A R C H I V E
Not exactly a blog (apart from anything else, it's such an ugly word) this page is intended to be a forum for some of the embryonic, hazy and ill-disciplined inner debates that can't find a home anywhere else. A kind of bordel for stray pensées. I don't suppose it could ever really be as anarchic as my actual notebooks, but I hope it never becomes too crafted, too cultivated or too rigorous to serve its purpose...
Linguistic Metastases: In English, the figure of classical rhetoric called metastasis is quite well captured by the locution, ‘moving swiftly on’. (‘Captured’ temporarily perhaps, but nothing quite so slippery will ever be held for long.) It skims over what might otherwise be lingered on and strikes out on a different path. In medicine, therefore, it is an analogy to nothing more substantial than a turn of phrase: the metaphor of a trope. If only it could remain so abstract, so inferentially deferred. Alas, it is revealed by scans and x-rays to have all the undeniable materiality of a hairline fracture or (the dreadful irony of it) venous thrombosis.
My mother’s cancer is moving swiftly on, touching on new topics as its ineluctable oration picks up pace. It is almost inconceivable that her life should do the same... skim over what might otherwise be lingered on... what should be lingered on, damn it... and move on. But that’s the monologue that those of us who love her will probably be forced to sit through: a triumphalist distortion of reality that rushes on to its grotesque conclusion.
Denial is what the Kübler-Ross model tells us we should suffer at this stage. Frankly, the idea of these stages is pernicious. It is founded upon a false notion of human consciousness. At best, it is simplistic to the point of inapplicability; at worst, its obstinate and partisan application can become a prescription of normative behaviour in situations where any such prescription is immoral. As generalising labels go, the emotions supposedly involved are fair enough (denial, anger, depression and the like); but the teleology of the model, the refusal to accept how these states necessarily exist in flux and admixture... these assumptions themselves represent a kind of denial of the plural and fluid nature of human consciousness, especially as it considers the paradoxes of its own unimaginable end.
I prefer defiance. Irrational defiance of the inevitable, and the final going through with that which must at last be done, is what is beautiful in Renaissance Tragedy. If Hamlet does not defy his fate, despite knowing how impossible this is, and saying so, his ultimate revenge is simply so much melodrama. Beauty is worth aspiring to, at least. So let’s get on with our defiance.
Given that metastasis was language before lurgy, maybe we should use that language to defy itself. Al Alvarez says that poker is only mastered by working out what your opponent is trying to say. Might the same be said of cancer? Let’s linger for a second on the name of my mom’s diagnosis. A little clerihew:
(And coming up next week on the close to the bone pun show: a critical biopsy of our malignant little lump of a French president...)
Beautiful it is not, but there’s something genuinely steely about this kind of cheek. Remember that song about Hitler’s solitary gonad: just finding a dismissive rhyme for Himmler or for Göbbels is the little person’s way of taking on the entire Nazi high command. I can only hope my silly joke will help the first woman I ever loved to stick one over on this nasty little plotter, however temporarily. All the better if it provides a bit of moral support to anyone else who has encountered the inveigling, dissembling assassin.
And yet, the thought occurs to me, that language might have its own cancers: dreadful mutations that remain hidden until they bulge and seed, attacking all the structures of the texts that incubated them. We often hear that keeping secrets or bottling emotions can become, or can produce, or (in any case) appear to predate insidious physical disease. No doubt the evidence for a causal link is flimsy. It is another of our culture’s myriad paranoias. And yet, suspicions have their own reality. Might we suspect that language causes cancer?... certain uses of it... certain mutations or combinations of it? Metastasis, for instance, or simply metaphor? We might find an alternative in the idea that cancer continues to metastasize beyond the individual human body; that it can pass into the language, and the mind. Neither idea seems wholly sane. But not to stand in defiance of such a possibility, on the grounds that it might not be very possible, seems foolishily imprudent. And, revisiting my former point, is it not immoral to impose an arbitrary model of sanity upon those whose existential context is so appalling? The very least we can expect from those with cancer is that they get a little crabby.
