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“The plum survives its poems.”
(‘The Comedian as the Letter C’, Wallace Stevens)
i am reminded of a scene from The English Patient, where Hana feeds Almásy a plum. He eats slowly, pronounces finally: “it’s a very plum plum.” Sometimes, we are tempted to make adjectives of nouns; and from this, perhaps Plato derived his starry connaissance, or the fantasy thereof. Would it make a difference, to suppose the adjectival summa is held only in us, in our imagining of the farthest noun? – that there is no other world, custodian and arbiter of phenomena, but just plums, lots of plums? – and our reckoning?
On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
297. Freilich, wenn das Wasser im Topf kocht, so steigt der Dampf aus dem Topf und auch das Bild des Dampfes aus dem Bild des Topfes. Aber wie, wenn man sagen wollte, im Bild des Topfes müsse auch etwas kochen?
297. Of course, if water boils in a pot, steam comes out of the pot and also pictured steam comes out of the pictured pot. But what if one insisted on saying that there must also be something boiling in the picture of the pot?
(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. Anscombe)
i’ve been re-reading Wallace Stevens and the PI in tandem. Stevens writes poetry as a form of philosophy, Wittgenstein philosophy as a form of poetry. “Philosophy” and “poetry” are names we use without much thought, and the idea that they are two highly distinct and even opposing forms would have bemused Heraclitus. i think it was Plato, with his zeal for mathematics, who initiated the great division; however it is not a tenable division, and i doubt anyone would bother with badly-written philosophy, unpoetry. Words endure; ideas mutate, blur, dissolve.
Facebook update by Bonehead, who lives in Blighty, to his shame:
Had to endure the depravity of a generic northernbenefits hotspot today. Streets teaming with thieving teenage scrotes playing dance music on their expensive mobiles, en route to the jobby to get ‘my money’ for weed and tinnies. These scum are the future of the nation and the three or four little bastard kids to three or four different 13 year old mothers. Sometimes I wish we could exchange our cultural and aspirational poverty with a real and honest rags and hunger poverty. Less shame in that than this self-inflicted malaise.
1. i taught more engineers the other day, and naturally they wanted to know the right word for “race” as applied to dogs. i pummelled my brains then said “breed”. i taught them “pure breed” and “mongrel”, pointing at myself as a sterling example of the last; i added “only use these with animals or English teachers – with human beings, people will think you’re a Nazi.” Much knowing nodding and guffawing followed.
2. Almost no work (and hence no money) this week, or last, or the week before that. My last lesson for the week was from 0730 to 0900 this morning, a group of comely babes, mainly engineers of some sort. There’s an interestingly odd Russian woman, Olga, who the others dislike. i can’t assess her character, even after a dozen lessons. She goes off on uncontrollable tangents, with great enthusiasm, and says things like “can we do grammar?” when i’m trying to teach the pisspoor and dull meetings & presentations module. She also dresses superbly and is very beautiful, in a weird, not quite human way. We discussed Chekhov in one lesson, much to my pleasure. She strikes me as potentially ruthless and treacherous, but she may simply be incalculable.
Last week she told me she started as a civil engineer, then shifted to mechanical engineering, explaining “I prefer steel to concrete“. i asked why. With bubbling manic enthusiasm she told me that the calculations are clearer with steel, so it’s easier to determine how steel structures will respond to wind, snow loads, etc. i found this tremendously exciting and wanted to ask further, detailed questions – and realised i knew nothing about the matter, that i couldn’t; later, i reflected that if i could live my life over again, i would either be an engineer or a dobermann.
3. Birgit did her test today, scoring 24 out of 30, hoorah. In our last lesson i assured her that it was a purely administrative ordeal and should be regarded as such. She said “but I don’t want to disappoint you.” i suspect she has no real friends in Ultima Thule – she seems to feel that East Germany is her home, and she is only (reluctantly) here for the job. Over our few lessons she has opened up more and more about her feelings as a Leipziger in the West, the opportunities she missed (she wanted to work as a horse groom but the GDR told her “you are a worker’s daughter, you must be a worker”). There is considerable regret here, but no real bitterness – a sign of good character; and she is a good egg.
Perhaps it is my novelist’s interest in character, my intense attention both to my students’ language, and their souls, which makes me – when we “click” – a strangely effective teacher (in spite of my inexperience and pretty shaky technique). i have noticed this with certain students (male and female) – i become the person to whom they can talk about everything that must remain unspoken elsewhere.
i remember with pleasure my last lesson with my favourite student, whom David and i call simply “the Great Man” (student no 3) – he looked unusually stressed, and related a tale of fuck ups, mysteriously inoperative circuit breakers, broken flanges, and Italian corruption. We were doing the bullshit meetings and presentations module, so instead of teaching him vocab like “power lead” and “overhead projector” i asked him to tell me about the problem in detail, and outline his tactics. He had arranged a supply of a special steel from a German company to an Italian company, various machinations and contrivings, and hoped to solve the problem as quickly as possible.
“What will you do if the next shipment of parts is also defective?” i asked. “What’s your Plan B?”
“Plan B?” He nodded at the window. “Plan B is I jump out of the window and run.”
