Writing is in essence rewriting, and that is the trouble with the blank page. To put it slightly differently, what I am asserting is that the activity of writing properly speaking, writing that is more than the unmediated and unreflexive placement of words on a page (automatic writing, email, the world’s everyday business), takes place through editing, that is, it must have raw material in the form of words that are already there. The perversity of this view recalls Derrida’s assertion that writing precedes spoken language, and the logic is the same. Especially for writers, for those accustomed at length to weighing and pruning their words, as a daily discipline, the primacy of editing (though so often acknowledged in accounts of authorship) is likely to be concealed because it first takes place before hand touches pen or pen paper. Coherent sentences flow fully formed, as if dictated, effortless. But like any such process, with long practice, it is partially internalised. Partially.

Thomas Mann put it more succinctly: a writer is someone who finds writing harder than others do.

I first saw Tony Kushner’s play about the AIDS crisis, or at least, with
that catastrophe at its heart, currently showing at a revival in London,
in a version for television, but it makes much more sense to me in the
medium for which it was conceived; that is, it was simply transposed to
the small screen in all its resplendent theatricality, and should be
appreciated on those merits. The deliciously camp cosmology of the angels
recalls Heine’s in Die Götter im Exil (the internet tells me I may be thinking
of Die Götter Griechenlands): heaven after the death, or abandonment, of God. Like the play’s politics, this may not bear too much pedantic analysis, but it works theatrically.

The character of Prior Walter is emblematic of a countercultural style that has been
to a considerable extent subsumed in the success of its cause, however partial
and fragile that still remains. The campest figures in the play are
its heroes, and that campness expresses both a refusal to conceal itself, and
the pressure to do so that it resists in revealing gestures finely pitched
between discretion and outrage. Gay men seem much more inclined to “pass” now
that it no longer matters in quite the same way. It is almost as if what is
unacceptable to the wide world is flamboyance itself, and no longer what
occurs in the bedroom. But indeed, who cares about that? What is valuable is
subversiveness, outrage, the political resistance celebrated in the play.

That was three years ago. I’ve just received a box of books from Brazil, amongst which some old friends lurked. Without further ado, here is something that caught my eye in Jonathan Franzen’s essay (quoting from Don DeLillo) on the detachment of the novel from “the times”:

Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be the heroes of some underculture, but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

That detachment, then, may be a sign of the times, but it is also the vocation of the writer, just as it always has been. The written word is a reflexive space, a prosthesis for human consciousness that changes its nature, bringing at once Innerlichkeit and outsiderhood. It has also always been a minority pursuit, even though the perspective it offers, objective but partial, “as a painter who steps back”, may be the most humane one as yet available to us.

It has been some time since I have written anything here, bar a couple of more or less off-topic posts (though everything is grist to the mill, really). In the spirit of letting my readers and myself know what to expect, I would like to set the aim of two posts a week. It’s possible the focus of this blog will shift, but I hope its centre of gravity will remain literary and aesthetic. I add the latter term because just as I have written about some recondite topics in a way I hope will make sense to readers even less well acquainted with them than I am myself, I can imagine posting about technical matters that may seem to fall entirely outside the scope of these ruminations, but also in a way intended to convey something of their feeling and interest. The gap between the humanities and the sciences is as lamentable as that between the present and the past, if we do not try and bridge it, and an excuse for different philistinisms on each side. I suppose there’s a feeling that the technocrats have the upper hand, but that’s all the more reason to make peace and foster understanding, in the spirit of the conquest of Rome by Greece.

A friend suggested to me that it is the coherence of the text that allows us access to its feeling at such a remove. Rather than starting from the tone and building on that, the reader — at least, the reader who is obliged by cultural distance to read philologically — works down through the internal logic of the poem to its foundations in actual sound and sensation, whether of lived experience or living language. A shopping list would be much harder to read in this way. I am reminded of a post I wrote some time ago about “getting the jokes” in ancient tongues chiselled or wedged in cuneiform: continue immersion until you do. One can’t help feeling that some of those ancient near eastern peoples (or at least, those individuals in a position to employ scribes) were lacking in sense of humour, but perhaps that was just the impression they wanted to create; so we should look for the Spitting Image of the pyramids, the Monty Python of the Assyrians.

