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i’m occasionally surprised to come across new old stuff about Wittgenstein. i just found these:
1. 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein, an odd kind of website.
2. Russell croaks on about Wittgenstein:
3. Osho on Wittgenstein. Some of what he says, the historical things, are just wrong (e.g. claiming that the Tractatus was Wittgenstein’s “lecture notes”); some is interesting to me, for example:
He never wrote any other books in a different fashion — it became his style just to write notes, fragments.
The fame of the book proved that when you write an essay your idea has to be spread all over the essay and it loses its intensity, its sharpness. It becomes more understandable but less penetrating. When it is just like a maxim, a bare, naked statement with no decorations around it, it simply hits deeper, although it will be understood by only very few people — people who have the capacity to see in the seed the whole tree, which is not yet existent but is only a potentiality. And a man can see in the seed the whole tree.
Wittgenstein’s statements are just like seeds. You will have to figure them out, what potential they have. He does not give you any clue, he simply puts the seed in front of you and goes ahead putting down other seeds. He never tries to connect them; you will have to connect them.
I, on my part, would rather have seen Wittgenstein sitting at the feet of Gurdjieff than studying with Moore and Russell. That was the right place for him, but he missed. Perhaps next time, I mean next life… for him, not for me. For me this is enough, this is the last. But for him, at least once he needs to be in the company of a man like Gurdjieff or Chuang Tzu, Bodhidharma — but not Moore, Russell, not Whitehead. He was associating with these people, the wrong people. A right man in the company of wrong people, that’s what destroyed him.
Wittgenstein can become awakened; he could have become awakened even in this life. Alas, he associated with wrong company. But his book can be of great help to those who are really third-degree insane. If they can make any sense out of it, they will come back to sanity.
4. i’ve been reading a lot of Thomas Bernhard recently. A deeply strange, tormented individual who respected Wittgenstein and loathed Heidegger. i suppose one could say that Wittgenstein, among many other writers and artists, helped Bernhard come a bit closer to sanity. Here is a picture of Bernhard looking relatively sane:
i came to study Wittgenstein through Bernhard. Shortly after moving to Manchester in 2007 – about 5 minutes’ walk from Wittgenstein’s old student digs, though i didn’t know it then – i chanced upon Bernhard’s Correction in the Manchester library. i had a vague idea he was supposed to be good so had a look; that the introduction was by George Steiner moved me to read it, and i remember having vivid, coloured dreams for the first time in months (the drab, oppressive work i did tended to dull my imagination in both the waking and dreaming world). Steiner claimed that the hero, Rotheimer, was based on Wittgenstein, and so the next time i was in the library, and saw, by chance, Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein biography, i decided to read it.
During his lifetime, Bernhard attracted considerable scorn and derision from the apple polishing literary/journalistic classes, which i can understand given what Steiner calls the “monotonous buzzsaw of hatred” in his works towards his homeland of Austria, Salzburg, and nefarious, educated apple polishers. Still, his critics – urbane, well-fed men of the world, men without anguish, men without qualms or doubts of any kind – are now totally forgotten, and Bernhard is still read. Although Bernhard makes absolutely no attempt to prettify himself, i feel a deep readerly affection for his curmudgeonly character and books. He is Samuel Beckett without the goodness and most of the humour, but with added spite and murderous rage – but the gift for writing is, i would say, roughly as strong, and that redeems a great deal. Beckett died on December 22, 1989, Bernhard on February 12 of the same year.
Enjoyable documentary about Martin Heidegger.
