Notes on books & papers

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?


Fortune is a unix application that pops up on boot with a quotation or joke. Apparently Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, said that “Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”
The element of play is central to the creative act. To make anything new — even though it will of necessity be out of old stuff that happens to be lying around — something must arise unexpectedly. That is why the bureaucratisation of academia will mean intellectual life needs a new home. The absurd game of the funding application requires foreknowledge of results, their applications and relevance, and most bizarrely of all, the path taken to get there. Many higher education institutions require doctoral students to produce a “chronogram” for their entire project at the outset, and enforce compliance with it; that’s a step beyond the research proposal, which used to be recognised on all sides as a polite fiction, at most a point of departure.
Never mind that though. The wider point derives (at least its most recent seminal instance) from Schiller’s Aesthetische Erziehung, or as expressed more practically in the notion of negative capability. The fashionable term would be “flow”, but that leaves out the open horizon of the masterless imagination.
Need it be said that none of it is possible without hard work and a spongeful of knowledge? “C’t avec du vieux qu’on fait du neuf.” (Jacques Brel)

Writers of so-called serious fiction shared one dominant characteristic—their fiction was first and foremost about themselves. The ‘self’ lay at the heart of modernism, but now had a powerful rival, the everyday world, which was just as much a psychological construct, and just as prone to mysterious and often psychopathic impulses.

Is this quote from Ballard’s autobiography (which I found in a review of it here) anything more than an appeal to return to realism? To be sure, it would be a psychotic realism, to fit the times: the self fragmentary, collapsed, elided. What Lukács termed bourgeois realism, for all the breadth of its world-historical perspective (with characters, rather than the generalised “self”, at the centre) indeed seems inadequate to our bizarre day-to-day. Genre fiction’s looseness relative to high realism, by letting it off the hook of offering a coherent vision of this labyrinth, may allow room for the unconscious to reveal itself and in that way be a truer reflection of whatever is out there. It is also a licence for self-indulgence and escapism. But its formulaic elements (detectives, spaceships …) aren’t a deficiency; these just allow the author to get on with his real business instead of trying to be Tolstoy. In a few cases, as with Ballard, they may simply be elided. Viewing the world as a “psychological construct” is as radical as that idea once seemed when applied to the self, and in retrospect, just as compelling. At bottom self and world are two perspectives on their intersection.
To put it quite differently, maybe genre fiction is a way of writing about the present, whereas realism’s true object is a past recent enough to be remembered (to have formed the author) but now distant enough to be understood as a period. The difference in feel is hard to sense once the author’s time of writing has receded into our own past, in which perspective it may look similar to narrated time. The higher calling of genre fiction — its “genre” in the classical sense — would then be satire: time and place are transposed not just for the benefit of the censor, but to purify the narrative of any preachy or merely documentary aspect and let imagination free.

A recent article in the LRB quotes from the following passage in Francis Bacon, setting out his programme for what we might call the sciences (“natural philosophy”) and the humanities:

But the greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge. For men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a terrace for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate. But this is that which will indeed dignify and exalt knowledge, if contemplation and action may be more nearly and straitly conjoined and united together than they have been: a conjunction like unto that of the two highest planets, Saturn, the planet of rest and contemplation; and Jupiter, the planet of civil society and action, howbeit, I do not mean, when I speak of use and action, that end before-mentioned of the applying of knowledge to lucre and profession; for I am not ignorant how much that diverteth and interrupteth the prosecution and advancement of knowledge, like unto the golden ball thrown before Atalanta, which, while she goeth aside and stoopeth to take up, the race is hindered,

“Declinat cursus, aurumque volubile tollit.” {1}

Neither is my meaning, as was spoken of Socrates, to call philosophy down from heaven to converse upon the earth–that is, to leave natural philosophy aside, and to apply knowledge only to manners and policy. But as both heaven and earth do conspire and contribute to the use and benefit of man, so the end ought to be, from both philosophies to separate and reject vain speculations, and whatsoever is empty and void, and to preserve and augment whatsoever is solid and fruitful; that knowledge may not be as a courtesan, for pleasure and vanity only, or as a bond-woman, to acquire and gain to her master’s use; but as a spouse, for generation, fruit, and comfort.

Advancement of Learning, I.V.11

Bacon makes good reading for us these days. The pursuit of knowledge that is merely useful, and self-satisfied or vacuous speculation, are its Scylla and Charybdis. Knowledge should keep its feet on the ground while aspiring to broaden the horizons of the human condition. Do my leaden metaphors — or Bacon’s golden prose — describe a coherent ideal? Perhaps we should conduct the pursuit of knowledge in the attempt to make it so. Bacon strongly influenced the Enlightenment (particularly in Germany) and the affinity is plain. The whole of I.V is full of salutary warnings most of which obtain just as much as ever today.

