‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Some Chestertonian Apothegms



The danger with argument by paradox, proverb, apothegm and the like is that such rhetoric closes down, rather than opening up, further discussion. If you see the point being made and agree with it, you're likely to smile knowingly at the clever perversity with which it has been made and move on, your prejudices un-unsettled. And if you see the point and disagree with it, the form, deliberately lacking the lineaments of logical argument as it does, gives you little by way of purchase for articulating the specifics of your disagreement. Arguing with a witty Chestertonian apothegm is likely to seem like missing the point, like quarrelling with the premises of a joke.

But that's a shame. Witty or otherwise, these things are means of making a point, advancing an argument; and being witty isn't necessarily the same thing as being right. So for example:
If there were no God, there would be no atheists. [Where All Roads Lead (1922)]
OK, but this is an argument about nomenclature, rather than one about materialist-atheist belief. It was religious people who coined the term atheist, after all. This is as if we brought into general usage the term ‘ahippogriffists’ for people who don't believe that hippogriffs are real, and then twitted such people with the line: Ah, but without hippogriffs there would be no ahippogriffists! There's a sort of truth there, on the level of semantics: but it doesn't change the fact that there are no such things as hippogriffs.
Vers libre, or nine tenths of it, is not a new metre, any more than sleeping in a ditch is a new school of architecture. [Fancies versus Fads (1923)]
Because poetry is a house, and metre and rhyme are walls, windows and roof. Why is poetry a house? Why do rhyme and metre have these functions? Because I say so. Is poetry a house, though? Reading a bit of Tristan Corbière is like sleeping in a ditch because only those too poor to afford even the most basic of lodgings would do it, the experience lasts all night, chills you horribly and in the morning you emerge dirty and unrested. Not so funny now, is it!
The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self-evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. [The Thing (1930)]
I really think this is Chesterton failing in his own Chestertonianism. Ignorance as the true goal of knowledge is a perfectly serviceable paradoxical maxim, after all. What was it Einstein said? ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, where imagination encircles the world.’
As for science and religion, the known and admitted facts are few and plain enough. All that the parsons say is unproved. All that the doctors say is disproved. That's the only difference between science and religion there's ever been, or will be. [Manalive (1912)]
I've honestly no idea in what sense he means ‘proved’, here, but presumably it is not in the sense that a mother whose child is born with a cleft palate had better take them to a doctor than pray for them to get better, and that there are ten thousand or similar physical circumstances.
A sober man may become a drunkard through being a coward. A brave man may become a coward through being a drunkard. [Charles Dickens (1906)]
And a coward may become brave with a stiff drink in him, as the British Army recognized when they carried the rum ration round the men who were about to go over the top on the Western Front. Your point?
It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged. [Cleveland Press, 1 March 1921]
I suppose this is aiming at jauntiness, but the whole ‘hate your elected officials’ line reeks of incipient fascism: it is, after all, what the fascist dictator cries as he rides in on his white horse. And when every politician not a lickspittle is hanging from a lamppost I'm not sure what good it does to say, but, but I was only joking! Talking of which:
Let a Jew be Lord Chief justice, if his exceptional veracity and reliability have clearly marked him out for that post. Let a Jew be Archbishop of Canterbury ... But let there be one single-clause bill; one simple and sweeping law about Jews, and no other: that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab. Let him sit on the Woolsack, but let him sit there dressed as an Arab. Let him preach in St. Paul's Cathedral, but let him preach there dressed as an Arab. ... If my image is quaint my intention is quite serious; and the point of it is not personal to any particular Jew. The point applies to any Jew, and to our own recovery of healthier relations with him. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land. [The New Jerusalem, (1920)]
So a Jew can never be British. I see. I think the best retort here would be ‘fuck you, Gilbert’.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The Second Coming of Georgie B.



Turning and turning in a widening gyre
The striker cannot beat the defender;
Wings fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere stagnation is loosed upon the pitch.
The offside trap is sprung, and everywhere
Are centre-forwards dispossessed of the ball
The best lack scoring chances, while the worst
Are closing down all movement in the game.

Surely the final whistle is at hand?
Surely a substitution is at hand!
A substitution! Hardly are those words out
When a swift winger out of Spirit of Man U
Troubles my sight: running over mud-green:
A shape with mobile body and feet of an angel,
A gaze drunk and impudent as the sun,
Is moving his slow thighs, while all about him
The crowd of frantic home supporters yell.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That all those years of dully nil-nil draws
Were vexed to splendour by this jinking ghost,
And what George Best, his hour come round at last,
Slouches towards the far goal-line to score?

