Stranger and Stranger

 Posted by at 10:38 am  Atelier  Comments Off
May 292012

"Boredom is the dreambird that hatches the egg of experience" (W Benjamin, The Storyteller – Illuminations (New York 1968), P 91). There are exercises for keeping our eyes open, awake, and alert to what is emerging out from what was not there to begin with when we began looking; the Where's Wally illustrated books for example, which we used to pore over with our children before bedtime, looking for the bespectacled black-haired smooth-faced Wally in the huge crowds.

We explored the picture book landscapes in which all those people were moving, looking for the one, the case, the exception, the singular. Or the strange: such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in literature, and in history. Cases of exception, or anomalies (NB see the review of Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive in the LRB 26 April 2012).

Cases of exception, or States of Emergency. On the one hand, there is the biopolitical discourse of Agamben et al, examining the history of "outlaw". On the other hand, there is the lawyer Utterton in Stevenson's evegreen novel attempting to describe Edward Hyde to himself after his first meeting, but being unable to find afequate words for the man, who is not so much misshapen as the personification of exception. "A man who is a disgrace" Utterston thinks to himself, or a perversion – as a legal man would describe "the perversion of the course of justice".

Perversions, cases of exception, including also those who are – or believe themselves to be – above the law or beyond it, whether politically, medically, economically, or socially; we will see how Rebekkah and her clan make out when they have their day in court… meanwhile Tony Blair smoothies his way through the Leveson Inquiry cross-examination, and we remember what a consumate performer he is and was.

Why does this all matter? It matters in the strange case of our moral imagination, here and now in the middle of the flag-waving crowds with all their current versions of scepticism – late philosophical relativism, negationism, barbarism – "What is Fiction? What is Non-Fiction?" versions. Because it matters to be able to detect the difference between fact and invention (including epistemiological questions and issues to do with methodology).

An intense "subjectivity" (in inverted commas as Joseph Roth put it in one of his 1920's letters to an aspiring feuilleton writer); personal experience as a cognitive instrument. Another way of putting it? Here's Willy:
"I was sitting in a lunchroom in new York having my doughnuts and coffee. I was thinking that one does feel a little boxed in New York, like living in a series of boxes. I looked out of the window and there was this great big Yale (mover's) truck. That's cut-up – a juxtaposition of what's happening and what you're thinking of. I make this practice when I walk down the street. I'll say, when I got to here I saw that sign; I was thinking this, and when I return to the house I'll type this up. Some of this material I use and some I don't. I literally have thousands of pages of notes here, raw, and I keep a diary as well. In a sense it is travelling in time.
Most people don't see what is going on around them.That's my principal message to writers: for God's sake, keep your eyes open. Notice what is going on around you."
William S Burroughs, The Art of Fiction, No 36 (Paris Review, 35, Autumn 1965).

Moral Imagination: Threads and Traces (Carlo Ginzburg), Lines (Tim Ingold), cut-up boredom in Uncle Wally or Cousin Willy's magic encyclopaedias, criss-crossings time and place (the great slabs of time under pressure), hatching the data sets, dialogues, a songthrush singing in the trees behind Camden Road in north London, handwritten pages of notes, personal journals, saved files, online articles, half-read books on the bedside table…

Where’s Wally?

 Posted by at 3:42 pm  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
May 252012

Which one do you mean? There are so many, lined up against the pock-marked wall, their faces fatty and flabby and pox-marked, eyes screwed up against the suddenness of bright sunshine, a phenomenon that we had long since given up hoping for, believing that we had entered a state of permanent overlapping of autumn and winter; the seasonal clock winding on a few clacks of the worn out ratchet and then slipping back. Jerry and Dave guffawing as they must, as they have long been programmed to do; surely this can’t be real – a sort of intermission from the early days of television and at any moment Bill and Ben will chirrup their way on to the screen and all will be well. Nanny will arrive with a soft-boiled egg and nicely toasted soldiers, dripping with the best butter that unearned money can buy.

    Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Their trousers are round their ankles. What have they been up to? I do hope they haven’t been playing with that nasty, jumped-up Aussie . . . what was his name? Rupie . . . yes, I think that is what it was. An unpleasant ambitious sort of person, up to all sorts of no good tricks – very good at making unverifiable promises, actually very good at telling woppers. Question: how do you get the outcome you’ve promised your big friends whilst pretending to be impartial? Now, that is the skill of this game that we’ve blagged our way into – politics.

