Sunday, November 23, 2008

In all the coverage of Iceland's banking crisis, I haven't seen anyone mention that Iceland has won more gold medals (9) than any other country in the annual World's Strongest Man competition. Perhaps they can get their economy back on track by concentrating on the export of tremendously muscular fisherman.

Incidentally, here is an amazing song by the Pudzian Band, the band founded by current World's Strongest Man Mariusz Pudzianowski. It's a lot more eurotechno than you'd expect.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Two observations on Home Land by Sam Lipsyte:

1. You're a young male American novelist and you've written a book about someone who's bored of his life - it's conversational, flippant, obsessed with its own contemporaneity - people will like it because it's theoretically a worthwhile literary novel and yet it takes absolutely no mental effort to read or understand. But you've left no place for actual human feeling. So you crowbar in a dead or dying mother. This happens in Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, Microserfs by Douglas Coupland, Home Land by Sam Lipsyte, and doubtless many others I've forgotten. Enough! It's so fake!

(Admittedly, I did enjoy all three of those books quite a lot.)

2. The front cover of my paperback edition (above) has the following quote:

'You'll love it' Lad's Mag

No one at HarperPerennial noticed there was still uncorrected dummy text on the front cover?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A couple of very Ballardian passages from The Moviegoer, which came out eight years before The Atrocity Exhibition:

After a car crash:
The traffic has slowed, to feast their eyes on us. A Negro sprinkling a steep lawn under a summer house puts his hose down altogether and stands gaping. By virtue of our misfortune we have become a thing to look at and witnesses gaze at us with heavy-lidded almost seductive expressions. But almost at once they are past and those who follow see nothing untoward. The Negro picks up his hose. We are restored to the anonymity of our little car-space.
A married couple who have written a sex manual:
It is impossible not to imagine them at their researches, as solemn as a pair of brontosauruses, their heavy old freckled limbs twined about each other, hands probing skillfully for sensitive zones, pigmented areolas, out-of-the-way mucous glands, dormant vascular nexuses.
And a bit that made me laugh:
As for Sharon: she finds nothing amiss in sitting in the little bucket seat with her knees doubled up in the sunshine, dress tucked under. An amber droplet of Coca-Cola meanders along her thigh, touches a blond hair, distributes itself around the tiny fossa.

"Aaauugh," I groan aloud.

"What's the matter?"

"It is a stitch in the side." It is a sword in the heart.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Point Counterpoint

"All the friendly and likeable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive." - Walker Percy, The Moviegoer, 1961

"Haters are scandalous." - Nas, "Breathe", 2008

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I love this artist Nina Murdoch who has just won the Threadneedle Figurative Art Prize.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

For several months I've been obsessed by this sentence from an interview with Philip Roth:

"... it feels to me very much like a dying moment, for literary culture in my own country – but you can't have computers and iPods and BlackBerries and blueberries and raspberries, and have time left to sit for two or three hours with a book."

Two or three hours! Then today, provoked by that sentence into reading Roth himself (The Ghost Writer) over dinner instead of watching Mad Men as usual, I see this:

"He did not do justice to a writer unless he read him on consecutive days and for no less than three hours at a sitting. Otherwise, despite his notetaking and underlining, he lost touch with a book's inner life and might as well not have begun. Sometimes, when he unavoidably had to miss a day, he would go back and begin all over again, rather than be nagged by his sense that he was wronging a serious author."

Oh god!
Here is a table that appears in Reactionary Modernism by Jeffrey Herf, derived from the pre-WW2 writings of the German economist Werner Sombart. Let's imagine it's a quiz from a magazine.

Exchange value
Use value
AbstractionConcrete immediacy
International socialism and international capitalism
National socialism

Mostly A's: You are the Jewish Geist.
Mostly B's: You are German technology.

Although I'm half-Jewish, I think I prefer forest to desert and use value to exchange value. But, on the other hand, I do prefer abstraction to concrete immediacy, reason to instinct, intellect to soul, and - perhaps decisively - international socialism to National Socialism.