Its BBC so i’m unsure if there are too many gross distortions or outright lies, but i gather much of it is sound – that he was a Nazi Party member from the start, that he ratted on colleagues, even fabricating rumours to damn them, out of spite. i only know his philosophy via George Steiner’s superb Heidegger, which is well worth seeking out (i found a copy in the Huddersfield public library 10 years ago, probably now tossed in the garbage for being less popular than Dan Brown et al). i wanted to start reading Being & Time at university, but in the introduction the translator says (as translators always do) that it’s impossible to translate Heidegger, so i promptly returned the book and decided to try again when i could read German (this is about 14 years ago and i still can’t manage). Here’s a picture of the man himself:
Heidegger was born exactly 5 months after Wittgenstein and 5 months and a week after Hitler, and exactly one year after TS Eliot. He died when i was a couple of months old, comfortingly. He seems to have been a deeply awful and hypocritical human being, a publicly fervent Nazi and anti-semite who had a Jewish lover, a profound philosopher who publicly backed a rabble of gutter scum, a shameless apple polisher (German Streber) and willing Gestapo informant. Some men are contradictory or inconsistent; Heidegger, i would say, was merely a hypocrite (with the original Greek sense of the word in the background). Here’s an amusing reading from Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters, on the subject of Heidegger:
Some books i’ve read or been reading recently:
1. Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. i was a big Ondaatje fan in my youth but lost interest after reading Anil’s Ghost and Divisadero. He’s a peculiar writer; his imagination works primarily through images, one reason The English Patient worked so well as a film. However, he’s not particularly interested in, or good at, plot or characterisation, so the conventional Anil’s Ghost bored me, and the fragmented Divisadero bored me for completely opposite reasons – the images just not interesting enough. i gave up on him, assuming he had lost the genius of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. The Cat’s Table is surprisingly good, however. i was particularly bemused to find his characters fairly good – i had assumed he couldn’t do character after i noted that it was impossible to detect who was speaking in The English Patient, from the words alone; so Hanna, a 20-year-old French Canadian nurse speaks in exactly the same voice as Caravaggio, a 40-something Italian thief, and so on. By contrast, when i was writing my Tolkien thesis i came across one of my scrawled quotes, mistakenly thought it was Gandalf but could only maintain this error for a few seconds; the voice simply felt wrong, then i checked and found i was right, it was Aragorn. The Cat’s Table is the first Ondaatje book i’ve read where the speakers have their own voices. The characterisation is still faint, as if the characters are subsumed to the imagery; however, the imagery is powerful enough.
2. Gisli Sursson’s Saga, part of The Sagas of the Icelanders collection. By modern standards these are not literature, more like written down folk tales and local lore. But then critics like to create distinctions then pontificate about genre and high and low literature and puerile trash and airport fiction and other things; a bit like Aristotle writing about Sophocles in the Poetics, his limited judgements being taken for universal and god-given laws by playwrights like Racine. i’ve been watching Werner Herzog interviews and note he often cites ancient literature, e.g. Livy, the Eddas, the Bible. Here, he reads from Völuspá:
In one of his interviews, explaining why he only watches a handful of films a year, Herzog says, half-jokingly, that he doesn’t need to watch many films because he created cinema (he didn’t even know films existed until he was 11). Elsewhere, he notes that in his rural youth, in a small village near the Austrian border, he and his friends invented a weapon, for hurling objects, which he later learnt was used by human beings a good 20,000 years ago. To be genuinely inventive and not merely a fashionable artist, it is better to be closer to Livy or the 16th Century than one’s actual time & place. It’s not that the 16th Century was better or worse than ours; but it is sufficiently distant, that from there one can regard the present with the right mixture of disinterest and curiosity.
Gisli Sursson’s Saga is a typically disconcerting tale of massacres, vengeance, exile, cunning, disguise, and yet more massacres. Gisli is the kind of person you wouldn’t want in your life, an impulsive killer who spends most of the tale on the run from his enemies. The tale doesn’t side with him; nor does it side against him: the tone throughout is matter-of-fact, as if this is just how things are and it is worth writing down. In the end, Gisli is cornered and fights to the death against his enemy Eyjolf and various henchmen:
Then Eyjolf said to Helgi the Spy, ‘You would win great acclaim if you were the first to climb the ridge and attack Gisli – a deed of heroism that would long be remembered.’
‘I’ve often noticed,’ said Helgi, ‘that you usually want other people in front of you when there’s any danger. Since you urge me so profoundly, I’ll attempt it, but you must show enough courage to come with me and keep close behind – that is, if you’re not a completely toothless bitch.’
