Sunday, 9 August 2009


I've been listening to the Kronos Quartet's latest album, Floodplain, a great deal of late. It's a nice concept - music taken from the floodplains of the world, because in the floodplains are the roots of civilisation - and particularly interesting because it blends the music of various other cultures into the framework of western classical music. The piece above, 'Oh Mother, The Handsome Man Tortures Me', is one of my favourites, unafraid to bring in electronic percussion to augment the performance (no surprise from a quartet I know best for playing Stockhausen.) Similarly, the collaboration with Palestinian collective Ramallah Underground on 'Tashweesh' ('Interference') is a genuinely interesting collaboration by artists from profoundly different traditions. But the quartet come into their own with the virtuoso playing on the Raga and, particularly, the twenty minute 'Hold me, Neighbor, In This Storm', which conjures all the tension and catharsis and terror of the storm - it's worth taking the time to genuinely listen to, rather than letting it slip off as background music. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 2 August 2009


I was supposed to be at Brighton Pride this weekend. Instead, I was kept at home, stricken with a sinus infection. I was sad to have missed the opportunity to see friends I haven't seen in a while, but secretly relieved to avoid the ritual meeting dance of the homosexual: the air kiss, the hair flick, the head tilt, and the inevitable exchange of gossip. It's not that I don't enjoy it - a little hate is excellent refreshment on a hot day - but I prefer it done with freshness and scandalous delight, instead of the prurient laundry list of peccadilloes and profanations relayed with an outrage which would be more convincing had I not seen most of my friends' livers crawl out their mouths for a rest from boozy embarrassment. There's also the additional benefit of not having to step over the twitching, drooling pile of jaw-grinding teenagers on the beach this morning, or trying to find a tolerable Bloody Mary in a town where there is neither any vodka left nor a single sober barman. The small things.

I put up bookcases, instead. This would not normally be a cause for alarm, but the history of DIY in my family is far from illustrious. My grandfather once constructed a shelf so uniquely non-euclidean that objects placed on it gradually slid off either end; the genius of this arrangement was precisely the slowness of its defeat by gravity (or the whims of some darker tutelary spirit which attended all his attempts at architecture) so one would be sitting reading quietly when suddenly a tasteless sub-Lalique figure would fling itself to its well-deserved doom. This, too, is the man who once managed to give five sides to a four-walled greenhouse. So, genetically, my construction of a straight-shelfed bookcase is a cause for rejoicing at the marvel of the human animal overcoming its wonky-eyed programming. I had thought two cases would support all those books of mine hitherto unshelved and leave space for new acquisitions, but no. Those books I had lying around in piles and hidden in cupboards have filled them 'til creaking.

I am not the strictest shelver in the world, but I generally try to follow the system laid down by Aby Warburg in the construction of his library, 'the law of the good neighbour' - that is, the shelf exists as a continuum of conversation, where a line of thought taken up in one book is continued, deflected or refracted in its neighbours. Thus one section contains an Italian edition of Warburg's never-completed Mnemosyne project, alongside Mary Carruthers' work on the medieval memory, Frances Yates' on the same subject, Anne Carson on Simonides of Keos, and two of Umberto Eco's fictions (The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum respectively, for both deal with the laws of analogy and connection, delirious or otherwise) alongside some John Crowley; to the other side of Warburg's book lie E.H. Gombrich, Leonard Barkan and Ernst Cassirer. I might think, then, where did I put that other book of Eco's? Baudolino? Alongside Borges' Book of Imaginary Creatures, Pliny, Swedenborg, de Quincey, unreliable narrators all.

This system, like all other systems serves only to conceal that as the library becomes larger, more connections uncover themselves. That is why Warburg never finished Mnemosyne; all arrangements are finite and conceal as much as they reveal. I could draw a line of Damned Popes from Dante (Boniface VIII), to Aleister Crowley (a fascination with Borgia), to Frazer's fascination with the trial of Pope Formosus, to Milton's sulphur-ridden archbishops in his pamphlets, to Austen's punctured country vicars. All this reveals is that the English have never been fond of prelates (and that, as a corollary, Dante was English.) With enough books, I may one day, eventually, trace in the welter of connections, the lines of my own face.

