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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Positive Annihilation

Beckett fact no. 81.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. The linguist in the lecture theatre says that in some languages a double negative intensifies the negative (No tengo nada) but in no language does a double positive add up to a negative, to which a voice from the back of the hall retorts 'yeah yeah'.

I mentioned before about Dr Johnson's habit, reported by Boswell, of introducing statements of agreement with the word 'No', making it a contradictory affirmative like the German 'Doch' Beckett uses in 'Enueg II' ('Doch doch I assure thee'). Contradictory affirmative might just cover Beckett's description of Johnson as one who had a vision of 'positive annihilation'. That was in 1937, at the height of his 'Johnson fantasy', which produced the dramatic fragment Human Wishes but also three notebooks of Johnsoniana. In them we learn of:

The 'critical period' for Johnson, '1764-6', one of profound gloom. His obsessive compulsive tics, groaning, muttering, pacing back and forth: 'At such times he received any polite or pertinent remark with a discouraging silence or with a bout of stupefying rudeness.'

His mother calling him a 'puppy', which Johnson answered by asking if she knew the name for a puppy's mother.

His love of arithmetic.

His fear of spirits and belief he had heard his dead mother crying out 'Sam!' to him.

His purchase of oysters for his cat Hodge. Johnson bought the oysters himself so as not to antagonize his servants.

His fear of hell. As he told Adams, 'I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.' 'What do you mean by damned?' asked Adams, rashly. 'Sent to hell, sir, and punished everlastingly.'

His deathbed request to Reynolds never to paint on a Sunday.

His pilgrimage to Uttoxter, near Lichfield, fifty years exactly after his father had asked him to take his place at his bookstall for the day. Johnson refused. And so, fifty years later, he returned to where the stall had been, stood bareheaded 'exposed to the sneers of the passers-by by the inclemency of the weather' and begged heaven for forgiveness.

The mystery of the orange peel, as described in Boswell, later taken up by Dupin, Holmes and Maigret, but sadly unsolved, to this day.

His passion for being bled.

A possible origin of Vladimir's injunction to Estragon not to describe his dreams ('DON'T TELL ME!'). Johnson urged Mrs Thrale to make her ten-year old son confess his dreams since for his part 'the first corruption that enteremy heart was communicated in a dream'. When she inquired what it was, 'Do not ask me' he howled 'with much violence' and stomped off. Beckett's source for this appears to have been Mrs Piozzi's Anecdotes of Dr Johnson.

In a different source entirely, a notebook for the mirlitonnades, we find one last snippet of Johnsoniana: a pessary, you may be glad to know, courtesy of the great lexicographer, is 'an oblong form of medicine, made to thrust up into the uterus upon some extraordinary occasion.'

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Schimbarea La Fata A Romaniei

Someone appears to have put the full text of Cioran's The Transformation of Romania online. You can read it here, assuming you're on nodding terms with Romanian. It's the 1990 edition though, which I believe is heavily bowdlerized. Inject yourself with some liquid racism before you read it to make up for all the censored rants.

I'm told Romanian contains more Latin-derived words than Italian. It also has a pleasant panoply of little curlicue diacritics and a definite article that consists of sticking the suffix -ul onto nouns. Try reading the following out loud to any passing Eastern Europeans (maybe not a Hungarian) who look like they're in the mood for revolution:

România nu‑si va rata momentul sãu revolutionar. Dar revolutia pe care va face‑o, de nu va întrece limitele imanente ale mediocritãtii noastre autohtone, dacã nu va da tãrii proportii peste conditiile ei firesti, nivelul nostru istoric nu va cunoaste un salt, si ca atare revolutia noastrã n‑a fãcut decît sã mãreascã superfluul nostru în lume.

{Quotation ends}

Eastern Europeans in the mood for a revolution remind me of that joke about the Budapest string quartet, who were Russian by the way, not Magyar. One Russian is a nihilist, two is a chess game, three is a revolution, and four is the Budapest string quartet.

The Mystery of the Pitilessness of Eavan Boland

Not James Henry

Eavan Boland has a new book out. It's called Domestic Violence, and features a poem called 'The Nineteenth Century Irish Poets'. She writes:

[...] now, looking back, I think they were poisoned −
every word they used contaminated by the one it was not.

Now I see what it is they left us. The toxic lyric.

The poem for which there is no antidote.

{Quotation ends}

In case of Samuel Ferguson, break glass.

I don't really understand the poem, I confess. Boland is someone with a lifelong gripe about Irish literary history, which is fine, but which she has translated here into a back-of-the-envelope scribble or note for a poem, but not a poem itself. I have no idea why she thinks nineteenth-century Irish poets were poisoned. Was it something to do with the water supply? Or what exactly the missing antidote is meant to be. An article about the Field Day anthology perhaps?

A very fine nineteenth-century Irish poet is James Henry (1798-1876), whose combination of two first names and their resemblance to Henry James makes him almost impossible to look up on the internet. He doesn't make Yeats's list in 'To Ireland in the Coming Times' ('Mangan, Davis, Ferguson'), he never, ever features in Field Day-style academic debates about nineteenth-century Irish writing, he displayed zero interest in Irish nationalism, but even so, sight unseen, I presume Eavan Boland's toxic diagnosis extends to him too.

Christopher Ricks included quite a few of his poems in his Oxford Book of Victorian Verse and then his Oxford Book of English Verse before doing an edition of him for the estimable Lilliput Press. His striking similarities to Beckett (death-obsession, animus against a sadistic God) combined with the thinness of the biographical papertrail made me wonder if Ricks had made him up. But he didn't.

