Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Too Busy

It’s everywhere. Have you noticed? People are too busy to do anything. Worse than snow or high winds, one day it will bring the economy to a standstill.


Suddenly, like a revelation, you recognise a different society existing within your own country. The comic section of this week’s TLS gave me an early Christmas present. Its writer having some fun at the Guardian’s expense, knocking the Equal Opportunity monitoring forms that have been sent to their contributors.

"Where once you were judged by your writing, you must now expect genetics to be taken into account."

Very good; but like most weak comedy missing the point. In the public sector monitoring diversity, to ensure there is no institutional discrimination, has been around for decades. However, it seems unknown at the TLS, and may be an innovation at the Guardian, if our reviewer is to be believed. How behind the times! They will be telling us next that their only write with quill pens… What a strange place the press is. It is a little world all by itself; a sort of Monte Carlo on the River Thames. A fantasy world, free of the all the constraints, and social justice, that makes life liveable for the rest of us.

Behind this quote there is an interesting assumption: that entry into the media is determined by quality alone (until now, of course, when everything changes). But this is surely not the case. Compare the quality of most of the journalists with the work of writers who never appear in the mainstream press. Think about Nick Davis’ Churnalism. For isn’t there another form of discrimination that is never mentioned? Opinion. That there is a certain conventional wisdom that you cannot stray too far beyond, too often; otherwise you are out.

All in the Words?

In his review of the new Lydia Davis translation Julian Barnes goes through seven(!) versions of Madame Bovary to show that over the last 125 years there has been a subtle shift towards a more literal interpretation of the original French.  The problem has remained the same, of course: how to give the English reader a similar experience to that of their French counterpart; although the answer has changed slightly, and appears to increasingly lie in a more faithful rendering of the original language; as opposed to its recreation into an English equivalent.[i]  However, these different approaches appear not to lead to progressive improvements, just subtle shifts of emphasis; sometimes merely reflecting cultural changes in the host country.  Amidst which Madame Bovary herself alters hardly at all.

Is a desire for fidelity to the original all that is going on here?

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Sunday, 19 December 2010

To Die For

I swerve around the ice. I crash cars, bang bins over; kill three passers-by: so many different people I see, but do not notice. My mind is elsewhere. It’s on holiday! It’s all over the place, slaloming around the words in my ears, around the cats and Kerouac copies; between stitches in roadside ditches, and the widows rich and free. Stitches? I hear an electric scream. Why stitches? They skate into the pictures before me; circling the weathergirl, so beautiful in front of the white fluffy clouds she moves like galleons on a war map. I look again. Squeezed inside a tiny TV she’s winking at the sun. I look into my windscreen and it’s so strange. She’s on a broomstick in her black underwear: the snowflakes, she says, will be stars! with the Beatniks, and cats, and the sunshine stitches on velvet witches.... Stitches? I kill some more people; a dog, and three birds, their feathers confetti around my windows. And there she is again. I speed up, skid and slide; I lose control. No longer do I follow the singer around his song. No longer do I watch the pictures before me; nor see the open air; only bushes, trees, and large rocks. There is an electric scream; my brakes do not work…

And when I look into my window?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


It is a test for the Liberal establishment.  Will they support Julian Assange; or will they let him go; into America’s very own Gulag Archipelago.  The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel published the documents; but was it for love or for money?  Was it to expose the duplicity of our governments; or was it for the advertising revenue of increased readerships?  We will soon find out; though the signs are not encouraging.  That pre-eminent liberal journal The New York Review of Books commissioned a blog post attacking Assange as an amoral technocrat; while the Times doesn’t appear to particularly like its own material.[i] 

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Debris of Life and Mind

There is so little that is close and warm.
It is as if we were never children.

Sit in the room.  It is true in the moonlight
That it is as if we had never been young.

We ought not to be awake.  It is from this
That a bright red woman will be arising

And, standing in violent golds, will brush her hair.
She will speak thoughtfully the words of a line.

She will think about them not quite able to sing.
Besides, when the sky is so blue, things sing them-

Even for her, already for her.  She will listen
And feel that her colour is a meditation,

The most gay and not so gay as it was.
Stay here.  Speak of familiar things awhile.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Russian Climate

Now one more word for the professors of philosophy.  I have always felt compelled to admire not only the sagacity, the correct and fine tact with which, immediately on its appearance, they recognized my philosophy as something quite different from, and indeed dangerous to, their own attempts, or in popular language as something that did not suit their purpose; but also the sure and astute policy by virtue of which they at once found out the only correct procedure towards it, the perfect unanimity with which they applied this, and finally the determination with which they have remained faithful to it.  This procedure, which incidentally commended itself almost by the ease with which it can be carried out, consists, as is well known, in wholly ignoring and thus in secreting – according to Goethe’s malicious expression, which really means suppressing what is of importance and of significance.  The effectiveness of this silent method is enhanced by the corybantic shouting with which the birth of the spiritual children of those of the same mind is reciprocally celebrated, shouting which forces the public to look and to notice the important airs with which they greet one another over it.  Who could fail to recognize the purpose of this procedure?  Is there nothing to be said against the maxim primum vivere, deinde philosophari?[i]  The gentlemen want to live, and indeed to live by philosophy.  To philosophy they are assigned with their wives and children, and in spite of Petrarch’s povera e nuda vai filosophia,[ii] they have taken a chance on it.[iii]

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


I am always curious to read David Osler, our Socialist friend. He knows what to write, before he writes it; at least that’s how it reads to me. Take his piece on Gordon Brown, and the invite to Mrs Thatcher. The conclusion is determined from the start. No doubts, no digressions; bang! Brown is nailed. Is this what Marx meant by the iron laws of history? I assume party political writing demands this kind of thing: it cannot risk exploring a topic, but has to confirm an opinion; for you must not lose the membership along the way.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Buy Everything!

The last days of free Morocco, before the French occupied…

The whole emerging world of western mechanical invention was dangled before his eyes, and his palaces became vast playrooms, guarding secrets no graver than those of gramophones, toy railways, typewriters, musical stuffed birds and a great host of clockwork toys.  A gold camera was imported from England.  Outside, there were bicycle races with ladies of the harem in fancy dress, roller-skating, miniature rifle ranges, balloons and fire-works; even though there was no road in all Morocco, a hansom cab and a scarlet state coach reached Fez from London.  The transport of a billiard table, lurching on camel-back from Larache to the royal palace at Fez was but one of a thousand bizarre extravagances devised by the government in its efforts to divert the Sultan’s attention from the terrible state his country had fallen.  A crook American sold him for 40,000 dollars a British bulldog with false teeth.  A German firm sold him a motorboat; this occupied a room to itself in the palace and was tended by a German engineer; though there was never any suggestion of the vessel putting to sea….  (Gavin Maxwell, Lords of the Atlas)

What the author describes is the impact of Western Capitalism on a culture that had not previously experienced it.  Sultan Abd El Aziz has the riches, until they ran out, to buy whatever he desires; an advertiser’s dream.  This is part of an extraordinary chapter that shows the decadence of the Sultan’s court in its last days.  However, what strikes most, because of the freshness of the description, this is consumer capitalism at its most pure, is the likeness to the West today.  It is a perfect metaphor for today’s society.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Boring Stuff

I have substantially rewritten Found You! and Bashing Brodsky (II) & (III).  The former has signficant new material.

