Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Pessimism of the Poet

“That simultaneously discredited and privileged being we call a poet goes among men with a profound sense of sadness. As soon as he opens his eyes to the light of the sun he looks around for something to admire; he sees nature ever young and beautiful and is overwhelmed with divine ecstasy and inexpressible rapture; but soon inert creation ceases to satisfy him. The true poet is passionately drawn to God and God’s works; but it’s in himself and in his like that he sees the flame of eternal light burning for him most distinctly and most completely. He wants to find it there unadulterated and to worship God in man as a sacred flame on a spotless altar. His soul yearns, his arms open wide; so great is his need for love he would willingly tear open his breast if it would allow every object of his deep desire and his chaste affection to become part of him; but his clear eye, his searching gaze can’t fail to discern human baseness and the work of centuries of corruption. It pierces the outer covering and sees sham souls in magnificent bodies, hearts of clay in marble and gold statues. Then he grieves, rebels, complains and remonstrates. The heavens that granted him this penetrating vision endowed him too with a deep, resounding voice, both for lamentation and for thanksgiving, for prayer and for threats, which imprudently betrays the extent of his anguish. The world’s shortcoming draw from him cries of distress; the spectacle of hypocrisy burns his eyes with red-hot irons; the sufferings of the oppressed stimulate his courage, audacious sympathies seethe in his breast. The poet raises up his voice and tells men truths they would rather not hear.”
(George Sand, Lettres D'un Voyageur)

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Keep It Strange

Jang Seung-up is an egoist. He is humble too; with those who share his sensibility. Not so our modern commentators. Unwilling to do the necessary work they condemn what they do not understand. Ignorance and laziness. What a lovely couple! Together they conceive an unfortunate little beast; there he is now: screaming and crying, and demanding… Concise summaries! Obvious symbols!

Friday, 11 December 2015

The Rabbi and His Grandchild

Dried fruit. Ripe fruit. An apple ready to fall... 

Her red cheeks; her fleshy nose; her hair smooth, richly brown and thick. Those gorgeous lips: they are a flower blossoming out to be kissed. 

A spring sun rises out of a pale winter. 

This old man. The years have withered him. Only the outlines of a personality are left. He is a type; a painterly artefact; a tree after the autumn wind. 

The living person. A stylised image. Textures of ages. 

This girl overflows with the riches of youth. Suspicious of her wealth, she watches it seep into her grandfather’s fingers; spread along his poor palm…

In a house of many rooms only one has a radiator.

And his life? Breath in a cold cave. The face frozen into caricature, his beard a bush of stalactites, here is a rabbi fixed for all eternity.

A flag blows in the wind.

Only the hand is alive. Bye! bye! it will wave to its grandchild, when she runs out to play with friends and kiss the boys.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Exquisite Loneliness

Would a bureaucrat give up his wealth, an attractive lover and a fine house to look for the maker of a beautiful object? To sacrifice himself for a vase? To stare into the kiln, and watch as the fire makes it… It is the final scene; one that suggests the allusiveness of the artistic spirit.

Artists. What makes them so odd, so different?

A few details might help us.

Jang Seung-up - known as Ohwon - is a real life genius.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A Young Poet Takes His Exam

Sentimentality is the great danger to art. It replaces the complex flow of feeling with an idea that being too simple is static and vapid. Ideas must be alive. In philosophy vitality comes from insight and argument; which can enliven even the clumsiest of prose styles. With art it is more indirect; ideas live in concrete forms - in characters, in situations, in the overall pattern of a poem or play - and they gain their vitality from the indirectness and vagueness of their presentation: the more we have to undress the character to see the idea underneath the stronger we will feel it. The risk is always that the artist will be a dealer in secondhand ideas; ones acquired without thought or analytic penetration. Great and original thought is thought itself, not the ideas it generates; the outcome less important than the process. Think of a great thinker. Think of David Hume. The arguments between his full stops the flower pots where I grow my own roses and weeds.1 

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Out there, where the frontiers end, roads are erased. Where silence begins. I go forward slowly and I people the night with stars, with speech, with the breathing of distant water waiting for me where the dawn appears.

I invent evening, night, the next day rising from its bed of stone, the clear eyes of that day running across a world painfully dreamt. I sustain tree, cloud, rock, sea, the joy foreseen, inventions that vanish and hesitate before the light dispersed.

