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.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Legitimate Strangeness..

The only injunction you need obey, as Rene Char said, is to develop your legitimate strangeness, the things that are peculiar just to you, the tangles of enjoyment that can’t be undone by rules or reason. When I fetch a glass of water I pour only an inch or so into the glass and leave the rest empty. I wait until I’ve drank the inch and then go back and pour another. This irritates people; or rather it did, in the past, when I lived with someone. But anyway, this is the kind of detail I am speaking about. The freedom to part-fill your glass, against all sense, against all prudence, to "waste time" doing such things. This is what I am talking about. For these stupid details, these stubborn details, are the sign language of your legitimate strangeness. They are, of course, ostensibly unremarkable things, irrational things, and yet without them you evaporate into everyone else, as of course most of us do, or else your legitimate strangeness is confined to a sort of allotment or shed where it becomes harmlessly eccentric, like a pet griffin, or like the huge tethered owl I saw recently at a fair, subdued and surrounded by a crowd of snapping cameras. I say there is nothing else but this strangeness, and there is a constant territorial battle, a continual war, by various social and religious machines to eliminate this strangeness, to colonize it, to replace it with the merely generic, to melt all pronouns into They, the anonymous They. Do not try and defend it before the court of reason, your strangeness, to someone armed with a questionnaire or a spreadsheet or a Mental Health Manual or a self-help book, a bureaucrat or marketeer, because your only defence can be to say "sorry, this is who I am", like the composer who, when he was asked to explain the meaning of a piece of his music, simply sat down and played it again. That’s what you have to do, you see: keep playing it again, your strange irrefutable music, again and again and again

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Melancholic angel [fiction]

There is a passage in Kafka, in the diaries, where he says that if you were gifted the ability to review your whole life with the eyes of the present, like watching a movie, the most depressing thing would not be revisiting all the mean and contemptible things you had done, but the realisation that all the ostensibly good things were in fact done for mean and contemptible reasons. You would be robbed of your experience, and you would realise that strictly speaking you had gone through life not knowing what you were doing or what you were thinking, unaware of your guiding desires.. that you had walked through life in a dream. When I think of this melancholic angel, who sifts through the stock of a life and finds only the hidden thread of negativity, who is repelled by everything that once seemed noble and good, who rewrites a biography as a blind man’s ruin, I realise that for a long time this angel was none other than myself. That is, I was able to look back on my experience only days or even hours afterwards and be disgusted. I would review my actions, my speech, which I had enjoyed so much at the time, and see only a fool’s pantomime. I would rewrite farce as tragedy and tragedy as farce. But this melancholic angel have I long since banished, for it was less an angel than a life-denying demon, a demon of the negative. I asked myself how it arose. And it arose, in my case, by thinking of myself as a pure soul who could only breath the air of the possible. This pure soul, this man of the possible, can only be compromised and debased by the world, by flesh and matter, by every externalisation of himself, because anything actual only corrupts and debases the beautiful realm of what might be. Whether it be writing out his thoughts, whether it be friendship or intimacy, he comes away feeling stupider and spoiled because the delicious possibilities that teemed inside him have now been annulled and replaced by something final. But this pure soul does not exist. Our soul is no milky ghost dreaming of daybreak, but a living thing distributed through our words and deeds without surplus. The 'pure soul' is only a bolt-hole from life. To exit this error, the error of the pure soul, what you need is a deed, a deed from nowhere, a deed that takes you by ambush, a deed that shows you possibilities that the pure soul could never even have guessed at.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Life's Fictions

There is always a discrepancy between what we believe intellectually, as a formulated opinion, and what we believe in our flesh. To the latter, the intellect turns a blind eye. There is a story of a famous rationalist philosopher who had a horse shoe on his front door for luck. "Surely you don't believe in that nonsense" a colleague said. ""Of course not, " he replied, "but apparently it still works even if you don't believe in it". This is how we are. My dead father, for example.. Sometimes his presence here is very strong. He sits on the sofa, silent. He never used to say much and he doesn't now. It's a beautiful tender silence. Of course, as a formulated opinion I do not believe in the afterlife, but I am happy he is there on the sofa. And when I visited the bungalow after his death I sat on the bench near the porch. I was careful to sit on the left, for he always sat on the right. And if by mistake I did sit on the right I’d say ‘sorry dad’ and move over. Even now, if someone forced me to sit on the right I wouldn't be comfortable. If you’d asked me ‘do you believe your father is beside you on the bench’ I would say ‘of course not’. Some would say that this is because intuition, the body, the senses, know more than the intellect. But I think there are necessary fictions, wilful fictions that rest on nothing, and these fictions are not things to be discarded in order to get to the scientific core. They are what give value to our existence, these fictions, they are where we really live. And to embrace them, to live them as fictions that are written on air, is to understand what it is to be human. We are creatures of fiction. We have only to decide, not between fiction and reality, but only which fictions allow us to flourish and which  hold us captive

Monday, 4 April 2016

Easter 1916

Bob Geldof has apparently compared the 1916 rebels to Jihadists. He's not the first. Below is something I wrote in 2006 about a trinity of books on the Rising.

