The Pleasures of the Vandal

Since I set this down, some time ago, it’s become slightly outdated even in terms of my own thinking.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:

  1. 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’.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. Uncle Tone
  2. Golden Bird
  3. Knight Watchman
  4. Max Forte
  5. Present Man
  6. Westend Prince
  7. Alottarain
  8. Theatre Goer

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 abundantly materialist. 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.

The Ascending Logos

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.”

Alberto Manguel, Chapter 2 of A History of Reading(New York; Viking, 1996).

‘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.

A problem.

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.

disjecta membra

*[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).

O My Lamb

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.

The Pram in the Hall

A year or so ago I wrote something prompted by reading a 2017 piece by Claire Dederer about the art of ‘Monstrous Men’. The piece focused on Woody Allen, but moved on to talk about the complicity of accusation – how it is a denial of one’s own monstrosity – and how she herself, as a writer who withdrew her time and attention from those she loved, was also in some way ‘monstrous’.

I thought it was too much to place all writing in the same space as the sexually predatory crimes of Monstrous Men, Woody Allen included, but it did make me want to talk about some writers, all of whom I liked very much, all of whom were women, who deal with the need to share writing and love – love partly in the form of the demands of child-rearing – and in doing so shared something of a similar methodology and voice. To the extent it can be called a ‘voice’ (it would be a disservices to constrain to one voice these different writers), it is the sound of the negation of the dominant, dogmatic male line of argument, the assertion of what is true and what is not true, over a course of a project which is the exclusion of doubt.

This tweet from Jay Owens reminded me I had that unfinished piece sitting in my drafts, but the bit about Dederer was not really relevant to it, so I’ve removed it from here.

I have however taken a quote from her essay as the jumping-off point.

But here’s a thing I have done: written a book. Written another book. Written essays and articles and criticism. And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way.

…There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.

There were a couple of other things in the essay that prompted the thoughts that lead to writing this. One has already been quoted, her reference to Cyril Connolly’s malign phrase, ‘The pram in the hallway’ (‘There is no more sombre enemy of art than the pram in the hallway’). The other, connected, is this:

Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.

These questions, that reference, immediately brought to mind two books: The Last Samurai by Helen deWitt, and Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. Both deal, in different but linked ways, with writing and motherhood.

They’re both wonderful books. They show the capacity for interruption that having a child brings. They use it, are defined by it – by the impossibility of single-minded exclusive and exclusionary focus, which ‘the pram in the hallway’ says art requires. And they don’t just deal with it, they are formally shaped by it. In The Last Samurai there are continual, often quite long digressions of nested interruptions. The interruptions themselves become the content, before the original, interrupted voice, resumes. In this sense they are not interruptions, there is no main thread that is being disrupted. The demanding voice of Ludo (the narrator Sibylla’s child) is as much the book as is the narration. It is a partnership. In a sense it is a handing over of voices.

Little Labors formally represents the capacity for interruption of thought and concentration differently. It is a short book comprising very short entries on having a child and being a writer. The suggestion is that the form has been imposed by the demands, the responsibilities of having a child. Yes they are little entries, but they are undoubtedly labors, because of the presence of a child. The labors are also those of the child. The entire book seems to me an explicit riposte to the pram in the hallway point of view. This was represented beautifully in a passage that was excerpted as ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men,’ in The New Yorker:

I now envy men, but for just one thing. What thing? It is true that at the moment the baby is beating a small wooden cutting board against the ground, that the cutting board had at one point had on it an apricot I had sliced into tiny bits for her, she has since sat on some, and smashed some into the ground, she has taken a lengthy interest in my wallet, she has held the supermarket-discount-points card at a distance, then put it in her mouth, then held it at a distance away again, she has not yet learned to crawl but can drag herself across the floor to the edge of a set of stairs I am hoping to keep her from exploring further, she has gathered fuzz from the shag rug here at this rental cabin that has been obtained as a luxuriously imagined Room of One’s Own, she has been interested in having her hand inside of my mouth, and has not been interested in lying down, she is now trying to pull herself up along a ledge and is now trapped in a position from which she can discover no out and so requires rescue by the large being (me) who is always with her, later she needs rescue simply from being on her stomach, and so in brief moments, between these activities, I have one-third of an associative thought, about that story “Pregnancy Diary” by Yoko Ogawa in which a woman’s sister is pregnant and very nauseous throughout the pregnancy and the narrator begins making grapefruit jam for her nauseous sister, and the sister loves it, it’s the only thing she can bear to eat, and so the narrator keeps making it even though she read a sign at the grocery store that the grapefruit was not safe, and so she believes she has ruined the baby … but really I’m insufficiently upset about not being able to think, and then the baby falls asleep. She sleeps on her back, slightly tossed to the side, with both arms in the same direction, like she’s in a boat I can’t see. Her breathing in this moment is making her glow like an amulet. I had been talking about gender envy. The one thing I envy. The first gender-envy thoughts I have had really in my entire life started maybe not immediately following the arrival of the puma in my apartment, but shortly after, when the puma spent a lot of time spinning a wooden cookie on a rod, or maybe shortly after that, when I took her for her first swim in a pool and she persisted uncomplainingly even as it began to rain. The envious thought was simply that a man can have a baby that their romantic partner doesn’t know about. 

