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After reading John Williams’ superb Stoner, i decided to get some more “campus novels”, so ordered Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, Brett Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction, PJ Vanston’s Crump, and Francine Prose’s The Blue Angel. The only one i didn’t enjoy was the Ellis (too barren, nihilistic, fragmented), the rest were pleasurable enough. Crump satirises the lunatic multiculturalism of modern England, and the comprehensive destruction of education; it tends to heavy-handed condemnation, from which i withdrew – not because i disagreed, but because it jarred somewhat, in a novel. The Blue Angel was slight but enjoyable and well-constructed.
i read lukewarm reviews of the Wolfe but it gave me great pleasure for the whole of its 676 pages. The protagonist is something of a blank but the supporting characters are vivid and kind of horrifyingly interesting. It even has a happy ending, as the heroine hooks up with the only suitor i really took to. i wasn’t interested in the plot (it’s a typical bildungsroman/campus novel) but found it enjoyable for itself, that is, for the pleasure of reading. The prose, the characterisation, pacing, everything gave me pleasure. Given i got it for something like 5 Euros including postage & packing, i feel 676 pages of pleasure was a bargain.
The heroine, Charlotte Simmons, is a prodigy from some town on top of a mountain in cracker country, USA. She comes to a Harvard-like university where she meets the scum of the earth – rich frat boys and pampered skank. If i hadn’t come across similar portraits in Ellis, and on a documentary a few years ago, i would have taken it for parody; but, apparently, rich Americans are really like this. The rich young Brits i met at my school and university were on the whole okay, but perhaps because we don’t, on the whole, feel there is a metaphysical difference between the rich and the not-so-rich, or the poor even.
In the novel, Charlotte writes a letter home to her white trash parents. A difficult exercise. She naturally writes in a cliché-ridden literary style (“I’ll admit my eyes blurred with mist when I saw you drive off in the old pickup”); she checks herself, realising her parents will see this as “pretty writing”. Charlotte becomes increasingly embarrassed about her origins, her family. i think she should rather treasure her provenance, for unliterary standards often act as a necessary corrective to the temptations of style. i guess one reason i much prefer Camus to Sartre is to do with Camus’ sparse, unrhetorical style, his lack of interest in overly complicated philosophical questions; and i think this came from his origins, in dirt poor Algeria. Sartre, by contrast, had no ballast against style and thought. He probably saw no reason to distrust his own intelligence; there is a sharp-elbowed confidence about Sartre.
Reading second-rate thinkers, such as CS Lewis or Slavoj Zizek, i feel they are misled by language. Language is midwife to thought; and it is the body of thought. Before the words, one has only an inchoate “feeling”; one can, with effort, “think” in images but to really take crystalline, precise form one needs language; thus thought cannot be extricated from style. However, language has its own shape, its own texture and contour and gradient. Second-rate thinkers allow language to take over; they like “pretty writing” of some sort; they mistake linguistic shapes for real thinking. It is easy to be misled by linguistic symmetries, by assonance, patterning, repetition, inversion; and for these devices to as it were hijack the thought and lead it astray. One must be alert to the false note; one can pick this up quite quickly by reading Literary Theory for a while. The fashion in Literary Theory is for a strange mix of almost impenetrable drivel and casual, tendentious assertion. Zizek isn’t as bad as, e.g. Homi Bhabha – he has real intelligence, and some interesting insights; but he succumbs to the temptations of fancy writing, of a brute, ugly variety:
The crucial feature to take note of here is that this inversion cannot be formulated in terms of a primordial lack and a series of metonymic objects trying (and ultimately failing) to fill the void. When the eroticized body of my partner starts to function as the object around which the drive circulates, this does not mean that his or her ordinary (“pathological” in the Kantian sense of the term) flesh-and-blood body is “transubstantiated” into a contingent embodiment of the sublime impossible Thing, holding (filling out) its empty place.
It is not incomprehensible, or obviously insane. It just sounds like fancy writing to me – posturing. It is how one writes if one is mentally at a podium, gesticulating wildly for emphasis, or on a talk show, preening, or shouting people down. It is professorial prose; it is the don at his lectern.
