21 December, 2007

Stone, Water, Angel

In Rome not a stone was looked at that wasn't shaped. Form had driven out all interest in matter. Now a crystal formation is becoming important again, and a shapeless stone is something. Thus does human nature cast about for help when there is no help left.

— Goethe, The Italian Journey, 1788.
There's a restaurant in Catalonia called El Bulli, which has just been voted the best in the world for the second time running. Its chef, Ferran Adrià, is in the habit of taking classic European dishes, and fissioning them out of familiarity. Here, for instance, is how he makes a Spanish omelette, courtesy of the Guardian: 'First, he reduces the old-fashioned tortilla to its three component parts: eggs, potatoes and onions. Then he cooks each separately. The finished product, the deconstructed outcome, is one-part potato foam, one-part onion purée, one-part egg-white sabayon. One isolated component is served on top of the other in layers, and topped with crumbs of deep-fried potatoes. The dish, minuscule, comes inside a sherry glass.'

Peter Ackroyd, in his magnopustical biography of London, does something similar to the city. His first two chapters are entitled 'The sea!' and 'The stones', treating the very fabric of London as essential parts of its history: the city is served as layered foams in a sherry glass. The ploy is a bold one, and pays rich dividends. 'The waters have not wholly departed, even yet, and there is evidence of their life in the weathered stones of London.' It is difficult to write about London after Ackroyd, so grand is his scope, so minute his detail. One can hope only to add footnotes, graft a few new connections, find a little corner of the canvas spare to fill in with a dash of colour. And so, my mind echoing with the waters and the weathered stones of London—plastic force and brute matter—I take a trip north, up to Angel, in the heart of Islington.


You can see a map of Angel. I have marked out the places of significance with coloured squares—pink for Stonefield Street, just north of Cloudesley Square, Street, Place; blue for the reservoir on Claremont Square; red for the New River Head by Sadler's Wells. On an early afternoon, Sunday, gelid and bright, with the trace of a cloud, suspent water, the place is crawling with all sorts, like most, not looking up or even straight ahead, but happy to shop nonetheless, and especially in such a hub of stereotyped and Americanesque commerce, with all their mates or bellamies, young or old, most white, but not all, and likely to find enough small and trinketlike items, enough bibelots and grockle, to tide over the family for another year. Pest'red roads. Out of sight, almost, the canal still flows, and by the towpaths the locals drink without talking; in the near-empty Prince of Wales, with its bad imitation-Asian food, a greying suit sings knowledgeably along to the latest Top 40 hit on the pub radio, embarrassing only myself.

The two-hour walk is not a fluid motion followed through, not a speech of thundering eloquence, but a series of confused jabs, turns, stops, in all directions, radiating from the station, seen in the middle of the map. My first little bummel takes me north for ten minutes, past the mall with its great ugly silver wings, bastard literalism, up to the back streets of Liverpool Road.

I confess from the start, I have come up here mostly because of Harold Bayley, who mused, in his charming 1935 The Lost Language of London, on the origins of Cloudesley Road:
It is happily possible at times to counter-check conclusions by what are seemingly synonymous terms; for example Cloudesley Road at Islington. Being aware that the origin of the word cloud was clude, an ancient and obsolete term for a mass or conglomeration of rocks,—
(I advert the reader to the OED on the word 'cloud':
In the sense 'rock, hill' OE. had clúd m., early ME. clūd, later cloud; and this also occurs in ME. in the sense 'clod'. The current sense is found first in end of 13th c. and is app. the same word, applied to a 'cumulus' in the sky. OE. clúd was on OTeut. type *klûdo-z (pre-Teut. type *glūto-) f. same root as CLOD, the original sense being 'mass formed by agglomeration, cumulus'.)
and back to Bayley:
—it seemed possible that Cloudesley Place marked a lea, meadow, or lieu, where at one time there stood a clude or mass of rock. To my subsequent satisfaction I found that into Cloudesley Square there leads a Stonefield Street, the inference being obvious that Stonefield alias Cloudesley was a field-name. This inference was later verified by the discovery that in 1516 a Richard Cloudesley who resided here bequeathed funds for the repair of a causeway, i.e. a stone-paved road, leading from his house to Islington Church. . . It is quite certain that the Richard Cloudesley of 1516 derived his surname from a somewhere existing Cloudesley probably from the very Cloudesley on which the family was then settled, for I am unable to trace any village or town so named.
Notice the strange acommatism of that last sentence, attributable or not to John Cowan's 'Idiot Copy-Editor God'—the lack of pause before 'probably' lends Bayley's prose an unexpected breathlessness. The whole, however, is enough to start investing these streets, pleasant if not spectacular, with the charm of history. Bayley is not ashamed of the subjective quality of his conclusions; he speaks the language of personal adventure ('satisfaction', 'discovery') that is so inviting, and virtually absent from serious scholarship.

So, the cloud brings together stone (clude) and water. But the water is south and east of here: in the streets around Cloudesley are only stone, plaster, and brick. And sand. The area is restricted to cars, which can enter only from Cloudesley Road to the west; this gives the streets a hermetic sort of privacy and quiet. It is a theological quiet. On Cloudesley Street is the sinister Grubb Institute, 'an applied research foundation working globally to mobilise values, faiths and beliefs as a resource for the transformation, healing and repair of organisations, people and society', founded in 1957.

The Institute features two Bazalgettes on its staff—presumably descendants of the great Bazalgette, chief engineer of London's sewers. Outside the entrance sits a car with a smashed window; apparently charity and 'wholeness' are not enough to curb street crime. Who would have thought? But at the end of the road, squat in the middle of Cloudesley Square, is the area's real theological stronghold, the Celestial Church of Christ. (Here's an old engraving, rather moiréd on the screen, of its original 1829 incarnation, Holy Trinity Church.)

The gauze protecting the two spires is sky-blue, making the stone melt into the firmament, liquidly, or nebulously, what you will. It is a church in the process of celestial translation, or else it is crumbling to bits, slowly, out of a neglect now bandaged by Lottery money, perhaps not too late.

If the Grubb Institute is sinister, then the Celestial Church is even sinisterer. A worldwide organization, it was founded in 1947, in Porto Novo, Benin; proposed seating-arrangements for the church were 'revealed through a Prophetess who under the influence of the Holy Spirit in the wilderness on Friday 5th of October, 1947, sketched the seating arrangement using oranges'. A senior minister, David Adeniyi, 'likened the church to the rock, as no one can break the rock with his foot, no one can have power over the church'. In 2004 the Nigerian minister of the Cloudesley Square church, Adeniran Magbagbeola, was arrested for conducting sham weddings under its roof, though he was spared gaol-time for ill health. None of this did I know when I walked through its doors.

Parts of the interior are in states of extreme disrepair, lending the hall a Romantic Gothic-horror atmosphere. Most of the stained glass, on the other hand, is intact. Coloured balloons litter the floor, and a plate of fruit has been set before the altar. This is probably the only church I've ever seen with a) a fluorescent cross, and b) a sandpit strewn with bibles:

The church's motto is 'A city built on a hill cannot be hidden', Matthew 5:14. (The next verse is, 'Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house'. Evidently men also light electric crosses and put them on sandpits.) London was not built on a hill; thus it can be hidden—hidden down quiet back-streets, and in occult churches and institutes, in stones, even in books.


South of Angel, south of the inextant Peacock Inn, just south of Sadler's Wells, is a little private enclosure containing a number of handsome buildings. This site is the old New River Head, the terminus of the New River entering London from Hertfordshire to the north. The New River, which, as every modern sign or website will eagerly inform you, is neither new nor a river, is instead a sophisticated canal constructed in the early 17th century, and financed by Sir Hugh Myddelton, Welsh entrepreneur and jeweller to the king.

In 1913, the site was purchased from the New River Company by the Metropolitan Water Board, suppliers of water to the capital between 1903 and 1974. One of the old Engine Rooms was destroyed, the Round Pond, into which flowed the River, was stopped up, the pipes excavated, and the new buildings, headquarters for the Board, erected. In 1946 the last filter beds were disassembled, and the river head was removed to nearby Stoke Newington. Thus, the Board developed its central operations as it obliterated the New River; water swelled and ebbed. The pentagonal edifice at the bottom of this picture was the Board's main office, built by Henry Austen Hall and completed in 1920, while the curvilinear shape at the top left is the Laboratory Building, put up in 1936-1938 by John Murray Easton (who also designed Aberconway House, Mayfair, currently on sale for a mere 25 million)—both have now been converted into apartments for the wealthy.

