Monthly Archives: June 2022

Acupuncture is based on a pre-scientific model of the body, reminiscent of Hellenistic medicine. My landlady many years ago was training to be an acupuncturist, and when she qualified, I had to move to make room for her treatment room. She was a borderline pass because she couldn’t detect the various “pulses” there are supposed to be — six or twelve of them, alongside the one we know — used to diagnose imbalances in the flow of qi. Perhaps she was eventually able to discern them; it’s amazing what people can talk themselves into. I was briefly her patient, I don’t remember what for, but perhaps the usual non-specific malaise or gloom. It’s too long ago for me to remember the thought process that got me onto her couch, but I recall it as a striking fact (which may or may not actually be true) that acupuncture has been used in China for surgical anaesthesia. Just as with the tangible benefits of meditation, this provides a way in to believing there must be something to it. Once you embark on acupuncture, there are the needles, and also, it’s a holistic practice. I must have felt cared for, and also, I was doing something to take care of myself, and spending actual money on it too. I don’t recall a firm sense of it having “worked”, but it was a positive experience, and I certainly didn’t feel cheated. I’ve just remembered that on one occasion, Mary rang up her supervisor to ask the treatment for opium poisoning. I dare say it would have gone away on its own.

A word is in order about relativism. It would be foolish to maintain that our current worldview has got all bases covered. But that doesn’t mean we might just as well go back or sideways. I doubt there are actual “meridians” (though perhaps, some of the standard needling points tap something not yet known inside the body). What we do have to learn from this and other traditions of healing is the holistic approach. That means both the role of the mind in physical illness, and the importance of things like diet, exercise, or sleep. There is also the relationship between healer and patient, the value of listening, and time.

An afterthought: the meaning of such practices depends in part on their cultural context. Let us say for the sake of argument that acupuncture arose as a medical form in a context where there was little to be done about most serious illness. In the end, though, that’s just as true when the technology that is medicine in the modern world runs out of solutions. Those who do not survive need to be cared for too, and perhaps holistic medicine does that better. The thought is hardly new, but here, it may serve to insulate us from the thought that non-Western traditions are simply foolish. I think I’d take needles over leaches, too.

I have been an inconsistent and skeptical practitioner of meditation for decades. I suppose I believe it helps me focus; but could that just be the placebo effect? Whether out of laziness, empirical disquiet, or unease at anything so in tune with the spirit of the times, I have rarely kept it up for long. But I am also drawn back again and again, as I am to the idea of not smoking, or learning Chinese. Meditation has its origin in Eastern traditions with what it is surely fair to characterise as spiritual aims, but was packaged for Western consumption as a practice with empirically verifiable benefits for health and productivity. This is one strand of what I have discovered is termed “healthism”. Searching suggests the locus classicus is this much-cited article from 1980:

Healthism represents a particular way of viewing the health problem, and is characteristic of the new health consciousness and movements. It can best be understood as a form of medicalization, meaning that it still retains key medical notions. Like medicine, healthism situates the problem of health and disease at the level of the individual. Solutions are formulated at that level as well. To the extent that healthism shapes popular beliefs, we will continue to have a non-political, and therefore, ultimately ineffective conception and strategy of health promotion. Further, by elevating health to a super value, a metaphor for all that is good in life, healthism reinforces the privatization of the struggle for generalized well-being.

Robert Crawford, International Journal of Health Services, 1980;10(3); abstract

I first encountered mindfulness through a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, recommended to me by a friend sent on a course by his doctor or work. The book (several hundred pages long and full of diagrams and data) strongly emphasises the hard science credentials of the practice, but its spiritual antecedents are smuggled in in the form of maxims describing the correct attitude to bring to bear. This is a rhetorically potent combination. If there is hard evidence of effectiveness, then there must be something “real” to it; and someone who might see no reason to entertain the spiritual aspects might warm to them with use. Those are attitudes at war with one another. “Effectiveness”, for most of us, means productivity in the stressful modern workplace — in somebody else’s interest. The Taoist and Buddhist roots of this ancient tradition envisage a quite different source of value; but that should stand on its merits — we choose to believe, or follow, or we do not — and not based on a criterion of benefit extraneous to both individual aims, and the collective good.

