28 February, 2006


I'm worried by the forms taken by today's advertising. This worry is partly a reflection of my secret fantasy of being an ad-exec, but that's another post. Advertising, of course, has always been about selling a lifestyle or personality as well as the concrete product, a fact unpleasant enough as it is. But then I stumbled across the blurb (a word invented by Gelett Burgess in 1907, incidentally) on the box of a steel laundry-drying rack:

This bothers me more than it should. I think it's the tone of the piece, which contrasts so strongly to its context. As you can see, the text is written in turquoise on a white field, in snappy lowercase Arial; the product itself is typical spartan Ikeoid homeware, sleek and modern and unassuming, not the type of thing you'd give two moments' thought for. It is, after all, a drying-rack.

But the poet's voice affects a casual profundity, the cheerful wisdom of a Great Moment feigned as musing. All the colons in the work are separated by full stops, which gives it a calm but punchy quality. like thoughts. occurring. The line-ends, with the exception of the third, are rhetorically weighted, and dictate the symbolic progression from old to new, interwoven with process: magical-rumpled-presto-wrinkles-right-there-sharp-world. There's even alliteration: 'fresh, feeling sharp'. But then the chumminess of 'you', the vernacular 'spritz' and 'presto' (abbreviated from hey presto!), and the self-conscious cliché of 'right before your very eyes', all of which are there to distract the reader from the text's pseudo-poetic qualities. In other words, we're being sold the rack with a lyrical metaphor packaged as banter. The effect is almost like:
life or death. that's the question.
whether it's better to suffer the trials
and tribulations of the world. or give up.
take your own life.
A text whose function it is to make us buy a drying-rack has taken upon itself the function of Confucius, spouting the cod philosophy of guilt-free abandon, a confession without penance. It advocates a smooth transition from how you look (fresh) and feel (sharp) to what you are: ready—and ready to take on the world, that phrase meaning both 'bear on one's shoulders' and 'square up against'. The ambiguity thus moves between pious steadfastness and pugnacity; old and young alike will be attracted. Lest I be accused of taking all this too seriously, I would point out that the advertisers mean all this very seriously. These men are the new rhetors; it is exactly these individuals who would be lambasted by Socrates in the agora, were he gadding about today. With their syntax, vocabulary and ideas they are burlesquing the most profound instincts of humankind. I cannot help but feel mingled disgust and admiration.

27 February, 2006


Our regular Sunday excursion took us this week to the 2006 Arizona Scottish Highland Games. Alas, due to general lethargy we only made it in time for the ladies' caber-tossing (right), though we also saw some reenacted swordfighting, a display of classic British cars, the tail-end of a pipes-and-drums marching band, a hand-operated machine for stamping medallions with prepicked designs, and the folksy Tartan Terrors, whose didgeridoo failed to redeem their bantery, repetitious averageness. We ate a deep-fried Twinkie, and drank Irn-Bru, which, as my British readers will well be aware, is utterly awful. (But it was until recently the best-selling soft-drink in Scotland, so it seemed appropriate.) Finally, I checked my clan ancestry at the MacRoth tent, at last persuading my sceptical wife that she has indeed married into the bloodline of William Rufus, Bertrand Russell, and Erik the Red.

I'm quite pleased with this picture. Photographers can be a bit self-important about their work, getting lost in technical irrelevancies and marvelling at the wondrous artistic beauty of the shot they've just taken of, say, the Mona Lisa, or Westminster Abbey. Amateur snappers seem to have trouble getting away from sunsets, flowers, and derelict urban corners, though I see some handsome and unusual work in galleries now and then, and on the web. I adore antique photography, however; the Metropolitan, for instance, has a mesmerising collection of daguerreotypes and other nineteenth-century images. As for me, I'm the last person to consider myself a photographer: I have never owned a proper camera, and I am 100% uninterested in the technicalities of such contraptions. Somehow, I get lucky, as with this champion tosser.

26 February, 2006

McCartney as sadist

A conversation with my mother last night reminded me of a peculiar mishearing of 'When I'm Sixty-Four' which as an adolescent I had perpetrated longwhiles. McCartney sings:

Every summer we can rent a cottage
in the Isle of Wight, if it's not too dear.
We shall scrimp and save. . .
grandchildren on your knee:
Vera, Chuck, and Dave.

One part of me would hear the fourth line as a command:

"Grandchildren, on your knees!"

Quite what this suggested to me is unclear, but it certainly must have had penal / sadistic / ritualistic connotations. The fact that the line is sung so sweetly even increases its sinister aspect, implying a grimly calm and jovial act of violence amid gentle visions of retirement. The rest I leave to the reader's imagination.

24 February, 2006

Long poem: Frere and Canning

But chief, thou nurse of the didactic Muse,
Divine Nonsensia, all thy sense infuse;
The charms of secants and of tangents tell,
How loves and graces in an angle dwell;
How slow progressive points protract the line,
As pendant spiders spin the filmy twine;
How lengthened lines, impetuous sweeping round,
Spread the wide plane, and mark its circling bound;
How planes, their substance with their motion grown,
Form the huge cube, the cylinder, the cone.

— John Hookham Frere and George Canning, 'The Loves of the Triangles: a mathematical and philosophical poem', The Anti-Jacobin, April 16-23, 1798, lines 35-44.
Yesterday I offered a microscopic analysis of a tiny poem; today a macroscopic view of a longer one. This piece, which in its entirely consists of two fragments of a suggested epic, was written in parody of Erasmus Darwin's The Loves of the Plants, a didactic epic in swollen Augustan couplets; it is taken from the satiric Tory weekly The Anti-Jacobin, which, following Edmund Burke, attacked the revolutionary principles stirred up in England by the French Revolution. The poets, including the future Prime Minister (April 10-August 8, 1827) George Canning, presented their work as written by a burlesque figure named Higgins, a stuffy London moralist who admits himself "persuaded that there is no science, however abstruse, nay, no trade nor manufacture, which may not be taught by a didactic poem."

The work purports to describe principles from Euclid's Elements (still a popular school textbook at the time, though a standard English edition would not arrive until Thomas Heath's version in 1908) in poetic form, just as Darwin had attempted to put Linnaean botany into verse with his own work. In reality, however, 'The Loves of the Triangles' ends up as a farrago of popular allusions and concept-games. The lines quoted above are alleged to render the "Theory of Fluxions", already an archaic, Newtonian expression for differential calculus in 1798. Higgins imagines points drawing out into a line, the line sweeping out into a plane, and the plane growing out into a cube, cylinder, cone. True, the whole point of calculus is to bridge the finite and the infinitesimal (for instance determining an extended rate of change as the limit of averaged momentary states)—but what Higgins is in fact imagining goes back to an older, theological concept: the mathematical generation of reality. In fact, an extended footnote burlesques the cosmogonies of Pythagoras and the Timaeus, where the universe is created by patterns and proportionals of square and cubic numbers, or the related theology of Robert Grosseteste's 1235 De Luce, in which a dimensionless point of light extends by infinite multiplication to form a dimensional universe.