Wang Wei’s poem is as fresh as a daisy after almost thirteen centuries, while raising interesting questions about how feeling and tone are transmitted from so far off. First of all:


The following interpretation draws on Hugh Stimson’s Fifty-five T’ang Poems. First, a crude translation:

Amidst the windy autumn rain
A low waterfall flows over a stone
Jumping waves collide with a splash
A white egret startles and again alights

Here are a few things this crib fails to capture; it is an open question by what means they might be poetically rendered in English, but they would certainly be other means than Wang Wei’s, which is the point I mean to explore here — how we can nonetheless have some sense of what those effects are, even given severely limited knowledge of the language of the period.

Chinese uses reduplication to mollify, to convey repetition or intensity, and for onomatopoeia, amongst other things, effects associated in some European languages with the diminutive; two examples can be seen at the start of the first two lines. In tandem, these lines show parallelism, where the similar grammatical function of the characters at the respective positions in each line draws attention to contrast, repetition, or development. Thus characters three and four in each line are “autumn rain” and “waterfall” (literally, “stone — water current”. If the beginning of line one represents the soughing of the wind, this is implicitly softened by the structural parallel with the diminutive expressing the small scale of the waterfall.

A similar process is seen in the second couplet, where the spontaneous effervescence of the little waves is repeated in the avian acrobatics they provoke. Character three in line three, “of themselves”, partners the verb “startle” in the last line, so that the extra animation of the water is transferred to the bird or birds (singular or plural, though I opted for the former because of the small scale of the scene). That reading of 3.3 (taking it as making a point of its own, rather than subsumed in the “each other” of the following character) is also supported by the structure of line four, where the break in sense falls before the penultimate character.

Considering the shape of the poem as a whole, the first parallel supports the second, in a way the point of the poem, between water and heron. There is also a movement towards greater liveliness, from what could be the movement-in-stasis of rainfall and water flowing over a rock to the startlingly playful waves that bring out a similar quality in the nature of the bird. The text positively splishes and sploshes with zest — this even though current knowledge of the actual sounds, the pronunciation of the characters at the time of composition, is incomplete; it may be worth mentioning that lines two and four rhyme, sealing the sense of coherence. I am not sure whether the species of bird can be precisely identified, but if so, that might add the recognition through the prism of the poem of something characteristic of their actual habits.

I hope these few details obviate the need for a discursive examination of how, in my view, this quatrain triumphantly bridges the gap of the centuries, preserving at least enough of its original feeling to justify the sense of a continuity of understanding.

The Novo Recife development envisages the construction of twelve luxury residential towers forty or fifty storeys high in a prime seafront site. True to their name, they would reshape the skyline of the city. This symbolic aspect is congruent with the specifically urbanistic objections that might be raised against the proposal. On a local level, there is no integration with the existing area, on which the towers will turn their backs, missing an opportunity to bring new life to their run-down surroundings. Mixed use, with shops, bars, restaurants — in short, lively streets — and residential units of various sizes aimed at diverse age and income groups would make a contribution to the city as a whole that uniform luxury cannot. Recife is not currently an attractive or inclusive urban environment, and this project gives paramount expression to the factors that make this so, setting the seal on the arrogant dominion of wealth. On the level of politics, this corresponds to the absence of the state, whose institutions (whose role should be to regulate the market) are bought and sold with campaign donations and through other forms of corruption. Even if governance improves in future, these terrible towers will be the monument to a naked abuse of economic power that has nothing new about it at all, in the tradition of the sugar cane plantation and its slaves. The very architecture alludes to this in the division between “casa grande” and “senzala” — the master’s house and the negro quarters. Those within the walls are separately, privately secure in a comfort achieved by excluding the many without, rejecting the idea of the common good, and therefore the city itself, reduced to a dangerous wilderness to be shut out and put out of mind while contemplating the unpopulated vistas of the ocean.

