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I’ve spent an hour or two in the afternoons loafing in the Bodleian, which is to say, I’ve read thirty or forty lines of Theocritus, with middling confidence I know roughly what it means; by the way, that’s why you should never use translations: confidence will be higher, but that’s all. There is no substitute for the schoolboy method, not because it has a sobering and salutary effect on confidence, but because it is the thorny path to a richer sense of understanding as hard-won; strait is the gate. Loafing, because that’s a sluggard’s portion, and I have of course spent most of the time skimming through books on Hellenistic poetry — not a frivolous distraction, though I may be putting the cart before the horse, because it makes all the difference how you take things; or rather, the ultimate purpose of this immersion, should I pursue it, is not to extract the sense from the text by torturing it with a dictionary, but to arrive at some feeling of its “effect”. I wrote the other day that the poetry of the period is “highly literary” or some such nonsense; that question may be summed up in the remark of one critic that while the scholars of the past (till some date in the C19th, presumably) had praised Theocritus for his fetching portrait of authentic rusticity, it was only the poet’s consummate skill that made such a reading possible. Where a pre-war Australian commentator took the fine feelings of certain erotic passages as proof of the poet’s high morals, now they are recognised as pastiche of archaic originals, the important question being how much they add, to earn their keep in the canon. Some time in the sixties, it became fashionable to understand the rough country ways of bucolic in tension with Epicurean high-mindedness — whether to undercut it, or as its foil. And lately, scholars feel the crushing weight of what has been lost, both contemporary verse that may have been less highly wrought, and archaic models whose looming presence can just about be discerned, hovering over the shoulders of the text like an iceberg on a foggy night, making it impossible to come to any firm understanding of what the authors of the Hellenistic period were up to, beyond the assertion that it was something. The thought that this scholarly culture, materially expressed in the technology of the library at Alexandria, only came into existence because the descendants of Alexander’s generals thought patronising the arts would improve their thuggish image, explains the resonance of the literature of the period in the time of Augustus, who also faced a problem of legitimacy, to which his answer was Maecenas.

I am being a little unkind; these are not unreasonable things to bring to bear on texts that have surely lost some of their ability to speak for themselves. But I am reminded of something said to me recently by a friend in a gallery: maybe it is better to just look at the paintings, and as it were sink or swim. That isn’t a philistine attitude; at least, not necessarily. And it is increasingly apparent to me (with age) how much curation (perhaps, then, criticism too) simply brings to bear the passing preoccupations of the time on work that one imagines casting them off with an Olympian shrug of the shoulders.

There is, perhaps, another danger too (meting out a further turn of the screw of philological despair). There are good grounds for attributing certain preoccupations or ideas to their Zeitgeist, as with Epicureanism and Stoicism. In much the same way, when we try to think about certain questions that provoke musing and pontification, we naturally reach for what is in the air, with a satisfying feeling of having been rational and cerebral, when in fact in every age and time, that gesture, that little upward stretch, that simian flourish, is a nostrum for stilling thought, with its attendant discomfort.

The question of Epicureanism and eros is pertinent to Theocritus; my flippant survey above of the literature is meant to provoke at least a provisional tolerance of not taking any particular view. There is something unsatisfactory to the modern mind in the rumination of the period on reducing suffering. We might perhaps say that one who is not prepared to risk, and even entertain suffering will not really live. In a quotation I can’t now find, Lucretius counselled as a cure for love emptying one’s seed with “any old” (quaeque) partner — presumably, a prostitute; get it out of your system, as it were. Memory or understanding may not serve, but my point is the exasperation provoked by that sort of stuff. (I will go back to the library, and look it up, and cite chapter and verse in a comment below). If we now reach out into the air from our armchair, the word “relationship” is likely to be conjured up, the advance guard to a host of prim platitudes about how love should properly flourish. If I can roll my eyes at them, why not the Greeks, at the self-help of their day?

C.S. Lewis, in his book The Discarded Image, provides a literary history of the cosmological furniture of the middle ages, richly present still in Shakespeare and Milton — those celestial spheres. Anyone disposed to expatiate on the constitution of the universe had ready to hand a richly-stocked imaginarium, and people were probably on the whole content to believe that something on those lines was roughly right. But as Lewis says, great men such as Michelangelo were the exception; they knew it was just flimmery, because they really thought about “the nature of things”. We can’t all be Michelangelo, but God equipped us with shoulders that we might shrug them.