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (1957)



I'm reading West because I am pulling together material for a literary biography of H G Wells, and West's ten-year affair with Wells (1913-1923) was, really, the most important of his life. Of course I don't mean to situate her in a manner entirely subaltern with respect to Wells (except insofar as I am writing a biography of Wells, not of West): she is her own person, a very interesting and important twentieth-century writer both of fiction and non-fiction. I read her first novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918) and blogged about it in another place. Then I read her Henry James (1916) and her Augustine book (1933), which I may come back to, if I've time. Now I've read her bestselling novel, The Fountain Overflows: a semi-autobiographical tale based on West's own childhood. It's remarkable. I'm just not sure what else it is.

Which is to say, as with Return of the Soldier, I found the experience of reading The Fountain Overflows oddly hard to get a handle on. Having had that experience twice makes me suspect the problem is me—makes me wonder if I'm missing something, or hitting West's writing at some oblique angle. Or maybe it's not me! Maybe it is her!

The Fountain Overflows is about an unusual Edwardian childhood, not a million miles away from Gwen Raverat's Period Piece, which had been published a few years earlier in 1952 (although West's book is more creatively strange, I think, and avoids some of the dangers of eccentricity-as-tweeness of Raverat's book). The story centres on the Aubrey family. Our narrator, Rose, is West's fictional version of her younger self, and it is via her not, I think, wholly reliable perspective that we learn about her two older sisters Cordelia and Mary, and their kid brother, the oddly-monikered Richard Quin (named after a favourite, now deceased, uncle).

We also learn about Clare, their pinched, plain-faced, nervy and put-upon mother, a music-obsessed pianist whose own career was cut short by illness and who wishes her two middle children to become concert pianists in their turn, yet who repeatedly puts down the (on the evidence) remarkable attainments of her oldest daughter Cordelia on the violin. Finally we learn about the family's father: handsome and charismatic but feckless and unreliable. He's often absent pursing one or other get-rich scheme, picking up journalist jobs and losing them, investing imprudently on the stock market and the like. Mostly he is simply not there. The result is that the family never has enough money, and the mother grows more and more stressed in her efforts to maintain their genteel outward life.

At the beginning of the novel, Mr Aubrey goes off to England to edit a provincial newspaper, and Mrs Aubrey, compelled to cut costs, rents-out their Edinburgh apartment and takes the children to live cheaply in the Highlands. When the Edinburgh tenants come to the end of their lease and she brings the children back to the city she discovers that her husband has sold their furniture without consulting her and squandered the money. They all come down South where Mrs Aubrey grows yet more pinched and neurotic, and Mr Aubrey is yet more often absent and unreliable, and, after the logic of these things, the children love him more and more, and increasingly resent their mother.

The main focus of the novel during all this is on the children, their complex interactions, their strangely precise yet often oddly alienated perspectives on adult life. When in the story's latter third a friend's father is killed, and a rather garish murder mystery elbows its way into the plot, it doesn't feel as out of place as it might, because the children's worldview is so oddly off-kilter from the mundane throughout. We have already had a vision of ghostly London ponies (or perhaps not) and a haunting by a poltergeist (or maybe not). There are intimations of telepathy. The book is full of weird little details. Mr Aubrey, a socialist, uses his journalism to campaign against a Government proposal to dye all margarine purple. You find yourself wondering: was there such a bonkers-sounding campaign in the early 1900s? Purple margarine? It's possible, I guess.

There is a quantity of what reads very like padding, I must say: although it is leavened from time to time with some beautifully quasi-surreal visual moments. One example is when the children have to follow their parents home through night-time suburban streets lit—for reasons that are never, I think, explained—not by gaslights but by naphtha-flares (Rosamund is their cousin):
[We walked] quickly past shops lit by naphtha flares. Loose red and yellow flames burned on suspended plates, open to the wind, which sometimes blew them to a bunch of streaming ribbons and jerked all the shadows askew. ‘I love these lights,’ said Rosamund. ... We came to a stop to watch some very fine flares outside a butcher's shop, where a big red-faced man in a blue smock was shouting out long things about meat, as if he were making a speech in a historical play by Shakespeare, ‘attend me lords, the proud insulting queen, with Clifford and the haughty Northumberland and of their feather many more proud birds have wrought the easy melting kind like wax.’ ... The lights and shadows wavered on [Rosamund's] face without disturbing her look of being soft but immoveable. [The Fountain Overflows, 107]
Beautifully strange. I could have done with more such moments.

West is absolutely unsparing of her younger self's monstrous snobbishness and offhand selfishness: on a railway journey she and her sisters stare the backs of the terraced houses they pass and ‘try to work out from the washing on the lines the train passes which of the horrid little houses were inhabited by abnormally shaped families’ [335]. It's a bold move in an autobiographical work, and the novel as a whole doesn't entirely put the distance it might have done between this in-story snobbishness and a larger textual condescension. So, for instance, I found myself wondering if West herself could do no better by way of portraying lower class characters than having the husbands call their wives ‘me old trouble and strife’ [183] or drinking beer in the house (‘it was considered a vulgar drink in those days,’ Rose narrates, in case we miss the point; ‘I do not think that my father ever tasted it in his life.’) Anyway: as the story winds down the father abandons the family altogether; the novel ends when Mary and Rose get scholarships to study music at the Prince Albert College in Kensington and the Athenaeum respectively. (West worked on two sequels, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund but didn't finish them to her satisfaction; they were published, the latter incomplete, posthumously in 1984-85)

