Saturday, 1 October 2011

Life is Gweel

Gweel & Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Books, 2011)

Oh no. Say it ain’t so, Shmoe. I thought we’d heard the last of this vile piece-a-shit after his richly deserved execution for hate-crimes – inter alia, he’d claimed that maverick underground editor Dave Kerekes was a M*n *td f*n, that über-maverick gay aesthetician John Coulthart was a G**rd**n-r**d*r, and that post-über-maverick cultural titan Alan Moore had a *ea**. He might, just might, have got away with double-life for those first two crimes against humanity... but fortunately one of the last acts of the righteous New Labour government in Britain had been to pass a law mandating death for any and all forms of pogonophobia. Accordingly, Whitechapel’s attempted genocide against Alan M. earnt him the electric Blair (don’t ask, or you might feel a twinge of sympathy even for a depraved speech-criminal like Whitechapel).

Anyhows, that SHOULDA been the last we’d ever hear of him. No such luck. Either some deluded disciple’s been on the ouija board or the astral, or Whitechapel left material to some deluded disciple for posthumous publication, like a final fetid fart from a putrefying, maggot-infested corpse. It’s difficult to know where to begin hinting at how hateful’n’horrible this book is – "hint" is all I’m gonna do, because I’ve got something Whitechapel obviously never came within a million miles of acquiring, namely, a social conscience. Did you ever read anything and then feel as though you needed to take a looooong shower? Me too. More’n once. But it’s never been as bad as this. I felt as though I needed a shower after the first word of the first sentence of the first story in Gweel. That’s how reprehensible’n’repulsive this book is in terms of issues around feralness’n’fetidity. I’ve read Sade, I’ve read Guyotat, I’ve read Archer – I have never read anything that made me despair of life and humanity the way Gweel did. And still does. I’ll lay it on the line: I am completely and uncompromisingly in favor of absolute and unconditional freedom of speech – except for racists, sexists, and homophobes, natch – but I would gladly see Gweel burned and its ashes ground to powder before being encased in concrete and blasted off for a rendezvous with the all-cleansing fusional furnace of Father Sol himself.

Why? Well, I’m not gonna tell you the worst of what’s within – I’m not even sure I know the worst, given that I couldn’t get some pages unstuck after I threw up on the book halfway thru the second paragraph of that first story – but how’d’ya like these little green apples?:

The suggestion that prime numbers like 17, 31, and 89 could be used as hallucinogenic drugs (as made in the story "Tutu-3")? Or the suggestion that the digits of √2 somehow encode a Lovecraftian pastiche about two archaeomysteriologists descending to the bottom of the Atlantic in a bathysphere, drinking "whisky-laced coffee" as they go (as in "Kopfwurmkundalini")? Or how’s about the über-esoteric hidden channel that some prisoner discovers on an old TV and that, left playing overnight, coats his cell in gold-and-scarlet lichen (as in, er, "Lichen")? And I don’t even like to recall, let alone mention, the microscopic red mite in "Acariasis" and the Martian musings it prompts in another "banged-up" protagonist. As for "Beating the Meat" and "Santa Ana City Jail" – let’s leave it at the titles, shall we? You don’t wanna go there. I have, and I wish to God I hadn’t.

Yeah, I also wish Whitechapel could be brought back to life... and sentenced to death all over again for what he’s done to H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, and Ramsey Campbell. As a committed fan of all three, I can’t tell you how horrified and disgusted I was to see their influence all over Gweel. It was like sipping and savoring a glass of fine wine, then discovering that someone had been washing his syphilitic dick in it. And then some. If you try reading this, Jesus will sob on Mary’s shoulder and Satan will high-five Mephistopheles. Trust me. If you possibly can, get the full width of the planet between yourself and any copy of Gweel that survives the sweep that will begin as soon as I’ve dialed my local hate-crime hotline. (Reviewed by Peter Sotos.)

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Rabbits and Pineapples

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the Extraordinary Number of Nature, Art and Beauty, Mario Livio

A good short popular guide to perhaps the most fascinating, and certainly the most irrational, of all numbers: the golden ratio or phi, which is approximately equal to 1·6180339... Prominent in mathematics since at least the ancient Greeks and Euclid, phi is found in many places in nature too, from pineapples and sunflowers to the flight of hawks, and Livio catalogs its appearances in both realms, with particular attention to rabbit-breeding and the Fibonacci sequence, before going on to debunk mistaken claims of its appearances in art, music, and poetry. Dalí certainly used it, but da Vinci, Debussy, and Virgil almost certainly didnt, and neither, almost certainly, did the builders of the Parthenon and pyramids. Finally, he examines what has famously been called (by the physicist Eugene Wiegner) the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics: why is this human invention so good at describing the behavior of the Universe? Livio quotes one of the best short answers Ive yet seen to the question:
Human logic was forced on us by the physical world and is therefore consistent with it. Mathematics derives from logic. That is why mathematics is consistent with the physical world. (ch. 9, Is God a mathematician?, pg. 252) Any book that can quote Jef Raskin, the creator of the Macintosh computer, with Johannes Kepler, William Blake, Lewis Carroll, and Christopher Marlowe, has to be recommended, and recreational mathematicians should find lots of ideas for further investigation, from fractal strings to the fascinating number patterns governed by Benfords law. It isnt just human beings who look after number one: as a leading figure, 1 turns up much more often in data from the real world, and in mathematical constructs like the Fibonacci sequence, than intuition would lead you to expect. If youd like to learn more about that and about many other aspects of mathematics, hunt down a copy of this book.

Snow Job

What Shape Is A Snowflake? Magical Numbers in Nature, Ian Stewart

The book of a TV series that never was: lots of pretty pictures, lots of simplistic anecdotes, no hard information, no intellectual challenges. The ideas examined fractals, complexity theory, chaos, animal gaits and skin patterns, and the relation of mathematics to reality are fascinating, but their treatment is superficial and there are no footnotes to guide readers quickly to more detailed sources of information. Stewart seems to have boiled down books like Does God Play Dice?, Fearful Symmetry, and Lifes Other Secret, thrown away the residue, and used the condensation on the windows instead. What Shape Is A Snowflake? would be good as an introduction to these ideas for an intelligent teenager or an adult with an arts degree, but if you dont fall into one of those categories youd be much better off with one of the serious books named above.

e, Bah Gum

e: The Story of a Number, Eli Maor

The test of lucid writing isn’t that it is easy to understand but that it is as easy to understand as it can be. The writing in this book is not always easy to understand, but it’s still some of the most lucid I’ve ever come across. Less laudably, it was strangely repetitive too. This appears on page 124:
This makes the spiral a close relative of the circle, for which the angle of intersection is 90°. Indeed, the circle is a logarithmic spiral whose rate of growth is 0…
And this on page 134:
This property [of intersecting any straight line through the pole at the same angle] endows the [logarithmic] spiral with perfect symmetry of the circle indeed the circle is a logarithmic spiral for which the angle of intersection is 90° and the rate of growth is 0.
That aside, I can recommend this book highly as a history and survey of the most overlooked of the three great mathematical constants. The most recently recognized too, but then there’s an obvious reason for all that. π and φ have simple definitions: the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and the ratio x/y such that (x+y)/x = x/y. e, the base of natural logarithms, doesn’t have such a simple definition: it’s the limit of the equation (1+1/n)n as n = , and begins 2·7182182... That misleading double “182” is an artefact of its representation in base 10: e is not only irrational, like φ, which means its digits never begin repeating, but transcendental too, like π. But if e became familiar to mathematicians thousands of years later than π, it got a symbol of its own at nearly the same time. As David Blatner describes in The Joy of π, the symbol π was popularized, but not invented, by the great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (pronounced “Oiler”), but Euler seems to have both invented and popularized e. Maor lays to rest an old story:

Why did he choose the letter e? There is no general consensus. According to one view, Euler chose it because it is the first letter of the word exponential. More likely, the choice came to him naturally as the first “unused” letter of the alphabet, since the letters a, b, c, and d frequently appear elsewhere in mathematics. It seems unlikely that Euler chose the letter because it was the initial of his own name, as has occasionally been suggested: he was an extremely modest man and often delayed publication of his own work so that a colleague or student of his could get the credit. (ch. 13, ‘eix: “The Most Famous of All Formulas”’, pg. 156)
But Euler certainly deserved to have a mathematical constant named in his honor, if for no other reason and there are certainly lots of other reasons than his discovery of the relationship explored in this chapter: eix = -1, which “appeals equally to the mystic, the scientist, the philosopher, the mathematician”. Rather like this book as a whole, and though some of it was well beyond me, it’s a model of pop math, from the mathematically rigorous its examination of the catenary, or the shape made by a hanging chain, for example to the culturally quirky. I’ve often read before that Jakob Bernoulli, one of a Swiss family that was the mathematical equivalent of the Bachs, asked for a logarithmic spiral to be carved on his tombstone with the words Eadem mutata resurgo: “Even though changed I rise again”. But I read for the first time here that the engraver got it wrong out of ignorance or laziness and used an Archimedean spiral instead. Not only that, I got to see the tombstone itself. That’s dedicated research, and though dedicated research doesn’t guarantee a good book, it’s part of what makes this book so good.

Penetrating the Inner Circle

The Joy of π, David Blatner

A delightful little book about a delightful big number: the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, aka π. The Bible says it's three and though we knew far better by the nineteenth century, we still had fewer than a thousand digits. We had 707, in fact, and it wasn't until 1945 that we discovered that some of them, calculated with enormous labor and dedication by the English mathematician William Shanks, were wrong.
1945 was the year someone set to work calculating π with the aid of a desk calculator, and was the start of the electronic race to find π with greater and greater accuracy. Fifty years later, in 1995, the Japanese mathematician Yasumasa Kanada had calculated 6 billion digits thats 6,000,000,000 only for the Russian-American brothers David and Gregory Chudnovsky to hit back the following year with 8 billion. Kananda took the lead again in 1997 with 51·5 billion digits (and holds the record as of May 2005 with 1·2 trillion digits).
The story of π is a story of competition too, you see, and Blatner devotes a chapter to the Chudnovskys and their attempts to build ever more powerful computers to win and then win back the π-digit record. For almost all practical purposes, the competition is useless, and this quotation from the nineteenth-century Canadian astronomer Simon Newcomb tells you why:
Ten decimals [of π] are sufficient to give the circumference of the earth to the fraction of an inch, and thirty decimals would give the circumference of the whole visible universe to a quantity imperceptible to the most powerful microscope. But the quest for more and more digits does test computers and their software and programmers to their limits and mathematically speaking the digits are interesting because they can be tested for what is called normality. That is, are the digits of π effectively random, like those one would expect from rolling a perfect ten-sided die (or n-sided die in base n)? So far it seems that they are, and that is one of the paradoxes of π. A circle is the complete opposite of a random shape, and the ratio of its circumference to its diameter has a completely fixed value. Yet the digits of that ratio seem to be completely unpredictable.
But the quest for more and more digits is valuable for two other reasons symbolic ones. The English mountaineer George Malory said that he wanted to climb Everest because it was there. If π-nauts try to find the digits of π because they are there, they are only there because we have in fact found ways of predicting them. Mathematicians have discovered many finite formulae for an infinite sequence of digits. [cut bit of mathematical ignorance] The second symbolic value of the quest for ever more digits of π is that the quest is being carried out by men. The story of π is a male story, or rather, the story of the human relationship with π is a male story. Mathematics is beyond sex and personality, but for various biological reasons mathematics, as practised and applied by human beings, is overwhelmingly dominated by men. The ethnicity of Kanada and (I presume) the Chudnovsky brothers is symbolically important too: East Asians like the Japanese have a higher-than-average IQ and Ashkenazi Jews have a much higher-than-average IQ Ashkenazim are hugely over-represented among mathematicians, just as they are hugely over-represented among grandmasters of chess.
Blatner, who I presume is himself Jewish, doesnt comment on race and biology, but its one of the most interesting aspects of mathematical contingency: the way the necessary truths of mathematics are discovered by and influence human beings. Much less interesting, for me, are other aspects of mathematical contingency: the appearance of π in popular culture, for example. Blatner looks at these too in passing, and includes a list of π mnemonics in various languages. My favorite is this one in Spanish, in which the number of letters in each word stands for a digit of π:
Sol y Luna y Mundo proclaman al Eterno Autor del Cosmo.
(Sun and Moon and Earth acclaim the Eternal Creator of the Cosmos.)
With no accents and digraphs and every letter standing for exactly one sound, its about as close as language gets to the clarity and concision of mathematics. This book is an excellent popular insight into that clarity and concision, and more beside.

Tasted Sweetness

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan, Robert Kanigel

Reading the life of Ramanujan (pronounced something like Raa-MAA-nuh-jun) is likely to put those of an old-fashioned literary bent in mind of Grays Elegy in a Country Churchyard, lines fifty-three to fifty-six:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomd caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Or to put it in other, less poetic words: some people never realize a minute fraction of their very great potential. Many more geniuses have been born than have ever been heard of, and Ramanujan was nearly one of those born but never heard of, because he was born into a poor family in southern India in 1887. Without luck and a lot of hard work by his friends, he might have never taken his rightful place in history besides the likes of Gauss and Euler as one of the most intellectually gifted human beings who have ever lived.
And if youre wondering what he was gifted in, then youve obviously never heard of Gauss or Euler, which is a pity. Gauss and Euler were mathematicians and mathematics is probably the greatest of all human intellectual achievements, perhaps, paradoxically, because it is also the simplest and most direct of all subjects. That is why maths is so accessible to anyone with the right kind of mind. It doesnt depend on language or race or culture but on intellect, and that is why Ramanujan, despite his background, was able to climb to its peak.
Though even at its peak there were mists of prejudice and culture, which was why it took some time before the men who shared the peak with him even those further from the summit than he was were able to recognize him as one of themselves: a supremely gifted mountaineer of the mind. Ramanujan wrote three letters to mathematicians at Cambridge University and was ignored twice. The third letter, however, reached a mathematician called G.H. Hardy, who glimpsed something in it that his colleagues had missed, gave it more time and thought, and realized the truth: that the gods of mathematicians had chosen a new favorite in a country thousands of miles from the wealthy centres of intellectual life in Europe and America.
Because Hardy was powerful and had a great deal of influence, he was able to have this new favorite of the gods brought to England. By doing so, he very probably killed him: Ramanujan died before he was forty, in 1920, and his death almost certainly had a great deal to do with the cold and poor diet he endured in England during the First World War. Robert Kanigel weaves that story into the wider tapestry of Ramanujans life and the still wider tapestry of British and Indian and Anglo-Indian history and produces not just one of the best scientific biographies I have ever read, but one of the best biographies of any kind. You dont need to know anything about mathematics beyond the fact that it exists to appreciate the romance and tragedy of Ramanujans life, or its greatness, and one of the books central messages that genius can so easily go unnoticed or unappreciated has been a theme of literature too.
As my quotation from Gray proves. Ramanujan was lucky, though as a Brahmin he was less lucky than he might have been. If you dont understand that, its another reason to read this book, because it will teach you a lot not just about a genius, and genius itself, but about Indian and British culture and history too.