I took it into my head the other day to dip my toe in Theocritus’ spring, with a view then to tackling Virgil’s Eclogues. Hellinistic poetry is very self-consciously literary — so it would not be like reading Homer as a precursor to the Aeneid. Theocritus’ eclectic use of dialect creates a very different texture from what those who learned Greek at school may be used to, and it looks like a tough nut to crack. Here are the opening lines of Idyll I:

῾Αδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς αἰπόλε τήνα,
ἃ ποτὶ ταῖς παγαῖσι μελίσδεται, ἁδὺ δὲ καὶ τὺ
συρίσδες: μετὰ Πᾶνα τὸ δεύτερον ἆθλον ἀποισῇ.
αἴ κα τῆνος ἕλῃ κεραὸν τράγον, αἶγα τὺ λαψῇ.
αἴ κα δ᾽ αἶγα λάβῃ τῆνος γέρας, ἐς τὲ καταρρεῖ
ἁ χίμαρος: χιμάρῳ δὲ καλὸν κρέας, ἕστέ κ᾽ ἀμέλξῃς.

This isn’t quite the same text I was reading yesterday in the library, for example, what looks like a dative in line 6 turns into a Doric genitive, without its iota subscript. More importantly, the comma in line two might be omitted or placed one word earlier — all punctuation is the editor’s. For the reader whose Greek may be rustier still than my own, it may help to consider that almost any alpha, if long (which scanning the hexameters will reveal) might be an eta in Attic; the first word is an example. And then, the second person pronoun has tau, like Latin, for Attic sigma. I think the second word is the dative of that, but the internet translates “something sweet”, and the internet may be right; but it is less vivid.

I suppose at this point I should attempt translation:

That’s a sweet whispering music, shepherd, from the pine over there by the lochans, and you, too, play sweetly on the pipes; you will take the second prize after Pan. If (αἴ κα) he chooses the horned he-goat, you will take the female, or if he takes her as his prize, you will get the kid; her flesh is fine, till you milk (cognate!) her.

Less recent editions put the comma in line 2 after the verb, and understand a relative clause with the pine as the subject; but then we need a verb for ψιθύρισμα, whispering. The reader can supply an implied συρίσδει, echoing the verb at the beginning of line 3, which coalesces with μελίσδεται, also third person singular and with the same effective sense, or a sense of “musical whispering” that partakes of both: turning a clumsy repetition into elegant balance, at the cost of grammatical difficulty that would puzzle the head of any schoolboy.

More recent editions remove or displace the comma to create an apposition, allowing the verb to take whispering as its subject: “the pine tree, that one by the water” (the alpha is then printed without an accent). The whole thing is a bit … looser, and at the same time, less complicated.

But then … ah, the pleasure of browsing in a decent library, with ten different commentaries to compare … the wheel turns a little further, and someone sums up the whole matter as a case of “syntactic ambiguity”. Yes, I thought, that’s right! Just as the Greeks knew all those words for different goats (with sheep to follow, in the shepherd’s reply starting in line 7) they understood their own language without parsing it. It’s a good heuristic for the schoolboy: first find the subject, then the verb, and then the rest “should fall into place”. But only as a first approximation.

This is an off-topic post, for my own benefit as an aide-memoire, but also anybody else who might find it useful.

Flashcards such as Anki, and many others, employ spaced repetition to learn information such as vocabulary. The basic idea is the more you get an item right, the less frequently it is reviewed. Computers are obviously well-suited to doing this, and the technology recorded here is more or less out of date. I am learning Gregg shorthand (in fits and starts, I’m afraid) and it’s a bit of a faff to get the glyphs into the virtual ecosystem. So for this purpose, I have created some hand-made cards. Archie Barnes created VOLATS for his students of Chinese at Durham. Those learning that language face a herculean labour of memorisation. Here without further ado is the handout he made to describe the system, itself salvaged and recorded for posterity by the author of the site www.earthcallingdavid.com, which has in turn vanished; but today I came across a reference to it on a Chinese learning forum, with a link to the Wayback Machine.