You certainly don't get much sense from Werner Sombart's Wikipedia page that he was in fact a fairly committed anti-Semite who even disliked department stores because he thought their "crass juxtapositions" were a product of Jewish sensibilities.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Adorno on dissonance

‘... the opinion that Beethoven is comprehensible and Schoenberg incomprehensible is an objective illusion. Whereas in new music the surface alienates a public that is cut off from the production, its most distinctive phenomena arise from just those social and anthropological conditions that are those of its listeners. The dissonances that frighten them speak of their own situation; for this reason only are those dissonances intolerable to them.’

‘The ascendancy of dissonance seems to destroy the rational, “logical” connections within tonality, the simple triadic relations. Yet dissonance is more rational than consonance insofar as it articulate the relationship of sounds, however complex, contained in it instead of buying their unity at the price of the annihilation of the partial elements contained in it, that is, through a “homogenous” resistance.’

- from Philosophy of New Music

‘Dissonance is the truth about harmony.’

- from Aesthetic Theory

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Some interesting quotations from Exquisite Corpse by Michael Sorkin:

p.3: "The biggest baby chucked out with the functionalist bathwater, however, was the prospect of an inventive urbanism. The very idea of city planning had been made disreputable by post-war experience and its two spectactularly failed mdoels: urban renewal and the suburbs. Physical planning is still flinching from the disrepute of this love-enslavement to social engineering, and had been almost entirely abandoned as a municipal function in the United States; the public realm reduced to reacting to the shoves and slaps of the invisible hand."

p.53: "The central dilemma of the Los Angelist is that his or her faith dictates the city's ultimate mysteriousness, yet his or her duty is to explain. As successive efforts skirt piecemeal around mist-shrouded essences, faith in the possibility of a (probably unknowable) unified field theory spurs the effort. The catalogue expands, the taxonomy branches. Los Angeles is a hermeneutist's heaven: everybody expects an answer. The deity here is Quincy (Jack Klugman's, that is, not Quatremere). All this activity tends to produce inconclusive ways of speaking rather than ways of knowing. Los Angeles has a rhetoric but no epistemology."

p.61 "The banality of the times is nowhere starker than it what passes for a critical tradition in the mass media. Here, by and large, critics tend to stand in the same relation to their subjects as advertisers do to their products. This has to do not simply with puffery but with the use of a limited lexicon of valuation, of a cluster of categories that by their very incantatino assure legitimation of a subject."

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Revelling in his status as the first Italian statesman to play a key role in international affairs, Mussolini fed the press twice daily with news of his activities, including the information on one occasion that he could not be disturbed as he was in bed with a girl."

- from Hurrah for the Blackshirts by Martin Pugh

"It was typical of [Filippo Tommaso] Marinetti’s warm-hearted generosity that he should have lent Severini the money on which to get married; and yet it was equally typical that, when the young couple arrived back in Milan, the speeches against marriage at the party held by the Futurists to celebrate their return were so violent that, according to Soffici, the bride, who was only sixteen, burst into tears."

- from Three Intellectuals in Politics by James Joll

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"... for we are all accustomed to believe that maps and reality are necessarily related, or that if they are not, we can make them so by altering reality."

- The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In Tibet:

"Yak-hair tents provide shelter and food; yak hair clothes the poor; yak-hair ropes tie yak-hair bags onto yaks; yak bones make glue; yak shoulder blades are used as surfaces on which to write prayers; yak horns make snuff boxes or whisky flasks; yak skin is used to make thongs, thimbles, snow goggles, sacks and slings; yak tails decorate horses; a yak's glands are used to cure many different kinds of ailment. Boiled and roasted yak steaks are usually washed down with yak butter tea; hardered yak cheese and dried yak provided sustenance on the road."

from Himmler's Crusade by Christopher Yale

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I came across an obscure autoantonym: "hydropic", which according to Chambers means both "thirsty" and "charged or swollen with water".

