Tuesday, 28 June 2016

My grandmother sat in a brown and gold chair smoking Woodbines..



My grandmother sat in a brown and gold chair smoking Woodbines. Slow tremulous movements. Curling smoke reaching into corners. The ashtray a boneyard of stubs. A girl, riding past the bungalow, lost control of the horse and was rocked up and down. Through the double glazing we heard gasps and shouts of panic. My grandmother couldn’t stop laughing. In fact she spent years laughing at random unfortunate things, before which she’d spent a tunnel of years crying without consolation. She liked watching the snooker. That was the only reason they bought a colour TV, my grandparents. So she could watch the snooker. Her hair was white as sea foam, like a fossil of sea foam. Yet she must have only been in her late fifties then. Sixty one when she died of “complications” following a pitiless sequence of strokes. Our bodies are double agents who betray us to death in the finish.  She was the first of the grandparents to die, and for a long time, through the portal of sleep she walked in my dreams as a blind ghost protesting that she wasn’t dead. 


She had grown up in silence. This is what dad told me. Her father inherited a sum of money, "a lot of money in them days", but then gave up his job and went on the drink. Five years later he’d lost it all.  They fell over into bare unfurnished poverty. No divorces then. Her mother, an Irish Catholic, swore never to speak to him again. Gradually, all her speech stopped, even to her five year old daughter. She would write notes, passed to her daughter, or via her daughter. "Tea on the table". "We need some more milk," “I’m off to bed”. In that cold war my grandmother lived out her moribund childhood. No brother or sister. A go-between in a mime of a marriage. Silence like deep water pressure filling each room and portal. And that silence she passed on I think, in genes or gesture, to my dad, who gave it to me.  


When I think of this story, the story of the notes, the silence, the inheritance, details are missing like in a work of fiction. I can’t ask dad about it now. I can’t ask him, for example, where his grandfather inherited the money from, where they lived, if the house still stands, if she spoke about it to dad directly or whether, as i suspect, my granddad told him. A piece of the past beyond sight of land, bodiless and adrift in the unverifiable dark. Similarly the story about my granddad docking the tail of a dog in the garage with a hammer and chisel, the dog running off yelping down the road and never been seen again. Have I remembered it right? There's no way to know, there’s no one to ask. I should have voiced all these questions when he was alive, my dad. The past, unless recorded, what is it? Tail-lights from another world, dead stars destined for myth or oblivion, or maybe just self-serving stories.

A note on "bregret"

After the referendum result was announced, there were many stories of brexiteers regretting their choice, not really thinking that their vote would count. Maybe this category of voter isn’t numerically significant, maybe it is, but to my mind there is also something symptomatic here. Isn’t there often, in the act of voting, this kind of disavowal – it’s the others who are voting, I’m simply protesting. Because the burden of decision resides with the others, I can afford to use my vote to make a statement, to express disenchantment, not really mindful of the consequences. It’s a shock to discover the ‘Others’ were just me and people like me. But in order to behave like this people must first of all feel disenfranchised, that Politics is something controlled by others. And this feeling is perhaps precisely why many voted Brexit.

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One problem with the referendum is that Brexit wasn't a political party with a program, but behaved and was sometimes treated as if it was. Because it wasn't a party, there are no mechanisms for holding it to account. If the government doesn't spend greater sums of money on the NHS or curtail immigration, it can legitimately say "We never promised we would". The claims aren't localised in an accountable party or body.

Brexit voters by and large voted not simply for disengaging from the EU, a legal and political process which was never really spelled out in detail, but for the claims or "extrapolations" [IDS's weasel phrase] as to future policy - spending and border control. Of course, these claims have pretty much evaporated into thin air and the voters left empty handed without any real means of holding anyone to account.














Thursday, 16 June 2016

A Few Thoughts on Ulysses

This from a recent article on Ulysses by Terry Eagleton:
Like many modernist texts, Ulysses ransacks mythology to provide a fractured modern world with some underlying order.
This is certainly a very familiar idea, almost a cliche. One tires of hearing how Joyce shows how modern life reveals deep mythic structures, how the Homeric narrative silently supports the 'surface story' behind the backs of the characters themselves.

The only problem is that this idea doesn't really bear scrutiny. There are few one to one and systematic Homeric parallels in Ulysses. It is not as if incidents in the immediate story are systemically translatable back into their Homeric ‘equivalents'. Take for example the ‘no man’ of the Cyclops episode – this epithet could refer to the narrator but also to Bloom, whose polyoptical view of things (he can always 'see the othe fellow's point of view'), various names (Bloom/ Flower/ Virag) and fleeting connection with Everyman make him well fitted to this. Odysseus’ 20 year exile is glimpsed, arguably, in the 20-1 odds on Throwaway, like a tiny ironic splinter of the original story. The blinding of Polyphemus is not simply turned into Bloom’s metaphorical blinding of the monofocal Citizen, but is glimpsed in the sweep’s brush that nearly has the anonymous narrator’s eye out. In such trivial incidents are glimpsed the refracted light of the dead mythic star. The Homeric content is shattered and re-distributed, a single element appearing in Joyce’s Dublin as several splinters. Molly is not only Penelope but at one point Circe too, so that ‘Penelope’ and ‘Circe’ slide and reattach. New resemblances and significances are produced from the ruins of a distant mythic substrate.