Here's his poem 'Another and another and another', a dead-ringer intertext for Arsene's speech in Watt, not to mention the poem 'elles viennent':

Another and another and another
And still another sunset and sunrise,
The same yet different, different and the same,
Seen by me now in my declining years
As in my early childhood, youth and manhood;
And by my parents and my parents' parents,
And by the parents of my parents' parents,
And by their parents counted back for ever,
Seen, all their lives long, even as now by me;
And by my children and my children's children
And by the children of my children's chilren
And by their children counted on for ever
Still to be seen as even now seen by me;
Clear and bright sometimes, sometimes dark and clouded
But still the same sunsetting and sunrise;
The same for ever to the never ending
Line of observers, to the same observer
Through all the changes of his life the same:
Sunsetting and sunrising and sunsetting,
And then again sunrising and sunsetting,
Sunrising and sunsetting evermore.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Feral Horses of the Namibian Desert

The planes on the edge of Namibian desert support a hardy population of feral horses. Why? What are they doing there? I don't know. But, nevertheless, there they are.

The Hyena's Laugh

Another name I might have added to my roll-call of inter-war baddies is Maurice Blanchot. Just this morning I found a copy of Leslie Hill's Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary in the second-hand bookshop down the road. Details of what Blanchot did in the 30s have always been elusive (as have photographs of him, such as the one of him above with Emmanuel Levinas), but, briefly, he wrote for two far-right papers, Combat and L'insurgé (editing the first) that served up the usual French monarchist swill of Maurras and anti-Communism, with a sideorder of Jew-baiting when required, though apparently Blanchot couldn't get on with the odious anti-Semite in chief in literary circles, Robert Brasillach. An editorial he wrote for Combat called for right-wing 'terrorism' as a 'method of public salvation'.

Then under the Occupation he may or may not have changed his mind sufficiently to become active in the Resistance, ending up in front of (and miraculously escaping) the firing squad described in L'instant de ma mort.

Somehow though, as tales of infamy go, I prefer Cioran's. Blanchot yields to no one as a connoisseur of literary extremism and l'élan vers le pire, but there is something too fastidious and nail-paring about him. A hyena's laugh would make a good soundtrack for a Cioran book, whereas for Blanchot it would be... perhaps the owl of Minerva clearing its throat. Blanchot is Mallarmé, Cioran is Rimbaud.

Also, Blanchot doesn't have much of a sense of humour, or not the same kind at least. The hyena's laugh it is, for me.

A Public Calamity

Kevin Higgins writes in Poetry Ireland News of the new-found popularity in Ireland of the poetry slam, and the 'fork in the road up ahead' of Irish poetry, with 'a sign going one way read[ing] "Death in a provincial hotel"', [and] the sign going the other: ‘New life’. I know which way I’m going.'

Leopardi called the practice of poetry readings 'coarse and barbaric'. He wrote:

Today, when everybody can write and when the hardest thing to find is someone who is not an author, this practice has become a scourge, a public calamity, one of life’s newest hardships… In all good conscience, I believe there are very few things that reveal the puerility of human nature and the extreme blindness, indeed stupidity, to which self-love leads a man — and which also reveal the illusions we have about ourselves — as does this business of reciting one’s own writings. For we are all aware of the unspeakable annoyance we feel when listening to someone else’s work. And yet even when an author sees that those he has invited to a reading are terrified, pale with fright, and desperate with excuses, and even when they run and hide from him, still the relentless iron-browed author goes around town seeking and tracking down his prey like a hungry bear. Having caught them, he then leads them to his chosen destination. And during the reading itself, his unhappy audience soon begins to yawn and stretch, twist and turn, giving dozens of signs of their mortal agony — but not for this does he stop, nor does he allow any respite.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Fox have yet to commission a show called When European Intellectuals of the Inter-War Years Go Wild, but when they do Cioran will have to take his place in the queue alongside De Man, Heidegger, Céline, Brasillach, Francis Stuart and all the rest of that sorry galère of far-right fellow-travellers. Because Cioran did go wild, very wild indeed. Marta Petreu’s An Infamous Past: E.M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania performs a full forensic shakedown of the evidence. For those yet to take a live interest in Ruritanian fascism de l’entre-guerre, the following pointers may be of use.

Alongside Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionesco and Mihail Sebastian, but not the comedy Romanian of Beckett’s Eleutheria, Mr Verolesco, the young Cioran was part of the so-called Generation of ’27. In the early 30s politics began to colour Cioran’s work, as they did that of his contemporaries too (Eliade too has his far-right links, but that’s another story). Studies in Germany between 1933 and 1935 gave him a sense of shame at his Romanianness, and all its attendant poverty, provincialism and backwardness. It also encouraged him to take it out on handy targets such as the decadence of liberal democracy, which he proposed to replace with the infinitely more attractive ‘dictatorial regime’ he saw around him in Hitler’s Germany. Writing for the Romanian magazine Vremea from Munich, he praised the Night of the Long Knives (‘what has humanity lost if the lives of a few imbeciles were taken’), became a supporter of Codreanu’s Legion of the Archangel Michael, otherwise the Iron Guard, and hatched the political vision he pours into his 1936 book The Transformation of Romania. In 1941 he accepted the post of cultural adviser in France to the post-Legionary Romanian quisling administration under enthusiastic fascist Ion Antonescu. He lasted three and a half months.