The concept has been fancifully transferred to other locations to bring home the sheer effrontery of the project:


As the World Cup kicks off, the site is home to an occupy-style encampment in protest. Let us hope the opportunity to build something better here is not lost.

#ocupeestelita #projetonovorecife

The conductor Carlos Kleiber emigrated as a child from Nazi Germany to South America, spending his teenage years there. To judge from Youtube videos of rehearsals, he spoke both English and German fluently but with an accent. Perhaps his Spanish was word-perfect, but what does that mean? Alan Turing proposed the test named after him, that if someone talking to a computer through a link couldn’t tell it from a human being, then it could be considered sentient. Judging a person’s linguistic competence by their ability to “pass” is similarly unreflective about what constitutes the achievement in question, though in either case it’s a tough challenge. I recently met an Englishman — unmistakeably, uncontestably so by that criterion — born and bred in Paris, to English parents. Having lived in Brazil for eight years or so, my own English has had little recent fresh input, and there were a couple of occasions during the conversation when we both stumbled. The accent is so telling because it is part of one’s social and cultural identity, within a language as well as between languages, and it’s surely for that reason it is unusual for adult learners of a new language ever to “pass” for native. But it is a marker of native competence, not its substance. That is made up of tranches of lived experience in the language in question such as having passed through the education system speaking it, as well as reading and writing more generally. The monoculture of the nation-state favours the concentration of identity and experience within a single language for each individual — the melting-pot washes away difference in three generations — but it was not always so and need not always be today. Woodrow Wilson’s criterion of linguistic self-determination to reshape the map of Europe a century ago instituted rather than reflected the sweeping away of the cosmpolitanism of two defunct empires, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, with messy and ugly consequences up to the present.

The carnival of Recife and Olinda bears little resemblance to the floats and samba of Rio commonly associated with it abroad. Typically, a small group of people gets together to pay for the band of musicians that goes at the front of the “bloco”, headed by a standard-bearer. If you buy the T-shirt (which pays for the music and other trappings) you’re a member, so the bloco may grow considerably larger over the years. I don’t know how many there are, but it feels like hundreds. On the day everyone gathers at the starting point, then eventually they head off around the city, the band leading the way, singing their song. This generally occurs once at the “preview” during the weeks leading up to carnival, where there will be more space and time, and then again in the city centre during the four days of carnival proper. Carts and stalls appear selling beer and snacks. The whole thing is in principle regulated by the municipal authorities, with agreed routes, but the impression is one of utter anarchy, in its element in narrow, winding streets rather than processing along an avenue. It is the city’s Saturnalia, a safety valve. Despite the democratic symbolism of the people taking over the street — good luck to you if you are caught up in the middle of it in your car — there aren’t generally any obvious political overtones, though I’m told that was more common in the past, and there is almost never any trouble. Carnival continued every year throughout the miltary dictatorship (1964 – 1985).

Photographer unknown

Photographer unknown — Recife Antigo

Over the past twenty years the city has grown vertically, the height of apartment blocks in proportion to advances in construction techniques and the inflation of property prices. The seafront is a particular hotspot, and the logical conclusion of the process can be seen in Boa Viagem, the city’s main beach, which is now obscured by shadows just after lunchtime. The view from the apartments that cause them must be spectacular. A number of new projects of forty storeys and more, such as the twelve-tower “Novo Recife” on Cais Estelita, are in the pipeline for the old city centre. If they are built they will transform and dominate the skyline, not with new civic buildings, nor the engines of commerce (in the spirit of the World Trade Centre in New York) — but with lavish accommodation for the city’s most privileged individuals, turning their back on it to face the open sea.