Little Labors – Rivka Galchen

For a man the pram in the hall is a potential enemy of art, for a mother it must form a part of it.

For me Rivka Galchen and Helen deWitt give a new voice to literature. It is a non-dogmatic voice, it is humorous and vulnerable open (edit: ‘vulnerable’ was poor choice of word); because it is open to interruption it is stronger than a voice which is not open to interruption. And by ‘interruption’ I mean anything that might swerve the argument, the focus, the single-mindedness, the dogma, the ‘this is the way it is’-ness, the dominant interpretation or narrative, the power.

Anything that might baffle the paradigm, to use the translated words of Roland Barthes in The Neutral.

It isn’t really interruption as such – it is the fabric of thought and discovery.

This Little Art by Kate Briggs is an essay on approaching and exploring the ideas and acts of translation, mainly but not at all solely through the act of translating Roland Barthes’ late lectures. In one section she writes about one part of the Barthes lecture course she translated.

In this digressive, excursive teaching, the practice was never to be exhaustive or systematic: to work or walk in a straight line toward some generalising 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 a 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 stimulated, or already find their part-equivalents, in life? 

[He then cites works which he proposes to look at]

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 food. I see it like a table: seating you next to you and you next to you, anticipating the conversations between topics, the arguments.

This Little Art – Kate Briggs

Although here this method is being used to understand what a community allowing for something like solitude with regular interruptions might look like, to look for examples and reference points, the method he describes is itself perhaps also the method by which this community might be achieved.

Accommodating rather than dictating individual rhythms; this was a notion that came to Barthes when seeing from his window a mother dragging a child along:

In the lecture course titled How to Live Together, the fact that we can go too fast, or indeed too slow, for other people, for the person we are supposed to be accompanying, or is supposed to be keeping company with us, the person you are hoping will stay with you, your listener, your reader, the child you are trying to walk to school, is the central issue: the lecture course’s crystallizing theme. A theme embodied by the sight of a mother glimpsed from Barthes’s window, walking out of step with her son. Too fast. Dragging him along by the hand (so that he is forced to run to keep up). This fact and lived theme of what Barthes calls disrhythmy, and the power dynamics that are in play, and the disturbances it can cause. The question of the lectures, then, will be how to find a way of walking (being, living, also reading, writing and thinking) together that might somehow take account of our different rhythms, not through enforced synchronicity, but allowing for them: you read faster than I do, you get up earlier than I do, and eat later, you race ahead while I walk more slowly, and yet still (in this fantasy that Barthes is hoping to simulate in life) we’ll find ways of coming together, points in the day for companionship, offsetting, modulating, interrupting our competing desire for solitude.

This Little Art – Kate Briggs

Disrhythmy, for Barthes, is caused by different idiorrhythms. Of course, the thing with a baby is that its idiorrhythm must be yours, as a mother. It wants something now. Its not interested in a Barthes chequerboard that allows for accommodation. But writing and composing in that way as a method, a method of accommodating that id as a writer, but also of asking ideas, the paragraphs and words on the page, and the reader themselves, to accommodate it as well.