We might think about this in terms of what Georg Lakoff (discussing metaphor) terms ‘cross-domain’ mapping. For example, when one says ‘she was really cold to me’, emotion is understood – or ‘mapped’ – in terms of temperature; when we say ‘the past is behind me’, time is mapped in terms of space. One ‘domain’ (the target domain) is understood in terms of the other (the source domain). So it is that Ulysses is understood as a kind of cross-domain mapping with 1904 Dublin as the target domain and Homeric myth as source domain. It's this which seems to me only half-true. What happens rather is that the ‘source domain’ (the Homeric) is broken up and disseminated through the target domain; and instead of being a domain of stable meaning which spontaneously 'reads' early 20th C Dublin, it is used for jokes, puns, semantic hyperlinks and so on. The Homeric narrative is used as a grammar which can generate very different sentences; in short, a compositional device.


If we see this from the point of view of novelistic construction, it is clear that a mythic element, such as the ‘no man’ of the Cyclops episode, is not approached in terms of ‘what is the contemporary equivalent of this? (ie who is the modern signifier of this signified)’ but ‘what different meanings can this signifier generate?’ You then put the signifier to work in the text, like a little programme, throwing up various puns, correspondences etc.

The 'unity'  or 'order' imposed by the Homeric in no way points to the underlying order of the apparently chaotic world; it is instead used in ludic or ironic ways. It has been dismantled and turned into pliable material surrendered into the hands of the inventor (JJ).

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Walking in the Lakes..



Dad took us walking in the Lakes. He strode on ahead over the hilltop, map in hand. We lost sight of him and strayed into a valley of big rust-coloured cattle with horns. Their low moos rolled across the fields. We were hungry but the sandwiches and water were in dad’s rucksack. We walked for hours in that wide dry valley. Mum was exhausted and angry, but I enjoyed playing the tireless explorer, leading us onwards, an improvised walking stick snapped from a tree. Then as the sun dropped we came to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. They made us tea and we called mountain rescue, who dad had called too. And so we were swiftly reunited. He was relieved and tearful, a rare expression of love squeezed out of him by distress. That’s how it was in our family.

Friday, 10 June 2016

A Visit to a Doctor



For doctors, what exist first and foremost are their medical categories and classifications. These have real existence, like immutable Platonic forms. The actual human being sat in the chair, with his or her symptoms, is granted existence only in so far as he touches these Ideal Forms. Anything else is 'nothing to worry about', probably psycho-somatic, illusory in some way, not quite there. This was true of my stomach symptoms, which caused puzzlement to break out like a rash on many a doctor’s forehead. Gurglings to the left of the stomach, no sensations in the stomach, light headedness after eating?  These descriptions did not resemble, or only imperfectly resembled, the Platonic Forms set out in medical textbooks and were therefore shadows cast by the hypochondriac imagination. Hence the other strategy the doctors employ, completely disingenuous, couched in the glove of concern, which is to ask you, the patient, what you think it might be. What do you think it is? But what this means of course is not "guide me towards a diagnosis" but only "Let me put your mind at rest regarding the imaginary illness you're worrying about", “let me assure you it’s not stomach cancer” and so on. The doctor thereby turns the whole thing into a question about your mental health, his role redefined as the person who allays our fears rather than treats our symptoms.

One doctor, particularly smug and patronising, replied to my desperate story with "I'm not sure what you expect me to do; these are not symptoms of anything serious, barely symptoms at all I would say” and stared at me vacantly. He was a locum of some kind I think. I should have noted his name. All the bad doctors actually. A list of names. I'd like to hunt him down.  I could access my medical records, get his name from there. No motive that Officialdom would recognise. Twenty years, after all, have elapsed. It was a summer's morning. A brief appointment. One of hundreds. Nothing remarkable. A young man with vaguely defined stomach problems, consistent with IBS, it might say. Possible psychological aetiology. I'd catch up with him, now living in Jericho, a house near the canal. He wouldn’t remember me of course. I’d say I'm from the council. We're inspecting moorings in Jericho. He’d tell me the boat's been there since he moved in. He's never used it. “Irrelevant” I’d reply, “completely beside the point”. We’d walk down to the water's edge. I'd tell him a ledger's been kept of his deeds. What? He’d say, confused, “What deeds? The deeds for the mooring?” “Wrong sense of ‘deeds’”, I’d reply, smiling. The other sort of deeds, deeds that he thought unrecorded, unregistered, and therefore erased, obliviated, inexistent. Your error, I’d say to him, was to meet someone's pain with blank contempt, pretend puzzlement, cold condescension. To fail to treat someone's experience as meaningful. This, I will explain to him, is casual sadism. The casual sadism of institutional power. Refusing to see a human being sat in front of you. Looking straight through someone and refusing to recognise them. Anyway, I’m inspecting the hull of your vessel for leaks, I’d say. I’d pick up a large stone from the river bed. I’d crack his head with it. He’d fall into the water. No, he’d fall into the boat. I’d set it free. A small narrow boat, a wooden skiff, floating down the canal, to where it meets the Thames. The body of a doctor laid out like Holbein’s dead Christ. Someone would see it from the bank, thinking he’d fallen asleep, but then see the slow ooze of blood and start shouting.

