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Die Religion lehrt, die Seele könne bestehen, wenn der Leib zerfallen ist. Verstehe ich denn, was sie lehrt? – Freilich verstehe ich’s – ich kann mir dabei manches vorstellen. Man hat ja auch Bilder von diesen Dingen gemalt. Und warum sollte so ein Bild nur die unvollkommene Wiedergabe des ausgesprochenen Gedankens sein? Warum soll es nicht den gleichen Dienst tun, wie dis gesprochene Lehre? Und auf den Dienst kommt es an.
Religion teaches us that the soul can exist when the body has distintegrated. Now do I understand this teaching? – Of course I understand it – I can imagine plenty of things in connection with it. And haven’t pictures of these things been painted? And why should such a picture be only an imperfect rendering of the spoken doctrine? Why should it not do the same service as the words? And it is the service which is the point.
(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. Anscombe)
hanging from heaven
this man you see
you see with the eye
1. Christmas with the Murtaughs continues. Last night we watched Hurt Locker. An exceptional film, violent, careful, subtle, authentic, gritty, human – exactly the opposite of Avatar. Curious to contrast the films, by ex-husband and ex-wife, both about the American military in some 3rd world hellhole. Avatar cost (roughly) 300 million dollars, Hurt Locker 11 million. Every character in Avatar is a cardboard cut-out computer-generated villain or hero, as blocky and wooden as possible, just so no 5-year-old or retarded viewers might fail to understand absolutely everything, or fail to conclude “the White Man is the source of all evil in the world” . i agreed with the film’s loathing of modernity (expressed in CGI, naturally) but resented the heavy-handed approach. i prefer skilful seduction, the oblique approach, delicacy. Perhaps Cameron felt so incensed that he couldn’t manage subtlety, feeling the issue was too important to allow the viewer any leeway. My own feeling is that, if one presents the matter as it is – as much as one can in a representation – it is not necessary to bludgeon the audience with crude allegories, crass simplifications. The artist can emphasise the essential lineaments of reality, but with fidelity, proportion, rectitude.
2. Inception, now. It didn’t go down well with the Murtaughs. Murtaugh Sr walked out after the first 10 minutes, later saying “it was meaningless rubbish.” Mrs Murtaugh endured it bravely. The children didn’t understand much more than Murtaugh Sr. Leo, the 15-year-old son, kept wailing questions every 30 seconds thus: “why is he fighting this random black guy?”, “wait, is this the dream within the dream within the dream?”, “I thought he was a baddie!”, and so on. This is seemingly his default mode of viewing, so in Hurt Locker the questions were rather about technical matters, e.g. “but he was only hit by a few bits of rock! Why is he falling down?”, “why is he wearing that suit?”, “why are they dressed like terrorists?” and so on. i instructed him to write his questions down and ask “the group leader” in his dreams. This didn’t really work but it meant i could reply simply “ask the group leader”, a more polite way of saying “shut the hell up”.
i liked Inception and disagreed with Murtaugh, when, on the basis of the first ten minutes, he said “did it explore any philosophical themes? No. It was just total rubbish, just a load of American idiots shooting at each other.” Wallace Stevens would have relished the film (perhaps). The film’s technique was interesting – Nolan repeatedly presents a riddle, and the answer comes about 5 minutes later. The craft is very fine here – the riddles posed so as to tease and provoke, though with the Murtaughs they just frustrated and baffled.
Later, i reflected on Leo’s incomprehension. He isn’t stupid, so i was puzzled by his inability to understand fairly simple events. However, i didn’t really understand them either – it was rather that i didn’t try, i accepted and observed, holding it in my mind, allowing the riddles to ping about my mind till the answer duly came. i didn’t understand more than Leo, in the moment; it was rather that i didn’t try to understand, and so i could watch and, in a sense, understand – or, rather, follow. i can distinguish here, between understanding a theme (musical or otherwise), and following – the latter is something like this: the path one takes to understanding. And for this, one must be easy with strangeness, with the inexplicable, with riddles. Suspension not merely of disbelief but of the need to understand – from this, one can understand.
In a sense, Leo’s apparent obtuseness is just a mind struggling to arrive at its own method. It is interesting to observe him – in many ways a normal 15-year-old, in others not. He is a gifted musician – nothing truly remarkable at the moment, but i think his talents will develop in time, into something of note.
Murtaugh tells me Leo can’t do maths – seemingly, he has to invent his own way of approaching mathematics, as if he is unable to use the extant methods, other people’s thoughts. More difficult than just inhabiting someone else’s theory, but more rewarding in the long run. Likewise i did so badly in my Literary Theory exam, at university, because i was and am unable to passively accept someone else’s theory, to think in a Lacanian/Foucaultian/Derridean etc. manner – which my university required of me, for this course. For universities naturally encourage theory, the predictable, the already-thought. The wonder is that thinkers such as, e.g., Abelard or Wittgenstein, have sometimes found a temporary, fraught home in academia, to think things through on their own.
3. Now i mean to eat crumpets.
i write from France. i will be here another week.
So far i have been attacked (twice) by a deranged parrot. Also, i have seen Avatar – a visually-striking film with computer-generated dialogue and computer-generated characters and plot. The hero is an American and he gets it on with a giant blue woman and he rides this red bird and gives inspirational speeches to these blue Native Americans and all kinds of hippy shit. As is my way, despite generally agreeing with James Cameron’s apparent loathing of modernity, i so resented the film’s heavy-handedness as to wish victory upon the evil marines.
Anyway, more anon, perhaps.