    Question: how do you get away with impoverishing much of the population whilst begging for their votes?

    Oh, yes, that’s where Rupie comes in.

    Is that what they call a virtuous circle. I mean we get richer.

    It was unfortunate for Dave that the wind that had filled the Australian’s sails for these last twenty or so years was flagging just as Dave got into power. It’s true he was still able to shift the blame from the bankers who had rather overstepped themselves – but we mustn’t get in the way of wealth creation for the few by regulating their behaviour or taxing their dubious casino transactions – on to the previous government.

    Question: can we shoot them now? No, sorry, but we have something called the rule of law and they do have access to the most expensive lawyers in the land. No wonder they are guffawing, it’s touch and go, but they believe they can still get away with it. Like their hero, the slippery Tony B, it’s all about timing the exit, having clawed your way up into the super rich category. Come on, even Ken Liversalts has become rich enough to pay those clever accountants to find those perfectly legal tax dodges.

    But let’s leave the last word to St Wally Benjamin:

    ‘In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an ‘ideal’ receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such. Art, in the same way, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.’

    (The opening paragraph of his essay, The Task of the Translator.)

    Actually I do believe that I could pick at random any paragraph from Walter Benjamin and it would be a gem.

    And I don’t think Benjamin was a salesman.


Funnier and Funnier

 Posted by at 4:28 pm  ON the STREET  Comments Off
May 232012

Buffo Buffo – How else should politics be conducted these days except with loud guffaws? Or rather performed because what we are exploring here is the performative efforts required of governments. Are they doing any thinking? One rather feels not. And if not, how should we in turn be thinking and acting, and what happens when we begin to consider the possibility that our politicians have become superfluous?

Direct action along the lines of the Occupy Movement is one possibility: Activism (see Graeber's Direct Action: An Ethnography for more on this)… although who knows whether or not anarchist spontaneous self-organisation (protest + assemblies + encampments) produces any real thinking either.

Inaction is another familiar and widely used response: Fatalism… and the avoidance of anything that might interupt the cultivation of our inner sense of eternal peace, plus or minus (more likely) any real thinking.

Where is the moral imagination to be found these days?

On the one hand there is the current crisis (a source of concern or celebration depending on your point of view) that capitalist dynamics are really running down: both overcapacity in manufacturing worldwide and a disconnect between economic activity and productivity over the last forty years… and that the world economies are heading for a state of growthlessness, in which we will never be able to work off the DEBT. On the other hand there is simultaneously the other crisis as well (imbued with a terrible uncertainty as to its future outcome) that global warming is happening and we ought to do something about stopping the world getting HOTTER, but we can't because – Buffo, Buffo – it seems democracy is not fit for purpose.

Where is the moral imagination to be found these days?

I am held by a quotation of the 18th century political theorist Edmund Burke, which I read in the latest copy of the LRB (24 May P5) that society "is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and who are to be born.":

- so that, while Uncle Wally's chessplaying Turkish puppets continue to stalk the land, a toast to Franz Josef by us all, and a salute to the Great Porte, is as an important performative effort today as it ever was.

Active boundaries and sulky flow

 Posted by at 1:34 pm  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
May 192012

POZZO: His hat!

            [VLADIMIR seizes LUCKY’s hat. Silence of LUCKY. He falls. Silence. Panting of victors.]

ESTRAGON: Avenged!

            [VLADIMIR examines the hat, peers inside it.]

POZZO; Give me that!

[He snatches the hat from VLADIMIR, throws it on the ground, tramples on it.]

            There’s an end to his thinking!

VLADIMIR; But will he be able to walk?

POZZO; Walk or crawl! [He kicks LUCKY.] Up pig!

ESTRAGON; Perhaps he’s dead.

VLADIMIR; You’ll kill him.

POZZO; Up scum! [He jerks the rope.] Help me!


POZZO; Raise him up!


    And so on. Brilliant Beckett! I can’t help thinking that St Samuel was keeping a close eye on the politicians of his day.