The Laboratory, solid and Decoish, with a smashing line and grand glasswork, is the resistance piece. A 1953 history of the Water Board has this to say of the building: 'The curved form adopted by the architect has several advantages. It has the effect of linking up with the existing Head Office building (the quadrant would, if produced, strike the end of these at right angles). It also provides some 30 feet more window space for the laboratories, all of which face the north light, and this is a distinct advantage.' The large plaster arms, high on the wall looking over the fountain, are of added interest (and you begin to see the even shadow creeping five minutes up the base of the arms):

These are the arms of the Water Board, granted in 1931. The motto reads Et plui super unam civitatem, 'And I rained over one city'; the words are from Amos 4:7 in the Vulgate translation. The supporters are Hygeia with her medicinal snake (sinister), representing sanitation, and Aquarius (dexter), representing water-supply—the two functions of the Board. And we can read a 'blazon' or description of the arms in the 1953 Board history: 'Argent on a Pile vert a dexter Hand Or issuing from a Cloud in chief proper and scattering eight Gouttes d'eau in base three Bars wavy Azure on a Chief nebuly of the first a Cross of Saint George charged with a Lion of England, And for the Crest on a Wreath of the Colours a Roundel charged with a Hand issuing from a Cloud and scattering Gouttes as in the Arms.' The book, drawn up by the Board itself as a thirty-year retrospective, goes on to discuss the reasons for its graphic choices. The 'pile vert' or green wedge derives from the arms of Sir Hugh Myddelton, who substituted that shape for his family's 'bend vert' in 1622. The central motif—the hand of God issuing rain—derives from a seal commissioned by the New River Company from the engraver William Hole in 1619; this 'depicts a Hand issuing out of the clouds throwing down rain upon the City of London. The seal also shows St. John's Gate and Old St. Paul's without the wooden steeple, which was burnt down in 1561 and never re-erected.' The machicolated line ('Chief nebuly') towards the top of the shield 'is heraldically supposed to represent the edges of clouds as drawn by medieval artists'. The Lion of England at the top, together with the azure bars at the bottom, recall the arms of the LCC, granted in 1914. The eight gouttes or drops stand for the eight water-companies that constituted the Board upon its foundation in 1903. Likewise, the supporters also derive from the arms of those companies: Hygeia from the Grand Junction Waterworks Company, and Aquarius from the East London Company, the Chelsea Company, the Lambeth Company, and the West Middlesex Company. (When the Metropolitan Water Board of New South Wales came to draw up their contract and arms (right) in 1965, they largely copied those of London.) The Board's arms can be found elsewhere in the environs of the city. In the historic pumping station at Kempton Park, still functioning, can be found the arms rendered in fine bright hues high on an interior wall (taken from here):

And the same arms are found in concrete, out in Crayford, in Bexley, the farthest reaches of what might reasonably be called 'London', catalogued here by the Public Monument and Sculpture Association, rather amateurishly ('the woman is on the left and seems to have a serpent around her arm'), as #BE003:

The most curious aspect of this design is clearly the central motif of the hand from the clouds; it is elaborated in a relief-sculpture nearby. Around the back of the site, past the Shakespeare's Head, in Myddelton Passage, on the front of a terraced row of flats, Worthington House and Benyon House, for no clear reason, I found this curiosity, twice:

When I first looked at this, it struck me that the distant church vaguely resembled Old St. Paul's; now, having read the 1953 history, it is clear to me that this is a copy of Hole's seal of 1619, with St. John's Gate in the foreground. The cloud, meanwhile, is fluffy and rounded enough to be a clude or heap of rocks. The seal is repeated in the atrium corridor of the old MWB offices, beside other roundels of Hygeia and Aquarius (the latter refashioned as the reclining river-god from Marcantonio's 1515 Judgement of Paris); the first picture I took was with a flash, and before I could get a better one the concierge shooed me away—

I wanted to determine some sort of provenance for this image of the pluvious hand, but turned up little. Filippo Picinelli's 1694 Mundus Symbolicus, a standard reference, contains nothing relevant. None of the emblems in the modern Henkel-Schöne Emblemata, meanwhile, possesses more than a very approximate similarity. Here, God's hand pours water from a jug on a heart beset by snakes, with the legend Invidentes egent, or 'The envious are wanting':

Another image, taken in turn from Théodore de Bèze's 1580 Icones (# 9), illustrates a quatrain beginning 'Pinge globum tenui quem libratum undique filo / Sustineat summi numinis alta manus', with God's hand supporting a city with a beam from above:

Thus my iconographical labours are in vain. (If only I had been Professor of Symbology at Harvard!) Still, it is a beautiful image, suggestive, if not fully sensical. It has value as a true emblem or impresa, where word and picture exist in uneasy tension. One of the chief rules for the impresa, at least according to Samuel Daniel, is 'that the figure without the mot, or the mot without the figure signifie nothing'. In other words, the emblem's text and image should be individually obscure, but mutually illuminating. Remember, the pluvious hand was originally designed for a river company: the fit is a little ill. Why not have the image of a river or waterway? Biblical quotations would have been easy enough: 'He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water' (John 7.38) could have been stripped down as 'flumina de ventre eius fluent aquae vivae', or something like that.

The relation of rain to river (or canal) is a complex one, mediated by stone, clude and cloud. It is from cloud that the hand emerges, and it is to stone that the rain returns. The whole is circled, on the seal, and on the roundel or Hurt atop the Board's escutcheon, which 'may also be regarded as representing the Firmament'. The verse from Amos reads, in full,
And also I have withholden the rain from you, when there were yet three months to the harvest: and I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city: one piece was rained upon [compluta], and the piece whereupon it rained not withered. So two or three cities wandered unto one city, to drink water; but they were not satisfied: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.
London is not the city built on a hill, but it is a city upon which rain has been allowed to fall, if not in such torrents as elsewhere. It has not withered. God chides the city for not acknowledging his providence. Are we being chided?


London has been so photographed, and so articulated; we know its monuments by sight and in prose. We know those works—the great and the grand. But there is room, also, for the lesser—for objects without shape or articulation. I need not show you the fine stone fountain of Nautilus Gardens, in the heart of the New River Head; nor Regent's Canal which runs east out of Angel; nor the stone Sadler's well, preserved under glass inside the theatre. We want to picture not just the forgotten and neglected, the lost nooks; but the unpicturable, as a quiet provocation. We picture them dark and bleak, half-obscured, dull, barely discernible, traces of form emerging from plain natural matter. The sky is white because it is not there, merely a mounting for the myriad earths.

I stumble down Pentonville Road, towards the Library, my commonest haunt, in the gathered near-twilight, with barely any interest in Pentonville Road, contemplating only the outline of a plot not quite sketched. I come upon Claremont Square and its reservoir. Sarah Jackson, for the London Gardens Trust, has roughed out the bones of square's history:
Claremont Square was developed between 1821 and 1828 around the old Upper Pond of the New River Company, built in 1709. The reservoir was covered and turfed in 1852 following the Metropolis Water Act which outlawed open areas of standing water in London. This covered storage reservoir is still owned and in use by Thames Water. The square has its original 19th-century railings.
The reservoir is thus inaccessible, a guarded tumulus of Victorian industry. By no means is the hill impressive, but its dullness recommends it as the object of portrayal, for London is dull, like a great city, brilliantly dull, like the half-rubbed-out canvas of an Old Master, or the Bacons half-visible behind frosted glass in Love is the Devil. London's beauty lies not in its vistas and façades, but in its supercilious brows, what it hints, just out of sight. This is the beauty of formless—or near formless—matter. Even Google Earth preserves the mystery:

Here the square, top-down, is reduced to geometric form; the north slope mars the symmetry just enough. A low wall runs around the green, and beyond that, eight round stubs of unknown function, like double-breasted buttons. The godsview only compounds the curiosity of the site: we see some but not much, and can get no closer without pixellation. Even if we could walk upon the hill, the true object, under the turf, would remain unknown. We want to peer inside; we want some sense of how London works, inside; this will be withheld. London is not a city built on a hill; it remains, perpetually, somewhat hidden.

Monochrome makes filigree of the trees. Consider standing water, how it nourishes the soil and the roots. Here we stand to the east, looking west; this castellar structure can be seen to the right of the green from the air. The river is left in the names. From this point you can look down Mylne Street towards Myddelton Square and St. Mark's; around the corner is ultra-chic Amwell Street, as well as Chadwell and River Streets. Here again we have the last vestiges of the New River—its arch-instigator, and its sources, Amwell and Chadwell, and Mylne after Robert and his son William Chadwell, the River's chief Victorian engineers. 'London is not said to be in England, but rather England to be in London', wrote Thomas Platter in 1599.

Lack of distraction returns the eye to the forbidden mound: one circles and circles, scouting for a way up, and there are steps, and a gate, but it is locked, and the heart sinks, but is also glad, that exploration is frustrate, and the mystery is retained. One projects instead. One interprets what few shapes are there to be interpreted: curve of the brow, steel rails, stub cylinder, low wall, as if ruined. Leafmeal. In such a context photography has the potential for expression, in and of itself.