It’s still technically in copyright, but I don’t think Archie Barnes would mind. He is the author of the marvellous book “Chinese through Poetry” which teaches classical Chinese from scratch, without assuming a knowledge of the contemporary language, briefly described here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20060614215124/http://www.archiebarnes.com/

With sporadic regularity, I read a poem early in the day, after recording my dreams; it’s the skeleton of a writer’s routine. My darling these months has been John Berryman. Berryman, so I was once told, used to write a draft first thing each morning, then put a sheet of glass over the paper. After half an hour or so he would decide if it was a keeper, or not; and perhaps scrawl some second thoughts on it; then he began drinking bourbon. That has the feel of an apocryphal story, that might have been invented by Suetonius to discredit one of the Twelve Caesars. Here is Dream Song 74:

Henry hates the world. What the world to Henry
did will not bear thought.
Feeling no pain,
Henry stabbed his arm and wrote a letter
explaining how bad it had been
in this world.

Old yellow, in a gown
might have made a difference, 'these lower beauties',
and chartreuse could have mattered

'Kyoto, Toledo,
Benares -- the holy cities --
and Cambridge shimmering do not make up
for, well, the horror of unlove,
nor south from Paris driving in the Spring
to Siena and on ...'

Pulling together Henry, somber Henry
woofed at things.
Spry disappointments of men
and vicing adorable children
miserable women, Henry mastered, Henry
tasting all the secret bits of life.

The poem will resonate in different ways for each reader: my Cambridge is not the same as his, but it does shimmer, and its winters are bitter, too. I can’t parse ‘old yellow’ — is it that kitschy film about a boy’s dog that the bad dad wants to shoot? — and a bit like Pound, beauteous pregnant pieces of finery are woven into the text like an embroidered section in a wedding dress (or ‘gown’), luminous amidst the plain white. This is different from the way I learned to read poetry, cutting my teeth on Horace: humanist philology pretends to arrive at stable meanings, delivering sense out of obscurity and, of course, textual corruption. It is like a crossword puzzle, if the crossword is a bad pun that makes you groan, and poetry breathes the esprit of the salons: there is that moment of illumination, the arrival of definitive understanding. I have read little poetry in proportion to prose, because the instability underfoot — as in this fine song — left me bristly and intolerant. Once, in Cambridge, we reflected on a talismanic graffito on a bridge over the Cam, with just that magical indeterminacy. Much the same goes for the jagged syntax (other passages bristle with it more), which makes us taste the words more richly, in a way that may be quite different for each reader. Traction begins to engage when you read your way into the poet’s voice; at least, so it has been for me, as certain tics become familiar, and affection displaces irritation. Rather than things falling into place, it’s like making a new friend.

Neil Gaiman first came to my attention as the author (with Terry Pratchett) of Good Omens, on which the television series of the same title is based (a second batch is on the way). That’s a Miltonic tale, and so is The Sandman, but it has more flounce and visual flair — a fantastical landscape where CGI brings the imaginative freedom of the comic strip to the small screen. There is also a talking crow.

Stories that take place on the plane of Gods break the narrative frame of fiction. If anything goes, outsize happenings are cheap. X-Men started a long run of bombastic cinema (though the ones with Patrick Stewart in are not bad). At this point might begin a disquisition on the roots of imaginative decline in cultural apocalypse, but the reader knows that’s not my style. Last night I watched episode five of Sandman, which besides its scarlet beauty encased a cameo of psychological realism to match anything in Hemingway or Chechov. A mortal has Morpheus’ ruby, which bestows on its keeper kindred morphological powers (I can’t grasp the backstory of the larger frame); with it he seeks to change the world by bringing truth to it. While he sits in a diner with the talisman glowing in his hand, the hidden truths of the couples who frequent it tear their relationships and lives apart. As the tenor of each situation hardens and the mask is torn off, the characters lurch into uncivil torment, like Yugoslavia.

This is not realist narrative; events don’t unfurl and crumble like that in the real world (though such a story could be framed, the tipping-point into divorce or adultery, perhaps); but the relationships, caught in the amber of the possibility of their undoing, are seen sharp and true.

I once began a fiction with the Devil as a character, but I didn’t see the trick of it, which is to allow the Miltonic cosmology without troubling with its underpinnings, and explore the human world it creates.

