1. i’ve managed to half-wrest myself away from the internet most evenings, and read books and smoke my pipes like a gouty Victorian gentleman. At the moment i’m reading Browning and Plato – the latter a monstrous 1500 page edition i bought 3 years ago, but have only really got into now, in my pot-bellied dotage. One of the odd constellations that sometimes befalls me – all this fell out over an hour:
i) i was reading The Spine blog and thinking about caricature and representation, then:
ii) This post on The New Psalmanazar:
The hard part of drawing is to actually see the things you’re looking at. Your idea of a tree, a mountain, a person, will tend to devolve into symbol. You are constantly lured into seeing through your brain, by abstraction, rather than through your eye. But the wild, absurd, incredible fact of a thing in itself is always more than you can grasp.
iii) Then the next poem in Browning was Fra Lippo Lippi:
I’d like his face —
His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
With the pike and lantern — for the slave that holds
John Baptist’s head a-dangle by the hair
With one hand (“Look you, now,” as who should say)
And his weapon in the other, yet unwiped!
It’s not your chance to have a bit of chalk,
A wood-coal or the like? or you should see!
Yes, I’m the painter, since you style me so.
The Prior and the learned pulled a face
And stopped all that in no time. “How? what’s here?
Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
Faces, arms, legs and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it’s devil’s-game!
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men —
Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What’s it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at? oh, this last of course! — you say.
But why not do as well as say — paint these
Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
iv) Then onto Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates’ ideal, discarnated philosopher:
Do you not think, he said, that in general such a man’s concern is not with the body but that, as far as he can, he turns away from the body towards the soul?
So in the first place, such things show clearly that the philosopher more than other men frees the soul from association with the body as much as possible?
Then he will do this most perfectly who approaches the object with thought alone, without associating any sight with his thought, or dragging in any sense perception with his reasoning, but who, using pure thought alone, tries to track down each reality pure and by itself, freeing himself as far as possible from eyes and ears and, in a word, from the whole body, because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom whenever it is associated with it.
2. Reading Browning, i thought of a repulsive music journalist i knew almost twenty years ago – a penpal, back in the days when such things were. He was a standard trendily left-wing London-based Guardian-reader, though at the time i had no opinions about left or right or even London. He seemed clearly mental to me, badgering and hysterical and vindictive – for example, sending me music compilations and demanding i review each track, to the point where i didn’t even want to play them (merely saying “it was good” would provoke a contemptuous “your comments were inadequate”); he also doggedly harassed me for liking U2 and Bruce Springsteen (this was in 1997, before U2 began their downward trajectory), insisting “your alleged fondness for the Irish songsters remains IMPLAUSIBLE and UNACCEPTABLE – EXPLAIN”. i was young and naive and tried to explain but he would just reply something on the lines of “I fail to see how you can CLAIM to dig Trane [John Coltrane] and the leftfield maverick underground brilliance of Miles [Davis] and also CLAIM to “appreciate” the millionaire Irish balladeers! Explain!” And so on.
Outside of my family, he was the first truly obnoxious, unthinking “intellectual” i met, and the first of many to try to dominate and bully me into submission. Amusingly, he reported burning through something like 15 penpals in six months, some of whom accused him of badgering and harassing them. He was also the first “it’s not me, it’s them” maniac i met, who could report something like this without drawing the obvious conclusion.When i asked if he was religious he replied: “religion, in any shape or form, is for weak-minded simpletons without rationality or intelligence” (so, there you have Milton, TS Eliot, Kierkegaard, Dr Johnson, Dante, etc.) At the time i was living with my father in the middle of nowhere, and only knew one person who read anything or liked any music not to be found on Radio 1 – my then-Muslim schoolmate Shrekh. The journalist seemed, at first, astonishingly cultured. He apparently just spent all his time living with his father, writing vast letters to penpals and listening to obscure music. i introduced him – via letters – to Shrekh, who shared my amazement at someone who had actually heard of Bob Dylan and Shakespeare, and sure enough came to see him as a mentally unstable and spectacularly nasty piece of work. At one point i stopped writing to the journalist, disgusted by his latest tirade (which recalled the hectoring emails i occasionally got from my tai chi tutor, when he was on the verge of a psychotic frenzy); he wrote back telling me i wouldn’t find anyone as inspiring and stimulating to write to, “unless Friedrich N [Nietzsche] rises from the grave”. i showed this letter to my father, explaining that it was written by a 24-year-old unemployed, occasional music journalist and that Nietzsche was one of the greatest thinkers of human history. My father indulged in one of his explosions of uncontrollable mirth, then suddenly sobered up and asked, warily: “Egh, well where does this blessed man live?” (my father had run a psychiatric ward and had plenty of experience with violently mental patients).
i finally stopped writing to the blessed man altogether. It felt like i’d suffered him for two years but i think it was more like six months. In his last letter, he likened our relationship to that of Wagner and Nietzsche, as recounted by Colin Wilson, saying that whereas i was the complacent, self-satisfied bourgeois Wagner, he was the “self-transcending” Nietzsche.
