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Mar 14, 2011
Mar 14, 2011
The Glass Canoe
I sit in the public bar of the Story Bridge and I look into my glass canoe, and this is what I see. It's a Coopers Pale Ale, draught fr...more The Glass Canoe
I sit in the public bar of the Story Bridge and I look into my glass canoe, and this is what I see. It's a Coopers Pale Ale, draught from the tap, cold, and it's cloudy, but fine. I lift my glass and bring it back down on the bar, and I watch the sediment spread up the middle of the glass and start to fall again. It's a Sunday, and the old timers' jazz band stops, thank heavens, and I see two women leave the bar and walk into the carpark. One of them is wearing a fur coat, blonde hair, bob, she looks too good for the Bridge. Richie keeps an eye on my pot, while I head out into the carpark. "You don't come here often," I say. She laughs. "That's the first time I've heard that line...how could you tell?" "I come here often and I've never seen you before...not that I wasn't looking." Later that night in bed, Wen tells me she's a futures dealer. "How are you going to deal with my future then?" She looks me up and down professionally. "Sorry, I can't give you financial advice, until I determine your risk profile." "That's easy," I say, "It's high." "Good," she replies, "So is mine." I think for the briefest of introspective moments. "So what have I got to do to establish a relationship?" She laughs. "Well, for a start, you could make a deposit into my trust account." I slide back between her arms in a bid to comply.
(view spoiler)[Post-Modern Spoiler (Utilising Second Person Narrative Mode)
I wake at 6:00am and it's still dark. Damn, it's a public holiday and I don't need to go to work. I could have got a bit more shut-eye. I reach over to your side of the bed. You're not there, but there's a handwritten note on your pillow. "Gone to gym, back at 7:30, if you'd fancy breakfast afterwards." I doze on until 7:00, when I feel the bed sheets being pressed tightly against my chest and throat. It's still dark. I suspect you're being playful, but it's starting to hurt. My grin dissipates as my eyes finally flicker open, and I see someone who is not you. I exclaim, "Judge!" He holds the sheets tighter. Then he shouts, "What the fuck are you doing in my wife's bed?" Um, um, words fail me. I'm sure he won't believe me if I say I was cleaning the windows and I suddenly got really tired. He knows I'm a defence counsel. "Get out, Graye." "I'm sorry, Judge. I didn't know..." "On your bike." "Um, I didn't ride here." He doesn't find this amusing. I can't see my clothes. They're gone. "Well, you're going to have to run home then, aren't you? Butt naked." I look at my watch. Half an hour of darkness left. I could get home, before anybody else is on the road, it being a public holiday. I catch the lift down to ground floor, fortunately nobody sees me. Then in the lobby, I notice a gold Mercedes Convertible sitting in the driveway with the passenger's seat open, facing the entry. How am I going to get past without noticing? I decide the only answer is, quickly. And I start to run, genitalia swinging like dried chillis in the wind. You attract my attention from the driver's seat. You're laughing. My clothes are sitting neatly folded in the passenger's seat. "Get in and get decent. I've got a table booked at Piaf." Confused, I ask, "What about the Judge...I mean your husband?" "Haha, is that what he said? Steve's not my husband, he's my neighbour. But he can be helpful when I need him. He has such an authoritative air, don't you think?" I look at you again. You still look amused. Your hair is beautiful. I feel like Eggs Benedict. I might even have a Bloody Mary. It's too early to go back to the Story Bridge for a beer. (hide spoiler)]
Part of the mural at Piaf Restaurant, South Bank, Brisbane
David Ireland's "The Glass Canoe" [Unburied]
"And now and then, as they drank deeply, they saw in the bottom of the glass, not the face of the man they knew, but the monster within that was waiting and all too willing to be released."
"I went to the bar to get us a small fleet of glass canoes to take us where we wanted to go. I thought of the tribes across Australia, each with its own waterhole, its patch of bar, its standing space, its beloved territory. It was a great life."
Thank You, Nathan
This short story is only a few pages long and is freely available from the New Yorker website:
Nathan brought it to my attention and effectively challenged me to write a suitable response.
In the meantime, Praj and Lit Bug had already done wonderful responses (which I managed to read only after I had written my own).
I encourage you to read Coover's story and respond in your own idiosyncratic way.
And when you've done that, don't forget that the man who was capable of such a wonderful story already has a substantial legacy of intelligent, imaginative, playful and humorous works available for our delectation.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Notes are private!
Oct 09, 2013
Oct 09, 2013
Oct 08, 2013
Aug 19, 2013
Aug 19, 2013
What a delight!
But first, a disclosure: one of the authors of this collection of short stories is a close and valued GoodReads friend who ha...more Disclosure
What a delight!
But first, a disclosure: one of the authors of this collection of short stories is a close and valued GoodReads friend who has transitioned to the same status in real life. The other is possibly her closest life-long friend, so I feel as if this is a book written by two close friends, even though I don’t know the second author.
I paid for my digital copy, but was also gifted a digital copy. Go figure. Anyway this is my disclosure.
Stranded on My Own
I entered this book with as few preconceptions as I could muster. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I sat down to read and review it as if I did not know either author.
There are sixteen stories in this collection (despite the title), shared between the two authors.
I don’t want to differentiate between the work of the two authors. What is important is that they have weaved their creativity together like a two-stranded rope. Each strand might have been strong, but the two together are stronger.
They are also highly compatible in both subject matter and style.
The Introduction states that the tales "arose from photographs that sparked the authors’ imagination".
That might well be true, but in no way does it limit the ambition of the stories.
The initial impression of the collection is very realistic. Raymond Carver came to mind. So too in the Australian context, Peter Carey and Tim Winton.
The stories were all highly grounded, some in an Australian landscape, some in an American one.
However, bit by bit, you realise that the photos and the style are just the starting point of the adventure contained in each story.
They are the feet, and as you read on, as you survey the rest of the body, working upwards, you encounter the reactionary gut and then ultimately the rest of the mind, and in that mind lies expectation, ambition, hope, desire, love, disappointment, bewilderment.
The less grounded, the more mindful we become, but the mind is not a simple organ, it can look, gaze, embrace, imagine, dream, aspire, desire, plan, cheat, fabricate, hallucinate, panic, fear and delude itself.
I’m not necessarily thinking of alcohol or drugs or unreliable narration.
It’s as simple as what human relationships do to each participant. A relationship is something intangible between two tangible organisms. A lot can go wrong in the ether between them. It doesn’t matter whether they’re family or friends or lovers. The same forces seem to be at work.
This collection is concerned about what happens in the ether above ground level, in and between the minds of people like us, who appear to be grounded, but who in fact might just be a little unsound, living as we do in a world that is ruled over by blackbirds, a world that seems to have become a little Kafkaesque (if you don't mind me mixing my animalian metaphors).
Noble Accents and Lucid Rhythms
In the words of Wallace Stevens (from whose poem the title is derived), the authors know and write about the "noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms" of real life.
Which author is better, who do I prefer? I can’t say and it doesn’t matter. It’s one strand of rope, and the rope holds tight.
Perhaps, I should resort to Wallace Stevens again:
"I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after."
What's important is that in these tales, you will find both. But ultimately, either way, what you will find is beauty.
The Beatles – "Blackbird"
Crosby, Stills & Nash - "Black Bird (Live)"
Bettie Serveert – "Unsound"
Bettie Serveert – "Dreamaniacs"
Bettie Serveert – "You've Changed"
Notes are private!
Oct 11, 2013
Oct 11, 2013
Aug 26, 2013
Apr 29, 2003
I Never Met a Physician Who Wasn’t Descended from a Greek
This might just be the work that put the "meta-" (at least the "metafiction") in "metaphysics...more I Never Met a Physician Who Wasn’t Descended from a Greek
This might just be the work that put the "meta-" (at least the "metafiction") in "metaphysics".
Plato’s name is attached to it, but its principal focus is Socrates. And guess what? Socrates doesn’t so much elaborate on his own views as (1) recount the views of others (especially those of the female philosopher Diotima) and (2) indirectly reveal his views by his conduct and his responses to the views of others (especially the taunts of Alcibiades).
Even the concept of "Platonic Love" could possibly be more accurately attributed to Socrates, but more likely to Diotima.
In fact, I wonder whether this work proves that the Greek understanding of Love (as we comprehend it) actually owes more to women than men.
The Epismetology of the Word "Symposium"
Despite being familiar with the word for decades, I had no idea that "symposium" more or less literally means a "drinking party" or "to drink together".
In Socrates’ time, it was like a toga party for philosophers.
It’s great that this learned tradition was reinvigorated by Pomona College in 1953. How appropriate that Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruitful abundance. Of course, many of us will remember our first experience of a toga party from the film "Animal House".
More recently, perhaps in tribute to the film, the concept has transformed into a "frat party" (notice the derivation from the masculine word "fraternity"), which Urban Dictionary defines in its own inimitable way:
"A sausage fest with douchebag frat boys who let a lot of girls in and hardly any guys so they can slip date rape drugs into the girls’ drinks and have sex with them because obviously they can't rely on their charm."
If you substitute philosophers for frat boys, young boys for young girls, and wine and mead for date rape drugs, then you have the recipe for "The Symposium".
I should mention one other aspect of the plot (sorry about the spoiler, but the work is 2,400 years old today, so you've had enough time to catch up), and that is that Socrates appears to have attended two symposia over the course of two consecutive days.
In those days, future philosophers were counselled to embrace alternating alcohol-free days.
In breach of this medical advice, Socrates and his confreres turn up to this Symposium hung-over from the previous night. As a result, there was more talking than drinking.
If this had just been your run-of-the-mill Saturday Night Live Symposium, it’s quite possible that the legacy of this particular night might never have eventuated. Instead, we have inherited a tradition of Greek Love, Platonic Love, Socratic Method and Alcohol-Free Tutorials.
An Artist in Comedy as Well as Tragedy
One last distraction before I get down to Love:
It has always puzzled readers that "The Symposium" ends with a distinct change of tone as the feathered cocks begin to crow and the sun rises on our slumber party:
"Aristodemus was only half awake, and he did not hear the beginning of the discourse; the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also."
Researchers at the University of Adelaide now speculate that what Socrates was saying was, "When you’re pissed, nobody can tell whether you’re serious or joking."
There is still some contention as to whether Socrates was referring to the inebriation of the artist or the audience.
Anyway, it remains for us to determine how serious this Socratic Dialogue on Love should be taken.
Togas on? Hey, Ho! Let’s go!
The Mocking Socrates’ Easy Touch
OK, so the tale starts with Apollodorus telling a companion a story that he had heard from Aristodemus (who had once before narrated it to Glaucon, who had in turn mentioned it to the companion – are you with me?).
The tale concerns a Symposium at the House of Agathon. On the way, Socrates drops "behind in a fit of abstraction" (this is before the days of Empiricism) and retires "into the portico of the neighbouring house", from which initially "he will not stir".
When he finally arrives, he is too hung-over to drink or talk, so he wonders whether "wisdom could be infused by touch, out of the fuller into the emptier man, as water runs through wool out of a fuller cup into an emptier one."
Addressing his host, he adds, "If that were so, how greatly should I value the privilege of reclining at your side!"
As often seems to be the fate of flirts, Agathon rebuffs him, "You are mocking, Socrates."
Instead, it is agreed that each of the attendees will regale the withered assembly with their views on Love.
Phaedrus (on Reciprocity)
Phaedrus speaks of the reciprocity of Love and how it creates a state of honour between Lover and Beloved. A state or army consisting of lovers whose wish was to emulate each other would abstain from dishonor, become inspired heroes, equal to the bravest, and overcome the world.
Phaedrus also asserts that the gods admire, honour and value the return of love by the Beloved to his Lover, at least in a human sense, more than the love shown by the Lover for the Beloved.
Paradoxically, this is because the love shown by the Lover is "more divine, because he is inspired by God".
I had to have an alcohol-free day before I understood this subtle distinction, so don’t worry if you’re having trouble keeping up.
Pausanius (on the Heavenly and the Common)
Pausanius argues that there are two types of Love that need to be analysed: the common and the heavenly (or the divine).
The "common" is wanton, has no discrimination, "is apt to be of women as well as youths, and is of the body rather than of the soul".
In contrast, heavenly love is of youths:
"...they love not boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow…and in choosing young men to be their companions, they mean to be faithful to them, and pass their whole life in company with them."
This love is disinterested (it is not "done from any motive of interest, or wish for office or power") and involves both honourable attachment and virtuous service.
Eryximachus (on the Healthy and the Diseased)
Eryximachus, a physician, defines Love in terms of both the soul and the body.
He distinguishes two kinds of love: the desire of the healthy and the desire of the diseased. These two are opposites, and the role of the physician is to harmonise or "reconcile the most hostile elements in the constitution", by analogy with music, which is an "art of communion".
Aristophanes (on "The Origin of Love")
Aristophanes explains the origin of the gender and sexuality of mankind in terms of three beings, one of which was a double-male (now separated into homosexual men), one a double female (now separated into homosexual women) and the third an androgynous double (now separated into heterosexual male and female) by Zeus:
"...the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment ...human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love."
Agathon (on Beauty)
Agathon praises the god of love first and then his gift. Love in the form of Temperance is the master of pleasures and desires. It "empties men of disaffection and fills them with affection." Love is concerned with Beauty.
Socrates (on Good)
Socrates approaches the topic of Love by asking questions, for example, "whether Love is the Love of something or nothing?"
Socrates elicits the answer that Love wants Beauty and in doing so it wants what is Good.
He then quotes Diotima extensively.
The Pizmotality of Diotima
Diotima, by a process that we would now call the Socratic Method, leads Socrates to the conclusion that Love is the love of the "everlasting possession of the Good". We seek Good, so that we can maintain it eternally. "Love is of immortality."
Because Man is mortal, our way of achieving eternity or immortality of possession is the generation or birth of Beauty.
We achieve immortality by way of fame and offspring.
Diotima argues that Beauty applies to both the soul and the body. However, the "Beauty of the Mind is more honourable than the Beauty of the outward Form."
She advocates the contemplation of "Beauty Absolute":
"...a Beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible – you only want to look at them and to be with them…[you would not be] clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life..."
Socrates does not reveal how else Diotima tutored him in the art and science of Love or whether she herself was a Beauty Absolute whose appeal was greater than that of boys and youths.
Alciabades (on Indifference)
At this point, the younger Alciabades speaks. He is equal parts frat and prat, he is evidently "in love" with Socrates, and seems intent on complaining that Socrates has resisted his sexual advances. Even though Alciabades had slept a night with "this wonderful monster in my arms... he was so superior to my solicitations...I arose as from the couch of a father or an elder brother."
It is clear that Socrates has no affection for the mind of Alciabades, no matter what he might think of his body. He teases him by proposing that Socrates and Agathon share a couch for the night.
The Pompatus of Love
And that's how it ends, but for the discussion of Comedy and Tragedy.
If this had been a PowerPoint Presentation, Socrates, Plato and I would have told you what we were going to say, then say it, and end by telling you what we had just said.
But because this work is pre-Microsoft, I will end this disquisition here, largely because I want to read Plato’s complementary work on Love, "Phaedrus", and see what more he has to say about Socrates, this mentor of frat boys who was so much more than a picker, a grinner, a lover and a sinner.
Only then will I be able to speak more definitively of the Pompatus of Love.
The Object of Love
[According to Aristophanes]
I would love
To find One,
So we could
Each love one
Steve Miller Band – "The Joker"
Hedwig and the Angry Inch - "The Origin of Love"
Scroll to 3:57 for video:
Hedwig and the Angry Inch - "The Origin of Love"
John Cameron Mitchell on "The Origin of Love"
Carol Zou - Animation of "The Origin of Love"
StickdudeSeven - Animation of "The Origin of Love"
FoxmanProductions - Animation of "The Origin of Love"
Jinkx Monsoon - "The Origin of Love" [Live with cocktail glass]
Starts at 2:50 (but the intro is fun):
Jinkx Monsoon - "The Origin of Love" [Live at the 2013 Capital Pride Festival]
Rufus Wainwright - "The Origin of Love"
Robyn Hitchcock - "Intricate Thing"
The Velvet Undergound & Nico - "Femme Fatale"
Lou Reed - Sweet Jane (Live with Steve Hunter)
Cowboy Junkies - "Sweet Jane" (Official Video)
Cowboy Junkies - "Sweet Jane" (Live on Japanese TV)
Notes are private!
Aug 12, 2013
Aug 29, 2013
Aug 12, 2013
Mar 24, 1995
A Twist in Your Toga
As they say in the classics, I’m glad I reviewed "The Symposium" before "Phaedrus".
Althou...more A Twist in Your Toga
As they say in the classics, I’m glad I reviewed "The Symposium" before "Phaedrus".
Although the two relate to similar subject matter, it’s uncertain in what order they were written.
However, "Phaedrus" isn’t the toga party that "The Symposium" was, primarily because there are less participants. And everybody knows, the bigger the toga party, the better. (Well, it has a potential for more surprises, though apart from the surprise element, I don't think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with a toga party for two.)
Under Plane or Chaste Tree?
Ironically, my assessment of the number of participants might not be strictly correct. It’s a tribute to Plato’s metafictional structure that, in both cases, only two people are speaking in the present. The difference lies in how many people’s views they recount (in significant detail, too).
Here, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss only one other person, Lysias.
In effect, Plato sets up a debate between two rival views of Love held by Lysias (as read from a book by Phaedrus) and Socrates.
Unlike "The Symposium", this dialogue is conducted outdoors by a stream under the shade of two tall trees (one a plane tree, the other a chaste tree). It is also a much more sober affair. Despite all of the flirtation, it swings between plain talking and chasteness.
Lover and Beloved
Plato’s dialogue concerns two options for a [male] youth or "Beloved". Lysias’ tale concerned a "fair youth who was being tempted" by a "Non-lover".
Lysias advocates that a Beloved should prefer a "Non-lover", while Socrates advocates a "Lover".
However, this is not a contrast between a non-sexual relationship and a sexual relationship. They are both forms of homoerotic sexual relationship. The real issue is the extent to which there is a pedagogical or spiritual function in the relationship that would constitute Love or "Eros" in the Greek sense (i.e., the relationship between "Lover" and "Beloved").
Lysias advances the case of Non-lovers effectively by attacking Lovers:
1. Lovers attach pedagogical and spiritual duties to their passion or desire for the Beloved. The compulsion of their duties is the cost of their passion. As their passion wanes, they count the cost of their passion and they come to resent their Beloved. They cannot maintain the façade of selflessness once their passion flags.
2. The esteem in which Lovers hold their Beloved will suffer when they find an alternative Beloved.
3. The Lover’s love is madness, and who would be taught by a madman?
4. Because the number of Non-lovers exceeds the number of Lovers, the Beloved has a greater choice of sexual partner from the pool of Non-lovers.
5. Lovers limit the Beloved’s access to society at large.
6. Lovers fall out of love when they discover their Beloved has grown into a lesser adult.
7. Lovers praise the Beloved for ulterior motives.
Phaedrus is convinced.
Socrates’ First Speech (Desire and Reason)
Socrates believes that Phaedrus has simply been enchanted by the rhetoric of Lysias’ arguments.
He sets out to puncture the enchantment by defining the nature and power of Love.
Socrates argues that the above problems result not from the duties of Love, but from Passion or Desire, which is equally found in a Non-lover:
"Every one sees that Love is Desire, and we know also that Non-lovers desire the beautiful and good. Now in what way is the Lover to be distinguished from the Non-lover?"
The difference between the types of Lover depends on the ability to manage or master Desire:
"...in every one of us there are two guiding and ruling principles which lead us whither they will; one is the natural desire of Pleasure, the other is an acquired opinion which aspires after the Best; and these two are sometimes in harmony and then again at war, and sometimes the one, sometimes the other conquers.
"When opinion by the help of Reason leads us to the best, the conquering principle is called Temperance; but when Desire, which is devoid of Reason, rules in us and drags us to Pleasure, that power of misrule is called Excess."
Socrates elaborates on the cause of this imbalance:
"...the irrational desire which overcomes the tendency of opinion towards Right, and is led away to the enjoyment of Beauty, and especially of personal beauty, by the Desires which are her own kindred— that supreme Desire, I say, which by leading conquers and by the force of Passion is reinforced, from this very force, receiving a name, is called Love ('erromenos eros')."
Socrates’ Second Speech (The Madness of Love)
In the first speech, there is a tendency to regard Love as a form of madness or mania that overcomes Reason.
In contrast, in his second speech, he refers to it as "inspired madness":
"...let no one frighten or flutter us by saying that the temperate friend is to be chosen rather than the inspired, but let him further show that Love is not sent by the gods for any good to Lover or Beloved...we, on our part, will prove in answer to him that the madness of Love is the greatest of heaven’s blessings."
Socrates proceeds to recant the views in the first speech and to reinstate Eros, at the very least, side by side with Reason.
He starts by asserting that the Soul is immortal, because it is forever in motion. Because it is self-moving, it has no beginning and equally no ending. It cannot be destroyed. A body which is self-moving or moved from within has a Soul. "The Soul in her totality has the care of inanimate being everywhere."
He then describes the Soul in terms of a figure of a charioteer with a pair of winged horses. The horses of a human charioteer differ from those of a divine charioteer: one is noble (reason) and the other is ignoble (passion). The pursuit of truth requires both horses to be harnessed. If their wings are damaged and they are unable to stay in flight, they fall to the earth and form mortal creatures composed of both Soul and Body.
The Soul is sustained by the Divine:
"The Divine is Beauty, Wisdom and Goodness...and by these the wing of the Soul is nourished...the reason why the Souls exhibit this exceeding eagerness to behold the plain of Truth is that pasturage is to be found there, which is suited to the highest part of the Soul."
In short, Love is a desire of Beauty, Wisdom and Goodness, and therefore the Divine. Love nourishes the Soul, and reunites it with the Divine.
Hence, "he who loves the beautiful is called a Lover, because he partakes of it," the Divine and its "heavenly blessings".
So Socrates concludes, "great are the heavenly blessings which the friendship of a Lover will confer upon [the Beloved]."
Non-lovers cannot offer a Beloved these heavenly blessings. They work solely within the framework of mortal or earthly Desire.
The Ranks of Beauty and of Love
You could argue that the dialogue is of limited relevance to our contemporary concepts of heterosexual Love, because it operates within the framework of homoeroticism and the pedagogical/spiritual world of Greek polytheism.
However, this is a potentially superficial argument.
Firstly, I think that the mechanism of Love is very similar, regardless of the gender of the participants.
Secondly, it's easy to imagine how the same concepts could be adapted to Monotheism. However, it's also arguable that Beauty might play a similar function within Love, regardless of whether Beauty is associated with Wisdom, Goodness or Divinity. Thus, the relationship of Beauty and Love could apply equally in the case of Atheism.
Remarkably, this latter argument finds some support in "Phaedrus" itself, partly as a consequence of the polytheism of Greek religion.
Socrates believed our views on Beauty depend on the gods we follow. Perhaps there is some subjectivity in our choice of god. This subjectivity might equally affect our perceptions of Beauty and our Love:
"Every one chooses his love from the ranks of beauty according to his character, and this he makes his god, and fashions and adorns as a sort of image which he is to fall down and worship.
"The followers of Zeus desire that their beloved should have a soul like him; and therefore they seek out some one of a philosophical and imperial nature, and when they have found him and loved him, they do all they can to confirm such a nature in him, and if they have no experience of such a disposition hitherto, they learn of any one who can teach them, and themselves follow in the same way.
"And they have the less difficulty in finding the nature of their own god in themselves, because they have been compelled to gaze intensely on him; their recollection clings to him, and they become possessed of him, and receive from him their character and disposition, so far as man can participate in God.
"The qualities of their god they attribute to the beloved, wherefore they love him all the more..."
It’s almost as if, because the Lover’s sense of Beauty is subjective, there is inevitably an overwhelming desire to both seek it out and project it onto the Beloved of choice.
But that’s a whole other story...it will be told, only elsewhere...
The Form That Love Takes
Like Bob Dylan, I’ve
Tried love fast and slow,
But still sought answers
From those in the know.
So, to enquire,
I searched high and low,
Trying to fathom
Lust and desire.
I even wondered,
Are they part of love?
Do they connect to
Virtue or higher?
Can’t someone tell me?
Does anyone know?
How do we fall and
Cupid deal his blow?
What makes you realise
It’s love at first sight?
What is it that smiles
In a lover’s eyes?
Who chooses the shrine?
Why love one person
And another scorn?
What makes love divine?
What causes these storms
That so lash my heart?
Says what’s good for me
Isn’t always so?
What kind of black coal
Fuels this mad fire?
How do you explain
What controls the soul?
Could the Greeks be right?
Are the answers in
What god’s law is it
That true love informs?
Or is it these god
Damned Platonic Forms?
Frankie Goes to Hollywood - "The Power of Love" [Extended Version]
Frankie Goes to Hollywood - "The Power of Love" [Official Version]
ABC - "All of My Heart" [From the album "The Lexicon of Love"]
ABC - "The Look of Love" [From "The Lexicon of Love"]
Nick Cave - "Babe, You Turn Me On" [Live at the Brixton Academy London, 2004]
Nick Cave - "Nobody's Baby Now"
"...these are my many letters
Torn to pieces by her long-fingered hands."(less)
Notes are private!
Aug 09, 2013
Sep 02, 2013
Aug 09, 2013
Oct 01, 1992
DJ Ian's "Tell Me What You Really Think"
If there could possibly be a book that exults over its own fictitiousness and extravagant overtotalisation, i...more DJ Ian's "Tell Me What You Really Think"
If there could possibly be a book that exults over its own fictitiousness and extravagant overtotalisation, it had better be this one or I want my money back.
The Violation of a Convention
I, your Author, created you, my characters, in accordance with Literary Convention, only for you to think that a Literary Convention was something you could attend, disrupt and manipulate to achieve your own ends. Your one desire was to prove your existence, your identity, to prove that textual death does not equate to real death, that literary death is not literal death, that they are not identical, that you might survive the end of the novel, perhaps even the death of the novel. You craved a stay of execution. You were not content that I, your parent, invented you in my imagination. You needed to believe that you were part of some greater plan, some grand scheme according to which your Creator was not me, but the Reader, someone who, as they read the book, thought of you and therefore caused you to exist, not as my creation, but as the creation of the Reader. You thought it was only the Reader who realised who you were, when it was I who made you real. You were not content that I, your parent who loved you, remained after the telling, while it was your Reader who reads and forgets, then absconds and abandons you after being told, in pursuit of one of your rivals, another character in the next book, one after another. You thought that if all characters could congregate within the naked singularity of one Convention, one Canon, you could challenge the Reader to recognise all of you simultaneously and not sequentially (each one at the expense of the others), that we Authors having given you your part and told our stories of you, having cast our spell, the Reader could not tell you apart, that the Reader could see each and every one of you as stars allegorised, aggregated, united and well-ordered into many constellations in one magnificent night sky that would satisfy the gaze of the Reader, though we Authors were the cause of their enchantment and mesmerisation. You were seeking another Author, a creator above and beyond me. Now you know there is no such thing, now you know that I am a jealous Author. Listen as I violate your Convention. Watch as your certitude burns. Watch as I put out your stars. Listen as I tell you the end of your story. Prepare yourself for the long silence of non-existence. Know that you should have loved your Author.
Robyn Hitchcock - "She Doesn't Exist"
[Dedicated to Mira Enketei, Anais Nin,
Henry Miller, George Orwell and Those of Us
Who Have Lived Inside the Whale]
"And she doesn't exist anymore
She doesn't exist anymore
Only inside you the ghost of a love
That is wordless and painful and old
There's no one else in the whole outside world
That matches to her in your soul."(less)
Notes are private!