Higgins exposes the silliness of his own idea with references to the "primeval point" of the universe, moving forward "in a right line, ad infinitum, till it grew tired", and later becoming "conscious of its own existence". The idea of the mathematical point growing tired, or of having any self-consciousness, is hilarious, the anthropomorphising of abstract concepts taken to its most absurd limit. What Frere and Canning are here attacking is not Romantic politics but the Enlightenment attempt to valorise poetry by the application of science. In his 1820 'The Four Ages of Poetry', Thomas Love Peacock would note that
This state of poetry is however a step towards its extinction. Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused by, ornamental and figurative language; but the reason and the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge by versifying one of Euclid's demonstrations.
I don't know if Peacock had read 'The Loves of the Triangles', but we will better understand the significance of the Romantic movement when we see it against a general anxiety among the literati that science was making poetry obsolete. Unlike Ali's 'mi: wi:', the present poem doesn't compress possible and genuine doctrines into a casual scrap of rhyme; it has no value as ideology. Rather, its worth is documentary: by savaging spurious doctrines with cut-throat imitation, it casts an oblique light upon key intellectual conflicts at a time of peculiar turbulence in our history.

23 February, 2006

Short poem: Muhammad Ali

mi: — wi:

— Muhammad Ali (or Gary Belkin?)
For Empson and his New Criticism cronies, compact ambiguity was the essence of poetry; this disyllabic ditty delivered off the cuff by the century's greatest boxer must rank as one of the most compact ambiguities since Shakespeare. Empson's most famous book catalogues seven types of ambiguity, his second type being the resolution of distinct meanings in a single word; we see exactly this resolution in the second syllable of Ali's utterance. I have presented it in IPA form above, so as to avoid semantic tendentiousness. Possible written interpretations of the oral form include:

A. Me? We.

B. Me? Oui!

(Contributors to this discussion suggest 'whee!', and 'wee' in the sense of little—the latter wrongly considered Irish—but I don't find these solutions very satisfactory.) The second reading, or rather writing, fundamentally opposes, and thus complements, the first. We construe them thus:

A. Me? No, rather we.

B. Me? You bet!

We imagine the original question to be something like, "Is it you that's important?" B replies, yes it's me, the individual, in fact the athletic übermensch, that matters. If 'oui' is to be understood here, the first syllable even suggests 'mais', the two words thus acquiring the sense of "But of course!" The French, further, has the connotation of élitism, distancing Ali from his English-speaking audience. Charles Taylor assumes this reading in his review of the 1999 documentary When We Were Kings:
The movie ends with Plimpton relating a story about Ali delivering a commencement address at Harvard. Responding to the cry, "Give us a poem!" Ali delivers two words: "Me. Oui!"
A, on the other hand, grounds the importance of the individual in the group; the lone hero derives his significance and power from his inclusion in the social fabric. The question then becomes, which social fabric: American society as a whole? The black community? Islam? Initially an underdog in the former, Ali came to be lionised by all. The hero, like the king, represents his society by being its greatest achievement. In one recent piece, Ali spoke of his duty as a champion to set an example to his fellow man; he also propounded something less like Islam and more like Buddhism, albeit expressed rather self-importantly—
As I look back on it today, I would say that what I gained was the ability to see the world in something like the way God must see it. To understand that there are no distinctions of any real importance in the affairs of men, that there is only one time and one place and one person and one truth. And that we are all contained in that time and place and person, and that the truth contains us all.
This article he called 'Me... We' (Zelig infers from this article that 'we' is the correct reading; but after Wimsatt/Beardsley et al., we need no longer prize the author's interpretation above others). Ali implies that the glory of 'me' belongs really to 'we', that there is no clear distinction between these two bodies: that there is only "one person and one truth". Whatever we think of the validity of this pluralistic outlook, we can recognize in it some connection to the playful Rastafarian use of "I". I cite Mike Pawka's dictionary:
I: replaces "me", "you", "my"; replaces the first syllable of selected words.

I and I: I, me, you and me, we. Rastafari speech eliminates you, me we, they, etc., as divisive and replaces same with communal I and I. I and I embraces the congregation in unity with the Most I (High) in an endless circle of inity (unity).
Just as the Rastafarian "I" collapses you / me distinctions, so Ali's "wi:" collapses the traditional contrast between the individual and the community, reminding us that each derives its value and power from the other, or from their interrelation.

22 February, 2006


This wonderfully snot-nosed, Brasseye-esque quote from David Irving, cited in the Grauniad, simply must be preserved:
There are so many Auschwitz survivors going around, in fact the number increases as the years go past, which is biologically very odd to say the least. I'm going to form an association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars, or the ASSHOLS.
Where are the pro-Jyllands freespeechers now, I wonder? What a shame Britain is about to lose one of its most colourful historians.

De inventione

Three things which should exist.

1. Baby spray. I'm soon to be a nuncle; my older sister is expecting, in just a few weeks now, her little baby son, Philip. Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa! My wife is deepening in her maternal instincts; frankly I'm looking forward to a couple of years from now, when Philip's burgeoning consciousness will allow him to be moulded by my proposed educational reforms, including strict Latin sessions, and Fun with E. A. Poe. Meanwhile, I've thought of the perfect solution for the mother whose screaming infant is terrorising her friends and neighbours: the baby spray. The chemistry I leave to the boffins—some elaborated species of chloroform or morphine, perhaps—the baby spray would come in a small, handbag-sized aerosol can; a quick squirt to the bawling babe's face will send it lovingly to the land of Nod. Bliss for all concerned! (Maybe its use could even be extended to work on irritating adolescents.)

2. Freezer box. Here in the States, they love to make fun of British refrigerators. They're too small, you see. And we're sufficiently primitive in the technological department to lack automatic ice-trays on the commoner models, and then there is the age-old problem of defrosting the freezer, which has been solved in the US with snazzy frost-free models. But here in Tempe, we're stuck with a dinosauric fridge ourselves, small and frostive. And there must be many even in the States who have not updated their cooling equipment in the last decade or so, and who on a daily basis still tussle with that ever-vexing problem of frosty freezers (incidentally, I use an iron—easily the most efficient means of melting the ice). But someone needs to patent a box (or possibly soft polythene bag) that fits into the freezer, around the outside face, and can be detached. Thus when frost accumulates, the box/bag can be removed and cleaned very easily, and replaced.