The style, mostly, is clean and expressive, although I wonder if the attempt to capture something of the on-flow, chatty flatness of a child's perspective makes the whole a little too tonally monotonous in large doses. There's a lot of rather wheelspinny dialogue, and a tendency towards descriptive itineraries of things, many many things. From time to time West slips back into over-writing: ‘[Mary's] oval face was as smooth as a silver teaspoon filled with cream’ [30]; a sleeping child is a ‘bright pupa in a vague case’ [194]; a woman has ‘a clumsiness which is the muscular equivalent of stammering’ [337]—doesn't really work, that one, I think.

But by the same token there are many very expressive and brilliant descriptive passages. When the family first come to London the train takes them ‘between dark, close-pressed houses with bits built out behind like ladies' bustles’ [87] which is nicely put (the passage goes on to note how the houses are ‘each as different as people are, some tidy, some riotous, some lovely, some nothing, and at last we came to our station’). In the hothouse at Kew gardens, the girls move ‘among the weightless, sawtoothed monotony of the great ferns’ [336]. Their Scottish cousin Jock comes and goes, and one evening plays his flute in their London house. As he readies his instrument, Rose looks through the uncurtained window into the back garden: ‘there was a square of light on the lawn, which meant Papa was working in his study’ [304]. Cousin Jock's flute playing ‘is like the call of a young owl through the summer night’ and awakens some primordial sadness in Rose's heart.

In a wonderfully striking passage near the beginning, the children cannot get to sleep in the new house in the Highlands because they can all hear, outside in the dark, the terrible pounding of some spectral drum. It's a properly eerie moment. They whisper to one another in their shared bedroom, trying to work out what is making the noise, and try to light a match to see what is making the sound only to discover the matches all damp. Finally their mother comes in with a lamp and scolds them for talking.
‘Mamma what is that terrible noise!’

‘A terrible noise! What terrible noise?’ she asked, her eyes and her mouth stupid with sleep.

‘Why, what we are hearing now,’ said Mary.

Mamma murmured, ‘Can something extraordinary be happening?’ With an effort she set herself to listen, and her face lightened. ‘Why children, that is the horses stamping in their stalls.’

We were astonished. ‘What, just those horses that we saw this afternoon?’

‘Yes, those. Why, now I listen, I do not wonder that you were frightened. It is astonishing what a tremendous noise horses make with their hooves.’

‘But why does it sound so sad?’

Yawning, she answered: ‘Well, so does thunder, sad as if everything had gone wrong for the last time. And the sea often sounds sad, and the wind in the trees nearly always. Go to sleep, my lambs.’ [The Fountain Overflows, 14]
Moments like this bring potently into focus the way distance, as with the distance from which middle-age looks back to early childhood, adds a plangent melancholy to experience. Things keep going wrong in life, after all; and at some point everything goes wrong for the last time.

But these moments are, to be frank, a little too few and too far between, isolated epiphanies in an over-long novel (easily over 150,000 words) structured so loosely that the reader struggles getting a clear handle on the overall shape; or at least this reader did. There are longueurs. There are many longueurs. The flattened affect of reporting everything on the same level may be deliberate, and is sometimes an expressive textual strategy, but it is also wearing. Some of the description is pinpoint and vivid, but much of it is a matter of listing things, often at great length—‘the end of the room was taken up by a gilded extension of the chimney piece, which rose in tiers to the ceiling, each shelf divided into several compartments, in each of which was a single curio, a Japanese cup and saucer, a vase, a carving in jade or rose quartz or ivory, and about the room were lacquered tables and flimsy chairs with cushions of oriental fabric; but on the walls, which were covered with straw wallpaper striped with fine gold thread, there hung alongside Japanese prints and Canton enamel dishes, more of these pictures in heavy gold frames representing motor-cars in ditches and cats and dogs dressed in motoring clothes’ and so on [173]—which, though perhaps it does reflect how children access and re-present the world, is still something of a grind, reading-wise.

My overwhelming sense of the novel was dominated by this latter sort of writing, and I honestly can't decide if me wanting more of the Shakespeherian butchers shouting out long things about meat in naphtha-lit streets, or more midnight horses stamping their feet like booming ghostly drums—and fewer lists of furnishings and flowers and musicians and so on—whether this is in some profound sense me missing the point of what West is trying to do in this strange, convoluted, sometimes dreary, occasionally extraordinary novel. It certainly could be.