The devil, like Hume, plays billiards.

Mark Holloway, in his biography of Norman Douglas, makes the following observation:

It is a mark of Douglas’ lively intelligence (as distinct from his intellectual ability) that he seldom failed to learn the lessons that he felt were suited to his temperament …

As a young man, Douglas was a keen amateur naturalist. Just before leaving school he met the eminent zoologist Franz Leydig, who made just such a formative impression on him:

What I liked about his books and pamphlets was not so much his minute histological researches, clear-cut description, and the admirable drawings done by himself; it was something else; his a s i d e s, his footnotes to the text, his generalisations. He would indulge in an excursus of “historical and critical remarks” on some species and even go into details about those artists who have successfully reproduced its shape; he would open up unexpected vistas, citing copiously from authorities old and new. This extensive documentation testified not only to wide reading, but to a wide outlook. His suggestiveness is what attracted me to Leydig. He was no ordinary Professor; he was something more comprehensive, more human.

quoted in Holloway, p. 64

Holloway adds that

It was Leydig’s strong emphasis on individuality that impressed Norman most. He was interested in differences of character between animals of the same species, and observed them among his dogs and among his pet birds and reptiles. He thought individuality should be fostered and not repressed …

and counselled Douglas against university for that reason, though himself a professor.

As Holloway says, this “suggestiveness” is a hallmark of Douglas’s style, the broad outlook, the “quality of continual reference to the greater world beyond the immediate subject”. That is the individual cast of his mind, even when he turned to diverse subject-matter.

All this brought to mind my aperçu that stupidity is a moral failing. The aphorism loses its pointe by tedious explanation, but the distinction above is obviously pertinent. I would add that the salient characteristic of a lively intelligence, as it unfolds and flourishes over time and circumstance, is a sympathy for its own individuality. There is an affinity between those whose casts of mind are distinctive, which does not lie in mutual similarity, but distance from the herd. It can be recognised, and should be fostered, in children, who are apt to have it knocked or smothered out of them.

Alban Berg was the most lyrical of the serialists; so says the NYRB, and I thought of my real enjoyment in Wozzeck, even though “that sort of thing” is not generally my cup of tea. Berg seems to have understood dissonance as an ornament rather than a programme. He wrote that dissonances

give music and love, friendship and nature their true worth, and really everything that has any life — even sensuality itself.

Alban Berg, apud NYRB

When modernism is programmatic, its harshness and difficulty presumably have the ambition of being more honest, and more penetrating, in response to a world which, while probably no bleaker than any other age, wears its darkness on its sleeve. Such are the times and the individual artist cannot fight it: all our works are salted with the uncanny, whether liberally, or with discretion. Those pulls are tediously familiar (another “wrong question”), and Berg’s words (though I would like to see them in German) show a way to get away from them. I was reminded of the words of a friend, whose parents — especially an infuriating but kindly mother — died several years ago.

He proposed to me (or hit upon while speaking) a shift in perspective over the difficulty that inheres in all intimate relationships: rather than loving the person despite their flaws, in the end, perhaps you love them for their flaws. I had thought of it differently: that we are charitable, though not blindly so, to those we love, and overlook their faults, out of humility as well as devotion. That’s a maxim hard enough in itself. The better you know someone, the closer you are, the more chances for friction. Sartre is supposed to have said “Hell is other people”, though again, I would like to see it in French; the encroaching misanthropy I wrote about a few days ago perhaps drinks from the same poisoned well. When I think of my friend’s mother, whom I knew well — as an honorary member of the family — I desperately wanted her to put aside her compulsion to outdo Elizabeth David in the kitchen, and write, as she had been unable to since having her children. In the end, her need for someone to feed extended to the local seagulls and pigeons, a hypertrophy of the same generous disposition which led her to take me under her wing, decades before. There was no overlooking it. She cared about words and sentences, and she taught me to care about food, too; which at bottom is about caring for the comfort of others, with no English meanness. I raise my glass to her.