Strait-laced types pass me on the street, having made their purchases at the local cheese-shop, or perhaps with handmade clocks, ticking, and all wrapped up warm with wools or tweels, eyeing me as I hold leather glove (left) in my teeth and juggle algidly with the camera. Why is he snapping that ugly old thing? The doors around the square are framed with crude crabbed fluted quarter-columns, and in places the plaster has been left to craze. Here (number 4, west side) lived Edward Irving, credited by the plaque as 'Founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church', though Wikipedia disputes the attribution. Tu es Petrus, the rock of ages; and no one can break the rock with his foot—no one can have power over the church. Only water can erode stone.

On the way down Pentonville Road I see this sculpture by the side of the road. It is like stylised water, mem, made into stone, a flow, petrified. It seems a fitting colophon for my journey.

16 December, 2007

Nine lives

A train.

Girl: There were nine. . . there were nine. . . there were nine, there were nine cats on a boat. One of them jumps into the water. How many cats are left?

Mother, doubtful: Eight.

Girl: No! There are zero; 'cos they were all copycats!

Mother, laughing: That's very clever! That's very very clever. Did you come up with that yourself?

Girl: Jack told it at assembly. But he said 'people', I made it 'cats'.

Mother: Well it's much more clever with 'cats', because of the punchline.

Girl: But Jack said it!

Mother: You said it with 'cats', didn't you? It's more clever with 'cats'—

Girl: Cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats!


Mother, patiently: It's very clever. I don't think you understand how clever it is.

12 December, 2007

What Kings Do

In the 13th chapter of Rabelais's Gargantua, the eponymous hero discusses with his father the merits of various torcheculs or arse-wipers:
But, to conclude, I say and maintain, that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole cleansers, and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs. And believe me therein upon mine honour, for you will thereby feel in your nockhole a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softness of the said down and of the temporate heat of the goose, which is easily communicated to the bum-gut and the rest of the inwards, in so far as to come even to the regions of the heart and brains.
It's an appealing thought, and it turns up again in the most unlikely place. In 2000, one Ted Kessler for the NME interviewed Liam Gallagher of the rock band Oasis, putting readers' questions to him and his bandmate, Alan White. Asked about his 'fascination with Elvis Presley', Liam retorts:
Liam: "My fascination with Elvis? Just the wiping his arse with gooses' necks does it for me, man. That just kills me."

Alan: "What d'you mean; wiping his arse with a goose's neck?"

Liam: "That's what he did, apparently. He'd have a big fuckoff box of or bucket of gooses' necks that had just been chopped off and he's a proper yellowbelly from down South (Dixie accent momentarily), 'That's me boy', and he'd wipe his arse out the window with gooses' necks. The dirty fucking. . . he is the king. That's what kings do, innit? You know what I mean? They do, don't they?"
Notice, incidentally, in amongst Gallagher's Mancunian vulgarity, the daintiness of 'box of or bucket of'; one wonders if this is indeed an accurate transcription. Still, how on earth does a jest from Rabelais wind up as urban legend about Elvis? I must confess myself unfamiliar with the written literature and oralia of the King; perhaps one of my readers has a clue.

07 December, 2007


Five-minute chat with the great S. C. at the Library today. I'm terribly fond of him; perhaps I've never met anyone quite so impressively an und für sich. And wie große Unzufriedenheit! If at 80 I have an iota of his sublime old Britishness and quiet disenchantment, I'll have done alright for myself. He talked about some debate on Monday, What Happened to the Avant-Garde?, with A. S. Byatt ('the ugly Duchess'), Gabriel Josipovici ('very boring') and the ghost of Julian Bell ('nephew, is it, of Virginia Woolf? Anyhow, they were all fucking each other'). I've never read Byatt, and only Josipovici's introduction to Beckett's Trilogy, which struck me as bland and smug, a ride with latex gloves on the tails of modernism, haut et fin, well-set and printed immaculately, a paragon of our literature. I said I thought S. should know more about the avant-garde than any of that lot, so generous with their opinions; but apparently he'd declined to involve himself in the debate. Byatt, he said, had made free with Matisse's dictum that art should be like an armchair, very pleasurable, which seemed contemptible to both of us, though not at all unsuited to 'the most vapid of the twentieth-century masters', as Brian Sewell put it. 'She's rather like a big armchair herself', remarked S., wistfully, under his fat beard.


On the weekend, when I should have been blogging working, I read Matthew Arnold's essay on translating the Iliad, in which he swings round with an easel's jawbone, laying waste the pretensions of the Philistine hordes. Between Francis Newman and Homer is a 'cloud of more than Egyptian thickness', and as for the wretched William Cowper,
To suppose that it is fidelity to an original to give its matter, unless you at the same time give its manner; or, rather, to suppose that you can really give its matter at all, unless you can give its manner, is just the mistake of our pre-Raphaelite school of painters, who do not understand that the peculiar effect of nature resides in the whole and not in the parts.
From these lofty swipes and jabs arise in great clouds the nit and grit of words, phrases, metres, rhythms, Greek and English, a welter of language, pronouncements of taste. I approve of Arnold: he will get his fists dirty, even if he keeps his nose retroussed. He can talk of nobility, of the 'plain and direct'; but also of Homer's ha deiló over against Chapman's poor wretched beasts. Something of this has been lost with Modernism, and especially with the resenters. We have relinquished all confidence in our pronouncements. It is because we are no longer of interest to others: only our words. Literary language is no more informed by charisma; so it is no wonder that writers should now be the dullest bunch—nice, 'controversial', it matters little. I don't think we want to piece together a person from his written words any more: that 'person' is another idol of the cave, another icon to be clastised.
I advise the translator to have nothing to do with the questions, whether Homer ever existed; whether the poet of the Iliad be one or many. . .
For Arnold, in the face of the philologists, the sceptics, who would later herald the Death of the Author, Homer exists, for the sake of argument, and moreover he is noble, which we know because his poems are noble.
"It is very well, my good friends," I always imagine Homer saying to them: if he could hear them: "you do me a great deal of honour, but somehow or other you praise me too like barbarians." For Homer's greatness is not the mixed and turbid grandeur of the great poets of the north, of the authors of Othello and Faust; it is a perfect, a lovely grandeur.
Perhaps we should not so well be asking, with such pitiless conceit, What happened to the avant-garde?, as if literary creativity were a force that spent itself out forever in 1973 or 1989, as if the oracles had ceased, but rather, How can we recover from the avant-garde? After an era that conflated artistic change and technological progress, what have we left to say?


It gets dark earlier and earlier; the sun at one is already setting. I have taken to wearing a smoking-cap of dark green velvet with gold embroidery, kindly donated, though I was sad to learn that it has no more exotic name than smoking-cap. The snivelling pedants who fill up Call my Bluff and the OED with words like zarf and ceiba have fallen down on the job this time.

London is still Victorian in places. Borough Market after the library shuts, just to find a gobbet of Boerenkaas for a Dutch friend's birthday; I contemplate ostrich, ripe Caerphilly and Basque pork, proffered by rosy-cheeked youths in aprons and padded jackets. On the way home I try to make 'Boerenkaas' rhyme with baas and haas for a poem, in vain. A tinge of pleasure, offsetting the neon and sodium of dreadful night, afforded by the new St. Pancras, the glory of Victorian rail. The vaunted 'longest champagne bar in Europe' turns out to be a rather small champagne bar coupled to a seating-area inexplicably extended across the length of the concourse. And naturally, they couldn't carry out the restoration without adding a hideous statue to dazzle the Continental snobs. Unsworth's, just across the street, is finally going out of business, or so they say on the grapevine, so I popped in and picked up a knock-down Thoemmes reprint of Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, first published only 17 years before Arnold on Homer. Here's Chambers on the orbit of Uranus:

There is some profound comfort about this prose; no matter how recondite the subject, the style never loses its éclat, its colour, and the mind's eye is always half set on the Old Testament. Darwin whinged about the book's science, even more so after it was attributed to him (among others) by the popular press. When I consider Chambers and Arnold, Hood and Browning, Kingsley and Spencer, and all the rest, I wonder why 'Victorian culture' makes us think only of Dickens, Tennyson and Millais. How much have we forsaken?

24 November, 2007

Millais vs. Roth

Today I learnt that my old English teacher Jim Cogan—who nursed me through the adolescence of my writing career, each week insisting I stick only to prose or poetry from now on, and teeming with suggestions, privately dismissive of my classmates as 'little shits', and father to a legendary beauty whom none of us had ever seen—died a couple of months ago. He got a Times obituary and all. Without him Conrad would have looked very different on the page, I can assure you. The distant hoarding is empty tonight, shorn of its commerce and capital, image and word; just black, in a square of light, like the page for Yorick in Tristram Shandy, or a black flag flown at half-mast, for the dead.


My friends and I went to the Millais exhibition at the Tate. Mrs. Roth, who actually likes Millais, did not come, due to a butterfooted accident, earlier in the day. It is just as well. It might have riled her to hear me go on about Millais so. I walked round passively for a while before really venting my opinions. It has been a hard week, dour and pluvious, with crows craking on the rooflight, mordant winds, and a chill springing up in the common room.