Sunday, 19 November 2017

Truth as Unforgottenness



Let's twitch away the veil for a moment. Core Heidegger, this (from p.17 of the above):


You can click that to embiggen it, if you need to: it's a major topic of Heideggerian thought, of course. Is he right, though? It's certainly the case that ἀληθής means ‘true, real, genuine’, both in the highfalutin philosophical senses that interest H., and also in idiomatic everyday talk. Also the accusative plural, ἀληθῆ, is used for ‘yes’, in the sense of ‘correct, you're right’ when replying to a statement or question. For example, here's Plato's
Εὐκλείδης: ὥστε μοι σχεδόν τι πᾶς ὁ λόγος γέγραπται;
Τερψίων:   ἀληθῆ· ἤκουσά σου καὶ πρότερον.

Eucleides: So I have pretty much the whole conversation written down?
Terpsion: That's right. I've heard you say so before. [Theaetetus 143a]
When Heidegger says ἀληθές ‘literally means’ uncovered he is sort-of correct, except ... well: only sort-of. The word comes from ἀ- (a-, ‘not’) +‎ λήθω (lḗthō) which is a term that can mean ‘hide, conceal’ but which more directly means ‘forget’. The mythological river Lethe (Λήθη) that flows before the entrance to the Greek underworld is the river of forgetfulness, after all, not the river of concealment. It makes you forget, it doesn't ‘hide’ your thoughts in some secret cache. To go into this in a little more detail: the -ληθή- part of ἀληθής is a variant of λανθάνω (lanthánō), which means ‘to cause to forget’, ‘to render [somebody] unknowing’, ‘to deceive’, ‘to flash that magic penlight-of-forgetting from Men in Black in somebody's eye’ (not that last one, obviously). You can see its meaning in use, for instance in Herodotus, διότι οἰκίοισι ὑποδεξάμενος τὸν ξεῖνον φονέα τοῦ παιδὸς ἐλάνθανε βόσκων; ‘because he invited the guest into his home he, without knowing it, fed the person who had murdered his own son' [Histories 1.44]. Or this from Homer:
ὅφρα Ἕκτορα ὀτρύνῃσι μάχην ἐς Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων
αὖτις δ᾽ ἐμπνεύσῃσι μένος, λελάθῃ δ' ὀδυνάων
αἳ νῦν μιν τείρουσι κατὰ φρένας

But let Phoebus Apollo rouse Hector to the fight, and breathe strength into him again, and make him forget the pains that now distress his heart. [Iliad 15.59–61]
None of this is controversial, or obscure, stuff (all these citations are taken from Wiktionary, for example). To say that truth is the anti-deceit, the opposite-of-deceitfulness, is a sort of tautology, but to say that truth is anti-forgetfulness, the antidote to Lethe, is to say something rather more striking and thought-provoking. And my point is: to describe the Greek ἀληθής, the anti-Lethe, the un-Lethe, as unconcealment is actually quite a distorting thing to be doing. Unless we want to argue, as Freud does, that nothing is ever really forgotten, to argue that memories are only ever hidden away in the subconscious, then it surely does not reflect our sense of how our minds work.

To be clear: Heidegger himself knew this perfectly well (a friend of mine, much more knowledgeable about Heidegger and the world of Heideggerian scholarship than I am, once described the latter community as haunted by their inability to think anything that their master had not already thought). Heidegger knew the main etymological root of the word. He just doesn't want it. Iain Thompson tries to spin this in a positive way:



[Iain Thomson's Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education (Cambridge University Press 2005) 145]. But I think Heidegger knows his own etymology is eccentric and that he just doesn't care. I think he really believes truth is an unconcealing, and really doesn't think truth is an unforgetting—as far as I know, he delves no deeper into Unvergessenheit in his writings (I could be wrong). But this makes sense, since central to H.’s approach is the notion that there is a ‘there’ there, a Da that seins: something substantive that can be veiled and unveiled but can never simply fade away into oblivion in the way in which memories are liable. Terry Eagleton's merry dig at H. in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, where he lists a series of quotations about Dasein in such a way as to make it seem that Heidegger is talking about his own schlong, contains a germ of truth, howsoever ribald. There is something to-hand and graspable and, frankly, gendered about Heidegger's Dasein.

Can you imagine a man getting hold of his willy and exclaiming in surprise ‘good grief, I'd completely forgotten I had one of those!’ No. No you can't and I'm guessing that Heidegger rejects the notion of truth as ‘unforgetting’ for related reasons. As he insists in the passage quoted from Plato's Sophist at the top of this post, it is primarily things, πράγματα, that are unconcealed.*

[*There's a nest of problems associated with that etymology too, mind you: a πρᾶγμα (prâgma) is not a thing-y thing, like a table or a penis: it is a thing that is done, something accomplished, the word deriving from πρᾱ́σσω, prā́ssō, “I do”, which is in turn the direct etymological root of our English word practice. But maybe let's not get into that].