In 1944 his Jewish Romanian expatriate friend Benjamin Fondane was deported on the next-to-last convoy to Auschwitz, where he died. This prompted something of a reconsideration, it seems. In 1946 he wrote to his parents ‘I think I shall never again embrace another ideology’. He foreswore Romania and its language and concentrated his racial bile in print on his homeland’s ‘timeless peasants enamoured of their own torpor and almost bursting with hebetude’, its ‘people of losers’ and ‘barbarian scum’.

Cioran in uniform with Iron Guard leader Corneliu Zelea Codrescu

The Transformation of Romania was reprinted in 1990, but without the original fourth chapter on the Jews, and without its anti-Hungarians passages too. To give some idea of just how rancid the culture of Romanian Anti-Semitism was, and Cioran’s contribution to it, here courtesy of Petreu are some examples from the suppressed chapter:

The Romanian democratic regime has worked only to protect the Jews and Jewish-Romanian capital.

If we were to give absolute freedom to the Jews, I firmly believe they would change even the name of the country in less than a year.

The Jew is not our fellow man, our kind, and no matter how close we become, the chasm is still there, whether we like it or not. It is as if they were descended from a different breed of monkey than ourselves, condemned to a sterile tragedy, to hopes that always turn out to be false. It is at a human level that we cannot get close to them, for a Jew is first Jewish, and only then human.

{Quotations end}

Any doubts over what this meant in practice are dispelled by a quick browse of Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, which depicts the unusual spectacle of embarrassed Nazis stepping in to restrain Iron Guard-inspired anti-Semitism. Unlike the Germans with their penchant for deportations and concentration camps, the Romanians didn't see why the Jews shouldn't just be suspended from the nearest meathook.

Cioran is one of my favourite authors. What am I meant to do with passages like those above? To be strictly fair about his post-war position, he never denied what he got up to as a young man, castigated himself repeatedly for his stupidity, returned to the subject nervously, obsessively in the still untranslated Cahiers, and never dressed up his repentance with Mel Gibsonesque auto-prosopagnosia about the darker places within him all this bile from spilt from; that at least he knew all too well. In fact, in many ways he remains recognisably the same writer he was then throughout the rest of the work: the Cahiers are full of philo-Semitic passages, but also numerous passages about how encombrant and attention-seeking they are, in ways that would fail any American university speech code of practice before you can say ‘Oy vey’.

Ripples of his Romanian past are everywhere in the Cahiers, as when he hears after several decades from a friend whose correspondence with Cioran had earned him a prison sentence back home of twenty-five years. Another expatriate writer living in Paris we can credit with an intimate understanding of Romanian fascism was Paul Celan. He translated the early Cioran book A Brief History of Decay into German.

The dying and senile Cioran, who also regressed to the language of his youth, would snatch at his nurses’ sleeves and protest to them ‘I am not an anti-Semite.’

But if he hadn't written The Transformation of Romania, might he never have written The Trouble with Being Born or Syllogisms of Bitterness either? I suspect so.

Would you place the tribute of a stone on his grave?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Pronounced as Spelt

Beckett fact no. 80.

Braving librarian's lung and with nothing to sustain me beyond self-adminstered Leaving Cert Latin, I once tried to plough my way through the selfsame three-volume edition of Arnold Geulincx's Ethica that Beckett had studied in the Early Printed Books room of Trinity College, Dublin library.

The operation was not a great success, though I persisted long enough to stumble upon the celebrated Ubi nihil vales ibi nihil velis, as savoured by Murphy and subsequently recommended by Beckett to scholars as the ideal point of entry into his work.

A tutor called Ward makes the protagonist a gift of the same book in The End.

Molloy invokes Geulincx to decry the illusion of free will.

And though he doesn't name him, the Unnamable's example of galleyman bound for the pillars of Hercules crawling towards the sun would seem to derive from Geulincx's declaration that we are indeed free, free as a man on a westbound ship is to crawl east along the deck.

I could embark on a discussion of Occasionalism, but since the first-ever translation of the Ethica out of its 'beautiful Belgo-Latin' has just been published (see picture), I consider myself excused that particular pensum. The passages on despectio sui come highly recommended.

It comes complete with Beckett's notes too, I should add.

Arnold Geulincx. Pronounced 'Hyoolinks'. I asked a Belgian person about it once.


Tears despise their confidant. (René Char)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Ass and Cart

Beckett fact no. 79.

Seeing his hudibrastic pasquinade 'Antipepsis' in print was one of the few good things about Poems 1930-1989, but behind an endnote describing the poem as dated 'after St. Lo [Calder skimps on the circumflex] 1946' lurked a mystery.

In the Reading University typescript of the poem the dateline is added in pencil, as is a revision of line eight of the poem, altering 'The ass was the more intelligent' to 'The cart was the more intelligent'.

The closing refrain 'Bring forth your dead! Bring forth your dead!' adds to the poem's air of a postwar reckoning with the 'time-honoured conception of humanity in ruins', and as such it features in Phyllis Gaffney's 1999 Irish University Review article on Beckett in Saint-Lô.

But the poem was not composed in 1946 at all and has nothing to do with the war. I know this because Edith Fournier told me as much. It's about the banning in Ireland in the 1930s of More Pricks Than Kicks, Beckett told her.

The revision of 'ass' to 'cart' makes no sense either. The cart has been placed before the ass because the censor cannot abide intelligence and sends it to the back of the queue. For the cart to be more intelligent inverts the inversion, but incoherently.

