30 May, 2008

The Tourist

On the rôle of erudition in literature.

Umberto Eco, Baudolino (2000)

It is easy to be erudite. All you need is a moderate intelligence, and the time and desire to hunt. For this reason, erudition, in and of itself, does not much impress me. It is, as they say, what you do with it that counts.

I have a history with Eco. I first read The Name of the Rose when I was 18, a page at a time as I worked the scanner or photocopier for my bosses in insurance. It took me two nine-to-fives to finish. I was highly impressed by it: this is the reaction of a young man to an older man. There was a kindly lady at my job who liked to read. I asked her what she thought of Eco's book at an after-work social in a docklands bowling alley. (A bowling alley is one of the worst places in existence, like a multiplex. Off the lane itself, light was scarce; you could smell the ersatz butter in the popcorn, the stale imported beer, and most of all the sweat of feet and oxters. I don't bowl. I think I got one lucky spare.) She said that if you took away all the fancy philosophy and learning, it was just a standard detective novel. I said, Well, yes, but you can't take off the philosophy and learning, that's the whole point of the book. She replied that if you took away all the fancy philosophy and learning, it was just a standard detective novel. I dropped the matter with her. Now I'm inclined to think she was right. I returned to The Name of the Rose years later, and found its philosophical debates trite, and its magisterial erudition, well, a bit less magisterial.

I dare not re-read Foucault's Pendulum, which dazzled me sufficiently to make me quit my insurance job and learn about kabbalah and alchemy.

But lately I was sitting with some friends in the aureate environs of the Blackfriars, after Easter service in St. Paul's, when a couple of them encouraged me to read Baudolino. I had my doubts—my impression of him then was a writer much less clever than he thought himself. But I'd read precious little fiction in years, and so decided to give Baudolino a fair shot. Thus:


The novel is set largely in the second half of the twelfth century, told as a flashback to Niketas Choniates during the siege of Constantinople in 1204 AD. The narrator, Baudolino, is an Italian peasant boy adopted since early childhood by Frederick Barbarossa, who finds himself 'behind' many of the great events and texts of the late twelfth century. As a young man he goes to Paris and meets Robert de Boron and the Archpoet, with whom he fabricates the 'Prester John Letter'. He 'discovers' the Grail and composes real love-letters. Later he saves Alessandria—his own hometown and also Eco's—with his father Gagliaudo, in a retelling of a 'genuine' legend. Finally, after witnessing Frederick's death, he sets off for the Kingdom of Prester John, which he himself has fabricated; Baudolino never reaches John, though he has, of course, lots of scrapes and adventures along the way. Baudolino is, in effect, the twelfth-century Forrest Gump.

The narrative is designed to flatter mediaevalists. Look, they will say excitedly, there's Otto of Freising! And he's talking about Abelard! And there's Alexander III—and there's the Archpoet! And when Baudolino reaches the land of Prester John, he encounters the fabulous beasts from Pliny and the Travels of John Mandevillesciapods, blemmyes, panotians and so on. All those dusty obscurities cherished by the graduate are there revealed in their colours; she reads the book and feels part of a special learned club, just Eco and herself.

And within the special club of mediaevalists, the very special subclub of the broadly educated will twitter even more delightedly to itself—those who think of Quine when they see the name Gavagai, or those who, having read Eco's mediocre book on universal languages—or even a better book—can spot all the references to Dalgarno, Vairasse and other Enlightenment fantasists.

These references are supposed to be fun; but in fact they are smug and pointless. They add nothing to the book. In the Prester John section of the novel, Eco tries to demonstrate that he has digested modern philosophical problems and can redraw them in a fantastical setting; but it only comes across as that brand of science fiction desperate to show off its intellectual credentials. For instance, one of Baudolino's posse debates with the one-legged sciapod Gavagai:
Poet. "You are not friends [with the blemmyae] because you are different?"

Gavagai. "What you say? Different?"

"Well, in the sense that you are different from us and—"

"Why I different you?"

"Oh, for God's sake," the Poet said. "To begin with, you have only one leg! We and the blemmyae have two!"

"Also you and blemmyae if you raise one leg, you have only one."

"But you don't have another one to lower!"

"Why should I lower leg I don't has? Do you lower third leg you don't has?"
Eco's point is that Gavagai doesn't divide the world up into the same conceptual categories as us humans, differentiating individuals not by morphology but, as it happens, by theology. But the philosophical problems and debates instantiated in Baudolino are not only borrowed: they have no relevance to the novel's world, theme, or, worst of all, to its aesthetic, its qualities as an artwork. The best Eco can offer us is a reheated postmodern insistence on the narrative construction of reality—the world is as we tell it, and no more. This is what leads hack-reviews to call Baudolino 'a parable about storytelling, a meditation on truth'. Never trust anything described as a parable.
Laura Lilli: This book is an apology for the lie?