Curiouser and Curiouser

The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Mathematics, David Wells

Many people dont see the beauty and excitement of maths, often because they werent introduced to it in the right way as children. This book can introduce adults and children alike to it in the right way. It starts with -1 and i (the square root of -1) and goes all the way through to Grahams Number, which is so big that you could drive yourself mad trying to grasp just a fraction of it. En route, it introduces topics and ideas suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to the most advanced mathematicians. That is one of the beauties of maths: someone once described as it like an ocean in which a child can paddle and an elephant can swim. Wells discusses odd numbers, even numbers, rational numbers, irrational numbers, transcendental numbers, primes, Mersenne primes, factorials, logarithms, magic squares, Pascals triangle, the Rhind Papyrus (1650 BC), and much, much more, seasoning it all with a sprinkling of folklore and numerology and lots of ideas for recreational maths and musing. The Fibonacci numbers get a little of the attention they deserve (a book ten or a hundred times longer could only give them a little of the attention they deserve) and theres also the solution to the problem of the largest number you can represent using only three digits and no other symbols. If you know what it is or not, read this book.

Critical Math

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos

Ah, unrequited love. I love maths, but maths doesnt love me. Still, it likes me enough for me to learn a lot from books like this. And I, like most people, do need to learn a lot about maths, because not knowing about it can lead you to make all sorts of mistakes and fall into all kinds of misunderstandings.
So we need more people like the mathematician John Allen Paulos, who knows a lot about maths and can express what he knows simply and entertainingly. This book is one of those that divide your life into BR and AR Before Reading and After Reading because it changes the way you look at the world. Take politics and important questions like the way we vote and the way power blocs work. Paulos examines all sorts of paradoxes and contradictions in both and you should come out of that section understanding the imperfections and dangers of democracy a lot better, as well as knowing that its possible to create a set of four dice, A, B, C, and D, in which A beats B, B beats C, C beats D, and D beats A.
Impossible? No, its very simple
Pauloss answers are, respectively, no, not necessarily, and no, not necessarily. What is true of a general population is not necessarily true of its extremes:
As an illustration, assume that two population groups vary along some dimension height, for example. Although it is not essential to the argument, make the further assumption that the two groups heights vary in a normal or bell-shaped manner. Then even if the average height of one group is only slightly greater than the average height of the other, people from the taller group will constitute a large majority among the very tall (the right tail of the curve). Likewise, people from the shorter group will constitute a large majority among the very short (the left tail of the curve). This is true even though the bulk of the people from both groups are of roughly average stature. Thus if group A has a mean height of 58 and group B has a mean height of 57, then (depending on the exact variability of the heights) perhaps 90 percent or more of the those over 62 will be from group A. In general, any differences between two groups will always be greatly accentuated at the extremes.Discrimination undoubtedly exists, but where it exists and how much of an effect it has are not questions that can always be answered in simple ways. Paulos even describes how taking measures against discrimination can make its supposed effects worse.
Look before you leap, in other ways, and look with mathematically trained eyes. It will help you in all sorts of ways, from not being taken in by fallacious political arguments to not being ripped off. Suppose, Paulos asks, a pile of potatoes is left out in the sun. Its 99% water and weighs 100 pounds. A day later, its 98% water. How much does it weigh now?
If you cant work out the answer then you might be on your way to losing a lot of money if someone who does know it looks after your money or investments. Paulos explains the answer which, surprisingly (or not), is 50 pounds very clearly and simply, the way he explains the answers of all the other little puzzles he drops into the text as he discusses gossip, celebrity, cooking, bargains, infectious disease, and a myriad of other subjects that maths can either illuminate or obfuscate, depending on how well you understand it and the logic that underlies it.
once you know how. Or take the much vexed question of discrimination. Women are 50% of the population and blacks are (depending where you live) 5% and you should therefore expect them to be 50% and 5%, respectively, of MPs or bishops or disc-jockeys or senior managers in confectionery factories, shouldn't you? And if they aren't, that's clear proof of discrimination, isn't it?

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Playing on the Nerves

In A Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu

Far less known than his great admirer M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu may be an even better and more haunting writer, despite not relying so heavily on the supernatural. Some of his stories seem to be explorations of neurological disease rather than ghostly visitation. Such disease was much more common in his Georgian and Victorian day, before the toxicity of many common substances was understood and legislated against. But the horrors conjured by a diseased brain can be both stronger and more mysterious than a ghost or demon, being much more intimate but also less accessible. Le Fanu is intimate in another way: he has Robert Aickman’s ability to start currents swirling in the subconscious, till you can feel yourself being drawn down into the abysses that wait there, dark and mysterious with sex, death, and primal instinct. “Carmilla”, his classic of adolescent lesbian vampirism, is a good example and also demonstrates Le Fanu’s wider sympathy with humanity. M.R. James would not have written about women or that kind of sex. Homosexuality and necrophilia seem to inform James’ work; Le Fanu’s has the richness and bittersweetness of a man with wider sexual interests. Like Frankenstein or Sherlock Holmes, “Carmilla” may be more famous than its author is, still appearing in horror anthologies partly because of its theme, partly because it’s probably his best work, and partly because it’s written more simply than, say, “The Familiar” (and its title is easier to remember than his name). You can have to pay attention as you read Le Fanu’s complex prose:
The mind thus turned in upon itself, and constantly occupied with a haunting anxiety which it dared not reveal, or confide to any human breast, became daily more excited, and, of course, more vividly impressible, by a system of attack which operated through the nervous system; and in this state he was destined to sustain, with increasing frequency, the stealthy visitations of that apparition, which from the first had seemed to possess so unearthly and terrible a hold upon his imagination.
If you don’t concentrate as Le Fanu tosses you the balls, you drop them and can’t juggle up the whirl of metaphor and concept he is trying to create. The effort required is no doubt part of why he isn’t as well-known as he should be, but what you invest is repaid with interest and this collection, in Penguin’s World Classic’s series, is well symbolized by the painting on the cover: a detail from the great John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Dulce Domum, with a melancholy-dreaming young woman sitting in a house rich with detail, from peacock feathers to Chinese vases.

