There’s a kind of project in which I’ve found myself involved – trying to connect my internal emotional life to my internal rational life and the external emotional world. I haven’t been very successful at this, but it feels psychologically necessary.
When I was a 15/16 year-old in south-east England, i used to clamber up the North Downs and look out, back, south, over the High Weald of Kent and Sussex. But mainly it was to look away from its stifling political and cultural conservatism in commuter belt england, away to somehow manage and understand the usual teenage morass of feeling, sex, intellect, creativity and boredom that was incoherently bubbling away in me. It was a desire to be in a city, or at a university, to be in love with exotic people, and discovering and inventing new spaces in which to exist. That world was not actually to be found where I was looking, unless it was out of sight and over the channel, but in the space into which I was looking, both internal and beyond.
I was reminded of this feeling reading this piece on perspective and spatial power in Japanese and Chinese art, in particular this part, which quotes from The Tale of Genji:
Genji climbed the hill behind the temple and looked off toward the city. The forest had receded into a spring haze. “Like a painting,” he said. “People who live in such a place can hardly have anything to worry about.” “Oh, the ‘keshiki’ around here is not profound enough,” said one of his men. “The mountains and seas in the far province should help you gain real progress in your painting”…
The landscape qualified here as being “like a painting” is the scenery with tree tops perceived here and there through the veil of haze. Because they are not thought to be so profound, they must not be very distant. But these tree tops perceived in different places constitute the distant range, and between the viewpoint and this distant range “the forest recedes into a spring haze” (keburi-wataru: take note of the use of the above mentioned verb wataru suggesting spatial extent)
The essay is about the treatment of the middle-space, between foreground and distance, between the nearby tangible, audible range, and the distant visible range, between where I was sitting on the high downland, and the place where my yearning reached, the place where I would ‘gain real progress’ in my painting… or, for me, written art.
It notes that in Western Renaissance perspective (distinct from more generalised notions of perspective) comprises the placing of objects in a field of geometrical straight lines, such as the tiles of a Dutch interior, or the perspectives of a plaza or colonnade. This perspective is, the writer stresses, an urban technique, for the context of human activity, a meaning that persisted even into its use in the painting of landscapes*
Is it the case, then, that what could connect a teenage boy’s yearning to actual becoming is the urban context? Those are where the lines connecting the here with the there are legible, clear, part of the infrastructure, of learning, jobs, transport to other people, libraries, knowledge, the melting pot, of the market square, or colonnaded plaza, of general spatial and existential legibility, where the practical sciences of renaissance of self-fashioning are available for use.
In the rest of the essay the writer covers the treatment of that middle distance in Japanese art. The way the same middle distance connection, the from-here-to-there, from near to far, is managed. First the essay distinguishes sansui, literally ‘of mountains and waters,’ from Western landscape painting, in that it explicitly depicts the natural world as a different category to the human world and its concerns, even where it may contain lonely characters traversing its realm.
Then the writer takes the term keshiki, specifically Japanese term denoting landscape painting but semantically distinct, and covering different bases from western landscape depictions (termed fukei). Keshiki literally means ‘the colour of ki’, the tone or colour or the feeling of a scene, of the energy that fills a space (or ‘landscape’). The essay then suggests in the poetry of the 13th Century (before any legacy of painting) the notion of Keshiki became yoked to that of Watari, meaning to go over to the other side, a spatial implication… from here to there, and a temporal implication… a duration, a longing.
It is a concept closely related to a humid climate that produces much fog or haze.
This is the fog or haze or other indeterminate space that separates the near from the far, the tangible from the intangible and longed for, occupied by, and giving spatial form and tone to the cosmic energy of ki.
The essay goes on to relate how the poetic relation between keshiki and watari was realised in painting for the first time in ukiyo-e, ‘particularly the work of Hokusai and Hiroshige’ from the 1700s. I must admit that as I was reading the essay, my impression of what the author was talking about was more in line with the gimcrack scroll in my bedroom, or flattened, cloud interspersed images from chinese restaurants, calendars, rather than the specific examples of foreground/background flattened images of ukiyo-e presented.
Like Genji, that which I wanted to achieve took place not in the connected space of the urban, but in the ki space of the clouds and fog. It required a sort of magical energy to get me there.
During the same period when I was regularly sitting on the Downs looking out, one of my key convictions about writing and art was that it should consider the same unities that classical art had. However, this did not mean, for instance, everything having to take place during a day or whatever, but that as an author you should not be creating energies out of nothing, when changes take place in the plot or your writing. There had to be some mutation of the existing energies you had created, a dynamism, a economy of energy in the dramatic expression, a pictorial coherence. Magic, and the fog of ki, is discontinuity. Its transformative energy comes out of nothing material, visible or tangible, or is derived, like alchemy, via daemonic mechanisms or beings.
In fact, getting from the me sitting on the downs, to the me sitting here has been nothing like any of that. I find myself now in an odd process of triangulation. I have moved, through mists and and later through more tangible and useful perspectives (education, work), and can look over to myself on the downs, mists in between, and realise a need to bring that figure with me, to find my way back, take him by the hand, retrieve him. Because he is not looking towards where I am now, and in fact there is a need for us both to navigate by feeling through the mists again. The keshiki round here is not strong enough.
*(i think the argument around the usage of the word landscape is a bit fuzzy in the essay tbh, and the dynamics of its development are rather different to the ones described, particularly when it comes to the notion of the ‘picturesque’, but i haven’t got the memory of the detail or more importantly the relevant books to go into it here – put a pin in it for later).
Since I set this down, some time ago, it’s become slightly outdated even in terms of my own thinking. I’d want to plug in my reading from Seeing Like a State, and how what Scott calls ‘cadastral legibility’ necessitates a structural uniformity, and using the two different imaginative models outlined here, see how that might affect our social psychologies. I’d also want to understand how the rise of data analytics of social and individual behaviour (at a stochastic level) also implies a a data version of that cadastral legibility/mapping of behaviour and the mind.
However, Ballard is frequently quite badly written about, and I think this is halfway decent, even if it could probably do with a bit of refinement and additional structuring.
We must begin with the mistake and transform it into what is true.
Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough – Wittgenstein (original German: Man muß beim Irrtum ansetzen und ihn in die Wahrheit überführen)
I was at Asylum a while ago – @john_self had tweeted a link to some thoughts about High Rise that he’d put down in 2007 after news of JG Ballard’s terminal pancreatic cancer had just come out. The entry notes how Ballard is ‘simultaneously renowned yet overlooked.’ This is still true, despite the imminent release of another film (well it was imminent when i first started writing this); a form of publicity which dials up the notoriety of Ballard as a name, and obscures the qualities that made his writing of interest in the first place. He stands out in sharp relief against the landscape of late 20th Century writing in a way that makes me want to use words like ‘important’ and ‘significant’ although I’m wary of their implications. This despite and to a certain extent inclusive of his late period – I’m one of those who see it as weaker. The collected short stories, spanning 1956 to 1992, are incontrovertible.
I hadn’t read the book, and felt I should do that before seeing the film. I procrastinate like hell though (I see this has recently been linked, in a Ballardian way, with the size of the amygdala, the fight or flight mechanism) and it’s often the case that when I need to do two things – read the book to see the film – I do neither. That might have been the case here as well if it hadn’t been for a passage in Robert Musil’s short story The Blackbird:
The dining rooms are likewise piled up floor on floor, as are the white-tiled baths and the balconies with their red awnings. Love, sleep, birth, digestion, unexpected reunions, troubled and restful nights are vertically aligned in these buildings like the columns of a sandwiches at a vending machine. In middle-class apartments like these your destiny is already waiting for you the moment you move in. You will admit that human freedom essentially consists of where and when we do what we do, for what we do is almost always the same – thus the sinister implications of one uniform blueprint for all.
The Blackbird – Robert Musil (from Tales of the German Imagination from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, Penguin.
Exploring that provocative last line led into deep water very quickly, as is often the case with Musil. It is a regular humour or mode of this that his aphorisms have a quality (or lack of quality if you like) where an initial impression of profundity turns upon examination into wondering whether in fact there is any depth there at all. Message without originating meaning, no object upon which to attach itself, variables without values, this conceptual shadow-play in fact being the fundamental hidden point of the statement. A hermeneutics of the ersatz.
It was late at night. I hadn’t been able to sleep and despite the glassy Musil surface my mind was engaged in turning over the words, in that relentless way that comes from the feverish fatigue of insomnia, in an attempt to summarise those ‘sinister implications’ and the assumptions underlying them. I scribbled down notes that came from this process on a scrap of paper by my bedside:
The majority of actions – that is to say the ‘whatness’ or content of our actions – are universal, outside of social construct and historical context (‘what we do is almost always the same’), and therefore belong to the generically ‘human’, and therefore must comprise the organic or animal – eating, shitting, sleeping, fucking – and the base mechanics of the social – meeting, seeing, conversing – with some areas that sit between the two, like labour – the means by which we ‘forage’ for food and shelter within a social context and capitalist infrastructure. This is poetically rendered here as ‘love, sleep, birth, digestion, unexpected reunions, troubled and restful nights’.
