You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2010.

More snow. i love watching snow fall, and i even enjoy tramping through snow in my sorcerous black cloak, imagining i’m on the Eastern Front, fighting the damn Ivans.

i had to go into town and after all that snow-tramping i thought i would browse and look as if i have money to spend; accordingly, i ended up in a bookshop, lusting after poetry. The only poetry book i own here is Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, in English & German; i’ve read it four times since September and crave Wallace Stevens or Emily D, or perhaps even something new. Thus i was drawn into the bookshop, where i leafed through Byron and Yeats for a while, then, reluctant to return to my flat so soon, went up to the Philosophy section, out of a perverse dog-returning-to-his-vomitedness. Most of my instincts are canine.

i’ve looked at the Philosophy sections of about half a dozen bookshops in K___ now – the best is a second-hand bookshop, which has a lot of Schopenhauer, Lichtenberg, Kant, and Heidegger. The new bookshops have shit like Foucault, Derrida, and Judith Butler, with a token few books by real thinkers. Piss poor. There were also no books by Wittgenstein. Admittedly, he is an anti-philosopher, but having no philosophy books by W is like having no books about Rommel in military history. The last time i visited this bookshop i stood there with my hands on my hips, shaking my head and saying aloud: “piss poor” and “bloody Germans” over and over again.

However, Wisdom has clearly descended on Schleswig-Holstein since my last visit. This time i found nothing by Butler (hopefully they used her book as toilet paper), but two by Wittgenstein (the Tractatus and something about the “philosophy of psychology” – the latter actually the name of a module i studied in 1994 at Leeds, as part of my Psychology BSc – taught by a pony-tailed tosser).

Sated, i returned home through the snow. Crossing the road i lost my footing on a patch where cars had impacted the snow into a frictionless patina, and as i was falling i reflected that knowledge presents similar problems to snow – where many have trodden, the ground is icy, one just skids along, unable to generate the friction for a proper step; and as civilization progresses, it is harder to find fresh snow, where the foot can crunch and tread; one needs to approach the matter differently, to contemplate ancient knowledge as a modern man, or modern knowledge as an ancient – either is like wearing snowshoes – there is friction, a useful strangeness. The world is strange but accumulations of research disguise this. So academics never seem to approach the matter itself – they get as far as “what Nietzsche said” or “the Leavis position” and go no further. Hence academics are constantly citing other academics – they entirely lack the innocence one needs, to see things as they are, as strange. Everything is familiar to the academic – that is to say, false. Nothing is familiar.

This is the dilemma of education – in learning about a subject, one usually learns what dead academics have thought, and the student then manipulates these thoughts, so an essay on Othello will summarise Leavis, Coleridge, Bloom, and then conclude blandly: “Overall, it is a difficult play and will continue to divide opinion.” And this will receive a good mark and such a student will go on to have a good career, in publishing or media, or even academia.

i am reminded that the external examiner said of my scripts, which included an essay on Othello, that i was being “emptily controversial” – because i dared to have an idea of my own, this being a Bad Thing for academics (unless you’ve been dead for a century, of course). A couple of years later, i came across my idea in a book from the 70s, in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh – by a reputable critic – it occurs to me that had the external examiner read this book, she would have assumed i had committed the sin of plagiarism, rather than the sin of thought.

After some desperate flailing and yelping i landed on my ass in the middle of the road. A bearded Bosche, who looked like a character from Das Boot, asked if i was okay as i struggled to my feet. Had this happened in Italy the passers-by would have picked my pocket; in England, they would have stabbed me with prison-yard shivs. God bless the Bosche.

i got home and found my landlady had been hard at work baking delicious cinnamon buns, and by God i ate two. Life is good.

If A x C = B x C then A = B. But then if C = 0, any number can be proved to be equal to any other number. But we do not want our mathematics to be that way. So we make the rule ‘but C may not equal zero’. (WLFM p. 221-2) But why? Is it because something is inherently wrong with a contradiction, e.g. 4 = 5? Or is it because we want our mathematics to have applications outside itself? We do not want, for example, any amount of money to be equal to any and all other amounts. But if we allowed C = 0, would that be the end of mathematics? Or would it just be a different mathematics? ‘C = 0 is a rule mathematicians resort to when they get tired.’ Why not? Because can’t we imagine a people who only ever used mathematics the way we use chess — i.e. as a game with no subject matter outside itself?

[…]

Wittgenstein suggested we try to imagine a people whose only use for mathematics was to decorate the walls of their rooms with equations. (Zettel § 711; WLFM p. 34, 36, 39) Perhaps when this people reached a corner of the room, the rule that C may equal 0 would be useful to them.

