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New portrait of yours truly, by a friend of the usual artist.


If I state ‘That’s the rule’, that only has a sense as long as I have determined the maximum number of exceptions I’ll allow before knocking down the rule.

(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks)


The process isn’t at all one of seeing first a triangle, then a square, pentagon etc. up to e.g. a fifty-sided polygon and then the circle coming; no, we see a triangle, a square etc., up to maybe, an octagon, then we only see polygons with sides of varying length. The sides get shorter, then a fluctuation towards the circle begins, and then comes the circle.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks

My internet is deadly shit and my brain deadly dull. i tried to write two blog posts at home but my surfstick cut out and WordPress decided to lose everything. “Everything” was, in this case, drunken, loquacious blogging and so not worth saving. However, i want to pass on some recent discoveries, now i’m at work and so have internet:

1. The Boxer Rebellion. Kind of like The National but less rocky. Imagine one of those horrible Rocky Road bars they sell at Starbucks – it’s like that, without the rock. Except that whereas the Rocky Road bars are abhorrent, The National are excellent and The Boxer Rebellion very good. And you can’t buy either bands at Starbucks. And you don’t eat them. And it’s not like a road.

2. George Bernard Shaw. i have a huge volume of his plays in England but never opened it. However, with my Kindle (there’s another story) i was able to download vast quantities of Shaw, GK Chesterton, PG Wodehouse, Ruskin etc. i read Pygmalion and Man & Superman; both are very good, in a slightly rigid, finger-wagging way. He insists on appending vast introductions & postscripts, to tell you what to think, but these are easily skipped. A quote from Man & Superman:

TANNER: I had no intention of suggesting anything discreditable. In fact, I am a bit of a Socialist myself.

STRAKER: Most rich men are, I notice.

MENDOZA: Quite so. It has reached us, I admit. It is in the air of the century.

3. A space pen.

That’s right. A motherfucking space pen.

Previously, my writing suffered as i was unable to write at temperatures below -49 Celsius, or for that matter, while reclining in the heart of the sun. Naturally, i couldn’t even write upside down, a sore necessity for an elberry of my calibre. i was also occasionally at a loss when i needed to write underwater.

Nor, alas, could my old pens reliably function in outer space.

Nor could they punch holes in titanium skulls.

Now normally i just use a fountain pen and try to avoid unusual situations, writing in outer space, in the sun, underwater, etc. However, i’ve begun writing a filthy book about my temping days, and as i’m using a fairly cheap notebook, and often write on the train, i need a simple ballpoint. So i bought a space pen. And behold it is badass.

4. Ein Freund Von Mir – a quite magical, weird, simple film about (as far as i could tell, given my version didn’t have English subtitles) an insurance geek who goes undercover at a car rental company, to see how it operates, how safe it is, and so on.

It stars Frederick Zoller, the sniper hero from Inglourious Basterds; and Rainer from Die Welle, a brutal, slovenly rogue in a yellow car.

Various Wittgenstein-related things i came across this year:

1. Two portraits of LW in Im Winter Ein Jahr (my present header is a screenshot), by Florian Süssmayr. i don’t remember seeing this expression in any of LW’s photographs and it’s not in the original photo (from ’29). The eyes seem exhausted and grimly determined. However, i think it expresses something of LW’s “inner life”, and is a little like the look in his last photograph (the last before his death, that is).

2. An odd pastiche of Wittgenstein, as he emerges in his journals and in various memoirs. i’m not sure how i feel about this. The author, an academic philosopher called Lars Iyer, came in for a Kurpian lambasting for writing idle gibberish, and the 3rd comment (Iyer’s associate Stephen Mitchelmore calling Kurp an “ignorant cunt”) doesn’t encourage sympathy. i’m not keen on this circle of fame-hungry bloggers. Mitchelmore’s review of one of Iyer’s books:

I think we ought to read only books that wound and stab us. Kafka’s letter, sent one hundred and eight years ago, is one I’ve quoted often enough and I’m reluctant to do so again. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us like a blow on the head, what are we reading for? Shouldn’t its grave romanticism be left to teenage goths? But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. But we’re all teenage goths now. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

Perhaps I’ve quoted the letter so often because it demands answers, answers to “what are we reading for?” and what kind of book constitutes such an axe. Answering the latter may help to answer the former. What books come to mind? Even if my head is rent daily by literary blows, I find it difficult to answer because knowing is the answer’s contradiction: knowing is the fridge freezer for ideas

“We’re all teenage goths now” forsooth; teenage goths who publicly sip absinthe, or at least something green, write troubled ruminations in Moleskin journals (which are then left lying around so people will read them); they then sneeringly acknowledge their pretentiousness, by saying grandly: “we are all teenage goths now”.