If the sagas ever take sides, it could be said they prize courage and manliness, regardless of the individual – so some brave, manly men are clearly sociopathic nutters; but at least there is usually some kind of logic to their slaughters, and they are true to their friends. Today, courage and manliness are still lauded in action films but generally in a cartoonish, Die Hard kind of way, as if this is the only possible way to be a manly man. The sagas were to some degree historical, so i imagine these things really did happen: hence the matter-of-fact tone:
A man named Svein was the first to attack Gisli, but Gisli struck at him, cleft him through the shoulder blades and threw him off the edge of the crag. The others began to wonder where this man’s capacity for slaughter was going to end.
3. i’ve begun re-reading Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. It was written sometime in the 14th Century in the Midlands so is almost impossible to understand; German helps a little, as some of the words are similar to modern German:
With all the wele of the worlde thay woned ther samen
(Modern German wohnen and zusammen).
It is a little strange to consider that one of the greatest geniuses in human history lived somewhere in the Midlands about 600-700 years ago and left no name or record, just Sir Gawain and maybe three other poems (Pearl, Cleanness, Patience). It is a profound and strange work, in many ways what we could call post-modern, but not in the look-at-me-I’m-so-clever way of the modern author. You could indeed read it without noticing the intertextual depths. It’s a startling and unplaceable poem, a work of (relatively) modern mythology; and so it’s fitting that we don’t know the author, just as we don’t know who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh or if Homer really existed. Whereas Chaucer influenced Shakespeare (and i think Chaucer was influenced by Dante), it seems unlikely that anybody had even heard of this poem until the manuscript re-emerged in the 19th Century. i find this very pleasing.
As with Dante and Shakespeare, there are mysteries here in plain sight; they are protected by the pace and tone, so you could skim past them without really noticing, or dismiss them with a scholarly footnote. Here is the entry of the Green Knight:
Ther hales in at the halle dor an aghlich mayster,
On the most in the molde on mesure hyghe,
Fro the swyre to the swange so sware and so thik,
And his lyndes and his lymes so long and so grete,
Half etayn in erde I hope that he were;
Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene,
And that the myriest in his muckel that myght ride,
For of bak and of brest al were his bodi sturne,
Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale,
And all his fetures folwande in forme that he hade, ful clene.
For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And overal enker-grene.
(when there comes in at the hall door a fearsome lord, the very biggest in the world in his tall stature, from the neck to the waist so square and so thick-set, and his sides and his limbs so long and so large, that I believe he may have been half-giant indeed; but at any rate I consider him to be the biggest of men, and the handsomest of his size who might (ever) ride horse, for although in back and breast his body was strong, both his stomach and his waist were becomingly small, and all his parts (were) in keeping with his shape, without exception. Men wondered at his colour, plain to see in his face; he bore himself like a man of battle, and he was bright green all over.)
There’s a good article on the poem by Alan Garner here. i’ve skimmed through two modern English translations and found both unsatisfactory. The most one could do is translate it into sparse prose, as John Sinclair did with Dante. Over the last 15 years, i’ve read Gawain at least 6 times now and always in the original, flicking between the huge footnotes and the Middle English. It’s not merely that you lose tone and complexity in translation; it’s sufficiently close to modern English that you can read it with a glossary (i.e. the grammar is the same), and with mythological texts it pays to read them in the original, where practical. For reading, like many other things, is not merely the absorption of information to be used and then filed away or discarded; reading transforms you (as in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash). With most books this is a superficial and soon-forgotten influence; with works like Sir Gawain it is, or can be, much more thorough.
i continue to make slight progress with German. After 3.3 years, i can still just barely hold down a conversation, if my interlocutor makes an effort to speak German instead of Bavarian, and to speak slowly and clearly. It is a weird and unsettling language; by contrast, Italian and French seem intuitive and logical. A couple of years ago the Viking – who speaks passable if American-accented gay manga German after living in Würzburg for a decade – said i should stick to Italian and not even try to learn German; he expanded, saying i would find Italian easier because i am swarthy and short, whereas German would be hard because i am not the right race. The Viking, as the name suggests, is blonde-haired and blue-eyed.
i don’t feel my genes are the problem. For one thing, some of the greatest German writers (e.g. Kafka, Celan) were and looked Jewish, whereas there were plenty of blonde-haired, blue-eyed deathcamp guards who left no great contributions to the German language. My most obvious problems are understandable: the only friends i regularly talk to don’t speak German; my job requires me to use English and to not merely refrain from giving German translations but to ignore or chastise students who use German; i am often overwhelmed by the unrelenting social stimulation of my job, and just want to be alone in my free time.