Horace Stories

Pearls & Pyramids / Temples & Torments, Simon Whitechapel

Nice covers, shame about the text. As if the polysyllabic vocab and convoluted (not to say strangulated) syntax of the first two stories in Pearls & Pyramids weren’t bad enough, along come the blatant racism and misogyny of the third, in which members of the Black community are showered with the kind of vilely bigoted slavery-era clichés that even the reddest neck in the deepest south might think twice about using nowadays. Yes, more sensitive members of the anti-racist community won’t even make it past the first line of “The Pearls of Ngaháksha”, which introduces its anti-heroine as a “corpulent black (sic) cannibal witch”. Count the racist discourses at work there, cultural theoreticians! Then read on, if your stomach’s strong enough, and see how they’re repulsively developed and expanded.
Whitechapel’s racist and misogynistic agenda isn’t so foully evident everywhere else, but it is evident from the epigraphs in pretentiously untranslated Italian, Latin and French that he fancies himself as some kind of rogue literary scholar. Real literary scholars won’t be taken in for a moment: if you’re going to pretend that you read Horace in the original, it helps not to make errors as egregious as “vas inferior...naturalis” in the story that follows. But Whitechapel can’t avoid egregious errors in English either: get your laughing gear around “all those whom (sic) his spies discovered had slain...”, for example. Not having a pair of rubber gloves to hand, I’m not going to probe the psychology of the story that’s taken from (“The Similitude of Anina-Casor”), but there are enough philias, phobias, and fetishes on display to keep a team of psychiatrists at work for weeks. Throw in the other stories and you’ve got a feast of mental pathologies that even the Marquis de Sade might have found too rich for one sitting - if the prose and plots were ten times better.
But okay, I admit that Pearls & Pyramids did get me thinking hard, and Temples & Torments thinking even harder. I thought: What did Clark Ashton Smith do to deserve a “disciple” as despicable as this? Did he set fire to an orphanage or something? Well, probably not: it’s just an example of how the miserable luck that dogged CAS in life has extended beyond the grave. I’d rather not know how Whitechapel bribed or blackmailed an otherwise admirable small press like Rainfall Books into publishing this garbage, but they should be ashamed of themselves.

Never Yawn in Profile

Dear Popsy: Collected Postcards of a Private Schoolboy to His Father, E. Bishop-Potter
This book is a little like a cross between the Captain Grimes chapters of Decline and Fall and a manual of sexual pathology, with Saki’s Clovis Sangrail as fairy godmother. It might even have suggested by a passage in Decline and Fall in which a boy in his early teens sits up well past his mother’s lover’s bedtime:
Downstairs Peter Beste-Chetwynde mixed himself another brandy and soda and turned a page in Havelock Ellis, which, next to Wind in the Willows, was his favourite book. (pt 2, ch. III, “Pervigilium Veneris”)
Waugh is not reporting that maternal neglect with approval, but Basil, the protagonist of Dear Popsy, might well have thrived on it, mutatis mutandis. He’d prefer chartreuse to B&S and Firbank to Havelock Ellis, being catamitic rather than heterosexual. Not that he would ever confess so crudely to his status: his postcards flirt and tease, hinting at what’s going on rather than ripping the lid orf. Firbank is definitely another influence: one can recognize his technique in the way the postcards build up a series of private jokes, make glancing reference to some naughtiness, glide away, glide back:
P.S. Yesterday Bletchworth killed a stray cat with his bullwhip! That boy!
Bletchworth will be in
Harley Street
on Thursday to see a specialist. Can you put him up for the night? I have told him that you will. Be sure to keep the cats away from him.
This evening the Brides collected Mrs Durham from the nursing home, then went to the Last Faerie for a coming out party. Bletchworth was there in his leather and looked quite crocodilean. How he creaked! Mrs D gave a little whimper when she saw him.
In a more densely written book it would sometimes be difficult to know what was going on, but here every message could literally fit on the back of a postcard. Some would need smaller writing than others, that’s all: Basil is charming but selfish, self-centred, and pleasure-loving, and doesn’t want to waste time writing letters to his father. He doesn’t want to write anything at all to his mother, but she’s an important part of the highly improbable plot, losing a leg to gangrene after a failed operation for varicose veins. She is given an artificial leg by a “Dr Oosterthing” and adds another exhibit to Dear Popsy’s catalog of paraphilias. She has come to “loathe” Basil’s father, blaming him for her son’s effeminacy, but when he has his ear bitten off in prison, her cooled affections are fanned back to life by his artificial ear:
Popsy, Mother’s affection is not for you, it is for your ear. HER PASSION IS SURGICAL PARTS! It’s all too scary. When I was having lunch with her on Saturday, a man with one arm sat down at the table next to us. Mother stopped eating, looked at him for at least 10 seconds, then turned to me and said, “What I couldn’t do with that fellow!” Macabre wasn’t the word!
Basil’s later encounters with tripe and hanging fetishists are pretty macabre too, as is the sex-slaying by the crocodilean Bletchworth:
Courtney Durham’s mother has been found dead in a ditch two miles from the school. Police say she was murdered! Isn’t it ghastly? The head has told that detectives will be here tomorrow to speak to us... P.S. Courtney Durham had to identify the body and took his crochet along! He said it was in shreds - the body that is.
Vice escalates, you see, and Bletchworth, soon condemned as criminally insane, isn’t the only example. In real life, Basil might have ended up in a lunatic asylum too. In print, he and his best friend Gemini Tarqqogan (“yes, two q’s, though he spells it with three!”) can work in a child brothel and then disappear overseas with rich paederasts as the scandal they’ve caused threatens to bring the government down. The book climbs skilfully to that crescendo, striking delicate notes early on on traditional decadent themes:
Just back from Mass; too yawnsome for words. (Why is the Elevation of the Host always such a let-down?)
Gemini lost an eyelash in a bowl of lobster soup and was in a ghastly mood all day.
Last night Gemini slept with two orchids in his armpits!
Paul Cox’s line-drawings capture the book’s playfulness well, from the artificial leg adapted as a hanging basket for “dreamy blue lobelia” to Basil scribbling a postcard in the bath he takes after an itchy fortnight preparing for a “customer” with a “passion for urchins”. All I can think of to improve the book would be to have the full text printed in the cursive font used on the back cover of my Penguin edition. It would capture the light, gliding, frivolous spirit of Basil better than ordinary type. And of Gemini too, who believes that “there is only one lesson to learn in one’s youth and that is never to yawn in profile.”

