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. 


Tuesday, 10 May 2016

A note on the Laura Kuenssberg petition story..

The petition to sack the BBC's political editor* has created a bit of a fuss, in both social and mainstream media. Perhaps predictably, little of this has focused on the substantive claims behind the petition. These are either wilfully misrepresented (a peevish outcry that Labour's local electoral results weren't narrated as a triumph) or dismissed out of hand. Ironically, but implacably, it's now become a story about "nasty (sexist) Corbynistas", in accordance with established memes. 

The attacks on the petition rest on the argument not that the petition itself contains misogynistic remarks* but that a few misogynistic tweets have cited the petition or somehow been galvanised by it. This has roughly the same logical structure as saying that the Brexit campaign includes or inspires racists and therefore the campaign is itself racist and should be abandoned. This reasoning is of course false. 

It's not difficult to asses charges of partiality and bias: the respective coverage given to both major parties, the tone of the coverage, the angles taken, the extent to which commentating voices are from the left or the right, who qualifies as a legitimate commentator and who doesn't, the presence of critical voices and so on. By these criteria, there's a very compelling case for consistent BBC bias, and the petition, like all petitions, is partly just a way of drawing attention to the case. 

Instead,  it's largely morphed into an anti-Corbyn story, using the now familiar recipe: find sexist/ racist/ abusive comments on Twitter, automatically equate these comments with Corbyn Supporters per se and with the petition itself, then insinuate some degree of responsibility on the part of Corbyn himself. All of this, based on non sequiturs and a handful of unrepresentative examples, then silences the 30,00 signatures and detailed analyses of biased reporting. 

*Needless to say, petitions, over and above their ostensible object, are very often strategic ways of getting a subject discussed in the public domain. I take this to be the case here, the subject being BBC bias. 

*despite headlines like "David Cameron condemns 'sexist' petition  against BBc Political Editor.." the offensive remarks were not (i've been informed by 33 degrees) on the petition itself but posted independently on Twitter. Attempts to elicit information about the number or content of these remarks has proved pretty fruitless. If there's evidence that the "campaign" of abuse amounted to more than a handful of tweets, I've not heard it. A "campaign" implies a concerted effort involving a substantial number of those involved - a few random individuals, outside the 30,000 'mainstream', can't be so designated in any meaningful or useful way.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Nietzsche's two suns

Nietzsche asks us to imagine a universe in which the earth revolves around two suns, in an irregular, snaking sort of orbit. Each sun illuminates the world differently, bringing forth different colours and qualities of light, making visible what is dark to the other sun. This, let us suppose, has always been the case, so we take it as given that our world is different according to which sun is nearest. We do not refer to the first and second sun, for they are coeval and equivalent in size and influence. Instead we talk about Helios and Sol, our two presiding stars. We live in a world of twin perspectives, a world of alternating appearances, a world forever “in the balance”. We do not say that Helios’ colours and light represent the way the world is in truth, whereas Sol represents only a world of appearance. Our spontaneous philosophy is that the world rolls between different but equal perspectives. We do not hunger for one impartial sun that would illuminate the world “as it is”; rather do we delight in the different hues, surfaces, brilliances, unconcealed by the two. We begin from the assumption of different perspectives and plural realities, and this starting point is one which applies to all areas: philosophical, cultural, personal. It is not that the world disintegrates into billions of subjective perspectives; rather does each of us, each with our different beam, highlight and make visible different things, different corners of the world, each of our soundings yields different readings. And we delight in this infinite and continuous variousness.

Songs and Books: time regained and lost.



Old favourite songs famously have the power of recall: we listen after a long interval and the flavour of the past is with us again. The secret is not quite "in" the music for the music has acted like a sponge, absorbing (for example) all of what I was and what surrounded me as an adolescent in the 1980's . So now, in 2016, the song is capable of "re-releasing" it all and reawakening the dead. By contrast, returning to a once important book  can seem like visiting a ghost town. Picking up Bertrand Russell's Autobiography, my marginalia are like the hieroglyphs of an extinct tribe. I can resurrect nothing of the original reading experience, the period feel, the excitement. It tells me: what you once were is lost. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The Law of the Schoolyard