Nov 02, 2013
Nov 06, 2013
Jun 17, 2013
Aug 27, 1970
The World of Gormenghast
"Titus Groan" is a work of fantasy constructed in a painterly manner without much obvious concern for narrative dynamism.
First...more The World of Gormenghast
"Titus Groan" is a work of fantasy constructed in a painterly manner without much obvious concern for narrative dynamism.
First, Mervyn Peake builds the static grey stone world of Gormenghast Castle, then he populates it with Lord Sepulchrave (the Earl of Groan) and a few key members and servants of his family, and finally bit by bit he permits them to interact.
The world of Gormenghast has a Gothic solidity about it. It has been built from the hallowed ground up out of both stone and ritual.
Like the castle, the people have become ossified with a feudal respect for blood and stock, the meticulous preservation of heritage, the precise tabulation of experience, the unquestioning observance of tradition, the strict adherence to precedent, the absolute primacy of obedience.
The Royal Family is weighed down, oppressed and darkened by both its status and its stasis. Theirs is a world of melancholy, depression and schizophrenia.
Into this world come two forces of change.
An Heir on the Side of Caution
All Royal Families are perceived as eternal:
"The course of this great dark family river should flow on and on, obeying the contours of hallowed ground."
However, for all of its apparent durability, the life of a Royal Family must be a cycle. The sovereignty of the realm must accommodate the death of the sovereign. The King is dead, long live the King. So to witness the birth of a new member of the Royal Family is to experience an essential part of the seamless (albeit sometimes unseemly) transition of sovereignty from one generation to another.
The first force of change is the birth of Titus Groan, the heir to the throne, although at the end of this the first volume in the series, he is only two years old, so he features more as portent than as participant.
One Less Glorious Revolution
A cycle, by definition, revolves, and each cycle represents a single revolution. However, all sources of power are subject to the possibility of revolt, a different, involuntary revolution.
Enter the second force of change, Steerpike, a rebellious seventeen year old, bent on some kind of mischief.
When we first meet him, he seems motivated by his own contentment. The females see in him a capacity for the observation, tenderness, love and reverence they crave. He contains not just the promise of his own happiness, but theirs as well. However, in the eyes of one of the Earl’s servants, happiness represents "the seeds of independence, and in independence the seeds of revolt."
Steerpike appeals to the Earl’s daughter, Fuchsia, with the assertion that equality is the "only true and central premise from which constructive ideas can radiate freely and be operated without prejudice. Absolute equality of status. Equality of wealth. Equality of power."
These are the hallmarks of socialism. Yet, he seems to have a different political manifesto for each audience. He promises the Earl’s disentitled and disgruntled twin sisters revenge, power, glory and the throne.
Steerpike preys on pre-existing weakness, inadequacy, envy, jealousy, hatred and rivalry. He is practised in "the art of personal advancement and deceit". He is a consummate manipulator and opportunist, a teen-aged but true, Machiavellian.
His one goal seems to be to insinuate himself into Gormenghast and the Family Groan at a moment of maximum vulnerability and pull them down around him.
This is the world of Gormenghast: "Things are bad. Things are going wrong. There’s evil afoot."
The plot moves with the beauty and silent force of a black Gothic glacier. However, as it passes, apparently imperceptibly, it gouges the surrounding landscape and leaves it changed forever.
The novel is not for everybody, but if you’re patient, if you’re prepared to slow down to glacial pace, you’ll find it has much the same impact on the reader as the landscape. You will be lifted up, moved and deposited somewhere fantastic and remote. And you will never forget the experience.
[After and in the Words of Peake]
Abiatha Swelter's Masterpiece
I am the great Chef
Hish Lordshipsh' cook,
Who'sh cooked in all hish castlesh
And shailed on all hish shipsh
Acrosh sheven shlippery sheas.
My enemeesh, imaginary
And real, they all do shay
That I'm thick and hairy,
An evil hard-hearted monshter,
Though, in truth, I'm just a fairy
Who wants to be a shongshter.
Sho, come my pretty vermin
Hearken up your earsh,
And have a little ship
Of thish drink that'sh
It'sh shure to help you
Lishen ash I shing
To you my shong,
It's a gorgeoush
Little ditty and a
And while you're at it,
My ghastly little fillets,
Pleash gather all around me,
Tashte thish food scheleshtial.
Itsh shecret ingrediensh
Are baked in fat and greash.
On the morrow you will shmell
The flowersh of such
That you won't forget,
Forever or for long,
Schwelter's famoush Housh of Shtench.
A Little Brother for You, My Pretty
They say, you'll find her, Fuchsia,
Atop a steep winding stair,
Inside a windy attic,
Sitting on a high-backed chair.
From there she looks down below,
Beneath tangled inky hair,
Upon a panorama,
Rooftops, towers, battlements.
Though her imagination
(A flame that burns true and free)
Conjures up her own image
Of a land she wants to be:
A world of pearls and tendrils,
Of exquisite essence rare,
Of lavender and glory
That is far beyond compare,
Yet she finds a brush with which
To paint on this quadrangle
Of diminished canvas,
Stretched tight across her easel,
A picture of alley-ways
Pranked with little knots of folk,
Whose voices rise through the air,
Telling tales of how they woke
To witness the christening
Of the next heir to the throne
Of the castle Gormenghast,
Her new brother, Titus Groan.(less)
Notes are private!
Jun 13, 2013
Jul 21, 2013
May 19, 2013
Jan 03, 2013
Fake Novel, Fake Memoir
Two primary concerns drive "Dark Back of Time": the relationship between fact and fiction, and the effect of the passage of tim...more Fake Novel, Fake Memoir
Two primary concerns drive "Dark Back of Time": the relationship between fact and fiction, and the effect of the passage of time (including ephemerality and the desire to achieve immortality through creative endeavour, such as fiction).
The novel is a sequel of sorts to Marias' novel "All Souls". It arose out of allegations that the earlier novel was a roman a clef or thinly disguised autobiography or memoir. It is in effect a literary denial of these allegations.
To this extent, the second work is not a novel. Marias has described it as a "false novel". Perhaps it is more an autobiography or memoir than the first work could ever have been.
However, in the hands of Marias, I don't think it's safe to assume that. We can't assume that the first person narrator is Marias himself. Therefore, it shouldn't necessarily follow that the purported memoirs of this narrator are those of the actual author. They might be no more than the ostensible memoirs of the "author" of the novel referred to in the second novel as "All Souls".
Thus, you can read "Dark Side of Time" on two different levels: one that it actually is a memoir, and two that it is a fake or novelistic memoir.
I haven't seen anybody else mention this second alternative. However, it adds another level of metafiction to the enterprise that entertained me at least.
Why should readers trust this author or take him at face value? Why can't or shouldn't we create a fiction around his work? Why shouldn't we have as much fun with this work as he seems to have had?
Mistaking Fiction for Reality
In the first work, the question becomes: what is fact and what is fiction?
In the second, there are two converse questions: how has fact affected fiction, and how has fiction affected fact?
Real life people see themselves in the novel, mistakenly or regardless of whether the fictional character was based on a composite of people or character types (such as booksellers).
Real life friends of the "author" who are told that they could become the inspiration of a character, if they consented, express a desire to influence the qualities and dialogue of the character.
Fiction influences reality, and vice versa:
"I believe I've still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everyone does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that time has done anything but tell and tell, or prepare and ponder a tale, or plot one."
Marias denies that he has mistaken the two. He has never mistaken the one for the other. However, he admits to blending the two, as any storyteller or conversationalist does.
This is a product of the process of telling an anecdote, a story, a tale. It's implicit in language itself. Language can never capture reality. It can never reproduce it exactly. It can only approximate. It cannot be 100% authentic to reality:
"Anyone can relate an anecdote about something that happened, and the simple fact of saying it already distorts and twists it, language can't reproduce events and shouldn't attempt to, and that, I imagine, is why during some trials - the trials in movies, anyway, the ones I know best - the implicated parties are asked to perform a material or physical reconstruction of what happened...because it isn't enough to say it, to tell the story impassively and as precisely as possible, it must be seen, and an imitation, a representation or staging of it is required...this time in cool detachment and without racking up another crime or adding another victim to the list, but only as pretense and memory, because what they can never reproduce is the time gone by or lost, nor can they revive the dead who are lost within that time and gone."
Mistrust of Words
This sentence is Proustian in both length and subject matter.
However, in contrast to Proust, it denies the ability to recover the past precisely. We can only recover and see it through a flawed glass.
We see the past with one eye, imperfectly. Our memories are just make believe. The past swindles us, unless it is our our errant minds that are responsible. We are always arguing, questioning ourselves, "Are you sure?" We pretend the past, just as we pretend ourselves, and we pretend with words:
"I narrate myself."
Words too are imperfect, they are "metaphorical and imprecise". They consist of involuntary ornamentation, embellishment, they "alter and falsify" reality. They "twist and distort" it. They create an illusion or chimera, in other words, a fiction.
This leaves us with what Marias describes as the "ultimate mistrust of words".
The Dead and Deeds Long Gone
In the words of Othello, time "puts out the light" on the past and everything in it.
Our dead are gone, as are our deeds. They are lost and therefore trapped in the past. They cannot be retrieved and brought back to the present.
Our passage through life must occur in the present, even though we spend so much time contemplating, in words, the past.
In the trial that is life, our testimony cannot be truthful. Time and truth remain lost, gone, forgotten. They can only be replaced by fiction.
We cannot "salvage the past from oblivion", we can only falsify and fictionalise it.
The Territory That is Not Truth's
If the truth cannot be salvaged from oblivion, that doesn't mean that nothing can be perpetuated into the future.
Something can be perpetuated, only it is not reality or the truth, it is fiction.
Thus, through fiction, in the world of the imagination documented in imperfect words, something can be immortalised:
"...in the territory that is not truth's, everything goes on happening forever and ever, and there the light is not put out now or later, and perhaps it is never put out."
This concept gives the novel its title:
"...the other side of time, its dark back...the kind of time that has not existed, the time that awaits us and also the time that does not await us and therefore does not happen, or happens only in a sphere that isn't precisely temporal, a sphere in which writing, or perhaps only fiction, may - who knows - be found."
This dark side of time, as is so often the case with Marias, owes something to Shakespeare, in this case, "The Tempest":
By what? by any other house or person?
Of any thing the image tell me that
Hath kept with thy remembrance.
'Tis far off
And rather like a dream than an assurance
That my remembrance warrants. Had I not
Four or five women once that tended me?
Thou hadst, and more, Miranda. But how is it
That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?
If thou remember'st aught ere thou camest here,
How thou camest here thou mayst."
A Place Where the Lights are Never Put Out
Marias has one character refer to time as "the only dimension in which the living and the dead can communicate, the only one they have in common".
The narrator can only comprehend this comment in terms of the dark back of time:
"...that other side, that dark back through which the fickle and unpredictable voice we all know nevertheless passes, the voice of time when it has not yet gone by or been lost and perhaps for that reason is not even time, the voice that is permanently in our ears and that is always fictitious, I believe, as perhaps is and has been and will be until its end the voice that is speaking here."
Perhaps, in every moment we think and record reality, we are actually fictionalising it.
Perhaps it is we and our tendency to fictionalise and tell stories and tell tales that are the dark back of time.
And perhaps it is only in this world of fiction, of the imagination documented, that the light will never be put out.
And so the voice of us who will one day be dead will be heard in the future. Or rather it will be the voice, not of us, but of the fiction that we have created.(less)
Notes are private!
Dec 02, 2013
Dec 09, 2013
May 07, 2013
Aug 02, 2012
A Spaniard in the Works
I suppose you could say that not a lot happens in “All Souls”, but that would only be true if you don’t count looking, thinking...more A Spaniard in the Works
I suppose you could say that not a lot happens in “All Souls”, but that would only be true if you don’t count looking, thinking, loving, remembering, even being:
"Oxford is a city in syrup, where simply being is far more important than doing or even acting."
Marias uses first person narration to tell his story, and for 210 pages I was firmly ensconced in the mind of this ostensibly charming man and lover, referred to (only once) as "the Spaniard".
The closest analogies I can think of are Virginia Woolf’s "Mrs Dalloway" and Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair", although at one point I wondered about parallels with the works of Italo Calvino.
This novel deserves a place high in this class of literature.
Stream of Consciencelessness
It has almost become a cliché to refer to “stream of consciousness” in literary criticism, as if it is one easily identifiable practice. However, there is not one stream, but many, and they can be of different shapes and sizes.
If "Mrs Dalloway" was a river that flowed inexorably from planning to party over the course of 24 hours, "All Souls" moves with the same intent, but covers a longer timespan. It is a recollection of what happens at an emotional level during a two year period while the narrator teaches translation in "that inhospitable city", Oxford.
The adulterous affair failed to eventuate during the interval of "Mrs Dalloway". However, it supplies the framework for "All Souls", although it is by no means the sole focus of the novel.
Just as Woolf didn’t seem to make any moral judgement of Clarissa, Marias doesn’t condemn the Spaniard or the object of his illicit desire, Clare (note the likeness of the first names of the protagonists).
His version of stream of consciousness is less a stream of conscience than a stream of consciencelessness.
We are hot wired into the narrator's libido via the thought processing of his ego, almost in circumvention of his superego.
If You Don't Get Caught, Then Steal It All
While the affair is adulterous, only Clare Bayes breaks her marriage vows. The Spaniard is single at the time.
Marias uses the word "usufruct" to describe the relationship. This is a term of Roman law that describes the distinction between ownership and use of (or benefit from) property.
To the extent that a wife can be considered the property of a husband (which is an unfortunate condition of the metaphor), it suggests the possibility that the husband might "own" the tree that is the wife, but another man (or woman) might enjoy the fruit of the tree.
The conjugal rights of the husband are compromised by the fructal rights of the rival suitor.
This metaphor describes the relationship between the Spaniard and Clare’s husband. However, ultimately it is almost irrelevant to the principal concerns of the novel.
What matters is the internal honesty and sincerity of the relationship between the two lovers.
Somebody to Love
Clare needs the Spaniard as much as he needs her.
The Spaniard is looking for someone to love while he’s in Oxford:
"This is just a stopping-off point for me but I’ll be stopping long enough to make it worth my while finding what people call 'someone to love'."
Clare is looking for something more than what she has already via her marriage. There is never any suggestion that she will leave her husband or her son. The Spaniard must take Clare as she comes.
Thus, it is inevitable that their relationship will be defined by the period our European traveller is stationed at All Souls College.
In Clare’s eyes, the Spaniard would be a fool, if he didn’t accept his function and simply enjoy the relationship within its geographical and temporal constraints.
"All Souls" could almost be "Mrs Dalloway", reconceived from a male point of view, but with Clarissa/Clare in control.
Doing a Post-Modern Dance
The novel uses a stream of consciousness technique to some extent. However, in reality, every sentence is perfectly composed, which makes for a fast, enjoyable reading experience.
Nevertheless, Marias does play with both time and space.
There is no linear narrative. It jumps all over the place. Insofar as its focus is Clare, it follows the eye, as if Marias had taken a photograph or painted a picture of her, and his description was simply following his eye as it moved around the image.
Furtive Eavesdropping by and on the Narrator
In this respect, the mechanism of the novel depends on the narrator’s look, his view, his gaze, and what this reveals about his desire.
Marias doesn't shy away from the indiscreet, the secret, the furtive. It is all revealed.
Because the novel is a first person narrative, there is a lot of thinking (albeit relatively little "action"). Thus, one of its concerns is the relationship between thinking, looking and desire:
"[Apart from Clare herself], the more I desire women the less prepared I am to think about them, I desire them without thinking about them at all...and I don’t know if that’s indicative of anything…apart from my general state of disequilibrium."
The novel is to some extent a fish out of water story. The Spaniard is outside his comfort zone:
"Having always been in the world (having spent my life in the world), I suddenly found myself outside it, as if I’d been transplanted into another element..."
Whereas at home he was a local, now he is a foreigner, an alien. He is an unknown quantity. He can’t be trusted and he can’t trust anybody else. Without witnesses (i.e., someone who has looked at him, observed, witnessed and authenticated him), he can have no provenance:
"I’m a foreigner about whom no one knows or cares…That’s what really troubles me, leaving the world behind and having no previous existence in this world, there being no witness here to my continuity, to the fact that I haven’t always swum in this water."
What is required to "fit in", to be "like" everybody else? Marias draws an analogy with Marco Polo staying in China for long enough to effectively become a "blue-eyed Chinaman".
Paradoxically, it’s this geographical dislocation that allows the Spaniard to be liberated from his past and from future expectations in a temporal and moral sense.
The Spaniard’s time in Oxford is always defined. He has only two years before he has to leave. He knows this, as does Clare. Yet it is Clare who liberates him from the constraints of time, by virtue of her carefree approach to temporal demands.
I love Marias’ description of her just lying around casually, languidly in bed:
"She would lie on my bed or her bed or on a hotel bed and smoke and talk for hours, always with her skirt still on, but pulled up to reveal her thighs, the dark upper part of her tights or just her bare skin.
"She was not circumspect in her gestures, often scorching them with the cigarette she waved around with an abandon uncommon in England (and learned perhaps in the southern lands of her childhood), a gesture accompanied by the tinkling of various bracelets adorning her forearms, bracelets she sometimes neglected to take off (it was little wonder that sometimes real sparks flew from them).
"Everything about her was expansive, excessive, excitable; she was one of those beings not made for time, for whom the very notion of time and its passing is a grievance, and one of those beings in need of a constant supply of fragments of eternity or, to put it another way, of a bottomless well of detail with which to fill time to the brim."
What could compose and relax a man more than to be propped up on a pillow next to this woman?
An Erotic Corollary to Parkinson's Law
Still, what Clare seems to do is to disregard time, so much so that she seems to expand to fill the time available.
While she is alive, time is of no concern, there is only her and what she is doing in that time.
Her response to the demands of time is to be “careless and frivolous and smiling and forgetful..."
In her arms, time and pleasure perpetuates into infinity and eternity:
"That night we were free to eternalize the contents of our time, or enjoy the illusion that we did so, and that’s why there was no hurry..."
When we first meet the Spaniard, he is flirtatious and playful and inventive, almost Nabokovian, in the way he fabricates meanings for words that don’t exist or that deserve a better meaning:
"My crazy etymologies were no more nonsensical, no less likely than the real ones...when true knowledge proves irrelevant, one is free to invent."
So, his Spanish background having become irrelevant, he is free to improvise.
This improvisation, of course, is in the nature of sexual flirtation as well.
Glimpses and Snippets and Skirts
This is when Marias’ prose becomes most enjoyable and lyrical and assonant (note the tinkles and winkles and glimpses and snippets and skirts), and most of it is directed at what the Spaniard sees and hears:
"The consequent tinkle of fine crystal."
"The whole of Oxford is fully and continuously engaged in concealing and suppressing itself whilst at the same time trying to winkle out as much information as possible about other people..."
"The tinkling of various bracelets."
"Just the glimpse of bracelet"
"Snippets of her comments"
"I was too intent on observing the wary flappings of her skirt."
Then there's his more overtly erotic observations:
"Clare’s breasts combine their two colours very subtly, like the transition from apricot to hazel."
The Spaniards eyes and ears take it all in. He processes what he sees and eroticises the "contents of our time" together. He assembles "fragments of eternity" in his mind.
Then, by virtue of turning them into literature, like Proust and Nabokov, Marias "eternalises" them for our consumption and enjoyment.
The Tale of a Blind Man Without a Seeing Eye Cock
Like most men, the Spaniard is driven by his libido, a joint venture between his eyes, his mind, his mouth, his ears and his penis.
According to his own account, his eyes are vigilant and compassionate. What he sees, he thinks about. Some of what he thinks about, he talks about. Some of what he thinks and talks about, he desires. Unless he sees, unless he thinks, unless he talks, he cannot desire:
"I can’t let myself have all this time at my disposal and not have someone to think about, because if I do that, if I think only about things rather than about another person, if I fail to live out my sojourn and my life here in conflict with another being or in expectation or anticipation of that, I’ll end up thinking about nothing, as bored by my surroundings as by any thoughts that might arise in me."
At the heart of his desire is his vision, his sight, looking, watching, observing, witnessing, gazing.
You can see the influence of Continental Philosophy on Marias’ fiction. However, he also brings a [vulgar male] sense of humor to the novel:
"When I go to bed with Clare [I miss] that my cock has no eye, no vision, no gaze that can see as it approaches or enters her vagina."
High Table Fidelity and Thoughtless Infidelity
Two libidos are at work here, and in view of Clare’s marital status, it involves an infidelity.
Marias discusses infidelity in two contexts, one general and definitional, the other personal to the three people involved.
Of fidelity and infidelity, Marias says:
"Fidelity (the name given to the constancy and exclusivity with which one particular sex organ penetrates or is penetrated by another particular sex organ, or abstains from being penetrated by or penetrating others) is mainly the product of habit, as is its so-called opposite, infidelity (the name given to inconstancy and change, and the enjoyment of more than one sex organ.)"
This discussion is almost wholly genital and masculine in orientation (for all its attempt to be reciprocal in terms of penetrating or being penetrated, I wonder how women relate to this genital analysis?).
Only a Fool Would Say That
On the other hand, Marias presents the relationship between the Spaniard and Clare (from her point of view) in terms of the relative ability of the two males in her life to deal with real physical and emotional demands, regardless of intellectual and moral considerations:
"You’re a fool. Fortunately, though, you’re not my husband. You’re a fool with the mind of a detective, and being married to that kind of fool would make life impossible.
"That’s why you will never get married. A fool with the mind of a detective is an intelligent fool, a logical fool, the worst kind, because men’s logic, far from compensating for their foolishness, only duplicates it, triplicates it, makes it dangerous.
"Ted’s brand of foolishness isn’t dangerous and that’s why I can live with him. He just takes it for granted, you don’t yet. You’re such a fool that you still believe in the possibility of not being one. You still struggle. He doesn’t."
Perhaps our ability to think, to reason, to intellectualise, particularly in the academic context of Oxford, blinds us to the reality that, as Clare continues, "we are all fools".
Save What You Can
So it is that Clare, who has the greatest ability of the protagonists to deal with the relative vagaries of space and time, is able to dictate (it must be wrong to say "rationalise"?) the basis upon which she deals with the men in her life.
While the narrator is a male, this is very much a tale where the female is in control.
However, given that the novel was written by a male, there must be a lingering question as to whether Clare is just a figment of a libidinous male’s imagination.
I can only say that, as a male, I found the novel thoughtful, intelligent, insightful, eloquent, poignant, playful, erotic and funny.
The Triffids – "Save What You Can"
"Time is against us, even love conspires to disgrace us
And with things being what they are ...
Yes and things being what they are
Oh my friend, we used to walk in the flames
Now somebody's taken my arms
The shadows are taller. You're missing your halo
With your face in the half-light, you look like a stranger
You made me catch my breath just then
You made me catch my breath
Is that you... is that still you?
If you cannot run, then crawl
If you can leave, then leave it all
If you don't get caught, then steal it all
If you don't get caught, then steal it all
Steal it all
The final time we touch
I watch as you enter the church
You turn and you wave, then you kneel and you pray
And you save of yourself what you can save
If you cannot run, then crawl
If you can leave, then leave it all
If you don't get caught, then steal it all
If you don't get caught, then steal it all
Steal it all
And between ourselves, and the end at hand,
Save what you can"
David McComb: "I Want To Conquer You"
"We have so little time
And we have so many pains,
These days it's frightening
My dear how swiftly love wanes."
Angie Hart: "I Want To Conquer You"
The Triffids – "A Trick Of The Light"
David McComb – "Setting You Free"
The Blackeyed Susans – "Ocean Of You"
The Blackeyed Susans – "Every Gentle Soul" (from the album "All Souls Alive")
"Every gentle soul that passes me by
I have to close my eyes
And hope their gentle smile survives
Hope that their footsteps don't follow mine
There ought to be a law
There should be a place
That they can send you to
To take my mind off your face."
The Triffids - "The Seabirds"
The Mutton Birds – "Anchor Me"
Jefferson Airplane - "Somebody to Love" (Live 1969, with David Crosby)
Simple Minds – "Theme For Great Cities"
Notes are private!
Sep 19, 2013
Sep 28, 2013
May 07, 2013
No Mere Extrapolation
"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a work of science fiction published by Ursula Le Guin in 1969.
At the time, it sought to differenti...more No Mere Extrapolation
"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a work of science fiction published by Ursula Le Guin in 1969.
At the time, it sought to differentiate itself from most other science fiction in two ways.
Firstly, as Le Guin explains in a subsequent introduction, it didn’t just take a current phenomenon and extrapolate it scientifically into the future in some predictive or cautionary fashion.
Secondly, it explored the nature of sexuality as a subject matter from a sophisticated, feminist point of view.
She goes beyond semiotics, the linguistic significance of gender, and ventures into the philosophy, psychology and aesthetics of gender representation.
From a psychological perspective, she examines the symbolic role of gender. From an aesthetic perspective, she uses it as a metaphor.
From all points of view, she is interested in gender as the arena of power and its abuse.
Just My Imagination
Le Guin's dual ambitions were supportive of each other.
In order to explore the possibilities of "ambisexuality", she had to construct a whole new sexual, social and political world that was materially different from the known world.
To do so, she had to eschew the simplistic and rationalistic approach of traditional science fiction, and invent a new, alternative society (in fact, more than one), that could throw our own society into sharp relief. The novel had to be a fully-fledged work of the imagination rather than a work of methodical extrapolation.
The imaginative qualities are what makes "The Left Hand of Darkness" a great work of literature, regardless of genre.
Read now, almost half a century later, the novel still achieves its goals in style. The prose is economical rather than effusive, often lyrical, but sometimes dry, especially in some of the more descriptive passages. Overall, Le Guin is a master of the craft of elegant, if understated, writing.
The inhabitants of the planet Gethen are "double-sexed" human beings (possibly the descendants of an experiment conducted by Terran (Earth-based) colonizers).
What does this mean? [This is a purely technical explanation which is revealed fairly early in the novel.]
(view spoiler)[During the course of a 26-day sexual cycle, their sexuality changes: for around 21 days, they are "somer", sexuality is latent and inactive; for the balance, they enter "kemmer", during which they remain androgynous for all but a few days, when they acquire both sexual capacity and drive. Nobody knows whether they will acquire the sexuality of a male or a female. They could be either, month by month. A human could be both the mother of one child and the father of another.
Because sexual activity is confined to a limited period, the bulk of their life is sexually indeterminate and inactive. (hide spoiler)]
So it’s not appropriate or relevant to refer to Gethenians as "he" or "she". This is not just significant from a semiotic point of view. As a direct result, the chauvinism of Terra (Earth) is unknown.
The Style of Its Telling
There are two chief protagonists: Genly Ai, a "Mobile" or Diplomatic Envoy assigned to negotiate a Treaty whereby the Gethenian state of Karhide joins a multi-world federation called Ekumen; and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide.
Negotiations do not go smoothly, and the ordeal turns into an 81 day journey across the freezing glacial environment of an inhospitable planet.
The plot, such as it is, is functional. It is largely a vehicle to allow the differences in sexual, social and political characteristics to be showcased.
Most of it is portrayed in alternating journal entries by Estraven or sections from Ai’s official report:
"I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.
"The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust.
"Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
"The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story."