Photo by Edinéa Alcântara

Photo by Edinéa Alcântara

While the symbolism of such developments is important, their impact is also very concrete. As a housing model, they are predicated on the car, surrounded by high walls and electric fences, creating an urban desert around them, with no contact between residents and neighbourhood. These streets are not only unattractive and unwelcoming, but dangerous. They create the divided, walled-off city as well as symbolising it. This social deficit is compounded by environmental ones: increased traffic, higher flood risk because of the displacement of green areas, and large temperature increases for the same reason, compounded by reduced ventilation. These costs affect everyone but are ignored by the developers, who benefit from such infrastructure as the city has as a common good, but put very little back.

Photo by Catarina Cabral

Photo by Catarina Cabral

It is a classic market failure, where the absence of effective regulation means the leading criterion for housing and other projects is the developer’s profit, not the collective impact on the shared space of the city. More dwellings do need to be built, and the private sector needs an incentive to do so, but this change in the urban landscape should take place in a coherent manner that takes account of the needs of all social groups and that will make the city a more pleasant place to live in the long term, with diverse and bustling thoroughfares and open spaces. Neither a developer nor the architect nor the prospective purchaser can easily have such an all-round view of the city as the complex social system it is, and so there is a need for effective, transparent and robust planning.

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

Protest in Latin America tends to be associated with revolution, regarded as a challenge to the political order rather than a sign that it is in good democratic health — or one of the checks and balances needed to stop government drifting towards an arbitrary, authoritarian stance and being hijacked by special interests. “Empatando tua vista” [blocking your view] is a new carnival bloco advancing just such a local, specific protest about the unsavoury property speculation that is tearing the city apart. The format departs from tradition in that the participants, dressed as indentikit skyscrapers in pastel shades, go to other carnival events where they tower over the crowd, blocking the view and discussing the issues with all comers.

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

Photo by Leonardo Cisneiros

My wife, Edinéa, is in the thick of the action, helping make the costumes and rallying the troops, so I really had no choice but to get involved. As a result, I’ve seen a lot more of carnival this year than of late, and spending it in such company does seem to show it in its best light, just as carnival itself flourishes at the intimate scale of the traditional urban fabric that is under such threat from bland development centred on individual aspiration, rather than a sense of community and place. That community — the human face of the abstraction “civil society” — is also a concrete thing, or perhaps it would be better to say flesh-and-blood, embodied in the conviviality of the streets. This city could do with much more of it.

Photo by Ana Videla

Photo by Ana Videla

See also the video version here.

What a wonder if my dogs could receive the gift of language for a day: I could explain to them why chasing cats is bad, how to approach roads, and the point of taking bitter pills. Man and dog have no magic to bridge the gap between their different minds and we have to make do with guesswork and persistence, unable to share each other’s outlook. Some time ago while reading J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello I posted about Nagel’s essay on ‘What it is like to be a bat’, which I bought, skimmed through, and mislaid before I’d picked up the thread. As far as I remember, the bat question is just a foil to questions Nagel has about possible knowledge of other human minds: we will readily assent both to the unattainability of bats’ subjective experience, and the fascination it has, preparing the way to let go of some cherished intersubjective illusion. I lay these cards on the table in case of any resemblance beween Nagel’s argument and the insight that occurred to me when thinking about the intransigence of dogs — and people, too. If only they could see things from our point of view, difficulty and disagreement would melt away: loud music played by teenagers, conflict between pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, domestic discord, office politics. Through some one-off telepathic epiphany harmony and order would be instantiated. But this is not possible. Understanding comes from the effort of embodied communication through the Byzantine contrivance of words. The poverty of words allows them to bear your meaning and mine though we can’t enter one another’s minds. Their public, impartial flavour means they can be used as neutral tokens to negotiate a shared understanding that did not exist prior to them. Indeed, the game isn’t ever played fairly, but fairness is its regulatory ideal. (I’m thinking of Rawls’s prelapsarian colloquy on justice and Habermas’s uncompelled reasonable discussion.) As fairness recedes and the gloves come off, eventually the talking stops.