Hobsbawm’s memory: Historian Eric Hobsbawm has been refused his request to see the file allegedly held on him at the Security Service (who have come to accept the inevitable TV nickname MI5... personally, I cannot). Typically, the Security Service denies that Hobsbawm can take their rejection to imply (n)either the existence (n)or the non-existence of such a file.
Firstly, it’s pretty obvious that they’re not really addressing Hobsbawm at all with this denial. The historian can be in no doubt whatsoever that the file exists. This particular bit of refusenik legalese is for the sake of anybody else who might try the same trick just to find out if they have a Secret Service dossier.
Secondly, the real reason for the rejection, according to Hobsbawm himself, is either to protect the identity of “whoever twitted on him”, or else to cover up the Security Service’s incompetent obsession during the seventies and eighties with the Communist Party at the expense of Trotskyist groups who (in the historian’s undeniably well-informed opinion) posed a greater threat to the status quo.
While these things probably do niggle, the main imperative for non disclosure must be one of policy. Secrecy is habitual to these people. The whole raison d’être of the Security Service is to control the flow of nationally ‘sensitive’ information. They do so according to a model which is directly analogous to profit and loss. Simply put, they conceive of information as capital. It should be amassed with increasing effeciency, invested and distributed in order to achieve increasing returns. The idea of an intelligence service releasing solicited information which has neither (a) any likelihood of directly garnering them new information, (b) any likelihood of indirectly garnering them new information, or (c) (most subtly, but most importantly) the effect of portraying them as the principal national authority with regard to the transactions of esoteric information (despite considerable evidence to the contrary), is about as preposterous as the idea of a bank handing out free money to petitioners with no prospect of the analogous returns. This being the case, the Security Service has no choice but to resist at all costs any portrayal of themselves as vulnerable to asset-stripping at the hands of rival dealers in information (like Marxist historians). Above all they will want to scotch the slightest suggestion that their treasury of classified files is subject to the Data Protection Act: a potential threat like any other.
Whilst it might be interesting to examine the false-consciousness behind all this, and indeed Hobsbawm’s pre-eminence as the living historian best qualified to carry out such an examination, what I’m more interested in is Hobsbawm’s stated reason for wanting access to his file. He says he wants it to help him to correct the errors in his autobiography.
There is doubtless an element of irony here. Hobsbawm manages, with the characteristic cheek of the old and wise, to trump (pre-emptively) the riddling obliqueness of the Security Service’s response. If this is possible, he manages to seem at once flattering (your records, your methods are so much more rigourous than mine), benign (it’s just to help an old man with his memoirs), condescending (you realise your work is only marginalia to my own account of the history of that period), and damning (you are smug dilletante dealers in piffling minutiae, as evidenced by the fact that you might congratulate yourselves on receiving this excuse). He could, after all, have said something like ‘I want to flesh out my autobiography,’ or even ‘add a new dimension to my autobiography, for which this file would be an invaluable resource’ blah, blah... Instead he goes with ‘correct the errors’.
On the other hand, the excuse might be deliberately meiotic: a means of intimating communicative complicity... signalling acquiescence to the traditionally oblique and euphemistic exchanges of diplomacy (and it’s shady little brother, espionage).
This kind of verbal chicanery is entertaining enough in its own way, but there is a more challenging explanation. What if Hobsbawm is being honest? It would seem to be an audaciously creative solution to memory loss, or just to the everyday difficulties of recall, to ask the Security Service to sub-edit your life. On the other hand, it hints at the acceptance of an external, psychologically dependant model of personal ‘memory’ which outstrips even the worst dystopian nightmares of twentieth century fiction: themselves inspired by the century’s unprecedented (and often mutually dependant) developments of technology and totalitarianism. Imagine if people routinely relied upon government agencies or corporate bodies to recall events in their lives.