This is not a group of writers, but they do refer to one another – Rivka Galchen to Helen deWitt’s The Last Samurai because… takes so many pages into the main section before you recognize the narrator’s gender as female, and then so many pages more before you realize that the narrator of that section is a mother, in fact a single mother, who is trying to develop herself as a scholar and who tries to solve the problem of presenting a male role model to her son

Kate Briggs to Maggie Nelson’s section on policing mouth-exploring in This Little Art:

When my youngest son was a baby I had a bright hot technicolour dream that was the picture of him choking. This had the effect of elevating my adequate policing to the levels of nervous (paranoid?) surveillance. I’d hand him a slice of squashy ripe pear at lunch-time and watch as he’d try manoeuvring it delightedly into his mouth. Then suddenly doubt the size of it, the consistency of it, and to his great distress, whisk it away (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! – don’t cry: I’ll cube it! Let me mash it!). 

Looking back, I think what troubled me the most was the thought (the thought and also the reality) that the smallest lapse in my attention, even (even and especially) with respect to the most ordinary everyday things – eating a pear for lunch, sitting out among the dry leaves in the garden – could have consequences on this other, life-or-death scale. The stakes felt everywhere and for that period of time almost unbearably high.

She also insists, via Galchen’s Little Labors, on seeing ‘little’ as meaning ‘small’ not ‘minor’. If we are to allow this sort of writing to have equal worth, we must allow for its smallness. The fact that accomplishing a brief paragraph of thought may be a form of labour, and may need to be accomplished in small periods of time between distractions. Allowing thoughts and observations to be placed on a square and to relate to the things next to them, not in a tightly ordered narrative argument that says if this is true then this must be true, but to communicate, to be suggestive. A series of partnerships, reader and author, both contributing, author and the people and things that demand their time.

A voice to accommodate distraction and disjunction, whether it’s Galchen’s brief chapters and little labors, Maggie Nelson’s stanzas of thought, the cadences of a child’s insatiable desire for learning in The Last Samurai, perhaps these make way for a new way of writing and reading.

On one of the long afternoons that has since bled into the one long afternoon of Iggy’s infancy, I watch him pause on all fours at the threshold to our backyard, as he contemplates which scraggly oak leaf to scrunch toward first with his dogged army crawl. His soft little tongue, always whitened in the centre from milk, nudges out of his mouth in gentle anticipation, a turtle bobbing out of its shell. I want to pause here, maybe forever, and hail the brief moment before I have to jump into action, before I must become the one who eliminates the inappropriate object, or, if I’m too late, who must harvest it from his mouth.

You, reader, are alive today, reading this, because someone once adequately policed your mouth-exploring. In the fact of this fact, Winnicott holds the relatively unsentimental position that we don’t owe these people (often women, but by no means always) anything. But we do owe ourselves “an intellectual recognition of the fact that at first we were (psychologically) absolutely dependent, and that absolutely means absolutely. Luckily we were met by ordinary devotion.

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

Absolutely dependent. That absolutely dependence relies on the attention of the person who may also be writing the words you are reading. And therefore our intellectual recognition of that fact should perhaps be allowing the interruptions, relishing the tone of voice and type of writing that allows for them. It may also mean reconfiguring what ‘good’ is, so that Dederer’s question “Is your motherhood making you a less good writer?” – with all the demands on time and concentration and emotion – is not somehow determined by the editorial rejection of that voice: the little, the associative, the interrupted.

Silence Tells Me Secretly, Everything

from The Neutral

Reading Barthes on silence as a rhetorical device reminded me just how long it too me to see the pun in Hamlet’s dying line, “the rest is silence”.

Silence as (much deserved) rest. Silence as no more words. Silence as that which lies beyond th’occurrents of the world.

Silence as a pause before the continuation of the music.

Which reminder sent me happily to this:

‘Silence tells me secretly, everything’.


The other day, I had a good example of one sort of liminal thinking that goes on when you’re not actually doing any proper thinking, and which for quite long periods seems to do the duty of proper thinking.

I’ve been reading Crashed, Adam Tooze’s… I guess ‘monumental’ is the only word?… history of the Global Financial Crisis and its consequences. On the tube going into work I read this sentence:

In the general crisis of legitimacy in 2010–2011 there was no Archimedean point. There was no place to stand above the fray.

Tooze, Adam. Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (p. 398). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Although the general importance of the point about a crisis of legitimacy and the undermining of technocratic principles was of interest, the phrase ‘Archimedean point’ burned vividly and resulted in a tessellation of thoughts and references unfolding back out across recent experience.