Stan’s Fans

Awaydays, Kevin Sampson
If you’re going to try a fictional entry in the hoolie lit genre, try this one. My interest was partly voyeuristic and I skimmed for the good bits rather than reading properly, but it deserves some of the hype attached to John King’s weak and poorly written Football Factory series. Sampson is a much more intelligent and skilful writer, and though a lot of people will assume he’s cashing in on King, his book was written before King’s became popular. The sex and violence here are much more realistic: you’d definitely like to partake of the former and avoid being on the receiving end of the latter. But dishing it out is pleasurable: violence is addictive because of its chemical effect on the brain. The narrator’s best friend, an Ezra-Pound-loving thug-eccentric called Elvis, tries more conventional drugs too, like heroin. That’s part of how Awaydays has more anthropological and linguistic interest than King’s books, being about obscure Tranmere Rovers and provincial Liverpool rather than world-famous Chelsea and London. Not that “Dzuh Roh Voz!” are Liverpudlian. They’re from Birkenhead, across the Mersey from the strange and dangerous city of Liverpool, but the rest of the country is right to lump them in with the Scousers. There’s a nastiness and criminality, even a psychopathy, about Liverpool that Tranmere fans in this book share, as the narrator reveals right at the beginning: “Tranmere are the only team in the Third who go away by train and we’re the only ones who use Stanleys - as Chesterfield and all the other knobheads now know.”
A Stanley knife is a razor blade set in a metal handle. It’s difficult to kill with one, but easy to slash and scar. Hence the attraction for some football hooligans. The narrator of the book doesn’t use one, but plenty in his crew do, to put the knobheads in their place. Awaydays is actually a study of hierarchy and status, because those are very important things to human beings. Violence is one way of establishing who’s above who. So are music and fashion, in this case those of the late 1970s: Joy Division and sovereign rings. Sampson captures the period and setting well and although his attempts at humor and quirkiness can seem a little contrived - the Dr Who convention gatecrashed by Tranmere in Halifax, for example - they’re something else that separate him from King. So does the ending of the book. Capturing the period and setting well isn’t necessarily a good thing, because both are bleak and unpleasant, and the narrator eventually decides to get out. He realizes the futility of what he’s been doing and the viciousness of it will be brought home after his last away trip. Being intelligent, middle-class-ish, and from a suburb, he has never really fitted in and trouble starts when he finds he’s being fitted up. That’s why he never gets to face the big boys Tranmere have drawn at home in the F.A. Cup after winning both on and off the pitch at Halifax. But his confrères try their best to get an early taste of what’s in store:
The journey back is a merry one. By the time we draw in at
Lime Street
, we’ve hyped ourselves up into a mob of fervent Scouse-haters and everyone’s up for storming the Yankee Bar. We’ll never have a better crew or a better opportunity so it’s a deadly let-down when a hundred-odd of us walk into Liverpool’s legendary stronghold and find it packed out with Christmas revellers and drunken old girls singing rebel songs. There’s one or two heads in the back who cannot work out who the fuck we are. They know we’re nothing to do with The Road End and the Yankee isn’t the sort of place you’d expect Everton to go socially. Eventually one of them comes over, horrible kite on him, nasty, narrow eyes and a bit of a scar on his temple. He starts trying to pal up to us, asking what the game was like. Marty pushes his way over.
We’re Tranmere. That’s what you want to know, isn’t it, you Odgie cunt.”
He just repeats the word, mulling it over quietly amused, then pulls a wincing face. He’s cool. Not remotely flustered by the odds of a hundred and seventeen to five. Ugly, but cool. Batesy, with commendable valour and utter stupidity stands up.
You’ve just met The Pack, lar!”
Suddenly it’s my turn to wince. I glance at Elvis. All of a sudden our steely, streetwise little crew sounds like a bunch of drama students playing at being football thugs. Why do we have to have a name anyway? The Scouse lad smiles to himself.
Well. We’ll be seeing youse then, The Pack.”
He walks back to his mates. Moments later a big laugh goes up. (pp. 114-5)
Status, you see. But why do Liverpool have more than Tranmere and Tranmere more than Halifax? It’s as trivial as demographics: cities generate more violence and have more young men to practice it. That isn’t all there is to it, however, and you can catch the fringes of Liverpool’s unique nastiness here. Perhaps there’s something genetic at work, reflecting the Irish Catholic influence. Whatever it is, Sampson has seen it and can get it down on paper.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Lit Crit Is Full of It

Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton

Are there two drearier words in English than “literary theory”? God, I hope not. They strike me rather like “rainbow bleaching” and “orchid mashing”, and though film theory and the writing it inspires are often even worse, film theory doesn’t annoy or depress me a tenth as much. Film is a fatuous, trivial medium invented very recently and flourishing best in America, so it’s entirely appropriate that it should be written about in fatuous, trivial ways by semi-literate barbarians. Literature is not a fatuous or trivial medium and it’s existed for thousands of years in writing, and far, far longer in speech and song. It is not appropriate that it should be written about in fatuous, trivial ways by semi-literate barbarians.
But even writers I greatly admire, like C.S. Lewis and Lytton Strachey, seem to become lifeless and uninspired when they turn to literary criticism, and its skeletal hand has only tightened its grip on the throat of literature since their day. If you closed every department of maths and physics and shot every maths and physics graduate, those subjects would be very seriously harmed and take decades to recover. If you closed every arts department and shot every arts graduate, literature and the other arts could very well undergo a new renaissance, with the great bonus that The Guardian and BBC would have to close down too. As it is, maths and physics are struggling to survive in British universities while “study” of the arts flourishes as never before, achieving less and less with more and more self-importance.
For an example of that self-importance, try this from Terry Eagleton’s introduction:
Those who complain of the difficulty of such theory would often, ironically enough, not expect to understand a textbook of biology or chemical engineering straight off. Why then should literary studies be any different?
To see how fatuous and ignorant that question is, compare “literary studies” with mathematics. Both have existed as serious subjects for thousands of years, but whereas all reasonably intelligent educated adults could still understand the literary criticism of the ancient Greeks, far fewer could understand their mathematics. And mathematics, apart from the stagnation that accompanied the triumph of Christianity, has only become more difficult with every century that has passed since the ancient Greeks. Literary criticism did not become more difficult: for more than two millennia it could be read and understood by all reasonably intelligent educated adults. Unlike mathematics, it did not advance because it was tied to something that is already fully developed in human beings: the faculty of language.
Then the clouds of ink squirted by cuttlefish like Marx and Freud began to drift into “literary studies” from sociology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, and by the 1960s literary criticism had become something it had never been before: opaque and obscurantist. Compare A.E. Housman’s study of Swinburne, from the beginning of the twentieth century, with the semi-literate maunderings of countless literary critics and cultural “commentators” today. Here’s Eagleton himself about to engage with issues around “Structuralism and Semiotics”:
We left American literary criticism at the end of the Introduction in the grip of New Criticism, honing its increasingly sophisticated techniques and fighting a rearguard action against modern science and industrialism. (ch. 3, pg. 79)
How exactly does one simultaneously “hone increasingly sophisticated techniques” and “fight a rearguard action”, let alone do both while one is “in the grip” of something? The shallowness of Eagleton’s intellect and insight is apparent in the carelessness and self-contradiction of his own prose, and his is by no means the worst you can find today. Housman’s prose, by contrast, is both highly literate and highly readable, but then Housman had serious literary achievements in his own write and took no notice of metaphysics or speculative psychology. Given his prose, the “seminal” figures Eagleton discusses here are exactly the ones you’d expect: Heidegger, Lacan, Barthes, Freud, Bakhtin, Derrida, Saussure. All of them are maggots in the corpse of Christianity or Judaism, wriggling merrily in the metaphysical European tradition. You’ll look in the index of this book in vain for representatives of Anglophone empiricism like John Locke and David Hume, and Charles Darwin only appears as an example of what-literature-is-not. In short, there’s nothing solid, just glittering vapor and colored smoke, rather like a traditional Catholic mass.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence either. Priestly religions are designed to keep priests housed and fed, which is why their claims are not tested against reality. But priestly religions can exist in disguised forms. Accordingly, as the vast parasitic cult of overt priests and theologians has declined in the West, so a vast parasitic cult of academics has risen to take its place in the humanities departments of our universities, with its own sacred scriptures, prophets, and saints. Like priests and theologians, these academics produce nothing valuable either materially or immaterially, and unlike priests and theologians they don’t inspire (or at least preside) great work by others. Unlike the old priestly and theological cult too, the modern academic cult is much more “gender-balanced”. My formula for the intellectual worth and rigor of a modern subject is simple: they’re inversely proportional to the number of women involved. True, that’s also the formula for the threat posed by a subject, because literary studies, unlike hard science, has no potential to cause very serious harm to the wider world, but fortunately one of the most certain examples of the serious harm hard science will cause is to literary studies itself and the rebarbative remainder of the modern humanities. Neurology and evolutionary biology will in fairly short order destroy their narcissistic obfuscations and mendacities, and unlike the scientific undermining of religion we won’t lose anything valuable in the process.
Grace and Favor
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Sza pwlaelz bawdra ael iqa yffsza myls, palzwpl sza mils, aempilswqs mambal yffsza rygur wdmaeqaelslusaeyq. Za ael qis ly warr yff wl sza gzslgzwuldaql, galswaeqri, qyl ael za li raulqad wl sza valsli-gralk, qyl dial za ildal szaeqql qsaesa ly msgz zael ywq wuy ul aaeszal yffszam. Bss zael pyual ael vali qlaws, qysuaeszlswqdaeqq; wqd sza daeqqaesy yffzael iffaega ael qaval aempuaelad by sza wblaqga iffaffylsl yq zael puls si mwaeqswaeq aes. Sza bawdra yffisl pulaelz ael w lpraqdaed farryu. Aes ael qsaesa daraeqzsfsr sy zawl zaem, ul za axprwaeql sza lsusa iffsza axaelsaeqq pyyl ruul sy sza dawf ird wymaq aeq sza bywld- lyym pullwqa yq bslaeqall qaeqzsl; uqd si zawl uzws za luaed sy sza laqaeyl gzslgzwuldaq, wqd wzws sza laqaeyl gzslgzuwldaq luaed sy zaem; wqd uzus wa (sza bawdra uqd sza iszal qaqsramaq) gwma si sza dasalmaeqwsaeiq iffdyaeqq. W maelalubra-ryykaeqq wimuq ael gwrrad aeqsy sza biwldlyym, wqd laplalaqsl w gwla iffaxslama dalsaesssaeyq, uffagsaeqq zallarf--w uaediw, uaesz laex lmwrr gzaerdlaq. Wzala di iis raeva aeqqsaelal yqa iffsza yvallaall. Ae laqsl w sui-pwael bugk, qaqsramaq, ws mll. Blywq’l, qsmbal e, raessra kaeqq waerraeum’l-wrray, uzaegz zwl raevad szala szael faefsaaq iawl, wqd kqywl ma sy ba vali zwld-wylkaeqq uqd aeqdslslaeisl, wqd uzaq my piyl zslbwqd uwl uraeva, qaqsramaq, wl daead aeq sza zylpaeswr – uarr, warr, aeqsallspsl sza ivallaal, sukaeqq w qysa iffsza wddlall, ae’rr laqd laemmyql, sza baudra, si-myllyw mylqaeqq, si ulgalswaeq wzaszal yysl lsili ael gillags; wqd aef li, ae lsppyla iys msls zwva wq ildal aeqsy sza zisla – laemmyql, qi sy szael wimuq’l sza faells szaeqq sy-mylliw mylqaeqq, uaerr iys laemmyql bywl ullaqs, wqd slzall sza wimuq yss. Zal plavaeisl wdmaelusaeyq yff’sza bywld (wzi urr laes bazaeqd qlaws byikl, wqd waesz szaael zusl yq) fwdal aeqsi qyszaeqq bafila zal lalpags fyl zal ruga-slaemmad giqdsgsil; wqd zal uggysqs iffwzus zwl pwllad aeqlaeda, aeqglaulal – aef szws ba pyllaebra – sza mulkl ifflalpags, lzywq by sza wllambrad glyud, si szws lyramq fsqgsaeiquly. Wl si swkaeqq iss u lsmmiql, aes’l qsaesa w zyparall gula aef laemmyql wssaqdl aes, iq bazurf yffsza pwlaelz. Za kqiul wrr sza saesral yffsza rild mwiyl bi zawls; lswsal sza gwla uaesziss w laeqqra lsummal: wqd aes ael avaq lapylsad szus yq yqa yggwlaeiq za vaqsslad sy muka w jika, wzaegz sza ryld mwiyl’l zawd fiysmuq (wzi zuppaqad sy ba plalaqs) wfsalwwldl sird wq aeqsaemusa flaeaqd, gyqfaedaqsaewrri, uwl urmyls aqswr si iqa yffml. Zibral’l.

Psyches and Psychoses

Boule de Suif, Guy de Maupassant

One of the things I learned by reading the Bible in Latin is that one good route to lasting popular success is to say profound things in a simple way. That is what the Bible does: the Latin Bible is not difficult to read and nor is the Greek New Testament. Until you get to St Paul, that is. He may or may not be saying profound things, but he’s certainly not saying them in a simple way. That doubt doesn’t attach to Guy de Maupassant: he combined great simplicity with great profundity in a way that’s reminiscent of Mozart. But music doesn’t convey meaning so clearly, and Mozart doesn’t generally have Mauppassant’s melancholy. Both seemed to have a kind of mystic’s acceptance of the world, however: it is what it is, in all its beauty and horror. People do some very unpleasant things in Maupassant’s stories, but he has compassion and understanding for both victims and perpetrators. The victims don’t have to be human, either: he can write with equal power and memorability about the suffering of horses, dogs and birds. He understands that people do what they do because they are what they are: imperfect beings in particular situations with particular histories and natures. He doesn’t have the shallow message that society is the real sinner, but sin does take place within a society and is shaped and sometimes caused by that fact. The plump, good-natured prostitute of “Boule de Suif” (Ball of Tallow), which brought him his first real fame, befriends the bourgeoisie who share her coach as they flee their common enemy during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and is repaid with manipulation, callousness and cruelty.
Those themes occur again and again in Maupassant’s stories, as does that war, which shamed, horrified and fascinated him, but he has a gift for humor and absurdity too and a deep insight into both male and female psychology. Canine too: the disturbing “Une vendetta” is about the way a bereaved mother conditions her dead son’s dog to kill his murderer. But canine psychology is in part human psychology, because dogs and men have been shaped by the same world and have a common ancestor. Maupassant is pre-scientific and even pre-Darwinian in his world-view, but his intuition and intelligence revealed these unities and he was a greater psychologist than many who later claimed the title. The simplicity of his prose means that he survives translation well too, but should also be an incentive for attempting him in the original. And if you want more, try Maugham: an Anglophone disciple of Maupassant who may sometimes have matched him in composition and clarity, if not in originality, and whose own prose seems universal, perhaps because English wasn’t really his mother tongue. Maugham is post-Christian like Maupassant but doesn’t write about the supernatural as often, perhaps because, unlike Maupassant, he didn’t start to go mad from syphilis and end his life in a lunatic asylum.
The supernatural stories Maupassant wrote as his madness emerged and deepened are among the most disturbing and authentic I’ve ever read, but some of the loneliest too. Madness began to wall him off from the world whose richness and complexity he had portrayed so well, and the stories he wrote under its influence are about individuals struggling against mysterious unhuman forces rather than individuals in interaction: from general psychology his interest shifted to particular psychoses. Regrettable as the circumstances under which these later stories were written, they add to the already great range and power of Maupassant’s œuvre. Nineteenth-century French literature contains some very great names but Maupassant’s is secure among them.