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Jews as a universal language?

"They are, indeed, so disseminated through all the trading Parts of the world that they are become the Instruments by which the most distant Nations converse with one another, and by which Mankind are knit together in general Correspondence. They are like the Pegs and Nails in a great Building, which, though they are but little valued in themselves, are absolutely necessary to keep the whole Frame together."

from a 1712 article by Joseph Addison in The Spectator, which he founded and edited. Addison went on to ban drinking on the Tube.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Quiz! True or false? - Tolstoy wrote for the first ever Esperanto journal.


The first ever Esperanto journal, a monthly entitled La Esperantisto, was founded in Nuremberg in 1889, supervised by the inventor of Esperanto himself, Ludwig Zamenhof. "This journal continued to appear on a regular basis, despite financial difficulties, until 1895 when it included an article by Leo Tolstoy on 'Reason and belief', to which the Russian censors took exception. The ban imposed on La Esperantisto throughout the Tsarist empire cost the journal nearly three-quarters of its readership. (Esperanto publications were not again allowed in Russia until after the 1905 Revolution.)"

from The Artificial Language Movement by Andrew Large

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"One night in a doss-house in Dorset Street Scabby came in with a parcel of fish and chips. He offered the chips round, which was the custom then and still is. But one drunken fool took his piece of fish instead of just the chips and started eating it. Scabby had a knife in his hand, because he was about to cut a loaf of bread. When he realised what had happened he stabbed the man fatally. he was put on trial for murder, pleaded provocation and was acquitted. Later after drinking the Frying Pan, a pub at the corner of Thrawl Street and Brick Lane, he crossed the road, walking into Mother Wolff’s, picked up a penny cake and walked out of the shop without paying, after using some threats. He was charged with stealing a penny cake and sentenced to 12 months jail. Such is justice."

from East End Underworld: The Life of Arthur Harding by Raphael Samuels

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"But now that we leftist intellectuals can no longer be Leninists, we have to face up to some questions Leninism helped us evade: Are we more interested in alleviating misery or in creating a world fit for Socrates, and thus for ourselves? What is behind the regret we feel when we are forced to conclude that bourgeois democratic welfare states are the best we can hope for? Is it sadness at the thought that the poor will never get all the way out from under the rich, that the solidarity of a collective commonwealth will never be attained? Or is it, instead, sadness at the thought that we, the people who value self-consciousness, may be irrelevant to the fate of humanity? That Plato, Marx, and we ourselves may just be parasitical eccentrics living off the surplus value of a society to which we have nothing in particular to contribute? Was our thirst for world-historical romance, and for deep theories about deep causes of social change, caused by our concern for human suffering? Or was it at least in part a thirst for an important role for ourselves?"

- Richard Rorty, from "The End of Leninism, Havel, and Social Hope"

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Galton on writing Hereditary Genius:

“I had been overworked, and unable to give as close attention as desirable while correcting the proofs, so mistakes were to be feared. Happily there were not many, but one was absurd, and I was justly punished. It was due to some extraordinary commingling for notes on the families of Jane Austen and of Austin the jurist. In my normal state of health the mistake could not have been overlooked, but there it was. I was at that time a member of the Committee of the Athenaeum Club, among whose members there happened to be a representative of each of the above families, who “gave it to me hot”, though most decorously.”

Thursday, March 27, 2008

In 1949, they counted the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of London, and found only six.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Auden on Chandler

"Mr. Raymond Chandler has written that he intends to take the body out of the vicarage garden and give murder back to those who are good at it. If he wishes to write detective stories, i.e., stories where the reader's principal interest is to learn who did it, he could not be more mistaken; for in a society of processional criminals, the only possible motives for desiring to identify the murder are blackmail or revenge, which both apply to individuals, not to the group as a whole, and can equally well inspire murder. Actually, whatever he may say, I think Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art."