3. Light sphere. This one I'm proud of. Candle technology has obviously become very sophisticated in recent years, what with Morris' invention of the wickless candle (1987), Scanlon's non-combusting candle (1996) and Chakravarty's ongoing work on the vacuum candle. But I propose a fundamentally different and better mode of candescence. We've all noticed how metal glows at high temperatures: the 'filament' on our electric kettles and stoves, for instance. Well, no doubt a fine strip of very dense, high-resistance ductile metal would produce an ever brighter light, when an electric current were passed through it. All one needs to do, I suspect, is find the right metal for this—tin, maybe, or tungsten?—and enclose the requisite strip in some kind of glass or plastic casing, blown into a sphere or bulb shape and filled with an inert gas, to prevent oxidation. I'm confident that this method would provide a far more efficient means of illuminating our homes during the winter nights. I can't think of a snappy name for this invention, though; all I could come up with was the lame 'light sphere' or 'light globe'. Any suggestions?

20 February, 2006

Grand Canyon

Partly in celebration of our second anniversary of meeting, Mrs. Roth and I booked ourselves a one-day guided tour of the Grand Canyon, via Sedona. We left at 6.30 AM, a necessary evil with the distances involved. Mrs. Roth took pictures of the rocks and mountains, and of her and me in front of them. As you can see from this page, I didn't—although I have made one concession to picturesquety, third down. Coming up from Sun Valley as dawn broke over the Sonoran was a grand sight, and before long we were riding towards the newage community of Sedona, former home to the last great Surrealist, Max Ernst. The rocks near Sedona are bright red with iron oxide, which first made me think of the American critic Rust Hills, and then of Eliot's dreary doggerel:

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), etc.

There's not a great deal to see in Sedona. I stumbled into Cactus Carlos, which sells novelty food-items, including 'Wake the Fuck Up Coffee', and 'Professor Phardtpounder's Colon Cleaner' (pictured above). I also swung by the local church, which demonstrated some classic American signage (below). They were offering leaflets printed from bible-sermons.org, and I took my complementary copy; the material mostly concerned the Second Coming, from the so-called 'Olivet Discourse', Matt. 24, but another theme was the quest for truth and self, hence the sign. The rhetoric was making all sorts of common ploys towards establishing Christianity as the Truth, for instance:

"We were designed with an inner hunger to know why we are here."

"There is a problem with our modern day philosophy that claims that all roads lead to God. If each one is truth, then how is it that they contradict each other. Isn't that intellectual suicide, to say that contradictory teachings are true?"

"The Bible is the one book that has been translated into nearly every language on this globe."

"Nearly every religion respects Jesus."

"There is archeological evidence that points to Mark and Matthew being written before 50AD."

All of these statements are, naturally, either misleading or completely wrong. Still, that's what Evangelism is here for, and free Bibles and searching punnery are pretty good upshots of rural pastoralism. I, for one, am suffering from Truth Decay, as a consequence of spending too much time in the library; alas, I fear the diamond bits and gold crowns of the Word will not cure me of it. No doubt I'll need either extensive root-canal work, or even a new set of choppers altogether.

It would be churlish not to admit that the Grand Canyon really is incredible. The wind was bitter; bitterer still was the view. The picture below looks like a doctored, glossy postcard photograph, but in fact it was taken with a lame digital camera, which goes to show how irreducibly magnificent the thing is. In the middle you can just make out the Colorado River which is responsible for all of this. I'm confident that I've never seen so much space, so much volume, all at once. Allegedly one of Mrs. Roth's uncles had a Life Moment here, realising his infinitesimal irrelevance against the monumental geology. Not me. I was aggrieved, actually, at the cheaply pluralistic nomenclature of all the mesas and buttes: Temple of Osiris, Zoroaster Temple, Confucius Temple, Krishna Shrine, Walhalla Plateau, Jupiter Temple, Solomon Temple (I think they missed the Celts). It lacks American authenticity. But not all of the resources of human foolishness can deplete the wealth of the earth's variety.

And so we drove around the Canyon for a few hours, before exploring the Navajo reservation, a desolate strip of nothing in particular, enlivened only by an iron suspension-bridge here, a 'Friendly Indians Ahead' sign there, and the encroaching monotony of shrubs, dust, birds, sky everywhere. We were taken to an 'authentic trading post', which turned out to be selling the same old junk—silver and turquoise jewellery, hand-woven rugs, dreamcatchers, bows and arrows, endless clay figurines, fetishes, cactus-produce, belts and buckles, garish paintings of hardy Navajo chieftains, decorated pottery, tacky 'Navajo Nation' t-shirts, baseball caps, Old West photographs, beads, candy, and so on. I missed out on the opportunity to try buffalo jerky. I missed out on another opportunity, too: outside the store an antique machine, long defunct, offered certain solution to my Truth Decay. I leave it as the last marker of our voyage, a totem, the ironic laugh of a too newed world which will no longer speak of itself, retaining only the vestiges of a magic I might once have known:

19 February, 2006

On Manifestos

Critics, as 'barking dogs,' . . . are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up. I myself, I must confess, aspire to the second of these classes; unexplained beauty arouses an irritation in me, a sense that this would be a good place to scratch; the reasons that make a line of verse likely to give pleasure, I believe, are like the reasons for anything else; one can reason about them; and while it may be true that the roots of beauty ought not to be violated, it seems to me very arrogant of the appreciative critic to think that he could do this, if he chose, by a little scratching.
Thus the irrepressible bon viveur, William Empson, at age 24, from Seven Types of Ambiguity. It's not a bad little manifesto for the critic of art or literature. I like also his use of semi-colons, as rhetorical pauses somewhere between commas and periods.

My colleague K., who this week has furnished us with a tasty homemade lemon cordial, once compared epics to steak-dinners, and lyric poems to little confits for bouche-amusement, delightful and momentary. I'm not a poetry-lover myself, though ironically I have written a fair number of excellent poems; instead of epics I read scholarship, and instead of lyrics I read manifestos, a literary form now sadly neglected. The manifesto, I believe, came into being in the nineteenth century*; one thinks of the Communist Manifesto, most obviously, and other manifestoid works such as the utopian programmes of Saint-Simon, Cabet, and Fourier, the art-statements of Wordsworth (Preface to the Lyrical Ballads), the PRB (in The Germ) and Baudelaire ('Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne'), and miscellaneous texts like A Rebours and Also Sprach Zarathustra. . . the list might be extended almost indefinitely. Once in the 20th century, manifestos proper are all over the place, from the Futurist to the Vorticist to the Fascist to the Surrealist to the Lettrist and Situationist, to Solanas' infamous SCUM. Practically everything the Paris circle of Modernists ever wrote constituted a manifesto of some sort; and the same goes for the post-Structuralist mandarins.

* Having said this, one recalls a similar strain in the 17th century, with the excited productions of Bacon (eg. The Advancement of Learning) and Sprat (The History of the Royal Society), as well as printed propaganda for various political groups, such as the Levellers and the Diggers.