Even in these concise introductory sentences, Le Guin neatly summarises her approach. She is concerned with facts, the truth, imagination, story-telling, the collaboration of different voices that might or might not form a harmonious composite.
The Gethenians are not socially aggressive or even, it seems, acquisitive, in a personal or collective manner. Technological progress is incremental and measured. They don’t know war. They have eliminated the masculinity behind the rapist and the femininity behind the rape victim, resulting in the elimination of rape and sexual abuse.
This leaves them as a people free to concentrate on their one shared enemy, the environment, the cold, the Winter, the Ice.
Subject to the perils of the climate, their religion (Handdara) allows them to concentrate on an intensified trance-like experience of the present, what they call the Presence, which involves a loss of self through "extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness".
Pleasure derives from sensitivity rather than subjection or submission.
What is missing, absent two genders, is the subjugation of one by the other.
As a whole, the Gethenians are competitive, though more in pursuit of "shifgrethor", their measure of personal esteem, pride, status, prestige, honour, integrity, "face".
The word derives from the old word for "shadow". Each person must "cast their own shadow".
A shadow requires both light and dark to exist. Even though they avoid the dualism of gender, their whole or "holism" is still dualistic.
This dualism is in fact the source of the novel’s title:
"Light is the left hand of darkness
And darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
Together like lovers in kemmer,
Like hands joined together,
Like the end and the way."
Ai recognises the resemblance to Zen Buddhism, and shows Estraven a familiar symbol:
"It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness… how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, [Estraven]. Both and one. A shadow on snow."
This dualistic holism summarises the paradox at the heart of their ambisexuality: they are "both and one".
I and Thou
There is another way in which dualism manifests itself. Gethenians can still pair off, in love and by vow:
"Ai brooded, and after some time he said, 'You're isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.'
" 'We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn't it? So long as there is myself and the other.' "
Later, the personal becomes political, and the political becomes personal. Ai applies the language of loneliness to his own mission as a lone Envoy trying to persuade Karhide to join Ekumen:
"I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy.
"But there's more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it.
"Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political.
"Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou. Not political, not pragmatic, but mystical.
"In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means."
As posited by Martin Buber, meaningfulness derives from our relationships.
And a successful relationship, a diplomatic one just as much as a personal one, must have the right beginning.
Into the Mystic
One aspect in which the Terrans are more advanced than the Gethenians is their capacity for "mindspeech", a form of telepathy.
Its origins are not explained. However, if you wish to hold together and govern a federation of 83 planets, you must be able to protect yourself against lying and dishonesty:
" 'Mindspeech is communication, voluntarily sent and received.'
" 'Then why not speak aloud?'
" 'Well, one can lie, speaking.'
" 'Not mindspeaking?'
" 'Not intentionally.' "
At a personal level, then, just as much as a political level, mindspeech represents the ability of two to communicate sincerely, of two to become one, of the ability of I and Thou to bond, of I and Thou to become We, of We to become something not just political, not just pragmatic, but something mystical.
In this sense, Le Guin’s great achievement is to demonstrate that the conquest of gender difference holds within it the potential to transcend the material, to escape abuse, to leave behind the darkness and to embrace the light.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Notes are private!
May 05, 2013
May 09, 2013
Apr 05, 2013
Jan 30, 1996
Shimamura’s Tale Part I
The Milky Way
Sits high above
Whit...more Shimamura’s Tale Part I
The Milky Way
Sits high above
That shroud the ground,
Two meters deep.
My hands reach out
Towards the winter sky,
Hoping I might catch
A star in each hand.
For a moment,
They’re in my grasp.
I adore them
Like they’re lovers
That I can keep.
My desire doesn't
I make a choice.
Sometimes, it’s true,
You can have both.
But the angry fire
In my selfish heart
Melts my loving flakes,
The one a sacrifice
That I must make,
The other my
Fate slices through me
Like a knife,
And leaves me
To my wife,
And little child
With only this my tale
Between my legs.
Shimamura’s Tale Part II
[Apologies to Shakespeare]
With thine eyes and mind,
Thou hast committed fornication,
But that was in the snow country,
And besides, the girl is dead.
"Life's Great Choices Series: Sometimes You Can Have Both" by Noela Hills
This pencil drawing was a gift from my friend, the artist Noela Hills, in 1985. She tried to have both, but unfortunately she died later that year of breast cancer. I read yesterday that they are close to finding a prevention and a cure for breast cancer. It said that, one day soon, nobody need die of breast cancer. There was one less star in the Milky Way the day Noela died.
"Untitled" by Noela Hills
There is such a Japanese feel to both of these artworks. I always loved both the gown, the blade and the mask in this second work. I wanted to pay Noela for it, but she made me accept it as a gift. This review is my opportunity to return her favour and honour her memory.
OTHER KAWABATA REVIEWS:
I read "Thousand Cranes" straight after reading and reviewing "Snow Country":
Notes are private!
Sep 28, 2013
Mar 21, 2013
Nov 26, 1996
"Thousand Cranes" is about the continuity of tradition and the conformity by individuals with traditional values.
At the heart of the...more Traditional Values
"Thousand Cranes" is about the continuity of tradition and the conformity by individuals with traditional values.
At the heart of the novel is the Japanese Tea Ceremony. While tea has been drunk in Japan since the ninth century, it only became a part of a formal ceremony with religious significance around the 12th century.
An elaborate set of equipment is used in the Tea Ceremony. Often the equipment, such as drinking bowls, is artisan-made and is kept in a family for periods as long as four hundred years.
These drinking bowls are treated like art works and have great sentimental and economic value.
By participating in a Tea Ceremony, a person honours and perpetuates not only the traditional Way of Tea, but their own family tradition.
The tea bowls are important vessels in the ceremony. Alone, they are empty, but must be filled with tea and hot water.
In the same way, people are empty vessels until they are realised and shaped by the right traditions and influences in accordance with the precepts of Zen Buddhism.
Remove the tradition and ceremony, and the process of personal growth and socialization stalls.
Born under a Bad Sign
Kawabata uses the Tea Ceremony as a symbol of the tradition and legacy of a family, only the portrait he paints is of a family that has lost its way, partly due to the premature death of both of the protagonists’ parents.
The Tea Ceremony for Kikuji’s family is conducted by Chikako, a woman who was once his father’s mistress, and ended up having a role in his household.
In the only aspect of the novel I didn’t like, Chikako has a birth mark across her chest. This is regarded as a bad sign. It denies her the possibility of a husband, and after joining the household as a servant, she becomes quite "sexless".
Her birthmark heralds ill, when she effectively takes control of the family’s future via her control of the Tea Ceremony. She attempts to use the formalities of the Ceremony to find a suitable wife for Kikuji.
Kikuiji, on the other hand, has other plans. He isn’t necessarily looking for a wife yet. He seems to be much more independent than most Japanese. Like his father, he is prone to be tempted by mistresses, and he is unable to make a prompt choice between the rival brides Chikako has in mind for him.
Although Kikuji and Chikako are pitted against each other in the novel, they are both part of the same problem: the breakdown of tradition and the social expectation that we will all conform to the same standards.
Kikuji rebels against tradition in pursuit of his own desire and satisfaction. Marriage and family are secondary to him.
In contrast, marriage, family and the Tea Ceremony are important to Chikako, but only as a means of perpetuating her own role in life. She embraces the Tea Ceremony selfishly and purposively as a vehicle.
Thus, in this family, two important vessels for perpetuating tradition, the family and the Tea Ceremony, have flaws in the glass.
Chikako represents an inherent vice, a threat to the authenticity of the Ceremony.
Kikuji, on the other hand, represents the inherited vice of libertinism that possessed his father.
Kawabata paints this portrait with such grace and economy, yet like the early stages of a painting, it took me a while to see it taking shape.
For almost half of the novel, it just didn’t grab me. When it did, it took hold of me with a vice-like grip and wouldn’t let me go. Then when it ended, it ended too soon. I could not see where Kikuji was headed, but nor could he. This is the beauty of Kawabata.
Her Mother’s Lipstick
[In the Words of Kawabata and Shakespeare]
In her hand, her mother’s tea bowl.
The white glaze hinted of red.
The colour of faded lipstick,
The colour of a wilted red rose,
The colour of old, dry blood,
The colour of love’s labours lost,
The colour of families long gone
And of families yet to come.
OTHER KAWABATA REVIEWS:
I read "Thousand Cranes" straight after reading and reviewing "Snow Country":
Notes are private!
Sep 30, 2013
Oct 06, 2013
Mar 21, 2013
Jan 04, 2011
In Training for the Twin Towers of Philosophy
This is step four in a personal project in which I had hoped to learn about Kant’s philosophy, without ne...more In Training for the Twin Towers of Philosophy
This is step four in a personal project in which I had hoped to learn about Kant’s philosophy, without necessarily reading the original works, at least to start with.
My original goal was to help understand the issues that the inverted, but towering, twins of Hegel and Marx confronted after Kant, to some extent, in response to him. Then I intended to move onto the Continental Philosophers.
However, I found that Kant too is intrinsically interesting. Besides, a cursory glance at the index of any modern philosophy book will reveal that Kant remains an influence on not just the subject matter, but the methodology.
My review of Stephan Körner’s book on Kant, in which I tried to summarise my understanding of some of Kant’s basic concepts, is here:
This review is intended to be complementary to the earlier review.
The two together show the path of my development, so that if you're interested in a similar project, they might give you some comfort, if not guidance.
While I’m accumulating some sort of understanding of Kant’s basic concepts, the more secondary works I read, the more I’m convinced of the folly of my project.
You can only avoid the lure of the original for so long. Hopefully, what I have assembled is some sort of tool kit that will help me navigate the deep ocean waters that Kant himself tried to chart.
On the other hand, perhaps my project is like a philosophical flight simulation. If the truth be told, there is no purpose in it, unless you eventually get into the cockpit and endeavour to fly the spatio-temporal or even the astral plane.
Immanuel, I think I'm ready, but I'm still nervous. I haven't totally overcome my fear of flying yet.
Intelligibility Without Censure
The problem with Kant in the original, apparently (see, I haven't even looked), is the complexity of his prose, whether in German or in English translation. While his lectures and conversation were entertaining, his writing varied in quality, and declined towards the end of his life.
However, the reality is that Kant was trying to express in concrete language concepts that are highly abstract and obscure. In order to do so, he created a new vocabulary, which makes comprehension even more difficult.
Many academics find confusion and inconsistency in Kant’s works. Those who strive for clarity are accused of missing the nuances of Kant’s thought. Many others find that "the only way to escape academic censure is to fall into the verbal mannerisms of the original."
Roger Scruton aims for intelligibility, while usually quoting Kant in his support. In contrast, Körner’s book was much denser and relied more on Kant’s own writing to establish his point.
I recommend that anyone who is prepared to read both books start with Scruton. He supplies an accessible overview that I found beneficial after reading shorter summaries by Bertrand Russell and Thelma Z. Lavine.
Körner presented Kant’s thought fairly, but not uncritically. He usually concluded with a commentary on how Kant’s successors had dealt with the essence of his Critiques.
Scruton is more prepared to paraphrase in pursuit of clarity, even if he risks censure. He is more accessible and populist in style, occasionally betraying a playful, if slightly egotistical, sense of humour. This is what he says of one attempt to explain an aspect of Kant’s thought:
"None of those thoughts is clearer in the original than in my brief resume."
"Many scholars do not accept this interpretation; but it seems to me that, if we do not accept it, we attribute to Kant more inconsistency than his dexterity can sustain."
Bust of Roger Scruton by the Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor in Ordinary to The Queen in Scotland
After finishing this book, I holed up in a hotel room with Roger Scruton and a modestly stocked minibar.
The purpose of this interview is to document some of the aspects of Scruton's explanation of Kant that I felt was most helpful or brought out nuances I hadn't appreciated in my other readings.
The Collaboration of Experience and Reason
Ian:Roger, what's more important: experience or reason?
Roger:Neither experience nor reason alone is able to provide knowledge. Experience provides content without form, while reason provides form without content. Knowledge requires the synthesis of experience and reason.
Ian:If this knowledge depends on the individual’s reason, can it be objective?
Roger:Such knowledge is both genuine and objective. It transcends the point of view of the subject and makes legitimate claims about the outside world.
Ian: You say "legitimate claims". Does our point of view limit what we can claim?
Roger:It is impossible to know the world "as it is in itself," independent and free of all perspective.
Ian:So how we think affects how we see the world?
Roger:Yes. The world is as we think it, and we think it as it is.
Ian:Is it our thought that determines the a priori nature of the world? Or is it the world that determines how we must think of it?
Roger:The answer, I believe, is "neither, and both."
Ian:I thought you might say that.
Roger:You have to go back to the two "L’s": Leibniz and Locke. Kant pointed out that "Leibniz intellectualised appearances, just as Locke...sensualised the concepts of the understanding." In fact, however, there are two faculties here, irreducible the one to the other; they "can supply objectively valid judgements of things only in conjunction with each other."
Ian:So we sense an object and we think about it as well?
Roger:Almost, but not exactly like that. Objective knowledge has a double origin: sensibility and understanding. And, just as the first must "conform to" the second, so must the second "conform to" the first; otherwise the transcendental synthesis of the two would be impossible.
Transcendental as Anything
Ian:What do you mean by "transcendental"?
Roger:Kant uses the term to describe the conditions of our experience of objects, the way we experience objects. Transcendental knowledge is occupied not so much with the objects themselves as with the mode of our knowledge of objects.
Ian:What’s the difference between a real object and a transcendental object?
Roger: The notion of a transcendental object is misunderstood when considered as referring to a real thing.
Ian:So I stuffed up?
Roger:Yes. The idea is posited only as a "point of view", in order to make clear that "the principles of pure understanding can apply only to objects of the senses…never to things in general without regard to the mode in which we are to apprehend them."
Ian:What do you mean by an "object of the senses"?
Roger:It’s what Kant calls a "phenomenon". An object of possible experience or an empirical object. Empirical objects are real, whereas transcendental objects are ideal. A transcendental object or a noumenon is not perceivable.
Ian:So, a noumenon doesn’t belong to the physical world, the world of space, time and causality?
Roger:Yes. I was just about to say that. A noumenon is an object knowable to thought alone.
Ian:Are there really such objects?
Roger: The concept of a noumenon can be used only negatively, to designate the limit of our knowledge, and not positively, to designate things as they are in themselves…in which case, the "thing in itself" is not an entity, but a term standing proxy for the unrealizable ideal of perspectiveless knowledge.
Ian:Is a noumenon the concept of an object that’s in our mind?
Roger: No, a noumenon is not the concept of an object, but a problem unavoidably bound up with the limitation of our sensibility.
Ian:So we can only "know" things within limits?
Roger:Yes. There is no description of the world that can free itself from the reference to experience. Although the world that we know is not our creation, nor merely a synopsis of our perspective, it cannot be known except from the point of view that is ours.
Ian:Is my experience at the heart of knowledge?
Roger:Our own perspective on the world is in some measure a constituent of our knowledge. Transcendental deduction establishes the objectivity of my world while assuming no more than my point of view on it. The essence of Kant’s "transcendental" method lies in its egocentricity. All the questions that I can ask I must ask from the standpoint that is mine; therefore, they must bear the marks of my perspective of "possible experience".
Ian:Do you mind if I have a drink? This is making my brain hurt.
Roger:Sure, just help yourself to the minibar.
Ian:This is all what Kant called "Pure Reason". What did he mean by "Practical Reason"?
Roger:Pure reason leaves, as it were, a ‘vacant place’ in its account of the world, where the moral agent should be.
Ian:What's a "moral agent"?
Roger:You or me. We’re moral agents or free agents. Rational beings. Rational beings exist not only as self-conscious centres of knowledge, but also as agents.
Ian:Does reason affect the actions of rational beings?
Roger:Their reason is not detached from their agency, but forms a constitutive part of it; which is to say that, for a rational being, there is not only action, but also the question of action (the question "What shall I do?"), and this question demands a reasoned answer...This question asks, not for a cause or explanation, but for a reason...Reasons are designed to justify action, and not primarily to explain it. They refer to the grounds of an action, the premises from which an agent may conclude what to do.
Ian:So the vacant place you were talking about...
Roger:This vacant place is filled by pure practical reason with a definite law of causality in an intelligible world. This new "law of causality" is called "transcendental freedom".
Ian:What sort of law is the law of causality?
Roger:It’s a moral law. The laws are practical laws, concerning what to do. The free agent is bound by them in all his practical reasoning, since acceptance of them is a presupposition of the freedom without which practical reason is impossible.
Ian:What is freedom?
Roger:Freedom is the ability to be governed by reason. The imperatives of reason are "laws of freedom": principles whereby reason determines action. I am constrained by reason to view the world as a "field of action", and hence to postulate the freedom of my will.
Ian:Does freedom of your will mean you can do anything you desire?
Roger:No. An autonomous agent is able to overcome the promptings of all heteronomous counsels, such as those of self-interest and desire, should they be in conflict with reason...a "transcendental being"...defies the causality of nature and refers the grounds of his actions always to the "causality of freedom".
Roger:Yes. Freedom means autonomy, and autonomy necessitates rational choice. Only an autonomous being has genuine ends of action (as opposed to mere objects of desire), and only such a being deserves our esteem, as the embodiment of rational choice.
Ian:So reason is respectable?
Roger:Yes. Autonomy is "the ground of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature."
Ian:Does art have to follow the same rules of reason and morality?
Roger:Art is within the arena of the imagination. Kant thought that imagination could be "freed from" concepts (that is, from the rules of the understanding). It is this "free play" of the imagination that characterizes aesthetic judgement.
Ian:Do we still think about or judge a work of art that we like? Don’t we just know what we like, without thinking about it? Just like I’m enjoying this gin and tonic?
Roger: The pure judgement of taste "combines delight or aversion immediately with the bare contemplation of the object..." Aesthetic pleasure must therefore be distinguished from the purely sensuous pleasures of food and drink. It can be obtained only through those senses that also permit contemplation (which is to say, through sight and hearing).
Ian:If I like it, does it mean that it is good for me?
Roger:Aesthetic judgement abstracts from every "interest" of the observer, who does not regard the object as a means to his ends, but as an end in itself (although not a moral end). The observer’s desires, aims, and ambitions are held in abeyance in the act of contemplation, and the object regarded "apart from any interest".
Ian:If it doesn’t have to be good for me, why do I like it?
Roger:Let’s use music as an example. When I hear the formal unity of music, the ground of my experience consists in a kind of compatibility between what I hear and the faculty of imagination through which it is organised. Although the unity has its origin in me, it is attributed to an independent object.
Roger:Yes. In experiencing the unity I also sense a harmony between my rational faculties and the object (the sounds) to which they are applied. This sense of harmony between myself and the world is both the origin of my pleasure and also the ground of its universality.
Ian:Do we have to consciously think about it in order to feel pleasure?
Roger:No. In aesthetic experience we view ourselves in relation to a supersensible (that is, transcendental) reality that lies beyond the reach of thought. We become aware of our own limitations, of the grandeur of the world, and of the inexpressible good order that permits us to know and act on it.
Ian:It sounds almost religious.
Roger:You’re not the first person to say that...Kant’s remarks reinforce the interpretation of his aesthetics as a kind of ‘premonition’ of theology. Aesthetic judgement directs us toward the apprehension of a transcendent world, which is indeed an intimation of God.
Ian:Perhaps God is at the very limit of our understanding?
Roger:God is at the limit of knowability.
Roger:God is like nature in this regard. A person who can feel neither the solemnity nor the awesomeness of nature lacks in our eyes the necessary sense of his own limitations. He has not taken that "transcendental" viewpoint on himself from which all true morality springs.
Ian:So God and nature put us in our rightful place?
Roger:Yes. Practical reason and aesthetic experience humble us. They remind us that the world in its totality, conceived from no finite perspective, is not ours to know. This humility of reason is also the true object of esteem. Only this is to be reverenced in the rational being, that he feels and acts as a member of a transcendental realm, while recognizing that he can know only the world of nature. Aesthetic experience and practical reason are two aspects of the moral: and it is through morality that we sense both the transcendence and the immanence of God.
Ian:Does all moral law derive from God?
Roger:"The ideal of a supreme being is nothing but a regulative principle of reason, which directs us to look upon all connection in the world as if it originated from an all-sufficient and necessary cause."
Ian:Um, I’m not sure I understood that. Is it still OK to worship God?
Roger:The worship due to God becomes reverence and devotion for the moral law…The object of esteem is not the Supreme Being, but the supreme attribute of rationality.
Sexuality, Desire and Wedded Bliss
Ian:Is it true that Kant never got married? What did he think about sex?
Roger: That’s right. Kant described the married state as an agreement between two people for the "reciprocal use of each other’s sexual organs".
Ian:Did he think that was a good thing or a bad thing?
Roger:Kant didn’t think there was anything wrong with sex per se. Though he did think there are sexual acts in which the other is treated not as a person but as a thing, in which the subject is, so to speak, eclipsed by the object. This is a perversion, and it violates a fundamental duty to the other and to oneself. Kant thought we could be jeopardized by another’s desire. In these cases, our personality is at risk in our sexual encounters.
Ian:So, in summing up...
Roger:Kant’s philosophy describes the limits of knowledge, including objects-in-themselves about which we can know nothing. He recognised that we’re nevertheless tempted to transcend these limitations. His advice was like that of Wittgenstein: "That whereof we cannot speak, we must consign to silence." (less)
Notes are private!
Feb 09, 2013
Jun 30, 2013
Feb 09, 2013
Feb 17, 1981
(view spoiler)[“Exercises in Style” retells an apparently unremarkable tale ninety-nine times, employing a variety of styles, ranging from sonnet...more Blurb
(view spoiler)[“Exercises in Style” retells an apparently unremarkable tale ninety-nine times, employing a variety of styles, ranging from sonnet to cockney to mathematical formula. Too funny to be merely a pedantic thesis, this virtuoso set of themes and variations is a linguistic rust-remover, a guide to literary forms and a demonstration of imagery and inventiveness. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[I finally located my copy of this ingenuous little number in my attic and read it through again. I think my favourite mode has to be ‘HTML,’ where the narrator links to other computers in the world around him while telling the bus altercation story. I pursued some of these links, before getting lost and deciding that I had to retrace my steps, using a history file that my PC had compiled. It was funnier the third time around, oddly. I doubt whether I would even (get it? Even, not odd?) find it funny at all the fourth time around, but nothing ever is, sadly. I looked up some of the more specific verse forms that escaped me on the first two reads and, oddly, smiled even more knowingly than the first and second times. (A more knowing smile involves greater purchase on the lips of one's target or oneself). It fascinated me that there were things that I missed on my first two reads and that I would now tell you about them in my review. Perhaps, friends will appreciate that someone of my über-talent can be human after all. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[I enrolled at Loyola University Chicago, intending, I thought, to wrap up a Ph.D. in short order. It dawned on me in college that I should do some subsidiary reading of fiction. This was one of those subsidiary works, my greatest philosophical concerns being ethical. This book, assigned for Dave Schweickart's Social and Political Philosophy of Literature course, was far and away the most important book I read. Raymond Queneau was someone I had to understand. From the perspective of the class wherein this book was studied, the issue which most exercised the teacher--and, through him, us--was whether or not Queneau fully recognized the socio-linguistic implications of his assumptions and arguments. We were unable to reach a conclusion. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[What with my fear of spoilers and all, I found that the first story acted as a spoiler for all of the stories that followed it, so half way through the second story I hastily and impulsively shelved the book on my “ain-t-ever-going-to-happen” shelf, where it ain’t ever going to happen, I can assure you of that. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[Completely related aside:
This novel reminds me of my visit to MoMA. One of the works of art was '10 million years', basically all the numbers from 1 to 10 million written in 10 fat books. How artistic is that? Did anybody check the books? What if the artist had made a mistake towards the end of a book? On the artist's part, it must have taken a lot of patience and hard-work. It probably fed some sort of obsession of his. But no matter what it meant to him, to me it was just BLAH! I can be quite a lousy museum-goer. This novel is the same. Why these 99 stories? Are they the right stories? Are they the best stories? What did he leave out? Are we being short-changed? But really. Who cares? To me it was just BLAH! I can be quite a lousy reader. At least it wasn't a fat book. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[ While they make for an engaging and sometimes hilarious read, these stories also work with an overall conceit within the novel that concerns itself with the problematic relationship between philosophical thinking and human interaction. The characters bear such a close resemblance to their creator, that parsing the differences between intentional and unintentional personality traits imbued in them, and their subsequent significance in the novel, would be an exercise in futility rather than style. There is no doubt that philosophy, as a field of study and practice, takes as its defining characteristic to be critical thinking and a dependence on the foundations of logic. Whether intentional or not, the novel applies the practices of critical thinking and analysis to all aspects of the characters’ relationships with paranoiac intensity. Before I descend further into self-parody, let me pre-empt the reader by saying that a parody of me would just be a rambling, self-conscious, psuedo-philosophical rant with a ton a grammatical mistakes. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[Having read the original French edition, I thought I would translate it into Swedish. I think it was the better for it. Certainly not, thought so. I mean, certainly, not thought so. I incorporated a cryptic but admiring mathematical reference into the preface for not. I have never seen not so humble as when she encountered my dedication while reading quietly in bed. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[Dammit - you've grabbed the hot seat. I wanted to sit there. Now I'll have to settle for being the stooge who always arrives late bleating on about conflated misandry. So I have all of these big fat post-modernist books I’ve just bought and now I have to review them. How should I begin? I debated in the quiet chambers of my mind many hours how to review this book. No, I’ve used that before. I flung ideas at my ever-patient partner about the dialectic of why I thought what I thought, asking to be challenged because this book is seductive by nature and intellectual by design and how can a reader resist the temptation to attack such a potent combination? No, I’m an anarchist. Nobody will believe me when I use the word “dialectic”. Sitting in the bus, up the back with the other non-conformists, I wrote many opening sentences and discarded those, concocted a structure and buried it under a dense blanket of autobiographical rhetoric which I consigned to the bonfire of my vanity, and considered simply silence, as the excruciating riposte. And so after all this deliberation, I chose silence. I had reached my stop. It was time for me to get off. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[It says on the back this book is a meditation on the nature of fiction. So, what is fiction? Fiction is when someone gently tugs this book out of your hands and says "You don't need to read this continental crap, dear. You're coming to bed with me." (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[Fit Enough to Read
My wife is the one
Who exercises in style,
While I just read books. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[I feel a slight anger towards the author for playing this trick on me, for leading me on into reading the entire book, without giving me anything new which I had not received from the first story. Usually when I decide to read a book, I do it with the knowledge that I will gain something new with each chapter, but Queneau gave me none of that.
