Doctrines of Fear

 Posted by at 3:56 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jul 312010

Brutal fact as in granite, you
are free as in ‘this is a free country’ – schoolboy attempts at resistance.
Memory informs me that in the fifties, and maybe beyond, this was a benchmark
of a certain sort of conservative political correctness – endlessly repeated
– the first part of a litany proclaiming belief in the glories of Englisness
(Britishness?). It chimed in with notions of the enemies across the Channel:
the Pope, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, no . . . oh I don’t know, the
French, the Germans, better say Nazis, the Communists and whoever else that
should be added to the list. All safely held back by that narrow strip of
water, the English Channel. So we can look forward (or is it back?) and say it
again – this is a free country.

I didn’t quite have the words to
ask, ‘And in what way are we free?’ or ‘In what way am I supposed to be free?’
Looking back I have no memory of knowing (in the sense of understanding), what
was being said. Were these compadres repeating what their fathers proclaimed?
My struggling identity depended on not repeating what my father believed; it
looks to me like I was mainly watching and waiting. Of course, later, I was to
discover that my values tended to follow his. I wonder if I ever said to him,
this is a free country. It sounds like good adolescent stuff – looking for a
fight and on the other hand, explain this to me. How to seek and find guidance
when you’re looking for a fight? There’s another possible scenario: I say to him,
‘it’s a free country’, in a kind of whiney, irritating voice, and he gives me a
clip round the ear. He never did but there’s a rightness to the exchange;

Let’s get things straight, you
need to understand a thing or two about the nature of power and yes, you’re
certainly free to fuckup your life, you probably will. And I did; but who
doesn’t! Did we get above ourselves in the sixties/seventies and so we came to
the inflicting of pain, what in the medical profession became known as pain
management. Matron Iron Lady agreed to come in and manage our pain, cold
turkey, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, more whining. What do you children
think you’re doing.

Isn’t it amazing how sane we are
– I can hear you hooting with laughter, spluttering, choking, call this sane!
And yes, I do think we are surprisingly sane. Of course, we have our moments of
madness, but we chat away to each other, pull each other back from the brink
(mostly) and have a glass of wine with our supper and keep our eyes off the
cliff away to our left, waiting to swallow me.

The joy of fear, I mean freedom. And don't forget, Pinky and Perky are in charge of demolition services.


 Posted by at 12:04 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jul 282010

That was the word I was groping for underfoot last week, being an attempt at the translation of the German noun das Unumgängliche. More of this in a minute.


The circumstance of the road narrowing, and you are right about 'granite being an example of a brutal fact', and that I was brought to my knees that time I was walking on a path along a Dartmoor ledge that narrowed, on the one side the overhanging solidity of granite rock, on the other the fringes of heather and tufts of grass that obscured the emptiness of a sheer drop down into an old abandoned quarry below. Not – Walk, Not – Don’t Walk, but down on all fours and try to crawl backwards, with the wind tugging and the plummeting mind still chattering away, Can this be happening to me?


The overhanging granite, and my vertigo. “Overtakelessness”. The emptiness on the other side, and the impossibility of my knowing what lay beyond – Mutter, Mutter – and lost underfoot, but in the certainty that the moment will come back to haunt.


And my mistake! The word in German for that precise moment, das Unumgängliche, it wasn’t Tony Judt at all (as I was thinking here last week) who uses it in his series of  ‘Memoir’ articles in the New York Review of Books, although it might have been. Here in fragmentary recollection is part of the piece, which my memory could not find then:


History can be a storydog that roams around Asia Minor collecting muteness like burrs in its hide. Note that the word “mute” (from Latin mutus and Greek mnein)…

… likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.

(Compare the Latin word mutmut…)

To put this another way, there is something that facts lack. “ Overtakelessness”  is a word told me by a philosopher once – das Unumgängliche – that which cannot be got round.  Cannot be avoided or seen to the back of.  And about which one collects facts – it remains beyond them.


Anne Carson, Nox. 2010, New Directions, New York. # 1.3


Mutter, Mutter – Anne Carson, as you will know from Nox of course! Her – Again! Although, yes, it could as easily have been Tony Judt, who elsewhere in the NYRB (nb the review’s blog is all OPEN ACCESS with no subscription required), and deep within a transcript of the lecture – ‘What is Living and What is Dead…’ – he gave at New York University in October 2009 before his illness had progressed, near the end (on  page 4), gives us the striking phrase a 'democracy of fear’, adding as amplification via reference (8); By analogy with “The Liberalism of Fear”, Judith Shklar’s penetrating essay on political inequality and power.