Why did Beckett made the typescript changes? Could someone else have made them, even, 'for reasons unknown'? I don't know. But 'Antipepsis' wasn't written in 1946.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Some Men Are Islands

According to the 2001 UK census, the Scottish isles of South Rona, Eilean Donnan, Shuna and Sanda each have a population of one.

North Rona (which is nowhere near South Rona) is even more remote than St Kilda, but was inhabited continuously until 1844. According to a seventeenth-century Gaelic travel writer, the islanders "took their surnames from the colours of the sky, rainbow and clouds." Here's an account of going to visit it by Kathleen Jamie.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Punishment and Society

I was watching some students file in today to an exam I had to invigilate when one of them came up to me and asked, Are you in charge of Punishment and Society?

Joanna's Box

As religious slogans go, ‘War, disease, crime and banditry will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott's box’ sounds pretty catchy to me.

Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) was a prophetess who spent her time ‘sealing’ the 144,000 elect (for a small cash consideration), and predicted shortly before her death that she would give birth to the Messiah. He appears to have defaulted on this commitment, unless Southcott took against him and sealed him into the large box of prophecies she left behind. This was not to be opened except in the presence of the twenty-four bishops of the Church of England. The bishops have proved unwilling to oblige, offering excuses ranging from ‘I’m starching my collar that night’ to ‘I’m allergic to woodworm.’

Interest in Joanna’s box has ebbed and flowed. Present-day custodians of the box, the Panacea society, describe one wave of enthusiasm around the time of the First World War:

Articles began to appear in the national press about the Box, causing many older Southcottian families to be a little nervous about both the publicity and the zeal of new converts. A campaign to get the bishops to open the Box was initiated, and its fame as a national and public phenomenon began.

In its early manifestation, the awareness campaign even managed to reach the eyes and ears of King George V, through the efforts of Princess Louise, his aunt, and Lady Paget, both of whom were encouraged by the determination of Mrs Fox and her cousin Lady Portsmouth. As World War 1 drew to a close in the autumn of 1918, these four ladies realised that England’s fate was sealed in the prophecies placed in the Box over a century ago. Surely it was now only a matter of time before 24 bishops consented to its opening?

{Quotation ends}

There is a cot too, the cot in which Southcott went into divine labour before 'the ethereal invisible body was taken by angels back to the Throne of God until the time would come for Shiloh's destiny to be fulfilled.' The box has been opened of course though, once, when it started buzzing and Southcott realized she'd left her handbag and mobile phone inside it.

The exquisite agonies or return and the emptiness and disillusionments awaiting us when we do.

When I was young I was told that a Victorian gentleman who had bid goodbye never went back his hat or umbrella when he forgot them, but always had them sent on.

Which reminds me of the scene in my favourite television programme Shameless last night, when the fluttering agoraphobic Sheila walked out on Frank. Having been forced to choose between her and his recently reappeared ex-wife, he chose Sheila. They danced with joy. He loved her so much, he said, he'd get divorced from Monica the minute they returned from holiday, thus belatedly letting Sheila know he'd never divorced Monica in the first place and was in fact a bigamist. Sheila drove off in the taxi, abandoning him. The taxi stopped and reversed. Sheila ran out, opened the door, re-emerged with a black sack which she placed in the wheelie bin, then got back into the taxi and drove away without a word.

The campaign to open Joanna's box starts here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Get Happy

Epigrams, no one much writes epigrams in that ever so slightly stiff, schoolmaster undoing his top button J.V. Cunningham way anymore, do they?

Here's one from a new pamphlet called Eight by Five by Dante and Laforgue translator and former Agenda co-editor Peter Dale. It's called 'Dr Foster', and can I presume be hummed to the tune of 'I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose':

With his discovery of the happy pill
good Dr Foster's cured the most morose.
They say it's just the thing for every ill,
so I have taken a suicidal dose.

(Eight by Five, Rack Press, The Rack, Kinnerton, Presteigne, Powys LD8 2PF, £4)

Spam, Spam, Spam

Bill Manhire's new volume, Lifted, fondly remembers a Louis Simpson poem with a typo about a Soviet dictator called Joseph Stain, and the tale of a compositor wondering who this Stan character is they're always talking about in Paradise Lost.

In 'Palais Lutetia' he writes:
You have to admire the power of the umlaut.
'Grow your cöck' just saunters past the spam detector.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Anyone who loves Tarkovsky's films, Auden's poems about lead mines, and the passage in Beckett's First Love about how 'what constitutes the charm of our country... is that all is desolate' will find something to enjoy in this photographic archive of abandoned buildings in Russia.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Black Diamond of Pessimism

Beckett fact no. 78.

In Dream Belacqua savours the phrase ‘black diamond of pessimism’ as an example of the ‘little sparkle hid in ashes, the precious margaret and hid from many.’

His Dream Notebook shows what a hoarder of such sparkles in the ashes Beckett was. John Pilling has produced a fine edition of it for the Beckett International Foundation, tracing all the various arcane sources, but, source-free, here are ten little sparkling black diamonds, in a mini-exercise in Beckett flarf:

The Chinese emperor was so intolerably moved that he requested the zither to be pruned

a dizard, a whifler, a funge

a fine round soft pap gives an excellent grace

Janisary Jesuits, that dissociable Society

I ran against the Lord with my neck, with the thick bones of my buckler

Firminius & the slave new born to his father’s impious doting butty

She ripped a fairly white cockade from her Bourbon bloomers

Mr Hemmerde, the poltroon in the poltrona

bloodied rafflesia in sombre Sumatra

Keep your bake shut

The Stupidest Thing

Robert Archambeau on 'the stupidest thing Ron Silliman has ever said' deserves a link. It's a thoughtful post about why referring to things the reader hasn't heard of may not, after all, when you think about it, be 'fascist'.