The content of our actions has no meaning independent of context: the above behaviours are universally the same and therefore any variation is purely a matter of when and where they take place – how they are constructed if you like. Despite the apparent cynicism of this statement, this is probably not to trivialise: the fractured Whereness of Paris and Helen fucking was of the greatest consequence. Musil might say my choice of restaurant – where I eat – defines my character in a non-trivial way, as does the When-ness of my sleep.
This is a civic, imperial and aristocratic or bourgeois view of human freedom – it reifies* the ability to choose, which is let us say at base a financial power in our society (bourgeois and aristocratic), it is also an imperial or spatial power since it implies large variation of possibility, the goods of the world collected in the metropole (civic and imperial). Though as these terms exactly describe the world of Musil, this is no more than saying his profundity is consistent with his depicted world.
(There’s that vertiginous feeling again – philosophy or truth as contingent upon transitory and variable context: the decadent realisation of the end of an epoch that its truths have become tired, wearisome)
Character (that is to say ’the expression of choice’) is destiny or fate, character and therefore fate or the course of destiny are – from 1 & 2 – defined by time and place.
We humans are peculiarly receptive to our environments in an organic and behavioural way, such that uniform contexts cause uniform behaviour. This means 2 can be restated: 2+3 = The content of our actions has no meaning independent of material context.
In conclusion: our fate is determined by our material, temporal surroundings, hence the sinister implications of a universal &c.
The main unfreedom here seems to me to be existential, that is to say defined by Musil’s conception of existence. There is no life independent of context that can survive material uniformity. This makes the paragraph both anti-Romantic (no independent or extensively mediated inner Self) and Romantic (that which removes choice of individual expression is bad). This paradox is representative of the crumbling wall of Late Romanticism.
Going down this nocturnal rabbit hole made me turn to what might considered a reference book on the subject of vertical living by an artist I admire, which seemed to that it might offer a fruitful comparison to Musil.
My admiration for or, better, the kick I get out of Ballard comes from the way he defamiliarises human behaviour so that it becomes alien. His works do not rely on common sense (eg for believability, character, motive, social interactions). Common sense denies the presence of its intrinsic unspoken component ideologies and habituated mannerisms. Ballard removes the glue of common sense and replaces it with a simplified psychosocial schema, which surfaces the artificiality of those ideologies and habituated mannerisms.
There is no history in Ballard (Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women excepted). There will sometimes be a singular event precipitating the conditions of the story. Modern(ish) psychoanalytical and anthropological theory are the predominant forces. This isn’t just a theoretical or conceptual switching out; it makes his societies think, speak and behave in slightly but noticeably odd and frictionless ways, which gives much of the unique feeling of his books. The reader feels an uneasy sense of alienation.
By way of framing the next bit, I originally put a subtitle here that said ‘Against Reading High Rise as a ‘book that demolishes the argument for tower blocks in our society today’ as one back-jacket quote had it. You know, the Betjeman argument:
There’s a section in the Asylum post that looks at the argument presented by Ballard in High Rise, starting with a quote from the book:
By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.
Now Ballard clearly wants us to believe the second sentence follows from the first, but I don’t buy it at all. We know his experiences as a child in an internment camp in wartime Shanghai left him acutely aware of how easily the veneer of civilization can slip away, but where’s the evidence that this can – not just equally but more deeply, as he seems to suggest in so many of his novels – apply to particularly comfortable peacetime societies?
Although the observation about the Shanghai internment camp is definitely on point – Ballard is a post-war writer in more ways than just having participated in the chronological category – I don’t agree with the thrust of the observations here. Specifically, I disagree with the idea that we have to ‘buy’ the argument in order to ‘get’ (or enjoy) the book. I’m never enormously keen on the idea of literature being evaluated for the accuracy of its social analysis, which seems to me to be the same category of error where SF is sometimes judged on it oracular or predictive powers. Is the book correct about things? That error is I think characterised by ‘reductive materialism’*, and in its grossest form is therefore quite appropriately exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s comment to Kingsley Amis, after being told the Communists-take-over-Britain plot of his quite weird and quite not good novel Russian Hide and Seek, where she advised him to ‘get another crystal ball.’
I’d rather go with a parallel reading where it doesn’t particularly matter whether the second sentence follows from the first. Where they’re more of a stated description or precondition of the world he has created. ‘Here is how this world works.’ A bit more than that, the discontinuity between the first and the second sentence indicates that the reader is being presented with a world where this mechanic – structured civilised environments release primal psychopathologies and in fact brutalise rather than civilise – is axiomatic: these are the rules of the game in High Rise.
That a reader might disagree with this view (and I do disagree with it socially or politically speaking) seems as irrelevant as saying as a piece of fiction ‘Well, I simply don’t believe this happened.’
Any examination by High Rise of the society in which the reader exists and indeed the nature of high-rise buildings does not consist of direct social analysis, but comes via circuitous routes: the strange and beautiful images that populate his books, the recurring psychotropic semi-mystical objects of drained pools, broken radios, televisions and cars, objects deprived of their central purpose, rendered esoteric and tribally symbolic. The disjunction-as-syllogism of the two sentences – maintained social structure & the release of repressed impulses, civilisation & barbarism – in fact ensures a form of surrealism, represented by these images drained of material meaning, their latent symbolic force foregrounded. It’s the discontinuity of collage and is part of the reason that Ballard can be as comfortably categorised with the umbrella term ‘artist’ as he can a writer – the implications of the visual and the influences of surrealism are central and, I would argue, comprise the actual argument of his work.
‘Actual’ argument because the surface arguments, in High Rise more evidently than in any other work, are vexed by the sort of issues already described. This is the architect Anthony Royal, v much in authorial mode:
In principle, the mutiny of these well-to-do professional people against the building they had collectively purchased was no different from the dozens of well-documented revolts by working-class tenants against the municipal tower-blocks that had taken place at frequent intervals during the post-war years.
Ballard may think this, and in fact I think he probably does, but that statement of ‘principle,’ which says the failure of high-rise living is nothing to do with money or class and entirely to do with an architectural-psychobiological conjuncture is mendacious in the context of the novel. Royal’s argument here cuts across class distinction; there is something intrinsic to high-rise living and to humans, which, when brought together, leads to social collapse. But the key cause of the social disintegration in High Rise is not anything like that, but rather the artistic and æsthetic instincts and requirements of Ballard.
The garbage-disposal shut Laing shared with the Steeles had jammed again. He tried to telephone the building manager, but the exhausted man had been inundated with complaints and requests for action of every kind. Several members of his staff had resigned and the energies of the remainder were now devoted to keeping the elevators running and trying to restore power to the 9th floor.
Ballard squeezes the resourcing of this building full of well-off people, and contrives to bring about the events that will cause his society to collapse. He deliberately withholds resources from them for technical and æsthetic reasons. It is a tacit admission that in fact it is a matter of resourcing rather than anything intrinsic to high-rise living, contra the arguments rehearsed inside and outside the book, hence my charge of mendacity. He’s done it speed up the action, which is entirely legitimate, and used it as an argument against high rise living, which is not. He is ensuring, with this acceleration, that the playoff of psychologies has dramatic and visual manifestation instead of being repressed or contained in an analysis of manners and conversation. The clutter, ejaculations and material expressions of unrestrained impulse and temporary desire are allowed to accumulate into a landscape, representative of the inner psyche of the residents. The logic of the visible is placed at the service of the invisible as surrealist Odilon Redon put it, in a quote used approvingly by Ballard in a 1966 essay The Coming of the Unconscious.
In other words the meat of the book is not why the collapse happens, but the collapse itself, what it looks like, its effects, its effect.
High Rise is in fact another example of Ballard altering environmental conditions to see how his high-functioning professional humans fall apart or transform. It is, as much as The Drowned World or The Drought, an organic apocalypse:
The huge building he had helped to design was moribund, its vital functions fading one by bye – the water-pressure falling as the pumps faltered, the electrical sub-stations on each floor switching themselves off, the elevators stranded in their shafts.
Transform rather than decline. Despite everything, Wilder’s metamorphosis into sacrificial camera-wielding child ape feels like fulfilment, and as in Crash the brutal bruising efflorescences and transformations represent a new Eden, though one more like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights than prelapsarian innocence.
Still, we’re well into Lord of the Flies territory – no one in, no one out, seal the doors. And part of the problem with Ballard-as-social-commentary is the aesthetic relish he clearly takes in these situations. In The Drought, the ‘desert island’ environment is inescapable and total, in High Rise this isolation is achieved by no one really wanting to leave; as in so many of Ballard’s stories, the annihilation is desired, and is sexual but the opposite of sensual.