There is a line in the text of the Dies Irae about being dragged before the throne of judgement, something like “reus cogor ante thronum”. The Latin word means both the accused, and guilty, with no distinction. We are inclined to think the whole of justice lies in the difference; and even the ducking-stool purported to reveal the truth. In English law, mens rea is one of the elements required to establish guilt (along with the corpus delicti, as it were the smoking gun). It immediately occurs to me to wonder, what about manslaughter as opposed to murder; you’d better not hire me as a lawyer. In most times and places, once the wheels of justice start to grind, they are likely to turn you to mincemeat. There’s no smoke without fire. Mud sticks. Even in these enlightened times, to a considerable extent, it’s still the case. Once you start to dig, something unsavoury will turn up. Perhaps the best mark of a more civilised approach to justice is a presumption in favour of leaving people alone, unless there are pressing grounds to begin turning over stones, looking for worms. If you look at it like this, judicial torture starts to seem more comprehensible. The thumbscrew and the rack are like instruments of exorcism.

So much by way of preamble. We speak of someone ‘living a lie’: perhaps they’re in the closet, or a secret agent. The truth lives just beneath the deceiving surface. Once the question has been raised, the disguise is likely to become leaky, like the false skin of the alien Body Snatchers. The whole trick of leading a double life is to avoid suspicion. But what if they’re falsely accused, and the lie is slander? The more you protest, the more you sound as though you protest too much, impaled on the forensic steel of someone else’s question. And after all, in some accounts, Joseph found Potiphar’s wife comely.

More broadly, I mean to suggest that every situation, every life, exists on the cusp between different lights in which it may be seen. Such ambiguity is the cutting edge of fiction — there has to be an open question, else it’ll be a mere morality tale — as can be seen more crudely in the cinematographic cliché of the murder mystery, where the same events are presented several times, according to competing accounts. In life, the abyss on either side of the path we tread only comes to conscious awareness when something has gone wrong, but we subsist in a balanced tension. It is on the way we take that we will be judged, and that is the foundational humanistic premise of fiction, that it matters, and we can choose. Punishment and reward need not be in the hereafter. We hold our life in our hands, with every breath.

The nineteenth-century poet William Johnson Cory is remembered chiefly for this translation from Callimachus, which I include for anyone not familiar with it:

 They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
 They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
 I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
 Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

 And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
 A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
 Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
 For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

That must surely count as one of the great poems of the English language. I stumbled on Cory at a tangent while reading on the lawn. Here is another by him, not so fine, but with a similar elegiac zest for life, if I may be allowed the oxymoron:

     Mimnermus in Church

     You promise heavens free from strife,
     Pure truth, and perfect change of will;
     But sweet, sweet is this human life,
     So sweet, I fain would breathe it still;
     Your chilly stars I can forego,
     This warm kind world is all I know.

     You say there is no substance here,
     One great reality above:
     Back from that void I shrink in fear,
     And child-like hide myself in love:
     Show me what angels feel. Till then,
     I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

     You bid me lift my mean desires
     From faltering lips and fitful veins
     To sexless souls, ideal quires,
     Unwearied voices, wordless strains:
     My mind with fonder welcome owns
     One dear dead friend's remembered tones.

     Forsooth the present we must give
     To that which cannot pass away;
     All beauteous things for which we live
     By laws of time and space decay.
     But oh, the very reason why
     I clasp them, is because they die.

Mimnermus, I did not know, is an early Greek poet whose work is almost completely lost. But there is this:

τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς Ἀφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή·
οἷ’ ἥβης ἄνθεα γίγνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν· ἐπεὶ δ’ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθῃ
γῆρας, ὅ τ’ αἰσχρὸν ὁμῶς καὶ καλὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,
αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,
οὐδ’ αὐγὰς προσορῶν τέρπεται ἠελίου,
ἀλλ’ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν·
οὕτως ἀργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.

The following version, lacking Cory’s grace, gives the sense, more or less; found on Wikipedia:

What is life, what is sweet, if it is missing golden Aphrodite?
Death would be better by far than to live with no time for
Amorous assignations and the gift of tenderness and bedrooms,
All of those things that give youth all of its coveted bloom,
Both for men and for women. But when there arrives the vexatiousness
Of old age, even good looks alter to unsightliness
And the heart wears away under the endlessness of its anxieties:
There is no joy anymore then in the light of the sun;
In children there is found hate and in women there is found no respect.
So difficult has old age been made for us all by God!