I have been sombre, pent-up, pensive, apprehensive, paranoid, frustrate and cantankerous. The usual, yes, but a little more so. I needed something vituperable, and so I found it. Jim would have been proud, possibly.

One's first sight upon entering the show's first room—painted a charming prussian green, by some margin the prettiest shade in the whole show—is a certain 'hideous, blubbering, wry-necked, red-headed boy in a bed gown', and beside him a 'kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing that it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster from the vilest cabaret in France or the lowest gin shop in England'. That would be, of course, Christ in the House of his Parents. Thankfully, the massed ranks of gapers swiftly obscure the painting, but in doing so, they sadly reveal other canvases of equivalent ugliness—Millais's 'first exhibited work', for instance, daubed in 1846, when the lad was just 16; in technical terms impressive for a man of any age. It is there for contrast, we are told:
In 1848 Millais's art underwent a dramatic transformation when he established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with a group of six other rebellious young artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. This movement was formed in a spirit of opposition to the operatic illusionism that underpinned British academic painting and which characterises Millais's own Pizarro of 1846.
So runs the blurb affixed to the wall of the first room, in large letters for the sand-blind, who must be making up a sizable majority of the crowd, and getting their full money's worth. A while ago, Gawain interrogated guidespeak on the matter of Titian. I did not hear guidespeak, nor was I about to shell out 3 quid (and that's on top of an exorbitant nine for the show, with student discount) for an audiobox to tell me what to think; so I will have to rest content to interrogate wallspeak instead. Do you like that word, 'underpinned'?

In the third room, Millais shifts 'dramatically' from pre-Raphaelitism to a 'new manner', here labelled Aestheticism: 'Retrospectively, such works appear to have heralded the inception of British Aestheticism's ideal of Art for Art's sake, anticipating the subsequent work of Rossetti, Whistler, and Albert Moore.' This is, of course, meaningless. How can any painting appear to herald the inception of an ideal, retrospectively or not? Is there really such a difference between the pre-Raph Millais and the 'Aestheticist' Millais? Is it just that his brushstrokes are a bit looser? The first offering in this room, apparently painted with his forehead, is the Eve of St. Agnes, which looks like a Degas that has just died:

With aestheticism goes decadence, I suppose, and third-room Millais is certainly into decay, or I should say, 'transience'. Here is a great Gawainian word—transience. It recurs again and again. Here's what Tate says of Autumn Leaves, an 1856 canvas featuring the facial talent of Millais's new cuñada, Sophie Gray:
The figural composition resembles a Renaissance altarpiece, and the picture has been seen as a rumination on the transience of life. But Millais presents the girls on the verge, not of death but of maturity, to awaken a sense of nostalgia in the viewer.
The commatic structure of that last sentence is wrong, I think. It should say, 'on the verge not of death, but of maturity, [so as] to awaken'. It is also unclear just how a scene of girls on the verge of maturity might awaken nostalgia in a viewer—'a sense of' is mere padding—and how the hack can be so damn sure of this 'viewer' in the first place. Wikipedia, incidentally, agrees with 'transience', and uses the same passive weasel-words to assert it:
The painting has typically been interpreted as a representation of the transience of youth and beauty, a common theme in Millais's art.
But Wikipedia at least has the grace to use the word 'representation'. Tate has described the painting as a 'rumination', yet another offensively meaningless article of artspeak. Now, Gawain has a 'nothing ugly' policy for pictures on his site. I don't. So let's have a look at the bloody thing:

Does the figural composition resemble a Renaissance altarpiece? Malcolm Warner thinks something similar: 'These gestures on Millais's part towards religious symbolism, along with the hieratic detachment of the girls from one another, and the way the two sisters to the left look out to us as if offering some kind of intercession, gently recall a company of saints in an altarpiece.' The problem with this sort of comparison is that it is impossible to refute.

Transience and mortality are everywhere. Take another third-room picture, Spring (above), painted in the three years following Autumn Leaves, and possibly the least unattractive work on display. If 'Autumn' is about transience—or maturity, or nostalgia, or something like that—then surely 'Spring' should be about fertility and fecundity?
Spring equates Millais's new ideas of female beauty with natural and human mortality. . . Alice Gray posed for the girl on the far right. Above her a scythe acts as a symbol of mortality, and makes plain the meaning of the picture—that human and natural beauty will fade.
Aargh—death again! Yet more transience! And the internet agrees:
The girls, relaxing in an orchard of spring blossom, are tasting curds and cream. The underlying theme, however, is the transience of youth and beauty. This is expressed in the fragile bloom of adolescence, the wild flowers and the changing seasons. The scythe on the right indicates the inevitability of death.
I want you to consider these statements. For Tate, the scythe reveals the 'meaning of the picture'. Implied is that the picture has a meaning—that it makes sense for pictures to have a meaning, to be 'about something'—and that that meaning is central to the picture's value. In this example, the 'meaning' of the picture is that 'human and natural beauty will fade'. The meaning is a proposition, to which the picture can be reduced. For the online text, from the Lady Lever Gallery in Liverpool, transience is not the 'meaning', but rather the 'underlying theme', which is both 'expressed in' and 'indicated by' the surface details. If this sounds either confusing or wrong to you—it is. Both.

All of these sentences are easy to glide over. Tate and Lever want you to read them like this: 'Spring, Millais, female beauty, natural and human, mortality, scythe, symbol, mortality, meaning, human and natural, beauty.' The gawker, one of the middles taking a cultured day off from her nine-to-five, and probably nodding along to the voice piped in from the audio-tour—a voice, no doubt, using words like 'beauty' and 'meaning'—smiles contentedly that she has decoded the symbolism and enriched her spiritual life with beauty and meaning. She is fed her pabulum, and moves on. Every time we go to a gallery, we are fed this pap, over and over again, and hardly notice it. We start talking pabulum. We talk of beauty and meaning, and of themes; we say that paintings are about things, or rather some paintings, good paintings—we like the paintings of which we can say that they are about things—we flatter ourselves—we perpetuate pap.

But if we actually read the bloody sentences, and think about how the words relate to ideas, and the ideas to each other, we should begin to realise how little these sentences mean as propositions. 'Spring equates Millais's new ideas of female beauty with natural and human mortality.' I defy you to get any sense—let alone any good sense, and let alone something true—out of that.

At times the cant reaches grotesque levels. Room Five is the most ghastly of all rooms, not only in this exhibition, but in any exhibition, in any museum. The Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's has nothing on it. They have banned smoking in enclosed public spaces; I move to ban Millais's 'Fancy Pictures' in all public spaces, enclosed or not. Avert your eyes, for here is one:

And here—oh, you've been waiting for this, you damned cynic—is the blurb:
In taking on a genre widely perceived to have degenerated into something rather trite and whimsical, Millais sought to elevate it by imbuing his child subjects with a sense of mortality. Emblems suggesting the fragility of existence such as flowers, birds and bubbles were common in these works, and models were often posed as philosophers lost in thought or contemplating the beauty and transience of the natural world.
If only Millais himself had been imbued with mortality at an early age. I ask you, if a flower is now shorthand for the italicised phrases, then there a god's lot of philosophical gardeners out there. I could only think of the poor children pressed into service as Christ, Ralegh, leaf-bearers or, god forbid, philosophers.


My companions in torture, who in fact loved every minute of it, and tolerated my contempt with good cheer, thought that perhaps I might be saying that Millais is 'sentimental'. The word is initially appealing, but does not get us very far. If I am, as I claim, a formalist, why should I object to sentiment? If a formalist, it must be pure form—rosy cheeks, luminous outlines, soft focus, pastels—that offends me. But then: is my objection to this form arbitrary? Or is it, rather, a response conditioned by long association of that form with the sentimental? Genuinely, I am not sure. Occasionally I see things I almost like: the cavalcade of receding profiles in Isabella, the Ernstian foliage in Ophelia, or the Rorschach tree-silhouettes poking up above the horizon in Autumn Leaves. But these details are always, always, ruined by context: the incessant brightness and over-modelling of Isabella, the structural flaccidity of Ophelia, and the clashing purples and reds, cold and wan, of Autumn Leaves.