The pages have been changed to an index; I may add more detail later.


Sunday, 28 November 2010

Sleazy Died Today

I saw his work in my teens, but I would not have known his name.  He was an anonymous craftsman, simply a worker on our lord’s estate; those pieces of plastic I so carefully placed on my cheap stereo.  How many people share this experience?  To millions he is invisible, but to a small minority he is a monument on their hometown’s hillside.  Will they gather there tonight; talk of the old days, and forget about why it all went wrong?  It was as a designer he made his money; it was his music that made his reputation; albeit limited to the crazies and the curious… It was also his money that allowed him to create his art. Technology’s freedom: studio sound from Aldi’s.


Look!  There’s David Herbert!  He’s running after Henry DavidMr Thoreau

Catching up, he overtakes; there’s a scuffle; I see fists, a heavy punch…

He’s got the trumpet!  And jumping on Henry David’s back he wacks him around the sofa.  Gee up little Roman!   Playing Charlie Ives he calls him Saint Augustus.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Civilisation in a Shed

Irrational prejudice. It is often ignorant and ill informed. Nevertheless, sometimes how true! Literature is a good example. Certain writers can be disliked, even if they have never been read. You pick up a smell in the air, and your nostrils go all wobbly…. Henry David Thoreau. I just know I’m not going to like him.

I have not read Walden, and know hardly anything about its author, yet I’ve got an opinion on him? Yes, I have. I can feel it when I go into a bookshop; I can sense him in the corner: that pungent smell, and his eyes far too keen to make contact. What do I think he’s like? Quite pompous, a little precious, pious of course, and too satisfied with his own lot; a self-conscious saint. In short I think he’s a well-heeled hippy without the Marijuana. Have you read him? Am I so very wrong?

Friday, 19 November 2010

Brecht and Buddha

It is a yellow room, and the Buddha sits amongst a fountain of blue; lord of his citadel, the ceiling his strange crown.  In a meditative pose he listens carefully to the introductions, and our mild applause.  Will he like what he hears, these new phrases and odd sentences?  Or is he uneasy about this strange art? Can he trust this man? Who crosses borders with nothing but words in an old rucksack. I see his posture shift; how he wonders for a moment: will he jump the high walls around my doctrines…   It lasts only seconds.  He sits serene, an enormous monument, and listens and meditates.  Once again in charge, so confident and secure; once again a fortress inside his own temple.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


The Therapist

To draw them in
Close towards you
A whole nation
Silent on the couch.

Quietly they talk,
Water around rocks,
About their memories.
You draw them out

Bodies shaking,
Convulsing slightly,
As you pick out 
The broken stones

And odd stories.
You draw them out,
With words and pincers
You pull out

Their pain and grief
To leave that history
Quietly in your bin.
The river running free.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


What would the world look like if you only read the Guardian’s Dominique Moisi on France and the international scene?

Take the recent strikes in France.  We learn they are a reactionary attempt to maintain the good life.  An overblown romantic revolt over some trivial policy change, with young emotions unleashed on just two additional years on the pension age.  Those pampered French again!

…this movement is an expression of exasperation with the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, which blatantly favors the super-rich over the majority of working people in this country… The Labor Minister who introduced the reform, Eric Woerth, got a job for his wife on the office staff of the richest woman in France, Liliane Bettencourt, heir to the Oreal cosmetics giant, at the same time that, as budget minister, he was overlooking her massive tax evasions. While tax benefits for the rich help empty the public coffers, this government is doing what it can to tear down the whole social security system that emerged after World War II on the pretext that “we can’t afford it”.

The retirement issue is far more complex than “the age of retirement”.  The legal age of retirement means the age at which one may retire.  But the pension depends on the number of years worked, or to be more precise, on the number of cotisations (payments) into the joint pension scheme. On the grounds of “saving the system from bankruptcy”, the government is gradually raising the number of years of cotisations from 40 to 43 years, with indications that this will be stretched out further in the future…

The trend is for qualified personnel to enter the work force later and later, having spent years getting an education.   With the difficulty of finding a stable, full-time job, many depend on their parents until age 30.  It is simple arithmetic to see that in this case, there will be no full retirement until after age 70. (In effect this will reduce pensions, as people will retire before this age.  See also Mark Weisbort for a sharp critique of Sarkozy and his plans.)

That detail about the Labour minister is just the kind of thing to spark off a strike…  Is there something he is not telling us?  Let’s have a closer look at the Professor.

Friday, 5 November 2010


For the Left there are two 1960’s.  The haute couture of Paris 1968, and the prêt-á-porter of America, Brazil and the rest. The Parisian revolt has to a large extent become lost to mythology; now a part of the institutional memory of French intellectual life (or that fraction of the intelligentsia which appears in the mainstream media; and on its fringes – the celebrities of the academic world: Deleuze, Foucault, Guattari…).  This significantly distorts the decade; for by turning the political dissent into high class pop music it forgets the hard graft of the anti-war activists in the States; and the desperate struggles in other countries; the student deaths in Mexico, another rebellion in that famous year.  It also prejudices us against the present: witness the Anglo-American media on the current French strikes; where the strikers have been treated with irony and disdain

These differences are reflected in the intellectuals of that generation; nicely captured by two recent articles.  In an introduction to a Nick Turse piece Tom Engelhardt writes of the impact on him of Noam Chomsky’s After Pinkville; with its call for the resistance to do more to stop the war in Vietnam War.  This exemplifies the purpose of all Chomsky’s political work, which is to change the political facts, by supporting radical groups and providing them with information and analysis.  He encourages his audience to think and act; not to admire his virtuoso technical skills.  His is not the gold tinsel of grand intellectual theory; the sort of Selfridges window display we often see in academic journals and in books from university presses.  The other piece is about the Maoist turn of a section of the fashionable Left in France…

Friday, 22 October 2010

Wishful Thinking

Do you remember the postcards? The clues to solving the movie’s mysteries…

They always seemed strange to me, as if here was another game, an inside joke, a director’s ruse to play with the audience; and perhaps the commercial possibilities; could they really tell us so much? Though I could be wrong; for I never looked at them.

To understand a film we should have a sense of its totality; details can help of course; but to view it as some cipher to decode, or a crossword puzzle with arcane clues, is surely to see it wrong; and will lead us astray. It can become some minor exercise, a sort of train spotting (which if truth be told is a lot of what film fandom is about – they know so much about the details), where symbols and signposts are noted and listed; maybe even freeze-framed and recorded. But this is like saying you understand the Weimar Republic because of the facts you write in your notebook…. Are dates and names really enough to grasp that time and place? This doesn’t seem right, for to understand a film we must have a sense of its feel, for it’s there its meaning will lie.