Umberto Eco: Rather it is an apology for utopia, for those inventions that move the world. Columbus discovered America by mistake: he thought that the earth was much smaller. It is not true that he was the only one thinking it was round, as people still say; that it was round they knew before Plato. And what can be said about El Dorado? A continent is conquered following a myth.
'Coincidentally', Eco had already published a scholarly work about influential mistakes, Serendipities (1998). It is a saunter around well-trodden academic fields, peeking into some pleasant books and episodes with only the pretence of original insight. It is a tourist's guide to scholarship, without any guts.

Eco has no serious prose style—at least, not in Weaver's English—no special gift for plot or character, no worthwhile message: and so in Baudolino he has to rely on his game of references with the reader. All the erudition is fine. But, like I said, erudition is easy. The problem is that he is no good at the game. He fails in two ways. Firstly, he's patronising. The conceit of the first chapter is that a fourteen year-old Baudolino snatches a bit of used parchment and writes some of his own macaronic Latin over it—the joke being that the original parchment, still legible in fragments, contains the opening of Otto of Freising's The Two Cities (1145). But in the next chapter he spoils the joke by telling you that the parchment contained The Two Cities. Eco is not confident enough to pitch the ball down the field—he has to roll it. The effect is nothing less than humdrum.

Again and again, Eco explains his references. When Baudolino meets Niketas, we get this sentence: 'Niketas Choniates, former court orator, supreme judge of the empire, judge of the Veil, logothete of secrets or—as the Latins would have said—chancellor of the basileus of Byzantium, as well as historian of many Comneni and Angelus emperors, regarded with curiosity the man facing him.' When Baudolino goes to Paris, we are told: 'Baudolino arrived in Paris a bit late: in those schools, students entered before they were fourteen, and he was two years older.' There is no immersion in Eco's world because is constantly feeding us facts and gobbets from the history books. Wanting to be storyteller and teacher at the same time, he fails at both.

The erudition is not just spoon-fed: it is also unimaginative. This is his second, and more serious failure. Eco reads, again, like a tourist in his own library. Thus, because he has chosen the period 1155-1204, his canvas is dictated: it includes all the famous kings, philosophers and poets. Eco wants to give us a panorama of the political and intellectual climate of his period; but this requires justice to each part of the picture. He has abdicated control. He is liberal and tolerant towards his world—not a tyrant, as the true artist must be. And so his description of twelfth-century history is unable to go very deep. You can get most of the references simply by reading Southern or Cantor.

Still worse. We are told repeatedly and with no subtlety that Baudolino is a liar, and that he may have fabricated some or all of his tale. The mediaevalist Tom Shippey, in his TLS review, writes:
Baudolino is in the habit of inventing works, sometimes only as titles, but also referring to them and quoting from them. But which are made up and which are genuine? A perfect reader, the perfect reader as constructed by the author in Eco's own theories, would know the answer, but who would care to declare himself perfect? I am fairly sure that the Venerable Bede did not write a work on the best kind of tripe (De optimitate triparum), and the Ars honesti petandi sounds securely spurious as well. . .
It is true that Bede did not write a De optimitate triparum, or an Ars honesti petandi. But then, Eco could not have come up with these either: he had to borrow them from a far better fantasist. Similarly, the only creature in the land of Prester John not plucked from the standard mediaeval bestiary is a female satyr called a 'hypatia'. The hypatia is Eco's invention, but only sort of. After all, she is named after the first philosopheress and feminist icon, Hypatia of Alexandria, and she expounds to Baudolino, with no narrative relevance, a doe-eyed version of Neoplatonist-Gnostic theology. It's all second-hand. Nothing in Eco's world is invented—this is what I mean when I say he is a tourist, or a slave to his erudition. He would rather be learned, with his allusions to Rabelais and Hypatia, than imaginative. He has no mastery over the material. And he does not have the cojones to make Baudolino a real liar.

Why I am bothering to complain about the poor standard of Eco's erudition? Can I not appreciate the book as a mere flight of literary fancy, with vivid colours and a few in-jokes? No. Eco is, in literary terms, a man's man—we are told his English grew up on Marvel comics and Finnegans Wake, those twin poles of the male reading spectrum—and he wants a man's response from his reader. He wants not to charm or delight us, but to impress us. This mood is present in all his writing. Consider this, from the New York Times, on the subject of Eco's 'inside jokes':
Take for instance, the love letters written by Baudolino, the new novel's title character, to the entrancingly beautiful wife of his patron, the Emperor Frederick. Many critics seized on these as obvious allusions to, or imitations of, what are known as the most famous love letters of the Middle Ages, those exchanged between Abelard and Heloïse.