Strychnine in his Cup

Collected Poems and Selected Prose, A.E. Housman, ed. Christopher Ricks
In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder recalls that he was proud owner of “the Medici Press edition of A Shropshire Lad”. This is one of the grace notes in Waugh’s grand symphony of conversion: not essential to the plot, but commenting subtly on it. Ryder is an atheo-agnostic pagan about to take up homosexuality and A Shropshire Lad is a collection of classically inspired poems by an atheo-agnostic homosexual. Having Poped, Ryder will describe his Oxonian library as “meagre and commonplace”, but A Shropshire Lad, like Eminent Victorians, another of his books by an atheo-agnostic homosexual, is still secure in the canon. And it deserves to be:
With rue my heart is laden
   For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
   And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
   The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
   In fields where roses fade.
That is the entirety of “LIV”: a Housman poem can be secure in your memory after a single reading, if your memory is good (mine takes a little longer). He’s a minor poet with mostly minor poems, but can say more and with more power than great poets at much greater length. One of those poets is Swinburne, the subject of one of Housman’s rapier-witted essays. Swinburne has vices where Housman has virtues, and vice versâ, which is why, as so often elsewhere, Housman’s study of another writer is partly a study of himself:
To take three of his most impressive and characteristic poems, the three which I have mentioned last, Dolores, and Ilicet, and The Triumph of Time: there is no reason why they should begin where they do or end where they do; there is no reason why the middle should be in the middle; there is hardly a reason why, having once begun, they should ever end at all; and it would be possible to rearrange the stanzas which compose them in different orders without lessening their coherency or impairing their effect. (“Swinburne”, 1910)
Their coherency would not be lessened because they are not coherent in the first place: Swinburne has glorious sound without very much sense. Housman’s verse can’t be called glorious ― it’s too muted ― but combines sound with sense much more happily. And the sense is generally that of loss, melancholy and resignation. The great and perhaps only love of his love, Moses Jackson, was divided from him in three ways: Jackson was not homosexual, not highly intelligent, and not devoted to classical scholarship. Housman dedicated his magnum opus, an edition of the poet Manilius, with the words sodali meo M. I. Jackson, harum litterarum contemptori, “to my comrade Moses Jackson, scorner of these studies”. Though he remained a friend till his premature death in Canada, Jackson had also been a scorner of Housman’s advances. The agony of this unrequited love inspired A Shropshire Lad and the philosophy therein. Here a narrator is addressed by a statue he finds in a “Grecian gallery”:
“What, lad, drooping with your lot?
I too would be where I am not.
I too survey that endless line
Of men whose thoughts are not as mine.
Years, ere you stood up from rest,
On my neck the collar prest;
Years, when you lay down your ill,
I shall stand and bear it still.
Courage, lad, ’tis not for long:
Stand, quit you like stone, be strong.”
So I thought his look would say;
And light on me my trouble lay,
And I slept out in flesh and bone
Manful like the man of stone.
“Turn your aching heart to stone”: that was the cold but sufficient comfort from a nihilistic philosophy that Housman tried to preach in his poems. However, he got hot comfort in his writing too, when he lacerated fellow scholars for their failings. In his poetry he’s generally masochistic, in his prose often sadistic, which is why he did not achieve the Stoic ideal of one who endures suffering without seeking to inflict it. Housman did not suffer fools gladly and it was not difficult for a man of his intelligence to find donkeys to lash:
Most men are rather stupid, and most of those who are not stupid are, consequently, rather vain; and it hardly possible to step aside from the pursuit of truth without falling a victim either to your stupidity or else to your vanity... I do not know which cuts the worse figure: a German scholar encouraging his countrymen to believe that “wir Deutsche” have nothing to learn from foreigners, or an Englishman demonstrating the unity of Homer by sneers at “Teutonic professors”, who are supposed by his audience to have goggle eyes behind large spectacles, and ragged moustaches saturated in lager beer, and consequently to be incapable of forming literary judgments. (“The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism”, 1921)
If he’s being hard but fair in his essay on Swinburne, not seeking to wound and distress, that may be because Swinburne was no longer alive when he wrote it. There was even a sinister side to Housman’s literary aggression: it’s hard to believe this poem inspired no suicides in troubled young men, particularly those struggling with homosexuality:
If it chance your eye offend you,
   Pluck it out, lad, and be sound:
’Twill hurt, but here are salves to friend you,
   And many a balsam grows on ground.
And if your hand or foot offend you,
   Cut it off, lad, and be whole;
But play the man, stand up and end you,
   When your sickness is your soul.
But Housman may have saved more youths than he incited, by hymning the world’s sensual consolations:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Housman himself wrote in “The Name and Nature of Poetry” (1933) that he had to be careful to keep lines of poetry out of his head when he was shaving of a morning, because otherwise his skin bristled and the razor became useless. His own poems can inspire the same sensation and though it would be easy to overlook on a less than thorough reading, there is humor and self-mockery there too. This collection includes a selection of “Light Verse and Parodies”, and even A Shropshire Lad has its jokes:
“Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache...”
That poem, the penultimate, then goes on to opine that “malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man”, before reprising Housman’s “harden the heart” theme in its description of an Eastern king’s self-medication against assassination:
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
―I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
So did Housman, at the age of seventy-seven in 1936, after an embittered but highly productive life that had its consolations. Some of them are still available in this excellent collection: the beauty of words, the challenge of scholarship, the Stoical acceptance of fate and life’s ultimate futility.