Friday, January 12, 2007


Beckett fact (out of series).

I mentioned unusual animals in Beckett recently, and parrots, and have mentioned the parrot at Helen's place in Mercier and Camier before. Except it's not a parrot, it's a constipated cockatoo. Mostly though I just wanted an excuse to use this picture. They're from uglyoverload, not that I think they're remotely ugly.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Joseph of Cupertino

What a great saint Joseph of Cupertino is. He was a remarkably slow learner and could scarcely read or write. When taken with religious ecstasy he would float off to the ceiling or into the sky and have to be ordered down; this occurred most embarrassingly during an audience with Pope Urban VIII. His fellow friars disliked him for failing to take money for his cures, and he was investigated by the Inquisition. Today he is the patron saint of pilots, airline travellers, and bad students.


Beckett fact no. 77.

Ten horses or other vaguely equine quadrupeds in Beckett.

1) 'Can hinnies procreate?' asks Maddy Rooney in All That Fall. A hinny is the offspring of a horse and a female donkey (or jennet), and is almost always sterile. Mrs Rooney hoped her 'mind doctor' could help her with her 'lifelong preoccupation with horses' buttocks'.
2) The French eat horses, you know. Because, still with Mrs Rooney, she tells Mr Tyler (or soliloquizes in his presence) of wanting 'fifty years of twice-daily love, like a Paris horse-butcher's regular'. The narrator of The Calmative finds himself outside a horse butcher's, and in The Unnamable there's a statue to the 'hippophagist Ducroix'. Beckett's 30s nemesis Austin Clarke wrote a long and humane poem called 'The Hippophagists', providing yet another strange point of connection between the two men (here's another: in the 30s Beckett was notably fond of the word 'stercoraceous', describing Clarke to Thomas MacGreevy as one of the 'stercoraceous bastards' who made it impossible for him to drink in Dublin city-centre pubs, driving him out to Phibsborough instead; and in Clarke's Mnemosyne Lay in Dust we find the word 'stercorians'. What's all that about? (Possibly nothing.)
3) The white horse, 'what I believe the Germans call a Schimmel', in From an Abandoned Work.
4) The jennet that throws and cripples Lucy in 'Walking Out', blissfully releasing Belacqua from any further conjugal duties.
5) Not a horse but a horse owner: Boss Croker, whose Croker's Acres feature again in 'Walking Out', Company and Not I. His house later became the residence of the British ambassador to Ireland.
6) A print of Boss Croker's horse Joss, contemplated by Watt.
7) The two horses or deux chevaux of Beckett's Citroën 2CV, bought in 1963 and driven, to his passengers' frequent great alarm, until his death. Here's a small ad for the selfsame car, complete with original papers in Beckett's name. Am I skimping on the horses proper here?
8) The cabman's long-suffering horse in The Expelled.
9) Big Lambert's long-suffering mule in Malone Dies, snapped up at the knacker's yard for two further years of knackering toil before 'the face of the earth, on which it had plodded its life away, would see it no more.'
10) And finally, the narrator of Text for Nothing 3 is partial to a flurry or two: 'The sport of kings is our passion... Nothing human is foreign to us, once we have digested the racing news.' As long as he studies the form a bit knowledgeably than Watt. Eoin O'Brien asserts that Watt is mistaken in 'Joss', which is in fact another quadruped altogether, the Derby-winning Orby. But that's as maybe.


Beckett fact no. 76.

There's a great gap, Pegeen Mike tells us in The Playboy of the Western World, between a gallous tale and a dirty deed.

I was reminded of this the other day reading Gerry Dukes's painstaking edition of First Love and Other Novellas. 'Out of my life too he went without a care', we're told of a young boy in The Calmative, 'not one of his thoughts would ever be for me again, unless perhaps when he was old and, delving in his boyhood, would come upon that gallows night...' In the French text, though, it's a joyeuse nuit. How so? Because the manuscript originally read 'joyous', which Beckett then changed to the Syngeian 'gallous', before changing that again to the very different 'gallows'.

The title of this post has nothing to do with the above, by the way. In my list of French poets in Beckett I omitted Anna de Noailles, and couldn't resist using the above photograph of her (second row, on the right), if only for the pleasure of quoting Beckett's reaction in Proust to the 'garrulous old dowager''s admiration for her poetry: Saperlipopette!

There is another Mme de Noailles, possibly related, who was known as 'Madame Etiquette', one of whose charges fell off a donkey and forbade her friends to assist her, insisting they wait for Madame's arrival: 'She will show us the right way to pick up a Dauphine who has tumbled off a donkey.' Perhaps she should have stuck to a hinny, I mean a jennet. Can hinnies procreate, I wonder? I feel an equine fact coming on.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


'Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?', as Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf or 'Comical Ali' used to ask on Iraqi TV as the tanks rolled in.

Strong lifelong sense of prosopagnosia, or inability to recognise what's in front of my eyes.

In a more extreme form, known as Capgras' syndrome, the sufferer believes loved ones have been replaced by changelings or androids.