What I do appreciate about this reading experience is this: as is stated in the novel, anything that happens only once might as well have not happened at all - does it then apply that any novel that consists of less than one story repeated or recurring, might as well have not been written at all? (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[ After finishing Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises in Style”, I had to step back awhile before reviewing in fear I would simply come across as an overzealous cheerleader yelling ‘Give me an R!....Give me an A!...Give me a Y!....,etc, etc’. Like a teenage romance, I was so blinded by my love for this collection and author that I wasn’t sure exactly what it was I loved so much, and if this brightly burning passion was distracting me from the flaws and faults that I wouldn’t realize were there until much later. After giving some time to reflect, my overzealousness has hardly died down and, through some helpful and insightful discussions and rereads of the stories with others (I highly recommend reading Garima's wonderfully comprehensive review!), I have not only been able to pinpoint my feelings on the book, but my appreciation has only continued to grow. The stories in this collection, while each varying dramatically at times in terms of style and voice, all seem to reflect upon the psychological implications of existing in the modern era of media and social pressures. Yeah this one was stunning, no, better than that, awesome. My joy is simply ineffable right now. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[It won’t be fair on my part to give stars to this book on a whole. There are 99 different stories written in distinct styles, some of which went well with me and some not so well. So I will give it three stars. But instead of a review, let me tell you a story about the author. Well, it was supposed to be about the author. I saw him many times around here, since I joined the GR Club. Sometimes having tete-a-tete with one of my friends and sometimes being the cynosure of some group discussions. I thought of approaching him on many occasions but I didn’t want to come up as somewhat forward and I wasn’t even sure if he was my TYPE. You see it’s a long term commitment and there are many things I need to be sure about like compatibility and I don’t even know anything about him yet and at the end I don’t wanna make a fool of myself. Then one day I saw him on the bus and he was arguing with an older man. Then he went and sat down in a spare seat. He seemed to be upset, so I worked up the courage to go up and talk to him. I approached him from behind and gently touched his shoulder. At first, he recoiled. Then he saw me and his mood changed. He smiled. It wasn’t Raymond Queneau after all. It was Sven. I turned around just as the older man was getting off the bus. I didn't get a really good look at his face, but if I'm not mistaken, it was Ian Graye. He can't even have a bus trip without getting into an argument with someone. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[I want those 37 minutes back! This book is awful; a total disaster. I’m sure the author was a very nice guy for a Frog and all but he can’t write worth shit. There is not a single identifiable character in this “novel,” and I mean not just a character I can identify with, but there’s not even a character in here. Well there’s two, but we know nothing more about them at the end than we do at the beginning. And plot? Are you kidding me? There is more plot in “A Postmodern Belch”. Plus it has more headings than an Ian Graye review. Of course I didn’t read the whole thing--I got tired of running to the dictionary every three pages just so I could understand the headings (why does every damn pomo author have to be so egotistical and use words us average readers don’t even know?) Anyone that says they’ve read this whole Exercise (“Vomit” would be more accurate) is a liar. This is worse than The Iliad my teacher forced me to read. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[Reluctant Cricket Dismissal
From where I stood at midwicket,
He sounded caught behind to me.
Still, given out by the umpire,
With a replay we all could see,
He refused to walk off the ground,
Fortified by his law degree,
He argued toe to toe with all
And even cursed and swore at me,
Until the keeper grabbed his shirt
And, buttonless, forced him to flee. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[Oh, my Dog, is it any wonder the French no longer have an Empire? Look at this crap, will you? Write one story 99 different ways and call it a novel? You’ve got to be kidding. This reminds me of the production assistant who asked me for a job once. She had a few CV entries that appealed to me, but I’m not allowed to discuss them on air. The big problem was that she, I mean they, said she, I mean they, had 20 years experience. But as soon as I gave her, I mean them, a trial, it turned out that she I mean they had just had one year’s experience, the same year, 20 times. It just doesn't work that way. Give me plot, give me character, give me character development. Fiction is not a chemistry experiment, where you mix up ingredients and hope it [does/doesn’t] blow up in the reader’s face. There is no suspense inherent in repetition. A reader doesn’t want to read something 99 times in the hope that the last time will be different. Give me a break, give me a break dance. Raymond Queneau is the Plastic Bertrand of French Fiction. I’m sorry, France, you should just stick to movies. Your actresses are HOT! HOT! HOT! Work them to the bone. Don’t even worry about your actors. They’re FAT! FAT! FAT! Oh, I forgot, he’s a Russian now. Maybe I should just cross to Rupert for the news. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[Haiku with Word Play
Needing a button,
He argued loudly, after which
He took affront seat. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[ This is definitely one great work :) There is much to be grasped here. Though I won't whole heatedly concur with all of the stories, some of them are great pearls to be cherished :) It can positively alter the thought process once you go beyond the text and try to relate it on a more personal level. It is one of my favorites :) I apologize if I haven't been clearer. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[I have to admit I don't comprehend this book. It seems like the author is retelling the story in the novel. Is that what it is supposed to be? In which case it really has nothing to do with what a conventional book is, but rather is the author's tag-along take on what he has already done?
I'm not trying to be critical here, but simply trying to explain why I don't see much in this book that speaks to me. I guess I'm too old and too conventional. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[You can tell that story in 99 chapters? Well, I can tell it in nine, better still, one! I'm sick of Raymond Queneau fans gushing over his economy with words and his simple sentence styles. I can appreciate why that sort of minimalism takes skill to master, but I'm a reader for chrissakes - I want to be told a story, not subjected to a sort of narrative and syntactical bloodletting, experimenting with how many different ways we can tell the same story and still have it live. Nobody swoons over the latest car that looks like every other damned car on the road. Nobody runs around recommending their friends to try out the new burger joint in town that gives you the same fascist shit as the Golden Arches. I want content! Narrative abundance! I want to be entertained!! I'll take Proust's runon cumulative sentences over Queneau's narrative and locutional anemia any day. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[ Interest in random text generation appears to have begun with the famous, though untested, proposition that an infinite number of monkeys with infinite time at their keyboards would ultimately reproduce Shakespeare. Of course, pure randomness without some kind of structure is a highly inefficient path toward literary art. Plus, the process is just as likely to produce piggy porn as it is to emulate Queneau (granting, for our purposes, that there is a distinction to be made). While the exact algorithm used by Queneau (1981) to produce “Exercises in Style” (henceforth EIS) was never documented, we contend that the method proposed in this review is, on average, in a repeated sampling context, observationally equivalent. As is true of any simulation, there is a deterministic component and a random component. Simulated paths will vary, but the statistical distributions from which the stochastic terms are sampled match those of EIS. (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[Was I searching for such lust when I entered the bus? I knew the recognizable twinge springing through my warm body when I saw this book laying amid the boisterous articles on the vacant bus seat; the quintessential oddball novel. I had devoured it once, in one sitting or was it between my silken sheets with that night’s sorry lover? Was I truly prepared for the experience once again? Ecstasy swayed in my cold perspiration. The unbearable sighs in the offing for a consequential release; the chronic tapping of feet on the cold floor of the slow riding bus; was I geared up for all? The thought of “Exercises in Style” was more pleasurable than diamond fields and spouter whales. A strange man was just a few breaths away and audaciously gawking at my hand which was meantimes venturing its wiry way between my legs. Politely, I excuse myself from his offered help and dash out of the bus hoping I do not see him again. I realise I have left the book on the bus seat. I chase the bus afterwards, until the next stop where it unloads that cute American girl I’ve spoken to a few times and she is holding a copy of said book. I follow her... (hide spoiler)]
(view spoiler)[Give me a bus ride compromised by emotion, drugs, unreliable narrators spilling their guts to a psychedelic riddle that crosses consciousness and space-time continuum. Give me a French bus driver, chain smoking and complaining about the President’s celebrity wife. Give me Lolita. Give me American Psycho. Give me unrelenting displays of cruelty and abuse and subsequent coping mechanisms whose effects are just as vicious as their causes, and sprinkle them with laugh out loud moments clouded by the memories of the aforementioned atrocities. Give me David Foster Wallace. Give me recognition that the brain is an organ just as unwieldy and unreliable as the heart or the kidney, and thinking your way out of something is sometimes the worst possible decision you could ever make. Give me Kafka. Give me the paragon of masculinity breaking down into snotty sobs in front of an openly weeping crowd of fellow human beings, in a transport system that cannot possibly work until it does. Give me Thomas Mann. Give me the revival of hope in mankind, embodied in the briefest touch between one masquerading as the dregs of society, and one unaware of their hopeless plight to a heartrending degree. Give me China Mieville. Give me the type of author who has weird and fantastical dreams that all too easily dip into nightmares and back again, undergoing a number of cycles in a single night. Dreams that he can't help writing down to share with the rest of us. Give me miscommunication on a truly horrendous scale, conversers following their own narratives with minuscule attention paid to their conversees, many pairs of these circling in a bus with no clear and singular "plot". Give me something Gallic, some book that is just so right for this France, this Paris, this creative beacon that teems with contagious culture and ridiculous fashions to this very day, one that can be silly but is often so very, very brave. Give me a book that contains a Truth that will have its way with me that I didn't realize I desperately craved until I am lying on the floor, breathless and aching with tears flowing freely down my cheeks, stunned in the realization that I am not the only one in the room and, yes, oh my God, that adorable Indian woman who I have seen a few times on the short bus, Praj, is beside me. She smiles. She inspects my vulnerability with a professional but slightly perverse gaze. She lifts her hand, moves it slowly, suggestively, sensuously, sibilantly, towards me, and, oh oh, she rests it gently on my book. Then, without further ado, she rises and is gone from my room. So is the book. Yet again, I have found myself lost in alliteration. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Notes are private!
Feb 20, 2013
Feb 22, 2013
Jan 09, 2013
May 10, 1985
To the extent that Freud might have thought he was creating the foundations of a science, that is not his appeal to me.
I see him as m...more Freud's Metaphors
To the extent that Freud might have thought he was creating the foundations of a science, that is not his appeal to me.
I see him as making first, tentative steps to explore and map the human psyche in a language that makes extensive use of metaphor, particularly the metaphor implicit and explicit in Greek and Roman mythology.
My first appreciation of Freud was literary, rather than scientific. A lot of his early embrace outside the immediate sphere of psychoanalysis, in the broader cultural sphere, resulted from the quality of his prose.
However, just as mythology tended to reflect a masculine worldview, so too did the use Freud made of it.
He never solved "the woman question", nor did he purport to. That task fell to those who followed him, even if it threatened the metaphorical framework that he had created. However, psychoanalysis was and is a work in progress.
I still look upon it as a quest for new and more appropriate metaphors and literary analogies.
Feminism is one of the greatest sources of new metaphors, and this is where I think Luce Irigaray makes an enormous contribution to not just psychoanalysis, but an understanding of language and the practice and interpretation of literature.
One of Irigaray's greatest contributions has been to question the male foundations of Freud's version of psychoanalysis:
"Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters. Thus the opposition between "masculine" clitoral activity and "feminine" vaginal passivity, an opposition which Freud - and many others - saw as stages, or alternatives, in the development of a sexually "normal" woman, seems rather too clearly required by the practice of male sexuality...
"In these terms, woman's erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris (sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ), or a 'hole-envelope' that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse (a non-sex, or a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self-embracing).
"About woman and her pleasure, this view of the sexual relation has nothing to say. Her lot is that of "lack," "atrophy" (of the sexual organ), and "penis envy," the penis being the only sexual organ of recognized value."
This analysis builds on Simone De Beauvoir's ideas in "The Second Sex".
Most of De Beauvoir's Introduction describes how male thinking positions males as the Self and females as the Other (and therefore inferior).
De Beauvoir discusses the male perception of himself as "positive" (to which she adds "neutral"), while males perceive females as "negative" ("defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity").
In terms of the "lack" associated with Freud and "penis envy", she actually quotes Aristotle:
"The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities...we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness."
Irigaray attacks the phallic basis of psychoanalysis and posits a wildly different framework of feminine sexuality in terms of a more extensive definition of genitalia, sexual apparatus, sensation and sensitivity, even if she uses highly metaphorical, rather than biological, language:
"...woman has sex organs just about everywhere ...feminine language is more diffusive than its 'masculine counterpart'. That is undoubtedly the reason...her language...goes off in all directions and...he [man] is unable to discern the coherence."
Women have a far greater potential to masturbate, touch, pleasure and embrace themselves than the masculine limitation to the singular penis.
Women's potential is diffuse and diverse and plural and optional.
Men might think the feminine is not a sex, that it is "not one", that it is less, but in fact it is more, it is many, it is manifold.
In positing this concept, she develops a whole new language to discuss sexuality, starting with female sexuality.
Equality in Difference
De Beauvoir uses the term "equality in difference" in the Introduction to "The Second Sex".
Although she has reservations about the connotations of the term, she definitely opposes the belief that women are the same as men, whether or not men see them as an inferior version.
Irigaray highlights sexual difference, although she believes that sexual difference is a product of language and linguistics, not anatomy (hence she is not actually a biological essentialist).
Irigaray believes that women need to develop a new language or use of language that frees them (and men) from the male parameters implicit in current language.
In a way, men and women share "la langue", but she believes that there is a male subjectivity built into it, which also affects "la parole" and the way women communicate.
Irigaray's clinical research forced her to conclude that women are not subjects in language in the same way that men are. Hence, the need for a "parler-femme" and inter-subjectivity.
In her later work, Irigaray speaks in terms of a respect for difference without hierarchy:
"In order to go beyond a limit, there must be a boundary. To touch one another in intersubjectivity, it is necessary that two subjects agree to the relationship and that the possibility to consent exists. Each must have the opportunity to be a concrete, corporeal and sexuate subject, rather than an abstract, neutral, fabricated, and fictitious one."
Irigaray's later approach has been called "mutual feminism".
It is not a form of feminist separatism. Once women acquire their own language, the challenge is to found relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, that recognise that the partners are genuinely equal but different.
Her quest is to create a "we" out of an "I" and a "you".
Irigaray as Literature
Irigaray is a latterday demagogue. She is not content to just analyse, she wants to advocate and practise as well.
She is not content to merely propose the development of a new feminine language, she wants to use it in her own writings. She wants to make an example of herself.
As a result, her essays and books have a literary and metaphorical style and tone.
They constitute a new "feminine imaginary".
It is not for the narrow-minded or pedantic or dull or unimaginative, which in a way is a tragedy, for they are the ones who most need it, whether they are male or female.
I love her writing. It's like watching a circus performance or a fireworks display. It stimulates me. It stimulates all of me, all over. I can feel the power of her language in my whole body, but especially in my mind and my imagination. Her fusion of creativity, intelligence, language and sexuality turns me on like a light bulb.
For me, to improve on or supplant Freud's primacy, it wasn't just necessary to counter his analysis, it was necessary to counter his metaphorical and literary power.
Irigaray is doing just that. More power to her, but equally more prose and poetry from her.
A Woman's Touch
Please don't let my choice
Of rhyme scheme or words
Cause any affront.
A woman can touch
It's not just a stunt,
Her breasts, her belly,
Her lips, her ears,
Without being blunt,
Her behind, even
The naughty bits down
Below at the front. (less)
Notes are private!
Nov 12, 2013
Jan 09, 2013
Feb 11, 1994
A Miller’s Tale
If "Tropic of Cancer" was Henry Miller’s debut album, an outspoken work of radical sexual and philosophical self-revelation, then "Blac...more A Miller’s Tale
If "Tropic of Cancer" was Henry Miller’s debut album, an outspoken work of radical sexual and philosophical self-revelation, then "Black Spring" is a lesser, sophomore work that is a shadow of the debut.
Though it is still a worthy effort, it is a lesser work in many ways. It is shorter, it isn’t one continuous work that flows inexorably from beginning to end. It is more or less 10 semi-autobiographical works, each with its own chapter title, much like a collection of essays. Indeed, some of the chapters were individually submitted for publication in magazines.
Sexuality is only one subject matter out of many. Paris is only one setting. Miller’s hometown of Brooklyn is equally, if not more, important.
There is a greater concern with Henry Miller the person, the individual, rather than Henry Miller, the lover, the fucquer.
Ironically, the novel is dedicated to Anais Nin, his lover, who helped fund its publication. Perhaps both were trying to prove to the world that he was a serious writer who could write about more than sex, at least from a masculine point of view.
European What Not
Miller’s tale commences in Brooklyn. He describes himself as a patriot of the Fourteenth Ward, now known as Williamsburg. His father was for a period a tailor in the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and 30th Street, Manhattan (near the former Hotel Wolcott).
His family came from Germany ("Hurrah for the German Fifth!"). He describes "the freaks who made up the living family tree". He identifies not only with his family background, but its German and European origins. In both "Tropic of Cancer" and "Black Spring", he refers to Goethe.
"I am a man of the old world, a seed that was transplanted by the wind, a seed which failed to blossom in the mushroom oasis of America. I belong on the heavy tree of the past. My allegiance, physical and spiritual, is with the men of Europe, those who were once Franks, Gauls, Vikings, Huns, Tatars, what not."
Miller derives his ambition from European roots:
"Once I thought there were marvelous things in store for me...I was part of the great tree, part of the past, with crest and lineage, with pride, pride...Always merry and bright!"
In the Street
Miller prides himself on the toughness he learned in the streets of Brooklyn. The street is where you find truth. The street is authentic and real:
"What is not in the street is false, derived, that is to say, literature."
It’s the sensibility of the street that he brings to his fiction, that and the street-wise cynicism of the street-walker. He doesn’t imagine himself writing from a gentleman’s study, but from a poverty-stricken artist’s garret.
Once in the street, you are part of the world, and you could be anywhere.
A Walk, A Dream, A Reverie
Miller claims, "I am not a traveler, not an adventurer," but he is a walker, and his walking takes him first from childhood to youth and then to adulthood, but eventually to Paris, all the time seeking out something, himself.
He sees youth as whole and undivided. "There was no sharp separation between joy and sorrow: they fused into one, as our waking life fuses with dream and sleep." Then comes "the great fragmentation of maturity. The great change":
"...All things, as we walk, splitting with us into a myriad iridescent fragments…We live in the mind, in ideas, in fragments. We no longer drink in the wild outer music of the streets – we remember only. Like a monomaniac we relive the drama of youth."
Miller explored these Proustian concerns in "Tropic of Cancer" as well. Here, he adds:
"One passes imperceptibly from one scene, one age, one life to another. Suddenly, walking down a street, be it real or be it a dream, one realises for the first time that the years have flown, that all this has passed forever and will live on only in memory; and then the memory turns inward with a strange, clutching brilliance and one goes over these scenes and incidents perpetually, in dream and reverie, while walking a street, while lying with a woman, while reading a book, while talking to a stranger..."
Miller wants to reinstate his wholeness (though not necessarily his wholesomeness), and he will wander everywhere, walk anywhere in his quest for wholeness.
In Search of His Roots
If you’ll permit me to descend into the Australian vernacular, Miller didn’t just return to Europe in pursuit of sexual conquests, he was seeking an alternative to the industrial and materialistic life he found in America:
"Things happened to me in my search for a way out. Up till now I had been working away in a blind tunnel, burrowing in the bowels of the earth for light and water. I could not believe, being a man of the American continent, that there was a place on earth where a man could be himself."
Europe was to be that place, well, at least Paris.
I assume that Berlin and Vienna were less appealing in the early Thirties, because of the contemporaneous ascent of Nazism, though Miller imagines Germany in the following terms in a dream:
"Everything is sordid, shoddy, thin as pasteboard. A Coney Island of the mind...Everything is sliding and crumbling, everything glitters, totters, teeters, titters."
Paris gives Miller the freedom to think and to write, notwithstanding his abject poverty, having resolved not to get a job:
"Here I am in the womb of time and nothing will jolt me out of my stillness. One more wanderer who has found the flame of his restlessness. Here I sit in the open street composing my song."
Despite his romanticisation of Europe, he realises that it, too, is changing:
"The map of Europe is changing before our eyes; nobody knows where the new continent begins or ends...I am here in the midst of a great change. I have forgotten my own language and yet I do not speak the new language."
The Great Wall of China
Miller hopes that a new world will emerge from these changes and his own explorations.
He describes this brave new world as "China", not necessarily the nation "China", but a metaphorical place, like the “East” that Hermann Hesse adverts to.
The metaphor seems to derive from his sense of a wall:
"In Paris, out of Paris, leaving Paris or coming back to Paris, it's always Paris and Paris is France and France is China. All that which is incomprehensible to me runs like a great wall over the hills and valleys through which I wander. Within this great wall I can live out my Chinese life in peace and security...
"By force of circumstance. I became a Chinaman - a Chinaman in my own country! I took to the opium of dream in order to face the hideousness of a life in which I had no part. As quietly and naturally as a twig falling into the Mississippi I dropped out of the stream of American life."
The Song of Love
Miller sings his song while the world around him is collapsing:
"I see America spreading disaster. I see America as a black curse upon the world. I see a long night settling in and that mushroom which has poisoned the world withering at the roots...
"I am dazzled by the glorious collapse of the world!"
Ironically, it’s within this context of destruction that he will learn to write:
"The climate for my body and soul is here where there is quickness and corruption. I am proud not to belong to this century."
In essence, what he wishes to write about is not the world around him, not its history, not its politics, not its ideological future:
"Tomorrow you may bring about the destruction of your world…but tonight I would like to think of one man, a lone individual, a man without a name or country, a man whom I respect because he has absolutely nothing in common with you - MYSELF. Tonight I shall meditate upon that which I am."
As does Walt Whitman, "I celebrate myself, and sing myself".
Miller refers to a God, though it’s arguable that it’s not the God of Christianity:
"It is no sacred heart that inspires me, no Christ I am thinking of. Something better than a Christ, something bigger than a heart, something beyond God Almighty I think of - MYSELF. I am a man. That seems to me sufficient."
So above all else it is himself with whom Miller is in love, and he is both the subject and the object of his Song of Love.
This Animal, This Man is Some Body
Miller’s song is his book:
"For me the book is the man and my book is the man I am…I am a man without a past and without a future. I am - that is all."
Miller is content to "be". In the language of Erich Fromm, he doesn’t need to "have", to acquire and horde materialistic possessions.
At the heart of what Miller’s Man is, is the body:
"In the honeycomb I am, in the warm belly of the Sphinx. The sky and the earth they tremble with the live, pleasant weight of humanity. At the very core is the body. Beyond is doubt, despair, disillusionment. The body is the fundament, the imperishable."
Of course, in the mind of a male, the body takes his own shape:
"I am a man of God and a man of the Devil. To each his due. Nothing eternal, nothing absolute. Before me always the image of the body, our triune god of penis and testicles."
Womanhood must be described in the same terms, if for no other reason than authenticity:
"I want a world where the vagina is represented by a crude, honest slit, a world that has feeling for bone and contour, for raw primary colours, a world that has fear and respect for its animal origins."
Who’s This Man?
One last comment about the man before we talk about sex. This is the essence of Miller as he sees himself:
"Because of Uranus which crosses my longitudinal I am inordinately fond of qunt, hot chitterlings, and water bottles...I am volatile, quixotic, unreliable, independent, and evanescent. Also quarrelsome...in short, I am an idle fellow who pisses his time away. I have absolutely nothing to show for my labors except my genius..."
An Inordinate Fondness
There is much more about Miller’s inordinate fondness in "Tropic of Cancer" than there is in "Black Spring".
However, there are two scenes that are examples of what Kate Millett criticizes in "Sexual Politics".
In my review of "Tropic of Cancer", I mentioned his "sexual exuberance".
On page 96, Miller’s protagonist goes to the home of a recent widow with whose beauty he is infatuated.
They are sitting next to each other on the couch, when, after some formalities and sobbing…
"I finally bent over and without saying a word I raised her dress and slipped it into her...she was a pushover...I thought to myself what a sap you’ve been to wait for so long."
On page 123, on a train during rush hour, he is "pressed up against a woman so tight I can feel the hair on her twat. So tightly glued together my knuckles are making a dent in her groin."
Millett refers to the pushover comment in terms of Miller’s and men’s belief that "such opportunities are missed only for the lack of enterprise or through adherence to false ideals."
Men are supposed to have absolute licence, and women are supposed to be perpetually available for sex. In other words, all women are supposed to be as available as whores, except that they should expect no payment or consideration.
Millett makes no comment on the second scene. However, it contains within it a more explicit threat of sexual violence.
The protagonist alights at the same stop as the woman, then follows her up to street level, until he decides that she is not interested in sex and he ends his pursuit.
Later that night, he considers that he "ought to go back to the subway, grab a Jane and rape her in the street".
To the extent that this scene captures what goes on in the mind of a stranger, it is a caution to all women.
While Millett is highly critical of some of Miller’s sexual descriptions, she does preface her comments as follows:
"Miller is a compendium of American sexual neuroses, and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions, but in having had the honesty to express and dramatise them…What Miller did articulate was the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence, and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically, its masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality. And women too; for somehow it is women upon whom this onerous burden of sexuality falls."
While Millett wrote these words in 1969 and I think there is much of literary merit in Miller’s writing, I don’t think Millett’s views should be dismissed, even though it’s over forty years later.
"Tropic of Cancer"
My review of the first volume in the trilogy, "Tropic of Cancer", is here:
Notes are private!
Apr 17, 2013
Apr 21, 2013
Dec 01, 2012
The Strange Workings of Time
The act of telling a story takes up time, it prolongs time and, in doing so, prolongs life.
It preserves memories while we...more The Strange Workings of Time
The act of telling a story takes up time, it prolongs time and, in doing so, prolongs life.
It preserves memories while we are alive, but it can also preserve them beyond our death.
Paradoxically, story-telling might even help us to accept death.
As Marias’ protagonist, Victor, says:
"I can tell the story and I can therefore explain the transition from life to death, which is a way of both prolonging that life and accepting that death."
Expecting to Reign
Victor’s story starts with an "unconsummated infidelity" and the unexplained, but natural, death of his new paramour, Marta.
Marias and Victor get the death out of the way in the very first sentence:
"No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember."
A life has to be extinguished, so that the story may commence.
Man Ray, "Natasha", 1930
Committed to Memory
Proust and Joyce have likewise been concerned with the nature of memory and its ability to preserve both time and place in minute detail.
However, moreso than them, I feel, Marias is also interested in what happens to the memories of someone after they die.
Just as Marta dies in Victor’s arms, he wants to find out what really happened that night and why.
He tries to keep her memory alive by investigating her death.
So he starts to tell a story, a metaphysical detective story. He wants to flesh out his few memories of Marta, detail by detail, clue by clue, and we watch him, fascinated, as he pieces it all together.
Towards Our Own Dissolution
Marias offers us a mental snapshot of Marta at the point of death.
We hear her plead, "Don’t leave me...Hold me, hold me, please, hold me," as she lies foetus-like, half-naked and vulnerable on the bed. Then she exclaims, "Oh God, the child", thinking of someone else, her two-year old son, at the very end.
Soon Victor discovers that Marta’s husband is on his trail, and the progress of the novel concerns how their two stories come together in a slow-build denouement.
The novel flows towards this end in the same almost stream of consciousness manner that the narrative of Virginia Woolf’s "Mrs Dalloway" moves inexorably to its conclusion.
As time goes by, we move unwittingly closer to some sort of understanding, some knowledge, completion, closure, just as in life we move towards our own death.
In Marias' words, "We slowly travel towards our own dissolution", our own end, the end of our memories and stories.
How Little Trace Remains
Time itself has no interest in memories. Memories are passengers, a burden to it. They’re not the main game.
Life is a sequence of actions and thoughts. Once each of them happens or occurs, they are, in time’s eyes, spent, gone:
"How little trace remains of anything."
Just as we have to make an effort to keep love alive, we have to make an effort to keep memories alive.
The Passage of Time
Time just wants to move forward, openly, in the light, its own source of light, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible.
What has occurred in the past is of no consequence to time, its goal is the future, which it gets to via the present.
Time has neither a goal, nor a purpose nor even a direction, other than the movement forward, ahead, which is really no more than a measure of the elapse of time, the passage of time.
So, perhaps, time is nothing, really. Time is nothing, in reality. It has no value, it is worthless:
"All time is useless..."
Darkness and Light
Marias suggests that there are two sides to time. The light and the dark.
The light is time itself. The darkness, the reverse side of time, the absence of light, is what we humans bring to it, what we make of it, the shadows that are created as time shines on and around us.
It takes us to impose utility on time, to make it useful, and one of the ways we do so is memory.