A sentiment i understand.
i had another lesson today with Birgit, a 50-something female engineer/manager from East Germany. She was dissatisfied with the materials, as she felt she just needed conversation, to get a feel for the living language. She requested me as her tutor, as i’m by now fairly adroit at adapting the materials; also, i think my air of conspiratorial sympathy appeals to certain renegade students. Earlier i had breakfast (big cheeseburger and chips) with David, and said i’m not a particularly good teacher but i make up for my failures by making friends with my students – as he put it, i compensate with “charm”. It’s not put on or calculating, i just genuinely find my students interesting, as i wouldn’t the average English person, and that interest and attention has some effect. With uncooperating students one must be perfect – the slightest imprecision, just one false step, and they refuse to understand. i seduce my students into coming out to meet me halfway – so i don’t need to be perfect, and when it works it really works. Without this “charm” – when it doesn’t work – i fall back on technique and hectoring and snarling. That works too, just not as well.
After Birgit told me she didn’t want or need to do the materials i advised her to go to the (corrupt and incompetent) Corporate Manager, who fobbed her off with her usual lies. i was then monitored by Morgana and beforehand told Birgit to speak to the dark elf in question; the lesson was half me teaching, half Birgit discussing the course with Morgana. As a compromise, Birgit has to do the level test but can then have about 6 lessons with me, covering “networking” topics. She does the test on Thursday so i went through it with her today, asking which answer she thought was right – she got about 17 out of 30; i explained why the right answers were right, and gave her grammar drills so it wasn’t just “choose C here”, but (i hope) was a mix of cheating and teaching. The test is bullshit, as are all tests – people use language in a very broad, human context; the test presents a highly artificial, isolated situation, without the cues we all use (even in our native language) to engender understanding. Its only purpose is administrative, so i have no compunctions about making sure she does well. i’ve had excellent students do badly with tests, and i have no faith in such facile determinations. i will not allow good students to fail.
As we went through the lesson, i felt her ease with me, despite our great differences (she is a stalwart East Germany engineer, i a poetry-reading Englishman). At i_______, my first TEFL school, in Kiel, the robotic Director of Studies tried to remove any trace of humanity from the proceedings, so every lesson would be the same (that is, reliably dull). But one cannot remove the human element from teaching, or from any human to human encounter – at least, not without making the whole affair gruellingly mechanical. But, rather, it is from the human that all good comes, and one must return to that contact, time and time again.
1. i was accosted by a pair of earnest American Mormons on the walk home from work last week. They insisted on following me halfway home, to instruct me. i couldn’t remember anything about Mormonism so when they offered to send me a copy of their scriptures, i gave them my work address, thinking i might learn something perverted. Later, i realised they probably wanted my home address so they could keep pestering me; if they try bothering me at work either Morgana or the grossly menacing Corporate Manager will mutilate them. Again later, i remember hearing that Mormons have harems; i should have said “do you guys get to have whores or what?”
The Mormons asked if i thought much about Jesus Christ. i said not really, meaning i do from time to time but as a literary figure, as a name for something, and as a human being. They asked if i still had unresolved questions about Christianity. i demurred, saying i’d spent years living with Christians, who repeatedly tried to convert me, and had run through all the available answers, without feeling it would lead anywhere. i was being diplomatic; i could have told them of the things i have seen, gods, other lives, messiahs, but then perhaps they would have tried to exorcise me, which is the last thing you want on a Wednesday evening.
The older i get the less i am interested in debate that leads nowhere; and to arrive at a useful disagreement one needs an unusually honest, profound interlocutor – otherwise one will merely clear up surface problems, tediously, leaving you tired and them angry (as you strip them bare). So better to just say “not really”.
2. i had some pizza last night, and left some for today’s breakfast. However, i left my door open while getting tea, and my hippy flatmate’s annoying dog ran in and ate the pizza. She reflects her owner’s casual attitude to property and propriety. i will have to take some hideous revenge, so later i will, i think, eat all her dog food.
3. i couldn’t sleep the other night, so mentally crafted an essay on why U2 were a great band, between 1984’s Unforgettable Fire, and 1997’s Pop. i find it curious that the band themselves seem to not entirely understand why they were good – so because Pop didn’t sell as much as intended, they turned their back on innovation and churned out three albums of generic, over-produced rock blandness, all the while trumpeting each as true rock & roll fuelled by anger and what not. As the Krugerand, a South African temp, said of ‘Vertigo’, it was bigged up as “garage” but had been so over-produced that it sounded like Westlife. If i can be bothered, i’ll write the U2 essay, a condemnation of their present worthlessness, but for now i’ll say that between 1984 and 1997 they were – Rattle & Hum excepted – strange. Harold Bloom wrote that canonical literature has an inexhaustible strangeness to it, something uncanny even. ‘One Tree Hill’, ‘Bad’, ‘Acrobat’, ‘Dirty Day’ – strange songs. i tried to include ‘One Tree Hill’ via youtube, but i guess U2’s lawyers regularly scour youtube, so this is the best i could find – the collaboration between U2 and Johnny Cash, from Zooropa:
No doubt the first of many installments. i call such folk “the children of Blair”.
Subtle he needs must be, who could seduce
(Paradise Lost, Book 9)
i just finished re-reading Paradise Lost, for the twentieth or more time this life. A confusedly great work, monument to the 17th Century misunderstanding of our creator. Yet it is not wholly mistaken – it’s just that one is likelier to trace the creator’s lineaments in Eve, in Adam, in moments of Satan even, or Belial, in Abdiel and Raphael, than in God or “the Son”.