Mutter, Mutter – mutmut.

Little Green Man Running – Let’s run with this one

 Posted by at 12:17 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jul 232010

    Little green man running – into that territory that we call
the edge, where life realises itself – always chasing after something unknown. And
then there is also life diminishing – realising I just can’t do it anymore, no longer. What
could be called, brutal facts. Brutal facts: the penetration of discomfort and

    To choose a diminished life, was it really a choice? What
else was listed on the menu? He finds himself on a narrow track, no longer
running but not quite standing still. Choice, the buzzword par excellence, an
irritating fly, waved away but always to return, appears to be linked to
freedom . . . but this narrow track belies that ideology. Yes, just ahead is a
fork of the ways and he has to choose, left or right, but if he chooses the wrong
one (or tosses a coin?), then he will at some point (five minutes or fifty
years) he will realise that it was the wrong one. So what sort of choice is
that? Merely a form of torture? There is only one right way (is that true?) but
many obstacles in the shape of desires, distractions, wishful thinking, fatuous
omnipotent fantasies . . . the adman’s (aka Pink and Perky) clever words, lies and deceptions.

    Stories press in from the past, seeking their words, ever
new, ever repeated. And those glimpses, those breaks in the mist, reminiscent
of those walks on Dartmoor when the mist came down and life is reduced to that
damp clinging blanket, a few yards of tussocks, and a compass bearing. (Don’t
forget the compass, Jimmy). And suddenly there’s a break in the clouds, a
dazzle of sunlight, a glimpse of the way home, before the mist swirls back
round us.

    Granite is a great example of a brutal fact – its rough edge
– and I remember you pushing on to a ledge and discovering a moment of no way
forward and no way back.

Krasnogruda – or the ‘House on the Red Soil’

 Posted by at 12:22 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jul 202010

Little green man running…

…And little red man standing. On Sunday I listened to an old friend, now also old in years, telling me of the time in 1938 stood on the railway platform of the city of Bratislava watching the surrounding roads filled with the streams of people-filled cars and other vehicles travelling east from Vienna towards the (then) safety of Checkoslovakia.

Here is the transcript of the letter I wrote to the friend today:

It is a nice coincidence to be lending you the
book of Selected Poems by Czeslaw Milosz, and then to come across this latest
by Tony Judt (dated 13th July 2010 in the NYRB Blog). Krasnogruda!


“I prefer the edge” (in Edge People Tony
Judt NYRB 25/0310)
followed by a colon and then his description of the place,
first singular, then plural. I prefer the edge too, which for me in the end is
always best described as a city. Or a part of a city. For instance I quite
frequently find myself writing, and quite extensively in a kind of fictive
reconstruction, about Alexanderplatz in Berlin. I have only been there once,
for 24 hours in November 2008, but it often comes back to mind, especially
through the words I read there on a large building site sign opposite the hotel
we were staying in, and then wrote down – mit traumhaften aussichten.


Or several cities together at the same time,
such as Berlin, Amsterdam and London, and other cities I have not yet visited,
like Buenos Aires, Calcutta or Kyev, and perhaps never will. The cities appear
to me in some form of fluid relationship together not unlike a mercurial
electronic airport Departures board with its lists of destinations, times of
flight, and remarks – the remarks always brief and fragmentary, like the sign mit
traumhaften aussichten
– my task being to listen (or read) and write them down,
and then return later to try to make sense of them.


you especially for the connection, or better put the re-connection with Tony
Judt who I first came across through his book ‘Postwar’ about  two years ago. A few years older than me and
now ill with AML for which there is no cure, there is both a deep sadness and
an urgent quality in his writing, and hope, an authentic hopefulness that does
not rely on belief. Somewhere else on the NYRB website I saw Judt writing of
the not knowing of the meaning of death, or rather of the experience of a
meaning that is known, but it is withheld from consciousness. I can’t find the
reference now, but I remember he gave the German word for this exact moment.
Perhaps you know it.

Or perhaps somebody else reading this knows the German word, and will tell me what it is.

Dipping a toe in the fifties

 Posted by at 10:45 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Jul 182010

    Little green man running? Why (I think of this as being the
fifties) did we always picture Martians as green? The same green that bombards
the retina in May and June until sun and rain dims its ardour. Green the colour
of life; red the colour of blood and iron and Devon earth.