But no, said a gleeful Mr. Eco in an interview. . . ''These love letters exist,'' he said, clearly pleased to have planted such a successful trap. ''Someone said Abelard and Heloïse, but no. It is a real epistolary exchange of love letters that was discovered recently.''
Eco does not name his source—but he is evidently referring to the love-letters published by Ewald Koensgen as Epistolae duorum amantium in 1976. These were taken from a 1470 manuscript (Troyes BM 1452) penned by Johannes de Vepria, and attributed by Koensgen to Abelard and Heloise, albeit with a twinkling question-mark. Constant Mews added his voice to this attribution in a well-known 1999 book; nonetheless, few are really convinced. So when Eco says that 'the German scholar' [Koensgen] 'was the only person in the whole world who could probably recognize' the letters in Baudolino, he is playing up the obscurity of his text. This is also why he is 'gleeful' and 'pleased' that he might have fooled his readers and one-upped his critics. (He seems a little unsure on the attribution, as he does accept Abelard-Heloise authorship here.) Here's an example of Eco's reuse. Vepria Letter 20 runs:
Stella polum variat et noctem luna colorat,
Sed michi sydus habet, quod me conducere debet.
Nunc mea si tenebris oriatur stella fugatis,
Mens mea iam tenebras meroris nesciet ullas.
Tu michi Lucifer es, que noctem pellere debes.
Te sine lux michi nox, tecum nox splendida lux est.
Eco has rendered this: 'The star illuminates the pole, and the moon colors the night. But my guide is a sole star and if, when the shadows have been dispelled, my star rises from the East, my mind will ignore the shadows of sorrow. You are my radiant star, who will dispel the night, and light itself without you is night, whereas with you night is splendid radiance.' Can we quibble? Polum is really 'sky', not 'pole'; Lucifer is specifically the morning-star, and there is no reason for the final lux to be translated 'radiance' and not 'light'. (Perhaps Weaver is to blame for inaccuracies—I have not seen the Italian.) The overall effect is a competent translation: nothing more. Again, Eco has not worked his material: it merely sits there in his book, translated but otherwise native. Lazy.

Now, I have no problem with erudition in literature, and no problem with books wanting to impress me, even by their authors' own admission. Hey, I'm game. I want to be impressed, not charmed or delighted. But if you are going to play a man's game, you'd better play it right—not botch a penalty and spend all night crying. And Umberto Eco is the John Terry of erudition.


There is a great history of erudition in literature. The first modern landmark is Gargantua and Pantagruel. In English, we have had Sterne, Carlyle and Joyce, most of all. There have even been brilliant novels of erudition in our time: the classic example for me is Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat—more on that next time—and to a lesser extent Pynchon's various books. These writers have all done what Eco has not: they have created a vocabulary of erudition. Their books are not mere heavens of references—they are constellations, with distinctive shape and character. Consider the rôle of classical medicine and law in Rabelais, idealist philosophy in Carlyle, Irish literature and the Jesuit curriculum in Joyce. In each case, raw materials of learning are picked out and wrought into an original perspective. As Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver, 'I would not pay overmuch attention to [Vico's] theories, beyond using them for all they are worth'. Contrast Eco's genuflection before modern philosophy to Rabelais's parodic reinvention of scholastic logic:
Which was first, thirst or drinking? Thirst, for who in the time of innocence would have drunk without being athirst? Nay, sir, it was drinking; for privatio praesupponit habitum.
Contrast the exuberant and aggressive lists of books still to be found in Theroux, to the complacent and collusive winks glancing from the pages of Baudolino. The grand érudits ravish you: Eco tickles you. His is a limp handshake; instead of a confident argot of learning, he has a tourist's pidgin. The function of putting books into a novel is to create light and depth, personality through reach and considered choice. To put books into a novel is tell your reader who you are. This stamping of character is a practice of modernity, and of modernism. But Eco is decidedly a postmodern. Baudolino ends: 'You surely don't believe that you're the only writer of stories in this world. Sooner or later, someone—a greater liar than Baudolino—will tell it.' For Eco we are all storytellers, and so none of us is. By telling stories we create a world, but at the same time we take ourself out of that world, or rather we become just another part of it, indistinguishable from the rest.

20 May, 2008

Oumin and Berzeboul

In Hyde Park, Sunday before last, when the sun was busy making a mockery of the anti-social, a dear friend of mine asked me, quite out of the blue I think, who had more names—God or the Devil? Well, the answer is obvious. But the question was brought back to me today as I leafed through the first volume of Armand Delatte's Anecdota Atheniensia (1927), in which are transcribed a number of Greek manuscripts relating to the history of magic and divination. The first item in this collection is a Traité de Magie found in two codices—A, Athens National Library 1265, from around 1600; and B, MS 115 of the "Société Historique et Ethnographique d'Athènes", from around 1800.

Sometimes one stumbles into the realm of the obscure—actually this happens fairly often in my case—and sometimes one goes beyond that realm, or rather to its darpest, deekest corner, and comes across words, pages, so gossamer as to be moored to our reality only with the frailest of threads. I cannot even imagine somebody else looking at this book. If I should breathe too hard, the letters will evaporate into nonsense. And so, to reassure myself that this Traité, so shrouded and forgotten, really exists, I fix it here, so that it may see a little light.