Robert Wesley Angelo

Despite my loathing of mathematics i’m starting to find the subject interesting. If i were in England i would scour charity shops looking for old O-level Maths textbooks, but i’m not so i may see if i can find any useful “maths for dummies” websites. i certainly am a maths dummy – my brain didn’t really wake up till i left school, and i’ve never been good at maths, my mind just doesn’t work that way (if it can be said to work at all). The situation was probably exacerbated by my most fearsome schoolteacher, a dominatrix Maths bitch who once put me into a cold sweat of terror (an unpleasant experience). i’m not inclined to regard terror as a useful pedagogic tool, unless it is administered in an amusing fashion, of course.

And so another memorable and enjoyable 3 day krashkurs comes to an end; another group of naval engineers i probably won’t see again – all fine fellows, dour, gravely humorous, diligent, natural pedants.

For this last day i brought out the rods – the Cuisenaire Rods. These are really ingenious and appealing wooden rods, of varying length and colour. i split my engineers into two groups – each had to design a “machine”, and then describe it to the other group, in sufficient detail for the others to assemble a copy.

i wasn’t sure how they would take it – i feared they might find it childish, or pedantically object that they couldn’t construct a machine out of nothing but wooden rods. However, they took to it with gusto, displaying a spirit of Teutonic exactitude and orderliness, along with a surprisingly childlike sense of fun. Sample dialogue:

Engineer 1: So. We begin now. Put two orange blocks parallel on the ground floor.

Engineer 2: The distance between?

Engineer 1: Distance is one small yellow block. Approximately 40 millimetres.

Engineer 2: Ja, alles klar. Continue please with the instructions.

i found it absorbing to watch – i could feel their attention and sober excitement, as they leafed through technical dictionaries and came up with instructions like: “Now we make an inclined plane”.

Although i usually forget their names as soon as the course ends, i like my students very much. They are a fund of submarining anecdotes, and have that slight glow of knowledge, which i observed also in the Speech Therapists, Physiotherapists, and Occupational Therapists in my hospital job in Manchester – irradiated by knowledge. i probably wouldn’t have noticed it if i hadn’t worked for 3 years in the kinds of places where no one – from the data entry grunts up to the managers – knows anything about anything except quotas, targets, the work itself being so soul-numbingly crude one could learn everything in a couple of hours.

Nor is real knowledge anything like academic knowledge, at least as i encountered it – most academics know very little about anything outside of their very narrow field, the inevitable consequence of “research assessment” (publish or perish), and the huge & insane rise in student numbers (and therefore student essays). A century ago, academics tended to have a dual focus: highly specialised in their field, but with the time to read & think about apparently unrelated subjects – and i believe that irrelevant penumbra in fact made for much greater originality and penetration than one would find in academia today, among the hyper-specialised Poloniuses, those trapped in the hamster’s cage of “research assessment” and student essays (one tutor, then in his 40s, estimated he’d marked 8 million words of student essays). It also made for a kind of cross fertilisation; for example, two of Wittgenstein’s favoured victims (for his monologues) were not philosophers but economists – Pierro Sraffa and Keynes.

All that’s gone now – thanks to the reforms of the 80s, academics today are, i think, largely uninterested in knowledge; very interested in how they’re going to write an article in the next 6 months, to keep their jobs, and alas very interested in whether they can mark 60 bad student essays in a week without going insane from boredom and sleep deprivation – but the fire of knowledge, that they do not have.

Whether designing submarines is in itself a good, i cannot say. But the knowledge of real things, testing and using and fulfilling the human mind – that is a good. Knowledge may not be wisdom but it is certainly more attractive than ignorance.

Knowledge is at least a step in the right direction; one is more likely to glimpse wisdom, that great mystery, while hunting knowledge, than in ignorance. Whether the knowledge is submarine lore or Speech Therapy or economics –

i taught another group of naval engineers today, from late morning to afternoon. These are the best hours of all – from 1130 to 1530, which means i only have to teach two 90 minute blocks, split by lunch; and i’m paid to chaperone my wards to a nearby restaurant, my meal covered by their company. Needless to say i try to eat nothing else that day.

During lunch they mainly talked in German, which meant i understood very little. However, i did hear Torpedo, reams of numbers, and then “boom!”, followed by excitable cackling – which i also heard with my first group.

One of the engineers looks like Thomas Bernhard – sehr cool.

i was moved to search the oddly-named Toy Town Germany for my last employer. Came up with some gems:

1. They are an evil. Stay away.

2. Speaking as someone who has taught English since the late 80s, I_____ is the equivalent of Dante’s inner ring of hell.