Here the overwhelming environmental feature that will give specific shape to the transforming psychologies of the inhabitants is not drought or inundation, but the vertical axis. The chapter titles alone give the flavour of the book:
The 19th Century colonial novel is present in the cadences of the headings – Rider Haggard, or Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Of course, with cannibals, savage tribes and drained lakes, that comparison extends beyond the chapter markers. It’s another one of those conservative elements to Ballard. I’ll take this moment to point out that although he is much beloved of late 20th century theorists and thinkers, the psychological and anthropological models which inform his writing are late 19th century or early-mid 20th century: Frazer, Freud and Jung (though also Levi-Strauss tbf)*
The adventure template is possible because of that vertical axis. Motions of ascent (Up!) and descent (Into the Dropzone) give High Rise a dynamism uncharacteristic to Ballard. Inner space is given a propulsive aspect, and a sense of purpose, again unusual. As already mentioned, his books can be characterised by purposeless drift, or, if not purposeless, the symptoms of an overall centripetal force, which produces an anaesthetised sense of complicity, growing organically, as its narrative movement.
They’re static for other reasons as well: their pictorial and visual quality, and collage of association of unrelated matter (both things which satire uses to similar static effect), as well as the hypnotic or oppressive repetition of environmental elements. This inertia is as unusual an element as many others in his books. They tend to get slower and slower, approaching ecstatically regressive event horizons beyond which no information can return to the reader. The piece in Asylum is right to point out they can be quite boring. Nevertheless, in his late novels the heavy front-loading of plot or investigation, perhaps an attempt to counteract this characteristic, feels out of place.
In High Rise the 19th century expeditionary layer needs a scenery appropriate to it, and the built environment is fairly consistently mapped to that of a mountain:
In the few seconds that remained before the doors opened he realised that he had already decided to abandon Helen and his sons for good. Only one direction lay before him – up. Like a climber resting a hundred feet from the summit, he had no option but to ascend.
This mountain stuff is strongly reinforced as Wilder nears the climax of his ascent/regression, via a mysteriously-achieved redecoration of the upper floors (Ballard being a busy bee again):
As he moved up the steps everything was silent. The staircase was carpeted, muffing the tread of his boots, and he was too distracted by the sounds of his own breathing to notice that the walls around him had been freshly painted, their white surfaces gleaming in the afternoon sunlight like the entrance to an abattoir.
Wilder climbed to the 37th floor, smelling the icy air moving across his naked body from the open sky. He could hear now, more clearly than ever before, the crying of the gulls. When the dog began to whimper, reluctant to go any further, he turned it loose, and watched it disappear down the stairs.
That turning of the dog loose, an archetypal moment of exploration or adventure lit – turning the donkeys / camels / horses back at the final and most difficult stage of an expedition, only to be attempted by the human hero. Also lol at the peak Ballard of ‘like the entrance to an abattoir.’
The ascent is all leading up to the climax of the central conflict between Royal and Wilder (Ballard’s names yet another example of the enjoyably crude anthropological symbolisms he offers as waymarkers en route to his defamiliarised landscapes – like the Buckfast navigational crucifixes across Dartmoor). This is after all, as much a theological or sacral disaster as an environmental one (the two are obviously entwined), with hubristic architect Royal as the dying, crippled king in Ballard’s favourite sinister colour – white. Those gulls Wilder describes have of course already been reconfigured in the chapter The Predatory Birds. An ‘unfamiliar species of estuarine gull’:
.. Royal liked to think that their real motives for taking over the roof were close to his own, and that they had flown here from some archaic landscape, responding to the same image of the sacred violence to come.
This is a latent suggestion that is revisited in one of my favourite images in the book:
The gulls sidled around him, rolling their heads and wiping their beaks against the concrete. The surface was streaked with blood. For the first time Royal saw that the ledges and balustrades were covered with these bloody notches, the symbols of a mysterious calligraphy.
Again, just hinted at, almost felt as a pressure around the novel, the idea of a sacral intelligence at work, etching marks in blood on the totem, barely proto-linguistic, but aware. High rise as totemic transponder, canalising alien, cosmic, psychic and deep time forces, of which the gulls are emissaries and liminal guardians/fauna – the first sign that you’re entering new territory. (See also: ‘The shrieking of the gulls filled the air, and seemed to tear at the exposed tissues of his brain. They rose from the elevator heads and balustrades in a continuous fountain, soared into the air to form an expanding vortex and dived down again towards the sculpture-garden’ God, I feel like I’m mainlining Ballard just retyping that sentence.) It was around this time that he wrote the short story Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer, about a littoral beset by colossal birds, so they were clearly something of an obsession.
Royal is identified with them in a slightly curious way:
In some way they were attracted by Royal’s white jacket and pale hair, so close in tone to their own vivid plumage. Perhaps they identified him as one of their own, a crippled old albatross who had take refuge on this remote roof-top beside the river? Royal liked this notion and often thought about it.
The albatross is not an insignificant symbol, and although he’s ultimately slain, it’s not I think Coleridge but Moby-Dick that has the greatest relevance to Royal here:
I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those forever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. Long I gazed at that prodigy of plumage. I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that passed through me then.
… I had lost the warping memories of traditions and of towns…
I’ve suggested this is a parallel reading to that at Asylum, not really for modern theoretical reasons of interpretative plurality, but because much the experience of reading Ballard is characterised by reader-wariness at the path through the writing. The central characters are exemplary in this regard. These notoriously characterless characters are, conventionally speaking, vehicles for the reader’s projection into the novel, and as such have a certain objective neutrality – their indifference a sort of guide to a non-partisan narrator-reliability. But they are also something else. As time goes on that indifferent neutrality and lukewarm engagement with events around them is seen to carry the approval of inaction, in part driven by and increasingly expressive of a detached sexual pleasure at the violent collapse. Indifference and neutrality turn out to be ‘weak-argument’ expressions of a desire for annihilation. ‘Here, on the other hand,’ Laing observes right at the beginning of the book, ‘the dimensions of his life were space, light and the pleasures of a subtle kind of anonymity.’ How ready he is to shed his social role. You go along with them, but are continually brought up short by these moments of non-resistance – that frictionless behaviour I noted earlier. Once that desire for annihilation has fully blossomed into a sort of anaesthetised relish at the barbarism, the reader has been brought into a state of partial complicity and participation. Of course neutrality and objectivity are implied characteristics of the author-narrator, as well, and the ‘from outside to inside journey’ is one Ballard and his neutral narrators take the reader on as well as the characters within. Mute inglorious Virgils using narration as reader gateway drug to tribal deathsex. (Yes, I should have deleted that last sentence).
Ballard isn’t interested in humans, or rather he’s not interested in character portraits, or character as motive. He is interested in their composition, and therefore he’s interested in catalysing their decomposition, effectively by draining life from them, and putting them on a slab. High Rise is an autopsy. Here is a passage from The Kindness of Strangers, his (very good) semi-autobiographical novel of a few years later:
Waiting for us, lying face up on the dissection tables, were some twenty cadavers. Steeped in formaldehyde, they were the colour of yellow ivory. More than anything else, the richness of their skins marked out the dead, as if their personalities had migrated hopefully to the surface of their bodies … Each body was an atlas recording the journeys of an entire life.
Here is the relevant section from High-Rise, when Laing visits the medical school where he supposedly teaches:
He let himself into the dissecting rooms of the anatomy department and walked down the lines of glass-topped tables, staring at the partially dissected cadavers. The steady amputation of limbs and thorax, head and abdomen by teams of students, which would reduce each cadaver by term’s end to a clutch of bones and a burial tag, exactly matched the erosion of the world around the high-rise.
This is how people are seen, personalities and lives are only etched like writing on the material of our corpus.
To go back to the beginning, comparing Musil and Ballard is quite difficult. Both are concerned with the effect of the material environment on people. I would say that the probably difference is that for Musil there is a soul to be acted upon, for Ballard, there is a set of animalistic impulses, which responds to its environment. The first is decadent, the second applies decay as analytical method. I’m not sure what I think here and I probably need to be deeper in it than revisiting this after three years allows me to be.
Oh, I still haven’t seen the film. Probably should. Feel if he turns a towerblock of the professional classes into a barbaric abattoir he will have done ok? Benchmark is of course Paradise Towers.
Towards the end of the book, Laing switches on the television:
A racetrack commentator’s voice emerged from the speaker, a gabble of names that sounded like a demented inventory, a list of unrelated objects being recruited to repopulate the high-rise in an emergency transfusion of identity.
That repopulation of unrelated objects reminds me once again of the collage nature of Ballard’s writing. To a degree the material elements of decomposition, their symbolism and anthropological status could be populated from any world, any psychic space – they need not be the totems and trappings with which we have in our modern society surrounded ourselves.