The Traité consists largely of theurgical (white) and goetical (black) invocations. To be able to control a daemon, you must first know its name. Thus beginning on p. 25 (Codex B, f. 21), is a long passage on the names of benign and malign spirits. The list of angelic names really gets underway on the next page:
δεομαι του cαγιου ονοματος σου, δος μοι χαριν τω δουλω σου cοπως δυνηθω cυποταξαι και σπαραξαι και εις τους ποδας μου πεσειν τα πνευματα των δαιμονιων, εις ονομα—

I need your holy name; give grace to me, your slave, so that I can subject and tear apart the spirits of the daemones, and make them fall at my feet, in the name of—
And then the catalogue itself, with several repetitions:
Ελελογη Ελογη Αδοναγη Μελεχ Σαδαγι Βαβι, Τετραγραμματον, α και ω, αρχη και τελος, Ηοσεφ Μπεσελ Ασχας Ραβ Μπαλατην Αλητος Σελ Αρεπα Αγιοθ Λεμουθ Νησουρ Αδαμσορ Λαγις Μηλα Φιλους Φηλας Ανα Αβουνα Ραμ Πηραμ Μπι Λαμζου Ηαλεμ Ληθ Αταγι Ενκθα Ελζεφηρες Φαριν Φακα Φανη Σιγιλα Ηαρουγη Καρα Μπαρουχ Οντα Ιλημ Εματορ Αβρασας Αθητιελ Κεομ Πιαλ Αμον Αμουναμεθ Ουδαδ Διαμοτ Δαχη Δαμα Πηναθ Ηαραθ Σημχα Ποραθ Οκυενλ Τηταγι Οιρον Ορ Τισα Αμους Τα Ατδαθ Δηδη Μαηκη Βινιρα Ελαλ Ια Κα Ουγεμαχ Μπαρουλ Βιελες Παρχηελ Σιμεολ Μαλχαδεελ Αδονελ Χαη Ατα Ελοημ Ορα Αμιτα Ραβιχανουν Εληον, Τετραγραμματον, Γραφοντον Ελεαν Ελαθ Ον Ναβαρ Μαπηρ Ανα Αβουνα Ηνουν Καηαμ Λεοδαμ Χαη Βακον Ζηβλατον Αγι Ια Ζαγδον Δαμανε Ελοα Δελοημ Ελοημ, α και ω, αρχη και τελος
Once you start looking at the list, you start to recognise the names. Some of the titles are plain: Tetragrammaton, alpha kai omega, arkhē kai telos, 'beginning and end'. Other identifications are almost indisputable: Adonagē must be a variant of Adonai, 'Lord'; Melekh must be the Hebrew מלאך, 'angel'; Elelogē, Elogē and especially Eloém are surely Elohim, just as Ia is Jah. Abrasas or Abrasax is a common Gnostic daemon. Then we reach obscurer and more doubtful cases. Amon is a daemon named among the standard 72 of mediaeval lore. Μπαρουχ or Baroukh looks like 'Baruc', one of the 'Names of God, most holy and unknown', from the Key of Solomon, a mediaeval grimoire; the name also seems to appear in the Greek magical papyri, III.110, as 'Barouch'—is the name related to that of Jeremiah's scribe, Baruch? And is Ram related to Raum, another standard daemon? Is Balatēn equivalent to Beleth, Nabar to Naberus, Ora to Oray? Could Elzephēres be a Semitic form of [El] Zephyr? Could Diamot conjure Tiamat? And might Tētagi recall Titache, also mentioned in the Key? The identifications become less and less certain, until finally we are all but lost in an apopheniac haze of letters.

On the following page (B, f. 23), is a corresponding invocation of evil spirits:
cινα, cοπου και ευρισκεσθε, ελθετε εμπροσθεν μου και καμετε το θελημα μου ανευ βλαβης και κακωσεως του σωματος και της ψυχης μου εν ειδει ανθρωπινω και σχηματι και μορφη. cορκιζω cυμας—

In that place, wherever you are to be found, come unto me and labour at my desire, without harm or damage to my body and soul, in a human form, shape and figure. I command you—
But here the demons are much fewer in name than the angels:
Δενας Κονταστορ Τζιτζανηελ Χαληκεελ Οραπαελ Λουμπηελ Λουτζιφερ Βερζεβεουλ Ασμεδαη Ορνιλ Παγαριθ Γαρπα Εζιμμιστραος
Again, most of the names are obscure—many are evidently Hebrew, with their endings in -el—but three at least are clearly recognisable. These are Loutzipher, Berzebeoul, and Asmedaē, or as we know them, Lucifer, Beelzebub and Asmodai. Indeed, we can fill up the canonical list elsewhere, with Ασθοροτ or Astaroth (p. 17) and Μπεθιηλ or Beliel (p. 25), along with many others—though not Satan. On p. 28 we read 'I command you, Lotropheres, I command you, Astathor, I command you, Berzeboul, I command you, Admodai, you who are the foremost among the daemones'. On p. 34 we have another group under the heading 'prayers for the south wind (notos)':
Βερζεβουλ, Ακαηλ, Αχογισθ, Ρηξ, Θεου, Ηφαλ, Μηανηθ, Εφηπτα, Μητοαρ, Καριτερ, Ηπολταγι, Λεστρηθο, Καθηθουλ, Βηοδον, Μαλησκαρ, Παλησκαξ, Βιλιουλ, Πηγιαβ, Γααβηουλ, Ησγινελ, Ρεδε, Ποον, Λαμηουλ, Δαμασιν, Ηπερηηπαρ, Ουκας, Λατζηταν, Ποτε, Θαρμι, Λαβηκος, Ουτηκαι, Ηθαψον
The south wind is harmful, and so we see Berzeboul and Bilioul (Beliel) included among the number of spirits associated with it. Good old Berzeboul appears in the flesh, too, on p. 81, along with one 'Oumin':

