Wednesday, 20 July 2016

On dreams

 The only time I’m 'in my head'  is at night, when the lids are shut, the light of consciousness gone. But even asleep, free of gravity, we do not slip into ourselves. We cede control to a vital power. It makes things. A horse, a neighbour, a country, a sideboard; a highstreet, a law, a voice. These things have never existed before. The dream, as we call it, invents them from scratch. Last night, for example, in the corner of the dream a tiny detail, a curved length of carved and burnished wood, part of a sideboard. The wood is inlaid with distinctive lettering, hieroglyphsitching with sense. This object, with its peculiar signature, is not from childhood or anywhere else. It has been designed from zero by the dream.  The dream does not conceive and afterwards execute these objects, these people, these counties. It conceives and executes them at once, in the same instant. Our waking selves cannot do this. If we saw these things in graphic or material form, we would say these were the results of someone’s masterly intelligence. But in the dream, whose intelligence is this? Whose creative force? Not quite mine, for waking I can not conceive them nor create them. And when I wake I scarcely know what they are. If dreams are our inmost self, then we do not recognise or understand ourselves. The dream is a dark impersonal intention. This is what we find when we’re deep ‘in our heads’, a demiurge speaking in tongues, works of fine art erased by the sun. If only we could open the valve that would release these original powers, their fantastic arts, if only we could in our waking existence, fashion flesh with such quickness. There is more wild invention in a single dream than a many shelffull of fiction

Monday, 11 July 2016

"Middle class intellectuals" meme

Back in the noughties, there were extensive blog debates about the pros and cons of invading Iraq. One of the more curious memes employed by the pro-war writers was the idea that anti-war opinion was largely the preserve of the middle class ‘dinner party’ left, with their “bruschetta orthodoxies”.  All this seems rather arcane and silly now (for some of us it did at the time) not only because the anti-war concerns were rational and warranted, and non class specific,  but also because those using the “dinner-party” meme were themselves middle-class intellectuals like David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen.  The gesture is one of fake populism, pretending that your own view stands heroically opposed to some nebulous liberal-left middle-class consensus and, by implication, with ‘ordinary people’ and “the bloke down the pub”. This might not be worth mentioning were it not that the same rhetoric is surfacing again with regards to Brexit, where the Remain/ Brexit divide is narrated as  the conflict between a metropolitan/ liberal/ middle-class elite and the “ordinary people” defying them.  Once again, it’s nonsense.

Friday, 8 July 2016

When people speak of death being near they tend to mean in time..

When people speak of death being near they tend to mean in time. For me it's a question of space. Like living in a house near a cliff edge.  It is not an expectation that death will come soon. It is already there, like the cliff edge; or better still, like the sea; or better still like the dark shore across the waters. Living in sight of it quickens the pulse. We are always quickened and sharpened by the presence of a limit. A place where one thing ends and another begins. It is always better to live here, at this limit. For this limit always changes things. A life lived in the presence of its outer-limit, death, will be a different kind of life, a truer life, a more intensive life. It has nothing to do with "living like there's no tomorrow", in the fast lane, consuming a ticklist of pleasures. The opposite is true. You are slower; your senses are more receptive, you are happy to watch the snowflake melt.  You are slower because quietly amazed, and amazed not by the flash and the bang and the whizz but other things ordinarily imperceptible, the church bells sunk underwater. Living in proximity to the cliff edge, the sea, the dark shore means having new senses, new eyes, new flesh... And time is ripe like fruit on the tree

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.


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).

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.