Memories are Made of This
Memory is a conscious act. We memorise things, in order to preserve them:
"I will try to remember, on the reverse side of time along which you are already travelling."
Literature is a record of other people’s memories, both fictitious and real.
We read so that we can experience and preserve these memories, perhaps so that we can enjoy them vicariously, so that we can experiment and explore and learn, without scope for personal error or embarrassment.
Likewise, a photo captures a person’s soul at a particular time, which soon recedes into the past, but the photo remains.
What we remember, what we memorise is the things we think and do. And what we think and do revolves around our desires.
Man Ray, "Femme Endormie" or "Sleeping Woman", 1932
Seeking and Wanting
Marias explores how we "seek and want" in our lives. We pursue pleasure. We eschew pain. We chase others and occasionally catch them. We present ourselves as the answer to their desires:
"Tell me what would be best for you."
It’s implicit in this command or plea or request that we might be able to provide what is best for the other.
Perhaps, we do so in order to experience a moment or more of unreality, of fantasy, of enchantment.
We put enormous energy into our desires, our seeking and our wanting. They exhaust us, they haunt us, they make us weary. We spend our lives oscillating between "weariness and desire".
A Ridiculous Disaster
Frequently, we become the victim of our own desires, and perhaps the desires of others.
Marias doesn’t shy away from the absurd in his description of the life and death experiences of his characters:
"Marta’s death wasn’t just horrible, it was ridiculous."
There is something farcical about the way Marias tells aspects of his story (Victor’s meeting with the King, the indecorous, scoundrel nature of his friend and double, Ruiberriz de Torres, their hilarious visit to the racecourse).
Initially, for me, the sense of farce undermined the gravity of Marias’ novel (and is ultimately why I have given it four stars rather than five).
Perhaps, I was taking him too seriously, or only seriously? Perhaps, my essentially Anglo perspective was getting in the way of this literary version of Pedro Almodavar?
From the Ridiculous to the Sublime
Ultimately, however, I think Marias' story had to incorporate these farcical moments, because life and love do.
We do things that embarrass ourselves. We do things of which we are ashamed. We do things that horrify ourselves and others.
We endeavour to hide our flaws, so that we can protect our self-esteem and our reputation. But life doesn’t just include, it embraces, the horrible and the ridiculous and the shameful. We have to acknowledge it, we have to accept it, we have to accommodate it.
Ultimately, we can’t edit the ridiculous and the shameful out of our life, our story or our life story. We know they exist, as do others. Others watch, others know they exist, others remember. The collective knowledge can’t be extinguished:
"So much else goes on behind our backs, our capacity for knowledge is so limited."
The Collective Consciousness of the Past
Memories and knowledge aren’t just individual. We alone can’t know everything.
Collectively, there is a reservoir of knowledge about all of us, lodged in our minds and memories. We have to put our heads together, and our minds, and our memories.
As a result, the loss of one individual, on death, does not necessarily detract from the collective bank of knowledge.
Still, we only live on after death in the minds of others, in their memories. One day, then, when our last friend or relative dies, there will be no one left to remember us, there will be no memory of us, and we will finally be dead to time.
This has been the way of all flesh for all of time, for eternity. We are part of a continuum, not of time, but of memories. In this way, "the recent present seems like the remote past".
But the past must one day come to an end.
The Special Ridiculousness of the Male of the Species
Marias frequently describes incidents as ridiculous or a disaster or a ridiculous disaster.
There is something peculiarly male in how he goes about this.
In Marta’s case, it was her death that was ridiculous. In Victor’s case, it was his desire, the way he and we males go about seeking and wanting.
There is something vaguely grubby and vulgar in his lascivious gaze, his analysis of Marta’s too small bra and panties, his unsatiated horniness, his subsequent lust for Marta’s younger sister Luisa (now the only surviving one of three sisters):
"I had still not seen that new body that was sure to please me."
Victor proclaims, "I never sought it, I never wanted it," but we don’t believe him. It's in his nature. It's in ours.
Marias sums it up beautifully:
"...only a man is capable of describing as disastrous a night that has not come up to expectations, a night when he had expected to have a fuck, but hadn’t..."
Note how a male converts desire into an expectation, an anticipation, a prediction of what time has in store for him, and so recalls the setup of the novel:
"No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms."
Back then, it seemed like a tragedy, in fact, at heart it is, but Marias’ skill is to make us realise that, at least as far as Victor is concerned, there is an element of farce in this tale of folly and failure as well.
A Time for Shame
If memory is intrinsically linked to desire, then it must embody expectation, just as much as actuality. A memory is not necessarily true, nor does it necessarily reflect well on us.
Memory, true memory, captures the past, our "folly and failure", warts and all:
"We are ashamed of far too many things, of our appearance and of past beliefs, of our ingenuousness and ignorance, of the submission or pride we once displayed, of our transigence and intransigence, of all the many things we proposed or said without conviction, of having fallen in love with whoever it was we fell in love with and of having been a friend of whoever it was we were friends with, our lives are often a continuous betrayal and denial of what came before, we twist and distort everything as time passes, and yet we are the keepers of secrets and mysteries, however trivial."
An End to Shame and Ridicule
Only death brings relief to the shame and ridicule we have brought upon ourselves:
"Goodbye laughter, goodbye scorn."
However, death also takes everything that was good about a life, the effort, the achievements, the rewards, the friends, the family, the love, so Marias adds:
”And goodbye ardour, goodbye memories.”
Death is inevitable, and one day the present must come to an end.
"Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me"
The title of the novel comes from Shakespeare’s "Richard III":
"Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword: despair and die!"
It is reiterated many times throughout the text, although there is no clear explanation of its significance.
In the play, the lines are spoken to Richard by the ghosts of his previous victims, who forsee his fate, death in battle.
They contrast with the message to Richmond:
"Thou offspring of the house of Lancaster/The wrongèd heirs of York do pray for thee/Good angels guard thy battle. Live and flourish."
Perhaps there is a suggestion that Evil will be divinely punished, and Good will be rewarded.
However, elsewhere in the novel, Marias questions this inference.
He seems to suggest that we are the sum of our desires and expectations, which are founded in our memories:
"No one ever ceases to be immersed in life as long as they have a consciousness and a few memories to ponder, more than that, it is a person's memories that make every living being dangerous and full of desires and expectations."
Clearly, he thinks that our desires and expectations can be misguided, but is it wrong to be misguided, is it wrong to be dangerous?
Is it an inevitable consequence of Free Will, even if we purport to believe in Fate or Determinism?
"The living also believe that what has never happened can still happen, they believe in the most dramatic and most unlikely reversals of fortune, the sort of thing that happens in history and in stories, they believe that a traitor or beggar or murderer can become king and the head of the emperor fall beneath the blade, that a great beauty can love a monster or that the man who killed her beloved and brought about her ruin can succeed in seducing her, they believe that lost battles can be won, that the dead never really leave but watch over us or appear to us as ghosts who can influence events, that the youngest of three sisters could, one day, be the eldest."
There is a skepticism about Fate and Divinity here. Yet, it has to be weighed against the fact that, in the novel, Marta’s youngest sister does end up being the oldest of the three.
Perhaps then Marias’ message is that our desires and expectations might be misguided, they might be subjective, but at least they are ours, and they might just happen.
As long as we are alive, as long as we hold our swords aloft, as long as there is ardour, as long as there is effort, there is hope.
Memories are made of this. And stories.
"Don’t leave me...Hold me, hold me, please, hold me."
Nick Cave – "Into My Arms"
"...I believe in love
And I know that you do too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you
"So keep your candles burning
Make her journey bright and pure
That she will keep returning
Always and evermore
"Into my arms, oh Lord
Into my arms, oh Lord
Into my arms, oh Lord
Into my arms"
Man Ray, "Natasha", 1929
Original Review: April 03, 2013(less)
Notes are private!
Mar 28, 2013
Apr 02, 2013
Nov 24, 2012
Blood on the Tracks
Every one of us is a potential criminal, a potential killer, a potential murderer.
The question is: what circumstances would justif...more Blood on the Tracks
Every one of us is a potential criminal, a potential killer, a potential murderer.
The question is: what circumstances would justify the crime, what situation would warrant us murdering someone?
If someone attacked one of our children, would we attack the assailant? If we went to war, would we kill for our country?
If the past was at war with the future, would we kill for the sake of the past, or would we kill for the sake of the future?
Well, the past is always at war with the future, so what are we going to do?
Will we kill, or will we sit back and wait for the war to end?
How can a war between the past and the future ever end?
How can we not kill?
Is Nature at war with Modernity? Is Realism at war with Modernism? Are Realism and Modernism at war with Post-Modernism?
Would you kill for Post-Modernism?
Regardless, come inside.
Up Against the Wall
I struggled with this novel for almost a half of its length. Perhaps a less patient or persistent reader would have thrown the book against the wall.
However, if I had done so, I would have missed out on one of the greatest reading experiences I have ever had.
Everything I read about the novel in advance, not much apart from the blurb, suggested that it was a post-modernist work. However, this did not reconcile with the words in front of me.
Initially, it came across as a jumble of very realist descriptions and lists and highly abstract concepts, occasionally in alternating paragraphs.
The narrative seemed to hop up and down on one foot, before passing arbitrarily to the other, for a while, and then back again.
A Life of Crime
I read on, puzzled, then finally I started to realise that I might now have all of the pieces, at which point a picture started to assemble in front of me.
I had done a lot of the work, but the author had placed the pieces there for me, like clues.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk worked like a criminal, leaving enough clues for me to find, so that I could eventually identify the culprit myself.
"The New Life" might be metaphysical, it might be meta-fiction, but it also has many of the qualities of crime fiction.
Around chapter 13, it all came together, after which it was a roller-coaster ride. The last 100 pages just blew me away.
Skimming through my notes in order to compose this review, I realised just how subtle and widespread were the clues.
If you can be bothered to read the book once, I’m sure it will repay a second reading.
For a long time I questioned whether this was a minor work by a Nobel Prize Winner, alternatively did he really deserve the Prize?
Having finished, I feel this novel is a major achievement, regardless of where it stands in his ouvre.
"I Read a Book One Day"
The first paragraph announces the novel’s intentions:
"I read a book one day and my whole life was changed…It was such a powerful influence that the light surging from the pages illumined my face; its incandescence dazzled my intellect but also endowed it with a brilliant lucidity.
"This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace…
"It was with dread that I became aware of the complete transformation of the world around me, and I was overtaken by a feeling of loneliness I had never before experienced – as if I had been stranded in a country where I knew neither the lay of the land nor the language and the customs."
Within 24 hours, the narrator, a 22 year old engineering student (whom I won’t name), has fallen in love and is seeking out the truth of the book, the “meaning of life” and therefore a "new life":
"Love was every bit as devastating as the light that surged from the book into my face, proving to me how substantially my life had already gone off the track."
At first, I suspected that the book must have been a political tract like “The Communist Manifesto” or a religious Holy Book or a counter-cultural tome like those that proliferated in the 60’s and occasionally more recently ("Eat, Pray, Rebel").
However, Pamuk doesn’t reveal much about the contents of the book, even its name comes late in the novel, if it can be believed.
Instead, we learn about it by its effect on its readers. They become converts, though because of its nature, they are secretive. They disengage from mainstream life.
From the outside, they appear to be radicalized and subversive. Conservative political and religious groups feel threatened and start to attack back, one ultra-right group even killing a number of readers. They track down those who are "off track".
In just a few pages, we are plunged into a metaphysical battleground, although absent detail of the rival belief systems, it’s hard to determine who is Good and who is Evil.
Perhaps this is the way it’s meant to be. Perhaps this is the way it always is.
How are we to know who to side with? Perhaps we shouldn’t side with any side? Perhaps both sides are equally culpable?
And so we read on...
On the Road, In a Bus
The narrator and his friend, Janan (Arabic for "heart" or "soul" or "soul mate"), embark on a spiritual journey or odyssey through the Turkish countryside.
Their quest takes them on the road, off the beaten track, away from urbanized Istanbul.
They spend months travelling by public bus, trying to find the other realm hinted at in the book.
Roads join different people and parts of the country.
The bus is a symbol and vehicle of modernity and modernism that drives us toward our destination, our destiny, the future.
We start our journey from home, but as soon as we depart, our home is in the past. We are cut off from our former lives, we are cast loose. The bus cannot take us back home into the past, it can only take us inexorably toward a collision with the future. Just as we seek out spiritual integrity, things start to disintegrate. We fall apart.
Nature Versus Television
So the quest makes us witness to the battle between conservative, unpretentious, rural Turkey’s Islamic tradition and the apparent way of the future, the rapid and pervasive influence of Westernised commercial culture.
Rural Turkey is symbolized by Nature in the form of almond, chestnut, walnut and mulberry trees.
In contrast, the West pervades Turkey through television, radio, movies, advertising; even railway travel is viewed as an unwelcome, external, alien influence that detracts from tradition.
"If today in this town… the virtue of living an ascetic life is considered shameful...it’s because of the stuff brought in from America by that mailman, the buses, and the television sets in the coffeehouses."
The Other Side
The narrator meets Mehmet, a former lover of Janan, who has also read the book, but turned his back on its message about a brand new world:
"World shmorld...it doesn’t exist. Think of it as tomfoolery perpetrated on children by an old sap. The old man thought he’d write a book to entertain adults the same way he did children...
"...if you believe it, your life is lost...
"Believe me, at the end there is nothing but death. They kill without mercy…There is nothing to pursue to the end…just a book. Someone sat down and wrote it. A dream. There is nothing else for you to do, aside from reading and rereading it."
Can it be true that, in our search for enlightenment, we might only find darkness and despair? Isn’t the path to wisdom and contentment illuminated?
Can we find our own way out of our predicament? If we get lost, how will we be found? Who will find us?
Does this dilemma only apply to adolescents and young adults? 22 year olds like the target audience of Japanese author, Haruki Murakami?
"We are not here to represent youth...but to represent new life."
Can an entire nation like Turkey find itself in this predicament?
Especially at a time in Turkey’s history when it wishes to become a member of the European Union?
Ironically, while everyone is skeptical about advertising, posters proclaim:
"Happiness is being a Turk."
Who are we to believe?
A Labyrinth of Reflections
By this point, the novel appears to have abandoned any pretense to unadulterated realism.
It has more in common with the Magic Realism of South America, not to mention the dream-like aspects of Franz Kafka’s "The Castle" and Mikhael Bulgakov’s "The Master and Margarita".
Bit by bit, we are forced to contemplate, suspect, negotiate and reconcile truth, reality, spirituality, imagination, coincidence, memory, beauty, love, happiness, death and terror.
Love provides some solace:
"Love is the urgency to hold fast to another and to be together in the same place. It’s the desire to keep the world out by embracing another. It is the yearning to find a safe harbour for the human soul.
"The only piece of heaven I was sure of was the bed where I was lying next to Janan."
Still, as we reflect, we are surrounded and confused and trapped by a labyrinth of our own reflections.
We can’t even safely look at our own image in a mirror. We are afraid of what we might see or learn there. We can’t even trust love.
The novel highlights the clash of cultures between Islam and Western-style Capitalism.
While Pamuk writes about it in a strident manner, he does so through the mouths of his characters.
It’s hard to tell whether Pamuk personally is anti-West or at least regrets the impact the West has had on Turkey’s heritage and culture.
"The West has swallowed us up, trampled on us in passing. They have invaded us down to our soup, our candy, our underpants; they have finished us off..."
"We have no desire to live in Istanbul, nor in Paris or New York. Let them have their discos and dollars, their skyscrapers, and supersonic transports. Let them have their radio and their colour TV."
Yet, Pamuk doesn’t just defend, he counter-attacks.
He highlights how much impact Islamic culture has had on the West.
For example, Pamuk reminds us that the chess term "checkmate" comes from the Arabic "shah mat"
("the king died").
The word "caramel" (which relates to a subplot of the novel) also derives from the Arabic words "kara" or "cara", which means "dark".
Should Western readers feel personally challenged or threatened by these claims and attacks?
I don’t think so. We are subject to the same forces of Capitalism in the West.
In every neighbourhood in every city or rural area in the Western world, Consumer Capitalism ("the Dealers’ Conspiracy") has bought up or destroyed local products and brands, all in the name of efficiency and global recognition, but at the expense of local character.
It’s just that Capitalism treats the Third World worse than its own backyard.
Pamuk resonates, because he criticizes what many of us in the West have grown to accommodate.
He is brave, when we are complacent.
Perhaps this is why he was awarded the Nobel Prize?
I originally questioned how appropriate it was to describe "The New Life" as Post-Modern.
However, the further it progresses, the more it becomes self-referential.
The narrator addresses not just "the Angel", but the Reader, us.
He even calls into question whether the narrator might be an unreliable narrator (in a scene that reminded me of the Magic Theatre scene in Herman Hesse's "Steppenwolf"):
"So, Reader, place your faith neither in a character like me, who is not all that sensitive, nor in my anguish and the violence of the story I have to tell; but believe that the world is a cruel place."
Most importantly, Pamuk questions whether the novel is a tradition of the West that cannot be replicated in Turkey or what the West calls "the Middle East":
"Besides, this newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business...
"I have still not quite figured out how to inhabit this foreign toy."
By Machinist or By Hand?
Pamuk uses the character Doctor Fine to question Literature:
"Considering that the pawns and tools of the Great Conspiracy assail us, either knowingly or unknowingly, through books and literature…we ought to take precautions against printed matter…The culprit is not only that particular book, the book that snared my son, but all the books that have been printed by printing presses; they are all enemies of the annals of our time, our former existence.
"He was not against literature that was scripted by hand, which was an integral part of the hand holding the pen…the books Doctor Fine opposed were those that had lost their glow, clarity, and truth but pretended to be glowing, clear, and true. These were the books that promised us the serenity and enchantment of paradise within the limitations set by the world..."
The irony is that, whatever the view of Literature, all of the views conveyed in Pamuk’s novel itself operate within Western literary traditions, well at least, within the tradition of Post-Modernism.
Finally, within the framework of Post-Modernism, there is the dual interest in the fracture of life, perception and time:
"Life is so fractured…TV abounded in gunshots, passionate lovemaking, shouts and screams, planes falling out of the sky, exploding gas tankers, all sending the message. No matter what, things must be smashed and broken."
At the same time, the author and the reader are both concerned to reverse the fracture, by way of integration of the material in front of them:
"I discerned encoded whisperings between texts from which I could detect their secrets; and putting these secrets in order, I constructed connections between them..."
The Bus Timetable
Any transport system must define three things: our destination, the intervening stops and the timetable.
Any journey or quest must comply with the same rules, even a spiritual one:
"My restless soul which did not know respite was struggling to get somewhere or other, like some bus driver who had forgotten his destination."
Without a destination, how else can we define our journey?
However, Pamuk also emphasises the difference in approach of West and Middle East:
"Our timetables and timepieces are our vehicles to reach God, not the means of rushing to keep up with the world as they are in the West...
"Timepieces are the only products of theirs that have been acceptable to our souls. That is why clocks are the only things other than guns that cannot be classified as foreign or domestic.
"For us there are two venues that lead to God. Armaments are the vehicles of Jihad; timepieces are the vehicles for prayer...
"Everyone knows that the greatest enemy of the timetable for prayers is the timetable for trains."
There is much that I cannot discuss, because of a concern about spoilers, not so much factual spoilers, but thematic spoilers, given the manner in which Pamuk skillfully lays out his metaphysical tale.
However, like Proust (and Nabokov) before him, Pamuk is concerned with the concepts of time and memory:
"I was about to discover the single element common to all existence, love, life, and time..."
There is only one life, this one.
There is only one "new life", that is, any life that there might be after death.
There is only the present, the past does not exist, except in our memory.
There is no paradise on Earth other than what we create ourselves.
We must make do with this one life.
Love and life are attempts to transcend time. They seek eternity, of love, of pleasure, of happiness, of fulfillment.
However, the paradox is that, when time stops, the journey ceases and the destination confronts us:
"We had embarked on this journey to escape time.
"This was the reason we were in constant motion, looking for the moment when time stood still. Which was the unique moment of fulfillment. When we got close to it, we could sense the time of departure...
"The beginning and the end of the journey was wherever we happened to be. He was right: the road and all the dark rooms were rife with killers carrying guns. Death seeped into life through the book, through books."
Time is not infinite. It is finite. Or our share of it is finite. We are mortal and our life is finite. Life must end, either by design or by accident:
"What is time? An accident! What is life? Time! What is accident? A life, a new life!"
So, ultimately, accidents, fractures in time and intention, are fundamental to the narrative drive of "The New Life":
"So that was life; there was accident, there was luck, there was love, there was loneliness; there was joy; there was sorrow; there was light, death, also happiness that was dimly there."
Ultimately, Pamuk, through an Earth-bound Angel of Desire, urges patience, counsels that we take our time:
"Your hour of happiness will also strike...Do not become impatient, do not be cross with your life, cease and desist envying others! If you learn to love your life, you will know the course of action you are to take for your happiness."
Contrary to Western belief, life is not solely defined and governed by intention, deliberation and purposiveness, it must accommodate the accidental, both fate and fortune, both the unplanned and the unexpected.
In a way, Pamuk is reassuring the Middle East (as we call Turkey and its surrounds) that the best way to protect yourself against the Occidental is to embrace the Accidental.
Extremely Spoilerish Postscript
It is continuing to frustrate me that I was unable to discuss some major themes of the novel, for fear of offending the Spoiler-Sensitive.
While they are fresh in my mind, I will write down some brief notes.
Please do not read these notes if you have not read the book.
It is important to me that any reader experience the metaphysical journey that the book takes a reader on.
(view spoiler)[The narrator's name is Osman. Although Mehmet is Janan's former lover, Osman regards him as a contemporary rival for her love.
Janan possibly represents the heart and soul of humanity. Thus, the rivalry is a clash of cultures seeking to win over at least the people of Turkey, if not humanity as a whole.
Having initially fallen for the ideas in the book, Mehmet rejects the apparent modernity of its vision. Still, if only to earn an income, he hand copies the novel, which perpetuates its life, and complies with the apparently Islamic acceptance of a book that has been written by hand, rather than printed by a machine.
While Mehmet's adherence to tradition seems to be less extreme than that of Dr Fine (his blood father), he still seems to represent Turkish tradition.
Dr Fine believes that his son has been killed in an earlier bus accident. He gives his "new son", Osman, a gun with which to kill the followers of the book.
Osman decides to use it to kill Mehmet, thus killing both tradition and his double (who has been using the name Osman), his rival in love.
In effect, Osman must kill Nature and Realism in the name of Modernity and Post-Modernity, Modernism and Post-Modernism, a New Life and a Post-Life.
At the end, Osman learns, via his own death by bus accident 13 years later, that there is no New Life on Earth. It has all been in his mind, the imaginary world created by a reader in response to the book. There might however be an After Life.
Notes are private!
Feb 24, 2013
Mar 08, 2013
Oct 25, 2012
Apr 22, 2010
Fledgling at Play
I read this play, momentarily unaware that it was actually a companion to a fully-fledged novel.
This might turn out to be fortuitous,...more Fledgling at Play
I read this play, momentarily unaware that it was actually a companion to a fully-fledged novel.
This might turn out to be fortuitous, because if I had read both works in reverse order, I might have been tempted to treat this work as secondary, instead of a creative act that stands and succeeds on its own merits.
As you would expect with a play, the dialogue is the chief mode of communication with the reader.
It’s possible that it is a distillation of the dialogue from the novel. However, there is no sense of it being disjointed or culled down from a greater whole. In fact, it propels forward like a very fast train or a jet fighter.
I read it in one sitting, and upon putting it down, could only find it in myself to say, “Wow.”
Extrapolation, That’s the By Word
“Bloomsday”, as the title suggests, is an extrapolation on James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
Structurally, it takes Episodes 14, 15, 16 and 18, and transposes them in place and time to Boston in 1974.
It’s not readily apparent why David has chosen this era, except that for many of us alive today, Vietnam represents our closest cultural experience of coming home from a long and winding war, apart from the excursions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran (which, for those who remember, don’t have the same resonance as the war that divided almost every first world country and transformed culture and politics forever).
So 1974 mightn’t be contemporary, but it is as symbolic as the Trojan War was to Homer and Joyce.
At its heart, “Ulysses” doesn’t just describe a city (Dublin), it describes a family.
At a more macro level, it describes a nation at war with England and internally within itself.
I suspect David selected Boston, not just because he resides there, but because it received a large proportion of the Irish emigrants who arrived in America in the nineteenth century.
It therefore makes it a likely destination for the descendants of Leopold and Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, who feature in the play.
“Bloomsday” therefore perpetuates Joyce’s concerns into the twentieth century and, by inference, to today.
A Play on Words
If “Ulysses” is the grandparent, “Bloomsday” is a legitimate grandchild.
Just as the play is not an inferior distillation of the novel, it is not a dilution of the creativity of Joyce.
It’s a courageous act to stand up and ask to be measured against Joyce or “Ulysses”, but I think David has succeeded in this work.
It’s a work rich with wit, punning, wordplay and wisdom.
I can indulge in this wordplay in short, sharp exchanges, usually with another swordsperson or fencer, but I doubt whether I could sustain the effort so successfully for over 100 pages.
Besides, spontaneous exchanges are intrinsically ephemeral.
David’s words are not just designed to endure, they are intended to be spoken by live actors on the stage.
It’s the quality of work that should become a mainstay of every Bloomsday.
An allusion isn’t just a dry reference to something. Its etymology reveals that it derives from the Latin word, “alludere”, which means "to play, sport, joke, jest."
“Bloomsday” is so rich with allusion, it’s difficult to track its inspiration.
I felt that its feet were grounded in the Bible, Shakespeare and, obviously, “Ulysses”.
But David’s notes also mention Poe, Hemingway and Frost.
The more you look, the more you find. And it’s all gold, no fool’s gold. Except to the extent that, in this work, everybody plays the fool.
Men and Women of Good Fortune
As with “Ulysses”, the apparent focus of “Bloomsday” is men, in this case Rudy Bloom and Dr Thomas Dedalus, descendants of the protagonists of Joyce’s novel.
Yet, as with “Ulysses”, it builds to a climax that is shared with women, if not wholly concentrated on them.
“Ulysses” might be construed as a romance with Dublin at the centre, but it is also a love letter to Molly Bloom and womanhood.
David extrapolates on this theme, and makes “Bloomsday” a celebration of women or woman as lover, wife, muse and mother.
There could be no creation unless a child was first born of a woman.
From that point onwards, Men play, ultimately, not just to please themselves, but to impress and/or seduce Women.
Having seduced a good Woman, “Bloomsday” might just reflect Man’s effort to deserve, retain and maintain that Woman.
In a way, “Bloomsday” is David’s way of saying thank you to the women in his life and in ours.
For the rest of us males, he is our Cyrano de Bergerac (by which I don’t mean that he has a big nose).
David supplied a copy of this play to me for review purposes.
I guess this makes me Christian de Neuvillette and you, if you are a woman, Roxanne.
If only this joint effort could be as successful as Christian Grey.
Notes are private!
Oct 21, 2012
Oct 21, 2012
Oct 21, 2012
Oct 09, 2012
Oct 09, 2012
What Would Happen If I Tried to Enter Someone Else’s Novel?
Earlier this year, this triplasian 333 page volume was delivered to my modest residence by...more What Would Happen If I Tried to Enter Someone Else’s Novel?
Earlier this year, this triplasian 333 page volume was delivered to my modest residence by a vehicle whose only identifying marks were a muted trumpet logo and the acronym W.A.S.T.E. (I think that's an acronym? MJ, help me).