    LUCKY, in his current incarnation being Greece with the rope around its neck and Frau Merkel has been enlisted to play the role of POZZO. And our own Pinky Dave Cameron is shouting obscenities from the sidelines even as his erstwhile buddy LOL Rebekah is expressing her outrage that the CPS has had the temerity to actually charge her with an offence. It can’t get any better, I mean funnier. If this goes on the so-called comedians will be out of a job. Why do we need to pay for comedy when the politicians are doing such a good job of it. And the icing on the cake is that they are not intentionally funny. Of course , if they tried to be funny, they would fail utterly.

    This must be why autocrats are so hard on anybody who makes fun of them because they must know, deep down, that they really are buffoons. It’s only themselves that cannot see the garish clown make-up on their bloated faces.


‘On the following day I sat alone till tea time in the bar restaurant of the Crown Hotel. The rattle of crockery in the kitchen had long since subsided; in the grandfather clock, with its rising and setting sun and a moon that appears at night, the cogwheels gripped, the pendulum swung from side to side, and the big hand, bit by bit, in tiny jerks, went its round. For some time I had been feeling a sense of eternal peace when, leafing through the Independent on Sunday, I came across an article that was related to the Balkan pictures I had seen in the Reading Room the previous evening. The article, which was about the so-called cleansing operations carried out in Bosnia, by the Croats together with the Austrians and Germans, began by describing a photograph taken as a souvenir by men of the Croatian Ustasha, in which fellow militiamen in the best of spirits, some of them striking heroic poses, are sawing off the head of a Serb named Branco Jungic.’ (Page 96 W G Sebald, The Rings of Saturn).


Yes, sometimes the politicians get seriously out of hand. Though the perpetrators in the Independent’s text appear to be still caught up in the belief that they are part of some sort of theatrical comedy.


Maturing and Dementing

 Posted by at 9:38 pm  ON the STREET  Comments Off
May 162012

The true King of Redonda (Xavier Marias), the illustrious lord of that small island rock near Monserrat, has written at length concerning the "dark back of time," including a book with that title. The phrase is taken, or at least adapted, from Shakespeare: "What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abyss of time?", The Tempest, act I, sc. ii, line 49. Redonda has no inhabitants currently so far as is known, but there are several rival living claimants to the throne, and many famous ennobled peers, among them the Lord of Vertigo (WG Sebald), Duchess of Morpho Eugenia ( AS Byatt), Duke of Megalopolis (Francis Ford Coppola), and so on.

Cicatrix* also claims the island throne. This is not the queen’s real name, but it might be something along those lines. She is a woman with long dark flowing hair and cold blue eyes. Chilling indeed. She is sexed, but only nearly so, being forever adolescent like Wednesday Addams –
Child of woe is wane and delicate…sensitive and on the quiet side, she loves the picnics and outings to the underground caverns…a solemn child, prim in dress and, on the whole, pretty lost…secretive and imaginitive, poetic, seems underprivileged and given to occasional tantrums…has six toes on one foot
- black and dark tones predominating and giving the impression that she is above the law.

A parallel example of dark backwardness in nature is indigo, also said to be the colour of the ‘Third Eye’. The lines of flow which produce the natural dye are famed for their difficulty, especially the tendency of the dye mixture to “sulk”. A sulk may last a great length of time and in some cases can become irreversible.

These are the difficulties of wayfaring across boundaries. Gilles Deleuze demands from us similar performative efforts for the purpose, contortions as some have argued, to make us think. Perplexion, and similar words which employ the root “-pli-“, such as perplicate, implicate and replicate, are not uncommon in his writing. The “-pli-“ root meaning is fold, a turned down corner, or, by extension, an angle across which criss-crossing lines of flow are simultaneously being both reflected and permeated.

It is leaky. Such, as Anne Carson reminds us in one of her essays in Decreation, is the nature of active boundaries.

* a scar forming over an old wound. In excess this can impede the functioning of a limb.

May 112012

All this time as a maturing man . . . my goodness, when can we cut him down and serve him with a bowl of French fries and a glass of chilled champagne in that “night club” of his? Let’s get on with it. We need strength for the journey; we need sustaining for goodness sake even if we are heading for that crest of the wave when maturing slips over into dementing. Or perhaps it’s the same thing: maturing must mean getting old and smelly; dementing means that we are past caring – unaware – unconscious aging. The dictionary suggests that there is no verb to dement, therefore I should not use dementing, it gives the wrong idea, as though I am doing something to myself. But why not? To be is a verb and is not quite a doing word. So is maturing I do something with conscious intention. Not sure – yes and no. I suppose drinking alcohol would be an example of conscious dementing and going to chat to my analyst an example of conscious maturing.