The 1818 Dictionnaire Infernal of Collin de Plancy, the last of the grimoires, tells us that almost all demonologists regarded Belzébuth as the 'sovereign of the dark empire; and each depicts him according to his own imagination'—'One sees, in the veritable Claviculae Salomonis, that Belzébuth appeared sometimes under monstrous forms, like those of an enormous calf or of a goat with a long tail; often, meanwhile, he shows himself under the figure of a fly of extreme fatness.' But our Berzeboul could hardly be jollier. And how marvelous, how out of the ordinary to see lines as lively as this in an old book that makes you sneeze, full of Greek type on mystical subjects. I mean, this is what you expect to see—

Our two spry daemones, on the other hand, look like the sort of thing Picasso might have doodled in the New Yorker. [A note on this. The problem with comparing anything to Picasso is that Picasso is generally taken as a catch-all name for modern art. Often as not, saying something looks like a Picasso means the eyes are in the wrong place. One feels like the fool who mentions Shakespeare whenever he sees a 'thee'. Still, it really does look like the sort of thing Picasso might have doodled in the New Yorker.] Oumin's face recalls the treatment of faces in La Baignade (1937); Berzeboul, meanwhile, reminds me of the figuration in work like La Joie de Vivre (1946), or the pigeon of a 1941 Nature Morte. When I showed the image to Mrs. Roth, she said, Oh, it looks like a Picasso. Only she, of course, pronounces it Pic-ah-sso. I like to think he would have relished the association. After all, his 1941 burlesque, Desire Caught by the Tail, ends with this, a modernistical version of demonic magic:
(ALL THE CHARACTERS come to a stop on either side of the stage. By the window at the end of the room bursting it open suddenly, enters a golden ball the size of a man which lights up the whole room and blings the characters, who take handkerchiefs from their pockets and blindfold themselves and, stretching up their right arms, point at each other, shouting all together and many times)

ALL. You! You! You!

(On the golden ball appear the letters of the word: 'Nobody'.)
Picasso's continuing goal is a search for authentic figuration. He wants to strip away the superficies of the human shape, to discover its essence, its primitive essence. As a modernist, he is a primitivist. In many respects modernism was an attempt to recapture the visceral thrill of the Romantic experience: the thrill of speed, of dreams, of childhood adventure. The modernist, like the Romantic, wants to experience the world immediately—without mediation. This accounts for two of Picasso's most famous sayings. Je ne cherche pas, he says, je trouve. I do not spend time looking for something: I find it, immediately. Certain peintres, he says, transforment le soleil en un point jaune; d'autres transforment un point jaune en soleil. Some painters turn the sun into a yellow dot; others [ie. Picasso] turn a yellow dot into the sun. To experience a yellow dot as the sun, a single line as a bird, without mediation, is the Picassian experience par excellence.

It was the same with words: the modernist word, ideally, is a fleshy and direct thing, not a pallid and passive bearer of meaning. A rose is a rose is a rose. Cropse. Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop. Cornegidouille. Loplop. Sordello. And so on. The modernist tries to recover the 'essential identity between the word and what it represents'. I take the expression from Cassirer, who is writing not about modernism but about primitive religion.
As the Word is first in origin, it is also supreme in power. Often it is the name of the deity, rather than the god himself, that seems to be the real source of efficacy. Knowledge of the name gives him who knows it mastery even over the being and will of the god.
This was written in 1925, right at the heart of modernism. Three years earlier, Ogden and Richards had published their Meaning of Meaning, which features an entire chapter trying to explain primitive name-magic to civilised Oxbridge rationalists. In 1927 Delatte publishes his Anecdota. In 1928 Preisendanz publishes the first volume of his edition of the Greek magical papyri. The synchronicity of art and scholarship is no coincidence. Compare a modernist nonsense 'poem' like Hugo Ball's 'Karawane' (jolifanto bambla ô falli bambla, grossiga m'pfa habla horem) to the above Ελελογη Ελογη, or to a typical invocation from the papyri
In the one case, the nonsensical or halfsensical babble is religious; in the other, it is secular, or a secular sort of religious. Men of all ages have sought oblivion and transcendence in pure sound and the free line.