Robert Wesley Angelo on Wittgenstein’s colleague in philosophy, C D Broad:

Certainly a work like W. K. C. Guthrie’s History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge: 1962-1981) shows what university scholarship (erudition) can be. But as Broad well knew from his own life, scholarship can also be a false god: “I no longer believed in the importance of philosophy” (Broad, “Autobiography”, p. 61). So that all I can think when I look at Broad’s writing is: so much intelligence, so little point to intelligence.

i’m inclined to think that intelligence is only part of the picture, even for a philosopher. i’ve known many very intelligent academics, who, however, don’t think intelligently. Thinking is hard and on the whole they have no real need for it. So while they’re capable of understanding, for example, Bergson or Finnegans Wake, they have no original thoughts. They have no need for them.

The mere intellect must be guided be a kind of meta-intellect, a pilot intelligence. One could call this, simply, character. This is why a man like CS Lewis could not be called a philosopher – the failure is primarily one of character.

My own intelligence is strictly limited, but it is adequate for my needs.

Most of the weekend was wasted in sleep and hellish oblivion. i fell into a Pessoan lethargy and found myself paralysed by a total lack of interest in anything, in which state sleep is the only good. Dreams informed by Predator, in which i confront a dragon on a bridge and daunt it by my readiness to die. i force it to submit but feel no victory as secretly i wish to die; however, it is that deathwish by which i triumph. If i did not wish to die i would perish at the claws/jaw of the beast, presumably as disappointed as by my survival. This is the paradox of this particular dragon – you can only triumph by an ardent desire for death.

In my waking hours i have begun an experiment – rewriting my flawed novel, The Better Maker. i deleted a third of it – mainly things which happened to me, were strange and/or funny, but don’t work in a novel. Keeping the bones, the things which do work, i mean to rewrite the beast as it should have been – specifically, rewriting the main character, so he is a character, rather than just a version of me.

It occurs to me that this is also what i am doing in this Elberry life – and what, i suspect, many people do – replay their old lives, keeping the things which worked and trying to rewrite the main character. i think of our many lives as failed drafts of a novel; and as with the novel, all your imagining and scheming only goes so far – you have to sit down and write – that is when you find out if it works, or if this is just another failure. But some failures are at least clarifyingly so.

i have also discovered that my landlady has installed a kind of hutch in the bird cage for her two zebrafinchen. i went in to feed my avian wards and was alarmed to find an apparently empty cage. Then i spotted two bright orange beaks in the shadow, and two pairs of eyes looking at me and then conferring with each other as to the meaning of my sudden apparition, then a welcoming chirp chirp.

i’ve been reading through this deceptively capacious website about, among other things, Wittgenstein. Despite having read everything Wittgenstein wrote, most of it is beyond me. Whereas with, say, Kierkegaard or Schopenhauer, if you read their damn books you come away feeling you have some idea of their ideas, it is entirely possible to read the Philosophical Investigations and come away with absolutely no idea what the bejesus he’s on about. So i’m finding this site useful and enjoyable. i don’t agree with everything but there are some very good insights, for example:

I think that Wittgenstein wanted to throw himself into the sea and not trouble himself about what conditions were like there until he found himself in the water, as if the faults in his character could only be corrected by a complete break with his present way of life, as entering a monastery would have been.

Tomorrow i must bestir myself to pick up a package. Parcels from England take at least a fortnight to arrive and anything sent by DHL is unlikely to reach me. This package could be one of two that were sent more than a fortnight ago. Whichever it isn’t has probably disappeared into the DHL Abyss and will never be seen again. Maybe the dragon got it.

I don’t know if we weren’t in fact other beings, whose greater completeness we can sense today, incompletely, forming at best a sketchy notion of their lost solidity in the two dimensions of our present lives, mere shadows of what they were.

(Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Richard Zenith)

In an ill-coordinated and haphazard attempt to learn German without actually doing anything, i spent a while browsing for Krautclips on youtube. i came across Der Untergang (Downfall), the excellent film about Hitler’s last days, with Bruno Ganz as a superbly deranged Führer. It’s a pity they don’t show him gobbling entire chocolate cakes but i suppose historical accuracy only goes so far. Anyway, i was amused by the most recent comment to Part 2:

Get some life u annoying cunt and fuck off with ur ideas

At first i thought this was directed at Hitler. Question for historians: how would things be different now if people had greeted famous moustachioed & bearded men with “get some life u annoying cunt and fuck off with ur ideas.”

However, the comment was directed at another commentator.

wordpress hit counter