Nowadays it's the architects who turn out the finest examples of manifestos. They have their modernist ancestors too: the works of Paul Scheerbart and Bruno Taut on glass architecture, and then the more well-known treatises of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Paolo Soleri. But as a respite from the subtler-than-thou exegeses of Empson et al. I was sucking today on a juicy bonbon by Sébastien Marot, entitled Suburbanism and the Art of Memory (1999). Like many similar texts I've read or just looked at, there is no argument in this book. There are some pretty engravings from Renaissance volumes, and some fashionably-blurred photographs of modern architectural projects to complement a free-associative text, the violent yoking together of heterogeneous elements, in this case Yates on memory, Freud on Rome as a symbol of the unconscious, Robert Smithson on suburbia, and some other dude on spatial construction. It's rather pleasant to let this work, random and suggestive, wash over one's mind. It makes one think rather Grandly, or rather to daydream without really thinking at all. The 'manifesto' aspect lends works like this a pretence of ideological urgency, the delicious intimation of a call to arms! which appeals to the youth in all of us.

The Surrealists and Imagists (among others), moreover, have legitimated the enjoyably crappy quasi-aleatoric pseudo-Freudian haikuism now offered by pompous poet-architects; Daniel 'Shard' Libeskind, for instance, offers gobbets like 'Terra ingognita: poor Rosicrucian vexing an innocent lama, trying to collar a gnat with diaphanous thread, hurling sanctimonious invectives on fir trees ­burglar sent by rhyme'. Marot, meanwhile, expropriates fragments of the genuinely beautiful Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii, which, now that it has been translated and given the 'Leonardo Code treatment', as one correspondent has put it, is fair game for excitable theorists. (Actually, I think it has been fair game ever since Linda Fierz-David 'related' her The Dream of Poliphilo in 1950 to the Jung fanclub, aka. the Bollingen Press. But that's another post.)

15 February, 2006

Style, type, character

The true logophile soon tires of isolated etymologies. Many words in the language possess curious roots: I might mention gossamer, nice, viper, test, masturbate, for instance. But singly these only amount to a clutch of diverting anecdotes. The richness of English is better demonstrated by patterns and processes, structures of semantic and morphological developments within the whole. These clusters of history can demonstrate the progression of thought and association itself. C. S. Lewis demonstrates the history of some typical clusters in his book Studies in Words, for instance 'nature', 'conscience', 'sense', although I found his treatment a little dull.

So of late I have turned myself to collecting examples of these patterns, and have been rolling particular groups of words around in my head for a few days. One such group is indicated in the title. All three of these terms progress from the language of material impressions, via that of letters, to that of human beings.

L. stilus, 'pointed stick' (preserved in English 'stylus').
Gk. τύπος, 'impression', from τύπτειν, 'to strike'.
Gk. χαρακτήρ, 'impress or stamp', from χαράττειν, 'to cut furrows'.

The word-senses proceed as follows:

Style: pointed stick used for writing, metonymic symbol of writing itself, writing, a written work, a manner of writing associated with an individual or school (now recognisable), manner of speaking, manner of custom or attire, that which suits an individual's taste.

Type: impression, stamp, block used in printing letters of the alphabet, form of printed letter (as in 'typeface'), distinguishing mark, kind or class distinguished by such a mark, individual representative of a class, person of a particular sort.

Character: stamp, engraved mark, distinguishing mark, graphic symbol representing a sound or syllable, letter of the alphabet, writing itself, handwriting or individual style of writing, a significant mark or token, aggregate of distinguishing marks in a thing, the sum of qualities which distinguish a class or race of men, moral qualities strongly displayed in an individual, person regarded as a collection of such qualities, a personality invested with a distinctive collection of qualities (as in a play), an eccentric person.

The reader will notice that these meanings tend to overlap one another. What is noteworthy is that each word provides a link between the individual and the group, the particular and the genus. Metonymy pushes the sense back and forth between these poles in each case, from a member of a set regarded as representative of that set, to the set itself, and vice versa. The parallel histories of these words also tell us something about the interrelations between printed literature and the development of "characterization"; the Harold Bloom in me wants to locate that connection in Shakespeare and his Tudor / Stuart cronies. Indeed, we see the transition manifested in a pun from King Lear (Act 1, Scene 2). Edmund has just forged a letter in his brother's hand, which he presents 'innocently' to his father Gloucester:
Gloucester. You know the character to be your brother's?

Edmund. If the matter were good, my lord, I durst swear it were his; but in respect of that, I would fain think it were not.
Here the word character switches between its senses of 'handwriting' and 'moral qualities', and compresses both. The pun also reflects what so very many of Shakespeare's puns reflect, namely the identity and non-identity of the inner and outward aspects of a man: 'There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face'. Arthur Danto writes in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981) that the development of conscious style in classical Greece was caused by (or concurrent with) a realization of the distinction 'between reality and something else—appearance, illusion, representation'. He goes on to push a rather Whorfian line, that 'the structure of a style is like the structure of a personality'. We might say that the structure of a character is like the structure of a character, and be done with it.

14 February, 2006

For Susina

Du bist min, ich bin din
des solt du gewis sin
du bist beslozzen
in minem herzen;
verlorn ist das sluzzelin:
du muost ouch immer darinne sin.

— anonymous Kurzgedicht, late 12th century.

They mounted with hir in the Ayre, whence looking downe she saw
The pleasant Tempe of Thessalie, and made hir Dragons draw
To places further from resort: and there she tooke the view
What herbes on high mount Pelion, and what on Ossa grew.

— Golding's Ovid, Book VII.

Lady Muriel and Arthur were evidently on those most delightful of terms, where one has no need to check thought after thought, as it rises to the lips, with the fear 'this will not be appreciated—this will give offence—this will sound too serious—this will sound flippant': like very old friends, in fullest sympathy, their talk rippled on.

— Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno.

What is home without
Plumtree's potted meat?
With it an abode of bliss.

Ulysses, 'Lotus Eaters'.

Joachim of Fiore once said that when the Third Age arrived, the age of peace, and goodwill, and spiritual richness—its emblem would be the lily. How true!

13 February, 2006

Amanda Ros: pathological diabetic

Have you ever visited that portion of Erin's plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?
I wish I could say that Amanda Ros needs no introduction. Alas, her hoped-for futurity never really came to fruition, except among a coterie of literary sneerers, Aldous Huxley, D. B. 'Beachcomber' Wyndham Lewis, C. S. Lewis, Anthony Powell and so forth. In a nutshell: she lived around the turn of the 20th century, wrote grand, ridiculous romances, which she regarded as brilliant masterpieces, but which her critical nemesis Barry Pain did not. Like Queen Victoria, her favourite novelist was Marie Corelli, another brilliant literary nutnut, who seemed to have believed that God was electric. You can read all about Amanda at the Oasis of Futurity.