So what is it about?


What would humans be like without language? All that thought, but no ability to express it, except in grunts and wild gestures. All those complex ideas, the nuance of feeling; but you have nothing but ugly facial grimaces, the groping of hands and fingers, to express those shades, all those colours, of thought and meaning. All that frustration! at what you cannot say…. They do not understand! Head in hands you are reduced to an animal.

Or a machine…

Monday, 18 October 2010


Bashing Brodsky(III)

In what looks like the centrepiece of his book, a collection of essays covering a variety of poets and other matters, there is an extended analysis of Marina Tsvetayeva’s Novogodnee (New Year’s Greeting); which is over seventy pages long, and is, I surmise, what Brodsky saw, and what was meant to be seen, as the virtuoso performance of his critical acumen.

Is it?


written so long ago, I didn’t even
know I was a poet,
my words fell like spray from a fountain
or flashes from a rocket,

like brats, they burst into sanctuaries
asleep and filled with incense,
to speak of youth and mortality.
And now my unread pages

lie scattered in dusty bookshops
where nobody even lifts them
to examine.  And yet, like expensive wines,
your time will come, my lines.

Bashing Brodsky(II)

Am I tone deaf? You read the compliments on the back:

…eloquent and subtle (Washington Post)… combines the precision of scholarship with the passion of the poet (The Times)… exaction of genius (Seamus Heaney).

And then you read the book:

Bashing Brodsky(I)

Before I bash Brodsky a few words of praise:

On 18 January 1964 in Leningrad… Iosif Brodsky stood trial for the crime of not taking regular work and thus being a ‘parasite on the state’.  Asked why he had not tried to learn how to be a poet in some institution of higher learning, Brodsky answered: ‘ I did not think it was something that could be learnt….’  [he] was sentenced to five years’ exile with compulsory labour. (Amanda Haight)

A great man.

“A parasite on the state.”  These words should resonate deeply with us today.  For once again we are at the mercy of the Puritans, with the campaigns against benefit scroungers, and the attacks generally against people out of work.   All the superfluous people the government is to increase by thousands… The chutzpah of it all.  When the real scroungers, those who pay the Press’s bar bills, the banksters of the Square Mile, continue to enjoy our money; our large handouts… 

It’s part of a wider trend, of course.  The idolization of work has been a cultural norm for well over a century; on both the Left and Right. It is the absolute precondition for the modern industrial society; where even leisure time becomes a chore.   Despite the propaganda the Soviet Union was not a new socialist civilisation but a corruption of Western industry, a nation turned into a multinational corporation, and thus a peculiarly brutal variant of state capitalism, where instead of the profit motive people were sacrificed to the bureaucrats; who imposed a narrow theology, which they vigorously enforced – the major difference between the two societies, after the mass murders of Stalin. 

Think of life in the firm – dare you criticise its assumptions and PR?  As the West becomes increasingly dominated by Big Business, with its theology of the Market, so society will increasingly come to look like the corporation.  We will turn into the USSR.  And one day we will be arrested for collecting the dole.

Friday, 15 October 2010

We Killed the Indians

Abuse.  How intellectuals love it!  Rather than argue from the facts they prefer to ignore them; with arguments originating from their own prejudices, their strong emotional attachments – to power, wealth and nationality.  How strange.  For one would think that intellectuals, of all people, would revel in reasoned dispute.  But to stick to the facts is a form of equality, a sort of intellectual Gunfight at the OK Corral, and thus far too dangerous – for one’s ideas and academic reputation.  Best to create one’s own fictions, and live within them, with arguments reflecting those narrow premises, where you can live safe and comfortable: more downtown Houston than old Dodge City.

Thursday, 14 October 2010


He wrote one my favourite books, surely a classic of art criticism: Transgressions; The Offences of Art.  The next book I read was somewhat disappointing.   For rather than elucidating a topic, of which I knew little, it seemed to strain after a thesis; it had all the feel of facts squeezed into a theory.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Odd Society

So the Tories are to remove child benefit for the rich; for they don’t need it, and it will save money…  Here is a great Tory, writing 18 years ago about the Thatcher government and their attitude to this kind of thing.

Yet only child benefit earned their puritanical disdain on the grounds, allegedly, that it helped the rich.  Great concern was expressed that the Duchess of Westminster should receive some £7 a week from the taxpayer, which one way and another she did not really need.  These improbable levellers had of course to brush aside the awkward circumstance that at the same time as they were objecting to the Duchess receiving £7 a week from child benefit they were, by cuts in income tax, showering thousands of pounds per week on her ducal husband which he, too, did not really need.  For every pound the Duchess gained in child benefit, the Duke probably gained a windfall of £1,000 in reduced tax.  Yet Thatcherites favoured a means test for the Duchess but not for the Duke. (Sir Ian Gilmour, Dancing With Dogma)

Child benefit being a universal benefit is cheap to administer, and thus actually saves money compared to those that are means tested.  If Osborne wanted to save money, and have us all in it together, nice and cosy, like in the Blitz, why not raise the income tax by 1% on this same high income tax band? Is some millionaire going to empathise with the unemployed if his wife loses twenty quid a week?  Surely he needs to make a bigger, more proportionate sacrifice.[i]

Money.  Do we need so much?  Apparently middle class support is to collapse because a single person with an income of £44,000 may lose a couple of grand. Can that be right?  What about the poor people who struggle on the minimum wage; or the East Europeans who are exploited and paid below it?  Do we need it, really?  Expensive holidays every year?  The latest widescreen TV with cinema surround sound to watch…. Strictly Come Dancing? We need it, right? We need it badly.

Not like those poor people who can’t find work, and who will have to move to where, exactly?  The North of England, where the rents are cheapest?  Its Norman Tebbit again, the poor must acquire wheels, but this time at the point of a bailiff’s warrant (although they must now travel in the opposite direction, it seems).  So the middle classes and the rich people can live in central London like their counterparts on the continent. [ii]  With their money, of course, safely invested in the City; and insured by the rest of us.

And all that time we use to earn this money… saying yes to the boss, working late to read yet one more email; even logging in on Sunday… all that wasted effort; so that what, we can buy Sainsbury’s finest ice cream?[iii]

We are slaves to money.  What a price to pay.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Hero Worship

Some sentences seem to hang their owners.  Maybe it was a late summer afternoon in the bar, too much drink and plentiful reminisce about the old days, in the revolutionary Sixties, when we were this close to overturning The System; maybe it’s all a joke; maybe they mean it even; maybe I am too generous…

AC: Why do you think Mao looks so good?
PS:  Because he said the kind of things – believed them and really inspired people to believe them – which have to be done to have a decent society.  ‘Serve the people.’  ‘Public service not private gain.’  Marx, if he had come back alive, would have said Mao’s his boy…   I haven’t seen anything in Marx that isn’t good.  I think he’s got better and better, I really do.  Mao is the only real Marxist at the leadership level in the post-Marx period.  (Paul Sweezy[i] quoted in Alexander Cockburn’s excellent The Golden Age Is In Us)

It refers to the “revolutionary” Mao of the 1960s when he attacked the party apparatus, and in Harry Magdoff’s words, in the same interview, realised that the only way to remove the conflicts between the different parts of society, between bureaucrats and workers, intellectuals and the rest, was through hard struggle.  We must fight for peace and equality!