Nonetheless, there is a possible affinity between the rejection of market materialism and some kind of spirituality. Crawford seems to be writing from a Marxist perspective (I have only read the abstract of his article, so it’s hard to tell). Maybe he would see such an inward turn as complicit with the external order that makes it consoling. I remain torn between a woolly interest, eased by the absence of metaphysical commitments (especially in Taoism), and the feeling which I do not altogether trust that it really does make me a bit sharper. It’s not much to justify an inchoate religious commitment. (“Inchoate” is one of my least favourite English words, not least because no one seems to know either how to pronounce it or exactly what it means; so perhaps its use here is doubly apposite.) On the other hand, I doubt that the place of meditation in most Western lives comes anywhere close to that. For one thing, religion generally appears to require a community in order to “take”, with mechanisms of social reinforcement, carrot or stick.

I’m not coming to any sort of conclusion or pregnant final thought, so I’ll leave it at that.

The devil is in the detail. I’ve always loved Propertius, but from a distance; I’m not a good enough classicist to appreciate him fully. But Colin Burrow is — a man of many parts! For my recent post about Stanley Cavell, I looked up Burrow’s piece in the LRB online, not having the magazine itself to hand, and so I flicked through his recent appearances there. It’s to Burrow that one friend of mine owes the raunchy Catullus translation I gave him a year or two ago, and then, well, there was Propertius. I:3 is a particular personal favourite. The poet returns to Cynthia, late in the night, and puts his wreath from the party in her hair, and rolls apples (perhaps they are apples) from the banquet down her sleeping form; these drunken impertinences don’t wake her, but as the moon with its soft rays works its way round the windows to Cynthia’s eyes, she is roused, and tells him off for his carousing. Here is the central stretch of the poem, about the apples and the moonlight (translations are abundant, online and in print, though always problematic):

sed sic intentis haerebam fixus ocellis,
Argus ut ignotis cornibus Inachidos:
et modo soluebam nostro de fronte corollas
ponebamque tuis, Cynthia, temporibus;
et modo gaudebam lapsos formare capillos,
nunc furtiva cavis poma dabam manibus;
omniaque ingrato largibar munera somno,
munera de prono saepe voluta sinu.

et quotiens raro duxit suspiria motu,
obstupui vano credulus auspicio,
ne qua tibi insolitos portarent visa timores,
neve quis invitam cogeret esse suam:
donec diversas praecurrens luna fenestras,
luna moraturis sedula luminibus,
compositos levibus radiis patefecit ocellos.

ll. 19-33

Propertius is difficult because his writing is subtle and ambiguous; the problem is naturally compounded by the poor state of the text. The impulse to emend the reading to make more sense runs at cross purposes with that subtlety; a third problem is we don’t enjoy a native feel for the resonances of words, which must be argued for by examples of usage, in other texts. Between these tensions, actual literary appreciation easily gets lost, but Burrow knows how to hang on to the thread. He discusses a conjecture for line 26 (just before the line break I have inserted, following the text of Hodge and Buttimore’s edition): to replace the awkward repetition of ‘munera’ with ‘malaque’. Here is Burrow:

Heyworth emends the suspiciously repeated word for ‘gifts’, munera, to malaque (‘and apples’), and that one change shifts the entire focus of the scene. It makes the breast (sinus can refer to the fold in the toga used as a pocket or to the breast itself) from which the apples roll clearly Cynthia’s, and so that must have been where Propertius put them. That means it must have been his, not her, curved hands that held them. It’s wonderfully clear.

But editors are sober beings. Propertius here is so far from sober that he can barely stand. Isn’t it possible that part of the poetic point of the unamended text is that he’s not really sure whose hand is whose or where the apples are or who the gifts are rolling off, or whether the gifts are the apples or the bouquet or other stuff he has put in either his or her sinus or bosom? Clarity in a translation or in an edited text of a poem isn’t always simply a virtue. The hardest kind of text to translate is one like Propertius’, where you’re not only not quite sure what it means but where you might have a slight suspicion that being not quite sure what it means is part of its point.

The second hardest kind of text to translate is one where you simply can’t fix the tone of voice. And that’s Propertius too. He likes to do big voices and generate gravity, and then erotically twinkle around the gravity.