The rhetorical appeal to a reality that debunks our cherished myths is commonplace. I've been reading a number of recent articles on the 1916 rising in Ireland, the subject of a recent book by Charles Townshend. Although these reviews ranged from the frankly shrill and silly to the academically serious, they all at some point invoked the sobriety of reality against various dangerous imaginary intoxicants. (Always tricky move in the case of history, as the ‘reality’ in question no longer exists. )

First, the historian Mathew Kelly in the LRB. It’s a detailed and interesting review, but here is Kelly quoting from the Proclamation of the Republic:

“The Irish republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irish woman” .

‘The reality’, he adds ‘was much more complicated’. An odd remark for two reasons. It is surely obvious  that 'reality will be more complicated' than an engaged historical agent can grasp. Why would we need historians otherwise?. But more pertinently, the Proclamation was a political-rhetorical intervention of a certain kind, not a 'representation of reality'. Kelly's analysis is little more than a category error.

Undoubtely the worst of the articles on offer was Martin Kettle’s in the Guardian. Again, the usual device:

“At the heart of all recent refusals to bow the knee to the celebration of heroic violence has been a belated recognition of the reality of the Northern Ireland experience”.

1916 is an example of such ‘celebration’, ‘but’, he intones :

“there is a long and dignified tradition of resistance  to the fetishizing of 1916. it stretches in an unbroken line from Eoin Macneill’s original attempt to countermand the rising”

It is difficult to see how MacNeill could have been de-fetishizing what had not yet been fetishized, but in any case the point is wrong. MacNeill’s objections to the rising were strategic. He thought military action by the rebels must be in response to some provocation or clampdown by the British. (Does Kettle imagine that MacNeill thought 'I'd better countermand the rising before it gets fetishised'?). But once more, ‘fetish’ is there simply to suggest quasi-religious obsession. In terms of historical veracity or logic, it is nonsense. Kettle’s illogic and distortion result from his determination to see dangerous romantic myth on the one hand and sober reality on the other. He also telescopes the past through the present in an attempt to produce spurious journalistic relevance:

“It is also the legacy of a state born in martyrdom and violence, created around the romance of the deed, whose origins are steeped in the pseudoreligious cult of the transformative blood sacrifice and purging authenticity of the acts of a committed minority that al-Qaida or Hamas could recognise.”

This is of course absurd hyperbole. What modern state has not been 'born in violence'? (and gone on to celebrate its violent inception). But it's worth noting how many writers stress the 'blood sacrifice' stuff when writing about the rising. (Kettle also throws in 'cult' to suggest some kind of brainwashed messianism). In fact the only rebel who uttered such rhetoric was Pearse, and though this rhetoric may have proved effective in certain respects, it would be rather silly to think this represented a common ideology. James Connolly, and the Irish Citizen Army, for example, certainly had no such belief in 'blood sacrifice'. And mention of Connolly should remind us also that that Rising comprised an alliance between two groups, the IRB and the Citizen Army, not knitted together by a single political doctrine but by the belief that only force would effectively end British Rule. The elevation of Pearse's peculiar Christological speeches and poetry to some kind of representative status is, then, itself a transparently political manoeuvre, which would have political violence (when used by one 'side') inevitably tagged as regressive, irrational, romantic and, more to the point, pathological.

Finally, even the eminent Roy Foster is not exempt from a weaker variation of this kind of ploy. Here he delivers a killer punch:

'Nowadays, the icons of 1916 are features on the Dublin tourist trail, which includes a "Rebel Tour" -even if the "bullet-holes" on the GPO's pillars have recently been declared to be nothing more than weather erosion'

What exactly is the force of that ‘even if’, other than a meaningless bathos? Should the tour now be abandoned? I have read at least one historian make a persuasive case for the bullet holes thesis – why is this automatically trumped by the anonymous ‘declaration’? Presumably because weather erosion is a factum brutum, whereas bullet holes are an ‘interpretation’ - one is simply present in reality, the other a sentimental projection; ‘weather erosion’ has the prosaic certainty of science and nature on its side, bullet holes form part of some mythological narrative..blah. (The ‘rebel tour’ is in fact conducted by a published historian, and is certainly no exercise in icon- or hagiography)

Were the rebels inspired to violent action by Romantic myth, or was a certain rhetoric enlisted (by some) in the service of a violence already deemed necessary. In any case, the ease with which phrases like ‘romantic myth’ spin off the tongue should be sufficient grounds for caution. Such clotted, automatic phrases are themselves  the symptoms of real 'myth' at work. It would be convenient if myths always resided in the past rather than the present, if they belonged to the pre-modern rather than the contemporary, it they were never on the side of liberal democracy, if the latter were simply synonymous with enlightenment.. But this is just wishful thinking. The significant (and toughest) myths are the ones so embedded in our present that they can pass themselves off as the wide-eyed presentation of the real.