- The Guilty Vicarage, Harpers, May 1948

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Galton as the first existentialist:

'Many years later, I was so harassed with the old question of Determinism, which would leave every human action under the control of Heredity and Environment, that I made a series of observations on the actions of my own mind in relation to Free Will. I emply the word not merely as meaning ‘unhindered’ but in the special sense of an uncaused and creative action. It was carried on almost continuously for six weeks, and off and on for many subsequent months. The procedure was this. Whenever I caught myself in an act of what seemed to be ‘Free Will’, in the above sense, I checked myself and tried hard to recollect what had happened before, made rapid notes and then wrote a full account of the case. To my surprise, I found, after some days’ work, that the occasions were rare in which there seemed room for the exercise of Free Will as defined above. I subsequently reckoned that they did not occur oftener that once a day. Motives for all the other events could be traced backwards in succession, by orderly and continuous steps, until they led into a tangle of familiar paths. It was curous to watch the increase of power, given by practice, of recalling mental actions which, being usually overlooked, give the false idea that much has been performed through a creative act, or by inspiration, which is really due to straightfoward causation... The general result of the inquiry was to support the views of those who hold that man is little more than a concious machine, the slave of heredity and environment, the larger part, perhaps all, of whose actions are therefore predictable.'

- from Memories of my Life by Francis Galton, 1908

'The following experiments on Human Faculty are worth recording; they have not been published before. In the days of my youth I felt, at one time, a passionate desire to subjugate the body by the spirit, and among other disciplines determining that my will should replace automatism by hastening or retarding automatic acts. Every breath was submitted to this process with result that the normal power of breathing was dangerously interfered with. It seemed as though I should suffocate if I ceased to will. I had a terrible half-hour; at length, by slow and irregular steps the lost power returned...

'A later experiment was to gain some idea of the commoner feelings in insanity. The method tried was to invest everything I met, whether human, animate or inanimate, with the imaginary attributes of a spy. Having arranged plans, I started on the morning’s walk from Rutland Gate, and found the experiment all too successful. By the time I had walked one and a half miles, and reached the cabstand in Piccadilly at the east end of the Green Park, every horse on the stand seemed to be watching me, either with pricked ears or disguising its espionage. Hours passed before this uncanny sensation wore off, and I feel that I could only too easily reestablish it.

'The third and last experiment of which I will speak was to gain an insight into the abject feelings of barbarians and others concerning the power of images which they know to be of human handiwork. I had visited a large collection of idols gathered by missionaries from many lands, and wondered how each of those absurd and ill-made monstrosities could have obtained the hold over the imaginations of its worshippers. I wished if possible, to enter into those feelings. It was difficult to find a suitable object for trial, because it ought to be in itself quite unfitted to arouse devout feelings. I fixed on a comic picture, it was that of Punch, and made believe in its possession of divine attributes. I addressed it with much quasi-reverence as possessing a mighty power to reward or punish the behaviour of men towards it, and found little difficulty in ignoring the possibilities of what I professed. The experiment gradually succeeded; I began to feel and long retained for the picutre a large share of the feelings that a barbarian entertains towards his idol, and learned to appreciate the enormous potency they might have over him.'

- from Memories of my Life by Francis Galton, 1908

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Three great Wikipedia pages I found today: "The salesman is put on trial for treason, but reveals that the encyclopedia article for the star system... is a fictitious entry included in the encyclopedia to detect plagiarism..." "the [Bielefeld] city council released a press statement titled Bielefeld gibt es doch! (Bielefeld does exist!)..."

Monday, January 28, 2008

"The melody was above all very stable, neither joyful or melancholy; instead, it seemed to be the essence of knowledge itself, the gold of truth, constant behind our stormy extremes as the sun is behind the clouds." - James Wood on Beethoven 109, from The Book Against God, 2003

I think, unintentionally, this expresses exactly why I usually find classical music so boring.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"The personal drama of Fitzgerald's failure promises to outlive his few successful novels." - What Has Happened To The American Novel by Diana Trilling, Harpers, May 1944.

He really was the Amy Winehouse of his day.