    When did Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver come out? Oh yeah, 1976, I checked on Wikipedia. Anyway, the point is I watched it last night having rented the DVD. The fact is I wasn’t sure whether I had actually seen it or whether I only imagined I had seen it because it’s one of those movies that entered what Jung referred to as the collective unconscious (if there is such a thing?). After watching it I’m still not sure whether I saw it in 1976 or 77 but I'm inclined to the view that I didn't see it. Could be I didn’t, because I wasn’t getting to the movies very much as that point in my life. Checking the Scorsese filmography on Wikipedia I noticed Mean Streets which came out a couple of years before Taxi Driver. Perhaps that was the one I saw. So this might be about venturing into the territory, reminding me of Dartmoor once again, of my dementing. But for the moment let’s stay with the movie. Robert de Niro’s Travis is a fascinating creation of a character, coming into America post-Vietnam, an ex-marine, probably traumatised, cannot sleep, finds a job as a taxi driver and occupies a fine line between maturing and dementing. The question that is so gripping is, is he going to make it? Which mainly means, will he survive? But also demands some clarity as to notions of maturing/dementing. He seems to have little in the way of self protective mechanisms operating. Is that another consequence of the PTSD? To what degree does he represent a socially inadequate character irrespective of whatever happened to him in Vietnam. So, yes, the various Jimmy’s and their questioning of what it is to live and survive or not. Travis even has a go at falling in love which doesn’t get far when he takes his dream of woman to a pornographic movie because it is just another film and besides he doesn’t know anything about films. Later, her boss, a presidential hopeful, happens to get into his taxi and Travis makes out he really admires this politician, though he knows nothing about politics, which in turn invites the presidential hopeful to ask him about what he’d like to see happen. Given permission Travis spews out a stream of paranoid stuff about clearing out the filth of the city and then it’s not long before he’s buying guns.

    It’s a fine essay on maturing and dementing, the socially isolated and excluded, heading for an explosion of some sort.

    I better get along to my analyst.


May 092012

A cast iron handle to a trap door, then down some steep slippery steps. Are you counting? And then a passageway. At the end of which a glimmer of light. A group of men. Laughter. A nightclub, and a red light inside.

Then down some slippery steps. Are you counting? Have you reached thirty nine? And what makes you think that your story last week “must be a dream”?

And, another thing, don’t apologise (it is editorial policy here not to). Don’t apologise about “James”: James Hunt (sic: meaning ‘as it is’). World Racing Champion. 1976. Hot year. Driving for McClaren and smoking forty a day. On the edge of the racing line and going flat out on the Nurburgring circuit heading for that corner where your friend’s car is already on fire.

I am counting. Because at a precise moment, the story goes that it is at the number thirty nine or in the next few seconds, I am meant to do something. Maybe it is to change gear. Maybe it is to hit the brakes. Maybe it is to start running. Or to stop. At this split-second moment I can’t remember which. How much adrenalin is pumping? Or is it the fear? Fear driving the fear.

The next six seconds, thirty nine steps, or 127 Hours. I hadn’t thought about that film much until about a month ago (based on the true story of professional mountaineer Aron Ralston). I was looking for books to recommend for a ‘Navigating Serious Illness’ section of a health chapter I was writing for a book for maturing men, and came across The Power of Two: Surviving Serious Illness with an Attitude and an Advocate by Brian and Geri Monaghan (Workman Publishing, New York. 2009). Brian and Geri keeping going; he was seriously ill, she became his health advocate, and it was Brian who told me how much he had got from the film 127 Hours. Theirs is one of the best books of "experience and common sense" I know on the subject of serious illness.

The path of Conscious Ageing? An Elders Rite of Passage? Post-traumatic growth? “James”: this time another James. James Hawkins writes across the boundaries in his latest two posts in his Good Medicine blog about the “most intense, prolonged, potentially catastrophic experience of my life”, and about the “lessons, self-compassion and post-traumatic growth”.