It pleases me to revisit this image, replay this story, as I do now and then. I have a number of them, little fictions, rubbles of memory. Very few end in death of course. We have, within us, flows of pleasure, flows of enjoyment, which need objects to fulfil themselves, to quench themselves, even if these objects are imaginary. This story of the avenged patient is one such imaginary object, around and through which enjoyment flows and gurgles. Of course, sometimes the imagination isn’t enough. 

Thursday, 2 June 2016

I have no idea why Tanner tried to befriend me...


I have no idea why Tanner tried to befriend me. Perhaps only to torment me, to “moither” me as we used to say, which means to suffocate someone, to kill with attention. But anyway, this is what he tried to do. He came knocking at the door, asking if I wanted to play out, or “laik out”, as we said then, or asking if I wanted to listen to an album he’d bought by Whitesnake, and so on. I didn’t want to do these things. He showed me a lighter he’d obtained. A golden lighter, like contraband, or a talisman of delinquency. I told my father, who asked where he’d gotten the lighter, what he was doing with it, why I was hanging round with him. I said I wanted nothing to do with him, but that he was a “scary character,” a phrase I’d read in a book. Tanner asked me if I’d “go with Mandy Simpson” because she “fancied me”, but I had no interest in Mandy Simpson, the world of which she was part, a world of gangs gathered in the cold air under the concrete bridge, spitting on the floor and smoking, of denim jackets embroidered with band names and smelling of patchouli oil, of mouths moving and clacking with chewing gum, of loitering by the “chippy” and the off-licence, of  big plastic bottles of sweet cheap cider: Tanner’s world. I wanted nothing to do with any of this.

My intuition, although I had no proof at this stage, nothing tangible, was that there had to be other worlds and different kinds of people. This was my thin hope, my pale light under the door. Where it was, how I might get to it, and who would show me, I didn’t know. I knew nothing, then, of the thunder over Amalfi, of booksellers on the banks of the Seine, of the beers of Prague sipped in secret taverns, of silent walks by the Cherwell at daybreak, nothing of the reassuring existence of Italy, of white clouds tumbling over the dark cliffs of Thera, of a skeletal Beckett glimpsed in the Place des Vosges, of that  late night cafe on the Rue Mouffetard, its tables round as planets, of the wild cats of Greece lying patiently under the table, the chirp of cicadas on the dry hillsides; I knew nothing, then, of mizzle and burning turf in quiet County Sligo; nothing of poetry or love, in fact, and nor did I have a pantheon of poets and writers to help me or converse with. I did not have this very language in which I speak and write, made out of books and blood and compost, part armour plating, part conducting rod for rage and beauty, this language with which I rendered extinct my earlier incarnations. I had instead, back then, only an artificial sky, an orange sky, starless, created by suburban street lamps, so that looking out of the window at night you would see only this orange sky like a great sublunar shell above the estate; I had only rows of terraced houses, and the playing fields opposite the wool-combing mill, I had only a living room thick with cigarette smoke and the buzz of the constant TV, I had only Nescafe and Angel Delight, I had an estate populated  by Tanners and Simpsons, but no Virgil to guide me through it, no way out, no escape.

Friday, 13 May 2016

I is written: A note on Kafka and Beckett

There is a beautiful passage in Kafka where he reverses the way we might think about an “I”, and about what's implied by the grammatical construction"I write":

I live only here and there in a small word in whose vowel (‘thrust’ above, for instance) I lose my useless head for a moment. The first and last letters are the beginning and end of my fishlike emotion.

The "I" as a living thing is a spark generated by the writing and does not precede its embodiment in ink. Prior to embodiment there is only perhaps a restless dark.If the "I" strikes up only in writing, in and across the letters on the page, then the "I" is the hand that draws itself. Or it is a ghost lagging behind its inscription.

It seems to me that in Beckett there is a similar motif: "I'll draw me a head" says the narrator of Texts for Nothing, but the "I" is no less 'drawn' than the head. It is on the same plane as the head, not something that does the drawing. Throughout the Texts, ephemeral "I"s come and go, drawn and erased in the writing.

In both Kafka and Beckett, the "I" of writing is something intermittent, fragile, and belated. But this is not simply a feature of fiction. Beckett and Kafka are not of that number of writers delighting in the constructedness of fictional worlds. If there is pathos in the spectral and scarcely embodied "I" in Beckett's world and the tentative "I" who lives in Kafka's Diaries, this is because fictional beings are not confined to fiction, nor is it only in fiction that the I is a fragile and secondary thing.