Today people found my blog by Googling:
“present perfect engineering grammar”
“Durham cathedral interior”
i have taught grammar to German engineers for just over a year. Yesterday i had 90 minutes with the head of PR of an energy company. His wife studied Law at Durham and he knows it well, with pleasure. Talking of such cities, i said their charm is to do with beauty that no longer serves any accepted function. One could make more money by tearing down Durham Cathedral and replacing it with a block of executive flats for ambitious corporate types, movers & shakers in the university administration, for example. And yet, it stands, a feat of ancient engineering.
One could perhaps contrast the Past Simple with the Present Perfect by saying Uruk existed for several millenia, and is now just an archaeological dig, but Durham Cathedral has stood facing the Castle for several centuries – and still stands – and as with laughter and games, there is no defensible reason for this – it is, in a sense, ludic, for the hell of it, as with all things.
A poem like a missal found
In the mud, a missal for that young man,
That scholar hungriest for that book,
The very book, or, less, a page
Or, at the least, a phrase, that phrase,
A hawk of life, that latined phrase:
To know; a missal for brooding-sight.
To meet that hawk’s eye and to flinch
Not at the eye but at the joy of it.
I play. But this is what I think.
(Wallace Stevens, ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar”)
As readers of my ex-blog, The Lumber Room, may remember, i was hospitalised with asthma once a year between 2004 and 2009. My last seriousish attack was in March this year, when i was living with Morgana, not yet begun to teach in Ultima Thule, and i felt unsure if i even could teach, having failed so horribly in Kiel. There is usually an obvious physical trigger – in March it was a combination of Lilly (Morgana’s dog) and Bones (a puppy Morgana was looking after, for an ex-Special Forces Macedonian teacher). In England it was dust, cold, abrupt exercise (sprinting as soon as i exited one workplace, to burn off the adrenaline of hatred), and also running out of meds for a couple of days.
At the time of the attack the physical trigger seems explanation enough, but looking back a pattern emerges – times of uncertainty, protracted dismay, a sense that i should not exist, i have no place in the world, no worthwhile skills. So it was serious when i was an infant (one of my first memories is of sitting on the edge of my bed struggling to breathe) – my environment unpropitious – and then went largely underground till i began office work in 2004.
i ran out of my long-term meds on Friday, and felt the asthma worsen, fuelled to some degree by the knowledge that if i didn’t get more soon, i would have to go without till the New Year. In England, i often went a few days without medication, simply because it wasn’t easy to get – first i had to make an appointment at a doctor’s surgery (and in one town, Blackburn, i was turned away from at least 6 doctors, their lists being full, and so i had to go to hospital instead), wait several days, then go, getting permission from my generally savage pitboss; then i had to take the prescription to a pharmacy, drop it off, wait an hour, pick it up. Easy enough if one has no job, has a car, but not so easy for a working man reliant on public transport, at the mercy of a Cro-Magnon pitboss. i had so little energy for anything in those years, in the trenches, that remembering to make a doctor’s appointment, a week before the meds ran out, was generally beyond me.
People die of asthma all the time, even in the west. i think at least two of my serious attacks were provoked by running out of medication, because it was so complicated and difficult to get more. i didn’t expect it would be easy to get any in Germany, even with my 600 Euros/month medical insurance. i was therefore pleasingly surprised, when i asked for an appointment, to find the receptionists could print me off a prescription themselves, in about 30 seconds. Not what i would have expected from German bureaucracy, but in some ways Germany is more responsively human, less rule-bound, than England. i was tempted to ask for some crack cocaine and LSD and hash but didn’t want to push my luck, and anyway i would only end up feeding them to my hippy flatmate’s hippy dog, or my students.
Text from my hippy flatmate, received at 0455 (he had gone to a hippy party last night):
Hello Elberry. Could you go a walk with gemma. ABout 9-12 am. The party is so awesam. Thank you a lot. Gemma’s robe is in par terr on the snow-bob. It’s okay for you???? Please write me a sms! THANKS FOR ALL
When i went into his room to look for Gemma, she wasn’t there. i presume she ate some of his drugs and flew out the window, or he took her to the awesam party and forgot she was sitting next to him at 0455, or some hippy shit like that.
Die musikalischen Themen sind in gewissem Sinne Sätze. Die Kenntnis des Wesens der Logik wird deshalb zur Kenntnis des Wesens der Musik führen.
Musical themes are in a certain sense propositions. Knowledge of the nature of logic will for this reason lead to knowledge of the nature of music.
Wittgenstein´s journals, 7 Februar 1915, tr. Anscombe
George Steiner would disapprove of most of my musical tastes, as would Wittgenstein; i even quite like Mahler, whom Wittgenstein abominated. Murtaugh, who i’ll be visiting again for Christmas, suggested that Mahler’s music is all about the end of the world, the end of the civilisation which birthed it – which is also the civilisation that birthed Wittgenstein, namely mid-to-late 19th Century Vienna. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father, i hear, was the first man in Vienna to own an automobile. It is strange to think of Wittgenstein arising from the collision between the old world and the new, the new being, on the whole, nothing more than the destruction of the old. He was born a week after Hitler, as if to say, “i will witness the destruction of the old world”. And indeed he witnessed this.
In 1930 he wrote:
Ich habe einmal, und vielleicht mit Recht, gesagt: Aus der früheren Kultur wird ein Trümmerhaufen und am Schluß ein Aschenhaufen werden, aber des werden Geister über der Asche schweben.
I once said, perhaps rightly, – the earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.
Union of the weakest develops strength
Not wisdom. Can all men, together, avenge
One of the leaves that have fallen in autumn?
But the wise man avenges by building his city in snow.
(Wallace Stevens, ‘Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery’)