Language and Style

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Ideas are certainly important-who would deny that?-but the fact is, the ideas that operate in novels and poems, once they are unpicked from their context and laid out on the laboratory table, usually turn out to be uncomplicated, even banal, Whereas a style, an attitude to the world, as it soaks in, becomes part of the personality, part of the self, ultimately indistinguishable from the self.

Coetzee
Homage

Digressive Interior Journeys

It isn’t often that a writer’s voice and concerns register deep enough that I end up scouring second-hand sources for first editions of their work. Jenny Diski becomes the thirty-first writer housed in that hallowed subsection of my library reserved for those I will likely read and reread in their entirety. My old chestnuts, listed here, are an idiosyncratic bunch that will match no other reader’s list of favourite writers, but are each, in different ways, as integral to my central nervous system as my spinal cord. My slowly expanding Jenny Diski collection breaks up the fairly long-term on-shelf relation of Clarice Lispector and Simon Critchley.

I read Diski’s début novel Nothing Natural when it was first published in the late eighties and recall little beyond its potency. Almost thirty years later, it is Diski’s essay on her recent cancer diagnosis that drew me back to her writing with all the force of a rare-earth magnet. This is the first instalment of a memoir to be published in parts in the LRB (which also persuaded me to resubscribe to the LRB).

Disk’s piece encouraged me to buy On Trying to Keep Stilla series of elegantly crafted and very funny essays narrating Diski’s intense desire for inertia-within the confines of writing a travel journal. These are the sort of digressive, meandering essays in which I take great pleasure, no less because of Diski’s even greater commitment to seeking silence and solitude.

Diski’s collection of essays and reviews in A View from the Bed confirms my first sense that I’m reading someone cut from a similar mould in the pursuit of inner space and silence. Glimpsing the world retracted through Diski’s eyes is a vivid and rewarding experience. This is equally clear on reading What I Don’t Know About Animals, Diski’s exploration of our relationship with animals, which probes their minds with similar intentions to Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (which Diski also explores in her book). She writes with precision and elegance, exploring her chosen subjects with honesty and clarity. My intention is to read the non-fiction and work towards the novels.

Duality of Silence

In The World of Silence, Max Picard quotes Goutran de Procius’s Kablina, where he sums up so lucidly the duality of silence, that tension between rapture and fear familiar to anyone that chooses to spend long periods of immersion in silence.

Here in the land of the Eskimos there is no wind in the tress, for there are no leaves. No birds sing. There is no noise of flowing water. No frightened animals flee in the dark. There is no stone to become loose under human feet and fall down a riverbank, for all the stones are walled in by the frost and buried under the snow. And yet this world is far from dead: it is only that the beings, which dwell in this solitude, are noiseless and invisible.
This stillness, which has been so solitary, which has calmed me and done good to my worn-out nerves, gradually began to weigh on me like a lead weight. The flame of life within us withdrew further and further into a secret hiding place, and our heartbeats became ever slower. The day would come when we should have to shake ourselves to keep our heartbeats going. We had sunk deep into this silence; we were paralysed by it; we were on the bottom of a well from which we could pull ourselves out only with inconceivable difficulty.

I’ve read Picard’s odd and very beautiful book for years and cannot recommend it highly enough. There isn’t anything like it. Its closest literary relative must be Susan Sontag’s essay on modernism, The Aesthetics of Silence in which she argues for silence as a means for furthering speech.

Associations. Associations. Emily Dickinson:

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel-
Are beautiful-

Shaped by Dialogue

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We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.

Charles Taylor
Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition

Everybody Knows This Is NOWHERE

This morning I started reading Everybody Knows This Is NOWHERE after breakfast and did little else until I finished reading Alice Furse’s story. Though a first novel, it in no way feels like a work of apprenticeship.

Though the setting and characters are thoroughly contemporary, it has the feel of a work of the modernist movement, its sparse style, Furse’s gift for understatement, allusion and irony, the attentive depiction of the heroine’s preoccupations in an alienating office environment and within a relationship that has hit a dead end. This is very conscious artistry that dispenses of traditional narrative concerns such as plot, event, and facile resolution of the character’s circumstances.

The writer’s meticulously disciplined style and skilful rendering of character through intuitive understanding of dialogue, powerful imagery and metaphor expands the range of the novel. The novel’s heroine is unnamed, her boyfriend identified only as the Traffic Warden, yet each are fully drawn and well-defined in their own right, they each represent an impressive portrait of the atomised condition of life in the twenty-first century.

Everybody Knows This is NOWHERE signals the début of a distinctive voice in English fiction, and a style that I cannot wait to see further developed and refined in later novels.

Seamus Heaney and Caillebotte’s Banks of a Canal

Seamus Heaney finished this poem 10 days before he died, meditating on the serene beauty of a canal painted by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte.

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Banks of a Canal

Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel
Towing silence with it, slowing time
To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam
Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.
The stunted concrete mocks the classical.
Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,
In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,
Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’
Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,
The sky not truly bright or overcast:
I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,
The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest
Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight
Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.

Data Output on Negative Capitalism

A selection of snippets from J. D. Taylor’s Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era (published 2013), an incisive diagnosis and series of responses to the current economic and cultural malaise.