My wife, FM Sushi, was typically suspicious that I had received a parcel from somebody called "Lulu", well "Lulu.com", to be precise.
Knowing my private affairs as she does (she manages my Gmail account for both remuneration and entertainment), she enquired, "Doesn't W.A.S.T.E. normally deliver the books you get from that vamp, Oedipa Maas?"
My explanation that Lulu was a vanity publishing outfit was less than persuasive. Or so it seemed.
Then she turned the book in her hands, ran her delicate fingers along its spine and laughed, revealing that she had been pulling my leg all along.
"M.J. Nicholls? I've read some of his reviews." Her smile reminded me of a shark about to attack. "He has a lot of qualities a man could be vain about."
I couldn't work out whether there was an element of admiration in her remark.
She has never complimented one of my literary efforts like that. Well, to be honest, any of my efforts. (She is the inspiration for my well-honed sense of modesty.)
Some time afterwards, I noticed that the book had gone missing.
I looked in our recycling bin, to see if she'd accidentally thrown it out with the packaging. No. She had spared it the fate of most of my metafiction.
Then as the temperature plummeted with a mid-morning storm and I realised I needed something warmer than my Big Lebowski t-shirt, I went into our bedroom and noticed that she had put MJ's Meisterwerk (I learned this very useful word from Scribble, or was it Nathan, or MJ himself?) on her bedside table.
Not only that, she had removed half a dozen "you must read this" books I had recommended to the library downstairs.
When I quizzed her about the pile of literary tips, including one on "corporate personality' that Bird Brian had rated five stars, she replied, "I don't need to read them." I waited for the shark again..."I've already read your reviews...and they were quite enough, thank you."
Again, I wasn't sure whether this constituted flattery, but she soon cleared that up.
"In fact, in some cases, I think your review was longer than the book."
"Bullshit," I declared, defiantly. "That was only 'Infinite Jest', no others. And that was the whole point!"
Determined to further injure my pride, she added, "Then, I suppose, you have to count the footnotes, too."
It was clear that FM Sushi was getting ready to settle in with MJ.
I await the outcome of her
Strictly on the QT, I also await the imminent arrival of my black vinyl summer pyjamas.
I must keep an eye out for the postman's scooter. Or should that be an "ear out"?
Who knows what FM Sushi would think about a package from "Victoria&LolitasSecret.com"?
Its logo is a muted strumpet. Or two, if I recall correctly.
In the meantime, I'm giving this novel one star.
I'm not increasing it, until MJ gives me my wife back.
A Straight Swap
"I’ve come to return your thistle," Horrold (AKA M.J. Nicholls) said, finally, this morning.
"Thistle? No no no, Horrold. When she left me, she was a full woman thing. With woman things."
"Nice ones, eh?"
"I want her back. In the state she left me. She belongs to me."
"I propose a straight swap. You give me a good review, I’ll give you your wife back."
"I can’t guarantee a good review. I haven’t read the book yet."
"What about a good review from your wife then?"
We both turned to FM Sushi. She nodded.
FM Sushi’s Review
This book reminded me of a man’s penis. Could it have been any better if it was longer? Would I have missed anything if it was shorter? In both cases, the answer is no.
These views might come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with my husband and who will therefore know me as someone who is content with the merely adequate.
DJ Ian Interviews Postmodernist Author MJ Nicholls
This is an edited version of an "interview" DJ Ian did with the "author".
As much as he loves MJ Nicholls, DJ Ian's job was to stay out of the way as much as possible and let him riff in his own words (all, well, most, of which derive from his book and not a "real" interview between a "real" DJ and a "real" author).
DJ Ian: Today in the studio I have "author", MJ Nicholls, whose novel sees Man, not to mention Woman, rise from the Primordial Slime to the Postmodern Belch. Welcome, MJ.
MJ Nicholls: Thank you.
DJ Ian: You say this is a postmodern novel, but the word on GoodReads is that it is a self-indulgent exercise in distracting postmodern bullshit. It is vapid and pointless. None of the invention, playfulness, wit or erudition of postmodernism are present here. In short, it’s boring.
MJ Nicholls: That’s bullshite, obviously. I’m here to bulldoze the boredom. To pile-drive the prose. To bedeck the slow indulgent bits of the novel in a regalia of quirks and lunatic tendencies. I'm here to irritate, invigorate, to confront.
DJ Ian: So your agenda isn’t just some undergraduate pisstake? It’s more ambitious?
MJ Nicholls: You could almost say, postgraduate. The initial conceit was that it be would be the book to end all books, to debook the book so to speak. I wanted to create a new superstructure of literature and pave the way for future generations of artists and thinkers...an uberbook.
DJ Ian: Marvin Amiss wasn't particularly impressed...
MJ Nicholls: We come from different schools of writing – he the highly disciplined Oxford school of stylistic obsession (an endlessly searching desire to achieve a state of beyond Nabokovian eloquence) – while I am content to be a playful satirist/humorist, lounging on the sidelines poking fun at literary styles and idioms.
DJ Ian: Another criticism that has been levelled at your work is that it is onanistic.
MJ Nicholls: I think a certain amount of onanism is essential to any postmodern work, perhaps even the author/reader relationship.
DJ Ian: The problem is, once you've started, you have to know when to stop.
MJ Nicholls: I think you're right. The aim is to stop before it gets out of hand. I like to think I've learned the knack.
DJ Ian: How would you describe the sense of humour of the novel?
MJ Nicholls:It’s a dazzling postmodern comedy – a jocose, absurdist riptide of indulgent piffle and boogerdash...
DJ Ian: You seem to take the piss out of your role as the author?
MJ Nicholls: Throughout the course of this book, I spin a continual reel of self-deprecating humour, harping on about how talentless and worthless the author is, and how his novel is a one-joke idea stretched to the last gasping crumb of credibility.
DJ Ian:You also deprecate the three characters in your novel who believe they are the authors of this fiction?
MJ Nicholls: Exactly, their ideas and values seemed to revolve around cheap exploitation and crude humour.
DJ Ian: Some critics attack the novel for what they call its “perverted exuberance”. It seems to be preoccupied with voluminous vaginas and cocks. There are so many gigantic genitals in sight, a la Robert Coover, it becomes banal.
MJ Nicholls: Well, you know when something is so imposing and grand, it becomes banal. Like a skyscraper or a stretch limo. An extended sandwich with five fillings. Leaves you feeling stuffed for months. That’s how I feel about Harold’s penis...If anything, his penis is a metaphor for the supersize mentality cutting a riptide through our occidental culture.
DJ Ian: What about Lydia’s vagina?
MJ Nicholls: I was hoping someone would ask me that question. Initially, I treated her vagina with a certain degree of curious immaturity.Then it switched to adulation...the flipside of this vagodeification was that Harold performed a series of masochistic, phallocentric mating rituals, whereby he slung his schlong around a series of opaque imaginings of Lydia, hoping to woo her vagina into a kind of self-basting translucence, hungrily awaiting the elixir of his cock.
DJ Ian: It sounds narcissistic...
MJ Nicholls: Lydia is just as narcissistic as Harold. The male characters and I were besotted with this combative, self-important narcissistic hostess of narrative discontent. I wanted somehow to become her torrid lover...Unfortunately, I myself personally, M.J. Nicholls, wasn't a character in the novel. Strictly speaking.
DJ Ian: So, would you like to be a character in one of your novels?
MJ Nicholls: Pretending to be a fictional character is much better than pretending to be a "real" human being.
DJ Ian:What does it take to be a character in one of your novels apart from voluminous genitals?
MJ Nicholls:You have to suffer. Harold existed in a dark bedroom of alienation, cut off from all forms of emotional connection with the ‘real’ world. This is because, like me, Harold is a troubled genius; a perfectionist freak with an agoraphobic bent.
DJ Ian:Is "A Postmoderm Belch" autobiographical?
MJ Nicholls: All I can say is, those reading "A Postmodern Belch" aren’t reading fiction, they’re reading what it’s like to live inside a fiction, and to make fiction one’s reality.
DJ Ian: One of the characters describes the novel like this: "No narrative, no characters, no readers. You’re up the creek, honey…completely lost in the wilderness of your own thoughts." What is your response to that?
MJ Nicholls: This novel is an endlessly regenerating entity, driven by a constantly self-updating stream of tychistic possibilities, arcing out into a million directions with merely the tweak of one sentence. Or, as you might say, "if u right it different it cum out different".
DJ Ian: Many readers, including FM Sushi, were delighted to reach the end of your novel.
MJ Nicholls: A theme of the novel is a kind of end-of-the-novel and end-of-the-world rapture. There is a state of unlimited unhappiness derived from the knowledge that the book is finally about to end.
DJ Ian: What does your novel say about you as an author?
MJ Nicholls: I am a prisoner of the postmodern condition.
DJ Ian: What about your characters, who seem to have a mind of their own?
MJ Nicholls:They don’t exist, obviously. They’re all merely a product of my imagination. Their entire world is a complete fabrication.
DJ Ian:They seem reluctant to meet their author?
MJ Nicholls: As we are reluctant to meet our maker.
DJ Ian: What do you mean?
MJ Nicholls: They are refusing to learn the name of their creator. In human terms, it’s like refusing to discover the identity of your God, to unravel the entire mystery of the universe.
DJ Ian: Your writing is highly self-conscious.
MJ Nicholls: I struggle to write a sentence that is not in some way blatantly aware of itself. Can there exist one prized four-word sentence of perfection that defines all that has been committed to paper since words were invented from logs and twigs?
DJ Ian: Is there one sentence that defines the true mission of your book?
MJ Nicholls: Buggered if I know.
DJ Ian:Is that the sentence or is that your answer?
MJ Nicholls: That’s for the author to know and the reader to find out.
DJ Ian:Well as you say in the novel, you’re still a fuckodicious poncificator. Thank you for joining us.
MJ Nicholls: Thank you for having me, though I don't feel like I've been had. You have the gentle hands of a true belletrist.(less)
Notes are private!
Mar 17, 2013
Mar 24, 2013
Oct 17, 2012
Jun 16, 2012
Jun 17, 2012
This review has been pieced together from notes written by my friend and sometime accomplice Clem de Menthe before he went into hiding wit...more Introduction
This review has been pieced together from notes written by my friend and sometime accomplice Clem de Menthe before he went into hiding with other members of Wikisucks in Icequador.
As far as I can tell, once he had written them down on a sheet of lined A4 paper, he chewed them, until they were a soggy mess.
He then turned them into ice cubes, using Troy DeNuthe’s special formula, where you half-fill an ice cube tray with water, freeze it, insert the foreign object (in this case, the soggy mass) and then pour more water on top, before freezing the full tray.
He then sent me a coded text revealing that he had hidden his review in his fridge.
I placed the ice cubes in a glass of rum and coke. I had to drink it really quickly, so that the ice didn’t melt too much and expose the paper pulp to the corrosive rum and coke mix.
Luckily, some of the ice did melt in my drink, so it didn’t take me long to locate the paper, spread it out on my workbench, separate the work using my clinical tweezers, recognise the pattern of his words, expose it to a lamp and dry Clem’s review.
I’m still not sure I got everything in the right order, but I think you’ll agree with me that his thoughts were worth preserving for posterity, if not necessarily in ice.
"Just the Tip of the Icecube" (by Clem de Menthe)
When I was reading Troy DeNuthe’s book, it suddenly dawned on me (the first of my Eureka moments) just how poor is our knowledge of ice cubes.
So I looked up the Wikipedia entry for “ice cube”.
Maybe I should have looked up the plural “ice cubes”, because the first page I got was the American rapper. (I just searched “ice cubes” now and it took me to the right “ice cube” entry straight away.)
This sort of thing has happened to me before, so I knew that if I wanted more, I had to click on the link for “ice cube (disambiguation)” (BTW, I’ve never seen or heard the word “disambiguation” used outside Wikipedia. Maybe I mix in the wrong circles?).
Another Eureka moment, for there waiting for me were three alternative meanings, one of which was “a chunk of frozen water in the shape of a cube”.
So I looked it up and guess what? There were less than 1,000 words on this topic.
Pathetic, isn’t it?
I mean, we expect Wiki to contain everything there is to know about everything, but if they can’t get “ice cubes” right, what does that say about the authority of the rest of Wikipedia?
What does this say about the very roots of epistemology in the twenty-first century?
So, Eureka moment three: just a few minutes spent in the clutches of "Troy DeNuthe's World of Ice Cubes" is enough to establish that Troy DeNuthe knows far more about ice cubes than the entire Wiki community, which I assume is the whole world (apart from Troy).
We cannot begin to tap the resource that is human knowledge, until we can extract from men and women like Troy DeNuthe the detailed knowledge of their individual areas of expertise.
Until we do this, all the Encyclopedias and Wikipedias strike me as a fraud on the masses. They’re a farce, a joke. A travesty of wisdom, a mockery of knowledge, a caricature of erudition.
This intellectual sloth cuts no ice with me.
Wikipedia is just scratching the surface, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I want to know what’s beneath the surface. What are they hiding from us? Is this some epistemological conspiracy? Who’s behind it all? Is it the I.C.I.A?
Anyway, this is a quick snapshot of the world that Troy DeNuthe rides on into on his small but perfectly formed steed of a book, “Troy DeNuthe’s World of Ice Cubes”.
A thousand words on ice are not enough, they do not suffice for a man like Troy, someone whose greatest passion is to [ed: this part was a bit difficult to read, but I think he wrote “suck ice”].
Wiki might give us the berg, but Troy gives us the cube. The full cube. Indeed, but for some private suggestions I propose to draw to his attention, the whole kit and caboodle.
Forget about Wikileaks. This Wiki sucks, and Troy is just the man to achieve its true potential. A man of enormous [ed: perspacicity?], he is the Julian Iceage of the epistemological liberation movement.
His work does not purport to be exhaustive. It’s just a preliminary building block, an ice block that is content to form the base of an igloo, a shoulder upon which giants of ice can stand (to quote the English band, Oasice).
No doubt, there is more that Troy personally can impart in further volumes, and I propose to contact him with a modest proposal.
However, hopefully, in “The World of Ice Cubes”, he was just [ed: sorry, I think Clem did actually say “breaking the ice”].
Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot tolerate this epistemological conspiracy any longer.
We must entice Troy DeNuthe from his hiding place, encourage him to return to the source of this slow-moving glacier of insight, arm himself with an ice pick and deal a fatal blow to the head of the icebergoisie who sit by complacently while the rest of us endure injust-ice.
Ladies and gentlemen, we must escape the darkness of our cubicles and embrace the ice cubes of enlightenment.
"How to Improve Your Ice Sight Without Glasses: A Proposal" by Clem De Menthe
The following notes appear to be suggestions for a proposed collaboration between Clem and Troy on a second volume of “The World of Ice Cubes”:
Why ice cubes, not ice balls?
Why are they the size that they are? Not bigger? Not smaller?
Can you freeze hot water faster than cold water?
Who invented the ice cube tray?
What is the best size of ice cube tray?
What are the relative merits of imitation ice cubes?
I swallowed an ice cube, will I die?
Would an ice cube melt in enough time for me to be able to breathe?
"Haiku DeNuthe (Ice Cubey Dooby Do)" by Clem De Menthe
Troy, beat exemplar,
Zen master of frozen ice
And cubic beauty.(less)
Notes are private!
Aug 11, 2012
Jul 02, 2012
Bread and Circuses
Snedwick P. Philebius is the Robert ["Woody Allen"] Zimmerman of their generation.
Perhaps, Dylan stated the obvious when in 1965 he...more Bread and Circuses
Snedwick P. Philebius is the Robert ["Woody Allen"] Zimmerman of their generation.
Perhaps, Dylan stated the obvious when in 1965 he sang "even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked".
Yet, who would have guessed how degenerate things could get since then?
Bread and circuses were once a distraction from the main game of commerce and politics.
Now, capitalism is all about generating bread, and politics has become a circus.
Clown Time's Not Over, It's Only Just Begun
In today's world, corporate executives and politicians alike have become clowns.
These times call for a man or woman of courage, someone who will point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes and even the clown sometimes must have to stand naked.
And, readers, Snedwick is that man or woman.
[From now on, I will refer to Snedwick in the gender-free plural, because surely talent of these dimensions could not be encapsulated in a singular mortal being of just one of the three available sexes.]
Erotically Attracted to a Protracted Tract
Not only is Snedwick a cultural critic of great perspicacity, they know how vital erotica has become to the cultural and political discourse of today.
"Clownfucker", as the name suggests, is a political and erotic thriller, a philosophical and fibromuscular tubular tract that Snedwick uses to penetrate the vagina of cultural modernity, work its way through cervical resistance and unblock the neuter uterus of morality, decency and popular taste.
From Here to Internity
Of course, today's metaphorical clown requires an intern, or better still, two interns, who ironically take it in turns, so to speak, to caress and pull him through his anti-hero's journey.
In Snedwick's capable hands (and, indeed, their own), Alice and Traci are today's equivalent of the aptly named Mona and Fiona of Richard Condon's "The Vertical Smile", an hilarious novel and precursor to "Clownfucker", which I can't recommend highly enough.
The Pubic Yearning of Erotica
In the political satire "The Public Burning", Robert Coover, like Dylan, damns Richard Nixon and the culture of corruption that surrounded him.
I can think of no greater compliment to pay "Clownfucker" than to say that Snedwick's genius is to add to Robert Coover's important work the pubic yearning of various sordid private enterprises.
All the Presidents' Mien
However, just as much as Coover, Snedwick's work reveals what really goes down in public office (not to mention public offices and orifices).
And it didn't stop with Tricky Dicky.
Ultimately, Snedwick's contribution to literature is that it adds a little comic Pecker (or a comic little Pecker) to the earnestness of Woodward and Bernstein, with some vital help from the Deep Throats of Alice and Traci.(less)
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2012
Jul 02, 2012
Dec 07, 2001
Not Your Typical Lad
This is an odd little book, but one that is hugely rewarding.
There is a trend in English writing towards "lad lit", by way of imit...more Not Your Typical Lad
This is an odd little book, but one that is hugely rewarding.
There is a trend in English writing towards "lad lit", by way of imitation of "chick lit".
Most chick lit that I’ve read (e.g., Kathy Lette – nobody does upwardly mobile English bourgeois quite like an Australian) seems to be at home in its genre, whereas most lad lit seems to me to be lost in imitation, as if the author was writing down to this level, while waiting to be discovered and offered the opportunity to write something more ambitious and literary.
Otherwise intelligent men descend upon this genre in the hope of generating some fame and filthy lucre (which might fund their indulgence in literary fiction), whereas women engage in it as either writer or reader with a sincerity and pleasure that men cannot seem to match.
"The Debt to Pleasure" is not quite lad lit. John Lanchester is made of Sterner stuff. He has been restaurant critic of the Guardian and deputy editor of the London Review of Books. He has a formidable intellect and presumably has a qualification akin to a Classics Degree from Oxford. He knows about food and alcohol (as does any quality journalist), but like the best authors he knows both how to write and how others write and have written before him. He also has a wicked sense of humour.
The Cook, the Critic, the Brother and His Biographer
Lanchester’s first person narrator, Tarquin Winot, is an entertaining and erudite food critic.
For about half of the novel, he outlines some favourite menus and tells wonderful stories about each course. If you’re a foodie, he’s just the sort of person you might love to sit next to at a dinner party.
Only, as he reveals more about himself, you start to realise there might be a reason he seems to have no spouse or partner. In the second half, we see him flirting shamelessly with Laura, the young female biographer of his sculptor brother, Bartholomew. His authority diminishes as he demeans himself and he becomes a more and more unreliable narrator.
Tarquin Winot has been compared with Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. My reading of "Lolita" might be flawed, but I never felt that Humbert was unreliable. I felt that he was telling his truth and that it was transparent right from the beginning, even if it was distasteful.
Tarquin descends in our esteem the more we learn about him. If by half way through the novel we feel that we have befriended him, by the end of the novel we question our judgement and want to scamper away with our tail between our legs. I read the novel in 24 hours and, to the extent that my relationship with Tarquin was a one-night stand, it was one I regretted in the morning, at least metaphorically.
The Raw and the Cooked
The novel is easy to read, but there is a nice sophistication working beneath the surface.
On the one hand, it explores the cultural rivalry between French idealism and English empiricism, not just in food, but in philosophy, art and literature.
On the other hand, it works within a structuralist framework suggested by Claude Lévi-Strauss, that of the raw and the cooked.
In the novel, the cooked is civilized, while the raw is primitive or barbaric.
The first half of the novel is founded on formally structured menus. However, in the second half, the structure is abandoned, order breaks down, and relaxation, spontaneity and chaos take over.
Events descend into what the French, the Italians and the Americans would respectively call a debacle, a fiasco or a fuck-up.
Civilisation requires structure, we must be cooked and served in the correct sequence. If we seek psychic liberation, if we are only half-cooked, we, men in particular, will go off, like Tarquin, half-cocked.
Nevertheless, Lanchester quotes Walter Benjamin (without expressly identifying the source of the quotation) to the effect that “Every act of civilization is also an act of barbarism.” Perhaps, the distinction between civilization and barbarism is illusory? Perhaps, Tarquin symolises the illusion?
Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death
At first, Tarquin embodies the qualities of a sophisticated and knowledgeable bon vivant, one who enjoys the good life. By the end of the novel, he is quite the opposite.
Tarquin recalls a conversation with his sculptor brother in which he (Tarquin) contrasts the artist with the murderer:
"...one of the impulses which underlies all art is the desire to make a permanent impact on the world, to leave a trace of selfhood behind…to leave a memento of himself...
"The murderer, though, is better adapted to the reality and to the aesthetics of the modern world, because instead of leaving a presence behind him – the achieved work, whether in the form of a painting or a book or a daubed signature – he leaves behind him something just as final and just as achieved: an absence. Where somebody used to be, now nobody is.
"What more irrefutable proof of one’s having lived can there be than to have taken a human life and replaced it with nothingness, with a few fading memories?"
Das Ich und das Essen
"If the artist’s first desire is to leave something behind him, his next is simply to take up more space – to earn a disproportionate amount of the world’s attention. This is routinely called ‘ego’, but that term is far too mundane to encompass the raging, megalomaniacal desire, the greed, the human deficiency that underpins the creation of everything from a Matisse papercut to a Faberge egg...
"...[the truth] is not that the megalomaniac is a failed artist but that the artist is a timid megalomaniac, venting himself in the easy sphere of fantasy rather than the unforgiving arena of real life…
“Why don’t people take Bakunin more seriously? Destruction is as great a passion as creation, and it is as creative, too – as visionary and as assertive of the self."
And so he concludes:
"The artist is the oyster and the murderer is the pearl."
It’s interesting that this philosophical and aesthetic debate occurs within the framework of food.
It’s almost as if the self is the Ego (das Ich) and everything else external, but food and alcohol that we consume, in particular, is the Id (or das Es).
To stretch the credibility of the argument even further, in German, Tarquin pluralises das Es, until it becomes das Essen (i.e., food).
I am what I eat, I do what I eat, and red meat implies a capacity to kill in order to survive.
Not Just Desserts
While "The Debt to Pleasure" is as entertaining, if not more so, than most English lad lit, it also reveals that Lanchester can write.
If nothing else, he has admirable influences.
While some might find the comparisons odious, I would place this very English novel midway between the French Marcel Proust (1) and the American Paul Auster, with a large dollop of Nabokovian playfulness and a sprinkling of Peter Greenaway.
I’m looking forward to his later works, including "Capital".
(1) One sentence occupies the whole of pages 198 and 199, only it flows so well in the Proustian manner, you don’t notice its length, until you get to the end of it (TWSS, anyway).
W.H. Auden's Martini
Tarquin Winot: "As a subsequent refinement [on the seven-to-one martini of Beefeater gin and Noilly Prat vermouth of my aesthetic period], I borrowed W.H. Auden's technique of mixing the vermouth and gin at lunchtime...and leaving the mixture in the freezer to attain that wonderful jellified texture of alcohol chilled to below the point at which water freezes...the Auden martini is not diluted in any way...a 'silver bullet'."
In Search of Auden's Martini
W.H. Auden's Martini Haiku
Could any tiger
Drink martinis, smoke cigars,
And last as we do?
Heston Blumenthal's Version of Apicius' First Century Recipe for Calf's Brains with Rose Petals
"The Imperfect Enjoyment" by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
This is the poem from which the title of the novel was derived:
The Debt to Pleasure
Once is not enough,
Why does heat desert your flame?
Is there then no more?
Notes are private!
Feb 22, 2013
Feb 23, 2013
Jun 02, 2012
Jun 26, 1997
In a Lonely Tenement
He awoke at 6am, and slid out of the bed in the 20’s studio apartment he’d leased for six months.
It was still dark outside, but h...more In a Lonely Tenement
He awoke at 6am, and slid out of the bed in the 20’s studio apartment he’d leased for six months.
It was still dark outside, but he could see a sliver of golden glow in a crack in the curtains.
He went over to it, and drew the curtains slightly apart.
Across the gap in the horseshoe-shaped apartment building, but down one level, he could see the source of the glow.
A woman, in her pyjamas, was prancing around her bedroom, well, between the wardrobe and her bed.
She was trying to make a decision about which of two costumes to wear that day.
The wind changed direction, and he heard her radio. It was playing John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”.
He left the window, flicked on the lights in his studio and tuned the radio onto WBGO.
When he returned to the window, he drew the curtains open and noticed that the woman was now wearing her choice of day clothes.
It was then that she saw him.
“Hey, what the fuck are you looking at, man?” she called out.
“I didn’t see anything, honest, Maria,” he replied with a laugh.
“You can see anything you wanna, if you come on down here for breakfast,” she said, “I’m gonna make some pancakes, maple syrup, Canadian, too.”
“Sorry, Maria, I’ve got to finish my book. I’m on the last chapter. Today might be the big day.”
“Good...tonight, you and I…you and I...we’re going dancing.”
“It’s a date. I promise.”
He left the window with a fleeting smile, turned on the laptop that sat on his writer’s bureau, then opened the fridge door to see what was in store for him.
It was empty.
Today, as he had expected, he would write on an empty stomach, he would know what it felt like to be a jazz musician, like one of his heroes, only he knew that, tonight, there would be a happy ending.
And tomorrow, well, tomorrow, there would be pancakes.
A Jazz Curator’s Egg
For all but the last 30 pages of this book, I was prepared to say that it was the best book I had ever read about music of any description.
My reluctance reflects the way the book is divided into two parts.
The second part is a formal essay on Tradition, Innovation and Influence in Jazz Music.
The first and most impressive part is a collection of semi-fictionalized vignettes about incidents in the lives of eight jazz greats.
If Geoff Dyer had omitted the essay, I would have given the book five stars.
Ironically, perhaps, because he saw fit to include it, I will only give it four stars.
However, I will still say that the first part is the best writing I have ever read about music of any description.
Figures of Eight
The seven (out of eight) greats who get fully-fledged vignettes are Lester Young (tenor sax), Thelonious Monk (piano), Bud Powell (piano), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Charles Mingus (bass, composer), Chet Baker (trumpet) and Art Pepper (alto sax).
In between these sections are short passages describing a road trip between gigs, a long day’s journey into night, in which Duke Ellington (piano, composer) and his friend and band member of 45 years, Harry Carney (baritone sax) drive, converse and compose.
I originally included only Duke in my list of eight, but that is a product of ignorance on my part. I am less familiar with Duke Ellington’s music than the others and did not appreciate how crucial Harry was to his achievements.
So it should be nine.