Things currently lying on my bedside table (a category interesting in itself):

- Leland de la Durantaye: Giorgio Agamben, A Critical Introduction, which began auspiciously by quoting my favourite section of Calvino's Invisible Cities (the inferno dei viventi), mentions Warburg and goes one to provide one of the most sensitive introductions to Agamben's thought I've seen.

- Gillian Rose: Hegel and Sociology, great but hard going, and does some very interesting things toward the end.

- Jane Hirshfield: After, good poetry which for some reason reminds me of the clear water of the river Exe.

- The Tempest, on which I am currently writing.

- Joscelyn Godwin's translation of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which makes me want to seek out a copy of the original text, which, in turn, seems impossible.

I wonder if I'm the only person who feels like exposing the contents of one's library is always *surprisingly* intimate and personal?

Sunday, 31 May 2009


What if I were to begin to speak about loss in a way that, really, doesn't seem to speak about loss at all? In the fourth Canto of the Inferno, Dante discovers four great shades who died before the Christian faith was established - Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan - who lead him to a great castle with seven walls, their perpetual dweeling place. The castle's courtyard - a green meadow, its greenness incongruous and mysterious in hell - is filled with the great and authoritative persons of antiquity, not only falcon-eyed Caesar, but the Muslim philosopher Averroes and Saladin brooding and apart. They speak but rarely, slowly, with great solemnity.

The passage is famous, perhaps most famous for the four great poets' recognition of Dante as their equal, or the incongruous Islamic sage; but prior to the entry to this castle, Virgil pales. Dante assumes that he pales from fear, but instead, Virgil says, he blanches from pity for the damned, 'e di questi cotai son io medesmo'. ['... and I myself am one of these.'] One might expect Dante to flinch or shy from the damned, even from Virgil, but instead he replies with affection, pouring out titles: 'dimmi, maestro mio, dimmi segnore.' ['... tell me my master, tell me sir...'] Such a moment, so early in the dream that is the comedy ('so full of sleep'), tells us much about Dante, the architect and chiosatore of the last judgement, who can both consign a pope to hell and listen with such stirring empathy to the story of Paolo and Francesca:

.... sì che di pietade

io venni men così com’ io morisse.

E caddi come corpo morto cade.

[... that for pity / I swooned as one dying / and fell down as a dead body falls.]

Paolo and Francesca's love is a whirlwind; the noble castle of the ancients is as static as a picture, suspended and motionless It is, as Dante says a place of neither sorrow nor joy (but the air is broken with sighing.) The castle, which is in some measure a place of exaltation for Dante, is also a place of privation. Tomorrow is the same as the tomorrow after that, and after that (eternity is very long, especially towards the end.) Augustine wrote that evil lacked an ontological status, that is, it was simply a privation or absence of good. That is the Limbo in which the greats of antiquity find themselves; in the lower parts of hell, evil is very much concrete, the torments precisely observed, here it is simply lack. 

The castle is a monument to loss, and full of figures who have written or been written, alone in their washed-out histories, the catalogue of names that constitutes the end of the canto. At the other end of Christian history, closer to us, W.B. Yeats wrote a poem that seems, to me, to hear the same lack, 'News for the Delphic Oracle.'  The poem runs:


There all the golden codgers lay,

There the silver dew,

And the great water sighed for love,

And the wind sighed too.

Man-picker Niamh leant and sighed

By Oisin on the grass;

There sighed amid his choir of love

Tall Pythagoras.

Plotinus came and looked about,

The salt-flakes on his breast,

And having stretched and yawned awhile

Lay sighing like the rest.


Straddling each a dolphin's back

And steadied by a fin,

Those Innocents re-live their death,

Their wounds open again.

The ecstatic waters laugh because

Their cries are sweet and strange,

Through their ancestral patterns dance,

And the brute dolphins plunge

Until, in some cliff-sheltered bay

Where wades the choir of love

Proffering its sacred laurel crowns,

They pitch their burdens off.


Slim adolescence that a nymph has stripped,

Peleus on Thetis stares.