{1} The English explains the quotation fully. “cursus” is a poetic plural (I had to scan the line to understand its grammar). It is Ovid Metamorphoses X, 667:

GBH was a television series from the eighties by Alan Bleasdale loosely based on the Militant Tendency’s period in control of Liverpool City Council. The Derek Hatton character, Michael Murray, is played by Robert Lindsay: a sublimely undemocratic socialist with a heart of gold, as seen in the line, when challenged by a councillor on council housing for blacks because “You look after your own first” — “They are our own.” The plot seems to be that his administration is hijacked by Trotskyites who want to further the revolution by faking racial violence (the ends justify the means). The hubris of Murray exposes him to their scheming. But it turns out that the hard left takeover is engineered by MI5. What’s more, their remit used to be to destabilise revolutionary socialism before it could destabilise the country, but when that came to seem unlikely because the old Marxists had lost their fire and might soon end up joining the Green party, the mission reversed direction: MI5’s agents provocateurs were to make the left play up just in order to discredit the Labour party. The real story is thus not about the virtues of traditional socialism, though Bleasdale’s nostalgia for the latter’s decency and warm beer is apparent: it is the collapse of the democratic state in the face of Thatcher’s radicalism.

This recalls another series from the period (and it is now very much a period, looking back from twenty or thirty years on): Edge of Darkness, by Troy Kennedy Martin, with Bob Peck as Ronald Craven, a policeman whose eco-warrior daughter Emma is murdered. Investigating, he uncovers murky dealings with nuclear waste stored in a disused mine. It turns out Emma’s group was actually set up by CIA agent (and flamboyant Texan) Darius Jedburgh as part of a US attempt to undermine the British nuclear industry, but it escaped his control. An inept pair of British spies apparently fight the UK corner, but the government has in any case done a deal to sell the plutonium to a private American company; there is thus no effective difference between the aims of the two sides. Still bleaker than in GBH, the UK under Thatcher is seen to be a failed state.

In subsequent treatments of the theme, the moment of shock has passed. The Men in Black are now at worst a necessary evil with a troubled conscience. State sovereignty is passé.

Unlike Trovatore, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera isn’t an opera I know. When I checked it out, the scene Bertolucci adopts from it at the end of La Luna turned out to fit his film’s dramatic logic quite as well as the one from Trovatore. Again, two men vie for a woman – she is married to Renato, but loves Riccardo, the Earl of Boston (based on the historical King Gustav III of Sweden, who was assassinated at a masked ball). The affair is chaste, but Renato, convinced otherwise and also politically motivated, kills Riccardo at the ball. The latter explains his wife is innocent of infidelity and, expiring, pardons Renato. It’s a masked ball, so Renato has to discover which masquer is his target; earlier, he asks the page Oscar, who is first coy with the secret then reveals it. In Bertolucci’s film, Joe wanders the set looking for his mother. Her friend sings him Oscar’s line: “Saper vorreste di che si veste, quando l’è cosa ch’ei vuol nascosa; Oscar lo sà, ma nol dirà …” (Oscar knows which costume but won’t tell). No tidy equivalence is to be drawn between the roles in the two dramas, but when Joe’s Italian father puts together his knowledge of who he is and what Joe has been up to (drugs and such) he slaps him. Maybe all Oedipal wrongs are now put right. What’s more, the film is at least as much Caterina’s story as it is Joe’s, and it seems that unlike the Verdi heroines she plays, she gets to have the better man in the end.

Never mind the garish set; and at least it has Italian subtitles. I couldn’t find one with English. Needless to say, this scene owes everything to the finale of Act II of Don Giovanni — a subject for a future post.

EDIT I surely meant Act I.

After her husband’s death in a car crash, opera singer Caterina takes her son Joe with her on tour in Italy. The two meet her former lover, Joe’s biological father. The film employs two extended operatic scenes: one from Un ballo in maschera at the end, which is perhaps a family reunion; and the duel scene from Il trovatore, where the eponymous troubador and the Count vie for the heroine Leonora’s affections. She is played by Caterina, and we watch Joe move from the audience to the backstage world where the theatrical illusion is created. As the diva’s son he apparently has free rein to wander where he pleases. Verdi’s opera has an absurdly complex backstory. Manrico, Lenora’s true love, is the son of Azucena, a gypsy from the rebellious mountains whose own mother was burned at the stake by the Count’s father. Count Luna (nudge nudge) thus has a political as well as an amorous motive to kill him, quite apart from the question of vendetta. But it turns out (bear with me) that Manrico and the Count’s brother were swapped as infants. Azucena threw the wrong baby onto her mother’s pyre — her own son, not the kidnapped sibling. So when the Count has Manrico executed in the final scene, Azucena finally achieves vengeance; blood is thicker than water. The structure of Bertolucci’s backstory is simpler — Joe’s father isn’t who he thought he was — but the situation is paralleled in the rivalry of the two men. Joe’s tour of the smoke and mirrors behind the performance echoes his discovery that all was not what it seemed. According to one website I saw while researching this post, Bertolucci had just completed ten years of psychoanalysis when he made the film.