There is a deeper problem, that is, an inability to inhabit the language, to feel it as a real human language and not just a series of made-up grunting noises. Although i can’t speak French, it at least sounds like a real language when i hear it spoken, and i was able to convert my Dantean Italian into comprehensible spoken Italian after a few weeks in Padova. German always sounds Gothic and forested and excitingly gruesome to me. They call meat Fleisch; you can buy Fleischsalat, should you so desire. They have names like Wolfgang and Gudrun. They eat Schweinebraten (roast pork). i see this cowled monk everywhere in Munich:
He is Das Münchner Kindl, the Munich child, official coat of arms for the city.
It has a sterlingly Teutonic, badass Catholic look to it. In England, such a symbol would have been replaced with a Koran or black lesbian dwarf Marxist, or perhaps Jade Goody. But in Germany, there are limits to modernity. They like their smart phones and BMWs but for preference they spend their free time hiking or skiing rather than clubbing. i have a Realschule student who has read Goethe and Thomas Mann and Hesse, and the Gymnasium students all seem fluent in Ancient Greek and Latin by the age of 18. And their language is a thing of misty forests and cackling witches. i sometimes violate the McLingua rules and use the odd German word or phrase in class; apparently, i pronounce these “like Mr Hitler”. This is because at times the language seems to want to be spoken so, with guttural force and barbaric rage:
At times, i say, though whenever Germans get heated, or shout, or talk through loudspeakers, it invariably sounds like a Nazi rally (i once heard a Salvation Army speech, in Kassel, which sounded like one of Hitler’s kill-the-Jews and steal-their-gold-teeth speeches, but was in fact about universal love and brotherhood).
Language is one of the main forces in, and influences on, a culture. English, with its grammatical looseness, openness to slang and fruitful error, general illogic, is not readily apt to the theoretical; to speak good English you need thousands of hours of practice, to get a feel for the individual cases, the idioms and slang, the music of it. To speak good German you need thousands of hours of practice, to memorise rules, noun genders, and to apply the rules without thought. Germans are, on the whole, in love with precision and order; hence BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, Volkswagen. i’m sure this is in some way encoded in their language.
But then there is the other side, the Wotan aspect as Jung might say.
My favourite Germans are atypical, open to wildness and chaos and disorder; they usually take to me immediately, because i seem so ungermanic to them, yet not as disreputable and corrupt as, for example, an Italian.
The success of German business seems to do with a just about workable meeting of these two seemingly opposed aspects. i guess the wilder element is ancient, but i wonder just how far the clean and shiny and orderly impulse goes. The language is older than English – the primeval Germanic languages seem to have taken form about 500 BC, whereas English as we would recognise it only dates back to about AD 1500 (the English of 14th Century London is kind of comprehensible but if you go north, to the Midlands, it is virtually incomprehensible). English took elements from Celtic (grammar rather than vocab), Latin, Dark Age German and Scandinavian, 11th C Norman French, and Greek. German is full of loan words from English but it retains a stark individuality and strangeness. Listening to German really is like going back in time a couple of thousand years, to some enormous and sentient black forest full of bears and cripples and gypsies and moustachoied sorcerers and wolves and mud huts and fur-clad axemen and two giant ravens and a murder of crows and angry blonde maidens (with axes) and cold snowmelt rivers with black clear water and Werner Herzog and groves where the wind shakes those hanging from the ancient trees, and stinking peasant villages where you smell the Schweinebraten from afar but it is in fact human flesh, and abandoned forts, crumbling and half-sunk in vegetation and moss, and in the night a voice crawls out of the pillow and it speaks:
When i speak Italian i can feel my body change, as the centre of gravity shifts higher, as if into my chest so i feel i am expostulating from my heart. The language itself determines what you can say, and thus how you think & even feel. With German, this is not so easy. i often lapse into a Rammstein/Hitler kind of German, because i feel this is how the language is; but this is like a German talking about tea at 4 and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, to improve his English. My problem with German is an inability to consistently enter into another world; compared to Italian it may as well be a wholly alien reality. It feels like going back in time, a good thousand years at least. i guess most learners don’t have this problem, but then most people aren’t sensitive to language. As ever, my peculiarities only hinder me; they never, or rarely, help. However, i feel that if i am to exit the ordinary world and my extant self, i require a great test of this sort – to unlearn modernity and re-enter the forest, where things begin.