This suggests telepathy is impossible in the same way and for fundamentally the same reason as knowledge of what it is like to be another species. We cannot even know our own minds in that way. Mind is material, not in the sense of a reduction to grey matter, but because it can only travel when embodied acoustically in molecules vibrating in space and time — or of course markings inked on paper or gouged out of stone. From the necessity of embodiment follows the public nature of the tokens as well as the need to play out their exchange in real time, in the flesh. For ethological reasons, that generally feels most comfortable in gatherings small enough to fit round a table; the very fact that it takes a certain amount of time to walk out of the room affects the tenor of the conversation.

This blog frequently refers in passing to Christian scripture and concepts that may disquiet the secular liberal humanist reader and appear to suggest a certain religious allegiance. The second effect may be an unavoidable consequence of the first, but if so, it is a sign of the times and their philistinism. The dominance of Christianity in the West over two thousand years means the Bible shaped thought and sensibility ten times more deeply than the secular canon of Greece and Rome. The meagre threadbare phrases of the gospel are hooks for whole bodies of reflection that followed afterwards, just as they look back to the verbal and spiritual riches of the Hebrew scriptures. That was the natural framework and background for grappling with any question whatever, about society, politics, character, and the human condition with its feet of clay. The English language bears witness to it in every sentence, but because we no longer bring up our children with the words of scripture, those thoughts may become fuzzy and terminally indistinct. My occasional foregrounding of these references to our common heritage is a gentle plea for cultural literacy. It will be plain enough to those who have studied theology what personal religious commitments, if any, this entails; but that’s beside the point of these posts. All the same, I can well do without readers who would turn up their nose at a writer just because of his faith.

I thought I’d posted about “entitlement”, and came to write a new post bouncing off that one; but I can’t find it. Perhaps it’s buried in some other topic. Anyway, the gist was to note the usage of the word to mean practically its opposite, particularly in the States: someone who you say is “entitled” (not to anything in particular) has in fact, you feel, a misplaced sense of entitlement. Not specifying what to only underlines the gargantuan proportions of such a freeloading attitude. It’s further implied that a sense of entitlement is always essentially misplaced; people should have the get-up-and-go to solve their own problems (or perhaps rather the humility to accept them; it’s usually other people we are talking about). The idea of legitimate entitlement to anything is recast as a foil to fecklessness. The very fact that you lay claim to something puts you in the wrong.

What I wanted to add today (after so long without posting) is a generalisation of this Catch-22 thinking. First, another example: according to the Twelve Steps, you are either “in denial” or “in recovery”. The idea of healthy moderation — let alone Dionysian exuberance — is excluded; laying claim to it condemns you from your own mouth. This looks like an expression of Puritan distaste for all worldly pleasure, and it would then figure that the various “Anonymous” movements are particularly at home in the US. The classic example is alcoholism, but there are any number of others, including such nebulous pop-psychology as ‘co-dependency’. Any such theory offers a total explanation of the sphere of human life it covers, in particular of disgreement with the theory.

Moving further afield, three heuristic life tools including the same mechanism are Marxism, feminism and psychoanalysis. The catch in the first two cases is when the situation of the subject is used to delegitimise disagreement: you would say that, wouldn’t you … I rush to affirm my sympathy with all three, albeit guarded. Although I think I might well be among the first against the wall when the Revolution comes, and prefer my radicalism from the armchair, because the cleansing apocalyptic fire is after all destructive, I believe in the possibility of the psychotherapeutic relationship as a humane discipline. It’s just that it’s open to misuse. This can most easily be seen in the vulgarisation of Freudianism in popular discourse, of which I suppose the term “in denial” is an example.

The false dichotomy of Matthew 12:30 is an archetype of this form of thought: “He that is not with me is against me”. Jesus of course also said “he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50) — a less paranoid strategy, but the same insistence on the importance for others of one’s own question. Religious matters (in the sense in which Christianity or Judaism are religions unlike Graeco-Roman polytheism) are by definition personal, not to say existential; it is all about who we are and where we stand, which are the legitimate business of psychoanalysis too. But only if we choose to enter into that therapeutic covenant. In the public forum all must have equal standing be they black or white, man or woman, stoic or epicurean. No-one stands in judgement over their neighbour, whatever they may think of them privately.

