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.

    The Highest Laugh

    Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) - Johannes Vermeer

    Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) – Johannes Vermeer

    Laughter evolved not for its health benefits but because of its impact on others, and therefore positive benefits should most reliably occur within interpersonal contexts. Evolutionary accounts of laughter exists because of the generally accepted view that laughter is a homologue of the primate relaxed open-mouth display, known less formally as the play face.

    For at least two hours in the London Library I was absorbed in Psychophysiological Approaches to the Study of Laughter in the Oxford Handbook on positive psychology. (I’m ambivalent about the positive psychology movement, sympathetic to its Stoic roots, but repelled by its corporate manifestation.) There was much of interest in the chapter, but mostly it brought to mind Beckett, Critchley and Bergson.

    In Simon Critchley’s essay superb  On Humour he writes,

    For me, it is this smile – deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation – that is the essence of humour. This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book. Yet, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation. This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness.

    I’ve always viewed with a mixture of envy and unease those with hearty, big belly laughs. From time to time I try them out for size, but they don’t fit. I laugh often but my laughs are quieter, sounds, whether major or minor, from the interior. Bataille identified “major laughter” which requires “two conditions: (1) that it’s sudden; and (2) that no inhibition is involved.”

    Critchley’s argument, if I understand it correctly, is developed from Plato’s theory (in Philebus, Socrates explains his suspicion of laughter) that humour comes from a place of superiority, that laughter has its roots in disparaging others. Not Bataille’s unpredictable laughter of release, but one of mockery, closer to what Beckett calls the intellectual or dianoetic laugh.

    The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.

    This theory of a superiority of humour  fits with Bergson’s idea that laughter is a corrective to foolish behaviour, what he calls, “a constant striving after reciprocal adaptation, ” concluding, “We may therefore admit, as a general rule, that it is the faults of others that make us laugh by reason of their unsociability rather than of their immorality.

    The Quality of Silence

    Last night I reread, in part, Sarah Maitland’s A Book of Silence, which made a deep impression when I read it three years ago. Kathleen Jamie captures the richness of Maitland’s book exceptionally well.

    “Silence has its own weather. In silence, one’s mental states loom large and require constant vigilance,” writes Jamie. I think it is precisely that fear that has led to a depreciation of silence. Perhaps,  in the West, we never appreciated silence much in the first place.  Greek philosopher Pythagoras the Samian studied with both the Egyptians and East Indians, cultures where silence and listening where highly valued concepts.  Pythagorean initiates were required to be silent for five years.

    In Book of Silence, Maitland writes, “Incessant noise covers up the thinness of relationships as well as making silence appear dangerous and threatening. The nervous chatter that is produced to cover even brief periods of silence within a group is one manifestation of this.” Speech is deemed the distinguishing aspect of humans, silence considered suspicious. Choosing silence as a deliberate choice is thought of as masked, secretive, or labelled pejoratively as ‘shyness’. Sarah Cain  in Quiet wrote, “If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain.”

    Western culture values extraversion, what Sarah Cain termed the Extrovert Ideal – “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.” (Jungian labels like ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ are useful in so far as they offer a conversational short-cut, they are widely understood and conceptually predate the field of psychology.)

    Choosing silence is also expressing a preference for listening. I find that using silence to prepare my thoughts is essential preparation for speaking. Listening is an undervalued creative activity. (I’ve always loved that ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ contain the same letters.) Maitland writes in A Book of Silence, “Just as if you leave the door of the public bathes open the steam escapes and their virtue is lost, so the virtue of a person who talks a lot escapes through the door of the voice. That is why silence is a good thing; nothing less than the mother of wise thoughts.”

    [This is a substantially updated post, originally from June 2009.]

