, except to say that I was especially struck by these lines:
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
The original is in The Butterfly’s Burden (2007), by Copper Canyon Press.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Chew a raw elephant

This is how a female character is described in Simon Raven's Fielding Gray: 'Angela. A real dish, breasts prominent but not outrageous, teeth sound enough to chew a raw elephant.'  The protagonist, who sees Angela thus, is at public school, so the gaucheness might be excusable. Or maybe not.  Fielding has an affair with a fellow schoolboy, who is later arrested for cottaging and kills himself.  Fielding's father dies 'straining in Angela's vampire embrace.' Sex, for Raven, is fucked-up.  It's all gnashing and intense and dripping with a kind of transferred self-pity that is rather unpleasant to read about.  I don't recommend it.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


Looking back upon SF reviewing as something I used to do (a few long-tail exceptions notwithstanding) is a good time to take stock. I wrote some good reviews -- I mean, the reviews themselves were well-written, not that they were positive (though I did write some positive reviews too) and some that weren't so good, mostly because they were rushed.  In three instances posterity has caused me to think again about my negative judgements.  Never easy to say 'I was wrong', but it would be alarmingly egotistical to act as if I believed I never was. Of course I have been wrong, often I daresay, and in the case of three specific novels it stands out.  I disliked, when I reviewed it (as part of the Clarke shortlist) Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go; I can't say that I like the novel more, but it's clearly an important and powerful novel, it seems to be enduring, and my judgment was too harsh.  I said some foolish things about Harrison's Light when it came out (though in my defence I also recognised great power in it); now that I've read all three of the Kefahuchi Tract books I feel both that I have a better sense of how the first novel works, but that the sequence as a whole is a major work of contemporary fiction.  And I was snippy about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, a sequence I now realise is the A la recherche du temps perdu of our age.

Not that last one, obviously.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Psychoanalytic 9th

Freud has shown how God has funked it/Taught us ‘house’-Elysium.

Sunday, 7 October 2012


The light from the candle pulses against the walls. Shadows shiver. ‘Candleman,’ I say, once. ‘Candleman. Candleman. Candleman,’ I say. I'm going to say it five times, I don't care. I open my mouth again. I take a breath ...

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Undoubting Thomas

In one of Dylan Thomas's letters (to 'Miss Hanford Johnson') he says: 'it is part of a poet's job to take a debauched and prostituted word, like the beautiful word "blond" and to smooth away the lines of its dissipation, and to put it on the market again, fresh and virgin.' As you know (what do you mean, you don't know anything of the sort?) I take science fiction to be a poetry. Dylan's instruction works for the tropes of genre, too.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Justinian killed a trillion

Justinian the Great, Byzantine emperor, I mean. Hard to keep your hands clean when running a large empire over many decades, of course.  But how many did he kill?  A trillion people.  Don't take my word for it: here's chapter 18 of the Anekdota, or 'Secret History', of Procopius:
And that he was no human being, but, as has been suggested, some manner of demon in human form, one might infer by making an estimate of the magnitude of the ills which he inflicted upon mankind. For it is in the degree by which a man's deeds are surpassingly great that the power of the doer becomes evident. Now to state exactly the number of those who were destroyed by him would never be possible, I think, for anyone soever, or for God. For one might more quickly, I think, count all grains of sand than the vast number whom this Emperor destroyed. But making an approximate estimate of the extent of territory which has become to be destitute of inhabitants, I should say that a trillion people perished.
That's the 1935 Loeb translation. The translator/editor, H. B. Dewing, notes that the Greek translated as a trillion is literally 'a myriad myriad of myriads', adding 'The "cube of ten thousand" is not the language of exact computation, and Procopius is trying to make out a strong case against Justinian.' No shit. A trillion is the number my 4-year-old son reaches for when he wants to emphasise the magnitude of a given thing.

Thursday, 4 October 2012


From Speak Memory:
Whenever in my dreams, I see the dead, they always appear silent, bothered, strangely depressed, quite unlike their dear bright selves. I am aware of them, without any astonishment, in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence, in the house of some friend of mine they never knew. They sit apart, frowning at the floor, as if death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret. It is certainly not then — not in dreams — but when one is wide awake, at moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle-tower. And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one is looking in the right direction.
On what basis does N. prefer the dark certitude of his dreaming mind to the melted-ice-cream textures of hope his wide awake self indulges in? It's hard to see. Death is surely more of a shame than a glory.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The gags go ever on

My love for The Smiths elides my feelings about Morrissey's solo career. There is elide that never goes out.

Has anyone got any closer to finding out what makes a tiny bloodsucking insect tick?

Instead of culling badgers why not curl them? Slide them along the ice brushing the path ahead of them furiously with a broom? Better.