The sentence above is a masterpiece, obviously. The irritating Nick Page, who presumably considers himself a sneerer in the grand tradition, expresses his own stupidity about the sentence, which is the very first in Ros's major novel Delina Delaney (1898): "I first read this sentence nearly three years ago. Since then, I have read it once a week in an increasingly desperate search for meaning. But I still don't understand it. It is magnificent in its impenetrable mystery; it is the riddle of the sphinx, the smile of the Mona Lisa. It sounds wonderful, but remains impervious to comprehension." The period is marvelous enough. Its power comes from its total ambivalence of grammar, which switches and twists as the sense progresses. We can see the effect more clearly in a shorter sentence from the same book:
She quickly rose, undressed, and, burying herself in the manufacture of deft hands, whether to sleep or not she best knew.
At the outset, this sentence appears to be structured as a tricolon of finite verb-clauses: "she x'd, y'd and z'd". We then realise that between y and z Ros has inserted a participial clause, which is perfectly acceptable from a grammatical standpoint, here with the present participle 'burying'. After this clause, however, Ros forgets her original structure: the last clause contains a finite verb ('knew') but it is attached to the separate, idiomatic structure of 'whether or not'. Thus, the whole is completely ungrammatical. But it appears to be a portmanteau of two hypothetical grammatical sentences, something like "She quickly rose, undressed, and, burying herself in the manufacture of deft hands, went to bed" and "She buried herself in the manufacture of deft hands, whether to sleep or not she best knew". We conclude that quite apart from that odd expression "the manufacture of deft hands", and its odd coupling with "burying"—in other words apart from the semantic ambiguity of the sentence—it has also a much rarer grammatical ambiguity.

To return to the original sentence, we can see that this grammatical shift or confusion is also at work here, in a more subtle form. There are the semantic interests, to be sure, those 'kennings' or periphrases which Huxley noted in his tossed-off 1923 sneer, 'Euphues Redivivus'. "Erin's plot", for instance, is given for 'Ireland'. Ros also makes use of the classic 17th-century trick of giving synonymous couplets in simple and Latinate English, here "minute survey and scrutinous examination".

But the grammar is more intriguing, I think. The question-mark follows reassuringly from the initial inversion, "Have you ever". After the noun-phrase "portion of Erin's plot", the remainder of the sentence is relative, the first clause ("that. . . power") clarifying, and the second two ("whose. . . richness") amplifying. The semantic content until "power" is intelligible but not cohesive: Ireland, she says, is open to being surveyed or examined by the government—presumably the English one, as Ireland would not achieve independence until 1922. But the sense and grammar then break down together. The 'decision' of the government is not given an object (ie. 'decision to', 'decision about'), so must mean something like 'decisiveness'. But there are more puzzling absences of referent: we want an object after 'converting' (ie. 'converting to'), and the language becomes so abstract, the pronouns so mysterious, as offer up only an aporia. Who is reaching, and is this entity reaching with or to "the hand of slight aid"? Does the 'its' in "share its strength" refer to the government? The 'its' of "augmenting its agricultural richness" must surely mean Ireland! Who are the "stern and prejudiced", and to what are they to be converted? The following sentences answer none of these questions. We are left only with a semantic aporia made insoluble by a very sophisticated confusion of grammar. The final question mark is almost ironical, reiterating our confusion while acknowledging the logic of a sentence that begins "Have you ever. . ."

Ros is evidently a genius. She was described by Northrop Frye as a writer with a pathological diabetes: one who employs a florid emotional rhetoric without being able to assimilate it. Her elaborate phrasing, and the great bathos of her sentiment, are often noted (by those who note her at all), but the very precise convolutions of her grammar, tending to nonsense, are ignored. She may lack the jingling hilarity of old Bharucha, but like that hoary scholar, her nonsense is indeed 'nonsense as process'. Both writers create an expectation of grammatical structure, which they then subvert, in the same way that a suspense-writer subverts expectations of narrative.

As you can see, one of Ros's sentences would keep me entertained, fascinated, for as long as a book's-worth of ideas from most other authors.

12 February, 2006

Anxiety of effluence

I finally got around to reading Harold Bloom's famous The Anxiety of Influence (1973). This is the one where Bloom cooks up 6 terms nicked from Gnostic philosophy to describe the processes by which poets deal with their precursors. All poetry, he says somewhere and everywhere, is a creative misreading or 'misprision' of previous poems, a problem exacerbated after the Enlightenment, which Bloom equates with the Cartesian 'discovery' of mind/body dualism.

It all feels rather autobiographical. Dumpy, grumpy, frumpy old Bloom (above, in a recent portrait by John Abbott) was evidently feeling weary and ancient, and misnamed, even at the tender age of 43. He reminds us a little of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV, lost all his mirth. See, Bloom too had experienced the 'anxiety of influence' after reading the Peddlers of Aphorisms, especially Nietzsche and Emerson, and also Freud. There are more sententious soundbites here plucked out of context and likely as not dowdlerized than in your average movie-trailer. As well as quoting them, he strives constantly to emulate them. I pick a page at random:
But there is the state called Satan, and in that hardness poets must appropriate for themselves. For Satan is a pure or absolute consciousness of self compelled to have admitted its intimate alliance with opacity.
Or, on another random page:
Critics, in their secret hearts, love continuities, but he who lives with continuity alone cannot be a poet.
Alas, Bloom has none of Nietzsche's wit, and all of Emerson's pomposity. He is excited by canonical Freudian notions like the ego, the uncanny, trauma, and even anxiety itself; but unlike Dali, he is unable to do much with Freud's language, let alone reveal it for what it is, a sublime play of words and ideas. Like our unofficial heroine Taketani, Bloom is totally enraptured by key-words, both Freud's and those of occult traditions. He rips kenosis from Pauline theology, and clinamen from Lucretius, almost certainly by way of Jarry and the pataphysicians, whom he cites, shamelessly. He quotes Vico, whom he doubtless knows through Joyce, and dallies with the great Aufklärung thinkers, from Pascal to Goethe, Lichtenberg and Kierkegaard. O, what a wondrous web of profound philosophy he spins! I was veritably surprised not to find Hamann's name somewhere. Unsurprisingly, however, Bloom gives no real evidence of having progressed beyond half-digested quasi-poststructuralist flippancy, re-Peddling old Aphorisms with a typical air of condescension.