And then, the arid mountain, the adobe village, acute small reality of a puddle and one stolid peppertree, of some idiot children who stone me, a rancorous people which denounces me. I invent terror, hope, noon - father of solar frenzy, of glittering fallacies, of women who castrate their men of the hour.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Silent Sacrifice

And afterwards: nothing. Elizabeth Vogler is silent. Into that silence flows Alma’s words. Alma talks and talks and talks until…there is nothing left but groans and grunts and a terrible hammering on the table. That silence: it is a large pit at the bottom of the garden.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Beware the Butterfly

Help!  Expert wanted!  These characters are strange. Their behaviour is foreign. It is alien, both in space and in time; especially in time - this is a pre-modern society, where mores are determined by cultural codes whose meaning we find odd and incomprehensible. We guess at things. We stumble. We make things up. Our thoughts wander into the woods and are lost.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Difficult Lessons

In most mainstream films - think of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut - lesbian sex is safe. A straight man’s fantasy, it is done so softly so as to emphasise the feminine nature of the protagonists. So genteel; like afternoon tea amongst the lace and porcelain of Lavinia’s café in Chipping Camden; we’ll have a slice of Victoria Sponge and a pot of Lady Grey, please; oh, the tongs for the sugar appears to be missing. Thank you, you are very kind. Watching such films we forget: women are animals. They too like to rut without thought or consequence.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Pop Art

Steven Shorter behaves like a robot. This makes him odd. It sets him apart. Every other character is recognisably human; the one possible exception is Vanessa Ritchie; she can be as gauche as the star she has been commissioned to paint. It is meant to be like this. An artist is an alien presence. Born to give meaning to the world, to do so she must remain  forever detached from it. Thus Vanessa refuses to marry Steven. She needs her solitude. To make a puzzle out of her life, to truly understand what she encounters, the artist must recreate it within the privacy of her own personality. To marry a celebrity would destroy such detachment; too many people would now live inside her.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Large Interior

Is it sliding away? Is it holding on? We feel the tension of a runaway right angle.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Aesthetic Maladies

Jonathan Gibbs. He’s so fast.  He never slows down. One thought follows another, and another and another until - swish swish - he’s on the second lap; overtaking the first bunch which he now leaves far behind.  We are left breathless and exhilarated. 

The flag falls. It is over so quickly! And we are lost to excitement and confusion. The stadium empties; we sit and compose ourselves alone amongst the silent seats; our thoughts slowly settling like the dust on the racetrack. Coolly we relive the race; slow it down, freeze frame it section by section; thinking about each one as we go. Raymond Tallis. Jonathan Gibbs. They are, we come to realise, talking past each other - we recall that rough swerve that dodged an elegant but too stately chariot. Tallis driving after our sense of aesthetic form; Gibbs carried along on hyperactive feelings; no wonder he came first. But as our thoughts return to the starting flag we begin to believe that both have entered the wrong race…both, it seems, have confused the artist with the audience. The guard shouts to us.  It is late. It is time to go, mate.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Cartoon Concepts

I pull out Black Unity. Inside there is a photograph of Pharaoh Saunders, majestic with his afro hair and mandarin profile. I look at this photograph and I try to see what Richard Seymour sees.  

I’m on the sofa listening to the two basses, hippie percussion, Pharaoh’s saxophone, and that lazy trumpet line; then the two basses again, and a reference to A Love Supreme. I look at the photograph. But nothing comes to me. I try so hard, but I do not see what Richard Seymour sees.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

And yet: Petra is at her most beautiful when she collapses…

An artist. She floats on the wreckage of a sunken love affair.

A fragile fairy tale. It collapses; her mind in fragments; her life a tearful cataract.

She is an artist creating beauty out of loss.

An artist. She must destroy her world; only then can she invent a paradise.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

A Broken Fairy Tale

A writer of genius borrows the mind of a social scientist. We watch with incredulity as a rich heiress buys her knickers at Primark.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Dangerous Fantasies

We imagine a door. On that door two names are written: Tarabas by Joseph Roth. The door opens. A man walks out, he looks like a character from Dostoevsky.  We hear him speak, and are sure that we have met him before; scurrying through the pages of The Idiot. This man’s mind is populated by pixies and dwarves; it is saturated with mystical signs and personal portents; it believes in fate; convinced that its owner is foredoomed to be both saint and murderer. The book is even set in Russia, at a time the country itself was suffering a mental breakdown. 

