Stepping Lightly on the Volcano

Quote

For months on first knowing you, I said to myself here’s one of these talkers. They don’t know what feeling is, happily for them. Because everyone I most honour is silent – Nessa, Lytton, Leonard, Maynard: all silent; and so I have trained myself to silence; induced to it also by the terror I have of my own unlimited capacity for feeling – when Lytton seemed to be dying – well yes: I can’t go into that, even now. But to my surprise, as time went on, I found that you are perhaps the only person I know who shows feeling and feels. Still I can’t imagine talking about my love for people, as you do. Is it training? Is it the perpetual fear I have of the unknown force that lurks just under the floor? I never cease to feel that I must step very lightly on top of that volcano.

Letter to Ethel Smyth (1931)
Virginia Woolf

Jonathan Gibb’s Randall

'black painting' - Ad Reinhardt

‘black painting’ – Ad Reinhardt

Satire is a demanding form, an act of aggression that can easily fail. Freud’s depiction of jokes as repressed hostility is evident in the sadistic satire of Anthony Burgess, and the snobbishness of Evelyn Waugh’s self indulgent attacks.

To qualify as satire a denunciation has to be potent, yet yield pleasures for a reader in sharing an act of narrative violence. Jonathan Gibb’s Randall aims its satire at the Young British Artists of the contemporary art world of the 1990s, starting with an act of literal violence, the killing of Damien Hirst, “hit by a train and killed, apparently when drunk”. Its secondary target is that period of the late 1990s when the shock-troops of New Labour’s marketing department set out to rebrand Britain as Cool Britannia, uniting in common purpose a bunch of mostly white males that included the YBAs, pop musicians, second-generation yuppies and media figures.

Randall not only captures the slightly hysteric mood of this period, but also nails its target with deftness and a degree of affection. It is perhaps successful because that hint of amused fondness balances its satirical offensiveness. But don’t take that to mean that Randall’s satire is insipid, it is exquisitely cleansing and gloriously funny.

Books emerge that come to define existence for a particular social strata in certain time periods: Geoff Dyer’s gratifying depiction of life in South London in the 1980s in The Colour of Memory hit its target squarely and cleanly, as does Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised of how people and communities disintegrate under neoliberalism. Randall sits between both time periods, skilfully satirising how art and money found common ground in the 1990s.

Woolf: First Memories

This is a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being. Though irresistible, I pull back from nostalgia but find it harder with each folded year. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about those childhood bases against which we judge and measure our future ideas of happiness.

If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

Pale Notes on Friendship

Agamben: “Friendship is inscribed in the most intimate experience, the one that is most one’s own, the very sensation that one exists. But this also means that in the consent and consensus of friendship, the very identity of friends is called into question. A friend presents me with another self, with myself as other and with another like myself. And yet this reduction of identity happens serenely, almost imperceptibly. It is one of friendship’s gentlest gifts.”

Our friendship was inevitable. It started as a consequence of elective affinities. We had in common a love for Beckett, Woolf, Duras, Rimbaud-though mine was perhaps more reverent. Beckett could do no wrong. Our first encounter took place at her sister’s apartment, overlooking the pretty church on Saint Germain des Prés, a block away from Les Deux Magots, where we would one day make a Salad Périgourdine and cheap bottle of Beaujolais last all afternoon. For some reason I was apprehensive, made even more so by her obvious nervousness. She devoured a bowl of walnuts, cracking each walnut shell with vehemence, a reflection, I thought, of our shared tension. We argued about whether Four Quartets or The Duino Elegies was the most sublime long poem of the twentieth century. I had no parents, she had three.

Gunn, Bohemians and Cole

I’ve read a few books this month without the time to reflect on them here, so some disconnected thoughts on what I’ve read lately.

During a Twitter conversation in which I confessed to abandoning Gunn’s latest novel The Big Music, Michelle persuaded me to read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. There is a calm beauty in Rain that almost seemed excessive to the demands of the story. I read it twice, taking pleasure in the subtle details: the tension between childhood and adulthood, the elegiac characterisation. Early in her narrative Gunn writes, “… but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.” The brief novel is filled with these lyric images that disrupt the apparent simplicity of the narrative. Though I was moved by the beauty of the writing, I was detached from the story itself, and somewhat indifferent at the end of a second reading.

An urge drew me to read Henrietta Moraes’ autobiography Henrietta. Moraes was the epitomic upper class Bohemian of London’s 1950s and 1960s, seduced by Lucian Freud, painted by Bacon at least two dozen times. When Moraes died in 1999, her son, barely mentioned in the autobiography, considered scattering her ashes around the pubs where she spent a large part of her dissipated life. Terribly written but moving nevertheless, Henrietta is part of a longer term project to read around Soho and London of the years before the-excuse the cliché-swinging sixties.

As soon as Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief arrived, I set aside other reading to spend time with the book that came before Cole’s staggeringly good Open CityJames Wood’s review of Open City called it a “novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.” Every Day is for the Thief is in similar vein, and reads as the warm-up work to Open City, lacking some of its punch, but beautifully evocative of the rhythms of daily life in Lagos. The lightness of tone masks the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s frustration with his return to Lagos after a long absence from the city.