I submit that if one were to be interested in finding the greatest threat to the model of liberal individualism that (apparently) we still hold quite dear (personally I find it extremely problematic), it would not be the sheer fact of the increase of surveillance and mistrust of citizens on the part of government and private security services that would be in the frame, but the tendency of members of societies like ours to surrender responsibility for their own key psychological process of individuation – memory – to external authorities, without any prompting. If this tendency is taking hold, it is technology that is driving it (computers, CCTV, digital cameras... the photograph, in particular, has had a lot to answer for) and it is the interaction of memory and history that’s the age-old frontier battleground. Simply put, we don’t trust ourselves to remember any more. We want someone, or something to do it for us. Thus any vestiges of independant power over our own narratives we continued to exercise (nationalist history remains the core process of ideological control in this regard) are surrendered, either directly or indirectly, to external mechanisms and authorities. And if you thought the Security Services were worrying enough, take a look at all the private interests potentially involved... capitalists providing memory services... now there’s something that even the intellectually fearless Hobsbawm might agree doesn’t bear thinking about!
Forget the direct sci-fi intervention models you might see in films like Total Recall or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Such things would be costly, time-consuming and ultimately unnecessary. The reality is more likely to be a massive weakening of personal, family and community memory on the part of a public who have (in the totalitarian model) nationalized/centralized memory into the processes of historical metanarrative control, or – more likely – (in the capitalist model) contracted their memories out in the psychohistorical market-place...
A Mia haircut: I just watched Rosemary's Baby again last night. It was on the telly. It was late. I should really have gone to bed but there's just something about the heavy-handed use of colours in films that keeps me watching. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover had precisely the same insomniac effect on me the other week. I've seen both films often enough to know better than to put my book down... but still.There was a story a few months ago that Platinum Dunes (the production company responsible for the Friday the 13th remakes) was planning to redo Polanski's unheimlich classic and were looking for a writer for the project. The devil only knows who put that hairy bastard of an idea in their heads. No doubt it was the result of some demonic midnight impregnation rite. The outcome is bound to be truly horrific.
I don't really want to write about the film, though. This is something much more personal... My mom tells the story that I was “born with a perfect Vidal Sassoon haircut”. Until last night, I'd never really understood what she meant. I got the basic idea... that I was not one of the millions of British children who are (to this day, apparently) born resembling Winston Churchill. Instead I was a ‘pretty’ baby: ‘pretty’ in a way that recalled the fashion standards of the mid sixties – skinny, small, boyishly effeminate. It's obviously nonsense, but it was never intended, or taken, as a statement of fact. It was simply a measure of how she saw me through the rose-tinted (rather than sulphurous) spectacles of a new mother: beautiful in a way that recalled her own aspirations to media-defined beauty as a young woman in the mid sixties. I probably looked more like an oddly-limbed haggis with a bit of ginger hair, but this is not how mothers tend to see their babies. They project. What I had never really understood, though, is precisely what haircut she had projected onto the soft screen of my fontanelle. Vidal Sassoon, as far as I could tell, was famous for various versions of the ‘bob’. How could a baby ever have enough hair for that? Then I watched Rosemary's Baby again.For some reason, I'd always missed this correspondence. Obviously, I'd never missed the haircut, or the moment where it appears. Rosemary – in one of her (now classic) vain gestures of independant action – comes back to the fashionably and menacingly yellowing apartment with a short, almost public schoolboyish, haircut that accentuates both the fragile beauty of her tiny head and neck and the shiny (fake?) redness of her hair. “I went to Vidal Sassoon” she says, and her husband (the tirelessly edgy and overbearing John Cassavetes) immediately dismisses it as awful.
There's so much to say about this. It's a flagrant, but also a classy, bit of product placement... classy considering the unanimously negative reviews of the characters and, more generally, the superb problematization of the female fashion-icon / sex-symbol as physically fragile and vulnerable that the film achieves. The fact that Polanski's film is (I think typically) just as oppressively objectifying of its female star as the New York coven is actually a serendipitous addition to the effect. Not only has Rosemary managed to step out of her oppressive daily life for a makeover, but tiny little Mia Farrow has, as it were, somehow managed to step right out of the doom-laden matrix of the film itself (I mean that etymological play on matrix) and come back with an enduring marker of this small act of (tragically useless and ironically inauthentic) rebellion. I could, at this point, segue off into a thing about Roland Barthes and the coupe zero of the abbé Pierre and Roman haircuts. But I won't. Even this would exclude so much else that could be said.