To test this, I clicked at random for one of today’s (2020 update, no idea when I put this bit in) racecards to see what sort of things would come up. This from the 14:15 Montague Inn Novice’s Hurdle at Wincanton:
Racecards providing elemental synopses of potentially infinite Ballard novels. And how could you not be delighted on seeing that last year’s winner was a horse called Vesperal Dream?
Oh, and, although this was already done by the film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the perfect song for High Rise?
*reify is possibly a very bad word to use here, and musing on whether it was or not, a year or so ago, led me to try and decide by reading History and Class Consciousness – this is why my blogposts don’t end up on teh internet. I decided then that it was a bad word to use, but I think now it’s fine. <Steve Jackson Voice> YOU DECIDE </sjv>
*a later footnote on reductive materialism – i originally said ‘materialism’, but my use of that word was getting a bit slippery, between philosophical meaning, colloquial negative meaning, and a generalised analytical sense of ‘material things’, so i’ve tried to refine it a bit by using the phrase ‘reductive materialism’. By this I’m intending to mean the sort of scientism and binary thinking we see in a lot of politics and commentary. materialism in itself here is not intended negatively, things can be abundantlymaterialist. reductive materialism is a moral stance, it wants to reduce the material options to what the person or ideology thinks is the right materialism)
*Ballard’s use of old-fashioned psychological and anthropological modelsI don’t see this as a problem, in fact it’s part of its appeal – the underpinnings to his writing are in some respects quite simple or well assimilated now, the framework is not radical. What he brings to it as a writer is of course his imagination – it’s a simple framework for his truly progressive explorations.
I’ve got 15 hours a week of commute back since lockdown. I’ve been working just as hard, but that’s still meant I’ve had more time to read, relax, drink and cook. So for the benefit of my future self, here’s a cooking/eating diary. Warning, nothing interesting about supply chains or observations on how to source ingredients or anything. It’s just photos of stuff I’ve cooked.
First up was prior to lockdown, but was going into the Joy Luck restaurant in Chinatown. Doesn’t tend to be one of the ones better attended by western tourists (though a fair few of East Asian tourists). On the basis of the London Eater recommendation, I go there for the Wuhan Dry Noodles, which are wonderful. On this occasion I also went in out of solidarity with the Chinese restaurant community – business had plummeted in the early days of Covid awareness in the UK (this was 7th March).
I went into the restaurant and the staff were sitting round a table with chins in hands, chatting. I was clearly the first customer they’d had for ages. They sat me in the window, which was perhaps a mistake. The Wuhan Dry Noodles were as good as ever, which as they are also hot, meant I was sweating and snuffling over them for the entertainment and enlightenment of everyone going past.
I don’t really cook Ottolenghi as much as I should, but this recipe for a hot confit of mushrooms with a butterbean mash is one of the best vegan recipes I know. Hot, substantial, and delicious.
Rather a dull looking, but very nice Barnsley chop.
AH, now we’re talking. Minestrone, in this case Marcella Hazan’s spring vegetable soup, is a miracle. I would strongly recommend cooking it, then leaving it a day, but it’s one of the most restorative recipes I know, and freezes ok for a quick sense of vitality and boost on days when you simple cbf’d.
I’m not actually sure what the pasta is here, but the spinach is first lightly cooked as per usual, and then mixed into olive oil in which a couple of lightly crushed garlic cloves have been cooked and then removed. And then squeeze some lemon over it. I remember this being extremely satisfactory.
This next looks rather grey, but it was wonderful. Elisabeth David’s Roman Beef Stew, or Stufatino alla Romana from Italian Food. With some stewed celery and some sourdough from the Aries Bakehouse on Acre Lane. One of those dishes that I think only has about three ingredients in – shin of beef, some pancetta or bacon, and tomato puree. Highly recommended.
So I live in Herne Hill, which these days is pretty bougie, and with the consequence that it has a very good but expensive deli-cum-butchers – the sort where it’s impossible to buy cheap cuts of meat. Also the sort of place it turns out that in lockdown has queues of people willing to stand around for two hours to get what they want. (I don’t know about anyone else, but although this was in part because I wanted to cook more, I also found myself *buying* a lot more. In theory that was to reduce the amount I needed to go out, but I think it was actually more about a changed context for buying food and cooking. I was practicing more what the person responsible for the domestic shopping would do in the past – buying stuff for multiple meals ahead – rather than popping into the supermarket during or after work to pick up a couple of ingredients for tea).
ANYWAY, to avoid the queues, I went to the very good Jones the Butchers down the road – an older type of butchers, and amongst other things bought a chicken. Annoyingly, it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the expensive deli chicken, with the consequence that this roast, although very pleasant, looks better than it tasted, I think.
I did also do Marcella Hazan’s two lemon self-basting roast chicken recipe, which I periodically try, because she absolutely swears by it, but it never really quite works for me, and I should here have stuck to my more orthodox chicken dressed with thyme, garlic, lemon and good butter.
Ah BUT. pasta col tocco d’arrosto – pasta with ‘a touch of the roast’ is one of the very finest things. And of course this is now asparagus season. The roasting pan you cooked the chicken in should be full of fat and lemon and juices, which after a day will have turned into a sort of jelly. Cook your pasta, as usual reserve some of the cooking water. Then tip the cooked pasta into the roasting pan over a high heat, and grate a fuckton of parmesan in. Stir until you go ‘bavosa‘ like the chef here. (This is incidentally the best recipe for carbonara).
The last of the chicken, I thought I’d do a pilaf. I could only find brown rice and had forgotten or possibly never knew that this abomination takes twice as long to cook, with the result that the first attempt at this was inedible and the second attempt was rendered extremely mediocre by me being a-holed.
This asparagus risotto (Marcella Hazan again), was AMAZING. AMAZING.
Good Friday iirc. The super easy Belgian dish Waterzooi – very very good indeed, hard recommend.
A rather careless spaghetti bolognese or ragù or what have you. VERY NICE ALL THE SAME.
Fuck I’ve eaten so much Ritter sport. This is the best. It is the best.
I do think at least once or twice a week you should cut it out and just have a snack or an olive in the evening. Aubergines are wonderful, griddle them and eat with garlic.
Oh! And I bought some South African pears from the excellent grocers near me. Stewed them with cloves in red wine. I think that’s marscapone or creme fraiche. Very good. Don’t normally do deserts.
😬 The cornflake one wasn’t as interesting as it looked?
For some reason the roasted potatoes here look rather grey, but this sirloin steak, asparagus and roasted potatoes was pitch perfect. Absolutely wonderful. A strand throughout this generally is that the less interesting it looks, the better it was.
eg – this lancashire hotpot (scrag end from the proper butchers) was delicate and lovely. One of those dishes close enough to a provençal daube to make you realise that our own simple cooking, done well, has as much room for excellence and delicacy as the more garlanded continental versions of peasant cookery (and they are very nice). Has to be scrag end. Not enough fat/flavour otherwise.
Puy lentils with garlic, parsley and lemon and an omelette. A favourite.
This salad looks great, but it was in some respects A Mistake, namely the presence of asparagus in it. It would have been much better for both asparagus and salad for them to be presented separately. I was taking my lead from the excellent Richard Olney who encourages experimentation and thought in his cooking, on the basis that this is the way you will learn, and he’s right. I learned not to put asparagus in a salad with fennel in. The flavours confused each other. It was still very good.
I started baking! I hadn’t baked for about 18 years, since I made a loaf denser than a black hole. Following the fantastically fucking irritating but really very good Bake with Jack, I came up with these two wonderful wholemeal loaves. They were excellent and I felt so proud I kept on going in to look at them cool.
Ok, the Sicilian classic of sardines, with fennel, pine nuts, raisins, saffron etc, with bucatini. Except I didn’t have any bucatini at the time so I did it with spaghetti. The sardines were the quite expensive Ortiz tinned sardines worth every penny.
Another sirloin steak and some roasted peppers.
THIS is one of the best recipes. Inexplicably not had it before – Marcella Hazan’s Aubergine with chilli and tomato. The heat works very well with the aubergine, and is slightly surprising as it perhaps looks like ratatouille. Really great.
Couldn’t be fucked to cook other than to do the asparagus with a dressing of boiled egg and vinaigrette. Some good italian salami which I absolutely STUFFED MY FACE with.
When I did the lancashire hotpot it reminded me how much I liked this recipe for Provençal daube – the key ingredients for me are the orange peel and the cloves, both of which give it a light and slightly strange taste – troubadours and venice and southern france rivers and abbeys. Like so many stews it is approximately 100 times better left a day before eating. NOTE PLEASE home baked bread.
A poor photograph of a childhood favourite this: smoked mackerel and potato salad from Jane Grigson’s incomparable cookbook Good Things.
I burned da bloomer. My oven thermometer was giving me bogus info.
This bloomer was better but had bust out at the side, i assumed because I had underproved it.
A very welcome delivery from the excellent Grappin Wines, providers to some of the best restaurants and drinking holes in London. Saving the premiere cru from when I can have a guests round. Won’t invite them. Will just drink the bottle.