Her limbs are delicate as an eyelid,

Love has blinded him with tears;

But Thetis' belly listens.

Down the mountain walls

From where pan's cavern is

Intolerable music falls.

Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,

Belly, shoulder, bum,

Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs

Copulate in the foam.

The poem is in part a response to Yeats' own earlier poem ('The Delphic Oracle upon Plotinus') and partly a sickle-grinned parody to Milton and Spenser. Yet I think it is impossible not to also hear echoes of Dante here: in the first stanza, Yeats' paradise is barely disturbed by motion, save for that of his sighing philosophers and heroes. It is not too far a push, I think, to see these sighs as echoing the sighing around Dante's castle - but it's also the sighing of an exhausted race of statues and images. Like Dante's miscellany of authorities, these figures are also Yeats' philosophical and mythic forebears, now in a shimmering, bedewed and failing paradise.

The language has all the hallmarks of late Yeats - the vulgar codgers, the cynicism about the mystic images that sustained his earlier poetic vision, the cruel copulation that mocks a lofty tone. His heroes stretch, lie, yawn, but never speak, bounded by their own fading stories, they repeat and laze in post-coital exhaustion. Yet it's also a poem of animation: what reinvigorates the poem is Pan's intolerable, falling music, until the refined images slide headlong into polymorphous fucking, a host of (importantly) nameless nymphs and satyrs in foam. 

Taken as a whole, the poem doubtless calls for a number of readings: the repudiation of the symboliste tradition and oneiric celticism of early Yeats, the renascent language of the vulgar and somatic, the violence that was Yeats' stock-in-trade and which made Auden and Eliot fear and admire him. But it is also a poem about history and loss. Yeats never really loses sight of the loss of love that constituted the basis for much of his earlier work: Yeats' paradise does sigh for love, which moves the sun and other stars, and this poem has to be read in concert with that driving obsession. This is a poem that opposes the long swathe of history to the ecstatic moment, taken out of history - thus the second stanza, where strangeness, violence and ecstasy merge and unify in a dance of repeated, reanimated passions that point to a dissolving moment which cannot be entirely contained within the structure of the poem itself. The 'laurel crowns' of the choir of love, the symbol par excellence of poetry as an achieved, formal effort are cast off as burdens before the ecstatic moment itself.

The poem is the reproof of Pan against Plutarch's narration (in the Moralia) that Great Pan is dead, but its violence, the slide of its sighing heroes into the foam, obscures its status as a poem. Any written pastoral, as Yeats knew, is subject to fraily, to the pathos of loss and distance; the Arcady here is one into which that distance and frailty already intrudes, and which is in the last moments of its dissolution. In Yeats, plenitude always gives way nightmare, and the torpor of his subjects falls back into the generative throng of Pan's music. I have said that its status as poem is what is most interesting to me here, and that is because it is a created object, a machine for memorialising loss: we its readers can forget that it is a textual mediation, lost in its vision and music; to Yeats, its author its status as object could never be fully occluded. The loss is endemic to the poem - nature's ecstatic victory over the painted figures of art, history and philosophy (sighing because they lack the tragic joy Yeats sees in the fluctuating ocean) is mediated, ironised, not quite fully captured, through a carefully-wrought piece of art.

In Borges' short story Ragnarök, the narration of a dream, the gods of Olympus, Egypt and Scandinavia return to life among human civilisation in the present day. The story is not long -- no more than a page - at first they receive homage and honour from the assembled crowds, but gradually the details of the bodies of the gods start to seem out of place, savage, and from their mouths emerges unintelligible speech, clicking, whistling, clucking, gargling. With the realisation that the gods are predators, the story ends with this line: 

Sacamos los pesados revolveres (de pronto hubo revolveres en el sueno) y alegremente dimos muerte a los Dioses.

Hurley, in one of the better translations of the story, renders the lines thus:

We drew our heavy revolvers (suddenly in the dream there were revolvers) and exultantly killed the gods.

The line admits only the logic of dreams, and the parenthetical statement both notes and normalises that logic: 'suddenly', according to the logic of dreams, we were possessed of revolvers, the iconic statement of a violent humanity which has transcended the violence of our savage, old gods; 'suddenly', a connective form beloved of Dante, as Auerbach notes; 'suddenly' the dream turns to concretion as the heavy revolvers fall through the texture of nightmare, solid, sudden, real and violent. 