The translation of the penultimate line is euphemistic, or ignorant of Greek ways; and the more literal sense of ‘even good looks’ is that age, the leveller, reduces the ugly and the handsome man to the same state.

For good measure, here are some fine words by Cory on the purpose of education:

At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness.

Wikipedia

There must be nearly as many Kants as there are serious readers of the philosopher. I belong to the katechoumenoi: I am a convert, and I believe there are not many such. Kant, especially in the first Critique, offers a system, and I think he says that the whole edifice must fall if any fault be found in it. In English-speaking countries where the analytical tradition dominates, it is customary to raid those crumbling, though perhaps still imposing ruins for their masonry; that is, the arguments stand on their merits, which are suspect, and have value iff they are sound. ‘Kantians’ are like the followers of Freud, each to his own school and improved system. Kleist famously shot himself because of the despair provoked by reading the Critique of Pure Reason, but (it is generally accepted) he got it wrong. It’s a difficult book.

Possible readings can perhaps be divided into three regions (like Gaul): empiricist, rationalist, and idealist, in other words, they cover the entire terrain of philosophy. I’m not well-versed in the reception of Kant after the eighteenth century, but idealist reworkings of Kant seem to cover most of the nineteenth century in Germany. I’m in the empiricist camp, seeing his entire purpose as having been to close the door on such speculations; and I find the building imposing, unmoved by any cracks or gaps. But when I think of ‘Kantianism’ today, it’s figures like Chomsky and Stephen Pinker that come to mind. They would perhaps not claim to be followers of Kant, but the influence is clear though with a different emphasis from the original.

I am no philosopher, and my original encounter with Kant was as an intellectual historian. It’s got to be illuminating to place any thinker against his context, see what he was reacting to, and how he understood his own contribution. The Preface to the first Critique, with its metaphor of the ‘Wohnhaus’, or humble abode of reason, is actually pretty clear. We can kill idle speculation dead by keeping our feet on the ground. If what we know comes from the evidence of our senses, we can’t say either way how the universe began or whether there is a God. (Such questions were still dynamite, so had to be skirted around). The problem with this was Hume, who had argued that you couldn’t make much sense of the world, in particular, it was not possible to establish causation. Surely it should be possible to explain a bit more than that, without letting the mediaeval fancies back in? Kant’s innovation was to argue that experience of anything at all is only possible if it is structured in various ways (most notably through causation): otherwise nothing makes sense. That explanation would probably attract red ink in an undergraduate essay, but it is not my aim to offer a lucid summary; there is no substitute for reading Kant at first hand. The argument has the same structure as that of the second Critique: if experience is possible at all it must have this shape; if there is morality it must be internally consistent, else it would not be morality, therefore it must unfold to contain justice, equality and so on, with a certain cut of the sails that is distinctively Kantian.

Kant was thinking of human beings, but I think his argument applies to Martians, and spiders, too: this is what experience as such must be like. The contemporary rationalists believe that our modes of thought are hardwired, and therefore species-specific. Clearly, our sense organs have certain limitations (a range of wavelengths for both sound and vision, for instance) and there is some flesh-and-blood plumbing in there to make sense of it all. But I would like to believe the Martians must do very much the same thing by other means, unknown to us.

And so finally I come to my point, just a speculative trifle. All this favours the sense of sight. On the whole, the other senses are much blunter instruments. The sense of touch (divided perhaps into proprioception, pain, temperature, sexual sensation, etc) tells more about our own body, and only indirectly anything external; and maybe taste and smell are a bit like this too. But what about hearing? I don’t mean that we can hear, say, certain sounds that speak of the burn rushing through the glen, though it is immediately interesting that what those sounds convey naturally falls into visual shape. Through our ears comes language, and with it a set of beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and social capacities we can no more shake off than the urge to duck when a cricket ball comes at us.

There is a body of theological argument that we imbibe faith with the mother’s milk of human kindness. I bristle and can feel my readers bristling at the very thought, because of the obvious problems of relativism and authority. But what if there were a Kantian bootstrapping argument, that there must be — what? Some form of social order? Some sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’ and a mode of communication between them, or at least recognition? Some body of shared beliefs, perhaps amounting to ‘culture’? It being possible for these to be more or less elaborate, with perhaps a canonical minimum case (the mating behaviour of the praying mantis)? Just as there must be things, perhaps, there must be social objects, which in turn must satisfy some criteria to be capable of functioning as such? Like: continuity of identity through time despite change? A presumption of trustworthiness? Having an opaque ‘inside’ that must be mediated to the world through deliberate utterance? The mantis would never copulate if it were unable to conceal its final intentions.