This phrase describing the notional point of distance from the Earth one would need to stand to lever (move or weigh) it, is used in a Richard Eberhart 1947 poem ‘Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God’s Revelation’ – Kierkegaard.

I first heard not read the poem listening to Geoffrey Hill’s extremely enjoyable Oxford lectures when he was Professor of Poetry there. This reading from the 2012 Michaelmas term lecture, Fields of Force.

That poem contains a line that had been much in my head over the emotional landscape of last couple of years:

All the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers

But the line is not as such Eberhart’s, exactly. It is in fact, as Hill makes clear, a line from a Søren Kierkegaard journal entry of 1837, translated by Alexander Dru for an English selection of the journals published in 1938. And in fact the original translation is ‘All the flowers of my heart turn to ice flowers’. In the original Swedish:

Enhver mit Hjertes Blomst bliver til en Iisblomst

This is translated in the Indiana University Press edition of the complete Journals (by Edna and Howard Hong), as Every flower of my heart turns into a frost flower. That’s an odd choice. Iisblomst seems better represented both in terms of image and rhythm by ‘ice flower’. And regardless the form ‘all the flowers of the heart turn to ice flowers’ had become symbolic to me of the emotional landscape I had been inhabiting.

I had in fact already been reminded of it very recently reading a good piece on Petrarch in the London Review of Books.

A series of puns in Canzoniere 239 begins conventionally with ‘dolce l’aura al tempo novo’ (‘the sweet breeze in springtime’); then becomes rather weirder, ‘col bue zoppo andrem cacciando l’aura’ (‘with a lame ox we will go hunting the breeze’); and finally arrives at one of those lines of pure lyric dynamite that lurk throughout the collection: ‘in rete accolgo l’aura e ’n ghiaccio i fiori’ (‘in a net I gather the breeze and in the ice flowers’).

Nicholl, Charles. “On the Sixth Day.” Rev. of Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer, by Christopher Celenza. London Review of Books
 41.3 (2019): 23-26. 9 Mar. 2019 <>.

‘Ice flowers’ as a fragment of this significant emotional symbol caused me to look up from the article and stare out of the window for a while. This meant that I didn’t notice what I should have noticed, even with my rudimentary Italian, and supposed better English poetic parsing, that ‘ice flowers’ is not here a noun phrase. I must have noticed something was amiss because I haplessly reverse logicked it and decided I quite liked the odd way – disconcerting, slightly haunting – ‘ice flowers’ didn’t have a referent, unless perhaps it was breeze.

‘In a net I gather the breeze and in the ice, flowers’ is the meaning, and no matter the fluidity of the original medieval Italian, probably needs that comma.

But I do not think I would have noticed the phrase had that comma, that small humanist innovation just post-dating Petrarch, been present.

Woolgathering. Carding the wool of language and thought. The processing that takes place beneath thought. An underground emotional shuttling of data and information around our hidden frames of reference, from digitally recorded lectures (incomplete), to translation decisions and the poetry of language, and half-noticed phrases leaping by association to others. From the tube in March 2019, through to the Eurozone Crisis of 2010-2012, to a notional point in the cosmos from which you can shift the Earth itself, posited by a 3rd Century BC Sicilian, to Geoffrey Hill in Oxford in 2012, to Eberhart in Boston in 1947 working at his wife’s father’s floor wax company in the aftermath of the war, to the graduate Kierkegaard in Copenhagen 1837 at the beginnings of his relationship with Regine Olsen, to the publishing almost a century later of Alexander Dru’s 1938 translation, to my front room a couple of weeks beforehand reading the LRB, then whirling back to trecento Italy, and Petrarch’s infatuation for ‘Laura’, the path strewn, like breadcrumbs in the forest, with the flowers of the heart.

[This too-lyrical ending was not how I had intended to finish this – I got carried away and decided to let it stand, on the suggested basis that in one view, no matter the cognitive and neurochemical processes, the vehicle for these transactions is feeling and emotion.

However, the word jumped into my mind when considering this process was ‘cachinnation’, and no matter how much I tried to banish it on the grounds of meaning, it insisted on its relevance. It is the background mocking laughter to our thought, a distant ghost transmission from before Babel, like background radiation, a laughter which gives this blog its name – diasyrmus – and whose sigil is the goat.]