The point, however, is that I was tired last night and I wasn't capable of thinking in these cultural-critical terms. Instead I just thought: ‘she looks like a choirboy!’. As epiphanies go, it wasn't very original. Of course she looks like a choirboy. She is entirely infantilised by this film and the virginal, religious implication is as heavy-handed as all the yellow decoration. We could obviously go on about gay aesthetic influence on fashion in the sixties and so on (There was a young fellow from Kings...) but much more shocking to me was the thought that Mia Farrow looked uncannily like I did as a kid.
Then my mom's story came back to me. Maybe it was Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby that she'd been thinking of when I was born. This is unlikely to have been a conscious thing. If I put it to her, I'm sure she would deny it. I don't dare. Even if I'm wide of the mark, even if the haircut she imagined was completely different, the idea has occured to her son... to me... that uncanny epiphany in itself speaks volumes. That a new mother at the beginning of the seventies, on seeing her first child, should be influenced by this film (one that I imagine my mom saw for the first time in the early days of her relationship with my dad... even if she did not, this is still how I imagine it now) seems inevitable to me. She would try not to think about it during pregnancy – the prospect of the demonic parasite... of being terrified on first seeing the weird thing inside her when it finally emerges – but the effect of this text on (what we may as well call) the cinematic collective unconscious of her generation would be very strong indeed. And when she did finally see the thing?... she'd be relieved: it's pretty, it's tiny and pink and fragile and pure, it has a lovely neat head of ginger hair – a perfect Vidal Sassoon haircut.
Poésie anglo-saxonne: I've long been meaning to write something about the rather squalid ideological implications of the term ‘anglo-saxon’ as it is used in contemporary French culture. Aside from the basically racist undertones (it is, after all, a racial identification rather than a more neutral linguistic term like ‘anglophone’, and has long been used as such by English-speaking fascists), what is especially irksome is the abject denial – characteristic of this type of ideo-linguistic othering of a close relation – of the paramount influence of Francophone culture on the language and ideology of the English speaking world since (what is rather flatteringly called) the Norman Conquest. Simply put, the othering of all that is soi-disant Anglo-Saxon relies upon, in fact insists upon, the implicit suppression of the historically undeniable fact that late medieval and modern English culture (its language, politics, economics and so on) is no more Anglo-Saxon than it is Norman French. Less so, I would say. In most of the respects that contemporary French culture seeks to differentiate itself from a perceived threat of cultural imperialism sourced to a supposedly homogeneous English-speaking ideology, the roots of the creation and dissemination of that ideology (insofar as it actually exists at all) can more easily be traced to the clear imperialist and expansionist ambitions of the Norman aristocracy than the fragmentary remnants of the defeated (and already heterogeneous) Germanic culture they replaced as a ruling class. Though, as I say, that is a matter for debate. What is not a matter for serious debate, is the obvious fact that modern anglophone culture is in no way pre-Norman. There can be no real justification, therefore, for calling it Anglo-Saxon.
Unfortunately, this prejudiced and inaccurate othering is so pervasive in contemporary French culture that it is even (perhaps especially) perpetuated by some of the supposed anglophiles. The name, for example, still given by French anglicists to their subject (according to the official titles of academic disciplines within l’éducation nationale) is Langues et littératures anglaises et anglo-saxonnes. Those plurals are to be welcomed, but surely anglophones would have been preferable to anglo-saxonnes especially considering the paucity of teaching of Old English language and literature that actually takes place.
This is the oddest upshot of the ideology. The glossing over of the story of Norman cultural influence upon English language and literature – as part of a process of othering it from French language and literature – requires, almost paradoxically, the marginalisation of pre-Norman culture in the curriculum. As far as I can see, as a teacher of (supposedly) littératures anglaises et anglo-saxonnes at a French university, students – at least not before they reach an advanced level – get virtually no exposure whatsoever to Anglo-Saxon texts. Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Old English is hard enough for English speakers. German speakers might find it a bit easier. For the average French undergraduate it is prohibitively different from Modern English: a language which is much easier for them to learn, given that it is already half French. That much is clear. But here’s the rub, many of these texts exist in Modern English translations which nevertheless keep much of their Anglo-Saxon quality (if we can speak in this vague way). More than this, there are a very large number of texts in Modern English which retain (or perhaps more often reassert) a genuinely Anglo-Saxon character and which are routinely overlooked in (traditional) French teaching of English Literature precisely as a result of this unconscious (paradoxical, ideological) diminution of the story of Norman influence upon Modern English.