One of the curious things about the fall of the Berlin Wall was that along with the concrete and graffiti went Socialism, and the majority of the Marxist Left in the West.[ii] This was despite the reconfiguration of the Sixties, when the Soviet Union was no longer seen as a viable alternative, the Communist Party had lost influence; a Left independent of the two superpowers was the main goal, and there was increasing scepticism about the role of the state.[iii]  This passage may help explain why.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

First War

First war resembles
   a beautiful girl
we all want to flirt with
         and believe.

Later it's more
   a repulsive whore
whose callers are bitter
        and grieve.
               Shmu'el Hanagid

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Bill is Back

You see it from the other side, and are confused: have I been wrong all these years?  

One of the advantages of not relying on the newspapers for information and analysis is that you don’t imbibe their world view; allowing perhaps for a more independent perspective; it also means you are not led by the priorities of politicians and editors.  Think of how much time is wasted following the various crises that the Times or the Guardian deem important.  Remember SARS?  Have you forgotten the Millennium Bug? [1]  But there is a downside; you fall behind events, and you develop biases of your own; for however distorted the mainstream media it nevertheless has a point of view, based to a degree on facts and valid opinion.  You forget about this, and are surprised when you find it.

Saturday, 18 September 2010


The initial reaction so strange and unexpected.  My first thought, when considering a title for this piece, was Scum.  But this would give him far too much importance.  After all, it suggests something either you hate passionately or fear greatly; yet I feel nothing at all about him. Like the columnists in the Mail and Express it is as if he lives in another country, of which I have no interest.   He’s somebody I read many years ago, who was on my side, therefore the right one, but even then I thought him a bit of a poseur, a cocktail rebel…  Then he switched sides, glorying in all that carnage; for democracy, he would have us believe.  So we mustn’t use strong words about a non-entity, an insignificant belle-lettriste injecting himself with pomp and self-importance, with intellectual gravitas, as an athlete their steroids.

The chapter “Something of Myself” abounds in empathetic references to Franz Kafka, William Morris, Theodor Adorno, Betrand Russell. Gore Vidal, Orwell… (Sudhir Hazareesingh in the TLS 16/08/2010)

David Runciman describing a type describes him:

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Extremist

Sometimes just to quote is enough…

If his writings continue to proliferate without our being able to stop this intrusion of Nazism into human education, how can we not expect them to lead to yet another translation into facts and acts, from which this time humanity might not be able to recover?  Today, more than ever, it is philosophy’s task to work to protect humanity and alert men’s minds: failing this, Hitlerism and Nazism will continue to germinate through Heidegger’s writings at the risk of spawning new attempts at the complete destruction of thought and the extermination of humankind.  (Emmanual Faye, quoted in a review of his HEIDEGGER by Taylor Carman TLS 10/09/2010)

Who can actually read Heidegger?  Let alone explain him to the rest of us.

Thursday, 16 September 2010


How Weak Are You?

How appearance becomes being. – Even when in the deepest distress, the actor ultimately cannot cease to think of the impression he and the whole scenic effect is making, even for example at the burial of his child; he will weep over his own distress and the ways in which it expresses itself, as his own audience.  The hypocrite who always plays one and the same role finally ceases to be a hypocrite; for example priests, who as young men are usually conscious or unconscious hypocrites, finally become natural and are then really priests without any affectation; or if the father fails to get that far then perhaps the son does so, employing his father’s start and inheriting his habits.  If someone obstinately and for a long time wants to appear something it is in the end hard for him to be anything else.  The profession of almost every man, even that of the artist, begins with hypocrisy, with an imitation from without, with a copying of what is most effective.  He who is always wearing the mask of a friendly countenance must finally acquire a power over benevolent moods without which the impression of friendliness cannot be obtained – and finally these acquire power over him, he is benevolent.  (Friedrich Nietzsche)

When I wrote about masks, and their power of manipulation, it appears I went too far[i]….  The masks we wear, and the roles we play, are not so easily controlled. They can, it seems, bend us to their will.  Can they break us too?

Monday, 13 September 2010

Found You!

Christa T. told me stories about her children; and it struck me that, unlike other mothers, she didn’t notice only the flattering episodes and enjoyable moments: she was incorruptible. A few days before, Anna and her little sister hand in hand had followed a funeral procession and had been stopped only at the last moment from going right up to the graveside.

She was wild with excitement, said Christa T.: I explained to her that only close relatives were allowed to be there when a person is buried. Then she said to me: Oh, please die soon, I want to know how you’re buried!

But then you won’t see me again.

I know, Anna said calmly.

She’s so factual, Christa T. said, without a trace of affectation….

The narrator looks back over a shared past.  She is trying to understand her dead friend; recalling memories, reading her notes and poems; and creating imaginary conversations with mutual acquaintances…. Who was she really?  Can she define her; can she capture Christa T.?

From the very beginning she was different, that was her attraction; detached from everyone else, she was outside the school conventions, the ritual obsequies to her teachers.  It was they who must submit: to her!  She was aloof from everyone; and always so knowing, it was as she’d done it all, already; as if she had travelled to Berlin and all the smart capitals, although she was a local only, living in a village a few miles away.[i] Then suddenly everything changes: walking amongst school friends Christa T. from nowhere blows a trumpet! It is the moment the narrator finds her best friend.

That moment is what the book is about. It is a search for the character who blew that trumpet. Though the search, it seems, is destined to fail: even Christa T. cannot explain herself, for in her notebook she writes of “the difficulty of saying I”.  What chance someone else?

This phrase seems to me a profound truth; and the novel’s attempts to answer it an insight into friendship and our own identity.  What do we know of our friends?  And ourselves: how much do we really understand of our own characters?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Pub Talk

It is May 1929, you’re in a bar in Düsseldorf and a Communist is talking to you.  Ah! Hampstead! (He knows it well having been there to see Karl).  You talk about Goethe and Byron, the flatlands of John Stuart Mill, but, although he likes you, tonight he wants to provoke: all that English liberal sentiment.  Blah!  So he asks your opinion of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; which you know of vaguely, some odd fellow with mobile features…  you mumble away, and tail off, unsure what you’re saying.  He smiles, and nods – he walks arm in arm with History -, and he tells you a little more: the anti-semitism, the thuggery, the hate; the big conspiracies.  And then he says, your Lord Grey was worse than that!  And he talks over your stupefaction, reminding you of the dead on the lord’s hands – how many did he kill?  Your Liberal Party worse than the Nazis!  Can this be true?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Should We Put Countries on the Couch?