It certainly seems to be the case that Robinson Crusoe can’t exist without Friday. A man on a desert island, without language or intercourse, in some sense ceases to exist as a human being. A more mundane but frequent example is lonely old people driven mad by isolation. Perhaps this is something that is a matter of degree: social exclusion, due to class (McJobs), or a stigmatised identity (ex-cons), diminishes and brutalises the individual.

Here is what looks like a good account of the central ‘move’ on Kant’s part:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-hume-causality/

I was convinced despair was one of the seven, but the internet, on the whole, disagrees. That’ll teach me to break my rule here against Wikipedia. We can’t in any case readily inhabit the outlook of a truly religious age, with only God’s shadow left to us. There is a difference between despair and depression, for example; but what to make of it is up for grabs. The latter term undermines the attitude by casting it as a sickness — indeed, an affect rather than an attitude. My topic then (whatever Aquinas would have thought) is a considered view of the world, not a mere feeling about it, and how this might be morally wrong, in much the same way that I hold stupidity to be a moral failing, not sustainable as a concept except on those terms, that is, as being a choice.

To see this moral dimension, it may help to consider that an aspect of despair is misanthropy. If we abandon faith in human goodness, we are actually breaking faith with our more hopeful fellow men. The difficulty here is that what is supposed to save us from such despair is faith in God, who alone possesses the transcendent goodness to raise us up out of the mire. That thought is not enough to conjure the absent deity into existence.

Contemplating the world, from its most intimate manifestation in the life shared in common with those dear to us to its mendacious Zeitgeist, the grand stage of war, pestilence and tyranny — in microcosm and macrocosm — I see no light. And I see that as a personal failing, though I can do nothing for it. If that seems unreasonably harsh, it may help to recast the failure as a collective one, since macrocosm and microcosm are of a piece.

I have remembered the third kind of tree: the stemma of a manuscript tradition. Apart from odd scraps of papyrus preserved in their many thousands at a rubbish dump in Oxyrhinchus and other Egyptian sites, all of classical literature has come down to us in copies of copies. The mediaeval scribes made mistakes — slips of the pen — which cumulatively made the text unintelligible in places; they then might hazard a guess as to the true reading (conjecture). Humanist scholars made a science of trying to reconstruct the Urtext by constructing a family tree of manuscripts. The tension between fidelity to the reading and trying to make sense of it is just as much present in these more rigorous approaches. Later scholars had the advantage of access to manuscripts preserved throughout Europe, whereas a monastic scribe could at best correct a poor text against a better one. As with the search for the Ursprache behind its descendent languages, the prize was to regain past glories since marred by decay and corruption. The Bible itself was a text with a tradition, and therein lay a can of worms that wreaked havoc in the end.

In the case of Darwin’s tree of life, the ideological pull, which those with any sense resist, is to favour the leaves rather than the root of the tree.

I have been trying to read Lao Zi through the dark mirror of translations. The gnomic original is apparently very obscure, even by the standards of classical Chinese. I don’t know the subject well enough to comment on the manuscript tradition, but my impression is there is not really scope to construct stemmata. There are a lot of woolly and fanciful versions that barely deserve to be called translations, and it’s hard to choose. I have been using two, Ursula LeGuin’s version, which is a distillation of many others, and Arther Waley’s, which is less readable, but takes a philological approach reassuring to any classicist. In particular, he sees Lao Zi engaging with philosophical debates of his time, and will enclose a line or phrase in quotation marks; what follows is the comment. Here is a snatch of XX:

The saying 'what others avoid I too must avoid'
How false and superficial it is!

And here is LeGuin’s version:

What the people fear
Must be feared
Oh desolation!
Not yet, not yet has it reached its limit!

Waley explains the maxim as a sort of “when in Rome” principle, that the Taoist cannot go along with. This seems illuminating — it gives one something to hold on to, trying to make sense of the text; though he does point out that “the sense of these lines is very doubtful”.