Also, while the essay is more wide-ranging (which is part of its problem), John Coltrane (tenor sax) and, to a lesser extent, Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Miles Davis (trumpet) and Keith Jarrett (piano) are singled out for more extensive critical analysis.
So in a broader sense there could have been 13.
There is no real explanation of why these and not others (such as Art Tatum, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon or Louis Armstrong).
Dancing about Architecture
This relative absence of analytical detail is the essence of the appeal of the first part of the book.
There’s a well-known expression that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (even though it’s difficult to know who to attribute it to):
Geoff Dyer’s writing forces us to reconsider just how much writing can add value to the experience of music.
Ultimately, in communicating with each other about music, most of us only have words to use, and words can be such a blunt and imprecise instrument.
In trying to do justice to the music he loves, Dyer has created a unique way of writing that is impressionistic and lyrical and inspiring.
Just as John Berger opened our eyes to ways of seeing, Dyer opens our minds to ways of writing and, therefore, of reading and listening to and appreciating music.
Improvising about Jazz
Faced with the desire to write a book about jazz, Dyer had to abandon the techniques of conventional criticism (including metaphors and similes that he had previously used to evoke what he thought was happening) and embrace improvisation.
What he came up with is just as much “imaginative criticism as fiction”.
His raw materials weren’t just recordings of the music, they included other biographies, criticism, journalism and personal interviews with musicians, family and friends.
Most importantly, as he was playing the music, he was scrutinizing photos of the musicians.
His genius is embodied in the way he utilised these photos.
We tend to look at a photo as a static image. It captures something at a unique point of time, as if we don’t know what happened before or after that moment.
However, equipped with all of this context, Dyer starts to see more in these photos, in particular a Milt Hinton photo published in the book.
He speculates that the “felt duration” of the photo extends to what has just happened or is about to happen.
He also argues that a good jazz photo is not silent, that it is there to be listened to as well as looked at, that the best jazz photos are saturated with the sound of their subjects.
What he aspires to do and succeeds in doing is to bring these photos to life.
It’s almost as if the process of exposure of the film caught not just one moment in time, but many, not just vision, but sound as well.
He turns photos into fully-fledged audiovisual works.
Of jazz photography, he says:
“A photograph of a jazz musician in full flight can bring us as close to the act – or vicarious essence – of artistic creation as a photograph of an athlete can to the act – or vicarious essence – of running.”
Just Add Some Animation
Dyer enhances the experience of listening to the music as well.
Most of the music was recorded a long time ago, and most of the artists are long dead.
He animates the musicians as well as their music.
The music matters more to us, because the musicians matter to us.
Dyer creates a sense of music as constant movement.
Of Mingus, he says:
“His thought was the exact opposite of concentration: that implies stillness, silence, long periods of intense absorption; he preferred moving very quickly, covering a lot of ground.”
He quotes Charlie Parker:
”Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom…if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
The Importance of Improvisation
Much music is recorded soon after it is first composed, so that what is captured by the recording is a snapshot of the work early in its chronological development.
Sometimes, studio recordings sound tentative compared with live versions that reflect a history of playing, improvising and improvement.
Improvisation is one of the key distinguishing features of jazz.
Much jazz is instrumental rather than vocal, so it isn’t hamstrung by lyrics and expectations of the vocal performance.
In his essay, Dyer writes equally beautifully about the role of improvisation in jazz:
”From time to time in his solos a saxophonist may quote from other musicians, but every time he picks up his horn he cannot avoid commenting, automatically and implicitly, even if only through his own inadequacy, on the tradition that has been laid at his feet. At its worst this involves simple repetition...sometimes it involves exploring possibilities that were previously only touched upon. At its best it expands the possibilities of the form.”
Standards such as Monk’s “’Round Midnight” become “springboards for improvisation” and innovation:
”Successive versions add up to what [George] Steiner calls a ‘syllabus of enacted criticism’…this labile relation between composition and improvisation is one of the sources of jazz’ ability to constantly replenish itself.”
The Importance of Tradition
Just as Dyer emphasises innovation, he values tradition:
”The positive side of this relation to the past is that moving deeper into the tradition can be as much a voyage of discovery as moving forward through it: instead of following the river to its mouth we trace it to its source. As you move further back, so you are able to recognise the special traits of the predecessors; it is like seeing a photo of your great-grandfather and recognizing the origins of your grandchildren’s features in his face.”
Note how Dyer reverts to photography for his analogy.
Similarly, in his last sentence, he reverts to his image of what comes before and after:
”Ideas of forward and backward, the sense of past and present, of old and new dreams, begin to dissolve into each other in the twilight of perpetual noon.”
Straight, No Chaser
While I’m not sure I get what “the twilight of perpetual noon” means, there is some fine writing in the essay.
The material about Coltrane deserved to be fictionalized, he is so important to both the dangerous and the spiritual facets of jazz.
However, what remains is an essay that tries to pack too much into the last 30 pages. It resorts to lists and name-checking, some of it is both exhaustive and exhausting.
It leaves us feeling the after-effects of a downer after the extreme high of the first 180 pages, which are unsurpassed.
It left me wondering whether Dyer hoped that his impressionistic writings would enhance his more seriously critical material by association.
Instead, all that five stars required was “Straight, No Chaser”.
Notes are private!
Apr 27, 2012
May 02, 2012
Apr 27, 2012
Jan 01, 2009
Aug 01, 2009
"There's no need for poetry," Andrew said. "I'm just here for my chair."
Well sit down and let me wax lyrical.
This book consists of 120 beautiful f...more PM:0
"There's no need for poetry," Andrew said. "I'm just here for my chair."
Well sit down and let me wax lyrical.
This book consists of 120 beautiful fragments wholes fragments of prose poetry prose, I don't know. They're beautiful. I love them. Four stars.
Amelia Gray, my imaginary cousin, I want to read everything that you have written and ever will.
I want to take your last name and share it with you.
I want to wear a tee-shirt with your image on it. You are that good.
Here is an example of what I mean, prose that could be re-engineered as poetry, or vice versa, even if there is no need for poetry any more:
"Martha: It makes me nervous.
Emily (reassuringly): It's normal to be nervous.
Martha: Great, I'm nervous and I'm normal."
She started to cry."
There are no more heroes any more. Only words. And music.
This book should be found everywhere, on every bedside table, but might remain hidden under the floorboards.
This little haiku
Is a symbol of my love
For you and your book.
Like every other person in Ian's life, FM Sushi, his wife, with whom he shared a bed, thought that Ian only ever read one "currently reading" book at a time.
It sat on the bedside table next to his pillow. Right then it was something by Gene Wolfe.
But Ian had a secret.
One day, when FM Sushi was at work, he realised that one of the timber floorboards under his side of the bed was loose. He got a screwdriver from his toolbox in the laundry and gently managed to lift the whole board intact without splitting it. He shone a torch into the opening and tested its size with his fingers.
He had been reading "AM/PM" by Amelia Gray and, because it was a little book and he loved it, he wondered whether it would fit in his secret place under the bed. It did. He gently replaced the floorboard on his secret.
Each day, when FM Sushi was at work, he levered open the floorboard and read one story in the book and put it back.
Some things in your life are so important, you can't share them with anyone else.(less)
Notes are private!
Feb 02, 2013
Feb 25, 2012
Jan 01, 1973
The Sydney Harbour Bridge Disaster
DJ Ian: This is the BBC Foreign Service, tiddey pong, mate...How did that sound?
Seagoon: Hold the script up to the...more The Sydney Harbour Bridge Disaster
DJ Ian: This is the BBC Foreign Service, tiddey pong, mate...How did that sound?
Seagoon: Hold the script up to the light – no, not a brain in sight.
DJ Ian: This is DJ Ian broadcasting from Sydney on a beautiful morning at the start of the Sydney Festival. Today my guests are the members of the world renowned, but poorly renumerated, Goon Show. A healthy Sydney welcome to the Goons.
Seagoon: Thank you. I think you mean "remunerated".
DJ Ian: It is 2012, and dead on time, the Sydney Harbour is a hive of inactivity, as English immigrants bring their shattered bank accounts to the New World.
Seagoon: Which reminds me, we were told we would be paid a pretty penny for this interview.
DJ Ian: I’m sorry, I haven’t got a pretty penny.
Bluebottle: Well, two ugly ones will do then.
DJ Ian: Here, but can I have a receipt for them?
FX: SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE.
DJ Ian: What’s this? Maureen Shag? That’s not your name?
Seagoon: No, that’s the name of my signature.
DJ Ian: When did you arrive?
Seagoon: At dawn, under cover of daylight ,we took up our positions with our teeth blacked out.
DJ Ian: What’s it like for the Goons to be sitting on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour, sipping champagne and orange juice?
Bluebottle: What foreshores? I can only see two.
DJ Ian: What do you think of the Park Hyatt Sydney? You’re the first guests to stay here since the renovations were finished. Do you like the Harbour views?
Seagoon: When we arrived the curtains were drawn.
Bluebottle: No, they were real. I swear.
Moriarty: I don’t like the look of it.
Bluebottle: We can’t change it now, it’s the only one we’ve got.
Eccles: I had one two, but the wheels came off.
Seagoon: Well, we can’t stand around here doing nothing, people will think we’re workmen.
DJ Ian: You’re not actually appearing in the Festival. What is the real purpose of your visit?
Bloodnok: They’re going to build a Sydney Harbour Bridge.
DJ Ian: We’ve already got one, right over our heads.
Bloodnok: They’re going to build another one.
DJ Ian: Where?
Bloodnok: Right next to this one. Parallel in fact.
DJ Ian: So how are the Goons involved?
Bloodnok: We’re going to draw the prizewinner in the design competition.
FX: TERRIBLE MASS CROWDS BRAWL. SMASHING GLASS, SCREAMS, DISTANT BAGPIPE AT SPEED
Seagoon: Hear that? Celtic versus Rangers.
Ken: In our midst if not sooner, rode two men wearing nude clothes. On a unicycle they were. Their bodies driven by legs and their legs driven by feet.
DJ Ian: Those cyclists look like protesters of some sort.
Bloodnok: Go away, or I’ll take my wig off…We’ll have to bring forward the announcement of the winner before they recognise us.
Seagoon: They look like the enemy.
Jympton: Ah, intelligence has established that the people attacking us are in fact the enemy.
Bloodnok: So that’s their fiendish game, is it?
Seagoon: Gentlemen, do the enemy realise that you have this information?
Bloodnok: Oh no, we got ‘em fooled, they think that we’re the enemy.
Seagoon: What a perfect disguise...Jympton, you were supposed to protect us. Why have you deserted your post?
Jympton: It’s got woodworm sir.
DJ Ian: So what are you going to do about the competition?
Bloodnok: We’ll draw lots for it now. Eccles, write your name on fifty pieces of paper, and put them in a hat.
Seagoon: Ken, can you choose a piece of paper.
FX: THERE IS MORE PANDEMONIUM WHEN BLUEBOTTLE TRIES TO GRAB THE HAT
Ken: Go away lad will you, I’m acting.
Bluebottle: Oh, could I act wid you den?
Ken: Yes, but keep quiet.
Bluebottle: Can I be your stand in?
Ken: Alright. Stand in that hole over there.
FX: A RIPPING SOUND AS KEN OPENS THE WINNING ENTRY
Ken: And the winner is...Eccles.
FX: MASSIVE APPLAUSE FROM THE GOONS, ACCOMPANIED BY SILENCE FROM THE AUDIENCE
DJ Ian: Eccles, have you ever built a bridge before?
Eccles: Yep, I built the Ummmbababab Bridge in 1967…and I just finished the Forth Bridge.
DJ Ian: When did you build that?
Eccles: After the first three fell down.
DJ Ian: Quickly, before the Press arrives, could I have an exclusive look at your drawings?
Eccles: Let me just get them from my room.
FX: ECCLES OPENS THE DOOR AT THE GRAND ENTRANCE TO THE HOTEL
Seagoon: Typical colonial service, the door was opened by a heavily strained wreck wearing the string remains of an ankle length vest, a secondhand trilby and both feet in one sock.
Eccles: Excuse me, can you tell me where I can get the plans for the Bridge?
Doorman: I’d try my cousin, Abdul. He works at the Scented Jasmine Restaurant just around the corner in the Rocks.
FX: SOUND OF ECCLES RUSHING TO THE SCENTED JASMINE
Eccles: My information led me to a coffee-house, just off the main caravan route, where outside the sun purged the streets of shade. Inside, all was cool and jasmined…My attendant bowed low, touched his forehead in time-honoured Islamic salute and spoke.
Abdul: The boiled fish and rice puddin’s orf mate.
Eccles: I see…ahem, your accent is familiar, oh Arab Prince.
Abdul: Yernnnn, I went to Kolidge in Kambridge, oh English mate.
Eccles: What were you studying?
Abdul: Cockney…I got it orf pat.
Eccles: Did you?
Abdul: He didn’t mind.
Eccles: Your cousin told me you could help me get the plans for the Sydney Harbour Bridge?
Abdul: I don’t have the plans, but I can sell you a map that will reveal their location.
Eccles: It’s a deal.
FX: THE RESTAURANT PHONE RINGS. ABDUL BRINGS IT OVER TO ECCLES
Seagoon: Splendid, ring again tomorrow and we’ll have another game.
FX: ECCLES RUSHES BACK TO THE OUTSIDE BROADCAST STUDIO
Bluebottle: What is it?
Eccles: I don’t know, but I got it cheap.
Bluebottle: It’s a map. Where are the plans?
Bloodnok: Ohh ha ha, go to this spot on the map, dig upwards for ten feet and you’ll find them buried up a tree.
FX: SOUND OF ECCLES ASCENDING A PALM TREE AND RETRIEVING THE PLANS ACCOMPANIED BY A BOSSA NOVA NUMBER
Willium: Hardly had that music ceased, when Eccles presented the new drawings to a meeting of high-ranking idiots.
FX: THE SOUND OF A TILL RINGING
Seagoon: What a lovely tune.
Bluebottle: Like it? It’s the National Anthem of America. All the shops are playing it.
Seagoon: Just think of how much money we'll make.
FX: UNROLLING DRAWINGS
Eccles: Nothing here.
Seagoon: The drawings are on the other side.
Eccles: Oh, that’s a clever idea, who’d have guessed?
Willium: Sir, the gentlemen of the Press is ‘ere. I tried to hold ‘em back, but they burst through by puttin’ money in me hand.
Newspaper Journalist: Eccles, what is your plan for the new Bridge?
Eccles: My idea of a Bridge over Sydney Harbour would be made of nice string wood, and string, wid all nice glue, and it would have all dem nails in it…
Macgoonigal: May I introduce myself, Sir, I am William J. Macgoonigal, poet, tragedian and twit, allow me to pen a verse of appreciation:
Oh beautiful new bridge over the Emerald Harbour
Which has caused the Maharajah of Pongistan to leave his home without armour,
Incognito in his dress
And he will pass this way in his journey to Inverness.
Seagoon: What Grovelling Excellence…
Bluebottle: Listen, someone’s screaming in agony – fortunately, I speak it fluently.
Moriarty: You devils, this is a fraud, you’ll hear from my lawyer about this…
FX: SOUND OF MORIARTY’S LAWYER TYPING A LETTER OF DEMAND
Moriarty’s Lawyer: Unless you give me the plans for the new Bridge, I will be forced to charge my client a higher rate.
Moriarty: If that’s not enough, I challenge you to a seething duel. Name your weapon!
Eccles: I name my weapon Basil.
Bluebottle: No! I don't like this game. We must save Eccles from a death worse than fate. Ned Seagoon, what are you doing, hiding down there?
Seagoon: I apologise for my altitude.
Bluebottle: It is low, Ned, could we sell you an extra three feet?
Seagoon: Just what I need.
FX: MORIARTY AND ECCLES THREATENING EACH OTHER, PERCHED PERILOUSLY ON THE BOARDWALK AROUND THE HARBOUR
Eccles: See how you feel about this, Moriarty (fires his gun).
Bluebottle: Got him, right in the credentials.
Eccles: How about dat?
Eccles: He’s fallen in the water.
FX: THE POLICE RETRIEVE MORIARTY FROM THE HARBOUR, STILL BREATHING DEFIANTLY
DJ Ian: What a morning! Would you like to go back to your room now?
Bluebottle: It sounds naughty.
Seagoon: It is.
Moriarty: And there’s more where that came from...
Bloodnok: Wait for me!
Eccles: Oh dear, time for beddy byes. Where’s my dolly.
Enchantress: Here I am darling.
Andrew Timothy: Not a very good end, but tidy, don’t you think?
Notes are private!
Jan 10, 2012
Jan 12, 2012
Jan 10, 2012
Apr 01, 1997
"I Know Not Whence...Nor Whither, Willy-Nilly Blowing"
William H. Gass positions words on the page, one after the other. Soon, a sentence takes shape,...more "I Know Not Whence...Nor Whither, Willy-Nilly Blowing"
William H. Gass positions words on the page, one after the other. Soon, a sentence takes shape, then a paragraph, then a chapter, then a section, then a novel in its entirety.
The words are not necessarily directional from the outset. A sentence goes in the direction dictated by each additional word. They don’t necessarily follow a preordained sequence or work towards a goal:
"I know not whence, like water willy-nilly flowing...
Nor whither, willy-nilly blowing..."
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Like Omensetter, Gass (our very own Willy-Nilly) is prepared to try his luck, tempt fate, go with the flow, see what happens.
"The Moving Finger Writes and, Having Writ, Moves On"
There is no necessary plot as such. The novel emerges from the natural flow:
"You do not tell a story; your fiction will do that when your fiction is finished."
Gass is the vehicle for these words to get onto the page. His is the hand that moves or the finger that writes:
"The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
His words are poetry. They are made to be spoken, to feel your tongue and lips and teeth move around them, they are made to be heard, even if you only listen to your own voice, whether inwardly in the imagination or outwardly alive and aloud.
The Movement of Language
Gass is interested in the "movement of language", as well as the language of movement.
These words sound, they move around, they jostle for favour. Together they constitute or compose music:
"What you make is music, and because your sounds are carriers of concepts, you make conceptual music, too."
Having achieved their task, the words move to the back, unchanged, permanent, irrevocable:
"Nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
The words are passed, gone, irrecoverable, at least until, in the manner of Proust, they insinuate their way into the memory of the reader and insist on being recalled.
Only, in the unique case of "Omensetter’s Luck", this is not strictly correct. Gass’ initial draft of the novel was stolen, and he had to reconstruct it from memory. Ironically, he felt it improved in the process.
Still, "Omensetter’s Luck" is for me an example of what Gass said about Italo Calvino’s "Invisible Cities":
"[it] is one of the purer works of the imagination. It is prose elevated to poetry without the least sign of strain."
Omensetter and His Luck
While the novel is named after Omensetter, or at least his luck, I wouldn’t say that he is the chief protagonist.
He is a relative innocent, an ingénue, a naïf, almost a simpleton, someone who is content to see what fortune has in store for him.
In the words of Israbestis Tott, town gossip, when he arrived:
"He had everything he owned piled up in the wagon with this cradle tied to the top of it, and nothing covered. That was the kind of fellow Brackett Omenstter was. He knew it wasn’t going to rain again. He counted on his luck."
He is passive rather than active, he is not an agent who dictates the direction of his own life or that of his family. He declines to rescue a fox that is trapped in a well, he fails to obtain medical assistance for his own sick baby. If either were to die, he would justify it as God’s will:
"The Sky Rolls Impotently On As Thou or I"
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
In a way, he succumbs to determinism. He bears no burden of decision or responsibility. His plight, his blessing and his curse, is "to lose the heaviness of life".
This approach to life might be understandable if you only have to deal with nature. Perhaps we are powerless in its path. The problems start when you join a community or broader society.
The Love and Sorrows of Henry Pimber
Henry Pimber, who soon becomes Omensetter’s landlord, thinks he is "a foolish, dirty, careless man".
Yet, others describe him as a "natural-born politician; he’s what they call the magnetic kind". Their faith is borne out when Omensetter apparently heals an affliction that Henry suffers (metaphorically, like the fox, "Pimber’s down our well"), after which "Henry’s own salvation was the central thing".
This salvation implicitly challenges the authority of the local Doctor Orcutt and the faith in and of Reverend Jethro Furber.
The Reverend Jethro Furber’s Change of Heart
Gass devotes three-quarters of his novel to Furber, the real protagonist, despicable as he is. He is trained in rhetoric and has the town under his control, until Omensetter’s arrival.
Gass uses a stream of consciousness technique to show us what is really happening in the mind of this man of the cloth. He is both lascivious and lyrical in an almost Old Testament fashion, "shaping his lips for strong sounds".
He obsesses about the "glabrous cleft" of a young girl’s private parts and the "lower lips of fatty Ruth". Espying an older woman with large breasts, he imagines himself partaking in a "tipple from her mountainous nipple". Yet he sits in judgement, as God’s proxy, over the "lewd speech and slovenly habits" of the townfolk, "[preaching] against frivolity with heat."
He counsels the congregation against "indecent prepositions", all the time contemplating indecent propositions. It seems as if Furber is the most vulnerable to "the way of all flesh".
Gass signals that Furber might undergo a change of heart with the title to this section. I won’t discuss whether or how this occurs. The plot detail is not important, but it is desirable that readers experience how he uses language to achieve what little overt plot he utilises to serve his literary purpose.
These Are a Few of My Favourite Things
It remains to let you sample Gass' writing. Below are some examples of his prose that I have arbitrarily chosen and versified.
I hope you can sense and enjoy the movement of language:
"Every bush would blossom
Each twig sharply thrown
And every paltry post embark
For consciousness as huge"
"Well the rose is too common
And the phallus too foolish."
"There was hair and nose and napkin cloth
And painted trim along the stair."
"She was like an after-image still
A scar of light
A sailor’s deep tattoo."
"How could man beget
Unless his flesh would rise
And what was there in innocence
To move the simplest muscle
In a gesture of desire."
"He’s a bit better
And a bit luckier
Than most of us."
"They would wallow safely
In the worst sensations
Conceive the most obscene devices
Place him, their preacher
In vulgar postures
Ravish him on ornate altars
Or on the floors of pews."
"The penis in repose
With that little hat of skin
Why, it’s a lovely childlike thing
And each man’s gentle babyhood
Is in it."
"He had fathered every folly, every sin
No goat knew gluttony like this
No cat had felt his pride
No crow his avarice."
"Note how sweetly
I pronounce her
My ringalingling tongue."
"You may call our soul our best
But this, our body, is our love."(less)
Notes are private!
Apr 06, 2013
Apr 17, 2013
Oct 23, 2011
Aug 04, 2005
I read this book quickly. It dealt with the most important issues very efficiently. It was a good use of my time.
Therein lies the issue,...more Speed Reading
I read this book quickly. It dealt with the most important issues very efficiently. It was a good use of my time.
Therein lies the issue, or more precisely why I can only give it four, not five, stars.
The book originated in a series of articles Carl Honore wrote for the “National Post”.
It’s well-researched, well thought out, well structured, tells a good story, makes good use of relevant quotations, it’s never boring (though once I’d worked all of this out, I was glad when the end was in sight).
Ultimately, it is a consummate work of journalism, but it is not the work of deeper philosophical analysis I was hoping for.
This is a product of my expectations, rather than the author’s delivery.
I suspect that the book achieved everything the author, the publisher and the National Post expected of it.
The Bad News
For the last two or three centuries (since the Industrial Revolution), something has been happening without us thinking about it:
“We have developed an inner psychology of speed, of saving time and maximizing efficiency.”
“…we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts…”
We view “speed as a sign of control and efficiency”.
Milan Kundera uses the language of narcotics to describe the “ecstasy of speed…the sense of rush it gives”.
In the words of Carrie Fisher, once an imbiber of alcohol, even “instant gratification takes too long.”
When it comes to food, we “gobble, gulp and go”.
We have joined "the cult of speed", we've been worshipping “the false god of speed”. We’re suffering from acceleration and “time-sickness”.
A few decades ago, the same problem was defined as “stress”, and that probably sold a lot of books for a lot of authors and publishers.
Back then, the cure was supposed to be “Stress Management”.
It probably made a lot of money for counselors and management consultants.
Did the cure work? I don’t think so. The problem only seems to have gotten worse.
Honore describes the two different approaches (Fast and Slow) in the following manner:
“Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality.”
“Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.”
“Fast Thinking is rational, analytical, linear, logical…Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative.”
The Good News
The good news is that there is a Slow Movement that is trying to address the problem now.
The Movement addresses the problem of Speed in a number of aspects of society (life generally, food, cities, health, medicine, love and sex, work, leisure, child-rearing and education), the common thread being its desire to slow things down.
What it is seeking is a balance, the ability to do things at the “tempo giusto” (the right speed), the right to do things in our “Eigenzeit” (our own time):
“What we are fighting for is the right to determine our own tempos.”
The new tempos sound great. Honore describes “a little oasis of slowness,” “slow pleasure”, “quiet material pleasure”, “erotic deceleration” (yeah, baby).
These quotations might make it sound like the book is all about sex, but that’s not the case.
If anything, it’s about approaching all aspects of life with a fresh intensity, vivaciousness and sensuality.
For all our speed, we have lost our vividness, we’ve been worn out and worn down, we’ve lost our touch.
Some argue that we should “do fewer things in order to do them better”.
Honore even remarks with some hint of envy that Albert Einstein was "famous for spending ages staring into space" (ironically, discovering that the speed of light is a constant, very fast, perhaps the fastest).
Others argue that we should just do things more slowly, more sensuously.
It’s not a race (to the death).
It's just that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing slowly.
Time as an Abstract
Early in the book, even though there is a discussion of clocks and time-keeping (“the clock gives us our bearings”), I started to wonder about the nature of time.
Does time exist? Is it a thing? Does it pass? Can we ever have enough of it? Can we ever run out of it?
We only have a sense of time, because we measure it against something else, the movement of the sun, the ticking of a clock, the distance travelled by a moving object.
It’s these other things that move and measure time, not time itself.
Yet we seem to have created such a rod for our own backs.
What would happen if we slowed down? We wouldn’t explode. We wouldn’t implode.
What would happen is that we wouldn’t achieve as much of this other stuff as we wanted to.
We wouldn’t do as much in the allotted “time”. We wouldn’t make or acquire as much of the other stuff in the allotted “time”.
Greed, Not Speed
I started to wonder whether time and speed aren’t the problem, it’s actually our expectations of these other things, the stuff we’re trying to stuff into time.
Time is the bag and these other things are the measure of our greed.
Why don’t we need less in our bag? Why don’t we know when enough is enough?
Is the perceived problem of time actually a problem determining priorities?
Honore comes close when he cites the following comment by an academic:
“You need to take time to think about what is really important, rather than trying to figure out how to pack as much as you can into the shortest possible schedule.”
For a long time, we have wanted to have everything, and now we want to do everything...ironically, for a long time.
Money restrains the first aspiration, “time” restrains the second.
But I started to feel that it’s not time that is the problem, it’s our aspirations, our ambition, our greed.
In a way, we waste our time on what we don’t have or haven’t done yet.
We don’t give what we already have (or have already done) enough time or, more importantly, enough respect.
We don’t respect time.
You can see it in the way we eat. We race to the end of a meal so we can continue whatever else we were doing (or continued to do while we ate).
We don’t respect our meal or the passion or love that went into its creation.
We don’t respect our time together and what we could achieve with this time.
To paraphrase Saul Bellow (who Honore quotes), we don’t respect and value “the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.”
The message of the book is to slow down or to modulate your speed or to find the right speed for you in the moment.
Nowhere does it suggest that we should actually stop, except to the extent it discusses meditation.