Hans-Gert Mahrholz (10. October 1918 – 13. February 2012), commander of submarine U309.
Mahrholz was a friend of one of my students and, reportedly, one of the templates for the Captain in Das Boot. The old man evidently still had charisma and will.
Yesterday, i started reading Zoo Station by David Downing, a WW2 era thriller akin to those of Alan Furst; not as well-written as Furst but more than competent and a good read. This period is irresistible, in part because you have straightforward, heart-on-sleeve villains (the Nazis), the more complicatedly hypocritical arch-villains (the Communists), and those who seem to be shining knights by comparison (just about everyone else). i think the fascination is also because, for some reason, the personalities of this time seem greater than ours. The top Nazis, like the top Communists, were largely base and disgusting people; but there were also so many grand characters in this time, e.g. Claus von Stauffenberg, Canaris, Patton, Churchill; this seems impossible in our days, or rather extremely difficult (as one sees with a “character” like Boris Johnson, who seems to play the media very well, presenting himself as a good story).
Our culture seems to be becoming increasingly uniform, akin to the Soviet Union – to be successful you must fit neatly into a pigeonhole; you must be malleable. Above a certain level, eccentricity is permitted, within limits, but you can’t get to that level without masquerading as bland and functional. One of my students, a Russian mountain climber, said that none of her colleagues are normal, that all of them are unusual. It is similar in teaching; there are some normal teachers – usually women whose partners have a good job in Germany – but on the whole, teachers are unusual. It is perhaps one of the few niches for eccentricity in our culture.
When i think back on the 5 years i wasted in office work in England, my mistake was to try to survive in such an environment of uniformity. Only the apple polishers and insect people can flourish in these places; the rest tend to be forced back into a corner, into a crack in the wall.
i often doubt there is a place for me in this world, where i could do other than just barely survive. It seems a world for apple polishers, content, belly-patting pigs for whom all is rosy and this is the best of all possible worlds. However, when i reflect on other times, the war for example, i see that there have been many times & places where my peculiarities would have been useful, in some way. Apple polishers, like cockroaches, will always thrive; there is no system or society inimical to a polisher. It is harder for people like me, but not impossible. i don’t have my war yet, only teaching – good enough, for now.
A film i made using two of my colleagues, Heather and Toddball, as protagonists. Heather is Irish, from a small town called Gorey, and Toddball is from Chicago. Michael is an animal we worked with, a brute and a swaggering liar and seducer.
Von einem gewissen Punkt an gibt es keine Rückkehr mehr. Dieser Punkt ist zu erreichen.
From a certain point there is no return. You must reach this point.
(Kafka, Zurau Aphorisms)
Last night i watched Django Unchained. The trailer gives you a reasonable idea of the tone and content:
i didn’t expect to like it too much; after Inglorious Basterds i guessed it would be simplistic “white man bad, black man good” stuff, especially given Jamie Foxx’s statement:
“I play a slave. How black is that? I have to wear chains. How whack is that? But don’t worry. I get free. I save my wife and I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that?”
i find this kind of fashionable racism wearying. Imagine how it would go down if Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt said: “I get to kill all the black people/Jews in the film, how great is that?”