Will the Palestinians be saved through therapy?  This is the suggestion of two Frenchmen who, in the contemporary fashion, turn their particular specialism into a metaphysical idea which becomes the way, or so they believe, to understand and save the world (Trauma (I) It Will Save Us).

Reality is a little more mundane:

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Nice to See You

Why write about a film?  To make money, to show off your latest designer jewellery – Marx, Foucault, Lacan –; or do you write to understand, to make sense, of what you have seen?

We all need a living, so the first reason seems acceptable; especially if the reviewer gives an honest account of the film.  The last reason is the most rewarding, both to the writer and the reader; for it has the possibility of giving new depth and meaning to a movie.  The third reason, lets call it the Zizek phenomenon, after its pre-eminent superstar, Slavoj Zizek; seems an almost pointless exercise; the academic as nouveau riche.

Monday, 30 August 2010

(Like) Weeds on the Waves

You knit a long dress.
A mix of mostly greens

One straight tower,
Its bonfire of pleats
To dance around your calves.

So beautiful someone says…
Like the sea walking!

You think of Martello,
And how the weeds jump
Around his sides…

You laugh strangely.
Shall… I knit this sea?


The Conformist

To escape!  Is this what we want, to run away from the household tasks of hard thought and a sensitive conscience?  Is this why so many people not only endure but even like their paid work, even when it does not fulfil, and often aggravates…

To hide from a strange teacher, is that what we want; are we scared of Christa T.?

[as a teacher you] made such impractical demands.  – Just one example: you quoted a phrase to us from a book by some writer or other, I don’t recall who it was.  It was about the half-real and half-imaginary existence of human beings.  It really kept me thinking…  until I began studying….  Until I realized that, for me as a doctor, real existence would have to be enough….

…the essence of health is adaptation or conformity….  To survive… has always been man’s goal and always will be.  This means that at all times conformity is the means of survival: adaptation, conformity at any price.

… But you can’t upset me now as you used to, I’m not under your moralizing thumb any more…  The right thing would have been to focus on the realities themselves as the true standard and to measure your success by the degree of psychological robustness you have given your students to sustain them through life [because realities are always stronger than morality].

What were these realities?  The totalitarian state of East Germany.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Dear Carrie

Some questions may not have an answer….

Trauma (II) In our Fingernails

Railway Spine.  This was the name given to victims of railway accidents in Victorian Britain who suffered trauma.  The symptoms were both psychical and somatic and included mental confusion, blurred vision, and noises in the head.  A surgeon, John Erichsen, who gave this illness its name, believed it had a physical, neurological cause. His ideas were highly successful in convincing judges and juries that the effects of trauma were no different from the effects of other physical accidents; winning many compensation claims against the railway companies.

Thomas Laqueur compares him to Charcot; who also believed that trauma had a neurological basis, though he thought it was due to a congenital weakness within the patient – they had a susceptibility to it. 

Then came Freud.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Is it so unusual,

asks Carrie Etter, for poetry to transverse the boundaries between the experimental and the mainstream?  She is responding to some commentators on the “experimental” side who “struggle” with her “mainstream qualities”.

Yes it is.  For the debate in British poetry between these two wings (on a bungalow, if the truth be told – poetry almost doesn’t exist as an art form in British society) is about something much wider than individual poems and book collections. A style of poetry has become associated with a particular approach to life.  It is about politics. A radical politics that is both aggrieved by the dominant culture and aggressive towards it:

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Trauma (I): It Will Save Us

We love big ideas!  Like Lego we can construct marvellous palaces with our words, indeed whole cities; we can make an empire so extraordinary that even Marco Polo will not be able to describe it.

Take a recent book, The Empire of Trauma by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman.  Even the title tells a tale: of its imperial ambition.  Trauma, once just a psychological illness, has been turned into a metaphysical entity; a grand theory we can use to understand the world and its phenomena.  Like dialectical materialism, or Freud’s unconscious, trauma can now explain not only personal sickness but major political events; it has become the explanation for society’s ills.[I]  It can also cure them.

Monday, 23 August 2010

All by Itself?

Science is catching up with the arts!

We are told artists have ‘never doubted’ that language itself shapes thought; and that now the scientists are beginning to accept this old idea (see Mark Abley’s review of Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, TLS 13/08/2010). However, to support this view we are given some ambiguous reasoning:


History Speaks

I am a member of the Labour Party and Labour Representation Committee, but not uncritical of either. Sometimes I plug events or causes, but this blog is not intended to play a broad ‘noticeboard for the left’ role. All opinions expressed on this website are mine alone and do not represent the stance of any political organisation…

… My comments policy is probably one of the most libertarian found anywhere in the UK political blogosphere, because I believe in freedom of speech and the healthy clash of ideas. (David Osler)

The voice of History. Can you hear it? Those portentous tones, the confidence that everyone will listen (‘not intended to play…’) and the confidence he knows and understands the world (‘my comments policy… one of the most libertarian…'). Yet who is this writer – how many people on the web know of his existence? How many blogs and websites does he actually read?

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Why I Am Not A Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why?  I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.  Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting.  I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says.  I drink; we drink.  I look
up.  "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again.  The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by.  I drop in.  The painting is
finished.  "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me?  One day I am thinking of
a color: orange.  I write a line
about orange.  Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page.  There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life.  Days go by.  It is even in
prose, I am a real poet.  My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet.  It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES.  And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Emily Henochowicz

At the end of an excellent lecture Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now! and a great American, was asked about Henry Kissinger. She described a talk he gave, where afterwards he was questioned about his role in the Indonesian conquest of East Timor. To the first questioner, a Timorese exile, he said, after a long silence, and after turning very red, its great you haven’t smashed this place to pieces! To the next questioner, the extraordinary journalist Allan Nairn, who referred to the official cables that showed Kissinger not only knew of the slaughter (this could be established by looking at the public record), but his anger because his staff had created a paper trail, he shouted, it’s people like you who make diplomacy impossible!

Indonesian troops had bashed in Nairn’s head when he and Amy Goodman were covering a funeral in Dili, which turned into a massacre when troops fired on the mourners. Both reporters, in a place were reporting was illegal, had put on their recording gear and ran out in front of the possession, to put themselves between the mourners and the troops, in the hope that they would not fire on western journalists. The troops rushed passed them, throwing them to the ground. To protect Amy Allan Nairn threw himself on top of her; it was then he was beaten over the head. The soldiers, pointing their rifles at them both, then asked if they were Australian – many years before five Australian journalists were murdered by Indonesian troops on the first day of the East Timor invasion. Australia had protested hardly at all; oil was more important than Australian life. Amy shouted out Americans! We are Americans! This is what saved them – the cost of an American life was too high a price to pay.

But this is not always so.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Let's Take a Break

Should the poet work hard? Current fashions suggest yes, he should: to the office early, and non-stop on the email track until exhausted he slumps home, to sleep under the evening TV; and the adverts that will consume his free weekends.

Do we have any alternative?

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Counting the Words

Can you be an expert in a field you know nothing about?