LRB, vol. 41:5, 7.iii.2019

‘Poma’ are just fruit, while ‘mala’ are specifically apples — that’s a repetition too, though one that sharpens the focus. It may count against the emendation that a few lines below, Propertius also repeats ‘luna’ (the moon), which unlike the purloined peaches or whatever they were, wakes Cynthia up; Propertius’s manner tolerates the repetition, which by occurring twice, perhaps even affords an echo . That’s the passage that struck me as so beautiful when I first read this poem as a teenager. It too is variously interpreted (is it other people’s windows the moon hastens past in its eagerness to reach Cynthia, or does it come in at different windows in the bedroom), but the contrast between that friskiness and the assiduous lingering touch that stirs her — gently! not like her lover — is pure poetry. Burrow is an optimist about the possibilities of making sense of these poems. It’s that leap from the difficulty to the idea that that’s the point. In this passage, it provides a fruitful reading of what the poet is saying about sex. Isn’t the whole point that it is not terribly clear which bits are whose?

Colin Burrow seems to be an English literature specialist, but he is no slouch when it comes to the apparently drier terrain of philosophy. The landscape is interesting because its stony eminence matters in the moister glens below this bare mountain that overlooks them, where sheep and people dwell. To put it less colourfully, he has a nose for what is at stake in the material:

Wittgenstein suggested that we could only say someone had grasped the rules of chess when they could offer a ‘criterion’ of having done so, by being able to make the right moves. In lectures I heard that claim developed into an argument to the effect that there were no mute inglorious Miltons out there, because the only criterion of having a beautifully complex thought was the ability to write in a beautiful and complex way. This great denial that the inarticulate could occupy the same world of experience as the articulate struck me as a pernicious falsehood, though it took me some time to realise that if one restricted the concept of a ‘criterion’ of having an emotion to a verbal expression that was the kind of nasty knot in which one might well end up.

Burrow, LRB 44:11,

In philosophy, one cannot cut the cloth of argument to suit qualms such as these; assuming that is that the discipline of philosophy is one whose claims to reflect and sustain ontological truths about how the world works are taken seriously, and not relativised as a mere ideological superstructure; nonetheless the point is telling, and it seems counterintuitive as well as rebarbative that cultivation should change the essence of a person. This can perhaps be seen more clearly by reflecting on one’s own childhood, and children one may know, as an adult.

Nonetheless, there is an elective affinity between intellectual confusion and moral failure, and the latter may be corrected by reason; the view Burrow mentions, and rejects, is a case in point.

Coming then to the question of the redemptive possibility of mutual knowledge, or what might impede it, here is Cavell, from the Lear essay:

If the failure to recognise others is a failure to let others recognise you, a fear of what is revealed to them, an avoidance of their eyes, then it is exactly shame which is the cause of [Lear’s] withholding of recognition.


This is spot on, both as a reading of Shakespeare’s play, and in an emblematic sense, as typical of the failure of mutual knowledge, at times, to fulfil Burrow’s own more optimistic promise:

What I miss from his descriptions of human encounters is the most surprising but best feature of human beings: that in some respects we can know more about another than they know about themselves. […] when teaching you rapidly learn that someone can have a skill or a charm that they don’t know they had, and the main pleasure of talking to others in the key of instruction (when it works), or indeed in the key of friendship or affection, is gently persuading someone else to recognise in themselves what you can see in them: the good, hidden things, the skills denied or the resources suppressed. In this respect, teaching is similar to being in love, when people are often able to see more in the object of love than they can see in themselves, and in a long-term process of understanding another a lover or a beloved can come to see or recognise in themselves the things that initially only the other could see.


Perhaps Cavell would agree it is sometimes possible. I can’t quite decide whether the idea of hostile mutual knowledge is incoherent (as Burrow almost suggests, with all his examples underpinned by good faith) or just morally wrong: that is, is a kindly attitude inherent in the idea of mutual acknowledgement or recognition, and is that the merit of those terms as against “knowledge”, which for Cavell remains behind the veil? That limitation of vision — like the limitation imposed by the materiality of language — would then be a constitutively salutary feature of our human (and humane) intercourse. Sometimes students lack ability or application, children are tiresome, and our friends let us down; but then these would just be situations that need to be got back on track, dysfunctions rather than perversions of mutual human regard. I would like to think so.