And curiously, I love the actual Pre-Raphaelites; why should I like one and not the other? Are they very similar at all? I suggested that one of the advantages of Renaissance altarpieces (for example) is that one doesn't need to worry about meaning or themes, let alone transience. A picture of Christ taken down off the Cross is just that—it is not about anything. This frees us to concentrate on form. Towards Raphael start appearing problem paintings whose meaning is very much under discussion—the Grand Boojum being the Primavera. But the vast majority of the religious and secular painting of the Quattrocento wears its 'meaning' on its sleeve. And that 'meaning' is never transience—not until the Seicento. It is a tremendous relief.
Pre-Raphaelite works revived medieval and early-Renaissance art and featured a deliberate naivety in composition and a psychological intensity which insisted on the quirks and specifics of human physiognomy.
We're back to the first room now. The presentism is obvious: Quattrocento composition must be 'naïve', just as its artists are 'primitives'. But whence cometh 'psychological intensity'? Is the century before Raphael noted for that? I think of it as an era of flat arrangements and elongated figuration, miniaturist style, perspectival experiment, the sweet and tasteful soft, classical erudition, sinuous lines, colours glowing subtly on an understated ground—all this I saw in the Siena show at the National, and none of it do I associate with the PRB, with its chunky figures, plain light, garish jewel-tones and cloy. Millais was an artist of undoubted technical ability, but no warmth, and no confidence. In the 1870s he started painting the sort of academic pompiage his 1848 self hated, but Tate is on hand to save his reputation:
As well as expressing the persona of the artist, gestural brushwork also communicated his identification with an Old Master tradition in painting epitomised by Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt.
Everywhere we turn, his reputation is saved. It is to be saved. He can do no wrong: even the bucketworthy tableaux of Room Five are 'elevated' by 'a sense of mortality'. Here he is richly allegorical: there he paints for 'non-specialists eager for drama, characterisation and narrative'. He winds up painting landscapes, full of 'celebrations of autumnal scenery and light, and unresolved narratives'. I wonder if there is transience somewhere in that autumnal light. Millais clearly wanted it all—and the Tate has given it to him. We should be refusing this, we few, no less strongly than we refuse the junk shored up against Britain each year by the Turner Prize. Let us have some pride in our cynicism.

19 November, 2007

On the Patriarchy

Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness is an odd book, that's for sure. In what other work of modern scholarship would you find an expression like 'a crotch of upper branch awninged with green leaves'? The OED does indeed list 'crotch' in the sense (#4) of 'The fork of a tree or bough, where it divides into two limbs or branches', though it has no more recent usage than 1889. But the use of 'branch' here is very strange: it is treated almost as a mass noun, without article or quantifier. And although 'awninged' is correct, I wish it were 'awned'.

If you dipped into the first chapter, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a book on language. Jaynes, like Mencius, likes toying with English and coming up with new terms—for instance, he coins 'struction' to cover both instruction and construction. After insisting (as would George Lakoff, much more famously, four years later) that metaphor is the 'very constitutive ground of language', Jaynes goes on to coin 'metaphier' and 'metaphrand' as the two parts of a metaphor. (I. A. Richards had already done this, of course, in his 1936 Philosophy of Rhetoric, with the terms 'vehicle' and 'tenor'. And let's not even talk about Saussure, whose semantics had largely been invented by the ancient Stoics.) Science, declares Jaynes, like Vaihinger before him, is determined by metaphors, while
Even such an unmetaphorical-sounding word as the verb ‘to be’ was generated from a metaphor. It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, “to grow, or make grow,” while the English forms ‘am’ and ‘is’ have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi, “to breathe.”
A. S. Diamond, in his brilliant Origin of Language, reckoned the original of am and asti as 'to eat', noting the similarity of Latin esse (to be) / esse (to eat), and correlating food with life. In his 1690 Essay, Book 3, chapter 1, section 5, John Locke had asserted the 'sensible' (sensory) origin of all words:
SPIRIT, in its primary signification, is breath; ANGEL, a messenger: and I doubt not but, if we could trace them to their sources, we should find, in all languages, the names which stand for things that fall not under our senses to have had their first rise from sensible ideas.
Sadly, as Hans Aarsleff has pointed out, there is no sensible origin for the root of the word 'mind', 'mens' etc. And similarly, linguists have come up dud on the two roots of the verbum abstractum, es- and bheu- as Watkins lists them. Finally, Jaynes gets to consciousness itself, which he visualises as 'an analogy of what is called the real world. . . built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world'. Truth be damned, this is sublime stuff! Finally he introduces the 'paraphrand', or the body of associations and salient attributes of the metaphrand. This lets him write:
The map-maker and map-user are doing two different things. For the map-maker, the metaphrand is the blank piece of paper on which he operates with the metaphier of the land he knows and has surveyed. But for the map-user, it is just the other way around. The land is unknown; it is the land that is the metaphrand, while the metaphier is the map which he is using, by which he understands the land. And so with consciousness. Consciousness is the metaphrand when it is being generated by the paraphrands of our verbal expressions. But the functioning of consciousness is, as it were, the return journey. Consciousness becomes the metaphier full of our past experience, constantly and selectively operating on such unknowns as future actions, decisions, and partly remembered pasts, on what we are and yet may be. And it is by the generated structure of consciousness that we then understand the world.
So consciousness is sort of a map of reality, generated by language and used by memory, in a constant oscillation. Presumably Jaynes is riffing on, or perhaps just ripping off, that famous motto of Alfred Korzybski. Consciousness comes to be built up from a linguistic model of events via 'narratization', by which our actions are moulded into coherent patterns of cause and effect over time. (MacIntyre thinks this narrativity has been lost. Raminagrobis agrees, sort of.)


Later, much later, Jaynes describes superstition as 'only a metaphier grown wild to serve a need to know'. This rather reminded me of a description of Elizabethan prose I once came across: 'the intense elaboration of the vehicle causes the tenor to recede uncomfortably close to disappearing altogether'. Both lines evoke a fault: the supererogation of the subaltern, by which the map is taken for the territory, the model extended too far. Thus Marx generalised from his time to all time; Freud from a few patients to all patients, and all symptoms. Wittgenstein had claimed something similar in the 1921 Tractatus:
There is no possible way of making an inference from one situation to the existence of another, entirely different situation. There is no causal nexus to justify such an inference. We cannot infer the events of the future from those of the present. Superstition [Aberglaube] is nothing but belief in the causal nexus.
(Our friend Yusef will be keen to learn Hitler's opinions on superstition, no doubt: 'Superstition, I think, is a factor one must take into consideration when assessing human conduct, even though one may rise superior to it oneself and laugh at it. It was for this reason, to give you a concrete example, that I once advised the Duce not to initiate a certain action on the thirteenth of the month. Such things are the imponderables of life, which one cannot afford to neglect, for those who believe in them are quite capable, at a moment of crisis, of causing the greatest consternation.')

The view of superstition presented by Jaynes and Wittgenstein has its roots in classical antiquity. Theophrastus simply defines deisidaimonia (superstition) as 'cowardice in regard to the supernatural'. But Plutarch, writing about 400 years later, develops deisidaimonia, literally a 'fear of the daemons', as manifest in a propensity to over-interpret natural signs: 'he who is afraid of the gods, is in fear of everything—the sea, the air, the sky, darkness, light, a call, silence, a dream'—'to the superstitious man, every infirmity of body, every loss of money, or loss of children, every unpleasantness or failure in political matters, are called "plagues from God," and "assaults of the demon"'. This is line with Plutarch's general approach to the world as a system of signs to be decoded: superstition is a failure to interpret signals, an inference beyond that which can be made, just as for modern thinkers it is a misconstrued model of reality.

11 November, 2007

Obitur dictum

So, the world is one week deeper into factionalist chaos, and more importantly, the old fugger is dead. That will teach him to go licking Chinese toys, won't it? No doubt we'll have our fair share of laments and threnodies, not just for a man, but for an era that he may, or of course may not, have represented. To me he represents only that whole worthy crowd of modern American penmen whom one is supposed to admire. The old fugger has that aura—the one that makes latterday Trillings spill prose all over their pants in the NYT, LRB or TLS. I could have admired them. If I had done my MA in American literature at Oxford in 2003, I would have admired them, and would admire them still. After all, there is so much to admire. But I made my choice. I've read hardly a novel, hardly anything post-war of artistic significance for five years—and my admiration has cooled, inevitably, though I daresay not irrevocably. Our modern literature says nothing to me, despite all its bravura. It was lucky, in a way, that I read Cur Vietnam?, the fugger's best book, and for some reason the one never mentioned by commentators (here, for instance), back when I was still charmed by the modern line, back when it could still speak to me.
Mailer is one of the last Western writers to create a self-contained intellectual universe out of strong, idiosyncratic convictions about the relationship between spiritual, psychic and social existence.
Amazingly, this sentence was written before Mailer's death. It comes from a long, adulatory piece by Lee Siegel in the New York Times, only nominally about Mailer's last book, The Castle in the Forest. I'd dearly like to see someone slip it out again, under cover of dark, as part of obituary, altering only 'is' to 'was'. It could have been written at any time, and about any author. One might change 'Mailer' to 'Shakespeare' and attribute it to Harold Bloom, or slot in 'Joyce' and give it to Cyril Connolly in 1929. In 1929, Connolly wrote an opinion piece on the fragments of Finnegans Wake then appearing in Eugene Jolas's little magazine for rebels and misfits, Transition. In Connolly's opinion,
Literature is in essence a series of new universes enforced on a tardy public by their creators.
That is how one defends Joyce, and it is, I think, the only serious way of doing so. Connolly is praising experimentation against the 'bucolic and conservative' literature being produced in his England. He mentions E. M. Forster. (I once heard a snatch of Where Angels Fear to Tread on the radio, not knowing it, and took it for a child's dabblings. Connolly has a review essay called 'Where Engels Fears to Tread', wittily.) Connolly goes on to say of the Work in Progress that
This one may be a fake, but it is not from a writer who has previously given us fakes; it may be a failure, but it surely an absorbing one, and more important than any contemporary success.
I do not know whence comes the 'x's failure is better than others' successes' trope. Do you? Siegel, who hates bloggers, has this to say of Norman Mailer:
This restless vastness of Mailer's ambition (''In motion a man has a chance'') is such that his ''failures'' are seminal, his professional setbacks groundbreaking. His willingness to fail—hugely, magnificently, life-affirmingly—expands artistic possibilities.
Personally, I loathe this sort of writing, but then, it is cultural criticism in an age almost entirely lacking in serious culture, or serious criticism. I was once recruited by a young, clean-shaven Argentinian—practically the Anti-Conrad—to rewrite his application to a Harvard MBA programme. At the head of his personal statement he'd put his life motto, apparently cribbed from Norman Vaughan: Dream big, and dare to fail. I thought this was the most offensive thing that could possibly begin a personal statement. But padded with a tricolon of Disney adjectives in a New York Times mushdrip, it is, naturally, far worse. How bucolic and conservative have we become?