Two of my trolls were in this circle. A sample from one:

Sitting around talking about meaningful things that are in various stages of being established or destroyed–that is what I like the most.  Often I am dimly cognizant in the back of my mind of how, in spite of temporary errands and obstacles, essentially I am getting back to that scene, anticipated, at the white kitchen table. A couple friends are coming over, and it is always a summit, a strategy session, a bolstering of shared attitudes. In these neighborly events people become so individualized . . . it is outrageous. One person is funnier and more profound than the next–better than any fiction.  And then suddenly there is a shuddering undercurrent, as if we were all stranded, with unfinished plans and unresolved in a world of utterly important, plural meanings.  We are unique to each other, and it is all refracted, so we all go home with pieces of each other, but where everything starts and ends of course is with a person.  Why do I say this?  Stalled in traffic, riding on a river of cars, one is buoyed up by the thought of the sheer ground of ones being. In spite of any laughing critics, who can be turned off as easily as a car radio. One exists this way . . .

Is it surprising, that when they’re not sitting around talking about meaningful things that are in various stages of being established or destroyed, the teenage goths become teenage trolls? And they write a great deal, in a doomed vein, angling. The obscurity and isolation of their heroes is the one thing they don’t want. They want to be famous for being agonised and profound. Book signings, author profiles, interviews, royalties, conferences, adulation, etc. etc., all off the back of a well-professed despair.

i sometimes feel impatient with doomed writers like Beckett; i want to say, for god’s sake pull yourself together and either kill yourself or do something useful. But don’t write. This is rare: usually, Beckett’s humour, intelligence, style work a curious magic, and what could have been mere wallowing becomes – well, Beckett. Take away that wit and you have a teenage goth, though i can’t imagine Beckett, or Kafka, spewing trollish venom; or if so moved, i suppose they could manage something more accurate and inventive than “ignorant cunt”. One could hardly call Kurp ignorant, and there’s no evidence of cuntry on his blog – just a blunt, curmudgeonly matter-of-factness, which one could call the essence of Kurp. If i wanted to insult Kurp, i would call him a large, bald, bearded, tie-wearing, bespectacled Buckeyed defiler, a potato-eating brute with paving-slab-sized hands and wedge-shaped feet.

So i was surprised to enjoy much of Iyer’s Wittgenstein pastiche. Of course it is parasitic, in that some is just slightly rewritten Wittgenstein. However, i’ve found many good passages, for example:

To kill oneself – why is this move necessary?, he wonders. You would think that the will to die would be enough. That the desire to die should lead us straight to death. Isn’t it the case that in certain cultures, merely to repeat the words ‘I divorce you’ three times is sufficient to bring about a divorce? So should it be with the words ‘I renounce life’, if they are said three times.

The will to take one’s life: it asks too much, it demands too much, he says. You are weak, you have lost the measure of your strength – and now you have to strengthen yourself again? You have lain down you arms, thrown them aside – and now you have to take them up against yourself?

As far as i’m aware Wittgenstein never said or wrote this; though it is possible Iyers just lifted it from someone else. And:

He gives the sense of having read everything, but also of having forgotten everything.

The sense of having lived not one, but several lives.