Yet there is a crucial difference between Roth and his Russian compadre. In Tarabas, as in nearly all of Roth’s books, the hero (or more accurately: anti-hero) is situated within a community; Tarabas forming part of ensemble which, although described lightly, is caught with miraculous fullness. We therefore recognise this hero as a powerful and complete human being; he is not some moral imbecile or a mad tyrant but a mature product of all the influences that surround him. This man is human; albeit he is qualitatively different from any of his colleagues: more extreme, more aloof, more capable of cruelty and self-sacrifice than anyone else. But: Tarabas is no superman. Like all the other characters in this novel he submits to forces more powerful than himself.  We watch how the world affects him. We see how peace and the rise of the new nationalisms quickly restrict his freedom; taking away not only his power but the honour and recklessness of his life as a frontline officer.  When the war ends he, like all the other soldiers, is forced to bow down to the bureaucrats.  The clerks are in charge now.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Strange Dreams

Led Zeppelin were playing when we walked in. Nothing has changed! Thirty years and I return to the music of my youth. I look around, and recognise the same faces, the same clothes, the same casual eagerness; and yes, that same easy confidence is still there. Nothing has altered. Only the accents are a little more homogenous than before. All the differences belong to me. The most obvious is the most terrifying - I look into the mirror of these pretty faces to see the uglinesses of age. I panic.  A friend tries to calm be down. It is no use. I stupidly ask for a black marker and an eraser… Gently she tells me what a fool I am.  Time, she says, is not a badly written exercise we can rub out and start again.  So wise. I do not listen; of course I do not. I am crying on the floor when an old couple walks past. Glory be to God Almighty!  I get up. Wave.  And blow kisses in their direction. My friend pulls me down with her gentle sardonic smile.

A university is an Eden, where adolescence lives on for all eternity. Time has actually stopped on this campus; around about 1974, is what I roughly calculate, based on this brief visit. My friends certainly felt it. Tonight we have come to enjoy a few hours of nostalgia. Though we need to keep our irony close at hand - for should we really be feeling sentimental about a bunch of perverts and sexual predators? But we cannot help it.  What a joy it is!  For time civilises all things; turning a once aggressively avant-garde play into a homely period piece that even grandma can watch. The 1970s. What days they were!  A decade when transgression was as innocent as an episode of Blue Peter.1

As a teenager I thought about literature only through the filter of politics. Insensitive to the shades of meaning that exist between the words - literature evokes meaning it doesn't denote it, a lesson it took me a decade at least to learn - I needed some big ideas to take the place of these invisible mysteries. Politics was the perfect helpmeet and substitute. A child of the times, I grew up in a decade still experiencing the excitement of political evangelicalism, I therefore had plenty of help around. The radicals only too willing to tell me that artists are the fools of Capitalism and the servants of the exploiting classes.2 It seemed so exciting back then. We could be rebels.  And at virtually no cost. It was so much fun. And we were so righteous! Because of course we were on the side of the Good and the Just. We knew that we were right. Knowledge and Reason were our allies. Anybody who stood against us was without question stupid, ignorant and silly; or worse: we suspected that most of our enemies were covert Nazis; their liberalism undoubtedly a sham. It was all so easy. We were going to change the world with our words. Well, not quite our’s exactly; Marx’s, Gramsci’s, Althusser’s…3

Tonight, as I listen to Led Zeppelin, I return to these times, and I wonder: could I really have been such a klutz.  Did I really think all that

When the song ends I have my answer….

Wednesday, 25 February 2015


We need to put this film into more comprehensible terms.  A girl reaches puberty and has her first period.  At the same time a band of travelling players enters her home town. They are joined by a group of missionaries.  Both will entertain the inhabitants for a week. There are to be many stories, much licentious behaviour, some sermons and plenty of ascetic bloodletting. The burning of witches is set to be the highlight of these seven tumultuous days. Put into such workaday prose the picture is clear: the Lord of Misrule has come to this medieval town.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Friday, 13 February 2015

Wake Me Up!

I’m falling asleep.  Not work. Not the company of bores. Not even the after-effects of an opening night in bed with a beautiful woman. No. The usual culprits are not to blame. It is art, yes, the very thing that should be keeping me awake, who is today’s criminal.  To be more precise: it is this film, The Colour of Pomegranates, that is guilty of this most serious of crimes.  It is too rich.  We eat a king’s meal of thirteen courses, and the belly wears the crown. My poor mind! Smothered with snoozes, it is reduced to dreaming for this obese master. Such a terrible servitude. My stomach rules my imagination. I am satiated with imagery.  