    Little green man running. The green gradually shifting, from
the tips of his little toes to the top of his head, to red as the danger of
bloody slaughter inches closer. Itchy feet on accelerators – revving high –
rage coursing through aching frustration.

    Yes, why don’t you walk?

    So much to do, so little time.

    And in the midst of it all I have to broadcast the truth – O
if only I had access to it – moments of glorious, inflated, illusory (delusory?)
truth. O we are such dreamers: constructed of dreams – in six days of intensive
dreaming – then a day of rest, one whole glorious day off – can you imagine a
day off – how we long for a day off. We are a dream dreaming.

    What would it mean . . . a (boringly) repeated complaint of
mine is to do with living alone. In other words it all comes down to me and
it’s only me that I can sort it out with. Of course, for others that would be an
image of glorious freedom – just imagine nobody to have to work it out with;
the arguments, the negotiating. So my day off would have to be around others. Getting up without an inner debate about it. A
slow start to the day – I don’t have to make a single decision – I can say my
piece and allow group process to do the rest.

    Little green man running in joy and freedom; no anxiety – in
a word: carefree. Let us drink a toast (perhaps, elderflower champagne?): here’s to the
simplicity of joy and, if we’re lucky, all in glorious (Technicolor) sunshine.

    Surely I’ll be due a day off in the not too distant future.

Red and Green

 Posted by at 3:58 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jul 142010

On Monday I was admiring one of my fellow-vagabond’s recent paintings. To say I was visiting ak in his studio would be an exaggeration, we met in one of his rooms which doubles up to encompass a variety of his domestic and artistic activities and vagrant interests, some mundane, some creative.


The painting I admired was resting on top of the radiator against the wall of his room. An essay in colour you could say, neither of us thinking much of the term abstract to describe the painting he does, it was red and green, predominantly green, and shades of red extending to orange as I recall.


Like  - Walk / Don’t Walk – which, when you think about it, is another subject for an essay on red and green.


My fellow-vagabond and I were on our way to hear John Lanchester in conversation later that day speaking about “Whoops”, his latest book about the 2008 Banking Crisis and the terrible fall-out since, the catastrophe being at heart the result of a hyper-mathematisation of finance to such an advanced and complex level of refinement as to be genuinely abstract  - (in contrast to my friend’s painting) – abstract; that is something about nothing.


How would you put that into words? A woman in the audience, who had worked in the banking world herself for several years, counselled us to always be asking the financers and bankers, and especially their stratospherically-super-intelligent mathematical advisers and inventors. If they can’t put it into words, and they generally can’t, she warned, Don’t believe it.


Good advice!


Like for the subject Red and Green, ask the same question. How would you put that into words?


Back to my memories of the 1970’s in T-shirt protest strolling the city sidewalks of America with their robust coloured signs at the intersections – Walk / Don’t Walk – and those systematic democratic principles which were being worked out through those red and green signs, about how I got to choose (see Rawls J. 1971, A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Harvard University Press); about how we all got to choose and how disobedience could land us in jail, so I could believe, so we all could believe.


And, yes, I believed. Red and Green. I believed in rational choice…


… And went on believing for years until after my last visit to Paris a year or two back, and there looking up at a pedestrian crossing point over one of the vast boulevards of that city I got to see an illuminated red and green man, the red man standing still, the green man walking, walking slowly at first but then faster and faster, eventually running as if he was being chased. I was shocked. Later on, sitting at a street café dumbly stirring my sweetened coffee, I fell into conversation with Serge from Rumania who asked if he could sit at the same table. Serge, like my vagabond friend is also a painter, I could see from his paint spattered white overalls, and also being a migrant worker he told me a lot about red and green, which I hadn’t realised before and needed to know even at this late stage in my life; how red is for running as well as standing still, and green is for running too for all they tell you about this green and pleasant land. And Serge also told me the ways had found for getting around, so that I began to believe the reasoning behind his methods better than the ones I had learnt in America.


Of course it is all common sense, but it is still hard work to find words around the antinomies of being static and in motion… anything but abstract.

Hunger for the Masterpiece

 Posted by at 11:21 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Jul 102010

O I don’t know about masterpiece!
Before you know it we’ll be talking about classics, texts that have stood the
test of time. We need some long dead or even recently dead master to cast a
judgement from on high, deliberated mightily upon, brow furrowed. Scavengers
long held in vagabondage are grateful for whatever crumbs they are given
(steal?); on second thoughts cancel that idea of gratitude, it’s merely a scowl
from between stubs of blackened teeth.