Two lines from Pierre Reverdy's Chauffage central:

La porte est ouverte et je n'entre pas
Je vois ton visage et je n'y crois pas


One of the most delicious temptations of being an Irish critic or commentator who feels the world doesn't pay you enough attention is a good old bout of holier-than-thou Pecksniffery.

It's a real pleasure to find the following random examples on something called 'The Kiosque', on the (Irish) Western Writers' Centre website:

‘Le matricule des anges’ new number stirs the conscience as well as the imagination by reminding us in its editorial of the homeless and hopeless of Europe’s most ‘romantic’ city – when will an Irish literary journal ever concern itself with editorialising on the socially dark side?

At least here’s a literary publication offering controversial debate. Wake up, Irish literary magazines! Less staring at your navel. More engagement in the world, please.

Writers in France are social participants in a way that writers here are not... Inconceivable, let us say again here in Ireland, that any of our poetry or literary mags would adopt a socio-political stance.

Like more than one European journal, Axolotl mingles poetry and politics: no similar journal does so anywhere in Ireland.

It is worth pondering why Irish literary mags avoid politics and engagement like the plague, whereas our continental brothers see no division at all between art and politics and are willing to argue about it in print.

{Quotations end}

I am political, you are not. I am controversial, you are not. I am brave enough to think George Bush is a tool, you are not. I care about the homeless, you do not. I engage with the world, you do not. Ireland is timid, but I am not. I am a character in Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, and you are not.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Two DVDs from the video shop (why is a largely DVD shop still the video shop, by the way, in the same way the CD shop is still the record shop?), three-night rental, cost, £5. But there's an offer on, the man told me. You can have four for four nights for £4.99. But I didn't want four, I wanted two. I could have saved a penny. But at what cost?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Silk of the Seas and the Arctic Flowers

Beckett fact no. 75.

Ten French poets in Beckett.

1) ‘The silk of the seas and the arctic flowers /that do no exist’ in ‘Sanies I’ comes courtesy of Rimbaud’s Barbare. Beckett thought very highly of Rimbaud, ‘the Infernal One, the Ailing Seer’, and translated Le Bateau Ivre.
2) Malherbe. Enfin vint Malherbe, as French classicists were fond of saying. He is invoked in ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ to come and sit on Blanaid Salkeld’s sonnets, presumably as a deterrent.
3) Baudelaire. Of the many Baudelaire echoes in Beckett, perhaps the most resonant is Hamm’s invocation of Recueillement: ‘You cried for night; it falls; now cry in darkness.’
4) Philippe Soupault. Is in Beckett’s oeuvre in the sense of being his collaborator on the
Nouvelle Revue Française translation of Anna Livia Plurabelle.
5) Mallarmé. Beckett didn’t like him. Belacqua’s family wave him a Mallarméan farewell in Dream.
6) Lamartine. Un seul être te manqué et tout est dépeuplé, wrote Lamartine. Cue Beckett title: Le dépeupleur, otherwise The Lost Ones.
7) Racine. Ah, the Racinian preterite! ‘Vous mourûtes aux bords où vous fûtes laissée’, as Belacqua illustrates.
8) Corneille. Didn’t like him either: as travestied in the student revue Le Kid.
9) de Musset. ‘Ce n’est au Pélican’ in Dream parodies de Musset.
10) Voltaire. Not much remembered as a poet these days, but the image of him contemplating the remains of Lisbon (after the earthquake of 1755) is traceable to Voltaire’s poem Le désastre de Lisbon.

Wounded Wistiti

Beckett fact no. 74.

Ten unusual animal cameos in Beckett.

1) The Unnamable compares himself to a 'wounded wistiti'. A wistiti is a marmoset. The narrator of From an Abandoned Work compares his voice to 'a marmoset sitting on my shoulder with its bushy tail, keeping me company.'
2) In the absence of a human companion ('failing kindred meat') the narrator of How It Is imagines 'a llama emergency dream an alpaca llama'.
3) Also to be found in How It Is is a humming-bird: 'I watch it fly lightning semicircle deasil then respite then the next.'
4) In the clotted early poem 'Text' we find a hippopotamus, or rather a 'hippopot' with a 'cedar tail', with a 'non-suppliant airtight alligator' in close pursuit.
5) In another early poem, 'Return to the Vestry', an innocent pigeon comes in for some manhandling: 'Pluck that pigeon she dribbles fertility.'
6) A goldfish briefly gets to see O's face in Film, before being covered with a coat. Not to mention a dog, cat and parrot. Parrots are everywhere in Beckett. But enough about parrots, for now.
7) The animator in Rough for Radio II snivels enthusiastically of 'fodient rodents'.
8) The lobster in More Pricks Than Kicks is fairly well-known, but there's another one skulking in The Unnamable: 'it's human, a lobster couldn't do it', he says. Nerval had a pet lobster, which he used to bring for walks on a blue ribbon.
9) 'Back to Teneriffe and the apes?' Murphy asks Neary, in a reference to Köhler's Mentality of Apes. Happy Days in the Beckett on Film project was shot in a sadly apeless Teneriffe.
10) Sapo's name, in Malone Dies, means 'toadfish'. Does that count?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

His Rattle Will Make Amends

The calculation of time, I can’t help noticing, is based on the position of the earth relative to the sun using noon as a marker, when the sun is highest in the sky. The length of a second corresponds to the length of time required for 9,192,631,770 cycles of the caesium atom at zero magnetic field. However, civil time is occasionally adjusted by increments of one second to ensure that the difference between a uniform time scale defined by atomic clocks does not differ from the earth’s rotational time by more than 0.9 seconds. The second so added is termed a ‘leap second’. After UTC (co-ordinated universal time) 23:59:59, an additional second is counted at 23:59:60 before the clock jumps to 00:00:00 of the next day. When 3 to 13 September 1752 were eliminated by act of parliament to bring Britain into line with the Gregorian calendar, there were protests in the streets. How many leap seconds have come and gone since then and what have we done with them? I feel I ought to account for myself.