This piece in the Guardian looks like a version of Jonathan Franzen’s preface to his translation of a selection of essays by Karl Kraus. Franzen draws an analogy between Kraus’s critique of Viennese slickness a century ago and the glossiness of Apple’s products, as opposed to their main rival; just as Germanic plainness is preferable to superficial French chic, more honest, less diabolical, so PC clunkiness is more appealing than the sulphurous smoke and mirrors of the ergonomically superior Mac. Kraus is not being jingoistic because really, he has nothing against Gallic sophistication — just what passes for it in his own cultural sphere.

The waters are now muddied because although Microsoft can never catch up nor entirely shed its basic charmlessness, it has followed the same path towards a better-greased ride for the user. To see what Franzen is getting at — why he would knowingly choose a worse tool with which to exercise his craft — it helps to see Apple’s anti-PC advertising campaign. The following from his novel Freedom is tangentially indicative, too. Richard is on a train:

[…] his non-Apple MP3 player was loaded with a track of pink noise — white noise frequency-shifted towards the bass end and capable of neutralising every ambient sound the world could throw at him — and by donning big-cushioned headphones and angling himself toward the window and holding a Bernhard novel close to his face, he was able to achieve complete privacy until the train stopped in Philly. Here a white couple in their early twenties, wearing white T-shirts and eating white ice cream from waxed-paper cups, settled into the newly vacated seats in front of him. The extreme white of their T-shirts seemed to him the color of the Bush regime. The chick immediately reclined her seat into his space, and when she finished her ice cream, a few minutes later, she tossed the cup and spoon back under her seat, where his feet were. (p. 371)

The passage is all about the colours.

Franzen’s choice omits the third contender, Linux. It too can now be pretty slick, and needs many fewer hardware bucks to achieve that bang. But as I said, the waters have become muddied: Linux is the original Cinderella or Cordelia of the OS family tree. The dominance of computers and other electronic gadgetry over human life and culture is so recent that some historical background may be in order. When I first saw the point-and-click interface in the early nineties (it was an early Mac) I was convinced the gimmick would never catch on. Those ‘folders’ and ‘icons’ are merely a visual representation of what is still the underlying structure where files (whether data or programs) are organised in a hierarchy of directories (PC: folder). The concept is recursive: a directory may contain files or yet more directories, and so on. It is much more efficient to navigate up and down them with text and keyboard than with a mouse, but that black screen has no immediate visual appeal at all. It is über-clunky. The genius of the mouse is that it is easy to grasp; the learning curve is short and shallow, all thorns tastefully removed, as enticing as the road to hell. There is even an element of manual satisfaction about it, like a video joystick. It’s child’s play, though it’s telling that the appeal only tends to take hold as the latency phase draws to a close.

This graphical interface truly facilitates some tasks, above all those that would be inconceivable without it (such as architectural design), but it has opened the way to ease of use in the sense of being able to do something (“make a home movie”) as easily as falling off a log, without understanding the process, which is given as little salience as possible: easy, that is, as in facile, with very limited control over the result, like the difference between an SLR camera and point-and-snap, where whatever is least out of the ordinary is unobtrusively, silently preferred; creative alternatives (such as depth of field) are kept in the box, making it harder to master the true range of possibilities. On the other hand, function creep leads to the accumulation of clutter, like a cheap stereo with a pointless graphical equaliser, so that a word processor tries and fails to do DTP, offering features far beyond the needs of someone writing a letter or a report for the office, but without the precise control of layout and the disposition of elements across the page that would make them meaningful. Such fool’s gold doesn’t just obfuscate, it corrupts, drawing our eye away from whatever we might usefully be doing. Whether the computer offers too little or too much, it enfeebles.