This story has come a long way from Dante, and even, one might think, from Yeats. But what I see here is a trace of pathos, a way of thinking about literature as allowing an imaginative encounter with a desired object, but also tracing its fall, its failure - the space between dream and reality that literature fills. Dante: tant' era pien di sonno a quel punto - so full of sleep at the point where his journey begins. It is hard not to see the threads of dream running through it.

But Dante's dream of Beatrice - and I do not want to say that the Comedy is simply a dream for Beatrice, a monument to Dante's loss, but say that the poem is the dream, and the monument, and the vision and maybe infinite things otherwise - is an imaginative encounter, a dream of retention that is not a dream of retention because it is a poem and an artefact. Dante: 'lo non Enea, io non Paulo sono,' as neither Aeneas nor Paul, and yet both and more, through the underworld and above the third heaven. 

If Dante engineered the comedy as, among its other infinite purposes, a form of imaginative recuperation, an all-encompassing dream and memorial in which he could author a meeting with her, then such a meeting is imperfect. At first humiliating, penitent, confessional for him, later, his last glance at Beatrice in the Empyrean is riddled with loss:

Così orai; e quella, sì lontana

come parea, sorrise e riguardommi;

poi si tornò all'etterna fontana.

[So did I pray; and she, so distant / as she seemed, smiled and looked on me, / then turned again to the eternal fountain.]

Borges called these 'the most moving lines literature has achieved', and I do not wish to fuddle them with clumsy explanation. Dante, looking at the immeasurable rose of the just, in the Empyrean with Beatrice at his side, turns, suddenly, to find her gone and an Elder standing where she stood. He cries 'Ov'è ella?' - where is she? And she, in a halo of glory, in the rose, is Beatrice, lost to him, and he prays to her, saying 'per la mia salute / in inferno lasciar le tue vestige.'   She who, in hell, left footprints for his salvation. But that is what Beatrice is, through the dream of the Comedy: footprints. 

The commentators on this passage say that this is Dante's movement from reason into faith, that he does not utter a word after she withdraws because all earthly residue in him is destroyed. I think, yes, this is true in one sense, in that the story of spiritual transformation does reach its end, the wheeling love of the Empyrean does transform our poet -- and yet, and yet, there is something in those lines that tells us about the failure of the other story, the story of Beatrice and Dante, that in his dream, even in his imagination she seemed so distant, so imperfectly captured, and she turns, and turns away forever. She is always only footprints.

It is trite to say that the poems of dreams and paradises are always distant memories of what is lost to us, trite because it is only partly true: because they are not only memories but monuments, and like the architecture of monuments, trace out that loss, memorialise loss and what was lost, make it alive to be lost again. What if I were to end this from a text that is not a poem at all, but another essay on loss? 

Charles Lamb, in 'Dream-Children: A Reverie', writing under the name of 'Elia', tells the story of his brother, James Elia, who has recently died, to his children. As he wends his way through the story of a family, of his brother's kindnesses and harshnesses, the children respond with joy or sorrow, sometimes up on their knees with excitement or crying with despair, until he looks into the eyes of his daughter and sees in her the vivid and total representation of her mother, Alice. Yet Alice, like Beatrice for Dante, was the love that Lamb never attained, and gazing into the eyes of his never-to-be child, their faces fade until they become only a voice, only a speaking loss:

....“We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all. The children of Alice call Bartrum father. We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name”—and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor armchair, where I had fallen asleep, with the faithful Bridget unchanged by my side—but John L. (or James Elia) was gone forever.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Tarnac Nine

I often look to France as a model for populist unrest, as well as insane demagoguery - it's the only country where I've seen met hard Marxists who can sit around a dinner table and spout the most jaw-droppingly racist drivel with perfect equanimity - so if you haven't heard about the Tarnac Nine, you probably should. Nine 'ultra-left' individuals, part of a 'mouvance anarcho-autonome' were arrested for their alleged connection to the sabotage of some TGV lines. After being detained for some months, most have been released; their leader, Julien Coupat, former editor of the anarchist journal Tiqqun, remains in custody. To be clear, the arrests didn't even take as their predicate that the nine were directly involved in the action, and Coupat's particular significance to the police is directly with the book that he wrote, The Coming Insurrection.