From inside this dustbin I can
feel the vibration of the centuries, the excitement of destruction as Pinky and
Perky slash and burn in delirious screeches of delight, it’s all their fault,
its all their fault, don’t blame us, we are merely the plumbers brought in to
sort out the problems arising from the dour-one’s diarrhoea. But even allowing
for these inauspicious times, history informs me that I have to take the next
step. So I cast about, seeking a texture, a tone, a colour that I can make use
of, that gives me a clue. For I know that something is not quite right;
adjustments are needed. Radical or superficial, I know not. A sense that
there’s a gap between the  system’s
hardwiring and where I find myself. The two don’t gel; square peg in round
hole, I’m in the wrong job except I don’t have a job – there’s merely the life
I make each day.

Fragmented family and no tribe:
is that the problem. Perky tells me that tribalism has gone into the dustbin of
history. So I’m free! Maybe that’s the problem – I’m too free, not connected
where I should be connected according to the blueprint for the hardwiring.

And age . . .  it doesn’t stop does it – on and on,
drip by sodding drip. If I remember rightly I used to be hungry for life,
hungry for the future, and don’t get me wrong that hunger is still there in
homeopathic doses, but, or rather, BUT I’m groping around for the brake. How do you slow
this thing down? There’s only the accelerator, jammed and hanging by a thread.

Walk / Don’t Walk: A Handbook for How to Disagree

 Posted by at 1:35 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jul 052010

The above, I think, has to be our preferred title for this year’s wtw masterpiece, chosen from among the several which went on to the proposed list (see last post). Or a title something close to it. That is, if we can’t have Ballroom Dancing the Grete Sea, and I guess we can’t because, although it is a sell-a-million title, it is too wibblywobbly a one for the book we have in mind.


Wibblywobbly? A definition for that man-overboard mix of the good life lived rocking on the waves, part as a look-alike endless Bruce Forsyth with a new telegenic lovely (glowing ringlets in her hair, botox smooth, and plunging Grecian neckline) forever on his dinner jacketed forearm, part an opiate enriched Ancient Mariner, and part an assumptive Geoffrey Chaucer (via ‘critical theory’ et al – the Grete Sea being the name the English bard used for the waters on which the pilgrim ventured, the Mediterranean Sea, on  his way to Jerusalem) being one tradition for writing the discovery and exploration of our world.


We are of course a British writing collective of men, and all the above wibblywobbly things at times, as well as at other times sullen, angry and spiteful hating of others good fortune, and equally sour about our own, and self-pitying too of course; witness several of the other wtw titles on our list of possibles.


The Little Darlings that we men are. That particular phrase comes from Lowestoft. It was one of the fonder names the fishermen of that East Anglia port gave to what they thought was the endlessly prolific and proliferating herring, up until about thirty or forty years ago that is when the fish stocks collapsed and the fishing industry died, and the phrase is peculiarly apt for us I think, as it reconnects us yet again to that long and detailed exploration of the herring by Max Sebald in the Rings of Saturn, undertaken during his walk south down the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts during the 1990’s…


And thereby also reconnects us, indeed grounds us alongside, with that other continental tradition, the vast rings of which we see curving forward and back beyond the close protection of Uncle Wally’s pointing arm (see his G.S. vol 5: P1060-1063 – The Ring of Saturn or Some Remarks on Iron Construction (1929)) towards other traditions of discovery and exploration, and writing upon images of limitless possibilities:

“A bridge – it's two ends could not be embraced as a single glance and its peers were resting on planets – led from one world to another by a causeway of wonderfully smooth asphalt.  The three-hundred-thirty-three-thousandth peer rested on Saturn.  There our goblin* noticed that the ring around this planet was nothing other than a circular balcony on which the inhabitants of Saturn stroll in the evening to get a breath of fresh air.”

Jean Granville (1844): Another World.

* ‘our goblin’ – a fantastical character, who is not of couse Uncle Wally!


And there strolling, our feet firmly planted on this metallic and mathematically sound circular balcony so vast the curve is almost invisible to our eyes, we find ways full of life in which it is possible to disagree, and discover further possible chapter headings such as:


Not the march of progress, but rings.


Not new beginnings, but the life of the Coda.


Not the Bildungsroman, but the Roman à Clef.


Forwards and backwards, from Eiffel to Tatlin’s Tower.


The wickedness of curves, and the birth of the statistical Narod.


Better headings, not North but South.