Yes, Bloom is suffering. I can almost imagine him gazing into a mirror, reflected as Max Bialystock: "Bloom, I'm drowning." His obsession with gnomic utterance and the Canon borders on psychosis. With a nervous false casualness he tosses around the Big Names of philosophy, and the Big Names of poetry, but he sounds like only a kid adulating footballers. He suggests impalpable wisdom, something beyond a herd enjoyment of the Romantics. But his rhetoric ends up as anxious invective; for instance, at least three times he cites Arnold's critique of Keats, scoffing that Arnold's chief verse takes its primary cues from Keats' work. Which leads me to wonder if this is his only substantive argument. Most of it is along the lines of, Wordsworth is better than Keats, but Milton is better than Wordsworth, and Shakespeare is better than them all. In fact, Bloom's preface to the second edition of the book (1997) contains early glimmerings of the insane scribblings that would surface in his notorious Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (1999). This is Bardolatry of the highest order:
To say that Shakespeare and poetic influence are nearly identical is not very different from observing that Shakespeare is the western literary canon.
Hark at him: Shakespeare is the Western Literary Canon. Not only that, but the roles Shakespeare wrote for his actors "have become roles for us". Harold Bloom is Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University. Talk about an anxiety of influence, this is practically a neurosis! The Oxford University Press should market this man's works as Case Studies.

All of which absurdity might be almost acceptable if he had an argument to make. But whenever he gets down to concrete examples of poetic influence, his insanity becomes ever more apparent. For example, he regards Wallace Stevens as indebted to Whitman by the mode of the tessera, which means that Stevens views his own work as completing Whitman's by antithesis, and as therefore as going beyond Whitman's in its audacity. When Bloom cites 'The Sleepers' (Whitman) against 'The Owl in the Sarcophagus' (Stevens), we wonder where he's getting these ideas from. No doubt the former did influence the latter—but Bloom's Lacanian prattling is monstrous.

It's almost an emotional experience, all of this. Bloom's performance would have more pathos, though, if he were more articulate. No doubt his compacted ramblings meant something to his Yale colleagues, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. But to me his rhetoric is vapid, his prose dull, his ideas non-existent, his tastes conventional, his personality embarrassing, his fantasy-football approach to the Canon, risible. I must admit, I rather like the idea of resurrecting Gnostic theology as a latter-day literary hermeneutics, but it should have been much better executed. Maybe Kabbalah and Criticism will have more to offer. I doubt it.

11 February, 2006

La Violencia

Ultraviolence, or, How to do things with saws.

Caveat lector: this post is not for the squeamish. In his famous essay on the 'Work of Art. . .', Walter Benjamin discusses the increasing interrelation between politics and aesthetics in the modern world. Mankind, he says, has become so alienated from itself that "it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order". How has violence been made aesthetic? Robin Kirk's More Terrible than Death (2003) contains some gruesome details of the killings and post-mortem mutilations perpetrated by extremist militias in Colombia during the period known as 'La Violencia', starting in the late 1940s. I anatomise his prose, thus:
During La Violencia, cuts were elaborate, inventive, even artistic. There was the Colombian necktie (corte de corbata), when the killer cut a deep groove under the jawline of the victim and pull the tongue muscle down and through it, so that it lay like a necktie on the chest.

In the flannel cut (corte de franela), the killer severed the muscles that keep the head forward, thus allowing the head to fall backward over the spine at a ninety-degree angle, like a sailor's square collar.

In the flower vase cut (corte de florero), the killer dismembered the victim and inserted the head and limbs into the trunk or the neck of the body, arranged like flowers in a vase.

The monkey cut (corte de mico) took its name from a killer who decapitated the pet monkey of the victim and left the head in the man's lap. This cut was reproduced by killers who would decapitate their victims and place the victim's head on the chest of the body.

In the French cut (corte francés), the killer would peel back the skin on the head while the victim lived, exposing the skull. Occasionally, the killers would leave bodies arranged in a mise-en-scène, sitting as if waiting for the next truck along a road, their heads like overnight bags in their laps.
And some additional material from a later English article by Kirk's original Spanish-language source, the Colombian anthropologist María Victoria Uribe:
Two other cuts drew on food preparation techniques and are especially worth noting. The first of these was called bocachiquear, a verb normally used to designate the oblique cutting of a species of fish (bocachico) for easier cooking. The second, picar para tamal, describes the action of dicing the meat that fills corn tamales.

— María Victoria Uribe, 'Dismembering and Expelling: Semantics of Political Terror in Colombia', in Public Culture 16.1 (2004) 79-95, available online here.
The liberal / conservative conflict behind the violence is of no interest to me; just the violence. Uribe sanitises her subject for the intellectual reader with some typical high-theory icons, related to Taketani's: underdog political notions like 'the Other' and 'alterities', and structuralist lit-crit concepts like the rupturing of bodily surfaces, 'allegory', 'semantics', 'mimetics'. Kirk himself utters similar banal analogies: "Bodies not only sent a message, they became a message, a language. La Violencia spawned a macabre dialect in which body parts and their arrangement were the letters, grammars and words". You see the same thing in academic discussions of Rabelaisian violence, unsurprisingly. At least Kirk realises that the point about the violence is not that it is communicative or linguistic, but that it's 'inventive, even artistic'. One is delighted, though, that this visceral (or rather evisceral) material leaps out of the ritualised setting that the scholarship provides.

10 February, 2006

Conrad's bawdy

How about a few naughty etymologies?


Reconstructed from ME coit, Fr. coït, L. coetus, coitus (the latter app. by metonymic assimilation to co-īre, co-itus), a. Gr. κοιτη, 'bed'. Evidently subject before assimilation to taboo replacement by L. cētus, a. Gr. κητος, 'sea monster'; compare Rabelais, Gargant. ch. iii, 'la beste à deux dos'. Subsequent monosyllabic shift in ME influenced by quoit; for semantic association compare quoit in Australian slang, 'buttocks', and L. anus, 'ring' and later, 'arsehole'.


No connexion with Fr. con, L. cunnis, 'vagina', nor with L. cuneus, 'wedge'. Rather from a dialectal pron. of can't (cannot): an error arose among ME writers from an anonymous late-medieval vernacular translation of the Goliardic verse Venus et Caecus (ca. 1150): "Cunne tha see't, Cecus / cunne tha name it me? / Ay cunnet, ay cunt quod he." The misreading became popular among satirists keen to connect the pudendum with male impotence; but see pussy.


Earlier puisance (pron. with nuisance) from Fr. puissance, L. potentia, 'power', though later influenced by imitative E. puss, 'cat', 'fur garment'. For the association of the pudendum with female potency, see cunt.


There is much conjecture concerning this obscure vulgarism, the vowel-colour of which has recently shifted from (å) to (æ) by analogy with 'shat', 'fat', etc. Earliest attestation as touate in Nashe (1594), perh. as cant; following a suggestion in Vossius (1606), we are inclined to derive the term from Fr. touatte, 'cavernous recess, hollow', either via its Gmc. cognate Tot, 'underworld, Hell', later 'death', or directly from L. Tuata, a. Gr. Τυάτη, 'Egyptian underworld' (attested in Plut., Peri Isidos, iv.1) from ancient Egyptian Twt.