There's a horrible grotesque at work here: the French government's declaration that the 'ultra-gauche' is dangerous and should be weeded out has introduced a new term to public discourse, 'pre-terrorism'. This is particularly terrifying because it allows a certain reshaping of facts: an act of vandalism (recognised as having no possible threat to human life by the police) becomes an act of terrorism because its perpetrator holds beliefs that are displeasing to the state. 

Here's the French minister of the interior, Michèle Alliot-Marie on the horrors of the situation: "They have adopted underground methods. They never use mobile telephones, and they live in areas where it is very difficult for the police to gather information without being spotted. They have managed to have, in Tarnac, friendly relations with people who can warn them of the presence of strangers."

Terrible crimes, I'm sure we all agree. I feel any analysis on my part would be superfluous, since there are a couple of nice pieces of work online about the case, from eminent political philosophers Giorgio Agamben and Alberto Toscano:

'she likes her face in all the papers; everyone knows her by name'

Flipping through some local homo rag, none could be more surprised than me to find my image - a particularly serious one at that - being used to promote Oxford Pride. Surprised or joyous-looking expression on boy to my right courtesy of innumerable gin & tonics in easily breakable plastic cups at preceding LGBT gathering. Said gin always served with a tangible air of bitterness and recrimination, in a striplit dungeon deep in the bowels of one of Oxford's more illustrious colleges.

Please notice this season's fashionable pale skin ('Oxbridge tan') accessorised with exclusive under-eye bags courtesy of computer-squinting and terrible, headache-inducing non-lights in the Bodleian library.

Poseurish reaction to camera notwithstanding, it's always nice to find one's image in the local rag, and I will spend a couple of hours at Oxford Pride this year, largely on the principle that visibility is a good thing.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Political Turn

I try to avoid art school people, I really do. With some notable exceptions, they're mostly dull, and have terrible hair. What's more unappealing to me, though, is to watch the constant PR and spin that they engage in on behalf of their creations: I've always thought one should leave criticism and interpretation to one's audience. If you have to say 'It's about...' then the product is horribly muddled or you're traducing its complexity for an audience you consider contemptible. Neither is attractive.

The minefield of 'political' art is the one that really bugs me, though. Not so much sincere, broad-stroke angry political gestures, though I find them wearisome, but the 'ironic' manipulation of political iconography to make statements that can then be disclaimed through the suggestion that 'it's only art, my purpose is only to entertain,' or, worse, 'politics isn't really my thing.' (I think disclaiming these questions in this way can often suggest a desire to escape them: because it would get in the way of selling one's work, or becauseone simply feels unable to answer those questions. Better, in the latter case, to admit the impossibility of answering than to dismiss the questions out of hand, I think.)

It's not that I'm a huge fan of explicitly 'political' art, either of the state-sponsored type, or the work nominally outside institutions of power. Orwell has never done it for me. First world war poetry doesn't either. Guernica perhaps, but little otherwise. Marcus Harvey's iconic treatment of Myra Hindley strikes me as laziness, more than anything else. But to suggest that artists operate in a vacuum outside of politics, in an unmediated relationship with truth, is romantic at best and disgustingly self-serving at worst. It's where this practice of over-determining the meaning of a work comes from, really ('yah, you see, it's really about...') -- a nervousness over interpretability.

Politics is unquestionably present when something is put in the public sphere; everything one does publicly is, by its condition as a public act, necessarily political. One of the things that Thomas Hobbes understood was that by the time we come into selfhood we are always already in a political relationship with power, or the sovereign. That relation can no more be disclaimed than can embodiment. To say 'it isn't there' or 'it isn't relevant' is a political act itself, and a uniquely lame, ignorant one.