"Mysticism Has Not the Patience to Wait for God's Revelation"

But to reach the Archimedean point
Was all my steadfastness;
The disjointed times to teach
Courage from what is dreadful.

It was the glimpses in the lightning
Made me a sage, but made me say
No word to make another fight,
My own fighting heart full of dismay.

Spirit, soul, and fire are reached!
And springs of the mind, like springs of the feet
Tell all, all know, nothing wavers there!
All the flowers of the heart turn to ice-flowers,

Heaviness of the world prevailing
("The higher we go the more terrible it is")
Duplicity of man, heart-hate,
The hypocrite, the vain, the whipper, the cheat,

The eternal ape on the leash,
Drawing us down to faith,
Which the Greeks call divine folly,
The tug of laughter and of irony.

from Burr Oaks (1947), by Richard Eberhart

Homage to Jay

from Blast 1, edited by Wyndham Lewis (1914)

Largely indifferent to my hair, I went to cheap barbers most of my life. After an emotional crash a couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to spend money on a haircut, more money than I would usually.

I found a salon – it’s the only word – and although in part this was about asserting a new identity and look to try and do away with the immediate past, I didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted, and ended up spending more on the same haircut.

Certainly more than sixpence.

It was a good haircut though. It made me feel a little better and grew out well, and I’ve gone back ever since. In fact I had my haircut there just this morning.

The quality of the haircut has varied according to the person doing it.

But since I found Jay, he is the only one who can cut my hair. Jay is golden.

He is meticulous in his attentions, and carefully formal in how he approaches the different areas of my skull.

He pins up the longer hair on the top of my head with clips, and attends to the sides with his scissors and razor, so that in the mirror, with my widow’s peak pattern baldness growing more evident with every day, I appear like a corrupt or hapless middle-aged character in a Kurosawa film.

And most important of all, apart from a greeting and one or two efficient queries to do with my wishes, he says not a word.

As my haircut is not at all complicated, and in fact rather dull, it is impossible to say whether what I perceive to be the quality of the haircut is perceptible by others, though as in art, I suspect small efforts and details add to an overall effect without being perceived.

Increasingly I feel the value to be one of ritual however. The attentiveness and care, and the returning to an area to clip, cut and lightly grazed until it is satisfactory, is what comprises the value.

Like shoes, haircuts seem to me to have an intrinsic value greater than some other elements of style and presentation.

This is late 19th C bourgeois ideology, and while Wyndham Lewis’ interest is that of the modernist artist bringing formal processes of delineation, division and abstraction to the wild and incoherent Nature of the Romantics, the page in Blast represents an intersection of modernism with that late 19th Century bourgeois/imperial ideology.

Bless Jay. I live in fear of the day he goes.

The Squalid Rag

The notion of the palimpsest has a sort of fame, outside its technical sense, as a minor tool in the armoury of criticism and theory. At its most basic it’s a writing surface that can be cleansed for reuse. Intrinsic in its theoretical meaning is reference to the imperfect scouring of parchment in the early Medieval period for reinscription. Although the method they used erased previous texts by the light of their own time, it left them capable of retrieval by later more sophisticated chemical processes in the more powerful light of the 19th Century, so that future ages found multiple texts all present on a single parchment, waiting to be revealed, nothing lost.

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A Private View

I wrote this blog entry after a period of the usual sort of struggle – not really just a matter of writing or thinking, but more generally of lack of direction and general uncertainty. I think it’s an ok piece. Jocelyn Brooke deserves some decent criticism, and there isn’t that much around. It’s 50 years since he died, which I’d hoped to commemorate with something new, but I didn’t get round to it. Reblogging this from its old home is partly a small attempt to fulfil something along those lines, but also to kickstart more regular posting here, on Brooke and others.

Nothing seems worth talking about, writing a mere exercise in style. Experiments that might justify such an exercise seem egregious, and to obscure the matter in hand. Attempts at elegance come across as both callow and conservative, at worst pompous – like a child pretending to be an adult. Plain speaking seems uninteresting, and dangerously revealing of a moribund and fruitless intellect.

Clearly, a subject is needed.

Jocelyn Brooke is worth writing about for many reasons, but has hardly been written about at all. The ground is still fresh and I can tell myself that what I am writing is not an exercise in redundant self-gratification. We can pretend. It is, after all, a start.

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