There was another boy he picked on, Nigel Ruddy, although ‘picked on’ is too forgiving a term - "ground into the dirt" would be better. He was a tall gangly boy with short frizzy hair. There was something wrong with his leg, so he walked with a limp, or more than a limp really, a broken lopsided walk that claimed his whole body and threatened to topple him. Because of this Tanner called him a “spastic” or a “spazz” and did impressions of him, clawing his hands to his chest and making “gumby noises”. Because of his hair Tanner called him a “nignog” and asked him about his father: “how come your mum and dad are white when you’ve got a nignog’s hair”, and “maybe your mum’s had it off with a black man Ruddy”. Ruddy’s other mistake was to be studious, which the Tanner cretin could only interpret as a sign of homosexuality, and so he called him a “puff” and a “homo” and asked him "who did you bum last night?". Ruddy dare not read, because Tanner would say “What you doing, reading a fucking book, Ruddy, it’s break time you thick cunt”. Tanner wanted to chip away at this quiet serious boy until there was nothing left but a damp patch of tears, a blush of pain on the pavement. He would sit opposite Ruddy in the canteen at lunch, staring at him and repeating his name in a slow mocking voice: “Rud-eeee, Nye-gel Rud-eeee”. Ruddy would turn scarlet, burning with discomfort, and look down at the table, or sometimes murmur “please leave me alone”, which was fatal of course: “Leave you alone? That’s not very nice when I’ve come to talk to you is it? No need to be rude is there Ru-deee, or should we call you Rude-y, Nigel Rude-y.  I’ll see you under the bridge later and we can have a talk about manners, eh? Or he would grab one of Ruddy’s sandwiches and take a big bite before spitting it out immediately:  “Fucking hell, that is disgusting Ruddy. What’s in there Ruddy, some of your dad’s fucking knob cheese? Tell your mum her sandwiches are fucking rank”. And so on, drip drip on Ruddy's head, day after day.

When you are at school, as a young child, it seems like this is the whole world and there is no exit. It is a closed universe, in which your thoughts and feelings receive no echo, no confirmation, from anyone else and are actively attacked if exposed. In effect, it is a totalitarian world. This totalitarianism does not come from the teachers, from the rules imposed by the headmaster and the staff.   “The Teacher”, like “The Police”, is in any case a stock authority figure, and part of a pantomime image, a lazy and uncritical idea of what constitutes authority. People who want to show their backside to the Teacher and the Policeman are typically blind to the actual sources and forms of authority; to the multifarious ways in which authority and power creep into our soul and solicit our collaboration. And so the totalitarian world of the schoolyard does not take the form of a law forbidding things, such as, for example, “do not run in the corridor” and so on, laws which incite, like clockwork, petty forms of disobedience. No, it is a totalitarianism of the pupils, and it urges and demands certain forms of enjoyment, predictable forms of pack enjoyment, copied and borrowed from the pack. I remember at our school, for example, anyone not wearing dock martin boots and high-waister trousers was automatically suspect, and would be dragged before some kangaroo court to be interrogated about their clothing; similarly people who did not like the prescribed bands, fashions, the latest gadgets, the latest games, certain new slang phrases, TV programs;  also of course, people who did not perform the prescribed petty forms of disobedience– flicking rubber bands in class or smoking under the bridge. All were hauled before a tribunal of dunces. And of course these laws, demanding certain forms of enjoyment, and excommunicating those who refuse, are far more effective than the kind of laws signposted and enforced by the teacher. Power is best exercised when it urges us to enjoy and desire certain things and, simultaneously, casts out to sea those who refuse. It is no accident that Tanner’s cronies, the petty rebels, the smokers under the bridge, have all grown up to be, not the great creative rule breakers, but the wife-and-two-kids, 9 to 5 conformists. These were, in addition, the money chasers who left school at 16, who couldn’t wait to leave school and make beer money. Their rebellion against education was in effect a rebellion against the mind, against difference, against dissent.

Ruddy refused this totalitarian world. Ruddy was a "swot", a "boffin", and therefore deserved merciless torment, the callous retribution that the cretinised take upon the clever, that the mentally weak, who always seek confirmation from a pack, take upon those pursuing a different path. Most notoriously, in what became a cause célèbre, Tanner forced Ruddy to eat some dog shit. “It wasn’t fresh dog shit,” someone explained, “It was some of that hard white dogshit, probably been there ages,” as if this were a mitigating factor, or as if they were slightly disappointed the shit wasn’t softer. Ruddy’s name was then synonymous with eating dogshit, and anyone who touched him would declare they had 'Ruddy germs' and try to pass them on to someone else as soon as possible. I hadn’t been there but could only imagine him knelt on the wet pavement by the grass verge, Tanner and his cronies craning over him, stupidly swaggering, leering and laughing, offering freedom if only he’d eat the dog shit, and of course "tell no one" or he'd have his 'head kicked in". The totalitarian mind-set of the schoolyard is such that Ruddy was always spurned as the boy who had eaten dog shit whilst Tanner was never spurned as the boy who'd forced someone to eat dog shit. Actually, this is not simply the law of the schoolyard; it is the way of the world. People like Tanner are everywhere walking free and regarded as normal human beings, as 'good blokes', whereas they are psychopaths and sadists who evade the law only because they inflict microsadisms and microhumiliations which pass unseen and unmonitored. It was Tanner who should have been ostracised and despised, slammed in the stocks and spat on, or fed faeces through a funnel, rather than being feted by a claque of cowards and allowed to carry on his life as normal, after treating another human being like rubbish. To treat the supposedly weak and defenceless as rubbish, this is what is called Evil. And it is not enough to claim that he was only a child, or that children are like that, since all children are not like that and the legal age of responsibility is in any case an imposed and convenient fiction rather than a  sudden leap of the soul into adulthood. Some reach adulthood at 12, others defer it forever; some are fit for the franchise at 14, whilst others are best barred till death. Tanner knew what he was doing and enjoyed it. I suspect he has not only never recanted or confessed but actually forgotten the incident or regards it as 'harmless fun', a phrase which almost always conceals a crime, for anything deemed “harmless fun” is placed beyond criticism and analysis: either salute "harmless fun" or be hanged as humourless, laugh or be deemed a loser.