Real Artifice

Novels are like strangers. We’re a little wary to start with; but are prepared to be polite. A few drinks, a confession or two, we chat for a while, maybe for a whole evening; and we see each other now and then. Sometimes, though, a rather odd one comes along and bang! we’re mates immediately and for life.

Here was a rather ordinary stranger, soon to be forgotten; when…

Monday, 16 August 2010

It is easy for human observers to see the response they want and so to be fooled by the monkeys

It seems frantic haste can affect science too. In the previous post I wrote about the pressure to do more in less time, of Lord Dacre and the authentication of fraud. Now we have this from the Harvard scientist Marc Hauser:

Dr. Hauser reflected on what he had learned from Dr. Marler.

“Only once can I recall Peter giving me an explicit bit of advice, and this is when my impulsivity was getting the best of me,” Dr. Hauser wrote. “Peter kindly told me to slow down, reflect more, and publish less.”

He didn’t listen, and even now he is writing “furiously”, though a letter leaked to the Boston Globe shows that there has been a Harvard investigation into his research results, which has found serious errors and misrepresentations; that may be the result of fabricating evidence or is due to sloppy working methods and record keeping.

The newspaper articles suggest a probable explanation: he wanted to have big new ideas, to work across a number of fields, and he wanted popular appeal (he was going to be the new Steven Pinker). In this he has been very successful…. And thus the urge, surely, to push those ideas just a little further than the facts warrant:

Dr. Terrace said there had been problems for some time with Dr. Hauser’s work.

“First there was arbitrary interpretation of the videotapes to suit the hypothesis,” he said. “The other was whether the data was real. There have been a number of papers using videotape, and all of them have to be reviewed to see if the data holds up.”

Dr. Terrace noted that it was easy for a researcher to see what he wanted in a videotaped animal’s reactions, and that independent observers must check every finding.

The mind has a propensity to go beyond the facts, and make connections that do not exist. It sees what it wants to see…. Intellectual discipline and integrity, and a rigorous academic field, can be the means to stop this tendency. However, the need for fame and glory can jump over these obstacles; seemingly quite easily in this case. Did Harvard play along?

Of course the people who do the serious work remain relatively anonymous:

Dr. Hauser, 50, was trained by two researchers renowned for the rigor of their field work on animal behavior, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney of the University of Pennsylvania. “Marc was our first graduate student,” Dr. Seyfarth said. “But many years ago, we decided that Marc’s way of doing things and ours were not really the same. We just differed about our approach to research.”

It is difficult to have original ideas that are strongly rooted in academic rigour. Often the best work will be small improvements, greater precision and depth in a quite limited field; but not startling epistemological leaps that attract attention outside the subject area. Thus the best work is often done by people who remain unknown to the world outside their discipline. A fate, it appears, that did not appeal to Dr Hauser.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

F*** Dacre!

Nick Davies in Flat Earth News gives a new name to our modern day media: churnalism. The production line manufacture of news, that is often lacking content, is sometimes pure fiction, and is always open to the manipulations of the PR industry, that increasingly supplies many of the stories.

In Pile It On I suggested that the office had now been turned into a factory, with all the usual effects – both on the product and the employee. In Neal Ascherson’s review of a Hugh Trevor-Roper biography we get another glimpse into this new industrial world:

Like Road Signs to Oxford...

Assia is described thus:

..the current Susan Sontag figure in the UK literary scene – without the skunk hair; she was blonde – pulchritude and profundity.

And a daughter speaks …

‘George Steiner is George Steiner-lite, Dad’ Steph observed dispassionately.

The reviewer catalogues the undigested reading (‘Raine proves incapable of suppressing his erudition’); and makes the telling point about the narrowest of the novel’s milieu, Oxbridge academia and its literary offspring, and its aspiration to make universal statements, which turn out to be both banal and pretentious:

Crying has its own rhetoric. We need a poetics of crying. When we cry, we assume spontaneity, sincerity, because it’s a process we cannot control… (quoted from Craig Raine’s Heartbreak in Leo Robson’s review TLS 09/07/2010)

Is this the worst novel in the world?

Monday, 9 August 2010


Lawrence, Were you Listening?

But always to preserve the adventive
Minute, never to destroy the truth
Admit the coarse manipulations of the lie
If only the brown fingers, franking his love
Could once be fixed in art, the immortal
Episode be recorded – there he would awake
On a fine day to shed his acts like scabs…

Men, women, and the nightingales
Are forms of Spring.

The first is from Cavafy, the second from Corinth. The first salvaging something beautiful from the sordidness of cheap sex and poor brothels. The second the eternal resurrection, that is man, art and life… Both can be found in Lawrence Durrell’s Selected Poems, 1935-1963.

The first suggests a mere passive recording, so as too keep and fix one perfect moment; to capture it like a photograph. But is this how artists work?

I Believe in Pavements

He is everywhere. I wear him like perfume! At breakfast with my tea, the TLS on my lap, there he is wafting down, unsettling the pages.

Which pages? you ask.

Oh, its Anthony Kenny’s review of a new Cardinal Newman biography, by John Cornwell (TLS 30/07/2010).

It’s where he quotes Newman, showing how he demolishes a particular argument of Locke’s. His view that to love truth is not to take anything for granted; but to test it rigorously, until you are certain of its foundations. For without this certainty, without this level of evidence, Locke says, you ‘loves not the truth for truth-sake, but for some other by-end.’ Newman, as it happens, quite easily dismisses this:

We laugh to scorn the idea that we had no parents though we have no memory of our birth; that we shall never depart this life, though we can have no experience of the future; that we are able to live without food, though we have never tried; that a world of men did not live before our time, or that that world has no history.

For Newman wanted to show that there were grounds for a belief in God, even though they appeared empirically weak. This argument appears to give some support to this idea.

It seems to me that both Locke and Newman are wrong. If Locke is quoted correctly and in context he reduces all knowledge to a single standard; and conflates this standard with morality. However, there is our workaday world and our intellectual life; the latter much more vigorous and exact. Imagine walking down the road and before each step you required the level of proof needed to substantiate Boyle’s Law. Would you ever leave the house? For in our ordinary lives we live off habit and custom, which are really semi-conscious beliefs.

Newman, if he has not taken Locke out of context, has avoided this distinction between scientific knowledge and our common sense understanding, and he ignores the special quality of the former, which Locke, I assume, wanted to capture: that its foundation is sound reason, based on hard empirical fact (there is, after all, something odd about science). Newman’s favourite argument against Locke, according to Kenny, was that we believe Great Britain is an island on the flimsiest evidence. A layman yes; but a cartographer?

Newman and Locke are almost certainly talking about different kinds of knowledge and insight, where the levels of evidence and argumentation required are substantially different. It is at the serious level of enquiry, of scientific and historical understanding, that the belief in God and Christianity was weakening. If Newman wanted to protect belief at this level he had to counter their arguments and evidence; not use our common sense notions; often wrong and ill-informed. By conflating the two he wins the rhetorical argument, but not the intellectual one. And surely enough later in the review Kenny shows how Newman, in the end, could only successfully appeal to those who already believed.