Next: taking the bottom A on a piano tune twelve perfect fifths to the top, or tune seven perfect octaves. The results are not quite the same: a tiny difference is detectible between the two, known as the ‘Pythagoras comma’. Piano-tuners cover this up by dispersing it within the interval of the fifth, in the compromise system known as ‘tempered [for ‘tampered’] tuning’. Without it the octave system, whereby A in one octave corresponds to A in all the others, would be impossible. Scarlatti knew all about this, which is one reason why he sticks so rigidly to certain keys (not much Scarlatti in G flat). Yet careful comparison of apparently identical intervals on the piano, e.g. B – F sharp, B flat – F, reveals the giveaway traces, the fingerprints of the Pythagoras comma. Because they’re not the same, are they? No. On the harpsichord D sharp and E flat were separate keys. Not to speak of the proper A of international concert pitch, with 440 double vibrations per second, and the wandering star of its baroque equivalents. Discrepancies, discrepancies.

We live not only in sounds but in the notations of sounds, we live not only in time but in the notation of time. Yet both would appear to be wrong, very rightly wrong. Do something about this. Do it right now. I bring a tuning fork down hard on the table just as the clock radio flicks to midnight. The interval between us I hereby declare perfect.


Beckett on Céline's Mort à Crédit: 'What is essential is not to know whether we are wrong or right – that is quite unimportant. What is important is to discourage the world from concerning itself with us. All the rest is vice.'

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

T.S. Eliot Prize

It was T.S. Eliot who said 'There is no competition among poets', so it's always a pity when the prize named after him rolls round again, as it's about to do. Hereunder, prompted by its impending visitation, some old thoughts on contemporary British poetry, as represented by The New British Poetry, Charles Simic and Don Paterson's Britpo-explained-to-the-Yanks anthology for Graywolf.

It’s unfortunate the way anthologies get reviewed for their introductions rather than their contents, but since the contents of this US-published book will be familiar to anyone living in Britain or Ireland remotely interested in the subject (I counted one writer, John Glenday, whose work was new to me), that leaves us Don Paterson’s introduction to talk about. It’s a bizarre performance, confirming all the stereotypical faults of British poetry and adding some extra just for you. Faults such as: slavish deference to an imagined common reader, neurotic fear of innovation or anything too difficult, and a wounded, wary defensiveness in the face of any criticism. For reasons I fail to grasp Paterson devotes much of the intro to a group of poets not in his book and whom he doesn’t even bother naming. These are the evil Postmoderns, as against the Mainstream poets he has included, and yes, he does call them that. Is there a grimmer, more dismal label to pin on a writer than ‘mainstream’? I’d take a knee in the groin over a pat on the head for being any such thing, any day, but Paterson has his reasons. These are writers, he wants to reassure us, that steer a middle course between sestinas-R-us New Formalism and splatter-gun L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. These mainstreamers are all-round regular kinda guys, and unlike their deviant counterparts still use language to communicate. They’re the (not so) young generation and they’ve got something to say, unlike those postmodern dingbats holding forth to their ‘academic’ audience. Which is presumably why back in the real world roughly half Paterson’s mainstreamers have taught creative writing in universities.

Paterson’s double-think on this subject is very repetitive, be warned. His pantomime villains are held up as laughable yet ubiquitously evil, insignificant yet powerful enough to have ruined playtime for all the other kiddies. The rightness of the mainstream cause is unassailable, yet must be thumpingly reiterated in the spirit of Hopkins’ ‘man bouncing up from the table’ (Robert Browning, in fact) ‘with his mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant to stand no blasted nonsense.’ The literary history behind all this couldn’t be more conformist or unoriginal. Since the days of high modernism we’ve learned to live with T.S. Eliot, just about, but don’t go trying any Pound on us. The 1940s too tried to lead us astray, but then along came the 1950s and everything turned out just fine. Our current poetic Happy Meal comes with a heady swill of PR cant: the late Michael Donaghy’s poems are ‘perhaps’ (exquisite scruple) ‘built to last in a way few other poets in the language can currently rival’; Andrew Motion has ‘confounded the doubters by emerging as the most energetic and forceful advocate for the art [the laureateship] has seen’; John Burnside’s ‘radiant meditations have been perhaps’ (again!) ‘the most quietly and pervasively influential voice to have emerged in British poetry in the last twenty years’; and Jo Shapcott is ‘one of the most original voices in the language.’

There is talk of mainstream poets being brave enough to risk sounding mundane: ‘original expression… always runs the risk of cliché; the clear articulation of deep emotion always runs the risk of sentimentality; and taking the chance of being largely understood always runs the risk of being found to be talking a pile of garbage.’ Paterson is evidently happy to lead by example. And so on. To confront Paterson’s big question, though, every critic should have a line on the mainstream versus avant garde debate, and mine is this. There certainly is such a thing as a soft mainstream orthodoxy that deserves nothing but scorn, but at the same time it is very difficult for writers to self-identify as innovative or avant garde without falling headlong into sanctimony of the worst kind. For that reason alone it’s probably best to avoid such terms altogether where self-labelling is concerned. If there’s one thing I despair of, though, in debates about the mainstream and the avant garde it’s the idea that all innovative writers write to a theory (dangerous, abstract, foreign) whereas traditionalists emote with the untutored genius of those feral children in Sir Thomas Browne who spoke perfect Hebrew. I can think of plenty of avant garde critics who write to a system, but poets? It’s just a canard designed to stifle debate, and one which Paterson is all too happy to rehash: ‘far two few of them… have anything resembling what the Mainstream would recognise as a real compositional procedure… No: they have systems.’ Does Roy Fisher write to a system? Does Thomas Kinsella? Of course they don’t. But who knows, maybe Paterson doesn’t like them either.