Neoliberalism is the political model of financial capitalism and represents the current political and economic consensus of leaders in Europe, China, and the West. It is an economic argument that unregulated financial trade is the best model for a self-sustaining and meritocratic economy. Whilst it is debatable how fundamentally violent, competitive, or power-seeking human life is, rather than working towards a cooperative and regulated social democracy as I will argue for, declaring capitalism as the best basis for a developed society is dangerously destructive, crisis-ridden, and ultimately fascistic. Capitalism intrinsically negates individual and collective capacity for equal political representation, social rights, and quality of life, given that its base assumption is that the value of life s determined by its success in individually accumulating and trading wealth. The more powerful capitalism is-that is, the more wealth can be observed to be concentrated in the hands of a very small cabal of effective capitalists – the less the lives of individuals and communities on low-incomes matter. There is no ‘good’ capitalism, and the system is by no means in a state of crisis, unless perhaps its sustainability is threatened by the growing anger of social democratic revolt sweeping the globe.

Life needn’t be against power, not when life itself is an operation of power, at present directed against its own interests. Rather, the blinkers of neoliberal capitalism need to be removed from social life. Each of us must re-programme ourselves to think beyond the mean profit principle, anxiety and cynicism of the neoliberal era.

The irony of neoliberalism is that it doesn’t involve free markets at all. It has historically required specific intervention by governments and intergovernmental global agencies into the markets, forcibly deregulating them and transferring public property into private hands. It is maintained with regular state intervention, from continued sales of public assets or resources to financial institutions. It is a state-imposed mechanism.

When deprivation of activity and agency is combined with a more practical inability to be at home because of longer and more unstructured working hours, a powerful process is at work: a fundamental disempowerment through alienation and a negation of workers’ time, space and mature ability to make independent decisions. Home CCTV systems have been sold by security companies and are increasingly popular, whilst the public spread of CCTV was marked by a new televised form of entertainment, as drunks, criminals and even reality TV contestants amused and entrained record audience figures via recorded CCTV footage. Pervasive monitoring of celebrities and political figures has dominated the scoops and scandals of the British tabloid press, as surveillance equipment and paparazzi have come to constitute the source of political information an popular entertainment. The individual is emptied of all agency except their capacity to also become part of consumer entertainment, and so the infantilised masses contemplate themselves as passive spectacle, the signal point of fascism as Walter Benjamin warned. As ‘reality’ becomes a fixture of television programming, observe a new phenomenon of online self-commodification through Web 2.0 profiling, blogging and use of twitter to immediately share thoughts (and thereby assume their worth), and the rise of home-made pornography. Galloway and Thacker describe this self-commodification with a new motto for the digitised era: ‘Express yourself! Output some data!’ I in turn LOL and dutifully retweet this, ‘Like’ its Facebook page, or repost it on my utterly tedious micro-blog.

A Musical Initiation

Only one band ever visited the small, remote East Asian country I called home for the first fourteen years of my life. Why Boney M chose to play in Brunei I’ve never been able to discover. That summer Ma Baker, loosely based on the story of a legendary 1930s outlaw, drifted vaguely out of every shop front. We had really good seats for the concert, at the sides, not far back from the stage. There was some sort of a light show. I don’t really remember. Years later, someone told me that band member Bobby Farrell died in St. Petersburg, so in the same city and on the same day as Rasputin’s death. Boney M had a hit with a song called Ra-Ra-Rasputin-rhymed with love machine-about the friend and advisor of Tsar Nicholas II.

That was also the summer that Saturday Night Fever materialised. Birthday party games were set aside and, out of nowhere, all the other teenagers suddenly knew the moves to Night Fever. Awkward co-ordination and adolescent diffidence sidelined me to observing intently from the edges of the room. The strong beats and uncomplicated song structures had some charm, but what changed everything, looking out at that room full of dancing teenagers was spotting my first punk, not that it was called that at first. I don’t remember his name, or if I ever knew it. He wore a plain white cotton shirt customised with splashed paint, torn black jeans held together with safety pins and loosely spiked hair, dyed orange-blonde. I spent the rest of that summer annoying older boys with questions about this new wave.

Punk quickly became my playground, obsessive in the way things can only become when you live in a remote country, over seven thousand miles away from the heat of a phenomenon. For once going back to boarding school at the end of the summer felt like a release from flatness towards the furious energy of London. The NME became my sutra, reciting gig listings as though part of a solemn ceremony: Generation X at Brunel Rooms, The Adverts at the Nashville, Shame 69 and Menace at The Roxy Club. By the end of that year, school had effectively lost control as I repeatedly bunked out after lights-out to head up to The Nashville, West Kensington, the Electric Ballroom, The Greyhound at Croydon, and various student union gigs. On the nights when jailbreaking was impossible John Peel’s radio show was taped and listened to obsessively.

Punk ended for me as unremittingly as it began. I walked out of the Lyceum after a staggering night with Stiff Little Fingers, Gang Of Four, The Mekons, Human League and The Fall, and knew that, for me, something was over. I moved on. By the time I discovered punk, it was mostly over. I’m a child of post-punk: Joy Division, Two Tone and PiLThe Cure.

Eskimo Wolf Trap

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Eskimo wolf trap often quoted in sermons 2013, Dimensions variable Installation of diasec, eskimo knife, polyurethane, 200 kg of sodium bicarbonate

Eskimo wolf trap often quoted in sermons
2013, Dimensions variable
Installation of diasec, eskimo knife, polyurethane, 200 kg of sodium bicarbonate

Eventually, a wolf will approach the knife and begin to cautiously sniff and lick the frozen blood. After believing it is safe, the wolf will lick more aggressively. Soon, the blade of the knife becomes exposed and it begins to nick the wolf’s tongue. Because its tongue has been numbed by the cold of the frozen blood, the wolf is unaware that he is being cut, and the blood it now tastes is its own. Excited at the prospect of fresh, warm blood, the wolf will hungrily lick the blade all the more. In a short time, the wolf will grow dizzy and disoriented. In a matter of hours, it will die from blood loss, literally drinking itself to death. As horrible as this picture is, it illustrates an important truth.