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Self-Portrait with Aureole

The rough jabs of a craftsman’s knife carves out some simple elegancies. A refined person. A saint. The face of a gentlemen climbing out of a peasant’s head.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

France: A Forgotten History

The summer of 1914 found the Moulin family following their usual programme, setting out on the train to Avignon to spend two months in their house in St Andiol. The newspapers were reporting the trial in Paris of Madame Caillaux, wife of a former prime minister Joseph Caillaux who was both a powerful ally of the Radical Party and an ally of the socialist and anti-militarist leader, Jean Jaurès. Earlier in the year the editor of Le Figaro, hoping to discredit Caillaux who was considered to be insufficiently bellicose, threatened to publish letters exchanged between him and his current wife before he had divorced his first wife. The minister’s wife, Henrietta, dealt with this matter by calling on the editor in his office and shooting him dead. She was acquitted of murder by an assize jury on 28 July, a verdict which was applauded by radicals all over France, and one which may help explain why France has never acquired a gutter press worthy of the name.


The German arrival had been expected for two days. The last French unit based in Chartres, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Motorised Dragoons, which had been covering the French retreat, had been ordered to withdraw at midnight, after which nothing stood between the city and the enemy except scattered detachments from the 26th Regiment of Senegalese Sharpshooters. The tendency of colonial troops to stand their ground and fight, with or without their officers, causing considerable German casualties, had infuriated General Koch-Erpach and when soldiers of the 8th Division of the Wehrmacht captured Senegalese soldiers in the Eure-et-Loir they shot them out of hand. There had been a battle between Senegalese stragglers and men of the 8th Division outside Chartres on 16 June, at the end of which the Germans shot 165 Senegalese prisoners, and stripped the bodies of their name tags. A further fifty Senegalese were rounded up and shot near Chartainvilliers, ten kilometres north-east of Chartres.

These infantrymen, speaking little French and abandoned by their officers, usually recruited from Muslim or animist villages in the West African bush, were the last French soldiers to die in defence of the spiritual centre of Christian France.


In both zones there was an extreme sense of unreality. So, in Bron, a suburb of Lyon, in the Vinatier mental hospital, during the occupation, 2,000 out of 2,890 patients were allowed to die of exposure and starvation. Eight hundred died in the first twenty-nine months between July 1940 and November 1942, and 1,200 in the following twenty-two months. During this period the psychiatrists who continued to supervise their patients noted that their daily calorie level had dropped by forty-four per cent, and used the daily ward rounds to gather data for theses which bore titles such as ‘The delirium of want’. Symptoms of this condition included eating the bark of trees in the hospital grounds, eating faecal matter and drinking urine, habits which had not previously been observed at Vinatier. Starvation was now treated as a novel form of mental illness. What was significant about this situation was not the shortage of food in the hospital of Lyon - there was a general and serious food shortage throughout the city for most of the war - but the reaction of the psychiatrists, who attempted to explain away the fact that their patients were starving to death by means of a bland professional formula. (Patrick Marnham, The Death of Jean Moulin: Biography of a Ghost)

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Even Bad Books….

…contain good things.

On a winter evening amidst a driving snowstorm a man on horseback arrived at an inn, happy to have reached a shelter after hours of riding over the wind-swept plain on which the blanket of snow had covered all paths and landmarks. The landlord who came to the door viewed the stranger with surprise and asked him whence he came. The man pointed in the direction straight away from the inn, whereupon the landlord, in a tone of awe and wonder, said, ‘Do you know that you have ridden across the Lake of Constance?’ At which the rider dropped stone dead at his feet.

This is the legend that Kurt Koffka, the German Gestalt psychologist, uses to demonstrate the difference between two different modes of reality - that which exists in nature, and that which exists inside a person’s head.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Critic as Clerk: An Update

The piece is so long.  With enough space between the words it would make a small book; one imagines Zone Books publishing it.  So long.  And I was lazy.  I rushed to post...

...but it was only a draft.

Later I felt guilty.  Then there was Xmas.  I was, I realised, giving away shoddy goods. So I rewrote it, and added a great deal of new material.

Finished at last.  My Critic as Clerk is ready to meet the world.

Because the piece is very long, and because it has a complicated and confusing structure - there are far too many nested footnotes -, I have made a PDF version. It is available on request.