17 May, 2008

Snail spam

Ours is essentially a tragic age, isn't it? So many of life's old arboreal joys have been lost to electrons and photons. The tree-house sits empty, its former occupants toying with Second Life; unwanted conkers litter the ground, as the kids are mainlining Grand Theft Auto. Us bespectacled types—I do not wear spectacles—have moved on, too. We read brochures online, news online, even whole books online. And it seems as though all the old frauds and snake-oil have given out in the face of information-age obnoxities: viruses, spyware, spam. O spam! In the space of just a few years we have gotten so used to it that we can hardly imagine life without it.

It was a relief, then, to be reminded last week that the old pleasures, if fast receding, are not completely extinct. I received a neat official letter from the little rocks of the sea, Roquetas de Mar, on the south coast of Spain, informing me that I had won the El Gordo Spanish Sweepstake to the tune of €615,810, which in today's money is just over £489,777. All I had to do was kindly fill out my banking details on a separate form, and the prize money would soon be mine.

Just look at the opulence of this page, a veritable Book of Kells: no expense has been spared. From the random capital letters and underlinings, to the subtly-twisted English that would have made a Joyce proud—We hope that with the part of your prize, you will take part in our next Year high Stake of €1.3 billion International Lottery. The name Antonio Gomez has been lovingly constructed to denote approximately 5,000,000 persons, but look at the author of the letter: Dr. Diego Lupe, VP—Jake the Wolf!

Gentlemen, we are in safe hands: this is vintage snail spam, the sort of thing my illustrious forebears all tasted—from Ruskin and Arnold down to Beckett and Borges—before the coming of the dreaded internet. How much more charming, how much more elegant the sweepstake swizz, than today's flash ads for huge knobs. Make your thing as big as life, says my inbox this morning. We caught you naked in shower conradroth. Clutching my Spanish epistle, just for a moment, I swoon in the aroma of past ages. All, surely, is not lost.

14 May, 2008

Pigeons among cat

I arrive home and find the half-drunk port in the living room bouleversé. The Goethe on top of the bookcase, likewise, is bouleversé. The flowers on the table are bouleversés. The books stacked and not yet shelved are, yes, bouleversés. My first thoughts are of Aubrey. Aubrey is our kitten. My wife's kitten. (Picture of kitten. I recommend not clicking this link if you are squeamish.)

I look down at the floor and notice that the floorboards are studded with merde. I glance at the sofa and find merde there, too. I find merde on the chair, merde on the card-table, merde on the CD-player, merde on my wife's book. (No merde on my books—the merdeur evidently has taste.) Aubrey is nowhere to be seen.

I am in the room for about two minutes, looking at all the bouleversement, and at all the merde, before I notice that I am not alone. Perched, quite serenely, on a low shelf in the corner, is a huge pigeon.

I cannot stop myself exclaiming, Holy fucking sh—

I say something similar when I see the other pigeon, equally as big, scrunched up on the top bookshelf, next to my Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and, with the greatest contentment, merde-ing.

The windows are shut. A trail of merde leads confidently to the bathroom, where, sure enough, the window is open. Gobbets and pellets of merde, in a variety of sizes and shapes, adorn the bath, sink, taps, soap.

As I come back into the living-room, the Birds are getting rowdy. I haul up the sashes and am showered with squawks and the beating of wings. There follows a game of chicken—or rather, of pigeon—as I dart around, attempting to shoo the birds outside with cushions and pillows. Instead they hop back and forth along the ceiling, from the bookcase to the top of the window to the CD-player, banging repeatedly into the top (closed) panes and quite failing to grasp the simple mechanics of the sash. I toss coasters at them. Still nothing.

Half an hour later, they are gone. Aubrey is still absent. Did the Birds take him, or even eat him? Do Birds eat kittens? Mrs. Roth is absent too. Do Birds eat—?


Le monde, il a besoin de moins de chats choyés,
et de plus de pigeons provocateurs

— La Rothfoucauld

06 May, 2008


By the time I wander to bed Lily is already asleep, wreathed in shadows. Her form is barely visible, half under the silk sheets, scotopically indiscernible as scarlet, barely lit by the first few photons of morning twilight—the whole effect is of a late Malevich, black on not quite black. I nudge and prog at a dormant knee that has invaded my half of the bed, so as to enter, and she stirs still asleep, recontorts herself, like a kitten, and as I settle my head on the pillow, she comes to rest with her shoulders pressing down against mine. I lie half-trapped, restless as ever, contemplating.

I have stayed up all night finishing Sartor Resartus. It is the sort of book you stay up all night finishing, even if you have read it before. I find it immensely difficult to turn the pages—and often I find myself turning them, only to realise I have hardly understood or digested the page apparently just read. I force myself to go back, mostly. And I read it in different editions. First in my undated but elegantly bound Ward & Lock edition from around the turn of the last century. Then in Rodger Tarr's critical edition in the Library. Finally on Gutenberg.