The idea intrigues me, nonetheless. I've always found the whole ‘truth is disclosure’ thing hard to grok, if I'm honest. I think I understand H.s point, but that's not to say that it feels right to me, exactly. On the other hand, the long tradition of critiquing ‘truth as correspondence’ is hard to dismiss. But what might ‘truth as unforgetting’ or ‘truth as unforgottenness’ look like? Truth as that which we cannot forget, what cannot slip our mind without returning to it? Or Truth as something we choose to prioritize in our memories? What might a mnemonics of veracity look like?

I suppose it would, for one thing, thinking of aletheia like this would tend to relocate Truth from the world of things, veiled or otherwise, into the human mind, which is where memories live and sometimes die. That seems broadly right to me. After all, a line is not ‘true’ until a human being checks it, animals do not act with fidelity or infidelity, they merely act—truth in that sense is a human concern. And so on.

Defining truth as the stuff that isn't forgotten, or perhaps as the stuff which can't be forgotten, has some strange implications, though: it's going to imply that the big things, the traumatic things, are ‘truer’ than the small-things, the trivial things, the forgettable neither-here-nor-there gubbins. One might think that's the wrong way about, I suppose. Although perhaps not: a trauma, of the sort that one cannot forget howevermuch one might wish to, presumably marks that place where one's wishful-thinking has come painfully into collision with reality, where (we might say) the truth of Reality has stomped onto our fantasy version of it. Perhaps there's merit in viewing such painful states of mind as true because unforgettable.

If we want to insist that trivial and forgettable things can also be ‘true’ we may want to determine in what way that holds. I meet somebody at a social function, and they tell me their name, and we engage in smalltalk; and half an hour later I can't remember his name, and the next week I've forgotten I ever met him. In what sense was that encounter ever ‘true’? It's not to suggest it is valueless (the opposition is surely not ‘true’/‘worthless’), but it is to suggest, I think correctly, that truth matters, and one of the indices of that fact is that we tend not to forget the stuff that matters. (Or do we? I don't know. Maybe this is completely off-base?).

And there are other strange implications of thinking along these lines. So for example, how would a false memory figure in a metaphysics of truth-as-unforgottenness? As a flat contradiction in terms? As an expressive aporia to be conceptually navigated with care? False memory is believed by some to be a codifiable psychological or psychiatric syndrome (defined by Peter J. Freyd as ‘a condition in which a person's identity and relationships are affected by memories that are factually incorrect but that they strongly believe’)—although it's worth adding that ‘False Memory Syndrome’ is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and plenty of psychiatrists don't believe in it. What's not controversial, of course, is that human memory is not a gold-standard flawless record of reality, that it is prone to distortion and elision, to a process of narrativisation and tidying-up, that it is malleable and that it stretches and compresses as we access it. That surely doesn't sound like the stoic capital-T truth of the philosophers, or (indeed) of the scientists. But that also may be part of what makes it worthwhile thinking of truthfulness in these terms: not totally to relativize the concept of truth, or to go all Jesting Pilate, but to acknowledge the procedures by which a notional but spurious ‘gold standard’ of 100% accurate memorialistion of ‘reality’ is a chimera, the extent to which all memory always already involves processes like selection and narrativization, by way of making the case that truth itself also always already involves those processes.

And maybe I was proposing a false step, earlier, when I suggested that thinking of truth as unforgettingness means relocating it into the human mind. It would certainly accord more with an Ancient Greek ethos if we instead pondered what unforgettingness might mean in a social and political, rather than a personal, sense. It matters that we remember history, because the alternative, famously, is to be forced to relive it: which is to say, the unforgetting of history is a truth which, if we lose it, leads to a state of collective falsehood hospitable to all manner of preventable horrors. That sounds about right, I think. ‘Holocaust deniers’ (to take one example) are people who wish to replace a terrible collective truth with a more politically serviceable (to them) lie. In his essay on this subject, Adam Phillips notes that ‘what we are urged to remember is bound up with how we are being urged to live. The preferred life has its set of preferred memories’ [Phillips, ‘The Forgetting Museum’, Sides Effects (Penguin 2006), 131] and that's both right, I think, and an important consideration if we want to think about the truth. Then again, Phillips, more Freudian than I (though I'm pretty Freudian, if I'm honest) thinks both that we tend to forget trauma, or at least that we try to do so, and that the repressed always returns, which commits him to a model in which, on some profound level, forgetting becomes literally impossible, and we are, often neurotically and painfully, condemned to truth. I'm genuinely not sure about that. Is it right?
An obsession with memory blinds us to the abuses of memory and to the uses of forgetting. Of certain things we should be asking—and perhaps the Holocaust is one, if one among many—not how they should be remembered, but how they should be forgotten? [Phillips, ‘The Forgetting Museum’, 133]
Should we, though? Would that be truthful, in the sense I'm arguing here?
Our (modern) fear is that we won't get our forgetting right, or that forgetting is not possible; it may, of course, be a wish that atrocities cannot be forgotten: that we cannot bear very ourselves as creatures who actually forgot things. We tend to forget experiences that are too much for us, that are, in the reductive language of psychology, either too pleasurable or too painful. We equate the forgettable with the trivial or the unbearable; but by the same token we believe that it (the memory, the experience, the desire) is still there, somewhere, and capable of returning. And we have a place for the trivial where it is effectively disposed of (‘Remembering everything is a form of madness,’ one of the characters in Brian Friel's Translations says). There is haunting and there is discarding; and it is not always within our gift to decide which is which. And it is this, perhaps above all, that makes forcing people to remember—rather like forcing them to eat—at once so implausible and so morally problematic. [Phillips, 133]
I don't know, in this essay on the Holocaust, whether Phillips brackets ‘the trivial and the unbearable’ together in deliberate allusion to Arendt's banality of evil thesis, but it is suggestive. Nobody, I think, has ever declared that the truth must be comfortable; indeed, a certain lack of comfortableness may well be the badge truth wears to distinguish it from the cosiness of lying, and lying to one's self. Forcing somebody to eat if, say, they are on hunger strike, or because a psychological pathology has rendered them anorexic, may well be morally problematic, but it is hardly implausible, or arbitrary, in the way Phillips is suggesting here.