The film is actually extremely good, i believe the best thing Tarantino’s done since Pulp Fiction. As with all Tarantino films, the acting, cinematography, soundtrack, and dialogue are excellent. But unlike the fun, cartoon-like Inglorious Basterds, it rewards contemplation. It’s a harrowing film. Slavery has a long history; in other cultures, long ago, there wasn’t (always) the sense that a slave was a different species. The lot of black slaves in America was notably worse than in most other slave communities. They were regarded as a different species, as not being exactly human. i’m sure there were benign slave-masters, but i’m sure there were also monsters and psychopaths, as in Django Unchained.
There are always monsters, in every society; they often seek out positions of authority, where they can exercise their desires over others. Tarantino does a good job of portraying the variegated scum of the big house, from DiCaprio’s psychopathic dandy, Calvin Candie, to his ditzy Southern belle sister, Samuel L Jackson’s alternately menacing and servile butler, and the various white trash thugs who keep order with guns, whips, and dogs. There are moments where this seems to take place not in a Southern plantation but in Hell; the overwhelming moral sickness of the slaver class, who are able to carry on a normal life with more or less normal human emotions, while torturing and murdering other human beings, is more horrifying than a slasher flick.
There will always be monsters but slaver societies give them free hand, in certain areas. To teach that some people are less than human, are just property, is to open a dark door in the soul. As DiCaprio’s slave lord says: “Broomhilde is my property. And I can choose to do with my property whatever I so desire.” This attitude, that other human beings are property, things, meat, encourages all that is worst in the human spirit. Ordinarily, it only exists in psychopaths; in a slave culture, it is extended, offered as a temptation, to everyone of the master class. It exists as a possibility in many people, as i saw in my many temp jobs: at least four of my managers (all women) regarded their staff as just things, property; with the permanent workers they didn’t dare exercise their mastery, but with temps there were no restraints: temps have no rights, are just things. A manager can say anything, do anything, to a temp, and if he doesn’t smile and take it the manager can call the agency and get him blacklisted. i often heard permanent workers and managers refer to the temps as: temps or agency staff, as if we were just things, for example: “Nah, I can’t be arsed with that, get one of the temps to do it” or “it don’t matter, they’re just temps”. They could do and say anything to us, because we were just scum, temps.
Django Unchained is particularly good on this. The slaver class are vividly and hideously portrayed. It isn’t, however, a simplistic black/white matter. Samuel L Jackson’s butler, Steven, is every bit as grotesque and evil as the whites, having cosied up to the rulers and as it were transcended his race. In this, i am reminded of a remark in Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, regarding one of the deathcamp bosses, recruited from murderers to rule over the rest of the prisoners: “he was a boss like all bosses”. As long as one is a boss, a manager, in the slaver mode, you are so.
Tarantino is an adept and habitual intertextualist (for example, Django’s wife is called Broomhilde von Shaft). In casting Christoph Waltz as the benign German bounty hunter, Dr Schultz, he makes unexpected allusion to Inglorious Basterds, another film about a slaver class (the Nazis) and the uprising of supposedly subhuman slaves (Jews). i can’t think he cast Waltz just because he’s a good actor; i believe he is deliberately inviting us to parallel the two films. In Inglorious Basterds, Waltz plays the excellently evil SS Colonel Hans Landa, the “Jew hunter”:
In Django Unchained, the same actor plays the only German in the film, who is also one of the very few good characters. His Germanness is not incidental. He is portrayed as more cultured, more civilised, and in addition to German, he speaks French, and better English than most of the Americans.
DiCaprio’s repulsive dandy slave lord, Candie, is a Francophile but Dr Schultz is warned not to use French with him because he can’t speak it – he merely affects French manners (his slaves call him Monsieur Candie). Candie calls one of his slaves D’Artagnan and has him killed by dogs. Django and Dr Schultz watch this, Django impassively; Schultz looks “green about the gills”, in Candie’s mocking words, to which Django replies: “I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is”.
Later, in the mansion, Candie’s airy sister plays Beethoven’s Für Elise on a harp. Schultz listens with discomfort, amid flashbacks to D’Artagnan being torn apart by Candie’s dogs; he interjects softly: “Excuse me. Excuse me, madam” and then, when she ignores him: “Could you please stop playing Beethoven?”
Candie asks, cheerfully, why Schultz is so agitated.
Schultz: Actually i was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, d’Artagnan, and i was wondering what Dumas would make of all this
Candie: Come again?