Though Linux too is now clothed in a graphical layer of some sophistication, this is done (for the most part) more transparently, and the substance beneath is easily accessible. Indeed, in the case of Windows from Vista on, that substance (DOS) doesn’t even really exist any more; there’s Faustian pacts for you. The same is true of the iPhone (so I am reliably informed by an app developer from Palo Alto). In sum, Jonathan Franzen, you should use Linux because it works better than Mac and is more honest than PC: your cake and eat it. It is not an unrelated point that Linux is fully open, it does not keep its workings hidden away (though they are likely to keep turning over quite well unattended and unremarked); indeed it invites scrutiny. I will resist the urge to step up onto the open source evangelical soapbox — it is a reasonable enough starting point to want the machine to “just work” — but the affinity between ergonomics, feel and ideology is elective, that is, no coincidence. If the user is infantilised and encouraged to be passive, click and consume, a shadow is cast over the soul. After all, that’s why one might prefer the hair shirt of worse over better, seen purely in terms of effectiveness as a tool. If slick smells of sulphur, follow your nose before the enchantment dulls your senses.

When the film by Kleber Mendonça Filho was shown in Recife, the city it unflatteringly portrays, many in the audience must have felt, like me, a wry familiarity even with its blackest elements, such as the looming violence (largely seen through its distorting influence on the characters rather than in the pornographic treatment of some Brazilian films); we all know people like that, and maybe recognise them glancingly in ourselves. As such, O som ao redor is a comedy of manners. But does the familiarity of inside knowledge privilege the local audience? According to the theory, one would hope not: the point of realism is not to make the audience say to themselves “That’s just what it’s like”, but to draw broader illumination from the particular.
A case in point is American cinema, which is so widely known as to exercise a formative influence on the tenor of life in quite far-flung places. When I first visited the States as an adult, I was suprised by how true to cinema it all was: the atomised suburbia, the narcissistic “characters”, the bad driving, the counterpoint of bristliness and plastic smiles — surely not all were life imitating art?
Or what about, say, Taiwanese cinema? Not knowing the context shouldn’t matter, but surely it does make a difference; and isn’t that what literary criticism does, bringing the context (also the literary context) to bear on the work?
Perhaps the consequence is that the canon is doomed to be a provincial formation, in this case, a US-centric one. Worse, the problem of missing context applies just as much in this (for now) privileged centre as it does when reading Horace or Ang Lee (thinking of the more Chinese part of his oeuvre).

I wasn’t surprised to learn, thanks to Edward Snowden, that Uncle Sam is looking over all our shoulders. I felt him sitting on mine just because the possibility was obvious, as a piece of technical progress: whereas letters sent through the post could only be snooped on through human drudgery (as happened systematically in the GDR), electronic data storage permits total transparency at the click of a gigabyte. Whatever is possible will be done, certainly is already being done. That is why the negative freedoms guaranteed under the rule of law are important for everybody — even the “innocent”. First, the path is very short from the abrogation of abstract principles such as habeas corpus to the concrete suffering of the unjustly incarcerated. The virtue of a policeman lies not in his character or judgement but in the limits of what is permitted to him by his role. People do what they can get away with, and that is why there are rules; especially for those who enforce them. Still, one imagines suspects get beaten up in the back of the van. Secondly, the category of the innocent can shrink very rapidly (McCarthy) and is already narrow enough to be uncomfortable for some.

I share the liberal outrage and trepidation at the US’s abuse of power, but surely the horse has bolted. The question seems to me to be: how humanity can live with the possibility of total surveillance without being crushed by it — just as, to change the subject, it is inevitable there will be transgenic animals and people, and the island of Dr. Moreau will be filled with monsters. What then?

George Orwell wrote that mixed metaphors are a sure sign of the corruption of discourse, because if they are mixed, they must be dead. They refer to what is unspeakable. The language of contemporary politics is worse, more sinister, than blather, in just the way he meant; but language is full of dead metaphors, such as the seafaring metaphors of English, that are almost its semantic undercurrent. Go back further to the fossilised strata revealed by etymology, and the death of metaphor starts to look like the principal material of language. When poets conjure its ghosts — as Shakespeare did with sailors’ talk — a sea change can occur.