02 November, 2007


In 1942, besieged in his Florentine villa, Bernard Berenson kept a diary of his reading, subsequently published. It isn't a great work, by any stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless, I find myself coming back to it now and then, for little aperçus, offhand remarks and obiter dicta, some valuable in their own right, others revealing a lost world. I have already quoted the book several times on this site. On the 21st of January, Berenson wrote,
Began also the Nazi Koran, Mein Kampf, for Hitler, besides much else in common with Mohammed, has given his adherents a book.
Talk about 'Islamofascism'! Berenson continues to report on Mein Kampf for some weeks, admiring and deploring the work in (almost) equal measure. Being a Jew—by birth a Lithuanian, Bernhard Valvrojenski—he of course laments Hitler's maniacal misosemitism. A month and a half after Berenson began Mein Kampf, Hitler was at dinner with his officers, spouting off as usual. Heinrich Heim was still taking stenographic notes; his successor, Picker, had not yet taken over those duties. Hitler is alleged to have said that
The English language lacks the ability to express thoughts that surpass the order of concrete things. It's because the German language has this ability that Germany is the country of thinkers.
One reads Hitler for these sorts of statements—one reads him as a barometer, just as one reads Berenson. German is the language of grand nouns, of course—nouns like Geisteswissenschaft—which is why the Philosophen are so difficult to translate, and why I decided to drop German classes at the Warburg. But what is interesting is the move from a grammatical style to an intellectual one. Hitler's remark rather reminds me of the discussion in Karl Vossler's 1925 The Spirit of Language in Civilization, in which he argues that languages with definite articles—such as Greek, and to a lesser extent Mediaeval Latin, by contrast to Classical Latin—are well suited to philosophical thought. It is with the definite article, and with long, agglutinated nouns, that we are better able to isolate and objectify abstract concepts, and hence to analyse them. So goes the logic.

German already had a reputation, quite unwarranted, for slowness and solidity. In 1783, Johann Christoph Schwab, in his Grand Concours lecture for Frederick II's Academy—done into French (1803) as Dissertation sur les causes de l'universalité de la langue françoise et la durée vraisemblable de son empire—fascinating, but now little read—argues that the German poets are superior to the French in profundity and originality, but complains that the language lacks the sweet charm and pleasantness that has made French, deservedly, the lingua franca of European intellectuals. French and German turn out to be natural opposites. In her extremely influential 1810 work on Germany, Madame de Staël asserts that the chief limitation of the language is its end-placement of the verb, making it effectively impossible to understand a sentence until it is finished. French unfolds quickly, encouraging a lively badinage and play of social wit, whereas German is civil, still and deep. The latter is, likewise, better for poetry than prose, and better for writing than speaking. German is also better suited to the abstract.

Later in the same century, Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Hitler's many pseudo-inspirations, made a string of soon-to-be-notorious remarks on the German language, in his 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil, 2.28:
A German is almost incapable of presto in his language; thus also as may be reasonably inferred, of many of the most delightful and daring nuances of free, free-spirited thought. . . Everything ponderous, viscous, and solemnly clumsy, all long-winded and boring types of style are developed in profuse variety among German—forgive me the fact that even Goethe's prose, in its mixture of stiffness and elegance, is no exception, being a reflection of the “good old time” to which it belongs.
Kaufmann, somewhere, quite rightly objects to this, on the grounds that in Nietzsche's hands the language is most certainly capable of presto, of daring nuances and free-spirited thought. Nietzsche is, for Kaufmann, the greatest writer of German prose since Luther. That is the gangasrotagati Nietzsche.

Still, Hitler would certainly have agreed that the style of a language 'has its basis in the character of the race'. As a German, how could he not have? Hegel was in the blood, in the kraut and pilsner, in the fumes of the sewers. And having just insisted that Germany is the country of thinkers, Hitler continued to maunder, free-associating on the topic of language, happy, one presumes, to blurt out anything that came to mind, safe in the knowledge that the assembled officers would nod sagely, or perhaps laugh in sympathy, whatever it took—
We Germans are not inclined to talk for the sake of talking. We don’t become intoxicated with sounds. When we open our mouth, it's to say something.
Ach so.

28 October, 2007

N is for Neville

Heareing a learned Philosopher discourse of death and how it is not to be feared, and the stroake passes and the dead feele no torment. How, sayth M. Gaulard, doe they not feele the ffleas? Then, haueing the Philosophers answere No, Truly then I beleeue it is good some tymes to be dead.

— Étienne Tabourot, Bigarrures or the Pleasant and Witlesse and Simple Speeches of the Lord Gaulard of Burgundy, tr. "J. B. of Charterhouse", from a manuscript circa 1660.
From our bathroom window can be seen, in the indigo night, a far distant object, large and bright, like a cinema-screen, but still, and unanimated. I would stare at it every evening, in an attempt to decipher and identify it, but without success. In the dark it sat, silent and unknown.

Finally curiosity got the better of me. From the family home I fetched a pair of binoculars, and later that evening, after supper, I opened the window and trained my new lenses upon the far light. As I turned the focus, my vision extended slowly into the distance, alighting momentarily on other windows, and on their inhabitants, moving silently, as if in a camera obscura. At last I could see the mysterious object. It seemed to be some sort of communiqué, with words, black on white, but I could make out only letters. I was inclined to think it was a large lane-indicator by the side of the road.

The next evening I returned to the window, this time resting the binoculars against the sill, for a steadier vision. Now I found I could discern words. World; place; home. Important place. I felt rather like Marvin in the climactic scene of So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, descrying God's last message to his creation. The next night I returned again, and this time I could finally see the whole. Home is the most important place in the world. What was this quasi-philosophical banality doing in huge letters by a distant road? I turned to Google, and soon learnt that the phrase is used as a slogan for the furniture company Ikea. The great screen is merely, it turns out, a commercial hoarding. All the sublime has gone out of the world—the mysteries of our city are now only opportunities for product. It's enough to make one a fucking Marxist!


In the face of this vulgarity we grow bored. Don't we? Boredom seems to have become an integral part of my outlook, as if by accident. It is a double-faced vise: on one side, we struggle to avoid it, constantly seeking the new; on the other, we embrace it, accepting boredom, and contempt, as the markers of an ironical and urbane sophistication. We take pleasure in boredom as we take pleasure in incessant and unwinnable combat against it. When I wrote against the appreciation of literature, here, I imagined of my pupils:
Shown a Renaissance sonnet, they would yawn, Oh! Another wittily inverted pentameter. Shown a passage from Henry James they would sigh, Ah, yet another meticulous character-portrait. Have you nothing more interesting for us? They would revel sybaritically in their grand scorn. The world could show nothing to them—and they would die content at their mastery of it.
This summer, rereading Candide, I realised I had been anticipated, 250 years ago, in the character of Pococurante, a Venetian noble whose palace the hero visits in chapter 25. Candide and Pococurante discuss the latter's maids, his paintings, his large collection of classic books, and his gardens. Candide admires it all, but Pococurante despises everything, weary with the greatest masters.
As soon as our two travelers had taken leave of His Excellency, Candide said to Martin, "Well, I hope you will own that this man is the happiest of all mortals, for he is above everything he possesses."

"But do not you see," answered Martin, "that he likewise dislikes everything he possesses? It was an observation of Plato, long since, that those are not the best stomachs that reject, without distinction, all sorts of aliments."

