You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2010.

i spend about half to 3/4 of each day just reading in my room in Saint Catharine’s, enjoying the freedom. Freedom from work and also from computers. i am increasingly suspicious of computers, both for reading and writing – the former addictive, so i can easily spend hours “channel-hopping” in a zombie-like trance: and for the latter, it’s too easy to write on computers. i type at about 80 to 90 wpm and can (too easily) let the words form themselves, in chains and superficial symmetries bearing no strong connection to anything but – themselves. i’m unsure how to resist the laptop when i return to my bedroom in Ultima Thule. Perhaps i should smash it with a human thigh bone in a 2001-like frenzy, or maybe i should give it to my hippy flatmate and instruct him to deny me access except between the hours of 9 and 10 pm, though being a hippy he would instantly sell it for drugs and incense.

i spent yesterday evening reading Wallace Stevens and the Philosophical Investigations, the latter in Anscombe’s excellent translation. It’s possible to increase one’s reading concentration, both in depth and duration, by tandem reading, perhaps 10 minutes on each. No 76 in the PI puts me in mind of Stevens:

If someone were to draw a sharp boundary I could not acknowledge it as the one that I too always wanted to draw, or had drawn in my mind. For I did not want to draw one at all. His concept may then be said to be not the same as mine, but akin to it. The kinship is that of two pictures, one of which consists of colour patches with vague contours, and the other of patches similarly shaped and distributed, but with clear contours. The kinship is just as undeniable as the difference.


In der Tautologie bildet der Elementarsatz selbstverständlich noch immer ab, aber er ist mit der Wirklichkeit so lose verbunden, daß disese unbeschränkte Freiheit hat. Die Kontradiktion wieder setzt solche Schranken, daß keine Wirklichkeit in ihnen existieren kann.

In the tautology the elementary proposition does, of course, still portray, but it so loosely connected with reality that reality has unlimited freedom. Contradiction in its turn imposes such limitations that no reality can exist under them.

(Wittgenstein´s journals 12 November 1914, tr. Anscombe)

i’m still in Cambridge. i’ve been having amusing, Wittgenstein-related adventures, and will do a proper post back in Germany. i want to include some of the photos i’ve taken, and i didn’t bring my connecting lead so it must wait till the weekend. i’m not really DOING much – just walking about, and spending about half the day in my room in Saint Catharine’s, reading and writing and getting drunk: i have a limited tolerance for sight-seeing and gadding about and all that sort of thing. Every time i leave my room tourists ask me to take photos of them; strange to think, after i am dead these photos will survive, and no one will know who took them, that it was a dark and scheming Elberry.

Before leaving Durham i found Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation in a charity shop. i started it on the train and finished it this morning. It’s an annoying work, inasmuch as the protagonist’s interior monologues are 90% quotes from Wittgenstein’s writings – the remaining 10% being standard I AM A PSYCHOPATH!!! stuff – i find this quite insolent and jarring, rather like having one’s face photoshopped into a scat porno scene. However, the novel is generally well done and i didn’t feel Kerr was really TRYING to mock Wittgenstein. In any case, it was refreshing to intersperse chapters with the real Philosophical Investigations – for all that Ludwig was a bit of a nutter, there was something true in him, made plain in his works, which shows up Kerr’s pastiche for the uncomprehending garbage it is. In this i feel i could echo Dante’s Brunetto Latini, and say that the real man is in the works – the man as he should have been. Of course one may be interested in the man as he was, to those about him, but this should be secondary, at least to those who didn’t know him.

Today i stood on his grave and contemplated the matter.

Bedenke nur, daß der Geist der Schlange, des Löwen, dein Geist ist. Denn nur von dir her kennst du überhaupt den Geist.

Only remember that the spirit of the snake, of the lion, is your spirit. For it is only from yourself that you are acquainted with spirit at all.

(Wittgenstein´s journals, 15 October 1916)

Wenn ein Löwe sprechen könnte, wir könnten ihn nicht verstehn.

If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.

(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations)

The greatest of the cabalists here was Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572), a native Palestinian of Italian-German origin. His followers, who looked on him as almost superhuman, called him the Ari, the “Lion”. The initials ARI stand for Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac, the German Rabbi Isaac.

(The Jew in the Medieval World, Marcus and Saperstein)

Thoughts on this: in general, i prefer liars to hypocrites. A liar knows the truth and is cold-bloodedly trying to deceive you, probably for material profit or personal advantage, or malevolence – but in himself he knows the truth and so the situation is less unreal than with the hypocrite; for the hypocrite’s motive is often self-righteousness mingled with material profit and personal advantage. And the hypocrite believes his own lies, so the situation is wholly unreal, saturated with deception. With the liar one can at least guess there is a real human being somewhere behind the lies, watching, calculating; and sometimes in the midst of the deception one catches this real human being’s eye, and there is a moment of mutual recognition – that he is lying and he knows she is lying, and you know too, but of course neither will say so. With the hypocrite, all is false – through and through deception.

Bedenke, daß die “Sätze von den unendlichen Anzahlen” alle mit endlichen Zeichen dargestellt sind!