Monday, 25 April 2016

A Novel is the Best Place to Die

I remember or half remember a quotation along the lines of "a novel is the best place to die"*. I'd written it down in a notebook now lost. The number of notebooks I have lost or misplaced over the years is baffling and so numerous that, like all repeated things, it becomes the bearer of a secret meaning that can, if you listen, whisper who you are. I am not sure, in my case, exactly what that meaning is, but it's as if I have engineered a number of these small traumas, broken off pieces of myself and set them down in the water like paper boats drifting away downstream into silence. But that aside, what also interests me is this: If you revisit old notebooks, or old marginal notes in a favourite book, you see underlined passages, delighted ticks and copied quotations that were obviously, at the time, not only intelligible and pertinent, but actually words that glossed and explicated your own soul, or at least brought to clarity what was still unformed and sightless within you. "Ah, yes, of course!" they seem to say, "here it is!" And yet, years later, you go back puzzled, staring blankly and unable to rescue any sense at all, asking only "Why did I write it down? What did it used to mean?" These questions, and the hieroglyphs to which they respond, are proof enough that we are not one but many people in succession. The sense you are unable to rescue is actually a lost self, a previous incarnation with which you now share very little. Only the meandering tardiness of time, which moves not by sudden leaps and bounds but incrementally and day by day, stops us seeing this. The exception to this is accident, catastrophe, various fatal interventions which cut you in half, which abruptly and visibly remove you from what you were and then place you starkly somewhere else. You look back over the water to another shore now distant and indistinct. This is what happened to my father. And this, in fact, is what happened to me.
____


*Franz Kafka 'There can be no more beautiful spot to die in, no spot more worthy of total despair, than one's own novel.'

Sunday, 24 April 2016

An Incident at the Louvre

There was an incident at the Louvre, last year. I'd taken my mother to Paris for her 70th birthday. It was her first visit. We stayed in a small apartment in the Marais, a former atelier, a beautiful little place, with a thin tin roof, on which the rain drummed crazily throughout the first night as if summoning the hot sun that rose the next day. We walked with slow steps along the Rue de Turbigo to the Louvre and my mother talked about how she never thought she’d see Paris, how my father never wanted to go there, how beautiful the city was... At the museum, when we got to the Mona Lisa room, I noticed an idiot who was taking photos of himself next to each painting with a so-called "selfie stick", a term I refuse to use. There are certain terms one should always refuse to use, like the idiotic "her majesty", which should also never be capitalised, referring to the nominal head of the Windsor clan. And likewise, though for very different reasons of course, "selfie" should never be used in so far as it is too cosy with the phenomenon it "describes", it makes it seem familiar and obvious when in fact it quintessentially moronic, the symptom of a largely undiagnosed disease, and this very term "selfie stick" ought properly to induce feelings of anger and depression. Therefore, for the purpose of the anecdote I will call it an ego pole, for these people who take 'selfies' are people who always have to be in the picture. The idea that the Mona Lisa or Big Ben or manifold other stereotypical 'attractions' might exist untagged by their gurning face is unthinkable, and incidentally the vanishing point of the image is not their own eye but the imagined eye of another audience, the audience of their so-called 'social media' page, which displays not the variety of their travels but the unerring and moronic repetition of their head with various backdrops - the Florence backdrop, the Paris backdrop, the Taj Mahal backdrop and to on. This reduction of the world to a backdrop for the grinning head is the essence of egoism, so that the term ‘ego pole’ has no bias whatever but is purely and economically descriptive, whereas the term "selfie stick" drags with it a whole culture, and winks indulgently at this culture, helping to legitimise what really should be attacked and ridiculed.  And so, as I was guiding my mother through the swarm of people, the swarm of idiots clutching their ego poles, to see the Mona Lisa, it so happened that he, the idiot, visibly giddy, barged his way past my mother, elbowed her forcibly out of the way, so forcibly she scowled and released a muted "Ow!", which he didn't hear of course, scrambling for his photo opportunity, a scrambling technique he'd no doubt picked up at the Boxing Day sales. And as this kind of rudeness cannot go unchecked, the reciprocating elbow he received from me in the small of his back was considerably harder, and, accompanied by a swift backkick, it meant that he went down and stayed down, ego pole clattering to the floor, head swivelling around angrily, confused and undone. This was only one enemy casualty but nonetheless satisfying. Then, inconspicuously, and arm in arm with my frail oblivious mother, I strolled into the next room discussing art in the usual whispers.