"True," said Candide, "but still there must certainly be a pleasure in criticising everything, and in perceiving faults where others think they see beauties."

"That is," replied Martin, "there is a pleasure in having no pleasure."
Last weekend I saw the same again, in a modern setting, watching Armando Iannucci's surreal and poignant sketch about the unappeasable. As a doctor explains, 'Sammy's developed a syndrome which means that he's literally being bored to death. If he ever has the same experience twice, his internal organs will haemorrhage simultaneously. We're desperately trying to invent as many completely new experiences as we can.' We see the aged Sammy, utterly jaded by a surfeit of information and entertainment, confronted by his wife with a cascade of bathetic novelties:
— It's a new shaped teabag!

— It doesn't interest me.

— A book about Ronnie and Reggie Kray!

— I'm bored of bastards. . .

— They're starting a new round of Champions League football-matches!

Upon discovery of some unreleased John Lennon material, Sammy's eyes start bleeding, and when presented with a documentary about the International Space Station, he curls up with a pillow, whimpering pathetically. Here is Pococurante, but rather than revelling in his grand bored scorn, he is suffering. I feel a little of either, sometimes revelling, sometimes suffering. It was a condition diagnosed with philosophical sympathy by Kierkegaard, who immortalised the thrill-hunting aesthete as A in his Either / Or. This is not one of those times that the world shows its wares to me. Giornale Nuovo has closed shop, having apparently grown tired of its own endless succession of nice pictures. Novelty palls, or turns out to be an Ikea advertisement. Novelty palls—one wants to stop sorting through the flotsam for once, stop skimming, and start digging, properly. A blog, naturally, is more suited to skimming than to digging, so what this change of heart spells for the dear old Varieties—well, time will tell, eh?

19 October, 2007


There are few activities more pleasurable than transferring one's collection of books, theretofore coacervated all hobson-jobson in unlabelled boxes, to a newly-acquired set of shelves. Thanks to the munificence of neighbours, my wife and I have recently landed, gratis, no fewer than five bookshelves, of various sizes and shapes. Some of them are even antiques. I spent the evening turning over the piles sprawled out from upturned boxes, unexamined since our departure for Arizona three long years ago. As each item surfaces, I can recall exactly the time and place of its purchase; and so the experience as a whole recapitulates my life, and also, in a peculiar way, the structure of my mind.


The collector Robert Cotton (1571-1631), whose enormous library—or at least what remained of it in the wake of a great fire (1731), the remnants nonetheless replete with priceless treasures—was later donated to the national collection, arranged his books on shelves marked by the busts of Caesars. Thus, our sole surviving copy of Beowulf was (and still is) designated 'Vitellius A.xv', denoting that the manuscript was found on the top shelf (A) below Vitellius, fifteen along. (One rather suspects that Vitellius was too nugatory a Caesar for a text of such importance.) At any rate, I have decided to revive the practice, only using great literary figures instead of Roman clown-emperors. Thus, atop the first case I have placed a small bust of Goethe, presiding. I have yet to pick my next hero.

The Warburg Library is organised to maximise suggestiveness, all chronological and alphabetical plans having been abandoned, so as to provoke thought (and, dare I say it, often confusion) by unusual, though rarely irrational, juxtapositions. I like the idea. Indeed, it is difficult to know quite how to sort. As with translations, all solutions fall short one way or another. So I tend towards a loose order, with books grouped by size and vaguely by subject, though arranged for a pleasing curve on each shelf. I wanted to get Substantific Marrow onto the shelf of literary essayists, but there was no room, so instead I put him between Duval on Rabelais, and the copy of Mineshaft magazine I picked up in San Francisco. (I offer Emerson the choice of switching Mineshaft for an Aporia Press reprint of a few Thomason pamphlets (1642-61), collectively entitled Anomalous Phenomena of the Interregnum.) I have Hegel next to Lewis Spence and Extraordinary Popular Delusions, which, I'm sure you'll agree, is a fitting apposition. Phineas Fletcher's anatomical epic The Purple Island is next to George Chappell's neo-Rabelaisian Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, which in turn neighbours an old, peeling Béroalde de Verville. Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters makes a cute companion to Christopher Ward's Gentleman into Goose.

Some conjunctions just amuse me. The Book of Mormon sits next to Josiah Royce's Principles of Logic; a biography of Mao next to a two-volume Leben und Werke of Schiller, in Fraktur, kindly given to me by my dear uncle; the works of Molière beside The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí; und so weiter. I'd like to get an octavo Shakespeare to put next to the contes of Voltaire, just to spite the pair of them. At the moment Voltaire's next to Swift and a 1906 Kommersbuch, which is almost as good, I think.

The shelf above the Loebs and other classics is too small for almost any book, so for now I have left it empty. Perhaps in shelving, just as in jazz, and Chinese painting, the notes you leave out count just as much, if not more.

The 200-odd books on these new shelves account for about 20-25% of my total collection, by my estimate. It is mostly second-tier material; although I refuse to have anything on my shelves that I dislike. (There is, of course, plenty that I haven't read.) I once read—damn if I can't remember where—about a French collector so determined to possess a perfect library that he would buy the Works of an author, cut out all the bad bits, and have the book rebound. Now that's my kind of collector. The ordonnance of these shelves is not perfect yet. It needs some tweaking. But it's almost there. I have heard the human body with its DNA compared to a vast library in which every book is the same. I like to imagine that when all my books are assembled in one place, perhaps at the end of my life, and placed in the correct order, I will have disclosed myself to the world more perfectly than in any book or conversation—shemhamphorasch.

Update: As it happens, I stumbled within a week across the reference to that French collector. My mind had embellished the matter, from Matthew Arnold's essay on Joseph Joubert, referring to 'the treasures of a library collected with infinite pains, taste, and skill, from which every book he thought ill of was rigidly excluded—he never would possess either a complete Voltaire or a complete Rousseau'. My version, as usual, is better.

Update #2: More book collections assembled here. Mine is the smallest, but then, it's quality that matters.

15 October, 2007


In the middle of Plato's treatise on the creation of the world, the Timaeus, the Demiurge—for centuries readily identified with the Christian God—divides up the fabric of the World Soul into strips, which he then fastens together:
The entire compound was divided by him lengthways into two parts, which he united at the centre like the letter X [chi], and bent into an inner and outer circle or sphere [kuklos], cutting one another again at a point over against the point at which they cross.
Plato is describing the universe as two circles with a common centre, at right angles. (He then adjusts this and has the second sphere at a non-right angle to the first—on the exact process, see Taylor's commentary.) The two circles meet at two points, each of which resembles the Greek chi, a cross. And the two circles are the circles of the Same and Different—the Same is the circle of the fixed stars, and the Different the circle of the planets, which moves in an opposite direction. This is the Greek origin of all those astronomical cycles and epicycles that remained almost unchallenged until Copernicus.

Bernard of Chartres, the twelfth-century Neoplatonist best known for the maxim ascribed to him by his pupil John of Salisbury—We are but dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants—composed a commentary on the Timaeus in about 1110, using the partial translation made by Calcidius in the fourth century. For Bernard, Plato is writing by involucrum, by the principle of allegory. Per diuisionem significantur duo motus animae: unus rationalis, alter irrationalis. By 'division' is meant two movements of the soul: the one rational, the other irrational. Just as the fixed circle turns smoothly from east to west, and back to east, so the rational soul moves from its Creator, to a consideration of earthly matters, and back to the Creator. The planetary circle turns from west to east to west, returning constantly from the Creator to earthly matters.


Some time in the second quarter of the second century AD, a Samaritan Neoplatonist named Justin converted to Christianity; his work is the earliest (still extant) serious body of Christian literature following the New Testament. In about 150 AD, Justin Martyr, as he is now called, composed his First Apology, online here. Chapter 60 wrestles with Plato's Timaeus.
And the physiological discussion of the Son of God in the Timæus of Plato, where he says, "He placed him crosswise in the universe," he borrowed in like manner from Moses.
This is a bit of a stretch—but delightfully so! The Demiurge, really a sort of careful artisan in Plato, becomes the Christian God, and the World Soul becomes the Son of God. The joining of soul-strips in a chi becomes the crosswise placing of Christ. As in, yes, the Crucifixion. The Moses part is even more far-fetched: 'Moses, by the inspiration and influence of God, took brass, and made it into the figure of a cross, and set it in the holy tabernacle, and said to the people, "If ye look to this figure, and believe, ye shall be saved thereby".' Moses does no such thing: he has a serpent, not a cross (Num 21.8). (And in case you're wondering, the Septuagint has a serpent too.) The point is that Plato gets his ideas about the universe from Moses—the author of the Pentateuch—who in turn is only foretelling the crucifixion. 'It is not, then, that we hold the same opinions as others, but that all speak in imitation of ours'.