Well. i think this project works because Iyers, the fashionable academic philosopher, writes from the perspective of one of his hero’s clueless, lukewarm students – recalling the academics who gobbled up Wittgenstein’s words then wrote their own “versions”, much to his ire. It’s true that there is something a little disgusting about an academic philosopher purloining a real philosopher’s life and words for his own amusement, and to make money of course, to publish and be cried up. And the whole thing preys parasitically upon Wittgenstein’s life & works (but then the author is an academic). However, it’s well done and often amusing; for example:

A visit to Wittgenstein’s rooms. You keep quiet when he offers you a gingerbread man, which he bought from Greggs. Wittgenstein Jr is a great admirer of Greggs, he says. He asks you whether you are acquainted with Greggs. Wittgenstein Jr knew nothing of Greggs until recently, he says. Now he is a convert, especially of the discount Greggs – ‘Have you been there?’ And then, with enthusaism, ‘You should! It’s very good, very cheap’.

One could forgive Iyers a great deal of fashionable gibberish, for writing this (for non-British readers, Greggs is ubiquitous, cheap, and produces low to medium quality fast food – it is a favourite resort of chavs).

3. One of my groups is on hold over Easter. They asked to reconvene on April 19th but i’m busy then, so i suggested the next Thursday – the 26th of April.

“Wittgenstein’s birthday,” i informed them gravely.

“We should bring Prosecco and cakes,” one said brightly. “We need an excuse to celebrate something.”

“Okay, i’ll bring booze and cakes.” And i told them the tale of his last birthday cake.

4. Another Wittgenstein portrait, by Anna Karelina.

A cross between Wittgenstein and Beckett – an astute reworking.

The problem is: How can we make preparations for the reception of something that may happen to exist?

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks, tr. Raymond Hargreaves and RogerWhite

(pic by Barbara Vidal)

i’ve now sat for 5 portraits with the same artist. Two really don’t look like me, in one i’m evidently falling asleep (i’d worked 16 hours the day before and slept very little), but this one is kind of me, kind of. i’m hard to paint because i have a weird face and my expressions change so much, so quickly.

Teachers are a funny lot. Some of my colleagues here at McLingua:

1. Burroughs. A late 60s American from Mormon country, a Nam & teaching veteran with a wonky right hip and a nice line in camp innuendo. He likes sharing filthy sexual jokes with me. He shuffles despondently about the school in his tracksuits and t-shirts, moaning “are we having fun yet?” and “oh God, here again”, “I deserve better than this” and “why am I still alive?”, however he lights up upon human contact, especially if there’s the potential for sexual innuendo. Whenever i complain about teaching too much, or teaching people i hate, he croaks: “well, we all put out for money, don’t we?” A cool guy.

2. Hayes. A bear of a man from New Jersey, bearded, crazy, and ample. He’s a rock musician and, to my surprise, good. i put together a kind-of interview with him, and mean to publish it here sometime. He has about ten dogs, mostly it seems rescued from abusive owners. Every teacher should have several dogs, even if they’re only in his head. His website is here and you can download an album for a fiver on itunes. Hayes seems like one of those affable, bearded high school teachers, the kind everyone likes and the parents adore, until he unexpectedly explains the difference between crack and cocaine and goes on to relate the time Richard Pryor ran past his house, his head on fire after cooking up crack. A sample lyric from Hayes:

Let’s go to Vegas and not Vietnam

Take in a show, maybe Celine Dion

We’ll die and go to heaven

When she sings the Titanic Song

3. Toddball. A tubby, jovial American, my age but seems much younger. He’s one of those smooth-faced all-American guys who, it turns out, has watched every film worth watching, studied Art History in Florence, speaks Italian, etc. A typical conversation:

me: Why did you leave America? Did you kill someone?

Toddball: Nearly. I was very drunk and ran someone over.

me: Jesus. Did you kill him?

Toddball: I’m not sure. I tried to drive off but I was prevented by a gang of angry Puerto Ricans. They were all shouting, ‘hey you just ran this guy over!’ and then he got up and ran away so I don’t know if he lived or not. Maybe he curled up in an alley somewhere, and died slowly, alone.

He doesn’t read anything but speaks as i imagine an Elizabethan Londoner would, schooled by seeing the plays of Webster, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, except in Toddball’s case it’s the cinema of Michael Mann and Wes Anderson. He unselfconsciously says things like: “if we do this real slick, no one gets hurt and we come out ahead.”