06 February, 2006

Five Interiors

1. Frantisek Rint, Kostnice Ossuary at Sedlec (1870).

2. Truman Angell, Salt Lake Temple (1893), and other Mormon interiors,
such as this RLDS Auditorium in Independence, Missouri.

3. Ferdinand Cheval, aka. le Facteur Cheval, Le Palais Idéal (1912).

4. Moscow Metro-System (1935-1954).

5. The Compact Muon Solenoid at CERN (2003).

05 February, 2006

Taliesin West

This afternoon we took a pleasant trip to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's Scottsdale project, where a sprightly British expat gave this sprightly British expat, and two other sprightly British expats, a tour of the place. Taliesin lacks the radicalist excitement, and also the melancholy of Arcosanti, and it lacks also the sculptural richness of other FLW work, like the New York Guggenheim or Fallingwater. There has clearly been an attempt to integrate the built form with the landscape, which is something I've written about elsewhere, in the context of post-war campus architecture; here this amounts mostly to low-rise construction around the hills, and a repetition of the 'triangular' form of the nearby mountain in various places.

The interiors are more imaginative. There are some oddities: (apparently) the first lighted aisle in architectural history is found in a cabaret-space here, which also doubles its acoustic properties by avoiding parallel walls and right-angles; two antique grand pianos for Wright, (apparently) trained to 'a concert level', one dating from 1928, (apparently) 'a good year for pianos'; a theatre which replaces the proscenium arch by a series of curtain-racks which can be manually swung out from the sides towards the audience, creating a deep and ambiguous stage-space; stretched-canvas roofs which diffuse the harsh Arizona sunlight inside; and sequences of confined and open interior spaces, which Wright called 'embrace and release' and 'conceal and reveal' for their psychological effects. Outside the sky and desert still dominate, blocking out the tacky faux-Oriental relief-sculptures, crude petroglyphs preserved as 'art objects' (distasteful phrase!), and other pointless addenda.

We were shown a panoramic photograph of the site from the 70s, when boundless and bare, the lone and level rocks beyond Taliesin still stretched far away. Such a vision of desolation, rendered in silvery monochrome, turned out to be one of the more impressive sights of the trip.

04 February, 2006

The clothes maketh the. . . ?

Unsettling waters. Yesterday, in a casual googlebrowse of early children's literature, I stumbled across an 1831 short story by Eliza Leslie (pictured, below) entitled 'Lucy Nelson, the Boy-Girl', and intrigued by the title, I read further. Plot: Lucy is a young tomboy who prefers messing around outside in the dirt with the lads to reading books and playing with dolls, as little girls should. After a particular prank, Lucy's parents punish her 'hoydenism' by putting her in boy's clothes, a jacket and 'trowsers', for a month. When the Halfords come to dinner, Lucy is so ashamed of her male attire that she covers her body in an oversized 'apron' (though as it has sleeves it might now be labelled a smock), sewing up the back so as to hide her trousers completely. Mrs. Halford remarks on Lucy's perfect neatness at the table, impressed that the girl is so keen to avoid getting even the 'smallest speck' on her dress. As Lucy is leaving the table, her poor sewing comes undone at the back, and she is forced to leave backwards, prompting the visitor to remark again on Lucy's excessive politeness, 'like a courtier retiring from the presence of a King and Queen'. At this the girl is sufficiently embarrassed to turn around, exposing her trousers at the back, at which point Mrs. Halford begs pardon for mistaking the child for a girl. After a moment of misapprehension, Lucy's mother explains the situation, and the girl is restored to feminine clothes with the promise that she will take more pleasure in appropriate pursuits.

Predictably enough, this story has attracted at least one gender-theorist; Etsuko Taketani writes about this and other related texts in 'Spectacular Child Bodies: The Sexual Politics of Cross-Dressing and Calisthenics in the Writings of Eliza Leslie and Catharine Beecher', in The Lion and the Unicorn 23.3 (1999) 355-372, available online here. Taketani correctly observes that 'Lucy's apron has strong sexualizing implications', but alas! she then resorts to academic cliché:
Hidden as Lucy's "under-dress", the trousers and a jacket serve as an index of sex—the privates—if not a male organ itself. By the very act of concealment, Lucy cleaves out a space under the skirt of her apron, a space replete with meanings, which Mrs. Halford subsequently reads. . . Under the apron is an imaginary space, prohibitive and sexualized, and in Leslie's tale this space calls attention to the "fiction" of sex as donned/doffed.
Concealment, construction of space, "transgressive" sexuality, the suggestion of semantics ('meaning'), gender as 'fiction'—all this is stock critical BS, and ultimately unhelpful. In fact, Taketani explicitly demonstrates her misunderstanding of the sexual overtones by claiming that what Lucy is attempting to hide by backing away are her 'buttocks': but these are never even implied by the text. Specifically, what Taketani misses is that clothes are not presented by Leslie either as concealments or symbolic representations of sexuality, but rather as fetishistic manifestations thereof. She is also unreceptive to the erotic nature of Lucy's parental discipline.

I write all this because academia has become morbidly interested in sex and sexuality: and because in doing so it has reduced sexual impulses by quasi-Freudian analysis and stock jargon to the status of museum-pieces. The phenomenological quality, the feel, of sexual desire has been all but lost. The very vitality and disgustingness of human sexuality (as part of the entire spectrum of human emotion) has become neutralised by a language which keeps it firmly distant and 'professional': just as Carroll did with technology but did not do with sexuality: just as we all do with the more precocious elements of language itself. Contemporary academics, while promoting themselves as progressive in their attempted recovery of 'repressed' human experience (via feminism, queer theory, post-colonialism etc.), have in fact pushed themselves farther and farther from these experiences by an unwillingness to engage with unpleasantness at the personal level.

It would be better in this instance to divest ourselves of Taketani's ossified constructs, and instead to re-awaken the significance of Leslie's imagery by comparison with genuine, living manifestations of similar impulses. Transvestism is associated in the common mind with drag culture, which couldn't be further from the nervous prurience of Leslie's story. The key factor here, I think, is the enforcement of attire upon individuals, which brings us closer to the concept of the uniform; and in particular upon children, which draws us to a very peculiar variety of quasi-sexual activity referred to as 'petticoating'. I alert the reader's attention to a phenomenon much more uncomfortable than anything in academia, and to which a veritable monument has been constructed in the form of the website Petticoat Discipline Quarterly.