(Professor Fidel Castro)
i don’t think one need write like Hemingway or The Sun newspaper. Two of my favourite writers are Henry James and Kierkegaard, both stylistically sophisticated, both at times impenetrable. But neither seem to me to posture. i feel that, rather, their primordial, inchoate shape of “thought” is naturally so – complicated beyond easy expression before it even arrives in words. Kierkegaard’s philosophy is paradoxical, and any easy formulation would be simply false. The thought sets the bar high – he seemed to delight in difficulty, labyrinthine expression, but for all that any “Cliff Notes” version of Kierkegaard would be a traduction and lie.
i am no thinker or writer – very much a blogger, an amateur – but teaching English is usefully chastening, all the same. Today i taught Level 1 and 2 groups, both with limited grammar and vocabulary. It is a strange situation, when one has established a personal connection but the language is inadequate. One must make do with the simplest means. This is my main social activity, and i spend far more time speaking with students than i do writing; i doubt it has obviously influenced my prose, but i think there is some subtle alteration, a clarification perhaps. One very weak Level 3 student said she was surprised she could understand everything i said, even when the discussion was fairly complicated. After teaching for a while you learn to simplify everything; i do so without compromising the thought (easy enough since i’m not a philosopher). i use images and stories, for example likening doing the wrong job to putting diesel in a petrol car – you can keep driving for a while but it feels strange, and eventually you destroy the engine. i like stories like this; they do not pretend to be the thought; they merely illustrate, can be taken up, examined, then discarded.
Using stories seems to me a good way of doing philosophy, because the reader need not suppose the words are the thought. They are clearly a commentary on the thought, something you can consider, rather than a doctrine or textbook. Or i could say the words, the stories, are one version of the thought, but they admit of themselves their provisional, finally inscrutable nature. They are, in this sense, parables. The thought itself never enters form; rather, it provokes form.
The second-rate writer is seduced by words. One must hold to the mastering thought, the formless, in spite of language and its betrayals. It is from this distrust and resistance that we manifest true form.
An enjoyable & interesting documentary on beauty by Roger Scruton. There is a deep if occult connection between beauty and spiritual apprehension, as Plato asserts in Phaedrus and Symposium. For “spiritual apprehension” one could also say “religion”, this being a form thereof. And so, religion has declined in the west, and what passes for modern art is now standardized ugliness, in Scruton’s words, a ritual of desecration indeed. Without a recognition of the animating spirit (whether religious or otherwise), beauty is despised, ridiculed as mere prettiness, as not part of “the real world” of high-rise council flats, obscenity, drug addiction, managers, spam, chavs and chavvery all.
“The real world”, forsooth.
i dare say that scum like Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst (two of the fattest maggots) would despise beauty as a lie, as mendacious decoration. Theirs is orc-reality, coarse and ugly and graceless. If there were art in Mordor it would be the art of Hirst and Emin.
A strange world, where orc-art is cried up and worth untold millions. Mordor art, made for orcs by orcs. Any hint of beauty would ruin the effect, unless that beauty can be desecrated and so annulled. But real beauty is dangerous. i distinguish between the beautiful and the pretty; the latter is charming, unthreatening, and it is this, i think, that the orcs regard, with contempt, as “beautiful”. Real beauty is closer to the sublime – it does not charm, it compels; it can trouble, threaten; it is aghlich – and this awe is not distinct from its beauty, but rather a form of its beauty. It never ceases to be beautiful.
Siegfried’s Death & Funeral March:
Othello’s final words – despairing and lucid, impenetrable, strange – and after this he slays himself:
Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
The Thin Red Line:
Andrea del Sarto, “called, the faultless painter” – that glance out of darkness:
Beauty is one of the harsh angels. Rilke –
Jeder Engel ist schrecklich. Und dennoch, weh mir,
ansing ich euch, fast tödliche Vögel der Seele,
wissend um euch.
Every angel is terrible.
And still, alas
knowing all that
I serenade you
you almost deadly
birds of the soul.
(2nd Duino Elegy, tr. David Young)
Without these angels, Mordor.
Doch man horcht nun Dialekten
Wie sich Mensch und Engel kosen,
Der Grammatik, der versteckten,
Deklinierend Mohn und Rosen.
Yet in other dialects men and
Angels make communication:
Secret grammars, speech of roses,
And the poppy’s conjugation.
Goethe, tr. by David Luke
(click on the image for a larger size)
Nun tön es fort zu dir, auch aus der Ferne,
Das Wort erreicht, und schwände Ton und Schall.
Ists nicht der Mantel noch gesäter Sterne?
Ists nicht der Liebe hochverklärtes All?
Now may you hear it still, even from far;
Words reach their goal, though sound and music fade.
Is it not still the tent of scattered stars,
The high transfigured world that love has made?