Yes, yes. But who do you wear like a rich scent? Oh, Mr David Hume.

I Haven't Finished Yet

She steps out

___In front of the canvas

To give me a gift
Of a quiet smile

___For I have seen
___What she doesn’t want me to see

At least not yet.

___Her raw paint,
___The feelings alive still.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Art and Life

The relationship of ideas to the world is a complex one, that it is not clearly understood; though the problem appears to be have been resolved many times; and millions of books have been written about it. Each new generation tends to shift the majority view: in one era it will be ideas that are all important, hardly influenced by the environment; while the next may emphasise the role of economics, or of Neo-Darwinian selection, to determine what we think. And so it goes on! The dialectic proceeds, both between epochs and within them (there is never a monopoly at any one time; there are always counter currents, which can be the source of the next shift, creating a new cluster of dominant ideas).

Hegel’s theory of history may be too abstract and formulaic, but if we limit it to the interplay ideas and reality, and make it more concrete and less systematic, then it does have a lot of plausibility and truth. Each period will have an ideological atmosphere, or climate of opinion, which will predominate; and because of its own shortcomings (which are inevitable), and the changing underlying reality, it will decline and be replaced by another; and so on and so on. And at some point in time there will be a creative revolution, linked to major changes in the environment, which leads to a huge shift in outlook, and the creation of a new theology or paradigm – examples include Christianity, the Reformation, and the first scientific revolution. Of course, how these changes in the world and changes in the ideas are related to each other is the big question, which no one really knows for sure; outside lots of speculative theories and individual insights.

Despite this uncertainty, and the changing fashions of intellectual history, the constancy of the question, at least since the 19th century, does suggest that such a relationship exists. So, whilst we may be unable to conclusively prove the case either way, as the causal factors are unknown - is it ideas? is it the environment? – we can at least work on the assumption of some intimate link between the two. Our task then is to trace some of these connections, which may enrich our understanding, both of the ideas themselves, and the wider world.

Saturday, 7 August 2010


Corporate Anarchy

Are ‘failed states’ so called because they are weak or because they are strong? Do we call them failed states because they failed, to manage themselves, provide for their citizens; or because we failed, to conquer and control them?

In a previous post I wrote about Alex De Waal’s analysis on this subject, particularly of Sudan, and looked at some of the reasons why the West wants to reform these countries:

Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Giant and the Imp

How gullible is the United States?

Britain was called ‘perfidious Albion’, for its propensity to use countries for its own purposes, and betray them when necessary – for example, leaving the Dutch to fight it out against the French at the end of the Spanish Succession War in 1712. Since then it has thus been difficult, for both its enemies and itself, to conceive Britain as innocent or naïve. That doesn’t stop it being one of the good guys; only its self image is that of the clever and sophisticated, a state full of diplomatic nous (which fed into the idea, prominent in the first decades after World War II, that Britain would be Greece to America’s Rome – which itself contains a number of interesting assumptions).

But the United States is different; in every way! Thus we have American writers, and sympathetic overseas intellectuals, treating it as a metaphysical entity, that doesn’t have the same values or operating practices as other nations, and that, unlike them, acts in accordance with its ideals, enshrined in its constitution and destined for universal benevolence. American Exceptionalism, of course. And because it acts with the best of intentions it can be misled, led astray by bad leaders or perfidious friends.

This benevolent view even seeps into critical accounts of the country, or its favoured allies. One example is Jonathan Cook’s recent article on Israel,

Friday, 30 July 2010

Poem 8, from Stone

A body is given me – what am I to make
From this thing that is my own and is unique

Tell me who it is I must thank for giving
The quiet joy of breathing and living?

I am the gardener, the flower as well,
Never alone in the world’s prison cell.

My warmth, my breathing have already lain
Upon eternity’s window pane.

Imprinted on the glass a pattern shows,
But nowadays a pattern no one knows.

Let the dregs of the moment drain away –
The pattern’s loveliness must stay

Cartesian Spectacles

T.S. Eliot was both a great poet and a great critic, and a very clear writer; for me the clarity of a sunny day after the impenetrable winter storms of Joseph Brodsky – that wrecked the landscape; levelled it in mud and slush.

One of his talents was to appreciate different kinds of poetry, and to synthesise this taste into interesting criticism. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he looks at the poetry, but is more interested to trace the development of English literary criticism, linking its growth, in part, to its understanding and appreciation of other writers and poetry. He quotes Dryden:

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


Give Me Some Facts!

The last post exhibited the very characteristics it was criticizing, and in their most extreme form: it said nothing about the historical content of the article; it was concerned only with a discussion about language. So what else did Linda Colley have to say?

The second part of the review, where she concentrates on James Belich’s book, Replenishing the Earth, is the most interesting. It summarizes its key themes, to show the continuing links between Britain and America during the 19th century, the contribution of British troops and money to the expansion of both America and the dominions; and the importance of emigration, for allowing the US to move westwards, and for raising living standards in the home country, and acting as a ‘safety valve for social, economic, demographic and even political pressures.’

…the US operated for much of the 1800s as a covert British dominion, part of the informal empire.

American manifest destiny was partially floated on British investment. Baring helped the US government purchase Greater Louisiana from the French in 1803, while ‘British money was crucial in the construction of American canals in the 1830s, of railways from the late 1840s, and the rapid development of mining industries and cattle ranching thereafter.’

There are a few paragraphs on how the huge migrations affected people’s identities, and their sense of themselves, before looking at some of the consequences of that investment of troops and money overseas:

This relentless outflow of public (and private) capital has to be borne in mind when considering… government expenditure and [contemporary] fiscal theories. As remains the case today, deflecting resources to overseas projects and adventures had sometimes damaging repercussions for policy options at home. By the mid 19th century Hilton notes, Britain’s educational expenditure had fallen well behind that of many other European states.

The major change in the 20th century was the reversal of these population movements, as the empire collapsed. However, the foreign adventures continue; for now Britain is a dominion of the US, part of its informal empire; and its massive projection of power.

And the consequences for the rest of the world? Bricmont, discussing this very question, contrasting our imperial past to now, and showing there are no easy answers in dealing with violence and oppression in today’s Third World (his particular target is Humanitarian Intervention), puts it well:

Back in the days when Europeans “had too many children” it was easy to send them off to populate the rest of the world. Some even saw this as away to avoid social unrest and revolutions, whose repression would obviously have entailed “human rights violations” comparable to those observed in numerous poor countries today. But when the population explosion in the Third World provokes crises, where can they export their excess population? To our countries, of course, but only to do whatever hard labour is needed at the bottom of the social scale.

Bad Names

What we do and how it is described are two different activities. The one is singular – you eat a chorizo burger at 1pm on June 4th at Borough Market – and cannot be repeated. The latter has many forms: we can describe it mundanely, in a piece of art, as a philosophical treatise, in biological terms, to give just a few examples; while these forms can be shaped and edited, almost at will, which we can then repeat and replicate…. The one is a hard solid fact, created by chance and circumstance; the other is subjective, endlessly flexible, and can be shaped both by imagination and rational thought.