Fresh trout with an order from Pesky Fish – direct from fisherman to home they say. I hadn’t read the order properly, and was hoping for a whole trout, to do in a beurre blanc or meunière. As it was a fillet, I poached in a court bouillon, which I strained and then whisked some… far too much actually… butter and some as you can see not at all properly chopped sorrel. This was very nice, but the bouillon sauce was fucking rich innit.
This was supposed to be an artisanal loaf. I think this time it was underproved?
Mussels with my fish order. An attempted moules marinière. The mussels were meagre, end of season farmed mussels, very tasteless, and I hadn’t done enough of them in the broth to flavour it properly so it tasted overmuch of wine.
And throughout, where would I have been without my Canopy Beer order?
Reading the Blanchot essay From Dread to Language gives me the feeling I get when I read existentialism: that this sort of writing is no more than the fag end of Romanticism. As such there is a a sort of highly decadent awareness of the refinements of Romanticism, such that an entire serious essay can explore the minuscule and rarefied space between dread and language, with meaning.
But the whole reminds me of what CS Lewis says in his ‘study in Medieval Tradition’ The Allegory of Love: that romantic love, originating at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc is one of ‘perhaps three or four’ ‘real changes in human sentiment’ in history:
There can be no mistake about the novelty of romantic love: our only difficulty is to imagine in all its bareness the mental world that existed before its coming – to wipe out of our minds, for a moment, nearly all that makes the food both of modern sentimentality and modern cynicism. We must conceive of our world emptied of that ideal of ‘happiness’ – a happiness grounded on successful romantic love – which still supplies the motive of our popular fiction.
The Allegory of Love, CS Lewis
In this I think he is entirely correct. As anyone who has had to wade through this blog will know, I am very much a product of this Romanticism. I think in many respects it has been a great poison, a philosophical wrong turn, if it is meaningful to say that of something so long and deeply embedded and productive of so many things I love and of which I am made. I’m sure we would have found other poisons. Nevertheless.
My perception is that the self is now so heavily and transparently commoditised, and has, due to many forces, from the internet’s ability to allow people of common feeling and synthetically constructed identity to find each other, and from the increased questioning and exploration of gender and sexual identity, that we are coming out of a great tyranny of Romanticism and the Self, which is in the process of being liquidated. In this respect I feel like the opposite of the canary in the mine, more like a useless but sympathetic confessor of the old errors to the new generations: The Last of the True Romantics saying: ‘this is the nature of the gas which you must expunge so you may breathe and kill my confreres and the things I love’.
There will of course be a great deal of psychological suffering and social conflict born of this liberation. To lose the Self is suicidal – I mean that in a very compressed way of course – a way of saying entire edifice of psychological thinking is built round it. We should be thankful for yards Deleuze and Guattari have put in in this respect.
Apocalypses usefully describe the conditions of change by which the old world ends – oh fearful relativism! – and the new one begins.
This is not why I sat down to write this though. What other three or four ‘real changes in human sentiment’ do we think Lewis means? The word ‘sentiment’ must be relevant here. I might otherwise go for the turn from feudalism to global capitalism – Braudel memorably cites a 15th century(? iirc – i can never find the reference) muleteer on a road from one town to another as ‘the first capitalist’. Or the enlightenment and science coming out of the cauldron of the 17th century, again, the birth pangs of which are memorably collected in Paul Hazard’s wonderful La crise de la conscience européenne, 1680-1715.
But what are those real changes in sentiment (CS Lewis explicitly excludes Christianity’s role, at least in this formation of romance from the equation)? It feels like something must be coming from the industrial revolution, the sense of class belonging, the emergence of the middle class perhaps? Nothing so purely aesthetic as Romanticism though (oh yes of course it had its expressions within capitalism and colonialism). National identity perhaps?
Last year I went through a long period where I couldn’t read. This was nothing new; boredom, laziness, indifference, computer games, have all led to this pass before.
This time it was because reading caused me pain. I was going through a period of emotional trauma – love, grief, the usual – and this meant it was too painful to read anything worthwhile.
Reading anything worthwhile – and I do not at all necessarily mean literature – involves attention. exploration of oneself and with oneself: your thought and your emotions, your body and spirit. If these are not available, or if these cause you pain, then you cannot read with attention. At a basic level I would cite the effect of an acute physical pain on your ability to pay attention to other things.
What actually happens? You attempt to read and then halfway through a sentence, or a paragraph, or an observation, you are brought up short, as if something had tweaked a nerve, and you think you about your own situation, rather than extending yourself to the words you are reading.
There is a fog of attentiveness.
Reading anything too abstracted from those important feelings, pressing in, pushed away, seemed not to have any meaning or point. I simply couldn’t concentrate on them. Braudel on markets, Flann O’Brien’s newspaper pieces, Arthur C Danto on aesthetic transfiguration. Irrelevant, funny but I don’t want funny, irrelevant.
I don’t want to be distracted from myself.
Then I was able to read again. What happened? Did I get over my pain? No. But language and words re-formed, found a way round the problem. As they do.
But I had help.
Text 1: “Imaginary Letters” by Mary Butts
I was lucky enough to be in a pub with Tim Hopkins, the craft, brains and heft behind of The Half Pint Press. He’d brought his latest remarkable creation, “Imaginary Letters” by Mary Butts, and was kind enough to allow us to unpack the vivid object into its component parts.
Yes the first paragraph caught my eye: A cycle of miseries now known by the heart.
But it was the physical words, the tangible imprint of pressure and ink, on the page that caught my attention. Reading those words on that page, made me want to read again. The words themselves seemed to be additionally vivid because of the craft of the page, the care and artistry of the imprint. Words once again seemed to have a value beyond their reference to my pain. (The only value, my Self would belligerently declare, bruising my heart and smashing my chest around, a bundle of tantrum-ing id in its cuttable, bleedable, scarring, bruisable cage.)
I think as I say that it was that the value of the object itself, the care taken over it, which renewed the sense of the word; the words as imprinted objects seemed to have more value because of the context of the artefact.
Those words on that page had partially gained an aura, not of the work’s unique originating existence or authorial motive, but derived from the care and effort put into the new object onto which they had been imprinted. This process had done something to revive in the word* the ‘quality of its presence’, which famously, ‘is always depreciated’ by mechanical reproduction, according to Benjamin. Perhaps there was after all something of ritual about it all, something sacred which suggested meaning outside me. (The unreading me: so narrow, so self-centred, so dull).
(*I had originally said logos here, which I think is wrong, certainly in a neoplatonic sense, which in a relatively uninformed way is my meaning – logos cannot be revived as such, it can only be re-attached, by using word i hope to find a middle ground between logos, the authorial word, the crafted imprint of word on the page, and the word within me. And maybe after all there is a Jungian sense, an attempt to connect logos and eros via the medium of print.)
(Actually logos, inscription, writing, print are not best approached by Benjamin’s essay – there is of course an entirely separate and vast literature of religion and critical theory to deal with the Word and its authority – but it done now, as my brother would say.)
The beauty and care of the object in which the words were contained – tissue paper, envelopes, fine letter paper, the hidden object of the press – helped hoist me back up into a desire to read the printed word, no matter the object in which they were contained. At the time it felt, quite simply, that the words burned more vividly and had more meaning than I had felt the printed word had had for a while. (Again, those words – burning, meaning – words of ritual and the sacral).
This in itself perhaps shows how far I had regressed. An ability to understand, perhaps more importantly to feel the value of the word abstracted from its context seems to me to be a valuable capability developed by the age of print, and more vital and necessary in the age of digital media. Perhaps it was a problem of technology, perhaps I was suffering from some sort of tribal historical regression. And perhaps in some respects it had analogy with the ability to be able to read without forming the words with your mouth, described by Augustine of Bishop Ambrose here:
“When he read,” said Augustine, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”
‘His heart sought out the meaning’. A technological advance. That was the very thing my heart was not able to do, because it didn’t want to. I didn’t want it to.
I went rambling off an unresolved direction here, which I’ve put at the bottom of the post*
I came out wanting not just to read again, but seeing the word in its environment, the word as environment again. It was someone had started shovelling coals again onto the relevant part of my brain, firing up in recognition, having previously been sunk in inattention.
I felt doubly grateful to Tim, because in fact as well as the fire, he was also responsible on that same evening for the focus, by recommending Eley Williams in general, and specifically the collection of short stories Attrib.
Text 2: Attrib. by Eley Williams
Words can be very direct. And direct contact with my heart and feelings was fatal to the words. Indifference to my heart and feelings had been fatal to the words.
My first thought when I started the short stories collected in Attrib. was ‘oh, this person is having fun.’ In this respect it reminded me of the sheer stimulating enjoyment of reading Helen deWitt’s collection Some Trick.