Remember that the “propositions about infinite numbers” are all represented by means of finite signs.

Wittgenstein´s journals (11 October 1914), tr. Anscombe

1. i’ve begun to re-read the Philosophical Investigations. i confess to not having understood more than 1% on my first reading, in 2009. But, as was the case with Hart Crane, the initial bemusement seemed preparatory, to have enabled a later understanding, or appreciation at least. Also, i think the book would make more sense to a philosophically-minded TEFLer than to a philosopher neat, assuming roughly equivalent intelligences. It’s curiously open to me now; not easy, but where there is difficulty i can engage and really think about it, rather than just sliding off the frictionless surface with a “what the fuck are you on about, Ludwig?” look on my face.

2. Go here, buy the book.

3. To my chagrin my tweed jacket smells of old dog and the lining is ripped as by a rapist. i vaguely recollect that it was in this state when i handed it in to the dry cleaner but the overpowering stench of old dog is a bit offputting, for some reason. Sadly, Harris Tweed doesn’t come into stock till after i’ve returned to Germany; i persuaded a shop here in Durham to try to get one in from their warehouse, for me to try on tomorrow. i do love my old jacket, probably the only thing my father bought me which was of some use, but my god the smell, like a litter of dobermann puppies used it – wait, they did. This was once one of my favourite, manly odours. In my old age i have grown prissy and over-civilized. i even occasionally shower these days, or at least go out in the rain (the poor man’s shower).

4. In about half an hour i’m going to take two Marks and Spencer pies and a bottle of Prosecco to a friend’s house, and we will watch Predator. It is very strange to be back in England – i feel how my 6 months in Kiel, readying myself for death, have altered me. The difference is more noticeable here, as familiar situations, places, people, seem subtly alien – and i realise it is i who am the alien, altered. So long and relentless a contemplation of death will change a man, even one so pig-headed and stuck in his ways as me.

5. i’ve learnt some odd things this week. As with much esoteric knowledge it seems both exceedingly odd and right, it shocks and yet it fits, it makes sense of many fragments, confusions; and very quickly it seems almost ordinary, just how things are.

And i myself am ordinary, just the way i am. Basta.


you came

and for a month or two

could stay

then leaving gave

one of your three little amber beads

for a lifetime’s memory

(david lisle crane)

Today, walking through the rain in my tramp coat, i was encountered by an old tutor, now some kind of bigwig in the admin section, in charge of postgrad funding. i hadn’t seen him in 9 years but both of us are distinctive, and neither have aged too spectacularly. He was surprised to hear of my years of failure, 3 years on the dole then 5 years of minimum wage office jobs.

“But you were our top-ranking student!” he exclaimed, “or, well, one of them…”

“There weren’t any others,” i almost said, “don’t kid yourself.” Instead i explained that in the world of office work, having my kind of results is like wearing a CONVICTED PAEDOPHILE t-shirt. The only work i could find in England is temping, minimum wage and maximum pain. As Richard Madeley once said of himself, i’m too highly qualified to do anything but the worst jobs.

My old tutor told me that i’d have a much better chance of getting PhD funding if i applied now. In the past the Depot just submitted their recommendations to the G, who then decided based on their own wicked and corrupt tastes. Now, the Depot has a fixed allocation of studentships, to assign at their own discretion; in other words, if i applied again i’d get funding.

Briefly tempting. It would be good to live here again, to be free to read and write all day, to have a huge library at my disposal, MILF, good architecture, pies. But i feel i belong in Germany, that i should follow the Kraut adventure to its inevitably, grisly end. And though i still intend to write a book about Satan, i no longer wish to write a structured, conventional argument. It would be wrong for the subject, wrong for me.

i am curious to know if i will ever have the time, energy, or even ideas for the Satan book – common sense says no but it is a lingering presence in my mind, a possibility, a demand. In a sense, Satan does exist – but in so complicatedly strange (and yet fitting) a way that it would require a bigger brain than mine, to attempt the matter.

On a not really related but not really unrelated note, dialogue between me and another prof, who i saw yesterday for tea:

Prof: You should read Lawrence, Elberry, he really nails Lord Russell as a ghastly empty-headed liberal. Scruton would approve.

Elberry: i don’t really like Lawrence that much, though i enjoy his pagan zeal.

Prof: Ah well there you are in error, Elberry, for there is only one god.

Elberry: Really? Which one?

i began to speak English again in Frankfurt Airport. The plane arrived in Manchester in the late afternoon and i was, despite everything, home. i feel the difference, my difference, here: subtly but wholly altered. Passing through death must work transformations.

A couple of days in Huddersfield, living with my mother, her small cottage crammed full of junk (e.g. 80s women’s magazines, teddy bears); she complains stridently about her “tiny house”; when I suggest she throw things out she says primly “I was raised not to throw things away, Elberry!”. She is timorous, paralysed by indecision when driving. There is little to say. She tends to drift off when anyone speaks to her, automatically perusing newspapers and cooing to herself over adverts, unaware that her attempted interlocuter has stopped talking. Communication is strictly one way; no point even trying to speak. She burbles continually.

i visit my father who is 79 but more lucid than in my youth, having come late to equilibrium. i almost correct his English when he groans: “egh well I am taking these pills 10 year, egh” but since i’m not being paid i refrain and merely nod. Strange clarity at the close of his life, after a life of headlong rage and empty power, a tyrant and monster, a doctor. i hold no grudges, for after all i must have chosen to be born into such a family.