Sartor is curious in its combination of two usually distinct modes of Romantic thought—the 'total irony' of Tieck and early Schlegel; and the yearning floridity of Werther, Novalis or Wordsworth. It is Nietzsche contra Wagner. Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, the protagonist, stands for the latter; his editor for the former. Of course it is not that simple—but it is the duality of these two moods that most strikes me in the work.

In the middle of the second book, Teufelsdrockh gets dumped.
I was alone, alone! Ever too the strong inward longing shaped Phantasms for itself: towards these, one after the other, must I fruitlessly wander. A feeling I had, that for my fever-thirst there was and must be somewhere a healing Fountain. To many fondly imagined Fountains, the Saints' Wells of these days, did I pilgrim; to great Men, to great Cities, to great Events: but found there no healing. In strange countries, as in the well-known; in savage deserts, as in the press of corrupt civilization, it was ever the same: how could your Wanderer escape from—his own Shadow?
You see how quickly Carlyle shifts tone. The syntax of that last line has the zesty unmistakeable ring of—Zarathustra. "Wer hat nicht für seinen guten Ruf schon einmal—sich selbst geopfert?" "Was meinte jener Gott, welcher anrieth: 'erkenne dich selbst'! Hiess es vielleicht: 'höre auf, dich etwas anzugehn! werde objektiv!'—Und Sokrates?Und der 'wissenschaftliche Mensch'?" But for the moment I am less concerned with the gangasrotagati, and more with Carlyle's image of the wanderer and his shadow. Tarr annotates:
Compare Goethe's epigram: 'Was lehr' ich dich von allen Dingen? — / Könntest mich lehren von meiner Schatte zu springen!" (What shall I teach thee, the foremost thing? / Couldst teach me off my own shadow to spring!) Compare also The Life of John Sterling (1851), 130.
This is lazy editorship. 'Compare, compare, compare.' Well, why? Is there a broader context? Tarr doesn't tell us. It's also a rotten translation of the German. And as for John Sterling (1851), p. 130, there is no p. 130. Or rather it is a blank page immediately following a chapter-heading. I go on Gutenberg's John Sterling and word-search 'shadow'. And I find no remotely plausible match. Like his namesake, Tarr is evidently messing with us.

But consider this. Carlyle was writing Sartor around 1830. He knows modern German literature back to front, and he knows older German literature pretty damn well too. In 1830 he also begins writing a History of German Literature; the primary focus of this is Märchen and folklore, and yet it doesn't get much beyond the Nibelungenlied. Given these facts, it seems inconceivable that Carlyle was not familiar with what was, since its 1814 publication, one of the most famous books in Germany—Chamisso's latter-day fairytale, Peter Schlemihl. This is a story about a man who diabolically bargains off his shadow for a bag of inexhaustible wealth, is exiled from society, and becomes a wanderer. Chamisso himself was something of a wanderer—a French nobleman who left during the Revolution. In a letter to Madame de Staël, he wrote:
I am nowhere at home. I am a Frenchman in Germany and a German in France. A Catholic among Protestants, a Protestant among Catholics, a Jacobin among aristocrats, an aristocrat among democrats.
(Compare Einstein's famous quip: 'If relativity is proved right the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the Germans will call me a Jew.' Or don't.)

Ruth Wisse, in a book on schlemihl literature, reads the shadow of Chamisso's Schlemihl as 'that extension of the self which is visible to others though extraneous to its owner. In the self-sufficiency of his room Peter does not miss his shadow, but the moment he attempts to mingle in society, he is mocked and ostracized'. When the Devil wants to swap back his shadow in exchange for his soul, Schlemihl refuses to trade—for the outer soul is less important than the inner soul, which must be protected at all costs.