When you think about it, this is a clever gambit. Justin is addressing Antoninus Pius, the cultivated Roman emperor, and adoptive father of Marcus Aurelius. If you were a literate intellectual of the second century Greco-Roman world, chances are you were a Platonist of some stripe. All philosophical traditions of the period, including Stoic and Peripatetic, traced themselves back to Plato. And so when Justin argues not only that his Christianity is compatible with Platonism, but moreover that it preceded and inspired Plato, he is one-upping the philosophical fashions of his milieu.

The Holy Cross thus becomes a symbol uniting pagan and Christian thought. The Cross is also treated in Chapter 55: here Justin argues that its symbolic importance is revealed by its morphological recurrence throughout human life. He does not use phrases like 'morphological recurrence', of course.
For consider all the things in the world, whether without this form they could be administered or have any community. For the sea is not traversed except that trophy which is called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is not ploughed without it: diggers and mechanics do not their work, except with tools which have this shape. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals in nothing else than in its being erect and having the hands extended, and having on the face extending from the forehead what is called the nose, through which there is respiration for the living creature; and this shows no other form than that of the cross.
The Cross is here almost an object of visual, visionary obsession, appearing again and again, informing all that it touches with a Christian spirit. The faith is given not just in Scripture, but in Nature itself.


Perhaps you have some difficult visualising all these objects, supposedly cruciform. In which case, you're in luck. Now, we have no surviving manuscripts illuminating Justin, at least not to my knowledge. But we do have a charming little book by the Flemish scholar Justus Lipsius, first published in 1594, entitled De Cruce, or On the Cross. In 1.9 he illustrates the patristic sources for the Crux Immissa or the standard transverse cross we readily visualise today. Jerome's commentary on Mark is quoted:
Ipsa species Crucis, quid est nisi forma quadrata mundi? Aues quando volant ad athera [sic], formam Crucis assumunt. Homo natans per aquas, vel orans, forma Crucis visitur.

What is the shape of the Cross, unless it is the quadrate form of the world? When birds fly through the air, they assume the shape of the Cross. A man, swimming through the water, or praying, seems to have the form of the Cross.
Then Minucius Felix is quoted.
Signum sane Crucis naturaliter visimus in naui, cum velis tumentibus vehitur, cum expansis palmulis labitur, & cum erigitur iugum, Crucis signum est: & cum homo porrectis manibus Deum pura mente veneratur.

Truly, we naturally see the sign of the Cross in a ship, when it moves with swollen sails, when it glides with oars outstretched, and when the yoke is erected, it is a sign of the Cross; and also when man venerates God with hands aloft and a pure mind.
Then Maximus Taurensis is quoted. Most of this, like Minucius Felix, is a repeat of Justin and Jerome, but he adds a little bit:
Caelum quoque ipsum huius signi figura dispositum est. Nam cum quatuor partibus distinguitur, Oriente, Occidente, Meridiano, ac Septemtrione, quatuor quasi Crucis angulis continetur.

The sky, also, is arranged by the figure of this sign. For when its four regions are distinguished, East, West, South, and North, it seems to contain the four ends of the Cross.
Then Justin Martyr is quoted, from the above passage. And then, finally, we get a nice picture, illustrating all of the analogies from Justin, Jerome, and Maximus. Here is the more attractive 1594 version (from this online copy):

And here the ugly 1595 version (from here):

In the following chapter, Lipsius 'proves' that Christ was crucified on the transverse cross, and not on a Crux Simplex or upright stake. (It was this chapter, incidentally, that the Jehovah's Witnesses who compiled the New World Translation failed to read, when they claimed that Lipsius supported their wacky notion that Christ was crucified on a stake. Catholics quickly got hold of the book, and as soon as they'd mastered enough Wheelock to read the damn thing, were able to point and jeer at the Witnesses' incompetence.) Here, Lipsius starts playing around with the notion of the cross having four points. Sedulius is quoted, from the fifth book of the fifth-century neo-Vergilian epic Carmen Paschalis (Easter Song):
Neue quis ignoret speciem Crucis esse colendam,
Quae Dominum portauit ouans, ratione potenti,
Quatuor inde plagas quadrati colligit orbis.
Splendidus auctoris de vertice fulget Eous,
Occiduo sacrae labuntur sidere plantae,
Arcton dextra tenet, medium leua erigit axem.

For who but knows the Cross we should revere
Which joyful bore the Lord: He gathered here
The symbolled Quarters of the World’s great Sphere.
The Orient shineth from His Head supreme—
Beneath His feet the Vesper planets beam,
And either Pole at either hand shall seem.
This is not my translation, but the rendering of George Sigerson from 1922. I believe there is a pun in the word plagas, here translated 'Quarters', but with the additional meaning of 'wounds'. Sigerson (1836-1925), a patriotic Irish polymath and translator of Charcot, has this to say about the above lines of Sedulius, who was probably Irish himself:
Usually, as in English, men speak of north and south, east and west; children at school are taught that by facing the sun at noon-day they look south, with back to the north, and left and right hands to the east and west respectively. But the terms of the Irish language indicate quite a different position. In Irish, the same word designates both the right hand and the south; the left and the north are named alike; whilst 'behind' and 'west' are identical. . . Thus the symbolism of the Cross, as given by St. Sedulius in the fifth century, which seems strange to modern readers, would appear quite natural and familiar to the Irish-speaking peasant of to-day.
You see, human beings did not stop reading what they wanted to read when the Middle Ages suddenly came to a halt, somewhen between 1350 and 1650. When Sir Thomas Browne dropped his double A-side, Hydriotaphia / The Garden of Cyrus in 1658, he was still playing silly buggers with cross imagery.
Where by the way we shall decline the old Theme, so traced by antiquity of crosses and crucifixion: Whereof some being right, and of one single peece without traversion or transome, do little advantage our subject. Nor shall we take in the mysticall Tau, or the Crosse of our blessed Saviour, which having in some descriptions an Empedon or crossing foot-stay, made not one single transversion. And since the Learned Lipsius hath made some doubt even of the Crosse of St Andrew, since some Martyrologicall Histories deliver his death by the generall Name of a crosse, and Hippolitus will have him suffer by the sword; we should have enough to make out the received Crosse of that Martyr.

[. . .]

Of this Figure Plato made choice to illustrate the motion of the soul, both of the world and man; while he delivereth that God divided the whole conjunction length-wise, according to the figure of a Greek X, and then turning it about reflected it into a circle; By the circle implying the uniform motion of the first Orbs, and by the right lines, the planetical and various motions within it. And this also with application unto the soul of man, which hath a double aspect, one right, whereby it beholdeth the body, and objects without; another circular and reciprocal, whereby it beholdeth it self. The circle declaring the motion of the indivisible soul, simple, according to the divinity of its nature, and returning into it self; the right lines respecting the motion pertaining unto sense, and vegetation, and the central decussation, the wondrous connexion of the severall faculties conjointly in one substance. And so conjoyned the unity and duality of the soul, and made out the three substances so much considered by him; That is, the indivisible or divine, the divisible or corporeal, and that third, which was the Systasis or harmony of those two, in the mystical decussation.

And if that were clearly made out which Justin Martyr took for granted, this figure hath had the honour to characterize and notifie our blessed Saviour, as he delivereth in that borrowed expression from Plato; Decussavit eum in universo, the hint whereof he would have Plato derive from the figure of the brazen Serpent, and to have mistaken the letter X for T.
Naturally, if you've never read The Garden of Cyrus, you must immediately desist from your leisurely perusal of the Varieties, and devote your next hour to a study of its manifold richnesses. Browne has both Justin and Bernard, and a thousand other crosses, lozenges and quincunxes, from the most marvelous texts, and from the variety of the natural world. He is especially good on plants, if you like that sort of thing.

Human beings did not even stop reading what they wanted to read after 1658. We've already seen what patriotism (or should that be 'patrickotism'?) can do to an erudite Irishman. But think also of Justin's 1885 editor, Philip Schaff, who in his introduction exclaims:
And in spite of Gallios and Neros alike, the gospel was dispelling the gross darkness. Of this, Pliny's letter to Trajan is decisive evidence. Even in Seneca we detect reflections of the daybreak. Plutarch writes as never a Gentile could have written until now.
Seneca, that is, who throughout the Middle Ages was believed to have corresponded amicably with St. Paul. And Plutarch, whose De sera numinis vindicta allegedly demonstrates the influence of the Gospel. Later, A. E. Taylor's 1928 commentary on the Timaeus would be denounced by Francis Cornford (in the excellent Plato's Cosmology, 1937) as merely a 'Christianization of Plato'. Christians, like Plato and the rest of the classical pagans before them, have always needed to make analogies. It is a way of dealing with absurd doctrines. It is a way of making sense of that from which sense cannot be made. I write that last line as a chiasmus, so called because it resembles in structure the shape of the Greek letter chi.

I too, it seems, need analogies.