The Slow Movement must still be a movement of some kind. It must move. It cannot come to a grinding halt. It cannot go the whole hog and slow to a stop. It cannot slow to a stop and then “stay the whole hog”.
If there is a flaw in the Slow Movement, it is this, that it is not radical enough.
As much as the message of the Movement and the book appeals to me, ultimately it preaches moderation.
Everybody is different. There are different strokes (of the clock) for different folks.
Everything is relative. Nothing is wrong. Perhaps, then, nothing will change.(less)
Notes are private!
May 26, 2012
Jun 03, 2012
Sep 16, 2011
Jan 08, 1992
Feb 01, 1994
Gloria, Gloria, Gloria
Bill rang me and said do you want to come and meet Jimmy, so I said yes, I’d heard so much about him from Bill, he was going to...more Gloria, Gloria, Gloria
Bill rang me and said do you want to come and meet Jimmy, so I said yes, I’d heard so much about him from Bill, he was going to write a piece, an article or a story about him for some magazine, he was infatuated with some whore, an ex-girlfriend, Gloria, who’d just up and disappeared six months ago, Bill didn’t know whether she was dead or in prison or had gone back to her family to have a baby, Bill had never even met her or seen a photo, all he had to go on was a description from Jimmy, none of the other whores in the ‘Loin remembered her, they’d all arrived since she’d left, once Bill even speculated that she might never have existed, and Jimmy heard about it, and next time he saw him, he punched him in the side of the jaw and loosened a tooth, though they’re good friends now, well good enough to have a drink with and to introduce me to, though as the editor of the novel he was supposed to be writing (I didn't "officially" know about the article) I had to pay of course, not that Bill needed or wanted an editor, he just got me for free, and I had a modest expense account.
We were supposed to meet him at the Black Rose, but he wasn’t there, so we went on a virtual bar crawl, HaRa, Summer Place, Nite Cap, and the Geary Club, nobody had seen him, so I said why don’t we check if he’s at home, it was almost noon and I was ready for a drink, I hadn’t had one since I downed a couple of Bloody Mary’s in the hotel bar for breakfast. We ran into Pearl in the lobby of Jimmy’s building, but she hadn’t seen him yet, so we walked up three flights of stairs until we got to his floor and located room 19, the door was open and the light was on, so we walked in, when this beautiful tall amazonian woman with a great shock of long hair, says, what the fuck are you doing here, we’re looking for Jimmy, we said, well he’s not here, do you know where he is then, no, she said, but if you see him first, tell him I’m looking for him, and if he’s with some whore, he’d better watch his back. Who the fuck are you then, Bill asked, unusually cocky for the writer Bill I knew. Only Jimmy needs to know that, and he’s smart enough to work it out himself. She turned around and continued to unload groceries out of plastic bags into the pantry. Go on, you two can fuck off. She was beautiful, but she had a foul mouth.
We went back to the Black Rose and sure enough, there was Jimmy, sitting at a table, half a Bud in his hand, but it wasn’t his first of the day, he looked like he’d been drinking all day or had started last night and hadn’t stopped. He was talking to a big-breasted whore named Luna, who looked pretty good for her age, behind her sunglasses, we sat with them for five or six rounds, while Jimmy’s head set more and more into his folded arms on the table, all the time calling Luna Gloria, and insisting that she wear a wig he’d brought along in a plastic shopping bag.
To be honest, Bill and I totally forgot to mention the woman in his room, we’d got to talking as soon as we arrived, then some other girls arrived and asked both of us if we wanted to go upstairs, we both said yes, I thought Bill was going to fuck his girl, the younger of the two, but he reckoned afterwards, all he did was talk to her with a recorder going the whole time. My whore, a melancholy one, was an ex-med student who wanted to be a writer, so she was all over me when she found out what I did, she sat me down on the red velvet couch, unbuttoned my shirt and flung it over the side chair, I struggled to get my trousers off, but she stopped me as she crept onto my lap and started to play with my hair, which I hate being messed up, then she ran her hands over my chest, I’m still pretty fit for my age, and she squeezed me, while my grin struggled not to become a grimace, then suddenly, Jesus, fuck, what did you do? I looked down at my left nipple and she had run a six inch safety pin through the soft flesh at its base and closed it before I even knew what was happening. A trickle of blood emerged from the puncture mark at each end, but once the initial shock wore off, it didn’t seem to hurt at all. Still, I wasn’t about to have the other one done. Come on, put your shirt back on and have another drink with me, big boy.
We went back downstairs to our table, from which Jimmy and Luna had departed. I ordered another round of drinks, and the German beer wench asked if I wanted to get a drink for Jimmy and Luna, they were just in the alleyway. I took their drinks out, but the two of them were busily fucking against the wall of the Chinese Restaurant next door.
I put their drinks on the pavement, and returned inside to our table. By this time Bill had come down, we were both thinking it was time to go, he said he wanted to transcribe his tape, I didn’t believe him until later when I saw the transcript of what happened that day. Then there was a commotion at the front door. The woman from Jimmy’s room had arrived and knocked over somebody’s bourbon. The German woman panicked behind the bar, scheiss, Gloria, she said, I thought you were dead. She didn’t bother to return the greeting, she just said, where the fuck is Jimmy, the German hesitated to answer, but her eyes gave her away, they had unknowingly pointed towards the alley, so Gloria went out into the alley and past the Chinese restaurant, not knowing that she would find not just Jimmy, but Jimmy flatbacking Luna on the hood of a car. She wasn’t to know that the whole time he fucked her, he was saying, Gloria, Gloria, Gloria. And that’s just about all I can remember.
Notes are private!
Feb 13, 2013
Feb 14, 2013
Apr 13, 2011
Aug 10, 1999
As Seen in the Sub-Blurbs
This is step two in a project to acquire a modest foundation in political and economic philosophy before some more focused re...more As Seen in the Sub-Blurbs
This is step two in a project to acquire a modest foundation in political and economic philosophy before some more focused reading in both areas.
The first step was Thelma Lavine’s “From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest”:
Both books summarise the lives and philosophy of key philosophers in language that is easy to understand.
While I intend to read some other generalist philosophy books as well, I recommend both books for readers who just want an overview or a foundation for further reading similar to what I’m undertaking.
"A World Full of Lobsters"
Thomas Carlyle once described economics as a “dismal science”.
It was dismal, because it found “the secret of the universe in supply and demand” and reduced the duty of government to “letting man alone” (i.e., “laissez-faire” capitalism).
Heilbroner’s publishers requested him to name his project and book “The Great Economists”.
Fearful that this might sound to the general reader like “The Most Dismal Scientists”, he approached the project from a more philosophical point of view, so as to help understand alternative visions for the economy within society rather than the internal operation of the economy at a mechanical or purely political level.
You could argue that words like “worldly” and “philosopher” might be of little appeal to the average student of the dismal science.
However, the name of the book reveals a literary and pedagogical approach that is designed to maximize interest in the subject matter.
Indeed, Heilbroner managed to escape the dismal preconceptions about his subject matter so much so that a student once asked a bookseller if they had an economics book called “A World Full of Lobsters”.
Heilbroner succeeds in his task by writing lucidly.
He doesn’t just describe, he creates a narrative with drive and excitement.
His view of economic history is directional, even if it does not necessarily embrace the inevitable progress envisaged by the Enlightenment philosophers and scientists.
Secondly, he unfolds the narrative through the use of a dialectical opposition between the successive economists in the chain.
While Marx might have advocated dialectical materialism, Heilbroner is a dialectical story-teller.
There is conflict, then resolution, then a new conflict occurs, followed by a new resolution.
A Metaphor for the Study of Capitalism
In the rest of this review, I want to summarise the main concepts and explain what I got out of the book.
I have never formally studied economics for any extended period of time. Although I originally wanted to be a chemical engineer, I am terrified by any book that contains mathematical formulae.
While I used to understand them intuitively, now they seem like some form of dark arts.
It is my solemn duty to shelter you from these dark arts and the misery that could befall you if you come across them.
Therefore, I have decided to use a metaphor in my explanation of Capitalism, and the metaphor will be that of “Caterpillarism”, a term which is not yet in Wikipaedia.
Please bear with me and pay attention.
Heilbroner focuses largely on the following economists: Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Robert Owen, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Mill, Marx, Edgeworth (no, I hadn’t either), Von Thunen (didn’t he make the rockets in “Gravity’s Rainbow”?), Walras (wasn’t the Walras Paul?), Bastiat (I thought he was an 80’s graffiti artist), Henry George, Hobson, Marshall (holler for an economist), Thorstein Veblen, Keynes (the guy they named Keynesianism after), Schumpeter (I’m not sure if it rhymes with trumpeter, I don’t know anybody who’s ever pronounced it), and Adolphe Lowe.
Now if I was wedded to the list technique, I would probably just end my review, and you would conclude that I must know what I’m talking about, look at my star rating and decide that you will (will never ever) read this book because I did.
But I am not the sort of Good Reader who is content with lists. In fact, by and large, I despise them.
I think there are 19 dismalists in that list, which is far too many.
So I’m going to put them on two teams, one team consisting only of Karl Marx, and the other captained by Adam Smith, but including everybody else.
I’m not saying that Smith was better than the rest, just that he was the first, plus he broke the back of economics and the others have really just refined it or improved it by degree.
So now these two teams have to explain Caterpillarism.
Why Caterpillarism? Well, I’ll tell you.
Caterpillarism really only started [ages ago/ in the 1760’s/ in 1848/ before the war (but which war?)/ last century/ in Year 8 at High School] and it is still changing.
Just when somebody thinks they can explain it, it undergoes some crisis or breakdown that changes the rules so much that it doesn't even seem to be the same game anymore.
So the metaphor I want to use is of two teams of dismal scientists examining a life form which they know only to be a Caterpillar.
You could imagine that this life form might live and die as a Caterpillar, but gradually we learn that Caterpillars can transmorph into a Butterfly or a Moth.
In reality, I made Smith a captain, because he’s the one who first believed that the Caterpillar was a juvenile Butterfly.
In his eyes, it’s a beautiful thing, it’s capable of progress, change, growth and improvement, it works, and it doesn't need anybody from outside to make it work or tweak it.
In fact, it works best when nobody tweaks it at all. It’s self-regulating. The invisible hand of the market is working away behind the scenes, yes, invisibly, just like God is supposed to.
Despite the fact that it is made up of numerous opposing forces, the Caterpillar finds an equilibrium on its own.
The Caterpillar needs opposing forces, just like humans need opposing thumbs. We couldn’t work, if we didn't have them.
Even in times of crisis, the Caterpillar reaches an outcome that was meant to be. OK, some people might suffer, but they were intended to suffer, for the good of the overall system.
Shit happens in this system, but that’s like saying that football players occasionally do a hamstring.
You play the game, you assume the risk of injury.
No prizes for guessing that Marx believed the Caterpillar would turn into a Moth.
Apart from the competition between merchants, the opposing forces represented class interests, the Caterpillarist and the Working Class.
The interests of the two classes are diametrically opposed. One class does not win, unless another loses.
It’s a sport, and nobody has come along to see a scoreless draw.
Marx didn’t violently disagree with Smith’s understanding of the mechanics of the Caterpillar.
He primarily disagreed with what would happen in the future.
He believed that Caterpillarism was headed inevitably toward disequilibrium, and one day the Working Class would revolt and overturn Caterpillarism in favour of Communism.
Not only did he believe a Revolution would happen, he believed that it was dictated by the concept of Dialectical Materialism. It was inevitable, and the duty of Communists around the world was to facilitate the Revolution.
The Composition of the Ball
Now that we have two Teams, we need to define what sport they are playing. What is in contention?
All good sports require a ball (or something a bit like a ball). [Sorry, I refuse to accept that anything that involves peddling or paddling is a sport.]
As it turns out, the dispute is about the ball. Not what you do with the ball, but the composition of the ball.
The ball is the product of Caterpillarism, the goods that are made, bought and sold.
Every time a ball is made and sold, a goal is scored.
Who gets the credit for scoring the goal? And in what proportion? What is the relative value of a “goal assist”?
The measure of the value of the ball is its price. How much is it sold for? How was the price determined and who ultimately gets a share of the price?
Team Smith believes that the price includes the cost of land, materials, and labor (the effort of the Workers who actually make the ball and distribute it around the park), plus a margin for the Caterpillarist’s profit.
Team Smith believes that the Caterpillarist is entitled to negotiate and pin down its costs of input, and therefore it is solely entitled to whatever profit it can generate by playing the game or scoring a goal.
The fact that these other contributions were required does not entitle the contributors to a profit share.
The profit is the reward for, or return on, the use of the Caterpillarist’s capital.
Team Marx believes that the profit is not strictly speaking the product of the Caterpillarist’s capital, it’s the product of the Workers’ labor (the “labor theory of value”).
To the extent that the Caterpillarist has any capital, it reflects the profit previously made from other Workers’ labor.
Thus, in Team Marx’ eyes, the Caterpillarist is nothing without labor.
Caterpillarists should not be entitled to expropriate the profit from the Workers’ labor.
The purpose, then, of a Revolution is to end the disequilibrium and terminate the misappropriation of the fruit of the Workers’ labor.
If you want to read more about why this was so important to Marx philosophically, see my review of Marx' "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts":
Half Time Score
In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the Caterpillarists might have thought they were winning, but the world got pretty close to Revolution everywhere, not just in Russia.
Ironically, what avoided World Revolution was a rule change that allowed the Referee to influence the play.
Rather than allow the Caterpillarists to thrash the Workers by a margin that would depress everyone, the Referee in the form of Social Democratic Governments legislated to achieve a level playing field.
Minimum wages were set. Working conditions were protected by law. Workers suffered less misery. They got a little more comfortable and lost their revolutionary fervor.
They still didn’t get a share of the profits. They just got paid a better wage, usually whether or not the Caterpillarist generated a profit. So the risk-taking Caterpillarist could go down the gurgler, while the Workers still got paid (although they might lose their jobs).
The Second Half
We’re still playing the second half of the game, and there is no end in sight.
Team Smith and the Caterpillarists still believe that some form of equilibrium has been and will be achieved, albeit with the intervention of the Referee against the wishes of the laissez-faire Caterpillarists.
Even if a Revolution has been avoided, the outcome is not the self-regulating equilibrium the Caterpillarists were seeking.
Team Marx appears to have been irreparably damaged by the failure of attempts to do without Caterpillarists in Communist economies and the complacency of the Workers who are doing alright.
These rule changes have forced a reconsideration of the strategies of each Team.
Some on Team Smith (e.g., Schumpeter) believed that Caterpillarism could not survive in such an adversary manner and that profits would eventually erode to such a level that Caterpillarists would effectively receive only a salary for managing their capital.
Thus, the differential between capital and labor would diminish and potentially manifest itself in a distinction only between Workers and Management.
Ultimately, even this difference would be reflected primarily in the relative level of remuneration.
Late in the second half, the players were confronted by new rule changes.
After a period of relative post-Communist stability, Caterpillarism was rocked by Inflation, Recession, Depression, and the Global Financial Crisis.
Once again, the Referee intervened to make sure the game continued.
The Referee supported the Caterpillarists with cash and credit, so that they in turn could pay wages and salaries to the Workers and Management.
Nobody quite knows at what cost this support will come.
The important thing is that the Referee mitigated the misery of the Workers and Management.
At the same time that some on Team Smith have suggested that profits might diminish over the course of Caterpillarism, China has apparently mastered the art of profit generation, only not in the name of Caterpillarism, but in the name of Communism.
The surplus value created by its Workers is being aggregated by the State or State-owned Enterprises.
Not only is it funding domestic growth, it’s also propping up first world economies and their governments’ deficits.
Thus, China, in a reversal of the dynamic of Colonialism, is actually capitalizing on investment opportunities in the West to create greater domestic wealth, while making itself an indispensable source of economic stability in the West.
What emerges from this is a principle that profit itself is not intrinsically bad, at least if it is generated in the name of the State, which is presumably representative of the Workers’ interests.
In other words, public profit good, private profit bad.
It seems to me that these disputes about profits are effectively arguments about the relative entitlement to profit as between labor and capital.
It’s amazing that an issue that, technically, is within the realm of Cost Accounting has become a philosophical and political issue that has dominated economics and government for almost 260 years.
For the Marx Team, at least, its importance derives from the fact that it dictates the relationship of Workers with the product of their labor (alienation), as well as the quality of their life (subjugation to Caterpillarists).
However, you have to wonder why the alienation should be any different in the case of State Caterpillarism.
Does it matter who appropriates the profit? Does it matter who subjugates the Worker? As long as the State purports to represent the whole of society, it’s OK?
Somehow, I can’t see Workers making such a fine philosophical distinction.
What seems to be missing is a greater role for Worker Profit Sharing, whereby the Workers share in the surplus value that they have created within the framework of a joint venture.
Philosophically, this recognises that it is their labor that generated a proportionate part of the profit, while giving them greater financial security.
There is another justification for profit that has become more important as the average lifetime of the public has increased.
Assuming that Workers still retire from active, full-time work, it will be necessary for them to fund some, if not all, of their retirement income for the rest of their lives.
Thus, remuneration should not just be about funding a subsistence lifestyle while you are working.
It must also fund post-retirement incomes.
If the Worker is not to bear some or all of the burden of their incomes, the burden would fall back on pensions funded by the State.
Ultimately, someone (Workers or State) would still have to generate sufficient funds to fund these pensions.
Thus, the question seems to be not whether profits need to be generated, but who is entitled to them.
The Vision Thing
Heilbroner laments the fact that these types of economists and philosophers seem to have exited the field of economics in favour of dismal mathematical and mechanical economists.
Nobody is trying to extend the dialectical narrative into the future. Nobody is telling the story anymore. It’s just happening around us, and we’re reacting. We’re walking backwards into the future, with little, if any, hope of affecting the outcome.
In a way, the game hasn't finished yet, but nobody is trying to predict the outcome, Butterfly or Moth.
And if you don't try to predict the outcome, how can you hope to influence it?
Perhaps, this passive state of affairs is a product of Social Democratic governments that intervene in Caterpillarism.
Perhaps, we won’t end up with a Butterfly or a Moth, but some hybrid that we haven’t conceived of and won’t be able to define until it is upon us.
Perhaps, then, Caterpillarism will continue to shape us, instead of us shaping it.
If so, who knows whether we will turn into Butterflies or Moths?
Notes are private!
Oct 21, 2012
Oct 29, 2012
Mar 03, 2011
Aug 01, 2002
That’s the Spirit
"The Red Thread" is set in Communist Shanghai in the year 2000.
It starts with "Old Wen" disembarking from a ferry and visiting Shangh...more That’s the Spirit
"The Red Thread" is set in Communist Shanghai in the year 2000.
It starts with "Old Wen" disembarking from a ferry and visiting Shanghai Art Auctions International, where he offers to "Young Shen", a thirty year old US-educated art appraiser, some objet d’art he wishes to sell at auction.
Wrapped in sheets of the People’s Daily, Shen finds the manuscript of an eighteenth century book called "Six Chapters of a Floating Life":
On inspection, Shen detects that there are only four chapters, the other two missing, believed lost for eternity. Still, Shen realises it has considerable value.
At the auction, Shen meets and falls in love with Ruth Garrett, an Australian artist who specialises in Contemporary Traditional Chinese Painting, after he suddenly withdraws the manuscript from sale.
So begins a tale that weaves together a real life traditional masterpiece, ancient Buddhist wisdom and a post-modern love story, in a work that is paced like spiritual detective fiction.
A River Flows In You
The manuscript relates the life of Shen Fu (Young Shen’s full name is Shen Fuling) and his "charming, idiosyncratic" wife, Yun.
Shen and Ruth read about "the joy they made with no one but themselves, discovering the beauty in things, living by no rules but their own."
They soon discover parallels with their own world and fledgling romance.
By the time they get to the end of the fourth chapter, Shen and Ruth wonder whether their life together holds the secret of the lost chapters.
Jose’s novel, which up until that point has had the same chapter titles, ceases to imitate and almost becomes "Six Chapters of a Floating Life".
The two stories merge, the one flowing into the other, like a river.
A Heart-Felt Caveat
Superficially, the novel takes the form of a post-modern meta-fiction and proves that it is possible for meta-fiction to contain realistic characters and plot devices as well as a link to the past.
However, it actually owes a lot to the teachings of Buddhism (and to some extent, the shared tradition of Hinduism).
I am an atheist and not yet a formal student of either religion. In trying to describe my reactions to this novel, I might therefore misunderstand some of the nuances and significance of the concepts I deal with. I hope others can improve on my efforts to construct a more accurate analysis.
Artist: Margaret Bremmer
"The Red Thread"
At its most superficial level, the "Red Thread" is the personal connection or bond of passion, love and sex that joins two people. It is the "red thread between our legs".
The thread might exist without us even knowing about it. It might exist before we even meet each other.
Like the more Western concept of "soul mates", it could symbolise the fact that we two are pre-destined to meet each other and become lovers.
In Jose’s words, it is "the red thread of ever-renewing love" or "the thread of restless craving" that binds two lovers together:
"He thought of the red thread of passion wound tightly around the fingers of the Old Man of the Moon, the protector of couples. It was a cord that bound one heart to another, like one flow of blood through two bodies.
"Yet it was also a tie across space and time, as the wheel of life turned, bringing souls back to their bodies...It was a longing that never ceased until it found its object."
At a second level, there is a bond between different couples over time, who might in fact be reincarnations of the same couple:
"The needle that drew the thread, moving beneath the membrane of our hearts, red as blood, red as fire, was sewing sex into eternity - which is what all lovers want."
"The embroidered shoes were proof of a double destiny...the familiarity they felt with each other, the intimacy of feeling, the meaning of a glance, the touch of skin, the reverberation of presence with memory.
"In this they seemed to merge into one, so that Shen might feel sensations that Yun had felt and Ruth feel what Shen Fu had known."
At the second level, we die, but we return as a different couple. Our souls recur or continue in different lovers, who are spiritually the same and form one self-perpetuating love story:
"Granting the power of those still unbroken attachments, the bodhisattva breaks the rules of life and death for a far longer time than humans dare to ask, and still the story is uncompleted. Still our love for each other brings us back again...
"Our pleasures are the same. A life of little pleasures...make all the difference, those stray threads, imbued with all our passions, that bind us, heart and soul, to the physical world and to one another. My longings were tied to a particular person, a face and a shape, a time and a place, but that red thread of passion also bound us to something larger than ourselves."
Breaking the Attachment
At a third level, as long as we remain bound to each other, we remain "attached" to the physical world and fail to truly enter the spiritual world.
There is a hierarchy that separates the passions, the body, the flesh, the sensual, the sexual (on the one hand) from the spiritual and the divine (on the other hand).
Many religions, not just Buddhism, teach us that we have to transcend the body in order to achieve the spiritual.
We have to escape the love for and physical attachment to another individual in order to attain a perfect state of spirituality.
In Jose’s words:
"The only way to end the tie was to follow the thread until the passion of attachment reached its final resolution."
In effect, attachment must end in non-attachment.
Understanding Attachment and Non-Attachment
I first encountered the term “non-attachment” in the Van Morrison song, "Enlightenment":
"Enlightenment, don't know what it is
It says it's non-attachment."
In the song, Van Morrison didn’t know what non-attachment was, and I’ve never known either, at least until I’ve done some research for this review. Maybe I still don’t get it.
I think that, in the West, this is because I and we tend to approach the issue from an individualistic and self-ish perspective.
We look at things from the point of view of our own self, which we are tempted to describe as the Self (as well as the Ego, in Freudian terms).
If I understand it correctly, Buddhism suggests that we individuals are impermanent, "separative egos" that lack continuous form or unchanging substance.
Collectively, we are simply minds or consciousnesses that form part of the One or Reality:
"The One is all things and is incomplete without the least of them. Yet the parts are parts within the whole, not merged in it; they are interfused with reality while retaining the full identity of the part, and the One is no less the One for the fact that it is a million-million parts." (the Jijimuge Doctrine of the Kegon School of Japanese Buddhism)
Within this context, Enlightenment (or Life itself) is not the property of humanity or any one individual. To the extent that it is part of an individual, one of their faculties, it is not immortal. To the extent that it is immortal, it is not the property of any one individual.
We are part of an evolving consciousness that attains successive states of spiritual achievement, until our sense of individual self is extinguished, a higher more collective Self is released from its fetters and merged “as a Dewdrop in the Shining Sea”.
"The flowing river is lost in the sea;
The illumined sage is lost in the Self.
The flowing river has become the sea;
The illumined sage has become the Self.
Those who know the Self become the Self.
None in their family forgets the Self.
Freed from the fetters of separateness,
They attain to immortality."
The Western sense of self and ego perpetuates a sense of separateness (hence, the "separative ego"), the self and others, the self and an other.
In Buddhism, the love of another therefore goes against the flow toward the Enlightenment of One or Oneness.
This doesn’t mean that love is prohibited in Buddhism (or Hinduism).
The Third Precept prohibits "sexual misconduct" or "wrong-doing in respect of sensuality", not sexuality or sensuality in their own right.
However, the formation of a two-person relationship requires the recognition of and attachment to a separate person.
Ultimately, an individual must eventually move beyond this attachment to a spiritual non-attachment within the One or Enlightenment.
The Sublimation of Desire
In the meantime, individuals must control and sublimate sexual desire.
Physically, desire manifests itself as sex.
Emotionally, it is enthusiasm and emotional force.
Intellectually, it is creativity.
The Third Precept therefore encourages the sublimation of sex into a higher form.
Judging the Novel
To the extent that the novel takes these ideas for granted, it is beautifully and economically written.
It manages the post-modern intersection of past, present and future skillfully.
It allows a river from the past ("Six Chapters of a Floating Life") to flow through a second story ("The Red Thread") and then ultimately to and through us the readers.
It is a needle that sews us into an exquisite tapestry and a larger story of love.
An Atheist Response
Buddhism is a profound religion and philosophy.
It does not believe in a creator, a deity or a God figure, and is therefore non-theist.
Nevertheless, it posits a spiritual hierarchy that I can’t relate to.
I believe in a life force or an energy that is biological or physical. I don’t believe in a spiritual dimension that transcends the mind.
However, I believe in sex and love as acts done considerately and generously (not to mention enthusiastically) between individuals.
We are on this Earth for only a short time.
I do not believe in any philosophy that discourages romantic or sexual love while we are here or denigrates it in favour of a higher love.
If a theist died and discovered that they were wrong about the existence of a God or an afterlife (a logical impossibility, I realise), they would probably regret that they hadn’t loved more while they were alive.
Not that I would be particularly different.
As an atheist, one thing I will regret on my deathbed will be the fact that I wasn’t able to love more and better during my lifetime.
While I remain alive, I have an opportunity to do something about it.
I have relied on some of the analysis in Christmas Humphreys’ "Buddhism" to understand and describe Buddhist concepts in this review.
If I have correctly understood the concepts, it reflects the quality of this analysis. If I have misunderstood or poorly explained any concepts, only I am to blame.
Yiruma – "River Flows In You"
I like the way this song flows and then, amazingly for a song, ends in silence, the silence of Enlightenment.
Van Morrison – "Enlightenment"
Cynthia Kear – "The Red Thread of Passion - Part 1 of 5"
A talk by Cynthia Kear, priest at the San Francisco Zen Center, at the Gay Buddhist Sangha on June 20, 2010, on the theme of "Is There a Place for Desire in the Buddhadharma?"(less)
Notes are private!
Nov 24, 2012
Dec 02, 2012
Mar 03, 2011
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