In one scene, he discovers his shadow in a wood and chases after it:
The shadow on my moving fled before me, and I was compelled to begin an active chase after the unsubstantial wanderer. The eager desire to be released from the perplexities in which I stood armed me with unusual strength. It fled to a distant wood, in whose obscurity it necessarily would have been immediately lost.
Sadly, he doesn't catch it. The Devil retains possession. And later, when the Devil, walking beside him, allows him the temporary loan of his shadow, Schlemihl tries to start his horses and race off with it, but
I could not elope with the shadow, it slipped away when the horse started, and waited on the road for its lawful owner. I was obliged to turn round, ashamed; the man in the grey coat, as he unconcernedly finished his tune, began to laugh at me, and fixing the shadow again in its place, informed me it would only stick to me, and remain with me, when I had properly and lawfully become possessed of it. 'I hold you fast,' he cried, 'fast attached to the shadow; you cannot escape from me.'
In Peter Schlemihl, the wanderer has, much to his own chagrin, escaped from his own shadow, or rather it has escaped from him. I find it much more likely that Carlyle had this story in mind than an epigram by Goethe. Teufelsdrockh, like Schlemihl, is a Judaified German—a Wandering Jew. But for Carlyle, the shadow of a man is not a boon which grants him free access to society—it is a spectre of doubt, haunting him. Schlemihl is a wanderer because he has no shadow, but Teufelsdrockh is a wanderer because he has a shadow. Vain truly, he later adds, is the hope of your swiftest Runner to escape "from his own Shadow"! And still later, Teufelsdrockh exclaims—
Wretchedness was still wretched; but I could now partly see through it, and despise it. Which highest mortal, in this inane Existence, had I not found a Shadow-hunter, or Shadow-hunted; and, when I looked through his brave garnitures, miserable enough?
All wretched mortals are, like Schlemihl, hunting Shadows. (True, we are getting back to Plato's Cave as well—but nuances have begun to accumulate.)
Try him [man] with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men.—Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.
A 'black spot in our sunshine'—is Carlyle thinking of the other Diogenes, who bid the great Alexander to 'stand out of my sunlight'? (This related, incidentally, by yet another Diogenes.) Compare, compare, compare.


Did you think I wasn't going to mention Nietzsche again? Nietzsche has not one but two wanderers-and-his-shadow. The first is a little standalone bit that comes as a second sequel (1880) to his transitional work, Human, All Too Human. The Wanderer converses with his Shadow as a prologue and epilogue to a collection of aphorisms in the traditional Nietzschean manner.
The Shadow: It occurred to me that I've often been at your heels like a dog, and that you then—

The Wanderer: And couldn't I do in all haste something to please you? Don't you have a desire?

The Shadow: Nothing, except perhaps the same desire that the philosophical 'dog' had of the great Alexander: move a little out of the sun, it's getting too cold for me.
What is the Shadow for Nietzsche? A creature of the light:
The Wanderer: Only now do I notice how impolite I am, my beloved shadow: I have not said a word about how pleased I am to see you as well as hear you. You should know that I love the shadow as much as I cherish the light. For facial beauty, clarity of speech, quality and firmness of character, shadow is as necessary as light. They are not opponents: they are rather affectionate, holding hands—and if the light disappears, the shadow slips away after it.

The Shadow: And I hate the same thing you hate: the night; I love human beings, because they are devotees of light and I'm pleased when their eyes shine as they discern and discover knowledge—untiring knowers and discoverers that they are. That shadow, which all things cast, if the sunshine of perception falls upon them—that shadow am I as well.
A paradox: the shadow is allied not to darkness but to light. He is perhaps the dark and wise part of the soul that only appears in high contrast: only appears in the day, in affirmation. The Shadow is a familiar. Teufelsdrockh tried to shake his off; Schlemihl tried to recover his—Nietzsche's Wanderer learns from his. And Zarathustra meets his shadow too. (What book could be more like Sartor than Zarathustra?) At first he runs away, hoping to escape it: but as we have learnt, he cannot. He turns to confront the wretched being.
'Who art thou?' asked Zarathustra vehemently, 'what doest thou here? And why callest thou thyself my shadow? Thou art not pleasing unto me.'

'Forgive me,' answered the shadow, 'that it is I; and if I please thee not—well, O Zarathustra! therein do I admire thee and thy good taste. A wanderer am I, who have walked long at thy heels; always on the way, but without a goal, also without a home: so that verily, I lack little of being the eternally Wandering Jew, except that I am not eternal and not a Jew.'
Zarathustra's Shadow represents freedom without constraint: 'This seeking for my home: O Zarathustra, dost thou know that this seeking hath been my home-sickening; it eateth me up. Where is—my home? For it do I ask and seek, and have sought, but have not found it. O eternal everywhere, O eternal nowhere, O eternal—in-vain!'

And so Zarathustra delivers a little sermon: 'Thy danger is not small, thou free spirit and wanderer! To such unsettled ones as thou, seemeth at last even a prisoner blessed. Didst thou ever see how captured criminals sleep? They sleep quietly, they enjoy their new security. Beware lest in the end a narrow faith capture thee, a hard, rigorous delusion! For now everything that is narrow and fixed seduceth and tempteth thee.'

It is necessary to recall that this is not any old shadow, but Zarathustra's shadow: and so it is his opposite and double. The shadow is always a principle within us, an anima, that contains our opposite. It is always a burden. It was, in fact, a burden even for Schlemihl. For at the end of the book, divested of his shadow, he takes wing, leaving society and communing directly with nature, clad in seven-league boots. We must always have an ambivalent relation to our shadow, desiring and despising it, seeking to escape, and seeking to return. The shadow is there, a presence, and not there, an absence. It is beautiful because it is most like us. And so they say that art was first created when man tried to trace the outline of his own shadow in the sand. But it is not us: it is, even, the not-us.


We have been wandering for some time now. You will excuse me, reader. Why, you ask? It is in your nature. After all, I trust you have been—following closely.