Surely the craftiest rock group of all time was the J. Guile Band?

Under the Magnum Carta the principle was enshrined in English law that crimes against freemen be investigated by a moustachioed Hawaiian.

A story of British gangster life in the 60s walked into a bar. The barman asked: 'why the long firm?'

An everyday story of pirate folk: ‘The Arrrrrchers’.

I’ve fallen back on my Classical education to write “Fifty Hades of Grey” #bleak

Aha! It’s those two assassins employed by the Italian Tourist Board: C. Naples, Ann Dye.

‘I give 3.14159 three stars out of five.’ International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

I've remixed "The Wicker Man" with some mashed-up blockrockin beats. Called it the "wickerwickerwickermaan". Blud.

If my proposals are adopted, weekly calendars will go from riverrunday to riverrunday. I call it "Finnegans Week".

What’s the fuss? They’re only culling the badgers. They’re letting the goodgers live.

I invented a bathroom vent with a circular spinning fan in it. They told me it’d already been done. I was just re-enwheeling the vent.

Film idea: ‘Taken That.’ “I will hunt you down. I will find you. And I will sing a duet with Lulu at you.”

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Roth. No, the Other Roth.

A couple of lines from The Radetzky March (1932). Roth is describing the peasant Onufrij straining to write his own name:  'The beads of sweat grew on his low brow like transparent crystal boils. These boils ran, ran down like tears wept by Onufrij's brain.' Nice; but a touch too condescending I feel.  I don't think Onufrij's brain is really all that bothered by questions of literacy.

Monday, 1 October 2012

I I I (Isn't It Ironic)

Reiterated 'I's. I've been thinking about the things Paul Di Filippo (three 'i's there, you see) says in his, very generous but sadly (from my point of view) perceptive locusonline article.  I think the nub is this: I write novels that try to achieve a number of things.  Many of my novels, I think (and especially my more recent novels) do achieve those things.  SF doesn't think much of my novels.

There may be a number of reasons why this is the case.  It might be because my novels are shit.  I don't say so flippantly, because the last person well-placed to judge the aesthetic merit of a novel is the person who wrote it.  But obviously I hope that's not the reason, and (that twang noise you can hear is hope springing) I'll consider some other explanations.  A couple are aired by Di Filippo at the other end of the link above.  Here are two more possibles.

One takes its cue from Martin Lewis, a fan and critic whose judgement I respect a great deal, not despite but because he doesn't rate my writing particularly (he was, for instance, part of the Clarke panel that judged By Light Alone a shittier novel than either The End Specialist or The Waters Rising).  I was, therefore, very struck, not to say startled, when he tweeted this:
Increasingly starting to think that By Light Alone is going to become one of the most referenced texts of the next decade of SF.
His reasoning was along these lines: 'I suspect we will see an increase in what you might call Resource SF and that two obvious reference points will emerge. One pole is The Wind-Up Girl, which is complicit with genre SF. The other is By Light Alone, which isn't.' I can't speak to the likelihood of his assessment coming true, of course; but I'd say that his characterisation is spot-on as far as BLA goes.  It is indeed a book that worked to resist complicity with the tropes of genre.  Not to reject them wholesale, of course.  I love SF; I would hardly write it otherwise.  But, as the estimable Paul Kincaid recently noted, the challenge any writer of SF faces today is addressing a state of affairs in which 'the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion'.  In such a state, resistance is surely the proper business of new writing.

Following on from that, and related to that, is the question of irony.  This is another reason why I love SF so much: because it is the ironic mode of art par excellence -- its the closest I'm prepared to come to a definition of my beloved mode to say that its relationship with reality is ironic rather than mimetic.  Irony fascinates me, both in its 'serious' and in its laughable modes, and irony informs everything I write.  And whilst I'm aware of the danger of projecting my own individual crotchets onto the world at large, I also tend to think that irony in the broadest sense is one of the great achievements of the best 20th- and 21st-century fiction.  James Wood, a critic of no small insight, howsoever blinkered his larger perspective, says something along these lines in The Irresponsible Self, although his nomenclature doesn't precisely map onto mine: 'the comedy of what I want to call "irresponsibility" or unreliability is a kind of subset of the comedy of forgiveness; and although it has its roots in Shakespearian comedy (especially the soliloquy) it seems to me the wonderful creation of the late 19th and early 20th-century novel. This comedy, or tragi-comedy, of the modern novel replaces the knowable with the unknowable, transparency with unreliability' [8]. A little later he says 'this kind of comedy seems to me the creation of modern fiction because it exchanges typology for the examination of the individual, and the religious dream of complete knowledge or stable knowledge for the uncertainty of incomplete knowledge' [14].  But many scientists and engineers are closely attached to ideas of typology and complete certainty of knowledge (typology underlies algebra and Linnean categorising, I'd say); and many of them like their SF to cleave closely to the typological and a kind of rectitude of knowing.  This isn't the SF I write, any more than it was the SF Lem, or Dick, wrote.