But enough about this stupid tirade, and some more observations on the actual contents. There are thirty-six poets in the book. Time has run out on the Britishness of poets from Northern Ireland, they will be variously pleased or outraged to learn: it’s mainland mainstreamers only. Most poets get between four and six pages; John Ash gets eight, but Peter Reading looks orphaned and lost in his paltry three. Poems here that look like turning into anthology fixtures include: Paterson’s ‘Imperial’, Robin Robertson’s ‘Artichoke’ and Ian Duhig’s ‘The Lammas Hireling’, while others (Shapcott’s ‘Phrase Book’, Duffy’s ‘Prayer’, James Fenton’s ‘Wind’) are already so familiar as to be at risk of losing all impact. And is Fenton really a ‘New’ British poet, even to an American reader? Surely not.

I’ve berated Paterson for wasting time on writers he omits, but realize I haven’t said much myself about the poets who do make it into his book. My only defence is that the resistance I feel to the Paterson ‘mainstream’ tradition is just too strong: despite my liking for quite a few of these writers (Ash, Didsbury, Greenlaw, Hofmann, McKendrick, Oswald, Reading) I can’t accept reading them under the terms this book dictates. So let me at least offer some practical suggestions, as a resident alien in Britain, on how mainstream verse culture in this country might tackle its malaise. First, someone should abolish all poetry competitions, and with them the safe and predictable poems they spawn. Second, some other friendly axe-wielder should write off the deeply philistine National Poetry Day and all its works. Third, publishers should scrap the corrupt practice of solicited pre-publication blurbs, and the shot in the arm they provide to debutant writers who don’t deserve to be in print anyway. Fourth, journalists should stop equating contemporary poetry with the same small gallimaufry of regulars on the residency/competition-winning/Radio 4 circuit, and ask someone different for a change. And lastly, someone should reverse the respective standing and reputations of Philip Larkin and J.H. Prynne, Simon Armitage and the sound poet Jaap Blonk, whose collection of grunts and barks so enlivened the CD that came with the summer 2004 issue of Poetry Review. I’ve no real reason for this last suggestion, apart from how much fun the ensuing confusion would be. And all this without mentioning the Next Generation Promotion, that poetic Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Empire Strikes Back, launched to the sound of a Paterson-soundalike whine in The Guardian from Armitage about serving the common reader. Avoid at all costs.

‘If a gasometer, for instance, affects his emotions, or if the Marxian dialectic, let us say, interests his mind, then let them come into his poetry’, Louis MacNeice told F.R. Higgins. Was there a subclause I missed prohibiting him from being a postmodernist? I’ve always thought of postmodernism as a stupid idea, but no more so than ‘seamless evolution’, ‘consensual meaning’, whatever that means, or the other Leavisite zombies creaking through Paterson’s prose. If Carol Ann Duffy suddenly decided to turn postmodernist, that’d be fine by me (there are even some people who think she already is…). ‘Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones,’ as Bertolt Brecht told Walter Benjamin. Be a ‘mainstream’ poet even, if that’s what turns you on. Be whatever you want, but come up with better reasons for it than the mix of self-righteousness and self-pity that underpins this book.

Paterson concedes the existence of ‘a handful of attractive voices’ among the postmoderns, but nevertheless hasn’t included them here. Why not, if they’re as good as he says they are? Because from the position argued in his introduction the existence of alternative styles is simply unthinkable. The mainstream is all there is, and all there shall be, promos, prizes and anthologies like this without end, Amen. And that’s a terrible thought.

Cioran (cont.)

I've always found this image of a blind fiddler by André Kertész very evocative of Cioran's Transylvania, even if Kertész was a representative of the race whose only achievements, Cioran said, were gypsy music and Hungarian women.

From The Trouble with Being Born: 'No one has loved this world more than I, and yet if it had been offered to me, even as a child, on a platter, I should have shriked "Too late, too late!"'

Cioran (cont.)

More Cioran, this time from History and Utopia: 'Were I to seize power, my first concern would be to do away with all my friends.'

And an anecdote on Diogenes from A Short History of Decay: visiting the house of a rich man, the philosopher is told not to spit on the floor. Complying with the request, he spits in his host's face instead, saying it was the only dirty place he hadn't been asked not to clean.

Saints and Philosophers

A little Cioran to get the new year underway.

'All of the philosophers together are not worth a single saint', EMC writes in Tears and Saints.

And this even though 'The saints' goodness is repulsive. It is like a sickly discoloration combined with an emasculation of being.'

And more: Francis of Assisi's 'absolute perfection' is 'unforgivable'.

And further: we are lucky that Christ died at thirty-three and not sixty, or instead of the cross 'he would have left us a volume of memoirs.'

But the best thing about the saints: 'If you don't take an interest in [God], you could end up interested in mankind. Could you fall any lower than that?'