Any attempt at description will involve interpretation, editing, and some corruption of the original activity. There is no getting away from this fact! What can we do?

Monday, 26 July 2010

So Simple

All ideas are simplifications. They aim to capture some aspect of the world, by isolating it. The question then becomes: is it too broad an idea, covering so many variables that it doesn’t explain anything; like the word democracy used to represent Ancient Greece, the USA and present day Afghanistan. Or is the idea too narrow, so that it distorts the subject – for example, all art is governed by class relations.

This thought came to mind last weekend when an idea of mine was described as too simple. Why?

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Mr Bell's on Form

We’ve had the squire. Now we have the aesthete:

Still Life with Potatoes

Some descriptions are too accurate.

Bell combined considerable sensitivity with the attitudes of the country squire…. (J.B. Bullen in the introduction to Art)

Your hear rather a lot of the country squire in Art:

Nietzsche’s preposterous nonsense knocked the bottom out of nonsense more preposterous and far more vile. (Bell is writing about the new spirit or new emotion that has created modern art, or more particularly Cézanne, his new Jesus Christ.)

Difficult to know exactly what Bell is referring to, but only a few pages later he comes up with some nonsense of his own:

There are moments in life that are ends to which the whole history of humanity would not be an extravagant means; of such are the moments of aesthetic ecstasy.

Nietzsche’s sophisticated and refined insights, albeit possibly misguided (so much rests on interpretation), about making our lives into works of art, is here turned into a vaudeville show.


County Council, Symphony No. 2. Op. 35

Poor Edward! For some people the way they look replicates the way they think. The mind creates the face! All those thoughts at work fixing its final monument:

…once an idea was lodged in his head, he did nothing with it; he allowed it no interplay with other ideas or people…. Time and again, he tried to mould all-or-nothing answers which came to pieces in his hands before the clay was dry…. He simply lacked the agility of mind and the openness of imagination to play through the ramifications of a theme. He knew what he wanted to happen and he thought that this was enough to make it happen. (Ferdinand Mount)

And he lacked the power – Hitler and Stalin showed us what can be done when fixed ideas are matched with artillery.

Did Heath see ideas as musical notes, fixed and discrete entities which could be arranged at will; that he could play the country as he played the piano? The beauty of machines! But people are far more intractable.

All ideas have a degree of solidity, of fixedness: they are abstractions from the perceptual world. In the realm of philosophy or art there is a certain usefulness, and power, to these abstractions; but once outside these disciplines, amongst our more mundane concerns, these ideas need to interact much more closely to our lived reality; they must be constantly replenished with new experiences, that in turn shape and refine them.

And underneath always there are a person’s values; these are what count, and what determines our actions. For us, but especially for a politician, the question is how can these values be enacted; what ideas will suffice, and how much will they need to adapt and to change to meet our moral concerns. Heath, it seems, worked from the other way round – you create the world from out of your ideas. Here’s Mount:

…he espoused ideas with a passion he scarcely ever showed in human relations.

Ideas first. Life second. How often did we see that in the 20th century? There was something in its very nature that encouraged this – the machine age, bureaucracy; the symbolic and abstracted world of business and the media; and the collapse of the old theologies… here’s a multi-volume intellectual history waiting to be written.

But if the ideas are wrong, or the power is lacking: your piano is carried out of the door. Mozart is verboten in The Oakdale Working Men’s Club.

That fixed, and somewhat bloated, quality (those big ideas – United Europe or the large counties that came out of local authority reform) is reflected in his features, somewhat immovable and stolid. And then we have the aloofness of the mandarin – Heath had the mindset and talent of a high bureaucrat. Those need little compartments, those ordered hierarchies… all too rational.

How Can You Forget?

Pearl Buck. Do you remember her….

She turned the Chinese into American Protestants:

[They were] pragmatic, materialistic, ‘instinctively democratic’…. ‘persevering, ‘practical’, ‘hardworking’.

Her father was a missionary who failed to found a congregation – the review contains a wonderful image of him handing out English language leaflets to passers-by who only knew Mandarin.

His daughter, on the other hand, converted the Americans! Although for her the tract of choice was the best seller.

The two extremes of cultural exchange, both either misunderstand or misrepresent the host culture.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Uncertainty of the Poet

Overloaded with words and sentences. Weak to begin with you see it bend and fold, you watch it slither off the wall. De Chirico lies on the floor! The Death of God scrawled across the white pages of the gallery. The curator, his front teeth gone, shouts triumphant, and shakes his fist at the poet; in pieces amongst the coloured scraps, the ribbons of yesterday’s Art Forum. He has an audience, and he talks and gesticulates about existential choices and the nuclear threat; of Language and Silence. Its God’s last laugh to the mad man raving in the market place…


One of the incidental pleasures of second hand bookshops is the conversation – yours or other peoples.

Monday, 19 July 2010


The Return

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
____Movements, and the slow feet,
____The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
==============and half-turn back;
These were the ‘Wing’d-with-Awe’,

Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
______________sniffing the trace of air!

Haie! Haie!
_____These were the swift to harry;
These were the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.

Slow on the leash,
______________pallid the leash-men!

Short Sighted

We talk and argue, sometimes we write, often we blog; but always we act as if our ideas were universal. That we can see the whole world from our living room, rather than just a mean little garden with its poor gate.

In the last post I talked about work. Following the usual pattern I made some assumptions about its nature, assuming them to apply to everyone. I then argued that we need to change the nature of this work, to make it more creative and stimulating.

Is this really the case? G.S. Fraser, in his short study on Ezra Pound, and paraphrasing the ideas of Hannah Arendt, has a different view:

Labour must always be the condition of the broad mass of men… in daily labour, the labouring man exhausts himself, and temporarily renews himself and us; he provides himself and us with, say, coal, bread, transport, milk, heat, light, water. Man as animal laborans produces no permanent memorial of himself; he produces what he, and we daily consume in order to keep ourselves alive; daily, he exhausts himself, renews himself, dies and is reborn, according toe natural rhythms of life…. he works… because he must eat, not for the work’s sake; often he likes monotonous work that lets him daydream.

Although Arendt believed that man was not “fully human” until he rose “above [this] condition.”

Fraser then goes on to give Arendt’s three other categories of activity: making (artist/craftsman); acting (politician/soldier); and contemplation (the priest).

Am I merely stating the artist or craftsman’s point of view? This seems possible, though Arendt’s dismissal of the Labourer (he must rise above it) suggests she believed more, if not all, of the population were capable of achieving work that gives satisfaction.

The dilemma of the idealist, or political reformer: how far can you change human behaviour, through a transformation of the culture, or how much do you give in to present facts, to today’s conditions. This will depend on each person’s personality, but maybe we should always err on the side of optimism – to give us the strength to strive to change our circumstances. After all, what would an English peasant in the 14th century have said, if you told him that in the future his kin would have hot running water, old age pensions, and holidays on the continent?