4. The rapist. A 50-something Londoner, one of the few Brits here. He’s fat, balding, usually wears a suit, and talks like an East End crook trying to pass himself off as a businessman. His voice and manner is a little strange, because he’s made a not wholly convincing effort to cover up his naturally bestial nature. He taught in Japan for 15 years but left for vague reasons, no doubt rape-related. When he came to Munich last summer he had little work, while Toddball (who arrived at the same time) got 40 hours a week. i tried to suggest other schools, but nothing seemed to come of them (he got one job at a car company but stormed out after a student said he was going on a business trip for 5 weeks; he apparently shouted: “what about me, then? What am I supposed to do for 5 weeks!”)

i tried to help him when he came but began to back away when i realised he hated almost everyone in McLingua. For example, of Burroughs he said viciously: “that fucking fag Burroughs gets all this fucking work an’ I don’t get nothing, mate! He should be fucking retired, not taking my work!” (i tried to explain that Burroughs has slowly built up a network of students over 30 years, and they WANT Burroughs – the rapist jeered: “darnt gimme that!”); of Hayes he said: “that fucking Hayes, right? Thinks he owns the place, he does”; and Toddball was simply “that cunt”.

He is grotesquely sweet to women, trying to chat up every single potential victim, with a relentless salesman’s patter, even going to the point of buying (or saying he had bought) Valentine’s Day chocolates for a woman 30 years his junior. As soon as their backs are turned he stares fixedly at their asses. Once he gyrated his groin, leering at me and then nodding over to his departing victim. When she was out of sight he said: “Would you do her mate? Would you do her doggy style?”

i’m not one to cast stones but all the same, i shudder somewhat at the disparity between his bland, smiling patter and the purposeful, cold-eyed stare. It is only a matter of time before he commits another rape.

5. Michael. A mid-20s New Yorker, in appearance a brutal, criminal thug; about 5′ 11″ but wide like a troll, with a huge, neanderthal skull. He wears sports clothing and a lurid green baseball cap. He has been in Munich about 3 months and slept with two of the admin staff, three students, and i think at least some of the female teachers. At first i thought he was an idiot – for example, he can’t teach grammar because his own grammar is very limited, and a teacher needs to consult his innate grammar, to consider what sounds right, and WHY. But if you never use the conditionals or Present Perfect, Past Perfect, etc., this is impossible.

However, i’ve come to like him and realise he has a kind of compelling mental or imaginative energy, it’s just not analytical or intellectual. He’s a great story-teller. Just last week he told me the following tale:

“Oh man it’s like a ROCKIN day! I was goin out my flat and I thought, I’m gonna get laid today. With some girl I never fuckin seen before. It’s gonna happen, I can fuckin FEEL it. It’s destiny like God talkin to me and saying, Mike today you will get laid. Thirty fuckin seconds out my door and this girl hands me a leaflet for German sausages. I take it and say, I call this number I get through to you or what the fuck? And she says no. So I THREW IT TO THE GROUND and said, baby, I got my own sausage right here, you can taste it RIGHT NOW. And she goes like, ugh you’re sick! I laughed and then I swear, fuckin thirty seconds later another girl does the exact same fuckin thing with some other shit, and I try to get her number and she just walks off. Ha! Then I’m in the university quarter and there’s this fuckin guy with some fuckin t-shirt, it says, right here, “fuck you”. Wrong fuckin thing to wear today. I go up to him and shout, right in his fuckin face: “FUCK YOU” [jabbing his finger for added effect]. And he’s like, was was was was? So I’m like, hey, it’s your t-shirt bro’, and he says like ohhhhh, then I shouted again FUCK YOU in his face.”

Words can only do so much here. Imagine an enormous, criminal troll, dressed in fluorescent green sports clothing, lunging at you and screaming FUCK YOU while jabbing a finger at your chest, and you get the idea. To continue:

“Then I’m walkin down the fuckin street and I hear some girl go, hey cutie! So I whip round and say, who said that? Who the fuck said that? And there’s these three black girls, giggling. So I walk over and say, hey, I don’t chase girls – they chase me. So chase me. And I walk off.”