“Congenial” is about as untranslatable as sympathique, which is to say it’s not much trouble in practice, but should you wish to make sense of the sort of things it can be applied to — to find one rendering in another tongue that fits all its cases, and thus carries something like the same feeling, whatever it has in it that is more than just “nice” — well, it doesn’t seem possible. Sympathetic people and places — in the Gallic sense — carry shared feelings, that is, human commonalities. “Congenial” looks like it was coined to suggest a shared character, ingenium. But there is a specific sense from the language of plant breeding: congenial species can be crossed, or grafted (as hemp on cannabis). They take. ingenium is still there underneath the word, but might now be translated as “nature”. But never mind that; the notion of fruitful compatibility usefully abstracts from shared feelings. It makes quite as much sense to use it of a country or place as of a person, whereas for sympa and its cognates, that is already a stretch.

The language of nineteenth-century science has other such survivals, for instance (and especially in Germany, because of Goethe’s novel) “elective affinities” — which (if I remember O-level chemistry right) we know as ionic bonds. It’s that reaction where the compounds in two solutions swap partners when mixed.

These extracted pearls of wisdom from American philosopher Daniel Dennett are mostly about how to engage fruitfully in argument:


His second point (respect your opponent) is allied to his sixth: don’t waste time on rubbish. Twisting an argument into a corner (Dennett doesn’t use the tired expression “straw man”) is too easy to be worthwhile. Instead, give a fair and charitable summary, “list any points of agreement, especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement”, and only then disagree. Such handling reflects how learned debate is supposed to work: whatever consensus there may be stands on the shoulders of past proofs and refutations (Lakatos). The Republic of Letters is a forum, an agora, a community, with no rightful place for a demagogue. As in literature, even the most original voice is in dialogue with tradition.

A splendid example of Dennett’s rhetorical talents may be seen in his rebuttal in a letter to the LRB of a somewhat uncivil attack by Jerry Fodor, though Dennett is here not quite as even-handed as his ideal dictates.

A year or so ago a little evangelical church set up shop in the house on the corner. The amplified music and preaching has gradually got louder, and one Sunday a couple of weeks ago I complained. The preacher was all smiles in front of his congregation and undertook to reduce the volume. Yesterday he came out and accosted me as I was passing and the atmosphere was not so cordial. When I said it was illegal to operate a church in a residential building, he threatened to report me to the police because he didn’t like my tone, and sent two men to follow me and find out where I lived. It is unfortunately common in ths country for people to involve the police in minor altercations, and the important thing is who can produce supportive witnesses, not what actually happened. In every walk of life, the law is the tool of the most cynical, to be knowingly flouted as far as you can get away with, and hypocritically appealed to whenever it offers advantage. The proprietor of a construction company recently said in the context of a controversial project that he had “zero fear” of the law, which meant no more than the bother of hiring a good lawyer. The same company recently won its case over a project illegal under changed regulations on the grounds that they had not been informed of the need to reapply for the building licence — because the document informing them was technically incorrect. Such sharp practices must be common the world over, but there is generally a public institutional counterweight. Here there is a vacuum, and the evangelical movement are as keen as any other business to fill it. That might mean that in a few years, apart from the fact there is no-one to enforce such laws, it will no longer be illegal for churches to amplify the gospel as much as they like. The reactionary consequences of the erosion of the separation of church and state can be seen in several African countries today, particularly in the form of homophobic legislation, including the death penalty. The theocratic ideal is encapsulated in a discussion I had several years ago with a man playing loud music from a portable CD shop, which he was wheeling round the Casa Forte vegetable market. Several people complained, but the police (present in the square) took no action. He explained to me that though he understood both the legal objection and the inconvenience the law was meant to prevent, his “commitment to faith was greater”.
There are thousands of such churches, many of them no doubt law-abiding and pacific. The ones that aren’t have a political logic — and impact — opposed to secular society and democracy. Perhaps they should read Luther on the two keys (or two kingdoms).