However, there is a twist. Between the publication of the two versions, a very old text (‘Ma Wang Tui’) of the Tao Te Ching was discovered. This is perhaps as remarkable a discovery as if Heraclitus’s book were to turn up at Oxyrhinchus. It is older, but that doesn’t mean it is the ancestor of today’s text; it must be an uncle rather than a parent. The Ma Wang Tui’s reading here is “A person whom everyone fears ought to be feared”; and this tells against Waley’s interpretation.

Just as with cruxes in classical texts, there’s a strange dance between the feeling of not having got to the bottom of the matter, and the riddling nature of the original, whatever it said, that each reader must puzzle out. Nonetheless, you feel you know the text better for grappling with it.

Without further ado:

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry's heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry's ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of.  Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late.  This is not for tears;
thinking.

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

John Berryman

Dream Song 29

As people say in Brazil: sem comentários.

There’s a book I love which I twice stumbled on in the library, decades apart. It draws an analogy between the Darwinian “tree of life”, and the family tree of Indo-European languages; perhaps there was even a third example. I can’t remember what was proposed as the commonality (something in the Zeitgeist, presumably). What fascinated me was the presence of the same pattern in foreign domains.

I have recently posted about the psychology of misdeeds, or interpersonal dysfunction, or something like that (I am torn between the clarity of bygone times and a cumbrous attempt not to prejudge, and it is those poles that are at stake). The word “misdeed” points towards the most general form of the question, namely the problem of evil. Isn’t “evil” just a label for the failure to think through someone’s motivation, perhaps because to do so is unbearable? That is, maybe evil exists in literature, and theology, and (God help us) the internet, but not in the muddle of real life. Plato untranslatably said, οὐδείς ἑκών ἁμαρτάνει, no one intentionally sins (but the connotations of that word are out of time). There is no evil cackle, and the Devil wears no horns when he visits us; to borrow the imagery of the fairy tale, he has no giveaway long teeth. A friend suggested to me that a line is crossed when we knowingly harm others for our own ends, but the devil is in the detail: even in extreme cases that are at first glance open and shut, there is usually some sense of parity or entitlement, or perhaps a grievance against the world itself, where the victim is just unlucky to be there. But in such psychological “close reading” motive and action form a chaotic blur, like the Kantian manifold before the synthesis. Terms such as “manipulative” feel as though they serve a useful organising purpose, even though they fall short in miscasting mental processes as cold that in the wild are almost always hot: it’s their panting incoherence that enables the person on the knife-edge of taking the better course to turn away from it.

The analogy that I want to draw is with language. Its claim to be illuminating is that the domain of language is better understood than (for want of a better term) moral psychology; and the aptness of Kant’s bridge between empiricism and idealism readily apparent. Language inheres in a succession of idealisations. For example, every language (or strictly speaking, instance of language, such as ideolect, though even that is an abstraction from different registers that may be used; but all that is irrelevant for present purposes) has a phonology structured according to oppositions such as voicing, nasality, aspiration, length; but the actual sounds we utter only cluster around their ideal centre, and may come perilously close to indeterminacy. Phonology is an abstraction, but it is a meaningful one and language depends on the process of abstraction. It is in this sense that Chomsky is commonly said to be a Kantian (though of his own flavour).

In the same way (with a relation akin to that between the two or three kinds of family tree), moral thinking exists within a tension between idealised forms such as “intention” and “motive”, or at a further remove, moral schemas such as the Categorical Imperative, or utilitarianism; and the messy state of befuddlement, the feverish velocity, the self-deception that probably underlies almost all wrongdoing, and a high enough proportion of those times when we were lucky enough to make the better call. But still we want to be able to say: that was wrong, not mainly in order to condemn (what, generally, is the use in that?) but in order to cultivate the clarity in moral reasoning that will guide our own choices. We cannot afford to let ourselves get away with succumbing to — shall we call it irrationality? — though it lies within us all. But the main reason it happens is because it is insidious. The elision of complexity and chaos and diabolical charm on which those moral concepts rest makes it seem as though badness would be easy to spot, even in others, but especially in ourselves. It may even come closest to declaring itself in the intoxicating sensation of being in the right.

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, 9.vi.2022

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.

ibid.

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.

ibid.

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.