The second thing that I noticed, with a sort of growing excitement and relish, was how Williams showed the pressure of emotion on the form of language. There was an indirectness that allowed me to approach the stories. A poet’s sense of something, to use Isaac Rosenberg’s fine words, understandable and yet ungraspable.
The first story The Alphabet is a story about loss – loss of language, loss of memory, loss of awareness, loss of love. It’s also a story that very efficiently and effectively builds up the distilled structure of those things in order to express their loss, in this case largely through the letters of the alphabet, those letters of love: ‘the taut bow of D … an empty workman’s clamp: G‘ and the description of R as ‘a thrown magnifying glass embedded in a wall’ is one of those gifts that will stay with me throughout my life. (Writerly gifts are the best gifts.)
It’s a story that asks the question, what does it actually mean to lose one’s mind? Because it also means the loss of love. Feeling the loss happening as it’s happening. Anticipating the loss and knowing that it’s going to happen.
This is a story of a relationship break-up that happens because of aphasia. It happens in language.
My brain unpinned you without me wanting it to and now you have gone.
It is not necessarily clear if the partner has actually physically gone because what he relished – the shared communication – is gone, whether he is still there but the memory of his face and of what he has meant is lost to the narrator because of their loss of language. Their faces and love fade with the loss of language itself, as if the tale itself evaporates in loss:
I want to be able to tell you that I miss you, and the way you had with me, and the way you had with all the words that – at the time – I had for you.
If I say there is something indirect about the stories, I do not mean that the words are not direct, they are, direct enough to break the heart in the first one, but that the shape of emotions is realised through the shape of language. It allowed me to approach it, where more conventional expressions would have stopped me reading: do not try to speak to me of this, you do not know me, this is not mine, this is not me.
A wonderful example is the second story, Swatch, where two young boys playing hide and seek, hide in a wardrobe together and see how many marshmallows they can stuff in their mouths. It is also a description of pre-sexual-awareness sexual arousal, as full of sugar and close intimacy they gaze into each others’ eyes, and find themselves in ‘tangled, bored tussles for space’.
It is in the eyes that this sexual and emotional pressure of desire is realised, because one of the boys’ fathers runs a paint shop that has produced a deep awareness of the exotic landscape of colours and their names, Peter’s own eyes are variably, strangely coloured, so with the industrial language of colour palettes, they form an entire cosmos of a world reconfigured:
He saw Cocoa Latte in his eyes some days, Truffle Leather 3 during others. There was even a greenish contour of Enchanted Eden 2 to be found if he examined his eye in strong morning light … If Peter stared himself down in bright summer sun he could see a notch of Tangiers Flame in one of his eyes and the shadow of a shadow of Amethyst Falls right beside it.
Williams strongly conveys the material presence of language and communication, and through that material presence, its plasticity (in the sense of the plastic arts – which are a theme); it’s one of the chief pleasures of the volume. (I just saw a line from the first story: ‘Aphasia is now an autocomplete on my laptop’s search field.’) H0w language communication can take place outside the traditional vehicles or contexts for that communication. For example, in Mischief, the intimate communication between a mine-sniffing rat, and the sapper disposing of the mine.
To put this back in the context of Imaginary Letters, here Colours are the book, Letters are the book, sounds are the book which contain the imprint.
Physical things are the book. It was during reading the story Rosette Manufacture: A Catalogue & Spotters’ Guide that the third observation occurred to me (oh and did I say how much I enjoyed the subtitles of the first story, The Alphabet (or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better on Paper Than In Practice) – ‘better on paper than in practice’, what a phrase to turn over and consider when applied to writing – it sort of gets at the heart of the business Williams seems to be about).
So, yes, that third observation. After the fun and the indirectness (that still isn’t the right word is it). The rosette story is something of a natural history of manufactured rosettes – the political candidate kind, the dog show kind – out of which an entire system of manufactory and ecology is inferred and condensed (Williams is very good at these condensed systems).
It seems almost written to bring about the extraordinary, dream-like, final paragraph:
We will never resign or leave you. We will go on making our false flowers for non-lovers with the jaguars and monsters for you, in our false garden, in the shade.
But it was a specific phrase that caught my eye:
Sometimes – and not even in very high winds – the plastic false-silk ribbons that depend from a rosette overlap one another and it looks as if a cross or a wavelength or a gene or many other lapel-less things have appeared above your heart.
‘Lapel-less’. This reminded me of two things, the second of which I’ve only just worked out, which is Leigh Hunt’s poem The Fish, the Man and the Spirit, especially in the fish’s description of the man:
Thou that on dry land horribly dost go
With a split body and most ridiculous pace
Prong after prong, disgracer of all grace,
Long-useless-finn'd, haired, upright, unwet, slow!
But at the time the implied ontology reminded me of Wittgenstein’s essential communication system represented by the Slab!, and his depiction of language in Philosophical Investigations:
23. But how many kinds of sentence are there? Say assertion, question and command? – There are countless kinds; countless different kinds of use of all the things we call “signs”, “words”, “sentences”. And this diversity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten …
The word “language-game” is used here to emphasise the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.
Philosophical Investigations – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wiley-Blackwell
Language-game. Sprachspiel. Slab! or Platte! Each of Williams’ stories a constrained system of language and communication, of play and yes, to return to my first observation, of fun.
(Going back through the stories, I saw in Swatch, that the first line is ‘Peter noticed the unspeakable colour during Stuart’s twelfth birthday party’ and later in the same story the school song is remembered, ‘The halting tongue that dare not tell the whole‘, both reminding me of that earlier famous piece of Wittgenstein from the Tractatus, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Nevertheless, one must add in relation to Williams’ stories, it will find a way to express itself even if the central object remains evasive because it doesn’t exist in the system (the pre-sexual awareness sexuality in Swatch).)
And to return to my second observation – that indirectness – those language systems were not attempting to communicate with me, but were internally coherent worlds expressing emotions and feelings for which I had analogy, but not the same language.
I do not in any way wish to say that Wittgenstein is the ‘solution’ to these wonderfully rich and enjoyable stories, only that this observation helped me explore further into them.
Something about all this reminded me of something once said to me in psychoanalysis. Childhood is the place we learn to survive, to succeed, which is learned within a space of parental, familial (or institutional) rules. When we grow up we can to a certain extent create the environmental rules which will define survival and success – the internal rules by which we find satisfaction no longer need to be the parental rules – but very often these are buried deeply, and we seek to replicate the same moral or emotionally regulatory environments in which to psychologically survive.
Language seems to exist like flora and fauna in the spaces Williams creates.
That was what allowed me to approach this wonderful volume of stories … no, that was what allowed me to let this wonderful volume of stories in.
Text 3: Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge – Empathy, Conjunctions, 1984
Some time at the back of summer last year, I was in the excellent second-hand bookshop The Second Shelf, browsing through the old literary journals, and found a poem in Conjunctions by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, called Entropy. Having scanned more or less carelessly through the other pages, words in Bersenbrugge’s poem caught my attention and I read it through more carefully.
It seemed to speak directly to my heart, albeit in an elliptical way. Elliptically direct.
I made a note in my notebook to return and buy it – for some reason that wasn’t possible at the time.
And I kept on reminding myself and kept on not going, to go back and buy the periodical in question, but only got round to it a few weeks ago, just before the Covid lockdown.
It had been sold, inevitably. The context of the words is now memory. But although the importance or shape of the words burns brightly, I can’t remember any of them specifically. I just know the text had seemed important to me at that point.
I’ve just realised in the course of writing this that I can look it up and find it. At the time I wasn’t sure of the notebook in which I’d put the details, which was some sort of excuse.
I’ve found it now, and yet I’m strangely reluctant to go searching.
The space in which the language is operating is defined, the language itself is undefined. It is all absence. All evasion. Burning meaning, no expression.
Reading, it seems, even when you’ve started again, has its limits.
*[A desire to return to the word with all one’s being again, regardless of context is not just a matter of being able to consume the word in a mass-produced paperback, nor is it being able to feel the heft and value of the thing you are reading on the internet where packaging and the ‘value’ of packaging needs interpreting differently (how do we value writing on substack, on github’s blogging capability, how do we compare this to the FT’s UI, or the i‘s ‘unreadable’ UI). With regard to twitter the word ‘attentiveness’ seems important again – twitter, for me, seems to yoke itself and foster a wider inattentiveness, other than to itself (that is not to say that I am not led, on a daily basis, to more excellent reading via twitter than most other platforms).]
Oddly, and to stick to the sacred, it allowed a resurgent gnosticism – that is to say an attention to the word where the external casing, shell or context is at its filthiest, ugliest (there are things to do with the glitch aesthetic on the internet here, which I want to explore separately).
This post originally appeared on my old blog, and is reposted here in response to a twitter query: ‘which books have made you cry’.
How I hate this world. I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a treeful of rotten fruit. Nor do I believe in progress.
Peter de Vries was an American humorist and writer of Dutch Calvinist extraction. Anthony Burgess called him ‘one of the great prose virtuosos of modern America’, Kingsley Amis said he was ‘the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic.’ Absurdly, he is now little known.