Piercing the Veil

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, self-pre-occupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.”

What chiefly pierces that veil is a sharp, direct perception of things which are no part of our own being. For instance:

“I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.”

The veil, however, is persistent and terribly hard to detect. In every age it subtly provides new, unnoticed ways of evading reality. Detecting those new forms is a prime business of philosophy, but of course philosophers often find it no easier than other people. (It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher; “what are they afraid of?”)

Mary Midgley
Sorting Out the Zeitgeist: The Moral Philosophy of Iris Murdoch

A Disgusting Morbidity

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists on mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting accumulation of capital, we shall be free, at last, to discard.

Would it surprise you to know that was written by Keynes in 1930?

A Neoliberalism Reading List

(Re)reading from first to last, as I have recently, Michel Houellebecq’s entire body of translated work leaves me in little doubt that he is the only novelist in the west truly capturing the pernicious effects on individuals living through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity.

Carole Sweeney’s reading list below is as good as any I’ve seen on the history of capitalism in the twentieth century, and most particularly on the rise of neoliberalism. I’ve read some of these and plan to read the others, and welcome any other reading suggestions along similar lines.

  • Luc Boltanski, Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism
  • Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times
  • Krishnan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World
  • Ash Amin, Post-Fordism: A Reader
  • David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism
  • Gilles Lipovetsky, Hypermodern Times
  • Paolo Virno, Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy
  • Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences
  • Susan Strange, The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power
  • Henry Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed
  • Idées Fixes of the Week

    Girl in a Blanket (1953) Lucian Freud

    Freud’s captivating Girl in a Blanket appears on the front cover of Henrietta Moraes’ memoir, Henrietta, which I have sampled in small doses alongside Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho. I’m fascinated with the louche, hedonistic Soho that stretched between the beat and post-hippie eras. (Moraes called the unfinished sequel to her memoir Fuck Off Darling, which is of course just perfect) Nothing of the Bohemian lifestyle that Moraes and her milieu lived could be tolerated in our age of surveillance, net curtain twitching and consumerism as economic ideology.

    I suspect that Michel Houellebecq would’ve fitted neatly in with Morae’s crowd. They would have appreciated his Beckettian mirthless humour, the finest, or at least healthiest, antidote to nihilism. My rereading of Houellebecq’s oeuvre continues, impeded only by my return to wage-orientated labour after four blissful months of reading, travel, navel gazing and walking.

    Briefly but intensely compelled to dip into Angela Carter’s work last week, nagged during an insomniac night with echoes of her highly wrought style in the depiction of sexuality in Houellebecq. There are surely broad similarities in the caustic and subversive humour of both writers. I am overdue an immersion once again in Carter’s work.

    Nothing Compared to the Stars

    Text below from a letter, which I think very beautiful, written by German-British astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750-1848). She refers to Aganice (Aglaonice) of Thessaly, considered the first astronomer in ancient Greece.

    William is away, and I am minding the heavens. I have discovered eight new comets and three nebulae never before seen by man, and I am preparing an Index to Flamsteed’s observations, together with a catalogue of 560 stars omitted from the British Catalogue, plus a list of errata in that publication. William says I have a way with numbers, so I handle all the necessary reductions and calculations. I also plan every night’s observation schedule, for he says my intuition helps me turn the telescope to discover star cluster after star cluster.

    I have helped him polish the mirrors and lenses of our new telescope. It is the largest in existence. Can you imagine the thrill of turning it to some new corner of the heavens to see something never before seen from earth? I actually like that he is busy with the Royal society and his club, for when I finish my other work I can spend all night sweeping the heavens.

    Sometimes when I am alone in the dark, and the universe reveals yet another secret, I say the names of my long, lost sisters, forgotten in the books that record our science —

    Aganice of Thessaly,
    Hypatia,
    Hildegard,
    Catherina Hevelius,
    Maria Agnesi
    — as if the stars themselves could remember. Did you know that Hildegard proposed a heliocentric universe 300 years before Copernicus? that she wrote of universal gravitation 500 years before Newton? But who would listen to her? She was just a nun, a woman.

    What is our age, if that age was dark? As for my name, it will also be forgotten, but I am not accused of being a sorceress, like Aganice, and the Christians do not threaten to drag me to church, to murder me, like they did Hyptia of Alexandria, the eloquent, young woman who devised the instruments used to accurately measure the position and motion of heavenly bodies.

    However long we live, life is short, so I work. And however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets, dear sister, and it is for us to reveal them. Your name, like mine, is a song.

    Write soon ,
    Caroline

    The comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, named after Caroline Herschel is expected to reappear to earthbound observers on March 16 2092. “The asteroid 281 Lucretia (discovered 1888) was named after Caroline’s second given name, and the crater C. Herschel on the Moon is named after her.”

    Caroline was celebrated in a poem by Adrienne Rich.