Or so it seems to me: Kincaid called me not an ironist but rather a satirist (a Menippean satirist, no less) and he may be right; and Maureen Kincaid Speller once wrote a fascinating post in which she argued that my writing is an 'anatomy'.  More flattering to my personal sensibilities, although not without his own bite, was Rich Puchalsky's sense that I write 'experimental novels' ('they would be avant-garde if there was now any literary garde to be in the avant of'.)  And there's the rub: irony is not in.  Indeed I'm not sure I'd realised, in my general myopia and self-absorption, how actively hostile many people are to irony today, a reaction, perhaps, to the dog-days of Postmodernism, now decades behind us.

A couple of things have, recently, reminded me of this: one was the recent and, by all accounts, very successful China Miéville conference in London. I couldn't get to it, but I followed proceedings on Twitter and was very interested by Miéville's comments in his plenary to the effect that he disliked irony, or as he put it 'whimsy', in art.  Personally I'd see 'irony' and a very different quality to whimsy, but I don't doubt it's a connection, and an animadversion, shared by lots of people.

Then the other day I was reading Nick Mamatas livejournal as I do regularly.  Now Mamatas himself strikes me, from the stuff of his I've read (such as the excellent Move Under Ground, which uses intertextual mash-up to brilliantly destabilising effect without diluting its emotional punch) to be exactly the sort of writer Kincaid was calling for in his LARB piece.  That is to say, somebody setting out energetically to resist complicity with the conventions of genre, somebody interested in making it new.  But it wasn't Mamatas's own work that caught my eye on this occasion, it was his account of the new David Foster Wallace biography.  Like all right-thinking 21st-century writers I admire Wallace's work a lot. I haven't seen D T Max's Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story yet; not sure it's even available this side of the Atlantic yet.  But Mamatas is characteristically snappy and entertaining in his demolition-job upon it.  And this is the bit that resulted in a medium-sized 'oh!' moment for me:
What is missing is a sense of contradiction. [DFW] wrote pomo but didn't like irony is about as much as we get. That he was the nice guy who flew into rages and seriously planned to kill someone, that his two gifts were the magazine feature and the epic novel, that he quite transparently craved fame as well as being suspicious of it hardly comes up at all. Of course, if Max examined Wallace's contradictions, we might conclude that nobody can escape irony, and as Wallace was an anti-ironist and Max his Biggest Fan EVAR, well...we just can't have that.
'He didn't like irony' is, when you think about it, evident in everything Foster Wallace wrote.  He craved authenticity, especially emotional authenticity, with an almost painful intensity.  But Mamatas is of course right: there's no outside to irony, no place from where we can stand with a perfect Embassytown-style access to true, genuine, authentic, winsomeness-purged Real Thing.  There are real things, and they matter very much; but the Real Thing is both Coca Cola and being present at the birth of your children, and the two things can no longer be neatly separated out from one another.

This is straying into special pleading, I suppose; and I will wind-up this ramble now.  But I'll just say this: one of the reasons irony and whimsy aren't the same thing is that irony is more than just a mode for saying serious things, its, actually, the only mode left to use nowadays.  One of my personal gods of writing is Nabokov, an ironist to his marrow whose attachment to 'bliss' was both genuine and playful at the same time (because of course those two things are not opposites).  The end of Lolita is extraordinarily moving -- I don't mean Lolita herself dying, sad though that is, so much as the scene in which Humbert's realises belatedly that he has fallen properly in love with her at exactly the moment he understands both how much he has damaged her and that he will never see her again -- it's moving because the preceding 300 pages are so complexly ironic in their unmimetic European-poetic intensity of apprehension of 1950s America.  It wouldn't work otherwise.  Its the real thing, emotionally, that is also complexly compromised.  There may still be people (I certainly knew a few people like this when I was younger) who treat On The Road as a kind of developing-artist-young-person holy writ, taking it all very seriously and very literally; but a better way of taking the novel is through a mash-up with Lovecraft, not because the Lovecraftian horror dissolves away the earnestness of Kerouac's Beat odyssey but because it, ironically enough, intensifies it. Some people will prefer to read the Bible literally; I find it makes a larger and, I would argue, nobler claim to truth when read ironically. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are greater philosophers than Kant and Hegel.  Jane Austen is a better writer of love stories than Stephanie Myers.  Earnestness is a greater danger to art than whimsy.