About his 3 Hours: three hours down a snow shute above a cliff in the mountains of Skye. I dwell on every word and rejoice in his rescue! James says he writes, “both personally and as a therapist”, and, I would add, writing across the boundaries of humanity about:
wayfaring / the primacy of movement / the nature and constitution of the ground / divergent perspectives of earth as ground of habitation and scientific object / the intercourse of earth and sky, wind and weather / the fluidity and friction of materials / the experience of light, sound and feeling / what it means to make things / drawing and writing/ storytelling (this list as it happens is borrowed from Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, by Tim Ingold (2012)).

I am not there yet, but I am still counting.

Whoops, what’s this?

 Posted by at 11:40 am  Atelier, OUT in the WILDERNESS  Comments Off
May 052012

I thought it was the lashing rain that woke me, but no, there is something digging into my back. Actually it’s not exactly a foxhole, at least not according to the image I have. Foxholes are either foxholes, which are really tunnels, or a depression in the earth/mud that infantry soldiers dig in a hurry for protection. This is always the problem with metaphors when you begin to examine them. What I have in mind are the various depressions around the Eastern White Barrow not far from the Avon Reservoir. The barrow itself is takes the shape of a nipple-shaped cairn constructed out of lumps of granite – quite a good landmark as long as the mist keeps away. I wonder if the depressions are the result of mining activity around that area. Miners following their threads of tin, leaving marks of their activity, the remains of blowing houses. It must have been a hard life; hard in a way that I probably can only fail to imagine. But I can borrow that mining as a metaphor for this writing process: digging, searching, seeking that trail of what is valuable, following threads that maybe lead nowhere, to nothing but exhaustion. I could, I suppose, trudge downhill through the tussocks and cross the Avon and climb the hill on that side to the pillow mounds, the remains of the rabbit warrens created a hundred and fifty years ago.

    But why bother, let’s get back to the story. The thing that is pressing so uncomfortably into my back is (of course) the circular cast-iron handle of a trap-door. There has to be a way out. Although one wonders why the LibDems don’t take the obvious path of walking away from the coalition that is destroying them. Perky Clegg was reported as being ‘sad’ about his fellow LibDem members who had lost out in Thursday’s local elections. Though it has to be said he is not looking quite so Perky these days; rather more pale, even ghostly. Pinky Vampire Cameron is meanwhile looking as well fed as ever. But I suppose this is Cleggy’s only possible holding of a position of power.

    We better get down these slippery slimy steps without further ado. Progress is slow, each step has to be felt for with nothing to hold on to except the uneven and slimy stone on the right. My left hand meanwhile touches nothing when I reach out in that direction . . . so better try not to think about what that implies.

    Why has Ken Livingstone started appearing with a dog; a cuddly Labrador? Does it make him appear more human? He might be very ready with anti-Semitic one-liners but he does like dogs – he can’t be all bad, especially when compared with the straw thatched dummy opposite.

    Perhaps we are getting somewhere the steps have finished and the passageway is more or less level and, am I imagining it or is there a glimmer of light ahead. Oh yes, here we are, I must have arrived, there’s a crowd milling around. There are bursts of laughter. Though now I notice that it’s an all male crowd. So what does that mean? A bit like school days. And like school days there is some pushing and shoving, as we try to work our way to the head of the queue. This must be a dream. Why didn’t I realise before? Because now we are outside, it’s still night though, the light is from a street lamp and we are in a street of rather shabby Victorian terraces. Perhaps this is a nightclub of some sort. And now I’m getting closer to the entrance I see the light inside is red! And some of the men look vaguely familiar as people often do it dreams.

“Hey, don’t I know you?’

Apparently not. Men looking furtive. Men reaching into their pockets and pulling out fistfuls of money, twenty pound notes by the look of it. ‘Look I’m sorry I don’t have any money with me – it’s a mistake, I shouldn’t be here – I just . . . ‘

‘Cheap I might be, but not that cheap.’ Smudged mascara, like bruised eyes, a spangly dress hanging on thin shoulders. There is, I notice, a developing arousal, an excitement; but as usual I’m out of step with what’s going on. Missed my chance, again.

Crazy dreams. Hey it’s getting light, maybe time to get up.

Oh and sorry to James Hunt for getting Jeremy mixed up with you last week.