Shrekh continued to write to him a while longer, increasingly infuriated by his total witlessness (the journalist claimed that rap wasn’t hip hop – because he thought rap was shit and hip hop was something underground and therefore worthwhile – and when Shrekh patiently set out the reasons why rap is a form of hip hop, the journalist wrote back “WHAT DO YOU WANT – BLOOD???”), till he too stopped writing and eventually burnt all his letters and tapes, saying he felt polluted to have them in the house.
i wish i’d kept the journalist’s letters but i too was so sickened and depressed by their venom that i binned the lot. Some fragments i remember:
i) He wrote me one of his huge 10,000 word letters about Spiritualized’s Ladies & Gentlemen album, then enclosed a clipping from some music magazine, and i realised that most of what he’d written had been copied almost word for word from someone else’s review; plagiarism aside, i wondered if he had copied it out then somehow thought it was his work, or if this was his idea of original response;
ii) When i mentioned my dog, he said he despised “pet/dog culture”;
iii) When i said i wanted to read a Frederick Forsyth novel he demanded to know why, telling me that FF was “a Tory”, as if that somehow made his novels worthless;
iv) He kept re-using the same words, over and over again: eclectic, maverick, left-field, underground, brilliance, epiphany, groovy, spiritual, existential, fusion, life-affirming, transcendent, revolutionary, outsider;
v) Although he had read seemingly every book ever written, and seen every film, and heard every album, it all seemed to go in one ear and out the other. He said Conrad was shit, explaining that he had no interest in jungles. He said Henry James and Jane Austen were tedious and worthless. Apart from Colin Wilson’s drab The Outsider, he didn’t seem to have been affected by a book in his life. i got the feeling he simply culled names and hurled them at his penpals to demonstrate his massive intellect (somewhat like Dean Moriatry in On The Road, who – as far as i can remember – had read and memorised plot summaries and would hold forth on them, before finally admitting he hadn’t read a single book in his life).
vi) When i mentioned i was trying to learn French, he said that learning languages was a total waste of time and that only idiots bother with it.
vii) He demanded to know why i wrote to anyone else (i had about 3 other penpals, who i stuck with for a year or two before we drifted apart). When i vaguely said they were interesting people, he demanded to know how such non-outsiders could possibly be interesting, and then suggested i was lying.
viii) Whenever he found something difficult to believe, he accused me of lying. After a while, reading the contradictions in his own presented self-image (as a Nietzschean superman) i came to suspect he often lied, and that it was therefore natural for him to suppose deception in others.
Rather an odd person, in fact. i thought of him today because i remembered him asking if i’d read Browning – in his usual “I have read everything” way; and so while smoking my pipe and reading Fra Lippo Lippi i wondered if he’d ever actually read Browning, and if he had what he would have made of the poem, since he didn’t seem to remember or remark on anything he’d read (except Colin Wilson’s The Outsider). He claimed to have read every poem ever written but i got the feeling he was too literal to understand poetry; for the same reason he didn’t like Conrad because he didn’t live in a jungle. He was, naturally, extremely political and Marxist.
i was moved to Google him and found he’s still a music journalist. He’s a Guardian-reader; he seems to subscribe to all the conventionally left-wing sentiments of that publication – that the wilfully, lifelong unemployed are “the working class” and need more money from “the rich” to escape their squalor, that the Tories are in some way right-wing and hate the poor (despite increasing State expenditure), and so on.
He has a blog, which i skimmed through. His style has matured, so he doesn’t constantly reuse the same dozen adjectives; it’s good professional writing, but everything he writes sounds like a blurb. i read a few of his reviews and found my mind disengaging, as when i read the rants a manic depressive stalker used to write; the words advertise their profundity & significance, but lack roots.
3. So much for that. In Phaedo – concerning the last days of Socrates:
Cebes intervened and said: ‘By Zeus, yes, Socrates, you did well to remind me. Evenus asked me the day before yesterday, as others had done before, what induced you to write poetry after you came to prison, you who had never composed any poetry before, putting the fables of Aesop into verse and composing the hymn to Apollo.
[...] the same dream often came to me in the past, now in one shape now in another, but saying the same thing: ‘Socrates,’ it said, ‘practice and cultivate the arts.’ In the past I imagined that it was instructing and advising me to do what I was doing, such as those who encourage runners in a race, that the dream was thus bidding me do the very thing I was doing, namely, to practice the art of philosophy, this being the highest kind of art, and I was doing that.
But now, after my trial took place, and the festival of the god was preventing my execution, I thought that, in case my dream was bidding me to practice this popular art, I should not disobey it but compose poetry. I thought it safer not to leave here until I had satisfied my conscience by writing poems in obedience to the dream. So I first wrote in honour of the god of the present festival. After that I realised that a poet, if he is to be a poet, must compose fables, not arguments.
i didn’t remember this from my last reading of the book (15 years ago). i’m presently only a quarter finished, and wonder if anything will be made of this oddity. It is strange and jarring, given Plato’s general inclination to (alleged) logical clarity and his later condemnation of poetry altogether. i think of Thomas Aquinas’ late vision, before which all he had written seemed as straw. If i consider the course of this and my last life, it describes a turn from arguments to fables. People like the journalist were a part of this, as unpoetical and unfabulous and argumentative, and vile. It is fitting that almost nobody reads poetry today, for it is not part of the machine world where everything can apparently be reduced to code (“algorithmically compressible”). Paraphrase a poem and it’s gone. The peculiar force of a poem comes from the slightest of manoeuvres; it is sensed – by those still able to sense anything – but cannot be reduced to politics or machine code, to argument.
It makes me mad to see what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
And here, one might note that there is meaning and then there is meaning, and perhaps Socrates was turning to the subtler and more enduring (in its subtlety) of the two.
[postscript: WordPress screwed up my formatting so i had to insert dashes to separate some paragraphs]