And I find myself thinking that the limitation of our memory, though it is clearly a practical necessity after the fashion of the line from Friel Phillips quotes, may also be a kind of moral and personal falling-away. If we could remember everything without going mad, as Coleridge, in one of the odder passages of the Biographia, insists will be the case after our deaths when we all go to heaven, then we would at least have a truer sense of how things were, and therefore are. In Borges's ‘Funes’ we have our fable on the horrors of perfect unforgetfulness, and it's a deservedly famous piece of writing. But there are also fables of the mendacity of our conscious elimination of memory, and they deserve to be as well known. The moral of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for instance, is that the costs of wilfully killing our memories far outweigh its immediate benefits, and that rings true to me. Dickens's Christmas novel The Haunted Man (1848) advances the same moral: Redlaw is plagued by unhappy memories, is offered a bargain by a ghostly alter-ego to select his bad memories and forget them all. But doing so plunges Redlaw into a, to him now baffling, angry misery. The forgetfulness, and the anger, spread to Redlaw's family and friends; and only at the story's restoration of memories to all is happiness restored. The book concludes with this deeply Dickensian moral: Lord keep my memory green.


I've always been intrigued by this little book by Dickens: by no means his most successful work, commercially or aesthetically, yet a fascinating story to have been written by a man who spent his whole life suppressing the public (though of course never the personal) ‘memory’ of his deprived childhood, his sufferings and abandonment in the Blacking Factory.

I suppose it means thinking of, as it might be, Alzheimer's Disease not just as a distressing illness, but as a kind of existential mendacity, a falling-away from the truth of full humanity: not by way of making an Erewhonian judgement on the sufferer, but in terms of the sorts of stories we tell ourselves about our humanity. It might also mean that we define ‘true love’ as that love in which we find ourselves unable to forget the other person, both in the sense that we find our thoughts constantly reverting to them, but also in the sense that we are unable to forget their other-personhood, that they are another person, distinct from us, whose alterity we must respect and with whom we must keep faith. ‘Is desiring,’ Phillips asks, in a different book, ‘a way of telling the truth?’ [Phillips, Terrors and Experts (Faber 1995), 26] to which I'm tempted to reply: how could it be anything else?