There was more but this post is already too long. Today I met Michael and he told me he ended up brawling with four bouncers on Saturday. He has a slightly swollen eye, “not bad” as he put it, given the fight ended with him on the ground with four bouncers kicking him in the head and torso. By his own account he knocked one out and slugged another in the guts. He seemed quite cheerful about it all.

We go deep to dispel the very notion of depth.

(Tai Chi Heartwork)

i am still alive and i have enough work to survive and buy the occasional Schnitzel. i feel chipper at present – a familiar consequence of suddenly having enough money, after a year of destitution & sordid grimmance. i even have some free time, as i more & more teach at a German car company, who pay twice as much as McLingua (and so i can survive without having to teach 12 hours a day). i refused to continue with the Peruvian bitch group after a particularly hellish lesson, and my retard group ended, so i now have a fairly good schedule.

i only have one difficult group, difficult because it’s big, i never know who will turn up, and each student has quite different demands, expectations, etc. There’s a dry-as-dust lawyer who wants grammar and seriousness; two guys who just want to chat; 3 girls who talk (loudly) to each other in German, ignoring everyone else, and then complain and say the lesson isn’t relevant to their hyper-specialised departments; and so on.

Germans are not an easy bunch. They aren’t, on the whole, very talkative, and they do like to complain. A few have had enough different teachers to have some realistic perspective. Perhaps some have some idea what it means, to teach a language. And most are fairly decent. But there are always some filthy Bosche.

The filthy Bosche fall into several categories but the two chief malebolge:

1. The tourist: Fritz doesn’t really expect or want to improve her English, she just likes leaving her office and getting some networking and chit-chat, preferably in German. She generally gives one-word answers to all questions, but will chatter volubly in Bosche with her filthy accomplices.

2. The complaining bitch: Hermann expects the teacher to transfer English directly into her brain, without any effort or even minimal participation on her part. Hermann thinks that, just as you pay for your Schnitzel and it is delivered, so her company has paid for English and it should therefore be delivered into her brain. She doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t want to answer any questions, is highly suspicious of roleplays, will at most tolerate grammar drills. She complains about everything. She is angry that her English isn’t perfect; she blames her teacher.

i enjoy most of my classes but no longer have much interest in the job. i turn up, chat, correct grammar, think of roleplays, questions, go home. i am a better teacher than most; i’m now probably as good as anyone i know. But i get very little done. Beginners can improve, but it is rare for intermediate students to do more than learn a few new words and get a little more comfortable with the language. Their grammar rarely changes. And most of my students are intermediate, and usually too old to absorb new grammar.

i can teach grammar drills but it’s like dropping a supposed catalyst into a solution – it should transform everything but instead it just falls to the bottom and lies there, inert. The students get the grammar drills right; but none of it carries over into spontaneous conversation. i suspect they need a certain (vast) amount of practice to absorb the grammar drills; for the catalyst to react.

But even then, they also need the right attitude; they need to feel it is important, or nothing will happen. My father, for example, has lived in England for the last 50 years and still says things like “well eghhhh I am taking this pills for 10 year, eghhhhh”, because he doesn’t care about language. Most of my students respond to error correction by batting it away as irrelevant. i now recognise a particular “don’t bother me with details” look, and know there is no point even trying to teach them. This is the case with most of my students. They say things like “I think his meaning is different as mine. For 2 days I have became a documentation over this” no matter how many times i correct and drill.

My own expectations change. i no longer think grammar very important, as long as the students don’t sound too much like brain-damaged neanderthals. Relevant vocabulary, listening comprehension, and fluency, are far more important than acquiring rarefied grammars (e.g. the 3rd Conditional, Past Perfect Progressive, Future Perfect Passive).

The grammar will never sink in without enormous quantities of speaking practice. To understand, e.g. the different conditionals probably requires hundreds (or thousands) of different examples, over a child’s first few years, and the child absorbs grammar as an adult generally cannot. To expect a 40-year-old student to get to this level after a 90 minute lesson – idiocy but no one wants to come out and say it.

I no longer really think of myself as a teacher. It isn’t, i think, possible to teach a language (or perhaps anything). All one can do is help the student learn. If the student is unwilling to learn, if he won’t come out halfway – and they generally won’t – there is, as the Bosche say, “no chance”.

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