Schultz: Alexander Dumas, he wrote The Three Muskateers, I figured you must be an admirer, you named your slave after his novel’s lead character. Now if Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would have made of it.
Candie: You doubt he’d approve.
Schultz: His approval would be a dubious proposition at best.
There is really no need to have made Schultz German – it would indeed have made more sense, within the film, had he been French (given Candie’s Francophilia). i think Tarantino is inviting a comparison between the two films. Simple: white slavers are like Nazis, therefore blacks are like Jews. More complex: one of the very few good characters in Django Unchained is also the only German and is played by the actor made famous for playing the Jew Hunter, SS Colonel Hans Landa, and he explicitly holds up European culture against the barbarity of the New World, of the nouveau riche, the pretentious Francophile who can’t speak French and the slaver’s sister who plays Beethoven and turns a blind eye to the murder and torture and oppression which funds her lifestyle; and indeed, she turns a blind eye to all that Beethoven opposed, both artistically and as a human being.
George Steiner has often observed that some Nazis were cultured human beings, for example Hitler was widely read and had a pretty good knowledge of opera and classical music; likewise, the gruesome Reinhard Heydrich. And one can imagine Hans Landa as a cultured fellow, relaxing to Brahms or Beethoven after a hard day’s work, with his huge pipe. i think Tarantino is making a delicately complex point here – that in some times & places evil will be located in a particular form, in a particular nation & culture, and that if you go forwards or backwards in time a few decades this same nation will be the bastion of civilised humanity. So in Inglorious Basterds, the heroes are the Americans and the Germans are on the whole monsters; but a few decades earlier it is the exact obverse. The descendant of the white hillbilly slavers will be Aldo Raine; the descendant of the good German will be SS Colonel Landa.
This is not to suggest that we should just throw our hands up and accept no order to things, but rather to understand evil as a sophisticated and highly labile human phenomenon; that each individual must make the choice and even if his culture is inclined rather to tyranny or freedom, each person will be held to account for his actions. In this, Tarantino – whatever his personal politics or character – hasn’t made a pro-black or anti-white film, but rather a film which acknowledges the currents of brutality or delicacy in a culture, and in people; a film which is broadly in favour of delicacy and courage, and opposed to brutality and cowardice. i don’t think one can extract a coherent and neat philosophy from the film; but there are certainties, to which one could hold: for example, that one should not play Beethoven if one lives in a slaver’s mansion.
1. People often ask me, when are you going back to England, why did you come to Germany, don’t you miss your family and friends, etc. The short answer is this video:
i believe DJ Smile is standing outside the Huddersfield Job Centre, a place i know well, intimately you might say, as i proved unemployable for a good 3 years after graduating and so stayed with my father in, yes, Huddersfield, slowly mouldering away and losing my marbles. Huddersfield, and Leeds, and Manchester, and Bradford, and Durham – to name only those cities of which i have some knowledge – are full of curious people of this type. Every male between 10 and 40 looks so. Those below 10 are in a state of unformed malevolence, as yet bearing no distinct character, save intermittent hatreds and beastliness, but striving towards full chavhood with every Alcopop/random beating; those above are merely deranged with drink, drugs, age, and fortnightly appointments at the Job Centre The females are actually more or less identical to the males but that they have their hair pulled untenderly back that their eyes might bulge with promise, hideously.
2. i’ve been unsuccessfully trying to write something good on my old GDR typewriter:
– god knows why though i suppose it beats hanging myself or arguing with swaggering oafs on youtube or blogs. DG (not DJ) Myers writes of typewriters:
In a message that I sent just now, I intended to write “west side” and wrote “wide side” instead (and only noticed after sending the message). I do this all the time. I never used to do it at all.