There's one other thing that occurs to me, in this context, and that has to do with dreams. It is liable to entail me, though, in a some lengthy and involved elaboration, and this post is already long enough to be getting on with, so I'll try and keep it short. In a nutshell, though, it's the idea I talk about in this post, that came from writing an essay on the idea of ‘prosthetic memory’ for Bas Groes's Memory Project volume last year. What I came to think was that, in addition to those two undeniable features of mental life, short-term memory and long-term memory, there is a third mode (as it were) of memory: dreams. I don't, it is important to stress, mean our memory of our dreams, the bits and pieces of half-recalled gubbins with which we wake up in the morning. Those are conscious memories of the dream, conscious short- or long-term memories depending on whether they stay with us or not, and so reducible to the first two kinds of memory. I mean the dreams themselves, whether or not they get translated into our two kinds of conscious memory. And I mean to treat dreams as a third mode by which the mind remembers stuff.
Long-term memory and short-term memory are, clearly, both actual features of the human mind, more or less rational and structured ways of sorting past events and states of mind into retrievable form. But it seems to me impossible to deny that dreams are also a way in which the mind 'remembers' stuff. Since it is not a rational, or retrievably sorted (except at a kind of second hand, where elements but never the totality of a dream are 'logged' in the conscious memory), it is possible to neglect this fact, but fact is nonetheless surely what it is. If dreams aren't a way of 'remembering' things, then I don't know what they are. But if they are, and given that they run on radically different lines to the sortable-retrievable logic of long and short term memory, then it is worth thinking about what this tells us about how dreams mean, how they factor into the being-in-the-world of human beings as examples of homo memorius. There is bound to be a bias towards researching memory as a function of the conscious mind, since that's the sort of memory that is amenable to data gathering and the testing of hypotheses. But we ought, surely, also to consider memory as a function of the subconscious mind.
One aspect of this would be to ponder the truthfulness, or otherwise, of dreams. Is the default state of our dreams, like the default state of our desires, necessarily true? And this takes us back to the Ancient world, to Homer and Vergil. Because, for those cultures, the truthfulness or mendacity of dreams, treated as prophesies, becomes very important. Here's how the end of Vergil's sixth book of the Aeneid ends, with Aeneas returning to the lands of life after his time in the chambers of the dead:
There are two gates of Sleep, one of which, they say,
Is made of horn and offers easy passage
To true visions; the other has a luminous, dense,
Ivory sheen, but through it, to the sky above,
The spirits of the dead send up false dreams.
Anchises, still guiding and discoursing,
Escorts his son and the Sibyl on their way
And lets them both out by the ivory gate. [1212-19; Heaney's translation]
The two gates are from Greek mythology: Vergil, here, is adopting an image from Homer's Odyssey 19:562. The seemingly-arbitrary distinction makes more sense in Greek, where there is a play upon the words linking κέρας, "horn" to κραίνω, "fulfil", and linking ἐλέφας, "ivory", and ἐλεφαίρομαι, "deceive". Hard to capture that in English, but hard too in Latin: horn is cornū, which means both horn and the crescent moon; ivory is elephantus, which word also means 'elephant'; though Vergil also uses the different word, eburna, which also means ivory. Nobody knows why Vergil brings his hero back to the real world via the ivory, not the horn, gate. It does rather imply that the Aeneas of the rest of the poem is some kind of a lie. Still:
Sunt geminae Somni portae, quarum altera fertur
cornea, qua veris facilis datur exitus umbris,
altera candenti perfecta nitens elephanto,
sed falsa ad caelum mittunt īnsomnia Mānēs.
Hīs ibi tum nātum Anchīsēs ūnāque Sibyllam
prōsequitur dictīs portāque ēmittit eburnā.
[Aeneid 6:893-8]
could be Englished as
There are two twinned gates of Sleep, of which one is made
of the moon's crescent horns, through which true shades exit easily;
the other gleams with the shine of polished elephantine-tusk,
but through this the spirit-sent dreams are all a phantom task.
So Anchises attends his son and the Sibyl,
dismisses them with these words through the gate of ivory.
Maybe elephant/all phantom is too cheesy a pun. My theory is that the crucial thing here is not the true shades/false dreams thing. It's the easy (facilis) passage of the one, and the implicit hard passage of the other. Facilis descensus Averno, remember. It's not that Aeneas is a false dream: it's that he is true and false, first off easily descending, like a moonbeam sliding down; and then elephantishly clambering back up, like Hannibal's war-beasts ascending the Alps, to his mortal skies. And truth itself, I suppose, can be a phantom that haunts our desire to forget, or an easy remembrance. True, dat.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Gissing's "New Grub Street" (1891)



I'm ashamed to be coming so late in my life to this Victorian masterpiece: but better late than never I suppose—and I am very glad to have read it.  Gissing's triple-decker gives a compelling portrait, based closely on his own experience, of how hand-to-mouth and exhausting literary work could be in 1880s London. It works well on the level of story and character, and it works superbly as a detailed evocation of a particular social and cultural milieu. And pulling those two things off would be enough for most novels. But there was something else in this book that especially struck me, and that was a section in the book's middle where the protagonist turns into a more austere Molloy.

Let me explain what I mean.

The overall shape of the book balances the rise to social prominence and wealth of the clever but facile writer Jasper Milvain against the sinking down of the more talented but less worldly-wise Edwin Reardon. Milvain won't marry except for money, because he knows how degrading poverty can be, and one of the things the novel does is to portray him, though he is shallow and though he breaks the heart of the novel's heroine Marian Yule (she loves him: he proposes when she inherits money and then jilts her when bankruptcy nixes the inheritance) as no villain.

That's all good. But the most powerful sections in the novel, I think, are the ones where the principled-to-the-point-of-priggishness Reardon sinks into destitution. His writing income is the only means of supporting him, his beautiful wife Amy, and their young child Willie; but his novels are too refined for the popular taste and when he tries to dumb-down his art he can't even get published. When the money runs out, Reardon quarrels with Amy, who takes herself and Willie off to stay with Amy's well-off mother whilst Reardon goes to live, penuriously alone, as the clerk to a pauper hospital in the East End. Reardon's pride means that he insists on sending half his paltry wage to his wife, even though she does not need it (and indeed, writes to tell him to stop doing it). Accordingly he cannot afford to buy enough to eat, or proper clothes, or to replace his disintegrating boots. He falls in with a substratum of struggling hacks and edge-of-starvation fellows, writers unable to rise even to the medium-poverty of £100 p.a., scrabbling odd shillings together by tutoring work or begging off relatives: men like Harold Biffen, who literally lives on a slice of bread and some dripping a day as he works on his own three-volume novel (‘Mr Bailey, Grocer’), a work so dedicated to the principles of mimetic realism that nothing happens in it at all.