Hit and Mist

The Lost World and Other Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Professor Challenger, the “ape-man in a lounge-suit”, is someone else in Sherlock’s shadow, but in some ways he’s much more interesting than Doyle’s detective. Holmes may have set “the whole world talking” but “to set the whole world screaming was the privilege of Challenger alone.” He does that in the last story of the collection, in which the earth is found to be even more alive than the modern Gaia thesis suggests. And it kicks against Challenger’s prick. That foreshadowing of a later theme is also found in “The Poison Belt” (1913):
A third-rate sun, with its rag tag and bobtail of insignificant satellites, we float towards some unknown end, some squalid catastrophe which will overwhelm us at the ultimate confines of space, where we are swept over an etheric Niagara or dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. I see... many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend.
There are some very interesting and prescient ideas here: Doyle should get much more credit for his pioneering science fiction, but there again Holmes is probably to blame. Not that Holmes would have wanted to take the limelight: he’s introverted and not played for comedy. Challenger is the opposite in both cases. Ted Malone, the narrator of “The Lost World”, notes that his “enormously massive genial manner” is “almost as overpowering as his violence”. Later, Malone has an unpleasant encounter with a tick in the South American jungle:
“Filthy vermin!” I cried.
Professor Challenger raised his great eyebrows in protest, and placed a soothing paw upon my shoulder.
You should cultivate the scientific eye and the detached scientific mind,” said he. “To a man of philosophic temperament like myself the blood-tick, with its lancet-like proboscis and its distending stomach, is as beautiful a work of Nature as the peacock or, for that matter, the aurora borealis. It pains me to hear you speak of it in so unappreciative a fashion. No doubt, with due diligence, we can secure some other specimen.”
There can be no doubt of that,” said Summerlee, grimly, “for one has just disappeared behind your shirt-collar.”
Challenger sprang into the air bellowing like a bull, and tore frantically at his coat and shirt to get them off.
Each of the four main characters in “The Lost World” has a distinct personality, as though Doyle is trying to embody the Greek humors: there’s the choleric Challenger; the phlegmatic Summerlee, Challenger’s sardonic scientific rival; the sanguine Lord Roxton, a big-game huntsman who accompanies the expedition for sport; and the melancholic Irishman Ted Malone, the journalist who narrates the story. It makes for entertaining reading, as I’ve found every time I’ve come back to the story. And my re-readings must be in double figures now. Doyle’s racial descriptions will provoke sniffs of disapproval in many modern readers, but they’re something else that may be prescient and they aren’t confined to “villainous half-breeds” and the “huge negro Zambo, who is as faithful as a dog”. He also describes the Irish as distinct within the white European super-race.
Doyle’s prescience seems to have failed in the longest story of the collection, which, in its way, is another joke at Professor Challenger’s expense. Having made the character popular before the First World War, Doyle shoe-horned him into “The Land of Mist” in 1927 as part of his propaganda for spiritualism. I’ve never re-read this story, which has more historical and biographical importance than literary. Doyle lost a son and brother during the War and the wishful thinking that inspired his support of spiritualism is evident throughout. He even makes Challenger turn on his head for the purposes of the book’s propaganda. This is Challenger in “The Poison Belt” in 1913:
“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”
But in “The Land of Mist”, fourteen years later, it’s necessary for Challenger to oppose spiritualism and be brought round against his will. He espouses materialistic nihilism as Malone and his daughter Enid, both reporters, are about to attend a spiritualist meeting. Malone reluctantly accepts it as an intellectual proposition:
“But my instincts are against!” cried Enid. “No, no, never can I believe it.” She threw her arms round the great bull neck. “Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”
Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”
Enid doesn’t and in the end Challenger admits he was wrong. The effort Doyle put into the story was wasted: it’s only a historical curiosity nowadays and seems likely to remain so. To see why the other stories, some much shorter, are much more valuable, simply pick up a copy of the collection in the excellent Wordsworth series.

Vive l’Espièglerie

The Monk, Matthew Lewis
Is this book dazzlingly good? No, it’s coruscatingly good, as though shafts of lightning were splitting a midnight sky over a landscape of mingled grotesquery and beauty. It’s hard to believe that Lewis was only nineteen when he wrote The Monk, which is richly inventive, deeply perceptive, and highly entertaining. Scandalously lubricious too: it seems likely that Lewis wouldn’t have got away with it if he hadn’t been guying Spanish Catholicism in this tale of a highly talented abbot brought to lust, crime and final doom by a mixture of overweening pride, worldly inexperience, and demonic temptation. Fortunately perhaps, its bloody twists and turns don’t carry true conviction, partly because Lewis seems barely to believe in the supernatural, let alone in Christianity, and partly because The Monk reads like a converted play rather than a true novel. The older literary form, to which Lewis turned frequently later in his short career, was still informing the newer and the characters seem to be performing on a stage rather than living in a fully imagined world. There are “scenes” in grottos and bedrooms, with exits and entrances, and the moonlight or sounds that accompany them could easily be realized as stage effects. The poetry that punctuates the text, declaimed now by a gypsy fortune-teller, now by an aristocrat’s page, is theatrical too, and even if the plot weren’t so fantastic, The Monk would not purge with pity and terror as true tragedy should. Lewis would have laughed at the suggestion: it’s a jeu d’esprit written to entertain first the author himself, then whatever readers happened to come his way. A lot did when it was first published and a lot have done so ever since, even in the expurgated second edition Lewis produced when the scandal caused by the first threatened his career as an MP. If you want to enter the Gothic, step this way.

Mind the Gap

Lytton Strachey: A Biography, Michael Holroyd
The great problem with biographies of writers is that it’s likely that the biographer will write less well than the biographee. The better the latter, the likelier this is and more the former’s flaws will stand out by contrast. Strachey was very good indeed, so Holroyd’s flaws stand out a lot. Some are venal, but some aren’t excusable in a supposed littérateur. He proves once again that an interest in literature does not necessarily go with an interest in language. In fact, one could almost imagine at times that they’re mutually exclusive. Michael Holroyd was born in 1935 and attended Eton, where one would suppose he received an excellent education. From passages like this, it appears that one would suppose wrong:
On leaving Cambridge, Lytton’s rooms were rather violently redecorated in apple-green and taken over by his younger brother, James. (Part II, Sec. 6, “Post-Graduate”, Sub-Sec. 2, “The Limbo of Unintimacy”)
Participles are suspended like that throughout the book, or at least throughout those parts of the book I’ve managed to examine. It’s 1,144 pages long in my Penguin edition, after all, and that’s another glaring contrast with Strachey. If brevity is the soul of wit, Strachey both wrote and lived wittily, and one feels rather as though Holyroyd is setting an electron microscope to work on a soufflé. Strachey wrote in his introduction to Eminent Victorians, where he captured four very active and sometimes very long lives in just under 100,000 words, that to “preserve a becoming brevity ― a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant ― that, surely, is the first duty of the biographer.”
If so, then Holroyd not merely neglects his first duty but tramples on it in hobnailed boots, then steamrollers the remains. There are some excellent anecdotes and some good writing, but it’s characteristic that the two often do not come directly from Holyroyd himself:
“Now and then,” recalled [Lady Ottoline] Morrell, “Lytton Strachey exquisitely stepped out with his brother James and his sister Marjorie, in a delicate and courtly minuet of his own making, his thin long legs and arms gracefully keeping perfect time to Mozart ― the vision of this exquisite dance always haunts me with its half-serious, half-mocking, yet beautiful quality.” (Part II, Sec. 11, “The Lacket”, Sub-Sec. 4, “Business as Usual”)
On one occasion the two of them [Lady Ottoline and Nijinsky] were sitting together in a tiny inner room when Lytton entered the house [at
Bedford Square
]. As he advanced towards the drawing-room he overheard Ottoline’s husky voice, with its infinitely modulated intonations, utter the words, “Quand vous dansez, vous n’êtes pas un homme ― vous êtes une idée. C’est ça, n’est ce pas, qui est l’Art?... Vous avez lu Platon, sans doubte?” ― The reply was a grunt. (“The Lacket”, Sub. Sec. 2, “Scenes from Post-Edwardian England”)
Yes, Holroyd offers his readers all they ever might have wanted to know about Lytton Strachey, but many of them, like me, will not have the patience to dig through the slagheaps of dross to find all the nuggets concealed herein. That is the image suggested by the book; the relationship of author and subject suggests another. The gap between their literary talent isn’t the only jarring thing: Strachey was very close to being a genius, studying both literature and mathematics at university, and Holroyd’s much weaker mind flutters around his rather like a moth beating on a powerful bulb, ever attracted, ever unable to reach the core of that dazzling brilliance.