By the time I was about to type out the word west my mind was already on the word side, and so I hamfistedly combined them. But still. I seem to see things differently on a computer screen. The eye scans words on a screen, but focuses upon words on paper. (You too read faster on a computer, I’d bet, but also absorb less of the content.) From a very early age, before I was even out of grammar school, I wrote on a manual typewriter, teaching myself on an old Underwood. The words I would hammer out on it, taking shape letter by letter, were tangible. They left indentations in the paper. The verso felt like braille.
i no longer write anything except blog posts on my computer, mainly out of contrariness. However, i also read differently on screen – as Myers says, i scan. i noticed this with poetry, which i can’t read on screen, at least not more than a few lines, i think because it takes greater mental energy than prose and i can’t raise this energy on screen. Writing on a typewriter poses different problems. One is that i type very quickly, so my hands often race ahead of thought and since there’s no delete key, i’m stuck with a lame sentence and no easy means of correction. On computer i habitually write and delete and write and delete, so quickly i’m barely aware of it; i have the illusion of writing something in 20 minutes with minimal or no editing but in fact i’ve probably deleted and rewritten every sentence at least once, some many times. With the typewriter i have to consciously slow down.
It’s not that i write random gibberish, but it takes a few seconds to gather my attention and wait for the right, or half-right, or miserable and just barely comprehensible word. i have become accustomed to computers, where i can begin writing out my first, wretched thoughts, delete it halfway and write something better; it’s hard to slow down and sift through the words without actually writing anything. It’s actually almost impossible for me to get the right word without first writing the wrong word or words, many of them, hundreds, billions perhaps. Hence, i have thus far only written a load of bollocks.
3. i’m experimenting with style. For a while, i felt i couldn’t write conventionally, since my only good works – my short stories – are a little strange, not typically Ian McEwan-like tales. i tried writing differently but this too was worthless trash. Last night i realised this isn’t the problem. The problem is i can only write well when i feel i am writing out of my own guts, as if i tore into my stomach and pulled my intestines and gore and tubes out. In my short stories, the brief span and tight focus allowed such sustained concentration. In my failed novel, there were too many passages where i felt nothing, no interest, no personal involvement, and wrote merely to bridge a gap, for the plot. i rewrote these scenes, in an attempt to raise them to the right pitch but they always felt hollow and false. i can write fluently but it is just this fluency i must resist, this ability to vomit words out on cue; for such words are not merely unsatisfactory, their glitter disguises the real worthlessness, the emptiness. It is because i am fluent that i am able to write thousands of words on a typewriter without any real thought.
Every writer – everyone who uses language in writing, in fact – works differently. Some very good writers can construct plots and write even the most functional scenes with power and elegance. i can’t. i can write but without power or engagement; it sounds like Ian McEwan. i noted this with Bitches & Trash, which i’ve more or less abandoned: the first few thousand words are good, because i felt myself living every scene; then it becomes purely functional, McEwan stuff, well-executed but to my ears dithering and purposeless.
Knowing something of my other lives helped me understood my problems. Language, especially written, was sacred; and i seem to have retained this sensibility without, alas, any of my past glories (always the problems, never the powers). So i could never work in Marketing or write to a formula, for money. In addition, i’ve never been one for sustained, conventional prose; my imagination seems to work in tightly spot-lit moments which resist interconnection. This is fine for short stories but these are whimsical and flighty things: i can only write good short stories when i have a good idea; and there is, as far as i can tell, no means of eliciting good ideas, i just have to live and think and wait. If they come, they come; if they don’t, they don’t. i wrote about 6 bad short stories out of a desire to write, forcing ideas out of my well of images; these stories read like Ian McEwan trying to replicate my good short stories (disgusting and bland). i no longer do this; i just wait.
i don’t say this is the correct way to write, if anything it’s a pain in the arse. But it is the way i am and i have to work within these limits. It would be nice to be a Goethe-style writer, able to write about anything, but in addition to not being a genius my approach to literature is otherwise. i feel a mingled dread, trepidation, and desire about writing; i want to write but i fear my words will be used against me, that in the end my writing will be a device for my destruction. My experiences with blogs etc. have encouraged these doubts, hence i prefer to write on paper: easier to destroy forever, harder to steal.
4. But even if i never write anything worth reading, at least i don’t live in Huddersfield anymore.
The Viking just sent me this for Christmas, his illustration of my ideal bookshop:
The old man, the boy/girl, the skull, and the dog all look like the Viking.