At times the pith and wit of his comic novels can to me feel slightly relentless. In The Blood of the Lamb however, this pith and wit is transformed into a biting wisdom. The book deals unsparingly with the limits of faith and the limits of doubt. And it does so without being at all pretentious because of the authority of its grief and the directness of its writing.
Brevity is here not just the soul of wit but the blade of tragedy; suffering is briefly dealt with and lasts as long as life. De Vries does not spare the reader with melodrama and he does not romanticise. It is all the more powerful because the bravery within the book’s covers is the bravery that we will all have to show to greater or lesser degrees in our own lives.
Its briefly lyrical moments are hard earned and are very painful and beautiful. It’s one of the best books I have ever read and the only one I’ve read that’s made me cry, which is, if I may be dry about it, a testament to the care with which it is structured and the skill of the writing.
The clear-eyed sanity with which it is written is at times unbearable. If that comment seems slightly melodramatic itself, I would example the end of Bend, Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov, where the author relieves Adam Krug of his sanity in order to relieve him of his intolerable grief. Peter De Vries cannot, will not do this. Thus the unbearable is shown to be bearable, only by the fact that it is borne.
So The Blood of the Lamb is incredibly sad but it is also, remarkably, often funny. It will not, I suggest, make you depressed, or gloomy. This is because although I said the book deals with the limits of faith and doubt, this is not what it is about. Ultimately it is a hymn of praise, and a memorial to its subject.
People are thinking about the beginning of the end. In his very good weekly newsletter Alex Hern was speculating about the travel industry in the immediate aftermath of Covid:
But it won’t kill wanderlust. If anything, at least in the short term, I can’t see how it does anything but strengthen it. Perhaps it’s a nightmare scenario for epidemiologists, but when lockdowns lift, I could see it being like uncorking a bottle: people will flood out of their homes to go elsewhere, anywhere.But it won’t kill wanderlust. If anything, at least in the short term, I can’t see how it does anything but strengthen it. Perhaps it’s a nightmare scenario for epidemiologists, but when lockdowns lift, I could see it being like uncorking a bottle: people will flood out of their homes to go elsewhere, anywhere.
What will the end of lockdown look like? Will it be like the uncorking of a bottle? People flooding into the pubs on the first day back? Hugging each other in the street?
It’s hard to imagine. It’s clear that ‘post-lockdown’ is going to be an extremely extended transitional period. In a long and useful thread from a press conference by French PM Edouard Philippe and Health Minister Oliver Veran on what ‘easing’ the lockdown looks like:
Masks obligatory on public transport, bars and restaurants to remain closed. Schools to re-open as soon as possible, but gradually, in least affected regions first. Travel to and from France? Unreasonable to go back to normal at this stage.
In their now twice-weekly podcast, Stephen Bush and his excellent team of political commentators at the New Statesman took something of a sweep on when they thought the lockdown would end. In different ways Patrick Maguire and Ailbhe Rea questioned what the definition of that would be. For Ailbhe it was ‘being able to sit in a cafe observing social distancing’ and her suggestion was September. Stephen thought it would last out the year.
Certainly I am not expecting to go back to work in an office in any meaningful way before September. I would be surprised if it was then.
It’s very hard to imagine pubs or public sporting events happening until next year.
In his article analysing Rishi Sunak’s ‘risky’ aversion to taking on more government responsibility for debt (for ‘risky’ read ‘wrong’ imo), Bush wrote the following:
at the moment, we don’t know for certain what the government’s fiscal response will be after the UK exits lockdown, we don’t know when, how or if we will properly exit lockdown, we don’t know how people will behave if we do exit lockdown
All that’s right of course. But even there, what does ‘properly exit lockdown’ look like?
Prior to a vaccine or social immunity we will, as the French Health Minister said, have to ‘learn to live with the virus.’ In a world where social distancing is maintained, restaurants being told the lockdown is over, support is ended, will fail, because they won’t be able to generate the same revenue, or process the same number of people, as they could prior to Covid, and that’s assuming people have the same willingness to socialise. It is almost impossible to imagine, almost on a physical, visceral level, the crushes of public transport in rush hour returning at any time, let alone soon, with all the implications for that network lower volumes implies. Workspaces may require injections of capital investment to maintain Covid-safe working environments. Sure interest rates are low and capex can be amortised, but that’s a hell of a decision in the all-but-certain context of a global recession, and at a time when many businesses will be wondering what a post-Covid business model looks like (obvious examples – jettisoning as much floor space as possible, increased reliance on digital platforms for commerce and B2B transactions of all sorts).
People are thinking about the beginning of the end. The ugly and insidiously deniable vectors of communication around the Tory party (incessant Telegraph pieces about the need to end the lockdown, Toby Young’s self-styling as a ‘Covid dissident’, taking his cue as usual from US libertarianism, the Twitter psy-ops of fake NHS accounts) are pushing it hard. They fear the pressure on Tory party ideology a paradigm shift in substantial government debt financing would imply. Much of the Tory party’s response – including Sunak’s equivocal support of bank lending – is expressive of a group of politicians backed into the response of a social democracy, but fearing to finance that reponse ‘too much’. They certainly fear that financing lasting too long, and will I think happily see risks taken with public health to avoid that proposition. Starmer wants to see a plan, though it would be nice if he could hold the government’s disastrous and chaotic response to account as well, as 500 people a day are dying, and people on the front line of fighting the virus are still inadequately protected and supported.
In a Twitter typo, BBC journalist Lewis Goodall, referred to Rngland. This seemed to me a good name for post-lockdown England. It brought to mind a ‘living-with-pandemic’ world (maybe not this pandemic, maybe another), where country’s R-rating is put alongside the weather forecast:
“England’s R-rating is currently 1.2 and most leisure activities are currently curtailed. Wales and Scotland however are currently at a relatively mild R-rating of 0.3 and most tourist and visitor activities are open.”
We all know about desire paths or lines. Those diagonal paths across grass, chopping off the right-angles of pavement, those snickets through hedges to avoid the long way round, emerging through constant use because people have a good eye for quicker, easier ways to getting to the same destination.
The path below, in Brockwell Park, is slightly different.
It hasn’t been there in previous years; it’s emerged since the government has recommended social distancing rules to minimise the opportunities for Covid-19 transmission.
Out of consideration to others and themselves, people have increasingly found themselves moving off the tarmac path to the left and going across the grass. It’s helped that it’s been dry – that ground can get quite boggy in the wet. But it wasn’t created because it was a quicker or easier route, but because people have been doing their best to keep social distance. It is a Line of Consideration, yes a desire of sorts, to show a care to oneself and others, overcoming ‘quicker and easier’.
Seeing it emerge made me wonder what other habits, what other ‘lines’, will be emergent as a result of Covid social and economic measures. What patterns are we entrenching in our behaviours, quotidian processes, and mental adjustments, what paths will emerge?
It is perhaps only a different way of asking the question everyone is asking, about what gets unpicked after Covid, what doesn’t, what the new normal is. How people are answering that question seems to be determining some of people’s responses to the possibility of a short lockdown, or a long lockdown.
‘We will go back to normal’, ‘We’ll have to start reopening by June’.
Or ‘Things will not be normal for a long time, and when we emerge what memory of ‘normal’ will we have? Will our perception of how normal is constituted have changed, so that any attempt to go back to the ‘old’ normal, seem artificial in the extreme?’
It takes a lot to change people’s behaviours, despite our remarkable mental adaptability to new situations. We remain sensibly open to the quickest, easiest route to our destination.
But maybe new paths of consideration are emerging, which will persist beyond this social winter.
A collection of diverse observations from the last week:
The kids are all right
On the last day of school last Friday (lockdown -4), I walked through the park, and there was a large crowd of GCSE-aged schoolchildren – about 120 I made it – all collected there with more arriving. No adult supervision: this was clearly for and instigated by the children, one of those self-organising things – half entirely lark, half entirely serious – that teens can do, and do very well. It was of course in total contravention of recommended behaviour, not that they would possibly care about that – this was ‘it’s the last day, in really unusual circumstances, let’s get together, we may not see each other in person again for a while, let’s do a bit of planning [tho for children that age, the distinction between in person and digital, unless you’re going out, seems a lot less distinct than for pre-internet people like me]. A group of that size would have surely included smaller groups that wouldn’t perceive themselves as part of the main socially/hierarchically central group too. It was all oddly heartwarming.
I was talking to my local greengrocer – this was on the Thursday (lockdown -5), and although he was flat out (‘4 times as busy’ though it ramped up even the next day), the store was full of fresh produce. He said it was a pain: he had to get to the wholesale market much earlier, because the wholesale market was closing much earlier (half three rather than half six), because the hospitality industry simply wasn’t ordering anything. Loads of fresh produce, but no one to buy it. He said he was just loading up the van as full as it would go. He was having to make quite finely adjusted supply and demand calculations and said it was very difficult: 2 weeks’ worth of leeks, gone in a morning, can’t get enough eggs, squashes going out quickly, and potatoes. I panic bought some radishes and an onion.