I am thinking speicifically of poetry here. Not in terms of vocabulary (like in the work of William Barnes, Yeats or Manley-Hopkins), but in terms of accentual (pure stress) metre and regular alliteration. Personally, I find that the easiest (and potentially the most accurate) way to introduce modern English prosody to French students is to examine it in a historical context: firstly as the result of a kind of hybridisation of the Old English and French medieval traditions (alliterative stress metre with the rhymed lais and romances of Northern French poetry) and later as an adaptation of this prosodic creole to the Renaissance versions of classical syllabic metre. I make it clear to my students that I believe the remnants of anglo-saxon accentual metre explain both the key difference between the predominant English iambic pentameter (strictly five-footed but rather flexible in terms of syllables, pace and length) and the predominant French alexendrin (strictly dodecasyllabic and mostly regular in length and pace but flexible in terms of number and position of stresses) and the traditional English prediliction for blank verse. Crucially, however, I also insist upon an account of the formal changes that occur in English verse over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (obviously linked to other non-formal factors: politics, philosophy, artistic movements and so on) which heavily implicates the reassertion of accentual metre. To be honest, I consider this a more important trend than the (nevertheless also important) move towards French-style vers libre.
Mine, I realise, is also an ideologically inflected account, and one that is tempted a little too far into another false dichotomy. It is, to say the least, politically problematic. The ideologically inflected inability, on the part of certain French critics, to recognize genuine Anglo-Saxon influence on modern English poetry has thrown up a specific example of weak analysis of poetry in my place of work. A colleague, whom I respect, as part of an otherwise well-informed and accurate lecture plan, used Ted Hughes's poem “The Jaguar” as an example of (metrically) free verse. I was forced to disagree. The poem is in no sense an example of free verse. Personally, I would suggest that the best prosodic label for the poem would be something like: enclosed half-rhyme quatrains using a five stress accentual metre. Both the metre and the rhyme are quite loose, but they're also both quite clear. It is also a poem with a salient quality of line by line alliteration. That my colleague should have missed these prosodic details speaks volumes, I believe, about the blind-spot French culture has developed to genuine anglo-saxonism in English language culture. This is a blind-spot that I would argue derives from a denial of the otherwise overweening French influence on post-Norman English culture: a denial necessarily implicit in a process of ideological othering of culture anglo-saxonne. Just as its instinctive use is for a modern (very) English poet like Ted Hughes this insensitivity to consonant-driven accentual metre on the part of a French literary critic is an unconscious expression of an ideology. In this case, it is a nationalist ideology – one which seems to go to unconsciously revisionist lengths in othering cultural Englishness, under the label ‘anglo-saxon’ – which I am seriously afraid is dyed in the wool of the French attitude to English studies.
I certainly do not want to be seen as one of the nouveaux hussards of anglo-saxon cultural imperialism. It is already beginning to feel, like all this talk of economic collapse, like a self-fulfulling prophecy.
British Mainstream Journalism: If I'm looking for justifications for my exile – I often am; it's hardly a utopia in France – the dire state of British print journalism is increasingly forthcoming. In an article in the Observer yesterday (this is not the Mail on Sunday, remember... it might be hard to remember) Jason Burke made such a pig's ear of a report about the campaign against arts' funding cuts in Prague that reading it has resigned me to chewing over my chronic embarrassment at the decline of serious intellectual culture in my nation of birth. I spend an increasing amount of my time trying to mitigate the ridicule and consternation this kind of thing quite properly attracts on this side of the channel.