This site consists of hundreds of letters and pictures from avid readers, both male and female, describing variations on a theme. The basic plot is simple: a young male is punished for miscreant behaviour either by his mother or his wife/girlfriend, by being made to wear female clothes, and put in a position of sexual and domestic submission. The original transgression is generally either an excessively masculine, boorish conduct, or a act, furtive but discovered, of experimentation with female clothing (almost always underwear). The result of this punishment is almost always an increased docility of character, with a new fetish for women's clothes (mostly feminine to an archaic degree—petticoats, pinafores etc.), and an implausibly happy ending:
I want to thank you for my sought-after advice, which you gave me in this month's 'Advice' page concerning my brattish son. We talked at length (my husband and I) and decided to go for it. When he came home from school that Friday, we had everything ready. We decided to go all the way at first, and then use lesser degrees of petticoating as a bargaining chip. We put him, after a good spanking, in a little gingham dress, with cotton pettis, and a pinafore over the top, with little lace anklets, black Mary Janes, nylon panties and a camisole top.

He was almost ill with fright, but we explained this was for his own good, and that he was going to be dressed like this, or in similar things, for a long time to come - at least until he learned to act like a gentelman [sic], and not run around and worry us to death.

Letter 7, PDQ, Oct 10, 2000.
Needless to say, I was quite taken aback to discover this subculture in my internet research following on from Leslie's story yesterday! Everyone is used to the traditional sadomasochistic stereotypes: but this material has an unexpected familial tenderness, quite cognate with the feeling of 'Lucy Nelson'. In both instances, modes of behaviour follow modes of dress; as the girlish clothes manifest a girlish sexuality, and consequently engender such a sexuality in the wearer, we are presented almost with a private variety of the Stockholm Syndrome. The women in these letters (some fantasies, no doubt) seek to assert the superiority of women over men; what I find strange is that they achieve this not by deprecating male modes (behaviour and attire), but by making men perform as women, thus reiterating the symbolic inferiority of female modes. The conflict between logic and emotion is here inescapable.

I have not studied any of this material in depth: thus I do not have the temerity to present serious conclusions from these musings. But I would suggest the value of examining real expressions of sexual emotion (in PDQ's case, the sexuality is usually implicit or sublimated) so as better to understand the fetishistic power of stories like Leslie's. But such an examination forces the reader to confront something highly unpalatable: live sexuality, not the "transgression" neutered and formaldehyded by the cold scalpels of academic language.

02 February, 2006

Derrida on the gift

An excellent example of how academics take a simple and obvious idea, even a cliché, and trick it up in the crude semblance of profundity. In this case I don't even have the source text in front of me, but a potted summary, no doubt less tortuous than the original: Jeff Massey's '"The Double Bind of Troilus to Tellen": the Time of the Gift in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde', from a recent issue of the Chaucer Review:
For the literary scholar, however, no single gift critic may be more influential than Jacques Derrida, whose interpretation of Mauss's Essai sur le don extended the idea of inherent reciprocity to its logical limit: if the gift requires reciprocity, then the gift is impossible, for once the obligation of repayment becomes evident to the gift recipient, the gift ceases to be gift and becomes instead commodity.
In other words, 'There's no such thing as a free lunch'.

01 February, 2006

The aesthetics of eating

It so happens that I attach to spinach, as to everything more or less directly pertaining to food, essential values of a moral and esthetic order. And of course the sentinel of disgust is ever on hand, vigilant and full of severe solicitude, ceremoniously attentive to the exacting choice of my foods. I like to eat only things with well-defined shapes that the intelligence can grasp. I detest spinach because of its utterly amorphous character, so much so that I am firmly convinced, and do not hesitate for a moment to maintain, that the only good, noble and edible thing to be found in that sordid nourishment is the sand.

Thus I know exactly, ferociously, what I want to eat! And I am all the more astonished to observe habitually around me creatures who will eat anything, with that sacrilegious lack of conviction that goes with the accomplishment of a strict necessity.
So writes one of the last century's finest writers, in one of the last century's greatest works of literature, Salvador Dali's Secret Life. Food, I fear, has largely gone the way of other artforms since the middle of the twentieth century. Lost is the great gourmandise, or rather it has become simply good cooking. Sure, chefs are the toast of utensiltown now, what with the rise of the Ramsays, the Harriotts, the Lawsons, the Worrall-Thompsons, the Olivers and so forth. But nobody these days philosophises (or perhaps gastrosophises) with his stomach. It was a great French tradition. . . one thinks, of course, of Rabelais, whose library was stocked with bottles, compiling bibulographies, and legendary epicures like Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wrote succinctly in his 1825 The Physiology of Taste that "Gastronomy determines the degree of esculence of every alimentary subject; all are not presentable under the same circumstances." Dali was an honorary Frenchman by the time of the Secret Life, though he never lost that épate Espagnole which would toujours have kept him apart from Breton et al.

Anyway, following on from the Augustinian 'aesthetics of theology' of yesterday's post, I got thinking about the basis of value-judgements on other topics. If modernism ritualistically divorced aesthetics from beauty in literature, art, music and so on, then why should cooking be left behind? Let's eat with our brains as well as our tongues. The Americans have already made tentative (if a little half-hearted) stabs at applying politics to the kitchen, with their 'liberty cabbage' and 'freedom fries'—the latter actually instituted in the House of Representatives café, if the notorious Wikipedia, here, is to be believed. So why not apply some aesthetic considerations?

Dali ate only things with well-defined shapes. Pythagoras, likewise, forbade the eating of beans, which he called 'a sin comparable to eating the heads of one's own parents'. Several reasons have been suggested for this proscription (many from Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights 4.11, others found in books on pre-Socratic topics by Jonathan Barnes and Robin Waterfield, for those who are interested): a) beans resemble private parts, b) they resemble the gates of Hades, c) they resemble man himself, their husk like a coffin, and they smell like semen, d) they resemble the structure of the universe (a variant, perhaps, on the commoner comparison of the universe to an egg), e) they are the only plants with no 'joints', and therefore promote amorphousness (a positively Dalinian consideration), f) it is through beans, growing upwards through the soil, that disembodied souls return to the earth for reincarnation, g) they are digested with difficulty, which is a bad omen, h) the bean diet resembles the meat diet, which was also forbidden, i) an amino acid found in beans causes a strong allergic reaction in some men, and j) perhaps the most sensible explanation, that the bean-ban was only symbolic, as the black and white beans were used for voting-purposes in 6th-century Italy (Magna Graecia), and thus the philosopher was really warning his disciples from engaging in politics—a man after my own heart! Such a proscription might be compared to the much-debated injunctions against pork, hare, seafood etc. in Leviticus, of which the best explanation, for my money, was offered by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in her brilliant Leviticus as Literature.

Anyway, I'll have to go off and ponder some possible reasons for discriminating good and bad foodstuffs. As it happens I share a common loathing of mushrooms, although I'm not sure I can fully justify this on philosophical grounds (fungi being a separate natural kingdom, say) as I tolerate without enjoyment tofu. I've always found mushrooms to resemble moths, of which I also have a particular disgust. More on that, p'raps, another time.