Colin Burrow has written a persuasive piece in the LRB on Cavell, probably reviewing the same book that led me to him a couple of months ago; this inspired me to have another go. Burrow mentions Cavell’s Must we mean what we say? which includes an essay on King Lear. What is so engaging about Cavell — but also can make him hard to follow, especially on less familiar ground — is the subtlety with which he refuses to take sides, feeling his way to more interesting questions. The Lear essay opens with a discussion of the shift in emphasis, perhaps after the war, in Shakespeare criticism from character to language; so it is commonly asserted, but of course that makes no sense, because one cannot attend to either in isolation from the other; most especially in a play. And yet, clearly there has been a shift … and so he goes on, clearing the ground for his own approach to the work. I’m looking forward to following his argument further. Lear‘s themes of sight, blindness, recognition, acknowledgement, and so on, have an obvious resonance with my recent preoccupation with mutual knowledge. Burrow himself offers what appears to be a more optimistic account of the possibilities there. Perhaps it’s a separate post, but I will just say now that what struck me is that all the examples he gives of deep knowledge of others are positive. Doesn’t this relate to the themes from Lear? Such insight is granted, allowed, not taken unawares or unwilling. Its place is the hearth, not the forum. I was reminded of the end of this post:

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.

Were I writing that today, I might well add that this goes a long way to explaining the fractious tone of the internet, where however beastly you are, there is no risk of a punch on the nose. The relevance of the thought here is that it is with friends that we are intimate, because we trust them to be charitable. Those to whom we are disinclined to be charitable, because they are not our friends, will be encountered in public, not in private, in a context where one is more guarded, and the rules of engagement rest on civility rather than love.

Relations between children and parents may be an exception. The child in adolescence moves from adoration of his parents to a lively sense of their flaws, tempered in the end by the recognition that weakness is part of the human condition.

A quarter of a century ago, at a tumultuous time in my life, I used to listen every night on the World Service to Laurent Kabila’s inexorable advance on the capital of Zaire; my girlfriend couldn’t sleep without it being on. Before that came the shipping forecast. I didn’t have much time for reading, but during this time, I read Amos Oz’s novel Black Box. I think the plot concerns events after the death of the central character, in the lives he touched. I really should look it up on Wikipedia, but I’m not going to. The point being, he was a “complex” character, as they say, destructive, lacking in insight into himself, broken without knowing. There was a metaphorical plane crash.

The book made a deep impression on me, but it was only a couple of months ago I picked up another in Leakey’s bookshop in Inverness (“the largest in Scotland”, and a local institution, with its log fire, and shelves upon shelves of books on single malts or tartans) for the train south: To Know a Woman. Not such a good title, is it? Perhaps it sounds better in Hebrew. The structure is an inversion of Black Box: rather than seeing the protagonist from many views, this novel looks out, the view of a man who, like all of us, has many blind spots, as he adjusts to a catastrophic change in his life, and perhaps, softens a little. These are not morality tales, and would be dull fictions if they were. There is no judgment. You don’t get the view from outside (or in the former case, inside; but it is so long since I read it I don’t remember the effect of this, only that it made an impression). This makes a refreshing contrast to much contemporary American fiction, where the characters must learn their lessons and grow.

An old friend said to me once: people don’t change. I found it harsh at the time. If we can’t learn to do better, what hope is there for us? Yet that is often the view from outside. Many of us might think of their parents. Do we ever know what someone is like? I may or may not have posted here the thought that knowledge of oneself is entirely different in kind from knowledge of others, each kind of knowledge frustratingly imperfect. It’s that difficulty, the problem of knowing one another at all, in the most intimate and even lifelong relationships, that seems to be Oz’s subject in both books.

He also has a wonderful thing with leitmotifs. Some sensory detail is mentioned, a detail in the pattern of the wallpaper in a hotel, or it may be, a thought about a person or situation; and fifty pages later it recurs in what might be the ipsissima verba, but probably subtly changed, to bring home an echo perhaps (someone must have written a thesis on Oz’s use of this device), but it feels to me, much more to bring home this aspect of human experience, that we experience a sense of deja vu, which may even be false, at moments that somehow deserve to be underlined; as if our Guardian Angel were tapping us on the shoulder, hoping we take notice. And perhaps these are the moments when we have the opportunity to change, though usually not taken.