Quite apart from the hamfisted cliché of the opening caricature of Prague 'intellectuals' (it is worth noting that Kafka – a German language writer – is extremely unlikely to be touted as the epitome of Czech literary culture by anyone who has read more than a guidebook), not to mention the acute sparcity of factual details, the fact that he begins his lazy string of arty-farty vox pops with a quote from 'local journalist, Martin Plichta' is damning. There is no such person. Fabrice Martin-Plichta is a Franco-Czech journalist who is a correspondent for Le Monde. His surname is double-barrelled (half French, half Czech). He certainly cannot, politely or otherwise, be referred to as 'Plichta'.That this crucial detail was missed, despite it's being so fantastically easy to verify (for one foreign correspondent of a left of centre 'quality' national newspaper to recognise another) is explicable only if we recognise the gulf in terms of rigour and perspicacity that is broadening between the cultures of journalism in London and Paris. What is particularly worrying is the absence of critical reflection involved. If, like Martin-Plichta, Burke had widened the debate to one of the relative merits of 'popular' versus 'high-cultural' arts funding in the european context, and to draw comparisons with the situation in his own capital, he might have been able to take advantage of the obvious opportunity to liken the Czech experience to the recent débacle over Arts Council funding policies. Is it asking too much for a British journalist commenting on the arts in Europe to have a modicum of insight into contemporary (or even modern) European art, literature and journalism, and Britain's place within them?
Perception as Consumption: Another vague political / philosophical line of enquiry: might the metaphor of perception as consumption be usefully literalized? That's to say, are the processes of sensory perception ever physically analogous to other metabolic processes (specifically eating)? In a framework of epistemology informed by quantum physics, might it be possible to extend the idea of empirical wave-function collapse into the wider realm of sensory perception? Do we extract (if not energy itself) something similar to energy from the media of perception? Do we, in any sense, break down or physically transform the media of perception... light, sound, heat and so on? If so, what are the ramifications... scientific, political (especially considering neo-marxist critiques of commodification and consumerism and so on) etc.?
Where would I go to find out more about this, I wonder. Perhaps Daniel Dennett would be a good place to start (despite my reservations about his position)... Bhaskar?
On the other hand, if it has no material reality beyond the limited case of quantum physics, a little exploration of the metaphor as metaphor might be worth a try. Who has used it before, I wonder. My instinct is to look at pre-enlightenment philosophers and/or non-scientific writers about the senses...
Vision/sight seems in particular to be an extremely reductive and aggressive sense in this regard: a kind of funnelling or harvesting of the comestible parts of electro-magnetic radiation into a quasi-digestive neural system which transforms it into something the brain finds palatable... aesthetic experience as shit?
Ascetic Atheism: It strikes me that my experience of atheism is paradoxically monastic. It involves similarly sleepless observances and is characterised by self-denial and a rather odd form of (anti)prayer. The core ‘faith’ (I might as well call it that; the contradictions are not only inevitable, given the post-christian trajectory of my culture, they're also fundamental to the case) is one of ascetic scepticism. All certainty is treated as temptation away from the moral imperative of intellectual humility (an internally unjustifiable a priori moral imperative, which nevertheless must stand). Science (as product) is as much of a threat to this position as is religion. Better put, my attitude to things greatly (though reservedly) cherishes scientific method but refuses to accept the vast majority of the transcendental claims of access to (quasi theistic) universal knowledge that it is all too routinely supposed to offer.
If it is monastic, my atheism is Basilian rather than Benedictine. It has no strict community. The monks are obviously allowed to marry (and other things), but are often hermits. Occasionally they manage both. It's a weirdly paradoxical analogy – not without its irony, of course – but it's both accurate and amusing. I'd like to think it was possible to extend it into a form that could send up Cardinal Cormac Murphy- O'Connor's befuddled representation of atheism as a kind of Christianity lite (or else in-waiting, or sous rature), whilst also going beyond the naïve teflon rationalism of people like Dennett and Dawkins which George Steiner has (in his vulgarly aristocratic way) called ‘vulgar’ (can they really not see that a position demanding the universal and exclusive application of ‘truths’ that can only ever be contingently demonstrable is in thrall to another – similar – a priori logocentrism?). For good measure, the essay I'm imagining would re-inter John Gray's straw zombie of menacing humanist utopianism.
But this is just hubris. All such fantasies of debate-ending acuity are tainted by the adolescent belief (ultimately a kind of thanatos) that we can outwit the implications of our own mortality. Lead us not (our infantilising, fantastic... and above all tempting foil for imminent death) into that temptation.
© Copyright S.A.M. Trainor 2002-2009