Goethe, tr. by David Luke
A heartening Cracked article about epic escapes from East Germany, the Commies, bears, etc. All of these heroic lunatics sound like my more Germanic German students. There is something dogged and epic about Germans. For example, Student 6, who seemed to regard thumbing his nose at the GDR as akin to making a cup of (manly, black) coffee or coming to my school – that is, just one of those things a man has to do.
When i leave Ultima Thule i will miss teaching the fire fighters. i’ve been teaching these guys for more than 6 months now and feel i know them fairly well. They are all crazy in that cold, steely German way, friendly but also willing to plunge into a burning, collapsing building because it’s what they’re paid for. Of the 5 students, only one actually wanted to be a fire fighter, the others ended up there by accident, more or less. A conversation with the 40-something pie-eater, let’s call him Jens:
Elberry: Have you ever used a helicopter or plane in fire fighting?
Jens: Of course. A few years ago there is a forest fire and I must to go up in the air to see the fire from the sky. Then I must tell my men, you go here, you here.
Elberry: How many men did you command?
Elberry thinks “this is Sparta” but says: Did you have training in aerial reconnaisance?
Rotund Leonidas: No.
Elberry: Was it hard to assess the situation from above, if you weren’t trained?
Rotund Leonidas gives me a “what planet do you live on” look: Of course. But it is my job. There is a fire, I am there. I cannot say, sorry I am not trained. I must do it. So I do it.
It seems a million years from the English way, which is to refuse to do anything you weren’t specifically trained for, in case you’re sued for breaching Health & Safety regulations. It’s especially admirable because Rotund Leonidas didn’t even really want to be a fire fighter in the first place.
We’re doing Military English (i got to do a chapter about Hannibal, with quotations from Patton) and a few weeks ago we were discussing recruitment posters. The book featured 4 different adverts for the army. i asked them which they felt was most effective. They dismissed a “Master the Present, Dominate the Future” advert as “something young people would like, it sounds like a computer game”. Instead, they all unanimously settled on my favourite, which showed a mud-encrusted soldier with the caption: “Mud on my face. The soil is our soil” or something similar. One translated it into German (it sounded a thousand times better), and we all sat there nodding approvingly and wishing we could be lying in a ditch with an assault rifle, covered in mud and human blood, holding off the screaming Muslim hordes so the women and children can escape. We know we will perish, finally overwhelmed by millions of bearded, nightgown-wearing, ullulating, scimitar-waving Muslims, but by our heroic sacrifice the women and children will escape to Avalon where they will be safe, and sing epic ballads about our last hour, the glory & death & honour & loincloths.
Exciting news here:
The world is overdue a ferocious ‘space storm’ that could knock out communications satellites, ground aircraft and trigger blackouts – causing hundreds of billions of pounds of damage, scientists say.
Astronomers today warned that mankind is now more vulnerable to a major solar storm than at any time in history – and that the planet should prepare for a global Katrina-style disaster.
A massive eruption of the sun would save waves of radiation and charged particles to Earth, damaging the satellite systems used for synchronising computers, airline navigation and phone networks.
i predict that as high technology devices are worthless, we will return to settling matters by knife & fist, Dune style.
i found some excellent amateur trailers, all by the same guy. One for Heat:
One for The Dark Knight (a middling film that, however, yields excellent trailers):
and lastly, using music from Inception, a superb one for the greatest film of all time, The Empire Strikes Back:
i think i could quite happily just play this last one on repeat loop for 90 minutes.
Yesterday i had a job interview in X-burg, a small city in East Germany. It took 2 and a half hours though the last half hour was me sitting in the computer room on my own, the Corporate Manager and Director of Studies discussing my case; i guess they were arguing, actually. The Corporate Manager, surprisingly, is an ex-teacher and so very unlike Ultima Thule’s CM, who knows absolutely nothing about anything except sales (at which she is extremely good, because she is a sociopath). i liked the X-burg CM and disliked the DoS; this seemed mutual. The DoS was aggressive and manic, to the extent that i wondered if she was on speed. Discussing problem groups, such as the engineering apprentices who spend the whole lesson looking at porn and giggling in German, she said: “It’s YOUR job to make them talk! You have to make them talk! Doesn’t matter how! If you have to sit on them and force them to talk then that’s what you do! If they want it the hard way, you make it hard for them! It’s just like school!”
i smiled politely, thinking: “this is why i refused to become a school teacher, and why i would quit if i had to teach these shits more than 90 minutes a week.” She struck me as a typically obtuse, aggressive female, a feminist power woman, i.e. a loathsome, stupid human being, crassly insensitive and unimaginative, high on her own ego and worldly success.