I loved Biffen.

In these chapters New Grub Street achieves something very unusual in Victorian fiction, something distinct tonally and, as it were, existentially: a mode of apprehending a kind of absolute attenuation of lived experience. It doesn't last—I mean, the tone of this section (not the poverty: the poverty does last. Indeed, the persistence of poverty is one of Gissing's main themes as a writer). The novel shifts back to Victorian mainstream by its end. So, although there's no financial deus ex machina to rescue Reardon, the novel does recuperate him into its Victorian plot-logic by giving him a reconciliation with his wife and a deathbed scene dripping with pathos . That's all fine, and works in its context and so on. But it also marks a kind of falling away.

In the same way that a novel like Dickens's Our Mutual Friend contains all the bustle and sentiment and aesthetic affirmation of any mid-Victorian work but also contains moments of powerfully drained-away affect, quasi-surreal landscapes, or literary-experimental automata like Mr F.'s Aunt alongside ‘rounded’ Victorian characters—that is to say, just as Our Mutual Friend manages to be both a richly Victorian and to anticipate Modernist experimental writing—so this section of New Grub Street cathects the spirit of Samuel Beckett into a more conventionally upholstered nineteenth-century novel: briefly pitches the book somewhere between Molloy and L'Expulsé. Nestling at the heart of New Grub Street is a chunk of Beckett's aesthetic of bare-living social-existential reductio ad absurdum absurdorum, and though it lacks the echt Beckettian gallows humour it's a very potent piece of writing. Indeed, it leads me to read the novel almost entirely in the light of these chapters. Though it looks counter-intuitive to say so, I'd argue that this is the only portion of the book in which Reardon is happy. His problem is not that he doesn't fit the literary culture of his day, or that he married too early, or married the wrong woman, even though all three of those things are true. His problem is that he can only be happy in renunciation, and the more complete the renunciation the more complete his existential contentment.



Sunday, 5 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi 2017)



I enjoyed this very much, and so did my ten-year-old son. You've already encountered a bunch of reactions to and reviews of the movie, I know, and I don't presume to claim there's anything very much I can add to them. The design is superb. There's a wonderful, garish, proggy vibe throughout. The whole is rendered well-paced and exciting by embracing (rather than despite of) its many sillinesses. It's funny. I laughed aloud, many times. I read an interview with Waititi in which he said the initial cut of the film, omitting much of the farce, was under ninety minutes, but he decided it didn't work and reinserted all the funny stuff, which gives us the two-and-a-half-hour action-comedy on general release now. And it is funny. And I like funny.

It's a question of balance, though, isn't it? Because this is a movie that almost manages to say something quite interesting, in a kinetic and accessible manner, along the lines of there being no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. Almost. Cate Blanchett's Hela knocking away the outer layers of fresco to reveal the violent and warlike images beneath. But punches are pulled. As, for instance, when Anthony Hopkins's Odin walks to the edge of a Norwegian cliff and dissolves into a mystic cloud of petals, instead of (as it might be) expiring in a hospital bed in this universe's equivalent of Spandau Prison. That kind of thing.

Hela, gesturing at Asgard, and asking her brother ‘where did you think all this gold came from?’ ought to be the heart of the movie. But it's drowned out by the sheer insistence of the film's hearty guffaw, the politically sedative implication of which is that nothing under any of the nine suns is serious or urgent. I feel like a killjoy saying so, but it does seem to me an opportunity, of sorts, missed.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Synod of Nicaea: Constantine Burns Arius's Books



This beauty is an illustration from a northern Italian compendium of canon law, early 9th-century AD. It shows Constantine presiding over the Council of Nicaea—the lettering makes Ns look a little like Hs, but you can see the writing at the top there: SINODUS NICENI—and under the throne (helpfully labelled ‘CONSTANTINUS’) are a great many stooping monks stuffing Arius's books onto a fire: heretici arriani damnati. The Latin damno means I find fault, I reject, as well as referring to punishment, guilt and condemnation, so you'd probably translate this ‘Arius's heretical writings are rejected’ rather than ‘... are damned’.

I like the way this image's perspectivelessness makes it look as though the monks are lighting a fire underneath Constantine, like a swarm of diminutive Guy Fawkeses. Also: what kind of gesture is the emperor making with his right hand? Of course we're all aware of the pictoral convention in religious art by which the gesture of the hand communicates the holiness of the sitter, the fingers picking out the letters of Christ's name:


But Constantine isn't doing anything so precise with his hand. It looks, rather, as if he's just waving at us. Hiya!

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[In case you were wondering, the positioning of the fingers on that hand is the same gesture priests would perform during the liturgy to invoke Christ's name, as explained by this chart]