One of the things I have always liked about late 20th Century French 'theory' is its ethical turn - I've never been particularly interested in 'deconstruction' as caricatured by the serried Americans who found in it a vapid method for asserting half-baked literary truths - particularly the later writings of Derrida (Of Hospitality, The Gift of Death, Literature in Secret, Politics of Friendship) which are an attempt to bring to the fore an ethical demand that is present in language and the act of reading, one that is very much historically located rather than transcendent. Simon Critchley's theory of ethics, in his great book Infinitely Demanding, which I regard as probably the best articulation of intelligent anarchism around today, speaks of the structure of ethical subjectivity as a meeting with ethical demand; it is this sense of meeting with demand that often runs through much of the work I find moving, in visual or literary art.

In Paul Celan I find one of the most intense engagements with the demand of language. For instance:


Über aller dieser deiner
Trauer: kein
zweiter himmel

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

An einen Mund,
dem es ein Tausendwort war
verlor -
verlor ich ein Wort,
das mir verblieben war:

An die Vielgötterei
verlor ich ein Wort, das mic suchte:

die Schleuse mußt ich,
das Wort in die Salzflut zurück -
und hinaus - und hinüberzuretten:

[Michael Hamburger's translation:


Over all this grief
of yours: no
second heaven.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

To a mouth,
for which it was a thousandword,
lost -
I lost a word,
that had remained to me: sister.

I lost a word that was looking for me:

the sluice I had to go, 
to salvage the word into the saltflood back
and out and across:
Yizkor. ]

What words lost, and what words saved? Celan wrote the poem after visiting Martin Buber, to ask him how it was possible to still write in German. How it was possible, after the catastrophe, to publish in that language. Buber's answer was merely that it was natural to go on, natural to take a forgiving stance. What had Celan hoped for? Perhaps some recognition of the impossibility, the impossible demand placed on him by writing in German. Buber, not understanding, or unwilling, didn't recognise the demand, merely replied that to go on in German was natural.

What words lost? The loss of sister - all of Celan's kin, or from Celan's recent failed visit to Nelly Sachs, mad and in hospital - and the loss of Kaddish, both denoting 'holy' and the Jewish prayer said by te relatives of the dead; the loss of all conventional ways of relating, familial and religious; ontological and somatic. Sundered. Nothing over all this grief.

What remains? No option and no choice, simply the action of the poet, less choice than just a necessary action. What is the action? Through the sluice, not as a choice among other paths but, drowning and nearly lost, searching for a word to grasp at Celan has to go through the sluice, into the salt. What word? Yizkor.

Yizkor is another prayer, a prayer for the dead of a very different character. The Kaddish is a prayer of praise ('yitgadal v'yitqadash...') made in public by a grieving person, who rises despite his grief to offer praise to God despite or even because of his grief. Such affirmation is lost for Celan. Yizkor, however, is a prayer originally for Yom Kippur, which grew more prominent after the crusades as a prayer of memory. A prayer for what is lost. What is this word that is saved for Celan? It is not something that affirms presence but absence, all those lost, for whom accounting and tallying can never be adequate. It is a word of disjuncture that does not affirm but rather calls. It makes absence present. A loose way of saying it, perhaps, but this makes Celan's poem poised on a precipice, never allowing it to dissolve into platitude or affirm a static faith. To me, it speaks demand, says what now?

'à demeurer...'

Transitions are strange things. It's a received norm that, when speaking in a particular context, there are various contingencies that shape what one says: potential audience, history of the discursive space, familiarity or the presence of a loved one. No less true for digital spaces than physical ones, which is why I'm making the transition from one digital space to another.

I'd like to speak as I am, here, at least in part, or as far as that's ever possible. As I am, then, in that comfortable raft of contradictions I call home. Undoubtedly a few scattered pieces of high and low culture, ranting, and hopefully some more well-considered pieces. Setting up a project like this is making a stick for one's own back, really, so I'd best say little about it.

'Demeure', by the way, is one of my favourite words in French (as is dictée, the diacritically orphaned URL of this blog), so it seemed appropriate here, with various shades of meaning in its various forms: to abide, to linger, to reprieve, to remain; a house, a sojourn, a dwelling-place. I've often thought that an ethics of lingering might really be just what we all need.