The school is bigger than Ultima Thule’s, but they have more teachers, and it seems they have an unofficial policy of giving each teacher less than 120 units of work a month, so they can pay a lower rate – 12 Euros/unit if under 120, 15 if over. i compare this with U.T., where i saw one teacher ask Juniper, the lovely receptionist, if she could give him more units so he could achieve more than 120 for that month. i felt the Corporate Manager in X-burg is trustworthy enough, though she no doubt connives in keeping the teachers on less than 1200 Euros a month (before tax).
After their discussion, the CM and DoS offered me the job, though they were honest enough to add that there was at present only 15 units a week, per teacher (about half what i need to survive). Work should pick up in April, so we agreed i would come in April. And then i went to a pub and got drunk and tried to imagine living in this city. X-burg itself was beautiful, even on a freezing cold grey German day, the kind of day when even Heaven would appear a little purgatorial. Unlike Ultima Thule it wasn’t absolutely destroyed in the war and there weren’t as many beggars and hippies as in UT.
i have no enthusiasm for the school at X-burg and find it impossible to imagine working there. But no more can i imagine staying in Ultima Thule. i no longer belong here. i have aroused the enmity of most of the other teachers, apparently through my English sense of humour, which of course they don’t understand (joking with another English teacher, who understands & responds to my humour, but others just think i’m a cruel monster). The thought that they meet behind my back, to discuss “the Elberry problem”, how to get rid of me, is unnerving. i am unsure of my crime – i distrust the immediate explanation, that my joking (calling the other English teacher “fat Elvis” as he is of study build, though not actually fat) has aroused the universal disapproval & loathing of my colleagues. It seems inadequate, even factoring in the irony deficiency of just about everyone not raised in England. i can’t think what else i have done but nonetheless there is a distinct, arctic chill at work. i think the only person i feel sure of is Juniper, the MILF receptionist who seems apart from ordinary work politics -she no more belongs there than do i. The other day, walking to work, i felt her attention, and looking up saw a figure outlined against the school windows. i couldn’t discern who it was, but felt her kindly awareness of me, and raised a hand. She raised a hand in return. i guess anyone else would have just turned away, or spat in disgust, or launched an RPG at me.
There is more work in Ultima Thule – indeed, it is probably the best place to work, to save money, since the city is very cheap but there is usually plenty of work. But i can’t stay here. For the whole week, i have felt like a ghost in the centre, as if i should have died or left last year, and everyone is surprised & displeased to find me still there – “YOU? i thought you left! Why are you still here? You don’t belong here!”. It is fairly subtle – no one has spat at me yet – but maddeningly insistent, this sense that i should have left by now. Perhaps, if i stay till April, my colleagues will yet form a circle and spit on me, bukkake-style. Then move in with fists and boots and teaching materials, screaming with rage, slobbering “kill! kill! kill!”. Since i don’t know what i have done, i don’t even know if i deserve this, though i suppose i probably do. i know i am a bad human being. Will moving change that? Of course not, if i am bad and shouldn’t be alive, then such measures will not suffice. But at least the people in X-burg don’t yet know what i am like.
On Thursday i decided i probably wouldn’t accept an offer from X-burg, as with my 600 €/month medical insurance i need considerably more than 1200 € to survive. But on Thursday night one of my students, who runs his own company, offered me proof-reading work, which i can do remotely. It isn’t firm yet, but i hope that with that and about 20 to 30 units a week in X-burg, i can just about survive. Paying off the debts i incurred in Kiel (thanks to i_____a) seems unlikely, but one step at a time. After all, i’ll be 35 next week, and surely it’s normal to be nearly old and yet owe crippling debts, have no skills, no worthwhile qualifications, and seemingly no hope of a stable career.
i enjoy teaching but there is a reason most teachers are in their early 20s and have no intention of staying long – you simply can’t survive on 1200 Euros a month. Since there is absolutely nothing else i can do i have to continue. If i’d done a real degree at university, i.e. in Science, perhaps things wouldn’t have come to this pass. But i can’t turn time backwards so i may as well just continue on this weird path, being as i am nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, old now, in the selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita. i have no hope, that is, no sense of the future, merely a sense that i no longer belong, here or anywhere.
I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof.
(Psalm 50, 9 – 12)
It gets better and better:
Residents in Surrey and Kent villages have been ordered by police to remove wire mesh from their windows as burglars could be injured.