A trip to Leeds to see Bonehead. We chat for a couple of hours, scheming. Disjunction here: the last time we met to talk, face to face, was 4 years ago, when we were young, just 30. Though i am 34 i feel younger and crueller than that callow self. Thus Vergil describes Charon as old, sed cruda deo uiridisque senectus – but the old age of gods is strong, unexhausted yet.

Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds, all the same – the menace, the gangs of youths segregated by ethnicity, dressed like gangsters, slouching like hyenas, snarling, talking in guttural gangster-speak or Urdu. 

i buy trousers that fit (30″ waist, 30″ inside leg), overhear a funny conversation between two wannabee gangsters:

Gangsta 1: I tell ya if I come out looking like a batty boy I gonna beat you.

Gangsta 2 [amused]: Looking like a what?

Gangsta 1: Like a batty boy innit?

Gangsta 2: And you’re gonna do what?

Gangsta 1: Beat you. Look, it don’t feel right.

Gangsta 2 [laughing]: You mong, you got it on back to front, what’s wrong with you? You batty boy!

i pick up things i left with Pam, my landlady in Manchester. Her dog, who i walked almost every evening, doesn’t remember me. i reflect on the fickleness of hounds. i ask Pam if she’s still working in the local art college. She exclaims that she retired and is much the happier for it. In the last three years the flood of directives, quotas, official memoranda, threats, prohibitions, protocols, admonitions, all the various spewings of bullshit, had prepared her to leave without regrets. By the end the college had become about figures and quotas and no longer had any relevance to the students. She had a dozen managers where once there was one. A familiar tale.

i journey to Durham. i secure my old room in my old college; my first act is to rearrange the furniture, as it was 10 years ago. Durham startles, after 12 months in the concrete abominations of Kiel and Ultima Thule. The stone, the old architecture, an everywhere beauty, substance. Wittgenstein wrote that architecture exists to glorify something, hence there can be no good architecture where there is nothing to glorify.

Something is freed by beauty. So long in modern cities, in Germany, i silence my desire for beauty; here it is allowed. i long to write, to have the time, the freedom, to write more than inconsequential blog posts and emails.

But the streets at night are as bad as anywhere in England. i buy a ludicrously expensive Domino’s pizza and walk home with it on a Saturday night. Guys point and shout “fucking Domino’s, I fucking want that, fucking Domino’s, give it fucking here!”. i ignore them; the desire for violence coiling within. A pretty girl walks by and they shout sexual threats at her. An ordinary evening in Durham, as in Manchester, Leeds, Huddersfield, anywhere in England. When i relate such anecdotes to Germans they think i must be making it up.

In the daytime Durham is safe enough. Contrast with the open spaces of Oxford and Cambridge: Durham is so small, and so much of it is routine chavvery (chain pubs, “It’s a Pound!”, betting shops, Tesco’s). The tiny heart of Durham in the midst of the modern world, the colleges and castle and cathedral set just above the expected ugliness. There is something Tardis-like about it; just off the main road a tiny alley leads up to Vennel’s Cafe, a space that unfolds in room after room, a world apart. So with my college – from the outside, it’s just a row of 18th Century buildings, but once inside it reveals unexpected intricacies and coverts and openings.

The sense that Durham has survived the modern world, by concealing itself. A kind of magic trick; but where a stage magician’s illusion passes the ordinary off as magic, here the magical is presented as ordinary. And so the modern world lets it alone, almost.

i meet old tutors. They tell me “the university has really gone downhill since you were here”. It was bad enough in 2000. A friend tells me she tried to get her daughter into a local college. In the past, her son had been admitted despite applying late; the admissions tutor had made an exception, so the student registered as a “guest”. My friend rang up and explained how the old admissions tutor had let her son in, asked if something like this could be done with her daughter. The girl on the other end said, stupefied: “He wasn’t supposed to do that. I’ll have to report this to my line manager.”

Another tutor says, sighing grandly, “ah yes, the corporate university.” Everyone i meet is wearily sickened by the university, the rot of management jargon, the attempt to run a university like a bank, with directives and quotas etc. etc.

i meet another friend, who was sacked by the university in 1992, on a strange and exceedingly flimsy pretext, principally i guess because he was Theodore Dalrymple-like in his opposition to the bureaucratic rot. His youngest daughter, who i’ve known since she was about 6, is going to go to university next year. i haven’t seen her in about five years but remember her as a feisty young dame who, for example, once snapped at me “shut up, you!” when i was holding forth, as is my wont.

“What does she want to study?” i ask.

“English Lit and Philosophy.”

i am amused. “Marvellous. Let me know what she thinks of Wittgenstein.”

There seems no hope for education in this country. 800 years of tradition destroyed in one generation.

i leave on Sunday morning, to Cambridge. And we shall see what happens there.

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