What was notable, though, was how full of fresh produce his shop was. Although his shop was four times as busy, this is four times as busy on his fairly quiet weekdays. Literally across the road there are two express supermarkets – Tesco and Sainsbury’s – vying for business, and their shelves are empty of fresh produce. People go in, stare uncomprehendingly at the shelves, and buy a forlorn shroomdog. I think there may be an irony here, which is that one pull factor for supermarkets i suspect is some people’s desire to avoid interpersonal communication. You can be cynical about this and say the middle-classes don’t like to be made aware of the fact that they’re being served. But in a multicultural society, uncertainty about language and etiquette, and the formal ecumenical processes of the modern supermarket can make it the easy option if people are lacking in confidence or uncertain, something self-service tills have facilitated further.
This cuts the other way, as the lex pointed out on twitter, multicultural supermarkets are also stacked with good things, but get very few people going into shop outside the community they serve.
To take another example, my local corner shop, run by a Turkish family, is absolutely stacked to the rafters with cleaning items, baked beans, milk, bog roll, though they are running desperately short of Ritter Sport, which is extremely distressing, 10% discount for all NHS staff, and in response to Covid they’ve put this sign up in their front window:
Love those crazy turks (and mean crazy – if you’d seen them howling at the moon one New Years’ Eve absolutely off their faces you’d know what I mean. Very friendly though).
Also, the only place I’ve heard any Covid jokes. I mean I’m not getting out as much as I used to admittedly. And although yerman behind the counter found them very funny, ymmv. Still, for the record:
‘You know there have been no incidents of the corona in Turkey? Do you know why Corona doesn’t go to Turkey? Because of all the germs already there, it would die!’ (30 seconds or so of uncontrollable laughter)
So Turkey said they didn’t have any cases, and then the newspaper reported one, and the government said no, no this is a mistake, there aren’t any cases. Then you know the IMF, they said that if your country had Corona you could apply for aid [i haven’t checked any of this btw], and suddenly the government said ‘We have Corona! Look at this person!’ (prolonged laughter)
You know how you can get the virus on cash, so they say you shouldn’t use cash – that’s the reason they haven’t had any in Turkey because there isn’t any money! (doubles over with mirth)
He was going to carry on, but someone else came in and I made an exit.
Our estate agent runs a small set of properties, is extremely considerate to tenants, never charged any fees when I moved in, and is very prompt on repairs. Her husband is in King’s intensive care with Covid, and she is in self-isolation and understandably distressed. Wishing her very well.
Had to call her because our boiler’s packed in due to a power cut and surge last night. Me standing in front of the boiler while the… man who normally does the boiler… guided me through various tasks to find out that it was indeed bust, and that he would try to get a part but it would be tough and may be a couple of weeks because all the suppliers are closed fml.
In her wonderful book on love and translation, Kate Briggs describes the content of Roland Barthes’ late lecture course Comment vivre ensemble – How to Live Together:
‘There is an age at which we teach what we know,’ he’d said in the inaugural lecture. ‘Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research.’ In this digressive, excursive teaching (‘research, not a lecture,’ he’ll stress at the end of the first session), the practice was never to be exhaustive, or systematic: to work or walk in a straight line toward some generalizing theory, an ultimate grand idea. Instead, to set down a fantasy. And then to induce from the fantasy, a research project. The fantasy for this year of a form of living together that would accommodate rather than dictate the individual rhythms of its small-scale community. Allowing for something like solitude, as Barthes puts it, with regular interruptions. What kinds of structures, spatial or temporal, would enable this? Where to look for suggestion and detail, for models and counter-models that could be simulated, or already find their part-equivalents, in life? As materials to think with, Barthes compiles this unlikely corpus – an unexpected collection of writings and novels: The Magic Mountain, Robinson Crusoe, the texts of the Desert Fathers, Zola’s novel set in an apartment building, André Gide’s account of the real-life sequestered woman of Poitiers. The inquiry will proceed sketchily, says Barthes. Each lecture will offer just a few lines of approach; open a few possible dossiers. I’ll only be marking out the contours of these zones of interest. Like the squares on a chequerboard, he says, which perhaps one day I’ll fill in. Marking out the spaces, setting the places. A place for animals. Also for bureaucracy, for flowers and for food. I see it like a table: seating you next to you and you next to you, anticipating the conversations between topics, the arguments.
Briggs, Kate. This Little Art . Fitzcarraldo Editions.
The texts are to do with sequestration, the Barthes’ method is a way of accommodating isolation and different rhythms of life, as I wrote a bit about in my post The Pram in the Hall.
Covid will change who we are – there’s been a lot about what doesn’t get unpicked after its ebb – preposterous to think, for instance, that we would go back to demanding face-to-face interviews for Universal Credit, and you’d like to think the 5-week wait would go too. Similarly, it feels like the practices and processes we put in place for work, to enable remote communication and collaboration, will maintain, and both for reasons of cost, and increasing ‘plane shame’ – the proxy reaction to climate change, corporate behaviour will change permanently. To link to that same post on women’s writing and the stylistic and physical spaces that can allow it, I would like to think this would enable a more various working environment, allowing for more diversity, not just in terms of gender, or background, but also age.
But as well as changing the logistics of how we get things done, it will of course change the ‘spatial and temporal’ structures in which we do them. Animals, bureaucracy, flowers, food, to quote Barthes’ list.
My domestic space, which previously had been a place in which to get up, to leave, to return, to eat and to sleep, and had a lack of care proportionate to that raw functionality, is now a place in which I live and work.
As a part of maintaining good contact and communications at work, we decided to have video conference calls as standard, rather than just the rather grim Skype for Business calls – leaning over squares of identity and interrupting each other. It’s been very effective – that’s one thing we won’t unpick.
But it also meant the weekend before starting home working ‘full time’ as it were, I decided that my bedroom space, which was also to be my workspace, needed sprucing up, lest people on video calls thought I lived a life of eremitic hebetude in some sort of weird monk’s cell.
So, in the spirit of Barthes, I will document it
Two posters from the Musée de Lodève near Montpellier, from a past love. de Chirico mannequins and Chagall’s flowing lines, which always also remind me of the church in Sussex with his remarkable stained glass commemorating the drowning of a beloved daughter of local landowners.
Something from Picasso’s blue period, which was already here when I moved in, in a not very pleasing place at the top of the landing, so that I didn’t notice what a powerful, simple and tender picture it is. Study of Two Ears and a Bat by Jusepe de Ribera (Lo Spagnoletto), bought after seeing the excellent Art of Violence Ribera exhibition at the Dulwich picture gallery. third, a gift from my partner – a dark blue mood, which immediately resonated deeply with a sense of how I have felt – at times, but often for quite protracted times – over recent years.
New cheap tables as an additional space to bring some brightness to an otherwise dark place in the room, directly behind me when I’m doing a video conf call. Cheap, rather ugly vase bought from Oxfam at the weekend, and daffs from the greengrocer. Also, I now see, a clothes brush.
Beautifully marine coloured woollen blanket on the bed, a Christmas present from a friend. Mainly used to drape around my shoulders if I’m feeling cold, but it helps break up the white spaces in the room a bit during the day to use it as a counterpane.
A picture I got from my mum for Christmas. I don’t really like it very much, so used it to fill a neglected space.
An Eric Ravilious number. When I saw it, at the end of an exhibition, it seemed to sum up and contain everything that I had seen before – of evidence of people in underpopulated and deserted spaces, of the machine of humanity (those vertical oars like standards), of spaces at the edge of living. After I bought the print and got it home, and since then, I’ve found it blank and a bit trite. However, it’s really found its spot here, and has come to life for me again.
A cheap, vulgar and rather gimcrack Chinese style wall scroll to do something about the v rented accommodation energy of the wardrobe. It’s great. Who doesn’t like pictures of distant strange lands, with jade mountains to get lost in, full of the potential for adventure – a changed landscape, a strange new Eden.
More flarze! Thistles, daisies and… idk are they violets? and something else. When I lived in Poland I used to like the way on a Saturday, the buying of flowers to decorate the home seemed universal. And another, rather unusual Ravilious. In fact, something about its strange city of gold, fire and fireworks and stylised figures reminded me of Wyndham Lewis’s wonderful painting the Surrender of Barcelona, of which I must order a print.
A cork board that was by my desk but now sits behind my head in webcam shot to break up the so-so. Bearded man is David Rudkin, who wrote Penda’s Fen and the very strange, very good Artemis 81. Ballard on the left-hand side, tutelary angel of transformed environments and organisms. A striking Wyndham Lewis portrait of his wife, a picture of a prostrate Sancho Panza, Blake, and a gift voucher for my local delicatessen-butchers.