    A Life With the Greeks

    My first encounter with the story of Troy happened as a child while reading one of those juvenile collected tales of Ancient Greek and Rome. It kindled an enchantment for that vanished golden age that has never waned. Those gods, goddesses, and heroes have accompanied me as proxy siblings, with that admixture of fierce love and gentle hostility typical to such relationships. Achilles, the truculent and distant older brother, admired and loathed in equal measure. Paris, the craven cousin, who gossips behind closed doors. Beautiful, unpredictable Cassandra who became the model for at least one of the important women in my life.

    Although I own Homer in the original Greek I cannot claim to know Homer that way, though, from time to time, I crudely decode stretches, word by word, like a detective. Any classical scholar in his first year possesses more competence in Greek than I’ve achieved. As a teenager I learnt to write the first line of Homer’s Iliad in Greek from memory, but it was artifice, a party trick. Classical Greek studies remain an ambition, to sit beside my formal training in Latin. As Joyce once wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I [..] have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.”

    Without classical Greek I am compelled to rely on translations into English, though at school we dabbled a bit with a Latin translation of Homer. Pope’s translation was my first, of which Robert Fagles, while acknowledging its greatness, said, “Pope’s Homer is really an English poem.” Of Pope’s translation (hat-tip to Douglas Robertson), Samuel Johnson wrote:

    I suppose many readers of the English “Iliad,” when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer doubtless owes to his translator many Ovidian graces not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired, if it be not gained at the expense of dignity. A hero would wish to be loved, as well as to be reverenced.

    To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient; the purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside. Pope wrote for his own age and his own nation: he knew that it was necessary to colour the images and point the sentiments of his author; he therefore made him graceful, but lost him some of his sublimity.

    Besides Pope, I’ve read translations of the Iliad by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald and William Cowper, as well as much of Stephen Mitchell’s truncated version. I’m reading Robert Fagles admirably lucid translation. Each of these translations tackle the Iliad differently, and I struggle to recommend one over the other, though Mitchell’s version impressed me least.

    I do urge those interested in Homer to read Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force [PDF]. For the nerdy I also recommend Malcolm M. Willcock’s A Companion to the Iliad (based on Richard Lattimore’s translation).

    Music is Feeling

    Clerkly Peter Quince, inept playwright of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is (loosely) the narrator of Wallace Steven’s early poem Peter Quince at the Clavier. I enjoy the poem for its “music is feeling, then, not sound.”

    Music has expressive power, an ability to articulate that goes beyond language. Musicians and composers that sacrifice expressive meaning for superficial beauty might offer sensuality but can leave you frozen, the source, I suspect, of Beckett’s distaste for Bach, criticised for the ‘inexorable purposefulness’ of his music.

    Attempting to describe how music can express a feeling or state of mind leads to inarticulacy, to the limit of language. Roger Scruton (I enjoy his writing on music far more than his politics) argues that concepts of pitch, melody, harmony and rhythm can only be described by recourse to metaphor:

    It does not seem strained that Smetana’s music expresses the shining and silken qualities that we hear in it. Smetana’s music is not literally shining or silken. But its expressive power is revealed in its ability to compel these metaphors from us, and to persuade us that they fit exactly. Of course, it is a mystery that they fit. But the mystery is immovable. Every metaphor both demands an explanation and also refuses it, since an explanation  would change it from a metaphor to a literal truth, and thereby destroys its meaning.

    The Correct Incantations

    In Thom Gunn’s The Occasions of Poetry I came across this paragraph, which expresses that same incoherence that Eliot was grasping toward when he wrote of  ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ in his exquisite East Coker:

    For me the act of writing is an exploration, a reaching out, an act of trusting search for the correct incantation that will return me certain feelings whenever I want them. And of course I have never completely succeeded in finding the correct incantations.

    ‘Incantation’ is very good, literally ‘singing spells.’ It calls to mind those rare occasions while reading when we come across an unerring incantation, a particularly resonant sentence or phrase that enchants us forever. Gunn writes of seeking transparency, of words being the glass to his mind, as though observing an object through that glass.